Goose, Blood Orange, Sage, Roasting Goose Aromas

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The story of this dish starts the way the recipe for it in the cookbook does: with stock.

Among the most time-consuming tasks in this cookbook — instanced 4-5 times throughout it — is creation of veal stock. Chef Achatz’ roots at The French Laundry are belied in the recipe for it, although rather than TFL’s three-day process, Alinea’s is a bit more streamlined: it involves blanching 10lbs of veal bones, simmering them for 8 hours gently, straining them, simmering them for another 8 hours, then reducing the combined 1st and 2nd pass to a liter’s worth of rich stock. The first time I made it, I naively just saw the two 8-hour instructions and surmised I might be able to do the whole thing in one long day. Nope. Factor in the time it takes to bring several liters of water to boil (thrice) and how long it takes to reduce the final stock and you quickly run into a 2 day process, and if you’re going to take a break overnight, don’t forget to factor in how long it takes these massive pots of water to cool before trying to put them in your fridge.

In short, it’s an involved process.

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Several months ago, I mentioned being fortunate enough to be included in a roster of food blogs presented by Saveur. A cool side-effect of this was getting to meet a couple new people as a result, including Scott Heimendinger. Scott and I struck up a conversation that eventually drifted around to talk of me doing a small freelance project for Scott’s ultra-cool day job. When discussing payment for services, I asked Scott if Modernist Cuisine might be interested in a little trade. He agreed, and a short while later our apartment got notably heavier.

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Most early critiques of these massive books seem to dance around saying anything super-committal one way or another about them…other than “they’re really big”. Many said something like “they read like textbooks”, which seems like the literary equivalent of looking someone up and down and saying “Huh. You changed your hair.”

I can’t quite understand that trepidation; I’m nearly through Book 3 of the main collection and it’s fucking awesome. Staggeringly-beautiful photography aside, the Modernist team strikes a really lovely balance of positing information without sounding arrogant or de facto about it; there’s a refreshing humility to bits of it that are surprising given such an ostentatious physical presentation. Many concepts are familiar but the team dives deep on everything, ensuring that they (and the reader) fully understand the whys and hows of cookery. As an artist who understands that making cool shit is expensive, I find the unarguably-hefty pricetag a justifiable one: a team of dozens of people spent years building the collection, it wasn’t easy and took a lot of time and consideration. A full-page photograph of an intact and wholly-skinned monkfish along with a frank caption attesting that it took a chef a full day to accomplish this is one of countless examples of the effort that went into the books. While the ordering of things is a little scattershot, the sheer amount of interesting information makes me really love these things (learning how KFC fries their chicken is one of my absolute favorite bits).

So as I read through this Alinea recipe several weeks ago in trying to plan for it, it was with particular acuity that the sections of MC Book 2 about pressure-cooking stock caught my attention.

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The short version is this: traditional methods of cooking stock involve long, slow simmers of bones with aromatics — long because the collagen surrounding the bones and the marrow within them need low, steady heat  to give up their flavors. Water can’t ever boil over 100C under normal conditions, and the jostling of bubbles in a rolling boil cause the stock to go cloudy, so the conventional way to deal with this is to simmer gently, yielding a clear stock. The longer time necessitated by the low temperature of around 90C mean that the stock undergoes an enormous amount of evaporative cycles as it cooks. Cooking stock makes your kitchen smell great; this is because aromatics cooking in the stock are escaping via the steam emitted from it as it simmers. Because you’re constantly purging the stock of aromatics, you need a lot of them per batch of stock. So, making stock this way is relatively expensive in both time and ingredients.

Modernist Cuisine describes a more efficient way to do all this: via a pressure cooker. Once pressurized, a pressure cooker cannot boil (the vapor pressure inside the chamber is so high that the water can’t evaporate) and becomes superheated well past 100C. This increase in temperature makes all the reactions that happen in traditional stockmaking run faster, and the lack of violent boiling yields a non-cloudy stock. Because there’s no evaporation, aromatics aren’t purged during the cook, which means you can use way less of everything to yield the same ‘strength’ stock at the end. The books describe a recipe for veal stock that cooks in about 4 hours.

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This sounded like a pretty fun thing to try, but I was curious how the Modernist recipe would compare to Alinea’s when it came to final flavor. I decided to try a rough test: I would make 3 batches of stock. The first would be Modernist Cuisine’s pressure-cooked stock. I would also cook the exact same recipe in a slow-cooker, mimicking the more traditional approach but without the heavy evaporation problem normal stock has. Finally, I would try as best I could to port Alinea’s stock recipe over to the pressure-cooker ‘style’. This last bit was the hardest; I wasn’t sure how to reliably convert Alinea’s quantities down to those appropriate for this other method, so I just did some guesstimation.

Modernist Cuisine’s recipe involved a step Alinea’s does not: they roast their veal bones in an oven to brown them before putting them in the stock, and also brown all their aromatics before adding water. As the MC stocks were cooking, I read a little about this. Turns out the difference between “brown” stocks and “white” stocks is exactly this step. Brown stocks involve a roasting step that yields fuller, roasty flavors but which might mask more-delicate notes, depending on the animal from which you’re making your stock.

After completing all three stocks, I offered them to Sarah to taste. The MC pressure-cooked stock was robust and tasty. Interestingly, the MC non-pressure-cooked one tasted very similar, but didn’t have quite the depth of the pressure-cooked version. And the Alinea pressure-cooked version (a white stock) tasted anemic and watery by comparison, but with much brighter herbal notes. Surprisingly, none of them tasted anything like the veal stocks I’d made the traditional way from this cookbook previously, but they did all taste like stock you might find in a grocery store. It occurred to me later that this might be because Alinea does this two-step thing where they simmer the bones twice. I wonder (but haven’t yet tried) making the MC pressure-cooked stock from itself, fortifying it with two rounds of bones. I’m curious if this yields something closer to the rich, very full-bodied stock I’m used to.

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The recipe here calls not only for veal stock, but also for goose stock. I’d be working with a whole goose over the course of making this dish, but had no idea how much a single goose’s bones weigh. Alinea’s traditional-approach recipe calls for 10 lbs of goose bones, onions, leeks, and various herbs to be cooked for around 6 hours. I suspected a single goose doesn’t pack around 10 lbs’ worth of bones, and (oddly) couldn’t find a butcher who could give me a decent estimate of how much the bones of a single goose was likely to weigh. After calling around for about a week, it seems as though most butchers don’t habitually carry goose, so tracking down that amount of bones proved unfruitful. One guy at Ver Brugge up in Berkeley asked if I could do with duck instead?

This sounded like an interesting contingency plan, so I said sure and placed an order for 10lbs of duck bones (and trimmings), and for a whole goose. The ingredient list for Modernist Cuisine’s duck stock almost-exactly matched that of Alinea’s (just the quantities of things differed), so I thought I had a good chance of landing pretty close to Alinea’s target by using Modernist Cuisine’s pressure-cooked approach. Interestingly, I noted that Alinea calls for roasting the bones for this stock.

While the duck stock was cooking, I worked on taking apart the whole goose itself. I saved all the bones and trimmings from it, roasted them, and (when the duck stock had finished), made another batch with the goose bones. Turns out that, because it’s more economical,  using the pressure-cooked approach for the goose stock for this dish yields an amount that’s plenty for the needs of the dish…I didn’t need to make the duck stock at all. I’m pretty ok with this though…my freezer’s looking pretty respectable with the results of all this stock experimentation in it.

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Another tricky goose component used frequently throughout this recipe is goose fat. Again, I had no idea how much fat a single goose yields, so as I was taking apart the whole goose, I was very conservative about hanging onto every scrap of fat I found. Goose butts are incredibly fatty, it turns out; I pulled a couple big wads the size of softballs out of the cavity of my goose and threw them and all my other trimmings in a pot with some water. My aim was to simmer this gently for a few hours in a process called “wet rendering”; fat melts and leaks out of the trimmings and floats on top of the water, where it stays cool and retains more of its natural flavor than with the more-violent dry-rendering technique of frying everything in a pan at much higher temperatures.

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You can see in the above image the trimmings appear to be sitting on the bottom of the pan. They’re actually floating at the top of a water layer that’s sitting under a deep layer of fat that’s rendered out of the trimmings. After a few hours I let the mixture cool, strained it, then put it in the fridge overnight. The water and fat separate, the fat solidifying on top of the water. I poked a hole in it and drained out the water, melted the fat slightly, then poured it into jars. For anyone who might need this experience as reference, there’s plenty of fat in a single goose to do this recipe two or three times. Or, store it in your freezer along with all the rest of the stock you’ve made and tell your new wife it’s cool, you’ll find lots of ways to use this stuff.

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To make goose leg confit, the goose legs are cured overnight in a mixture of sugar, salt, a lot of orange peel, curing salt, nutmeg and other spices. They’re then cooked sous vide with some of the fat for several hours to render their collagen tender.

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Conveniently, the temperature of the water bath for the confit legs is the same needed for that needed to make confit turnips and sweet potatoes, both of which were also packed in goose fat and dropped into a bath held steady by my new Nomiku.

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And, simultaneously, I cooked some oranges with grapeseed oil and sugar in the same bath until the rind was very tender. This was then pureed with orange juice to yield Orange Sauce.

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The skin of the goose legs is pulled carefully in big pieces, then the meat is removed from the bone and mixed with bread, cooked onions, leeks, fennel, celery seed, eggs, and goose stock to form a stuffing mix. The skin is placed in the bottom of a pan and the stuffing is packed on top, then the mixture is cooked until it’s springy. It’s then meant to be stored in the fridge overnight to firm up…under a 10lb weight (the reason for the weight is not given). Sarah barely batted an eyelash when she opened the fridge the following morning to find this:

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The stuffing is cut into planks, then flipped skin side up and seared under a broiler to crisp the skin and warm it through just before service. The size of the planks and overall construction of them as dictated by the recipe is uncharacteristically rustic for Alinea, and were I to do it all over again I might make some changes: the vegetables in the stuffing are deliberately cut into a fine dice, but the goose leg meat is meant to remain in pieces “as large as possible”, which gives rise to big pockets in the stuffing and a really chunky texture. This made it hard to keep things tidy when cutting the planks. The portion dictated (1.5″ x 6″) is also maybe twice as wide as what the photo in the book appears to be, leading to the very rare case of this dish actually being pretty filling on it’s own.

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The breast of the goose might have been one of my favorite things to make, mostly because I had no idea where I was headed with it when I started. The breasts were cured in another mixture of salt, sugar and spices, then packed in fat and cooked to medium-rare sous vide…then frozen. The recipe then says to remove the breasts and “remove excess skin”. Because I’d read ahead and was a little paranoid about how much goose fat I’d need (which I shouldn’t have been), I interpreted this as “remove the skin completely”, and so I figured why not do that before curing, and render the fat from the skin separately?

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It was only as I was cooking the breast skin that I reread the recipe and realized I probably wasn’t meant to have done this. Hm. I wondered if there was a clever way to try to salvage this. I’d recently read about how to make chicharrones, or pork cracklings, which is puffed pork belly skin. The idea is simple: cook the shit out of the skin to rid it of fat, dehydrate it until it’s firm, then deep fry it until it puffs. The cooking step renders collagen to gelatin, which then traps residual water as it steams when the skin is fried, causing it to puff. I figured if fatty pork belly behaved this way, maybe my duck breast would? I cooked it at 190F for about 4 hours, then strained it and dehydrated it overnight. I noticed in the morning it still was leaking a fair bit of oil, so I scored it in a crosshatch pattern to see fi that might help it drain faster. After a couple hours, I pulled them from the dehydrator and tried dropping them in hot oil.

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They crisped handily, but didn’t really puff the way I wanted. Maybe there wasn’t enough water in them? Maybe poultry skin doesn’t have the gelatin content pig skin does? They were kinda tasty, sort of like very crisp bacon, but not all the way magical (or maybe I think that because they didn’t work the way I envisioned).

At any rate, after this experiment I pulled my solid-frozen cured cooked goose breasts from the freezer. I was meant to slice it very thinly on a meat slicer, but because I don’t own one I just got my knife skillz on.

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As the first paper-thin slice thawed, it dawned on me that I’d made sort of a prosciutto from these breasts. They had the same lovely texture and a salty spice taste that meshed perfectly with the flavor of the meat. This approach is again ostensibly streamlined for restaurant use, but the aim is obvious and the result is awesome.

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Next up was cutting some foie gras from Hudson Valley into cubes, scoring them and searing them over high heat until meltingly tender and warm. Foie gras, the astute reader may note, is 100% illegal in California…to sell. Not being a restaurant though, I’m totally free to buy as much of it as I’d like, and out-of-state Hudson Valley is totally compliant with state law in shipping me some.

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The final step in preparing the dish for plating was my favorite.

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Into a bowl, I placed crushed nutmeg, blade mace, sage, thyme, and orange peel…all of which had been tossed in shiny melted goose fat.

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At the same time, I warmed up some river rocks in my oven. I also broiled some of the stuffing planks, and re-thermed the turnip and sweet potatoes in a hot water bath. The veal stock was reduced and mixed with nutmeg to yield a dark, delicious Nutmeg Sauce, and it and the Orange Sauce were dotted onto a plate. When the stuffing planks came out of the oven, I quickly rolled slices of the Cured Goose Breast into cylinders and placed them on the plank, along with the foie gras, vegetables, and a supremed wedge of orange.

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Then I removed one of the river rocks and placed it into the bowl of goose-fat-tossed aromatics.

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The fat began sizzling immediately, and the room was filled with the aroma of a roasting goose, as if I’d opened the oven door on Christmas day. It smelled awesome.

Sarah and I sat down to enjoy the second Thanksgiving feast in one weekend (the first one involved smoking a turkey a la this awesome recipe).  Amazing smell aside, the dish as a whole was pretty ok. There’s a lot of stuff to get on the plate all at once, and the temperature is critical…I had trouble keeping everything as warm as I’d have liked it. The unrefined texture of the stuffing was just ok for me; I couldn’t have picked out the flavors of the cured goose leg, just that there were giant chunks of meat in it. We both loved the goose prosciutto though, and the confit vegetables were a lovely texture.

Despite not being madly in love with the final result, I had a whole lot of fun making this one though. Crispy skin on top of stuffing is a sweet move that should find its way into regular stuffing recipes, and learning about stocks was great. I’ve also been on a jag to learn to cure my own meat (but that requires a cooler to age the meat in, and given our small apartment’s available space, I have to pick my battles), so getting a taste of that here was pretty rad.

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King Crab, Vinegar, Aromatics, Seaweed

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Let’s learn about King Crab.

Fresh Alaskan Red King Crab is a bit of a culinary unicorn. There are two other recipes in this book that call for it, but in both cases I substituted fresh local Dungeness crab. My original google searches for it about 3 years ago turned up very few results that didn’t intersect with Costco; Chowhound is littered with “Q: Where can I find King Crab in X area? A: Costco” posts. Local fish markets in the Bay Area don’t carry it, despite carrying live Dungness crabs, lobster, even live uni or softshell crabs if you’re looking during the right time of year. Something about Costco struck a sour chord with me; I just couldn’t imagine Alinea bangs down to Costco to load up on discount bulk crab to sit in their walk-in next to thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh white truffles or imported Japanese fish.

So I started digging.

1980 apparently represented the peak of the king crab industry; Alaskan fisheries produced ~200 million lbs. of crab that year. The catch suddenly and sharply took a downward turn, however; by 1983, the total size of the the crab population had dropped by 90% for reasons that are not entirely clear. Several theories have been proposed, including overfishing, warmer waters, and increased fish predation. What did not take a downward turn was American demand, and herein always lie problems.

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Alaskan King Crab are fished from the their native homeland of the Bering Sea. In the 1960s, Russian scientists seeded these crabs into the (subtly- and confusingly-differently named) Barents Sea, which is shared by Norway. The original intent was to to create a new food supply for Arctic communities. King Crab are an invasive species, however; the transplantation into an ecosystem that did not have a native ability to keep the species in check caused a population explosion. The soaring market prices for the crab in the US dissuaded any potential efforts on behalf of Russia to reduce the population; quite the opposite, in fact. With the downturn of the Red King Crab population in the Bering Sea, US markets encouraged the further overpopulation of the species in the Barents sea and correspondingly poor fishing practices of Russian crab boats using nets to drag the sea bottom (rather than the cages [pots] used by Alaskan fishermen), which damages coral and marine life. The massive influx of Russian Crab into the US forces the price down, making for a tempting purchase at Costco, where one can find “King Crab” at $10/lb.

Monterey Bay acknowledges this strongly-undesirable situation, and dissuades consumers from buying the cheaper Russian crab (which only encourages perpetuation of the problem). The trouble is, most consumers don’t know (and perhaps many don’t care) where the frozen crab hails from, so the problem persists.

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But back to the Alaskan crab.  For many years the dwindling population in the Bering sea led to horrendous competition amongst crab fishermen in an already incredibly-dangerous industry. The fatality rate among the King Crab fishermen is about 80 times the fatality rate of the average worker; it is suggested that, on average, one crab fisherman dies weekly during the crabbing seasons. In 2005, to assuage the competition, government regulations on crab fishing changed such that each crab boat was given an allowable yearly quota, and the length of the fishing season was shortened substantially. At one point the season lasted only 4 days; currently the seasons tend to last 2-3 weeks. Once the season ends, the vast bulk of all Alaskan king crab is ‘processed’ (i.e. the crabs are slaughtered, cleaned, cooked, packaged, and flash-frozen), then either stocked in Alaska or shipped to distributors around the world. Most of it goes to restaurants; little of it goes to Costco.

Such a brief season gives natural rise to the questions about how one acquires fresh Alaskan King Crab. Is it possible to buy a live Alaskan King Crab the way one can buy live Dungeness crab or live lobsters here in the Bay Area? Well, yes…if you’re ok with the nearly $350 price tag that’s associated with overnighting a single gigantic 5-8lb crab to your door, and you have the means to kill, clean, and cook it properly. A King Crab’s leg span can easily equal the arm span of an average adult, so cramming a massive, feisty live crab into a stock pot struck me as notably more difficult than doing the same with a Dungeness crab. Is this what Alinea does?

Consulting the recipe for this dish offers a subtle clue: for the King Crab component itself, there are no cooking instructions. The book itself seems to assume that you are working not with live King Crab, but with pre-processed crab. Is this a subtle accommodation afforded to the home chefs who might try this dish? Absolutely nothing else in the book seems ‘dumbed down’ for the home kitchen, so it’s hard for me to believe that this was.

I wrote Alinea a few years ago asking about this. Were they sourcing fresh live crab (and if so, how do they sustain this outside the 2-3 week seasonal window), or were they using pre-processed crab? A chef responded that “frozen crab is ok, as long as you can verify catch, kill, cook, and freeze dates for the crab” to ensure it was processed as promptly as possible after capture.

Hm.

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Learning what I had about where the bulk of Costco’s supply is from, and wanting to keep the game here lively and challenging (because, let’s face it, saying “I went and bought this at Costco” isn’t really an interesting story), I started hunting around to see how I could put myself in the path of fresh Alaskan King Crab. Without too much trouble, I unearthed several websites for businesses based in Alaska that serve as the processing/distribution point between the fishing boats and whomever buys the crabs. One of them in particular, The Crab Broker, has an interesting note on their site: during the season itself, they can process and ship you crab without freezing it. This struck me as an interesting compromise between flying in a live crab and buying something that’d been frozen.

