Shiftwork Bites: The Last Bite

This is a bit of a bittersweet installment of Shiftwork Bites. It's only been about six months since my very first post, but I've grown deeply attached to the project. The challenges, the successes, and even the failures have been a wonderful learning experience, providing insight into why I cook and how I can cook better. It's also been a lot of fun, and, I'm pretty sure my shift partners would agree, a pretty good meal plan.

Alas, the very concept of Shiftwork Bites hinges on that first word and, as of Monday, I will no longer be able to count myself among the (not so) lucky (not so) few who work while the rest of the world is sleeping, enjoying holidays, or otherwise leading what passes for normal lives. This, then, is the very last Shiftwork Bites.

In thinking through my last meal and my last post, I gave consideration to and received recommendations for a number of ideas. My first thought was to reprise the meal that got the project started, before it ever gained the legitimacy of a website people actually visited. That meal - a dish of morel mushrooms and asparagus in a tarragon-cream sauce, served over pappardelle - still stands as one of the best things I've ever cooked.

Then, while in D.C. a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet one of my favorite food writers, Carol Blymire. Carol first captured my attention while cooking her way through Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook for her blog French Laundry at Home. Her immediately engaging voice, boundless enthusiasm, and snort-chuckle-inducing wit made her writing feel immediately like a conversation I'd been having for a long time, and her no-holds-barred descriptions of her tragedies and triumphs stand as some of the best culinary encouragement I can think of. I can't say enough good things about Carol. Since then, Carol has moved on to a new blog, Alinea At Home, cooking her way through Grant Achatz's beautiful and intimidating Alinea. You should read them both.

Over dessert, I discussed the end of Shiftwork Bites with Carol, and bounced some ideas off of her. When I mentioned that I'd given some thought to pulling a recipe or two from The French Laundry Cookbook, Carol practically shot across the table, eyes gleaming. "You should totally do it," she gushed. "In fact, you should do something from Alinea, too," she declared emphatically, and began rattling off dishes she thought would be doable, given the limited circumstances of Shiftwork Bites.

When I got back to Houston, I pulled out my copy of The French Laundry Cookbook, purchased a copy of Alinea, and began marking recipes. Some - especially those requiring special equipment (and by special, I mean anything other than a pan or a blender), esoteric ingredients, or overly time-consuming preparation - got thrown out summarily. Soon, I had a list of recipes I thought I could pull off, and a couple of proposed menus. I bounced my ideas off Carol, ever accommodating, and hashed out a final plan.

Two days of shopping, multiple trips ferrying pots and bowls to our tiny office kitchenette, and a lot of hand-wringing later, and the night was upon me. Here's the menu I settled on:

1. Purée of English Pea Soup with White Truffle Oil and Parmesan Crisps -TFL 2. Pan Roasted Maine Jumbo Scallops with Morel Mushrooms and Asparagus Purée -TFL 3. English Peas (Tofu, Ham, Lavender Air) -Alinea 4. Kuroge Wagyu (Cucumber, Honeydew, Lime Sugar) -Alinea 5. Blackberry (Tobacco, Smoke, Bee Balm) -Alinea

Some dishes were bound to be modified, slightly. I wasn't about to get a vaporizer and make scent-expelling lavender pillows for the English Pea dish, and wasn't sure I could pull off the lime sugar for the wagyu without a dehydrator. Unable to find gooseberries for the English Peas dish, I made an educated guess from my one experience with the fruit, substituting a combination of tomatillos and muscadet grapes. I was cautiously optimistic about everything else.

Time became the biggest issue. These are fairly intensive dishes, each of them requiring the preparation of what are essentially a bunch of individual recipes brought together at the end. I had to scrap the Wagyu and the Blackberry (which, in retrospect, would have been easily accomplished if I'd put it at the front of my prep list, given that it's mostly a process of waiting for gelled cream to set), leaving me with a three-course meal.

Aside from time, and in conjunction with it, came the sheer number of vessels required to prepare everything. I washed and rewashed my one pan and pot, blender, and strainer so many times I lost count.

Then, there was the issue of heat. With just one legitimate heat source, and a weak one at that, getting and keeping things hot proved a major issue. I found myself blanching peas and asparagus in micro-batches, so as to keep the necessary rolling boil. Beurre monté was held in a ceramic bowl on the hotplate of the office coffee maker, alongside coffee mugs of morels and brunoise. Lavender-scented tofu, in a Ziploc bag, kept warm on top, while ham nage awaited foaming in a plastic water cup.

The pea soup came together rather easily, all things considered. It was delicious, calling to mind both the freshness of spring, and the funk of earth ripe with rotting leaves. It had perhaps a bit too much truffle oil for my taste (I've never been that fungus's biggest fan), but that was balanced out nicely by the salty, nutty crunch of the parmesan crisp.

The Scallop dish was elegant to look at, vibrantly flavored, and a nice pseudo-reprise of that first Shiftwork Bites meal. While the soup had only elicited appreciative nods from my coworkers, this one was met with moans and expletives, a compliment of the highest order.

English Peas, from Alinea, was by far the most complex of the three. It involves seven individual preparations, each of which is (trust me) truly integral to the overall experience of the dish. I blanched; I puréed; I gelled with agar and turned yuzu juice into pudding; I made lavender-scented tofu; I made yuba (soy milk skin) and fried it. Nothing was really all that difficult, just involved, lengthy, and requiring much washing of dishes. It was, in the end, delicious; a thoughtful and articulate reimagining of classic, comfortable flavors, with just a little twist, some refinement, and a bit of whimsy.

Between cooking, washing dishes between dishes, and attending to the necessities of my job, it was about 3 a.m. by the time we had finished that last dish. I apologized for having dropped the beef off the menu, and was roundly booed by my crew. I think they were kidding. I packed up my meager batterie de cuisine, hauled it down to the car, and bade Shiftwork Bites farewell. I'm going to miss it.

Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall