May 31, 2011

What I've Learned So Far...

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

And turn it into a thing of beauty:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 17, 2011

Prosciutto, passion fruit, zuta levana

Last Monday evening, I ran into these guys:


And, really... isn't that how we'd all love to spend every Monday night?  In the presence of those who inspire, teach, motivate, (and intimidate) us?

Going to the James Beard Awards and seeing Chef Keller and Chef Achatz (among many, many other chefs and industry folks I admire and adore) couldn't have come at a better time. I desperately needed that time in New York, and to be surrounded by people who love to cook and eat.  It was a fun night seeing everyone looking so glam and so full of energy.  I had a blast in the press room with my fellow writers and media folks, as well as at the after-party at Per Se where we celebrated their win for Outstanding Service, and it was just an all-around great night.  I am a lucky, lucky girl.

And, it was the perfect way to kick off a week in which I knew I'd be making a dish from the Alinea cookbook that has intimidated me from the get-go: Prosciutto, passion fruit, zuta levana.  

If you have the Alinea cookbook, turn to page 144 and just look at that beautiful thing.  It's one of the first pages I looked at when I first got the book, and I remember thinking, "I will never be able to make that."

Honestly, there's no magic technique or crazy, hard-to-find ingredients.  It's really pretty straightforward.  But, the photo of it in the book is just so beautiful.  It's always intimidated me because, as we all know, my re-creations of Grant's food are, um, not always necessarily the most appealing in their final form.  I do get some of them right, and some of the things I make are visually appealing, but this one has always been the one that I wanted to do well.  I did not want it to look like Sleestak vomit.

Let's see if I can pull this one off, shall we?

The first thing I did was roll the prosciutto into a cylinder.  The book calls for five slices of 3x12" prosciutto.  Mine came already-cut in 3x6" pieces (or thereabouts), so I just doubled the amount, and layered them, and rolled them like so:



Then, I wrapped it tight in plastic wrap and put it in the freezer for six hours.  The book says to freeze it overnight... which for me, is five hours (thanks, insomnia!).


While the prosciutto was freezing, I got to work on the passion fruit sponge.

Herewith, a passion fruit:


One of the things I love about doing this blog is getting to work with some of my favorite foods in whole new ways.  I love passion fruit.  Love it.  Would eat it every day if I could.  It's sweet and tart and a little bite-y, but when manipulated with just a wee bit of sugar, it evolves into this bold, amazing taste that I just can't get enough of.  I wish they were a) available year-round; and 2) less expensive than they are.

I halved eight passion fruits, scooped out the pulp and seeds, and pressed the pulp and juice through a fine-mesh strainer and discarded the seeds. 




I puréed the pulp and liquid in the blender until it was smoother than silk. I measured 15g of it for the sponge and froze the rest for future use.

I made simple syrup with the rinds (luckily the book has you make more than you need, so I had a little extra to put into my glass of iced tea the next day):

I put 100g of that passion fruit simple syrup into a saucepan along with some of the passion fruit purée (the orange stuff you saw earlier), water, salt, and citric acid.  Brought it to a boil over medium heat...

I whisked in seven gelatin sheets (which I'd soaked in cold water for a few minuted) and stirred until they had dissolved.  I poured that mixture into the bowl of my Kitchen Aid mixer and let it come closer to room temperature (15 minutes). 

Then, I whipped the hell out of it with the whisk attachment on the mixer -- on high speed, it took 12 minutes for stiff peaks to form.

I plopped it into a plastic-lined, chilled baking dish and leveled it with an offset spatula:


I put that pinky-orangeish sponge into the refrigerator to set for a few hours.  While that was doing its thang, I took the prosciutto out of the freezer, unwrapped it, and (using my awesome knife skillz, meat slicer be damned) sliced thin medallions which I put into the dehydrator for four hours:


When the prosciutto was done, I used a little 2" round cutter to cut cylinders out of the sponge so that I had something to put between the two prosciutto slices (which I garnished with a few fresh baby mint leaves from the garden -- zuta levana is minty, so baby mint leaves were a great substitute):


It's like a ham and passion fruit ice cream sandwich.  It's phenomenal.  It kicks the ass of prosciutto-wrapped melon.  It pummels bacon-wrapped anything.  It's salty, it's sweet, it's tart, it's fresh/green, it's smooth, it's crunchy and chewy, and finishes so nicely when all is said and done.

I had about 20 prosciutto chips and a huge tray of the sponge, so to extend the dish to as many neighborhood tasters as I could (I'm like Jesus that way, y'all), I just put a cylinder of the passion fruit sponge atop a prosciutto chip and topped it with a baby mint leaf.  Didn't top it with another prosciutto chip.  Looked lovely on the plate, and makes me want to file this one away in my Make This For a Cocktail Party folder.

You guys -- you have to make this.  Seriously.  It's not difficult at all -- and, you can skip the whole "serve it on a bed of sprouting thyme" bit, because while that is lovely and beautiful and striking and stuff, the minute you see these little guys all put together, you'll want to eat them and you won't care what it's being served on, I promise.


And, yay for it not looking like Sleestak vomit!  Is there a James Beard award for that?  No?  THERE SHOULD BE.

EXTRA AWESOME THING I WANTED TO TELL YOU ABOUT: The awesome Kat Kinsman and I compared finger injuries in the press room at the James Beard Awards, and she turned it into a story on CNN's Eatocracy.

Up Next: Not sure, yet. Probably another dish with passion fruit, since I have a box of them in my fridge.

Resources: Passion fruit from Wegmans; Domino sugar; gelatin sheets and citric acid from L'Epicerie; David's kosher salt; prosciutto San Daniele; mint from my garden.

Music to Cook By: Foals; Total Life Forever.  Whenever I'm jonesing for a trip to LA (I am now, bigtime), I tune into KCRW online and download their "Song of the Day" podcast.  Nine times out of ten, I love what they've chosen, and a few weeks ago I went through the KCRW podcast archive on my laptop and happened upon the band Foals and their album "Total Life Forever."  I listened to some sample tracks and had to download the whole thing immediately.  It's a got a very early 80s feel -- particularly with two of the songs: Blue Blood and Black Gold.  I just love this album, and foresee it becoming part of my ever-growing driving-to-the-beach playlist.

Read My Previous Post: Leftovers -- Deep-fried almonds over broccoli, garlic, and pecorino-romano

April 26, 2011

Porcini, cherry, toasted garlic, almond

Last week, I had a meltdown.  A spectacular, colossal meltdown.  Granted, no one saw it (I don't think), but it happened just the same.  And it's all because of this dish.  Well, not really.  But sort of.

I was running errands and shopping at Whole Foods for the ingredients to make this dish, when I grabbed a bag of Whole Foods/365 brand almonds.  As I always do, I checked the packaging to make sure they were safe for me to eat (no gluten) and saw on the back of the bag the words that, even after more than two years of having to do this, still make my heart sink and shoulders slump: Processed in a facilty that also handles wheat, tree nuts, soy, and dairy products. With a heavy sigh (and a muttered expletive), I tossed them back onto the shelf and started Googling "gluten-free almonds" on my iPhone.  While doing that, I wheeled my shopping cart over to the deli section to pick up the chunk of ham I needed. I saw they were using the same slicer to cut my ham as they had just used to slice a different cured meat I knew had gluten in its casing.  So now, I also couldn't buy the ham I needed.

I started hyperventilating.  I could feel the tears welling up. Over almonds and ham?

Not exactly.  Earlier in the day, I had had to turn down two different social engagements that revolved around food because there would be nothing at all safe for me to eat, and both events were all about eating.  Days before, I'd had my third pizza stone in as many months crack and shatter in the oven (and I have to make my own pizzas because there is nowhere in this city to eat truly gluten-free, non-cross-contaminated pizza).  A few days before that, I had to turn down a spur-of-the-moment-let's-drive-to-New-York-and-eat-dim-sum invitation because I can't eat normal Chinese food, nor food cooked in the same wok that has held soy sauce or most any other sauce used in Asian cooking.  The week before that, I'd spent a considerable amount of time responding to the plea of a friend of a friend for help in transitioning to a gluten-free life because of a diagnosis in the family, and never got a thank you or even a cursory "wow, this is helpful" response.

Add to that, on the way to Whole Foods that day, I'd seen a group of elementary school-age kids walking into our little town's ice cream parlor... and it reminded me (like a gut punch) that I'll never again be able to just walk up there after dinner one night and order an ice cream cone like a normal person. 

Still standing there in the deli section waiting for my stupid Google app to work on my stupid iPhone and thinking all this stuff over the course of a few seconds that felt like hours, I could feel my breath quickening, and my shoulders tightening to hold it all in.

