Wild Turbot, Shellfish, Water Chestnuts, Hyacinth Vapor

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Hi there friends. Something a little bit neato has happened; unbeknownst to me, Sarah has been submitting this blog to Saveur to entice them to possibly make mention of it on their site. Incredibly, it’s managed to be nominated for Best Culinary Science Blog of 2013! Pretty sneaky, Miss Sarah. Anyway, if you’re reading this and feel so inclined to proffer a vote for it on Saveur’s site, well that would just be tops. If not, that’s ok…we can still be friends.

A lovely friend at work asked me a few weeks ago “How far into this thing are you?” When I mentioned I was (at the time) around the 85% mark, she remarked “Ugh. That’s a tough place; are you able to keep it interesting for yourself?”  I was really delighted at this question because it was so incredibly insightful. Truth be told, the ~70-90% stretch has taken effort to keep focus; after working on something for so long, it’s easy to want to break away from it and try new things. There’s a rigid aesthetic I’ve wanted to work with here — photographically, culinarily, and on the written side of things — and my mind wanders to what I’d like to try doing next. I obviously try pushing my own boundaries a bit here, but don’t want to break the rules completely and want to keep things as ‘excellent’ as I think the subject matter itself deserves. Maintaining the balance becomes effortful, and sometimes I fail.

This isn’t too dissimilar from what it feels like to be on a project at work. Working on a film is pretty rad at first; everything is new, there are new rules and aesthetics to explore, and I learn a lot quickly.  But films take a long time to make; as the project wears on, looking at the same things every day gets a little old and it becomes more effortful to keep the quality level (which, for me, is a product of enthusiasm) high.

I think this is a pretty common phenomenon in creative fields. Eileen Moran, a pretty amazing person I worked with at Weta in New Zealand, recognized this when the crew was working on large-scale, arduous projects. She used to do this neat thing near the end of a project — during the last big push when everyone was tired from working long hours and was creatively drained — where she’d start counting down how many shots we had left to complete for the film. Every few days she’d send out a still frame from the film with the shot count number somehow integrated into it. On King Kong, a shot I’d worked on got this treatment: there were several big rock structures in the original shot, but she’d photoshopped them to look like a giant, rocky “107″. In a studio of nearly a thousand artists working around the clock to complete a project, these images and the underlying empathy helped keep the studio feel small and lovely, and served as a rally cry for everyone to dig in and make it through one last big push.

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Of course this project isn’t ever UN-interesting, I just need to look around a bit more for ways to keep challenging myself. Not long ago, Sarah and I talked about an idea for a video we wanted to make. Actually, what we talked about was an aesthetic; her style thus far has been largely photojournalistic, with natural light and a ‘farmhouse-y’ calm vibe that I love. But we talked about doing something more honed, abstract, and refined…something more like a moving version of one of my photographs on here, or what you might find in the Modernist Cuisine cookbooks. To me this means (among other things) using studio lights rather than relying on the mishmash of daylight/overhead lights that we usually work under, and much more focus on strictly-controlled backgrounds and environments. I’ve never worked with “hot” lights before (all my photography gear involves strobe lights [the kind that flash quickly rather than staying on]), so I knew this would be new for both of us.

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We flagged this dish as a potential for this experiment, largely because of the floral component and because the recipe is fundamentally simpler than many others remaining to complete. From a high-level view, this dish is very similar to the Shellfish Sponge dish from last autumn: several types of shellfish are cooked in a broth of white wine, vermouth, fennel, shallot, and garlic. The shellfish are cleaned and trimmed for tidy presentation, and the resulting shellfish stock is used both for a custard (mixed with cream and carrageenan) and as a poaching liquid for some fresh Turbot. The accents and garnishes here are different, but the underlying “really fancy shellfish flavor vehicle” idea is the same.

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It took me several weeks’ worth of homework to line up everything for this dish, starting with the floral component: Hyacinth. Hyacinths are beautiful, colorful flowers that smell like Easter. They bloom in early spring, starting (at least in the Bay area) in mid-February and lasting through Mother’s Day. Those interested in growing their own Hyacinth typically buy the bulbs in the fall season…something I wanted to do but ended up forgetting until it was too late. I’ve been keeping an eye out for them in flower shops for the past several months.

In this dish, Hyacinths are a garnish over which boiling water is poured; the fragrance of the flowers is pretty notable in and of itself, but the hot water releases a potent cloud of it that smells like a Victoria’s Secret in the early 90′s…not that that’s a bad thing, of course. Because Hyacinths are one-shot plants (you buy a bulb, wait 6 months, and get 1-2 flowers from the plant before it dies), they are the most expensive garnish I’m every likely to employ: at $9-$12 a pop around here, a single plating costs around $25 bones just for the flowers.

