Flower Power

I’m nothing if not persistent. Last winter, I promised not to be caught cooking from Noma in the absence of rose hip vinegar.

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Being a hardcore urbanite with no vehicle and even less of an idea of where to forage, I emailed various eco-florists asking for non-insecticide-sprayed hips. A few weeks later, one of them remembered my email when he took delivery of some sticks loaded with the red berries. Thanks, Joseph @ Eco|stems!

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Plucking the berries is a simple matter of avoiding the thorns. At the blossom end, there’s a nodule that needs to be removed to make it easier for the vinegar to penetrate. This can be removed with a fingernail or small knife.

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A quick wash, then into the vinegar they go. And that’s it. Most recipes say to use apple vinegar. I figured that Noma would use the most hardcore hippie raw unfiltered cider vinegar, so I went with that for most of the hips. To hedge my bets, I made tiny batches with clear cider vinegar, and with white wine vinegar.

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I hope it turns out. Right now, the raw cider version looks like something that needs to be sent to pathology, stat

Meat Tartares: Old skool, New school

What’s better than raw meat? Two raw meats, that’s what.

Chef C had the brilliant idea to do a traditional beef tartare, alongside a new-fangled Noma tartare. The Noma cookbook has a recipe for beef tartare (the restaurant sometimes serves musk-ox). Wanting to contrast the traditional beef with something a little more gamey, and thinking we wouldn’t find musk-ox, we thought venison would be a good compromise.

So, of course, I found musk-ox. But since it was frozen, and the butcher said (admiringly) that it was very gamey, we decided to go with venison.

The first order of business was to source the garnishes for the Noma tartare. Unfortunately, early winter in Toronto isn’t the best time to find wood sorrel, aka shamrocks, either in the back yard or at the local florist. While I obsessed over what micro-herb to use atop the tartare, Chef C very sensibly decided on… sorrel! Chiffonade of sorrel, to be precise.

She then made a tarragon emulsion: a whole whack of tarragon leaves (plucked labouriously from their stems) blenderized with grapeseed oil, shallot, garlic, apple balsamic vinegar, Ultratex 3, and a few tablespoons of a monster, hours-long sub-recipe: chicken glace… a chicken stock boiled down to a thick syrup-gel. Other garnishes for the venison tartare: butter-toasted rye breadcrumbs, microplaned horseradish “floss”, shallot rings, salt, juniper berry powder, and mustard oil.

Chef C subjected the venison to the full Noma treatment: instead of finely mincing it, she scraped it into strands by dragging a chef’s knife along the length of the tenderloin. And here is the finished product:

Meanwhile, your Bluebarry got to work on the beef tenderloin, mincing it into dice that were probably between 1/8 and 1/4 inch. Chef C decided on Anthony Bourdain’s steak tartare recipe, which includes too many garnishes to list. I was charged with mixing the garnishes into the minced meat, and around the 66% point, I thought better of adding any more.

One ring mold later, Chef C had the tartare on the plate:

Now, with added toast-points!

The diners’ verdict? A unanimous decision in favour of the beef tartare! The austere, new-school garnishes served with the venison were no match for the salty-sweet-umami explosion that was old-school steak tartare. Even accounting for the added flavour, though, everyone agreed that the farmed venison was somewhat watery and bland. (This included your Bluebarry, who refrained from tasting the beef version until giving the venison a good chance to shine.) The flavour of the pastured beef was prominent even through all of the garnishes, while the venison didn’t show up well despite its delicate treatment. Everyone seemed to agree that the beef version was perfectly seasoned, so if you’re tempted to use the Bourdain recipe, be wary of adding the full complement of seasonings. Similarly, the venison may have received too heavy a dose of mustard oil. The all-too-obvious moral of the story: Season lightly, and taste as you go… especially when it’s your first time making a dish.

Next time: we’ll try the musk-ox.

Variations on a theme by Noma

I was so excited to make this Noma dish: Pickled Vegetables and Smoked Bone Marrow. A garden full of different vegetables, each shaved thinly and quickly pickled in its own designated brine. And smoked bone marrow – something that sounds almost too decadently awesome to exist.

I made two versions of this: one, with bone marrow, on New Year’s Eve; the other, with seared scallops, a week later. I present both of these below.

For the marrow version: Four days ahead of time, procure your marrow bones. I had six, two-inch sections, and that was about right for 6 people. Soak them in cold water for two days, changing the water every 12 hours or so. Then switch the soaking liquid to a 7% salt brine – i.e., 70 grams of salt per litre of water.

Getting marrow out of the bone is a tricky business. Set the bone down on a cutting board, with the wider cut-side down. Protecting your hand protected (somewhat) with a tea towel or a chain mail glove, grip the base and, using a flexible steak knife or boning knife, carefully stab downward around the perimeter of the marrow until you’ve done a 360. Turn the bone section over, and try to repeat the procedure. This will be easy on the upper and middle segments of bone. Depending on your butcher’s skill and how little he likes you, you’ll likely end up with some segments that are partly or mostly bony at the wider end. If this is the case, carve out an opening wide enough to admit your index finger, trying your best to minimize the amount of fragmented bone that you introduce into the marrow. The next step is to poke the marrow out of the bone – this is best done when the whole thing is ice cold.

