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July 20, 2009

Croquette, smoked steelhead roe, endive, radish

While I love being a spectator of certain sporting events, I've never been much of the athletic type.  Chalk it up to my innate talents (musical theatre, and being a smartass) focused elsewhere while I was growing up, or being much more into the statistics of sports rather than the sports themselves (I still have my spiral-bound notebook containing various Orioles batting averages and Winter Olympic ski jump records from 1976), but I could never play any actual sports.  Part of it is laziness, part of it is disinterest, and most of it just an extreme lack of athletic talent.  EXTREME.  Like, I got Cs in phys. ed. in junior high and high school because the only sport I was good at was rolling my eyes.

That said, I will confess to being jealous of people who are good at sports, because they're given the benefit of having the opportunity for some amazing, adrenaline-fueled celebratory moments -- the rush of scoring a goal in soccer, the 80-yard touchdown run, or hearing the specific crack of the bat that you just know is going to land that baseball over the left-field fence.  Even watching pro sports -- the Ickey Shuffle, the Lambeau Leap, the touchdown spike, the winning ace in a tennis match, or soccer players who get caught up in the swarm of teammates when they score a goal.  Hell, even the sound of, "goooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllllllllllllll!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" itself is awesome.  It's a feeling I rarely have an opportunity to experience.  I mean, so I launch a great press campaign or score a rave for a client in the New York Times... can't exactly do a leaping chest-bump while "WOOO-HOOOOOO"-ing with anyone.  In fact, none of my professional experiences inherently deliver that from-the-gut-gotta-outwardly-and-instantly-celebrate-or-I-might-explode kind of feeling.  Not even close.

So, I don't play sports, and my profession doesn't really dovetail with the physicality of a celebratory adrenaline surge.  But cooking?  Even when a meal turns out beautifully, I can't say that I've ever experienced that sense of beaming pride that carries you for days.  It always seems as if I take a moment or two to savor it, and then I go on to the next thing.  But you know what happened the other day?  A fist-pumping, can't stop smiling, HELL YES, end-zone dancing, butt-shaking, giddily laughing accomplishment that took me quite by surprise and that I'm still feeling today... all caused by what you see below.  This, my friends, is my Croquette, from the Alinea cookbook:


Is it a breaded, fried ball of dairy product with stuff on top?  Yes, but it may just be the best thing I have ever made.  It's certainly the best bite from this blog up until now.  And, to add to the joy?  I made it gluten-free.

I was caught off guard by how well this turned out, because there were steps throughout the process that could very easily have led to a post with lines like, "well, the spheres were supposed to set, but as you can see, Bluto clearly got to them before I could."  I worried that the breading I'd planned to do would fail, and I'd end up with a repeat of The Great Sweet Potato Meltdown of 2009.  I feared another caper explosion.  I don't know why, but I had it in my head that this was going to be frustrating and unsatisfying, and instead, it was the complete opposite.

And when it was done, and the croquettes eaten, and the dishwasher started, and my friends on their way back across the street to their home, I did my own version of the Ickey Shuffle.  Although, because I have ZERO floor space in my kitchen, it admittedly looked more like Judd Nelson in the final scene of The Breakfast Club after he kisses Molly Ringwald.  Which was shot on a football field.  Which I do not and can not play.  Because I suck at sports.  And we come full circle.  Wow.


But let's begin at the beginning, shall we?  Unless, of course, you're one of those readers who only likes when I destroy something or fail miserably... in which case, FINE.  BE that way.

I did this dish in just a few hours (most of which was waiting time as the spheres set), and it was more than worth it.  I started in the morning because I wanted to make sure I built in some extra time for the crème fraîche spheres to set, or for me to re-do them completely, because I was really sure I was gonna screw 'em up.  But before I even started in on those, I candied some Belgian endive leaves...


I bought two endives, and used the larger outer leaves of both.  I also trimmed the tough, brownish, fibrous parts at the base of each leaf.  I halved the leaves lengthwise (I made a few extra in case some tore while cooking) and put them in a small saucepan of sugar and water I'd already heated to a simmer (stirring until the sugar dissolved).  Upon putting in the leaves, I turned down the flame to the lowest heat level, covered the pot, and let them simmer/steep for 40 minutes.



I turned off the burner and let the leaves sit in the pot of liquid until I was ready to use them later in the day.

The next thing I did was make the crème fraîche liquid -- crème fraîche, water, salt, simple syrup, warmed to a simmer.  I added the gelatin sheets (which I'd soaked in cold water for a few minutes) and whisked them in until they'd dissolved.


I turned off the heat, knowing it would stay warm while I got the cucumber balls and roe ready to make the spheres:



The smoked steelhead roe is from BLiS, and I don't know that I've ever seen roe more beautiful (or more flavorful).  [I can't wait to try all of Steve's other products because if this roe is any indication of the level of quality, I'm going to fall culinarily in love, I'm quite sure.]

