Salads in suspension

I used to want to like Marcus Samuelsson. His life story is compelling, his first cookbook, Aquavit, is gorgeous, and I like nouveau Nordic cuisine. Then, two things happened. First, I made his Tomato-Crab Risotto, a spectacular, epic trainwreck of a dish… sour, pointlessly rich, and constitutionally dissonant to the point of farce. It sounded so preposterous that I (naive youth) figured it had to be chefly-good: cream, tomato juice, sundried tomatoes, coconut milk, garlic, shallots, soy sauce, egg yolks, cream, butter, parmigiano, arborio rice… and $35 of crab. What could go wrong? Hahahahahahaha. It was bad, like a Hindenburg full of Ebola victims crashing into a pre-school on the Titanic. And Celine Dion singing about it.

Still, after putting Aquavit away for several months, I made a few more dishes, and they were fine. Then, Samuelsson appeared on Top Chef Masters. And He. Was. A. Dick. Laddish, hyper-competitive, and stupid-sounding. Or at least, that’s how he was edited.

Nonetheless, here I am, making a dish that I’ve wanted to make for a couple of years, simply because it’s pretty and sounds tasty. It’s taken me this long to get around to it because a) I hate Marcus Samuelsson, and b) It involves food suspended in gelatin, and MC Warm Spice (having lived in both the Midwestern U.S. and the former Eastern Bloc) has a morbid aversion to such dishes.

Tlacenka, a rustic Czech meat-bearing aspic

The Midwestern variant

The dish in question is “Arugula With Tomato-Goat Cheese Terrine”, it’s full of late-summer tomatoes, and it’s served cold – perfect lunch food for this week’s coming heat wave. Here’s how it’s supposed to look:

It reminds me of this nougat candy I ate as a child:

Only savoury, and not apt to pull out dental work.

Having roasted a head of garlic for the dressing, I proceeded to blanch 3 kinds of tomatoes – Yellow Tiger Stripe and Black Prince (both from our little garden) and some generic red field tomatoes from the local market.

Skins loosened after blanching and icing

Skinned and luminous!

Then came the labourious process of “filleting” the tomatoes: quartering them, removing seeds and pulp, and trimming them into neat slabs of outer-tomato-flesh. Since I didn’t have yellow tomatoes, I roasted a few yellow peppers and gave them the same treatment. Later, I passed the remains of the veggies through the food mill, turning them into a base for gazpacho (the second “Salad in Suspension” alluded to in the title above).

Next, I beat the chevre (13.5 oz)with 1/4 C of milk into which I had dissolved gelatin. The recipe called for powdered gelatin, and it turns out that the conversion from powder to leaf is a matter of much confusion and controversy on the internet, not least because gelatin leaves vary in size from place to place, and sizes have changed over time… but few people have accounted for this. In any event, I subbed 4 sheets for one 1/4 oz envelope… perhaps not coincidentally, these weighed 1/4oz on our very accurate little kitchen scale.

The assembled terrine, ready for the fridge

Assembling the terrine was a total pain. The recipe states that the loaf pan must be lined with plastic, and smearing the rather tight chevre mixture onto the plastic was an ordeal: I found it impossible to get a nice, thin layer. Matters only got worse when the tomatoes, peppers, basil and arugula were added – the chevre mix had to be gently daubed on and then squashed down under the next layer of veggies. The tomatoes also leached a hella lot of juice. In any case… the lot went into the fridge for a night’s rest. In the morning, the result looked like this:

The completed terrine

It tasted pretty much as you’d expect it to taste: goat cheese with basil, tomatoes, and a pleasant faint undertone of roasted garlic. I found the chevre to be a bit too prominent – it overwhelmed the tomato.

But the big problems with the dish were textural. The tomato juice problem made assembly difficult and harmed the integrity and appearance of the finished product. The chevre mix was too stiff to spread easily, and it ended up feeling like very slightly lightened chevre, rather than a subtly tart, panna cotta-esque substance, which is what I expected and wanted. Had the texture been right, I think the assembly, the flavour balance, and the appearance of the final product would have fallen more or less into place.

Next time, I would certainly double or triple the milk in the chevre mixture. I also think the tomato fillets would benefit from a slow roasting in the oven, taking them down to about half of their initial moisture content. This would intensify their flavour, as well as alleviate the leaching problem. If you readers have any other suggestions for dealing with excess tomato leaching, I’m all ears.

All in all, this recipe didn’t do anything to endear me to Marcus Samuelsson. Rather than relying strictly on amounts, the instructions should have provided the home cook with qualitative cues – e.g., “if the chevre mixture is too stiff to spread in a thin layer, add more milk, one tablespoon at a time, until you end up with a texture like thick pancake batter.” There were also clearly a number of technical refinements that resulted in the dish pictured in the book, and these should have been passed on to the reader. For example, there is no way that the terrine in the picture came out of a plastic-lined mold: it lacks the telltale wrinkles. Other cookbooks tell the home cook about methods of loosening a terrine that is assembled directly into a mold. Aquavit, like many other “coffee table” cookbooks, fails to give home cooks the techniques that they need to produce the results that they expect. Sloppy work, Marcus.