Cheese, Fruit, Random Thoughts, Salad, Science, Vegetables

Brilliant disguise.

There is something inherently fascinating about things that are not what they appear to be. Throughout history, people have engaged in masquerades, discarding their true identities in favor of new ones, even if only temporarily. Insects and reptiles and sea creatures assume other colors and forms to deceive predators; in a sophisticated double ruse, the viceroy and monarch butterflies resemble each other, with each posing as its distasteful counterpart. Objects sometimes even pose as other objects. The National Palace Museum in Taipei maintains on permanent display two pieces of sculpture – one, a slab of jasper, the “Meat-Shaped Stone,” rendered as red-cooked pork belly; the other, a chunk of jadeite carved into a head of Chinese cabbage – that perfectly mimic pieces of food, so perfectly one cannot help but circle the display case, nose to the glass, squinting at the detail, marveling at the success of the deception. The Meat-Shaped Stone in particular is uncanny, having wholly abandoned the hard qualities of rock and in favor of the wobbly, fatty qualities of braised pork, down to the tiny follicle pores on the glazed rind.

Meat-Shaped Stone

Even actual food sometimes masquerades as other food, or even as inedible matter. There’s a certain fetish in modernist cuisine for trompe l’oeil cooking, things that fool the eye. Faux “caviar” tasting nothing like fish eggs is probably the most common deception, but you also will encounter near-perfect facsimiles of garden topsoil made from dried chicory, roots, and tubers at restaurants like Manresa and Noma, or kaolin-shelled potatoes resembling hot stones at Mugaritz. This fascination with culinary mimicry extends to more quotidian foods like cake, which appears in the guise of whole jack o’lanterns, Barbies, and the revolting “kitty litter cake,” in which Tootsie Rolls stand in for cat feces and serving the cake in a genuine cat litter box is considered the pièce de résistance of presentation. I’ve never been able to understand how someone could eat anything designed to look like someone took a shit in a box, but judging from the online popularity of the cake I seem to be in the minority. The height of bacon-sausage gonzo-ness a few years ago yielded grandiose projects like entire football stadiums crafted from summer sausage, blocks of cheese, and crackers. Now, Wisconsin girls love to party with sausage and dairy products, but there’s a point at which fashioning snacks into architectural wonders starts to take on a clown college quality.

A philosophical inquiry into the nature of mimicry deserves its own discussion, but for now, let’s focus on the food. For example, the flesh of a tomato looks like raw ahi. And a mozzarella ball is the same shape as a tomato. Can the tomato become a convincing ahi tartare? Can the mozzarella ball become a tomato?

Caprese salad

The inspiration for this dish is Heston Blumenthal’s “meat fruit,” one of the most famous trompe l’oeil foods and an homage to the medieval craft of disguising meat-based items as realistic-looking fruit. Blumenthal fashions foie gras mousse into a sphere and dips it in a mandarin gel, yielding an eerily realistic facsimile of a mandarin orange, down to the orange-peel texture. Rather than coating a meat base with the tomato gel, I thought mozzarella would be a better pairing. Taking it one step further, burrata is even more delicious and is soft enough to accommodate an injection of basil pesto. The resulting dish looks like a small tomato, but tastes like a caprese salad.

IMG_8030On the left, the real thing. On the right, the impostor.

A note: store-bought burrata is notoriously expensive and never nearly as fresh as it should be, so make your own if you can or don’t bother spending the extra money on burrata. Just buy fresh mozzarella instead. Due to the presence of rennet, burrata will continue to firm up over time as the enzyme sets the dairy proteins in the cream filling. There is nothing you can do to stop this process short of eating the burrata before it totally sets.

Burrata

I don’t recall where I learned this recipe, but it’s a pretty bog-standard recipe for burrata. Temperature control is pretty important to a good finished product so be sure to use an accurate digital thermometer.

1000 ml whole milk
1/4 tsp calcium chloride
2 tsp citric acid
1/4 tsp liquid rennet
water
1 tsp salt
60 ml heavy cream

Combine the calcium chloride and the milk; whisk thoroughly to dissolve. Then dissolve the citric acid in about 1/4 c cold water and whisk into the milk over low heat. Bring to 88F-90F, stirring constantly.

