Monday, August 29, 2005

The Perfect Sunday

It has occurred to me that some things in life need to be explained for the benefit of those who have neither the time nor forethought to actually plan and execute the perfect Sunday lunch for friends.

Sunday is the perfect day, because everyone has finally relaxed from the busy work week and with any luck, on Saturday have completed all those strenuous "pleasure" activities like skiing, hiking and other noble, albeit fruitless, expenditures of time. The stores are all closed, TV offers you little besides the re-runs of Top of the Pops and last Friday's episode of Ready Steady Cook. On Sunday you can really set everything aside and concentrate on the business of leisure.

My idea of leisure has very little to do with being lazy... quite the opposite in fact. Sunday is to me what "maneuvers" are to the to the 5th infantry. Sunday is a day of action.... serious action spent engaging my favorite hobby, cooking.

The perfect Sunday begins days, if not weeks, in advance. Planning is a very important element here...not that anything will actually go according to the plan, but the occasion is of such magnitude and importance that proper planning seems obligatory.

As the Host and Chef I feel I should to explain my plan of attack. My objective is a Sunday lunch with half a dozen of my closest friends spent eating and drinking and talking. It will last no less than six hours and it might last ten or more. Planning a meal of this scale is no easy task, to begin with, you need a good wine...not for the guests...for the planning stage. After all, you have to work hard at this planning thing and a little libation is in order for the orchestrator of such important stuff. A pleasant little New World Shiraz will do nicely.

The Guest list: Attendants of this gastronomic sortie should be chosen for a delicate combination of their social grace, culinary stamina, and propensity to absorb alcohol in its various forms. In addition, it is advisable that they have exhibited at least some desire to converse in your native tongue or in-fact, anyone's native tongue. Good conversation is so important, even if you can't understand what your guest is saying. What?

Now that we have the guest list accounted for, we need a menu. The menu is the backbone of the entire event and therefore, requires the most thought. It isn't easy to plan and execute an entire menu, after all there must be millions of things that I have no idea how to cook. Additionally, I tend to become involved in conversation and forget my duties over the stove. What is required here is a menu that is idiot proof, produces rounds and rounds of applause and can be plated and served while discussing Nietche after your fourth aperitif.

Upon arrival, Kir Royals are eagerly thrust into the unsuspecting guest's hand the moment they present Melanie with a lovely hostess gift. A big tray full of "bits of things on sticks" accompanied by the appropriate dipping sauces is presented as Vivaldi's "Spring" from The Four Seasons is playing just loud enough to drown out the neighbor's lawnmower....unless you are fortunate enough to live in Switzerland where cutting the grass is forbidden on Sundays.

While your guests are sipping and nibbling, be sure to point out all of the rare works of art on the walls by the French painter who lived in a garret with the one-eyed cat and a trained rat named Julio?"

Once your guests have begun to settle down and are beginning to feel the effects of the Kir, you can excuse yourself and head for the kitchen to do some last minute prep work. Now, I have a rule of thumb here...if I have had less than two Kirs then I embark on the kitchen alone. More than two and I ask for volunteers. This is good advice, and has prevented me from burning more than one roast, after all 3 pairs of eyes, even if they are crossed, are better than one.

For the second course, I recommend the Spanish Tapas or Italian Antipasti approach, you can get a wide assortment of flavors, most of it can be made in advance or dumped out straight out of the bottle. None if it goes well with wine, so you don't have to serve 50 franc bottles of Chardonnay. Any young acidic white wine, sparkler or light Pinot Noir will function well enough, just make sure they have pretty labels so everyone will be impressed.

The Main Course:
The main course is your opportunity to really show your guests what you are made of! You hold the field! The first assault of Kirs and the battery of first course wines have rendered them putty in your hands! You, on the other hand, are as sober as a judge, because you were cooking and plating so furiously you barely had time for a sip. Now is the time for the "coup des grace", the "piece de resistance"! Each plate is a work of art, a beautiful bouquet of color and aromas with glistening sauces, succulent slices of roast, vegetables in the vibrant greens, oranges and yellows of the season. This Masterpiece requires a short sermon, and your quests will of course allow you this folly because after all, you have worked so hard on their behalf! So with pride, and fortitude you begin your complex explanations of the various ingredients and their preparation, explaining each painstaking process with loving care. Now (half asleep) your guests begin their meal. Mozart's 25th in G is wafting across the room, eyes are rolling back in their sockets, extra sauce is demanded and the fine fumes of a 10 year old Chateauneuf du Pape are slowly and deliberately pulled out of the glass by red noses, smiles are common and broad, and a quite hush fills the room, broken only by Herr Mozart and his crescendos. All is well and everyone is very glad they came.

