ATLANTA -- Richard Blais wants you to know that great flavors can be coaxed out of ordinary ingredients -- and that a bit of simple science can add texture and fizz to food.
Demonstrating a few of the tricks that have made him famous, the "Top Chef" star, Atlanta restaurateur and author of the new cookbook, "Try This at Home: Recipes from My Head to Your Plate" (Clarkson Potter, $30), is frying a burger in a pan at his midtown Atlanta restaurant, The Spence.
It's not an ordinary ground-beef patty but a "beautifully marbleized" amalgamation of fatty brisket and boneless top round speckled with the chunks of fat.
Many cooks squeeze every bit of juice out of the burger as it sizzles. That's poor technique, Blais says, because it removes the flavor. Instead, the chef tosses a knob of butter into the pan -- along with some garlic and sprigs of fresh thyme -- to create a rich, glistening liquid that he spoons over the burger, again and again, until it is saturated. This is what he calls "treating a $6 burger like a $65 steak," a simple step that adds luxury.
But there's more.
Blais takes a simple cheese sauce, pours it into a whipped-cream canister, chills it and squirts his so-called Cheese Wizard on top. Of course, you can use sliced cheese. But that's no fun -- especially if you are TV star with a love of showmanship and flashy cookery.
"Some people might look at this recipe and think it's really adventurous," Blais says.
But whipped cream is a coffee-drink staple. "They don't realize that technology is already a part of their everyday life, and these tools are available now in so many markets relatively cheap."
It has taken five weeks for the "Top Chef All-Stars" winner and father of two small children to find time to run through a few recipes from his new 125-recipe volume, which includes instructions for his signature Oysters with Horseradish Pearls, Macaroni and Headcheese and Aerated Cheesecake.
On this recent Tuesday afternoon, a CNN crew is setting up for an interview with Blais's fellow Bravo star Andy Cohen, who is in town for a book signing at the Georgia Tech Barnes & Noble across the street. But when a writer, photographer, videographer and editor arrive from the AJC, Blais seems surprised, saying he's not prepared for a video demonstration.
But the chef -- a bona fide TV star who knows how to perform in front of a camera -- quickly rises to the occasion and effortlessly runs through recipes for his Potato Chip Omelet, his Pecan Treacle Tart with Buttermilk-Ginger Frozen Yogurt and the burger. All the while, the man behind the FLIP Burger Boutique chain and the HD1 hot-dog restaurant explains the thought processes behind his book, which seeks to provide recipes for cooks at every level.
"I used to make fun of chefs who did a lot of recipes, and it was 5 ingredients, 20 minutes," says the Long Island, N.Y., native who first cooked at McDonald's. "But now I kind of realize the beauty of that, as I'm cooking for my family and cooking on the road. I am getting lots of email and questions about how you do things simple and quick. So the 10-minute recipe of four or five steps is important."
Take the Potato Chip Omelet, which is essentially kettle chips soaked in eggs and prepared omelet style. "We are not looking for the texture of the crispy potatoes," Blais says of the chips. "We are just looking for that flavor." The omelet resembles a Tortilla Espanola but doesn't required the slicing and cooking of potatoes. A quirky brunch dish or hangover cure (according to Blais), it may be served with a dollop of sour cream or Blais' San Marzano Ketchup.
The Pecan Treacle Tart, he explains, is "a mash-up ... of two really popular desserts."
"We have treacle tart, which is very British, which is basically just a simple syrup mixed with bread crumbs, and a pecan pie. So what we've done is taken two very traditional dishes and sort of fused them together."
Though the recipe calls for baking the tart in a fluted pan with a removable bottom, Blais makes it in individual baking dishes (there's enough pastry and filling for four). I had excellent results when I cooked the tart at home in a glass pie plate. (And yes, it looked like a Southern pecan pie.) The treacly-ness comes from Lyle's Golden Syrup. Blais is not crazy about super-sweet desserts, so he balances the syrup-laced tart with "the sourness and the funk of the buttermilk" yogurt.
