Category Food

Modernist Dinner, a post-mortem

Last night, I made dinner for a group of friends, in lieu of my usual July party celebrating moving to the island.  The change in format was stimulated, primarily, by the publication of Nathan Myhrvold’s magnum opus, Modernist Cuisine.  I was an enthusiastic early adopter, preordering the book last winter, and Myhrvold and his team really delivered.  It’s a rich vein of modern culinary knowledge — the Escoffier of the early 21st century, without a doubt.  My friend (and superb chef) Madden Surbaugh described it as “a post-graduate degree” in the culinary arts, and he’s right.

My goal in planning this dinner was really to try techniques.  I had no preconceived notions about what I’d make, but I started making lists of recipes about two months ago, after Nicole and I went to Napa and did Three Nights of Keller, and later when Scott, Nicole, and I made the pilgrimage to Chicago for Alinea and Aviary.  My method in planning the dinner was suitably nerdy on several fronts:  I treated it like a research project, and had a lab notebook, and being a software guy, the lab notebook was in the form of a wiki.  I kept notes on recipes, techniques, ingredients, possible menus, and so on.  It was fun to see how things evolved.

I tried a number of dishes that never saw the light of day.  I was taken with a “shrimp terrine” dish by Ideas in Food, but since several guests were allergic to shrimp, I turned it into lobster.  But I was also taken with Chang’s ramen from Momofuku, and ended up trying to make lobster meat “noodles” by tossing lobster tail chunks with Old Bay and Activa RM, vacuum sealing, and rolling it into a flat sheet.  After an overnight chill, I cooked the sheets at 55C and chilled, before cutting into fettucine.  This worked fairly well, although the noodles were definitely fragile (I didn’t want to use enough Activa to ruin the flavor or texture).  The noodles, served in an english pea dashi (kombu, shittake, english pea pods, bonito flakes), absolutely sucked.  They had the texture and feel of bad imitation crab.  The moral of the story is don’t do this!.

I won’t bore everyone with the full list of failures, partial successes, or things that “worked” in a technical sense but simply yielded nothing terribly interesting.  I will say, do not bother coring out and stuffing asparagus spears.  It’s not worth it.  Unless you have asparagus with a serious obesity problem, you can’t get enough tasty stuffing inside before they split and explode for anybody to really notice.  It’s an interesting idea, and if it had worked out would have elicited that “wow, cool” surprise noise that every chef is hoping to hear from their diners….but it didn’t.

What works:  tapioca maltodextrin.  Make dry caramel.  Now.  Make parmesan nuggets, or bacon powder, or….hell, grab a tasty dairy or fat and spin it with TM and serve it in some interesting way.  I happened to have a sheet of apple cider sea-salt caramel that had gone all brittle because I’d prepped it too far in advance, so I needed a new presentation than what I’d originally planned, and I remembered that Grant Achatz had done a “dry caramel” powder, and it worked.  Boy, did it work.  It wasn’t what I’d planned, but it was a happy accident, and something I’ll be doing again, especially early in a meal with savory and smoky elements, like the dehydrated double-smoked (house-cured) bacon I paired it with.  Get some TM and start screwing around.  Seriously.

Also:  low-acyl gellan.  After some futzing with other gelification agents, I was wary.  I clearly need more practice with methocels, for example, before I’m ready to unleash something on unsuspecting diners.  But low-acyl gellan:  brilliant.  Sherry vinegar gel cubes to serve with oysters were a breeze.  Measure carefully but then, it just works.  It exhibits a first-order phase transition when the liquid cools below the magic temperature — one second it’s a liquid, the next, it’s a semi-brittle gel, boom.  Stable and still tasty after storage in the fridge, it’s forgiving and completely within reach of cooking at home.  Highly recommended.

