Can you actually cook a Top Chef-caliber meal at home? Test-driving Nick Elmi’s new Laurel cookbook.
A new cookbook offers step-by-step instructions for making the complicated dishes from South Philly’s Laurel. Can a home cook really pull them off?
Nick Elmi knows his food is intimidating. It wasn’t even his idea to show people how they could make the dishes served in his French-American restaurant, Laurel.
South Philly’s 22-seat Laurel is known for six- and nine-course tasting menus with offerings like horseradish-flavored ice, sea urchin custard, or a caviar dish that evokes a French fry dipped in a milkshake. An extraordinary level of attention is paid to each crumb, resulting in the kind of impossibly elaborate food that no normal person would ever assume they could re-create at home.
But after local writer Adam Erace and literary agent Clare Pelino asked Elmi about creating a cookbook, Elmi realized it could be useful even for people who aren’t up for using xanthan gum or a pig’s bladder to prepare dinner.
Published last month, Laurel (Running Press, $35) isn’t a book you can use to throw together a weeknight dinner. Most recipes require ingredients you wouldn’t normally keep on hand, call for equipment not every home chef owns (a digital scale is essential), or involve planning hours or days ahead.
But Elmi, who in 2014 won Season 11 of Bravo’s Top Chef, hopes the recipes will inspire home chefs in broader ways, by encouraging them to experiment with methods and ingredients.
“There are tidbits in there for cooks of any experience level to experiment with," Elmi said. "I don’t think anyone is going to use this to make an 11-course meal, absolutely not. But if you’re a home cook and you have a free Sunday, you can look at the recipes, go to the farmers’ market and see what you can accomplish.”
So last week, I gave it a shot. And Elmi was right: When I followed Laurel’s recipe for ricotta gnocchi with black truffle and sourdough, I used several ingredients for the first time, tried a new technique, and ended up with a dish that, while almost certainly not up to the standards Elmi sets for himself, was definitely fancier than anything I’ve made before.
Note: I’m not particularly gifted in the kitchen. I can bake and pull off side dishes, and I’ve cooked a Thanksgiving turkey, but my husband is the one who makes dinner every night.
And cooking doesn’t come naturally to me. Even simple things require focus; when I wanted to learn to make perfectly soft scrambled eggs like my husband does, it took five tries before I paid enough attention to get them right.
Erace, a food and travel writer who cowrote Laurel and has contributed to The Inquirer, believes people like me can get the most out of the book by cherry-picking from the recipes. Most dishes involve at least three components, like sauces and garnishes for fish, meat, vegetables, and desserts.
Look for shortcuts, Erace said. If you want to make the mushroom-stuffed Dover sole, ask a fishmonger to butterfly the fish for you. Don’t have a vacuum sealer? Try using a ziplock bag in a pot of water instead. Some techniques, like pickling and curing, sound more complicated than they are. If all else fails, Laurel also includes cocktail recipes from ITV, Elmi’s restaurant right next to Laurel.
“It’s easy to have the reaction of, ‘How do I cook with this book?’" Erace said. "But there are so many opportunities to break down these recipes. You might not be ready to do the grilled lobster, but that bourbon glaze it comes with would be amazing on a pork chop or salmon. Or with the white chocolate pudding, maybe you’re not making fermented strawberries, but maybe you make that chocolate crumble and you put it in your yogurt or ice cream.”
But for chefs who are skilled and ambitious enough to attempt the complete dishes, the recipes had to deliver. Erace considered simplifying them, but Elmi wanted the book to accurately represent Laurel.
“I know these recipes work,” Elmi said. “I wanted to make sure that they translate well enough for someone at home.”
But would they work even for someone like me? To answer this, I chose the gnocchi recipe, which looked the most approachable even though I’d never made gnocchi. Aside from a stand mixer, it requires no expensive equipment, just a pastry bag (which I’ve also never used, and bought on Amazon for $6). It cost less than $25 to buy most of the ingredients: ricotta, eggs, chives, garlic, butter, lemon juice, cheese, and sourdough bread.
The remaining components are white truffle butter — Elmi recommends using D’Artagnan’s, which retails online for $10 per three-ounce tub — and a black truffle. Fresh truffles can be found at produce shops in summer and winter, or online for $20-30 (or ask someone at a restaurant to sell you one from its supplier).
