Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dinner at Alinea

I'm still quite new to this foodie world. That's why I wasn't too disappointed when I couldn't get a reservation at Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago. Maybe I wasn't ready for it anyway. Maybe I wouldn't appreciate the whole molecular gastronomy thing. Maybe my palate would be overwhelmed.

When I got the call 4 hours before dinner that they had had a cancellation, I wasn't quite sure how to feel. Excited? Anxious? Nervous? Underdressed? Yes! I had packed thinking there was no chance we'd be eating anywhere nice. P looked nice but they looked me up and down. They couldn't kick me out because I wasn't technically breaking the dress code (this is what I told myself). Corduroys and combat boots may be practical for trudging around a freezing city but not a good idea to wear to one of the best restaurants in the country.

Actually in 2006, Gourmet did call Alinea the best restaurant in the country. And here we were standing outside of the building -- an entirely black building, with covered windows, and no sign whatsoever. It was so discrete we walked past it completely. The only thing that clued us in that we were at the right place was the valet post setup outside. Even a small sign with the chef's name would have been helpful. The place is intimidating, and only added to my anxiety.

Walking in was like entering another dimension. A long hallway with brightly colored lights leads you to an automatic door that opens onto this beautiful restaurant. The kitchen is on the first floor and completely visible upon entering, if I had been better dressed and less nervous I would have asked to take a closer look. Chef Achatz was right there in the thick of it.

I'm not sure how many servers we had but it had to be 5 or more. Some were more friendly than others. We obviously didn't look like a pair that had a ton of money to lay out on wine, so some of them treated us more like kids in a fancy restaurant. The description for each dish was an abridged version compared to what I overheard at adjacent tables. I pulled out my camera (after asking permission of course) and the marathon of a meal began...

An amuse bouche of trout roe, licorice foam, ginger cream, maple syrup ball, parsley. One of my favorite dishes all night. The roe popped perfectly in your mouth. Really nice combination of different flavors.

Cauliflower soup with apple cider, fried squares of cheddar, gels of horseradish and the rest I can't remember. I really liked this but it was a bit too salty.

Fluke with camomile sheet, various mussels or clams, celery... we both really hated this dish. I think I hated it mainly because I hate celery so much but the little bits of orange cereal looking puffs were pretty gross. The fluke underneath was good but this dish was really not interesting at all.

Lobster with butter (and lots of it!), popcorn, curry. This dish was basically anything that goes well with butter. There was corn and a yummy square of mango gel. The ribbon strip running across the plate I think was pure butter. That little yellow ball on the left was a ball of liquid butter that would make Paula Deen blush. It exploded in my mouth. This dish was very, very rich.

Lamb with a lemon ball, fennel foam, coffee aromatics. Grant Achatz is big on using aromas to pair with food. This dish was served with a small bowl of coffee, cinnamon, and maybe some other stuff heated on the plate. I think his famous pillow of scented air would have been more effective. This was a fabulous dish though. The lemon ball was amazing, and the little bits of lamb parts all done different ways were very nice as well.

Black truffle ravioli with romaine and Parmesan served in the famous bottomless bowl that a spoon fits perfectly into. This was one of the more memorable dishes all night. We popped this in our mouths in one bite only to experience an explosion of truffle. How do you liquefy the filling of a ravioli? I may never know.

Chestnut with quince, chocolate, and baked potato ice cream. This looks like a big mess on the plate and that's because it is. It was served in a tall bottomless cylinder that the server removed before I could snag a photo. The baked potato ice cream was really nice and the chocolate gels really fabulous but this dish wasn't one of my favorites.

Sweet potato tempura fried on a smoldering cinnamon stick with brown sugar and bourbon. The aromatics really worked on this one! Bacon on a string with butterscotch, apple, and thyme. Concord grape with yogurt, mint, and long pepper. These desserts were to be eaten in the above order. These dishes were fun and all really tasty. My favorite was the grape that again exploded in the mouth.Persimmon spice cake with rum and carrot. This was my favorite dessert by far -- an incredibly moist and delicious cake drizzled with fresh honey with bits of walnuts and gels of carrot and a liquid spiced rum ball in the top right corner. Really delicious.

Chocolate sheet with fig, olives, pine ice cream and pine soup. This was really nice too. The pine and chocolate went really well together.

Dehydrated caramel with salt shooter to finish the evening. It rehydrates in your mouth to a salty, gooey, chewy mess. I had most of P's too.

