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April 2009

April 23, 2009

Granola, in a rose water envelope

A few housekeeping notes before we begin:

1) Congrats to Alinea for being ranked #10 in the World's 50 Best Restaurants list (Restaurant Magazine, S. Pellegrino, et al).  Per Se was ranked #6, and came in as the top-ranked American restaurant.  Both placements are so well deserved, and I'm so thrilled for them!

2) Grant Achatz is blogging over on The Atlantic's Food Channel.  In addition to being a great thinker and amazingly creative chef, he's a good writer, too.  I'm curious to see what some of you think about his latest posts, "New Fusion: Making Old Modern" and "Food Tasting or Art Installation?" so hit him up on the comments over there and weigh in with your thoughts.  Grant is also on Twitter, if you care to follow him.

3) Michael Ruhlman's new book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, came out two weeks ago, and to commemorate the launch of the book he's working with Share Our Strength on a giveaway of three scales and signed copies of the book.  Any dollar amount of a donation to Share Our Strength through the link above qualifies you to win, so check it out.  You all know how great an organization I think Share Our Strength is, and as the economy continues on its current trajectory, their work gets harder and harder.  So if you have a roof over your head and a sated feeling from the lunch, dinner, breakfast, or glass of wine you just had, I hope you'll send a few dollars their way.... I just did.  And, I can't speak highly enough about Michael's book, as well.  As I've been cooking my way through Alinea, I've really come to love cooking with a scale.... and that's an integral piece of the kinds of things you'll learn in Ratio.

4) This last bit is not necessarily Alinea-related, but given my previous blog, I feel okay including it here, so I hope you'll indulge me.  For the past month or so, Per Se has been offering an a la carte menu in the lounge area of the restaurant.  Upon first hearing about it, I'll confess that I wasn't thrilled with the idea because I didn't think it was representative of the brand and it just didn't feel right to me.  In fact, to be honest, I caught myself involuntarily wrinkling my nose and making a face when I heard the news.  However, since I'm making a concerted effort in my life to be a wee bit less judge-y (and man, is that hard), I thought it best that I try the eating-in-the-lounge experience before having a fully formed opinion about it.  So, two weeks ago, I went to New York to visit one of my best friends,  Marisa, and took her to Per Se with me and we had the most wonderful time!  Is it the same as eating the full menu in the dining room?  No, it's not.  However, they've staffed the lounge in the same way they staff the dining room, so the service experience, to me, felt quite similar.  Courses run in the $25-45 range, and you can have one course, or you can have them all.  Or, you can have three servings of the same course.  It's first-come, first-served (no reservations) and the dress code for the main dining room applies.  Marisa and I were lucky enough to be able to sit on the sofa in front of the window overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park, and we each did four courses (lobster, foie [me]/pork belly [Marisa], rabbit, beef) and split a cheese course for dessert. Everything was absolutely delicious, and the service was fantastic.  It was strange, I'll admit, to have control over my menu choices there.  I'm much more comfortable, at that price point and with a kitchen staff that talented, surrendering complete control and enjoying whatever the chef has designed.  So, while my brain is still not 100% sold on the idea from a branding perspective, my stomach and my heart quite selfishly are jumping for joy at the idea of now being able to pop in for a course or two and a glass of wine when I'm in town on business -- in fact, it's something I've wished in the past I could have done when I craved Oysters & Pearls or the beef with that divine bordelaise.  So, if you're in New York and get the chance to try it, let me know what you think.

*  *  *  *  *

Now, onto Granola, in a rose water envelope....

*  *  *  *  *

Oh, chickens.... after the Great Pineapple Glass Meltdown of 2009, I wish I had good news for you.  But, just like LuAnn de Lesseps should stick to shopping instead of writing a book about having class, I think you'll find this post to be yet another reason why I should continue pursuing my political shenanigans here in the nation's capital and stay far, far away from a culinary career in a professional kitchen.  Sigh.....

I should confess upfront that I had reservations about this dish -- specifically the making of the rose water envelope.  And no, not because I would have to figure out a workaround for the heat sealer thingamabob.  That part was easy (because I am a girl who owns a certain hair appliance that I knew would work perfectly).  See, here's the thing: I f-ing HATE the smell of roses, rosewater, that nasty-ass rosewater-glycerin "perfume"... hate hate HATE.  It makes me sneeze and wheeze, and even just the slightest whiff stays lodged in my nasal passages and my throat for HOURS, and I loathe it.  Detest it.  Wish it harm.  An old boyfriend's parents gave me some rose-scented soaps and lotions one year for Christmas, and I could smell that shit through the wrapping paper, as its very scent made the Christmas tree drop needles in protest.  As I unwrapped it, I starting coughing and sneezing and lying, "Oh, thanks!  How great!  Just what I wanted! Pardon me as I rush myself to the ER to get hooked up to a nebulizer so I can breathe again!"  And, when I was but a pipsqueak, I had a Sunday School teacher who wore a suffocating amount of rosewater-glycerin perfume, and you could smell her a block away (I am not exaggerating; people from my hometown, feel free to back me up on this one; you know who I'm talkin' 'bout).  She also happened to be the minister's wife, so no one felt like they could intervene in her plot to kill small children with the twenty-seven bottles of that stupid rose perfume she doused herself with every day.  Oh, Edna. 

