November 16, 2009

Apple, horseradish, celery juice and leaves

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

But celery?

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

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

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



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



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


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


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

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

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

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



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



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


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





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

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

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


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


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


DSC_0015 Ooooooo, pretty...

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

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



Bottoms up!

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

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

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

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

Up Next: Peanut, five other flavors

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

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

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

October 26, 2009

Crab Apple, white cheddar, eucalyptus, onion

So, now that you know where the crab apples came from, are you ready to see how the dish unfolded?


Gosh, they're pretty little guys, aren't they?

I weighed 2 lbs. of them, and set aside the rest in a smaller bowl as a fall centerpiece on my dining room table (which lasted all of a day and a half, because they ripened rather quickly and the ants and fruit flies swarmed about -- drat).

I put the two pounds of crab apples (along with some salt and sugar) into two Ziploc bags, and cooked them en sous vide at 190F/88C for an hour.  I tried to get as much air out of the bags as I could, but wasn't 100% successful, so I had to use one of my Le Creuset pots as an apple-bag-pusher-downer to make sure they stayed submerged:



After the hour was up, I pressed the now-softened crab apples through a tamis and into a bowl:







It's at this point the book suggests using a refractometer to measure the Brix (should be 20 degrees) of the now-pressed apples, but I decided to use a different kind of measuring device: my tongue.  I know; I'm so low-tech. The refractometer, in this case, would have been testing the sugar content (just like in the mango dish back in March), so I thought I might just be okay with going with my tastebuds instead.  That served me well before, so I trusted it again.

After tasting a small bit, I decided it did need a little more sugar, so I added 2T and stirred to dissolve it in the still-warm apple mush.  In the cooking process, the apples lost a lot of their negative flavor characteristics (bitter, chalky, sour), and even though it was still slightly tart, it was delicious.  That Achatz chap knows a thing or two, I think.


I put the apple mush (it looks like the pink applesauce my mom makes) into the fridge to let it cool a bit.  When it had cooled, I ran it through my ice cream maker for about 20 minutes, then stored it in the freezer until I needed it for plating the next day.



I decided to take a few liberties in making the eucalyptus pudding.  Instead of eucalyptus oil, I decided to steep a few eucalyptus leaves in the 500g of water the recipe called for.  I brought it to a boil, turned off the heat, covered the pot, and let it steep for 15 minutes.  Oh, how wonderful this smelled.....


I strained the liquid into another pot:


I added the sugar, salt, citric acid, and agar agar to the still-hot eucalyptus water and mixed it well with my immersion blender.


I poured this mixture into a bowl and let it sit on the counter until it had fully set.



I scooped out the gelled eucalyptus liquid and put it in the blender, added 10g of canola oil, then blended until it was smooth:


I strained it through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl and stored it in the refrigerator until it was time to plate.



Next step? The pepper tuile.

I fully expected this to flop.  Implode.  Melt all over my oven and give me the finger, culinarily, as it were.

I don't know why I thought this step would be Failure City.  (It wasn't)  Maybe it's because I had to go to the craft store for the fondant, and if there's one thing that gives me the creepy crawlies, it's a craft store.  I went to Michaels on Rockville Pike here in Maryland, and that place always smells like dirty diapers and old library books.  The other thing that drives me nuts about craft stores?  Inevitably, every single person in front of me will want a price check on some marked-down item with a 5-cent discrepancy.  And, without a doubt, at some point during my simple one-item/no-coupon/not-on-sale transaction, the manager will have to come over -- register key on a plastic coil around his arm -- and override some sort of something, or do a VOID (dunh dunh DUNNNHH), and make a big stinkin' deal out of it and HOLYCRAPIHATECRAFTSTORES.


Sooooooo, I put the fondant, glucose, and isomalt into a saucepan and melted it, continuing to heat it until it had reached 320F/160C.



I poured it onto a Silpat and let it cool until it had hardened.


While it was cooling, I made the onion jam.

The whole time I was making the onion jam, I kept beboppin', scattin' and hooo-hoooo-in' around like I was both of the MJs, singing, "Go with it, go with it... Jam.... it ain't too much to jam, it ain't too ain't too mu-uch onion JAM."

Please send help.

Or, you know, onion jam... 'cause this stuff was really easy and really good.

I diced the onions and rinsed them quite thoroughly in a strainer under cold running water.


Then, in a saucepan, I combined the onions, some water, glucose, sugar and salt, and cooked it over very low heat for about two hours.


The onions were soft, but still had texture.  I drained them through a fine-mesh strainer, and kept both the onions and the liquid, separately.  I reduced the liquid until it became a syrup (took maybe 10 minutes):


I poured that reduced liquid, now syrup, back over the onions, and let the onion jam come to room temperature.


I used a little espresso spoon to taste it, and I almost wish I hadn't, because it was really, really hard not to devour the whole (tiny) bowl of it.

By this time, the base of the pepper tuile had hardened:


I broke it into small pieces and turned it to dust in my coffee bean/spice grinder:



I put the powder into a fine-mesh strainer and sifted it over a Silpat (on a baking sheet) into an even layer, then added fresh-ground black pepper:



I put it in a 350F-degree oven for two minutes.  The powder was melted, and shiny, and ready to come out.


I let it sit on the countertop to cool to room temperature, and began working on the olive oil, olive oil JAM.  It ain't too much, olive oi-oi-oil JAM.

I'm so sorry.  Really.

