We’ve hit a new milestone here at Jet City Gastrophysics: we’ve gone public. When we received an invite to serve a dish at a company party for The Institute of Systems Biology in Seattle, we couldn’t pass it up. We put together a nice little dessert of Cryopoached Coconut Meringue with Powdered Strawberry. We brought our siphons and strawberry dust. They, being scientists and all, provided the liquid nitrogen. A perfect match.
Jethro and I were asked to create a dish with “wow factor” for a group of scientists for an upcoming event. We wanted to craft a bite that’s first and foremost delicious, but also illustrates some of the hallmarks of modernist cooking: textural transformation, surprise, and use of unconventional techniques to refine and reinterpret something traditional. It also had to be practical and economical, since we’ll be serving nearly 200 people in two hours. This meant quick plating time, low portion cost, and minimal prep. After some brainstorming, we decided that a cryopoached (liquid nitrogen-frozen) puff would fit the bill. Jethro had already made the Fat Duck’s Cryopoached Green Tea Sour (which I recognized from Modernist Cuisine), but we wanted to make a version that was our own, and frankly, one that was simpler and cheaper.
A few months back I bought the cookbook Ideas In Food: Great Recipes And Why They Work, but hadn’t cooked anything out of it yet. It has two sections: recipes for the home cook and recipes for the professionals. As I don’t believe in such restrictions (the point of this whole blog, really), I immediately turned to the “professional” section. What can I make with what I have on hand? I settled on the Popcorn Gelato. And I’m glad I did – this is a really cool recipe. Actually it’s really, really cold.
“Modernist Cuisine” is not for most home cooks.
- Michael Ruhlman
“[Modernist Cuisine] looks cool and would be fun to flip through,” he said. “But I don’t need to spend six hundred dollars on a cookbook — I already know how to cook.” This led to my next question — in his opinion, were these techniques even appropriate for the home cook? “Sous vide is great for cooking vegetables and meat,” he replied. “But home-cooked meals are home-cooked for a reason. They’re meant for the home.”
- Domestic Divas
The truth is that this stuff is for the pros.
- New Yorker
Man, do these people bore me. How uninspired. How defeatist. How sad, pathetic, and totally lame.
0 To 60 in 90 Days
I started to cook in December 2009 – about 18 months ago. I had no knife skills, didn’t know anything about Anthony Bourdain or Iron Chef, much less Mugaritz. My refrigerator was empty save for old condiments. I didn’t even notice the front right burner on my stove was larger than the others because I had never used it.
But once I started, I got way into it. Within weeks, I had discovered avant-garde food. By February 2010, I had ordered my first ‘molecular gastronomy’ kit and contacted Scott and Eric to form Jet City Gastrophysics. By March, I spherified my first liquids. By August, I made the red cabbage gazpacho from The Fat Duck. And in October, just 10 months later, I began cooking from Modernist Cuisine, which wasn’t to be published for another five months. I used their PDF excerpt.
So I’ve been going through a lot of Modernist Cuisine recipes and thought I would go back and visit some other cookbooks I have on my shelf. I’ve had my eye on the apertif that opens up The Fat Duck Cookbook and thought I’d give it a shot. It’s a light, sour-sweet flash frozen meringue. It requires the usual things – things like high methoxyl pectin, malic acid, matcha tea powder and liquid nitrogen. Ah, modern cookery. Part science, part cooking, part detective work.
Continuing my free fall into contemporary cooking techniques, I wanted to work with liquid nitrogen for some seriously cold cooking. Liquid nitrogen is incredibly cold: −321 °F/−196 °C! As it warms up, it boils away back into a gas, creating the exact opposite of a deep fryer – a deep freezer. This is the stuff that urban legend says poor Walt Disney is frozen in for possible future reanimation. My interests, however, are purely culinary.
Grabbing A Cold One
I wouldn’t be able to go to Sur la Table to get what I needed for this round of cooking. I instead went to my local provider of industrial gases and inquired about purchasing a small amount of liquid nitrogen (also known as LN). They said I couldn’t do it without the use of a dewar, a container especially designed for carrying and storing LN. So, I did some research online, waited patiently, and was able to score a small 5 liter dewar for 40% off list price on eBay.
I first read Cooking Issues’ excellent Liquid Nitrogen Primer before I got started. The three main takeaways:
- Do not keep LN under pressure in a closed container. It will explode. It can blow your hands off. Thus, a proper dewar is necessary.
- You can suffocate on nitrogen and die and you won’t even know it. Your body won’t warn you ahead of time. You must be in a well ventilated area.
- It is really, really cold. Avoid getting burned the same way you’d avoid hot oil.
It was a cold wet day in Seattle when I went to fill my dewar up with LN, but I still drove home with the windows down, the dewar tightly strapped in the back seat surrounded by towels, determined to not get killed before I froze some foodstuffs at home for my amusement. I made it back safely and got down to some cold cooking.
