Oysters on the Half Shell with Mignonette Sauce and Blinis à la Russe

The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (book number 11), is the last book in our sub-collection of Alice Waters/Chez Panisse books. There are a number of recipes in this book that we want to try, but we had actually decided to defer it until later, because we felt obligated to cook a menu in its entirety and were rather overwhelmed by how indulgent and extravagant a least a few dishes on most of the menus are. It’s a lot of fun vicariously enjoying these elegant menus from Chez Panisse’s first decade, but this was the first book in our cook-through that, at least to me, is more of an aspirational and inspirational book than one that is really practical to cook from at home.

When we came home from our last trip to Portland with a tiny jar of Osetra caviar for Christmas Eve, we decided to go Russian and make buckwheat blinis (little pancakes) to eat it on. Kate put out a call to the hive mind on Facebook for a good blini recipe and, lo and behold, our friend Anna suggested the Blinis à la Russe recipe in the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. It was obviously fate, so we gave ourselves permission to make just two of the recipes from the Champagne Dinner menu Chez Pannisse served for the launch of Billecart Salmon Champagne in Northern California. Since we were already planning to have oysters on the half shell for Christmas Eve, we decided to also make the Mignonette Sauce for the oysters. The recipes are both written for six servings, so we divided them by three to make just two servings that proved to be plenty.

The mignonette was a piece of cake to put together: minced shallot, Champagne vinegar, dry white wine, and freshly ground black pepper mixed in a little bowl. We normally just take our raw oysters straight up, but a little dash of tart mignonette does make a nice counterpoint to a plump briny oyster.

The blinis are made with a yeasted batter, so they were a bit more work and took some time. First, we let the yeast bloom in lukewarm milk and then mixed in buckwheat and all-purpose flours, salt, sugar, and an egg yolk to make a sponge that we allowed to rise until double in bulk. Thank goodness I had just bought a heated proofing box to proof the dough for our Christmas morning Swedish cardamom bread, because, even with the furnace on, our kitchen is too cold to successfully bake in after October. The sponge doubled in an hour with no problem in the proofing box. We added more flour and milk and then worked the batter though a fine mesh sieve, a step I’d never done before with a pancake batter, and let it proof until doubled in bulk again. I had put the batter though the sieve into a glass measuring cup, so it was very easy to confirm when it had doubled. After the second proofing, a beaten egg white was folded into the batter before cooking. This batter was so lively, in fact, that, even at room temperature, it kept overflowing first the measuring cup and later the squeeze bottle that I put the batter in before cooking the blinis to make it easier to make them all a uniform silver dollar size. Cooked in a skillet with a thin coating of butter, the resulting tiny pancakes were well worth the effort. Crisp on the outside and light as a feather inside, the earthy buckwheat was a perfect foil for a dab of rich crème fraîche and the salty snap of caviar.

The oysters and blinis were scrumptious as part of our Christmas Eve seafood spectacular that was rounded out by slices our home-cured gravlax, also delicious on blinis with a sprig of dill and a dab of crème fraîche, jumbo prawns sautéed with garlic and smoked paprika, and little boiled potatoes as an alternative caviar delivery vehicle. The whole was deliciously washed down by bubbly, in this case a bottle of Ammonite Crémant de Loire Brut Extra unerringly recommended by our friend Joel, the wine buyer at Now You’re Cooking in Bath. If you live anywhere near Bath and you haven’t been there, check out Now You’re Cooking. It’s one of the best stocked and friendliest kitchen stores I’ve ever been in and they have a fantastic wine section.

We made about a dozen blinis for Christmas Eve, which only used about half of the batter, so I stuck the rest of it, still in the squeeze bottle, in the refrigerator for the next day, assuming that the cold would arrest, or at least slow, the batter’s fermentation. Imagine our surprise the next morning to find batter bubbling out of the spout of the squeeze bottle and a sticky brown puddle spreading across the top shelf of the refrigerator like the Blob. Still, despite the overflow, we were able to make another dozen blinis for a Christmas afternoon snack, with more gravlax, and the blinis were just as good as they had been the night before. This recipe is a definite keeper as a base for all manner of little bites.