Three egg yolks:



Then, in a small saucepan, I brought glucose (clear) and Trimoline (white) to a boil over medium heat:



I tempered the yolks with some of the glucose-Trimoline mixture, then mixed them all together, stirring thoroughly to combine.  I added some salt, and put this mixture in the food processor.


As the food processor whirred, I slowly added the olive oil through the ... wait, it is called a feed tube, right? You know, the raised tubular part on the lid through which you add things?  It's a feed tube, right?  Why am I blanking on this right now and getting a little grossed out because it's awfully close to "feeding tube" for my liking?

So, I added the olive oil into the liquid through the feed tube (bllleeeaaarrrgh), as it was still processing, to emulsify it.



I poured the olive oil, olive oil JAM into a bowl and kept it cool in the fridge until it was time to plate.


The last think I had to make was the white cheddar sauce.  I shredded the cheddar, then added hot milk to it, stirred, and whaddya know?  White cheddar sauce!  Who says cooking is hard?



Look how the black pepper tuile pulled up the edges of the Silpat with it as it cooled and hardened:


Time to plate!

Oh wait... I realized just before plating that the assembling instructions called for some mint leaves and mint flowers, so I ran out to the garden and picked what I needed.  You can see how fresh it is by noticing the little spider running away as I picked up one of the stems to pluck off the leaves:

DSC_0063Run away, little spider.... run away.....

The plating of this is really easy and kinda fun.  You just blomp all the elements of the dish on the plate, center the crab apple sorbet, and then stab the sorbet with pieces of the pepper tuile:




It looked so pretty and smelled amazing, but I wasn't sure how I was going to eat it.  This happens every now and then, for me, when I actually eat at Alinea.  Should I take little bites of things separately, or try and get a little bit of everything onto the spoon to get one, cohesive taste?

I'd already tasted the individual elements as I made them, so I knew what they tasted like, each on their own.

So, I mashed it all together and made it look like this:


And you know what?  IT WAS AWESOME!  The crab apple sorbet was just sweet enough, but still tasted like crab apples.  The notion of apple, cheddar, and pepper together, I love.  And, to have the olive oil and onion flavors in there made it all the more delicious.  The mint made it feel fresh and clean and light.  And then?  The eucalyptus just cracked it all wide open and made everything taste better, almost like it amplified every note in ways I find hard to explain.  It all made sense, and it was astoundingly delicious.  Really.  I'm not one to pat myself on the back or toot my own horn, but TOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOT!!!!!

Actually, my neighbor, Linda, said it best.  As she finished hers, she said, "You and Sean [that's her husband] both say the same thing about your dinners at Alinea -- that it's so much fun, and that there are certain dishes where you just take a bite and smile to yourself because it's so good, and all the flavors kind of unfold, and you just can't believe how good it is, and it's hard to explain because you kinda just have to taste it, AND NOW I GET IT.  I get what you guys are talking about!"

Prior to eating this dish, if you had presented me with an index card or piece of paper that simply listed the following: crab apples, black pepper, eucalyptus, olive oil, onion, white cheddar cheese.... I'm not sure if I could imagine what they would taste like together, or if it would even be good.  I mean, there are a LOT of competing aromas and flavors there.  Too much eucalyptus and you're eating a plate of chest rub.  Too much white cheddar, and it's like someone dumped a box of Annie's mac and cheese on your plate.  Crab apples?  Bitter.  Pepper?  Meh.  Olive oil and onion?  Yeah, sure, why not, but how?  But the nuances and subtleties of each of these flavors just came together in ways I completely did not expect, and thoroughly LOVED.

So, whether you smash it all together like I did, or taste the different elements separately, then together, on the same plate and say things like "wow," "whoa," "ooooh," after each bite?  It makes this cook a very happy girl.

Up Next: Duck, pumpkin, banana, Thai aromatics

Resources: Crab apples from Forge Hill Orchards; Domino sugar; David's kosher salt; Glucose from; isomalt, citric acid, trimoline, and agar agar from L'Epicerie; black pepper, onion, white cheddar, whole milk, and eucalyptus leaves from TPSS co-op; fondant from Michaels (ack!); eggs from Smith Meadows Farm; mint from my garden.

Music to Cook By: Kate Miller Heidke; Curiouser.  Love love love this album.  Love her voice.  Love that she's Australian but pronounces "sorry" like she's from Canada ("sore-y").  Love that it's boppy and fun and easy to sing along with.  Love that it's not JAM.

Read My Previous Post: Finding Crab Apples

May 03, 2009

Sweet potato, brown sugar, bourbon, smoking cinnamon

If this were baseball, I'd have to shut down the blog, because three strikes and I'm out, kids.

Strike one: my pineapple glass was so not glass.  Strike two: my rosewater envelope was so not an envelope.  And now?  What is so lovingly and beautifully featured on page 366 of the Alinea cookbook was rendered by yours truly to not even come close to resembling the final product, let alone County Fair-worthy food-on-a-stick.

And the worst part?  Wasted bourbon.  Almost a whole bottle down the drain, literally.

Actually, that's not the worst part.  The worst part is the fact that even though I think I'm a pretty smart person with decent intuition and deduction skills, I still can't figure out where this all went wrong. I mean, I have a few ideas about one or two of the steps, but overall?  This isn't a difficult dish, in my estimation and I hate that I couldn't successfully pull it off.  In fact, I kind of don't even want to write this post.  I would rather just put up the photo of the final result and have you all ridicule it, heckle it, give it a wedgie, dip its braid in an inkwell, boo and hiss and tell me to pack it in and call it a day.

But I know that Bea Arthur would want me to put on a floor-length vest, hold my head up high and get on with it already, so I will.  Except for the floor-length vest part.