I thought about all the times I'm downtown walking by all the food trucks I wish I could try, but can't.  I thought about how summer is almost here, and how much I miss eating Pop-Tarts while sitting on the beach in the afternoon, or noshing on a grilled cheese sandwiches at the beachside diner for breakfast.  I thought about what it was like to drink a cold, cold Abita in steamy New Orleans a week before the storm.  I remembered the last In-N-Out burger I ate.  It was like this avalanche in my brain: the food I can never eat again, the new restaurants I won't be able to try, the dinner parties I can't go to, all the restrictions and questions and tension and anxiety that comes with having celiac, and I started to lose it.  In public.

I abandoned my shopping cart (sorry, whoever had to unload that and put everything back) and hustled the hell out of there.  The automatic doors couldn't open fast enough.  Once I was out of the store, I ran at full speed across the parking lot to my car, kind of half-moaning and half-crying, unlocked the door with the key remote, jumped in, slammed the door closed, and lost it.  Completely and totally lost it.

Big, ugly crying.  Wailing.  The biggest, sobbingest pity party you ever did see.

I kept telling myself there are people out there with a harder life than mine.  Oh, poor me... I have a nice house and a nice car and a job and friends, but boo-hoo, I can't eat gluten. Wah.  But trying to put it into perspective pissed me off even more.  I was really, really sad and really, really angry about it.  All of it.  In fact, I'm still angry about it.  I have lived with celiac for more than two years and most days I handle it well.  I'd be lying if I said I don't even think about it anymore, because I do think about it every day because, well, it's hard not to.

When I work in a client's office downtown, I can't just go out and grab a sandwich with them for lunch.  In another client's office kitchen, I can't use the community toaster oven or microwave because it's all glutened up, so everything I bring in to eat has to be eaten cold or at room temperature. Going out to a dive bar after work with friends?  No more. Can't drink beer and the wine options at those places are not anything any human being should ever drink.  Can't go out for banh mi.  Can't grab a burger.  There's nothing deliverable to my house that I can eat.  My mom's dark chocolate cake with peanut butter icing?  Won't ever eat that again.  Soft pretzels from this little shop in the town where I grew up?  Not gonna happen.  Sometimes, it's just exhausting.  And isolating.  And lonely.

Really, I don't mean to make this all about poor, little Carol who can't eat gluten.  I try to remind myself that it's a good thing I know how to cook.  And, it's even better that there are some phenomenal chefs here in DC and across the country who can and do cook safely for me on a fairly regular basis.  But last week, all that went out the window because I just got tired of telling myself and everyone else that having celiac is not that bad in the grand scheme of things, and easy to work around.  It's not.  It sucks, and sometimes I just need to let it be okay that it sucks and not pretend otherwise.

I calmed down before starting the car and driving home; it had begun to rain, and all my slurfing and blubbering was fogging up the windows.  I dragged myself into the house -- grocery-less -- and went straight to bed.  At 8 o'clock.

The next morning, with a (barely) clearer head and pretty, pretty princess puffy eyes, I shopped anew.  I found most of the ingredients I needed for this dish and made substitutions where I had to.

I needed this dish to be successful and taste good for two reasons:  1) to get me out of my funk; and 2) because I didn't want to waste porcini mushrooms.

There's a mushroom lady who comes to the Takoma Park Farmers' Market for just a few months out of the year, and she only has porcinis one of those weeks.  She had them last Sunday, so I snatched up a box ($20 gets you 4-5 'shrooms) and decided I'd make this dish since it was the only chance I had with fresh porcinis.  And, of course she only has these delicious mushrooms in a week when cherries aren't in season.  So, as I was shopping for the other ingredients I strolled around the grocery store wondering if I should MacGyver some dried cherries, or figure out a berry that might work, and it hit me.  I was already making something with ham, mushrooms, and garlic... so, the sweet and tart fruit I wanted to use was pineapple.  So I did.

In addition to the pineapple sub-in, I also decided I wasn't going to spend more than $100 on all the porcinis I would've needed for every element of this dish.  So, I used creminis for the purée and dice, and saved the porcinis for the chips.  And, I decided to use just two porcinis for the chips so that I could enjoy these glorious fungi in other ways in my everyday cooking throughout the week... doling them out in small bits... a little in my morning eggs, a bit over some risotto, one pickled to include in a salad.  You get the drift.

I got home from the store, unpacked my shopping bags and got to work.  Deep breath, errrbody.  I know that was one long-ass intro.

I continue to be amazed by my ability to know how much of something to buy to yield the amount I need for the dishes in this blog.  For the purée, I needed 500g of mushroom caps.  Check this shizz out:



I literally just stuffed a plastic bag full of creminis at Whole Foods and weighed them to make sure it was a little more than 500g (1 pound, 2 oz.), and just figured it would be enough.  I never figured it would be exact.  I am a magical, magical wizard of produce buying.  Perhaps I should buy a lottery ticket this week.  Yes, I think I shall.

But wait.  It gets better.  For the mushroom dice, I needed 50g of stems.  However, since I knew I wanted to used some of this dice in a salad I was making for lunch the next day, I decided ahead of time to double this part of the dish (100g) so I'd have some leftovers.  So, what's the weight of the stems from my mushroom awesomeness above?


Seriously.  I needed 100g, and got 99.  This makes me wanna party like it's (19) 99 Luftballons.  I know that makes no sense at all.  I'm just giddy from the measuring prowess.

You know what else I'm giddy over?  The smell of mushroom caps cooking:


I sautéed them in some canola oil over high heat until they were dark brown on both sides.  Then, I added some chopped garlic and continued to let them cook until the garlic had turned golden.  I turned the heat down to medium and added cream, butter, salt, and twine-bound springs of thyme.  I let them cook until the mushrooms were completely tender -- about 10-15 minutes.  I really wish I could've let them cook for days and days because the smell of mushrooms, garlic, and thyme cooking can turn anyone's day around.  Things were, indeed, looking up.

I discarded the thyme from the pan, and poured the remaining contents into the blender and whacked it around until it was completely smooth:



I strained the mushroom purée through a chinois and into a plastic container and stored it in the fridge.  I made this dish over the course of two days (though, it can be done in one day), and didn't need to use the purée again until it was time to plate.

Next up?  The mushroom dice.  As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to double this so I'd have some leftover to use in my everday eating over the next day or two.  Into a small sauté pan with hot, hot canola oil went the diced cremini mushroom stems:


Once they'd become nice and browned, I added a little butter, water, and kosher salt, and continued to cook them until the mushrooms were tender and glazed:


I let them cool to room temperature before storing them in the refrigerator.

Next, I made the garlic gelee, because I wanted to allow it to have ample time to set.  First, I sauteed some garlic cloves in a pan of hot canola oil.  Then, after they'd gotten a lovely golden-brown color, I put them in a saucepan with water and salt, and brought them to a boil.


I turned off the heat, put the lid on the pan, and let the liquid steep for about 20-25 minutes.  Then, I strained the liquid, discarded the garlic, and whisked in some already-soaked gelatin sheets into the garlic water.

I gently poured it into a plastic wrap-lined baking dish and put it in the fridge to set overnight.


Next thing on the prep list to make was the almond ice cream.  Because of my I-can't-find-gluten-free-almonds-any-damn-where meltdown, I decided I'd just use store-bought almond milk for this part of the dish.  Granted, I probably could've just used whole milk with some almond extract, but I was still feeling a little rough around the edges in the clear-thinking department, so I grabbed a carton of almond milk with the words "GLUTEN-FREE" blazing across the front of it and just decided that's what I was going to do.

In a saucepan, I whisked together the almond milk, powdered nonfat milk, glucose, sugar, and salt and brought it to a boil.  Whisking constantly, I let it simmer for 5 minutes, then poured it into a blender where I blended it on medium speed for 3 minutes.  I poured it through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl, where I then whisked in some already-soaked gelatin sheets.  Put the whole mixture into my ice cream maker for 30 minutes, then stored it in a container in the freezer.


Then, just before going to bed, I cleaned my porcinis (now there's a euphamism for all you 12-year olds out there) and used two of them to make the porcini chips.

I lined a sheet tray with parchment paper, then sprayed it with nonstick cooking spray.  I verrry thinly sliced the porcinis by hand (about 1/8" thick) and laid the slices on the parchment, then sprayed them with a very fine mist of nonstick cooking spray.



I put them under the broiler for a few minutes, and rotated the pan 180 degrees to ensure they all got equal treatment...


They curled up like Shrinky Dinks and flattened back out again in a matter of seconds.  And when they were done (after about 3 minutes), I seasoned them with salt and pepper and put them into the dehydrator at 140F degrees.


The Alinea cookbook says all they need is three hours in the dehydrator, but I know from previous experience that because my little dehydrator is not exactly industrial strength, these would take about six hours.


I was right.  While I slept, these gorgeous mushrooms dried all the way out and did exactly what they were supposed to do.  Happy day.

With the porcini chips out of the dehydrator, it was time for some ham to go in. Because I couldn't buy the hunk of ham I needed, the night before I'd just folded over some slices of Applegate Farms (safe for me) black forest ham and stored it in the freezer.  This next morning, it was ready to be grated onto a parchment-lined dehydrator tray and dried for about 30 minutes:




While the ham was dehydrating, I deep fried some almonds and let them cool in a heaping load of kosher salt:




Then, the last thing I needed to do was make the macerated cherries pineapple. 

