Turning thirty is a big deal…unless you work in market research. While I had no problem milking the day for a few nice things–like two glasses of delicious wine at Barcelona on Tuesday–I can say upon reflection that I think I struggled more with turning 25 (and therefore will do the same once 35 rolls around) because it means I’m in a new demographic age bracket. I’m reminded of the season four premiere episode of Sex and the City when Carrie receives the application to join some singles group and she laments moving onto the next age box, because suddenly you’re now in a group that’s viewed very differently from the one you just left, and somehow that can make you feel older than any one particular birthday.
But since no age-box-shifting took place on this particular birthday, no melancholy is necessary, right?
This year’s festivities were, on the whole, pretty great: I received some wonderful presents from M and my family, I got a mid-week trip to Barcelona (something we’re going to do more often–going out on Friday is for the birds), and this weekend I’ll get to indulge in some oysters and martinis at the Oyster House/Bar at Grand Central. Part of that present haul included a number of cookbooks: two traditional Spanish titles, Tom Colicchio’s Craft of Cooking, and Ferran Adriá’s The Family Meal, probably the one I was most excited for after getting a taste of what it would contain in this Mark Bittman article from July.
The Family Table intrigued me so much because it was a fresh perspective on one of the most written-about restaurants in the last ten years: the recently departed elBulli. These aren’t the dishes that the staff of 75 put out every night for their customers, but rather are the ones that they would make for themselves before service, also known in the restaurant industry as the family meal. The book is broken up into sections: an introduction filled with full-page photos of the staff in action and eating, the requisite review of key tools and ingredients one should have on hand to make the dishes, another discussing the various sauces and stocks that they make and keep on hand, and finally a series of three-course meals with amounts given for two people all the way to 75. (Michael likes to say that it’s a book for people who don’t like doing fractions. I say it makes the book more accessible for the home cook.)
Unlike what went out to diners for every seating at the restaurant, there is little in the way of kitchen wizardry contained herein, with only a few references to foams made and usually in the context of a dessert. Instead we’re treated to dishes that bear some resemblance to those found in Cocinar en Casa albeit with far less reliance on ready-made foods. It’s not simply a book of Spanish classics, either–influences from China, Mexico, Argentina and elsewhere make appearances, but seemingly with an elBulli twist.
We got our first indication of that when making the chimichurri sauce, which was definitely not the green version I was used to, but instead was red: chopped fresh tomatoes, parsley, garlic, cumin, vinegar, olive oil, chile. It was one of the few recipes that wasn’t scaled down for smaller amounts of diners–the smallest yield was 14 cups–but some quick math and Google conversions got us to the right proportions, even if we still have some leftovers.
The noodle dish was decidedly easy to whip up because while it required getting a few condiments from the Asian food section at Fairway, there wasn’t much in terms of actual prep work to do. The noodles cooked for three minutes and then sat in an ice bath, and all I had to do was slice the mushrooms and the scallions, mince the ginger, and clean the bean sprouts, with Michael bringing everything together in about ten minutes’ time.
As for the duck, once the sauce is made, there’s even less to do to get it ready. You score the skin of the breast , then sear it for four minutes (3 on the fatty side, one on the lean side) so that the duck stays relatively rare in the middle. It then sits in a foil packet for twenty minutes to rest before slicing and serving with the chimichurri on top. One breast was enough for the two of us to split, and I have a feeling that Michael will figure out a way to incorporate the rest of the chimichurri into one of our other meals later this week.
It was not a combination of dishes I would ever expect to have together, but the meal overall came together really well. Neither of us are much on dessert so the pistachio custard went unmade, but maybe the oncoming winter will inspire me to try something new. One thing is certain: I can’t wait to see what my other new acquisitions have in store for our palate.
Birthdays really aren’t so bad after all.