This dish, ultimately, is supposed to be a cube of bourbon gel, a cube of sweet potato gel, and a cube of brown sugar candy, all tempura batter-dipped and deep-fried on a stick of cinnamon that you then light on fire and blow out so that you can eat this dish while inhaling the aroma of cinnamon.  I think it sounds like the most perfect thing, don't you?  Let's kick things off with the bourbon gel.

I poured 600g of bourbon (nearly the ENTIRE BOTTLE, the rest of which I just drank straight after the final plating *snort*... and you, too, will snort when you see how loosely the term "final plating" truly applies, but NO PEEKING... stay with me) into a saucepan and added the 7 grams of Kelcogel JJ gellan gum.

Not to go off on yet another tangent, but doesn't JJ gellan gum sound like the name of a detective from the 70s, or perhaps some old-timey investigative reporter with a "scoop" card in the brim of his hat?  "Yeah, I'm J.J. Gellangum, see?  Gonna bust this joint wide open, see?"

Oh, let me also note that I started this dish at 7:30 in the morning... not the ideal time to be smelling bourbon, but let's return you to your regularly scheduled program.

So, bourbon, gellan gum, saucepan.  I mixed it with my immersion blender until it was fully incorporated, and brought it to a simmer over medium-high heat.



I poured it into a shallow pan and waited for it to cool to room temperature, at which point, it was also supposed to set.


After five hours at room temperature, it still hadn't set:


So, I put it in the fridge, thinking THAT might help.


After two hours in the refrigerator, it was still the consistency of loose, runny, hospital Jell-O.  With all apologies to the Jell-O corporation for the comparison.

So, I put it back in the refrigerator and figured I'd check it again when I was ready to do the final step.  Oh, I love my optimism...

During the first bit of bourbon-gel-non-setting time, I made the sweet potato gel.  Or, as I like to call it, Hey, Velveeta!!

First, I peeled and cut 500g of sweet potato into slices and let them simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes in some cream with some salt.


How sad that the only high point in this whole process was that I was able to eyeball and select a sweet potato that was just two grams shy of the 500g requirement.  Boo-ya!


I strained the potatoes (reserving the cream) and put them in the blender with 300g of the reserved cream, and blended on high speed until it was smooth:



I'd been soaking 10 gelatin sheets in cold water, so I squeezed out the water, and added them to the sweet potato purée, which I'd poured into a mixing bowl, stirring to incorporate everything:


I then poured this mixture through a chinois and onto a plastic wrap-lined sheet tray, which I put in the refrigerator to set, per the book's instructions:


While the sweet potato gel was setting, I made the brown sugar candy -- again, something that was supposed to sort of solidify into something I could cut into squares. 

Into the saucepan went water and yellow pectin, which I blended like mad with my immersion blender until it had dissolved and was fully incorporated.  Then, I blended in the sugar and citric acid and brought it to a boil.  Once it had begun to boil, I carefully added the Trimoline, glucose, and brown sugar, and brought it all to 230 degrees.


I poured the mixture into a plastic wrap-lined baking pan (my sheet trays were otherwise engaged)


The brown sugar candy, when I touched the surface of it after two hours, seemed firm and ready to be used.

At this point, the bourbon gel had been trying to "set" for nearly nine hours, and still, it was runny and not even close to being anything that could be cut into 3/4" squares.  So, I abandoned that part of the dish and figured the sweet potato and brown sugar on their own would be pretty good on their own, so I soldiered forth with hope, optimism, and a sense of pri.... CRAP.

Look what happened when I tried to cut the brown sugar candy:


I put it in the fridge for an hour or two, and nothing.  Not quite runny, but looser than marmalade or chutney. 

Even after being in the refrigerator, it stayed the same consistency, and the solid globs that you see above only got more pronounced (and they weren't there when it was poured in as a liquid)

At this point, I had to decide what to do next.  Cry?  Cut the sweet potato stuff, which had gelled nicely, into squares and slather the brown sugar gel on it before tempura battering it?  I tried that with one, and it just wouldn't stay on and got even gloppier, so I just decided I'd batter the sweet potato squares and deep fry those, adding a little extra dusting of brown sugar as I pulled the hot, fried, tempura-battered sweet potato out of the oil.  That's how I'd make sure it tasted like brown sugar.  Yeah, that's the ticket.

So, I speared my gelled potato cubes with a cinnamon stick (of course, the sweet potato gel set exactly as it should have), lightly dredged them in flour, then the tempura batter, and cooked them for three minutes in canola oil that had been heated to 375 degrees, per the book's instructions.

Yeah.... sounds easy and straightforward doesn't it?



Dude, that ain't County Fair-worthy, let alone Alinea-worthy.

Toothless carnies can make this, but I can't? 

And, see what I mean by "Hey, Velveeta!!"?

Let's have a side-by-side comparison to further illustrate how badly this turned out:



I didn't even bother to light the end of the cinnamon stick on fire before tasting this, because I was certain I would've caught my hair on fire, so I decided not to tempt fate and just took a bite of the crispy tempura batter and gloppy, melted sweet potato.  What did it taste like?  Well, I don't know, because I burned the roof of my mouth.



Except, I guess it kind of is.  Sort of.

But it's really, honestly, frustrating.  I feel like my kitchen is cursed.  Maybe it's the tonka bean from Capricorns (sic) Lair that put some sort of creepy hoodoo mojo on my house.  I think I'll spend the next few days waving veal bones around while singing like Karen Carpenter, or burning sage and chives and wafting it into the corners of the kitchen... some sort of culinary exorcism is in order, methinks, because this scourge must stop.  I have to get my groove back.  Lieutenant-Detective-Investigative-Reporter J.J. Gellan Gum, you let me down.