I diced this bad boy:


... and brought the piece to a boil in a saucepan of sparkling rosé, and some sugar:


Then, I turned off the burner, covered the pot, and let them steep for 20 minutes.

There's an extra step in the book where you're supposed to strain the fruit, add gelatin to the liquid, then put it into a siphon canister with some NO2, but I just didn't feel like doing it.  I was hungry, dagnabit, and wanted to eat.

So, I plated everything, and dug in...


Mushroom purée and mushroom dice on the bottom.  Pineapple chunks on top. Almond ice cream on the side, along with some salted fried almonds, garlic gelée cubes, ham powder, a porcini chip, and some fresh thyme leaves.

Now, here's where I ususally tell you that I called my neighbors, and they came over to share this with me... but alas, that is not the case this time.

Part Marlene Dietrich, part still feeling a little sorry for myself and not up to having to talk to anyone, I just wanted to eat this by myself.  I wanted to sit at my dining room table, with the sunlight streaming through the high windows, and eat this in peace and quiet.

And, oh my word... this was delicious.  Really, really, really, really delicious.  While I think the cherries would've been spectacular in this dish, the pineapple was a home run.  The mushroom purée is going into the regular rotation (in fact, I'm using the leftovers over gluten-free pasta).  So creamy and hearty and good.  I wish I could afford to make it with fresh porcinis.  Someday, I will.  The mushroom dice added a nice texture.  The almonds were great, the garlic gelée was really fantastic at adding a hint of garlic without overpowering the dish.  The almond milk ice cream would have been better had I used real milk, but the flavor of it was surprisingly good.  The thyme leaves were a nice addition (the book called for thyme flowers, and my little herbs just aren't flowering yet).  And the ham powder?  Really nice.  Salty and a little smoky.

I loved this dish.  I loved it because it tasted good.  I loved it because it smelled great.  I loved it because I got to cook with fresh porcinis.  And, I loved it because it allowed me to have a 20-minute period where I didn't think about what I couldn't eat.

And that was a good, good thing.

Up Next: Prosciutto, passion fruit, zuta levana (I think)

Resources: Porcinis from the mushroom lady at the Takoma Park farmers' market; all other produce and aromatics from Whole Foods; 365 canola oil and butter; Natural by Nature heavy cream; David's kosher salt; gelatin sheets and glucose from L'Epicerie; Blue Diamond almonds and almond milk; RJ Cava; Applegate Farms ham; Domino sugar.

Music to Cook By: The Head and the Heart; The Head and the Heart.  I love their sound. I love her raw voice.  I love their hispter doofiness.  I love "Honey, Come Home."  I love "Lost in My Mind."  It's great cooking music.  Even better driving music, especially on a Sunday night.

Read My Previous Post: Chicken skin, black truffle, thyme, corn

February 26, 2011

Goose, blood orange, sage, roasting goose aroma

Before we get started, let's do two three things:

1) The winner of the iTunes giftcard from the previous post (chosen via is Beth, who wrote "I've been sick & had mostly crackers and Vernors ginger ale all weekend. Started to feel semi-human yesterday, so my sweet 17-year-old son made tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches (a bit charred on the outside, but whatev) for lunch. Knowing how lazy he is, I truly felt the love from that meal."  Congrats to Beth, and big ups to the kid for making his mom one of my favorite get-well meals of all time!

2) My dear friend Chef Nick Stefanelli made the preliminary cut for a James Beard Award nomination for Rising Star.  Fingers crossed that he makes the final cut, because he's really, really good at what he does, and some of his meals have left me speechless and thus returning the next day to eat his cooking again.  He's also up for a People's Choice award for Food & Wine's Best New Chef/Mid-Atlantic.  Can you throw some votes his way?  Polls close March 1.  Thanks!  You can read more about him at that link, but also know that Nick and his team at Bibiana can accommodate people with celiac, and they create the most pleasureable dining experiences, whether in the dining room or just grabbing a seat at the bar.  They've never made me feel like I was being a burden, and for that I am forever grateful.  Oh, and Nick is the one who made the tripe you guys forced me to eat.  Vote for Nick!

3) Chef Achatz' and Nick Kokonas' memoir Life, on the Line comes out in a few days, and I'm giving away a few copies.  Stay tuned.  I'll put up a little contest post on Wednesday. 

*   *   *   *   *

So..... "Goose, blood orange, sage, roasting goose aroma."  I adapted this recipe last summer and made a deviled goose egg.  Remember?

To make the full dish, my plan was to go hunting with my friends Hank Shaw and Holly Heyser to bag a few geese.  Sadly, those plans didn't work out (one of my clients needed me to stay in Washington that week) so I had to get some birds locally here in town, courtesy of Daniel Shirk at Pecan Meadow Farm.  Check 'em out:


Each weighed about 9-10 lbs.

Before I started breaking them down, I consulted Hank's blog to see if there was a difference between breaking down a chicken (which I have plenty experience in doing) and a goose.  Turns out, there is.  I didn't take photos of the breaking-down process, because Hank has a post about it here, and the photo tutorial and directions are outstanding and much better than I could ever do.  Rumor is, it takes Hank about 5 minutes to break down a goose.  Took me nearly 45 minutes to do two.  Practice makes perfect, I guess.

I cured the breast meat in blade mace, black pepper, allspice, salt and sugar:



I refreigerated them overnight.

I cured the goose legs in salt, sugar, pink salt, cloves, orange zest, nutmeg, and black pepper:



Those went into the fridge overnight, as well.

The fat got rendered (another great Hank Shaw tutorial on goose and duck fat rendering, if you're interested):



The carcass, necks, and wings were roasted in a 450F-degree oven for an hour, and then went into a giant pot (with onions, leeks, carrots, bay leaves, peppercorns, and tomato paste) to make stock: 




See the time on the stove clock?  I'd started the stock around 1 a.m., and it was 3:23 a.m. when the dog woke me up to go outside because there was a small herd of deer in the front yard.  I'd fallen asleep on the sofa, but after I took Dex out into the cold night air for a minute or two to let him chase those deer back into the woods, I walked back into the house and thought to myself: those must have been the happiest geese when they were alive, because this stock smells even better than veal stock does when it's cooking.  No joke.  I don't know what it is about goose bones or those geese in particular, but there's something about how great this goose stock smelled, I decided to camp out on the sofa for the rest of the night to smell it as it simmered.  Didn't want to be further away from it, upstairs in my bedroom.  I drifted off to sleep lulled by the smell, and wasn't even pissed off when the oven timer went off a few hours later at 6 a.m. to get up to strain and cool it.  In fact, the very smell of it put a spring in my step the entire long weekend.  So, remember... you read it here first: Goose stock is a natural mood elevator.  I'm totally gonna pitch an article to JAMA about it.


Now that I was awake, I had a lot of sous-vide-ing to do.  First up?  Oranges for orange sauce:


Just one orange, quartered and seeded, with some grapeseed oil, salt, and sugar, cooked sous vide at 190F/88C for 3 hours.  Then blended, strained, and some orange juice whisked in before straining again:




Next in the 190F/88C water bath go turnip cylinders, and sweet potato half-moons (both with a little goose fat):





After the vegetables were done (in just 45 minutes), I plunged them -- still in their bags -- into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process, and then stored them (still bagged) in the fridge until it was time to reheat and serve them.

Next into the water bath?  The goose legs.  I rinsed off the cure and put them into two Ziploc sous vide bag with some goose fat.  Four hours at 190F/88C:


I cooled them -- still bagged -- in a bowl of ice water, and then peeled off the skin (to use in stuffing later) before gently removing the meat from the bone.  I saved the meat in the fridge, and used it in the stuffing later.

The last thing to sous vide were the two goose breasts.  I rinsed off the cure, bagged them with some goose fat, and cooked it at 138F/59C for just 20 minutes.  I cooled the breasts (still bagged) in yet another bowl of ice water, then put the bag of now-cooked goose meat into the freezer overnight.

The next day, I took it out, and cut some thin slices, which went back into the freezer until it was time to plate and serve:

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The next day, I made the stuffing.  I sweated onions, celery, leeks, garlic, and fennel in some goose fat for about 10 minutes, and then let the mixture cool to room temperature.

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When the vegetables had cooled, I folded them in with bread cubes, eggs, goose stock, toasted celery seed, orange zest, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and goose leg meat, and some goose fat.

I coated a 9x13" baking dish with non-stick cooking spray, and laid down the skin from the goose legs.

