Terra Cotta = Cooked Dirt

I’m glad that Noma’s “Radishes in a Pot” was one of the more successful dishes on New Year’s Eve, because it took a lot of pre-planning, a lot of improvisation, and – given its gimmicky nature – it had the potential to be an embarrassing flop.

The basic elements of the dish are: a small terra cotta pot, a thick sheep’s yogurt and herb dip, fresh radishes with their greens, and a faux soil.

The radishes, as I’ve mentioned earlier, grew surprisingly well from seed in containers just under a bank of two fluorescent lights in our basement. They took exactly 3 weeks from planting to maturity – just in time for the dinner, and exactly the time-to-maturity advertised on the seed packet. This is remarkable to us Nomnivores, because for whatever reason, we can’t seem to grow decent radishes outdoors. These ones were Cherry Belle.

Petite radishes, and yes, they actually were that luminous shade of red.

The soil was quite an ordeal. You can find the recipe here– what follows will make more sense if you’ve read it. Redzepi calls, ambiguously, for “malt flour.” I knew that there are a number of variants of malt flour, and that I’d need a dark one. I ended up getting “dark malt extract powder” from a brewing supply store. That was a mistake.

I began the “Day 1” soil component by mixing together the dry ingredients, processing them with some Guinness, ruining my first batch (see my post a few days ago), and making another batch. Dehydrated, the soil was obviously way too light – it was also way too clumpy. I decided to run it through a food mill and to roast the smaller bits.

First version of malt soil, baked and milled. Yep - it does look a lot like cat litter.

I roasted the soil at 400’F for about 35 minutes, anxiously watching, rotating, mixing, and tasting to avoid ending up with cinders. Here’s what the end result looked like, alongside the pre-grinding-and-roasting dehydrated nuggets for comparison:

It tasted great: an earthy (lol) flavour with echoes of roasted coffee, darkest bitter chocolate, and an intriguing, almost menthol note. Still, it wasn’t as dark as I was going for. More Martian soil than fertile loam. But I wasn’t willing to risk taking the roasting any further. And I sure as hell wasn’t about to spend another couple of hours making the “Day 2” soil mixture.

So, I hit on the idea of using bread that already had the depth of colour I was looking for: pumpernickel.

I left a few slices of pumpernickel cocktail bread and that moist, dense pumpernickel “brick” substance out overnight, ground them up in the food processor, sifted them through a colander, and ended up with something just slightly chewy, and very tasty. Mixed together, the two soils had a complex blend of flavours and textures that may have ended up being more interesting than the recipe as written.

Meanwhile, across town, Chef C was concocting the dip that goes beneath the soil – a mix of sheep’s yogurt, chervil, tarragon, capers and shallots. This recipe, too, suffered from the Noma book’s infuriatingly ambiguous instructions: it called for several grams of “instant food thickener.” As other people have noted, the glossary in Noma gives a uselessly circular definition of this ingredient, rather than just saying: “IT’S MODIFIED TAPIOCA STARCH (aka Ultratex), PEOPLE.”

I got lucky with that guess: adding the specified weight of Ultratex 3 to the herbed yogurt mixture and subjecting it to a few seconds with the immersion blender produced a stiff but creamy texture that was just about right for holding up the radishes, but still thin enough to count as a dip. It was also damned tasty, and a gorgeous shade of green – unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a picture of it.

Here, after all that trouble, is the assembled dish:

Eat Dirt.

And people lovedit. They ate the radishes. They ate the dip. They ate the dirt. They ate the radish stems and leaves. They spooned the dip into the leaves and rolled them up. They collected dirt particles from their placemats and scarfed them down. It was so much fun to eat, and to watch everyone else having fun with the dish. A definite keeper.

I will be on the lookout, though, for roasted barley malt flour, which – judging by the pumpernickel ingredient list – is what the recipe should have called for. I’d like to be able to compare the book version to the one I developed.

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