What I hated:  working with transglutaminase.  I did the “Checkerboard Sushi” from Myhrvold.  Twice.  The first time, I destroyed way too much nice maguro and hamachi from Mutual Fish when the “slurry” got gloopy (which it does in about ten seconds), and I ended up with blobs between the fish slabs.  You have to work fast with Activa.  What they don’t tell you, is that “fast” means “superhumanly fast.”  The second time, I dusted the slabs through a tea strainer.  It didn’t bond nearly as well and the resulting slabs were fragile, but they looked great and tasted great, and that’s what counts.  It just limited me on presentation possibilites, where a full bond would have been more robust for draping or whatever.  But I hated working with the Activa.  I have a full bag of it, and will probably do it again, but it’s certainly not something I’ll whip out for my own pleasure and use in the kitchen.  Too much hassle and fuss.

Silica gel packets and a food dehydrator — wonderful tools.  A food dehydrator that isn’t circular and takes a rectangular tray would be even better. I sense one in my future.

And if you don’t have an iSi cream whipper, stop reading now and go to Amazon and buy one.  I used this dozens of times in the course of a couple of days, it’s perhaps the handiest tool I have for doing modernist dishes.

I’ll probably have more notes in the days to come, especially as I review my lab notes.  But get in the kitchen and play around!

Perkowski’s Pig-a-Palooza 2008

Originally uploaded by mmadsen

Early this morning, Tawm, Madden, and I prepped the whole pig for Tawm’s annual birthday roast later tonight.  Last year’s rotisserie was a good concept, but over the winter Tawm re-engineered the entire system, mounting the bicycle tires and bench grinder to a rigid frame to ensure correct spacing, and driving the spit rotation with a strong bicycle chain.  The result is a pretty serious piece of culinary engineering.  More pictures on Flickr of the entire spitting and trussing process, including the strip of 1 inch flat steel which is screwed into the steel pipe, over the backbone, and anchored into the cranium, vertebrae, and pelvis of the pig to ensure that it stays tight on the spit. 

More later, after we see how this turns out.  But serious kudos to Tawm, for taking the concept to its logical conclusion!

The Perfect Manhattan and Other Adventures

It’s been a good (if odd) weekend up here on the island, with snow on Friday and Saturday (though nothing like the convergence zone N. of Seattle where my brother lives), and brilliant sunshine (though cold weather) today. I’ve been working on dissertation stuff this weekend, honing my topic after a bit of a breakthrough last month, and trying to deal with domestic stuff (bills, learning how to maintain/flush/ignore the new septic system, finding a list of tile places to visit in Seattle for my upcoming bathroom remodel).

But I also went to the first farmer’s market of the season, and bought some great stuff. Tonight I’m going to make a roast chicken (currently brining its little juices out in the garage fridge), served with sauteed baby chard from Nootka Rose farm on Waldron Island, and I’m chilling out and reading some Rorty with Rebecca’s radishes from Blue Moon Farm on Waldron as well, along with several olive mixes, my homemade pickled vegetables, and the Perfect Manhattan.  And by the way, Rebecca’s radishes are some of the best I’ve ever had — I’ve never described a radish as sweet and juicy, but these are just dripping with internal juice but still with a good bite.  Dipped into sea salt they’re incredible.

I’ll get to the Manhattan later. First, I have to remember to recommend Vessel in Seattle. I’d hemmed and hawed about going in since it always seemed to be packed, but Madden and I hit the joint on a Monday night last week and immediately went nutty about the selection of rare, interesting, hard-to-find, and homemade items. They make their own bitters! The bartender responded to our boyish enthusiasm by immediately making us taste all the homemade bitters and herbal tinctures, and furthered the process of getting us thoroughly drunk which I’d begun by making Manhattans at the apartment and then having rose champagne and Charmes-Chambertin at Campagne. I recommend proceeding to Vessel at once and asking for anything made with their house-made bitters. Oh, and try the two vodkas from Sub Rosa in Oregon: saffron and tarragon. Madden preferred the saffron and I preferred the tarragon but both were stellar. Not sure they’re available up here commercially yet but I’ll find some.