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And just as I was spooning the stuffing mixture into the pan, my neighbor texted to tell me that not only did she have laryngitis and a sinus infection, but also that her younger son, Carter, had gotten a concussion the night before in a snowboarding accident.  Add that to her son Grant's (of the famous Grant Tipton Day, and who I made eat really awful lobster jelly) broken arm from when he was hit by a car a few weeks ago (yeah, that happened, too, during Carol's Really Bad Weeks Where Awful Things Happen To People She Cares About), I decided to change plans a bit.

Instead of tamping down the stuffing and refrigerating it overnight and finishing the dish the next day, I was going to have the Tiptons over for dinner that night and serve this dish as if it were a real dinner, instead of a tasting-size portion.  Into the oven went the stuffing...

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It needed to bake for 45 minutes to an hour in a 375F-degree oven.  I put it in, set the timer for 50 minutes, and went upstairs to pay bills and do some work.  Just as I was finishing an email to a client, my nose intervened and I could tell the stuffing was done. I walked into the kitchen, and blammo -- only one minute left.

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That is one of my most favorite things about doing this blog and French Laundry at Home.  It's really honed every single one of my senses, and I can now cook a lot of things without using a timer because I can tell the precise moment that something is done.  Sweet, savory, you name it.  I might not seem like a big deal to most people, but I get a kick out of it every single time. 

I took the stuffing out of the oven, lifted the foil that had been covering it, and GRANT ACHATZ ARE YOU KIDDING ME WITH THIS?!??!?!!?  Just when I thought goose stock was the best smell in the world comes this most remarkable stuffing.  Goose, orange, garlic, fennel, onion, nutmeg.... AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAAA!!!!!! I jumped up and down like a giant freakin' dork, clapping my hands, and dancing around the kitchen like I'd won the lottery.  Which I kind of did, culinarily.

I'd abandoned the book's instructions at this point, and decided I was just going to pull the rest of the meal together on my own without the 500F-degree river stones and aroma bowl (didn't need it; the food was intoxicatingly beautiful-smelling on its own).  I put the frozen goose breast slices under the broiler to warm them.  I whipped up some celery root purée (because I'm still kind of obsessed with it from the venison dish), and reduced a combination of goose stock, veal stock, red wine, port, salt, pepper, and a hint of sage (with a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg) as a sort of gravy.  I figured we needed something green, so I made a salad of mâche with caramelized shallots and sautéed green beans (frozen fresh over the summer and defrosted for the salad) with a fig-mustard vinaigrette.  I squeezed a small pool of the orange sauce under the turnip and sweet potato pieces.  And, the pièce de résistance: seared cubes of foie gras.

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This, my friends, is one of the best meals I have ever made in my entire life.  From start to finish, it took nearly four days to create this plate of food, and every single minute was worth it.  From the way the goose stock smelled, to my nose-timer, to being able to whip up celery root purée and a sauce to go with it, to the way the orange zest transformed the stuffing way beyond my expectations, to just being able to adapt to changing circumstances... that is why I love cooking my way through books that intimidate me.  It builds core skills.  It teaches me new things.  It instills a sense of pride and accomplishment.  It gives me new milestones to celebrate on this path to perfecting a craft. 

But most of all, it has given me the ability to say "hey, it sounds like life sucks for you guys right now; why don't you come over for dinner tonight" and be able to include foie gras, goose leg confit, and cured goose breast in my comfort food repertoire.

That is why I keep pushing myself with this book.  The training I'm getting yields the most satisfying results when I least expect it.  And those unexpected moments of satisfaction, pride, and being able to care for other people makes life a little bit sweeter, doesn't it?

We ended the dinner with a pint or two (or, um, three if I'm being honest) of Jeni's Ice Cream, and a salad of white grapefruit, pink grapefruit, blood orange, and cara cara orange with basil-lime sugar.


Oh, and the little bonus moment that came just as I loaded up the dishwasher at the end of the night?  It started snowing.

A very good long weekend, indeed.

Up Next: Life, on the Line giveaway.

Resources: Geese from Daniel Shirk at Pecan Meadow Farm; veal stock from my freezer; produce,  aromatics, and gluten-free prairie bread from Whole Foods; spices from my pantry; blade mace from Terra Spice; foie gras from Hudson Valley Foie Gras; David's kosher salt; Domino sugar.

Music to Cook By: Fitz and the Tantrums; Pickin' Up the Pieces. I can't NOT move when I hear "Breakin' The Chains of Love" and I can't NOT picture "Don't Gotta Work it Out" as a great, semi-drunken break-up anthem sung loudly with friends in a bar as it plays on the jukebox.  You guys, this is a really great album.  Great to cook to, great to clean to, great to drive to, and would be the perfect background music at a dinner party or a night hanging out with friends, having a few beers or a bottle of wine and some noshes.  Can't recommend it enough.

Read My Previous Post: Some links, some love, and a little something for YOU

October 11, 2010

Tomato, balloon of mozzarella, many complementary flavors


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

March 15, 2010

Alinea at Home: Comfort Food (Bison, braised pistachios, potato, sweet spices)

I bought my house just over twelve years ago, and I remember my first night here as clearly as if it were yesterday.  I didn't sleep at all -- partly because I was sleeping somewhere new, and that meant new smells, new sounds, and just a whole new feel... not to mention it was the first major investment I'd ever made, and those numbers on the closing sheet leapt from the page into the worry area of my brain and cascaded down the inside of my eyelids like a cruel hybrid of Tetris and The Matrix as I tried to fall asleep.

The second night in my house, it rained... and the sound of that hard pouring rain completely washed away the fear of owning a home. It washed away the digital shower of numbers in my brain, the weird sounds and smells, and it calmed me completely. I've always loved the sound of rain -- and, there's something about the way it sounds when it lands on my roof, or hits the muddy ground or the leaves of my hydrangea bushes just outside the living room window.

We had quite a lovely sunny, warm streak of weather last week, which melted all the snow, but for the past three days, it's done nothing but rain. Dreary, gray skies, and a steady ploploploplopdropdripdripdrop all day and all night. I love it. I loved it even more because it had been a week where that kind of soothing noise was very much needed... one of those weeks where I worked from the minute I woke up until my head hit the pillow at night.

My phone rang non-stop and email poured in. There were new clients to pitch, brainstorms to be had, things to write, conference calls to conduct, deadlines to meet, projects to deliver. Some things took off beautifully while others stalled or got postponed or rushed or canceled or left in limboland. And while I was working, I kept noticing things around the house that needed to be done. Errands to be run. Pet projects I want to start. Things I want to cook. Photos to organize. Things I want to write. People I want to talk to. Books I want to read. Magazines I want to peruse. Friends and family I want to see.

Working from home is usually something I love and am really grateful for. But last week, I wished I had a job and an office I could leave in the evening so that work was work and home was home.

I didn't sleep well at all last week, because my brain was still trying to work while I was trying to sleep. And when it wasn't my own thoughts waking me up in a cold sweat, it was the herd of ten or eleven deer that, every night, makes their way from the woods next to my house, through my front yard, over the garden wall just below my bedroom window (they huff and snort, and thonk and clack their hooves on the wall as they leap over), and meander around my neighbor's garden just outside the other bedroom window.

Again, grateful for the work and the business I've built over the past nine years, but I was more physically and mentally drained by Friday afternoon than I've been in a long, long time. I knew I needed to shut off that part of my brain for just two days (something I rarely allow myself do). So, late Friday afternoon, I went across the street to my friend Linda's house to sit by the fire with a glass of wine, many snacks, and played a mean game of cards with my friends.

On Saturday, I spent a good part of the day reading my friend, Tara's book, The Butcher and the Vegetarian.  I loved the book because it "sounds" just like Tea when she talks.  I'd also recently re-read my dear friend, Laurie's book, Saving Henry.  Both books are so personal and so beautifully written, and yet both books also deal with profound struggle on so many levels. Throughout, both Tea and Laurie maintain a sense of hope and courage and a fierce determination I admire.

I spent a lot of time Saturday afternoon thinking about Tara and Laurie and how their stories weighed heavily on my heart, and that, heaped onto my already-exhausted self, made me sorely in need of some serious comfort food.

I've written quite a bit about my love of cooking for others.  I love to show people how I feel about them by cooking for them.  But it's not often enough that I care about myself that way.  Yes, I cook nearly every day for myself, and yes, I actually do eat at my dining room table many nights.  But, it had been a very long time since I'd spent an hour or so in the kitchen making something just for me.

I needed to cook something that was comforting, yet wouldn't make me feel like crap three hours later as it sat there in my stomach like a lump (hey there, mac and cheese) (also, bag of Swedish fish).  I didn't want to slap anything together in a hurry.  I wanted to take my time and really pay attention to what I was doing.

So, I adapted the Bison, braised pistachios, potatoes, sweet spices dish.  There was nothing difficult about making the dish as it was in the book.  I'd already bought all the ingredients and was ready to let 'er rip.  But, I decided to adapt it because I wanted something that felt like dinner, not a tasting menu item, and I wanted it to taste like something that was mine, only better.


