The Daring Cooks goes Alinea!
Ever since learning about a restaurant in Chicago called Alinea, I've dreamed about eating there. And ever since finding the blog Alinea At Home, I've wanted to make something from Alinea in my home. So you can only imagine my excitement when the host of the July Daring Cooks challenge, Sketchy of Sketchy's Kitchen, announced that we were to make Skate, traditional flavours powdered from page 230 of the Alinea cookbook!
For those of you not familiar with Alinea, an explanation may be in order. The highly acclaimed Alinea restaurant is the creation of the incredibly talented chef Grant Achatz (who's just five years older than me, sigh). Achatz has taken a hypermodern approach to cooking, in what is sometimes referred to as molecular gastronomy (our host Sketchy has some great posts on the subject of MG as well).
The Alinea At Home blog is the creation of the awesome Carol Blymire, who's cooking her way through the Alinea cookbook. She's a talented home cook, and a very funny writer. She has previously done the same with the French Laundry cookbook (ah, The French Laundry, another place I would do a lot to get to eat at...) at French Laundry at Home. Both blogs are highly recommended (the French Laundry one is no longer active, but do read through the archives) – I love how Carol shows that you can actually make stuff from those very intimidating cookbooks, and not only use them as food porn on your coffeetable.
I remember reading Carol's post about Skate, traditional flavors powdered and thinking that hey, that sounds really interesting and highly doable. Well here we are – thanks to Sketchy and the Daring Cooks I have actually made the dish!
So, this dish contains a few elements. First skate, poached in beurre monté. The fish is served on top of green beans, also cooked in beurre monté, and thin slices of banana. But the real interesting part of this dish is the powders. One cilantro/parsley powder, one lemon powder, one capers/onion powder and one “brown butter” powder.
The challenge stated that we didn't have to make these exact powders – as long as we got the techniques we could use our own creativity. We decided to keep the flavors of the original recipe, but skipped the capers/onion powder since hearing that some people had problems making that.
Since skate is hard to get hold of, and not eco-friendly at all, we were also allowed to substitute the fish. Flounder or cod was recommended. I went to the best fish monger in Uppsala, Hambergs, and explained to them what I was going to do (let me tell you, they were definitely intrigued!). After hearing the recommended substitutions, the guy told me that those three fishes – skate, flounder and cod – are completely different in flavor and character, and instead recommended that I should use saithe, but not thin fillets but instead the thick back of the fish.
But now I'm actually getting ahead of myself, because two days earlier we had gotten started on the lemon and the cilantro/parsley powder. They are of course easiest made in a food dehydrator, but that's one kitchen device we don't have and don't really have the space nor economy to purchase. They can also be made using a microwave oven, but we don't have one of those either. So we had to turn on the oven (real low).
Brown butter powder in the making; parsley-cilantro powder;
lemon zest in home-made drying device; a dried twig of parsley; lemon powder.
Remember my nifty lifting devices for the Daring Bakers' April cheesecake challenge? Now it was Markus' turn to play engineer with parchment paper, scissors and string. He built a sort of... cradle, I guess you could call it, to use for drying the lemon zest. The idea was to allow for better air circulation - some other Daring Cooks said to use perforated cookie sheets for drying, but we don't have any of those so this would hopefully work as well. The lemon cradle was tied up under a wire rack using pieces of string. We also decided to dry the parsley and cilantro in a similar manner, by hanging them in bouquets from the wire rack. The recipe was very unclear on whether the cilantro should be blanched like the parsley, but we decided to give it a dip in boiling water as well. After chilling the herb bouquets, they were tied up next to the lemon cradle and the whole deal went into the oven.
The Alinea At Home blog had given us some ideas on how long time the dehydrating process would take: approximately an hour and a half for the herbs, and twice that time for the lemon. After an hour, we checked on the herbs, and decided to abort the bouquet drying experiment. The bouquets were simply holding too much water. So we cut them down, placed a piece of parchment paper on top of the wire rack and spread the herbs out. Back into the oven it went...
After two hours and twenty minutes, we turned off the oven and left the powders-to-be in the cooling oven overnight. I was a bit nervous the next morning, but both the herbs and the lemon had dried beautifully. The only thing was that we hadn't cut the stalks off the herbs after the bouquet experiment, and the cilantro was all tangled up, which gave us some extra work later...
Fast forward two days: time to get cooking! A coffee grinder was recommended for making the powders, but we only have one and didn't want to risk coffee flavored lemon or cilantro flavored coffee. So instead we used Jamie Oliver's flavor shaker, which worked quite well. After a lot of sifting to get rid of the stalks of the cilantro, we had beautiful green – but a bit weird smelling – cilantro and parsley powder. The lemon zest also got bashed up and mixed with half a vitamin C tablet – definitely the first time I have used that in cooking!
Parsley-cilantro powder (not completely stalk free) and lemon powder with extra zing!
Next up was the “brown butter” powder. Spray dried cream powder was impossible to find, so we had to substitute dried skim milk powder. It seemed to work as well, and was mixed with the pulverized dried banana. But maybe we misunderstood the recipe, or maybe dried cream powder has a very different density than dried milk powder, because we made a third of the recipe (=100 g milk powder) and we have now got a ton of the “brown butter” powder sitting in our cupboard. We didn't skimp when putting it on the fish, but there's no way we were supposed to use all that powder! Any ideas on what we can use it for?
We then made the beurre monté - the poaching liquid for both the beans and the fish. Poaching the beans and fish was problem free. Then it was time for plating: Markus swirled the powders in a hurricane pattern (he's the artistic one). Besides the powders we put three thin slices of banana, on top of that a heap of beans in delicious buttery sauce, and then the fish on top of that. And then over the fish, the brown butter powder.
Swirling, swirling towards the future!
(Loads of bonus points if you catch that reference!)
And then, after all that work: time to eat. I'll tell you right away that it was worth it! This was such an interesting flavor and mouth-sensation experience. The parts on their own was not sensational, but together, all the flavors just burst in your mouth and worked in perfect harmony. Markus found himself getting more brown butter powder to put on the fish (but there's still no way we were supposed to use all that powder!) and while we were eating we found ourselves saying stuff like “cool!” and “this is weird, but really delicious!”. A lot of people said that they found the powders overbearing on their own, but we found ourselves using our fingers - and more slices of banana - to get up the last specks of powder from our plates. There was something about the earthy herb flavor, the sweet yet fresh citrus taste and the tangling sensation of the vitamin C tablet that was quite irresistible!
I have no idea how this dish would be at Alinea. By omitting the onion/caper powder and substituting the fish (and not being professional chefs with professional equipment), we've probably steered far from how Achatz has envisaged the dish. But it was still damn good, and and I don't think Achatz would make any gagging noises about our interpretation of his creation.
Thank you so much Sketchy! This was such a great experience: a definite challenge both in terms of technique, presentation and flavors. And as an extra bonus, I have now convinced Markus that we need to buy the Alinea cookbook. Now for that trip to Chicago...
For the recipe, go to Sketchy's Kitchen or the Daring Kitchen recipe archive. There you can also see the other Daring Cooks' creations.
Wine pairing: We had this dish with a Grüner Veltiner: Leth (Austria, 2008). This fresh wine worked really well with the dish. For Swedes, it has number 4200 at Systembolaget.
Previously completed challenges:
May 2009: Zuni's Ricotta Gnocchi
June 2009: Chinese dumplings (part one and two)