To make the spheres, I got out my trusty silicone molds (which J.B. Prince no longer sells, sadly, but these should work just as nicely), and placed 7 eggs into each of the hemispheres, then added a cucumber ball, locked the top on, and squirted in the crème fraîche liquid until each sphere was full:







I put the mold into the refrigerator and crossed my fingers for the next three hours to make sure they'd set.  I really, really, really thought that when I gently lifted up one corner of the top layer of the mold, that half the ball of goo would come with it, and it would be a creamy mess and I'd have wasted all that roe.  But that wasn't the case.

Once I'd checked on them to make sure they were set and ready to be used, I put them back into the refrigerator and prepared the rest of the garnishes: red onion dice, radish slivers, deep-fried capers, pieces of lime segment, and a trio of fresh herbs (sandwiched between damp paper towels) -- chive, sorrel, parsley:


The next step was to bread and deep fry the crème fraîche spheres.  The recipe in the book calls for all-purpose flour and panko crumbs, neither of which I can eat.  So, instead, I took each ball and rolled it in tapioca flour, then egg (beaten), then breadcrumbs I made with four slices of Whole Foods brand gluten-free sandwich bread (which I thawed, removed the crusts, and whacked in the food processor for 20 seconds to make them into bread crumbs).  The book said to do this flouring, egging, and breading twice so that they were double-breaded, but I did it three times.  Just to be safe.




I heated a pot of canola oil to 250-275 degrees instead of the 475 degrees the book suggests.  I know from previous experience that gluten-free bread tends to toast and burn more quickly than regular bread, so I started out at a lower temperature for the oil because I figured I could increase it if it wasn't working at 250-275 degrees.  I just didn't want to lower one of those precious few crème fraîche spheres into 475-degree oil and have it turn black or explode.

I chose wisely:



That level of brown crispiness happened in ten seconds, and I knew each of these balls had to go into the oven for a few minutes to make sure the centers were softened, so I was happy to see that my gut instinct on this was correct.  I did all nine spheres, one at a time, then put them on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 250-degree oven for 2 minutes.  The only thing I thought about while they were warming was whether that 10 seconds in the oil was enough time, given that I had three layers of breading instead of two.  I needn't have worried because this plate of croquettes is one of the finest things to have ever graced my kitchen:


So, what did it taste like?  Well, we ate it as one bite... and the warm crème fraîche just exploded in my mouth (and some dribbled out of the side of my mouth; klassy!).  The contrast of warm and creamy on the inside with the toastiness of the breaded outside was one thing.  But, then to add the subtle layers of the smoky, salty, flavor bursts of the roe as they exploded between my teeth, and the sharpness and biteyness of the radish, the zing of the onion, the brine of the capers, the tart acidity of the lime, the cool freshness of the cucumber, and the sweetness of the candied endive?  "Wow" doesn't cut it.  "YEAH!" doesn't quite do it either.  "Proud" doesn't quite encompass the height of emotion.  My 10-year old neighbor's eyes bulged wide (he dribbled a bit, too) and he didn't blink at all while he chewed and then reached for a second one.  But "eyes bulging" isn't the right descriptor, either.  My neighbor, Sean, who had eaten at Alinea the week before, said, "this is your best work EVER."  So while I was even more flattered because he actually now has a real-life reference point for the level of quailty I'm going for, it still isn't the most complete way to describe how I felt about this croquette.

I know part of my loving this croquette so much comes out of my knowing that I'll never again eat roe in the traditional way -- on toast points.  Toast made with real bread -- the kind of bread I can't eat anymore.  So to have all that toasty deliciousness, and the crème fraîche and the salty roe surrounded by all the other supporting flavors in one bite?  And that I MADE IT?

It really and truly felt like what I can only imagine it's like to spike a football in the end zone... crack a bat on a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth... be the first one to cross the finish line in a come-from-behind win... feel the thunderous, all-encompassing roar of a crowd... then trying not to cry while you're standing on the platform receiving the gold medal and hearing the national anthem.

It's all of those wrapped up into one, because, I MADE THIS:


And it was FANTASTIC.

I'm gonna go do a victory lap now.

Up Next: Oyster, ginger, steelhead roe, beer

Resources:  Gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie; Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. crème fraîche; David's kosher salt; English cucumber, Belgian endive, red onion, radish, sorrel; and gluten-free bread from Whole Foods; Domino sugar; BLiS roe; Bob's Red Mill Tapioca Flour; eggs from Smith Meadows Farm; 365 canola oil; Bal Paese capers; parsley and chive from my garden.

Music to Cook By: Ray LaMontagne; Trouble.  Raspy, but not grating.  Thoughtful, but not emo.  Has a walkable musicality, but not Randy Newman.  Lyrical, but not lilting and twee.  I love this guy.    

