Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Nouvelle Cuisine

Why it is still relevant

How many of you know what Nouvelle Cuisine is, or for that matter have a first hand familiarity with it? Recently in an interview that the British food journalist Jay Rayner conducted with Ferran Adria, the topic of Nouvelle Cuisine briefly came up. Chef Adria stated, “In 1987 we were trying to create a Spanish version of Nouvelle Cuisine.” Mr. Rayner’s response was “Not all Nouvelle Cuisine was popular, it had its critics.” To that, Chef Adria’s response was,” Anything that’s new always has its critics.” When it comes to food, art, music or architecture that statement could arguably be considered an absolute. In general, the majority of people are not comfortable with radical change. In 1987, In Spain, 12 years after the death of Franco, Chefs such as Mr. Adria could look back at the generation of Chefs in France, who were proponents of Nouvelle Cuisine, and feel an affinity towards their revolutionary philosophy and work. At the time when these Chefs in France started their experimentation, French people ate French food, period. People desired and consumed good food, but it was a food whose main focus emphasized the stable, consistent, and homogeneous sides of the relationship between eating practices and identity. Classic Haute Cuisine had been around for a long time. Its offerings of the exotic concerned themselves more with the addition of seasonings, as herbs and spices did not predominate in any way. For instance, á la Indienne meant the addition of curry, á la Chinois referred to the addition of ginger, etc. Nouvelle Cuisine was the first style of food preparation that incorporated actual fusion cooking. People were not used to having dining experiences where everything became strange and familiar at the same time and the boundary between that strangeness and familiarity was thrown out the window. This shocked and frightened some people in the same way that the art of the Impressionists did when they burst upon the scene in the 1860’s.

In 1968 France experienced tumultuous times that, all things considered, was more of a revolution than an accident. Although law and order had been restored, new ideas were flying across Europe and parts of the world. Cinema, which was a French invention, was a part of that revolution. Young directors, specifically Jean Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Louis Malle, and Alain Resnais, had begun to shake the celluloid establishment with incendiary articles in the infamous journal Cahiers du Cinema. With their new cinematic style, known as "La Nouvelle Vague" (the new wave) they turned their back on the conventional cinema style, heavy equipment and stock scenarios, and instead focused on imagination and ingenuity. Handheld cameras were employed cinema verité style and new techniques created a more lively and realistic style of film. Cinema changed forever. The gastronomic world was soon to follow.

The term Nouvelle Cuisine has been used many times in the history of French cuisine. In the 1740s for example, the work of Vincent La Chapelle, François Marin and Menon was described as Nouvelle Cuisine, and in the 1880s and 1890s, even the cooking of Georges Auguste Escoffier was described with the term. The label “Nouvelle Cuisine” just as the label “Impressionist” was created by the press and not by its practitioners.
The modern usage can be attributed to authors Henri Gault and Christian Millau, to describe the cooking of Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Michel Guérard, Roger Vergé, Louis Outhier and Raymond Oliver, many of who were apprentices of Fernand Point.
Point created his own spin on Haute Cuisine transporting classic French Cuisine into a style that was lighter and more individualized. He did not agree that the classical cooking of Escoffier must be followed without deviation if it did not satisfy his and his clientele’s taste. Point believed that great cuisine should not be static and that a chef cannot live in the past and not go further. One should work from the fundamental building blocks of cooking and then modify and refine upon them to suit changing tastes in changing times. By creating a new style of cuisine he broke new ground for his fellow chefs. Before Point, the chef stayed in the kitchen, but that was about to change. He came into the dining room to talk to his clients, sounded out their likes and dislikes and composed their dinner with them, creating dishes to their tastes. This style was to be adopted by the young cooks working under him who later became founders of a new cooking movement and the first “Star Chefs” in the public arena.

In March 1969 Henry Gault, Christian Millau and André Gayot founded Le Nouveau Guide, a monthly magazine devoted to food and wine, the first of its kind in France, which also included an alternative rating system to the famed Michelin guide. In 1973, in number fifty-four of their guide, Gault and Millau published the ten commandants of Nouvelle Cuisine, among which they advocated that:
One should reduce cooking time
Use best quality and fresh from the market products
Offer a shorter menu
Keep open to new developments
Do away with marinades and game hanging
Cook sauces that were less rich
Respect dietary rules
Use a simple estheticism
Be creative
Nouvelle cuisine became all the rage in the fine dining establishments of France. It was everywhere, on television, on the radio, in the newspapers; people talked about it and held controversial discussions. The chefs who started this movement were the first rock star chefs. They became rich enough to purchase their own restaurants and become their own masters. However, this inspired many less talented chefs to follow suit. Unfortunately for several of them, what ought to have been simple, original, or healthy food became ridiculous, epitomized by bad fusion and over priced, parsimonious portions. The writers and critics, who had praised the best chefs, now did the same with the wannabees, and gave their seal of approval to gastronomic mutations. As a result, by the 1980s, Nouvelle Cuisine had lost its appeal.

