In our family, the birthday person gets to pick what he/she wants to do for his/her birthday dinner. Sometimes a favorite home-cooked meal is requested, and other times (often times) the wish is for a trip to Benihana.
For my birthday dinner last week, I was deliberating between Shanghai Jazz and Smashburger when my friend Susan presented another option: a multi-course tasting menu at Michelin-starred chef David Bouley’s Tribeca test kitchen, complete with wine pairings and hands-on instruction. Hmmm.
Susan, a savvy online shopper, had surfed across this MasterCard “Priceless” event, which was to take place on my actual birthday. The family conceded to having my “party” the night before, so I was cleared for a seriously upgraded birthday dinner.
Even then, Susan and I tried to keep our expectations low; we figured we’d be getting a typical small-portioned tasting menu and maybe a cameo appearance from the chef. (I’d still take that over onion volcanoes and flying zucchini.) But once we arrived at the candlelit loft/library/kitchen and were greeted with cocktails and an endless flow of one-bite masterpieces, we knew we were in for something special.
And then we met Chef Bouley.
While his troupe of chefs scuttled around the kitchen like squirrels before the first frost, Mr. Bouley calmly, endearingly demonstrated his technique for slow-caramelized garlic (the garlic slivers should be “blonde” – not brunette), passed around bonito flakes and kombu (dried fish flakes and frozen kelp, used for making dashi – a nourishing Japanese soup base), and warned us about the perils of making dashi with New York City tap water (he prefers Volvic, or Green Mountain from Arkansas).
Plate after plate, course after course, the surprises kept coming. That blonde garlic transformed into a coconut soup with tomato water. Tender oil-poached shrimp emerged on a bed of a rosemary-infused apple purée that we helped make. Porcini flan with Dungeness crab and black truffle dashi showed us how good kelp and dried fish flakes can taste. Chilled rhubarb soup with bulgur wheat gelato proved dessert really can be good for you. But most impressive of all was that the engaging Mr. Bouley was right there with us throughout the night, from dashi to mignardises (little sweets presented after the dessert course). Not only did we get an extraordinary, 5-hour long meal, we got an education.
Mr. Bouley is passionate about cooking better-for-you food (though you’d never know from tasting it), and he spent a good part of the evening recounting stories and extolling the benefits of his favorite stealth-health ingredients. One ingredient that came up over and over again – on the plate as well as in conversation – was kuzu, or the powdered root of the invasive vine (here in the US) kudzu. While this jelling agent was new to me, kuzu’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years; Mr. Bouley’s proselytizing convinced me to seek it out on my next visit to the Asian food store.
Another take-home trick I learned from Chef Bouley is the use of herb or spice-infused oils to impart subtle flavor (and nutritional benefits) to foods. He referenced vanilla oil – which is nothing more than a vanilla bean steeped in safflower oil – as a unique way to flavor fish, or curry oil as a simple way to enliven roasted cauliflower. I bought a head of cauliflower and tried it at home a few nights ago – simple and delicious! The curry flavor was subtle – more “warm” than “spiced”. And now I have a small jar of curry oil in my cupboard for future experiments. (Next I’ll try it on roasted fingerling potatoes.)
I’m not sure how I’ll top this experience for next year’s birthday. Maybe a “Priceless” tasting event in Paris? (I’d better start currying favor now . . .)
Bouley-Inspired Curry Oil
- 1 teaspoon curry powder
- ½ cup safflower or canola oil
Combine curry powder and oil in a small jar. Let steep at least a few hours before using. Store in a cupboard at room temperature as you would other oils.
Drizzle onto roasted/steamed/grilled vegetables (cauliflower, potatoes, squash) fish or chicken.
For more on Chef Bouley and his “haute health food,” check out this recent Town & Country article by Kevin Conley: