July 14, 2009

alinea challenge


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!

18 comments:

  1. Congrats on your wonderous 1st challenge good to hear you liked it even the bananas (which nearly everybody liked!) yes one of the major ideas behind the Daring Cooks' is going 'outside our comfort zones' and this was the challenge for that. Your posting impressed me with a gentle sense of 'love of food' and the passion that is needed to prepare it for your family and friends. Just a gentle flow of tenderness and a whiff of intrepidation but with a strong sense of determination to complete this challenge, it seems you learnt a lot from it also (as I did) this isn't something I would normally (or un-normally) but it is the Daring Cooks'. great pixs also. Cheers from Audax in Australia

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  2. God, any fish, or anything for that matter, poached in all that butter is luscious! Yours came out beautiful, the fish perfectly cooked and the powders, divine. Great job!

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  3. You did a bang-up job! I tried to dry a few things in the microwave and it was a disastre! I should have tried the oven. Great work!

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  4. Welcome to the Daring Cooks. I love your photos, especially the collage. Sounds like we were like minded about this challenge, a bit wary at first, but grateful for the experience. I enjoyed your post and am glad to have found your lovely blog.

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  5. hey, well done for doing it and making the effort! i had fun doing this too.

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  6. Wonderful job! I loved your photos. And, I think you're right about so many of us feeling the same way about this challenge. Great post!

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  7. Thank you for your kind comment on my blog. Your powder swirls look really pretty. Well done, indeed!

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  8. I you hadn't said in your post, I would have thought you did use skate. The skate also wants to fall apart.

    Way to jump in with both feet on such a difficult first challenge.

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  9. Your plating looks great! Who would've thought that powders would add such dimension to a dish. Great job in cooking out of the box on this one.

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  10. Thank you all for your kind words and compliments. Aside from expanding my horizons, this challenge has given me the opportunity to meet so many wonderful food bloggers and discover many lovely blogs. I am really looking forward to the next challenge!

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  11. I also used cod and found it almost impossible to get it out of the poaching liquid in one piece. Great job on your first challenge!

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  12. Congratulations on your first challenge! And you are right - what a challenge it was. Great job! Looking forward to more Daring Posts from you!

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  13. Great job! And welcome to the Daring Cooks!

    Double-kudos to you for using an oven and mortar and pestle! I thought the aroma might fade with the oven method, but apparently not... And you really got the ingredients down to a fine powder!

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  14. Congrats on completing your first Daring Cooks' challenge! Wonderful job on this challenge. The flaked cod looks like you did that on purpose... you cut their food into tasty bite size morsels. lol. Good times!

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  15. Way to be resourceful! Your dish looks wonderful. Yes the coffee grinder was a blessing but a lot of the ingredients still didn't reduce to "powder". Way to go fellow Canadian!

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  16. You are brave! So happy that you gave it a go and were so successful!

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  17. I loved the bananas too! Congrats on completing your first Daring Cooks challenge.
    I also subbed a different fish; I used halibut. I thought it was just delish.
    Great job!

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  18. Yum! Your fish looks wonderful =D. Congrats on your first challenge!!

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