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Experiment, In Five Courses

By October 23, 2012Cooking

In the documentary “It Might Get Loud”, Jack White says this peculiar thing about how when he’s playing at a concert, if he’s meant to move from the guitar to the piano and needs the piano to be 3 steps away from him in order to make the transition, he’ll put it further so that he has to move faster to get there in time.

I love this.

I’m not really supposed to love it. In the realm of working with technology, things are usually all about efficiency. Why do things the hard way if you can apply a bit of smarts to do them an easier (and maybe even better) way? While I dig the elegance involved in thinking like that, there’s something about White’s quote that resonates with me. Eliminating risk in the name of efficiency closes a lot of interesting doors that might otherwise be fun to explore.

This project offers no shortage of opportunity for exploration of creativity, and creativity needs an element of risk involved. Confidence buoyed by my Beef/Lamb adventure, I wanted to try cooking two dishes at once again. I could have done my usual bit of carefully setting up and photographing the intricacies of a dish in relative solitude and quiet, but rather than doing any of that I decided to push the piano bench a bit farther away and try cooking a 6-course dinner that included 2 Alinea dishes for 12 people.

Turns out I pretty much shoved the damn bench off the stage and into the alley outside, metaphorically-speaking.

A few weeks ago, in sifting through the cookbook to choose a few new Autumn dishes to work on, a couple jumped out at me: there’s a Wagyu beef dish with red peppers and pumpkin seeds, and a venison dish with celery root puree and something called “savory granola”.  Both of these involved sourcing some fairly large cuts of relatively exotic meat, so I decided to up the ante and invite a herd of friends over to share.

Admittedly I usually make these dishes in relative privacy for a few reasons. It usually takes me a few plating attempts before I get things working well enough that I’d want to show them to anyone else, take a photo of them, or serve them under what I’d consider to be ideal conditions–the bar I set for “well enough” has grown higher and higher with each dish iteration.  Because it’s always the first time through for me with each of these, planning for things to be ready at a certain time is a little hard. It’s also hard for me to justify asking all my friends to travel to our place for a few tiny bites of food that couldn’t ever really comprise a full meal, but I figured a dual-feature of wagyu and venison might kinda-sorta get me closer to being able to offer something worth coming over for.  I like to overdo things (and I wanted to absolutely make sure no one left hungry), so I decided to ratchet things up a little more and try to do a full menu’s worth of cooking. After a few days of planning, I landed on 6 things I wanted to try to make:

  • At my first dinner at Alinea, they had a course similar in form to the Idiazabal dish but made with lobster bisque. I wanted to try something similar with Tomales Bay oysters, since my friends and I dig spending days at Tomales Bay eating oysters and boozing on cheap beer. The idea was to make a broth from oysters, fennel, tarragon, bay, and Coors Light, make a dough from the broth, overcook the dough, dehydrate it, then fry it to puff it into a Tomales Bay oyster chee-toe. I would garnish this with Tabasco and citrus powders to echo the flavors we tended to baseline with when gorging on oysters.
  • James and I had a conversation earlier this year about what one could do with watermelon other than “cut it up and put it on a plate”. I wanted to surprise him with something highlighting watermelon, so I cribbed some ideas from the Coffee and Mandarin dishes and came up with a Watermelon capsule filled with tequila cream. This was paired with grapefruit shortbread, dried candied grapefruit zest, lemon verbena pudding, watermelon pudding, licorice syrup, dehydrated grapefruit pulp, and (no shit) Bud Light Lime Gel.
  • Alinea’s autumnal “Kuroge Wagyu, Squash, Yogurt, Smoked Paprika Taffy”, featuring small cubes of wagyu-style beef topped with a red pepper taffy with embedded fried pumpkin seeds, a warm slice of acorn squash glazed with smoked paprika yogurt, webs of dried roasted red peppers and shiitake mushrooms, and dots of yogurt and red pepper paprika puddings.
  • A dish adapted from the Mugaritz cookbook, featuring warm cooked pumpkin cubes paired with sweet potato and a coffee-marscapone cream.
  • The second Alinea dish, “Venison, Encased in Savory Granola”, which is paired with celery root puree, cherry sauce, and toasted oat bubbles
  • For dessert, Cider donuts

First, the sourcing of the meats.  When Sarah took me to The French Laundry a few months ago, one of the courses they served involved a steak from Snake River Farms. It was the most staggering bite of meat; it tasted like an entirely new animal, so unique was the flavor. The menu laid bare where they sourced their meat from, so I called up Snake River to talk with them about getting the requisite 5-lb ribeye I needed, along with some rendered wagyu beef fat. Snake River, I learned, has two beefy arms of commerce: they sell pre-packaged and pre-portioned cuts to consumers like your humble narrator, and also sell wholesale to restaurants. They were happy to work with me on searching for a 5-lb ribeye (their site notes only 7-lb ones) — which saved me $50 on the beef — but couldn’t help with wagyu fat, as that’s something they only provide through their wholesale component. No biggie, rendering my own beef fat is easy enough. The beef itself showed up the next day complete with its own instruction manual, a very polished, high-detail description of managing temperatures for my precious hunk of wagyu. The first thought that went through my head as I scanned it was Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock saying “I’m not doing ANY of this, Liz Lemon!”