Up Next: Could be Oyster, ginger, steelhead roe, beer; or, might be Licorice Cake, orange confit, anise hyssop, spun sugar.

Resources: Sweet potato from Whole Foods; David's kosher salt; gelatin sheets, trimoline, and glucose from L'Epicerie; Organic Valley heavy cream; Maker's Mark bourbon; gellan gum, yellow pectin, citric acid from Terra Spice; Domino light brown sugar; cinnamon sticks from H Mart; tempura batter ingredients from my pantry.

Music to Cook By: David Bowie; Let's Dance.  Sort of prescient, because I need to go put on my red shoes and dance the blues right about now.

Read My Previous Post: Granola, in a rosewater envelope

January 27, 2009

Tuna, candied and dried

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *  *  *

Now, on to the Tuna, candied and dried:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


(I think raw tuna is just so pretty.)



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


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



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


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

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



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


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


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


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



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

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

But, tuna jerky?

Not so much.

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

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

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

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

Read My Previous Post: Blackberry, smoke, bee balm

December 02, 2008

Caramel Popcorn, liquefied

I have the pleasure of having The Washington Post as my hometown newspaper, and I can honestly say that our food section is one of the best in the nation.  And as of right this very moment, I hold the Post in even higher esteem because they had the good grace and superior intellect to include yours truly in a story about the Alinea cookbook in this week's Food section.

Y'all.... I could not be more proud.

To say I was nervous about The Washington Freakin' Post (that's their official name, in case you didn't know) coming to my house (well, not the actual PAPER, obviously, but one of my favorite food writers, Jane Black) is to say... well....I am at a loss for words.  Shocker, I know.  Anyone who does media relations for a living will tell you that when The Washington Post comes a-calling, it's either gonna be really good, or really bad.

And in this case, wooooo-hoooooooo!!!!!!!

Jane and I hadn't met before, and I'm so very glad we finally had the chance not only to talk, but also cook together.  So, thanks, Jane (and her awesome editors) for including me in the story, and for not mentioning the fact that I kept dropping things because I was nervous, and that my kitchen floors look like they belong in a 1983 issue of House notreallyallthatBeautiful.

Now, let's get to the dish.

OH, WAIT -- before we do, there's one more thing I need to tell you about.

When I wrote French Laundry at Home, I did a fund-raising drive for Share Our Strength.  Now, a year later, the childhood hunger landscape has changed, and not for the better.  I know times are financially tough for all of us and we're all watching our wallets a little more closely this holiday season, but I bet when you go to bed tonight, you'll be able to wake up tomorrow morning and have a cup of coffee and a bagel or some eggs or a bowl of cereal, and not think twice about it.  That's not the case for 1 in 6 kids in America.  And that breaks my heart.

I work with Share Our Strength all year long, but I wanted to do a special campaign on this blog this holiday season and I've sweetened the pot, so to speak.  We've created a dedicated Alinea at Home Share Our Strength campaign, and if you click on that page and make a donation, you'll be entered to win some really cool prizes -- the wonderful team at Alinea is donating five Alinea cookbooks, and my friends at Workman/Artisan have donated two copies of Thomas Keller's new sous vide book, Under Pressure.

You could donate $5.  You could donate $500.  Doesn't matter.  Every little bit helps.  And, every donation gets an equal chance when we randomly select the winners.

Share Our Strength is out there every single day working with other nonprofits to not only make sure that community food banks and soup kitchens have the tools they need on the local level, they also work on the national and state level to address the systemic infrastructure and policy issues that need to change to be able to have an impact on childhood hunger.  I know the folks at Share Our Strength well, and I know they do great work because I've seen it first-hand.  So, I hope you'll do what you can to help them ensure that every single day, no child in America goes without food.

I'll mention this again in future posts, but more details can be found at  Pass it on.

*  *  *  *  *

Now, on to the Caramel Popcorn, liquefied...

I don't know anyone who doesn't love caramel popcorn.  Do you?  If you do, will you please smack them for me, because HOW CAN YOU NOT LOVE THE STUFF?!?!  It's unAmerican.  I love the combination of salt and sweet in most any dish, but there's something special about caramel popcorn.  It always reminds me of the Ocean City, New Jersey boardwalk and Johnson's popcorn -- warm and fresh, and devoured after a night of playing miniature golf or riding the rides at Gillian's Fun Deck and Wonderland when I was a little girl.  My cousins and I would get a big bucket of it, and we'd eat it as we walked down the boardwalk past the video arcade, so we could check out the cute boys working at Mack and Manco's Pizza.  There was always something special about that caramel popcorn.  Yes, it would get stuck in your molars and you'd be picking it out of your teeth by the end of the walk home, but the taste of it combined with the sounds of the summer boardwalk and the waves crashing just under your feet... I'd take any amount of molar picking to have one of those carefree nights again, wouldn't you?

Now, the advantage of eating Caramel Popcorn à la Achatz is that there is no molar picking whatsoever.  Instead, you get a concentrated bolt of flavor all in one little shot, and during the cooking process, you get to see something that quite resembles what I yacked up on the basement floor of the Delta Tau Delta house in 1987.  So, it's a win-win all around!

