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November 2009

November 27, 2009

Share Our Strength Incentives and Updates

To make this year's Share Our Strength fundraising campaign a little more interesting, I've decided to commemorate certain early donation milestones by videotaping myself trying to overcome a few food-related obstacles:

When we reach $1,000 in donations, I'll eat a handful of cilantro.

At the $2,500 mark, I'll eat 6 raw oysters.

At the $5,000 milestone, I'll eat a bowl of tripe soup.

But, to make it a little more interesting, I want YOUR ideas for what I should do for the $6,500, $8,000 and $10,000 donation milestones.  Heck -- let's come up with ideas for the $12,500 and $15,000 milestones, too, while we're at it.  Do you want video footage of me singing some Rick Astley, Celine Dion, or New Kids on the Block at karaoke while doing The Robot?  Do a little dance in front of the White House, whisks in hand?  Photographic evidence of my walking into a coffee shop while still in my pajamas?  Or, as a friend's young son suggested: video footage of me "walking around town with a cute, cute kitty on her head?"

You name it, I'll consider it, and I'll update you as we go.

Or, hey -- how 'bout, if we reach $100,000 in donations, I'll legally change my name to Alinea Blymire.  Make it happen, people.

November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Eat well.

Drink enough.


Be kind.

Help with the dishes.

-- Rules to live by

November 23, 2009

Peanut, five other flavors

I love peanut butter.  Seriously.  I eat it almost every day -- a spoonful here and there.  Not in sandwiches anymore (siiiiigggghhhh, stupid celiac), but when I hit that afterschool-snack hour of 3 or 4 o'clock and need a little somethin', I grab a spoon and dunk it into a container of fresh-ground peanut butter from the grinders at Whole Foods.  I mix the regular and honey-roasted versions, so it's a nice blend of salt, nut, and a hint of sweet.  I grew up eating Jif peanut butter, but it tastes funny to me now... a little like plastic, I think.  I'm not 100% in love with the Whole Foods fresh-ground stuff, either, but it'll do in a pinch.




That little break there?  Yeah. Writing about peanut butter gave me a wicked craving for it.  Had to run downstairs and have some.  Mmmmmmmmmm.....

I've written about my love for peanut butter here and here.  I tend to torture my friends with this little ditty from time to time.  So, I think it's safe to assume that going into this dish, I had high hopes, an eager palate, and knew there wasn't anything I was dreading or loathing or having for the first time.  These are flavors I know, techniques I'm familiar with, and preparations that are pretty straightforward.

So let's get to it.

I made the Peanut Chocolate element first, since the book said it needed 6 hours in the fridge to become firm.

The first ingredient? Unsweetened peanut paste.  Now, you may be wondering, what in the hell is peanut paste and how is it different from peanut butter, and where the heck do you buy it?  I wondered that myself, and suspected that it was pretty simple: peanuts, a little bit of peanut oil, food processor, whackedywhack, and done.  So after making a few phone calls to some chef friends, they confirmed that my assumption was correct.  So, I put 270g of raw peanuts in the food processor and turned it on, while I drizzled in 2T of peanut oil, just to give it some moisture to turn into paste instead of just being ground peanuts.



Not quite peanut butter, not quite ground peanuts.  Somewhere in between.  Works for me.

I threw 265g of the peanut paste into my Kitchen Aid mixer along with some confectioners' sugar:


Then, I melted a half-pound of butter and let it brown, so I could add brown butter to the paste and the sugar:



I put the mixer on low speed to start mixing the peanut paste and confectioner's sugar, then slowly poured in the brown butter with the mixer running, until everything was incorporated:


Brown butter, peanuts and sugar? My kitchen smelled like a fairy tale.

I put the mixture on a piece of parchment, covered it with another piece of parchment, and "rolled" it flat with my hands (I think they're the most valuable and underused tool in the kitchen).




When I had smoothed it to its called-for thickness (1/4"), I slid it onto a sheet pan and put it in the fridge to set.  The book said it would take 6 hours.  It took one hour.  I LOVE when that happens -- since what usually happens to me is that instead of 2 hours, something takes 947 days.


While that was in the fridge, I made the concord grape gel, otherwise known as "Peanut Grape" in the book.

While not all gels I've made for the blog have worked out in my favor, I had a feeling this one would.  First step? Combine sugar and pectin and whisk it in to a saucepan of concord grape juice:


I brought it to a boil, then added the sugar, isomalt, and glucose and heated it to 225 degrees F, stirring furiously so that it wouldn't scorch.  Scorch is such a weird word, isn't it.  It's one of those words that when you say it out loud, over and over again, it loses its meaning, and makes you look like a basket case walking around saying, "scorch" out loud a hundred fifty times in different intonations.  Not like I've ever done that or anything.


