Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Don't pull hair, make Pulled Pork

Blame it on the Type A personality in me. You'd think I'd actually enjoy a couple of days of "working from home" and not doing anything. Instead, I'm anxious to get on a project and really prove myself and learn lots of new things. I spent the latter portion of last week really pulling my hair out from frustration, but this week I decided to embrace the opportunity and do a lot of cooking (and blogging!).

BBQ is good on its own. But the ex-Texan in me makes me love BBQ just that much more...and also sets the standards that much higher. So no, I'm not content just buying the ubiquitous plastic container of BBQ pulled pork from Trader Joe's (please TJ, don't take that personally).

I started with the recipe from Nook and Pantry that started this craving for pulled pork. Once the meat was seared, browned and covered in a little bit of sauce mixture, it just looked so lonely in the slow cooker. I'm by no means a slow cooker pro (although I'd like to get there, especially once work picks up), but can you cook food in there with little to no liquid? I got nervous about letting it cook with only a quarter cup of liquid and had nightmares of opening the pot six hours later to find something that would force me to call my local take out joint. What a perfect time to "be creative!" An extra cup of chicken broth and a can of Coca Cola went into the pot. (Texans tend to refer to soda's in general as "Coke" so when you ask for a Coke, you'll often find yourself being asked, "What kind?" Just thought we could use clarification here).

Six hours later (ok, I did cheat and opened the lid a couple times to check in between), I found my pork shoulder falling apart in the pot and smelling absolutely wonderful. Taste test time! It tasted even better than it smelled! Perhaps I could get used to staying at home...minus the cleaning and chores and if I could only find someone who wants to support someone that just wants to cook all the time.

Slow Cooker Pulled Pork
4 lbs pork butt/shoulder (Boneless preferred probably, but I used bone in)
1 medium onion, roughly chopped (I like Vidalia)
2 T chili powder
1 T smoked paprika
2 t freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp cumin powder
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp salt
1/4 C brown sugar
4 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 1/4 C chicken stock
1 can of Coca Cola (Dr. Pepper might work equally as well)

Sear the pork shoulder in 1 T of oil on all sides. If you want this to cook faster, you could cut up the pork shoulder into several pieces and brown them as separate pieces. Transfer this to the slow cooker turned on high.

On the stove, turn the heat down to medium and add the onion to the residual oil in the skillet. Add the chili powder, smoked paprika, pepper, and cumin and cook in the oil to bloom the flavor of the spices, about 3 - 5 minutes. Then add the minced garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the cayenne pepper, brown sugar, worchestershire sauce, salt, and 1/4 C chicken stock. Bring to a boil and pour the skillet contents over the pork in the slow cooker. Add the extra cup of chicken stock and the can of Coca Cola.

Cook on high for 5-6 hours.

Once the pork is fork tender, transfer to a large plate or cutting board. Use your hands, tongs or 2 forks to pull the meat apart into strings.

Strain the remaining liquid into a clean bowl or directly into a sauce pan. Throw out the onions, etc. in the strainer. Reduce the sauce (you could also use some cornstarch/flour mixed with water to thicken it a bit if you want). Serve on a toasted bun or on a salad (like I had for lunch). Leftovers are just as good, if not better, than the first day.

Link love -
My starting point at Nook and Pantry
Pulled Pork at Thursday Night Smackdown
Salsa Verdes Carnitas at Simply Recipes

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Alinea wrapup

I'd wish I had several more Alinea posts, though perhaps you patient readers are tired of them, only because it would mean that I could relive the meal a little longer. Alas, all great things must come to an end...

18. SWEETBREAD - cauliflower, burnt bread, toasted hayAnd here came the second large dish of the night - I had read about this one in a slightly different form. What do you think of when you hear sweetbread? The innocent me prior to my research thought it was a bread that was sweet, but my good friend Google revealed instead that it's veal thymus or pancreas. When the dish came, I was a little hesitant, but hey, if I'm going to ever try sweetbread, where better than at one of the best restaurants in the world? I didn't have the heart to tell my dining buddy that it wasn't just "veal" like he thought. So what's sweetbread like? It's not sweet and definitely not breadlike, not quite meat like, but incredibly tender and delicious in this dish. The sweetbread bits are the two pieces in the top left and bottom right corners. Accompanying the sweetbread was fried dehydrated cauliflower interspersed with burnt bread, toasted hay and vermouth pudding dots. They weren't so great on their own (we were even warned about trying the burnt bread on its own), but swipe the sweetbread through those puddings and then dip into the chestnut cream pool in the middle - absolutely delicious. Above the chestnut cream sauce is a breaded cauliflower stem topped with a roasted chestnut with a small onion to the side. I love playing with my food :)

19. TRANSPARENCY - of raspberry, rose petal, yogurtWhat a great way to start the desserts - this is just fun. A metal clip holds an impossibly thin sheet of raspberry glass candy, which is dusted with a dried yogurt and rose petals. The smell of roses was delightful...almost as delightful as making the candy rock back and forth in the metal clip.

