Thursday, January 31, 2013

Paris, the 20’s and the Sauces Series’ Voluptuous Velouté in Blanquette de Veau

Brassai Lovers in a Bistro

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”  ERNEST HEMINGWAY

When I was in college, I had a professor who shared the concept of archetypal myths with us.  These are stories that are literally bred in the human bone.  They exist in all times and all countries in our mythologies and our literature and art.  Most plots can be distilled to just a few of these core myths like the quest myth, the hero myth or the sick king myth.  Some of these myths resonate within each of us more than others.

For me, I guess the archetype that draws me most powerfully is what I think of as the magic portal myth.  The idea exists in The Wizard of Oz (flying house and ruby slippers), Alice Through the Looking Glass (a mirror), Harry Potter (the train station), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (the wardrobe) –– even one of my favorite Twilight Zone Episodes about the over-stressed executive who longs for an idyllic community he sees as he rides on a train in “A Stop at Willoughby” (also one of Rod Serlings favorites) is a dream of a magic portal.

I have always loved the idea of having the power to go to a magical place and it seems so have we all through our history –– by clicking our heels or finding doors that no others can see –– magical places like Paris in the 1920’s (if you want a color view of early 20th century Paris,visit HERE, it's incredible).

 Woody Allen embraced the myth when he made Midnight in Paris.  

The time-machine car in Midnight in Paris (a 1928 Peugeot Landaulet 184)

His leading man, a blocked writer named Gil Pender, comes upon a magic car that appears on a quiet Paris street at the stroke of midnight to deliver him to 1920’s Paris and fulfill a Paris dream that so many of us have –– to meet Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Picasso and Gertrude Stein/Alice B Toklas and Dali and Man Ray and… you get the idea.   Hemingway becomes his spirit-guide in the enchanted land of 1920’s Paris.  What’s not to love about this story –– where is that car?

Ernest Hemingway (played by the surprising Corey Stoll)

The Fitzgeralds

Hemingway and Gertrude Stein

Man Ray and Dali (notice they are drinking Haut Brion? So much for starving artists)

 It shouldn't come as a shock that one of the biggest reasons I went to Paris in my youth was because I wanted to inhale the Paris of the Lost Generation  with the Le Jazz Hot soundtrack playing in my head (and it was only in my head –– this was before ipods).  

If I may say, Woody Allen is right.  The best time to feel the ghost of 20’s Paris is late at night on the small streets when modern Paris has gone to bed.  In that soft dark you can conjure the café on the Place St.-Michel that opens Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, the café where he sees a girl sitting alone at a table, “with a face as fresh as a newly minted coin” and he writes: “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought.  You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” Paris is unique for that –– on that first visit you claim your own Paris and it stays with you.

On my first visit, I hit the cafés to start my immersion into the world of the 20’s.  I went to Les Deux Magots, Brasserie Lippe, Café du Dôme, La Rotunde, Café de Flore, Le Select, La Closerie des Lilas, La Coupole, Harry’s Bar and the Dingo Bar (now Auberge de Venise –– where Hemingway first met Fitzgerald).  

As a student without deep pockets, I mostly drank wine and snacked on sausage plates with my little bag of Paris-centric books as my constant companion –– but I wanted to try an iconic dish and decided on the very exotic sounding Blanquette de Veau. I have no idea where the dish entered my brain as a 20’s favorite, but it sounded flirtatious and comforting at the same time. 

A small copper pot arrived at the table and the lid was removed.  What was there was not flirtatious or sexy.  It was a floury mess of grisly meat.  It was a serious letdown.  I knew even then it was a drab, going-through-the-motions version of what should be a great dish. Although I knew nothing about food at that point  (it was BIC – Before I Cooked), I certainly knew it was ghastly.  Hemingway would have thrown it on the floor –– god only knows what Alice B Toklas would have done –– from what I know of her now, her version would have been celestial (read more about her great cooking HERE and HERE).

Now, so many years later, I decided I wanted to tackle it (after watching Midnight in Paris AGAIN) as part of my sauces series because it is made with one of Carême’s classic mother sauces –– allemande –– a velouté  with the addition of egg and cream and lemon (also called sauce blonde or sauce Parisienne) and because I knew it could be divine. 

