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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King Crab, Vinegar, Aromatics, Seaweed

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Let’s learn about King Crab.

Fresh Alaskan Red King Crab is a bit of a culinary unicorn. There are two other recipes in this book that call for it, but in both cases I substituted fresh local Dungeness crab. My original google searches for it about 3 years ago turned up very few results that didn’t intersect with Costco; Chowhound is littered with “Q: Where can I find King Crab in X area? A: Costco” posts. Local fish markets in the Bay Area don’t carry it, despite carrying live Dungness crabs, lobster, even live uni or softshell crabs if you’re looking during the right time of year. Something about Costco struck a sour chord with me; I just couldn’t imagine Alinea bangs down to Costco to load up on discount bulk crab to sit in their walk-in next to thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh white truffles or imported Japanese fish.

So I started digging.

1980 apparently represented the peak of the king crab industry; Alaskan fisheries produced ~200 million lbs. of crab that year. The catch suddenly and sharply took a downward turn, however; by 1983, the total size of the the crab population had dropped by 90% for reasons that are not entirely clear. Several theories have been proposed, including overfishing, warmer waters, and increased fish predation. What did not take a downward turn was American demand, and herein always lie problems.

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Alaskan King Crab are fished from the their native homeland of the Bering Sea. In the 1960s, Russian scientists seeded these crabs into the (subtly- and confusingly-differently named) Barents Sea, which is shared by Norway. The original intent was to to create a new food supply for Arctic communities. King Crab are an invasive species, however; the transplantation into an ecosystem that did not have a native ability to keep the species in check caused a population explosion. The soaring market prices for the crab in the US dissuaded any potential efforts on behalf of Russia to reduce the population; quite the opposite, in fact. With the downturn of the Red King Crab population in the Bering Sea, US markets encouraged the further overpopulation of the species in the Barents sea and correspondingly poor fishing practices of Russian crab boats using nets to drag the sea bottom (rather than the cages [pots] used by Alaskan fishermen), which damages coral and marine life. The massive influx of Russian Crab into the US forces the price down, making for a tempting purchase at Costco, where one can find “King Crab” at $10/lb.

Monterey Bay acknowledges this strongly-undesirable situation, and dissuades consumers from buying the cheaper Russian crab (which only encourages perpetuation of the problem). The trouble is, most consumers don’t know (and perhaps many don’t care) where the frozen crab hails from, so the problem persists.

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But back to the Alaskan crab.  For many years the dwindling population in the Bering sea led to horrendous competition amongst crab fishermen in an already incredibly-dangerous industry. The fatality rate among the King Crab fishermen is about 80 times the fatality rate of the average worker; it is suggested that, on average, one crab fisherman dies weekly during the crabbing seasons. In 2005, to assuage the competition, government regulations on crab fishing changed such that each crab boat was given an allowable yearly quota, and the length of the fishing season was shortened substantially. At one point the season lasted only 4 days; currently the seasons tend to last 2-3 weeks. Once the season ends, the vast bulk of all Alaskan king crab is ‘processed’ (i.e. the crabs are slaughtered, cleaned, cooked, packaged, and flash-frozen), then either stocked in Alaska or shipped to distributors around the world. Most of it goes to restaurants; little of it goes to Costco.

Such a brief season gives natural rise to the questions about how one acquires fresh Alaskan King Crab. Is it possible to buy a live Alaskan King Crab the way one can buy live Dungeness crab or live lobsters here in the Bay Area? Well, yes…if you’re ok with the nearly $350 price tag that’s associated with overnighting a single gigantic 5-8lb crab to your door, and you have the means to kill, clean, and cook it properly. A King Crab’s leg span can easily equal the arm span of an average adult, so cramming a massive, feisty live crab into a stock pot struck me as notably more difficult than doing the same with a Dungeness crab. Is this what Alinea does?

Consulting the recipe for this dish offers a subtle clue: for the King Crab component itself, there are no cooking instructions. The book itself seems to assume that you are working not with live King Crab, but with pre-processed crab. Is this a subtle accommodation afforded to the home chefs who might try this dish? Absolutely nothing else in the book seems ‘dumbed down’ for the home kitchen, so it’s hard for me to believe that this was.

I wrote Alinea a few years ago asking about this. Were they sourcing fresh live crab (and if so, how do they sustain this outside the 2-3 week seasonal window), or were they using pre-processed crab? A chef responded that “frozen crab is ok, as long as you can verify catch, kill, cook, and freeze dates for the crab” to ensure it was processed as promptly as possible after capture.

Hm.