The next step is to smoke the marrow, using a combination of hay and wood chips. I found timothy hay at – you guessed it – the pet store, where it’s sold for bunnies and other, more rodent-esque creatures that apparently have invitations to the homes of my neighbours for reasons that are obscure to me.

The smoking happened on my ghetto smoker. Hay smoke is pretty intense – I was skeptical that it would end up tasting like anything other than a barn fire. In the Noma book, Redzepi prescribes a smoking time of 20 minutes. It was hard for me to see how this would impart flavour, but I followed instructions anyway.

For both versions: Redzepi calls for flash-pickling each veggie in a chamber vacuum for 10 minutes. Not having a chamber vac, I used the marinating accessory jar that came along with my Foodsaver. I really can’t say whether it worked better than just marinating in a bowl for half an hour or so – some day, I’ll do a controlled, double-blind trial of Foodsaver vs. bowl. But I can say that it worked just fine.

Many of the brine recipes call for apple balsamic vinegar. This is a hideously expensive ingredient; I paid about $30 for a 250ml bottle. (Yes, mother, I heard your sharp intake of breath from 120km away…) Of course, it’s also amazing: like balsamic with the slight, tangy, autumnal scent of apples gone to cider. Soooo good.

The bone marrow version of this dish had beet (in a very apple balsamic-intense brine), carrot and parsnip (in another apple balsamic brine), kohlrabi (in a brine of white vinegar and seaweed – I used a mix of wakame and laver, but I think nori or kombu would be fine – dulse might be too smoky), and cauliflower (in a straight-ahead vinegar-and-sugar brine). I forgot to make the cucumber and turnip. The scallop version had cucumber (in a watery brine with fresh dill and a tiny bit of vinegar), beets, carrot, and cauliflower.

To pickle the veggies, proceed thusly. Get your mandoline out, and shave yourself some veggies  – you’re going for slices just a touch thicker than a standard carrot peeling, and about 1cm wide. Except for the cauliflower, which needs a mandoline (or a knife wielded by steadier hands than mine) you can get by with a peeler. Carrots, parsnips and kohlrabi like being thrown into ice water after being sliced – it makes them curl up.

Here’s the Foodsaver flash-pickling apparatus, looking very Mr. Wizard:

… and here it is with carrots and brine:

… and here are the carrots after their dip in the brine:

Here’s the cauliflower, cheerily mimicking a cross-sectioned brain in formaldehyde:

And finally, just because it’s so pretty, here’s the pickled cucumber (which did make it into the second version of the dish):

For the marrow version: Slice the cold marrow into coins. Take the pork rib stock you’ve prepped, and boil some of it down into a near syrup.

For the scallop version: If you have pork stock left, so much the better (think bacon-wrapped scallops…mmm.) If not, warm up some demi-glace. Sear your scallops (sea scallops / diver scallops, not bay) in some clarified butter or neutral oil.

Here’s the marrow version – this was plated at about 11:59:10pm on New Year’s Eve, so there are no micro-herbs or flower petals… we did end up garnishing it with some tiny dill sprigs (after the photo session), but that’s about it.

Picture doing 7 plates with at least 2 or 3 rolls of each of 4 vegetables, cauliflower shavings, and marrow coins carefully doused in hot pork jus, between 11:52 and 11:59, and you’ll understand the lack of garnishes.

And here’s the scallop version, replete with edible (duh) flower petals and dill spriglets… (now be honest, does this make me look gay?)

Some thoughts:

  • 20 minutes of smoking was more than enough for the marrow. It was decidedly smoky, and the smoke permeated the pork jus on the plate. Far from unpleasant – downright heady – but I think it would have been better with a more subtle smokiness.
  • Not surprisingly, the quality of the root vegetables, in particular, matters a lot. Older, woody beets, parsnips, and carrots don’t absorb brine well, and their texture is less succulent than that of more tender veggies. Obvious, yes, but worth paying attention to.
  • Once you’ve rolled your veggies up, trim the sides so you end up with even geometry.
  • Do as much prep ahead of time as possible – most importantly, roll up your pickled veggies. But don’t plate and refrigerate, or the fat in the protein/stock components will congeal.
  • Kohlrabi + seaweed… delicious. Who knew?
  • The marrow version was superior, flavour-wise. Very, very rich, but super-tasty. But the scallop version was great too, and more suited to being a course – rather than a taste – for a short menu.
  • Redzepi doesn’t call for flower petals, but they actually added a lot to the scallop version of the dish: it becomes even  more a riot of colour, and their light perfume was oddly parallel to the briny-sweet scallop scent.
  • Crucially, given the cost of the apple balsamic: you can strain, refrigerate and reuse the more acidic/sugary brines a couple of times at least.

Razor Clam and Parsley, Horseradish and Mussel Juice

Here’s one from Noma that didn’t turn out according to plan. I think the flaws were about 80% pilot error and 25% bad directions. Yeah, that adds up to 105% flaws. Since fail is more instructive than win, and since this is the single dish that most influenced me to cook from Noma, I’m going to go into a lot of detail about this one. I’m a little sheepish about this, since it’s not going to be that interesting to most of you guys and gals, but I figure someone out there someday is going to want to know how not to screw up this dish.