I sent an email to The Crab Broker 2 years ago, in October, asking when Red King Crab season was and if they would allow me to buy a small amount. They replied that they would be happy to, but the season had just passed a few weeks before and they were therefore sold out. I could, if I chose, opt to buy some of the flash-frozen crab…but something about nailing the timing of this seemed irresistible to me. Plus at the time I had plenty of other dishes to work on, so I said I’d wait. I set a reminder in my calendar for 50 weeks later to call them back.

When the time arrived last year, I rang them up. The woman with whom I spoke said “Oh no! The season just ended last week!”. I’d missed the opportunity to place an order by a scant few days. Sad face.

This year, I noted with gloomy certainty that our wedding in mid-October would assuredly land right exactly in prime fresh-crabbing season. A part of me wondered if it’d be ok for me to overnight some crab to Kentucky and make a heroic attempt at completing this dish in the midst of trying to cater the wedding itself, but this was one rare instance in which reason prevailed and I accepted that I would likely have to wait until next year to have another chance. By this point the idea of hitting this narrow target had turned into a madness with me.

Then something amazing happened: our shitty government decided to be total assholes and completely shut down! It turns out you need government to do a lot of things: run national parks, deliver mail, and…(wait for it)…: issue fishing licenses. On the phone with Lois at The Crab Broker the Monday after our wedding festivities ended, she noted that normally I would have just missed the season by a few days again, but the government shutdown had delayed the issuance of the requisite crabbing licenses by several weeks. The boats had only just gotten permits a few days before, and were out in Dutch Harbor RIGHT THAT MOMENT. How much crab was I hoping to buy?

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Ecstatic that I had a glimmer of hope pulling this off, I asked Lois how this whole thing worked: what happened between the time I placed an order and the time delicious fresh crab showed up at my doorstep? Lois answered:

Good questions. Let’s say for example’s sake that a customer has ordered a delivery on Wednesday. A boat arrives [at their office in Dutch Harbor] and its load of live crab is unloaded and processed Monday morning. By early Monday afternoon, the crab is taken over to the airport and put on a plane headed to Anchorage. The crab arrives Anchorage Monday evening and is kept in a reefer unit until Tuesday morning when a FedEx airbill is applied to the box, the box is tendered to FedEx, and delivered the next day. Basically, you’re looking at 48-56 hours from the time the crab is unloaded from the boat until it lands at your door.

Crab ordered for Thursday delivery comes off a boat Tuesday morning and crab ordered for Friday delivery comes off a boat Wednesday morning. If we cannot get the crab delivered within that 48-56 hour window, we don’t do it.

I giddily placed an order for 5lbs, then reconsidered and upped the order to 8lbs, thinking this might be a good excuse to invite friends over to share. I scheduled my shipment to arrive on a Friday, seeking to minimize the amount of time I had to hold this precious, precious ingredient.

I reasoned if I was going this deep for this ingredient for this dish, I wanted to go equally-deep for everything else. This dish is garnished with two other non-trivial components that have eluded me for years: Tosaka and Sea Grapes, both Japanese seaweeds. I’ve been on the phone off and on with Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley for years trying to get them to import Tosaka for me. The seaweed comes in three colors and ships frozen, packaged in salt. They could only ever seem to get one or two colors at most for me in large 2kg packages, and demanded I would need to buy all of it if they ordered it (which, depending on whom I talked to, ranged from “very easy to order” to “really nearly impossible to get”) for the low low price of around $60 for the package. After another frustrating phone call with them following my order of the crab, a thought occurred to me: I wonder if my friend Carl over at True World Foods (provider of my precious Ayu several months back) could source these ingredients for me?

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“Oh sure, we keep all three colors of Tosaka in stock all the time. The Sea Grapes we can have flown in, they’ll be here next week” Carl emailed. I love Carl. The Tosaka came in ~1lb packages, and Carl charged me around $10 per package. The Sea Grapes came in a 1kg bag for $60. I placed an order to arrive the following week, and on an early Tuesday morning drove down to True World’s eerily-located warehouse to pick up my three Tosakas and fresh Japanese Sea Grapes.

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Trying to research Sea Grapes is difficult; there’s not a ton of English-written resources that explain much about them other than “Hey look at this funky thing I had in a Japanese restaurant once”. From what I had gathered before getting into this dish, they seem to be delicate and temperamental, and apparently don’t remain viable for long. Carl noted their grapes came in refrigerated and would stay usable for around 7-10 days if kept chilled; this advice conflicts with other accounts I’ve found about storing sea grapes at room temperature (at which they stay viable anywhere from 5-20 days, depending on the source you’re reading). Not really knowing which source to trust, and because they’d already been chilled when I picked them up from True World, I felt storing them in the back of my fridge was probably the best move until I worked with them and the crab on Saturday.

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It’s probably obvious how emotional and onerous lining up these dominoes has been for me, and so it was with great relief and excitement that I woke up on Friday morning and filled my biggest camping cooler with ice in preparation to receive my 8lbs of fresh crab midday. I moved my Tosaka packages from the freezer to the fridge for them to thaw while I was away for the day, drove into work, and checked my email over my morning cup of coffee…to find an email from Lois telling me there was a problem with my order: a mistake had been made and they hadn’t shipped it.

She was profusely apologetic, but alas there was nothing that could be done. No crab would show up that day…I’d need to wait a few more days for more crab to come in, and she could have it shipped to me the following week.

Under normal circumstances this would have been an annoying but manageable setback. For me, though, this meant I had one more try to get this before the season ended and my chance would be gone for another year. It also meant that the precious Tosaka and Sea Grapes, specially-imported for me, would presumably go bad in the time that would pass before getting more crab. I would need to re-order the grapes, and likely the tosaka, as re-freezing them after thawing them likely wouldn’t do me any awesome favors.

This made me — and I honestly cannot think of any other way to describe this — crabby.

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I asked Lois if I could schedule for the following Friday, then immediately emailed Carl to ask what the chances were of me importing another bag of Sea Grapes by next week. He responded that he’d look into it, but that it would take him a few days. With nothing to do but wait over the weekend, I tried again to research Sea Grapes, assisted by the fact that I now had a bag of it and could try searching for phrases or characters on the bag.

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I again found conflicting reports about how to package and store the seaweed, the most critical bit being about refrigeration. After a fair more bit of digging, I think I figured out why. Sea Grapes grow and are harvested around Okinawa in Japan. Okinawa shares a similar latitudinal position as Hawaii. I looked up average water temperatures of Okinawa on several surfing guide websites; the temperature tends to stay between 68F and 86F year around, which is notably warmer than that of most refrigerators obviously. Chilling seaweed that thrives in such balmy climes causes it to wilt. The main appeal of the seaweed is the unique texture it presents; it’s nicknamed “Green Caviar” because the tiny seawater-filled ‘leaves’ pop in the mouth with a texture like Tobiko. Wilted Sea Grapes eventually lose their ‘snap’, turning tough and chewy…notably less magical/pleasant to eat.

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Incredibly, while searching around for this and waiting to hear back from Carl, I stumbled across another site in the US selling the stuff: the Rare Tea Cellar (of all places). It’s way more expensive and you get way less, but they specifically point out the refrigeration factor, and also seem to refrain from overpacking the seaweed (compared to the relatively crowded bag I got from True World). Desperate to ensure I had something fresh for this dish, and also really, really curious at this point, I ordered a bag from Rare Tea. An hour later, I got an email from Carl: “your bag of Sea Grapes will be here tomorrow for you to pick up”. Famine to feast with these things.

The next week I felt a little like an air traffic controller, lining up all these shipments to hit at the same time at peak freshness. I drove back down to True World to pick up more Tosaka and the second bag of Sea Grapes, and the Rare Tea grapes showed up that afternoon. The True World ones had again already been refrigerated, and the Rare Tea ones were at room temp, so I kept them both like that until the next day…when I got a large styrofoam package from Alaska smelling delightfully of sea.

Finally, it was go time.

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The fresh crab in this dish is served encased in vinegar gel. This gel is made with white vinegar, sugar, water, and salt, then set with gelatin and agar. While it sounds super-duper odd, the gel is only lightly acidic and balanced by the sugar; it’s basically “seasoned sushi rice vinegar”, but presented the way one might make an aspic (the block of gel is warm at service). I first made the gel mixture, and poured a very thin layer of it into a large baking dish. I let this set for an hour, and worked on de-meating some of the crab legs.

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The crab legs themselves were massive; a single one was about the length of my torso. It’s hard to capture the scale of these things without laying down on the floor next to one of the clusters. A small part of me, prior to getting the shipment, had felt a little sad at not going all the way in and buying a live crab to try to cook myself. That part of me was readily silenced when I saw the size of a cooked cluster…no fucking way would I want a live one of these running around my apartment.

There was another small part of me that was worried about the idea of flying in freshly-cooked crab meat in a chilled styrofoam container; I worried it might somehow not be all the way awesome. This fear was also quashed when I ate the first chunk of meat I removed straight from the shell of one leg; it was amazing. Sweet and tender and intensely ‘crabby’, much moreso than the Dungeness that I always love around here. It was delicately salty but not overtly so, tasting nicely of the sea and of itself.

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After removing meat from 4 legs, I cut them into 2″ pieces, arranged them on the set layer of vinegar gel, then poured more gel around them to fill the pan up just to the tops of the crab meat. Normally the Alinea book has me gently whisk agar into solution when making a gel with it…this yields a crystal-clear gel. For this dish, it specifically instructs me to aerate the mixture with an immersion blender until it’s cloudy with microbubbles. The gel sets faster than these bubbles can escape, creating a frosted block that traps larger bubbles. It’s a bit magical; the block looks like frozen ice water, but is warm at the point a diner eats it.

While the gel was setting, I cooked some sushi rice, then started playing with my various seaweeds. I thawed the Tosaka by just dumping each frozen salt block of seaweed into a big bowl of water. The brick would disintegrate and season the water. The Tosaka tastes more or less seaweedy, but its real appeal is its color and the beautiful, arresting intricacy of its leaves.