I've also never liked food or drinks prepared with rosewater, and even the act of someone unwrapping a piece of Turkish Delight makes my throat close.

So, yeah.  Me and anything rose-scented or rosewater-related?  No.  Just, no.

But, I knew I had to get over my damn self and make this, so with my trusty inhaler by my side, I got started.

The first thing I did, however, was make the granola.

I loooooooove granola.  My neighbor and friend, Holly, makes the most lovely granola every year as holiday gifts, and the lovely Olga over at Sassy Radish got me hooked on her granola which I now eat with Greek yoghurt for breakfast 3-4 times a week.

The granola for this dish, however, isn't an overly sweet granola.  Not in the least.  While there's a lovely, sugary vanilla undercurrent, this granola is more on the savory side (which made me crave Tea Weaver's curried oatmeal with caramelized onions), and just looking at the list of ingredients made me drool: wildflower honey, butter, sugar, vanilla bean, salt, sweet curry, hot curry, cinnamon, tonka bean... um, what?  Tonka bean?  I'd heard of them before, but had never cooked with one/some.  So, after calling my local co-op to see if they had any ("Uh, no one's every called us to ask for one of those before"), I did some digging around online and ended up buying my tonka beans from a site called Capricorns Lair.  Yes, they forgot the apostrophe.  Because they are witches, wiccans, and pagans, oh my!  However, they have quite the quality control/customer service, so maybe the dark side ain't so bad?


Yay for nice witches!!  From Utah!!!

I preheated my oven to 325 degrees and lined a baking sheet with a Silpat.  I ground one of the tonka beans in my spice grinder so I'd have the 2g of tonka bean powder I needed, and mixed all the ingredients -- honey, butter, sugar, vanilla bean guts, cinnamon, sweet and hot curry powders, salt, and the tonka bean powder -- in one bowl, and the steel-cut oats in another bowl:


I combined them, then poured the mixture onto the baking sheet and roasted it in the oven for 30 minutes, stirring it every 5 minutes:



Let me just say this: as much as I hate hate hate anything rose-scented, I love love F-ING LOVE the way this granola smelled as it baked.  People, this granola on its own is worth buying the book, I'm not kidding.  Over the course of its baking time, the smell and the color intensified... it got deeper and richer and made me close my eyes and just take these big, deep, giant whiffs... me oh my.

I took it out of the oven after 30 minutes and let it cool to room temperature (which took about 15 minutes, maybe 20).  I then broke it into small pieces and stored it in a plastic deli container with the lid sealed tight so it would stay crunchy.  I wasn't going to taste it, because I wanted to wait and taste it all together in the finished package, but I couldn't resist.  And then it was torture to not be able to eat all of it right then and there.

There are few things in life that make me do a giddy, little jig in my kitchen -- bordelaise sauce, full breakfast, Mrs. See's scotchmallows, a glass of Turley, really strong coffee, and now this -- the granola from page 368 of the Alinea cookbook.


With that done, it was time to move on to the dreaded, the evil, the already-loathed-so-much-you're-probably-starting-to-feel-pity-for-it rosewater leather. Fllleeaarrggghhh.

The first step was to combine rosewater, regular water, pectin, agar agar, salt, citric acid, sugar, and sorbitol, blend it with my immersion blender, then bring it to a boil.  And try not to die from asphyxiation.

DSC_0043 Mmmmmmm, clumpy stuff in rosewater.  Bad scent, gacky texture.  Don't you wish you were me?


As it was coming up to a boil, I soaked some gelatin sheets in ice-cold water for about five minutes.  As the liquid came to a full boil, I turned off the flame, added the gelatin sheets, and gently whisked them in until they were fully dissolved, cursing and swearing, and wondering aloud if perhaps I needed an exorcism since I was so clearly loving and swooning over something that had a wiccan/occult/goth-sent ingredient, and loathing the part of the dish that reminded me of my childhood Sunday School teacher.


I poured the liquid into a mixing bowl and refrigerated it -- the book indicated it might take two hours to set, but in my fridge, it took just over an hour.


I transferred the now-set rosewater mixture (which, by the way, made the inside of my fridge smell like rose-stuff for the next three days, and YES, I'M STILL BITTER ABOUT THAT) into the blender and blended it until it was smooth.


Mmmmmm, chunky and gloppy.  And stinky.  Three of the seven dwarves, right?


Once it was thoroughly smooth (took about two minutes to get it all processed), I strained it through my chinois:

DSC_0009 Can't you just hear the glopping, slappy sound it makes as it's pressed through the chinois and hits the bowl?  Bllleeeaaaauuurrrggghhhh... it's the consistency and color of what I imagine the insides of our eyeballs contain. [I'm totally making this appetizing for you, aren't I?]

Now it's time to turn this slop into magic!  Instead of buying a single acetate sheet and cutting it into strips, I used cake ring mold acetate liners I already had, which were the right width -- I just needed to cut them into the right length, so that I had 10 strips of acetate that were 3x12":



Using my wee little offset spatula, I spread the Patron Saint of Asthma Attacks, I mean the rosewater gel, onto each strip, and laid the strips on some baking sheets, which I then put in a 90-degree oven (my oven on its "warm" setting):




The book suggested that if I were using a dehydrator, they'd be in for 8 hours.  I figured it'd be less time when using an oven to dehydrate them, so I estimated that they'd be done in 3-4 hours.... and if not, I could monitor them as they went along, and know when to pull them out based on how they felt to the touch. 

So, I hopped in the car, met a friend for lunch, was gone for maybe two hours, and when I came back, THIS is what greeted me:


See how that one sheet in the foreground, a little to the left, is starting to curl up?  Yeah, that's not good.

I opened a few windows because the heat had further intensified the rose smell and I started to feel like I was cooking in a funeral home.  I also -- quite optimistically and in complete and total denial -- got out my cutting board and hair straightening iron, which I'd planned to use as my heat sealer (yes, I cleaned it first):


I removed the lid from the granola container and was all set to go with making my little rosewater leather envelopes to stuff, and this happened:


Not once, not twice, but all ten times (the book called for 8 -- I made two extras just in case; shit lot of good THAT did) -- pieces flaked off, cracked apart, or generally disintegrated.


FAILY FAIL FAIL.  I suck.  Honestly, I shouldn't have left the house, and instead, should have stayed home and checked them every 20 minutes or so to test for leathery doneness... but I didn't, and that was stupid of me.  I know some of you are gonna go all Beastie Boys on me about it, but I swear there was no sabotage on my part. Ill will, yes... but as you know, this book has changed my mind about other things I've loathed before, so I kinda thought this might fall into that category as well.

But, all was not lost because my lovely, beautiful, most perfect granola was waiting to be eaten.  A spoon, some Greek yoghurt, and the granola of my dreams to top it:


Cue the Barry White, 'cause I'm in loooovvve...... this sweetness is my new weakness, fo damn sho.

Up Next: Sweet Potato, brown sugar, bourbon, smoking cinnamon

Resources: Gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie; rosewater from the TPSS Co-op (and it was pricey, which intensified my annoyance); NH pectin, agar agar, citric acid, and sorbitol from Terra Spice/Alinea; David's kosher salt; Bob's Red Mill steel-cut oats; 365 brand unsalted butter; tonka bean from oooo-oooo-witchay-woman; all other granola ingredients from my pantry and now-forgotten origin (some from Adriana's Caravan, others from Whole Foods, I think).

Music to Cook By: Cheap Trick; Greatest Hits.  What can I say?  I'm seeing a bunch of my favorite bands from my childhood this summer: Chicago; REO Speedwagon; .38 Special; Styx; Earth, Wind & Fire.  It's only a matter of time before Cheap Trick gets back to the east coast for a show.  In the meantime, I'm enjoying listening to their live tracks -- the sound of screaming fans throughout the concert performances are awesome.  And honestly, what girl didn't dream that "The Flame" was written about her?

Read My Previous Post: Pineapple, bacon powder, black pepper

April 19, 2009

Pineapple, bacon powder, black pepper

If you've been reading this blog from the beginning, you may have noticed that I have been incredibly resistant to buying and/or owning a juicer.  I just hate the thought of forking over my hard-earned dough to buy appliances or tools I'll never really use, and my kitchen storage space is pretty limited, so I've held off on owning a juicer.  And where I live, the hippies at the local co-op love to strike up a "conversation" in the produce aisle and lecture on and on and on about all the (use your know-it-all, semi-stoner NPR voice here) organic, free-range, local, raw, earth-saving, vitamin-boosting, colon-blowing things they put in their freakin' juicers (which, let me just say this: I do not need to hear about anyone's colon when I'm food shopping, because, GROSS), so juicers are just not my thing.

Until now.