I poured the liquid onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet and let it set in the fridge.  It took about 30 minutes to set.



Also part of the "Peanut Grape" element of this dish is some peanut butter powder.  Simple as pie: peanut butter and tapioca maltodextrin in a food processor, whackedywhack, sift, done.







With the two most time-consuming (and really, not very time-consuming at that) elements done, it was time to do the little bits.

I cut eight small pieces of celery heart -- sorry, I don't have photos of it, but it's easy.  At the base and on the inside of a bunch of celery is the heart.  They're the most tender, innermost, probably beige or yellow-ish stalks.  You'll see them with a dab of peanut butter in the final plating photo.  If you wanted to use the green stalks, I'm sure that'd be fine, too.

Next, I cut eight small pieces of freeze-dried banana:


Each one of those got a small dab of peanut butter, as well.

Then, I took eight peanuts, dipped them in orange blossom honey, then into some freeze-dried honey powder.  No photos of that step because it's boring to watch.  It was even kind of boring to do.  I actually probably fell asleep during the process which might explain the sticky stuff in my hair.  You'll see the honey-slathered peanut in the final plating photo.  Swears.

Next up? I cut small rectangles of the grape gel and rolled each one, and dabbed them in the peanut butter powder.



Peanuuuuut, peanut butter, and jelly, and jelly, jelly, jelly.... first ya take the peanuts and ya pick 'em, ya pick 'em, ya pick 'em, pick 'em, pick 'em.  Did anyone else sing that song in camp, or am I making that up?

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Then, I cut small squares of the "Peanut Chocolate", and dipped the ends of each one into some dark chocolate I'd melted in a bowl over a small pot of simmering water. 

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DSC_0010 2 

As much as I would've loved to splurge on eight of these serving pieces as the book describes, I didn't.  So, for the purposes of the blog, I plated them all in a row so you could see what they looked like.  I used my fingers to eat mine, but realized it was a bit of a messy proposition for my guests.  They got theirs each on individual spoons.


From L to R: Peanut dipped in honey and freeze-dried honey powder; peanut butter on a piece of freeze-dried banana; peanut butter on a piece of celery heart; "Peanut Grape," the concord grape gel dipped in peanut butter powder; and, "Peanut Chocolate" -- a peanut-y kind of nougat-like square dipped in dark chocolate.

The peanut dipped in orange blossom honey and honey powder?  What's not to like?  Sweet, crunchy, delicious.

The peanut butter on a piece of freeze-dried banana was so tasteless and dry and annoying that I threw away the other seven pieces of it and didn't serve it to my friends.  It was like eating a piece of drywall with creamy, salty spackle on it.  Only grosser.

Peanut butter on a piece of celery heart?  Fine.  Not earth-shatteringly good or puke-inducing bad.  Crunchy, peanut buttery, good.

Now, the peanut butter powder on the concord grape gel?  LOVED.  Fantastic flavors, nice texture, and the gel nearly dissolves in your mouth.  There's some give at first, but it's just so clean and smooth in the end.  Loved it.  And there's just something about the way the concord grape flavor is just so much better than any old regular grape flavor.  It gets all up in your nose, and it's rich and heady and gorgeous.  I love it.

But I think the hit among all of them was the last one, "Peanut Chocolate." It was kind of like a nougat-y piece of candy with a shortbread-like texture.  Like shortbread with a hint of flavor that reminded me of Mary Janes or Bit-O-Honey.  And the little bit of dark chocolate on the end made it even better.  In fact, I'd be content to make that exact same thing all over again, cut them into larger pieces, dip them in chocolate, and give them away as holiday goodies.

Up Next: Niçoise Olive, saffron, dried cherry, olive oil

Resources: Peanuts and celery from the TPSS Co-op; peanut butter from Whole Foods; Domino sugar; yellow pectin, isomalt, glucose, citric acid, and tapioca maltodextrin from L'Epicerie; McClure's orange blossom honey; freeze-dried honey powder from MySpiceSage.com; Just Bananas freeze-dried bananas (can't recommend 'em, though); Noi Sirius chocolate; Knudsen concord grape juice.

Music to Cook By: Reservoir Dogs Soundtrack; Various Artists. Laugh all you want, but "So You Think You Can Dance" either introduces me to new music I end up loving, or reminds me of songs I love but haven't listened to in awhile.  "Little Green Bag" is one of those songs I haven't thought about since "Reservoir Dogs" came out, and I was thrilled to be reminded of it again when it was on SYTYCD a few weeks ago.  And no, not just because dreamy Wade Robson choreographed something to it.  Do you really think I'm that shallow?  Fine.  You know me too well. (Hey Wade, call me!!)

