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Sunday, January 20, 2013

What’s That You’re Eating?

From the Lab Dept.: Eight years ago, I looked at some cookbooks that celebrated scientific approaches to gastronomy. Since that time, Ferran Adrià’s el Bulli has closed and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Restaurant barely survived a novovirus outbreak. Molecular gastronomy has yet to penetrate New York’s Capital Region, and I’m having a burger for lunch.


REMEMBER THE SCENE in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” when astronauts Bowman and Poole had dinner on board their spaceship? They assembled the a meal from small trays yanked out of different compartments. The contents of each tray was nearly identical, except for color, and a stylized picture guide suggested the flavor that could be expected.

el Bulli photo by Francesc Guillamet
Like so much else in that film, this has come true: you’ll find it in the upper reaches of fine dining. But it’s not pasty simulacra that you’re served: it’s flavor essences, extracted and reimagined and reassembled in spectacular ways.

I’ve yet to find this in the Capital Region, but it’s emerging in the bigger, more adventurous cities. Forget tall food and no-carbs fads: we’re looking at foam and flavor gels as molecular gastronomy moves in. A quartet of new books offers insights into this surprising cuisine.

An impressive number of critics have named el Bulli, on the coast of Spain, as the world’s best, run by chef Ferran Adrià, who has won similar plaudits. But unless you have superb connections, a seat there is snagged only during a brief reservations-taking period in October, during which the restaurant receives hundreds of thousands more requests than it can accommodate.

It’s easier (and more economical) to enjoy it vicariously through Adrià’s book A Day at el Bulli (Phaidon Press, $50,, which offers eloquent insight into the chef’s methods. His essay on creative methods takes you through a process that begins with reimagining the associations among “ingredients, cooking methods, sauces and finished dishes as an aid ... to think(ing) of new ways ... of putting ingredients together.” Adaptation, deconstruction, minimalism and even a search for new ingredients figure into his methods. And, of course, the finished product must be beautiful.

A dish called Thaw 2005 is built on a tiny snow mountain of pine-nut sorbet dusted with green pine cone infusion powder out of which shoots of green and purple shiso emerge. A small borage blossom nestles beside a sprinkling of ground coffee; flavors also burst from a small sheet of caramel, liquorice meringue powder, and even more variations on that pine cone infusion. Components are meant to be sampled singly, exploding on the palate as they unfreeze.

There’s more tradition in the preparation of Langoustine with quinoa. For each serving, a single langoustine tail is coated with puffed quinoa and sautéed, then served alongside a miniature salad of tomato, scallion, lime and cilantro, a mixture of puffed quinoa and quinoa shoots and a spoonful of cilantro-scented kefir (a fermented milk product).

Early stirrings of this approach go back to the 1980s, with the publication of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking – a chemical-based look at ingredients and their reactions to various types of processing – and the work of French chemist Hervé This and Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti, who developed a series of workshops on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy in Italy from 1992 to 2004.

Heston Blumenthal was a participant, reinforcing what already were very unique ideas about cooking. His restaurant The Fat Duck, in Berkshire, England (home also to Windsor Castle), is a Michelin three-star winner often chosen as that country’s best. The Big Fat Duck Cookbook (Bloomsbury, $250, is itself a work of art, combing a luxurious package with striking page layouts and artwork. Its recipes are almost the least of its appeal: Blumenthal’s accompanying essays are the meat of the text, and make for a fascinating 500 pages of reading.

He may be most famous for such abstruse recipes as egg-and-bacon ice cream, and has explored concepts like using liquid nitrogen to superchill fish before sautéeing. As an example of his obsessive pursuit of flavor secrets, Blumenthal writes that he was working “on the development of an umami-laden clear broth to accompany a fillet of lightly cured poached mackerel and noticed, after making different extractions of tomato using the skin or the flesh or just the insides, that the insides produced what seemed like a richer taste than the rest of the tomato.”

This led to an extensive exploration “which confirmed that there are indeed differences in taste compounds between the different parts of the tomato. Science backed up what my tongue had told me: the part of the tomato with the most umami is the middle.”

Not surprisingly, the book sports an enthusiastic introduction by McGee, who also introduces Thomas Heller’s Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide (Artisan, $75, Keller is a thoughtful, innovative chef with a Michelin three-star restaurant on each U.S. coast: The French Laundry in Napa, and per se in New York. His books The French Laundry Cookbook and Bouchon are models of capturing the essence of food preparation and enjoyment in the abstraction of text. Under Pressure turns many a classical notion of cooking on its ear by suggesting that the most effective method for bringing out an ingredient’s flavor is to cook it at a sustained, exact temperature. Which is done by sealing the item in plastic and poaching it. This isn’t the old boil-in-the-bag approach (which remains the source of much of the soup you’re served in restaurants) – it’s far more precise.

It calls for specialized equipment – a vacuum-pack unit and an immersion heater – that is available in home and restaurant models. It needs a clear understanding of food safety issues, which are carefully articulated in the book. And it requires the ability to appreciate that a piece of tenderloin that’s pink from crust to core is fully cooked. (So as not to alarm his guests, Keller then sautées the meat to restore its familiar appearance.)

Keller, McGee, and several chefs who also use this technique swear that sous vide is also the most revolutionary way to cook vegetables they’ve ever seen.

At the heart of these inventions is flavor, and the desire to redefine your experience of savoring it. Ferran Adrià continually reexamines flavors alone and in combination, and you can jumpstart your own experimentation with The Flavor Bible, the first cookbook by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg that doesn’t contain a single recipe. Page and Dornenburg already wrote a definitive study titled Culinary Artistry that went behind the scenes with a number of chefs to understand a broader aesthetic of cooking than found in the blueprints of recipes, and its section on flavor combinations foreshadowed the more extensive work of The Flavor Bible (Little, Brown, $35,

It’s an exhaustive ingredient-by-ingredient listing that also delves into the characteristics of regional cookery in its listings. To pick an ingredient at random, PARSNIPS are defined by season (autumn-winter), taste (sweet), weight (medium-heavy), volume (moderate) and techniques/tips (“Always use cooked ... bake, boil, braise, deep-fry, grill, mash, puree, roast, steam”).

This is followed by a long list of potential companions, starting with allspice, anise and apples and finishing, 69 elements later, with wine and yogurt. The listing ends with suggested flavor affinities (“parsnips + butter + cream + potatoes,” “parsnips + carrots + nutmeg + potatoes,” and several more). That’s the template for each ingredient, and the pages are livened with sidebars naming specific dishes developed by a variety of chefs, and quotes from the chefs themselves. A sprinkling of attractive color photos breaks up the greyness of the pages.

“Strive for balance over an entire menu, i.e., appetizer, entrée, and dessert,” the book advises. “Envision the course of a meal as a piece of music having a melody, rhythm, and tempo.” In other words, what’s music to the palate may be, as yet, an unfamiliar tune.

Metroland Magazine, 4 December 2008

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