The verdict? Dining at Alinea is certainly an experience like I've never had before. The 13-course meal done in about 3.5 hours was a test of endurance. A lot of the dishes were so rich that we felt a little sick towards the end. We were both a little tired of the lack of chewing needed for most of the dishes. All the exploding balls of flavor, gels, and purees were a little too much to the point that everything began to taste similar -- savory. Palate fatigue. I felt a lot of the dishes were too heavily salted and some even served a bit cold. If I end up moving to Chicago I'd try Alinea again. It is a lot of fun that I might appreciate more after a little more experience.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A New Take on Pumpkin Pie

As much as I like to try unconventional recipes during the Holidays, there is no getting away from the pumpkin pie. Sure it would be fun to try other flavors of Fall/Winter like cranberry, quince, pear, apple, and fig but it just doesn't feel right unless there is pumpkin thrown in the mix. Can you even imagine a kitchen that doesn't smell of baking pumpkin and spice during the Holidays? Try this new take on pumpkin pie to satisfy your pumpkin needs.

Gingerbread Pumpkin Pie
as seen in Cuisine at Home December 2008

1 pie crust (I cheated and used store-bought but this one seems great)
2 eggs
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tbsp molasses
1 15 oz can pumpkin
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup crushed gingersnaps
4 tbsp chopped pecans
4 tbsp chopped crystallized ginger
4 tbsp melted butter

Prepare the pie crust and blind bake. In a large bowl mix the eggs, brown sugar, and molasses. Next add the pumpkin and spices. Stir in the cream until smooth. Pour the mixture in the pie crust and bake at 375 for 40 minutes. While the pie cooks, mix together the topping with melted butter. Sprinkle the topping on the pie after 40 minutes and then bake an additional 10 minutes or until set. Serve with whipped cream.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

chili on a chilly day

I never used to like chili. I think it was one of those foods I just thought looked like something I wouldn't like and I never tried it. Chili definitely isn't the nicest thing to look at but it can pack some serious flavor. It was the number one thing I was craving last week in the cold weather.

This recipe makes a nice meaty, thick chili. It is loaded with spices and might be a little too spicy for some tastes but it seems to mellow out by the second day. The secret ingredient? Beer.

Chocolate Stout Chili
as seen on Use Real Butter

1 lb ground beef (or turkey)
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 jalapeno peppers, deseeded and chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp oil
28 oz can crushed tomatoes with juice
2 tsp beef bouillon (2 cubes)
1 bottle or can of chocolate stout (Young's)
3 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp ancho chili powder
1 tbsp cayenne
salt to taste
1 can kidney beans, washed and drained
1 can cannelloni beans, washed and drained

Brown the meat in a large pot that you plan to cook the chili in. Cook in batches then spoon out and set aside on a plate. Add some more oil then cook the onion, garlic, and peppers until softened. Pour in the tomatoes and scrap up any bits off of the bottom of the pot. Return the beef to the pot and add the bouillon. Stir and cook over moderate heat for several minutes until the tomatoes break down. Pour in the stout and simmer on low heat covered for 1 hour. Add the spices and beans after an hour then simmer for another 30 minutes. Add salt to taste. Serve with sour cream or whatever you like and corn bread.

Friday, November 21, 2008

citrus zing!

The other night when P asked me to make something 'exotic and interesting' for dinner, I didn't immediately think to make seared scallops with citrus risotto. Frankly, I drew a blank. All I knew is that it was cold out and I wanted something warm and comforting for dinner. He suggested making something time intensive but for a late night dinner that was out of the question.

I went to my recipe collection looking for something quick and remembered this recipe from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook which I first saw from Adam's blog. Maybe this isn't the most exotic recipe ever but it struck me as very interesting and the citrus is wonderful this time of year! When I say the citrus is good, I mean wow, it's incredible. This recipe calls for limes, oranges, and grapefruit. All three were wonderfully sweet and tangy. You make this risotto like any other risotto but stir in the fruit segments at the end and you get all of these wonderful flecks of fruit mixed in.

