Easy

May 24, 2010

Alinea at Home Adaptation: Lamb, mastic, date, rosemary fragrance

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

Roasted asparagus

Mashed Yukon gold potatoes

Greek salad

... 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:

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BOO-YAH!!!!!!!!

(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.

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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:

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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):

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Moments after we signed off (he now says, "Peace out, dude!"), I smelled something that was NOT GOOD:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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I combined the mastic with some half-and-half, sugar, and salt, and brought it to a boil:

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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:

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I set that pan in a bowl of ice water so the cream would set: 

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After it had set, I scraped the mastic cream into the blender and whacked it around for a minute until it was smooth:

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Meantime, I lightly peeled and roasted some asparagus (olive oil, salt, pepper) at 425F for 15 minutes:

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Whipped up some mashed Yukon golds (skins on, butter, salt, milk):

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Made a Greek-ish salad (romaine hearts, cucumber, tomato, dill, chive, feta, vinaigrette):

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And, I unwrapped and grilled the lamb loins, and garnished them with fresh oregano and chervil:

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Linda, Sean, Grant, and Carter walked in the door:

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And we sat down to a lovely meal:

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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.]

Read My Previous Post: Marcona Almond, white ale, pink pepper, lavender

March 01, 2010

Foie Gras, spicy cinnamon puff, apple candy

Before we get to this dish, I have to say how much I LOVED all your guesses at how I broke my hand.  Seriously y'all, there were more ninja kicks, karate chops, and snowboard tricks in the comments than I ever dreamed possible, and that makes me feel like a superhero.

Now, for the real story.  Which is sooooo the antithesis of superhero I'm actually regretting my promise to reveal it.  But I am nothing if not a woman of my word, so here goes:

It was a mild February morning, and I had just loaded the dishwasher and was dressed and ready to go meet a friend for lunch.  I'd been writing and working and having a really productive morning, so I treated myself to a little Prince jam session as I gathered the folders and notebooks I'd spread across the dining room table in planning a campaign for one of my clients.  The first song on my Prince playlist is "Controversy," a seven-minute song that affords me the opportunity to booty-shake from room to room and try out my Morris Day and the Time moves.  You know what I'm talkin' 'bout.

Clad in jeans and a really cute sweater, and smiling at the snow melting outside, I was fantasizing about which shoes I'd wear to lunch.  Shoes that haven't seen the light of day since December, before the first of three blizzards this winter.  Should I wear the cute brown suede boots?  Little red ballet flats?  Black patent leather clogs?  I was still wearing my cozy slipper-socks -- the ones I wear every morning as I pad around the house, making coffee, doing The New York Times crossword puzzle, getting started on my day.  As I left the dining room, I cranked the stereo volume even higher so I could hear it upstairs as I was picking out earrings and shoes.  I fiercely, determinedly, and quite like I was on a catwalk, strutted and strode to the beat of the music out of the dining room and into and through the living room (maybe adding some shoulder movements to the walk because I have the delusion that sometimes I am in my very own music video). I tossed my iPhone into my purse on a chair at the base of the stairs, and busted a move my way up the steps (still to the beat, because it's important when you're in a music video to make sure every step you take is choreographed perfectly) until I was three steps from the top landing and just wiped out.  Plain and simple.  My foot missed the step and I slipped (damn sock-slippers) and fell forward and to the side, and as I tried halfway into the fall to stop myself from going face-first onto the floor, I somehow fell into the door frame at the top of the stairs that leads to the guest room and bathroom, and I heard a crunching sound and saw my hand form the shape of a trapezoid as it hit the door jamb, and I just laid there for a few seconds -- like when a baby falls or bumps its head and it just does that open-mouthed crying face with no sound coming out at all.

And then, it was not a baby-crying sound that escaped my lips.  Oh no.  Not even close.  But because this is a family program, I'll refrain from giving you a literal transcript.  Use your imagination.  Then, make it ten times more crude.  Now twenty.  There you go.

I laid there for a minute or two, moving all my extremities, one at a time, to make sure I still could, then stood up to finish getting ready to go out for lunch.  I was sure I'd just jammed it.  Maybe just bumped and bruised it.  That was all.  Only the throbbing.  It kept getting worse.  Holy crap.  I could barely hold a hairbrush with that hand, let alone do anything else with it.  Driving was a treat, steering around tight corners with just my right hand.  Parallel parking.  Oy.  I went to lunch, hand a-blazing, then came home and tried to do some work, but instead watched the top of my hand swell and turn colors and generally make my life unpleasant.  So, I went to the ER where hello, teeny-tiny hairline fractures, major bruising and jamming and all that crap.  Wrapping, ice, rest, and elevation for the next 48 hours, and you know what?  A week later, and it feels nearly back to normal.  The swelling is gone, there's just a wee bit of greenish-yellow bruising, and it's only just a little sore when I type too much or use it too often.  By the end of this week, I'm sure it'll feel totally fine. I'll be back to juggling chainsaws and waterskiing with Fonzie.

So, that's our lesson for the day: Don't pretend you're in a Prince video while walking up the stairs wearing socks.  Or maybe, don't pretend you're in a Prince video at all, no matter what you're wearing or where you're walking?  Gah.

When the comments started rolling in on that last post, I do believe I guffawed over quite a few of them.  I didn't expect anyone to totally guess the whole story, but now that you know it, I think you'll agree there are three runners up, and one grand-prize winner:

The three runners up are:

For guessing my falling on the stairs and whacking my hand, a prize goes to Kathy said: "I say you tripped on a stair for *no* reason at all, and whacked the back of your hand on the railing as you fell."

For bringing my undying love of Prince into the picture, Mantonat gets a nod for suggesting: Doing the hand gestures to Prince's "I would Die 4 U."

For knowing my proclivity to dancing when I'm alone in the house and bringing the choreography element into it, Jennifer gets a nod for guessing: You fell off your couch while doing the dance scene from Flashdance.

But really, let's give a big round of applause to a certain commenter who pretty much stole the show with a novella that is incredibly spot on when it comes to the inner workings of the Blymire mind, and for tying in the music, fuzzy socks, and wiping out elements of the story, let's hear it for Kailee, who wrote: It had been an unusual winter, that much was certain. More snow than many people could ever remember. It has caused a slight panic around the city. Nothing crazy, mind you, but excitement and wonderment laced the air, prompting people to raid the stores for provisions. Milk, apples, beef for braising, condoms. Then the snow became gray. The buzz died. Wonderment turned to frustration as people circled, circled looking for a parking spot. Maybe that's why people are so on edge, you thought to yourself. Even emails from your favorite colleagues, tinged with a little angst from the cold. You stand to stretch and look out your window. Thank God that tree is being removed tomorrow. You hate to admit it, but the snow has even gotten to you. And you love that stuff. But now, when the threat of snow looms, you don't think of potluck dinner parties and bourbon. Your mind wants to race forward to a few months from now. The trees will start to green. The air will become sweet. The market will have peas. Then berries. Then peaches. You lift your wine glass from the coffee table. Malbec. The inky wine lightly splashes the sides of your glass. It's spicy and tastes of blackberries, cinnamon and oak. You sigh and take a long sip. It's the closest you'll get to berries for weeks. But, it tastes good. And the wine begins to shimmy through you, making you feel warm and happy. Enough emails for today. It's time for music. You start to flip through your iPod. Maybe some music to lift the mood. Something to make you feel warm and light. What goes with a Malbec? Journey. You smile. Yes, that is what the wine dictates. A little Journey. Separate Ways begins to fill the air. You can't help yourself. You love this song. Who can know for sure, but maybe it was the Malbec, or the music, or maybe the last dregs of snow madness in your body, but you feel like dancing. Clad in your fuzzy socks, you begin to move with the music. You sing along, swaying your hips and moving your shoulders. A little twirl before suddenly you lose your balance and Bam! Shit. That really hurt. You pick yourself up off the ground and curse your socks. Your hand is really hurting. You reach again for your glass and find it hurts to lift it. Now this is serious. It's probably only a sprain, you try to reason with yourself. But your hand is throbbing, and the sweet hum of the Malbec has vanished. I better get this checked out. You wrap your coat around you, then your scarf. You slip into your boots and head out the door. It's cold tonight. You exhale and see your breath. God, I'm ready for spring.

Kailee, seriously.  Damn, girl.....  :)

So, give it up for Mantonat, Kathy, Jennifer, and Kailee!!!!!!  And, to the four of you, I'll be in touch via email in the next day or two and we'll sort out some sort of prize situation.

*   *   *   *   *

Now, let's talk about food.  Or, more precisely, let's talk about foie gras:

Look how beautiful it is...

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I mean, really... is there a lovelier thing?

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Well, yeah... maybe that vein isn't so gorgeous, but still.  Mmmmmmm..... foie.  I remember when I was just starting out on my French Laundry at Home journey, how terrified I was of deveining a foie gras.  I was kinda scared to touch it, let alone take apart the lobes, clean it up, and cook it.  I had nightmares about it.  It haunted me.  And now?  Pffftttt.  Ain't no thang.

Even with a broken hand, I took this guy apart, cleaned it up, removed the huge veins, and cut it into 1" cubes.