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Learning what I had about where the bulk of Costco’s supply is from, and wanting to keep the game here lively and challenging (because, let’s face it, saying “I went and bought this at Costco” isn’t really an interesting story), I started hunting around to see how I could put myself in the path of fresh Alaskan King Crab. Without too much trouble, I unearthed several websites for businesses based in Alaska that serve as the processing/distribution point between the fishing boats and whomever buys the crabs. One of them in particular, The Crab Broker, has an interesting note on their site: during the season itself, they can process and ship you crab without freezing it. This struck me as an interesting compromise between flying in a live crab and buying something that’d been frozen.

I sent an email to The Crab Broker 2 years ago, in October, asking when Red King Crab season was and if they would allow me to buy a small amount. They replied that they would be happy to, but the season had just passed a few weeks before and they were therefore sold out. I could, if I chose, opt to buy some of the flash-frozen crab…but something about nailing the timing of this seemed irresistible to me. Plus at the time I had plenty of other dishes to work on, so I said I’d wait. I set a reminder in my calendar for 50 weeks later to call them back.

When the time arrived last year, I rang them up. The woman with whom I spoke said “Oh no! The season just ended last week!”. I’d missed the opportunity to place an order by a scant few days. Sad face.

This year, I noted with gloomy certainty that our wedding in mid-October would assuredly land right exactly in prime fresh-crabbing season. A part of me wondered if it’d be ok for me to overnight some crab to Kentucky and make a heroic attempt at completing this dish in the midst of trying to cater the wedding itself, but this was one rare instance in which reason prevailed and I accepted that I would likely have to wait until next year to have another chance. By this point the idea of hitting this narrow target had turned into a madness with me.

Then something amazing happened: our shitty government decided to be total assholes and completely shut down! It turns out you need government to do a lot of things: run national parks, deliver mail, and…(wait for it)…: issue fishing licenses. On the phone with Lois at The Crab Broker the Monday after our wedding festivities ended, she noted that normally I would have just missed the season by a few days again, but the government shutdown had delayed the issuance of the requisite crabbing licenses by several weeks. The boats had only just gotten permits a few days before, and were out in Dutch Harbor RIGHT THAT MOMENT. How much crab was I hoping to buy?

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Ecstatic that I had a glimmer of hope pulling this off, I asked Lois how this whole thing worked: what happened between the time I placed an order and the time delicious fresh crab showed up at my doorstep? Lois answered:

Good questions. Let’s say for example’s sake that a customer has ordered a delivery on Wednesday. A boat arrives [at their office in Dutch Harbor] and its load of live crab is unloaded and processed Monday morning. By early Monday afternoon, the crab is taken over to the airport and put on a plane headed to Anchorage. The crab arrives Anchorage Monday evening and is kept in a reefer unit until Tuesday morning when a FedEx airbill is applied to the box, the box is tendered to FedEx, and delivered the next day. Basically, you’re looking at 48-56 hours from the time the crab is unloaded from the boat until it lands at your door.

Crab ordered for Thursday delivery comes off a boat Tuesday morning and crab ordered for Friday delivery comes off a boat Wednesday morning. If we cannot get the crab delivered within that 48-56 hour window, we don’t do it.

I giddily placed an order for 5lbs, then reconsidered and upped the order to 8lbs, thinking this might be a good excuse to invite friends over to share. I scheduled my shipment to arrive on a Friday, seeking to minimize the amount of time I had to hold this precious, precious ingredient.

I reasoned if I was going this deep for this ingredient for this dish, I wanted to go equally-deep for everything else. This dish is garnished with two other non-trivial components that have eluded me for years: Tosaka and Sea Grapes, both Japanese seaweeds. I’ve been on the phone off and on with Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley for years trying to get them to import Tosaka for me. The seaweed comes in three colors and ships frozen, packaged in salt. They could only ever seem to get one or two colors at most for me in large 2kg packages, and demanded I would need to buy all of it if they ordered it (which, depending on whom I talked to, ranged from “very easy to order” to “really nearly impossible to get”) for the low low price of around $60 for the package. After another frustrating phone call with them following my order of the crab, a thought occurred to me: I wonder if my friend Carl over at True World Foods (provider of my precious Ayu several months back) could source these ingredients for me?

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“Oh sure, we keep all three colors of Tosaka in stock all the time. The Sea Grapes we can have flown in, they’ll be here next week” Carl emailed. I love Carl. The Tosaka came in ~1lb packages, and Carl charged me around $10 per package. The Sea Grapes came in a 1kg bag for $60. I placed an order to arrive the following week, and on an early Tuesday morning drove down to True World’s eerily-located warehouse to pick up my three Tosakas and fresh Japanese Sea Grapes.

