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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:




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



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:


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.).


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:

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:

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.


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!!!

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):



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.

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I wasn't sure why I was thinking about horses throughout this post, but then I looked it up and realized I wasn't crazy, but that "sorrel" is a horse word as well as a plant word. Yay for sanity.

The silence of the Talbert's guy (not starring Jodie Foster) and the silence of the crowd following your ghost noises were both very amusing. Sorry they didn't work out better for you at the time.

Too cool! I am so stealing....i mean repurposing.. some dry ice from work so that I can have tons of antigriddle fun the next time I have people over for dinner or drinks. If my math is right, it should be possible to make something that involves an antigriddle and a martini that won't be so cold that it harms people :) Who knows what the form will be - martini ice maybe?? I'll try it on myself first....

I think this just means you need to work on your cold malevolence stare until it is as powerful as dry ice.....

Great Post!!

As a chemistry major, I approve of the dry ice. You'll have to get some liquid nitrogen next time.

I don't remember from the recipe how the sorrel is used (and I'm 1000 miles from my copy of The Book), but you could probably use spinach flavored with lemon. Sorrel is very lemony, perhaps a bit more bitter (use the zest, I'd say).

This dish looks nice, but since I'm the only one in my house that will eat finfish (molluscs and crustaceans are just fine for them, oh my aching wallet), I'm not likely to make it.

Yay Mercury Rev!! I used to work with them, and that album really is good. They also made one of the best driving songs every, Goddess on a Highway, and the best walking song ever, Delta Sun Bottleneck stomp. It's the perfect tempo for marching through the streets while listening to your mp3 player. Oh, but I'm not a fan of their new album yet, so don't download that one, you'll be disappointed. Glad the antigriddle worked out!

Best frozeny thing I've ever tried - Margaritas made with liquid nitrogen. If you have a geeky friend (e.g. from Berkeley or MIT) they will probably offer said beverage to you at some point.

Oh man - dry ice is the best! That dish looked tasty!

I absolutely loved the "Talbert's Exchange" -- so true! I get that blank stare too. I've kinda given up explaining to these people what I'm doing. Great post!

Looks cool, not sure if I'd be too into frozen sour cream, either, but I'm psyched about the home antigriddle prospects. Do you have to worry about warping the baking sheet at all? I finally upgraded my bakeware but I still worry if I just *look* at those wrong they'll warp on me.

I received my copy of The Grail for Christmas and am excitedly looking forward to playing with my food in new ways.

I was doubly excited to find you blog. Whoo hoo! Someone's scouting for us!

Finally, betwen the book and the blog and the general chefiness they inspired I invented an appetizer this weekend.

Slices of apple rubbed with white truffle oil and a few drops of lemon juice, topped with thinly sliced parmesan and chives, dusted with smokey paprika. When I'm ready to get decadent I want to try truffle slices. I also want to try yuzu instead of lemon juice. Yuzu makes everything better in my opinion. But they were quite tasty as prepared and I'm putting them on my next cocktail party menu.

This is probably kind of a weird thing to say about food, but it looks so darn cute in the final picture!

And also, I snickered out loud for a good three minutes at the cold malevolance line.

i used to grow sorrel in a gigantic flower pot - i got tired of never finding it and it was such a staple in Russian cooking... it's ridiculously difficult to locate - esp this time of year.

playing with dry ice is fun!

i puffy heart sour cream, so i'd be interested to try this. hmmmm....

I almost never comment, but I had to this time. You said "sorrel" and no one else has ever heard of it. No, really, no one else on Earth. Except my mother, who grew it, possibly just so that I could eat it. I think of it as growing in the spring and early summer - lemony spinach, as someone mentioned earlier, is probably a relatively good description of it. If you need it again, you let me know and I'll force my mother to send you some. That's how much I like reading your posts.

The guy at Talbert's is wrong. You *can* cook with dry ice - you can make ice cream with it. Or, if you're feeling substitute-y, you can also use liquid nitrogen.

This reminds me of a shopping center magician, hired to keep kids entertained during school holidays while their parents purchase still more mall shit (in peace).

Magician: I will turn this ripe banana (peels, bites) into ice! (places in silver container, then removes) Voila! Who wants to test it?

(Rach, aged 7, climbs on stage and the magician bends the mic down to her)

Rach: Yes, it's ice. Because you put it in a container of dry ice. That's not magic.

Wait you are going to cook with your phone? You can't use a phone to cook bee balm. And why would you want to do that anyway.

Geesh, kids these days... just don't get stung...

Hmm...sounds interesting, but I'm pretty sure I'm with you on this one. In fact, I had smoked salmon and cream cheese with scallions on an onion bagel this morning and it was fantastic. (Even though it wasn't from Barney Greengrass.)

True story - when I was a kid I discovered that dry ice makes a really loud screeching sound when you touch it with a penny. Try it next time.

I'm facinated by the word antigriddle. I want one! It sounds like something SuperGirl or WonderWoman would use for cooking- as in "Honey, I invited the Captain America and BatGirl over for brunch Lets make pancakes on the antigriddle"

My grandmother, an Eastern European immigrant, always waxed rhapsodic about sorrells of her childhood, but, other than one (thankfully) small crop per year, sorrell was very hard to find in Chicago - she and the other women in our familyl substituted Swiss chard. Considering I did my best to hide during sorrell season, and one of my rules for adulthood is that nobody can ever, ever, ever make me eat sorell soup ever, ever ever again, I don't know how close the flavors are firsthand - but that's what the grandmas used.

I'm not sure about this whole adventure, and that surprises me. I'm a 'foodie': I own way too many specialty kitchen gadgets and cookbooks, I travel to go to restaurants, I look at new ingredients and think 'oooh, I wonder...'. But I keep waiting for you to make 'real' food, lol. I've become a French food foodie without even realizing it (obviously my mother was right you DO get more conservative as you age).

Oh, I'm not going to stop reading your blog Carol, because you are hilarious and you could take up carpentry and I'd tune in to watch you build an Armoire (there goes that French thing again), but cook along with you? Nope, not this time!

Have fun, I hope your testers stick with you :)

Pink peppercorns are the prettiest poppets in Paris.
(say that five times fast)

Talbert's is awesome in that completely cheesy, old school, so bad it's good and you can't help yourself way. It's hard to explain. I pass it every day on River Rd. and I always feel the urge to stop, even when I don't need to. And there's something about that sign I just love. Makes me want to buy dry ice. :)

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