Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ordering Technique Part I: The Screenplay

The restaurant is packed with beautiful people jammed into clothing that no human being should actually be able to fit in. At the table where these beautiful people will not have to be encumbered with his physicality, sit PABLO and his girlfriend PICKLED JALAPENO. PABLO is underdressed and waving his arms wildly as he is talking. PICKLED is trying to pay attention, but her phone is lighting up with text message after text message.

If a tip is to

"To Insure Proper Service"

why do we do it at the end of a meal? You can't insure your house after it burns down. It's really To Reward Proper Service. T-R-P-S. It's tuh-errrpppss.

PICKLED just stares at him, her eyes revealing that she is calculating the cost/benefit analysis of a nice dinner versus her ability to endure another evening with this raving lunatic. She looks over PABLO's shoulder noting that their waitress has overheard their conversation.

Hi folks, you doin' ok over here? Have any questions about the menu?

Trrrrrrrr-ppppsss. Yeah, what's good here?

Well, tonight we have a fish special, an 8 ounce butter poached Escolar fillet, served over a bed of micro algae with ferzizzled potatoes. Escolar is a delicious firm textured fish, with a fat content I know you will love.

Ferzizzled potatoes. Sounds Fancy! I'll take it.

(turning to PICKLED)
And what would you like?

I'll take the salad. Can I have the dressing on the side and a poached egg on top?

Coming right up.

As the WAITRESS walks off, a diner at the neighboring table motions to her. The camera pans over to the table where we see FRANK BRUNI is dining with SNOOP DOG.

Yo, that Escolar sounds tight. Can I get a --

Mr. Snoop, I assure you, you don't want the special --

Don't be tellin' me what I want. I want the frezizzled potizzles!

Snoop, an eight ounce portion of escolar

(pauses and leans close)
It's the culinary equivalent of

(air quotes)
"the shank"

The WAITRESS nods once, confirming FRANK BRUNIs statement.

Thats some cold shit.

The camera CUTS back over to PABLO's table.

Did you hear that? She just un-recommended my dish to snoop.

From The Wire?

No! The other Snoop.

You can't un-recommend something! The bond between server and patron is sacred! I am going to say something--

(through her teeth)
Don't. You. Dare.

It's totally coming out of her tuh-er-puh.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ordering Technique Part I: Servers As Advisors

There is nothing more infuriating than having someone scoop you on a topic you wanted to write about. Actually, that's not true. It is even more infuriating when someone gives it a really good treatment, like Adam Roberts, who had a great post over at The Amateur Gourmet about why you shouldn't ask your server for ordering advice at a restaurant. With a couple of exceptions, he breaks down a number of reasons for why you shouldn't ask "What's good?".

Reasons like: all of the items on the menu should be good (at a certain level of restaurant), they can't know your palate or mood, and that you never know if you would have been happier with your own selection. He also mentions the social awkwardness of asking for a suggestion and then not ordering it.

I think menus can be deceptive, descriptions are terse and sometimes inaccurate. At a restaurant you have never been to, your server is the only interactive window you have into the food. The real issue is that the question "What's good?" is not going to get you to the best answer. Some will tell you what is most popular, some will give you an honest opinion, and I am sure it has happened at least once that a server will push an item that the restaurant needs to move.

I remember when I was teenager I went to a restaurant where the waiter prevented me from ordering a dish. By prevented, I mean, he drew on the menu, crossed out what I wanted to order and circled a different dish. I took his advice and ordered whatever he had circled. While I was waiting for my entree to arrive, someone at the table next to us had ordered what I had originally wanted. I heard them say "This is disgusting, I can't eat this." Now granted, this establishment one can draw on a menu, but still, your waitron may know things you don't.

I think if you engage your server properly, you can get really great advice. Don't ask what's good and end it there. Ask what they like about their recommendation. Tell them the general range of what you are craving. I am almost always debating between two dishes.

I do have to admit that I have a fear that I am going to end up in some Larry David like nightmare at the restaurant. Maybe a yelling match because I don't follow her advice. Or perhaps ...


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

NYPL: Achatz And Myhrvold

Sadly, I had this post mostly written for the better part of a year. I finally sat down, listened to the audio again and finished the post. It is important to note that this reflects my understanding and take on their conversation, and I am may have unintentionally misrepresented them.