Seared Scallops with Citrus Risotto
adapted from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook and seen on TAG

1 lb large scallops, ligament removed, cleaned and pat dry
salt and pepper
1 cup arborio rice
1 onion, diced
4 cups chicken stock (Adam says to use 5 cups but I used 4 and had some leftover)
1 lime and zest, segmented
1 orange, segmented
1 red grapefruit, segmented
1 tblsp mascarpone

First prepare the fruit. Zest the lime and set aside. Cut the top and bottom off the fruit and then carefully skin the sides removing the pith with the skin. This part is really simple. Next use a small knife and cut out each individual segment of fruit between the membrane. Collect all fruit slices with juice in a large bowl.

Heat the broth in a large pot and keep it at a simmer while you make the rice. In a large, hot non-stick skillet melt some butter and cook the onion until translucent. Add the rice and a little bit of oil if it is too dry, then toast the rice until it begins to get translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Add about 3/4 cup of the hot broth to the pan and stir, stir, stir. Turn the heat down to medium at this point and keep stirring until the rice absorbs most of the broth. Keep adding amounts of broth and stirring until the rice is al dente. The only trick to risotto is don't cook it too fast (that is at a high heat) and stir as much as possible.

In between stirs prepare the scallops. Simply pat them dry and sprinkle them heavily with salt and pepper. In a super hot skillet sear each side of the scallop until they are nicely browned and just cooked through. This should only take a minute or two.

Keep stirring.

When the rice is nice and ooey-gooey and al dente (around 20 minutes later), stir in the fruit and juice. The segments will break up nicely if you keep stirring. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Once the rice has absorbed most of the juice, stir in a heaping tablespoon of mascarpone cheese and the lime zest. Scoop the risotto into a big bowl and serve the seared scallops on top. If you used really excellent citrus, you'll have a wonderfully balanced, creamy, perfect dish for a cold night that's a little more exciting than meat and potatoes.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cantonese is such a strange language. I've been listening to it for nearly five years now and I think it sounds different every time I hear it. I may only know how to say a handful of words and phrases, but I never forget how to say this dessert. The "soup ball" (Tāngyuán) is perhaps my favorite thing on Earth. A glutinous rice ball stuffed with sweet black sesame paste boiled in a light syrup... I love it. And I'm sad this is a picture of my last package. Normally you can pick these up at a good Asian foods market but I have had trouble finding them. On the rare occasion that I spot them, I buy one of those big silver freezer bags and stock up. They may be easier to find it stores around Chinese New Year and the Lantern Festival.

Friday, November 7, 2008

40 ± 2 cloves of garlic

Ever since I can remember I've always wanted to make chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. It sounds so extreme doesn't it? It sounds like a dish that means business. As I was unwrapping all 40 or so cloves of garlic tonight, I was just thinking of how bad I would smell later. My fingers would reek (not good for my line of work), my breath would be killer, and my sweat would smell like sweet garlic. Well I have to say I was wrong on all counts. This may sound like a serious dish but the garlic really mellows out and what you're left with is sweet roasted cloves mixed in a rich sauce. It is heaven on earth. Plus I couldn't believe how easy it was to make. Perhaps we can have chicken with 40 cloves of garlic every week. However, the odor might kick in eventually.

Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic
as seen on TAG and in Barefoot Contessa

4 lbs of chicken parts
40 cloves of garlic (about 3 heads)
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp cognac, divided (I used bourbon)
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 tbsp fresh thyme
2 tbsp AP flour
2 tbsp heavy cream

Don't bother peeling all of that garlic by hand. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and blanche the cloves for a couple minutes. Once you take them out of the water they are much easier to peel and you're fingers won't stink.

Pat chicken dry and coat with salt and pepper. Heat butter and oil in a large pot (preferably a dutch oven) until very hot. Place the chicken in the pot in small batches and brown all sides -- a couple minutes a side. Brown the chicken then place it on a separate plate. Once the chicken is all set, toss in the garlic and stir it around for a few minutes until it starts to brown nicely but not burn. Next deglaze the pan with the wine and 2 tbsp cognac and scrape the bits off the bottom of the pot. Bring to a boil then return all of the chicken and cover, cooking on the lowest heat for about 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.

After the chicken is done remove it from the pot and set it aside, covered with foil to keep it warm while you make the sauce. Turn the heat back up to medium and remove 1/2 cup of the wine/drippings/cognac mixture from the pot and whisk into it the flour to make a roux. Stir the roux into the main pot to thicken the whole thing. Stir in the cream, remaining cognac, and thyme and let the mixture come together for a minute or two. Season if need be then serve the chicken with the sauce poured over top.

Whoever said chicken was dull?