I also needed to source venison, and in doing so learned the following: you can’t buy wild venison because the FDA can’t certify the health of the animal or its diet, which means one has to farm venison to sell it in retail shops. Farming venison takes a shit ton of space, because deer like to run and jump and frolic, and this takes giant fences and lots of space to keep them happy. In America we love our beef, so it’s way more profitable to use that land for raising cattle. New Zealand provides 85% of America’s legal venison product. The Alinea book mentions nothing about where they source their venison, but I checked the French Laundry book and they note D’artagnan, which resells imported New Zealand venison at what I’ll politely call “a premium”. Eleven Madison Park mentions in their cookbook that they source from “Millbrook Venison Products”. I wasn’t sure what to make of the New Zealand thing; I figured it must be frozen for such a long trip, and I wonder if people use it because it’s the best they can get, not because it’s the Best (but honestly I have no idea; the assumption that it’s frozen in transit is a blind one). My gut tells me if I can find fresh, non-frozen venison, that might be the Most Awesome, so I called Millbrook Venison to see if they could overnight me a half saddle.

The very nice guy at the other end of the line said he could do it but that I’d be a little crazy to let him, because the shipping on it would be incredibly expensive. More expensive than imported New Zealand venison? Would it be worth it to get it unfrozen? I had no idea. The guy at Millbrook said he ships to a few restaurants in the bay area, including La Folie, and suggested I call them to ask if I could buy a half saddle from them and skip paying shipping. This sounded like a bit of a nutty idea, but I tried anyway; I phoned La Folie and left a message asking them about it, but they’re snooty and french and never called me back.

After a bit of asking around, a friend at work mentioned I should call Golden Gate Meats over in the Ferry Building (I’m not offering the link to their site because they have a terrible song playing in the background of the page and I’m just not going to do that to you, friends). The butcher I spoke with was awesome and very helpful, and offered to order me a loin and a tenderloin for arrival the next day. When I went to pick it up, sure enough they had set it aside with my name on it, which admittedly felt a little awesome. I asked the butcher where the meat was from (I assumed New Zealand); he mentioned it was actually from an elk farm outside Denver in Colorado, but that what happens is the farm probably sells their deer to a larger slaughterhouse for processing before it’s shipped to GG Meats. This is actually exactly how the cattle farm I grew up on works: Dad would take young cattle who were of prime age for beef up to an auction house to sell them off to bidding slaughterhouses, who would then take the cattle, process them, and sell the product to grocery stores or butcher shops around the state.

Meats sourced, I went grocery shopping Friday night after work, then came home and started cooking. This continued almost solidly through the next two days right up until meal time at 6pm Sunday. It turns out that this was almost exactly my maximum capacity as an individual, and even then I needed to tap in help at a few key moments. Mike and Kate generously offered to bring dinner over Saturday (suspecting I wouldn’t have time to make it myself…they were right), then hung around the next day helping me work on everything in between cheering for the Patriots.

The Oyster Cracker idea I had failed at the last minute; the crackers failed to puff, so I had to take them off the menu. I think the idea is sound and could work well, I just need to figure out how to make the cracker dough more glutenous so it traps water and is a little stretchier. Everything else went more or less smoothly, though I was working right up to when people arrived. This had a couple of not-great ramifications: 1) I couldn’t set up my photo gear and take chic photos of everything per usual, and 2) I didn’t have an opportunity to plate things before serving them for the first time. Foreshadowing, friends.

Erik showed up a few hours early to help out; this turned out to be one of the most key moves of the weekend. I mentioned a few posts back that he’s been exploring fancy cooking in his free time as well, though he both of us have generally spent most of our time on our own trying to figure things out for ourselves. He came over Sunday afternoon ready to contribute in a few ways I didn’t even expect but deeply appreciate, including bringing over his sharpening stone and sharpening my knives before service…this was just awesome.