That's right, my friends, I am now the proud owner of a HealthMaster JuiceDude 2000 (I made up that last part), courtesy of my friend Anita's sister, Patti.  As the story was told to me, Anita (who lives in the SF Bay Area) and Patti (who lives in suburban VA) were talking on the phone one night and happened to talk about this blog, and Patti mentioned that she had a juicer sitting on a shelf in her basement that she has never used and would be happy to donate to the cause.  I imagine the conversation went a little something like this:

Patti: I was reading one of Carol's posts the other day, and I really think she should use a juicer instead of her food processor or buying that bottled stuff, I mean COME ON.  What is WRONG with her?

Anita: Totally.  She's such an anti-juicite

Patti: She's a RABID anti-juicite.

Anita: It starts with a few jokes and some slurs, "Hey, hippie..."

Patti: Well, I have a juicer I can give her.  Think she'll want it?

Anita: I dunno.  I mean, I can ask her, but if you hear roaring, screeching, cursing, and spitting from the other side of the Potomac, then I guess you know her answer.

Patti: Maybe we can convert her... show her the way of the juice.

Anita: You're right.  It's the least we can do.

Patti: I mean, what's the worst that can happen?

Anita: She makes up fake dialogue between us.

Patti: Oh yeah, right.

And, scene.

So, I picked up the juicer from Patti at her house (who many years ago, I found out, had brought the juicer home when her old office closed because no one there ever used it and she thought she might, but never did -- so WHO'S the anti-juicite NOW, Patti, HUH????), brought it back to my house, and, with a heavy sigh, put it to work on this dish.  I also kicked a hacky sack around while I did it.  (No I didn't.)

The first thing I did was pull out the list of cookbook errata that Grant emailed me a few months ago, to check and see if any of the ingredient measurements needed to change -- and sure enough, this was one of the dishes that had some edits.  I'll share them as I go.

The first thing I did was peel, core, and quarter the pineapple:



Technically, I more than quartered the pineapple, because the juicer's fruit chute was a skinny little thing, so I needed to make the pieces more slender to be able to fit.

I juiced the pineapple, and strained the juice into a saucepan:



Go, JuiceDude, go!!!


Now, before I go any further, I need to 'fess up that when I weighed the pineapple juice before mixing in the sugar and saffron, I encountered a little snag: the book says I need to work with 350g of pineapple juice, and my pineapple yielded only 300g of juice (85% of 350g, or 15% less than 350g).  So, using my handy-dandy calculator, I adjusted the already-adjusted numbers.

Here's what the corrected numbers are supposed to be (make a note in your book, if you have one):

    -- 350g pineapple juice
    -- 25g sugar
    -- 1g salt
    -- .25g saffron threads
    -- 45g Pure-Cote B790 modified food starch (which gets added later)

But, since I only had 300g of pineapple juice, I added 21g sugar, 0.85g salt, and just a pinch of saffron threads.  I also had to modify the Pure-Cote measurement later on, and added 38g of that instead of the full 45g.

Parents, feel free to show this post to your kids when they bitch and moan that "I'll never need to know how to do fractions or percentages ever in my life so why do I have to do this stupid math homework?!?!?!! GAH!!!!!!!!"

Look at me, all about the life lessons.  First, showing tolerance in embracing the juicer, and now amazing you with my mathematical prowess and the power of learning.  Believe it or not, there are even more life lessons to come in this post, I promise.  It's like a regular afterschool special up in here.

So, where were we?  Ah yes, the pineapple juice, sugar, salt, and saffron in a saucepan.


I brought it to a boil over medium heat, then turned off the flame, covered the pot, and let it steep for five minutes.  That gave me just enough time to dismantle and clean my JuiceDude 2000.  Well, that's sort of a lie.  It gave me enough time to dismantle it, wipe down the machine, and rinse the removable parts before putting them in the dishwasher.

I strained the steeped juice through my chinois and into a blender.  I added the PureCote modified starch and blended it on high speed for 10 minutes:



Can I just say that 10 minutes is a really long time when you're standing at the blender, holding the lid on tight because you're pretty sure if you don't, it'll fly off at some point and spew pineapple-saffron juice all over your kitchen, which will inevitably attract an army of ants and the exterminator bill for that is something I just don't have in the budget right now, thankyouverymuch.

I poured the starched, blended juice through my chinois and into a bowl so it would be more pourable for the next step:


Now, here's another life lesson from me to you: don't assume or think you know more than one of the greatest chefs in the world, and decide that using your Silpat instead of a giant sheet of acetate is an acceptable next step, because if you do, your lovely pineapple glass -- which is supposed to dry on a flat surface at room temperature overnight (10-12 hours) on a sheet of acetate will go from this:


... to this:


Um, yeah.  I don't think this is what pineapple glass is supposed to look like. 

