Roasted Vegetable Napoleon redux: Meals requiring a day of prep, Is it worth it?

December 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

You may think I’m referring to Thanksgiving here, as it just passed and holds title for the one day of the year that Americans collectively come together to really enjoy their food. But, I’m not. This brief missive is inspired by a dinner a small group of friends shared in which our host, good friend R., gathered us to serve the savoury Roasted Vegetable Napoleon she had recently made from the Real Food Daily cookbook and was quite excited about. I’m guessing this napoleon took away half of R.’s waking hours to put together, and I say this because I arrived at 3pm in the afternoon to do a bit of learning at which point she was only about half way through her prep. work!

Last stages of prep.For those of you who revel in dish descriptions, here is my best attempt (ironically, I'm awful at this part). The napoleon consisted of a red onion marmalade (cooked in pomegranate molasses), sandwiched between layered discs of seasoned/roasted eggplant and portobello mushroom, fire roasted bell peppers, and homemade seitan. The tower of components rested gently over a bed of warm swiss chard and a portobello mushroom demi-glace (which derived its flavor from vegetables that were first roasted earlier that day). Each component was meticulously seasoned and cooked in its respective way, with the entire process being a good 6 hours, longer if one counts the seitan that R. makes regularly and always has on hand.The roasted eggplant discs

The dinner was lovely. This is the sort of food that puts the cloud of vegan or vegetarianism aside, and rests on the fundamental merit of excellence. In the midst of enjoying the wonderful meal, we wondered if it was really worth R.’s time to make, considering it took nearly her entire Saturday to prep and cook. Of course being on the receiving end, our answers were unanimously yes. R., however, describes the experience as a process that she enjoys immensely, and not necessarily as a finished product with a ‘worth’ stamped on it, measured in time. R. takes great pride in her work, in the technique, the process, the construction, all of it, and that pride of practice is apparent in the plate. Creating inspired food is a hobby not unlike sailing or running, only at the end of the day you’re able to share the benefits of your hobby with others. The evening meal becomes an added bonus to top off a day spent practicing something you love to do while discovering, experimenting and creating something new and tangible during the process.

The roasted portobello mushroom discs

I have to say, my social life has transformed in response to my new appreciation for food. Sit down dinners over wonderful meals and good conversation have taken over from the consistently interrupted restaurant dining experience that often restricts the time period of your evening and carries over into other less meaningful activities to fill in the space. The new delight in researching techniques, playing with ingredients and making things I might never have otherwise is an active dialogue shared amongst foodie friends at the dinner table. I don’t know why it is, but discussions about food open people up in a way that no other topic, short of war stories, tends to do. Maybe it’s that feeding and nourishing a person at your table is a means of creating a unique bond that mimics an aspect of the parent-child relationship in some way. Perhaps I’m stretching here.

Finished product

In The Making of a Pastry Chef, a book I’m currently reading, Andrew MacLauchlan traces the history of the pastry from the first crackers cooked on sun-exposed rock and man-kind’s first ovens made to bake some of the world’s first recorded breads (at least as we know them, courtesy of the ancient Greeks), all the way to modern times. He describes the evolution experienced by the ancient Romans in which food’s role in life moved from the center of sustenance to the center of celebration, 

Cooking, up to that time considered a lowly job, became known as high art and was heavily influenced by the food of its conquered territories. Early Roman feasts included many new tastes as trade with Asia, Persia and the Middle East introduced apricots, peaches, plums, quinces, and raspberries to Rome’s orchards, spawning the first international cuisine. The convergence of many ingredients gave rise to a culturally specific and complex cuisine. Food and dining held significant meaning beyond mere sustenance; they now related to celebration and revelry in the form of banquets and festivals.

In my own evolution, abundance of time and resource has spawned meaningful preparation and frequent revelry around large dining tables with good friends and many who have become so after sharing in the experience of witnessing someone’s laboring in a kitchen for half a day to ensure that each layer of a Roasted Vegetable Napoleon boasts the flavors and textures that will make the whole a masterpiece. So, is it all worth it? That entirely depends on what food means to you. If you’re reading this then the answer is most probably a hearty yes.

How has your culinary experience evolved or flourished over the years?

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An essential ingredient for creating inspired food

October 29, 2010 § 4 Comments

”You do find of course in a vegan restaurant the chefs themselves are often much more engaged and passionate with what they’re doing b/c the way in which they got to that place involved their own personal beliefs and philosophies moreso than in a traditional kitchen” – chef Daniel Mongraw of Saf in London

The following is a short Vegan Society interview with chef Daniel Mongraw from Saf, a well-known and highly rated (by non-vegans) vegan restaurant in London, with a dollop of food porn thrown in. Consider this a follow up to my post on inspired cuisine, in which I laid out my value-based appreciation for passionate food. In many ways, creating food of this calibre is a performance skill learned through practice. And as with any performance oriented discipline, passion is the catalyst for making okay performers good, good performers great, and great performers best in class.  

