Monthly Archives: May 2012

Kumquat, Aquavit, Picholine olive, caraway

I realized shortly before starting this one that I had absolutely no conception of what it would taste like. I’ve never had a kumquat. I’ve never drank Aquavit. I’ve probably have had a Picholine olive before, but wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from any other green olive. And caraway, that’s just the repulsive seed that you find in rye bread, right?

Basically, this recipe produces a hollowed out rind of a kumquat, filled with an aquavit liquor gelatin, garnished with a slice of Picholine olive and caraway seed powder.

This was the first recipe where I attempted to tackle just about all of the components at once, as opposed to working on them one at a time. I started by toasting the caraway seeds, cutting up some kumquats and throwing them into water being heated on the stovetop, and then preparing the aquavit gelatin.

Aquavit is a Scandinavian spirit flavored usually with caraway seed and other herbs. A local distillery makes aquavit, so I figured I would use theirs.

The kumquats are brought to a boil in water three times before being tossed into a simmering simple syrup for, as the book tells you, an hour or until tender. I thought that my kumquats were pretty damn tender after only 20 minutes in the simple syrup, so I pulled them out, let them cool to room temperature, and began scooping out the flesh from the rind so only the candied rind bowls were remaining.

(Sidenote: I prepared the simple syrup for this at home. It’s easier and faster to make than actually finding the pre-made stuff at the grocery store. Just bring equal amounts of sugar and water to a boil, and let simmer for 3-5 minutes. Great for many cocktail recipes.)

I then poured the Aquavit gelatin into the kumquat bowls and placed them in the fridge to set.

Once those had set, I realized that I had perhaps fucked this whole thing up. The Aquavit gelatin turned to a opaque white  while setting, which I didn’t think was supposed to happen. I looked up pictures of other blogger’s successful attempts at this recipe to see if they had white, as opposed to clear gelatin. I did find one example where the gelatin had turned white, but I was still wary because ALL of mine had turned white whereas only one of about 8 examples I could find had white gelatin.

Another thing that was freaking me out was perhaps purely mental (or perhaps not). You see, in the middle of working on this recipe, I noticed some fresh bleach stains on my t-shirt. I couldn’t find the source of the bleach stains anywhere. and I’m still confounded on how bleach got on my shirt. One of the first things I wondered about when I saw the white gelatin was whether bleach somehow got into the recipe too and caused the gelatin to turn white. I’m not even sure if that’s the effect bleach would have on a clear gelatin, I’m just saying that it was running through my mind.

All these questions running through my head probably had an effect on my first tasting of one of the kumquat bowls. It didn’t taste great. It wasn’t horrible, just not anything special. And it tasted a little bit…off. Maybe it was purely a mental thing, maybe it wasn’t, but I assumed the worst and concluded that bleach somehow got into the gelatin and all my work so far was for naught. I tossed out everything.

There are two other possible explanations for why this didn’t turn out well, which are both more appealing that the bleach hypothesis:

1) I didn’t let the kumquats simmer in the simple syrup long enough, and as a result, the rind was still more bitter than it should have been.

2) I failed to remove all the pith from the kumquats when I was preparing my kumquat bowls. As a result, the pith made them more bitter than they should have been and also turned the gelatin white.

Luckily, I still had five kumquats left over and a couple days later, I decided to tackle the recipe again, this time being extra careful to make sure that no illicit substances got into my food (not that I wasn’t being careful the first time around!…I have no idea where those bleach stains came from!), and also taking extra steps to ensure that the kumquats were properly candied and that all the pith and flesh was removed from the rind.

Unfortunately, the second time around, the same thing happened. Opaque white aquavit gelatin. I plated one anyway.

Honestly, I didn’t like this recipe at all. The kumquat, olive, and caraway only feel like an inadequate chaser to the potent aquavit gelatin. Oh well, there’s still at least 102 recipes left over to wow me.

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Blackberry, tobacco, smoke, bee balm

I mentioned gelatin sheets in the last post, without explaining too much. This is what they look like:

Gelatin sheets are used in the Alinea cookbook as opposed to gelatin powder because it’s easier to accurately measure the amount of gelatin that goes into a recipe component. All you have to do is place the sheet in ice cold water for about 5 minutes, the squeeze out the water from each sheet and add it to whatever component you’re making.

That is how they look once they’re ready to be added to something.

Anyway, on to this recipe. Simply, this is a blackberry sitting in tobacco cream with mint, long peppercorns, and smoked salt as a garnish.

The tobacco cream involves steeping a crushed cigar in cream and then mixing it with gelatin. I’ve seen a few Alinea dishes that included tobacco as an ingredient and as the chef would say, “We’re using the tobacco as an herb here.”

