Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Picky Eater And The Irritated Waiter

Ruhlman wrote a piece on food allergies calling America A Nation Of Culinary Sissies. In his self described rant, he talks about the number of people who alert servers about food allergies vs. the number of people who actually have a food allergy. A comment-storm erupted, with people choosing sides and bickering. It is, after all, the Internet.

Eventually, it devolved but there was one salient point that I think merits further discussion:

Some patrons lie to get the chef to do what they want.

And, of course, that pisses a lot of servers, chefs and restauranteurs off. Because what they really want is to have their already difficult jobs not made more difficult, and of course, everyone involved wants to be able to continue to work and make a living. How is their life made easier when someone comes in and asks them to change the way they do things?

I used to be a vegetarian. I would start by telling a server that I was a vegetarian. Some knew what the term meant, others would say things like: "But they're just little clams" to "No sir, I assure you, all vegetarians eat fish." As I got more strict I started asking more specific questions (which would ultimately eliminate dishes I thought jived with my diet). Is there any shrimp paste, fish sauce, chicken stock. During this barrage of questions, some servers answered in a way that gave you a high degree of confidence, others would answer with "No... I don't think so..." followed with an uncomfortable silence before going and asking.

I never got to the point where I lied, but if I went back to being a vegetarian today, I probably would. Too many businesses don't really care if they serve you something you didn't want (especially since you probably won't notice). But the potential nightmare of having me convulse on their floor with someone slamming an adrenaline needle ala Pulp Fiction during the middle of service will get everyone's attention.

In other words, the people who complain about people who utilize allergies as their weapon, are complaining about a situation they created. And here is why they created it:

No restaurant wants to say no to money.

It is easier to not care or deceive a customer rather than accommodate the request or tell a customer that you simple can't or don't want to honor their request. The result is that restaurant workers are incented to keep you there, and if the kitchen can't accommodate you, the server can always lie, if they think it won't really cause any harm. I am not saying that all waiters and chefs lie, because it isn't true. What I am saying is, if you don't want to accommodate requests, but you don't want a party to leave because one doesn't like carrots, lying is a damned good option compared to watching money walk out of the restaurant.

At the end of the day, a meal at a restaurant is a business arrangement. Customers provide money, restaurant provide dining experiences. If either side thinks it's not going to get what it wants, they should walk away. Restaurants make less money if they say no. You can even put something on the menu saying, "We do not honor substitutions. Do not ask."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Keller And Ruhlman: Under Pressure

I went to see Michael Ruhlman and Thomas Keller converse about sous vide at the Astor Center. I think it was worth going to if you didn't know much about the subject. I have become far more literate on the subject than I had thought.

The space and facilities at Astor Center continue to make for the best venue to attend food related events in New York City. Ruhlman and Keller were fun to watch, even if Ruhlman did occaisionally sound like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from Saturday Night Live:

"Mr. Keller, you mean to tell me that you seal food in plastic bags and put them in hot water? Won't we die of botulism or PVC poisoning? Your modern cooking techniques frighten and confuse me. Which demons did you sell your soul to in order to remove all of the oxygen from that bag."

Yes, I know, this was a softball so that Keller could hit a home run on the safety answer for a crowd that probably does think like The Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. It was still entertaining.

Usually I think of sous vide as a temperature precise poach utilizing vaccuum sealed product. Keller's definition of sous-vide was broader than that, and slightly more focused on 'things you can do with vacuum sealing':
  1. Storage. Everyone is familiar with this. Vacuum sealing is common in food that we buy in grocery stores.
  2. Compression. Utilizing professional vacuum sealers to break down food by putting it under even amounts of pressure. You cannot achieve this with food savers/seal-a-meals.
  3. Marination. Utilizing a vacuum sealed environment to increase the effectiveness and reduce the amount of time of marination.
  4. Cooking. The classic sous-vide definition (see above, or see this post).
Keller is not a fan of seal a meal or foodsaver. Not enough of a seal and can't handle liquid. He doesn't recommend them. Of course, he is Thomas-fucking-Keller.

Keller did say that he thinks sous vide for the home will be available in applianceform within 5 years. Which is something I totally agree with. Of course, he has the advantage of having spoken to Kenmore and Viking about the subject.

The book is beautiful, and I am sure I am going to learn a lot when I read the whole thing. At first glance, it isn't particularly useful for the home chef, even the ones forward thinking enough to own an immersion circulator or a PID controller like Auberins or Fresh Meals Solutions products.

Why? Because the book also makes heavy use of compression, a technique that requires a chamber vacuum sealer, which costs about $2000 and also takes up a fair amount of space. Which is kind of weird, because I am going to guess that about 10% of the audience has a shot of using this cook book. I doubt you are going to see Carol start a 'Carol Under Pressure' blog... Drats.

