November 18, 2012

Chestnut, too many garnishes to list


Sometimes, I think there is no more beautiful color in the world than that of a chestnut.  

A few years ago on Christmas Eve, my friends and I roasted chestnuts over open fire.  We used a cast-iron pan ... which I forgot to shake and move around as often as I should have, so we (well, I should be fair here and say *I* instead of *we*) ended up burning half of them.  Still, the ones I didn't do all Cajun-style were really, really good.  I've had quite a fondness for chestnuts these past few years.  I didn't eat them a lot as a child, but I've cooked with them and roasted them from time to time, and I really, really like them.  To me, they're a bit rich ... so I go easy on the intake.  But when I do eat them, they make me smile.  It's like a nut that gives you a hug.  (Get your mind out of the gutter.)  (Or don't.)  (See if I care.)  (I said "nut.")  (HA!)  (I'm 12.)

For this recipe, I peeled and skinned the Kuhn Orchards chestnuts in the photo above, and simmered them in cream with salt and a bay leaf, then pureed them with some of the cream before emulsifying with butter.  You can see the final result of this process in the final plating photo.  I made it a day ahead of time and refrigerated it until it was time to serve.

Another component I made the day before was the bacon powder.

I froze this slab of bacon from Truck Patch Farms, then removed the plastic and grated the hell out of it onto a parchment-lined tray for the dehydrator.



I dehydrated it at 150F degrees for about 50 minutes until it was dry, then stored it in a covered plastic container at room temperature.


The one thing I often don't have good luck with on this blog are making gels.  I don't know why.  Sometimes they're too tough and not tasty, and other times they don't come together at all and look like surgical waste.  I can't explain it.  This time, though, the gel gods were smiling upon me and the marsala gel worked!  I brought some Marsala wine and a bit of Kelcogel JJ Gellan Gum to a boil (bringing it all together with my immersion blender prior to it coming to a boil), and then a simmer.


I poured it into a shallow pan and let it set up in the fridge overnight.  You'll see the beautiful, perfect amber squares in the final plating shot.  I pumped my fist to the sky and high-fived myself over this accomplishment and then called my therapist to set up an appointment.  I might need to get out of the house more.

Will you look at these gorgeous egg yolks?  Just look at them!  The eggs are from Smith Meadows Farm.  [NOTE:  Forrest Pritchard, the farmer/owner/main dude at Smith Meadows writes a pretty funny blog about his farming life.  I highly recommend it.  He also has a book coming out in Spring 2013.]

Back to the eggies!

I whisked the yolks with some heavy cream, kosher salt, and ground Thai long peppercorns. 


I poured the mixture into a plastic bag and cooked it sous vide at 180F degrees for 20 minutes.  When I cut away the bag, the eggs looked like this:


I sliced off the ends so I could have a taste, and also squared it off so the pieces on the plate would be prettier.  Look how bendy this was:


It tasted pretty fan-darn-tastic on its own, and even better in the finished dish.  I sliced what I needed, laid them out on a plate, and covered it with a damp paper towel.

There wasn't really a need to do this next component a day ahead of time, but I did.  Chocolate-dipped demarara sugar cubes:


Stored those suckers in the fridge until the next day.

I was on a roll, and kept prepping ingredients.  Next up?  Onion sticks.  I turned this onion into dehydrated, charred-end onion sticks:




Oh, Truffles.  Lovely, lovely, delicious black truffles.  I don't care if they're winter black truffles or summer black truffles.  There's just something about the black truffle that is so comforting to me.  

I used them to make the truffle puree.  Which ... didn't turn out like the photo in the book.  Mine looked a little more like peanut butter.  I brought the truffles, black trumpet mushrooms, Yukon Gold potatoes, and truffle juice to a simmer over medium heat and simmered until the liquid was gone.  I blended it in the VitaMix with truffle oil (which I am not a fan of, but I used it anyway), salt, and vinegar.  You can see the end result in the final plating photo (it's a blob nestled in a Brussels sprout leaf).  It tasted great.  The texture was a little dry, but I'm not gonna beat myself up over it. 
I went to bed happy with what I'd accomplished and only had four things to make the next day:  parsnip sauce; nutmeg mousse; bay leaf bubbles; and celery root chips.
The parsnip sauce might be one of my new favorite things for fall.  I do love parsnips, and this sauce was silky smooth and so, so lovely:

Celery root chips were super-easy to make.  Just peeled and sliced thin a chunk of celery root.  Deep fried those slices in some hot canola oil and salted the heck out of them as they drained on a paper towel.

Sadly, there are no prep photos of the nutmeg mousse.  It's pretty easy, though.  Just whisk some creme fraiche, salt, and freshly ground nutmeg until stiff peaks form.  
The bay leaf bubbles were easy, too.  I steeped bay leaves in a boiling mixture of water, sugar and salt, then strained it before blending in soy lecithin to create bubbles.  You'll see it in the final plating photo.

You guys, this dish came together so nicely.  I fully expected some or all of the parts to bomb.  I'm not sure why.  Regardless, it was such a delight to have everything (mostly) work and all of it taste fantastic.  

Since I tasted all the components of this dish as I made them, I did what I usually do with dishes like this:  smashed it all up into one gloppy mess to see if all the elements played nicely with one another.  They did.  They soooooooo did.

Neighbor friends came over to eat, and we all really liked this dish.  When I made it, it hadn't gotten cold yet (fall/winter weather has taken its damn sweet time getting here), and we all thought it would've tasted even better had it been snowing (!!!) outside, or at least below 60 degrees.  I really loved the celery root chips.  I'd make those again.  Actually, I'd make any of these components again.  They were really pretty simple to do and everything was seasoned really well.  A+ homerun touchdown goooooaaaalllll gold star smiley face dish!
I have to say, I have loved being back in the kitchen cooking these dishes again.  I wish I could do it more often.  The cooking part I can do ... it's the setting time aside to write and edit photos that has been a challenge.  Thanks for being patient -- you guys are the BEST.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.  I hope you have a wonderful week and holiday weekend.  Cooking anything new and fun?  Sticking to the traditional stuff?
NOTE:  I'm recapping "Top Chef: Seattle" for The Washington Post. You can find them by clicking here.  I'll also Tweet the links to them when they go live, so if you're not following me on Twitter, you can do so by clicking here.
Up Next:  Not sure yet ... need to see if some of my NY/NJ folks are back up and running to ship some needed ingredients.  Maybe Persimmon.  Maybe Hot Potato, Cold Potato.
Resources:  Most ingredients from Whole Foods and vendors at the 14th and U Street farmers market.  Truffles from D'Artagnan.  My super-duper fancy science ingredients always come from Terra Spice Company.
Music to Cook By:  Jennie Abrahamson; Lights.  

September 30, 2012

Kuroge Wagyu, squash, yogurt, smoked paprika taffy

Well, hello there.  

My goodness ... it's been a long time, hasn't it?  I've missed you all more than words can say, but since the last twelve months have been all about me writing words for other people, let me see if I even remember how to write words for myself.  What I thought might be a few months on hiatus from this project turned out to be a year, almost to the day.  Wow.  I did not expect that at all.

A few days after I posted my Hiatus post, I had the great good fortune to go to Chicago and have Chef Dave Beran's Tour of Thailand menu at Next.  Twice, in fact.  The food was so inspiring and flavorful and wondrous and jaw-dropping (permanently lodged in the Top Five Meals of My Life, no joke) that I was more motivated than ever to get back to this blog sooner than I'd planned.

Then, life got in the way.

Let me see if I can explain without boring you to tears.

First, I no longer work as a consultant, which means I no longer work from home.  Late last fall, there was a perfect storm of federal budget shenanigans around my two biggest clients, which happened right around the time a third client offered me a full-time job in-house.  It's an organization I knew well and a cause I am rather passionate about, so it was wonderful timing and a great place to hang my hat and have an impact on an issue that's important to me.

Now, I commute downtown to an office five days a week.  I don't have the time to cook during the week or on weekends like I used to.  And, for many months, I needed my nights and weekends to write this:


When the book was done, I had every intention of getting... WAIT.  Let me stop myself here.  You guys, I wrote a book.  Do you know how long I've wanted to do this?  Since first or second grade, if memory serves correctly.  It was a LOT of fun, and Mike was such a blast to work with.  I'm really proud of the book.  Really and truly.  

