The Alinea Project

theAlineaProject

Not really sure how this is going to go, but…let’s learn about creating a book.

A thought that occurred to me early in this project was “Man, I sure am taking a lot of photos for this. Maybe someday, if I ever finish it, I can pick my favorites and make a book out of them.”

I love printed photography. There’s something about seeing a nice, big print of an image that I find really satisfying. I’ve printed large copies of several photos from the project over the years, hanging them around our apartment or in my office. It’s fascinating for me to see the tiny bites of Alinea’s dishes in a large format; there’s so much room to scrutinize all the little details that get lost in the small images included on this blog.

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Sarah and I have had a handful of photo books printed for ourselves over the years. The first one I did was a small collection of pictures of my niece taken just after she was born. The book was very simple, containing full-bleed photos on each page with a tiny bit of text scattered throughout.

Shortly after this, Sarah undertook a fairly massive project wherein she rescued a large box of decaying photo albums from her family’s garage in Kentucky. She scanned and painstakingly-retouched every photo, then designed a new set of hardcover books to archive everything.

In both of these cases, we used an online printing service called Blurb to manufacture the books. Blurb is one of a handful of “print on demand” services (Apple’s iPhoto offers a similar service, and there are others). The phrase “print on demand” (POD) refers to the technology used to manufacture the book; it centers around a large printing machine that can print and bind a book all in one go. The upside of POD is that there are minimal setup costs; one can simply submit a digital copy of a book and produce an arbitrarily-small number of hard copies (in both cases above, we printed less than 10 copies of each book). Blurb, Apple and others offer templates to make the digital assembly of the book easy and straightforward.

Drawbacks to services like this include limited flexibility and, in some cases, inferior product quality. Blurb, for example, offers book printing in one of a handful of pre-set sizes; if I want to deviate from one of these options, I’m out of luck. Binding options are limited as well; while Blurb offers the option of soft- or hard-bound covers and the potential inclusion of a dust jacket, fancier techniques like foil stamping, spot-varnishing, or embossing aren’t available. Regarding quality: while Sarah and I were reasonably happy with the quality of the Nola books, the Wilson albums–which were quite a bit thicker and heavier–suffered from poor-quality binding. We found too that, although the print quality of the books’ contents was adequate, it wasn’t particularly awesome. There’s no real way to proof colors or finesse things; you get what you get and that’s about all you can control.

Late last year, as I realized I was closing in on actually finishing this project, I started to think again about collecting my photos into a book. I found Blurb’s limited options less than exciting, and wondered what might be involved in making something a little more special. I’ve invested so much time in all of this that I thought it’d be cool to make something befitting the overall vibe I’ve tried to capture with this project. In casting about for ideas, one obvious resource I thought to consult was my collection of cookbooks.

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It’s probably unsurprising that I’ve amassed a sizable collection of cookbooks over the past five years; a good number of them tend to be awesome beyond just the recipes they present. In thinking about what I wanted my book to be, I started looking through my favorite cookbooks, trying to figure out what about each of them was so compelling to me.

For starters, I love big, fat cookbooks; ones with a solid heft when I pull them down from the shelf. I love pages printed on heavy paper, thick and not too glossy, with crisp blacks and deeply-saturated images. Some of my favorite books employ interesting design elements or printing techniques, or even different types of paper within the book.

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I also love books that have a very tactile quality, both inside and out. This, I think, is poetically-appropriate: food is multi-sensual, so it makes sense that the most awesome cookbooks seek to be this way as well. I particularly love covers with interesting embossing and debossing, or a fine-grain texture that feels fun to touch. I can’t take out some of my favorite books without absentmindedly running my hand over the covers, feeling the textural qualities of each. For this reason, I find that I dislike paper dust jackets; they rarely have interesting textural features and seem to always rip or crease. In fact, the first thing I typically do if a book is wrapped in one is remove and discard it.

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Blurb and other POD services offer nothing like any of this. I wondered what it would take to create a high-end book, printed to my size specifications at a very high level of quality, and with an interesting, durable, and tactile cover. I consulted the back pages of some of my cookbooks for information about where they’re made; most listed author and publisher information, but those were my only clues.

I supposed printing was usually something handled by a publisher. Having a book made through a big publisher seemed like a daunting proposition though; I didn’t even really know where to begin, plus I wasn’t sure it was the route I wanted to go. Mostly I was just interested in making something for myself; trying to court a publisher for the sake of printing a single book seemed like a really heavy hammer.

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Then I remembered something interesting: Modernist Cuisine was self-published by Nathan Myhrvold and his team. They hadn’t gone through a large publishing conglomerate, they’d just done it all themselves. This was appealing to me for obvious reasons. I grabbed a volume from Modernist Cuisine, flipping to the back pages of it. Sure enough, there in the colophon was listed the name of a printing house in Seattle that had handled the manufacturing of the MC books.

I emailed the company, describing what I was interested in doing and asking if they could office any advice. A day later, a man named Gary responded, asking me to elaborate. “I’ve got a bunch of photos that I want to make a book of,” I explained, “but I want to be picky about the print quality and cover treatment.”

“You’ve come to the right place,” he wrote back. “Blurb is sort of like the McDonald’s of book printing. We’re more like fine dining.”

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Gary explained that most cookbooks that had been printed in any sizable amount had most likely been made using “offset printing”, a technique by which an image is transferred first to a printing plate, then pressed onto a sheet of paper. The process yields not only a higher-quality final image than that of POD printing, but also very high consistency for multiple prints.

The downside with offset printing is that there is considerably more setup involved; printing plates need to be created, and maximizing print quality potentially involves extensive proofing tests. While the per-book cost of offset printing is much lower than that of POD printing, the prepress costs tend to make the process only economically-viable for larger-scale print runs.To get the kind of quality I was after, then, I would need to do a run of several hundred books.

