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Down the Rabbit Hole

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Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:53 pm
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Most of us have heard of the term molecular gastronomy. Maybe we’ve seen examples on TV, or noticed that trademark tropes like foam have oozed down to adorn dishes in even midmarket restaurants. Perhaps we heard somewhere that El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s temple of haute-tech cuisine north of Barcelona, is the hardest reservation in the world to get, with two million requests for 8,000 places per year. Given the hype, a home cook—even a serious, experienced one—likely thinks that these methods are the exclusive territory of a few high-end professionals who alone possess the arcane knowledge, specialized (and expensive) gadgetry, and legions of sous-chefs required to make the magic happen.

It’s not true.

The various compounds required are now easily available online, and many techniques use only tools found in a normal kitchen. And while it can be easy to dismiss these techniques as just so much fancy frivolity, the transformative potential of these materials offers the chance to play with food in a very real sense, allowing for boundless experimentation and fun—plus amazed and delighted guests, which, for those who like to entertain, is a not-insignificant bonus. In addition, people with dietary restrictions (e.g., vegans, gluten-free) can benefit immensely, enjoying dishes that normally require eggs, dairy, or gluten to hold them together.

Linda Anctil is a private chef in the Western Connecticut town of Thomaston who also writes an excellent blog (www.playingwithfireandwater.com) that documents her elegant and unique culinary improvisations. She first heard about this kind of cooking in a 2003 New York Times magazine profile of Ferran Adria, now revered as the seminal genius of nueva cocina—food both scientifically advanced and poetically profound. “It took a while to wrap my head around it, and I did lots of research,” Anctil says. “The main thing these additives allow is a fundamental shift in focus from flavor to texture”—which is not to say that flavor is less important; as always, it is paramount. But because the various modifying starches and proteins used have no taste, “we can take a pure flavor and keep it pure while physically transforming it completely.”

Pure Creativity
The possibilities are limitless. Vegan marshmallows? Oh, yes. Cauliflower curry panna cotta with a liquid mango chutney center? Easy. A clear Bloody Mary? No problem. And subtler uses are compelling too: sauces and purées that don’t weep liquid all over the plate, vinaigrettes that stay emulsified, and light-as-air gnocchi that use no egg are all things we can easily imagine making and enjoying with molecular gastronomy. Essentially, what these techniques mean is that almost anything can become almost anything. Think about that for a minute. Virtually any food can become flour, or a gel, or pasta, or a foamy emulsion, or clear broth, or even ice cream. Rather than being intimidated, Anctil says, we can be liberated, and engage in pure creativity. “It allows us to treat food as art, and ask: ‘What can I do with this?’”



Contrary to our mental images of restaurant kitchens packed with gleaming lab equipment, Anctil says that a few simple kitchen tools are all we need. “An immersion (or regular) blender and spice grinder are both useful, and an oven on the lowest setting works just fine as a dehydrator.” It’s also worth noting that all of the magic powders in question are naturally derived from seaweed, starches, fermentation, and cellulose. The fact that many were developed to give better consistency and texture to processed foods should not dissuade us from using them; from a safety and health perspective, using these additives is identical to using cornstarch, tapioca, or gelatin—in fact, xanthan gum, lecithin, and agar are easily found in any health food store.

Greek Salad Parfait

Recently Anctil joined us in the kitchen of gallerist and ceramicist Elena Zang and Alan Hoffman to make a few dishes showcasing some basic techniques. First up was a Greek salad parfait: romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, yellow pepper, and cucumbers all juiced separately, seasoned with salt and an oregano-scented vinaigrette, and then thickened with different amounts of xanthan gum—a byproduct of fermentation commonly used in gluten-free baking—to give the liquids different densities, so they wouldn’t mix together in a glass when served. She topped each “salad” with a feta-yogurt foam made by blending the mixture with a little lecithin (a soy-derived emulsifier) and a crumbled cracker made from dried Kalamata olives mixed with tapioca maltodextrin, a modified starch which turns oils and fats into powders that can become crisp when baked or dehydrated. The finished dishes looked like Rastafarian smoothies and elicited wide-eyed, Wonka-worthy wonder as the layers and flavors combined in our mouths, coalescing almost holographically into the essence of Greek salad.