Again, it's about technique. The yogurt recipe calls for infusing the buttermilk with fresh ginger -- a simple process that adds a sublime flavor. I froze mine at home in a Cuisinart ice-cream maker, and it worked effortlessly. But Blais, who has by now warmed to the camera and is not about to miss a good photo op, asks his assistants to bring in the liquid nitrogen.
"A lot of people think I am super creative and ultra avant-garde," Blais jokes. "I am just stealing junior high experiments. You can do this in a mixer. It's little bit easier. ... But I am showing off."
POTATO CHIP OMELET
Hands-on: 25 minutes Total time: 40 minutes Serves: 4
12 large eggs
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
6 cups plain kettle-cooked potato chips
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or vegetable oil
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk eggs, cream, white pepper, parsley and chives together until combined. Fold in the potato chips until they are completely covered in the egg mixture, but try not to crush the chips too much. Let stand for 10 minutes, until the chips soften slightly.
Heat the butter (or vegetable oil) in an ovenproof 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, swirling the pan to coat the bottom completely, until very hot. Carefully pour in the egg mixture and spread it evenly in the pan; then immediately reduce the heat to low. Cook until eggs are set and the bottom is light golden, about 15 minutes. If the bottom is golden but the eggs are still runny on the top, transfer the skillet to the preheated oven and bake until the eggs are completely set, 3 to 4 minutes.
To serve, place a large plate over the pan, and flip the pan and the plate to invert the omelet onto the plate. Let stand for at least 5 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve.
Adapted from "Try this at Home" by Richard Blais (Clarkson Potter, $30) Per serving: 634 calories (percent of calories from fat, 63), 23 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 43 grams fat (15 grams saturated), 677 milligrams cholesterol, 375 milligrams sodium.
BUTTERMILK-GINGER FROZEN YOGURT
Hands-on: 25 minutes Total time: 2 hours (includes chill time for the buttermilk and freezing time) Makes: About 1 quart
This delicious yogurt is lovely with just about any dessert you can think of. I loved it on lemon bars.
4-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
2 cups low-fat buttermilk
1 cup whole milk
4 large egg yolks
3/4 cup granulated sugar
In a large liquid measuring cup or a small bowl, combine the ginger and buttermilk. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and up to 3 hours.
Heat the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat until hot but not boiling. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk the yolks and sugar together until combined. Whisking constantly, gradually add the hot milk to the egg yolks. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan, return it to medium-low heat, and stir constantly with a wooden spoon until it is thickened and coats the back of the spoon, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Strain the buttermilk through a fine-mesh strainer into the milk mixture and whisk well to combine; discard the ginger. Strain the mixture into a medium bowl. Set the bowl in a slightly larger bowl filled with ice water and stir occasionally until the ice cream base is cold.
Freeze the ice cream in an ice-cream maker following the manufacturer's instructions. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze for up to 1 month.
Adapted from "Try this at Home" by Richard Blais (Clarkson Potter, $30) Per 1/2-cup serving: 146 calories (percent of calories from fat, 25), 4 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 4 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 113 milligrams cholesterol, 82 milligrams sodium.
BURGERS WITH CHEDDAR CHEESE (or "Cheese Wizard" Foam)
Hands-on: 25 minutes Total time: 30 minutes Makes: 4 burgers
Blais likes to dress this burger up with Candied Onions and Pressure-Cooker Braised Bacon. (Recipes are in the book.)
The Korean barbecue rub he uses may be purchased from Terra Spice Company (terraspicecompany.com). Plain salt and pepper works fine. Blais suggests using any leftover liquid to cook vegetables.
