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February 14, 2009

Kumquat, Aquavit, picholine olives, caraway

In third grade, we spent some time each week for nearly half the school year learning about food.  We talked about food groups, and learned about the history of certain foods.  We read about different foods as part of different world cultures, and because the area of Pennsylvania in which I grew up was agriculturally abundant, we spent quite a bit of time on the local foods of our region.

On Fridays, the two third-grade classes in my elementary school got together in one of the classrooms to sample some of the foods we talked about in class.  One week, one of the moms brought in different kinds of cheese.  Another time, another mom brought in different vegetables.  My great uncle owned the local fruit orchard, so my mom was in charge of bringing in different kinds of apples for each kid in the class to taste.  Another week, one of the moms brought in different kinds of bread -- white sandwich bread, wholewheat bread, sourdough, pumpernickel, and rye bread.

Now, being eight years old at the time, I was quite the fan of white sandwich bread.  Give me two slices of Sunbeam or Holsum bread and I was a happy, peanut butter sandwich-makin' fool.  Wholewheat bread was kind of icky because it wasn't white bread, but at least it was familiar.  All the other breads seemed so foreign and strange to me, but I tried a little slice of each of them.  The sourdough bread was okay, the pumpernickel was passable, but the rye bread?  Gag City.  It smelled weird, and texture of caraway seeds (which, coincidentally, were at the time featured in commercials during The Price Is Right as something that gets trapped between your dentures and your gums unless you use Super PoliGrip, so I was all kinds of freaked out about that) is like someone captured a bunch of wrens and sparrows and pulled out their wee little talons one by one and put them into some bread.  Am I right? 

I've since tried to like rye bread, but to no avail.  So, to see that I had to use caraway in this dish was more than a little off-putting.  I almost considered eliminating it altogether, but instead I got over my bad self and just decided to deal with it and see how it turned out.  I was curious to work with Aquavit, since I'd never had it before and always wondered what it was.

Here's my mise en place:


I put the baby bird toenails, sorry, the caraway seed into a small sauté pan and began toasting them:


I also heated some Aquavit in a small saucepan, into which I put in two gelatin sheets that had soaked in cold water for a few minutes.


Then, I got to work on the kumquats.  I love these little guys.  So fragrant and so tasty -- I rarely cook with them, but I need to remember to make some preserves or something with kumquats because I love the way they smell when they cook.

I sliced them lengthwise, removing the top third of each kumquat:


I discarded the tops and put the kumquats into a small saucepan, covered them with water, and brought the water to a boil.  Then, I strained them, refilled with more water, and did this two more times. 


Then, I put them back into the saucepan, covered them with simple syrup, brought it up to a very gentle simmer, and let them cook this way for 40 minutes.  The book indicated it might take an hour, but mine were very tender at 40 minutes, so I turned off the burner and let them come down to room temperature while still in the liquid.


When they'd cooled to room temp, I removed them from the pan and let them drain on a paper towel while I very gently scooped out and removed the insides (very carefully using a grapefruit spoon).




I put them on the plate, then put the Aquavit gelatin (which had set in the saucepan, so I gently rewarmed it to turn it back into liquid) into a squeeze bottle and filled each of these now-candied kumquat hulls with the Aquavit gelatin.


I put them in the refrigerator to set, which took about 45 minutes.  Just before plating them, I sliced the olives (by cutting off the sides around the pit of 4 picholine olives, to yield 8 little olive caps):


I also ground the toasted caraway seed in my old coffee bean-turned-spice grinder, and strained it through a sieve to yield a very fine powder (the smell of which was sadly gagging me to no end) which you'll see in the photos below.

To serve, I put a piece of picholine olive on top of the gel-filled kumquat, then dabbed a small bit (using the tip of an espresso spoon) of the caraway powder:


I carried this plate of kumquat delight across the street to my friend Linda's house, where she and I and our other neighbor-friend, Holly, convene nearly every Friday afternoon around 4 o'clock for a glass of wine to wrap up the week and ease our way into the weekend. Our snackage typically consists of hummus and chips, pretzels and cream cheese, cheese and crackers, and whatever we have in our refrigerators that we need to get rid of.  When I did French Laundry at Home, our snacks oftentimes incorporated leftovers or leftover ingredients from one of those dishes, lucky us!

