June 15, 2010

Beef, elements of A1

A few things before we get started:

1) I had dinner at Alinea the week before last.  It was beyond beyond beyond any dinner I've had there before.  It kicked my ass, made out with me, screamed at the top of its lungs, did a mile of back handsprings, and blew my mind.  Details are forthcoming.

2) The new season of Top Chef (in DC!) starts this week on Bravo, and I have the delightful honor of recapping the series each week for Washingtonian magazine.  Every Wednesday night/Thursday morning, the recaps will go up here.  Hope you'll come over Washingtonian-way and join the convo. 

*  *  *  *  *

When I ate at Alinea last year, I had a different version of this dish.  The A1 was powdered, and while it wasn't bad, I really only ate it on one bite of the beef it was served to accompany.  I'm just not a fan of A1.  My brother slathers it all over his steak.  Friends of mine put it on scrambled eggs.  Me?  I've just never liked the taste of it, nor have I ever gotten the appeal of it.  If beef is good on its own, then why add anything to it? 

That said, I was curious to try this dish because every individual ingredient appealed to me.

My food-savvy friend, Joey, IMed me a few days ago to ask what dish I was working on for this week's post.  When I wrote "Beef -- page 194," there was a loooong pause before I got a return IM from him that read, "Wow, that recipe just goes on and on and on!" 


It does.

It's a six-pager.  Twenty elements in all.  Lots of dehydrating.  Lots of sous vide action.  Lots of dishwasher cycles.  Lots of lovely, lovely food I was so excited to cook.  Let's get to it.

I made this over the course of two days.  I needed to.  I don't have enough counter space or stove-top space or dehydrator trays or electrical outlets in all the right places to have done this all at once.  Time for a kitchen renovation, methinks.

Day One

Let me start by saying that there are two elements of this dish I did not do: the red pepper reduction and the dried red pepper.  Not too long ago, I found out the hard way that bell peppers are not my friend.  The first clue should've been when cutting them made my hands itch and my fingers swell.  Why I ate them after that is beyond me.  But I did.  And it wasn't pretty.  So, scratch those off the list. 

First up?  The raisin puree.

Now, I don't know about you, but I am vehemently opposed to the production and purchase of brown raisins.  They're flies without wings.  They're rat turds.  They are not, nor have they ever been, two scoops of sunshine, no matter what Madison Avenue tries to tell you.  They completely squick me out and I won't buy them or eat them.  Golden raisins, on the other hand, I can handle.  They're lovely to look at, and they've got a little more life to them.

So, I chose to make the raisin puree with golden raisins. I blanched them three times, then put them in the blender with a little salt until the mixture was smooth.  I pressed that mixture through a chinois into a little storage container until I was ready to plate the next day:



The next thing I did was dehydrate some tomato slices:


After six hours, they looked like this:


Then, I dehydrated some elephant garlic:


I blanched very thin slices of that garlic in milk (three times!) and dehydrated them.  After three hours, they looked like this:


Next up?  Dried orange zest.  I've gotten really good at peeling oranges, so that I don't have to go back and carefully slice away the pith.  I peeled these two oranges....


... then sliced those peels into thin strips, blanched them in simple syrup, then dehydrated them.  After four hours, they looked like this:


And now, for some onion rings! I sliced this onion across its equator:


... then, I used my mandoline to slice very thin slices, which I cooked and soaked in simple syrup before dehydrating.  After five hours, they looked like this:


Mmmmmm, ginger:


I peeled and very thinly sliced that ginger (using my mandoline), which I simmered in simple syrup for about 15 minutes.  After five hours in the dehydrator, they looked like this:

Next up was the rib eye. I knew I was only having 4 or 5 people over for this dish instead of my usual 7 or 8, so I only bought half the amount I needed:


I cleaned up those slabs o' meat -- removing all the outer fat and silverskin.  The book instructs you to save the fat so you can render it for the potato portion of this dish, but I already had rendered beef fat in the fridge, so I saved this fat to render later in the week. After the rib eyes were cleaned up, I cut them into small 3- to 4-oz portions, put them in a Ziploc sous vide bag, and cooked them sous vide in 134F-degree water for 20 minutes:


When the meat was done cooking, I plunged it into a large bowl of ice water (more ice than water) to stop the cooking process.  When it had sufficiently cooled, I put the bag of meat in the fridge to keep it cold until the next day, when I would finish everything for this dish.

Day Two

I got an early start so I could make sure everything got done, and have a few hours of buffer time in case anything went drastically wrong.

The first thing I did on the second day was make the spiced vinegar sauce. It starts with toasting whole cloves and allspice berries, grinding them to a fine powder, then adding the spice powder to a saucepan with water, sugar, and vinegar.  I brought this mixture to a boil:  DSC_0003

After it had boiled for a few seconds, I turned off the burner and let it steep for 20 minutes.  Then, I poured it through a fine-mesh strainer into another saucepan, added the agar agar and brought that to a boil, whisking like crazy while it boiled for 90 seconds.  I poured that mixture through yet another fine-mesh strainer into a bowl set in a bowl of ice so it could cool and start to set:


After about 45 minutes nestled in the bowl of ice, I moved the vinegar mixture (which was starting to set) to the fridge where it could get really cold and finish setting.

The next thing I worked on was the bitter orange puree.  I kinda had to MacGyver this because I couldn't find bitter oranges anywhere I looked or called.  No one had them.  So, I decided I'd use regular navel oranges.  But, with bitter oranges, the trick is to sous vide the entire orange (peel and all) because that activates the pectin and thickens it to a puree.  I didn't want to do that with regular oranges (because the makeup of the peel and the pith is different from bitter oranges), so instead, I decided to supreme two large navel oranges and put them in a saucepan with all the other ingredients the recipe called for -- simple syrup, grapeseed oil, and salt.  I lowered the amount of grapeseed oil (from 50g to 30g) because for some reason it felt like the right thing to do.  I brought this mixture to a boil, then let it continue to cook on a high simmer for about 45 minutes, until the oranges had really begun to break down and get stewy:


I put that mixture into my blender and whacked it around on really high speed until it was nice and smooth.  Then, I returned it to the pan, and added 8g of apple pectin and brought it to a boil again, whisking the entire time to incorporate the pectin.  It started to thicken, and you'll see the final orange puree in the plating shot at the end of the post.  I was really happy with the way it turned out, considering I pretty much had no idea what I was doing and relied on my ever-growing knowledge of SCIENCE.

The next thing I worked on was the anchovy sauce.  I'd made anchovy butter the day before (and forgot to take photos).  I reduced some veal stock, then added just a few grams of the anchovy butter (which I made by pureeing some anchovy filets along with some unsalted butter), and whisked it to incorporate.


You'll see the finished product in the final plating photo.

The next thing I did was bake the potato slices before turning them into sort-of-potato-chips.  In the book, Chef suggests using a Japanese rotary slicer to make loooooong strips.  I don't have a Japanese rotary slicer (Even though I want one.  Bad.), so I just sliced a russet potato on my mandoline and made smaller strips instead of one big, long strip.

But before I even did that, I melted some of the rendered beef fat in the new (!!) All-Clad copper pot I was given at the James Beard Awards (it's just so pretty -- I use it all the time):



I sliced this potato as thinly as I possibly could...


... then laid those slices (which I'd trimmed to a more even rectangle shape) on a sheet pan I'd brushed with some of the rendered beef fat, then brushed a little more beef fat on the tops of those slices, and put them in the oven for 6 minutes.  


When they were done, I transferred the potato slices onto a different sheet pan which I'd lined with parchment.  When they'd cooled to room temperature, I covered them with another piece of parchment paper and let them rest before I needed to deep-fry the ends of them for the plating.

By now, the vinegar sauce gel was MORE than set: 

I chopped it up a bit and put it in the blender on high speed for a minute or two (along with some kosher salt) until it was a smooth puree.  I pushed it through a chinois, and you'll see the final outcome in the plating photo at the end.

Are you tired yet?  This might seem like it was exhausting or a lot of work, but it really wasn't.  I promise.

Last, but not least, the Yukon gold puree.  I started with these two bad boys:


I put them in a Ziploc sous vide bag and cooked them in a pot of 190F-degree water on the stovetop for an hour.  I helped keep them below the water's surface by dunking a ladle in and letting it fill with water so that it could be a bit of a weight:
DSC_0013 When the potatoes were done, I mashed them through a tamis into a saucepan with warmed cream in it:

Then, over low heat, I stirred in nearly two sticks of butter (yes, kids, that's a ratio even Ruhlman could love -- a 1:1 potato to butterstick ratio), a few 1/2" cubes at a time until it was fully incorporated and the potatoes were creamy.

The last thing to do before plating was to sear the meat.  Well, the last thing, really, to do was to go through the list of elements in this dish and make sure I had everything lined up for plating.  Sauces?  Check.  Dehydrated items?  Check.  Purees?  Che.... oh, wait.  Oh no. 


Somehow, in all my meticulous planning I'd forgotten to make the chive puree.  Even worse?  I completely forgot to buy chives, and the meager amount growing in my garden right now wouldn't even come close to the 8 oz. I needed for the puree.


So, I kicked myself in the butt a few times and soldiered onward.  I had no choice.  I was 15 minutes away from everyone coming over, so there was no time to run up to the Co-op and spring what likely would've been $15 on 8 oz. of chives. 

I deep-fried (in canola oil) the ends of the potato strips (which you'll see in the final plating shot) and seared the beef on the grill-top:


And then, I plated everything:  DSC_0022

So, clockwise: raisin puree, garlic chip, dried tomato, potato strip, beef (atop potato puree), a streak of the orange puree, a blorp of spiced vinegar sauce, dried orange zest, chive tips (from my garden), another piece of beef (atop an anchovy strip) with an onion ring on top of that next to some of the anchovy sauce.  There's a ginger chip underneath that second piece of beef, and some fresh ginger juice drip-dropped on top of everything.

I am really proud of this dish.  It was a lot of work, and it was the first thing I cooked after having dinner at Alinea.  After visiting the mothership.  After being in the presence of greatness on a plate.  I'll admit I was a little intimidated to open this cookbook again after my time in Chicago.  To see and to taste and to experience the absolute pleasure that kitchen and the service team provides can be overwhelming and humbling.  It was both those things, but it also energized me and put me on a higher plane of appreciation when I sliced that onion so so thin.... when I peeled that orange zest.... and when I MacGyvered that orange puree.  It made me really pay even more attention to what I was doing and how I was doing it (except for the chive puree brain fart).

That plate of food you see above tasted really, really good.  Thinking back on it now, I could've been more generous with the ginger juice, I think.  I was conservative with it because fresh ginger is such a powerful flavor that I didn't wanna go overboard and have everyone be like, "Um, could I have a little beef with my ginger?"  But now that I've eaten it, I know I could've done a few more drops or drizzles.  Even with that, I thought this was really good.  All the flavors, of course, played nicely with one another as they were meant to.  I wish I hadn't forgotten the chive puree, because I think that would've amped it up even more. 

I really loved this dish, and while I might not make it the same exact way in the future, as we get into summer and I dream of grilled steak (hold the A1), I can totally see a green salad with a lot of these ingredients, and an herbed potato salad to go with.