Gary noted that were I to go the offset route, the sky was the limit as far as cover treatments go. “I’ve covered books in paper, cloth, leather, even astroturf. If you can think it up,” he assured me, “we can probably do it.”

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As I had been exploring all this, I’d been sharing what I’d learned with Sarah. “I think if you’re gonna go this route,” she reflected one night, “just making a photo book isn’t really enough of an idea. I think this book might deserve some words to go in it too.”

“Yeah, but copy-pasting my blog into a book seems sorta like cheating or something,” I mused. “Plus, I think it’s way too long; it’s like five years’ worth of text.”

“Sure, I didn’t mean to do that though,” she pressed. “There are a lot of stories or thoughts you’ve had over the course of doing this that you’ve never put on the blog. Maybe this is the right place for those. Or it could just be the story of this whole adventure, what it’s meant to you, how you’ve changed…”

I nodded, pondering this idea.

“Plus,” she added, “I can help you design it. We can make it look really nice.”

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I mulled the idea over in my head for several weeks, unsure of how deeply I wanted to get involved with it. Making a really deluxe photo book was an idea that strongly appealed to me, but I wasn’t sure about the writing end of things. After some vacillation, I decided the only way I could find out whether I wanted to do this or not was to just try doing it. So one afternoon, curious what (if anything) would spill out of my head, I sat down at my laptop, opened up a blank document, and started writing.

Five months later, I stopped.

Sarah was right; in rereading back through this entire blog, there were a good many stories, discoveries, and thoughts I’d never saw fit to include. It was also interesting to be able to connect dots with the benefit of hindsight that I wasn’t able to connect in the moment; even in writing I found myself learning more than I thought I already knew.

As I completed sections of writing, I handed them off to Sarah, who played with typesetting them alongside photos we were choosing from the project. We also spent time learning about assembling the book, poring through paper options and printing techniques to try to identify what would be maximally awesome for this. Together, we’ve been coming up with something I’m really excited about.

Taking a step back to survey the result, I realized it might be worth asking myself a rather terrifying question: could there be anyone else who would like a copy of such a book?

To try to answer this, I’ve decided to try using Kickstarter. The idea with Kickstarter is that a person like myself can posit an idea and state how much it will cost them to realize it. Others can volunteer to chip in; often to be offered a “reward” for their donation (usually a product generated by the Kickstarter campaign). In my case, I’m interested in seeing if there’s enough interest in this book to be able to do a print run of it. 

It’s probably no surprise that the process of doing this is just as fascinating to me as any other aspect of this blog. For those who’d like to participate, I plan to share the process as it unfolds via the Kickstarter campaign. Would you like to come along for the ride?

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Icefish, Horseradish, Asparagus, Shellfish

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So here we are, five years to the day from when this project was born. Everyone ready?

Let’s begin.

“Icefish” are a family of fish found primarily in freshwater areas of Southeast Asia. Sometimes also referred to as “glassfish” or “noodlefish”, icefish are small, with translucent bodies. They are believed to be “neotenic”. meaning some characteristics of baby icefish are retained through adulthood. Among the most interesting of these are lack of development of scales or bones–adult icefish have no exterior scales and are completely cartilaginous. This is interesting to us because it means if we drop a fresh icefish into hot oil, it puffs…sort of like a tiny fishy pork rind. 

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It’s perhaps unsurprising for me to suggest that icefish are not straightforward to find in markets, especially if one wants to find them fresh. I checked a few Asian markets around the East Bay and in the city, but the closest I could find was a box of small, ambiguously-labeled whitefish in the freezer section of a 99 Ranch. Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley hadn’t heard of icefish, and when I pressed them to check their purveyor in Japan to see if they could import some, they reported back that they couldn’t.

Undeterred, I emailed good old reliable Carl at True World Foods. Carl has proven extremely helpful in the past in my search for Ayu, Sea Grapes, and Tosaka, so I figured he’d be able to track down icefish easily enough. After a few days, he responded “Sure, no problem, this product is called ‘shirasu’ in Japan. We can get this for you.”

This sounded great, except for one thing: I knew Carl was wrong.

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I learned about shirasu quite inadvertently when trying to track down Tatami Iwashi last year: shirasu translates to “whitebait”, a collective term referring to the fry (babies) of a number of small fish. While icefish can technically be considered whitebait, I knew the term offered by Carl was a generic one, and that in practice Japanese shirasu are typically anchovies or sardines. I had a gnawing feeling icefish were something different.

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I reasoned that there was likely a Japanese term for icefish, and that figuring it out might help Carl and I track down the correct ingredient. To do this, I turned to Google Translate to convert the English word “icefish” into Japanese characters.

 

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When I copied the above characters back to a Google search page, I was presented with heaps of results, all in Japanese. I switched over to Google’s Image search, thinking that if I’d properly-translated the phrase, I’d see photos of icefish resembling those in the Alinea cookbook itself. Instead, I found photos of much larger fish that are also known as “icefish” but that thrive mostly on the ocean floor in Antarctica. Not what I wanted.

I went back to Google Translate, and noticed that when I hovered over the Japanese characters, I was offered the option to see other translations of “icefish”.

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Copy-pasting this other translation into Google Image Search turned up hundreds of photos of exactly what I was looking for; tiny, ghost-like fish native to Japan. Curious about this discrepancy, I did a little bit of research into the Japanese language. The difference, I found, is due to the multiple scripts that comprise the Japanese writing system. In the first case, I was looking at katakana characters; these characters are used, among other things, for transliteration of foreign words and phrases. So, the first translation result had been for the Japanese translation of the English word “icefish”.

In the second translation, Google Translate had offered kanji characters; these characters are typically used to write native Japanese words or phrases. In the case of this recipe, “icefish” is actually the English translation of the Japanese phrase “白魚”.

