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Happy in the Kitchen
by Michel Richard
My Christmas cookbook list was jump started when I discovered Happy in the Kitchen by Michel Richard at In Good Taste. Usually during the holidays I don’t look for challenging recipes (the holidays are challenging enough!). But this book enticed me to delve into it before the season had passed.
I discovered Happy just before I went on an east coast Thanksgiving cooking extravaganza. The first 2/3’s of the trip I delved into my personal repertoire. Pasta with clam sauce for my daughter, chili for the freezer, Asian chicken cutlets for mom and a traditional thanksgiving to be cooked at a college friend’s home. But it was the Friday after Thanksgiving that I cracked the Happy for inspiration. This was for friends who wanted to christen their newly designed kitchen and challenge their wine cellar. I rose to the occasion.
I selected a few recipes to serve. Romaine on Romaine is a tasty and eye appealing presentation for salad. Move over Caesar, this salad is dressed in an herb infused dressing that is pureed with some of the dark green romaine leaves, rice vinegar, honey, and Tabasco sauce. The rest of the leaves are rolled in rice paper and stick out of the top. We liked the contrast of the soft rice paper and the crunchy romaine.
I was flummoxed for a moment when my friend mentioned she couldn’t eat wheat. I wanted to make Richard’s ‘Shroomwich as the starch to our meal but keeping with the Happy approach to innovation and creativity I reinterpreted the recipe using blanched potato slices instead of brioche. Basically this is a duxelle (finely chopped mushroom mixture) and Gruyere cheese grilled sandwich with a mushroom jus dipping sauce. The combination is a study on the earthy taste of mushrooms and richness of melted cheese. It was sublime. Richard suggests ‘Shroomwich as an appetizer or first course. I think it would also make a nice simple entrée served with homemade tomato soup.
Glazed and Glistening Haricots Verts were the perfect counter point to our roast tenderloin. Richard calls it a braise/sauté technique that cooks the beans in a scant 3 tablespoons of stock, garlic, and butter. Once the stock evaporates the beans caramelize and have a slightly sweet taste.
Richard has worn many toques in the kitchen. Starting his career in France as a pastry chef he moved to America and later opened Citrus in 1987. This change in culinary discipline is very unusual. “Pastry chefs and savory chefs rely on a completely different set of skills and use their intellects in different ways. Pastry chefs are like mathematicians. Savory chefs, we’re like freethinkers. Michel amazingly has been able to combine the precision of the pastry chef’s mind with the freethinking nature of the savory chef…and is one of the most creative interpreters of American cuisine.”
From the beginning Richard opens his “toy box” and shares tools that will achieve different techniques. Glue gun anyone? Use Martha’s favorite tool to decorate the lid on Scrambled Scallops with Caviar or learn how to quickly dice potatoes with a Japanese mandoline (Benriner) for Potato Risotto. Twine, disposable pastry bags, ring cutters, and a rotary cutter are all in his arsenal and used throughout the book.
Happy is about creativity and new techniques. With each recipe we are told why it works, how it came about, and why it should be in our repertoire. Each recipe has a twist. Why serve snow peas in their usual flat form when they can be cut lengthwise into fine julienne giving the illusion of linguini? Going on a low carb diet? Richard suggests cutting a wedge in an onion and thinly slicing it to make “pasta” for his decadent Low Carb-o-nara.
If there is one item and technique to master it’s Richard’s use of plastic wrap. From Almost-No-Fat Chicken Sausage to Cuttlefish Fettuccine with Crab and Corn Richard extols the pleasures of plastic wrap. Wrapping meat tightly gives a uniform density and the slow cooking poach technique “produces maximum tenderness and encourages flavors to develop to their absolute peak.” In Figgy Piggy with Sweet Spiced Port Sauce, pork tenderloin is poached in water at 140° for about 1 hour. It then can be held in the bath for up to 2 hours without overcooking and staying warm and tender. Plastic wrap is used in freezing ingredients to maintain a cylindrical shape and in Corn Nugget Crab Cakes to encase the crabmeat with a shrimp-corn kernel shell. Not all wraps are created equal and it is noted to avoid any wrap with PVC’s.
Happy in the Kitchen wants you to play with your food and put the fun back into making dinner. I never thought of the potato as being the “Fred Astaire of Vegetables” but when Richard lauded it as a great dancing partner because it made other flavors that much better I wanted to add Virtual Fried Rice, Sociable Garlic and Potato Puree, and Spuddies to my potato arsenal. Richard also reminds us to sharpen our food. Use a splash of vinegar, dusting of nutmeg or cayenne pepper to add special nuance to your dish.
I’m glad I found this book before the holiday season. I think I’ll whip up some Shrimp Einstein and Chicken Faux Gras for my next party!
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