Cucumber, mango, several aromatics
You guys... the Moments of Shame you shared in the last post's comments are HILARIOUS!!! Without going into detail about the specifics, I can safely say the past seven days have been the most crazy, amazing roller coaster of work for me -- all good stuff, but exhausting nonetheless -- and I can't tell you how awesome it has been to see your comments pop up for approval... especially when I've been in the middle of some really heady, intense stuff with some heady, intense, brilliant, driven people. Your stories gave me quite a few desperately needed moments of levity and snorting, so THANK YOU.
The randomly selected winner of the 2.5 oz. of dried eucalyptus leaves is Leslie, who, thanks to mishearing some Rocky and Bullwinkle dialogue as a child, thought the Pulitzer Prize was actually the Pull-it Surprise. Congrats, Leslie!
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For those of you who didn't get to see Chef Achatz on Oprah this past Tuesday, you can click here to see the video clips. My words can't do justice to Grant's telling of his story, so go have a listen.
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I have spent the last two hours debating whether or not to open this post with some play-by-play from what I think is a very funny story about a bad experience I had with mangoes a few years ago. However, upon reflection, I've decided the details are not at all appropriate for a food blog, so I think it's best I keep it to myself. Suffice to say, it was the first time a guy I had just started dating made dinner for me, and part of his menu involved mangoes. Thirty minutes after eating them, I had a reaction that was loud, continuous, and painful. And humiliating. Oh my. The end.
I have been more than a little nervous to eat mangoes again since then, but if my allergy/insensitivity to them is like some other fruits I can't eat, then I know it's probably only its raw form that causes me to, um, suffer, and that the cooked version is probably fine. Still, the flashbacks are nearly as unpleasant as the original experience, so I haven't eaten mangoes since.
To be honest, though, I was actually kind of ambivalent about making this dish. I intuitively knew the flavors would be nice together, and it didn't seem all that difficult to make. I figured we'd eat it, look at one another and say, "Huh, well that was nice, wasn't it" and go about our merry way. The only element of the dish I really had any serious reservations about was the cucumber, because it had to have some pickling brine on it for one minute. I know that's not a long time, but you don't understand: I hate pickles. When I order a sandwich or a burger for lunch, I don't even want a pickle on my plate, let alone on or touching the actual food I'm going to eat. I also hate things, in general, that are pickled, like watermelon rind, beans, other vegetables; even sauerkraut makes me gag. I know that makes me a traitor to my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, but I can't help it. Pickled things make my mouth water in the not-right way. My mom and my brother can down the stuff like there's no tomorrow, but not me (I don't think my dad's a huge fan either, but he doesn't have the same aversion I do). In fact, now that I think of it, the only dish I outright refused to eat or even taste when I made all 100 dishes in The French Laundry Cookbook involved pickled oysters, that's how much I hate pickled stuff.
So, I almost skipped this step in this dish altogether and thought about doing fresh cucumber instead, but decided to trust in the dish as it's presented and see how it went. All about reaching and stretching and expanding my comfort zone, remember? Vomit and gackiness be damned.
As I was getting my ingredients together, all hell broke loose with a client (in a good way, a very good way), so I ached to be in the kitchen, if only for a few hours, because with all the work-related stress this past week, my brain was floating and swimming and drowning and frying all simultaneously, and I needed to be doing something tactile to keep me grounded and focused on something in between frenetic phone calls, to-dos, and lightning-speed writing deadlines.
What a pleasure it was to feel the weight of these lovely, lovely mangoes in my hands:
I peeled, pitted, and cubed both mangoes, then put them in the blender with a little salt and blended until smooth. Then, as the book instructs, I got out my refractometer to measure the sugar content and then poured in enough simple syrup until it measured 20 degrees Brix, except I'm lying because I DO NOT HAVE A REFRACTOMETER.
I mean, really.
So, Carol, I hear you saying. What the hell is a refractometer? Well, my darlings, a refractometer measures the refractive index (fundamental physical property) of something -- in this case, the concentration of a solute in an aqueous solution, e.g. the sugar content. I think refractometers are cool, but sadly, I don't own one -- as I'm guessing most home cooks don't -- and didn't want to go out and buy one. Instead, I figured I'd just wing it and hope for the best. Seriously, if I had a refractometer, I'd never leave the house. I'd refractometerize everything I own and never get anything meaningful done. In fact, I'd build Herbie Hancock-like refractometer contraptions all over my house. No, I wouldn't. I just needed an excuse to link to that video (remember when music videos were good? sigh....).
So, since I had no idea what the Brix measurement of my blended mango concoction was, I decided to pour 2 tablespoons of simple syrup into the mixture and cross my fingers that it was enough and not too much. I turned on the blender again, mixing it all together one last time before pouring it onto my Silpat-lined baking sheet, hoping against hope it would work.
The Alinea cookbook suggests using an acetate sheet to make the leather, but that really didn't work out the way I'd planned when I made apple leather a few months ago, so I decided to see how my Silpat might fare.
I tried to smooth it with an offset spatula, but it made all these uneven spots, divots, and swirls, so I just tilted the pan from side to side, allowing it to even out that way. I put it in a 150-degree oven for 3 hours. You'll see how it turned out later on in the post.
