NomAlinea

Well, I promised you folks (both of you!) a delayed live blog, so here goes. Let’s see how good you are with delayed gratification, because you’re about to see a lot of fairly snore-some sub-recipes. But I promise you, over the next 2 days, shit WILL get real, and you want to be ready. M’kay?

At the start, for the sake of context, I might as well admit that we’re not just doing 4 dishes from Noma… we’re also tackling three from Alinea, Grant Achatz’s Chicago temple of molecular gastronomy. To spice things up, I’m going to give you the daily steps from the sub-recipes that make up the Alinea dishes, without naming the dishes. (Hey, HEY, calm down in front. If this is too much excitement, I’ll turn this blog around and go home right now.)

Let’s start with a cranberry goop I made. I took cranberries, sugar, and raspberry vinegar (of all the things to run out of, I was out of red wine vinegar, duh.)

Cooked it until it was almost dry…

Threw it in the blender…

…and the blender laughed and laughed and laughed, and asked “What do you mean, giving me this paltry amount of ingredient, you pathetic…” And then I shut the blender off and made a second batch of the cranberry stuff. The blender, sated, proceeded to make goop out of the berry mixture.

Next, I took some raw barley, cooked it in much more water and for much longer than Chef Achatz said would be necessary – is this fossil barley? – and spread it on aluminum foil when I shoulda used a Silpat sheet…

…which I threw in the fancy-pants oven-with-a-dehydrate-setting for a few hours. After scraping it off of the aluminum foil and (mostly) separating it into individual kernels, it ended up looking…

…pretty much as it did when I started. But don’t be too disappointed: the barley sub-plot will get all “Who shot J.R.?” before we’re done.

Okay, let’s head over to Iron Chef Redzepi and see what’s cooking at Noma. “Looks like some pork ribs have been browned in the oven, Alton.”

Except I really hate Iron Chef, so enough of that voice. Ahem. We’re making pork stock that will become a reduction that will become a component in a sauce on the Noma pickled vegetable dish. The pork ribs (back ribs, because nobody in the entire weekday St. Lawrence Market could scare up some of the more flavourful side ribs… so much for the market being different from the grocery store…) were covered with water. Accompanied with a couple of sprigs of thyme and a few chopped shallots, they went back into a very low oven overnight.

Dramatic Aside: 7:35am the next day is when I discovered that my oven shuts off after 12 hours if you don’t set a timer. Thankfully, the thermometer showed that the rib stock was at 160’F, not in the danger zone for bacterial growth.

Is it time for a pointless process shot? I think so.

Mmmmm. I could’ve had a breakfast shake of that stuff. Instead, I strained it, skimmed it, reduced it, and into the freezer it went. The rib meat wasn’t wasted… far from it. The meat-to-water ratio was so meat-heavy, and the ribs (Berkshire snob-pork) were so good, that even 12 hours in the oven hadn’t rendered them into flavourless pork sawdust. Warm, on a bun, with a little salt and pepper and some dijon… that’s dinner right there, folks.

Gosh, it’s been, what, seconds since I’ve made a stock reduction. What say I make the mussel juice for the Noma razor clam dish. It starts with 2 kilos of insanely fresh mussels (it pays to visit a really good fish shop on the morning of Dec. 27th, when they’ve been closed for 2 days and haven’t even unpacked the new shipment yet).

Right. So, that’s 2 kilos of mussels, some thyme and shallots, and 2 cups of really good pink champagne.

Oh, stop it. This is what really happened:

And even that is better than the boxed plonk I drink on a daily basis. Lucky mussels. Or not lucky, because hey! Mussels + 45 minutes of gentle steaming = dead mussels. Obviously, under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t cook mussels for 45 minutes. More like 7. So I was really (seriously) surprised to find that these guys were still edible… enjoyable, even. Gentle steaming is the way to go, apparently. Into a lemon/oil mixture they went, to find a third life as marinated mussels. The jus from the moules marinieres was reduced and frozen – the process of clarifying it starts with freezing it.

Yawn. Are you still with me? Hell, I’m barely still with me. Okay, just a few more sub-recipes to go today. (Full disclosure, this was actually done over 2 days and one night.)

Back in Chicago, we’re going all Al Capone, dehydrating some pitted olives. Some small Nicoises, and some larger oil-cured low-salt Greek species that appeared magically at the local market. Here they are going into the oven:

And if you’ll picture them smaller and more shrivelled, you’ll have an excellent idea of what they looked like after 12 hours.

Truthfully, they’re not done yet. Their sojourn in the oven has been interrupted by another sub-recipe: the edible soil for Noma’s “Radishes in a Pot”.

Here’s the dry mix: dark malt powder (available from a home-brew retailer), all-purpose flour, sugar, and hazelnut flour (which is not just ground hazelnuts, but rather, the ground form of the cake that’s left over after hazelnuts are pressed for oil).

