February 14, 2009

Kumquat, Aquavit, picholine olives, caraway

In third grade, we spent some time each week for nearly half the school year learning about food.  We talked about food groups, and learned about the history of certain foods.  We read about different foods as part of different world cultures, and because the area of Pennsylvania in which I grew up was agriculturally abundant, we spent quite a bit of time on the local foods of our region.

On Fridays, the two third-grade classes in my elementary school got together in one of the classrooms to sample some of the foods we talked about in class.  One week, one of the moms brought in different kinds of cheese.  Another time, another mom brought in different vegetables.  My great uncle owned the local fruit orchard, so my mom was in charge of bringing in different kinds of apples for each kid in the class to taste.  Another week, one of the moms brought in different kinds of bread -- white sandwich bread, wholewheat bread, sourdough, pumpernickel, and rye bread.

Now, being eight years old at the time, I was quite the fan of white sandwich bread.  Give me two slices of Sunbeam or Holsum bread and I was a happy, peanut butter sandwich-makin' fool.  Wholewheat bread was kind of icky because it wasn't white bread, but at least it was familiar.  All the other breads seemed so foreign and strange to me, but I tried a little slice of each of them.  The sourdough bread was okay, the pumpernickel was passable, but the rye bread?  Gag City.  It smelled weird, and texture of caraway seeds (which, coincidentally, were at the time featured in commercials during The Price Is Right as something that gets trapped between your dentures and your gums unless you use Super PoliGrip, so I was all kinds of freaked out about that) is like someone captured a bunch of wrens and sparrows and pulled out their wee little talons one by one and put them into some bread.  Am I right? 

I've since tried to like rye bread, but to no avail.  So, to see that I had to use caraway in this dish was more than a little off-putting.  I almost considered eliminating it altogether, but instead I got over my bad self and just decided to deal with it and see how it turned out.  I was curious to work with Aquavit, since I'd never had it before and always wondered what it was.

Here's my mise en place:


I put the baby bird toenails, sorry, the caraway seed into a small sauté pan and began toasting them:


I also heated some Aquavit in a small saucepan, into which I put in two gelatin sheets that had soaked in cold water for a few minutes.


Then, I got to work on the kumquats.  I love these little guys.  So fragrant and so tasty -- I rarely cook with them, but I need to remember to make some preserves or something with kumquats because I love the way they smell when they cook.

I sliced them lengthwise, removing the top third of each kumquat:


I discarded the tops and put the kumquats into a small saucepan, covered them with water, and brought the water to a boil.  Then, I strained them, refilled with more water, and did this two more times. 


Then, I put them back into the saucepan, covered them with simple syrup, brought it up to a very gentle simmer, and let them cook this way for 40 minutes.  The book indicated it might take an hour, but mine were very tender at 40 minutes, so I turned off the burner and let them come down to room temperature while still in the liquid.


When they'd cooled to room temp, I removed them from the pan and let them drain on a paper towel while I very gently scooped out and removed the insides (very carefully using a grapefruit spoon).




I put them on the plate, then put the Aquavit gelatin (which had set in the saucepan, so I gently rewarmed it to turn it back into liquid) into a squeeze bottle and filled each of these now-candied kumquat hulls with the Aquavit gelatin.


I put them in the refrigerator to set, which took about 45 minutes.  Just before plating them, I sliced the olives (by cutting off the sides around the pit of 4 picholine olives, to yield 8 little olive caps):


I also ground the toasted caraway seed in my old coffee bean-turned-spice grinder, and strained it through a sieve to yield a very fine powder (the smell of which was sadly gagging me to no end) which you'll see in the photos below.

To serve, I put a piece of picholine olive on top of the gel-filled kumquat, then dabbed a small bit (using the tip of an espresso spoon) of the caraway powder:


I carried this plate of kumquat delight across the street to my friend Linda's house, where she and I and our other neighbor-friend, Holly, convene nearly every Friday afternoon around 4 o'clock for a glass of wine to wrap up the week and ease our way into the weekend. Our snackage typically consists of hummus and chips, pretzels and cream cheese, cheese and crackers, and whatever we have in our refrigerators that we need to get rid of.  When I did French Laundry at Home, our snacks oftentimes incorporated leftovers or leftover ingredients from one of those dishes, lucky us!

It's rare that food for this blog is easily travel-able, but this one was, so I was psyched to be able to have the kumquats to share.  Why?  Because they had the evil, dreaded caraway on them and I was pretty sure I was going to hate them and need to drown my sorrows in a nice Côtes du Rhône.

But the joke's on me because these kumquats were AWESOME and I wish I'd made a hundred of them.  Seriously.  One of the best things I've ever eaten.

The sweetness of the kumquats, combined with the almost-fennel of the Aquavit, the salty, olive-y goodness of the olives, and the did-not-make-me-vomitness of the caraway powder?  Brilliant.  I loved it.  Again, it's one of those combinations I wish I could buy as a shampoo or some sort of soap product because in addition to how well it tasted, it smelled so fresh and clean and gorgeous and almost like it would make my hair all shiny and flowy when I tossed my head from side to side in slow motion.

We finished them in no time flat (they're so easy to eat -- just pop one in your mouth and in a few chews, yer done!), and as I looked at the clean plate before me and reached to pour a glass of wine before sitting down with the girls in front of the warm fireplace to get caught up on the week's gossip, it struck me that I went from one Friday afternoon tasting 32 years ago hating caraway, to a tasting on this Friday afternoon, thinking caraway maybe isn't so bad after all.  As Trent Walker might say, I'm all growns up.

