Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs

Posts Tagged ‘modernist cuisine

When I was browsing the shelves at the Book Larder on their opening day I noticed a display copy of Modernist Cuisine. The bright white covers contrasted with the vibrant photos and the five volumes are slotted in a Perspex case. Curious about the influential tome, I attended Nathan Myhrvold‘s presentation at Town Hall Seattle.

Dr Myhrvold was an engaging speaker. A voracious intellectual, his passion was balanced with poise. He noted that there are many books on the science of cooking but not on techniques. There are specialty books on single techniques such as Thomas Keller‘s Under Pressure. The modernist chefs, Ferran Adrià, Grant Achatz and Heston Blementhal, all have cookbooks.

The intent of Modernist Cuisine is for it to be an encyclopaedia of modern cooking techniques. The project commenced six years ago and Dr Myhrvold compared it to the naïveté of parenting, ‘it seemed like a good idea’! The photographs and illustrations are all original and the volumes ‘explain the science of cooking in chef terms’.

Dr Myhrvold clicked through the slides and described how the photos were constructed. To innovate and discover a new approach, you need to understand physics.

A third of the wok was cut off and Perspex was glued to the open side. The lab was more ‘machine shop than Photoshop’. It caught on fire three times as the ingredients were tossed. ‘The motto was it has to look good for only one thousandth of a second!’

He worked on the book alone for two years and then hired a team of people to complete it. Volume one is history and fundamentals, volume two is techniques and equipment, volume three is animals and plants, volume four is ingredients and preparations, volume five is plated-dish recipes. An additional spiral bound kitchen manual is printed on washable paper.

Modernist Cuisine statistics:
* 6 volumes
* 4 languages
* 43 pounds unpacked
* 2438 pages
* 1.15 million words
* 4 pounds of ink to print
* 7.5 miles long if typed as a single sentence in Microsoft Word
* 147,000 photos shot and 3,200 used
* 1,500 recipes
* 72 contributing chefs
* 6 research cooks
* 44 writers, editors and art staff

Dr Myhrvold commented that Modernist Cuisine is available in the printed medium only. The resolution is compromised as an e-book or on the iPad. Eat Your Books has indexed Modernist Cuisine.

Modernism is an artistic and architectural movement. A deliberate break from tradition, it celebrates abstract values and is a rebellion against the norm. It is a new aesthetic. In the 1980s chefs were doing the same. Cooking techniques were re-imagined to create art in the kitchen. It is artisanal, a craft.

‘Science is a set of rules governing how our world works.’ Until recently food science was about industrial scaling. Science is already in the kitchen and Dr Myhrvold ‘wants take the ignorance out of it’. Modernist Cuisine is a definitive reference for techniques.  

Modernist Cuisine principles:
* Dining in dialogue
* Creativity trumps tradition
* Break rules, surprise diners
* Be innovative
* Science and technology are sources of inspiration, means to an end
* Great food from great ingredients
* How ingredients are grown, harvested and slaughtered matter
* New ingredients create new possibilities

Modernist Cuisine dinners are long with more than thirty courses. ‘In a way it’s an ordeal!’ Dr Myhrvold described some of the dishes and how they were made. 

The first was deep fried watermelon. Starch is the key to crispy potato chips. Sweet potatoes have less starch and their chips are a little limp. Watermelon was infused with starch for deep frying.

There are minimal desserts in the book. One recipe is pistachio and hazelnut ice cream without milk, cream and egg. The nuts are grinded, the oil separated and emulsified with water, and seaweed extract is added as a stabiliser. It is a ‘world first kosher real cream sauce’!

Next was pea butter. Dr Myhrvold told a ‘pea-ness’ joke with glee. Pea butter is made in a centrifuge where it clarifies and concentrates in intense gravity. He recommended frozen peas for freshness. The three pea layers are pea broth, pea solids which can be made into pasta, and unctuous pea butter. The technology highlights the natural ingredient, celebrating the essence of the pea.

A caramelised carrot soup is cooked in a pressure cooker. Caramelisation, a chemical reaction, occurs in an alkaline environment and thus baking soda is added. Beets, squash and other vegetables can be substituted and it is a ‘concentrated, powerful flavour’.

Every component of the ‘ultimate burger‘ is special. The patty is cooked sous vide, cryo-fried in liquid nitrogen and deep fried. The liquid nitrogen reduces the grey and freezes a thin layer on the outside penetrating all the ridges of the minced meat as a barrier to over cooking.

