Wild Bass, Mushrooms, Red Wine, Several Embellishments

Stitched Panorama

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.

 

Ayu, Kombu, Fried Spine, Sesame

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The “ayu“, or sweetfish, is a small Japanese relative to the smelt family. A freshwater fish with a very short (one year) lifespan, the ayu’s flesh has the peculiar characteristic of smelling delicately (and incredibly) like watermelon. So…why not pair the two?

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I’ve spent a couple years searching off and on for ayu at the various asian markets I’ve visited in the area. I feel like every time I say “this ingredient is really hard to find”, an Asian coworker points out how they used to eat so-and-so ingredient all the time as a kid in LA, or that they could swear they saw it just the other day at the Korean market just up the street. Either I suck at shopping at these places, or these fish are legitimately tricky to find in the Bay Area.

I emailed Eric Rivera at Alinea a year and a half ago or so, asking for help sourcing Ayu. He pointed me to True World Foods, a restaurant seafood wholesaler that Alinea apparently uses from time to time. I emailed True World last year, explained that I wasn’t a restaurant but just a dude who wanted some fish, and asked if they could source some Ayu for me. A few days later I got an email back from them telling me that they could sell me a tray of Ayu, but that I’d need to come pick it up from them directly.

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At the time, I got distracted by some other dishes, but I earmarked the email for future reference…the future, of course, being now.

About two weeks ago, I emailed True World again, asking if they could still source it. A representative named Carl emailed saying they could, and that I had two choices: they could get me either wild or farmed Ayu (the farmed being cheaper). Eric told me if I had the choice, I should choose wild (ostensibly because the flavor would be better), so I expressed as much to Carl, and asked him from where they’d be bringing these in. I presumed the fish would be shipped from a domestic location, but Carl said no, they’d be coming straight from the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, and would be overnighted in.

This struck me as pretty badass.

True World has an office in San Leandro, about 20 minutes’ drive south of Oakland. I arranged for a Friday morning pickup from Carl, and drove down early before work on the day to pick up a tray of 11 fresh Ayu straight from Japan. The offices are in a fairly scrappy neighborhood, and are laden with barred windows…the area around the building was desolate. This is probably par for the course if one works in the hospitality industry as a professional, but for me it was a new experience…this isn’t Whole Foods.

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The dispatch office was behind the main building, a tiny room laden with security camera monitors and manned by a guy named Mr. Osaka. Mr. Osaka needed some involved explanations from me as to who I was and why I was there; I told him I had been working with Carl and was here to pick up some Ayu. He made a phone call, seemed satisfied, and told me to wait for Carl to come meet me. After a pause, he eyed me and said “Ayu. Why you want this fish?” I told him I was trying to learn about it, and needed it for a dish I wanted to make. “Ayu very special fish. My favorite fish. Is Japanese…has…nice taste. Unusual taste.” Everyone at Alinea can rest easy knowing Mr. Osaka approves of their choice of fish for this dish, mmkay?

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A few minutes later, Carl appeared and greeted me with a folder of information. “You’re not from a restaurant, then?” he asked (this was about the 10th time I’d been asked this). I answered in the negative, and he said “Cool, you’re just doing this for fun then?” I liked this approximation of things, so I said yes.

“Awesome. here, check this out”. He showed me an extensive list of everything True World was stocking for the day, as well as what they expected to get tomorrow.  There was a large book detailing many of the wares from Tsukiji, though he noted that there were no prices because they change too rapidly. “There’s also another fish market we work with, it’s further south. It’s quite a bit cheaper, but there’s a small selection. Tsukiji is more expensive, but they have everything. So, don’t pay much attention to what all’s listed in these books, if there’s something you need, call me and I’ll get it. There’s way more out there at these markets than I can fit in this book.” I really loved that he was so excited to show me all of this.

After a bit more chatting, he ducked into a backroom and returned with my receipt and a tray of fresh Ayu.