At this point, I consulted the book to see if the bacon powder was even worth pursuing, and decided to abandon this dish and put the bacon to better use.  I scraped the pineapple glorp off the Silpat, muttering to myself about my rassin'-frassin' cock up, and hit Twitter to ask those who follow me what flavors they think didn't go with bacon.

I mean, it's easy to think of things that go with bacon -- and one of the reasons I was psyched about this dish (before I screwed it up) is because pineapple and bacon are delicious together.  My favorite pizza topping combination is bacon and pineapple (with onions and extra cheese).  And, while bacon on its own is quite lovely (even though I think bacon has jumped the shark, but that's a whole separate topic, I suppose), I figured in the spirit of exploration and creativity, I would be the Internet's guinea pig in tasting the very things that people thought would be absolutely terrible with bacon.  I got quite a few replies to my inquiry, and the twelve things that popped up most frequently in people's responses are as follows:

  1. Orange
  2. Peppermint
  3. Lemon sorbet
  4. Watermelon pickles (couldn't find them, so went with pickled pumpkin instead)
  5. Kiwi
  6. Anchovies
  7. Graham crackers
  8. Carrots
  9. Blackberries (the person actually suggested raspberries because he/she knew I hated them [*evil*], but Whole Foods didn't have any raspberries, so I went with blackberries instead [*nanny-nanny-boo-boo])
  10. Banana
  11. Durian -- which I couldn't bring myself to do, because it was at this point that I was moving across the street to stay with my neighbors while my house was being worked on, and I couldn't subject them and their lovely home to that smell, so I swapped the durian out for Peeps, and
  12. Swedish fish.

While I roasted the bacon in the oven (a far superior cooking method than pan-frying, in my opinion, and done at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes), I prepared the mise en place of the other ingredients.


I dragged my helpers (my neighbor's two sons, ages 10 and 12) away from the Wii, and we began our taste test of bacon with the aforementioned ingredients. First up?  Bacon with oranges -- I brushed on an orange glaze I'd made for salmon the night before, which was just fresh-squeezed navel and cara cara oranges, reduced over a low heat for about 4 hours:

DSC_0002 2Delicious.  We were psyched that we'd gotten off to such a great start.  Bacon + orange = yum!

Next up was bacon with carrots.  I had blanched some carrots the night before for another dish, and held these aside for this experiment:

DSC_0003 2 Surprisingly good!  We thought it would be gross, or at least an odd texture, but the kids ended up fighting over who got to eat the fourth one. Score!

Now, it was time for bacon with graham crackers:

DSC_0004 2 The kids liked this one, but I thought it tasted like bacon dredged in sawdust. Blech.

And the one we were all prepared to hate and spit into the sink -- bacon with anchovy:

DSC_0005I think the quote of the day was from the younger of the two brothers, the 10-year old who said, "This is a salty, fishy surprise, like caviar -- I love it!"  I did, too.  We all did.  It was the surprise hit of the afternoon.

Next up was supposed to have been the pickled watermelon rind, but because I didn't have a chance to drive to PA to find some in my hometown farmers' market, nor did local pickler, jam maker, and fellow food maven, Heather Shorter, have any in stock, I settled for pickled pumpkin:

DSC_0006 2 This was the worst thing I think I've ever eaten.  It was as if someone had eaten a jar of pickles with some pumpkin pie spice and then vomited it up onto the bacon.  I actually had to spit mine out into the sink, it was that bad.  The kids washed theirs down with a giant glass of water; they were far braver than I.  But we all agreed, it was the worst combination of all the things we tried.  Boooooooo, pickled pumpkin.... booooooo....

So, after you've eaten something that tasted like vomit, and choked back your own vomit in the process, how would you cleanse your palate?  Why, with bacon and Peeps, of course!

DSC_0009 2 This was pretty "meh."  Did not meet expectations.  Was actually more chewy than I'd hoped.  Almost flavorless.  Disappointing all around.  But +10 points for not reactivating my vomit-related salivary glands.

Next up? Bacon with kiwi.  I had very high expectations for this combo, and was actually surprised that more than ten people on Twitter replied with kiwi as a suggestion of something that would NOT go with bacon:

DSC_0007 2 AWESOME.  Love, love, love.  I may actually try to do a kiwi sorbet with candied bacon chunks because I think I would love it.

Next on the list was bacon with Swedish fish (my favorite candy):

DSC_0008 2 This was kind of gross.  Imagine a Ludens or Smith Brothers cough drop with bacon fat in the middle.  Or, a cherry LifeSaver with bacon chunks inside.  Too sweet, too cherry-like, and too tough and chewy.  The orange was a better salt-sweet combo.  This one was icky.  Not disgusting, but not the homerun I thought it might be.

