1 Ordinary Cook, 35 Impossible Recipes

Can a home cook learn anything from the supercomplicated cookbooks of the world's most celebrated chefs? We asked Timothy Taylor to dive into the deep end and then throw some dinner parties for friends.

PART 3: Suddenly realize that I don't have any dirt.

The 11 Madison Park and Modernist recipes had been a hit but introduced me to a new level of kitchen concentration that was mentally and physically exhausting. With Noma, by the time my dirt had turned to rock, I was contemplating outright failure.

I had a rather odd-looking jar of pickled shallots in blueberries in the fridge. I'd failed in my quest to find edible spruce shoots, despite a surfeit of spruce in the Vancouver area. I still had to prep and blanch my carrots, radishes, baby leeks, and sunchokes; mash some potatoes; blanch and separate white onion leaves; blend parsley oil; bone the eight-hour braised oxtails; reduce a sauce that would later be infused with verbena leaves; make potato chips and dip them in chocolate and sprinkle with seeds. Oh, and mustn't forget the apple gel, which I was improvising with a recipe from 11 Madison Park (using agar-agar) because I could not find the gelling agent required by Noma, called Gellan. When I contemplated my solid sheet of "soil," it felt as if my whole dinner could come apart at the seams.

I took a deep breath. Dinner was still two days away! According to my planning charts, 48 hours was just enough time. By the afternoon of my party, the blueberry pickled shallots for the first course were getting quite intriguingly flavored: sharp and sweet, with a zing of acid. The parsley oil dressing was maybe less promising, tasting to me quite a bit like pureed lawn clippings. But my veggies were blanched and shocked and looking colorful for my "vegetable field." The mashed potatoes sat fluffy and light in their butter. And the oxtails for the main course were smelling spectacular. Who knew verbena could make demi-glace taste refreshing? Apple gel garnish, ditto: Perfect discs of apple-y goodness. There was a moment of satisfaction and calm, followed immediately by the realization that I still didn't have any dirt.

Dirt! One cannot serve up a Noma vegetable field without dirt. No time to think. Just make something, I said to myself. Which is how I learned a secret. You can spend two days following Redzepi's recipe, and perhaps it will work for you, but you can also make fabulous dirt in 15 minutes in a skillet stovetop by browning the malt and hazelnut flours with a bit of sugar (I used caramel-brown palm sugar). Shake and scrape over decent heat. Moisten with melted butter and ... my dirt was better than his dirt: golden brown, sweet, crumbly, and clumpy.

The bigger surprise came when the guests sat down. They ate in silence. Then they cheered. I mean about everything. Blueberries and onions in a swirl of parsley oil might sound odd, but it tastes magical, foresty, and alive. The vegetable field was crazy good, the veggies peeking up out of the mashed potatoes, which were covered with the famous dirt. And the oxtails cooked overnight and sauced with verbena were remarkable, rich, and light. Afterward, everybody stood in the kitchen eating the leftovers: oxtail, veggies, soil, apple gel, pickled shallots. I'd been in the kitchen for three days. I wasn't hungry anymore. But for all its pretense, Noma's wacky food made people very happy. That was a take-away I won't forget. I might never make dirt again. But I had learned that stretching almost to the point of panic in the kitchen can have its payoffs.

 
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