Reading through this recipe in the Alinea cookbook I got the feeling that this will be a warm and comforting dish. What I could not wrap my mind around, was how all the components will fit together. Each component, taken on its own, sounded great but put them all together and I was not that sure. That is often the problem and at the same time half the fun that cooking a recipe from a book like Alinea brings to the table. The combinations are “foreign” and the processes new so that a home cook has to kind of go with the flow, keep their fingers crossed and hope that Achatz knows what he is doing. My main worry was the shellfish custard. Will it set properly? Will it be too fishy? It would so suck if it came out too fishy and our nice romantic dinner would be ruined! How will all these more or less similar textures work together? Raw water chestnuts? They need no cooking I guess. I never worked with them before and only had them at Chinese restaurants.
The first thing I made and the most time-consuming component of this relatively easy recipe is the shellfish stock. From that the shellfish custard is made. For the stock Achatz specifies using mussels, littleneck clams and razor calms. I have never seen razor clams here in Houston and this time my luck was not any better, so I subbed a few large cherrystone clams for them. Each type is cooked separately in a mixture of white wine, vermouth, shallots, fennel and tarragon. Then the shellfish are removed from their shells, all the while making sure to collect the precious juices. Then I cleaned each type and removed the “stomach” and, from the mussels, the dark rubbery black thing that goes around the meat. I honestly was not sure what or where the stomach is on these creatures, but I did my best. The combined juices are then meticulously strained several times to make sure no particles or sand remains. I used some of the stock as a storing medium for the reserved shellfish and the rest went into making the custard.
To make the custard, the fragrant shellfish stock is mixed with cream and Iota Carrageenan and brought to a boil. Carrageenan is a natural gelling agent made from a type of sea weed. The mixture is then allowed to set in the fridge until service time. When ready to serve the gelled mixture, now has the consistency of a nice and soft flan, is broken up and brought to a gentle simmer where it turns to a thick liquid again. The difference between something like carrageenan and gelatin (other than the texture) is that once poured on the fish it sets back up in a matter of a minute or two while remaining nice and warm. Gelatin will never set at that temperature. How does it taste? I really should not have worried. It was delicious, like the most luxurious, velvety and aromatic shellfish bisque ever. The flavor of the shellfish came through and worked perfectly with the anise flavor from the fennel and tarragon.
The water chestnuts, bought fresh from a local Asian grocery store, were peeled, diced and refrigerated. Done. The other component in the recipe is a puree of sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes). Now, almost on a weekly basis I see these tasty tubers at Whole Foods and other local grocery stores in Houston. When I was ready to make this, however, everyone seems to be out of them. I checked at several locations and “Oh sure we get them, but we have not put an order for this week yet” or “Our supplier is out these two weeks” are the responses I got when I asked about them. Arghh! So, I did what Carol did on her Alinea at Home blog and substituted yukon gold potatoes for them. To give the puree a bit more edge I also added in about half of a turnip to the mix. The potatoes and turnip were chunked and cooked in cream until soft. Then the whole thing was pureed in a blender and strained to get a smooth soft and rich puree.
Those who have the book probably know this recipe and know it actually calls for Turbot, not Halibut. Since finding “European Turbot” here is very much a hit and miss deal and since Halibut is also a delicious, flaky white flat fish, I used that instead. God knows at $17/lb it was not a cheap substitute, but worked very well. The fish is cooked sous vide for 20 minutes at 59 degrees Celsius. It went in the Foodsaver bags with a healthy bit of butter and some reserved shellfish stock. In the meantime I heated up the reserved shellfish in their stock using a double broiler. After all the hard work that went into them I really did not want to overcook them and turn them to mush. So I kept a close eye on the heat. That was also the time to reheat the shellfish custard and get it ready for plating.
To plate, the perfectly cooked fish is placed in a bowl. Alinea serves this in a smaller portion to fit in the multi-course tasting menu, but we were having it for dinner, so my portion was about double that in the book. The fish gets surrounded with the water chestnuts and the puree. Then the custard gets poured on, covering the fish about halfway, and sets to a soft pudding while the dish gets garnished with a selection of the shellfish (those stayed perfectly cooked BTW), fennel fronds and tarragon. The dish was fantastic. It proved my worries were stupid and it surpassed my expectations. The best way to describe it is to compare it to a very refined clam/seafood chowder of sorts. The flavors are clear and harmonious. The potato, shellfish, anise and cream work perfectly well together and have a smooth comforting texture. Then we get the water chestnut cubes. It really is genius to include them. They add a note of freshness and very little flavor but their crunch is more than welcome in the dish. I think it looks wonderful too with mostly white colors but with nice accents from the colorful shellfish and the herbs.
Note: The actual name of the dish is “Wild Turbot, Shellfish, Water Chestnuts, Hyacinth Vapor” and at Alinea they serve this dish in a small bowl inside a bigger bowl that contains Hyacinth flowers. Then hot water is poured in the large bowl releasing the Hyacinth’s aroma as the food is eaten. The book contains the instructions to do that, but I did not want to fiddle with it and source bowls and Hyacinths.