scallop seared in brown butter green almonds, four ways oxalis leaves and blossoms browned butter rocks and powder lemon cells
May is perhaps the most exciting month in terms of fleeting seasonal treats. Among these are ramps, morels, peas and rhubarb, but it the relationship between soft-shelled crabs and green almonds that I have been waiting to explore.
When soft-shelled crabs begin to appear, I always buy a few extra for experimentation. My intentions are good, but even then, I know it's futile, that they are all destined for two standard preparations: Spider Rolls and Almondine. When time allows, Spider Rolls--one of my favorite sushi--are satisfying with their contrast of flavors and textures. For a quick fix, I make Soft-Shelled Crab Almondine. I must have a flavor receptor that is particularly fond of sweet seafood bathed in brown butter and balanced with citrus and herbs because I can't get enough of that nutty, buttery, toasty, bright and lemony goodness.
In attempting to translate this dish with green almonds, I realized that their crunchiness would compete with that of the soft-shelled crabs and throw the textural balance off. Sea scallops provide the same sweet, succulent flesh in a softer texture. The hulls of the green almonds were split, to liberate the undeveloped nuts that were sauteed in brown butter along with some of the slivered hulls and slivered, mature almonds. More of the hulls were slivered and half of these were quickly pickled in lemon juice and the other half went into salted ice water. These varying flavors and textures were combined and seasoned with fresh lemon juice and sea salt. The flavor of brown butter was extended with soft, melting powder made with Tapioca Maltodextrin and rocks made from the larger clumps of the powder that were microwaved at full power for 30 seconds. The dry crunch of the rocks provided the missing texture of the fried crab shell. Final touches were the lemon cells, which are easier to extract when the lemon segments are dehydrated, and the leaves and blossoms of Oxalis, or wood sorrel, that provide a sour, herbal note that reinforces the lemon.
This dish satisfies me on a level beyond flavor receptors. It's ephemeralness reminds me to explore and enjoy what is good and available at any given moment...the elusive here and now. Carpe amygdalum viridis!
These are almonds, interrupted. They are harvested while the almond is still in it's embryonic stage, translucent and gelatinous, with a thin, ivory shell. At this stage, the hull is crisp and dense like an under-ripe peach (also belonging to the Prunus family). Later, the hull will turn hard and leathery to protect the developing nut. The flavor is subtle, but distinctly green--grassy, herbaceous--that of chlorophyll, with a refreshing tang.
The first time that I came across green almonds was last spring at an ethnic market that I frequent. I bought a small bag to sample. I ate them all as they do in the Middle East; simply washed and dipped in salt. Their taste reminded me of green olives, and I thought that I would try curing them in a brine. When I went back for more, they were gone--their short season over.
I returned to the market a few weeks ago and was told that they were expecting a shipment "any day now". I had almost given up hope, when I spotted one lone bag, lying in wait on an otherwise empty shelf. I became aware that others had spotted it, too, but I got there first. They were coming home with me...I had plans for them.
whipped pernod tomato fennel poached in parmesan water
One of the biggest challenges about catering is getting the quantities right. Running out of food is unforgivable, but throwing out excessive food is painful. Over the years, I have come to terms with this aspect, but it still disturbs me every time. When I recently rescued a batch of tomato aspic from it's fate with the bin, it wasn't because of my conscience. I just wanted to play.
I had made the aspic from plum tomatoes that were slowly roasted in the oven to concentrate their flavor and amplify their sweetness. Relieved of their skins, they were simmered in tomato consomme with Pernod until soft and melting. This intensely flavored mixture was then pureed, passed through a chinois several times, and set with 3% gelatin. The finely diced aspic was served as part of a first course with roasted fennel, eggplant, dried olives and smoked chevre. As I was dicing the aspic, I began to wonder about gelatin's shear-thinning capabilities and for once, I was glad to see leftovers.
Back home, I learned a few things about shearing gelatin:
it does not form a fluid gel...a soft gel? yes...fluid? no.
whipping it from it's gelled state in a Kitchenaid is a lot of fun to watch, but the product is no more useful than the unfluid gel.
whipping it from it's ungelled state over a bowl of ice water allows air to be whipped in and trapped as it chills and sets. The result is a light, creamy textured gel that holds it shape, yet is soft and melting on the palate...mind blowing? hardly...useful? definitely.
