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.

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The Fat Duck: Beef Royal (1723), Course 3

In addition to working on making a proper one-spoon quenelle (or rocher), I really need to work on applying a proper sauce “drag”. The elongated teardrop shape on a plate looks simple, but it is tricky. More practice is needed to apply that properly. On to this dish. I really liked the short rib preparation from course #2, but I absolutely loved this one. It is one of the best steaks I have ever cooked. I am sure that is partially due to the dry aged rib eye steaks I bought from Pete’s Fine Meats, but also the preparation was spot on delicious.

In the continuation to Blumenthal’s take on the Beef Royal dish, he prepares a steak coated with a crust made from a combination of beef crackers, panko bread crumbs, crispy short rib strands and herbs. Then he serves it with a mushroom ketchup, onion sauce, reduced beef sauce, mushrooms and fried crispy bone marrow. The combination is classic and brilliantly interpreted.

The most time-consuming part of this whole process is making the coating for the beef, the Chef calls it “Beef Shreds”. First, I made a beef cracker using Tapioca starch. The idea for these crackers is to mix a flavorful base (in this case, ground beef, seasoning and beef sauce base from the original preparation) with Tapioca starch to make a dough. The dough is then steamed till cooked and cooled. Then it is sliced and dried for a couple of hours. The last step is to fry it.

Below are pictures of the beef cracker dough…mmmm…

Dried crackers…

 …and Fried crackers. These are crispy, spicy and tasty. I wish I saved some before pulverizing them.

The end result is not unlike pork cracklings or chicharones. This can be done with cheese instead of beef, click here for a version from the  Alinea cookbook prepared by Martin at Alineaphile. It can also be done with vegetables to get vegetable puffs or crackers, click here to see what Dave at EatFoo prepared with it.

The next step in preparing the shards is to crisp up pieces from the short ribs from course #2 (I still had one in the freezer saved for this recipe) and to shred it finely. That is mixed with toasted panko bread crumbs, the beef crackers from above and finely minced herbs.

For the mushroom ketchup, I used my food processor to finely mince brown mushrooms with salt. These were then allowed to drain through a cheese cloth over night. I got way more liquid than I expected. The mushrooms are squeezed to extract all the liquid and tossed away. The mushroom juice is heated briefly and set to a fluid gel with Gellan F. It is seasoned with vinegar, sugar and salt. The onion sauce is also a fluid gel made with a mixture of sautéed onions, milk, cream, thyme and then strained. The resulting sauce is set with Gellan F to get a wonderful smooth puree. This onion sauce was excellent, I ate the rest of it with a spoon after plating the dish.

To prepare the marrow from the bones I first brined the bones for 24 hours then soaked them in fresh water for 30 minutes. The marrow slid right out. I cut those into small cubes, coated them with egg wash and then dredged in a mixture of untoasted panko bread crumbs and beef cracker crumbles. I held these in the fridge for a few hours until ready to fry. Right before service they were fried for a few seconds. Marrow is a lovely and luxurious product. Some love it, some hate it. I love it in small doses. It is mostly fat and is best served in small quantities. The taste is basically like beef-flavored butter. Crispy and fried, these nuggets are a tasty snack, but I had to stop after four or five. With the dish though, the fried marrow worked very well.

The mushrooms were just sautéed in a little grapeseed oil and then tossed with some of the mushroom ketchup. I still have a good bit of that ketchup and I wonder how long it lasts. It’s savory and tart, sort of like a refined and subtle barbeque sauce.

The star of the dish is the beef. The specific cut Blumenthal uses is the Spinalis Dorsi. That is the rib eye cap, a very tender, very well marbled piece of superb beef. It combined the tenderness of a filet mignon with the full flavor and richness of a rib eye. To get a whole one, you will need to buy a big piece of prime rib, preferably from the center (ribs 2 to 7) and remove the cap on your own. That is damn expensive and, unless you are cooking for a crowd, a bit more than you need. What I did is remove the Spinalis Dorsi portion of the steaks I bought after cooking and trimmed them as needed. I also used a square piece of the eye of the rib to make a more substantial meal. The rest was sliced and went into tacos for the kids.

