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December 2008

December 24, 2008

Skate, traditional flavors powdered

Before I get to the cooking part of today's post, I want to take a moment to thank all of you who have donated to Share Our Strength.  I am so thrilled with the response, and am blown away by the support you all have put forth.  I know there are a lot of competing demands on your generosity this time of year, and I'm so incredibly grateful that so many of you took the time to make a donation to a cause I think is so important, and one whose reach will expand even further as our country continues to ride the economic roller coaster that causes parents to lose jobs and already-stretched grocery budgets to take a hit.  In addition to supporting local food banks and food programs all across the country, Share Our Strength also works with national and local elected officials on food and economic policies that work to end childhood hunger and strengthen local and regional socioeconomic infrastructures.  That's why I like them.  They work smart and address the root causes of childhood hunger in America, and move toward real change.

If you haven't already made a donation, but would like to, click here.  Your chance to win one of the Alinea cookbooks or Under Pressure books as part of this campaign ends at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday, December 31.

*  *  *  *  *

I noticed the other day that when I cook from the Alinea cookbook, as I do with all other cookbooks, I tend to keep the jacket flap over part of the page so I don't lose my place if I need to flip around to the front of the book to check something.  In doing so, it struck me that Grant Achatz is always STARING AT ME.  Not in any menacing sort of way, but because I tend toward the unnecessarily dramatic from time to time (oh, who am I kidding, ALL THE DAMN TIME), I decided that the book's editors put his photo right there because they KNEW I used my cookbooks this way and they wanted to torture me by having Grant stare at me, judging my every move, snickering to himself as I burn certain powders (oooo, foreshadowing) because I was too busy cooing on the phone to my little nephew, cracking him up by calling him Mr. Poopy Butt Pants in a singsong voice.

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See what I mean?  He's totally 1984-ing it.  At least he's a handsome, affable chap.  Could you imagine if this beast wrote a cookbook and had her photo on the jacket flap staring you down over every dish?

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I'd never cook or eat again.

Sweet fancy Moses that's tragic and unappetizing, now, isn't it?  Yipes.  Sorry 'bout that.


* * * * *

This time of year, more than any other, it's always fun to see what happens when the FedEx or UPS truck makes an appearance on our street.  I live on a weird little driveway of a street kind of in the middle of the woods, and my street has just 3 houses on it, so it's always a guessing game to see who's getting what goodies when deliveries find their way to us.

A few days ago, our cute FedEx guy (must've hired him from UPS, natch) dropped off a medium-sized box on my front porch.  Funny, because I hadn't ordered anything, and wasn't really expecting anything from anyone.  When I saw the label, I actually squealed.  I'm not proud of that, because it's just so girly and totally not me, but who wouldn't squeal when they saw the return address of 1723 North Halsted and the name Grant Achatz?  

Yeah, I thought so.

Wanna know what was inside?

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There are 30-40 (haven't counted yet) packages of all sorts of potions and powders I need to make the dishes in the Alinea cookbook, and they're all going to be available on Alinea-Mosaic in their Postmodern Pantry in a few weeks.  Totally cool, because there might be a certain powder in there I thought I had ordered, but didn't (oooooo, MORE foreshadowing) for a certain dish and had a hissyfit about until I realized it might very well be in this box of awesomeness, AND IT WAS!

When the Postmodern Pantry is up and running, I'll change the Hydrocolloid Shopping link in the sidebar to reflect that, and you can shop away to your heart's content.

* * * * *

I know this is the world's longest post, and I haven't even gotten to the freakin' cooking part of it yet, but one more admin/housekeeping thing, and then I promise we'll dive right in.

This will be my last post until the new year.  I'm working a reduced schedule next week (an unexpected surprise; thanks, clients!!), and that, compounded by the fact that my dishwasher melted down and also at the same time kind of exploded yesterday, means my kitchen is a mess right now, so I'm going to spend the week napping, dining out, reading, seeing movies, seeing my friends, and generally unplugging and going on radio silence... something I haven't done since, oh, 1982, I think.  I'll be back here the week of January 5th.

So, let me take this opportunity to wish you a happy holiday season, and I raise a glass to all of you in the hopes for a happy, healthy, prosperous, and full-bellied 2009!  You guys are the best.  I mean it.

* * * * *

Now, on to the Skate!

Any excuse I can find to visit my buddy, Scott, at BlackSalt, I'm all for... but somehow, this expedition was far less fun than other times I've had having him source things for me.  I called him a few days before making this dish, and our convo went a little something like this:

Phone: ::: ring ring ::::

Scott: BlackSalt Fish Market, this is Scott.

Me: Hey, it's Carol.

Scott: Hey, you.

Me: Hey.  So, I need some skate wing.  About a pound.  Do you have any?

Scott: I do, and I'm getting some more in tomorrow morning.  What time do you want to stop by?

Me: How about 11:30, 12-ish?

Scott: Perfect.  See you then.

Me: Okay, see you then.

Phone: ::: click :::


Totally boring, right?  Oh well, I guess all seafood purchases can't have a sense of adventure.  Although, when I went there the next day, I did see a bald eagle as I drove alongside the Potomac River, so there's that.  Yay, America!

