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May 2009

May 30, 2009

Alinea at Home Extra: So, that happened....

Wow.  So sorry for the delay in writing about my dinner at Alinea last Friday.  That post is coming in another day or two, I promise.  Because quite a few of you have emailed me to make sure I'm alive and not in the loony bin, let me take a minute to clear up a few things:

Yes, the flight to Chicago last week was scary.  For those of you who didn't see it all play out on my Twitter feed (and the Tribune, Sun-Times, NBC, Chicago radio, Politico, and Huffington Post), my flight to Chicago last Friday had to make an emergency landing in Pittsburgh because the plane's hydraulic system failed shortly after takeoff.  We had a few VIPs on the flight (Senator Roland Burris, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, and WH social secretary Desiree Rogers), one of whom lied about his involvement in the heroic efforts around our safe arrival. I'll let you guess which one. Ahem. Suffice to say, over the week, his story has evolved from, "There was a loud explosion, deafening noise, extreme turbulence, and I helped an elderly woman off the plane" to something about maybe being the one to open the overhead bin when we landed, or assisting a family from the shuttle bus to the terminal.

Anyhoo, that's neither here nor there.

What I do know is that after hearing the captain first tell you the grinding noise you hear is the hydraulics but they're fine/it's all good, then a little while later tell you they've changed their mind and they're now diverting to Pittsburgh because of a hydraulic system failure... and you have a window seat out of which you can see rivers, lakes, and reservoirs that the plane is circling over, nose up, plane tilted back at a 45-degree angle, and Pittsburgh is nowhere in sight... you have to wonder if you're going to make it to the airport at all.  And, when one of your clients is an organization that works closely with the FAA and NTSB on safety and security issues so you're pretty up-to-date on procedures, technology, crash case studies, and the like, well... you're pretty damn sure know what the pilot meant when, after you've landed, he announces over the PA, "Boy, I'm glad we're here."  We were lucky, and our pilot, co-pilot, cabin crew, and air traffic control staff deserve every accolade in the book for their work in the air and on the runway.

And here's what I find fascinating: If you'd had headphones on and were listening to your iPod the whole time, in an aisle seat, or maybe asleep, you'd never have known there was anything wrong.  The cabin was quiet (save for a minute or two of a whirring, grinding noise under our feet after takeoff that made us think the landing gear couldn't retract), the flight was smooth (no turbulence, no shaking, no loud noises at all), and the landing, while strangely accelerated and fast, was gentle.  We landed with no flaps, which meant the pilot had to use manual braking (we ended up with just a few feet to spare at the end of the runway; would've been poor form to crash through the wall of ambulances and firetrucks waiting for us, I guess), and the pilot and crew, along with EMS team that greeted our arrival were calm, cool, and collected, and made it far less scary than it could've been.  It also helped that I had great seatmates -- Rachel and Jessica -- who were totally up for a drink and some lunch to calm our nerves before getting on the plane that eventually took us to Chicago.  (Hi, Rachel!  Hi, Jessica!) 

So, that was my day last Friday.  Emergency landing and an airport bar cobb salad (and a vodka shot) at lunchtime, followed by a mind-blowing, energizing, and humbling 23-course dinner at one of the best restaurants in the world just six hours later.  You know.  The usual.

It's only tonight that I'm able to sit down with a clear head, my menu in front of me, and pull together the words that can even begin to do justice to my experience at Alinea.  If I'd written this post earlier in the week when I'd originally planned, it would've gone a little something like "ZOMG PLANE CRASH, BRIGHT YELLOW FIRE TRUCKS, LYING POLITICIANS, VODKA, CARSICK IN TAXI, TRYING NOT TO CRY BUT CRYING ANYWAY, and oh yeah, I had dinner at Alinea and here's the menu, buh-bye."  And that's not fair.  So, when I wasn't working this week, I dug in the garden, cleaned out the basement, fixed things around the house that have been on my to-do list for ages... all because I needed to do something apart and away from food and my computer, and let the dust settle so that the real reason I went to Chicago could assume its rightful place in my brain and on my palate.  And it did.  Today.  FINALLY.

