Thursday, January 1, 2009

Saffron-Vanilla Sauce: A Thank You Dinner

The winemaker dinner that I prepared on November 16, 2008 was a lot of work, and I definitely did not pull it off by myself. I have two friends who generously volunteered to help me out in the kitchen while Grace, the cafe owner, orchestrated the front of the house. I am lucky to have people in my life who share a similar philosophy of food. Who see food as a meaningful way to connect with others. I certainly show my love and gratitude toward others through the food that I prepare for them.

So I wanted to prepare a thank you dinner for Keri and Amy. I obviously consider people's tastes when I begin composing a menu. There were a couple of dishes that came to mind when I was thinking of a menu for Keri and Amy. I knew that Keri would appreciate fish since she is a former vegetarian. And although she wants to be open to a host of new foods, she can't quite stomach say, pork belly. And I knew that Amy would have quite an experimental palate, being the pastry chef extraordinaire of Nopa in San Francisco. I had been eyeing a couple of dishes from The French Laundry Cookbook for a while. One was Black Sea Bass with Sweet Parsnips, Arrowleaf Spinach and Saffron-Vanilla Sauce, and the other was Roquefort Trifle with French Butter Pear Relish. I knew that the fish dish would be quite rich with the saffron-vanilla sauce, so I decided that a crunchy refreshing salad would be a great way to start. So the menu ended up being:

Winter Chicories and Pink Lady Apple Salad with a Creamy White Cheddar Dressing, Bacon and Candied Pecans
(Adapted from the Boulevard Cookbook)

I love this salad. It is gets a sweet tartness from the apples, saltiness from the bacon with a sweet crunch from the pecans and is rounded out by the sharp creamy dressing.

Creamy Cheddar Dressing:

3/4 cup heavy cream

5 ounces Montgomery cheddar, or other high-quality cheddar, grated

1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 cup creme fraiche

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper


8 thin slices bacon

8 Belgian endives or a mix of chicories

1 Pink Pearl apple, or other heirloom variety

1 cup Candied Nuts, chopped (see recipe)

For the cheddar dressing: Heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan over low heat until bubbles appear around the edge. Whisk in the cheese and continue to whisk for about 2 minutes, or until melted, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Whisk in the mustards and creme fraiche until combined. You will have about 2 cups of dressing. Chill the dressing in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or until thickened, or refrigerate for up to 3 days. Season to taste with salt and pepper just before serving.

To serve: Cook the bacon in a skillet until golden but not too crisp. Set aside on paper towels to drain. While the bacon is cooking, cut off about 1/2 inch from the bottoms of the endives and slice. Put the leaves into a bowl and toss with enough of the dressing to coat them lightly. Quarter the apple lengthwise and cut out the core with a paring knife. Thinly slice the apple and arrange on the bottom of each of 6 dinner plates. Mound the chicories on top of the apple slices. Sprinkle with the candied pecans and bacon.

Candied Nuts

1 cup nuts: walnuts, hazelnuts or pecans

2 tablespoons corn syrup

2 tablespoons sugar

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fill a medium bowl with hot top water and add the nuts, swish them around, then drain and transfer to another bowl. Add the corn syrup, sugar, salt and pepper, and stir. Line a baking sheet with parchment or use a non-stick baking sheet, and spread out the nuts in one layer, being sure to include any of the sugary liquid left in the bowl on the parchment with the nuts. Heat the oven to 325° and bake the nuts for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring a few times, until golden brown and crispy. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly, then break the nuts apart (watch out, as they're hot -- use rubber gloves). Store in an air-tight container for up to 1 week. They can be chopped into bite-size pieces for specific recipes.

Yields 1 cup

Striped Bass with Sweet Parsnips, Arrowleaf Spinach and Saffron-Vanilla Sauce

(adapted from the French Laundry Cookbook)

This was AMAZING. The scent of the vanilla hits you as soon as the plate is set in front of you. I think your taste buds automatically expect something sweet when you smell vanilla, so the parsnip puree is perfect with this because it provides the sweetness that you expect, but it also has a very earthy quality which contributes to the savoriness of the dish. The fish is very mild flavored and is the perfect foil for the amazing sauce. I think this sauce would also be great with shellfish such as shrimp, scallops, crab or lobster. I am only going to provide the recipe for the sauce here because the other elements are so basic. The parsnip puree is made just as you would mashed potatoes (although the parsnips are simmered in cream). The spinach is sauteed with a piece of orange rind and the fish is pan fried to crisp the skin and finished in the oven.

For the Saffron-Vanilla Sauce:
1/2 vanilla bean, split
1 cup mussel stock (below)
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1 1/2 teaspoons cream
10 tablespoons (5oz.) unsalted butter cut into 8 pieces

Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into a small saucepan and add the vanilla pod, mussel stock, and saffron threads. Bring the stock to a simmer and reduce to a glaze (1-2 tablespoons). Add the cream and simmer for a few more seconds. Over medium heat, whisk in the butter one piece at a time. Don't let the sauce get too hot or the mixture will break (the butter will separate). Strain the sauce into the bowl of an immersion blender and blend for several seconds to emulsify. Keep the sauce in a warm place. I kept mine in a double boiler with the water not quite simmering.

For the Mussel Stock:
18 mussels, scrubbed and debearded
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
1 large shallot, peeled
4 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1 cup crisp, dry white wine

Place the mussels in a pot with the garlic, shallot, thyme, bay leaves, and wine. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Remove the mussels as soon as they open. Reserve the mussels for another use. Strain the mussel stock into a saucepan.

Roquefort Trifle with Frog Hollow Warren Pear Relish

(adapted from The French Laundry Cookbook)
This was a great way to combine the cheese and dessert course. The bottom is a pear puree made with dried pears spiced with black peppercorns and allspice berries. The middle layer is a Roquefort mousse set with a bit of gelatin and whipped cream. The mousse is topped with a walnut daquoise which is essentially a nut meringue, but the texture was much more like shortbread than meringue. And it is topped with a pear relish made by simmering some Frog Hollow Warren Pears with sugar and red wine vinegar. This was really fantastic with the combination of flavors and textures, sweet, tart, crispy, creamy and pungent. I'm not going to provide the recipe here because, well, I'm tired of typing.


  1. that meal was SO good, chef. i am still telling people about it. and adding saffron delicately to many dishes i make in hopes they'll remind me of what i ate that glorious night. pork belly, someday...but til then, thank you for considering my narrow palate!! :)

  2. OMG thinking of that dessert is making my mouth water - it was AMAZING!

  3. For someone that doesn't like to write, you write a lot. ;-)