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March 2009

March 21, 2009

Dry Shot, red peppers, garlic, oregano

When I bought my house and moved to Takoma Park eleven years ago, the kitchen was a disaster.  Non-working avocado and mustard-colored appliances from the 1960s, a thick coating of dust, grease and grime on every surface, a drop-tile ceiling with buzzing and flickering fluorescent lights, and safety hazards everywhere.

Having just bought a house, I wasn't exactly flush with cash to overhaul the kitchen before moving in, so I scrimped and saved for eight months just to be able to afford new appliances and a coat of paint.  During that time, I wasn't really able to cook at all because only one burner on the stove worked (and that was only sometimes), and the oven had spots inside that had rusted through to the floor, and it made a strange noise when you turned it on, so it just wasn't safe to use.  The old refrigerator was a nightmare unto itself: smells not found in nature, unidentifiable and permanent stains, and rusted out shelving.  Oh, and the best part?  It hovered at a frosty 74 degrees, even when turned to its coldest setting.

I hated not being able to cook, but had to make do with food I could cook in the toaster oven (which wasn't much, because I had no skillz or ingenuity), and relied heavily on yogurt and bagels.  Since I was on a money-saving kick, I allowed myself to go out just once a week, but wouldn't let myself spend more than ten dollars.  That usually meant going to a little sandwich shop here in town called Savory.  Back then, it was owned and run by a local woman and the food was just fantastic.  Everything was fresh, delicious, and homemade, and it was one of those places where you could hang out for a little while after eating and catch up with the people you knew at the next table, or maybe just settle in with a magazine or the newspaper for a half hour before heading back home.  For the first month or so, I ordered the same thing every week: turkey and fresh mozzarella on a wholewheat pita with mango chutney mayonnaise and mixed baby greens.  Then, one day when they were out of turkey, the owner got me to try a sandwich she made for herself at the end of each night: tomato, fresh mozzarella, arugula, basil, a thin sliver of roasted red pepper, a small swipe of both honey mustard and mayonnaise, all on fresh-baked olive bread.  And when she made it into a melt, it was even more delicious.  It became my weekly go-to sandwich for the next 6 or 7 months, and because it was my big splurge during very lean times, it has forever earned it a sacred place in my heart and my stomach.

Since then, ownership of Savory has changed hands a few times, and while that sandwich was still on the menu the last time I stopped there for a cup of coffee (I haven't eaten there in YEARS because they're just buying stuff at Costco and reheating it), I know it's not the same sandwich, and I was never able to really and truly replicate it at home.  It just never tasted as good as it did back then.

So, I was a bit surprised when this Dry Shot from the Alinea cookbook transported me to the yellow walls, wooden tables, and warm bread and coffee smell of Savory, circa 1998.  The ingredients aren't exactly the same as that sandwich, but there was something about its flavors and the way they worked together that made me smile and be glad I'm no longer on a $10/week dining out budget.

I had a Dry Shot at Alinea when I ate there last summer, but mine was more on the sweet side -- elements of pineapple, run, and an aromatic I'm totally blanking on.  And, I've already done the Dry Caramel on this blog, so it was fun to be able to do a savory Dry Shot.  I like what dry shots are supposed to do -- reformulate in your mouth and give you pleasant little surprises with every bite as it all comes together.

The first thing I did for this dish was dehydrate some already-pitted (thanks, Whole Foods!) niçoise olives.  I put them on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 125-degree oven for six hours.  They went in around 9 a.m. and while they dried, I did some work.


Then, just before noon, I got another batch of goodies ready to join the olives in the oven to dry out.  I sliced three cloves of elephant garlic into 1/8" slices, milk-blanched and rinsed them three times, then let them cool to room temperature.




I also quartered, peeled, and cut into thin strips a red bell pepper and lined them, along with the slices of elephant garlic, on a second parchment-lined baking sheet and put that in the oven on the rack below the olives.  They went in around 12 noon, and I figured they'd be done in 3 hours and be ready to come out at the same time the olives would be fully dried.


Next up was frying and drying some oregano leaves.  Man, there's nothing like the smell of fresh oregano -- I wish computers had Smell-O-Vision, because this is something I want to cover my body with (although, come to think of it, I might get mistaken for a pizza parlor if I walked down the street smelling like that, so maybe not).


I chose about 50 of the nicest leaves to work with:


I brought a small saucepan of canola oil up to 300 degrees and tossed those leaves in to fry.  It only took about 30 seconds for the bubbles to stop bubbling around them, which is how you tell they're done.  I lifted them out with a wok strainer, salted them, and let them drain on paper towels for about five minutes.


I spaced them out on a smaller parchment-lined baking sheet and put them in the oven around 12:30, planning to take them out at 3 p.m., as well.

Next up?  Fried capers.

Ever since I first made fried capers as part of a French Laundry at Home dish, I've become quite good at making them.  I sprinkle them in salads, serve them with fish, and one time, ground them up and sprinkled them over popcorn.  That turned out not to be all that great, in case you were wondering.  But still, making fried capers is easy.  You rinse and dry your capers, and then you fry them in hot canola oil until the bubbles stop forming around them.  Seriously, I could do this with my eyes closed and both hands tied behind my back.