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Tosaka thawing, I moved on to working with the Sea Grapes.

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Having three bags, I wanted to see how the different ages and storage temperatures compared. On the left of the photo below are the refrigerated Sea Grapes from True World, and on the right are the nonrefrigerated ones from Rare Tea Cellar. The True World ones were intensely salty and ‘stringy’, and lacked a bit of the caviar-like texture I was hoping for. The Rare Tea ones, by comparison, had more pop, and — while still salty — were less intense and more balanced. They also weren’t stringy. On an odd whim, I tried rinsing some of the True World grapes in fresh water in an attempt to mellow out the brininess of it. I noticed something odd happening; the seaweed started moving! I dropped in a few more strands, and again (after a moment’s pause) the seaweed shifted around in stuttered, abrupt movements.

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It eventually hit me what was happening: the wilted sea grapes had wept water, which concentrated their salt content. Dropping them into fresh water caused an osmotic effect: less-saline water rushed into the seaweed’s pods, puffing them and causing the jerky movements. If osmosis seems like a subtle and unnoticeable concept, check it:

The rightmost containers in the wide shots of the above video hold Sea Grapes from True World in the brine they arrived in (which is very salty). We can see them remaining limp and withered in comparison to the rapidly-blooming samples dropped in fresh water.

The center grapes in the photo above, then, are ‘puffed’ ones from a bath in fresh water. The caviar-like texture of these was the best of the trio, though the overall flavor was greatly-diminished. It occurred to me that this might be a neat way to season them, but the gotcha is that the salinity of whatever one wants to season the grapes with must be less than that of the grapes themselves; an inexact science given that I didn’t know how long they’d been refrigerated and how concentrated their own internal salinity was. Ultimately after killing half a day futzing with it, I was left thinking the idea has merit and that it’s handy to know that the grapes can be refreshed in this way, but this is still a poor substitute for what Rare Tea did, which was storing them correctly in the first place. Refreshing in a freshwater bath is effectively the same as trying to re-hydrate something that’s been dehydrated; it’s never really an equal to its former self.

Here’s some closeup views of the original True World wilted Sea Grapes:

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vs. the Rare Tea sea grapes:

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vs. the freshwater-soaked True World grapes:

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We can see the Rare Tea grapes have suffered some wilting (I have no idea how long it’d been since they’d been harvested), but not nearly as much as the True World ones, and the stem of the weed from Rare Tea is in much better shape (not to mention the lengths of the strands hint at better handling). The Rare Tea ones offer great texture as well as a good, balanced briny, seaweedy flavor.

At any rate, finishing the dish itself was very straighforward: I cut the gelled crab into portions, warmed them through gently, then garnished with a slice of ginger, a strand of sea grapes, saffron and parsley threads, and a grain of black lava salt. This is paired with seasoned rice that’s topped with the Tosakas, which have been tossed in oil and rice vinegar.

I loved the overall flavors here; each bite into the gelled crab was different, and I was particularly-surprised by the saffron-parsley combination. The warm vinegar was mild and perfectly-seasoned the sweet King Crab meat inside. And, once I’d shared the dish with some friends, we stuffed our faces with the remaining crab, dipped in garlic butter. It was awesome.
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Pork, Grapefruit, Sage, Honeycomb

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It’s probably apropos that the first dish back in the saddle for this project is one tangentially-related to BBQ. While not totally deep southern, this dish manages to blend autumnal flavors with traditional BBQ pairings, with a few pretty rad touches just to keep it all the way Alinea. Pork — prepared two ways — is paired with warm cornbread puree, sage pudding, caramelized fennel, and grapefruit segments. The dish is garnished in a particularly dramatic way with honey at time of service.

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One of the two pork preparations is sous vide tenderloin. Having good experience in the past with Marin Sun Farms’ products, I knew up front that I wanted to try their wares for tenderloin. I bought a whole tenderloin, then trimmed it of fat and silverskin before rolling it into a cylinder in plastic wrap and vacuum-sealing it into shape.

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For preparing the pork, I had a new toy to play with; several month ago I kicked in for one of the first consumer-level sous vide immersion circulators to come onto the market recently: the Nomiku.

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The Nomiku ran $300 for a kickstarter edition. It’s largely well-built, with the slight exception of the green knob that one uses to dial in the temperature. The knob isn’t particularly tight and ostensibly uses an optical sensor to detect motion; a choice that results in odd temperature set point jumps when you walk around in front of the device, causing light fluctuations which in turn seem to make the device set itself up or down a few tenths of a degree from where I’d left it. But the device holds temperatures bang-on, and is light-years ahead of the methods I’ve been using for the past many years (mostly dicking around with the knobs on my stovetop to try to hold a stockpot at temperature). I’m ecstatic to have this thing to play with, though I admittedly also kicked in for the Sansaire as well, and am curious how the two will compare.

The water bath I used is around 3 gallons, and is made from a Cambro I found at the East Bay Restaurant Supply warehouse near our apartment. I used a coping saw and a dremel to cut a notch into the edge of the cambro and a cutout into the lid of it to accommodate the Nomiku while minimizing evaporation during long cooks.

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The preparation of the tenderloins took only a few minutes at 135F. But the other (arguably more-interesting) pork preparation involved cooking a pork shoulder for 5 hours at 180F — notably more-challenging conditions for an immersion circulator. Handily, the Nomiku handled it with aplomb.

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I noticed several hours into the cook some condensation forming inside the dial to the Nomiku. I tweeted to the team to ask them about it (the circulator continued to function flawlessly, I just worried that I might be doing something to damage the unit). They responded that the silicon sealant used to waterproof the dial chamber might be sweating alcohol, and that it wasn’t something to be concerned about (and would evaporate eventually).

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Once the pork shoulder was done after 5 hours or so, I removed it from the vacuum bag and finely shredded it. The shreds were then deep-fried in screamingly-hot oil until the gelatinized residual fat in them puffed, yielding Puffed Pork Shoulder.

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I made Cornbread Puree by first making cornbread. It probably goes without saying that I tend to have strong opinions about cornbread, and as cornbreads go, the one this recipe yields is pretty pedestrian. Maybe neutral is a better word, which is apt because this isn’t a dish about cornbread per se. It’s just that you’re left with a fair bit of leftover cornbread afterwards, and it’s a bit unremarkable on its own. The recipe is also challenging; the batter yields way more than can fit in the prescribed pan, and the bread needs to bake ~4 times longer than the recipe notes to achieve proper doneness.

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Once baked, the cornbread is pureed with butter and cream (way, way more cream than the recipe calls for) to yield something that’s puree-like.  This is maybe the most frustrating component of the recipe, only because making cornbread and pureeing it with cream is — in the grand scheme of things — not something that should be as hard as this is.

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Whew. After all that cornbread rigamarole, I needed a beer. I chose this one; a Mikkeler seasonal IPA made brewed with pine needles. Citrus and pine struck me as appropriate and fall-like. This beer is really delicious.

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Cornbread puree complete, I got to work on the other components. Making caramelized fennel was notably easier; I sliced some fennel into cross-sections and simmered them gently in butter in a skillet until the bottom surface was deeply caramelized. If you think you can make me stop loving caramelized fennel you’re wrong; this stuff is so damn delicious.

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This dish is served with grapefruit wedges that are meant to be peeled of their skins and all pith. I’ve learned that this preparation is often called a “supreme”. Making citrus supremes is one of those time-honored French techniques that’s hard and earned. I can do it (barely), but for this dish I wanted to try something a little different: enzymatic peeling. The idea with this is that I combine the citrus segments with an enzyme that consumes the components of a citrus segment that make up the peel and pith, leaving behind just the cells of the segment. Cooking Issues wrote about this a few years back and it’s always been interesting to me.  To try it, I needed some Pectinex SP-L, which contains the requisite enzymes.

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This enzyme can be activated in one of two ways: either steep the segments with 0.5% weight enzyme in the fridge for 2 days, or cook them with the same amount sous vide at 40F for 30 minutes. I tried both. They both worked equally well, which is to say “sort of”; the peel between the segments turns soft and can be rubbed off gently under cold running water. Visually, the segments are nearly perfect; they are membrane- and pith free.

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From a taste perspective though, I felt like the flavor was slightly-diluted. Modernist chefs argue that the enzyme “tightens and sweetens” the flavor, but I felt that a 2-day soak in water only lessened the flavor; it still tasted like grapefruit, but was a little less potent. It’s amusing to me that I find these subtle traditionalities in this project that are compelling to me: I’d rather supreme the citrus the hard way and know that it tastes good than let an enzyme do my work for me. Still, cool experiment though.

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The final component was Sage Pudding, a technique I’m all too familiar with at this point: cook some sage with water, sugar, and salt, let it steep for 20 minutes, set with Agar and puree to a smooth pudding. The flavor as always is clear and crisp: cooked sage that’s dizzyingly aromatic.

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Before plating, it was time to start the final garnish: the honey. To do this, I cut a chunk from a locally-sourced honeycomb, and set it atop a piece of beeswax-polished Bocote wood.

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I asked Sarah to come down while I plated the dish, warning her that things were likely to get a bit messy. This is how Alinea prepared this dish when it was on their menu: about an hour before this dish hit the table, they would sit out a small Bocote pedestal with a piece of oozing honeycomb atop it. As dishes evolved onto and off of the diners’ table, the honeycomb was left to serve as a slowly-kinetic centerpiece, perplexing and tension-inducing in its messiness. Surely this pristine restaurant understood that the drips of honey oozing down the sides of the pedestal were sure to leave a giant sticky puddle in the center of the table?

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At the last minute, a plate would arrive bearing pork, sage, cornbread, and fennel, and the waitstaff would produce a small, stainless-steel tool into which the entire wooden pedestal and honeycomb was inserted. The pedestal became a plunger, and the honey within the honeycomb would be extracted in a drizzle on the diners’ plates.

