This time the pressure was on.
I’ve cooked elaborate dinners for friends before. I’ve made a a ten-course meal for which I prepped for three days. I labored over a Weber Kettle barbecue for eight hours, slowly smoking a pork shoulder. I took two days to reproduce one of Pierre Herme’s most complicated cakes and I have wasted hundreds of egg whites trying to perfect macarons.
What I had never done before was to create my own recipes. This meal would be different, it would be my flavors.
I decided early on to structure every dish around a concept and use that as my guiding principle.
Reinvention — vanilla/mint marshmallow, liquid sea urchin
Ocean — oysters, dashi jelly, dashi bubbles, wakame
Hawaii — Lobster, passion fruit, mango, avocado, jicama
Comfort — Lobster consomee
Forest — short ribs, various mushrooms, junipers, eucalyptus, fennel
PB & J — Banana, peanuts, grapes
Chile — Chocolate, lavender, cream
And now with a bit more details:
The first time I cooked an elaborate dinner for friends, I made a recipe from Alinea’s cookbook. It consisted of sea urchin encased in a sweet and savory mint/vanilla gelee topped with a mint leaf, jalapeno slice and grain of salt. To this day, everyone remembers that dish; the waves of flavor, the unexpected combination, the sensuality of the sea urchin.
I thought it would be fun to start the meal with the same dish, but rework it so nobody could figure out what it was. I turned the gelee into a fluffy marshmallow and filled it with sea urchin pushed through a strainer, jalapeno and mint. How did it turn out? Don’t bother with my adaptation and stick with Alinea’s version. Whipping air into the thing diluted the flavors and the combo just didn’t work.
How could i make an oyster taste even more like the ocean? With kelp broth and wakame, which adds a smoky version of the ocean to the mouthful. To complete the illusion, I whipped dashi bubbles and hid the oyster underneath to make it seem like the whitewash of a wave.
Underneath the oyster I put a layer of konbu dashi gel set with agar, run through a blender, and seasoned with soy sauce and lemon juice. The bubbles are made with the same dashi, whipped with egg white powder and xantham gum.
Not all ingredients here are from hawaii, but I had something similar when I visited. This is one of those combinations of flavors that I just love.
The oyster is dressed in passion fruit dressing, topped with avocado, mango, cilantro and jicama.
This was a last minute addition to the menu but I thought it would be a waste not to use all the lobster shells. I intensified the broth with ground shrimp and served it simply with a squeeze of lemon. I forgot to take a picture of this one but it was just a bowl of orange broth.
The original broth was made with lobster shells and aromatics. I then cleared it with a draft made of shrimp, egg whites and more veggies.
This was the most complex of the dishes, requiring numerous steps. My absolute favorites were the juniper-pickled enoki and the eucalyptus potatoes. In fact, I may start looking into other ways of infusing potatoes because they almost outshone the meat as the star on the plate. Picture credit goes to Tom.
The potatoes were cooked with eucalyptus leaves and then browned in eucalyptus-infused butter. The short ribs were cooked sous-vide for 5 hours at 180F with beef stock and juniper berries. I reduced the same stock with more junipers, added molasses, sherry vinegar and butter to make a sauce. The fennel puree is fennel cooked with chicken stock and pushed through a strainer after the blender. The mushrooms are sauteed chanterelles, quickly-pickled enoki and dried morels. Half the morels were hydrated and half turned into powder which was dusted over the whole plate.
PB & J
I’ve tried to rework this combination before and I finally hit a version that works. The liquid banana is encased inside grape jelly and the grounds are made of a peanut butter cookie. Sorry I don’t have a better picture.
These flavors may not scream Chile, but last time I was there I visited a lovely tea house in the southern part of the country surrounded by lavender bushes and a gorgeous view of Lake Llanquihue. I brought with me some culinary lavender and I knew I wanted to use it. I made the pot de cremes with dark chocolate and almond milk so it wouldn’t be too heavy and infused the cream with lavender before whipping it.
The verdict? I am happy with the meal. It was much more challenging than whatever else I’ve made before, and some of the recipes still need tweaking. A great start though.
But it was worth it. Oh, so worth it.
Eating from a truck in Austin is awesome — you get super-high-quality stuff, for a fraction of what it would cost at a sit-down restaurant.
