When I set out to duplicate twelve chefs’ recipes over the course of this year, I knew that there were some chefs whose recipes could be attempted year-round and others whose work would fare best in certain seasons (summer and fall, I’m looking at you). My birthday dinner at Restaurant Nora last year convinced me that Nora Pouillon, the patron saint of the DC organic dining movement, falls squarely into the second category.
And when I flipped through a copy of Cooking with Nora, her groundbreaking cookbook from 1996, I knew I owed it to Chef Pouillon’s recipes to wait until summer to try my hand at her dishes. Cooking with Nora is not your average recipe collection; rather than grouping dishes by unifying themes (‘desserts,’ for example, or ‘fish’), the chef has opted to provide her readers with recipes arranged into multi-course meals by the season. She’s practically giving you the blueprint for your very own organic dinner party, with everything from appetizer to entree and accompaniment through to the dessert spelled out.
She also presents her recipes in a narrative fashion, a style I first encountered in Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food. I find this to be a very natural and useful way of having the author walk me through a dish from beginning to end, and it certainly helps me prepare my mise en place before I get too far ahead of myself. When you’re trying to execute two or three recipes simultaneously, that kind of preparation in advance can be a lifesaver.
For my fifth attempt at recreating a chef’s dishes, I decided to take three recipes from one of Pouillon’s summer menus. I started with a Jewell Yam Vichysoisse and then followed it up with Grilled Lemon-Marinated Chicken Breasts served alongside Japanese Eggplant and Roasted Red Peppers.
Walking the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market, I was pleased – if not especially surprised – to see that all of the main ingredients to Chef Pouillon’s recipes were readily available (seasonality aside, Nora Pouillon is a member of FreshFarm Markets’ board). It looked like I was well on my way to a fresh, local and seasonal jackpot.
Cold soup, grilled grass-kickin’ chicken and fresh veggies after the jump.
Looking over the recipe for the Jewell yam vichysoisse, I was struck by how similar it was to many of the recipes I’ve seen for butternut squash soup and similar hot starters best suited to fall and winter. The idea that a soup like this could also be good cold had simply never occurred to me. Frankly, that’s what sold me on this particular menu to begin with.
I browned one chopped onion and the chopped white part from one leek in two tablespoons of olive oil, using a saucepan over medium. After fifteen minutes or so, I added two pounds of peeled Jewell yams that I had cut into slices about 1/2-inch thick using my mandoline slicer and two cups of chicken stock. I brought the mixture to a boil and then reduced the heat so everything could simmer for thirty minutes. At the end of that time, I removed the saucepan from the heat and stirred in one cup of whole milk. I added salt and pepper and 1/8 of a teaspoon of nutmeg and then pureed the contents of the saucepan in two batches. The puree went into the refrigerator to chill for about four hours, at which point I pulled it out, served it in two cups and garnished it with chopped chives.
The result? A unique cold soup that refreshes on a hot summer day while still managing to evoke mental images of falling leaves, pumpkin patches and other signs of winter’s approach. It’s a bit incongruous, to be sure, but it really does work. The flavor was terrific. The only thing I might change for the next time is to really let the blender or food processor work on the soup for a while to remove as many lumps as possible. That or a strainer of some kind could help reveal the silkiness of the soup’s flavors without the distraction of large chunks of yam.
For our main course, I would once again trust a famous chef’s approach to preparing the original white meat: chicken. The meal I chose to attempt offers up a great recipe for marinating chicken breasts in a lemony bath that keeps them moist and flavorful even in the harsh environment of a backyard grill.
I purchased three boneless chicken breasts from the folks at Eco-Friendly Foods, smiling at their description of the “grass-kickin’ chickens” whose meat I would soon be enjoying. I put them into a resealable plastic bag with two tablespoons of lemon juice, four minced garlic cloves, two tablespoons of olive oil, two tablespoons of minced tarragon, and 1/4 teaspoon of cumin. Shaking everything up as though it were Shake-n’-Bake (and I helped!), I put the bag into the refrigerator to marinate for at least two hours. When enough time had passed, I took out the chicken breasts, wiped them clean of the minced garlic that was all over them, and cooked them on a pre-heated grill for five minutes on one side and four on the other.
They were perfectly cooked through, though they hadn’t quite built up as much char on the exterior as I usually prefer. And the flavors were big and tasty – the lemon permeated the entire chicken breast, as did some of the residual garlic.
Finally, I cooked up the vegetable accompaniment that had been paired with the chicken in Chef Pouillon’s menu. Though she suggested a ‘salad’ of grilled Egyptian eggplant and red peppers, I could only find basic and Japanese-style eggplants at the market. So I went with the Japanese, knowing it had a more delicate flavor and less of the bitterness that can turn some folks off to eggplant.
I combined three tablespoons of olive oil, one tablespoon of soy sauce (in lieu of tamari), two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, and three tablespoons of minced garlic with 1/2 teaspoon of ras el-hanout (a blend of spices originating in Northern Africa that varies from shop to shop). I then brushed the mixture over slices from one large eggplant or two smaller, thinner eggplants and two sliced red peppers. These all went on the cooler side of the grill while I was cooking the chicken breasts, and they cooked up nicely in about 8 minutes. I even made sure to turn them once at the halfway point. When they came off the grill I tossed them with three tablespoons of chopped basil and served them hot. They had a deep, smoky flavor that was partly due to the spices and partly due to the grilling…complex and tasty.
Despite the ease of following these recipes, the flavors of the food and the terrific complement that the book provides to your local farmers’ market here in DC, this meal just didn’t feel quite – special – enough. And although my attempt at Chef Nora Pouillon’s work was a success, I need to take it to the next level. For my next attempt, I’m definitely going to be stepping up my game when I take on another chef’s recipes. I want these meals to feel like something that would impress us if we got them in a restaurant, only recreated in our own kitchen.
I hope you enjoy these dishes when you try them yourself!