A Grain of Salt

Welcome to our new video series, Find your Inner Gourmet! We are bringing our New Haven-famous cooking classes to the world, starting with the basics and getting more and more advanced so that you too can become a gourmet cook. Follow our free, comprehensive cooking course right here on the Fig Test Kitchen, starting with today’s first video on salt. Every week we will update with several more videos, which will help experienced cooks and beginners alike to Find their Inner Gourmet. Enjoy!

 

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Dreams Do Come True in New Orleans

Before we begin, I should probably warn you that this is one of our most disgraceful posts yet. It is full of scandalous Barbie cakes…

 

Tiana, courtesy of the Moulin Rouge? Yikes....

 

Underage gingerale…

 

Oh dearie me...

 

And about 12 6-year-olds on sugar highs.

 

 

It’s just shameful. They’ll probably kick us off the internet. But seriously, when you’re throwing a Mardi Gras birthday party, what else can you expect?

 

 

 

If you haven’t noticed by now, we tend to try a little too hard when it comes to Francesca’s birthday parties And I swear, we promised ourselves we’d be good this year, and we wouldn’t go overboard. But she told us she wanted a Princess and the Frog party a year ago, and since a) we had a year to plan it, b) New Orleans is one of our favorite cities of all time, and c) Princess and the Frog is the most food-centric Disney Princess movie (and, by extension, our absolute favorite), we were really left with no choice.

 

 

 

 

For those of you who haven’t seen this awesome movie, Tiana is a waitress who dreams of one day opening her own restaurant. Her beignets can only be described as “man-catching,” and she can make gumbo using only the greenery of a swamp. Suffice it to say she could win any episode of Extreme Chef with her hands tied behind her back. Powerful voodoo turns her into a frog and she travels all over New Orleans and the Bayou with her slightly dysfunctional Prince Charming (also frog), all in the span of a single Mardi Gras. It’s a wonderful movie because it displays all the many faces of New Orleans: it begins with her cooking with her daddy in her modest childhood home, then follows her through a fancy party in the Garden District and a journey through the surrounding swamp before culminating on Bourbon Street. We wanted all this to come through at our party.

 

 

When the children arrived, they first sat down to make Mardi Gras masks to get everyone in a festive mood. Like all of the activities we prepared, this one is cheap and easy to assemble. All it takes are blank masks (paper ones work much better than plastic, if you can find them) and then sequins, feathers, markers, glitter glue, or whatever else you can think of to add to the mix. And kids around this age tend to get wonderfully creative. That or we just had a group of budding fashion designers. Which I suppose is possible.

 

 

 

 

While we got the next activity ready, the kids played the one game that truly every party must have – pin-the-[something]-on-the-[something else]. Children have a wonderful way of improving on this game. Who knew pin-the-tail-on-the-easel, or pin-Cinderella’s-slipper-on-the-wall could be so entertaining? In the spirit of the story we set up pin-the-kiss-on-the-frog. We couldn’t turn him back into a prince, but the majority of them got pretty close – and they didn’t even cheat this year! We had Isabella draw our frog, but you don’t need an Isabella to try this at home… any oversized amphibian will do.

 

 

 

Next we brought everyone back to the table to make their own gumbo, just like our favorite chef, Tiana. We simply baked little puff pastry shells, and set out a variety of “ingredients” for the kids to put inside. Some of the ingredients were a bit atypical (for example, hot dogs stood in for traditional andouille), but like any stew, gumbo is flexible, even when kids are not. Before the party we made a gumbo sauce to pour over the top, for any kids who wanted it. The kids felt so grown up “cooking” their own snack, and some even requested seconds!

 

 

Mom read a beautiful rendition of The Frog Prince while we set up candy for the Edible Swamps, our final culinary activity. Inspired by those “cups of dirt” that were probably the highlight of everyone’s childhood, we gave each kid a mini tray of pudding, and an assortment of candies ranging from gummy frogs and gators to Cadbury Flake (for logs) and green sprinkles (for algae).

 

 

 

 

Before the party began, Francesca told us that “nutrients” (healthy things) were against the rules. So naturally we moved straight from chocolate pudding to the Tiana-shaped chocolate fudge cake. We blew out the candles…

 

 

 

Toasted the worlds greatest six-year-old (objectively speaking)…

 

 

And cut the cake.