Recently, I was asked to make a custom cake, a request that I've not accepted for a long time...too many balls in the air, not enough hands. I used to make wedding cakes on a regular basis and I enjoyed it immensely,
until it came time to deliver them. I had a rule in which the only people that were allowed to transport these cakes were: the one who made it or the one who paid for it . Since the latter was rarely an option, it was often left to me. Gratefully, they all arrived intact at their destination, and on time, but I estimate that I've lost about 5 years off of my lifespan on the winding, hilly roads of Connecticut.
I accepted this request, mainly because the theme intrigued me; it was to reference the recipients' penchant for Gucci shoes.
I learned to sew at about the same time that I learned to cook. I never considered either of these skills as something that I could build a profession on...until I discovered haute couture; the extreme form of fashion. It is often the extremities of things that attract me to it, then allow me to find my own ground within it. After high school, I headed to NYC to study fashion design at Parsons, long before Tim Gunn & company put it on the reality TV map. I had high expectations, perhaps unrealistic ones. I went there to explore the extreme, but found
that they were peddling moderation in the form of ready-to-wear. In the ensuing years, I have found my ground in fashion design, even when I started cooking professionally, and to this day, I maintain parallel careers in fashion and food. I have designed and made many things, from dog collars to wedding gowns, but I have never made a pair of shoes...until now. It is not without irony that my first pair would also be edible.
It was through the extremities of avant guarde cuisine that I first learned of hydrocolloids and other chemicals. I don't deny that I was seduced by their possibilities, but I had questions. First up: "Are they safe to consume?" For answers, I turned to scientific data and independent studies and avoided all information that was tempered by agendas. Satisfied, I moved on to the next question, "What is the point?" Do they contribute to making food better, or are their applications just smoke and mirrors? I reconciled with this by examining the ingredients that I already use in making cakes. Baking powder, baking soda, cream of tartar, cornstarch, and gelatin are some of the processed additives that are commonly used in baking. The transformative effects that they produce in cake batters and other baked goods are undeniable and have stood the test of time.
The use of rolled fondant to cover cakes is something that I have struggled with. Although it is completely edible, I've never found it particularly good to eat...it brings to mind the centers of the drugstore chocolates that were abandoned after the first hopeful bite. It's only merit is that it provides a pristine and alabaster-smooth surface to apply decoration, acting like the gesso on an artists' canvas. I always point out these pros and cons to my clients when they request a fondant-covered cake. When they insist on it, I try to find the humor when the plates come back to the kitchen with peeled-away strips of fondant, like discarded rinds.
On the occassions when I am required to use fondant, I choose to make it from scratch. My recipe is based on the one found in Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Cake Bible" and contains gelatin, glucose and glycerine, as well as shortening and confectioners sugar. For this cake, I swapped sodium alginate for the gelatin, remembering that it is sometimes used for the commercial production of this product. While it produced a more pliable and silkier fondant to work with, it didn't make it any more palate-friendly...don't think I'll be joining a fondant fan club anytime soon.
Not quite ready to move on from the pairing of asparagus and rhubarb, I've decided to play them on the sweet side with the first of the fraises de bois. Rhubarb and strawberries are old friends.. but how to introduce asparagus? Going with fat as a flavor bridge, I blended asparagus puree into a mousse of lightly sweetened, whipped cream and cocoa butter. Cocoa butter is a product that has great potential as a neutral-flavored fat that behaves like chocolate. Unlike chocolate, it is pure fat and has eluded me in my attempts to emulsify it with a water base. (Thanks- Dave Arnold- for introducing me to mono- and diglycerides). Here, that was not an issue, as the melted cocoa butter readily blends with cream, acting like a gel that firms and stabilizes. In this arena, the asparagus contributed a subtle herbal flavor that blended nicely with the rhubarb and strawberries. Makes me wonder...what other obvious/not-so-obvious flavor pairings am I missing?
"What grows together goes together" We've all heard this adage...but is it the organizing principle behind the world's cuisines or is it just a guideline?
