Saturday, August 02, 2008

a break for my other passion (and iPhone envy)

Many of you know that I love to cook. This past Thursday Myron and I attended a cooking class at Charleston Cooks, hosted by one of my favorite chefs in the world, Sean Brock of McCrady's Tavern. The menu was a celebration of fresh vegetables. McCrady's owns a farm outside Charleston and nearly all the produce used in the restaurant -- from the heirloom tomatoes to the faro -- are grown by Sean and his staff.

The experience was one part sharing the adventure of a chef becoming a farmer, one part explaining molecular gastronomy, and entirely about Sean's passion for fresh ingredients. Everything Sean does is about heightening an ingredient's natural flavor. There are some surprises, such as the whipped maple syrup that looked like whipped cream, but they aren't the star of the dishes.

So here's how it went down. We were given printouts of five recipes that we would be preparing, along with aprons and kitchen towels. Chef Brock explained the recipes, then we each selected a station where we would do one of the dishes. Myron and I, along with a young lady named Julia who is a Food Science major at Clemson, took on the crab salad with compressed watermelon.

This involved peeling a watermelon to get rid of all the green and white, then slicing it into one inch thick slabs. These were placed in bags then sealed in a chamber vacuum. The technique goes by the French name sous vide, which means "under vacuum". By compressing the relatively soft watermelon under high pressure it condenses the fruit and gives it a meatier texture and intensifies the flavor. It came out looking like tuna.

The next step was to create watermelon caviar. This was achieved by putting watermelon juice mixed with pectin (the same stuff used in canning) in a squeeze bottle, then slowly dripping it into a calcium lactate gluconate solution. The end result were small balls of watermelon juice with a delicate outer skin that looked like salmon roe. The crab salad was rather mundane. Crab, Greek yogurt, chervil, tarragon and lemon olive oil.

Now for some hero worship. :-) When Sean was describing the pectin technique I said "Oh, I saw that on Iron Chef." He said the technique was similar, but this was newer. On Iron Chef they used sodium alginate rather than pectin, but he had some sodium alginate so he could show me that technique, too. And he did! He took us through every step, then left us to play with it.

Working with chemicals like this requires precise measurements down to a tenth of a gram. Sean was discussing how we needed to blend the watermelon juice with 1% by weight of sodium alginate, and as he's saying this he reached in his pocket and pulled out an iPhone. I jokingly asked if it was a blender, and he pulled off the cover to reveal a scale! I have no use at all for an iPhone, but I've got gadget envy over this beauty.

As we were sitting down to eat Chef Brock talked about how he came across molecular gastronomy as a way to enhance the natural flavor of products. He used the example of gnocchi, which typically uses potatoes, flour, and eggs. The end result is tasty, but not very potato-y. He said by putting potatoes into sous vide bags then cooking them in an immersion circulator, you get perfectly cooked potatoes without washing away flavor by boiling them. Then you can add water and xanthan gum to create the dough and you have gnocchi that is entirely potatoes with no flavor-altering ingredients. It was very interesting to me, and finally got me on the molecular gastronomy bandwagon.

He also described a technique of creating flavored waters. You add five sheets of gelatin to 500 grams of something, such as a wasabi puree. Then you freeze it. The gelatin will cause the entire mass to solidify, but as the water freezes it pokes holes in the gelatin structure. Then you put the frozen gelatin in cheese cloth and let it thaw. The liquid that comes out is nearly clear but it has an intense wasabi (or chocolate or foie gras) flavor. You can put this in the sous vide bag with something else and it comes out looking like a regular piece of tuna or chicken, but it has this other completely unexpected flavor.

Before we left Sean invited us all to visit his kitchen any time and said he loved to see people passionate about food. I'll definitely be taking him up on that offer.


  1. Wow, that sounds so much fun and is entirely fascinating! And the iPhone is a scale???? Seriously??? At this point I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me that it's a lie detector and toothbrush as well.

    Looking forward to causing havoc with you in my kitchen soon :-)

  2. It's not really an iPhone. It's a high-precision scale with a cover that looks like an iPhone. :-)