When we stopped for gas and snacks at the Patterson Unical 76 on our drive to Las Vegas for Vegas Uncork’d, we were surprised and happy to find a selection of local treats from Isaac Farms of Atwater. We picked a few of the most different and unique items, and were too busy and distracted to get to the pistachios until tonight.
In Iran, pistachios are called “smiling nuts.” We were left smiling from the spicy (as in spiced) flavor of these quality nuts. Saffron itself is a very, very mild spice, but the garlic added a tangy actual spiciness, more intense on the shell than the nut itself. August usually likes to suck on shells before eating the nut, but these she just cracked open and enjoyed the morsel inside because the heat of the copious garlic was just a little much for her; you may feel differently, like Zach did. Pistachios contain 3 grams of fiber per serving, more than many whole fruits, so this is one of the better natural and savory items to reach for when a midday craving hits you. Sadly, Isaac Farms does not have an online store, so it would seem that the only way to get these is to be in the area. We’ve done a bit of research and there are online vendors with their own versions of saffron garlic pistachios, but we can’t vouch for their sourcing nor their quality. Just keep an eye out for the “Natural As Possible” label along I-5 in the Valley.
The foundation of all Western rice-based entrees, paella is Spain’s crown dish. Regional varieties offer some with all seafood, some with surf and sky, some even with rabbit. But the three things that unite all paellas are saffron, fresh ingredients (from sources as local as possible, preferably), and an open flame. Cooking on a stove top instead of in the oven results in the desired texture of rice with just slightest bit of firmness.
48 oz. of organic chicken broth
3 cups of arborio rice
3 cups of water
3 bone-in chicken thighs (pull the skin off yourself; you want them skinless, but save the money)
1 lb. of large, cleaned, peeled, raw prawns
18 farm-raised black mussels
12 farm-raised little neck clams
1 1/2 cups of white wine
12 oz. of frozen peas
12 oz. of kielbasa
5 organic carrots
5 stalks of organic celery
1 large onion
1 large red bell pepper
6 whole garlic cloves
4 tbs. of extra virgin olive oil
1 tbs. of saffron threads in 1 cup of warm water, having soaked for at least 3 minutes
2 tsp. of kosher salt
1/2 tsp. of cracked black pepper
Roughly chop the carrots and celery. Peel and halve the onion. Cut one of the onion halves in half again, and put this with the carrots, celery, and garlic cloves in a large stock pot with 2 tbs. of olive oil over medium heat. Cook for about 8-10 minutes, until the vegetables begin to caramelize.
Deglaze the stock pot with the wine. Add the chicken stock, saffron, saffron water, and 3 cups of water, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium-low and let simmer for no more than 30 minutes; too much time can cause the vegetables to make the stock bitter. Strain the vegetables when done and discard the solids, leaving just the liquid.
In a large paella pan, heat the remaining 2 tbs. of olive oil on medium heat. Put the bone-in, skinless chicken thighs on the surface and begin to lightly brown the meat, about 5 minutes on each side. In the meantime, remove the seeds of the bell pepper, then evenly dice the pepper and the remaining onion.
Move the chicken to the side of the pan, and add the bell pepper and onion. Cook for about 7-8 minutes until the onion is translucent and the pepper softened, but you don’t want to brown these yet – if you see them starting to brown, reduce the heat.
Cut the kielbasa in 1″ chunks, and add to the paella pan. Let cook for an additional 4 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the pan so that it is easier to stir in the rice. It is essential that the rice grains all have the chance to be evenly coated by the pan oils, and ingredients need to be evenly mixed. Nestle and somewhat submerge the chicken back into the rice, evenly spaced, after the rice has been sufficiently coated.
Pour in 2 1/2 to 3 cups of the stock. Bring back to a simmer, still on medium heat, and cook for about 15 minutes, or until the rice is about three-quarters of the way cooked. Keep adding stock through those 15 minutes, with 1/2 to 1 cup at a time to maintain the rice continuously submerged.
When the rice hits the three-quarter mark, add the frozen peas. Also add the seafood, slightly nestling it similar to how you placed the chicken. Whatever stock remains, add that as well. Cover the pan with foil (it may require a few pieces to span the width). Let sit for 10 minutes more, then remove from heat and let sit for an additional 5 minutes, still with the foil cover.