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Guys, I was pretty freaking excited about this. I took them straight home to store in the fridge until I was ready to work with them. When I unpacked them later, the ice bed they had been gently laying on was still frozen (and I noticed the styrofoam tray had small drain holes in it, with cold gel packs underneath it to help keep things cold and keep them from sitting in water as the ice melted. Cool).

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The Ayu were small, around 8″ in length, and still covered in the protective mucus most fish secrete (this is why they’re slippery fresh out of water). Their eyes were bright and clear…these things were seriously beautiful.

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My awe at looking at these things after so very much time and consideration expended getting them was immediately followed by anxiety; I had to butcher these things entirely, which is not something I’ve ever done before. The Alinea book offers some detail on how to do this, but it’s not comprehensive and takes some steps for granted (eviscerating the fish being the most notable one). I didn’t get any photos of this process because, well, it was nerve-wracking, I made a slight mess of it, and I wasn’t super-happy about the process.

To eviscerate the fish, I made an incision from the bottom of the fish’s jaw down to what I assume is it’s butthole…a small hole about 3/4 of the way down the fish. I gently pried open this incision and used my finger to scoop out the stomach and entrails, which is a smooshy mess that takes a bit of mettle if you haven’t done this before. Why does one eviscerate the fish before filleting it? I learned the hard way, so let me tell you! Filleting the fish means removing the side loins from the fish; if you don’t get rid of the guts first, you cut right through all of them as you remove each fillet, which is messy as hell and can cause contamination problems easily. Plus it’s hella gross.

The flesh indeed smelled fascinatingly sweet and reminiscent of watermelon; it was also almost exactly as delicate as watermelon flesh. For half of the fillets, I was meant to cut the skin off…a process that’s slippery and requires the very, very sharpest of knives if you don’t want to have an experience like I did and make a mess out of things. The flesh crushes easily, so one has to be very careful not to totally destroy the meat in skinning it.

After separating the fillets, I stacked them two at a time with some salt between them, and rolled them in plastic wrap into little ayu torpedos. These were steamed for a few minutes just before plating, then unrolled and trimmed at the ends. The salt helps bind the two fillets together.

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From the remaining fish carcasses, I removed the heads and tails, and boiled the spines to loosen and remove all meat.  At this moment, my neighbor Asalle (who is also a coworker) was out walking her dog, saw me through our kitchen window, and called to say hi and ask what I was doing. Trying to chitchat casually while picking meat from fish spines with the ultimate intent to eat them…this is my life right now.

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It was getting late into the night at this point, and I had the finale of The Office to watch, so I put the spines and the removed ayu skins in separate containers of lightly-salted water to store in the fridge overnight.

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The next morning, I started working with some Hato Mugi. Hato Mugi, I learned, is a large Asian grain most-often prepared as a warm cereal. It has a nutty flavor and — when cooked — a texture reminiscent of hominy.

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To prepare it, I simmered about a half-cupful in water, along with a sachet of lemongrass, ginger, and red Thai chili. I was impressed at this trick; the cooked grains’ nutty flavor went really nicely with the subtle freshness offered by the infusing ingredients.

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When the grains were tender, I drained them, then partially-dehydrated several spoonfuls. The semi-dry grains then were cooked in hot oil until they puffed.

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While the hato mugi was drying, I toasted some coriander seeds, then crushed these to a powder and combined them with some sea salt.

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I also pressure-cooked some white and black sesame seeds in separate batches for about a half hour until they plumped. This was neat; they take on a popping texture sort of like tobiko

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Some of these seeds were steeped overnight in milk to infuse the milk with sesame flavor; the milk was cooked with agar and sesame oil to form a gel, then pureed into a creamy, mayonnaise-like consistency to yield Sesame Pudding. I combined the cooked hato mugi with some plumped black and white sesame seeds, the sesame pudding, and lime juice and zest to yield a fresh, light-tasting salad of sorts.