With the main course over, everyone, including the ladies has pushed themselves back from the table, unabashed stomachs are protruding, a few eyes are closed as their owners are momentarily indisposed. A couple of good women are quietly helping my wife clear the evidence from the table. The dog is fast asleep by the fire and the cat sits meditating on the radiator.

"A walk is in order", someone says! My heart sinks at the thought, but I begin to realize it will be necessary in order to endure the next courses. We all, each in our own time, stand and stretch and one or two re-button their pants. The dog looks at us in disbelief and we all migrate towards the front door.

A walk with friends is perhaps one of the last civilized things left in this hectic world. We move forward at a slow pace that contrasts our hectic lives, hands are placed behind our backs, as we leisurely walk the deepest topics of the day are discussed. The men tend to form a closed circle and discuss various issues in the news, and the women chat together about things of which I have no understanding. If we are lucky, one of the fellows has a handful of cigarillos or better yet a robusto.

Sunday walks are always memorable here in the Berner Oberland, everywhere you look there is beauty. I think it is much easier to digest big lunch with a mountain setting and a little exercise.

About the time your head is beginning to clear, you find that some clever person has led you back home to discover a huge wicker tray full of room temperature cheeses, all working together to create a symphony of an aroma that would make any cheese monger proud. The beautiful Flower Duet by Delibes is filling the room with a sound that haunts us and makes us light headed again. We sit down with renewed interest in the food and wine and begin to divvy up the cheeses while a bottle of Vintage Port slowly makes its way around the table.

As time passes, we sample and critique the cheeses, savoring each and biding our time before the inevitable final course. Then, with the ominous sound of the coffee grinder in the kitchen we realize that the final bell is tolling on our little Sunday Supper, never the less, there are broad smiles as a chocolate souffle is proudly carried into the room, accompanied by a decadently rich Gran Marnier sauce. The souffle is placed on the table then the top is torn open and it is drenched with the warm sauce. Two of the men are hurriedly pouring a round of eau d' vie and Cognac as the dog lets out a satisfied groan from her place by the fire. The day's sun has set, but there remains enough light for everyone to get home before dark.

I ask you, is there a better day than Sunday?

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Seeing Red

I have a little confession to declare. I am a seasoned vodka drinker. It all started 20 years ago when I became overly interested in pre-revolutionary Russian art.... you know, Fabergé and the like. I was fascinated by all things from old Russia and at that time Stolichnaya was pushing hard to beat Absolute out of the first chair of vodka so I decided vodka was “the thing” and I experimented with Stoli, Pertsovka and all the rest of the Russian vodkas. All of this was fun at the time, but in the end it turned out to be a fad for me and after a year or two it faded away.


Until we went on a little vacation to Venice five years ago and we happened to pass Harry's Bar. Now, when it comes to imbibing, I'm no neophyte. Harry's Bar calls to a Bar-Fly like Mecca to a fundamentalist! I had to go in. Hemingway and countless others had crossed this threshold and made the place famous. I had to see what it was all about. Harry's is a simple place really, nothing splashy: a calm, well-seasoned staff attends diners and drinkers seated at linen-topped tables. There are cool terrazzo floors, 50's vintage light fixtures and oscillating-fans working hard to keep the place to cool. Harry's has patina...lots of patina… ghosts too. I would have expected the place to be quite different, I would have thought it would have undergone a dozen face-lifts. New everything, floors, walls, doors… but it hadn't. This was my first trip to Harry’s, but I knew in a heart-beat it was the same as it ever was. I’m sure it looks just exactly as it did the first day Hemingway walked in. The service is just as it must have been in 1938, everything within the four walls of Harry’s seemed to be from a Bogart movie-set, including the rich American tourists. Harry's has resisted change and resisted it in a way that would make the ghosts that haunt the place very proud. Papa Hemingway, Capote, Callas & Onassis, Orson Welles, The Aga Khan and Hank Fonda, they were all still there keeping watch. This bar has earned its place in history by quietly being there, an oasis in a town of ancient splendor.
Anyway, there we were, on a HOT day in early September. We had been poking around Venice for our first time and BAM...completely by accident, we ran smack into Harry’s. “Oh Melanie” I said. "We HAVE to go in. We HAVE to see this place." So we pushed open the door and in we went. We picked a table and sat there anticipating the arrival of our waiter. “What do we order?” Melanie asked. I immediately replied that I wasn't about to go the Bellini route (due to an unfortunate incident with peaches in my childhood) I had decided that I was going to order a martini!

