Spring

July 11, 2009

Lamb, akudjura, olive, eucalyptus veil

Last year at this time, I was learning how to break down a whole baby lamb and cook its various parts.

So, when I got ready to make this dish, I was all, "ppssshhhffttt, I could do this blindfolded, with both hands tied behind my back, and it's going to be really boring, and...... wait....... maybe not boring, because I get to use my IMMERSION CIRCULATOR!!!  WHOOOT!!!!"  And then I imaginarily did 647 vodka shots because ONLY Sandra Lee whoots out loud like that, and we all know girlfriend is knockin' 'em back on her show.

[And now I have to go stab myself and dump the contents of a taco seasoning packet into the wounds because the words Sandra and Lee have appeared on the same page as the word Alinea, and I think I just felt the earth crack open, ready to swallow me whole.]

Alright, where were we?

Ah yes, the immersion circulator.  That I got from some hack.  HA!  I AM KIDDING.  I did not get my immersion circulator from some hack.  Far from it, actually.  I got my immersion circulator from someone I greatly admire, and who put it to good use, but was ready to get rid of it since his new restaurant venture leaned more in the direction of burgers over an open flame than it did cooking them sous vide.

Any idea who I'm talking about?

Will this clue help?

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Yep, it's Chef Richard Blais, most notably from Top Chef (season 4, and more recently helping that buttsocket, Hosea, win this past season -- which we all know wouldn't have happened without Blais' help, so I prefer to think of Blais as last season's winner).

But, again, I digress.

So yeah, Blais was getting rid of some equipment and I was more than happy to take the immersion circulator off his hands.  I'd already experimented with sous vide cooking in French Laundry at Home with the roulade of duck and just figured for the sous vide stuff for the Alinea cookbook, I'd do the same thing -- tightly wrap the meat and regulate the temperature of water in a big stockpot.  It's not hard.

But the immersion circulator?  Made this dish really easy.  And, who doesn't love playing with fun, sciencey kitchen equipment?

But before we get to the meat (ha!) of this post, let's start off with something I actually love to eat, and love to prep, but hate to cook: fava beans.

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I love to eat them because they're damn good.  I love to prep them because it involves not just opening each pod and plucking out the beans encased inside, but also using a paring knife to remove each bean's outer fibrous layer.  I find it soothing and relaxing to do this.  There is probably something in the DSM-IV related to my enjoyment of this process, but I don't care.  I love doing it.

What I don't love about favas is that they smell like feet as they cook.  Really stinky, sweaty, homeless person feet.  That part I could do without.

I needed 250g of favas for this dish -- and that's favas that are already shelled and peeled, so I estimated that 3 lbs. of beans (still in their pods) would yield the 250g (8.8 oz.) I'd need.  Was I right?

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I AM RAIN MAN!

[I am sort of scaring myself with this odd ability to guess and measure things WITH MY MIND and be eerily accurate quite a bit of the time.]

I brought water and salt to a boil and cooked those little guys for about 4 minutes, until they were tender.  I also gagged and gorked and blarked and flearghed the whole time, because of the stinkyhomelessfeetandalsomaybefarts smell. 


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I cooled them in a bowl of ice water....

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... which removed the staaaannnnk, and then put them in the food processor with a little salt and olive oil and puréed them until they were smooth:

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I strained the purée through my chinois into a bowl, then into a squeeze bottle, which went into the fridge until it was time to plate.

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The next thing I did was make the akudjura powder for the panade.  I had lunch with Judy Shertzer, the head of Terra Spice (btw, they're supplying the specialty ingredients of this kind for Top Chef Masters), when I was in Chicago in May, and she was kind enough to bring me a bag of these lovely little dried Australian bush tomatoes.

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Thanks, Judy!

I ground a little over 50g of them in my coffe bean/spice grinder until they were as close to powder as they were going to get:


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I suppose I could've sifted them through a sifter or wire mesh strainer to get a really fine powder, but since I was going to use gluten-free bread instead of brioche to make the panade, I thought I'd keep the powder the way it was -- I figured, the more substance and heft to the panade, the better, since I didn't know what impact the gluten-free bread might have on the outcome of the finished product.  (not to be all foreshadowy, but it was the right decision)

Here's the bread (crusts removed) just prior to going into the food processor:

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I used gluten-free sandwich bread from Whole Foods (their Gluten-Free Bakehouse products have, so far, been acceptable substitutes for my being able to make breadcrumbs -- the bread on its own, even as toast, is not enjoyable in the least).

I put those slices into the food processor along with some butter, salt, and the akudjura powder and whacked it around until it was fully incorporated:

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I poured the mixture onto a piece of parchment, which I topped with another piece of parchment, then used a rolling pin to gently roll it to a quarter-inch thickness:

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I put it in the freezer to harden (which took all of 30 minutes) and moved onto the lamb:

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I removed the bone from the lamb, trimmed away all the fat and silverskin, separated the tenderloin from the loin (cooked that separately, which you'll see later, and now that I think about it, it's one of the last special treats Jakey had from my kitchen.  :(   That, and some orange American cheese -- his favorite food in the whole world.  :)   )

I don't have a Cryovac machine or commercial pressure sealer, because I would rather spend that $10,000 on a vacation than a giant metal box that would take up half my kitchen.  And, I know from my brief time listening to Thomas Keller talk about sous vide cooking when he launched Under Pressure, that FoodSavers are not the way to go (they suck out moisture as well as air), so I decided to kick it old school and just put the lamb and olive oil in a ziploc bag and did my dingdangdiddliest to get all the air out by hand.  In retrospect, I should've laid this on plastic wrap and done the twisty-twirly-spinny-in-the-air technique (which, I'm sure, is what all the professionals say when describing this method.  Except not.) to seal it tight.  But this way worked pretty well.

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I'd already filled a restaurant food storage bin with water, hooked up the immersion circulator, turned it on, and set the thermostat to 57 degrees Celsius so that it'd be all nice and warm by the time I was done getting the lamb ready:

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You guys, I never thought I'd be the kind of girl who would get all amped up over a thermal circulator, but here we are.  I LOVE THIS THING!  Now, I will say this: doing a whole blog on sous vide cooking?  Snooze.  At least for me.  I can't imagine photo after photo of stuff being put into bags, then plunked into water, where nothing having to do with any of our senses happens.  BORING.  No change in smell, look, taste, touch, or hearing.  Taste being a given, I love that I can tell when something's done, or nearly done, by the way it sounds in a pan, or smells in the oven, or looks like while being blanched, or by touch when it's still on the grill.  It's something I'm so proud to have learned or cultivated in myself, I don't know that there are words to describe how big an accomplishment it is for me to let go, not rely on recipes for my everyday cooking and entertaining, and just trust in my senses to tell me when the food is ready.

So yeah.  A whole blog of photo after photo of food in bags submerged in water?  Not for me.

But, cooking that way at home every now and then?  Absolutely.  And in restaurants quite a bit of the time?  Yes, please.  Especially if the restaurant name rhymes with Schmer Se.  Or Schmitty Zen.  Or Schmalinea. 

Alright.... back to the lamby-lamb doing its sous vide thang.....


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You'll see the temperature dropped a few degrees when I put the cold bags of lamb into the water:


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As you can see, there were a few air bubbles still in there (dangit!), which caused the lamb to float to the top every now and then, but I stood nearby to push it back down to make sure it was fully submerged for 20 minutes to cook.

After its 20 minutes were up, I put the lamb (as well as the separate bag of the tenderloin I was doing at the same time, which you might barely see on the far right of the above photo) into a bowl of ice water to stop the meat from cooking.

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After 10 minutes of cooling, I took the lamb out of the bag and patted it dry:

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Still looks kinda raw, huh?  It's not.  It's cooked to medium-rare (yummmmmmmmmm).

I cut the lamb into eight 15g cubes:

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And, I snacked on the trimmings and tenderloin, sharing them with a certain weiner dog.  Delicious.

Next up? Halving the already-pitted (thanks, Whole Foods!) niçoise olives:

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I snacked on a few of those, too.

You may recall my efforts a few months ago to find magnolia, I MEAN EUCALYPTUS, for a previous dish for this blog.  Having learned that important botany lesson, back in early May, I happened upon a little eucalyptus plant in the herb section at Behnke's, my local nursery.  It was the last one remaining in the tray, so I snapped that sucker up and brought it home because I knew I'd need fresh eucalyptus for this dish, and I didn't want to create another Great Tree Misidentification Dust-up With My Mom.

So, I figured that little plant would have time and time and more time and even more time to grow and become big and huge in the two months before I neeed it for this dish.


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So, that didn't happen.

Stupid plant.  It stayed the same size.  Maybe sprouted 4 or 5 new leaves.  Dick.

Eucalyptus HATES ME.

Regardless, I took out my anger and frustrating by plucking a few leaves (a few days after which, the whole plant DIED, so I WIN) and placing them on the baking sheet with the olive oil-, salt-, and pepper-rubbed cubes of lamb -- each topped with a small square of the akudjura panade.  I also dropped a few drops of eucalyptus oil onto each leaf, figuring the heat from the broiler might help release some sort of fragrance -- which was the whole point of the eucalyptus inclusion anyway -- hence the "eucalyptus veil" in the title of this dish.

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I slid the tray into the oven, under the broiler, for 30-45 seconds.  The panade had just begun to brown, and the lamb and eucalyptus smells had ripened (if that makes sense. flourished? blossomed? opened up? know what I mean?) when I pulled them out.

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I topped each one with an olive half, put each bite onto a spoon (onto which I'd already squirted some of the fava bean purée -- which I bet you'd forgotten about, hadn't you. Shame!), and called the neighbors to come on over and taste these lovely vittles:

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I wish you guys could've tasted this.

The tenderest of lamb.  The toasty, slightly bitter creaminess of the akudjura panade.  The smooth, almost cashmere-like feel and earthy, green, fresh taste of the fava purée.  The *ping!* of the olive. 

It made me wish I hadn't called my friends, because I could've eaten all eight of these suckers myself.  But then I would've gotten a phone call from Linda or Holly, saying, "HEY! There's a post on your blog about something I DIDN'T GET TO EAT AND WHAT IS UP WITH THAT?"

