July 24, 2011

Hazelnut, apricot, curry-scented granola

2011 is weird.  So freakin' weird.

I don't know how else to explain my absences from this blog.  It drives me crazy.  All I think about all day long is food and cooking and what I'm making for dinner that night, and which Alinea dish I want to cook next.

But, with the kind of work I'm doing right now for my clients -- coupled with the state of affairs in Washington (you watch the news; you know what I'm talking about) -- I really feel like I don't have a life anymore.  I mean, yes, I do get out every now and then to see friends and am not a complete and total hermit.  But.  My time is not my own these days.  There is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait.  There are also a lot of meetings that require days and nights of prep, just in time for them to be canceled because of potential federal budget cuts, and other shenanigans here in our nation's capital.  And, to complicate matters further, I'm actually working downtown three days a week in a client's office, so I don't have as much time here at the house during the week to cater to my food life as I used to.  I miss it.

It's frustrating.  And yes, while I am beyond grateful to have work and an income and the ability to pay my mortgage, I am looking forward to the month of August when the city shuts down, Congress goes on its August recess, and the pace becomes closer to normal.  I need to catch my breath. 

Much to my surprise -- in between my "day job," the book writing, and this new project I started earlier in the month -- I had an unexpected two days off this weekend... well, big chunks of time on two consecutive days, really, so I made my shopping list, and got to work on an Alinea dish.

It felt SO GOOD to be in my kitchen for more than 7 minutes at a time.  It also didn't hurt that it was 900 frajillion degrees outside, so to have something fun to do in my cool air-conditioned house was a bonus.

I started with the hazelnut pudding.  I toasted some hazelnuts for about 15 minutes in a 350F-degree oven, and then added them to a pan of simmering whole milk.  The smell of the toasted hazelnuts and milk simmering hit home for me that feeling I get when I smell someone drinking that horrifying hazelnut-"flavored" coffee, or using one of those jank-ass hazelnut cream substitutes in their coffee or tea.  THAT is not a hazelnut smell (or taste, frankly).  What was going on in my kitchen in this saucepan?  THIS is hazelnut.  Plain and simple.


I turned off the burner and let the mixture come to room temperature, then covered the pan and stored in the refrigerator overnight.

The following morning, I got started on the apricot-curry sauce.  I brought some dried apricots and water to a boil, then turned off the burner and let them steep for a half hour:


I poured the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer and reserved the liquid, which came out to 289g -- I needed 300g of the apricot-infused water to keep moving forward with this element of the dish, so I was in decent shape.  I poured the 289g of liquid into a small saucepan and added sweet curry powder and saffron, and simmered until it had reduced to a thicker syrupy-like consistency.  


I strained that through a fine-mesh strainer and added a bit of fresh-squeezed lemon juice.  Then, I whisked in some canola oil to emulsify it before adding a few grams of salt.  You'll see the sauce in the final plating photo.

While the apricots were steeping in the hot water in that earlier step, I made the hazelnut granola.  One of the things I really like about the Alinea cookbook is that it introduced me to the concept of savory granola.  I'd been making my own sweet granola for years, but had never made a savory or curry granola before.

Get a load of this goodness:


Puffed wild rice, honey, canola oil, sweet and hot curry powder, chopped hazelnuts, old-fashioned rolled oats, and freshly ground black pepper

I roasted the granola in a 350F-degree oven for 15 minutes, stirring it every 3-4 minutes, so it wouldn't burn.

While that cooled, I took the hazelnut and milk mixture out of the refrigerator and poured it all into the blender and pureed it on high speed for a minute or two.  Then, I strained it through a chinois and poured that liquid back into the blender (which I'd rinsed out), and added some high-acyl gellan gum and some hazelnut oil and blended it until it was thicker and creamier than it had been. (sorry, forgot to photograph this step)

The book then suggests I put this mixture into a Pacojet canister with the aeration attachment and process it for on full cycle.  Yeah.  I didn't do that because I sadly don't own a Pacojet.  So, I did the next best thing: whipped the hell out of it with my Kitchen Aid, using a chilled bowl.

Hey, gotta improvise.  [But, I think my final plating photo will show that I do, in fact, NEED a Pacojet, so whoever wants to just send me one, please feel free to do so.  I'll give it a good home, I promise.]

The last step is one of the most important ones, because it is supposed to (foreshadowing!) yield the most beautiful translucent apricot-colored and -flavored cylinder to encase the savory granola.  The photos of this dish in the book are just gorgeous (particularly the cylinder full of granola), and I couldn't wait to just NAIL this step and feel like the Queen of Everything.

I started by heating and melting together isomalt, fondant, and glucose powder:


Now, the book says to bring it all the way up to 320F degrees, but it started to get really, really dark at 260-270, and then smelled really burny at 280, so I took it to 300 and then poured it onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet, per the book's instructions, to cool/harden:


Uuuuuuummmmmmmm, I do not think that is a translucent, apricotty color AT ALL.  It got slightly lighter when I ground it to a powder along with some freeze-dried apricots, but....


I had a feeling this was not going to end well.

After grinding it into a fine powder, the book instructs to sift the powder onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet in a thin layer and put that baking sheet in a 200F-degree oven so the powder will melt into a bendy film-like substance that you can cut into rectangles that you'll then roll around a 1" dowel to make cylinders.

Which... well....


Yeah.  Not so much.

Kinda looked like a hippie flaxseed cracker gone horribly wrong.

I decided to abandon this portion of our program, and just go straight to the elements that DID work and see if I could salvage the dessert somehow. 

I'd filled a few little parfait glasses with the hazelnut pudding so it could chill and set in the refrigerator.  Then, I topped that with a layer of the apricot-curry sauce (which looks like it's missing in the photo below because it sunk right into the pudding), and then sprinkled some granola on top:



I took a bite, and holy saltballs, Batman!  I went back and re-read the entire recipe to make sure I hadn't messed up my salt measurements in any of the dish's components, and I hadn't.  It was just so, so salty -- and this, coming from a girl who has a healthy respect for salt in her cooking.  I broke off a few pieces of the not-cylinders (since that was a sweet component of the dish and I thought it might balance the next bite) and tossed those in before taking another bite, but it didn't make it any better.

It also didn't help that the hazelnut pudding ended up being not pudding... and instead was more like a melted milkshake:



But, in the spirit of trying to find the bright side, I guess this means there's lots of leftover curry granola for me to sprinkle onto some Greek yogurt for breakfast this week.  Maybe top it with some nectarine slices... a drizzle of honey.

Cloud, meet silver lining.

Up Next: Pork Cheek, pumpernickel, gruyere, ramps

Resources: Hazelnuts, honey, curry powders, saffron, lemons, and apricots from the TPSS Co-op; Natural by Nature milk; Domino sugar; David's kosher salt; high-acyl gellan gum from Terra Spice; La Tourangelle hazelnut oil; 365 canola oil; Lundberg rice; Bob's Red Mill gluten-free oats; glucose powder and isomalt from L'Epicerie; fondant from Michaels; Honeyville freeze-dried apricots.

Music to Cook By: A hefty backlog of podcasts -- Nerdist, KCRW Good Food; Splendid Table; and NPR Fresh Air.

Read My Previous Post: Sunday Dinner; English peas, tofu, ham, pillow of lavender air

April 01, 2011

I'm no fool, and neither are you...

Oh, you guys ...

I had not one, but TWO April Fool's Day stunts in the works.  TWO, I tell ya.

They were/are phenomenally hilarious. (but I'm not telling you what they were)

For reasons I cannot go into, I had to pull the plug on both due to circumstances (of the other participants) beyond my control, and a production timeline that was hampered by unforseen travel mishaps and scheduling hiccups.  It just wasn't meant to be.

Then, literally minutes after the pranks fell apart, it looked like something even better was going to shake out -- a major, national broadcast media outlet was supposed to come to my house yesterday to cook with me and do a feature story that would run over the weekend.  So, it wouldn't have made sense for a prank post to be up anyway, and instead, it would have been a really fun news story with a great accompanying post.

And THEN, that got the very-last-minute kibosh because of breaking news elsewhere in the world (::: shakes fist at Qaddafi :::), so here I am.  Prankless.  Postless.

Photo 19

So, what can we do today?