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The Honeycomb Extractor is one of my white whales for this project; Martin Kastner has never released it for consumer sale, and I felt that the drama of this presentation was too awesome to be minimized by simply squeezing a bear-shaped bottle over this dish. I’ve made mention of this several times before, but for the past 3 years I’ve been slowly accumulating the skills necessary to build my own. I’ve taken machining and welding classes, and after a lot of trial and error arrived at something that I think holds up to Alinea standards and serves the original intent of this dish. It’s also been entirely un-trivial to fabricate, which gives me a massive appreciation for the breadth and depth of Martin’s skills.

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My extractor was fabricated from 1″ stainless steel seamless tube, machined true with a 1″ end mill, slotted with a 1/8″ end mill and capped via TIG welding and sanded to 600 grit with a belt sander, then waxed to a sheen. The Bocote pedestal/plungers were cut from a Bocote turning block via a Miter box with a Japanese handsaw, sanded down to 600 grit, then polished with beeswax. The constant bathing of honey and more beeswax with each extraction only serves to further burnish the plungers, giving them a soft, glassy feel. Not obvious but still significant is an internal filter I made to fit inside each Extractor, made from fine stainless steel mesh to filter out wax and impurities from the honeycomb as it’s smooshed inside the extractor.

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The dish itself is delicious, a perfect blend of autumn and comfort food. The pork tenderloin, cooked medium rare, was incredibly tender and juicy. Amazingly, the Marin Sun Farms pork in and of itself carries flavors of nuts and sage. It’s quite flavorful and required minimal seasoning — a testament to sourcing really fine meat. Coupled with the caramelized fennel and micro sage leaves it was delicious. The puffed pork shoulder is straight up magic for me; sort of like pork fritos. Bacony and crispy and porky and delicious. The cornbread puree played a lovely role, cornbready without needing to call a lot of attention to itself, a testament to restraint for the Alinea guys here. The drizzle of honey and grapefruit segment lent welcome sweetness to the whole dish. It was wonderful; Sarah said she’d put it in her top 10 for this project.

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I heard somewhere that Alinea, when it was serving this dish, was left with a glut of beeswax at the end of each night. Each serving yields between 5 and 10 grams of wax, which is significant. Hating to see this go to waste, the restaurant rendered out the wax and used it to prepare lip balm, a takeaway gift to patrons at the end of the meal. This idea is too rad for me to pass up.

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To render beeswax from the spent honeycomb, I put the crushed, extracted honeycomb chunks in a pot of water and warmed it until the wax melted. This was chilled and the wax rose to the top. The wax has a high surface tension, so it tends to form small beads at the top of the rendered mixture. I scooped these off and strained them.

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I mixed the beeswax with oil in a ratio of 1 pt wax to 3 pts oil, heating these until the wax melted. I then added some drops of sage and grapefruit oil, and poured the mixture into tubes held with a tool that’s apparently custom-made for doing this (!). After the mixture cools, I scrape it flat with a pastry knife and remove the tubes.

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Et voila! The Alinea Project Sage, Grapefruit, Honeycomb lip balm.

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4 dishes remaining.

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Bourbon, Molasses, Brown Sugar, Paprika

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This blog has fallen quiet over the past month or two while I’ve been working on what turned out to be a bit of a large-scale project. While it doesn’t directly have much to do with “molecular gastronomy” per se, it was still incredibly interesting for me, and brought to bear several things I’ve learned over the course of this project. Hopefully talking about it will be (at most) helpful or (at least) moderately interesting.

Several months ago, I decided to try catering an event. The conditions of the event:

  • It would be for about 55 people, one of which was vegetarian and 8 of which were children.
  • It would be held in Kentucky, in mid-October.
  • It would take place in a barn, with no cooking facilities.
  • I would be getting married on the same day.

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(photo courtesy Magnus Lindqvist, our most-awesome wedding photographer and general rock star)

When Sarah and I were looking for a wedding venue about a year ago, we were visiting my parents on the farm I grew up on in KY. At one point we were walking around the woods behind our house, debating the possibility of San Fran (where we currently live, but where we don’t have any super-sentimental attachments other than our friends) or New Zealand (where we have heaps and heaps of super-sentimental attachments, but the burden of travel on our families would be tough). I paused to breathe the crisp December air in deeply. The forest was largely silent, and the damp smell of leaves has always been intoxicating to me. I recalled reading about how, in the Fall last year, Alinea lined their entryway with leaves and pumpkins, seeking to provide a more-immersive seasonal experience for guests. Things clicked into place immediately in my head: “Why don’t we do this?”  I asked. Sarah looked at me quizzically and skeptically. “This, just like this” I said, gesturing at the woods. “What if we invite all our friends here, and we ask them to walk through these woods, and get married under…that tree over there.” I pointed to a lone walnut tree that sits in a clearing through the woods behind our house.

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“Where would we have a reception?” Sarah asked.

We walked around the farm to my grandfather’s barn, a barn that’s been on the property for over 100 years. It’s dilapidated and weathered and beautiful. It’s split into stalls that house farming implements, feed for cattle, and odd storage of stuff from my grandparents’ estate. The loft of the barn used to store hay; there’s a large pulley system that’s rusted and awesome hovering overhead, and it smells sweet and moist and…like a barn. I took Sarah up to it, and we eyed it carefully. The barn would need a lot of work, but Sarah was able to see past it to what my heart was seeing: a special place that was irreplicable, small, and very personal. I wanted everyone to feel not just the day, but the deep roots of our family and our history. I wanted to do Alinea’s hallway trick to the Nth degree.

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One of my favorite things to do when I come back to KY to visit family is to cook with them. My favorite mode of this is my dad’s grill; he fires it up and he, my brother-in-law Aaron, and I stand around it sipping bourbon and chatting. My sisters and mom come out from time to time to ask us how it’s going or how much longer it will be, but really what they’re doing is sniffing the smoky smell and enjoying the enforced exercising of patience and sensuality that grilling demands.

I wanted this on a larger scale for our wedding day.  I wanted all of our friends and family to be sipping drinks and sitting or standing around on the big day, swapping stories, watching the kids run around and play, and relying on the preparation of a communal meal to force us to slow down together. I wanted people perfumed head to toe with the incredible scent of applewood smoke and caramelized brown sugar, and I wanted them to bug me every few minutes for a peek at whatever was cooking. I wanted things to move slowly and deliberately.

Now, I’ve never cooked a meal for anything more than 12 people at once, and you may recall the last time I did this it went less awesomely than I wanted. Cooking for 55 people was a daunting proposition to say the least. Sarah and I collapsed onto our menu pretty quickly though: we both love southern BBQ, and it lends itself well to large communal meals like what we envisioned at our reception. After some discussion, we landed on:

  • Brisket
  • Pulled Pork
  • Ribs
  • Pickled Vegetables
  • Cornbread
  • Baked Beans
  • Coleslaw

I started planning several months in advance. One of my first moves was consulting with the chefs in the kitchen at work; they knew how to deal with large numbers (they cook for 1000 people each day), so I asked them for estimates for the hero ingredients for each dish. We settled on

  • 20lbs brisket
  • 25lbs ribs (~2 ribs per person, ~12 ribs per rack)
  • 25lbs pork shoulder
  • 10lbs dried beans
  • 10 heads cabbage

These figures roughly account for around 1lb of meat per person inclusive of shrinkage, predicated on the assumption that people will want to try more than one protein, that pork is generally favored, and that people will likely over-portion themselves (since we would be serving food family-style). Working from these starting points, I began building recipes around them and scaling up auxiliary ingredients appropriately. The cornbread was based on a recipe provided by my friend Francisco’s partner Deanie, who (I mentioned in an earlier post) is a Michelin-starred chef who has worked at the likes of Manresa, Ubuntu, and Coi. We wanted to serve pickled vegetables in small pint Ball jars, so that served as my reference point for figuring out how much pickling juice/veggies I would need.

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If you’re gonna make BBQ, you obviously need some BBQ sauce. Several months ago I spent a full weekend making about a dozen different BBQ sauces, keeping tasting and cooking notes as I went. I made some pulled pork and Sarah and I sat down to the awful job of eating our way through each sauce to choose and hone what we wanted. We landed on a mustard-based Carolina sauce, a Bourbon-based sauce, and a traditional Kansas City style sauce as our top choices. Kansas City-style sauces are what most people imagine when they think of the quintessential BBQ sauce: sweet, tangy, maybe a bit of smoke. KC Masterpiece is a good example of this style. My Bourbon sauce included orange blossom water, citrus peel, and chocolate bitters…a nod towards my obsession with Old Fashioneds. The mustard sauce was made with dijon, Allagash Curieux, and spices.

I knew the week’s schedule leading up to the wedding would be very busy with other cooking tasks, so I figured I could pre-make sauces pretty safely (and, in fact, they were likely to get better with some age on them). One weekend about a month before the wedding, Sarah flew to Chicago for a bachelorette party, leaving me space and time in the kitchen to scale up our recipes to yield enough sauce for a bottle of each flavor on each of the 8 tables we’d have at the reception. I chose some sauce bottles from Specialty Bottle, using their capacity as my guide for how to scale my sauce recipes. The Bourbon Sauce recipe involved cooking down about 3 liters of Kentucky bourbon; turns out that this is a bit tricky to do in a small apartment. The alcohol fumes filled the space pretty handily, leaving me choking and running for open windows as the bourbon reduced. I cooked each sauce for several hours, and tested each with a pH meter before bottling to ensure that they were acidic enough to stay safely-preserved for the time leading up to the wedding (anything below 4.6 will kill botulism spores and generally prevent growth of anything oogy). I also checked the caps as the bottles cooled to ensure they were safely sealed (they bow inwards, an indication that the cooling process created a vacuum inside the bottle), then I shipped them in a box to Kentucky for my parents to hold them until we got there. I reserved two bottles in San Fran to serve as monitoring samples; if they lasted until we were ready to fly to KY, I’d know I didn’t need to remake any of them.

