My adventures recreating Alinea Restaurant’s food at home

BLACKBERRY, Tobacco, Smoke, Bee Balm

Recipe, pages 192-193.

Ya know, ordinarily I would have used some fine cigar for this dish. But the last time I was exploring the local Asian market, Vien Dong World Foods Supermarket, I came across these bags of imported black Thai chewing tobacco. Marked “No.1” from IHA Beverage.

Had to get one. Not that I’ll ever chew it, let alone smoke it. But it was just there, calling my name.

Now I that I have a buttload of it left, what am I gonna do with it? Well, I’ll tell ya this. Just like tuna, kittens when left on their own, like chewing tobacco just as well. I vacuum packed the rest…

Several folks have already tried this dish, hated it (the tobacco), found it challenging, and loved it. Carol from Alinea At Home and Michael of Chicken Fried Gourmet, to name a couple. The use of tobacco leaves as simply another savory cooking herb is what I found so intriguing. There are even restaurants adding tobacco to their food and drinks (“Nicotini” anyone?). So, I had to try it too.

Tobacco Cream
Mise en place:

I soaked 5 sheets of gelatin in a bowl of cold water until they were softened. I use Rousselot silver gelatin sheets. There are “gold” and “silver” grades, the latter being a bit less expensive (and not as strong). I got a big box of them from L’Epicerie. Use silver for Alinea recipes, it’s what they use. For a full discussion on gelatin bloom rates and conversion from sheets to powders, check out this eGullet forum thread.

Then wrung them out and reserved in a small bowl.

I combined the half-and-half, cream, sugar, about 2g shredded tobacco and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan, and brought to a boil to dissolve the solids. Watch your pan, it may foam up. Took it off the heat and let steep for a couple of minutes, then strained into a clean bowl.

WAIT! My hands smell like grandpa! It’s that smell, that familiar tobacco smell. Where’s that anti-bacterial soap?

This is the second batch I made. For the first batch I followed the recipe, and used 5g of tobacco, which is quite a bit. Then let it steep for 20 minutes. That turned out waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too strong. I wanted a subtle smoky taste, not the “let’s lick the ashtray” taste of the first batch. My advice: get a mild cigar or tobacco, and taste the cream before you proceed, or you’ll end up tossing the whole kit and kaboodle!

Then I stirred the gelatin into the warm cream until it was dissolved. Strained again. Keep this warm. And watch out for the crust that forms on top (like on a cream soup sometimes). Strain it again, if you need to, before you pour the gelatin mixture into your glass pan.

I took a glass Pyrex pan and sprayed it with PAM, then wiped off the excess. I have better luck using this method than with the technique of lining a pan with plastic wrap. Then I poured enough of the tobacco cream to cover the whole bottom of the tray, and refrigerated it until it set up.

Alta-Dena half-and-half
Alta-Dena heavy cream
C&H cane sugar
Black Thai chewing tobacco, from Vien Dong World Foods Supermarket
Diamond Crystal kosher salt
Rousselot gelatin sheets, from L’Epicerie

Again, I’ve found quite a difference in produce prices from store-to-store. Fresh blackberries, plump and in season now also vary greatly in size and quality. ALWAYS check the berries within their (usually plastic) container, they are very susceptible to mold.

I cut the tops off each berry, and placed each on a paper towel to drain a bit. This is so they’ll stay put later. We don’t want the ol’ “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down” thing happening as we’re pouring the tobacco cream around them.

Fresh blackberries
Reserved tobacco cream

To Assemble and Serve
Took the tobacco cream gelatin out of the fridge, and spaced out the blackberries on top, each about 1.5 inches apart.

I know. “What about what you just said about the spray vs plastic wrap?”

The pic above is from my first attempt. I don’t want to talk about it. Below is better.

Then very carefully poured the remainder of the warm cream around each berry, flooding the gelatin surface up to about halfway of the berries’ height. Then I walked the pan over to the fridge as carefully as if it was a bomb with a motion-sensor.

Juggernaut. “Do I cut the red wire — or the blue wire?”

Let set up.

Once the gelatin had set, I took it out of the fridge. Using a cookie cutter, dipped into hot water, then wiped off with a towel, I cut out each berry. Dipping and wiping the cutter between each cut.

This way you get a nice clean edge on your pieces. A “best practice” for cutting any fancy-schmancy dessert.

Now I had them all cut out. Notice the bottom right piece. This was cut out with a dry, room-temperature cookie cutter — icky edges. See what I mean?

I ground up some Thai long peppercorns with my coffee grinder. Mixed with some alderwood-smoked black salt, from where purchased, I can’t remember. But it’s good stuff! Ground it to a fine powder with a mortar and pestle.

I placed each on bamboo tasting spoon, and topped with a little of the smoked salt/pepper powder and a mint leaf.

This recipe calls for bee balm (Monarda) leaves and flowers. Monarda is also known as horsemint, oswego tea, and bergamot. I could not find any locally, but the recipe also suggests mint. I had some in my garden. Actually, orange bergamot mint (Mentha citrata), which smells just like Earl Grey tea. Fancy that, eh?

When I need to buy fresh herb plants, I go to Walter Anderson Nursery here in San Diego. They have a great selection of herbs you just can’t find anywhere else locally. Except for this time, they had no Bee Balm.

Thai long peppercorns, from LeSanctuaire
Alderwood smoked salt
Fresh orange bergamot mint leaves, from my garden

You get a creamy, smoky initial taste; salty-sweet-berry middle; then a biting tobacco finish. The second batch I made with the adjustment of less tobacco worked better for me.

Next time I make this, I’m going to use the tobacco cream for the base layer, then an Earl Grey tea gel for the top layer. The combination with the bergamot leaves should be — addictive!

Salter digital scale
Measuring bowls
Kitchen knife and cutting board
Paring knife
Medium saucepan
Stainless steel bowl
Wire whisk
Chinois or wire sieve strainer
9×13 glass tray

Yields: 12-16 servings

Next, YUZU, Pine, Black Sesame, Shiso

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