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March 21, 2009

Dry Shot, red peppers, garlic, oregano

When I bought my house and moved to Takoma Park eleven years ago, the kitchen was a disaster.  Non-working avocado and mustard-colored appliances from the 1960s, a thick coating of dust, grease and grime on every surface, a drop-tile ceiling with buzzing and flickering fluorescent lights, and safety hazards everywhere.

Having just bought a house, I wasn't exactly flush with cash to overhaul the kitchen before moving in, so I scrimped and saved for eight months just to be able to afford new appliances and a coat of paint.  During that time, I wasn't really able to cook at all because only one burner on the stove worked (and that was only sometimes), and the oven had spots inside that had rusted through to the floor, and it made a strange noise when you turned it on, so it just wasn't safe to use.  The old refrigerator was a nightmare unto itself: smells not found in nature, unidentifiable and permanent stains, and rusted out shelving.  Oh, and the best part?  It hovered at a frosty 74 degrees, even when turned to its coldest setting.

I hated not being able to cook, but had to make do with food I could cook in the toaster oven (which wasn't much, because I had no skillz or ingenuity), and relied heavily on yogurt and bagels.  Since I was on a money-saving kick, I allowed myself to go out just once a week, but wouldn't let myself spend more than ten dollars.  That usually meant going to a little sandwich shop here in town called Savory.  Back then, it was owned and run by a local woman and the food was just fantastic.  Everything was fresh, delicious, and homemade, and it was one of those places where you could hang out for a little while after eating and catch up with the people you knew at the next table, or maybe just settle in with a magazine or the newspaper for a half hour before heading back home.  For the first month or so, I ordered the same thing every week: turkey and fresh mozzarella on a wholewheat pita with mango chutney mayonnaise and mixed baby greens.  Then, one day when they were out of turkey, the owner got me to try a sandwich she made for herself at the end of each night: tomato, fresh mozzarella, arugula, basil, a thin sliver of roasted red pepper, a small swipe of both honey mustard and mayonnaise, all on fresh-baked olive bread.  And when she made it into a melt, it was even more delicious.  It became my weekly go-to sandwich for the next 6 or 7 months, and because it was my big splurge during very lean times, it has forever earned it a sacred place in my heart and my stomach.

Since then, ownership of Savory has changed hands a few times, and while that sandwich was still on the menu the last time I stopped there for a cup of coffee (I haven't eaten there in YEARS because they're just buying stuff at Costco and reheating it), I know it's not the same sandwich, and I was never able to really and truly replicate it at home.  It just never tasted as good as it did back then.

So, I was a bit surprised when this Dry Shot from the Alinea cookbook transported me to the yellow walls, wooden tables, and warm bread and coffee smell of Savory, circa 1998.  The ingredients aren't exactly the same as that sandwich, but there was something about its flavors and the way they worked together that made me smile and be glad I'm no longer on a $10/week dining out budget.

I had a Dry Shot at Alinea when I ate there last summer, but mine was more on the sweet side -- elements of pineapple, run, and an aromatic I'm totally blanking on.  And, I've already done the Dry Caramel on this blog, so it was fun to be able to do a savory Dry Shot.  I like what dry shots are supposed to do -- reformulate in your mouth and give you pleasant little surprises with every bite as it all comes together.

The first thing I did for this dish was dehydrate some already-pitted (thanks, Whole Foods!) niçoise olives.  I put them on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 125-degree oven for six hours.  They went in around 9 a.m. and while they dried, I did some work.


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Then, just before noon, I got another batch of goodies ready to join the olives in the oven to dry out.  I sliced three cloves of elephant garlic into 1/8" slices, milk-blanched and rinsed them three times, then let them cool to room temperature.


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I also quartered, peeled, and cut into thin strips a red bell pepper and lined them, along with the slices of elephant garlic, on a second parchment-lined baking sheet and put that in the oven on the rack below the olives.  They went in around 12 noon, and I figured they'd be done in 3 hours and be ready to come out at the same time the olives would be fully dried.

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Next up was frying and drying some oregano leaves.  Man, there's nothing like the smell of fresh oregano -- I wish computers had Smell-O-Vision, because this is something I want to cover my body with (although, come to think of it, I might get mistaken for a pizza parlor if I walked down the street smelling like that, so maybe not).