Now, I have to be honest… at that point in my life, I had never actually tried a martini, nor did I even know exactly what was in a martini, but I was so overcome with the nostalgia of Harry's that a martini was the only drink that I could think of that was befitting for this occasion."A martini?" she said, loud enough for almost everyone to hear. "You're going to have a martini?" My James Bond illusion was shattered. Oh well, what the hell, it didn't really matter because the place was bulging with American tourists, and who wants to show off for them anyway. "Well, then" she said "I'll have one too!" ...."Copy-cat" I murmured.

Our martinis arrived and my heart sank. Harry's Bar, where Papa Hemingway watered on countless evenings, serves their martinis in a tumbler! Where is my flippin’ olive? Where is my flippen’ toothpick! How could it be that they would desecrate a martini this way? I have seen a hundred martinis served in movies and no one EVER served a martini like THIS! I was furious! What would the Thin Man do? I was going to send them back! “Now, see here my good man, Mommy, Asta and I simply refuse to…” "Stop it silly, let's taste them" my wife said. "Oh, alright" I moaned, and anyway the waiter had vanished so I couldn't complain to him if I wanted to.

"Not bad" I said, and she agreed. "Pretty good" I said after the second sip...."ya know, I kinda like these martinis" I said on the third sip. By the time I finished that first martini (yes, we each had a second) we had created one of life's little memories and I didn't even realize it at the time. Since that day, martinis have been an occasional perk at the end of a long and difficult day and they always remind me of Venice.

My fondness for a good martini has led to a few experiments, and one of the ingredients for a good martini is often vodka. What I have discovered is that there is really a big difference in the flavors of vodkas and that can make a substantial difference in the flavor of your martini. Fortunately, just across the border in Germany, there is an Eastern European grocery store called Mix. Perestroika, unified Germany and the EU have all influenced the cultural train-crash that is now 21st Century Germany and Mix is one of the perks of this new Euro-union.
At Mix you can buy countless varieties of pickles, ginger-flavored tea-cookies, and electric-samovars along with the Russian tea to put in them. But it is their vodka selection that is without parallel in Western Europe. They have Polish and Russian vodkas, the likes of which you have never seen before. Some come with severe red and white labels and look like Stoli knock-offs, while others are flavored with grass or honey or hot peppers or herbs. Mixed in with these offerings and carefully placed at eye level, are the big-money vodkas, the Vodka-Ferraris. Now let me explain, Mix is not an exclusive store, in fact Mix is far from an exclusive store. It is actually kind of a seedy place, crawling with Eastern Europeans lamenting about how cheap this stuff used to be back in Gdansk. The sexy packaging of these super-vodkas stands out like a sore-thumb in this simple shop and acts like a high-octane magnet for Russian mob-wannabes flush with dosh.

Luckily, it all seemed cheap to me, at about half the price of the vodkas back home in Switzerland. So, I bought the most expensive.... there were potato vodkas, grain vodkas, honey vodkas, you name it, I brought them all home and tried them one by one. Each was infinitely better than any vodka I had ever tried before. In my mind Mix Market was THE ONLY place to buy vodka.

Now, I don’t drink a lot of vodka. In fact I was just calculating that most of the current vodka-residents on my drinks-trolley are over a year old. In a way that is a good thing because at a moment’s notice I have plenty of stock laying around to put together an interesting taste-test. Until recently, my vodka-tasting had produced two champions: A Polish potato vodka called Krolewska and the reigning champion Ruskie Standart Platinum. These two had become my vodka-untouchables.

