Alinea: PORK, Grapefruit, Sage, Honey

This Alinea dish combines some classic combinations in a more or less classic presentation. It’s basically a pork with polenta dish with a few twists…and grapefruit. Why not though? The grapefruit is tart, sweet and a little bitter. That makes for a great counterpoint to the pork, rich cornbread pudding and the honey that is drizzled on the plated food.

I made the sage pudding first, a week or so before I actually needed it. It’s a typical Alinea “pudding” made with Agar, where the sage leaves are steeped in hot water with a little sugar and then the mixture is set with Agar and then pureed in the blender for a pudding-like texture. I had made a mental note a while back to make the next such pudding with Gellan instead of Agar for a change, but I suppose I must’ve lost that “note”. Next time I will try it with Gellan. As it stands this was a good sauce for the dish, it was slightly sweet with a big sage flavor and a good smooth texture.

For the cornbread puree, I first made the cornbread. I’m pretty sure any cornbread recipe will do in this component, but I went ahead and did the book’s recipe. On it’s own it is not such a great cornbread, probably because it uses a lot of white wheat flour in it. the texture is a bit firm and the taste slightly bland. However, to finish it up, the bread gets crumbled and pureed in a good dose of butter and cream and seasoned with salt and pepper. That makes for a rich polenta-like product that is quiet delicious. I chose not to make the puree in my blender (I hate washing it) and instead used the stick blender. That worked ok, but I did not get the good emulsion and smooth puree I would’ve achieved with a powerful blender.

Alinea uses two cuts of pork here and cooks them in very different ways. The pork shoulder gets bagged with oil and cooked SV for 5 hours at about 180F until it’s very tender. I used  a small piece of boar shoulder instead that I salted a day beforehand and bagged it with some bacon fat. I needed to cook it for more like 6 hours to get it to the proper texture and I still think it needed a bit more time. The meat gets shredded into strings then deep fried in loose disks right before it is served.

The other cut of pork is a pork tenderloin. This one I also salted ahead of time then rolled into a cylinder and cooked sous vide at 137F for about 30 minutes. The pork gets cooked to a perfect pink medium. I went ahead and quick seared it in clarified butter to give it a bit more flavor and variation before slicing. It came out perfectly cooked and looked as good as it tasted.

The last few components of the dish were caramelized fennel strips (fennel rounds browned in butter and then cut into strips), grapefruit segments, fennel fronds and small sage leaves. Right before serving it, the dish gets a small drizzle of honey. That honey goes especially well with the crispy boar shoulder pieces and the corn bread puree. The dish as a whole makes for a refreshing and, at the same time, comforting plate of food. We tried getting a variety of tastes and textures in each forkful, that always makes us appreciate the level of detail involved in these Alinea compositions.

I was having a very nice grapefruit-sage margarita while finishing up the cooking for this dish.

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Alinea: HALIBUT, Shellfish, Water Chestnuts

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.

Alinea, Food “documentation” and the DBwRCF

Really? A tripod and a video camera? I guess I was too naive to think that people know when there are lines that they should not cross in a restaurant before becoming a nuisance! I am referring here to the post that Chef Grant Achatz put up on Alinea’s Mosaic forum and that Carol Blymire linked to on her blog. Carol’s very well worded post is a very good read and makes some excellent points. 

I will be the first to admit that I love taking pictures of food (hence the blog) and to see what others have photographed. However, I always assumed that bloggers or food groupies are using small cameras and no flash. I am sure this is mostly the case. Most bloggers and food lovers are courteous to others and to the establishment they are dining at. I think what we have here is a case of “The Douche Bag who Ruins Casual Friday” syndrome. If you work in an office environment you probably know the DBwRCF Syndrome. Or maybe in your case it might be the DBwRFDWW Syndrome (that’s the DB who Ruins Four Day Work Week).