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Trying to research Sea Grapes is difficult; there’s not a ton of English-written resources that explain much about them other than “Hey look at this funky thing I had in a Japanese restaurant once”. From what I had gathered before getting into this dish, they seem to be delicate and temperamental, and apparently don’t remain viable for long. Carl noted their grapes came in refrigerated and would stay usable for around 7-10 days if kept chilled; this advice conflicts with other accounts I’ve found about storing sea grapes at room temperature (at which they stay viable anywhere from 5-20 days, depending on the source you’re reading). Not really knowing which source to trust, and because they’d already been chilled when I picked them up from True World, I felt storing them in the back of my fridge was probably the best move until I worked with them and the crab on Saturday.

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It’s probably obvious how emotional and onerous lining up these dominoes has been for me, and so it was with great relief and excitement that I woke up on Friday morning and filled my biggest camping cooler with ice in preparation to receive my 8lbs of fresh crab midday. I moved my Tosaka packages from the freezer to the fridge for them to thaw while I was away for the day, drove into work, and checked my email over my morning cup of coffee…to find an email from Lois telling me there was a problem with my order: a mistake had been made and they hadn’t shipped it.

She was profusely apologetic, but alas there was nothing that could be done. No crab would show up that day…I’d need to wait a few more days for more crab to come in, and she could have it shipped to me the following week.

Under normal circumstances this would have been an annoying but manageable setback. For me, though, this meant I had one more try to get this before the season ended and my chance would be gone for another year. It also meant that the precious Tosaka and Sea Grapes, specially-imported for me, would presumably go bad in the time that would pass before getting more crab. I would need to re-order the grapes, and likely the tosaka, as re-freezing them after thawing them likely wouldn’t do me any awesome favors.

This made me — and I honestly cannot think of any other way to describe this — crabby.

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I asked Lois if I could schedule for the following Friday, then immediately emailed Carl to ask what the chances were of me importing another bag of Sea Grapes by next week. He responded that he’d look into it, but that it would take him a few days. With nothing to do but wait over the weekend, I tried again to research Sea Grapes, assisted by the fact that I now had a bag of it and could try searching for phrases or characters on the bag.

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I again found conflicting reports about how to package and store the seaweed, the most critical bit being about refrigeration. After a fair more bit of digging, I think I figured out why. Sea Grapes grow and are harvested around Okinawa in Japan. Okinawa shares a similar latitudinal position as Hawaii. I looked up average water temperatures of Okinawa on several surfing guide websites; the temperature tends to stay between 68F and 86F year around, which is notably warmer than that of most refrigerators obviously. Chilling seaweed that thrives in such balmy climes causes it to wilt. The main appeal of the seaweed is the unique texture it presents; it’s nicknamed “Green Caviar” because the tiny seawater-filled ‘leaves’ pop in the mouth with a texture like Tobiko. Wilted Sea Grapes eventually lose their ‘snap’, turning tough and chewy…notably less magical/pleasant to eat.

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Incredibly, while searching around for this and waiting to hear back from Carl, I stumbled across another site in the US selling the stuff: the Rare Tea Cellar (of all places). It’s way more expensive and you get way less, but they specifically point out the refrigeration factor, and also seem to refrain from overpacking the seaweed (compared to the relatively crowded bag I got from True World). Desperate to ensure I had something fresh for this dish, and also really, really curious at this point, I ordered a bag from Rare Tea. An hour later, I got an email from Carl: “your bag of Sea Grapes will be here tomorrow for you to pick up”. Famine to feast with these things.

The next week I felt a little like an air traffic controller, lining up all these shipments to hit at the same time at peak freshness. I drove back down to True World to pick up more Tosaka and the second bag of Sea Grapes, and the Rare Tea grapes showed up that afternoon. The True World ones had again already been refrigerated, and the Rare Tea ones were at room temp, so I kept them both like that until the next day…when I got a large styrofoam package from Alaska smelling delightfully of sea.

Finally, it was go time.

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The fresh crab in this dish is served encased in vinegar gel. This gel is made with white vinegar, sugar, water, and salt, then set with gelatin and agar. While it sounds super-duper odd, the gel is only lightly acidic and balanced by the sugar; it’s basically “seasoned sushi rice vinegar”, but presented the way one might make an aspic (the block of gel is warm at service). I first made the gel mixture, and poured a very thin layer of it into a large baking dish. I let this set for an hour, and worked on de-meating some of the crab legs.

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The crab legs themselves were massive; a single one was about the length of my torso. It’s hard to capture the scale of these things without laying down on the floor next to one of the clusters. A small part of me, prior to getting the shipment, had felt a little sad at not going all the way in and buying a live crab to try to cook myself. That part of me was readily silenced when I saw the size of a cooked cluster…no fucking way would I want a live one of these running around my apartment.