While I was working on the book, and a few months after, I was also using my nights and weekends to write other things for other people and do some product development work for some gluten-free food companies.  Mama's gotta pay the bills, you know.  There was also an unexpected amount of weddings and funerals and other curve balls that life throws at you from time to time.

Then, in early March, I had surgery.  It was a minor procedure that ended up having long-lasting recovery issues.  I won't get into detail (because talking about medical issues on food blogs is gross), but suffice to say it was a deep-tissue melanoma-related procedure on my head that caused me to have neuropathy and pain across my head, face, neck, and shoulders for, now, almost six months.  I'm almost completely back to normal.  But, that set me back way longer than it should have or that I ever wanted it to.  

I've also had some celiac-related things going on ... but, again, no one wants to hear about that.  Or, more accurately, I kind of don't want to talk about it.  It's particularly frustrating in that the symptoms I've been experiencing were all joint-related and neurological.  So, things like holding a knife properly became a challenge.  Standing for long periods of time was painful, as was sitting.  I have been a bit of a wreck.

When the Derecho came through the DC area in June, I was without power for six days and lost everything in my refrigerator and freezer.  All my everyday food.  Everything I'd prepped for the blog, knowing I wanted to get back to it soon.  Everything.  Many, many, MANY dollars worth of food gone.

So, as you can see, I haven't been able to really cook the way I know how and the way I love.  And, you know what?  It took a real emotional toll on me.  More than I knew, really.  Cooking calms me.  Chopping vegetables keeps me sane.  Spending two or three days on one recipe from the Alinea cookbook is a challenge and a thrill, and something I have missed so much.  I'm a better, happier person when I cook.  I know that.  

So, why am I back now?  Well, for one, I finally have a better handle on my time than I did before.  I am feeling healthy again, and able to be in the kitchen for long stretches of time.  And, because my chef friend, Carlos, told me I had to.  In late August on a rainy night at the beach, over our second or third glass of wine that night, he let me have it.  Told me I need to get back to cooking and writing here.  Said he was angry every time I posted something on Facebook that wasn't an update from this blog.  Said I needed to get back to working on this project.

He's right.

So, here I am.

I can't promise I'll be back at the same pace I was last year.  I'm still working in an office full-time.  I'm still working on other projects in the evenings and weekends.  But, I'm back to making this a priority in my life, because I need it.  Bad.

So, on Saturday morning, knife in hand, I started with this: 


And this evening, sat around the table with my neighbor friends, and we ate this: 


It looks nothing like the photo of this dish in the book.  I'm okay with that.

It tasted really damn good ... and if you have the book I strongly recommend you make the pumpkin-seed-paprika taffy.  Melt it on a steak.  Or a pork chop.  It is outstanding.

I didn't take any photos while cooking because I just wanted to focus on getting back into the feel of this book.  Gotta get my kitchen sea legs.  Almost there.

It's good to be back.

See you in a few weeks.  :)


Resources:  Everything from Whole Foods or HMart.

Music to Cook By:  Colin Hay; Going Somewhere.  Without fail, "Beautiful World" makes me smile big and wide.  And, "Waiting for My Real Life to Begin" makes me wish I knew how to play guitar.  This album is the perfect sunny Sunday afternoon kitchen soundtrack.

Read My Previous Post:  Hiatus

February 14, 2011

Venison, encased in savory granola

A friend's divorce.

Another friend's broken engagement.

Two colleagues diagnosed with cancer; one of them dying just days after being diagnosed.

A third friend's cancer rages back, forcing her to be admitted to hospice care.

Work frustrations and humiliations that in light of everything else are so minor, and yet kicked me while I was already down.

It's been a hellish three weeks since I last logged onto this blog and, as a result, on Saturday I needed to cook.  I needed to do something tactile and productive that didn't require a lot of thinking.  I needed to make my kitchen smell like someone actually cooks in it.  I needed to feel the weight of my knife in my hand.  I needed to follow my instincts.  I needed to feel like I could do something right.  I needed to focus on something other than the outside world.  I needed to have my friends around my dining room table.  And, I know this sounds strange, but I needed to hear the comforting white noise the dishwasher makes as it's doing its thing.  All of this brought be back to center -- or at least as close to center as I ever get -- and set the tone for one of the most relaxing Sundays I've ever had.

Here's to good health, comfort, friends, support, and sanity.  All things I'm incredibly lucky to have.

*  *  *  *  *

When I originally planned to make this dish, I hoped I'd be able to go hunting with a friend of mine and bring home a nice deer loin to use in this dish.  Sadly, the timing didn't work, and I had to look elsewhere for a loin.  If I didn't live in such an uptight, hippified town, I'd just shoot one of the dozens of deer that stroll through my yard every night.  But alas, I cannot.

Thankfully, Wegmans carries D'Artagnan products, so I didn't have to look very far.



I covered the venison pieces with a wet paper towel and stored them in the fridge while I prepped everything else.

The granola the venison gets encased in made me drool just by looking at the recipe.  Onions and celery root and cherries and pistachios and rice?  Aaaaaahhhhhh....

I puffed (a.k.a. deep-fried) some rice:



Then, I peeled and thiiiiiinly sliced some celery root:




Oh, and by the way? This dog of mine? LOVES VEGETABLES.  As I started slicing the celery root, he darted out from under the pile of blankets he likes to burrow and gave me this face:


So, of course I gave him a few slices of the celery root (which he gobbled down in no time).  The rest got tossed in cornstarch and deep fried in canola oil at 275F degrees for a few minutes:



This onion got the same treatment:





I roasted some oats in the oven for 10 minutes, chopped some pistachios and dried cherries, and tossed them in a bowl with the celery root, onion, and rice.  Then, I added some salt, pepper, allspice, and a mixture of melted glucose and honey, and ended up with this:


I let it sit out at room temperature while I made the celery root purée.  I peeled and cubed a medium-sized celery root, and simmered it in heavy cream for about 30 minutes.  Then, I poured everything into the blender and puréed the heck out of it:



I pushed it through a fine-mesh strainer.  You'll see the final purée in the plating photo at the end of the post.

The last prep step I had to take was making the cherry sauce to spoon over the celery root purée.  This lovely small saucepan contains dried cherries, ruby port, and cabernet sauvignon.  I brought it to a boil, then simmered it, then added veal stock, brought it up to a boil, then reduced, strained, and reduced further.  You guys?  I kind of want to marry this sauce.


Preheated the oven to 400F degrees and started to get the venison prepared.  Into 2" ring molds went some granola:


Then, the venison:


Then, more granola:


I put it in the oven for three minutes, then flipped each cylinder using an offset spatula and cooked it for another three minutes.  I could tell it wasn't going to hold up like the one in the photo in the cookbook, but I really didn't care.  You know why?  'Cause this smelled amazing.  Really and truly.  I couldn't wait to eat it... I didn't care what it looked like, 'cause I knew it would make me really, really happy as soon as it was in my mouth.


One little note before we get to the money shot: there's a "toasted oat bubbles" component to this dish that I failed pretty miserably at.  I roasted the oats, steeped them in milk and water, then strained them.  When I went to add the salt and soy lecithin (it's what makes it bubble), I couldn't find it in the pantry, and realized I'd ordered more agar agar instead of soy lecithin (duh), so I couldn't make it foam.  I put it into a siphon canister and discharged an NO2 cartridge, thinking I might be able to rescue it that way, but you'll see in the photo that it just looks like milk that someone blew bubbles into using a straw.

But everything else is pretty......


The green garnishes are chives and micro sage leaves.

You'll see the venison is not 100% encased in the granola.  You'll also note that I 100% don't care. 

This was really, really good.  Everytime I have celery root purée in a restaurant, I'm reminded of how much I love it, and yet I never make it at home.  That's stupid.  It's so good, and so freakin' easy to do.  I need to make it more often.  The cherry-wine-veal stock sauce was ridiculous.  The venison was tender, and the granola?  Wow-effing-zers.  I have leftovers and plan to eat it with some duck I've got ready to roast later in the week. Even the oaty milk was good, and bolstered the light heartiness of this plate of food.

It was a lovely dish on a chilly night with my dearest neighbor friends, and it made everything in the world alright again. 

Exactly what I needed.