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The sweetness of the Ayu is paired with watermelon, which is meant to be compressed with soy sauce. “Compressing” watermelon is something meant to be accomplished with a vacuum chamber, but I have a super-duper-duper shitty Foodsaver (and will never bypass an opportunity to speak loudly and obnoxiously about how shitty, how very very super shitty this thing is), which cannot form a strong enough vacuum to do the compression.

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Thankfully, there’s an interesting alternative; freezing vacuum-sealed watermelon causes similar cell rupturing as compression techniques, ultimately yielding watermelon that has a meaty, thickened texture not unlike a piece of sashimi-grade tuna. So, I cut my seedless watermelon into planks 3″x1″x0.5″, sealed them with some soy sauce, and froze them overnight. After letting them thaw the next day, I found they did indeed take on a lovely meaty texture, though the soy flavor was pretty pronounced. I think if I were to do this again, I’d freeze them sans soy sauce first, them let them steep in the soy sauce for a bit of time before plating, to get more of the sweet watermelony taste pulled up front.

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I also made Pickled Watermelon Rind from the cuttings left over from the watermelon.  I sliced the rind into tidy planks…

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…then cooked them in a mixture of rice vinegar, sugar, and water until they turned translucent. The planks were slived into thin ribbons just before plating.

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To make brilliant green Cilantro Sauce, I started with a bunch of cilantro…

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…and picked all the leaves from the stems.
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The leaves were blanched briefly in salted water, then pureed with ice water, simple syrup, and ultra-tex 3 in a blender to yield a syrupy sauce.

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I had reserved the cilantro stems, which I cut into small spears, then candied briefly in simple syrup.

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Next I worked on Braised Kombu. I started by making a homemade teriyaki sauce: I caramelized some sugar, in which I then cooked some shallot, ginger, lemongrass, and carrot. I added soy sauce, sake, and water, and left this to steep and infuse. This mixture was then transferred to a baking dish with some fresh Kombu.

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The Kombu was braised for several hours, until it took on the texture of al dente pasta. I cut it into ‘noodles’.

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The remaining liquid was cooked down into a thick Kombu Syrup.

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Finally…The Frying Of The Stuff. I heated more oil, and fried the reserved spines and fish skins. The fish skin thing I was used to…this is a favorite thing of mine, and it yields potato-chip crispy skin flakes that taste very lightly fishy and delicious.

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But I’d never fried a spine before.

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I plated everything, first on a Montgatina plate, then I tried it on my Tessendorf plate. The former worked well, the latter was pretty rough. But either way, this dish tasted delicious. The fish and watermelon not only taste delicious together, but the texture is kind of a fun flip-flop of what’s expected: the fish itself is so tender it almost falls apart in the mouth, whereas the compressed watermelon offers more tooth. The fishy textures are beautifully accessorized by the crispy spine, the skin, and the puffed hato mugi. These flavors all all Thai-like, very light and refreshing. Sarah and I both agreed this is one of the most outstanding dishes of late…visually-striking and totally delicious.

 

 

Tessendorf Plate

I’ve been deliberately-quiet about what I do day-to-day professionally so far. I’m not sure why; I think most of it is a desire to maintain humility and to head off dismissal of the effort that I like putting into this project (“Oh, well, you’re a visual effects artist, so you probably just put these photos in the computer and computer them up, and how hard can that be?”). When I started this project, I was working as a computer graphics artist at Weta Digital in New Zealand. Prior to that, I worked for a while at the now-defunct ESC Entertainment on two of the Matrix films (as well as the ever-popular Catwoman), the now-defunct Big Idea Productions (makers of the “Veggie Tales” children’s animated series…I sang in one of the Silly Songs), and taught for a while at Notre Dame. Currently I’m at Pixar.