Up Next: Tripod, hibiscus

Resources: Kumquats and picholine olives from Whole Foods; caraway seed from the TPSS Co-op; King Arthur Flour gelatin sheets; Aalborg Aquavit.

Music to Cook By: Salt-N-Pepa; Hot, Cool & Vicious.  I was doing an event with a client recently and had to do a sound check onstage before the doors opened.  For some reason, when the audio tech asked me to "go ahead and say something, Carol" I blurted out, "My mic sound nice, check one."  Dude.  I haven't heard that song since 1986.  So, I came home and downloaded all the Salt-N-Pepa I didn't already have.  Spinderella, cut it up one time...

Read My Previous Post: Cranberry, frozen and chewy

February 08, 2009

Cranberry, frozen and chewy

I'm finally starting to feel nearly normal [read: healthy; because me? normal?], and was soooo ready to get back into the kitchen this weekend.  Didn't used to be like this, but I now feel unsettled when I don't cook every day.  And, that need to cook is coming in quite handy because I've decided to not order any carryout this month, nor go out for dinner (unless it's business-related), nor do any grocery shopping other than fresh produce once a week.  Even with that, I'm limiting myself to a budget of $15/week.  Why?

Last month, Mark Bittman wrote a piece in The New York Times about stocking one's pantry.  Then, Michael Ruhlman wrote a post about it, and it was fascinating to scroll through the comments and see what people considered to be their staple items.  While my staple items are pretty boring (salt, butter, stock, etc.), I do keep a well stocked freezer and pantry, which I'm quite fastidious about organizing and maintaining.  However, I recently realized I'd started to fall back into my bad habit of just buying whatever the heck I wanted at the market every time I went, and my shelves were getting cramped and my freezer and fridge were stuffed to the gills for just little old me.

So, I spent the month of January eating what I already had and cooking what was already in my kitchen.  When I got the flu/cold/crud and didn't leave the house for two weeks, I really took advantage of my bountiful kitchen (and freezer) and was so glad to have soups to thaw, oatmeal to make, and different seasonings and extras to make me feel like I wasn't eating the same exact thing every day.

Now that we're in February, I thought, hey, why not keep going?  I've made a dent in my stockpile of food, but I've still got a ways to go.  So, I've decided to allot $15 each week of this month to spend on fresh produce and eggs... otherwise, I've got to use what I have here at home.  It honestly hasn't been difficult at all, and already I can see I'm going to be saving a decent amount of money.  A little belt-tightening never killed anybody, right?

I know what I'm doing is hardly revolutionary, and it's not something so out-of-the-ordinary for me, either.  On a pretty regular basis, my friends and I do a "leftovers dinner" where we bring our odds and sods that we reheat or repurpose into something else (shepherd's pie being a big favorite), allowing us to clean out our fridges for the week ahead.  But, it's been awhile since I've put myself on any kind of food budget or buying restrictions and I'm kind of curious to see how long I can make it last.  Of course, the food for this blog is not included in that $15 budget, because that's just not realistic.  I imagine when I get down to a bag of frozen peas, agave nectar, and paprika that I'll have to lift my self-imposed moratorium, but for now it's been kind of fun to see what I can come up with, and indulge in the little treasures in my freezer (homemade pesto! in February!).

Speaking of my freezer, let's talk about Cranberry, frozen and chewy.  I'll say right upfront that I didn't use liquid nitrogen to make this because I just didn't have the time or the desire, after having been out of commission for what felt like forever, to source it and go pick it up.  I wanted instant gratification, something I could make really easily, and since my freezer is right here and I already had 1" spherical molds, that's how I rolled.

And away we go....

Just after Christmas, I bought two bags of cranberries at Whole Foods, put 'em in a Ziploc, and stored them in the freezer.  I knew I was going to do this dish in February, and I knew I wouldn't be able to find cranberries then.  So, in the photo below you'll see little white dots of defrostation on the gorgeous cranberries I used:

I didn't thaw them, and instead put them straight into the saucepan with some sugar and water and brought them to a boil.  Then, I turned down the flame and let them simmer for about 20-25 minutes until they'd broken apart and were just getting mushy.





I strained the cranberries through a chinois and allowed the liquid (or cranberry stock, as the book refers to it) to cool to room temperature (which took maybe 10-15 minutes).  I added the Ultra-Tex 3, a modified tapioca-based starch, and whisked it until it was fully incorporated, then poured the Ultra-Texed cranberry mixture into a squeeze bottle.



The next step was to fill the silicone spherical molds.  Here's what they look like, in case you've never seen them before -- it's two halves that you press tightly together, then fill through the little holes on top:




I put the cranberry-filled molds into the freezer and kept them in there until the next day, when I finished the dish. 

The only other thing I had to do before serving them was make the orange purée.  I quartered an orange, removed the pith and fibers in the center, and then blended them in my blender with a little bit of simple syrup:



I strained it through a chinois into a small bowl, added a little kosher salt, stirred it, and put it in a squeeze bottle to get it ready for plating:



So, the only thing left to do was get the cranberry spheres out of the freezer and put them onto spoons.  Then, I'd dot each sphere with the orange purée, top it with a chervil leaf, and down the hatch it'd go!  Easy, right?

