B. A. Nilsson
the scene in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey when astronauts
Bowman and Poole have dinner onboard their spaceship? They
assemble the meal from small trays yanked out of different
compartments. The contents of each tray are nearly identical,
except for color, and a stylized picture guide suggests what
flavor can be expected.
so much else in that film, this projection has come true:
You’ll find it in the upper reaches of fine dining. However,
it’s not pasty simulacra that you’re served; they’re flavor
essences that are extracted, reimagined and reassembled in
yet to find this in the Capital Region, but it’s emerging
in the bigger, more adventurous cities. Forget tall food and
no-carb fads; we’re looking at the foam and flavor gels of
molecular gastronomy. A quartet of new books offers insight
into this surprising cuisine.
number of critics have named elBulli, on the coast of Spain,
as the world’s best example. Chef Ferran Adrià, has won similar
plaudits. Don’t plan a visit, though, unless you have superb
connections. A seat there can be snagged only during a brief
reservations-taking period in October, during which the restaurant
receives hundreds of thousands more requests than it can accommodate.
easier (and more economical) to enjoy their fare vicariously
through Adrià’s book A Day at elBulli (Phaidon Press,
$50, phaidon.com), which offers eloquent insight into the
chef’s approach. His essay on creative methods takes you through
a process that begins by reimagining the associations among
“ingredients, cooking methods, sauces and finished dishes
as an aid . . . to think[ing] of new ways . . . of putting
ingredients together.” Adaptation, deconstruction, minimalism
and even a search for new ingredients figure into his method.
And, of course, the finished product must be beautiful.
called Thaw 2005 is built on a tiny snow mountain of pine-nut
sorbet. Shoots of green and purple shiso emerge from
a dusting of green pine-cone infusion powder. A small borage
blossom nestles beside a sprinkling of ground coffee. Flavors
also burst from a small sheet of caramel, licorice meringue
powder, and even more variations on that pine cone infusion.
Components are meant to be sampled singly, exploding on the
palate as they unfreeze.
more tradition in the preparation of langoustine with quinoa.
For each serving, a single langoustine tail is coated with
puffed quinoa and sautéed, then served alongside a miniature
salad of tomato, scallion, lime and cilantro, a mixture of
puffed quinoa, quinoa shoots and a spoonful of cilantro-scented
kefir (a fermented milk product).
stirrings of this approach go back to the 1980s with the publication
of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking—a chemical-based
look at ingredients and their reactions to various modes of
processing—and the work of French chemist Hervé. Hungarian
physicist Nicholas Kurti also developed a series of workshops
on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy in Italy between 1992
Blumenthal participated in these and created work that reinforced
what were already very unique ideas about cooking. His restaurant,
The Fat Duck in Berkshire, England, is a Michelin three-star-winner
that is often chosen as that country’s best. The Big Fat
Duck Cookbook (Bloomsbury, $250, bloomsbury.com) is itself
a work of art, combing a luxurious package with striking page
layouts and artwork. Its recipes are almost the least of its
appeal: Blumenthal’s accompanying essays are the meat of the
text and make for a fascinating 500 pages of reading.
be most famous for such abstruse recipes as egg-and-bacon
ice cream, and has explored concepts like using liquid nitrogen
to super-chill fish before sautéing. As an example of his
obsessive pursuit of flavor secrets, Blumenthal writes that
he was working “on the development of an umami-laden
clear broth to accompany a fillet of lightly cured poached
mackerel and noticed, after making different extractions of
tomato using the skin or the flesh or just the insides, that
the insides produced what seemed like a richer taste than
the rest of the tomato.”
led to an extensive exploration, “which confirmed that there
are indeed differences in taste compounds between the different
parts of the tomato. Science backed up what my tongue had
told me: the part of the tomato with the most umami is
the book sports an enthusiastic introduction by McGee, who
also introduces Thomas Heller’s Under Pressure: Cooking
Sous Vide (Artisan, $75, artisanbooks.com). Keller is
a thoughtful, innovative chef with a Michelin three-star restaurant
on each U.S. coast: the French Laundry in Napa, and Per Se
in New York. His books The French Laundry Cookbook and
Bouchon are models for capturing the essence of food
preparation and enjoyment in the abstraction of text.
Pressure turns many a classical notion of cooking on its
ear by suggesting that the most effective method for bringing
out an ingredient’s flavor is to cook it at a sustained, exact
temperature. This is done by sealing the item in plastic and
poaching it. It isn’t the old boil-in-the-bag approach (which
remains behind much of the soup you’re served in restaurants);
it’s far more precise. It calls for specialized equipment—a
vacuum-pack unit and an immersion heater—that is available
in home and restaurant models. It requires a clear understanding
of food safety issues, which are carefully articulated in
the book. And it requires the ability to appreciate that a
piece of tenderloin, pink from crust to core, is fully cooked.
(So as not to alarm his guests, Keller then sautées the meat
to restore its familiar appearance.) Keller, McGee, and several
chefs who also use this technique swear that sous vide
is also the most revolutionary way to cook vegetables.
heart of these inventions is flavor and the desire to redefine
your experience of savoring it. Ferran Adrià continually reexamines
flavors alone and in combination, and you can jump-start your
own experimentation with The Flavor Bible, the first
cookbook by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg that doesn’t
contain a single recipe. Page and Dornenburg already wrote
a definitive study titled Culinary Artistry that went
behind the scenes with a number of chefs to understand a broader
aesthetic of cooking than found in the blueprints of recipes.
Its section on flavor combinations foreshadowed the more extensive
work in The Flavor Bible (Little, Brown, $35, littlebrown.com).
It’s an exhaustive ingredient-by-ingredient listing that also
delves into the characteristics of regional cookery. To pick
an ingredient at random, parsnips are defined by season (autumn-winter),
taste (sweet), weight (medium-heavy), volume (moderate) and
techniques/tips (“Always use cooked . . . bake, boil, braise,
deep-fry, grill, mash, puree, roast, steam”).
is followed by a long list of potential companions, starting
with allspice, anise and apples, and finishing (69 elements
later) with wine and yogurt. The listing ends with suggested
flavor affinities (“parsnips + butter + cream + potatoes,”
“parsnips + carrots + nutmeg + potatoes,” and several more).
The pages are livened with sidebars naming specific dishes
developed by a variety of chefs as well as quotes from the
chefs themselves. A sprinkling of attractive color photos
breaks up the grayness of the pages.
for balance over an entire menu, i.e., appetizer, entrée,
and dessert,” the book advises. “Envision the course of a
meal as a piece of music having a melody, rhythm, and tempo.”
In other words: What’s music to the palate may be, as yet,
an unfamiliar tune.