Today, when one reflects upon the 10 commandments of Nouvelle Cuisine, it is not difficult to see the correlation between the cooking of those chefs our contemporary kitchen. Cooking time is reduced in regards to taste and texture. Methods such as sous vide lengthen the time but produce better results. This has much to do with embracing new developments. Top quality products, purveyed from the local marketplace, have become the norm. Although lengthy, small portion, seasonal prix fixe menus have become routine for better restaurants, they no longer offer 12 page ala carte ones. Marinades are still used but the time involved is much shorter especially when used under vacuum. For the most part, starch based thickeners have all but disappeared, replace by sauces thickened with vegetable and fruit purees and hydrocolloids.
Dietary rules are much more scrutinized as chefs strive to create a balance on the plate. Today’s cuisine is esthetically pleasing while shying away from pretentious ornamentation. Food has never been more creative than it is today. And the last of these rules, friendship has never been so apparent in the culinary arts as it is today with chefs from all over the world collaborating and joining together to support various causes.

Yes, Nouvelle Cuisine had it’s critics with a fair portion of the criticism duly deserved, However, for many of us who were around at the time of it’s inception, the beauty, brilliance and freedom it offered was breathtaking. It is these precise attributes that have so affected the modern kitchen and helped thrust it into the 21st century.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Chef Endorsements

Is There a Responsibility?

A statement I had made concerning “Iron Chef Cat Cora, contained in a comment on a blog article by Bret Thorn of Nations Restaurant News, drew this response from him:

“I’m not sure why you and anonymous commenter #2 feel a need to pick on Cat Cora, who has many years’ experience working in restaurants and who told me she was working with Simplot on Upsides because she likes the product line. I think she’s doing well enough for herself that she doesn’t need to work with things she doesn’t believe in, and at any rate I don’t see a need to doubt her word out-of-hand.
And she’s enough of a celebrity that my nine-year-old nephew knows who she is. That’s pretty good.”

In my comment I had stated:
“Many, like myself, are dedicated to quality food rather than celebrity, especially if the price of fame and money means flogging processed institutional crap like Cat Cora is doing with Simplot.”

This got me thinking about chefs endorsing products. Guy Fieri and Applebee’s, why not? He has a show called Diners, drive-ins and dives, it’s not as if he’s being contradictory, and it’s not as though he’s a chef associated with quality food. But, on the other hand, it’s endorsements like his, along with Rachel Ray shilling for Dunkin’ Donuts, that send the wrong message to children in this country, who are more susceptible to obesity and diabetes than ever, that the TV Chef that Mommy likes says it’s okay to eat this stuff. Yum-o!!!

I started looking at the History of Chef endorsements and the one of the earliest I could find, with real chefs, was a book titled “How Famous Chefs Use Marshmallows” from 1930. It is produced by the Campfire Marshmallow Company in order to illustrate how diverse their product is and how these professional Chefs, all of them European, use them to create wonderful gourmet haute cuisine. Life probably wasn’t that much simpler then when it came to getting by but I think that back then, people were less concerned with any of the moral and ethical quandaries concerning their daily bread.

I have no beef with Cat Cora and didn’t mean to come across as “picking on her”. She’s not breaking any laws, stealing from the poor or drowning kittens. I am sure she has worked hard to get where she is, and does do a lot of good through the philanthropic organizations that she works with. I do think though, that someone, who is touted as an “Iron Chef”, lauded by the media, looked upon by the general public as one of the leading Chefs in the country, might try to be more representative of the ideals and ethics of the Chefs who she proudly lists on her website as her mentors. Simplot, one of the world’s largest agribusinesses, inventor of the McDonald’s frozen French fry, operator of a 50 million dollar per year cattle feedlot business, manufacturer of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, every type of processed food product imaginable, is not the type of company that one of her mentors, Larry Forgione, the father of the farm-to-table restaurant movement would care to be associated with.

