Pear, eucalyptus, olive oil, black pepper
When I started this blog, I created a spreadsheet of all the dishes and their specialty ingredients so I could more efficiently plan my ingredient purchases and cooking timeline. When I looked ahead to this dish, I didn't see anything that needed to be special-ordered or sourced online. I already have a stash of gelatin sheets, and pears and lemons are easy to find at the grocery store. I knew I'd be using fresh mint leaves instead of zuta levana leaves, and I'd planned to dry my own eucalyptus leaves because I was absolutely, positively certain there was a eucalyptus tree in a someone's yard back in my hometown where I'd been planning to visit anyway. This is the point at which you should know my hometown is not in California, nor is it in Australia -- the two places in the world where eucalyptus trees are prevalent. I grew up Amish-adjacent in Pennsylvania.
About a week before making this dish, I called my mom about something else, and while I was on the phone with her I asked her to help me figure out who it was that we knew who had a eucalyptus tree in their yard:
Me: So, I thought the next time I came up, I'd just get some eucalyptus leaves from one of the trees up there and dry them myself. That might be cool. Who do we know that has a eucalyptus tree in their yard?
My mom: What are you talking about?
Me: Eucalyptus. You know, that tall and round tree with the big, dark green leaves... that tree that I think Aunt Phyl and Uncle Doc used to have in their side yard at the old house?
My mom: :::: silence :::::
Me: Um, how do you not know what I'm talking about? (yes, I sometimes act like I'm 13) Eucalyptus!!! They're everywhere. Dark green leaves, beautiful white flowers, and I think there's one in the front yard of that Tudor-looking house on Chestnut Street, and...
My mom: I think you might be thinking about a mag...
Me: ...nolia tree.
My mom: :::: stifling a laugh ::::
Me: Oh, man. Oh, shi... Crap... crappity-crap-crap.
My mom: :::: not exactly stifling that laugh anymore :::::
So, I had to find dried eucalyptus leaves online, which was really easy and they arrived quickly, so I guess the story has a happy ending, despite my winning the Duh Award for momentarily confusing magnolia for eucalyptus.
I will say this upfront: I had reservations and hesitations about making this dish. I associate the smell of eucalyptus with camphor oil, and of being sick as a little kid and having Vicks VapoRub on my chest. So, as I was preparing the ingredients for this dish, I was thinking this might smell and taste like a sinus infection or bronchitis, and wouldn't that be the opposite of awesome...
The first thing I did was prepare the pear balls. I peeled the first Anjou pear and scooped out eight little balls using my #12 melon baller (about 1/4"). The Alinea cookbook suggests using two pears, but I was able to make it work with one, and my balls ended up being bigger (*snerk*) than the ones the book recommends doing, because of the melon ballers I already owned.
So, after scooping out the little balls with the 1/4" scoop, I then scooped around those with a 1" melon baller, creating a semi-ball with a hollowed-out top:
As I scooped each one, I stored them in a bowl of water, into which I'd squeezed some fresh lemon juice, so they wouldn't turn brown as I worked.
The next step is to put the pear balls (the big ones, not the little guys I hollowed out first - I ate those) in a small saucepan with some wine, sugar, and water and bring it to a boil. Once that happened, I turned off the flame and poured the contents of the saucepan into an empty bowl nestled in a larger bowl of ice water.
While those cooled, I made the eucalyptus (that's a hard word to type, and I keep typing it as eucatlypus, argh!!!) gelatin. I combined water, sugar, salt, and eucalyptus in a small saucepan. Let me just say here how much I love using a scale to measure things for cooking. It is so damn easy to just plonk the pot or whatever vessel I'm using onto the scale, press tare to zero-out the readout, and add each ingredient, pressing the tare button in between each one.
I brought the liquid to a boil, turned off the flame, then let it steep for 45 minutes, covered.
p.s. -- it didn't smell like cold medicine at all, so my expectations got a wee bit sunnier.
After the 45-minute steeping, I strained it through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl and then added the gelatin sheets (which I'd soaked for about five minutes before straining the eucalyptus liquid). If you are going to attempt this or any other dish that calls for gelatin sheets, please don't try to substitute powdered gelatin. It doesn't work in the same way, and you will be disappointed with your outcome, trust me. I love that so many of you are adventurous enough to want to do these dishes -- I would just hate for you to feel like it was a waste of all the other ingredients when it doesn't turn out the way it should... because it won't. Using powdered gelatin can sometimes add a weird mouth feel, and it just doesn't set as nicely or as cleanly as sheet gelatin. Not sure why (and if anyone reading this wants to explain it better in the comments, be my guest), but take my word for it.