Dinner at Alinea was as inspiring as it was awesome, and in a few days there will be words better, more powerful, and more appropriate than "awesome" to describe it.  In fact, I can still close my eyes and taste every bite, and let me tell you: nearly every single course provided that moment I hope you've all experienced at least once in your life -- when you unconsciously and almost silently gasp and hold your breath, smiling as you chew and your eyes widen and your palate opens up, and the only compliment you can muster at that very moment is a whispered "whoa."

Last Friday was an evening of "whoa" and "wow" and "thank you."  On many levels.

So, stay tuned.... be back soon....

May 19, 2009

Junsai, bonito, soy, mirin

I got yelled at today at my local Asian market, H Mart.  Why?  Well, last week when I was shopping for the ingredients to make this dish, I bought too many bags of bonito shavings and needed to return some.  I walked into the store and made a beeline for the customer service desk, receipt in hand, bonito in shopping bag, smile on face:

"Good morning," I chirped.  "May I please return these items?  I'm afraid I bought more than I needed." (I always end up sounding like Donna Reed when I need to return something because I feel totally guilty about it; ugh.)

As I handed her the receipt, she scowled and mumbled something to herself then barked, "YOU COME THIS WAY."  She snatched my shopping bag from the counter, walked over to the nearest unoccupied cash register, and began rapid-fire punching the buttons like a secretary in a steno pool in those movie scenes depicting a busy office in Manhattan in the 1940s and 50s.

I held my breath until the cash register drawer shot out toward her, the register spit out the return receipt, and she counted the money I was getting back.  As she pressed the bills and change into my hand, she held on for a few seconds and looked me in the eye and snapped, "YOU BE SMARTER NEXT TIME SHOPPING."

Believe me, I will.  Yike-a-roonies.

And that, ladies and germs, was the most stressful, difficult part of making this dish.

For anyone out there who thinks all the recipes in the Alinea cookbook are too difficult (scaredy-cat), are all full of chemicals (probably the biggest, most ill-informed misconception), or too frou-frou* for them (get over yourself, it's just food), this one is for you.  These ingredients are not hard to find and this couldn't be easier to make. If you can soak, pluck, and pour, then you can make this dish.

(* I apologize if the frou-frou reference gave you RHoNY flashbacks to Ramona and her buggity crazy eyes calling out Simon for being "too-too-frou-frou" and then dancing with him at that whack-ass fundraiser. Kuh-DOOZ!  *snerk*)

The kombu (dried kelp) was a little stinky upon opening the package, but once I got it soaking its lovely green self in a big bowl of water, it smelled more ocean-y.  I let it soak overnight at room temperature on my kitchen counter:



In the morning, it had softened a bit more and was ready to be cooked on a low simmer for 20 minutes:



After its 20 minutes of simmer time (no, I did not put on Hammer pants and scuttle side to side on the floor singing "can't touch this"), I poured the contents of the pan through a chinois into a large mixing bowl.  Then, I added the bonito shavings.  Again, I used already-shaved bonito just like I did in last week's dish.

Sorry, I forgot to take photos of this part of the prep.  No specific reason or excuse other than I just spaced out and forgot to do it.  I'm not perfect.  Please don't yell at me like that lady at HMart did.  I just couldn't handle it. "YOU BE SMARTER NEXT TIME COOKING."  Nooooooooooooo!!!!!!!

I stirred the kelp liquid with the bonito shavings in it for about 30 seconds or so, maybe a minute.  Then, I poured that through a cheesecloth-lined chinois (the book says to use a coffee filter, but I don't own any and didn't want to buy any for this purpose, since I knew cheesecloth would be fine -- I doubled it, just to make it as close to a coffee-filter as I could).

Then, I added the soy sauce, mirin, and rice vinegar, and chilled the liquid for two hours in the refrigerator:



I know the title of this dish is "Junsai," which is a specific type of Japanese mushroom, but there were no junsai to be found.... and believe me, I've been looking and calling and searching high and low.  I know that young, fresh junsai have this gelatinous coating on them that is supposed to be wonderful and add to the mouthfeel of whatever you make with them, so I was disappointed not to be able to find them anywhere.  As you know, I'm not usually a fan of certain squicky textures, but I've heard a lot about how great these mushrooms are, so I was more than a little bummed that I couldn't find them fresh, or canned/bottled, anywhere.  After doing a little digging around and making some phone calls to friends with greater expertise in this area than I have, I decided to use fresh bunapi (white beech mushrooms) instead:

Not quite the same, but they were the right size and texture, and they have a little more heft to them than enoki mushrooms (which is what I imagine our intestinal villi to look like, so, ew) and I knew they wouldn't suck (which, honestly, is the yardstick by which I sometimes reluctantly measure things for this blog because mama didn't wanna fail again).

