Alinea: Pork Belly, Pickled vegetables, BBQ sugar, Grits

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How does barbecue done in a three star restaurant look like? Like this dish that I made using the last third of pork belly I had. It’s a one bite of porky smoky spicy and pickle-y goodness! In more detailed terms we have a cube of cured and spiced pork belly, topped with pickled vegetables and encased in a crunchy glaze of barbecue flavor.

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The trickiest component of this entire dish is that crunchy glaze that coats each bite. It requires some practice and a light touch to get it thick enough to coat the meat and vegetables with a translucent film. Make it too thick and you’ll be fighting to bite through it and picking candy out of your teeth. If it is too thin it will slough off the pickled vegetables and not cover the whole bite. The glaze starts off with isomalt, a product that is not as sweet as sugar but behaves very much like sugar so it is very good for savory applications. I mixed the isomalt with fondant and brought up to about 325 F (NOT the 160 F the book specifies which I am sure they intended it to be 160 C).

Tuile

I poured it on a Silpat and allowed the mixture to harden. The isomalt-fondant mixture hardened into very clean and clear glass. I broke it into shards and pulverized it in a food processor with a smoked paprika and cayenne. This mixture is what gives the pork bites the “barbecue” smoke and spice flavor. but we are not there quiet yet…

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The Isomalt mixture is made into thin wafers or tuiles. To do that I sifted the powdered mixture into a Silpat using stencils to get even 2 inch squares that are about 1/8 inch thick.We need to work fast here because the powedered mixture sucks up the humidity very fast from the room and gets difficult to work with.  After a few minutes in a hot oven the powdered spiced sugar squares melted but kept their shape. When fully cooled they were nice thin crunchy squares. I stored them in a box with a pack of silica to wick away humidity and keep them crispy. These can easily last a week or more like that if needed.

Carrot Pickle

Like any good barbecue plate this one needs a tart crunchy element, like pickles and fresh veggies. The pickles here are tiny spheres of carrots made with a parisienne scoop, the tiniest melon baller you can imagine. Just like any other vinegar pickle the vegetables are soaked in a hot mixture of vinegar, water and sugar and allowed to cool and chill for a couple of days. The other vegetable topping are also tiny cucumber balls and small cubes of red bell pepper.

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Pork Belly-Pickles

Corn and barbecue is a delicious combo, maybe on the cob, creamed or corn bread. Here we have creamy rich grits that combines almost all three. Maybe a few charred corn kernels would have been nice too. Chef Achatz actually uses yellow polenta but I had some good South Carolina stone-ground grits. So I cooked those in water and stirred in butter and mascarpone.

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For the pork, I made a mixture of sugar, salt and a healthy dose of smoked paprika and chipotle powder. The paprika along with chipotle gives the meat a good smoky-spicy flavor. After several hours in the fridge I washed the meat off and then cooked it sous vide for 4 hours at 85C. To finish I cut the meat into even  2 inch squares and seared them gently . I topped them with 4 tiny balls of the vegetables and 2 squares of the bell pepper. Balancing a square of the tuile on top of the vegetables is a tricky thing but I managed to get most on there and under the broiler. The broiler quickly melts the squares of barbecue sugar and coats the meat and vegetable cubes.

Pork Belly

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To serve I put in a dollop on the grits and topped it with a cube of the glazed pork. A few leaves of fresh oregano and it is done. The flavor is rich, spicy and sweet with lots of crunch. the grits work great to tone down the sharp flavors and for that great creamy element. It is labor-intensive but it’s one hell of an impressive looking and tasting bite. It went perfectly with a home-brewed red rye ale. Cheers!

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Alinea: PERSIMMON, Aroma Strip, Carrot, Red Curry

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Persimmons are one of my favorite fruit. I bet one does not hear that too often, but these orange fruits really are one of my favorites. To be specific I am talking about the acorn shaped Hachiya persimmon not the squat round Fuyu one. The Hachiya persimmon is very astringent and really inedible unless very soft and ripe. The flesh turns to a sort of honey flavored fruity jelly when that happens. That’s when they are perfect and sublime. I remember eating dozens of them in Lebanon during their season, usually autumn through winter.

Hachiya on the left and a Fuyu on the right

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That was my excuse to make this recipe, even though Hachiya persimmons are a bit tough to find. Another reason to make this was the various techniques in there that I’ve not tried before from the complex (making carrot curry raisins using reverse spherification) to the simple (“steaming” a cake in a bag in a heat controlled water bath).