Here in the Northeast, our growing season is just getting started...too soon for farmer's markets, but there is some local produce beginning to show up in grocery stores. In my own garden, the only things that are harvestable in the beginning of May are some perennial herbs (chervil, mint, chives, parsley, and lovage) and a few vegetables (peas, lettuce, wild arugula that has reseeded, asparagus, rhubarb, and wintered-over leeks). The fraises de boise, or alpine strawberries, have just begun to blush, which means that with a few days of warm weather, I can head out to the patch with a bowl of cereal and enjoy breakfast al fresco. Examining this bounty, the combinations become obvious: peas with mint, tender salads of lettuce, arugula, and herbs, asparagus with leeks and parsley... but what about the rhubarb? Certainly, rhubarb and strawberries are a classic and sound pairing, but rhubarb is in fact a perennial vegetable that grows from crowns in the form of fibrous stalks and beneath it's bracing acidity, there is an earthy, grassy flavor. Does this sound a lot like asparagus? My thoughts exactly.
While I could find no botanical or flavor correlations aside from those already mentioned, the combination intrigued me enough to warrant some play. It was not all fun, though. My first attempt--a dish of poached scallops with a compressed sheet of thin ribbons of asparagus and rhubarb--while beautiful to look at, fell short on flavor. Trust me on this, even the dog wouldn't eat it. But failure is never a loss when it allows you to push forward an idea. With the scallop dish, I learned that the elements of sweet and fat were necessary to unite the flavors of these two vegetables. Enter Bouc Emissaire, a creamy and mild goat cheese from Canada. The pairing of asparagus with goat cheese is an established one, but in order to bring rhubarb into the equation and not allow it's acidity to compete with the tang of the cheese or overwhelm the asparagus, it needed to be balanced with sugar. Texturally, I did not want the elements to contrast, but to melt together, so I chose to manipulate their texture with hydrocolloids. Seasoned asparagus juice was set with gelatin, and rhubarb juice was gently sweetened with agave nectar and set with high and low acyl gellan gum. The final flourishes were a scattering of chamomile blossoms and a madeira reduction that was rubber-stamped on the plate.
In conclusion, I think that this dish supports the wisdom of honoring seasonality when combining flavors. The proof is that I enjoyed every morsel, while my dog watched longingly.
Interesting article on anarchy, autocracy, and censorship at the CIA (no, not that CIA). It seems that for $25K/yr, chefs-in-the-making are learning to cook frozen waffle fries. Must be some damn good waffle fries?
cut into a side of smoked salmon... slice off a perfect thin sheet...observe it's intrinsic beauty; striations of fat and flesh...inhale it's aroma, redolent of smoke and sea...taste it's silky complexity...listen as it tells you what it wants to be....
smoked salmon roll: 4" x 5" sheets of thinly sliced smoked salmon cucumber brunoise miso saikyo (white miso)
Smear a thin layer of miso in a 1" wide strip along one long edge of salmon sheet. Sprinkle cucumber over miso. Roll salmon along covered edge to enclose miso and cucumber, stopping halfway. Plate.
avocado roll: peeled and pitted avocado halves
Place avocado halves on flat surface, rounded side up. Repeatedly poke a 1/2" diameter straw or pipe through avocado, stacking disks of avocado into straw. When nearly full, stand straw upright on flat surface and insert a 1/2" dowel into top of straw, pressing firmly to compress avocado. Line up edge of straw next to the top edge of salmon roll on plate. Push with dowel to extrude avocado roll while pulling away straw. Trim ends to align with salmon roll.
sushi and tabiko roll: 2 cups whole milk 1 tsp salt 1 tsp sugar 1/4 cup raw sushi rice rice wine vinegar mirin tabiko
Place milk, salt and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in rice, cover, and lower heat to a simmer. Cook until rice is very tender, about 25-30 minutes. Puree mixture while hot, then press through a tamis. Allow mixture to come to room temperature, then season with vinegar and mirin, balancing the flavor, but leaving it assertive, as it will mute when chilled. Line a 3/4" diameter cylindrical mold with acetate. Fill with rice mixture, taking care to not leave air pockets. Wrap cylinder in plastic wrap to seal ends, then freeze just until firm enough to unmold. Unmold cylinder and roll in tabiko to completely cover. Set on plate next to avocado roll and trim ends. Place plate in refrigerator to allow sushi roll to thaw and soften.