“What I do” tends to vary per-project, but my interests are spread amongst shading, lighting, rendering, and “effects” work. Effects (or FX, as it’s oft-abbreviated) usually entails things that are difficult to hand-animate or model: natural phenomena like explosions, rain, dust, or funky things like ‘rips in the fabric of space-time’ (as I got to work on for Jumper, an otherwise pretty-terrible movie). One of the most captivating FX tasks for me to play with, however, is water.

Water is an interesting phenomenon to try to represent mathematically on a computer; ‘what water looks like’ is a product of many variables. Water reflects and refracts its environment, and can carry participating media that scatters light as it bounces around inside a water volume. Water can churn and froth, can split apart and rejoin itself, and interacts with other objects in interesting ways. There’s no ‘correct’ way to make water in computer graphics, which is why it’s so interesting to me; every time I sit down to work on a shot that involves water, I try it a different way, seeking to get the best result with the tools I have at my disposal (which, in a software-driven industry, are constantly changing).

One of the ‘easiest’ representations of water is an open ocean. I say “easy” because an open ocean with no objects interacting with the water surface allows us to shortcut or sidestep many problems that are otherwise difficult to deal with. Back in the late 90’s, a guy named Jerry Tessendorf theorized that we could take a set number of wavelengths and use them to represent an open ocean.

To get all supernerd about it: there exist in the world several data-gathering “sea state” mechanisms — ways of mathematically-describing “this is how the ocean looks right now”. These are real-world mechanisms…sometimes an array of sea buoys are used, other cases use satellite data, etc. The data captured by these methods is then collected into a “wave spectrum”, which is basically a collection of wavelengths that describe what the ocean surface is doing at a given moment. We can take these spectra and perform an inverse Fourier transform on them to yield a pattern that, when applied to a patch of mesh in a 3d package, can yield something that resembles an ocean.

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While this approach to representing an ocean has been refined and improved over the last decade, the general idea remains the same. “Tessendorf waves” are almost invariably what you’re seeing when you watch any film that leverages computer graphics to represent an ocean. King Kong, Avatar, Tintin, Brave, Cars 2…these are films I’ve been fortunate enough to work on that all feature this approach to representing oceans.

I’ve never lost my interest in trying to make my own servicepieces for this project, but the road for doing so is notably slower than for cooking. I’ve been taking lots of classes as I can afford to, to learn things like machining, welding, woodworking, etc. in an effort to piece techniques together to understand how I might craft a servicepiece myself. I recently read about services such as Shapeways and Ponoko that offer users the ability to 3d print an idea in ceramic. This idea is particularly interesting to me, as you have to use a computer as the input to a 3d printed piece. Because I spend so much time representing reality on computers, I wanted to see how I could explore this approach as a way of making a servicepiece. And because I have a long and intimate interest in working with water, using Tessendorf waves as a source of inspiration seemed like a unique way to make it my own.

I started roughing out my idea with zero regard for the design constraints inherent to 3d printed ceramic. The FX department at Pixar makes heavy use of Houdini as a tool for generating various effects, but I didn’t know it before coming here 3 years ago. I still have a lot to learn, so I decided to use it as my prototyping suite, forcing myself to get to know it better. I really love Montgatina’s Tabula plate series, so I started with it as a reference. My first question for myself had to do with the scale of waves I wanted to involve.

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On the left, I’m representing an “annulus“; when making an ocean for a given shot in a film, I only care about water that the camera sees, so I often leverage a shape that makes sense when viewed from the camera, but viewed from other angles looks a bit funky. In the center, I’m playing with more of a ‘mid-scale’ ocean, like what you might see standing at the bow of a giant cruiseliner. On the right, I’m getting extremely close to the water, as if I’m bending over the edge of a rowboat and nearly touching it.

Of the three variations, I liked the aesthetics of the rightmost one. It felt fundamentally more beautiful to me — elegant, cleaner and (as Sarah pointed out) way nicer to scrape a fork across. The other ones I imagined to be annoying to actually eat off of.

