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January 19, 2010

Bison, cranberry, persimmon, juniper branch aroma

I'm ramping back up to cooking.  It's going well, but I still feel like I'm not yet totally in my own skin.  Getting glutened threw me for a bigger loop than I originally thought.  Instead of 2-3 days of feeling like crap, it took a little over a week to feel like myself again.  I wish I could explain it in greater detail, but the after-effects of getting glutened are so disgusting and embarrassing and soooo not appropriate for a food blog, that I'll spare you.  Trust me on this.  You're welcome.

As I begin to emerge from this food funk of mine, I am reminded of what a strange time it is in my professional life.  I always forget how slow January is.  I forget that, every year, I bust ass up until the week before Christmas, and then it slows to almost a complete halt.  Then, it takes my clients a few weeks to get their own work up and running in January before they have things to throw my way.  I've been a self-employed media consultant for almost nine years, and with the exception of a political transition year such as last year, January and August are dead, dead, dead here in Washington.  It's the nature of what I do, and the kinds of clients I work with.  I look forward to the August lull, because it means I can spend time with friends at the beach.  The January lull is a different kind of animal.  Going from a food and writing funk into a slow period professionally was a bit freakish for a day or two, but because I always seem to have a personal to-do list a mile long, I've started tackling it all.

One of the things on my to-do list that really helped me get my cooking mojo back was to completely clean out, scrub, reorganize, and inventory my pantry, freezer, and refrigerator.  I'm kind of a neat freak as it is, but I needed that physical, tactile activity -- touching ingredients, making lists of what I had, replacing things that needed replenished, and appreciating what all was in my kitchen.

You guys, I made lists.  (Like you're shocked.)  But it's true.  I wrote down (and categorized) every single ingredient and food item so that I can more more efficient and resourceful in my everyday cooking, not just cooking for the blog.  My friend, Joe, refers to the crisper drawer in his refrigerator as "the rotter" because he, like so many of us, buys produce and never gets around to using it before it goes bad.  I'm so guilty of that, and it's just wrong.  It's so wasteful, and I don't wanna do that anymore.  And, I need to stop buying meat for awhile -- I have enough meat and poultry in my freezer to last me the next 3 or 4 months... not kidding.  I mean, here... look at the lists I wrote and taped to the fridge so that I can use things and cross them off and be smarter about the way I cook day-to-day:

And then, there's the list of all the Alinea-specific ingredients I had to inventory and reorganize (hey! I needed a reason to go to The Container Store):


I know, some of you are thinking she's completely and totally lost it, let's run for the hills! but you must know that this exercise was so incredibly motivating and energizing, and I highly recommend it even if you've got the good mojo goin' on.  It's remarkable to see it all on paper.  It's humbling.  It makes me want to kick my own ass for all the times I've said, "I've got nothing to eat, so I guess I'll get Indian food tonight."  It's made me completely rethink my entire personal cooking and eating plans (and budget) for the next six months.  More importantly, though, it made me feel like I was back in the driver's seat in my own kitchen, and I needed that.

Having done all that and ready to crack the Alinea cookbook open once again, I decided to tackle the Bison, cranberry, persimmon, juniper branch aroma dish (page 323), and see how it went.  I'll say now that I'm pleased... almost even thrilled.  But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves now, shall we?

First step? Puffed rice.  Now, I know in the book, it says "puffed barley" but barley contains the dreaded g-word, so I decided to play with some wild rice and see if I could make it work.  First, I toasted it:


I cooked the rice in hot water and salt, according to the package instructions, then dehydrated it for a few hours:


While the rice dehydrated, I took the steeping walnuts out of the fridge.  The day before, I toasted some walnuts in the oven, then put them in a saucepan with some milk and walnut oil, and brought it to a boil.  After it had cooled to room temperature, I covered it and let it steep overnight in the fridge.  This day, I strained the liquid into a small saucepan, added sugar, salt, and agar agar and brought it to a boil:



After it had boiled for a minute or so, I strained it (again) into a small bowl and put it in the refrigerator to set, which took about 30 minutes:


I broke that solidified walnut awesomeness into small chunks and put them in the blender:


The instructions say to blend it until it becomes smooth, which didn't necessarily happen.  Instead, after much blending and agitating and further blending, it ended up having the consistency of cat food:


So, I made the executive decision to add small increments of milk and walnut oil as I continued blending to facilitate the smoothness:


Eventually, I ended up with this:


It was a lot creamier in person than it is in that photo.  Much like Christina Hendricks at the Golden Globes, but I digress.

I refrigerated the walnut pudding until it was time to plate.

The next thing I did was make the cranberry puree.  In a small saucepan, I heated cranberries, sugar, and red wine vinegar until the cranberries were soft and starting to break down, and the pan was nearly dry:


I strained the cooked cranberries into a blender and whacked the hell out of them, then strained them into a small bowl:



Cooked cranberries is one of my favorite smells.  Didn't know that until I made them like this for this dish, but wowzers. 