I did this dish over two days because I wanted to spend a day focusing on the powders (since I was drying them in the oven instead of using a dehydrator), and then a second day to finish and serve.  Truth be told, this is doable in one day, and easily so.  Just don't multitask during a certain portion of the prep work like I did, and you'll be fine.  More on that later.

So, like I said, Day One was powders.  Because, in the book, all three powders -- caper, lemon, and parsley -- could be dehydrated at the same temperature and for the same amount of time in a dehydrator, I figured they could also be done in the oven at the same temperature for close to the same amount of time... and I was right.

I factored in some allowances for density and moisture content of each ingredient -- believe me, none of this was scientific or culinary in any way; I just sort of made some common-sense assumptions and turned out to be right; and I am now, therefore, changing my name to Copernicus Blymire -- and got to work.

I started with the capers.  I weighed them first, then rinsed them under cold, running water for a few minutes, then spread them out evenly on a parchment-lined baking sheet, which I then put in a 150-degree oven (I have a free-standing oven thermometer inside the oven; can't really ever rely on the settings dial):

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I put them in the oven to start drying them while I prepped the lemons.

I removed the zest from 10.6 ounces/300 grams of lemons (dude, I mixed and matched so many lemons at the grocery store to get as close to 11 ounces as I could, and when I got home and measured them on my digital scale, they were 10.7 ounces; I f-ing ROCK!) and thrice-poached them in simple syrup before drying them on paper towels and putting them on a parchment-lined baking sheet to begin drying:

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After the lemon rind went into the oven, I prepped the parsley (I also charged the camera battery at this point, so no photos, but if you don't know what flat-leaf parsley looks like by now, then um, I dunno, insert some sort of insulting phrase here because I can't come up with anything witty enough right now).

I blanched the parsley in boiling salted water for a second or two, plonked it in an ice bath, then drained it, gently dried it in paper towels, laid it out evenly on a third and final parchment-lined baking sheet and put it in the oven to dry.

At this point, I cleaned up the kitchen, did a little work, caught up on email, and began checking to see when each of the three ingredients was dry enough to begin grinding into powder.

Let me also say here that the smell of these three things, together, drying in my oven was so unbelievably fragrant and wonderful... and since the smell of Christmas trees makes me sneeze uncontrollably, I'm going to substutute this scent every year at this time because it's really gorgeous!

Here's a quick recap of the times everything went into the 150-degree oven, and what time I took them out -- in case you want to make this at home in the same way:

Capers: In at 6:45 p.m., out at 10 p.m. (3 hours, 15 minutes)
Lemon Peel: In at 7:30 p.m., out at 10:30 p.m. (3 hours)
Parsley: In at 8:20 p.m., out at 10 p.m. (1 hour, 40 minutes)

After taking them out of the oven, I let them rest for about 10 minutes to cool to room temperature before grinding them.  Using my cheapy little Capresso coffee grinder I use as a spice grinder, I ground each one, one at a time, and then stored them in little plastic deli containers until the next day:

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The next afternoon, I prepared the green beans, brown butter powder and the skate wing before serving it that evening.

I cut the green beans into 1/8" slices (some were 1/16", others 1/4"; I am so not perfect), and cooked them as directed in the beurre monte, which I already knew how to make from my French Laundry at Home days.

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After they'd cooked the prescribed amount of time, I kept them warm on the back burner of the stove and began working on the brown butter powder.  This is relatively straightforward.  You grid up some dried banana chips into a fine powder (using the coffee/spice grinder):

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Then, you sift the spray-dried cream powder onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet:
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And you put it in a 350-degree oven for 4 minutes.

Under no circumstances should you answer your phone during this time, because if you have as cute a nephew as I do, you'll get distracted by the adorable baby giggles coming over the phone line and you will undoubtedly end up with this:

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Sorry for the blurry shot.  I was shaking in rage.  Not really.  I'm just too cheap to buy a tripod.

So, um, yeah.  We had to skip the brown butter powder portion of our program and move on.

I still had the banana powder, and decided to use that on its own, which you'll see in the final plating shot.

Last step was to prepare the skate.

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I cut it into the strips the book suggests, and let them simmer in some buerre monte for 2-3 minutes on each side.

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While the fish was cooking, I sifted each of the powders through a strainer to clear out the debris, and realized I'd forgotten to add the citric acid powder to the lemon powder.  It was at this point that I thought, hey wait a minute, I thought I ordered citric acid from WillPowders.net, but now I'm not so sure, and where did I put that box when I was moving stuff around, and now I can't even get to that other little storage area unless I move a bunch of other things and get out my step ladder, and I need to figure this out in the next 15 seconds or I am going to BLOW A GASKET here because I can't have screwed up TWO powders in this dish, one was enough, and HEY, maybe there's citric acid in the box that Grant sent, and lo and behold there WAS and all was right with the world.

So I mixed in a wee bit of citric acid to the lemon powder, and it was almost better than world peace.

I sliced a banana really thin and let the skate drain a bit of the butter onto some parchment for a minute while I plated everything else.

I started with the powders.  Just a small pile of each (used half an espresso spoon's worth of each), then swirled them as the book suggests.  They didn't turn out in exactly the concentric circles they were supposed to be, but COME ON PEOPLE, I suck at art and drawing and stuff, so cut me some slack.