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The pricey garnish is in pretty good company though; the hero ingredient of the dish — Turbot — is no fiscal lightweight either. True European Turbot (in the UK: “TUR-butt”, in the US: “TUR-bow”) is a largely-Mediterranean flatfish that’s considered a delicacy because of it’s tender texture and delicate flavor. My friend Deanie, a former pastry chef at the likes of Manresa, Coi, and Ubuntu, raised her eyebrows when I told her what my cooking project was for the weekend. “Whoa turbot…that’s some French Laundry shit you’ve got going there.” (pause) “This is a pretty expensive hobby of yours, huh? How’s Sarah feel about that?”

I didn’t dignify that last question with what I feel at this point is a pretty obvious answer.

Deanie’s right though; turbot falls into the category of fish you’re likely to find featured at the whitest of white tablecloth restaurants and rarely elsewhere, a fact I learned when failing to find it for sale at my beloved Berkeley Bowl. After calling around to several other fish markets in the area, it seemed that securing turbot was a bit touch-and-go; one market in San Francisco said they could get it, only to call me back a couple days later to tell me there’d be a delay of 2 weeks on the order I’d placed with them. While trying to do some online searching for other options to consider in the area, I stumbled across Browne Trading, which incredibly offered to overnight me an entire fish. Having not previously heard of Browne Trading, I again consulted Deanie, who confirmed that “yeah, those guys are super-legit”. So, having planned to work on this dish on a Saturday, I called Browne and ordered their “2-fillets of Turbot” option, then arranged for a half-dozen or so blooming Hyacinths from a lovely little flower shop in Berkeley to be delivered for the weekend’s adventure.

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I worry it sounds incredibly privileged and douchey to casually admit to sourcing these things; my rule for myself is: if I haven’t every tried something, I’m willing to save up and go all out to experience working with it, but I’m happy to substitute with local/seasonal/(cheaper) things when I’m already familiar with an exotic ingredient (e.g. my substitution of rhubarb for gooseberries in my last dish). I’m still interested in learning, and having not worked with either hyacinth or turbot before, I wanted to get a clear picture in my head for both.

Other than the sheer exotic-ness of its ingredients, the dish itself is remarkably straightforward to prepare. After preparing the shellfish as I mentioned above, some of the remaining stock is cooked with cream and carrageenan, then left to cool until it forms a custard. At the same time, I peeled and quartered some Sunchokes (also called Jersualem Artichokes) and cooked these with cream until they were tender, then blended them into a puree. While the sunchokes were simmering, I diced up some fresh water chestnuts into 1/8″ dice and stored these in a small container until service.

The last step was working with the turbot. Deanie wasn’t kidding when she said Browne was super-legit; I was expecting my fish to turn up pre-frozen in a vacuum-sealed pouch. What showed up instead was a disproportionately-massive cooler packed with freeze-gel packs. Buried inside this cocoon of coolness was a plastic tub containing a single incredibly fresh turbot filleted in two. The tub was smeared with small bits of fishmonger gook and had “Hemberger: Turbot” scrawled on the top in Sharpie; it smelled like the ocean. I guess some might be jarred by the complete lack of fancy packaging beyond this, but I was totally delighted. There were no labels declaring weight or fancy-but-unnecessary ‘preparation instructions’, no glossy inserts like you might get from Snake River Farms. No, this was just “Here’s the FUCKING INCREDIBLY FRESH FISH you wanted, and a free sample of some sea air from Maine. You’re welcome.” Super. Legit.

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I divided the turbot fillets into individual portions and seal these in vacuum bags with butter and some of the shellfish stock, to be cooked gently en sous vide at 138F for 20 minutes or so. Then it was just a matter of “heating things up gently and putting it all together”: a bed of sunchoke puree and water chestnut dice is put down in a bowl first, then some turbot portions are placed atop this. Some warm shellfish custard is poured around this assembly and left to set. While this is resting, I stemmed some hyacinths (and lilac, which Ana had at her shop as well. I figured what the hell.), placed them in a larger bowl, and brought a pot of water to boil. Once the custard was firm, I gently placed the trimmed shellfish meats around the borl, and garnished everything with tarragon, fennel fronds and pollen, hyacinth petals and flowers, and some fresh chervil from the garden. I called Sarah down, poured in the boiling water, and we ate.

And it was delicious. Turbot indeed has a lovely, indescribably-unique texture and flavor that oozes subtlety. It’s not really ‘fishy’, and it rides alongside the fennel/vermouth/shellfish flavors seamlessly. The night after I put this dish together, I cooked the remaining turbot and paired it with celery root puree, very simply…I think something hard or aggressive like pan frying, lemon pepper, those sorts of things are too overpowering for this fish. Accounts I’ve read online of people trying to panfry it seem to result in the meat turning to mush. This might be why it’s so frou-frou; it demands a light, considered touch.