A friend once sent me a tin of bacon mints as a gift.  They were pretty vile because when you opened the tin, a sort of b.o. scent wafted out, and it made those mints all the more unappealing to try.  So, I was NOT looking forward to trying bacon with peppermint (we crushed a Starlight mint and sprinkled it on top):

DSC_0010I was prepared to hate this, but actually kind of liked it.  Not like I'd rush to make or eat this again, but it didn't make me gag,so there you go.  We all kind of liked it.  I was surprised.

Next on the list was a pairing I was also surprised that multiple people on Twitter thought would be gross -- bacon with banana.  I don't know about you, but banana pancakes with a side of bacon at the diner?  That's my kinda breakfast. 

DSC_0011 2This was amaaaaaaaazing.  So tasty and delicious.  But, there was an odd (but good) texture/flavor thing that happened when you paired them -- they tasted like a pear.  It was the weirdest thing.  As I was chewing it, I couldn't figure out what it had morphed into.  The 10-year old said, "Huh, this tastes like pear. I LOVE IT."  He's totally right.  Bacon + banana = pear.  Take that, science.

The next combination we tried was bacon with blackberries.  I love me some blackberries and I love me some bacon, so how could this go wrong:

DSC_0012 2 It even looks pretty... almost like caviar, doesn't it?  Well, it tasted like doody... not that I've ever tasted doody, but you know what I mean, right?  It was just bad.  I was hoping for an explosion of flavor -- of salt and sweet and juiciness -- and instead, I just got a mouthful of gack.  Not a hit with any of us.  I can only imagine that raspberries, my nemesis, would be even worse.  Ugh.

Last, but not least, we paired bacon with lemon sorbet:

DSC_0013 2Kinda looks like little quenelles of Crisco or lard on there, doesn't it?  It's 365 brand Meyer Lemon Sorbet, and together with the bacon, it was a huge thumbs up.  We were sort of dreading this one because it was our last bite, and the fragrance of the sorbet was a wee overpowering as I brought the plate forward and we didn't really want to end on something we disliked, but it was fantastic!  Whew...

So, there you have it.  Not exactly "Pineapple, bacon powder, black pepper," but hopefully enjoyable just the same.  And now, me and my juicer are going to hit the road in our groovy VW bus to buy something tie-dyed and join a drum circle.  Peace...

Up Next: Granola, in a Rose Water Envelope

Resources: Pineapple from Whole Foods; 365 brand applewood-smoked bacon; saffron was a gift from a friend; Domino sugar; David's kosher salt; Pure-Cote B790 from Terra Spice.

Music to Cook By: The Magic Numbers; The Magic Numbers.  Embarrassing confession -- I have seen the movie "Catch & Release" about 50 times.  I can't help it -- whenever I'm bored and flipping channels and happen upon it, I watch it.  It's NOT EVEN A GOOD MOVIE (it's really pretty bad, actually), but for some reason I can't tear myself away when it's on.  One of the last times I watched it, I realized that I really liked the music in the movie, and a few tunes in particular, one of which is "Take a Chance" by The Magic Numbers.  So, I started downloading their other music and really liked it.  Hope you will, too.

Read My Previous Post: Verjus, lemon thyme, beets, olive oil

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.



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:



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:



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?




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.



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.




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:


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:


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:


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...!!


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:


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...


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:



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...

April 05, 2009

I just flew in from Chicago, and boy are my arms tired...

Sorry it's been a few days since I last posted.  Working in the kitchen at Alinea has been utterly and completely exhausting.  I'm not sure if I can hack it.  I mean, Grant is such a taskmaster, and everybody there knows what they're doing and I am so in the shit nearly every night. I haven't had a day off since I started, and at the end of the night, I'm too tired to write or think or even open my laptop. The restaurant is closed today, so I thought I'd take a few minutes to update you on what it's like to work at Alinea.  Except, I'm lying, because I'm not really working there, and instead, thoroughly enjoyed this year's April Fool's Day prank.  Hee!!!

Those who know me only through this blog probably weren't aware of the two April Fool's Day pranks from French Laundry at Home: Chicken Stack-ups and Fruited Nectar Salad; and, French Laundry at Home Forced to Close.

The fake cease and desist from French Laundry at Home was fun, and I knew I wanted to up the ante this year, but had no idea what to do.  A few months ago, I was exchanging email with Russ Parsons, and we somehow got on the topic of what my April Fool's Day prank might be with this blog.  We tossed a few funny ideas back and forth, but none of them jumped out at me as "just right."  Then, a month or so ago just as I was falling asleep one night, I thought to myself, "hey, what if I announced that the restaurant hired me to work there?"  The next morning, I woke up and decided that it wasn't believable and actually might be offensive to the incredibly talented people who actually DO work there, and tried to come up with something else.  The more I thought about it, the harder it was to think of anything fun, creative, or workable.  So, I tried to write the "they hired me" post, but it just wouldn't come together the way I needed it to.

