Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I Know a Good Idea When I Steal It!

That was the motto of Chef Phil Delaplane, my culinary instructor in the Fish Kitchen class at the Culinary Institute of America that still rings in my ears thirteen years later, probably because it is one of the most practical bits of advice that I have ever received.

I'm constantly on the search for inspiration and it can be found in even the most surprising places. In his book about my favorite dining experience, Alinea, chef Grant Achatz describes the inspiration of a dish at his 3 Michelin starred restaurant (the highest possible, and most notable in the world) came from a rootbeer float at an A&W fast food chain during his move from Napa Valley, CA to Chicago, IL. Since reading that passage I try to never discounted a good idea. Luckily for me, insight is everywhere!

I initially wanted to pair the melon salad from a few weeks ago with a nicely prepared chicken confit before I realized how much better the cured salmon would go with it, so on the back burner it went until last week when I ordered my favorite Lao dish from Savatdee, a Thai and Laos restaurant in my neighborhood. It's a salad with prawns, lettuce, mint, cilantro, vegetables and a wonderful spicy coriander dressing. Like most Thai places the spiciness is based on a star system, and like In the Bowl a one star is more like two at other restaurants. My first experience was one of those where it was sooooo spicy but I couldn't stop eating it.

So I set out to create my own version, but this story first began last Friday, believe it or not.

The initial reason to confit - or cook in fat - anything was for preservation and was a speciality of southwestern France, but nowadays we do it for flavor. I do a basic version on the menu with duck legs, but I wanted to find a more common ground by using chicken, so late Friday night I dredged bone-in, skin on chicken thighs in a mixture of kosher salt, crushed juniper berries, coriander seeds, pickling spice and other little touches and allowed them to cure overnight where I slowly poached them in a combination of duck fat, bacon fat and extra virgin olive oil so that no one flavor would dominate.

I chilled the chicken in the same fat that it cooked in and stored it in the refrigerator over the weekend to allow for all of the flavors to mingle. To finish the thighs once ordered I heat a nonstick pan and place two of them skin side down and place in my hot oven without flipping them over, which heats them through and crisps the skin into something so light, crisp and tender it's astounding!!

While the meat heats up I first prepare a cold salad with green and yellow wax beans that I had steamed (never boil!!) and sliced into little diamond shapes that I then tossed in a dressing inspired from Savatdee made by muddling garlic cloves (yes, just like a cocktail; I didn't have a mortar and pestle on hand so I used a metal shaker and metal muddler so that the flavors wouldn't linger into your mojito) with sugar, freshly toasted and ground coriander and cardamom, fish sauce, chili flake, lime juice and scallions. I tossed the beans with the dressing and freshly chopped mint and cilantro to order so that nothing would discolor from the acid in the dressing.

For the sauce I revived a favorite from last year where I cut the corn kernels from the cob, made a stock with the leftover cobs, cooled the stock and used it to puree the fresh kernels into a liquid and then strained it. I brought the resulting liquid to boil once the dish was ready to assemble, yielding a silky smooth "pudding" that is simply thickened by the natural starch in the corn and is as fresh tasting as can be!

To be honest, after years of creating my own cocktails the sangria specials from last month came to me very easily, which only made me happier when they sold very well. This allowed me time to come up with a new drink without the usual pressure to get it done in time.

Some of the best flavors that summer has to offer comes in the form of herbs, and there is nothing that can liven up and create an intriguing cocktail better than a vibrant, local herb.

Rosemary grows readily here in the PNW, and while undoubtedly distinct, it is just as diverse. I used some leftover stems whose leaves were used to season our potato sides at brunch in order to flavor a simple syrup by steeping them in it over the weekend. I used this syrup to slightly sweeten cucumber vodka and club soda over ice, creating an intense yet light summer cooler!!

With Love,


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