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Shellfish Sponge, Horseradish, Celery, Gooseberry

By September 30, 2012Cooking

I feel like I’m moving a little sluggishly here lately; work remains intense and will be for another month or so, and the shift in seasons carries with it a need to be sensitive to how/where I’m sourcing things. I’m still figuring out how to source venison, bison, and wagyu for some upcoming dishes, and think I have some leads but it takes some pre-planning to get everything scheduled out properly.  There’s also the added element of maintaining balance: I want to spend time with Sarah and other loved ones, need to spend time at work, and also want to dedicate attention to this project. It ends up meaning my hours are very deliberate.

But I digress. For this dish, I bought a giant dick.

Ok, not really. There are two ingredients in this dish that were tricky for me; one was Gooseberries, which I found last summer at Berkeley Bowl and managed to cajole into something edible. I spotted these at the SF Ferry Building Farmer’s Market about three weeks ago and have been closely keeping tabs on them. Gooseberries (or “ground cherries”, as the chefs at work call them) are usually summer fruits in the Bay, and I was a little paranoid about them going out of season before I could get my hands on the other tricky ingredient here: geoduck.

Geoduck (pronounced “gooey duck”, or “gui duck” if you’re a fishmonger, apparently) is neither gooey nor related in any way to waterfowl. The word stems from a Native American term that translates to “dig deep”. Geoduck are long (long, long, long)-necked clams; the Wikipedia page on these things is fascinating. I learned that these clams can live to be over 140 years old, that they have very few predators other than humans, and that they’re prized in Asian culture for their unique texture and briny, savory-sweet flavor. I also learned that, well, they look like giant, really super-disturbing genitalia. I’ll leave reading through the Wikipedia page as an exercise for the reader, with one exception: this is my absolute favorite factoid about geoduck:

The geoduck is the official mascot of The Evergreen State College, located at the southernmost tip of Puget Sound in Olympia, Washington. The school’s Latin motto, Omnia Extares (or, “let it all hang out”) is at least partially intended as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the creature’s phallic appearance.

YOU GUYS, THE SCHOOL’S MOTTO IS “LET IT ALL HANG OUT”. Meeting someone who has gone to this school is a new item of aspiration for me.

Ok, anyway. I’ve been calling around about geoduck for the past several weeks. Geoduck is extremely common in the Pacific Northwest, but the warm weather usually accompanying September and the beginning of our Autumnal season around here carries with it a surge of harmful algae and bacterial infections (“Red Tide”); fisheries up and down the coast close down to avoid distribution of contaminated shellfish during this period, which of course includes geoduck. Monterey Fish told me they could fly down some geoduck from Alaska with a weeks’ notice, but given that the shellfish is so common to the area and that it’s already pretty expensive, I decided to roll the dice and try to wait out the red tide without seeing gooseberries go out of season.

On Friday afternoon, Sarah called to let me know she found gooseberries at Berkeley Bowl. I immediately called around to see if any local fish markets were seeing geoduck come back in stock. Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley had gotten a shipment in that very day, they told me, so I asked them to hold one for me and asked Sarah to snag me a bag full of the gooseberries. I headed up to the fish market to snag the freakiest thing I’ve bought for this project so far.

I really want to love Tokyo Fish Market, but every time I’ve been there in the past (looking for prepackaged Japanese ingredients like Junsai or Tatami Iwashi) I’ve struck out. But I haven’t spent a ton of time looking over their fish selection. Turns out…it’s staggeringly awesome. They had fresh live geoduck as well as pre-prepared sashimi of it (the Japanese term for the clam is “Mirugai”; to shop adeptly at the market it’s very helpful to know the japanese terms for fish products), as well as a host of other shellfish. This recipe also called for mussels and littleneck clams, both of which they handily stocked and which looked fantastic.

So I made it home with a cooler full of littlenecks, mussels, and…this guy.

The cookbook describes characteristically-briefly how to prepare this thing — it’s blanched for a moment to loosen the skin (and kill the thing), then the outer skin is stripped off and the interior meat is sliced lengthwise first (to allow rinsing of any sand trapped in the interior siphon), then crosswise into very thin sheets of geoduck sashimi. Rather than taking lots of photos of this process, I’ll just point to the video I referred to when learning how to approach doing this. Once I had the thing sliced into small thin bite-sized pieces, I stored it on ice in the fridge while I got to work on the other shellfish. 

I cleaned the clams and mussels, then steamed them (one species at a time) in a bath of vermouth, fennel, shallot, bay, and tarragon until they opened. I kept the resulting stock, and stored the meat from the shells on ice with the geoduck while I worked on the other components, knowing I had only a few hours or so to complete the whole dish lest the delicate shellfish start degrading too much.

At the same time I was working with steaming the shellfish, I brought some salted water to boil for blanching some celery. The blanching process was to saturate and lock the color of the chlorophyll in the celery; you can see here the difference the blanching process offers to green vegetables…the green takes on a beautiful brightness that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

I juiced the blanched celery, mixed the juice with some salt and sugar to season it, then put the liquid in the freezer. I stirred it every half hour or so until it took on a sorbet-like, crushed ice quality that tasted brightly of celery.

As the celery ice set, I worked on a few other things. I juiced a few chunks of horseradish root, to mix the juice with some creme fraiche to yield Horseradish Cream. Juicing a shitload of horseradish is…really something. You know how slicing onions makes you tear up a little? Inhaling the mist of a half pound of horseradish is a little like that, mixed with being maced by the Oakland police. I would have hated this if I didn’t really love horseradish and also have a deep respect for a root that could cause so much chaos in my kitchen. It was seriously amazing; I was choking and crying and couldn’t really get away from it. But, you know…respect. Respect to horseradish.