I decided I would smite the bête noire of my memory of Blanquette de Veau ––  I didn’t want to have any trace of gristle –– so didn't use the shoulder and neck cuts that are the classic cuts used for the dish. To do this,  I got some remarkable veal tenderloin from D’Artagnan 

Now I know, you purists will say it is sacrilege to make Blanquette de Veau without stew meat.  To do it I had to make some changes since you wouldn’t want to cook tenderloin for an hour –– it would turn the veal pieces into hockey pucks and would be a waste of great meat.  I trimmed the beautiful tenderloins and cooked the trimmings and the vegetables for 1½ hours and added veal demi-glace for deep flavor instead of cooking the cubed meat for that long.  Then I strained the stock and cooked the veal at a very low heat for 15 minutes till it was medium rare (you need to heat it again so it can't be totally the way you want it during the first cooking step).  Although the dish does take some time, this method means that you can do the longest portion of the job (imbuing the stock with the extra flavors) well in advance and finish it just before serving.  

What is unusual about Blanquette de Veau is that you don’t brown anything –– not the meat or the mushrooms or the onions –– it should be pale and luxurious –– sort of a satin and velvet gown instead of flannel pajamas.

When made well this dish has every quality of the voluptuous meal it has every right to be.  It was elegant and, yes, voluptuous –– full of delicate flavors and a velvet-textured sauce with down pillows of meat.  WOW –– that's how my Paris tastes.  Now if I could just find that 1928 Peugeot...

 Blanquette de Veau à l'ancienne made with Veal Tenderloin (with some tips from Julia Child) serves 6-8

D’Artagnan veal tenderloin (that you can get HERE), about 2 ½ lbs., trimmed and cut into cubes and thoroughly rinsed before and after trimming **(or veal stew meat or veal cheeks)
1 pint pearl onions, peeled
2 T butter
6 c stock (veal or chicken)
Bouquet garni: 1 thyme sprig, 1 bay leaf, parsley stems, 6 peppercorns, 2 cloves garlic, sliced and 3 cloves tied in cheesecloth or loose
1 celery stalk cut into sticks
1 large carrots, peeled & cut into thick sticks
1 small leek, sliced in half in 4” pieces
1 teaspoon coarse salt
4 Tablespoons butter
5 Tablespoons flour
2 T vermouth
2 T Cognac
1 container veal demi-glace from D’Artagnan the you can get HERE (or 1 cup of your own)

3 egg yolks
½ c heavy cream
2 c sliced mushrooms (I used a combination of crimini and shitake without stems but pure white mushrooms are the classic for this)
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
minced fresh parsley
chopped yellow celery tops (optional)

Take the veal cuttings, vegetables, bouquet garni and stock and put in a large pot (a wide-mouthed enamel cast iron pan is perfect).  Heat it and simmer on medium-low for 1½ hours, skimming and checking as you go.
While you are doing this, take ½ c of the stock from the pan and 2 T butter and simmer the onions covered for 10 minutes.  When they are nearly done remove the cover and reduce the liquid till it is syrupy.  Remove and reserve the onions and the glaze.
After 1 ½ hours, strain the stock, pressing on the solids and then discard the vegetables and meat bits. Add the demi-glace to the stock.  You should have around 4 cups.   You can do all of this the day before so that the dish comes together quickly before the meal.
Rinse the veal cubes again and add to the stock*.  Cook for about 15 minutes over very low heat… barely a simmer.  Check it –– you want it medium rare (you will need to heat it again when you add the egg and cream, that's when you will finish cooking the veal).
When it’s done, remove the meat and strain the broth over a fine mesh.  Reserve 3¼ cup of the stock for the velouté.  Clean out the pan and place the meat and onions with the glaze in it.  Cover (you can do this the day before too, but I think veal is best the day it is cooked –– you can do the rest of the recipe earlier in the day and heat it gently if you would like –– Dr Lostpast reheated left-overs in the microwave successfully too).
Melt 4 T butter slowly, then add the flour and stir it in –– let it cook for a few minutes but do not let it brown.  Slowly add the stock, whisking. Add vermouth and cognac. Cook it over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring regularly.  Add the sliced mushrooms tossed in the lemon juice and cook for another 10 minutes or until the mushrooms are soft.  This cooking is what helps give the sauce the beautiful texture… don’t rush it. 
Remove 1 cup of the sauce without the mushrooms.  Whisk the egg yolks and cream together and add the reserved hot velouté.
Add this to the meat and onions and cook over a low heat, stirring gently.  Do not let it boil.  Keep the sauce below 180º or the egg will curdle (using a wide-mouthed casserole makes this easy). Just for the heck of it I checked the temperature of the veal cubes –– they seemed to be around 145º –– perfect medium.
When everything is heated though taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed, serve with noodles, rice or potatoes.  Sprinkle with parsley and celery tops (I love the flavor of celery tops, originally, they were what was used and the bottoms were tossed!).
* There are those who do not like the gray scum that veal can generate.  If that bothers you, put the veal in a skillet and cover with water.  Bring to a low boil for 2 minutes and then strain and rinse the veal.   I did not do this step since I was more into the texture and the cloudy stock didn’t seem important in the velouté.