Next up were gnocchi made from nothing but grated parmesan mixed with a solution of methylcellulose (“Methocel”), a fascinating substance that forms gels when heated. Different formulations form gels ranging from soft and fluid to brittle, and at different temperatures. Anctil feels that it’s probably the single most useful of all the high-tech powders, but often seems the most daunting because of the number of versions available. “It can replace eggs or gluten, and it has a fatty mouth-feel. It just needs to be blended in water about four hours ahead of using it so it can fully hydrate.” She served the tender, richly cheesy gnocchi in an agar-clarified pea consommé made by pureeing a fresh pea broth with a small amount of agar, a gelling agent derived from seaweed. By using a much weaker proportion of agar than one would to gel the soup, freezing it, and then slowly thawing it in the fridge over a colander, the agar holds the solids and pigments together but allows the highly flavored water to drip out, a process called syneresis. This technique works with just about anything imaginable, and in this case yielded a crystal clear liquid that looked like light apple juice and tasted intensely of peas.



Breakfast for Dessert
For dessert, Anctil soaked Cheerios in milk and cream overnight, and strained the liquid into a saucepan. Using agar again, this time at full strength, she gelled the mixture in the fridge for about an hour until it set, then cut it into rounds. For a sauce, she thawed and puréed frozen strawberries and put the pulp in a colander over a bowl, explaining that “freezing in a consumer freezer, because it takes a while, causes large ice crystals to form, which rupture the cell walls of plants, meaning that we can get much more juice from them than from fresh [fruit and vegetables].” She then thickened the ruby juice by blending it with a little Ultratex 8, another starch, so that when she spooned a graceful stripe of it on the plate, it stayed where she put it. Finally, she garnished the dish with crunchy crumbled freeze-dried strawberries and bananas and powdered Cheerios. The result was a sophisticated (read: unsweetened, except by the cereal and fruit) and evocative reimagining of a childhood standard.

Rediscovering that youthful joy is essential to understanding what this marriage of technology and cuisine provides. There’s no doubt that this kind of cooking is a rabbit hole, but it’s one that leads to pleasure; rather than simply making shelf-stable processed garbage food, these ingredients also allow for full-blown flights of fancy, where our imagination and skill are the only constraints, and our relationship with food and flavor can be taken to exciting new places.

There are plentiful resources online where recipes and inspirations can be found; as with many cutting-edge concepts, blogs and websites are the richest and most democratic repositories of knowledge. (Though it should go without saying that your results may vary, and practice is required.) Molecular gastronomy has done for cooking what digital technology did for music: culinary mash-ups, remixes, and mind-expanding juxtapositions—all in the service of gustatory bliss—are now within reach.


Parmesan Gnocchi in Pea Consommé
A digital kitchen scale is probably the single most useful piece of equipment for this kind of cooking; many of the additives are normally used in proportions specific to the total weight of ingredients, and metric measurements are therefore much easier to work with.

For the Parmesan pasta:
70g water
2g methylcellulose SGA 150
200g grated Parmesan
Blend water and methylcellulose together with an immersion blender and set in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours to hydrate. Add the solution to grated Parmesan a little at a time—just enough to form a dough—and shape as desired. The easiest way to handle them is to roll them into little snakes and then cut them into gnocchi. Poach in simmering water until they float, then remove with a slotted spoon and place in bowls of hot consommé. Garnish with sautéed pea shoots.

For the consommé:
This method of clarifying liquids works with absolutely anything, from a simple pea broth to barbecue sauce. (In winter, try it with split pea soup.) The pea broth is just peas, shallots, onions, scallions, parsley, salt, and pepper simmered in water (use chicken broth for a richer result) until tender, then blended smooth and returned to the pan.

Whisk in 1g agar per 1000ml of puree. Bring to a boil. Let cool and freeze. Set frozen block in a cheesecloth-lined colander and allow to drain in fridge for 2 days. Reserve liquid, and discard the solids in the colander.

Cheerios-infused “panna cotta” with fluid strawberry gel, freeze-dried strawberries and bananas, and hyacinth flower. - . PRESTON + SCHLEBUSCH
  • . Preston + Schlebusch
  • Cheerios-infused “panna cotta” with fluid strawberry gel, freeze-dried strawberries and bananas, and hyacinth flower.
Chef Linda Anctil rolls out parmesan gnocchi - . PRESTON + SCHLEBUSCH
  • . Preston + Schlebusch
  • Chef Linda Anctil rolls out parmesan gnocchi
Spooning feta-yogurt emulsion onto the Greek salad parfait. - . PRESTON + SCHLEBUSCH
  • . Preston + Schlebusch
  • Spooning feta-yogurt emulsion onto the Greek salad parfait.
Parmesan gnocchi in agar-clarified pea consommé with pea shoots and roasted peanut oil. Bowl by Alan Hoffman. - . PRESTON + SCHLEBUSCH
  • . Preston + Schlebusch
  • Parmesan gnocchi in agar-clarified pea consommé with pea shoots and roasted peanut oil. Bowl by Alan Hoffman.

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