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I also mixed up several rubs to use for smoking the meats I intended to cook; one was a savory mixture of salt, smoked paprika, pepper, and coffee for use on the brisket. Another was a mixture of paprika, salt, garlic powder, and some other spices for ribs. And finally, Sarah’s favorite: a combination of brown sugar, smoked paprika, and cinnamon for the pulled pork. I vacuum-packaged each of these and included them with the sauces to KY.

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We flew from SF to KY a week before the wedding to help prepare for it. Sarah and my parents focused on finalizing the barn while I worked on preparing all the food we’d be eating. I’d worked with the chefs at work to establish a reasonable cooking schedule that would maximize freshness while still allowing room for unexpected problems.

Sarah, my parents and I made a “Reminders” list on our iPhones. The latest iCloud updates allow for shared Reminders lists; we leveraged this to build a master grocery shopping list that we could all access and modify simultaneously. We then split up and went on several shopping trips to buy all the ingredients we’d be needing.

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We also had a master Google Docs spreadsheet on which I’d  built a schedule for cooking and a list of what ingredients I’d need.

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On Monday, I began by making quick pickles. Alinea consistently pickles things in the cookbook using a mixture of equal parts sugar, water, and vinegar. One can ease back on the sugar and use a ‘softer’ vinegar like rice vinegar to mellow out this mixture. Rice vinegar is tough to find in bulk in Kentucky, so I opted for cider vinegar. I had a hard time imaging what quantities of vegetables I needed to fill 60 pint glasses, so I took a stab in the dark that was maybe 80% accurate.

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The quick pickles included:

  • black peppercorns
  • allspice berries
  • coriander seeds
  • sage leaves from my mom’s garden
  • cloves
  • cauliflower florets
  • carrot spears
  • radish quarters and slices
  • okra pods
  • broccoli florets
  • green beans
  • onion slices

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I also got to work on our cocktails. Sarah and I wanted each guest to take an autumnal stroll through the woods on our farm down to our aforementioned Hitchin’ Tree for our ceremony. We designed a cocktail to accompany them along the way; we spent a weekend experimenting with moonshine, champagne, elderflower, apples, blueberries, pumpkins, and various other flavors we have a particular affinity for, emotional connection to, or seasonal awareness of. We landed on something revolving around apple-infused Maker’s Mark, New Zealand hard cider, and Thyme Honey from NZ…a nod to the two places we consider home. I found a half-carboy into which I poured a few liters of Maker’s Mark, slices from about 12 apples, some nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon sticks. This — after a week or so — would yield something akin to apple pie-flavored bourbon.

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On Monday night, I sorted and rinsed 10lbs of dried navy beans, then left these to soak overnight.

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10lbs of beans, it turns out, is an absurd amount of beans. My base recipe calls for 1lb of beans, and yields about 8 servings. Anticipating people wanting seconds or taking larger scoops than others from the serving bowls at dinner, I scaled by 10. The base recipe also calls for 1 gallon of chicken stock in which to simmer the beans, so I again scaled this up by 10 (!). I roughly separated the beans into two batches of unequal sizes, and went about cooking them with the onions, cane syrup, ketchup, mustard, and spices that they’re meant to simmer with, but quickly realized that neither of my vessels could hold anywhere close to 5 gallons. So I figured I’d cook them and just replenish the stock as needed until I’d made it through all 10 gallons, figuring the beans would just cook more slowly that way.

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This was an awful assumption. The beans had plenty of moisture to absorb from the syrup, sugar, and ketchup they simmered in absent of the full amount of chicken stock that was meant to be present, cooking as fast as they normally would but becoming much sweeter than I wanted. Wrangling these massive batches of beans was task enough in and of itself, but at one point I managed to clog the sink with undigested onions and their skins that our garbage disposal couldn’t handle (lesson: don’t try washing onion skins down the sink). I had to ask Dad to help me unclog their sink, which was tricky because the plumbing under the sink doesn’t have removable sections, so we had to cut the pipe out completely. This left me with no running water and a giant mess in the kitchen while trying to deal with my bean problem.

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In the middle of this, we got a phone call from a neighbor that someone had had a heart attack on the highway while driving in front of our house, and had run off the road and through the front fence of the farm. I am not making this up. We had to both drop everything, run to the bottom of the hill our house sits on, and (after two ambulances had come to retrieve the ailing motorist, and a tow truck had hauled off the car) repair a fence lest our cattle escape out onto the highway. This is decidedly not a challenge I’d encountered at any point in this cooking project before now.

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Fence repaired, back up at the house I needed to regroup after such a mess of a day. I wasn’t happy with the beans at all, so I decided to scrap them, rebuy what ingredients I needed to, and remake them the next day. Sarah and I ran into town to stock back up at the only grocery store in town, a Super Wal-Mart. The upside was being able to re-calibrate my recipe scale to something more reasonable (10lbs was way too much, turns out). When we got home, I re-rinsed, re-sorted, and re-soaked the beans overnight.

Wednesday morning was my first scheduled smoke. I rose early to get the beans re-started; I decided rather than trying to cook them all at once, I would cook individual un-scaled recipe sizes in series until I had enough. This would 1) let me control the final scale of the batch and 2) allow me to adjust as I went. The beans took about 4 hours per batch to cook, so I figured worst case I could make it through 3 rounds in the day to complete them all. I rounded up every stock pot in the house, cooking 4 portions simultaneously. Obviously inefficient, this nevertheless behaved way better. The evaporation rates of the stock behaved more like what I expect; turns out evaporation rates are way important when working with recipes like this.

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Beans a-simmer, I turned my attention to the smoker, and the brisket I’d be cooking. Brisket is sort of the pectoral muscle of a cow; it’s very tough and cheap and lends itself to long cooking to break up the thickly-interwoven collagen in the meat. I’d rubbed the brisket with my coffee rub the night before and wrapped it in plastic wrap to let it sit overnight. A rub helps season meat, add flavor, and aids in the formation of a “bark”: the crisp outer skin that forms when slow-cooking meat over low heat. This bark is sweet and savory and basically like meat candy.

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Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a little about the craft of slow-cooking meat. One generally slow-cooks tough meats that are woven with tough collagen that turns elastic and unpalatable under fast cooking conditions. Braising or stewing are common ways of dealing with these meats; low temperatures in an enclosed, humid environment render the collagen into gelatin and turn the meat into a tender, juicy delight that melts at the slightest touch of a fork. The introduction and growing ubiquitousness of sous vide cooking techniques offer consistency and control when slow-cooking meat. All of these methods are generally pretty rad because they offer one common element: control. A household oven or an immersion circulator are “fire and forget” devices, allowing one to set a temperature and let technology do its duty maintaining a constant, steady temperature until the meat is done.

Smoking is a different beast altogether. The act of smoking involves not only manually-controlling temperature (via adjustment of burning coals) but also controlling the flavor imparted by the smoke (which itself can and must be controlled). So, you’re balancing two things at once. The Modernist Cuisine guys and other resourceful chefs have developed ways to sidestep the obvious temperamentality of smoking by first cooking tough meats to doneness using sous vide techniques, chilling, then smoking to add the desired flavor level. It was tempting, especially with the given stakes of all of this, to explore this two-step method to ensure a reasonably worry-free experience while preparing all these foods.

However, there’s something inherent to traditional smoking that can’t be provided by the modernist methods noted above:

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It’s hard to be romantic about standing around an immersion circulator with your loved ones, sipping bourbon and talking about life. Smoking demands patience and attention, and it turns out that soft, delicious smoldering wood goes perfectly with delicious beers and bourbon. The combination of the two frees the mind for unencumbered thought and the tongue for unfettered conversation.

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But, of course, I had to be a little geeky about this. I mean, there’s still a lot at stake here.

Aaron (my Bro-Lo El Cuñado) loaned me his Char-Griller smoker for the week to smoke the various meats I intended to serve. I spent quite a bit of time reading up about smoking and, specifically, about this particular model. The site Amazing Ribs proved super-useful for this. The Char-Griller smoker is a particularly-tricky smoker to work with, in that it leaks air in various places which makes it hard to control (and, therefore, it demands a lot of attention). One of the first moves one wants to make when dealing with a smoker is to come to terms with the terribleness of hood-mounted thermometers. The Char-Griller has one built in to the top, but it (like most built-in grill thermometers) is cheap and very unreliable. So, I bought a two-probe thermometer to serve as my guidance, and resolved not to ever pay notice to the hood thermometer itself.

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The Char-Griller has a side firebox in which one piles lit coals; the idea with it is that you can get the heat source away from the meat, helping to control temperature independently from smoke. The problem with this design is that heat wants to go up, not sideways, so heat collects in some parts of the smoker and tends to leave other parts cool. There’s no way to control this (Amazing Ribs notes some modifications that one can do to the smoker to mitigate these problems, but I had neither the time nor resources for this), so one needs to keep a close monitor of the food’s position and relative temperature throughout the cooking process.

In the photo above, the smoke is actually coming from coals placed in a chimney lighter. Compressed charcoal briquettes smoke as they light, and the smoke is acrid and chemical-y. It’s not tasty, so we don’t want it on our meat. So, I light the coals in the chimney with a yellow MAPP gas torch (you can see this to the right), and allow the chimney to sit until the smoking stops and the coals are fully-lit (covered in grey ash). This takes about a half hour to 45 minutes.

While the coals are lighting, I place unlit lump charcoal (which is hardwood, not compressed birquettes; it smokes way less) into the firebox onto a metal grate that holds the coals). I pour the lit briquettes into the firebox over the lump charcoal, and close the firebox. I could use lump charcoal for the whole shebang, which would cut way down on the acrid smoke, but I just didn’t have enough. Pouring the hot coals on top of the unlit ones means the unlit coals ignite slowly, offering me a more-constant heat source that lasts several hours. In the course of a single smoking session, I repeat this process 3-4 times.