Meantime, I made the candied lemon zest by zesting a lemon, removing any extraneous pith with my paring knife (a task I find strangely soothing), and cutting the lemon zest pieces into 1/16" strips which I boiled in a mixture of sugar and water for 60 seconds:
I drained them from the saucepan and stored them in a little deli container of simple syrup in the fridge until I was ready to use them in the final plating.
At this point, I made clove salt and coriander salt, but didn't take photos of either one. Essentially, you grind up whole cloves (I used a coffee bean grinder I use for making ground spices) and mix them with kosher salt, and then do the same with coriander seeds, also mixing that with salt. The amounts given in the book leave you with plenty of leftover spiced salts, and I can't wait to experiment with them on different foods next week when I get back to a more normal eating-at-home schedule.
But I digress.
Next up? Cucumbers. English cucumbers, to be exact. Pip pip, cheerio, and all that rot!
The book is specific about the cucumber cutting: 4" long by 1.5" wide segments:
Leaving the skin on, I used my Benriner mandoline (I love that freakin' thing) to slice the cucumber lengthwise into strips that were 1/16" thick.
I put them on a plate I'd lined with a damp paper towel, then covered them with another damp paper towel before putting them in the refrigerator. You'll notice I cut eight slices; the book calls for four. I did eight because I wanted to have backups in case I screwed something up further down the line. Luckily, I didn't, so I ended up noshing on them as I cleaned up afterward.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Rewind...
Onto to juniper berries. In the "Assemble and Serve" section of this dish, the book calls for 4 fresh juniper berries. Did not have. Instead, I had dried juniper berries, so I crushed a few of them with a mortar and pestle and figured I'd use the resulting powdery parts in the plating, somehow.
In a medium saucepan, I combined water, white wine vinegar, and sugar, brought it to a simmer, turned off the flame and let it cool to room temperature (took about 20-25 minutes). You'll see the pickling brine in a later shot, along with the cucumber strips.
Meantime, the mango leather had been doing its thing in the oven. At the three-hour mark, it seemed done. Or so I thought.
I know the photo is blurry, and I'm sorry about that. Hopefully, you can see that the edges were brittle and flaked off easily. I thought the whole sheet was like that and was sorely disappointed. But, before tossing the whole thing into the sink, I decided to keep peeling and see what happened. Eventually, when I got closer to the middle of the Silpat, it was nice and leathery -- like a fruit roll-up texture. So, I peeled that part off and was able to cut it into strips. They weren't the same size as the book instructed, but it was as close as I could get.
At this point, I took four of the cucumber strips and halved them lengthwise. Instead of laying them on paper towels and pouring pickling brine over them (hello, splashage!) as the book suggested, I decided to lay them in the brine for a minute instead, then drain them on paper towels, because I am a neat freak who does not want pickle juice flying all over her kitchen (dramatic, much?) where it will surely get lodged in every nook and cranny and I will have to smell it for all eternity or else renovate the entire house just to remove the stench of that vile, vile liquid.
Man, that mango leather looks depressing.
Last, but not least, I peeled a hunk of fresh ginger, sliced a few thin slices from it on the mandoline and cut little triangles out of a few of those slices -- eight in all.
I don't have photos of the assembly process (even though I grew up near Three Mile Island, I do not have a third arm with which to hold the camera), but I laid each cucumber strip on a cutting board, topped it with a mango leather strip, then rolled it in a way that allowed me to poke out the ends so the rolls (sort of) looked like the ones in the book. I topped each roll with a little dried juniper berry powder, coriander salt, clove salt, a ginger triangle, a thread or two of saffron, and a strip of candied lemon zest.
Um, you guys? This is my favorite so far. Yes, I still love the ones I loved and I certainly don't love them any less, but this one was outstanding and I'm grinning from ear to ear as I think about it all over again. The slight pickle-ness of the cucumber and the sweet tang of the mango are really nice together -- yes, I just confessed to liking something pickled; call CNN! -- but the lemon and ginger just give it this extra playful punch, the juniper berries open it up wide, and the whole bite just consumes and breaks open every molecule of your palate, and it's simply gorgeous. There were four of us in the kitchen and eight spoons, and we were beyond thrilled to be able to eat two apiece.
Now, would I make this exact bite again? I think I would, for a special occasion. But, I know for sure that one of my favorite salads this spring and summer will consist of warm (probably blanched in simple syrup) mango, slightly pickled cucumber chunks, candied and diced lemon zest, and a juniper berry-coriander-clove-fresh-ginger-infused vinaigrette, served on a small bed of mâche or arugula. Or watercress. Or quinoa. I might even add a fine dice of red onion just to mix it up a bit. Or caramelized shallots. And chopped candied pecans. Oh my..... I know what I'm picking up at the grocery store tomorrow....
What would you do with the elements of this dish?
Up Next: Dry Shot, red pepper, garlic, oregano
Resources: Cucumber, mango, lemon, and ginger from H Mart in Wheaton, MD; David's kosher salt; Domino sugar, Domaines des Vignes white wine vinegar; coriander seed and whole cloves from the Takoma Park Co-op.
Music to Cook By: Barry Manilow; The Greatest Songs of the Eighties. Go ahead and judge; I can take it. Because if this album is wrong, I don't wanna be right.
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