Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Crème Fraîche

The first recipe in the French Laundry Cookbook is Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Crème Fraîche. There's a beautiful story that Chef Keller tells in the book, in the introduction. It's the story of how he invented this canapé.

Autumn 1990 was a sad time in my life. I was going to be leaving New York after ten years. I would be starting life over in Los Angeles, and my new employer there wanted me to prepare a dish for a food and wine benefit there that would really wow people.

Shortly before I moved, some friends took me to our favorite restaurant in Chinatown, and as always, we went to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream afterward. I'd been nervous about this food and wine event: I guess it had been in the back of my mind for a while. I ordered an ice-cream cone. The guy put it in a little holder -- you take it from a holder -- and said, "Here's your cone."

The moment he said it, I thought, "There it is! We're going to take our standard tuiles, we're going to make cones with them, and we're going to fill them with tuna tartare."

And that's what we did. Now I use salmon, but you can really use anything. Eggplant caviar and roasted red peppers or tomato confit make a wonderful vegetarian version. You can do it with meat -- julienne of prosciutto with some melon. The cone is just a vehicle.

Because it was a canapé that people really began to associate us with, I decided that everyone who eats at the restaurant should begin the meal with this cornet. People always smile with they get it. It makes them happy. But I wouldn't have come up with it if I hadn't been sad. I had been handed and ice-cream cone a hundred times before and it had never resulted in the cornet. I had to be sad to see it.

One of the most interesting parts of this canapé is how it's served. According to the book, Thomas Keller serves it in a specially made Lucite holder. And it is true that it makes you happy. Chef Keller famously states in his philosophy, "We don't want to impress you. We just want to cook for you and make you happy."

So on to my own rendition and thoughts about it. It's a (relatively) easy canapé to make and it is light and tasty. Let's proceed, shall we?

First step, I went out to Sur La Table and bought a Silpat and some cornet molds. I also got a bottle of 1999 Bordeaux for the evening.

I decanted it with my brand-spanking new decanter. Oh boy. It really made a difference. I also used my Schott Zwiesel titanium crystal Bordeaux glasses. It was perfect. It was also exactly what I needed for the impending disaster that loomed ahead...

Next, I prepared the mise en place for the cornet dough...

Butter, egg whites, flour, sugar, salt, black sesame seeds.

I mixed this up in a bowl...

Then I start making 4" circles on my Silpat. This proved to be one of the harder steps. Maybe I did something wrong but they were not doughy at all. But the book did not comment about the consistency of the dough, except that it should be "creamy."

I sprinkled some black sesame seeds I found at Whole Foods...

The next step was the worst step. The instructions say to bake them in the oven for four to six minutes. Easy enough. But what followed was a disaster. You are supposed to take them out of the oven, put them on the door of the oven to keep them warm, and wrap the dough around the cornet molds. Then you return the baking sheet to the oven and bake for another four minutes.

I opened the oven door and immediately, my fire detector starts beeping like mad. I have one of those smoke detectors that goes off even if someone smokes a cigarette indoors. I can't grill food or deglaze pans without it going off.

The heat of the oven was blasting in my face like a furnace as I quickly worked with the circles of dough. They are buttery and HOT HOT HOT and I worked with my bare hands. Worst of all, the molds were metal and conducted heat VERY well. Ugh. I burned my fingers making four of them, and they were not tightly wrapped. There was NO WAY in hell I could put any pressure on the hot oily dough. The last two circles of dough were ruined. I worked too slowly and they hardened. When I tried to roll them up, they simply collapsed in my hands. I threw them out. So four out of six. 66 2/3 % success rate. Not bad for a first-timer... especially under a lot of pressure with the fire alarm beeping and the heat in my face and my fingers getting burnt. Whew.

I returned them to the oven, baked for another four minutes, and took them out to cool...

You can see the failures of cornets on the top right.

Next up? The salmon tartare. I was uneasy about eating salmon raw like this, so I asked the fishmonger at Whole Foods what kind of salmon I should get to reduce the chance of food poisoning. He pointed to the Wild Alaskan King Salmon at $25.99 a lb. I gulped.

I bit the bullet and purchased what I needed. Here you can see it finely minced.

I added shallots, chives, olive oil, salt, white pepper, and right before serving, the lemon oil (which I found at Whole Foods as well).

Looks good enough to eat raw!

For the last step, I prepped the crème fraîche.

Here it is done. It was very simple. Crème fraîche, red onions, salt and white pepper.

Finally, I assembled it and garnished it with a chive tip at the very tip.

I didn't have a specially prepared Lucite holder, so I took one of my bowls and tightly wrapped tin foil over the top like a drum. I poked small holes in it and carefully placed each cone in the holes. It worked.

Overall, not bad. I think the salmon tartare and the sweet red onion crème fraîche were perfect. The cones need work. Next time I'll wear mitts or something. And I definitely need to make them thinner. These were way too thick and weren't crispy enough to my liking. Overall they were great though. I'll definitely serve them at a cocktail party as an hors d'œuvre.

Wild Alaskan King salmon from Whole Foods
Produce and crème fraîche from Whole Foods
Château la Vieille Cure, Fronsac, Bordeaux from Oak & Steel

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