Semi-FAIL

December 24, 2008

Skate, traditional flavors powdered

Before I get to the cooking part of today's post, I want to take a moment to thank all of you who have donated to Share Our Strength.  I am so thrilled with the response, and am blown away by the support you all have put forth.  I know there are a lot of competing demands on your generosity this time of year, and I'm so incredibly grateful that so many of you took the time to make a donation to a cause I think is so important, and one whose reach will expand even further as our country continues to ride the economic roller coaster that causes parents to lose jobs and already-stretched grocery budgets to take a hit.  In addition to supporting local food banks and food programs all across the country, Share Our Strength also works with national and local elected officials on food and economic policies that work to end childhood hunger and strengthen local and regional socioeconomic infrastructures.  That's why I like them.  They work smart and address the root causes of childhood hunger in America, and move toward real change.

If you haven't already made a donation, but would like to, click here.  Your chance to win one of the Alinea cookbooks or Under Pressure books as part of this campaign ends at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday, December 31.

*  *  *  *  *

I noticed the other day that when I cook from the Alinea cookbook, as I do with all other cookbooks, I tend to keep the jacket flap over part of the page so I don't lose my place if I need to flip around to the front of the book to check something.  In doing so, it struck me that Grant Achatz is always STARING AT ME.  Not in any menacing sort of way, but because I tend toward the unnecessarily dramatic from time to time (oh, who am I kidding, ALL THE DAMN TIME), I decided that the book's editors put his photo right there because they KNEW I used my cookbooks this way and they wanted to torture me by having Grant stare at me, judging my every move, snickering to himself as I burn certain powders (oooo, foreshadowing) because I was too busy cooing on the phone to my little nephew, cracking him up by calling him Mr. Poopy Butt Pants in a singsong voice.

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See what I mean?  He's totally 1984-ing it.  At least he's a handsome, affable chap.  Could you imagine if this beast wrote a cookbook and had her photo on the jacket flap staring you down over every dish?

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I'd never cook or eat again.

Sweet fancy Moses that's tragic and unappetizing, now, isn't it?  Yipes.  Sorry 'bout that.


* * * * *

This time of year, more than any other, it's always fun to see what happens when the FedEx or UPS truck makes an appearance on our street.  I live on a weird little driveway of a street kind of in the middle of the woods, and my street has just 3 houses on it, so it's always a guessing game to see who's getting what goodies when deliveries find their way to us.

A few days ago, our cute FedEx guy (must've hired him from UPS, natch) dropped off a medium-sized box on my front porch.  Funny, because I hadn't ordered anything, and wasn't really expecting anything from anyone.  When I saw the label, I actually squealed.  I'm not proud of that, because it's just so girly and totally not me, but who wouldn't squeal when they saw the return address of 1723 North Halsted and the name Grant Achatz?  

Yeah, I thought so.

Wanna know what was inside?

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There are 30-40 (haven't counted yet) packages of all sorts of potions and powders I need to make the dishes in the Alinea cookbook, and they're all going to be available on Alinea-Mosaic in their Postmodern Pantry in a few weeks.  Totally cool, because there might be a certain powder in there I thought I had ordered, but didn't (oooooo, MORE foreshadowing) for a certain dish and had a hissyfit about until I realized it might very well be in this box of awesomeness, AND IT WAS!

When the Postmodern Pantry is up and running, I'll change the Hydrocolloid Shopping link in the sidebar to reflect that, and you can shop away to your heart's content.

* * * * *

I know this is the world's longest post, and I haven't even gotten to the freakin' cooking part of it yet, but one more admin/housekeeping thing, and then I promise we'll dive right in.

This will be my last post until the new year.  I'm working a reduced schedule next week (an unexpected surprise; thanks, clients!!), and that, compounded by the fact that my dishwasher melted down and also at the same time kind of exploded yesterday, means my kitchen is a mess right now, so I'm going to spend the week napping, dining out, reading, seeing movies, seeing my friends, and generally unplugging and going on radio silence... something I haven't done since, oh, 1982, I think.  I'll be back here the week of January 5th.

So, let me take this opportunity to wish you a happy holiday season, and I raise a glass to all of you in the hopes for a happy, healthy, prosperous, and full-bellied 2009!  You guys are the best.  I mean it.

* * * * *

Now, on to the Skate!

Any excuse I can find to visit my buddy, Scott, at BlackSalt, I'm all for... but somehow, this expedition was far less fun than other times I've had having him source things for me.  I called him a few days before making this dish, and our convo went a little something like this:

Phone: ::: ring ring ::::

Scott: BlackSalt Fish Market, this is Scott.

Me: Hey, it's Carol.

Scott: Hey, you.

Me: Hey.  So, I need some skate wing.  About a pound.  Do you have any?

Scott: I do, and I'm getting some more in tomorrow morning.  What time do you want to stop by?

