Friday, August 31, 2012

Bookshelf: Modernist Cuisine

I’ve cast, on occasion, disparaging remarks about modern food and drink. Meant every word, too. As a drinks judge, I’ve been served badly executed drinks by aspiring molecular cocktologists hellbent on deploying foams and smoke in places they did not belong (once, horribly, with Diet Dr Pepper and black tapioca pearls). Cooks are not immune to the desire to foist upon us novel creations. A few months back, the San Diego Tribune asked me to suggest places with great modern desserts. “I’ve had it with modern desserts,” I responded.
Few things depress me more than the freakish curiosities of pastry chefs who’ve abandoned familiar forms in a misguided rush for the sublime. Deconstructed this and re-imagined that...Just make a cake and make it delicious. I don’t need to crack open an egg shell (“Oh, look! It’s really the frosting, frozen with liquid nitrogen! And ambergris angel food cake with a colloidal Meyer-lemon center!”) to get genuine, unalloyed pleasure. Keep your modern desserts. I’ve got ice cream and brownies. 
Yet as hamfisted as some of the executions are, modernist cuisine — what some have dubbed molecular gastronomy — is creeping into wider acceptance, understanding, and successful use. Even by home cooks. And so I’ve been boning up on modernist cooking. Like it or not, the approach will grow more widespread in upcoming years as ingredients and techniques once thought exotic or uber-geeky become commonplace. It behooves us to understand what we're facing when we're presented with such things.

Click to embiggen
Different cooks have different takes on what modernist cooking is, but if there were one common thread, it is an earnest questioning of received kitchen knowledge and a desire to discover through experimental inquiry how best (defined variously) to prepare certain dishes.

Quite famously, for instance, in On Food and Cooking, science writer Harold McGee debunked the widely held notion that searing a steak “sealed in” its juices, making it juicier and more succulent than without the customary brown crust. As adamantly as even some professional chefs insist on this practice, it has no basis in truth. In fact, searing steak demonstrably causes it to lose moisture. That sizzle you hear when a steak is slapped on the grill? Those are juices vaporizing. If the surface were sealed, you wouldn’t hear that sound. Any steak eater can attest, however, that a degree of sear on a steak is good — not for any juice-sealing, but because of a browning process that helps makes food from cookies to dry-aged rib-eyes taste delicious. The process is called the Maillard reaction. Merely knowing that will earn you a degree of respect among cooks who dig this sort of thing.

The go-to book of the moment — and undoubtedly for decades to come — is Nathan Myhrvold’s six-volume Modernist Cuisine. Sure, you could (and should) read Harold McGee’s books if you want to get a grip on why modern cookery at times seems to have become unmoored from its classical foundations. You should also read those edited or written by and about Hervé This, Ferran Adrià, Nicholas Kurti, Heston Blumenthal, and others at the fore of what Jeffrey Steingarten has dubbed “hypermodern” cooking. Modernist Cuisine, though, is where the vacuum-packed, sous-vide meat of the matter lies.

Order up: The Mushroom Swiss Burger
At a breath-taking $625, this isn’t a purchase for the casual cook. The recipes can seem daunting with their calls for esoteric equipment and occasionally obscure ingredients. I’ve been working my way through it on and off for the last month. Quite simply, I cannot afford many of the kitchen tools, toys, and ingredients described in its pages. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting a hamburger as prepared following Myhrvold’s method: wrapped (a la Laura Palmer) in plastic, warmed in circulating water for about thirty minutes to 56°C/133°F, frozen in liquid nitrogen for 30 seconds, then deep-fried in 232°C/450°F oil for one minute to brown the crust. In volume five, Myhrvold gives the recipe for a mushroom Swiss cheese burger. Despite the 30-hour preparation, I want, as Liz Lemon says, to go to there.

Like the very best manuals, Modernist Cuisine is one to revisit time and time again. The photography is a joy and the writing is easy to understand even if the concepts are not at first intuitive. I didn’t absorb it all on the first reading, nor will I on the second. But having plowed through it feels a bit like I’ve survived a postgraduate seminar on anatomy and organic chemistry — and I’m hungry for more.

Just keep those foaming, smoking, glow-in-the-dark, hot-gel cocktails at arm’s length.

Nathan Myhrvold et al (2011)
Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking 
2438 pages (hardback)
The Cooking Lab
ISBN: 0982761007

Goes well with:
  • A more approachable (and affordable) manual comes from British bacon-curer Maynard Davies. Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer  may be smaller and cheaper than Modernist Cuisine, but it too is very good indeed.
  • Speaking of cocktologists, don't forget this guy when you're deciding what to drink.

