(This article appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on 1/5/11. http://www.mercurynews.com/food-wine-headlines/ci_16975867?nclick_check=1 )
It looks like a perfect cooked egg, sunny side up, except the yolk tastes like spiced carrots and the white derives from coconut milk. Making this edible trompe d’oeil possible are tiny amounts of sodium alginate and calcium chloride. The faux egg is just one of countless examples of a culinary trend most commonly called “molecular gastronomy” that has trickled down from exclusive restaurants into the realm of home cooks with a bent toward buzz-worthy entertaining.
“It’s about doing something different,” explains Patrick Powers of San Mateo. A “wannabe amateur chef,” he enthusiastically goes online and elsewhere to buy equipment, cookbooks and starter kits of powders for gelling, thickening, foaming and the other reconstructions favored by molecular gastronomists. One of his creations was fruit spheres and “noodles” that took a few tries to get right but was ultimately a hit. ”You don’t go to many dinner parties and have someone serve spaghetti and meatballs made out of strawberries for dessert,” he notes.
Powers insists that no home chef should be without a whipping canister powered by small gas cartridges. One of his go-to appetizers is pear slices with a reduced port sauce topped with blue cheese foam. “If you have a whipper in the house, you’re going to try to foam everything,” he says.
Another exciting — although pricey — tool is the Anti-Griddle, which freezes exteriors while leaving interiors soft. Admits Powers: “I would kill for an Anti-Griddle. I already have about six recipe ideas in my head.”
The Anti-Griddle is a pricey device that freezes exteriors, leaving interiors molten.
According to Anne Haerle, the corporate chef of Sur La Table’s cooking classes, some people who watch shows like Top Chef are seeking out instruction in modern techniques such as low-temperature sous vide cooking and how to create fruit caviar, spheres and other attention-getting tidbits. One of her recipes is for chocolate mousse foamed in a whipper, which is “sort of wonderful and dangerous all at the same time. You have chocolate mousse at will.”
In the tech-savvy Bay Area, some aficionados construct their own equipment to save money rather than fork over a few hundred dollars to retailers. For example, Powers uses an ice chest and a temperature-control system he found on eBay for his do-it-yourself sous vide immersion circulator.
As a professional trained in food safety, Haerle has qualms about such an approach. “I’ve had people ask, ‘Can’t I do sous vide in my crockpot?’ Gosh, I wish you wouldn’t — you’re scaring me!”
She also cautions would-be molecular gastronomists to be rigorous when using the powders. For starters, “You need a very sensitive digital scale that measures in grams,” Haerle says. Home cooks should also be willing to keep experimenting until mastering the sometimes-tricky proportions and temperatures involved. It’s science-lab cooking, after all.
“Texturas” is a set of powders and compounds created by famed Spanish chef Ferran Adria and is now available online as “starter kits.”
An eager experimenter, John Joh of Palo Alto has tried a variety of modern techniques, including sous vide, spherification, making foams, and creating an almond butter powder using maltodextrin that rehydrated on the tongue. He puts minute quantities of xanthan gum in homemade ice cream to improve its scoopability. And he used “meat glue” (transglutaminase) purchased online to duplicate a restaurant dish that bonded light- and dark-meat chicken into two-tone blocks.
Joh is pleased to see all the consumer versions that have appeared of costly restaurant equipment. “As they become more affordable for home use, it could really change the landscape of how we cook in the home,” he predicts.
One device he and others covet whose price hasn’t come down yet is the Pacojet, which slices and purees frozen mixtures into silky-smooth blends. Fortunately, Bay Area consumers can sample the scrumptious results from this contraption without shelling out $150 for a high-end restaurant meal by purchasing Scream sorbet, available at farmers markets around the Bay Area.
Amory Schlender is a fan of this stuff, even though he does likes to cook and even built a DIY sous vide solution for his Oakland kitchen. “The results have been good but I don’t know that I’m interested in taking it much further than that,” he admits. He thinks it’s easier to be a molecular gastronomist at home by putting his energy into making dishes to accompany exotic sorbet flavors like coconut Thai basil, pecan bourbon, grilled corn or macadamia vanilla he buys at the farmers market.