Next, I got the bison tenderloin ready to be cooked sous vide.  Remember the rendered beef fat?  Here's what 25g of it looks like:


I put that in a sous vide bag along with the 100g center-cut bison tenderloin, and let it cook in a 130F-degree water bath for 25 minutes:


When it was done, I cut the bison into small rectangles and stored them in the fridge:


Then, the final element: persimmons:


I removed the tops and the bottoms, and poached them in what felt like a weird ratio of sugar to water -- 5:1... yes, you read that correctly 500g sugar, 100g water. 


 When they were done, I cut out cylinders using my 1/2" cutter...


... but realized they'd be too big (the bison pieces wouldn't wrap around them the way they were supposed to), so I trimmed them down a bit into smaller rectangles:


By now, the rice was dehydrated, so I brought some canola oil up to 425F degrees and deep fried the rice.  Now, I knew it wouldn't be puffy like barley is, but I was hoping the rice would have some good, earthy depth to it, and it did.




Crunchy, deep-fried rice is delicious.  Why do they not sell this in movie theatres?  WHY, I ASK YOU?

Last, but not least, I ground up some dried juniper berries to be used in the final plating:


Now, here's where my photography just gets criminal, and it's a shame because this was really not that hard to shoot.  I guess I was just too focused on getting it to taste right.

So, with all the elements in place, I did the final step -- which is wrapping the bison around the persimmon pieces, then searing the seam of each one, before placing it on a hot river stone to serve it.  Here's the wrapping around part (and again, my apologies to those of you who like pretty things, which I know is everyone, so SORRY, PEOPLE OF THE EARTH):

I had a tray of black river rocks in a 400F-degree oven, waiting to be used in this final step.  The book calls for (and displays a beautiful photograph of) these stones nesting in a bed of juniper branches.  That's the one element I had to skip in this dish.  I wish I hadn't, because juniper is so lovely and fragrant, but it wasn't possible.  So, I put the hot stones on a bamboo board and put a round of bison and persimmon atop it (you'll see the bubbles in the photo below where the meat hits the hot stone and sizzles), and then topped each bite with a pinch of crushed juniper berry, a little blob of walnut pudding, a little blob of cranberry puree, and some crunchy deep-fried rice:


Yes, the bison fell apart on its way from the saute pan to the stone. 

Yes, I "plated" it on its side instead of the way it was done in the book.

Yes, the photo above looks like something you might find in the tumors chapter of a med school textbook.

I don't care.


The only thing I might've done differently is add salt to the meat when it's cooking sous vide.  After I tasted my first one, I salted the rest with a tiny pinch of Maldon sea salt, and it woke everything up.

So, bison.  I really like bison. It's not as steak-y as steak (which I crave almost daily), but it's smooth and hearty, and I really enjoy it. I've had it in restaurants, but I've never cooked it at home.  So, instead of just ordering the center-cut of the tenderloin (which the book calls for), I bought a whole tenderloin (thanks to the awesome guys at Gunpowder who come to the Takoma Park Farmers Market), and used what I needed for this dish, and froze the rest in individual cuts.

But, bison with the persimmon?  Really nice.  Beautiful balance, flavor- and texture-wise.  I don't eat persimmons all that often -- they're an odd hybrid, flavor-wise, I think... kind of tomato meets pear meets acorn squash, with a hint of (I think) mango and/or apricot.  I can't tell.  It's so complex and unique, and I need to remind myself to eat these more often, because I enjoy them when I do.

So, bison with persimmon = homerun, but then add the nuttiness of the rice with the sharp, tart sweetness of the cranberry and the smooth, mellow walnut pudding?  And, a palate-opening hint of juniper? 

That's what I love about this book -- these are not flavors I would EVER put together on my own.  I'm really good at food shopping without lists or recipes or books.  I see things and know what I'd put together and how I want to cook them.  But I can't imagine for one second, two years ago, going into the grocery store and thinking, hhhmmmmm, there's some persimmon and cranberries... so let's head over to the meat counter for some bison, and then pick up some walnuts and rice, and oh! can't forget about the juniper!  I mean, WHO DOES THAT?  Oh yeah, Grant Achatz.  Which is why getting back in the saddle and cooking from this book is so important to me.  There's so much I want to learn.

Up Next: Yuzu, pine, black sesame, shiso

Resources: Bison from Gunpowder Trading; walnuts and juniper berries from the TPSS Co-op; agar agar from Terra Spice; La Tourangelle walnut oil; Lundberg rice; David's kosher salt; 365 canola oil; Ocean Spray cranberries; Terra Medi red wine vinegar; Fuyu persimmons from H Mart in Wheaton, MD; Domino sugar; black river rocks from Behnke's.

Music to Cook By: Ra Ra Riot; The Rhumb Line.  I love this album, and now that I've read the heartbreaking Rolling Stone review (I didn't know anything about these guys), I love it even more.

Read My Previous Post: Rendering Beef Fat


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I am a list maniac myself.. one day I read an article somewhere with a joke about a couple who made a list of "what lists they needed to make"

(the thought of doing that crossed my mind a few times ever since)

Glad you are feeling better...