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I tossed those cubes in a salt, sugar, pink salt combo and molded the bunch of cubes into a semi-cylindrical shape (that part was a little difficult, not having the full use of my hand, but I did it the best I could) and put it in a sous vide Ziploc bag, sucked out all the air and stored it in the fridge for 24 hours.

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Next, I made the cinnamon tea, which would be turned into some rather glorious cinnamon puffs.  To make the tea, I roasted some cinnamon sticks in a 350F-degree oven for 10 minutes, then poured some boiling water (to which I'd added salt and sugar) over them, added some cayenne, stirred, covered, and let the whole thing steep for 8 hours.

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At the end of the 8-hour steep, I poured the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a saucepan and warmed the liquid to a simmer.

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I poured the liquid into the bowl of my Kitchen Aid mixer, added some Methocel F-50 (the name of which reminds me of those Brawndo ads -- METHOCEL F-50 WILL MAKE YOU NEED *NEW PANTS*  METHOCEL F-50 WILL MAKE YOU *WIN* AT *YELLING*), and (using the whisk attachment) beat the crap outta that mixture for 8 minutes -- when it started to form stiff peaks.  METHOCEL F-50 WILL MAKE YOU *FORM* *STIFF PEAKS*!!!!

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I put that meringue-like, amazing-smelling goodness into a Ziploc bag, cut off the corner, and piped little bite-sized morsels onto lined trays in my dehydrator. METHOCEL F-50 WILL MAKE YOU *WIN* AT *DEHYDRATING*!!!  [okay, stopping now]

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The book suggests they'll be fully dehydrated and crisp after 4 hours.  Mine took nearly 12 hours (probably a residential vs. commercial dehydrator).  You'll see what they look like in the final plating shot.

The next thing I did was prep the apple candy, because I wanted to give it a chance to set overnight, if it needed to.  So, I heated the cider and glucose over medium heat, and whisked gently to dissolve the glucose:

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Then, I mixed in some sugar, yellow pectin, and citric acid and brought it to a boil, whisking to dissolve.  When it had begun boiling, I added even more sugar, whisking to dissolve that, and heated it to 225F degrees.

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I poured it into a Pam-sprayed 13x9" baking dish and let it cool and set.  Took about 2 hours.

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I went to bed and finished everything for the dish about an hour or so before everyone came over.

I removed the foie from the Ziploc bag and rolled it in cheesecloth, tying the ends tightly.

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I blanched the foie in boiling water for about 90 seconds, then plunged it into an ice bath for 10 minutes.

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I removed it from the cheesecloth and pressed it through a tamis (also known as a fine-mesh sieve):

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I put half of it on a tray and put it in the freezer for the other foie gras dish I was working on, and smushed the rest into a small Ziploc bag (with a cut off corner) so I could pipe it into the cinnamon puff, which I'd gently hollowed out using a cinnamon stick:

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I squeezed in enough foie so that it was nearly full to the outer edge, then plugged up the hole with a small piece of apple candy (which had set much firmer than the olive brine candy I'd made recently):

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Here's a plate of 'em:

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And here's what they look like from the bottom:

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They're cute, aren't they?  But I bet you're wondering what they tasted like.  Well, I tasted one before everybody came over, so I knew what I thought about them.  After my friends and I had eaten the foie-pear-sauternes dish you'll read about next week, I saw my friend, Sean, reach for one of these candies -- he was the first to try them -- and he popped it into his mouth, and three seconds later said, "whoa" because the cinnamon and cayenne kicked in, and as he chewed it (which you only need to do, like, four times before it's masticated), he just grinned and reached for another.  Everyone around the table loved them.  They pack a punch, that's for sure, but the flavor and the texture were divine.  There's the heat and the spice of the cinnamon and cayenne, yes.  And it's crunchy and crispy, but also kinda melts in your mouth as you chomp down on it... then the creamy foie taste kicks in and makes it all the more melty and smooth and flavorful.  And the apple candy?  It's sharp and fresh and sweet and really bridges the heat and spice with the foie.  I didn't know what these were gonna taste like.  I thought about what a foie-filled spicy meringue might  taste like, and I couldn't get my brain or my palate to go there.  Just wasn't happening.  Even if I could've conjured it, my imagination wouldn't have been able to fathom how delicious these really are in real life.  They're like little bites of a miracle is what they are.

So, I loved them, and my friends in the neighborhood loved them.  But that evening, I faced a tougher bunch of critics: some very sweet and amazing friends who also happen to be some of the city's most fun and well regarded food writers and culinary connoisseurs.  When we're together, we are not shy about how we talk about food, cooking, and restaurant experiences.  There are no holds barred if someone's had a bad dining experience.  On the other end of the spectrum, we rave on and on about places we love and food that's good, and do everything we can to promote great chefs, cooks, restaurants, meals, sommeliers, mixologists, shops, and whoever in town is doing things well.  So, knowing how open we all are with one another about our likes and dislikes, I knew to be prepared if they hated these foie-filled puffs.  They certainly wouldn't be shy about saying something.  Granted, they'd do it politely because we're friends, but still... I was ready.  I got to my friend's house, and we started cooking.  She'd already prepared some nibbles to tide us over while we made the rest of the evening's feast, and I ever-so-calmly put out a plate of the puffs and said, "These are from the Alinea cookbook, and they're cinnamon-cayenne puffs filled with apple candy and foie gras."  And I waited as they each took turns trying them.  I think "wow" was the word of the night, followed by "whoa" and I think one "are you kidding me?" because they were a hit, yet again!  Whew.  They'd lost a wee bit of the crispness in the 20-minute drive to her house, but that was to be expected. 

I feel like after the food slump I went through, it's about time that food did me right.  And, I feel like I'm on a roll again because everything was right with these puffs.  Everything.

NOTE: If you'd like to make these at home, here's the recipe, courtesy of Google Books.

Up Next: Pushed foie gras, sauternes, pear, chervil

Resources: Foie from the remarkable Hudson Valley Foie Gras; David's kosher salt; Domino pink sugar; Himalania pink salt; cinnamon sticks from HMart; cayenne pepper from the TPSS Co-op; Methocel F-50 from Terra Spice; Ziegler's apple cider; glucose, yellow pectin, and citric acid from L'Epicerie.

Music to Cook By: Duo; Richard Marx and Matt Scannell.  SHUT UP.  Do not mock the INJURED and the MUSIC THEY LISTEN TO.  Ahem.  "Duo" is an album by Richard Marx and Matt Scannell (former lead singer of Vertical Horizon) featuring the two of them duet-ing on acoustic versions of their individual greatest hits, and I like it.  Actually, I love it.  I am not ashamed of my Richard Marx fangirliness, so there.  Maybe if I mention Richard Marx and his name a few more times, Richard Marx, the Google alert he has set up for himself, Richard Marx, will pick up this post, which will make Richard Marx wanna email me and say, "Hey you, when I come to DC on my tour, I would love to have you take me, Richard Marx, to dinner so we can talk about how big a fan you are of me, Richard Marx."  There.  That should do it.  Richard Marx.  I found out about this album a few months ago when I was farting around online and discovered that Richard Marx HAS A BLOG where he posts video from the road, and I'm kind of obsessed with it.  So, I thought, hey, I've always liked this guy, and I love Matt Scannell, so I headed on over to iTunes and downloaded it.  Tune in next time when I sell all my possessions and move to the UK so I can stalk Simply Red.

Read My Previous Post: Orange, olive oil, almond, picholine olive 

February 04, 2010

Here... have some sugar.

Remember the $40 in wasted vanilla beans?

After scraping out the insides of 10 vanilla bean pods for a powder that NEVER POWDERED (I'm still a little bitter about that, can you tell?), I tossed those mostly emptied pods into a ziploc and stored them in the freezer because I knew I'd find a use for them when the food fog lifted and I was ready to re-embrace my kitchen.

This morning, I made vanilla sugar:

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You don't even need a recipe.  You put two vanilla bean pods into a jar and pour in some sugar.  Seal it tight, shake it, and don't open it for a day or two... then, enjoy however you'd like.  When the sugar runs out, you just add more to the jar.  The pods should release fragrance and flavor for about 8-12 months.

Along with a splash of whole milk, I like just a half teaspoon of raw sugar in my coffee every morning, and this vanilla bean-infused raw sugar doesn't make my coffee taste vanilla-y at all (Jean-Luc!)*.  It just makes it more smooth and lovely and coffee-y.

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I've got many more pods in the freezer, so when these start to lose their luster, I'll start anew.

What kinds of ingredients do you like to re-purpose?  Any cooking accidents you've been able to salvage?  How so?  Hit me in the comments, and I'll pick someone at random and send them a jar of vanilla sugar.  

*Snort.... Jean-Luc.  I remember thinking, when I was in junior high, how cool it was gonna be when I grew up and could drink that stuff.  Only now, I know... IT'S NOT COFFEE!