Meanwhile, I've got leftover potato puree to go reheat for breakfast.  Don't you wish you were here?

Up Next: Prosciutto, or Chocolate.

Resources: Rib eye, oranges, butter, tomato, onion, ginger, and potatoes from Whole Foods; raisins, elephant garlic, cloves and allspice from the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op; Domino sugar; Terra Medi white wine vinegar; agar agar from Terra Spice; David's kosher salt; Roland grapeseed oil and anchovies; veal stock from my freezer; Organic Valley cream; rendered beef fat from my fridge; Natural by Nature milk; chives from my garden; 365 canola oil.

Music to Cook By: Journey; Escape.  I kind of hate that "Glee" has adopted Journey as their go-to band for the show.  That said, this album is always in my regular rotation.  I can't help it.  It's an old, old favorite and brings back so many amazing memories from my junior high and high school days.  No matter what kind of day I'm having, Journey: Escape always makes it better.  It just does.

Read My Previous Post: Goose, blood orange, sage, roasting goose aroma (adaptation)

February 22, 2010

Orange, olive oil, almond, picholine olive

First, let me tell you who won the vanilla sugar (because I'm lame and forgot to do that last week).  Congrats to Mia Blankensop!  Life's about to get a little bit sweeter for her.  I know, I know..... groan.  And you guys?  All the comments on that post about how you repurpose things?  So awesome.  I got a million great ideas, so THANK YOU -- I learned so much!

Second, thanks so much for all your emails about the tree and the snowstorm.  The tree is still on the house, but it's coming down on Wednesday.  They'll tarp the roof until the rest of the snow melts and my contractor can do his thang.  That'll be a load off my mind, for sure.  A big shout-out to Met Life, because they have been remarkable every step of the way, and I highly recommend them if you're in the market for homeowners insurance.

Third, are you watching the Olympics?  Did you see my boyfriend, Shaun White?  It's not often that I talk to my TV, but on that first run?  The air he got on the first run off the halfpipe?  I fist-pumped a hearty "YEAH!" and was even more psyched that though he already had the gold medal locked down before his second run, he decided to give it his all and treat it like he was still in competition.  That's what I love about people like Shaun -- they prove the adage of if you do what you love, it doesn't feel or look like work.  Makes you think, doesn't it....

Now, on to this dish...

If I'm being completely honest, I was really, really, REALLY distracted the whole time I was making this.  The tree on the house unnerved me more than I thought it would.  That, combined with being snowbound for 10 days and all the residual blizzardosity made me a little antsy and off my game in the sanity department.  Then, add to that some new and interesting developments on the professional front, and I had a hard time keeping my head in the kitchen.  Also, I'd already started this dish once before -- when I tried to make the vanilla bean powder that ended up not becoming a powder, so I went into this attempt a little distant, keeping it at arm's length.  I know that sounds weird, but it's true.  This time, I just plain ole skipped the vanilla-olive oil powder.

I hate that I kind of phoned it in as I was going along... doing it all by rote, not really stopping to smell the roses (or olives, in this case), as they say.  Nothing in this dish is particularly difficult.  If you can read, you can make this dish.  But knowing how it turned out, I wish I'd paid more attention and enjoyed the cooking process, because (spoiler alert) the final result ended up taking my breath away.

Let's start with the olives: I pitted some picholines and dehydrated them.  The book says to do it overnight, but mine must've been extra-juicy because it took a full 24 hours in the dehydrator before they were completely dry and crunchy:




I ground them up  in the mini chopper, and then my spice grinder (a separate coffee bean grinder I use only for spices), then whisked the powder into some olive oil, and set it aside until it was time to plate:


Next up was making the olive oil ice cream and the orange sorbet.  Sadly, I don't have any photos of the olive oil ice cream, but let me tell you this: I am so thankful for David Lebovitz and his book The Perfect Scoop.  I'd never made ice cream before I'd read that book, and because of him, I haven't eaten store-bought ice cream since.  I can't.  It just doesn't taste right.  And thanks to David's training, making Grant's olive oil ice cream for this dish was a freakin' breeze. 

So, I made the olive oil ice cream (minus the stabilizer), ran it through my ice cream maker, put it in a 9x13" pan, and stored it in the freezer.  Then, I made the orange sorbet.  I brought orange juice, water, sugar, glucose, and citric acid to a simmer over medium heat:


I let it chill in the fridge, then processed it in my ice cream machine.  Then, I poured it into another 9x13" pan and stuck it in the freezer. 

When both the ice cream and the sorbet were frozen solid, I fired up my little creme brulee torch and heated the surfaces of the ice cream and the sorbet, then inverted the sorbet out of its pan onto the olive oil ice cream, pressing down to fuse the two layers, then put it back in the fridge until I was ready to plate:


Next, I made the frozen liquid sable portion of the dish.  I had to de-glutenize it, and crossed my fingers that it would work.  In the bowl of my Kitchen Aid mixer, I creamed the butter, sugar, and salt.  Then, I added the two egg yolks, one at a time, followed by the flours.  The recipe already called for almond flour, so I put that into a bowl.  Then, instead of 470g of all-purpose flour, I did the following: 230g sweet white sorghum flour; 230g tapioca flour; and, 10g xanthan gum.

I whisked them all together, then added the flour in small batches to the mixing bowl and kept the paddle going (on slow) until everything was incorporated.

The thing is, gluten-free doughs don't act like glutened doughs.  They don't necessarily come together into one ball.  Depending on exactly how you do it, the dough is usually crumbly, or comes together in chunks instead of a smooth, pliable ball.  It's the gluten that makes that smooth pliability possible.  So, while I'm not yet an expert on gluten-free baking, I am getting pretty familiar with textures and consistencies, and patience in knowing how to work with this new (to me) kind of dough.


Looks like chunky organic peanut butter, doesn't it?  I poured the crumbly dough onto the countertop and worked it together into a ball, which I wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the fridge for 3 hours.  Then, I took it out, let it rest on the counter for an hour, put it between two layers of parchment and rolled it out to half-inch thickness and baked it in a 350F-degree oven for 25 minutes:


I broke the pastry into 1" and 2" pieces and weighed out 200g of it (stored the rest in the freezer, and have been nibbling on it all weekend long -- oh my....), and put it in the blender with some olive oil and whacked it all up into a batter-like consistency.  I poured it onto a parchment-lined sheet pan and stored it in the freezer for about 4-5 hours.  When it had set, I cut it into 1x4" rectangles, then put those back into the freezer until I was ready to plate:


Next up? The marcona almond brittle tuille.  I cheated a bit on this one, and took some creative license at the same time.  The marcona almonds I bought were already roasted and salted, so I didn't need to do that.  I also decided -- once I'd made the hot, sugary brittle part -- that I wasn't gonna do the final tuille-making step of the process.  I loved the look of the brittle once it had hardened, and I knew my friends would, too. So, I just let the brittle be brittle, and I'm glad I did:


While the brittle was hardening, I started working on the picholine olive brine candy.  I love my guys at the Whole Foods cheese and olive counter.  They let me take as much brine as I need for these dishes, and never charge me a cent.

I brought the olive brine to a simmer, then whisked in a mixture of yellow pectin, citric acid, and sugar, bringing it to a boil, adding more sugar and glucose, then heating it to 219F.  I removed it from the burner and poured it onto a Silpat-lined sheet tray to set.


My expectation was that it would harden and be crackly.  It wasn't.  It was like a smooth gel -- really viscous, with a little elasticity, but not jello-y at all.  Kind of like molasses.  So, while it's hard to tell by the photo of the dish in the book what the heck this was supposed to be, I knew this probably wasn't right, but it also wasn't so wrong I had to trash it.


Onward and upward! Chamomile pudding.  You know, I've never been one for chamomile tea, or anything chamomile-related.  It's not that I don't like it, or am offended by the smell.  I think I just never really paid much attention to chamomile.  That's changed.  These little dried buds, leaves, and flowers were delightful, and perked up my senses quite unexpectedly:


I put the in a saucepan with some water, sugar, salt, and saffron, brought it to a boil, covered the pot, turned off the burner, then let it steep for 5 minutes.  I poured it through a fine-mesh strainer into another saucepan.  While the liquid was steeping, I soaked some gelatin sheets in cold water.  I added those gelatin sheets to the now-strained and re-heated liquid (to which I'd added some agar agar), and whisked until they'd dissolved completely.  I poured this gelatinzed liquid into a shallow baking dish, which I set in a larger baking dish filled with ice, so it could cool and set.


Once it had set, I spooned it all out in small chunks, pureed it in the blender, and pressed it through my tamis into a small bowl.  You'll see photos of it in the final plating.  This and the olive oil ice cream were the two things that really stood out as I tasted them along the way while I was making this dish.

But still.... even as good as those two things were on their own, I still was really ambivalent about this dish while making it.  Not enthusiastic or curious or excited in the least.

The last two things I made were the basil sauce and supreme-ing an orange to get some fresh segments for the final plating.  I forgot to take pictures of the basil sauce-making process, but it's really quite easy: I blanched some fresh basil, then pureed it in the blender along with some water, salt,and sugar.  Then, I strained it through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl, then back into a now-clean blender, where I added some Ultra-Tex 3.  I passed that mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a squeeze bottle and used it in the final plating.

One of the last steps was cutting the ice cream-sorbet combo into rectangles to sit atop the frozen liquid sable/shortbread plank:

Then, I plated:


Picholine olive oil sauce went first, then topped it with the ice cream-sorbet on the plank.  Surrounded it with small dots of dark green basil sauce, the picholine olive brine candy (closest to the orange segment), the chamomile pudding (closest to the marcona almond brittle), then added a piece of the brittle and some baby basil leaves.  This dish also called for Thai basil (which would have made it even better, I know, but the Asian market hadn't yet gotten its delivery of it, so I had to skip it).


I plated six of them, called my friends over, and we sat at the dining room table to dig in.  Off-handedly and still feeling a bit detached, I very quickly described the elements of the dish, and we took our first bites.  I couldn't talk.  Not because the ice cream and sorbet were so cold, but because this was SO GOOD.  I was so caught off guard that I really didn't say much at all while we ate.  My friends did all the talking.  I already knew I liked the taste of olive and citrus together, but this took it to a whole different plane.

The olive oil ice cream and orange sorbet? Better than a Dreamsicle.  It's like a holy-mother-effer-sicle.  The shortbread-y plank below it -- the one I had to deglutenize -- was really nice, too.  The olive oil sauce offered a salty-briney pull, and the chamomile and picholine sides were fragrant and lovely-delicious and just allowed the other flavors to sing.  The basil made it feel so fresh and not like a dessert at all.  I'm glad I kept the marcona almond brittle as a brittle because it added a really nice textural component to it... or, you could do as one of my friends did and save it for last, eating it like a dessert to the dessert.  I finished mine pretty quickly, and as I looked around to see if everyone else enjoyed theirs, I had my answer:


Blown away.  Honestly and truly. 

And, exactly what I needed.  I'll be noshing on the leftovers the rest of the week.  Want some?