Google Translate also offered the rōmaji form of the phrase; rōmaji refers to the application of Latin script to the Japanese language. When you order “hamachi” or “shiro maguro” in a sushi restaurant, you’re invoking the rōmaji forms of the Japanese names of these fish. Likewise, “shirasu” is the rōmaji form of the Japanese phrase for “whitebait”.

We can see above, then, that Google Translate is suggesting the rōmaji form of the Japanese term for “icefish” is shirauo. To confirm I’d found the right phrase, I did one last Google search for shirauo; the results are predominantly in English, and invariably describe this small fish I was in search of.

I wrote Carl back, confident in my assertion that I didn’t need to place an order for shirasu, but instead needed a few containers of shirauo. His response came a day later: “We can’t source this. Just use shirasu, it will taste the same.”

I was crestfallen at Carl’s dismissal and unwillingness to help, especially given the effort I’d put into understanding exactly what ingredient I needed. Unsure how to proceed, I took to Twitter, asking Alinea if they had advice for where I could source shirauo. There was no response offered.

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I sat frustrated for a day or two, then had an idea. Chef David Barzelay has been an encouraging and insightful friend for a sizable duration of this project, offering comments and emailing me about various things for years. At one point a while back, he generously mentioned that if I ever needed help sourcing an odd ingredient to let him know, as his own Lazy Bear project frequently puts him in the path of many interesting products. Because I’m stubborn and am also loathe to be an imposition, I had never taken him up on this offer. But, confronted with the prospect of substituting the main ingredient in this final dish, I decided to phone a friend.

His response was swift and awesome. “Try calling Glenn down at International Marine Products south of the city; he’s great and he cares a lot about good product.” He forwarded me an email address and a phone number, and I immediately sent a note to his contact.

Sure enough, Glenn responded within a few hours: “Yes, I can get shirauo; we can bring it in from Tsukiji Market fresh for you. Pick up dates are Tuesdays and Fridays; would you like to place an order?”

You bet your ass I would, Glenn. Also, I could kiss you, Glenn.

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I drove down early the next Friday morning to International Marine Products, where I met Glenn and his coworker Mangki, who had imported two small packages of fresh icefish for me the night before. IMP sits south of San Francisco, right near the San Francisco International Airport. It’s little more than a garage brimming with fresh seafood; Glenn explained that IMP has a sister office in Tokyo, and that they specialize in importing rare or hard-to-find seafood for high-end restaurants in the area. “Whatever you need, let me know and we can get it for you,” Glenn assured warmly. Would that I had found Glenn and Mangki years ago, but I’m still thankful for the connection from Chef Barzelay, and look forward to excuses to work with them again.

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Icefish in hand, I turned to the rest of the ingredients for the dish. The recipe calls for a multitude of shellfish: littleneck clams, mussels, razor clams, and whelks. The littlenecks and mussels are fairly common in the Bay Area, and whelks (a type of sea snail) can be found with some effort at Asian markets. Razor clams prove to be a confusing product, largely because there are several clams that are often referred to by this name. Pacific razors are a seasonal product in the Bay Area, and are somewhat larger than the longer, thinner razor clam found on the east coast of the U.S. The cookbook does not specify which clam it uses. Lack of availability of Pacific razors at the time I was able to source icefish–coupled with my suspicion that Alinea probably sources Atlantic razors–led me to seek help once again from Browne Trading. I had placed an overnight order for several pounds of Atlantic razors, due to arrive the same day as my icefish. After picking up the icefish and razors, I also darted around to several markets, both in the city and the East Bay, collecting mussels, clams, whelks, and the rest of the produce I’d need to complete the dish.

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On arriving home, the first thing I worked on was dehydrating various produce. Among these were fresh horseradish root, onions, cornichons and elephant garlic cloves. Each of these was very thinly-sliced or -slivered, then dehydrated for several hours until they were brittle, light and papery.

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As this first round of produce was drying, I worked on a second batch of items, starting with some capers. I rinsed these a few times, then dropped them into hot oil until they were puffed and crispy. These went onto a shelf in my dehydrator that I’d lined with paper towels; I swapped the towels out every so often until the capers were dry and completely fat-free. 20140131_alinea_0004

I gave the same treatment to some fresh parsley leaves, separating them from their stems and quickly frying them until they puffed, then draining/dehydrating them for several hours on paper towels until they were crisp and beautifully emerald-green.

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I also cut some small Yukon Gold potatoes into small egg-shaped ovals, then sliced these into thin chips. I clarified about 2 lbs.of unsalted butter (which yielded about 1 lb. of clarified butter oil), then fried the chips gently in the butter oil until they were very crisp. These were salted, then laid out on a paper towel and dehydrated until shatteringly-crisp. These are by far the most delicious potato chips I’ve ever eaten; the fry in butter gives them a rich, creamy flavor reminiscent of Ritz crackers, which goes delightfully with the light dusting of salt I sprinkled on them. They’re pretty amazing.

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While all of this was dehydrating, I pulled some meyer lemons from the freezer that I’d quartered and packed in a mixture of salt and sugar a few months ago. I carefully removed just the outer peel from these, then trimmed the peels into tidy small squares.

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Next, I worked on preparing some asparagus in a few different ways. I cut some of the most perfect tips from a bunch, blanching them quickly in salted water and reserving them in a small container. I next picked a few nice-looking stalks and blanched these as well, then carefully trimmed them into thin strips.

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The leftover stalks and remaining asparagus were blanched together in a third batch, then blended with some Xanthan to yield Asparagus Coulis.

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The final steps involved working with the shellfish. I started by cooking each type of shellfish in a common broth of water, fennel, shallot, and other herbs and aromatics. Once the shells had opened, I removed the meats and trimmed them according to inscrutable Alinea specifications (I’ll conclude this project without knowing if I’ve ever actually done this right; there are no explanatory photos and the instructions are pretty brief), reserving them each on a pad of ice in the fridge.