** Alisha at D'Artagnan said she made this dish with veal cheeks.  I read up on them and found that about 4 pounds cleaned of silverskin would give you about the right amount.  They would cook for a few hours till tender (it may be 4 or 5 hours on a slow heat). Of course you can use veal stew meat –– that is the classic meat used in the dish.  Trim 2 1/2 lbs of it and cook it for at least a few hours till tender at a low heat -- high heat makes the meat tough. You would skip my additional step of discarding the trimmings. Do still remove the meat and strain the vegetables from the broth.  Then proceed with the mushrooms, onions etc. and making the sauce.

My great friend, August Ventura (who I wrote about HERE) is hard at work completing his passion project just in time for Giuseppe Verdi's 200th birthday.  It is a provocative and entertaining documentary about the unique opera culture that exists in that culinary capital of Italy, Parma.

Click to see the wonderful 22-minute promo reel HERE   
or visit his website HERE   

I encourage all of you film or opera buffs, lovers of all things Italian, and champions of the cause of musical education to support "27" if you can.  Great passions should always be nurtured and supported, don't you think??

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

India’s Sublime Ajanta and Ellora Caves and Vegan Delights, Amti and Batata Vada

King Mahajanaka, announcing he will renounce worldly life, Ajanta Cave 1. 

I wanted to make ancient Indian Food, simple, right?  Nope.

Looking up “ancient Indian” got me into trouble because I discovered the Ajanta Cave and Allora Caves thanks to my curiosity about the provocative wall painting above.  Since the only book on historical Indian cooking I could find was $150 and had no preview I hit a search wall.  While I was spinning my gears, why not enjoy myself and explore these remarkable caves?  I am mad for caves and cave art starting with the Chauvet. Magic and aspirational art seem to have begun in caves.  Perhaps the creators of Ajanta were riffing on earlier art discovered there.  Caves were the original theaters with flickering torchlight providing dramatic lighting effects for the painting, carving and sculptures –– for entertainment and enlightenment.

While I was at it, the path to my vegan dishes opened before me because the Mahashrian area in Northern India (where the caves are found) is rich with Vegan food traditions –– with great dals and beautifully spiced potato dishes, ancient or not (no, potatoes are not indigenous –– although they came to India in the 16h century and spread like wildfire).  My Batata Vada was vegan and gluten-free and pretty easy to make!

The Ajanta Caves exist in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra.  The 30-odd cave monuments date from 2nd century BCE during the Sātavāhana dynasty to 5th to 7th century CE ––they were abandoned to the jungle after the 480 AD fall of the Vakataka empire (although a Chinese pilgrim said the monastery was inhabited in the 7th Century) until British officer John Smith discovered them on a hunting jaunt in April 1819  (Wondermundo  has a great article on them if you want to learn more). Smith left graffiti on his find that is still visible.

Ajanta Caves

Ajanta Caves, Reclining Buddha, Marc Shandro photo

Ajanta Caves, Buddhist scultures, Diane Criswell photo

Ajanta Caves, Mural, Cave #10  Kunal Mukherjee photo

Ellora Caves. Kailashnath Temple (temple 16)

The Ellora Caves, built between the 5th and 10th centuries (begun during the Kalachuri  dynasty) are 62 miles away.  The Kailashnath Temple is the world’s largest monolithic structure,  carved from the top down.

Mt Kailash

The Kailasanath Temple (structure #16) recalls Mt Kailash, home of Lord Shiva.  It was created during the reign of Rastrakuta Krishna I and is considered one of the greatest achievements of ancient architecture as it sculpted out of a single rock.  These caves, unlike Ajanta, were never lost and were visited and commented upon throughout their history (Wondermundo has a great article on these caves too if you’d like to know more). I also found some amazing mid-19th century photographs of the place that I just love.

Kailashnath Temple (Johnson, 1860’s)   

Ellora caves. Kailashnath Temple (Cousens, 1870)

Kailashnath Temple (1928 photo)

Kailashnath Temple (Gill 1860)

Kailashnath Temple, (Scott, 1857)

Ellora caves, Mahabharata

Ellora Caves, elephant base

Both are absolute wonders and I am frankly appalled that I didn’t know a thing about either of them.  I was awestruck –– really truly overwhelmed by the majesty of the accomplishment.  How did they do it and why?

The rich history of Maharashtra goes back to the dawn of recorded time and their rulers nourished and supported great art and culture with their enormous resources.  These men thought big, very big –– pyramid big.

There were outside influences to their culture as well. The glorious emperor, Ashoka, visited Maharashtra (a very cool dude).  The Turks and Pashtuns (Afgans) came through and ruled (and defeated the Mongol hoards) before the British Empire took the helm.