Here's an idea: how 'bout you let me gloat for one minute about something nice Richard Blais said about me in his Washington Post live chat yesterday, and I'll make it worth your while.

Check this out:

Picture 1

I SQUEEEEEEED out loud, passed out and died, then came back to life and died again. And now, I've come back to life again to squuueeeee some more.  So, so, so, so nice of him.  Bee-tee-dubs, if you're interested in the end-of-Top-Chef-season video chat I did with WaPo food editor Joe Yonan and deputy editor Bonnie Benwick yesterday that's here.

Okay, so now let's make the rest of this post all about you.  You, you, YOU!!

Remember when I was raising money for Share Our Strength, and I danced along to the Michael Jackson Wii game?  Wellllll, the good folks at Ubisoft saw the video, got in touch to tell me they loved it, and sent two copies of The Michael Jackson Experience (for Wii) to give away to YOU!  It's a really fun game, with all of MJ's great tunes from the 70s and 80s, and the only thing more fun than playing it is watching other people play it.

I've also got three brand spankin' new copies of Grant Achatz' memoir Life, on the Line that need to find permanent homes with some of you.

So that's five -- count 'em -- FIVE things I'm gonna give away over the next few days to make up for the fact that I am a prankless April Fool.

How can you win?



Say hi.

Tell me a joke.

Sing me a song.

Write a haiku.

Tell me how your day is.

What are you doing this weekend?

How's the weather?

Who's going to win the White House in 2012?

Are you as angry about Mad Men being delayed as I am?

Say something, anything in the comments. 

But really, if you've been hanging out here for awhile and haven't ever commented, we'd all love a hey and hello.

This giveaway is open to everyone, so let 'er rip.  I'll probably wrap it all up on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, when I hope to have a new food post up.  Gotta do something with all the chicken skin and truffles I've got lying around, now that a certain Libyan leader is HOGGING ALL MY PRESS COVERAGE.

Have at it in the comments -- go!

And, if you'd like to relive some April Fools moments, here's a trip down Memory Lane:

Alinea at Home, on the Road!

Alinea at Home Extra: BIG NEWS!!!

French Laundry at Home Forced to Close: Final Post


October 11, 2010

Tomato, balloon of mozzarella, many complementary flavors


December 01, 2009

Niçoise Olive, saffron, dried cherry, olive oil

It's been a little over a year since my celiac diagnosis, and, generally, when I cook at home, I just avoid foods with gluten or foods that require me to figure out work-arounds or substitutes. However, there are times when I crave something from "the good old days" and have to figure out how to make it sans gluten. Sometimes, I nail it on the first try and it's fantastic, and other times, I blow it bigtime and the final product ends up being such a cockup that it's inedible, unbakeable, or just plain wrong and bad.

This dish is the first time I was stuck somewhere in the middle. The shortbread wasn't terrible, but there was a texture thing that just didn't sit right with me. I didn't fully expect it to look like the one in the photo or taste like I know shortbread tastes. It was kinda grainy, almost sandy -- but like fine, wet sand, not the dry, blows-in-your-eyes stuff. And sandy not in a totally bad way, if that's even possible to fathom. I just wanted it to be better. To be right. So, I'll include the steps for how I made it gluten-free and if any of you experts out there know how you'd tweak it, please, hit it in the comments.

But let's start with the first thing you have to do when making this dish, and that's dehydrate some Niçoise olives in the dehydrator at 150 degreesF for 24 hours.  I love the way my house smelled during that time.



Sorry for the blurry shots.  I thought I'd saved the good ones and trashed the bad ones.  Whoopsie.

Have I ever told you about how much I hated olives?  FOR YEARS.  Until I was in my early 30s, I believe.  I couldn't stand the smell, loathed the taste, and just thought they were like little black and green turds getting in the way of good food.  I was fine with tapenade, but whole olives skeeved me out.  I know.  There's no explaining it.  I'm weird.  Their flavor was just too concentrated, and I was squicked out by gnawing them then leaving the pits in a little bowl off to the side.  The Lovey Howell in me looked down my nose at myself and huffed that it was simply appalling behavior.

Then, one night, I was having dinner with a group of friends and there was a particularly handsome and funny guy at the table with us.  We were drinking martinis, and I'd left the olives in the glass because I hated them.  He asked how I could possibly leave the best part of the martini behind (and inside my head I was all, "Um, I drank the gin, which is the best part, am I right?), but because he was cute and I am a girl, I said something like, "I was just getting to those!"  And I ate them.  Just popped them in my mouth and hoped for the best.  Maybe it's because the gin and vermouth mellowed the olive flavor a bit, but I loved them.  From that point on, I've been eating olives with abandon (and not just in martinis) and really liking them.  So thanks a lot, cute guy, for getting me over one of my long-held food loathings.  



MAN, and just like when I wrote about peanut butter in an earlier post and got a craving for it, I just now went downstairs and pulled some Mantequilla olives (cured with fennel) out of the fridge and will probably OD on them as I write the rest of this post.  Mmmmmm-mmmmmm.....

Okay, now where were we.  Ah, yes.... dehydrated Niçoise olives.

I spread 'em all out on a few trays, dried them over 24 hours, then put the dried olives with some olive oil into the blender and blended away...



I strained it through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl (then into a squeeze bottle) and set it aside until it was time to plate.


The next thing I made was the olive oil jam.  And, sad but true, when I saw Michael Jackson's "This Is It" a few weekends ago (which featured these awesome hydraulic below-stage speedy, toaster-like lifts I want to install in my house), in my head I sang along with "Jam" using the lyrics, "olive oil, olive oil JAM."  No more onion jam singing. It's all about the olive oil... olive oil JAM.

Check out my def precision in measuring the Trimoline (100g) and glucose (100g):


Damn, I'm good.

While I brought those two things to a boil, I cracked five eggs and saved the yolks for the next step:


I tempered the yolks with the glucose mixture, pouring it all in ever so slowly, then put the glucose-Trimoline-yolk combo into the food processor with kosher salt.


I mixed and mixed and processed and processed, while drizzling in olive oil from above through the feed tube:


After letting it sit there for 30 seconds while I turned on the camera again, the emulsion started to break (see how the oil is separating from the rest?).


I kept it in the processor bowl while I refrigerated it before plating, knowing I'd probably have to blend it again before using it in the final preparation.

The next thing I did was grind these lovely freeze-dried cherries in my spice grinder:



Then, it was on to the shortbread.  To make it gluten-free, I took out the 360g of all-purpose flour the book called for and subbed in 180g rice flour, 160g sorghum flour, and 20g cornstarch.

In my food processor, I combined that flour mixture, along with the almond flour, confectioners' sugar, and salt, and mixed it briefly until everything had combined.  Then, I added the butter in little cubes and the olive oil, and processed it some more until it became crumbly:


I put the mixture onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and baked it in a 325-degree oven for 20 minutes. 


I let the golden-brown crumbles cool to room temperature (took about 30 minutes) then put them back into the food processor (I did it in two batches) and processed it until it was -- and the book says this -- "a sandy paste."


So yeah, it looks like wet sand, which explains maybe why it tasted like wet sand when it was done?  I put the sandy paste onto a sheet of parchment, topped it with another sheet of parchment, and gently rolled it out until it was 1/8" thick.


I slid the sheet-covered dough onto a baking sheet and into the refrigerator for an hour.  When it had firmed up and completely cooled, I cut 1x3"-ish rectangles and moved them to a separate tray and put 'em back in the fridge for another 30 minutes.



Here's the part where it all kind of goes to hell.  So, after the little shortbread jobbies had been in the fridge, I brought them back out and piped the olive oil jam onto a few of them and topped each with another shortbread piece.


Um, I don't think it was supposed to look or act like that.

I was supposed to use a heat gun to flash the cookies and seal in the jam, but this happened before I could even finish doing 2 or 3 of them.  Just started oozing out and makin' me look the fool.  And, since I didn't have a heat gun (not like it would've mattered at that point, anyway) I threw them back in the oven (which I'd accidentally left on all that time, duh) for five minutes, but it didn't make a bit of difference.  I even tried sealing one of them with my creme brulee torch, but ended up setting the parchment paper on fire (see upper left corner of photo above).  So, I just cleaned them up as best I could and began plating.