Up Next: Foie gras, spicy cinnamon puff, apple candy

Resources: Monini olive oil; Organic Valley heavy cream; Domino sugar; Clabber Girl cornstarch; David's kosher salt; Tropicana orange juice; glucose, citric acid, gelatin sheets, yellow pectin from L'Epicerie; 365 butter; Smith Meadows Farm eggs; all flours from Bob's Red Mill; Marcona almonds, orange, basil, olives, and olive brine from Whole Foods; saffron and chamomile from TPSS Co-op; agar agar and Ultra-Tex 3 from Terra Spice.

Music to Cook By: Prince; Purple Rain.  Needs no explanation.

Read My Previous Post: Maytag Blue, grape, walnut port

February 08, 2010

Maytag Blue, grape, walnut, port


..... so that happened.

I'm fine.  My house is (mostly) fine.  It happened at 3:45 a.m. Saturday while the blizzard was pummeling us, and it happened to my attic and bedroom window (that was fun, only not).  I finally got a chance to get a closer look at the damage and tree positioning this morning, and it looks like I need to spend some time tonight clearing out the dining room because there's a chance that with the next foot-or-more-of-snow coming on Tuesday and Wednesday, the tree could shift.  And, if it shifts in the direction we think it very well might, it'll tear off part of the roof and crash down onto the dining room roof on the first floor, which would be a very, very bad thing.

So, if it's okay with you all, I'm gonna whip through this post so I can take advantage of the waning sunlight and get back to shoveling a path for the insurance estimator to do his thing tomorrow morning, and to prepare to move out of my house should the tree do further damage.  The tree guys can't get here until tomorrow, and even then, they're not sure they can do anything about this for another week.  Lots of people here in town had far worse tree/house damage than this, so we get taken care of in priority order.

Aaaaaand, as I'm typing this, a National Weather Service alert just crossed the wires and the county sent me a text with a storm update: Winter Storm Warning Tuesday-Wednesday. 15-20" of snow expected.

Please send Valium.

But yes, in case you're wondering: I still love snow.  Sue me.

*   *   *   *   *

I was a bit distracted when I made this dish because of the whole SNOW!  WINE!  DINNER!  BLIZZARD! CARD GAMES!!  SCOTCH!  BEDTIME!  TREE!  thing, so I didn't take as many photos as I usually do, so I'll go ahead and provide this link to the Google Books version of this dish in the Alinea cookbook.  You can follow along and see how the dish was supposed to be done, and then see my improvisations/adjustments below.

The first thing I did was juice four bunches of green grapes in my juicer, then measure out some of the juice for the grape sponge and some for the grape syrup.  No photos of that.  My bad.

Next up was the walnut milk.  I roasted some walnuts and mixed them in with some already-warm milk, salt, and sugar and let them steep for 6 hours.

Then, I blended the mixture and poured it into a cheesecloth-lined strainer over a bowl and let it seep through while in the fridge.



It yielded about a half-cup of liquid.

Next, I took some of the grape juice (which I'd mixed with citric acid, sugar, and salt) and heated it while stirring in some water-soaked gelatin sheets.  I put in in a mixing bowl, attached it to my mixer and whacked the heck out of it for about 8 minutes on high speed until it formed stiff peaks.


I spooned the foamy goodness into a ziploc bag, cut off the corner tip, and piped it into Pam-sprayed, sort-of-spherical molds, then put them in the freezer:


Next, I made the grape syrup -- brought some of the grape juice to a high simmer and let it reduce and reduce until it was thick and syrupy.  Then, I turned off the flame and mixed in a bunch of walnut halves, and stirred until they were coated. 



I made Port gelatin next. by bringing some Ruby Port wine to a boil, then igniting it (FIRE! FIRE! uh-huh-huh.../beavis)...


After the alcohol burned off and the flame died, I turned off the burner and stirred in gelatin sheets that had already been soaking in cold water.  I let the gelatin set in a bowl nestled in another bowl of ice water.  When the gelatin set, I agitated it with a spoon to create small blobs for plating:


So, all the core elements were done.

I ground some celery seed and kosher salt in my spice grinder.  I blanched some thinly sliced celery pieces and celery ribbons (which you'll see in the final plating), and decided NOT to shave the bleu cheese onto an improvised anti-griddle.  I bought dry ice (to use under a baking sheet) before the blizzard, but hearing that half my town had lost power, I saved the dry ice in a cooler in case my power went out and I needed to stick it in the freezer.  I already had the block of Maytag in the freezer, so I just decided to plate all the elements and grate the frozen Maytag over the top. 

So, first I plated three now-frozen (but not frozen solid - just set) grape sponge balls.  Then, I dribbled some walnut milk around the edges, as well as a few little blobs of port gelatin.  Then, I placed some syruped walnuts around, as well as some celery, then shredded some frozen Maytag over it with my rasp. Lastly, I sprinkled a pinch or two of celery seed salt overtop the whole shebang:


All day, I was in such a flurry and a hurry because there were tree removal companies to call and insurance estimators to talk to and shoveling to be done and ice dams to be removed and Advil to take and sidewalks to be salted.... that I was buzzing and zipping and scuttling all over the kitchen to get this done and plated and eaten, and then?  After my first bite?

Everything stopped.


It was like the whole world just stood still for 10 seconds while I tasted this first bite.  Holy moley.

You guys, this was AMAZING.  I mean, the flavor combination -- walnuts, bleu cheese, port, grape -- a natural fit, right?  I contemplated ditching the celery, but am trying to be a grown up about it, so I kept it in, and I'm glad I did. But it faaaarrrr exceeded any expectations I might've had, and whiplashed me out of my current state of freaked-out multi-tasking distraction and made me focus on what was in my mouth.

Every single bit of this dish popped on its own, but when combined in one bite was just breathtaking.

Outstanding... and exactly what I needed to ground me and bring me back to earth.

Buy this book.  Make this dish.  Please.  You won't be sorry.  Seriously.  Those grape syrup walnuts alone are worth it.  I have a few left over that I plan to snack on while I soak in the tub after another round of shoveling, hoping to one day be able to feel my extremities again.

Up Next: Orange, olive oil, almond, picholine olive

Resources: Grapes from HMart in Wheaton, MD; walnuts, celery seed, and celery from the TPSS Co-op; David's kosher salt; Domino sugar; Natural by Nature whole milk; Maytag from Cowgirl Creamery; Sandeman ruby Port.

Music to Cook By: This American Life and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me podcasts.  If you're not listening to these, you should.

Read My Previous Post:  Here... have some sugar.

October 01, 2009

Corn, (not)coconut, cayenne, mint

Here's where we veer a little off-course from the Alinea cookbook.  One, because if I eat coconut, I break out in hives all over my arms and that's no fun.  Two, because I really don't like the taste of coconut anyway, so even if I didn't have a weird systemic reaction to it, I would've done a substitute for this dish because I'm stubborn like that.  And three, I wanted to mix things up a bit and not do a recipe verbatim.  I really wanted to pair corn with tomato and tarragon, as a sort of farewell to summer because I was not AT ALL ready for summer to end.  Mid-August into mid-September is my favorite time of year.  The food, the weather, my state of mind... it's just the time of year when I'm happiest and love everybody.  Seriously y'all, I'm NICE, and I smile ALL THE TIME.  It's weird.  It's like it's not even me.  It's Bizarro Me. 

Corn, tomatoes, tarragon, scallops, grilled hanger steak, and coffee from Wawa at the beach... that says end-of-summer to me.  But corn?  I could write a thousand love songs about corn.  I can't get enough of the stuff, and it makes me sad every year when the season ends (which is why I blanch and freeze a ton of it in early September so I can treat myself during the winter).

Corn and tomatoes were still in abundance here in the DC area until the very end of September (we had a cold, rainy June, so everything got a late start), so I was happy to have beautiful, fresh ingredients to work with.  The challenge, for me, was figuring out the best way to make this dish work with the ingredients I wanted, while still honoring the intent of the original dish.  One of the things I love most about the Alinea cookbook is that each dish has a number of sub-recipes, and those sub-recipes can be used in so many different ways.  Now that my work schedule is starting to become a little more normal and I'm not on the road as much, I'll start doing some posts about how I incorporate some of the sub-recipes into my everyday cooking, or adapt them in ways that might complement other dishes.

But today, let's talk about corn and tomatoes, tarragon and mint, and remind ourselves what the end of summer tastes like as we slip on a sweater and welcome the crisp fall weather.

Instead of coconut sorbet as the first layer of the dish, I did a tomato sorbet.  I cored and seeded 5 large tomatoes and put them in the food processor, then strained it through a china cap into a large mixing bowl.  To that, I added a tablespoon of sugar, a teaspoon of kosher salt, and a teaspoon of red wine vinegar, and stirred until everything was dissolved and incorporated.


I poured the liquid into a 9x13" baking dish and put it into the freezer.


While that was freezing, I made the corn sorbet.  I knew these sorbets would have a different texture, and I was okay with that.  I knew the tomato sorbet would be a little icier, a little more like a granita, while the corn sorbet would be smoother, and a little more like a sherbet.  Fine with me.  I just wanted to taste the two together and see how it'd turn out.

I bought a dozen ears of fresh, sweet, white corn from the farmers market, husked it, and cut off the kernels using an electric carving knife while holding the ear of corn in the center of the bundt cake pan you see below...


Man, can't you just smell the corn-y deliciousness in that photo?  As I was cutting off the kernels, I was waxing rhapsodic in my head about Grant Achatz and how I loved him so for including a dish in this book that uses one of my most favorite foods ever.  I may have even begun to sing a little self-composed ditty about Grant, and corn, and summer, and love, and sunshine, and loveliness, and corn and bliss and again yay for the corn, and then it all went into a five-spiral crash when I had a bit of a cornsplosion as I began spooning all that corn into my juicer to make corn juice. 


Corn was spilling everywhere, shooting back out of the top of the feeder tube; and, the front pulp and juice holders blew off just after that photo was taken (luckily, I caught them both against my abdomen and in the crook of my elbow before their contents spilled), and my love song about corn turned into a metal thrash involving vocabulary not fit for a PG-13 audience.  Or, an NC-17 audience, if I'm being honest.

I ended up with 745g of corn juice (the book calls for 750g --whoot!), which I poured into a saucepan.  I added glucose and salt, but skipped the stabilizer the book calls for.  I'd been having some difficulty getting my hands on it to begin with, and I wanted to see if I really needed it for this dish to taste good.  I know restaurants and commercial entities use stabilizers to maintain the product's structural integrity and reduce the formation of ice crystals (which come with temperature fluctuations in the freezer), but I've made enough ice cream and sorbet here at home (thanks to my lovely friend, David Lebovitz), that I wanted to see if I could make this without it.  I know that stabilizers also act as an emulsifier, but knowing there was butter in this recipe, I thought that might be enough of a lipid to make it work.

So, corn juice and salt:


Adding the glucose:


I brought it to a simmer over medium heat, whisking to incorporate the glucose, then transferred the liquid to my blender.  I put the blender on low speed, and added 50g of cold butter, one teeny little chunk at a time.



