Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Opposite of Sous Vide

I'm gonna get an immersion circulator and cryovac machine in 2009. I really am. However, for right now, let's consider what I did this weekend.

I had the opportunity to cater a Holiday open house this past sunday and one of the requested items was a whole roasted suckling pig. So, I called up my friend Doug Hillyard and asked to borrow his pig cooker. He said yes and nicely dropped the beast off at the site. I started the fire around 6:15am and by 6:45 I had our 40 pound pig in the cooker and smoking away.(The open house started at 4pm) Why am I telling you all of this and spending an entire blog post on it?

Here's the thing. I've been doing a lot of research about the advantages of sous vide and compression through cryovac. One thing that impresses me the most is the precision with which you can cook food. I think I'm a little spoiled. When we turn on the gas, it's there. The ovens are calibrated. The copper cookware provides consistent results every time. And with the addition of sous vide, we'll be able to really get specific. That's cool. However, when I threw the pig on the smoker, I had a minute to think over how cool this idea of how little control there was in the cooking process I was engaged in. It was basically, pig and fire....no immersion circulator cooking to tenths of a degree C. Of course, there were variables. It was windy as hell for one. WWWWIIIIIIINNNNNNDDDDYYYYY. Anyhow, it was a beautiful thing for me. Self-proclaimed control freak. Cooking over a wood fire with not much control. It was amazing. Oh yeah, it turned out to be the hit of the party.

FYI, the pig isn't on the cooker. I kept some wood going into the night because I really enjoyed standing outside, watching Dan smoke cigarettes and just really enjoy the evening.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Tasting Menu, Part Three - Execution

OK, so this post will be primarily videos from our Chef's Table this past saturday. Obviously, I'm not Steven Spielberg, but you get the general idea of what dining at the Chef's Table is like.

Canapes: Roasted Swedish Peanut Potato with black truffle creme fraiche and bacon; cream of chestnut soup and a puree of Cope's Corn Soup; BLT-House smoked bacon, truffle mayonnaise, micro lettuces

First Course: Kobe beef tongue and brioche with horseradish sauce and cornichons
Fish Course: Gingersnap dusted tilefish

Poultry: Roasted Amish Goose
Meat: Chex Mix crusted Venision

Cheese: Prune and Argmanac Sticky Bun with warmed brie
Dessert: Peppermint doughnuts with warm dark and white hot chocolates

OK, there you have it. Happy watching.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Tasting Menu, Part Two - From Concept to Execution

So, here's Part Two. Like I said in the first post, everywhere you go, chefs and restaurants have different ideas about what a tasting menu means to them.....I thought I'd throw down some thoughts on what you're getting into at The Sheppard Mansion and the ideas that go into putting these menus together.

First, we need to start with a plan. So, here's the road map that we plug dishes into at the restaurant.
A. Canape
B. Canape
C. Canape
D. Bread Service
1. First Course
2. Fish Course
3. Poultry Course
4. Meat/Game Course
5. Cheese
E. Coffee Service
F. Pre Dessert
6. Dessert
G. Cookies

Hopefully, You'll notice that there are both numbers and letters. The numbers signify the actual 6 courses that are advertised as the 'tasting'. The letters signify small bite sized courses and bread and coffee service. These canape/pre-dessert courses are our way of saying thanks for not ordering the beef tenderloin and crab cake!(not that there's anything wrong with that.)

So, now that we have a road map, let's get into the nitty gritty of what I'm thinking behind each course. As far as overall concept goes, I'm looking to build from lighter to heavier flavors throughout the course of the meal. Also, I'm trying to 'push and pull' a little bit right up until the meat course and then relax the tension through the dessert. I know this sounds a bit over the top, but remember this is to be a gastronomic experience, not crab imperial at Phillips.

Canape A: This is usually our signature Swedish Peanut potato topped with black truffle creme fraiche and our own bacon. Yes, it is usually the same from week to week(the canapes may or may not change with the tasting menu....that's my one opportunity to bring some memory recognition if you've had the menu before, since there is rarely a dish duplicated in the 6 course menu)

Canape B: Almost always a pureed soup. Warm soups in the winter, chilled in the summer.

Canape C: This is more than likely where we'll slide in something unusual.(I know what you're thinking 'As if bone marrow stuffed french toast and pig's tails wasn't unusual enough') This course really just depends on what has come it. For example, we just got a hog in, so we'll most likely have some 'hog bits' as a canape C.