It's rare that food for this blog is easily travel-able, but this one was, so I was psyched to be able to have the kumquats to share.  Why?  Because they had the evil, dreaded caraway on them and I was pretty sure I was going to hate them and need to drown my sorrows in a nice Côtes du Rhône.

But the joke's on me because these kumquats were AWESOME and I wish I'd made a hundred of them.  Seriously.  One of the best things I've ever eaten.

The sweetness of the kumquats, combined with the almost-fennel of the Aquavit, the salty, olive-y goodness of the olives, and the did-not-make-me-vomitness of the caraway powder?  Brilliant.  I loved it.  Again, it's one of those combinations I wish I could buy as a shampoo or some sort of soap product because in addition to how well it tasted, it smelled so fresh and clean and gorgeous and almost like it would make my hair all shiny and flowy when I tossed my head from side to side in slow motion.

We finished them in no time flat (they're so easy to eat -- just pop one in your mouth and in a few chews, yer done!), and as I looked at the clean plate before me and reached to pour a glass of wine before sitting down with the girls in front of the warm fireplace to get caught up on the week's gossip, it struck me that I went from one Friday afternoon tasting 32 years ago hating caraway, to a tasting on this Friday afternoon, thinking caraway maybe isn't so bad after all.  As Trent Walker might say, I'm all growns up.

Up Next: Tripod, hibiscus

Resources: Kumquats and picholine olives from Whole Foods; caraway seed from the TPSS Co-op; King Arthur Flour gelatin sheets; Aalborg Aquavit.

Music to Cook By: Salt-N-Pepa; Hot, Cool & Vicious.  I was doing an event with a client recently and had to do a sound check onstage before the doors opened.  For some reason, when the audio tech asked me to "go ahead and say something, Carol" I blurted out, "My mic sound nice, check one."  Dude.  I haven't heard that song since 1986.  So, I came home and downloaded all the Salt-N-Pepa I didn't already have.  Spinderella, cut it up one time...

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Yeah - I'm totally not into caraway either. Yuk! I've learned from reading your blogs, however, that sometimes weird ingredients in weirder combinations (olive and kumquat? what?) can actually surprise and delight. Thanks for taking the first bite for all of us!

I'm intrigued by this flavor combo, and the technical difficulty isn't too bad. I'll have to give this a try.

But seriously, that's a whole mess of caraway seeds for what, 8 tiny sprinkles? And I would imagine that you had something like 27 servings of Aquavit jello left over. What do you do with all these rather unusual leftovers?

Hee hee, the funny thing is, is that Aquavit is generally a caraway liquer (although I believe it comes in dill flavour too), so all in all you had a double whammy of caraway with this dish. It looked so pretty, and I'll bet it tasted good. I wish I'd known about this recipe when I was growing kumquats. Thanks for another entertaining post!

The second best use for a kumquat?


Don't act like that's not the cutest thing you've ever seen.

First of all, allow me to say WOW and congratulations. I was at work yesterday thinking about the particulars of the Valentines Day dinner I am cooking tonight when I decided I wanted to make Keller's Blinis (I'm putting his butter poached lobster and hollandaise on them, not sure how the textures will work out, but we'll see). I googled Keller, hoping to re-read the recipe (not carrying my copy of FL at with me at all times) and stumbled across your blog. Your piece on opening French Laundry on Christmas day reminded me of when I was given it for my birthday... and immediately forgot that anyone else was there. For the rest of my work day, my night before bed, and the two hours I've been up this morning, I've done nothing but read your posts. And honestly, I cannot say what is more impressive, your taking on the challenge of making everything in FL or your taking on the challenge of blogging about it. Either way, Bravo! You've made me laugh, you've made me smile knowingly, and you've made me realise that I shouldn't be reluctant to try anything in the book (well except, perhaps, the tripe...) and for each of those I thank you. You seem to have so many comments to each of your posts that I am sure you hear a myriad of positive comments, but please know that finding that blog (and by extension, this one) has made me very, very happy. Truly wonderful.

