Saturday, December 1, 2012

Some Sort of Thanksgiving Dinner

This year for Thanksgiving, I pretty much abandoned the whole traditional palette of flavors and ingredients.  No Turkey.  No Stuffing.  No Mashed Potatoes.  No Sweet Potatoes.  No Cranberries.  No Meatballs.  No Corn.  No Green Bean Casserole.  No Pumpkin Pie.  No idea why I am capitalizing all those dishes.  Anyway, none of the traditional fixings that I grew up with and continue to make most years.  Also, the entire extended family abandoned us this year for the holiday, so we weren't beholden to any particular tradition.

I had a few dishes I knew I wanted to make, and some various techniques I wanted to try.  With a couple days off before the holiday, it seemed like a good opportunity.  First things first, we moved Thanksgiving dinner to Friday and invited over a few friends that we figured wouldn't object to eating a menu composed of dishes and or experiments whose execution was probably far beyond my limited cooking capabilities to execute.  I promise only good intentions, not good food.

I thought a little bit about the theme.  Despite breaking from the traditional, I still wanted to do (somewhat) seasonal flavors.  For a while it was going to be a Looney Tunes theme - your basic Duck, Rabbit, Pork.  But I never really got much beyond that trifecta of meat in theme relevant dishes.  Coyote?  Yosemite Sam?  Eventually I just abandoned the theme altogether.

The dishes started to come together.  I kept the duck and pork.  Added marrow bones.  I also wanted to recreate Chef Ferran's Carrot Air.  And since I was dong that, why not try to replicate his Black Sesame Sponge Cake with Miso too?  Throw in a soup (which I later abandoned).  Sorbet.  Cocktail, etc.  Guests had signed up for dessert and salad.  Pretty soon I had a 9 course menu.  I'd prepare 7 of the courses.  Also, I wanted them to be plated dishes, quite possibly because I thought it would make it harder on myself.  I felt this was reasonable, particularly once I cut out the soup.  I did have concerns that this could lead to long wait times between courses, especially since I planned to sit and enjoy each course with the guests.  And although I sort of feel this should be a forgivable offense, I actually planned ahead so I'd be as ready as possible.  I prepped as much ahead as I could, and planned the order of the dishes so they worked for the guests as well as the cook.  Upon reflection, I felt like I did a fairly remarkable job of this, because it all flowed pretty well.  All in all, I don't think the waits between courses were at all as excruciating for the guests as they could have been.  So let's get to it.

1st Course: Champagne and Caviar
I wanted to do some experimentation with spherification and a welcome cocktail seemed like a good way to kick things off.  And what better way to kick off a celebration than with champagne and caviar?  I planned to make some spherified cherry juice 'caviar' and serve those in a flute of champagne.  I assumed (or rather hoped) that much like a raisin they would sink to the bottom of the glass until enough bubbles accumulated on the bead to float it to the surface where the bubbles would pop, sending the ball of cherry juice back to the bottom of the glass again.  Next time you have Champagne, throw a raisin in there to see.  I imagined these cherry caviar beads floating up and down magically in the guests glasses.  It was supposed to be beautiful.  Unfortunately, the drops of cherry juice ended up smaller than intended, and oblong, rather than perfectly round.  Clearly I hadn't developed a perfect technique in all the times I'd never done this before.  They looked like the arils of an underdeveloped pomegranate.  Not what was intended, but acceptable if slightly disappointing.  I'd bought a magnum of the finest American sparkling wine that you can get for under $10.  When you pull out the magnum of champagne, it's impressive no matter how much (or how little) you paid.  Glasses were filled.  When the cherry juice caviar was added to the Champagne flute it just floated on top.  No magical up and down lava lamp effect.  Oh well.  I think the end effect was still striking, and actually quite tasty.  The tart montmorency cherry juice really helped the champagne.