I had some questions about the amount of detail I want to see at that scale, so I cloned off several versions of the rightmost one, adjusting things like wave height and the overall ‘resolution’ of the wave (i.e. how much fine detail we see). At lower resolutions (seen on the left) the plate started to look less ‘watery’ to me, and at higher resolutions (on the right), the whole pattern looked more like a mountain range that I was viewing from afar rather than water. The centermost one felt the best to me, so I forged on with that one.

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I imagined this design being nice and big…15-17″ or so, and maybe 3″ high. I tweeted these renders to Shapeways and Ponoko, asking them their thoughts on how reasonable this design was. Ponoko responded soon to tell me that it was basically awful. It’s way too big than what can be 3d printed, and structurally was unlikely to survive the process. Shapeways pointed me to this outline of the design guidelines for printing in 3d, which I realized I probably should have consulted first. I read it roughly, paying closest attention to the bounding box specifications: these made me realize I was going to be creating a much smaller plate than I’d originally imagined.

I spent a few days vacillating about this; on the one hand, I really, really love the above design. But I worried the only way to make it was to hand-sculpt it, which took away some of the poetry I find in literally printing the work I do every day. A friend suggested I could CNC mill this shape from something like wood, make a mold from it, then slipcast porcelain from this mold. This sounded like a possibility, but also meant quite a bit more expense (having a mold made from a shape can cost over $500, and that didn’t account for the time and money I needed to spend to teach myself how to do all these steps). I’m not ruling out this approach (I’d love to learn how to do this, in fact), but I thought it might also be worthwhile designing within the constraints of the 3d printing process, both to learn and to appreciate what it has to offer.

So, I redesigned my plate. I did so from an informed position, knowing at least how I wanted the wave pattern to look. After a couple tries, I landed on an idea like this, measuring about 7″ square.

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I tried a few variations; I compared what the straight edges felt like in contrast to allowing the natural contours of the Tessendorf pattern to come through.

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Shapeways/Ponoko also offer glazes in black as well as white. I think a black plate would be pretty badass, but decided to opt for white for the first attempt.

A Tessendorf pattern displaces a surface both positively and negatively; a flat plate gains both mounds (at the wave crests) and ‘bowls’ (at the wave troughs). I felt strongly that I wanted my plate to have both; I really love the idea of being able to plate sauces or liquids in the troughs of the wave patterns, rather than only have mounds to work on. This meant the plate had to be fairly elevated, to allow for downward displacement. It’s not obvious from these renders, but this design featured a flat bottom (if you flip the plate over, the surface you see is flat, rather than inversely-contoured to match the top surface), which I would learn later has significant ramifications.

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Shapeways charges by surface area for 3d printed ceramic, while Ponoko charges by volume. I uploaded this design to both to compare pricing. For this design, Shapeways yielded a price about $50 cheaper than Ponoko, coming in at around $120 total. I placed my order, then sat back to wait for the robots to do my bidding.

Three days later, I got an email from Shapeways; they had found issue with my design, and had rejected it. Rather than refunding my money, they gave me a ‘store credit’. They said they could give me a refund if I threw a big fit (they worded it more nicely than that, but that’s how I read it), but they wouldn’t move forward with printing this design…I needed to fix it.

The problem was in the ‘bowl’ area of the plate: the negatively-displaced top surface came within 3mm of the flat bottom surface, yielding a wall thickness of 3mm. The minimum wall thickness for a portion of printed ceramic is noted in the design guidelines as 6mm, but Shapeways recommended 8-10mm would be more appropriate for the plate.

Going back and  rereading the design guidelines more carefully, I took note of the wall thickness minimum and maximum. Wall size needs to be between 6mm and 15mm, with an avoidance of sharp thickness transitions. I realized that if I lifted the top surface so that my too-thin area was at least 8mm thick, I would end up with areas that were way thicker than 15mm (because, recall, the bottom of the plate was flat).

