“Erotica is simply high-class pornography; better produced, better conceived, better executed, better packaged, designed for a better class of consumer.”
– Andrea Rita Dworkin, Feminist, Writer, and Critic
Buenos Aires – A couple of months ago I was introduced to the distilled spirits of Tapaus, the alta gama (top range) of Argentine spirits. A relatively new distillery, the owners of Tapaus have gone all out to produce intensely flavored, carefully crafted, truly delicious liqueurs, eau-de-vie, and brandies. I’d talked with one of them when he came to Casa S for dinner, and we’d decided, and later followed up on, the idea of putting together a dinner that featured these products in some way. I know he would have liked to have been here for last night’s dinner and given a little talk about his babies, but the entire evening was booked by a private party, and there was no room at the inn. I hope I did justice to his ideas – I think I did – my idea was to incorporate the products as prime flavorings in my various dishes – nothing like cooking with the best! I imagine if he’d been here we’d have done a little tasting of them as well. We kicked off the evening with a champagne cocktail made with a good splash of their pomelo, or grapefruit, liqueur.
As is often the case, inspiration for various dishes comes from seemingly random things. A few days ago, online friends Aki & Alex over at Ideas in Food mentioned that they’d made a foie gras consommé and were trying to figure out what to do with it. That got me thinking about my friend Anita Lo’s dish at her amazing little restaurant Anissa in the West Village, where she makes delicate foie gras ravioli and serves them in a Riesling wine consommé. Looking over my range of liqueurs to choose from, I figured the caramelo one would match pretty darned well with foie gras. That got me thinking about a dish that Colleen McCullough and I used to do at The Sazerac House, a pan-seared duck breast with a caramel kumquat sauce. From there, it all came together pretty easily. First, I caramelized a little brown sugar, then added fresh lemon juice to it to give it some acidity. Then I added quartered fresh kumquats and cooked them until they were turning transluscent. I added a chicken and mushroom stock that I’d made a few weeks ago and frozen, and let the whole thing cook for a while. I picked up some wonton skins and filled them with a mixture of plain storebought foie gras paté with added five-spice powder. I baked the wontons until they were lightly golden, put them in a bowl, topped them with some of the kumquats and some blanched garlic-chive tops, poured a couple of tablespoons of caramel liqueur around them and then ladled the hot broth over it which released the fragrance of the liqueur. Yum! And, I think, points for how good it looks!
Initially I had thought about making cheese soufflés for this course. I had this vision of an elegant presentation, and at the table just breaking the top of the crust of the soufflé and spooning in a sauce. But as the day approached I realized that trying to get a dozen soufflés to come out of the oven all at once, get them served while still puffed, and either having to do the whole breaking and spooning myself or train Henry in how to do something like that, was more than I could envision doing in the middle of everything else. So I changed to a cheese custard, specifically Gruyère cheese – a simple baked custard of grated cheese, milk, whole eggs, salt, paprika, and chopped scallions. I wanted to keep it simple both in the process, but also in flavor, since the idea was to have the sauce’s flavors shine through. I thought, and it turned out rightly so, that it would be a great foil for the tomato and triple sec (orange liqueur) sauce that I’ve experimented with a few times recently as a topping for various fish. For service, I spooned the sauce over the already baked custards and warmed the dishes in the oven, then sprinkled it with a little paprika. Last night’s group included a couple of ravenously hungry folk, and before I got a chance to say anything, as Henry was serving, there were cries of surprise as folks dug in to what they thought was a small bowl of soup. They loved it, and the flavors worked beautifully.
I couldn’t decide between two dishes for this week’s detailed “lesson”, so I’m going to present one here, and save the detailed making of the dessert for another post. I had great fun with this. Sergio, my contact with Tapaus, had told me that they’ve had trouble coming up with interesting recipes for their unique rosa mosqueta (rosehip) liqueur. I had trouble imagining what it would taste like, and it was the first bottle I opened when he delivered the selection of liqueurs to me. It’s spectacularly good on its own. I can see that it might be difficult, though certainly not impossible, in a cocktail. However, it immediately made me think of barbecuing something, and I decided to marinate quail in it (a very simple marinade of the liqueur, coarse salt, and ancho chile powder). Then, to accompany it, I needed something… again, a series of coincidences – my same friends over at Ideas in Food were talking about various smoked and pickled items; and I’d met one of last night’s guests a few days ago and he’d commented on how much he loved eggplant and would love to see if I could do something new and interesting with it. Aha! Smoked eggplant. In specific, smoked over rosa mosqueta…
Line a wok, or other pan with tight fitting lid, with foil, and in the bottom put equal amounts (¼ cup each in this case) of white rice, coarse salt, brown sugar, and rosehips (or other flavoring).
Put a standard cake rack into the wok, which creates a suspension above the smoking ingredients, and put a glass plate (won’t absorb the smoke permanently) with the eggplants on it.
Open all windows and doors and turn on any ventilation you may have – put the lid on the wok and fold the foil over to create a good seal. Turn the heat on medium-high and walk away for 30 minutes.
At the end of 30 minutes, turn the heat off and let the eggplants cool in the smoker, this will make sure they’re cooked through too, and absorb all the flavor. Slice – you could serve them this way, or use them for a great smoked babaganoush…
For serving this dish, I’d let the split quail marinate all day in the refrigerator, turning them occasionally. I got a cast iron pan smoking hot, added a little olive oil, and then browned the skin side of the quails. I flipped them over and stuck the pan in the oven turned up to maximum and let them cook – about 6-7 minutes to finish them off to medium well. I took the sliced smoked eggplant and quickly sauteed it to heat it up again in some olive oil and a splash of the rosa mosqueta liqueur, just to emphasize that flavor. At the end I splashed some sesame oil and salt into the pan and tossed to coat. When plated, I drizzled the whole thing with a little more of the liqueur.
Okay, okay, I know, after the previous three pretty presentations, here’s this plate that looks like it got dished up a the school cafeteria. Henry declared it que horror! Sometimes I just like to throw things on a plate. Yeah, I could have played with it, but this one was all about just simple, hearty food. Besides, the osso buco, or osobuco as it’s spelled here, was falling apart in the pan – my original hope was to have some nice rounds to put on top of a nest of pasta. Such is life some days. The osso buco were braised for about 6 hours, with a couple of pounds of thickly sliced white onions, which I lightly browned first, in a braising liquid of four parts beef stock, 2 parts red wine, 1 part soy sauce, and 1 part anís liqueur. I didn’t add anything else to the liquid, just let it cook. The fresh papardelle, I first cooked in water until al dente, then I tossed them in some olive oil with sauteed fennel fronds and shallots, and finished it off with a splash of the anís liqueur. One guest proclaimed it was the first time he’d ever liked osso buco and had tried it many times before. So there, who cares about the plating!
As I said, I’ll get to the details of how to make this cake, especially because it’s really, really good, on a post later this week. I had a honey liqueur to work with, and my first thought was some sort of take on a traditional Jewish honey cake. What I made was a genoise, a type of whole egg French cake, similar in some ways to a baba au rum, and soaked it in a half and half mixture of simple syrup and the honey liqueur. It’s topped with a lightly sweetened whipped cream, and plated on top of a spiraled drizzle of good honey. And, just because I had more spirits to play with, we followed the cake with what the Italians call café correcto – espresso strength coffee cut with a good dose (roughly a third) of grappa, in this case, Tapaus’ Grappa de Orujo Blancas, or grappa made from white grapes.
So Sergio, I hope I did justice to your liqueurs!