Not quite sure how that’s going to come out looking any darker than beach sand, but… we’ll see. Nervous about the lack of colour, I swapped out the lager that Redzepi had called for, and subbed in some Guinness. Then, I screwed up. After the required 3 pulses in the food processor, I decided…”Meh – should be grainier.” Two more pulses, and it ended up coming around like a perfect bread dough…

…or a macro shot of a dog park after spring thaw. So, I made another batch, did it as I was instructed to do, and was rewarded with this, which went into the oven to dry:

Just one more sub-recipe to go, people. The base for the horseradish-buttermilk ice that garnishes the razor clam dish. Only one photo for this one, mercifully:

The process in brief: boil up a tiny bit of milk-cornstarch ooze, whisk in some buttermilk, and chunk in a whole bunch of freshly-grated horseradish. Let steep for 12 hours.

That’s it for today, kids.

Noma at Home…huh?

I’m not the first person to be captivated by the cuisine of René Redzepi. His restaurant, Noma, is – in the narrow judgement of many of the Western gastronomic elite – the world’s “best” restaurant.

But it’s not like me to be awestruck by the beauty of a plate of food – to have the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and to feel an electric sense of “this… this is what I’ve been waiting to see realized on a plate.”

That’s how I felt when, never having heard of Noma, I clicked through a New York Times slideshow and saw this, and this, and this and (now giggling) this.

Not being either a) wealthy, or b) employed in a job that takes me through Copenhagen, I resigned myself to admiring the food from afar.

When the cookbook, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine was released, I had mixed feelings. I didn’t necessarily want to pay for the privilege of ogling food I could never taste. And many reviewers – some bitterly, others smugly, many wistfully – trumpeted the judgment that Redzepi’s food was impossible to replicate out of its context (or that to attempt to do so would be unwise and lacking in authenticity). Without  pristine woods and beaches on which to forage, or haute technologie like a PacoJet and a centrifuge, what sense was there in owning the book?

So I let it go. But over the next months, on a parallel track, I began to cook food that was a bit more intricate than I had before. More technically exacting, and more refined. Less Bouchon, and more French Laundry. At its best, this food brought me a wonderful, democratic sense of “I may not be able to afford the restaurant, but I can afford the best parts of the experience as a cook and a diner.” I learned a lot, gave a few dinner guests some grins (and yes, some politely hidden grimaces), caused MC Warm Spice to shake his head more than once, and – crucially – I had a freakin’ blast.

So… here I am, in Toronto, in a modestly equipped kitchen, with a copy of the Noma cookbook. Already, it has something most copies probably don’t have: grease stains!

Better than an autograph - evidence of actual kitchen use.



I’m under no illusions that I can recreate the Noma experience, or even approximate the food with dishes that are “as good but different.” I just want to use the book, to learn from it, to do the occasional culinary high-wire act with it, and to see what the home cook who’s willing and able to expend a little extra effort can make of, and from, some of the recipes.

Over the next few days, with the help of my intrepid cooking companions MC Warm Spice and the mysterious “Chef C”, I’ll do my best to recreate four dishes from Noma (along with several others from Alinea and of our own devising), making up our insane “12 courses for 2012” New Year’s Eve dinner). Rather than presenting each dish from start to finish, I’ll do a sort of delayed live-blog of each day to give you a sense of how it all comes together.

First, let’s meet the dishes. Hint: these are the same 4 that I linked to above.

Razor Clams and Parsley, Horseradish and Mussel Juice: This is the one that captured my imagination. The clear flavours, the precise structure, and the expression of place (and the humour – some people think it’s supposed to resemble an…ahem… effluent pipe) all resonated with me. The components by themselves are pretty simple: Make a thin spinach-herb jelly sheet, and roll it around a razor clam. Make a buttermilk-horseradish ice, and scrape it into snow. Take the pot liquid from moules marinières, reduce and clarify it, and shake it up with dill oil: fresh dill blenderized with grapeseed oil. The challenges: finding razor clams, creating super-light horseradish snow, wrapping the gel around the clams without breaking it, and keeping the dish cold before serving it.

