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March 22, 2010

Bison, beets, blueberries, burning cinnamon

Every so often, someone asks me how far along I am in this project of mine. And, I realized last night that I've been giving everyone the same answer for the past six months or so: Uh, I dunno... about a third of the way through the book, I think?

I spent some time yesterday afternoon going through my Alinea at Home spreadsheet, tracking which dishes I'd done, which ones still needed to be posted, and which ones were coming up in the next two months, and it hit me: I'm more than halfway through the book.


I totally missed my Alinea at Home Halfiversary, which I think might've been the Foie Gras candy.

Wow.  More than halfway through the book.  I've done 56 of 107 dishes.  I kinda can't believe it.  Can you?

The bison dish I did prior to this one was so wonderful in such a personal way I had to force myself not to compare the two when I started cooking this one -- it wouldn't have been fair.  But, this one has so many elements I love: bison, blueberries, beets, fennel... how could I not love it?  I just wasn't sure what everything would taste like together, you know?

It was indeed another week from hell... not in a bad way, just a crazy, hectic schedule with deadlines to meet, more hurry-up-and-wait projects, and other distractions that sorta forced me to cook this in a really condensed and much more compressed timeline than I'd originally planned.  That's okay, though, because I needed more stress and pressure in my life.  Really and truly.

Let's get to it:

Six days prior to even starting this dish, I had to make the corned bison.  Here's the corning liquid the meat rests in, refrigerated for six days:


(that's water, salt, evaporated cane juice, tinted curing salt, black peppercorns, ground cinnamon, bay leaves, and the guts of a vanilla bean)

Here's the bison leg meat (I removed meat from the multiple osso buco cuts) before it went into the corning liquid:


Here it is IN the corning liquid:


And, six days later, here it is in Ziploc sous vide bags with some canola oil in a four-hour, 185F-degree water bath:


While the bison was sous vide-ing, I prepped a beet for dehydration:

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I sliced one medium-sized beet very thin on my awesome Benriner mandoline (if you don't have one, you should):

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Man, I love the early-morning sun in my kitchen...


I simmered the beet slices in a mixture of water, salt, and sugar for a few minutes, then let them drain on a towel-lined baking sheet:


I put the beet slices onto the trays in my dehydrator at 145F degrees, and after five hours, they looked like this:


I put them into my mini-chopper with some freeze-dried blueberries, and made beet-blueberry crumbs (you'll see the crumbs in the final plating photo):


As soon as the bison leg meat came out of the water bath, I plonked them into two big bowls of ice water (more ice than water to start) and put two bags of four cubed red beets (with butter!) into the water bath and let the temperature come down to 180F degrees:


The beets cooked for an hour.  I put them into my blender along with 500g of beet juice, salt, and red wine vinegar until everything was smooth and pureed.  I then added Ultra-Tex 3 to thicken it, then pushed the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer and reserved the creamy pudding until it was time to plate.

After the bison leg meat had cooled, I cut it into half-inch cubes and stored it in the fridge until it was time to make bison leg ragout out of it:



Meanwhile, after the two bags of beets for the beet pudding came out of the water bath, two more bags of beets went in -- one bag of red beet cubes and one bag of golden beet cubes.  These were supposed to have been baby beets, but after calling nine grocery stores and three farmers market producers and not finding any baby beets, I improvised and just cut regular beets into what I thought would be close to baby beet size.  I put them into Ziploc sous vide bags with a mixture of water, salt, red wine vinegar, and butter:

They went into the water bath for about an hour at 165F degrees:


While they cooked, I made what I think is my favorite-named element of this dish: the Beet Sheet.

The book recommends juicing four beets to get 500g of beet juice, but I had a few bottles of beet juice already on hand, so I just went with that.  I brought the beet juice, agar agar, and salt to a boil, whisking like the Tasmanian Devil while it boiled for a minute and a half, then turned off the burner before whisking in four already-soaked and pliable gelatin (ha! i just typed "genital" - whoops) sheets. 

