Green Almond, sweet, hot, sour, salt
The photograph of this dish on page 77 of the Alinea cookbook is one of my favorite photos in the entire book. It's elegant in its simplicity and beautifully lit, the texture of the almond against the smooth, cool green of the cucumber gel is lovely, and I love the reflection of the "flavored corners" on the black surface the gelée cube is sitting on.
I also love the flavor profile of this dish, even in just reading the recipe. I could imagine the fresh cucumber taste, and the heat, sour, salt and sweet. The only thing I couldn't factor into my imagination about this dish was what the almond would taste like, since I'd never eaten or worked with green (unripened) almonds before.
Before I started this blog, I created a spreadsheet of all the specialty ingredients I'd need for each dish, and began researching when the seasonal ingredients would most likely be available. Knowing that green almonds aren't exactly native to Maryland soil, I figured I'd have to have them shipped to me, so I found Stewart & Jasper. I spent some time on the phone with Jason Jasper back in December learning about the different developmental phases of almonds, and figuring out how young I needed my almonds to be. I knew I didn't want them to be completely gelatinous, but they also couldn't be too hard or crunchy. He suggested I plan for late April/early May and to stay in touch so we could figure out when they'd be ripe enough.
So, in April, I began speaking with Suzanne at Stewart & Jasper, and each Monday, she'd call with the report after some of their employees had been out picking almonds off the trees and slicing them open: "They're still pretty gel-y" or "not quite there yet" and "maybe next week, but more likely the week after."
Then, one Monday when she said, "we just picked ten pounds for a restaurant in Chicago, and they look perfect" I placed my order. They sent them overnight, and when the UPS guy delivered the box he asked, "So, whaddya getting today?" When I told him they were green almonds, he did that squint-smile-cocked-head-what!? thing and just laughed. The FedEx guy for our neighborhood can barely open his mouth to say "hello" or "good morning," but our UPS guy is always up for a chat, so I told him what I was making and he thought it sounded "pretty cool." One of these days, I need to time the serving of some of these dishes for when both he and the mailman are in the 'hood because they're part of this whole process, too, and are always interested in what's in all those boxes of goodies that seem to appear every few weeks or so.
This dish was one of the easier ones I've made so far, and took almost no time at all to do. So, let's walk through it, and maybe you'll want to try it, too... or some variation thereof.
The first thing I did was quarter and remove the seeds from two English cucumbers:
Then, I doused myself in patchouli and got out my JuiceDude2000 and put those cucumbers through the juicer:
[obviously, I am lying about the patchouli part of that earlier sentence.]
So easy... and again, so grateful to Anita's sister, Patti, for the Juicinator, because going back to the old way with the food processor and the cheesecloth would've landed me in the loony bin.
I measured out 50 grams of cucumber juice (and put the rest in the freezer for variations on a Pimm's Cup later this summer):
I put five gelatin sheets in a bowl of cold water so they could soak while I slowly heated the cucumber juice over a low flame:
When the cucumber juice was warmed (not even simmering, just warm to the touch), I took the gelatin sheets out of the bowl, squeezed all the water from them, and put them in the saucepan of warm cucumber juice, whisking until they dissolved.
I turned off the flame and whisked in the sugar and salt the book called for, and poured a small amount of the liquid into a plastic wrap-lined 6x9" baking dish and put it in the refrigerator to set:
While it was in the fridge, I got to work on the green almonds:
Using a paring knife, I cut around them lengthwise to crack them open. You can feel how far you can cut into them -- the shell has a natural "give" point that prevents you from cutting all the way through the almond.
After I'd opened eight almonds, I opened a ninth one just to taste it. Eaten plain, they're sort of a combination -- both texture- and taste-wise -- of fava bean and water chestnut. Not bland at all, but also not packed full of flavor. Really subtle, very light, but not empty or dull.
I checked the cucumber gel to see if it was even close to being ready, and after only 12 minutes, it was. So, I gently laid the almonds on the surface, pressing down on each one just ever-so-lightly, and then poured the rest of the cucmber liquid in. I put the dish back into the refrigerator to firm up, and it set in 20 minutes.
I was irked by the air bubbles on top, but when I looked even closer at the photo of this in the Alinea cookbook, I saw there were bubbles on the surface of theirs, too, so I then tried to do some revisionist history in my head and pretend that I meant it to look like that. Sometimes, I exhaust myself.
I removed the block of almonds and gel from the dish, lifting it out using the Saran Wrap, and put it on a cutting board to begin cutting it into serving-size rectangles:
I cut it lengthwise, first, then cut in between each almond, allowing enough space in between each one for further trimming:
While I had them on the cutting board, I added the seasoning -- sweet (raw sugar), hot (cayenne pepper), sour (citric acid), and salt (um, salt) -- one in each of the four corners:
Using a small offset spatula, I lifted each one and put them on individual spoons for serving:
I carried them across the street to my friend, Linda's, house for our Friday afternoon cocktails. Linda, Holly, and I each picked up a spoon and took a bite. Either Linda's had too much cayenne pepper or she's a GIANT WUSS because she couldn't handle the heat. I, on the other hand, really LOVED the heat -- which is strange for me, because typically, any amount of cayenne pepper will "burn" my entire palate and I won't be able to taste anything else for hours, sometimes even the rest of the day. But, as I'm noticing a shift in my food allergies/sensitivities over the past few months, this seems to be less of a problem as of late. I didn't even mind the texture of the cucumber gel (I know, I'm all growns up!).
It's wild, how when you put the spoon in your mouth and slide it back out leaving the bite on your tongue, how the flavors unfold. The cucumber and almond are a mild, cool backdrop with some nice texture, and then as you chew, the heat hit me first, then was rounded out by the sweet just at the time the sour went up into my sinuses, and then the salt kind of smoothed everything over -- all in, like, three seconds.
So, how good was it? There were eight servings overall: Holly ate one; Linda ate one; Linda's husband, Sean, ate one; their son, Grant, had one. I ate the other four. Oh yes, I did, all while enjoying a bottle of Turley Zinfandel and some gorgeous cheeses (a camembert, a brie, and a smoked gouda).
I love Friday afternoons...
So, what did I do with the rest of the box full of green almonds? Well, I used them as my nut base (*snerk* /12) for some garlic scape pesto and it ended up tasting better than using ripe almonds, pine nuts, walnuts or pecans. Tossed it with some pasta and some more parm-reg, and had a great lunch the next day.
Up Next: PB&J
Resources: Gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie; English cucumbers from Whole Foods, Domino sugar, David's kosher salt, green almonds from Stewart and Jasper; 365 raw sugar; cayenne pepper and sea salt from Adriana's Caravan; citric acid from L'Epicerie.
Music to Cook By: Green Day; 21st Century Breakdown. If this doesn't win a Grammy for Album of the Year, I am gonna punch someone in the nads. I was so so so lucky to get this via a friend in the business a few days before it came out, and I haven't been able to stop listening to it since then.... which means I'm totally gonna be the annoying old fart who sings along with every song when I take my neighbor's kids to see Green Day in concert later this summer. This album feels more like "Dookie," which I absolutely loved, and it's just full of great writing and instrumentation, and it's awesome for drumming in the car (especially "Do You Know Your Enemy," "The Static Age," and "East Jesus Nowhere") which is important criteria every album, should meet, right?
Read My Previous Post: My Dinner at Alinea, Part Two