Up Next: Goose, blood orange, sage, roasting goose aromas

Resources: Venison from D'Artagnan; veal stock from my freezer; Lundberg rice; 365 canola oil; produce and aromatics from Wegmans; Hodgson Mill cornstarch; David's kosher salt; Bob's Red Mill oats; allspice, pistachios, and dried cherries from the TPSS Co-op; Toigo Orchards honey; Natural by Nature heavy cream and milk; Sandeman ruby port; Jericho Canyon 2006 cabernet sauvignon.

Music to Cook By: Duran Duran; All You Need is Now. It's almost better than Rio.  I'm not even kidding.  I love this album so much.  Though, I caution against listening to it whilst driving on the highway, 'cause it makes you wanna go kinda fast, which might mean a speeding ticket. (damn it)

Read My Previous Post: Salsify, smoked salmon, dill, caper -- casserole-style

January 24, 2011

Share Our Strength Close-out, and an Alinea Casserole (oh yeah, I went there)

First things first; the numbers are in: you donated $19,656 to Share Our Strength.  THANK YOU!  I am humbled by your generosity, and incredibly grateful for your support of this cause.  You know, there's so much talk in the news these days about the need for civil discourse in politics coupled with a plea for toning down the caustic rhetoric in Washington, and I'm here to tell you -- as someone who works in the trenches -- that things in the political arena are the same as ever, and actually starting to get worse.  But what you guys did?  It makes me really hopeful about humanity in general, not to mention reaffirms my belief that great people do great things and THAT is what makes this world go around.  Seriously, thank you.  I'm honored to know you all.

All the winners of the giveaways have been notified, confirmed, and their goodies are on the way.

Everyone give a big round of applause (and a jealous side-eye, because I know you want to) to Tom Norwood, the winner of dinner for four at Alinea.  Tom and his fiancée are taking two of their friends to dinner, and I can't wait to hear all about it.

*   *   *   *   *

Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas wrote a(nother) book.  It's called Life, on the Line, and it's due out March 3rd.  You can pre-order it on Amazon, and you can check out the website for the book, which has some great photos, interviews, and excerpts from some of the chapters.  I can't wait for you to read it when it comes out.  I'll be giving away a few copies here on the site in March, so stay tuned.

*   *   *   *   *

Earlier I mentioned how not civil politics is these days.  I've lived and worked in Washington for nearly a quarter-century, and this is the most contentious, testy, frustrating, and head-banging-against-desk-ing it's ever been.  My clients are fantastic, and working with them is intensely rewarding.  However, the climate in which we have to work is so much more challenging and vexing than it's ever been -- this applies to both sides of the aisle -- and at the end of every single day, I'm exhausted. 

To top it off, it's January... which is a hard food month for me.  I love comfort food, but I'm tired of soup.  I love root vegetables, but if I see another potato, turnip, beet, or squash, I'm going to scream.  I really, really miss my January favorites pre-celiac: grilled-cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and lasagne.  Yes, I can make all these things with gluten-free ingredients, but trust me: they don't and will never taste as good as the real thing.

So, a week or so ago, to get myself out of this work and food funk, I gloomily and grumpily opened the Alinea cookbook to the next recipe I'd planned to do for the blog: Salsify, smoked salmon, dill, caper.

Here are the components of the dish: salsify, olive oil, picholine olives, bread crumbs, parsley, lemon, smoked salmon, capers, ginger, red onion, garlic, dill, radish.  There's a lot of powder making, dehydrating, emulsifying... things I already know how to do, so I knew it wouldn't be difficult to make this dish exactly as it is in the book.

And yet, I couldn't do it.  I wasn't feeling it.  I wanted something different.  Something with many of those ingredients, but not. that. dish.  And to make matters worse, I've been turned off by smoked salmon lately.  It's too overpowering, and I just don't enjoy the flavor of it anymore.  That might change, of course, but for right now, the last thing I wanted was to eat smoked salmon. 

So, I opened the fridge, freezer, and pantry, and pulled out salsify, olive oil, picholine olives, gluten-free bread crumbs, parsley, lemon, capers, red onion, garlic, dill, and radishes.  Then, I saw a bag of wild rice on the shelf.  And leftover Vasterbotten cheese from the Noma dish I made in the cheese drawer in the fidge.  And a whole chicken in the freezer.  And all of a sudden, it hit me: I was going to make a casserole.

My friend, David Hagedorn, wrote about his newfound love and acceptance of casseroles in a recent Washington Post piece, and I saved that article because I wanted to try some of his ideas.  So, I quickly scanned his recipes to figure out my ratios, and started chopping, sauteeing, roasting, and baking, and lo, a casserole was born:



I'm not much for proper recipe writing, so here's a rundown of what I did:

Into a mixing bowl went:

2 cloves of garlic, minced

3 C cooked wild rice

Half a red onion, diced and caramelized

Roasted chicken pulled off the bone (white and dark meat), chopped/shredded

8 salsifies, peeled, sliced, roasted w/ olive oil and salt

Small handful of capers

10 Picholine olives, pitted and chopped

Fresh parsley, chopped

Fresh dill, chopped

A Vasterbotten cheese sauce (butter and rice flour for the roux, then the cheese and some milk)

Salt and pepper to taste

I folded all the ingredients together, then gently pressed them into the casserole dish, topping them with butter-soaked gluten-free tortilla bread crumbs.

Baked it in a 375F-degree oven for about 20-25 minutes.

I put some fresh dill and a squeeze of lemon atop my serving before digging in.


It completely and totally hit the spot, and cheered me up rather unexpectedly.  I'm glad I went with chicken instead of smoked salmon, and think you could maybe even make this with canned salmon (old school!) or maybe some fresh arctic char as the protein and it would be really good.

I've since taken all the leftovers and put them in single-serving containers in the freezer.  That way, when I leave early in the morning for a marathon day of meetings, I can move a container of it from the freezer to the fridge to thaw, and then when I get home, warm it in the oven while I take the dog out for a quick walk when I get home.

Wait.  What did I just say about a dog?

Some of you might remember Jake.  I still miss that little guy.

But last week, a new little guy found his way into my home. 

Meet Dexter (we call him Dex, or Dexy, because helllooooo, Dexy's Midnight Runners):


So, to recap:

You guys are awesome.

I adapted a recipe from one of the world's greatest restaurants and turned it into a freakin' casserole.

My dog is cute.

The end.


November 03, 2010

Re-posting: Pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves

Chef Achatz was on Martha Stewart this morning, and demonstrated how to make this dish.  So, I thought I'd take this opportunity to repost my original recounting of making this amazing bite of food ... and encourage you to give it a try. 


Original Post Date: November 9, 2009

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

September 27, 2010

Chocolate, warmed to 94 degrees

I can make a grocery list without the phone ringing off the hook.  I can shop for food without having to abandon my half-full grocery cart in the middle of the store to attend to a client's media crisis.  I have food in the house, and I have time to cook it.  My days are still busy, but much more manageable, now.  My nights even more so.  I am getting more than 5 hours of sleep.  I feel like I can breathe again.

Over the past week, late at night I've found myself standing in the front yard, looking southward in the sky staring at the waxing-then-full-now-waning moon, with Jupiter just below.  This past weekend, my neighbors and I had a roaring fire going in my copper fire pit, and we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows for s'mores.  We started at 6 o'clock on Saturday night and didn't turn in until well past midnight.  We listened to the pair of barred owls in the woods hoot and call to each other, and saw one of them swoop down my street, just under the street light at the end of the block, before flying to its tree in the woods.  We stuffed our faces with s'mores and drank wine.  We listened to the kids debate who was more annoying: Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez (it was a tie).  We took turns with the binoculars to look at Jupiter's moons ... something we'll not be able to see again in our lifetime.

It's things like this that bring me back to center and recharge my batteries.

*   *   *   *   *

My nephew and his grandpa (my dad) have something very important in common: an undying, almost-addictive love of chocolate popsicles.  I grew up in a house with a freezer full of chocolate ice cream (from which great milkshakes were born) and Fudgesicles galore, because my dad loved the stuff (and it was the '70s: where there was always dessert after dinner).  Now that my dad is a little older, he's changed his snack and dessert portion sizes to that of a popsicle.  We will not go into my theory that eating seven popsicles is probably worse than a scoop or two of ice cream.  But that is neither here nor there.  Ahem.