Next, I gently overlapped three slices of banana onto the other side of the plate, topped them with green beans, then dunked a side of the cooked skate into the dried banana powder before laying the skate over the green bean-banana pile.

Here's what mine looked like:

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And here's a closer-up shot:

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Now, here's the thing.

If you had called to invite me over for a meal and said, "Hey, Carol, how 'bout you come over for dinner?  We're having poached fish with bananas and green beans," I might have replied, "Are you kidding me?  Do you live in a nursing home?  What is UP with that combination?"

Honestly, at first glance, I was prepared to not like this one bit.  Texturally, the idea of bananas and fish mushing around in my mouth was not the epitome of gastronomic delight.  Having a swirl of powders nearby seemed a little floofy (I know that's not a word; work with me here), and I really thought it was going to be annoying.

I was happy to be proven wrong, my friends.

I invited my neighbors over to try this.  The two boys tasted the powders first to see what they were like and made all sorts of faces and gagging noises, and then got huge glasses of water to chase it.  Because I have a one-bite rule in my house, we all tried one bite on the fork -- a little fish, some banana, a few green bean pieces, and a touch of the pwder mixture, and you know what?  I loved it.  I cleaned my plate.  The other grownups didn't hate it, but the kids grimaced as they chewed, swallowed, then got another glass of water.  Not their favorite, I guess.  Oh well.

The powders, on their own, are overpowering.  But when mixed with everything else, they just pop, and the flavor profile of this dish is spot-on.  The fish was cooked to perfection (yay, me), and everything was really, really good.

It's been interesting to have the same people who ate all my French Laundry at Home creations taste these dishes.  This is a different experience with different flavors and different executions, and in some ways, a different way of cooking and presentation.  One is not better than the other, and one isn't easier than the other.  They're just different.  Cooking from The French Laundry Cookbook was a challenge because it strengthened the skills I knew needed to work on, and also taught me new ones.  Cooking from the Alinea cookbook is a challenge for me because it's all about innovation and change -- things I embrace in theory bot personally and professionally, but, like most people, too often keep at arm's length.  We're all naturally more comfortable with the familiar, whether food, a neighborhood, a commute, a job, our schedule, or our hobbies.  But even in the short time I've been cooking from this book, I've found it pushes my boundaries in different ways and teaches me new things I didn't know I needed to learn but am grateful for having done so.

My friend and colleague, Michael, reads this blog (hi!) and he told me a few weeks ago in an email that his grandmother always said, "if you can read, then you can cook."  No truer words, really.  So, if the Alinea cookbook finds its way to your house this holiday season, I hope you'll take the time to not only read it and appreciate the enormous amount of work that went into it, but also be willing to take a leap of faith and try one of them... and report back to me upon having done so, because I want to hear how it went.  Ten bucks says YOU won't burn YOUR brown butter powder.  Even if Grant is staring you down from the book jacket flap.

Happy New Year, everybody.



Up Next:  Probably Oysters, but maybe foie gras.

Resources: Skate wing from BlackSalt fish market; 365 organic capers; lemons, banana, and green beans from Whole Foods; parsley from my garden (sadly, the last batch of the year); 365 organic butter; citric acid and spray-dried cream powder from Alinea's Postmodern Pantry. 

Music to Cook By: I used to subscribe to an inordinate number of podcasts. Seriously, like over 200 of them.  Couldn't keep up AT ALL, so I deleted them all and started over.  I'm down to about 10 of them now and it's still too many. I had a serious logjam this month, so I decided instead of cooking to music this week, I'd just listen to my podcasts and clear them all out. Here's what's on my list, and of course, there were multiple "episodes" (or whatever the heck they're called) of each, but this is what's on my list right now: KCRW Good Food, Splendid Table, NPR Food, KCRW Martini Shot, KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic, KCRW The Business, KCRW Top Tune, NPR Hidden Kitchen, NPR Story of the Day, NPR Driveway Moments, and the now-defunct Ricky Gervais Show.

Read My Previous Post: Transparency of manchego cheese

December 17, 2008

Transparency of manchego cheese

The good thing about making this dish? 

It's really easy, all the ingredients are readily available, and there's one particular element of the dish that is so freakin' delicious it will make your toes curl.

The bad thing about making this dish?

I spent most of the day walking around the house channeling my inner Beavis saying, "Man-chaaayyy-goooooooh" about 500 million times.  As if any of us needed further proof I'm really a 12-year old boy trapped in a grown woman's body.

For work-related timing reasons, I made this dish over two days, so let's start with day one.  The first thing I did was make the dried olives.  'Twas rather easy, since Whole Foods sells already-pitted Niçoise olives in their cheese department.  You know if I'd have had to pit the olives myself, we would've ended up with photos that more than vaguely resembled some sort of post-surgical consult case study.  So, hug your Whole Foods employees tight, ladies and germs.  They did us all a solid.

This step was so easy, I almost want to make them every day just to feel like a regular Smartypants McGhee.  I lined a baking sheet with parchment paper, placed the olives on them, and put them in a 160-degree oven for 7 hours.  The book suggests using a food dehydrator at 150 degrees for 24 hours, but I had to improvise since I don't have a dehydrator.  I made a few extra so that I could taste them along the way to see when they got crunchy.  Seven hours on the dot, people.  I am blinding myself with all this science (beep, boop, booop).