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What we have here is a crumbly mix (pistachio brittle, dehydrated carrot foam, tapioca maltodextrin, pistachio shortbread) that covers a very interesting caramelized milk ice cream and a cake/pudding of persimmon. Around those main components we have glazed carrot, ginger sphere, carrot curry “raisin”, date puree, braised pistachios and two types of “films” (a spiced strip and a fennel-mint film).

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I first got to making the ice cream. Most ice creams in the Alinea book are not traditional in that they use less sugar than normal, little or no eggs and are designed to be used with a PacoJet machine that finely “shaves” the frozen ice cream cylinder into perfectly smooth servings. Lacking a PacoJet, I usually adapt the ice cream recipes into something more appropriate for my ice cream maker and freezer like the buckwheat ice cream that I prepared a couple of times. This time though I decided to try the recipe as proscribed to see what I come up with. I figured I had a couple of weeks before I need to serve this and if the ice cream comes out too crappy, I’ll scrap it and make another batch.

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The ice cream is based on caramelized milk. A combination of milk, some half and half, dried milk, very little sugar and honey go in a Foodsaver bag and are cooked for several hours. The idea is to caramelize the natural sugars in the milk turning the mixture a tan color. I was very curious how this would come up and indeed the mixture turned a light tan color but a bit lighter than I would’ve expected. After cooling, the ice cream gets churned and frozen till service time. Now, as expected from such a low sugar and relatively low fat ice cream, the texture right out of the freezer was not great. It was frozen solid and a little bit grainy. After a few minutes on the counter though the texture improved a lot. The flavor was very interesting. It is not an ice cream I would ever serve by itself. It is not sweet, very milky and has a flavor that reminded me of evaporated milk.

Persimmon Puree Persimmon Cake

Making The persimmon cake is pretty simple. Just puree the persimmon flesh with flour, pistachio flour, sugar, eggs, butter, spices and citrus zest. The mixture then goes in a Foodsaver bag and is cooked for a few hours in hot water. The cake is then cooled and re-warmed before serving. The taste is delicious, sweet and rich with spice and butter.The texture is a lovely mix of pudding and cake. I will certainly be borrowing this technique possibly with other flavors to make tender cakes or puddings.

Carrots

There are several pistachio preparations in this dish. The braised pistachios are the simplest. Just cook some pistachios with water, sugar and pistachio oil. Reserve them in some of the cooled cooking liquid.

Braised Pistachios

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The pistachio shortbread is part of the “crumble” mixture and uses pulverized pistachios, butter, vanilla and eggs. It is then cooled in the fridge to make it manageable (it has lots of butter) and then rolled into a block and baked. The shortbread is delicious on its own and leftovers made for great coffee accompaniments for a week or two. It had a lovely pistachio flavor and a tender texture.

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Pistachio Brittle

Another pistachio crumble component is the brittle. Again this makes for an addictive and tasty stand-alone recipe. To make it, I brought sugar to the caramel brown stage and tossed in toasted pistachios and baking soda. The soda reacts with the acidic environment causing the caramel to bubble vigorously creating lots of bubbles. The mixture – like pistachio lava- gets dumped on a Silpat to set and harden.

Carrot Mousse Crumble Mixture

Those orange specs in the crumble mixture are pieces of carrot foam – dehydrated carrot foam. Carrot juice is mixed with sugar and Methocel F50 and cooled. The mixture is then whipped to form a fluffy mixture very similar to a light mousse but has the pure flavor of carrots. Very tasty stuff. The mousse is spread on an acetate sheet and dehydrated for much longer than the recipe specifies until I got a cracker-crispy sheet of carrot mousse.

Crumble

To bring the crumble mixture together I mixed pistachio oil with N-Zorbit Tapioca Maltodextrin (I’ve mentioned this product that makes powders out of oils a few times before like here and here). Then I added coarsely crumbled portions of the pistachio shortbread, pistachio brittle and the crispy carrot mousse. I reserved that in an airtight container until ready to serve.

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Speaking of reserving these various components for service I’ve always thought the book should do a better job informing us of the shelf-life or fridge stability of these various components. This is especially critical for someone like me who is making recipes like these over a period of weeks! I did find out that most of these items do last at least a few days if properly stored. The crumble mixture in an airtight container was still perfectly fine a week or more after I originally served the dessert.