I'd like to play around with creating a sort of entree-ish version of this, because it was really, really good and I think it'd be something people would like.

As I chewed, I summoned my very fond memories of brioche (oh, how I miss regular, gluten-filled bread) and wondered what the panade would've tasted like with that thick, eggy, amazing bread.  Nevertheless, this version of it was damn good.  Damn good, indeed.  Wish you'd been here....


Up Next:  Croquette, smoked steelhead roe, endive, radish

Resources: Lamb, niçoise olives, and gluten-free bread from Whole Foods; Monini olive oil; David's kosher salt; 365 butter; akudjura tomatoes from Terra Spice Company; fava beans from Glenville Hollow Farms at the Takoma Park Farmer's Market; eucalyptus from my garden (via Behnke's); eucalyptus oil from the TPSS Co-op.

Music to Cook By: While I peeled the favas: nothing but silence. The rest of the time: The Ting Tings; assorted.  I'm sort of addicted to So You Think You Can Dance, and one of the audition callback routines was choreographed to a remix of The Ting Tings "Great DJ" so I'm getting to know The Ting Tings.  And I like what I hear.

Read My Previous Post: Surf Clam, nasturtium leaf and flower, shallot marmalade

July 06, 2009

Surf Clam, nasturtium leaf and flower, shallot marmalade

Wow.  You guys... just, wow.  Thank you so much for the outpouring of support and kindness about Jake.  It has helped so much to hear from so many of you, and my parents are appreciative, as well (Jake stayed with them when I traveled, which was quite often, so he was their dog, too).  So, thank you.... thank you so very much.

*   *   *   *   *

My family and I spent time on the southern New Jersey shore every summer, and when I was a kid, to take a break from all the sitting and tanning and trying to figure out how to make Donny Osmond my boyfriend, we'd take walks on the beach.  Without fail, hard clam and surf clam shells littered the shoreline, especially along the foamy tide line just after a storm.  I'd fill up my trusty little plastic bucket with the shells, take them down to the water's edge and rinse them off so I could take them back home to Pennsylvania.  Sometimes, my friends and I would glue googly eyes and pipe cleaners (a smiley-faced mouth) on the rough side of the shell and use them as paperweights.  Other times, I'd leave them as is and just sit them atop my dresser or desk, and have a year-round reminder of the beach (one of my most favorite places in the world). 

Living so close to a coastal region, I grew up eating clams (because who doesn't love fried clam strips and fries in a basket!), and love them even more as an adult.  Now that I think about it, I rarely order them in restaurants and only make them at home a few times a year, but I so love their taste and texture.  I love eating them freshly steamed open, just out of the pot... with white wine, garlic, shallots, and thyme wafting about as I devour them.  I love them with pasta, a little olive oil and garlic, and parmigiano-reggiano.  And clams casino (minus the bell pepper)?  LOVE.  Suffice to say, I would be very, very sad if my life could not include clams.  And, I love that I can sashay down to Blacksalt on a moment's notice to pick up fresh littlenecks whenever I want them.

Surf clams, on the other hand, are not part of Blacksalt's regular order.  So, after a quick email exchange with a certain Chicago chef (who just landed a sweet book deal, btw) on the merits of Pacific vs. Atlantic surf clams, I emailed Scott with my request (Atlantic, please) and within days I had my surf clams:

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I can't talk enough about how important it is to get to know the people who procure your food.  Because, not only are they usually really fun and interesting people, and not only do they make sure you get the best stuff they have, but they also take care of you in other ways -- like shucking your clams for you and separating what you need from the junky bits you can throw into a chowder later on:

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The hunks of clam in the foreground are what I used for this dish.  The bits in the plastic container ended up in a ziploc bag that promptly went into the freezer for what ended up being impromptu linguine and clams this past weekend with friends (my serving was made with Bionaturae gluten-free penne, and it was really, really good).

I got to work on the surf clams first, because I wanted to prep them while they were still so fresh.  I laid them out on a cutting board (they looked like pounded chicken breasts!), trimmed them a bit, and then cut them into (sort of) squares. 

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Per the book's instructions, I made several slits in one end of each clam so that they could be spread into a fan-like shape in the final plating.

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I stored them in a deli container with canola oil, salt, and pepper, and refrigerated them until I was ready to grill them just before serving.

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With the clam prep out of the way, I started the lemon pudding.  If you have the Alinea cookbook, you'll see the photo of this dish on page 56 -- and the lovely yellow blob of something on the fork, but no recipe for it on the opposing page.  In an email to me of the cookbook's errata before I started this blog, Grant noted that I'd need to follow the Lemon Pudding recipe on Page 269 (part of a Salsify dish).  So, I did.  And so should you, should you choose to make this.

In a medium-sized saucepan, I brought water, salt, sugar, saffron, and lemon zest to a boil.  Now, one of the sometimes-pesky things about using a cookbook that uses weight measurements is that I had no idea how many lemons it might take to yield the required 6g of lemon zest (I guessed 2) as well as the 250g of lemon juice I'd also need (I guessed six).  I was able to get the 6g of lemon zest from one-and-a-half lemons, and it took all six lemons I'd bought to give me the 250g of juice (it actually yielded 260g, so I wasn't that far off!).

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I brought it to a boil, and then turned off the flame, covered the pan, and let the mixture steep for 20 minutes.


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After steeping (during which time, the color intensified, for sure), I strained the liquid through a chinois into a clean saucepan, added the agar agar and brought it to a boil, whisking like a maniac while it boiled for about a minute and a half:

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I poured it through the chinois into a sauté pan, which I'd set in a baking dish full of ice water so it could cool and set (which took about 40 minutes):


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I scooped out the lemon gel and put it, along with the lemon juice, into my food processor and blended the heck out of it until it was smooth:

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I pushed it through my chinois and stored it in a squeeze bottle in the refrigerator until I was ready to begin plating.

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This is the point where I should confess: I really don't like lemon.  If I had to be stuck with one citrus fruit the rest of my life, it would be limes.  Oranges place a distant second.  Grapefruit doesn't even rank, I detest it so much.  But, I've never been a fan of lemon.  It's too sharp, and I really don't like the taste or smell of it at all.  I get really, and probably quite unnecessarily, ticked off and annoyed when restaurants automatically add lemon slices to their water, or jam a lemon wedge onto the glass.  Because.  Lemon.  Is.  TOUCHING MY WATER.   AAAUUUUGHGGHGHGRHRHGHGHGHHGHGH!!!!!!!!!  Stupid slimy lemon seeds and pulp.  Stupid lemon taste.  DO. NOT.  LIKE.  I mean, why not just spray a can of Pledge into my mouth.  Or Mr. Clean.  IT'S THE SAME THING.

However, the smell of this lemon-saffron pudding intrigued me.  And by "intrigued," I mean it didn't make me want to stab anyone.  I didn't want to taste it on its own, though, because I didn't want to hate it, and therefore have it cloud my opinion of the bite when I tasted everything together.  So, I just took a small whiff of it and stowed it away... silently cursing its lemonosity.

Two more elements to make -- and this one I knew was gonna be good: nasturtium leaf soup.  Before I get to the nasturtium part, though, let me show off my potato-measurement guessing skillz.  I needed 250g (8.8 oz.) of Yukon Gold potatoes.  I held potato after potato in my hand at the grocery store... trying different combinations to see what felt like it might've been just over a half a pound.  I didn't cheat and use the scale in the produce section -- I wanted to see if I could nail it on my own.  Check this shizz:

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Not bad, eh? 

I peeled and sliced the potato into half-inch slices and put the slices into a saucepan with water, half-and-half, and salt.  I brought it to a simmer and cooked the mixture for about 8 minutes (when the potatoes were tender):

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While the potatoes were simmering, I went outside to the flower pots on my front "stoop" (it's not really a stoop, but it sounds odd to describe the flower pots huddled along the edges of the wider part of my brick walk along the front porch) to bring in all the nasturtium leaves I could muster.

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I needed 150g of nasturtium leaves, and only ended up having 50g, but I knew it wouldn't be that big a deal, so I shed not one tear as I threw them into the food processor (after having washed and spun them dry) along with the potato mixture:

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I blended this mixture for about two minutes, then began adding ice cubes.  The recipe called for 150g of ice cubes, but since I'd only put in 50g of nasturtium leaves, I only added 50g of ice cubes.  I blended and blended until the sounds of ice cubes being broken up and whacked around had subsided, and poured it through a chinois, creating one big, green, liquidy, potato-smellingy bowl of wow:

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I let it cool in a bowl nestled in another bowl of ice, so that it could cool off enough before I put it in the refrigerator to wait for its final plating.

Last element of this dish is a shallot-cucumber marmalade.  Its title alone made me drool in anticipation.  I love shallots; I love cucumbers -- how could this NOT be good?

Another example of my weight-guessing skillz below (I needed 185g of shallots), and what did I bring home from the store?

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Maybe I need to call this blog Rain Man at Home, because I'm starting to scare myself.

I peeled and diced those shallots, and put them in a saucepan with some butter, water, white wine vinegar, sugar, and salt, and brought it to a simmer.

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I simmered it over low-medium heat for 45 minutes until the ingredients had cooked down and the liquid had evaporated, and it looked like this:

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I could barely leave the kitchen the whole time this was cooking because it smelled soooooooo good.  Shallots are one of my favorite ingredients of all time, and I love watching (and smelling) them caramelize and cook.

I spread the shallot mixture onto a sheet pan and put it in the refrigerator to cool fully (took about an hour):

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When the shallots were fully chilled, I peeled, quartered, and seeded an English cucumber (the book didn't specify an English cucumber, but I almost always have one on hand, so it's what I used):


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I diced it, and stirred the cucumber dice with the shallot mixture, and this was the end result:


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It was all I could do to not eat this entire bowlful all in one go.  Sweet, cool, crisp, marmalade-y, onion-y, pointy, smooth, aromatic... summer.  I was imagining all the different kinds of food I could serve this with, and then realized I'd been daydreaming for a good 20 minutes.  About shallot-cucumber marmalade.  Seriously.  It's that good.  If you have the book, turn to page 57 and make this immediately.  This is one of those staples I want to have in my fridge at all times.

