Friday, December 4, 2009

French Family Dinner at Bistrot La Minette

In the interest of full disclosure, let us inform you that we were invited to dine as guests of Bistrot La Minette by the restaurant's PR agency, Breslow Partners. This differs from our usual practice of picking up the check ourselves, or at least mooching off of relatives, so be advised that the following is not to be read as one of our typical reviews.

Back in July, our attempt to dine at Bistrot La Minette for our anniversary was thwarted by a Bastille Day party. We never did get a chance to make it out there for dinner, so we were pleasantly surprised when Lauren got an email a few weeks ago inviting us to have dinner there as guests of the restaurant. So that's how we found ourselves seated in the private salon at the Bistrot on one pleasant December evening, surrounded by local writers far more qualified than ourselves, ready to enjoy a traditional French family dinner.

We were greeted by John Woolsey, father of executive chef Peter Woolsey and part owner and business manager (not to mention the carpenter who built the salon's long dining table out of old joists found in the basement of the building). A native of Wisconsin, it was with a Midwestern reserved sense of pride that John told the group about his son's impressive culinary pedigree: working at the Waldorf-Astoria early in his career, studying pastry at Le Cordon Bleu and completing a stage at a three-Michelin-star restaurant in France before returning to Philadelphia and working at restaurants owned by Stephen Starr and Georges Perrier.

As the story continued over a glass or two of the house pinot noir, it became clear that the decision to open the restaurant was just the start of another journey. John's tale of secret municipal regulations, utilities foul-ups, and the challenges of dealing with centuries-old Philadelphia structures was enough to give any potential restaurateur pause. The flip side of this was the delight evident in the tales of planning the interior and acquiring all the right fixtures and décor to give the dining room an authentically French flair. (However, we were treated to the shocking revelation that some of the pieces are not French at all, but rather Belgian – at least we were assured that they came from the French-speaking part of the country.)

We then met the chef himself. Tall, bearded and bespectacled, Peter struck as us completely lacking in the ego and bombast one might expect from an experienced and successful chef. Perhaps his quiet confidence came from him being squarely in his element: aside from all the training he acquired in France, he also met his wife there. By adopting the traditions of her family as his own, it sounds like he's not just cooking French food, he's living it. The meal we were about to experience, he explained, would be as close as possible to sitting around the table with a French family.

After the introduction, the meal began, all served family-style which added to the sense of conviviality around the table. We started with some hors d'œuvre: crisp-shelled gougères, very clean-tasting salmon rillettes served on endive leaves, black olive tapenade on croutons, and small poached button mushrooms, which had a hard-to-place bitter note to them.

Next up, some heartier appetizers, including a pork terrine with soft bits of liver in the middle, served on a tasty slice of toasted homemade brioche. Served with the traditional accompaniments of mustard and cornichons, the terrine was delicious, but I feel as though its flavor would have come out a bit more if it were served a little warmer. An endive, pear and fennel salad with Roquefort and a lentil salad studded with some huge lardons rounded out this course.

The main course was the undisputed heavy-hitter of homestyle French cuisine, boeuf Bourguignon. This was a great rendition, with the beef falling-apart tender. Alongside the beef was a huge dish of gratin Dauphinois, a creamy, if slightly salty, dish of nicely tender potatoes crowned with a dark golden crust. Perhaps the most surprising dish of the night was the haricots verts, a simple dish of green beans cooked with tomato and onion – but the beans, rather than being served just barely cooked and crisp, were cooked within an inch of their lives. Rather than being unappealingly mushy, they were in fact sumptuous, and the beans maintained their green color thanks to some proper blanching before being cooked down. The butter added at the end didn't hurt, either.

Despite the rather tremendous amount and variety of food we had eaten so far, no proper French meal would be complete without a cheese course, this one composed of Comte and a soft blue-veined cheese, served with homemade baguettes and a refreshing green salad.

To finish, the quintessential rustic French dessert, tarte tatin. The crust on this upside-down caramelized apple tart was a little doughy for my taste, but the caramel ice cream served with it (homemade, of course) was uniquely delicious.