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A hydrocolloid that I have never worked with before and yet another reason I wanted to check out this recipe is Pure-Cote B790. The space-age name aside this is basically a modified corn starch that is used in small quantities to help in making really cool paper thin film. Think of those Listerine strips that melt on the tongue. Yeap, using Pure-Cote one could make these films flavored with anything. In this recipe it is used to make a spice aroma strip as well as a green tinted “glass” flavored with an herb called anise hyssop.

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The process for both glass and spice strip is similar. Steep the flavor in a sugar water syrup and mix in the hydrocolloid. Allow that to dry out on acetate sheets overnight and peel off. In the case of the green glass a dehydration step follows making those films into amazingly brittle and fragile “glass”. The spice aroma strip is flavored with cloves, mace, nutmeg and allspice. The green glass is supposed to be flavored with anise hyssop but that is nowhere to be found. It is supposed to taste like a mixture of mint and anise, so what I did was use half mint and half fennel fronds. I think that worked great, had a lovely green tint and a nice burst of flavor. There has to be a typo in both of these components’ instructions in the book though. After mixing the Pure-Cote into the liquid base we are simply instructed to pour it in a thin layer on sheets. This does not work because the Pure-Cote is not hydrated or gelled! and what you end up with is a mixture that separates into starch and liquid like the mixture towards the front of this picture.

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After doing some research and looking through my Modernist Cuisine books I confirmed my suspicion that indeed the Pure-Cote mixture needs to be heated up in order to gelatinize the starch. That worked much better (see the mixture towards the back in the above picture). Another reasoning for the book’s instructions might be that at Alinea they use a VitaMix blender and they whip the mixture for a long time at a very high speed which indeed heats it up and hydrates the starch. I do not have one of those yet so I will be gently warming my Pure-Cote mixtures to hydrate them.

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To emphasize the warm autumnal flavors and add punches of sweet and sour we have two sauces based on dried fruit. The first is a date puree made from softened dates and ruby Port. It is very sweet as expected and used very sparingly as a dollop to top with the braised pistachios. The other sauce is made from golden raisins and verjus, the mildly tart juice of the sour unripened grapes that works great as a gentle substitute to vinegar in dressings and sauces. Verjus has a fancy French name and is mostly associated with western cuisine but actually -in addition to pomegranate molasses (Dibs Ruman)- it is a traditional sour ingredient in Lebanese cuisine. Many families would make Houssrom, as it is known there, during the summer months when the vines are full of unripened grapes that needed to be culled.

Sauces

Spherification is something I’ve played with before here and a technique that produces an aesthetically pleasing product as well as a flavor burst. This recipe has two such preparations. The first is the straight-forward ginger sphere. This is a ginger infused sugar syrup that is blended with Calcium Lactate and frozen in small cubes. It is then dropped into an Alginate water bath to form perfect liquid orbs of sugary ginger encased with a thin  film of itself. I reserved these guys in more of the ginger-sugar liquid in the fridge and they lasted perfectly for several days.

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The second sphere is where the Alinea team take this preparation past the “cool trick” stage and transform it into something unique. Since the spheres are orbs of liquid (think grape) why not make raisins out of them? That’s what they do. So, I got carrot juice and blended in some sugar, a small amount of red Thai curry and Xanthan into it. Then I mixed the Calcium Lactate and froze the mixture in hemisphere ice cubes. After dropping those just like the ginger ones into an Alginate bath they went into a small pan covered with a layer of white sugar. More sugar went on top and the spheres were allowed to cure for an hour. During that time the sugar draws a lot of the moisture out of them and firms them up a bit. Lastly, the cured orbs were dehydrated in a very low oven until shriveled and wrinkly, just like raisins. They were delicious with a spice flavor and sweetness that worked great in this fall dish. Their interior was moist and jam-like.

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A few more items garnish the plate. One is cubes of Fuyu persimmon that are supposed to be marinated in a type of fortified wine called Pineau des Charentes. I had none and did not really want to seek it out. I decided to pick a liqueur that I think would work in the dish. The crumble mixture is supposed to include a small proportion of honey granIules – another item I did not have. So, I decided to include the honey flavor in the marinated fruit. I vaccum marinated the cubed Fuyu in a Foodsaver canister with homemade honey liqueur instead of the Pineau des Charentes. That turned out well and the fruit gave a burst of sweet honey flavor to the plated dish. Another item was glazed baby carrots. These were thin small sweet carrots, peeled and cooked sous vide with a pinch of sugar. The carrots are warmed right before serving.

