Hibiscus

It’s been nearly a year since I’ve updated this. In my defense, I unexpectedly moved from Chicago back to Denver, was practically couch-surfing for several months and didn’t have a full-time job for even longer.

As of July, I finally acquired my own kitchen and some cashflow. Since then I’ve been toying around with several recipes. My kitchen, however, is very small and you can’t find the odd ingredients in many of the recipes quite as easily in Colorado. Eventually I decided that since it’s been so long and I need to get back into the right headspace to tackle some of these increasingly difficult recipes, I should make perhaps the easiest one in the book: Hibiscus.

Officially, the title of this recipe is “Tripod, Hibiscus.” At Alinea, a hibiscus popsicle is served as the last course palate cleanser. To make this popsicle, a hibiscus tea is frozen in spherical molds and served on a small tripod stem. I simply don’t have tripod stems and didn’t feel much like making them, so all we have is “Hibiscus.”

I started by bringing some water to a boil with some sugar and a wee bit of salt. Then I took it off the heat, added dried hibiscus flowers and let it infuse until the tea came to room temperature. I strained out the hibiscus flowers and, using a syringe, poured the tea into the spherical molds.

After that, it was a just a matter of taking them out and eating them!

Very bright, slightly savory and delicious! I’m going to save some to add to cocktails.

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Skate, traditional flavors powdered

This recipe has been by far the best one I’ve made so far: It was easy, delicious, and looked beautiful. I’m so blown away that I’m probably going to make it again next week, given that I have extra of all the powders I made.

A skate wing is sauteed in butter and placed on top of a few banana slices and green beans. To the side is a mixture of powdered lemon, parsley, and capers. The fish is dipped into the powders to capture the “traditional flavors” that accompany skate.

I began by making the powders. The caper powder involved rinsing brine off a couple jars of capers, drying them off, dehydrating them, pulverizing them in a spice grinder, and sifting the resulting powder.

The lemon powder involved peeling the rind off a bunch of lemons, removing any white pith, candying them in simple syrup, dehydrating them, pulverizing them in the spice grinder, sifting the resulting powder, and adding a little bit of citric acid.

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The parsley powder involved picking the leaves off a couple bunches of parsley, dehydrating them, pulverizing them, and sifting the powder.

The recipe also calls for a “brown butter” powder, which is placed directly on top of the skate wing, but I didn’t make it. This powder would have required buying “spray dried cream powder,” baking it until browned and mixing the powder with powdered banana chips. Cream powder appears to be expensive, especially considering that I would probably use it only once and have a bunch leftover. I read that cream powder is akin to dry coffee creamer, so I attempted to make the brown butter powder with that instead. Sadly, while coffee creamer once upon a time probably would have been a suitable substitute, I found out quickly that it wasn’t going to work here because today’s coffee creamer is made mostly with sugar.

So back to what did work: I had to travel to a store that specializes in seafood to find skate wings. Apparently they’re in season right now.

Thankfully, these wings were already skinned and de-boned. I did trim the wings slightly before sauteing them.

Speaking of sauteing, both the skate wings and green beans were cooked in a mix of buerre monté and water. Beurre monté is butter that remains emulsified even when melted. Usually when butter is melted, it breaks down into its component parts of milk solids and milk fats; buerre monté does not break down. I made buerre monté by bringing a small amount of water to a simmer and whisking in a pound of butter, tablespoon by tablespoon, not adding the next tablespoon until that last had fully melted. THAT’S RIGHT; A POUND.

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Green Beans, buttered

Skate Wings, buttered

I practiced making a “hurricane” like pattern with some other spices I had in the cabinet before plating the dishes with the parsley, caper, and lemon powders. Once I had that perfected, plating was rather easy. The skate wings were very fragile and once broke in half when I was pulling it out of pan, but otherwise there were no issues.

Plate 1

Plate 2

Like I said, this dish was by the best I ever made, and probably because it contained so much butter. But even the butter aside, the powders were delicious when paired with the fish, and the bananas and green bean were smartly chosen accompaniments. The intensity of the flavors here reminded me of why I feel in love with Alinea in the first place.

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Transparency, of Manchego cheese

You thought I had abandoned this endeavor, didn’t you? Well no, I’ve just been exceptionally busy over the past few months. Since the last recipe in April, a case of mine had its hearing, I went through my last round of finals, graduated law school, took a trip to Vancouver, moved, and studied for and took the bar exam. Now that I’m woefully unemployed, I should have some more free time to tackle more recipes, although my opportunities will still be limited by my ever-dwindling bank account.