As Chef Peter popped in periodically throughout the meal, we had a chance to talk a little about his approach with the restaurant. Unlike a lot of contemporary places that are keen to reinvent and deconstruct, Woolsey's philosophy is to simply execute classic dishes well in keeping with the mold of a traditional French bistro(t). Catering to an American audience, though, means making portions a little bigger and dropping some of the offal-based dishes from the repertoire. It's a bit of a catch-22, because I for one would love to see what Woolsey can do with some more exotic ingredients, but it just doesn't pay to keep them on the menu if diners are scared off by them.

He also talked about his approach to sourcing ingredients, preferring to buy in small quantities to ensure freshness, even if this drives some of his purveyors batty. And he makes an effort to buy local ingredients, but only if they're in season and "if they're good", which is refreshingly pragmatic in the face of some restaurants' local-at-all-costs dogmatism.

With the arrival of some chocolate truffles, the meal was over, and it was quite an experience. In addition to enjoying some great food, we had a unique opportunity to really get some of the inside story on the restaurant business. Considering Bistrot La Minette's success so far, it was a great case study. Now that we've had the family-style treatment, we'll be sure to return for a more typical dining-out experience – though we'll be sure to schedule around any French national holidays.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Apple Cider Donuts

We jumped on the donut making bandwagon right after Halloween. After reading about apple cider donuts on food blogs everywhere, I scoured the city looking for them. Our planned apple picking excursion would have been a great place to find them; alas it was rained out until apple season ended. The Reading Terminal Harvest festival seemed like a sure bet: there was an amish stand selling fresh donuts, but only of the yeast variety. I couldn't take it anymore. One Sunday after a very long wait for a mediocre brunch, my friend Bridget and I decided we were going to adjourn to my kitchen for a donut making session.

I'll take a glazed cake donut over the yeasty kind any day (although I admit a hot krispy kreme is the exception to this rule). Cake donuts also have the advantage of being faster to make, as there is no proofing time needed. I've seen (and made) recipes that call for a long chill of the dough, but this one only needs a short 20 minute rest in the fridge.

This recipe calls for shortening rather then oil or butter, about which Smitten Kitchen made an excellent point: since this fat is solid at room temperature, it makes the end product less greasy feeling and tasting. I would love to try these glazed- we finished ours with cinnamon and sugar (which really is nothing to complain about).

Paul insisted on photographing these next to a roaring fire- I guess to make it seem cozy and fall like.

Apple Cider Donuts

1 cup apple cider

3 1/2 cups flour, plus additional for the work surface
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick or 2 ounces) butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
Vegetable oil or shortening (see my explanation in the post) for frying

In a saucepan over medium or medium-low heat, gently reduce the apple cider to about 1/4 cup, 20 to 30 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and soda, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Set aside.

Using an electric mixer on medium speed (with the paddle attachment, if using a standing mixer) beat the butter and granulated sugar until the mixture is smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, and continue to beat until the eggs are completely incorporated. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the reduced apple cider and the buttermilk, mixing just until combined. Add the flour mixture and continue to mix just until the dough comes together.

Line two baking sheets with parchment or wax paper and sprinkle them generously with flour. Turn the dough onto one of the sheets and sprinkle the top with flour. Flatten the dough with your hands until it is about 1/2 inch thick. Use more flour if the dough is still wet. Transfer the dough to the freezer until it is slightly hardened, about 20 minutes. Pull the dough out of the freezer. Using two concentric round cutters, cut out doughnut shapes. Place the cut doughnuts and doughnut holes onto the second sheet pan. Refrigerate the doughnuts for 20 to 30 minutes. (You may re-roll the scraps of dough, refrigerate them briefly and cut additional doughnuts from the dough.)

Add enough oil or shortening to a deep-sided pan to measure a depth of about 3 inches. Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and heat over medium heat until the oil reaches 350°F*. Have ready a plate lined with several thicknesses of paper towels.

Carefully add a few doughnuts to the oil, being careful not to crowd the pan, and fry until golden brown, about 60 seconds. Turn the doughnuts over and fry until the other side is golden, 30 to 60 seconds. Drain on paper towels for a minute after the doughnuts are fried. After allowing excess oil to drain, place doughnuts into a plastic or paper bag in which you have placed cinnamon sugar. Shake gently, remove, eat.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

TWD: Rosy Poached Pear and Pistachio Tart

It's my week to choose the recipe for Tuesdays with Dorie! I hope everyone who baked along with me this week liked the results as much as we did! I picked this recipe for the pretty picture and the chance to make poached pears. After I got started though, I realized this was a pretty detailed recipe, so double props to those who stuck out the whole tart even after all that thanksgiving desert. (I was pretty excited about pistachio pastry cream though!)

