March 10, 2013
Books that Cook: The Art of Blaising
A first look at Richard Blais’ deliciously irreverent new cookbook “Try This at Home”
By Nancy Staab
We can’t all wield liquid nitrogen canisters, sous vide immersion circulators and cold smokers with the flourish of Chef Richard Blais. But even minus these culinary pyrotechnics, our fave hometown Top Chef and his new cookbook prove that he’s fundamentally just a damn good toque with classic CIA training; Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Ferran Adriá stagings; and a playful, punk rock creativity in the kitchen that gives classic dishes a kick, without forsaking flavor one iota.
We can’t all wield liquid nitrogen canisters, sous vide immersion circulators and cold smokers with the flourish of Chef Richard Blais. But even minus these culinary pyrotechnics, our fave hometown Top Chef and his new cookbook prove that he’s fundamentally just a damn good toque with classic CIA training; Keller, Bouley and Adriá stagings; and a playful, punk rock creativity in the kitchen that gives classic dishes a kick in the, um, plating without forsaking flavor one iota.
Full disclosure: We think Richard Blais is a culinary punk-rock star and he can practically do no wrong in our book. We adored him from his early avant-garde days as the “bad boy of Brunoise” at Fishbone to his genius revisions of burger and hotdog fare at Flip Burger Boutique and HD1, to his new raiding and re-making of the classic larder at modern American eatery The Spence. Of course, we were also going to fall for his first cookbook, which announces it’s playful, rebel spirit with the hilarious cover portraying Blais’ famed faux-hawk head on a plate! Try This at Home was released this month by Clarkson and Potter, the same publishers behind Hugh Acheson’s James Beard-winning cookbook, A New Turn in the South. FYI LuxeCrush glowingly reviewed Acheson's cookbook last year, and chef Kevin Gillespie's Fire in My Belly cookbook this fall--and both earned James Beard noms--could Blais' cookbook be next?
Blais’ book may announce its ambitions to shake things up with its avant-garde cover, but it’s also got plenty of recipes for the average home chef, who might be intimidated by, say, cold-freezing green gazpacho.
If you want to do the show-offy Top Chef All-Stars winner stuff that made Blais famous on TV, you can, but if you would rather just roast a good chicken or construct a killer pimento cheese sandwich (jacked up with Pepper Jack cheese, white truffle oil, arugula and Gentleman’s chutney) you can do that too. And did we mention that Blais has some of culinary and pop culture’s cool kids blazoning his book from Anthony Bourdain, Zooey Deschanel, Sean Brock and Grant Achatz, to a foreword by Tom Colicchio, who urges the reader to follow Blais’ bidding and “go play with your food!”
We mean this in a loving way when we say that Try This at Home is decidedly schizophrenic. And what a relief, because Blais’ recent pre-book hype had us worrying that his book was going to be as basic, decorous, and prosaic as a Helen Corbett or Jr. League cookbook, with all his talk of the humble home chef and chicken roasting. Turns out that Blais was downplaying his techno-wunder skills as he is wont to do. Don’t ever call Blais a molecular gastronomy chef, he hates that kind of reductionism. Sure, his television persona is constructed of that kind of mad-scientist, dry-ice and magic foams show-biz illusions. It is only enforced by his childlike “gee-whiz” personality, whimsical foodie t-shirts (he is partner in a Tasty Cotton t-shirt company and sports several of them in the cookbook photos) and his trademark spiked hair. But chef Blais is always careful to stress his very solid, traditional culinary credentials, including his Culinary Institute of America training—and a special post-graduate fish fellowship; stints with internationally renowned chefs like Thomas Keller (French Laundry), Daniel Boulud and Ferran Adriá (El Bulli); and trials in the kitchen of Bravo’s Top Chef program. Oh, and he also gives a humble shout-out to his first cooking gig at McDonalds when he was just a young lad on Long Island with dreadlocks and baggy pants. He cites the assemble-yourself McBLT as a classic example of deconstructionist cuisine and the Shamrock Shake as a critical lesson in aesthetics and marketing.
The result of this kind of wild, culinary mash-up of influences is of course the wild-culinary mash-up of Blais’ own food and his constant, playful remaking of classics both humble and super-sophisticated and worldly.