As mentioned previously, I had the privilege of attending "WIRED & LIVE present GRANT ACHATZ & NATHAN MYHRVOLD Moderated by Mark McClusky The Cutting Edge: Tales from the Culinary Frontier" way back in october. Of all the events I have attended recently, this was the only one with really good moderation. In attendance, I saw Jeffrey Steingarten, Tim Zagat, Alex and Aki from IDEAS IN FOOD, and even one of the teachers from cooking school. Best part of all of this is: you can listen to it yourself. Don't want to listen to it? Here were my take-aways:

On The Beast That Shall Not Be Named

Mark was pretty relentless in trying to get Grant and Nathan to discuss the labeling of this style of food. Molecular Gastronomy, Modernism, Techno Emotional Cuisine... call it what you will. They managed to avoid putting a label on it, citing how different the cuisine is between the chefs that play in this sandbox. However, Nathan described the Modernism/Molecular Gastronomy as a movement instead of a style, comparing it to art and architecture. I really liked this analogy. A lot.

Some of defining characteristics of this movement:

  1. breaking rules and making the diner think.
  2. drawing inspiration from science.
  3. novelty, originality and invention.
He went on to say:
A lot of this kind of food doesnt necessarily have to be delicious. [...] great poems aren't always fun to read, they aren't always happy.

Where is it ok to make someone think, to give a dish that may not be conventionally delicious but as part of the dialogue with the diner evokes thoughts or emotions versus just saying every single thing has to be finger looking good. Making profound food is not the same as making totally delicious food. [...]

A lot of the food that is done in this new style, like a poem, plays on an earlier theme, has the equivalent of a literary reference, makes a culinary joke or counterpoint.

While Grant didn't really reply, I have to believe that his goal is to do both. I think one of the most challenging things about being a chef is that their art has to be delicious. A restaurant has to survive long enough for someone to be able to look back on it and remember its genius. Another thing that makes this period of time exciting for me is that restaurant culture (for all of its downsides), has given more and more diners the language to understand these references and emotional touchstones. As a result, chefs can produce more challenging food, and still succeed.

On Alinea, Chicago and Spain

In Grant's intro he described his background, in which he dropped this little gem:
... manipulating and controlling a period of time in people lives, to try to evoke emotion. Doing this through food, through service, through ambiance was very exciting to me.

This quote really put my dinner at Alinea into perspective. My meal at Alinea literally challenged me from every direction. Now I think the meal was over four hours long, but I was more intellectually exhausted by the end of my meal.

They also delved into the fact that this kind of cuisine is being driven out of Chicago more than any other city. In fact, Nathan actually said:

ny is a backward hick kind of place when it comes to this type of modern food

They both gave huge credit to Charlie Trotter and the alumni of his kitchen (and others) for opening Chicagoan's minds. Grant and Nathan both basically stated that Spain is the new France.

Leading me to tweet:

france : spain :: new york : chicago

Sous Vide

Sous-vide was a thread that ran through the conversation. There were questions about botulism, the NYC health department and whether or not sous-vide would enter the home.

Turns out the number of US botulism fatalities in a year is unbelievably small (and by small I mean 2-3), with a disproportionate number of cases coming from Alaska. That doesn't mean we should throw caution to the wind, but the concerns are overblown.

The NYC health department has draconian requirements that are more strict than both US FDA and EU standards. The result is that it discourages restaurants from utilizing the technique. As of August 2008, 19 restaurants were approved by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Nathan didn't think it would be as common as the microwave, but Grant countered that there is "level of convenience that hasnt been explored" with sous-vide. gachatz went on to talk about prepackaged food designed for SV and that PolyScience working on a kitchen sink that doubles as an immersion circulator.

nathanm had a great response to the concerns that sous-vide will take the soul out of cooking:

What you want to be a thermostat for a living?