The fact that Keller and Ruhlman wrote this book makes one thing abundantly clear:

Sous vide cookery is simply an idea whose time has come.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Liquid Nitrogen or "I'm Going To Go Thaw This In The Freezer"

I have vague memories of the first time I saw liquid nitrogen in use. I think I was in my junior high school auditorium and there was some speaker they brought in to try and get us excited about science. He was a typical science pitch-man. His lab coat partially concealing a plaid shirt and cheap slacks, thick glasses elevated by a sense of humor that came in two forms: the pun and the science joke. His routine, somewhere between David Copperfield and a birthday clown, climaxes when he attempts to bounce a rubber ball that was frozen in liquid nitrogen. You could hear the ball shatter like glass.

I didn't really think much about liquid nitrogen again. Puberty happened, and then I had to get a job. Having finally recovered from the realization that I will not be getting any taller and that I will likely have to work until I die, I found myself at the Astor Center, attending "Cold Cooking with Liquid Nitrogen" with Ideas In Food chefs Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot.

They are talented chefs, writers and photographers, but they are also pretty darned good presenters.

The Experience

It was a great class. They gave us booze, did some lecture, performed a bunch of demonstrations. Alex and Aki are crazy smart, but totally approachable. As a teaching duo, they were very much themselves, and didn't try to be teaching robots. For example:


AKI and ALEX are giving a cooking demonstration. ALEX is demonstrating the use of acetate sheets to create cylinders out of egg yolks that have been cooked via sous-vide and then mixed with rendered prosciutto fat.


Now, before you apply the egg yolk to the sheet make sure you use spray on some PAM release.

ALEX looks around, not seeing any PAM release.


Do you have the PAM release?

Without even waiting for the answer, Alex wisely leaves the room in search of PAM release.


So. While Alex gets that, I am going to continue with another demonstration. First, I'm going to have to refill the styrofoam chest with LNO.

AKI moves towards the LN dewar, carrying the styrofoam chest. It is on a tall table, making it a little awkward to refill the chest.


Alex hates it when I do this.

AKI completes the refill and proceeds with the demo. Alex enters victoriously with the PAM release.


Found it!

ALEX furrows his brow.


Did you refill the LN?

What Can We Do With It

What follows are what I can recreate from my notes:

First and foremost, LN can be both a technique and an ingredient. It brings extreme cold to the party. Which in and of itself is pretty nifty because we don't really think about cold as much as we think about the use of heat in cooking. What can we use it for:
  1. Ice cream. There are two incredibly related reasons to use LN to make ice cream. The first reason is speed. LN is fucking cold. So cold it burns. So cold, you don't have to wait long for it to freeze things. Instant ice cream. Quicker you make it, the sooner it is enjoyed. Also, you are reducing the amountsize of ice crystals that form. Ice crystals are not your friend, just ask this guy. Nitro-Freezing ice cream creates a better mouth-feel.

  2. Shards. When you LN freeze vegetables, they become brittle. You can shatter them, like the aforementioned ball. For example, here is a picture of some shards of beet: (Credit: Josh Smith)

    Shards of Beet

  3. Powders. Powder the unpowderable. Also, powder without the application of heat. Flavors will be raw. Instead of dehydrating then grinding ingredients, we can nitrofreeze then grind. Caramel powder. Raw Shrimp Powder (They added it to grits). I also have a note about powdering frozen spice blends, but I don't remember the value [Because it preserves volatile oils --Ed.] because of:

  4. Clouds. a.k.a. Frozen foams. For many of the fooderati, foams have jumped the shark. But do not fear the mighty foam. Freeze it instead. Aki and Alex made a mezcal cocktail with a yuzu cloud. My notes said: "frozen yuzu foam is ridiculous." (in a good way)

  5. Cryo-Blanching Vegetables. Nitrofreeze and thaw. They made nitro blanched beets and carrots with a green olive powder. The result is a texture between cooked and raw, with bright and clean flavors. 
Tips and Tricks
  • LN tells you when it's done. Drop something into LN and it makes noise, like a bizarro-world fry-o-later. When it stops, it's frozen. Or for another analogy, it's like microwave popcorn. Speaking of fry-o-later, someone in the class suggested making a basket that could withstand the LN instead of having to fish out the food.

  • Food Grade. General consensus from the class is that food grade LN is bunk, and that all LN is food grade.

  • Powders. Make powders in smaller batches or you will get an inconsistent grind.

  • Respect the LN. LN isn't all that different than hot oil. It can burn you. So can the stuff you prepare in it. Be especially careful if you are freezing alcohols.

  • Allergies may apply. If you freeze an allergen in an LNO bath, you might want to be careful about reusing the bath. Even if not using allergens, it's a good idea to strain regularly.

  • It ain't cheap. There is a startup cost that will make it unpalatable to the home chef. A 35L dewar can cost 800$. The nozzle can cost an additional 400$. Then to fill it can cost $2 a liter.

  • Store and operate in a well ventilated space. Don't die.
The title of this blog post is a paraphrased quote from Alex. It melted my head.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Raw vs. Molecular Gastronomy

Yah, I know. Two things wrong with the title. First, most people who fall under the category MG, hate the phrase. Second, isn't it oxymoronic? I mean, Raw Veganism is hippie rabbit food. A diet already restricted by veganism compounded with the inability to heat anything past 104 °F (40 °C) to 115 °F (46 °C). Salads and juices, oh my!

