When Sarah and I ate at Alinea a couple of years back, this dish was one of Sarah’s favorites. I’ve been planning on remaking it for her since her dad gave me the book for Christmas. For as relatively simple this dish is to prepare, obtaining a few of the ingredients for it has been an exercise in tenacity.
Difficult Ingredient #1 was Freeze-Dried Honey Powder. New Zealand is a honey-rich nation. Our Manuka Honey is magnificent, but for my own taste it pales in comparison to the wild thyme honey from Otago, as well as Pohutakawa honey. Finding any of these in powder form, however, is almost impossible. At first I thought “Eh, can’t find it, I’ll make it”. I tried dehydrating honey in our dehydrator, but this didn’t work at all. The honey turned into something nearly like sap, but never got close to ‘dry’. I found via the wonders of Google a small handful of sites in New Zealand with “Honey Powder” in their content.
One particularly helpful gentleman I phoned up explained that honey has a remarkably high sugar content, and so before water can be drawn out of it, the sugar needs to be immobilized (frozen…hence honey powder needing to he freeze-dried). Because of its sugar content, the freeze point has to be quite low, which requires very expensive equipment. NZ, a small and remote country, has limited need for expensive, extremely-specialized equipment like this.
Another place I called mentioned they used to carry it; they shipped NZ Manuka Honey to the U.S. to be freeze-dried. Upon being returned to NZ, however, the powder had to be irradiated because of NZ Biosecurity concerns, which drove up the price exponentially and diminished the effort for them.
I had almost completely given up, until I found a place just across the straight in Nelson who sell it in batch. Their primary customers seem to be spice-makers (one customer is a large producer of pre-packaged BBQ spice mixes), but they were friendly and helpful and in the end offered to sell me a small (1KG) bag for the low price of $40.
Difficult Ingredient #2 was freeze-dried bananas. Being from the U.S., I have a healthy appreciation for freeze-dried things. Astronaut Ice Cream is the bomb, people. And once a girlfriend in college gave me, as a valentine’s gift, a bag of Lucky Charms…that she had picked all the cereal out of, leaving me WITH JUST A BAG OF MARSHMALLOWS. NZ has considerably less of a demand for products like this. The only market I’ve found that involves freeze-dried foods is the camping business; there’s a small section of freeze-dried bag meals in most camping shops around town.
Again I hit up Google to try to find a place that sells freeze-dried produce; this time I had notably less luck. One option was to buy some camping meals and try to pick out the ingredients I needed. The trouble is, none of them seemed to involve bananas…best I could find was apricot crumble. This didn’t seem like such a great idea. Another more-interesting find was a place in Hawke’s Bay that offered “custom freeze-drying services”. This sounded exactly ridiculous enough to keep with the theme of the rest of this blog, and claiming I had something custom-freeze-dried seemed like a pretty damn cool idea. I mean, if that wouldn’t impress Chef Achatz, what would?
So I call up this place, and again get a very nice guy on the line. After a brief explanation of what I was after, I asked him “So, do I just, like, roll up with a bunch of bananas under my arm and ask you to throw them in your freeze-drier, and I slip you a twenty and read a magazine while I wait?” He kinda laughed. “Well, sort of. Except our smallest drier has a throughput of 7 tons a day. So you’d probably need a bit more than just a handful.”
For about 2 minutes I thought “I wonder, if I bought 7 tons of freeze-dried bananas if I could resell them at work?”
Just as I was about to give up, the thought occured to me that I never had bothered to check with NZ Customs as to whether I could just import some freeze-dried bananas. Turns out I can! A few clicks later and some tubs of bananas (along with cherries and raspberries, for some other dishes) were on the way to me.
Preparation of this dish is fairly straightforward, though assembly is tedious. The first bite involved the banana and some peanut butter.
Second was a hardened paste of peanuts and sweeteners accompanied by chocolate.
Third is a slice of peanut topped with honey powder and a few grains of salt.
Fourth is a gel made from grape juice, dipped in peanut powder.
Finally, the last bite is peanut paired with celery.
The dish as a whole is, in a word, exquisite. The flavors are simple and immediate; the common thread is childhood. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ants on a log, Reese’s cups…it’s a fantastic and playful way to end a meal. Visually the bites are magical and beautiful. Even cooking the grape gel involved boiling a dark ruby-purple mixture for several minutes, and I found myself wanting to photograph it as I was watching the temperature creep towards where it needed to be. I went the extra mile on this one and ordered a Peacock servingware piece from Crucial Detail, so excited was I to excite Sarah and to make something as pretty as what’s in the book.
Photographing this dish was equally fun; I was afraid it would be temperamental, but it wasn’t at all. I started shooting it on white, but after a few shots I decided the colors of the dish weren’t popping as much as if I went with something darker for the background. I think I understand why the tables at Alinea are to austere (indeed the entire restaurant is fairly minimal). One wouldn’t want anything to compete with the arresting presentation of each one of these dishes.