ComponentsThe dessert was a perfect fall-winter plate of sweetness with perfect textures and amazing flavors. I loved how the ice cream, very subtle and muted on it’s own, worked perfectly as a cool milky canvas for the strong flavors and textures in the composed dish. It really amazes me how the Alinea team pulls off multitudes of dishes like this during service night after night. Hopefully one day I’ll get to snag a table there and try it out for myself.

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Alinea: Pork Cheek, Pumpernickel, Gruyere, Scallions

This dish belongs in the spring section of the Alinea book. With ramps and green garlic as two of its main components (ramps goes where that scallions is in the heading of the original recipe) it really can only be served on their Spring menu. Ramps are wild leeks that look like a cross between a leek and a green onion. Their flavor is mild and oniony with a hint of garlic sort of. They are delicious but I almost never see them in Houston during their 2 or 3 week season in the spring. Well, other than the ramps the dish, to me is just right for the fall/winter. It has a rich succulent protein, onions, pumpernickel, Gruyère and a sticky raisin sauce amped up with Worcestershire sauce. Instead of ramps and green garlic, I used a combination of scallions, baby leeks and spring bulb onions.

I started this dish a month or more before serving it by making the pickled scallions as a stand in for the pickled ramps. I figured they will last for some time and it’s one thing out of the way to do. I put the scallions in a FoodSaver bag and vacuum packed them with a mixture of white wine, white wine vinegar, water, sugar and salt. To give them a pinkish hue like the ramps would have, I added a few small pieces of beets in there as well. that worked very well giving the scallions a nice color to contrast all the brown and beige on the plate.

The sweet and sharp sauce for the dish is based on raisins and Worcestershire sauce. These ingredients get mixed in with sautéed onions, garlic and water. The whole thing simmers for a while and then we make two components from it. First is the “sauce”, a pureed portion of the cooked mixture. Then we also make a “ragout” from the rest of the solids (onions, raisins,…) by separating them from the liquid and then mixing in some of the pureed sauce to make a loose relish of sorts. Right before serving, a few chives get blanched and mixed in to the ragout. This dish, like most of Alinea’s food, is as much about taste as it is about texture. Here we have two components that basically have a very similar taste, but very different textures. It all contributes to the final perfectly balanced plate of food.

Caramelized onion powder is used here to season the food in two forms, plain and as a salt. To make this potent stuff you have to cook onions down for a long time, until deep dark brown. The onion mixture is supposed to be “dry” at this point. Problem is that a good bit of canola oil is used to cook it. Oil does not evaporate and the mixture cannot be “dry” as the recipe instructs. So, I drained the onions on several paper towels to wick as much of the oil away as I can and then spread them on a small tray on parchment paper. That went into the electric convection oven to dehydrate for 3 days until the onions became dry and crispy. I buzzed the onions in my spice grinder to make the powder. It worked well, but the onion still had some oil in them and turned to a dry paste instead.  I reserved some of the powder for service and the rest got mixed with ground caraway and salt to make the caramelized onion salt. This “salt” is fantastic stuff. It is full of deep dark caramelized onion flavor with a hint of caraway. I’ve been using it to season all kinds of stuff since I had a bit leftover after making this dish. It is delicious sprinkled on cream cheese that is spread on a bagel and works great on a steak or a pork chop as a last minute seasoning.

The dish is topped with a mixture of pumpernickel bread shavings and Gruyère cheese. I used a homemade rye loaf for the “pumpernickel” slices. I partially froze the loaf and then cut very thin slices off it. These were then toasted in an oven until dry and very crispy. For the Gruyère, I used a microplane garter to make long thin strands of cheese. These were dried for a whole day on some parchment paper until crisp. Then I mixed the cheese and bread together and seasoned the mixture with salt and pepper.

To prepare and cook the pork cheek I used a whole pig jowl I had and vacuum packed it in a FoodSaver bag with a liquid marinade. The marinade is full of strong flavors, namely Worcestershire sauce, garlic, leeks, onions, lots of caraway and allspice. After the vacuum-packed pork sits in the fridge overnight, I cooked  it sous vide at 82C for about 5 hours. As opposed to the actual cheek (only one per jowl) that Alinea uses I needed to make a couple of plates using one jowl, so after the meat is cooled, I trimmed some of the fat off and divided it into a few portions. These then were dipped in heavy cream and coated with Panko bread crumbs on one side before getting pan-fried in oil and then finished with butter in a hot oven.

