Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Daring Cooks' July Challenge - Fish and traditional powdered flavours

This month's Daring Cooks challenge, hosted by Sketchy from Sketchy's Kitchen, was certainly a challenge indeed! A lot of cooks, even the most daring ones, seem to have had a momentary freak out upon reading through the instructions the first time... myself included!

The challenge recipe, from Grant Achatz' Alinea , was based on molecular cuisine, something I've heard about, but have never been tempted to try out. Fortunately, there was no need for special chemicals or equipment in this case - although I did personally find myself woefully under-equipped.

The recipe consisted in two basic parts: homemade powdered flavours on the one hand, and fish poached in butter on the other. Add in some buttery green beans and slices of raw banana, and you find yourself with an unusual, but explosive combination of flavours and textures.

The main requirement was to make the powders ourselves. This posed the biggest challenge for me, as I found that, despite my love of kitchen gadgets, I didn't have many of the necessary ones. Ideally, we were instructed to put the fresh herbs or condiments in a dehydrator, and then grind them in a spice-mill or coffee-grinder. Acceptable alternatives were a mortar and pestle and a microwave - the latter of which I don't have. I used to own a microwave, but then it died and I realized I only used it for heating water, melting butter, and making popcorn - all of which can be accomplished in other ways.

So I asked my in-laws, who live close by, if I could pop over and use their microwave for an afternoon. When I showed up, with all my ingredients in tow, I found my father-in-law waiting for me in the kitchen with books on microwave dehydration: apparently, he'd done this before. In fact, he was quite curious about this challenge, and insisted on helping me out.

Actually, I'll just come right out and say it: my father-in-law did most of the work. I hadn't intended to "cheat" on this challenge, but it just sort of ended up that way. After all, it was his kitchen, and he seemed to know what to do much better than I did. He even suggested skipping some of the instructions, such as poaching the lemon zest in syrup and blanching the parsley, assuring me it wasn't necessary. And he was right. He also suggested that we microwave the ingredients in 1-minute instalments, to make sure they didn't burn.

See, this is why I'm so territorial in my own kitchen: because I'm a wussy pushover in other people's. Still, I was really grateful for the help: the powdering process went by so much faster! And I was honestly prepared to go home and grind everything by hand with my mortar and pestle... until my father-in-law took out his coffee-grinder, which got the job done in seconds, and far better than I could possibly have managed by hand. Honestly, sometimes, it's just better to listen to your elders, especially when they have a well-equipped kitchen and have made just about every dish imaginable.

The original recipe (found here) called for skate. Once I had figured out what skate is, and had confirmed that it would be rather difficult for me to find here, I substituted it with tilapia, a firm fish which I thought would go well with the tropical banana. For the rest, I stuck to the suggested flavours (coriander, parsley, lemon zest, onion-caper, and brown-butter-banana), simply adding a touch of storebought paprika for colour.

As you can see, my plating skills need some work. But even with my crappy presentation, the dish still looked pretty and colourful, and definitely appealing. Although I admit I was a bit skeptical about how it would taste, I was very pleasantly surprised. The crisp buttery beans, the still-firm fish and the sweet, cool banana ensured that every bite was layered and complex. As for the powders, they were indeed packed with flavour, every single one of them. They were all good, but I think I preferred the lemon one.

Since I had some powders leftover, I made a variation on the challenge a couple of days later. This time, I served the powders with grilled shrimp-and-peppers skewers, with a side of quinoa - and I *tried* to make more of a presentation effort. I was reluctant to use the butter poaching method again, as it was a little too rich for me, but I didn't want to add too much flavour on top of the powders, so grilled shrimp seemed like a good solution. They also went well with the lemon powder, but were also a surprisingly good match for the strong onion-caper one.

I'm definitely glad I got to try this recipe out. While I still prefer fresh seasonings in general, and probably won't make my own powders again until I get a new microwave (which will not be for a while), it was worth discovering these flavours under a different form. And, at the very least, I got to bond with my father-in-law!

EDIT: I had jotted down the time it took to microwave each ingredient, but I thought I had lost my notes. However, I just found them, so here's the information, if anyone is interested. It was all done in a very old 900-watt microwave.