Read My Previous Post: Share Our Strength

November 19, 2009

Alinea at Home Extra: Share Our Strength


When I wrote French Laundry at Home, I did a fund-raising drive for Share Our Strength.  Last year, here on Alinea at Home, I did it again.  Now, here we are, a year later, and the childhood hunger landscape has changed yet again, and not for the better.

Two recent news articles -- one in The Washington Post, and one in The New York Times -- share the awful USDA statistics released this week: 49 million people in America are hungry, and of those 49 million, 17 million are kids.  That's 1 in 5 kids across America.  Last year, it was 1 in 6.  Share Our Strength's job just got harder.

I feel so incredibly lucky to have clients who keep me employed, but I know just like anyone else, nothing in life is a guarantee, and none of us ever truly knows when and if we might need help someday.  But today, I am writing this with a full belly, a warm house, and a roof over my head.  So, I want to help those who might not be as lucky as I feel.

We've created a dedicated Alinea at Home Share Our Strength campaign again this holiday season, and if you click on that page and make a donation in any amount, you'll be entered to win some of my favorite food books:

Alinea (Grant Achatz)

Ad Hoc at Home (Thomas Keller)

Momofuku (David Chang)

Live to Cook (Michael Symon)

The Sweet Life in Paris (David Lebovitz)

You could donate $5.  You could donate $500.  Doesn't matter.  Every little bit helps.  And, every donation gets an equal chance when we randomly select the winners.

Share Our Strength is out there every single day working with other nonprofits and community-based organizations not only to make sure food banks and soup kitchens have the tools they need on a local level, they also work on the national and state level to address the systemic infrastructure and policy issues that need to change to be able to have an impact on childhood hunger.  I know the folks at Share Our Strength very well, and I know they do great work because I've seen it first-hand.  So, I hope you'll do what you can to help them ensure that every single day, no child in America goes without food.

Last year, we raised $8,000 for Share Our Strength.  I know belts are tighter this year and personal household budgets are being watched more closely, so I know that number is going to be hard to beat.  I just hope we can come close.

I'll mention this again in future posts, but for now, more details can be found at Strength.org/carolblymire.  Pass it on.  And, THANK YOU in advance for anything you're able to give.

Up next: Peanut, Five Other Flavors

Read My Previous Post: Apple, horseradish, celery juice and leaves

November 16, 2009

Apple, horseradish, celery juice and leaves

For years, I've really, really loathed three things for their dental floss-like texture: rhubarb, celery, and frisee.  I got over my frisee issues by being fed a really nice, non-floss-like frisee salad (with poached egg, lardons, red onion, and black truffle at Central.  Thanks to one of the dishes in The French Laundry Cookbook, I don't hate rhubarb anymore, either.  Not that I ever crave it, but I have warmer, more gentle, less squicky feelings about it.

But celery?

I just don't get celery.  I don't get it at all.  It's like stalky, watery dental floss.  When I was little, my mom would fill the channel of a celery stalk with peanut butter, and give it to us as a snack.  I'd lick the peanut butter right out and leave the celery.  Celery on a vegetable tray at a party?  Makes me mad.  Vegetable trays, in general, make me mad because they're usually pretty gross and tasteless, but the added insult of having celery on there just makes it that much worse.  And there's only one good way to ruin a Bloody Mary -- and that's plonking a stalk of celery in it.  Like I wanna gouge my eye out when drinking what otherwise is a lovely, lovely beverage.

Cooking my way through The French Laundry Cookbook and now the Alinea cookbook is supposed to be about not just trying new things, but also about second (or third or fourth) chances for some foods.  It's about being open to different preparations and flavorful combinations.  But again with the celery?  Alright, FINE.  I'll give it a(nother) shot.  I mean, what's not to love about apples and horseradish?  Maybe I wouldn't even taste the celery at all!!  A girl can dream...

The first thing I needed to make was the apple juice for the apple spheres.  I juiced three Granny Smith apples in my juicer:



I brought the juice to a boil, and skimmed all the brownish scum that rose to the top:



I strained the juice through a chinois into a bowl nesting inside a larger bowl filled with ice:


I stirred in simple syrup, salt, and citric acid, stirred to dissolve, and poured the apple liquid into a squeeze bottle so that I could more easily fill the spherical molds:


The book suggests that you might want to make up to twenty apple spheres because they're fragile and therefore prone to breaking apart when you pin them and dip them in a horseradish mixture later on.  So, I did what I was told and made extra ones -- 18 of them -- 9 in each mold.  And then I freaked out that all 18 would fall apart and I'd be left with just CELERY JUICE to drink at the end of this, and I might possibly have cursed under my breath.  Or out loud.  Yeah, definitely out loud.

