This may seem like a ridiculous statement to make, but I honestly believe that The French Laundry Cookbook is the most educational cookbook I own.
As a home cook who is pretty comfortable with a wide range of cooking techniques and ingredients and who is (I think) relatively skilled in the kitchen, I don’t generally look at cookbooks as learning tools, but as inspirational ones – if I’m looking for meal ideas, the cookbook shelf is one of the favorite places to look. And of course, the FLC has inspiring recipes in spades. But for me, the greatest value in cooking out of this book is the wealth of information, techniques, and advice from master Chef Thomas Keller that allow me to hone and perfect the skills I already have and bump my cooking up to the next level.
That’s why I’ve made it one of my goals to cook from the FLC at least once every 2 months. That may not seem like much, but really, lets be honest – cooking anything out of this book requires a certain amount of advanced planning and hours or even days of cooking, chilling, resting, etc. to get to a finished meal. These recipes aren’t anything you take on lightly, but I think even I can manage 6 FL meals in a year.
So anyway, about 2 weeks ago I took a day off of work with the specific goal of cooking from the FLC. (Yes, I took a day off to cook. Yes, I am that much of a loser.) The chosen recipe? Warm Fruitwood Smoked Salmon with Potato Gnocchi and Balsamic Glaze. Oh yes.
Making this dish requires several elements that must be made following sub-recipes from the book: chicken stock, chive oil, balsamic reduction, vegetable brunoise, and gnocchi. Luckily, all are reasonably easy and can be made days in advance, if need be. Since I was home all day I made everything but the chicken stock the same day – the stock was made the previous weekend and frozen.
The balsamic reduction was exactly that – balsamic vinegar heated very, very slowly (not even at a simmer) until it reduced to a thick, almost caramel-like consistency. The chive oil ended up being scallion oil because the grocery store was severely lacking in chives I’d consider edible (can someone please explain to me how ANY store can put produce out for sale that’s already growing mold?? I swear I’d kill for a Whole Foods that’s less than 30 minutes away…). Making the oil is simple but requires some time – blanched scallions get blended up with canola oil until completely smooth, then have to rest 12-24 hours to infuse the oil with flavor and color before being stained to remove the vegetable solids and end up with a clear, brilliantly green and aromatic oil. I was impatient and only let it rest for about 6 hours, but the oil still came out vibrant and fragrant. Both the reduction and the oil went into squeeze bottles until it was time for plating, and the recipe made enough to keep in the fridge for another meal (or meals).
The brunoise is fussy, but it is a common garnish in many recipes in the FLC, and I find it oddly relaxing and almost therapeutic to prepare. I don’t know if a brunoise is always made the same way, but Chef Keller’s calls for a carrots, turnips, and the green tops of leeks (in a 1-1-2 ratio) to be thinly sliced, matchsticked, and diced into 1/8″ cubes, then blanched separately before mixing everything together. Given the amount of busy work required to make even a small amount of this, I think its worth making a large batch and then freezing it to use in other meals later on. The recipe also called for a garnish of tomato diamonds, which are made by quartering a plum tomato lengthwise, scooping out the seeds, trimming the ribs, slicing into strips, then dicing the strips on an angle to create small diamond-shaped pieces.
And finally, the gnocchi. Gnocchi are one of my favorite pastas to make, because they’re so darn easy. Not that I make them often, so I can’t really speak to how different (or not) Chef Keller’s recipe is than anyone else’s – I do know that his recipe produces an impossibly soft, pillowy dough that is a dream to roll out and shape, and the cooked gnocchi are soft and tender and not dense at all. I will admit to having completely over-salted this batch, having salted the dough once, then forgotten and salted it again. Oops. Luckily the par-boiling step in Chef Keller’s recipe helps to leach out a bit of the excess salt, and otherwise it just means they can be sauced lightly without ending up with a bland dish. The recipe also makes more than you need for a single meal, which means I’ve now got a bag of homemade, par-cooked gnocchi in the freezer for easy dinners.
(Notice how cooking out of the FLC also helps me easily stock my fridge and freezer with all sorts of tasty goodies? Bonus!)
The last major component of the dish, the salmon, had to be jury-rigged a bit. Chef Keller calls for a large piece of fruitwood-smoked salmon to be cut into small, steak-like cubes. Unfortunately there isn’t much variety in smoked salmon around here, and I wasn’t willing to spend money on shipping to mail order a single piece for a single meal. So, I bought some of the standard thin-sliced stuff at the grocery store, separated the individual slices, then rolled them into pretty rosettes and sealed each one with a toothpick.
Finally, with all that done, it was time to put dinner together. At this point the meal was so simple to complete it was almost stupid.
The par-boiled gnocchi were first seared in an oiled pan to give them a bit of a crisp, golden brown crust, then simmered in some of the homemade chicken stock enhanced with a touch of white wine vinegar, a spoonful of brunoise, and a handful of tomato diamonds, plus salt and pepper to taste. I mostly skipped the salt because the gnocchi were plenty salty already.
The salmon rosettes were warmed very gently in steaming (but not simmering) milk for a few minutes, just long enough to soften the flavor of the salmon without actually cooking it. And finally, a generous handful of fresh arugula was dressed in a simple lemon vinaigrette with shallots.
To plate, I squeezed a slightly sloppy ring of chive oil onto each plate and divided the gnocchi (about 12 apiece) with their sauce and garnishes on top. The dressed arugula was piled up alongside, and dots of the thick balsamic glaze were squeezed around the edge of the plate. Finally, we used this essential special-ness of the meal as an excuse to crack open one of the good bottles of wine we’ve been keeping around for awhile – Bedell Cellars‘ “Gallery” white.
And as with most things I’ve made from the FLC so far, this was absolutely killer. I think the warming step with the salmon made all the difference, as the normally harsh (I think) salty, smoky flavor of the fish became a bit muted and more subtle, and blended perfectly with the warm, pillowy gnocchi in their slightly rich, slightly acidic sauce. The bright, peppery greens provided the perfect kicky counterpoint to the otherwise velvety character of the dish, making the whole thing yet another perfect example of Chef Keller’s skill with complementary flavors and sensory balance.
My only complaint would be a lack of textural contrast – some crunchy toasted bread batons as a garnish might have filled in that empty note, and if I make this dish again I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.
All told, though, I’d consider this another rousing success in my FLC adventures. Its been a little too long since I’ve cracked the cover of this wonderful book, and it was both fulfilling and fun to dive back in.