In this installment of our weekly chef challenge, Phillip Foss of the Meatyballs Mobile food truck takes on freeze-dried saffron.
Phillip Foss doesn't use plates much these days. The former Lockwood executive chef is now in the food-truck business, and he serves the sandwiches from his Meatyballs Mobile wrapped in foil. He had to borrow a plate to serve the dish he made for his chef challenge, which we ate using plastic cutlery.
But just because Foss no longer works in fine dining doesn't mean he's forgotten how to class things up. Given freeze-dried saffron (from the Rare Tea Cellar, an importer and specialty supplier with a website in the works at rareteacellar.com) as an ingredient, he used it in a dish of lobster and curried oysters with a cauliflower flan and Granny Smith apples. "Saffron's got a very distinct flavor," he said—floral with a slightly bitter aftertaste—that led him to try an Indian-style dish after rejecting Spanish and Latin cuisine as "too obvious."
Freeze-dried saffron tastes just like regular saffron, a red-orange spice from southwest Asia. It's actually the dried stigma of the saffron crocus, and since each flower has only three stigmas, a pound of saffron can require up to 75,000 blossoms. The threads are usually steeped; freeze-drying makes that unnecessary.
"What's cool about this," Foss noted, "is that you can use it as a garnish and eat it." Popping a bit into his mouth, he added, "It's actually got a nice little crunch."
Foss has worked with saffron a lot, and currently uses it in a bouillabaisse sandwich he sells from his truck, but he'd never experimented with the freeze-dried variety. To accentuate its unique properties, he used it as a garnish instead of cooking it with the dish.
Curry made sense to Foss once he'd decided to go Indian, and while he's often paired mussels with curry, this time he decided to shuck some oysters. After poaching them in a curry broth, he fished one out. "You'll see that as it cooks, it takes on a very feminine . . . kind of similarity." He poked at it and then clarified: "It looks like a vagina."
As for the other ingredients, Foss said he's always felt that the flavors of apples, saffron, and cauliflower work well together. "Apple . . . is kind of what brings everything together. It's going to act as the liaison between the richness of the lobster and the oyster. Cauliflower is a very mild flavor, it's going to bring that out. And then it's also going to help to carry out the spice from the curry. It also marries very well with the saffron."
Tasting the finished dish, he observed that the saffron "gives it another layer of depth. It's one of the first flavors you taste, and it carries on to the end. It accentuates the curry, accentuates the cauliflower big time. You can taste it over the lobster and oysters as well."
Because the saffron wasn't cooked with the other components, it didn't impart its signature yellow-orange hue, though the threads themselves were as brilliantly colored as regular saffron. Foss also pointed out that "If you cook saffron, the flavor isn't as intense. Anytime you cook an ingredient, you're going to lose a little bit of its intensity." In this case, he decided, the saffron had a little more bitterness than it would have otherwise.
"I think it's a pretty well-rounded dish," he concluded.
David Posey, chef de cuisine at Blackbird, cooking with bull's testicles. "I chose the bull's balls," Foss said, "because not many people are doing them around town, and they're a challenge to do because they get tough quickly so you've got to cook them perfectly. And they're fun to play with."
Foss serves a bull-ball sandwich on his food truck, and admits, "It's a novelty thing. For a guy it's really tough to take a bite into it without wincing and cringing and buckling at the knees. But as long as they're cooked right, they're tasty."
Maine Lobster and Curried Oysters With Cauliflower Flan, Granny Smith Apples, and Freeze-dried Saffron
1 T softened butter
2 c cauliflower florettes
3 oz heavy cream
3 oz milk
salt to taste
Preheat oven to 175 degrees. Place the cauliflower in a saute pan, cover with water, and cook over high heat until all of the water cooks out and cauliflower is very tender. (If needed, add more water and cook out completely.) Place the cauliflower in a blender and add the eggs, cream, and milk. Blend on high speed until very smooth. Let stand for 30 minutes to allow bubbles to settle. Lightly grease four nonstick tartlet molds with the softened butter and divide the cauliflower flan mixture between them. Place on a baking tray and into the preheated oven. Pour a small amount of hot water into the bottom pan and bake for about 25 minutes or until the flan is set. Keep warm.
8 oz onions, peeled
4 oz ginger, peeled
4 oz garlic, peeled
2 oz canola oil
2 oz curry powder
Place onions, garlic, and ginger in a blender and add enough water to completely liquefy the ingredients. Place in a heavy saute pan and add the canola oil. Cook over high heat until all of the liquid has cooked out. Continue cooking to develop some color while stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Add the curry powder and stir to toast. Add a small amount of water to the pan to form a paste and remove from heat.
2 Maine lobsters
16 Delaware Bay oysters, shucked; juice reserved
1 c heavy cream
1 Granny Smith apple
Break down the lobster by tearing the tail and claws from the body. Bring a pot of water or stock to a boil and cook the tails for four minutes and the claws for nine minutes. Remove from the pot and cool to room temperature. Carefully remove the meat from the shells. Slice the tail in half lengthwise. Heat the heavy cream in a saucepan until reduced by half. Add curry masala to taste and stir to combine. Strain through a chinois. Cut the apples into a julienne either by hand or with a Japanese mandoline. Add the oysters to the curry-cream mixture and warm very gently. Gently warm the lobster tail in butter. Spoon the oysters into a warmed bowl and top with the cauliflower flan. Place the julienned apples atop the flan and the lobster on top of the apples. Spoon the remainder of the sauce around the plate. Garnish liberally with freeze-dried saffron and sparingly with cilantro. Serve immediately. Serves four.