The July Daring Cooks challenge was hosted by Sketchy of Sketchy's Kitchen. Sketchy challenged us with a foray into molecular gastronomy, choosing a dish from Alinea by Grant Achatz: skate, traditional flavours powdered. Thanks Sketchy for such a spectacular challenge!
I have to admit that when this month's challenge was revealed I was a little freaked out. If you read my blog you know that I am all about simple food and the recipe seemed like anything but - what seemed like a million steps and just about all of the techniques foreign to me. With my sister's wedding and out of town guests the last couple of weeks I was very tempted to take a pass but I was a little embarrassed about wimping out on my very first Daring Kitchen challenge so I reminded myself that the whole point is that it is supposed to be a challenge and decided to forge ahead.
I won't lie, this dish takes a very long time to create, mainly because the ingredients for the powders need to be completely dehydrated and there are a lot of different components to the dish, but it was not nearly as difficult as I had feared. Once you have the powders done (and you can definitely make them ahead of time, in fact I highly recommend it), the dish comes together relatively quickly.
Not having a dehydrator, I dried the ingredients for the powders at a very low temperature in the oven, which took several hours. You can find a really helpful description of the process and other tips here.
Once completely dried, the ingredients need to be crushed into a fine powder and passed through a fine-mesh sieve. Since I don't have a coffee grinder, I used a combination of mortar and pestle and, for the harder ingredients such as the lemon peel, a mini food processor. I would definitely recommend using a coffee grinder if you have one - it was pretty hard to get a fine powder out of some of the ingredients without it.
I was surprised at the intensity of the flavours in the powders - I was expecting them to be dry and awful but they really popped and added incredible dimension to the fish. I made 4 different powders, staying true to the flavours of the original recipe: parsley and cilantro, caper and onion, lemon, brown butter and banana chips.
All of these flavours are pretty traditional with fish, right? Until you get to the banana. It appears in this dish both in the powders and as fresh slices under the poached fish. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical but I kept an open mind and was pleasantly surprised to find that the banana actually worked in the finished dish.
After an afternoon of preparing the powders I pressed on to finish the dish and serve it for supper. In retrospect that was probably overly ambitious but I figured that if I didn't do it right away, with all the craziness of my life over the last several weeks, I would never get it done. Let's just say we ate dinner very late that evening hence my recommendation to make the powders ahead of time!
The only change I made to the recipe was to use cod instead of skate as it was what was fresh and available from my fishmonger. The fish was poached in a butter emulsion (beurre monté) and was incredibly tender. Unfortunately it fell apart in the poaching liquid. I thought I had been pretty gentle with it but clearly not enough! I managed to piece it back together for the photo and frankly no one cared that it was flaking apart, it was that moist and delicious.
The big question: will I make this again? The truth is, I don't know. It was really good, restaurant quality (if I had been able to hold the fish together that is), but it's very far from my usual style of home cooking. I will use the poaching method again and maybe even use the same flavourings because they really worked well together, but I will probably use them in a more traditional way, without creating the powders.
I really want to thank Sketchy for prodding me out of my comfort zone in my first Daring Kitchen challenge and introducing me to the wonders of poaching in a butter emulsion! I have to admit that for my first challenge it was a doozy but I am so glad I completed it.
Check out other Daring Cooks who participated in the challenge. Their efforts were truly inspiring as I worked my way through my first attempt at molecular cuisine!