Right before serving, I blanched a couple of stalks of spring bulb onions as a stand in for green garlic in salty water. After cooling them in ice water I tossed them in warm beurre monte (water-butter mixture) to warm and flavor them. To plate, a small puddle of raisin sauce goes in the bowl, then the ragout, then the pork cheek is seasoned with the caramelized onion powder and added on top along  with a couple of the blanched green spring onions. The whole thing is pretty much covered with the pumpernickel-gruyere mixture and garnished with the pickled pink-tinted scallions and a few chives. Lastly, some caramelized onion powder goes around the edges of the plate. Oh boy was this good. It’s rich, unctuous and full of spicy caramelized onion and pork flavors. The texture combines crunchy, soft and crispy. The whole thing together, probably because of the caraway, is almost an homage to a good deli sandwich on onion rye!

Alinea: Chocolate, warmed to 94 degrees

From the title of this recipe one would not know what to expect. Is it a hot chcolate drink? Just warmed chocolate? Honestly it sounds a bit boring. Boring, though, this recipe is not! Without waxing with no end about the nuances of this dish I have to say that this dessert from Alinea is AWESOME. It’s so much more than the sum of its parts that at first glance I was not sure how they will work together. It’s a dish that combines braised figs, Bergamot tea (you know, like Earl Grey), a cinnamon flavored ice cream and dried chocolate mousse. The result is delicious, comforting, familiar and exotic at the same time and features amazingly harmonious textures. Oh and I just love how classy and lovely it looks…hence the tons of pictures in this post.

I had seen this recipe years ago, right before the Alinea book was published. This one was one of the few “preview” recipes published by the authors on their Mosaic website. I just never got around to making it for the usual various reasons but mostly because fresh figs have a fairly short season here and when I do find them they are pretty pricy and the fruit is not that great. Recently though I found a bunch for an excellent price at Whole Foods, so I bought some to eat fresh and to make this recipe. The figs are braised in a mixture of wine, ruby port, glucose and sugar until they are soft. The cooking liquid is then reduced to a glaze and stored along with the fruit until plating time. The figs and their liquid delicious on their own. They will work great as a garnish for game meats or on top of vanilla ice cream.

The ice cream is supposed to be “cassia ice cream”. Cassia buds are the tiny flowers of the cassia tree, the same tree that usually produces a very fragrant bark that we use regularly -cinnamon. The buds are supposed to have a cinnamon flavor and aroma but are more flowery, citrusy and intense. At least that’s what I gathered from a couple of online sources. In any case, I could not find them locally and was not going to order them online. So, I used a bunch of cinnamon sticks and some corriander seeds that get toasted and steeped in milk. Like many of Alinea’s ice creams, this one is fairly low in fat and is supposed to be frozen in with a Pacojet not churned in a regular ice cream maker.

Usually I alter these recipes to make them more home-ice-cream-machine friendly like I did with the delicious buckwheat ice cream from another Alinea recipe. This time though I decided to see what would happen if I just made the recipe as is. Well, the resulting ice cream predictably froze much harder than is desirable and had a very light texture (not too icy though) on the tongue. To serve it I had to let it sit on the counter for 5 minutes or so I can make nice quenelle scoops out of it. On it’s own, the ice cream is not great honestly. It’s a bit too light and not creamy enough, but the cinnamon flavor with the accompanying corriander came through very well. When it was time to eat the plated dish though, the ice cream worked perfectly with all the other elements. It’s lightness played very well with intense chewy figs and the dark crunchy chocolate mousse. So, even though the ice cream could not stand on its own, it was perfect as a smaller player in a larger composition.

This was a neat and unique way to serve chocolate mousse. The mousse is that cracker looking piece on top of the ice cream. It’s a dehydrated chocolate mousse. The recipe is pretty standard with dark melted chocolate, egg yolks, whipped egg whites and sugar and it makes for a tasty version of this confection (I saved some and served it in a small ramekin). The rich mousse is spread on a acetate sheet and dehydrated for several hours until it is crispy and can be easily broken into shards. Those shards are addictively delicious all on their own and go great with a glass of milk. It’s a good thing that the (half) recipe of the mousse makes more than enough of the crackers for lots of servings of the dessert, because we snacked on those things like crazy.

