I hope the Thanksgiving Fairy left everyone a delicious turkey under your pillows this year! I was feeling adventurous yet lazy this Thanksgiving, so decided to try deep-frying a turkey for my first time. The short version of this story is that I burnt the shit out of it. It seems my problem of adding salt to stuff without tasting it extends to monitoring temperature of things as well; by the time the prescribed 50 minutes were up for my 15.3 lb bird, I discovered it was maybe 10 degrees over temperature, and looked like it had been giving birth to a football as it was hit by a nuclear warhead.
It looks worse than it actually was — in that it was still edible. The interior meat was moderately flavorful, even, having been brined in sweet tea, lemons, oranges, and herbs, and if one really strained one’s tastebuds, one might detect that the rub I used was actually really tasty through the overt carbon notes contributed by the boiling oil bath. Done properly, this can actually be awesome, but hey…”plan to throw the first one away”, as my friend Kevin says about trying something for the first time.
The turkey incident came on the heels of another slight frustration: a few weeks ago I noticed Berkely Bowl carrying small pink crab apples, and made a mental note to plan to start work on a dish featuring them for this weekend. When I went to buy some last weekend along with my turkey, they’d already passed out of season. This is two years running now that I missed them, despite being told last year that they’d be around this year until December or so. Frustrated at the endless cycle of chasing hyper-seasonal ingredients that this project demands, I went back to the book to pore through some more recipes to find something I might be able to gather the ingredients for in a week and execute over a 4-day weekend.
I found two that fit that bill. They both demanded only one tricky ingredient that I didn’t already have in my pantry:
As soon as I finished placing the order for this, I started freaking out. I mean…foie gras. I just bought a full lobe of foie gras. That’s…that’s pretty legit, right?
It showed up at work the next day, packed in a now-familiar combination of styrofoam, ice packs, foil bubble envelopes, and PERISHABLE stickers all over it. I drove home extra-slowly and carefully; it’s like this thing was my baby or something. I had zero idea how to care for it or how to work with it, and my experience with the steelhead roe has made me even more sensitive to the quality of mail-order food. Add to this the Alinea cookbook’s excruciatingly-brief explanation for how to deal with anything and you get me feeling as stressed about doing this as I should have been about the turkey.
The book first instructs me to unpack the liver, remove external veins and sinew, and cut into 1-inch cubes. Doing this is relatively straightforward, though I ended up ‘tearing’ the foie gras a few times trying to follow veins around to remove them. While cutting the liver into cubes, I started noticing its very delicate nature; it was a little like working with butter, in that it was very ‘melty’ and made my hands super greasy. I mixed the liver with a mixture of sugar, kosher salt, and pink salt–I debated omitting the last one in favor of more kosher salt, because I didn’t quite understand what its purpose was, but ultimately figured “Hey, if I’m gonna drop $100 on getting a foie gras lobe overnighted to me, I might as well go splurge on some $8 salt to do this up right.”
I’m glad I did, too. After pushing the salted foie cubes into a vacuum bag, forming them into a cylinder, sealing the bag, and putting it in the fridge to cure for a night, I had a moment to read a little about what I’d just done. The Alinea At Home blog’s author worked her way through the French Laundry cookbook before undertaking this one, and in it she notes briefly how her confidence in dealing with foie gras was high because she’d had prior experience with it when working through the French Laundry book. I have that book, so I pulled it out and started reading through it.
What I found was awesome enough that I feel excited to write about it. Thomas Keller’s book is as exactly pedagogical as the Alinea one isn’t. He has a beautiful, extremely-helpful multi-page writeup on working with foie gras: how to select it, how to devein it (“it’s like play-dough; just rip it apart and mold it back together”) , myriad ways to prepare it, etc. In it, he mentions how he learned in France to salt foie gras with kosher salt and pink salt because the pink salt contains nitrates, which help slow the oxidization process (foie gras has a tendency to turn grey after a few days of exposure to air after processing. Indeed as I write this a few days after finishing this recipe, the foie gras I’d had left, which I left in the fridge just to see what happens, is taking on a grey exterior color). His recipe is exactly that in the Alinea book. Another interesting tidbit he mentions is that unlike many other ingredients, what I at home would buy for foie gras is exactly what he would buy at the French Laundry — there are only two places in the US that commercially sell the product, so I was guaranteed to have as perfect of a product as he (or Alinea) would have.
As I read, I realized that I’ve sort of been doing this project in reverse order. Chef Achatz worked at the French Laundry for years before opening Alinea, and in reading through more of the French Laundry cookbook I started recognizing techniques described in detail in it that I’ve seen peppered throughout the Alinea cookbook. Familiarity with French Laundry techniques finds natural application when extended to Alinea techniques. I’m annoyed I’m only just now discovering this, but simultaneously excited at the connection. I started this project mostly interested in the ‘sciency’, ‘molecular gastronomy-y’ stuff, but have grown steadily away from that as I’ve gone, and finding this connection — between two seemingly diametrically-opposed food temples — is very cool and also comforting.
But, back to the task at hand. After 24 hours of curing, I unpacked my foie gras log and wrapped it tightly in a cylinder of cheesecloth. This is called a ‘torchon‘ of foie gras, and is usually associated with a cold preparation of it (Keller mentions this is, for his money, the absolute best way to enjoy foie gras). The torchon is poached for about 90 seconds in boiling water, then thrust into ice water to cool. You get a sense of the fat content of this stuff immediately when doing this: a thick layer of fat is left floating atop the simmering poaching bath, and little beads of congealed fat ooze out of the cheesecloth and settle on the exterior of the cylinder when chilled.