With all the elements of the dish ready to go, I called my neighbors and gave them the five-minute warning.  Then, I began plating.... or, mini-souffle-dishing and spooning.

In the little bowls, you'll see the nasturtium soup.  On the spoon is a blob of lemon pudding and a little bit of shallot-cucumber marmalade:

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On top of the lemon pudding and marmalade, I laid a very small nasturtium leaf, and a nasturtium flower petal:


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Then, I threw the surf clams onto the stove-top grill pan.  Alert: some not-prettiness ahead.  But I think I fixed it in the final plating:

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They ended up being too big for the spoon (which I knew would be the case, but knew I could work around it), so I did some post-cooking trimming, and put more a appropriately sized clam piece onto each spoon as the final step before tasting them:

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Now, apart from the one clam piece that looks like a decaying tooth (I ate that one so that no one else would be grossed out by looking at it), they look pretty nice, don't they?  Each of us slid the spoon's elements into our mouths at the same time, and it was fun to hear, "whoa, lemon" and "what's crunchy?" and "ooooo, cucumber" and "oohhh, clam" as we chewed.  Then, we ate the nasturtium soup (which I got out of the fridge about a half-hour before serving, so it was closer to room temperature, which I prefer).  Overall, this got a big thumbs up, and was a big crowd pleaser among the adults.  The kids liked the clam part, but not the soup.  We all loved the clams so much that, after we'd eaten this dish, we stood around the cutting board picking like vultures at the leftover pieces I hadn't used.  Makes me think I'll just grill the surf clams on their own next time, and know it'll make a great cocktail hour snack on a Friday afternoon.

I loved the way the softness of the nasturtium was sort of like a calming, almost felt (material)-like backdrop for the marmalade and lemon pudding to really showcase the clam.  The clam had the most amazing clammy taste -- like, you know how you really taste clams in your nose (moreso that other bivalves)?  But it wasn't overpowering.  It was the perfect level of clamness... and the textures were layered nicely together.  And, get this: I didn't hate the lemon pudding.  In fact, I actually kind of liked it.  I will give MOST of the credit to the saffron, because.... well.... because I want to.  (Stupid lemon.)  My neighbor, Holly, loved the lemon pudding so much that she took the rest of it home with her, and brought back the empty bottle a few days later.  I think she and her daughter took turns squirting it onto a spoon and having little snacks of it. 

I polished off the rest of the shallot-cucumber marmalade that night before bed, which, *urp*, may not have been a good idea from a timing perspective, but whatevs.  I've since made another batch, and I eat it on everything: sausages, a slice of gouda, toast with cream cheese... and sometimes just on its own when I need to eat something and stare out the kitchen window to clear my head.

I really loved this dish, and I'm so glad it reminded me again how much I love clams. In fact, I think I'll order some more and make them this weekend.

And, you know what I just realized?  The completion of this dish heralds the one-quarter-of-the-way-through-the-book milestone.  I've done 28 out of 107 dishes.  Fancy that.

Up Next: Lamb, akudjura, olive, eucalyptus veil

Resources: Clams from Blacksalt; nasturtium from my garden (courtesy of Behnkes); potatoes, shallots, and cucumber from Whole Foods; Organic Valley cream; Terra Medi white wine vinegar.

Music to Cook By: Invincible Soundtrack; various artists.  So, here's the thing.  In the summertime, I think about the beach.  My friends at the beach are Phillies fans, as am I.  When I think about the Phillies, I think about the Eagles (the football team, not that Don Henley combo).  And then, I think about Vince Papale.  And then, I think about "Invincible."  And Marky Mark.  And that scene where he's playing a pick-up game with his friends, and it's raning, and his t-shirt is all, well, clingy and awesome because, hello, he's Marky Mark. And then, I have to listen to this soundtrack again and again, because it really was one of the best-scored (soundtracked?) movies, for me, in the past 10 years.  And, did I mention Marky Mark?  And his shirt???  Sigh.....

Read My Previous Post: PB&J, peanut, bread, grape


June 18, 2009

PB&J, peanut, bread, grape

If I've done my math correctly, I have eaten approximately 10,392 peanut butter sandwiches in my lifetime.  Maybe even more than that.  In contrast, I have eaten, maybe, 50 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Try as I might, I never really loved PB&J.  I simply loved the taste of plain old peanut butter on bread with nothing sweet to muck it up.  Still do.

Growing up, there was nothing better than Jif creamy peanut butter in between two slices of white, Holsum or Sunbeam bread, crusts on, cut diagonally, the knife pinching the bread on the hypotenuse of each half.  I ate one nearly every day for lunch for years as a kid; and, when I was fresh out of college and making my paltry salary of $17,000/year, I lived on peanut butter sandwiches and Safeway brand macaroni and cheese for quite a long time.  If I did ever add jelly to my peanut butter sandwich, it was always Welch's grape jelly because it was the least sweet of all the options, and there was just something uplifting about eating something so purple when you're poor.  I can't explain it.  It was a little color to brighten up the day.

But I never really liked peanut butter and jelly together (except in this iteration, which I love), and now that I don't really eat bread anymore (gluten-free bread just isn't the same, I don't care what anybody says), I've relegated myself to just eating peanut butter off the spoon -- which isn't a bad thing at all.  However, I can't stand the taste of Jif anymore (it tastes plastic to me), and I've become addicted to the grind-it-yourself peanut butter at Whole Foods, as well as the salty, creamy peanut butter available in big vats at the local co-op.  Why I didn't just buy those silky, delicious peanut butters for this dish instead of trying to make my own I'll never know, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I knew this dish might be a challenge on a couple of fronts, and while I knew I could make it taste good, I was also pretty sure there was a strong chance my version of it could end up being one of the uglier dishes of my lifetime because of some executive decisions I'd probably have to make in the bread department.

And, away we go....

The first thing I did was separate the 3 pounds of grapes I bought, and cut small sections, remove all but one grape (which is left attached to the stem), and then peel that one grape.  Yes, it's laborious.  Yes, you're left with a buttload of grapes you either need to eat right away, throw into sangria, or put in a ziploc in the freezer (what I did) and use them as ice cubes all summer long:


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Grapes can be so pretty... until you peel them, and then they look like gouged-out eyeballs:


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They look kind of gross, don't they.   It reminds me of when I was a kid and my older cousins set up a haunted house one Halloween in my grandmother's basement.  They peeled grapes (eyeballs) and made a bowl of cold spaghetti (intestines), and I very clearly remember them blindfolding us and making me be the first one to get "grossed out."  I could hear them snickering as they said, in what they thought were really scary voices, "aaaannnndd, noooowwwwww.... I will place some eyebaaalllllls in your haaaaaaannd...."  To which I replied as I held them, "yeah right, those are grapes, you dummies."  So, I totally ruined it for all the younger cousins since they were standing right there.  And from that point forward, I associated grapes with eyeballs.

So, with the peeled grapes done, it was time to make the peanut butter.  I toasted the peanuts on a sheet tray in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes.

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I measured out 240g of peanuts and put them in a blender with the roasted peanut oil (which smells amazing), water, and salt, then blended until smooth.  WHICH NEVER HAPPENED.  I know I have a crap blender, but COME ON.  No matter how many times I stopped the blender to push down the peanut butter, it wouldn't get smooth.  I added a little more oil -- which merely gave me oily clumps.  Not the end result I was going for.

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It was supposed to be smooth enough that you could "dip grapes into peanut butter and place onto prepared sheet tray."  Ain't no dippin' goin' on up in here.  I debated whether or not to just hop in the car and go buy some of the unctuous, roasty, delicious peanut butter at the local co-op, but I didn't.  I should have.  Because what I ended up having to do was clump it on with my hands, resulting in what could honestly be referred to as the national dish of Turdistan:

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That ain't right, yo.

I wrapped the stem ends in foil because they need to be protected for the final step in the process, and put the peanut butter-clumped grapes on the tray in the fridge for an hour.

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It's at this point in the book's intstructions where I started to lose it.  And I quote, "Using a rotary cheese grater or Microplane, grind remaining peanuts to fine powder."

Here's how many peanuts were remaining... the very peanuts I was supposed to hold in my fingers as I rubbed each one against a Microplane to make a powder:

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I don't THINK so.

So, I ignored that step completely and took maybe 20 of the peanuts and whacked them up nicely in my coffee bean/spice grinder.  Not really a fine powder, but I also didn't shred my fingertipswith any dang Microplane injuries.  I think the numbers must've been off in the recipe.  I can't imagine why you'd need 485g of peanuts when you use 240g in the peanut butter, leaving you with 245g of peanuts for powder? That you only use for a light dusting? For 12 servings?  Hmmmmmm..... Has to be a typo in there somewhere.

Next up? The bread.  I bought a baguette at Whole Foods and put it in the freezer the day before so that it would be ready for thin slicing on the mandoline (the book suggests using a meat slicer, which I don't have). 

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I don't have any photos of the aftermath of trying to slice this on the mandoline, but trust me when I tell you, it did not go well.  Things weren't slicing... they weren't even shaving.  Pieces were breaking off, and it just wasn't happening.  So, I made the executive decision to do with this bread what I'd already done with a few slices of gluten-free bread for my servings of this dish -- I made bread crumbs. 

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I was bummed that it came to this because the photo of this bite on page 119 of the Alinea cookbook looks really cool with the thin slice of baguette wrapped around it... but I already knew I wasn't going to be serving it in the squid serving piece, so I figured I'd make the best of it and at least focus on it tasting good.

I brought the tray of peanut butter-clumped grapes out of the fridge and glommed on bread crumbs -- gluten-free crumbs on four of them I did on a separate baking sheet -- and the regular bread crumbs on the ones for my friends.  I let them rest at room temperature for about 5 minutes, then put them under the broiler for a few seconds -- maybe 15 or so -- until the bread crumbs were toasty and golden brown.


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I removed the foil from the stems and lined them up on a platter, then lightly sprinkled on some of the salted peanut powder I'd made in the spice grinder:


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The ones with gluten-free bread looked exactly the same as the ones with regular bread.  But how did they taste?  Well... they were okay.  Again, the peanut butter wasn't creamy enough for me, and it made it a little hard to fully enjoy because there were some chunks of nuts (despite my best efforts to remove them).  That said, they didn't suck.  The kids liked them, and I liked them, but none of us were blown away by the bite.  Too much bread, too much peanut butter, not enough of a grape-y burst.  The grape part was juicy and nice, but the peanut butter clinging to the roof of my mouth sort of took away from the enjoyment of that part.