Except for this time...


You'll notice the pool of oil on the stovetop underneath the pan and the wisps of smoke coming up the side.  You'll notice the furious bubbling.  You'll notice the burner flame is no longer lit.  That's because when I put the capers into the 400-degree oil, it was like the Mount St. Helens of culinary inadequacy up in here.  Everything shot up into the air and then down onto the flame, and thankfully, some instinct kicked in (apart from the holy-shit instinct, which believe me, was there) and I immediately turned off the burner and reached for dishtowels to run under water in case there was a fire.

There was not.

But then I started to do something really dumbass, which is move the pot off that burner and begin to wipe up the spilled oil, until I realized, my paper towel in hand a half-inch away from contact, HELLO, THAT SHIT IS 400 DEGREES YOU MORON, BACK OFF; so I put down the paper towel, and let the capers continue to cook in the still-hot oil, popping and sizzling away while I stood five feet back, hoping my stove wouldn't blow up.  They mostly cooked... but a few were still intact and not as crispy as they needed to be.


I let them drain on a few changes of paper towel until 3 o'clock that afternoon, when I began to get things out of the oven and move them on to their next stages.

Clockwise, from top left (and fully dried out): garlic, red bell pepper, oregano leaves, niçoise olives, and fried capers.


Same ingredients, now crushed or ground:


The one step I didn't photograph is me drizzling some olive oil onto bread, dousing it in salt and pepper, and toasting it in a 250-degree oven for an hour then chopping it into small chunks and bits.  You're welcome.

When it was time to assemble the ingredients into one big mixture, I just assumed everything got dumped into one bowl, and then portioned out.  I'm glad I checked the book, because that was not the case.  Still, mystery abounded.  The book instructs to combine 100g red bell pepper, 40g olives, 40g garlic chips, 65g toasted bread crumbs, 24g capers, and a little salt.  So, I decided to be a good little do-bee and measure it all out, when to my surprise, my numbers weren't even coming close.

100g of red bell pepper? I had 5g.  40g olives?  I had only 29g.  I was closer on the garlic, with 30g, but had only 16g capers and 60g bread.  Hmmmmmmm..... 

So, with a heavy sigh (which nobody heard because I was in the house by myself, so I'm not sure why I even did it), I just tossed everything together in a large mixing bowl and hoped for the best.

For the final "plating," the book suggests making these cool little vellum envelopes, to which I said, "Oh Grant, clearly you did not know I got a C in 7th-grade art class when we did origami," so I just laid out the shots on individual rectangles of parchment paper, which each person lifted into a U shape, and just slid on into their gullets.





My shots were a little on the generous side when it came to portion size, so our mouths were probably a little more crammed than is wise, but let me tell you something: this was goooooooood.  The different textures -- some crunchy, some crispy -- were nice, but the flavors were absolutely phenomenal together.  Every chew, every bite down yielded something deeper and more pronounced, and it instantly sent me back to a really happy and hopeful time as a new homeowner just trying to make ends meet and allowing myself one special treat every week.

Totally unexpected, and totally cool.

Up Next: Verjus, lemon thyme, beets, olive oil

Resources: Red bell pepper, niçoise olives, oregano leaves, elephant garlic, and bread from Whole Foods; Organic Valley skim milk; 365 canola oil; David's kosher salt; Monini olive oil; Bel Paese capers.

Music to Cook By: Matt and Kim; Grand.  I first heard about Matt and Kim in January on a KCRW podcast.  They did an interview to promote "Grand," and I liked their sound.  One of my favorite songs, even though the lyrics are mostly indecipherable (to me, anyway), is "Good Ol' Fashion Nightmare" because I think it's percussive and boppy and a lot of fun.  I probably don't want to know what the lyrics are, because, with my luck, they're something like, "I like to take chainsaws and cut up all my family, la, la, la, la...." So yeah, I'll settle for staying in the dark.

Read My Previous Post: Cucumber, mango, several aromatics

March 14, 2009

Cucumber, mango, several aromatics

You guys... the Moments of Shame you shared in the last post's comments are HILARIOUS!!! Without going into detail about the specifics, I can safely say the past seven days have been the most crazy, amazing roller coaster of work for me -- all good stuff, but exhausting nonetheless -- and I can't tell you how awesome it has been to see your comments pop up for approval... especially when I've been in the middle of some really heady, intense stuff with some heady, intense, brilliant, driven people.  Your stories gave me quite a few desperately needed moments of levity and snorting, so THANK YOU.

The randomly selected winner of the 2.5 oz. of dried eucalyptus leaves is Leslie, who, thanks to mishearing some Rocky and Bullwinkle dialogue as a child, thought the Pulitzer Prize was actually the Pull-it Surprise.  Congrats, Leslie!