DSC_0035The darker blue ice cube tray is actually deeper and more rounded on the top than it looks, so they'll be 3/4 of a sphere.

I put the apple liquid-filled molds in the freezer and let them harden overnight.

The next morning, I made the horseradish liquid for the outer shell coating.  I peeled and diced horseradish root and put it in a Ziploc bag with some salt, cocoa butter powder, and white chocolate.  I sealed the bag and put it in a large stockpot of boiling water, and let it cook for 20 minutes.



I strained the contents of the bag into a small bowl, and stirred in the white wine vinegar with my immersion blender.



I used a turkey-lacing pin to hold each apple sphere and dunk them, one by one, into the horseradish liquid:


They looked nice and frozen to me, but they were delicate and had the potential to break apart, I could tell.  They were kinda crystal-y and looked like little frozen mini shards of ice in a compact little ball.  But, I must gloat for just a second: not one single sphere of mine broke or splintered or fell apart.  Wooo-hooo!!!!!!  Every single one got poked with a pin, dunked in the liquid, and put back on the mold to go back in the fridge so that the apple could melt now that it was encased in a quickly hardened horseradish shell.





Ladies, I know it looks like the Brazilian room at the day spa blew up on that tray, but trust me: most of the spheres were nice and smooth.  Only a few had some extra drizzles and bumps on them.

The apple spheres needed to be in the fridge for about five hours so that the frozen apple sphere could melt within the hardened shell, so the only thing I had left to do was make the celery juice.

Gah.  I can't even stand looking at the stuff.  It's just so... so... celeryish.


I resentfully and loathingly cleaned all 20 stalks and cut them into 2" pieces, and blanched them for about 30 seconds:


I juiced and strained every last bit of that stalky dental floss, which resulted in the most lovely green liquid:


DSC_0015 Ooooooo, pretty...

Hhmmmmm..... maybe it wouldn't be that bad.

I stored the liquid in the refrigerator until the five-hour mark was up, and the apple spheres were all liquidy inside.  I whisked in some salt and simple syrup, and filled six shot glasses about halfway with the juice.  Then, I gently placed an apple-horseradish sphere inside, and topped that with a few flakes of sea salt and a small celery leaf:



Bottoms up!

The horseradish-apple sphere broke apart in my mouth quite easily, and the combination of tart apple liquid with the sharp heat of the horseradish was intense.  It made my cheeks flush!  The celery juice buffered it a bit, but I actually like how confidently those flavors slammed my palate. 

I thought I might have issues with the texture of the horseradish shell as it disintegrated, what with the cocoa butter powder and white chocolate in there, but I barely noticed it at all.  It wasn't slimy or silky or slippery, like I thought it might be.

And the celery juice?  I actually kind of liked it.  Seriously!  It was smooth and fresh, and really complemented all the other flavors that were slammin' around.

NOW what food am I gonna be mad at?  HUH!?!?!?!

Up Next: Peanut, five other flavors

Resources: Apples, horseradish, and celery from HMart; David's kosher salt; citric acid from L'Epicerie; cocoa butter powder from InstaWares; El Rey Icoa white chocolate; Domaine Des Vignes white wine vinegar; Maldon sea salt.

Music to Cook By: Elvis Costello; Best of.  'Cause sometimes, I just need to hear him sing one of my favorite songs.  

Read My Previous Post: Pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves

November 12, 2009

Leftovers: Roasted Curry Pecans, and Viewer Mail!


Using the leftover curry salt from the Duck, pumpkin, banana, Thai aromatics dish, I made one of my favorite snacks: roasted curry pecans.  It's so easy, you really don't need a recipe.  Here's what I do: melt a stick of butter in a saute pan, add salt, curry powder, and raw sugar.  Stir until butter is melted and all flavors incorporated (use whatever amounts you like, that will satisfy your particular tastes).  Throw in a pound or so of pecans.  Stir until the nuts are coated.  Then, dump the nut mixture from the pan onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Roast coated nuts in a 375F oven for about 15 minutes.  You'll be able to smell when they're done -- the curry smell will deepen, and you'll smell the sugar really start to caramelize.  Remove pan from oven and let them cool to room temp.  The whole process, start to finish, is 20 minutes at the most.