Jeweled rock crystal, mango-shaped flask 16th century 

Now, have you gotten your breath back?  Hungry?

Indian cuisine is the result of thousands of years of India’s own culture and religion as well as those of trading partners and invaders.  Because of this it is incredibly varied ––  it is also enormous.  Just Maharashtra is the size of Mexico –– Mumbai is its largest city. 

Vegetarianism goes back in the culture thousands of years thanks to the precepts of Buddhism (Buddha lived somewhere between 600-400 BCE).

Ancient Indians ate grains, eggs, dairy products, honey, fruits vegetables and a little meat.  "Pumpkins and gourds were grown along the river banks, while lands that were frequently flooded were rated best for long pepper, grapes and sugarcane.  Vegetables and root crops thrived in the vicinity of wells, and leafy crops on low grounds like the moist bed of lakes." They grew crops in rows from at least 2800 BCE, often with grains in the wide furrows and herbs and spices like mustard plants grown at right angles between (widely spaced so the tall grains do not cast shadows on them) –– so said the Historical Dictionary of Indian Food that mentioned that same Chinese pilgrim who had seen signs of life in the caves.  Xuan Zang also wrote of the agriculture (AD 629 and 645) as he travelled all over the 118 kingdoms of India; "Among the products of the ground, rice and corn (barley?) are the most plentiful.  With respect to edible herbs and plants, we may name ginger and mustard, melons and pumpkins.... Onions and garlic are little known and few people eat them; if anyone uses them for food they are expelled beyond the walls of the town.   The most usual food is milk, butter, cream, soft sugar, sugar candy, the oil of the mustard seed, and all sorts of cakes made of grain are used as food.  Fish, mutton gazelle and deer they eat mostly fresh, sometimes salted; they are forbidden to eat the flesh of the ox, ass, elephant, horse, pig, dog fox, lion, monkey and all the hairy kind.  Those who eat them are universally reprobated; they live outside the walls and are seldom seen among men."

Maharashtrian cuisine, according to Wikipedia, is full of wheat, rice, jowar (sorghum), bajri (millet), lentils, vegetables and fruit much as it was in the middle ages –– with the addition of those New World potatoes and chilies .  Staple dishes for Maharashtra are based on bread and rice with bhaajis (vegetable dishes using masala and curries). 

I decided I would do a wonderful fried potato snack – batata vada with a dry chutney and eat them, dreaming of those amazing caves.  They are Vegan, gluten-free and you will have a very difficult time eating just a few –– they are a great appetizer.

Batata Vada (based on a recipe by Priya Vaidya)

8-10 medium sized potatoes (yukon gold is a good choice)
4-5 green chillies (vary depending on the hotness and your taste)

4-5 tsp lemon juice

1/2 cup fresh cilantro trimmed

salt to taste

1/2 t each of mustard seeds, cumin seeds, 
Pinch of asofeotida ( if you don't have it there is no substitute I can think of)
a few crumbled or chopped curry leaves (dry or fresh) or a pinch of curry powder 
1/2 t turmeric powder

1 cup besan (also called gram - it's chickpea flour) (you can use cornmeal for this)
1/2 c to 1 c water –– you want a thick batter
 (I used a bit more than a cup)

1 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp red chili powder

1-2 tsp ajwain seeds (if you don't have this there is no substitute –– I love them)

salt to taste

1-2 tsp hot oil

1-2 cups oil  for frying

Peel the potatoes and boil and then mash them. Make a paste of garlic, green chilles, fresh cilantro, salt and lemon juice. Add the paste to the potato mixture. Combine mustard seeds, cumin seeds, asofoetida, curry leaves and turmeric powder with the oil  and heat (you can add a bit more spice if you would like). Once the mustard seeds start popping,  add the mixture to the potatoes, and add salt to taste. Make round balls of the mixture with your hands.

For the batter, mix the besan and water (medium thick, not very lumpy neither too syrupy). Add red chilli powder, turmeric powder, ajwain and hot oil and let it set for at least half an hour.

Coat the potato balls in the batter.

Heat oil. Once the oil is hot, fry the potato balls, I did about 4 at a time.

Serve with Dry Chutney and Mango Chutney

Dry Chutney 

1 cup dry coconut 
4-5 cloves of garlic

4-5 tsp red chilli powder (or red-chillies fried in oil)

4-5 tsp of toasted sesame seeds

1/4 cup of groundnuts (optional - I used macadamia nuts instead)

salt to taste

Gently toast the coconut and sesame seeds and cool. Grind everything together. 

I served them with mango chutney drizzled on them and the Dry Chutney sprinkled on top but it's so good you should bring a little extra to the table for dunking.

battata vada cut in half

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