Friday, August 24, 2012

American Apple Spirits

In the airless, nearly gluey July night, black-suited pallbearers hoist aloft a plain wooden coffin and begin their walk. In their wake, solemn mourners march slowly, thick humidity muffling their every footstep. Musicians follow, their low, brassy dirge echoing off damp stones as they move toward the Vieux Carré. The somber mood doesn’t last; this is, after all, New Orleans, where funerals are as much a cause for celebration as they are for sadness. Within blocks, the band strikes up a familiar Dixieland tune. Smiles and whoops break out as the celebrants form a dancing, singing, handkerchief-waving “second line.” Hallelujah! The saints, those reliable old saints, go marching in once again. Once it reaches the French Quarter, the line spills into a Decatur Street café where liquor flows freely and the party begins in earnest. No one — not a soul — sheds a tear for the deceased.

How could they? It was the Appletini.

* * *

My piece on American apple spirits runs in the Summer 2012 Distiller magazine  — part thumbnail history of apple distillates, part overview of some of today's producers. The bit above is the original intro. Fun to write, but it took too long to get to the point, so I cut it. Ah, well. What's the point of having a blog if I can't occasionally post sweepings from the cutting room floor?

Some of the distilleries covered are Laird & Company, Germain-Robin, Osocalis, Harvest Spirits, Clear Creek Distillery, San Juan Island Distillery, and more. Applejack and apple brandy are the same thing (except, obviously, when they're not), but they're hardly the only apple spirits available. As much as we adore Laird's apple brandy — and make no mistake: we sincerely do — it's not the only option for those who hanker for a bit of the old apple palsy.

Here's a PDF of the piece from Distiller with interviews, historic and modern cocktail recipes, and a look at some of what's available for American consumers.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Brown Cubes of Joy: Coffee Ice Cubes in New Mexico

Yo, dawg; I heard you like coffee in your coffee.
Even though I don't drink coffee, I guzzle tea and prefer local to corporate coffee shops for my caffeine fixes. This isn't strictly a buy-local sentiment (though that plays into it). Rather, I like the attention to details the small players often show. Something as simple as a bottle of simple syrup put out next to the granulated stuff lets me know there's an iced tea drinker in-house who dislikes gritty undissolved sugar as much as I do. Individual glasses of iced tea brewed to order are a nice touch. Then there's coffee ice cubes, something I'd never seen done at Starbucks.*

When we were in Santa Fe this weekend, the sidekicks and I stopped for our morning doses at Station Coffee & Tea in an old railyard now repurposed for restaurants and shopping. Station offers iced coffee. Nothing new there; nearly every American corporate shop does. The difference is that Station keeps two buckets of coffee ice cubes in its ice cream case. When an order for iced coffee comes in, barristas simply use these cubes rather than plain water iced cubes. The boys marveled at the goodness of the coffee and the fact that as the cube melted, their coffees stayed strong.

The recipe is simple; it's coffee. What? need more? Ok. Freeze it in ice cube trays. Use those cubes rather than plain water ice cubes when making iced coffee or coffee cocktails. At home, you could store them in a sealed plastic bag or other container that won't pick up freezer odors (or impart their own to the freezer's contents; coffee-flavored butter, anyone?). My mom used to do the same thing with orange juice in the summer when I was a kid for my morning juice. Nice to see it back in play.

Station Fine Coffee and Tea
530 South Guadalupe Street
Santa Fe, NM 87501

* I should say I've never seen coffee ice cubes done on purpose at Starbucks. There was always something vaguely unpleasant about their iced tea. I'd go, though, to visit with friends who liked the place. Not until I left a cup of iced tea sit untended for a long stretch and then reached to finish it did the unpleasantness hit me: the melted ice cubes taste of coffee. Maybe the ice absorbs ambient coffee molecules in the air. I don't know. That's my guess, anyway. This isn't a problem for — or even noticeable to — coffee drinkers, but for finicky-ass tea drinkers like me, it was a deal-killer. That was the last time I ever bought Starbucks iced tea.