Here is the recipe, found on page 370 of Baking, From my home to yours, by Dorie Greenspan


For the Pastry Cream:
2/3 c shelled pistachios
7 Tablespoons suga
1 1/3 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
3 Tablespoons cornstarch, sifted
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup sour cream, if you do not strain nuts from pastry cream

For the Poached Pears:
3 cups fruity red wine (shiraz, syrah, zinfandel)
zest of one orange, cut into long strips
zest on one lemon, cut into long strips
3/4 cup sugar
5 ripe but firm medium pears
small lemon wedge

For the Caramelized pistachios:
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water
1/2 c shelled pistachios

For the Sauce (optional)
poaching syrup from pears
2 tablespoons honey

1 9 inch tart shell made with Sweet Tart Dough (or any pastry) fully baked

To Make the Pastry Cream:
Put the pistachios and 3 tablespoons of sugar in a food processor and process until the nuts are finely ground, about one minute. Turn the nuts into a medium heavy bottom saucepan, add the milk, and bring to a boil.
While the milk is heating, whisk together the remaining 4 tablespoons of sugar, the yolks and the cornstarch in a bowl. WHen well blended, whisk in the vanilla and almond extracts. Whisking constantly, drizzle in one quarter of the hot milk to temper, or warm the yolks so they don't cook. Add the remaining milk in a steady stream. Pour mixture back into the saucepan, put the pan on medium heat, and, whisking energetically, bring to a boil. Boil, whisking, for 1 minute, then remove the pan from the heat.
You can scrape the pastry cream int a clean bowl, in which case it won't be smooth, or if you want smooth cream, press the cream through a strainer, leaving the nuts behind; I usually leave the nuts in. Peice by Piee, stir the butter into the pastry cream.
Scrape the cream into a container, pres apiece of plastic wrap directly against the cream's surface, cover and refrigerate for at lest 4 hours, up to 4 days.

To Poach the Pears:
Put the wine, citrus zests and sugar into a large narrow pot, one that will hold the pears snugly, and bring to a boil.
Peel the pears and immediately rub them with lemon to keep them from darkening. Reduce the heat under the pot so that the wine simmers gently and lower the pears into the pot. Cut a circle of parchment or wax paper to fit inside the pot and press the paper against the tops of the pears, Partially cover the pot and simmer, turning the pears if needed so they are evenly colored by the poaching liquid, for about 30 minuted or until tender. test the pears by poking them with the point of a paring knife. Remove pan from the heat.
Transfer the pears to a heat proof bowl and pour over the poaching syrup; cool to room temperature. These can be covered and kept in the refrigerator of up to 3 days.

To Caramelize the Pistachios:
Place a piece of parchment or a silicone mat on the counter near your stove. Put the sugar and water in a small non stick skillet or saucepan over medium high heat and stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil and cook without stirring until the sugar has reached an amber colored caramel. Add the nuts and stir without p until the sugar becomes a dark caramel color and coats the nuts. Turn the nuts onto the parchment or baking mat and spread as best you can.
When the nuts are cool, chop them coarsely. Keep in a cool dry place till needed.

To Make the Optional Sauce
30 minuted before assembling the tart, remove pears from the poaching syrup. Put the syrup in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the hone and boil until the syrup is thick enough to coat a metal spoon. Pour into a container and chill until needed.

To Assemble the Tart
Cut the pears lengthwise in half, scoop out the cores and trim the stems and center veins as needed. Place pears cut side down on a triple thickness of paper towels. Cover with another triple thickness of paper towels and pat dry. Leave them between the paper towels until the excess liquid is absorbed, changing paper towels if needed. When the pears are dry, cut each pear lengthwise into 4 to 6 slices.
If you did not strain the nuts from the pastry cream, mix in 1/4 cup of sour cream to thin it a little. Spread the pastry cream in the baked tart shell (you may have some left over). Top the pastry cream with the pear slices, arranging in slightly overlapping concentric circles. Scatter the caramelized pistachios over the tart and serve with wine sauce, if desired. The tart can be covered and kept in the refrigerator for up to 4 hours.