First on the spoon (since these are, ideally, one-bite numbers) went a small blob of olive oil jam -- since most of it oozed out from the shortbread, I thought I'd put a little on the spoon.  Then, I topped it with the shortbread pieces.  Atop each one of those went a blob of Niçoise olive puree, a pinch of ground dried cherries, and a few saffron threads:



Was it awful?  No, not at all.  It was actually a little too sweet for me.  I think I was expecting a more savory shortbread (not sure why I thought that, but I did), but it wasn't terrible.  It was more a texture thing than anything.  It was like gummy sand.  Sort of left a bit of a film on the roof of your mouth.  I loved the way the Niçoise puree and the cherry and saffron played into it -- it definitely had some depth of flavor with all that.  But I wanted it to be more than what it was.  I think it had something to do with de-glutenizing it, but I'm also disappointed that the olive oil jam was as runny as it was.  And, I wish it had been more olive-y.

Harumph.... ya win some, and ya not-really-lose-but-wish-ya-coulda-done-better-at-some.

Up Next: Pork Belly, pickled vegetables, BBQ sugar, polenta

Resources: Olives from Whole Foods; Monini olive oil; eggs from Smith Meadows Farm; Trimoline and glucose from L'Epicerie; David's kosher salt; Bob's Red Mill flours; Domino confectioners' sugar; 365 butter; Just Cherries freeze-dried cherries; saffron from TPSS Co-op.

Music to Cook By: Friendly Fires; Friendly Fires.  I was in a squidgy mood a week or so ago and desperately needed some new music suggestions.  I threw a call for help out on my Twitter feed, and got so many great suggestions -- thank you so much!!  Friendly Fires was the suggestion of "tomdarch," so thanks, kind sir.  This album was great to cook to, and to answer email to, and to do the dishes to, and to generally bebop and fadawdle around the house to.

Read My Previous Post: Peanut, five other flavors

September 02, 2009

Huckleberry, soda, five flavors gelled

When I was in second and third grade, my friends and I would jump rope on the playground at recess.  One of the songs, or rhymes, we'd jump to went like this:

Strawberry shortcake, huckleberry pie, what's the initial of the boy I like?

And then, the girls would start chanting the alphabet as they swung the rope around overhead faster and faster, and you'd have to jump at hot-pepper speed, and inevitably, you'd miss a jump of the rope and the letter of the alphabet on which you did that was supposed to reveal the first initial of the boy you liked.  I wasn't necessarily a boy-crazy little girl back then, so instead, I remember focusing extra-hard not to mess up on any of the letters of the boys who were really gross, lest my friends would think I liked that stupid, icky boy, or something.  I mean, ew.  Who knew jumping rope could be so stressful and potentially damaging to my 7-year old public image?  [/weird kid moment #413,671,994,677]

Before making this dish, I'd never tasted a fresh huckleberry.  I knew they were plentiful in the Pacific Northwest and in a few other regions of the country, but they are not commonplace here in the mid-Atlantic; meaning, they're not something you find easily at the farmers market or grocery store.  They're not something found all that readily on menus here in town, either.  So, I did some research online and called around and found that I could order some from producers out west, but it chapped my ass to think about paying anywhere from $40 - 100 for a few pounds of huckleberries, which would've arrived frozen... not that that's any big deal, but I wanted to know what fresh, off-the-bush huckleberries smelled like.  I wanted to hold them in my hands and take a deep, olfactory-orgasmic whiff... I wanted to see if they tasted like a sunset.  I wanted to know how the tastes and smells changed with heat.  So, while I knew I could make some sort of berry substitution to make this work, I didn't want to give up that easily on my quest for fresh huckleberries.

However, just to be safe, I put out a notice on my Twitter feed asking for huckleberry substitutions (just blueberries? Blueberries with some raspberries and tarragon or star anise thrown in?) in case I couldn't get my hands on some, when lo and behold, my friend, Andy Little, chef at The Sheppard Mansion in Hanover, PA, texted me with this message: I have fresh huckleberries coming in tomorrow.  Want some?


I'm quite the professional business communicator, as you can see.

I called Andy, and he called his produce maven, Kathy Glahn, to verify and she said she'd have 3 pounds of huckleberries for him (me!) the following day.  Andy had wanted to work with huckleberries this summer, so he asked Kathy to grow them for him, and she did.  (love that!)  So, the next day, I hopped in the car and drove 90 minutes to Hanover to spend some time with Andy and see what he was up to in the kitchen, and pick up my huckleberries.  I love spending time in Andy's kitchen.  The smells are intoxicating, and the quality of his final product rivals some of the better restaurants I've eaten in.  Having grown up in south central PA, I know it's home to some of the most delicious and abundant produce, and it's such a treat to know a chef that can make the "food of my people" that much better.

Huckleberries in hand, I drove home to start working on this dish.  The berries sat on the passenger seat of the car, and it was all I could do not to eat all of them right away.  I tasted 3 or 4 of them in the kitchen with Andy before I left and loved how rich and fresh and dark and acidic and sweet and barely-a-whisp-of-anise-y they were.  They were so, so ripe, so I had to start working with them that night.

I put the huckleberries in a saucepan with some sugar and lemon juice and brought it to a boil over medium heat.


I lowered the heat and let them simmer for about 12 minutes, until the berries had really released their juices:


I strained the cooked berries, discarded the solids, and set aside the juice to let it cool to room temperature:


After the juice had cooled, I remembered that I needed to set aside 300g for the huckleberry strips.  The rest went into the siphon canister and into the fridge for the soda portion of our program during plating. 

To make the huckleberry strips, I gently warmed the juice, and then stirred in some gelatin sheets I'd soaked in water for five minutes.  I stirred the mixture until the gelatin had dissolved, poured it onto a small sheet tray, and put it in the refrigerator to set.


There was one more step I needed to do before going to bed -- start the first layer of the gelee.

Having grown up eating layered Jell-o "salads," I had high hopes for this dish.  The layered Jell-o dishes from my childhood (red-white-blue, strawberry with banana slices, or rainbow layers with fruit cocktail and walnuts strewn throughout -- I know, barf) have become hilarious fodder among my cousins, and my one cousin, Ann, and I regularly send each other vintage Jell-o cookbooks when we find them at book sales or estate sales.

This dish was, to me, going to be a far tastier and far more refined Jell-o mold, so I figured my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage came in handy in not just the huckleberry procurement, but would also, surely help guide me in the making of this gorgeous layered gelatin creation.

The first layer was a hazelnut gelee.  I toasted the hazelnuts over medium heat for about 10 minutes, and set aside 8 of them for garnish when the dish was complete.  


The remaining nuts went into a large pot and were joined by some water, skim milk, sugar, and salt.  I brought that mixture to a boil, then turned off the flame, blended everything with an immersion blender, then let the mixture cool to room temperature before putting it in the fridge to cool overnight.  I'm not much of a hazelnut fan.  I don't really love their taste (although, I don't hate it, either), but the way this mixture smelled as it warmed and then cooled?  Divine.



The next morning, I strained the hazelnut liquid mixture and threw away the solids. 



While the gelatin sheets were soaking, I warmed the now-strained hazelnut liquid, then stirred in the gelatin until it was dissolved.  I strained the liquid again.

I lined (and built up the sides of) a square pan and poured 350g of the hazelnut liquid into it, and put it in the fridge to set.


While the hazelnut layer set, I started working on the chocolate layer.

The book suggests using milk chocolate for this layer, but I used a combination of dark-bitter and semi-sweet.  Pure milk chocolate, to me, tastes like what licking a 9-volt battery must taste like, so I went a little darker.


I chopped 275g of chocolate, put it in a bowl, then poured some boiling water over it.  I stirred it gently with a rubber spatula (careful to not aerate it) until the chocolate was melted.  I added sheets of already-soaked gelatin, stirred until they'd dissolved, strained the liquid again, and poured it on top of the now-set hazelnut gel.



While that sat in the fridge to set, I watched an episode of Mad Men, started a load of laundry, and emptied the dishwasher, and did some minor pantry organizing.  Why?  Well, because I cheated on the next layer of gelee, thus giving me some free time I otherwise would've spent working on the smoked cream layer.

The book suggests actually smoking the half-and-half in a smoker with smoldering hardwood chips for an hour.  And, since I don't have a smoker, I was going to ask to use a friend's smoker, but they were on vacation, and I didn't just want to waltz on into their backyard without permission while they were gone and use anything remotely related to fire.