Yesterday I ran across a bag of key limes at the store, just normal supermarket stuff, and thought, "I should do preserved key limes, like preserved lemons." Madden is making preserved lemon marmalade on the new menu at Steps, and all three of my favorite olive mixes at PFI involve preserved lemons, so the idea of soaking citrus in salt for three weeks is pretty much in my wheelhouse. So I have a big jar of cross-cut key limes soaking in strong brine with bay leaves and black peppercorns. Sometime in early May I’ll figure out a use for these guys….

But the original point of the post was to say that I’d finally perfected the Manhattan, at least from my standpoint. Long, long ago I worked hard on Martini making; in fact, that’s pretty much all I remember about my master’s degree. To this day, I keep a shaker and two glasses in the freezer, since thorough chilling of everything involved keeps the gin (yes, Martinis are made of GIN) from watering down when it hits the ice in the shaker (and a strict 5:1 ratio with good Noilly Prat vermouth or better should be observed).

But I digress. The perfect Manhattan turns out to involve replacing 1/3 or 1/4 of the sweet vermouth (again, Noilly Prat is my favorite, the Italians don’t make good vermouth, at least that we see over here) with a good dark Amaro. Amaros are Italian herbal bitters, the most common of which is Fernet Branca in the States. Fernet is a bit too dark and medicinal for this application, but you can do 1/5th Fernet for the same effect and keep more of the vermouth.

The absolute best Amaro for this job (and for drinking straight) is the Amaro Santa Maria al Monte, which comes into the Seattle area in miniscule quantities that you have to fight restaurants for. It’s gorgeous, herbal, complexly flavored stuff, and it gives the Manhattan a bit of an edge but nothing medicinal. In bars in Seattle, the lighter Amaro Nonino is more popular as a Manhattan addition but I think it’s too sweetly similar to the vermouth to be much use.

Well, it’s almost time to roast a chicken. More later.

Recent Food and Wine

I’m slammed at the moment getting ready for an academic conference in a few weeks, so I haven’t had time to much lately outside work and research.  But I did manage on Friday to take the afternoon off, and go to lunch with a regular group of friends at Nell’s.  The group as a whole has met for 20 years, and I participate when I can (which isn’t nearly as often as I’d like).  Phil cooks us lunch and we have the restaurant to ourselves. 

Yesterday was "Great 1980’s Wines" as a theme, and the group dug reasonably deep and came up with some good stuff.  My 1988 Raveneau Vaillons Chablis to start was slightly oxidized and we’ve all had better bottles; you win some and lose some.  Highlights were the 1980 Jaboulet La Chapelle, which was mellow, pretty, but with some spice and weight left, the 1988 La Chapelle (superb), and a slightly advanced bottle of the 1989 Aldo Conterno Barolo Cicala (absolutely superb, despite being a little mature for its age). 

Probably the wines of the day for me were the 1982 Montrose Bordeaux, of which I still had a bit left and am sipping on while I write this a day later.  Incredible — beautiful Bordeaux nose, but lacking the brutality and tannins of the 1970 and 1990 Montrose, the latter of which probably won’t be ready to drink in my lifetime. 

Tonight I’m having dinner (paella!) with another group of friends, and I’m bringing some old Spanish wines to go with the dinner, and a special appetizer.  I don’t have the bottles in front of me here, but there are two 1976 Riojas, and a 1970 Marques de Riscal Rioja.  I’m planning to finish things off with a 1910 Solera Pedro Ximinez sherry — a bunch of it hit the market some years back at very reasonable prices.

But the exciting thing for me will be an appetizer — a small slab of thinly sliced Jamon Iberico "reserva" — the fabled pinnacle of serrano hams, aged 24 months and only recently imported into the United States.  I’ll let you google for the going rate on a whole leg of Jamon Iberico, but let’s just say that you can fly to Europe and eat it cheaper, probably.  I have 4 precious ounces of the stuff, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with folks (and saving a little slice for Madden at Steps) tonight.