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I chose about 50 of the nicest leaves to work with:

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I brought a small saucepan of canola oil up to 300 degrees and tossed those leaves in to fry.  It only took about 30 seconds for the bubbles to stop bubbling around them, which is how you tell they're done.  I lifted them out with a wok strainer, salted them, and let them drain on paper towels for about five minutes.


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I spaced them out on a smaller parchment-lined baking sheet and put them in the oven around 12:30, planning to take them out at 3 p.m., as well.

Next up?  Fried capers.

Ever since I first made fried capers as part of a French Laundry at Home dish, I've become quite good at making them.  I sprinkle them in salads, serve them with fish, and one time, ground them up and sprinkled them over popcorn.  That turned out not to be all that great, in case you were wondering.  But still, making fried capers is easy.  You rinse and dry your capers, and then you fry them in hot canola oil until the bubbles stop forming around them.  Seriously, I could do this with my eyes closed and both hands tied behind my back.

Except for this time...

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You'll notice the pool of oil on the stovetop underneath the pan and the wisps of smoke coming up the side.  You'll notice the furious bubbling.  You'll notice the burner flame is no longer lit.  That's because when I put the capers into the 400-degree oil, it was like the Mount St. Helens of culinary inadequacy up in here.  Everything shot up into the air and then down onto the flame, and thankfully, some instinct kicked in (apart from the holy-shit instinct, which believe me, was there) and I immediately turned off the burner and reached for dishtowels to run under water in case there was a fire.

There was not.

But then I started to do something really dumbass, which is move the pot off that burner and begin to wipe up the spilled oil, until I realized, my paper towel in hand a half-inch away from contact, HELLO, THAT SHIT IS 400 DEGREES YOU MORON, BACK OFF; so I put down the paper towel, and let the capers continue to cook in the still-hot oil, popping and sizzling away while I stood five feet back, hoping my stove wouldn't blow up.  They mostly cooked... but a few were still intact and not as crispy as they needed to be.

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I let them drain on a few changes of paper towel until 3 o'clock that afternoon, when I began to get things out of the oven and move them on to their next stages.

Clockwise, from top left (and fully dried out): garlic, red bell pepper, oregano leaves, niçoise olives, and fried capers.

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Same ingredients, now crushed or ground:

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The one step I didn't photograph is me drizzling some olive oil onto bread, dousing it in salt and pepper, and toasting it in a 250-degree oven for an hour then chopping it into small chunks and bits.  You're welcome.

When it was time to assemble the ingredients into one big mixture, I just assumed everything got dumped into one bowl, and then portioned out.  I'm glad I checked the book, because that was not the case.  Still, mystery abounded.  The book instructs to combine 100g red bell pepper, 40g olives, 40g garlic chips, 65g toasted bread crumbs, 24g capers, and a little salt.  So, I decided to be a good little do-bee and measure it all out, when to my surprise, my numbers weren't even coming close.

100g of red bell pepper? I had 5g.  40g olives?  I had only 29g.  I was closer on the garlic, with 30g, but had only 16g capers and 60g bread.  Hmmmmmmm..... 

So, with a heavy sigh (which nobody heard because I was in the house by myself, so I'm not sure why I even did it), I just tossed everything together in a large mixing bowl and hoped for the best.

For the final "plating," the book suggests making these cool little vellum envelopes, to which I said, "Oh Grant, clearly you did not know I got a C in 7th-grade art class when we did origami," so I just laid out the shots on individual rectangles of parchment paper, which each person lifted into a U shape, and just slid on into their gullets.

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My shots were a little on the generous side when it came to portion size, so our mouths were probably a little more crammed than is wise, but let me tell you something: this was goooooooood.  The different textures -- some crunchy, some crispy -- were nice, but the flavors were absolutely phenomenal together.  Every chew, every bite down yielded something deeper and more pronounced, and it instantly sent me back to a really happy and hopeful time as a new homeowner just trying to make ends meet and allowing myself one special treat every week.

Totally unexpected, and totally cool.


Up Next: Verjus, lemon thyme, beets, olive oil

Resources: Red bell pepper, niçoise olives, oregano leaves, elephant garlic, and bread from Whole Foods; Organic Valley skim milk; 365 canola oil; David's kosher salt; Monini olive oil; Bel Paese capers.

