Thursday, May 22, 2014

Chronicle of a Cookbook

Three  years ago, when I asked my friend Stefanie whether she might be  interested in doing the photography for my cookbook, I could have not anticipated what we may getting ourselves into. I had not had a chance to thoroughly research this culinary endeavor,  other than a semi-abstract idea of what I envisioned the book to be, namely, a collection of original  recipes, beautiful photography,  and some of my father’s paintings of individual ingredients. Over the course of the last three years, I spent countless of days and nights forming ideas in my head about what the direction and focus of the book should be, as well as researching and developing innovative recipes that were exciting visually, texturally and with flavor combinations that complemented one another, all while reconciling my “Tuscan” background  with my  exposure to cuisines from around the world, from which I draw heavily.  

Even though we may have not known it at the time, we later realized that no culinary feat was insurmountable, and so our cookbook adventure began, not with an ensemble of chefs, sous-chefs, food preps, photographers, and food stylists, but rather, just Stefanie and I. The photographer, armed with her camera, a great sense of style and styling skills, professionalism, dedication, and a calmness that counteracted my intensity; and I, the accidental chef, with my creativity, imagination, perfectionism, cooking skills, and an obsessive passion for food; a mad scientist in the kitchen.  

We strived for a food presentation that,  even though artistic, was  an honest representation of each recipe. No unrealistic tricks,  like undercooking, or using fake food. Every dish that was photographed was prepared with the intention of being consumed afterward, in part, not to be wasteful, and secondly, to ensure that the dishes that would be published were not only pleasing to the eyes, but also to the palate, so that we truly believed in each and every recipe. Having said that, with each shoot we learned new and useful styling techniques, which improved our presentation with each dish.  Even though all the dishes have been finally photographed, I feel like I could keep going, as I find great excitement in creating new dishes and presenting them beautifully.

But let me not get ahead of myself...

So what is this cookbook about?

The book's main focus is the use of fresh, locally available ingredients, with special emphasis on flavors, colors and new flavor combinations, drawing mainly from Italian, Indian and Japanese cuisines, culminating in complex, yet harmonious, dishes that are beautifully photographed, with almost an ethereal feel, which in my opinion is a signature of the photography of my partner in crime, Stefanie.

This cookbook is a true collaboration between the artist photographer and the artist cook, both having contributed to its development and execution. This book represents us, our vision, our passion, our complementing styles. From enticing starters to seductive desserts, this gem will be a pleasure to venture into.

Here is a little taste of what the reader will be treated to...

And for kicks, I thought it would be fun to share two contrasting images from one of our many on location shoots. After a ten-hour marathon, making several dishes, and using countless pots, pans, plates, while constantly running the dishwasher, after several suspenseful moments, as we strove for plating perfection, under the pressure of the clock, as I still had to play mom to my three children, it is curious to see the contrast between the neatness and calm in front of the camera, compared with the intensity of the kitchen.

A true labor of culinary love.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Saveurs de Montreal

I am so pleased  to share our delectable culinary journey in Montreal. My husband and I were so excited (perhaps me a tad more than him...) about trying Montreal's tasty offerings, and to my delight, our palates were not disappointed.
We got a most delicious dose of French cuisine, without having to cross the Atlantic. Here are some small bites of our most delectable experience.  

The first night, because our flight was considerably delayed and arrived in Montreal very late in the evening,  we had limited options, and therefore opted for Restaurant L'Express, a lovely Parisian-style bistro, with checkered floors, and a nice ambiance, which avails itself of serving great eats till 1 a.m. We sat by the window, although given the time of night, there was not much excitement to watch outside, so we solely focused on the offerings, and each other. 

When in Rome......or rather, when in French Canada, one has to try foie gras, and so that is how we started off our lovely dining experience. Every bistro/restaurant we visited had their own "house" foie gras, and they were all deliciously different. I was not quick enough with the camera here, so the photo has one bite missing....

Our wine pairing, was a wonderful bottle of Domaine Gourt de Mautens...

For our first course, we chose the mushroom ravioli, which came highly recommended. They were in fact quite delectable.

