One of the things I love the most about the Bay Area is our proximity to wine country. I’m always excited to take a day trip up to Sonoma or Napa for a day of gentle boozing, good food, and great scenery. There’s a definable point along the 12 leading into the valleys where I can catch the scent of roadside eucalyptus groves; it’s faint and subtle and it encourages me to breathe deeply to try to catch and hold as much of it as I can. As we press closer, the eucalyptus mixes with the scent of ‘wine country’. It’s a mixture of oak, fruit, olives, and earth that I haven’t noticed anywhere outside an area of vineyards. The mixture of all of these scents both excites and relaxes me.
In this small bite, a hollowed half-sphere of pear encased in eucalyptus gel is filled with fragrant fresh olive oil, then garnished with coarsely-crushed black peppercorns and a small leaf of zuta levana. In one bite, it is Highway 12…it’s a transition from one place to another, both in spirit and literally, as it’s meant to be a small, gentle palette cleanser in Alinea’s menu tour.
I started with the eucalyptus gel. Last weekend, Sarah and I took a walk around our neighborhood and came across a eucalyptus tree just a few blocks from our apartment. I felt silly not noticing it before; I could have used it for the Lamb dish instead of buying eucalyptus from a local florist. The tree had lots of new growth hanging low, which I thought would be perfect for this. So yesterday I went back with some clippers and clipped a few young boughs.
I came back home and picked off 20 grams of the best leaves, then mixed them in a solution of water, salt, and sugar. I brought this to a boil, then let it steep for a while. The oils from the very young leaves were sweet and had nice subtle notes, in contrast to the ‘cough drop’ smell I got from the florist-bought (ostensibly more mature) boughs a few months back.
While the eucalyptus was steeping, I got to work with the pears. Using a large parisienne scoop, I scooped out several half-spheres of the pear, then used a smaller scoop to make a hollow in the center of each, resulting in a little ‘pear bowl’. As I worked, I kept the spheres floating in a solution of water and lemon juice, to keep them from oxidizing. After this, I cooked the pear spheres in a white wine from Ravenswood in Sonoma; dry white wines are often said to have ‘pear-like notes’, and the resulting cooked spheres tasted lovely. The oaky notes in the wine complimented and sweetened the pear, while punching up its natural flavor.
Once the pear spheres are made, I set them in a small container and filled them to their tops with the eucalyptus liquid and some gelatin, then let this set in the fridge. After the gel set, I used a round cookie cutter to pull out plugs of the gel-encased spheres. The bowls are filled with olive oil; I used some B.R. Cohn oil because Sarah and I did a tasting of their oils the last time we were in Sonoma and really enjoyed them.
I still have lots of Zuta Levana growing, which is part of why I picked this dish to try next. I wanted to use it while it’s still young. In the Passion Fruit dish, the menthol-y taste of the herb was weird for me, but in this one it accents the eucalyptus perfectly, especially since my eucalyptus gel was a bit subtle. I’m also garnishing the dish here with a flower from a pineapple sage plant that I’ve been growing and that’s just started to flower. The pineapple taste is subtle enough to be almost unnoticeable, but I couldn’t NOT use that flower. I mean come on, look at it, right?
All together, I found the spirit of this little thing really beautiful; it’s subtle and the flavors can all easily be picked apart. These kinds of dishes–where I can get everything in one bite and can pick apart all the ingredients–are my favorite to make and to eat. This is straight-up the experience of being about 5 miles outside of Sonoma and breathing deeply. I love the concept.
I wanted to try plating a portion of this one using this bowl, so that I could include some leaves from the young eucalyptus just to cast a bit more scent on things; plus I thought it looked pretty. The bowl, however, doesn’t have a flat bottom; you have to hold it to eat from it, otherwise it just rolls over and dumps everything on the table. So I grabbed a small clear silicone floor protector; it’s the kind of thing you slip under a couch leg to keep it from scratching your floors or scooting around. It had enough grip to hold the bowl’s weight in place, but it wasn’t really very pretty so I had to get rid of it in the photos. I replaced it with a soft shadow that matches the soft lighting on everything. TOTALLY FAKE, YOU GUYS.
I also mentioned last week that my garden is starting to make cool stuff. I’m specifically waiting for heirloom tomatos to come into season, for which I’m going to use some baby cucumbers with the blossoms attached as a garnish. Meanwhile, however, the cucumbers haven’t stayed babies; yesterday I picked these guys right from my very own plants:
Totally legit, right?? I was excited too. I love the idea of making my own pickles with them, so I looked up a few recipes. Turns out there are two main ways to ‘pickle’ something. The fast-and-noisy way is to soak them in vinegar for a while. This results in pickles that taste like vinegar though. The other way is to ferment them! Given my recent jag of making my own beer, the idea of fermenting other things is obviously appealing. The idea is pretty simple: soak the pickles in a brine for about a week. Naturally-occurring bacteria in the skin of the cucumber cause an anaerobic fermentation process, which turns the pickles ‘sour/salty’, not so much ‘vinegary’. You can only do this with freshly-harvested cucumbers though; commercially-packaged ones have most of this bacteria killed/washed off during the cleaning process.
I wanted to make dill pickles, but because I like overdoing things, I also wanted to try using some other stuff in my garden for flavor. The idea of lavender-dill pickles sounded pretty good to me, so that’s what I did. I also included a bit of lemon verbena, pineapple sage, rosemary, and thyme, along with more-usual ingredients like black peppercorns, bay, dill seed, clove, and red pepper flakes.
I boiled some water with salt to make a sterile brine, cooled it, then poured it over my sliced cucumbers with the spices.
I’ll let you know in a week how well (or not) this worked.