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It’s probably obvious at this point that I’ve omitted my usual lot of photos of ingredients; this is the Big Fail of this dish. In trying to realize our vision for the video we wanted to make of this dish, Sarah and I realized that there was a lot we have to learn; setting up and breaking down specific backdrops against which to shoot severely limits the working space I have to actually prepare things, and the logistics demanded so much of our attention that there ended up being a lot of detail we failed to capture. We weren’t sure how to tightly-control the shooting of things as they cooked on the stove, and it was hard to try to solve that problem and still cook the food properly. Also, because we were both playing DP and Cinematographer together while I was trying to cook, we were consuming ingredients under the lens of her video camera, which meant I had nothing left to shoot stills of with my own camera (lest I have to go out and buy new ingredients). Basically we were underprepared and didn’t end up with a cohesive collection of footage that accurately tells “the story of making this dish” in the aesthetic that we envision, and I’m left with few in-progress photos of things.

But, some of the footage we captured IS kind of compelling to me, so I took a stab at editing it together into something interesting anyway. It’s not really a ‘story’ per se, mostly just footage we shot of ingredients as we were figuring things out. There’s a section in the middle where I’m trying to trim the littleneck clams using a description in the recipe that was hard for me to understand; basically I’m trying to trim a pretty ugly-looking thing into something that’s tidy and has a good texture, so I trim the outer ‘stuff’ and the foot (which is tougher meat), then cut off what I think is the clam’s stomach, which is filled with sand and can be gritty to eat. If there’s someone out there who knows a better or more-proper way to do this, please set me straight.

Other than that, I amused myself by shooting lots of photos of the final dish, which I found overwhelmingly beautiful. I was especially captivated by the juxtaposition of forms of the whiteware with the forms of the flowers; it all looked so pretty together.

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Thankfully I was left with a few spare hyacinth and lilac flower heads…so I’m trying a different experiment with them…

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9 dishes remaining…

 

English Peas, Tofu, Ham, Pillow of Lavender Air

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The ignition point of lavender is around 420F or so.

That’s not what I’m here to talk to you about today though. No, today we’re going to talk soybeans.

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Specifically, we’re gonna talk about making soy milk, which in turn is used to make yuba and tofu. My first adventure with yuba was about a year and a half ago; just long enough for me to have forgotten most of what I learned about making it. Soy milk itself is a pretty straightforward beast: let some soybeans soak overnight in water until they plump and swell, then blend into a frothy puree. Simmer this mixture to sanitize it, skimming foam from it the whole while. What you’re left with is pure soy milk.

For me, the soy milk had a tendency to froth quite a bit; skimming this froth eliminated nearly half the volume yielded by the recipe, so I ended up doubling it (well, doubling it 6 times if you count all the misfires I had here, but I’ll get to that in a moment). Also, remembering that the first time I did this I had a massive mess in my kitchen from overfilling my blender, I blended the soybeans with water in small batches to keep things manageable.

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For this dish, soy milk is used in three different ways. First, I simmered the soy milk very gently until a ‘skin’ formed on the surface of the liquid. This ‘skin’ is called a Yuba.

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Once the skin is thick enough to be handled (about 8 minutes or so), it’s removed from the soy milk and laid as flat as possible on some parchment to dry. For my first several tries at this, I used a metal skimmer to lift the yuba from the milk. This sucks; the yuba wants to cling to the underside of the skimmer and freeing it results in lots of tearing of the curd and loud swears from me. I realized that I needed way less surface area touching the yuba when removing it; looking around my kitchen for a better tool, I almost smacked myself when I realized the best answer: chopsticks. A pair of chopsticks results in way less clinging and offers way more articulation than the fat bulky skimmer. Using Asian tools to make Yuba was obvious only in hindsight, I admit with no small sense of self-ridicule.

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After a half hour or so, the yuba has dried enough to be collected into loose mounds; it’s sill quite delicate at this point and can fall apart easily if you’re not gentle. It’s left to dry for several more hours…

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…where it looks more like a beige shrinky-dink, with a plastic-like feel and pliability. I left these to dry gently rather than dehydrating them because ultimately the yuba mounds will be deep-fried. The sudden immersion in 375F oil causes water trapped internally to turn quickly to steam, but the dried, elastic outer yuba skin prevents the steam from escaping. This makes the mounds puff and turn crispy on the outside, but (depending on thickness) the interior can remain chewy and omelette-like; an interesting juxtaposition of textures. Dehydrating them removes too much water, which causes them not to puff as readily.

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The Yubas (is that proper plural of yuba?) are paired with blanched peas and smoked ham. I’m meant to buy a full smoked ham, but it’s tough to find such a thing that hasn’t been processed for deli consumption, plus I’m really enamored with cured meats, so I decided to go with cured smoked ham, which is often known as “speck” in Italian delis. I diced some of the speck into cubes and cooked these briefly with the peas and some butter into a ragout. More speck was sliced very thinly, gathered into a similar-shaped mound as that of the Yuba, and fried over high heat to char a side of it. The scraps of ham were cooked with a bit of the (now-thickened) reserved soy milk from making Yuba to yield a Smoked Ham Nage.

