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May 31, 2011

What I've Learned So Far...

This past weekend, I made the Squab, Thai peppercorn, strawberry, oxalis pods dish, when something odd happened. I'd made arrangements to get oxalis pods from a grower I know out in Virginia, and he called me Friday morning to tell me most of his oxalis plants got hammered in a hailstorm the day before, and he had none for me.  I'd already bought everything else to start making the dish, so I made a few phone calls to try and find oxalis pods.

My usual suspects weren't turning anything up, so I called a few chef friends.  When I told them what had happened and what I was looking for I heard myself say, "Yeah, my oxalis pod guy called and said..." and then it hit me:  I have an oxalis pod guy?

Five years ago, if you had told me I would one day say that "my oxalis pod guy" said this or that, I would a) wonder what the hell an oxalis pod was; and 2) wonder what douche planet I was living on.


Oh yeah, riiiiight. I do.  You know what else I have?  A squab guy.  Who gets my order ready like so:


Call me old-fashioned, but the tag tied to the bag with butchers twine makes me very happy. 

As for the oxalis pods, I ended up not being able to find any, so when I did the Squab dish I didn't do the neutral-caramel squares that surrounded the oxalis pods, but it's no biggie.  I didn't miss out on learning any new technique in not doing them.  And, when you see the final plating photo at the end of this post, you'll see an even bigger reason they weren't really missed.

I should say now that, for this dish, I'm not going to do the standard step-by-step, photo play-by-play like I do in all my other posts.  Why?  Well, I realized that I have completed all but 30 dishes in this cookbook.  There are 127 in total.  I have 30 left to do.  Just 30.  Granted, some of them are six-pagers (lookin' at YOU, Wild Bass and Bean), but still. I only have 30 dishes left to go.  I can't believe it.

As I cooked this dish over the weekend, I thought a lot about what it's been like to cook my way through the Alinea cookbook.  I thought about where I was in my cooking life when I'd finished French Laundry at Home and was getting ready to start this blog.  I thought about the people I've met.  I thought about the ingredients I've learned about.  I thought about how hard the men and women work in the Alinea kitchen.  I thought about the meals I've had at Alinea.  I thought about what I've done well and what was a complete flop.  I've learned a lot these past two+ years:

  1. I still get an adrenaline rush when I open the book to a new recipe I haven't yet made.
  2. Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas are two of the nicest, most generous and supportive people you could ever have the great fortune to know.
  3. Judy Shertzer from Terra Spice is not only one of the kindest, most generous people I've met, she's a badass hilarious funny lady I am so happy to call my friend.
  4. Steve Stallard at BLiS produces not just the finest roe, but also a maple syrup you will want to find a way to eat every single day.
  5. Months before I started this blog, two very prominent men in the food world told me I was "crazy" to think about cooking anything from this book.  In fact, they both told me, separately, that I couldn't do it.  Which, of course, made me want to prove them wrong.  I think I am.
  6. My kitchen gets the most beautiful natural light in the morning.  I never noticed it until I started learning how to photograph food.
  7. Figuring out gluten-free substitutions for some of these recipes has given me more than one migraine, but hearing from chefs, cooks, and restaurateurs that they've actually consulted my blog for those kinds of swap-outs when they have celiac customers more than makes up for it.
  8. Speaking of celiac, I've learned that you guys go above and beyond the call of duty in the comments section (and via email) when a girl is feeling down and out in gluten land.
  9. If you are a person of a certain age who has been addicted to television for most of her life and you say, or even think the words "squab stock" you will immediately turn it into, "squab stock, squab stock, squab... squab... stock."
  10. Ditto onion JAM.
  11. When I injure myself, you guys are HILARIOUS.
  12. When there's a worthy cause, you're the most generous people in the whole world, and you make me cry (in a good way) just thinking about it.
  13. I've always adored my neighbors, but seeing how willing they are to try new foods and taste everything I make, makes me adore them even more.  They're not just neighbors, they're some of my closest friends, and I'm lucky to have them in my life.
  14. Because I'm cooking my way through this book, I am more patient now than I've ever been in my whole life.
  15. Developing a casserole recipe based on the food from a world-class restaurant is easier than you might think.
  16. Cooking dishes that require intense focus are a good way to work through the grieving process.
  17. My house has never smelled better than when I cook something from the Alinea cookbook.
  18. Seeing clean plates at the end of a tasting with my neighbors makes me happier than I ever thought possible.
  19. The sound a squab's head makes when it clonks along the side of your stainless steel kitchen sink is a little unnerving (not as bad as cutting off the faces of softshell crabs, though).
  20. And, I've learned you can take something kinda ugly:

And turn it into a thing of beauty:


My neighbors and I decided at the last minute to do a cookout on Monday evening, so rather than forcing them to come to my house for a tasting before firing up the grill three houses away, I thought I'd just plate the Squab family-style and bring it over to the cookout. Hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, coleslaw, salad, fresh melon, and a Squab dish from the Alinea cookbook.  This is how we roll in Takoma Park. 

You guys, this dish was SO FREAKIN' GOOD.  Really and truly.  Red-ribbon and regular sorrel, pepper custard, squab rillettes, macerated wild strawberries (from my front yard!), diced strawberries, seared squab breast, and strawberry sauce made with squab stock... an amazing, flavorful combination that smelled great every step of the way and was so incredibly satisfying at the end of a long weekend.  There were clean (paper) plates all around -- even the kids ate every last bite.  Happiness abides.

