Blackberry, smoke, bee balm
I'm not one to hide my opinion on something I find distasteful, disgusting, or offensive so let's just get this out of the way from the get-go: I hate smoking. Even taking my involuntary asthma-related reactions to second-hand smoke out of the equation, I hate everything about it -- the smell, the taste, the way it makes other people smell and taste, the way second-hand smoke infiltrates every fiber of a favorite sweater or my hair follicles without my permission, and the havoc it wreaks on my sinuses when I walk within 10 feet of someone puffing away. And that's just cigarettes.
What I hate more are cigars. To me, there's no more offensive a smell than a cigar. It's suffocating, toxic, and intrusive. It's vulgar, vile, and almost hostile in its permeation. I absolutely hate everything about cigars.
So you can imagine how I felt when I saw that I had to steep a crumbled bit of cigar in some cream for this recipe. To say I was less than thrilled would be kind. I was actually pissed off. I didn't want my fingertips, let alone my kitchen or my house to smell even remotely like cigars, because that shit takes days to fade, and since it's been -974 degrees Kelvin outside, opening windows to air out the house really isn't an option right now. And, more on principle, I just didn't want to bring a cigar into the house, or cook with it at all.
I mean, why ruin a perfectly luscious, magnificent blackberry with something so onerous? It just didn't make sense to me, and going into this dish, I was cranky and feeling a defiant animosity that, quite honestly, took even me by surprise. I mean, it's only a food blog, right? But still. I was pissed about having to do this, and went into this dish hoping it would fail beyond anything that had ever failed before, because I wanted to feel some sense of justice that my belief about cigars was right.
Here's the mise en place:
Aren't those blackberries just gorgeous? I found them at the Asian grocer (and only 99 cents for a pint, compared to Whole Foods' $4.99), and made sure I tasted one before I bought them. Buying produce at my local Asian market, H Mart in Wheaton, MD, can be touch and go. Sometimes their fruits and vegetables spoil before you even get them home. Other times, they just don't ever taste ripe. These blackberries were from Mexico and they were so juicy with the right balance of sweet and tart, with the flavor bursting across my tongue -- perfect! I was tempted to eat them all right out of the bowl and just bail on doing this dish altogether, but again... I needed to do it to prove it sucked and was bad, so I soldiered onward.
Let me go off on a semi-related tangent for a second: does anyone else out there have a rapturous affection for blackberries, but detest raspberries? I could eat blackberries every day, night, and in between. But put one lone raspberry on top of my cheesecake or slather anything raspberry-flavored between the layers of a chocolate cake and you've ruined my evening. Seriously. This wanton trend of adding raspberries where they don't belong (anywhere but the trash can, if you ask me) needs to stop.
Okaaaaaayyyy.... wow. I'm kind of ranty today, aren't I? Lucky you.
The instructions for this dish were really quite easy, so I figured, at least if it's going to suck, it's going to be overwith quickly and without too much fuss or wasted ingredients, so I got started.
The first thing I did was combine the half-and-half, cream, sugar, salt, and those vile tobacco leaves in a small saucepan and bring it to a simmer.
After it had simmered for about 45 seconds, I turned off the flame, covered the pot, and let the mixture steep for 20 minutes. For the last five minutes of the steeping time, I soaked five gelatin sheets in cold water.
When the 20 minutes were up, I squeezed the water out of the gelatin sheets, added them to the tobacco cream mixture, and stirred until they had dissolved. I then poured the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a separate container and discarded the tobacco leaves.
Also while the tobacco cream was steeping, I leveled the ends of eight blackberries and set them on paper towels to drain.
I lined a 9x13" baking dish with plastic wrap and poured a few ladlefuls of the tobacco cream and gelatin mixture into it -- just enough to cover the bottom of the dish -- and put it in the fridge so it could set (which took just 45 minutes, not the two hours the book suggested).
Let me interject here that I tasted the tobacco cream as I poured it in the baking dish, and I gagged. It tasted so sharp and pointy and pungent and intense and awful. And while I not-so-secretly wanted this dish to suck, I found myself also feeling really disappointed that the cream had turned out to be so awful and disgusting. Why? Because even though I hated the tobacco element in concept, I hated even more the idea that we'd all take our bites off the spoon, and fight over space in front of the sink to spit it out in disgust.
Really. It was that bad.
