Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Cooking 2.0

In recent weeks I've become quite interested in what I think of as Cooking 2.0, but which the rest of the planet calls Molecular Gastronomy. In case you haven't stumbled across this, it's a method for high-profile chefs to make vast sums of money by serving miniscule portions of chemically-engineered food at staggeringly high prices.

The preparation of food, of course, has always been about chemistry, but most chefs are happy to just follow recipes without really knowing what processes are going on. The new generation of Cooking 2.0 chefs (Ferran Adriá at El Bulli near Barcelona, Grant Achatz at Alinea in Chicago, Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in the UK and many others), use many techniques that are more at home in a laboratory setting to create astonishing gastronomic experiences. I haven't actually sampled any of these delights, I'm not made of money, and El Bulli only opens for six months of the year and reservations sell out on the first day of each season. So I guess I'll have to try making these things myself.

This all started, by the way, when I was trying to solve a couple of problems with my pies. One problem was how to stop pastry sticking to aluminium foil trays - butter works well, but has to be applied very carefully; oil is more hit and miss. I wanted something I could spray into the trays (you can get something called PAM in the States, but I've never seen it here), and the answer was this amazing substance called lecithin, about which, more later.

The other problem was to do with the jelly in my pork pies. Previously, I've made up small batches of the jelly by boiling pig or sheep feet in a savoury stock. The feet contain lots of gelatin, which sets the jelly at room temperature. But I decided it was too much hassle to make up fresh jelly for each batch of pies, so I made a bucketful and froze it in small containers. Somewhere between freezing and thawing, the jelly lost its set-ability, so I had a few customers whose pork pies dribbled on them when they bit into them. Not good. I did some online research, and found that yes, gelatin is broken down at a particular temperature, and loses the ability to set. This led me to explore the use of gelatin sheets combined with a super-intense stock, and the results are pretty marvellous. I also came across lots of Cooking 2.0 applications for gelatin, which I'll tell you about when I've had a chance to mess about with them.

Back to lecithin. This remarkable substance has the ability to make things like oil and water stick together when their natural inclination is to be apart. In other words, it's an emulsifier. It occurs naturally in eggs, which is why mayonaisse works. If you look at food labels, you'll find it in everything from chocolate to bread, and I've no doubt that brewers of horrible beer in the UK use it to make the foamy head last longer. In facts foams and 'airs' form a large part of the Cooking 2.0 repertoire: you can whizz any liquid (sweet, savoury, whatever) into foam, and if there's a bit of lecithin dissolved in it, the foam bubbles last for a very long time, rather than bursting after a few seconds.

I bought half a kilo of Soya Lecithin - it's also sold as a food supplement that is supposed to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and have been having quite a lot of fun with it.

Next on my culinary adventure, I want to get hold of some Sodium Alginate, Calcium Chloride and Xanthan Gum. I tried the local pharmacy this morning and they've given me the address of a company in central Madrid who supply all kinds of exotic chemicals for all kinds of industries - I'm going there this evening, so I'll let you know how I get on. The first two of those chemicals, by the way, are used in 'sphericisation' - this is a method of encasing an intensely flavoured liquid into a neutral-tasting gel shell. When you bite into the shell, the taste explodes in your mouth. Depending on the size of your droplets, the spheres can resemble caviare or olives.

And finally, another technique I stumbled across: sous vide cooking (French for 'under vacuum'). I've tried many techniques for getting really tender meat and fish, none of them entirely successful, but this one looks promising. Basically what you do is you stick your seasoned meat or fish (or vegetables) into a plastic bag, suck the air out of it and then seal it. Then you place it in a container of water at a specific temperature (always much less than boiling) and wait for the specified number of hours. There are devices available that will maintain the water at the specified temperature more or less forever, but they are not cheap. However, I came across The Beer Cooler Hack, and I'm using it right now to cook a breast of duck. As far as vacuum-wrapping the meat goes, you can buy machines to do this, or you can buy your meat already packed this way (but then you can't add any seasoning), or you can improvise with a zip-lock freezer bag and a drinking straw. As it happens, I have a roll of polythene tubing and a heat-sealing machine that I use for packaging my pies, so I cut a length of tube, sealed one end, put the seasoned duck in, sealed the other end, cut a small slit to insert a straw and suck the air out, and then sealed over the slit. Fingers crossed!

And the final weapon in the Cooking 2.0 arsenal: liquid nitrogen for instantly freezing stuff. I think I'll be giving that one a miss!

UPDATE: I found the mystery ingredients shop: they were just pulling the shutters across - closing an hour early because their computer was down. But the guy took a look at my list and confirmed they had all the things on it (woohoo!).

Sunday, 14 November 2010


We went to San Sebastian de los Reyes today. If you've ever been there, you'll be wondering why. It doesn't seem to have any historical interest, and not even the most optimistic town councillor would describe it as pretty. It's a kind of newish dormitory town to the north of Madrid. The reasons for the visit were twofold:
1) To check out a shop selling British products there
2) It's time for the annual IKEA trip.

When we emerged from the Metro at Hospital Infanta Sofia, we had an incredible sense of deja vu: the last time we went to a place like this was when we went to the IKEA at Las Suertes to the south of Madrid. Identical Metro station design, a view of motorways, mountains and general back-of-beyondness, and then wide boulevards flanked by 7-storey brick-clad apartment buildings and plenty of empty plots of land. All a bit desolate and weird.

Item one is called The Food Hall, and basically I wanted to see if it was worth trying to sell my pies to them. We came away with a selection of loot - a Wright's (of Crewe) Steak & Kidney pie for research purposes (yes it was as nasty as you'd expect for a pie that was made in England, frozen, shipped to Spain and ultimately sold for a bit over 2 Euros), a couple of Scotch Pies (pretty good, actually), 3 bottles of beer (Old Speckled Hen & Black Sheep), a bar of Cadbury's chocolate, some oatcakes (I don't know - the missus chose them) and some dried cranberries. 

Item two; when looking at the location of The Food Hall, I noticed there's an IKEA 'nearby'. So we had a spot of lunch, and set off walking in search of the big blue box. We found it after about 20 minutes, or rather, we found its backside, the bit where people pick up big bits of furniture. It was another 10 minutes' walk to get to the front door. And then the usual half-hour trek to go through the store and get to the checkouts. And the reason for going? In previous years, I've always bought these slippers they sell for mooching around the house in. They're very cheap, always come in bright colours, and only last for one winter. So I need some new ones, but was rather narked that I couldn't find them.

So we went to the 'nearby' Carrefour hypermarket - we were in some kind of 'retail park' - lots of big box stores around a gazillion-hectare car park. Again, miles and miles of walking. I did get some slippers, and some vino, and some turkey breast (gonna make some turkey & cranberry pies). And then we staggered, exhausted, up the hill to the Metro station.