Word of mouth
'Savoring the flavors' -- the key to Daniel Boulud's cooking
"Cafe Boulud Cookbook"
ATLANTA (CNN) -- The web page for Daniel Boulud, chef and owner of Daniel and Cafe Boulud in New York, welcomes readers to "Les Saveurs de Daniel Boulud."
It is an appropriate greeting. After only a few minutes of conversation it is obvious that Boulud's vision for the preparation and presentation of food is wrapped up in the "saveurs," the flavors -- sometimes bold, sometimes subtle and nuanced, but always focused and sharply defined.Consider this example from his new "Cafe Boulud" cookbook written with Dorie Greenspan. In the notes for "A Dozen Baby Spring Vegetables with Vanilla, Ginger, and Basil," he tells the home chef,
"You can make this with just about any combination of vegetables you find in the market. That said, don't give up the vanilla, ginger, and basil. The vanilla, famously fragrant, adds a caramely underflavor that's not easy to place but is irreplaceable -- it brings sensuality to the dish that I'd hate to lose. The ginger is just the opposite -- it's a bright flavor lifter, the counterpoint to the vanilla. As for the basil, a few herbs bring so much to so many vegetables. A good mixer, basil is the needed last touch -- scattered over the hot vegetables, it's like a touch of perfume on a pulse point."
Recently, Brasserie Le Coze, one of Atlanta's premier French restaurants, offered a special Boulud menu with Boulud on hand to sign copies of his new cookbook.
The cookbook, like the menu at Cafe Boulud, is divided into sections that emphasize traditional dishes, what's fresh at the market, dishes from outside France, and vegetarian dishes. The evening's menu followed the same motif.
The first course, marked "La Saison," was Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with Sage Croutons made with Boulud's current favorite vegetable now available at the produce markets. The thick, creamy soup was served in espresso cups topped with tiny cubes of bread that had been sauteed with sage leaves that turn crispy as they impart their sharp flavor to the butter and tiny croutons.
"Jerusalem artichokes are very sweet this time of year," said Boulud, referring to the knotty little bulbs that are the roots of the sunflower plant. "I like to bake them until they are buttery. Add butter and thyme and a little chicken stock until they are glazed."
The second course, labeled "Le Voyage," was Cod, Clams and Chorizo Basquaise, a dish said Boulud, inspired by the local ingredients of another country, and in this case, the Basque tradition of pairing spicy meat with seafood. Diced chorizo was sauteed with a "piperade," a mixture of onions, bell peppers, and tomato. Atop this mixture was placed a cod filet, pan seared until the skin is crispy. After the cod is seared, the fillet is simmered with clams in white wine, garlic, and thyme until the clams open and the fish is done.
Unlike many dishes where strong ingredients are thrown at mild fish fillets, this dish blends flavors. The chorizo-infused piperade melds with the smooth, flaky texture of the cod and the briny flavor of the clams.
"This is my interpretation," Boulud said, "but I think the flavors are not unlike what you would get if you were to visit there."
And what does he think of so-called fusion cuisine? "It's okay," he said. "It doesn't matter what you call it. The question is in the execution. Does the dish know what it wants to be? A lot of the time, I think it is muddled."
The main course, labeled "La Tradition," was the most quintessentially "a la Boulud" dish of the evening. Beef short ribs, slowly braised in red wine and beef stock, were served with a celery duo -- a celery root and potato puree along with braised stalks of celery.
The intense beef taste of the fork tender meat is burnished and heightened by the sauce of reduced red wine and beef stock laced with aromatics. Beneath the ribs, the soft, delicate taste of the celeriac puree plays the perfect foil, and is itself contrasted with the tender-crisp texture of the celery stalks softened and braised in stock.
So much of taste is memory, and Boulud clearly delights in pulling those strings. "I'm an old fashioned guy when it comes to short ribs," he says in the notes to this recipe. "I like them cooked, as they are here, the way they were cooked when I was a kid in France."The final course, labeled "Le Potager," was a Potato and Almond Cake for dessert. Potatoes are combined with butter, sugar, eggs and cream to make a light cake. It was paired with a light vanilla syrup and an intensely flavorful whipped cream made with dark roast coffee beans, chicory, and milk chocolate. In this recipe, like the vegetables with vanilla and ginger mentioned above, ingredients you don't expect combine or are counterpointed against each other to delight the palate.
Book is vision of how food should work
Many of the recipes in the Cafe Boulud cookbook are the "soul-soothing" variety, as Boulud puts it. Among the best of these is Chicken Grand-Mere Francine, named for his grandmother who passed away last year. The key ingredient in this dish is two ounces of slab bacon, its flavor shot through the moist chicken, potatoes and mushrooms. But to achieve the expected flavors is not enough. The addition of celery root to the vegetable mixture, which is simmered in stock, gives the eater little unexpected bursts of flavor.
It is this pairing -- the handling of flavors in a sure-handed way while adding little touches that delight -- that raise these recipes to a new level of cuisine.
After spending 30 years in the kitchen, Boulud knows what he wants as he applies his techniques to the ingredients. But more is captured in the recipes and notes of this book than instructions for constructing a dish. What we get is a glimpse of his vision of how food should work and, indeed, the role good food and hospitality play in the enjoyment of life.
Too many well-known chefs fail when it comes to translating that knowledge. In this case, Boulud chose to collaborate with Greenspan, whose work includes the award-winning "Baking with Julia." The result of that collaboration is clear, easy-to-follow recipes that take into account both differing skill levels and the limited ability to find ingredients.
Boulud admitted that even in New York, ingredients are sometimes difficult to find. An example is what he terms his "replica" of Salmon and Sorrel Troisgros -- a seared salmon fillet in a sorrel cream sauce made famous by the Troigros brothers at their three-star Michelin restaurant in Roanne, France.Boulud cautions, "it comes as close as a French dish made in America with American ingredients can come."
The changing plate of French food
Many American ingredients are comparable to those found in France, he says, but "cream is the exception." Yet he urges home chefs to try his version. "I think they will find something of the flavor" of the original, he says.
On the whole, however, Boulud is very upbeat about the state of cuisine in America and concerned about the current scene in France, which he says is in "crisis."
French people, he complains, no longer support their restaurants where a three-star meal can cost a month's salary and where the chefs still lose money despite the sky-high prices.
Boulud seems to feel that this drive for "pure perfection," among many chefs in France departs from the reality of what a good restaurant should be.
In the introduction to this book, he says that as a 14-year-old apprentice he "dreamed of creating a restaurant that would capture the warmth and conviviality" of the first Cafe Boulud, a petite cafe run by three generations of his family on their farm near Lyon. It was, he says, a place where villagers began the day or ended the day with a simple meal, "a warm, welcoming, and a vital part of village life."
While Cafe Boulud and Daniel are hard to get into and hardly inexpensive, Boulud says he still tries, at least a lunch, to keep alive the spirit of the "bouchons" of Lyon "where workingmen would come for a simple meal with equally simple wine." At Daniel, that translates into a main course, the tart of the day and a glass of wine for about $45.
Among Americans, Boulud sees a new attention to the love of food and its creation that "is making the French wake up and look at us. There is an energy going on here."
"In France, it is very precise, very good -- but here there is something interesting going on," he says."I think I would not be able to live at such an exciting time in France as there is in America now."
Saveur savors French food and the French way of life
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