A week later, as I was waiting for a friend to meet me for lunch at Central, it hit me -- what if I asked Grant to join forces with me on the prank and go with the idea of him hiring me, and we shoot a video in the Alinea kitchen to make it all seem more believable?  I dug through my bag to find my little black Moleskine notebook and wrote myself a note that read: Alinea hire kitchen video Grant???!!!

When I got home that afternoon (after eating the most delicious shad roe, I might add), I drafted an email to Grant outlining the idea and asking if he wanted to participate.  And then, I didn't send it.  I saved it in my drafts folder and worried and obsessed over whether or not it was even appropriate to ask him to do this.  I knew he might be game for something -- he's done 4/1 pranks in the past -- but the whole notion of my even joking that I am qualified enough to cross the threshold of his kitchen made me hold off on sending that email for a week.  I mean, who the hell did I think I was, making such a request?

Then, on Thursday, March 19 (coincidentally, after yet another lunch at Central) I sent it, because I figured, nothing ventured, nothing gained.  And then?  I panicked.  Immediately after the whoooosh of it leaving my Outbox, I closed my laptop and left the house to get as far away from my computer as possible because: a) Grant will think I'm insane; b) the request will offend him and I'll be forever banned from the restaurant; c) holy crap, what the hell did I just do; and, d) all of the above.

When I came back home, I busied myself with a million little things to avoid opening my laptop (including folding laundry, which I despise doing) because I was sure my Inbox had a "never contact me again" email waiting for me to read.  Instead, when I finally summoned the courage to sit at my desk and open my laptop, I found an email, sent back soon after I sent mine, saying, "Sounds fun."

I squealed, and kicked the plan into action. We went back and forth confirming timing, tone, and how it would all play out.  In all, I think it took a total of fifteen minutes to finalize all the details. 

I hired a camera guy, booked my ticket, giggled to myself like a crazy person, wrote a script, and flew to Chicago four days later -- on the most beautiful Sunday in the history of weather in the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest -- hopped in a cab and went straight from the airport to the restaurant, where I met my camera guy out front on the sidewalk.



When we heard the thunk of the deadbolt being unlocked by someone behind the heavy grey doors, we gathered our things and walked through those doors, down the hallway, and turned left into the restaurant.  Grant and his team were in the kitchen working (even though the restaurant was closed that night), and the place smelled amazing.  Lobster stock, rhubarb, chocolate... fifteen people working at their stations, chopping, straining, blending, vacuuming... the sensory overload (for someone like me who doesn't do this for a living) was equally intoxicating as it was paralyzing.  I wanted to just stay right where I was and absorb everything.  I wanted to jump right in and do something.  I wanted to build a perch high up near the ceiling and watch from above for months on end.

Instead, I shook Grant's hand and said, "It's so nice to see you again!"

My videographer, a fellow by the name of Marcus Quant (he goes by "Q"), and I set our things down at one of the 4-tops in the first-floor dining room, which felt slightly sacrilegious. 


I took off my jacket and put it over the chair where I'd put bag (the first time in my life, by the way, I've gotten onto an airplane with just my purse and no other bags or luggage -- felt weird), and sat down at the table.  I'd written a script outline a few days prior, so I whipped out my copy and began reviewing it and making edits in blue pen while Q checked the lighting in the kitchen.  I could feel myself sliding ever-so-quickly quickly into a hunkered-down work mode that I made myself stop, for just a minute, to remind myself where I was.  I put down my pen, and ran my hand along the edge of the table as I turned in my seat to take in the quiet fact that I was sitting at a table in one of the world's best restaurants.  The room was lit naturally by whatever light could make its way through the semi-sheer blinds in the front window.  There was no one else there.  It was impeccably clean and orderly.  Just 20 feet away and just in my peripheral line of sight, one of the world's most creative chefs was moving from different stations in the kitchen to his laptop, to his yellow legal pad, back to one of the stations, then back to his laptop.

I had dinner at Alinea last summer, so I looked fondly over at "my table" just a few feet away and remembered that amazing meal.  Cobia.  Chicken Liver.  Yuba.  Tomato and Mozzarella.  Lobster.  Truffle.  Waygu.  Duck.  Bacon.  Chocolate.  Potato.  Rhubarb.  Watermelon.  Foie.  And more and more and more. 


After a minute or two of marking up the script, I stood up and walked back into the kitchen (feeling reaaaallly out of place and reeeaaalllllly intimidated by my surroundings).  As we got ourselves miked and Q did a final lighting check, Grant and I chatted for a bit and ran through what we wanted to say and how it would all play out.  The original idea was to just stand in the kitchen and announce the "big news."  Right before we started our first take, Grant had the idea to add the walk and talk -- going further back into the kitchen and getting me started with my tool kit of the probe, duct tape, tongs, syringe, and smoke gun.  So, he gathered all the tools, and we just decided to ad lib that part as we went along.