I love the idea of this dish, but for me, I'd rather harness the Achatz technological prowess to build a time machine and go back and eat the peanut butter sandwiches of my childhood with a cold glass of milk, in my elementary school cafeteria, with a game of kickball or jumprope right after, and a walk home in the warm sun.  That's PB(&J) to me.


Here's a li'l sum-um-sum-um for ya:  If you feel like procrastinating on the things you're supposed to be doing, feel free to compare this dish to when I made PB&J from The French Laundry Cookbook.

Up Next:  Surf Clam (featuring an appearance by Scott Weinstein, my fishmonger)

Resources: Baguette, grapes, and peanuts from Whole Foods; David's kosher salt; roasted peanut oil from HMart.

Music to Cook By:  Old 97's; Satellite RidesFrom time to time, All the time, I go on movie-watching binges, where I'll watch the same movie day after day because it's on HBO or some other cable channel I feel like I should watch more often to get my money's worth.  Sometimes, that movie is "The Break-Up."  I know, I know. The acting is pretty bad, and the story is trite and annoying, but I just can't help myself.  Sometimes you get sucked into the vortex and you can't tear yourself away four times in as many days.  Ahem.  The one redeeming quality about the movie is its soundtrack, and the inclusion of Dwight Yoakam, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Old 97's.  After getting past the fact that this band uses an apostrophe "s" (indicating possessive) instead of just a regular "s" after the 7 (indicating plural) [a HUGE pet peeve of mine], I actually really liked their music. It's part jazz, part alt-country, a little bit of surf pop, a little Austin, a little Johnny Cash, a little Toronto (not sure why, but that's what it feels like to me)... Anyway, I like 'em.  You might, too.

Read My Previous Post:
Green Almond, sweet, hot, sour, salt

June 12, 2009

Green Almond, sweet, hot, sour, salt

The photograph of this dish on page 77 of the Alinea cookbook is one of my favorite photos in the entire book.  It's elegant in its simplicity and beautifully lit, the texture of the almond against the smooth, cool green of the cucumber gel is lovely, and I love the reflection of the "flavored corners" on the black surface the gelée cube is sitting on.

I also love the flavor profile of this dish, even in just reading the recipe.  I could imagine the fresh cucumber taste, and the heat, sour, salt and sweet.  The only thing I couldn't factor into my imagination about this dish was what the almond would taste like, since I'd never eaten or worked with green (unripened) almonds before.

Before I started this blog, I created a spreadsheet of all the specialty ingredients I'd need for each dish, and began researching when the seasonal ingredients would most likely be available.  Knowing that green almonds aren't exactly native to Maryland soil, I figured I'd have to have them shipped to me, so I found Stewart & Jasper.  I spent some time on the phone with Jason Jasper back in December learning about the different developmental phases of almonds, and figuring out how young I needed my almonds to be.  I knew I didn't want them to be completely gelatinous, but they also couldn't be too hard or crunchy.  He suggested I plan for late April/early May and to stay in touch so we could figure out when they'd be ripe enough.

So, in April, I began speaking with Suzanne at Stewart & Jasper, and each Monday, she'd call with the report after some of their employees had been out picking almonds off the trees and slicing them open: "They're still pretty gel-y" or "not quite there yet" and "maybe next week, but more likely the week after."

Then, one Monday when she said, "we just picked ten pounds for a restaurant in Chicago, and they look perfect" I placed my order.  They sent them overnight, and when the UPS guy delivered the box he asked, "So, whaddya getting today?"  When I told him they were green almonds, he did that squint-smile-cocked-head-what!? thing and just laughed.  The FedEx guy for our neighborhood can barely open his mouth to say "hello" or "good morning," but our UPS guy is always up for a chat, so I told him what I was making and he thought it sounded "pretty cool."  One of these days, I need to time the serving of some of these dishes for when both he and the mailman are in the 'hood because they're part of this whole process, too, and are always interested in what's in all those boxes of goodies that seem to appear every few weeks or so.

This dish was one of the easier ones I've made so far, and took almost no time at all to do.  So, let's walk through it, and maybe you'll want to try it, too... or some variation thereof. 

The first thing I did was quarter and remove the seeds from two English cucumbers:

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Then, I doused myself in patchouli and got out my JuiceDude2000 and put those cucumbers through the juicer:


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[obviously, I am lying about the patchouli part of that earlier sentence.]


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So easy... and again, so grateful to Anita's sister, Patti, for the Juicinator, because going back to the old way with the food processor and the cheesecloth would've landed me in the loony bin.

I measured out 50 grams of cucumber juice (and put the rest in the freezer for variations on a Pimm's Cup later this summer):


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I put five gelatin sheets in a bowl of cold water so they could soak while I slowly heated the cucumber juice over a low flame:

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When the cucumber juice was warmed (not even simmering, just warm to the touch), I took the gelatin sheets out of the bowl, squeezed all the water from them, and put them in the saucepan of warm cucumber juice, whisking until they dissolved.

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I turned off the flame and whisked in the sugar and salt the book called for, and poured a small amount of the liquid into a plastic wrap-lined 6x9" baking dish and put it in the refrigerator to set:

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While it was in the fridge, I got to work on the green almonds:


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Using a paring knife, I cut around them lengthwise to crack them open.  You can feel how far you can cut into them -- the shell has a natural "give" point that prevents you from cutting all the way through the almond.

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After I'd opened eight almonds, I opened a ninth one just to taste it.  Eaten plain, they're sort of a combination -- both texture- and taste-wise -- of fava bean and water chestnut.  Not bland at all, but also not packed full of flavor.  Really subtle, very light, but not empty or dull.

I checked the cucumber gel to see if it was even close to being ready, and after only 12 minutes, it was.  So, I gently laid the almonds on the surface, pressing down on each one just ever-so-lightly, and then poured the rest of the cucmber liquid in.  I put the dish back into the refrigerator to firm up, and it set in 20 minutes.

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I was irked by the air bubbles on top, but when I looked even closer at the photo of this in the Alinea cookbook, I saw there were bubbles on the surface of theirs, too, so I then tried to do some revisionist history in my head and pretend that I meant it to look like that.  Sometimes, I exhaust myself.

I removed the block of almonds and gel from the dish, lifting it out using the Saran Wrap, and put it on a cutting board to begin cutting it into serving-size rectangles:

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I cut it lengthwise, first, then cut in between each almond, allowing enough space in between each one for further trimming:

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While I had them on the cutting board, I added the seasoning -- sweet (raw sugar), hot (cayenne pepper), sour (citric acid), and salt (um, salt) -- one in each of the four corners:

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Using a small offset spatula, I lifted each one and put them on individual spoons for serving:

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I carried them across the street to my friend, Linda's, house for our Friday afternoon cocktails.  Linda, Holly, and I each picked up a spoon and took a bite.  Either Linda's had too much cayenne pepper or she's a GIANT WUSS because she couldn't handle the heat.  I, on the other hand, really LOVED the heat -- which is strange for me, because typically, any amount of cayenne pepper will "burn" my entire palate and I won't be able to taste anything else for hours, sometimes even the rest of the day.  But, as I'm noticing a shift in my food allergies/sensitivities over the past few months, this seems to be less of a problem as of late.  I didn't even mind the texture of the cucumber gel (I know, I'm all growns up!).

It's wild, how when you put the spoon in your mouth and slide it back out leaving the bite on your tongue, how the flavors unfold.  The cucumber and almond are a mild, cool backdrop with some nice texture, and then as you chew, the heat hit me first, then was rounded out by the sweet just at the time the sour went up into my sinuses, and then the salt kind of smoothed everything over -- all in, like, three seconds. 

So, how good was it?  There were eight servings overall: Holly ate one; Linda ate one; Linda's husband, Sean, ate one; their son, Grant, had one.  I ate the other four.  Oh yes, I did, all while enjoying a bottle of Turley Zinfandel and some gorgeous cheeses (a camembert, a brie, and a smoked gouda).

I love Friday afternoons...

So, what did I do with the rest of the box full of green almonds?  Well, I used them as my nut base (*snerk* /12) for some garlic scape pesto and it ended up tasting better than using ripe almonds, pine nuts, walnuts or pecans.  Tossed it with some pasta and some more parm-reg, and had a great lunch the next day.


Up Next: PB&J

Resources: Gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie; English cucumbers from Whole Foods, Domino sugar, David's kosher salt, green almonds from Stewart and Jasper; 365 raw sugar; cayenne pepper and sea salt from Adriana's Caravan; citric acid from L'Epicerie.

Music to Cook By: Green Day; 21st Century Breakdown.  If this doesn't win a Grammy for Album of the Year, I am gonna punch someone in the nads.  I was so so so lucky to get this via a friend in the business a few days before it came out, and I haven't been able to stop listening to it since then.... which means I'm totally gonna be the annoying old fart who sings along with every song when I take my neighbor's kids to see Green Day in concert later this summer.  This album feels more like "Dookie," which I absolutely loved, and it's just full of great writing and instrumentation, and it's awesome for drumming in the car (especially "Do You Know Your Enemy," "The Static Age," and "East Jesus Nowhere") which is important criteria every album, should meet, right?

Read My Previous Post: My Dinner at Alinea, Part Two



April 11, 2009

Verjus, lemon thyme, beets, olive oil

This post is proof positive that I belong far, far away from the Alinea kitchen.  In fact, when you see the photos at the end, you'll say, "Carol, why in the world did you not continue in your undergrad pre-med program, because you clearly have a knack for creating things that look as if they belong in a post-op medical waste container?"

Guys, it's bad.  Really bad.

I mean, it tasted GREAT.... but my technical difficulties contributed to what ended up looking like some sort of ... well.... you'll see for yourself.  None of these steps were all that difficult, I swear.  It's just that when you screw up one or two of them, it definitely and quite clearly has an impact on the end result.  But, let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Let's savor the journey, so we all can be reminded why SOME people are better suited to PR/media/lobbying jobs while others clearly belong in professional kitchens.