So, instead, I added six drops of Liquid Smoke to warmed half-and-half before stirring in the gelatin, then layering it on top of the chocolate layer.


The next-to-last layer was a fennel stalk gelee.  I blanched, ice-bathed, then pureed fennel stalks (adding some sugar and salt after straining the puree.





I added the gelatin sheets, stirred until they were dissolved, then poured the same amount -- 350g -- of this liquid atop the now-set smoked cream layer.  I forgot to take a photo of this layer, but I'm sure you can imagine what it looked like.

The final layer was a lemon verbena gelee.  I bought and planted lemon verbena this spring, solely for this dish, so I walked out into the garden and plucked the leaves fresh off the plant. 

I brought some water and sugar to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolved the sugar, then added the lemon verbena leaves to steep for 10 minutes.  I find most lemon verbena-scented things (soaps, creams, etc.) way too overpowering, but this steeping lemon verbena was just lovely.  It made my whole house smell clean and fresh, and reminded me of how my garden smells after a light rain, and when the sun begins to dry the droplets on the plants' leaves.


I strained the liquid, added some salt and stirred until it dissolved.  Then, as with every other layer in this dish, I added already-soaked gelatin sheets, stirred until they'd dissolved, then poured 350g of this liquid on top of the now-set fennel layer.



I let the gelee stay in the fridge for 3 hours, just to ensure everything was set.

The excitement of working with huckleberries for the first time, combined with what I knew was my innate ability to produce the perfect Jell-o mold, ramped me up so much I was giddy in the hours leading up to serving this.  One of the families who usually comes over for tastings was on vacation, but their nieces and their boyfriends were housesitting, and they read the blog (hi Emily, Laura, Chris, and Tyler!) and were excited to be visiting when I'd be doing an Alinea dish... so I was thrilled that this was the one they'd be tasting.  It sounded delicious, and it would be the prettiest one I'd ever made.

I mean, I'd been obsessing over this photo for weeks, and knowing, just knowing I could make my layers as perfect as this when it was removed from the pan and sliced in the manner that creates this presentation:


Beyond beautiful, no?

I'm sure you'll agree then, that I did a damn fine job of rendering mine to almost exactly, 100% resembling the original:


You know what?  Life's too short to get pissed off about the whole dang thing splorging all over the place when it was removed from the pan, so I got out my serving spoon, made sure there was a little bit of every flavor in each person's bowl, and then added a bit of the huckleberry gelee (which I'd done in a separate pan before, remember?), along with the individual garnishes:


And you know what?  It was AWESOME.  Presentation?  Not so much, but flavor?  Really, really good, if I do say so myself.  Everyone's bowls were licked clean, and some even went back to the cutting board to serve themselves some more of their favorite flavor gelee (my favorite was a toss-up between the chocolate and the fennel). 

To try and redeem myself, I brought out the huckleberry soda and a group of glasses -- figuring we could do a toast to food with "inner beauty" -- and made a big dramatic move of getting ready to squirt the soda out (it's a fun party trick that people just love!), and, um.....


No fizz, no squirt, no nothing, really.  Just a few drops of some sort of vampire remnants, and it just stopped working altogether.  I'd discharged the CO2 cartridge earlier in the day and kept the soda chilled, so I'm not sure what happened... other than giving us an opportunity to have a laugh and spend some more time outside in the fading sunlight on a warm summer night..

It's been said that Mark Twain came up with the name Huckleberry Finn because he'd heard the fruit, huckleberry, was "of lowly, rustic origination and resists cultivation" much like the character he was writing about.

Kinda like me with this dish, huh?

Up Next: Octopus, eggplant, beans, soy

Resources: Huckleberries from Kathy Glahn via Andy Little at The Sheppard Mansion; Domino sugar; lemons and fennel from HMart; hazelnuts from the TPSS Co-op; Organic Valley milk and half-and-half; gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie; Noi Sirius chocolate; David's kosher salt; lemon verbena from my garden; BLiS smoked salt.

Music to Cook By: Keane; Perfect Symmetry.  I love the song "Better Than This," and I wish I could remember where I first heard it.  Nevertheless, it snuck into my brain and stayed there for days, so I had to download more music from Keane.  Some call them Brit pop, but I think it's more rich than that.  It feels like a-Ha, some Beatles, a bit of early-80s U2, and a pinch of something else... I can't put my finger on it. Maybe New Radicals without the depression and angst?  I just know I like it.  I like cooking to it, and I like driving long distances to this and two of their other albums: Under the Iron Sea, and Hopes and Fears.

Read My Previous Post: Kuroge Wagyu, cucumber, honeydew, lime sugar

June 18, 2009

PB&J, peanut, bread, grape

If I've done my math correctly, I have eaten approximately 10,392 peanut butter sandwiches in my lifetime.  Maybe even more than that.  In contrast, I have eaten, maybe, 50 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Try as I might, I never really loved PB&J.  I simply loved the taste of plain old peanut butter on bread with nothing sweet to muck it up.  Still do.

Growing up, there was nothing better than Jif creamy peanut butter in between two slices of white, Holsum or Sunbeam bread, crusts on, cut diagonally, the knife pinching the bread on the hypotenuse of each half.  I ate one nearly every day for lunch for years as a kid; and, when I was fresh out of college and making my paltry salary of $17,000/year, I lived on peanut butter sandwiches and Safeway brand macaroni and cheese for quite a long time.  If I did ever add jelly to my peanut butter sandwich, it was always Welch's grape jelly because it was the least sweet of all the options, and there was just something uplifting about eating something so purple when you're poor.  I can't explain it.  It was a little color to brighten up the day.

But I never really liked peanut butter and jelly together (except in this iteration, which I love), and now that I don't really eat bread anymore (gluten-free bread just isn't the same, I don't care what anybody says), I've relegated myself to just eating peanut butter off the spoon -- which isn't a bad thing at all.  However, I can't stand the taste of Jif anymore (it tastes plastic to me), and I've become addicted to the grind-it-yourself peanut butter at Whole Foods, as well as the salty, creamy peanut butter available in big vats at the local co-op.  Why I didn't just buy those silky, delicious peanut butters for this dish instead of trying to make my own I'll never know, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I knew this dish might be a challenge on a couple of fronts, and while I knew I could make it taste good, I was also pretty sure there was a strong chance my version of it could end up being one of the uglier dishes of my lifetime because of some executive decisions I'd probably have to make in the bread department.

And, away we go....

The first thing I did was separate the 3 pounds of grapes I bought, and cut small sections, remove all but one grape (which is left attached to the stem), and then peel that one grape.  Yes, it's laborious.  Yes, you're left with a buttload of grapes you either need to eat right away, throw into sangria, or put in a ziploc in the freezer (what I did) and use them as ice cubes all summer long:


Grapes can be so pretty... until you peel them, and then they look like gouged-out eyeballs:



They look kind of gross, don't they.   It reminds me of when I was a kid and my older cousins set up a haunted house one Halloween in my grandmother's basement.  They peeled grapes (eyeballs) and made a bowl of cold spaghetti (intestines), and I very clearly remember them blindfolding us and making me be the first one to get "grossed out."  I could hear them snickering as they said, in what they thought were really scary voices, "aaaannnndd, noooowwwwww.... I will place some eyebaaalllllls in your haaaaaaannd...."  To which I replied as I held them, "yeah right, those are grapes, you dummies."  So, I totally ruined it for all the younger cousins since they were standing right there.  And from that point forward, I associated grapes with eyeballs.

So, with the peeled grapes done, it was time to make the peanut butter.  I toasted the peanuts on a sheet tray in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes.


I measured out 240g of peanuts and put them in a blender with the roasted peanut oil (which smells amazing), water, and salt, then blended until smooth.  WHICH NEVER HAPPENED.  I know I have a crap blender, but COME ON.  No matter how many times I stopped the blender to push down the peanut butter, it wouldn't get smooth.  I added a little more oil -- which merely gave me oily clumps.  Not the end result I was going for.



