Sarah and I have, for the past several weeks, been taking a woodworking class at The Crucible in Oakland. I absolutely love our teacher, Ben, who is incredibly meticulous and works to very precise tolerances. A few classes ago, he taught us how to sharpen chisels, which is my favorite skill I’ve picked up so far. Ben explained to us that a sharp chisel, or any good tool, is a joy to use, and that a poor tool is a chore to use.
Making this dish at first was very much the latter. The main body of this small bite consists of very thinly-sliced cucumber rolled with mango puree. The way one accomplishes squirting liquefied mango betwixt layers of cucumber slices is incredibly clever: the mango is dehydrated into a very thin fruit leather, and when it comes into contact with the moist cucumber it re-hydrates and forms something kinda like a glue that helps keep the cucumber spiral’s shape. Super-cool. The bite is then topped with juniper berry skin, saffron, cilantro salt, clove salt, ginger, candied lemon peel, and cilantro leaves/flowers.
The challenge for me originated from not owning a blender. The best I could do was chop up some mango, try to chop it smaller in our mini food processor thingy (which is more suited for making pesto), and pushing the resulting ‘salsa’ through a chinois. The sheer annoyance and difficulty in doing this aside, the result I ended up with was very grainy.
I took it from there to a lovely dehydrator my sister got me for Christmas a few years back. It’s a Nesco dehydrator, and is kind of a marvel in terms of engineering. The one difficulty with it is that it’s round, which I think likely makes it more efficient, but pretty much makes it impossible to cut the long, thin strips of mango leather needed for this recipe. Also, cutting sheets of acetate (onto which I needed to smear my grainy mango puree) into the donut shape required to fit the Nesco is pretty tough.
Trying to smear my grainy mango puree onto the plastic discs that came with the Nesco was bad; I couldn’t get it smoothed to a consistent thickness. When it was dehydrated, it turned into something with a very sandy consistency that broke apart easily.
Thankfully, around the time I was doing all this, I happened to hang out with Kris, who reminded me that she has the Rolls Royce of dehydrators: an Excalibur. She awesomely let me borrow it, along with a possibly-even-cooler kitchen gadget:
The Blendtec, if you haven’t heard of one, is a blender that can pretty much blend other blenders. When I first saw a commercial for this thing, I thought it might be of the caliber of some Ginsu knives or something, but after using it I can say it’s completely bad ass. It turned a few ripe mangos into a silky smooth puree, which I then dehydrated in the Excalibur into a perfectly smooth sheet of mango leather. I tried to take a couple of photos to show the difference these two bits of equipment made:
It’s a bit tough to tell which is which, until you try to tear one of these pieces. The one on the left, done in the Blendtec/Excalibur, looks like this when torn:
Note the nice smooth ripped edge; the mango sheet felt kinda like a piece of scotch tape. Here’s the sheet made with mango pushed through a chinois (not blended):
They both tasted the same of course, but the crumbly nature of the chinois mango made it really difficult to work with (and not very pretty). So, even though many of these recipes can be ghetto’d together with improvised equipment in the kitchen, there’s something to be said about the joy of using proper equipment and quality of the end result.
Most of the rest of the components here were pretty straightforward to make. The recipe calls for cucumber slices 1/16″ thick, which I found to be too thick to roll nicely, so I went down to 1/32″ or so, which makes the cucumber strips nearly paperlike and much easier to form into the requisite spirals. Assembling the dish was probably the most tedious one I’ve done so far, made especially hard because, for these photos, I was trying to plate 4 at the same time. The Alinea chefs are to be commended for getting any level of consistency in assembling this micro dish that’s MAYBE an inch and a half in length.
The final product is totally delicious. I ate three of them; the first time I just tasted “good”. The mango and cucumber marry well, but picking apart the rest of the flavors was very difficult for me. So I had another. It took a lot more time for me to roll the flavors around in my mouth before I could make sense of what was going on. Since the bulk of the dish was aromatic, there’s less ‘taste’ here and more ‘a sense that there are other things going on’. A lot of the experience happens in the back of my nose, processing stuff like clove, ginger, and saffron. More than any other dish so far, there’s a lot of using The Force here to try to figure it out if you don’t know what it is you’re eating.
The third one I ate just because it was awesome.