Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Foie Gras 101

Once upon a time, on a wonderful trip to France, Jason and I ate foie gras every single day.  It might get old after a while, but I can't say since I've only done it for 14 days straight.  The foie gras preparation I am talking about is cold -- either au torchon (foie gras cylinder shaped with a towel) or en terrine (packed in a mold).  Surprisingly, I don't care for seared foie gras, but luckily the kind I like seems much more prevalent in France.

If you love foie gras as much as we do, inevitably you'll start wondering if you can prepare your drug of choice yourself.  What can be better on a Christmas eve than sitting by the fire, drinking Sauternes, and eating silky foie gras with black currant jam on toasted brioche.  This fantasy of mine also includes sleeping kids and some other activities that I am not allowed to discuss on this family-friendly blog.  

Luckily, preparing foie gras at home requires more guts than cooking skills.  Anyone can do it as long as you can get control of your nerves during a few stages of the process.  Here is everything you ever wanted to know about foie gras and were afraid to ask followed by an illustrated guide to foie gras en terrine.

How do I choose a foie gras?
We rarely get a choice in the US of duck vs. goose foie gras.  For example, I've only seen duck foie gras at Boston butcher shops.  The only real choice you'll be making is Grade A or Grade B.  Grade A is more expensive and has fewer veins.  That's the grade you want.  If you've ever tried to devein a foie gras, you'll know that it's worth every penny.  Choose the livers that are light pink orange in color.  If they are grey, they've been oxidized and should be avoided.

How much does it cost?
Foie Gras is not cheap.  Grade A sells for about $60/Lb in Boston.  Luckily, you don't have to buy the whole liver.  You can buy as much or as little as you want.  Another good thing is that even people who love foie gras, eat it in small quantities.  Last time I bought a pound, it made 8 generous first course portions.  That's $7.5/portion, which definitely beats $18-20 you'd pay in a restaurant.  

How much foie gras should I buy?
The minimum I'd buy for a terrine preparation is 1/2 Lb.  Any less than that and it will be hard to find a small enough ramekin to cook your foie.  If you want to make au torchon preparation, you'd need 1-1.5 lb.  I strongly recommend the terrine preparation for beginners since less things can go wrong and you can make a smaller quantity.

Is it more important to remove the veins or to keep the foie gras intact?
It is crucial that you remove *all* the veins.  Otherwise your foie gras will taste like grizzly butter.  When you consult the recipes, they'll make it sound like you pull a bit, the big vein comes out, you reshape the foie gras and that's all there is to it.  No. No. No.  The reality is way messier than that.  The veins keep going and going, and you need to keep digging and digging.  That's when the panic sets in.  Stick to your guns even if you feel like you are butchering a $100 object and breaking it up into smithereens.  If your foie gras looks like it was blown up by a dynamite, relax.  Chances are you are doing it correctly.  Keep in mind that foie gras is pliable like butter.  You can always smoosh it back together, not necessarily to reconstruct it's original shape -- in that sense it's kind of like Humpty Dumpty -- but to make it a single unit again.

Foie is not really cooked, it's barely warmed.  Is that safe to eat?
The most trusted source for foie gras au torchon in the US is Thomas Keller (at least it seems this way from what I found on the web).  He tells you to cook the foie gras cylinder for 90 seconds, then plunge into ice water.  Most terrine recipes will tell you to cook to appallingly low temperature, like 90-100F and I think even that is too high.  I prefer to leave mine practically cold inside.  Essentially this is Keller's preparation but using a ramekin instead of a towel to shape.  That's when you might start having questions about the safety of this preparation.  Isn't foie gras a poultry product?  Sure, we eat duck breasts medium-rare, but they are a solid muscle allowing us to kill most of the bacteria during sear (bacteria are normally only found on the outside).  The foie gras is another story.  After all the deveining and reshaping, the outside and inside get all mixed up.  In that sense it's more similar to a burger.  Talking to a butcher at Savenor's shed some light on why foie gras is not as dangerous as you'd think.  It's mostly fat, and bacteria don't like growing in fat.  Fat is actually used for preservation in some preparations, like confit.  So the baddies that make cooking chicken for 90 seconds a bit risky, don't normally inhabit foie gras.  The reason you heat it up is to soften it and help you mold it into shape; it's not to make it safe to eat.   To make foie gras safe by FDA standards, you'd have to ruin it.

