A tasting menu is a cogitative journey through a progression of flavors that begins with the prolegomenous amuse bouche and ends with the sating mignardise. Modern menus play with the line between savory and sweet by including elements of each throughout the courses, but there still remains a distinction between the savory courses and the desserts, both in flavor profiles and placement within the menu. The pre-dessert acts as a bridge between the two. This is the tightrope course; it must perfectly balance the fine line between the sweet and the savory. When executed successfully, it makes the transition feel seamless.
I made this dish as an example of a pre-dessert. The delicate whisper of sake, grassy notes of matcha, and the smoky after-tones of the shiso echo the preliminary courses, while the inherent sweetness of the shiro plum, along with the up-front mint and apple notes of the shiso prelude the increasingly sweeter courses that will follow. It could have gone either way: replacing the plum with a protein such as a pristine scallop, would have worked beautifully if the dish was placed at the very beginning of the menu. Alternately, sweetening the herbal elements would have transformed it into a bright, focused dessert.
Side note: For a graphic illustration of flavor progression within a tasting menu, check out the menus at Alinea. The circles are not design elements, they act as a flavor map of the meal:
The size of the circles relates to the size of the course.
The intensity of color corresponds the intensity of flavor.
The left/right position indicates the savoriness/sweetness of the dish.
My husband's baked beans are legendary. The recipe has been handed down through the generations of Canadian men in his family like an heirloom. They are not the stuff that you find in cans--they are the real deal. And they are made in a pressure cooker.
When he first told me of his cooking method, I scoffed, believing that beans should be baked long and slow. A challenge ensued. After an overnight soak, the beans were divided. His went into a pressure cooker, mine went into the oven. Thirty minutes later, his were ready to eat--soft, but firm enough that each bean kept it's integrity and the sweet, tart, and peppery syrup had penetrated them to the core. Five hours later, mine were still hard and inedible, the sauce had all but dried up. I had to concede.
Years ago, a friend brought me a can of green boiled peanuts from his travels to the Low Country. He warned me that they were an acquired taste. For me, the acquisition was quick and complete. It was the one and only time that I had access to them, until recently.
When in season, Asian markets carry raw peanuts, still in the shell. I wanted to cook up a batch in heavily salted boiling water as they do in the South, but the four hour cooking time was putting me off. Then I looked at the pressure cooker. And then I looked at the individual shelled peanuts.
Making the connection to my husband's baked beans was just a logical progression.
Pork belly, when properly cooked until tender and succulent, is downright obscene. Choose a belly with a high ratio of fat. It can be cooked with the skin on, then sliced off to expose the creamy layer of fat that will be seared. For an added treat, the cooked skin can be sliced into thin strips and fried until crispy. The belly can be cooked in one piece or cut into individual portions for a shorter cooking time and thorough penetration of flavor. Cooking in a pressure cooker will cut the cooking time further. 3 lbs. pork belly
1 qt. rich chicken stock
1 cup peach juice
2 Tblsp molasses
1 Tblsp brown sugar
salt and pepper
In a heavy skillet, sear the pork belly on both sides until golden. Remove and place in a deep baking pan or a pressure cooker. Pour about 1 cup of chicken stock into the skillet and deglaze pan, then pour over the pork belly. Add the rest of the stock and the remaining ingredients.
To braise in the oven: Preheat the oven to 300°F. Cover the casserole and bake for 4-5 hours or until fork tender.
To pressure cook: Cover pot, lock lid and bring up to pressure. Cook for 1- 1 1/2 hours.
When tender, remove the belly from the liquid. Remove skin, if still attached, and cut into serving pieces. Sear the fat side of the belly until crispy, then brush with glaze.
