I haven’t tackled a big recipe in a while, so it was time to consult The Work and give it a shot. I was having guests over and thought the Hungarian Beef Goulash from Volume Five would do the trick. And as usual, it was a lot of work and all sorts of unseen problems presented themselves. From procuring ingredients to equipment breakdowns, timing issues and even a poorly focused camera (as you’ll see – sorry about that), this one barely made it through. But made it through it did.
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.
“This shit is dangerous. You inhale it, your lungs stick together, you die.”
So Chef Ian Kleinman told me about Transglutaminase during my private cooking class with him last spring. Transglutaminase (also known as TG or ‘meat glue’) is an enzyme that bonds proteins together. If you have ever had imitation crab meat or chicken nuggets, you’ve eaten TG. Although safe to eat, in powder form, it can be inhaled, and then work its magic inside your lungs. So when we met last week to work with the stuff, we decided it was best to take precautions.
With safety glasses and masks on, we set about to working on some ideas. Eric was called into work and couldn’t make it (he’s a busy guy, what with being invited to stage at Noma by Chef Redzepi among other things), so Scott and I collaborated. With worked with three types of proteins: meat, fish and nuts. As with any experimentation, we had some success and some failures.
The first idea was simple enough – bind together strips of two different kinds of fish. We made a slurry of TG with water and brushed it on the sides of the fish, and then vacuumed sealed the whole thing.
Unfortunately, we didn’t apply enough TG to the fish, and the strips didn’t bond together. It was our first attempt using the stuff, so we learned that it’s OK to be a bit more liberal in our application.
Next up was nuts. I figured nuts have plenty of protein, so they should bond together as well, right? I crushed up some peanuts and almonds in my coffee grinder, then added in the TG. I formed in into a disc using a pastry cutter and vacuum sealed it. And, as with the fish, there was not enough TG to bind it together.
The crumbled pieces did have a bit of tension to them, so the TG seemed to have done its job somewhat. I’ll need to add more next time and see if TG is ‘nut glue’ as well as ‘meat glue’.
I had an idea for an awesome piece of comfort food – chicken skin pork rinds. I pulled the skin off some chicken wings and glued them together with pork skin, then rolled it up in cellophane.
It glued up nicely, though quite scary looking, like some frankenphallic nightmare. I deep fried it and added salt and had pretty much what I was going for. You had the delicious combination of fried chicken skin and pork rinds. There needed to be a bit more chicken skin and a bit less pork fat, but it turned out very well. I can see these being eaten at state fairs across America.
Finally, Scott had the idea of making shrimp paper. He minced the meat in a food processor and added TG, eyeballing the amount. He added it to a vacuum bag, rolled it out flat and sealed it.
He then placed the bag in a cookie sheet on the stove filled with water and quickly cooked the shrimp. From there it went into the fridge to set. It worked great. The result wasn’t thin as paper,but a more like a tortilla. A tortilla made of nothing but shrimp meat and TG.
I cut some rounds out of it and prepared a sweet dish and a savory dish with them.
Both of us are very excited with the results and have a lot of ideas of what to do next. For example, the tortilla could have easily been cut into strips for shrimp noodles instead of crepes. As long as we avoid inhaling the stuff, TG looks to be a fun new component to cook with in the kitchen.
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!