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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 01/14/2011

Tales of the Testers: What about 'Noma'?

By Carol Blymire
newnoma_opt.jpg An inside look at "Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine." (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

Did you get "Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine" (Phaidon) as a holiday gift this year? It was on many "best of 2010" lists, including ours.

Or did you buy it for yourself, thinking you'd make something from it to impress your food-loving friends, then stopped cold when you saw ingredients such as reindeer loin, goosefoot and Icelandic moss?

I'll confess, when Noma the restaurant was ranked No. 1 in the world, I added the restaurant's cookbook to my Amazon wishlist. Having cooked my way through "The French Laundry Cookbook," and now working my way through the "Alinea," my skill level and exposure to new flavor profiles has greatly influenced my everyday cooking. So I was curious to see what I might glean from cooking from "Noma."

I believe in learning from the best, and when the best chefs in the world put themselves out there for you in the form of a cookbook, you'd be crazy not to give it a go. Through their own books, Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz have taught me more about cooking than I ever imagined was possible, and now it was time to see if anything about my cooking style clicked with chef Rene Redzepi's.

While Redzepi is known for turning the Danish fine-dining world upside down, shunning familiar Eurocentric menus and digging deep into defining Nordic cuisine, there's no sense of grandstanding or one-upmanship in his cookbook. It's a professional tome that, in its design, can feel cold and distant but includes stories about the local farmers and foragers that help shape the regional culinary culture in a way that makes us outsiders feel a little more welcome.

Redzepi's techniques might be considered avant-garde, but they're certainly doable. And, though some ingredients are unfamiliar or not easy to source, a little Google-fu helped me find the appropriate substitutions.

The two recipes I decided to try were Spinach Steamed in Tea and King Crab and Leeks in Ashes. I weighed ingredients.

Spinach Steamed in Tea
Everything in this recipe was incredibly straightforward.The ingredients were easy to source as well, though I did substitute celery leaves for lovage and beet greens for goosefoot.

The fragrance of this dish as it was cooking was so fantastic: verbena, woodruff, black tea, parsley, celery leaves and spinach all coming together for a really fresh yet hearty aroma that made me wish I was bathing in it. And that's just the greens. The cheese sauce, which I made without a Thermomix because I can think of better ways to spend $1,500, was just as intoxicating.

It took 15 minutes from start to finish to knock out this dish, and I'd recommend it as a vegetable accompaniment to something like braised goat, pan-roasted halibut or even a roasted chicken. Though there's more than a little butter emulsion enveloping the spinach, and it's served with a cheese sauce, this tasted fresh and made me feel virtuous for eating my leafy greens.

You'll want a small portion of it, because it's filling. But it's flavorful, so take your time to savor the nuances that appear with each bite. The dill, chervil, beet greens and celery work in tandem in a really interesting way that brings out a mild peppery taste in the baby spinach. The Vasterbotten cheese sauce might be my favorite part of this dish, though. It's got a smoky, nutty flavor, and it went surprisingly well with the spinach.

I've adapted the recipe to make 2 servings:

For the tea emulsion
250 grams room temperature unsalted butter
100 grams water
2.5 grams dried woodruff
2.5 grams dried verbena
1 gram black tea

Boil the water and whisk in the butter, then add the dried herbs and tea. Remove from heat and let steep for 4 minutes. Strain into a clean bowl.

For the spinach and herbs
120 grams baby spinach leaves
8 grams lovage leaves (I used fresh celery leaves)
8 grams parsley leaves
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Place lovage and parsley in medium saucepan and add 4 tablespoons of the tea emulsion. Increase the heat to medium-high and let the herbs steam for a minute. Toss in the spinach, add another tablespoon of the emulsion, and let steam for another 30 seconds. You can gently stir everything around with a spoon while it's steaming to make sure it's heating evenly. Place two 3-inch ring molds on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and divide the spinach and herbs evenly inside them. Put them aside and keep it at room temperature while you finish the dish.

For the celery
2 ribs of celery

Peel the outside of the celery with a vegetable peeler, making sure to remove all strings and fibers. Then, horizontally slice the celery in 1/8-inch or 1/16-inch pieces. Reserve in a small bowl.

For the herbs and bread garnish
20 dill leaves
20 goosefoot leaves (I julienned two leaves of beet greens instead)
20 sprigs chervil
2 slices white bread
10 grams unsalted butter
Kosher salt

Dunk the dill, goosefoot and chervil in cold water, then dry on paper towels. Tear the bread into small pieces and saute in a pan with the butter until crisp and golden brown. Season with salt.

For the cheese sauce
125 grams Vasterbotten cheese (available online at iGourmet.com)
25 grams water
Kosher salt

Rather than making this in a Thermomix, as the book suggested, I placed a mixing bowl on top of a small saucepan of simmering water and melted the cheese in the bowl, then whisked in the water and a pinch of salt.

To finish and plate the dish, I warmed the celery pieces in the remainder of the tea emulsion. I rewarmed the spinach disks in the oven (5 minutes at 300 degrees), then placed them in the center of the plate. I topped them with the fresh herbs, bread crumbs and celery slices. I aerated the cheese sauce with an immersion (stick) blender, then poured a little bit alongside the spinach before serving it.

King Crab and Leeks in Ashes
I'm a fan of some of the hay-smoked foods appearing on menus here in Washington -- particularly Nick Stefanelli's hay-smoked sweetbreads at Bibiana -- but hadn't eaten hay ashes before. This recipe was fun to make because I got to go primitive and set something on fire. (You'll see hay-smoked recipes in the Food section next week.)