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Next, I prepped the bell peppers.  I put them on my stovetop over an open flame, and just let the fire ker-plack the bejesus out of the skins (10 minutes).  Then, I stored them in a ziploc bag for about 30 minutes to loosen the skin, then peeled and diced them.

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It was time for beddy-bye, so I packed up shop for the night and continued the next day.

I roasted the garlic in a 375-degree oven for just over 45 minutes, then peeled the cloves and stored them at room temperature until I was ready to plate:

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Next up?  The croutons.  Again, super-easy.  I bought a loaf of sourdough bread at the local co-op, trimmed off the crust, and diced the bread into quarter-inch (okay, I lied, they were more like half-inch) cubes (also pretty much lying about the cube shape -- see below -- more like trapezoids).  Toasted those suckers at 325 degrees for 10 minutes, tossing them around a bit after the first five minutes.

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Now, for the best part EVER, and to date, my FAVORITE THING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD ABOUT THE ALINEA COOKBOOK... three little words that will warm my cockles forever [/snerk, she said "cockles"].....

Olive Oil Pudding.

People.

You have not LIVED until you have eaten olive oil pudding.

Now, I don't want to hear, "But Carol, my Great Aunt Nonny used to make olive oil pudding when we visited her every summer, using a recipe that had been handed down through 37 generations of our family, so it's not like it's a new thing."

To that I say, "Shut up about your stupid Great Aunt Nonny, and just let me pretend I discovered this for all mankind and am taking this opportunity to announce to the entire world for the very first time that this is, perhaps, the greatest pudding, ever, in the history of the universe."

Because it is.

Typically, I hate the word "pudding."  It's onomatopoeic in kind of a gross way.  Don't get me wrong, I loves me some pudding (especially homemade chocolate pudding, still warm, with a skin over the top); I just hate saying the word.  Ick.  (I mean, say it.  Really.  Isn't it kind of gross?  Like the word sounds like you actually have some pudding stuck in your throat when you say it, which makes it even more gurgly and gross.)

But gurgly and gross do not in any way define this lovely delight of a p-word.  Not even close.  It's f-ing spectacular, and in my opinion, is, on its own, worth the price of the book.  Seriously.  And the best part?  You will have LEFTOVERS in a SQUEEZE BOTTLE which means you can .... um....... squirtitrightintoyourmouthwhennooneislookingnotlikeiactuallydidthatoranything.

To make this pudding, I prepared my mise en place:

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I brought the milk up to a boil, while I whisked together the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and salt in a small bowl.

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I then poured a wee bit of milk into the yolk mixture to temper it, then poured the milked yolk mixture into the saucepan with the hot milk, whisked like mad until it came back up to a simmer:

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I removed it from the heat, whisked in the olive oil, then strained it into a bowl set inside a bowl of ice so it could cool to room temperature:

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The only thing left to do was cut the cheese.

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I can hear you laughing.  Nice to know I'm not the only adult 12-year old on the internet.


This step is where I wish I had a deli-grade cheese slicer, or that my mandoline would've worked (it didn't).  However, I sliced the cheese as thinly as my skills would allow and also diced a bit of the cheese to go onto the plate, as well.  I also chopped up a few anchovies to include, as well.

Here's how the plating went -- squiggles of olive oil pudding, then a scattering of red bell pepper, yellow bell pepper, olive, crouton, anchovy, garlic:

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Then, my neighbor friends came over and we covered this assortment with the not-really-thin-enough slices of manchego cheese, and took a torch to it to melt the cheese.  I suppose I could've put the plates under the broiler in the oven, but letting a 10-year old play with fire was far more fun:

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So, not quite as pretty as the photo in the Alinea cookbook, that's for sure, but boy was this delicious.

I had to make mine without the bell pepper, but I don't think the dish suffered one bit.  The different textures and tastes worked really nicely together, and the cheese didn't overpower the rest of the dish like I thought it might.  I've never been a huge fan of manchego cheese -- I don't know why.  It's just never one I reach for.  I think it's because it's a harder cheese, and the tang of it can stick inyour sinuses longer than other cheeses.  This time, it didn't, and I really enjoyed this plate.  In fact, if you didn't want to make this particular dish, you could combine these elements into a really great sandwich -- sourdough roll, roasted peppers, anchovy, garlic-olive oil spread, olives, manchego... it would work, and you'd be the envy of your workplace.

And, if you're going to make such a sandwich, don't forget to include some arugula.

Because, you know, the recipe calls for the Transparency of manchego cheese to be topped with a few arugula leaves and some arugula flowers.  Couldn't find the flowers anywhere, but I did buy a beautiful batch of baby arugula for this dish and completely forgot to include it on top when we ate it.

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Poor, sad, neglected arugula.

Although it did taste mighty fine in a salad the next day.


Up Next: Not sure, yet.  Probably Skate.  Maybe Cranberry.  Maybe Oyster.