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For those of you who didn't get to see Chef Achatz on Oprah this past Tuesday, you can click here to see the video clips.  My words can't do justice to Grant's telling of his story, so go have a listen.

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I have spent the last two hours debating whether or not to open this post with some play-by-play from what I think is a very funny story about a bad experience I had with mangoes a few years ago.  However, upon reflection, I've decided the details are not at all appropriate for a food blog, so I think it's best I keep it to myself.  Suffice to say, it was the first time a guy I had just started dating made dinner for me, and part of his menu involved mangoes.  Thirty minutes after eating them, I had a reaction that was loud, continuous, and painful.  And humiliating.  Oh my.  The end.

I have been more than a little nervous to eat mangoes again since then, but if my allergy/insensitivity to them is like some other fruits I can't eat, then I know it's probably only its raw form that causes me to, um, suffer, and that the cooked version is probably fine.  Still, the flashbacks are nearly as unpleasant as the original experience, so I haven't eaten mangoes since.

To be honest, though, I was actually kind of ambivalent about making this dish.  I intuitively knew the flavors would be nice together, and it didn't seem all that difficult to make.  I figured we'd eat it, look at one another and say, "Huh, well that was nice, wasn't it" and go about our merry way.  The only element of the dish I really had any serious reservations about was the cucumber, because it had to have some pickling brine on it for one minute.  I know that's not a long time, but you don't understand: I hate pickles.  When I order a sandwich or a burger for lunch, I don't even want a pickle on my plate, let alone on or touching the actual food I'm going to eat.  I also hate things, in general, that are pickled, like watermelon rind, beans, other vegetables; even sauerkraut makes me gag.  I know that makes me a traitor to my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, but I can't help it.  Pickled things make my mouth water in the not-right way.  My mom and my brother can down the stuff like there's no tomorrow, but not me (I don't think my dad's a huge fan either, but he doesn't have the same aversion I do).  In fact, now that I think of it, the only dish I outright refused to eat or even taste when I made all 100 dishes in The French Laundry Cookbook involved pickled oysters, that's how much I hate pickled stuff.

So, I almost skipped this step in this dish altogether and thought about doing fresh cucumber instead, but decided to trust in the dish as it's presented and see how it went.  All about reaching and stretching and expanding my comfort zone, remember?  Vomit and gackiness be damned.

As I was getting my ingredients together, all hell broke loose with a client (in a good way, a very good way), so I ached to be in the kitchen, if only for a few hours, because with all the work-related stress this past week, my brain was floating and swimming and drowning and frying all simultaneously, and I needed to be doing something tactile to keep me grounded and focused on something in between frenetic phone calls, to-dos, and lightning-speed writing deadlines.

What a pleasure it was to feel the weight of these lovely, lovely mangoes in my hands:


I peeled, pitted, and cubed both mangoes, then put them in the blender with a little salt and blended until smooth.  Then, as the book instructs, I got out my refractometer to measure the sugar content and then poured in enough simple syrup until it measured 20 degrees Brix, except I'm lying because I DO NOT HAVE A REFRACTOMETER.

I mean, really.

So, Carol, I hear you saying.  What the hell is a refractometer?  Well, my darlings, a refractometer measures the refractive index (fundamental physical property) of something -- in this case, the concentration of a solute in an aqueous solution, e.g. the sugar content.  I think refractometers are cool, but sadly, I don't own one -- as I'm guessing most home cooks don't -- and didn't want to go out and buy one.  Instead, I figured I'd just wing it and hope for the best.  Seriously, if I had a refractometer, I'd never leave the house.  I'd refractometerize everything I own and never get anything meaningful done.  In fact, I'd build Herbie Hancock-like refractometer contraptions all over my house.  No, I wouldn't.  I just needed an excuse to link to that video (remember when music videos were good?  sigh....).

So, since I had no idea what the Brix measurement of my blended mango concoction was, I decided to pour 2 tablespoons of simple syrup into the mixture and cross my fingers that it was enough and not too much.  I turned on the blender again, mixing it all together one last time before pouring it onto my Silpat-lined baking sheet, hoping against hope it would work.



The Alinea cookbook suggests using an acetate sheet to make the leather, but that really didn't work out the way I'd planned when I made apple leather a few months ago, so I decided to see how my Silpat might fare.


I tried to smooth it with an offset spatula, but it made all these uneven spots, divots, and swirls, so I just tilted the pan from side to side, allowing it to even out that way.  I put it in a 150-degree oven for 3 hours.  You'll see how it turned out later on in the post.

Meantime, I made the candied lemon zest by zesting a lemon, removing any extraneous pith with my paring knife (a task I find strangely soothing), and cutting the lemon zest pieces into 1/16" strips which I boiled in a mixture of sugar and water for 60 seconds:




I drained them from the saucepan and stored them in a little deli container of simple syrup in the fridge until I was ready to use them in the final plating.