There is a chapter on coffee. ‘Damn it we’re from Seattle! Coffee from a three Michelin starred French restaurant is not fit for a Seattle street vendor.’ Dr Myhvold recalled ordering a coffee in New York and brashly declared ‘you’re from Seattle’. The barista replied, ‘Vivace‘.

He was asked what his last meal would be and he cheekily answered ‘one that takes a really long time to cook’. Another query was about the safety of sous vide pouches. He responded that if there are concerns you can sous vide in glass mason jars.

Dr Myhrvold has always been interested in food. When he was nine he cooked Thanksgiving dinner for his family. He was born in Seattle and returned before having children, ‘just like salmon’. He believes he is in the best part of the restaurant business, consumption!


Disclosure: I received a demo product from Duo PR. This is not a sponsored post.

Our kitchen is notoriously gadget free. No blender, no food processor, no stand mixer, no sandwich press, no coffee maker. And for many years, no kettle. A toaster is the only gadget on our counter. I attended the Sharone Hakman and SousVide Supreme event a couple of months ago and received a demo unit afterwards.

The poppy red SousVide Supreme Demi was conspicuous on our counter. A modern design with rounded edges, there are only five separate components to the machine. A detachable power cord, an aluminium lid, a perforated grill and a stainless steel rack can all be contained within the machine making it easy to assemble, store and clean. I read the instruction booklet once and the display panel is simple to use.

A vacuum sealer is required to cook sous vide and it’s similar size to a laminator. About the length of the SousVide Supreme Demi, it is light and the power cord can be wound up underneath.

The food grade pouch is placed on the vacuum sealer, clicked closed and either sealed if there’s liquid or vacuum sealed.

Sous vide and modernist cuisine have a reputation for elaborate, deconstructed dishes. I don’t intend to replicate or create restaurant quality food. My goal is to test how sous vide applies to ordinary home cooking.

The first meal I cooked sous vide was salmon. We rarely cook seafood at home as I have an aversion to the lingering smells. The benefit of vacuum sealed poaching is it eliminates that. I followed this recipe for salmon with lemon and dill.

I coated two fillets of salmon in olive oil, finely chopped dill, lemon juice, salt and pepper, vacuum sealed and refrigerated them. The pouches were cooked sous vide at fifty two degrees Celsius for twenty minutes. I served the fish with roasted vegetables. It took a little planning to time the heating up of the water, preparing the salmon and roasting the vegetables. If done in an efficient order, dinner would have been ready in an hour by my calculation.

The plastic bags were cut open and discarded which lessens dishwashing but they are not biodegradable. The salmon retained its shape and the dill remained bright green.

Cooked evenly to a pinkish hue, the salmon was flaky and succulent. The temperature of the protein cooled quickly so ‘serve immediately’ is important. It paired well with roasted vegetables, its varying textures contrasted with the uniformity of the salmon.

My first experiment with the SousVide Supreme Demi was a success!

Sous vide is synonymous with molecular gastronomy and modernist cuisine. I know the basic concept is to poach food in vacuum sealed bags at a controlled temperature for consistent cooking, to retain nutrients and enhance flavours.

But sous vide has always conjured an image in my mind of scientists in stained lab coats and oversized goggles, distilling and decanting between technicolour beakers, with evil intentions.

Thankfully the SousVide Supreme demonstration and tasting hosted by Myra was civilised!

Commercial sous vide machines are expensive and the SousVide Supreme was developed for the home kitchen. A local company, CEO Bob Lamson was optimistic that the seed has been planted for ‘Seattle to become the sous vide capital’ and to be at a leader of small appliances innovation, citing Nathan Myhrvold, Tavern Law and Crush as examples of Seattleites championing sous vide.

After much trial and error throughout the design and build process, the unit was rigorously tested by Heston Blumenthal before he launched it. The Fat Duck has more than seventy sous vide machines in its kitchen!

Bob extolled the quality of taste and texture of sous vide food, and stated that vegetables cooked sous vide is forty percent more nutritious than boiling and twenty percent more nutritious than steaming.

The water oven is easy to use and temperature can be set in Celsius (I still can’t convert °F!) or Fahrenheit. Ingredients and seasoning are vacuum sealed in pouches that can be prepared quickly, making it convenient and is also energy efficient.

There were many questions about what could be cooked in the SousVide Supreme. Meat, vegetables, fruits, stocks and cocktail infusions were all mentioned but the most decadent recipe was replacing the water with butter and cooking a whole lobster in it!