 

 

The kids clearly hadn’t had enough sugar, so we sent everyone home with a box full of sweets from the green, gold and purple candy table.

 

 

 

For the grownups we made a Cajun Crab Dip, Andouille Sausage with Apple Compote on Baguette, and of course Buttermilk Beignets… because we can’t have anybody, grownup or child, leaving our house if they’re not over fed (we’re Mediterranean, we can’t help it).

 

 

When you have a year to plan a party and you have all of New Orleans to live up to, the expectations are pretty high… at least Francesca’s were. But it’s worth noting that, even a week later, all but two of her presents are still sitting, blissfully wrapped, in the living room, waiting for the day when her satisfaction wears off and she realizes what she’s missing. Mission accomplished? I think so.

 

Ps- We have, of course, about a million recipes to share with you, which we’ll post over the next week or so. Stay tuned!

Beyond Brown Bread

Before we left for Ireland a few weeks ago, a foodie friend told me about Ballymaloe Cookery School in the tiny town of Shanagarry a short distance from the coast in County Cork. I thought it would be great way to spend an afternoon, never really expecting to have an inspirational day. But every once in a while you come across an experience that gives you perfect joy, and that is the kind of the journey I had recently at Ballymaloe.

Ingredients set out for a cookery class

Ireland is known for ancient castles, for mysterious stone circles dotting the Celtic countryside, and for lush green hills with sheep and picturesque houses.

What you think when you think Ireland

But recently, Ireland has become packed with exciting restaurants and chefs promoting local, seasonal, and organic versions of traditional Irish cuisine. Yes, mushy peas still unfortunately grace pub menus, but you’re just as likely to find fresh salmon smoked by a local artisan or prawns caught just hours earlier wrapped in phyllo dough.

Smoked Salmon with Potato Wafers and Horseradish Cream

Mark generously offered to drive 2½ hours from our beautiful seaside house in Dingle,  so I could take an afternoon class.

Francesca and Isabella run on the beach

Fortunately there was a wonderful zoo near the school, so Mark, Isabella and Francesca were happy to let me leave.

Yes this is Ireland. No it's not typical.

I had my preconceived notions of what a “cookery” school would be. We’d learn the secrets of brown bread and black pudding, and there would something with bacon in it for sure! I’d leave feeling saying was a pleasant few hours…

Dead wrong.  Not even a little right.

Oranges filled with mousse ice cream.

As we pulled into the narrow old gates to the Ballymaloe estate, and I entered the school, I knew instantly that I just entered Irish gastro-heaven. The aroma from lunch students just finished wafted so intoxicatingly. A beautiful clay bowl of floating flowers and a sumptuous basket of delicious fresh foccacia baked with superb black olives welcomed visitors.

 

Beautiful flowers in a bowl

Darina Allen along with her brilliant brother Rory founded Ballymaloe in 1983. Since then, they have created a nationwide movement from their sprawling estate in the Irish countryside; 400 acres of organic vegetable and herb gardens, cottages, and cow pastures. They are collectively the Alice Waters of Ireland (in fact Rory helped Waters at Chez Panisse in the ’70s).

Rory puts the finishing touches on a chocolate mousse cake.

At Ballymaloe, there is a love for the all aspects of a great meal, going beyond ingredients and encompassing the earth, the community (Darina founded the first modern day farmers markets in Ireland), and even the seasons. Darina and Rory bring respect, passion and infectious joy not only to the food, but also to each person they teach. You see so many happy people at Ballymaloe, despite the long hours they work, because they see cooking as an opportunity to share the gospel of great food.

Cooking together

I’m not sure many chefs or schools in the United States can boast that virtually all the ingredients are local, organic fresh and self-sustaining as much as we all believe these ideals. It helps that Ballymaloe devotes more than 100 acres, a quarter of their land, to organic gardening. There are 50 varieties of tomatoes, and every herb and root vegetable imaginable. The neighbors provide, the hens, ducks and additional produce when theirs runs out, and the fish in caught in the nearby village of Ballycotton. Students not only get to experience this first hand, but learn to prepare food that is very well seasoned, beautiful and utterly delicious. The earth, says Darina, is an essential component of great food. She’s been preaching this for decades, long before Whole Foods made it fashionable. On day one, for example, students are introduced to Eileen and Kay, the head gardeners, and Darina herself (who describes herself as an eccentric, grey-haired hippie woman on a mission) shows them a barrow full of rich soil. After running her hands through it, she tells them, “Remember, this is where it all starts, in the good earth, and if you don’t have clean fertile soil, you won’t have good food or pure food.”  Then they get their first recipe; how to make compost!