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These design guidelines felt inscrutable to me, and I was feeling frustrated. I had emailed Martin several years ago asking questions about working with porcelain, and he had recommended a book for me to read up about it. I went back through and read it more carefully over several days, and did a lot of reading about how ceramics are fired (something that, until now, I hadn’t bothered to research much).

Ceramics (be they clay or forms of porcelain) have a water content at the time they’re sculpted. 3d printed ceramic is no different; small dots of clay are deposited in a designed shape by the 3d printer’s nozzle, and are held together with a binding agent. While the clay is wet, a piece is said to be in a ‘green’ state. It’s left to dry for a period of time; the faster it dries (e.g. by heated air), the more of a differential forms between the dried clay and the wet clay underneath it. If this differential is too high, the clay can warp or crack. This phenomenon isn’t unique to clay; I’ve experienced it when dehydrating ingredients too fast. The Yuba I cooked recently, in fact, did this; the yuba was a big ball when I put it in the dehydrator, and I tried accelerating the rate of dehydration for one batch by turning up the heat of the dehydrator. The outer surface dried and tried to shrink, but the interior wasn’t dry yet, so the exterior cracked open like a layer of paint. Clay can do the same.

To reduce the potential of this happening, one can seek to reduce the opportunities for large humidity gradients; e.g. by keeping the wall thickness no smaller than 6mm and no larger than 15mm. The idea is that you want to let water evaporate from the clay at a steady, constant rate. When the clay is fired (to permanently harden it), if any water still exists in the clay, it turns to steam, again causing cracking or warping as the steam tries to escape.

Learning about this fascinated me, and I spent several more days closely-inspecting all the plates and bowls we have in the house. Almost all of them exhibited this exact property; I measured points all around Martin’s plates I’ve bought over the years, as well as several Montgatina bowls, plates we own from Crate and Barrel, and even some Hadley crockery from my mom. All of it features very smooth, soft transitions from wide to narrow measurements, with no individual part drifting too far outside the measurements noted. I suspect different materials have different drying rates, and therefore allow for slightly-different design constraints, but for the most part the fundamentals hold true here.

Bearing this in mind, I started reworking my design again, paying much more attention to the contours of the plate and how thickness was distributed throughout it. I realized that solving my thickness problem would mean contouring the bottom of the plate to match the curves of the top, and realized this is exactly why Martin’s plates exhibit this property. I also noticed a few characteristics in Martin’s plates that I felt would be nice to incorporate, namely the raised outer edge to give more a sense of depth to the deeper areas of the plate. There are some visual tricks I feel like he’s playing to solve structural problems without throwing the overall feeling of weight out of balance. I eventually landed on something that looked like this.

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One of houdini’s strengths is that it allows for entirely modular design methods (we call it “proceduralism”). This meant I could adjust some areas of the plate without affecting others. Once I’d established the outer edges, I could shift around the actual wave pattern, ‘scouting’ for an area of the pattern that looked nice. Incidentally, this is exactly how we choreographed waves hitting the Venture as it crashed onto Skull Island for Peter Jackson’s “King Kong”: we generated a large ocean mesh, then ‘slid’ the wave pattern around hunting for a good-looking wave that could smash against the boat and push it in the direction we wanted the action to be.

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After a few more finishing touches, I again sent the design off to Shapeways to print. I noticed that by contouring the bottom of the plate, I’d lessened the volume but increased the surface area. I was curious of the price difference between Shapeways and Ponoko at this point, but because I had “store credit” at Shapeways, I pushed forward with them without investigating further. Ponoko had told me earlier that both outfits actually use the same production facility, and I presume the design constraints result in their pricing structures being very similar once all thickness issues have been addressed.

About a week later, I got an email from Shapeways, this time confirming that the plate had been produced and was en route to me. I held my breath for a few days; honestly, I really liked my renders but didn’t expect the final product to look nearly as slick. I braced myself for a funky color difference, a less-shiny finish, or worse: cracks or warps formed during the firing process.

