Photo by Lara Kastner
WILD TURBOT shellfish, water chestnuts, floral vapor
More often than not the creative impulses that lead us to unusual flavor combinations are the result of experience, an association game of like ingredients and study. But sometimes we draw on intuition and a more cerebral aspect of life experiences and memory.
When people think of the function of flowers in food they commonly write them off as purely aesthetic, a way to add color and natural beauty to a plate. To me flowers are herbs. In fact, many of the flowers used in the culinary world are exactly that, the blooms from herb plants. But in this case we go deeper and focus first on the smell the flowers emanate and how that can influence taste. We then look to what they represent to the season and the memories surrounding the aromas they produce.
I grew up in St. Clair, Michigan, a small, agricultural-based town. What the tiny town lacked in culture (the first fast food restaurant was built when I was a junior in high school, and it only had one major intersection) it made up for in outdoor activities. Hunting, fishing, and dirt bike-racing were the hobbies of choice for my group of friends.
Fish and flowers made sense to me not for any culinary reason, but for sentimental ones.
My father would frequently take me on the boat out into the St. Clair River to drift fish for walleye, or I would go casting with my friends to various ponds and small lakes near our home. The extremely humid and sultry climate that the Midwest summer is known for produced a very distinctive fish/sea smell as the air met the water. And inevitably the banks of all the bodies of water were lined with many types of plants in bloom. So for me the two smells--seafood and the perfume of flowers--were permanently fused in my mind.
While working on the opening menu for Alinea we were trying to use various hydrocolloids to create a custard-like texture for a shellfish cream that would set very quickly but remain warm. This would allow us to suspend a piece of fish--in this case, turbot--in the custard without having to bake it in a traditional egg-based custard.
The absence of egg helped maintain the pure flavor of the shellfish, but also made it possible to have perfectly cooked fish by avoiding the need to bake the custard at a high temperature to set the eggs, thereby overcooking the fish. We found the right synergies in the gelling agents, and everyone was excited with the idea of a modern way to make a custard. But now we had to figure out the supporting ingredients to compliment the shellfish and turbot flavors.
We started with fennel, Pernod, and sunchoke. The anise profile of the fennel and Pernod, along with the potato-like quality of the sunchoke puree were obvious compliments to the shellfish and turbot, but what came next was less predictable.
I reached into my wallet, pulled out $20, and told one of the cooks to run to the florist and pick up the most perfumed flowers he could find. Everyone else looked at me quizzically and thought I was having a meltdown as a result from the frustration caused by the dish's lack of direction.
The cook returned with a few bunches of hyacinth flowers. I leaned over and breathed in deeply, and the fragrance of spring filled my head. As soon as I smelled the briny sweetness of the shellfish along with the musky perfume of the flowers, I was transported back to my childhood. Until that moment I had no idea why I wanted to pair this dish with the smell of flowers. But once it was all together, I instantly remembered a day when I was 12 years old, fishing for walleye with my dad in the late spring. We would tuck in along the shore and eat lunch among the wildflowers. Fish and flowers made sense to me not for any culinary reason, but for sentimental ones.