Then it’s back up the island to hunker down for a few days and bang out some simulation results.  I’m doing most of my numerical work on Amazon EC2 clusters these days, so I don’t have to worry about where I am or whether I have computers available, which is sweet.  I’ll post more after the old Riojas and the Jamon Iberico…

Remembering Marc

My friend Marc Olson died two weeks ago.  Although his funeral was well attended by family and friends, the process of remembering and honoring those who pass doesn’t stop there.  Marc and I knew each other for about a decade, brought together by a shared love of wine and food and cooking, but we also worked in the same business (once even at the same company, briefly) and our conversations over the years ranged widely. 


The picture shown here (Marc is on the right) is from our first trip to France together, in the autumn of 1999.  Marc, myself, and Peter Glidden met up in Lyons and drove down the Rhone River, eating terrific food, drinking amazing wine, and getting to know winemakers.  In the picture, we’re standing on a hill on the west bank of the Rhone River, looking across to the Hermitage hill and vineyards, where the Rhone makes a bend and exposes the steep rocky vineyards to wind and sun, causing the Syrah to struggle and thus gain complexity beyond that normally seen in southern or especially domestic wines.  Hermitage was Marc’s "home" in the wine world.

This trip was our first visit to the cellars of Jean-Louis Chave, the incomparable maker of Hermitage, St. Joseph, vin de Paille, and now the Mon Coeur Cotes du Rhone.  Our first dinner together on that trip, at Le Beau Rivage in Condrieu, was terrific, but merely a taste of things to come.  While staying at Les Florets in Gigondas, we nearly plunged our mini-van off the narrow, steep road leading up the Dentelles de Montmirail, and had to be pulled back onto the road.  The car was insured, but its cargo of wines was not, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. 

But our best evening was at the end of our trip, with dinner at Beaugraviere, in Mondragon.  Beaugraviere, a classic French country restaurant run by chef Guy Jullien, makes a particular specialty of truffles, and at the time had the most spectacular wine list I’d ever seen.  Each of us, as wine enthusiasts, was given a weighty novel-sized book, with each page listing a different producer, with a long list of the vintages available.  Marc, Peter, and I read in silence for minutes, each compiling a list of likely candidates.  Most of the bottles hadn’t moved since their purchase or release, meaning that old vintages from the 50’s, 60’s or older would still be in pristine condition.  Our choices, to complement Jullien’s cuisine, were the 1978 Guigal La Landonne to start, the incomparable 1961 Jaboulet La Chapelle, and an incredibly rare bottle of 1929 Chave Hermitage.  The three of us couldn’t believe our luck in having such an amazing ending to our trip.   After the restaurant closed, we sat and shared the last of our wines with Jullien, who broke out an amazing and rare oddity — a sweet marc (or grappa) made by Chateau Rayas in 1945 but never commercially released.  A perfect end to our trip together. 

Given busy lives and responsibilities, we didn’t see each other as often as we’d have liked, although oddly enough my moving to San Juan Island and Marc’s plane crash earlier this summer brought us together much more lately than otherwise would have been the case, and I’m grateful for that.   Several times lately, I’ve found myself reading something and thinking, "I should send this to Marc."  But our conversations are done now, and Marc lives now in the memories of his friends and family.  These will be memories of energy and exuberance and a passion for life.  None of us who knew and loved him will easily or quickly forget how he brought all of these qualities into our lives in abundance.

A gourmet weekend on San Juan…

Last weekend, a long-time group of friends came up to the island and we spent all of Saturday cooking. I’ve been cooking with this group at least since 1997, but this was one of the first times we’ve all made dinner together in the same kitchen — normally each person or couple makes something and we come together at someone’s house for dinner. But since the logistics of everyone coming north gave us a whole day together, we were able to do something a bit special.

