Monday, 17 December 2012

The Not-So-Secret Mystery Box: Crème Fraîche, Dried Rosemary, Peruvian Potatoes, et al.

Well, folks, the day has more or less officially come to pass and Snowville Creamery has launched two new cultured dairy products for our culinary consumption: a 6% protein plain yogurt and a 36% butterfat crème fraîche. There's much excitement in the air for any kind of yogurt coming from Snowville, as well as Snowville's crème fraîche of which will forever become an ingredient I'll continue to work into my world of French comfort food. I will put out there that I may be a bit biased (I was recently hired a group of folks who are equally if not more so excited to help get the word out about Snowville's new products), but the truth of the matter is that these items are full-bodied and complex, delicious and versatile. If you're eager to try either/both (I'd go with both) of these, feel free to stop reading and check out Snowville's website to search for the nearest carrier. [Though, you may have more luck via Facebook.] Otherwise, continue to read away!

On Saturday morning, I headed over to one of my favourite Columbus hubs, the North Market. There, "dairy nerd" and Snowville's founder Warren Taylor led a series of passionate presentations on his love of dairy, our need to get involved in the politics and ethics of food, and of course a public introduction to the new yogurt and crème fraîche. As part of this introduction, we were led on a mini dairy dégustation of the yogurt and crème fraîche, encouraged to close our eyes or plug our noise to amplify and focus on the tastes.

I had been looking forward to tasting the yogurt this time around since I had neglected to do so last week. In quick summation, I'd say that the yogurt is smooth and pure-tasting, elevating the consistency and richness of the very milk used in the production run. It isn't cluttered by sugar and produces a whole mouth feel. In many respects and especially in the plain yogurt you get to taste the "culture," i.e., the acidity produced by the bacteria and which gives both dairy products their respective flavours, with every bite. It is also worth mentioning that this Snowville is making good use of new technologies and the company's understanding of science and nutrition to create a new American-style [as opposed to Greek-style] yogurt.

The crème fraîche--which is relatively thinner at room temp than its typical substitute, sour cream, despite it's high butterfat content (and for this reason apparently that's why it doesn't curdle like sour cream)--has a heavy-bodied, strong though not overpowering flavour. With a smooth start and a sharp finish like the tang of fresh yogurt, it's rich like whipped and sweetened butter and yet somehow less viscous than sour cream. Regarding this particular batch, it's interesting that the slightly grainy texture comes from the protein lactose (milk sugars) that add to the acidity and overall flavour profile. When cooked, as noted below, the crème fraîche's typical nutty character becomes enhanced, similar to the taste of brown butter after the milk solids within the butter become toasted.

And indeed yesterday, I tested out the crème fraîche as part of my culinary voyage of French-inspired cuisine, prompted by the soon-to-be-released film adaptation of Les Misérables. An equally French ingredient, this past Thursday, I recently saved up and subsequently dried some fresh rosemary for use in yet-to-be-determined recipes. 

I present then my first dish which combines the two with a third mandatory ingredient, Peruvian potatoes. Known in particular for their distinctive purple colour (though also known as blue/black potatoes, I had received a small bag of these diverse gems of the Andes, Papa Púrpura, from Marilyn and felt I needed to use them quickly before they either dried up or went completely bad. After crisping up three slices of bacon, I took them out of the pan and set them aside; lowering the heat, I fried up two small rosemary branches in the rendered bacon fat, and immediately its beautifully odorous smell floated to my nose overtaking the smell of bacon. After both sides had crisped, I used a pair of tongs to carefully take them out of the fat and then sautéed a small, diced onion; at this point both the lingering rosemary scent and onion were seeking common ground.

Next, I placed the potatoes I cut in half flesh-side down in the pan to brown. Gently moving them around, I continued to cook the potatoes flesh side down and covered, until a knife could easily pierce through the top. To finish this off, I added two heaping tablespoons of the crème fraîche and then crumbled in the crisped bacon. Like poulet à la crème, it's important to watch the cream as it can quickly evaporate away, as was the case this first time around. It did impart a great flavour to it, but the dish as a whole needed more of a sauce than the greasy (yet delicious) bacon fat. And so, I added another heaping tablespoon and a half and stopped cooking everything after the potatoes were coated and the liquid reduced by about 50%. Not only did I get a lovely creaminess to add to the potatoes, but the crème fraîche acted as a vehicle for the flavours of onion and bacon fat and as it cooked imparted the nuttiness often associated with crème fraîche.

Last night, I went over to Amanda's home to watch the 10th and 25th anniversary specials of Les Miz with her husband Elio and one of her colleagues Hollis. And what's a Les Miz get-together without the baguette and cheese? For my second dish of the day, I let a sheet of puff pastry dough thaw out for brie en croûte, as I minced very finely together 8 cloves of garlic and about 1.5 tsp dried rosemary leaves. (You know you're at the right consistency when the moisture from the garlic has been released and the combination resembles something of a paste.) In preparation for my third and final dish, I got a pot of water boiling and boiled two halved medium-sized russet potatoes.

Once the puff pastry had fully thawed, I saved some of the puff pastry and then put about a teaspoon of the rosemary-garlic paste on the sheet, set the brie right on top of it and then piled the rest of the paste on top of that. Similar to roasting garlic in tin foil, I figured/hoped the puff pastry would act in a similar manner. As for the strong rosemary, I worried that it would become to tough to eat compared to its fresh state of being or that it would overpower the entire dish. Whatever would end up happening would happen I suppose and so I wrapped up the brie and coiled the saved puff pastry that I ended up braiding. Onto a lightly floured baking sheet, this went into the oven at 350°F.

