Last week, I had the great pleasure and genuine good fortune to be in Jamaica for five days for a friend's wedding. Her family has a spectacular home on an estate there, and we wedding guests took over the surrounding villas for the week and had the most wonderful time. Every need was catered to during our stay, and we were all spoiled beyond belief. The wedding was beautiful, and the time with friends, away from home, was much-needed because over the past few weeks, I've piled on a lot more stress than I'd noticed (and I'm usually pretty self-aware). Work has been incredibly busy and things around the house have been consuming more time and effort than usual, so this wedding couldn't have been better-timed or better-located.
When I arrived at the villa where I'd be staying, I hugged my friends hello and upon seeing our surroundings, couldn't help but close my eyes and take a deep whiff. Part ocean, and part something else... at first, I couldn't place it. I squinted against the sun as I looked around the grounds until I saw it: a mango tree. Wait, two mango trees. There's a third! And a fourth! Hundreds of almost-ripe mangoes dangling in clumps of fifteen or twenty or more, their collective weight pulling the branches down so that they nearly touched the ground. I scampered (and I am generally a girl who does not scamper) down the hill to the first tree I saw and picked one from the lowest-hanging branch, sliced it lengthwise with my thumbnail (there goes the manicure!), and twisted it apart to feel the oily flesh and take in its scent. As you may recall, past experiences have made me more than a little hesitant to eat raw mangoes, but smelling them? Aaaaahhhhh. Feeling the weight of the fresh-picked, sun-warmed mango in my hand was, now in hindsight, the best way to kick off that little island respite of mine. It reminded me of and reconnected me to a sense of touch, taste, smell, and sight that I haven't lately treated myself to often enough.
Because of what I do for a living, I spend many days here at home tethered to my laptop. My office is on the second floor of my house, and while I have a lovely view of
the neighborhood from my window, my eyes are usually glued to
this screen, my fingers pounding out yet another op-ed, speech, or white paper for a client. When I have gotten outside these past few weeks to try and get my gardens ready for summer, it's all been a matter of hard labor and little enjoyment. Digging, moving, hauling, edging, mowing, weeding. Even when I cook, I haven't been taking the time to really pay attention to the food I'm working with, and because I've been so busy, my day-to-day cooking has been slapdash and hurried. So, I didn't really realize how much I needed to hold that mango and rip it open to breathe it in, leaving traces of pulp under my fingernails, until I actually did it. Miraculously, the kinks in my neck unkinked, the knot under my right shoulder blade unwound, and my latest malady -- the embarrassingly visible lower right eye twitch -- disappeared before I'd even gotten my bags fully unpacked. No cell phone, no laptop, and only fresh air, sunshine, and great friends for five days? Everyone should be this lucky.
As we drove our golf carts around the property to the various wedding events and parties, I saw (and smelled!) that nearly every villa had at least three or four mango trees in its environs, and the golf course was laden with them. After all the smushed mangoes on the roads, mangoes on the breakfast tray every morning, and a drunken, doubled-over-in-laughter game of pass-the-mango late Saturday night with a group of friends, it was obvious to me that the first dish I needed to do upon arriving back home was this one.
After all, I needed to reverse the bad mojo of three failed dishes in a row, and having just returned from paradise, I was certain the Jamaican mango gods had somehow stowed themselves in my luggage and would be guiding my way.
And so we begin... with two mangoes:
I peeled them both (using my awesome Oxo peeler, and took a chunk of skin out of my thumb in the process), and cut them into chunks which I put in the blender:
I blended it on medium-high speed until it was very smooth (took about 2 minutes), then added about 2T of simple syrup. The book suggests adding an amount that will get you to 20 something-or-others on the refractometer, but as we covered in an earlier post, I don't have a refractometer, so I eyeballed an amount I thought would work for this preparation (and it did, but sshhhh, don't tell anyone until you get to the end of the post).
After adding the 2T of simple syrup, I whizzed the mixture around in the blender for about 10 seconds to fully incorporate it, and poured the purée through a chinois into a bowl, and then into a squeeze bottle (which went into the fridge while I made everything else).
