Friday, November 21, 2008

The mother of all thanksgiving meals!

Needless to say, I had a blast playing a food critic! I've linked the sfgate article with all the recipes, details and photos, and here's my personal play by play from the SF Chron Turkey Tasting.

We started with a soup from each of the chefs: a chestnut-pumpkin soup with pumpernickel croutons from Mina and a meyer lemon-miso broth served with a cranberry-goji berry relish from Keane. Mina was the winner in this round, hands down. I normally don't like chestnuts but this soup was somehow differerent. For starters, it had a lovely velvety texture, and it wasn't super creamy. I also enjoyed the fresh sage and thyme accents - strong enough to be noticable, but subtle enough to not overpower the delicate main flavors. And lastly there was the satisfying crunch of the pumpernickel croutons - a lovely counterpoint in both texture and taste, and adding just the right amount of umami. My only quibble -- the portion served was both too large and too heavy for the start of a multi-course holiday meal! A tiny portion of this soup would make a decent starter, but it would probably be best served as the centerpiece of a simple winter supper, with some crusty bread and a simple salad. And I learned an interesting trick: using water pitchers to serve the soup was so efficient and easy, that I was ready to run home and throw out all my ladles!

Keane's soup was thin and salty (and unlike any miso soup I have tasted inside or outside Japan) and strangely one dimensional. Too much umami perhaps? The best and most interesting aspect of this dish was the contrast of the warm salty broth with the cool sour-sweet relish, but even that was not enough to save it. In my book, this was a flop!

Next came the turkey -- separately confit-ed breast and leg from Mina, and a Hoisin Sauce glazed breast with a confit turkey leg from Keane. I was excited to try the confit-ed parts from both chefs but less excited about the Hoisin Sauced version. But once I had tasted Chef Keane's turkey, I was a convert to both turkey and hoisin sauce. As many of you know, I had never tasted a turkey that floated my boat, though the deep fried version made by some friends from North California came close! This turkey breast was flavorful, tender and lacked the signature overcooked turkey smell -- it was unlike any other turkey (or any meat for that matter) that I have ever eaten! And his hoisin glaze was light and balanced and added just the right amount of flavor to the meat, and it wasn't too bitter, too sweet or too salty like the commerially prepared hoisin sauces I had previously encountered in restaurants and on the shelves of my local Asian grocery stores. The confit-ed leg was also yummy, and very tasty and forktender, just like all good confit should be. Needless to say, I cleaned my plate --something I have never done at any previous thanksgiving dinner. But then, I had also never eaten a thanksgiving meal cooked by a 4 star chef until now!

Mina's turkey was a complete contrast: the confit-ed breast was not only slightly dry, but also tasted and smelled like many a turkey I had disliked in the past. The leg was slightly better, but it could hardly hold a candle to the superior bird cooked by Chef Keane. My first thought: wow, what a waste of 5 lbs of duck fat. My 2nd thought: even 4 star chefs have bad days. And my third and most evil thought: Mina could stand take lessons in turkey cookery from Keane!

The chefs were pretty equal in the stuffing catergory - Keane's fluffy sushi rice stuffing won points for originality with unusual ingredients like cilantro,chinese sausage and dried shrimp. I could have done without the dried shrimp which had burnt to bitter crispness in areas, but otherwise it was excellent. Mina's stuffing was more traditional but no less yummy! And unlike his turkey, his stuffing was not your mother's stuffing (unless your mother is an accomplished chef that is) - made with brioche, pecans, dried cranberries and several fresh herbs and baked and served in individual ramekins -- it was the best rendering of traditional stuffing I've ever tasted.

When it came to the required side vegetable, Keane's roasted brussell sprouts with candied kumquats won hands down in both the originality and taste categories. All the judges (including yours truly)
loved this dish and many of us felt this would be the dish we would be most likely to attempt at home. On the other hand, Mina's sweet potato-carrot puree was a toss up between glorified (aka highly buttered!) baby food and the salted version of my sweet potato pie filling.

And lastly, we had the desserts: The quince clafouti/cobbler with star anise (the recipe published on sfgate uses ginger instead) icecream from Mina had a slight edge due its contrast of sweet and sour flavors, however it would have been even better without the streusel topping which made it way too sweet for me. Keane's pumpkin custard pie with green cardamom icecream was a fantastic dessert too, but perhaps a tad too sweet a combination for me.

And what a sweet ending it was to the most memorable thanksgiving meal of my life!

Monday, November 17, 2008

So, do I want to be a food critic?

The San Francisco Chronicle article asked if I wanted to be a food critic. Duh, doesn't everyone? I am surely not in the least bit shy about expressing my opinions, especially about food, so I figured "why not?" and threw my proverbial hat into the ring. The prize: to be chosen as one of the six judges for the paper's annual Turkey Training Camp. This year's event was planned as an Iron Chef style battle of the chefs, the chefs being Michael Mina and Douglas Keene of Cyrus. I had enjoyed Michael Mina's eponymous restaurant but saying that I loved the food at Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg be an understatement!
So, when Stacy from the Chronicle called to congratulate me, I was elated (another understatement)! I was ready to be wooed by the Turkey and trimmings made by these two famous chefs - hoping they could change my mind about turkey: dry, tasteless, and infused with a strange unpleasant smell!

And finally November 3rd dawned, rainy and dreary. By some strange coincidence, it was the day that one of my foster dogs was getting picked up by her new family. Just as I had sent her off, and shed the requisite tears as I waved my goodbye, my other foster dog Clark mysteriously started spraying blood! Thankfully, my sweetie was willing to rush him to the vet so that I could make it to the Chronicle offices in San Francisco on time. And I was so eager to be there, that my normally tardy self actually made it to their table with 20 minutes to spare! Wow, I said to myself, "I sure hope this bodes well!".

I met my fellow judges, got a tour of the Food Department, and then we got to meet the chefs. Sadly, they had already finished cooking, so we didn't get to experience that part of the Iron Chef competition. But their food was ready for us to dig into, so my sadness was very shortlived as we were presented with first the menus, and then the food! There wasn't going to be any wine pairings and all we had was water to cleanse our palates, but that was just fine with me. I was ready to start my critiquing career!

It was a memorable meal, or rather 2 memorable meals! The Chronicle made us judges promise not to scoop them and steal their thunder, so I will update you all on the meals in the next installment right after the Chronicle article is published on November 19th.