Every time my parents babysat their grandson this summer, the little guy would run and jump and act like a crazy dude around noon -- not just because it was the time my dad came home from the office for lunch, but because it meant there would be chocolate popsicles for dessert.  Grandpa is #1 in this kid's heart, but chocolate popsicles?  Not even a #2.  More like a #1.5.

After they ate lunch, my laptop would bbbrrrrrrrriiinnnnggggg with an incoming Skype call, and my nephew could hardly wait to tell me about his dessert: cha-LOCK-a-lit possickles.  To hear that two-year-old little monkey butt say "cha-LOCK-a-lit" was hilarious.  So, of course, I asked every conceivable question that could result in him using that word/pronunciation in his answer.  It never got old.

So when I scanned the Alinea cookbook and my now-outdated cooking planning calendar (thanks a lot, job) to figure out what I wanted to cook next, I read this recipe to myself as Cholocolate, warmed to 94 degrees.

And away we go...

I spent some time among some glorious, bountiful fig trees in northern California in early August, but the fruit was still green and hadn't yet ripened.  I hear they're now out in full force, and it was all I could do to not hop on a plane back out there to pluck them off the tree myself.  Instead, I drove to Whole Foods and picked up a few boxes of figs—a fruit I really didn't "get" for years and years, and now can't imagine living without:


The first element of this dish I needed to work on was drying figs for bergamot tea.  So, the day before I knew I was going to serve this dish, I halved a whole mess o' figs and dehydrated them overnight at 150F degrees:



I did two racks of them, which came out to just under the 125g of dried figs I needed.  Not bad for a guesstimate.

I put the dried figs into a bowl until I needed to use them, and got started on the chocolate mousse, which also needed to be dehydrated.  Here's my mise en place (egg whites, sugar, salt, egg yolks, chocolate):


I melted the chocolate in a bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water:


And, as it was melting, I whipped the egg whites (and salt) until they became frothy and were just starting to get foamy:


I added the sugar and kept whipping until just before the stiff-peak phase:


See?  Just soft peaks:


I removed the chocolate from the burner, took the bowl out of the saucepan, and stirred to make sure the chocolate (which in my head as I type this looks and sounds like cha-LOCK-a-lit) was completely melted. I also whisked in the egg yolks.  Then, I folded in a third of the whipped egg whites: 



And after that was pretty full incorporated, I added the rest of the egg whites, folding them in gently until it was a creamy, smooth mousse:


I spooned the mousse onto a Pam-sprayed, acetate-lined dehydrator tray (I filled 3 of them):


And, I set the dehydrator on 150F degrees, and let it dehydrate for 8 hours.  The book said it would need 6 hours, but I know my dehydrator well enough (and the humid day I was cooking) to know I'd need longer.


While the chocolate mousse was in the dehydrator, I made the cassia ice cream.  Since I couldn't find cassia buds, I used cinnamon sticks instead, which I simmered and let steep in some milk:


After the cinnamon steepage, I poured the liquid through a fine mesh strainer and into a bowl where I added some already-soaked gelatin sheets, sugar, milk powder, glucose, and condensed milk and mixed it all with my immersion blender:


I processed it in my ice-cream maker and put the ice cream in the freezer to harden further.  You'll see the ice cream in the final plating photo (but man, did it ever smell goooooood while I was making it).  Oh, and ***TANGENT ALERT*** while the ice cream was processing, and the figs (below) were simmering, I used the leftover sweetened condensed milk to make what I think might be the best thing in the whole world: dulce de leche:


Alright, let's get back to the recipe.

Time to braise some figs.  I halved 12 figs and simmered them in some ruby port and dry red wine (along with a little glucose and sugar) for about 30 minutes:


I strained the figs and let them cool, and reduced the fig braising liquid to a glaze:



I let both of them come to room temperature before combining the figs and the glaze in a small deli container for storage until I needed them to serve the dish.

Next to last: I made the bergamot tea.  This couldn't have been easier.  In a small-ish saucepan, I combined the figs I'd dried the night before, sugar, water, and salt and brought it to a boil.  I turned off the burner and added some Earl Grey tea leaves, covered the pot, and let it steep for 5 minutes.  [Now, I'm not a tea lover, but there's something about the smell of bergamot in Early Grey tea that makes me feel all cozy inside.]  After it had steeped, I poured the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined fine-mesh strainer into a bowl and let it come to room temperature.  Then, I added some Ultra-Tex 3 and blended it with my immersion blender for 3 minutes, per the book's instructions.  I let it rest on the counter until it was time to plate.


The last step was, perhaps, the trickiest.  Bringing chocolate -- chunks of a plain old bar of chocolate -- to 94 degrees.  It's melty, but not melted.  It's soft, but not gooey.  It's silky and shiny, but not gloppy.  It needed to retain its shape, but be soft enough to to push a pin through it with no resistance.  And, it had to be done while the chocolate pieces were already resting atop the pieces of dehydrated chocolate mousse.

The book suggested leaving it on the stovetop with the oven turned on, and hinted that it might take 20 minutes to reach 94 degrees.  I know myself (and my lack of experience, especially when it comes to being successful at making desserts), so I allotted 45 minutes for this step.  Which, it turns out I needed.

I placed the pieces of 64 percent cacao chocolate onto the squares of dehydrated mousse, and laid them on a Silpat-lined baking sheet.  I didn't want to put them directly in the oven, because I knew it would be harder to control the heat. 

So, I placed them on the stovetop, right near the oven vent... where it gets really warm.  So, how warm should the oven be to generate the kind of heat I needed to bring the chocolate to 94 degrees, without getting too hot that it would melt?

200 degrees?


300 degrees?



Close.  But still no increase in the chocolate's temperature.

I turned my oven to 425, and checked the chocolate's temperature every minute.  Slowly it climbed from 74 degrees... to 76, then 77, then 82... and then stayed there for a few minutes.  It inched up a degree at a time, until it got to 94 degrees (94.3 actually) and I turned off the oven and removed the chocolate from the stovetop and started plating.



First in the bowl?  Four braised fig halves, in their glaze.  Next to that went the cinnamon ice cream.  On top went the 94-degree chocolate-topped dehydrated chocolate mousse, which was topped with bee balm flowers (bergamot flowers are out of season right now).  My friends carried their bowls out to the table, and I poured in the tea around the base of the dessert:


Pretty, isn't it?  But how did it taste?


She's gonna kill me for posting that photo, but I don't care.

This dessert was really, really good.  Even better than I thought it was going to be.  Almost as good as being able to see most of Jupiter's moons.  Seriously. 

These ingredients were so wonderful together.  I also loved how the soft warmth of the chocolate tempered the ice cream.  The figs were sweet, but not overly sweet, and the wines were noticeable but not at all overpowering or domineering.  The tea added a really nice aromatic quality to the dessert in addition to tasting really good.  The texture of the dehydrated mousse was crunchy and chewy, and tasted like a compressed brownie.  In fact, I have some leftover dehydrated chocolate mousse and leftover cinnamon ice cream, so as soon as I hit the Publish button on this bad boy, I'mma make myself an ice cream sandwich.

But you guys?  This dessert?  Worth it.  Maybe it's because I've been so stressed out for the past month, but this, combined with fire pits, planet-gazing, hot dogs, s'mores, and wine, has made for a pretty memorable September.

Up Next: Tomato, balloons of mozzarella, many complementary flavors (I don't want to wait until next summer to do this dish, and this is the last week for tomatoes here in DC)

Resources: Figs from Whole Foods; Sandeman ruby port; The Squid's Fist wine; glucose from L'Epicerie; Domino sugar; Twinings Earl Grey tea; Ultra-Tex 3 from Terra Spice; cinnamon from HMart; Natural by Nature whole milk; gelatin sheets from King Arthur Flour; Organic Valley nonfat powdered milk; Borden sweetened condensed milk; Green & Black's 72% cacao chocolate; Ghirardelli 64% chocolate; eggs from Smith Meadows Farm; David's kosher salt; bee balm from my garden.

Music to Cook By: XTC; Oranges and Lemons.  I think "The Loving" might be in my top 20 favorite songs of all time.

Read My Previous Post: I made lamb stock, and all is well with the world...

July 28, 2010

Shellfish Sponge, horseradish, celery, gooseberry

I wasn't sure what to make of this dish when I first read about it.

