Molecular gastronomy for the home cook

 

sodium alginate

Something new for your pantry: calcium chloride.

 Molecular gastronomy has made waves in the food world for several years now, as cutting-edge chefs experiment with ways to introduce new textures and flavors to the plate. Everyone, it seems, from Herve This and Ferran Adria to that creepy Marcel guy with the Joker hairdo on “Top Chef,” is working with gums, and foams, and goos. Now the trend is nudging into the home kitchen.

[Update: check the comments following this post for Herve This's wonderful explanation of molecular gastronomy, and check out Gourmet's delightful video about him.]

So on Saturday afternoon I eagerly hustled over to Surfas, a high-end restaurant supply emporium in Culver City, CA, for a demonstration of basic molecular gastronomy. The store’s large demonstration kitchen overflowed with spectators, who were there to watch Chef Andi do her stuff. She teaches molecular gastronomy as part of the culinary arts program at a local high school, which would be an awesome way to learn about cooking and science. If only I’d had that option, instead of dissecting a yucky fetal pig, my life might have taken a very different turn. 

Someone like Harold McGee might say that all cooking involves molecular activity and is, therefore, a form of molecular gastronomy. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I’m skeptical about the whole molecular gastronomy gig. First, if you read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (an indispensable reference), you know that all cooking involves molecular activity and is, therefore, a form of molecular gastronomy. The comprehensive site Khymos.org, which is run by a Norwegian chemist with a passion for cooking and is devoted to molecular cuisine, makes it pretty clear that anyone who has boiled an egg is a molecular gastronomist, or at least a kitchen scientist.

But the term “molecular gastronomy” has come to describe–in my mind, at least–precious tasting spoons filled with dubious-looking foams or tiny gelatinous beads adrift in the middle of a continent-sized white plate. Molecular gastronomy is the antithesis of the kind of hearty, authentic fare I prefer. Of course, that begs the question of what constitutes “authentic.” After all, someone has to prepare my twee plate of molecular chow, so it isn’t really fair to say it’s somehow less authentic than a bowl of nonna’s bolognese. 

Still, on a gut level, I harbor some skepticism. But on an intellectual level, I can appreciate that Ferran, Grant, and other molecular gastronomists are pushing the boundaries of flavor and texture in intriguing ways.

Chef Andi offers a molecular gastronomy demo at Surfas in L.A.

Chef Andi offers a molecular gastronomy demo at Surfas in L.A.

It’s in that betwixt-and-between mindset that I took a seat at Surfas to watch Chef Andi run through her demo. She was showing us three recipes, which made it a little confusing for a molecular novice like me to follow. Primarily, she focused on gelatin–the common gelling agent extracted from animal collagen, with which home cooks are quite familiar;  sodium alginate; and calcium chloride.

The sodium alginate and calcium chloride were where things got interesting. When sodium alginate is mixed with a liquid and then added to a bath of calcium chloride, the liquid gels and forms beads to create lovely pearls that look like caviar.  

This worked with mixed results. In one recipe, Chef Andi and her assistants made Peanut Butter & “Jelly” Dessert Cups (check the Surfas Web site for recipes, which they promise to post soon)–basically a peanut butter mousse (made with gelatin) topped with a black grape “caviar” (created with the help of sodium alginate and calcium chloride) and spooned into chocolate cups in a sort of dessert version of an amuse-bouche. It was tasty, but I couldn’t help thinking you could achieve a similar result with a lot less effort by just using regular ol’ real jelly. Perhaps that’s why I’ll never be a molecular gastonomist.

make little beads of "caviar" with the help of sodium alginate and calcium chloride.

Do this at home: make little beads of "caviar" with the help of sodium alginate and calcium chloride.

I saw–and tasted–molecular gastronomy’s appeal more clearly in the Tuna & Avocado Salad with Green Onion, Ginger, and Sake “Caviar.” Chef Andi made the caviar from a flavorful liquid of stewed ginger, onions, and sake to which she added sodium alginate. She decanted this mixture into a squeeze bottle, and then began squeezing pearl-sized drops into a calcium chloride bath, where they formed perfect little caviar-like beads. This caviar was spooned atop a timbal of sushi-grade tuna salad and avocado. The result was a a complex amalgam of flavors and textures. The tuna was velvety, the avocado creamy, and the “caviar” exploded with flavor–much like real caviar.