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My thermometer has two probes: one to monitor the temperature of the cooking chamber (T1), and another to monitor the temperature of a meat sample (T2).  I placed the chamber probe near the cooking grates, much lower than that of the hood-mounted thermometer, and waited for the chamber to come up to temperature. For most tough meats, this temperature is 225F (or as close to this as one can manage). You can see in the photo of the thermometers above that the chamber is sitting at 225F, and my meat is at 110F. Once the chamber is at temperature, the meats are added and I throw some chunk hardwood into the firebox, where the coals heat it to smoldering point. The smoke generated from hardwoods at this temperature is aromatic and soft. If the wood is allowed to reach lower temperatures, the smoke becomes bitter, and at higher temperatures the smoke turns acrid and eventually the wood ignites. It’s fortunate, then, that the flavor component and the target cooking temperature lie within the same (narrow) range. Drifting outside the range of +-15F causes things to become unstable and yields undesirable meat.

It’s popular to soak ones wood chunks in liquid to help retard them from igniting, but this is a mistake; throwing wet wood into the chamber cools the coals and causes yo-yoing temperatures. The lower initial temperature causes the smoke produced from the wood to be more bitter than it normally would, and if one is fighting wood ignition, that’s a sign that one’s coals are too hot or something else is awry with the smoker. The wood can only absorb about 5% of its weight in water anyway, so one doesn’t actually buy much from doing this.

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I route the other (T2) probe through the chimney of the cooking chamber and down into one of the chunks of meat, where I can monitor the temperature of the meat itself as it warms. My target for brisket and pork butt is 200F. This seems grossly over the normal temperatures one would normally cook beef or pork; while the meat itself is indeed ‘done’ at a lower temperature, the collagen inside these meats doesn’t convert to gelatin until temperatures closer to 170F-180F (so, then, smoked meats are almost always “well done”). The gelatin resulting from collagen conversion lubricates and moistens the meats, preventing it from drying out and providing the same unctuous quality that braises or stews have.

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The temperature of the cooking chamber is meant to be exclusively controlled by an input vent to the firebox. One wants to fully open the vent to bring the chamber up to 225F, then choke it down to stabilize the temperature as much as possible to keep it around 225F. For this model smoker, which leaks air badly, this vent is of limited use. It is, however, the only tool one has for controlling temperature, so one needs to sit and fiddle with it every 15-30 minutes or so to maintain a steady environment. There’s a second vent on the top of the smoker chimney, but this should be left open for the most part; it does little to control temperature and is only moderately useful for controlling smoke flow.

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The first time I ran this smoker, I made a bit of a small mess out of it. I had trouble getting the cook chamber up to temperature, so I overloaded the firebox with coal. The ash produced by the coal filled the chamber, smothering the coals. In the end, after about 10 hours in the smoker, I needed to finish the brisket in an oven set to 225F. I was ok with this; the meat is usually fully-smoked after 5 hours (and it’s possible to over-smoke meat), so beyond that is really just a temperature game.

Meat exhibits a peculiar phenomenon when smoking; it gets up to around 160F or so then, perplexingly, seems to ‘stall’ and stop increasing in temperature for what can be several hours. This is caused by evaporative cooling; the meat effectively ‘sweats’, causing it to cool itself and cease getting hotter until the surface is completely dry. BBQ enthusiasts have developed a way to combat this: they pull the meat from the chamber and wrap it in foil (sometimes with liquid like apple juice), then continue cooking it in foil to completion. This trick is called “The Texas Crutch”; while it can speed up cook times, it also leads to a soggy bark, so champions on the BQ circuit will foil for a few hours to help the meat get up to temperature, then unfoil and cook an extra hour or so to “firm up the bark” by further evaporating absorbed surface moisture.

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By the end of Wednesday I had completed the brisket and a second batch of baked beans. The beans, cooked in their individual batches, tasted way more balanced and delicious. To store them, I bagged the briskets and beans in gallon zip bags, then dropped them in a large cooler filled with ice water. We have a fridge in the basement of my parents’ house that I would be storing everything in, but I knew that dropping hot meat and beans into the fridge would cause it to take days to recover temperature, so I needed to pre-chill everything in an ice slush before storing it.

Before the night was up, I rubbed and individually-wrapped the pork butts. Pork butt is actually a shoulder roast, replete with shoulder blade and joint. Usual size for these is around 8 lbs or so, so I had bought 3. To decrease cook time and increase surface area, I cut the shoulders into two portions and boned them (BBQ enthusiasts love the moment when one can cleanly remove the bone from the shoulder roast after hours of slow-cooking, but I wanted lower cook times and more opportunity for bark).

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Thursday I smoked the pork butts. I made sure to raise the metal grate on which the coals rested in the firebox to allow for proper air circulation, and was less aggressive about feeding the box as it heated up. This worked much better; my patience and care was rewarded with some perfectly-cooked shoulder roasts. I again bagged the roasts right off the smoker and plunged them into an ice bath to cool; I would later re-heat these gently and shred the pork for pulled pork sandwiches.

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On Friday, I smoked 4 racks of pork ribs. Sarah awoke to work on the cornbread, preparing 3 half-sheet-tray’s worth (according to Deanie’s guidance). I also started preparing our cocktails; I strained the apples and spices from the bourbon, and tasted to verify that it was 100% delicious. This was mixed with lemon juice, NZ Thyme honey, Aperol, and some spice bitters I’d previously made for this. I measure this mixture into 45 pint ball jars, sealed them, and stored them in a fridge. The next day they would be topped with crisp, cold NZ cider as each guest collected a jar on their way into the forest.

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That Friday night, I made quick work (with the help of my sister Emily) chopping cabbage, red pepper, carrots, and parsley for our coleslaw. I mixed up a dressing including mayonnaise, mustard and celery seed, holding this until Saturday to dress the greens. I (and most friends of ours, and Sarah) am not crazy about the typical southern coleslaw that’s swimming in tepid watery mayonnaise, so my coleslaw was dressed only lightly.

On Saturday (“Go day”), most of the food had been prepared and was in a holding state. Starting around 11am, I started re-heating everything gently in our oven at around 180F, allowing several hours for the meats to come up to temperature before cutting/pulling them in preparation for service. I felt adamant that I wanted the smoker going on my wedding day, but the chefs at work advised against putting anything on the smoker that was high-stakes, lest I ruin my own wedding meal. So, I’d saved one rack of ribs, and Keith’s (our one pseudo-vegetarian) selection of fish. I’d gotten a couple catfish filets and a side of salmon for him.

I smoked all of these, along with about 8 oranges. The oranges were for zesting purposes; one of the stalls in the barn had been converted to a Bourbon Lounge, aided by an old couch and rolltop desk that we’d found in storage in the barn. I love smoked orange zest in Old Fashioneds. We also froze several full gallons of water in milk bottles, which we cut open and placed in a large aluminum container for hand-chipped ice for cocktails.

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It was this batch of foods — smoking citrus and salmon and ribs — that we stood around on the morning/mid-afternoon of, smelling and sipping and chatting and being. Around 2pm, I pulled everything off the grill, changed into my wedding suit (a pair of custom-made Carhartt-style pants, beaten-up boots, a woolen vest, and a tie made my by my friend Lesleigh), handed the food off to a caterer we’d hired to shift the food to the barn and plate it into large communal bowls and serving platters, and got married.

It was pretty awesome.

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Green Apple, Fennel, Anise Hyssop

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I’m finally, after so many years, in a unique position for this project: I’m done with the Summer menu, and can’t really push forward on the remaining dishes because of seasonal restraints. This is pretty nice…it means I can relax a little and do some exploring without feeling the need to pressure myself on keeping forward momentum with the Alinea cookbook.

There is one Fall dish I can do more or less at any time, but it features use of one of Martin Kastner’s awesome creations that he hasn’t yet made available for sale: a Honey Extractor. Details on the specifics of this thing are tough to find on the interwebz, and Martin noted when I asked him about it that he felt it needed a redesign before being made public. Rather than waiting around for that time to come, I’ve been thinking about how I might go about making one myself. I don’t know a ton about working with metal; my machining day with Drew, while rad, only taught me that there’s a LOT to learn about this. So, I’ve been (for several months) taking metalworking classes at The Crucible in Oakland.

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I started with a machining class, then moved on to a series of welding classes. I’ve learned a ton in each of them, but it’s only been in completing several of them that I’ve come to understand how I might best make this thing (I like getting the full breadth of range in metalwork, so I understand what’s possible and can imagine how I might get there). You can imagine this has taken up a fair bit of time, which has kept me out of the kitchen and off this blog a bit more than I’d like, but it’s been cool. I even have a pretty neat side project to show for it: for one of my welding classes (MIG welding) I designed a shelf to hold our bourbon/wine collection. I’m inspired by the bourbon rickhouses in Kentucky, which carry bourbon barrels on ‘ricks’, or beams on which the barrels can roll. The metal is welded steel, while the wood is charred white oak (which is a key requirement for bourbon to be called bourbon–it has to be aged in a barrel made of 100% charred new white oak).

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MIG welding, however, isn’t 100% awesome for use with stainless steel (the bourbon rick is mild steel, which can rust easily), and it’s not easy to do fine-detail work with a MIG setup (a MIG welder is a bit like a big hot glue gun).

Last weekend I took an intensive TIG welding class. TIG welding differs from MIG (and other forms of welding) in that it allows for very fine, precise work. It’s also extremely difficult; I spent most of the weekend burning holes through some stainless steel stock I’d brought in to work on and learning how to make a uniform bead of weld.

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After 16 hours of trying to get the hang of it (and enough stainless stock to hypothetically make 8 Extractors), I walked away with a badly-sutured thumb and these two potential extractors.