Here's my mise en place for the Popcorn part of the dish:


I heated the canola oil in a large pot, just until it started smoking.  Then, I added the popcorn and put the lid on the pot.  The book said to shake the pan constantly, which I tried to do, but my burners don't really allow for that without my going deaf from all the racket, so I did the best I could, and shook every 5-7 seconds.  Within about 15 seconds of putting the kernels in the pot, they started popping.  And popping.  And popping some more.  By the time the popping stopped, the popcorn had reached the lid.



Do you know how LONG it's been since I made real popcorn?  Like in a pot with oil?  Growing up, we had the Joe Namath popcorn popper, but before that, I vaguely remember an afternoon experimenting with Jiffy Pop that did not go well, and one or two times making popcorn in a pot with oil that also didn't go all that well and required the pots to be replaced.  So, maybe 1975? 1976?  Wow.  And now, 32 years later, I'm back in the fold and making popcorn the old-fashioned way, forever and ever, amen, because dude, EVERY kernel popped, and not one single kernel or piece burned or stuck to the pan.  Wow.  Sometimes, things from the olden days really do work better.  Now GET OFF MY LAWN, you meddling kids.


As many of you know, the meausrements for the recipes in the Alinea cookbook are done by weight.  And, I was incredibly precise about measuring the amount of kernels just as the book indicated -- 100 grams of kernels to be popped.

After popping the corn, the instructions require you to measure 125 grams of the popped popcorn to start the next step... so wouldn't you naturally assume that once the 100 grams of kernels were popped, you were going to have at least 125 grams of popcorn?

My popped popcorn?  All of it?  107 grams.



Actually, I think what I really said out loud when the scale tipped 107 was something unprintable in an American daily newspaper or any media outlet governed by FCC regulations.  And then, I said, "Grant Achatz, why hast thou forsaken me?"

To which Jane replied, "Should we pop more popcorn?" to which I replied, "Um, maybe?" And after a bit of back and forth, we decided just to move forward without popping more because in all honesty, I didn't think 21 grams of popcorn would make that much of a difference in the final product.

I put the popcorn into a clean pot, along with the butter, sugar, salt, and water and brought it to a simmer, stirring to incorporate all the ingredients.


I let it simmer for about five minutes over medium heat, stirring every now and then, after which point, it looked like this:


My first reaction was that it looked like the aftermath of the Delts' 1987 Heaven and Hell party, but after straining it, it looked more like corn pudding, which was much more appetizing for all of us.



Let me take a minute to talk about the smell.  It's sooooo much better than the farty movie theatre popcorn smell (which smells great for the first 30 seconds, and then just ends up smelling, well, farty).  This popcorn pudding purée (because it went into the blender and was strained again before serving, but that's one of the steps I don't have a photo of) was sweet and salty and smelled like my favorite corn pudding dish, only better, and more like fall, if that makes sense.  We tasted it at this point, and the only way I can think of to describe how it tasted is to say that it tasted like chewed-up popcorn... but not in a gross-out kind of way.  In a really awesome kind of way.

We set the popcorn liquid aside in a bowl and began working on the Caramel Froth part of the dish.

To start, I made some simple syrup, by heating one cup of water and one cup of sugar, stirring over low heat until the sugar dissolved, and letting it cool to room temperature.  To do this dish, you probably only need half that amount, but I like to have extra simple syrup around to add to my coffee in the morning, or to mix in with some cranberry seltzer.

Next, I heated some sugar and water in a small saucepan, until it reached 340 degrees F.


Then, I removed it from the heat, and added the remaining water and simple syrup the recipe called for and whisked it for a few seconds to ensure everything was incorporated (the book says "dissolved" but I'm not sure why, since everything was in liquid form already).  Knowing it was going to splatter all over the damn place, I shielded myself using a silicone oven mitt.  So, if you're making this at home, PLEASE BE CAREFUL during this step because this stuff will fly all over the place, so stand back, and use some heat-safe precautions.  You don't need a hazmat suit, so don't get all dramatic, but get your kids and pets out of the kitchen, and use something to shield yourself from the splatter, fer cryin' out loud.

Here's what it looked like when it was done:


I let it cool for a few minutes, then poured it into a Rubbermaid container to let it cool to room temperature.

Next, I added the soy lecithin, and tasked Jane with using the immersion blender to froth it.




After 5-7 minutes of blending and frothing, it hadn't really done what we'd hoped in the froth department, so we just said, "Hey, there are three of us here, and it looks like there's enough froth for three servings, so let's stop sucking the power off the grid and just do these three servings for now."

(anyone who has any advice/insight on why this didn't froth up like we thought it would, please chime in on the comments; love you, mean it)

To plate, or, um, to "glass," I poured a little bit of the Popcorn liquid into the glass, then topped it with the Caramel Froth.


Vanity shot alert!!!!!


So, how did it taste?  Because both popcorn and caramel are so fragrant on their own, let alone together, at first, it was powerful to the point of being borederline overwhelming... until it settled on my tongue and then, wwwoooooowwwwww... it was good.  Really, really good.  Like m-f-ing good.   Salt, sweet, butter, creaminess, popcorn-y,  smooth, rich, amazing.

In retrospect, I would have made the Caramel Froth part of the dish first, to better plan the cool-to-room-temperature part of the process.  I feel like I didn't plan my time as wisely or efficiently as I usually do.  But in the end, it all worked out.  I'm just sayin'.... next time, I'd do the reverse.

And, I need to figure out the whole frothing thing.  I've used soy lecithin before, and I've frothed and foamed other dishes, and they've worked within seconds.  Something about this one just didn't work the way I thought it would.  But I attribute it to user error, so don't cross this one off your list.