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The third stage for the soy milk was the Big Adventure for this dish: lavender tofu. The recipe calls for an ingredient called “Nigari” for this; after doing some research, I learned that nigari is mostly magnesium chloride, and is derived from evaporated sea water. The magnesium chloride serves as a coagulant when mixed with soy milk; i.e. the solids in the milk clump together. Nigari can be found in dry (crystalline) form (hard to find) or pre-dissolved in water (more-easily found, but nearly impossible to discern concentration of solid nigari to water):

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To make lavender tofu, I’m meant to infuse some thickened soy milk with a sachet of dried lavender flowers, then toss in some nigari and stir ‘until the soy milk turns to soft tofu’. Truth time: I’ve rarely eaten tofu. My only experience with it is a couple of times in stir-fry, where I tend to pick around it, suspicious of its odd halloumi-like squeaky/spongy texture and its frequent claim to be a meat substitute. So the flavor and texture of tofu are variables I don’t have a good control for in my head. On top of this, it turns out that the very brief instruction in the cookbook dances over a critical component of getting this right.

The book says to warm the soy milk and toss in the lavender sachet. In almost every case I’ve seen involving infusing something, ‘warming’ means ‘simmering’. I imagined I needed to get the milk hot enough to make a tea of sorts with the lavender, so that’s what I did. After a few minutes of simmering, the soy milk smelled lovely and floral, so it was time to throw in the nigari. A friend at work helpfully translated enough of a clue off this bottle to get me going: use 1% of liquid nigari in soy milk to yield tofu. I threw in the nigari and stirred, and this is what happened:

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The mixture almost immediately separated into tiny curds and whey. Hm. The book doesn’t warn me about this. I stirred some more. I waited. I debated. Something about this didn’t seem quite right. I scooped out a spoonful of the curds and put them in a strainer to let them drain. They kinda-sorta fused into a crumbly, feta-like lump.

The photo in the cookbook clearly shows the tofu looking sort of like pudding or custard; there’s no graininess to it. I took briefly to google to see what I could find, searching for “grainy homemade tofu”. One comment mentions that graininess could be a product of using too much nigari. Ugh, I figured now I had to start doing test batches of this to try to figure out what the actual concentration of my nigari brine was.

The catch was, I was out of soy milk. I’d ruined a whole big batch of it, and trying again meant steeping another big batch overnight, and also throwing out most of the work I’d done for the other components for the day. I quickly ran out to the grocery to try buying a liter of store-bought soy milk, to see if I could shortcut this process.

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Store-bought soy milk, I learned, is notably different than homemade soy milk. It’s usually sweetened (unless explicitly marked otherwise), and strained so finely that it’s thickened with things like carrageenan to restore its body. It also often has added nutrients to supplement diets that replace dairy milk with soy.

I came home with a box of the stuff; it tasted notably sweeter (despite being of the unsweetened variety) and quite a bit different from the stuff I’d made. I quickly brought some of it to a simmer with more lavender, switched off the heat once it smelled nice and fragrant, and started adding drops of nigari brine 5 at a time, keeping count as I went and stirring/waiting for a couple minutes between each addition. Nothing happened for a long time, but as I crept up to the 1% mark, the mixture started to clump again. So, the ‘adding too much nigari’ wasn’t the problem.

I knew I was switching around too may variables to be able to understand this, so I went out again and bought more soybeans (3x as many as I needed, just in case), and came home and soaked them overnight. The peas and ham that had been sitting warm in my oven for the past few hours wouldn’t hold up very well overnight, so I ate most of it and threw the rest out. Frustrating.

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In moping around later that night and reading more about making tofu, I came across several articles explaining the differences between tofu textures and types.The separation thing I was experiencing isn’t a bad thing in and of itself; firm tofu is made this way, which is very similar to cheese-making (I kept having deja-vu back to the mozzarella balloon adventure a while back); the separated curds are removed from the whey, left to drain, and then pressed into a mold to yield firm tofu. But I suspected firm tofu wasn’t what I was after.  I read a bit about about “silken” tofu, which seemed (from photos) more like the texture I was meant to be aiming for. I found several articles describing getting fresh-made silken tofu from nice restaurants in Japan, where it’s presented jiggling on a small plate like a delicate custard, topped simply with soy sauce or sesame oil. This type of tofu is (of course) considered more rare and delicate, and store-bought silken tofu doesn’t quite compare with the texture of fresh-made stuff.

Finally I stumbled across a recipe for making the stuff that mentioned one critical step that differed from what I’d been doing: the nigari is added to the tofu while it’s cool, THEN heated. When done this way, the tofu doesn’t separate into curds and whey, and instead coagulates into a smooth custard when heated gently (the recipe mentioned steaming it).

I woke up the next morning feeling confident about this. I’d soaked 3 batches’ worth of soy beans, and blended them in small batches before bringing the whole lot to a simmer again. I needed to simmer the mixture (skimming away the copious foam again) for around 20 minutes or so, to evaporate enough water such that the milk was at least 12% soy solids. After this time, I threw in my lavender and covered the milk to let it steep off the heat for another 20 minutes or so. Then I strained the mixture through a chinois into a bowl, and set the bowl in my sink, which I’d filled with ice water. I let the milk chill until it was around 70F or so. During this time I preheated my oven to its lowest setting: 170F.