Apologies for the second movie reference of the day, but in the cheesy-but-still-kinda-cool movie “Limitless”, the main character takes a pill that causes his brain to operate at a higher capacity than it normally does; in the scenes were he starts ‘tripping’ on this drug, there’s a neat audio trick the sound guys do where they intersplice whirring warming-up jet engine turbines with the film’s score to highlight him becoming more aware of his surroundings and starting to process more and more information at once. As douchey as this might sound, it’s a little bit how it feels to go from a relatively calm, quiet kitchen to one teeming with guests and the sudden motivation to care for them. There’s a bit of an electric crackle of energy that’s absent when I’m working quietly and very slowly near the end of a dish when I’m carefully plating it and taking photos of it.

As it turns out, this is also where things can start going wrong (or, to be less self-critical, “differently than I would have liked”). I’m suddenly aware of things like simultaneous plate serving temperatures of everything, consistency in portion size, etc. Doing this stuff precisely once or twice alone is a good thing before expecting to be able to do it in front of a dozen people. As it stood, I was figuring it all out as I was going, and got it wrong almost every time.

Thankfully I have some pretty great friends who are both blind to the nuances I get really fussed up over and also extremely eager to help when I get a little overwhelmed. Unwrapping and plating all the watermelon-tequila capsules was something that wouldn’t have worked very well if I was doing them one at a time, but with 3 other people it was done in seconds.

Side note about the watermelon capsules; I had this idea to try to dehydrate watermelon pulp, powder it, and mix it with pop rocks as a component of this dish. Mike and Kate suggested trying something more exotic, like savory pop rocks. I thought this was a pretty rad idea, and after some talk we landed on cilantro. As neat as it sounded at the time, on the plate I wasn’t sure it worked so well; everyone could agree they were interesting but probably didn’t fit well with the rest of the flavors.

While nothing looked as perfectly pretty as I would have liked, one dish in particular was visually just terrible. The Pumpkin/Sweet Potato/Coffee dish should be served warm, so I plated pumpkin and sweet potato then put the plates in a warm oven. I’d cured the pumpkin in syrup after cooking them until they were tender, and the sweet potato was cooked with vanilla and sugar. The sweet potato I bought had turned out to be an odd green inside (I can’t recall the variety…it tasted great, but looked like salsa verde or something). When the warm plates came out of the oven and I tried smearing coffee marscapone on the plate, the cheese melted immediately…it looked like a sad sloppy blob of melting chocolate ice cream. There was no salvaging this at all really…it looked terrible to me and I almost wanted to scrap it, but then figured it might be a pretty funny example of missing the proverbial piano bench entirely. Several people have mentioned being curious about what it looks like when things go horribly wrong on this project…this is a pretty good example of it. I served it anyway, and it tasted nice, but man, it was ugly as hell.

The biggest production was dealing with the Venison Encased in Granola; I didn’t have 12 same-sized ring molds, so I just had to improvise with the sets I had and try to figure out how to dole out the portions properly. Plating this thing was pretty intense, but Erik and James helped get it all done.

The one thing I had done before (and unsurprisingly, the thing that went the most smoothly) was making cider donuts, served with warm cider icing and cider-mace syrup.

There were things that disappointed me about this whole thing, each of which revolve around the discrepancy between my taste and my ability. Nothing looked nearly as tidy and pretty to me as I would have liked, there were things wrong/broken with every dish (the red pepper taffy in the Wagyu dish was a mess) that I didn’t have time to remake, and I have no fancy photos to show of anything (I didn’t actually touch a camera at all — these photos are all courtesy Sarah). But I still walk away from the experiment feeling happy and satisfied: I learned a lot about a lot about my limits, how much risk can be involved before it overwhelms things, and how much room is needed for creativity. And I think most things tasted nice for everyone, and we didn’t need to order a pizza. The most fun moments for me were the most stressful, but also the ones where I was getting the most help from friends, and it felt neat to acutely become aware of a helping hand giving me room to think. I have a deeper appreciation for what’s involved with things for people like David or others doing more professional dinner adventures, and realize I’m nowhere close to being able to hang with that caliber of chef…yet.

Maybe the nicest moment I’ve had was this morning when I was walking in to work and was thinking about what I wanted to say here. There were piles of autumn leaves everywhere and I remembered that I’d really wanted to do the Alinea thing where I covered my dining table with leaves or lined our entryway with fresh hay and pumpkins, but just didn’t have the time to do it by myself. But rather than being mad at myself for all the stuff that didn’t go right I just thought “Oh yeah that’ll be cool as shit next time I try this”, and undoubtedly everything will be just a little bit better.

Baby steps.

 

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Deanne says:

    Is this an Alinea recipe for cider donuts or one you just have? Either way, is there a way I could get that recipe from you? I love cider donuts and miss them terribly this time of year but I haven’t found a recipe I love yet.

    Also, this looks like a pretty awesome dinner party even if it wasn’t perfect. So just think how great it will look when you are retired and have year’s of practice plus more time to put it together? You will be the hit of retirement community.