Um, maybe I should've taken the time and effort to to the whole cranberry-into-balloons-then-into-liquid-nitrogen, because look what happened when I opened the mold:



I pulled gently around each sphere to ever-so-lovingly get the little guys out while keeping them as intact as I could.  I smoothed them a bit and placed them on spoons which I'd kept in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes:


They look respectable enough, don't they?  I dotted each of them with a few little squirts of the orange purée, then topped each one with a chervil leaf.  Here's the final result:



I have to say, I was pretty damn proud of myself for salvaging this one.  I did not have it in me to fail or even semi-fail, and I really wanted them to be pretty and not resemble the Ghetto Fish Triscuit Debacle of 2009.  But even more important than having them be so pretty (which they are! So pretty!  Don't you want to make out with them??), I wanted them to taste good.

My house smelled amazing -- still a little cranberry essence from the day before making cranberry stock, with a nice overtone of orange.  I called my friend, Linda, and she and her son, "C," walked the 50 feet from their front door to mine to come taste them.  As soon as she stepped across the threshold, she said, "Ooooooo, something smells really good."  So, the three of us stood in my dining room in front of this plate of eight spoons, and thought we'd each try one while we waited for other folks to arrive.

So, we each took a spoon off the plate, opened wide, and took it all in one bite.  I rolled it around in my mouth for a few seconds, then chewed and swallowed.  Not 10 seconds had passed as we chewed and swallowed before we all reached for another one, pausing only for a second to say, "shouldn't we wait for... nah, ya snooze, ya lose" before we each ate another one.


They're smooth, they're fragrant, they're flavorful, they have a really smooth mouth feel -- not crunchy or hard like a popsicle, but not mushy or slimy in any way (which was what I was afraid might happen).  It's like a really light ice cream or maybe a sharper, more tart sherbet kind of texture.  Flavor-wise, it was a hit with all of us.  Not too sweet, not too tart, the cranberry and the orange just complementing one another so perfectly, and the hint of chervil added an almost salty taste to it.

I'm totally making these again.  I have more cranberries in the freezer, so I'll probably do them again soon, either as a canapé or maybe a palate cleanser if I do a multi-course dinner party.  They're really easy to pull off, and if you're willing to do a little smoothing or reshaping when you take them out of whatever shape of mold you use, the colors are just so beautiful that everyone you serve them to will ooooh and aaaah and think you are a freakin' rock star.  Which you are, anyway... I'm just sayin'.

So, in total there were eight of these bites and we'd eaten six of them.  There were two full spoons left and three of us.  So, we decided I should put them in the freezer for an hour or so until Linda's husband, Sean, came home so he could try them.  Fast-forward to this morning when he still hadn't come over, so I ate them for breakfast.

You snooze, you lose, indeed.

Up Next: Kumquat, Aquavit, picholine olive, caraway

Resources: Spherical molds from J.B. Prince; cranberries, orange, and chervil from Whole Foods; Ultra-Tex 3 from Terra Spice/Alinea.

Music to Cook By: The Smithereens; From Jersey It Came.  Someone was paying me a compliment the other day and used the phrase "a girl like you."  I happen to like being called a girl.  The word woman feels a little too forced or p.c., and I don't think I could be referred to as a lady.  Chick isn't right either, and gal is just too affected.  I'm fine being referred to as a girl.  But more than an analysis of gender terms, the phrase made me launch into song, specifically "A Girl Like You" and, as a result, I've been listening to The Smithereens for days, now.  Reminds me of college and singing along to their music at The 21st Amendment (which we actually called "the two-one" because we were so cool, but not cool enough to keep it from being razed and replaced with an IMF or World Bank outpost).

Read My Previous Post: Sardine, niçoise olive, dried tomato, arugula.

February 02, 2009

Sardine, niçoise olive, dried tomato, arugula

I suppose I could offer an analogy of how sick I still am by saying that any of the ingredients below resembles something that has come out of my sinuses in the past week, but I won't.

Except that I just did.


It's not entirely true, and my crankiness about still being sick should have no bearing on your enjoyment of this dish... because, quite honestly, it was pretty tasty.  Unlike the stuff that's coming out of my.... okay, I really will stop now.

*  *  *  *  *

Any recipe that affords me a trip to the Asian market to buy ingredients I wouldn't ordinarily cook with is always welcome.  So, knowing Whole Foods and Safeway wouldn't carry sheets of dried fish, I hopped in the car, tottled around the beltway, and headed on up Georgia Avenue to the H Mart in Wheaton, only to find that their stock of dried sardine sheets had been recalled earlier in the week and they didn't know when they'd be back in stock.

So, I perused my other options, discovered there was really only one other choice, and decided that I'd just go ahead and use sheets of dried ice fish instead.  Not exactly the same flavor, but would offer the same functionality, right?

But before we get to that part of the dish, let's start off with what I knew I couldn't screw up -- tomatoes and arugula.

I squared the edges of and cut the sun-dried tomatoes into 1/8" strips and set them aside until it was time to plate:



Next, because I couldn't find baby arugula, I decided to to a chiffonade of regular arugula, and set that aside until it was time to plate:



It's at this point that I think I owe anyone who knew me in 1984 a huge apology.  Why?  Well, I had the good fortune (and trusting parents) to travel to England the summer in between 10th and 11th grade as part of one of those let's-do-10-countries-in-two-weeks-and-also-sing-songs-about-America-as-part-of-a-pseudo-Up-With-People-only-not-as-dorky-and-certainly-no-jazz-hands-chorus-and-band-tour-shut-up-I-can-hear-you-laughing-at-me.

