What does an award-winning Italian chef make for his Christmas dinner at home? Why French consomme, of course!
When I left for cooking school almost 3 years ago, I sold most everything - car, furniture, etc. - and gave up/away what was left including my apartment so whenever I come back to visit, I stay with my good friends M & B. I used to work with M at a Huge Software Company down on the Peninsula and B is the award-winning chef/owner Bruno Quercini of Pane e Vino Trattoria on Union & Gough. Needless to say I eat very well when I come home.
My hands-down favorite dish at the restaurant is his smoked mozzarella, eggplant fusilli which has been described by critics as "...so good it will make you swoon..." or something to that effect. Either way, delicious. My favorite thing Bruno makes at home, and it's usually for Christmas dinner, is his Consomme Celestina al Tartufo or clarified broth (consomme) with herbed crepes (celestina) and truffles (tartufo). My task is to punch out the dots in the herb-truffle crepes with an apple corer. Like a 4 year old waiting for Santa, I look forward to this every year.
Consomme can intimidate even the most seasoned of chefs and I was both excited and apprehensive when it came time to make it in cooking school. To back up a bit, consomme is a crystal clear, sparkling broth from which all the impurities have been filtered out naturally. In French cuisine, there are 2 types of soups or potages (poe-TAZH): le potage clair (a clear soup) and le potage lie (lee-A, accent over the 'e'; a bound soup) and consomme is of course a potage clair. It can be made from any broth (chicken, beef, game) along with some of the traditional garnitures such as brunoise (broo-nwoz), celestine or profiterole.
Consomme Brunoise is consomme with vegetables cut into tiny dice. Brunoise is the name of the size and shape of the cut and in this case it is 1mm x 1mm x 1 mm. In school, we had small rulers and yes, we had to measure our cuts exactly. It was not beyond a chef to, with one swipe if his hand, dispense a pile of brunoised carrots directly to the garbage pail if they were not exact. Consomme Celestine has crepes with fine herbs cut into chiffonade or thin ribbons and Consomme aux Profiteroles has tiny pate a choux bobbing around.
They key to making a perfect consomme is in the raft which clarifies (filters) the broth until it is crystal clear and in never letting it boil. You don't want any rapid movement that will cloud the broth. It was this raft that most intimidated me but once I made it, I found it fascinating (the nerd in me) and made it as often as I could. It is called a raft because it floats at the top of the broth. Bare with me here...
Three essential ingredients for a successful raft are ground meat (can include turkey), egg whites (ratio of 3 egg whites for every liter of stock), and aromatic vegetables (carrots, celery, leeks, tomatoes) shredded in a food processor (or fine julienne, matchsticks, if cutting by hand). Combine thoroughly all these items and place in a large pot. Pour the hot (not boiling or it will cook the egg whites) broth over the meat mixture and quickly whisk to dispense the meat mixture evenly throughout the broth. Stirring constantly, bring the broth to a gentle simmer and immediately lower the heat. Stop stirring and let it cook for up to an hour. Don't stir it nor let it boil. A raft of the meat mixture will have formed at the top of the broth and it is key to not break up the raft.
As the raft is forming take a small ladle and gently form a small hole in the center. Slowly ladle the broth from the pot over the raft. The raft acts as a filter to remove the impurities and cloudiness from the broth. You can sprinkle herbs and peppercorns on the top of the raft to impart flavor to the broth. Continue ladling the broth over the raft for 45 minutes to an hour. Once it is done, gently ladle out the broth into a chinoise or strainer lined with cheesecloth. You should now have a crystal clear broth.
Serving this is a delight. Place a handful of crepe dots in the bottom of a bowl. Slowly ladle the hot consomme over the crepes. The aroma of the pure broth and the herbs and the truffles is intoxicating. No one spoke for a good fifteen minutes as we inhaling and then savored every spoonful.
Mangia Bene e Buon Natale.