At this point, I made clove salt and coriander salt, but didn't take photos of either one.  Essentially, you grind up whole cloves (I used a coffee bean grinder I use for making ground spices) and mix them with kosher salt, and then do the same with coriander seeds, also mixing that with salt.  The amounts given in the book leave you with plenty of leftover spiced salts, and I can't wait to experiment with them on different foods next week when I get back to a more normal eating-at-home schedule.

But I digress.

Next up?  Cucumbers.  English cucumbers, to be exact.  Pip pip, cheerio, and all that rot!

The book is specific about the cucumber cutting: 4" long by 1.5" wide segments:


Leaving the skin on, I used my Benriner mandoline (I love that freakin' thing) to slice the cucumber lengthwise into strips that were 1/16" thick.



I put them on a plate I'd lined with a damp paper towel, then covered them with another damp paper towel before putting them in the refrigerator.  You'll notice I cut eight slices; the book calls for four.  I did eight because I wanted to have backups in case I screwed something up further down the line.  Luckily, I didn't, so I ended up noshing on them as I cleaned up afterward.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Rewind...

Onto to juniper berries.  In the "Assemble and Serve" section of this dish, the book calls for 4 fresh juniper berries.  Did not have.  Instead, I had dried juniper berries, so I crushed a few of them with a mortar and pestle and figured I'd use the resulting powdery parts in the plating, somehow.



In a medium saucepan, I combined water, white wine vinegar, and sugar, brought it to a simmer, turned off the flame and let it cool to room temperature (took about 20-25 minutes).  You'll see the pickling brine in a later shot, along with the cucumber strips.

Meantime, the mango leather had been doing its thing in the oven.  At the three-hour mark, it seemed done.  Or so I thought.


I know the photo is blurry, and I'm sorry about that.  Hopefully, you can see that the edges were brittle and flaked off easily.  I thought the whole sheet was like that and was sorely disappointed.  But, before tossing the whole thing into the sink, I decided to keep peeling and see what happened.  Eventually, when I got closer to the middle of the Silpat, it was nice and leathery -- like a fruit roll-up texture.  So, I peeled that part off and was able to cut it into strips.  They weren't the same size as the book instructed, but it was as close as I could get.

At this point, I took four of the cucumber strips and halved them lengthwise.  Instead of laying them on paper towels and pouring pickling brine over them (hello, splashage!) as the book suggested, I decided to lay them in the brine for a minute instead, then drain them on paper towels, because I am a neat freak who does not want pickle juice flying all over her kitchen (dramatic, much?) where it will surely get lodged in every nook and cranny and I will have to smell it for all eternity or else renovate the entire house just to remove the stench of that vile, vile liquid.




Man, that mango leather looks depressing. 

Last, but not least, I peeled a hunk of fresh ginger, sliced a few thin slices from it on the mandoline and cut little triangles out of a few of those slices -- eight in all.

I don't have photos of the assembly process (even though I grew up near Three Mile Island, I do not have a third arm with which to hold the camera), but I laid each cucumber strip on a cutting board, topped it with a mango leather strip, then rolled it in a way that allowed me to poke out the ends so the rolls (sort of) looked like the ones in the book.  I topped each roll with a little dried juniper berry powder, coriander salt, clove salt, a ginger triangle, a thread or two of saffron, and a strip of candied lemon zest.



Um, you guys?  This is my favorite so far.  Yes, I still love the ones I loved and I certainly don't love them any less, but this one was outstanding and I'm grinning from ear to ear as I think about it all over again.  The slight pickle-ness of the cucumber and the sweet tang of the mango are really nice together -- yes, I just confessed to liking something pickled; call CNN! -- but the lemon and ginger just give it this extra playful punch, the juniper berries open it up wide, and the whole bite just consumes and breaks open every molecule of your palate, and it's simply gorgeous.  There were four of us in the kitchen and eight spoons, and we were beyond thrilled to be able to eat two apiece.

Now, would I make this exact bite again?  I think I would, for a special occasion.  But, I know for sure that one of my favorite salads this spring and summer will consist of warm (probably blanched in simple syrup) mango, slightly pickled cucumber chunks, candied and diced lemon zest, and a juniper berry-coriander-clove-fresh-ginger-infused vinaigrette, served on a small bed of mâche or arugula. Or watercress.  Or quinoa.  I might even add a fine dice of red onion just to mix it up a bit.  Or caramelized shallots.  And chopped candied pecans.  Oh my..... I know what I'm picking up at the grocery store tomorrow....

What would you do with the elements of this dish?

Up Next: Dry Shot, red pepper, garlic, oregano

Resources:  Cucumber, mango, lemon, and ginger from H Mart in Wheaton, MD; David's kosher salt; Domino sugar, Domaines des Vignes white wine vinegar; coriander seed and whole cloves from the Takoma Park Co-op.

Music to Cook By: Barry Manilow; The Greatest Songs of the Eighties.  Go ahead and judge; I can take it.  Because if this album is wrong, I don't wanna be right.