I love shellfish, and I love horseradish.  Celery has become more tolerable to me.  It was the gooseberry sauce that was throwing me for a loop.  Why?  I'd never eaten a gooseberry before.  I saw them at the farmers' market many, many weeks ago (late May/early June, I think) and remembered that I needed some for a few Alinea dishes, so I bought a few boxes of them and froze them to use as I needed to.


I tasted one before freezing them... and, have you ever had a gooseberry?  Raw?  Like, just popped one in your mouth?  Tart doesn't even begin to describe it.  Neither does sour.  Don't get me wrong: it wasn't off-putting.  It was just nothing like anything I'd tasted before.  An odd combination of sour, tangy, a hint of sweet, with a slightly tart finish.  They also had an odd texture -- like if you bred a passion fruit with a persimmon or tomatillo, and added some grape and maybe the filmy mouth-feel of a pear.

So after having tried a gooseberry, I was even more perplexed about this dish.  I just couldn't wrap my head around what it was going to taste like, or how the textures would feel together.  A frozen sponge of shellfish stock.  Celery ice.  Horseradish cream sauce.  Gooseberry sauce.  Clams and mussels.

Honestly, I was dreading the end result, which I know isn't cool and I should know better.  But no, I was the asshole who scoffed that there was no way this recipe from the bazillion-star chef of the Pellegrino-ranked #1 restaurant in America was gonna be any good.

Grumble grumble grumble.

Heavy sigh.

Seriously. I am such a jerkwad sometimes.

And so we begin.

As instructed, I steamed mussels and littleneck clams in two separate saucepans with vermouth, fennel, celery, shallots, peppercorns, bay leaves, and tarragon.  Man.  Is there a better smell than that of shallots and tarragon steaming away in vermouth? I think not.

The littlenecks opened beautifully, but more than half of the mussels didn't open at all.  And, there was an odd smell emanating from the pan when they were cooking.  When I rinsed and cleaned them before cooking them, they smelled fine (meaning, no smell at all), but I wasn't taking any chances.  I threw them away, poured their cooking liquid down the drain, and just forged ahead with the littlenecks on their own.

I put the clams (still in their shells) on a paper towel-lined baking sheet in the fridge to halt the cooking, and so they'd cool.

The book instructs you to combine both pots of cooking liquid to reduce them, but that wasn't an option, so I added about a half a cup of Etude pinot noir rosé, and cooked the liquid until it had reduced by half.

While the liquid was reducing, I took the littleneck clams out of their shells, discarded the shells, and saved the clams in a container I'd placed into a bowl of ice water in the fridge.

I combined the wine-assisted shellfish cooking stock reduction with 3 ice water-soaked gelatin sheets, some salt, and stirred to dissolve the gelatin, tempering it as I went.

Then, I put that liquid into the bowl of my Kitchen Aid mixer, and mixed it on high speed using the whip attachment.  The book instructs you to whip it "until stiff peaks form," which I'm thinking will take 3 or 4 minutes...


After four minutes:


After 10 minutes:


Twenty minutes gone by...


Twenty-five minutes....


Thirty minutes... and wait!  Is that the beginnings of some peakage...?


Thirty-five minutes....


And, at the 40-minute mark?  The magic happened.  That shizz stiffened right up:



The photo makes it look more like they were soft peaks, but they weren't.  It was stiff and exactly the right consistency to blop onto a parchment-lined baking sheet to put in the freezer:


While the shellfish broth was taking its good old time getting to the stiff-peak stage, I blanched and juiced some celery for the celery ice portion of our program:


I poured that celery juice into a 9x9" glass baking dish and put it in the freezer to harden.

I also made the gooseberry sauce by putting the gooseberries you saw earlier into my blender with some simple syrup, kosher salt, and Ultra-Tex 3:

I pushed the puree of it through a fine mesh strainer:  DSC_0018

And got a lovely, better-than-they-tasted-on-their-own gooseberry sauce:


I also made the horseradish cream, which was so easy I can't believe I don't make this more often.  I juiced some horseradish in my juicer and whisked it with some crème fraîche, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and salt:


And, I peeled and diced some celery, which I blanched for 15 seconds:  DSC_0022


After the celery ice had hardened (about 3 hours), I scraped a fork across the top of it to get a slushy texture, then put it back in the freezer until I was ready to plate the dish:  DSC_0025


If you're following along in the book or are familiar with this dish, you'll notice I haven't talked about the geoduck clam.  As much as I wanted to work with a geoduck for this recipe, I chose not to.  They're not that easy to come by (despite having some good fishmonger connections), and they're really expensive... like, we're talking $40-50/pound, and I'd have to commit to buying the whole 3-pound clam for any of my sources to have one shipped in and I just couldn't justify that expense.

So, I used surf clams instead.  I had the guys at BlackSalt shuck them for me, and I used a few slices of them, raw, on each serving.

To plate this dish I put one frozen shellfish sponge in the center and spooned a little horseradish cream around one side of it.  I scooped some celery ice along the other side and blopped some gooseberry sauce next to it.  I put 3-4 littleneck clams on each serving, and topped the sponge with a few slices of surf clam.  Last, but not least, I added some of the blanched celery dice and some celery leaves.


I love that if you hadn't read this post or this recipe, you might think that by looking at it that it's a warm dish.  That the sponge is actually a warm foam or meringue kind of thing.


If I close my eyes and inhale slowly through my nose, I can remember exactly what this dish tasted like.  I sampled all the elements of the dish as I was making it, and I thought the end result might be too salty.  Or just too salt-briny.  I was thrilled to be wrong.  It was a perfect blend of salt, sweet, sour, tang, and heat.  The textures melded well with just enough creaminess, crunch, and chew that every bite was a surprise as the flavors opened up.  The sponge was delightful.  The surf clam was lovely.  The horseradish cream was fantastic.  I ended up swirling everything together on the plate to take a bite, and loved how the horseradish and gooseberry unfolded with the shellfish and celery ice.  I loved the temperature of the dish and how the flavors became even more pronounced as the frozen elements melted in my mouth. 

My neighbors came over for the tasting, and one of the pickiest eaters -- an 11-year old boy who is adventurous about some foods and not others; and, those adventurous tangents change without warning -- gobbled his up, much to my surprise.  In fact, I barely even needed to do the dishes after we were done because there were a lot of fingers swiping plates to get every last bit of sauce and flavor.  I think having the mussels in it (had they been good instead of rancid) would've made this even more flavorful, but since no one at the table knew about the mussel fiasco, they didn't think the dish was lacking in any way.

When I think about the individual elements in this dish, there are so many that are adaptable to everyday cooking.  I could do a gooseberry swirl in vanilla ice cream next time I make it.  The horseradish cream could accompany a steak or a roasted goat leg quite nicely.  Steaming clams takes all of 10 minutes (including the time it takes to prep the stuff you steam them in), so I'm not sure why I don't eat them more often.  Even the leftover celery ice was a nice treat on these 105-degree days we've been having.

And, as much as I love and respect my friend, Michael Ruhlman, I gotta disagree with what he wrote in an early review of the book: "This is not a home-cook book."

I beg to differ.

Read My Previous Post: Alinea at Home Adaptation -- Raspberry, goat's milk, red pepper taffy, pistachio

Resources: Celery, lemon, shallots, fennel, and horseradish from Whole Foods; gooseberries from the 14th and U Street Farmers Market; Ultra-Tex 3 from Terra Spice; Vermont Butter and Cheese Company crème fraîche; David's kosher salt; Martini dry vermouth; bay leaves from my potted bay plant in the kitchen; peppercorns from the pantry; tarragon from my garden; shellfish from BlackSalt fish market.

Music to Cook To: I'm gonna cheat a bit.  I listened to Taylor Dayne while I wrote this blog post.  Forgot how much I liked her.

Up Next: Pickled watermelon rind from Ayu, kombu, fried spine, sesame

May 24, 2010

Alinea at Home Adaptation: Lamb, mastic, date, rosemary fragrance

Back injuries suck.

So does being overwhelmed with work.

I missed my kitchen something fierce.  I missed writing about food just as much.