Me: How about 11:30, 12-ish?

Scott: Perfect.  See you then.

Me: Okay, see you then.

Phone: ::: click :::


Totally boring, right?  Oh well, I guess all seafood purchases can't have a sense of adventure.  Although, when I went there the next day, I did see a bald eagle as I drove alongside the Potomac River, so there's that.  Yay, America!

I did this dish over two days because I wanted to spend a day focusing on the powders (since I was drying them in the oven instead of using a dehydrator), and then a second day to finish and serve.  Truth be told, this is doable in one day, and easily so.  Just don't multitask during a certain portion of the prep work like I did, and you'll be fine.  More on that later.

So, like I said, Day One was powders.  Because, in the book, all three powders -- caper, lemon, and parsley -- could be dehydrated at the same temperature and for the same amount of time in a dehydrator, I figured they could also be done in the oven at the same temperature for close to the same amount of time... and I was right.

I factored in some allowances for density and moisture content of each ingredient -- believe me, none of this was scientific or culinary in any way; I just sort of made some common-sense assumptions and turned out to be right; and I am now, therefore, changing my name to Copernicus Blymire -- and got to work.

I started with the capers.  I weighed them first, then rinsed them under cold, running water for a few minutes, then spread them out evenly on a parchment-lined baking sheet, which I then put in a 150-degree oven (I have a free-standing oven thermometer inside the oven; can't really ever rely on the settings dial):

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I put them in the oven to start drying them while I prepped the lemons.

I removed the zest from 10.6 ounces/300 grams of lemons (dude, I mixed and matched so many lemons at the grocery store to get as close to 11 ounces as I could, and when I got home and measured them on my digital scale, they were 10.7 ounces; I f-ing ROCK!) and thrice-poached them in simple syrup before drying them on paper towels and putting them on a parchment-lined baking sheet to begin drying:

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After the lemon rind went into the oven, I prepped the parsley (I also charged the camera battery at this point, so no photos, but if you don't know what flat-leaf parsley looks like by now, then um, I dunno, insert some sort of insulting phrase here because I can't come up with anything witty enough right now).

I blanched the parsley in boiling salted water for a second or two, plonked it in an ice bath, then drained it, gently dried it in paper towels, laid it out evenly on a third and final parchment-lined baking sheet and put it in the oven to dry.

At this point, I cleaned up the kitchen, did a little work, caught up on email, and began checking to see when each of the three ingredients was dry enough to begin grinding into powder.

Let me also say here that the smell of these three things, together, drying in my oven was so unbelievably fragrant and wonderful... and since the smell of Christmas trees makes me sneeze uncontrollably, I'm going to substutute this scent every year at this time because it's really gorgeous!

Here's a quick recap of the times everything went into the 150-degree oven, and what time I took them out -- in case you want to make this at home in the same way:

Capers: In at 6:45 p.m., out at 10 p.m. (3 hours, 15 minutes)
Lemon Peel: In at 7:30 p.m., out at 10:30 p.m. (3 hours)
Parsley: In at 8:20 p.m., out at 10 p.m. (1 hour, 40 minutes)

After taking them out of the oven, I let them rest for about 10 minutes to cool to room temperature before grinding them.  Using my cheapy little Capresso coffee grinder I use as a spice grinder, I ground each one, one at a time, and then stored them in little plastic deli containers until the next day:

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The next afternoon, I prepared the green beans, brown butter powder and the skate wing before serving it that evening.

I cut the green beans into 1/8" slices (some were 1/16", others 1/4"; I am so not perfect), and cooked them as directed in the beurre monte, which I already knew how to make from my French Laundry at Home days.

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After they'd cooked the prescribed amount of time, I kept them warm on the back burner of the stove and began working on the brown butter powder.  This is relatively straightforward.  You grid up some dried banana chips into a fine powder (using the coffee/spice grinder):

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Then, you sift the spray-dried cream powder onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet:
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And you put it in a 350-degree oven for 4 minutes.

Under no circumstances should you answer your phone during this time, because if you have as cute a nephew as I do, you'll get distracted by the adorable baby giggles coming over the phone line and you will undoubtedly end up with this:

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Sorry for the blurry shot.  I was shaking in rage.  Not really.  I'm just too cheap to buy a tripod.

So, um, yeah.  We had to skip the brown butter powder portion of our program and move on.

I still had the banana powder, and decided to use that on its own, which you'll see in the final plating shot.

Last step was to prepare the skate.

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I cut it into the strips the book suggests, and let them simmer in some buerre monte for 2-3 minutes on each side.