Categories aside, passion is the common thread that makes a restaurant’s food great or not. As Mongraw mentions, the passion of vegan chefs comes from personal values and so there is a natural drive to produce excellent food. He notes, “we can do things with textures, and flavors and senses, that the pleasures of eating food, you still get all that with vegan food“. With this goal, Saf is transforming the idea of vegan food from soggy sprouts to sensational, inspired cuisine; and the restaurant is changing diners’ perceptions along the way. Time Out voted Saf one of the 50 best restaurants in London, which has helped them to attract an even wider variety of diners, not just vegans and vegetarians who might not have high standards for the culinary experience. And the quality of the experience, not the cache or lack thereof (sprouts and tofu scramble, ick) is winning people over. With pioneers like Saf, Madeline Bistro and Candle 79, vegan food might one day make it onto the list of Friday night dining options. Imagine hearing, ‘should we go vegan, thai or molecular gastro tonight?’!!

Working in a vegan restaurant as a chef at the level we’re trying to work at is very exciting because there’s a sense that we’re trying to push the boundaries and do things that haven’t been done before and …be at a level that’s respected as just restaurant and just food.”

Video: Inspiring composition (Parisian desserts)

October 3, 2010 § 2 Comments

I found the link to this short video (2:42) on Sweet Freak’s site and it made me think about how someone might justify the seemingly superficial world of food of this calibre, not just sweets, but the full range of high-end food. So, there is the most apparent argument, that is: we are what we eat, and by extension if we fill our bodies with thoughtful, high-quality ingredients, the machines that are our bodies, will function at full capacity, all things being equal (e.g. exercise as a form of machine maintenance). I would agree with this thought, but it doesn’t wholly apply to consuming the high-end of the spectrum that concerns itself with composition as much as flavor and quality. The most valuable element of the experience for me is that I simply derive inspiration from witnessing and consuming an artistic plate that is both composed impeccably and that tastes amazing. Why? Someone held themselves to a very high standard to create this plate, so by virtue of consuming that plate, I am consuming excellence. So, it isn’t about the wheels of my body being greased in the best oils, but about my mind consuming inspiration from the full sensory experience of the meal. It keeps me inspired and creative, which evolves into a form of joy as I practice this creative excellence in my own kitchen. The creative excellence, along with the joy that practicing it brings, becomes part of me and I carry it with me beyond the bounds of my kitchen.

Consuming the excellence inspires me to pursue my own excellence, and so I feel obliged to sponsor these innovators.

Reflection aside, this video carries a high dosage of food porn. If you at all love Paris, macaroons, the Ladurée tea room at Harrods, lingering in the windows of pastry shops, etc. then you will love this video as much as I do!!

The future of Food

September 24, 2010 § 2 Comments

As the last season of open doors for paying customers comes to an end at El Bulli on Spain’s Costa Brava, Master chef Ferran Adrià already has a plan for the future, and he’s discussed it widely. In the past week two magazines I randomly picked up profiled the Master chef, and magazines from somewhat opposite ends of the spectrum I should add: Vanity Fair and Bloomberg Markets. The overarching message seems to be two-pointed:
1) to publicize the last days of the restaurant, a seemingly zero net benefit effort since the restaurant is already completely booked and Chef Adria doesn’t price gauge (he charges well below what the market would bear for the chance to sit in the privileged seat of one the restaurant’s last patrons, 35 courses for $340), and
2) to publicize a class in culinary science at Harvard University, set to commence this fall.

Molecular Gastronomy: Science and Art, I’d like you to meet my friend FOOD
For those of you who don’t know, (honestly I didn’t either until I saw Wylie Dufresne during the Top Chef season of Richard, the most awesome contestant in Top Chef history!!), there is a restaurant world where science, art and food meet. And, El Bulli is the mecca. Home of a culinary variety known as molecular gastronomy, which experiments with the physical and chemical process of cooking (think decomposition via a mold of strawberry made of various components of the strawberry). These chefs experiment with sensations (‘How our brains interpret the signals from all our senses to tell us the “flavor” of food’, from Wikipedia) and non-traditional methods of cooking ingredients. Each dish tends to focus on one or few ingredients. Many of the courses within the 35-course dinner at El Bulli are composed of vegetarian ingredients, although many also arean’t (think ravioli made of gelatin wrappers).