It was perfectly seasoned -- no additional salt required -- and because I don't have a Pacojet, I chilled the corn liquid in the fridge for an hour or so, then put it in my ice cream maker for 40 minutes to begin to freeze.


I took the now-frozen tomato sorbet-granita and scraped the top to get enough for a taste test, and yummmmmmmm..... it was so flavorful -- I couldn't wait to see how the two would do together.


I poured the corn liquid onto the frozen tomato layer and put it back in the fridge for another hour or two, until it had frozen.


Meantime, I made the mint puree... and added some tarragon to it.  I'm getting near the end of my tarragon in the garden, and while I know I'll make a nice big stash of tarragon butter to freeze and use over the next few months, I wanted to change this recipe a bit and make it a mint-tarragon puree rather than straight mint, since I'd already swapped out the coconut for the tomato.

I blanched and ice bathed 40g of mint leaves and 30g of tarragon leaves:


After their ice bath, I strained the leaves and put them in the blender along with some salt, sugar, ice water, and Ultra-Tex 3 (which sounds like a shapeware bra for someone with giant bazongas, doesn't it?), and blended it until it was smooth:


DSC_0016 2


Strained it and funneled it into a squeeze bottle:


As I poured it into the squeeze bottle above, I noticed it was a little more runny than I expected, so rather than it being a lovely blob of puree atop the frozen sorbet square as it is in the book, I knew I'd have to use it as a sauce, of sorts, in the plating process.

I got out the cayenne, fleur de sel, zested a lime, and cut the now-frozen sorbet into little squares for plating.


You can see the tomato layer is a different texture than the corn layer, and that it broke off while being cut.  No worries.  This kind of plating wasn't working for me visually or otherwise, so I decided to prepare bites on spoons instead.  First on the spoon went the mint-tarragon "sauce", topped with the tomato-corn sorbet, which was topped with a pinch of cayenne, pinch of lime zest, and a pinch of fleur de sel:


I'm not sure everyone liked this as much as I did.  The kids didn't like the flavor combination.  The adults weren't jazzed about the frozen nature of it.  I, however, could've eaten the whole tray of it myself.  Is it better than a fresh, room temperature salad of tomatoes, corn, tarragon, mint, lime, salt, cayenne, brown butter, and red wine vinegar?  No.  But it's not a contest.  This was, for me, a lesson in adaptation and reconfiguration... a way to test what I thought I already knew, and how to make it better using ingredients I love.

The tomato sorbet was so fresh and bright and the corn sorbet was so smooth and creamy, and... corn-y.  It was odd eating them together in a popsicle/ice cream-texture, but not off-putting in the least.  I love how the lime, salt, and cayenne played off each other and brought out the flavors even more -- and I was thrilled that I got their balance right.  The tarragon-mint component brightened it without overpowering any of the flavors.  This was a dish that tasted like summer, and from a temperature and texture perspective may have been more enjoyable in July (from the frozen nature of it, but oddly, before those ingredients are truly in season).

Peace out, summer...I miss you already...

Up Next: Idiazabal (or, as I like to call 'em, "Alinea Cheetos")

Resources: Corn and tomatoes from Musachio Farm at the Takoma Park Farmers Market; Domaine des Vignes red wine vinegar; glucose from; David's kosher salt; 365 unsalted butter; mint and tarragon from my garden; Domino sugar; Ultra-Tex 3 from Terra Spice/Alinea; cayenne from Adriana's Caravan; lime from HMart; fleur de sel de Camargue.

Music to Cook By: Aterciopelados; La Pipa de la Paz.  I was in New York visiting friends a few years ago, and heard Aterciopelados' song Florecita Rockera in a bar and thought if I ever needed an alias or alter-ego name, that would have to be it... because "buttercup rocker"??? How awesome is that?  She's sweet and lovely like a buttercup but SHE ALSO COULD KICK YOUR ASS.  Discovering that song led me down the path of everything Aterciopelados has done, and I just love their sound.  I think I have every album.  Bolero Falaz is great, as is El Estuche.  I wish I was more fluent (or even conversational, heck) in Spanish, because these really are good windows-down, sun shining in, volume up, singalong songs, and I'm sure they way I'm butchering them phonetically has the potential to cause some sort of international incident.  I'm still shocked that the nation of India hasn't bombed us over my phonetic rendering of "Jai Ho."

Read My Previous Post: King crab, vinegar, aromatics, seaweed

September 10, 2009

Octopus, eggplant, beans, soy

This dish really made me miss my dog.  His favorite fuzzy chew toy was a demented-looking green and black octopus.  At least once a week, he'd walk into the living room and spot the ratty thing out of the corner of his eye, and, with his teeth, yank it out of the basket by one of its legs and fling it across the room, barking at it like it was some predatory killer he was protecting me from.  Crazy little wiener dog....

As I was shopping for the ingredients for this dish, I was trying to remember the last time I ate octopus.  There have been a few times I've tried to order it recently in restaurants, but it's almost always had some sort of marinade-related gluten conflict, so I had to choose something else.  Regardless, it's obvious that when I've had it before, it didn't make an impression -- good or bad -- so I feel like I'm starting with a clean slate here.  Feels weird to know I've eaten something before, but have no taste memory one way one another.  Huh....

The first thing I did was prepare the marinade for the octopi.  Wait.  It's octopi, right?  Octopuses?  That sounds slightly dirty.  Hang on, let me consult Merriam-Webster.... okay both are correct.  But both are also weird, aren't they?  Like whoever came up with the word "octopus" back in 1431, or whenever it was, thought it would be hilARious because the plural of the word would make you sound like a dork when you said it.

But I digress...


Oh, hello there, little guy.

I bought eight octopi, knowing I needed 250g of legs for the final dish, removed the bodies and kept the legs intact of each one, rinsed them, dried them, and put them in a bowl while I made the marinade.


The marinade is easy: soy sauce, mirin, sugar, rice vinegar, dry red wine, garlic, and fresh ginger -- all brought to a simmer, then allowed to cool to room temperature.


When it had cooled, I put the marinade in a ziploc bag and added the octopus legs, sealed it, and refrigerated it for 24 hours -- bringing the legs out just in time for grilling just before plating (which you'll see at the end of this post, obviously).


The only other thing I wanted to do a day ahead of serving was make the frozen eggplant puree.  I peeled and cubed four eggplants to be able to yield 1,500g of eggplant cubes, which I sauteed in peanut oil (which smelled amaaaaaaazzzzzing).



Once the eggplant had softened and browned, I made the ginger juice by peeling and juicing fresh ginger in my JuiceDude2000:


Next, I removed the seeds and ribs from these two lovely chilis before mincing them:


I also made some fresh ground cardamom by removing the cardamom seeds from their pods, grinding them in a spice/coffee bean grinder, and sifting it through a fine-mesh strainer.




In a medium-sized bowl, I combined the ginger juice, chilies, cardamom powder, soy sauce, red wine, garlic, sugar, and water.


I added the sauteed eggplant and stirred gently until everything came together and the eggplant was coated.


I put the eggplant mixture into a ziploc bag, squeezed out as much air as I could (FoodSavers don't work for sous vide cooking, because they suck moisture out, as well as air), and cooked the eggplant en sous vide at 195 degrees Fahrenheit (91 degrees C) for an hour.



When it was done, and the eggplant was so incredibly tender, I put it into a blender and pureed until it was smooth:




I added salt, stirred, and strained it through a fine-mesh strainer onto a sheet pan to cool to room temperature:


When it had cooled, I put it into the refrigerator for a few hours to cool further, then put it in my ice cream maker for 30 minutes.  The book provides instructions for using a Pacojet, which I don't have, because that $4,000 is better spent on other things like, I dunno, my MORTGAGE.

So, I kicked it welfare-style and used my 15-year old Krups ice cream maker to freeze the eggplant mixture.


I spread the now-sort-of-a-little-more-frozen eggplant mixture into a 13x9" baking dish and put it in the freezer to harden overnight.



The next day, the day I wanted to serve this, the rest of the prep was pretty damn easy.  I soaked the dried chickpeas overnight, and in the morning cooked them for about 40 minutes.   I dried them, and fried 'em up in some canola oil (400 degrees F), then sprinkled them with kosher salt.



I also marinated the green beans (sadly, the farmers market and local grocery stores were out of wax beans when I went to buy them for this dish -- which sucked because I LOVE wax beans) in rice vinegar, grapeseed oil, salt, and black pepper.


Finally, before grilling the octopus legs (the last step before plating), I made the soy bubbles.  In a medium saucepan, I brought my gluten-free soy sauce, water, sugar, and soy lecithin to a simmer, whisking to dissolve the sugar and lecithin.


I strained it into another container, then used my immersion blender to foam it, which you'll see spooned onto the plate in the final photo.

Last but not least, I removed the octopus legs from the marinade, drained them in a colander, and grilled them over high heat for about 30 seconds on each side.


I wish I'd shot video footage of this, because when you lay the wet, limp octopus legs onto the grill, they slither and slide and squirm and roll and pop and twitch and bounce from the heat.  It's only slightly freaky, and really kinda fascinating.


To plate, I placed a small rectangle of the frozen eggplant puree onto the plate, and topped it with some of the green beans.  Then, I placed some of the chickpeas around, and placed a set of octopus legs on top of that, garnishing with sliced scallions, mung bean sprouts, and the soy foam.


So, how did it taste?

Let me break it into three categories -- taste, texture, and temperature.  Overall, the taste was really, really good.  Everything was seasoned really well, and I thought all the flavors complemented one another beautifully.  Mung bean sprouts are sweeter than I thought they would be (I don't think I've ever had them before), and I really liked the taste of everything separately and together.  The fried chickpeas were one of my favorite elements of this dish -- and something I'll make again as a little treat for when friends come over for a glass of wine.  They were a little nutty, hearty, and just salty enough.  The scallions also complemented the dish nicely -- usually, I think they taste too onion-y, or are a distraction, but not here.

Texture?  Well, that's another story.  I kind of suspected I might have some issues with the octopus legs, and there's just something about their texture that skeeves me.  They weren't rubbery or overly chewy.  I think it's the tentacles.  I'm not sure. I swear I wasn't overthinking it when I was eating it -- it was just an awkwardness in the bite that I didn't expect.

Temperature?  I would've rather had this, I think, with a warm eggplant puree.  The frozen state of it was a little distracting in the overall flavor profile, and we all agreed that we loved the taste of the eggplant... it was just that it was frozen that made us stop and have to think about it for a few seconds as we were chewing instead of instantly knowing how delicious it was.  And, since the eggplant puree was the most labor-intensive part of the dish, I wish I'd liked it more.

All told, it wasn't a bad dish.  I just don't think I'll be adding it to the permanent rotation.