Deep Freeze Frying
I placed a towel on my kitchen counter and placed a metal bowl inside of a larger metal bowl on top. This was in case the LN was so cold the first bowl cracked open. At least I would have a chance to get the thing outside if need be. The window above the counter was opened for ventilation. I decided to do a bunch of different things, some successful, others less so. But it gave me a good insight into what’s possible.
First off was ice cream. I was trying to make some ice cream bowls as Ferran Adria’s video showed in his talk at Google. At elBulli, they freeze an ice cream base on the underside of a ladle and then slip it off, creating a beautiful ice cream bowl to be filled with other goodies. I, however, couldn’t get the bowls off correctly from the ladle – they were frozen solid on there, and they would always chip and break. As my LN quickly evaporated, I decided to forgo that experiment after several tries and keep trying other techniques.
I scooped up some ice cream and threw it in. It created a delicious little fudgesicle nugget, frozen on the outside but still creamy inside.
Next up was an idea for a frozen spruce meringue. I beat some egg whites and sugar together until they were fluffy, and then added some spruce spice I made last week. It turned out great – cold, crunchy, and creamy. And forest-y.
Next up – orange slices. After a quick freeze, I smashed them in a bowl to create an orange risotto.
Finally, I messed with some alcohol. Alcohol doesn’t freeze in the freezer, but LN has no problem with it. I took plum wine and poured it into a small bowl. I then stirred in LN to create an Asian alcohol sorbet.
For the most part, my initial foray into the world of liquid nitrogen cooking was very successful. And addictive. With instant fudgesicles, ice creams and sorbets, I can see it being a big hit during summer BBQs. I know now someday when I get a new home, my kitchen will have a hot station, a cold station, and a very, very cold station.
I had to spend the month of May in Denver, CO this year because of work. I grew up there, so I had family and friends to entertain myself, and was able to put my brother’s, sister’s and mother’s kitchens all to good use. But I also wanted to eat the local cuisine, and the more experimental side at that. Biker Jim’s Gourmet Hot Dog Stand was certainly a great find, but I wanted to see some more “extended techniques” as well. I searched for a restaurant that could satisfy my cravings and found, to my surprise, a hotel restaurant in Westminster, CO.
Westminster is a suburb of Denver, and could be Anywhere, USA: strip malls, parking lots and franchise stores. Nothing suggests it could be a hotbed of Modern Cuisine. But apparently at O’s Steak and Seafood at the Westin Hotel, they had let a chef run wild: Ian Kleinman. He was doing a tasting menu once a week. As a matter of fact, over the last two years, he was able to push out over 100 of these menus. In a suburban hotel! Excited, I was ready to make my reservation. But there turned out to be a problem. He no longer worked there.
Apparently he had left just months earlier. Well, this was a drag. I researched some more to see if he was still in town, working at another restaurant. It turns out he had started his own catering company, The Inventing Room. “We will work with any budget” his website read. I wonder if he’d cater a dinner for one? I gave him a call.
I got him on the phone and explained that I wanted a single dinner catered, but I wanted to watch him cook the entire thing. In the course of our conversation, it went from dinner to a cooking lesson. This is WAY more than I had hoped for! I said I wanted to focus on different molecular techniques, the more outlandish the better. He obliged.
The Cooking Lesson
I met him at the commissary kitchen where he prepares his meals for The Inventing Room. He had already been there preparing and had laid out his ingredients for us to work with.
We riffed out a couple of dishes that would use a variety of basic techniques: spherification, culinary foam and flash freezing with liquid nitrogen. As its centerpiece, we would use transglutaminase (also known as TG or ‘meat glue’) for what could now be considered a classic Modern Cuisine idea: salmon wrapped in chicken skin.
Now most would brush a slurry of TG directly on the salmon and wrap the skin onto the fish. Chef Kleinman took a different approach. After applying TG to a bunch of chicken skin, he rolled the skin up into a ball, wrapped it in plastic wrap and stuck it in the freezer. He had created a small ham of pure chicken skin. He took it to the meat slicer to make thin even slices.
We took the slices and made little chicken skin ravioli with salmon centers.
And then we fried the little suckers.
We plated it with a gelatin based sauce, which we transformed into a foam as well by adding a little lethicin. Now usually you would use an immersion blender to foam it up. But Chef Kleinman tends to think out of the box. He loves going to hardware stores to find equipment and figure out culinary uses for them. For instance, he’s taken chalk line markers to dispense candy powders. For our foam, he let an aquarium air pump doing his foaming for him while he attended to other things.
Next up we went with another modern classic: liquid nitrogen ice cream. He had a huge amount of ice cream base to work from, and we decided to try something unique: a corn ice cream with caramelized cactus.
After throwing together some caviar (the key: the mixture should be ‘snotty’ before dropping into the calcium chloride water bath) we flash froze some seaweed as well. And our dishes were complete.
The salmon in chicken skin was incredibly tasty and the ice cream with cactus was a pleasant surprise to both of us, since we were food pairing on the fly. It was a fantastic experience and I am very grateful that he allowed me into the kitchen to see his approach to this kind of cooking.
You can follow Chef Kleinman’s culinary exploits at his blog, Food 102. Thanks again, Chef!