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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Wild Bass, Mushrooms, Red Wine, Several Embellishments

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A couple years ago when making the White Bean dish, I counted up the components (22) and convinced myself I needed help completing everything. Several dishes and months later, I counted up the components for this dish (26)  and convinced myself I wanted to do it on my own.

You can really tell how I’ve matured here.

There were scant new technical challenges on this one, but this is offset by the sheer scale of it. A fair bit of its complexity lies in the timing of everything. Many components don’t stand up well to sitting in a fridge (or at room temperature) overnight, so there’s a chain of dependency here that I had to figure out to get it all on the plate at once. This took reading through the recipe a dozen or so times, trying to find the things that would stay vital the longest and starting with them.

 

 

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One of the first things was slicing some King Trumpet mushrooms into thin slices, brushing them with oil, roasting them at high temperature briefly, the dehydrating them for about a day to yield very crispy mushroom ‘chips’.

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At the same time, I brought equal parts sugar, water, and white wine vinegar to a boil with some juniper berries, then poured this pickling mixture over some pearl onions and let them steep for a couple days.

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Making Curried Puffed rice was…remarkably fun and easy. I bought some wild rice and chucked a fistful of it into hot oil. The oil has to be FUCKING HOT: 450F or so, otherwise the rice just sits and browns. It needs to be so shockingly hot that the tiny bit of absorbed environmental humidity in the rice immediately vaporizes, exploding outwards before getting trapped in the starch of the rice, causing the grains to puff. I then tossed them with some curry powders and salt.

 

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Making Red Pepper Puree was next up; these agar-based purees so-frequently featured in the book stay remarkably stable for quite a long time (which I’ve discovered by forgetting about squeeze bottles of smoke gel or yuzu pudding in my fridge until a month or so later). I juiced about 8 red peppers, simmered the juice to thicken it, added some cayenne, salt, and sugar to season it, then gelled it with agar before pureeing it.

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The Curried Puffed Rice and some of the Red Pepper Pudding are paired with Kefir Custard. While I’d heard the word “kefir” before, I had no idea what it actually was and had never tasted it (which is always the part of a recipe where I get real excited). Kefir is kinda fascinating: there are these things called Kefir Grains that are collections of yeast and bacteria hangin’ out and being all chummy with each other. These grains are added to milk, which triggers a fermentation of the milk and produces more of the grains. The milk itself is what’s referred to as “kefir”. It looks and tastes like something halfway between cream and yogurt, with a sharp tang and a thick consistency.

For this dish, the Kefir is custardified with the help of Iota Carrageenan, with which the kefir is boiled then left to set until it firms up. It’s then cut into small 3/4″ cubes. The texture of the custard is dead-on ‘custardy’; soft and like a perfect creme brulee.

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One of the more-involved components was Red Wine Glaze. This makes heavy use of the Veal Stock I made a few weeks ago, as well as some red wines (port and a dry red wine) cooked with dried blueberries and dried cherries to amp up the jammy flavors in it. The stock and red wine are independently thickened with a hefty bit of Ultra-tex 3, bringing them to a consistency somewhere around that of wallpaper paste. They’re then combined, to be spread thinly onto a sheet of acetate.

To do this, I laid down several strips of masking tape on my countertop (yielding a height of around 3mm or so), then put a sheet of acetate onto the countertop between them. I sprayed the acetate lightly with cooking spray to lubricate it, then I splatted a spoonful of the red wine ‘glue’ onto the acetate and dragged a ruler across to spread it super-duper thinly. The acetate sheet was transferred to the freezer on a tray to freeze. The idea is that later I’d cut small strips of the glaze, then transfer them to portions of bass and peel off the acetate, sort of like a red wine glaze sticker or something.

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Making Glazed Smoked Walnuts was equally interesting: rather than smoking walnuts directly, I toasted some raw walnuts then glazed them with “smoke glaze”. This was made by combining walnut oil, some water, sugar, and smoked salt and cooking this to 320F. I found this fascinating: the water is a vehicle for the salt and sugar to dissolve (which they can’t do in the oil), but then the water itself boils off, leaving the flavor compounds from both in the oil. Bringing the mixture up to 320F is candy stage for sugar, but just under the threshold for caramelization so we only get the slightest of caramel notes. The walnuts are added when the temperature hits 320F, causing the overall temperature to plummet. The glaze thickens and hardens on the walnuts, forming a candy shell around them…a rich, walnutty, smoky-sweet candy shell. PRETTY COOL, ‘LINEA.