I barely cooked a thing these past 6 weeks.  I assembled.  I ordered takeout (an insane amount).  I ate in restaurants.  I went to friends' houses when I could spare an hour or two (I think that happened twice, so there you go).  I didn't set aside time to go to the market or allow myself the time to cook.  It was a choice.  I didn't have a lot of control over my schedule and therefore didn't want to stock up on any kind of perishable food because the minute I did, I would've gotten a phone call that I needed to be in New York for 3 days... or sitting in a four-hour meeting on the Hill.... or needed to drop everything and write an op-ed that needs to get sent to the New York Times in two hours.... or had to work through the night to get a script in shape for taping the next morning.  I got into a zone and I knew if I buckled down and focused on work deadlines and related endeavors, my summer months would be more manageable, so I did it.  But let me tell you: I missed cooking. 

Last week, I started to get really edgy and bitchy and itchy and moody.  All work and no cook makes Carol a cranky girl.  I wanted to chop.  I wanted to braise.  I wanted to saute.  I wanted to roast.  I wanted to crack open the Alinea cookbook again.  Not wanted to.  Needed to.

So, this weekend, I bought pot after pot of fresh herbs to plant in the garden.  I also went to three farmers markets and stocked the fridge full of everything fresh because I my schedule is now finally my own again, and I can actually enjoy setting aside time to cook and let myself relax like a normal person.  The occasional work crisis might pop up from time to time, but not from 6 or 7 clients all at once like they had over the past two months.  

I texted my friends across the street and invited them to dinner.  And I cooked.

It's good to be back in my favorite room of the house.

Lately, an unusually high number of people have asked me about this blog and about how it's influenced my cooking.  No one seems to believe that the Alinea cookbook can influence a person's everyday cooking or food shopping.  They see it as way too out-there or just not feasible in a home kitchen.  Sure, some of the dishes are a lot of work, but in the long run anything that can help me be a better cook I'm willing to try, or at the very least read about.

So, for those of you out there who need a little jump-start in the inspiration department, I hope this post does the trick because it's all about how 4 truly beautiful pages in an avant-garde cookbook from one of the best restaurants in America shaped a really delicious (if I do say so myself) menu for a weekend dinner with friends.

*   *   *   *   *

Let's look at the elements in this dish (page 324 in the cookbook, if you wanna follow along):

Lamb loin: I already had lamb loin in the freezer, so that was a go.

Red wine-braised cabbage: Nothing crazy or difficult about this.

Medjool date compote: Again, pretty straightforward; just needed to buy some dates

Mastic cream: I don't keep mastic on-hand and I'd never cooked with it, but was curious to try.

Rosemary: Makes me sneeze and cough, so I knew I wasn't gonna include it regardless of how I made this dish.

Oregano leaves: In my garden; check.

Chervil tops: Bought two pots at the farmers market; done.

I got out my notebook and spent all of 30 seconds writing the following "menu" for dinner:

Grilled loin of lamb with mastic cream, chervil, and oregano; date compote on the side

Red wine-braised cabbage

Roasted asparagus

Mashed Yukon gold potatoes

Greek salad

... all of which came together because of the Alinea cookbook.

It's a menu I think anyone could pull off and have a really great dinner with friends.  No special equipment.  No wacky techniques.  I even cooked something sous vide WITHOUT an immersion circulator (you can, too!).

After all that time away from the kitchen, I was worried I might forget how to hold a knife.  That I might not know how to turn on my stove.  That I might not know how to precisely cut a head of cabbage in half so that I could get a 500g yield with one of the halves ON THE FIRST TRY:



(the other half was 394g, in case you were wondering)

I removed the core, then sliced the cabbage really thin, sliced a shallot even thinner, and added it to the melted butter in my Le Creuset pot.  I gently tossed it around (over medium heat) so that everything got mixed with the butter, and let it cook for about five minutes, when the cabbage began to release its liquid.

Then, I added some red wine, some port, orange blossom honey (didn't have wildflower honey on hand), salt, and pepper, covered it with a parchment lid and let it braise for about 4 hours over medium-low heat (until nearly all the liquid was gone).  The book has an additional step involving adding potato, but I skipped that step, because I wanted to serve this as a warm slaw-type of side dish.


While the cabbage was cooking, I started the date compote.  I soaked a pound of dates in hot tap water for five minutes which made it easier to remove their skins and pits.  I put the dates in a saucepan with some water, sherry vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper and brought them up to simmer over medium heat:



The dates were supposed to simmer over low-medium heat for about an hour.  So, I turned down the flame and let them do their thing while I Skyped with my nephew (who, in his spare time, likes to watch over ant colonies BEFORE DESTROYING THEM):


Moments after we signed off (he now says, "Peace out, dude!"), I smelled something that was NOT GOOD:


Peace out, date compote.  Was nice knowing you.

Scratch that little side item off the menu.  Oh well.  Can't win 'em all, I suppose.

Next thing I did was prepare the lamb loins:


I trimmed them and cleaned them up a bit, removing the silverskins and big chunks of fat, brushed them lightly with olive oil, and wrapped each one, air-tight, in Saran Wrap:





I picked it up in both hands, holding both ends, and twirled it around five times (twirling away from me), then tied the ends tight:



I got the water bath ready -- a large saucepan with a candy thermometer works just fine, see?  Heated the water to 135 degrees, put in the wrapped lamb loins, and let them cook for 20 minutes.

Then, I took them out and put them (still wrapped) in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process:


When they had cooled, I stored them in the refrigerator until it was time to sear them on the grill just before sitting down to eat.

While the lamb was cooking, I made the mastic cream.


I'd never cooked with mastic gum before.  Have you?  I know what it tastes like and I've had it in many different kinds of food and drink (smoked lamb in Morocco, Turkish Delight, as a sweetener in Turkish coffee), but I didn't really know all that much about it until recently.  Mastic gum (above) is resin from the mastic tree.  In Greece, it's sometimes referred to as Tears of Chios, because it comes out of the tree in what looks like tears or droplets (like you often see tree sap here in the States) in liquid form, then the sun dries it to a hard resin.  It's (relatively) expensive: I paid $7.99 for the tiny jar you see above.

It's hard to describe what mastic tastes like.  There's a pine-scented element to it, and it's also floral and fragrant, but not in the off-putting way I find rose water to be.  It's also a little woodsy... kinda like if it's just finished raining, and someone's fireplace is going strong and you're outside in the woods and you smell all that together. 

Here's what 2g looks like:


I combined the mastic with some half-and-half, sugar, and salt, and brought it to a boil:


I poured it through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean saucepan, added a little bit of agar agar, and brought it to a boil, whisking to dissolve the agar, then poured it into a shallow pan:


I set that pan in a bowl of ice water so the cream would set: 


After it had set, I scraped the mastic cream into the blender and whacked it around for a minute until it was smooth:


Meantime, I lightly peeled and roasted some asparagus (olive oil, salt, pepper) at 425F for 15 minutes:


Whipped up some mashed Yukon golds (skins on, butter, salt, milk):


Made a Greek-ish salad (romaine hearts, cucumber, tomato, dill, chive, feta, vinaigrette):


And, I unwrapped and grilled the lamb loins, and garnished them with fresh oregano and chervil:




Linda, Sean, Grant, and Carter walked in the door:


And we sat down to a lovely meal:



Now that I know how to do meat sous vide, it's hard for me to make it any other way.  I know that probably sounds really obnoxious, but it's true.  It just makes such a difference, and I love how tender the meat turns out.  Granted, I started with a beautiful cut of lamb, but cooking it this way made it even better.  I put little dollops of mastic cream on each bite of lamb, and that along with the fresh chervil and oregano was just lovely.

The braised cabbage?  OH MY WORD.  I made a similar cabbage when I did French Laundry at Home, but this one was a little sweeter and complimented the lamb nicely.  I'm glad I did mashed potatoes, because it rained all weekend and was kind of chilly and those potatoes were comforting in so many ways -- and, with summer just around the corner, my mashed potato days are soon heading for hiatus.  The asparagus was so fresh and delicious, and the salad had some really nice flavor (I went heavy on the fresh herbs and light on the dressing).

Didn't miss the date compote one bit, and you know what else I didn't miss?  The rosemary fragrance. Instead, I opened the windows in the dining room and the fresh, clean, just-finished-raining air was all we needed to help us enjoy the food, a great bottle of wine, some tunes, and talks of summer plans.

What did YOU make this weekend?

