Last week, I had a meltdown. A spectacular, colossal meltdown. Granted, no one saw it (I don't think), but it happened just the same. And it's all because of this dish. Well, not really. But sort of.
I was running errands and shopping at Whole Foods for the ingredients to make this dish, when I grabbed a bag of Whole Foods/365 brand almonds. As I always do, I checked the packaging to make sure they were safe for me to eat (no gluten) and saw on the back of the bag the words that, even after more than two years of having to do this, still make my heart sink and shoulders slump: Processed in a facilty that also handles wheat, tree nuts, soy, and dairy products. With a heavy sigh (and a muttered expletive), I tossed them back onto the shelf and started Googling "gluten-free almonds" on my iPhone. While doing that, I wheeled my shopping cart over to the deli section to pick up the chunk of ham I needed. I saw they were using the same slicer to cut my ham as they had just used to slice a different cured meat I knew had gluten in its casing. So now, I also couldn't buy the ham I needed.
I started hyperventilating. I could feel the tears welling up. Over almonds and ham?
Not exactly. Earlier in the day, I had had to turn down two different social engagements that revolved around food because there would be nothing at all safe for me to eat, and both events were all about eating. Days before, I'd had my third pizza stone in as many months crack and shatter in the oven (and I have to make my own pizzas because there is nowhere in this city to eat truly gluten-free, non-cross-contaminated pizza). A few days before that, I had to turn down a spur-of-the-moment-let's-drive-to-New-York-and-eat-dim-sum invitation because I can't eat normal Chinese food, nor food cooked in the same wok that has held soy sauce or most any other sauce used in Asian cooking. The week before that, I'd spent a considerable amount of time responding to the plea of a friend of a friend for help in transitioning to a gluten-free life because of a diagnosis in the family, and never got a thank you or even a cursory "wow, this is helpful" response.
Add to that, on the way to Whole Foods that day, I'd seen a group of elementary school-age kids walking into our little town's ice cream parlor... and it reminded me (like a gut punch) that I'll never again be able to just walk up there after dinner one night and order an ice cream cone like a normal person.
Still standing there in the deli section waiting for my stupid Google app to work on my stupid iPhone and thinking all this stuff over the course of a few seconds that felt like hours, I could feel my breath quickening, and my shoulders tightening to hold it all in.
I thought about all the times I'm downtown walking by all the food trucks I wish I could try, but can't. I thought about how summer is almost here, and how much I miss eating Pop-Tarts while sitting on the beach in the afternoon, or noshing on a grilled cheese sandwiches at the beachside diner for breakfast. I thought about what it was like to drink a cold, cold Abita in steamy New Orleans a week before the storm. I remembered the last In-N-Out burger I ate. It was like this avalanche in my brain: the food I can never eat again, the new restaurants I won't be able to try, the dinner parties I can't go to, all the restrictions and questions and tension and anxiety that comes with having celiac, and I started to lose it. In public.
I abandoned my shopping cart (sorry, whoever had to unload that and put everything back) and hustled the hell out of there. The automatic doors couldn't open fast enough. Once I was out of the store, I ran at full speed across the parking lot to my car, kind of half-moaning and half-crying, unlocked the door with the key remote, jumped in, slammed the door closed, and lost it. Completely and totally lost it.
Big, ugly crying. Wailing. The biggest, sobbingest pity party you ever did see.
I kept telling myself there are people out there with a harder life than mine. Oh, poor me... I have a nice house and a nice car and a job and friends, but boo-hoo, I can't eat gluten. Wah. But trying to put it into perspective pissed me off even more. I was really, really sad and really, really angry about it. All of it. In fact, I'm still angry about it. I have lived with celiac for more than two years and most days I handle it well. I'd be lying if I said I don't even think about it anymore, because I do think about it every day because, well, it's hard not to.
When I work in a client's office downtown, I can't just go out and grab a sandwich with them for lunch. In another client's office kitchen, I can't use the community toaster oven or microwave because it's all glutened up, so everything I bring in to eat has to be eaten cold or at room temperature. Going out to a dive bar after work with friends? No more. Can't drink beer and the wine options at those places are not anything any human being should ever drink. Can't go out for banh mi. Can't grab a burger. There's nothing deliverable to my house that I can eat. My mom's dark chocolate cake with peanut butter icing? Won't ever eat that again. Soft pretzels from this little shop in the town where I grew up? Not gonna happen. Sometimes, it's just exhausting. And isolating. And lonely.
Really, I don't mean to make this all about poor, little Carol who can't eat gluten. I try to remind myself that it's a good thing I know how to cook. And, it's even better that there are some phenomenal chefs here in DC and across the country who can and do cook safely for me on a fairly regular basis. But last week, all that went out the window because I just got tired of telling myself and everyone else that having celiac is not that bad in the grand scheme of things, and easy to work around. It's not. It sucks, and sometimes I just need to let it be okay that it sucks and not pretend otherwise.