Hence, the schizophrenic nature of this cookbook. If you want to go with the basic, “slow-Blais” method: there’s a fun potato chip omelet (a play on the classic Spanish Tortilla Espanola), a country fried steak with sausage-milk gravy and arugula salad; Vidalia onion rings with beer mustard; New England clam chowder; charred artichokes with smoky lemon aioli; pork-belly-stuffed baked potatoes, an easy “deconstructed” iceberg “carpaccio” salad; spaghetti and meatballs; sweet potato gnocchi with kale, sage and balsamic brown butter; lemon curd and black pepper roasted chicken; polenta and prawns (a remake of Southern shrimp and grits); pan-roasted cod with mashed potatoes and cider syrup; a 10-hour brisket; pan-seared spiced pork chops with microwave apple sauce and other homespun recipes.
However, if you want to bring out your fierce, punk-rock-star Blaisian persona, try the following: the house-made paté melt (playful Blais has never met a pun he didn’t love); frozen green gazpacho using liquid nitrogen; smoked Ceasar salad, “impastas” (ie imposter pastas) such as a potato “linguine” with conch and white wine; and true pastas like black spaghetti with crab, uni, chile oil; or ravioli with a quartet of fillings: corn and white truffle, butternut squash and amaretto, ricotta with chestnut honey and basil, oxtail marmalade. Impress your foodie friends with the fierce quail potpie; oysters with elegant, liquid nitrogen horseradish “pearls” (a signature dish at Blais’ most recent Atlanta restaurant The Spence); clams stuffed with beef marrow; lobster sous vide; scallops with pork tortelloni and fish sauce caramel; and a Korean-inspired steak tartare with Asian pear. There are a few gimmicky things like soups served in soup cans, but it’s all in good fun and each recipe is authentic.
Even several of the “basic” recipes are punched up by Blais with “2.0” options for those who want to take it to next level: i.e. add headcheese to your macaroni!, put umami paste into your spaghetti and meatballs; substitute corned tongue for the classic corned beef sandwich; add cheddar foam to your burger; sous vide your eggs with asparagus and Hollandaise; add coffee to your butter; or construct stuffed “cannelloni” with squid rings instead of pasta. Southern classics like pimento cheese and shrimp and grits get a Blasian reboot and one of the few desserts in the book is a charming, cake-like cornbread with sweet tea ice cream.
As a tribute to Blais’ McDonalds origins, there’s also several fast food nods in the cookbook, such as a grown-up Chicken McNuggets (made with sweetbreads instead) and a revamped Fillet O’Fish--this time with a malted vinegar jelly “sheet” as the super condiment.
Blais has a thing for condiments, devoting a whole chapter to them. We love his smoked aioli, pastrami mustard, umami ketchup jacked up with fish sauce and other ingredients; and his Sri-Rancha sauce. He’s also big on “assertive flavoring” via lots of acidity and fresh herbs. When in doubt, add squeezes of lemon and raid the back of your spice cabinet and your herb garden! And Blais is brilliant when it comes to re-inventing homespun classics. No food snob: he’s never met a burger, onion ring, or crab cake that he doesn’t love. He will even dip fancy caviar (gasp) into his glorified ranch sauce. The classic steak frites becomes an au poive tuna-steak frites instead. Traditional steakhouse creamed spinach gets spiked with licorice and put into a Yorkshire pudding, etc.
Not coincidentally, some of the strongest chapters in the book are on condiments, “new classics and old-school favorites,” “pastas and impastas,” and, given his fellowship in fish-ology at the CIA and his past restaurant Fishbone, an amazing chapter on “Fins, Shells +Scales.” The dessert section is rather slim given that it is not Blais’ culinary calling card, but he does possess a super star pastry chef Andrea Litvin at The Spence, who gets a nod in Blais’ cookbook. No doubt she contributed to recipes like sticky pudding with Scotch sauce or the black olive chocolate cake. The latter is a grown-up play on black forest cake using special black cocoa and savory black olives. The clever “red velvet (cake) tartare with cream cheese ice cream,” however, has Blais’ name emblazoned all over it!