Read My Previous Post: Pear, eucalyptus, olive oil, black pepper

March 06, 2009

Pear, eucalyptus, olive oil, black pepper

When I started this blog, I created a spreadsheet of all the dishes and their specialty ingredients so I could more efficiently plan my ingredient purchases and cooking timeline.  When I looked ahead to this dish, I didn't see anything that needed to be special-ordered or sourced online.  I already have a stash of gelatin sheets, and pears and lemons are easy to find at the grocery store.  I knew I'd be using fresh mint leaves instead of zuta levana leaves, and I'd planned to dry my own eucalyptus leaves because I was absolutely, positively certain there was a eucalyptus tree in a someone's yard back in my hometown where I'd been planning to visit anyway.  This is the point at which you should know my hometown is not in California, nor is it in Australia -- the two places in the world where eucalyptus trees are prevalent. I grew up Amish-adjacent in Pennsylvania.

About a week before making this dish, I called my mom about something else, and while I was on the phone with her I asked her to help me figure out who it was that we knew who had a eucalyptus tree in their yard:

Me: So, I thought the next time I came up, I'd just get some eucalyptus leaves from one of the trees up there and dry them myself.  That might be cool.  Who do we know that has a eucalyptus tree in their yard? 

My mom: What are you talking about?

Me: Eucalyptus.  You know, that tall and round tree with the big, dark green leaves... that tree that I think Aunt Phyl and Uncle Doc used to have in their side yard at the old house?

My mom: :::: silence :::::

Me: Um, how do you not know what I'm talking about?  (yes, I sometimes act like I'm 13)  Eucalyptus!!! They're everywhere.  Dark green leaves, beautiful white flowers, and I think there's one in the front yard of that Tudor-looking house on Chestnut Street, and...

My mom: I think you might be thinking about a mag...

Me: ...nolia tree. 

My mom:  :::: stifling a laugh ::::

Me: Oh, man.  Oh, shi... Crap... crappity-crap-crap. 

My mom:  :::: not exactly stifling that laugh anymore :::::

So, I had to find dried eucalyptus leaves online, which was really easy and they arrived quickly, so I guess the story has a happy ending, despite my winning the Duh Award for momentarily confusing magnolia for eucalyptus.

I will say this upfront: I had reservations and hesitations about making this dish.  I associate the smell of eucalyptus with camphor oil, and of being sick as a little kid and having Vicks VapoRub on my chest.  So, as I was preparing the ingredients for this dish, I was thinking this might smell and taste like a sinus infection or bronchitis, and wouldn't that be the opposite of awesome...

The first thing I did was prepare the pear balls.  I peeled the first Anjou pear and scooped out eight little balls using my #12 melon baller (about 1/4").  The Alinea cookbook suggests using two pears, but I was able to make it work with one, and my balls ended up being bigger (*snerk*) than the ones the book recommends doing, because of the melon ballers I already owned.

So, after scooping out the little balls with the 1/4" scoop, I then scooped around those with a 1" melon baller, creating a semi-ball with a hollowed-out top:





As I scooped each one, I stored them in a bowl of water, into which I'd squeezed some fresh lemon juice, so they wouldn't turn brown as I worked.

The next step is to put the pear balls (the big ones, not the little guys I hollowed out first - I ate those) in a small saucepan with some wine, sugar, and water and bring it to a boil.  Once that happened, I turned off the flame and poured the contents of the saucepan into an empty bowl nestled in a larger bowl of ice water.



While those cooled, I made the eucalyptus (that's a hard word to type, and I keep typing it as eucatlypus, argh!!!) gelatin.  I combined water, sugar, salt, and eucalyptus in a small saucepan.   Let me just say here how much I love using a scale to measure things for cooking.  It is so damn easy to just plonk the pot or whatever vessel I'm using onto the scale, press tare to zero-out the readout, and add each ingredient, pressing the tare button in between each one. 


I brought the liquid to a boil, turned off the flame, then let it steep for 45 minutes, covered.


p.s. -- it didn't smell like cold medicine at all, so my expectations got a wee bit sunnier.

After the 45-minute steeping, I strained it through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl and then added the gelatin sheets (which I'd soaked for about five minutes before straining the eucalyptus liquid).  If you are going to attempt this or any other dish that calls for gelatin sheets, please don't try to substitute powdered gelatin.  It doesn't work in the same way, and you will be disappointed with your outcome, trust me.  I love that so many of you are adventurous enough to want to do these dishes -- I would just hate for you to feel like it was a waste of all the other ingredients when it doesn't turn out the way it should... because it won't.  Using powdered gelatin can sometimes add a weird mouth feel, and it just doesn't set as nicely or as cleanly as sheet gelatin.  Not sure why (and if anyone reading this wants to explain it better in the comments, be my guest), but take my word for it.


I lined a small baking dish with plastic wrap and poured a little bit of the gelatin (about 1/16" to 1/8" inch) to cover the bottom, and put it in the refrigerator to set.


The book suggests it might take an hour or so.  Mine took 15 minutes.