In addition to the bison tenderloin thawing in the fridge for this dish, I'd already begun to dry-age a six-ounce bison tenderloin in the fridge, thinking I'd eat it Sunday night. I love prepping meat this way -- I rinse it, thoroughly dry it, salt it, and stick it on a plate for 4 or 5 days in the fridge, uncovered.  It gets all hard and tough on the outside, which gives it a lovely sear when you put it in the pan, and it cooks more evenly.

I poured a little canola oil into a stainless-steel saute pan, heated it on medium for about 3 minutes, then placed the bison tenderloin in the pan, searing it on all sides (took about 10 minutes).  Then, I put it (still in the pan) in a 450-degree oven for 5-7 minutes.

I made mashed potatoes (my own personal favorite comfort food) by boiling some Yukon Golds, then mashing them (skins on) in the Kitchen Aid mixer, along with some whole milk, unsalted butter, and sea salt.  No measurements. I've been making mashed potatoes for so long, I do it completely unconsciously now, and they're always perfect.

I also sauteed some Swiss chard with carrots, shallots, and pistachios in butter and olive oil, along with some curry powder (dash), cinnamon (pinch), thyme (sprig), allspice (trace amount), salt, and pepper. Oh, I wish you all could've been in my kitchen to smell this as it came together.


I poured a glass of water and a glass of Malbec, and sat and ate that dinner at my table in the dining room... no music... no television... no books or magazines.  Just me, my dinner, and the sound of the rain on the roof.



The bison was cooked a perfect medium-rare.  So flavorful and robust, without being overly rich or heavy.  And let me tell you -- the tiny amounts of spices I put in that vegetable dish blended so beautifully with the carrots, shallots, and chard, and the pistachios were so tender, they fit right in, texturally.  This dinner had all the elements of the original dish in the book, just done a little differently.

As I cleared the table and started loading the dishwasher, my friend, Chris, called to see if I wanted to grab a drink or see a movie.  I'd bought a bottle of Caol Ila I hadn't yet opened, so I told him to come over for some scotch and a movie.  It was the perfect way to end the evening.

Sunday morning came, and for the first time in a long time, the whole daylight-saving-losing-an-hour-of-sleep-thing didn't bother me.  I credit dinner the night before.  I slept really well and loved the feel of the rain on my messy morning hair as I plodded in my new slippers* down the front sidewalk to pick up the New York Times from the edge of the yard.  I made a pot of coffee as I got started on the crossword puzzle (which I'm now able to do every day of the week without looking up any of the clues -- one of those life list goals.  I know.  NERD.).

I emptied the dishwasher and got ready for the day.  I felt really good about the dinner the night before, but still felt like I needed to be taken care of a bit more.  This week is going to be as mentally draining as last week, so I thought it would be good to get the heck out of Washington for the day... away from my phone and my laptop and all the things in my house nagging to be done.  I also really wanted someone else to cook for me, and I wanted it to be Carlos.

Carlos Barroz is from Cordoba, Argentina, and is the chef at one of my favorite restaurants in the little beach town I go to every summer.  He's a good friend and a great cook, and he and two of his best friends (also dear friends of mine) just opened a new restaurant, Hoof + Fin, in Philadelphia.  I wanted meat and I wanted chimichurri, but I also wanted raw fish.  And I wanted to see his new restaurant.  And, even though it was raining, I also really wanted to drive.  I wanted a few hours of uninterrupted time to clear my head, listen to podcasts, and daydream.

So, I hit the road and made it to Philly in record time.  Um, I mean, I, uh, drove 55 the whole way, MOM, and made it there in exactly the time I should have.  (only not)  (I have a lead foot)   I cruised up I-95, and as the highway split to 495 toward Philadelphia, off to the right was the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which just broke my face into this huge, uncontrollable smile.  That's my bridge.  That's the bridge that, when I cross it, means I'm just an hour and a half from kicking off my shoes, running in the sand, turning my face toward the sun, and standing ankle-deep in the ocean, grinning from ear-to-ear.  (one of my favorite things in the world) (but I digress) (and what's up with all these parentheticals I'm doing) (I need to knock it off)

I puttered around Old City and Queen Village for a bit, then headed over to the restaurant for an early dinner.  If you live in or near Philadelphia, I hope you'll stop by and eat at Hoof + Fin.  It's a great space, and the food is... well..... wow.


I started with the fluke carpaccio (sorry for the crap iPhone photo quality), which was raw fluke, radish, red onion, clementines, red chiles, and a truffle-lime-lemon juice :


Carlos then followed that with a giant plate o' meat: skirt steak, short ribs, chorizo, sweetbreads, ribeye, lamb, some chimichurri, as well as a stack of frites topped with an over-easy egg, and a side of parsnip puree:


Holy wow. 

And, exactly what I needed.

I sent back an empty plate, but for the bones.


*   *   *   *   *

I know what I made on Saturday night was not the exact dish from the book, but it encompassed all of the flavors, and they all came together in a way I didn't expect at all.  In fact, this dish -- and the adaptation of it, really -- came at a time I didn't expect to need it, but found out I really did.

In fact, if you'd told me when I started this blog back in October 2008 whether I thought anything in this book could ever remotely resemble comfort food, I'd have told you to put down the crack pipe.

And now I know I'm wrong.  Happily so, in fact.  Usually, this book challenges and expands the ways in which I think about food.  But this weekend, this cookbook calmed, comforted, and soothed me.  Used to be that a grilled cheese sandwich was my go-to comfort food.  Now, it's something Alinea-inspired.  I like that.  I like that a lot.

What do you do when you need to be comforted and cared for?  Do you cook?  If so, what?  Or, do you want others to cook something for you?  Neither?  Both?  (I'm in the "both" camp)

Do tell.... I'd love to know.

Up Next: Bison, beets, blueberries, burning cinnamon

Resources: Bison from Gunpowder Bison & Trading; vegetables from the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Co-op.

Read My Previous Post:  Pushed foie gras, sauternes, pear, chervil

* I got new slippers!  Because I am a dork who falls when she wears old, tread-worn slipper socks!  Yay!  Thanks, Mom and Dad.


March 01, 2010

Foie Gras, spicy cinnamon puff, apple candy

Before we get to this dish, I have to say how much I LOVED all your guesses at how I broke my hand.  Seriously y'all, there were more ninja kicks, karate chops, and snowboard tricks in the comments than I ever dreamed possible, and that makes me feel like a superhero.

Now, for the real story.  Which is sooooo the antithesis of superhero I'm actually regretting my promise to reveal it.  But I am nothing if not a woman of my word, so here goes:

It was a mild February morning, and I had just loaded the dishwasher and was dressed and ready to go meet a friend for lunch.  I'd been writing and working and having a really productive morning, so I treated myself to a little Prince jam session as I gathered the folders and notebooks I'd spread across the dining room table in planning a campaign for one of my clients.  The first song on my Prince playlist is "Controversy," a seven-minute song that affords me the opportunity to booty-shake from room to room and try out my Morris Day and the Time moves.  You know what I'm talkin' 'bout.

Clad in jeans and a really cute sweater, and smiling at the snow melting outside, I was fantasizing about which shoes I'd wear to lunch.  Shoes that haven't seen the light of day since December, before the first of three blizzards this winter.  Should I wear the cute brown suede boots?  Little red ballet flats?  Black patent leather clogs?  I was still wearing my cozy slipper-socks -- the ones I wear every morning as I pad around the house, making coffee, doing The New York Times crossword puzzle, getting started on my day.  As I left the dining room, I cranked the stereo volume even higher so I could hear it upstairs as I was picking out earrings and shoes.  I fiercely, determinedly, and quite like I was on a catwalk, strutted and strode to the beat of the music out of the dining room and into and through the living room (maybe adding some shoulder movements to the walk because I have the delusion that sometimes I am in my very own music video). I tossed my iPhone into my purse on a chair at the base of the stairs, and busted a move my way up the steps (still to the beat, because it's important when you're in a music video to make sure every step you take is choreographed perfectly) until I was three steps from the top landing and just wiped out.  Plain and simple.  My foot missed the step and I slipped (damn sock-slippers) and fell forward and to the side, and as I tried halfway into the fall to stop myself from going face-first onto the floor, I somehow fell into the door frame at the top of the stairs that leads to the guest room and bathroom, and I heard a crunching sound and saw my hand form the shape of a trapezoid as it hit the door jamb, and I just laid there for a few seconds -- like when a baby falls or bumps its head and it just does that open-mouthed crying face with no sound coming out at all.

And then, it was not a baby-crying sound that escaped my lips.  Oh no.  Not even close.  But because this is a family program, I'll refrain from giving you a literal transcript.  Use your imagination.  Then, make it ten times more crude.  Now twenty.  There you go.

