Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hay, that's delicious

A few years ago I visited a ranch just outside of Seattle to purchase a bale of hay.  Spring had recently sprung and put me in the mood for farm fresh flavors. Sure, I could have picked up some fiddlehead ferns, fresh asparagus and some first-run Chinook salmon at the Pike Place Market to make a spectacular Spring feast without ever leaving town but that would have been too easy.  Remembering a gigot d'agneau au foin, or leg of lamb cooked in hay I had eaten in France several years prior, I decided that THIS was the farm flavor I was after.  Cooking food in hay is a centuries old technique and has recently had a resurgence of interest among experimental chefs.  In addition to working as an insulator that helps to regulate the temperature of the meat during cooking,  hay also, not surprisingly, imparts a very unique and delicious, grassy note to the foods that are cooked within it.

Since acquiring this enormous block of pasturage I've used it to make 3 legs of lamb, 2 hams, one rabbit, a knapsack of parsnips and a goose, yet seeing it again last week, still in my basement, I'd swear the bale has only grown larger.  Before spreading the remaining cubic yard of dried grass as mulch in my herb garden, I thought it would be fun to explore using the farm flavor in some less traditional ways. 

Like many foods with unique flavors, my first instinct is always to run it through my rotovap and see what comes out. The rotovap, as I mentioned in my post on kimchi, is an extreme flavor extractor that efficiently leaves one with a pure concentrate of the base ingredient.  "Raw" hay however, isn't excessively flavorful in its dried state (probably the reason why we feed it to cows and then eat the cow rather than just eat the hay itself).  Because of this, extracting the flavor of hay in my rotovap worked but it required 9 separate runs of the apparatus to get enough essence to be useful.  I did end up using my hay liquor on raw oysters (delicious), to flavor vodka (also delicious) and to infuse butter which was spread on fresh baked bread (ridiculously delicious) but these were all savory applications.  What about dessert? 

As I mentioned, extracting the flavor from hay using a rotovap is a time consuming process. It's also a process that giving a recipe for would be about as useful to most readers as if I suggested they launch the grass into orbit.  No rotovap, no hay extract.  My goal was to find a means of delivering as much farm flavor as possible while still using a technique that everyone has access to, in a delivery medium that everyone loves. I give you StrawVery Ice Cream.  

StrawVery Ice Cream

350g (1 1/2 cups) Heavy Cream
244g (1 cup) Whole Milk
150g (3/4 cup) Sugar
5g (3/4 tsp) Salt
6 egg yolks

Bring cream, milk, sugar, and salt just to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan, stirring occasionally. Lightly beat yolks in a large bowl, then add hot sweetened cream in a slow stream, whisking. 

Pour custard into saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until a candy or instant-read thermometer registers 170°F and custard coats back of spoon, about 10 minutes

Hay, Water
Soak the hay in warm water to saturate.

Place wet hay in the bottom of a large cooking vessel.  A wok works perfectly for this.

Invert a vegetable steamer and place it over the damp hay. If your steamer has legs on the underside, remove them.

Fill a heat proof bowl with the ice cream 'batter' made in step 1 and place on top of the inverted steamer.

Invert a second, larger vessel on top of the entire apparatus and ignite the burner to smoke the batter.  Pure white smoke will start puffing from the union of the base and lid within seconds indicating that your rig is working properly.....or the successful election of a new pope.  Remove the lid every couple of minutes to taste the  'batter' and stop the process once the farm flavor has achieved your desired level of hay.

Freeze and churn the now hay-smoked batter using your preferred method and enjoy.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Deep Frydeas

Things have been unusually hectic lately, both setting up my new business website focusing on the simplistic visualization of the complex science of food ( ), as well as researching sources for new and unusual foods to discover on my lightning-fast approaching trip to Vietnam.  Despite my recent 16-hour work days, I have, of course managed to make time for the things that are most important in life....well, at least cooking.

Last Tuesday I got together with my buddies Jethro ( and Scott ( for our sporadic, but generally speaking, monthly "Cooking Experimentaganzas". These sessions typically have a loose theme, involve danger, and result in dishes that range from extraordinarily delicious to OMG that sounds totally disgusting even on paper, why would you ever THINK of making that let alone eat it?  This week's theme - Deep Frying.