As I watched the demonstration, I realized that my reluctance about molecular gastronomy is more a reflection of my approach to cooking than anything. Molecular gastronomy requires a level of patience and precision that’s inherently at odds with my  slapdash cooking style. I glance at a recipe, and then improvise along the way. Molecular gastronomy requires reading–and heeding–the directions. So although I may be temperamentally unsuited to molecular gastronomy as a cook, I can certainly appreciate the results when someone else does it.

Food of the year: Bacon

 

Black Forest bacon from Shaller & Weber.

Black Forest bacon from Shaller & Weber.

2008 may well go down as the year I finally embraced bacon. I’m not sure why it took me so long to come around. My mom was a fiend for bacon–one of the last things I remember her eating was fat scallops wrapped in bacon. She ordered rashers of the stuff when she was in the hospital with lung cancer, much to the consternation of the staff nutritionists. They’d call to set her straight.

“Mrs. Mann, we got your order, and I’m afraid bacon doesn’t count as a protein.”

“That’s not really an issue for me now,” she’d reply. “Send me the bacon.”

Perhaps it took me a long stay in the Deep South, where the natives love all things pig, but I’ve finally come to realize bacon is a staple that deserves a spot in the fridge at all times. I love i’s smoky flavor and crunch, which elevates all manner of dishes. I also appreciate  the flavorful fat it renders, which I use to saute, well, anything, really.

Perhaps it took me a long stay in the Deep South, where the natives love all things pig, but I’ve finally come to realize bacon is a staple that deserves a spot in the fridge at all times. 

Of course, I’m latecomer to a really big party, because bacon has always had a passionate following. I (Heart) Bacon is a Seattle-based blog devoted to cured pig products. Another one is Bacon Freak (i.e., “Bacon is Meat Candy”), where you can order everything from gift baskets of bacon to gummy bacon candy. Serious Eats just named bacon one of their top posts for 2008.

I picked up a half-pound of Black Forest bacon, a thickly sliced, German-style smoked and cured variety, at the Whole Foods meat counter the other day. And I’ve enjoyed it this week with Brussels sprouts and spinach, and in place of unsmoked pancetta in Bon Appetit‘s Fettuccine Carbonara with Fried Eggs (I also omitted the fried eggs and used spinach in place of the broccoli rabe). But here’s how I use it with Brussels sprouts in my current favorite side dish.

Brussels Sprouts with Black Forest Bacon

Brussels sprouts and bacon have a special affinity. You can use any type of bacon in this easy side dish, though the smokiness of Black Forest bacon is especially nice. Depending on the type of bacon you use, you may not need much (or any) salt. Quartering the sprouts helps them cook quickly. You could add shallots with the garlic, if you like, or deglaze the pan with white wine instead of broth. Serve with roasted pork tenderloin or chicken.

1 pound small Brussels sprouts

2 slices Black Forest bacon, chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1/4 cup chicken broth

Salt and black pepper, to taste

1. Trim away the outer leaves and stalk end of the Brussels sprouts. Cut sprouts into quarters.

2. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add bacon; cook 5 minutes, or until bacon starts to get crisp and render its fat. Add garlic; saute 30 seconds. Add sprouts, saute 5 minutes. Add broth, scraping the pan to loosen any browned bits. Reduce heat, and cook 3 minutes, or until sprouts are tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4.

Time to stock up on kitchen items

The presents may be opened, but if Santa forgot something for the kitchen, now is a great time to treat yourself. I’m banned from kitchenware stores, since I’ve just spent weeks paring down my cluttered kitchen in preparation for a cross-country move. But I can still enjoy a little virtual window shopping. Here are some of the best buys I’ve found for you.

Sur la Table’s 9-piece stainless steel cookware set: $270 (regularly $350). If you’ve been waiting to invest in good-quality cookware, check out this bargain on the kitchenware emporium’s house brand. 

 

There’s no time like after Christmas to stock up on holiday-themed stuff. This Red cutwork table runner from Williams-Sonoma ($24, down from $60) is nice enough to become a family heirloom.

 

Find a 12-inch Calphalon One nonstick skillet for just $49.95, down from $114.95, at Cooking.com.

Find a 12-inch Calphalon One nonstick chef's skillet for just $49.95, down from $144.95, at Cooking.com.

Amazing deals on Calphalon nonstick cookware at Cooking.com. (I really need to visit this site more often–they have some terrific buys.)

 

 

 

 

 

Buy 8 Riedel "O" series stemless red wine glasses for $70 at Cooking.com.

Buy 8 Riedel "O" series stemless red wine glasses for $70 at Cooking.com.