I laid there for a minute or two, moving all my extremities, one at a time, to make sure I still could, then stood up to finish getting ready to go out for lunch.  I was sure I'd just jammed it.  Maybe just bumped and bruised it.  That was all.  Only the throbbing.  It kept getting worse.  Holy crap.  I could barely hold a hairbrush with that hand, let alone do anything else with it.  Driving was a treat, steering around tight corners with just my right hand.  Parallel parking.  Oy.  I went to lunch, hand a-blazing, then came home and tried to do some work, but instead watched the top of my hand swell and turn colors and generally make my life unpleasant.  So, I went to the ER where hello, teeny-tiny hairline fractures, major bruising and jamming and all that crap.  Wrapping, ice, rest, and elevation for the next 48 hours, and you know what?  A week later, and it feels nearly back to normal.  The swelling is gone, there's just a wee bit of greenish-yellow bruising, and it's only just a little sore when I type too much or use it too often.  By the end of this week, I'm sure it'll feel totally fine. I'll be back to juggling chainsaws and waterskiing with Fonzie.

So, that's our lesson for the day: Don't pretend you're in a Prince video while walking up the stairs wearing socks.  Or maybe, don't pretend you're in a Prince video at all, no matter what you're wearing or where you're walking?  Gah.

When the comments started rolling in on that last post, I do believe I guffawed over quite a few of them.  I didn't expect anyone to totally guess the whole story, but now that you know it, I think you'll agree there are three runners up, and one grand-prize winner:

The three runners up are:

For guessing my falling on the stairs and whacking my hand, a prize goes to Kathy said: "I say you tripped on a stair for *no* reason at all, and whacked the back of your hand on the railing as you fell."

For bringing my undying love of Prince into the picture, Mantonat gets a nod for suggesting: Doing the hand gestures to Prince's "I would Die 4 U."

For knowing my proclivity to dancing when I'm alone in the house and bringing the choreography element into it, Jennifer gets a nod for guessing: You fell off your couch while doing the dance scene from Flashdance.

But really, let's give a big round of applause to a certain commenter who pretty much stole the show with a novella that is incredibly spot on when it comes to the inner workings of the Blymire mind, and for tying in the music, fuzzy socks, and wiping out elements of the story, let's hear it for Kailee, who wrote: It had been an unusual winter, that much was certain. More snow than many people could ever remember. It has caused a slight panic around the city. Nothing crazy, mind you, but excitement and wonderment laced the air, prompting people to raid the stores for provisions. Milk, apples, beef for braising, condoms. Then the snow became gray. The buzz died. Wonderment turned to frustration as people circled, circled looking for a parking spot. Maybe that's why people are so on edge, you thought to yourself. Even emails from your favorite colleagues, tinged with a little angst from the cold. You stand to stretch and look out your window. Thank God that tree is being removed tomorrow. You hate to admit it, but the snow has even gotten to you. And you love that stuff. But now, when the threat of snow looms, you don't think of potluck dinner parties and bourbon. Your mind wants to race forward to a few months from now. The trees will start to green. The air will become sweet. The market will have peas. Then berries. Then peaches. You lift your wine glass from the coffee table. Malbec. The inky wine lightly splashes the sides of your glass. It's spicy and tastes of blackberries, cinnamon and oak. You sigh and take a long sip. It's the closest you'll get to berries for weeks. But, it tastes good. And the wine begins to shimmy through you, making you feel warm and happy. Enough emails for today. It's time for music. You start to flip through your iPod. Maybe some music to lift the mood. Something to make you feel warm and light. What goes with a Malbec? Journey. You smile. Yes, that is what the wine dictates. A little Journey. Separate Ways begins to fill the air. You can't help yourself. You love this song. Who can know for sure, but maybe it was the Malbec, or the music, or maybe the last dregs of snow madness in your body, but you feel like dancing. Clad in your fuzzy socks, you begin to move with the music. You sing along, swaying your hips and moving your shoulders. A little twirl before suddenly you lose your balance and Bam! Shit. That really hurt. You pick yourself up off the ground and curse your socks. Your hand is really hurting. You reach again for your glass and find it hurts to lift it. Now this is serious. It's probably only a sprain, you try to reason with yourself. But your hand is throbbing, and the sweet hum of the Malbec has vanished. I better get this checked out. You wrap your coat around you, then your scarf. You slip into your boots and head out the door. It's cold tonight. You exhale and see your breath. God, I'm ready for spring.

Kailee, seriously.  Damn, girl.....  :)

So, give it up for Mantonat, Kathy, Jennifer, and Kailee!!!!!!  And, to the four of you, I'll be in touch via email in the next day or two and we'll sort out some sort of prize situation.

*   *   *   *   *

Now, let's talk about food.  Or, more precisely, let's talk about foie gras:

Look how beautiful it is...


I mean, really... is there a lovelier thing?




Well, yeah... maybe that vein isn't so gorgeous, but still.  Mmmmmmm..... foie.  I remember when I was just starting out on my French Laundry at Home journey, how terrified I was of deveining a foie gras.  I was kinda scared to touch it, let alone take apart the lobes, clean it up, and cook it.  I had nightmares about it.  It haunted me.  And now?  Pffftttt.  Ain't no thang.

Even with a broken hand, I took this guy apart, cleaned it up, removed the huge veins, and cut it into 1" cubes.


I tossed those cubes in a salt, sugar, pink salt combo and molded the bunch of cubes into a semi-cylindrical shape (that part was a little difficult, not having the full use of my hand, but I did it the best I could) and put it in a sous vide Ziploc bag, sucked out all the air and stored it in the fridge for 24 hours.


Next, I made the cinnamon tea, which would be turned into some rather glorious cinnamon puffs.  To make the tea, I roasted some cinnamon sticks in a 350F-degree oven for 10 minutes, then poured some boiling water (to which I'd added salt and sugar) over them, added some cayenne, stirred, covered, and let the whole thing steep for 8 hours.


At the end of the 8-hour steep, I poured the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a saucepan and warmed the liquid to a simmer.


I poured the liquid into the bowl of my Kitchen Aid mixer, added some Methocel F-50 (the name of which reminds me of those Brawndo ads -- METHOCEL F-50 WILL MAKE YOU NEED *NEW PANTS*  METHOCEL F-50 WILL MAKE YOU *WIN* AT *YELLING*), and (using the whisk attachment) beat the crap outta that mixture for 8 minutes -- when it started to form stiff peaks.  METHOCEL F-50 WILL MAKE YOU *FORM* *STIFF PEAKS*!!!!


I put that meringue-like, amazing-smelling goodness into a Ziploc bag, cut off the corner, and piped little bite-sized morsels onto lined trays in my dehydrator. METHOCEL F-50 WILL MAKE YOU *WIN* AT *DEHYDRATING*!!!  [okay, stopping now]


The book suggests they'll be fully dehydrated and crisp after 4 hours.  Mine took nearly 12 hours (probably a residential vs. commercial dehydrator).  You'll see what they look like in the final plating shot.

The next thing I did was prep the apple candy, because I wanted to give it a chance to set overnight, if it needed to.  So, I heated the cider and glucose over medium heat, and whisked gently to dissolve the glucose:


Then, I mixed in some sugar, yellow pectin, and citric acid and brought it to a boil, whisking to dissolve.  When it had begun boiling, I added even more sugar, whisking to dissolve that, and heated it to 225F degrees.


I poured it into a Pam-sprayed 13x9" baking dish and let it cool and set.  Took about 2 hours.


I went to bed and finished everything for the dish about an hour or so before everyone came over.

I removed the foie from the Ziploc bag and rolled it in cheesecloth, tying the ends tightly.


I blanched the foie in boiling water for about 90 seconds, then plunged it into an ice bath for 10 minutes.



I removed it from the cheesecloth and pressed it through a tamis (also known as a fine-mesh sieve):



I put half of it on a tray and put it in the freezer for the other foie gras dish I was working on, and smushed the rest into a small Ziploc bag (with a cut off corner) so I could pipe it into the cinnamon puff, which I'd gently hollowed out using a cinnamon stick:


I squeezed in enough foie so that it was nearly full to the outer edge, then plugged up the hole with a small piece of apple candy (which had set much firmer than the olive brine candy I'd made recently):


Here's a plate of 'em:


And here's what they look like from the bottom:


They're cute, aren't they?  But I bet you're wondering what they tasted like.  Well, I tasted one before everybody came over, so I knew what I thought about them.  After my friends and I had eaten the foie-pear-sauternes dish you'll read about next week, I saw my friend, Sean, reach for one of these candies -- he was the first to try them -- and he popped it into his mouth, and three seconds later said, "whoa" because the cinnamon and cayenne kicked in, and as he chewed it (which you only need to do, like, four times before it's masticated), he just grinned and reached for another.  Everyone around the table loved them.  They pack a punch, that's for sure, but the flavor and the texture were divine.  There's the heat and the spice of the cinnamon and cayenne, yes.  And it's crunchy and crispy, but also kinda melts in your mouth as you chomp down on it... then the creamy foie taste kicks in and makes it all the more melty and smooth and flavorful.  And the apple candy?  It's sharp and fresh and sweet and really bridges the heat and spice with the foie.  I didn't know what these were gonna taste like.  I thought about what a foie-filled spicy meringue might  taste like, and I couldn't get my brain or my palate to go there.  Just wasn't happening.  Even if I could've conjured it, my imagination wouldn't have been able to fathom how delicious these really are in real life.  They're like little bites of a miracle is what they are.