For glaze: In a saucepan, combine 1 cup of peach puree with 2 Tblsps of brown sugar and 1 Tblsp lime juice. Cook over med-high heat until thickened, about 5 minutes. To make crispy thin sheets: Cut very thin slices of raw pork belly (this is easiest when partially frozen). Lay them out on a sheet pan, slightly overlapping, and lightly sprinkle with salt. Cover the slices with a smaller sheet pan and weigh it down with a heavy skillet. Place in a preheated 250F. oven until they have crisped and taken on a light golden color.
Salt pork is pork fat, usually from the back, that has been cured in salt. Fresh pork belly can be used in it's place.
4 oz. salt pork or fresh pork belly
1 lb. shelled green raw peanuts
6 Tblsps molasses
6 Tblsps brown sugar
1 Tblsp prepared mustard
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp salt (omit if using salt pork)
1 whole large onion, peeled
Cut the pork into 1/2" pieces and fry in a pressure cooker until browned and crispy. Add peanuts, molasses, brown sugar, mustard, pepper and salt (if using). Stir to combine. Place onion in center. Cover, lock lid, and bring up to pressure. Cook for 30 minutes. Release pressure and remove onion.
August is peach season here in the Northeast. My Redhaven peaches need another week or two to ripen, but there are earlier local varieties now available at the markets. The kernel of the peach pit is a good source of Benzaldehyde (the essence of bitter almonds). To extract the kernel, strike the pit with a heavy hammer or mallet until it breaks open.
3 ripe peaches
2 cups peach juice
1/2 cup Sauternes
2 Tblsps agave nectar
3 peach kernels
Wash peaches and cut each in half. Remove the pit and extract the kernel. In a pan large enough to hold the peaches in a single layer, combine the peach juice, Sauternes, and agave nectar and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the peaches, laying them skin-side-up, and their kernels. Poach gently, until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from liquid, peel off skin, and cut into 1" cubes. Serve warm.
Poblano peppers are a staple in my vegetable garden, along with the other chilis: jalapeno, serrano, thai dragon, and habanero. Poblanos are the mildest among these. Towards the end of their growing season, I allow the dark, glossy green pods to ripen on the plants until they turn a deep red. When dried, these are known as Ancho chilis. Charring the poblanos accomplishes three things: it allows the waxy skins to be easily removed, it softens the flesh to a tender-crisp texture, and it infuses them with a smoky flavor.
2 poblano peppers
1 Tblsp avocado oil
1 1/2 tsp lime juice
Char the peppers over an open flame until the skins blister and blacken. Place them in a heatproof container with a tight-fitting lid and allow them to steam in their residual heat for 10 minutes. Remove the blackened skins by rubbing them off with your fingers or a dry towel. Resist the temptation to rinse them off--you will only be diluting the flavor. When peeled, rip them open and remove the stem, membranes and seeds. Finely julienne the flesh and toss with the remaining ingredients.
I've been on a fruit soup kick lately. My juicer has been working OT. I promised him a break after this one.
The other night, I made a cold cherry soup infused with star anise and swirled with yogurt. I've never been to Morocco, but that soup took me there. Landed me in a souk in Marrakesh. With each spoonful, the saturated colors of silk and pottery intensified, the sounds of vendors haggling with buyers grew louder, the scent of leather and sweet spices grew stronger. By the time that I had finished, I half-expected to find my feet covered in dust and my house redecorated with exotic carpets and textiles, all purchased at the lowest possible price.
This strawberry soup, perfumed with Riesling and sweet woodruff sorbet, transports me to the Bavarian Alps, on the first day of May.
Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) is a woodland herb
that grows prolifically in Northern Europe. In Germany, it is known as Waldmeister (master of the woods) and is steeped in white wine with strawberries to produce May Wine, traditionally served for May Day celebrations. It's primary aroma compound is coumarin, which lends it's characteristic sweet hay and vanilla flavor. Coumarin is also found in high concentrations in tonka beans; it's moderate toxicity is the reason why they are banned in the US. Fresh leaves of sweet woodruff have only a faint odor--they need to be wilted or dried to release the essential oils. In haste, a quick blast in the microwave does the trick.