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Sarah and I recently spent a weekend in Seattle (an adventure I’ll write more about later), and it seemed the restaurants there were really into serving braised mustard seeds. This is totally cool by me; I love them. Lightly-pickled and plumped, like little dots of tobiko but with some tang and zip, braising mustard seeds is pretty easy. I threw some brown and yellow seeds into a pot with some salt and water and simmered them for an hour or two (until they were plump and popped when I bit into them).

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While the mustard seeds were braising, I braised several other things. Some Endive was braised with white wine, honey, lemon, butter, garlic, and rosemary until the leaves were very tender.

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Radicchio was braised similarly, with red instead of white wines and a bit of vinegar to brighten it. After braising, the radicchio was finely-minced. Both of these guys were braised for 3-4 hours to soften their extreme bitterness.

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And, since I had one burner left, I braised some Rutabaga balls in white wine, vinegar, mustard and saffron. These were all sealed in a bag and cooked en sous vide for about an hour, until they were tender but still had some crunch to them.

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The last thing I made on the first cooking day was some green lentils, boiled simply with a bit of salt until they were lovely and tender. French green lentils have a pretty awesome, funky textured color pattern to them, don’t you think?

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I then celebrated the day’s accomplishments with a delicious beer. When the mountains are blue, you know the beer is as cold as the Rockies. The helpful wide mouth really lets the nose on this one open up too. I dare you to find another beer with this kind of technology built in.

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The next day, it was Get Busy Time. There were some fairly basic things to do, like slicing a Leek into discs, separating the discs into rings, and blanching the rings briefly.

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There was the roasting of a beet, done simply by wrapping a red beet in foil with some olive oil and roasting for about an hour, until the beet was cooked through (though it doesn’t go smooshy like a potato…it just gets edibly tender).

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Once roasted, the beets are sliced super-thinly with a meat slicer (or, if you’re like me and bought a meat slicer from Amazon that was a total piece of shit that smoked the first time you used it and then you immediately returned, a mandoline), then trimmed into tidy disks with a round cutter. The discs are folded in half and filled with a delicious puree.

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What’s the delicious puree? HOW THOUGHTFUL OF YOU TO ASK! The roasted beet envelopes are filled with Black Truffle puree, and here comes another adventure for you. Black Truffle Puree for this dish is made with black truffle stock (made from scratch in this recipe using several hundred grams of spare black truffle peelings you undoubtedly have lying around, or bought in a tin for the low low price of around $40 if you want to take the cheap route), potato, black trumpet mushrooms, and a quarter pound (!) of fresh Perigord black truffles.

Fresh Perigord black truffles (from Australia, where it’s winter right now and so they’re in season there, or you can opt to buy frozen European black winter truffles held over from 6 months prior) go for around $100/oz for consumer suckers like us, friend.  I’m getting married in a few months, but even if I didn’t have such a fantastic reason to save money, the Minister of Finance in our household would NOT let this fly. So what’s the substitute?

Well, I don’t really know. I mean, if one wants (NEEDS) truffles, one can buy preserved (canned) truffles for ‘relatively cheap’, or pre-frozen truffles for ‘less relatively cheap, but still cheaper than fresh’. Another cost-cutting move is opting for the milder Summer truffles as opposed to the headier Winter truffles. Given that I’ve done a bit of learning about truffles earlier in this project, I knew a little about what to expect form my options. Canned truffles are nice but have an unshakeable vibe of “we are but a shadow of our former selves” that makes my tongue a little sad, so for this experiment I decided to ratchet things up a little and try frozen summer truffles. This place in Florida sells 4oz of them for around $40, which was the cheapest I could find them. I know Alinea buys surplus of winter truffles when they’re in season and freezes the excess, so I figured maybe this route would offer relatively better results than I had with the Chicken Skin dish.

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Fresh from the freezer, the summer truffles did indeed have a nice heady aroma. Black Trumpets aren’t in season around here, and because I knew what to expect from buying dried ones, I figured I’d just go offroading a little bit here and improvise by using some other brown mushrooms available in the market. I cooked all this down and pureed it into a thick paste, which smelled really quite lovely. The paste is then dotted onto the beet discs and folded into a pretty ruby-colored package.

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The next step was to cook — in several waves — multiple mushrooms. I started with Clamshell (“beech”, “pioppini”, “shimeji”, all the same) mushrooms…

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…which are separated into large caps, small caps, and stems (which are diced). Each of these three are individually sauteed with oil, rosemary, thyme, butter, and garlic. They’re then set aside to drain on some paper towels, to be reheated before service.