It was supposed to be smooth enough that you could "dip grapes into peanut butter and place onto prepared sheet tray."  Ain't no dippin' goin' on up in here.  I debated whether or not to just hop in the car and go buy some of the unctuous, roasty, delicious peanut butter at the local co-op, but I didn't.  I should have.  Because what I ended up having to do was clump it on with my hands, resulting in what could honestly be referred to as the national dish of Turdistan:


That ain't right, yo.

I wrapped the stem ends in foil because they need to be protected for the final step in the process, and put the peanut butter-clumped grapes on the tray in the fridge for an hour.


It's at this point in the book's intstructions where I started to lose it.  And I quote, "Using a rotary cheese grater or Microplane, grind remaining peanuts to fine powder."

Here's how many peanuts were remaining... the very peanuts I was supposed to hold in my fingers as I rubbed each one against a Microplane to make a powder:


I don't THINK so.

So, I ignored that step completely and took maybe 20 of the peanuts and whacked them up nicely in my coffee bean/spice grinder.  Not really a fine powder, but I also didn't shred my fingertipswith any dang Microplane injuries.  I think the numbers must've been off in the recipe.  I can't imagine why you'd need 485g of peanuts when you use 240g in the peanut butter, leaving you with 245g of peanuts for powder? That you only use for a light dusting? For 12 servings?  Hmmmmmm..... Has to be a typo in there somewhere.

Next up? The bread.  I bought a baguette at Whole Foods and put it in the freezer the day before so that it would be ready for thin slicing on the mandoline (the book suggests using a meat slicer, which I don't have). 


I don't have any photos of the aftermath of trying to slice this on the mandoline, but trust me when I tell you, it did not go well.  Things weren't slicing... they weren't even shaving.  Pieces were breaking off, and it just wasn't happening.  So, I made the executive decision to do with this bread what I'd already done with a few slices of gluten-free bread for my servings of this dish -- I made bread crumbs. 




I was bummed that it came to this because the photo of this bite on page 119 of the Alinea cookbook looks really cool with the thin slice of baguette wrapped around it... but I already knew I wasn't going to be serving it in the squid serving piece, so I figured I'd make the best of it and at least focus on it tasting good.

I brought the tray of peanut butter-clumped grapes out of the fridge and glommed on bread crumbs -- gluten-free crumbs on four of them I did on a separate baking sheet -- and the regular bread crumbs on the ones for my friends.  I let them rest at room temperature for about 5 minutes, then put them under the broiler for a few seconds -- maybe 15 or so -- until the bread crumbs were toasty and golden brown.


I removed the foil from the stems and lined them up on a platter, then lightly sprinkled on some of the salted peanut powder I'd made in the spice grinder:



The ones with gluten-free bread looked exactly the same as the ones with regular bread.  But how did they taste?  Well... they were okay.  Again, the peanut butter wasn't creamy enough for me, and it made it a little hard to fully enjoy because there were some chunks of nuts (despite my best efforts to remove them).  That said, they didn't suck.  The kids liked them, and I liked them, but none of us were blown away by the bite.  Too much bread, too much peanut butter, not enough of a grape-y burst.  The grape part was juicy and nice, but the peanut butter clinging to the roof of my mouth sort of took away from the enjoyment of that part.

I love the idea of this dish, but for me, I'd rather harness the Achatz technological prowess to build a time machine and go back and eat the peanut butter sandwiches of my childhood with a cold glass of milk, in my elementary school cafeteria, with a game of kickball or jumprope right after, and a walk home in the warm sun.  That's PB(&J) to me.

Here's a li'l sum-um-sum-um for ya:  If you feel like procrastinating on the things you're supposed to be doing, feel free to compare this dish to when I made PB&J from The French Laundry Cookbook.

Up Next:  Surf Clam (featuring an appearance by Scott Weinstein, my fishmonger)

Resources: Baguette, grapes, and peanuts from Whole Foods; David's kosher salt; roasted peanut oil from HMart.

Music to Cook By:  Old 97's; Satellite RidesFrom time to time, All the time, I go on movie-watching binges, where I'll watch the same movie day after day because it's on HBO or some other cable channel I feel like I should watch more often to get my money's worth.  Sometimes, that movie is "The Break-Up."  I know, I know. The acting is pretty bad, and the story is trite and annoying, but I just can't help myself.  Sometimes you get sucked into the vortex and you can't tear yourself away four times in as many days.  Ahem.  The one redeeming quality about the movie is its soundtrack, and the inclusion of Dwight Yoakam, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Old 97's.  After getting past the fact that this band uses an apostrophe "s" (indicating possessive) instead of just a regular "s" after the 7 (indicating plural) [a HUGE pet peeve of mine], I actually really liked their music. It's part jazz, part alt-country, a little bit of surf pop, a little Austin, a little Johnny Cash, a little Toronto (not sure why, but that's what it feels like to me)... Anyway, I like 'em.  You might, too.

Read My Previous Post:
Green Almond, sweet, hot, sour, salt

April 11, 2009

Verjus, lemon thyme, beets, olive oil

This post is proof positive that I belong far, far away from the Alinea kitchen.  In fact, when you see the photos at the end, you'll say, "Carol, why in the world did you not continue in your undergrad pre-med program, because you clearly have a knack for creating things that look as if they belong in a post-op medical waste container?"

Guys, it's bad.  Really bad.

I mean, it tasted GREAT.... but my technical difficulties contributed to what ended up looking like some sort of ... well.... you'll see for yourself.  None of these steps were all that difficult, I swear.  It's just that when you screw up one or two of them, it definitely and quite clearly has an impact on the end result.  But, let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Let's savor the journey, so we all can be reminded why SOME people are better suited to PR/media/lobbying jobs while others clearly belong in professional kitchens.

First step? Bringing the verjus and sugar to a boil, whisking to dissolve the sugar.  Then, after letting it cool to room temp, pouring it into a sheet pan and putting it in the freezer.



It took about 3 hours to freeze solid.

While that was in the freezer, I started on the beet juice spheres.  Instead of actually juicing the beets myself, I relied on my old standby of bottled Biotta beet juice.  I added calcium lactate to it, and blended it with my immersion blender:



I poured the liquid into two squeeze bottles (it ended up being way more than I needed) and then filled my spherical molds with the beet liquid:



I put that mold into the freezer, also for three hours.

So, those two things were easy, weren't they?  I bet you think the lemon thyme infusion is where everything gets fakokted, BUT NO, IT IS NOT.  I rocked the lemon thyme infusion because, really, how hard is it to pour boiling water over a bunch of fresh lemon thyme and let it steep for 20 minutes then strain it into a pitcher?




It was all I could do not to hold my face over that bowl for the whole 20 minutes of steeping and steam my pores and clear out my sinuses.  It smelled amazing, and with the way this spring's pollen is already wreaking havoc on my nasal passages, it was tempting... until I realized that it probably wasn't all that hygienic a thing to do, so I restrained myself.  But I think I'll make this infusion again soon and pour it into a nearly full bath tub for a Friday night soak.  Glass of wine, some good music, and a lemon thyme bath.  Alinea, take me away!

Now, here comes something I know I didn't do properly -- and that's making the lemon thyme foam.  It pisses me off because I've made foam before, and it's really not that hard, I swear.  It's a great party trick, and people will think you're a total smartypants whizbang when you do it... that is, unless of course, you're me trying to do it this time for a public blog that PEOPLE WILL SEE and you screw it up.  Ugh. Dorkus maximus.

I measured out some of the lemon-thyme infusion I'd just made, mixed it with some sugar and brought it to a boil over medium heat.  I added some gelatin sheets (which I'd soaked in cold water for five minutes) and mixed it with my immersion blender.



I poured this mixture through a funnel and into my iSi siphon canister, which I put into the refrigerator to chill for about an hour before plating.  You'll see the error of my ways in just a little bit.  Hang tight.

The next thing I did was make the lemon thyme froth.  This was easy, despite the fact that when I made the Yolk Drops, asparagus, meyer lemon, black pepper my froth didn't froth really at all.

I measured out some more of the lemon-thyme infusion from the pitcher, poured it into a small saucepan, added some sugar and brought it to a boil.  I poured it into a plastic pitcher, added the soy lecithin, and used my immersion blender to froth the crap out of it.




And now, the moment you all have been waiting for (well, maybe not, but let me live for a moment with the illusion that you have been pacing the living room floor for months wondering, WHEN will Carol EVER make BEET JUICE SPHERES? I simply cannot wait another day!!).