Mix the rennet with a couple tablespoons of water (precise quantities are not terribly important) and add to the warmed milk. Stir several turns around the pot with a wooden spoon, and then let stand for about 10-15 minutes until the milk has set and pulls away slightly from the edge of the pot. Do not agitate or disturb at all during the setting process or your mozzarella will not form.

Once set, slice into 1″ cubes with a sharp knife. Bring the pot back up to 105F-108F, stirring gently with a silicone spatula to even out the temperature as the liquid heats. The curds should mostly lump together and fall to the bottom of the pot; some bits, ricotta curd-like, will float on top. Once the pot reaches that temperature, turn off the heat and let it sit for about 15 minutes, continuing to stir gently from time to time.

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Strain out the curd, as much as you can, with a skimmer, into a fine mesh strainer. Strain out the remaining bits through another mesh strainer and add to the rest of the curd. Remove about 25% of the curd to a small bowl and combine with 1/4 tsp salt and the heavy cream. Set aside.

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Divide the curd into eight equal portions. Perform the following steps on each portion, start to finish, before moving on to the next one. Place in a microwave-safe bowl, microwave on high for about 45 seconds, and, using a wooden spoon, press against the side of the bowl to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Sprinkle salt on the curd and knead on a ceramic plate, folding over itself and kneading as you would bread, until it is smooth.

Press into a circle with slightly thinner edges; add 1/8 of the creamed curd and gather up like a purse. Place in a square of clingfilm and twist to tie. Set in a muffin/cupcake tin to maintain the shape. Repeat until all the curd and filling are used.

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Pesto alla Farina

I can’t take credit for this pesto method; it’s my guess at the delicious pesto alla genovese I enjoyed at Farina in San Francisco a few years ago. Whereas a traditional basil pesto is made by pounding basil leaves to a paste with oil before incorporating cheese and pine nuts, in this case the pine nuts and olive oil are emulsified first with blanched garlic to form a thick, creamy base; the basil is then spun into the mix until it yields a bright green, smooth paste.

2 garlic cloves
100g pine nuts
125 ml extra virgin olive oil, preferably Ligurian (grassy but not peppery)
1 c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino romano
3 c basil
Sea salt

Blanch the garlic in simmering water for one minute. Drain.

Combine the pine nuts and olive oil in a blender and process until smooth. Add the blanched garlic and cheese and process again. Then add the basil; process until smooth. Season with salt as necessary.

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Tomato gel

This is a simple gel based on gelatin, which melts in the mouth. If using the tomato leaves freaks you out, you don’t need them. They just add a little bit of fresh tomato taste to the gel (and are not poisonous in the amounts you would typically use). The beetroot powder helps deepen the color intensity of the tomato gel but, again, is not essential.

1 kg ripe red tomatoes
salt
2 tbsp tomato paste (double concentrated)
4 tomato leaves
1/4 tsp beetroot powder
20g gelatin leaves

Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds and drain. Peel.

Halve the tomatoes and remove the pulp and interior flesh. Place the pulp and any accumulated juice in a strainer and allow the juice to drip out. Blend the juice with the flesh in a vitaprep and set aside for an hour to allow the solids to float up. Skim them off. This will not be a totally clear liquid as one would obtain through agar or gelatin clarification, but rather a more turbid juice; too clear, and it will not be opaque enough for the finished dish.

Soften the gelatin leaves in cold water and squeeze out. Measure out 250g of the juice and combine with the beetroot powder, tomato paste, and hydrated gelatin. Heat until well blended and then cool to about 50F. The gel should be somewhat thick but not set.

To assemble:

Unwrap a burrata sphere and inject the center, through the top, with the pesto. Fill the grooves with pesto as well and place in the freezer on a wax-paper lined plate or sheet pan for 15 minutes, with a skewer vertically through the center.

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Dip the spheres in the tomato gel, holding by the skewer. Return to the wax paper and re-freeze. Repeat twice (you probably will need three or four dips in the gel to achieve the right appearance). If the dipped cheese sticks to the wax paper, use a spoon to lift it off the paper so the tomato gel doesn’t come loose.

