Just like Mom used to make: “Bison, cranberry, persimmon, juniper branch aroma”

This dish, from Alinea, got a lot of oohs and ahhs. Chef C and I split the prep on this one. I made the cranberry puree and the first few steps of the barley a couple of days ahead of time. I also rendered some beef fat by cutting it into half-inch chunks and melting it over low heat in a pan with a half-cup of water:

Tasty, no? Mmm.

The day before service, Chef C put together the walnut “pudding” and poached small, rectangular cuboids of persimmon – we don’t have any pictures of this prep, but Carol from Alinea at Home captured it nicely.

An hour or so before service, I vac-packed two 6-oz portions of bison tenderloin with a couple of tablespoons of the beef fat:

…and cooked them sous vide at 135’F (oops – it was supposed to be 130’F) for about 40 minutes. This was twice as long as the recipe called for, but sous vide is very forgiving that way.

The plating of this dish is somewhat… unorthodox. A week prior to the dinner, I had secured some small juniper branches, and Chef C was relieved to find a garden store proprietor who was willing to go behind the store and chip several sizeable river rocks out of his iced-over fountain!

Just before service, we heated the river rocks for 20 minutes in a 450’F oven, and puffed the cooked-and-dehydrated barley in a small pan of sizzling canola oil.

The dish comes together like so:

  • Bison is sliced across the grain, and the slices are trimmed into small rectangles and rolled around the poached persimmon chunks
  • A small  juniper branch is placed atop a sturdy plate (not the “fine china”!)
  • A screamingly hot river rock is placed atop the juniper
  • A bison-persimmon roll is placed atop the rock
  • Single micro-dollops of cranberry puree and walnut pudding, a few grains of puffed barley, and a dusting of ground juniper berries, crown the bison rolls

Full credit to Chef C for the precision plating!

This was my first experience with a dish that incorporates inedible bits for functional, aesthetic and aromatic reasons. The logic behind the dish is really quite elegant: the hot rock releases the juniper’s aroma as it sears the bottom of the bison, and the juniper insulates the plate as it releases its aroma. (The juniper and the rocks seem to echo the northern woods more than the open prairies, so venison might have worked even better… but I digress).

The contrast of seared and rare bison was welcome – sort of like salmon that’s seared on one side and raw on the other – and the flavours of the garnishes (plus the texture of the barley) worked in harmony with the bison. The persimmon was nice enough, but I didn’t see it as an essential component.

Everyone loved this dish, and, – since by this time in the evening we were all kind of sloppy from the wine – we hurried to “cook” trimmed scraps of the sous-vided bison on the rocks. Unfortunately, Chef C ran into a catastrophic squeeze bottle failure when attempting to anoint her second piece of bison with walnut pudding:

Garnish malfunction!

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