May 19, 2010 in Food
Kitchen science meets gourmet cuisine
Result is a surprising mix of flavors and textures
Honeysuckle pillows, raspberry dust, coriander caviar and creamed kumquat pearls are just a few of the unusual items that appear on chef Jeremy Hansen’s latest menu.
The owner of Spokane’s Santé Restaurant and Charcuterie has spent hundreds of hours developing the menu for his 15-course dinner on Sunday, simply called “15.”
“It’s the most difficult menu I’ve written in my life,” says Hansen, who will incorporate an innovative cooking technique called molecular gastronomy to create dishes with surprising textures and unusual presentations.
“There are many layers in food, all kinds of styles. Molecular gastronomy is one layer,” he says.
“It’s using products in a unique and creative way. It’s more my creative side – being able to have a flow of flavors and textures and making it fun.”
Tools and additives
Molecular gastronomy makes edible creations such as pliable chocolate and peach-flavored ravioli possible.
A chef starts with whole foods, distills the flavors using various cooking techniques and then changes the texture with the help of added chemical stabilizers, thickeners and emulsifiers. Agar, lecithin, carrageenan and other chemicals are used to create food gels and powders, foams that won’t dissipate and sauces that don’t break.
Droppers are used to make “caviar” or pearl-shaped morsels of flavors. “Noodles” are created with special extrusion tubes, and smoking guns pipe aromatic smoke under domes.
“We use a lot of things you’d find in a science lab … petri dishes, tubes, syringes. It does sound weird, but we use these new tools and techniques to create a new way of eating food,” Hansen says.
“People say these things (chemicals) are bad for you, but we eat them every day,” he adds, pointing out that agar is made from seaweed and used throughout Asia.
Hansen has done a lot of research into the chemicals commonly used in molecular gastronomy.
“Some things I’m not playing around with – they’re bad for you,” he says.
Instead, he’s trying to achieve the same results with natural products: “I’m putting my best effort into making it healthy.”
Rooted in classic technique
Former Spokane chef Dan Bower describes molecular gastronomy as the science, knowledge and manipulation of chemical reactions as they occur in the cooking process.
Bower, who worked at Stix and The Club at BlackRock, is executive chef at the Plaza Club in Honolulu.
Given the technical aspects involved in preparing these seemingly futuristic dishes, one might think molecular gastronomy is a new technique. But it’s been around for a long time.
“So many of these sauce techniques and molds and spheres have been in pastry for so long,” Bower writes by e-mail.
He points to the functions of eggs and sugar in baking, the amazing properties of salt and the process of osmosis in curing and preserving as the original molecular gastronomy.
“I think molecular gastronomy has always been a part of people’s day-to-day lives without thinking about it,” Bower says.
Food as art
“It’s about reconstructing food in an artful way and putting an entertainment factor into it,” explains Hansen.
He gives the example of peach ravioli. By extracting the flavors of a peach into a liquid and adding a natural stabilizer, the edible liquid is dropped into a water bath and forms a peach sauce shell, with a piece of peach inside.
By changing the texture of a peach, the diner experiences an explosion of flavor in an unexpected way.
A chef can use molecular gastronomy to combine multiple flavors, shapes and textures in a dish similar to how an artist creates a painting. Unusual serving dishes and utensils frame the edible art, and servers play a role in explaining how best to enjoy each course.
Engage the senses
“I want to stimulate the mind and all the senses. I want people to think about what they’re eating,” says Hansen.
He plans to a use variety of media during 15, including artwork on the walls and images of a specific food flashed on a screen, set to music and background sound.
Aromatic elements such as burning cinnamon sticks or smoked-filled domes are common in molecular gastronomy, adding another layer to the dining experience. To accompany his Berkshire tenderloin, Hansen plans to create an edible onion-garlic glass dome that will be cracked open to release a whiff of rosemary smoke.
“I want this to be an intense experience – an experience that people won’t forget,” he says.
Fire and ice
“The Fat Duck Cookbook” by Heston Blumenthal describes a dessert called Flaming Sorbet, in which Blumenthal creates a heat-resistant edible substance that doesn’t melt when it’s lit, even though it’s frozen.
Molecular gastronomy also makes use of extreme cold, such as using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream.
Although liquid nitrogen isn’t practical for everyday purposes, Nick St. Clair, executive chef of Spokane’s Cafe Marron, has incorporated a similar technique in making ice cream using dry ice.
“It’s faster, it saves labor and the product is better,” says St. Clair.
By mixing dry ice into the ice cream base, it freezes much faster, with fewer ice crystals.
“It’s amazing,” he says. “I wish I would have known this years ago.”
While St. Clair considers himself a traditionalist and not a huge fan of molecular gastronomy, he’s always on the lookout for things that will help him in the kitchen.
“I take what I want out of it – cool garnishes, foams,” he says. “It’s good for my culinary students to keep learning and not get stuck in a rut.”
Cucumber Gelée with Orange Segments
Courtesy of Jeremy Hansen, Santé Restaurant. Use these squares to garnish a salad or other savory dish.
2 or 3 English cucumbers, peeled, cut in quarters lengthwise and seeded
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of salt
1.2 grams agar (available at Lorien Herbs and Huckleberry’s Natural Market)
1 orange, peeled and cut into small segments
Place the cucumbers through a juicer or blender and then strain through a fine sieve or linen towel to make 250 grams juice.
Bring juice, sugar, salt and agar to a boil, stirring continuously. Pour into silicone ice cube tray. Add small segment of orange to each cube and chill in refrigerator 1 hour to set.
Yield: Varies depending on size of cubes.
Dry Ice Vanilla Ice Cream
Courtesy of Nick St. Clair, Cafe Marron
1 quart half-and-half
10 egg yolks
10 ounces sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 pound dry ice (available at Fred Meyer)
Heat half-and-half in a saucepan until scalding.
In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla extract and vanilla bean seeds and beat a little more.
Gradually add the half-and-half to the egg mixture while continuously whisking. Put mixture back in saucepan and whisk constantly over medium-low heat, just until the ice cream coats the back of a spoon.
Strain through a fine strainer. Let cool at room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and cool in the fridge overnight.
Beat the dry ice into small chunks with a rolling pin or meat tenderizer. Using a metal spoon, put a scoop of dry ice in a food processor and pulse until fine.
Put half of the vanilla ice cream base into the bowl of a kitchen mixer. Mix on low speed with the paddle attachment, slowly adding a little dry ice with the metal spoon. Wait until the gas evaporates and then add some more dry ice.
Repeat the process until thick and creamy, like soft-serve ice cream. Freeze overnight before serving.
Yield: 5 cups.
Red Pepper Foam
Courtesy of Nick St. Clair, Cafe Marron, who served this foam as a garnish to a roasted lamb dish on one of his tasting menus.
1 red pepper, roasted under the broiler or gas flame, skin and seeds removed
1 tablespoon soy lecithin granules (available at Huckleberry’s Natural Market)
Pass pepper through juicer or blender; strain through a fine sieve.
Place pepper juice in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and add lecithin. Whisk well.
Just before serving, buzz the pepper juice with an immersion blender, placing the blades just below the surface, then moving them up and down to foam the top. It should resemble steamed milk. You can also just put it in a blender, and buzz for a few seconds and then skim off the top.
Variation: Substitute other vegetable or fruit juice. The basic ratio is about 1/2 cup juice to 1 tablespoon lecithin to create foam that holds its shape and can be used to garnish savory or sweet dishes.
Yield: about ¼ cup foam.
Kirsten Harrington is a Spokane freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.