Did a guest drop one of your favorite winegalsses? Restock with Cooking.com’s 8-for-the-price-of-6 offer on Reidel glassware.

 

 

 

 

 

I love Michele Cranston’s full-color Kitchen cookbook for inspiration and her inviting approach to cooking. Buy it for $19.95 (down from $34.95) at Crate & Barrel.

 

 

Plain white serving bowls are at home in every kitchen, and Chefs has lovely Portuguese-made bowls from $9.99.

 

 

I need dishes like a hole in my head, but I’m tempted to break ‘em all so I have an excuse to buy Chefs hand-painted Mocha-Stripe dinnerware set ($60 for the 16-piece set; $90 for 32 pieces, down from $130 and $260). It’s gorgeous.

Food safety for Christmas

We may imagine farms are as bucolic as this one. In reality, most farms are industrial-size enterprises, and some experts say that results in food safety concerns.

When Obama won the presidential election, many foodies hoped he would advocate for a better food environment. At the top of the wish list is addressing the safety of our food supply.

In today’s New York Times, reporter Kim Severson tries to parse President-Elect Obama’s food policies, including his controversial selection of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as the secretary of agriculture. Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, summed it up for many when he described the selection of Vilsack, who has supports ethanol production and biotech croops, as “agribusiness as usual.” Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat, also expressed some concern about the choice. You can weigh in with your opinion at Serious Eats.

There is a glimmer of hope, though, as there’s the still-open, key post of undersecretary of food safety to fill. The first-rate blog Obama Fooderama urges the incoming president to appoint class-action attorney Bill Marler, because he might actually do something to ensure the safety of our food supply. (Check out his list of the top 10 food safety stories of the year.) Marler’s track record of successfully pursuing food-bourne illness suits since the early ’90s makes him an intriguing, if politically inconvenient, candidate.

The FDA's plans to protect our food supply are mostly in the meeting stage at this point.

The FDA's plans to protect our food supply are mostly in the meeting stage at this point.

But even the government acknowledges–although clumsily–that something needs to be done to improve food safety for Americans. Earlier this month, the FDA released a one-year progress report on its Food Protection Plan. Thus far, the progress is mostly the formation of steering committees and holding public meetings, in addition to:

  • A food-safety self-assessment tool for industry. (Isn’t that like having the wolf guard the henhouse?)
  • Establishing inspection locations in foreign countries that export food to the U.S. (A good idea, but it’s unlikely to be as comprehensive as it should be, due to inadequate funding. But even if there are enough inspectors, they may not screen for everything. The Los Angeles Times reports that melamine-tainted farmed seafood is routinely exported to the U.S., and FDA doesn’t currently require melamine screening for imported seafood.)
  • Approving the irradiation of spinach and iceberg lettuce, a process that many consider controversial. (Irradiation may destroy vitamins in food, and it doesn’t address unsanitary conditions at factory farms, accordng to the Center for Food Safety.)
  • Requesting funds from Congress to hire more inspectors, which the chronically underfunded agency needs. (It will be interesting to see if Congress comes considers the safety of our food supply as important as bailing out banks.)

Although I’d certainly like to see more a more vigorous food-safety policy from our government–one that’s aimed at protecting citizens rather than appeasing agribusiness–current economic conditions have likely knocked it down on the list of priorities for Obama’s first days in office.

Bigger is better in Texas

 

No wonder this little fella looks nervous. He's yours--free!--if you can eat him in under an hour.

Size matters: No wonder this little fella looks nervous. He's yours--free!--if you can eat him in under an hour.

I’m on Day 3 of my cross-country road trip–with dog and cat in tow, in a Mini. Driving along the I-40 for 10 hours a day is bound to lead to a few epiphanies:

  1. Obama’s plan to create new jobs to shore up our nation’s crumbling infrastructure is smart. I thought I’d lose a kidney while bouncing over the rutted stretch of I-40 in east Oklahoma. 
  2. I am a modern-day Okie. The car is packed to the gills with crap and animals. There’s even a soup pot–albeit an All-Clad–on the front seat (I’d forgotten to pack it). So I can always stop and whip up a roadkill soup if things get really bad.
  3. Texas is all about big.

Of course, the third item isn’t really anything new, but I still enjoyed many examples while driving across the Texas Panhandle. It’s home to some of the swankiest rest stops I’ve seen. In Gray County, heading east from Oklahoma, there’s an environmentally sound welcome center built into the hillside. On the westbound side of the interstate, in neighboring Donley County, they’ve upped the ante with a huge, Art Deco-style rest stop. Places like these are enough to make you think, “I should stop for a spell to check this out.”