I poured 120g of this liquid onto an acetate-lined baking sheet and put it in the fridge to set.  I saved the rest of the liquid in case this version of it didn't work and I needed to try again.  Luckily, it worked, though my camera skillz were sorely lacking:


(no, you don't have glaucoma)

Once the beet sheet had set, I used a 3" round cutter to cut eight circles, which got draped (or folded) over the corned bison ragout in the final plating.

The last thing I had to sous vide was the bison tenderloin (135F degrees for 25 minutes):


When the tenderloin was done, I plunged it into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.  Then, I cut it into eight pieces and let them rest on a plate in the fridge, covered by a paper towel, until it was nearly time to plate.

While all this sous vide action was going on, I was making a few other things: pickled blueberries and blueberry gastrique, and fennel puree.

To make the pickled blueberries, I brought red wine, water, and sugar to a boil, added blueberries, then turned off the burner and let them cool to room temperature.  I strained the blueberries (and stored them in a container in the fridge until it was time to plate), and saved the liquid to make the gastrique (which you essentially do by reducing the blueberry liquid, then adding veal stock and reducing further, skimming and straining until it's thick enough to coat the back of a spoon). 


I also made fennel puree by cooking 2 large fennel bulbs (roughly chopped) in a whole freakin' stick of butter (BOO-YAH!), which, when done looked like this.......


..... and smelled better than almost anything I've smelled in months.  Wowza.  I know I've written before about wanting to bathe in Bordelaise sauce and wanting to steam my face with lemon thyme, but this hot, buttered, fennel gives those other things a SERIOUS run for their money.  Day-um.  And for some reason, I'm now singing "HOT buttered FENNEL...(hot buttered fennel) tonight....(tonight) Oh yeah...."

I put the hot buttered fennel (you're singing it now, too, aren't you) into a blender to puree it, then passed it through a chinois into a saucepan to keep warm, where I added a dash of white wine vinegar and some kosher salt.  You'll see the final fennel puree in the plating photo.

Another element you'll soon see is the corned bison leg ragout.  I took the cubes of bison meat and added them to a warmed mixture of cream cheese, heavy cream, red wine vinegar, salt, a lightly blanched dice of fennel, and a fennel seed/star anise powder seen here:


I took a photo of the bison ragout as it was cooking, but it looks like dog food on its own, so I deleted it.

I shaved some fresh fennel on my mandoline and pulled off some fennel fronds for the dish, and the last thing I had to do before plating was sear the bison tenderloin pieces -- a few minutes on each side.  I also reheated the mock-baby beets in their cooking liquid.

Here's what the final dish looked like:


So, let's look at this photo below and go clockwise from the top, shall we?

Mock-baby red beets, mock-baby golden beets, beet pudding, fennel puree, corned bison ragout (topped with shaved fresh fennel and fennel fronds), seared bison tenderloin (topped with a 2" piece of beet sheet), and in the middle were the pickled blueberries, sitting in a small pool of blueberry gastrique.  The confetti-like sprinklin' action you see on top of the fennel puree?  Those are beet-blueberry crumbs.


Twelve elements in one dish.  Gorgeous.

The book suggests adding a smoking cinnamon stick or two to each plate, and in the book they're using plates shaped to be able to do that.  I couldn't make it work on each individual plate, so I lit a bunch of cinnamon sticks on fire, then blew them out so the cinnamon smoke would be our centerpiece as we ate:


One of my good friends was in town from Portland, OR (he's a vegetarian, and loved the bison), another college friend came by, and my neighbors were more than happy to join us for this dish. 

I started off by eating little tastes of each of the elements of this dish.  I'd been tasting as I went along, but did a little round-robin of nibbling before starting to mix things and get a taste of beets and bison, bison and fennel and golden beet, bison, blueberries, fennel, and beet pudding.... the combinations were kinda fun to experiment with.