I probably first heard of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until I moved in with Kate in 2006 that I had ever looked at any of Alice’s cookbooks, and, prior to this cook-through project, I had only really read or cooked out of The Art of Simple Food. Between the two of us, Kate and I own all but a couple of Alice’s cookbooks, which span the entire 47 year history of Chez Panisse and document the evolution of the broader Northern California food philosophy that we lived in the midst of for so many years in the the Bay Area. The experience of finally getting into and cooking at least one recipe out of all of these books has been inspirational, but rather bittersweet at the same time. I’m glad we finally had dinner at Chez Panisse for Kate’s birthday in 2017 and got to see Alice in action before we left California.

Up next: Weber’s Big Book of Grilling.


In My Pantry (book number 10), Alice Waters gives simple recipes for myriad basic pantry items accompanied by lovely illustrations by her daughter, Fanny Singer. The recipes include spice mixes, such as Za’atar, preserved fish and meat, both sweet and savory preserves, and homemade cheeses and crème fraîche along with dozens of others and suggestions for using them in meals. This was another book neither Kate or I had really used, and, once we really started reading, we kicked ourselves for not doing so sooner.

It was hard to decide what to make first, but when we saw fat filets of dark pink sockeye salmon in the case at Pinkham’s, we knew it was time to try our hands at making home-cured gravlax. Kate and I had both thought about trying it over the years, but, strangely, as much cured meat and charcuterie as we’ve made, neither of us had ever cured any fish. As it turned out, this was a very successful first attempt.

Once we got our filet home, we sprinkled it generously with salt, sugar, and crushed peppercorns on both sides, laid several sprigs of dill on the flesh side, and wrapped it tightly in cheesecloth. Weighted down by a saucer in a glass baking dish, our little fishy went into the refrigerator for 48 hours. Except for a quick flip after the first 24 hours, there was very little hands-on prep time.

At the end of two days, we unwrapped the salmon, patted it dry, and found its flesh transformed from the soft flabby texture of raw salmon to firm shiny Gravlax with just the right level of saltiness and a subtle aroma of dill. A definite keeper and a star as part of our Christmas Eve seafood feast. My only complaint was that the skin was difficult to cut through when slicing and unpleasant to eat. After grumbling about it the first few times, I finally had the sense to peel the rest of the skin off of the entire filet. Problem solved.

According to Alice, the cured Gravlax will keep for about a week stored in an airtight container. I’m not sure we’ll be able to test that as it’s almost gone. Yesterday for lunch, I made us Scandinavian inspired open-faced sandwiches with thinly sliced Gravlax on German Linseed Bread (thank you, Aunt Cindy!) with smears of hot German mustard and horseradish sour cream, thin slices of red onion, and sprigs of dill. The sandwiches paired perfectly with shots of ice cold Inshriach Navy Strength Gin.

Up next: The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook.

One-Pot Roast Chicken

Alice Waters and the other coordinators of the 2008 San Francisco Slow Food Nation conference included a demonstration kitchen that they named “the Green Kitchen.” The goal of the Green Kitchen was to demonstrate the “set of basic techniques that are universal to all cuisines” that “once learned by heart … free cooks from an overdependence on recipes and a fear of improvisation.” A roster of notable cooks gave the demonstrations, which were photographed and recorded. In the Green Kitchen (book number 9) presents the key lessons of each cook’s demonstrations along with recipes illustrating them. This book is very similar in tone to The Art of Simple Food (book number 5) emphasizing simple, healthful, delicious home cooking.

Although we already have a go-to roast chicken recipe, from The Art of Simple Food, Thomas Keller’s One-Pot Roast Chicken in this book had a few twists that were new to us, so we decided to give it a try. The big differences from our usual roast chicken recipe in terms of prep were removing the wishbone before roasting, to make carving the breast easier, and trussing the bird, which I’ve always been too lazy to do, to plump up the breast and bring the legs into position for even roasting. We de-wishboned and trussed a lovely three pound chicken from Pine Tree Poultry, rained salt and freshly ground pepper over it, and nestled it in the roasting pan on a bed of herbs and vegetables. Keller calls for potatoes, carrots, onions, celery, shallots, bay leaves, and thyme. We also added some optional turnips, golden beets, Brussels sprouts, and parsnips. More salt and pepper, an anointing of butter, and into the oven. Unlike our usual recipe, which requires starting the bird breast up, flipping it over 20 minutes into roasting, and then turning it breast up again to finish, Keller’s version is entirely hands off, so the bird just roasts upright on its nest of vegetables until it is golden brown and delicious.

