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Many of you readers will note that this dish is somewhat ripped off from Alinea. The main component that makes this interesting is the ball of mozzarella filled with tomato water. Alinea calls it a mozzarella "balloon," which is fairly appropriate. One way I could have put my own spin on it is by letting the diners have a tomato-water balloon fight. It would have worked, especially in a fine dining context, but the balloons are too labor intensive to make enough quantity of them for a reasonably long balloon fight. So I just served it as is, and kitted out the dish with simple, straightforward flavors, but presented in a refined way that improves the eating of the dish.
The simple act of peeling the tomatoes brings the dish from rustic to refined, as Shola says. These were gorgeous, delicious, pristine tomatoes from The Peach Farm (sungolds and some black cherry variety), Balakian Farms (green zebra and some similar yellow variety), and Everything Under The Sun (red cherry tomatoes). They were all scored, blanched, shocked, then peeled, which I got plenty of practice doing in my stage last month at McCrady's. Here's what I can recommend: cherry tomatoes, sungolds, and similarly-sized tomatoes should be scored by clipping off the very top (stem end). Larger varieties should be scored with an 'x' on the bottom of the tomato.
I had some lovely purple basil from White Crane Springs Ranch, which has all sorts of interesting herbs and flowers available, always meticulously picked and prepped, and some Genovese basil from I don't remember where. Chue's Farm? I used Lucero Ascolano olive oil which was a gift from a Lazy Bear-B-Que diner, some decent balsamic vinegar dripped from several feet above the plates to make some interesting splatters, Maldon salt, and some black pepper.
Now onto the star of the dish, the mozzarella ball. First, I made tomato water by pureeing some whole Early Girl tomatoes and adding some salt and Pectinex Smash XXL then letting it sit overnight in the fridge. Then I decanted to yield delicious tomato water. I adjusted the salt level of the tomato water, added some gelatin (500g tomato water to 3.5 sheets gelatin, per the Alinea cookbook), loaded it into a cream whipper, and charged it with one cream charger. Adding the gelatin ensures that when you fill the mozzarella, the tomato water (and hence, the mozz balloon) will keep its volume and stay filled with the tomato water. Otherwise you end up with a saggy ball with tomato water at the bottom. Anyway, the cream whipper then gets fully chilled.
For the mozz balls, I took mozzarella curd and added heavily salted, very hot water (boiling, actually). Using two layers of latex gloves, you stretch the mozzarella while it is still extremely hot. It doesn't take much stretching before it's ready, and you'll know when it happens--the curds will come together and will no longer be curds, but mozzarella. Working quickly, you take a small piece of the mozzarella and flatten it, then use it to cover the nozzle of the cream whipper. Holding it around the nozzle very tightly, turn the whipper upside down and slowly release some of the tomato foam. Once the ball reaches about 2.5-3 inches in diameter (that's much bigger than the Alinea ones, I think), pinch the mozzarella ball shut while sliding it a bit off the nozzle. Keep pinching it tightly for several seconds. If you've worked quickly enough and the mozzarella has stayed hot enough, it will seal to itself. If not, you lost that one; start over.
Here are a couple tips for this mozzarella process. First of all, after taking a small piece of mozz, flattening it, and getting ready to put it over the whipper nozzle, give it another dip into the hot water to keep it as warm as possible. Second, you have to keep shaking the whipper between balls, and then keep it upside down after shaking it. Otherwise the tomato stuff gets stuck and you'll get air bubbles. Third, because of (2), and because of the speed with which you must work, the process is much easier with two people. One holds the whipper, shakes it between balls, and keeps it upside down. The other works the mozzarella and actually depresses the lever of the whipper.
Anyway, the end result is a nice, plump ball of tomato-filled mozzarella. I served this dish in a bowl, and when the mozz was pierced, the tomato water spilled out into bowl, saucing the dish. I encouraged the diners to pick up the bowl and drink the juices that remained at the end, and many of them did. I certainly would have.
Whoa, love this post all around. Curious - where do you get mozzarella curds from?
Posted by: sygyzy at July 22, 2010 11:34 AM
You pulled these tricky Alinea mozz balls off very nicely. How does that work when making them for a large dinner service? Can you hold them refrigerated for a good amount of time?
Posted by: E. Nassar at July 23, 2010 12:43 PM
sygyzy, I ordered them through my local grocery store's cheese department (Rainbow Grocery), but they were kinda pricey. You'd do much better if you got them wholesale.
Elie, thanks. I don't know how that would work for a large dinner service. I only had to have 12 good ones per night. Even that was a challenge. I probably threw out as many as I used. A lot of them had leaks that would only show up half an hour after they were made, so they deflated. All of them got less taut the longer they sat. So I just made them an hour before service. If I had to make tons of them, I don't know what the heck I'd do. If you had a station that wasn't too busy, you could probably make them to order, as each one doesn't take long. You'd just need some salted, simmering water constantly available. Wouldn't be too tough. I'm guessing that's what Alinea does, but I could be wrong.
Posted by: Barzelay at July 24, 2010 1:12 PM
That's what Alinea does. They're pretty damn fast at it too.
Posted by: The Gourmet Pig at July 25, 2010 12:44 PM
Thanks for confirming that! How is your 1L summer?
Posted by: Barzelay at August 3, 2010 2:21 PM
Posted by: Evan at August 6, 2010 12:18 PM