The largest cross in the Western Hemisphere.

The largest cross in the Western Hemisphere.

A scene from "The Life of Brian"?

In Groom, just east of Amarillo, you can stop to admire the largest freestanding cross in the Western Hemisphere. It’s a soaring, 190-foot-tall, cement achievement that even a heathen like me can appreciate. Although the Stations of the Cross sculptures surrounding the main event made me think of “The Life of Brian.”

Driving away from my stop at the cross, I was greeted by huge (of course) billboards touting the Big Texan in Amarillo. The Big Texan is a cheerfully gaudy Route 66 landmark, as it’s the home of the 72-ounce steak–free, if you can gobble the thing in under an hour. It’s not a challenge I was up to (though my dog Rascal would have been happy to take it on). A free 4 1/2-pound steak is the ultimate in eating cheap–if you succeed. But you must pay the $72 upfront. It’s refunded if you meet the challenge, and 8,500 people have since the Big Texan opened in 1960.

You have to admire people who are willing to create their own grandeur on such a breathtaking scale–not just a steak, but an enormous one. 

Ultimately, the emphasis on superlative size is what I admire about this part of Texas. There’s not much there, really, just miles of barren, windswept (T. Boone Pickens is right about harnessing that wind to generate some energy) ranchland. You have to admire people who are willing to create their own grandeur on such a breathtaking scale–not just any cross, but the biggest one; not just a steak, but an enormous one. I usually subscribe to the less-is-more school of thought. But in Texas, bigger really is better. Or at least more entertaining.

 

Big and gaudy, that's the Texas Panhandle.

Big and gaudy, that's the Texas Panhandle.

Sunday lagniappes

Cilantro–love it or hate it? (I love it.) Cast your vote–Serious Eats

 

 

More 2009 food and travel forecasts, including jumbo beans, ice cream supplanting cupcakes, artisanal yogurt, and Cuba and Iceland will emerge as top (i.e., affordable) destinations–Gourmet

 

If you don’t bake 6,00o Christmas cookies like this 79-year-old, you’re just not trying hard enough–The New York Times

 

Tell the folks at Pillsbury how you make a America sweeter and you could win $5,000, or just make their rugelach recipePilllsbury

Cookies are tops for holiday baking

 

All across the land, folks are hard at work baking holiday treats.

All across the land, folks are hard at work baking holiday treats.

All across the country, little elves are hard at work churning out batch after batch of Christmas cookies. According to the research firm NPD Group, 60% of American households are whipping up cookies, cakes, pies and other goodies. For many of us, it’s the only baking we do all year long, says NPD VP Harry Balzer. “We keep to long-standing holiday traditions in December and many of those traditions include baking,” he says.

Cookies top the list of holiday baked goods. That makes sense, since they’re pretty much goof-proof, you can make several different kinds with little extra effort, and you can get a lot of gift-giving mileage out of a single batch. These attributes make them especially appealing to the occasional baker.

“We keep to long-standing holiday traditions in December and many of those traditions include baking.”

Sadly, I can’t participate in this year’s holiday bakefest–my kitchen is packed up in a moving pod and trundling across this great land of ours. So, I’ll have to enjoy the fun vicariously (or nibble on the fruits of others’ labor). Here’s what I would make if I could get to my Kitchen Aid stand mixer and cookie sheets:

Chocolate Mint BarsCooking Light. These triple-layer brownies may be light, but the result is decadent. I’d add a few extra drops of green food coloring to the peppermint layer so these scream “Christmas.”

15-Minute Chocolate Walnut FudgeCook’s Illustrated (membership required). The chef’s in CI’s test kitchen came up with a supereasy fudge recipe, which ran in the January 2007 issue. Last year, I went turned out many batches, playing with different types of nuts and flavorings. My favorite used pecans and bourbon.

Chocolate-Drizzled MandelbrotCooking Light. These Hanukkah cookies are great dunked in coffee.

Chocolate ShortbreadCooking Light. This recipe is easy enough for a child to make, and the addition of bit of canola oil lightens the saturated fat load without compromising the short texture.

Swedish Rye Cookies–101 Cookbooks. I love the flavor of rye, and I’m intrigued by this recipe, which would be flavorful but not too sweet.

Ali-Gyver Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies. I make these babies year-round, but this time of year, I’d be sure to use dried cherries or dried cranberries, and I’d replace up to 1/2 cup of the flour with almond meal.