I can't actually write any more. I have listened to bits and pieces of this talk a bazillion times. You owe it to yourself (and me) to listen to it once.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Carbonation Not Just A Sensation

When you are drinking that can of cola you aren't just feeling those tiny bubbles, you are also tasting them, according to a new paper entitled "The Taste Of Carbonation". From the press release:
Ryba added that the taste of carbonation is quite deceptive. "When people drink soft drinks, they think that they are detecting the bubbles bursting on their tongue," he said. "But if you drink a carbonated drink in a pressure chamber, which prevents the bubbles from bursting, it turns out the sensation is actually the same. What people taste when they detect the fizz and tingle on their tongue is a combination of the activation of the taste receptor and the somatosensory cells. That's what gives carbonation its characteristic sensation."
There are two crazy factoids here. The first is that the sensation is identical when the bubbles aren't bursting, which seems to defy logic. You'd think there would be some sensory difference. Second, somewhere people are drinking and dining in a pressure chamber.

The scientists found that if they eliminated CA-IV from the sour-sensing cells or inhibited the enzyme's activity, they severely reduced a mouse's sense of taste for carbon dioxide. Thus CA-IV activity provides the primary signal detected by the taste system. As CA-IV is expressed on the surface of sour cells, Chandrashekar and co-workers concluded that the enzyme is ideally poised to generate an acid stimulus for detection by these cells when presented with carbon dioxide.
Given that CA-IV is expressed on the surface of sour cells, and that we can mask sour flavors using Miraculin (the active ingredient in Miracle Fruit) and other taste-modifiers, can we do some home brew experiments at home? I suspect you will still taste the fizz with Miraculin/Soda as I think Miraculin is used as a sweetener in soft drinks in Asia.

Why do mammals taste carbonation? The scientists are still not sure if carbon dioxide detection itself serves an important role or is just a consequence of the presence of CA-IV on the surface of the sour cells, where it may be located to help maintain the pH balance in taste buds. As Ryba says, " That question remains very much open and is a good one to pursue in the future."

I saw Dave Arnold speak awhile ago where he expressed a dislike for some of the culinary uses of carbonation, citing that the effect was similar to spoilage. Combine the fact that carbonation is detected by the sense of sour, and I think this really makes sense. It took a long time for me to have any tolerance for stronger sour tastes (yogurt, sour cream), because well, they tasted like spoiled product to me.

What really blows my mind is how little we understand about something as basic as taste. Growing up, we only had sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Today we have umami (savory). Maybe future generations will have ten tastes. And each time we discover one along the way, chefs will figure out how to coax those flavors out in a delicious way.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sous Vide Supreme: One Small Step For Cooks...

If you read this blog then you know (and probably agree with me), that some form of sous-vide device is going to be the next microwave oven. It seems weird and scary to the general public today, but my great grandkids won't remember life before them.

"Great Grand Pa-Pa, what does overcooked mean?"

Ok, maybe a little far fetched, and, uhh, did my great grandkids grow up in Bavaria? But the first big step forward towards my utopian future will be available for pre-order on October 23rd. What is this, you ask?

Why it's the Sous Vide Supreme, of course.

Sous Vide Supreme With Rack
SousVide Supreme With Rack

Introductory pricing is going to be $399, which puts it between DIY style PID Controller like the Sous Vide Magic ($140)/Rice Cookers ($0-100) combo's and professional immersion circulators (~$1000). This price point is excellent news, because if a small company can produce them and make money at $449 MSRP, then when the Kenmore's of the world produce them, the price will drop further.

Even though this is the first sous-vide appliance really aimed at the consumer market, I think PID Controller
types will have a number of potential reasons to upgrade:

  1. Better temperature regulation. The biggest issue I have with the PID controller today compared to an immersion circulator is the ability to precisely regulate temperature. It doesn't matter too much for the home cook, but if you have a PID controller now, you probably aren't your average home cook. All of this is, of course, assuming this isn't a PID Controller glued to a rice cooker taped inside of a fancy case.
  2. Aesthetics/Ease of Setup. When guests come over and see your set up they should be thinking: "The Future Of Cooking". Instead, they are thinking: "Meth Lab". Also, the PID controller/rice cooker setup takes up a fair amount of space, and is kind of annoying to store.
  3. Built-in Rack. The lid has a rack builtin to it, making it a lot easier to keep bags that might float over time submerged under water.
  4. Reclaim your rice cooker. You can cook rice while making your 198 hour short rib!

