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.”
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!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.)