Sour cream pearls couldn't be any easier when applying reverse spherification. Dairy products already contain sufficient amounts of calcium to react with a sodium alginate solution (1 liter water + 5 g. sodium alginate). This technique produces stable spheres that remain liquid in the center and can be served hot or cold.
It's been awhile since I've watched a movie. Aside from lack of time, finding one that my husband and I both agree on begins to feel like an enterprise. He likes the kind that entertain with fast cars, impending doom, guns and blood. I like the kind that dig in and stick. Our common ground is the ones that make us laugh.
That's what I thought I was getting when he dropped a DVD into my hands with a grin on his face. I was nonplussed that he had handed me a romantic film by Wong Kar-wai, a Chinese director known for visually stylized films. Looking over the cast, a name jumped out at me and it all made sense...if there's one thing that he likes more than cars and guns, it's Nora Jones.
The movie, My Blueberry Nights, was almost forgettable despite the stunning melancholic atmosphere created by Wong through roving shallow lenses and lush chiaroscuro. The minor key mood was a good fit for Nora, but Jude Law never convinced me as a marathon runner wannabe who settles for running a diner where he makes blueberry pies that no one ever eats. It was the pie, and the way that Wong committed it to celluloid that I will remember: tight macro shots of ice cream salaciously melting into mounds of lurid blueberries. It was so deliciously lascivious that I wanted to avert my eyes.
In the end, it was blueberry pie that brought the characters together and endeared Wong to me as a film maker and food pornographer. And it inspired this dish.
When I put raw blueberries through a juicer, something unexpected happened: the juice began to thicken and clot as it poured out of the spout. As it began to turn brown, I heated it to set the color and noticed that the soft clots had broken down into small, firm curds that reminded me of ricotta. I decided to treated it as cheese and let it drain overnight in a cheesecloth-lined sieve. The next day, I had a firm mass that could be sliced or molded and retain it's shape. After some research, I'm still not clear what caused the blueberry juice to behave this way. I initially attributed it to pectin, but 73 g. of fresh blueberries only contain 0.3 g. of pectin, making them a low-pectin fruit. However, blueberries do contain a significant amount of fiber, which in combination with the pectin, may have caused the juice to clot and form curds
Use the juice reserved from draining the blueberry cheese. Ultratex 8 is a modified food starch derived from tapioca that thickens liquids without applying heat. 150 g. reserved blueberry juice 8 g. agave nectar 2.5 g. ulratex 8 Place all ingredients in a bowl and blend with whisk or immersion blender until starch swells and juice has thickened.
sous vide blueberries
Cooking blueberries at a low temperature leaves them firm and intact, yet taste cooked. 1 pint raw blueberries 60 g. reserved blueberry juice 30 g. unsalted butter 10 g. agave nectar Place blueberries in a vacuum bag and seal. Cook in a water bath at 63C (150F) for 1 hour. Make a glaze by heating the blueberry juice and agave nectar over low heat. Whisk in butter until melted. Remove bag from water bath and toss berries in glaze. Serve warm or at room temperature.
roasted flour nuggets
Roasting flour is a technique introduced by Pierre Gagnaire and Herve This in their collaboration, Art et Science. Cooking flour in this way brings out the toasty aroma and flavor of wheat but it alters its starch and gluten molecules, causing it to lose much of it's elasticity. While roasted flour may not be suitable for baking bread, it's perfect for baked goods with sandy textures such as sables. 40 g. all purpose flour 8 g. confectioners sugar .5 g. salt 13 g. tapioca maltodextrin 30 g. unsalted butter, melted Preheat oven to 325F (160C). Spread flour in an even layer on a baking sheet and roast in oven for about 45 minutes, stirring often until fragrant and golden. Cool completely. Toasted flour can be made ahead and kept in a sealed container. Preheat oven to 350F (180C) Place the flour, sugar, salt and TM in a bowl and toss to combine. Slowly drizzle in melted butter while tossing with a fork. Remove rounded nuggets as they form and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes and allow to cool completely before handling.