One of the challenges I think the Sous Vide Supreme will have face is educating the consumer market.
  1. Changing The Way People Cook. Sous-vide is going to change the way people think about cooking, as well as change the way people prepare food at home. I give them a lot of credit already for the use of the term "water oven". So much more friendly than "immersion circulator" or "temperature controlled water bath". That being said, change is scary. That means we are going to see a lot of:

  2. Fears over health. Just like the microwave oven, there are going to be a ton of health concern objections. Long cooking time in plastic. Botulism. These were all questions that came up when I tried to learn about sous-vide, and I was actually excited about cooking.
  3. Additional Costs. A hidden cost for the average consumers new to sous-vide will be the vacuum sealer and bags, which adds to the cost of using the device. EAT should really figure out a way of bundling a vacuum sealer in the future.
Very promising snippet from their about page:

The Eades also consulted with world-renown chef Heston Blumenthal, who added decades of gourmet sous vide cooking expertise to the product's research and development and ensured the SousVide Supreme would meet the highest culinary standards.
Besides their website, you should also check out this blog post from the folks bringing this to market.

Either way, I am really excited to see sous-vide march forward. And I wish the EAT team the best of luck. May your product succeed (and not suck).


On my walk home today, I stopped underneath Katz's awning (or ledge, whatever that thing is) to get out of the wind and rain. Almost as soon as I ducked under the awning, a man with one of those secret service type ear things walked out holding a laminated sign. I watched as he tried to affix said laminated sign with some tape to one of the windows.

Did I mention earlier that it was raining?

Yah, didn't work too well. He finally managed to kind of get it stuck to the window, giving me a chance to finally read it. My dreams that the secret services were forcing Katz's to discount were quickly dashed as I read that they were filming Gene Simmons' reality TV show. Looking inside, I saw people crowding around Gene, gawking and taking pictures.

While I was peering through the window to get a better look (never said i was better than those other gawkers), a guy leaves with his two sons. At least I hope they were his kids.


It is raining Katz's and Dogz's as a PECULIAR MAN with a goatee peers through the gigantic windows, staring at the trainwreck formally known as GENE SIMMONS. His head tilts like a confused dog while a FATHER exists the famous deli with his two sons.


Are people still taking pictures of him?




I don't get it, he's only been famous for a couple of decades. That pastrami's been famous for like a hun'red years.


(tugging on arm)

Daaaad. Let's gooooooo.


Heh. Didn't think of it like...


Hey, where's that knishery?


(in unison)


The KIDS grab their FATHER's sleeve pulling him down the street (away from the knishery), leaving PECULIAR MAN to stand there... being peculiar.

TGRWT #19 Tomato and Tea: Round Up

Hi TGRWTers!

Tomato and Tea seemed to have pretty mixed results. I think there is a tremendous number of possibilities with these two ingredients, especially with tea. Black tea has a bazillion different varieties, which: can be used to smoke, can be steeped into a liquid, added to a crust or rub, etc.

Lapsang Souchong Tomato Bisque and Sun-Dried Tomato CrostiniLeanne Opaskar made a
Lapsang Souchong Tomato Bisque and Sun-Dried Tomato Crostini. She writes:

The soup is smooth, tomatoey, smokey, and pretty tasty. I'd like to play with the balance of flavors just a bit, because I'd like a little more depth with the clove and anise flavors. They're kind of swallowed up in the smokey tea taste. This is very satisfying for a first pass, though.

The crostini are also tasty, but there's really not much tea flavor to them. I'm not quite sure how I'd play with that to improve it, but they taste good as it is. I didn't think about it at the time, but I should have saved the soaking liquid -- it would have made a fascinating vegetable stock.