The remaining shellfish broth was then cooked with cream and an alarming number of thickeners and hydrocolloids. I think I might have used some of almost everything I had; egg yolks, xanthan, ultra-tex 3, agar–the whole gang came to this party. The resulting cream was very thick, without being pasty, sticky, gooey, or snotty though. And it tasted richly of the sea.

I was perplexed at the recipe’s insistence on controlling water with such tenacity until I started plating the dish: nearly every ingredient is presented vertically here, a feat accomplished by a long, fat bead of shellfish custard piped along the diagonal of the plate. This bead serves as a sort of culinary cement, offering a thick footing to all of the light, crisp dehydrated components, as well as the puffed icefish themselves. This is vital, as placing the components is a bit like setting up dominos: if one item tips off balance it can bring down several inches’ worth of other plated ingredients (a lesson I learned the hard way multiple times). All told, I ended up plating this dish about a half-dozen times over two days, taking photos of each as fast as I could before moisture seeped into the bases of the dry ingredients and they began to flop over.

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Of course, I didn’t mind this, because it meant getting to taste every dish, the overall experience of which I would call “interesting” though not necessarily “the pinnacle of awesomeness.” A large spoonful of bits of everything tastes just like a lot of stuff; sort of oceany, sort of herby, sort of asparagusy. The shellfish meats are all cold (having been sitting on ice before service), as well as the asparagus and horseradish cream; the dried ingredients are all room temperature. This, I think, leads to a bit of an odd way to deliver these flavors, which I imagine might taste more rich if served warm. But there’s nothing in the recipe about this, so I find the final experience a little lackluster, despite the dish being unarguably quite visually beautiful.

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And that, my friends…is that.

Actually, wait. There is one more small thing…

 

 

Chestnut, Too Many Garnishes To List

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A mound of warm, bay-scented chestnut puree sits in a pool of buttery parsnip sauce. Nearby is a pile of crispy celery root chips and bacon powder. This pile is garnished with a small lump of brown sugar crusted in chocolate, bay leaf bubbles, and a dollop of nutmeg mousse. Also floating in the parsnip sauce is a cube of marsala gel, egg yolk cooked with long pepper, and a brussels sprout leaf filled with warm black truffle puree. The chestnut is garnished with a crunchy burnt onion ‘matchstick’.

This dish is natively an Autumn one, but I wanted to wait until winter for one of the ingredients to come into season.

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Over the course of this project, I’ve worked with truffles multiple times. My first exposure to them was in Hot Potato, Cold Potato; I was trying to find truffles in Wellington, New Zealand, and knew zero about them. Because I didn’t know any better, I bought a small, dusty preserved truffle (I mistakenly referred to it as “pickled”, even). It sort of tasted like nothing by itself, but because it was swimming in a soup made of heaps of truffle juice, I didn’t really think much of it. A few years later, for the Chicken Skin dish, I knew enough to suspect that Alinea meant fresh truffles, but was a little perplexed by the experience of buying one. Several months ago, I made a truffle puree using pre-frozen summer truffles for the Wild Bass dish and was disappointed with how forgettable the flavor was. Because I’m down to the next-to-last dish for this project, I wanted to go all in and work with fresh, Perigord black truffles.

Perigords are in season starting around December. They’re coming into peak availability right now, and easily overlap with the season for chestnuts. The puree in this recipe yields a massive amount, so to try to trim down on what I knew would be a pretty steep cost, I halved it. I woke up early Saturday morning and took the BART over to the SF Ferry Building to visit Far West Fungi. There I found a handful of small and a couple massive black truffles, one of which fit the bill for the weight I needed (1/4lb for half a recipe of truffle puree).  The perfume of this truffle was immediately punchier and more intense than that of the summer truffles I’d worked with before (and as for the preserved truffle, it is definitely — as the shop keeper from whom I bought it attested — a shadow of its former self). It was firm and rich with an earthy smell Sarah likes to call “footy”.

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I brought it home and simmered it with some black trumpet mushrooms, potato and black truffle juice until the liquid reduced and thickened, then pureed it in my blender with some truffle oil, salt, and a dash of sherry vinegar. The smell filling the kitchen was dense and intoxicating, and I was excited tasted it.

So?

I mean, it’s delicious, delicious, but I say this with a weighty shrug.  To me, the flavor of black truffle tastes nostalgic, familiar. Let me be quick to point out that I never ate truffles of any form growing up in rural Kentucky, so there are no memories locked deep in my psyche that are tickled by the taste of truffle. But every time I taste it, I just think “of course“. Of course, this is what food should taste like. This is the taste of really perfect, ideal food. Maybe this is the allure of the almighty Black Diamond? Maybe its nearly-universal appeal is that it tastes so “right”? It strikes me as a fundamental flavor, and should be as ubiquitous as butter or cream. It’s not flashier than either of these; finger limes, rhubarb, tonka bean, shiso…these are all way more interesting flavors, peculiar and memorable. Black truffle just tastes so integral.

Having said that, I get it now. Perigord black truffles offer a fullness, a wholeness that — despite seeming so fundamental — is ultimately irreplaceable. I’m glad I’ve had this arc with this ingredient.

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To make the chestnut puree, I first punctured some chestnuts with the tip of a knife, then roasted these in an oven for 30 minutes at 400F to make them easier to peel. Failure to puncture the skins results in exploding chestnuts in your oven. I simmered the nuts and some bay leaves in cream until they were tender, then pureed the mixture to yield a smooth cream.

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To make celery root chips, I peeled and thinly-sliced a whole celery root, then dusted the slices in cornstarch and fried them quickly in oil. These were seasoned with salt & pepper and crushed lightly.

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The parsnip sauce started with several parsnips that I juiced, then reduced into a concentrated liquid. This was mixed with cream and emulsified with butter, then held warm in a water bath until I was ready to plate stuff.