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Serve with bread and olive oil; refrigerate “tomatoes” if not using immediately.

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Tomato tartare

Tuna tartare, usually made with ahi, has become somewhat cliché. It’s always formed in a ring mold with mimosa eggs or raw quail egg yolk, “Asian-ized” with sesame oil, soy, and some kind of citrus, or tossed with avocado and served on pita chips. Guy Fieri serves it in tacos at the same Times Square restaurant Pete Wells reviewed, in a blistering takedown, two years ago. Guy Fieri. I rest my case.

It’s more interesting to make a tomato salad that looks like a tuna tartare. A spherified yellow tomato purée stands in for a raw egg yolk; the compressed tomato is a dead ringer for diced tuna, punctuated with onion, mustard, and herbs. When you pierce the sphere, it will run, just like the yolk. If you don’t want to make the spherified tomato, just skip it. Capers or diced pickled vegetables are also perfectly cromulent additions to this salad.

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500g large yellow tomatoes
500g large red tomatoes
1 tbsp shiro shoyu (white soy)
1 1/2 tsp sherry vinegar
sodium alginate .8%
calcium chloride .5%
small white onion
small bunch chives
smal bunch tarragon
2 tsp dijon mustard (I used an espelette mustard)
2 tbsp olive oil
black pepper
edible flowers and additional herbs if desired
salt
piment d’espelette

Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds and drain. Peel.

Halve the tomatoes and remove the pulp and interior flesh, leaving only the exterior flesh. Reserve the pulp, interior flesh, and any accumulated juice.

Combine the vinegar and shoyu. Pack the trimmed red tomato flesh in a vacuum bag, in a single layer, and add the vinegar mixture. Vacuum. Set aside. Note: if you do not have the means to vacuum pack your tomato dice, the tomato will not firm up, as it would under vacuum, and the dice will not remain very distinct. If you do have access to calcium chloride, you can set the tomato halves in a .1% solution for 30 minutes and then dice as specified below.

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Place the trimmed yellow tomato, plus any juice drained from the pulp and interior flesh, in a container and weigh out 250g into a blender. Add 2g alginate, 1/2 tsp salt, and blitz until fully dispersed. Set aside for at least 30 minutes to hydrate.

Blend together the calcium chloride and water (5g per 1000g water; scale down if you like). Drop the alginate/tomato blend by a small scoop or dosing spoon into the calcium bath and set for about 30-45 seconds, until the exterior skin has formed but the spheres are still wobbly. Drain with a perforated spoon and place in a plain water bath.

Finely dice the vacuum packed red tomato. Finely dice the white onion. Whisk together the mustard, oil, and 1 tbsp each minced tarragon and chive. Stir in the tomato and onion dice. Note: again, if you do not have access to the means to vacuum your tomatoes, you can try leaving the dice in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl for about an hour. The liquid will drip out. This will not substantially improve the firmness of the tomatoes but it will make them less liquid.

Plate the tomato mixture and add the yellow tomato “yolk.” Garnish with herbs, flowers, and espelette.

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Note: This post was brought to you by the Creative Cooking Crew:

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Cocktails, Confectionery, Science, Summer

Ever green.

Anyone who’s ever maintained a culinary herb garden is familiar with this problem: what does one do with all those herbs? Here’s how it usually goes. You decide to make something like a sauce gribiche, which requires four kinds of herbs, and by the time you’re done, you’ve spent $15 on a bunch of little plastic clamshells so you can have a tablespoon each of parsley, tarragon, chives, and chervil. A couple of months later, you discover the remains of those herbs, reduced to foul slime, beneath the celery in the vegetable drawer. In disgust, you seek out the spinning seed racks at the supermarket or home and garden center and buy half a dozen packets of seeds, anticipating fresh herbs at tremendous savings, not to mention plenty of pesto and crisp fried sage leaves. A few years later, the rosemary and sage are the size of shrubs, the mint and marjoram have spread to half the garden, and your freezer is filled with tubs of pesto. What to do, short of clipping great bunches and abandoning them in the office coffee room with a “TAKE ME” note?