Most of our meals were prearranged by the tour leaders and we ate in group settings, but when we had some free time, my new friends and I would spend as little as we had to on food so there was more money for clothing (which, sadly, in 1984 meant buying an oversized Frankie Say Relax t-shirt, green neon hoop earrings, and red jelly shoes).  One afternoon in London, on one of our final days abroad, I remember going into a sandwich shop (after having spent hours in my new favorite store Miss Selfridge) and getting a really cheap egg salad sandwich with arugula... only in England, arugula is called "rocket."  Armed with a desire to be British, I dropped "rocket" into more conversations than was probably necessary or appropriate, and when I got back to "the States" (see how fake British I still am?), I continued my annoying monologue about rocket, and how good it was, and how I wish I just had some rocket for this sandwich, and what do you mean you've never heard of rocket, oh maybe that's because here in the States it's called something else, so let me now tell you nine hundred other things that somehow involve me saying the word "rocket."

So, if you knew me in 1984, I apologize... not just for talking about rocket all the damn time, but also for my unfortunate hairstyle and gross misunderstanding of makeup technique.  Thanks for not punching me in the neck.  I probably deserved it.

Okay, moving on...

The next thing I did was prepare the niçoise olive cream.  Really easy.  First, I took my 300g of niçoise olive brine (which the lovely girls at the cheese counter at Whole Foods poured and weighed for me and REFUSED TO LET ME PAY FOR IT, I LOVE THEM) and added the Ultra-Tex 3 (which sort of sounds like a condom brand or a herpes medicine, but I assure you, it's neither, although I now have Barry White's voice in my head enouraging me to use the Ultra-Tex 3, GREAT).




I whirred it in the blender for about a minute, during which time I also whipped my whipping cream in my Kitchen Aid mixer, bringing it to medium-stiff peaks.




I folded the Ultra-Texed (ooohhhhhhh yeeeaaaaahhhhhh) olive brine into the whipped cream...


... and put it in a pastry bag until I was ready to pipe it into the little sardine, nay, ice fish crisp cups I was about to make.

Here's what I started with:


What's that little graphic on the bottom of the package?  Does it mean only middle-aged, mustachioed post-grads with three diplomas can use this product? 

So, essentially, this is a sheet of dried ice fish.  Wanna see the little guys up close?


I am equally fascinated and skeeved by this product.  I've eaten it before, but never cooked with it.  And, while I love the purpose it's going to serve, if I think too much about their crunchy little spines and beady little silvery eyeball heads, I twitch.  So I don't think about it.   (>twitch<   DAMN IT)

I cut one of the sheets (they came two to a pack, which later turned out to be a VERY good thing) into 1x3" strips, which I then sprayed with a little water before getting ready to cook them:



I wrapped one of the strips around the end of a wooden spoon handle, pressed the edge a bit to seal it, then gently slid it into a pot of 375-degree canola oil (the seam side pressed against the inside of the pot so it would stay together):




It only took about 30 seconds for this to turn golden and stop bubbling.  I was thrilled that this was so easy that I did a second one right away, which also was so easy, that when I got to the third one, I was stumped and annoyed.  Same for the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eight ones.  Why?  They stayed wrapped around the spoon handle in the pot, but when they were done cooking, I couldn't get them off no matter how gently or hard I tried.  It was so strange.  The first two were easy-peasy and slid off beautifully without any problem.  The rest just cracked apart when I touched them or had to be scraped off with a paring knife.  SO ANNOYING.  And, after working with all eight of them, and all eight of them just having come out of 375-degree oil, my finger pads were toast.  Seriously, I should've robbed a bank or something because I think my fingerprints disappeared for a good 48 hours.

So, I got the second sheet of fish out of the refrigerator and cut it into little cracker-like pieces, fried each one for a few seconds to crisp it up, and figured I'd just improvise in the presentation.


Man, those look worse in the photo than they did in real life.  Kind of depressing to see them this way.  Yipes...

I was able to fill the two ice fish crisp cylinders with the olive cream, then top them with arugula and the dried tomato strips, but they're not as pretty as the ones in the photo in the Alinea cookbook.  Not even close:


Look at that olive cream trying to make a run for it.  "Get me out of here!  I'm mortified to be associated with this whackjob!!  Aaauuuuggghhhh, there's rocket on top of us!!!!"

Completely defeated and simply wanting to get it overwith and see what the damn things tasted like, I blorped some olive cream, arugula, and tomato strips onto my ghetto fish triscuits (with all apologies to the fine Nabisco corporation) and said Ta-DAAA!!!!!!


You already know how I feel about the look of these, so let's move on and talk about how they tasted.  I will say that they weren't sardine-y or salty enough for me, but I was expecting that.  Eaten as one bite, they were really pretty good, and we all liked them.  The adults enjoyed them more than the kids did, but there was no gagging or spitting or fake vomiting on their part, so I count that as a plus.  I didn't like olives until about ten years ago, and while I still don't really always love them on their own, I do love the way the olive flavor integrates with other flavors in a dish.  And, the textures in this bite worked well together, too.

I'd certainly do this dish again, only I'd probably do it differently because now that I have my fingertips back, I kinda wanna keep 'em.  So, maybe some sort of toast or homemade flatbread spread with sun-dried tomato compound butter topped with a sardine-and-olive tapenade.  Or, I'd somehow find a way to do an olive-tomato-arugula-sardine relish over a piece of pan-seared fish.