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While I have you here, I'd like to take a few minutes to respond to a couple of comments that have popped up over the past few weeks.  First, from "JoP," one of my most loyal and lovely FL@H readers who continues to follow this blog:

"Can you reflect yet about what it's like cooking from Alinea vs. cooking from French Laundry? FL dishes are familiar in the sense that they're salads, soups, entrees, desserts, etc.; Alinea's dishes are less familiar, tastings rather than typical courses, using ingredient pairings that one probably hasn't had before. One cooks out of FL and says, "Here's dinner." From Alinea, one might say, "Here's a bite (or two or three)." FL is elegant and refined; Alinea is playful (and elegant and refined). I guess what I want to know is: does cooking Alinea feel the same as cooking FL? Or does cooking Alinea feel like playing? Or maybe like doing a science experiment? I'm just wondering if the experience is different, and if so, how."

I've actually been thinking about this a lot lately, because I'm a year into this book and a little over a third of the way through.  I'm stepping up my schedule (now that my worklife has slowed to a normal pace), so I'm hoping to post full dishes twice a week instead of once a week from here on out.

But, back to JoP's questions.  You know, just last weekend, I went back and re-read FL@H from start to finish, and, as a result, spent a lot of time reflecting on where I was and where I'd gone in the first third of that project.  Before I started French Laundry at Home, I knew how to cook, I just needed to reawaken my senses.  I needed to get past some of the fears or uncertainties I had about what kind of cook I was.  I needed to prove to myself that I could cook every single thing in that book.  I was hungry to learn and to be challenged.  But above all, I needed (and I mean needed) to write, cook, eat, and learn, all at the same time.  It was primal.  It was from the gut.  It was from the heart.  I wanted to learn, and learn from the best.

I look back at some of the posts from my first year of FL@H and laugh, or cringe, or wince, or shake my head.  For example, the parmagiano-reggiano crisps?  I sweated through that first time making them, and they completely and totally stressed me out.  Now?  I make them without even thinking.  It's become part of my DNA; I go on autopilot.  I make a mean effing parm-reg crisp.  The duck roulade?  It was the first time I'd done anything sous vide, and I really didn't know I was cooking en sous vide.  But now? I can cook sous vide.  Nearly every single dish that first year changed everything about the way I cook.  It made me sharper, more intuitive, and more thoughtful about everyday cooking.  It made doing a braised stuffed pig's head seem easy and even enjoyable.

Cooking from the Alinea cookbook is different, but I fear that, for many people, my saying that implies that different is bad, or less than or not quite the other thing.  That's not the case here.  It's just different.  It's different in the same way that my starting French Laundry at Home was different.  Back then, I had never cut the face off a softshell crab.  I'd never whipped Brie.  I'd never cooked with morels.  I'd never diced something to 1/16".  I'd never broken down a baby lamb.  I'd never purchased a pig's head.  I'd never made a powder.  I'd never made a quenelle.  I'd never made veal stock.

But when French Laundry at Home was coming to its inevitable close, I knew I had so much more to learn.  I knew there were challenges way above my skill level that I wanted to try.  And, again, I wanted to learn from the best.  I haven't really talked about this before, but about eight months before the Alinea cookbook came out, I had separate email exchanges with two men in the food world who I greatly admire.  With both of them, I wrote about where I was with FL@H and what I might want to do next.  I floated the idea of doing the Alinea cookbook -- without knowing anything about it, and not yet having eaten there, either -- and they both said that they thought I was crazy, that it couldn't be done by anyone really, and that there was no way I could do it.

If you know me in real life -- hell, if you've read me long enough -- you know that telling me I can't do something is going to make me want to do it.  And as soon as I decided it was the next project I was going to take on, I felt that same buzz of energy and fear that I'd felt when I started French Laundry at Home.  That same uncertainty about what kind of cook I was.  That same fear of techniques and ingredients I'd never heard of.  That same hunger to be challenged. That same drive to write and cook and learn... and, again, to learn from the best.

So, much like the things I didn't know when I started FL@H, when I started this blog, I'd never made an antigriddle out of dry ice and a baking sheet.  I'd never used an immersion circulator. I'd never heard of some of the ingredients I'd be working with.  I'd never pushed myself this far out of my comfort zone in the kitchen.  But I wanted to, because I saw how I grew as a cook and as a person by cooking my way through The French Laundry Cookbook.  So, why not try another book that the industry and the media said was the most difficult, challenging, and not-for-the-home-cook?  Bring it.

Yes, sometimes the end result of an Alinea dish is just a bite or two, and yes, some of the ingredients, flavor profiles, and techniques are different, but my intent is still the same.  By the end of this, I want to have not just cooked every dish in the Alinea cookbook, I want to have grown in new directions as a home cook.  None of these dishes have felt like a science experiment, nor have any of them felt like play time.  Doing this blog feels like doing something I've never done before, yet within a context I'm comfortable in.