Consider preserving their aromas in spirits. Countries with a Mediterranean coast share a tradition of anise- or fennel-flavored spirits and liqueurs, scented with local herbs. My favorite comes from the Balearics, where monks and nuns have been collecting wild herbs to prepare a strong and allegedly medicinal tincture to mix with sweet anise liqueur for a drink called hierbas mallorquinas. Our first encounter with hierbas was in the dining room of friends who had recently returned from a trip to Spain. While in Barcelona, they visited a small shop called Caelum, in the Barri Gòtic, specializing in products made by nuns and monks. The tiny glasses of hierbas mallorquinas our friend poured glittered clear green and tasted of sweet fennel, chamomile, lemon verbena, and rosemary. A year later, we sought out Caelum and returned with our own small bottle of hierbas. It didn’t last long, but a number of companies – most famously Túnel – produce it for retail distribution. According to Túnel, the seven herbs essential to hierbas are fennel, verbena, lemon balm, rosemary, lemon leaf, orange leaf, and chamomile.

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Túnel makes a special line – 14 Reserva – featuring fourteen herbs grown on the company’s family farms. The following recipe is inspired by that idea, and features all the herbs my husband has been growing in our back garden. The only one missing, in my opinion, is sweet cicely, which we aren’t growing right now but hope to have next year.

Hierbas

This is really a showcase for local herbs, so use what you’re growing in your garden. You can buy herbs, of course, but the point of this is to avoid costly herb shopping. Also, most of the really interesting stuff isn’t available in the market anyway. The recipe below sets forth the herbs from our garden (other than the citrus leaves); feel free to substitute whatever you have, in the proportions you like, as long as you include fennel, chamomile, and rosemary. A few caveats:

* Some herbs, like chives, dill, and Cuban oregano, are unsuitable in this liqueur. Consider whether you want the taste of the herb in your drink before adding it.

* Rosemary, cilantro, sage, and lavender are powerful herbs that can take over if you use too much. They are not out of place in hierbas (and rosemary is essential), but proceed with caution.

* For optimal results, the herbs and grain alcohol must infuse for at least a month. Stir or gently shake the mixture from time to time to redistribute the plant matter. After the first two weeks or so, the tincture will be bright green; with time, this brightness will fade to olive and eventually amber. This is normal.

A final note: true hierbas is distilled, not simply infused. Unless you have a still or rotovap, you’re not going to distill this. Once mixed, expect it to be slightly viscous from the sugar and cloudy, unless clarified, from herb sediment.

750 ml (1 bottle) grain alcohol, like Everclear (95% ABV (alcohol by volume))
1 head fennel, with flowers, stalks, and fronds
12 branches thyme
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks basil
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks mint
leaves from 2 12-inch stalks anise hyssop
6-inch rosemary branch
4 4-inch stalks of tarragon
12-inch stalk of lemon verbena
12-inch stalk of marjoram
2 12-inch stalks of lemon balm
12-inch branch of parsley
4 bay leaves
8 lime leaves
8 fig leaves
2 tbsp dried chamomile flowers or 1/4 c fresh
1/4 c Corsican mint leaves
4 inches of lemon zest (no pith)
1 tsp aniseed
4 juniper berries
1 tsp fennel seed

filtered water
white granulated or superfine sugar

In a nonporous, nonreactive container, combine all the herbs and the grain alcohol. Press down on the herbs so the alcohol covers them completely. Seal tightly with a lid or, if your lid is not tight-sealing, cover with plastic wrap, secure with a band, and then cover with a lid,

Infuse for at least 30 days. If the plant matter still appears green, not brown, continue to infuse until all the chlorophyll has dissolved.

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Strain the tincture through fine filters (such as a chinois, or several fine mesh tea filters stacked together) into a nonreactive clean container. The volume of the strained tincture will be greater than 750 ml, because the alcohol dehydrates the plant matter and adds water to the tincture. Measure the volume in ml. You should have nearly 900 ml. Do not add more grain alcohol to increase the volume; just note the amount so you can compute the ABV of the tincture.