Pickled Vegetables and Smoked Bone Marrow: The prettiest of the dishes, and I love the inside-out concept of having intense meat flavours as the garnish for super-intense vegetables. There’s a lot of work in this one, and two ingredients that have eluded me and my pocketbook. It’s composed of thin slices of 5 vegetables, each with its own pickling brine:

  1. Cucumber with a brine of apple balsamic vinegar whizzed up with dill stalks and water. I found locally produced apple balsamic vinegar, and it’s amazing – subtly tart sweetness, and a freshness that balsamic usually lacks. Not cheap. Definitely  a “big city elite” sort of ingredient.
  2. Kohlrabi (“The vegetable in need of a P.R. agent”) with a brine of seaweed blenderized with water and apple balsamic vinegar. Seaweed is cheap and easy to get here in dried form, and it reconstitutes nicely… but what kind does Redzepi want? I have dulse, wakame, and laver on hand. I plan on rehydrating some of each, tasting them alongside the kohlrabi, then deciding.
  3. Carrots with a brine of sugar, water, apple balsamic, and apple blossom. Apple blossoms don’t seem to be available dried, so I’m out of luck on that one.
  4. Beets pickled with rose-hip vinegar and water. The rose-hip vinegar can be found online from the U.K., but not around here. Since the shipping cost three times the price of the (already costly) product, I had to cry uncle. I’m going to be making rose-hip vinegar next year… taking early orders now!
  5. Cauliflower brined in water and white wine vinegar.

The veggies are supposed to be flash-pickled in a chamber vacuum (those typically run $2000 and up to the stratosphere). I’m using the $130 Foodsaver with its marinating jar – I’m skeptical that it will produce decent results, but we’ll see.

The dish also calls for a roasted pork rib reduction sauce and smoked bone marrow. More about those later.

Tartare of Beef and Wood Sorrel, Tarragon and Juniper: This was Chef C’s request, and one that I was happy to go along with. A compact rectangle of beef tenderloin, not minced, but scraped, covered with wood sorrel leaves, served alongside a tarragon emulsion and juniper berry powder. It was news to me that wood sorrel = shamrocks, and that you can’t find them for love or money in Toronto in the winter. So, we’ll go with tart micro-greens.

Radishes in a Pot: This dish is just super-fresh radishes served in a terra cotta pot, buried in a tarragon yogurt cream, topped with a faux soil made of malt flour, hazelnut flour, beer, and butter. Here, I reveal my shame. I admit it…in order to get pristine radish tops, I am growing  radishes from seed under fluorescent light in the dead of winter. And Chef C and I went to extraordinary lengths to procure dark malt flour and hazelnut flour (which is not, as I thought, ground hazelnuts.)

 

Spice Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Three Ducks in a Tub

This year, Santa brought a Sous Vide Supreme – a “water oven” that allows one to cook vacuum-packed food at a constant, precise (usually low) temperature.

Heirloom baby carrots, butter, sugar and salt ready for vacuum-packing: cooked sous vide and then briefly sautéed to finish the glaze, they are intensely carrot-y.



There are a few reasons to get into sous vide cooking:

  • Precision temperature control means no over- or under-cooking. You can cook a perfect soft-cooked egg every time.
  • It allows you to cook and hold items at a specific temperature for a relatively long period of time.
  • Flavour is captured in the cooking pouch – items can braise in a tiny amount of flavouring, along with their own juices. You don’t  lose any of the food’s inherent flavour to the cooking environment, and you can either supplement that flavour with other tastes, or just leave the main ingredient to taste intensely of itself.
  • Being able to cook at extremely low temperatures for extended periods of time allows you to produce effects that can’t be achieved through other means of cooking. For example, you can cook tough cuts of meat like brisket or short ribs long enough for them to become super-tender, while maintaining them at a medium-rare temperature.
  • It enables you to cook things to the same temperature all the way through, without drying them out. Consider the normal way of cooking a steak: hitting it with high heat and hoping that the centre will reach medium-rare before the outside is charred. You need to work hard to avoid an over-done outside, under-done inside, and toughening or drying out. Even if you do everything right, you end up with varying degrees of doneness. This gets to be more of a problem as you cook thicker cuts, like “baseball” tenderloin steaks and 2-inch thick T-bones for bistecca alla Fiorentina. In a water oven, you can gently bring the steak to a single, uniform temperature and doneness all the way through. If you want medium-rare steak, you set the oven at 135’F, and the steak can never get more done than that. Then just before serving, you blast the outside with some high heat to get that tasty, tasty crust.

Wild Pacific halibut vacuum-packed with Meyer lemon, and frozen olive oil and dill cubes. Freezing liquid ingredients allows the home sous vide-r to get by with a cheap Foodsaver (which is easily damaged by liquid intake), rather than a costly chamber vacuum.



This isn’t to say that everything done sous-vide is perfect, or that it’s appropriate all the time: sometimes you want the melding of flavours that a traditional oven braise provides, and sometimes it’s nice to have a leg of lamb that has some rare and some well done meat. Sous vide is just another cooking tool, and I’m enjoying learning to use it.

This year’s New Year’s Eve feast will include cassoulet. And that, my friends, means duck confit: lightly salt-cured duck legs cooked slowly in duck fat until they become succulent beyond belief.

