Friday, July 22, 2011

Salmon Cups a la The French Laundry

When Brad and I were in Napa for the marathon this past March, I was somehow able to snag a dinner reservation  at The French Laundry.

The French Laundry appeared on the S. Pelligrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list from 2002-2010; it was ranked the best restaurant in the world in 2003 and 2004, and the best restaurant in America for the years 2005-2008.  Since 2006 it has been awarded three stars in the Michelin Guide to San Francisco.  It has received a number of James Beard Foundation awards, including Outstanding Wine Service Award in 2001 and Outstanding Service Award in 2003.  The main chef and owner, Thomas Keller, has himself received a number of James Beard awards, including Best California Chef in 1996 and Best Chef in America in 1997.  And he is the only chef in America who has been simultaneously awarded three Michelin star ratings for two different restaurants (the other is his restaurant Per Se in New York City).

In other words, Thomas Keller and The French Laundry are a very big deal.

And reservations are nearly impossible to get.  Seriously, Google "French Laundry reservations" and you'll see people have written extensively about their "tips" on how to obtain a spot in this highly coveted dining room.  It's crazy.  And, I can now say, so worth it.  My tip?  Be lucky.

When we arrived, it was clear that dining at The French Laundry was different than anything I'd experienced before.  I've been to many fine restaurants in my life, but walking through the door of The French Laundry I felt like a kid on prom night, suddenly unsure about how to conduct myself in a foreign setting.  (Ok, maybe your teen years weren't quite as . . . um . . . awkward as mine.)

Then the staff appeared at our table and instantly put me at ease.  Because although The French Laundry is one of the most exquisite dining experiences a person can have, the staff are so warm and gracious that it feels as though you've been invited into their home to dine.

Two chef's tasting menus are offered daily, one vegetarian and one not, consisting of nine courses not including the amuse-bouche and post-dessert treats.  And no single ingredient is repeated throughout the meal.  Our amuse-bouche were these salmon cornets; a magical savory little salmon tidbit resembling an ice cream cone.

We began Robin's birthday meal with these salmon cornets, which I've called salmon cups.  We don't have cornet molds, so I improvised using a whoopie pie pan and mini muffin tin.  While they don't have the whimsical appeal of the cornets, they were just as delicious.

I'm pretty sure you wouldn't find a whoopie pie pan in the kitchen at The French Laundry, but it worked for me.  (And, yes, I am now on the hunt for cornet molds because this recipe will definitely be made again in our kitchen.)

Salmon Cups

As noted, these are based on Thomas Keller's salmon cornets served at The French Laundry.  The recipe is from The French Laundry Cookbook, worth owning even if you never make anything from it.  The photography is stunning and Chef Keller's description of the care taken in selecting the perfect ingredients and preparing them with precision reads like a love letter to the culinary world.  Many of the recipes appear complicated, and some are indeed elaborate, but when you drill down to the core it's clear the focus of every step is to perfect each ingredient's role in the dish. 

So while you may not find yourself grabbing The French Laundry Cookbook on a harried weeknight, the ritual of spending some time creating and enjoying impeccable food can be very satisfying.

And if you go to The French Laundry, you can have Chef Keller himself autograph your cookbook.  (Geek!)

Kathleen, It's all about Finesse, Thomas Keller

In Robin's wine locker we found a 2001 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs.  We knew it would either be fantastically aged or ruined, so we had a back-up sparkler at the ready just in case.  (No, not the Martinelli's sparkling cider; Robin's saving that for a truly special occasion.)

And I'm happy to report it was phenomenal.  Not all sparkling wine can age ten years, but we found this one had developed a nice complexity and depth from its years spent in Robin's locker.

Salmon Cups
I won't lie, you'll need a little bit of finesse to pull these babies together.  And some Kevlar fingers.  Because you have to work quickly transferring the cups from the whoopie pie pan to the mini muffin tin, and those suckers are HOT.

1/4 cup plus 3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
8 Tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 large egg whites, cold
2 Tablespoons black sesame seeds

Salmon Tartare:
4 ounces sushi grade salmon
1 1/2 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon  lemon zest
1 1/2 teaspoons finely minced chives
1 1/2 teaspoons finely minced shallots
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground white pepper, to taste

Sweet Red Onion Creme Fraiche:
1 Tablespoon finely minced red onion
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground white pepper, to taste

First make the cups.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  In a small bowl, whisk the softened butter until it is completely smooth and resembles mayonnaise.  In a separate medium bowl, using a wooden spoon or stiff spatula, mix together the flour, sugar and salt; beat in the egg whites until smooth.  Whisk in the softened butter by thirds, fully incorporating each addition of butter and whisking until smooth before adding more butter.  Transfer the batter to a small bowl, which will make it easier to work with.

Scoop a little batter into each well in the whoopie pie pan.  Using a small offset spatula, smooth out the batter and make sure it covers the entire bottom of each well.  Sprinkle tops with black sesame seeds.  Bake for about 3 minutes, until you see the batter has just begun to set but before it starts to really brown around the edges.  If you cook them too long they will be nearly impossible to form into cups.

Open the oven door and place the whoopie pie pan and mini muffin tin side-by side.  Working quickly, remove each cup from the whoopie pie pan and form into a cup in the muffin tin, with the sesame seed side down (so the seeds will be visible on the outside of the cups).  I used a chopstick to help release the cups from the whoopie pie pan.

Return the mini muffin tin to the oven and bake the cups for another 3 to 4 minutes, until they are golden brown.  Remove the tin from the oven and let the cups rest until they've slightly cooled, about a minute.  Gently remove them and transfer them to a paper towel to cool completely.

Next make the salmon tartare.  Using a sharp knife, finely mince the salmon.  (Resist using a food processor; Chef Keller says this may damage the texture of the fish.)  Stir in remaining ingredients, cover bowl and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 12 hours.

Now make the sweet red onion creme fraiche.  Place the red onions in a small fine mesh strainer, rinse under cold water, then transfer to a paper towel to dry.  In small bowl, whisk the creme fraiche until it holds soft peaks, about a minute.  Fold in the chopped onion and season with the salt and pepper.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, up to 6 hours.

Assembly:  Place a dollop of the sweet red onion creme fraiche in each of the prepared cups, top with some salmon tartare and garnish with a little bit of chopped fresh chives.  Ta da!

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