Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tete de Moine

Of the many outstanding Swiss cheeses, there is a special place in my heart for the Tete de Moine. Typically, mountain cheeses are made in large wheels of twelve pounds or more. The Tete de Moine is a small wheel, less than two pounds, made of raw cow's milk, and typically aged two to three months. It's name means "monk's head," and refers to the cheese's resemblance to the shorn heads of the abbey brethren after the first slice has been removed. Today, it is produced by cooperatives surrounding the town of Bellelay, and is sometimes called by that name.

The Swiss have a penchant for gadgetry, which is probably why I am so fond of their customs and traditions. A devise called a girolle is used specifically to cut this cheese into beautiful, thin ruffles. The cheese has a sharp and intense flavor, quite nutty and salty, with sweet fruity notes, so these light curls of cheese are an appropriate means of approaching it without being overwhelmed. I thought this unique appearance would be the perfect way to start serving a composed cheese plate.

Taking advantage of the early spring shoots and wild herbs, I thought it would be fun to imitate the mountain pastures where this cheese originated. The base of the dish is made of crumbled honey walnut cake, which is then covered with an assortment of foraged greens, wood sorrel, lemon balm, watercress, wood violets, miner's lettuces, and dressed with a sherry walnut vinaigrette. A few florets of cow's milk cheese and some fried strips of salsify for crunch, and a pastoral pleasure is ready to serve.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Vegetables for Dessert

For several years now, it has been my mission to make the desserts at Park Kitchen a natural extension of a vegetable focused menu. At first, this meant that instead of using tropical fruits in my desserts, as many restaurants do, I would utilize the natural sugars of the vegetable kingdom instead. You won't find pineapple and banana on my menu, but you might find beets, fennel, carrots, parsnips, or even sweet peas. As this repertoire developed, and I established a relationship with this new flavor spectrum, I gradually began decreasing the amount of sugar in my dessert recipes, and began adding salt!

I've never had much of a sweet tooth. I don't regard sugar as a flavor of it's own, and I think too much sugar tends to hide the natural flavor of other ingredients. I found that adding salt enhances not only the natural flavors, but also the perception of sweetness, without actually adding more sugar. Most people have experienced an extreme of this in salted caramels, something that has an awful lot of sugar in it, but the salt brings out the richness of caramelization. A salted caramel seems more satisfying because it's not just sweetness we taste anymore.
Now, I can focus on bringing these elements together in pleasing varieties of texture and temperature. This chocolate cake is served with a frozen parsnip custard, which is covered with a warm roasted white chocolate ganache, and sliced parsnips that have been poached in milk and honey. Roasted white chocolate tastes like dulce de leche, with all the caramelization and only half the sugar. It makes a nice bridge for the creamy parsnips and the rich dark chocolate. The alternating layers of warm and cold are refreshing and surprising.

Curds and Whey

It is always exciting to use culinary classics as the source of inspiration for a dish. For several years, I wanted to use the traditional Italian maiale al latte as a starting point for a spring pork entree. Pork is braised in milk, which provides the dual effect of tenderizing the pork by means of its lactic acid, and rendering the curds from the whey, with the addition of rich, caramelized meatiness. Delicious to be sure, but a sore sight of dark brown curds loose and floating in whey.

For the Park Kitchen version, we strain the curds and form them into gnudi, or dumplings bound with flour and eggs, and softened with some fresh cheese. The whey, which is so rich with umami, is lightened with a puree of leeks and scallions, giving it an emerald green hue. Leek is the primary accompaniment, tender slices of the white portion, the green being pureed, but also used as a garnish. Drawing further inspiration from European traditions, the leeks are charred on the grill, reminiscent of the calcotada festivals of spring, and the ash is then used as a sort of vinaigrette, while the inner portion is made into chips, which I call onion glass. The pork is exceedingly tender, although in cuts like the loin and leg, it is still moist and pink, which for some tragic reason, most Americans are not prepared to enjoy. I highly recommend venturing out. Although it is marketed as "the other white meat," it is classified as livestock, which is always red meat, and indeed, good pork is never white.

As for the Milk Itself

I've recently started buying Holstein cow's milk from Noris Dairy, which does not homogenize their milk, a procedure long known to cause digestive problems. It is distributed by a cooperative company called Eat Oregon First, which supply everything from local meats and seafood, to grains, dairy and produce. Their emergence into the Portland market is helping to bring small producers to a wider audience.