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Some Enoki mushrooms were cooked similarly but more-gently, simmered to retain their connection and shape as a cluster. They too were set aside to drain and hold until service.

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The final step was the striped bass itself. I searched high and low in the bay area for striped bass in fish markets; they’re definitely in season, but no one seemed to carry them. After a while I finally learned that striped bass are sort of like shopping for oxalis at a nursery: they’re so common that they’re just not worth making a big effort to stock apparently. Googling for “striped bass bay area” brings up no Chowhound forum posts, but heaps of fishing location guides. Turns out they’re apparently relatively easy to just catch off piers around here.

This was both incredibly appealing and daunting to me. I mean, how awesome to say “Oh yeah and for the wild bass, I went out and FUCKING CAUGHT MY OWN”? I would totally love to do this. I don’t own any fishing gear though, and there’s the obvious matter of chance here. Choreographing all the rest of this dish along with a fishing excursion was more than I could handle on my own, so I opted to turn again to Browne Trading, since I’d had such a pleasant experience with them last time.

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The bass fillets are cut into single portions, each of which is packaged in grapeseed oil and cooked en sous vide very delicately.

The final touch was gathering the various herbs used to garnish this dish. I’m a huge fan of Michel Bras’ gargouillou; I LOVE the idea of it, and there’s a chance to play a little bit with that here. For the past few months I’ve been growing several dozen small herbs for use as garnish here, so finally I got to put them to use. They include nepitella, several basils, oreganos, ice lettuce of two kinds, chive, claytonia, two sorrels, mint, several cresses, and various edible flowers.

Stitched Panorama

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All components prepped, I took a step back to collect myself before assembling everything. There are multiple temperatures to present things at, so there was a lot of reheating/chilling/bringing to room temp and trying to hold it all. The plating in these photos ended up taking about 15 minutes…which of course blew all of these temperatures completely. I realized partway through that this was a new one: I couldn’t actually plate the thing alone and present it the way it’s meant to be presented.

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The most tricky stroke came when trying to cap the prepared bass portions with the frozen red wine glaze. The stuff was so incrediblys ticky that it failed to peel from the acetate properly. It made a mess and destroyed a few bass portions (they’re very flaky and delicate once cooked). I had to admit defeat with this and just warm some of the glaze and gently spread it on the portion instead.

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Whew.

So, after all this, how was it?

Well…pretty good! There’s a LOT going on here. The flavors are from all over the place; there’s japanese stuff in here, middle-eastern flavors, really comfort-foody flavors. It’s all over the map. It manages to stay coherent, incredibly, and never dull (well, almost). The beet envelope and truffle puree fell short of what I’d liked; the summer truffles again failed to deliver the punch needed to override the earthy notes of the beet. This really bums me out; I want to be able to afford a proper winter truffle at some point, just to feel satisfied in getting to use one and appreciate how it works. The red wine glaze was so incredibly glue-y that it had almost no flavor release (though the veal stock and red wine mixture pre-ultra-tex both tasted fantastic. This is interesting to me: the ultra-tex not only thickened it, but locked up a LOT of the flavors. The glaze tasted like almost nothing). And the fish itself might as well have been tilapia in the face of all this other stuff…it’s so mild and delicate that, for me, it got lost in the noise.

But the mushrooms were fantastic, the onion and rutabaga were incredibly tasty, and (my personal favorite) the kefir custard with the curried rice were super delicious. The braised bitter leaves were sprightly and exciting. Sarah and I both agreed that maybe the strongest combination on the plate was (surprisingly to both of us) the glazed walnuts atop the lentils. They just tasted…right. Really natural and tasty and ‘of COURSE’-y.

Overall, making this on my own was pretty satisfying; even the things that don’t work out all the way are interesting from a learning perspective.

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Bison, Beets, Blueberries, Burning Cinnamon

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Hey. Hey guys. Guys, check it out:

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I’m droppin’ beets.

Hey where are you all going?

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Ok, sorry, for real this time. I’m 7 dishes away from finishing this project, and this one stars some interesting stuff. It takes a week start to finish, in large part because it involves making Corned Bison. I’ve never to my knowledge tried corned beef, because I didn’t understand what it was and pictured beef mixed with corn…which is a little gross. Back off, this is an honest mistake; what if someone tried to sell you on a broccoli’d ham sandwich? THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT.

It turns out that “corning” just refers to the salt used in curing beef…apparently salt looked like corn in olden times or something. But it actually has nothing to do with corn, I was delighted to learn; corning meat basically just means curing it in a brine, perhaps including some spices along the way.