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The bacon powder is made by freezing some bacon, then microplaning it onto some parchment and dehydrating it until crisp. One of the many things I look forward to playing with once I’ve completed this project is curing my own meats. I took a baby step into this for this recipe by making my own bacon, which is one of the easiest cured meat products to make. I bought a 3lb pork belly from Marin Sun Farms, then vacuum-sealed this with a cure of kosher and pink salts and brown sugar. The meat was left to cure for a week, then hung in cheesecloth in my fridge for another week. Many recipes include liquid smoke in the cure, which I eschewed in favor of smoking the meat directly with our smoker. The meat is cooked to an internal temperature of 150F, at which point you can slice it and fry it up or freeze it. I did both; the bacon is lovely, salty and meaty, and the smoke flavor is rich and much more complex than store bought bacon. The frozen section was grated and dehydrated until it was light and powdery.

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The smoky bacon was nicely-complimented by the charred onion sticks, made by candying strips of onion briefly, then dehydrating them until crisp and sweet. I charred the tips with a brulee torch just before plating.

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Nutmeg mousse began as creme fraiche. I whisked in some salt and freshly-grated nutmeg, then continued whisking until it became stiff, like whipped cream. This is neat; I didn’t realize this could be done with creme fraiche but it makes sense. The mousse is tangy and nutmeg-y, and can be scooped like soft ice cream.

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The egg yolk shape was made by whisking some egg yolks, cream, and crushed long pepper together, then putting these in a vacuum bag and rolling it into a cylinder. I cooked the egg cylinders at 180F until they were firm, then sliced them into small half-discs. They have a firm, tofu-like character and a nice flavor. Were I to do them again, I might try cooking them at a lower temperature to see what happens; as it was, the texture was a little firm for me (sort of like halloumi or something).

The recipe includes chunks of brown sugar cubes dipped in chocolate, which are easy enough to make. I wanted to play with a different idea: I melted an equal mixture of chocolate and cocoa butter, loaded it into my cream whipper, then squirted it into a vacuum canister. I pulled a vacuum on the container, which causes the microbubbles in the mixture (contributed by the cream whipper) to expand greatly. The cylinder is then refrigerated to set the aerated chocolate, and the vacuum is released. The result was a delicate, lovely chocolate lattice that collapses quickly on the tongue. Sort of like a crystallized chocolate foam. It’s super-rad, but was too delicate to hold up to the warm ingredients in the rest of this dish…it melted immediately.

I enjoyed this dish marginally more than Sarah, which is to say we both enjoyed it a lot, but Sarah’s not as on-board with the truffle as I am. Or maybe I should say she’s less-impressed by it, but this could be because she hasn’t spent 5 years converging to this point. The rest of the flavors were delicious though. I recall Martin of Alineaphile noting that some of the flavors didn’t work for him. There’s a lot going on here, to be sure, but I found eating it greedily to be the best move: trying to get a little of everything on my spoon at once resulted in an incredibly-complex mixture of flavors, textures, and temperatures that was awesome. Picking around the dish and only tasting a couple things at a time was a bit less engaging for me. Overall though, this is a really lovely dish that’s delicious on a cold day.

And with that…one dish remaining.

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Bone Marrow Fudge

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As we move into the Holiday season, I’m feeling like taking the scenic route here. I’m waiting for a few ingredients to come into season for the next dish I’m aiming at, so I have some time and space to play around. I’ve become addicted to  the ChefSteps videos; a recent one in which they make a ganache from corn (exploring the use of amylase to convert starch to sugar) piqued my curiosity and I wanted to play with it. I used a similar technique to see if I could make Sweet Pea ganache.

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I followed more or less the same recipe they mention; I adjusted the water because peas are quite a bit starchier than corn and the resulting blended pea puree was too thick to properly separate. After about an hour and a half, I could see some separation happening, so I strained the puree through cheesecloth, then reduced it to a thick syrup before adding some cream and butter. The resulting ganache is really tasty! It has a slight ‘chalky’ mouthfeel, an indication that there are still large starch granules that didn’t get converted by the amylase, and as a result the ganache isn’t as sweet as I’d expected, but it’s still tasty and very pretty.

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I’ve finished reading the Modernist Cuisine books, and my head is swimming with ideas from it that I’d like to play with as well. I’m looking for ways to adapt the next Alinea recipe I work on to give me the opportunity to try some new stuff without totally departing from the character of the dish itself.

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A few weeks ago, Rene Redzepi came to San Fran to promote his new books. His talk was interesting and well-presented; it focused largely on creativity, and highlighted Noma’s cooking over the past couple of years as he and his team have tried to maintain creativity in the face of success. The first Noma book is inspiring but intimidating in its scope, mostly because of the extreme locality of the ingredients used. The cookbook included with his latest release is no different. It’s just as pretty and inspiring as well.

Flipping through it, one simple dish caught my eye just because it was so visually striking. Redzepi explained one of the themes of creativity at Noma is “trash cooking”: how can they find new and interesting ways to utilize products that are usually discarded? While many would argue that throwing away bone marrow is flat-out ridiculous, the theme of highlighting lowly things like bones still shines through in the final presentation. It seemed like a good afternoon project, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

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I bought several packs of frozen marrow bones from Whole Foods, got home and realized I didn’t really know what to do with them. The French Laundry Cookbook suggests soaking the marrow bones in ice water for 20 minutes or so, then pushing the marrow plug out of the bone with your thumb. Because marrow is mostly fat, it doesn’t freeze the way water does, but remains firm bit pliable when frozen. Pushing it out of the bones was surprisingly straightforward.

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I then transferred the marrow to another batch of ice water to let it soak for several hours. The slow soak leeches blood from the marrow, removing most of the pink hue (and the metallic taste that would come with it). I exchanged the water every 8 hours or so for a couple of days, until it remained clear and the marrow was nearly white.

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The marrow is then smoked. There are no instructions on this in the Noma book; the recipe just calls for “smoked bone marrow”. We recently got a smoker and I’m totally obsessed with smoking anything and everything on it. I put all the marrow lumps into a disposable aluminum tray and tucked it into the smoker.