Up Next: Goose, blood orange, sage, roasting goose aromas

Resources: Lamb from Elysian Fields; mastic from Asadur's Market in Rockville, MD; cabbage, shallot, Yukon gold potatoes, and dates from Whole Foods; herbs from my garden; asparagus and cucumbers from the 14th and U Street Farmers Market; Sandeman ruby port; Turley zinfandel; David's kosher salt; Organic Valley half-and-half.

Music to Cook To: David Byrne and Fatboy Slim; Here Lies Love.  I had the great pleasure of (quite unexpectedly) meeting David Byrne at a breakfast in November.  He was really lovely, and I wish I'd known this album was coming out because I'd have wanted to ask, "Really?  A two-CD set of songs about the life and times of Imelda Marcos sung by some of the world's most talented and engaging female singers and songwriters?"  You have to hear it to believe it.  [I think "Don't You Agree" by Roisin Murphy might be my favorite.]

Read My Previous Post: Marcona Almond, white ale, pink pepper, lavender

April 26, 2010

Marcona Almond, white ale, pink pepper, lavender


I'm back!!!!!!!!!

I missed you guys.

I'm still under a ridiculous pile of work that keeps growing and growing (which, I have to keep reminding myself is a GOOD THING when you're self-employed), but can breathe a bit more easily now since some big deadlines have passed and some others are a little further down the road and more manageable.

And just in time to celebrate this more manageable schedule has come a most painful and ridiculous sciatica attack my orthopedist says is a result of something called piriformis syndrome, which he so beautifully described as "when your buttcheek muscle spasms." Which, because I am 12, cracked me up but then I had to grow up because laughing hurts so much (as does sneezing, crying after sneezing, and pretty much any kind of moving, breathing, and walking).

He said it likely began when I fell up the stairs again two weeks ago, exacerbated by the long periods of time I have spent sitting and writing for clients the past two weeks, and then got worse when I sat on two very long flights last week to the west coast and back. When he and I were going through the list of symptoms and pain positions leading up to this extreme, sharp, shooting pain across my lower back, hips, and down my left leg, I neglected to add to the list the general thrashing and dramatic arm gestures I was doing in the car Friday night along to Poison's "Something to Believe In" to try and will Bret Michaels back to good health. I think that's the straw that broke the camel's back.  Or, um, buttcheek muscle.

So, I've found two positions that don't hurt: standing, and laying on my stomach. I'm typing this while standing at the island in my kitchen... a stack of cookbooks piled up with the laptop on top so I can easily type.  The only time I'm in need of pain management is when I sit, or do the transitions from laying to sitting or sitting to standing.  I took Vicodin on Saturday night to be able to sleep, and holy moley I can see how people get addicted to that.  Not ever taking that again.  Totally whacked me out (even though it gave me the best sleep of my life).

I need a back transplant.  Or a buttcheek muscle transplant.  WHERE'S MY TELETHON?

Okay, enough about my medical ailments.  That's not why you come here.

But(t), before I get to the Marcona almond dish, I have something really cool I wanna tell you...

*   *   *   *   *

I am going to the Food OscarsThe James Beard Awards!  And, not only am I going, they've asked me to live-blog the awards ceremony on their web site!  I'm so excited about this I could plotz. 

More info on specific times and the URL as soon as I get the deets from the folks in New York, but for now, mark your calendars for the evening of Monday, May 3rd.  Yay!  Let the plotzing commence!

*   *   *   *   *

So, Marcona Almond. 


I made this just before I got buried under the avalanche of work, and it's been bugging me that I haven't written about it yet.  So here we go.

Probably 5 or 6 years ago, or more, I quit drinking beer.  It just didn't taste good to me anymore.  I figured, heck, I drank a LOT of beer in college... maybe I just used up the lifetime quota my enjoyment receptors would allow, and never drank it again.  Didn't miss it at all.  Was it a precursor/early warning sign that my body was rejecting gluten?  My doctors think so.  I've made the rounds of gluten-free beer over the past year to see if I could find one that might make me appreciate or enjoy beer, and while I'm not repelled by it like I used to be, and while I already made one Alinea dish that had beer in it, I just haven't fallen back in love with beer again.

But this recipe called for a white ale (Allagash, to be specific), which just isn't an option for me.  So, after narrowing down my options via some extensive online research and conversations with others who have celiac and have sampled gluten-free beer, I called and went to some of the city's best liquor/beer/wine stores, met with beer experts, talked with many, many men who knew a lot about white ale, but not a single one of them knew anything about gluten-free beer because they've never tasted it.... even though all their stores sold it.

Which... I guess I get.  I mean, when you work in the alcohol sales field you probably can't taste everything you sell, but it would've been nice for at least one person in this city to have some idea of what these beers tasted like, and whether they could recommend one brand over another. 

So, I bought a sampling of 8 or 9 gluten-free beers and narrowed it down to one I thought might work.  On a side note, let me tell you a gluten-free beer you don't EVER need to try to drink or cook with, and that's New Grist.  Tastes like a baby wipe smells, and leaves a film in your mouth akin to having gargled with Oil of Olay and rinsed with water you burned rice in.  Just a little PSA there, from me to you.

The first step in making this dish is to make beer gel.  So, I put 200g of Green's Quest Triple Blonde into the blender with some sugar, glucose, potassium citrate, and kappa carrgeenan and blended it on high speed for 3 minutes:


I put it in a saucepan, brought it to a boil, the poured it into a plastic-lined 13x9" baking dish:


I put it in the fridge to chill for an hour until it had set.

Meanwhile, I made the Marcona almond cream.  The recipe in the book calls for Marcona almond paste (50% sugar) which I couldn't find anywhere, so I made my own.  Or, at least something vaguely resembling what I think Marcona almond paste is.  I'm familiar with the texture and taste of regular almond paste, so I threw a bunch of already-roasted and salted Marcona almonds into the food processor with a little bit of sugar and just kept pulverizing it and augmenting with sugar and almond oil until it felt and tasted right:


It's not creamy like almond butter, and it's not chunky or gritty.  It really is like a paste.  Not overly sweet, but not overly nutty, either.  Not something I'd advise eating with a spoon, but more something that can be used in other things, you know?

I weighed 150g of that homemade Marcona almond paste and put it in the blender with some yogurt, and then blended everything until it was well combined.  In a saucepan, I heated some cream until it began to boil.  I removed it from the stove top and added some already-soaked gelatin sheets and some sugar, and stirred until they both were dissolved. Then, I whisked the gelatin-sugar-cream mixture into the Marcona almond paste-yogurt mixture, and poured it over the now-set beer gel layer:


Next, I made some almond oil jam (and forgot to photograph it because I was too busy tasting it, and by tasting it I mean pouring it down my throat because it was sooooooo good) by whisking a boiled Trimoline and glucose mixture into 3 egg yolks, then drizzling in some almond oil while it was buzzing around in the food processor.

Last but not least was slicing some orange zest into small pieces, and frothing some more beer by adding soy lecithin and sugar to the white ale and making it foam with the immersion blender.

For plating, I was supposed to cut the now-set beer gel and Marcona almond cream into long 3"x10" strips and roll them, then cut them so they'd look like a cool spiral-y thingamabob on the spoon.  For some reason, it didn't work (the strips kept breaking as I rolled them, and generally turned into a giant mess; I'm blaming the lack of gluten which is a binder), so I just cut neat little squares and put them on a spoon.

First on the spoon, though, was a blob of almond oil jam, then the squares, which I topped it with beer froth, orange zest, and crushed pink peppercorn pieces.  I also added a tiny bit of dried lavender, as the book suggests, but didn't do the malted milk powder (it has gluten), and instead grated some Marcona almond over the top of each serving:


So, how'd it taste? Wellllllllll, it didn't suck.  It certainly wasn't the best thing I've ever eaten, but it also wasn't the worst.  I served this to my friends the same night I made the Yuba, shrimp, orange, miso dish, which was just such a freakin' knockout of a dish, this one barely stood a chance.  But, it held its own.  

The flavor of the beer was not all that great, but I loved the Marcona almond cream with the orange and pink peppercorn.  The beer kinda gave it a mellow backdrop, but because it was gluten-free beer, I think the dish suffered a bit as a result in the taste and texture department.  Such is my life.  When I made the Marcona almond cream, I used sheep's milk yogurt, because I knew the beer part of the deal would be weak, so I wanted the other element of that layered bit to have some zing to it, and I love the way it turned out.