I think the best way I can explain how the two blogs are similar, yet a little different, is by drawing a parallel to the way I like to spend my vacation time.  A few times a year, I need to go to my favorite beach town.  It's just three hours away and many friends live there year-round, so I always have a place to lay my head at night when I need to hear the ocean and go for a walk along the water, even if it's just a quick day trip or for a weekend.  There are times when I just simply need to be there.  It's part of who I am.

But, I wouldn't be who I am without opening myself up to new places, people, and things.  So, at least once a year, I like to travel to somewhere I've never been before.  Sometimes it's overseas, and sometimes it's here in the U.S. -- heck, sometimes I stumble onto new places on the drive to somewhere else.  Sometimes, I find places I want to go back to.  Other times I don't.  But it's about exploring and learning and leaving a piece of me there, and bringing a piece of that place back home with me.  And, what I love even more is when those new places become familiar places, because I fall in love with it and want to go back again and again.

I need both kinds of experiences.  The new and the familiar.   Same thing goes for me in the kitchen.  So, you see why ya can't -- or at least I can't -- fairly compare one to the other.  They're different, and yet so much the same in terms of how I allow them to shape and mold me.

*   *   *   *   *

Let me take a minute to address the many, many emails and comments I've gotten with the suggestion that I cook my way through Ad Hoc at Home and blog about it.  I love that so many of you are loving this book. I love the way it's written and laid out, I love how open and friendly and non-intimidating it is.  And, I think it's the kind of book that can teach so much, and pretty much obliterates the need for 75% of all the cookbooks on the market today.  I think it's one of Artisan's best books, and if Ann Bramson and the whole Ad Hoc at Home team were standing here in front of me, I'd give them the biggest hug, because this book sings... it absolutely sings.

So...... will I cook my way through it and blog about it?

My answer to that is: No.  No, no, no.  And also?  No.

YOU do it.

Actually, you know what?  Don't.

And here's why. 

Ad Hoc at Home is written for home cooks.  It's why they named it Ad Hoc at Home, instead of just Ad Hoc, or the Ad Hoc Cookbook.  It's already all about home cooking, and it's chock full of recipes you can do quite easily, believe me.  Ad Hoc at Home is all about bringing people together at a table over plates of incredible food.  It's the kind of food you already know how to make, but Thomas shows you how to do it even better.  It's the kind of cookbook that should make you want to shut out the world for a few hours while you get your hands dirty and do some good, honest cooking.  It's written in such a way -- and the illustrations and the photography are so, so great in this regard -- that it doesn't need to be blogged for other home cooks to be able to cook from it.  In fact, I think blogging about it cheapens the intent of what the book has the power to deliver.

One of my favorite food people, Helen Rosner, did a behind-the-scenes story at Ad Hoc with chef Dave Cruz, and they also talked about how this very cookbook is the reverse of other restaurant cookbooks -- that it all started with home cooking

So, if you have Ad Hoc at Home, my advice to you is to step away from the computer and put down the digital camera.  Shove your Blackberry and iPhone into a jacket pocket in the closet.  Spend time with the people in your life.  Cook.  Eat.  Drink.  Laugh.  Enjoy.  THAT'S what the book is about.  It's not about Flickr or Facebook or Typepad or Twitter.  It's about connecting with people face to face, forks in hand, food on the table, and the great stories that come about when people turn off the noise in their lives and actually spend time together with no greater purpose or outcome than to enjoy one another's company.  That's what I love about this book.  It's the kind of food I want to cook and eat and never ever photograph or write about because the pictures and words could never possibly convey the feeling of what it's like to have people you love at the table with you, eating something you've cooked just for them.

But if you insist on reading a blog about how to cook something from Ad Hoc at Home, there's always this: Ad Hoc at Home, At Home.

UPDATE: Michael Ruhlman just announced on his blog that Ad Hoc at Home just landed at #7 on the New York Times bestseller list.  Remarkable, amazing, well-deserved, glorious, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer group of people.  LOVING this news!

Up Next:  Apple, horseradish, celery juice and leaves

Read My Previous Post: Pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves

November 09, 2009

Pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves

Last year at about this time, Alinea co-owner Nick Kokonas' two sons (then five-and-a-half and nine years old) made this dish in response to two gals from the Chicago Reader trying to make the dish and not faring all too well.  Nick posted a video of it on YouTube, and it's fantastic.

Back then, I was only a few weeks into this project and wasn't quite ready to tackle this dish, but I remember thinking, if two adorable little pipsqueaks could make this dish with such great ease, I'm sure I can.  And then, a few months later, I did a different dish featuring something gelatinous, battered, and deep-fried, with a creative skewer, and we all remember how well that turned out.



Ah yes, the Sweet Potato, brown sugar, bourbon, blah blah blah Cockup of 2009.  Ugh.  Give me a minute to re-suppress that memory. Okay.  Whew.  That feels better.