Just before taking the baking dish of gelatin out of the fridge, I leveled the bottoms of the pear balls just a smidge so they'd be able to sit properly on this layer of gelatin.  I also evened out the tops of the balls, too, so that they'd be a little more uniform.  It wasn't perfect but it sufficed, even if some of them look a little raggedy in the close-up.

I then placed the pear balls onto the thin layer of set gelatin, and gently poured the rest of the liquid gelatin into the dish so the pear balls would be surrounded in it -- like a silken eucalyptus hug -- careful to not let any of the liquid go into the divots in the center of the pear balls, because that's where the olive oil needed to go in the final plating.



I put them in the refrigerator again, and while the book suggests it might take an hour to set, mine took about 40 minutes.  Again, yours may take more or less time -- it's all in the temperature and humidity, I suppose.

When they'd set, I lifted the gelatin-surrounded pears out of the baking dish (the reason why using plastic wrap in that step is important) and used a 1" round cutter to cut around and remove the pear balls, leaving a thin coating of gelatin around the sides, as well.


They sort of look like milk-soaked, bloated Apple Jacks, don't they?

I placed each one on a spoon, filled each center with olive oil, then added a little bit of freshly ground black pepper and a small mint leaf.  Whaddya think?



I kind of wish I'd thought to strain the strained eucalyptus liquid through a cheesecloth before adding the gelatin sheets because there was microscopic sediment which didn't allow the gel to be as clear as I know it could have been.

So, how'd they taste?  Well, not at all weird.  Texture-wise, they were a little on the mealy side.  I think, maybe, I should've done the steeping part of the gelatin first, and done the pear balls while the liquid was steeping.  Of course, my pear was really pretty ripe, so maybe that contributed to the soft graininess.  It didn't gross me out, and it didn't detract from the taste; it was just something I noticed.

Taste-wise, it was pleasant and a nice contrast of flavors. I wish I'd used a sharper olive oil, because I think that might've enhanced it a bit.  The combination of eucalyptus and pear was very nice and quite fragrant, and the mint added a nice touch.  I think I want to get new or at least different black peppercorns, because these tasted a little off; maybe they're stale.  I would like for them to have added a bit more depth of contrast than they did for me.

In all, this was a really nice bite.  Will it end up in my Alinea at Home Top Ten of All Time when the blog is done?  Probably not.  Will it end up on the list of Ten Dishes I Will Never Do Again Because Holy Crap That Was Not Worth It?  No way.  In fact, they were so easy to make, I'll probably do them again, or a variation thereof.  And if you want to try them at home, you should.  They wouldn't be that hard to do it you only had one size of melon baller.  I imagine you could do the smaller scoop-out part with a twist of the tip of a grapefruit spoon, right?

This bite was calm and nice and lovely.  And, it certainly changed my mind about cooking with eucalyptus, that's for sure.  Or magnolia.  Whatever.

Speaking of which, in honor of The Great Eucalyptus-Magnolia Confusion of 2009, I'm going to do another giveaway.  Use the comments to tell me about a time when you were so sure you were right about something (doesn't have to be about food), but so easily got schooled by someone else, and you instantly knew you were wrong and, thus, felt like a giant dork for the rest of the day.  I'll randomly select a winner, and he or she will receive a bag of 2.5 oz. of dried eucalyptus leaves to experiment with.  Good luck!  And have fun sharing the shame.  We've all been there.

Oh, and congrats to Liz, Amanda, and Andreas, who won the dried hibiscus flowers!

Up Next: Verjus, lemon thyme, beets, olive oil

Resources: Pear, lemon, and mint from HMart; Domino sugar, Mâcon-Villages Louis Jadot Chardonnay (2007); David's kosher salt; King Arthur Flour gelatin sheets; eucalyptus leaves from organzabagg.com; Monini D.O.P. Umbia olive oil.

Music to Cook By: Metallica; Metallica (The Black Album).  I'm a fan of all things Metallica, but there's something about this album that I particularly like.  I think it's because I associate it with a time in my life when, to relieve the stress of my job, I played the drums to this album on my steering wheel in the car on the way home from work.  I like it even more now because it's always fun to see people's reactions when a girl (me) opts to bang out "Enter Sandman" at karaoke.  It's quite the crowd pleaser.

Read My Previous Post: See, here's the thing...

March 02, 2009

See, here's the thing...

I'd planned to finish writing my post about Pear, eucalyptus, olive oil, black pepper today.  I spent the weekend with family and friends celebrating babies, engagements, and other lovely things.  First thing on my to-do list for this morning, this Monday morning, was to wake up early, finish that post, and push it out to the blog so it could greet you as you checked your feed or your bookmarks before diving into your busy day.

