Friday, March 21, 2008

Molecular Gastronomy

Or...expensive processed food?

If you are a fan of Top Chef you probably are familiar with the term molecular gastronomy. If you're not...well it's a bit like eating Dr. Seuss.

I am partly fascinated by the concept of physics and chemistry in food and I love the idea of food that looks like the chef was on acid. But...I don't like processed food. Even when I eat junk food I eat organic chocolate or crisps.

So...when I read about or watch chefs cooking with this 60's retro revamped food trend...I am a little dubious. I love the idea, but not the idea that it is so processed. The aspect I do like is the concentrated nutrition ...I eat a lot of concentrated food/condiments (umeboshi paste, miso, tahini, tamari, maple syrup, oolican) so when these recipes are nutritious, I kind of like that.

Originally published in France, This's book documents the sensory phenomena of eating and uses basic physics to put to bed many culinary myths. In each short chapter This presents a piece of debatable conventional wisdom-such as whether it is better to make a stock by placing meat in already boiling water, or water before it is boiled-and gives its history, often quoting famous French chefs, before making scientific pronouncements. In the chapter on al dente pasta, for instance, This discusses pasta-making experiments, the science behind cooking it and whether it is better to use oil or butter to prevent it from sticking. Most of the discussions revolve around common practices and phenomenon-chilling wine, why spices are spicy, how to best cool a hot drink-but more than a few are either irrelevant or Franco-specific (such as the chapters on quenelles and preparing fondue). This's experimentation, however, is not for the mildly curious, but readers unafraid to, say, microwave mayonnaise will find many ideas here.

Before antioxidants, extra-virgin olive oil and supermarket sushi commanded public obsession, the first edition of this book swept readers and cooks into the everyday magic of the kitchen: it became an overnight classic. Now, 20 years later, McGee has taken his slightly outdated volume and turned it into a stunning masterpiece that combines science, linguistics, history, poetry and, of course, gastronomy. He dances from the spicy flavor of Hawaiian seaweed to the scientific method of creating no-stir peanut butter, quoting Chinese poet Shu Xi and biblical proverbs along the way. McGee's conversational style—rich with exclamation points and everyday examples—allows him to explain complex chemical reactions, like caramelization, without dumbing them down. His book will also be hailed as groundbreaking in its breakdown of taste and flavor. Though several cookbooks have begun to answer the questions of why certain foods go well together, McGee draws on recent agricultural research, neuroscience reviews and chemical publications to chart the different flavor chemicals in herbs and spices, fruits and vegetables. Odd synergies appear, like the creation of fruity esters in dry-cured ham—the same that occur naturally in melons! McGee also corrects the European bias of the first edition, moving beyond the Mediterranean to discuss the foods of Asia and Mexico. Almost every single page of this edition has been rewritten, but the book retains the same light touch as the original. McGee has successfully revised the bible of food science—and produced a fascinating, charming text. From amazon

Thanks to CHOW for the molecular gastronomy cheat sheet

1. Pronouncing the famous names. Four of the biggest molecular gastronomy chefs have unpronounceable names. Nobody—NOBODY—knows how to pronounce them at first.

* Grant Achatz (Alinea; Chicago)—”Grant A-kitz,” as in “Packets.”
* Ferran Adrià (El Bulli; Girona, Spain)—This one is extra tricky, as you have to affect a Spanish accent: “Feh-RAHN Ah-dree-AH.”
* Homaro Cantu (Moto; Chicago)—”Ho-MAH-roe Can-TOO.”
* Wylie Dufresne (wd-50; New York City)—”WHY-lee Doo-FRAINE,” as in “Ukraine.”
* Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck; Bray, UK)—Just as it looks, but no molecular gastronomy cheat sheet would be complete without this trailblazing chef, whose signature dish, caviar on a white chocolate dish, has been duplicated by many.

2. Don’t call it molecular gastronomy. Like hippie or Tex-Mex, the term molecular gastronomy has stuck in the public consciousness as the de facto name for the science-lab brand of cooking we’re talking about here, thanks to French scientist Hervé This. However, the chefs who cook this way think it’s a dumb name and have said that “molecular gastronomy is dead.”

3. Frozen food. Flash-freezing is to molecular gastronomy as flame-broiling is to Burger King. El Bulli was the first restaurant to experiment with quickly freezing the outside of various foods, sometimes leaving a liquid center, using a volatile set-up involving a bowl of liquid nitrogen dubbed the TeppanNitro. Later, Alinea’s Achatz began using an appliance called the Anti-Griddle, whose metal surface freezes rather than cooks.

4. Spherification. Also known as ravioli (not the kind you eat with marinara sauce), spheres are what you get when you mix liquid food with sodium alginate, then dunk it in a bath of calcium chloride. A sphere looks and feels like caviar, with a thin membrane that pops in your mouth, expunging a liquid center. Popular experiments from the chefs above have included ravioli made from purées of things like mangoes and peas.

5. Meat glue. One of the greatest hits of the movement has been Wylie Dufresne’s “shrimp noodles,” which, as the name states, are noodles made of shrimp meat. They were created using transglutaminase, or meat glue, as it’s known in wd-50’s kitchen, a substance that binds different proteins together and is more familiarly used in mass-produced foods like chicken nuggets.

6. Froth. You probably know about foams, which are sauces that have been turned into froth using a whipped cream canister and sometimes lecithin as a stabilizer. They were invented at El Bulli, along with similar “airs” made with an immersion blender. Despite hitting the mainstream, they’ve refused to die.

7. Eat the document. Arguably the biggest gee-whiz innovation in the genre has been the edible menus by Homaro Cantu of Moto. Using an ink-jet printer adapted for inks made from fruit and vegetables, and paper made of soybean and potato starch, he has created menus that taste like everything from sushi to steak.

8. Bacon on the line. Alinea’s multicourse tasting menu often includes a crispy piece of bacon decorated with butterscotch and dehydrated apple, served threaded on a horizontal wire. The famous dish exemplifies Alinea’s use of creative serveware, and molecular gastronomy’s enthusiasm for dehydrators and savory-sweet combinations in general.

9. You’ll never eat there. Although you may want to dine at the pioneering Spanish restaurant that launched this movement, you’ll be slightly more likely to win the lottery or get struck by lightning than to get a reservation at El Bulli. It’s open only from April to September, and there are a mere 8,000 spots. Over 300,000 people attempt to get one each year.

10. You may never want to eat there. Some dishes created at molecular gastronomy restaurants have not been good ideas—for example, rack of lamb with banana consommé, a “cocktail” of dehydrated powdered rum and cola-flavored Pop Rocks, lamb encrusted with crushed Altoids, and chili-cheese nachos for dessert, made of sweet corn chips, kiwi salsa, and mango sorbet.

Blogs and Websites dedicated to Molecular Gastronomy:

Restaurants that make foam
Movable Feast
wd-50 review
more food pics



If anybody ever plonked owt like that lot in front of me I'd thump 'em for takin' the piss.

Gimme a full English any day of the week (or a chicken vindaloo)

Gardenia said...

I was listening to my reactions reading this....first, I didn't want to know about this - because I am a sensuous eater - then I got fascinated by it - thinking, well, all this research has probably produced some very positive scientific insights. Then it moved on to some fun, but I think it must be the tongue-in-cheek kind of fun. Being a big fan of lamb prepared almost anyway - the idea of it being prepared with Altoids is - uh, bone chilling - :)

Well, I have my coffee and am making my way back to the post of 'Bama's speech.