The ‘pushing’ step of making pushed foie gras involves slicing off a bit of the finished torchon and pressing it through a tamis. Again, think of doing this with butter; if you were to watch the other side of the tamis as the foie is pushed through, you’d see some little ‘noodle’ shapes forming as the mesh separates the liver. The idea, I learned after a bit of futzing with it, is to separate these noodles as much as possible, giving a sort of ‘confetti’ of foie gras.
This is difficult for a few reasons. First, if the foie is even the slightest bit warmer than fridge temperatures, the fat becomes too wet and the ‘noodles’s stick to each other as they come out the other side of the tamis. In fact, the first time I tried this, I didn’t quite understand that I was meant to be separating them, so I just pushed everything through and then, as prescribed, chucked the whole thing in the freezer to harden it before service. The book says to ‘separate the strands with a fork’ before plating, which can’t be done if the strands are all frozen together. So, I needed to separate them BEFORE the freezing step.
Eventually I landed on something that worked for me: rather than pushing the foie through a tamis, I used a round strainer. The mesh size is the same, but the curvature of the strainer helps separate the ‘noodles’ better. Also, I found that if I’d frozen the foie before pushing, it stayed solid enough for the pushing process to not have such a tendency to grab back to itself when it came out the other side of the strainer. The pushing process is helped by the use of a spatula rather than a hand-held scraper, to minimize the amount of warm body temperature that gets transferred to the foie. Ideally I’d guess you’d want to chill/freeze your spatula too. If it all works right, what you get is something that works like this:
If this reminds you of a Play-Doh Hair Salon, we should be friends.
If I tapped/shook the strainer while pushing the frozen foie through it, the noodles broke and separated naturally, forming a little layer of foie sprinkles on some parchment I’d placed under the strainer. This worked better, but again I found the freezing step caused the strands to all fuse together into a weblike structure, which made plating a little tough (the recipe implies you should be able to just sprinkle the stuff onto the dish as if all the strands were nice tidy dry little bits).
The foie confetti is sprinkled on top of a disc of roasted pear panna cotta and Sauternes gel. To make roasted pear panna cotta, I first needed to roast some pears.
These guys are roasted in a little bit of salt.
After about an hour, they come out encased in the salt, which has crusted over from absorption of delicious pear juices. They’re so tender that when I checked one with some tongs, I inadvertently stabbed/smooshed it. I picked the rest out of the salt carefully with the help of some welding gloves, which in addition to keeping my hands safe also made me look damn sporty.
The pears are peeled and cored, then blended with some sugar into a lovely smooth puree.
Half of this puree is cooked with some gelatin and cream, and poured into some ring molds lined with plastic wrap. I didn’t have 8 ring molds, so used what I did have and poured the rest into a baking pan to 1/4″ depth, then put them all in the fridge to set. The other half was mixed with glucose, cream, and some Stabi 3000 to make a pear sorbet.
While the panna cotta was chilling, I worked on making some crispy pear chips. First, I sliced a pear into very thin slices, then took a round cutter and cut out a disc from the slices, leaving a bit of the skin on the chip (this turns into a little ‘handle’ when the chips are dehydrated).
The pear discs are cooked in sugared water until they turn translucent, then dehydrated until they’re crispy.
Finally, I warmed some Sauternes and mixed in some gelatin to make a very flavorful (and alcoholic, since I only barely warmed the wine) gel, and poured that onto the panna cotta. Sauternes is a sweet white dessert wine, and in reading about it I learned it’s apparently classically-paired with foie gras and often has notes of peaches, pears, and honey. The bottle I found had a nice balance of sweetness and acidity, and reminded me of a Noble Riesling I used to really enjoy at the Crazy Horse Steakhouse in Wellington.
The disc of panna cotta and Sauternes is topped with the foie gras confetti, a quenelle of pear sorbet, a pear chip, and several leaves of anise hyssop. The book actually titles this dish “Pushed Foie Gras, Sauternes, Pear, Chervil”, but at no point in the recipe does it call for chervil, and instead calls for the anise hyssop. I like anise hyssop so I went with it, but I can easily imagine the chervil being lovely as well. Both herbs offer a slight fennel/licorice-like taste that’s a nice accent to the dish.
I had real problems plating this dish as excellently as it’s shown in the book. The portions I’d poured into the ring molds didn’t want to release cleanly and were difficult to plate intact. The foie gras didn’t ‘sprinkle’ the way its depicted in the book, and despite using more stabilizer in my sorbet than the product instructs, I still couldn’t get a nice quenelle without it looking sloppy and melty. After several frustrated attempts (shooting each portion as I completed it) I had to concede a bit of imperfection.
But multiple sloppy platings led to multiple portions for me to eat. Most dishes I’ve made so far from the book taste good, but (to me, at least) taste like they’re made by someone playing Alinea in their kitchen. Proportions aren’t exactly right, maybe one component is a little off, etc. But this dish…it tasted like Alinea. It tasted like beauty, like luxuriousness. Were I to have eaten this at the restaurant, I would have closed my eyes and smiled and thought “Holy FUCK that tastes good!” but never would have been able to articulate the flavors, nor (as a result) been able to recall it days later when rereading my menu. It just tastes gorgeous. The flavors all unify seamlessly, as do the textures and temperatures. It melts sumptuously on the tongue, blanketing it in cool notes of fruit, acid, fat, the gamey je ne sais quoi of the foie, the accent of the anise hyssop. It was so super delicious that I could forgive myself slightly for the crappy plating.