First step? Bringing the verjus and sugar to a boil, whisking to dissolve the sugar.  Then, after letting it cool to room temp, pouring it into a sheet pan and putting it in the freezer.


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It took about 3 hours to freeze solid.

While that was in the freezer, I started on the beet juice spheres.  Instead of actually juicing the beets myself, I relied on my old standby of bottled Biotta beet juice.  I added calcium lactate to it, and blended it with my immersion blender:


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I poured the liquid into two squeeze bottles (it ended up being way more than I needed) and then filled my spherical molds with the beet liquid:

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I put that mold into the freezer, also for three hours.

So, those two things were easy, weren't they?  I bet you think the lemon thyme infusion is where everything gets fakokted, BUT NO, IT IS NOT.  I rocked the lemon thyme infusion because, really, how hard is it to pour boiling water over a bunch of fresh lemon thyme and let it steep for 20 minutes then strain it into a pitcher?


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It was all I could do not to hold my face over that bowl for the whole 20 minutes of steeping and steam my pores and clear out my sinuses.  It smelled amazing, and with the way this spring's pollen is already wreaking havoc on my nasal passages, it was tempting... until I realized that it probably wasn't all that hygienic a thing to do, so I restrained myself.  But I think I'll make this infusion again soon and pour it into a nearly full bath tub for a Friday night soak.  Glass of wine, some good music, and a lemon thyme bath.  Alinea, take me away!

Now, here comes something I know I didn't do properly -- and that's making the lemon thyme foam.  It pisses me off because I've made foam before, and it's really not that hard, I swear.  It's a great party trick, and people will think you're a total smartypants whizbang when you do it... that is, unless of course, you're me trying to do it this time for a public blog that PEOPLE WILL SEE and you screw it up.  Ugh. Dorkus maximus.

I measured out some of the lemon-thyme infusion I'd just made, mixed it with some sugar and brought it to a boil over medium heat.  I added some gelatin sheets (which I'd soaked in cold water for five minutes) and mixed it with my immersion blender.

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I poured this mixture through a funnel and into my iSi siphon canister, which I put into the refrigerator to chill for about an hour before plating.  You'll see the error of my ways in just a little bit.  Hang tight.

The next thing I did was make the lemon thyme froth.  This was easy, despite the fact that when I made the Yolk Drops, asparagus, meyer lemon, black pepper my froth didn't froth really at all.

I measured out some more of the lemon-thyme infusion from the pitcher, poured it into a small saucepan, added some sugar and brought it to a boil.  I poured it into a plastic pitcher, added the soy lecithin, and used my immersion blender to froth the crap out of it.

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Pretty!

And now, the moment you all have been waiting for (well, maybe not, but let me live for a moment with the illusion that you have been pacing the living room floor for months wondering, WHEN will Carol EVER make BEET JUICE SPHERES? I simply cannot wait another day!!).

I combined water, sugar and sodium alginate in a large saucepan, blending it with an immersion blender:

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As I was bringing it to a boil, I removed the beet spheres from their molds and returned them to the freezer on a plate until the sodium alginate bath was ready:

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Once the liquid had come to a boil, I turned off the flame.  Then, I took the beet spheres out of the freezer and gently placed them, one at a time, into the sodium alginate bath:

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The book says to let them in there for five minutes, which gave me enough time to get the lemon thyme foam (in the siphon canister, remember?) out of the refrigerator, discharge the NO2 cartridges, and ..... WHAT THE...!!


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It splorfed all over the counter and the floor, and I just stood and watched it happen for a few seconds before realizing I should just put it in the sink already and let it overflow there.  Grrrr..... Not sure why it happened, but it did.

As I pored over the Alinea book and the siphon canister instruction manual to figure out what the hell happened, the five-minute timer went off, which meant it was time to remove the beet spheres with a slotted spoon and let them rest in a bowl of cool water.  I was so looking forward to seeing them -- they look so lovely in the book.  I just knew they'd be darling and gorgeous, except for the part where I lifted the first one out followed by the other eight and found they'd kind of fallen apart and each one looked like a just-born jellyfish got stabbed by both the Crips and the Bloods, committed harakiri, and impaled itself on a wrought iron fence.  Or, you know, morphed into surgical waste -- witness the beet spheres with a wee bit of olive oil:

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Oh man, you guys, I'm so sorry you have to look at this.

I honestly thought about just throwing it all away, but decided it couldn't get any worse... maybe the now-calmed-down lemon thyme foam would cover it up a bit.  You know, hide the nastiness and make it all pretty and sparkly...


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Aaaaaaaaand, you can see how well that turned out.  Which is not at all.  IT MADE IT WORSE.  Now, it just looks like infected surgical waste.  With pustules.  [Note: I don't really know what pustules are, but they sound gross and somehow fitting.]

But wait!!  There's more!  I had the last three things to add: verjus ice (which did not give me green tears of doom when I scraped it), lemon thyme froth, and a few lemon thyme leaves:

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Bleargh.

I feel like I need to write a letter of apology to everyone who has ever worked at Alinea, because this is just so not right.

And eight of those beauties is what my friends were greeted with when they came into the kitchen.  Everyone was such a good sport.  They'd look at the photo in the book (page 84, and man, it pains me to look at that and then see mine) and marvel at my rendering of it by saying things like, "nice weather we're having," or "I wonder if Target is having a sale this weekend."

I half-assedly explained what it was, told them they didn't even have to try it if they didn't want to, but everybody picked up a serving of it along with a spoon and dug in.  I reluctantly tried mine, ready to gag over the texture of the beet spheres and the overall innards-ness, but much to my surprise, it was AWESOME.

Yes, the beet thing was a little, um, chewy, but once you got past that and had a little bit of everything in one bite (or stirred it all together into a sort of beet-verjus-lemon thyme slushie), it was pretty damn good.  We all looked at each other wide-eyed and amazed at how good it was, and maintained eye contact because as long as we weren't actually looking at it, we could eat it.  I loved the flavor combination because it was a near-perfect balance of sweet, sour, and a lush earthiness, and would not hesitate for even a second in making a roasted beet salad with a verjus-olive-oil-lemon thyme dressing.  That would be divine.  Making spheres is another matter altogether.  I haven't given up on it, yet, but I have it on good authority that a friend's 4th-grade son is going to try some sort of encapsulation-spherification like this for his science fair project.  You watch.  He's gonna kick my ass, and they're gonna be perfect.  I just KNOW it.  I will officially be pwned by a 10-year old.  Crap.


Up Next: Granola, in a rose water envelope

Resources: Biotta beet juice; Castelmuro Verjus du Perigord from J.R. Mushrooms and Specialties; soy lecithin, calcium lactate and sodium alginate from Terra Spice; lemon thyme from Whole Foods; gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie; Domino sugar; Monini olive oil.

Music to Cook By: Gomez; A New Tide. I love love love this band.  There's not one album of theirs I can't stand.  There's not one song I skip.  I was thrilled to get their new album a few days before it was released (thanks, Kim!) and haven't been able to stop listening to it.  I think it's tied with "How We Operate" for favorite Gomez album, for me.

Read My Previous Post: I just flew in from Chicago, and boy are my arms tired...

January 11, 2009

Sour cream, sorrel, smoked salmon, pink pepper

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the easiest dish in the Alinea cookbook.  I'm not kidding.  Yes, I know the book instructs you to use an antigriddle, but I'm here to tell you you don't need to buy one.  You can make your own with dry ice and a baking sheet.  It's so easy, and there are fun science-y things you can do in the process and after eating.  Which, of course, is at the top of everyone's new year's resolutions list: Do More Science-y Things.

I know how you roll.

Let's get started.

The first thing I did was press a whole bunch of pink peppercorns against a fine-mesh strainer to remove the skins:

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I set those aside, and mixed the sour cream, salt and simple syrup:

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I put that mixture into a squeeze bottle, and set it aside.

The night before, I bought a small piece of smoked salmon, completely ignored the book's instructions on how to clean and prepare it, and just tossed it into the freezer -- still in its packagaing -- to harden.  Not because I didn't think the instructions were important, but a) I kind of forgot I was supposed to clean it up a bit; and 2) once I realized what I'd done, it was a too frozen to thaw it, clean it, and refreeze it.  So, I threw caution to the wind and figured, at the very worst, it wasn't going to kill anyone, and at the very best, it might actually still taste really good.

Oh, I also couldn't find sorrel at the five stores I called and the three I was going to anyway, so I substituted chives.  Normally, I might've used dill (because dill + salmon + sour cream = zipadeedoodah), but all the dill I saw looked droopy and sad and turning yellow, and the chives were rather perky, so there you go.  Wow.  Look at me making substitutions and executive decisions all over the place. 

With the food ready to go, it was time to set up my homemade antigriddle.

I should preface this by saying that I spent some time during the days leading up to this trying out other ways of doing an antigriddle -- like, what if I just froze a small baking sheet?  Or, used the frozen container part of my ice cream maker?  Or, what if I just put the sour cream mixture on a Silpat and stared at it with a cold malevolence?

None of those ideas worked (I can tell you're shocked, SHOCKED, I say), so I relied on what the experts say you should use -- a baking sheet atop a block of dry ice.  Harumph.

I haven't worked with dry ice since 7th or 8th grade science class where we did, I dunno, something all science-y with it.  (Please.  I fried those brain cells in college; ain't no way I'm gonna remember an experiment from 198flormbleschmobble.)  So, while I was psyched about doing this, I was also under the mistaken assumption that dry ice could probably singlehandedly blow up my house if I'm not careful with it.  Me?  Dramatic?  Never.

Dry ice is easy to find here in the DC area, but the one place I wanted to go for it was Talbert's in Bethesda, MD.  Talbert's is old school.  Surrounded by high rises and shopping centers in a quite prosperous part of the county, Talbert's is housed in a small, standalone building with what I'm sure is its original sign (and original employees), very few and inconveniently placed parking spaces, dirty leather chairs facing the Keno monitor, and five or six drunks smoking Swisher Sweets, checking the numbers, drooling, and caterwauling at fairly regular intervals. Crap beer and wine selection, but there's just something about Talbert's I love.  So, I drove over there to get my dry ice, and the guy working the register (who was easily in his early to mid-80s) started to give me instructions about how to use it in my freezer (he'd assumed my power had gone out, I think), and I just said, "Oh, it's not for my freezer; I'm using it to cook.  Well, not really to cook, but to freeze something, but like the opposite of a griddle."