So, while maybe not Miss America on a plate, it definitely earned the Miss Congeniality title, because at the core of it, it's good.  Really good.

Up Next: Cranberry, frozen and chewy

Resources: Dried ice fish sheet, sun-dried tomatoes, and canola oil from H Mart; arugula and olive brine from Whole Foods; Organic Valley heavy cream; Ultra-Tex 3 from Terra Spice/Alinea.

Music to Cook By: The Pilmsouls; Assorted.  I'm not sure how or why the song "Million Miles Away" got stuck in my head last week, but it did, which led me to not only download some of their music, but also to watch Valley Girl.  I really love these guys for nostalgic reasons, and they don't sound all that dated when you listen to them now.  Or maybe I'm just in denial about this not being the 80s anymore.  I dunno.  I've been spending waaayyy too much time catching up with old high school friends on Facebook, I've probably forgotten what year it is.

Read My Previous Post: Tuna, candied and dried

December 24, 2008

Skate, traditional flavors powdered

Before I get to the cooking part of today's post, I want to take a moment to thank all of you who have donated to Share Our Strength.  I am so thrilled with the response, and am blown away by the support you all have put forth.  I know there are a lot of competing demands on your generosity this time of year, and I'm so incredibly grateful that so many of you took the time to make a donation to a cause I think is so important, and one whose reach will expand even further as our country continues to ride the economic roller coaster that causes parents to lose jobs and already-stretched grocery budgets to take a hit.  In addition to supporting local food banks and food programs all across the country, Share Our Strength also works with national and local elected officials on food and economic policies that work to end childhood hunger and strengthen local and regional socioeconomic infrastructures.  That's why I like them.  They work smart and address the root causes of childhood hunger in America, and move toward real change.

If you haven't already made a donation, but would like to, click here.  Your chance to win one of the Alinea cookbooks or Under Pressure books as part of this campaign ends at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday, December 31.

*  *  *  *  *

I noticed the other day that when I cook from the Alinea cookbook, as I do with all other cookbooks, I tend to keep the jacket flap over part of the page so I don't lose my place if I need to flip around to the front of the book to check something.  In doing so, it struck me that Grant Achatz is always STARING AT ME.  Not in any menacing sort of way, but because I tend toward the unnecessarily dramatic from time to time (oh, who am I kidding, ALL THE DAMN TIME), I decided that the book's editors put his photo right there because they KNEW I used my cookbooks this way and they wanted to torture me by having Grant stare at me, judging my every move, snickering to himself as I burn certain powders (oooo, foreshadowing) because I was too busy cooing on the phone to my little nephew, cracking him up by calling him Mr. Poopy Butt Pants in a singsong voice.


See what I mean?  He's totally 1984-ing it.  At least he's a handsome, affable chap.  Could you imagine if this beast wrote a cookbook and had her photo on the jacket flap staring you down over every dish?


I'd never cook or eat again.

Sweet fancy Moses that's tragic and unappetizing, now, isn't it?  Yipes.  Sorry 'bout that.

* * * * *

This time of year, more than any other, it's always fun to see what happens when the FedEx or UPS truck makes an appearance on our street.  I live on a weird little driveway of a street kind of in the middle of the woods, and my street has just 3 houses on it, so it's always a guessing game to see who's getting what goodies when deliveries find their way to us.

A few days ago, our cute FedEx guy (must've hired him from UPS, natch) dropped off a medium-sized box on my front porch.  Funny, because I hadn't ordered anything, and wasn't really expecting anything from anyone.  When I saw the label, I actually squealed.  I'm not proud of that, because it's just so girly and totally not me, but who wouldn't squeal when they saw the return address of 1723 North Halsted and the name Grant Achatz?  

Yeah, I thought so.

Wanna know what was inside?


There are 30-40 (haven't counted yet) packages of all sorts of potions and powders I need to make the dishes in the Alinea cookbook, and they're all going to be available on Alinea-Mosaic in their Postmodern Pantry in a few weeks.  Totally cool, because there might be a certain powder in there I thought I had ordered, but didn't (oooooo, MORE foreshadowing) for a certain dish and had a hissyfit about until I realized it might very well be in this box of awesomeness, AND IT WAS!

When the Postmodern Pantry is up and running, I'll change the Hydrocolloid Shopping link in the sidebar to reflect that, and you can shop away to your heart's content.

* * * * *

I know this is the world's longest post, and I haven't even gotten to the freakin' cooking part of it yet, but one more admin/housekeeping thing, and then I promise we'll dive right in.

This will be my last post until the new year.  I'm working a reduced schedule next week (an unexpected surprise; thanks, clients!!), and that, compounded by the fact that my dishwasher melted down and also at the same time kind of exploded yesterday, means my kitchen is a mess right now, so I'm going to spend the week napping, dining out, reading, seeing movies, seeing my friends, and generally unplugging and going on radio silence... something I haven't done since, oh, 1982, I think.  I'll be back here the week of January 5th.

So, let me take this opportunity to wish you a happy holiday season, and I raise a glass to all of you in the hopes for a happy, healthy, prosperous, and full-bellied 2009!  You guys are the best.  I mean it.

* * * * *

Now, on to the Skate!

Any excuse I can find to visit my buddy, Scott, at BlackSalt, I'm all for... but somehow, this expedition was far less fun than other times I've had having him source things for me.  I called him a few days before making this dish, and our convo went a little something like this:

Phone: ::: ring ring ::::

Scott: BlackSalt Fish Market, this is Scott.