Foie Gras En Terrine
After playing with foie gras a few times, I settled on this preparation as the easiest, yummiest, most reliable, and best storing.  This uses a combination of techniques from Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook, Michael Ruhlman's blog, Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and Fran├žois-Xavier's blog,  A huge thanks to all of them for sharing their craft and bringing so much joy to my holiday table.

Foie Gras En Terrine
Start this project at least 4 days before you plan to serve your foie gras and up to 2 weeks ahead.  

At least 1/2 Lb Grade A foie gras (more is fine)
Kosher salt
Milk for soaking

Special equipment
  1. Deep ramekins, or glass jars -- I prefer to use lots of small containers about 1 cup each.  This way I only break the fat seal on one jar at a time, making the rest of foie gras last better.  
  2. Instant read thermometer 
  3. Sous-vide set up -- don't worry if you don't have one, you can improvise with a large pot of water as long as you have a thermometer.
  4. Kitchen Scale -- nice to have, but not strictly necessary
Warming up the foie gras to soften it will help tremendously with the next step of removing the veins.  You want to bring it to internal temperature of about 50F.  The fastest way to do it is to keep it in its vacuum sealed package and submerge in a bowl of 70F water.  It should be ready to work with after 30 minutes for smaller pieces (about 1/2 Lb) and after an hour for larger pieces (1+ Lb).  Be careful that the water is not too warm -- you don't want to melt the foie gras.  You can also just let it sit at room temperature, but it will take longer than a bowl of water.

Gently pry the lobes apart.  You'll see some veins.  Grab onto them and start pulling very slowly.  If you pull quickly, they'll rip.  I prefer to use my fingers instead of a knife.
Pull with one hand, while gently digging into foie gras with the other hand to liberate the veins.
If you see thin film covering the lobes, gently pull it off.
If you see any green-yellow spots, cut them out completely.  That's bile and it's bitter.  Most of your foie gras will be very broken up.  If some big chunks appear not to have any veins from inspecting the outside, gently press your fingers into those pieces in a few spots.  Chances are there are veins hiding inside.
You won't be wasting much foie gras at this point since the veins are very thin, but the terribly broken state of your precious liver will make you worry.  Don't panic.  Pat yourself on the back.  If you've survived this step, the rest will be easy peasy.
Press foie gras pieces into the bottom of a bowl.
Cover with milk (cold from the fridge).  Refrigerate overnight.  This removes leftover blood
Drain foie gras and rinse in a colander with very cold water.  Remove to a paper towel.  Pat dry very thoroughly using more paper towels working with a few pieces at  a time.

Now you need to air dry it for about an hour to make sure it's completely dry.  The easiest way to do it is to put it on a rack lined with cheese cloth or a dry paper towel to help it breath, but not fall through.  If you don't plan to cook it in an hour, place the rack in the fridge, but let it warm up to room temperature before cooking.  This helps it cook more evenly.

Set up a water bath.  I use my sous-vide supreme for this preparation.  Pour in enough hot water into the water bath to come about 1/2 inch short of the top of the ramekins or containers you plan to use.  Set the temperature to 130F and wait for the water to come to temp.  You can also do this in a large pot of 135F water with a triple layer of paper towel folded under the ramekins.  The extra 5 degrees take into account the drop in temperature as the ramekins go in.  Don't worry about maintaining perfect 130F throughout the cooking process.  It's safer to let it drop than to turn on the heat.  Just make sure it's 135F right before the ramekins go in and don't add more than 1-2 ramekins at once if using a pot.

Salt the foie gras using non-iodized salt -- in other words, not table salt.  Kosher and sea salts are iodine free.  Sprinkle evenly with 1% salt by weight.  For example, if you have 500g foie gras (after deveining), you'll need 5g salt.  If you don't have a scale, here is how to approximate this.  Check the package for the weight of your foie gras and use 1.5 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt per pound of foie gras.  Unfortunately, I can't give you teaspoon measurements for other salts since they vary tremendously from one salt to another, but Diamond Crystal is easy to buy in most supermarkets (just not Whole Foods).  Sprinkling by eye works fine too if you are an experienced cook.  But since foie gras is outrageously expensive you might not want to take any changes with over or under-seasoning.

