I wasn't sure what to make of this dish when I first read about it.
I love shellfish, and I love horseradish. Celery has become more tolerable to me. It was the gooseberry sauce that was throwing me for a loop. Why? I'd never eaten a gooseberry before. I saw them at the farmers' market many, many weeks ago (late May/early June, I think) and remembered that I needed some for a few Alinea dishes, so I bought a few boxes of them and froze them to use as I needed to.
I tasted one before freezing them... and, have you ever had a gooseberry? Raw? Like, just popped one in your mouth? Tart doesn't even begin to describe it. Neither does sour. Don't get me wrong: it wasn't off-putting. It was just nothing like anything I'd tasted before. An odd combination of sour, tangy, a hint of sweet, with a slightly tart finish. They also had an odd texture -- like if you bred a passion fruit with a persimmon or tomatillo, and added some grape and maybe the filmy mouth-feel of a pear.
So after having tried a gooseberry, I was even more perplexed about this dish. I just couldn't wrap my head around what it was going to taste like, or how the textures would feel together. A frozen sponge of shellfish stock. Celery ice. Horseradish cream sauce. Gooseberry sauce. Clams and mussels.
Honestly, I was dreading the end result, which I know isn't cool and I should know better. But no, I was the asshole who scoffed that there was no way this recipe from the bazillion-star chef of the Pellegrino-ranked #1 restaurant in America was gonna be any good.
Grumble grumble grumble.
Seriously. I am such a jerkwad sometimes.
And so we begin.
As instructed, I steamed mussels and littleneck clams in two separate saucepans with vermouth, fennel, celery, shallots, peppercorns, bay leaves, and tarragon. Man. Is there a better smell than that of shallots and tarragon steaming away in vermouth? I think not.
The littlenecks opened beautifully, but more than half of the mussels didn't open at all. And, there was an odd smell emanating from the pan when they were cooking. When I rinsed and cleaned them before cooking them, they smelled fine (meaning, no smell at all), but I wasn't taking any chances. I threw them away, poured their cooking liquid down the drain, and just forged ahead with the littlenecks on their own.
I put the clams (still in their shells) on a paper towel-lined baking sheet in the fridge to halt the cooking, and so they'd cool.
The book instructs you to combine both pots of cooking liquid to reduce them, but that wasn't an option, so I added about a half a cup of Etude pinot noir rosé, and cooked the liquid until it had reduced by half.
While the liquid was reducing, I took the littleneck clams out of their shells, discarded the shells, and saved the clams in a container I'd placed into a bowl of ice water in the fridge.
I combined the wine-assisted shellfish cooking stock reduction with 3 ice water-soaked gelatin sheets, some salt, and stirred to dissolve the gelatin, tempering it as I went.
Then, I put that liquid into the bowl of my Kitchen Aid mixer, and mixed it on high speed using the whip attachment. The book instructs you to whip it "until stiff peaks form," which I'm thinking will take 3 or 4 minutes...
After four minutes:
After 10 minutes:
Twenty minutes gone by...
Thirty minutes... and wait! Is that the beginnings of some peakage...?
And, at the 40-minute mark? The magic happened. That shizz stiffened right up:
The photo makes it look more like they were soft peaks, but they weren't. It was stiff and exactly the right consistency to blop onto a parchment-lined baking sheet to put in the freezer:
While the shellfish broth was taking its good old time getting to the stiff-peak stage, I blanched and juiced some celery for the celery ice portion of our program:
I poured that celery juice into a 9x9" glass baking dish and put it in the freezer to harden.
And got a lovely, better-than-they-tasted-on-their-own gooseberry sauce:
I also made the horseradish cream, which was so easy I can't believe I don't make this more often. I juiced some horseradish in my juicer and whisked it with some crème fraîche, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and salt:
If you're following along in the book or are familiar with this dish, you'll notice I haven't talked about the geoduck clam. As much as I wanted to work with a geoduck for this recipe, I chose not to. They're not that easy to come by (despite having some good fishmonger connections), and they're really expensive... like, we're talking $40-50/pound, and I'd have to commit to buying the whole 3-pound clam for any of my sources to have one shipped in and I just couldn't justify that expense.
So, I used surf clams instead. I had the guys at BlackSalt shuck them for me, and I used a few slices of them, raw, on each serving.
To plate this dish I put one frozen shellfish sponge in the center and spooned a little horseradish cream around one side of it. I scooped some celery ice along the other side and blopped some gooseberry sauce next to it. I put 3-4 littleneck clams on each serving, and topped the sponge with a few slices of surf clam. Last, but not least, I added some of the blanched celery dice and some celery leaves.
I love that if you hadn't read this post or this recipe, you might think that by looking at it that it's a warm dish. That the sponge is actually a warm foam or meringue kind of thing.
If I close my eyes and inhale slowly through my nose, I can remember exactly what this dish tasted like. I sampled all the elements of the dish as I was making it, and I thought the end result might be too salty. Or just too salt-briny. I was thrilled to be wrong. It was a perfect blend of salt, sweet, sour, tang, and heat. The textures melded well with just enough creaminess, crunch, and chew that every bite was a surprise as the flavors opened up. The sponge was delightful. The surf clam was lovely. The horseradish cream was fantastic. I ended up swirling everything together on the plate to take a bite, and loved how the horseradish and gooseberry unfolded with the shellfish and celery ice. I loved the temperature of the dish and how the flavors became even more pronounced as the frozen elements melted in my mouth.
My neighbors came over for the tasting, and one of the pickiest eaters -- an 11-year old boy who is adventurous about some foods and not others; and, those adventurous tangents change without warning -- gobbled his up, much to my surprise. In fact, I barely even needed to do the dishes after we were done because there were a lot of fingers swiping plates to get every last bit of sauce and flavor. I think having the mussels in it (had they been good instead of rancid) would've made this even more flavorful, but since no one at the table knew about the mussel fiasco, they didn't think the dish was lacking in any way.
When I think about the individual elements in this dish, there are so many that are adaptable to everyday cooking. I could do a gooseberry swirl in vanilla ice cream next time I make it. The horseradish cream could accompany a steak or a roasted goat leg quite nicely. Steaming clams takes all of 10 minutes (including the time it takes to prep the stuff you steam them in), so I'm not sure why I don't eat them more often. Even the leftover celery ice was a nice treat on these 105-degree days we've been having.
And, as much as I love and respect my friend, Michael Ruhlman, I gotta disagree with what he wrote in an early review of the book: "This is not a home-cook book."
I beg to differ.
Read My Previous Post: Alinea at Home Adaptation -- Raspberry, goat's milk, red pepper taffy, pistachio
Resources: Celery, lemon, shallots, fennel, and horseradish from Whole Foods; gooseberries from the 14th and U Street Farmers Market; Ultra-Tex 3 from Terra Spice; Vermont Butter and Cheese Company crème fraîche; David's kosher salt; Martini dry vermouth; bay leaves from my potted bay plant in the kitchen; peppercorns from the pantry; tarragon from my garden; shellfish from BlackSalt fish market.
Music to Cook To: I'm gonna cheat a bit. I listened to Taylor Dayne while I wrote this blog post. Forgot how much I liked her.
Up Next: Pickled watermelon rind from Ayu, kombu, fried spine, sesame