I don't know how you can pull a recipe as tricky as this one! Maybe it did not look as good as the book, but I would eat it without complaining... :-)

Tatonka? Well, hang in there kid! You're writing mojo is back, your plating prowess is sure to follow. :^P Come visit and clean out my pantry, then we'll attack the garage.

I love, love, love bison sooooo much. And I kind of feel guilty about eating it sometimes, because my high school mascot was a buffalo. So it feels like I'm eating an old friend. . .

And I'm also a sucker for meat on a rock, so this looks like a homerun in so many different ways.

That dish is even more amazing than Christina's cleavage at the Globes, which was as stellar as her gown. Well done, you!

The dish, of course, looks amazing. But I am in love with your Chicken Butt magnet!

That recipe sounded ridiculous - looks really good. I can believe that it was delicious. Glad I kept reading past the rendered beef fat (which was the DAYUM, UGH part).

Carol- do not feel "geeky" about the lists- it just makes good business sense. Food is expensive and one would like to make good use of it! I have spreadsheets on the front of the freezer, the pantry and I also use a marker to write when I open a jar of spice/herb so I know when to replace it. Yes, I've transferred alot of how I run my lab to my kitchen but it does work! I also have a list of a dozen meals that can be made from the panty and or the freezer contents so my son (Grunter) can cook his own food rather than fast food!


I was tickled to see Lundburg rice among your ingredients. It's grown about five miles down the road from my house! :-D

+1 for gratuitous Christina Hendricks reference. It made my back-to-work-Tuesday.

Oh, glad the recipe came out good too!

Good to have you (and your mojo) back in action. :)

I've read your blog for ages and was too shy to post a comment...but the picture on your fridge 1) made me laugh out loud, and 2) reminded me of this: http://xkcd.com/37/ , which has been a source of joy and amusement since the day I read it.

Saw a brief mention of this company doing gluten-free flours and grains and thought of you. So glad you are getting your mojo back!


Love, love, love your lists. I'm jealous of them and motivated to start on the spice cabinet now. My freezer is out of control so maybe that's next. Good work all around.

Aaaaand She's Back!! Really happy to see you back in the groove. Never had bison, but now I'm intrigued.

Lists! Awesome. That photo actually excites me. I'm a massive list maker, but I always, always cheat by writing something I have recently completed on the list so I can cross it off. Seems even my lists are in denial.

Isn't it amazing the therapeutic effects a bout of organizing/re-organizing can have? Somehow it always recharges my batteries and you were just so smart to think of doing this (even if you hadn't anticipated the result) during a lomojo phase. I'm happy for you (and envious) that the end result was a taste sensation.

It sounds delicious. Though... that fried wild rice? Maggots! Sorry, sorry, didn't mean to grim you out.

I am totally copying those lists btw. I have things in tins in my cupboard from five years ago easily.

I had an early version of this dish at the restaurant--no persimmon, if I recall right. Too lazy to go look in my menu file to see. But it was one of the most fabulous things I have ever eaten. The rock sizzling the bison and juniper branch simultaneously--it smelled like Christmas but even better. I've eaten at Alinea three times, and this is probably my favorite of anything I had.

I've made purees (like the walnut pudding) many times. Agar is a pain to blend, so you did the right thing by adding liquid a little at a time. Try letting it blend enough so a vortex is created. You'll achieve this by scraping down the sides of the blender with a little spatula, and almost stirring the puree into the blades. Dangerous? yes, but fun? Eh, well, not really. You'll know you're done pureeing when it takes on a sheen and becomes almost shiny. Check out my restaurant's link and look at some of those dishes; almost every puree you see has been thickened with agar. http://www.giltnewyork.com/photo-gallery.php
Good luck!

hmmm...I just bought this book and am as intimidated as all get out. I'm fairly competent and fully capable in the kitchen but this shit is intimidating. I applaud you for working through it admirably. I think I'll dabble. and drool.

nice to see you back with your mojo.

just wanted to say I'm nearly at the end of reading, Confections of a Closet Master Baker by Gesine Bullock-Prado and half way through it I remembered your problem with recipes going wrong. She writes how pastry chefs do not reveal all their secrets in books, they always leave one or two things out or even change quantities.

Hey, I just received my copy of Alinea, and I'm so exctied to follow along, so hurry up and cook something. Also, I have a few questions before I get into all of the molecular/sous vide stuff. I do not own any sort of sous vide device (immersion circulator, Sous Vide Supreme, etc.); I see that you use the ziploc vaccum bags. First, do they work well enough? Second, where can I buy them? And now onto the molecular stuff: which products are the most versatile in using the book, and how many ounces should I buy to start with? What's the shelf life? I can't wait to get my hands deep into this amazing book.

totally late to the party but -- your lists! now I love you even more :)

And I totally hear you about having enough stuff in the freezer for months. Last year I challenged myself to 40 days without buying any new meat (except bacon, because -- hello -- it's bacon!) and we ate really well. I'll probably do the same thing this year when I'm done with the Dark Days Challenge.

Persimmons are also great with roast pork. I'm glad to see your mojo back!

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