Press foie gras into ramekins starting with the big pieces and using little pieces to fill in the gaps.  The ramekins should be fairly full and as densely packed as possible.  Ok, so maybe not as full as the one in the picture, but almost.  I had just a smidgen more foie gras than could comfortably fit and got carried away.  Not a biggie, but a bit of fat spilled into my water bath.  Ideally, foie gras should reach 1/4 inch from the top.
Cover with parchment paper cut to fit inside the ramekins and press them firmly onto foie gras.
Cover with plastic wrap.  Place the ramekins into the water bath and cook until enough fat renders to barely cover the top of foie gras.  Don't worry about the internal temperature.  
How long this takes depends tremendously on the shape of your ramekins, how much foie gras you pack into them and how thick the walls of the ramekins are.  For 7 oz ramekins, I start checking after 10 minutes.  Be careful not to drip any water into the ramekins.  If you missed the perfect moment and your liver is starting to swim in fat, set the ramekins into an ice-bath.  Otherwise just let them sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to finish cooking.

Spoon out most of the fat and press firmly on the liver with the back of a spoon to compact it.  Don't throw away the fat.  You can freeze it indefinitely and then use to make duck confit and many other yummy things.  You should have enough fat left in the ramekins to just cover the liver.  Carefully wipe the top of the inside of the ramekin with a clean paper towel.

Cool to room temperature.  Refrigerate until completely cold.  Cover with plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 days and up to 2 weeks.

Spread on toasted brioche or bread of your choice.  Foie gras is excellent served with sweet toppings.  My favorites are black current or fig jam, vanilla poached pears, Pear and Currant Chutney from Saveur, and the same chutney prepared with quince instead of pear.  

Friday, December 14, 2012

Meyer Lemon Mousse with Pomegranate and Mint

My family is not big on decadent desserts even during the holiday season.  Maybe it's because we love decadent savory food so much, but wasting calories on a cake or a cookie makes no sense to us.  I know.  We are weird.  But even weird people want to end a meal with something mildly sweet on special occasions.  That's how I came up with this lemon mousse.  It's light and refreshing, takes 5 minutes to make, requires no cooking skill whatsoever, yet looks and tastes great.  Very not Helen.  But don't worry; I'll be back to my usual self in the next post.  It will be intimidating, time-consuming, expensive, requiring lots of delicate knife work, politically incorrect, and orgasmically delicious.  Can you guess what the post will be about?  The first person to guess correctly will get a gift certificate for one of my cooking classes.

Meyer Lemon Mousse with Pomegranate and Mint

Note: this works with many citrus fruits, not just meyer lemons.  Regular lemons, limes, oranges, tangerines, and blood oranges all make a good substitution for meyer lemons.

Use a Microplane zester to remove lemon zest or chop it extremely finely if using a coarser zester.

2 tsp meyer lemon zest and 3 Tbsp juice (from 1-2 lemons)
1 1/4 cup heavy cream
1 1/4 cup very thick plain Greek yogurt or good quality sour-cream (I like Fage brand)
2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
1/2 tsp vanilla

Garnish ideas:
Pomegranate seeds or other berries
Pistachios, finely chopped

Combine lemon juice, cream, yogurt, condensed milk, and vanilla in a bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed until the cream foams, and forms soft peaks when you turn off the mixer and lift the whisk.

Stir in the lemon zest with a spatula.  Scoop into bowls and serve with the garnish of your choice.

Can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours, but may require re-whipping if not served relatively soon.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Why did I buy a Vitamix?

Peer pressure is responsible for many great things in this world -- potty training, learning to read, cleaning up toys. But it's also responsible for bad choices people wouldn't make without that extra little nudge. How else can I explain my irrational decision of returning Blendtec and buying a Vitamix? What was wrong with Blendtec? Not much. It wouldn't blend blackberries or fish bones to silky smoothness, other than that it worked like a charm. How often do I need to blend blackberries and fish bones? Almost never. But doubt started creeping into my mind. Could Vitamix do better? After all, all upscale restaurants use Vitamix, not Blendtec. There must be a reason. Wouldn't 4 sharp blades be better than 2 dull ones? 
After a few sleepless nights, I took my beloved Blendtec back to Costco and got myself a Vitamix 5200.