Sorry that last post was so long...

Baby bird toenails??? That is just WRONG.

I've had a lifelong feud with caraway seeds, so much so that there's a restraining order on them currently. They're not allowed within 100 feet of my apartment. But this sounds really good. Especially with Spinderella on my iPod... hmm.. i might have to rethink this whole caraway seed business.

I've never had a kumquat, but they always reminded me of little orange tomatoes. Are they a sugary sweetness, or more of a fresher sweetness? (Brycer Sweetness?)

Does that make any sense? Candyish sweetness versus a fresher fruitiness?

I think I've confused myself.....

Also a caraway hater, although recently I've found there is a place and time for rye bread, if mustard, corned beef, swiss, and a grill are included.

The kumquats were gorgeous. Interesting technique, filling something that size and shape with a gelatin. I bet someone has already conceived of a grape tomato filled with black-pepper/vodka granita...for all I know I'm channeling one of your earlier posts!

First off, I am 100% with you regarding rye bread. Not even corned beef can overcome that taste for me. Regarding the recipe, your latest creation is absolutely gorgeous!! This Alinea cookbook has such interesting flavor combinations ... how does the chef think of them??? But I'm really enjoying "watching" you make everything!

How do you remember the lessons from third grade? I can barely remember what I learned in graduate school. Of course, you also know the lyrics to every song written and plot to every tv show broadcast since you were born. When will I stop being amazed at what your memory holds on to?

Brilliant double down Trent reference!

What a beautiful dish--as all your Alinea dishes have been. You'd better watch out--people are gonna stop believing you're not a professional cook. Well done! Once again, I wish I were your neighbor....

You're making me want to try some of the Alinea dishes....these and the cranberries, in particular. I wish I had the needed chemicals on hand but alas, I don't, and I failed to find a local source. Sigh.

I am interested to know in what category these fall in the cookbook...a side dish? An amuse?

Poor Carol,

I am so looking forward to making this dish because I was first introduced as a kid to caraway seeds on my pepperoni pizza instead of the more challenging rye bread. I still put caraway seeds in my tomato based pasta and pizza sauces.

Just goes to show, always know your audience.

Great post!

Besides putting them in their bread and their meats and their cheeses, Baltic people also use caraway seeds as a cure for stomach aches. So to me, caraway seeds absolutely equate with queasy. On the other hand, I also learned not to complain about stomach aches until I was actually vomiting, so the taste of caraway seeds DID lead to at least one person figuring out "quit whining, there are worse things than a stomach ache."

Having said that, you are the first person in fortymumble years that has even made me CONSIDER cooking with caraway (or fennel, or aquavit, or ouzo). But I think I'll powder a sardine first anyway. No need to get carried away.

Are caraway seeds the new fennel or something? I just made a butternut squash soup that weirdly called for them. I sucked it up and followed instructions, and it turned out pretty well. But srsly, these little suckers are everywhere all of a sudden!

Really one of the best things you've ever eaten??? After everything you've made?

I'm with you on the rye bread, right down to your description of baby bird toenails! You nailed it.

Another beautiful dish though...

i just love the stories that accompany your recipes almost as much as the recipes themselves!
lovely pictures too.

You are so money Carol...love the reference.

Keep up the great work.

hey, just wanted to say that this dish looks awesome. I've owned the FL book for about a year now and have only cooked a few things from it.

I got the alinea book a few months ago and stumbling across your blog has inspired me to cook from it.

I'm starting with the amuse type dishes so i can take them to people at work (i cook in a restaurant).

I started with the PB&J and it worked really well. It was a simple dish and nothing to crazy. Reading your positive reaction to the Tobacco, Blackberry, Honey Flower i tried it myself. I liked it but a lot of people at work didn't. They said i should have blanched the tobacco before i steeped it in the milk.

I truly enjoy your blog and it inspires me to work harder everyday.