We each had some interesting ideas heading into this challenge but at some point in history, pretty much everything on Earth has been deep-fried making it a tough exercise to bring a lot of freshness to. The  majority of our attempts focused primarily on introducing modified food starches into otherwise "un-deepfryable" foods through the process of injection or infusion. Rather than coating a food in a batter, our goal was to change the structure of the food itself, thereby eliminating the need for a coating. 

Several of our attempts, although not failures, still require further tweaking to achieve a desired result. The sugars of the potato-starch infused strawberries DID caramelize without burning the berry, but in the end we decided they still wouldn't be anywhere near as delicious as fresh ones so why bother. (The green tops however, were fantastic).  The deep fried sriracha foam, stabilized with xanthan gum, finally did fry up without melting but the flavors became so subtle from the cooking process that exploring the addition of another protein to make it crispy hardly seemed worth the effort.

Raw popcorn kernels, ensconced in an elastic dough never popped. My claim, when I came up with this idea, was that it would be cool to have a popcorn flavored, puffy centered bite with a crispy outer shell. Cool sure, but between you and me I really wanted to see if anyone would get burned by exploding oil. Epic failure on both counts. Before trying this brilliant plan again using a thinner dough we took a gamble and plunged several kernels directly in the fryer. Still no pop!  With no time for further testing that evening, we're left still not sure if the kernels were "bad" or if there's a more sinister issue with improper heat transfer when corn is submersed in oil vs. in contact with a hot surface.  Another night.

We did have one enormous success but due to a hand-shake NDA I can't divulge the recipe until we determine its market potential (AKA sell it to the highest junk-food conglomerate bidder).  The most valuable take-away from our session however, (besides our impending multimillion dollar success in the snack industry) was sitting down and researching what actually happens to food when it's deep fried.  This wasn't my first fried-food rodeo but since our get together I've continued playing around with and learning the science of this cooking technique. Researching the "what's happening" at the micro level has given me a greater sense of what to watch for during the cooking process, and perfect results every time.

The following is an animation I put together explaining the process. The biggest "take-aways" for chefs not already intimately familiar with the process are A:) Those bubbles you see when foods are plunged in hot oil are superheated steam. This steam not only evaporates from, and therefore dehydrates the submersed food, but they also cool the surrounding oil and the continuous pressure of their violent escape keeps oil from entering the food.  The reason every deep-fry recipe says "don't overcrowd the pan" isn't to deprive you of timely, crispy golden deliciousness, but is there as an important reminder to keep the temperature of the surrounding oil hot enough to maintain the formation of these protective, evaporate bubbles. I know it can be  a tough one to follow but please, don't overcrowd the pan. The second most important visual to understand is B) when those bubbles stop, don't look away.  The end of the bubbles (steam) is an indication that the food is nearly devoid of water.  It's at this point that the browning begins and the food should be watched closely for that perfect golden color indicating it's time to eat. 

Now fry yourself something delicious and watch the show....or rather watch the show and THEN fry yourself something delicious.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Science of Summer

I've recently been working with César Vega, Research Manager at Mars Symbioscience and co-author of the highly praised book; The Kitchen as Laboratory: Reflections on the Science of Food & Cooking to help illustrate what's going on, under-the-hood, when we make ice cream.  The following 3D animation is a visualization I created showing one important step in this complex (and delicious) process, the foam. 

The Building Blocks of Ice Cream by Cesar Vega

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Upside Down Pie

Four posts in and it's already time for a mix-up.  Up to this point, my examples of "Unconventional Cuisine" have focused on unique ingredients that most home cooks may have passed in a well-stocked grocery but were clueless about how to use.  Although I fully intend on continuing this line of exploration in future blogs I do understand that some of my readers are also looking for cool stuff they can try with items they already have in their kitchens. This week's post does involve prickly pear and kumquats, both technically "unique" foods, but the real star of this simple dish is an underutilized cooking technique for the home chef. Couple this with the fact that readers can substitute whatever they want (within reason people) for the oddball fruits I chose and STILL end up with something delicious means we have a winner.