Up Next: Maytag blue, grape, walnut, port

Read My Previous Post: Yuzu, pine, black sesame, shiso

November 23, 2009

Peanut, five other flavors

I love peanut butter.  Seriously.  I eat it almost every day -- a spoonful here and there.  Not in sandwiches anymore (siiiiigggghhhh, stupid celiac), but when I hit that afterschool-snack hour of 3 or 4 o'clock and need a little somethin', I grab a spoon and dunk it into a container of fresh-ground peanut butter from the grinders at Whole Foods.  I mix the regular and honey-roasted versions, so it's a nice blend of salt, nut, and a hint of sweet.  I grew up eating Jif peanut butter, but it tastes funny to me now... a little like plastic, I think.  I'm not 100% in love with the Whole Foods fresh-ground stuff, either, but it'll do in a pinch.

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That little break there?  Yeah. Writing about peanut butter gave me a wicked craving for it.  Had to run downstairs and have some.  Mmmmmmmmmm.....

I've written about my love for peanut butter here and here.  I tend to torture my friends with this little ditty from time to time.  So, I think it's safe to assume that going into this dish, I had high hopes, an eager palate, and knew there wasn't anything I was dreading or loathing or having for the first time.  These are flavors I know, techniques I'm familiar with, and preparations that are pretty straightforward.

So let's get to it.

I made the Peanut Chocolate element first, since the book said it needed 6 hours in the fridge to become firm.

The first ingredient? Unsweetened peanut paste.  Now, you may be wondering, what in the hell is peanut paste and how is it different from peanut butter, and where the heck do you buy it?  I wondered that myself, and suspected that it was pretty simple: peanuts, a little bit of peanut oil, food processor, whackedywhack, and done.  So after making a few phone calls to some chef friends, they confirmed that my assumption was correct.  So, I put 270g of raw peanuts in the food processor and turned it on, while I drizzled in 2T of peanut oil, just to give it some moisture to turn into paste instead of just being ground peanuts.

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Not quite peanut butter, not quite ground peanuts.  Somewhere in between.  Works for me.

I threw 265g of the peanut paste into my Kitchen Aid mixer along with some confectioners' sugar:

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Then, I melted a half-pound of butter and let it brown, so I could add brown butter to the paste and the sugar:

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I put the mixer on low speed to start mixing the peanut paste and confectioner's sugar, then slowly poured in the brown butter with the mixer running, until everything was incorporated:

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Brown butter, peanuts and sugar? My kitchen smelled like a fairy tale.

I put the mixture on a piece of parchment, covered it with another piece of parchment, and "rolled" it flat with my hands (I think they're the most valuable and underused tool in the kitchen).


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When I had smoothed it to its called-for thickness (1/4"), I slid it onto a sheet pan and put it in the fridge to set.  The book said it would take 6 hours.  It took one hour.  I LOVE when that happens -- since what usually happens to me is that instead of 2 hours, something takes 947 days.

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While that was in the fridge, I made the concord grape gel, otherwise known as "Peanut Grape" in the book.

While not all gels I've made for the blog have worked out in my favor, I had a feeling this one would.  First step? Combine sugar and pectin and whisk it in to a saucepan of concord grape juice:

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I brought it to a boil, then added the sugar, isomalt, and glucose and heated it to 225 degrees F, stirring furiously so that it wouldn't scorch.  Scorch is such a weird word, isn't it.  It's one of those words that when you say it out loud, over and over again, it loses its meaning, and makes you look like a basket case walking around saying, "scorch" out loud a hundred fifty times in different intonations.  Not like I've ever done that or anything.

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I poured the liquid onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet and let it set in the fridge.  It took about 30 minutes to set.

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Also part of the "Peanut Grape" element of this dish is some peanut butter powder.  Simple as pie: peanut butter and tapioca maltodextrin in a food processor, whackedywhack, sift, done.

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With the two most time-consuming (and really, not very time-consuming at that) elements done, it was time to do the little bits.

I cut eight small pieces of celery heart -- sorry, I don't have photos of it, but it's easy.  At the base and on the inside of a bunch of celery is the heart.  They're the most tender, innermost, probably beige or yellow-ish stalks.  You'll see them with a dab of peanut butter in the final plating photo.  If you wanted to use the green stalks, I'm sure that'd be fine, too.

Next, I cut eight small pieces of freeze-dried banana:

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Each one of those got a small dab of peanut butter, as well.

Then, I took eight peanuts, dipped them in orange blossom honey, then into some freeze-dried honey powder.  No photos of that step because it's boring to watch.  It was even kind of boring to do.  I actually probably fell asleep during the process which might explain the sticky stuff in my hair.  You'll see the honey-slathered peanut in the final plating photo.  Swears.

Next up? I cut small rectangles of the grape gel and rolled each one, and dabbed them in the peanut butter powder.

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Peanuuuuut, peanut butter, and jelly, and jelly, jelly, jelly.... first ya take the peanuts and ya pick 'em, ya pick 'em, ya pick 'em, pick 'em, pick 'em.  Did anyone else sing that song in camp, or am I making that up?

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Then, I cut small squares of the "Peanut Chocolate", and dipped the ends of each one into some dark chocolate I'd melted in a bowl over a small pot of simmering water. 

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As much as I would've loved to splurge on eight of these serving pieces as the book describes, I didn't.  So, for the purposes of the blog, I plated them all in a row so you could see what they looked like.  I used my fingers to eat mine, but realized it was a bit of a messy proposition for my guests.  They got theirs each on individual spoons.


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From L to R: Peanut dipped in honey and freeze-dried honey powder; peanut butter on a piece of freeze-dried banana; peanut butter on a piece of celery heart; "Peanut Grape," the concord grape gel dipped in peanut butter powder; and, "Peanut Chocolate" -- a peanut-y kind of nougat-like square dipped in dark chocolate.

The peanut dipped in orange blossom honey and honey powder?  What's not to like?  Sweet, crunchy, delicious.

The peanut butter on a piece of freeze-dried banana was so tasteless and dry and annoying that I threw away the other seven pieces of it and didn't serve it to my friends.  It was like eating a piece of drywall with creamy, salty spackle on it.  Only grosser.

Peanut butter on a piece of celery heart?  Fine.  Not earth-shatteringly good or puke-inducing bad.  Crunchy, peanut buttery, good.

Now, the peanut butter powder on the concord grape gel?  LOVED.  Fantastic flavors, nice texture, and the gel nearly dissolves in your mouth.  There's some give at first, but it's just so clean and smooth in the end.  Loved it.  And there's just something about the way the concord grape flavor is just so much better than any old regular grape flavor.  It gets all up in your nose, and it's rich and heady and gorgeous.  I love it.

But I think the hit among all of them was the last one, "Peanut Chocolate." It was kind of like a nougat-y piece of candy with a shortbread-like texture.  Like shortbread with a hint of flavor that reminded me of Mary Janes or Bit-O-Honey.  And the little bit of dark chocolate on the end made it even better.  In fact, I'd be content to make that exact same thing all over again, cut them into larger pieces, dip them in chocolate, and give them away as holiday goodies.

Up Next: Niçoise Olive, saffron, dried cherry, olive oil

Resources: Peanuts and celery from the TPSS Co-op; peanut butter from Whole Foods; Domino sugar; yellow pectin, isomalt, glucose, citric acid, and tapioca maltodextrin from L'Epicerie; McClure's orange blossom honey; freeze-dried honey powder from MySpiceSage.com; Just Bananas freeze-dried bananas (can't recommend 'em, though); Noi Sirius chocolate; Knudsen concord grape juice.

Music to Cook By: Reservoir Dogs Soundtrack; Various Artists. Laugh all you want, but "So You Think You Can Dance" either introduces me to new music I end up loving, or reminds me of songs I love but haven't listened to in awhile.  "Little Green Bag" is one of those songs I haven't thought about since "Reservoir Dogs" came out, and I was thrilled to be reminded of it again when it was on SYTYCD a few weeks ago.  And no, not just because dreamy Wade Robson choreographed something to it.  Do you really think I'm that shallow?  Fine.  You know me too well. (Hey Wade, call me!!)

Read My Previous Post: Share Our Strength

November 09, 2009

Pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves

Last year at about this time, Alinea co-owner Nick Kokonas' two sons (then five-and-a-half and nine years old) made this dish in response to two gals from the Chicago Reader trying to make the dish and not faring all too well.  Nick posted a video of it on YouTube, and it's fantastic.

Back then, I was only a few weeks into this project and wasn't quite ready to tackle this dish, but I remember thinking, if two adorable little pipsqueaks could make this dish with such great ease, I'm sure I can.  And then, a few months later, I did a different dish featuring something gelatinous, battered, and deep-fried, with a creative skewer, and we all remember how well that turned out.

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Ah yes, the Sweet Potato, brown sugar, bourbon, blah blah blah Cockup of 2009.  Ugh.  Give me a minute to re-suppress that memory. Okay.  Whew.  That feels better.

I hoped with every molecule of my being that the same thing wouldn't happen again, because I didn't want to be pwned by the Kokonas Kids.  Humiliating!

Cross your fingers.

Because the cider gel needed time to set, and because if I screwed it up, I wanted a second chance at making it, that's the first thing I worked on.  I peeled and cored three medium-sized Granny Smith apples, and put them in a saucepan with cider, salt, and agar agar, and brought it all to a simmer.

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I simmered it over medium heat for about 15-20 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so.

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I transferred this mixture to the blender, and blended it until it was completely smooth.  I strained it through a chinois into a plastic wrap-lined 4x4" Rubbermaid storage container (it was the closest thing I had to a 4x6" pan) and let it set for 2 hours in the refrigerator.