If there was one unifying theme to my truck meals, it was smoke. The Odd Duck Farm trailer grills everything on hardwood, and just by the fumes coming off the chimney, I knew I was in for a treat. The pork belly sandwich was exactly as advertised — a huge chunk of fatty pork belly that was char-grilled at the last moment over an open flame…mmm. The monster sandwich came with a pickle to cut through all the fat. I also ordered a cold dish of buttermilk-poached chicken breast, with grilled rappini, and pine nuts. I was impressed at how moist the chicken was, and the rappini definitely can take some smoke.
I thought it was all over…I mean, who would want to eat more fat after chowing down on a massive pork-belly sandwich. But, as luck would have it, the truck next door specialized in made-to-order doughnuts. The menu definitely had a thing for pork, because I saw several recipes with caramelized bacon on them. In an attempt at healthy eating (ha!), I ordered the one doughnut that came with fresh fruit — a strawberry doughnut with cream cheese frosting.
The doughnut itself was a wonder to eat; crisp on the outside, fluffy and warm inside, with gooey cream cheese frosting, and token pieces of fruit. There goes my attempt at health.
The following day, I walked along a different highway to find Franklin’s barbecue.
I immediately knew I was in for a treat when they started carving a massive piece of brisket, and the guy just handed me over a chunk of meat to tease me. I was in brisket heaven. Behind the serving trailer, they have a second trailer where they slowly smoke and bake brisket and ribs. The ribs were good, but go for the brisket. It is fork-tender, juicy to the point of ridiculous, and so flavorful, you wonder what the hell happened to all the other meat you’ve eaten before. They have sauces, which are pretty good, but I was happy to just eat the damn thing…I thought there’d be leftovers, but no, there weren’t any.
At least I walked.
A couple of my friends smoke loose tobacco, and that is how I found my way for the first time to Leavitt & Peirce — a tobacco and toiletry specialist store right outside the university. My first thought is that this store is frozen in time; my grandfather would have recognized all the shaving tools they carry. The pipe section was exactly what I imagined colonial officers would have killed for one hundred years ago, and the whole store exudes an old-school feel.
My second thought was that the loose tobacco they carry smells wonderful. This is nothing like Marlboro or Camel. This stuff is really aromatic, and I got lost taking sniffs here and there from glass bell jars packed with different kinds. And that’s when it hit me — how could I cook with this? I tried googling recipes, without much luck. I mostly found posts of people who had tried, but failed. They complained about it being too bitter, or were worried about turning their food toxic.
My impulse was that tobacco would go well with cream. I imagined steeping tobacco leaves in cream, and carrying the flavor that way. I thought about making a tobacco-cream sauce to go with steak (I might go back to this in the future), tobacco ganache to act as a filling in chocolate truffles, or ice-cream.
“I am planning to make ice cream with tobacco, and wanted your help,” I said to the store attendant.
She was taken back, but jumped right back in. Apparently I was the first person ever to make that request, and she was genuinely excited to help me find something that would work.
“I am worried about the flavor being too strong, and I also want something that is not chemically treated — just tobacco.”
“We only carry natural tobacco, so you don’t need to worry about nasty chemicals,” she said. “How about you try this one?”
She guided me to a very mild, full-leaf pipe tobacco called “Natural Caucadis.” It was aromatic, but wasn’t as pungent as some of the other varieties. I bought an ounce, and walked out a happy-camper. As I was paying, the store attendant informed everyone within earshot what I was planning to do, and I got some excited looks as well as not-so-encouraging looks that wished I wouldn’t succeed.
My next step was to figure out the proportions. I remembered seeing something about tobacco in Heston Blumenthal’s “The Fat Duck,” but the recipe he offers calls for putting tobacco and coconut in a box next to each other, and let it infuse for a month. Not that helpful. I then turned to Grant Achatz’s “Alinea,” where I found a recipe for blackberries with tobacco cream. After adjusting for measurements, I figured that 4 grams would be enough to infuse the recipe below.