I measured 0.5g of my nigari brine into a small ramekin, then measured in 50g of the cooled lavender soy milk. I stirred to combine the two, and noticed the mixture immediately thickened but didn’t break or separate. I placed it in the oven and waited 5 minutes, then gave it a tap; it jiggled gently. I took it out and scooped at it with a spoon; it looked almost exactly like a creme brulee custard!

I tried several more batches, varying things like the cooking time, stirring technique, and nigari amount; they almost all turned out the same. None of them broke (even adding up to 3% nigari didn’t cause any separation like I’d seen before), so it seems the magic bullet is adding the nigari while the soy milk is cool.

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The lavender tofu is meant to be served warm, and is garnished with a sprinkle of lavender salt (made by processing lavender flowers in a spice grinder and mixing the resulting powder with sea salt).

Tofu achievement badge earned, I got to work on everything else. I made Yuzu Pudding by first simmering some saffron and lemon zest with some water and agar, and  blending the resulting gel with yuzu juice to yield a smooth pudding. Yuzu juice on its own is nearly colorless, sort of like lemon juice. I like that Alinea uses natural means to color things at times, and the saffron used for the color here also offers a nice depth of flavor to the pudding.

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The recipe also calls for making a ‘gooseberry coulis’, which is a sauce made from pureed fruit. Cape gooseberries come into season here in the fall; they’re not readily available during the spring months, so I tried to think up a suitable substitute. I wanted something that had a bright tartness like gooseberries, and also something that might offer a nice visual component. I settled on rhubarb, which is looking really lovely at the moment.

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I simmered the rhubarb in simple syrup until it was tender, then pureed it in the blender with some grapeseed oil to form an emulsion. Rhubarb coulis.

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I blanched more peas, and remade the ragout with more ham dice. I also re-seared some ‘ham blossoms’ and yuba mounds, and kept all this warm in the oven.

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The final step is making a lavender pillow. I have some experience with the scented pillow thing from the White Bean dish a few years ago; I had borrowed a Volcano vaporizer from a friend to use for filling the bags inside the pillows. Volcanos are astronomically expensive; wanting to avoid provoking the ire of the Minister of Finance in our household, I haven’t been able to justify buying one of these. I feel like a cheaper solution is out there. I tried a few experiments this time around to see if I could sidestep using one:

–I tried loading some lavender into my Smoking Gun and holding a small kitchen torch juuuuuuuust the right distance away from the flowers to liberate their oils without toasting them. This is extremely difficult; I couldn’t get anything that didn’t have a smoky note to it. Not that that’s bad, it’s just not what I wanted here. There’s also an added problem where unscented air is being blown out of the device while the flowers are being heated; a ‘bell curve’ of scent forms, and capturing just the heart of it is really tough.

–I tried an experiment with a non-forced-air vaporizer. The advantage of an actual vaporizer is that heat is controlled independently of air movement. So, a heating element in a Hotbox vaporizer warms air inside it, and when that air is drawn through the chamber holding the flowers, the essential oils are instantly vaporized  and drawn up through a hose leading away from the heating element. I wondered about using the principles that allow a spray gun to work: namely, capping the tube leading away from the heating element with a T-joint, then forcing air quickly through this to draw vapor up and away from the box. I used a blow-dryer for this, but I still had the problem where there’s a few seconds where air is rushing out (and inflating the pillow bag) but no scent is coming through, and control is again very difficult.

It’s clear why the Volcano is such an appealing option for this; it’s forced air and has very little waste. It’s also extremely controllable. There are other forced-air vaporizers available, and had I not found a Volcano to borrow again, I might have bought and tried one. As it stood though, a friend of a friend offered the use of theirs. This one was a digital version of the analog one I’d borrowed previously, with the ability to finely-control exit air temperature and a nice display telling me the current temperature of the device. Getting to use it again reminds me how badass and cool these things are.

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Pillows inflated, I plated everything and garnished the dish with fresh pea sprouts and shoots and several flowers from the garden. The dish was really delicious; peas and ham are a pretty obvious combination, but the brightness of the yuzu and rhubarb flavors added some levity that kept it from feeling overtly heavy. The creamy custardy lavender tofu and the crispy yuba puff offered a nice dimension to things; yuzu/rhubarb/lavender all in one bite is hela delicious. As a whole, this dish is super top-notch.

Completion of it also represents something I’m a little bit excited about: I have 10 dishes remaining in the cookbook. I suspect it’ll still take me the better part of a year to get through them all, but it’s going to feel good to get down into the single digits.