So, I loved them, and my friends in the neighborhood loved them.  But that evening, I faced a tougher bunch of critics: some very sweet and amazing friends who also happen to be some of the city's most fun and well regarded food writers and culinary connoisseurs.  When we're together, we are not shy about how we talk about food, cooking, and restaurant experiences.  There are no holds barred if someone's had a bad dining experience.  On the other end of the spectrum, we rave on and on about places we love and food that's good, and do everything we can to promote great chefs, cooks, restaurants, meals, sommeliers, mixologists, shops, and whoever in town is doing things well.  So, knowing how open we all are with one another about our likes and dislikes, I knew to be prepared if they hated these foie-filled puffs.  They certainly wouldn't be shy about saying something.  Granted, they'd do it politely because we're friends, but still... I was ready.  I got to my friend's house, and we started cooking.  She'd already prepared some nibbles to tide us over while we made the rest of the evening's feast, and I ever-so-calmly put out a plate of the puffs and said, "These are from the Alinea cookbook, and they're cinnamon-cayenne puffs filled with apple candy and foie gras."  And I waited as they each took turns trying them.  I think "wow" was the word of the night, followed by "whoa" and I think one "are you kidding me?" because they were a hit, yet again!  Whew.  They'd lost a wee bit of the crispness in the 20-minute drive to her house, but that was to be expected. 

I feel like after the food slump I went through, it's about time that food did me right.  And, I feel like I'm on a roll again because everything was right with these puffs.  Everything.

NOTE: If you'd like to make these at home, here's the recipe, courtesy of Google Books.

Up Next: Pushed foie gras, sauternes, pear, chervil

Resources: Foie from the remarkable Hudson Valley Foie Gras; David's kosher salt; Domino pink sugar; Himalania pink salt; cinnamon sticks from HMart; cayenne pepper from the TPSS Co-op; Methocel F-50 from Terra Spice; Ziegler's apple cider; glucose, yellow pectin, and citric acid from L'Epicerie.

Music to Cook By: Duo; Richard Marx and Matt Scannell.  SHUT UP.  Do not mock the INJURED and the MUSIC THEY LISTEN TO.  Ahem.  "Duo" is an album by Richard Marx and Matt Scannell (former lead singer of Vertical Horizon) featuring the two of them duet-ing on acoustic versions of their individual greatest hits, and I like it.  Actually, I love it.  I am not ashamed of my Richard Marx fangirliness, so there.  Maybe if I mention Richard Marx and his name a few more times, Richard Marx, the Google alert he has set up for himself, Richard Marx, will pick up this post, which will make Richard Marx wanna email me and say, "Hey you, when I come to DC on my tour, I would love to have you take me, Richard Marx, to dinner so we can talk about how big a fan you are of me, Richard Marx."  There.  That should do it.  Richard Marx.  I found out about this album a few months ago when I was farting around online and discovered that Richard Marx HAS A BLOG where he posts video from the road, and I'm kind of obsessed with it.  So, I thought, hey, I've always liked this guy, and I love Matt Scannell, so I headed on over to iTunes and downloaded it.  Tune in next time when I sell all my possessions and move to the UK so I can stalk Simply Red.

Read My Previous Post: Orange, olive oil, almond, picholine olive 

December 28, 2009

Pork, grapefruit, sage, honeycomb

Hope you all have been enjoying the holidays, and for some of you, hopefully, some time off from all the hustle and bustle.  Last week's snowstorm put me into a comfy, cozy winter mood (yay!) but this past weekend's rain melted all two feet of the white, fluffy goodness, so I'm hoping we get pummeled again soon.  I'm taking it easy this week: working as little as possible and reading as often as I can while sneaking a movie or two into this amazingly comforting sloth thing I've got goin' on.

I made the Pork, grapefruit, sage, honeycomb dish from the Alinea cookbook a few weeks ago, and had some technical difficulties with my camera, so that's why I'm only getting around to posting this now.  Spoiler alert: if you have the book and some time off this week and want to tackle one of the recipes, make this one.  It's delicious.  Here goes....

I removed the silverskin and most of the fat from the pork tenderloin, then trimmed it into two 6" logs (using the thickest part of the tenderloin), then rolled them into cylinders tightly in Saran Wrap and tied the ends.  Put 'em in the fridge until I was ready to cook them.


Next, I made the sage pudding.  First, I brought to a boil some water, sugar, salt, and sage leaves.

DSC_0002 2 

When it came to a boil, I turned off the flame, covered the saucepan, and let the liquid steep for 20 minutes.  I then strained it into a clean saucepan, whisked in some agar agar and brought it to a boil for 90 seconds:

DSC_0005 2

I poured it through a chinois into a shallow pan and let it cool to room temperature, and it completely set:


I took about a third of the set "pudding" and put it in my blender and whacked it all up until it was smooth, pressed it through a fine mesh strainer, and stored it in the fridge until I was ready to plate:



While all this was going on, by the way, I was cooking a lovely piece of pork shoulder sous vide (180F degrees):




The pork shoulder needed to cook for five hours in the water bath, so I put that in first, then did everything else -- another of which was bake cornbread.  I used Shauna's corn bread recipe, and then improvised the corn bread puree step in the recipe, because I knew it wouldn't work exactly as written, since I'd made gluten-free cornbread:

DSC_0003 2 

I measured the 500g of corn bread I'd need, and added hot butter and cream mixture to it in the blender, but knew the texture wouldn't be right for the puree the book wanted me to do.  So, instead, I blended it, and pressed it into a baking dish, and chilled it until it was solid again.  Then, I cut out disks of the creamy corn bread and used that in the final plating (which you'll see in the final photo):




The pork shoulder still cooking along its merry little way, I caramelized some fennel:




I supremed and segmented a grapefruit:




And when the pork shoulder was done cooking, I pulled it apart into threads...


... which I deep fried, then liberally salted, in batches of 8 (one for each plated serving):




While I fried each bit of pork shoulder, I was bringing a pot of water to 135F degrees (it would have taken to long to let my immersion circulator bring the pork shoulder water down from 180 to 135) in which to cook the pork tenderloin:




I sliced the tenderloin into 1" medallions, and began to plate -- a corn "puree" disk, dollops of sage pudding, drops of honey, crispy pork shoulder, grapefruit pieces, sage leaves, fennel fronds, pieces of caramelized fennel...


If someone had invited me to dinner and said, "I'm making a pork-grapefruit dish, whaddya think" I'm not so sure I would have been all that thrilled about it becase a) I don't think I'd ever thought about those two ingredients together in one dish before; and b) when I did think about it, it didn't jump out at me as something I needed to make or eat.

That said, this dish changed my mind about grapefruit -- which has always been as bitter to me as cilantro has been soapy and milk chocolate has been metallic.  The flavor profile of this dish is just fantastic -- salty crispy fried pork shoulder with cool, airy fennel, soothing sage, sweet and creamy corn, smooth pork tenderloin, and the acid of the grapefruit and the sweet, floral balance of the honey (I used a local guy's honey from here in town -- didn't do the honey comb/extractor thing).... it was really, really delicious. 

When I was growing up, we had a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of eating pork, sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes on New Year's Day.  I might just have to alter that tradition and make this dish (or a variation of it) again for my friends on this New Year's Day.  If pork is in your future, think about the elements of this dish and see what you can come up with on your own -- I think you'll love it.

I'll be back in a few days with a post that has a little something to do with these:


I've been practicing, but boy am I rusty.  Getting back into tap shoes feels really good, but this little performance of mine most definitely has the potential to be pretty, pret-ty bad.  I originally had plans to light sparklers and twirl them around as I danced, as a distraction from my bad footwork, but thanks to Mister Amsterdamian-Detroitian-Nigerian Terrorist Dude, I get the feeling that lighting anything on fire in front of the White House anytime in the near future will be frowned upon.  Dangit.  But the dancing shall commence... trust.

Stay tuned.... (and there's still time to donate!)

Resources: Pork from Whole Foods; sage, fennel, and grapefruit from HMart; agar agar from L'Epicerie; Organic Valley heavy cream; honey from the TPSS Co-op.

Music to Cook By: I made a "Mad Men" playlist based on the songs used in the series.  The list is here.  I'm addicted, and officially, an old fart 'cause I am totally enjoying all these OLD SONGS.  I think I was born in the wrong era.

Read My Previous Post: Trout roe, coconut, licorice, pineapple (kinda, sorta)

December 07, 2009

Pork Belly, pickled vegetables, BBQ sugar, polenta

I will confess, I'm kinda tired of all the rah-rah bacon and oooooooo, pork belly talk in the media, on the Internet, and everywhere else. And by saying that, it's not like I'm trying to be all, "I liked bacon before bacon was cool." Not at all. I just have reading-and-talking-about-pork fatigue.