Me: Hey, it's Carol.

Scott: Hey, you.

Me: Hey.  So, I need some skate wing.  About a pound.  Do you have any?

Scott: I do, and I'm getting some more in tomorrow morning.  What time do you want to stop by?

Me: How about 11:30, 12-ish?

Scott: Perfect.  See you then.

Me: Okay, see you then.

Phone: ::: click :::

Totally boring, right?  Oh well, I guess all seafood purchases can't have a sense of adventure.  Although, when I went there the next day, I did see a bald eagle as I drove alongside the Potomac River, so there's that.  Yay, America!

I did this dish over two days because I wanted to spend a day focusing on the powders (since I was drying them in the oven instead of using a dehydrator), and then a second day to finish and serve.  Truth be told, this is doable in one day, and easily so.  Just don't multitask during a certain portion of the prep work like I did, and you'll be fine.  More on that later.

So, like I said, Day One was powders.  Because, in the book, all three powders -- caper, lemon, and parsley -- could be dehydrated at the same temperature and for the same amount of time in a dehydrator, I figured they could also be done in the oven at the same temperature for close to the same amount of time... and I was right.

I factored in some allowances for density and moisture content of each ingredient -- believe me, none of this was scientific or culinary in any way; I just sort of made some common-sense assumptions and turned out to be right; and I am now, therefore, changing my name to Copernicus Blymire -- and got to work.

I started with the capers.  I weighed them first, then rinsed them under cold, running water for a few minutes, then spread them out evenly on a parchment-lined baking sheet, which I then put in a 150-degree oven (I have a free-standing oven thermometer inside the oven; can't really ever rely on the settings dial):



I put them in the oven to start drying them while I prepped the lemons.

I removed the zest from 10.6 ounces/300 grams of lemons (dude, I mixed and matched so many lemons at the grocery store to get as close to 11 ounces as I could, and when I got home and measured them on my digital scale, they were 10.7 ounces; I f-ing ROCK!) and thrice-poached them in simple syrup before drying them on paper towels and putting them on a parchment-lined baking sheet to begin drying:





After the lemon rind went into the oven, I prepped the parsley (I also charged the camera battery at this point, so no photos, but if you don't know what flat-leaf parsley looks like by now, then um, I dunno, insert some sort of insulting phrase here because I can't come up with anything witty enough right now).

I blanched the parsley in boiling salted water for a second or two, plonked it in an ice bath, then drained it, gently dried it in paper towels, laid it out evenly on a third and final parchment-lined baking sheet and put it in the oven to dry.

At this point, I cleaned up the kitchen, did a little work, caught up on email, and began checking to see when each of the three ingredients was dry enough to begin grinding into powder.

Let me also say here that the smell of these three things, together, drying in my oven was so unbelievably fragrant and wonderful... and since the smell of Christmas trees makes me sneeze uncontrollably, I'm going to substutute this scent every year at this time because it's really gorgeous!

Here's a quick recap of the times everything went into the 150-degree oven, and what time I took them out -- in case you want to make this at home in the same way:

Capers: In at 6:45 p.m., out at 10 p.m. (3 hours, 15 minutes)
Lemon Peel: In at 7:30 p.m., out at 10:30 p.m. (3 hours)
Parsley: In at 8:20 p.m., out at 10 p.m. (1 hour, 40 minutes)

After taking them out of the oven, I let them rest for about 10 minutes to cool to room temperature before grinding them.  Using my cheapy little Capresso coffee grinder I use as a spice grinder, I ground each one, one at a time, and then stored them in little plastic deli containers until the next day:





The next afternoon, I prepared the green beans, brown butter powder and the skate wing before serving it that evening.

I cut the green beans into 1/8" slices (some were 1/16", others 1/4"; I am so not perfect), and cooked them as directed in the beurre monte, which I already knew how to make from my French Laundry at Home days.


After they'd cooked the prescribed amount of time, I kept them warm on the back burner of the stove and began working on the brown butter powder.  This is relatively straightforward.  You grid up some dried banana chips into a fine powder (using the coffee/spice grinder):



Then, you sift the spray-dried cream powder onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet:

And you put it in a 350-degree oven for 4 minutes.

Under no circumstances should you answer your phone during this time, because if you have as cute a nephew as I do, you'll get distracted by the adorable baby giggles coming over the phone line and you will undoubtedly end up with this:


Sorry for the blurry shot.  I was shaking in rage.  Not really.  I'm just too cheap to buy a tripod.

So, um, yeah.  We had to skip the brown butter powder portion of our program and move on.

I still had the banana powder, and decided to use that on its own, which you'll see in the final plating shot.

Last step was to prepare the skate.


I cut it into the strips the book suggests, and let them simmer in some buerre monte for 2-3 minutes on each side.



While the fish was cooking, I sifted each of the powders through a strainer to clear out the debris, and realized I'd forgotten to add the citric acid powder to the lemon powder.  It was at this point that I thought, hey wait a minute, I thought I ordered citric acid from, but now I'm not so sure, and where did I put that box when I was moving stuff around, and now I can't even get to that other little storage area unless I move a bunch of other things and get out my step ladder, and I need to figure this out in the next 15 seconds or I am going to BLOW A GASKET here because I can't have screwed up TWO powders in this dish, one was enough, and HEY, maybe there's citric acid in the box that Grant sent, and lo and behold there WAS and all was right with the world.