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Next, I roasted the shallots.  Just like the Kokonas Kids (and papa), I've never seen a grey shallot, so I just used regular ones.  I tossed them with grapeseed oil and salt and put them in a shallow, oven-safe saute pan in the oven for an hour.


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Probably coulda just done them in foil with the oil and the salt, but dadgumit, I was gonna follow exactly what the book said to do.  While the shallots roasted, I prepped the pheasant.  The recipe calls for a bone-in pheasant breast, which I suppose I could've ordered from D'Artagnan or Fossil Farms, but my local Asian grocery store carries MacFarlane pheasant every fall, so I bought a whole one and broke it down myself.  It's amazing what one can do with a pair of kitchen shears and a little practice on a whole chicken every few weeks:

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I saved the rest of the carcass in the freezer -- I'll roast the legs and then make stock out of the bones later this week.

I put the breast (with skin on) in a Ziploc bag with butter, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper, and squeezed out as much air as I could.

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I cooked it en sous vide using my immersion circulator at 160F/71C for 25 minutes, then plunged the bag into an ice-water bath for 20 minutes to halt the cooking process.

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I removed the pheasant breast from the bag and cut it into 1x1" cubes, which I covered with a damp paper towel and stored in the fridge until I was ready to finish the dish.


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By this time, the shallots had cooled off enough for me to remove their outer skin. They seemed a bit soft to me when I unwrapped them, so I stored them whole in a plastic container in the fridge and let them cool a bit more before I cut them for skewering.

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I have a big, hundred-year-old pin oak tree in my back yard.  It provides an amazing amount of shade in the summer, and an amazing amount of acorns that bonk you on the head in the fall.

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Trouble is, this oak tree's leaves stay green as they dry, and almost overnight turn brown before falling to the ground.  So, while I wish I had lovely yellow, orange, or red leaves to work with, I made do with nearly-dried-out-and-days-away-from-turning-brown leaves:


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I whittled the ends with a vegetable peeler:

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Time to finish the dish.

Onto the end of each skewer went a bit of shallot, then a cider gel cube, then a pheasant cube:

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I seasoned it with salt and pepper:

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Next, I dredged each skewer with rice flour, tapping off the excess:

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Then, I dunked it into a gluten-free tempura batter (recipe at the end of the post, if you're interested):

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Into a pot of 375F-degree canola oil:

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And onto a paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain:

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VICTORY!!

They didn't leak, fall apart, explode, or render themselves a county fair fried reject.  And, I figured out how to make them with alternate flours, sans gluten!  ALL BY MY DAMN SELF.

YES!!  (I'm doin' the Ickey Shuffle again)

At the restaurant, courses like this one are typically served in the Crucial Detail squid service piece, but I laid mine gently on a serving platter and brought them back outside, so we could eat under the very tree that provided the skewers.

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One by one, I held each skewer, lit the edges of the leaves on fire, then blew them out, creating the most fragrant smoke:

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In between them draining on the paper towels and my re-plating them and bringing them outside, they had about 3 or 4 minutes to cool, so I knew they wouldn't be too hot or burn our mouths when we ate them.

I held my skewer in my right hand with the leaves still smoking and the tempura-battered piece dangling slightly above my mouth, and at it all in one bite.

You guys?  These were soooooo good.  Eye-closing, deep breath inhaling-ly good.  Pheasant isn't as game-y as I thought it might be.  It's a little more dense than chicken, and while I thought it might taste a little like squab, it didn't at all.  It was juicy and delicious, and had a really nice texture.  The cider gel had loosened up quite a bit inside, so that it surrounded the pheasant and the shallot, and eating the piece in one big bite was the way to go.  Pheasant, shallot, apple.  Smoke.  Crisp.  Salt.  Sweet.  I would totally make this again.  Everything was so flavorful and so fragrant -- you could taste each element on its own as you chewed, but together, it was really incredible.

It wasn't until after we'd eaten them and talked about how I made them that my friend, Linda, wondered how I could eat anything tempura-battered because didn't that have gluten in it?  She didn't know I'd made a gluten-free tempura batter.  Couldn't taste the difference.

We even had a clean-plate moment when we were done:

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To make Gluten-free tempura batter:

Dry tempura base: 150g (5.3 oz.) white rice flour, 150g (5.3 oz.) tapioca starch, 35g (1.2 oz.) baking powder, 45g (1.2 oz.) cornstarch.  Stir together in large mixing bowl.

Gently fold in 198g (7 oz.) very cold sparkling water.

-- This recipe makes more than you will need for this particular dish, but these are the ratios that work for gluten-free tempura batter, so scale according to your specific needs.


Up Next: Apple, horseradish, celery juice and leaves

Resources: Pheasant, shallots, grape seed oil, and apples from HMart in Wheaton, MD; David's kosher salt; thyme from my garden; bay leaf and pepper from TPSS Co-op; 365 butter; apple cider from Whole Foods; agar agar from L'Epicerie; Bob's Red Mill white rice flour; EnerG tapioca starch; Poland Spring sparkling water; Clabber Girl cornstarch and baking powder.

Music to Cook By: Bat For Lashes; Fur and Gold.  For a long time, I didn't get the appeal of Bat For Lashes.  I'd only heard a few of her songs, and wasn't drawn in at all.  And then, I spent an afternoon cooking and listening to my iPod on shuffle, and her single "Daniel" popped up (I forgot I had downloaded it), and I loved it.  So, I went back and listened to more of her music, and really started to like it.  Fur and Gold is her debut album, but I'm also enjoying her latest release, Two Suns.  Her voice and her style reminds me of Kate Bush with a little Annie Lennox thrown in there, and a slightly more percussive tone.

Read My Previous Post: Duck, pumpkin, banana, Thai aromatics

October 29, 2009

Duck, pumpkin, banana, Thai aromatics

This is the grown-up version of the dish I made for my nephew a few weeks ago.  It required a little more effort than roasting a duck, slicing a banana, and roasting a butternut squash, but it wasn't difficult to do. And, it gave me lots of leftover elements I could use in other dishes throughout the week (which you'll see in a future post).  Let's dig in.

I did this dish over two days, because one of the elements required time in the fridge overnight, so I'll start with that one: banana pudding.

The first thing I did was roast a banana, whole, in its peel (pierced in 3-4 places with a paring knife), in a 350F oven for about 30 minutes.

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When the banana was cool enough to work with (about 15 minutes of resting was all it took), I opened it up and weighed 50g of roasted banana for use in this part of the dish (I used the rest in banana pancakes the next morning).

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I combined the roasted banana with half-and-half, dried banana chips, salt, and sugar, and brought it to a boil:

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I whisked in some agar agar and boiled it for another 90 seconds, whisking the whole time like a Tasmanian devil on crack.

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I poured it into a bowl and refrigerated it overnight.

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I got up nice and early the next morning to work on the duck brine.  In a large saucepan, I combined jalapeno chili, lemongrass, ginger, gluten-free soy sauce, cinnamon (I used cinnamon sticks instead of ground cinnamon, because I thought the powdery texture of ground cinnamon would coat or cling to the duck as it brined, and I didn't want that to happen), brown sugar, salt, water, and the juice from two of these:

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I brought it to a boil, then turned off the flame and let it steep for 2 hours.


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After it had steeped, I strained the mixture into a bowl (nestled in a bowl of ice to speed the cooling process) and refrigerated it for another 15 minutes until it was cold.

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I put the duck tenderloins into the brine and let them stay in there for 3 hours (in the fridge).

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While the duck was soaking in the brine, I prepped the rest of the dish.

I zested a lime -- peeling off long segments with a vegetable peeler -- then removed the pith with a paring knife and cut them into thin strips, boiled them in water and cooled them before preserving them in simple syrup:

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Next, I made the fried pumpkin seeds.

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The recipe called for just 16 pumpkin seeds, but I made a bigger batch of them because they were going to be fried and covered in curry salt, and that sounded like something I wanted to snack on.  So, I deep fried the pumpkin seeds in batches (in canola oil at 400F) and laid them out on paper towels to drain:

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I tossed them with curry salt (hot curry powder, sweet/mild curry powder, and kosher salt, ground with a mortar and pestle) and put them in a deli container until I needed them for plating.

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The next thing I did was roast the peanuts in a cayenne pepper-salt-sugar-water glaze:

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When they'd finished roasting (300F oven for 25 minutes), I let them cool for a few minutes, then put them in a Ziploc bag and crushed them with a large mason jar:

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I kept them stored in the bag until I needed them for plating.

Also while I was making the lime zest, pumpkin seeds, and peanuts, I was roasting a butternut squash (one hour at 350F):

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When it had finished its roasting time, I took it out of the oven, peeled it and diced the flesh.  I weighed and set aside the 500g of squash I needed for this dish.  I put some of the diced squash aside for later in the week (a photo you'll see soon), and mashed a bit of the rest for a late lunch (topped with parm-reg):

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Back to the dish....

I put the 500g of squash into a saucepan along with some cream, water, sugar, and salt and brought it to a simmer.  Before putting it in the blender as the book suggests, I used my immersion blender on it while it was still in the saucepan.  My blender is kinda crappy, so I wanted to make sure it was well on its way to being creamy before I put it in there.