I mean, I get it: I love pork and you love pork. What's not to love about pork? Pork is great. But can we talk about something else for once? PLEASE?

Oh, crap.


This entry is supposed to be all about pork. Pork belly, actually, Alinea-style.


I have high standards for pork belly, in case you were wondering.  (shocker)  Why?  The two best pork belly dishes I've ever had were at Alinea and Per Se.  (yes, I'm spoiled, and I'm the first to admit it)

After my dinner at Alinea in May, I wrote this about the pork belly course:

Our next course was pork belly, served in a cucumber juice-infused lettuce cup with a variety of Thai spices and flavors, and a shot glass off to the side with a really clean and lovely (and not overpoweringly spicy-hot) distillation of Thai green chili and lemongrass.  Now, I'm of the school of thought that it's really hard to screw up pork belly, but it also takes someone special to make it sing and make you go from, "oh cool, pork belly" to "HOLY MOTHER OF CHARLES NELSON REILLY THIS IS AMAZING!!!!"  This course was a perfect balance of cool, heat, salt, kick, and crisp.  Again, I could've eaten three or eleventy kabillion of these, too.

After my birthday dinner at Per Se in August 2008, I wrote this about the pork belly course:

* "Smoke;" All-Day Braised Hobbs Shore's Pork Belly, Heirloom Beets, and Burgundy Mustard. I knew what type of preparation was coming when I saw the crystal spheres being so gently and carefully carried into the room, but I had no idea I was in for the single best piece of pork belly I've eaten in my life. This dish, if you'll indulge me in a rather nerdy confession, almost made me cry, it was so good. The reveal that takes place when the top of the sphere is removed and the smoke rises up and into and onto your palate is such a wonderful tease, and to be able to feast on even that small morsel of pork belly that has spent a day braising to absolute perfection (along with beets and mustard that more than held their own) is nirvana.

Over the years, I've had pork belly in many, many restaurants, and I can't recall any of them ever being bad or awful or just not right.  Some have been outstanding, and many of them very, very good.  But those two stand out in my mind far above the rest because they stopped me in my freakin' tracks and made me wanna slap somebody.  HARD.  A quiet storm of delightfully hysterical deliciousness, they were.

So imagine the standard I set for myself when starting out to make this dish from the Alinea cookbook.  It couldn't be just good or okay.  I wanted it to be EXCELLENT.  I wanted it be AWESOME.  It had to bring me to my knees. 

No pressure.

In reviewing the recipe and instructions one more time before getting started, I realized that none of these components were difficult.  They all involved ingredients I was very comfortable with, and techniques I (now) know well.  Still, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect and excellent and turn out a fantastic bite of food, because who wants to fail at pork belly?

I made the cure: sugar, kosher salt, smoked paprika, chipotle chili powder:


Then, I rinsed and dried the piece of pork belly I was going to cure:


Then, I packed that sucker in among the cure and rolled it tight in a ziploc bag and stored it in the fridge for two days.


After two days, it looked like this:


Because the Cryovac Fairy still hasn't shown up at my house, I've been looking into other options for vacuum-sealing my plastic bags better for cooking en sous vide.  The FoodSaver is out -- it doesn't really work and pulls out too much moisture when sealing.  And, while I'm getting better and better at wrapping things on my own, I wanted to try another method, so I splurged (**cough$4.25cough**heybigspender) on the Ziploc-brand hand-vacuum sous vide kit at my local Giant grocery store:


Really easy to use, and the hand pump was a no-brainer:


But, as the bag o'bacon wiled away the hours (four of them, to be exact) in the 190F-degree water, I noticed that it would rise to the top every 40-45 minutes. And, I could see that air (but luckily no water, 'cause I kept that part above the water's surface) was seeping in.


So, I just kept pumping out the air as often as I could, and hoped for the best.

While the pork belly spent time underwater, I worked on the smoked paprika tuile -- or, the BBQ Sugar portion of our program. 

In a small saucepan, I heated fondant, glucose, and isomalt to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, then poured it onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet:




That doesn't look right, does it?  I should've, at that point, trusted my instincts and thrown it back in the pot and taken it up another 50 degrees or so, but I didn't.  I figured I'd sort it out after it had hardened.  Which it didn't really do.  I mean, it got hard (heh... /dirty), but it was still a little bendy.  Regardless, I broke off 75g of it and threw it into my spice grinder with some sweet smoked paprika and cayenne, and set about turning it into powder:


I walked over to the other side of my kitchen to plug in the grinder and get it goin' when this happened:

Not sure how it happened, to be honest, but I dropped the whole thing, the contents of which went all over my pants, my shoes, the floor, the lower cupboard door knobs, the trash can pedal.  EVERYWHERE.  I let many, many expletives fly (because I wanted so much for this to go well), and went back to the tray of white lumpy stuff, tore off another 75g, weighed more cayenne and paprika and tried again -- this time in a little mini-food processor/chopper thingie that sat on a counter and did not require my holding it.

But even after that, it ended up looking like this (and not a fine powder):


So, I threw it into a small saucepan and figured I'd heat the crap out of it until it was melted and smooth and would harden on the Silpat:






(doing the cabbage-patch over here, complete with white-girl's overbite)

I broke it up into pieces and put it back in a now-clean mini-chopper, and let 'er rip:



Then, I put it through a fine-mesh strainer so that I'd have the finest powder in town:


I made a square stencil (by cutting a 2x2" square out of a piece of paper) and, using yet another fine-mesh strainer, sifted the fine sugary, paprika and cayenne powder onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet in eight little squares:



I put them into a 350F-degree oven for a minute.  The book said to "turn the squares once" after 30 seconds, but I didn't know if that meant actually flipping them with an offset spatula (which seemed odd and not possible) or turning the tray around, which didn't really make sense to me either, so I did neither.

I did, however, keep the oven door open a crack while I counted out those 60 seconds.  Not sure why, but it felt like the right thing to do.


While they cooled, I diced some red bell pepper:


I made some carrot balls and soaked them in sugar, water, and white wine vinegar:


And I made some cucumber balls, too:


The pork belly was done sous vide-ing, so I plunged it, still in the bag, in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process:



I trimmed and cut it and made 1" squares that were about 1/4"-1/2" thick:


(I saved all the rest of it in a bag, thinking I'd snack on it over the next few days.  Um, yeah. I finished it that night.  Oink.)

I made the polenta, and added lovely, lovely butter and mascarpone:


Then, I seared the pork belly squares over very high heat on one side only, until that one side was nearly charred:



Then, I arranged all eight pork squares on a small baking sheet, topped each one with two carrot balls, two cucumber balls, and a wee piece of red bell pepper in the center


I topped each one with one of the hardened paprika-cayenne tuille squares, then put them under the broiler, so the squares could melt down and around the pork belly and its adornments (which took all of 5 seconds) and then re-harden.

To plate, I put a blob of polenta on a spoon, topped each one with a pork belly square, and added a few leaves of marjoram:



There were eight spoons.  There were eight people.

We each took one, opened our mouths, inserted a spoon, slid it out, then chewed.

It's the quietest my house has EVER been.

And, it's the most I've wanted to slap someone hard across the face over something I made.  It was THAT good.

Smoky pork with a bit of heat (but not a ton); smooth, warm, delicious polenta; cool, crunchy vegetables; the sweet, smoky, salty envelopment; and, the marjoram... still now today, days after eating it, I'm having trouble summoning the right words -- any words, for that matter -- to describe how good this was.  It's definitely the best thing I've made for the blog, hands-down.  But even bigger than that, it really and truly is one of the best things I've ever made in my whole life.

It's times like these I wish I could have every single one of you here in my house, standing around my dining room table, taking a bite, and savoring it, so that I could say, "See... SEE!??!!?!?  THIS is why I love to cook from this book.  This pork belly bite is sooooo WORTH MAKING!!! TRY IT!!!!"  And, I wouldn't even slap you.  Well maybe I would.  And you'd probably like it.

Up Next: Trout Roe, coconut, licorice, pineapple (MAJOR adaptation on this one, y'all)

Resources: Domino sugar; David's kosher salt; paprika, cayenne, and chipotle chili powder from TPSS Co-op; Cedarbrook Farm pork belly; fondant from that stinky craft store, Michaels; glucose and isomalt from L'Epicerie; bell pepper, carrot, marjoram, and cucumber from Whole Foods; Terra Midi white wine vinegar; Bob's Red Mill polenta; 365 butter; Crave Brothers mascarpone.

Music to Cook By: The Editors; The Back Room.  Thanks to my Twitter compatriot EricDM1 who answered my call for new music a few weeks ago.  He suggested their album "In This Light and On This Evening," which I also love, but there's something about The Back Room that is just captivating.

Read My Previous Post: Niçoise Olive, saffron, dried cherry, olive oil

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