I calmed down before starting the car and driving home; it had begun to rain, and all my slurfing and blubbering was fogging up the windows. I dragged myself into the house -- grocery-less -- and went straight to bed. At 8 o'clock.
The next morning, with a (barely) clearer head and pretty, pretty princess puffy eyes, I shopped anew. I found most of the ingredients I needed for this dish and made substitutions where I had to.
I needed this dish to be successful and taste good for two reasons: 1) to get me out of my funk; and 2) because I didn't want to waste porcini mushrooms.
There's a mushroom lady who comes to the Takoma Park Farmers' Market for just a few months out of the year, and she only has porcinis one of those weeks. She had them last Sunday, so I snatched up a box ($20 gets you 4-5 'shrooms) and decided I'd make this dish since it was the only chance I had with fresh porcinis. And, of course she only has these delicious mushrooms in a week when cherries aren't in season. So, as I was shopping for the other ingredients I strolled around the grocery store wondering if I should MacGyver some dried cherries, or figure out a berry that might work, and it hit me. I was already making something with ham, mushrooms, and garlic... so, the sweet and tart fruit I wanted to use was pineapple. So I did.
In addition to the pineapple sub-in, I also decided I wasn't going to spend more than $100 on all the porcinis I would've needed for every element of this dish. So, I used creminis for the purée and dice, and saved the porcinis for the chips. And, I decided to use just two porcinis for the chips so that I could enjoy these glorious fungi in other ways in my everyday cooking throughout the week... doling them out in small bits... a little in my morning eggs, a bit over some risotto, one pickled to include in a salad. You get the drift.
I got home from the store, unpacked my shopping bags and got to work. Deep breath, errrbody. I know that was one long-ass intro.
I continue to be amazed by my ability to know how much of something to buy to yield the amount I need for the dishes in this blog. For the purée, I needed 500g of mushroom caps. Check this shizz out:
I literally just stuffed a plastic bag full of creminis at Whole Foods and weighed them to make sure it was a little more than 500g (1 pound, 2 oz.), and just figured it would be enough. I never figured it would be exact. I am a magical, magical wizard of produce buying. Perhaps I should buy a lottery ticket this week. Yes, I think I shall.
But wait. It gets better. For the mushroom dice, I needed 50g of stems. However, since I knew I wanted to used some of this dice in a salad I was making for lunch the next day, I decided ahead of time to double this part of the dish (100g) so I'd have some leftovers. So, what's the weight of the stems from my mushroom awesomeness above?
Seriously. I needed 100g, and got 99. This makes me wanna party like it's (19) 99 Luftballons. I know that makes no sense at all. I'm just giddy from the measuring prowess.
You know what else I'm giddy over? The smell of mushroom caps cooking:
I sautéed them in some canola oil over high heat until they were dark brown on both sides. Then, I added some chopped garlic and continued to let them cook until the garlic had turned golden. I turned the heat down to medium and added cream, butter, salt, and twine-bound springs of thyme. I let them cook until the mushrooms were completely tender -- about 10-15 minutes. I really wish I could've let them cook for days and days because the smell of mushrooms, garlic, and thyme cooking can turn anyone's day around. Things were, indeed, looking up.
I discarded the thyme from the pan, and poured the remaining contents into the blender and whacked it around until it was completely smooth:
I strained the mushroom purée through a chinois and into a plastic container and stored it in the fridge. I made this dish over the course of two days (though, it can be done in one day), and didn't need to use the purée again until it was time to plate.
Next up? The mushroom dice. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to double this so I'd have some leftover to use in my everday eating over the next day or two. Into a small sauté pan with hot, hot canola oil went the diced cremini mushroom stems:
Once they'd become nice and browned, I added a little butter, water, and kosher salt, and continued to cook them until the mushrooms were tender and glazed:
I let them cool to room temperature before storing them in the refrigerator.
Next, I made the garlic gelee, because I wanted to allow it to have ample time to set. First, I sauteed some garlic cloves in a pan of hot canola oil. Then, after they'd gotten a lovely golden-brown color, I put them in a saucepan with water and salt, and brought them to a boil.
I turned off the heat, put the lid on the pan, and let the liquid steep for about 20-25 minutes. Then, I strained the liquid, discarded the garlic, and whisked in some already-soaked gelatin sheets into the garlic water.
I gently poured it into a plastic wrap-lined baking dish and put it in the fridge to set overnight.
