Holy crap, I think I might like celery

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

November 16, 2009

Apple, horseradish, celery juice and leaves

For years, I've really, really loathed three things for their dental floss-like texture: rhubarb, celery, and frisee.  I got over my frisee issues by being fed a really nice, non-floss-like frisee salad (with poached egg, lardons, red onion, and black truffle at Central.  Thanks to one of the dishes in The French Laundry Cookbook, I don't hate rhubarb anymore, either.  Not that I ever crave it, but I have warmer, more gentle, less squicky feelings about it.

But celery?

I just don't get celery.  I don't get it at all.  It's like stalky, watery dental floss.  When I was little, my mom would fill the channel of a celery stalk with peanut butter, and give it to us as a snack.  I'd lick the peanut butter right out and leave the celery.  Celery on a vegetable tray at a party?  Makes me mad.  Vegetable trays, in general, make me mad because they're usually pretty gross and tasteless, but the added insult of having celery on there just makes it that much worse.  And there's only one good way to ruin a Bloody Mary -- and that's plonking a stalk of celery in it.  Like I wanna gouge my eye out when drinking what otherwise is a lovely, lovely beverage.

Cooking my way through The French Laundry Cookbook and now the Alinea cookbook is supposed to be about not just trying new things, but also about second (or third or fourth) chances for some foods.  It's about being open to different preparations and flavorful combinations.  But again with the celery?  Alright, FINE.  I'll give it a(nother) shot.  I mean, what's not to love about apples and horseradish?  Maybe I wouldn't even taste the celery at all!!  A girl can dream...

The first thing I needed to make was the apple juice for the apple spheres.  I juiced three Granny Smith apples in my juicer:



I brought the juice to a boil, and skimmed all the brownish scum that rose to the top:



I strained the juice through a chinois into a bowl nesting inside a larger bowl filled with ice:


I stirred in simple syrup, salt, and citric acid, stirred to dissolve, and poured the apple liquid into a squeeze bottle so that I could more easily fill the spherical molds:


The book suggests that you might want to make up to twenty apple spheres because they're fragile and therefore prone to breaking apart when you pin them and dip them in a horseradish mixture later on.  So, I did what I was told and made extra ones -- 18 of them -- 9 in each mold.  And then I freaked out that all 18 would fall apart and I'd be left with just CELERY JUICE to drink at the end of this, and I might possibly have cursed under my breath.  Or out loud.  Yeah, definitely out loud.

DSC_0035The darker blue ice cube tray is actually deeper and more rounded on the top than it looks, so they'll be 3/4 of a sphere.

I put the apple liquid-filled molds in the freezer and let them harden overnight.

The next morning, I made the horseradish liquid for the outer shell coating.  I peeled and diced horseradish root and put it in a Ziploc bag with some salt, cocoa butter powder, and white chocolate.  I sealed the bag and put it in a large stockpot of boiling water, and let it cook for 20 minutes.



I strained the contents of the bag into a small bowl, and stirred in the white wine vinegar with my immersion blender.



I used a turkey-lacing pin to hold each apple sphere and dunk them, one by one, into the horseradish liquid:


They looked nice and frozen to me, but they were delicate and had the potential to break apart, I could tell.  They were kinda crystal-y and looked like little frozen mini shards of ice in a compact little ball.  But, I must gloat for just a second: not one single sphere of mine broke or splintered or fell apart.  Wooo-hooo!!!!!!  Every single one got poked with a pin, dunked in the liquid, and put back on the mold to go back in the fridge so that the apple could melt now that it was encased in a quickly hardened horseradish shell.





Ladies, I know it looks like the Brazilian room at the day spa blew up on that tray, but trust me: most of the spheres were nice and smooth.  Only a few had some extra drizzles and bumps on them.

The apple spheres needed to be in the fridge for about five hours so that the frozen apple sphere could melt within the hardened shell, so the only thing I had left to do was make the celery juice.

Gah.  I can't even stand looking at the stuff.  It's just so... so... celeryish.


I resentfully and loathingly cleaned all 20 stalks and cut them into 2" pieces, and blanched them for about 30 seconds:


I juiced and strained every last bit of that stalky dental floss, which resulted in the most lovely green liquid:


DSC_0015 Ooooooo, pretty...

Hhmmmmm..... maybe it wouldn't be that bad.

I stored the liquid in the refrigerator until the five-hour mark was up, and the apple spheres were all liquidy inside.  I whisked in some salt and simple syrup, and filled six shot glasses about halfway with the juice.  Then, I gently placed an apple-horseradish sphere inside, and topped that with a few flakes of sea salt and a small celery leaf:



Bottoms up!

The horseradish-apple sphere broke apart in my mouth quite easily, and the combination of tart apple liquid with the sharp heat of the horseradish was intense.  It made my cheeks flush!  The celery juice buffered it a bit, but I actually like how confidently those flavors slammed my palate. 

I thought I might have issues with the texture of the horseradish shell as it disintegrated, what with the cocoa butter powder and white chocolate in there, but I barely noticed it at all.  It wasn't slimy or silky or slippery, like I thought it might be.

And the celery juice?  I actually kind of liked it.  Seriously!  It was smooth and fresh, and really complemented all the other flavors that were slammin' around.

NOW what food am I gonna be mad at?  HUH!?!?!?!

Up Next: Peanut, five other flavors

Resources: Apples, horseradish, and celery from HMart; David's kosher salt; citric acid from L'Epicerie; cocoa butter powder from InstaWares; El Rey Icoa white chocolate; Domaine Des Vignes white wine vinegar; Maldon sea salt.

Music to Cook By: Elvis Costello; Best of.  'Cause sometimes, I just need to hear him sing one of my favorite songs.  

Read My Previous Post: Pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves

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