Peel away the foil and serve immediately.
For four days in May, Las Vegas buzzes with food excitement more so than it already does through the rest of the year. Vegas Uncork’d is a series of events put on by Las Vegas’s finest chefs and restaurants and hosted by Bon Appetit, with the goal of showcasing top food, wine, and spirits. We came into town this afternoon for the first of three individual events that we’ll attend between now and Saturday. Caesar’s Palace was the natural choice for the location of tonight’s dinner, since the five-course meal was put on by François Payard in his own restaurant inside the resort casino.
Being our first time at Vegas Uncork’d, we didn’t know that schwag would be part of the meal. We were excited to find these boxes of chocolates from the master himself awaiting us at our table settings.
A quenelle is essentially a meat cake. It can be made with creamed fish, chicken, or red meat, combined with egg binding and sometimes breadcrumbs. Tonight we each had a pike quenelle in truffled lobster bisque. The quenelle had a smooth and velvety texture, slightly buttery in flavor and not overwhelmingly fishy; strong fish flavor is the result of losing freshness, so we appreciate that landlocked Las Vegas serves seafood of the caliber of coastal areas, indicating its quality. What August liked about the bisque was that it was true to the unadulterated lobster flavor – not overcompensatingly sweet, and not so maritime briny, either. The truffle provided a pleasant aftertaste, as well.
The sole was flaky and moist, drizzled with a caper herb butter sauce which was balanced enough to allow the fish to still be the main feature of the plate. It was served with saffron potatoes, thick yet fork-tender, dense while al dente. We just wish there were a couple more pieces because they were so simple, but delectable. The orange streak was a mousse of carrot and ginger. There was a mild spicy bite from the ginger, blending with the sweet earthiness of the carrot. It was a palate cleanser for those who were more adverse to the fish flavor, but that’s not us. We love fish, and found that the mousse enhanced the sole when eaten in the same bite.
Thank you, Chef Payard, for having domestic lamb! It makes a big difference for August, morally and flavor-wise, since her Basque great-grandfather and grandfather were sheepherders and therefore through her family she recognizes quality lamb. It was extremely tender and buttery, a wonderful texture for rare meat, with the added bonus of a pistachio crust. The seasonal vegetables under and around the lamb included white asparagus, fava beans, scallions, and yellow carrots plus a bit of summer truffle. The white asparagus was crunchy, unlike the jarred and marinated kind that August is used to. The mint jus pool was very robust and enjoyable, when usually she refuses mint with lamb.
“Hot coconut rum foam & pineapple-mango-passion fruit syrup” delighted us, and got all the tables talking to one another. August has always hated coconut and loved pineapple, mango, and passion fruit but this time she liked the coconut, too! Sipping this was like taking our palate on a tiny trip to French Polynesia.
Roasting a pear caramelizes the natural fruit sugars, which mellows the tartness yet brings out more of the true pear flavor. It sat on a moist almond dacquoise, which in turn was atop a super flaky bescuit base. A dollop of Mexican vanilla bean ice cream perched on its own mini dacquoise. Caramelized pecans sat amidst a warm maple syrup. Delicious throughout, and not at all heavy.
We can’t forget that this was also a wine pairing dinner. From left to right, pre-dinner started with a nice prosecco. With the quenelles we had Copain, Viognier, Tous Ensemble, Mendocino County 2009. The sole was served with Domaine Philippe Plantevin, Côtes du Rhône Blanc, 2009. Red wine is a must for lamb, and the Domaine Santa Duc, Gigondas, Rhone Valley 2009 was excellent. For dessert we got Presidential, Tawny 20 Year Old Port.
We thought that the chocolates were a wonderful surprise, but we had no idea that we also got signed cookbooks from Chef Payard, Chocolate Epiphany and Simply Sensational Desserts. We are so happy to have these in our collection, and Zach can’t wait to start going through the recipes!
The staff at Payard was extremely accommodating and knowledgeable. We appreciated the attention and information from Sam Berkley and Michele Re. Chef Payard came out with each course to chat with all the diners, and we all had an enlightening time talking with him, for he is very passionate, thoughtful, and articulate. Quality in detail, ingredients, and presentation usually is found at a high price, but Chef Payard is realistic and his main goal is for his guests’ palates, appetites, pocketbooks, and hearts to all be beyond satisfied.