It was way too much. The ice cream picked up a spicy kick from the tobacco, and it was spicy in an over-powering way. The spicy also found its way to your throat, making it just not nice. I tried next with 2.5 grams, and this time it worked exactly like I hoped. The ice cream is initially sweet, and tastes like vanilla, but then it hits you. The tobacco takes about 5-8 seconds to come out, and leaves a slightly spicy and tingling feeling on the tongue, together with a bit of smokiness. The recipe yields a dense, creamy ice cream, which I think works better so that the tobacco flavor takes time to develop on the palate. I imagine that cutting back on the cream, and increasing the milk would lead to an ice cream where the flavor hits you faster.
The ice cream also picks up the nicotine, I think. I don’t smoke, but felt a bit of a rush after having a helping, and a smoker friend commented that he would normally feel like a smoke after a meal, but he didn’t. Don’t eat more than one serving at once!
Tobacco Ice cream
(recipe loosely based out of Sherry Yard’s ice cream recipe in “The Secrets of Baking”)
Makes 3 cups, or enough for 6-8 servings
357g heavy cream (1.5 cups)
120g milk (0.5 cups)
100g sugar (0.5 cups)
2.5g loose full-leaf tobacco (get a mild tobacco, and one that has no other chemicals applied to it. You could also break a cigar)
0.75 teaspoon vanilla paste (substitute equal amount of vanilla essence, or the seeds of half a vanilla bean).
Bring to a simmer the cream, milk, vanilla and tobacco over a medium flame. Turn off the heat, cover with a plastic film to prevent a top-layer from forming and steep for 10-15 minutes (depending on the strength of the tobacco you use, I would recommend that you start tasting it at the 8 minute mark to make sure it doesn’t get too strong). Strain with a fine-mesh strainer.
Whisk the yolks with the sugar and salt, making sure you do it quickly so the sugar doesn’t coagulate the yolks (i.e., don’t let the yolks sit on the sugar). Ladle half a cup of the cream mixture while whisking to the yolks to heat them up. Combine the whole thing. Pour it on a saucepan (non-stick works best, methinks), and heat it up over a small flame while constantly stirring, until the mixture reaches 170F (if you don’t have a thermometer, this is when it thickens up some, and if you run your finger down the spatula, it will leave a trail).
Pour the mixture through a strainer into a bowl set over an ice-bath. Stir it once in a while until the mixture cools down to 40F. Churn according to the instructions of your ice-cream machine.
You might have to play around with the tobacco you buy to get the exact proportions. I think 2 grams is a safe place to start, and you can move up or down from there.
“You couldn’t have done that?”
“Why not? It was all they had available.”
“But, but…it’s not ramen then!”
Backtrack a day, and I’m standing at my local Korean/Japanese grocery store.
“I’m looking for fresh ramen noodles.”
The shop assistant walks me over to the freezer, and pulls out a bag of frozen ramen, complete with frozen soup and all the fixings. The price? 6.99 for one portion.
“This is not what I’m looking for. I just want fresh noodles.”
“But why don’t you take these? I love shio-ramen…just add some hot water and dinner is ready!”
“I’m planning to make my own soup. I just want the noodles.”
She stares back at me with a puzzled face. I spot disbelief in her eyes. After all, how many people attempt to make ramen stock at home? I decide that showing off is the only way to go here.
“Yes, I’ll make the soup with konbu, shiitake mushrooms, pork and chicken bones and some vegetables.”
She continues to look at me in disbelief, but finally offers a kind word:
“I hear that some soups benefit from a handful of niboshi (dried sardines).”
Turns out they don’t have fresh ramen noodles, which sucks because I was preparing for a noodle cook-off. “A” challenged me a while back to outdo her mom’s recipe for Vietnamese pho. I have never made noodles before, but in an act of bravado I decided that making this soup couldn’t be so different than making chicken stock, and I took the challenge.
Making the soup wasn’t so difficult — it just takes a long time. All in all, the pot bubbled for some odd nine hours before a clear basic broth was ready. I seasoned it with tare to turn it into shoyu-ramen (soy sauce ramen), which is one of the most basic and classic preparations. Then came all the fixings. I’m a big fan of ramen eggs, and found Chubby-hubby’s recipe to make them (thanks!). For the rest of the fixings, I roasted pork belly and sliced it thin, cooked a pork shoulder sous-vide and tore it into strands, rehydrated some wakame, sliced a bunch of scallions and bought pre-cut nori.