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They look pretty sad, but some time spent with a sander/polisher will clean up the ugly welds; the one on the right has been partially-cleaned up with a belt sander. Then I’ll need to get time on a mill to cut slots to allow the honey to flow out, and figure out how to solder filters to the insides of the tubes to filter the honey as it’s extracted from the comb. It’s a notable amount of work left to do, but I feel like I’m at least on the right track with it.

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But I have gotten to do some playing in the kitchen as well. A few weeks back, while flipping through Francisco Migoya’s awesome Elements of Dessert, one page caught my eye; it was so striking, and featured a neat technique I’ve wanted to learn more about: distilling.

“Distillation” usually hearkens images of moonshine pot stills for most people, and immediately sounds illegal. Distilling alcohol for personal use is illegal. But ‘distillation’ itself just means ‘purifying’, and distilling water-based materials is perfectly legal. One can buy a relatively inexpensive water distiller/purifier for the home on Amazon and use it to distill water quickly and easily. The way these things work is really simple: water is boiled in a chamber, the steam rises in the chamber and travels through a tube where it cools enough to condense, after which it drips out into a collection reservoir. Easy peasy, perfectly legal.

Distilling water is a pretty straightforward task. But what if, as is the case in this Migoya recipe, one wants to distill another liquid? In the case of the recipe here, Chef Migoya suggests using a home water purifier to distill fresh apple juice. The apple-flavored steam that one collects has a faint but unmistakable green apple flavor, and the process leaves behind sugars and other compounds that caramelize as the distillation process nears the end (the water having largely evaporated, the temperature of the residue jumps up suddenly and sharply) in the form of molasses. Apple molasses.

Sounds pretty neato, right?

I wanted to try this, but didn’t want to drop money on a water distiller right off the bat. The device is so simple that I thought it might be easy enough to make one myself. So, I rigged up this very ghetto/simple setup using a cheap angel food cake pan:

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Steam rises from the bottom chamber into the top, collects on the glass lid, then runs down the lid and drips into the top chamber. To (try to) make things even more straightforward, I decided to try using my rice cooker as the heat source. The way rice cookers work is that they heat up something until it reaches a constant temperature (in the case of rice, the plateau is reached at 212F, the boiling point of water. The temperature can’t rise above this as long as there’s some water in the cooker). When the water has evaporated/been absorbed, the temperature of the pot starts to climb again, signalling the cooker to switch off (or into a ‘warming’ mode, which is a much lower temperature).

The experiment worked more or less like this: I put in some freshly-juiced green apple, turned on the cooker, and waited for it to click off. When I re-checked it, I had perfectly clear apple water in the top chamber, and a thick, incredibly-tasty apple molasses in the cooker. Rad.

Except there was a small problem. The apple water tasted…cooked. Because it HAS to rise to 212F to distill off, the apple juice steam takes on cooked flavors, and loses some of the delicate notes we associate with raw apple.

The way fancier/richer men than I get around this is with a fancier/more-expensive piece of equipment called a Rotary Evaporator, or a Rotovap. The magic thing these devices do is apply a vacuum to the chamber holding the item to be distilled. Lower atmospheric pressure means the product will evaporate more readily at a lower temperature. So the distilling process runs more cool, and cooked flavors are completely avoided.

The trouble is, Rotovaps cost around $10k+ new, and buying one on ebay takes a hefty bit of wherewithal, as buying a used one can be dangerous (you don’t know what hazardous chemicals have been run through it). Plus, they’re huge pieces of equipment. I’ve been poking around at how I might make my own vacuum distiller and it doesn’t seem terribly straightforward. I still am interested in exploring it, but also feel it’s worth asking the question: “Well, what DOES taste good when distilled using my ghetto method?” I.e. what is my method useful for?

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Curious about this, I went out and bought a bunch of vegetables and fruits, and tried distilling them all using this method. I tried:

  • Green Apple: distillate tastes weak and cooked, molasses tastes awesome
  • Pear: distillate tastes nice, molasses also tastes awesome
  • Rhubarb: distillate tastes ok, molasses tastes like licking a battery. No bueno
  • Peach: distillate and molasses just gross me out. Some people might like cooked peaches, I do not.
  • Red Peppers: distillate and molasses taste like cooked red pepper. This is delicious, but I’ve made red pepper syrup for this project enough times for the flavor to not be particularly surprising for me. But again, the flavor is delicious.
  • Fennel: Ding ding ding. This one is a winner.

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I noticed with several of the distillation tests, I ran into boil-over in my top chamber. The liquid in the bottom chamber would bubble too much to be contained, and would contaminate the top chamber, ruining the test. You can see above two obvious samples from tests where I ran into boil-over problems and the juice from below got into the distillate, coloring it severely. I should maybe point out that these two taste great, but the color kind of gives away a bit about the flavor, and for me that kills the magic of this approach. I like the idea of tasting something that looks like water but tastes surprisingly like something else. I tried researching what might cause boil-over, but couldn’t quite figure out a common thread. I compared starch and sugar content, but boil-over seemed less linked to that and more linked to how strained the juice was when I put it into the cooker…maybe?

Then I remembered something I think I read in a Harold McGee book once; water indeed evaporates at 212F, but if the steam isn’t allowed to escape easily, the heating chamber can climb to temperatures well over that. I wondered if my ghetto distiller wasn’t just too confined, and that the steam was causing the juice in the bottom chamber to superheat. I tried swapping out the rice cooker for a stovetop method; I added a silicon pie shield that Sarah has to my setup to help stabilize the cake pan and seal it a bit better, then tried cooking my fennel juice over a lower heat.

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This ultimately worked; it took me about 4 tries before I got the temperature dialed in right. The lower the temperature, the less problems I had with boil-over (to the point that it became nonexistant) but the longer the distilling process took. In the end, the juice of 8 bulbs of fennel took about 6 hours to distill down to around 450g of perfectly clear distillate.

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While researching all of this, I read through a primer about Rotary Evaporators on the Cooking Issues blog (which seems down at the time of this writing, sorry everyone). In it, Dave notes that leaving the distillate in the collection chamber causes its flavor to degrade, as it’s still being subjected to the evaporation environment. On a whim (and to avoid potential contamination issues from boil-over), I started interrupting the distilling process periodically to remove the fennel distillate as it formed. This opened my eyes to something really fascinating: the first sub-batches of the distillate tasted incredibly fresh and crisp, almost like uncooked fennel. As the process continued, the distillate took on more and more ‘cooked’ flavors, until by the end the distillate tasted nearly carbonized and ‘burnt’. I hadn’t thought to try this before the 4th time distilling the fennel; I’d just waited for all of the distillate to collect completely, so I was getting fresh and burnt flavors. This noting of how the flavor profile changes over the course of the process is what booze distillers call the “heads, hearts, and tails” of the distillate. Being sensitive to the tastes of the different phases of the process allows one to fine-tune the exact flavor you want to capture.

In the above image, the two fennel distillate samples look identical, but the one on the left tastes like fresh, uncooked fennel (the head of the distillate), while the one on the right tastes like burned caramel. Pretty amazing to me.

Finally, while I really love Migoya’s efficiency in using both the distillate and molasses yielded from one distillation run, I found it really hard to control the cutoff point (you can’t see how much liquid is in the bottom chamber unless you remove the top pan, so it’s hard to keep close tabs on it). So, I made fennel molasses separately, which allowed me to finely-tune how sweet/caramelized it got.

Anyway, the recipe I’m drawing inspiration from involves making a gelee of apple distillate, topped with dots of apple molasses and a big rock of fennel meringue. I inverted this, choosing to use the heads of my fennel distillate and my fennel molasses, and making a meringue of green apple juice.

To make the frozen meringue, I juiced several green apples into a pan in which I’d put some malic acid and salt. The acid keeps the juice vibrant and prevents it from being oxidized. The juice is then mixed with egg white powder, demerara syrup, and some gelatin, then whisked to form a fluffy meringue. I spread it in a tray and froze it until it was solid. Migoya’s recipe uses fennel juice for this, which has way less pectin, so I found my meringue didn’t really get crispy, but stayed more like some sort of really fluffy cakelike texture. It was pretty interesting.

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While at Berkeley Bowl a few days ago, I noticed something there I’d never seen before: finger limes. They’re expensive as hell (6 tiny finger limes were around 6 bucks), but I was so curious I got them anyway. These things are really neato:

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They’re maybe an inch long, and if you cut the tip off of them and squeeze them gently, the internal juice cells pop out. They’re very firm, and have a complex limey flavor. The cells are fun to eat; they’ve ‘snap-y’, like tobiko. Lime Caviar. I thought I’d try garnishing this dish with it.

The final component was making crystallized anise hyssop leaves. I have a few anise hyssop plants in our garden at the moment, so I pulled some small leaves, brushed them with egg white, then dredge them in superfine sugar and let them dry overnight. The result is a crispy candied leaf that tastes fennelly/black-licorice-y.

I set my fennel distillate with some gelatin, then (for my first try at plating), I thought what the hell…why not put all my molasses experiments on the plate.

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Pretty/interesting as it looks, it’s pretty noisy in flavor. It’s hard to really wrap your head around what’s going on, there are so many different flavors, and not all of them go together. Eh. Science.

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I tried another plating just with the fennel gel, fennel molasses,  green apple meringue, and the anise hyssop leaf. This one makes a lot more sense. The flavors are nice and solid — the crisp freshness of the fennel gelee and the deep caramelized fennel flavor of the molasses are fun to get in one bite, and the meringue has a nice tartness that elevates things. I can’t say these textures are my favorite (I like crispy things, and aside from the one anise hyssop leaf, there’s not much to be found). But hey, I learned a hell of a lot, and that feels cool.

It was only while drinking coffee yesterday morning that it hit me that there’s no reason I couldn’t distill other liquids; I could try distilling coffee and cocoa powder to make mocha java distillate maybe? Or try experimenting with distilled teas or distilled spices…

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