I hoped with every molecule of my being that the same thing wouldn't happen again, because I didn't want to be pwned by the Kokonas Kids.  Humiliating!

Cross your fingers.

Because the cider gel needed time to set, and because if I screwed it up, I wanted a second chance at making it, that's the first thing I worked on.  I peeled and cored three medium-sized Granny Smith apples, and put them in a saucepan with cider, salt, and agar agar, and brought it all to a simmer.


I simmered it over medium heat for about 15-20 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so.


I transferred this mixture to the blender, and blended it until it was completely smooth.  I strained it through a chinois into a plastic wrap-lined 4x4" Rubbermaid storage container (it was the closest thing I had to a 4x6" pan) and let it set for 2 hours in the refrigerator.


Next, I roasted the shallots.  Just like the Kokonas Kids (and papa), I've never seen a grey shallot, so I just used regular ones.  I tossed them with grapeseed oil and salt and put them in a shallow, oven-safe saute pan in the oven for an hour.



Probably coulda just done them in foil with the oil and the salt, but dadgumit, I was gonna follow exactly what the book said to do.  While the shallots roasted, I prepped the pheasant.  The recipe calls for a bone-in pheasant breast, which I suppose I could've ordered from D'Artagnan or Fossil Farms, but my local Asian grocery store carries MacFarlane pheasant every fall, so I bought a whole one and broke it down myself.  It's amazing what one can do with a pair of kitchen shears and a little practice on a whole chicken every few weeks:





I saved the rest of the carcass in the freezer -- I'll roast the legs and then make stock out of the bones later this week.

I put the breast (with skin on) in a Ziploc bag with butter, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper, and squeezed out as much air as I could.


I cooked it en sous vide using my immersion circulator at 160F/71C for 25 minutes, then plunged the bag into an ice-water bath for 20 minutes to halt the cooking process.




I removed the pheasant breast from the bag and cut it into 1x1" cubes, which I covered with a damp paper towel and stored in the fridge until I was ready to finish the dish.




By this time, the shallots had cooled off enough for me to remove their outer skin. They seemed a bit soft to me when I unwrapped them, so I stored them whole in a plastic container in the fridge and let them cool a bit more before I cut them for skewering.



I have a big, hundred-year-old pin oak tree in my back yard.  It provides an amazing amount of shade in the summer, and an amazing amount of acorns that bonk you on the head in the fall.


Trouble is, this oak tree's leaves stay green as they dry, and almost overnight turn brown before falling to the ground.  So, while I wish I had lovely yellow, orange, or red leaves to work with, I made do with nearly-dried-out-and-days-away-from-turning-brown leaves:


I whittled the ends with a vegetable peeler:



Time to finish the dish.

Onto the end of each skewer went a bit of shallot, then a cider gel cube, then a pheasant cube:


I seasoned it with salt and pepper:


Next, I dredged each skewer with rice flour, tapping off the excess:


Then, I dunked it into a gluten-free tempura batter (recipe at the end of the post, if you're interested):


Into a pot of 375F-degree canola oil:


And onto a paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain:



They didn't leak, fall apart, explode, or render themselves a county fair fried reject.  And, I figured out how to make them with alternate flours, sans gluten!  ALL BY MY DAMN SELF.

YES!!  (I'm doin' the Ickey Shuffle again)

At the restaurant, courses like this one are typically served in the Crucial Detail squid service piece, but I laid mine gently on a serving platter and brought them back outside, so we could eat under the very tree that provided the skewers.


One by one, I held each skewer, lit the edges of the leaves on fire, then blew them out, creating the most fragrant smoke:


In between them draining on the paper towels and my re-plating them and bringing them outside, they had about 3 or 4 minutes to cool, so I knew they wouldn't be too hot or burn our mouths when we ate them.

I held my skewer in my right hand with the leaves still smoking and the tempura-battered piece dangling slightly above my mouth, and at it all in one bite.

You guys?  These were soooooo good.  Eye-closing, deep breath inhaling-ly good.  Pheasant isn't as game-y as I thought it might be.  It's a little more dense than chicken, and while I thought it might taste a little like squab, it didn't at all.  It was juicy and delicious, and had a really nice texture.  The cider gel had loosened up quite a bit inside, so that it surrounded the pheasant and the shallot, and eating the piece in one big bite was the way to go.  Pheasant, shallot, apple.  Smoke.  Crisp.  Salt.  Sweet.  I would totally make this again.  Everything was so flavorful and so fragrant -- you could taste each element on its own as you chewed, but together, it was really incredible.

