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A few weeks ago, Sarah and I went to see Ferran Adria speak in San Francisco. He was there largely to promote his new cookbook, but he talked a bit about the creative process and the future of elBulli. He was introduced by a woman from Phaidon, the cookbook’s publisher, who also noted she’d written a book herself about elBulli. The name of her book stuck in my head, as did the subject matter (it focuses on the stages working in elBulli for one of it’s final seasons), so I bought it when I got home. At one point in the book, the author notes one of the elBulli courses that demands no small amount of time and attention from several stages, but that’s quite simple and straightforward from a conceptual view. It’s a pre-dinner ‘cocktail’ made from small sticks of sugar cane soaked in rum, mint, and lime. When a diner chews on the cane stick, it tastes like a mojito.

Adria reportedly exclaims that things are “magic!” from time to time, and this idea seemed like exactly that to me. It’s so simple and fun, and I love stuff like this. So it was providential that when I was at Berkeley Bowl last week looking for salsify I came across this:

I seriously freaked out. I mean, how often do you see sugar cane chilling in the produce dept. of a grocery store?! I pulled aside one of the produce employees and peppered him with questions. He said we’re just in the beginning of the season here, which lasts for maybe two months. Earlier in the season is the best time to buy, as the stalks are more tender and juicy. He prefers the taller, more-gangly green stalks to the shorter red ones, as they’re more tender.

That’s all I needed. I grabbed one and finished my shopping, banging the 10-foot-tall cane against the roof of the store several times before leaving. I’m sure I looked ridiculous carrying it around, but I didn’t even care. When I got it home, I took a few moments to size the thing up and figure out what I wanted to do with it.

I first sectioned off the cane into what seemed like reasonable bite-sized lengths (about 6″). I used a cleaver and a rubber mallet to tap the spine of the knife through the cane. This is a trick I learned in butchery class; using the mallet means I’m not hauling back and whacking a knife at this thing, and I also don’t make a big mess.

I used an older small fillet knife to pare off the tough outer husk. Cutting across the grain is pretty tough, but slipping a knife vertically down through the cane fibers is very easy and clean.

Drinkin’ my morning coffee, paring down a 10′ sugar cane stalk in my jammies. Like you do. The “ESC” coffee mug there, incidentally, is from a VFX studio I worked at several years ago that’s since shut down. They had a kitchen full of these mugs for employees to use; when I got laid off I swiped one. I have no regrets.

I had a moment of extreme freak-out when I came across this chunk of cane. The bright red streak looked like blood, and there’s a gash in the cane that made wonder what it could possibly be. I even felt suddenly nauseous, having already chewed on a few of the stalks before finding this. Some hasty searching reassured me that it’s a very normal kind of rot that sugarcane can undergo, similar to brown bruising in bananas or potatoes. Pretty wild though.

My ‘mojito’ mix was made with dark and light rums, into which I steeped two bunches of mint leaves, 3 limes, and two vanilla beans overnight. I strained off the mixture, then let the cane steep in it for another night. The next day I pulled one out and chewed on it. It tastes, unsurprisingly, exactly like a mojito. I plated several more in shaved ice with chiffonade mint leaves and oxalis pods (which have a tart, lemon-lime flavor) as garnish. The cane is lovely — very tender and sweet and juicy. The alcohol in the rum shines through, and it definitely feels like you’re drinking a cocktail, so flavorful is it. I recall a course at Alinea that did something similar; they had sugarcane flavored with Thai flavors. The cane is a great carrier of flavor, absorbing up quite a bit of whatever liquid you steep it in, and complimenting it with a sweet, lightly-molassesy flavor.