My shopping experience was rather amusing. I went to a cigar shop where the staff definitely care about making sure you get the exact cigar you want. As soon as I entered, I was escorted into the humidified room by a man who asked me, “What kind of cigars do you like?” I awkwardly responded, “I’m not actually looking to smoke a cigar, I need one for a rather unusual purpose. I need to cook something with one.” He says, “Really?! That’s awesome! Gimme a sec to switch my mind to flavor profiles. I don’t do that often. What are you cooking it with?”….Within a few minutes, he had shown me a variety of cigars and I ended up buying 3 of them. The one I actually used for the recipe was a Maxx Curve, which the cigar man described as having a chocolatey flavor.

I started with making the tobacco cream. Half and half, heavy cream, sugar, salt, and a broken cigar brought to a simmer. Easiest thing ever.

Once this mixture came to a simmer and the cigar steeped in the cream for about 20 minutes, I added the gelatin and poured a portion of it into a 9 x 13 inch pan. I was paranoid about my previous gelatin experience in the Green Almond recipe, so this time I decided to fit the pan with a bottom layer sturdier than plastic wrap. I cut a piece of cardboard down to fit inside my pan, placed a sheet of plastic wrap in the pan, topped it with the cardboard, and then added another sheet of plastic wrap. I figured that this way it would be easier to lift the gelatin out of the pan without risking it falling apart.

Check out my blackberries, out of the pan and in the tobacco cream gel.

Fixing up my pan with the cardboard worked perfectly, but it might not have been necessary because this gel was a lot firmer than the cucumber gel from before. All that was left was plating. Adding a mint leaf and a pinch of smoked salt and thai long pepper produced this final product:

I feel like this is my first great success out of the cookbook. The tobacco cream was phenomenal, despite the mouth tingling that occurs about 10 seconds after eating one of these. I could taste the subtle chocolate profile from the cigar in the cream itself. It paired excellently with the blackberry.

A final note about the garnishes: The recipe technically calls for bee balm flowers and leaves as opposed to mint, but does explicitly state that mint can replace the bee balm. I don’t think there’s any other recipe in the book that actually suggests a substitute ingredient, so I decided to remove the hassle of finding bee balm and capitalize on this singular opportunity. The smoked salt and long peppercorns were also pleasant surprises. Long peppercorns have a very pleasing spicy/sweet aroma that reminds me almost of some Indian curries. I’ll definitely be using them in non-Alinea recipes. The smoked salt was also very flavorful in its own right. I’m not a big salt fan, but I could see myself adding smoked salt to non-Alinea dishes that I make in the future.


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Cheese, in a cracker

Technically, this was the first recipe I tried out of the Alinea cookbook. I tried it mid-April and wasn’t able to complete it because I didn’t have the syringe necessary to fill the crackers with the cheese sauce. I quite erroneously thought that a turkey baster would do the trick (see why I’ve dubbed myself Alinea Newb now?). Hah! Not only was the turkey baster’s spout too wide to put the sauce into the crackers, it was also too wide to actually contain the sauce without it dripping out!

I obtained a syringe while I was searching for gelatin sheets online earlier this month. The Alinea cookbook uses gelatin sheets as opposed to gelatin powder because sheets are easier to measure. Unfortunately, you can’t find gelatin sheets in your average grocery store. So I bought some online from L’Epicerie. They had a $25 minimum for checkout so I added a syringe and couple powders that are used extensively in the cookbook for later on.

This is definitely one of the easiest recipes in the cookbook. First I made a big ball of dough, the flattened it out and cut in into what should be one inch squares.

I put those in the oven for about 6 minutes and allowed them to puff up.

For the cheese sauce, I grated some Wisconsin cheddar and threw it in the blender. I then simmered some whole milk on the stove and blended it with the cheese, some sugar, and some salt.

Then, it was just a matter of poking some holes into the bottom of each cracker and inserting the cheese sauce.

These things are tasty, but both times around I felt like the sauce was a little too salty. I did reduce the amount of salt this second time around, but apparently not by enough. Maybe I’m just not a fan of salt.

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Green Almond, sweet, hot, sour, salt

Green almonds are only in season from late April to mid June, so either I had to do this recipe now or wait until next year. I assumed that they would be hard to find in Chicago and initially tried to find an online distributor. Unfortunately, the leads provided by others working on the Alinea cookbook were outdated and I resigned myself to hunting grocery stores in a vague hope that I would actually find them. Surprisingly, after failing to find them at my local Whole Foods while stopping in there a couple times, I walked into the Treasure Island by the boyfriend’s place to see if I could fine them there. Lo and behold, they were the first thing I saw in the produce section! Very cheap too. Spent about $4 for about a pound of them.

Green almonds are edible in their entirety, but for the purpose of this recipe, only the raw almond in the center is used. Basically, the almond is enmeshed in a cucumber gelee square with salt, sugar, cayenne pepper, and citric acid at each of the four corners.

Aaron and I worked on this together on the first attempt. Aaron cut up the english cucumbers, we juiced them and got this:

I heated up some of the cucumber juice, mixed in the gelatin and added the mixture to the rest of the juice. I then poured a small amount this into a plastic wrap coated dish, just enough to cover the bottom, and set it in the fridge to sit.