It turned out my fears weren’t unfounded; when the plate arrived it was significantly warped; all of the edges were way lower than in my design, and a few of the corners had sagged significantly. The plate as a whole had sagged so much that the ‘bowl’ area I’d tried so hard to preserve was nonexistent. On top of this, there were several weird anomalies that were introduced during the printing process that weren’t in my original design: an odd ‘stripe’ and an area of ‘lumpiness’. The glaze was notably less glossy than I’d imagined too.

I tried plating the dish I made this weekend on the plate, and photographed it in a way that accentuated its interesting parts while obfuscating its weaknesses. Those photos can be seen in the main post for that dish, but here’s a more unapologetic one that clearly highlights what this thing looks like. I wouldn’t ever actually present a dish to someone on this; the quality’s just not there.

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I wrote Shapeways to ask whether my expectations are too far off for this process; I have not yet heard back as of this writing. I still think the design is pretty interesting, but if this represents the limits of this technology, it’s not the right tool for me to use for making my own serviceware. I think I’ll be looking into some ceramics classes, but hey…science.

 

Sardine, Niçoise Olive, Dried Tomato, Arugula

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Nice people rock.

The other day, I got back to my office after a meeting to find a package of dried sardines sitting on my desk. They were from a coworker, who later told me he’d recently taken a trip to Japan; his mother-in-law served these at a dinner, and while eating them he asked “Hey, do you happen to have any more packs of these things? There’s a guy I work with who was looking for them not long ago.”

I’ve been looking for Tatami Iwashi for about 4 years now. It sounds, from my friend’s account, that these aren’t terribly exotic in Japan, but have proven to be exceedingly difficult for me to find stateside.  A few months ago, I gave up and decided to just try making my own. Having been gifted a pack of the Real Thing (and extremely hesitant to take a Gentleman’s B on my last attempt), I made it again. Lest anyone else find themselves traveling down a path that requires they intersect with this incredible ingredient…here ya go.

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I can’t say that I regret having tried making my own. Not only did I learn quite a bit about using Transglutaminase, but there’s an interesting difference between a dried sardine sheet and a glued sheet of baby anchovies.

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The true Tatami Iwashi uses no meat glue; it’s quite brittle, and the individual fish are thinner and longer. Rolling them around a dowel before frying them into shape required several spritzes of water to soften the sheet, but the moistening also causes the fish to ‘unstick’ themselves from each other a little, so I had to find a balance with how much water to spray on them.

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They were also ‘stickier’ than the Anchovy experiment…I had a hard time getting them to release from the wooden rod after the frying step. I ended up destroying about 1/4 of the cylinders I made; the sheets are more delicate than the glued versions. I had a curious thought halfway through about mixing a slush of transglutaminase and spraying the sardine sheet with it to help strengthen it.

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The final taste was milder and way less fishy than the anchovy version. Sarah noted that she preferred the anchovies; the whole bite was more assertive and flavorful. I think though that sardines make more sense in a tasting menu context; anchovies stay with you for a while, and I wouldn’t want a diner to be licking anchovy bits out of their teeth three courses down the road.

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The rest of the dish remains exactly as easy and straightforward as it did last time; one can put it together in under an hour if one has the rest of the ingredients on hand. It really is all about highlighting the exotic Tatami Iwashi.

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I’ve noted before the story about Thomas Keller and his rabbits; that story came to mind as I was working on this dish. For a friend to think of this project of mine while on a family vacation is incredibly, incredibly touching to me. I’m at a loss for words for how grateful I feel, and as I opened the package of sardines with a pair of scissors, I felt an overwhelming desire to do this the best I could with them. I wanted to make this delicious, to photograph it well, to treat it with the respect and thoughtfulness it deserved.

This gratitude doesn’t end with this dish. For everyone who’s ever been supportive and encouraging to me as I wade through this, I am humbly and deeply grateful.

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