Like other progressive home cooks, Schlender’s ultimate goal is delivering bodacious chow for his guests. To that end: “I got an Anaheim pepper sorbet once that went really nicely with a Southwestern meal I served,” he says. “It was a good topic of conversation because it was so unusual.”
WHERE TO FIND IT
Powders for Molecular Gastronomy
- Trufflina – Sells powders and fixtures for spherification, digital scales, and offers charts, recipes and how-to information. www.trufflina.com
- For The Gourmet – Carries “starter kits” and other powders and tools, including Ferran Adria’s “Texturas” and the less-expensive “Artistre” line. www.forthegourmet.com
- PolyScience – Offers sous vide products, the Anti-Griddle, a rotary evaporator and the “Smoking Gun” (a handheld smoking device) www.cuisinetechnology.com
- Willequipped – Sells a wide range of molecular gastronomy tools, including Pacojets, cryoguns, sous vide equipment, whippers, chargers, evaporators and more. www.willequipped.com
- Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, other high-end retailers – Carry whippers, sous vide equipment and related devices.
- “A Day at El Bulli,” Ferran Adria, Juli Soler and Albert Adria, published October 2008
- “Modern Gastronomy: A to Z: A Scientific and Gastronomic Lexicon,” Ferran Adria and Harold McGee, published December 2009
- “Alinea,” Grant Achatz, published October, 2008
- “Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide,” Thomas Keller and Harold McGee, published October 2008
- “The Fat Duck Cookbook,” Heston Blumenthal, published October 2009
- Khymos – Full of scientific and cooking information, including many interesting experiments and investigations. The blogger is a Norwegian with a doctorate in organometallic chemistry. www.khymos.org
- Molecular Gastronomy Blog – Photo-rich, this blog features “everything you want to learn for your molecular kitchen.” www.moleculargastronomy.wordpress.com
- Curious Cook – Although food scientist and writer Harold McGee disdains the term “molecular gastronomy,” his site is full of useful information of interest to progressive home cooks. www.curiouscook.com
- Scream Sorbet – Sold all over the Bay Area at farmers markets, this Pacojet-powered treat comes in a rainbow of exotic flavors. www.screamsorbet.com
- Take-out sous vide – San Francisco’s casual Spice Kit offers luscious, Asian-style beef short ribs and pork belly cooked sous vide for under $8 that are comparable to high-end restaurant iterations. 405 Howard St. www.spicekit.com
Chocolate Mousse Foam
Recipe from Anne Haerle, Corporate Chef, Sur La Table
Yield: about 2 cups
1-3/4 cups chilled heavy cream
8 tablespoons cocoa powder
6 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons instant coffee or espresso powder
1 tablespoon dark rum (optional)
Combine all ingredients and stir together until powders and sugar are completely dissolved. Pour into a whipped-cream aerator, such as the ISI Gourmet Whip Plus. Attach one charger and shake aerator vigorously. Dispense immediately as a chilled dessert or as a garnish for other desserts. Remaining mousse mixture can be kept in the refrigerator up to one week.
Blood Orange “Dust”
Recipe from Anne Haerle, Corporate Chef, Sur La Table
Yield: about ¼ cup
4 medium blood oranges
Using a Microplane zester grater, remove the zest from the blood oranges, being careful not to remove any white pith. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat baking mat. Spread zest in an even layer across the lined baking sheet and place uncovered in a draft-free location. Allow zest to dry for 24 hours. Transfer dried zest to a clean spice grinder or coffee grinder and process to a fine powder.
The blood orange dust can now be used as a garnish on grilled or sautéed salmon, seared scallops or chicken breasts. The dust can also be ground with an equal amount of sea salt to make a citrus-flavored finishing salt. Blood orange dust can also be combined with lemon or lime dust made with the process described above.