This recipe was relatively straight-forward and did not present a lot of chances for captivating photos. A slice of Manchego cheese is melted over dried niçoise olives, olive oil pudding, sourdough croutons, roasted garlic, diced Manchego cheese bits, and squares of roasted yellow and red peppers. The melted cheese is topped with a few arugula leaves. The recipe also calls for pieces of white anchovies, but unfortunately I couldn’t track those down very easily and didn’t want to ruin the recipe by using standard anchovies out of the tin can. Cost was a consideration there as well.

For some reason, the olive pudding did not thicken up the first time I made it, which is especially curious because I actually made that component by itself when I first bought the cookbook and it turned out perfect without any hassle. I’m not sure what went wrong yesterday. I made it a second time today, and halved everything to cut down on the excess, and it came out fine again.

Olive Oil Pudding Mise en Place

Prepping the yellow and red bell peppers presented one of the most nerve-wracking moments so far. Before being diced into small squares, the peppers are coated with olive oil and literally charred over an open flame until the skin is completely blackened. Since I don’t own a barbeque, I did this on my stove top but freaked out when the peppers began crackling, popping, and occasionally having small flare ups on the stove. Due to the fact that I don’t have renters insurance, the skins were not as blackened as they should have been.

I also decided to make two version of this dish, one with Manchego and one with Swiss cheese. I practiced slicing cheese with my mandolin first using a block of Swiss that was in the fridge before trying the same with the more expensive Manchego. Both versions of the dish turned out fine.

Mise en Place

Plating sans cheese

Pre-broiler

The Swiss version, however, ended up being the prettier of the two because I haphazardly miscalculated how hot the Manchego plate would be after I took it out of the broiler, flipped it onto the floor, and ended up having to make a second Manchego plate with a less perfectly cut slice of cheese.

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Yolk Drops, asparagus, Meyer lemon, black pepper

I may have committed Alinea blasphemy with this plating. You see, the relationship between Grant Achatz and Charlie Trotter is shaky at best. Grant worked at Charlie Trotter’s for a few months before moving to California to work with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry. If you read the chapter regarding his time at Trotter’s in Life on the Line, you can tell that Grant was not a fan and ultimately quit. Trotter’s parting words to him were “[i]f you do not stay at this restaurant for a full year, you will simply not exist to me. Period. That means don’t ever call me. Don’t use me as a reference. Don’t put Charlie Trotter’s on your résumé.” Charlie Trotter has lived up to his word; Grant has stated recently that he has never visited Alinea and they haven’t spoken since.

So what does this all this have to do with my plating here? You see, the plate I used is from Charlie Trotter’s. After Charlie Trotter’s closed last year, everything in the restaurant was put up for auction. I ended up buying a set of 6 of these plates for under $20. Aaron and I were lucky enough to dine at Trotter’s about a year ago and I remembered eating off these plates back then. We were served Lobster with a beet infused spaetzle, fermented black garlic, and horseradish vinaigrette on them.

I thought the design was pretty cool. Basically, it’s an off-set large shallow bowl standing on a small pedestal. I’m hoping the design will work well in presenting some future Alinea dishes.

Anyway, onto the yolk drops. What we have here are yolk drops mixed with asparagus buds in a lemon vinaigrette with a lemon puree and asaparagus foam on the side.

I started with the lemon vinaigrette and puree. Please note that the recipe calls specifically for the sweeter and more cook-friendly meyer lemons. I couldn’t find any meyer lemons yesterday, so I decided to sweeten each of these elements with simple syrup, which cut down on the sour and bitterness excellently. The vinaigrette was exceptionally easy to prepare; I just mixed some lemon juice with grapeseed oil, salt, and simple syrup.

The lemon puree was a little more interesting. I literally quartered 3 lemons and threw them in a blender with simple syrup. I was worried that this would not turn into a puree, or that if it did, it would be disgusting. Thankfully, I was wrong. It took some time, but eventually those lemons turned into a liquid that was later strained through my chinois.

Next, I worked on the asparagus. I started by cutting the bud off from each stalk and then cutting the stalks into roughly one inch pieces. I then broke up the buds to make a nicer presentation. I blanched the stalks and buds separately and let them sit in ice water both to quickly end the cooking process and preserve the bright green color.

