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!

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