I’m talking about “Razor Clam and Parsley, Horseradish and Mussel Juice”. It’s supposed to look like this:

Fresh, jewel-like, and ethereal.

Aaaand… here’s what we ended up with:

Not quite as elegant.

Here’s what happened.

Horseradish Snow: This was the most successful element of the dish. It was easy to follow – milk, buttermilk, fresh horseradish, salt, lemon juice, cornstarch, freezer. Since I don’t have access to a Pacojet (think: machine that shaves frozen goods into atom-sized ice particles) I froze the mixture in an ice cube tray…

…and hoped that the Vitamix would turn it into something other than slush. And it worked pretty well (my abysmal plating skills notwithstanding). If I have one criticism of this recipe, it’s that the cornstarch is a little too apparent. In any case, this was light on the palate, and a bracing contrast in texture and flavour to the rest of the dish.

Mussel Juice: I blogged about the first part of this recipe in the epic prep post. Flavour-wise, it turned out better than I could have hoped for: saline, fresh, full of umami goodness – not at all fishy or funky. Where it (okay, I) fell down was at the end of the recipe, where I was supposed to patiently refine it into a crystal-clear essence that would evoke pristine Northern seas. I ended up with a cloudy, murky pond. Redzepi had instructed me to allow the frozen block of mussel juice to defrost in the refrigerator, through a fine cloth, for 12 to 24 hours. I freaked out a little over timing, let the block of jus defrost part-way on the counter, then totally lost my $hit and passed it through coarse cheesecloth. Lesson learned. This flaw, I know how to correct.

Parsley Gel: Actually, more a spinach gel with parsley.

You take your baby spinach, blanch it, and shock it in ice water. Do likewise with your parsley. Now, chunk it into the blender with mineral water (erm… is it supposed to be sparkling, or still? Redzepi doesn’t say. I went with sparkling, because… hello, bubbles!)

So far so green.

And then I Vitamixed the bejesus out of it. In retrospect, a few seconds probably would have been better. Your Nomnivores are still learning their way with the Vitamix, a blender that, rather than shredding things, dispatches thousands of tiny stormtroopers to disassemble the molecular structure of everything that stands in their way. Perhaps more important than blending technique, though, would have been post-blending technique. In other words: the liquid should’ve been allowed to settle, and the clear, green happiness on top should have been used in the next steps.

Back to reality. The opaque, Ghostbusterish slop was poured into a pan… (am I alone in thinking there’s the silhouette of a calamari in that pan?)

With some gelatin leaves.

A couple of months ago, I thought myself very edumacated for knowing that leaf gelatin was qualitatively different from powdered gelatin. Now, having done some additional book learnin’, Redzepi’s instruction to use 7g of leaf gelatin sounded imprecise. What strength of gelatin was I supposed to use? Gold? Silver? Bronze? 200 bloom? 160 bloom? Truly, I was beset with first-world problems. So, I went for the gold. That also might’ve been a mistake.

I poured the fluid out into dishes that I’d carefully levelled out in the fridge (I didn’t completely geek out and use a level, or even an iPhone level app, so stop picturing that) to a depth of 2mm (nor did I use a ruler – I used a toothpick as a dipstick, and eyeballed the measurement.)

Here’s what the gel looked like half an hour later:

I was going for a transparently green stained-glass window, and ended up producing… a mini-putt field of astro-turf. Worse, it was at once soft and brittle: even gently moving it caused it to fracture. There was no question of rolling it around anything.

Dill Oil: Same idea (blanch, shock, drain, blend with oil). Same mistake (over-blending, no resting). Same result (murky emulsion rather than the emerald green oil that was left in the bowl the morning after the dinner.)

Razor Clams: Here, I have to thank Chef C and Pantry Chef J for going to heroic lengths to procure the ingredient. Yours truly searched high and low, and was told “those are out of season.” C&J braved the wilds of the suburbs, and at last, in a huge Asian supermarket, found 8 little razor clams alive and wriggling in the bottom of their tank.

Truthfully, when I shucked them, they seemed… sub-prime. Not sub-prime like a 2008 mortgage, and certainly not funky smelling, but not exactly full of that just-plucked-from-the-sea brightness. Anywho, since they were alive and kicking, and I was in thrall to the image of this dish, I persevered. I duly vac-packed them and froze them for 24 hours to tenderize them.

The final mistake occurred during plating. I misinterpreted Redzepi’s (vague, but in retrospect, obvious) instruction to mix the mussel juice and dill oil in a 10-1 ratio. Rather than gently mixing them with a fork, I made like I was doing a vinaigrette and shook it all up into a light green sauce.

People didn’t overtly hate it, and some people liked some elements, but it was a pretty clear flop – especially given the many stand-out plates that the evening held in store. Aside from the technical lessons I learned from this experience, I think I came closer to learning to be an ingredient driven cook who knows when to change course on the fly, rather than someone obsessed with recreating the image of a perfect dish.