I lined up six shot glasses on the dining room table and poured some of the kombu-bonito-mirin-soy-vinegar liquid into each one, then dropped in a few mushrooms:



I think these look beautiful, if maybe, perhaps, a little alien.

The kids had zero interest in tasting this one.  They looked at the shot glasses with great scorn and abject horror.  What were those things floating in there?  MUSHROOMS??!  Are you kidding me?!?!?!?!  That's disgusting, I'm SO NOT EATING THAT NOT EVEN FOR A MILLION DOLLARS, YOU SICK FREAK.  Okay, so none of them actually said those things, but I know it's what they were thinking.

To be honest, the grownups weren't all that into the idea of being the first one to taste it, either.  So, I explained what it was, what the ingredients were.  They just stared at me.  "Oh, fer cryin' out loud," I said (rolling my eyes for effect, because that's always the mature, helpful thing to do), knocked one back and because I didn't choke, gag, or vomit, I think the others began to feel more brave.

The adults each had one, but the kids avoided it like... well, "the plague" isn't an apt metaphor, really, because plagues are, like, sooooooo nine centuries ago.  They avoided it like Robert Pattinson avoids soap and hot water.

So, what did it taste like?  Cold miso soup with mushrooms instead of tofu.  In some ways, I think I expected it to have more layers of flavor, but in looking at the ingredients and knowing how to make miso, this made sense.  I actually think I should have steeped the liquid with the bonito shavings a little longer.  It felt like it needed more oomph, since I used mushrooms that were a little flat in the flavor department.  I just did it as one shot -- tossed back the glass' contents into my mouth, chewed the mushrooms a bit... it was nice.  Nothing earth-shattering or mind-blowing, but nice.  Easy.  Comfortable.  Familiar.  Tasty.  Good.

After I had mine and the adults had theirs, there was one left on the table in front of us.  While all the other kids left to go home, my 12-year old neighbor, Grant (he of the famed lobster jelly and dental office sea urchin tastings) looked to the left, looked to the right, picked up the glass and did the shot like an expert (this kid will someday be able to down Jagermeister with great aplomb, I have no doubt).  He did not barf.  He did not gag.  He did not spew.  He did not rush to the sink to spit it out and pour himself a glass of water to get rid of the taste.  Instead, he chewed thoughtfully, head cocked to one side, then swallowed and said, "Wow, that wasn't so bad.  It was even kind of good."


Up Next: PB&J, peanut, bread, grape.... or (big tease), it may be a recap of my upcoming dinner at Alinea in a few days, which, I am sooooooo looking forward to.  Some friends from DC are joining me in making the trek to Chicago for a few days of eating, and I can't wait!  In fact, it's even invaded my unconscious, because I had a dream last night that Grant changed the whole Alinea concept the day we got there and renamed the restaurant "Saucier," (a recording of Tom Brokaw's voice saying "sohs-YAY" in a French accent played when you walked through the front door) and would only serve sauces "in the Escoffier tradition" in demitasse cups. The servers wore Mardi Gras masks and black cargo pants with camouflage t-shirts, and instead of wine, they served only 7-Up and RC Cola.  There was a multiple-choice quiz you had to take before each sauce was brought out, and the only answers on the cards were a) Tom Brokaw, b) Tom Brokaw, and c) Tom Brokaw.  And, I was the only one at our table who was freaked out by all of this and saying things like, "who DOES this? I mean, this is not AT ALL what I thought we were going to have.  Where is the FOOD?  I haven't eaten anything today and now all I'm getting is M-Fing lukewarm sauce in a coffee cup? What the F is going on here, people? And what is all this Tom Brokaw nonsense?!!??!??"  Everyone else at the table looked at me, totally perplexed by my outrage and said, "Um, Tom Brokaw is Grant's father, what's WRONG with you?  And how could you not know he was doing sauces now? I mean, duh.  EVERYONE knows; how could you not know?"  Clearly I need to have a second glass of wine with dinner from now on, because sleep is supposed to be relaxing and restorative, NOT STRESS YOU OUT ABOUT YOUR UPCOMING VACATION.