Next up? Soy pudding.
Back when this blog was but a babe in the woods, I made olive oil pudding as part of one of the dishes in the book, and remember feeling all squidgey and blarky about it until I ate it, at which point I wanted to slather it all over my body and talk dirty to it, it was that good.
Would the same thing happen with soy pudding? You'll soon find out... patience, grasshopper.
In a medium saucepan, I poured 500g of soy sauce (which is not even an entire 20-oz. bottle) along with the sugar and agar agar:
I brought it to a boil, whisking all the time while it boiled for two minutes threatening to ooze over the top of the pan, giving me flashbacks to the time my cousins made me watch "The Blob" with them late at night when I was but a wee lass. Thanks, Ann and Amy. Thanks a lot. [Oh, and while I'm at it, thanks also for making me watch "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," too. I WAS TEN. I still have nightmares about that. You suck. (Love you!)]
It crawls! It creeps! It eats you alive!!!
I poured The Blob through a strainer into one of my Le Creuset pots, which I covered with its lid and put in the fridge for two hours to set.
After it had set, I scooped it all out into chunks that I put in the blender:
Looks more like soy Jell-O than soy pudding, doesn't it?
The idea was to blend it until it was smooth. I had to keep stopping the blender to push the chunks back down, which was kind of frustrating and ultimately has me convinced that I need a new blender (I've had this same one since 1991 -- can you believe it? Eighteen years. My blender can vote AND register for the draft!):
It was not as creamy smooth as I would've liked, but it also wasn't as tapenade-y as the photo depicts. Somewhere in the middle, but not as dark and smooth and serene-looking as the photo of the little dots of it on page 187 of the Alinea cookbook. Dang it.
The final step was to shave some dried bonito for sprinkling atop the finished product. When I went to HMart, my local Asian market, I couldn't find a piece of dried bonito. I asked a few employees where it might be, and because I don't speak Korean or Spanish (and the word "bonito" means something entirely different in Spanish anyway), it was a bit of a challenge to find. I also have a hard time saying the word "bonito" without using my Beavis voice, which I'm sure didn't help matters.
So I wrote the words "bonito" and "katsuobushi" (its other name) and drew a picture of a fish (I am such a tacky American) on a piece of paper and a kind employee led me to one of the middle aisles, extending his arm out and then to the side, gesturing at a set of shelves amidst the "American" household goods and foodstuffs (Cheerios, Charmin, and Jif). I started to say, "Oh no, this isn't the right aisle" because for YEARS I'd been walking by this very spot, wondering to myself why the Asian population in the metro DC area seemed to own hamsters and guinea pigs in great quantities, because I'd never seen a grocery store cater so heavily to a certain pet owner demographic, what with all the shelves of bags of various brands of hamster cage shavings:
Turns out, this stuff is shaved bonito -- or katsuobushi. Not cedar shavings. I'm such an ass.
There's no pleasant or polite way to say this, but the smell that assaulted my nasal passages upon opening that bag of shaved bonito was... um... gosh.... I don't want to be crass here, but I do want to find a way to convey what it smelled like without being too rude or offensive or soon to be on the receiving end of a phone call from my mother saying, "CAROL MELISSA BLYMIRE, WHERE ARE YOUR MANNERS?!?!?! HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND!?!?!? DID I TEACH YOU NOTHING!?!!?!?! AND WHAT HAPPENED TO EMINEM'S FACE???!?!?!?! HE LOOKS LIKE BRUCE JENNER NOW, OR MAYBE EVEN AXL ROSE, AND THAT IS NOT GOOD AT ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!" [Okay, she wouldn't yell at me about that last part, but seriously y'all, his face is jacked and that's a shame.]
So, back to the smell of the bonito (and now I'm singing "La Isla Bonita," Madonna's WORST SONG EVER. GREAT.): "Not quite the mango-scented Jamaican breeze" doesn't quite cut it. An Atlantic City hooker in a rented-by-the-hour hotel in a swamp in the middle of August? Perhaps a link will help? Let's just say that there's a good reason some car makers install air conditioning vents just below the steering wheel, especially for long car rides. Okay, I'm grossing myself out. I think you catch my drift.