Through the writing and reporting from journalists such as Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan and Michael Ruhlman, people have formed more succinct opinions regarding huge conglomerates like Simplot. Most Chefs really don’t care all that much if their peers like them, or care if some 9 year old knows who they are. However, they generally do care whether or not their food and cooking is respected.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Butter Poached Lobster

A cooking method that has become trendy with lobster, as of late, is butter poaching. Although neither new nor groundbreaking, thanks to Thomas Keller, and numerous write-ups of his butter poached lobster at the French Laundry, this technique has become the preference of many chefs. It involves killing the lobster, breaking it down, making stock then sauce from the shells, cooking the tails, claws and knuckles, removing that meat from it’s shells, vacuum sealing the meat with butter (a zip lock bag will suffice) and reheating the meat sous vide style while the accompanying side dishes are prepared. I recently taught a class showcasing this and decided to prepare the same dish for my New Year’s Eve dinner.

Butter Poached Lobster With Butternut Squash Risotto

Using a knife, pierce the lobster’s head and split it to kill it. Tear the tail from the body and wrap it in plastic film, keeping it shaped in a ball. Tear the arms off the body leaving the claws attached to them. Place the tail and claws in a pot of simmering water. Cook the claws for 4 minutes then remove. Allow the tails to simmer for 2 more minutes, remove and allow them to cool. Using kitchen shears extract the meat from the shells, leaving the tails and claws whole, and vacuum seal or enclose in a zip lock bag, squeezing as much air out as possible, with 1 ounce butter for each portion (1 lobster per person) and set aside in the fridge. Meanwhile make the sauce.

Spiced Lobster Sauce

4 T vegetable oil
Head and shells from 6 lobsters
1 fennel bulb chopped
3 cloves garlic chopped
4 shallots chopped
8 knobs ginger sliced
4 dried red chilies
10 Tarragon leaves
4 T tomato paste
10 dried shrimp
1 star anise
2 T lemongrass paste
1 c Dry white wine
8 cups water
4 Kaffir lime leaves
8 cilantro sprigs
3 cups diced butternut squash

In a large pan cook the shells with the oil on medium high for 5 minutes. Add the other ingredients except the water, squash, coconut milk cilantro and lime leaves. Mix well, cooking for 5 more minutes, then add the water.
Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let sit 10 minutes more and strain through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer 20 minutes. Puree in a blender or with a wand mixer, pass through a fine mesh strainer, adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper and set aside, keeping warm.

Heat a large pot of water to 145˚ F (63˚ C) and place the bags of lobster meat in the water as you start preparing the risotto.

Butternut Squash Risotto

6-8 cups chicken broth (use vegetable broth for vegetarian option)
8 T unsalted butter, divided into 2 Tbsp and 6 Tbsp
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cups butternut squash, peeled, and finely diced
2 cups Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat broth in medium sized saucepan and keep warm over low heat. Melt 2 Tbsp of butter in a large saucepan; add onion and butternut squash. Cook over medium heat until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add rice to onion and squash. Cook 1 to 2 minutes. Add wine. Cook, stirring constantly until wine has been absorbed by the rice or evaporated. Add a few ladles of broth; just enough to barely cover rice. Cook over medium heat until broth has been absorbed. Continue cooking and stirring rice, adding a little bit of broth at a time, cooking and stirring until it is absorbed, until the rice is tender, but still firm to the bite, about 15 to 20 minutes.
During the last minute of cooking, add remaining butter and Parmesan. At this point the rice should have a creamy consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Plating and Garnish

Chive Oil
1/2 cup chopped chives
1/2 cup vegetable oil

Place ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth then pass through a fine mesh strainer. Have this made ahead and ready to serve. Use a squeeze bottle to dispense.

Watercress Salad
4 ounces watercress
2 T olive oil
2 tsp rice wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix together right before plating

Radish Sprouts

Remove the bags of lobster from the waterbath, cut off the tops and slide the meat into a pre-warmed bowl or pan. Place a serving spoon of risotto in the center of the plate, using a ring mold if you prefer a more symmetrical presentation. Surround this with sauce. Place a lobster tail in the center of the risotto and put the claws on each side with the knuckle meat around each claw. Drizzle chive oil in little pools onto the sauce. Place a small pile of the watercress salad on one side of the lobster tail and a clutch of radish sprouts alongside the other, then serve.

The Wine? Since it was New Year’s Eve, we wanted something bubbly and served this with a Blason de Bourgogne, Cremant Rosé, A sparkling wine from Chablis in the Burgundy region, made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, using the Champagne method. However, this dish would pair really well with an Alsatian Gewürztraminer or Riesling.

This might seem like a lot of work but it really isn’t much more trouble than preparing lasagna. This cooking method for the lobster will insure that the texture, moisture and flavor will not be diminished and your guests will remark that it’s the best lobster they have ever had.