For the bergamot tea, I cooked dried mission figs with water, sugar and a little salt. Off heat, I added earl grey tea leaves and let them steep for a few minutes. I strained everything out and then blended in a few grams of Ultratex-3 to finish the sauce. It’s interesting to note tha the Ultratex here does not make the sauce too thick or pudding-like. Instead it gives it just a little body and texture.

Last but not least, the recipe’s namesake is made..or more like “warmed”. One of the reasons people love chocolate so much lies in its melting point. Chocolate, or more accurately, cocoa butter melts at around 94 degrees F. Since our bodies maintain a temperature of 98 degrees F , chocolate just gently melts in our mouths and spreads is bitter sweet complex goodness. So, what Achatz is doing here is using that property to soften the chocolate by warming it just up to its melting point while maintaining its shape. Allen at his Alinea blog, just recently posted about this recipe (with his customary amazing pictures) and went to great lengths to create an environment that maintains about 94F. I did not. All I did was put a few broken quality dark chocolate pieces on the mousse shards. I heated my oven to about 100F, turned it off and left the pilot light on. I slipped the chocolate topped mousse shards in there for about 15-20 minutes by which time the chocolate got perfectly soft but did not run all over the place and maintained its shape. As far as I could tell using an oven thermometer the temperature in there remained around 95-98F.

To serve it, I put three braised fig halves and some of their liquid in the bottom of a bowl. I topped them with a nice quenelle of ice cream and layed a chocolate topped mousse shard on that. I gently poured some warmed bergamot tea/sauce around in the bottom right before serving it (at the restaurant they do this table-side). The dessert is supposed to be garnished with a bergamot flower, a pretty red one. I had none and went to my herb garden to see what I had. I ended up with some basil buds and pretty rosemary flowers. This really was a perfect dessert.

Alinea: BOAR, Shallot, Cider, Burning Oak Leaves

Fall is finally here -more or less I suppose- and changing the way I cook is natural. Even if I can find tomatoes and peppers well into November and December I still prefer to cook more “orange” and “brown” stuff. It makes me and Diana happy to pick up some winter squashes or sweet potatoes and start cooking with them. This dish has neither but it just smells and tastes like fall.

The biggest pain in the neck in this dish was finding a suitable oak twig. It’s supposed to be fall leaves, nice and orange-brown. Well in Houston you can typically only find green or dead brown. So I had to settle for somewhere in between. So I got a few twigs from one of the oaks that line a street close to work, the leaves are half brown half green, but overall not too bad. The recipe is pretty simple, a cube of meat (in the book he uses pheasant), a cube of apple cider gel and a piece of roasted shallot are skewered together on the sharpened oak twig. These are then dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried.

The cider gel is made with granny smith apples, some sugar and apple cider all cooked together with agar and pureed. It’s basically apple sauce until it is poured in a pan and allowed to cool. Then the agar turns it into a firm block. I cut it up into cubes and stored them in the fridge. The shallot confit is just shallots roasted with grape seed oil, salt and pepper. Then the shallots are peeled and cut into rough cubes. Last piece is the meat. I do not currently have pheasant, but I do have some wild boar still. So, I used a small loin. I cooked it sous vide bagged with butter and thyme. This was also cut up into cubes until serving time.

For the batter I deviated from the recipe and used the procedure from Modernist Cuisine. It’s the same process I used before to make Heston Blumenthal’s extra crispy fish and chips. The Blumenthal batter is a mixture of rice flour, all-purpose flour and vodka. You put that in an iSi whipping siphon and charge it with CO2. Right before using it to coat the meat, you dispense some batter into a small bowl and dip the meat in it. The batter will have so much air bubbles that it makes for an extra crispy-crunchy product. It’s important to point out here that frying the boar-cider-shallot skewer without dropping the whole twig in the hot oil is also tricky. I basically could only fry two at a time since I had to hold the oak twigs while the stuff on its tip fried. I wrapped the leaf end with aluminum foil to make them easier to handle while frying and to catch the splatter and this batter sure does splatter!

Last challenge in this “simple” recipe was plating. At Alinea they use a piece called the “octopus” to plate items like this one that has no base and need to stand upright. You can see it here in Allen’s Alinea book blog (he’s very dedicated and it sure shows). I was not going to buy or make anything like that. So, I made a thick sauce for the food thinking it will help it stay upright. It was a mixture of pickled mustard seeds, mayonnaise, mustard and maple vinegar. The sauce with the crunchy bite of food worked very well, but I cannot say that it made the plating that much easier.

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.

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.