Cheese Plate

For the cheese course on New Year’s Eve, we went with the auld-school / new school concept again. (Auld? Like Auld Lang…? oh, forget it.)

For the avant-garde contribution, we turned once again to Alinea for “Transparency of Manchego Cheese”.

Chef C did a great job at prepping several of the non-cheesy elements of the dish, namely: diced white (i.e., pickled, not oil- or salt-preserved) anchovies, diced roasted red and yellow pepper, roasted garlic cloves, precision-crafted mini-croutons, and… what everyone who has this dish raves about… Olive Oil Pudding!

It really is pretty great – sweet but not too sweet, and you get to enjoy the flavour of olive oil without, you know, ingesting an oil slick. Since I don’t have any prep pics, and Carol of Alinea At Home does, I’ll just hit the highlights: you heat up some milk, mix egg yolks with cornstarch and sugar, and gradually whisk the hot milk into the yolk mixture. Finally, whisk in the olive oil. I’d definitely recommend making this. It’s tasty, surprising, and totally easy for home cooks. I can picture it with a spicy tomato / black bean soup, or little open-faced serrano ham sandwiches, for example.

Bluebarry only prepped a couple of plate elements: the dehydrated black olives, and some very thin slices of manchego cheese. (For some reason, others who’ve made the dish seem to have been stymied by this task, which is sort of an essential if you’re going to end up with a transparency of the cheese as opposed to a shingle of cheese crushing some invisible stuff underneath it. Pro-tip: get a wedge of cheese, and a cheese plane – the wider the better.)

So, here’s the plate with all of the garnishes:

And with the thinly sliced manchego:

Apologies for the lack of an action shot with the kitchen torch (this is the one your Nomnivores own). Suffice it to say it was a pretty uneventful cheese-melting experience, even with 7 plates to torch, and 11 courses – and a considerable amount of wine – behind us.

It may have been the late hour and the sheer amount of food and wine, but the diners seemed “meh” about this one. It was… okay. The olive oil pudding was great. The dehydrated olives were not – the texture was dry, crunchy and “New!”, but instead of being more intensely olive-y, they were actually a little bland. A slice of dry-cured olive would’ve been better. The other elements made sense at an intellectual level (jarring but contextually appropriate contrasts of flavour and texture, smoothly complementary flavours and textures, pretty colours shining through the transparent cheese, yadda yadda). But they seem to have come at a cost. I’d rather have had some slices of olive-oil toasted bread, with anchovy, tapenade, and rouille alongside. And a chunk of manchego.

Speaking of which, here’s the old-school half of the cheese course: Stilton, quince jam, and Carr’s water crackers.

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!