20. BACON - butterscotch, apple, thymeI do get my cravings for sweets that lead to my impulsive tiramisu or frozen yougurt buys, but generally I enjoy savory more than sweet. But combine sweet AND savory and I'm in heaven, which is where this dish put me. The piece of bacon was suspended on a wire that rocked back and forth (when you play with it like I did). A mango fruit leather sticks to the bacon with lines of butterscotch and a sprinkling of thyme. Bacon just rose to an entirely new level. Another signature Alinea dish.

21. PERSIMMON - carrot, red curry, spice stripI wasn't the biggest fan of this dish to begin with, but it certainly grew on me the more I ate. By the end, I found myself wanting to lick the plate, but some odd sense of manners I was suppose to have restrained me. A little sailboat looking creation sits to the right of the plate, really a wax half sphere with a needle holding a listerine like strip. We were instructed to place the strip in our mouths to infuse our senses with spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, etc). Then, dig into the dish, which reminded me of an fruit crips. Off to the side was a small amount of red curry, which mixed with everything else was good. Then there was the ginger orb - I was too chicken to take that in one bite since ginger tends to be strong. Instead, I had fun popping the bubble and mixing it with the rest of the dessert. My hesitation for this dish came from not being able to really identify by sight the different ingredients, other than the red curry and the ginger orb.

22. LICORICE CAKE - muscovado sugar, orange, hyssopI really don't like licorice, but I'm glad I didn't list that as a restriction because I liked this cake. It arrives on a little antenna, threatening to poke your eye out. Then they announce that you really don't need utensils to eat, you just lean forward, open up and eat. Hands free. How fun...How awkward. I cheated a bit because I didn't want a metal wire sticking out of my eye. The cake had a strong licorice flavor accompanied by the crunch of the spun muscovado sugar.

23. CHOCOLATE - egg, pomelo, smokeIn theory, I liked this one a lot, especially coming savory with sweet. In reality, it was a bit challenging for me with just a bit too much going on. First there was a fruit jelly string (I forget the flavor) that arches over a bit of "smoke" gel. Accompanying the fruit string was a chocolate baguette crisp that arches over a chocolate covered egg yolk. Then, smoke foam just barely rest on a liquid brioche covered in chocolate crust. Finally, a pool of pomelo sauce with flecks of pomelo surrounding a bit of chocolate fudge. Break open the chocolate yolk and liquid brioche, mix it all up and enjoy. Creative to say the least...

24. SWEET POTATO - bourbon, tempura, cinnamon incenseI wish we had been served the pumpkin version of this, but this was still pretty good. A lightly tempured sweet potato with bourbon served on a burning cinnamon stick. Perhaps thinking about it a little too much, but this kinda closed the loop for me, bringing me back to the vanilla bean served as the first course.

25. COFFEE - five waysFive removable prongs each topped with a bit of coffee gelee, each with a different garnish. Almond, caramel/salt (my favorite), cayenne pepper, star anise and saffron - a great way to end the meal.

Despite the way I could go on and on about Alinea and how it has redefined the way I look at food, I'd only caution you to not try to have too high of expectations if you make it to Alinea, lest you have my type of Gary Danko experience.

After eating at Alinea, I went on a bit of a web rampage, just looking to learn more about the restaurant and the chef - there is a LOT out there. Alinea is set to have a cookbook out in Fall 2008, which I have preordered and I'm sure I'll be sharing my opinion of when it is released. Plus, on eGullet, Chef Achatz shared information about the development of the restaurant, the serviceware and some of the dishes.

Linkage -

The awesome serviceware -

Other Alinea experiences -

Monday, March 17, 2008

Alinea - Part II

I apologize for the "teaser," but it WAS a 4.5 hour dinner and I didn't think anyone had the attention span to read about 24 courses in one sitting, not to mention I doubt I could write it all at once.

