Back injuries suck.
So does being overwhelmed with work.
I missed my kitchen something fierce. I missed writing about food just as much.
I barely cooked a thing these past 6 weeks. I assembled. I ordered takeout (an insane amount). I ate in restaurants. I went to friends' houses when I could spare an hour or two (I think that happened twice, so there you go). I didn't set aside time to go to the market or allow myself the time to cook. It was a choice. I didn't have a lot of control over my schedule and therefore didn't want to stock up on any kind of perishable food because the minute I did, I would've gotten a phone call that I needed to be in New York for 3 days... or sitting in a four-hour meeting on the Hill.... or needed to drop everything and write an op-ed that needs to get sent to the New York Times in two hours.... or had to work through the night to get a script in shape for taping the next morning. I got into a zone and I knew if I buckled down and focused on work deadlines and related endeavors, my summer months would be more manageable, so I did it. But let me tell you: I missed cooking.
Last week, I started to get really edgy and bitchy and itchy and moody. All work and no cook makes Carol a cranky girl. I wanted to chop. I wanted to braise. I wanted to saute. I wanted to roast. I wanted to crack open the Alinea cookbook again. Not wanted to. Needed to.
So, this weekend, I bought pot after pot of fresh herbs to plant in the garden. I also went to three farmers markets and stocked the fridge full of everything fresh because I my schedule is now finally my own again, and I can actually enjoy setting aside time to cook and let myself relax like a normal person. The occasional work crisis might pop up from time to time, but not from 6 or 7 clients all at once like they had over the past two months.
I texted my friends across the street and invited them to dinner. And I cooked.
It's good to be back in my favorite room of the house.
Lately, an unusually high number of people have asked me about this blog and about how it's influenced my cooking. No one seems to believe that the Alinea cookbook can influence a person's everyday cooking or food shopping. They see it as way too out-there or just not feasible in a home kitchen. Sure, some of the dishes are a lot of work, but in the long run anything that can help me be a better cook I'm willing to try, or at the very least read about.
So, for those of you out there who need a little jump-start in the inspiration department, I hope this post does the trick because it's all about how 4 truly beautiful pages in an avant-garde cookbook from one of the best restaurants in America shaped a really delicious (if I do say so myself) menu for a weekend dinner with friends.
* * * * *
Let's look at the elements in this dish (page 324 in the cookbook, if you wanna follow along):
Lamb loin: I already had lamb loin in the freezer, so that was a go.
Red wine-braised cabbage: Nothing crazy or difficult about this.
Medjool date compote: Again, pretty straightforward; just needed to buy some dates
Mastic cream: I don't keep mastic on-hand and I'd never cooked with it, but was curious to try.
Rosemary: Makes me sneeze and cough, so I knew I wasn't gonna include it regardless of how I made this dish.
Oregano leaves: In my garden; check.
Chervil tops: Bought two pots at the farmers market; done.
I got out my notebook and spent all of 30 seconds writing the following "menu" for dinner:
Grilled loin of lamb with mastic cream, chervil, and oregano; date compote on the side
Red wine-braised cabbage
Mashed Yukon gold potatoes
... all of which came together because of the Alinea cookbook.
It's a menu I think anyone could pull off and have a really great dinner with friends. No special equipment. No wacky techniques. I even cooked something sous vide WITHOUT an immersion circulator (you can, too!).
After all that time away from the kitchen, I was worried I might forget how to hold a knife. That I might not know how to turn on my stove. That I might not know how to precisely cut a head of cabbage in half so that I could get a 500g yield with one of the halves ON THE FIRST TRY:
(the other half was 394g, in case you were wondering)
I removed the core, then sliced the cabbage really thin, sliced a shallot even thinner, and added it to the melted butter in my Le Creuset pot. I gently tossed it around (over medium heat) so that everything got mixed with the butter, and let it cook for about five minutes, when the cabbage began to release its liquid.
Then, I added some red wine, some port, orange blossom honey (didn't have wildflower honey on hand), salt, and pepper, covered it with a parchment lid and let it braise for about 4 hours over medium-low heat (until nearly all the liquid was gone). The book has an additional step involving adding potato, but I skipped that step, because I wanted to serve this as a warm slaw-type of side dish.
While the cabbage was cooking, I started the date compote. I soaked a pound of dates in hot tap water for five minutes which made it easier to remove their skins and pits. I put the dates in a saucepan with some water, sherry vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper and brought them up to simmer over medium heat:
The dates were supposed to simmer over low-medium heat for about an hour. So, I turned down the flame and let them do their thing while I Skyped with my nephew (who, in his spare time, likes to watch over ant colonies BEFORE DESTROYING THEM):
Moments after we signed off (he now says, "Peace out, dude!"), I smelled something that was NOT GOOD:
Peace out, date compote. Was nice knowing you.