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After I'd blended it (had to do it in two batches), I strained it into a small bowl to keep it warm.

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With about an hour or so to go before serving this dish to my friends and neighbors, the last thing I needed to do was finish the banana pudding.  So, I skimmed all the recipes, running my finger along the pages to make sure I hadn't missed anything when.... HEY!  Banana froth?  Wait, but I already roasted the banana, and that was for the pudding, so I.... oh.... huh...... yeah..... whoops.

If you've got the book in front of you, you'll see I missed the Banana Froth step of the dish.  I have no excuse other than I just plain forgot to do it.  When I was planning the timing of making all the different elements, I think I thought I'd already factored it in (because the opening instructions for the pudding and the froth were exactly the same -- roast a whole banana for an hour at 350F), but I hadn't. 

No worries, I thought to myself as I scanned the list of ingredients.  I already had everything on hand, and it's a froth, so it can't be that difficult; I've made froth before.  So, I pulled the ingredients together, cranked up the oven to roast another banana, and skimmed the instructions to make sure I knew what I was doing, and came to this part: "Cover and let steep for 2 days." 

My flux capacitor and a DeLorean were in the shop, so I just had to bag it altogether.

I win the Duh Award for the day, I guess.

I finished the banana pudding by taking it out of the fridge (where it had been since the day before), scooping it into the blender, and blending in on high speed until it was smooth:

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I pressed it (in batches) through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl, and then into a squeeze bottle for plating.

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Time to grill the duck and plate this sucker.  I reheated the squash soup, and removed the duck tenderloins from the brine and patted them dry:

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I put them on the stove-top grill and grilled them for 2 minutes on each side.  When they were done, I cut a few of the tenderloins into 2x2" squares for plating (I snacked on some of the rest of the duck, and saved some for lunch the next day).

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I sliced some Thai red chili, ginger, and scallion for the final plating, and pulled a few leaves of cilantro, as well.

To plate, I filled small custard cups with the butternut squash soup and assembled the duck on a spoon perched on each custard cup's rim.  Atop the duck went a blob of the banana pudding and all the little garnishes: scallion, Thai red chili, fried pumpkin seeds, lime zest strip, cayenne roasted peanut, ginger, and cilantro:

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As I sit here in my little home office, watching the brown, orange and yellow leaves flutter from the tree across the street onto the wet street below, I can almost smell the duck brine steeping and the butternut squash roasting, and taste the flavors all over again.  This was a dish that made me thankful for fall.

Let's start with what's on the spoon.  WOW.  First, the duck.  I love duck.  I almost always order it when I see it on a menu, but I never make it at home.  Now, I want to make it every week.  It was perfectly cooked, and the flavors of the accompaniments?  Fantastic! There was just enough heat, just enough brightness, just enough warmth, and because I'd steamed the cilantro for 30 seconds (a trick I learned from a chef friend), it didn't taste like soap or make the whole bite taste like soap.  I actually enjoyed the taste of it (I KNOW!).  Even those who didn't like duck really loved this bite:  "This isn't duck; it's good!"  "Wow, I actually like this!"

The butternut squash soup was so fragrant and creamy and wonderful.  Admittedly, it was really rich, and a tad too salty for my tastes, but it was still delicious.  In all, it was a lovely dish, and it was so great to hit another one out of the park.

Up Next: Pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves

Resources: Duck tenderloins from Fossil Farms; jalapeno, lemongrass, ginger, chilis, cinnamon, pineapple, curry powders, cayenne, lime, dried banana chips, banana, butternut squash, scallion, and cilantro from HMart in Wheaton; San-J gluten-free soy sauce; David's kosher salt; pumpkin seeds and peanuts from TPSS Co-op; citric acid and agar agar from L'Epicerie; Natural by Nature milk and heavy cream. 

Music to Cook By: Ray Davies; The Kinks Choral Collection.  Earlier this year, Ray Davies, lead singer and songwriter for The Kinks, worked with the Crouch End Festival Chorus to record part of the Kinks' catalog with full orchestra, band and chorus accompanying him doing lead vocals.  Their recording of "Days" is just beautiful.  "You Really Got Me"?  Hilariously odd and wonderful.  A friend got an early copy for review and set it my way.  It goes onsale here in the States on November 10, but you can listen to samples and pre-order it on Amazon.

Read My Previous Post:  Crab Apple, white cheddar, eucalyptus, onion

October 26, 2009

Crab Apple, white cheddar, eucalyptus, onion

So, now that you know where the crab apples came from, are you ready to see how the dish unfolded?

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Gosh, they're pretty little guys, aren't they?

I weighed 2 lbs. of them, and set aside the rest in a smaller bowl as a fall centerpiece on my dining room table (which lasted all of a day and a half, because they ripened rather quickly and the ants and fruit flies swarmed about -- drat).

I put the two pounds of crab apples (along with some salt and sugar) into two Ziploc bags, and cooked them en sous vide at 190F/88C for an hour.  I tried to get as much air out of the bags as I could, but wasn't 100% successful, so I had to use one of my Le Creuset pots as an apple-bag-pusher-downer to make sure they stayed submerged:

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After the hour was up, I pressed the now-softened crab apples through a tamis and into a bowl:

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It's at this point the book suggests using a refractometer to measure the Brix (should be 20 degrees) of the now-pressed apples, but I decided to use a different kind of measuring device: my tongue.  I know; I'm so low-tech. The refractometer, in this case, would have been testing the sugar content (just like in the mango dish back in March), so I thought I might just be okay with going with my tastebuds instead.  That served me well before, so I trusted it again.

After tasting a small bit, I decided it did need a little more sugar, so I added 2T and stirred to dissolve it in the still-warm apple mush.  In the cooking process, the apples lost a lot of their negative flavor characteristics (bitter, chalky, sour), and even though it was still slightly tart, it was delicious.  That Achatz chap knows a thing or two, I think.

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I put the apple mush (it looks like the pink applesauce my mom makes) into the fridge to let it cool a bit.  When it had cooled, I ran it through my ice cream maker for about 20 minutes, then stored it in the freezer until I needed it for plating the next day.

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I decided to take a few liberties in making the eucalyptus pudding.  Instead of eucalyptus oil, I decided to steep a few eucalyptus leaves in the 500g of water the recipe called for.  I brought it to a boil, turned off the heat, covered the pot, and let it steep for 15 minutes.  Oh, how wonderful this smelled.....

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I strained the liquid into another pot:

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I added the sugar, salt, citric acid, and agar agar to the still-hot eucalyptus water and mixed it well with my immersion blender.

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I poured this mixture into a bowl and let it sit on the counter until it had fully set.

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I scooped out the gelled eucalyptus liquid and put it in the blender, added 10g of canola oil, then blended until it was smooth:

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I strained it through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl and stored it in the refrigerator until it was time to plate.

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Next step? The pepper tuile.

I fully expected this to flop.  Implode.  Melt all over my oven and give me the finger, culinarily, as it were.

I don't know why I thought this step would be Failure City.  (It wasn't)  Maybe it's because I had to go to the craft store for the fondant, and if there's one thing that gives me the creepy crawlies, it's a craft store.  I went to Michaels on Rockville Pike here in Maryland, and that place always smells like dirty diapers and old library books.  The other thing that drives me nuts about craft stores?  Inevitably, every single person in front of me will want a price check on some marked-down item with a 5-cent discrepancy.  And, without a doubt, at some point during my simple one-item/no-coupon/not-on-sale transaction, the manager will have to come over -- register key on a plastic coil around his arm -- and override some sort of something, or do a VOID (dunh dunh DUNNNHH), and make a big stinkin' deal out of it and HOLYCRAPIHATECRAFTSTORES.

Ahem.

Sooooooo, I put the fondant, glucose, and isomalt into a saucepan and melted it, continuing to heat it until it had reached 320F/160C.


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I poured it onto a Silpat and let it cool until it had hardened.

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While it was cooling, I made the onion jam.

The whole time I was making the onion jam, I kept beboppin', scattin' and hooo-hoooo-in' around like I was both of the MJs, singing, "Go with it, go with it... Jam.... it ain't too much to jam, it ain't too much...it ain't too mu-uch onion JAM."

Please send help.

Or, you know, onion jam... 'cause this stuff was really easy and really good.

I diced the onions and rinsed them quite thoroughly in a strainer under cold running water.

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Then, in a saucepan, I combined the onions, some water, glucose, sugar and salt, and cooked it over very low heat for about two hours.

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The onions were soft, but still had texture.  I drained them through a fine-mesh strainer, and kept both the onions and the liquid, separately.  I reduced the liquid until it became a syrup (took maybe 10 minutes):


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I poured that reduced liquid, now syrup, back over the onions, and let the onion jam come to room temperature.
 

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I used a little espresso spoon to taste it, and I almost wish I hadn't, because it was really, really hard not to devour the whole (tiny) bowl of it.

By this time, the base of the pepper tuile had hardened:

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I broke it into small pieces and turned it to dust in my coffee bean/spice grinder:

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I put the powder into a fine-mesh strainer and sifted it over a Silpat (on a baking sheet) into an even layer, then added fresh-ground black pepper:

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I put it in a 350F-degree oven for two minutes.  The powder was melted, and shiny, and ready to come out.