Anyway, shall we continue?

4. SALSIFY - caper, dill, smoked salmon.
The salsify (root vegetable) was breaded with creme fraiche and dehydrated vegetables. The rest of the dish was a play on the smoked salmon classic - this time the smoked salmon was poached in olive oil served with a tart lemon gel and dill puree. Dehydrated red peppers and onions topped the dish. They encouraged us to play with our food, mixing things up so we got all the flavors. I knew there was a reason I love this restaurant!

5. BEANS- many garnishes, pillow of nutmeg air.
Did Chef know I was coming and purposedly combine some of my favorite ingredients into this dish? I could smell this one before I even saw it coming. First, they bring out a large white pillow that smells wonderfully of nutmeg (i LOVE nutmeg!) and they place one in front of each diner. Next, the dish is brought out and placed on the pillow, causes the pillow to deflate and let off the nutmeg infused air. This was the first of numerous times the dish would use your sense of smell to change the way the food tastes. The dish they placed on the pillow contained a white navy bean puree (did I mentioned I've ordered a main entree just because it contained white beans?) with a circle of dried pancetta topped with Guiness foam. I usually am not a fan of the foams, but put my favorite beer in foam form and I'll eat it right up. This was covered with a sauce (oh, the SAUCE!) and then "many garnishes" surrounded the plate. According to the waiter, these were some components of a bean stew - from the top you have a lemon marshmellow, basil gelee, scallions with almonds, garlic confit, dried parsnips, tomato and mango fruit leather, sea grapes over mung bean sprouts and a mini apple with molasses. Again, mix and match aka play with your food, they instructed. With pleasure!

6. DUCK- butternut squash, bitter orange, Thai flavors.
First, an oversized contact lens made of glass was placed in front of us. "We'll need your help with dish." Again - this is why I keep saying its more of an experience than just a dinner. Then, they hand us a egg-white round bowl with a fork balanced on top. "Don't place these on the table - they are round on bottom and will not stand up." I'm left wondering how I'm going to get a picture of this one. "First, take the bite of duck (with curry powder, chili and other Thai garnishes), then place the fork on the lens and finally, drink the soup out of the bowl with both hands." Thank goodness I can semi follow directions. I had previously seen that there was banana foam on this dish, so I had listed bananas as a dietary restriction. I was a little afraid that by listing a restriction, I might miss out on the duck dish entirely, but not at Alinea. Instead, they are great at coming up with some additional flavor that blends just as well, if not better, with the dish. In this case, by butternut squash soup was topped with a bitter orange foam instead of JQ's banana foam. Fun, flavorful dish.

7. LAMB - red wine, mushrooms, diverse embellishments.I hate to keep making the same points over and over again, but the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw this dish was that, "hey, it looks like a playground." It took a good couple of minutes for the waiter to explain everything on the dish, especially when I had to ask again what something was. The dark blobbish thing in the center is a perfectly cooked piece of lamb, topped with a couple of mushrooms and covered in a red wine something (it was thicker than a sauce, kinda gelatinous). The rest of the dish from top left - enoki mushrooms, some sort of orange, a little pickled onion, and leeks toped with a lamb crisp. The diagonal strip down the middle has various types of mushrooms and dried and ground wild rice. At the top of the strip is some sort of custard and in the bottom of the diagnoal strip is a dried beet with a truffle inside (definitely my favorite part of the dish as well as the waiter's). The bright red splatter is a cayenne pepper puree. Finally, in the bottom right corner are some more mushrooms, lentils and a candied walnut. Phew, that was a lot. This was one of the biggest dishes and made me wonder if I'll make it through 24.

8. HOT POTATO - cold potato, black truffle, butter.
I had been waiting for this play on contrasting temperatures and it's actually now the background for my computer desktop. A little wax bowl contains a cold potato trufle soup. A thin pin is stuck through the bowl to support a hot potato, a teeny cube of butter and parmesan, and a bit of chive. Pull out the pin (slowly so it doesn't splash) and everything drops into the bowl. Tilt back and down the hatch like an oyster. I'll dream about this one too.