Resources: All ingredients from HMart in Wheaton, MD.  Where We Loudly Chastise You For Returning Things.™

Music to Cook By: Under the Influence of Giants; Under the Influence of Giants.  I first heard of these guys when they called themselves Hometown Hero and one of their songs was on a very early episode of Veronica Mars (2003 or 2004, I think?) and liked their sound and still do.  They haven't put anything out since 2006, and I have no idea if they even exist as a band anymore, but their tunes are great for cooking on a weekend afternoon -- solid pacing, fluidity, and nothing too jarring or obnoxious.

Read My Previous Post:  Mango, bonito, soy, sesame

May 12, 2009

Mango, bonito, soy, sesame

Last week, I had the great pleasure and genuine good fortune to be in Jamaica for five days for a friend's wedding.  Her family has a spectacular home on an estate there, and we wedding guests took over the surrounding villas for the week and had the most wonderful time.  Every need was catered to during our stay, and we were all spoiled beyond belief.  The wedding was beautiful, and the time with friends, away from home, was much-needed because over the past few weeks, I've piled on a lot more stress than I'd noticed (and I'm usually pretty self-aware).  Work has been incredibly busy and things around the house have been consuming more time and effort than usual, so this wedding couldn't have been better-timed or better-located.


When I arrived at the villa where I'd be staying, I hugged my friends hello and upon seeing our surroundings, couldn't help but close my eyes and take a deep whiff.  Part ocean, and part something else... at first, I couldn't place it.  I squinted against the sun as I looked around the grounds until I saw it: a mango tree.  Wait, two mango trees.  There's a third!  And a fourth!  Hundreds of almost-ripe mangoes dangling in clumps of fifteen or twenty or more, their collective weight pulling the branches down so that they nearly touched the ground.  I scampered (and I am generally a girl who does not scamper) down the hill to the first tree I saw and picked one from the lowest-hanging branch, sliced it lengthwise with my thumbnail (there goes the manicure!), and twisted it apart to feel the oily flesh and take in its scent.  As you may recall, past experiences have made me more than a little hesitant to eat raw mangoes, but smelling them?  Aaaaahhhhh.  Feeling the weight of the fresh-picked, sun-warmed mango in my hand was, now in hindsight, the best way to kick off that little island respite of mine.  It reminded me of and reconnected me to a sense of touch, taste, smell, and sight that I haven't lately treated myself to often enough.

Because of what I do for a living, I spend many days here at home tethered to my laptop.  My office is on the second floor of my house, and while I have a lovely view of the neighborhood from my window, my eyes are usually glued to this screen, my fingers pounding out yet another op-ed, speech, or white paper for a client.  When I have gotten outside these past few weeks to try and get my gardens ready for summer, it's all been a matter of hard labor and little enjoyment.  Digging, moving, hauling, edging, mowing, weeding.  Even when I cook, I haven't been taking the time to really pay attention to the food I'm working with, and because I've been so busy, my day-to-day cooking has been slapdash and hurried.  So, I didn't really realize how much I needed to hold that mango and rip it open to breathe it in, leaving traces of pulp under my fingernails, until I actually did it.  Miraculously, the kinks in my neck unkinked, the knot under my right shoulder blade unwound, and my latest malady -- the embarrassingly visible lower right eye twitch -- disappeared before I'd even gotten my bags fully unpacked.  No cell phone, no laptop, and only fresh air, sunshine, and great friends for five days?  Everyone should be this lucky.

As we drove our golf carts around the property to the various wedding events and parties, I saw (and smelled!) that nearly every villa had at least three or four mango trees in its environs, and the golf course was laden with them.  After all the smushed mangoes on the roads, mangoes on the breakfast tray every morning, and a drunken, doubled-over-in-laughter game of pass-the-mango late Saturday night with a group of friends, it was obvious to me that the first dish I needed to do upon arriving back home was this one.