It's amazing how Ireland has a knack for looking beautiful even in the middle of winter.

Their teaching method is very clever. The professional students watch a three-hour demonstration every afternoon, which is the class I took. Afterwards, there is a tasting so they know what how each dish should taste and students get ideas for presentation. The next morning, they cook the same exact menu and at lunchtime everyone (students and instructors) has a family meal and enjoys the fruits of their hard work.

Beautiful table set for a family-style meal after classes

Perhaps the real reason I fell so in love with this place is that their philosophy about food is so similar to my own. No foams, weird vapors or dumb food combinations. I can’t stand it when chefs offer things like fried watermelon with wilted dandelion greens. (I’m serious. I had this once at a restaurant considered one of the best in the country. It was of, course, dreadful). The food prepared here is innovative, delicious and beautiful, but doesn’t involve Herculean effort to prepare. And of course, it was perfectly seasoned. A great chef knows that the above all else, the food must be well seasoned or it won’t taste good. It seems obvious, but this makes the difference between a good meal and a great one.

This sea salt is, perhaps, the best in the world.

The demo featured more than 20 great, clever and versatile recipes featuring fish, meats, vegetable dishes and desserts with ingredients that were perfectly fresh and beautifully presented. Stay tuned for the highlights!

Fig Travels: The Deep South

I’ve traveled to France, the Mecca of haute cuisine, many times and I didn’t think there could never be another regional food that would ever satisfy me as much as a perfectly cooked steak au poivre and a good glass of Bordeaux wine. Our road food trip to the Deep South was probably one of the last places I thought my stubborn belief system would be rattled, but I’ve been humbled.

French cuisine is still of course dear to me, but now I know how utterly fantastic, and complicated, real southern food is. Down-to-earth Southern fried chicken is not simple at all: we’re still perfecting the art of duplicating the texture, taste, and even the color. In fact, we could cook a le creuset filled with beef bourguignon faster. The same goes for so many other southern treasures we sampled. The biscuits from The Loveless Café in Nashville, TN are so buttery, rich and yet airy, they rival the best croissants anywhere. We’re not sure they can be replicated, although we’ll let you know if we succeed.

Clockwise from top left: Fried Okra, Nashville, TN; Sign at Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House, Lynchburg, TN; Basket of cornbread, Lynchburg, TN.

On our southern food odyssey, we also learned that barbeque ribs and pulled pork as we previously knew them, are oversimplified. The variations and interpretation of great barbecue are almost endless. Some places even offer barbecue nachos. Even in the epicenter of barbeque, they are still reinventing it every year at the annual Memphis in May barbeque world championship. The same is true for Cajun cooking; the possibilities and interpretations of local favorites – etoufee, gumbo, bisque and the countless versions of “blonde” and “dark” rouxs – would stun your taste buds.

Clockwise from top left: Crawfish pie, Breaux Bridge, LA; Bicycle street scene, New Orleans, LA; Beignet Machine at Cafe du Monde, New Orleans, LA; Francesca enjoying a beignet, New Orleans, LA.

Non-natives usually think of chicken and pork dishes first, but the variety of southern seafood dishes also blew us away. The catfish from the Mississippi Delta is succulently sweet and juicy, but our favorite local seafood specialty turned out to be oysters; we had oysters fried, raw and even, charbroiled. Oysters Rockefeller was invented it the Deep South but you haven’t had an oyster, really, until you’ve had one on the grill.

It is hard to figure out just what make southern food so mouth-watering and addictive, but one thing I noticed is that Southern cooks are not afraid of abundant flavor and seasoning. We never needed the salt and pepper shakers. There were unexpected ingredients along the way too, like Jack Daniels in fudge pie or copious amounts of turmeric in some of the ribs. But whatever the surprising ingredient was, it was always perfectly balanced.

Clockwise from top left: Rice at Rendezvous, Memphis, TN; Barbeque sauce at Blues City Cafe, Memphis, TN; Ribs at Blues City Cafe, Memphis, TN.

For the next few posts, prepare yourself a nice glass of sweet tea – we’re going to chronicle our travels, and along the way, we will give you the recipes to create some of these southern gems for yourself!