9. PORK BELLY - smoked paprika, polenta, pickled vegetables.
It's BBQ time! So many of these dishes were just so CUTE in their presentation...kinda makes me want to go "eeeeee!" with excitement. Ok, I actually did go "eeeee!" when they brought ones like this out. Creamy polenta on the bottom, a square of pork belly in the middle with pickled vegetables on top, finished with a smokey sauce that was then hardened on top. The crunch of the outer shell and the vegetables with the creamy polenta, the sweet sauce with the salty vegetables and polenta - what a combination. During some of the previous "one bite" dishes, I tried to take two bites at least because 1. one bite leaves me with barely any room to chew and 2. then I can enjoy the flavors twice. Unfortunately this one, you just had to kinda tip into your mouth.

10. CHICKEN SKIN - truffle, corn, thyme.
Well, we were on a hot streak, loving every dish so far, so inevitably there are going to be a couple I didn't like. Here starts the first of a couple of those I didn't like. My second least favorite dish of the night, though I liked the serving dish - this was a bit like a chicken nugget, but I'd rather have the chicken nugget (alright, I'll let you add some truffle to that chicken nugget). Literally a ball of chicken skin, truffle, corn (flakes) and thyme - the flavors were pretty good, but it left my mouth feeling dry.

11. MANGO- soy, foie gras. It looks like a little money roll. Mango and soy make up the slightly chewy wrapper to encase a foie gras mousse. This was the first and only time foie gras made an appearance. The flavor was great, but there was so much mousse, it was a bit overwhelming.

12. CARAMEL CORN - "liquified." Officially my least favorite dish and the only I didn't finish. It was literally liquified popcorn in a shot glass - a little creamy and foamy, tons buttery and entirely too rich, especially after the foie gras mousse.

13. CRANBERRY- frozen and chewy, bitter orange, chevril.I made it halfway and I still have room! At this point, I'm STILL excited and bouncing in my seat. They brought this cold little dish out and used a spatula to place the dish on the table. The perfect sphere of frozen cranberry with dollops of bitter orange and chevril. We picked up the pin and carefully (with a "be careful not to poke yourself" from the ever so helpful waiter) placed it in our mouths, letting it melt into cranberry bliss. Perfect palate cleanser.

**I interrupt this food porn broadcast to talk about silverware and such**
The silverware had a little bed. A bed just for silverware! How cute (being such a girl for a moment here). The silverware was replaced with each course, and the table quickly wiped down (playing with your food gets messy!)

You might be wondering, "where's the wine?" Well, I passed on the wine flight (sorry wino friends) because I was already intimated by 24 courses. Plus, it's already a lot of money. Plus, ok, I'm a lightweight and after a couple of tastings, I probably would start to lose my sense of taste rather than add value to the meal.

**And now back to the food...**

14. ICE FISH - shellfish, horseradish, parsley.
This was an interesting one. A long dish with what looks like a little dragon made up of a long line of horseradish cream with pools of parsley puree in between. In the horserasidsh cream are bits of dried ice fish bits as well as asparagus, dried dried meyer lemon and other assortments. It tasted a bit like cuttlefish jerky (that you can get from the Asian markets). Nothing amazing, nothing bad...

15. APPLE CIDER - walnut milk, cinnamon, vegetable ash. While the previous dish wasn't that noteworthy, this made me go WOW. Except with my mouth closed. Because they bring you a shot glass with a ball in it and tell you, "the best way to eat this is to open up wide, very wide, and basically tip the glass upside down. The ball is quite a bit bigger than it seems. And we recommend you keep your mouth closed as it tends to squirt if you don't."
So true. I tried to be discrete, slowly tipping the glass back, hoping the sphere would roll down slowly. No luck. Seeing how hard it was to get the apple cider ball OUT, I can't imagine how they get it IN the shotglass without breaking it. Once I had it in my mouth, lips sealed, my mouth was immediately flooded with the most delicious apple cider in the world. It catches you a little off guard because you don't know quite how hard to bite down, and that little bit of uncertainty makes the flavor burst that much better. Top sweet dish of the night, hands down.

16. WAGYU BEEF - black trumpets, cedar branch aroma.I paid all this money and all I get are some branches?

Nope, it's just the sense of smell thing going on again. Do a little, ok, a lot of digging which in the meantime surrounds you with the wonderful cedar aroma and a little pin containing a seared piece of Wagyu beef with a tad of yuzu. Think Kobe beef.

17. BLACK TRUFFLE - explosion, romaine, Parmesan. And I'm ending this post on one of my favorite dishes (yes, I have a lot of favorites). A truffle ravioli, topped with a sliver of truffle, braised romaine and sliver of parmesan. Remember what I said about the flavor burst? Now imagine a truffle flavor burst, I don't even have words.
Not to mention the cool plate, I mean, anti plate it comes on that was so cool, I had to take a separate picture. The spoon rests in a bottomless plate. Chef, when are you going to start selling your dinnerware?

