Sunday, August 27, 2006

I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts

Chilled Cucumber, Avocado and Watercress Soup

Whole Roasted Wild Black Bass with an Herb Pistou

Grilled Escarole with Lemon

Wild Rice Salad with Toasted Almonds, Cranberries, Mint and Raspberry Vinaigrette

Coconut-Espresso Panna Cotta with Chocolate Sauce and Toasted Coconut Shavings


I cooked for a client yesterday at their lovely vacation hideaway on Fire Island. The kitchen had open, airy, floor to ceiling glass walls and a full view of the gardens including a vast expanse of green grass and a drop-off pool that melted into the Sound. The view was stunning, I watched wind surfers and kite surfers cruising across the water, and was reminded, once again, just how much I miss the Caribbean… But the view, with the added benefit of an eight burner Viking range stove and concrete and chopping block counter tops peeled me away from my nostalgia, if only momentarily. And yet, even with all that, working on land still seems slightly mundane. In fact, life on land seems slightly mundane…

The Caribbean season is right around the corner and I can already feel that sun shining down on my shoulders, the cool, clear water splashing around my ankles, the smell of the salty air and the taste and tingle of an ice-cold beer sliding down my throat… Mmmmm beer, as Homer would say…

On one of my trips last season, aboard the ketch, we were anchored out in Tabogo Cays with guests aboard. The captain had made espresso for everyone and I happen to have an open can of coconut milk, so I added some to my espresso – then of course, the captain put some in his and brought some to the guests and it turned out to be a hit.

This got me thinking… I’ve had Coconut Panna Cotta on my mind lately but I wasn’t sure if I should just replace the milk entirely with coconut milk, or do a 50/50 split. So, I was playing around the kitchen the other day and I decided to test out a few recipes.

The first batch I made with just coconut milk, to which I added sugar and gelatin and steeped with nutmeg. This batch came out tasty, if not a bit sweet. What I learned though is that although I knew that coconut milk separated in the can, it didn’t occur to me that might happen after I poured the mixture into the molds. And, when I went to un-mold the dessert, low and behold, it had separated. This didn’t pose too major of a problem, as it still gelled, but the clear coconut water had separated and gelled on the bottom and the coconut milk gelled on top.

Seperated Coconut Milk from Batch #1

For the next batch, I used equal parts coconut milk and half-and-half and the same amount of sugar, nutmeg and gelatin as batch #1. The addition of dairy added another dimension to the panna cotta entirely. The texture was more rich and creamy and the dairy gave the dessert an almost custard quality, the coconut flavor was slightly more subtle but still distinct and it didn’t taste nearly as sweet as the batch made with just coconut milk. As well, the coconut milk didn’t separate, at least not discernibly so. Although I thought both batches were delicious, the addition of milk made for a more luxurious dessert and enhanced both the flavor and texture.

Next, I played around with the addition of espresso. First I added espresso to the mixture containing just coconut milk. And, well, it made the coconut fat solids really stand out. The solids didn’t melt enough, even when heated, to give the base a homogenized color. Instead, it looked kind of gross so I tossed it and didn’t bother adding the gelatin. Then I made another batch with coconut milk, half and half and espresso and, well, it was bliss – even better than the version without the espresso.

And finally, I had to do the deconstructionist thing and make an espresso gelee which I poured on top of the 50/50 batch (without espresso). Un-molded, it looked beautiful, but my gelee was a little too strong so I’ll have to work that one out. All things considered though, my top pick is the 50/50 batch with the espresso added right into the mixture. And, well, the guests loved it. In fact, they said the food was better than going to a restaurant – and that is the reason I love what I do…

Coconut Panna Cotta

(serves 10 – 12)

2 cups coconut milk

2 cup half and half (light cream or whole milk would work fine)

1/2 cup sugar

Pinch of fresh grated nutmeg (or ground cardamom)

5 sheets gelatin, softened in cold water

3 rounded teaspoons espresso powder *optional

(Medalgio D’Oro brand instant espresso coffee)

12 2 oz. ramekins or molds

Combine coconut milk, milk, sugar, spices and espresso in a pot and bring to a simmer. Add softened gelatin and stir until dissolved. Portion into ramekins or molds and refrigerate overnight. To un-mold, remove from refrigerate and allow to stand for five minutes and then invert onto a plate. Dipping the outside of the ramekin in hot water will help release the dessert, but I also find that it speeds the melting process and the panna cotta can become drippy. It’s best to leave the panna cotta out until it loosens up on it’s own. Garnish with toasted coconut, chocolate sauce and mango.