Before everyone arrived last Saturday, I’d put together a tentative menu, including five dishes that were either straight from, or derivations of, dishes from Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook. I’d pre-made and reduced duck stock to a demi-glace, made chive, shallot, and basil oil purees which could be strained and used for service, and reduced balsamic vinegar and PX sherry into a thick glaze. So after everyone got to the island and we went to the Farmer’s Market for last-minute items, we were ready to cook.

For appetizers, we began with a traditional pissaladiere, the Provencal onion tart, served with my fresh tapenade, crostini, and Oregon Country prime beef tenderloin pounded out into carpaccio with shaved parmesan and drizzles of bright emerald green basil oil. This was served with a non-vintage Paul Bara Rose champagne for toasts, and then the new vintage of Tempier Bandol Rose 2006, which is a superb wine. James Peterson’s pissaladiere recipe is a bit odd, and I’d recommend not following him on the pizza dough crust but going for traditional pastry instead.

The first course was grilled red snapper filets, served on a bed of sauteed rainbow chard greens tossed with garlic and shredded sorrel (the latter was from a mention in Olney’s Tempier cookbook), and topped with one of three relishes: piquillo peppers and nicoise olives, straight piquillo peppers with smoked paprika and sherry vinegar, and chopped shallots and lemons marinated in sherry vinegar. All went well with the grilled fish. I served this dish with the 2005 William Fevre AOC Chablis, decanted for 4 hours and nicely open.

Between courses, a quick palate cleanser of vine-ripe tomato sorbet with chive oil drizzle, in little espresso saucers.

The main course was Keller’s duck roulades: thin breasts of duck, skin and fat removed but otherwise raw, rolled up in blanched chard leaves and rolled in plastic wrap for poaching. A disk of the poached breast, still wrapped in the chard, is placed on top of a smooth sweet white corn puree with white corn kernels, and drizzled with the duck reduction, and topped with root vegetable and morel mushroom “brunoise” tossed in the reduction. The dish was frankly amazing. I’m definitely doing this one again. Other than the duck reduction and a bit of obsessive straining on my part of the various items, it wasn’t much work. I served this with the Tempier Bandol Miguoa 1994, decanted for 3 hours and very sweet and open. A terrific bottle of wine.

Before the salads and cheeses, I served a single chilled shot of tomato “consomme” with a smoked paprika and sun-dried tomato salt rim. The consomme is made by allowing chopped tomatoes and a chipotle pepper to drain through cheesecloth for 24 hours, catching only the free-drip liquid. It’s the essence of tomato flavor, and very tasty chilled.

Thomas Keller’s deconstructed Caesar salad was next — Parmesan custards on a crouton and balsamic caesar dressing, topped with a parmesan crisp and a twist of chiffonaded romaine lettuce tossed in dressing. A terrific dish. I served this and finished the main wines with the Verset Cornas from 1985: fully mature but immensely complex and deep. I love this wine, and thank goodness I have a bit more in the cellar. Wow.

The final “cheese” course was the deconstructed carrot/raisin salad: shredded carrots, seasoned in a reduced carrot juice and spice mixture, on a bed of golden raisin puree, with slices of Roncal cheese on top, and carrot powder on the rim of the plate. The carrot powder is made by microwaving shredded carrot for 45 minutes until dessicated and then grinding. This was particularly cool since almost everyone over a certain age has had carrot raisin salad, and this is that childhood experience taken to a new level.

For dessert, fresh island strawberries with the balsamic drizzle, and a trial run on my friends’ wedding cake. This was served with the Pierre-Bise Coteaux du Layon 1996 Rochefort “Les Rayelles” which I thought was a bit tired, but still had good fruit and OK acidity. Nothing like it was a bit younger, I’m hoping it’s a phase.

Pics of some of the food on my Flickr site…