After all, I needed to reverse the bad mojo of three failed dishes in a row, and having just returned from paradise, I was certain the Jamaican mango gods had somehow stowed themselves in my luggage and would be guiding my way.

And so we begin... with two mangoes:


I peeled them both (using my awesome Oxo peeler, and took a chunk of skin out of my thumb in the process), and cut them into chunks which I put in the blender:


I blended it on medium-high speed until it was very smooth (took about 2 minutes), then added about 2T of simple syrup.  The book suggests adding an amount that will get you to 20 something-or-others on the refractometer, but as we covered in an earlier post, I don't have a refractometer, so I eyeballed an amount I thought would work for this preparation (and it did, but sshhhh, don't tell anyone until you get to the end of the post).  


After adding the 2T of simple syrup, I whizzed the mixture around in the blender for about 10 seconds to fully incorporate it, and poured the purée through a chinois into a bowl, and then into a squeeze bottle (which went into the fridge while I made everything else).



Next up?  Soy pudding.

Back when this blog was but a babe in the woods, I made olive oil pudding as part of one of the dishes in the book, and remember feeling all squidgey and blarky about it until I ate it, at which point I wanted to slather it all over my body and talk dirty to it, it was that good.

Would the same thing happen with soy pudding?  You'll soon find out... patience, grasshopper.

In a medium saucepan, I poured 500g of soy sauce (which is not even an entire 20-oz. bottle) along with the sugar and agar agar:


I brought it to a boil, whisking all the time while it boiled for two minutes threatening to ooze over the top of the pan, giving me flashbacks to the time my cousins made me watch "The Blob" with them late at night when I was but a wee lass.  Thanks, Ann and Amy.  Thanks a lot.  [Oh, and while I'm at it, thanks also for making me watch "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," too.  I WAS TEN.  I still have nightmares about that.  You suck.  (Love you!)]



It crawls!  It creeps!  It eats you alive!!!

I poured The Blob through a strainer into one of my Le Creuset pots, which I covered with its lid and put in the fridge for two hours to set.




After it had set, I scooped it all out into chunks that I put in the blender:


Looks more like soy Jell-O than soy pudding, doesn't it? 


The idea was to blend it until it was smooth.  I had to keep stopping the blender to push the chunks back down, which was kind of frustrating and ultimately has me convinced that I need a new blender (I've had this same one since 1991 -- can you believe it? Eighteen years. My blender can vote AND register for the draft!):


It was not as creamy smooth as I would've liked, but it also wasn't as tapenade-y as the photo depicts.  Somewhere in the middle, but not as dark and smooth and serene-looking as the photo of the little dots of it on page 187 of the Alinea cookbook.  Dang it.

The final step was to shave some dried bonito for sprinkling atop the finished product.  When I went to HMart, my local Asian market, I couldn't find a piece of dried bonito.  I asked a few employees where it might be, and because I don't speak Korean or Spanish (and the word "bonito" means something entirely different in Spanish anyway), it was a bit of a challenge to find.  I also have a hard time saying the word "bonito" without using my Beavis voice, which I'm sure didn't help matters. 

So I wrote the words "bonito" and "katsuobushi" (its other name) and drew a picture of a fish (I am such a tacky American) on a piece of paper and a kind employee led me to one of the middle aisles, extending his arm out and then to the side, gesturing at a set of shelves amidst the "American" household goods and foodstuffs (Cheerios, Charmin, and Jif). I started to say, "Oh no, this isn't the right aisle" because for YEARS I'd been walking by this very spot, wondering to myself why the Asian population in the metro DC area seemed to own hamsters and guinea pigs in great quantities, because I'd never seen a grocery store cater so heavily to a certain pet owner demographic, what with all the shelves of bags of various brands of hamster cage shavings:


Turns out, this stuff is shaved bonito -- or katsuobushi.  Not cedar shavings.  I'm such an ass.