We shot two takes, and that was it.  Easy peasy.  The first take was good, but the second take is the one you guys saw.  It felt more real, and the audio was better.

Grant and I de-miked while Q shot some b-roll footage (that I ended up not needing), and had a chance to talk for a bit. Guys, I could've stayed in that kitchen all afternoon.  All week, even.  It was fascinating to watch people work, and the place smelled amazing.  It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, the sunlight was streaming into the kitchen, and it felt like some of my favorite Sunday afternoons at home -- something simmering on the stove, beams of light coming in through a few windows, and the kinds of aromas that make a house smell like home.  


Knowing Grant and his team had work to do, Q and I went back to the dining room to pack up our things, said our thank yous, and went on our merry way.  In and out in 30 minutes.  Outside, Q handed me the footage to take back to Washington to edit and drove away while I perched myself on the steps of the brownstone next door.  I whipped out my phone to check in with my friend, Marisa, who knew what I'd been up to and was anxiously waiting to hear how it went.  But before I dialed or stood up to hail a cab, I sat still for just a moment soaking in a bit of the sun and feeling the breeze on my face, and wondered how the hell I got to be so lucky to get to spend time with a chef who is not only one of the most uniquely talented individuals in his craft, but also who is incredibly generous, funny, smart, and intuitive.  Someone who one moment looks so focused, serious, and intimidating, and yet a split second later whose grin makes you feel like he's someone you've known for a lifetime.

Over the years, my work has taken me all over the world and put me in contact with and in close working relationships with some very well known and very influential people in business, politics, philanthropy, finance, and entertainment.  But I can honestly say it's a rare few who are of genuine character and who actually do the hard work day after day to stay on top of their game and shape others around them.  Grant Achatz is one of those rare few, and it was an honor to spend a few moments with him on a sunny Sunday afternoon in his restaurant.  I'm going back to Chicago in a few months for dinner at Alinea, and it'll take every ounce of resistance for me to not build that perch in the kitchen and never leave.


I left 1723 N. Halsted and hailed a cab back to the airport for my flight home.  Yes, I flew in, shot the footage, and flew right back home just in time for a few hours of sleep before starting yet another hectic workweek.  In the cab on the way to Midway, I called Marisa, I called my parents, and when I got to the airport, called Michael Ruhlman to let him in on the secret and see if he'd play along on his blog, which he did.  As I waited at the gate for my flight, I was giddy and exhausted, giggly and happy, hungry and distracted, inspired and thankful.  My mind was going a million miles a minute, and from the moment we were wheels-up in Chicago until 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, April 1st, I was much like a five-year old on Christmas Eve. Worse, probably.

I had dinner with two friends at CityZen on April 1st Eve.  It was a special dinner we'd planned long ago, and I had yet to let them in on my little secret.  They'd seen my Twitter and Facebook updates planting the seed about an upcoming "big change" and "big decision" -- and they wanted to know if I could tell them my big news.  When I said, "Um, well?  Those updates are actually part of an April Fools Day prank that involves a video I shot with Grant announcing that I'm moving to Chicago to work in the kitchen at Alinea..." they nearly howled.

After I hit "Publish," I knew I was going to approve only the "wow, congrats" comments in the beginning to keep up the facade, and then release all the other comments later in the day (so, for people in the future who are reading this, that's why some of the comments from that day may seem chronologically a little wackadoo).  All day long on Wednesday, my phone rang off the hook and my email was buzzing with messages from friends and family members who were either incredibly thrilled about my big (fake) news or kind of pissed off that I didn't personally tell them I was moving to Chicago, and I thoroughly enjoyed replying with, "have you looked at today's date?"  I know payback is hell, but it was more than worth it.  Grant is a good sport for playing along, and you guys are good sports for being so supportive all the way, whether it was real or not!

So, there you have it.  I'm not working at Alinea.  I'm staying put right here in Washington, working my butt off at a job I love, and cooking and writing and eating (the other job I love).

Special thanks to: Marcus Quant (and Terry Maday for sending Q my way); Chris Shlemon (for editing and general scotch-drinking awesomeness); and Nick Kokonas for helping everything come together.

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

Read My Previous Posts: Alinea at Home -- BIG NEWS!!!  and Dry shot, red peppers, garlic, oregano.

April 01, 2009

Alinea at Home Extra: BIG NEWS!!!

It's been KILLING me to not be able to tell you all about this big, exciting change in my life, so I'll let the video below do the talking for us. And by "us" I mean me, and GRANT ACHATZ!!!   (holy crap, you guys)  I'm blown away... completely and totally blown away.  Will write more later... time to work!!!

Alinea Book


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


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