Talbert's Guy: You can't cook with ice.

Me: Ha ha ha!! I know, I misspoke.  I meant to say that I'm putting this dry ice on my countertop, placing a baking sheet on top of it, waiting for it to get really, really cold, and then I'll put a blob of sour cream on it to sort of flash freeze it.

Talbert's Guy:  (silence)

Me:  (nervous laugh) Yeah, it's kind of weird, isn't it?  But then you put this pepper stuff on it and smoked salmon and I couldn't find sorrel, so instead I.... oh no. I'm rambling. I'm sorry.

Talbert's Guy: Cash or credit?

Me: Cash.  (hands over cash)  Thank you.

Talbert's Guy: Why would you want to freeze sour cream? 

Me: Well, I'm using this cookbook, and it has all kinds of new ways to make things, and this is something I wanted to try to see what it tastes like.

Talbert's Guy: Well, I hope it tastes good because you seem like a nice young girl and I would hate to see you hurt yourself or drop that ice, so let me get Carlos to carry it to the car for you.

Me: Oh, that's okay.  It's only ten pounds.  I can do it.

Talbert's Guy: (shakes head, mutters something about "people today")

Me: You know what?  You're right.  I'd love some help to my car.  Thank you.

Talbert's Guy: (muttering something under his breath about wasting perfectly good food by playing with it)  Carlos!  The lady needs some help!

Me: (thinking 'you ain't kidding') Thanks, bye!

See... why go to one of those anonymous, unhelpful big-box beer and wine distributors for your dry ice needs when you can go to a place like Talbert's, go blind from the neon lottery signs, give some guy something to mumble about for the next few days, and come out smelling like the VFW!!?!?  I hope you have a Talbert's-like store near you so you can be thought of as some whippersnapper who is playing with your food AND WASTING IT, FOR THE LOVE OF PETE.

Alright, where were we?  Ah, yes.  The ingredients are prepped and ready to go, and it's time to build an antigriddle.  My friend's son, C., and his friend, N., came over to watch this part of the process because I promised them if they tried this dish, we'd do soemthing cool with the leftover dry ice when we were done.

I placed a dish towel on top of my butcher block, then reached for the dry ice (in its plastic bag) to cut open the bag so I could get the block out.  It was at this point, I realized I should probably have put on my silicone oven mitts to handle it, but didn't and therefore felt a rather sharp stinging sensation as I touched the ice through the bag.

Let's just say the kids heard a word they've probably heard a thousand times before, and giggled uncontrollably at hearing it again.  Of course, this meant they wanted to touch the ice through the plastic bag, too, so I let them do that for a few seconds.  I thought they wanted to do it so they could legitimately swear.  Remarkably, they only AAAAAUUUUGGGHHHHHed for a minute, and wanted to do it again.  Which I did not let them do, because, despite stories to the contrary, I am a responsible adult.

With oven mitts on, I removed the dry ice from the plastic bag, put it on top of the dish towel, then put a baking sheet on top:

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It took about a minute for the sheet to get nice and cold.  Here's a shot of the kids blowing on the ice to create a smoke effect (while I made ghost noises, which didn't seem to impress anyone.  Minus ten cool points.).

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I did a test dollop before doing all the others because I wanted to make sure this would really work.  It took about 15 seconds for it to be able to hold the chives on its own:
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After only 45-50 seconds, the whole thing was frozen, so I sprinkled on some of the peppercorn skins, shaved some smoked salmon onto it with a Microplane, and topped it with a whole pink peppercorn:
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Let me just say here that I KNOW the chives look kinda lame.  Actually, REALLY lame.  And that sorrel leaves (or pretty much any other leaf or herbal foliage item) might've been prettier.  I know.  I get it.  I'm not perfect, so LEAVE ME ALONE.

Wait.

Come back.

I didn't mean it.

I'm just being sensitive about my chiveage.

I lifted the frozen sour cream dollop off the baking sheet with an offset spatula, and ta-da!!!
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I tasted it and, honestly, had a mixed reaction.  At first, when the frozen sour cream hits your tongue, it just feels weird and odd.  Then, as you bite down on it and chew, and it breaks down and all the elements mesh in your mouth, it feels familiar.  It warms as it's in your mouth, but is never quite as comfy and lovely as sour cream (or cream cheese) and smoked salmon on a flatbread or cracker.  I like the bite of the pepper, and I love the smoked salmon with it.  I would've used less salt in the sour cream mixture, though.  Probably just 1g instead of 2g.  Tasted a little too salty for my liking.

I made more, called the neighbors, and they came over for a taste. 

The kids thought it was so-so.  One spit it out into the trash and said it was "too sour cream-y" and the other liked it, but thought it needed more salmon (so I made him another one with a huge, honkin' pile of grated salmon on it, which he very much liked).  The adults had pretty much the same reaction that I did.  Weirdness going in until maybe the third bite where it starts to warm, melt, and integrate.

So, would I make this again?  Probably not.  I love smoked salmon spreads and will probably stick to that.  But you can bet the next time I use a homemade antigriddle, I'm gonna come up with all sorts of things to try on it to see what I can do.  If anything, this little bite would be something fun to make during cocktails before a dinner party.  It's a cool party trick, and would certainly make you the science-y envy of your friends.

And, after you've had your cocktails, you could put that dry ice into a cooler, add water and dish soap and watch some smoky, soapy volcano action (inspired by this video, but I just did stills because I am lame and didn't not want to shoot video in the rain and then have to find technolounge music of my own as accompaniment):

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Up Next: Blackberry, tobacco, smoke, bee balm

Resources: Ducktrap River of Maine smoked salmon; Axelrod sour cream; David's kosher salt; chives and pink peppercorns from Whole Foods.

Music to Cook By: Mercury Rev; All is Dream.  I first heard Mercury Rev on the Laurel Canyon soundtrack, and really liked their sound, so from time to time I download some of their stuff to see what else they're working on and I really like them.  You may want to check out their appearance on KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" to see what you think. I have to be in a certain mood to listen to Mercury Rev, and something about smoked salmon and smoky dry ice put me there.

Read My Previous Post: Skate, traditional flavors powdered

December 17, 2008

Transparency of manchego cheese

The good thing about making this dish? 

It's really easy, all the ingredients are readily available, and there's one particular element of the dish that is so freakin' delicious it will make your toes curl.

The bad thing about making this dish?

I spent most of the day walking around the house channeling my inner Beavis saying, "Man-chaaayyy-goooooooh" about 500 million times.  As if any of us needed further proof I'm really a 12-year old boy trapped in a grown woman's body.

For work-related timing reasons, I made this dish over two days, so let's start with day one.  The first thing I did was make the dried olives.  'Twas rather easy, since Whole Foods sells already-pitted Niçoise olives in their cheese department.  You know if I'd have had to pit the olives myself, we would've ended up with photos that more than vaguely resembled some sort of post-surgical consult case study.  So, hug your Whole Foods employees tight, ladies and germs.  They did us all a solid.

This step was so easy, I almost want to make them every day just to feel like a regular Smartypants McGhee.  I lined a baking sheet with parchment paper, placed the olives on them, and put them in a 160-degree oven for 7 hours.  The book suggests using a food dehydrator at 150 degrees for 24 hours, but I had to improvise since I don't have a dehydrator.  I made a few extra so that I could taste them along the way to see when they got crunchy.  Seven hours on the dot, people.  I am blinding myself with all this science (beep, boop, booop).

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Next, I prepped the bell peppers.  I put them on my stovetop over an open flame, and just let the fire ker-plack the bejesus out of the skins (10 minutes).  Then, I stored them in a ziploc bag for about 30 minutes to loosen the skin, then peeled and diced them.

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It was time for beddy-bye, so I packed up shop for the night and continued the next day.

I roasted the garlic in a 375-degree oven for just over 45 minutes, then peeled the cloves and stored them at room temperature until I was ready to plate:

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Next up?  The croutons.  Again, super-easy.  I bought a loaf of sourdough bread at the local co-op, trimmed off the crust, and diced the bread into quarter-inch (okay, I lied, they were more like half-inch) cubes (also pretty much lying about the cube shape -- see below -- more like trapezoids).  Toasted those suckers at 325 degrees for 10 minutes, tossing them around a bit after the first five minutes.

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Now, for the best part EVER, and to date, my FAVORITE THING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD ABOUT THE ALINEA COOKBOOK... three little words that will warm my cockles forever [/snerk, she said "cockles"].....

Olive Oil Pudding.

People.

You have not LIVED until you have eaten olive oil pudding.

Now, I don't want to hear, "But Carol, my Great Aunt Nonny used to make olive oil pudding when we visited her every summer, using a recipe that had been handed down through 37 generations of our family, so it's not like it's a new thing."

To that I say, "Shut up about your stupid Great Aunt Nonny, and just let me pretend I discovered this for all mankind and am taking this opportunity to announce to the entire world for the very first time that this is, perhaps, the greatest pudding, ever, in the history of the universe."

Because it is.

Typically, I hate the word "pudding."  It's onomatopoeic in kind of a gross way.  Don't get me wrong, I loves me some pudding (especially homemade chocolate pudding, still warm, with a skin over the top); I just hate saying the word.  Ick.  (I mean, say it.  Really.  Isn't it kind of gross?  Like the word sounds like you actually have some pudding stuck in your throat when you say it, which makes it even more gurgly and gross.)

But gurgly and gross do not in any way define this lovely delight of a p-word.  Not even close.  It's f-ing spectacular, and in my opinion, is, on its own, worth the price of the book.  Seriously.  And the best part?  You will have LEFTOVERS in a SQUEEZE BOTTLE which means you can .... um....... squirtitrightintoyourmouthwhennooneislookingnotlikeiactuallydidthatoranything.

To make this pudding, I prepared my mise en place:

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I brought the milk up to a boil, while I whisked together the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and salt in a small bowl.