2nd Course:  Carrot Air
Of all the culinary trends that Ferran Adria inspired (so far anyway), the most pervasive may just be foam.  Not content with just foam, Chef Adria went on to create airs.  This dish is straight out of the elBulli catalog.  #878.  This was one of the dishes at our Next: elBulli dinner, and I wanted to recreate it.  There's no magic powders.  No strange ingredients.  Just a little bit of coconut milk topped with carrot.  The carrot is juiced and then air is whipped into it until it begins to hold its shape.  The resulting foam is incredibly light, melts to almost nothing in your mouth, but tastes intensely of carrot.  I thought I could manage this.  I don't have a juicer, but provided carrots to one of the guests ahead of time who arrived with a jar full of carrot juice.  I prepped the dishes with a little bit of coconut water.  Then, I poured the juice into a mixing bowl, took out the stick blender and....carrot juice went everywhere.  So I took out a larger mixing bowl.  Again applied the stick blender.  Carrot juice went not quite everywhere, but was definitely not contained in the bowl.  I kept going.  In very little time I had some carrot bubbles.  I scooped them out into the first waiting cup. Topped with some lime zest (my addition).  Then I kept going.  Pretty soon I had enough carrot air for everyone.  I didn't have access to custom carrot air glassware, but I did have teacups.  It worked out pretty well.  It was stable enough for the time it needed to be.  It tasted like carrot and melted away to almost nothing in the mouth.  I think I managed a reasonable approximation of the elBulli carrot air.  Yeah!
Deu Salvi elBulli: Carrot Air (2012)

Next: elBulli - Carrot Air (2012)
elBulli - Carrot Air with Bitter Coconut Milk (2003) (Credit elBulli general catalogue)
Carrot Air or Carrot mess.

3rd Course:  Marrow Toast
Where do I begin....Do you know how good bone marrow is?  It's really, really good.  Just scoop it out, spread it on some bread.  Devour.  And so easy to make.  I don't know why I've never made it before.  Take bone, put in oven, remove, sprinkle sea salt, plate.  There is basically no prep least for the marrow.  Here I paired it with a parsley and shallot salad with a lemon vinaigrette.  Also easy.  Next to that are crispy beef strands.  Courtesy of my brand new Modernist Cuisine at home cookbook.  This was flank steak that I marinated for 2 days in soy and fish sauce, microwaved into jerky, then painstakingly pulled into individual strands.  Right before serving, these strands were deep fried for about a minute.  They were beautifully golden, like strands of saffron.  And well paired with the dish I think.  But pulling those strands was a pain in the ass, so you may not see these on my menu again anytime soon.  Finally the bread.  I like to complain about bread.  There just really isn't anywhere to get good bread locally.  Also, I can't make it.  Once, I tried to recreate these maple bacon rye bread rolls we had at Charlie Trotter's, but they didn't turn out so well.  I've always said that to making bread is like having a pet.  You feed it daily.  It stinks and smells and sweats and burps.  You keep it in a bucket in your basement.  But when you are ready to make bread, a little bit of the bucket beast will get you what you need.  So I took a little flour and water, mixed it in a bucket and let it sit out in the kitchen.  The next day I threw most of it out, and added more flour and water.  After 5 days I had a pretty good culture going.  So I made bread.  Flour, Water, Salt.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Baked in a dutch oven in a smoking hot oven.  And more or less it worked.  Great crust.  Definitely sourdough like interior.  Needs to be toasted.  But I digress.  I really enjoyed this.  Unctuous is the word I'd use.  Homemade crusty bread topped with hot, melty marrow topped with fresh herby greens, alliums and lemon topped with crispy salty beef strands.  Yum.  The marrow ran down my chin, like all good marrow should.  You should do this.       

My Bread
Roasted Bones
Roasting Bones

4th Course:  Sesame Cake with Miso 
This is the second elBulli dish that I attempted to recreate. Although I considered trying to grind my own black sesame paste, I did not have high hopes for success, so I used Tahini and Sesame Oil.  This resulted in a cream colored spongecake batter rather than the more striking black, but the sesame flavor definitely came through.  For the topping, I blended white miso with honey, and then some more honey.  I have no idea what else Chef Ferran might have used, or else my miso paste was just powerfully intense, but the honey didn't really do much to cut it.  I think the flavor was fine, but strong.  I loaded the batter into my whip and charged with a couple nitro cartridges.  Dispensed into a styrofoam cup and after 50 second in the microwave I had a sponge cake.  A distinctly cup shaped spongecake, but spongecake nonetheless.  I broke it open so it wasn't quite so cup like and topped with a wee bit of the miso paste.  I think it was a bit heavier than the spongecake I had at Next and the salty miso made me thirsty (next time, not quite so much), but still tasted good and not bad for a home attempt.

Deu Salvi elBulli - Sesame Spongecake and Miso

Next: elBulli - Black Sesame Spongecake and Miso
elBulli - Black Sesame Spongecake and Miso (2007) (credit Spread My Butter)
A couple shots of the prep:

Makin' the cake...breakin' out the whip

Now that's a cupcake.