NOTE: There's still time to make a difference in helping to end childhood hunger in America by donating to Share Our Strength.  Every little bit helps.  Seriously.  If all you can donate is $5, then I hope you'll consider doing so.  It's been so wonderful to hear from so many of you about why you donated and why childhood hunger is an issue that's important to you, too.  So, go ahead, click on that link, and do your part help end childhood hunger in America.  You might just win a copy of the Alinea cookbook, or Thomas Keller's Under Pressure.

Resources: Organic Valley milk; Smith Meadows Farms eggs; Domino sugar; Clabber Girl cornstarch; Monini olive oil; David's kosher salt; garlic, bell pepper, olives, anchovies, arugula, and cheese from Whole Foods; sourdough bread from the TPSS Co-op.

Music to Cook By: Nikka Costa; Pebble to a Pearl.  Funky, soulful, great beats. Try not to bob your head and dance in your chair to "Stuck To You."  You can't.  I know.  I've tried.

Read My Previous Post: Yolk Drops, asparagus, meyer lemon, black pepper

December 10, 2008

Yolk Drops, asparagus, meyer lemon, black pepper

I came, I saw, I foamed.  Successfully.

About dang time, huh?

This is the second dish Jane Black and I made together while she was writing her story for the Washington Post.  Unfortunately, she had to leave for a meeting on the Hill before she got a chance to taste it, but Jim (the photographer) and I sampled it and filled her in when we were done. 

The reason I'm mentioning the Post story again is because this is a dish I sort of slacked on in the photo department.  It was a little more challenging that the Caramel Popcorn dish in terms of delegating, organizing, prepping, cooking, cleaning and shooting all at the same time.  It's so rare for me to have others in the kitchen with me when I cook -- don't get me wrong, I loved it -- it just got me a bit flumbozzled this time around.

So, here's hoping this blog entry will make sense, because we kind of botched one of the steps.  No wait, two.  Yeah, two.  It didn't make the dish a failure by any means; it just didn't "sing" like I expected or wanted it to.

And away we go...

The first thing I did was remove the tips from the asparagus spears, setting aside 8 tips from which I could dismember the individual buds therein.  Thereon?  From which?  Du hast?  Steve Holt?!!??   Not sure what's grammatically correct there, but I'm hoping you get what I mean.  I'm tired.  It's been a long week.  Mama needs a cocktail.  Or, some asparagus:

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I blanched the tips and buds for 10-15 seconds and put them in an ice water bath to cool.  Then, I cut the woody, gross bottoms off the asparagus stalks, cut the good part of the stalks into 1" pieces, and blanched them for about 2 minutes before pureeing them in my food processor and extracting the juice through a cheesecloth.  

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And here's a little something to consider for future print runs of this book: the instructions say to blanch the asparagus in boiling water.  No mention of salt.  Now, I know to add salt to my water when blanching vegetables, but not everyone who buys this book might know to do that (even though they should, but you never know -- I learned when doing my FL@H blog that some people have a weird relationship with salt, so there you go).  So, I decided to follow the book's exact instructions and just blanch everything in plain old boiling water.  Bad idea.  It yields a taste I can best describe as "huh, yeah, not."  Won't make that judgment call again, no sirree...

While I was doing the asparagus, I tasked Jane with making the Meyer lemon purée.  Here's where we made our second mistake of the day.  The book says to "Quarter lemons and remove seeds and fibers."  So, she quartered the lemons, removed what few seeds there were, and then we thought, "Fibers?  Fibers.  Wait.  Fibers?  Does that mean we should supreme them?  Just remove the obvious bitter white thready stuff?  Hold the phone, are we supposed to remove the peels?  WHAT THE #$(%*$(* ARE FIBERS?"  And this comes from two people who actually know a little something about food.  So, we erred on the side of caution and removed the peels before pureéing the lemon pulp with the simple syrup before straining it.  And, BBZZZZZZZTTTTTTTT, we were wrong. Jane found out later when she emailed Grant to ask about that step in the process, that we should've kept the peels on because the pectins from them would've thickened the final result.  Dangit. 

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You'll see in the final plating shot that we ended up with a salty, lemon juice on the plate as our base, and not necessarily a purée.  Oh well.  At least we made the mistake with the 75-cent Meyer lemon and not a $75 lobe of foie gras, right?  Silver lining, and all.

The next thing we made were the egg yolk drops.  I thought fo' sho' I was gonna screw these up somehow.  I had visions of egg yolks splattering or yolk drops popping and shooting hot butter into my eyeball burning off my corneas, because sometimes I can be a drama queen about potential and completely unrealistic cooking-related injuries.  Instead, I nailed it, and then felt like a dork for thinking it was gonna be hard.

I whisked together the egg yolks with some salt and strained them into a squeeze bottle.  I already had a pot of hot clarified butter waiting on the stove, so I just began gently squirting the egg yolks into the pot, one by one, until they starting springing up to the surface.  I gently lifted them out and put them on a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.  If you saw the print version of the Post article, the photo of this step took up most of the front page of the food section (awesome!).  In the online version, you can see a shot of me doing this in the slideshow that accompanies the article. And may I just take a moment here and say, dude.  I am in a SLIDESHOW in the freakin' WASHINGTON POST.  Man.  That is damn cool.


