Carrot Jerky with Orange
March 18, 2016

During my time working through my Alinea cooking project, I heard a not-insignificant number of comments along the lines of “Seems like someone has too much time on their hands,” or “Oh, you must not have kids, right?”  My general response to stuff like this was to laugh casually and say “Yeah, totally.” This is because I dislike being rude. But truth be told, these kinds of comments irritated me. Sure, spending an entire weekend firing chocolate through paint sprayers or meticulously rolling puree into icy capsules is luxurious, but couldn’t I have said the same thing about someone choosing to spend a weekend biking, socializing, or binge watching an entire season of whatever?

About 10 months ago, Sarah and I made an interesting discovery: Sarah was pregnant. The “too much time on [my] hands”-type comments quickly morphed into “Good thing you got that big cooking project out of your system”, “You better do all your fancy cooking stuff now, before the kid gets here”, or “Welp, there goes all your free time.”

Why do people say shit like this? Is it designed to be helpful or insightful? It fucking isn’t.

I’ve wanted to be a dad for as long as I can remember; I want my kid(s) to be awesome and I want to be awesome with them. And sure, I’m aware that having kids means a person’s free time is no longer entirely theirs. But I’m fortunate enough to have friends who live completely fascinating, full lives with their children, and from them I draw an enormous amount of inspiration.  So I grew to despise comments that implied some forfeiture of identity once our child was due to arrive on the scene, because I empirically know them not to be true.

Despite my best efforts, however – despite knowing that having a child didn’t necessarily mean I was doomed to become some super-boring version of myself – I heard this enough times that it somehow worked its way into the already-sizable and way-more-legitimate cache of concerns I had about raising a little version of myself.

This hit both Sarah and I the hardest around our 7-month mark, when we decided to do some spring cleaning of our apartment. We realized that we’d arranged our place in a very utilitarian way that suited our creative urges; we had minimal space for sleeping, but lots of space for spreading out projects, taking photos, and entertaining guests. But this arrangement left little room for the privacy and quiet we knew we’d need to offer a baby, so we started rearranging stuff. This was disorienting enough as it was, but the thing that ended up having the biggest (and most unexpected impact) was the realization that we needed to get rid of our enormous, beautiful, totally awesome dining table.

If our apartment has a central feature, it’s this absurdly-huge, incredibly useful table. This table has seen countless dinners with friends (some joyful, some sorrowful), and has also served as a creative space for us to spread out things like knife-making projects, photo shoots, and a million other things we find ourselves getting creatively involved with. It was the staging area for designing, packing and shipping over 500 books that we self-published last year. It was my photo studio for my Alinea project. It was where we laid out a poster we designed for a friend that went on to become the first glimmer of the small business we run together.

It wasn’t until we realized we needed to trade this table for things like a crib and a rocking chair that we understood what it had come to represent to both of us. The absence of it inherently meant no way to have dinner parties and less space for our own creative binges. With its loss we also felt the threat of losing our own identities hanging over us darkly, exacerbated by feeling scared of the unknowns that our new child would bring with him or her.

Then, two weeks ago, it happened. Sarah and I welcomed our new daughter into our lives.

The first thing I did when we got home from the hospital – in between changing diapers, cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry – was pick out a ridiculous recipe from the Atelier Crenn cookbook, go shopping, and start cooking. I needed to prove to myself what I thought I already knew: that our awesome new daughter signified not a compromise of my life, but an enrichment of it.

The recipe I chose is Carrot Jerky with Orange; it’s my favorite kind of recipe in that its elegantly simple presentation belies a ton of intellectual consideration and thoughtful technique. The dish arose from Crenn and her team asking themselves if they could come up with a vegetable version of beef jerky. That is, they wanted something with the same pleasant, chewy texture and deep, concentrated flavor as what comes from dehydrating marinated beef or venison strips in a dehydrator overnight. Their end result nails this goal, but the road getting there is far more circuitous. The recipe takes about 4 days to complete start-to-finish. Since my schedule suddenly consists of short bursts of baby care followed by 2-3-hour quiet stretches, I felt it was a great recipe to try with my new sous chef.

The recipe begins with a few handfuls of young carrots. Because Crenn and I both share a home-field advantage of living in the same city, when I saw her choosing to use lots of differently-colored carrots in her final plating, I knew exactly where to find them: my beloved Berkeley Bowl.

The carrots are washed and soaked in a solution of pickling lime. While I’d vaguely heard of pickling lime before, I’d never worked with it directly, didn’t really know what it did, and (I discovered) completely confused it in my head with lye (which, hot tip, is a totally different thing). Pickling lime is calcium hydroxide, or slaked lime; used in this recipe, it proffers calcium ions to the carrots to strengthen their pectin-based skin structure. This will ultimately allow the carrots to maintain integrity through the rest of the recipe, as well as give them a tougher, chewy ‘skin’ that bolsters the jerky-like texture we’re aiming for. Neato.

After the pickling process, the carrots are packed into a cure of salt, brown sugar, garlic, and ginger. They’re left in this cure for 3 full days. The curing process draws water out of the carrots, concentrating their flavor while also seasoning them. After three days, the above bag ends up looking like this:

At this point, the carrots are removed from the cure and rinsed. While they’re drying, I built a brine of more salt and brown sugar, ginger, black pepper, and orange slices. This was brought to a boil, then poured over the carrots and left to sit overnight. During this soak, the carrots rehydrated, drawing in flavors from the brine.

While the carrots were brining, I worked on making Cayenne Carrot Dust. To do this, I juiced several carrots, retaining the pulp and spreading it on a dehydrator tray to dry out overnight. The next morning, this pulp was ground in a spice grinder with a bit of cayenne powder.

When the carrots had finished brining, they were cooked sous vide until they were tender. Because of the pickling process, the outer skin of the carrots remained strong and pliable, while the inside took on the consistency of a smooth carrot puree.

The carrots were then brushed with a syrup of glucose, sucrose and cayenne, then dehydrated once more until they weren’t tacky to the touch and were about the texture of beef jerky. So, summarizing this rigamarole: we pulled water out of the carrots, pushed flavored water back into them, cooked them, then pulled water back out of them again.

Once the carrots were dry, they were wrapped in long laces of orange peel that I candied in glucose and sugar and rolled in sugar crystals. Just before service, the carrots went back into the dehydrator to remove any absorbed atmospheric humidity and to warm them slightly.

Of course, this dish is delicious. I love the cerebral backstory that motivates it as well as the clever techniques used to arrive at what definitely passes as vegetarian jerky. The most surprising little touch is the inclusion of cayenne, which is used in small enough amount that it’s meant to accentuate the heat of the ginger notes, not make the dish spicy outright. This subtlety is super cool to me.

But more than this, I love that my new daughter napped lazily near me as I was making it. A concern I consider worthwhile as a parent is my desire for her to grow up in a household with parents who value curiosity, creativity, exploration and the humility that comes with knowing that there is always more to learn. If that requires me to push myself that much harder to accomplish this, so much the better for us both. But I refuse to acquiesce to the idea that I should have ‘gotten this out of my system’ before she came along, or that the effort involved in making time for my own curiosity is insurmountable.

Lead by example, they say. My little girl will know what it means to be passionate.