Alineaphile

My adventures recreating Alinea Restaurant’s food at home

AQUAVIT, Picholine Olive, Caraway

Recipe, pages 276-277.

Kumquats. I crack up every time I think of these little citrus gems. Can’t help it. Ever since I was little. I blame my dad. And W.C. Fields.

When my brother and I were little, our parents used to watch all manner of old movies on TV. The older the better. It was their generation. My dad loved all the old comedians, especially the films of W.C. Fields.

Here’s his classic kumquat scene in It’s A Gift (1935).

Never forgot it.

Early in high school, I began the practice of keeping a sketchbook — and by the way, I’ve done at least one every year since. My early volumes have many doodles of kumquats. Maybe that giggly, prepubescent acknowledgment of it’s naughty-sounding name. (The same way we all chuckled at Wang Computers.) I dunno. Stupid and juvenile, yes. No wonder some of the other kids thought I was weird.

So anyway, it was a pleasure to come back full circle and do a kumquat (hehe) recipe.

With a lot of strong, kick-ass alcohol.

W.C. Fields would have been proud…

Mise en place. Doesn’t show the Akvavit-Olive shots I was doing while working with sharp implements:

Aquavit Gelatin
Aqvavit, or aquavit, is a very strong Scandinavian spirit distilled from grain or potato, and flavored with caraway. Other flavorings such as anise, dill, fennel, coriander, grains of paradise, and amber are sometimes used. It can be clear, or if aged in oak, a golden color. I found a bottle of clear Aalborg brand taffel akvavit at BevMo (US$20.99).

So it’s kinda like a caraway-seed-flavored vodka.

First, I soaked some gelatin sheets in cold water until they were soft, then wrung them out and reserved in a small bowl. I brought the aqvavit to a simmer in a small saucepan on LOW heat. Anytime you’re heating up an extremely flammable substance like this — beware. If ya get it too hot it will flame up. Watch those eyebrows everyone! If your aqvavit does combust, don’t panic! Just cover it with a pan or plate to extinguish.

I removed it from the heat and whisked in the gelatin. Let cool and filled a small squeeze bottle with the liquid.

Ingredients:
Aaborg Aqvavit, from BevMo
Rousselot “silver” gelatin sheets

Caraway Powder
Everyone has caraway seeds in their pantry. Usually several years old. And the only time you use them’s around St Patrick’s day isn’t it? Add them to come cabbage eh? Ore maybe you had them in some havarti cheese or rye bread? But we don’t usually cook with them.

Did you know that the seeds of the caraway plant (Carum carvi) are also known as Persian cumin? I didn’t know that. And since aqvavit is flavored with caraway, I can see why it was included in this dish. They’re pretty tricky at Alinea about using the same base or root ingredients in their dishes. Culinary etymology.

I toasted the caraway seeds in a small skillet until they released their aroma.

Then ground to a fine powder with my spice grinder. The Alinea cookbook says to then pass through a chinois, which I did not. Doing so removes any husks or chunks. But I was happy with what I got, first pass. It’s just going to be a tiny sprinkle. I know, I know, I’m a lazy bastard.

When you look at it on the final plate, you wonder what that powder is. I think one of the delights of Alinea is in the masking of ingredients’ familiarity — whether through technique, appearance, or combination.

Then I reserved the powder to my prep area.

Ingredients:
Dried caraway seeds

Picholine Olives
I went to my local Whole Foods Market for these, which has a pretty extensive self-service olive bar. It’s one of my friend Kathleen’s “most favorite things in the world.” There’s also one at my local Henry’s Market.

I sliced off 2 pieces lengthwise from each olive, avoiding the pit. This way, you get a smaller slice which will fit nicely on top of your kumquat “bowls.” You just have to kinda eye the size of slices you’re getting. Do enough for all your kumquats. Then reserved to my prep area.

Ingredients:
Picholine olives, from Whole Foods

Kumquats
Kumquats are like really small oranges. You can eat them whole, skin and all. The skin is sweet, and the pulp sour. Commercially, they’re grown here in California, and in Florida, and are in season from November through March. Two of the most popular kumquats are the Oval, or Nagami (Fortunella margarita), and the Mewei (Fortunella crassifolia).

I bought some Nagami kumquats at North Park Produce.

I simmered them in the simple syrup for just under an hour, until they were tender. Don’t cook them too long. They’ll get darker, harder and tougher as they absorb the sugar and “candy.” Makes for sticking them with the metal picks much more difficult later. I know, because I cooked mine a wee bit too long. Then removed from heat and rinsed the syrup off with warm water.

The remaining syrup’s pretty good too. I strained and saved mine for drinks later. Hmm, I wonder what cocktails call for orange syrup?

With a tomato shark (small Parisienne scoop), I removed the interior flesh and pith from each. It’s very easy to get these out, they’re very soft after simmering for so long. Just be careful not to puncture the skins. I reserved each on a small tray.

The kumquats are supposed to be like little round bowls for the Aquavit gelatin. They had a tendency to go flat or elliptical on me. So I spent some time “roughing them up” until they behaved.

Ingredients:
Fresh local kumquats, from North Park Produce
Simple syrup
Reserved Aquavit gelatin

To Assemble and Serve
I filled each kumquat “bowl” with the aqvavit gel, then place in the fridge until they set up. I waited a couple of hours. Removed from the fridge, then pierced each with a metal cocktail pick. Then topped each with an olive slice and a pinch of caraway powder. And there ya have it. Pretty easy.

I’d suggest serving them immediately. I saved some, and they don’t really keep very well. The gelatin sank and they looked kinda haggard.

The end result? Pretty good — if you like caraway. And booze. If not, then it’s probably not your thing. The combination of oranges and green olives is one of my favorites.

I first learned of it in Mario Batali’s recipe for Lamb Shanks with Oranges and Olives, (Molto Italiano, pg 382).

Then in Thomas Keller’s recipe for Citrus-Marinated Salmon poached in olive oil (French Laundry Cookbook, pg 140). But I use a green olive tapenade instead of the orange confit. Yum.

Yes, I think you’ll like this, “my little chickadees…”

Equipment:
Salter digital scale
Measuring bowls
Kitchen knife, cutting board
Stainless mixing bowls
Two small saucepans
Chinois
Wire whisk
Small squeeze bottle
Plastic containers

Serveware:
Vintage mid-century ceramic saucers
Metal cocktail picks, from Crate&Barrel

Yields: 8 servings in the book, but I got 16 out of it

Next, TRANSPARENCY of Manchego Cheese

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2 Responses to AQUAVIT, Picholine Olive, Caraway

  1. Peter says:

    Oh yeah, these are delicious! At first I had the same problem with collapsing kumquat zest, but the third time I tried rolling the kumquats to find the flattest, most stable side. It kinda worked.

    Not to boast, but I may be the most experienced kumquat-aquavit-amuse chef outside of Alinea, with five batches notched up so far. They’re so delicious!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Peter:
    I’m planning to try these. Do you have any hints or learnings you gleaned from your 5 batches you would be willing to pass on to a newbie?

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