Black Tea Souffle with Caramelized Tomato-Plum SauceFrom Lab To Kitchen whipped up a Black Tea Souffle with Caramelized Tomato-Plum Sauce. She writes:

The souffles tasted really good (pretty much like tapioca milk tea in a warm and fluffy form), and so did the sauce (tartness of the plum, sweetness of the tomato). And did TGRWT? Overall, I thought this was an eccentric but successful pairing. When I first smelled the tomato and black tea together, I thought it made sense--it reminded me almost of a tomato and herb combination. Implementing it was more difficult, but nonetheless, I thought the bold and earthy black tea was offset well against the sweet and tart tomato-plum combo. The tomato here showed off its true "fruitiness", being treated as such in the puree, but it also kept its distinctive "heartiness" in the aftertaste.

five o'clock bloody maryAnu Hopia, Elli Laukkanen and Kristiina Niemi over at molekyyligastronomia went to the bar to make us a tea infused bloody mary.

Tea and tomato worked well together & tea made tomato smoothie flavor rounder and also more complex. This is actually a nice version of Bloody Mary for those who prefer lighter drink for a change. The tea flavor was not too strong: if one does not know about the tea, it would be difficult to identify it from the smoothie. However, as we compared smoothie with hot water only, the difference was obvious and it was not difficult to pick the watery version out. The acidity decreased and the tea versions were significantly less acidic.

Chicken Breast With Tomato Tea SauceLinda Roberts wrote in to tell us about her Chicken Breast with Tea Tomato Sauce

First I simply sliced the tomatoes. Before taste testing them with tea I tasted them plain, with soy sauce, and with a blend of soy sauce and sugar (just a tiny tiny bit, don't tell!). Then I tried sprinkling the instant tea powder on the tomatoes. I didn't really like the results at this point, but I had a subtle sense of what this pairing could turn into.

At this point I dumped the can of tomatoes into the Vitamix machine (a food processor or blender would work as well) with a heaping teaspoonful of the tea powder. Gave it a whir. Guess what! That was IT! I really liked the results, the tea really did enhance the tomato flavor. So I served it up with my piece of chicken breast, added some nori flakes and sliced tomato for garnish - it was tasty! Even if I were not on the diet from hell, I don't think I would want to add anything else to this sauce, but I think it might also go well with meatballs and pasta.

Rukiiset tomaattimuffinssit black teaThe Finnish blog, Sisters Cook, rocked it out with a Rukiiset tomaattimuffinssit black tea. I am pretty confident tomattimuffinssit means something akin to "tomato muffin".

Was it then the black thanks to the tea or not? I think it is a bit difficult to say what proportion of the black tea is a taste of the end. Although the first to separate the black tea properly when the mouth is full of muffaria, after taste is clearly yes black tea aroma. [...] Maybe Assamissa would have been even more taste and half-dried tomatoes would have emphasized better than this sekoitelmani fresh and sun-dried?
Bill Trost wrote in to tell us about his lasagne making adventures:

Details on the lasagne: I made my own lasagne noodles using the pasta recipe from _La Tavola Italiano_, and throwing in a bit of homemade pesto. So much for simple! The pesto didn't seem to add much flavor, but the pine nuts certainly added to the texture of the noodles. After spreading a thin layer of the tomato sauce on the bottom, I spread out a layer of noodles, a layer of ricotta thinned a bit with the tea so that it would spread easily, a thin layer of mozzarella, and a grating of parmigiano, and then the next layer of pasta et seq, ending with a layer of pasta, the bulk of the tomato sauce, and another grating of parmigiano. All told, it was about two eggs-worth of pasta, a pound of ricotta, a pound of mozarella, and a fair amount less parmigiano.

The lasagne I served at the dinner party was rather disappointing. The lasagne as a whole lacked depth, possibly because I didn't bake it long enough or because I served it too soon after baking. The leftovers were much better. The sauce tasted like -- well, roasted tomatoes, but the sauce never did develop any depth. The tea didn't seem to have any impact at all.
What? You made it through the whole post? Well, here is my entry:

I made a vietnamese-ish summer roll, steeping the rice vermicelli in pot of a smoky tea (I think it was Lapsang Souchong). Then I took the tomato and just julienned it and rolled it up in rice paper with some fresh herbs, the tea infused vermicelli, and some fried tofu. The tea infused vermicelli was nice, didn't necessarily feel any benefit for having used the tomatoes, or synergy with the tea. Also, not super inspired, but I was crazy exhausted.

Escolar: The World's Most Dangerous Fish

Escolar is the most controversial fish that you are likely to find in your fish market. This firm, white fleshed fish has an incredibly ric...