(I'm working on my photography here people. bare with me, I'm better with knives than I am with a camera...)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Little Sacrifices

The Bivalve Mollusk Brigade

Don't worry little oysters, 72 virgins await you in Heaven...

I sit at the Oakland airport, enjoying some fine international airport cuisine and wonder if I’ll be able to chug down my giant bottle of water before my row is called for boarding. An announcement has just been made that solid food can be brought onto the airplane, but with the recent ban on liquids, salad dressing and condiments must be applied before boarding the plane. I fear abject stupidity more than a terrorist attack… Where is the line between rationale thinking and unrestrained paranoia?

As I bite into my “gourmet” burrito, I indulge in thoughts of the meals I’ve had over the passed three weeks of road tripping around Southern Oregon and Northern California. After four days jet skiing, hiking and hanging with friends in Lake Tahoe, and a weeklong reunion in Oregon, I made the long drive down to Sonoma, California to visit mom. Passed cow pastures and cornfields, the smell of hay and dry fennel, which grows wild on the hillside and along the side of the road, filled the air, tickled my senses and reminded me that no matter where I am, this is home...

En route, I called mom and asked her if she would be up for going out to Mexican food, because as any Californian that has transplanted themselves to New York knows, there’s no truly respectable Cali-Mexican food in New York (Rosa Mexican aside, but by California standards, it is preposterous to pay $20 for guacamole). Mom said 'no Mexican tonight', but promised that something better awaited my arrival… My curiosity was piqued.

Upon arriving in Sonoma I was greeted at mom’s house by 4 dozen fresh Tamales Bay oysters, a hot grill and a chilled bottle of Robert Sinsky Vin Gris. Who’s better than mom? Manolo Blahnik couldn’t create a finer pairing... As the embers glowed, my step-dad set to smashing garlic, melting butter and making quick work of red onions and summer squash for the grill; plus a big, crisp, green salad, all fresh from the local farmers market.

The Saucing Committee

For me, grilling is never merely a spectator sport so I couldn’t sit by idly watching as my step-dad set to martyring 48 oysters. I jumped right in and we placed the oysters on the grill; tongs, garlic butter and barbeque sauce close at hand. With a whiz, pop and a little splatter – the oysters unwittingly opened their mouths to reveal the treasure within. We quickly removed their top shells, brushed them with the garlic butter and bbq sauce and pulled them off of the grill. Trying to remove the shell of a hot oyster with tongs (without losing all the luscious juice, or losing the oyster entirely through the grates of the grill) is akin to trying to build a house of cards after downing four Grande Triple Shot Lattes from Starbucks… it just doesn’t work. So I relinquished the tongs and, much to the chagrin of my overprotective mother, began working the oysters with my bare hands (they really weren’t THAT hot) and within a few minutes I had not only taken command of the grill, but earned the respect of the men…

*Behold the Glory*

After a few exploding oysters, we second guessed our earlier mocking of safety goggles but none of us were willing to leave the excitement of the grill to actually go and find a pair… Besides, that would make me feel about as much safer as I feel right now, watching a lovely, frail grandmother pouring salad dressing on her salad at gate 9A, with an inspector looking menacingly over her shoulder… But I digress. In less than time than it takes to say "cavity search" a feast awaited, and nary a thing to wash! We polished off the Sinksy Vin Gris and moved on to an Eden Vale Pinot Noir. The friends that had brought the oysters promised fresh caught salmon and elk steaks for the next nights grill-off... So good to be home. So, so, so good to be home…

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