Making the dough was simple, but to turn it into gnocchi, I had to pipe it through the bag, using scissors to snip pieces off over boiling water. I did not think I could do this, and at first I was right: My first few tries were a disaster, coming out too small and falling apart. I washed out the pot and started again, this time squeezing through a bigger hole, and it started to work.
For some reason I thought the sauce would be easy, which it probably would be for someone who has ever made a sauce. My timing throughout the process was a little off, and the liquid never came together as much as it should. But I didn’t want to overcook the gnocchi, so I cut my losses.
The finished meal, garnished with breadcrumbs, shaved cheese and truffles, didn’t look like the beautiful Neal Santos photo in the cookbook. But it did look cheffy, and more elegant than anything I normally produced.
And it tasted cheffy. The texture wasn’t quite right, but the flavors were rich, buttery, salty and truffle-y. I sent a photo to Elmi, and because he’s a really nice person, he replied, “Yay!!!!! Looks great!”
When I asked about the dough, he suggested letting it hydrate longer while cooking. “Don’t have rapidly boiling water when you’re piping them,” he texted. He knew where I’d gone wrong just by looking at it.
But that’s because he had to practice it a few times, and learn to do it just right before ever serving it to anyone. Neither of us got it right the first time. Like him, I’ll probably try again.
Fresh ricotta gnocchi, black truffle and toasted sourdough
Makes four servings
8 ounces/226 g ricotta
1 ounce/28 g all-purpose flour
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon/15 g Kosher salt, plus more for cooking the gnocchi
Half bunch of chives, minced
Extra-virgin olive oil
For the gnocchi
Place the ricotta and the flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and combine on medium speed. With the mixer still running, slowly add the egg yolk and salt.
Turn off the mixer, fold in the chives, and transfer the dough to a pastry bag. Rest the dough in the refrigerator for two hours.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and generously season with salt. Pipe out ½ inch of dough over the water, and snip it off with kitchen scissors. Continue this process for the rest of the dough, working quickly so the gnocchi don’t overcook.
Simmer the gnocchi for two minutes, constantly stirring the water. Skim the gnocchi from the water, drain well, toss in olive oil and reserve on a sheet pan.
4 tablespoons/60 g minced garlic
3 tablespoons/45 g extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup/118 ml water
3 ounces/85 g prepared white truffle butter, divided
.5 ounce/14.2 cold unsalted butter
1 ounce/28 g lemon juice
Grated Grana Padano
Grated Black Truffle
Combine the garlic and olive oil in a large sauté pan, and place over medium heat. Cook until the garlic softens, about 3 minutes; deglaze the pan with the water.
Add the gnocchi and half the truffle butter. Simmer for 1 minute to emulsify the sauce.
Add the remaining truffle butter, and simmer for 1 minute more to emulsify the sauce. Add the cold butter, lemon juice, and salt to taste, and toss to combine.
Transfer the gnocchi to a family-style serving platter, and garnish with grated Grana Padano, breadcrumbs, and grated black truffle.
From bourbon-glazed grilled lobster with crunchy grains and apple blossom, but writer Adam Erace says this glaze would work on proteins like salmon and pork chops.
Makes four servings
8 ounces bourbon
4 ounces granulated sugar
2 cups freshly pressed apple juice
Combine the bourbon and the sugar in a small pot. Bring to a simmer, and reduce by half.
Add the apple juice, and continue to reduce until the mixture becomes a thick, shiny syrup.
Transfer it to a nonreactive airtight container and reserve cold.
From white chocolate pudding with cocoa crumble and strawberries, but Erace suggests putting this crumble on ice cream or yogurt.
Makes 10 servings
7 ounces/200 g cocoa powder
7 ounces/200 g granulated sugar
3.5 ounces/100 g gluten-free flour or all-purpose flour
5 ounces/150 g melted unsalted butter
Preheat the oven to 325° F. Whisk together the cocoa powder, sugar, and flour, and sift. Slowly add the butter until mixture clumps when squeezed together but still falls apart.
Spread the mixture over a sheet tray lined with a silicone baking mat, and bake for 18-22 minutes or until dry and firm.
Remove the crumble from the oven, allow to cool, and break apart into fine crumbs. Store in a cool, dry place.
From Laurel: Modern American Flavors in Philadelphia, by Nicholas Elmi and Adam Erace