lemon balm frozen yogurt
Greek yogurt makes a sublime frozen product that rivals the best frozen yogurt boutiques. If it's not available in your area, plain yogurt can be drained overnight in a cheesecloth-lined sieve with similar results. I've found that the best way to infuse ice cream (or any sweetened cream base) with herbs is not in the cream, but by processing them with the sugar. The hygroscopic property of sugar draws out the essential oils in the herbs, making them more available. 30 g. fresh lemon balm leaves 100 g. sugar 50 g. heavy cream 300 g. greek yogurt, well chilled Place lemon balm and sugar in a food processor and process with 10 pulses or until lemon balm is finely chopped. Working quickly, as lemon balm begins to oxidize and turn brown, empty contents of food processor into a saucepan and add heavy cream. Set over medium heat and cook gently, just until sugar melts. Remove from heat and pass mixture through a fine-mesh sieve. Chill until cold, then fold in yogurt. Freeze in an ice cream machine according to manufacturers instructions.
Freeze-dried pineapple is like crack. Once you bite into it's shattering crispness and allow it to fill your mouth with it's sweet, fruity esters and tickle your tongue with it's metallic sting-- you'll be hooked. And when it's just a memory, you will scheme and plot ways to get more. Don't say that I didn't warn you.
Besides eating out of hand, it can be ground into a powder and folded into ice cream, meringue, cake batter, and bread dough for an intense pineapple punch without added moisture. A sprinkling over a finished dish reads like seasoning on the palate.
Every time that I score buy more, I intend to set some aside to play with. I wonder about reconstituting it...what would the texture be like?...would the liquid be flavored? Alas, it never makes it that far. I am weak.
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!
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.
My play with Transglutaminase continues after an intensive week of catering. Here I've made a salmon ravioli filled with passion fruit hollandaise. When I used to work the line, the hollandaise was made before service and kept in a warm bath. This didn't make sense to me and I insisted on making it to order, which pissed everyone off. They backed down when I proved that a perfect sauce could be made in the time that it took them to get their pans hot.
My entry into the world of cooking was through the sweet side. The skills that I have learned from baking have eased my transition to the savory side of the kitchen. I look for the moments when the two worlds collide and the transition feels seamless.
One day, while making a lemon curd, it occurred to me that I was essentially making a sweetened hollandaise. Although the cooking methods and proportions varies slightly between the two, the chemistry is the same in forming these egg-emulsified sauces. They share the same trio of key ingredients: egg yolks, fat in the form of butter, and acid in the form of lemon juice. When isolating these ingredients and considering possible alternatives, it becomes easy to imagine flavor variations on the classic hollandaise. Egg yolks are unique in their protein coagulation, but acid can be introduced in the form of any fruit juice that has a PH of 3.0 or lower so as not to over-dilute the egg yolk. Candidates that fall in this range are: grapefruit, lime, cranberries, gooseberries, wild grapes, verjus, raspberries, rhubarb, pomegranates, tamarind, and passion fruit. These are all flavors that I've used to make fruit curds, so why not hollandaise? To bring it back to the savory realm, even the butter can be replaced with solidifying fats such as: foie, bacon, duck fat, serrano fat. Can you see where I'm going? Does this excite you as much as it does me?
For this ravioli, the hollandaise posed a challenge because it needed to solidify in order to glue the thin sheets of salmon around it, then to revert to it's fluid sauce state when reheated. A traditional hollandaise was not stable enough to endure the freezing and cooking process without curdling. I fiddled with a few additives and techniques before hitting on the simple addition of a small amount of gelatin. This allowed the hollandaise to firm up sufficiently without the need to be frozen, which I suspect had destabilized the emulsification, and to remelt in the sous vide bath.
sous vide salmon ravioli filled with passion fruit hollandaise crispy salmon skin asparagus ramp puree spiced rum beads