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I then poured a wee bit of milk into the yolk mixture to temper it, then poured the milked yolk mixture into the saucepan with the hot milk, whisked like mad until it came back up to a simmer:

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I removed it from the heat, whisked in the olive oil, then strained it into a bowl set inside a bowl of ice so it could cool to room temperature:

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The only thing left to do was cut the cheese.

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I can hear you laughing.  Nice to know I'm not the only adult 12-year old on the internet.


This step is where I wish I had a deli-grade cheese slicer, or that my mandoline would've worked (it didn't).  However, I sliced the cheese as thinly as my skills would allow and also diced a bit of the cheese to go onto the plate, as well.  I also chopped up a few anchovies to include, as well.

Here's how the plating went -- squiggles of olive oil pudding, then a scattering of red bell pepper, yellow bell pepper, olive, crouton, anchovy, garlic:

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Then, my neighbor friends came over and we covered this assortment with the not-really-thin-enough slices of manchego cheese, and took a torch to it to melt the cheese.  I suppose I could've put the plates under the broiler in the oven, but letting a 10-year old play with fire was far more fun:

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So, not quite as pretty as the photo in the Alinea cookbook, that's for sure, but boy was this delicious.

I had to make mine without the bell pepper, but I don't think the dish suffered one bit.  The different textures and tastes worked really nicely together, and the cheese didn't overpower the rest of the dish like I thought it might.  I've never been a huge fan of manchego cheese -- I don't know why.  It's just never one I reach for.  I think it's because it's a harder cheese, and the tang of it can stick inyour sinuses longer than other cheeses.  This time, it didn't, and I really enjoyed this plate.  In fact, if you didn't want to make this particular dish, you could combine these elements into a really great sandwich -- sourdough roll, roasted peppers, anchovy, garlic-olive oil spread, olives, manchego... it would work, and you'd be the envy of your workplace.

And, if you're going to make such a sandwich, don't forget to include some arugula.

Because, you know, the recipe calls for the Transparency of manchego cheese to be topped with a few arugula leaves and some arugula flowers.  Couldn't find the flowers anywhere, but I did buy a beautiful batch of baby arugula for this dish and completely forgot to include it on top when we ate it.

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Poor, sad, neglected arugula.

Although it did taste mighty fine in a salad the next day.


Up Next: Not sure, yet.  Probably Skate.  Maybe Cranberry.  Maybe Oyster.

NOTE: There's still time to make a difference in helping to end childhood hunger in America by donating to Share Our Strength.  Every little bit helps.  Seriously.  If all you can donate is $5, then I hope you'll consider doing so.  It's been so wonderful to hear from so many of you about why you donated and why childhood hunger is an issue that's important to you, too.  So, go ahead, click on that link, and do your part help end childhood hunger in America.  You might just win a copy of the Alinea cookbook, or Thomas Keller's Under Pressure.

Resources: Organic Valley milk; Smith Meadows Farms eggs; Domino sugar; Clabber Girl cornstarch; Monini olive oil; David's kosher salt; garlic, bell pepper, olives, anchovies, arugula, and cheese from Whole Foods; sourdough bread from the TPSS Co-op.

Music to Cook By: Nikka Costa; Pebble to a Pearl.  Funky, soulful, great beats. Try not to bob your head and dance in your chair to "Stuck To You."  You can't.  I know.  I've tried.

Read My Previous Post: Yolk Drops, asparagus, meyer lemon, black pepper

December 10, 2008

Yolk Drops, asparagus, meyer lemon, black pepper

I came, I saw, I foamed.  Successfully.

About dang time, huh?

This is the second dish Jane Black and I made together while she was writing her story for the Washington Post.  Unfortunately, she had to leave for a meeting on the Hill before she got a chance to taste it, but Jim (the photographer) and I sampled it and filled her in when we were done. 

The reason I'm mentioning the Post story again is because this is a dish I sort of slacked on in the photo department.  It was a little more challenging that the Caramel Popcorn dish in terms of delegating, organizing, prepping, cooking, cleaning and shooting all at the same time.  It's so rare for me to have others in the kitchen with me when I cook -- don't get me wrong, I loved it -- it just got me a bit flumbozzled this time around.

So, here's hoping this blog entry will make sense, because we kind of botched one of the steps.  No wait, two.  Yeah, two.  It didn't make the dish a failure by any means; it just didn't "sing" like I expected or wanted it to.

And away we go...

The first thing I did was remove the tips from the asparagus spears, setting aside 8 tips from which I could dismember the individual buds therein.  Thereon?  From which?  Du hast?  Steve Holt?!!??   Not sure what's grammatically correct there, but I'm hoping you get what I mean.  I'm tired.  It's been a long week.  Mama needs a cocktail.  Or, some asparagus:

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I blanched the tips and buds for 10-15 seconds and put them in an ice water bath to cool.  Then, I cut the woody, gross bottoms off the asparagus stalks, cut the good part of the stalks into 1" pieces, and blanched them for about 2 minutes before pureeing them in my food processor and extracting the juice through a cheesecloth.  

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And here's a little something to consider for future print runs of this book: the instructions say to blanch the asparagus in boiling water.  No mention of salt.  Now, I know to add salt to my water when blanching vegetables, but not everyone who buys this book might know to do that (even though they should, but you never know -- I learned when doing my FL@H blog that some people have a weird relationship with salt, so there you go).  So, I decided to follow the book's exact instructions and just blanch everything in plain old boiling water.  Bad idea.  It yields a taste I can best describe as "huh, yeah, not."  Won't make that judgment call again, no sirree...

While I was doing the asparagus, I tasked Jane with making the Meyer lemon purée.  Here's where we made our second mistake of the day.  The book says to "Quarter lemons and remove seeds and fibers."  So, she quartered the lemons, removed what few seeds there were, and then we thought, "Fibers?  Fibers.  Wait.  Fibers?  Does that mean we should supreme them?  Just remove the obvious bitter white thready stuff?  Hold the phone, are we supposed to remove the peels?  WHAT THE #$(%*$(* ARE FIBERS?"  And this comes from two people who actually know a little something about food.  So, we erred on the side of caution and removed the peels before pureéing the lemon pulp with the simple syrup before straining it.  And, BBZZZZZZZTTTTTTTT, we were wrong. Jane found out later when she emailed Grant to ask about that step in the process, that we should've kept the peels on because the pectins from them would've thickened the final result.  Dangit. 

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You'll see in the final plating shot that we ended up with a salty, lemon juice on the plate as our base, and not necessarily a purée.  Oh well.  At least we made the mistake with the 75-cent Meyer lemon and not a $75 lobe of foie gras, right?  Silver lining, and all.

The next thing we made were the egg yolk drops.  I thought fo' sho' I was gonna screw these up somehow.  I had visions of egg yolks splattering or yolk drops popping and shooting hot butter into my eyeball burning off my corneas, because sometimes I can be a drama queen about potential and completely unrealistic cooking-related injuries.  Instead, I nailed it, and then felt like a dork for thinking it was gonna be hard.

I whisked together the egg yolks with some salt and strained them into a squeeze bottle.  I already had a pot of hot clarified butter waiting on the stove, so I just began gently squirting the egg yolks into the pot, one by one, until they starting springing up to the surface.  I gently lifted them out and put them on a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.  If you saw the print version of the Post article, the photo of this step took up most of the front page of the food section (awesome!).  In the online version, you can see a shot of me doing this in the slideshow that accompanies the article. And may I just take a moment here and say, dude.  I am in a SLIDESHOW in the freakin' WASHINGTON POST.  Man.  That is damn cool.


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I mixed the Meyer lemon vinaigrette (Meyer lemon juice, grape seed oil, kosher salt) and used a bit to toss with the yolk drops we made (we didn't do all of them -- just enough for one tasting and a photo) and some asparagus buds and tips.
 


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The last step was making the asparagus bubbles -- which involved putting the asparagus juice into a tall, narrow container (I used a narrow mixing bowl), adding the soy lecithin, and using an immersion blender to blend/froth/foam.


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You'll see the foam results in the final plating shot.  But first -- wanna see how many dishes we used to make this?  You know you do:

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The dishwasher was full of the dishes we'd used to make the liquefied caramel popcorn, so I had to just pile all this up in the sink and surrounding counters as we went along, and I can't believe my shoulder blades didn't fall off from all the twitching that was going on.  I'm a clean-as-you-go kind of cook, so this photo makes me extremely squirmy. 

But I digress, because seeing the beauty of the final dish was more than worth it:

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And, here's what a real pro-fessional looks like in action:

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So, what did it taste like?

Well....

Um...

Uh...

I didn't love it.  Neither did Jim (the photographer).  We both took a bite, looked at each other, took another bite, and said, "Huh."

It was kind of disappointing, really.  Now, had I salted the water for the asparagus and used the peels for the Meyer lemon purée, would it have been earth-shatteringly phenomenal?  I don't think so.  Better, yes.  But I think I went into this with really high expectations because the flavor combination was really appealing to me in print.  But in execution, I didn't love it.

When I look at this dish in the context of the larger Spring menu on page 53 in the Alinea cookbook, it's listed as being served in between the Ayu (p. 97) and the Wild Turbot (p. 102), both which seem to be dishes with some really distinct flavors and aromas, so perhaps this dish was intended to be a little more mellow, so as not to overwhelm the palate during the course of a full tasting menu or tour.

That's the one thing that's unique about this book -- these dishes are grouped together seasonally in a menu of 25+ courses that are a natural progression from one to the next.  So, to make some of these as standalone dishes or tastings out of their printed context might take some creative tweaking from the home cook.

I think if I ever made this again, or any variation thereof, I'd have to add more salt and more acid to make it stand on its own.  But that's just me.  This wasn't a difficult dish, really, by most standards, and I didn't hate it.  It just won't end up on my Top Ten Dishes list when I finish this blog.  Of that, I'm quite sure.

So, class, what did we learn?  Salt the blanching water, and keep the peels on the Meyer lemons.  And, that making yolk drops will not singe your corneas, so stop having irrational fears about that nonsense you big doofus.