So I mixed in a wee bit of citric acid to the lemon powder, and it was almost better than world peace.

I sliced a banana really thin and let the skate drain a bit of the butter onto some parchment for a minute while I plated everything else.

I started with the powders.  Just a small pile of each (used half an espresso spoon's worth of each), then swirled them as the book suggests.  They didn't turn out in exactly the concentric circles they were supposed to be, but COME ON PEOPLE, I suck at art and drawing and stuff, so cut me some slack.

Next, I gently overlapped three slices of banana onto the other side of the plate, topped them with green beans, then dunked a side of the cooked skate into the dried banana powder before laying the skate over the green bean-banana pile.

Here's what mine looked like:


And here's a closer-up shot:


Now, here's the thing.

If you had called to invite me over for a meal and said, "Hey, Carol, how 'bout you come over for dinner?  We're having poached fish with bananas and green beans," I might have replied, "Are you kidding me?  Do you live in a nursing home?  What is UP with that combination?"

Honestly, at first glance, I was prepared to not like this one bit.  Texturally, the idea of bananas and fish mushing around in my mouth was not the epitome of gastronomic delight.  Having a swirl of powders nearby seemed a little floofy (I know that's not a word; work with me here), and I really thought it was going to be annoying.

I was happy to be proven wrong, my friends.

I invited my neighbors over to try this.  The two boys tasted the powders first to see what they were like and made all sorts of faces and gagging noises, and then got huge glasses of water to chase it.  Because I have a one-bite rule in my house, we all tried one bite on the fork -- a little fish, some banana, a few green bean pieces, and a touch of the pwder mixture, and you know what?  I loved it.  I cleaned my plate.  The other grownups didn't hate it, but the kids grimaced as they chewed, swallowed, then got another glass of water.  Not their favorite, I guess.  Oh well.

The powders, on their own, are overpowering.  But when mixed with everything else, they just pop, and the flavor profile of this dish is spot-on.  The fish was cooked to perfection (yay, me), and everything was really, really good.

It's been interesting to have the same people who ate all my French Laundry at Home creations taste these dishes.  This is a different experience with different flavors and different executions, and in some ways, a different way of cooking and presentation.  One is not better than the other, and one isn't easier than the other.  They're just different.  Cooking from The French Laundry Cookbook was a challenge because it strengthened the skills I knew needed to work on, and also taught me new ones.  Cooking from the Alinea cookbook is a challenge for me because it's all about innovation and change -- things I embrace in theory bot personally and professionally, but, like most people, too often keep at arm's length.  We're all naturally more comfortable with the familiar, whether food, a neighborhood, a commute, a job, our schedule, or our hobbies.  But even in the short time I've been cooking from this book, I've found it pushes my boundaries in different ways and teaches me new things I didn't know I needed to learn but am grateful for having done so.

My friend and colleague, Michael, reads this blog (hi!) and he told me a few weeks ago in an email that his grandmother always said, "if you can read, then you can cook."  No truer words, really.  So, if the Alinea cookbook finds its way to your house this holiday season, I hope you'll take the time to not only read it and appreciate the enormous amount of work that went into it, but also be willing to take a leap of faith and try one of them... and report back to me upon having done so, because I want to hear how it went.  Ten bucks says YOU won't burn YOUR brown butter powder.  Even if Grant is staring you down from the book jacket flap.

Happy New Year, everybody.

Up Next:  Probably Oysters, but maybe foie gras.

Resources: Skate wing from BlackSalt fish market; 365 organic capers; lemons, banana, and green beans from Whole Foods; parsley from my garden (sadly, the last batch of the year); 365 organic butter; citric acid and spray-dried cream powder from Alinea's Postmodern Pantry. 

Music to Cook By: I used to subscribe to an inordinate number of podcasts. Seriously, like over 200 of them.  Couldn't keep up AT ALL, so I deleted them all and started over.  I'm down to about 10 of them now and it's still too many. I had a serious logjam this month, so I decided instead of cooking to music this week, I'd just listen to my podcasts and clear them all out. Here's what's on my list, and of course, there were multiple "episodes" (or whatever the heck they're called) of each, but this is what's on my list right now: KCRW Good Food, Splendid Table, NPR Food, KCRW Martini Shot, KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic, KCRW The Business, KCRW Top Tune, NPR Hidden Kitchen, NPR Story of the Day, NPR Driveway Moments, and the now-defunct Ricky Gervais Show.

Read My Previous Post: Transparency of manchego cheese

November 06, 2008

Dry Caramel, salt

This time of year always reminds me of caramel.  I grew up in a fairly small town (8 streets tall, four streets wide), and every Halloween, we joined forces with the neighboring town to host a big parade on the Sunday afternoon before Halloween.  There were roller-skating clowns (which still to this day freak me out), and fire trucks decorated with orange streamers, cardboard skeletons, and that fake cobweb stuff.  Politicians would ride on the back ledge of their car dealer-loaned convertible, followed by the local high school homecoming king and queen, Miss York County, and if we were really lucky, Miss Pennsylvania, waving to the crowds as they went by.  The local VFW men in their jackets, service pin-laden sashes, and member hats, would lead the parade with a flag line, and we'd all stand and salute or put our hands over our hearts as they walked by.  Marching bands, flag teams, majorette squads, old-timey cars, Cub Scout troops, and social and civic clubs from across the county would dress up and compete for what was probably a $50 "Best of" prize in their category.