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I let it sit on the countertop to cool to room temperature, and began working on the olive oil, olive oil JAM.  It ain't too much, olive oi-oi-oil JAM.

I'm so sorry.  Really.

Three egg yolks:

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Then, in a small saucepan, I brought glucose (clear) and Trimoline (white) to a boil over medium heat:

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I tempered the yolks with some of the glucose-Trimoline mixture, then mixed them all together, stirring thoroughly to combine.  I added some salt, and put this mixture in the food processor.


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As the food processor whirred, I slowly added the olive oil through the ... wait, it is called a feed tube, right? You know, the raised tubular part on the lid through which you add things?  It's a feed tube, right?  Why am I blanking on this right now and getting a little grossed out because it's awfully close to "feeding tube" for my liking?

So, I added the olive oil into the liquid through the feed tube (bllleeeaaarrrgh), as it was still processing, to emulsify it.

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I poured the olive oil, olive oil JAM into a bowl and kept it cool in the fridge until it was time to plate.

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The last think I had to make was the white cheddar sauce.  I shredded the cheddar, then added hot milk to it, stirred, and whaddya know?  White cheddar sauce!  Who says cooking is hard?

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Look how the black pepper tuile pulled up the edges of the Silpat with it as it cooled and hardened:

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Time to plate!

Oh wait... I realized just before plating that the assembling instructions called for some mint leaves and mint flowers, so I ran out to the garden and picked what I needed.  You can see how fresh it is by noticing the little spider running away as I picked up one of the stems to pluck off the leaves:

DSC_0063Run away, little spider.... run away.....

The plating of this is really easy and kinda fun.  You just blomp all the elements of the dish on the plate, center the crab apple sorbet, and then stab the sorbet with pieces of the pepper tuile:

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It looked so pretty and smelled amazing, but I wasn't sure how I was going to eat it.  This happens every now and then, for me, when I actually eat at Alinea.  Should I take little bites of things separately, or try and get a little bit of everything onto the spoon to get one, cohesive taste?

I'd already tasted the individual elements as I made them, so I knew what they tasted like, each on their own.

So, I mashed it all together and made it look like this:

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And you know what?  IT WAS AWESOME!  The crab apple sorbet was just sweet enough, but still tasted like crab apples.  The notion of apple, cheddar, and pepper together, I love.  And, to have the olive oil and onion flavors in there made it all the more delicious.  The mint made it feel fresh and clean and light.  And then?  The eucalyptus just cracked it all wide open and made everything taste better, almost like it amplified every note in ways I find hard to explain.  It all made sense, and it was astoundingly delicious.  Really.  I'm not one to pat myself on the back or toot my own horn, but TOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOT!!!!!

Actually, my neighbor, Linda, said it best.  As she finished hers, she said, "You and Sean [that's her husband] both say the same thing about your dinners at Alinea -- that it's so much fun, and that there are certain dishes where you just take a bite and smile to yourself because it's so good, and all the flavors kind of unfold, and you just can't believe how good it is, and it's hard to explain because you kinda just have to taste it, AND NOW I GET IT.  I get what you guys are talking about!"

Prior to eating this dish, if you had presented me with an index card or piece of paper that simply listed the following: crab apples, black pepper, eucalyptus, olive oil, onion, white cheddar cheese.... I'm not sure if I could imagine what they would taste like together, or if it would even be good.  I mean, there are a LOT of competing aromas and flavors there.  Too much eucalyptus and you're eating a plate of chest rub.  Too much white cheddar, and it's like someone dumped a box of Annie's mac and cheese on your plate.  Crab apples?  Bitter.  Pepper?  Meh.  Olive oil and onion?  Yeah, sure, why not, but how?  But the nuances and subtleties of each of these flavors just came together in ways I completely did not expect, and thoroughly LOVED.

So, whether you smash it all together like I did, or taste the different elements separately, then together, on the same plate and say things like "wow," "whoa," "ooooh," after each bite?  It makes this cook a very happy girl.

Up Next: Duck, pumpkin, banana, Thai aromatics

Resources: Crab apples from Forge Hill Orchards; Domino sugar; David's kosher salt; Glucose from ShopBakersNook.com; isomalt, citric acid, trimoline, and agar agar from L'Epicerie; black pepper, onion, white cheddar, whole milk, and eucalyptus leaves from TPSS co-op; fondant from Michaels (ack!); eggs from Smith Meadows Farm; mint from my garden.

Music to Cook By: Kate Miller Heidke; Curiouser.  Love love love this album.  Love her voice.  Love that she's Australian but pronounces "sorry" like she's from Canada ("sore-y").  Love that it's boppy and fun and easy to sing along with.  Love that it's not JAM.

Read My Previous Post: Finding Crab Apples

October 19, 2009

Wild Turbot, shellfish, water chestnuts, hyacinth vapor

Scott Weinstein, my fishmonger and my friend, is leaving Blacksalt, so I wanted to get one more seafood dish in before his last day (October 31, for anyone in the DC area who wants to stop in before he leaves). 

Every single bit of food in this recipe made me drool.  I had very high expectations for this dish, because turbot and shellfish and sunchoke puree?  Music to my ears.  I'm still having a hard time accepting the fact that summer is over, and this dish was the transition that is helping me love autumn once again: fish and shellfish from an ocean I miss so much, and a warm, earthy puree that makes this colder, windy weather a little more palatable.

I've made mussels and littlenecks here at home so many times I've lost count, but I'd never worked with razor clams before.  I see their shells on the beach every summer and I've eaten them quite a bit, but I've never cooked them.  They were kinda slurpy... meaning, after I rinsed them, they were moving in and out of their shells quite a bit and making a kind of slurping, slithery sound against the glass bowl as they did so.  A little creepy, but nothing at all like the Great Softshell Crab Trauma of 2007.  Not even close.

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In a large stockpot, I brought to a simmer some wine, vermouth, shallots, peppercorns (the book calls for 27 of them; I put in 28 just to be a dick), fennel, tarragon, thyme, and garlic:

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Then, one batch of shellfish at a time, I steamed the mussels, littlenecks and razors -- about 3-4 minutes for each, pulling each batch out with wok strainer thingie, and letting the shellfish sit in a colander over a bowl to catch all the liquid that might be hiding in the shells.


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After removing the shellfish from their shells and putting them in separate containers prior to the further cleaning of them, I strained the cooking liquid through a double-cheesecloth-lined strainer.  I wanted to make sure I caught all the sand and other gunk that might have ended up in the cooking liquid.  It looks murky in the photo below, but it was clean as a whistle.  No grit, no sand. 

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It was at this point that I checked the book again to see how much of this liquid I needed for the custard, for sous vide-ing the turbot, and for storing the shellfish.  I'm glad I did, because had I not rechecked it, I would have been screwed.

After cooking the shellfish and straining out the solids, I ended up with 490g of liquid (started out with 500g -- 250g white wine + 250g vermouth+whatever small amount the shellfish release when steaming open).  The books calls for setting aside 250g of the liquid to store the shellfish in, then to reduce the rest by half, which would be used for the custard and the turbot.  But, the custard required 350g of stock and the turbot needed 240g of stock, so I was perplexed as to how 240g of stock (since I had just 490g and already set aside 250g for the shellfish) could be reduced to equal 590g. 

So, I made the executive decision to not reduce the stock, and instead, set aside just 200g (instead of 250) for storing the shellfish in the fridge, which left me with 290g -- so I split it in half: 145 each for the shellfish custard and the turbot, then adjusted the corresponding ingredients in those dishes accordingly.

I love math.

Where were we?  Ah yes, cleaning the shellfish.  I removed the bellies from the razor clams (the belly is outside the clam and pulls off much like an outer filmy layer of a scallion or green onion), then sliced the razor clams on the bias:

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Next, I trimmed the littlenecks, removing the stomach and rinsing them to make sure all the sand was removed.

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I don't have an individual photo of the mussels being cleaned, but I just pinched then pulled off that outer blackish band from around the edge of each mussel.  Then, they all went into the now-strained cooking liquid and into the fridge while I finished prepping the rest of the dish.


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Onto the shellfish stock!  My kitchen, at this point, smelled amazing.... and got even more amazing as the afternoon went on.  I love the smell of cooking shellfish.  It's so fresh and fragrant and salty.  Bliss.

For the shellfish stock, I mixed the shellfish stock and some heavy cream and brought it to a simmer, then added some iota carrageenan (that's with a hard "g" sound, not "jeenan") and mixed it with my immersion blender.

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Poured that mixture through a fine mesh strainer into another saucepan, covered it, then stored it in the fridge until it was time to plate.

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Sadly, neither the farmers market nor three local grocery stores had sunchokes when I was shopping for this dish (which is odd), so I subbed in some Yukon Gold potatoes, because I knew they'd work, flavor-wise with this dish.  Sunchokes would have been better (I love love love them), but I had to roll with the punches and make do with what I had.

So, I peeled and cut the potatoes into small chunks, put them in a saucepan with heavy cream and salt, and brought them to a simmer.  I cooked them over low heat, covered, for 25 minutes -- at which point the potatoes were so, so tender.