And of course, we had to try the bone marrow, which was succulent and delicious.

One minor disappointment for us was the dessert. The waitress was boasting about this floating island dessert, and the fact that L'Express is the only restaurant in Montreal that offers it. So we thought we had to try such unique dessert to finish our meal on a high note. But one bite, and we were done. The dessert looks in fact interesting, but I felt it was more gimmick than anything else. It is a soft meringue enveloped in a dome hardened caramel of some sort, floating in custard that did not have much flavor, with a side of granola. Definitely not our cup of tea, but everything else was great, and we still did not leave with a bitter taste in our mouth...

Next day, we opted for an amazing brasserie parisienne "Le Pois Penche'", which was walking distance from our hotel, and came recommended by the hotel concierge. The decor was stunning, and the food absolutely delicious. We paired our meal with Champagne, bien sûr...

Our starters were salmon tartare and the "house" foie gras, both fantastic. I think we may have been fighting for the last bite...LoL

Our second course was a well prepared strip steak, with vegetables. It was lovely, although the starters were what made our dining experience at Le Pois memorable.

That evening, our culinary journey went into a bona fide food heaven,  with an unforgettable, three hours and counting, dining experience at "Europea", a highly praised Montreal French restaurant,  where we had made prior reservation. We chose "le menu degustation signature", as so it appears all the other patrons around us...

Chef Jerome Ferrer's inventive dishes blew us away, starting with an assortment of creative and fun amuse bouche. I did not want to be too obvious and obnoxious in taking pictures of every single dish, so I only snapped a few selected shots. Because of the dim (romantic) lighting inside the restaurant, the photos are a bit grainy, but I am certain you will get a flavor for the wonderful fare we were treated to...

Following an out-of-this world lobster cappuccino with truffle puree' that had me wondering, how did he come up with this brilliant idea?, we enjoyed a trio of carpaccio of sea bass, creamy crab salad and celery remoulade as a cannelloni and a crab leg in a lime butter.

And this is  me  opening a small treasure chest containing house smoked salmon, with smoke coming out of it...I sure look delighted..

We continued with these tagliatelle of lemony calamari, with poached quail egg, squid ink and garlic butter croutons. They were absolutely delicious, and the squid ink croutons such a creative crunch...I loved them!

But my absolute favorite was this prawn risotto, with straw wine emulsion, pictured here with a side of a suspended prawn spring roll, which reminded me of something I had in Thailand a few years ago (the spring roll, not the risotto). Let's talk about this divine risotto, shall we? I have never had a risotto prepared this way, so I had to ask the waiter. All I got out of him was that the prawns were poached in butter, but everything else is short of a mystery to me. I will have to devote some time to recreate this magnificent dish....

Now it would not be a complete French dining experience without more, you guessed it, foie gras!
Maple bark stewed pan-seared foie gras, caramelized on the river stone with fire cider, topped with an apple cranberry crumble. By this time we can safely say that we were sated....but we were not finished yet...then came cornish hen cooked in hay-lined pot with a broth infused with galangal. It was a nice idea, but I thought we could have done without it, the dish was quite bland, actually, and our least favorite of the night.

Following a "chef's way" aligot with cheese, we were treated to this lovely candy tree, with cotton candy and various treats, including of course  macaroons, I was blown away by the ending, a dessert of coconut mousse, that unfortunately I did not photograph, which was exceptional and just the perfect lightness. Absolutely amazing!

After all the fine dining, we were ready for something slightly more low key. So the next day, as we ventured in Old Montreal, we stumbled upon the Marche' de la Villette, a slightly cheesy delicatessen, with accordion music and lively waiters, and decided to give it a try.  We had the charcuterie plate, an assortment of cured meats and pates, some brie,  and  with our last helping of foie gras. Everything was good, although the service extremely slow, which seemed to be more the norm than the exception in Montreal's bistros and restaurants.

On our last day, we had brunch at the restaurant in our hotel, la Maison Boulud, by the famed chef Daniel Boulud. My only regret, is that we did not get to stay one extra day so that I could have sampled more of  chef Daniel's amazing creations. 

Perhaps next time...