I juiced the asparagus stalk and added some soy lecithin so that it would foam up when I dipped my immersion blender into the juice.

Lastly, I worked on the eggs. Could we all take a moment to appreciate how I separated the yolk from the white of a dozen eggs without fucking up any of them? I’ve learned that the best method of separating egg whites and yolk is by cracking the eggs whole into a bowl and gently pulling out the yolks with your hands. Messy and gooey, but it gets the job done.

To turn the yolks into yolk drops, I first had to make some clarified butter. Once that was done, I whisked the yolks with some salt and funneled the mixture into a squeeze bottle. I then squeezed single drops of egg into the heated clarified butter and scooped them own when they began to float. For the record, this took way longer than I initially imagined and my first few attempts to make “drops” were more like blobs, but I improved. Before plating, I drained the butter off the eggs.

Finally, plating. I mixed the drained yolk drops with the asparagus buds, lemon vinaigrette, and black pepper. The recipe does not actually mention black pepper except in the title, but where else would it go? I then added some lemon puree to one side and asparagus foam on the other.

Turned out pretty well. The lemon vinaigrette got a little lost in the mix, but the puree made up for it. I would probably make this again, maybe for brunch.

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Bean, many garnishes

Making Bean was such a laborious process that I didn’t take too many photos. So instead of describing every step I took to make everything, I’ll just show you what the end result was and tell you what everything is. Plus, I need to share some lessons I’ve learned working through the book in general.

In the center is a white bean puree topped with crisp pancetta and Guinness bubbles. Clockwise from the top center is:

1. Apple sphere cooked in white wine with molasses
2. Lemon marshmellow with lemon zest
3. Vanilla and bay leaf cube
4. Fried almond and green bean salad with almond-lemon vinaigrette
5. Roasted garlic clove with pink peppercorn skins
6. Parsnip chip with parsley
7. Ball of tomato and mango leathers
8. Mung bean sprouts with sesame and “yuzu” vinaigrette

I have to confess, I just couldn’t be bothered to make the “pillow of nutmeg air” that this dish is supposed to rest upon. As much as I like to tell people that the recipes in the Alinea cookbook can be made at home, that’s true only to a certain extent. Don’t get me wrong, I could have bought some pillow cases, some plastic bags, a heat sealer and a Volcano vaporizer and put it all together (I wouldn’t have been the first person to do so), but I have to accept the limitations of my budget and the practicalities of owning a Volcano Vaporizer. I’ve been learning to cut corners when necessary. I’d rather just go ahead and make a dish than spend hours and tons of money seeking out a rare ingredient that isn’t even a highlighted in the dish.

Another example of cutting corners here is with the mung bean sprouts. In the book, I’m supposed to top them with “sea grapes.” Sea grapes are an ingredient that is found in one small region of Japan and for all I can tell, isn’t really for sale in the US. I also wasn’t prepared to spend a lot of money ordering yuzu juice online and decided to make my own. I used equal parts grapefruit juice, lime juice, and mandarin orange juice to approximate the flavor of yuzu juice.

I’ve also learned that I might need some help with these bigger dishes. Near the end, I became overwhelmed with the number of components in front of me, panicked, and began throwing stuff on the plate without any attention to detail. Because of that, the maple sauce I had made didn’t make it onto the plate. For some reason I thought that if I didn’t get everything on the plate right away, something would melt or the kitchen would catch fire. I forget sometimes that Alinea has a huge line of experienced cooks working on these dishes. Next time I make something this big, I’m going to make an event out of it and invite people over to help me.

And ultimately, I’m learning that not everything has to be perfect. An example here is the parsnip chip. In the recipe, the parsnip chips are lightly crumbed up and mixed with parsley dust. Because I couldn’t cut my parsnip chips to 1/16″of an inch, they wouldn’t dry up in the dehydrator to the point where they would crumble. And I don’t have the knife skills to turn a bunch of parsley into “dust.” I feel that despite these imperfections, a suitable substitute was achieved by just topping a dried out whole parsnip chip with a sprig of parsley. Plus, the curve of the chip made it look pretty cool without being crumbled up.

To end, here are some photos I got of the cooking process.

Tomato Leather

The veggies going into the bean puree

Mise-en-place for the Bean Puree (the bottom right cup holds an assortment of herbs)

Lemon Marshmellow gooey-ness

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