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Once it was in the smoker, I realized I had no real idea what I was doing.

Smoking something is a tricky business; you’re basically doing two things at once: the heat of the smoker cooks the food, while the smoke itself is flavors it. The smoke and heat are inextricably linked…too high heat causes the smoke to turn acrid, too low and the smoke is anemic.  The best (read: most expensive) smokers find ways to unlink these two elements, providing independent control over each. Inexpensive or traditional smokers leave this job up to the pitmaster (or, in my case, pitapprentice).

I had no idea what temperature I needed to cook the marrow at, nor how long it needed to smoke. So, as I do with most things in life, I started by just turning everything all the way up. I smoked the marrow at 225F until the wood chunks had given out all their smoke, which took about 2 hours. The marrow mostly melted, and took on a dark smoky appearance.

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While the marrow was smoking, I worked on cleaning the bones. Again, I had no idea how to do this. I boiled them to try to soften the meat scraps attached to them. This sorta worked. I pressure-cooked them for a few hours. This seemed to help too, the remaining meat scraps pulled right off. I slow-cooked them overnight in some vinegar. This whitened them a bit. I dried them out in the oven until they were…ahem…literally bone-dry. I sanded them with a random orbital sander. I chiseled out sharp bits from the inside.

It was obviously a highly-scientific process.

But in the end, the bones looked nice and boney.

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To make the fudge, I brought a mixture of sugar, cream, glucose and salt up to 226F, then added the bone marrow and some butter, whisking to emulsify them. The recipe calls for apple balsamic vinegar; I don’t have any on hand, but do have some pear balsamic, as well as some lovely chocolate balsamic that my lovely friend Kate gave me recently. Because I had enough marrow for two batches, I tried using both balsamics to see if I could tell a difference.

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When the fudge had cooled, I tasted it. It tasted overwhelmingly like licking burnt wood. I had totally oversmoked it to the max so hard. None of the nuances of the vinegars or the slightly nutty character of the cooked cream were at all discernable. The texture was nice, so it had that going for it. But it was largely inedible otherwise.

So, I scrapped it, waited a week until I had another chunk of time to play with my smoker, and tried again. I read a bit about smoking bone marrow; many recipes do it on a grill for around 20 minutes. I figured maybe I should dial back my Hulk Smoking tactics a little. I smoked another batch of cleaned marrow at around 175F for 20 minutes, then tried making the fudge again. It was still notably smoky, but milder, way less bitter. I would say it’s better, maybe still not as nuanced as I’d like. I’m surprised at how acutely fat absorbs aromas and flavors; I’ve read about how butter readily absorbs refrigerator odors and aromatic herbs, but the rapidity at which the marrow took on deep smoke flavors struck me as dramatic and interesting.

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Goose, Blood Orange, Sage, Roasting Goose Aromas

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The story of this dish starts the way the recipe for it in the cookbook does: with stock.

Among the most time-consuming tasks in this cookbook — instanced 4-5 times throughout it — is creation of veal stock. Chef Achatz’ roots at The French Laundry are belied in the recipe for it, although rather than TFL’s three-day process, Alinea’s is a bit more streamlined: it involves blanching 10lbs of veal bones, simmering them for 8 hours gently, straining them, simmering them for another 8 hours, then reducing the combined 1st and 2nd pass to a liter’s worth of rich stock. The first time I made it, I naively just saw the two 8-hour instructions and surmised I might be able to do the whole thing in one long day. Nope. Factor in the time it takes to bring several liters of water to boil (thrice) and how long it takes to reduce the final stock and you quickly run into a 2 day process, and if you’re going to take a break overnight, don’t forget to factor in how long it takes these massive pots of water to cool before trying to put them in your fridge.

In short, it’s an involved process.

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Several months ago, I mentioned being fortunate enough to be included in a roster of food blogs presented by Saveur. A cool side-effect of this was getting to meet a couple new people as a result, including Scott Heimendinger. Scott and I struck up a conversation that eventually drifted around to talk of me doing a small freelance project for Scott’s ultra-cool day job. When discussing payment for services, I asked Scott if Modernist Cuisine might be interested in a little trade. He agreed, and a short while later our apartment got notably heavier.

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Most early critiques of these massive books seem to dance around saying anything super-committal one way or another about them…other than “they’re really big”. Many said something like “they read like textbooks”, which seems like the literary equivalent of looking someone up and down and saying “Huh. You changed your hair.”

I can’t quite understand that trepidation; I’m nearly through Book 3 of the main collection and it’s fucking awesome. Staggeringly-beautiful photography aside, the Modernist team strikes a really lovely balance of positing information without sounding arrogant or de facto about it; there’s a refreshing humility to bits of it that are surprising given such an ostentatious physical presentation. Many concepts are familiar but the team dives deep on everything, ensuring that they (and the reader) fully understand the whys and hows of cookery. As an artist who understands that making cool shit is expensive, I find the unarguably-hefty pricetag a justifiable one: a team of dozens of people spent years building the collection, it wasn’t easy and took a lot of time and consideration. A full-page photograph of an intact and wholly-skinned monkfish along with a frank caption attesting that it took a chef a full day to accomplish this is one of countless examples of the effort that went into the books. While the ordering of things is a little scattershot, the sheer amount of interesting information makes me really love these things (learning how KFC fries their chicken is one of my absolute favorite bits).

So as I read through this Alinea recipe several weeks ago in trying to plan for it, it was with particular acuity that the sections of MC Book 2 about pressure-cooking stock caught my attention.