Coming up next: bacon candy, smoke-chocolate-egg, and Transparency...
Are you ready to fly to Chicago with me yet?

Alinea Part I - Pinch me, I'm dreaming.

I'm at a loss for words.

I officially had the best meal of my life. A meal that has confirmed that food is an art and an experience. A meal sitting next to people that understood that I don't just eat to live, but that I live to eat. And since leaving the restaurant, I've been struggling with words to describe my dinner at Alinea.

A little background first - Alinea was opened by Chef Grant Achatz (who also worked under Thomas Keller of the French Laundry) in May 2005. Since then, the restaurant has received numerous rave reviews, including being named the "Best Restaurant in America" by Gourmet magazine. Immediately after being told I was going to Chicago for training, I called Alinea for a reservation. Not surprisingly, they were booked, but I was put on the wait list. Three days before leaving Chicago, I received a phone call that put the biggest smile on my face - I was going to Alinea on Friday night! No exaggeration when I say I had a hard time sitting through class after that call...

Alinea has two menu choices - the tasting menu (12 courses) or the tour menu (24 course). Yes, it seems like a ridiculous amount of food, even for me, but keep in mind that a course is often times one or two bites. Despite my previously done research, I forgot that the entrance was unmarked minus a small sign noting valet service for Alinea. Alinea has a cool, lounge like feel to it - nothing too pretentious and far from stuffy. My dining buddy remarked several times how great of a night spot it'd make - I much prefer it to house my new favorite restaurant.

Once they confirmed any dietary restrictions (eggplant for JQ, bananas for me), we waited for the magic to start. Oh boy did it start...

1. Steelhead Roe - coconutFor each dish, the servers always did a fantastic job of instructing us how to eat the course. We were instructed to use the vanilla bean as the utensil to pop the morsel into our mouths and pull the vanilla stick out. I really liked this dish, but the combination of coconut cream and roe was so different and unexpected, I wish it came a little later in the meal.

2. Yuba - shrimp, miso, togarashi.
Yuba is made from soymilk. The soymilk is boiled to form a film on the surface, which is then collected, dried and subsequently fried to create the stick for this dish. The shrimp is wrapped around the yuba stick, then the whole thing is sprinkled with togarashi, a Japanese pepper spice mixture. The yuba was nice and crunchy (Dad, you would have liked this) and a nice contrast to the shrimp. At the bottom of the little black well was some miso mayonaise (though far from mayo, much to my happiness). I would have preferred to start with this course.

3. Crab - passion fruit, avocado, heart of palm.Bite-sized crab meat wrapped with a passion fruit leather (more fruit leathers to come in future courses) and heart of palm, teeny dots of avocado puree, microgreen, chevril, etc. These one bite courses really made my experience at Alinea. I've now written, then deleted, then written and deleted my attempts about ten times trying to describe why I really liked the one bite courses so much, but I'll leave it at they just leave me speechless. This was one of my favorite courses of the evening.

Over the next few days, I'll post each of the courses and end with a wealth of information that I've since found on Alinea. I contemplated posting a picture of the menu, or the menu itself as an introduction, but I thought it'd ruin the surprise. Part of the excitement of dining at Alinea was that you really put your trust in the chef to provide you a entertaining dining experience - a large part of the excitement came from not knowing what was next and trying to catch a glimpse of what the table across the room was getting.

Stay tuned for the rest of Alinea....

Happy St. Patty's Day, All!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Conquered tomatoes!

Slowly but surely I'm overcoming my food dislikes. First, it was avocadoes (yes, I know, how could I hate avocados?). Now tomatoes, thanks to some delicious caprese from a restaurant I can't remember.

It's not quite tomato season, but while Mom was visiting, we ventured over to the Farmer's Market at the Ferry Building. A small crowd was gathered around one of the stalls and once we (politely) shoved our way to the front, we saw why. Maybe it was the grumble in our tummies, maybe it was the delightful sunny SF day, but the tomatoes were gorgeous and irresistible.

Early the following week, a quick trip to Whole Foods produced a little mozzarella and basil from Whole Foods to make for a quick, light and tasty dinner.

Link love:
Caprese from Tea and Cookies