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!

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King Trumpet, Miso, Fried Tofu

I was picking up some ingredients for another dinner of Ramen the other day and stumbled on these awesome looking King Trumpet mushrooms. They looked fresh and plump, so I picked a few clusters up. The first thing that came to mind is to treat them as if they were the more prestigious Porcini or Matsutake mushrooms. When cooked like this these trumpets so resemble the texture of scallops and have an earthy mild flavor. I sliced each mushroom in half and slashed it in a corss-hatch pattern. These were then marinated in Ponzu sauce while I prepared the rest of the dish. Right before serving, I pan fried them in garlic flavored oil and re-seasoned with Ponzu.

The miso sauce was pretty simple. It consisted of soy milk, dashi (prepared following Cooking Issues method: 10g/L Kombu/water, circulated for 1 hr at 65C) white miso, pickled ginger and was set with a little Gellan F to give a good texture. It was very tasty and I could see a soup made from those ingredients and maybe garnished with mushrooms. I had seen in the Alinea cookbook a technique that makes a “sheet sauce”. Basically a sauce is gelled with gelatin or gellan and frozen. It is then cut into rectangles (or any other shape as appropriate) and then it is placed on top of the food at service. The sauce then comes to room temperature and coats the food item in an even layer. The effect is both functional (an even layer of sauce) and aesthetically beautiful. Here is a post of this technique by one of the chefs at Alinea on the Alinea-Mosaic site. You can also see a couple of examples on Alineaphile’s blog here and here. I wanted to give this technique a shot with this dish, but did not want to risk it completely not working. So I divided the sauce up into two. One got the freezing on acetate treatment and the other sat in a bowl in the fridge. I’m glad I did that. The sheet sauce kind of worked but it is not nearly as successful as I had hoped. I think it needed to be thicker to work better.

For the tofu, I made my own bean curd and cut it into cubes. I seasoned them with chinese 10-spice powder and breaded them (egg wash, flour, crumbs) with Panko bread crumbs before frying them till nice and crispy. I wanted to add some color to the dish and that’s where the orange sweet potato balls came in. I cooked them Sous Vide with a few tablespoons of pickled ginger juice. They tasted fantastic and looked really nice on the plate.

The rice is regular sushi rice seasoned with rice wine vinegar and sugar. Cooking it in more dashi as opposed to water gave it a deep and rich flavor. To make it into a cylinder I  extruded it through an oiled cannoli mold. The garnishes were soy bean sprouts (much more falvorful, substantial and have a better texture than mung bean sprouts I think) that were seasoned with rice wine vinegar and a touch of salt. The purple leaves are some sort of basil I think. They have a good sharp mint/basil flavor. I picked them up at the Asian grocery store as well and they had no label, but worked well in the dish and added a good color.

Here are a couple of shots of the dish plated with the “sheet sauce”. Notice how it kind of breaks a bit as opposed to staying intact and enveloping everything. I think a touch more gelling agent and making the sheet a bit thicker will help a lot. Overall this dish was fantastic, a really refined, delicious and wonderful looking vegetarian main course.