It wasn't until after we'd eaten them and talked about how I made them that my friend, Linda, wondered how I could eat anything tempura-battered because didn't that have gluten in it?  She didn't know I'd made a gluten-free tempura batter.  Couldn't taste the difference.

We even had a clean-plate moment when we were done:


To make Gluten-free tempura batter:

Dry tempura base: 150g (5.3 oz.) white rice flour, 150g (5.3 oz.) tapioca starch, 35g (1.2 oz.) baking powder, 45g (1.2 oz.) cornstarch.  Stir together in large mixing bowl.

Gently fold in 198g (7 oz.) very cold sparkling water.

-- This recipe makes more than you will need for this particular dish, but these are the ratios that work for gluten-free tempura batter, so scale according to your specific needs.

Up Next: Apple, horseradish, celery juice and leaves

Resources: Pheasant, shallots, grape seed oil, and apples from HMart in Wheaton, MD; David's kosher salt; thyme from my garden; bay leaf and pepper from TPSS Co-op; 365 butter; apple cider from Whole Foods; agar agar from L'Epicerie; Bob's Red Mill white rice flour; EnerG tapioca starch; Poland Spring sparkling water; Clabber Girl cornstarch and baking powder.

Music to Cook By: Bat For Lashes; Fur and Gold.  For a long time, I didn't get the appeal of Bat For Lashes.  I'd only heard a few of her songs, and wasn't drawn in at all.  And then, I spent an afternoon cooking and listening to my iPod on shuffle, and her single "Daniel" popped up (I forgot I had downloaded it), and I loved it.  So, I went back and listened to more of her music, and really started to like it.  Fur and Gold is her debut album, but I'm also enjoying her latest release, Two Suns.  Her voice and her style reminds me of Kate Bush with a little Annie Lennox thrown in there, and a slightly more percussive tone.

Read My Previous Post: Duck, pumpkin, banana, Thai aromatics

November 03, 2009

Alinea Leftovers: Duck and butternut squash salad


Some of you have asked what I do with the leftover ingredients and elements from the dishes I cook for this blog.  Some of the gels and puddings and sauces and juices, I try to use in other things.  Sometimes they work.  Sometimes they don't.  I'll start telling you more about those experiences the next time I have something like that to work with.  I've wanted to be better about that on this blog, and I've not been.  Sorry 'bout that.

Meantime, here's a little something I pulled together for lunch the day after I made the duck dish: a bowl of mache, with leftover grilled duck and butternut squash.  I sauteed the squash in brown butter, and made a lime vinaigrette (olive oil, juice from a lime, salt, pepper, tiny blob of Dijon mustard).  I also sprinkled a few of the curried pumpkin seeds on top.  And yes... sometimes I have a little nip of wine with lunch here at home.  That's a glass of Stag's Leap Sauvignon Blanc.  In all, a great lunch, and pretty typical of the way I cook and eat from day to day.


Any chance I get to sit at my table outside for a meal, I'll take it.  Soon, the table will be tarped for the winter, and I won't see its loveliness again until after the spring rain subsides.

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Chef Achatz has been having his team post some really interesting real-time updates to the Alinea Mosaic forum.  One of the sous chefs in the kitchen is now doing a lot of R&D work for Grant and his team, and he's posting photos and write-ups of the dishes and elements he's working on on a pretty regular basis.

Check it out if you can; some pretty interesting stuff there.  Grant weighs in from time to time, and answers questions that forum participants have.  It's interesting to see how dishes come about, and learn from some of the smartest in the business.

Alinea Mosaic > Dish Development > Fall 2009 Dishes

*   *   *

A few of you sent me the link to this interview, so I wanted to share it with everyone, because I think it's interesting:

For the last couple of months, Eight Forty-Eight food critic David Hammond has been using more than his palate to experience good dining in Chicago. The series, Soundbites, has taken you through a journey of the senses. His last stop is Alinea.  As you might suspect, controlling sound is a big part of the cooking and dining experience at this restaurant, which many consider one of the finest in the world.   Audio interview with Grant Achatz here.

*   *   *

Lastly, a friend sent along this quote she read from an interview with fashion designer Isabel Toledo:

"Craft takes time, and therefore it is luxury. You cannot do an amazingly well-made garment without taking time—not just the time it takes to make something but also the time it took the maker to come up with the idea. That is all luxury, and that has been lost because we're trying to make things faster and faster, cheaper and cheaper. The consumer tends to lose track of what luxury is."

The same applies to food, don't ya think? And how sad that luxury (when it comes to food) is a dirty word. 

p.s. -- GO PHILLIES!!!!

Up Next: Pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves

Read My Previous Post: Duck, pumpkin, banana, Thai aromatics

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