Scratch that little side item off the menu. Oh well. Can't win 'em all, I suppose.
Next thing I did was prepare the lamb loins:
I trimmed them and cleaned them up a bit, removing the silverskins and big chunks of fat, brushed them lightly with olive oil, and wrapped each one, air-tight, in Saran Wrap:
I picked it up in both hands, holding both ends, and twirled it around five times (twirling away from me), then tied the ends tight:
I got the water bath ready -- a large saucepan with a candy thermometer works just fine, see? Heated the water to 135 degrees, put in the wrapped lamb loins, and let them cook for 20 minutes.
Then, I took them out and put them (still wrapped) in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process:
When they had cooled, I stored them in the refrigerator until it was time to sear them on the grill just before sitting down to eat.
While the lamb was cooking, I made the mastic cream.
I'd never cooked with mastic gum before. Have you? I know what it tastes like and I've had it in many different kinds of food and drink (smoked lamb in Morocco, Turkish Delight, as a sweetener in Turkish coffee), but I didn't really know all that much about it until recently. Mastic gum (above) is resin from the mastic tree. In Greece, it's sometimes referred to as Tears of Chios, because it comes out of the tree in what looks like tears or droplets (like you often see tree sap here in the States) in liquid form, then the sun dries it to a hard resin. It's (relatively) expensive: I paid $7.99 for the tiny jar you see above.
It's hard to describe what mastic tastes like. There's a pine-scented element to it, and it's also floral and fragrant, but not in the off-putting way I find rose water to be. It's also a little woodsy... kinda like if it's just finished raining, and someone's fireplace is going strong and you're outside in the woods and you smell all that together.
Here's what 2g looks like:
I combined the mastic with some half-and-half, sugar, and salt, and brought it to a boil:
I poured it through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean saucepan, added a little bit of agar agar, and brought it to a boil, whisking to dissolve the agar, then poured it into a shallow pan:
I set that pan in a bowl of ice water so the cream would set:
After it had set, I scraped the mastic cream into the blender and whacked it around for a minute until it was smooth:
Meantime, I lightly peeled and roasted some asparagus (olive oil, salt, pepper) at 425F for 15 minutes:
Whipped up some mashed Yukon golds (skins on, butter, salt, milk):
Made a Greek-ish salad (romaine hearts, cucumber, tomato, dill, chive, feta, vinaigrette):
And, I unwrapped and grilled the lamb loins, and garnished them with fresh oregano and chervil:
Linda, Sean, Grant, and Carter walked in the door:
And we sat down to a lovely meal:
Now that I know how to do meat sous vide, it's hard for me to make it any other way. I know that probably sounds really obnoxious, but it's true. It just makes such a difference, and I love how tender the meat turns out. Granted, I started with a beautiful cut of lamb, but cooking it this way made it even better. I put little dollops of mastic cream on each bite of lamb, and that along with the fresh chervil and oregano was just lovely.
The braised cabbage? OH MY WORD. I made a similar cabbage when I did French Laundry at Home, but this one was a little sweeter and complimented the lamb nicely. I'm glad I did mashed potatoes, because it rained all weekend and was kind of chilly and those potatoes were comforting in so many ways -- and, with summer just around the corner, my mashed potato days are soon heading for hiatus. The asparagus was so fresh and delicious, and the salad had some really nice flavor (I went heavy on the fresh herbs and light on the dressing).
Didn't miss the date compote one bit, and you know what else I didn't miss? The rosemary fragrance. Instead, I opened the windows in the dining room and the fresh, clean, just-finished-raining air was all we needed to help us enjoy the food, a great bottle of wine, some tunes, and talks of summer plans.
What did YOU make this weekend?
Up Next: Goose, blood orange, sage, roasting goose aromas
Resources: Lamb from Elysian Fields; mastic from Asadur's Market in Rockville, MD; cabbage, shallot, Yukon gold potatoes, and dates from Whole Foods; herbs from my garden; asparagus and cucumbers from the 14th and U Street Farmers Market; Sandeman ruby port; Turley zinfandel; David's kosher salt; Organic Valley half-and-half.
Music to Cook To: David Byrne and Fatboy Slim; Here Lies Love. I had the great pleasure of (quite unexpectedly) meeting David Byrne at a breakfast in November. He was really lovely, and I wish I'd known this album was coming out because I'd have wanted to ask, "Really? A two-CD set of songs about the life and times of Imelda Marcos sung by some of the world's most talented and engaging female singers and songwriters?" You have to hear it to believe it. [I think "Don't You Agree" by Roisin Murphy might be my favorite.]
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