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Bison, Braised Pistachios, Potato, Sweet Spices

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I’m not gonna lie, the past couple of dishes have been a little stressful for me. On top of that, I realize I’ve stacked the deck with this cookbook a little poorly; most of the remaining dishes I have are difficult and require a fair bit more planning than the very earliest dishes I did. If I could offer advice to anyone cooking through a cookbook, I’d say not to do all the easy ones first and the hard ones last. Save some of the easy ones to the final days; they can be a nice respite from the hard planning and shuffling around that’s involved with the more complex dishes. Also, when your partner’s patience with your messy, time-consuming hobby wears thin, it’s nice to be able to bang out a dish in a shorter amount of time so that you still have space in the weekend to do laundry, taxes, and clean the upstairs bathroom.

It turns out this dish was such a respite; none of the ingredients are particularly-difficult and, incredibly, I managed to complete this thing start-to-finish in around 4 hours (which, in Alinea speak, is pretty damn fast). One could argue that it just brings to bear all the trinkets and bits of knowledge I’ve gathered over the years (I knew Bison can be bought at the SF ferry market grocery store, but not in Berkeley, e.g.). But nevertheless, it was almost relaxing, which made it a lot of fun.

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A small medallion of bison is wrapped in a nest of incredibly delicate potato threads; this assembly sits atop a mixture of braised pistachios and pistachio puree. Nearby are a couple of small marble potatoes, more braised pistachios, a small pile of spice powder, and some spice ‘gel’. The whole assembly is finished with thyme and a light sprinkling of more spice powder.

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The spice powder itself is made from allspice berries, black peppercorns, and cassia buds. These spices are toasted lightly, then ground into a powder and mixed with a bit of salt.

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The spice gel uses similar spices; allspice, black pepper (and in mine I used some long pepper too), cassia, salt, sugar, and some vinegar (the recipe calls for white wine vinegar, though I made a batch of maple vinegar a while back that I thought would taste lovely with these spices, so I used that). These ingredients are all combined, brought to boil with some water, then set into a gel with agar before being blended into a pudding.

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To braise pistachios, I cooked several handfuls of raw, unroasted pistachios in a mixture of water, butter, and salt at a low simmer for about a half hour. The pistachios take on a tender quality sort of like a freshly-cooked bean.

Side note: again the recipe here calls for Iranian Pistachios (I first came across these here), and the photographs in the book make the pistachios appear black. I can’t quite figure this out; I can’t find anything when I google “black pistachios”, and “iranian pistachios” seem to be green and look pretty much like californian pistachios (according to google image searches).

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I noticed after the braising process that the brown skins on the pistachios had partly come loose. They looked a little unappealing, but came off easily if I rubbed them. Because I thought the peeled, skinless pistachios looked much prettier, I took a few moments to go through each one and remove the peel.

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While some pistachios were braising, I cooked others separately in a mixture of water, sugar, salt, and potato. This was pretty neat; the mixture is left to simmer for an hour and a half or so, during which time the starch from the potato cooks out into the water, thickening it. The pistachios become very, very tender, then are blended into sort of a peanut-butter consistency in the blender. The potatoes are removed from the now-thickened cooking liquid, and the liquid is used to loosen up the pistachio butter until it gets to a smooth, puddinglike consistency. I thought this was a pretty clever trick.

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A couple weeks ago, Sarah and I got to (finally) meet David Barzelay at one of his Lazy Bear dinners in SF. I can’t really be effusive enough at how rad this was for me; the vibe is casual and extremely personal and friendly, but the food is some of the best I’ve ever had. It’s imaginative and harmonious and a pretty cool inspiration to get to enjoy. In stark contrast to the “hit the big red emergency button” phenomenon I experienced at Next, David actively invites people to take breaks and even come back into the kitchen to meet him and his team whenever the mood strikes throughout the meal. Taking him up on this invites a warm welcome from them and an excited explanation of whatever it is that’s being done in their kitchen at the moment. This humility and shared acknowledgement of excitement–a willingness of chef and diner to geek out over the thing they’re both really into–resonates deeply with me and is something that’s been much more difficult to forge with the Alinea staff for whatever reason.

Anyway, I’m digressing; one of the most memorable dishes used fresh water chestnuts as an accent and contrasting garnish. I was struck by it because I’d always regarded water chestnuts as those flavorless, crappy filler things in cans of La Choy that my mom would warm up for “sweet and sour chicken” night when I was a kid. These fresh ones bore little resemblance to those; they were light and delicately crunchy — sort of like a very delicate apple — with a mild lovely sweetness reminiscent of both coconut and apple. I found some at Berkeley Bowl when shopping for the rest of the ingredients for this dish, so I snagged them and wanted to make use of them here. I sliced a couple of them into thin discs, and tried dehydrating some of the discs to see what happened. The flavor is largely retained in the dehydrated discs, and they added a nice crunchy little accent to the dish.

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The small potato “plugs” start as marble potatos; I found both red- and purple-skinned potatoes so used both. The potatoes are cooked sous vide with some rendered beef fat (I render off fat from beef scraps whenever I cook with it, and keep a jar of the fat in the fridge, along with pork and duck fats). After an hour or so of cooking, the potatoes are removed and made into cylinders with the aid of an apple corer. They’re then re-warmed in the same fat before service.