Before I give you a comparison of the two blenders, let me tell you what I did in my previous life. I was a usability engineer. In case you are not familiar with this profession, let me try to sum it up for you. Usability engineers are the people responsible for making sure someone else makes a usable product. The someone else is most often software developers who view usability people as annoying little pests who are reducing their productivity. Usability people fight back with videos of users cursing the interface during usability tests hoping that enough user frustration would finally get developers to listen to their suggestions.  Sometimes developers actually listen.

Imagine the horror of every usability engineer on this planet when a study came out showing that when an interface was given to several usability teams for evaluation, their findings were completely different. That's like saying that if you went to 3 doctors for a check up, one would diagnose you with a cold, another with heart disease, and the third one with cancer. Not good. Managers of every usability department, feverishly got to work explaining the results of this study to their bosses. There were charts, there were graphs, there were sample sizes.  But the truth is it all boiled down to a very simple thing -- what tasks the users were asked to do. If the tasks were different, the problems were also different. This is a very long way of explaining that there is no way to answer a question of which blender is better. It all depends on what the user wants to do. Instead of finding some weird tasks like pureeing fish bones or golf balls, I'd like to compare these two blenders based on the tasks that actually happen in my kitchen.

Creamy soups
Both blenders do equally well in producing a perfectly smooth vegetable soup.  The advantage of Vitamix is its larger size, so there are fewer batches to pour in and out.  Vitamix can do about 6 cups at a time.  Blendtec can do 4.  The advantage of Blendtec is that you don't need to baby-sit it.  Press the "soup" button and let it do its thing.  With Vitamix you have to ramp up slowly and eventually flip it to "high" speed.

Thick purees
For really thick purees with no liquid involved (for example, pureeing braised root vegetables), Vitamix does better because it has a tamper.  Blendtec gets stuck on something that thick.  Of course, those tasks are better suited to a food processor anyway.  But if there is any liquid going into a puree at all, Blendtec is way less hassle.  It works great without a tamper, so there is less to do and less to wash.  Examples of thick purees with a bit of liquid are hummus, bean spread, or soft-serve ice-cream.  With Blendtec, all you have to do is press a button (just make sure the liquid goes in first and that you have at least 1/2 cup of it). With Vitamix you have to stand there for a few minute pushing stuff down with the tamper and then you have more dishes to do.

Neither Blendtec nor Vitamix purees blackberries to my satisfaction.  Vitamix broke them down more, but I can't say the result was better.  The seeds got broken down so much that it was impossible to strain them out, and the mixture had a dusty quality to it.  For a blackberry puree, I'd use low speed and short blending time to keep the seeds as whole as possible and then strain them out.  Of course, a blackberry smoothie is a different story.  It might not be necessary to strain it once blackberries are not the only ingredient.  And who are we kidding -- would any sane person be straining their smoothie?  Unfortunately, I haven't tried a blackberry smoothie in Blendtec, so I can't compare the two blenders.

Small amounts
Blendtec rocks for small amounts.  The blade sits so low in the carafe, it blends as little as 1/2 cup.  Vitamix needs at least a cup.

Both blenders wash up well by putting some warm soapy water into them and giving it a spin.  I did overfill Blendtec once and the soap foam started coming out of the top.  The cover on Blendtec is not as sturdy as on Vitamix.  Once you learn how much soapy water to put into it, it's not a problem.

Blendtec is more compact, has a flat cover that barely takes up any space, and requires no tamper, so it takes up about half the space of Vitamix in my drying rack.  Drying rack space is at a premium in my house, so this is a big deal to me.

Getting stuff out of the blender
Blendtec has straight sides, to it's possible to get every last bit of food out quickly and easily.  The indents in the sides of Vitamix are extremely annoying when dealing with thick purees.  A soup pours right out, but getting a bean spread out of a Vitamix is a pain in the neck.

Blendtec fits under the counter.  Vitamix doesn't.

Now it makes perfect sense to me why restaurants prefer Vitamix.  They want the larger capacity, they never make 1/2 cup of anything, they don't have cabinets hanging above their counters, and they hire dishwashers.  In case you are wondering, I doubt the dishwasher is the one making decisions about $500 pieces of equipment.

Vitamix is great, but I do miss Blendtec.  So remember -- grass is always greener on the other side and blackberries are always smoother in another blender.