Croquette, smoked steelhead roe, endive, radish
While I love being a spectator of certain sporting events, I've never been much of the athletic type. Chalk it up to my innate talents (musical theatre, and being a smartass) focused elsewhere while I was growing up, or being much more into the statistics of sports rather than the sports themselves (I still have my spiral-bound notebook containing various Orioles batting averages and Winter Olympic ski jump records from 1976), but I could never play any actual sports. Part of it is laziness, part of it is disinterest, and most of it just an extreme lack of athletic talent. EXTREME. Like, I got Cs in phys. ed. in junior high and high school because the only sport I was good at was rolling my eyes.
That said, I will confess to being jealous of people who are good at sports, because they're given the benefit of having the opportunity for some amazing, adrenaline-fueled celebratory moments -- the rush of scoring a goal in soccer, the 80-yard touchdown run, or hearing the specific crack of the bat that you just know is going to land that baseball over the left-field fence. Even watching pro sports -- the Ickey Shuffle, the Lambeau Leap, the touchdown spike, the winning ace in a tennis match, or soccer players who get caught up in the swarm of teammates when they score a goal. Hell, even the sound of, "goooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllllllllllllll!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" itself is awesome. It's a feeling I rarely have an opportunity to experience. I mean, so I launch a great press campaign or score a rave for a client in the New York Times... can't exactly do a leaping chest-bump while "WOOO-HOOOOOO"-ing with anyone. In fact, none of my professional experiences inherently deliver that from-the-gut-gotta-outwardly-and-instantly-celebrate-or-I-might-explode kind of feeling. Not even close.
So, I don't play sports, and my profession doesn't really dovetail with the physicality of a celebratory adrenaline surge. But cooking? Even when a meal turns out beautifully, I can't say that I've ever experienced that sense of beaming pride that carries you for days. It always seems as if I take a moment or two to savor it, and then I go on to the next thing. But you know what happened the other day? A fist-pumping, can't stop smiling, HELL YES, end-zone dancing, butt-shaking, giddily laughing accomplishment that took me quite by surprise and that I'm still feeling today... all caused by what you see below. This, my friends, is my Croquette, from the Alinea cookbook:
Is it a breaded, fried ball of dairy product with stuff on top? Yes, but it may just be the best thing I have ever made. It's certainly the best bite from this blog up until now. And, to add to the joy? I made it gluten-free.
I was caught off guard by how well this turned out, because there were steps throughout the process that could very easily have led to a post with lines like, "well, the spheres were supposed to set, but as you can see, Bluto clearly got to them before I could." I worried that the breading I'd planned to do would fail, and I'd end up with a repeat of The Great Sweet Potato Meltdown of 2009. I feared another caper explosion. I don't know why, but I had it in my head that this was going to be frustrating and unsatisfying, and instead, it was the complete opposite.
And when it was done, and the croquettes eaten, and the dishwasher started, and my friends on their way back across the street to their home, I did my own version of the Ickey Shuffle. Although, because I have ZERO floor space in my kitchen, it admittedly looked more like Judd Nelson in the final scene of The Breakfast Club after he kisses Molly Ringwald. Which was shot on a football field. Which I do not and can not play. Because I suck at sports. And we come full circle. Wow.
But let's begin at the beginning, shall we? Unless, of course, you're one of those readers who only likes when I destroy something or fail miserably... in which case, FINE. BE that way.
I did this dish in just a few hours (most of which was waiting time as the spheres set), and it was more than worth it. I started in the morning because I wanted to make sure I built in some extra time for the crème fraîche spheres to set, or for me to re-do them completely, because I was really sure I was gonna screw 'em up. But before I even started in on those, I candied some Belgian endive leaves...
I bought two endives, and used the larger outer leaves of both. I also trimmed the tough, brownish, fibrous parts at the base of each leaf. I halved the leaves lengthwise (I made a few extra in case some tore while cooking) and put them in a small saucepan of sugar and water I'd already heated to a simmer (stirring until the sugar dissolved). Upon putting in the leaves, I turned down the flame to the lowest heat level, covered the pot, and let them simmer/steep for 40 minutes.
I turned off the burner and let the leaves sit in the pot of liquid until I was ready to use them later in the day.
The next thing I did was make the crème fraîche liquid -- crème fraîche, water, salt, simple syrup, warmed to a simmer. I added the gelatin sheets (which I'd soaked in cold water for a few minutes) and whisked them in until they'd dissolved.
I turned off the heat, knowing it would stay warm while I got the cucumber balls and roe ready to make the spheres:
The smoked steelhead roe is from BLiS, and I don't know that I've ever seen roe more beautiful (or more flavorful). [I can't wait to try all of Steve's other products because if this roe is any indication of the level of quality, I'm going to fall culinarily in love, I'm quite sure.]