Goes well with:
  • Ever wonder why some vessels dribble liquids more readily than others? The teapot effect comes into play. Whether you're pouring from teapots, cocktail shakers, French presses, or coffee cups, there's a reason you want to go with narrow lipped vessels. Read on to learn why.
  • Of course, I like hot tea, too. On chilly mornings I'll crank out a pot of masala chai — sweet hot tea spiced with cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and a few other odds and ends — to fuel the morning work.
  • Rip it. Dip it. Sip it. Are you man enough for tea?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mexican Pickled Carrots (o: zanahorias en escabeche)

The radishes that appear on the table at chips-and-salsa type Mexican restaurants appeal to some, but the more common pickled jalapenos and carrots are my own weakness. Give me that, a continuing supply of cold beers, and no particular place to be and I don't care how long it takes for lunch to come.

My regular eating buddies have dainty and tepid appreciations for chiles, so the bowl invariably is left to me alone — and it always gets emptied, leaving just a little pool of oregano-flecked juice at the bottom. Sometimes the chiles are shockingly hot; other times, they're duds, no hotter than a garden-variety bell pepper. Part of the fun is finding out which kind I just popped in my mouth. Whether you know them as pickled carrots, Mexican carrots, zanahorias en escabeche, or (upping the chile quotient) chiles encurditos, know this: they're simple to make and they go fast.

For the vinegar, you can use the plain white stuff or a mix of half white and half rice vinegar, Filipino cane vinegar, or homemade pineapple vinegar.

Mexican Pickled Carrots

24 oz/750ml water
24 oz/750ml vinegar (see above)
1/3 cup/80ml canola or corn oil
5 bay leaves
1 Tbl oregano
1 tsp crushed black pepper
1 head of garlic, halved across the equator
2 lbs/1kilo carrots, sliced diagonal
4-5 jalapeno chiles, sliced diagonally
1 small red onion, peeled and sliced thinly

Bring the carrots and enough water to cover them by a finger width or two to a boil in a large pot. Cook at a low boil for 5-8 minutes, until tender but still with a bite. Cooked them too long? They're mush now? Feed them to the dog and start over.

Drain the carrots and give the pot a quick rinse. Mix the remaining ingredients except chiles and onion slices in the pot and bring to a boil. Add the drained carrots, the onion slices, and the uncooked chiles. Return to a boil, then take the pot off off the heat, cover, and let it rest overnight.

Pack into clean jars and store in the fridge.

Makes about 1.25 liters/5 cups.

Goes well with:
  • Pork tenderloin in peanut sauce. It comes as a surprise to some Americans and Europeans that not all Mexican food is hot (though it was with glee that I saw a Frenchman clamp his hand to his mouth in shock and pain after sampling what I considered a mild table salsa). The recipe in the link above for filete de cerdo en cacahuate is one I adapted from Larousse de la cocina Mexicana.
  • I make watermelon pickles with lemon and ginger. You should, too.
  • Small batch half-sour pickles, a quick and simple recipe for making New York-style pickles when you don't feel up to cranking out a whole barrel of them or traveling to the city to enjoy them in situ.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Smith & Cross Pot-Stilled Marshmallows

We have discussed that great accompaniment to gin before, real marshmallow syrup, made with actual marshmallow plant, Althaea officinalis. Today, it's the more familiar, fluffy candy kind of marshmallow...with funky, old school, overproof rum.

The thing about marshmallows recipes is that they can seem long and intimidating, what with stand mixers and thermometers and whatnot. Know what else sounds intimidating? Detailed instructions for tying your shoes. Don't mistake precise, however, for difficult; these are in fact quite easy to make.  Once you know how to make marshmallows, you may wonder why you never tried them before now.

Perhaps you'll get a warmer reception than I did.

When I mentioned at home this morning that I'd made a batch of Smith & Cross marshmallows, the flash of stinkeye was instant. "I seem to remember," I was scolded, "that you sat on that couch a week and a half ago and said that you were going to start eating better." I didn't mention the multiple 1,200-calorie tiki drinks my accuser served me on that same couch not ten hours earlier. I did, however, explain that I hadn't said that I was going to eat them — only that I had made them.

It's true; I have been looking into joining a Crossfit cult gym and reading up on the so-called paleo diet (equal parts revisionist anthropology and sly marketing). It's also true that, like Jeff Goldblum's Mr. Frost, I enjoy making desserts more than I do eating them. For years, I've given away the bulk of the sweets I do make. Rum-spiked marshmallows, though, were too tempting to pass.