Next thing on the prep list to make was the almond ice cream. Because of my I-can't-find-gluten-free-almonds-any-damn-where meltdown, I decided I'd just use store-bought almond milk for this part of the dish. Granted, I probably could've just used whole milk with some almond extract, but I was still feeling a little rough around the edges in the clear-thinking department, so I grabbed a carton of almond milk with the words "GLUTEN-FREE" blazing across the front of it and just decided that's what I was going to do.
In a saucepan, I whisked together the almond milk, powdered nonfat milk, glucose, sugar, and salt and brought it to a boil. Whisking constantly, I let it simmer for 5 minutes, then poured it into a blender where I blended it on medium speed for 3 minutes. I poured it through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl, where I then whisked in some already-soaked gelatin sheets. Put the whole mixture into my ice cream maker for 30 minutes, then stored it in a container in the freezer.
Then, just before going to bed, I cleaned my porcinis (now there's a euphamism for all you 12-year olds out there) and used two of them to make the porcini chips.
I lined a sheet tray with parchment paper, then sprayed it with nonstick cooking spray. I verrry thinly sliced the porcinis by hand (about 1/8" thick) and laid the slices on the parchment, then sprayed them with a very fine mist of nonstick cooking spray.
I put them under the broiler for a few minutes, and rotated the pan 180 degrees to ensure they all got equal treatment...
They curled up like Shrinky Dinks and flattened back out again in a matter of seconds. And when they were done (after about 3 minutes), I seasoned them with salt and pepper and put them into the dehydrator at 140F degrees.
The Alinea cookbook says all they need is three hours in the dehydrator, but I know from previous experience that because my little dehydrator is not exactly industrial strength, these would take about six hours.
I was right. While I slept, these gorgeous mushrooms dried all the way out and did exactly what they were supposed to do. Happy day.
With the porcini chips out of the dehydrator, it was time for some ham to go in. Because I couldn't buy the hunk of ham I needed, the night before I'd just folded over some slices of Applegate Farms (safe for me) black forest ham and stored it in the freezer. This next morning, it was ready to be grated onto a parchment-lined dehydrator tray and dried for about 30 minutes:
While the ham was dehydrating, I deep fried some almonds and let them cool in a heaping load of kosher salt:
Then, the last thing I needed to do was make the macerated cherries pineapple.
I diced this bad boy:
... and brought the piece to a boil in a saucepan of sparkling rosé, and some sugar:
Then, I turned off the burner, covered the pot, and let them steep for 20 minutes.
There's an extra step in the book where you're supposed to strain the fruit, add gelatin to the liquid, then put it into a siphon canister with some NO2, but I just didn't feel like doing it. I was hungry, dagnabit, and wanted to eat.
So, I plated everything, and dug in...
Mushroom purée and mushroom dice on the bottom. Pineapple chunks on top. Almond ice cream on the side, along with some salted fried almonds, garlic gelée cubes, ham powder, a porcini chip, and some fresh thyme leaves.
Now, here's where I ususally tell you that I called my neighbors, and they came over to share this with me... but alas, that is not the case this time.
Part Marlene Dietrich, part still feeling a little sorry for myself and not up to having to talk to anyone, I just wanted to eat this by myself. I wanted to sit at my dining room table, with the sunlight streaming through the high windows, and eat this in peace and quiet.
And, oh my word... this was delicious. Really, really, really, really delicious. While I think the cherries would've been spectacular in this dish, the pineapple was a home run. The mushroom purée is going into the regular rotation (in fact, I'm using the leftovers over gluten-free pasta). So creamy and hearty and good. I wish I could afford to make it with fresh porcinis. Someday, I will. The mushroom dice added a nice texture. The almonds were great, the garlic gelée was really fantastic at adding a hint of garlic without overpowering the dish. The almond milk ice cream would have been better had I used real milk, but the flavor of it was surprisingly good. The thyme leaves were a nice addition (the book called for thyme flowers, and my little herbs just aren't flowering yet). And the ham powder? Really nice. Salty and a little smoky.
I loved this dish. I loved it because it tasted good. I loved it because it smelled great. I loved it because I got to cook with fresh porcinis. And, I loved it because it allowed me to have a 20-minute period where I didn't think about what I couldn't eat.
And that was a good, good thing.
Up Next: Prosciutto, passion fruit, zuta levana (I think)
Resources: Porcinis from the mushroom lady at the Takoma Park farmers' market; all other produce and aromatics from Whole Foods; 365 canola oil and butter; Natural by Nature heavy cream; David's kosher salt; gelatin sheets and glucose from L'Epicerie; Blue Diamond almonds and almond milk; RJ Cava; Applegate Farms ham; Domino sugar.
Music to Cook By: The Head and the Heart; The Head and the Heart. I love their sound. I love her raw voice. I love their hispter doofiness. I love "Honey, Come Home." I love "Lost in My Mind." It's great cooking music. Even better driving music, especially on a Sunday night.
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