Lemon zest: 2 x 1 min on high
Parsley: 4 x 1 min, then 2 x 30 sec on high
Coriander: 5 x 1 min, then 2 x 30 sec on high
Onions: 2 min, then 6 x 1 min on high
Capers: 1 min on medium, then 5 x 1 min on high

For the "brown butter" powder, I used fat-free powdered milk and, as instructed, spread it on a baking sheet and baked it at 180ºC (350ºF). But rather than baking it for 4 minutes straight until it browned, I baked it in 2 minute instalments, then stirred the powder and put it back in. I did this 3 times, until the powder was acceptably browned (but not burnt).

That is all!


  1. Your plating is fantastic and your powders are so perfect and colorful. No wonder you served them with the shrimp and crabcake! I'm glad you gave me an idea of what to do with the rest of mine. I also happen to have a TON of brown butter powder left! Very beautifully done!

  2. I am so impressed! I wish I had someone to help me, I spent a ton of time on the onions and ended up burning them in the end. Ian had to console me. Plus my coffee grinder will never smell the same! So talapia works well eh, we are eating ours tonight (and posting tonight) but I am too lazy to go find skate. Seeing your post is making me feel a lot better about dinner tonight! Thanks!

  3. WOW! C'est vraiment beau Valérie!
    Tu es vraiment chanceuse d'avoir des beaux-parents qui vivent proches de chez toi et qui sont aussi généreux! J'étais sceptique avec la déshydratation au micro-ondes mais visiblement il semble que ce la fonctionne très bien. J'aime beaucoup ta présentation avec la brochette de crevette, très inspirant. De plus, grâce à toi, je viens tout juste de réaliser que j'ai oublié de faire mon Daring Cooks...

  4. What a wonderful experience you had and don't worry you didn't cheat you learnt by watching and if help is on hand use it I say. Your plating isn't crappy IT IS beautiful full of colour and zest and that second dish is to die for. Your powders came out so bright and fresh looking bravo your dad-in-law is very good with the microwave. Kudos on a fabulous result just loved this posting. I think everyone was a little amazed how good this dish really is especially the bananas. Cheers from Audax in Australia

  5. Gosh, I wish I had your father-in-law helping me out on this challenge! The colours of your powders are so vibrant - they look amazing. Beautiful!

  6. Your powders look really beautiful and the plating is splendid. Kudos!

  7. well done! i love that you tried the powders with something different - i wish i'd made the effort to do this too.

  8. Help in the kitchen is in no way cheating. I am impressed with the color you were able to retain using the microwave drying. Great work.

  9. Excellent & challenging yummie recipe!

    You did a great eh,...excellent job!
    Nicely coloured too! The fish dish looks excellent!!

  10. Hey Valerie, have you ever heard of PA Supermarche? I used to live beside one by the downtown Concordia campus. Anyways, they sell everything there and for an insane price. The skate was 2.50 and I picked up 2 pounds of almonds for 2.95 yesterday. If you are ever looking for an exotic ingredient they usually have it for a really good price.I think there are other stores around the city so check out the website to see if there is one near you. I would only shop there if I could!


  11. wow...your dish looks lovely! I am drolling for those skewered shrimps and peppers!!! yum!

    I love tilapia, I thought had I not been able to buy grouper I would have chosen tilapia..=)

    It is indeed a challenge when we don't have the proper tools, nice of your dad-in-law to help out..=) maybe he would soon be interested to join Daring Cooks! =)

    acdee of Confession nOok

  12. O wow! I am quite impressed with your (and your father in laws:)) skills! I skipped this challenge. It was taking me way too much time to do all the drying of the herbs which I just didn't have.. But I love how yours looks!

  13. Quite impressive--I don't think it's cheating to have help in the kitchen. This type of cooking can be daunting and sometimes we need a bit of guidance/a push.


  14. Awesome job! I love to get cooking with people, even if it means they do most of the work =D. Your powders look amazing!

  15. I don't think it's cheating to have such an expert help you out at all! Your powders have such a rich, intense color -- the plates are beautiful!