The idea for them came from Shauna Sever's recent book Marshmallow Madness! Sever recommends 80-proof Myer's dark rum for her Buttered Rum Marshmallows. Myer's is fine. I buy it by the handle for mixed drinks.  But I wanted something with a bit more funk, so switched at the last minute for the 114-proof Smith & Cross, a  Jamaican pot-stilled rum which New Orleans bartender Chris Hannah put to such good use one Mardi Gras in his cooler full of Chief Lapu Lapu cocktail. Drinks writer David Wondrich lumps it in his "pirate juice" category of recommended rums (see below). Except for that one improvement, the recipe below is Sever's. She notes:
These addictive confections have deep notes of brown sugar, a rich butter flavor, and just a hint of booziness. Perfect for adult s'mores or, freshly prepared and unset, this mallow batter makes for a dangerously delicious ice-cream topping.
These actually do make tasty s'mores, but be aware that homemade marshmallows get very gooey very fast over direct flame; if you want to make s'mores, I recommend ditching the sticks and instead heat them either with a kitchen torch or under a broiler. My biggest regret in making these came as I was pouring the whipped confection into the small baking pan to set up overnight. At that moment, I realized the sticky mass easily could have been the base for rummy Rice Krispie Treats. 
Smith & Cross Pot-Stilled Marshmallows

The Bloom
4 ½ tsp unflavored powdered gelatin
cup cold water
I Tbl Smith & Cross (or other dark rum)

The Syrup
½ cup lightly packed dark brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup light can syrup, divided
¼ cup water
3 Tbl Smith & Cross rum
½ tsp salt
The Mallowing
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 Tbl unsalted butter, soft and well-stirred
½ cup Classic Coating (below), plus more for dusting
Lightly coat an 8-by-8-inch bolting pan with cooking spray.

Whisk together the gelatin, cold water, and rum in a small bowl. Let it soften for 10 minutes.
Stir together the sugars, ¼ cup of the corn syrup, water, rum, and salt in a large saucepan over high heat. Boil, stirring occasionally, until it reaches 242°F to 245°F. Be prepared to monitor the heat: the syrup will bubble up suddenly around 190F as the alcohol starts to boil. Meanwhile, pour the remaining ¼ cup corn syrup into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Place the softened butter in a medium bowl. Microwave the gelatin on high until completely melted, about 30 seconds, and pour it into the corn syrup. Set the mixer to low and keep it running.
When the syrup reaches 242°F to 245°F, slowly pour it into the mixer bowl. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 5 minutes. Beat for 5 minutes more at medium-high speed. Beat on the highest speed for I to 2 more minutes, adding the vanilla. The finished marshmallow will be doubled in volume. Quickly scoop about a quarter of the batter into the bowl with the softened butter and whisk to blend. Scrape the buttered batter into the rest of the better and fold to blend well. Pour the marshmallow into the prepared pan. Sift coating evenly over top. Let set for 8 hours in a cool, dry place.
Use a knife to loosen the marshmallow from the edges of the pan. Invert the slab onto a coating-dusted work surface. Cut into pieces, dusting the sticky edges with more coating

Classic Coating
The coating that keeps the confections from sticking to the pan, each other, your fingers, and everything in between is made of 3 parts confectioner's (aka 10-X) sugar to 2 parts cornstarch. The batch below makes more than this recipe uses, but it keeps in an airtight container and is worth making in a bulk if you intend to crank out marshmallows. It can also be flavored with a 1-2 drops of essential oils or colored with food coloring and run through a food processor.

1 ½ cup confectioners’ sugar
1 cup cornstarch or potato starch

Whisk together.
Shauna Sever (2012)
Marshmallow Madness!
96 pages (hardback)
Quirk Books
ISBN: 1594745722

Goes well with:
  • Sever also has a recipe for margarita marshmallows here.
  • Why do I give away the sweet things I make? Because I've no willpower; I'll eat it all otherwise. See I Blew the Ass out of My Jeans This Week for insight into how my tendency to devour anything in sight decimated at least one part of my wardrobe.
  • Regarding Wondrich's "pirate juice" — in Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, Wondrich uses the term to refer to an older style of strong, and strongly flavored, rums characterized by "hogo," a word derived from the French haut goût. He writes in Esquire
Derived from the French phrase for the "high taste" game meats develop when they're hung up to mature before cooking — and by "mature," we mean "rot" — hogo used to be a term of art in the rum trade to describe the sulfurous, funky tang that raw-sugarcane spirits throw off. For 300 years, rum distillers have sought ways first to tame and then to eliminate it: high-proof distillation (more alcohol equals less hogo), filtering, tweaking the fermentation, long aging in barrels — all very effective, particularly when used in combination. Perhaps too effective.