Grant AchatzJuliano

Contrast that with the Modernists, Molecular Chefs, Molecular Gastronomers, what ever they want to be called often cook with ingredients whose usage was pioneered in the industrial food industry. Kitchens like laboratories. Ingredients like Hydrocolloids, Transglutaminase, Tapioca Maltodextrin, and Xanthan Gum.

And first glance these forms of cuisine seem to have nothing in common. New Age Hippies vs. the Avante Garde. Let's dig into some similarities:
  1. Creativity. I think creativity comes from two places: constriction or freedom. Modernism frees you. New textures, new techniques, new, new new. Raw constricts you. Trying to consistently prepare interesting meals when you can't use meat, dairy, and, oh I dunno... your fucking oven, is hard. That constriction led to a lot of innovation. I could go on all day about them, but what you should really do is pick up a copy of Charlie Trotter's and Roxanne Klein's Raw, and have your mind twisted.

  2. Polarizing. Both styles of cooking took a lot of heat for being different and bucking mainstream traditions. Don't get me wrong, I do think that Modernism will absolutely have a bigger impact on the culinary world than raw will. But, people definitely try to throw the baby out with the bathwater on both.

  3. Equipment. Pop quiz time: Is this following a raw or modernist kitchen:
    The kitchen at _______ is filled with high-tech gadgets like dehydrators, carefully calibrated warming ovens, frothers, high-speed Vita-Mix blenders, finely honed slicers and $3,000 Pacojet frozen-food churners. There's an industrial hydraulic juicer that presses fruits and vegetables without breaking the cell walls, as juicers usually do; the extracted juices never separate.
    Turns out it's a raw kitchen. Coming from a vegetarian perspective, I had the strangest sense of deja vous when I was researching MG for the first time. Champion juicers, Excalibur Dehydrators, and Vita-Prep Vita-Mix high speed blenders are likely to be found in both kitchens.

  4. Hydrocolloids. This one will melt your head. Raw foods desserts occasionally contain Chia Seeds (Ch-ch-ch-chia!) or utilize the natural pectin in blueberries to gel desserts. Modernists obviously use hydrocolloids like Gellan, Xanthan Gum, Methyl Cellulose and Pectin.

  5. Patents! It is pretty well-known that Homaro Cantu has filed a number of patents.
    One Of Moto's Patent Pending Courses

    While researching this blog post I found a raw foods patent that covers:
    A method of agglutinating a raw food selected from the group consisting of fruits, vegetables, sprouted grains, unsprouted grains, sweet syrups, honey, and vegetable powders, said method being carried out in a preparation area with a predetermined relative humidity, which method
Obviously there are plenty of differences. But those aren't important to me today.

Don't forget to vote.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Cheap Skate (i8P)

I generally shy away from fish that is on sale at any fishmonger. The only reason I can think of for reducing the price of something is because you want to get rid of it. And there are only two reasons you are trying to get rid of something. You have more than you want of it or there is something wrong with it.

But, you know, I was at Whole Foods. I figured that whatever I was purchasing couldn't be that bad. So, with that rationalization trumping my better judgement, I purchased two pounds of skate. Skates are bottom dwelling Chondrichthyes, similar to Rays, like a Sting Ray, Manta Ray or Sugar Ray (Well, at least the bottom dwelling part). Which you don't really think of as delicious. But it can be.

My issue with Skate is that it is alway prepared the same way. Brown butter, capers and a squeeze of lemon. Awesome the first time, horrifically boring the umpteenth time. However, I had an idea in my head (ideas that I have in my pancreas I don't usually act on) that I had to try. I've been wanting to do it forever. And because I am a fucking asshole, I'm not going to tell you what it is.

Instead, we are going to talk about shark pee.

Sharks convert ammonia into urea via the ornithine cycle. That pretty similar to us. But, sharks don't have bladders or pee holes. Since urea is not as toxic as ammonia, they can store it in their blood. Then they excrete it through their flesh via osmosis.

That's great when they are alive. When they die, the urea in their blood starts to deteriorate back into ammonia. Consider it the Chondrichthyes' Revenge on humanity.

Sharks are in the same family as Skates. Yup, I ate pee. Not only that, I served pee-ridden skatemeat to my girlfriend.

A Skate Getting Its Last Laugh

How is this prevented

The Internet didn't give me any great answers. The likely theories are:
  1. Evisceration immediately after being caught
  2. Iced immediately after being caught
  3. Brined immediately after being caught

How is this fixed

Two options.
  1. Discard. Simple. Easy. This is probably the smart thing to do. There are other reasons why fish can smell like ammonia, none of them good reasons.

  2. Neutralize. Ammonia is a base. Combine with an acid and they will neutralize each other. Soak in an acidulated water. That means lemon or vinegar combined in water. 

What Did We Learn?

  • I ate pee.
  • You don't have to.
  • Don't Buy Fish On Sale.
For more useful information, Beyond Salmon has a post about Skate that includes a lot of good cooking tips.

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