My first step was procuring some Bison, also sometimes referred to (erroneously) as Buffalo. When I last used Bison, I found it in the SF Ferry Building but had very limited choice over cuts or types of meat. This time I wanted to try going straight to the source, so I searched for Bison farms and started calling them to see if they’d be willing to sell me specific cuts to order. Turns out most were happy to, given enough lead time. For the Corned Bison, I needed Bison Leg, also called “shank”, which is often pre-portioned into osso bucco.

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So I ordered some Bison Osso Bucco from Wild Idea Bison farm, and it showed up beautifully-packaged on the Friday prior to me starting this process.

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The first thing I needed to do was clean the meat from the bone and trim it of external silverskin and fat. The meat was put into a brine of salt, cinnamon, bay and vanilla, and left to cure for the week.

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The dish also calls for veal stock; last time I made veal stock I made a shit ton of it, and also totally glossed over writing about the process. I love making stock, so I figured I’d go ahead and make a fresh batch for this dish.

The first batch of stock I made, having never tasted veal stock before, was oddly ‘spicy’ and dark. It has a taste that can quickly be overpowering. Given that I made it over a year ago and have kept it in our freezer for storage, I figured maybe I’d try learning some more about this process to see if this second batch turned out any differently.

The first step is to blanch 5 lbs of veal bones in some hot water. I kept the marrow bones from the bison shanks to throw in here as well. The Alinea recipe calls for calves’ feet, but I can’t get butchers around here to sell these to me at all; most ask why I even want them, and one told me that there’s a California law that forbids slaughterhouses to sell veal feet to butchers. They offered to sell me COW’S feet, but I had to special order them. On reading about how integral this is, it seems like the feet just offer more collagen, leading to more gelatin. I figured I’d compensate with an extra pound of bones and just see how it turned out.

After blanching the bones, I return them to a big stockpot and fill it to 6″ over the bones, then bring the water to a simmer. We never, ever want to hit full boil, which clouds the stock and releases a lot of impurities (as I learned from my first time doing this). So, I kept a probe thermometer in my stock the entire time I was working with it, and kept it at about 90C for the duration of simmering. Fat and impurities start rising to the surface almost immediately, and then starts the skimming.

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Now, this is significant enough for me to feel compelled to mention: I had an assumption about what “skimming” was in my head that turns out to be faulty; I was using a wire mesh strainer to ‘skim’ my stock last time. It sorta-kinda works, but left a lot of impurities in the stock that I think might have contributed to its odd flavor, and of course does little to get rid of fat. I was cautious about skimming away the liquid itself, hence choosing a wire skimmer. I recently got turned onto ChefSteps, which is 110% awesome. The real magic of this site is in the videos; they’re very illustrative, but I find myself noting a lot of subtleties that never get explained in cookbooks…things like the chefs’ use of narrow whisks to help them get into the corners of a pan or how they choose to use thermometers. There’s a ton of handy little tidbits they probably don’t even intend to be so helpful but that can’t be learned any other way outside of working in a kitchen with chefs. Anyway, I was watching this video a couple weeks ago and was struck at the small moment where the chef skims his stock…using a ladle. He pulls almost all the impurities out with one graceful motion, but also pulls out a fair bit of the liquid. This way of skimming is quite different than what I had done my first time, so I thought I’d try it for this batch. Turns out this way is far superior.

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After things get simmering, I add some aromatics to the stock, as well as some tomato paste, the acid in which helps coagulate proteins, making them easier to skim away.

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The stock simmers for 8 hours, the bones are removed and the liquid reserved, then the bones are simmered for another 8 hours in new water. This probably makes it obvious that making a big batch of veal stock is a full 2-day affair, albeit a wonderful relaxing one, sort of like smoking pork butt or something. I hang out in the apartment cleaning, doing paperwork, overchecking email, cat-napping, returning to the stock every 20-30 minutes or so to trim the temperature and skim, skim, skim. There are probably people for whom this sounds like the worst thing ever, but I totally love it.

The two batches are ultimately combined, then reduced down to about 1000g of demi glace. This batch turned out notably different than my first; it’s much milder and more subtle, and has none of the spicy, offputting flavors of my first batch. The taste is lovely and beefy, and there’s more than enough gelatin the offer thick mouthfeel.

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After 6 days in the corning brine I removed my Bison shanks, rinsed and dried them, and cooked them for 4 hours or so in oil until they were tender and most of the tough collagen in the meat had gelatinized. The meat was cut into small dice, then cooked into a ragout with fennel, cream, a bit of vinegar and salt. It tasted delicious as hell. Corned Beef Achievement: unlocked.