There's no pleasant or polite way to say this, but the smell that assaulted my nasal passages upon opening that bag of shaved bonito was... um... gosh.... I don't want to be crass here, but I do want to find a way to convey what it smelled like without being too rude or offensive or soon to be on the receiving end of a phone call from my mother saying, "CAROL MELISSA BLYMIRE, WHERE ARE YOUR MANNERS?!?!?!  HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND!?!?!?  DID I TEACH YOU NOTHING!?!!?!?!  AND WHAT HAPPENED TO EMINEM'S FACE???!?!?!?! HE LOOKS LIKE BRUCE JENNER NOW, OR MAYBE EVEN AXL ROSE, AND THAT IS NOT GOOD AT ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!"  [Okay, she wouldn't yell at me about that last part, but seriously y'all, his face is jacked and that's a shame.]

So, back to the smell of the bonito (and now I'm singing "La Isla Bonita," Madonna's WORST SONG EVER.  GREAT.):  "Not quite the mango-scented Jamaican breeze" doesn't quite cut it.  An Atlantic City hooker in a rented-by-the-hour hotel in a swamp in the middle of August?  Perhaps a link will help?  Let's just say that there's a good reason some car makers install air conditioning vents just below the steering wheel, especially for long car rides.  Okay, I'm grossing myself out.  I think you catch my drift.

After I opened both windows in the kitchen to try and air out the place, I realized the texture of these shavings weren't going to do, though, for the final plating, so I whizzed them in my coffee bean/spice grinder until they became a fine powder:


It alleviated some of the smell, but I had to scrub the hell out of the grinder when I was finished with it, and then dispose of those paper towels in the outdoor garbage can immediately.  Ack.

With all the ingredients prepped and ready to go, I set up my ghetto antigriddle:


This time, the block of dry ice came from Elbe's Beer and Wine in Wheaton, MD, where the guy who helped me asked why I needed the dry ice, and was far more interested in and suitably impressed with my adventurous approach to cooking.  Unlike the old fart from Talbert's.  Ahem.

I gave the baking sheet a few minutes to freeze, and called the neighbors to come over and watch my magical antigriddle skillz.  First, I laid down a (semi)circular blob of mango purée, leaving a hole in the center for the sesame oil and soy pudding:

DSC_0051 (You're still totally grossed out by the description of the bonito smell, aren't you, and not even paying attention to the pretty, pretty mango purée.  SNAP OUT OF IT!!  I'm trying to dazzle you with my super-awesome antigriddle prowess!)

Next, I added a drop of the sesame oil in the middle, which I topped with a blonk of soy pudding (which, again, in this photo looks much grainier than it actually was):


When it had frozen all the way -- you can see in the photo above, the edges are turning a paler shade of yellow -- I pinched a bit of bonito powder on top and gingerly popped the frozen mango disk off the baking sheet with a small offset spatula (only losing three of them due to overzealous popping, which flew them into the air and onto the floor, much to the dogs' enjoyment):


So, how did it taste?  Well, it wasn't bad!  The sesame was a little overpowering, but we all loved the way the flavors just unveiled themselves gradually and collectively with every chew.  The soy and the mango together were really great, and the bonito added a nice depth and moved the flavor up into the nose a bit (and wasn't gross anymore at all!).  We all stood around the butcher block island in my kitchen as I made nearly 50 of them -- some with just mango purée, some with mango and soy, some with mango and bonito, but very few with the sesame oil, because it just seemed to stampede all over the other flavors.  The soy pudding was not as earth-shatteringly good as the olive oil pudding of yore, but I didn't hate it.  Three of my tasters were kids, and they loved it with just the mango and soy as well as the plain mango, not so much the sesame.

This is a really easy and entertaining dish to make, and the flavor combination possibilities are endless, depending on what you have on-hand.  Between this and the sour cream dish, I think I want to set aside an afternoon to make and freeze a bunch of different purées and creamy things to see what else I can come up with.  Not only did it taste good, this was fun!  It was the perfect segue from the perfect vacation back into the real world... and it's clear the Jamaican mango gods brought me good luck in reversing the curse.

I'm back, baby. Oh yeah.

SPECIAL NOTE: Congratulations to Chef Achatz, the Alinea team, all the Alinea cookbook writers and contributors, and the folks at Ten Speed Press for garnering a James Beard Award for Cookbooks (Professional).  Bravo!

And, a great podcast interview with Grant on the CIA web site about the industry, restaurant philosophy, and the importance of good mentors, among other topics.