The mythology of Blais’ big personality extends to his cookbook. A big thumbs up to the art direction for this bold book, which bears Blais’ thumbprint front-to-back. From the provocative cover of his head on a plate, to the faux cooking stains and splatters in the inner pages, this book is playful to the hilt. The cover was shot by John Lee; we could not find photo credits for the interior shots, which are equally clean, bold, colorful and in-your-face.
The gnarly quail bird claw sticking righteously out of the quail potpie is punk rock indeed. Ditto Blais’ friend and chef collaborator Eli Krishtein photographed brandishing a bloody fish head.
The personality shots are whimsical and endearing-- from the Blais family enjoying their traditional “naked spaghetti and meatballs dinner” (don’t ask, read the book) and a shot of Blais hiding behind a smoking liquid nitrogen canister, to his precious daughter Riley blowing on angel food cakes next to her pink, Hello Kitty E-Z Bake Oven. Don’t miss the glossary in the back of the book with a few non-edible recipes. It is entitled “Don’t Eat This” and includes Blais’ famous “quick-fire hair gel” recipe—part liquid nitrogen/part duck fat-- along with an adorable photo of his youngest progeny in a immersion circulator! Oh that Blais. We are defiantly ignoring the recent Eater.com rumors that he's planing a move from Atlanta to the culinary playground of San Francisco...
In short, Try This At Home is a personable, witty, fun, out-of the-box cookbook. Above all, it delivers amped up, easy culinary classics, as well as far-out dishes that push the culinary envelope and make your look like a culinary rock star, without sacrificing an ounce of good taste. Buy it and Blais your own culinary trail.
“Try This at Home” by Richard Blais (Clarkson Potter) is available at fine book stores everywhere. For more info on Richard Blais and his restaurants visit: www.richardblais.net; www.thespenceatl.com; www.flipburgerboutique.com; www.hd1restaurant.com Richard Blais will talk and sign copies of his new cookbook at the Barnes & Noble at Georgia Tech, Atlanta, Monday March 11 at 7PM.
CLICK ON THUMBNAILS AT BOTTOM OF PAGE TO LAUNCH SLIDESHOW OF IMAGES FROM BLAIS' COOKBOOK "TRY THIS AT HOME"
LINKS TO EARLIER RICHARD BLAIS STORIES ON LUXECRUSH
RECIPES FROM TRY THIS AT HOME
(great with French Fries, Sandwiches, Fish, Veggies or just about anything)
1 large egg
4 garlic cloves
Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 Tb.)
¾ tsp hickory smoke powder
1 Tb Dijon mustard
1 tsp cider vinegar
2 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground white pepper
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Dash of hot sauce to taste (optional)
1. Fill a small saucepan with 3-inches of water and bring to a boil over medium heat. With a slotted spoon lower the egg into the water and boil for 6 min. Remove the egg and put it in a small bowl of cold water until cool enough to handle. Peel the egg.
2. Put the egg, garlic, lemon juice, Dijon, hickory smoke powder, vinegar, salt, white pepper into a blender and puree on low speed. With the blender running, add the oil in a steady slow stream, blending until emulsified and thickened. Add the hot sauce, if using, and blend on high speed for about 1 minute. Transfer to an air-tight container and store in refrigerator up to 3 days.
Potato Chip Omelet
12 large egss
3 Tb. Heavy cream
½ tsp fresh ground white pepper
1 Tb. Fresh, chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 Tb. Minced, fresh chives
6 cups plain Kettle-cooked potato chips
2 Tb unsalted butter or vegetable oil
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, cream, pepper, parsley and chives together until combined. Fold in the potato chips until they are completely covered in the egg mixture, but try not to crush the crisps too much. Let stand for ten minutes, until the chips soften slightly.
2. Heat the butter in an ovenproof 12-inch non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, swirling the pan to coat the bottom completely, until very hot. Carefully pour in the egg mixture and spread it evenly in the pan, then immediately reduce the heat to low. Cook until the eggs are set and the bottom is light golden, about 15 minutes. If the bottom is golden but the eggs are still runny on top, transfer the skillet to the preheated oven and bake until the eggs are completely set 3-4 minutes.
3. To serve, invert a large, flat plate over the pan and flip the pan and the plate to invert the omelet onto the plate. Let stand for at least 5 minutes before cutting into wedges and serving.