Up Next: Corn or Idiazabal

Resources: Baby octopus from Blacksalt; peanut oil, canola oil, rice vinegar, grapeseed oil, mirin, eggplant, ginger, Thai chilis, scallions, and garlic from HMart; Domino sugar; San-J wheat-free soy sauce; Turley 2007 Juvenile Zinfandel; David's kosher salt; mung bean sprouts, cardamom pods, and chickpeas from TPSS Co-op; soy lecithin from WillPowder; green beans from Glenville Hollow Farms at the Takoma Farmers Market;

Music to Cook By: Chuck Brown; Assorted.  I've lived in the Washington, DC area for 23 years, and you can't live here for 23 minutes without knowing Chuck Brown.  Chuck is the godfather of Go-Go music, and a legend in the music community -- even more so here in DC, as they recently named the street in front of The 930 Club "Chuck Brown Way."  I've heard Chuck, Juju, and the guys (his horn section is fantastic) play at so many music festivals and tributes over the years, and I have a blast every time.  In fact, the last time I saw James Brown in concert (not long before he died), Chuck opened for him, and it was such a great show -- I don't think my body stopped moving the entire night.  So, from time to time, I love to put some Chuck Brown on the kitchen rotation (LOVE "Bustin' Loose" and "We Need Some Money") and put my backfield in motion.

Read My Previous Post: Huckleberry, soda, five flavors gelled

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

August 14, 2009

Oyster Cream, lychee, horseradish, chervil

You know what's worse than having the flu?

Having the flu in the summer.  And, having a sinus and ear infection at the same time.


Nine days of grossness, exhaustion, and self-pity.  No appetite, no ability to focus on much of anything for more than ten seconds... and even after starting to feel better earlier this week, it's just been a struggle to get back on track.  Just when I take advantage of a new-found burst of energy, my body and my brain pull back on the reins with a whoa-there-nelly to keep me in check and not push too far or too hard too soon.

Days of unanswered work email, piles of things to edit, lists of things to write, too many voicemails to return... and all I really wanted to do was get back into the kitchen.  But a girl's got to pay the mortgage, so I had to spend a few more days than I would've liked getting back into the swing of things around these parts.

I made this dish right before I got sick, but the very idea of sitting upright, looking at photos of food, or trying to write anything coherent or cohesive just wasn't happening.  So, that's just my long-winded way of saying sorry to have left you hanging with that veal stock post for so long.

*  *  *  *  *

There are two dishes in the Alinea cookbook involving oysters.  You all know how I feel about oysters, so I'm not gonna go into yet another woe-is-me rant about how much I have to suffer when in their presence.  First-world problems, and all that.  I just decided after my first attempt with oysters, I wanted to get this second (and last) one done as quickly as possible.  Didn't want to drag it out and have it be a looming, dark, culinary cumulonimbus.  I just wanted to get it done, scrape my tongue immediately afterward, and cross it off the list.

It seemed like a relatively straightforward dish with ingredients that were easy to find.  I mean, every week, for years it seems, all my local grocery stores have carried horseradish root.  It's always there.  Chervil is hit or miss, but I knew I could sub out a combo of parsley and tarragon, and it would suffice.  So, as I made my grocery list, I knew I could get everything in one go.

Except I couldn't, because, go figure -- the one time I really need horseradish, no one had it.  After the third grocery store attempt, I whipped out the Yellow Pages (I keep one in the trunk of the car) and called down the list of grocery stores within a 20-mile radius of my house. 

Me: "Do you have fresh horseradish?" 

Them: "Yes, we do."

Me: "Wait, not the kind in the jars, the horseradish root in the produce section?"

Them: "Yes, ma'am, we carry that."

Me: "Would you mind having someone check and make sure you have some now?"

Them: [exasperated] "Ma'am, that's unnecessary, we have it.  We always have it."

Me: "Alright then.  Thanks."

And I'd get to one of those grocery stores where they "always have it, ma'am" and lo and behold, the horseradish basket was a) empty, or on two occasions b) had horseradish root covered in mold with mushy, rotten spots all over.

It took my stopping at nine grocery stores over two days to find fresh horseradish.

All for a dish I wasn't even remotely prepared to like. 


The first step is to combine the oysters, their liquid, and some cream in a saucepan and bring it to a simmer over low-medium heat.  Then, once it had begun to simmer, I put the lid on the pot, turned off the flame, and let it stand for about 20 minutes.


I strained the liquid through a chinois into another pan, and discarded the solids.  Let me repeat that: the book says you have to discard the solids.  Meaning the oysters.  Meaning, this was going to be a dish that carried the essence of oysters, without having to chew on those little suckers.

Glory be, things were beginning to look up!


Peace out, oysters.  Nice knowin' ya...

I weighed 600g of the oyster liquid (which smelled fantastic), added agar agar to it, and blended it with my immersion blender.  I brought it to a simmer, used a bit of it to temper the egg yolk-sugar-cornstarch-salt mixture in a separate bowl, then poured all that back into the oyster liquid on the stovetop, and whisked until everything was incorporated and it began to bubble and take the shape of pudding.  If you have the book, you'll notice that the recipe instructions mention salt, but the ingredient list does not.  So, I just made my best guess at how much to use and threw 2g of kosher salt in there.


I poured it into a bowl that had been nesting in a bowl of ice, and stirred it every 5-10 minutes until it had cooled to room temperature.  Then, I put the bowl of oyster pudding/cream into the refrigerator for an hour.


After an hour of being in the fridge, it had set.  I scraped it out of the bowl and into my blender (which will soon be replaced!) and blended it until it was smooth and almost the consistency of mayonnaise.  I strained it through a chinois and into a squeeze bottle.





I had enjoyed the smell of the oyster cream up until this point, but hadn't yet tasted it.  So, I grabbed a small spoon and squirted a bit of the cream onto the spoon before putting the bottle into the fridge.  Remember the olive oil pudding I was gonna marry a few months ago?  We're totally breaking up, because this oyster cream is even better.  I KNOW.  Who'dathunkit?  I put the bottle of oyster cream in the refrigerator until it was time to plate, smiling at the thought of actually, maybe, perhaps, could-it-be this dish might not suck?

The next step seemed straightforward at first, until I looked at the photo of this dish in the book.  The recipe is for chervil juice.  The photo shows a green, gelatinous cube.  I know horseradish gelée (coming soon!) isn't green, so I wondered: should I just gelatinize the chervil instead of making juice?  I mean, I know how to do that.  It's not difficult. 

I decided to move forward with doing the juice as it was in the book, but instead of chervil (which I couldn't get my hands on), I did a mixture of tarragon and parsley (which is the closest swap-out for chervil I know of).  I blanched the leaves and ice bathed them, then put the blanched leaves and 500g of ice water into a blender with some salt and simple syrup and blended it on high speed for two minutes:




I strained it through a chinois into a bowl, saving it for the final plating.


The next step was to make the horseradish gelée.  Even though it was a bitch to buy, I love horseradish.  Didn't always, but I do now.  I love the heat, and I love how it just sits in your nose and cracks open the palate but doesn't overtake a whole dish or a whole bite.  

I cut off a little nubbin of horseradish root (I needed 40g), and peeled and grated it:


I put it in a saucepan with some sugar, salt, and white wine vinegar and brought it to a boil.  Side note: if you have the Alinea cookbook, you'll see the recipe also calls for 1/4 red Thai chili.  Yeah.  I totally forgot to buy them, and didn't realize it until the time I started making this part of the dish.  So, I just went without.  Whoops.

Anyhoo, I brought the combo to a boil, then turned off the flame, covered the pot, and let it steep for about a half an hour.


I added some gelatin sheets, which I'd soaked in cold water for a few minutes, and gently stirred the mixture until the gelatin dissolved.


I poured the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl and put the bowl in the fridge to set -- which took about 40 minutes -- after which I chunked it into small nuggets.



I don't have a photo of the last step before plating -- the slicing of the lychees.  I couldn't find any fresh lychees, so I had to settle for canned Roland lychees.  I cut small pieces -- each one the size of a nickel.

Time for plating:

First, two blobs of oyster cream.  Then, in between them went a small slice of lychee.  On top of the lychee went the horseradish gelee.  Then, two spoonfuls of the chervil juice around the perimeter.  Lastly, I topped the horseradish and lychee with osetra caviar.



Okay, it's not Oysters and Pearls.... but, I loved it!  It was all I could do not to just devour the entire bottle of oyster cream on its own.  And the oyster cream with the salty *pop* of the caviar, the earthy, bright green slightly anise-y taste of the chervil juice, and the kick of the horseradish?  Oh, wow.  It opened up beautifully with each bite, and it was something that you could almost taste all the way up into your tear ducts.  Now, I will say that I thought the lychee was a distraction, both in taste and texture.  So, if I were to make this again (which I actually might), I'd skip the lychee altogether.  Everything else, together and on its own, was really, really good, and it made the Great Horseradish Trek of 2009 more than worth it.

Up Next: Kuroge Wagyu, cucumber, honeydew, lime sugar

Resources: Oysters and caviar from Blacksalt; Organic Valley heavy cream; agar agar from Terra Spice; Roland lychees from HMart; Smith Meadows Farm eggs; tarragon and parsley from my garden; horseradish from Whole Foods, Terra Midi white wine vinegar; gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie.

Music to Cook By: Kaiser Chiefs; Employment.  I took my neighbor's kids to see Green Day a few weeks ago (one of the best shows I've ever been to, by the way), and the Kaiser Chiefs were the opening act.  I'd heard of them before, but was not all that familiar with their music.  Or so I thought.  Turns out, I knew a lot of their music, I just didn't know certain songs were theirs. I really like their sound -- it feels like it's pulling the late 60s and early 70s (Kinks) into the early 80s (XTC) and giving it a more modern indie rock sensibility.  It's listenable punk with a few pop hooks, strong choruses, and lyrics that go beyond their original intent.  Their writing is strong, and I'm enjoying their other albums, as well.  Glad I got to see them.

Read My Previous Post: Veal Stock

July 20, 2009

Croquette, smoked steelhead roe, endive, radish

While I love being a spectator of certain sporting events, I've never been much of the athletic type.  Chalk it up to my innate talents (musical theatre, and being a smartass) focused elsewhere while I was growing up, or being much more into the statistics of sports rather than the sports themselves (I still have my spiral-bound notebook containing various Orioles batting averages and Winter Olympic ski jump records from 1976), but I could never play any actual sports.  Part of it is laziness, part of it is disinterest, and most of it just an extreme lack of athletic talent.  EXTREME.  Like, I got Cs in phys. ed. in junior high and high school because the only sport I was good at was rolling my eyes.

That said, I will confess to being jealous of people who are good at sports, because they're given the benefit of having the opportunity for some amazing, adrenaline-fueled celebratory moments -- the rush of scoring a goal in soccer, the 80-yard touchdown run, or hearing the specific crack of the bat that you just know is going to land that baseball over the left-field fence.  Even watching pro sports -- the Ickey Shuffle, the Lambeau Leap, the touchdown spike, the winning ace in a tennis match, or soccer players who get caught up in the swarm of teammates when they score a goal.  Hell, even the sound of, "goooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllllllllllllll!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" itself is awesome.  It's a feeling I rarely have an opportunity to experience.  I mean, so I launch a great press campaign or score a rave for a client in the New York Times... can't exactly do a leaping chest-bump while "WOOO-HOOOOOO"-ing with anyone.  In fact, none of my professional experiences inherently deliver that from-the-gut-gotta-outwardly-and-instantly-celebrate-or-I-might-explode kind of feeling.  Not even close.