Up Next:  Junsai, bonito, soy, mirin

Resources:  Mangoes, sesame oil, and bonito from HMart in Wheaton, MD; simple syrup from my fridge (always good to have a batch on hand, especially to add to iced tea in the summertime); agar agar from WillPowder.net; San-J soy sauce.

Music to Cook By:  The Whigs; Mission Control.  A few years ago, Rolling Stone wrote up The Whigs as a band to watch, so I did.  While they haven't exactly stampeded up the charts (because their father isn't Billy Ray Cyrus or Jay-Z.. and that's actually a good thing in the long run), they are solid and I love their sound.  They're doing some dates on the west coast at the end of the summer with Kings of Leon, another band I like, but not coming to DC. Boooo....

Read My Previous Post:  Sweet potato, brown sugar, bourbon, smoking cinnamon

May 03, 2009

Sweet potato, brown sugar, bourbon, smoking cinnamon

If this were baseball, I'd have to shut down the blog, because three strikes and I'm out, kids.

Strike one: my pineapple glass was so not glass.  Strike two: my rosewater envelope was so not an envelope.  And now?  What is so lovingly and beautifully featured on page 366 of the Alinea cookbook was rendered by yours truly to not even come close to resembling the final product, let alone County Fair-worthy food-on-a-stick.

And the worst part?  Wasted bourbon.  Almost a whole bottle down the drain, literally.

Actually, that's not the worst part.  The worst part is the fact that even though I think I'm a pretty smart person with decent intuition and deduction skills, I still can't figure out where this all went wrong. I mean, I have a few ideas about one or two of the steps, but overall?  This isn't a difficult dish, in my estimation and I hate that I couldn't successfully pull it off.  In fact, I kind of don't even want to write this post.  I would rather just put up the photo of the final result and have you all ridicule it, heckle it, give it a wedgie, dip its braid in an inkwell, boo and hiss and tell me to pack it in and call it a day.

But I know that Bea Arthur would want me to put on a floor-length vest, hold my head up high and get on with it already, so I will.  Except for the floor-length vest part.

This dish, ultimately, is supposed to be a cube of bourbon gel, a cube of sweet potato gel, and a cube of brown sugar candy, all tempura batter-dipped and deep-fried on a stick of cinnamon that you then light on fire and blow out so that you can eat this dish while inhaling the aroma of cinnamon.  I think it sounds like the most perfect thing, don't you?  Let's kick things off with the bourbon gel.

I poured 600g of bourbon (nearly the ENTIRE BOTTLE, the rest of which I just drank straight after the final plating *snort*... and you, too, will snort when you see how loosely the term "final plating" truly applies, but NO PEEKING... stay with me) into a saucepan and added the 7 grams of Kelcogel JJ gellan gum.

Not to go off on yet another tangent, but doesn't JJ gellan gum sound like the name of a detective from the 70s, or perhaps some old-timey investigative reporter with a "scoop" card in the brim of his hat?  "Yeah, I'm J.J. Gellangum, see?  Gonna bust this joint wide open, see?"

Oh, let me also note that I started this dish at 7:30 in the morning... not the ideal time to be smelling bourbon, but let's return you to your regularly scheduled program.

So, bourbon, gellan gum, saucepan.  I mixed it with my immersion blender until it was fully incorporated, and brought it to a simmer over medium-high heat.



I poured it into a shallow pan and waited for it to cool to room temperature, at which point, it was also supposed to set.


After five hours at room temperature, it still hadn't set:


So, I put it in the fridge, thinking THAT might help.


After two hours in the refrigerator, it was still the consistency of loose, runny, hospital Jell-O.  With all apologies to the Jell-O corporation for the comparison.

So, I put it back in the refrigerator and figured I'd check it again when I was ready to do the final step.  Oh, I love my optimism...

During the first bit of bourbon-gel-non-setting time, I made the sweet potato gel.  Or, as I like to call it, Hey, Velveeta!!

First, I peeled and cut 500g of sweet potato into slices and let them simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes in some cream with some salt.


How sad that the only high point in this whole process was that I was able to eyeball and select a sweet potato that was just two grams shy of the 500g requirement.  Boo-ya!