To make the spheres, I got out my trusty silicone molds (which J.B. Prince no longer sells, sadly, but these should work just as nicely), and placed 7 eggs into each of the hemispheres, then added a cucumber ball, locked the top on, and squirted in the crème fraîche liquid until each sphere was full:
I put the mold into the refrigerator and crossed my fingers for the next three hours to make sure they'd set. I really, really, really thought that when I gently lifted up one corner of the top layer of the mold, that half the ball of goo would come with it, and it would be a creamy mess and I'd have wasted all that roe. But that wasn't the case.
Once I'd checked on them to make sure they were set and ready to be used, I put them back into the refrigerator and prepared the rest of the garnishes: red onion dice, radish slivers, deep-fried capers, pieces of lime segment, and a trio of fresh herbs (sandwiched between damp paper towels) -- chive, sorrel, parsley:
The next step was to bread and deep fry the crème fraîche spheres. The recipe in the book calls for all-purpose flour and panko crumbs, neither of which I can eat. So, instead, I took each ball and rolled it in tapioca flour, then egg (beaten), then breadcrumbs I made with four slices of Whole Foods brand gluten-free sandwich bread (which I thawed, removed the crusts, and whacked in the food processor for 20 seconds to make them into bread crumbs). The book said to do this flouring, egging, and breading twice so that they were double-breaded, but I did it three times. Just to be safe.
I heated a pot of canola oil to 250-275 degrees instead of the 475 degrees the book suggests. I know from previous experience that gluten-free bread tends to toast and burn more quickly than regular bread, so I started out at a lower temperature for the oil because I figured I could increase it if it wasn't working at 250-275 degrees. I just didn't want to lower one of those precious few crème fraîche spheres into 475-degree oil and have it turn black or explode.
I chose wisely:
That level of brown crispiness happened in ten seconds, and I knew each of these balls had to go into the oven for a few minutes to make sure the centers were softened, so I was happy to see that my gut instinct on this was correct. I did all nine spheres, one at a time, then put them on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 250-degree oven for 2 minutes. The only thing I thought about while they were warming was whether that 10 seconds in the oil was enough time, given that I had three layers of breading instead of two. I needn't have worried because this plate of croquettes is one of the finest things to have ever graced my kitchen:
So, what did it taste like? Well, we ate it as one bite... and the warm crème fraîche just exploded in my mouth (and some dribbled out of the side of my mouth; klassy!). The contrast of warm and creamy on the inside with the toastiness of the breaded outside was one thing. But, then to add the subtle layers of the smoky, salty, flavor bursts of the roe as they exploded between my teeth, and the sharpness and biteyness of the radish, the zing of the onion, the brine of the capers, the tart acidity of the lime, the cool freshness of the cucumber, and the sweetness of the candied endive? "Wow" doesn't cut it. "YEAH!" doesn't quite do it either. "Proud" doesn't quite encompass the height of emotion. My 10-year old neighbor's eyes bulged wide (he dribbled a bit, too) and he didn't blink at all while he chewed and then reached for a second one. But "eyes bulging" isn't the right descriptor, either. My neighbor, Sean, who had eaten at Alinea the week before, said, "this is your best work EVER." So while I was even more flattered because he actually now has a real-life reference point for the level of quailty I'm going for, it still isn't the most complete way to describe how I felt about this croquette.
I know part of my loving this croquette so much comes out of my knowing that I'll never again eat roe in the traditional way -- on toast points. Toast made with real bread -- the kind of bread I can't eat anymore. So to have all that toasty deliciousness, and the crème fraîche and the salty roe surrounded by all the other supporting flavors in one bite? And that I MADE IT?
It really and truly felt like what I can only imagine it's like to spike a football in the end zone... crack a bat on a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth... be the first one to cross the finish line in a come-from-behind win... feel the thunderous, all-encompassing roar of a crowd... then trying not to cry while you're standing on the platform receiving the gold medal and hearing the national anthem.
It's all of those wrapped up into one, because, I MADE THIS:
And it was FANTASTIC.
I'm gonna go do a victory lap now.
Up Next: Oyster, ginger, steelhead roe, beer
Resources: Gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie; Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. crème fraîche; David's kosher salt; English cucumber, Belgian endive, red onion, radish, sorrel; and gluten-free bread from Whole Foods; Domino sugar; BLiS roe; Bob's Red Mill Tapioca Flour; eggs from Smith Meadows Farm; 365 canola oil; Bal Paese capers; parsley and chive from my garden.
Music to Cook By: Ray LaMontagne; Trouble. Raspy, but not grating. Thoughtful, but not emo. Has a walkable musicality, but not Randy Newman. Lyrical, but not lilting and twee. I love this guy.
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