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The short version is this: traditional methods of cooking stock involve long, slow simmers of bones with aromatics — long because the collagen surrounding the bones and the marrow within them need low, steady heat  to give up their flavors. Water can’t ever boil over 100C under normal conditions, and the jostling of bubbles in a rolling boil cause the stock to go cloudy, so the conventional way to deal with this is to simmer gently, yielding a clear stock. The longer time necessitated by the low temperature of around 90C mean that the stock undergoes an enormous amount of evaporative cycles as it cooks. Cooking stock makes your kitchen smell great; this is because aromatics cooking in the stock are escaping via the steam emitted from it as it simmers. Because you’re constantly purging the stock of aromatics, you need a lot of them per batch of stock. So, making stock this way is relatively expensive in both time and ingredients.

Modernist Cuisine describes a more efficient way to do all this: via a pressure cooker. Once pressurized, a pressure cooker cannot boil (the vapor pressure inside the chamber is so high that the water can’t evaporate) and becomes superheated well past 100C. This increase in temperature makes all the reactions that happen in traditional stockmaking run faster, and the lack of violent boiling yields a non-cloudy stock. Because there’s no evaporation, aromatics aren’t purged during the cook, which means you can use way less of everything to yield the same ‘strength’ stock at the end. The books describe a recipe for veal stock that cooks in about 4 hours.

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This sounded like a pretty fun thing to try, but I was curious how the Modernist recipe would compare to Alinea’s when it came to final flavor. I decided to try a rough test: I would make 3 batches of stock. The first would be Modernist Cuisine’s pressure-cooked stock. I would also cook the exact same recipe in a slow-cooker, mimicking the more traditional approach but without the heavy evaporation problem normal stock has. Finally, I would try as best I could to port Alinea’s stock recipe over to the pressure-cooker ‘style’. This last bit was the hardest; I wasn’t sure how to reliably convert Alinea’s quantities down to those appropriate for this other method, so I just did some guesstimation.

Modernist Cuisine’s recipe involved a step Alinea’s does not: they roast their veal bones in an oven to brown them before putting them in the stock, and also brown all their aromatics before adding water. As the MC stocks were cooking, I read a little about this. Turns out the difference between “brown” stocks and “white” stocks is exactly this step. Brown stocks involve a roasting step that yields fuller, roasty flavors but which might mask more-delicate notes, depending on the animal from which you’re making your stock.

After completing all three stocks, I offered them to Sarah to taste. The MC pressure-cooked stock was robust and tasty. Interestingly, the MC non-pressure-cooked one tasted very similar, but didn’t have quite the depth of the pressure-cooked version. And the Alinea pressure-cooked version (a white stock) tasted anemic and watery by comparison, but with much brighter herbal notes. Surprisingly, none of them tasted anything like the veal stocks I’d made the traditional way from this cookbook previously, but they did all taste like stock you might find in a grocery store. It occurred to me later that this might be because Alinea does this two-step thing where they simmer the bones twice. I wonder (but haven’t yet tried) making the MC pressure-cooked stock from itself, fortifying it with two rounds of bones. I’m curious if this yields something closer to the rich, very full-bodied stock I’m used to.

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The recipe here calls not only for veal stock, but also for goose stock. I’d be working with a whole goose over the course of making this dish, but had no idea how much a single goose’s bones weigh. Alinea’s traditional-approach recipe calls for 10 lbs of goose bones, onions, leeks, and various herbs to be cooked for around 6 hours. I suspected a single goose doesn’t pack around 10 lbs’ worth of bones, and (oddly) couldn’t find a butcher who could give me a decent estimate of how much the bones of a single goose was likely to weigh. After calling around for about a week, it seems as though most butchers don’t habitually carry goose, so tracking down that amount of bones proved unfruitful. One guy at Ver Brugge up in Berkeley asked if I could do with duck instead?

This sounded like an interesting contingency plan, so I said sure and placed an order for 10lbs of duck bones (and trimmings), and for a whole goose. The ingredient list for Modernist Cuisine’s duck stock almost-exactly matched that of Alinea’s (just the quantities of things differed), so I thought I had a good chance of landing pretty close to Alinea’s target by using Modernist Cuisine’s pressure-cooked approach. Interestingly, I noted that Alinea calls for roasting the bones for this stock.

While the duck stock was cooking, I worked on taking apart the whole goose itself. I saved all the bones and trimmings from it, roasted them, and (when the duck stock had finished), made another batch with the goose bones. Turns out that, because it’s more economical,  using the pressure-cooked approach for the goose stock for this dish yields an amount that’s plenty for the needs of the dish…I didn’t need to make the duck stock at all. I’m pretty ok with this though…my freezer’s looking pretty respectable with the results of all this stock experimentation in it.

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Another tricky goose component used frequently throughout this recipe is goose fat. Again, I had no idea how much fat a single goose yields, so as I was taking apart the whole goose, I was very conservative about hanging onto every scrap of fat I found. Goose butts are incredibly fatty, it turns out; I pulled a couple big wads the size of softballs out of the cavity of my goose and threw them and all my other trimmings in a pot with some water. My aim was to simmer this gently for a few hours in a process called “wet rendering”; fat melts and leaks out of the trimmings and floats on top of the water, where it stays cool and retains more of its natural flavor than with the more-violent dry-rendering technique of frying everything in a pan at much higher temperatures.

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You can see in the above image the trimmings appear to be sitting on the bottom of the pan. They’re actually floating at the top of a water layer that’s sitting under a deep layer of fat that’s rendered out of the trimmings. After a few hours I let the mixture cool, strained it, then put it in the fridge overnight. The water and fat separate, the fat solidifying on top of the water. I poked a hole in it and drained out the water, melted the fat slightly, then poured it into jars. For anyone who might need this experience as reference, there’s plenty of fat in a single goose to do this recipe two or three times. Or, store it in your freezer along with all the rest of the stock you’ve made and tell your new wife it’s cool, you’ll find lots of ways to use this stuff.

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To make goose leg confit, the goose legs are cured overnight in a mixture of sugar, salt, a lot of orange peel, curing salt, nutmeg and other spices. They’re then cooked sous vide with some of the fat for several hours to render their collagen tender.