I strained the potatoes (reserving the cream) and put them in the blender with 300g of the reserved cream, and blended on high speed until it was smooth:



I'd been soaking 10 gelatin sheets in cold water, so I squeezed out the water, and added them to the sweet potato purée, which I'd poured into a mixing bowl, stirring to incorporate everything:


I then poured this mixture through a chinois and onto a plastic wrap-lined sheet tray, which I put in the refrigerator to set, per the book's instructions:


While the sweet potato gel was setting, I made the brown sugar candy -- again, something that was supposed to sort of solidify into something I could cut into squares. 

Into the saucepan went water and yellow pectin, which I blended like mad with my immersion blender until it had dissolved and was fully incorporated.  Then, I blended in the sugar and citric acid and brought it to a boil.  Once it had begun to boil, I carefully added the Trimoline, glucose, and brown sugar, and brought it all to 230 degrees.


I poured the mixture into a plastic wrap-lined baking pan (my sheet trays were otherwise engaged)


The brown sugar candy, when I touched the surface of it after two hours, seemed firm and ready to be used.

At this point, the bourbon gel had been trying to "set" for nearly nine hours, and still, it was runny and not even close to being anything that could be cut into 3/4" squares.  So, I abandoned that part of the dish and figured the sweet potato and brown sugar on their own would be pretty good on their own, so I soldiered forth with hope, optimism, and a sense of pri.... CRAP.

Look what happened when I tried to cut the brown sugar candy:


I put it in the fridge for an hour or two, and nothing.  Not quite runny, but looser than marmalade or chutney. 

Even after being in the refrigerator, it stayed the same consistency, and the solid globs that you see above only got more pronounced (and they weren't there when it was poured in as a liquid)

At this point, I had to decide what to do next.  Cry?  Cut the sweet potato stuff, which had gelled nicely, into squares and slather the brown sugar gel on it before tempura battering it?  I tried that with one, and it just wouldn't stay on and got even gloppier, so I just decided I'd batter the sweet potato squares and deep fry those, adding a little extra dusting of brown sugar as I pulled the hot, fried, tempura-battered sweet potato out of the oil.  That's how I'd make sure it tasted like brown sugar.  Yeah, that's the ticket.

So, I speared my gelled potato cubes with a cinnamon stick (of course, the sweet potato gel set exactly as it should have), lightly dredged them in flour, then the tempura batter, and cooked them for three minutes in canola oil that had been heated to 375 degrees, per the book's instructions.

Yeah.... sounds easy and straightforward doesn't it?



Dude, that ain't County Fair-worthy, let alone Alinea-worthy.

Toothless carnies can make this, but I can't? 

And, see what I mean by "Hey, Velveeta!!"?

Let's have a side-by-side comparison to further illustrate how badly this turned out:



I didn't even bother to light the end of the cinnamon stick on fire before tasting this, because I was certain I would've caught my hair on fire, so I decided not to tempt fate and just took a bite of the crispy tempura batter and gloppy, melted sweet potato.  What did it taste like?  Well, I don't know, because I burned the roof of my mouth.



Except, I guess it kind of is.  Sort of.

But it's really, honestly, frustrating.  I feel like my kitchen is cursed.  Maybe it's the tonka bean from Capricorns (sic) Lair that put some sort of creepy hoodoo mojo on my house.  I think I'll spend the next few days waving veal bones around while singing like Karen Carpenter, or burning sage and chives and wafting it into the corners of the kitchen... some sort of culinary exorcism is in order, methinks, because this scourge must stop.  I have to get my groove back.  Lieutenant-Detective-Investigative-Reporter J.J. Gellan Gum, you let me down.

Up Next: Could be Oyster, ginger, steelhead roe, beer; or, might be Licorice Cake, orange confit, anise hyssop, spun sugar.

Resources: Sweet potato from Whole Foods; David's kosher salt; gelatin sheets, trimoline, and glucose from L'Epicerie; Organic Valley heavy cream; Maker's Mark bourbon; gellan gum, yellow pectin, citric acid from Terra Spice; Domino light brown sugar; cinnamon sticks from H Mart; tempura batter ingredients from my pantry.

Music to Cook By: David Bowie; Let's Dance.  Sort of prescient, because I need to go put on my red shoes and dance the blues right about now.

Read My Previous Post: Granola, in a rosewater envelope

Alinea Book


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


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