I wonder how this would taste with a slightly more exotic spice powder / blend? Such as, cumin seeds plus a bit of cardamom?

I'm also curious about your distaste for caraway: do you feel the same way about other, similar seeds, like cumin and ajwain?

(not that there's anything wrong with that -- just curious. my husband loves cabbage, but is sickened by brussels sprouts, no matter how many times I say they're just little tiny cabbages. some of these childhood gross-outs are impossible to get rid of!)

I can't stand caraway, either. For years I avoided anything with rye bread because of it. Then, a local grocery store's bakery started making a luscious marble rye-- sans bird toenails. Yummy!

Yet another great post to help me procrastinate at work!

I was thinking about making this dish next weekend for some guests, but I am coming across a stumbling block trying to find some aquavit. Can anyone be of any assistance?

Rich: Yes, it was a shit ton of caraway in terms of what I actually needed to do this dish. I did save the caraway powder just in case I decide to do another batch of these in the next month or so. As for leftovers/excess ingredients in general, I do my very best to save, eat, or repurpose as much as I can. I hate waste.

Melyna: Adorable!

Jason: Thanks. :)

Alice: I know. ;)

Spoonie: Fresher, more fragrant fruitiness.

JoP: There was nothing extra used here that you shouldn't be able to find locally (gelatin sheets are easy to find at baking supply shops). As for the Ultra-Tex 3, you could buy a little package online and it would carry over into multiple dishes since they really don't require more than a few grams each.

Liz: If you take a look at Alinea's web site and check out their restaurant menu, you'll see that every dish has within it a small, medium, or larger circle. That indicates the size of the dish/bite throughout the course of a tour or tasting. The cookbook does the same thing; and, this particular bite appears in the final third of the menu, falling in between two larger dishes (Pork and Venison), so to me, it feels like a bit of a break, or a transition bite.

EB: Yes, believe it or not. After all the things I've made in my lifetime and in my very short blogging history, this was outstanding. I think a lot of it had to do with far far far exceeding my expectations, but there's just something about the way these flavors (surprisingly to me) worked together that has lodged this in my brain and palate as a highlight.

Matt: Thanks!

Liz: I love love love cumin and most other flavorful spices. It's the texture and smell of caraway that has always put me off. I still can't stand the texture of regular caraway seed, but as a powder or other execution, I think I can handle it.

Tony: You should be able to find Aquavit at most liquor stores. I bought mine at a local place that is not really all that well stocked and they had it. It's usually kept near or in the vodka section. Sometimes, it's spelled Akavit or Akvavit, if that helps. If you're here in the DC area, try Calvert-Woodley, Paul's Liquors, or the state store on Flower and Piney Branch in Takoma Park.

I was super excited to try this out this past weekend, which I made for my brother & sister in law, who gave me the book for christmas.

Sadly... it didn't quite work out. The flavors didn't marry terribly well. Well, to be more specific, the aquavit seemed to overwhelm the dish completely. As my mother in law put it, it tasted like a glorified jello-shot. I tried halving the jello & it still seemed very potent.

My jello also ended up turning opaque in the fridge for some reason... though the leftover jello in the pot that solidified did not turn opaque.

Thoughts on what I did wrong?

love the story at the beginning and the wrap up at the end. very cool.

my bff in junior high used to bring kumquats in her lunch all the time and we'd spend our lunch our peeling them, eating the fleshy insides and puckering up our mouths from the tart-sweetness. for some reason though, i haven't picked them up since. :(

Thoughts on preparing the Kumquats without the olive and caraway a day ahead of time and finishing right before service?

Thanks for reminding me how much I love kumquats -- I made these last night for a birthday party I catered, and they were a wild hit.

Rye bread with caraway seeds was the main bread of my Polish household. Mom only allowed white bread in the house for the purpose of making toast to eat with eggs. Everything else involved rye; consequently, I LOVE caraway seeds. I feel like I'm in the minority around here. :)

I have to agree with Vince. I just made these and the alcohol dominated everything. Did you simmer off some of the alcohol from the Aquavit before jelling it?

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