Would I make it again?  Absolutely.  It'd be a fun thing to serve at an Oscar party or movie night, or maybe to commemorate a first snowfall.  And, I'm pretty sure you could make both these elements ahead of time and reheat the Popcorn liquid, and froth the caramel just before serving.  So, yeah, I'd do this again, for sure.

Thanks again, Jane, for a great piece.

And don't forget the Share Our Strength campaign.  This issue is so important to me.... I hope it'll be important to you, too.  Especially with, like, prizes and stuff.

Up Next:
  Yolk Drops, asparagus, Meyer lemon, black pepper

Resources: Popcorn from Glenville Hollow Farms at the Takoma Farmers Market, Domino sugar, 365 organic butter, 365 canola oil, David's kosher salt, soy lecithin from Will Goldfarb.

Music to Cook By: Sadly, we didn't listen to any tunes while we cooked because we were too busy talking and (not)frothing.  However, if you really need a musical suggestion, particularly one you can use to song-poison someone, let me suggest this lovely, lovely, not-at-all annoying song.  Gggrrrrrrrr.  My friend, Brad, happened to use the phrase "knee-deep in the hoopla" this week, and now I can't stop singing, "Marconi plays the mamba," so I hope by passing it along to you, perhaps I might be able to avoid going completely clinically insane by Friday.

Read My Previous Post: Sea Urchin, vanilla, mint, chili

November 24, 2008

Sea Urchin, vanilla, chili, mint

ring.... ring....

Scott: Hellllllloooooooo, Blacksalt Fish Market!

Carol: Dude.  I need a live sea urchin. 

Scott: WHO IS THIS???

Carol: It's Carol. 

Scott: I know.  I'm just messin' with ya.

Carol: I don't have TIME for your silly GAMES, mister.  I need me an urchin, and I need it soon.

Scott: That should be really easy.

Carol: Oh, really?  Like the Moi was easy?

Scott: No, really.  They'll be in season in a week or so, so it shouldn't be a problem at all.  How many do you need?

Carol: Well, the book says I need one.  Just one.  It's for a small bite-sized thi....

Scott: So, two, then.  Because I'm sure you'll gank up the first one, and...

Carol: HEEEEYYYYY!!!!!!

(slightly uncomfortable silence)

Carol: You're right.  Let's do three.  They're not, like, a million dollars are they?

Scott: We'll have to see.

Carol: Fine.  Whatever.  Just call me when they come in, and I'll come get them.

Scott: What are you doing with them?

Carol: Oh, it's really kind of cool. Little pieces of sea urchin suspended in a vanilla-mint gelée, and it's this teeny-tiny bite, and then y......

Scott: Are you sure you only need three?  Do you want me to order more?  I mean, I know you've never worked with sea urchin before and.....


Scott: Well, I mean, I'm just looking out for you, and...

Carol: Dude.

Scott: Alright.  Talk to you in a few days.

* * * * *

A week or so went by, and Scott called to tell me the sea urchins had been pulled out of the ocean and flown in that morning.  I drove down to BlackSalt to pick them up ($7.50 for all three -- whoot!), and spent some time with him getting a quick tutorial on how to open these suckers up while not completely mutilating them and ruining the insides.  As Chef Achatz so gently points out in the Alinea cookbook, you don't want to damage the urchins orangey 'nads, since that's the part you eat.

So, we did a pretend cut, reviewed some photos in one of Scott's textbooks from culinary school, and I was good to go.  He wrapped them up in wet paper towel and sent them home in a nice plastic case for me so I could get started on them right away while they were still alive.  ALIVE!!!  MWAHAHAHAHA!!!

Now, if you played along with French Laundry at Home, you know that I sometimes feel the need to name the very things I'm going to slice open or mutilate -- especially creatures from the sea.  For instance, I felt it approrpiate to name one of my lobsters after a certain Canadian screecher, and was also compelled to honor a family known for its plastic surgery by naming my hacked-off softshell crabs after them.

So, it seemed only fitting that if I were going to stick the tip of my scissors into the mouths of these three sea urchins and start hacking away, I needed to memorialize them in some vocal-trio-tastic way.  So, I present to you, Chynna, Carnie, and The Other One:


And no, they could not hold on for one more day.

DSC_0006 "Someday, somebody's gonna make you wanna turn around and say goodbye..."

DSC_0005 "You've got no one to blame for your unhappiness; you got yourself into your own mess..."

Now remember, you only need ONE urchin for this dish.  But, you may want to get two or more while you're at it -- an extra one just in case one smells bad, or to have some extra urchin to mix in with some butter and toss with pasta later on is not a bad thing.  But I digress.

Here's the urchin, upside-down, mouth up:


And, here I am, holding li'l Chynna and cutting her open:

DSC_0011 ""Til then, baby, are you gonna let 'em hold you down and make you cry..."

I stuck one tip of the scissors into the mouth and cut out toward the outer perimeter, then cut my way around the outside (careful not to make the scissors all stabby on the insides) and cut off a neat little lid:

DSC_0013 "I know that there is pain... but you, hold on for one more day.... and you, break free, break from the chaaaaiiinnnnns....."

I gently turned the urchin over so that the black gunk (the lungs, I think) and other matter would fall out.  Then, using a small spoon, I gently scooped out the orange "roe" ('nads!  /12) and gently placed them into a bowl of salted ice water so I could swoosh them around to get cleaned off.



The adorable wiener dog (Jake!) hopefully offsets the crime-scene nature of this photo.  It sure wasn't pretty.