Here’s what happens, you have a company policy or maybe a policy for your team/group/office that says Fridays are casual fridays. This means you can come in to the office wearing casual clothing. For most people this means a pair of jeans (pants not shorts) and a decent T-shirt. On your feet? a pair of tennis shoes or Sketchers. It goes well for a few weeks or maybe months until Mr. DB decides to push the limits of decorum. He comes one week wearing his nice flip-flops. The boss lets it slide. Next week he decides to ear a T-shirt that was probably new when he was in college. More points if the said T-shirt is sporting a beer or bourbon add. Again, the boss lets it slide. Mr. DB, thinking he is a trailblazer starts coming in wearing the flip-flops, the said T-Shirt and some ripped jeans or worse – shorts! Now, the boss has to have a talk with him and Mr. DB complains that it’s “Casual Friday”, so he should be able to wear whatever he wants. After some back and forth, the boss decides to basically cancel Casual Friday for everyone because of Mr. DB. That happens all the time. It’s just much simpler to do that than to deal with the shenanigans of one asshole.

I really hope this does not happen at Alinea, but it seems that that’s where most restaurants are heading. It is clear that Acahtz has no problem with anyone taking pictures, he has a problem when a few start pushing the limits of what is acceptable. It really is a problem when some simply have no common sense. It is simpler to just state “No Cameras” as opposed to dealing with “guests” on a one off basis, even if it is unfair to the non-offending majority. I am looking forward to eating there and would love to take a few pictures. If the “no cameras” rule  does go in effect, then so be it. Achatz has all the right to enforce any reasonable rules in his house. I really do not need to take photos to enjoy or remember great meals. We ate at el Bulli in 2005 and took maybe one photo of the food.The rest were photos with the chef and a few of my wife and I. I saved the menu and I still can remember pretty much every dish from that wonderful meal.

Crab and “Crab”: King Crab, Crab Apple, Basil and Olive Oil Jam

I so need to work on my presentation skills. Funny thing is I had a much better “scheme” for this plate on paper, but not sure why I did not follow it last-minute. Oh well, next time around. One thing I can say is that flavor-wise this worked wonderfully and it really does not look too horrible…just not as nice as I intended.

The dish started when I bought a few crab apples and made a sorbet from them. I used a recipe from the “Alinea Cookbook” for that sorbet. At Alinea they serve the sorbet as part of a cheese course of sorts, along with an olive oil jam, cheddar, onions, eucalyptus and pepper tuile. I wanted to use some of those components but wanted to make a dish with king crab legs, admittedly being able to name the dish Crab and Crab was part of the attraction. However, I knew the combination would also taste good. Sort of a substantial salad course, made with lovely chunks of king crab legs.

The sorbet is made with crab apple that were cooked sous vide until tender and then passed through a sieve. The apple puree was mixed with sugar and a little salt. The end result is a bit more savory than a regular sorbet and, because it is made with crab apples, a little high on tannins giving the mixture a bit of a puckery mouth feel if that makes any sense. The sorbet was delicious but I cannot see it standing on it’s own, it’s definitely designed to be part of a multi-component dish.

The pepper tuile is made with isomalt, glucose and fondant. The mixture comes up to 320F temp, is poured into a sheet and allowed to cool. Then I ground it up in a coffee grinder to a fine powder. From this point on the tuile can be flavored in any number of ways with spices and sieved in an even layer and baked for a few minutes until it’s melted. It can be shaped, broken into shards or used to encase ingredients (like the pork belly here for example). As far as I know this process was pioneered by the crack team at elBulli in Spain. In this case the tuile was flavored with lots of black pepper and broken into irregular shards. It looked like glass and had a nice pepper kick. The olive oil jam, also from Alinea, is sort of a sweet cross between a custard and mayonnaise! Sounds gross, I know, but absolutely addictive. It’s made with olive oil, trimoline (invert sugar), eggs and meyer lemon juice.

Other than peeling the crab legs, I barely did anything to them. I just heated them briefly in olive oil and dressed them with a little meyer lemon juice. The basil spheres were made by mixing basil puree with calcium lactate and sugar and then freezing the mixture in ice cube trays. Before service the cubes go into a sodium alginate mixture until the outside sets and encases the sweet basil mixture. The plates were garnished with preserved meyer lemon, cut into a dice.

Needless to say I had a good bit of bits and pieces of crab other than what was served in this dish. These were sauteed with shallots, garlic and smoked paprika. Delicious on toast with a squeeze of lemon.