I went to the Canberra Times Food & Wine section Xmas drinks last night, and came home with a couple of cookbooks. We had a few drinks and nibbles at the Parlour Wine Rooms, a door prize raffle for a hamper, and we were allowed to grab a book each from the review stash. I was just going to have the one, but Robbie from Lynwood Cafe, who won the hamper, thrust the one she'd been holding on me at the last moment and I couldn't possibly refuse! My protests were exceptionally feeble.
I have ended up with Christine Manfield's Stir, which is a moderately practical volume. She gives recipes for a number of spice pastes and for each one, a small collection of recipes using that paste. I hope to actually try some of those out.
The other book is the huge, heavy and ornamental tome Alinea, by chef Grant Achatz. There's introductory chapters by a number of people, including Jeffey Steingarten. It's a cookbook from the Alinea retaurant in Chicago. There's a website just for the book, which gives an idea of how beautiful it is. And probably hints at how difficult and flat out impractical it is for a home cook. This is cuisine as high art, with prices to match - the shorter tasting menu is a mere $145 US per head, and that's without wine. Or hey, you can buy a gift certificate for a friend: it's a mere $US 1050 for a complete dinner for two including 25 course meal, wine, taxes and service.
The book features complete recipes for four 20-30 course meals, one for each season. They're listed very simply, main ingredient first, then a list of other ingredients or a technique. For example from the summer menu we have: "CORN, coconut, cayenne, mint", "RHUBARB, seven different textures", or curiously, from spring there's an Australian theme: "LAMB, akudjura, olive, eucalyptus veil".
So what if you were going to make something from this book? You'd need some equipment and special ingredients, but you could do a fair bit at home. There's a whole chapter with advice on adapting the ideas. You can make you own "anti-grill", for instance, by buying a slab of dry ice and putting it under a metal baking sheet. Agar agar is widely available from any Asian grocer, carrageenan is sometimes found in health food stores, and some of the highly specialised starches can be mail ordered. A home dehydrator is not hard to buy.
But even the simplest dishes involve many complex operations and assemblies. For example, take that RHUBARB one. Guess how many sub-recipes there are for that dish! Try the LAMB or CORN, too. Then click on the link to find out:
There are thirteen of them in RHUBARB. CORN is remarkable at only three, and LAMB has five. RHUBARB is slightly exceptional, but many have five or eight. Here's the list of sub-recipes in the RHUBARB dish.
1 * Beet spheres - sweetened beetroot juice made into little frozen-shelled spheres with a liquid centre.
2 * Rhubarb juice - with sugar, cooked & strained.
3 * Dried rhubarb - a puree with wine & Thai pepper, rolled to a sheet and dessicated
4 * Gin compressed rhubarb - raw, but sweet. Macerated in juniper & gin syrup under vacuum.
5 * Rhubarb sponge on bayleaf - not a cake, a foam made by whipping rhubarb jelly. Decorate with dessicated grapefruit.
6 * Lavender-poached rhubarb - wine & lavender syrup poached.
7 * Lavender pudding - a lavender agar gel pureed to a custard-pudding texture
8 * Goat's milk custard - made with lavender and rhubarb, set with carrageenan
9 * Rhubarb sorbet - a straightforward sorbet.
10 * Oatmeal struesel - a simple topping of oats toasted with brown sugar, then blended with cream to a smooth icecream.
11 * Rhubarb gelee - or jelly, to us. Set the juice (above) with gelatin
12 * Fennel Candy - a toffee flavoured with fennel juice
13 * Green tea nage - a sauce of green tea, sugar and salt emulsified with soy lecithin
And finally the assembly step, which I didn't count a a recipe, although it is very detailed about the exact plating and adds some garnishes.
Just the thing for your next dinner party, eh? No, I don't think so either. But some of it is possible: lavender poached rhubarb, with a rhubarb sorbet and oat crumble icecream terrine - that's quite do-able. I'm oscillating between appalled and inspired.