…..until today:

Today a newcomer entered the ring…something totally different in a bulky red art-deco styled bottle. Today I discovered Xellent… the SWISS vodka! When I found it on the shelves, I immediately checked my wallet to see if it could endure the whopping nearly 50 franc broad-siding this bottle of vodka was going to deal to it. There it was, looking back at me, a shiny new 50 “stutz” bank-note, ready to spring into action! “Ok, let's see what the Swiss call vodka” I thought, as my fingers wrapped around the neck of the chunky little bottle. I placed it gently in the basket of my trolley, being careful not to scratch it, and in a few moments we were homeward bound.

I’m not really sure what I expected from this Swiss interloper, I assumed it was something created for the aprés ski crowd in Gstaad or St. Moritz… I assumed it would be 99% hype with a nose-bleed price tag... I assumed I would be disappointed…I was wrong. Xellent is good. In fact, it is very, very good. It is triple distilled by hand in small batches in a copper still, the rye grain is locally grown in two hectare fields, the water is from a Swiss glacier, and Xellent is as smooth as glass but also thick and rich. It can run nose to nose with any of my Russian and Polish friends. Xellent is a real power vodka! The Swiss have arrived on the vodka scene and they have nothing to be ashamed of, that's for sure!

I suppose we will have to call it "Wödkali" now.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Learning to Work With Bread

First, let me say that I am a student of good bread, not a master. I have been trying different recipes for years, and I can honestly say I have managed to learn a little from all of my experiments.

I would like to clarify one thing: I am lazy. I don’t mind kneading a bread like a mad-man from time to time. I even find it somewhat therapeutic. But the reality is that if I have to work like a slave to make a loaf of bread regularly, most of the time I will opt-out of it. So what I really needed was a way to make great bread the easy way.

If you forgive me this sin, we may continue.

I am a loaner in that I don’t like to live in populated places. I prefer a place in the country to a city apartment. Consequently, I have often lived in remote places like South Pomfret, Vermont at the end of a six mile logging road. Even here in Switzerland, I live in the tiny village of Sulz in Canton Aargau, where whenever anyone comes to visit us the first question is “what made you decide to live here”? That’s ok, I don’t mind. It’s just the way Melanie and I are. But the down-side of living in remote places is that we don’t have access to many of the conveniences you city-mice have. One of which is really good bread. Hundreds of times I have tried to recreate bread like you get from a wood-fired European oven, but the results were often so pathetic that I hesitate to admit them to you.
All of that has recently changed. A combination of events beginning with Alberto’s now famous pizza dough have allowed me to create a bread that I am proud to put my name on. In fact, today I was in France and I felt like Paul Bocuse at McDonalds. I inflated my chest and smiled as I walked by the anemic breads on the racks at Rond Point and Géant. “I have them beat” I thought to myself. I have mastered bread! “I am the bread man! Coo coo ca chu!!!”

Yep, I’m happy! I finally understand how to make great bread. Not good bread…GREAT BREAD! Beautiful, moist, chewy, dense bread with a perfect crust that has a brown patina that looks like flour-dusted, aged leather. Old-world European bread! Bread you rip apart like soft leather. Bread you can just sit down and eat and say “to hell with the rest of the meal”!

What’s my secret? ……I can’t tell you. Really I can’t! Because there isn’t one. I make it by “feel”. I can “feel” when I need to add more flour, water and salt, but I honestly can’t tell you exactly how much I put in. But there are a few techniques that once performed can lead to the bread I just described. There really isn’t a single recipe and I don’t think there ever will be for me. You see the recipe would have to change with each different kind of flour, and there are so many different flours that it would be impossible to say: x grams of flour, x grams of water, and x grams of salt and guarantee a perfect recipe. Too many variables!

With that in mind here is a close idea of what I put in my bread but remember you will probably need to change it to make "your" bread.

To make the batter:
500 grams of flour
500 ml warm water
1/8 teaspoon of active dry yeast
To finish the dough:
10 grams of salt (1 heaping teaspoon)
additional 200 grams of flour

I will try to explain the process I use as best as I can with the understanding that the really important ingredient you have to add is patience. Only you will know when it’s really “right” and that will only come with time.

Before we talk about the dough, let’s discuss machinery. I have heard bread can be made entirely by hand but as I mentioned above…I am lazy so I use a mixer. I strongly suggest a Kitchenaid mixer. In fact my whole recipe is based on a Kitchenaid mixer because that is what I have. Why is a Kitchenaid so special? Because it has a paddle and a dough hook. The paddle is vital for mixing the dough. We mix the dough in two stages. First in the wet stage with the paddle to get the glutens working then in the dryer stage with the dough hook to knead the dough.

