Big Smoke Sunday Seminars: Breakfast with Charlie Palmer

About 500 Big Smoke Las Vegas attendees temporarily traded the scent of cigar smoke for the aroma of gourmet cooking as celebrity Chef Charlie Palmer prepared a sumptuous meal for them on Sunday morning.

Along with a basket of assorted European pastries, each guest was greeted with a glass of orange juice and a Wild Turkey Bourbon Hayride cocktail, a drink created by Blue Smoke restaurant in New York city, at their setting.

"This will cure my hangover, right?" joked one man as he sipped the bourbon, pear brandy, and spiced cider elixir.

Palmer was introduced by executive editor Gordon Mott, who described the cigar that the audience would get later: the Oliva Serie V Churchill Extra. The extra-fat Churchills are made in Nicaragua by the Oliva Cigar Co., and have made numerous appearances in Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 listing. After the introduction Palmer, who had shaved his signature mustache since last year's event, spoke about what the guests would be eating.

Palmer is known for his progressive style of cooking and often infuses classical French ideas and big flavors into traditionally simple dishes to create an original serving. Poaching, the act of gently simmering food in liquid other than oil, was the theme for Sunday's meal.

Amy Oxford and Shannon Mishey from Washington D.C. enjoying the Wild Turkey Bourbon Hayride.
Amy Oxford and Shannon Mishey from Washington D.C. enjoying the Wild Turkey Bourbon Hayride.

His first course was a variation on the English "Toad in the Hole" standard.

The traditional recipe calls for sausages laid in a dish of Yorkshire pudding and is usually served with onion gravy and vegetables. Palmer chose to serve the Big Smoke guests a poached organic egg from Petaluma, California ("local and fresh is best," he said) that was laid atop a rich and tender brioche that surrounded a pork belly sausage. Hollandaise sauce infused with whole-grain mustard was drizzled on the whole thing.

As post-meal coffee and tea was served, Palmer got busy at the on-stage kitchen preparing his Mizuna salad with red wine poached pears and Maytag blue cheese.

As he cut, moved and worked at the temporary kitchen set, a video camera followed his every move, providing wonderful shots of his deft cooking techniques for the audience.

"I love this set up," a lady near this reporter said. "I like to watch his hands."

He poured red wine into a saucepan that had a bed of pears in it. He then added a zested lemon peel, star anise and vanilla bean.

"Now some people say you can't poach pears," Palmer said. "But I just did."

Palmer then prepared to plate the dish by combining salad greens, hazelnuts and chopped parsley in a mixing bowl. This mixture was then placed on top of the pears, and the red wine drizzled on the whole thing.

The second dish Palmer prepared was ginger poached chicken with bok choy.

"Bok choy," Palmer said, "gets kind of a bad rap because some think it's hard to cook. But it's healthy, and I think you just need to learn how to work with it."

Palmer started by placing shallots, garlic, and ginger in a deep skillet. He started with only a few cloves of garlic, and then thought twice.

"Wait, garlic's healthy?" he joked. "OK, the just put it all in." And as he dumped the rest of the garlic cloves in the skillet, the room erupted in cheers.

As he prepared the chicken for poaching, Palmer took the time to address the audience.

"There's a big difference between poaching and what my grandmother did. You can't just boil it for three hours," he joked. "That's not poaching!" His point, he explained, was that some people tend to cook chicken for too long because they fear salmonella, a fear Palmer believes can be eliminated if one buys better quality chicken.

Palmer wasted no time getting to his third dish, Shabu-Shabu poached beef.

According to Palmer, Shabu-Shabu means "swish, swish" and refers to the swishing action that occurs when one cooks thin strips of beef in hot broth.

Before he started with the beef, he chopped kombu seaweed into boiling water. He then removed the kombu and added a bit of soy sauce. He also put in shittake mushrooms, Chinese cabbage and tofu.

Some in the audience booed as the tofu was plopped into the sauce.

"Oh come on guys!" Palmer begged. "I know you're not health nuts but it's going to be good, trust me."

Then out came his new favorite cooking tool: surgical tongs.

"These are culinary tongs, but they came from the surgical world," Palmer explained. "Surgeons need tongs to get out the guts, as do cooks."

He used the tongs to grab razor-thin strips of beef and then he gently "swished" them around the broth.

"You want to barely cook them," Palmer said.

As the session was almost complete, the audience began to pepper Palmer with culinary questions.

Palmer summed up his advice with three rules.

"If you want to be a better cook instantly, buy better salt, better butter and quality olive oil," he preached.

And with that the seminar was over and the audience filed out, receiving an Oliva Serie V Churchill Extra to smoke and help digest the hearty meal.

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