After I opened both windows in the kitchen to try and air out the place, I realized the texture of these shavings weren't going to do, though, for the final plating, so I whizzed them in my coffee bean/spice grinder until they became a fine powder:
It alleviated some of the smell, but I had to scrub the hell out of the grinder when I was finished with it, and then dispose of those paper towels in the outdoor garbage can immediately. Ack.
With all the ingredients prepped and ready to go, I set up my ghetto antigriddle:
This time, the block of dry ice came from Elbe's Beer and Wine in Wheaton, MD, where the guy who helped me asked why I needed the dry ice, and was far more interested in and suitably impressed with my adventurous approach to cooking. Unlike the old fart from Talbert's. Ahem.
I gave the baking sheet a few minutes to freeze, and called the neighbors to come over and watch my magical antigriddle skillz. First, I laid down a (semi)circular blob of mango purée, leaving a hole in the center for the sesame oil and soy pudding:
(You're still totally grossed out by the description of the bonito smell, aren't you, and not even paying attention to the pretty, pretty mango purée. SNAP OUT OF IT!! I'm trying to dazzle you with my super-awesome antigriddle prowess!)
Next, I added a drop of the sesame oil in the middle, which I topped with a blonk of soy pudding (which, again, in this photo looks much grainier than it actually was):
When it had frozen all the way -- you can see in the photo above, the edges are turning a paler shade of yellow -- I pinched a bit of bonito powder on top and gingerly popped the frozen mango disk off the baking sheet with a small offset spatula (only losing three of them due to overzealous popping, which flew them into the air and onto the floor, much to the dogs' enjoyment):
So, how did it taste? Well, it wasn't bad! The sesame was a little overpowering, but we all loved the way the flavors just unveiled themselves gradually and collectively with every chew. The soy and the mango together were really great, and the bonito added a nice depth and moved the flavor up into the nose a bit (and wasn't gross anymore at all!). We all stood around the butcher block island in my kitchen as I made nearly 50 of them -- some with just mango purée, some with mango and soy, some with mango and bonito, but very few with the sesame oil, because it just seemed to stampede all over the other flavors. The soy pudding was not as earth-shatteringly good as the olive oil pudding of yore, but I didn't hate it. Three of my tasters were kids, and they loved it with just the mango and soy as well as the plain mango, not so much the sesame.
This is a really easy and entertaining dish to make, and the flavor combination possibilities are endless, depending on what you have on-hand. Between this and the sour cream dish, I think I want to set aside an afternoon to make and freeze a bunch of different purées and creamy things to see what else I can come up with. Not only did it taste good, this was fun! It was the perfect segue from the perfect vacation back into the real world... and it's clear the Jamaican mango gods brought me good luck in reversing the curse.
I'm back, baby. Oh yeah.
SPECIAL NOTE: Congratulations to Chef Achatz, the Alinea team, all the Alinea cookbook writers and contributors, and the folks at Ten Speed Press for garnering a James Beard Award for Cookbooks (Professional). Bravo!
And, a great podcast interview with Grant on the CIA web site about the industry, restaurant philosophy, and the importance of good mentors, among other topics.
Up Next: Junsai, bonito, soy, mirin
Resources: Mangoes, sesame oil, and bonito from HMart in Wheaton, MD; simple syrup from my fridge (always good to have a batch on hand, especially to add to iced tea in the summertime); agar agar from WillPowder.net; San-J soy sauce.
Music to Cook By: The Whigs; Mission Control. A few years ago, Rolling Stone wrote up The Whigs as a band to watch, so I did. While they haven't exactly stampeded up the charts (because their father isn't Billy Ray Cyrus or Jay-Z.. and that's actually a good thing in the long run), they are solid and I love their sound. They're doing some dates on the west coast at the end of the summer with Kings of Leon, another band I like, but not coming to DC. Boooo....
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