I discarded the shells/outer hulls, and removed the urchin from the salt water and cut it into small portions that I knew would fit within the cylinders of gelée -- probably 1cm each:


I had a lot of urchin left over, so I chilled it and later made some uni butter (butter+urchin/food processor = yum) to use later in the week.  MMmmmmmmm......  So, even though Scott was WRONG and I did not horribly abuse my first urchin beyond recognition, I was still happy to have extra to eat in other ways.

I covered the plate of urchin bits and put it in the fridge while I prepared the rest of the dish:


To make the gelée, I soaked the gelatin sheets in a bowl of cold water for about five minutes:


I put the mint in a stainless steel bowl, and in a saucepan brought some water, sugar, salt and the seeds of a vanilla bean to a simmer.  Next, I removed the gelatin sheets from the water, squeezed out the excess water, and mixed it in with the water/sugar/salt/vanilla liquid.  I then poured that mixture over the mint leaves, covered the bowl with plastic wrap, and let it steep for twenty minutes:




After the 20 minutes of steeping, I removed the mint leaves and strained the liquid through a chinois into a measuring cup, so it would be easy to pour it for the next step:


I lined a small, square dish with plastic wrap and poured in enough liquid so that it was about 1/4" deep:


I put it in the fridge for a half hour to set, then brought it back out, placed the pieces of urchin on top, then covered it with the rest of the vanilla-mint liquid, and put it back in the fridge to completely set:



When it had fully set (in about an hour, maybe an hour and 15 minutes, tops), I took it out of the fridge, and gently lifted the block of gelée out of the dish (hence, the use of plastic wrap), and cut out 3/4" rounds.




I topped each cylinder with a baby mint leaf and a grain of sea salt, and served it on a spoon.


You'll notice the word "chili" in the title of this dish, as well as in the list of ingredients (if you have the book).  Sadly, jalapeno chilis make my throat swell closed if I eat them, coat my hands in an angry rash if I handle them, and make my eyes burn if I'm in the same room with a cut up jalapeno, so I had to skip 'em in this preparation.  I wish I could have used them, because in all honesty, something was missing in the end, and I think this was it.

Now, earlier this year while I was still doing French Laundry at Home, I made a lobster gelée as one of my dishes.  I forced it upon my friend's son, Grant, and it was horrible.  So, I wanted to try and make up for being such a jerk and making him gag for days on end after that stuff, so I offered him the first bite of this gorgeous sea urchin preparation, because I really thought he'd like it.

He popped it in his mouth, chewed, bulged out his cheeks and squinted his eyes while somehow simultaneously raising his eyebrows in horror.

Me: Um, Grant?  Are you okay?

Grant: Bleh. Blorgh meen nigh habbor.

Me: WHAT!!?? Oh, no.  Are you going to throw up?

Grant: Blergh.


(Followed by MAJOR stink eye, bordering on daggers. Actually, definitely daggers.  And defeat.  And, I suck, because this is now the THIRD TIME I've tortured this kid and his brother with some sort of gelée.  Guess I'll have to buy them Rock Band 2 for Christmas to make up for it.)

After the look that could kill, he raced to the cupboard for a glass which he filled with water and drank in about 3.8 seconds, at which point he refilled his glass and drank some more.

So, you can imagine, after that, the rest of us were SO STOKED to try this.

But try we did, and you know what?  It wasn't bad.  It just, um, made us all say (nearly in unison), "Dr. Cooper!" 

Dr. Cooper is our local town dentist, and the vanilla-mint combo was more than just a little reminiscent of that twice-a-year torture ritual we all know as a dental cleaning, so I'm bummed I couldn't have the chili to offset it and make it not as toothpaste-y as it ended up being.

Texture-wise, it was great.  And, the urchin added a smoothness and saltiness that rounded out the bite.  But, it definitely needed something else.  I would love to hear your suggestions for what I could do next time to add some heat or salt or something.  Would a tiny flake of horseradish work?  I dunno.  Hit me in the comments.

Knowing this didn't turn out to be the highlight of everyone's evening, I thought I'd appeal to my friends' kids' gross-out/coolness factor, and show them the rest of the urchin 'nads I'd stored on a plate in the fridge.  I thought, for SURE, they would think it was cool.  Instead, they took one look, and the 10-year old turned to me and said, "Um, Carol? You're kind of like the crazy chef lady who kills people and stores their organs in her refrigerator until the cops come."

Now there's a movie script just DYING to be made, dontcha think?  I hear The Other One Wilson is looking for work.  She could play me, right?  If only she could breeeaaaaak free, breeak frrroommm the chaaaaaiiiiinnnsss.....

Up Next: Caramel Popcorn, liquefied.

Resources: Sea urchin from BlackSalt Fishmarket, David's kosher salt, gelatin sheets from King Arthur Flour, mint leaves from my garden, vanilla bean from the TPSS Co-op.

Music to Cook By: Matt Nathanson; Some Mad Hope.  Maybe listening to Matt will be the perfect antidote to my earlier song poisoning, if, you know, you're holding on for one more day....

Read My Previous Post: Cheese, in cracker.

November 18, 2008

Cheese, in cracker

I don't know why my parents didn't disown me as a child.

Together with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, we went on some of the most beautiful and fun vacations when I was growing up.  And, while my brother and cousins were enthusiastic to explore Disney World, Williamsburg, and every other entertaining and totally awesome place we went, I bitched and moaned like an ungrateful little cod, and said that I would rather hang out by the hotel pool all day, practicing my pretend-Olympic dives, then sit on one of the chaise lounges reading Tiger Beat (Ralph Macchio!) and eating packet after packet of crackers with cheese or peanut butter.  That, to me, was the ideal vacation.  A pool with a diving board, magazines, and cheese and crackers.

