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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.

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pustule = technical term for "pimple"

Are you sure you were supposed to put the FROZEN beet spheres into a HOT sodium alginate bath? That seems to be the most likely cause of the problem - they do look half-melted.

Maybe it doesn't look perfect.... you're still my hero!

Much better that it tasted great and looked not so great then the other way around...

I think I have to agree with dr. gaellon, My roommate used sodium alginate several times and I was under the impression that it had to be cold. But usually the liquid isn't frozen either. I don't know but it seems like that's where the problem is. Still looks tasty.

I like how you were able to un-deconstruct this dish at the end and recognize how the flavors would meld into a more conventional beet dish.

The Verjus that you linked to is one of the more reasonably-priced lines that I've seen, so now I'll have to pick some up.

PS: I have had a terrifying fear of jellyfish since an incident in the Florida Keys about 10 years ago. I thought I was getting better but the pictures brought back horrifying memories and I've now relapsed. (Actually they look more like blood clots. Delicious blood clots...)

I'll have to third the comments about putting the spheres in the hot bath. Unless we're all confused and it was a cold bath. But it sure sounds like it was still hot (or at least very very warm). Glad to hear that it at least tasted good.

The beet spheres were beautiful after you unmolded them, and well, in the end...the colors are pretty. But that it tasted good---that's a pretty important thing to get right!

No, she was right. In the book they use the technique of putting frozen spheres into hot sodium alginate baths so they retain their perfect shape as they melt away. If it broke apart too easily, then a longer time would be necessary to build up a more gellified (word?) outer membrane.

It looks great though, and I'm sure the next time you try this you will be able to get the spheres perfect!

On the sodium alginate bath -- (from page 175): "Mix together [ingredients] in medium saucepan. Warm to dissolve [ingredients]. Strain through chinois into deep container. Disperse frozen spheres evenly in warm sodium alginate bath..."

Maybe boiling the solution was a bit too much? Dunno.

Mother always used to say, "It'll either look good or taste good. You can't have both."

This might sound like a small thing but maybe try juicing your own beets. Fruits and veggies oxidize quickly... hence brown fruit and veggies issues... which is not only unsightly, but is actually a chemical change in the item. Maybe there is something in the fresh juice that gets lost sitting in a bottle. Also, not sure if it was organic but there could be a preservative interferring in the chemical reaction necessary to making the spheres. I have never worked with food chemistry, but I'm a Biochemist by vocation. Good luck. Keep us posted. Love your blog... it's my new favorite.

About the foam: I could be wrong, but from the photo it looks like you're using an ISI soda siphon (meant for carbonating liquids with CO2) rather than an ISI Cream Whipper (meant for foaming with NO2) I don't believe the two are interchangeable...

Do you mind sharing the source of your spherical molds? I've yet to find some that I actually like.

So sorry it got so messed up. The dish looks and tastes great when it works out. Here is my version


Here are my (I use ice cube trays) beet spheres in the bath:

As far as what went wrong, it is certainly not the temperature of the Alginate or the spheres. You do put the frozen spheres, cubes or whatever into the hot bath. I have 2 guesses and one of them was mentioned by Eileen. Maybe the store bought bottles juice is the problem. Another guess, is maybe you are sticking too much to the book's timing? It does say five minutes, but I watched it like a hawk and made sure the spheres stayed separate and only removed them when they seemed ready.

As for the foam. I have no idea. I don't have a siphon. I juts whipped the thyme/gelatin with a hand mixer in an ice bath till it got foamy. Sort of like making marshmallows.

I made a raw beet salad this very weekend that would have tasted awesome with a dressing like that! Next time, because there will be a next time, because, who knew? but raw beet salads are *AWESOME*

Perhaps this is where the duct tape was supposed to come in...

I can't comment on this because even LOOKING at that much beet matter gives me an allergic reaction so severe that I am now actually dead.

I've made alginate balls at alinea and will send you a detailed method if you'd like. The descriptions in the book are so concise that a lot of little tricks and extra helpful information get left out of the basic recipe.

Hey- even if that chemistry crap didn't work (chemistry is mostly crap- believe me cause I'm a chemist!) those dishes still look gorgeous! The contrast of those bright colors is great.

Hey Richard,

Could you maybe put up your comments on making the alginate balls on the alinea-mosaic site? I think a lot of us could use some help with this technique. Thanks.


Take a step back, take a deep breath, and remember, you're cooking from Alinea. Not the Easy Bake Oven cookbook. You're our hero, even if it looks and tastes like dog food.

The frozen spheres into warm alginate bath solves a whole set of problems vs. the process of putting alginate goo into a calcium/water bath. When you dump alginate goo, it's tough to get it to form a neat blob/sphere, and when you eat the result, it can be, um, er, mucus like. Freezing spheres solves the problem of getting a good shape.

Potential problems that came to mind were that the alginate bath may have been hot, rather than warm. I don't know the chemistry involved, but I wonder if that has an effect. Also, I was planning on pouring the alginate bath into something like a 9x13 pyrex pan, so I would have lots of "floor space" to keep the spheres separate. The other thought I had was, if possible, hold the sphere in my fingers and 1/3 dip it into the bath to begin the gelling process on the bottom of the sphere, then drop it into the bath. I'm worried that the side that hits the bottom of the pan won't have melted and then had enough contact with the alginate to form a thick enough wall. In standard spherification, the alginate is in the sphere, and the calcium from the bath is triggering the gelling. In this case, the alginate is coming out of the bath.

Well, my sphere ice cube trays arrived yesterday, so I'm planning on experimenting with the ginger spheres. I figure it will go over better if I chase people around yelling "Here! Eat my ginger-y giggly ba... er, spheres!" than if they are beet-flavored.

I was just catching up from time away from the interweb, and I have to say that I was one you def. fooled when you announced that you were to begin work at Alinea! It's sort of bittersweet, because I was psyched for you ;-( Anyway--thanks for sharing this even though it was a disaster in your eyes. Using the flavors for a beet salad dressing sounds awesome. If I can get my hands on some decent beets at the farmer's market still (doubtful) I'll be all about this!

A couple of things about alginate: the gellification is only stable up to about 155 degrees Fahrenheit, so boiling water could be too hot. Also, your spheres may have just melted too rapidly if the water was too hot, i.e. melted before the gel was setting. The alginate reaction is also inhibited in high-acid settings; it may well be that the beet juice had some added citric acid to lower its ph, which would require a longer immersion. Adding some calcium citrate can help in this respect.

As for the foam, I'm not sure about this, but every recipe that I've seen for making non-cream based foams requires the gelatin to set and THEN be broken up with the immersion blender, so that you're not trying to foam up a big hunk of set gelatin.

So it tasted awesome and looked bad. Hardly epic of fail. I remember 11th grade chemisty, when I followed the directions and the reaction that happened was not what was supposed to happen. You can't take the blame for that. The bad part is that in cooking you can't just make up good results in the lab report but you probably learn more from it. And you get to eat it. Keep the post coming, you continue to rock.

Found this while searching whether sodium alginate gels will hold shape if you heat them...Guessing from your 'infected surgical waste' the answer is probably no, but thanks for a very entertaining read nonetheless! Looking forward to reading some of your other Alinea adventures.... :)

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