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I mixed the Meyer lemon vinaigrette (Meyer lemon juice, grape seed oil, kosher salt) and used a bit to toss with the yolk drops we made (we didn't do all of them -- just enough for one tasting and a photo) and some asparagus buds and tips.
 


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The last step was making the asparagus bubbles -- which involved putting the asparagus juice into a tall, narrow container (I used a narrow mixing bowl), adding the soy lecithin, and using an immersion blender to blend/froth/foam.


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You'll see the foam results in the final plating shot.  But first -- wanna see how many dishes we used to make this?  You know you do:

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The dishwasher was full of the dishes we'd used to make the liquefied caramel popcorn, so I had to just pile all this up in the sink and surrounding counters as we went along, and I can't believe my shoulder blades didn't fall off from all the twitching that was going on.  I'm a clean-as-you-go kind of cook, so this photo makes me extremely squirmy. 

But I digress, because seeing the beauty of the final dish was more than worth it:

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And, here's what a real pro-fessional looks like in action:

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So, what did it taste like?

Well....

Um...

Uh...

I didn't love it.  Neither did Jim (the photographer).  We both took a bite, looked at each other, took another bite, and said, "Huh."

It was kind of disappointing, really.  Now, had I salted the water for the asparagus and used the peels for the Meyer lemon purée, would it have been earth-shatteringly phenomenal?  I don't think so.  Better, yes.  But I think I went into this with really high expectations because the flavor combination was really appealing to me in print.  But in execution, I didn't love it.

When I look at this dish in the context of the larger Spring menu on page 53 in the Alinea cookbook, it's listed as being served in between the Ayu (p. 97) and the Wild Turbot (p. 102), both which seem to be dishes with some really distinct flavors and aromas, so perhaps this dish was intended to be a little more mellow, so as not to overwhelm the palate during the course of a full tasting menu or tour.

That's the one thing that's unique about this book -- these dishes are grouped together seasonally in a menu of 25+ courses that are a natural progression from one to the next.  So, to make some of these as standalone dishes or tastings out of their printed context might take some creative tweaking from the home cook.

I think if I ever made this again, or any variation thereof, I'd have to add more salt and more acid to make it stand on its own.  But that's just me.  This wasn't a difficult dish, really, by most standards, and I didn't hate it.  It just won't end up on my Top Ten Dishes list when I finish this blog.  Of that, I'm quite sure.

So, class, what did we learn?  Salt the blanching water, and keep the peels on the Meyer lemons.  And, that making yolk drops will not singe your corneas, so stop having irrational fears about that nonsense you big doofus.

You know what else struck me as I was cleaning up after our afternoon of cooking?  The title of this dish includes "black pepper," but the recipe and instructions make no mention of it at all, so I totally forgot about it when I was putting the dish together.  Whoops.  Maybe black pepper is what was missing.  Hmmm.......

Up Next: Transparency of manchego cheese

NOTE: Remember, if you're reading this post, you're probably not hungry.  One in six kids in America is, though, so how 'bout you do something about it, mmmmmmkay?

We've made some headway on this campaign, and I'm thrilled to hear from the folks at Share Our Strength about the donations that are rolling in.  I'm even hearing some amazing stories about how and why people are donating -- one 13-year old girl here in DC is donating a percentage of her bat mitzvah budget to the cause; someone else emailed to say she's switching from a daily double latte to a regular drip coffee for the month of December and donating the difference in price; and, one Hill staffer decided to donate the same amount he would typically spend on drinks after work with friends all month.  All good things, in my book.  So, if you've got a roof over your head and food in your fridge, I hope you'll consider a donation to Share Our Strength, and enter to win one of five Alinea cookbooks, or one of two Under Pressure cookbooks. Thank you so so so much.  You guys are a generous lot, and for that, I'm incredibly grateful.


*   *   *   *   *

Resources: Eggs from Smith Meadows Farm, 365 organic butter, asparagus and Meyer lemons from Whole Foods, soy lecithin from Will Goldfarb, Roland grapeseed oil, Domino sugar for simple syrup.

Music to Cook By: Again, we didn't listen to music while we cooked, because we... I mean, I was too busy yammering on about this, that and the other.  However, you might be interested to know that I listened to this album while I was cleaning up.  And it was just as awesome as the day I first heard it.  I know, I'm trapped in the 80s.  Sue me.  No wait, don't.


Read My Previous Post: Caramel Popcorn, liquefied.

December 02, 2008

Caramel Popcorn, liquefied


I have the pleasure of having The Washington Post as my hometown newspaper, and I can honestly say that our food section is one of the best in the nation.  And as of right this very moment, I hold the Post in even higher esteem because they had the good grace and superior intellect to include yours truly in a story about the Alinea cookbook in this week's Food section.

Y'all.... I could not be more proud.

To say I was nervous about The Washington Freakin' Post (that's their official name, in case you didn't know) coming to my house (well, not the actual PAPER, obviously, but one of my favorite food writers, Jane Black) is to say... well....I am at a loss for words.  Shocker, I know.  Anyone who does media relations for a living will tell you that when The Washington Post comes a-calling, it's either gonna be really good, or really bad.

And in this case, wooooo-hoooooooo!!!!!!!