I lined a small baking dish with plastic wrap and poured a little bit of the gelatin (about 1/16" to 1/8" inch) to cover the bottom, and put it in the refrigerator to set.
The book suggests it might take an hour or so. Mine took 15 minutes.
Just before taking the baking dish of gelatin out of the fridge, I leveled the bottoms of the pear balls just a smidge so they'd be able to sit properly on this layer of gelatin. I also evened out the tops of the balls, too, so that they'd be a little more uniform. It wasn't perfect but it sufficed, even if some of them look a little raggedy in the close-up.
I then placed the pear balls onto the thin layer of set gelatin, and gently poured the rest of the liquid gelatin into the dish so the pear balls would be surrounded in it -- like a silken eucalyptus hug -- careful to not let any of the liquid go into the divots in the center of the pear balls, because that's where the olive oil needed to go in the final plating.
I put them in the refrigerator again, and while the book suggests it might take an hour to set, mine took about 40 minutes. Again, yours may take more or less time -- it's all in the temperature and humidity, I suppose.
When they'd set, I lifted the gelatin-surrounded pears out of the baking dish (the reason why using plastic wrap in that step is important) and used a 1" round cutter to cut around and remove the pear balls, leaving a thin coating of gelatin around the sides, as well.
They sort of look like milk-soaked, bloated Apple Jacks, don't they?
I placed each one on a spoon, filled each center with olive oil, then added a little bit of freshly ground black pepper and a small mint leaf. Whaddya think?
I kind of wish I'd thought to strain the strained eucalyptus liquid through a cheesecloth before adding the gelatin sheets because there was microscopic sediment which didn't allow the gel to be as clear as I know it could have been.
So, how'd they taste? Well, not at all weird. Texture-wise, they were a little on the mealy side. I think, maybe, I should've done the steeping part of the gelatin first, and done the pear balls while the liquid was steeping. Of course, my pear was really pretty ripe, so maybe that contributed to the soft graininess. It didn't gross me out, and it didn't detract from the taste; it was just something I noticed.
Taste-wise, it was pleasant and a nice contrast of flavors. I wish I'd used a sharper olive oil, because I think that might've enhanced it a bit. The combination of eucalyptus and pear was very nice and quite fragrant, and the mint added a nice touch. I think I want to get new or at least different black peppercorns, because these tasted a little off; maybe they're stale. I would like for them to have added a bit more depth of contrast than they did for me.
In all, this was a really nice bite. Will it end up in my Alinea at Home Top Ten of All Time when the blog is done? Probably not. Will it end up on the list of Ten Dishes I Will Never Do Again Because Holy Crap That Was Not Worth It? No way. In fact, they were so easy to make, I'll probably do them again, or a variation thereof. And if you want to try them at home, you should. They wouldn't be that hard to do it you only had one size of melon baller. I imagine you could do the smaller scoop-out part with a twist of the tip of a grapefruit spoon, right?
This bite was calm and nice and lovely. And, it certainly changed my mind about cooking with eucalyptus, that's for sure. Or magnolia. Whatever.
Speaking of which, in honor of The Great Eucalyptus-Magnolia Confusion of 2009, I'm going to do another giveaway. Use the comments to tell me about a time when you were so sure you were right about something (doesn't have to be about food), but so easily got schooled by someone else, and you instantly knew you were wrong and, thus, felt like a giant dork for the rest of the day. I'll randomly select a winner, and he or she will receive a bag of 2.5 oz. of dried eucalyptus leaves to experiment with. Good luck! And have fun sharing the shame. We've all been there.
Oh, and congrats to Liz, Amanda, and Andreas, who won the dried hibiscus flowers!
Up Next: Verjus, lemon thyme, beets, olive oil
Resources: Pear, lemon, and mint from HMart; Domino sugar, Mâcon-Villages Louis Jadot Chardonnay (2007); David's kosher salt; King Arthur Flour gelatin sheets; eucalyptus leaves from organzabagg.com; Monini D.O.P. Umbia olive oil.
Music to Cook By: Metallica; Metallica (The Black Album). I'm a fan of all things Metallica, but there's something about this album that I particularly like. I think it's because I associate it with a time in my life when, to relieve the stress of my job, I played the drums to this album on my steering wheel in the car on the way home from work. I like it even more now because it's always fun to see people's reactions when a girl (me) opts to bang out "Enter Sandman" at karaoke. It's quite the crowd pleaser.
Read My Previous Post: See, here's the thing...