adventures in craft beer and real food

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Good ideas gone bad

For IMBB27/SHF20, I meant to do something special. Like make my own tofu from scratch, which is something that I've been meaning to do -- on a purely "cool" level.

I say that, of course, because as a midwesterner and as a carnivore, I honestly haven't found a reason to eat tofu just yet. It doesn't contribute any flavor to a dish. As far as I can tell, its only redeeming quality is that it isn't meat.

Still, I thought I'd give tofu the old college try. And even though the result was a complete and total flop, I thought I'd share the experience with you. Maybe you'll get a laugh out of my comedy of errors.

My idea was to take the dish I was served at L'Etoile (and served my friend) and change every element of it, but the basic idea. Instead of a red wine reduction jus, I figured that a nettle soup/sauce would make a striking impression upon the palate. Then, a layer of sautéd diced potatoes would add some body and some earthy flavors. On top of that, I thought I'd put a layer of blanched peas. And covering everything, I substituted in some tofu. The basic idea was a progression of flavors that bridge what's familiar to me (nettles and potatoes) to what's unfamiliar to me (tofu). I figured that the flavors would progress naturally from the piquant untamed flavor of the nettles to the subtle earthy flavor of the potatoes to the fresh and toasted flavor of the peas (by means of contrast) and finally to a savory end with the tofu.

Here's how I prepared each component.

I harvested the nettles by hand in Hamburg, Wisconsin in a natural forest that's been in my family's name for ninety years now. I tried to make it "nettle soup Loiseau" in honor of Bernard Loiseau of Cote d'Or fame. Having only the roughest fragmentary description of its preparation from the book The Perfectionist, I split the leaves into two groups. The first two-thirds of the nettles, I blanched in water until they had wilted. I sautéd the remainder in butter until browned. The two portions were then combined and puréed to create a striking green color. The soup was thinned out slightly with a bit of my homemade chicken stock. My dining companion described it as "golf course." Not the effect I was going for!

Before sautéing the potatoes in butter, I made sure that the butter developed a nice brown color and a strong nutty odor. My idea was to give a nod to asian cuisines by mimicing peanut oil with a Wisconsin staple. Then I cut some more CSA potatoes into a medium dice and sautéd them in the butter. At least these turned out well, since they were pleasantly earthy, crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.

The peas were blanched in water until the green color was most brilliant and then immediately shocked in ice water. Just before service, I sautéd them in more browned butter until a small amount of browning developed.

Finally, I prepared a white wine, basil, peppercorn reduction to add flavor to the tofu. This mixture was incredibly potent, but I couldn't seem to get the flavor to infuse the tofu even a little bit. After cutting it into slices, I gave it a good rub with dried basil, pepper, and salt. Finally, I sautéd the strips in browned butter.

In sum, the result was a disaster. The nettle soup was a very pure expression of the humble nettle, but it would have been better if it had been mounted with butter and/or mixed with some savory alium flavors. While it was a pure and unadulterated expression, it didn't taste all that great.

Then, I forgot to remove that fiber that runs along the length of the pea pods. The result is that, while the peas had a good pea flavor, they had a bad fibrous texture that made them entirely unsatisfactory.

And finally, the tofu had very, very little flavor despite my best efforts to obviate this issue. I learned that I should, perhaps, marinate the tofu in a strongly flavored solution before cooking it. And second, that I should cut it into thinner strips to have more browned surface per unit volume.

I still haven't discovered the "joy of soy" and I felt awful dirty standing in line at Whole Foods buying the ultimate in hippie chow, but I take solace in Jacques Torres' famous aphorism "When you have made as many mistakes as I have, then you will know everything that I know."


xenobiologista said...

You harvested nettles by hand? damn bloody OUCH.

Oh and Copps has sesame oil in the aisle that's got the Asian sauces and Ramen noodles if you want to try that.

Nicholas said...

Nettles only sting because they secrete formic acid, so it's not like it's actually dangerous. And plus, I handled them by the stem which doesn't sting as badly.

I have some sesame oil in my cupboard, but I thought using browned butter would be a good nod to Asian cuisine with a quintessentially (mid)western ingredient.