Bread Service: Yes, I know every Hanoverian is screaming for their warm bread and butter as soon as their butts hit the seat, but during the tasting, you'll have to wait until this course. Besides, you didn't even know you were getting the first three canapes, so shut your pie hole. We make bread an actual course because we're especially proud of the breads(pretzel rolls, the Sheppard Roll and mini baguettes) we bake at the restaurant and it also provides us an opportunity to share our house churned/kick ass butter.(this homemade butter is for tasting table only and is churned fresh on friday before the tastings are offered. If you wanna know how time consuming it is to produce your own butter, e-mail me. I'll give you the e-mail of Alan Taulbee, the guy stuck with it on his prep list! Also, for those of you who have had the tasting recently, the butter thingy is new. I've been getting bored, so I decided to churn our own butter.....)

FIANLLY, the First Course: Ok, you may have noticed that there isn't a salad course as part of the tasting. 9 times out of 10, the first course also serves as a salad course. It will be something light and hopefully a good opening to the meal. The things I concern myself most with here are that it is a notable course to start your tasting. Some of my favorite first course ingredients are foie gras, lobster, beef tongue pork belly and truffles(of course).

Fish Course: Kind of self-explanatory....However, since this is a tasting and each course leads into the next, I try to establish a common thread between dishes, so since this fish course is moving into the poultry course, you may see elements on the fish plate that may seem unusual to you as a stand alone dish, but when the next course comes out, it makes sense. An example could be something like paring some fried chicken livers with a lightly smoked tilefish or even using a sage and poultry based broth for the fish.

Poultry Course: Again, by the title of the dish, you get the picture. Poultry. Not too much more to say other that I wish PA Dept. of AG and our esteemed legislators would get their act together and make it easier for small farmers like Beau Ramsburg to bring his AMAZING(by AMAZING, I mean the best chicken I've ever eaten. Period. and some people think I have a pretty good palate. Heck, even the GOVERNOR OF PENNSYLVANIA GAVE ME HIS FIRST AWARD FOR CULINARY EXCELLENCE.....) poultry to market. It blows my mind that you say it's OK for me to eat steroid injected Perdue chickens that have been raised in their own shit, but you make it next to impossible for small farmers to cut through all your factory farm lobby red tape and bring wholesome, sustainable products that will make PA the LEADER in niche agriculture to market at a reasonable price. Come on, ladies and gentlemen. Screw your heads on straight and get this right......OK, back to the post. Did you really think I'd make it through a post without going off?

Meat/Game: So, I say meat/game because in the fall and winter, this course could contain venison or some other type of game that is more flavor forward than the poultry course. I also like to feature our Sheppard Mansion Farms beef on this course.

Cheese: Honestly, cheese is a hard sell in the 717. It really breaks my heart, because I think that artisanal cheeses are the second truest expression of the land(the first is wine). The other thing that tears me up is that we have so many fantastic American cheeses available to us. The last thing that tears me up is that nobody seems to want to buy a cheese course unless it's served as an appetizer with ring bologna and crackers. So, I've been considering cheese and our cheese course a lot lately. What I've come up with is something that I think satisfies the central PA palate and allows me to bring cheese into the equation. THE STICKY BUN. We actually call this course, Cinnabon because it's a prune and argmanac sticky bun with pecans and melted brie is the 'icing'. If anyone out there is producing an AMAZING brie style cheese in the Mid-Atlantic, please shoot me an e-mail. I'd love to use it on our menu.

Coffee Service: French press/Sheppard Mansion blend/custom roasted across the street at Merlin's. Enough said.

Pre-Dessert: Just a little something to get you ready for the sweet course. How about an egg nog creme brulee?

Dessert: Who knows? Recently this course has featured peppermint glazed doughnuts with dark and white hot chocolates(so good, that this dish is now on the regular dessert menu). This is our opportunity to show off our sweet side a little bit and also use some of the amazing fruits available to us in this region. It's also a good time to show off our ice cream making skills or use some chocolate.

Cookies: Finally.....a little package of cookies to take home and eat with your coffee the next morning. Yes, cookies with coffee. Why not?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Tasting Menu, Part One

Let's talk tasting menu. At some places, it means 36 microscopic 'tastes'. Some places compose a 'tasting menu' based on dishes listed on their regular menu.(incidentally, this isn't a tasting menu so much as it's a chef ordering for you off the menu) I think it's important to know what you are getting into when you go to a restaurant and order the tasting menu, so I'm talking tasting menu philosophy on this and the next post.