I combined water, sugar and sodium alginate in a large saucepan, blending it with an immersion blender:


As I was bringing it to a boil, I removed the beet spheres from their molds and returned them to the freezer on a plate until the sodium alginate bath was ready:


Once the liquid had come to a boil, I turned off the flame.  Then, I took the beet spheres out of the freezer and gently placed them, one at a time, into the sodium alginate bath:


The book says to let them in there for five minutes, which gave me enough time to get the lemon thyme foam (in the siphon canister, remember?) out of the refrigerator, discharge the NO2 cartridges, and ..... WHAT THE...!!


It splorfed all over the counter and the floor, and I just stood and watched it happen for a few seconds before realizing I should just put it in the sink already and let it overflow there.  Grrrr..... Not sure why it happened, but it did.

As I pored over the Alinea book and the siphon canister instruction manual to figure out what the hell happened, the five-minute timer went off, which meant it was time to remove the beet spheres with a slotted spoon and let them rest in a bowl of cool water.  I was so looking forward to seeing them -- they look so lovely in the book.  I just knew they'd be darling and gorgeous, except for the part where I lifted the first one out followed by the other eight and found they'd kind of fallen apart and each one looked like a just-born jellyfish got stabbed by both the Crips and the Bloods, committed harakiri, and impaled itself on a wrought iron fence.  Or, you know, morphed into surgical waste -- witness the beet spheres with a wee bit of olive oil:


Oh man, you guys, I'm so sorry you have to look at this.

I honestly thought about just throwing it all away, but decided it couldn't get any worse... maybe the now-calmed-down lemon thyme foam would cover it up a bit.  You know, hide the nastiness and make it all pretty and sparkly...


Aaaaaaaaand, you can see how well that turned out.  Which is not at all.  IT MADE IT WORSE.  Now, it just looks like infected surgical waste.  With pustules.  [Note: I don't really know what pustules are, but they sound gross and somehow fitting.]

But wait!!  There's more!  I had the last three things to add: verjus ice (which did not give me green tears of doom when I scraped it), lemon thyme froth, and a few lemon thyme leaves:



I feel like I need to write a letter of apology to everyone who has ever worked at Alinea, because this is just so not right.

And eight of those beauties is what my friends were greeted with when they came into the kitchen.  Everyone was such a good sport.  They'd look at the photo in the book (page 84, and man, it pains me to look at that and then see mine) and marvel at my rendering of it by saying things like, "nice weather we're having," or "I wonder if Target is having a sale this weekend."

I half-assedly explained what it was, told them they didn't even have to try it if they didn't want to, but everybody picked up a serving of it along with a spoon and dug in.  I reluctantly tried mine, ready to gag over the texture of the beet spheres and the overall innards-ness, but much to my surprise, it was AWESOME.

Yes, the beet thing was a little, um, chewy, but once you got past that and had a little bit of everything in one bite (or stirred it all together into a sort of beet-verjus-lemon thyme slushie), it was pretty damn good.  We all looked at each other wide-eyed and amazed at how good it was, and maintained eye contact because as long as we weren't actually looking at it, we could eat it.  I loved the flavor combination because it was a near-perfect balance of sweet, sour, and a lush earthiness, and would not hesitate for even a second in making a roasted beet salad with a verjus-olive-oil-lemon thyme dressing.  That would be divine.  Making spheres is another matter altogether.  I haven't given up on it, yet, but I have it on good authority that a friend's 4th-grade son is going to try some sort of encapsulation-spherification like this for his science fair project.  You watch.  He's gonna kick my ass, and they're gonna be perfect.  I just KNOW it.  I will officially be pwned by a 10-year old.  Crap.

Up Next: Granola, in a rose water envelope

Resources: Biotta beet juice; Castelmuro Verjus du Perigord from J.R. Mushrooms and Specialties; soy lecithin, calcium lactate and sodium alginate from Terra Spice; lemon thyme from Whole Foods; gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie; Domino sugar; Monini olive oil.

Music to Cook By: Gomez; A New Tide. I love love love this band.  There's not one album of theirs I can't stand.  There's not one song I skip.  I was thrilled to get their new album a few days before it was released (thanks, Kim!) and haven't been able to stop listening to it.  I think it's tied with "How We Operate" for favorite Gomez album, for me.

Read My Previous Post: I just flew in from Chicago, and boy are my arms tired...

March 14, 2009

Cucumber, mango, several aromatics

You guys... the Moments of Shame you shared in the last post's comments are HILARIOUS!!! Without going into detail about the specifics, I can safely say the past seven days have been the most crazy, amazing roller coaster of work for me -- all good stuff, but exhausting nonetheless -- and I can't tell you how awesome it has been to see your comments pop up for approval... especially when I've been in the middle of some really heady, intense stuff with some heady, intense, brilliant, driven people.  Your stories gave me quite a few desperately needed moments of levity and snorting, so THANK YOU.

The randomly selected winner of the 2.5 oz. of dried eucalyptus leaves is Leslie, who, thanks to mishearing some Rocky and Bullwinkle dialogue as a child, thought the Pulitzer Prize was actually the Pull-it Surprise.  Congrats, Leslie!

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For those of you who didn't get to see Chef Achatz on Oprah this past Tuesday, you can click here to see the video clips.  My words can't do justice to Grant's telling of his story, so go have a listen.

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I have spent the last two hours debating whether or not to open this post with some play-by-play from what I think is a very funny story about a bad experience I had with mangoes a few years ago.  However, upon reflection, I've decided the details are not at all appropriate for a food blog, so I think it's best I keep it to myself.  Suffice to say, it was the first time a guy I had just started dating made dinner for me, and part of his menu involved mangoes.  Thirty minutes after eating them, I had a reaction that was loud, continuous, and painful.  And humiliating.  Oh my.  The end.

I have been more than a little nervous to eat mangoes again since then, but if my allergy/insensitivity to them is like some other fruits I can't eat, then I know it's probably only its raw form that causes me to, um, suffer, and that the cooked version is probably fine.  Still, the flashbacks are nearly as unpleasant as the original experience, so I haven't eaten mangoes since.

To be honest, though, I was actually kind of ambivalent about making this dish.  I intuitively knew the flavors would be nice together, and it didn't seem all that difficult to make.  I figured we'd eat it, look at one another and say, "Huh, well that was nice, wasn't it" and go about our merry way.  The only element of the dish I really had any serious reservations about was the cucumber, because it had to have some pickling brine on it for one minute.  I know that's not a long time, but you don't understand: I hate pickles.  When I order a sandwich or a burger for lunch, I don't even want a pickle on my plate, let alone on or touching the actual food I'm going to eat.  I also hate things, in general, that are pickled, like watermelon rind, beans, other vegetables; even sauerkraut makes me gag.  I know that makes me a traitor to my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, but I can't help it.  Pickled things make my mouth water in the not-right way.  My mom and my brother can down the stuff like there's no tomorrow, but not me (I don't think my dad's a huge fan either, but he doesn't have the same aversion I do).  In fact, now that I think of it, the only dish I outright refused to eat or even taste when I made all 100 dishes in The French Laundry Cookbook involved pickled oysters, that's how much I hate pickled stuff.

So, I almost skipped this step in this dish altogether and thought about doing fresh cucumber instead, but decided to trust in the dish as it's presented and see how it went.  All about reaching and stretching and expanding my comfort zone, remember?  Vomit and gackiness be damned.

As I was getting my ingredients together, all hell broke loose with a client (in a good way, a very good way), so I ached to be in the kitchen, if only for a few hours, because with all the work-related stress this past week, my brain was floating and swimming and drowning and frying all simultaneously, and I needed to be doing something tactile to keep me grounded and focused on something in between frenetic phone calls, to-dos, and lightning-speed writing deadlines.

What a pleasure it was to feel the weight of these lovely, lovely mangoes in my hands:


I peeled, pitted, and cubed both mangoes, then put them in the blender with a little salt and blended until smooth.  Then, as the book instructs, I got out my refractometer to measure the sugar content and then poured in enough simple syrup until it measured 20 degrees Brix, except I'm lying because I DO NOT HAVE A REFRACTOMETER.

I mean, really.