After the cream had set, I took the pan out of the refrigerator and placed the blackberries evenly on the surface, pushing them down ever so slightly before pouring in the rest of the tobacco cream liquid and putting it all back in the fridge so the next layer could set.
The last thing I had to do was grind some long peppercorns (the book called for Thai long peppercorns; I had Indonesian and used those instead) and smoked salt:
I also pulled the smallest mint leaves to use as garnish, since finding bee balm leaves and flowers this time of year isn't possible.
To plate, I slid my 1.25" round cutter down over each blackberry, through the tobacco cream, and back up again. Then, I used an offset spatula to lift it up each serving and place it onto a spoon. I sprinkled each serving with the finely ground long peppercorns and smoked salt mixture, then topped each blackberry with a mint leaf. Wanna see?
I called my friends to come over, and made sure it was okay for their kids to eat something with tobacco cream. Everyone was cool with it, and a few minutes later, seven of us (four adults, three kids) stood in my kitchen staring at the platter in front of us, all the spoons of doom lined up in a row.
I explained what the bite was going to be, and we all looked at one another and said, "You go first." "No, you go."
We agreed that we'd each pick up a spoon and try it at the same time. I arranged it so that some of us would be near the sink, while the others had easy access to the trash can.
I foresaw lots of gagging and spitting and water drinking and tongue scraping in our future.
And you know what?
I was wrong.
Dead fucking wrong.
This dish? This blackberry-assaulting tobacco cream dish is my favorite one so far.
And it's now the dish by which we'll measure all others.
I can hear it now: "Well, this salsify was okay, but not as good as the blackberries with tobacco cream."
The tobacco cream wasn't pungent, and it wasn't sharp or at all offensive. It was smooth, slightly smoky, a little sweet, and was the most perfect cushion upon which to place a blackberry. Having a very smooth, lightly smoky taste partnered with the sweet juiciness of a perfectly ripe blackberry was great... but then add the very subtle salt and pepper to it, with a fresh infusion of mint? Off-the-charts good. Spectacular, in fact. With every chew, a little more of the blackberry became masticated, and when everything was together in my mouth, it was such a wonderful surprise. I wish I'd doubled or tripled the batch, THAT'S how good it was.
All seven of us LOVED it, and after we'd ooooed and aaaahed, we all honed in on the lone, remaining spoon left on the platter. There was one extra serving, and after a dorky contest of guess-the-number-I'm-thinking-off-between-1-and-100, my friend's daughter, "M," got to eat the extra one and was quite thrilled about her victory. This, from the girl who is one of the most finicky eaters I've ever known, and can only name 3 out of the 100 French Laundry dishes she ate as being dishes she only "sort of liked." Awesome.
So instead of us racing to the sink to spit it out, I'm happy to say that this was the end result:
A spit-free sink and licked-clean spoons.
And for the first time in my life, it feels... no, tastes good being wrong.
Up Next: Tuna, candied and dried
Resources: Blackberries and mint from HMart in Wheaton, MD; Romeo y Julieta Medallas de Oro cigar from Talbert's; Organic Valley cream and half-and-half; David's kosher salt; King Arthur Flour gelatin sheets; Indonesian long peppercorns and smoked salt from Whole Foods.
Music to Cook By: Joshua Radin; Simple Times. I like the singer-songwriter genre, but nothing too folksy or too strummy-strummy-la-la. Joshua Radin is neither. I first heard Radin's music when I watched the movie Catch and Release (SHUT UP) and then again when I Netflixed I'm Reed Fish (Jay Baruchel is this generation's Patrick Dempsey, the Can't Buy Me Love years). When it seems like so many musicians just yell incoherently or overdo the melisma, I'm tending to lean more toward singing that sounds like a quiet, comfortable, easy conversation with someone you've known forever. [Oh shit. I'm officially old.] I like Radin's voice and his overall sound. It's great to cook to when you're in the mood to be contemplative or need to feel calm, and this month, I've been desperate for moments of calm. Radin toured with Schuyler Fisk (Sissy Spacek's daughter), who also happened to be in I'm Reed Fish, so I listened to some of her tunes, as well. They go nicely together. But Joshua Radin is nice afternoon background cooking up some tobacco and blackberries music. Especially if you're a senior citizen like me. Wonder if he's ever done a cover of the Matlock theme song....
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