Jane and I hadn't met before, and I'm so very glad we finally had the chance not only to talk, but also cook together.  So, thanks, Jane (and her awesome editors) for including me in the story, and for not mentioning the fact that I kept dropping things because I was nervous, and that my kitchen floors look like they belong in a 1983 issue of House notreallyallthatBeautiful.

Now, let's get to the dish.

OH, WAIT -- before we do, there's one more thing I need to tell you about.

When I wrote French Laundry at Home, I did a fund-raising drive for Share Our Strength.  Now, a year later, the childhood hunger landscape has changed, and not for the better.  I know times are financially tough for all of us and we're all watching our wallets a little more closely this holiday season, but I bet when you go to bed tonight, you'll be able to wake up tomorrow morning and have a cup of coffee and a bagel or some eggs or a bowl of cereal, and not think twice about it.  That's not the case for 1 in 6 kids in America.  And that breaks my heart.

I work with Share Our Strength all year long, but I wanted to do a special campaign on this blog this holiday season and I've sweetened the pot, so to speak.  We've created a dedicated Alinea at Home Share Our Strength campaign, and if you click on that page and make a donation, you'll be entered to win some really cool prizes -- the wonderful team at Alinea is donating five Alinea cookbooks, and my friends at Workman/Artisan have donated two copies of Thomas Keller's new sous vide book, Under Pressure.

You could donate $5.  You could donate $500.  Doesn't matter.  Every little bit helps.  And, every donation gets an equal chance when we randomly select the winners.

Share Our Strength is out there every single day working with other nonprofits to not only make sure that community food banks and soup kitchens have the tools they need on the local level, they also work on the national and state level to address the systemic infrastructure and policy issues that need to change to be able to have an impact on childhood hunger.  I know the folks at Share Our Strength well, and I know they do great work because I've seen it first-hand.  So, I hope you'll do what you can to help them ensure that every single day, no child in America goes without food.

I'll mention this again in future posts, but more details can be found at Strength.org/carolblymire.  Pass it on.

*  *  *  *  *

Now, on to the Caramel Popcorn, liquefied...


I don't know anyone who doesn't love caramel popcorn.  Do you?  If you do, will you please smack them for me, because HOW CAN YOU NOT LOVE THE STUFF?!?!  It's unAmerican.  I love the combination of salt and sweet in most any dish, but there's something special about caramel popcorn.  It always reminds me of the Ocean City, New Jersey boardwalk and Johnson's popcorn -- warm and fresh, and devoured after a night of playing miniature golf or riding the rides at Gillian's Fun Deck and Wonderland when I was a little girl.  My cousins and I would get a big bucket of it, and we'd eat it as we walked down the boardwalk past the video arcade, so we could check out the cute boys working at Mack and Manco's Pizza.  There was always something special about that caramel popcorn.  Yes, it would get stuck in your molars and you'd be picking it out of your teeth by the end of the walk home, but the taste of it combined with the sounds of the summer boardwalk and the waves crashing just under your feet... I'd take any amount of molar picking to have one of those carefree nights again, wouldn't you?

Now, the advantage of eating Caramel Popcorn à la Achatz is that there is no molar picking whatsoever.  Instead, you get a concentrated bolt of flavor all in one little shot, and during the cooking process, you get to see something that quite resembles what I yacked up on the basement floor of the Delta Tau Delta house in 1987.  So, it's a win-win all around!

Here's my mise en place for the Popcorn part of the dish:

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I heated the canola oil in a large pot, just until it started smoking.  Then, I added the popcorn and put the lid on the pot.  The book said to shake the pan constantly, which I tried to do, but my burners don't really allow for that without my going deaf from all the racket, so I did the best I could, and shook every 5-7 seconds.  Within about 15 seconds of putting the kernels in the pot, they started popping.  And popping.  And popping some more.  By the time the popping stopped, the popcorn had reached the lid.

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Do you know how LONG it's been since I made real popcorn?  Like in a pot with oil?  Growing up, we had the Joe Namath popcorn popper, but before that, I vaguely remember an afternoon experimenting with Jiffy Pop that did not go well, and one or two times making popcorn in a pot with oil that also didn't go all that well and required the pots to be replaced.  So, maybe 1975? 1976?  Wow.  And now, 32 years later, I'm back in the fold and making popcorn the old-fashioned way, forever and ever, amen, because dude, EVERY kernel popped, and not one single kernel or piece burned or stuck to the pan.  Wow.  Sometimes, things from the olden days really do work better.  Now GET OFF MY LAWN, you meddling kids.

Ahem.

As many of you know, the meausrements for the recipes in the Alinea cookbook are done by weight.  And, I was incredibly precise about measuring the amount of kernels just as the book indicated -- 100 grams of kernels to be popped.

After popping the corn, the instructions require you to measure 125 grams of the popped popcorn to start the next step... so wouldn't you naturally assume that once the 100 grams of kernels were popped, you were going to have at least 125 grams of popcorn?

My popped popcorn?  All of it?  107 grams.

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KHHHHHAAAAANNNNN!!!!!!!

Actually, I think what I really said out loud when the scale tipped 107 was something unprintable in an American daily newspaper or any media outlet governed by FCC regulations.  And then, I said, "Grant Achatz, why hast thou forsaken me?"