Below is a picture of the two steaks with the Spinalis portion outlined in red

I prepared the steaks by salting them well about 18 hours ahead of time and then rinsing and drying them. I cooked them en sous vide at 132 F for about 2 hours. In the book, Blumenthal does not sear the steaks after cooking, but I did, in a very hot cast iron pan for about 40 seconds per side to develop more flavor. After trimming the Spinalis and a good size cube of the beef, I coated them with reduced beef sauce base and covered the surface with the beef shreds mixture. More beef sauce was drizzled on the steaks in the plate after they were served with the onion sauce, mushroom ketchup, mushrooms and fried bone marrow.

The Fat Duck: Beef Royal (1723), Course 2

Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck restaurant outside of London is one of the most creative and sometimes really “out there” chefs today. He explores cuisine from every perspective and sense. Taste is paramount, but it’s not just about taste, it’s about an experience. Every sense is explored, he of course controls the look of the dish as well as the taste and smell. He goes a few steps past that and spends time studying how the brain works and how one might perceive a dish. How would a diner react to two jellies, one red and one orange/yellow, when told these are beet and orange jellies? Of course the diner immediately assumes that the red is the beet and the yellow is the orange. So, he will be momentarily confused when tasting orange when expecting beets! The Fat Duck book is a fascinating read -if you are interested in this sort of thing- and gives us a clear path into the mind of Blumenthal and how The Fat Duck came to be a Michelin 3-star restaurant. Every recipe has a thorough introduction delving into it’s science, inspiration and what the chef attempted to get out of it. Most recipes are very involved and require special ingredients but I intend to try more as time permits. Just like the Alinea book or The French Laundry, cooking from The Fat Duck is a learning experience. How about cooking every recipe from the book? Well it’s nuts, but someone is trying to do it in this excellent blog from the Netherlands. Good luck to him.

Certainly there are more “creative” recipes than what I chose to make first, after all this is a traditional beef in red wine sauce recipe. What really caught my attention with this recipe first was the picture. It looks stunning (like all the pictures in the book) and certainly better than the ones I took. More than the picture was the story behind the dish. Blumenthal is fascinated by old British recipes and he attempts to formulate many such recipes to fit in on the Fat Duck menu. This dish is based on a  recipe published on 1723 and a version of it was served at the coronation of James II. Blumenthal made a three course dish of Beef Royal, the first involved fried sweetbreads and oysters, the third consists of a piece of steak with marrow and mushrooms. For this post I made the second “course”, a short rib with red wine sauce, cipollini onions and turnips. The sauce is made specials with the inclusion f diced ox tongue, anchovies and gherkins.

First thing I did was the ox tongue. It is brined in a spicy salt brine and then cooked sous vide for 48 hours. I then peeled it and reserved it in the freezer till service time. The sauce was next. It’s labeled as “Beef Sauce Base” in the recipe and it’s made from roasted ox tail, beef bones and stew meet. These are all browned and cooked gently in red wine and water. The end result is a rich and beefy sauce.

For the short ribs, I let them cure in salt for a few hours. Then the ribs are seared until nicely browned. To cook them, I vacuum packed them and cooked them sous vide at 133F for 72 hours. The long cooking time makes the tough short rib meat as tender as a rib eye steak, while at the same time cooking them rare. These are not typical pot roast-like and falling apart short ribs. They need to be eaten with a knife and fork, again like a well-marbled  steak. Once out of the vacuum bags, the bone is removed and cleaned from any gristle or scum. At service time, two pieces of rib are plated with a bone in between them. Kinda Flintstonian.

Two vegetables accompany this dish. Cipollini onions confited in olive oil sous vide. These took significantly more than the 10 minutes recommended. They cooked in more like 45 minutes at 195 F, which is more like what I would expect. The other are turnips poached and cooked in a butter and water emulsion (beurre monte) until tender.

The sauce is reduced to a nice glaze and garnished with gherkins, chopped anchovies, dice of ox tongue, chopped tarragon, chives and parsley. The dish is fantastic and decadent. It is deliciously beefy, refined and old-fashioned. Both the brine and the red wine sauce had start anise which at first got me a bit worried. I did  not want to have a strong licorice flavor in there. Blumenthal likes to use it in many meat dishes because it somehow enhances the meat flavor and, when used judiciously, does not mask the flavor of the meat. I am glad I followed his advise.