I also removed the calyxes (husks) from my gooseberries, and pureed them with some salt, sugar, and Ultra-Tex 3 (to thicken the juice) to yield Gooseberry Sauce.

Updated Note: several people have written to point out that these are in fact “Cape Gooseberries”, which I knew but failed to specify here until now. Cape Gooseberries are entirely different from Gooseberries. While the Alinea cookbook doesn’t specify “Cape Gooseberries”, the photo of the Gooseberry Sauce in the book is bright orange, while regular Gooseberries are green or red. I would have been incredibly confused by this had I not stumbled across Cape Gooseberries last year…and even so, there’s still an arguable note of ambiguity here. Nevertheless, I chose to go with Cape Gooseberries because I liked their tartness and felt the orange color was pretty awesome.

While working on the horseradish and gooseberry creams, I simmered the combined ‘stocks’ left over from steaming the clams and mussels, reduced it a bit, then strained and chilled it. This shellfish stock tasted richly of fragrant herbs and shellfish. I mixed the stock with gelatin and whipped it with an immersion whisk over an ice bath; the ice bath rapidly cooled the mixture and allowed the gelatin to set, while the aeration from the whisk caused the mixture to foam…it was sort of like making a meringue. I used this technique once before when working on the Rhubarb dish a few years ago; I think it’s so awesome. The resulting meringue is dolloped in a few big heaps (one per serving) onto a sheet tray then frozen. What I ended up with was something sort of like a shellfish-stock-tasting marshmallow, only more delicate. This becomes the centerpiece for the dish: the Shellfish Sponge.

As the sponges rested in the freezer, I prepared to plate everything. I needed to clean the shellfish meats. This part was particularly inscrutable; the book provides no diagrams and only the most brief of instructions as to how to ‘fillet’ mussels and trim clams. I feel fairly confident I got the mussels right (in that what I ended up with matches what’s in the book), but not at all confident that I fabricated the clams the way that’s intended. Basically I just tried to make them look tidy, without any odd raggedy bits or gills. I couldn’t find much in the way of online resources to help describe this delicate and tedious process.

But, whatever. I plated the dish starting with the shellfish sponge, onto which I placed several mussel fillets, some of the geoduck slices, and a few trimmed clams. I also garnished it with some tiny celery dice and some fresh microgreens, and placed around it dots of the gooseberry sauce and horseradish cream. The dish is finished with a big spoonful of celery ice just before it’s presented.


In terms of flavor, I really loved this dish. It’s refreshing and light while still being savory and very flavorful. I dig the trick of presenting savory flavors cold; it’s unusual and surprising, and the temperature keeps even the boldest flavors from feeling too bottom-heavy. The sponge and shellfish meats are deliciously briny and herbal, and the horseradish cream and gooseberry sauce add nice accents (the horseradish is wasabi-like, and the gooseberry sauce is bright, tart, and critic). The celery sweetness underscores the sweetness of the shellfish in a way that — while surprising — also tastes remarkably natural and sensible. And I’m very happy for waiting for the timing to be right for this one; as I push through the more-intricate dishes, managing the timing of everything requires more and more sensitivity to the seasons, which I’m thankful to learn more about.

Stepping back from this though, there are some ways I’d love to improve. I have a tendency to overdo things, and tend to over-garnish or over-portion things.  I know full well that with maturity in a craft comes restraint and knowing how to have a more subtle hand, and I’d like to get better at that. I feel sure it’s the sort of thing that comes from repetition, and that’s one slight bummer about this project — my insistence of moving forward means I don’t revisit things as often as I feel I should. I think given another several chances to try each dish, I could hone them to something I’m happier with, and with that would come some more opportunities to learn some of the subtler lessons to be ferreted out of this project.


Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Joey Scott says:

    Impressive. How much did your geoduck cost? I’ve been keeping an eye out for this recipe, but I have no idea what a baseline price would be for the geoduck. I’ll probably have to get mine shipped to Chicago too, inevitably increasing the cost.

    • Allen says:

      Hey Joey!

      My geoduck was around $20 for the one. But, you’ve got some pretty amazing Asian grocers near you; you might find they stock it in their fish section. I’d be surprised if the better shops in Chicago don’t already fly these in…


  • Katie says:

    Okay, I haven’t actually finished reading this post. I was scrolling through the photos and saw the geoduck. Then I saw that you quoted that bit from Wikipedia about them and your new aspiration. I have two friends here in Chicago that went to Evergreen, and the chair of my department (long ago) also went to Evergreen. They are all special and awesome people, and I reserve special affection for them.

  • Deanne says:

    Your description of inhaling horseradish made me laugh out loud at my office. Many years ago my mom ground her own horseradish for Passover and then, for unknown reasons, checked on it’s progress in the food process but putting her eye up to the feed tube. I’m sure you know her pain but this reminded me of it. Excellent.

  • Heidi says:

    Hey. I can’t help but to point out a small detail that caught my eye on your post.
    Gooseberry is a completely different berry from Cape Gooseberry.

    Either your terms are mixed up, or the berry in question in the recipe is wrong. It’s a small detail, but I felt like I had to point it out, since it got me all confused (English not my first language).
    Otherwise, I love your blog and will keep on following ^^

    • Allen says:

      Hi Heidi, you’re totally right! I knew this but failed to point it out; I’ve updated the post accordingly, thank you! I chose to use the Cape gooseberries because that’s what matched the photo in the cookbook, even though it doesn’t specify (or, at least, it just says to use “gooseberries”, which I think might be a misprint).