Fall Cooking: Trials & Errors
This past weekend marked the anniversary of the day I met my husband. Every year we celebrate this day by telling each other the same stories. Like how Manhattan traffic almost caused me to miss the plane that would bring me to the city where for the first time we would meet, seated by chance next to one another at a business breakfast. It's funny how there are events in our lives that we just never get tired of hearing about, over and over again. What some may call sentimentality I prefer to think of as an irrepressible admission of when we've been very, very lucky.
Mark and I celebrate two anniversaries -- the day we met and then a month later, the day we married -- by always doing the same thing. I make a special meal, sometimes one of his favorites, other times all completely new dishes that he has selected. And we splurge on a really good bottle of wine. Last Saturday I was feeling the chill of autumn in New York but I was also feeling the chill of the economy so the centerpiece of my menu was a braised boneless veal breast.
A four-and-a-quarter pound breast, bought at Fairway, was about $7.00 ($1.69/pound), on the bone. I asked the butcher to remove the bones, which I froze to later use for stock. The remaining meat had a thick layer of fat, which was easy to cut off, leaving me with a large rectangle of pale pink veal. I cut 5 lengths of kitchen twine and then rolled the rectangle of veal as if it were a jellyroll, tying it in place with the twine every inch or so and then I cooked it using a classic braising method. I browned the meat in a little bit of canola oil, added a mirepoix of chopped carrots, celery, onion and garlic, deglazed the pan with a cup of white wine, then chicken stock, and slow simmered the veal for about two hours. I took the meat out of the pan and boiled the cooking liquid until it was the consistency of a sauce. I strained out the vegetables and puddled the sauce around slices of the veal roll. It took about three hours in total to make and cost about $2.00 per serving. See our recipe.
The veal roast was a complete success, with a buttery texture and the sweetness that only veal can have. But the rest of the meal was not so good. In fact it was pretty bad.
So what went wrong? Aiming for some showmanship on my part, I had decided to try some new recipes Mark chose from a new cookbook by a star chef who has restaurants on the East Coast. The book has a passionate voice and the chef/author makes a convincing case for the appeal of making traditional Italian flavors using a contemporary approach. The book is gorgeous, its photos could make anyone hungry, and there is a generosity of spirit to its entire approach, presenting complex and innovative dishes while keeping the authenticity of Italian cuisine.
But the recipes don't work. I suspect that in this chef's hands and made in his restaurant kitchens that these dishes would be triumphs, but in my amateur little kitchen -- even with my focus and some level of skill -- each of them failed. I would bet that none of the recipes were tested by non-professionals, yet that's who the book is being marketed and sold to.
For the starter I attempted "Cauliflower Flan With Egg Yolk" in which cauliflower purée (mixed with an egg, a little heavy cream and flour) would conceal a raw egg yolk and after cooking in a bain-marie, turn into a flan with a still runny hidden egg yolk. At the finish, each little flan would be topped with 3 squares of crispy pancetta. [A bain-marie is when a flan or custard or cheese cake is cooked or baked while sitting in a water bath, usually a larger pan that contains hot water; my cauliflower flan recipe called for individual soufflé dishes placed in a shallow roasting pan filled halfway with hot water, then covered and simmered on top of the stove.] But my result was slightly grainy and the egg yolk was far from runny -- it was completely hard boiled. Not a very nice combination of textures, although the flavor of the flan was indeed outstanding, helped by all that bacon on top. What doesn’t taste better with bacon?
I had left out the shaved truffle but I don't think that was the cause of my failure. To cook the purée long enough so that it set meant it had to stay in the bain-marie for longer than the instructed 8 minutes (at this point in the cooking the flan was still a little pot of goo). Usually when a flan is cooked this way it needs about 30 minutes -- but that meant a completely cooked egg yolk. I looked at the photo of the finished dish in the book, with a sharp-edged wedge cut from the creamy flan and the egg yolk running out -- I am mystified how it was achieved.
I had other problems with the chef's turnip purée that tasted like glue made from pine sap. And the dessert that drizzled a caramel balsamic fig sauce over a disc of mascarpone custard placed on top of a flaky circle of puff pastry had superb flavors but the textures were all wrong: the custard was rubbery and the sauce watery.
My anniversary dinner failures confirmed for me something I've believed for a longtime: it is rare to find a professional chef who can write for the home cook. Even a James Beard and Food & Wine award winner like the one who wrote the recipes for last Saturday's flan, purée and dessert, can have the best intentions and offer lots of details along with the recipe. But because they don't have our perspective or appreciate the constraints of our kitchens, they can't give us the instructions we need. Despite inspiring us, they invariably skip steps they can't see are missing, or fail to give us the cues that will let us know how to gauge when something is done correctly.
Chefs are trained to get success from the nuances of cooking whereas we home cooks get there through practice and trial and error, or else being guided by a cookbook author who knows what it's like to be mid-recipe and then totally confused. This is why, I believe, our favorite and most beloved cookbook authors such as Barbara Kafka, Julia Child, Marcella Hazan or Patricia Wells are cooks and not chefs.
The dinner wasn't an entire disaster since my braised veal breast was a success, the wine was memorable, and best of all -- the company at the table was splendid.