September 24, 2006

Butter and licorice for dinner... toying with molecular gastronomy

Lav and I were having Vijay, Meg and Victor over for dinner last night, so we trolled ourselves over to Ver Brugge and Berkeley Bowl for all the essentials. I've been reading about Thomas Keller's butter poaching technique for lobster (Vijay noted that a similar preparation was used by Ron Siegel when he won "Battle Lobster" on the original Iron Chef in October 2000) and the merits of the beurre monte.

The science behind the technique seems solid -- if you heat a protein to a high temperature, it will seize up and toughen; keep the temperature low, and the meat will remain tender. I decided to try and adapt the technique for beef tenderloin. If medium-rare is between 130 and 135 degrees F, then slow poaching in butter at that temperature should theoretically yield an incredibly tender steak. I added some aromatics (shallot, bay leaf, garlic) to my poaching liquid in the hopes of imparting a subtle flavor in the process.


grapefruit, lime, mint, verget du sud marsanne

red onion, cucumber, heirloom tomato, avocado, cilantro

japanese black cherry tomatoes, warm bacon dressing

andouille, kabocha puree, coconut foam

potato puree, melted fennel, st. andre and bleu cheese béchamel, licorice reduction

golden raspberries, baby kiwi

The granita was intended to awaken the palate and appetite, and to provide some initial acidity as a complement to the roussanne we were drinking. There was also a spash of marsanne in the granita... I wanted to give Vijay a bit of insight into both of the wines he was picking up that night.
For the prawn ceviche, we went with a traditional combination of lime, cucumber, and red onions. I also added chunks of heirloom tomato for sweetness and cilantro to mellow the acidity of the lime and freshen the combination. Since the prawns were quite meaty, I also threw in some soft avocado and a drizzle of a smooth, buttery extra-virgin olive oil to add a nice roundness.

At this point, we opened up the 2002 Paul Hobbs chardonnay, Russian River Valley, that Vijay graciously provided. This was a lovely California-style chardonnay that exhibited balance even with the strength of its fruit core. More importantly, it led to an amazing pairing later on in the meal...

Originally, I wanted to serve a spinach salad with a warm bacon vinaigrette. Unfortunately, with the whole e. coli situation going on, baby spinach wasn't an option. So we picked up a bunch of frisee, which has the texture and bite to hold up to the bacon. We also found these incredible japanese black cherry tomatoes at the market, whose depth of flavor mirrored their deep ruby/violet color, while still maintaining some acidity. The manchengo shreds are there for depth of flavor, the hazelnuts connect to the hint of nuttiness in the manchengo, and the quail egg creates one final small layer of rich creaminess. A nice pairing with the chardonnay.

This scallop dish was my favorite of the night because I thought it had the best marriage of component flavors, with the added bonus of being a PERFECT match with the chardonnay. Pristine scallops have an inherent sweetness, with a nuance of the sea. This affords a great opportunity to capitalize on both sweet and savory components. In this dish, the seared scallop is scored on one side (for visual appeal and textural mouthfeel after caramelization) and paired with a kabocha squash puree, seasoned with a pinch of cinnamon, allspice, and cayenne. A dice of andouille is seared in the pan at the same time to add richness. The scallop is topped with spindle-like onion sprouts, which have the most delicate essence of onion aroma.

The most important component of the dish, however, was the coconut foam (not pictured). The rich depth of the sweet coconut aroma and flavor truly unified the sweet and savory elements of the dish, substantially elevating it. The savory unctiousness of the scallop and andouille, paired with the sweetness of the kabocha puree and the tropical notes of the coconut foam were truly an unexpectedly ideal marriage with the Hobbs chardonnay. For me, the combination was absolutely seductive and alluring.

Now for the experimental dish of the night. Grass-fed (leaner and meatier) filet mignon, poached in scented butter at 140 degrees for 20 minutes, then flash seared on one side for textural contrast. The licorice reduction was equally experimental; it was done to play off of the melted fennel served on top of the steak, but with an exponentially more intense flavor concentration. I was afraid that the flavor wouldn't match well, but there was remarkably little clash, and even those who don't like licorice (Lav) enjoyed the combination. Unexpectedly, the strength of the licorice actually opened up the silky texture of the filet.

The potato puree was made of creamer potatoes for natural sweetness and creaminess. The finish on the steaks was a bechamel made with st. andre and bleu cheese -- just some extra decadence, with the hint of sharpness from the bleu cheese as a classic contrast. Everthing about this dish reflects the meat's tenderness and silkiness. The butter poaching worked as intended, and the steak was just under medium-rare, with a velvety mouthfeel. We paired it with a 1997 Clos du Val cabernet, which was lightly earthy and elegant, but ended up being a little lighter-bodied than what was needed for the dish. Perhaps a young Pomerol from a hot summer vintage would have been the right match...

A well-made creme caramel is one of my favorite desserts. The rose component was inspired by Citizen Cake's use of rose water in its creme brulee. The aroma can be subtle, but it is such a good match with vanilla. Here it is served with a candied rose petal, golden raspberry and baby kiwis -- which we'd never seen before! The kiwis were fantastic... but the creme caramel was sweeter than I had intended.

Meg and Victor brought some delectably decadent truffles from XOX ( to finish off the meal. What a great way to cap off the night. The whole evening reminded me why I enjoy cooking. Sure, it's great when the dishes turn out as hoped, or when terrific food/wine pairings are discovered, but really, the most important part to me is creating a reason for friends and loved ones to get together and enjoy each other's company. There's really no better reason to do it. And Lav and I are truly blessed for each of the friends and family members who enrich our lives.


  1. Anonymous7:20 AM

    This blog is replacing my FoodTV! Ok, maybe not quite yet -- but what an enjoyable supplement! Those pictures need to be published in an accompanying book one day. Thanks for making me crave seared scallops and truffles at 7:20 in the morning!

  2. Hey Jak & Lav! This is some gourmet food - remind me never to attempt cooking for you guys. It was great to see you at Howard's.

    As a side note: Wow -incredible food photography. That's very nice lighting and very shallow DOF - how did you achieve that? No matter how big I open my aperture, I can't get that shallow. Do I have to upgrade to an SLR for longer lenses?

  3. I've also been reading a lot about Thomas Keller lately and I've wanted to try the lobster poaching. I like how you experimented with the beef. Your pictures are very nice.

  4. Anonymous7:59 PM

    Great food pics! Jan

  5. Jak,

    Wow, you should be a food photog. Those food shots are AMAZING.

    Also, I'm impressed that the filet didn't toughen up just due to the amount of liquid required in the poaching process... 20 minutes? How much butter was in the pan? I just assume whatever Thomas Keller does involves magic anyways...

    My only question: In the final foto, it looks like the woman is in the throes of projectile vomiting. Did you forget to include that in the blog?...


    PS: Funnily, I know a guy with the surname Verbrugge. I wonder if there's a relation...