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Villalobos first tasted the bright-orange rhizome straight and discovered that like ginger, which it's related to, fresh turmeric has a lot of heat. "It's a completely different flavor [than dried turmeric]," he says. "Pepper notes, earthiness, there's some sweetness behind it. It's unlike anything I've ever had. I will never use dry turmeric ever again."
The chef also found that fresh turmeric had a numbing effect on his tongue, in much the same way that Sichuan peppercorns do. "Yesterday I was tasting and tasting and tasting, at first I didn't realize, but later in the evening my tongue was numb . . . I was pretty much useless for tasting into dinner service." As a result, Villalobos hadn't tasted all the components of his dessert together: turmeric ice cream with caramelized pineapple and granola with turmeric syrup, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. "The pastry approach is not my forte, so I thought I'd challenge myself," he says.
Villalobos infused the turmeric into milk and cream simmered over low heat. It takes a few minutes for the liquid to pick up the turmeric's orange color, he says, but if you leave it long enough it'll get so bright it looks like it's glowing. "Turmeric has that effect: if you use too much, everything looks neon—not good." Then he whipped together eggs and sugar, tempered them with the hot milk mixture, and added the eggs and sugar to the pan with the milk, cream, and turmeric. After heating the mixture slowly, whisking constantly, he strained it through a chinois, and chilled the liquid before spinning it into ice cream.
To plate the dessert, he placed a slice of pineapple—which he'd poached in white wine and then caramelized over high heat—in the bottom of a bowl, then sprinkled a little granola over it. A scoop of turmeric ice cream, a little more granola, and a couple of edible flower petals later, the dish was ready to serve.
Villalobos says that the turmeric ice cream is good for a first attempt, with a gingery heat that hits you in the back of the throat and the nasal cavity. "It definitely has a lot of savory quality to it," he says. But before putting it on the menu he'd have to consult his pastry chef: "She'd probably say it sucks."
Villalobos has challenged Emily Kraszyk of Farmhouse Tavern to create a dish with beef tongue, one of his own favorite foods. "I eat it as much as I can whenever I go out," he says. "Usually it's late at night and in tacos."
Turmeric ice cream
.5 cup sliced turmeric
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
.5 cup sugar
Heat the milk and cream with the turmeric until the flavor is well infused. Whisk eggs and sugar together until pale. Temper the egg mixture with a little of the warm milk and cream, then add to the cream mixture. Heat slowly, whisking constantly, strain through a chinois, and chill, then spin into ice cream.