Biscuits, chocolate gravy, and cheese straws

My friend and neighbor Kevin treated me to a wonderful goodbye breakfast this morning: homemade biscuits and chocolate gravy (mmmm) with sidecars of bacon and scrambled eggs. Biscuits and chocolate gravy are one of his family’s beloved treats, and I’m happy to have enjoyed them. My picture doesn’t begin to do them justice, but, hey, my camera battery was fading fast.

Biscuits and chocolate gravy.

I’ll try to get Kevin to write a post about this Kentucky dish, and share his mom’s recipes.

Another great goodbye treat was a bag of cheese straws from my friend Phillip. His partner makes them, and they’re the best I’ve had–cheddary, peppery, delicate–wonderful with a gin and tonic. I’ll try to procure the recipe for that, too.

Randy's Superfine Cheese Straws

 

Farewell, kudzu country

 

Southern fare has grown on me, much like the invasive Japanese vine that slowly but steadily has covered the South,

Southern fare has grown on me, much like the invasive Japanese vine that slowly but steadily has covered the South,

After six years inn Alabama, I’m returning to my home turf of Southern California. Still, my time in Dixie has left an indelible impression on my palate. There are many things I’ll miss–great friends and neighbors, my 1930s bungalow in what has to be the kookiest neighborhood in Birmingham. But here are just a few of the foods I’ve come to love:

All of Frank Stitt’s restaurants. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Birmingham’s Frank Stitt is a terrifically talented and versatile chef. He’s kept the empire manageable enough that he and his wife, Pardis, are involved in the day-to-day operations of their three restaurants: the high-end, New Southern-style Highlands; the bistro Chez Fonfon; and  Bottega. 

A plate of pull-pork 'cue and all the fixins=pure goodness.

Barbecue, and especially pulled pork barbecue. Until I moved to Birmingham, barbecue never did much for me. Maybe because I’d never had really great barbecue before. But a former work colleague, Mike Wilson, has a tidy side business making incredible North Carolina-style pulled-pork barbecue and selling his vinegary Saw’s Sauce, which you can buy. Add pickles and crunchy coleslaw (another food I learned to love in Dixie), and I’m a happy camper. Yes, there is barbecue in Southern California, but it won’t be a patch on Mike’s.

All pig products. Well, really, I’ve come to love pork in all its forms–bacon, sausage, roasts, etc.

Summer-fresh shell beans. Birmingham’s wonderful farmer’s market at Pepper Place is full of fresh shell beans and peas (butter beans, lady peas, pink-eyed peas–you name it), which became one of my favorite summertime staples. I love to toss the cooked beans with a simple vinaigrette (usually some variation of the supereasy Marinated Lady Peas from Cooking Light). For the piece de resistance, add a dollop of homemade mayonnaise, which I understand is a uniquely Birmingham treat.

Jon and his secret gumbo ingredient: Tony Cachere's

My friend Jon’s gumbo. Not too long ago, several of us gathered at my friend Aimee’s house for a gumbo-making lesson. It’s a big pot of love.

The soul-soothing, tummy-warming goodness of jambalaya. I was in New Orleans a few years ago and watched Chef Frank Brigtsen do a cooking demo of his jambalaya. The demo was interesting, but the tasting was heaven. The jambalaya was delicious, of course, but even more, it made me warm and contented from the inside out.

My friend Kevin’s biscuits and chocolate gravy. He’ll whip this specialty up on the occasional weekend morning. It’s his mama’s biscuits and a gravy made, literally, of chocolate. Hmm, I’ll have to beg him to make a batch tomorrow morning.

Kevin and one of his many cast-iron cookware pieces.

Kevin and one of his many cast-iron cookware pieces.

Kevin’s cornbread. Also made from a family recipe in a hand-me-down cast-iron skillet.

Sonic, which has helped me through a long, dry spell of no In-n-Out Burger.

Bahn mi sandwiches at Pho Que Huong. Yes, Birmingham has a Vietnamese restaurant, and it’s hopping at lunchtime. I’m addicted to their char sui bahn mi sandwiches. It’s another way I learned to love pork.

Falafel sandwiches at George’s Lebanese Restaurant. Birmingham has a lively and sizable Lebanese community, and my favorite spot is George’s. It’s a modest strip-mall restaurant and grocery, lined with hookah pipes and run by George and his wife.  I just wish George would start wearing his fez again. It was cool.