And then, this happened:


When I went to bed last night, after having had my neighbors over for dinner followed by dessert and a glass of scotch by the fire at their house, there was maybe a half-inch of snow on the ground.  Because we'd been told ALL DAY SUNDAY we were under a HOLY CRAP YOU'D BETTER GO BUY DIAPERS AND MILK AND BREAD AND TOILET PAPER WINTER STORM WARNING  BECAUSE YOU MIGHT STARVE TO DEATH OR HAVE A CALCIUM DEFICIENCY OR NOT BE ABLE TO WIPE YOUR ARSE BECAUSE THERE IS 6" OF SNOW ON THE GROUND, PEOPLE, AND DON'T FORGET TO DRIVE LIKE A MANIAC AND ACT LIKE A HUGE JERK THE WHOLE TIME YOU'RE AT THE STORE BUYING THOSE ITEMS BECAUSE YOU ARE CLEARLY THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE ENTIRE PLACE, I was totally bummed that, once again, the big old winter storm warning turned out to be nothing but a misting of rain and a light dusting of snow.

Before heading off to bed, grumbling about stupid-idiot-meteorologists-we-never-get-snow-here-anymore-blah-blah-blah-bittercakes, I checked my calendar and to-do lists for the morning, certain I'd have to work and that it would be business as usual.  It was going to be a killer of a week with meetings, events, deadlines, and media interviews with clients.

I woke up just before 6 o'clock this morning (which I never do on my own) because it was quiet.  Too quiet.  The kind of quiet only a blanket of snow can bring.  I quietly edged out of bed, peeked through the blinds, and was face-to-face with a tree limb covered in snow.  I shoved my feet into my slippers, threw on a robe, ran downstairs, flung open the front door, and just took in everything around me.





I've written before about how much I love snow, and that magical things happen when it snows.  But today's snowfall was the most significant one we've had all winter and granted us something we rarely ever get here in these parts: a snow day.

I don't know what it's like where you live, but here in Washington, DC, snow days are special.  School closings aside, they're a tacit agreement that work can be suspended for a day.  That while you'll still probably check your voicemail and email every few hours, you don't have to respond.  That it's okay to go back to sleep for another hour or two, then wake up to make a big breakfast, and abandon whatever plans you might've had for a day in which you get to press the pause button and just stop and take it all in.


I've lived in and around this city for nearly 23 years, and snow days don't come around all that often.  Here in the nation's capital, like other cities, we work hard.  But, the one thing we don't do well is play hard.  We like to think we do or tell people we do, but we don't. 

Living in Washington, and working in politics especially, means you work 24/7.  Not that you're always in the office or on the phone wheeling and dealing, but I feel like in this city, the lines are blurred or nonexistent between politics, work, the news, family, and friends, which can be really great, but can also lead to feeling like you never really have a day off.  Don't get me wrong: some of the best and deepest personal relationships I have came out of a professional setting at first, but it's hard to live here and not talk shop when you're technically supposed to be off the clock.  It's common for a dinner party or night at the movies to end in a quick round-up of something you read in the Post or the Times, or who's going to call whom on behalf of someone else to make sure someone votes a certain way on a piece of legislation or hires the right lobbyist or gets involved in one coalition or another.  It's neither good nor bad.  It just is.

That's where snow days come in.

They allow those of us who take ourselves way too seriously a day to hole up at home, not answer the phone if we don't want to, not go into work, and not feel guilty about ignoring our to-do lists for 24 hours. It's a chance to stare out the window at the birdfeeder, watch crap TV, and not make the bed because you may crawl back into it a few hours later for an afternoon nap.

Snow days bring out the best and worst in people.  In my case, today's snow brought out the best in one of my neighbors who, with his son, not only shoveled my front sidewalk, but also shoveled a path around my car and to their front door so we can easily get to one another's houses until the snow melts.

So, to thank them, I decided to make Cream of Walnut Soup from The French Laundry Cookbook.


But wait, Carol, I hear you saying.  Isn't this blog supposed to be all about cooking your way through the Alinea cookbook?


But I realized something today that I hadn't really thought about, and I credit the snow and the gift of a day off it brought for making this connection.

Two years ago (almost to the day, in fact), I made Cream of Walnut Soup for the very first time.  I was only six weeks into French Laundry at Home and was still holding the book at arm's length.  I was intimidated by that book and felt like it was almost too pristine for me to touch, let alone cook from.  I was still figuring out the hows and whys, and was nervous as hell every time I opened the page to a new recipe.  But this one dish, the Cream of Walnut Soup, I'd made on a day it unexpectedly snowed and it was the first dish in that book, now in hindsight, that I feel I really nailed and got right.  I will forever associate this taste with feeling like I'd stepped over a giant threshold into some kind of acceptance and warmth, and I'll always associate it with a snowy day when I got to have some welcomed, needed down time.

It's never felt right to make it since then.  It just doesn't taste the same without snow on the ground and grey clouds straddling the sky.  It only feels right to make this on a day like today.

So, when I saw the snow on the ground this morning and had the ingredients on hand, I knew I wasn't going to finish my other post, and instead reached for The French Laundry Cookbook, which has a permanent home on my kitchen counter propped up alongside the refrigerator.  Opening that book again reminded me, almost startlingly, of what it felt like two years ago to be cooking my way through it.  And, as I pulled ingredients from the pantry and fridge, it made me think about what it's been like to cook from the Alinea cookbook so far.