The Wonderful World of Curds

Without getting into a big history lesson tracing the importance of curds dating back to the Medieval age (although that would be fun) I'll just say that they're old and they're delicious.  The technique that produces curds is hardly a 'lost art' but rather a simple technique used frequently in production cooking, but one that most home cooks either avoid accidentally doing, have no idea they're taking part in, or simply never think of exploiting to their advantage.  One of the simplest curdles, and one I'm sure most people are familiar with, is when lemon juice is added to milk. The resulting lemon-chunk-mucus drink is pretty gross and not the least bit appetizing as a quencher but what if you could easily control the process to get a desired result? What about instead of thick chunk-cobs you could achieve a uniformly thickened gel?  What if I told you this dairy gel went by the very sexy name of posset? Interested? I thought so. Read on.
I recently made a posset on a whim, thinking I would surely find a use for it in an upcoming dinner party I was throwing.  A traditional posset, according to Merriam and/or Webster is "a hot drink of sweetened and spiced milk curdled with ale or wine".  Again, without going into the saga of curds, their purported medicinal uses or how similar (or different) they are to caudles, I'll simply state that possets can take many forms. The traditional posset IS curdled with ale or wine but the posset I made was an updated version using no alcohol, and had I added egg yolks to the mix, could easily have been called a custard.   Despite its pedigree, my posset never made its way into anything 'official' for dinner but at the end of the night, when everyone was finishing off the last of what seemed like a dolium of wine I put it out (de-posseted?) it on the table for my guests. I've used the 'everyone's had a lot of wine, and although they just ate a 9-course dinner, will pretty much still eat anything' scheme in the past to rid my fridge and cupboards of a number of  random foods nearing the end of their useful lives but this offering totally earned its keep.  There was just something so elegant and creamily-satisfying about this simple curd dish that it easily could have passed for a well planned finalé.

As I stated earlier the curdling of milk proteins with acid technique is hardly a new one.  This insta-curdle method is what gives fresh cheeses such as mascarpone, ricotta and paneer their body and has been used for ages. Rather than simply demonstrate how to curdle milk in an ancient manner, I put together a complete dish (recipe follows) using posset as the base, or in this case, the middle. Because of the tart, almost-lemony flavor of  the posset made from this following recipe, I thought it would be fun to use it in an upside-down play on lemon meringue pie.  Keep in mind that this posset is more than delicious on its own but pairs remarkably well with a myriad of toppings. Beyond the basics of the curd, feel free to substitute whatever items are in season or that you like best. Most importantly, this one's almost impossible to mess up so just have fun!

Prickly Pear and Kumquat Upside-Down Meringue Pie


Heavy Cream 1 1/2 cups
Sugar 1/4 cup
Citric Acid 1/2 tsp (may substitute 1/4 cup lemon or other citrus juice)
Seasonal Fruit
Meringues (homemade or store bought)

note: There are many great reasons why recipes should, and are beginning to be written in  measurements of weight rather than volume. For the sake of this post being geared for use in the "common kitchen" I've standardized the measurements into old skool cups and tsps.

Heavy Cream, Sugar
Measure Cream (1 1/2 cup) and Sugar (1/4 cup)

Citric Acid
Measure Citric Acid (1/2 tsp) (or citrus juice (1/4 cup) if substituting)

Heat to 190F
Mix cream and sugar and heat to 190F; stirring constantly. When temperature is reached, remove from heat and stir in citric acid or juice.  Allow mixture to sit for 10-15 minutes to cool slightly then place in the refrigerator for 12 hours to fully thicken.  The posset will thicken up noticeably within several hours and if you're happy with the texture, it can be used at this time. I think the viscosity is prime when left overnight to gel, but if you're in a hurry the taste will be identical beforehand. 

Prickly Pear
Dice whatever fresh fruits you've chosen to make a compote. In this case I used kumquat and prickly pear.

Prepare Meringue

Use a circle cutter to carefully score a circular ring in your meringues, removing the interior to create a bowl (this becomes the 'upside down' part of the "pie").

Finish and enjoy

Fill the meringue cavity with posset, top with fruit compute and dabble additional posset on top.