So, Carol, I hear you saying.  What the hell is a refractometer?  Well, my darlings, a refractometer measures the refractive index (fundamental physical property) of something -- in this case, the concentration of a solute in an aqueous solution, e.g. the sugar content.  I think refractometers are cool, but sadly, I don't own one -- as I'm guessing most home cooks don't -- and didn't want to go out and buy one.  Instead, I figured I'd just wing it and hope for the best.  Seriously, if I had a refractometer, I'd never leave the house.  I'd refractometerize everything I own and never get anything meaningful done.  In fact, I'd build Herbie Hancock-like refractometer contraptions all over my house.  No, I wouldn't.  I just needed an excuse to link to that video (remember when music videos were good?  sigh....).

So, since I had no idea what the Brix measurement of my blended mango concoction was, I decided to pour 2 tablespoons of simple syrup into the mixture and cross my fingers that it was enough and not too much.  I turned on the blender again, mixing it all together one last time before pouring it onto my Silpat-lined baking sheet, hoping against hope it would work.



The Alinea cookbook suggests using an acetate sheet to make the leather, but that really didn't work out the way I'd planned when I made apple leather a few months ago, so I decided to see how my Silpat might fare.


I tried to smooth it with an offset spatula, but it made all these uneven spots, divots, and swirls, so I just tilted the pan from side to side, allowing it to even out that way.  I put it in a 150-degree oven for 3 hours.  You'll see how it turned out later on in the post.

Meantime, I made the candied lemon zest by zesting a lemon, removing any extraneous pith with my paring knife (a task I find strangely soothing), and cutting the lemon zest pieces into 1/16" strips which I boiled in a mixture of sugar and water for 60 seconds:




I drained them from the saucepan and stored them in a little deli container of simple syrup in the fridge until I was ready to use them in the final plating.


At this point, I made clove salt and coriander salt, but didn't take photos of either one.  Essentially, you grind up whole cloves (I used a coffee bean grinder I use for making ground spices) and mix them with kosher salt, and then do the same with coriander seeds, also mixing that with salt.  The amounts given in the book leave you with plenty of leftover spiced salts, and I can't wait to experiment with them on different foods next week when I get back to a more normal eating-at-home schedule.

But I digress.

Next up?  Cucumbers.  English cucumbers, to be exact.  Pip pip, cheerio, and all that rot!

The book is specific about the cucumber cutting: 4" long by 1.5" wide segments:


Leaving the skin on, I used my Benriner mandoline (I love that freakin' thing) to slice the cucumber lengthwise into strips that were 1/16" thick.



I put them on a plate I'd lined with a damp paper towel, then covered them with another damp paper towel before putting them in the refrigerator.  You'll notice I cut eight slices; the book calls for four.  I did eight because I wanted to have backups in case I screwed something up further down the line.  Luckily, I didn't, so I ended up noshing on them as I cleaned up afterward.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Rewind...

Onto to juniper berries.  In the "Assemble and Serve" section of this dish, the book calls for 4 fresh juniper berries.  Did not have.  Instead, I had dried juniper berries, so I crushed a few of them with a mortar and pestle and figured I'd use the resulting powdery parts in the plating, somehow.



In a medium saucepan, I combined water, white wine vinegar, and sugar, brought it to a simmer, turned off the flame and let it cool to room temperature (took about 20-25 minutes).  You'll see the pickling brine in a later shot, along with the cucumber strips.

Meantime, the mango leather had been doing its thing in the oven.  At the three-hour mark, it seemed done.  Or so I thought.


I know the photo is blurry, and I'm sorry about that.  Hopefully, you can see that the edges were brittle and flaked off easily.  I thought the whole sheet was like that and was sorely disappointed.  But, before tossing the whole thing into the sink, I decided to keep peeling and see what happened.  Eventually, when I got closer to the middle of the Silpat, it was nice and leathery -- like a fruit roll-up texture.  So, I peeled that part off and was able to cut it into strips.  They weren't the same size as the book instructed, but it was as close as I could get.

At this point, I took four of the cucumber strips and halved them lengthwise.  Instead of laying them on paper towels and pouring pickling brine over them (hello, splashage!) as the book suggested, I decided to lay them in the brine for a minute instead, then drain them on paper towels, because I am a neat freak who does not want pickle juice flying all over her kitchen (dramatic, much?) where it will surely get lodged in every nook and cranny and I will have to smell it for all eternity or else renovate the entire house just to remove the stench of that vile, vile liquid.




Man, that mango leather looks depressing. 

Last, but not least, I peeled a hunk of fresh ginger, sliced a few thin slices from it on the mandoline and cut little triangles out of a few of those slices -- eight in all.

I don't have photos of the assembly process (even though I grew up near Three Mile Island, I do not have a third arm with which to hold the camera), but I laid each cucumber strip on a cutting board, topped it with a mango leather strip, then rolled it in a way that allowed me to poke out the ends so the rolls (sort of) looked like the ones in the book.  I topped each roll with a little dried juniper berry powder, coriander salt, clove salt, a ginger triangle, a thread or two of saffron, and a strip of candied lemon zest.



Um, you guys?  This is my favorite so far.  Yes, I still love the ones I loved and I certainly don't love them any less, but this one was outstanding and I'm grinning from ear to ear as I think about it all over again.  The slight pickle-ness of the cucumber and the sweet tang of the mango are really nice together -- yes, I just confessed to liking something pickled; call CNN! -- but the lemon and ginger just give it this extra playful punch, the juniper berries open it up wide, and the whole bite just consumes and breaks open every molecule of your palate, and it's simply gorgeous.  There were four of us in the kitchen and eight spoons, and we were beyond thrilled to be able to eat two apiece.

Now, would I make this exact bite again?  I think I would, for a special occasion.  But, I know for sure that one of my favorite salads this spring and summer will consist of warm (probably blanched in simple syrup) mango, slightly pickled cucumber chunks, candied and diced lemon zest, and a juniper berry-coriander-clove-fresh-ginger-infused vinaigrette, served on a small bed of mâche or arugula. Or watercress.  Or quinoa.  I might even add a fine dice of red onion just to mix it up a bit.  Or caramelized shallots.  And chopped candied pecans.  Oh my..... I know what I'm picking up at the grocery store tomorrow....

What would you do with the elements of this dish?

Up Next: Dry Shot, red pepper, garlic, oregano

Resources:  Cucumber, mango, lemon, and ginger from H Mart in Wheaton, MD; David's kosher salt; Domino sugar, Domaines des Vignes white wine vinegar; coriander seed and whole cloves from the Takoma Park Co-op.

Music to Cook By: Barry Manilow; The Greatest Songs of the Eighties.  Go ahead and judge; I can take it.  Because if this album is wrong, I don't wanna be right.

Read My Previous Post: Pear, eucalyptus, olive oil, black pepper

February 02, 2009

Sardine, niçoise olive, dried tomato, arugula

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

Except that I just did.


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

*  *  *  *  *

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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

Okay, moving on...

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




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




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


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

Here's what I started with:


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

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


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

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



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




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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Up Next: Cranberry, frozen and chewy

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

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

Read My Previous Post: Tuna, candied and dried

January 27, 2009

Tuna, candied and dried

Wow!  Thanks for all the kind wishes and sweet emails with your remedies for kicking this cold/flu.  I finally started to feel human again just this morning, and my joy was quadrupled times infinity when I shuffled downstairs to let the dog out and saw the comforting, quiet blanket of awesomeness that only snow can bring.  Snow!!  Wahoooooooo!!!!!

While most of the time my inner 9-year old comes out when someone farts or I'm reminded I went to summer camp with a girl whose last name was Butt, I also get as giddy as a schoolgirl when it snows.  I turn into Lorelai Gilmore.  Snow is like this magical pause button that makes me physically stop what I'm doing or had planned to do, and just stare out the window for hours on end, grinning from ear to ear.  I don't just walk from room to room, I do a little yay-it's-snowing jig.  I even sometimes catch myself humming a little yay-it's-snowing song.  I put on a cute sweater and cute socks and act like such a dorkus malorkus, it's a wonder I haven't been committed.  And, as I sit here typing this, I just realized I actually PUT ON LIPSTICK THIS MORNING, even though I have no plans to leave the house.  It's like snow is Michael Bloomberg or something.