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I put the potatoes and 2T of the cooking cream into the blender and pureed them until they were silky and creamy, and oh my....

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I put the potato puree into a small saucepan (over no heat) and got to work on the fish.


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Gulp.  Yes, Turbot is expensive.

I suppose I could have substituted halibut or sole or cod, but it's so rare that I eat Turbot, that I wanted to splurge and do it right.

I also bought a little more than I needed, because I knew I wanted this dish to be more entree-sized in its final presentation.

So, yeah... Turbot.  But look at it:

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I put each turbot fillet into a ziploc bag along with 10g butter and approximately 15g of shellfish stock.  Rolling them to remove as much air as I could before sealing them, I put them in a 138F/59C water bath for 20 minutes.


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With 5-10 minutes left to go on the fish's cooking time, I slowly and gently reheated the potato puree and the shellfish custard.  I also put the bowl of shellfish atop a large pot of simmering water (improvised double-boiler) to warm them.

To plate: turbot in the center, flanked by potato puree and a little fortress of diced water chestnuts

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I gently poured the custard in so that it surrounded the fish, but didn't cover it. Then, I topped the fish with a generous serving of shellfish, as well as a fresh fennel frond.

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So, how'd it taste?

Check out the reaction below from one of the neighbor kids (who, by the way, SPIT OUT the last two Alinea @Home dishes he tasted):

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Need further proof that this was a winner?

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You guys, this is one of the best things I've ever made.  It's certainly our favorite dish, so far, from the Alinea cookbook.


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Clean plates all around.  The turbot is rich, but not chest-clutchingly so.  The shellfish custard was creamy and fragrant, but not heavy.  The shellfish was perfectly, perfectly cooked (yay, me!).  Not a bit of grit or mealiness in any of mussels or clams (yay, Scott!).  The water chestnuts added a needed texture to it, and the potato puree was just lovely.  All the flavors worked so well together, and everything just tasted so gooooooooood.   It was one of those dishes that made me wish I had a fireplace, because I wanted nothing more than to curl up on the sofa under a blanket with a glass of Macallan 18 afterward. 

Now, those of you who have the book, or who remembered every word in the title of this post might be wondering: Carol, what about the hyacinth vapor?  Good question.  A few weeks ago, Grant posted an essay on his blog on The Atlantic's Food Section called "Fish, Flowers, and the Taste of Youth."   In it, he writes about the creation of this dish -- all the different variations, tests, and how it just wasn't coming together the way he wanted it to until he added the scent of flowers.  Smelling hyacinths as he cooked and ate this dish reminded him of fishing with his dad for walleye, and how they'd sit on the banks amid the spring wildflowers eating lunch.

And it struck me: fish and flowers is Grant's food memory.  Not mine. 

And yes, I could have found hyacinth or some other really, really fragrant flower to put in a charger-type bowl, and create vapor for this dish, but it didn't feel right.  It felt forced.  And, it's not like by not including it I was ignoring a specific technique or ingredient integral to the execution of this dish or its enjoyment by others.  Instead, the shellfish and turbot smell were more than enough to make us giddy and hungry and happy bite after bite.  Because when I think of shellfish, I think of the beach, I think of Quahog's, and I think of my friends and how much we all love a good meal together.  And, when my neighbor's kids think of shellfish, they always always always think about two things: the mussels at Central, and their favorite French Laundry at Home dish: "Linguine" with White Clam Sauce... and that makes me grin, because I wonder if -- when they're all grown up, out on dates or having dinner with friends or their own families -- when they see and eat mussels or clams they'll think about how much fun we've all had over the years eating at the same table, cracking jokes, trying new foods, and revisiting old favorites.

The next day, I worked all morning and treated myself to an Alinea-leftovers lunch -- DeBoles gluten-free/corn spaghetti with some leftover shellfish tossed in some leftover shellfish custard.

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And, just as I finished eating it (and it was divine), I heard the mailman's truck pull up outside, and I was hoping he had something I'd been waiting for:

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YES!  A brown, cardboard box from Amazon can only mean one thing:

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I love my life....

Up Next: Crab Apple, white cheddar, eucalyptus, onion

Resources: Shellfish and turbot from Blacksalt; Martini and Rossi vermouth; Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc; peppercorns, garlic, and fennel from the TPSS Co-op; thyme and tarragon from my garden; iota carrageenan from Terra Spice; Organic Valley heavy cream; Dynasty water chestnuts.

Music to Cook By:  Meaghan Smith; The Cricket's Orchestra.  I love this girl's voice.  It's young and soulful and really beautiful.  She's a modern-day Keely Smith, she is.

Read My Previous Post: Alinea? IS FOR BABIES

October 12, 2009

Idiazabal

I have a number of Spanish-speaking friends from all over the world -- Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela -- and when I asked them how to pronounce Idiazabal, I got three different answers:

EE-dee-ah-zah-ball

ee-dee-ah-ZAH-ball

ee-dee-AH-zah-bowl

Oy.

So, I'm just going to call this dish Alinea Cheetos and be done with it.

Because that's what it is: cheese, flour, salt, water, a little bit of frying, and there you are.  Alinea Cheetos.

First, a mise en place:

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Clockwise from the top: water, cheese, salt, tapioca flour.

Next, I prepared the steaming portion of our program.  I don't own a steamer, and since I had no plans to buy one, I picked up this silicone splatter screen instead and figured I'd jury-rig equipment I already had to make this work:

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See?!?!?  You can use it to steam:

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I set a large pot of water on the stove to boil -- the circumference of which was the same as the silicone splatter guard -- and made the dough from the ingredients in the mise en place.

I combined 50g of the grated Idiazabal (saving 10g for the final step of the recipe) with the tapioca flour and salt in my food processor:

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While the food processor was running, I slowly added the water:

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The end result is that the dough looks like a blob of really nice ricotta:

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I put the dough between two layers of plastic wrap and rolled it with a rolling pin until it was 1/8" thick:

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By this time, the pot of water on the stove had come to a simmer and had begun to release steam through the holes of the splatter guard:

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Still in the plastic, I placed the dough on top of the steamer/splatter guard:

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I covered it with a pot of the same size and let it steam for 12 minutes.  Then, I flipped the dough and let it steam another 12 minutes on its other side:

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After the 24 minutes of steaming was up, I removed it from the splatter guard/steamer, and let it cool to room temperature:

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Once it had cooled, I removed the plastic and placed it on.... dunh dunh DUUUUNNNHHHHH, a rack in my NEW (well, used) DEHYDRATOR!!!

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Y'all, I was just so freakin' sick and tired of failing miserably at trying to dehydrate things in the oven.  My lovely friend, Heidi, offered to loan me hers, but on a lark I searched Craigslist one Sunday morning and there it was.  An Excalibur 4-drawer food dehydrator.  Being sold by someone mere minutes from my house.  I called the number on the ad, and within the hour (and for $50), this lovely machine was mine.... alllll mine.

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The dough went in to dry out at 130 degrees F for two-and-a-half hours.  I checked it, and it was still a little wet at that point, so I let it go another 30-40 minutes until it had fully dehydrated and was crispy.

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Meantime, I ground some BLiS smoked salt and maple granules with my mortar and pestle while I waited for the canola oil to get hot enough so I could fry the now-dry Idiazabal dough:

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Once the oil had reached 425 degrees, I gently slid the flat of dough into it, and let it fry for about two minutes -- when it had become puffy, light, and airy:

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I let it drain on a few layers of paper towels before breaking it into cracker-sized servings.

I used a pastry brush to brush on a thin coating of BLiS maple syrup (which seriously? Rocked my damn world, that stuff is SO GOOD and I love it so much I wanna marry it), then sprinkled it with the maple granule-smoked salt mixture.  Then, I sprinkled the remaining 10g of Idiazabal on top before putting it under the broiler:

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I took them out after about 30 seconds, and let them cool on a cooling rack.

Here's what they looked like:

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I put them in a bowl, and made my usual round of phone calls to the neighbors to have them come over for a taste.  And, freakishly (but lucky as hell for me), no one was home, so I settled in for the evening with a TiVo full of Mad Men and Glee, a glass of Podere Forte, Castiglione d'Orcia (Petrucci, 2005), and proceeded to eat every last one of my Alinea cheetos.  All by myself.

And they were fantastic.

Idiazabal cheese is made from unpasteurized sheep's milk, and it has a smoky flavor, even though it's not smoked.  It's slightly nutty, a little buttery, and I love it shaved over gluten-free pasta with a little olive oil.  I also like to grate it over sausage and lentils, or beef shortrib soup with kale and chard.

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So it's a cheese I already loved.  And now made into a light, airy, crispy cracker with hints of smoked salt and maple.  A crispy crunch, with sweet, salt, smoke, and a little nutty buttery nose feel.  Made with tapioca flour, so I didn't even have to think about how to adapt it to make it gluten-free. 

I mean, YOU tell me which one of these you'd rather have:

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Yeah, I thought so.

Up Next: Wild Turbot, shellfish, water chestnuts, hyacinth vapor

Resources: Idiazabal cheese from Whole Foods; tapioca flour from Bob's Red Mill; David's kosher salt; canola oil from HMart; BLiS smoked salt and maple syrup; Buck Hill Farm maple granules.