You know what else struck me as I was cleaning up after our afternoon of cooking?  The title of this dish includes "black pepper," but the recipe and instructions make no mention of it at all, so I totally forgot about it when I was putting the dish together.  Whoops.  Maybe black pepper is what was missing.  Hmmm.......

Up Next: Transparency of manchego cheese

NOTE: Remember, if you're reading this post, you're probably not hungry.  One in six kids in America is, though, so how 'bout you do something about it, mmmmmmkay?

We've made some headway on this campaign, and I'm thrilled to hear from the folks at Share Our Strength about the donations that are rolling in.  I'm even hearing some amazing stories about how and why people are donating -- one 13-year old girl here in DC is donating a percentage of her bat mitzvah budget to the cause; someone else emailed to say she's switching from a daily double latte to a regular drip coffee for the month of December and donating the difference in price; and, one Hill staffer decided to donate the same amount he would typically spend on drinks after work with friends all month.  All good things, in my book.  So, if you've got a roof over your head and food in your fridge, I hope you'll consider a donation to Share Our Strength, and enter to win one of five Alinea cookbooks, or one of two Under Pressure cookbooks. Thank you so so so much.  You guys are a generous lot, and for that, I'm incredibly grateful.


*   *   *   *   *

Resources: Eggs from Smith Meadows Farm, 365 organic butter, asparagus and Meyer lemons from Whole Foods, soy lecithin from Will Goldfarb, Roland grapeseed oil, Domino sugar for simple syrup.

Music to Cook By: Again, we didn't listen to music while we cooked, because we... I mean, I was too busy yammering on about this, that and the other.  However, you might be interested to know that I listened to this album while I was cleaning up.  And it was just as awesome as the day I first heard it.  I know, I'm trapped in the 80s.  Sue me.  No wait, don't.


Read My Previous Post: Caramel Popcorn, liquefied.

October 29, 2008

Bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme

When my friend, Claudia, and I ate at Alinea in July, one of our favorite dishes was this very one.  Visually, it's quite striking, and you can see how the restaurant serves it by clicking here (and then sliding the little, blue slider thingy all the way to the right, since it's the next to last photo) or by referring to page 117 of your hymnals, I mean Alinea cookbooks.  When Claudia posted her photo of it on her blog, a commenter referred to it as "bacon on a sex swing" which stuck in my head because it is the same number of syllables as "heroes on the half-shell" which naturally requires the response of "turtle power!" if you are a nerd like I am.

And now that I've lost fully 85% of my readership, let's carry on.

I wanted to do this dish first, not only because I refuse to believe that bacon has jumped the shark, but also because it seemed like something I could do without great catastrophe.  Another reason I was drawn to this dish is because the recipe features one of many photos in the book that include hands preparing the food.  Look, I love gorgeous food photography as much as the next guy, but one thing I love about the Alinea cookbook is that you actually see people's hands in the shots as they're working with and plating the food.  They're beautifully done, and maybe a lot of cookbooks do this, but for some reason, it really stands out for me in this book.

It's my goal with this project to follow the instructions as explicitly as possible, but I kinda fudged the goal with the very first step because the recipe asks that your bacon be 1/16" thick, and mine was 1/8" thick.  I'd just bought it from my guy at Smith Meadows, and it comes already-sliced, so there you go. 

I don't own a food dehydrator (a Bedazzler, yes, but not a dehydrator), so I followed the instructions for dehyrating the bacon, but did it in a 170-degree oven instead.

Here are the bacon slices (about 4" long apiece) on a parchment-lined baking sheet before they went into the oven:

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And, here they are three hours later (and after three parchment sheet changes, so that they didn't stew in their own grease):

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I let them cool to room temperature, then stored them in a Tupperware container.


Next up?  The apple leather ribbons.  This was the only step in the process I was sort of fertutzed about, because I knew it had the potential to be fantastic, or go horribly, horribly wrong.

I cored and halved two Granny Smith apples and put them. flesh-down, on a Silpat-lined baking sheet:

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Into a 375-degree oven for 30 minutes they went... and had I remembered the second part of that sentence in the cookbook, which went, "or until they are very soft," I might not have ended up with this:

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Whoopsie.  Although, technically, they were very soft, so you know.... not a complete misstep.

The book then instructs to "scoop the flesh from apple halves into a bowl" and "transfer flesh to blender and blend until smooth" which I had to translate to be "pick up the poor, sad apple peels and scrape the apple glop into a bowl because it's as smooth as it's gonna get, child."

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I strained this apple purée through a chinois, and then spread what came out the other end onto a Pam-sprayed sheet of acetate.

Here's an interesting little bit about the acetate -- I called a bunch of cooking and baking supply shops, and not one of them carried acetate sheets.  They all referred me to an art supply shop, which I was in denial about and then finally had to cave and go there because it was my only resource.  See, here's the thing about me and art.  We are not, nor were we ever, sittin' in a tree k-i-s-s-i-n-g because growing up, I had no patience generally in life, but especially when it came to learning how to draw that stupid point on that stupid sheet of paper, then making those horizon lines, and call it "perspective," and in fact my 7th-grade art teacher sent me to the principal's office because when he rather harshly critiqued my really horrible, quarter-assed attempt at perspective drawing, I said something like, "well my perspective on all this is that it's a waste of my time" which he didn't find funny, even though I thought I was quite clever, and HOLY SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS, WOMAN, WOULD YOU JUST GET BACK TO THE COOKING PART OF THIS POST ALREADY, why yes, I will.

So, I overcame my fear and loathing of art supply stores (also, there are always hippies in there, and ew), and got some acetate sheets, onto which I used an offset spatula to spread the now-strained apple purée.

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This went into a 160-degree oven for 45 minutes, and it came out looking like this:

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The book refers to it needing to have the texture of fruit leather, which it sort of did, but with a lacy appearance, so naturally, as I'm typing this I'm now hearing Stevie Nicks in my head bein' all "give to me your leather, take from me, my lace" and I do not need to be song poisoned right now, so let's keep moving on.

While the apple leather (lace) was in the oven, I made the butterscotch. Whoever invented butterscotch should get the Congressional Medal of Something or Other because as much as I love caramel, I love butterscotch even more.  It's my favorite sauce on all kinds of ice cream (especially coffee ice cream; try it sometime), and I just love everything about it.  Theoretically, it's not difficult to make.  The ingredients are easy to come by: sugar, corn syrup, heavy cream... it's just the stirring and the heat of the liquid, and the chance that you could really burn yourself if you're not careful that makes me pay extra special attention when I make it.

I heated the sugar and corn syrup over medium heat until it had reached 350 degrees, then added in the cream very slowly -- that's where all the hotty-splatterness happens, and had I not been wearing a silicone oven mitt, I might still be on painkillers from the searing pain of losing parts of my flesh where the liquid propelled its way out of the pan and onto me.  When you add the cream, the temperature falls, so I heated it back up to 240 degrees until it was done, and poured it onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet to cool to room temperature.

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Damnit, I'm still humming "Leather and Lace."

While this was cooling, I went out into the garden to pick some fresh thyme, and then tried to slice the apple leather into ribbons, but it just wasn't happening.  So instead, I trimmed small pieces of apple lace, which you'll see in the final plating.

I laid the bacon pieces next to one another on a cutting board.  Then, I scooped up the liquid butterscotch and put it into a pastry bag with a small tip (honestly, you could use a ziploc bag with a tiny bit of one of the corners snipped off if you don't have a pastry bag).  Going back and forth, left to right and back again, over the top of the bacon (the tip of the bag was about 4 inches above the surface of the bacon), I drizzled the butterscotch over the whole row of bacon, then topped each piece with a piece of apple lace, a tiny pinch of freshly ground black pepper, and added a thyme tip.

Since I have been saving my hard-earned pennies for a new pair of Christian Louboutins instead of eight bacon sex swings (not that they're not beautiful, because they are, but mama actually does need a new pair of shoes, economy be damned, and p.s., the bacon service pieces are backordered, so I couldn't even have gotten them if I wanted to, so there), I presented the bacon quite nicely on a plate, and called the neighbors who came over a minute later.

Here's what greeted them on my dining room table:

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I want to make out with whomever was first decided to pair pork with butterscotch, because wow.

I remember this dish being good at Alinea, but it was nice to be reminded of it once again.

The bacon was tender, yet not crispy, and not really too chewy, either.  It was just the right consistency.  The apple had a nice tang to it, but it was also a little sweet, and the texture worked nicely.  The butterscotch?  Totally pulls this bite together, but the thing I think I liked the most is that when you put the whole piece in your mouth, the first three "chews" yield salt, sweet, and an almost creaminess, and then the fourth chew is totally aromatic as the thyme opens up and brightens everything.

Really outstanding, and totally doable at home.  Just work on the apple leather a little bit -- spread it a little thinner, maybe watch it a little more closely to make sure it's drying evenly.  Or, wing it and see what works best for you.  When the apple leather didn't turn out the way I'd hoped, I thought about doing a small, teeny-tiny dice of a fresh Granny Smith apple and sprinkling it like confetti over the bacon and butterscotch, but then figured that might not be as gentle or smooth a taste and texture as the original preparation intends.  Regardless, these flavors together are gorgeous, and it makes me want to throw a holiday party, just so I can serve these.  Or, maybe I'll throw a holiday party, forget to mail the invitations, make a batch or two of bacon, butterscotch, apple, thyme and eat it all by myself.  Is that so wrong?

Up Next: Dry Caramel, salt

Resources: Bacon from Smith Meadows Farm, Domino sugar, Karo corn syrup, Organic Valley heavy cream, apples from Whole Foods, thyme from my garden.

Music to Cook By: Rush; Moving Pictures.  If you've followed me over here from French Laundry at Home, you may recall that my neighbor's kids graciously let me sit in on their Rock Band tours (and by that I mean that I totally boss them around and make them do the same song sixteen billion times until I get 100% on it), and I am so proud to announce that I recently scored a 91% on "Tom Sawyer" on MEDIUM.  NOT EASY, people, MEDIUM.  How is that not breaking news on CNN?  Wouldn't you rather see footage of me schooling the great Neil Peart on "Tom Sawyer" on Rock Band than yet another stinkin' campaign rally?  I thought so.  The voters have spoken, CNN.  Let's run with this...

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

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