While the brie was baking, I went back to the crème fraîche and let it sit out to get to room temp. But first, I got about 1/3 cup of crème fraîche into a mixing bowl and stirred in about 1 tsp dried rosemary leaves and 2 cloves of garlic, both roughly chopped. Once thoroughly mixed, I put this into the refrigerator to allow the two flavours to infuse their way into the crème fraîche.

As that was going, I prepped my mise en place and guesstimated two tablespoons of flour and a pinch of salt and two heaping tablespoons of crème fraîche. For my last dish, I was preparing a batter for potato blinis which I had attempted to make a for a previous food and culture program in a residence hall. The trouble, though, was that I had neglected eggs. And so, I cracked two eggs and got that ready to go. Eventually, the potatoes were easily pierced by a knife and so I ran them through my potato ricer and while still hot and steaming, quickly whisked in the flour/salt, followed closely by the crème fraîche. Having slightly cooled down by this point, I created a bit of a well and quickly whisked in each egg one at a time. (You want to move fairly quickly so that the egg doesn't have any chance to cook (read: scramble).) The end result should look like something between pancake and yellow cake batter.

About an hour before I had to leave, I heated up a flat pan and cooked the blini batter, using a butter knife (as it was the closest thing in my kitchen to what I should have been using) to flip over what looks like a mini pancake. An aside: For anyone who's familiar with Worst Cooks in America, this recommendation might remind you of Chef Robert Irvine's instruction. Unlike the potato pancakes as seen in the aforementioned link, cook the blinis without any fat. I'd suggest cooking them on medium heat and leaving them alone for at least a minute before checking to see if you can flip them over; you do want the first side to brown and crisp. Trust me, it makes the process easier. When you can move the pan about and with a gentle nudge the blini shifts, take the butter knife to the edge of the blini and quickly but gently flip it over as if turning the page of a book. Don't take this step too slowly as it will be more likely to split on you. Once you get the first few, you'll build the rhythm and technique soon enough. The individual blinis should be done in about 2-3 minutes' time. Once cooked thoroughly (like a traditional pancake, if you can push down and you don't see/feel any batter coming out, you're good to go) transfer these onto a paper towel to cool down and remove any excess moisture. In this cooling process, you'll find that the blinis will firm up a bit and hold their shape. (By the way, if you're baking brie at the same time, make sure to check on it from time to time; I had removed it from the oven before I even started cooking the blini batter.)

With the blinis all cooked up, I got my garlic and rosemary infused crème fraîche out of the fridge and ran that through a sieve to remove the garlic and rosemary. Note that we only want the flavours of the two ingredients in the crème fraîche, so don't chop up the garlic or rosemary too finely from the start. Overall, the final taste of this reminded me of a subtle ranch dressing. Packing everything up, I brought the brie and a baguette, as well as the blinis, crème fraîche and smoked salmon over to Amanda and Elio's.

There, we toasted up some baguette slices while also warming up the baked brie.

And as all of that was going on, I layered the infused crème fraîche on the blinis and then a bit of the smoked salmon for a final presentation. The potato pancake itself is relatively light and neutral on its own, thus acting as a great vehicle for transporting ingredients and flavours from plate to mouth. In total, the above blini batter recipe makes about 3 dozen flavour transporting vehicles, with leftover crème fraîche and smoked salmon (depending of course on how much of each you use). Here, the flavour of the infused crème fraîche hits your tongue first and then wraps itself around the smoked salmon creating a comforting and cleaner homey taste sensation, as compared to the comforting and denser flavours from the baked brie.

When cutting the warmed brie, let alone as you approach it, you can smell the beautiful harmony of garlic and toned down rosemary, as the flaky crust slightly crinkles as the brie melts under the weight of the knife. Paired atop the crunch of the toasted baguette, this is a simple dish worth making over and over again.

And there you have it, two dishes layered with flavours to join the others that in our case particularly complemented the story and spirit of Les Miz and the holiday season. Admittedly, I would be surprised if that company ever got its hands on dairy products especially in the form of cheese or crème fraîche (after all, one was sent to jail because of grain).

Here in central Ohio, though, dairy products continue to find their place among the diets and popularity of consumers. Snowville, which recently celebrated its 5-year anniversary, has experienced tremendous growth in both people and production. From three people on the production line to 15+, and over a 665% increase in the amount of milk that had been run between comparative weeks, conquering a corner of the cultured dairy market with yogurt and crème fraîche is yet another great milestone in this company. At its core, Snowville continues to strive for sustainability and by extension, self-sufficiency and longevity. And with all of that comes an interconnectedness with and within the community, emphasizing the current buzzwords of local, organic and the environment. Philosophically and spiritually grounded in recognising milk as precious as the lifeline of blood, it became extremely clear during the 10am presentation I attended just how invested Warren is in Snowville, both personally and professionally. Alongside his enthusiasm, Warren is also very clearly ingrained and knowledgeable of the science and culture of dairy, and both he and Snowville are inspirations and testaments to what it means to get involved in the community and lead food revolutions. Unsurprisingly, he's at the helm of a new American dairy revolution, a revolution of which we are all invited. Check out these three sites he directed us to as part of the charge: the new American democracy revolution; Nature versus Monsanto; and Vote for the diner party. Freedom--and its arguable if we really have it--never tasted so good. For the complete album of these and other photos, click here.

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