To which Jane replied, "Should we pop more popcorn?" to which I replied, "Um, maybe?" And after a bit of back and forth, we decided just to move forward without popping more because in all honesty, I didn't think 21 grams of popcorn would make that much of a difference in the final product.

I put the popcorn into a clean pot, along with the butter, sugar, salt, and water and brought it to a simmer, stirring to incorporate all the ingredients.


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I let it simmer for about five minutes over medium heat, stirring every now and then, after which point, it looked like this:

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My first reaction was that it looked like the aftermath of the Delts' 1987 Heaven and Hell party, but after straining it, it looked more like corn pudding, which was much more appetizing for all of us.



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Let me take a minute to talk about the smell.  It's sooooo much better than the farty movie theatre popcorn smell (which smells great for the first 30 seconds, and then just ends up smelling, well, farty).  This popcorn pudding purée (because it went into the blender and was strained again before serving, but that's one of the steps I don't have a photo of) was sweet and salty and smelled like my favorite corn pudding dish, only better, and more like fall, if that makes sense.  We tasted it at this point, and the only way I can think of to describe how it tasted is to say that it tasted like chewed-up popcorn... but not in a gross-out kind of way.  In a really awesome kind of way.

We set the popcorn liquid aside in a bowl and began working on the Caramel Froth part of the dish.

To start, I made some simple syrup, by heating one cup of water and one cup of sugar, stirring over low heat until the sugar dissolved, and letting it cool to room temperature.  To do this dish, you probably only need half that amount, but I like to have extra simple syrup around to add to my coffee in the morning, or to mix in with some cranberry seltzer.

Next, I heated some sugar and water in a small saucepan, until it reached 340 degrees F.

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Then, I removed it from the heat, and added the remaining water and simple syrup the recipe called for and whisked it for a few seconds to ensure everything was incorporated (the book says "dissolved" but I'm not sure why, since everything was in liquid form already).  Knowing it was going to splatter all over the damn place, I shielded myself using a silicone oven mitt.  So, if you're making this at home, PLEASE BE CAREFUL during this step because this stuff will fly all over the place, so stand back, and use some heat-safe precautions.  You don't need a hazmat suit, so don't get all dramatic, but get your kids and pets out of the kitchen, and use something to shield yourself from the splatter, fer cryin' out loud.

Here's what it looked like when it was done:

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I let it cool for a few minutes, then poured it into a Rubbermaid container to let it cool to room temperature.

Next, I added the soy lecithin, and tasked Jane with using the immersion blender to froth it.


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After 5-7 minutes of blending and frothing, it hadn't really done what we'd hoped in the froth department, so we just said, "Hey, there are three of us here, and it looks like there's enough froth for three servings, so let's stop sucking the power off the grid and just do these three servings for now."

(anyone who has any advice/insight on why this didn't froth up like we thought it would, please chime in on the comments; love you, mean it)

To plate, or, um, to "glass," I poured a little bit of the Popcorn liquid into the glass, then topped it with the Caramel Froth.

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Vanity shot alert!!!!!



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So, how did it taste?  Because both popcorn and caramel are so fragrant on their own, let alone together, at first, it was powerful to the point of being borederline overwhelming... until it settled on my tongue and then, wwwoooooowwwwww... it was good.  Really, really good.  Like m-f-ing good.   Salt, sweet, butter, creaminess, popcorn-y,  smooth, rich, amazing.

In retrospect, I would have made the Caramel Froth part of the dish first, to better plan the cool-to-room-temperature part of the process.  I feel like I didn't plan my time as wisely or efficiently as I usually do.  But in the end, it all worked out.  I'm just sayin'.... next time, I'd do the reverse.

And, I need to figure out the whole frothing thing.  I've used soy lecithin before, and I've frothed and foamed other dishes, and they've worked within seconds.  Something about this one just didn't work the way I thought it would.  But I attribute it to user error, so don't cross this one off your list.

Would I make it again?  Absolutely.  It'd be a fun thing to serve at an Oscar party or movie night, or maybe to commemorate a first snowfall.  And, I'm pretty sure you could make both these elements ahead of time and reheat the Popcorn liquid, and froth the caramel just before serving.  So, yeah, I'd do this again, for sure.

Thanks again, Jane, for a great piece.

And don't forget the Share Our Strength campaign.  This issue is so important to me.... I hope it'll be important to you, too.  Especially with, like, prizes and stuff.

Up Next:
  Yolk Drops, asparagus, Meyer lemon, black pepper

Resources: Popcorn from Glenville Hollow Farms at the Takoma Farmers Market, Domino sugar, 365 organic butter, 365 canola oil, David's kosher salt, soy lecithin from Will Goldfarb.

Music to Cook By: Sadly, we didn't listen to any tunes while we cooked because we were too busy talking and (not)frothing.  However, if you really need a musical suggestion, particularly one you can use to song-poison someone, let me suggest this lovely, lovely, not-at-all annoying song.  Gggrrrrrrrr.  My friend, Brad, happened to use the phrase "knee-deep in the hoopla" this week, and now I can't stop singing, "Marconi plays the mamba," so I hope by passing it along to you, perhaps I might be able to avoid going completely clinically insane by Friday.

Read My Previous Post: Sea Urchin, vanilla, mint, chili
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