Though I wrote a few days ago about this past weekend’s cooking adventure, I still have some residual thoughts rolling around my head about it. I tried to be ok with telling myself “Well, I tried something different this time, so this little adventure is ‘about’ something else”, but that felt unsatisfying and I wasn’t sure why. It’s not because I was being overly self-critical, though I realize the mood of that last post smacked of that. It was…something else.
I had a conversation with a pretty cool friend named Trish this week at work that chanced upon something that resonated with me. We were talking about the satisfaction derived from doing one’s own thing, and how it was important to keep tabs on the elements of whatever that thing is that strike the loudest chords within each of us. Trish just finished showing some of her photography in a gallery context and — faced with the expense of having invested so much time and money into printing, framing, and transporting all her art — had gotten a little distracted exploring ways to sell some of her photos to allow her to continue working. It was bumming her out, and she noted that she wanted to get back to doing the stuff that made her fundamentally happy. It’s easy to get distracted during creative endeavors, and getting caught down a rat-hole that doesn’t directly fuel one’s passion can be detrimental. It’s important to keep a sense of time and place when exploring, and if it feels like the current path is leading away from happiness rather than towards it, knowing how to back out is vital.
There was a thing that resonated with me when I ate at Alinea the first time: it was the thoughtful craftsmanship exhibited by artists using food as a medium. I wanted to play in this sandbox too, and the more I learn the more I realize that I’m dipping my toes in an ocean, not a puddle. There’s a vast sea of knowledge out there to suck up, and I want to do that with care and patience. I want to be friends with likeminded people, to collaborate with them, to learn from them and share what I’ve learned with them, and above all to just be very considerate and thoughtful about this thing we’re creating. I currently know enough to know that I don’t really know anything, and that’s both exhilarating and intimidating.
I state all the above not for anyone else, but for myself. I’m writing it down so that I can look back and remind myself that this is the thing I really like. There’s no need, pressure, or obligation for me to feel like I constantly have to one-up myself or do more and more crazy things to keep this interesting for myself, my friends, and for anyone who cares to join me by reading this. I have to keep this in mind.
Mike noted to me early this week that while he enjoyed himself Sunday night, he would have been just as happy (or happier, even) to have just one fancy dish, then gotten to sit with me and eat pizza and shoot the shit for the night. I was so focused on trying to really blow things out of the water that I bit off more than I could chew, and this left me with no time to really hone and craft things the way I would have liked (and would have derived a lot of satisfaction from), nor time to spend with everyone who’d come over to hang out. I think I’ll try not to do that again.
I spent the last several days remaking most of the dishes I served, composing them a bit more carefully, and taking the photos I’d have liked to take originally. First up is Watermelon, Tequila, Lemon Verbena, Licorice: watermelon ice capsule with tequila cream inside, grapefruit shortbread, licorice syrup, lemon verbena pudding, watermelon ice pudding, dehydrated candied grapefruit zest, Bud Light Lime Gel, grapefruit cells, and cilantro pop rocks.
Owners of the Alinea cookbook will recognize that this recipe isn’t in there…it’s my own. I feel slightly proud of the Watermelon pudding/ice, as it’s made with Agar (which needs to be cooked to hydrate), but watermelon juice takes on a different taste when cooked and I wanted it to taste fresh and raw. I got around this by just heating a small portion (100g) of the watermelon juice, adding agar and whisking to dissolve then turning off the heat and whisking in the rest of the raw watermelon juice before immediately chilling. I had to do this carefully…if I suddenly add cool watermelon juice to the oversaturated watermelon-agar mixture it seizes up because of the sudden temperature drop and the two won’t mix. I wish the verbena gel would have ended up a bit more green, as the browns and pinks aren’t super-pretty to me, but I think the overall concept isn’t bad.
Next is Alinea’s Kuroge Wagyu, Squash, Yogurt, Smoked Paprika Taffy, featuring wagyu from Snake River Farms. Two super-interesting things about this dish for me were the taffy and the fact that the recipe calls for use of shiitakes, which I have a relatively annoyingly-severe allergy to. The taffy is made from a mixture of red bell pepper juice, glucose, isomalt, glycerin, paprika and sugar. The recipe instructs me to cook these to 235F (just under soft ball stage) then ‘cut into 1″ squares’. This stuff ends up being the consistency of honey if you follow these instructions literally, making it pretty tough to cut and lift cleanly from the silpat the mixture is poured onto. For the second time making it, I cooked it up over 245F to try to firm it up more. This worked a bit better, but still doesn’t yield something I’d call cut-able. This makes it kind of messy to work with when placing the taffy (and embedded fried pumpkin seeds) on top of wagyu cubes, but the wagyu-taffy bite is warmed before serving, which makes the taffy go a bit goopy anyway. The bites are accessorized with smoked paprika pudding, yogurt pudding, a slice of acorn squash that’s been glazed with yogurt and paprika, a chip or two of dehydrated elephant garlic puree, and ‘webs’ of dehydrated roasted red pepper and the aforementioned shiitake mushrooms, which I cooked, dehydrated, and served without tasting. Sarah said these were among the best mushrooms I’d ever made for her, so I guess I got a little Beethoven thing going on there.
I omitted remaking the Pumpkin dish because I need a bit more time with it, but I did remake another Alinea dish: Venison, Encased In Savory Granola. A small medallion of raw venison is encased in a disc of granola made of fried celery root, fried onion chips, toasted oats, dried cherry, pistachios, puffed wild rice, salt, pepper, allspice and honey. This disc, molded into a metal ring mold, is baked to cook the venison, then left to cool long enough for the granola to set (while it simultaneously insulates the interior meat). The disc is served with a celery root puree with a spoonful of cherry sauce and toasted oat bubbles.
And finally, Cider Donuts. I adapted this recipe from here, using a few super-technical Alinea techniques like “using way, way more of everything to make the flavor as intense as possible”. Rather than reducing a cup of cider I reduced a gallon, infusing the cider with mace and cinnamon as it cooked. I also reduced a second gallon to make a cider syrup for dipping, and mixed a bit of that with icing sugar to make a glaze for the donuts.