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Tuna, Candied and Dried

By June 7, 2009Cooking

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So! Last weekend I took a break from…everything. I wanted some time to regroup and order new rounds of ingredients for upcoming cooking projects, to unwind from far too many work hours recently, and (words escape me for how manly I feel admitting this) to watch Grey’s Anatomy’s most recent season in its entirety. On all counts the weekend was a success, but I’m back on the clock now.

I was flipping through the Alinea cookbook in bed last Sunday morning, trying to decide on which dish to try next. I landed on this one for a few reasons: firstly, it was so very pretty. Secondly, the ingredient list was quite approachable compared to the more ‘gadgety’ stuff that’s drawn me thus far, and thirdly: because I had no idea what it would taste like.

This last reason ended up surprising me. I’ve made a few dishes from the Wagamama cookbook , and have a fair bit of experience with Nobu’s cookbooks and Asian cooking in general. As I was making this dish, I realized that these ingredients and flavors in fact made perfect sense together and were very familiar. This settling on me was empowering; if I’m comfortable with flavors I can own them rather than them owning me. It’s fun when you’re not so intimidated by the paintbrush.

The basic gist, because the photos aren’t explanatory in and of themselves, is that the main ‘stick’ of this dish is a piece of Tuna loin that’s been ‘cooked’ in a marinade of spices and acids. The flavors (fish sauce, lime juice, coriander, soy) are about as traditional Japanese as you can get. The fish sticks are dehydrated to an interesting texture; you don’t want to get these things all the way to the consistency of jerky, as I discovered. Rather, they’re far more interesting with a short dehydration time that results in a tougher, near-crispy exterior with a tender, buttery, sushi-reminiscent interior.

The stick is accentuated with ginger, lemongrass, sesame, some chili for a bit of heat, and candied grapefruit zest. Again, these ingredients make exact sense. What struck me when I tasted this for the first time was something that’s struck me for every other dish I’ve made for far in this cookbook: the flavors match but are disparate. This is not Southern BBQ style cooking, where ingredients are fused together in ways that isolate their identities and smelt them into something delicious but tough to dissect. Rather, Alinea’s dishes are deliberate and paced. A friend described the Envelope and Granola dish as a “parade of flavors”, and he was so dead on. This dish starts with the understandable tang of the sweet marinade, followed by the assertive citrus of the grapefruit zest, the toasted warmth of the sesame, the gradual onset of the heat from the chili…the flavors unfold deliberately, as if being cued by a director hiding offstage.

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The architecture of a parade of flavors is something that’s captivating me. To be unable to do this myself as this project continues would be a disappointment, so it’s a direction I’m looking as I move forward. It’s fun; I started this blog imagining that my writings would be more about the odd chemicals each recipe called for. I’m glad this is turning out to be way more than just that.

I realize I’ve mentioned nothing about the other large component to this experiment, which is the photography of each of these perishable subjects. Food photography is temperamental, and the fact that most dishes involve glassware mean that they’re a challenge to photograph. Glass, as a subject, is wily. It wants to reflect everything, and knowing how to predict where reflections will exist helps direct how it’s best lighted. As a general rule, I tend to prefer keeping the key light facing roughly towards me (effectively rim-lighting the glass). I’ll use cards or secondary flashes to bounce light onto the food itself, but photographing glass with the light inside the same hemisphere as the camera is generally a bad idea.

The ‘white’ photos in this entry involved sitting the glass container on a piece of plate glass, and placing white foam core under it (there was about a foot of space in between). I aimed a flash down at the foam core, so that the light would hit it and splash upwards, giving the glass a silhouetted look in areas of high refraction. Another flash splashes light upwards, bouncing it off the ceiling. This fills in the food itself, keeping it from being too silhouetted. This dish lends itself to be photographed this way because of the translucency of the fish; white light scattering through the meat helps convey its texture nicely.

The ‘black’ photo involved a bit of black velvet under the glass. Velvet is especially good because it’s creaseless and generally-forgiving. I fired a flash through a white diffuser from the rear, again giving nice soft light that contrasted the food colorfully against the black. You can see, though, that I was a bit sloppy with managing the reflections in the glass.

For most of my shots I’ll do a dry run first with a placeholder (in this case, a pen in the glass) to get an idea of how I want to shape the light. Ultimately though I’m usually in constant motion, moving stuff around, firing shots, moving stuff again, adjusting things, etc. I do this until I feel like I’ve gotten something usable or until the food just refuses to hold up. Some dishes are more forgiving than others. This one was on the easier end of the scale.

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