The bison ragout tasted better than it looked (whew!).  In fact, it was delicious.  You could tell it was corned, but I kinda thought it might taste more corned than it did, but that's okay.  The seared bison tenderloin was AMAZING... just further proof that when you start with great ingredients, you're halfway there.  All I did was add heat, and it was melt-in-the-mouth good.  The beets were lovely (I love beets, even though as a kid they made me gag).  The fennel puree was really nice, though in retrospect could've used more salt.  I liked the raw fennel with beets and bison, too.  Didn't know what they'd be like together, but the freshness of the fennel pulls the beets away from feeling too earthy and heavy.  I loved loved LOVED the pickled blueberries.  If you own this book and wanted to try something from it, make the pickled blueberries (page 112).  Seriously.  They took all of 5 minutes of active cooking time and 30 minutes of cooling-to-room-temperature time.  No whackadoo ingredients.  Just blueberries, red wine, water, and sugar.  Be a rock star.  Channel your inner Achatz.  MAKE THESE BLUEBERRIES, I BEG YOU.  I think they'd go really nicely with pork, too.  Or, you know, you could just eat them out of a bowl on their own, they're that good.

I didn't want this dish to end.  It was a hefty portion of food, and I was glad for that.  It was nice to have everyone around my table, enjoying something I made, using ingredients I love, but never would have thought to put together on one plate.  And, I had leftovers of many of the elements of this dish, so I was happy to share them with the neighbors and snack on them myself over the next day or two.  That's one of the awesome benefits of doing this blog: my fridge has the best leftovers in America.  True story.

Before I go....

I did a few Q&A posts on my French Laundry at Home blog, where I encouraged folks to post questions in the comments or email me with things they wanted to know, and I think it's high time I did that here.  Some of you have been reading me since way back in the beginning of my FL@H days, but many of you haven't.  So, if there's anything you wanna know -- whether it's about me, food, cooking, Alinea, gluten, writing, the time I spilled a drink on Colin Powell's shoes, Barry Manilow, my obsession with notebooks, snow, how I got kicked out of my college pre-med program, or my thoughts on Richard Marx (seriously, Richard Marx's PR person, I know this is showing up in your Google Alert, so can we please just have a conversation about a photo-op when he's here in the DC area on April 6, please, I'm beggin' ya?) feel free to ask.  Hit me in the comments or email me at [email protected].  I'll do a post or two to answer your questions, and will also let you know what I'm thinking about this blog now that I'm halfway done.  'Cause I have been thinking about it quite a bit these past few days now that I know how far I've come...

Up Next: Marcona Almond, white ale, pink pepper, lavender

Resources: Bison from Gunpowder Bison & Trading; David's kosher salt; Wholesome Sweeteners evaporated cane sugar; black peppercorns, cinnamon, bay leaves, vanilla bean, fennel seed, and star anise from TPSS Co-op; 365 brand butter, cream cheese, and canola oil; beets and cinnamon sticks from HMart in Wheaton, MD; Domino sugar; Just Blueberries dried blueberries; Terra Medi vinegars; Ultra-Tex 3 from Terra Spice; gelatin sheets and agar agar from L'Epicerie; blueberries and fennel from Whole Foods; Organic Valley heavy cream; Biotta beet juice.

Music to Cook By: Nellie McKay; Normal as Blueberry Pie.  I sometimes think I was born in the wrong era.  I should've been an adult in the 50s and 60s, because the singer/songwriter genre in those decades is so ingrained in my DNA, it's kinda of scary.  Nellie McKay, however, is a modern-day singer/writer who has that early 60s feel to her music.  Think Doris Day meets Baby Washington meets The Pentagons meets Don Cherry.  The first time I heard one of her songs, I thought it was part of a retro/oldies podcast, but I was wrong.  If you're missing "Mad Men" as much as I am, and you wanna transport yourself back to the early 60s but still support a young artist, see what you think of Nellie McKay.  Ya might just like her yerself.

Read My Previous Post: Comfort Food (Bison, braised pistachios, potato, sweet spices)


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I'm almost scared by the fact that you're more than halfway through. I've been following you since the first few FL@H posts (as a matter of fact, you inspired me to take some cooking classes and crank my skills up a notch). I've truly enjoyed following you through both of these books and am oh-so-slowly cooking my way through French Laundry. But my question - what's next??? Once you've conquered Alinea you can't abandon me - tell me you already have your next challenge lined up...