5th Course: Salad
I had nothing to do with this dish, but it was great.  Greens. Orange (real not canned). Walnuts.  And it provided me the opportunity to cook the duck while everyone had salad.  Speaking of.... 

6th Course:  Confit of Duck, Potatoes
I've made duck confit before, and it is good.  But this time I thought I'd do it the 'real' way.  Not content with cooking the legs in olive oil, I ponied up for a 3.5# bucket of duck fat.  That was quite a bit more duck fat than I needed, but that was the only duck fat in town, and the only size container available.  And what could be wrong with having some extra duck fat in the freezer when you need it.  So I cooked the duck in it's own fat.  Is it better than cooking it in olive oil?  Philosophically, yes. But tastefully, no.  This was not the best confit I've ever made.  The skin was super crispy, the meat tender and flavorful.  The fingerling potatoes were confited in duck fat as well in the pressure cooker.  This worked in that it cooked the potatoes, but really didn't impart any flavor and they ended up sort of bland.  As did the orange pepper, mushrooms and pearl onions.  This was probably my least favorite dish of the meal.  It was fine, but overall it was the loser of the evening.  Disappointing.       

This is the best picture available. 

Big Bucket of Duck Fat!

7th Course:  Autumnal Pork
After the marrow, this was my second favorite dish of the evening. I had cured a Berkshire pork belly for 2 days in some salt, sugar, and basically a homemade Chinese 5 spice rub.  Star Anise, Cloves, Cinnamon, Peppercorn, and Fennel Seeds, plus some Coriander seeds for good measure, were toasted, ground and then rubbed on the pork to cure.  I was a little afraid it would be too strong, so rather than just braising the belly, I simmered it in some stock until it was meltingly tender.  I took some of that stock and reduced it, then combined with maple syrup for a glaze.  When it was time to serve, I heated up the belly in the oven, then finished under the broiler, glazing the top repeatedly.  It was plated on an apple cider aspic that used agar so it wouldn't melt under the hot pork.  Finished with some spiced pecans (butter, cumin, cayenne) and a little maple syrup.  I thought this turned out amazing.  In fact, we had it for dinner two more times this week.  The spices came through in the pork, but weren't overpowering like I feared they could be.  I thought the apple and pecan and maple all paired nicely with the flavor profile of the pork, but didn't make it overly sweet (another thing I feared could happen).  It was definitely a dish made for fall.  Also, take a look at that belly in the picture.  You are sorry you missed this.  There was supposed to be caramelized onion with it, but I forgot to heat it up so it remained in the fridge that evening.  I had it with the leftovers though and it added even another layer of depth to an already good dish.  I only wish I had a better name for it.  

Pork Belly, Apple Cider Aspic, Spiced Pecans, Maple Syrup....Delicious.

8th Course:  Winter Spiced Orange Sorbet
My final dish of the evening.  I wanted a way to ease into dessert. To remain reminiscent of the flavors that came before, and changing of the seasons from fall to winter.  Also, I like making sorbets that have combinations of fruit and spice or herbs that I find interesting.  Here I made a simple syrup with Orange Blossom Honey, Orange Peel, Cardamom, Clove, Star Anise, and Bay Leaf then mixed with equal parts fresh squeezed orange juice.  This went into the ice cream maker and out came sorbet.  It was good, and reminded me of the smells of the kitchen in winter. 

Winter Spiced Orange Sorbet

9th Course:  Dessert by Bill
I left the actual dessert up to the guests.  We had a Cherry Pretzel Cream Cheese concoction that was good and reminded me of the strawberry pretzel jello salad we traditionally have for Thanksgiving (and other times of the's one of our favorites), but it had cherries rather than strawberries and no jello (that I know of anyway).  Also there was a rich multilayer chocolate cake. 

Overall, I thought the meal worked really well.  I was pretty happy with everything I put out, and I hope everyone enjoyed it.  It was a lot of food, but not so much that I was uncomfortably stuffed.  I tried to keep the portions small, even though it might not look like it in the pics.  Cooking seven plated courses basically by yourself is a lot to take on, but I had a lot of fun doing it.  And it scratched the itch for at least a little while.  Thanks to Jamie and Evelyn for taking some pics.  Hope everyone else had a fantastic Thanksgiving feast as well! 

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