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Finally, the super-duper fun part. To make Potato Threads, I got to use my Japanese Rotary Slicer (which first saw use here). The slicer on its own produces long thin sheets; I had to buy an add-on kit to swap out some parts for making laces.

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After a bit of rigamarole, I got the new part installed, then took to cutting down a potato. This was just awesome.

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The laces ended up being almost 6′ long each. I rinsed them and stored them in cold water; this makes the laces firm up and curl, which makes them easier to deal with when they’re ready to be used. At that point, I drained them in small handfuls, dusted them in flour, then wrapped them around small bison medallions to form a ‘nest’ shape on top of each portion. I let these sit for a few minutes; during this time the moisture from the meat worked with the flour to help ‘glue’ the laces in place long enough to last through a frying process. It took me several tries to get the shape/sequence of doing this right; it’s pretty tough to control what the laces do once you drop the whole thing into 375F oil.

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Et voila! A delicate, crispy nest of potatoes!

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This was as fun to eat as it was to make; the beefy flavors of the meat and potatoes clearly make sense, and the abundant thyme is a nice warming compliment. The pistachio and spices are a neat surprise; I couldn’t have pictured them to work so seamlessly together, but they tasted like a natural fit. The spice powder and gel have a ‘chai tea’-like flavor; neither are particularly sweet (the spice powder is salty, in fact), so it’s interesting how well these spices — normally used in sweet preparations — work in this context.

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Sardine, Niçoise Olive, Dried Tomato, Arugula

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Monkfish, Lime, Banana, Monkfish Liver

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Before I get going on this one I’m issuing a disclaimer: this story will be presented in a Choose Your Own Adventure-style format.  There’s a fairly important thing I ran into here in my insistence of understanding where my food comes from that I find fascinating, but I worry some might find objectionable. To avoid causing undo stress to anyone reading this casually, I’m sequestering a section of this adventure on a completely different area of this site so no one runs across it inadvertently. When the time comes, you can decide how much you’d like to learn.

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What is a Monkfish? The gentleman’s answer is that it’s a type of anglerfish; this means that it has a funky little modified spine as part of it’s dorsal fin that it can move around in multiple directions. This modified spine is called an illicium and it terminates in a small irregular growth of flesh called the esca. The Monkfish uses this spine as a biological fishing rod. The fish is quite flat — sort of like a ray — and burrows into the sea bed, where it waves around it’s spinal fishing rod to bait in unsuspecting prey. The mechanics of the Monkfish’s massive jaw are tied to nerves in the esca; when something stimulates it the jaws snap shut on the prey as a reflex rather than a conscious decision.

The real-world person’s answer is that it’s assuredly a terrifying devil-monster sent to fuel the nightmares of any creature to cross it’s path. Look at this fucking thing:

For this recipe, one is meant to procure and make use of at least 2 whole monkfish. I worked for a couple of weeks trying to track such a thing down; Monterey Fish in Berkeley was open to helping me, but warned that wholesale cost of a whole monkfish is around $100 a pop. The bulk of the interesting meat in the monkfish (and what the recipe calls for) are the “loins”, or fillets that lie on either side of the monkfish’s cartilaginous spine in its tail. Also interesting is the monkfish’s liver, an enlarged organ bigger than a human hand that’s prized as being very similar to foie gras in taste and texture (it’s seen frequently in Japanese cuisine, where it’s usually soaked in sake, steamed, and served sushi-style as “Ankimo”). The rest of the fish is mostly bone/skull, which in this recipe is cooked into a flavorful fish stock.

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Monterey advised that I might be better off buying the fish pre-butchered (as it often is at the fishing wharf) and get only the minimum of what I need (which was the liver, the tail, and an estimated 2lbs of bones). I placed an order with them for pickup on the Saturday I planned to cook this dish, only to have them call me that morning to tell me that none of it had come in.

Because I like to hedge my bets, I had also placed a similar order at the well-reputed Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley, at which I’d seen monkfish tails and liver before and made a mental note of. Thankfully, they came through, and so I drove up to visit them to buy a whole large monkfish tail along with a fresh, raw monkfish liver.

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The liver was rinsed in cold water for about an hour, then left to soak overnight in whole milk; this soak is designed to mellow out the otherwise-strong flavor of the fresh liver. I stored the tail in the fridge to break down the next day, then got to work on all the rest of the components for this dish.

I cut some onions into quarters and brought them to a low simmer with some water for several hours, until they went from this:

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To this:

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The caramelized onions were pureed, then spread on a dehydrator tray to dry for several more hours into crispy caramelized onion ‘chips’.

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While the onions were drying, I set out some butter to soften at room temperature. A small bit of this was cooked with shallot, lime zest, bay leaf and toasted coriander briefly, then set aside to steep. This mixture was mixed with the rest of the softened butter to yield “Aromatic Butter”, which would later be used to cook the monkfish loins in en sous vide. This stuff smelled/tasted really lovely, and I wasn’t annoyed at the large portion of it that went unused, as I can use this to cook lots of other things.