First we need flour. This is the single most important ingredient. Buy the best flour you can get your hands on. Buy it mail-order if you have to, but get good flour. I suggest staying away from all purpose grocery store flour. Try to find bread flour. You can make your own mix if you like, 20% whole wheat and 80 white bread flour is good. You have to “feel” this for yourself. Do you like whole wheat best? Do you like rye? Pick one and don’t worry you can always switch to another flour in the next session.

Now you have a flour picked out. Let’s move to yeast. I use ADY (active dry yeast) you can use fresh yeast, but the truth is there is little difference and ADY is much more convenient and economical. Almost all bread recipes call for way too much yeast. Easy does it.

Ok, let's start, put the lukewarm water in the bowl of your mixer and add the yeast. Attach the paddle and run it on low for a while so the yeast can dissolve. Now, with the machine still on low, start adding the flour one spoonful at a time. Maintain a balance of water and flour so that you have a thick paste. Thick enough so that you hear the machine slow down from the burden of mixing the dough, but if it starts to ball up it is too dry, so add some water. What you are aiming for is a very thick batter that sticks to the sides of the bowl. When you achieve this let the machine do all the work. It needs to beat this wet batter for about 5 minutes. As it beats you will notice the batter gets “stringy“. This is a very good thing. This means the glutens are waking up and the dough is heading in the right direction. After a minimum of five or six minutes (I have beaten the batter for up to 20 minutes) add 1 teaspoon of salt and mix it in well.

Now stop your machine and remove the paddle. Attach the dough hook and turn it back on low. Slowly, one spoonful at time, add the rest of the flour until the dough forms into a nice ball and incorporates all the dough from the sides of the bowl. At this point let the machine knead the ball for another 25 minutes.

After the final kneading stop the mixer, remove the dough hook. At this stage the dough is pretty loose. It will hold its form for a while but but give it a minute and it will spread out like a very thick batter.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit on the counter for 12 hours depending on the temperature of your kitchen. The dough will take its time, but after 11-12 hours it should it should be about four to five times as large as it was when you stopped kneading it (if not, your yeast might have been bad).

After the rising time you are ready to bake the bread. Prepare a cookie sheet with piece of parchment paper and set to one side. Dust the counter with a heavy coating of flour and with a rubber spatula slowly and gently coax the dough out of the bowl and onto the floured counter top. Without kneading, lightly form the dough into an oval or ball by gently tucking the sides underneath. Transfer it onto the parchment paper, dust it with flour and make a few slashes on the top with a razor blade.

Put the bread into a 400 degree Fahrenheit or about 200 Celsius oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes, then turn up the heat to get the crust a little browner if necessary. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before cutting.

You will end up with a bread that is thick, chewy, moist and when you press down on it, it springs right back up to its original form.

Well that’s all there is to it. The most important things I have explained in detail the rest is something you have to adapt to the flour you use, your kitchen equipment, and your own personal tastes.

I hope you will experiment and that you will enjoy making your own bread as much as I do!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Homemade Food

My businesses and my fondness for good food have allowed me to eat at many coveted restaurants over the years, but now I don't visit those places as often as I once did.... they have lost much of their allure for me. These days, I look for examples of what I call "homemade" food... the sort of food that is too simple to charge top-money for. Cassoulets or stews that cook for hours over a slow fire, or maybe the pies that are made with the fresh fruits from the garden, or a perfect hearth-baked bread... these are the foods I seek now. I'm looking for subtle secrets and flavors that were handed down from generation to generation. These dishes can make me just as happy as any of those made from priceless ingredients served in gastronomic temples.

I have had many fine meals, but one of the most memorable was enjoyed more than a decade ago at the tiny Hôtel Emma Calvet in Millau, France, where a wonderful woman cooked and served a simple meal for my wife and me. That night we were the only guests in the hotel, but we never felt any of the awkwardness that people sometimes feel when they are alone in a restaurant. Instead, we enjoyed every bite while over-hearing her and her family engaged in a lively discussion about the day's events in the kitchen. After our dinner, she proudly presented us with a tray of local cheeses, slowly explaining each one, hoping we would understand her French.

To me, the simple tenderness of this woman, her good food and her warm heart were worth as much as all the stars of any Michelin chef.
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