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While the fish was cooking, I sifted each of the powders through a strainer to clear out the debris, and realized I'd forgotten to add the citric acid powder to the lemon powder.  It was at this point that I thought, hey wait a minute, I thought I ordered citric acid from WillPowders.net, but now I'm not so sure, and where did I put that box when I was moving stuff around, and now I can't even get to that other little storage area unless I move a bunch of other things and get out my step ladder, and I need to figure this out in the next 15 seconds or I am going to BLOW A GASKET here because I can't have screwed up TWO powders in this dish, one was enough, and HEY, maybe there's citric acid in the box that Grant sent, and lo and behold there WAS and all was right with the world.

So I mixed in a wee bit of citric acid to the lemon powder, and it was almost better than world peace.

I sliced a banana really thin and let the skate drain a bit of the butter onto some parchment for a minute while I plated everything else.

I started with the powders.  Just a small pile of each (used half an espresso spoon's worth of each), then swirled them as the book suggests.  They didn't turn out in exactly the concentric circles they were supposed to be, but COME ON PEOPLE, I suck at art and drawing and stuff, so cut me some slack.

Next, I gently overlapped three slices of banana onto the other side of the plate, topped them with green beans, then dunked a side of the cooked skate into the dried banana powder before laying the skate over the green bean-banana pile.

Here's what mine looked like:

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And here's a closer-up shot:

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Now, here's the thing.

If you had called to invite me over for a meal and said, "Hey, Carol, how 'bout you come over for dinner?  We're having poached fish with bananas and green beans," I might have replied, "Are you kidding me?  Do you live in a nursing home?  What is UP with that combination?"

Honestly, at first glance, I was prepared to not like this one bit.  Texturally, the idea of bananas and fish mushing around in my mouth was not the epitome of gastronomic delight.  Having a swirl of powders nearby seemed a little floofy (I know that's not a word; work with me here), and I really thought it was going to be annoying.

I was happy to be proven wrong, my friends.

I invited my neighbors over to try this.  The two boys tasted the powders first to see what they were like and made all sorts of faces and gagging noises, and then got huge glasses of water to chase it.  Because I have a one-bite rule in my house, we all tried one bite on the fork -- a little fish, some banana, a few green bean pieces, and a touch of the pwder mixture, and you know what?  I loved it.  I cleaned my plate.  The other grownups didn't hate it, but the kids grimaced as they chewed, swallowed, then got another glass of water.  Not their favorite, I guess.  Oh well.

The powders, on their own, are overpowering.  But when mixed with everything else, they just pop, and the flavor profile of this dish is spot-on.  The fish was cooked to perfection (yay, me), and everything was really, really good.

It's been interesting to have the same people who ate all my French Laundry at Home creations taste these dishes.  This is a different experience with different flavors and different executions, and in some ways, a different way of cooking and presentation.  One is not better than the other, and one isn't easier than the other.  They're just different.  Cooking from The French Laundry Cookbook was a challenge because it strengthened the skills I knew needed to work on, and also taught me new ones.  Cooking from the Alinea cookbook is a challenge for me because it's all about innovation and change -- things I embrace in theory bot personally and professionally, but, like most people, too often keep at arm's length.  We're all naturally more comfortable with the familiar, whether food, a neighborhood, a commute, a job, our schedule, or our hobbies.  But even in the short time I've been cooking from this book, I've found it pushes my boundaries in different ways and teaches me new things I didn't know I needed to learn but am grateful for having done so.

My friend and colleague, Michael, reads this blog (hi!) and he told me a few weeks ago in an email that his grandmother always said, "if you can read, then you can cook."  No truer words, really.  So, if the Alinea cookbook finds its way to your house this holiday season, I hope you'll take the time to not only read it and appreciate the enormous amount of work that went into it, but also be willing to take a leap of faith and try one of them... and report back to me upon having done so, because I want to hear how it went.  Ten bucks says YOU won't burn YOUR brown butter powder.  Even if Grant is staring you down from the book jacket flap.

Happy New Year, everybody.



Up Next:  Probably Oysters, but maybe foie gras.

Resources: Skate wing from BlackSalt fish market; 365 organic capers; lemons, banana, and green beans from Whole Foods; parsley from my garden (sadly, the last batch of the year); 365 organic butter; citric acid and spray-dried cream powder from Alinea's Postmodern Pantry. 

Music to Cook By: I used to subscribe to an inordinate number of podcasts. Seriously, like over 200 of them.  Couldn't keep up AT ALL, so I deleted them all and started over.  I'm down to about 10 of them now and it's still too many. I had a serious logjam this month, so I decided instead of cooking to music this week, I'd just listen to my podcasts and clear them all out. Here's what's on my list, and of course, there were multiple "episodes" (or whatever the heck they're called) of each, but this is what's on my list right now: KCRW Good Food, Splendid Table, NPR Food, KCRW Martini Shot, KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic, KCRW The Business, KCRW Top Tune, NPR Hidden Kitchen, NPR Story of the Day, NPR Driveway Moments, and the now-defunct Ricky Gervais Show.

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