Music to Cook By: Matt and Kim; Grand.  I first heard about Matt and Kim in January on a KCRW podcast.  They did an interview to promote "Grand," and I liked their sound.  One of my favorite songs, even though the lyrics are mostly indecipherable (to me, anyway), is "Good Ol' Fashion Nightmare" because I think it's percussive and boppy and a lot of fun.  I probably don't want to know what the lyrics are, because, with my luck, they're something like, "I like to take chainsaws and cut up all my family, la, la, la, la...." So yeah, I'll settle for staying in the dark.

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Ohh, looks yummy! M&K are great, good music to cook or do house work. Give a listen to Passion Pit as well, they have a similar sound. I also got turned onto Asa this week that I think you might like. Thanks as always, makes me hungry and miss Alinea!

This sounds exactly like what I am craving more than words right now; like oysters but dry, with crunches and pops.

And Matt and Kim are incredible, their song Lightspeed got me through finals and so much more!

i always wonder who decided that blanching garlic in milk three times was just enough!

but two times, no, not enough; and four times, oh my god, you ruined the dish:-)


I've enjoyed both this blog, and FLAH. I hope to continue to enjoy your writing, so I beg you, please please don't ever plan on putting out a grease fire with water (or wet dishtowels). Keep your kosher salt near the stove, and you can easily douse a flame with that.

Setting kitchen on fire = bad. Having done it, I speak from experience. This sounds good. It's a very intense blend of flavours, but they are all complementary to each other. I especially liked the small walk down memory lane via the sandwich shop. It's amazing how the smallest thing can tweak such poignant memories.

The proportions of ingredients are all wrong! I think you should remake the dish with the right ratios and see how it tastes different. This does look and sound delicious, maybe it can be even better.

The capers might kill this for me - not a fan, no matter how I try to love them. Everything else - nummy!

I love your description of the "holy shit instinct" - I had an experience of dumbassery in the metal studio when I accidentally set fire to a rag with a blowtorch & that reaction is exactly what happened. After a panicked look at the window, the rag went flying into a nearby sink, with no damage to studio or people, thankfully.

Come to think of it, that's what I also experienced the first time I roasted a duck & it dripped over onto the oven element. The fire department was called that time - much embarrassment.

I agree with John. It sounds like it turned out well but if you had put it in the correct ratios, maybe it would have turned out differently. I know it sounds like a lot of work but maybe if you did it again with more red pepper or less garlic, it would be even better.

Wow, glad that you were unscathed by the grease!

The concept of dry shots are interesting, and it's cool to see all the methodical work that goes into these recipes. I've been cooking out of TFLC lately, and what I've noticed is that it takes a lot more prep, steps, and planning than what I normally cook, and Alinea looks like that x 1,000! Very cool, and I can't wait to see what you do with the verjus and beets.

It continues to annoy me that Takoma Park has very little resembling a decent resteraunt. I went to Mark's today while I was out running errands. Their potato salad is just white potatoes covered in mayo. It was kind of appaling. I'd prefer costco crap to that.

Any clue as to why the numbers were so off???

the shots look interesting, but i particularly like the story that prefaced the food. :)

I just came across this and didn't know if you had seen it. Grant Achatz is blogging for The Atlantic's new food channel.

http://amcblogmte4.atlantic-media.us/food/back-of-the-house/

OMG, I laughed out loud several times at the Grant Achatz piece "Inspired in the Dark on a Tatami Mat" on The Atlantic food blog. It makes me wish I were his best friend. Lucky Carol, she practically is! :>) Thanks for posting this, Amber!

BTW, Carol, I currently have the old kitchen appliance blahs. I wish I still could use the stove that we were lucky to have in our apartment in San Francisco (prior to moving to Arlington). Our unit used to be the landlord's and was thus decked out with a Viking stove and a Subzero fridge to boot. I swear even frozen pizza tasted better in that oven, and I could get a nice brown crust on meat on the stovetop.

Now I am in Kenmore electric hell. Whoever invented the flat stovetop with the electric element underneath (that turns on an off 45 times in the span of 10 minutes just to maintain a saute temp) was an enemy of haute cuisine!


totally cool. Bit like this post then.

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