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How did this compare to the braised, stuffed pig's head you made from the FLC? You've mentioned a number of best-ever dishes and I'm never sure if you are continually peaking or maybe you've forgotten about some of the previous best dish evers. Either way, congrats! Those balls look awesome. I'm eating leftover lo mein for dinner tonight. I think you win!

I'm going to guess this is the dish we tweeted back & forth about a couple of weeks ago...if so...

(Sound of Camden Yards when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record...)


I am so happy for you!

Wow! After the last few, you totally earned this win...and all of my favorite flavors and txtures in one bite...wow.

Derek: You know what? I'll always hold a special place in my heart for the pig's head, because it was difficult, kind of gross, and was just a different kind of dish, altogether. And yes, it was one of the best things I've ever cooked. But this croquette? Was better. In different ways and for different reasons. When I made the pig's head, I didn't have any limitations or restrictions on my diet, other than the odd allergy here and there. But to not ever be able to eat gluten again (which, by the way, is EVERYWHERE)? I didn't realize how big an emotional impact celiac had on me until I ate this bite. And that's why it felt like my brain just burst wide open. That, and having something set like it's supposed to set, and not fall apart in hot oil? And taste that good? Wow.

Does that make sense?

Robert: YES! That's the dish. And yes to feeling like Cal.

Tonight I got caught up on the last month and was smiling (almost beaming) in vicarious pride on this dish. You rock. And it is cool how this blog is like a trusty friend that makes smiles when I return.

I just had the crappiest day. And reading this entry has turned it all around. you put some seriously good energy out there into the world today. thanks for the pick me up!!!

Woohoo!!! I am applauding as I read this - you GO! Now I am excited to try gf breading and deep frying something. Because my waistline needs that so very badly (not) :)

The photos are gorgeous! Looks lovely and tasty.

I haven't eaten at Alinea (yet), but between your writing and the photos, I feel like I just tasted your dish! I feel like I could go buy the book for this one recipe alone, and I've been looking for an excuse.

Thanks for sharing your amazing project, it always makes my day.

That does make sense and it gives me a big smile to read that. It must have felt great to nail the modifications to the recipe. That's skill!

After reading this I really want to make it, but I can't see spending the $$ on the molds. There must be a way to use cheap half spheres molds and "glue" them together. Inspiring me to think about it anyway. Thanks for the post.


Now, are you ready to give the Beet sphere one more chance?

That looks SO GOOD. Wow. I love your blog but I have to admit there have been a number of Alinea dishes that didn't do much for me. Just a difference of tastes. But THIS. Oh yeah, baby.

Gorgeous "plating" too. No sweet potato horror here.

Damn, first the sous vide-circulator, and now the funky ball molds. Reading this blog is starting to cost me a lot of money! These bites look so beautiful, and the flavor profile sounds so intriguing, that I think I'll have to give them a try. Plus think of all the fun that can be had when guests ask what it was they just ate. Why they are pig testicles of course....bon appetit! Great job, Carol.

These sound like the classy uncle of the less elevated members of the fried cheese family. As such, I want to eat them in a big way.

Also, they look delicious, and I'm completely jealous that they held their shape so beautifully rather than transforming into amorphous fry blobs, like so many of my own expiriments.

Absolutely, fantastically, freaking stunning!

Way to go!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Congrats! They look awesome, and sound like something reasonably approachable to make, too. Happy to hear the gluten-free bread worked as a good substitute -- I'll have to keep a loaf in the freezer.

Congrats! Feel like Alinea has been something of a struggle, compared to FL - SO happy for you!

Your joy is infectious. Congratulations, and thank you for brightening up my hectic afternoon with the promise of things, sometimes, turning out just perfectly. Keep up the awesome work! And by that, I mean, keep telling us the truth even when it ain't pretty, because then when it is, we're all a part of it. :-)

Was "Don't You Forget About Me" playing during your victory lap??

Food porn -- love it!!
You go, Carol!

This looks and sounds amazing...
you go girl...!
and merci for making it G-F...!

Yours looks EXACTLY like the photo in the cookbook. Well done!

Your enthusiasm for this bite shines through. I love that. I'll have to give this one a try.

I am in awe!

I wish I could be as brave as you, buy the cookbook and the molds, and the spheres and all

but, I am a certified wimp.

Living vicariously through your adventures! :-)

She shoots, she scores! Great looking croquettes, your deviations were really bold and I applaud you for succeeding.


Congrats Carol!

One of the best moment during the week is reading your blog! A friend of mine is allergic to gluten so your workarounds are really a great help to me! And this dish, wow!! You deserved two victory rounds!

so excited for you and also, well, *starving* now! well done.

You rock!! I'm sure it was amazing and it's pretty to boot. Very cool!

I just absolutely love your writing, the way you connected a home run feeling with this was just so beautifully tied together, bravo!!! I am enjoying following your cooking travels once more!

This was really fun to read. I've just purchased the book and a few of the ingredients for the post modern pantry, but have yet to dive in. This might just be the confidence booster I needed to give a few of the recipes a shot.

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