Bob shared with us an anecdote of a customer returning the product with a note declaring it the ‘worst deep fryer ever’. It’s not a Crock-Pot and it’s not a deep fryer! There is a perception that sous vide is complicated or hifalutin, and Bob was emphatic that it is scientifically proven to be a safe method of cooking.

Chef Sharone Hakman of MasterChef fame entertained us as he cooked a seven course tasting menu. He was engaging, amiable and knowledgeable. Sharone and the team from Duo Public Relations had been preparing the meals for several hours. We shared the dishes family style and there was an abundance of food!

Our first course was a refreshing wild hibiscus spritzer infused with raspberries and rose water.

The second course was wild king salmon with fennel, radish and turmeric butter. Succulent and flaky, the salmon was fresh and simple. Cooked sous vide and then braised, the wedges of fennel held its shape.

There were audible gasps when Sharone presented the 61 degree eggs, glossy and wobbling on a plate. A little jet lagged, I forgot to ask how the shells were peeled! The eggs were scooped on asparagus, drizzled with truffle oil and served with brioche croutons. Silky, crispy, crunchy, the textural combination was bursting with sunshine.

Chicken breasts were cooked sous vide and Sharone seasoned and seared them for presentation. Sliced and rested on pea purée and parmesan crisps, the chicken was tender and juicy. The highlight was the pea purée – vibrant in colour and taste, the sweetness contrasted with the salty cheese wafer.

Sharone displayed a tray of sous vide short rib with pride. The sliders are his favourite and the short ribs are marinated in his own brand of sauce, Hak’s BBQ.

Rich and sticky, the thick protein was tempered by the coleslaw. Perched on a stool far from the kitchen bench, I struggled eating this without making a mess! The chipotle bourbon sauce was scrumptious and I’m craving carnitas tacos with the gifted bottle of Hak’s BBQ sauce!

The final savoury dish was coffee and pepper crusted filet with fig infused Pinot Noir reduction.

Sous vide is ‘forgiving on the backend of cooking’ and the filet was evenly medium rare.

There was silent appreciation from the crowd as Sharone cut into each filet, the thick medallions of filet were a beautiful blush inside.

Rarer than I prefer my beef, I sampled a small portion and it pairs well with the fig and wine reduction.

As a child my mother would poach pears for me when I was ill. Warm and soft, they’re a healthy comfort food. Atop mascarpone, this adult version is poached in Zinfandel and dusted with cinnamon.

It was a fun, informative and delicious evening, learning and eating sous vide.

Sincere thanks to Myra Kohn for hosting, Bob Lamson for his insights, Sharone Hakman for his culinary expertise, and Duo Public Relations for organising.

April didn’t get the memo about spring and we were in need of hearty pub fare. We found refuge from the evening chill at Spur Gastropub. It was a Friday and the long wooden tables were full with two large groups and we were seated in the dining area on an elevated platform. We were mesmorised by the black and white photos projected on the wall behind us, images of ye olde Seattle.

Our waitress explained that the menu is sequenced from light to heavy – from appetizer size servings to main meals. She recommended the sockeye salmon crostini to start with while we mulled over the other items. The sockeye salmon crostini was indeed scrumptious, there were three to the plate and we graciously agreed to split the third. There were two ladies at the table next to us and we noticed they had ordered five dishes to share. I was astounded by the amount of food (course number two was a selection of cheeses) – it was definitely not tapas portions!

I ordered the tagliatelle with duck egg, oyster mushrooms and pine nuts. It is a beautifully plated dish with the ribbons of fresh pasta, glossy duck egg (sous-vide I think), parmesan foam and shavings and the curls of spring onions to add a splash of colour. The crunch of the pine nuts provides reprieve from the richness of the yolk and textural contrast to the mushrooms.

Mr S decided on a traditional pub meal of burger and fries. The shoestring fries were crunchy and the burger juicy and cheesy. The standard that all burgers are compared to are the waygu burgers at Firestick Café and Becasse in Australia and Mr S rank the Spur version close to them! We also had a side of house baked brioche which was light and buttery.

I wanted to love their desserts but my palate was not sophisticated enough to appreciate the flavours of oak aged chocolate with sherry and kumquat.

I preferred Mr S’s apple and caramel with brown butter sponge and ice cream. It is aesthetically pleasing and has a familiar combination of ingredients.

Despite the dessert stumble, I would gladly return to Spur for their cocktails and savoury dishes!

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