The dried beets and beet sheets are so pretty I almost regret being so allergic to beets that even LOOKING at them is making my brain think that my throat is closing.

I'd love to know the rule on when to use a tamis and when to use a chinois. Seems like they are interchangeable from the use on your blog, but I am sure there is more to it that I am missing. Thanks!

Congrats on being over halfway done! Wow.

One thing, though -- if your friend loved the bison, he's not vegetarian. (Ex-vegetarian?) It's just a pet peeve of mine when people label themselves vegetarian but eat meat, because it makes people think it is ok if they serve me fish/chicken/chicken broth/just a little meat, etc.

I can't believe you're halfway done! That is crazy! The above plate is just so pretty. I love beets and am pretty sure I'd fall head over heels in love with this dish.

Could someone please tell me why a turd like Andrew Zimmern gets a nod from James Beard but you don't?!


I think the corned bison ragout would be lovely. Yes, I'd like to know two things: first, I want to know what your "real" job is because I'm guessing it's really interesting; and second, I must have the pickled blueberries recipe. Please, please?! I have learned from reading your blog (and because I don't have the Alinea book) what the following things are that I would never ever have known otherwise: Trimoline, Ultra Trex 3 and Agar Agar (well, maybe I would have known the last one sooner or later). Thanks for another great post!

"...but I had a few bottles of beet juice already on hand, so I just went with that." Now, how many folks can say that?! I like to think I have a pretty complete pantry but I can't compete with that.

I'd like to know if, being a Pennsylvania girl, you were ever smitten by Tommy Conwell and The Young Rumblers?

I have a question: How can you possibly stand being so totally awesome? :)

I'd love to know what tricks you have for being so efficient/getting so much done (the fancy cooking, awesome blog posts, regular work, fun with friends and family, etc, etc.) - do you only sleep 4-5 hours a night? (I'd be happy to hear the Colin-Powell-spilt-drink and getting-kicked-out-of-premed stories too.)

Great to hear of another Nellie MkKay fan. She's done a few interviews with Terry Gross. Worth pulling up if you haven't heard them.

Woo! Love the mandoline! Got it after your recommendation and have been slicing and dicing ever since! =) Nice to see it also got a shout-out in a post.

Another fabulous entry, Carol.
So you know how you tweeted Thomas Keller was going to be right down the street from me in Pasadena last week? I had my well-loved Ad Hoc all ready to go and be signed. I wanted to tell him the reason I bought French Laundry back in the day was because of your blog. Freakin' Williams Sonoma would only let you meet & greet and have TK sign if you purchased Ad Hoc from them. Gah!! What was I supposed to do, buy another, get it signed and then pawn off my grubby, loved, cooked-upon copy off to someone else? TK and I will have to rendezvous another time.
Thanks for your continual inspiration.

This one kind of took me back to the French Laundry days - multiple preparations, a plating that could be a full entree, multiple cooking techniques. Great final photo - the blueberry and beet combo is the most intriguing to me.

Beer geek alert: I noticed you'll be doing a white ale recipe next; have you selected a gluten-free beer so that you'll be able to sample the finished dish? Green's - a British beer company - makes all gluten-free beers in a wide range, many of which are available at good liquor stores.
They don't have a white ale, but the triple blonde may have some of the same flavor characteristics, although with a higher alcohol content. Many Belgian brewers add a hint of coriander and bitter orange peel to their white ales - just something to think about if you need to approximate flavor components.

You are quite impressive!

I think your next endeavour should be Michel Richard's cookbook "Happy in the kitchen." It contains nice cooking tricks, and remember Michel Richard and the PVC pre-cut pipes!

Hey, congratulations on getting half-way there!

Just fyi, I cited your work on this blog for Ada Lovelace Day.

Wow learned a lot from this post, please keep it up! It's my first time to visit your blog and so far I'm loving it! :)

My question: Where in the heck do you find all the time? PS Iyou make me laugh, think, get pissed, think some more, and laugh a whole lot more. Thanks!

Mmmmmm! That looks very tasty! Thank you for sharing the recipe in such perfect detail! =)

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