So, I don't play sports, and my profession doesn't really dovetail with the physicality of a celebratory adrenaline surge.  But cooking?  Even when a meal turns out beautifully, I can't say that I've ever experienced that sense of beaming pride that carries you for days.  It always seems as if I take a moment or two to savor it, and then I go on to the next thing.  But you know what happened the other day?  A fist-pumping, can't stop smiling, HELL YES, end-zone dancing, butt-shaking, giddily laughing accomplishment that took me quite by surprise and that I'm still feeling today... all caused by what you see below.  This, my friends, is my Croquette, from the Alinea cookbook:


Is it a breaded, fried ball of dairy product with stuff on top?  Yes, but it may just be the best thing I have ever made.  It's certainly the best bite from this blog up until now.  And, to add to the joy?  I made it gluten-free.

I was caught off guard by how well this turned out, because there were steps throughout the process that could very easily have led to a post with lines like, "well, the spheres were supposed to set, but as you can see, Bluto clearly got to them before I could."  I worried that the breading I'd planned to do would fail, and I'd end up with a repeat of The Great Sweet Potato Meltdown of 2009.  I feared another caper explosion.  I don't know why, but I had it in my head that this was going to be frustrating and unsatisfying, and instead, it was the complete opposite.

And when it was done, and the croquettes eaten, and the dishwasher started, and my friends on their way back across the street to their home, I did my own version of the Ickey Shuffle.  Although, because I have ZERO floor space in my kitchen, it admittedly looked more like Judd Nelson in the final scene of The Breakfast Club after he kisses Molly Ringwald.  Which was shot on a football field.  Which I do not and can not play.  Because I suck at sports.  And we come full circle.  Wow.


But let's begin at the beginning, shall we?  Unless, of course, you're one of those readers who only likes when I destroy something or fail miserably... in which case, FINE.  BE that way.

I did this dish in just a few hours (most of which was waiting time as the spheres set), and it was more than worth it.  I started in the morning because I wanted to make sure I built in some extra time for the crème fraîche spheres to set, or for me to re-do them completely, because I was really sure I was gonna screw 'em up.  But before I even started in on those, I candied some Belgian endive leaves...


I bought two endives, and used the larger outer leaves of both.  I also trimmed the tough, brownish, fibrous parts at the base of each leaf.  I halved the leaves lengthwise (I made a few extra in case some tore while cooking) and put them in a small saucepan of sugar and water I'd already heated to a simmer (stirring until the sugar dissolved).  Upon putting in the leaves, I turned down the flame to the lowest heat level, covered the pot, and let them simmer/steep for 40 minutes.



I turned off the burner and let the leaves sit in the pot of liquid until I was ready to use them later in the day.

The next thing I did was make the crème fraîche liquid -- crème fraîche, water, salt, simple syrup, warmed to a simmer.  I added the gelatin sheets (which I'd soaked in cold water for a few minutes) and whisked them in until they'd dissolved.


I turned off the heat, knowing it would stay warm while I got the cucumber balls and roe ready to make the spheres:



The smoked steelhead roe is from BLiS, and I don't know that I've ever seen roe more beautiful (or more flavorful).  [I can't wait to try all of Steve's other products because if this roe is any indication of the level of quality, I'm going to fall culinarily in love, I'm quite sure.]

To make the spheres, I got out my trusty silicone molds (which J.B. Prince no longer sells, sadly, but these should work just as nicely), and placed 7 eggs into each of the hemispheres, then added a cucumber ball, locked the top on, and squirted in the crème fraîche liquid until each sphere was full:







I put the mold into the refrigerator and crossed my fingers for the next three hours to make sure they'd set.  I really, really, really thought that when I gently lifted up one corner of the top layer of the mold, that half the ball of goo would come with it, and it would be a creamy mess and I'd have wasted all that roe.  But that wasn't the case.

Once I'd checked on them to make sure they were set and ready to be used, I put them back into the refrigerator and prepared the rest of the garnishes: red onion dice, radish slivers, deep-fried capers, pieces of lime segment, and a trio of fresh herbs (sandwiched between damp paper towels) -- chive, sorrel, parsley:


The next step was to bread and deep fry the crème fraîche spheres.  The recipe in the book calls for all-purpose flour and panko crumbs, neither of which I can eat.  So, instead, I took each ball and rolled it in tapioca flour, then egg (beaten), then breadcrumbs I made with four slices of Whole Foods brand gluten-free sandwich bread (which I thawed, removed the crusts, and whacked in the food processor for 20 seconds to make them into bread crumbs).  The book said to do this flouring, egging, and breading twice so that they were double-breaded, but I did it three times.  Just to be safe.




I heated a pot of canola oil to 250-275 degrees instead of the 475 degrees the book suggests.  I know from previous experience that gluten-free bread tends to toast and burn more quickly than regular bread, so I started out at a lower temperature for the oil because I figured I could increase it if it wasn't working at 250-275 degrees.  I just didn't want to lower one of those precious few crème fraîche spheres into 475-degree oil and have it turn black or explode.

I chose wisely:



That level of brown crispiness happened in ten seconds, and I knew each of these balls had to go into the oven for a few minutes to make sure the centers were softened, so I was happy to see that my gut instinct on this was correct.  I did all nine spheres, one at a time, then put them on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 250-degree oven for 2 minutes.  The only thing I thought about while they were warming was whether that 10 seconds in the oil was enough time, given that I had three layers of breading instead of two.  I needn't have worried because this plate of croquettes is one of the finest things to have ever graced my kitchen:


So, what did it taste like?  Well, we ate it as one bite... and the warm crème fraîche just exploded in my mouth (and some dribbled out of the side of my mouth; klassy!).  The contrast of warm and creamy on the inside with the toastiness of the breaded outside was one thing.  But, then to add the subtle layers of the smoky, salty, flavor bursts of the roe as they exploded between my teeth, and the sharpness and biteyness of the radish, the zing of the onion, the brine of the capers, the tart acidity of the lime, the cool freshness of the cucumber, and the sweetness of the candied endive?  "Wow" doesn't cut it.  "YEAH!" doesn't quite do it either.  "Proud" doesn't quite encompass the height of emotion.  My 10-year old neighbor's eyes bulged wide (he dribbled a bit, too) and he didn't blink at all while he chewed and then reached for a second one.  But "eyes bulging" isn't the right descriptor, either.  My neighbor, Sean, who had eaten at Alinea the week before, said, "this is your best work EVER."  So while I was even more flattered because he actually now has a real-life reference point for the level of quailty I'm going for, it still isn't the most complete way to describe how I felt about this croquette.

I know part of my loving this croquette so much comes out of my knowing that I'll never again eat roe in the traditional way -- on toast points.  Toast made with real bread -- the kind of bread I can't eat anymore.  So to have all that toasty deliciousness, and the crème fraîche and the salty roe surrounded by all the other supporting flavors in one bite?  And that I MADE IT?

It really and truly felt like what I can only imagine it's like to spike a football in the end zone... crack a bat on a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth... be the first one to cross the finish line in a come-from-behind win... feel the thunderous, all-encompassing roar of a crowd... then trying not to cry while you're standing on the platform receiving the gold medal and hearing the national anthem.

It's all of those wrapped up into one, because, I MADE THIS:


And it was FANTASTIC.

I'm gonna go do a victory lap now.

Up Next: Oyster, ginger, steelhead roe, beer

Resources:  Gelatin sheets from L'Epicerie; Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. crème fraîche; David's kosher salt; English cucumber, Belgian endive, red onion, radish, sorrel; and gluten-free bread from Whole Foods; Domino sugar; BLiS roe; Bob's Red Mill Tapioca Flour; eggs from Smith Meadows Farm; 365 canola oil; Bal Paese capers; parsley and chive from my garden.

Music to Cook By: Ray LaMontagne; Trouble.  Raspy, but not grating.  Thoughtful, but not emo.  Has a walkable musicality, but not Randy Newman.  Lyrical, but not lilting and twee.  I love this guy.    

Read My Previous Post:  Lamb, akudjura, olive, eucalyptus veil

May 12, 2009

Mango, bonito, soy, sesame

Last week, I had the great pleasure and genuine good fortune to be in Jamaica for five days for a friend's wedding.  Her family has a spectacular home on an estate there, and we wedding guests took over the surrounding villas for the week and had the most wonderful time.  Every need was catered to during our stay, and we were all spoiled beyond belief.  The wedding was beautiful, and the time with friends, away from home, was much-needed because over the past few weeks, I've piled on a lot more stress than I'd noticed (and I'm usually pretty self-aware).  Work has been incredibly busy and things around the house have been consuming more time and effort than usual, so this wedding couldn't have been better-timed or better-located.


When I arrived at the villa where I'd be staying, I hugged my friends hello and upon seeing our surroundings, couldn't help but close my eyes and take a deep whiff.  Part ocean, and part something else... at first, I couldn't place it.  I squinted against the sun as I looked around the grounds until I saw it: a mango tree.  Wait, two mango trees.  There's a third!  And a fourth!  Hundreds of almost-ripe mangoes dangling in clumps of fifteen or twenty or more, their collective weight pulling the branches down so that they nearly touched the ground.  I scampered (and I am generally a girl who does not scamper) down the hill to the first tree I saw and picked one from the lowest-hanging branch, sliced it lengthwise with my thumbnail (there goes the manicure!), and twisted it apart to feel the oily flesh and take in its scent.  As you may recall, past experiences have made me more than a little hesitant to eat raw mangoes, but smelling them?  Aaaaahhhhh.  Feeling the weight of the fresh-picked, sun-warmed mango in my hand was, now in hindsight, the best way to kick off that little island respite of mine.  It reminded me of and reconnected me to a sense of touch, taste, smell, and sight that I haven't lately treated myself to often enough.

Because of what I do for a living, I spend many days here at home tethered to my laptop.  My office is on the second floor of my house, and while I have a lovely view of the neighborhood from my window, my eyes are usually glued to this screen, my fingers pounding out yet another op-ed, speech, or white paper for a client.  When I have gotten outside these past few weeks to try and get my gardens ready for summer, it's all been a matter of hard labor and little enjoyment.  Digging, moving, hauling, edging, mowing, weeding.  Even when I cook, I haven't been taking the time to really pay attention to the food I'm working with, and because I've been so busy, my day-to-day cooking has been slapdash and hurried.  So, I didn't really realize how much I needed to hold that mango and rip it open to breathe it in, leaving traces of pulp under my fingernails, until I actually did it.  Miraculously, the kinks in my neck unkinked, the knot under my right shoulder blade unwound, and my latest malady -- the embarrassingly visible lower right eye twitch -- disappeared before I'd even gotten my bags fully unpacked.  No cell phone, no laptop, and only fresh air, sunshine, and great friends for five days?  Everyone should be this lucky.

As we drove our golf carts around the property to the various wedding events and parties, I saw (and smelled!) that nearly every villa had at least three or four mango trees in its environs, and the golf course was laden with them.  After all the smushed mangoes on the roads, mangoes on the breakfast tray every morning, and a drunken, doubled-over-in-laughter game of pass-the-mango late Saturday night with a group of friends, it was obvious to me that the first dish I needed to do upon arriving back home was this one.

