I have a bad habit of expressing opinions I should probably keep to myself. That judgmental viewpoint that slips so easily off my tongue will probably morph into an entirely different opinion given a little time to germinate. People surprise us all the time. Circumstances provoke unusual words and actions. Situations shift without warning. New information is revealed and secret motivations redeem the villain. Thoughtless remarks last forever, or so it seems. People's memories are long and you never know when a past faux pas will rear it's head. The problem with expressing one's opinions, especially negative ones, is that it's human nature to change one's mind. I'm often the victim of my own inability to keep my mouth shut. People who know me and love me tend to overlook this sad personality trait. I try to live and learn. It doesn't always work, although I do try.
A classic example of changing my mind would be about cock's combs. Years ago I tasted cock's combs and was not impressed. I had the impression of a slippery texture and a rich brown sauce leaving a gelatinous trail down my throat and into my gullet. I tried them again at another restaurant and was still slightly repulsed by the combination of their textures and flavor, or lack thereof. I proceeded to file them away in that box in my head labeled "not worth the calories". Whenever they were mentioned I tended to expound on my theory that cock's combs were overrated and probably utilized more for shock value than for flavor.
This year when we were discussing our tasting plate for Taste 3, our theme was earth. We spent a lot of time talking about the concept of earthiness. Since the event was hosted by Mondavi Vineyards our discussion naturally turned to wine. After all, what tastes more like the essence of earth than wine? We talked about the different flavor profiles of the different wines. California Sauvignon Blanc with it's notes of lean citrus, meadow grass and minerals. Floral and slightly rounded Viognier with whiffs of honey and pale stone fruits. Barnyard-y Bordeaux with it's rich texture and layers of currants, leather, and green peppers tempered with oak and slowly softening tannins. Dusty Brunello with it's faint hint of roses and goat cheese, dark fruit and cedar trimmings. The list goes on and on. We discussed using a wine syrup but dismissed it as too cliche. We focused more on flavor profiles and our final jumping off point was inspired by the meories of a few rich Italian reds like Patriglione and La Poja, which led us to our fresh cheese element and the ideas of exotic peppercorns and smoky, ranch flavors, although we veered wildly back and forth throughout the discussions.
We agreed on a fresh sheep's milk cheese. That was the first step. Springtime is the time for these dainty cheeses, redolent of milk and pasture, melting softly on the palate. We talked about proteins and what would best suit our earthy theme. Alex became fixated on cock's combs. I was reluctant. Our discussions reached an impasse. We went round and round, tossing back and forth different ideas. He just would not let go of the cock's combs. He had already begun trying to source them, secure in the knowledge that he would eventually wear down my resistance. After several days of debate, I finally acquiesced. At which point he began to second guess himself about whether or not we could convince people to actually eat the cock's combs. Of course it was too late to back down, we were committed. Besides, I certainly was not going to put up with any waffling at that point. The final dish was to be beer battered, smoky (confited in bacon fat) cock's combs sprinkled with bee pollen and grains of paradise, served with a fresh sheep's milk gnocchi seasoned with the flavors of ranch dressing and served with a garlic-lovage puree.
We sourced our cock's combs from D'Artagnan. Thankfully when we got to Napa, the cases of cock's combs arrived pre-peeled. For those of you unfamiliar with their anatomy, the combs must be blanched and the skins peeled off before they can be cooked. This is a very time consuming endeavor and one we were hoping to avoid in an unfamiliar kitchen, on a tight schedule. We confited the cock's combs in a combination of bacon fat, duck's fat and grapeseed oil , we did not requisition enough bacon fat before we arrived and had to cobble together the remaining fats from what Richard had available in his kitchen. True to form, I spearheaded the cooking of the cock's combs because if I don't enjoy something I have to cook it myself to see if I can make it palatable. They came out of the oven and they were delicious, silky and unctuous. Despite the myriad collection of fats used to cook them, they actually tasted like the essence of chicken. Much to my chagrin I was hooked.
The next step of course was figuring out how to fry the combs without setting the winery on fire. The test combs we battered and fried in the kitchen came exploding out of the pot like flying missiles. I worked out a heavier batter that held more tightly to the cock's combs and crossed my fingers. Meanwhile Alex was having his own issues with the gnocchi. We were unable to get the cheese that we had wanted and were dealing with a substitution. The first batch was a bust. The cheese had an unpleasant chalky texture and flavor that lingered on the palate for what seemed like forever. Since the menu actually listed them as "ranch gnocchi", we decided to make them into ranch flavored sourdough gnocchi. Second batch was bomb, the acidity of the sourdough hindered the ability of the Methocel to hold the gnocchi together. In the meantime, our lovage garlic puree became a parsley, celery leaf and garlic puree because lovage was unavailable. In the last two hours before the event Alex finally worked out a successful batch of ranch gnocchi and we were ready.
As Alex was putting the finishing touches on our station, I was called outside to help out with the cock's combs. The fryer was set up downstairs, across the building and outside of where the actual event was taking place. We had a cook frying and and another cook running. When the runner brought the first batch up for me to check I knew there were issues. I had gone over the procedure with the cook but hadn't made it back downstairs to supervise the frying of the first batch. I ran downstairs and knew immediately that the batter was too thin. I fixed the batter, made some minor adjustments to the way the fryer was set up and dropped in a few testers. As I dropped them in, everyone around me took a giant step back. It was a telling moment and I knew immediately that there had been some flying missiles in the first batch. I quickly set a rack over the fryer so that nothing would jump out at me. Thankfully the adjusted batter held and I headed back upstairs to start plating with Alex and Jonathan.
All in all the cock's combs were a success. We told everyone to think of them as fried chicken, which they were. The beer batter was part of our strategy to get people to eat them. Almost everyone did. Many people enjoyed them. Many were glad that they didn't know what they were before they ate them. A surprising number came back three and four times to help finish the supply. We were exhausted and thoroughly pleased with the experience. It was a pretty damn good dish, especially for the first time we had ever played with cock's combs. People were enjoying themselves and we gave them something to talk about. We got to cook with some amazing chefs and met some incredible people. We even learned a thing or two ourselves. Still, I'll always remember it as the weekend I learned to love cock's combs.