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Conveniently, the temperature of the water bath for the confit legs is the same needed for that needed to make confit turnips and sweet potatoes, both of which were also packed in goose fat and dropped into a bath held steady by my new Nomiku.

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And, simultaneously, I cooked some oranges with grapeseed oil and sugar in the same bath until the rind was very tender. This was then pureed with orange juice to yield Orange Sauce.

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The skin of the goose legs is pulled carefully in big pieces, then the meat is removed from the bone and mixed with bread, cooked onions, leeks, fennel, celery seed, eggs, and goose stock to form a stuffing mix. The skin is placed in the bottom of a pan and the stuffing is packed on top, then the mixture is cooked until it’s springy. It’s then meant to be stored in the fridge overnight to firm up…under a 10lb weight (the reason for the weight is not given). Sarah barely batted an eyelash when she opened the fridge the following morning to find this:

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The stuffing is cut into planks, then flipped skin side up and seared under a broiler to crisp the skin and warm it through just before service. The size of the planks and overall construction of them as dictated by the recipe is uncharacteristically rustic for Alinea, and were I to do it all over again I might make some changes: the vegetables in the stuffing are deliberately cut into a fine dice, but the goose leg meat is meant to remain in pieces “as large as possible”, which gives rise to big pockets in the stuffing and a really chunky texture. This made it hard to keep things tidy when cutting the planks. The portion dictated (1.5″ x 6″) is also maybe twice as wide as what the photo in the book appears to be, leading to the very rare case of this dish actually being pretty filling on it’s own.

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The breast of the goose might have been one of my favorite things to make, mostly because I had no idea where I was headed with it when I started. The breasts were cured in another mixture of salt, sugar and spices, then packed in fat and cooked to medium-rare sous vide…then frozen. The recipe then says to remove the breasts and “remove excess skin”. Because I’d read ahead and was a little paranoid about how much goose fat I’d need (which I shouldn’t have been), I interpreted this as “remove the skin completely”, and so I figured why not do that before curing, and render the fat from the skin separately?

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It was only as I was cooking the breast skin that I reread the recipe and realized I probably wasn’t meant to have done this. Hm. I wondered if there was a clever way to try to salvage this. I’d recently read about how to make chicharrones, or pork cracklings, which is puffed pork belly skin. The idea is simple: cook the shit out of the skin to rid it of fat, dehydrate it until it’s firm, then deep fry it until it puffs. The cooking step renders collagen to gelatin, which then traps residual water as it steams when the skin is fried, causing it to puff. I figured if fatty pork belly behaved this way, maybe my duck breast would? I cooked it at 190F for about 4 hours, then strained it and dehydrated it overnight. I noticed in the morning it still was leaking a fair bit of oil, so I scored it in a crosshatch pattern to see fi that might help it drain faster. After a couple hours, I pulled them from the dehydrator and tried dropping them in hot oil.

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They crisped handily, but didn’t really puff the way I wanted. Maybe there wasn’t enough water in them? Maybe poultry skin doesn’t have the gelatin content pig skin does? They were kinda tasty, sort of like very crisp bacon, but not all the way magical (or maybe I think that because they didn’t work the way I envisioned).

At any rate, after this experiment I pulled my solid-frozen cured cooked goose breasts from the freezer. I was meant to slice it very thinly on a meat slicer, but because I don’t own one I just got my knife skillz on.

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As the first paper-thin slice thawed, it dawned on me that I’d made sort of a prosciutto from these breasts. They had the same lovely texture and a salty spice taste that meshed perfectly with the flavor of the meat. This approach is again ostensibly streamlined for restaurant use, but the aim is obvious and the result is awesome.

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Next up was cutting some foie gras from Hudson Valley into cubes, scoring them and searing them over high heat until meltingly tender and warm. Foie gras, the astute reader may note, is 100% illegal in California…to sell. Not being a restaurant though, I’m totally free to buy as much of it as I’d like, and out-of-state Hudson Valley is totally compliant with state law in shipping me some.

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The final step in preparing the dish for plating was my favorite.

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Into a bowl, I placed crushed nutmeg, blade mace, sage, thyme, and orange peel…all of which had been tossed in shiny melted goose fat.

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At the same time, I warmed up some river rocks in my oven. I also broiled some of the stuffing planks, and re-thermed the turnip and sweet potatoes in a hot water bath. The veal stock was reduced and mixed with nutmeg to yield a dark, delicious Nutmeg Sauce, and it and the Orange Sauce were dotted onto a plate. When the stuffing planks came out of the oven, I quickly rolled slices of the Cured Goose Breast into cylinders and placed them on the plank, along with the foie gras, vegetables, and a supremed wedge of orange.

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Then I removed one of the river rocks and placed it into the bowl of goose-fat-tossed aromatics.

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The fat began sizzling immediately, and the room was filled with the aroma of a roasting goose, as if I’d opened the oven door on Christmas day. It smelled awesome.

Sarah and I sat down to enjoy the second Thanksgiving feast in one weekend (the first one involved smoking a turkey a la this awesome recipe).  Amazing smell aside, the dish as a whole was pretty ok. There’s a lot of stuff to get on the plate all at once, and the temperature is critical…I had trouble keeping everything as warm as I’d have liked it. The unrefined texture of the stuffing was just ok for me; I couldn’t have picked out the flavors of the cured goose leg, just that there were giant chunks of meat in it. We both loved the goose prosciutto though, and the confit vegetables were a lovely texture.

Despite not being madly in love with the final result, I had a whole lot of fun making this one though. Crispy skin on top of stuffing is a sweet move that should find its way into regular stuffing recipes, and learning about stocks was great. I’ve also been on a jag to learn to cure my own meat (but that requires a cooler to age the meat in, and given our small apartment’s available space, I have to pick my battles), so getting a taste of that here was pretty rad.

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