Aaron went to work on cutting out the almonds from their shells. The next step was to place the almonds on the cucumber gelee, add a teensy bit more juice and allow it set again. This step is repeated to incrementally add more juice and avoid have the almonds swim away from their spots.

The book says that the gelee should set in the fridge in about 20 minutes, but it took a little over a half hour for mine to set. I think this was the first sign of a problem. Once I had the almonds set in the gelee, I had to get the gelee out of the dish and onto a cutting board. I realized quickly that I couldn’t do this on my own because the gelee was very fragile and was threatening to break on me. This was the second sign of a problem. But with Aaron’s help, we were able to carefully pull the thing out of the dish to cut it up.

Now it was just a matter of cutting the gelee into eight 1 inch squares with an almond in the center of each and adding the spices. I tried to do this as delicately as possible, but within a few seconds, this happened:

Fuck. That was the definitive third sign of a problem. Try as I might, I could barely resurrect any of the almonds. I managed to “save” one “square” and was ultimately “able” to “plate” it, but the rest of it was a disaster. I don’t have an off-set spatula that the book says I should use and discovered that almost every other spatula-like tool in my kitchen made the gelatin squares fall apart even more. Aaron and I tried the mutant green almond squares that resulted from the mess and Aaron concluded “It was good for what it was worth.” I agreed with that sentiment but privately felt like a failure.

Later that night, after being in an overall glum mood, I was able to discuss what the fuck happened. Aaron came up with a bright idea of putting the gelee into the freezer prior to cutting it up, to prevent the entire thing from falling apart at the slightest touch. Genius.

So the next day, sans Aaron’s help, I set myself to trying this again. I have to learn how to work with gelatin if I’m going to make it very far in this book, after all. I ran to the store and bought a couple more cucumbers and a relatively thin spatula that I figure would work better.

This time, after pouring the cucumber juice onto the almonds for the last time, I set the dish in the freezer. I checked on it every 3-5 minutes for the first appearance of an ice crystal and after about 15 minutes, I could see ice starting to form in one corner of the dish. I pulled it out and managed to get the gelee onto the cutting board on my own. Working with the gelee turned out much better this time.

The second time around, I noticed a very small but important instruction in the book. I was supposed to wipe my knife dry after every cut. Maybe that’s why I created such a mess on the first go, but I like to think that the biggest issue was the fragility of the gelee.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to capture a decent in-focus picture of one of the squares on their own. My camera sucks in that regard. The dish turned out great though. The cucumber gelee melted in my mouth and gave way to the slight crunchiness of the green almond, which in turn gave way to the gelatinous core of the almond. At the same time the texture-play was happening, my tongue experience a wave of hot (cayenne pepper), followed by sour (citric acid) and salt (…salt). Unfortunately, the sugar element didn’t stand out so much but I don’t feel like the dish was any less because of that. Who knew so much could happen with such a small piece of food?

(Note the small spattering of gelee in the corner. I’m not known for being a clean freak.)

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Salad, red wine vinaigrette

Ah, my first successfully executed recipe out of the Alinea cookbook. I’ll get to the unsuccessful attempts at a later date.

This “salad” is a frozen mixture of spinach, argula, and romaine, with a frozen slush of red wine vinegar on top.

The gal over at the Alinea at Home blog tipped me off that this recipe calls for a lot of greens, so I decided to divide everything in half to make it a little more manageable. My kitchen isn’t that big after all. I’m very glad I decided to do this because this is what I ended up with:

I believe the most frustrating part of this recipe was figuring out what to do with all the greens as I was measuring them out to make sure I had the right amount of each. My kitchen isn’t that big after all. I thought at first that I could just mash them into a that big pot in the middle after I weighed them. That didn’t work out and I found myself pulling bowl after bowl down from the cabinets to cover the rest. I didn’t even have enough counter space for it all and had to rest some of the bowls on the stove!

I ended up having to make a second run to the store to grab more arugula and spinach because I was about a couple hundred grams short on both. In the end, I was still about 50 grams short on arugula, but I just couldn’t will myself to run to the store for a third time to buy more. I figured 50 grams wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway.

I spent 25 minutes juicing it all and ended up with this:

I’m surprised the juicer didn’t overheat.

I poured this mixture into my chinois and then into a sheet tray.

Surprisingly, the swirls in the liquid were somewhat reminiscent of what the pan was sitting on.

I stuck that all in the freezer overnight, along with a separate small bowl of red wine vinegar. Here’s what I got:

The next day, I set myself to scraping this with a fork to turn it into a slush-like consistency. Same with the red wine vinegar. Then I plated. Aaron captured some pictures of me doing this.

So how was it? Vinegary. Very Vinegary. I tried making some with just the tiniest bit of red wine vinegar on top and that didn’t solve the problem. The frozen arugula/romaine/spinach juice was very refreshing on its own. But once the red wine vinegar was added, that was all you could taste. Maybe the problem was that I bought the store brand red wine vinegar for this, but I also can’t imagine how to obtain a less-vinegary vinegar. Oh well.

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