Music to Cook By: Mayer Hawthorne; A Strange Arrangement.  A young soul singer from Michigan, Mayer Hawthorne (not his real name -- it's something like Andy Cohen, I think) has incredible talent.  I love his voice, and the production values on this album make me feel like I've been dropped into the 60s, listening to a hybrid of Smoky Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, and maybe someone a little more beachy and coastal.

Read My Previous Post: Corn, (not)coconut, cayenne, mint

August 14, 2009

Oyster Cream, lychee, horseradish, chervil

You know what's worse than having the flu?

Having the flu in the summer.  And, having a sinus and ear infection at the same time.

Criminy.

Nine days of grossness, exhaustion, and self-pity.  No appetite, no ability to focus on much of anything for more than ten seconds... and even after starting to feel better earlier this week, it's just been a struggle to get back on track.  Just when I take advantage of a new-found burst of energy, my body and my brain pull back on the reins with a whoa-there-nelly to keep me in check and not push too far or too hard too soon.

Days of unanswered work email, piles of things to edit, lists of things to write, too many voicemails to return... and all I really wanted to do was get back into the kitchen.  But a girl's got to pay the mortgage, so I had to spend a few more days than I would've liked getting back into the swing of things around these parts.

I made this dish right before I got sick, but the very idea of sitting upright, looking at photos of food, or trying to write anything coherent or cohesive just wasn't happening.  So, that's just my long-winded way of saying sorry to have left you hanging with that veal stock post for so long.

*  *  *  *  *

There are two dishes in the Alinea cookbook involving oysters.  You all know how I feel about oysters, so I'm not gonna go into yet another woe-is-me rant about how much I have to suffer when in their presence.  First-world problems, and all that.  I just decided after my first attempt with oysters, I wanted to get this second (and last) one done as quickly as possible.  Didn't want to drag it out and have it be a looming, dark, culinary cumulonimbus.  I just wanted to get it done, scrape my tongue immediately afterward, and cross it off the list.

It seemed like a relatively straightforward dish with ingredients that were easy to find.  I mean, every week, for years it seems, all my local grocery stores have carried horseradish root.  It's always there.  Chervil is hit or miss, but I knew I could sub out a combo of parsley and tarragon, and it would suffice.  So, as I made my grocery list, I knew I could get everything in one go.

Except I couldn't, because, go figure -- the one time I really need horseradish, no one had it.  After the third grocery store attempt, I whipped out the Yellow Pages (I keep one in the trunk of the car) and called down the list of grocery stores within a 20-mile radius of my house. 

Me: "Do you have fresh horseradish?" 

Them: "Yes, we do."

Me: "Wait, not the kind in the jars, the horseradish root in the produce section?"

Them: "Yes, ma'am, we carry that."

Me: "Would you mind having someone check and make sure you have some now?"

Them: [exasperated] "Ma'am, that's unnecessary, we have it.  We always have it."

Me: "Alright then.  Thanks."

And I'd get to one of those grocery stores where they "always have it, ma'am" and lo and behold, the horseradish basket was a) empty, or on two occasions b) had horseradish root covered in mold with mushy, rotten spots all over.

It took my stopping at nine grocery stores over two days to find fresh horseradish.

All for a dish I wasn't even remotely prepared to like. 

Aaaaanyway.....

The first step is to combine the oysters, their liquid, and some cream in a saucepan and bring it to a simmer over low-medium heat.  Then, once it had begun to simmer, I put the lid on the pot, turned off the flame, and let it stand for about 20 minutes.


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I strained the liquid through a chinois into another pan, and discarded the solids.  Let me repeat that: the book says you have to discard the solids.  Meaning the oysters.  Meaning, this was going to be a dish that carried the essence of oysters, without having to chew on those little suckers.

Glory be, things were beginning to look up!

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Peace out, oysters.  Nice knowin' ya...

I weighed 600g of the oyster liquid (which smelled fantastic), added agar agar to it, and blended it with my immersion blender.  I brought it to a simmer, used a bit of it to temper the egg yolk-sugar-cornstarch-salt mixture in a separate bowl, then poured all that back into the oyster liquid on the stovetop, and whisked until everything was incorporated and it began to bubble and take the shape of pudding.  If you have the book, you'll notice that the recipe instructions mention salt, but the ingredient list does not.  So, I just made my best guess at how much to use and threw 2g of kosher salt in there.

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I poured it into a bowl that had been nesting in a bowl of ice, and stirred it every 5-10 minutes until it had cooled to room temperature.  Then, I put the bowl of oyster pudding/cream into the refrigerator for an hour.

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After an hour of being in the fridge, it had set.  I scraped it out of the bowl and into my blender (which will soon be replaced!) and blended it until it was smooth and almost the consistency of mayonnaise.  I strained it through a chinois and into a squeeze bottle.


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I had enjoyed the smell of the oyster cream up until this point, but hadn't yet tasted it.  So, I grabbed a small spoon and squirted a bit of the cream onto the spoon before putting the bottle into the fridge.  Remember the olive oil pudding I was gonna marry a few months ago?  We're totally breaking up, because this oyster cream is even better.  I KNOW.  Who'dathunkit?  I put the bottle of oyster cream in the refrigerator until it was time to plate, smiling at the thought of actually, maybe, perhaps, could-it-be this dish might not suck?

The next step seemed straightforward at first, until I looked at the photo of this dish in the book.  The recipe is for chervil juice.  The photo shows a green, gelatinous cube.  I know horseradish gelée (coming soon!) isn't green, so I wondered: should I just gelatinize the chervil instead of making juice?  I mean, I know how to do that.  It's not difficult. 

I decided to move forward with doing the juice as it was in the book, but instead of chervil (which I couldn't get my hands on), I did a mixture of tarragon and parsley (which is the closest swap-out for chervil I know of).  I blanched the leaves and ice bathed them, then put the blanched leaves and 500g of ice water into a blender with some salt and simple syrup and blended it on high speed for two minutes:


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I strained it through a chinois into a bowl, saving it for the final plating.

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The next step was to make the horseradish gelée.  Even though it was a bitch to buy, I love horseradish.  Didn't always, but I do now.  I love the heat, and I love how it just sits in your nose and cracks open the palate but doesn't overtake a whole dish or a whole bite.  

I cut off a little nubbin of horseradish root (I needed 40g), and peeled and grated it:

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I put it in a saucepan with some sugar, salt, and white wine vinegar and brought it to a boil.  Side note: if you have the Alinea cookbook, you'll see the recipe also calls for 1/4 red Thai chili.  Yeah.  I totally forgot to buy them, and didn't realize it until the time I started making this part of the dish.  So, I just went without.  Whoops.

Anyhoo, I brought the combo to a boil, then turned off the flame, covered the pot, and let it steep for about a half an hour.

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I added some gelatin sheets, which I'd soaked in cold water for a few minutes, and gently stirred the mixture until the gelatin dissolved.

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I poured the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl and put the bowl in the fridge to set -- which took about 40 minutes -- after which I chunked it into small nuggets.

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I don't have a photo of the last step before plating -- the slicing of the lychees.  I couldn't find any fresh lychees, so I had to settle for canned Roland lychees.  I cut small pieces -- each one the size of a nickel.

Time for plating:

First, two blobs of oyster cream.  Then, in between them went a small slice of lychee.  On top of the lychee went the horseradish gelee.  Then, two spoonfuls of the chervil juice around the perimeter.  Lastly, I topped the horseradish and lychee with osetra caviar.

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Okay, it's not Oysters and Pearls.... but, I loved it!  It was all I could do not to just devour the entire bottle of oyster cream on its own.  And the oyster cream with the salty *pop* of the caviar, the earthy, bright green slightly anise-y taste of the chervil juice, and the kick of the horseradish?  Oh, wow.  It opened up beautifully with each bite, and it was something that you could almost taste all the way up into your tear ducts.  Now, I will say that I thought the lychee was a distraction, both in taste and texture.  So, if I were to make this again (which I actually might), I'd skip the lychee altogether.  Everything else, together and on its own, was really, really good, and it made the Great Horseradish Trek of 2009 more than worth it.

Up Next: Kuroge Wagyu, cucumber, honeydew, lime sugar

Resources: Oysters and caviar from Blacksalt; Organic Valley heavy cream; agar agar from Terra Spice; Roland lychees from HMart; Smith Meadows Farm eggs; tarragon and parsley from my garden; horseradish from Whole Foods, Terra Midi white wine vinegar; gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie.

Music to Cook By: Kaiser Chiefs; Employment.  I took my neighbor's kids to see Green Day a few weeks ago (one of the best shows I've ever been to, by the way), and the Kaiser Chiefs were the opening act.  I'd heard of them before, but was not all that familiar with their music.  Or so I thought.  Turns out, I knew a lot of their music, I just didn't know certain songs were theirs. I really like their sound -- it feels like it's pulling the late 60s and early 70s (Kinks) into the early 80s (XTC) and giving it a more modern indie rock sensibility.  It's listenable punk with a few pop hooks, strong choruses, and lyrics that go beyond their original intent.  Their writing is strong, and I'm enjoying their other albums, as well.  Glad I got to see them.

Read My Previous Post: Veal Stock

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  • I'm cooking my way through the Alinea Cookbook. Because I can. I think.

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