But the noodle question still lingered.
“You used Korean somen? What the hell? It doesn’t taste like ramen,” said “C”.
I obviously didn’t pass the ultimate authenticity test. In my desperation to find ramen noodles, the next best thing I found were fresh Korean somen noodles, which are a completely different thing.
Not perfect ramen, but almost ramen.
I wanted to test myself.
I cook all the time foods that I more or less know how to do.
This time it would be different. I would cook out of hard-core cookbooks, with techniques I didn’t know.
I would also cook like a restaurant — prepare things ahead of time, and then finish them up at the last moment.
And I would make many courses. Ten to be precise.
The theme? End of summer, beginning of fall.
The cookbooks? The French Laundry and Alinea.
The time it takes one to prepare all of this? Two days.
The menu (the pictures are blurry because we lowered the lights way too much in the dinning room):
Amuse bouche: Crispy tuiles with whipped creme fraiche and salmon tartare (French Laundry)
First course: Chicken with shallots and cider in a maple skewer (Alinea — the original recipe is with pheasant, but that was too expensive).
Second course: Duck breast, pumpkin soup, banana and lots of garnishes (Alinea)
Third course: Mullet with macadamia nut gazpacho (this is the only course that did not come from one of the books)
Fourth course: Cherry tomatoes, tomato coulis, tomato ice cream and galic tuile (French laundry)
Fifth course: Oysters and Pearls (French Laundry, and with a cheaper caviar than osetra)
Sixth course (palate cleanser): Pear, eucalyptus, mint (Alinea)
Seventh course: Pork two ways, corn bread pudding, sage, honey (Alinea)
Dessert 1: Liquid caramel popcorn (Alinea)
Dessert 2: Rhubarb, fennel, strawberry, orange, mascarpone ice cream (French Laundry)
The work was worth it. If I could go back, I’d remove the fish course. The liquid popcorn tasted awesome. I loved the crispy fried chicken and cider dish. The pear thing was a flavor combination that hits you out of left field.
Some of the comments by the diners:
“Liquid popcorn is such a homer dish…can’t be bothered to chew”
“agh, agh, agh (upon trying the pear and eucalyptus dish”
“pork is a delicious beast”
I’ll write more detailed posts later about some of the recipes, and my thoughts.
It’s been a long time since I last wrote in this blog. I’m tempted to blame grad school and its craziness, but I also got lazy. Now I’m back with more energy, and new stories to tell.
Over the summer I was back in Japan (doing research on food — more about that in a future post), and on my way back to Boston I got lucky and managed to squeeze in a stopover in Honolulu and visit Paul.
More than stories, I just have straight up food porn to show. This is an awesome place to eat!
Local fish. I went to the fishmonger, but had no idea what was what. I ended up getting a parrot fish, which had a firm and almost chewy white meat.
Oh yeah, fried Malasadas…like a doughnut, only that they serve them warm all day long, and filled with pure tropical awesomeness. My favorite was lilikoi (passion fruit), followed by hopia (coconut custard). Chocolate…not so good. The picture from the top a volcano that overlooks honolulu is where we went hiking after feeling guilty because of so many malasadas.
Hawaiian food at Ono’s. It was recommended as one of the few places where you can try traditional Hawaiian foods. We got the lau-lau with pork (the big bunch of taro leaves with meat inside), poi (taro root “gruel”), lomi-lomi salmon and other stuff. All washed down with Maui beer. I quite liked the lau-lau, but wasn’t a huge fan of the poi…takes a little bit getting used to. The beer, however, oh, how I wish they would sell it in the East Coast. The coconut porter is one of the best and most original brews I’ve had. You’d think it’s sweet, but it’s not!
The farmers’ market. Someone must have written this down in a Japanese guidebook, because they were arriving by the busloads every 15 minutes! Really good produce, and fun ingredients to play around with. I got tiki leaves and assorted mushrooms, and steamed the parrot fish inside with a knob of butter, ginger, lime and chili. mmmm….
The other thing that amazed me from this market was the lettuce. We bought it from a farm that grows their veggies on volcanic soil, and the nuttiness and spicyness of the leaves left me dumbfounded. I guess this is what ‘terroir’ really means.