It feels like the further I wade into these later dishes, the more I need to rely on solid cooking fundamentals and less on white powders. While still fun, I sometimes miss the white-powdery stuff (edible films, crispy puffs, liquid nitrogen)…i.e. the flashy weird stuff. This dish is actually fairly straightforward and quick to make, and while there aren’t any super-crazy white powders going on here, there are some surprising and unusual aspects that keep it fun and interesting.
The ‘base’ of this dish is a frozen eggplant puree. I made this by starting with 3 eggplants (half of what the recipe calls for; but you can safely scale this component down easily), which I sauteed in oil until they were nicely-browned. The eggplant was then packed in a vacuum bag with garlic, cardamom, soy, some red wine, chili, and other seasonings and cooked en sous vide for about 45 minutes. I blended the resulting mixture until it was smooth, strained it, then chilled it in the fridge overnight before churning it in my ice cream churn. It takes on a firm, ice-creamy consistency. I lined a glass baking pan with plastic wrap and smeared the eggplant to a thickness of around 1/2″. When I was doing this, I noticed the puree took on sort of a slate-like, rocky texture that I found really interesting. Rather than smoothing the puree right up to the edges of the pan, I left the edges ‘raw’ so they’d get frozen into place like this. When I cut the resulting frozen puree into chunks, I left these raw edges, so that when I plated things it sort of resembled a tiny sheer oceanside cliff face. All the greenery and interesting shapes that would go on top would make the whole assembly look sort of like an odd little tropical island to me.
The most striking feature of this dish is obviously the little baby octopus legs. I’ve never worked with octopus before, so this was kinda neat for me. I bought a pound of them, cut off the top of the body, then separated the legs individually. I marinated these in a mixture of soy, mirin, rice vinegar, ginger and sugar for 24 hours, then grilled them. They curl up tidily when heated, and have a tender texture like that of well-cooked calamari. They have a lovely char-grilled flavor, slightly sweet and tart from the mirin and vinegar, with a nice touch of soy. They’re tasty and neat enough that I’d totally make these again just for a regular dinner.
Part of the greenery atop the eggplant slate includes marinated discs of green and yellow wax beans. These are dead-easy to make: whisk together some oil, rice vinegar, salt, and pepper, then add some thinly-sliced beans and let marinate. I left these in the fridge overnight; they taste pretty much exactly like what you’d expect: bright, green, salady, refreshing.
The brown spheres we see on the puree are fried chickpeas. These are delicious! I soaked some (freshly-dried…thanks Katie)chickpeas (garbanzo beans) overnight, then simmered for about 40 minutes until they were tender but not falling apart. I let these dry on a sheet tray for about a half hour, then deep-fried them in canola oil in small batches before draining and salting them. I played a bit with how long to fry them; longer times make them crunchy the whole way through, but I preferred shorter times, which gave a crunchy outside but a smooshy warm inside, like the perfect potato puff or french fry. I seriously totally love these; this is another simple but totally delicious thing to make for a regular dinner.
The assembly is paired with a pile of soy bubbles; this is made by dissolving some sugar and soy lecithin into a soy-water mixture, then blending with an immersion blender to a light, airy foam. The cookbook repeatedly mentions to do this in a tall, narrow container, but I’ve never had luck with this. In fact, I always do the opposite, using a wide saucepan that results in a shallow layer of liquid that allows more room for bubbles to collect. The longer you let the foam sit before plating, the larger and more crystalline the bubbles get.
The puree is garnished with thinly-sliced scallion, cilantro leaves, microgreens, mung bean sprouts, and I used some nice lemon balm leaves.
I shot this dish using my light tent:
You can see how much smaller it is to set up, but the shadows it offers are a little harsher and I have to be careful with that. I like raking light in from the sides of the tent, often adjusting the intensities of them to give a little asymmetry (which adds a bit of interest and complexity). I usually do a simple test before committing to plating to make sure all my levels are set up properly.
Raking light in from the sides lets me shoot from low and in front, but also works just as nicely if I get up above the food.
Generally what I try to avoid is having a bright light coming from a direction anywhere near the camera. This kind of hot ‘front light’ often flattens things out, makes things look garish, and in general resembles what you get with a little on-camera flash (which never really looks very nice or natural to me).
Anyway, back to the food: the flavors of this dish are clearly Asian, but I’m not sure how much more specific than that to be. Maybe Thai? I know Alinea loves playing with Thai flavors, but missing are bright, fruity elements that I usually associate with that cuisine. There’s no fruit or citrus in this dish…usually I associate Thai food with flavors of lemongrass or pineapple as well as soy and coconut. This seemed maybe more Chinese? It was very savory; the cold eggplant ‘ice cream’ is interesting in that it’s rare we experience cold savory flavors (this interesting observation is noted in a course of Next’s El Bulli menu, where they serve a savory tomato granita). The eggplant is both eggplanty and soy-y/other-stuff-y, and for me the two flavors didn’t quite fuse into one thing. They were also very strong; for once I wanted to scale down portion sizes (I usually scale them up a bit for photography, then enjoy the eating part of that, but here I had to kinda slog through it because it was just so fully-flavored). I loved the flavor of the octopus though, and the rest of the garnishes tasted great as well. I couldn’t say this was my absolute favorite dish; all together it was a little more ‘huh, this is interesting’ rather than ‘damn dude!’