There was another small part of me that was worried about the idea of flying in freshly-cooked crab meat in a chilled styrofoam container; I worried it might somehow not be all the way awesome. This fear was also quashed when I ate the first chunk of meat I removed straight from the shell of one leg; it was amazing. Sweet and tender and intensely ‘crabby’, much moreso than the Dungeness that I always love around here. It was delicately salty but not overtly so, tasting nicely of the sea and of itself.

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After removing meat from 4 legs, I cut them into 2″ pieces, arranged them on the set layer of vinegar gel, then poured more gel around them to fill the pan up just to the tops of the crab meat. Normally the Alinea book has me gently whisk agar into solution when making a gel with it…this yields a crystal-clear gel. For this dish, it specifically instructs me to aerate the mixture with an immersion blender until it’s cloudy with microbubbles. The gel sets faster than these bubbles can escape, creating a frosted block that traps larger bubbles. It’s a bit magical; the block looks like frozen ice water, but is warm at the point a diner eats it.

While the gel was setting, I cooked some sushi rice, then started playing with my various seaweeds. I thawed the Tosaka by just dumping each frozen salt block of seaweed into a big bowl of water. The brick would disintegrate and season the water. The Tosaka tastes more or less seaweedy, but its real appeal is its color and the beautiful, arresting intricacy of its leaves.

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Tosaka thawing, I moved on to working with the Sea Grapes.

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Having three bags, I wanted to see how the different ages and storage temperatures compared. On the left of the photo below are the refrigerated Sea Grapes from True World, and on the right are the nonrefrigerated ones from Rare Tea Cellar. The True World ones were intensely salty and ‘stringy’, and lacked a bit of the caviar-like texture I was hoping for. The Rare Tea ones, by comparison, had more pop, and — while still salty — were less intense and more balanced. They also weren’t stringy. On an odd whim, I tried rinsing some of the True World grapes in fresh water in an attempt to mellow out the brininess of it. I noticed something odd happening; the seaweed started moving! I dropped in a few more strands, and again (after a moment’s pause) the seaweed shifted around in stuttered, abrupt movements.

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It eventually hit me what was happening: the wilted sea grapes had wept water, which concentrated their salt content. Dropping them into fresh water caused an osmotic effect: less-saline water rushed into the seaweed’s pods, puffing them and causing the jerky movements. If osmosis seems like a subtle and unnoticeable concept, check it:

The rightmost containers in the wide shots of the above video hold Sea Grapes from True World in the brine they arrived in (which is very salty). We can see them remaining limp and withered in comparison to the rapidly-blooming samples dropped in fresh water.

The center grapes in the photo above, then, are ‘puffed’ ones from a bath in fresh water. The caviar-like texture of these was the best of the trio, though the overall flavor was greatly-diminished. It occurred to me that this might be a neat way to season them, but the gotcha is that the salinity of whatever one wants to season the grapes with must be less than that of the grapes themselves; an inexact science given that I didn’t know how long they’d been refrigerated and how concentrated their own internal salinity was. Ultimately after killing half a day futzing with it, I was left thinking the idea has merit and that it’s handy to know that the grapes can be refreshed in this way, but this is still a poor substitute for what Rare Tea did, which was storing them correctly in the first place. Refreshing in a freshwater bath is effectively the same as trying to re-hydrate something that’s been dehydrated; it’s never really an equal to its former self.

Here’s some closeup views of the original True World wilted Sea Grapes:

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vs. the Rare Tea sea grapes:

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vs. the freshwater-soaked True World grapes:

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We can see the Rare Tea grapes have suffered some wilting (I have no idea how long it’d been since they’d been harvested), but not nearly as much as the True World ones, and the stem of the weed from Rare Tea is in much better shape (not to mention the lengths of the strands hint at better handling). The Rare Tea ones offer great texture as well as a good, balanced briny, seaweedy flavor.

At any rate, finishing the dish itself was very straighforward: I cut the gelled crab into portions, warmed them through gently, then garnished with a slice of ginger, a strand of sea grapes, saffron and parsley threads, and a grain of black lava salt. This is paired with seasoned rice that’s topped with the Tosakas, which have been tossed in oil and rice vinegar.

I loved the overall flavors here; each bite into the gelled crab was different, and I was particularly-surprised by the saffron-parsley combination. The warm vinegar was mild and perfectly-seasoned the sweet King Crab meat inside. And, once I’d shared the dish with some friends, we stuffed our faces with the remaining crab, dipped in garlic butter. It was awesome.
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