One 12-ounce piece boneless top round, coarsely chopped
One 12-ounce piece brisket, coarsely chopped
4 ounces beef fat, coarsely chopped (Or: 2 pounds ground beef with a 75 percent to 25 percent meat-to-fat ratio)
1/4 cup Korean barbecue spice-mix blend, or your favorite barbecue seasoning
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 garlic cloves, smashed
5 sprigs fresh thyme
4 thick slices cheddar cheese (may substitute Cheese Foam; see note.)
English muffins, split and toasted (may use any kind of bun or roll of choice)
If using top round and brisket, in a large bowl, combine the meat, fat and spice mix. Attach the medium-sized die to a meat grinder and grind the beef and fat; then transfer to a medium bowl and mix gently. If using ground beef, form the meat into 4 patties, about 3/4 inch thick, and, with the handle of a wooden spoon, make an indentation in the middle of each patty. (This will prevent the burgers from shrinking into meatball shapes while cooking). Season the patties on both sides, using 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper for each one.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large cast-iron skillet over high heat until smoking. Place the beef patties in the pan; immediately reduce the heat to medium-high, and cook for 4 minutes; do not press on the burgers so they retain their juices. With a spatula, carefully flip the patties, and add the butter, garlic cloves, and thyme to the pan. Once the butter has melted, tip the pan and baste each burger a few times, spooning the hot butter over it. Continue to cook, basting often, until the burgers are well browned on the bottom and the meat is medium-rare, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove the burgers from the hot pan, top each with a slice of cheddar, and let rest for 5 minutes.
To make the cheese foam: Put 2 cups heavy cream and 4 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded, in a medium saucepan and warm gently over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the cheese is completely melted and the mixture is smooth. Pour the cream into a pitcher or bowl and refrigerate, covered, until cold. When ready to dispense, whisk the cream thoroughly to loosen it; then transfer the mixture to an iSi siphon and charge with 2 charges. Let the canister sit for 5 minutes, then shake it vigorously before dispensing the foam on top of the hot burgers.
Adapted from "Try this at Home" by Richard Blais (Clarkson Potter, $30) Per burger (with Cheese Foam): 1,497 calories (percent of calories from fat, 75), 52 grams protein, 41 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 124 grams fat (62 grams saturated), 401 milligrams cholesterol, 3,461 milligrams sodium.
PECAN TREACLE TART
You can find Lyle's Golden Syrup, a British import, at Whole Foods. No need to be fussy about the pan; you can use a regular pie pan or make this into four individual desserts.
Hands-on: 30 minutes Total time: 3 hours (includes chill time for pastry, baking and cooling of crust) Serves: 6 to 8
For the crust
11/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, diced
2 to 3 tablespoons ice water
For the filling 1/2 cup packed fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons packed light-brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
4 pitted dates, finely minced
1 cup Lyle's Golden Syrup
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon table salt
Buttermilk-Ginger Frozen Yogurt for serving (see recipe, above)
To make the crust: Put flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse until combined. Add the butter and pulse until small pea-sized crumbs form. While pulsing, add the ice water 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough begins to hold together. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently until it holds together. Press into a flat disk, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 3 days.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Dust a work surface lightly with flour and, using a floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a 12-inch circle. Transfer it to a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom and press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Trim the excess dough. Transfer the pan to a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, or until set. Remove from the oven and let cool. (Leave the oven on).
To make the filling: In a small bowl, stir the bread crumbs, brown sugar, pecans and dates together until combined. In a medium bowl, whisk the golden syrup, eggs, ginger and salt together until well combined. Add the bread crumb mixture and fold together until combined. Pour into the cooled tart shell. Bake until the crust is golden, the filling is set, and a toothpick inserted in the center of the pie comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Cool completely on a rack before slicing.
Remove the pan sides, cut the tart into slices, and serve with the frozen yogurt on the side.
Adapted from "Try this at Home" by Richard Blais (Clarkson Potter, $30) Per serving, based on 6: 528 calories (percent of calories from fat, 41), 7 grams protein, 74 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 25 grams fat (11 grams saturated), 149 milligrams cholesterol, 388 milligrams sodium.