2 king crab legs
1 kilo bag of hay (alfalfa or timothy; available at pet stores)
1 kilo mussels
1/2 shallot, roughly chopped
1 sprig thyme
300 grams dry white wine
50 grams cream
10 grams unsalted butter
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large leeks
20 grams bread crumbs
2 gram butter

I put the small brick of hay into the copper fire pit in my front yard and ignited it with a grill lighter. Within seconds, thick, billowing clouds of green-yellow smoke rose above the yard, and it took just 30 minutes for the hay to turn blackened, dusty, and cold. I brought a canister of the ashes inside to sift -- which in hindsight was a bad idea because they kind of went all over the place, and I just should've done that outside to make cleanup easier. Be ye not as messy.

Fishmonger MJ Gimbar at BlackSalt hooked me up with some beautiful king crab legs and claws. The recipe calls for claw meat, but the leg pieces are cylindrical and easier to work with so I used leg meat for this dish.

I adapted this recipe to serve 2 as well.

I rolled two 6-inch pieces nice and tight in plastic wrap, knotted the ends and let them chill in the fridge while I made everything else. This dish is served with a mussel sauce that takes about an hour to make, so I worked on that next. The recipe directs to cook mussels, shallots, thyme and white wine for 45 minutes. That seemed dubious to me, because I didn't understand why they needed to cook that long: Maybe Nordic mussels are heartier than the ones I used? Maybe they need a longer cooking time to release all their juices into the pan? I'm still not sure. Regardless, I strained the mussels and aromatics (and discarded them), and then reduced the liquid by half before adding butter and cream.

While the mussels were cooking, I prepared the leeks. I blanched the white parts of two leeks for 10 minutes in boiling salted water, then plunged them into an ice-water bath for 5 minutes. I peeled away the outer layers, leaving only the sweet inside layer -- about the thickness of my pinky.

I sauteed gluten-free bread crumbs I already had on hand in butter until they were golden brown. I have celiac disease and needed to use gluten-free bread; you certainly don't have to. Regular bread will work just fine.

To finish the dish, I kept the king crab in the plastic wrap while I poached it in 135-degree water for 4 minutes (also known as cooking sous-vide). Then, I unwrapped them and kept them warm in a small saute pan with a little melted butter.

Next, I gently rolled the leeks in a separate saute pan with a little melted butter before rolling them in the hay ashes. Last, I aerated the mussel sauce with my immersion (stick) blender. As the book instructed, I placed the crab and leeks next to each other, alternating them on the plate, and served the bread crumbs and mussel sauce on the side.

I took a bite of the crab and the ash-covered leek separately, then ate them together. Eating them together in one bite (along with some of the mussel sauce and bread crumbs) was much better. The leeks were tender and sweet, and the king crab was salty enough but didn't overpower the rest of the dish.

The mussel sauce was good, though not great, and the bread crumbs seemed like an afterthought. The dish wasn't difficult to make, but when I thought about how much the ingredients cost me, I'm not entirely sure it was worth it. Also not worth it were the ash remnants swimming in the leftover sauce on the plate when I was done. It looked like someone had put a cigarette out in my food.

Did these dishes blow me away? Honestly, no.

But let's put it into perspective: Redzepi is a world-class chef who has trained with the best of the best. I, however, am a home cook with stubborn persistence and a drive to learn. So please don't think that I expect my food to taste like that of a professional chef.

Still, I think I expected the Earth to move a little when I tasted this food -- or, at least to make me close my eyes and breathe it all in as I tasted it. Both dishes tasted good and they weren't difficult to make, which was more than one could hope for.

Maybe Nordic cuisine just isn't my thing. Maybe my palate hasn't evolved in a way that I'm able to appreciate this food. Maybe my adaptations hindered the outcome. Or maybe I need to book a ticket to Copenhagen and have dinner at Noma to truly understand how these dishes work as part of a larger tasting menu.

Is this book still inspiring? Heck, yes.The photography is beautiful, and more than a few of chef Redzepi's recipes have given me ideas for other things I'd like to try and make on my own.

And that's what I think I like most about cookbooks like Noma: that they make you look at your refrigerator and pantry a little differently, and encourage home cooks to break out of our comfort zones and try something new and different every now and then.

By Carol Blymire  | January 14, 2011; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Books, Recipes, Tales of the Testers  | Tags:  Carol Blymire, Tales of the Testers, books, recipes  
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Comments

I heartily applaud the enthusiasm with which you approached this task. But unlike you, I'd rather put my money towards a Thermomix than on fancy ingredients (just saying...) And, because I have, love, and use my Thermomix daily, I too was encouraged to try some NOMA recipes. The book make good use of the Thermomix, so that brought its own set of expectations.

I modified his recipe for carrot sorbet which I've since blogged about at http://SuperKitchenMachine.com

My verdict was in sync with yours. The value in the book NOMA is in how it makes us look at our pantry and fridge with a fresh perspective. I now keep carrot puree in the freezer alongside the frozen satsumas to satisfy the impulse to serve carrot sorbet on a whim.

NOMA is not a book I open often, but each time I do, it tweaks my culinary perspective just enough to allow the discovery of some new pleasure.

Posted by: SuperKitchenMachine | January 14, 2011 3:24 PM | Report abuse

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