In junior high and high school, I was in marching band (I know you're not surprised one bit), so I spent many a cold October Sunday in my polyester uniform and plumed hat walking the three-mile route playing Africa and Tusk and, yes, Celebration on my glockenspiel.

My grandmother lived along the parade route, and before I was old enough to be in the parade (which was the equivalent of being a total rock star) my cousins and I, all decked out in jeans and heavy sweaters, would sit along the curb, plastic pumpkin baskets in hand, waiting for the best part of the parade -- the fire trucks.  Why?  Because the firemen tossed candy from the truck, and it would scatter across the pavement and toward our feet like an accidentally overturned basket of crabs, and we'd elbow each other out of the way to get the candy we wanted.  Smarties, Snickers, Sweet Tarts, Necco Wafers, Tootsie Rolls, Charms Blow Pops... you name it, they had it, and they threw it right at us.  It was BETTER than trick or treating, because all you had to do was sit there and wait for it.  None of that pesky walking around in your sweaty costume, breathing through the tiny airhole in your plastic mask.  And did I mention the pesky walking around part?  TOO MUCH WORK.

At the end of the parade, we'd all trudge up the small hill that was my grandmother's front yard (it's barely a slope but when you're six, it's Everest), and head inside for hot chocolate, doughnuts, and some heavy negotiations amongst us kids about who wanted to swap out some of our candy for the better stuff.  For a long time, I was the youngest of many cousins, so I know I got swindled ("no Carol, I promise, it's totally fair that you give me seven of your full-size peanut butter cups for this Tootsie Roll that somehow didn't come in a wrapper"), so don't think when the tides turned and I was able to lord over my new set of younger cousins, I didn't do the same.  I totally did, because  the mission at hand was to amass as many Kraft caramels and Sugar Daddies as I could.  Ah, Sugar Daddies... you had to just suck on them because chewing them would rip out a molar.  But moreso, I loved getting caramels during the parade because I'd always unwrap one and drop it into my mug of hot chocolate and let it almost melt by the time I'd finished drinking.  Then, I could scoop out the caramel with my spoon and it would be just the right smoothness, and it would be all warm and drippy.

So every year in October and November, I crave caramel.  Even though it's one of my favorite flavors, it feels wrong to eat it at any other time.  Almost like I'm cheating on fall.

So, now that I've made you suffer through tales of marching band and being the Don Corleone of my cousins, it's probably about freakin' time I talk about this dish.

So, Dry Caramel, salt: here we go --


In a medium-sized saucepan, I heated the sugar, glucose (the clear, bubbly stuff above that actually reminds me of this stuff), cream, and butter over medium heat until it reached 230 degrees (F).





I poured it onto a Silpat-lined sheet tray to cool.  The book says it needs to cool to room temperature, but it mentions nothing about it hardening, which mine did.  Hmmmmm....

After it has cooled, you measure/weigh a certain amount of the caramel base and put it in the food processor with some tapioca maltodextrin, then you process it until the "caramel base is completely absorbed."  That last part quotes directly from the book and leads me to believe that maybe, perhaps, my caramel base wasn't supposed to harden (FAIL) and that I would probably break my food processor trying to do this step.



Here goes:


Can I get a what-what?

I think it worked.

I covet the glasses this dry caramel is served and photographed in in the book (p. 297), and wish I had thought to buy some, but alas, I did not.  The only small-ish, shot-ish glasses I have are vintage and they're green, so I called my friend, Linda, across the street and asked what her barware situation was like and could I bring my dry caramel over and serve it there?  She happily obliged, so I took the food processor bowl off the stand and marched it right over to her house where I spooned it into these little glasses, and topped it off with a pinch or so of sea salt.


So, how'd it taste?

I'd had a dry shot at Alinea in July, so I knew what it would be like to have something powdered go in and then explode with flavor as it hit your tongue.  It was fun to see everyone's hesitant yet curious faces go from I-don't-know (as the powdered caramel hit their tongues) to Whoa-and-cool as it re-liquified in their mouths.  We all had seconds and thirds, and it was delicious.  I had some extra leftover, so I packed it in a plastic deli container and took it to my parents' house the next day when I went up for a quick visit.  My dad and I bypassed the whole polite manners part of putting it in a glass, and just used a spoon, so it was kind of cool to be able to bring this new caramel preparation back to the same town where I fell in love with caramel as a child.

Note: You'll see in the right-hard margin a small "Links" section.  In that section, I'm linking to a "Hydrocolloid Shopping" list that someone else put together and made into a Google Doc, and that my buddy, Joey, found for me.  So, if you're having trouble finding some of the specialty items used in the Alinea cookbook, that link might be a helpful resource.

Up Next: Salad, red wine vinaigrette... or perhaps, if you behave yourselves, Sea Urchin, vanilla, chili, mint.  Because, Scott, my trusty fishmonger, has put the entire New England coast on sea urchin duty.  I'm a little scared.

Domino sugar
Tapioca maltodextrin and Glucose from L'Epicerie
Organic Valley heavy cream
365 organic butter
Maldon sea salt

Music to Cook By: Sondre Lerche; Faces Down.  I like to think this Norwegian poppy, somewhat-dare-I-say bouncing, strummy-strummy-la-la kind of music is the soundtrack playing as I'm walking down the street in some fantasy world I live in because I rarely walk anywhere and instead scorch the earth driving my SUV everywhere.  But really, if I did walk down the street, in a jaunty cap of some sort, I like to think "Modern Nature" is what's playing as I do so.

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