Don't get me wrong: I do enjoy the challenge of de-glutening these (and other) dishes, but it kills me when the basic chemistry of gluten is such a determining factor in a dish's outcome, and mine ends up not being what I know it can be if only I had a normal immune system.  (:::shakes fist at sky:::)

That said, if you can eat gluten, you might want to try making this.  I like the idea of these flavors together, and I think it could be really, really good.  Or, you know, you could just drink beer and eat a handful of Marcona almonds on a Tuesday night.  SLACKER.

Up Next: Lamb, mastic, date, rosemary fragrance... or Opah, in the style of bacon, endive, radicchio

Resources: Green's Quest Triple Blonde beer; Old Chatham sheep's milk yogurt; Domino sugar; glucose and Trimoline from L'Epicerie; potassium citrate from (weird, I know); kappa carrageenan and soy lecithin from Terra Spice; Marcona almonds, orange, and lavender from Whole Foods; Organic Valley heavy cream.

Music to Cook By: Alphaville; Forever Young.  Twenty-six years later and I still love this album as much as I did the first time I put the needle on the record.

Read My Previous Post: Yuba, shrimp, orange, miso

April 05, 2010

Yuba, shrimp, orange, miso

Well, THAT was fun, now wasn't it?

Some people love decorating their Christmas tree... others look forward to Valentine's Day every year.... me?  I'm a big fan of the 4/1.  It's kinda *my* holiday, ya know?  Special thanks go out to two incredibly wonderful and cherished friends -- Catherine and Chris -- the wind beneath my April Fool's wings. 

And you know what?  When I read through that April Fool's Day post one last time before pressing the "Publish" button, I thought to myself, hey, wait a minute... that actually sounds like a fun tour, and I wish I could really do it.  Well, except for the liquid nitrogen part.  And the having to do all that permitting.  But cooking my way across the country???  I'd love it.  Let's find a way to make that happen, k?  I'm serious.  Wouldn't that be cool? 

For now, though, I guess I'll just stay here at home and show you how to make dehydrated and fried soy skin sticks.  See, isn't that more fun?  (say it with me: NO)

But before we get started, I wanna tell you about an event here in the DC area I hope you'll come to: Smith Meadows Farm Day.  A little over an hour outside DC, Smith Meadows Farm is owned and run by the Pritchard Family.  I've gotten to know Forrest and his wife Nancy over the past few years (they're at a few of our local farmers markets), and not only do I think they are awesome, their food is amazing (their chickens are the best you'll find in the area).  You can read this interview I did with Forrest, and then, you can go to their web site and sign up for Farm Day -- it's Saturday, May 1st from 10 - 2.  The cost is $35 per person ($60 for a couple), and that includes a tour of the farm, some workshops and activities, and a big ole BBQ lunch (featuring their meats).  Kids 18 and under get in free.

I'm gonna be there, so I hope you'll come out to see a working family farm, and get to know some great people who work harder than anyone I know.

*  *  *  *  *

Now, about those dehydrated and fried soy milk skin sticks.... let's hit it:


Those were some dried soybeans I soaked in water overnight.  The next morning, I put them in a blender along with some water, and made soy milk:


I poured that liquid into a large sauce pan, brought it to a boil, and let it boil for 3 minutes.  I poured the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into another large sauce pan (the liquid was about 1" deep) where I skimmed off all the foam and bubbles and brought it up to just below a simmer -- that's when the skin began to form on the top of the liquid. The skin that forms is called yuba, hence the word "yuba" in the title of this dish.  How many of you thought "yuba" was short for "yodeling tuba?" Show of hands?  I thought so.  Shame on you.  Especially you, there, in the back. What were you THINKING?

Now, you're supposed to be able to pull the skin off and lay it flat on a piece of parchment to dry before rolling it into a stick.  But you know me... I can work my magic in the halls of Congress, in the East Room of The White House, and on the front page of the nation's leading newspapers, but lifting the skin off soy milk and laying it flat? I got no skillz.  (and it's totally frustrating, believe you me)

I got the skin about halfway off the surface before it kinda started folding all into itself, so I decided to just run with it, and made the sticks straight away... and added in some extra time in the dehydrator (since there would be moisture in the ridges of the sticks).  Here's what one of the soy milk skin sticks looked like as it dried at room temperature before going into the dehydrator:


Not the most attractive food product I've ever seen, but not the worst, either, I suppose.  I made eight of those sticks, which took about two hours -- after one layer of skin was pulled off the surface of the milk, I had to wait another 15-20 minutes for another one to form.  There were eight in all, and they all spent about 5 hours in the dehydrator at 135F degrees.

While I was making the soy milk sticks, I made miso mayonnaise:


It's so easy -- you just start with one egg yolk in a bowl, then whisk in the canola oil, a drop or two at a time, whisking all the while, then adding the oil more steadily as the mayo emulsifies.  I love making homemade mayonnaise... and miso mayonnaise?  Holy wow, is that good.  After whisking the egg yolk and oil, I added red miso paste, the juice of two limes, sugar, water, kosher salt and cayenne pepper.  All I need to do now is learn how to make a gluten-free baguette and I will slather this miso mayonnaise on every freakin' sandwich I can think of.

The other thing I did while waiting for the soy milk skins to form was peel an orange, go in with a paring knife to remove the pith, cut the peel into long, thin slices, then blanch them in simple syrup.  Those long orange peel strips were wrapped around the yuba sticks just before serving.

DSC_0012Look!  I peeled it all in one piece!  I should have my own TV show!  Or a recording contract!  Or a clothing line!  Right?  Right.

Once the yuba sticks were dehydrated, it was time to deep fry them:


While they blobbed around the pot of hot canola oil for about a minute, I sliced some raw, pink, Florida Keys shrimp lengthwise so they, too, could be wrapped around the now-fried yuba sticks.


I wrapped one sliced shrimp around each yuba stick, put them on a baking sheet, lightly brushed them with canola oil, and stuck them under the broiler for about 2 minutes when the shrimp were cooked through and the yuba had begun to brown even further:


To serve them, I put a spoonful of miso mayonnaise in a shot glass, then perched a yuba stick in it.  I included a piece of chive, a candied orange zest strip, a dash of togarashi (a spicy Japanese pepper powder), and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds (those weren't in the recipe, but they were there in the photo, so I included them):


Love, Love, Love, LOVE! 

Shrimp, orange, and miso might just be my new favorite flavor combination. Holy cats, these were good.  There were just four of us around the table, and we were pretty psyched to have two apiece.  The biting and the re-dunking, and the biting again, and the one last dunking and biting... wow.  I think we could've gone through a few dozen of these.  They're THAT good.

If the danged soy milk skin sticks weren't such a pain in the ass, I'd make these things EVERY DAY.  I'm not kidding.  Salty, crunchy, shrimpy, orange-y, miso-y flavor all in one bite?  What's not to love?  I mean, sure, fine... go ahead and buy some lame-ass box of cheese straws from the stupid grocery store for your next dinner party or holiday gathering.  FINE.  Be that way.  Or, you know, you could make these and actually make your guests pass out from all the deliciousness.  Then, while they're unconscious on the floor, you could eat your leftover miso mayonnaise out of a little plastic storage container with a spoon.  Oh wait, I meant, you could WANT to do that.  Not that you would really ever DO that.  Because who eats miso mayonnaise out of the container with a spoon?  I mean, really.  That's gross.  Ew.  WHO DOES THAT?  (me.)  (totally.)  (i ain't gonna lie.)

I think one of my projects this summer will have to be to figure out a nice little lunchtime shrimp salad that incorporates miso, orange, and sesame.  That, with a glass of prosecco, would make me a very happy girl.

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

Resources: Dried soybeans, orange, limes, red miso, and togarashi from HMart; egg from Smith Meadows Farm; 365 canola oil; Domino sugar; David's kosher salt; cayenne pepper from TPSS Co-op; shrimp and chives from Whole Foods.

Music to Cook By: The Bird and The Bee; Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Darryl Hall and John Oates.  One of my favorite duos covering the songs of one of my other favorite duos?  If loving this is wrong, I don't wanna be right.

Read My Previous Post: Alinea at Home, On the Road!  (*snerky-snerk-snerk)

Alinea Book


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