Am I still a little nervous when starting a new recipe?  Sometimes.

Do I keep the book at arm's length?  Yes. But not in the same way as I did The French Laundry Cookbook.

Cooking my way through the Alinea cookbook has felt different because it is different. Not only are they different restaurants and books, I'm cooking my way through them from different perspectives.  I never ate at The French Laundry before cooking my way through that book, but I did eat at Alinea  before starting this blog.  I never met Chef Keller until I was nearly done with that blog, but I met Grant Achatz before starting this one.  The French Laundry Cookbook had been around for nearly ten years before I started cooking from it and writing about it, whereas the Alinea cookbook had been out for ten minutes before this blog went live.  I was bored and restless and needed something challenging to engage with when I started French Laundry at Home, but started Alinea at Home at a time when my personal and professional lives were and still are the busiest they'd ever been.

I guess what's interesting to me in all this is I, like many others, I think, am a creature of habit and really, really, really don't like being outside my comfort zone.  The funny thing is, I'm great at counseling my clients to reach out in new and more creative and risky directions, but when it comes to me, I like my routines, and the things and people I'm comfortable with.  I've been this way my whole life.  Seriously, ask my parents; they could write a freakin' encyclopedia on how to raise a daughter who is stubborn and likes things the way they are so don't alter anything or she might have a conniption.  And while I'm sure experts would say it stems from some deep-rooted psychological something or other from when I was probably a minute old, it's just who I am and I make no apologies for it. And even though my being this way actually works in my favor more often than not, I do get frustrated with myself from time to time because it has the potential to translate to missed opportunities and laziness... two things that I hate more than I hate the notion of change.

Truth be told, I'm envious of people who are really creative and innovative risk-takers, and whose brains work in ways mine doesn't.  I admire people who can sit down with a guitar and an empty page of sheet music and pull together a song, or who can paint and draw, or do an architectural rendering. And when it comes to food, I am mesmerized by and a little jealous of someone like Grant Achatz, who can do what he does in the way he does it, because my brain is just not wired like that at all.

And that's why I think I was drawn to the Alinea cookbook above anything else.  Because it's so not me, but represents traits and skills I admire in others, but had not yet been willing to take the risk to figure out how to adapt or embed in myself.  I don't know if it's possible for me to change in that way or explore the possibility of rewiring (or even just tinkering with) my brain in this manner, but I knew I needed to get better about breaking out of my comfort zone, and doing it with food seemed to me to be a path that would make me the most willing to learn.

While The French Laundry Cookbook seemed daunting at the time I first took it on, as I now look back on it now, it was full of ingredients I recognized, measurements I was familiar with, and techniques that I mostly knew but needed to perfect.  The Alinea cookbook has far more ingredients I've never heard of, techniques I've never tried, and measurements I was resistant to (using a scale) but now can't believe I haven't adopted sooner.

Cooking my way through The French Laundry Cookbook enabled me to walk into the grocery store without a list and still be able to figure out what I could cook based on what looked fresh and good.  It strengthened the techniques and thought processes that eventually got me away from cooking from recipes and, instead, relying on my intuition and experience.

I have no idea what the Alinea cookbook is going to have taught me when I push that last post to this site, and that's weird, yet oddly comforting, because while both books are very different, I'm still the same person cooking from them.  Today, as I was peeling a pear and toasting some walnuts, I thought about what my Cream of Walnut soup will be with the Alinea cookbook.  What will be the dishes I most associate with certain times, places, moods, and events?  What techniques or flavor profiles will I learn that two years from now will be commonplace in my own kitchen?  Instead of stepping out of my comfort zone, I wonder how far my comfort zone will expand.  What will I excel at?  What will be dismal failures?  What will frustrate me?  What will create, cement, or remind me of certain moments and memories?

Two years ago, when I celebrated a surprise snow day with Cream of Walnut Soup, I never could have guessed that that would be a significant taste memory today.  Even bigger than a taste memory, I suppose.  A state of mind memory.  And, I'm grateful for it because it's so unexpected -- I mean, I already loved snow and snow days more than anyone I know.  How awesome to have something so delicious to layer on with that.  And the layering takes on a whole new perspective when I think about pears and walnuts in their raw form, and what taste memories I have of them individually over the years.  To then have this extra association of Cream of Walnut Soup on top of all that is pretty cool.

So, I guess today's snow day has made me even more curious as to what, in the future, I'll be able to look back on from the Alinea cookbook and think (and sorry for the convoluted math-like equation I'm about to drop on you), "Man, I already loved W, X, and Y on their own because of reason A, but when paired with Z and then made together as B during this certain time of my life, it's created this whole new association, which is even cooler than the original ingredients were to begin with."

Do you have any really, truly significant food/taste/situational memories?  Wanna tell us about 'em?  Comment away, my friends.  Comment away.

Up Next (I promise): Pear, eucalyptus, olive oil, black pepper  (and the winners of the dried hibiscus!)

Read My Previous Post: Tripod, hibiscus

Alinea Book


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


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