Vegetarian/Vegan cuisine left in the dust
The scientific culinary discipline which focuses on the exploration of a few or sometimes even one ingredient would seem to lend itself well to vegetarian ingredients. In fact, the days that each of the writers visited, many of the items on the fixed menu were vegetarian: Nori-trias (“Black nori seaweed made crisp and crackly…then folded around sesame butter”), Amaranth with hazelnut oil, Pine nut bonbons (“Racy-looking bitter sweet chocolate globes, each with a single pine nut extending from it like a nipple”), Gorgonzola mochi. So where is all the creativity in vegetarian and vegan food today??!!! There are few restaurants around the U.S. that provide menus a foodie might consider inspired, Millenium in SF, Madeline Bistro in CA and Green Zebra in Chicago come to mind. But, the vast majority do not!!! I have to say, I’m a bit sick of seeing the tofu scramble. I understand, most days as a consuming nature-made machine food in any form will do, being vegetarian only adds to the stress of procuring your meal for the night, but leaders must emerge in our realm of the culinary arts to dispel the traditional notion of boring old vegan/vegetarian. Innovation, whatever that may look like, is a good thing.

Will the vegetarians evolve??
The link to Harvard’s page on the lectures states that, luckily for those of us not based in Boston on the weekdays, the lectures will be streamed live. I will definitely be posting post-lecture recaps. The techniques seem like natural applications for emboldened veggie cuisine, and a worthwhile challenge. While I’m limited by some of the equipment, I’ll spend some time posting on how to inspire creativity in your daily meals, and also attempt some of the more involved creative project dishes. (it’s easy when you break it down, truffles…easiest place to start. infuse with chili, etc…decompose a chile and turn it into chocolate??) What do you think?

‘Mutz’ means mozzarella when you’re in Hoboken!!

September 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Vito's Hoboken Hero

 …At least according to Vito’s. Vegetarianism on the Hoboken side isn’t too hard to accommodate, a fact that I learned on my trip out this past weekend. However, venturing into Manhattan is a different animal, w. restaurant options that could hold one over for months. Hoboken is overrun with and known for its delis which serve fresh ‘mutz’, or mozzarella cheese made in the neighborhood. I can attest to the freshness and the stringiness experienced one bite in that often lacks in the imported varieties we find in other parts of the country. Vito’s is one of the more frequented delis on Washington Street, the city’s main drag for food, so watch out if you’re stopping in during the lunch hour, as the line generally runs out the door. The menu is vegetarian friendly with a good handful of interesting options such as the Hoboken Hero, which is filled w. grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, artichoke hears, pesto, and mutz.

Hoboken waterfront w. views of Manhattan

A good stop for brunch is the Cinnamon Snail, a cool vegan truck that finds a space in Hoboken near the waterfront for breakfast and lunch from Thursday thru Saturday. The menu is inspired, with options such as Blue corn pancakes with piñon butter and Vermont maple syrup & Jalapeño red quinoa fritters with tomatillo salsa, mashed avocado, cilantro roasted garlic cream, arugula and peppered red wine reduction. The inspiration is a definite rarity for vegan fare, let alone that it’s all from a food truck!! Plan your day early. You won’t want to miss this one. I unfortunately did with my time crunch. I may have to jet back sometime soon, when the truck expands its route to NY!!! 

Interesting spots for dinner include Cucharamama and Amanda’s. Amanda’s appetizers are almost all vegetarian this season, w. highlights being the Sweat Pea Risotto w. Pea Shoots and Garlic Chips & Roman Gnocchi, Ricotta, Heirloom Tomatoes, Pine Nuts and Parmesan Reggiano. The entrees are scant for us, making Amanda’s an awkward choice for dinner if ordering multiple appetizers in place of a main course doesn’t appeal to you. Cucharamama serves S. American food, and the menu is just so awesome that I’ve listed most of the veg. options on my ‘To do’ page, and can’t wait to recreate them in my kitchen. You MUST make a reservation if you plan to dine on a Friday or Saturday night. The restaurant is usually booked, but I was able to get in on a cancellation for a table for 4 @ 8:30 on a Saturday night w. a good hour’s notice.

Asian Vegan e-book Project

August 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

Deep fried tofu in garlic, spinach & white bean sauce

My mother is an amazing cook. She improvises and always does her own thing, and when it comes to Asian food, the products are top-notch. She’s been cooking since she could hold a spoon, and has stories of making coconut ice cream on the living room floor of her childhood flat in Bombay. I’ve been looking for a way to capture my mom’s talent for future reference in some kind of compilation, and this blog is an attempt at that, but is mostly about me finding my own way in the kitchen. So, we’ve decided to write an e-book to focus on her specialty of Asian Vegan food with influences from India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and China. We’ll spend the next couple of years testing the recipes, narrowing down the list, etc… and will blog updates along the way. We’re excited to work on this project together, and I am particularly excited about making some of the more complicated Asian dishes like spring rolls and curries easy to understand w. commentary on ingredients and loads of how-to pictures (what I believe most cookbooks are missing!!!).

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