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Make a simple syrup of 500 ml water and 500g sugar by combining the two in a pot over medium heat and stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Cool to room temperature. Measure the volume in ml and note the total volume so you can compute the sugar concentration in the syrup. Note: If you hated/are not good at maths or are lazy, you can skip the computation steps and just skip to the instructions to mix equal portions of tincture, syrup, and water.

C(a): 712.5/Total volume tincture

C(s): Total weight of sugar (in grams)/Total volume finished liquid sugar syrup

There are three formulations of hierbas: one sweet (dulces, about 30% sucrose by weight and 20% ABV), another dry (seques, about 10% sucrose by weight and 35% ABV), and another medium-dry (mesclades, about 20% sucrose by weight and 25% ABV), which once was simply a mixture of the sweet and dry. If you haven’t tasted hierbas mallorquinas before, it can be hard to know which option you will like the most, so start with the mesclades recipe set forth below, and decide whether you want to add more alcohol or more sugar.

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For a medium-sweet liqueur, combine about 291 ml tincture with 324 ml sugar syrup and 395 ml water. Start with 300 ml water and taste; increase as necessary. Note: to be precise, you should compute the ABV of the finished tincture and the concentration of the sugar syrup before mixing so you can mix them correctly. If this is too much measuring for you, try equal proportions of water, syrup, and tincture (33% each by volume).

Once you have mixed your liqueur, you can decide whether to clarify or not. The sugar syrup captures and suspends the fine herb sediment present in the tincture, so it will be rather cloudy. This is normal. If it bothers you, clarify using hydrated gelatin finings and let the mixture stand in the freezer for up to two weeks before straining. Note: the hierbas used in the following candy recipe has been clarified. The advantage to not clarifying, though, is a more pronounced herbal flavor.

Hierbas wine gums

At Heston Blumenthal’s influential restaurant, The Fat Duck, the final phase of the tasting menu includes Whisk(e)y Wine Gums, an ingenious take on gummi candy that showcases the flavors of five different whisky (or, in the case of Tennessee, whiskey) producing regions, mounted onto a map of those regions. These have tremendous appeal for me, not just because I love whisk(e)y, but because I have a lifelong mania for gels. Given a choice between a gel- and non-gel formulation of any product, I will always choose the gel.

Different hydrocolloids yield different gel characteristics. Gelatin and certain pectins produce relatively soft, clear gels that melt at around body temperature and are responsible for the consistency of jelly, aspic, and ketchup. Using agar-agar makes for brittle gels like the almond jellies popular in Asia; gum arabic, firm, chewy gels like gummi bears. In the recipe below, developed from Blumenthal’s Whisk(e)y Gums recipe (Fat Duck Cookbook, 304-05), gelatin and agar combine for a soft but highly elastic gel that lets the hierbas shine.

15 g powdered gelatin
2 g powdered agar
30 ml hierbas

100 ml glucose syrup
55 g caster (superfine) sugar
1.4 g tartaric acid (substitute 2.5 g cream of tartar)
40 ml hierbas

35 ml hierbas

Combine the gelatin, agar, and 30 ml hierbas and wait 30 minutes to hydrate completely. Bag and seal in a chamber sealer. Drop into a 185F/85C circulator or in a pot of water on the stove at the same temperature.

Combine the glucose, sugar, tartaric acid, and 40 ml hierbas to hydrate completely. Bring to a simmer and then to a boil. When the mixture reaches 255F/124C, remove from the heat. Whisk in the hydrated gelatin mixture. The mixture will foam and appear opaque. Take the temperature, which should have dropped considerably. At 212F/100C, stir in the remaining hierbas. The mixture should become clear. Note: this entire mixing process should not take more than a minute or two.

Transfer immediately to small polycarbonate candy molds (to ensure easy unmolding, you can wipe a very thin film of neutral vegetable oil in each mold, but this may not be necessary). Cover and chill.

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Unmold not more than 30 minutes before service (or unmold and keep refrigerated). These gums can be rather sticky from the glucose but are not brittle, so if you need to use the tip of a knife to unmold, any scars will self-repair. To prevent sticking to the plate, dust the base of the gums with caster sugar before unmolding.

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