And our chicken did come out golden brown and delicious with juicy meat throughout. I think the trussing did make a difference in the evenness of the roasting, and it really only takes a few seconds, so that’s a keeper. I’m not sure about removing the wishbone before roasting, but it smelled so good, and we were so anxious to eat, that my carving was not its most refined. The big surprise, though, and one of the stars of the meal, was the roasted celery. All of the vegetables were good, but the flavor of the celery concentrated by the dry heat of the oven was a revelation. We’ll definitely be including some celery in our roasties going forward.

Up next: My Pantry.

Rocket Salad with Pomegranates and Toasted Hazelnuts

We continue cooking through our collection of Alice Waters books with Chez Panisse Fruit (book number 8). Like Chez Panisse Vegetables (book number 6), the recipes are organized by type of fruit. We’ll be coming back to this book throughout the year as different fruits come into season, as it is another valuable resource that we have not been taking full advantage of.

It being winter, local fresh fruit in Maine is pretty much limited to apples, though a wide assortment of varieties are available, and there are plenty of apple recipes in the book. Since we had half of a pomegranate left over from another meal, however, we opted to make the Rocket (Arugula) Salad with Pomegranates and Toasted Hazelnuts.

This was so quick and simple to make that it almost felt like cheating, but after the amount of time involved in making the Onion Confit and Winter Greens Pasta, we decided to take it a little easier on this one. The bulk of the prep, which took about 15 minutes, was toasting and chopping the hazelnuts and seeding the pomegranate. All that was left was tossing the arugula with red wine and balsamic vinegars, olive oil, and salt and pepper before adding the chopped nuts and pomegranate seeds. The peppery arugula, sweet pomegranate, and crunchy hazelnut were a perfect accompaniment to a pair of plump Leaf & Caul pork chops. This time, there were no leftovers.

Up next: In the Green Kitchen.

Onion Confit and Winter Greens Pasta

The seasonal pasta and pizza recipes in Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza & Calzone (book number 7) are as fresh and vibrant today as they must have seemed when the book was published in 1984. After an opening chapter on making fresh pasta, the bulk of the book is composed of seasonally organized recipes for generally simple pasta dishes that make use of the best ingredients that each season has to offer. Everyone seems to cook this way now, but it really was groundbreaking in 1984 when Chez Panisse was a mere 13 years old.

Kate and I opted to make the first recipe in the Winter chapter: Onion Confit & Winter Greens Pasta since we had everything in the house but the greens. Although the final assembly of the dish was quick, there was a bit of prep time to make onion confit and fresh fettuccine. For the confit, four thinly sliced yellow onions are sautéed briefly in butter, sprinkled with a bit of sugar, and then slowly simmered for about two hours in a mixture of red wine, wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, crème de cassis and thyme until the liquid has reduced to a rich wine-herb syrup coating melt-in-your-mouth onions. Although, making the confit took time, it didn’t require constant attention, so I was able to multi-task. In any case, the time investment was worth it, because, as Alice notes in the recipe, you only use about half of the batch in the pasta (or a quarter in our case since we halved the recipe) so you have a bunch left for other uses such as pizza or sandwich topping. We ended up with about three cups of onion confit, so I divided it into four ¾ cup portions, set one aside for the pasta, and froze the other three for future deliciousness.

While the onions were cooking, I made the pasta dough out of a cup of flour, a pinch of salt, an egg, and a little water. After a 45 minute rest, we rolled the dough and cut it into fettuccine. It was a real treat to make and eat fresh pasta again. It had probably been about a year since the last time in Vallejo.

With the pasta and onion confit made, the rest of the dish came together pretty quickly. We washed a big bunch of red kale, cut it into strips and blanched it briefly in the boiling pasta water. The blanched greens went into a skillet with half a cup of slightly reduced chicken stock and a little more butter to simmer while the pasta cooked. Toss the cooked pasta and onion confit with the greens and voilà! Totally worth the little bit of effort. Fresh pasta is always wonderful, and the finished dish had beautiful layers of flavor with the minerally, slightly bitter greens balancing the sweet onions.

We ended up only eating about two-thirds of the pasta, so, naturally, the rest appeared for breakfast a few days later with a poached egg on top.

Up next: Chez Panisse Fruit.