And, do you know what else I love about this weather?  Food tastes better when it snows.  Oatmeal tastes warmer and creamier.  Hot chocolate tastes richer.  Coffee smells better.  Beef shortrib soup, crispy polenta, and a glass of wine make for a perfect lunch.  And in the evening?  Nothing better than a simmering pot of lamb and veal bolognese.

In wintertime, some people await with bated breath the joys of Thanksgiving and Christmas or New Year's Eve.  Me?  While those holidays are lovely, there's something much more magical about the first real snowfall of the season, and today, we finally got it.

That said, I'm sure it'll turn into sleet and freezing rain before too long, but that's okay.  Just give me a few hours of snow, and I feel like I can conquer the world.

*  *  *  *  *

Now, on to the Tuna, candied and dried:

Growing up, the only tuna I ate -- and I ate it begrudgingly, at best -- was tuna from a can, mixed with lots and lots of mayonnaise (no onions or celery for me, because tuna shouldn't crunch, ew), or mixed in with noodles and some sort of can of Campbell's Soup in a tuna-noodle casserole.  It's not like my little Amish hometown was flush with fresh-caught tuna in the 1970s, so for many years tuna was on my Bllleeaaarrgggghhh List (along with liver, Brussels sprouts, and pork chops -- all things I now love).  I couldn't stand the smell of tuna -- it was just so fishy and salty and smelled like an elementary school bathroom -- but I suffered through it because it's what angst-y pre-adolescents do.

In high school, my outlook on tuna changed.  Why?  Because I discovered the tuna melt.  I mean, really -- what can't toast and melted cheese make better?  So, I evolved into at least appreciating, if not fully embracing, tuna salad on toast with melted cheese on top.

In college, I survived on tuna melts, turkey sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, french fries, Chinese food, and pizza.  And beer.  And ice cream.  And Cap'n Crunch.  And also more beer.  But, tuna was cheap (still from the can, mind you), and, again, on toast with cheese much more palatable.  Still didn't love it, but it didn't make me gag anymore.  Progress!

It wasn't until I was in my early 20s that I actually began noticing fresh, not-from-the-can tuna on restaurant menus.  I don't remember the first time I tried it -- I know it was when someone else ordered it, though, and I hesitantly tried a bite just to be polite -- but I do remember thinking, WHAT KIND OF FOOL DO YOU TAKE ME FOR, THIS CAN'T BE TUNA because it actually tasted really good and nothing like tuna I'd had before.

Since then, I've ordered tuna every now and again in restaurants and sushi joints, but it's not something I get all clappy and ga-ga over when I see it on a menu.  I have to be in the mood for it.  And, it has to be prepared with other flavors that make sense.  And even then, it has to sound better than everything else on the menu (which rarely is the case).  So that's to say, I guess, that although I now like tuna, I still don't crave it or eat a lot of it.  I rarely prepare it at home, because there are other types of fish I prefer.  However, lately, I've been seeing some gorgeous tuna in the fish case at BlackSalt, so I was actually in a good headspace about making this dish.  The ingredients all made sense to me, and everything seemed like it would dovetail really nicely and produce a really flavorful end result.

To begin, in a medium saucepan I combined the water, sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, fresh ginger, coriander seed, fresh lemongrass, chilis, and vinegar and brought it to a simmer.  Once it had simmered for a minute or so, I turned off the flame and let it steep for 30 minutes:


Then, I added the lime juice, lime zest (by the way, 5g of lime zest = the zest of two limes), and ginger juice.  Let me take a minute here to tell you about some adjustments I made.  I didn't include cilantro, because I'm one of those freaks for whom cilantro tastes like soap.  So, I don't cook with it and I don't eat it.  It's a shame, because I know it's intended to add a layer of flavor that only brings out the good in every other ingredient, but for me it just makes the whole thing taste like Palmolive.  So, no cilantro.  I also reduced the amount of sugar by 50 grams, because instead of pure ginger juice, I used pineapple-ginger juice, which I figured would be sweeter than just regular ginger juice.  Let's see, what else...  Oh, those long green chilis you see in the photo aren't Thai chilis, they're Vietnamese.  I think that's everything. Yeah, that's it.

This marinade smelled amazing.  Really, really amazing.  I'm not a fan of overly fragrant soaps or perfumes, but if someone could make a soap or shampoo that smelled like this marinade, I'd be a happy girl.  It wasn't overpowering, and every scent was subtle, but present and accounted for.  Just lovely.

Once the marinade had cooled to room temperature (which took about 90 minutes), I sliced the tuna into long, thin strips and put them in the marinade for two hours.


(I think raw tuna is just so pretty.)



After being in the marinade for two hours, I removed the tuna strips, rinsed them in cold water, patted them dry, then put them on a Silpat-lined baking sheet and put them in a 130-degree oven for about two hours.


I then strained the marinade into a medium sauce pan and reduced it over medium heat until it was a glaze.  This step made me fall in love with this scent even more, and I actually spent a considerable amount of time online researching how to turn food into bath products.  Paging Tyler Durden...



Here's what the tuna strips looked like after their drying time in the oven.  The book says they should be dry, but pliable, which they were. 


I let the tuna come to room temperature while I made the candied grapefruit zest and sesame-chili mixture.

Using a vegetable peeler, I removed the zest from a grapefruit, then went back over the inside of it with a paring knife to make sure I'd removed all of the pith.



I cut it into 5x1/16" strips and let them steep and cool in the simple syrup I'd just made.


Next, I made the sesame-chili mixture, which was super-easy to do.  I mixed white and black sesame seeds with some red chili flakes and toasted them in a small sauté pan.  If I were ever to do a stage at Alinea, this is the job I'd want.  Making this combo every night.  Why?  Because it's probably the only thing anyone there could trust me to do (I know my boundaries).  And, it smells good.  Again, soap or some hand cream that smells like this would be a great stocking stuffer..... just sayin'.


I brushed the tuna strips with the glaze, then sprinkled the sesame-chili mixture on them.


I wrapped each one with a strip of candied grapefruit zest, placed a thin slice of fresh ginger on each one, and put them on a platter.  You'll see the lack of micro lemongrass.  Couldn't find it anywhere, and regular lemongrass was too fiber-y to use, so I had to forgo that ingredient.



The flavors burst wide open across our palates and up into our sinuses as we took that first bite, but then the more we chewed... and chewed and chewed and chewed (texture alert!), the less we liked it.  The stringy, almost-tough texture of the tuna was so unexpected and weird that it really bummed me out.  I ate a second one just to be sure, and came to the same conclusion.  In the first bite, the flavors were exquisite: the punch of the ginger, with the heat and warmth of the sesame seed mix, the candied grapefruit peel, the roundness and full-bodied glaze, even the tuna-y-ness of the tuna.... all of it was just gorgeous together.

But it was the texture of the tuna as I chewed that left me hangin'.  Maybe my strips were too thick?  Maybe it drying it in the oven instead of using a dehydrator was the problem?  I don't know.  All I know is, I would've much rather seared and lightly grilled a tuna steak, glazed it with the glaze, crusted it with the sesame-chili mix, and done a fine dice of the candied grapefruit zest as garnish on top.  THAT would've been a hit.  And, it's how I'll make tuna here at home, for sure. Because I can't recommend the flavors of this dish highly enough.  They're phenomenal, and if you like tuna and have access to good, fresh tuna you can make at home, then use all the other elements of this dish to pull off an amazing dinner.

But, tuna jerky?

Not so much.

(Note: For those who might ask in the comments, I made this dish a few days before I got sick, so it's not a matter of having a cold that made this not the homerun I hoped it could be.)

Up Next: Sardine, niçoise olive, dried tomato, arugula

Resources: Tuna from BlackSalt, pineapple-ginger juice from the TPSS Co-op, all other ingredients from H Mart in Wheaton, MD.

Music to Cook By: School of Seven Bells; Alpinisms.  I first heard these guys on a KCRW podcast, and was drawn to the song Half Asleep.  I have a hard time describing their sound without saying that it sounds like an LA club act that could just as easily play the 930 Club.  They're a little gimmicky-sounding, and I bet when they talk they speak with that annoying art-school/hipster voice, but I also think they're the kind of band you fall in love with and listen to for a year or so, then hear their music in a movie and think, "hey, I knew about them first!"  Know what I mean?

Read My Previous Post: Blackberry, smoke, bee balm

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