Honestly, those ideal vacation requirements haven't changed all that much, but my tastes have certainly gotten better, especially in the cheese and cracker department.  No more Lance packets for me or Captain's Wafers with Chive Cream Cheese.  No more orange crackers with orange cheese in a packet of six, waiting to get lodged in my molars.  Now, I spring for (and crave quite regularly) the good stuff.  Cheese from Carr Valley or Cowgirl Creamery.  A wide variety of crackers -- whatever the co-op or Whole Foods has on hand that looks good.  And, truth be told, nowadays I forgo the cracker part of the equation because it's just a distraction of a delivery mechanism for what I love most: cheese.

I used to think I was all cool and hip with my cheese and cracker selections here at home, but this recipe totally upped the ante, and how.  Here we go:

The first thing I did was combine the water, yeast and sugar, and let it stand while I got the rest of the ingredients ready for the cracker dough. I couldn't get my hands on any fresh yeast, as the book suggests, so I did some research and found that (according to the Bo Friberg, who authored The Professional Pastry Chef) that you can substitute one packet of dry active yeast for the 13g of fresh yeast the recipe in the Alinea cookbook calls for:


Here's the mise en place for the cracker dough:


I added the flour, salt and butter to the bowl, put the bowl on the mixer stand, and, using the dough hook, mixed it for about 4 minutes, at which point the dough came together in a ball:



I covered the bowl with a clean dish towel, put it on the counter above the warm, then-running dishwasher, and let it rest and rise for about a half hour.  Then, I put the dough (still in the covered bowl) in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, I got the dough out of the fridge and let it warm up a little bit before cutting it into quarters, and then rolling and cutting one of those quarters into crackers.  I had been moving some things around in the kitchen and couldn't get to my rolling pin, so I rolled the dough with a chilled bottle of Etude Pinot Noir rosé.


Then, I cut the dough (which was about 1/8-1/16" thick) into 1" squares.



I doused them liberally in kosher salt, put them in a 450-degree oven for 5-6 minutes so they could bake and puff up a bit, and let them cool on a wire rack until they got to room temperature.  Then, using a sewing needle (you'll see why in a minute), I poked holes in the underside of each one, that would later be filled with cheesy goodness.





I stored these crackers in an airtight container and prepared the cheese sauce.  Oh, the cheese sauce.  I swear, I'm fine with being allergic to some foods/food groups, but if I had to give up cheese, I would be so incredibly sad.  The smell, the taste.... ooooh, my.

I grated the cheddar cheese using the handy-dandy shredder gizmo on my food processor and put it in the blender.  I topped it with the warm milk, sugar and salt, and blended the badonkers out of it until it was creamy and smooth.  The smell of the cheese melting with the milk and the sugar and salt gave me a total jones for the macaroni and cheese that this woman is known for, and which I love like no other.






I strained the cheese sauce into a bowl from which I filled my syringe to fill the crackers:



You'll note that this is not a standard needle-based syringe.  This syringe is one of three newborn baby breastfeeding supplement syringes my friend Holly (who is a lactation consultant) gave me a few weeks ago when my dog hurt his back and couldn't stand up to eat or drink, so I had to give him water with a syringe.  No, this is not the same syringe that hydrated my dog, but it's an extra one I held onto because I knew I needed a syringe for this dish and thought this might work perfectly.

And it did:



Grant Achatz, you saucy little minx.  These crackers are not only genius, they're delicious and addictive.  They're so so cute (which, I know was your driving force in creating them, um, NOT), really easy to make, and completely tasty -- we devoured them in minutes... it would be hard not to.  Totally better than Combos (even though I do love those sometimes, especially in airports, holy crapsticks why am I rambling), and rivals my love for spreading some Wispride on a Saltine or Carr Valley Benedictine on a slice of baguette.

Here's the deal: you pop the whole thing into your mouth, bite down and get a satisfying crunch.  Then, within seconds comes the ooey, gooey cheese mixing in with the cracker.  I love the sharpness of the cheddar cheese with the smoothness of the biscuity cracker.  This one is a no-brainer in terms of taste because it's familiar and good, and quite clever.

I think these would be great to serve at a party, because you can make the crackers a day ahead and inject them just before your guests come.  Or, you could delegate that task to that one person who habitually shows up to your parties early under the guise of being helpful, but somehow does nothing but distract you, nearly derailing your getting-ready efforts.  You know, the person who always begs, "no, let me help," and now with this canape, you could say, "Sure.  Fill up this syringe with the cheese sauce I've got over there and go ahead and inject those crackers with the sauce, mmmkay?"  And then watch them slowly back out of the kitchen and hide in the closet, slightly in fear but mostly in awe of your mad, awesome culinary skillz.

Up Next: Sea Urchin, vanilla, chili, mint

Resources: Grafton Village Cheese Company aged cheddar cheese, Organic Valley whole milk, Domino sugar, David's kosher salt, Red Star yeast.

Music to Cook By: The Thin Red Line soundtrack; Hans Zimmer.  I've been on a movie score/soundtrack kick as of late, and thinking back on some of the best movie scores out there (Ennio Morricone, The Mission is a favorite), and happened upon the soundtrack to The Thin Red Line in my iTunes library.  Totally forgot I had it.  And while I loved that movie and found it really compelling and powerful, I love the musical score just as much, maybe more.

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