There are a few things about duck confit that lend it to sous vide cooking:

  • It needs a constant, low temperature over several hours in order to become tender without seizing up or drying out.
  • Cooking it traditionally – in a pot in the oven – requires a heckuva lot of duck fat. Sous vide, you can just vac-pack the legs with a couple of tablespoons of fat, and depend on water to transfer the heat.

For the curing and flavouring, I turned to Michael Ruhlman – the recipe is on his website, but can also be found in his excellent resource, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.

Duck legs in a melange of salt, garlic, pepper, clove, bay leaves and thyme.



After 48 hours in the fridge, I rinsed the duck legs, patted them dry, and got ready to vacuum pack them with duck fat.

Foodsaver, bags, duck fat, and cured duck legs.



For a good vacuum seal, you need to ensure that the edge of the bag is kept clean and dry. Folding the edge over itself is the easiest way to do this. Plus, you end up with a bunch of bags that look like they’re saying “NOM NOM FEED ME DUCK AND FAT NOW.”

Or are they singing Christmas carols?



Giving each leg its own pouch avoids the trouble of having to separate the delicate confited legs from each other.



Sous vide cognoscenti have differing opinions regarding the optimal time and temperature settings for confit. They typically range from 165’F to 180’F, and from 8 to 12 hours. As usual, I take Thomas Keller’s advice – in his pioneering book, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide, he recommends 180’F for 8 hours.

What's 0.3'F between friends?



Rub a dub dub, 6 legs = 3 ducks in a tub.





Got botulism? No thanks. Unless you're serving sous vide food immediately, you need to plunge it into a 50% ice / water bath and keep it there as long as the guidelines specify – this is a function of temperature and food thickness.

After coming out of the ice bath, one leg went into a hot-but-not-smoking cast iron skillet for 30 seconds each side. I wish I could tell you it came out looking like this:



… but it took a minute with the brûlée torch to get its sides and corners nicely browned. Next time, I’ll do the browning under the broiler.

How did it taste?


Pretty amazing. Definitely on the salty side of fantastic, but for its intended uses – in a salad, and as a cassoulet garnish – it’s great. The texture was unbelievable – still holding together, but falling away into silky strands on the fork. The garlic (which I was skeptical about) ended up being a really special flavour. Robust, but not at all aggressive.

Next time, as someone who likes to eat duck confit as a main course rather than a garnish, I’d probably cut the curing time down to 12 hours or even 6: in Under Pressure, Keller uses a 6-hour cure; Ruhlman, in Charcuterie, advises between 24 and 48 hours. Presumably, the sous vide method intensifies the saltiness.

Joyeux Noël

 

I, MC Warmspice, am a terrible Canadian. I don’t watch “the hockey,” like maple anything; nor do I eat or drink anything from Tim Horton’s. Truthfully,  I wasn’t even born or raised here.

So this year I decided to incorporate a délicatesse Québécois into our Riverdale Christmas. Oh, Pierre Trudeau as my witness, I will endeavour to make tourtiere every year henceforth.

I took my recipe from the most authentically Canadian restaurant I’ve been to, Au Pied du Cochon, but I adapted it to what I had on hand, and what I liked from other recipes. Please buy the Au Pied du Cochon cookbook (unless you’re vegetarian; that would be a major bummer). Their recipe is better than mine, but this is what I did.

INGREDIENTS

  1. two small onions, chopped finely
  2. one potato, two carrots and three cloves garlic, grated
  3. 1.5 lbs ground meat (70% pork, 30% veal)
  4. one tablespoon ground, dried porcini mushrooms
  5. five ground cloves
  6. a pinch of allspice
  7.  a large pinch (well, truthfully, two) of cinnamon
  8. a scrape or two of nutmeg wouldn’t hurt
  9. salt and pepper
  10. one cup white wine
  11. one recipe pie crust, NOT the trans-fat laden kind from the freezer section
  12. one egg-yolk
I sweated the onions and cooked them until they were almost caramelized, added the other veggies and the pork, then the spices and cooked on medium heat for ten minutes. I added the wine and cooked for ten more. I then drained off the sauce and the fat, chilled it, degreased it, and cooked it down into a syrup.

I won’t go into detail about my own misadventure with the crust, but just trust me: make a traditional butter crust, chill it, roll it into a small pie pan, chill it again, add the meat (after testing for seasoning) and spoon the reduced juices over it. Top with crust and cut holes for steam. Brush with one egg yolk and a bit of water.
Cook at 450 degrees for 15 minutes. Lower to 350 and cook for at least ten more minutes, until the crust is golden brown.

I think my shaggy crust would make most francophone Canadians cry (sorry, I tried), but I was instantly converted. We served it with lingonberry sauce (I am Wisconsinese), but I’m not trying to dilute the tradition.

Joyeux Noël.