INSTANT UPDATE!!!: I've decided that instead of two posts, I'm gonna break this into three posts. I know I originally said two, but I wanna do three and it's my blog, damn it. So, the next post will still explore the philosophy and what is behind creating the menu each week. Here's the cool addition; I think I can convince the guests who have booked the table next weekend(Dec. 20th) to allow me to tape portions of their dinner so everyone can see what it's all about. And I'll have a camera in the kitchen taping the cooking and plate up. How cool is that? Thomas Keller has video conferencing between The French Laundry and PerSe.....I've got home movie cameras stashed in the kitchen and at the Chef's Table.....Is everyone on the edge of their seat waiting for this post???

Now back to our regularly scheduled post...We've had a bunch of folks order our tasting menu over the past few weeks. Some of them have even taken the time to outline their experiences on sites like Chowhound. I really enjoy reading these accounts of guests experiences at TSM, but recently, thanks to the supreme content geniuses at Chowhound, some of these accounts have been removed from their PUBLIC food forum. This is very disappointing to me since 'word of mouth is your best PR'. But I guess the imperial guard at Chowhound can decide what can be written and what can't. (A quick P.S.....Thanks to those of you who came, dined and posted. I'm sure ChowGeniuses think I know who you are and put you up to it, but I'm just glad you had a good time and thought enough of your experience to write about it. THANKS) So............... I decided to write a little FAQ about the tasting menu in Part One, and then in Part Two of this post, take you through an actual tasting from concept to on the plate. So here goes. If you have questions....please ask. I'll be glad to add them to the FAQ.

What is the tasting menu at TSM? The tasting at TSM is 6 courses, plus a battery of canapes and mignardise.

When is it offered? Currently, we offer the tasting on friday and saturday nights for the whole table. Yes, the whole table. We have found that it is in everyone's best interest to go through the tasting together so that guests are not waiting without food while their dining companions eat multiple courses. It also allows me to pace the meal accordingly and not rush or drag certain courses.

How much does it cost? The cost is $65 per person and an additional $35 for Karen to pair wine with your food.(an excellent idea)

Do you offer a Chef's Table? Yes, we do. The menu at the Chef's Table is served and explained by me. I cook each course and deliver each with a brief explanation between courses. Before the food is presented at the table, Karen offers a brief explanation of the wine pairing. At the conclusion of the dinner, I invite you into the kitchen to see 'where it all happens'. The Chef's Table is located directly off of the kitchen, so you are right in the 'middle of it'.(READ: It's not the table to have if you want to gaze longingly into your lover's eyes while you play footsies. It's kinda loud, there are waiters all around you carrying plates and polishing glasses all night....it's sort of like TSM's version of the infield at a NASCAR race. Holy crap. I just compared our dining experience to a NASCAR race. Somebody get Food and Wine on the phone) The cost for this table is $115 per person and includes food and wine pairing. Currently, the Chef's Table is available only on Saturday nights for parties between 4-8. Unfortunately for you, but fortunately for us, the table is booked through the end of the year, but we have started taking reservations for saturdays in 2009. Ask for Karen. :-)

What is the food like on the tasting? Well, you won't find beef tenderloin or crab cakes.(those puppies are on our regular menu) I think if you tune in to The Tasting Menu, Part Two, you'll get a good idea about the food.

How often does the tasting menu change? Well, here's the thing. It's a new menu every week. By new, I mean NEW. Like every dish changes....every week.(With the exception of the cheese course which I'll explain in part deux)

Can I call on monday and ask what will be on the tasting menu on friday? Nope. Sorry, Charlie. No Can Do. I'm not trying to be an asshole here....honestly, I'm not. Here's the thing. Lots of time, the menu is written that day....actually, much to Karen and the waiters chagrin....lots of the time, the menu isn't actually finished until just before our pre-service meeting.(Imagine this.....here's the menu guys, we have tables in 5 minutes, better learn it quick) If you're going into a tasting, you're buying the experience, as much as the food. If you have to have a steak for supper, the tasting isn't for you. However, our regular menu is.(just no foil wrapped baked potatoes)

Hope that whets everyone's appetite for Part Two and spurs some thought about doing the tasting at TSM.

Oh yeah, a friendly reminder to make your New Year's Reservations SOON. The 8 course tasting is filling up quickly and is going to be the shizz nit. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term shizz nit, click here.http://www.urbandictionary.com

Properly used in another sentence....'Chowhound is no longer the shizz nit of food forums.'