Last year for our anniversary, we flew to Chicago and had a life-changing meal at Alinea. Chef Grant Achatz's whimsical, otherworldly creations really amazed us both. We even went so far as to invest in the cookbook. It's rilly rilly purty (and heavy), with stunning photos of dishes that I can only imagine creating.
While not everything in the cookbook is unapproachable to the average home chef (in fact, most dishes are merely layerings of common techniques to new effects), until I invest in the anti-griddle or bone up on my frothing skills, I will not cook my way through the book. But I'm glad at least one person has the cojones to try it. Still, it's nice to draw inspiration from.
Generally, the names of Alinea's dishes are outlines of components, such as the famous, "Hot potato, cold potato, black truffle." The recipe in the cookbook that we used as our springboard was called, "Chestnut, too many garnishes to list." We decided to simplify.
To our minds, an amuse bouche has a specific function. It should always be one bite, and it should set the tone for the meal ahead. It should appetize through the eyes as well as the palate. It should be the one thing in the meal you want more of, but cannot have; it should leave you hungry, for there is so much more ahead.
We liked the idea of chestnut purée, knowing that we'd be serving meat with a nutty flavor. The original recipe included a truffle purée in a Brussels sprout leaf, so we merged those elements. Porcini mushroom felt like a natural companion to round out the wintry flavor profiles, and a gelatin added a new layer of texture. Together, our goal was to create a single bite with a complex, earthy flavor and diverse textures.
As is often the case, the smallest dish was the most labor-intensive. None of it was so very difficult, but it involved many steps, and much organization. First up, to prep the chestnuts.
Our former neighbor back at Dolores Street, an accomplished cook in her own right, once brought home some chestnuts to roast. She happily scattered them out on a baking sheet and thrust them into the oven, forgetting to score them first, then lay down for a short rest. She awoke to the sound of fireworks in her kitchen. The chestnuts were building up steam inside their shells, then exploding in the oven. She raced into the kitchen and opened the oven door, at which point the chestnuts continued to explode, only no longer contained by the confines of her oven. She found dollops of starchy chestnut meat in far-flung corners of the kitchen for weeks.
You can in fact peel chestnuts raw, but the shells come away much easier if you roast or blanch them first. DPaul decided to use the grill. Plus, you get that nice roasty toasty flavor this way.
After just a few minutes, the shells repel, leaving the sweet, nutty meat.
lightly adapted from Alinea
250 g chestnuts, peeled and skinned
700 g heavy cream
4 g kosher salt
1 bay leaf
80 g butter, cut into 3" cubes
In a medium saucepan, bring chestnuts, cream salt and bay leaf to a simmer over medium heat. Cook for 30 minutes, or until chestnuts are very tender. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, reserving cream and chestnuts. Transfer chestnuts and half of cream to blender and blend until smooth. Pass through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean medium saucepan. Warm over low heat. Stir in butter, one cube at a time, until incorporated. Taste and adjust seasoning. Refrigerate until ready to use; or, it freezes beautifully so you can make it weeks in advance if you like.
I am here to tell you that it takes a lot of Brussels sprouts to get just the right number of perfectly formed little leaves. Optimistically, you can get as many as three good leaves off each sprout, but sometimes as few as one ... or none. I ended up using three leaves per amuse, so plan to buy 5-6 times as many sprouts as amuses.
Using a paring knife, trim away the outermost leaves (typically they are too small and flat to work for this preparation). When you reach the leaves that actually crown over the top of the sprout, cut their stems at the base, and gently pry them free. Some will come away easily; others will require some coercion, but be gentle to avoid tearing. The innermost leaves are generally too tightly nested to pry, and are too small anyway.
Blanch your leaves in boiling, salted water for 10-15 seconds, then shock in an ice water bath. Drain and lay out to dry, concave side down. Check to make sure leaves are not nested within one another.
Prepare the porcini stock for the gelée:
The porcini gelée is nothing more than a savory gelatin made with porcini stock. We dabbled with making cute little squares and organic shapes, but ultimately were won over by the gorgeous, glass-like surface it forms in the bottom of a Chinese spoon. We also liked the trompe l'oeil effect of having the amuse "float" on broth, when in fact you could nearly turn the spoon upside-down.
You can prepare the porcini stock hours if not days ahead by steeping a fistful of dried porcini mushrooms in enough nearly boiling water to cover, at least two cups. Let stand for 15-20 minutes. Drain through a fine sieve, leaving the dregs behind (it's OK to sacrifice a little of the stock). Salt to taste. Allow to cool, and refrigerate until ready to use.
Compose the amuse bouche:
Selecting similarly shaped and sized Brussels sprouts leaves, arrange three leaves at a time into a small bowl, stems to the center. For the most part they will want to rearrange themselves into a round shape, so this step can be surprisingly easy.
Using a half-teaspoon measure or a small melon baller, scoop out a small amount of chestnut purée, and delicately place in each sprout bowl.
Meanwhile, prepare the porcini gelée: Add one packet of standard gelatin to 1/4 c. chilled porcini stock and let stand one minute. Heat another 3/4 c. until nearly boiling. Add the hot stock to the gelatin mixture and stir until all the gelatin is combined.
Spray the bowls of several Chinese spoons with non-stick spray. (We did not do this, and the gelatin stuck to the spoons more than I liked. But that didn't stop people from deftly tonguing those bits out, so I guess you could call this step optional.)
Spoon a small amount of the gelée into the bottom of a Chinese spoon, filling about halfway. Gently transfer your chestnut-Brussels sprout bowl into the center of the spoon, positioning so it opens to the front of the spoon. Let stand until the gelatin sets, an hour or two. Serve at room temperature.
Carol is cooking the entire Alinea cookbook at home. Because she can. She thinks.
Clotilde's porcini and walnut risotto sounds like it has a similar flavor profile.
Or how about a porcini chestnut soup, courtesy of Got No Milk?