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The other hero ingredient here is beets; there are a shitload of beets in this dish. First, I cooked the small beets pictured above in butter and vinegar, then peeled them and stored them in their cooking liquids.

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To make beet sheets and beet pudding, I juiced around 10 beets. A side note about this: I recently swapped out my Breville Compact Juice Fountain (a centrifugal juicer that was loud, tended to leak, and generally was a mess and a pain in the ass) to the Hurom Slow Juicer. Sarah and I are of differing opinions about this thing: it results in juice with more pulp than the Juice Fountain did. Sarah and pulp don’t get along. She’s frustrated by needing to strain her juice after producing it, but admits that the slow juicer is very quiet and extremely tidy. Because I use the tool for these dishes, I’m pretty used to straining everything anyway, so for me this new juicer is great. It’s so clean and nonviolent, which is kind of a big deal when you’re juicing beets…no red juice flying unexpectedly out of unsealed crevices. It’s also no bigger than the Juice Fountain, which was a big motivation for me as I have enough shit in our kitchen as is.

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Anyway, I gelled some of the juice with agar and gelatin, then poured this onto a sheet of acetate to form a very thin ‘film’. After this had set, I cut rounds from the sheet with a cookie cutter, transferred them (very, very gently…they’re super-delicate) to another sheet of acetate, and covered them with more acetate to hold them until service. The sheets are ultimately draped over a spoonful of the corned bison ragout.

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The rest of the juice was mixed with Ultra-Tex and blended to yield a thick pudding. I found I had to add way, way more Ultra-Tex to thicken the liquid than I should have; I think this is an indicator that my stash of it is getting too old.

To make Beet-Blueberry Crumbs, I thinly-sliced another beet, cooked the slices briefly in sugar, salt, water, and a dash of vinegar, then dehydrated them to yield crispy beet chips. These were lightly-crushed with some freeze-dried blueberries.

 

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I next got to work on pickling some fresh blueberries; I heated red wine and sugar, added blueberries, then let the mixture cool. The berries went in the fridge, while the remaining blueberry-red wine liquid was reduced to a syrup, then combined with some veal stock to yield a thick, unctuous “blueberry gastrique”. This shit is seriously amazing: sweet, earthy, flavorful.

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In addition to the Bison shanks, I also ordered some Bison Tenderloin, which I cooked en sous vide to medium-rare before portioning into individual slices.

 

 

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The final component before plating everything was caramelized fennel puree, which I completely forgot to photograph but was one of the most delicious components on the dish. After completing this, I put most components in the over to keep them warm, then got to work on a beverage pairing for the dish…:

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Martin Kastner’s “Porthole” service piece was released as a Kickstarter project several months ago, and mine showed up in the mail a few weeks ago. Martin (and the Aviary) provide 4 recipes with the Porthole…one of which features blueberries! Pairing it with this dish seemed like a no-brainer.

The Porthole is first filled with grapefruit and lemon peels, strawberries, freeze-dried pomegranate arils, fresh mint, blueberries, edible flowers, and Rare Tea Celler’s Berry Meritage tea. Separately, a cocktail is mixed of bourbon, water, verjus, vermouth, bitters and simple syrup. This is poured into the Porthole and begins infusing. The Porthole shipped with two small sampling glasses; the idea is to taste the cocktail every 5 minutes or so to see how it evolves. Each new serving is drastically different from the previous; the experience starts sweet, caramely, bourbony, then arcs through citrusy, berry-like, then herbal as it takes on the flavors of the flowers. The color also drifts from a light beige to deep red. The whole thing is pretty badass.

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So badass, in fact, that it almost trumped the final step of the dish itself….

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Cyelon cinnamon rods are ignited just before service and left to smoulder as the dish is eaten, creating a curtain of smoky cinnamon aroma that just accents everything beautifully.

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I admit I’ve never been a big fan of beets; they’re just so damn earthy and dirt-y and Dwight Schrutey. But I really loved the flavors here; beets and blueberries together create a third flavor that seems more than the sum of its parts. The bison itself was beautiful: delicately cinnamon-y and salty in the ragout, and tender and juicy as the tenderloin. The gold beets were favorite surprise; they had a buttery note to their flavor and left me wanting to work with them again (rather than the red beets, which I just kinda put up with). Sarah and I noted the flavors here (specifically the cinnamon) makes this dish seem more like an Autumn one than a Spring one, but it was still really tasty nevertheless.