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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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.