It’s been a long time since I’ve tried my hand at spherification, and I thought it was time to revisit the technique. I’ve done it three times before: the first meeting of Jet City Gastrophysics, my cooking session with Chef Ian Kleinman, and another time when I made some coffee caviar. One of the iconic photos from Modernist Cuisine is their Tomato Basil Spheres, so that seemed like a perfect place to give it another go around. It’s basically an Insalata Caprese that’s been liquified. Welcome to the future.
Having gone over the price ranges of the tools and gadgets of Modernist Cuisine, let’s look at specialty ingredients next. The food additives used in Modernist Cuisine are considered safe. The names might be ‘science-y” and therefore unpalatable, but if you have no problem with sodium bicarbonate (baking powder) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C), you should be fine with these.
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!
And so it began – March of 2010. We all gathered at my place and started on the mysteries of spherification – the process of shaping liquids into spherical shapes. Our choices: root beer and blueberry juice.
So we grabbed them, and followed the basic recipe:
- Mix liquid with sodium alginate
- Chill for 30 minutes
- Drop liquid using a spoon or pipette into a setting bath of water and calcium chloride for a certain amount of time (the longer it sits, the thicker the shell gets)
- Pull out and rinse with water
Our results were mixed. As you can see, you can create other shapes than spheres. You can read all about it in detail at Seattle Food Geek and Eric Rivera’s Cooking Blog. But we realized: hey, we’re onto something.