If you want to see all the photos, they're here.

You know what's the biggest thing I've learned in doing this blog?  That I am incredibly lucky that you guys are as fantastic as you are.  I rarely, if ever, have to delete dick-ish comments.  There's no fighting in the comments.  No shitstorms.  No hate email.  No drama.  You guys are respectful of the food, of each other, and of this process... and I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world.  Your support of this project has made me more confident every step of the way, and I feel like, especially with this dish, you can taste that confidence on the plate.

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  I am a lucky, lucky girl.

Now, go on then... make yourself some squab with strawberries and sorrel. 

And let's savor these next 30 dishes, shall we?  I kinda don't want this to end.


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"Figuring out gluten-free substitutions for some of these recipes has given me more than one migraine, but hearing from chefs, cooks, and restaurateurs that they've actually consulted my blog for those kinds of swap-outs when they have celiac customers more than makes up for it."

And thank you SO MUCH for that. To try and explain that this time last year, I'd eat bread with abandon and I can't anymore makes a lot of people scratch their heads. It is damned scary to think about cooking with flour, but once you get the basics down, it ain't so bad.

Thank you! It has been a joy & inspiration to read your journey. I can say that I've learned a lot too just from sitting here reading every post you put out.

This dish looks great. I find not much beats sharing a homemade dish with friends on a holiday weekend!

1) Love that you're making people think about celiac in "high-end" cooking like this
2) Any way "ordinary folk" can order from Terra Spice?

Your neighbors love you, too. Even without the fabulous food. But don't let that stop you from continuing to cook for us. :)

You know, in the short time I've read your blog, you've really inspired me to take on cooking adventures that I never thought I could do. I'm about to embark on a little blog project of my own (nowhere near Alinea in scale!) and I'm still such a beginner that when I get nervous, I come here and read some of your posts and then I feel confident again.

So thanks for that!

30 dishes to go - I'm not sure what beats Alinea but when you're done, you'll have to find it, and cook it!

Great post! Soo....what's next after this? The Myhrvold books? ;)

lovely post today, Carol. Isn't oxalis a Shamrock? I've got two pots full of those! Since I don't have the cookbook, I can't see what an oxalis pod looks like but the stem/root ends of my plants are like tubers. Huh. Obviously, I need to look into this matter. Sorrel was probably the perfect substitute. Your squab looks a lot more delicious in the bottom pictures!

I love your blog; I love your writing; and I know, for sure, if I ate this dish, I would love that too.

But what I hate is that you would even have to think it's a good thing you don't get "dick-ish" comments.

I don't know that EVERYONE in the world has to love you, but anyone who doesn't should spend time on someone else's blog.

So unfortunately I can't be more articulate than just WOW! I can't believe that you only have 30 dishes left to go. For all of my own selfish reasons, I hope that start another blog after this one comes to an end. You have helped me jump off of cliffs, step way outside my comfort zone, and grow into a much better and more aware home cook. Whenever I think, "Oh that looks hard...I don't know." I think to myself, "That most awesome Carol Blymire with her off the hook mad culinary skills would just roll with it." Keep the posts coming!

The good news is that, if you include the random odds-and-ends posts you do on weeks that you don't cook a recipe, we've still got close to a year of Alinea at Home left.

I'd imagine that, even as much as you love doing this blog (and FLAH before it), there must be a little bit of burnout after having been at it for so long. I'm hoping you'll find a new project to keep us inspired and entertained, but I also wouldn't hold it against you if you decided to take some time off the whole blogging business.

You are a lucky girl and we readers are also very lucky for your posts and letting us see inside your world.
Looking forward to the next 30 recipes. :-)

So what book are you looking to tackle next? :D

Cool post, lovely dish. The past couple of weeks I've wondered how far along you are in AlineaAtHome, so I was happy you gave us an update. 30 weeks is plenty of time to continue to enjoy the Alinea project...and plenty of time for you to come up with another project to blog about. (Think: happy face here.)

The people who said you couldn't do it must not have known you well then. And I bet that they don't care one bit that they have to eat their words.

I'm assuming this isn't going to end, and that NOMA is next??? hint, hint, nudge, nudge.

Here's to a Lucky Girl!! Congrats on your success!

(First visit to Alinea tonight. Eeeeeeeee!)

Hey. You've done just as much for me as I have done for you! I actually WAIT for your next post and I almost jump up and down in my chair when it happens. Thirty more! Cook them! I want to see and think about the flavors. :)

I've been a regular reader of yours and am in deep admiration at how close you are to finishing this book after going through the French Laundry cookbook previously. Besides your cooking skills, I think your writing has really gotten strong as well. Amazing!

BTW: I have lots of oxalis growing in my flower beds, many with seed pods on them now. I love throwing those yummy pods and flowers in my salads :)

Hi Carol,

In regard to your latest post here is a quote I came across recently that has become one of my favorites and I thought you would enjoy:

When you arise in the
morning, think of what a precious
privilege it is to be alive----
to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love."

Marcus Aurelius
Roman emperor and philosopher
A.D. 121-180

Great post! Thanks for sharing!

i stumbled along your blog while i was looking for grant's book online - and i'm glad i found it

im going to attempt to cook through the alinea book just like you - thank you for inspiring me

it was your prosciutto passion fruit entry that made me want to do it - hopefully you post more - i thoroughly enjoy reading your blog -

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