After all, I needed to reverse the bad mojo of three failed dishes in a row, and having just returned from paradise, I was certain the Jamaican mango gods had somehow stowed themselves in my luggage and would be guiding my way.

And so we begin... with two mangoes:


I peeled them both (using my awesome Oxo peeler, and took a chunk of skin out of my thumb in the process), and cut them into chunks which I put in the blender:


I blended it on medium-high speed until it was very smooth (took about 2 minutes), then added about 2T of simple syrup.  The book suggests adding an amount that will get you to 20 something-or-others on the refractometer, but as we covered in an earlier post, I don't have a refractometer, so I eyeballed an amount I thought would work for this preparation (and it did, but sshhhh, don't tell anyone until you get to the end of the post).  


After adding the 2T of simple syrup, I whizzed the mixture around in the blender for about 10 seconds to fully incorporate it, and poured the purée through a chinois into a bowl, and then into a squeeze bottle (which went into the fridge while I made everything else).



Next up?  Soy pudding.

Back when this blog was but a babe in the woods, I made olive oil pudding as part of one of the dishes in the book, and remember feeling all squidgey and blarky about it until I ate it, at which point I wanted to slather it all over my body and talk dirty to it, it was that good.

Would the same thing happen with soy pudding?  You'll soon find out... patience, grasshopper.

In a medium saucepan, I poured 500g of soy sauce (which is not even an entire 20-oz. bottle) along with the sugar and agar agar:


I brought it to a boil, whisking all the time while it boiled for two minutes threatening to ooze over the top of the pan, giving me flashbacks to the time my cousins made me watch "The Blob" with them late at night when I was but a wee lass.  Thanks, Ann and Amy.  Thanks a lot.  [Oh, and while I'm at it, thanks also for making me watch "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," too.  I WAS TEN.  I still have nightmares about that.  You suck.  (Love you!)]



It crawls!  It creeps!  It eats you alive!!!

I poured The Blob through a strainer into one of my Le Creuset pots, which I covered with its lid and put in the fridge for two hours to set.




After it had set, I scooped it all out into chunks that I put in the blender:


Looks more like soy Jell-O than soy pudding, doesn't it? 


The idea was to blend it until it was smooth.  I had to keep stopping the blender to push the chunks back down, which was kind of frustrating and ultimately has me convinced that I need a new blender (I've had this same one since 1991 -- can you believe it? Eighteen years. My blender can vote AND register for the draft!):


It was not as creamy smooth as I would've liked, but it also wasn't as tapenade-y as the photo depicts.  Somewhere in the middle, but not as dark and smooth and serene-looking as the photo of the little dots of it on page 187 of the Alinea cookbook.  Dang it.

The final step was to shave some dried bonito for sprinkling atop the finished product.  When I went to HMart, my local Asian market, I couldn't find a piece of dried bonito.  I asked a few employees where it might be, and because I don't speak Korean or Spanish (and the word "bonito" means something entirely different in Spanish anyway), it was a bit of a challenge to find.  I also have a hard time saying the word "bonito" without using my Beavis voice, which I'm sure didn't help matters. 

So I wrote the words "bonito" and "katsuobushi" (its other name) and drew a picture of a fish (I am such a tacky American) on a piece of paper and a kind employee led me to one of the middle aisles, extending his arm out and then to the side, gesturing at a set of shelves amidst the "American" household goods and foodstuffs (Cheerios, Charmin, and Jif). I started to say, "Oh no, this isn't the right aisle" because for YEARS I'd been walking by this very spot, wondering to myself why the Asian population in the metro DC area seemed to own hamsters and guinea pigs in great quantities, because I'd never seen a grocery store cater so heavily to a certain pet owner demographic, what with all the shelves of bags of various brands of hamster cage shavings:


Turns out, this stuff is shaved bonito -- or katsuobushi.  Not cedar shavings.  I'm such an ass.


There's no pleasant or polite way to say this, but the smell that assaulted my nasal passages upon opening that bag of shaved bonito was... um... gosh.... I don't want to be crass here, but I do want to find a way to convey what it smelled like without being too rude or offensive or soon to be on the receiving end of a phone call from my mother saying, "CAROL MELISSA BLYMIRE, WHERE ARE YOUR MANNERS?!?!?!  HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MIND!?!?!?  DID I TEACH YOU NOTHING!?!!?!?!  AND WHAT HAPPENED TO EMINEM'S FACE???!?!?!?! HE LOOKS LIKE BRUCE JENNER NOW, OR MAYBE EVEN AXL ROSE, AND THAT IS NOT GOOD AT ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!"  [Okay, she wouldn't yell at me about that last part, but seriously y'all, his face is jacked and that's a shame.]

So, back to the smell of the bonito (and now I'm singing "La Isla Bonita," Madonna's WORST SONG EVER.  GREAT.):  "Not quite the mango-scented Jamaican breeze" doesn't quite cut it.  An Atlantic City hooker in a rented-by-the-hour hotel in a swamp in the middle of August?  Perhaps a link will help?  Let's just say that there's a good reason some car makers install air conditioning vents just below the steering wheel, especially for long car rides.  Okay, I'm grossing myself out.  I think you catch my drift.

After I opened both windows in the kitchen to try and air out the place, I realized the texture of these shavings weren't going to do, though, for the final plating, so I whizzed them in my coffee bean/spice grinder until they became a fine powder:


It alleviated some of the smell, but I had to scrub the hell out of the grinder when I was finished with it, and then dispose of those paper towels in the outdoor garbage can immediately.  Ack.

With all the ingredients prepped and ready to go, I set up my ghetto antigriddle:


This time, the block of dry ice came from Elbe's Beer and Wine in Wheaton, MD, where the guy who helped me asked why I needed the dry ice, and was far more interested in and suitably impressed with my adventurous approach to cooking.  Unlike the old fart from Talbert's.  Ahem.

I gave the baking sheet a few minutes to freeze, and called the neighbors to come over and watch my magical antigriddle skillz.  First, I laid down a (semi)circular blob of mango purée, leaving a hole in the center for the sesame oil and soy pudding:

DSC_0051 (You're still totally grossed out by the description of the bonito smell, aren't you, and not even paying attention to the pretty, pretty mango purée.  SNAP OUT OF IT!!  I'm trying to dazzle you with my super-awesome antigriddle prowess!)

Next, I added a drop of the sesame oil in the middle, which I topped with a blonk of soy pudding (which, again, in this photo looks much grainier than it actually was):


When it had frozen all the way -- you can see in the photo above, the edges are turning a paler shade of yellow -- I pinched a bit of bonito powder on top and gingerly popped the frozen mango disk off the baking sheet with a small offset spatula (only losing three of them due to overzealous popping, which flew them into the air and onto the floor, much to the dogs' enjoyment):


So, how did it taste?  Well, it wasn't bad!  The sesame was a little overpowering, but we all loved the way the flavors just unveiled themselves gradually and collectively with every chew.  The soy and the mango together were really great, and the bonito added a nice depth and moved the flavor up into the nose a bit (and wasn't gross anymore at all!).  We all stood around the butcher block island in my kitchen as I made nearly 50 of them -- some with just mango purée, some with mango and soy, some with mango and bonito, but very few with the sesame oil, because it just seemed to stampede all over the other flavors.  The soy pudding was not as earth-shatteringly good as the olive oil pudding of yore, but I didn't hate it.  Three of my tasters were kids, and they loved it with just the mango and soy as well as the plain mango, not so much the sesame.

This is a really easy and entertaining dish to make, and the flavor combination possibilities are endless, depending on what you have on-hand.  Between this and the sour cream dish, I think I want to set aside an afternoon to make and freeze a bunch of different purées and creamy things to see what else I can come up with.  Not only did it taste good, this was fun!  It was the perfect segue from the perfect vacation back into the real world... and it's clear the Jamaican mango gods brought me good luck in reversing the curse.

I'm back, baby. Oh yeah.

SPECIAL NOTE: Congratulations to Chef Achatz, the Alinea team, all the Alinea cookbook writers and contributors, and the folks at Ten Speed Press for garnering a James Beard Award for Cookbooks (Professional).  Bravo!

And, a great podcast interview with Grant on the CIA web site about the industry, restaurant philosophy, and the importance of good mentors, among other topics.

Up Next:  Junsai, bonito, soy, mirin

Resources:  Mangoes, sesame oil, and bonito from HMart in Wheaton, MD; simple syrup from my fridge (always good to have a batch on hand, especially to add to iced tea in the summertime); agar agar from; San-J soy sauce.

Music to Cook By:  The Whigs; Mission Control.  A few years ago, Rolling Stone wrote up The Whigs as a band to watch, so I did.  While they haven't exactly stampeded up the charts (because their father isn't Billy Ray Cyrus or Jay-Z.. and that's actually a good thing in the long run), they are solid and I love their sound.  They're doing some dates on the west coast at the end of the summer with Kings of Leon, another band I like, but not coming to DC. Boooo....

Read My Previous Post:  Sweet potato, brown sugar, bourbon, smoking cinnamon

April 19, 2009

Pineapple, bacon powder, black pepper

If you've been reading this blog from the beginning, you may have noticed that I have been incredibly resistant to buying and/or owning a juicer.  I just hate the thought of forking over my hard-earned dough to buy appliances or tools I'll never really use, and my kitchen storage space is pretty limited, so I've held off on owning a juicer.  And where I live, the hippies at the local co-op love to strike up a "conversation" in the produce aisle and lecture on and on and on about all the (use your know-it-all, semi-stoner NPR voice here) organic, free-range, local, raw, earth-saving, vitamin-boosting, colon-blowing things they put in their freakin' juicers (which, let me just say this: I do not need to hear about anyone's colon when I'm food shopping, because, GROSS), so juicers are just not my thing.

Until now.

That's right, my friends, I am now the proud owner of a HealthMaster JuiceDude 2000 (I made up that last part), courtesy of my friend Anita's sister, Patti.  As the story was told to me, Anita (who lives in the SF Bay Area) and Patti (who lives in suburban VA) were talking on the phone one night and happened to talk about this blog, and Patti mentioned that she had a juicer sitting on a shelf in her basement that she has never used and would be happy to donate to the cause.  I imagine the conversation went a little something like this:

Patti: I was reading one of Carol's posts the other day, and I really think she should use a juicer instead of her food processor or buying that bottled stuff, I mean COME ON.  What is WRONG with her?

Anita: Totally.  She's such an anti-juicite

Patti: She's a RABID anti-juicite.

Anita: It starts with a few jokes and some slurs, "Hey, hippie..."

Patti: Well, I have a juicer I can give her.  Think she'll want it?

Anita: I dunno.  I mean, I can ask her, but if you hear roaring, screeching, cursing, and spitting from the other side of the Potomac, then I guess you know her answer.

Patti: Maybe we can convert her... show her the way of the juice.

Anita: You're right.  It's the least we can do.

Patti: I mean, what's the worst that can happen?

Anita: She makes up fake dialogue between us.

Patti: Oh yeah, right.

And, scene.