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The dish is accessorized by two ‘puddings’, first is a Banana Pudding, made by steeping dried banana chips in cream until infused, then gelling the cream with Agar and blending into a pudding. The proportion of Agar called for by this recipe seems suspiciously high; the resulting banana gel is so firm it’s almost impossible to puree. It comes out sort of like a funky crumbly feta/cream cheese mixture rather than a smooth pudding. I’ve lost count how many times in this book the agar use seems wrong and I have to remake something using a more-reasonable proportion.

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The other is a Lime Pudding, made by first steeping lime zest in water/sugar, then gelling the mixture with more Agar (which, again, was used in too-high a proportion and wouldn’t puree. Seriously, this is hella annoying. Every damn time). To fix it, I added enough lime juice to the blender as it was running for it to hydrate and form a smooth pudding.

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One component is meant to be “pickled ramps”, but ramps aren’t quite in season here yet, so I opted for milder small white onions, which I pickled in a mixture of white wine, white wine vinegar, sugar and salt. I love Alinea’s way of pickling things; it’s fast and mildly pickley and so yummy.

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The next day, I got to work on the monkfish itself. Because I was a little terrified of this thing, I watched a couple youtube videos about filleting monkfish tails until I felt comfortable enough to give it a shot. Here’s the tail as I bought it from Tokyo Fish market…it’s about as long as my forearm.

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The first step was to remove the skin, which can be peeled off to yield this.

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Next step was to carefully remove the “silverskin”, which, if cooked, turns tough and rubbery and isn’t pleasant to eat. I did this carefully with the aid of a fillet knife until I had this.

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It was at this point that I noticed something that I should have been paying closer attention to but hadn’t, and it’s now that you get to exercise your own sagacity. My monkfish highlighted a need for vigilant awareness when it comes to food safety, and sent me on a side adventure on which I learned a lot more about this than I bargained for.

I can elaborate on this clearly and with photos, but it’s not for the squeamish. If you’re interested in learning more, please step right this way.

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The last step was to remove the two side ‘loins’ from the central spine. The spine itself was cut into small pieces for stock, which I got to work on next.

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I removed the liver from the milk bath, then wrapped it tightly in cheesecloth and poached it in a warm water bath for an hour. At the same time, I worked on what the recipe called “Monkfish Mousse Base”, which is a cream-based fish stock. Since I didn’t have the two monkfish heads I would have had if I’d bought two whole fish, Tokyo Fish Market suggested I could substitute whitefish bones, which they were happy to sell me 6lbs of for $3. Specifically Rock Cod heads and carcasses, I rinsed and cleaned these then simmered them along with the monkfish spine in a mixture of half and half, cream, fennel, shallot, and various herbs to yield something that tasted almost exactly like Campbell’s New England Clam Chowder, which I’ll admit I find delicious. It was rich and complex and tasty.

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I only used about 1/3 of the carcasses to make this, so used the rest to make a water-based fish stock to just keep in the freezer. I love making my own stock, it’s so interesting; both of these stocks were rich in gelatin and set into a jiggly concoction when cooled…an indication of how much gelatin they contain.

The cream-based “mousse base” was strained and heated with more Agar, then blended with the poached liver into a smooth puree. This puree was left to set in the fridge for several hours until it was firm. I then cut it into cubes and pureed it again, strained it again, and had a lovely “liver mousse” that tasted sort of like a mix of seawater, foie gras, and clam chowder. It’s a pretty powerful flavor, but quite tasty and luxurious.

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I couldn’t figure out how to shoot this moment and NOT have it look like a pair of shiny testicles, but at the same time I thought it was so interesting.

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The final steps involved actually cooking the reserved monkfish loin in preparation for service. One of the loins was ground in a meat grinder to yield ‘monkfish hamburger’; this was tossed with cornstarch and deep-fried into crispy, fishy monkfish ‘popcorn’ of sorts. Alinea-style Long John Silver here. These were seasoned with a mixture of curry powder and salt, and were by far my and Sarah’s favorite element of this dish.

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The other loin was cooked en sous vide with the Aromatic Butter, then cut into small portions for plating. The whole assembly was garnished with lime zest.

If you’ve chosen this as your ending point, I’ll conclude by saying all these flavors worked very well together; the lime flavors add a lovely brightness to the heavy seafood flavors and help keep the dish balanced. I loved the depth and complexity of the caramelized onion chips; I could eat those things on their own all day long (and did). The banana was muted for me in the face of all the other flavors, and I can’t understand why Alinea wouldn’t just puree a banana with cream rather than trying to infuse it with dried chips. As for the liver and monkfish itself, I can see why some call it “poor man’s lobster”; it has a buttery texture and soft, briny flavor, and the liver really is reminiscent of the luxury of foie gras, just ‘seawaterier’.

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