So, I picked up the juicer from Patti at her house (who many years ago, I found out, had brought the juicer home when her old office closed because no one there ever used it and she thought she might, but never did -- so WHO'S the anti-juicite NOW, Patti, HUH????), brought it back to my house, and, with a heavy sigh, put it to work on this dish.  I also kicked a hacky sack around while I did it.  (No I didn't.)

The first thing I did was pull out the list of cookbook errata that Grant emailed me a few months ago, to check and see if any of the ingredient measurements needed to change -- and sure enough, this was one of the dishes that had some edits.  I'll share them as I go.

The first thing I did was peel, core, and quarter the pineapple:



Technically, I more than quartered the pineapple, because the juicer's fruit chute was a skinny little thing, so I needed to make the pieces more slender to be able to fit.

I juiced the pineapple, and strained the juice into a saucepan:



Go, JuiceDude, go!!!


Now, before I go any further, I need to 'fess up that when I weighed the pineapple juice before mixing in the sugar and saffron, I encountered a little snag: the book says I need to work with 350g of pineapple juice, and my pineapple yielded only 300g of juice (85% of 350g, or 15% less than 350g).  So, using my handy-dandy calculator, I adjusted the already-adjusted numbers.

Here's what the corrected numbers are supposed to be (make a note in your book, if you have one):

    -- 350g pineapple juice
    -- 25g sugar
    -- 1g salt
    -- .25g saffron threads
    -- 45g Pure-Cote B790 modified food starch (which gets added later)

But, since I only had 300g of pineapple juice, I added 21g sugar, 0.85g salt, and just a pinch of saffron threads.  I also had to modify the Pure-Cote measurement later on, and added 38g of that instead of the full 45g.

Parents, feel free to show this post to your kids when they bitch and moan that "I'll never need to know how to do fractions or percentages ever in my life so why do I have to do this stupid math homework?!?!?!! GAH!!!!!!!!"

Look at me, all about the life lessons.  First, showing tolerance in embracing the juicer, and now amazing you with my mathematical prowess and the power of learning.  Believe it or not, there are even more life lessons to come in this post, I promise.  It's like a regular afterschool special up in here.

So, where were we?  Ah yes, the pineapple juice, sugar, salt, and saffron in a saucepan.


I brought it to a boil over medium heat, then turned off the flame, covered the pot, and let it steep for five minutes.  That gave me just enough time to dismantle and clean my JuiceDude 2000.  Well, that's sort of a lie.  It gave me enough time to dismantle it, wipe down the machine, and rinse the removable parts before putting them in the dishwasher.

I strained the steeped juice through my chinois and into a blender.  I added the PureCote modified starch and blended it on high speed for 10 minutes:



Can I just say that 10 minutes is a really long time when you're standing at the blender, holding the lid on tight because you're pretty sure if you don't, it'll fly off at some point and spew pineapple-saffron juice all over your kitchen, which will inevitably attract an army of ants and the exterminator bill for that is something I just don't have in the budget right now, thankyouverymuch.

I poured the starched, blended juice through my chinois and into a bowl so it would be more pourable for the next step:


Now, here's another life lesson from me to you: don't assume or think you know more than one of the greatest chefs in the world, and decide that using your Silpat instead of a giant sheet of acetate is an acceptable next step, because if you do, your lovely pineapple glass -- which is supposed to dry on a flat surface at room temperature overnight (10-12 hours) on a sheet of acetate will go from this:


... to this:


Um, yeah.  I don't think this is what pineapple glass is supposed to look like. 

At this point, I consulted the book to see if the bacon powder was even worth pursuing, and decided to abandon this dish and put the bacon to better use.  I scraped the pineapple glorp off the Silpat, muttering to myself about my rassin'-frassin' cock up, and hit Twitter to ask those who follow me what flavors they think didn't go with bacon.

I mean, it's easy to think of things that go with bacon -- and one of the reasons I was psyched about this dish (before I screwed it up) is because pineapple and bacon are delicious together.  My favorite pizza topping combination is bacon and pineapple (with onions and extra cheese).  And, while bacon on its own is quite lovely (even though I think bacon has jumped the shark, but that's a whole separate topic, I suppose), I figured in the spirit of exploration and creativity, I would be the Internet's guinea pig in tasting the very things that people thought would be absolutely terrible with bacon.  I got quite a few replies to my inquiry, and the twelve things that popped up most frequently in people's responses are as follows:

  1. Orange
  2. Peppermint
  3. Lemon sorbet
  4. Watermelon pickles (couldn't find them, so went with pickled pumpkin instead)
  5. Kiwi
  6. Anchovies
  7. Graham crackers
  8. Carrots
  9. Blackberries (the person actually suggested raspberries because he/she knew I hated them [*evil*], but Whole Foods didn't have any raspberries, so I went with blackberries instead [*nanny-nanny-boo-boo])
  10. Banana
  11. Durian -- which I couldn't bring myself to do, because it was at this point that I was moving across the street to stay with my neighbors while my house was being worked on, and I couldn't subject them and their lovely home to that smell, so I swapped the durian out for Peeps, and
  12. Swedish fish.

While I roasted the bacon in the oven (a far superior cooking method than pan-frying, in my opinion, and done at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes), I prepared the mise en place of the other ingredients.


I dragged my helpers (my neighbor's two sons, ages 10 and 12) away from the Wii, and we began our taste test of bacon with the aforementioned ingredients. First up?  Bacon with oranges -- I brushed on an orange glaze I'd made for salmon the night before, which was just fresh-squeezed navel and cara cara oranges, reduced over a low heat for about 4 hours:

DSC_0002 2Delicious.  We were psyched that we'd gotten off to such a great start.  Bacon + orange = yum!

Next up was bacon with carrots.  I had blanched some carrots the night before for another dish, and held these aside for this experiment:

DSC_0003 2 Surprisingly good!  We thought it would be gross, or at least an odd texture, but the kids ended up fighting over who got to eat the fourth one. Score!

Now, it was time for bacon with graham crackers:

DSC_0004 2 The kids liked this one, but I thought it tasted like bacon dredged in sawdust. Blech.

And the one we were all prepared to hate and spit into the sink -- bacon with anchovy:

DSC_0005I think the quote of the day was from the younger of the two brothers, the 10-year old who said, "This is a salty, fishy surprise, like caviar -- I love it!"  I did, too.  We all did.  It was the surprise hit of the afternoon.

Next up was supposed to have been the pickled watermelon rind, but because I didn't have a chance to drive to PA to find some in my hometown farmers' market, nor did local pickler, jam maker, and fellow food maven, Heather Shorter, have any in stock, I settled for pickled pumpkin:

DSC_0006 2 This was the worst thing I think I've ever eaten.  It was as if someone had eaten a jar of pickles with some pumpkin pie spice and then vomited it up onto the bacon.  I actually had to spit mine out into the sink, it was that bad.  The kids washed theirs down with a giant glass of water; they were far braver than I.  But we all agreed, it was the worst combination of all the things we tried.  Boooooooo, pickled pumpkin.... booooooo....

So, after you've eaten something that tasted like vomit, and choked back your own vomit in the process, how would you cleanse your palate?  Why, with bacon and Peeps, of course!

DSC_0009 2 This was pretty "meh."  Did not meet expectations.  Was actually more chewy than I'd hoped.  Almost flavorless.  Disappointing all around.  But +10 points for not reactivating my vomit-related salivary glands.

Next up? Bacon with kiwi.  I had very high expectations for this combo, and was actually surprised that more than ten people on Twitter replied with kiwi as a suggestion of something that would NOT go with bacon:

DSC_0007 2 AWESOME.  Love, love, love.  I may actually try to do a kiwi sorbet with candied bacon chunks because I think I would love it.

Next on the list was bacon with Swedish fish (my favorite candy):

DSC_0008 2 This was kind of gross.  Imagine a Ludens or Smith Brothers cough drop with bacon fat in the middle.  Or, a cherry LifeSaver with bacon chunks inside.  Too sweet, too cherry-like, and too tough and chewy.  The orange was a better salt-sweet combo.  This one was icky.  Not disgusting, but not the homerun I thought it might be.

A friend once sent me a tin of bacon mints as a gift.  They were pretty vile because when you opened the tin, a sort of b.o. scent wafted out, and it made those mints all the more unappealing to try.  So, I was NOT looking forward to trying bacon with peppermint (we crushed a Starlight mint and sprinkled it on top):

DSC_0010I was prepared to hate this, but actually kind of liked it.  Not like I'd rush to make or eat this again, but it didn't make me gag,so there you go.  We all kind of liked it.  I was surprised.

Next on the list was a pairing I was also surprised that multiple people on Twitter thought would be gross -- bacon with banana.  I don't know about you, but banana pancakes with a side of bacon at the diner?  That's my kinda breakfast. 

DSC_0011 2This was amaaaaaaaazing.  So tasty and delicious.  But, there was an odd (but good) texture/flavor thing that happened when you paired them -- they tasted like a pear.  It was the weirdest thing.  As I was chewing it, I couldn't figure out what it had morphed into.  The 10-year old said, "Huh, this tastes like pear. I LOVE IT."  He's totally right.  Bacon + banana = pear.  Take that, science.

The next combination we tried was bacon with blackberries.  I love me some blackberries and I love me some bacon, so how could this go wrong:

DSC_0012 2 It even looks pretty... almost like caviar, doesn't it?  Well, it tasted like doody... not that I've ever tasted doody, but you know what I mean, right?  It was just bad.  I was hoping for an explosion of flavor -- of salt and sweet and juiciness -- and instead, I just got a mouthful of gack.  Not a hit with any of us.  I can only imagine that raspberries, my nemesis, would be even worse.  Ugh.

Last, but not least, we paired bacon with lemon sorbet:

DSC_0013 2Kinda looks like little quenelles of Crisco or lard on there, doesn't it?  It's 365 brand Meyer Lemon Sorbet, and together with the bacon, it was a huge thumbs up.  We were sort of dreading this one because it was our last bite, and the fragrance of the sorbet was a wee overpowering as I brought the plate forward and we didn't really want to end on something we disliked, but it was fantastic!  Whew...

So, there you have it.  Not exactly "Pineapple, bacon powder, black pepper," but hopefully enjoyable just the same.  And now, me and my juicer are going to hit the road in our groovy VW bus to buy something tie-dyed and join a drum circle.  Peace...

Up Next: Granola, in a Rose Water Envelope

Resources: Pineapple from Whole Foods; 365 brand applewood-smoked bacon; saffron was a gift from a friend; Domino sugar; David's kosher salt; Pure-Cote B790 from Terra Spice.

Music to Cook By: The Magic Numbers; The Magic Numbers.  Embarrassing confession -- I have seen the movie "Catch & Release" about 50 times.  I can't help it -- whenever I'm bored and flipping channels and happen upon it, I watch it.  It's NOT EVEN A GOOD MOVIE (it's really pretty bad, actually), but for some reason I can't tear myself away when it's on.  One of the last times I watched it, I realized that I really liked the music in the movie, and a few tunes in particular, one of which is "Take a Chance" by The Magic Numbers.  So, I started downloading their other music and really liked it.  Hope you will, too.

Read My Previous Post: Verjus, lemon thyme, beets, olive oil

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