The fear arrived about two days before we were going to serve the sort of meal that would normally come from a kitchen staffed by a squad of chefs backed by a platoon of assistants. For our six-course meal serving eight people, there would be two of us cooking in a fairly tight apartment kitchen. At our Thursday afternoon meeting, as we pored over 36 pages of recipes, what had started as a lark became deeply, wonkishly, scarily tactical.
What I wanted to know was whether this sort of complex, ultra-methodical cooking would help with my home-kitchen skills. I also wanted to dabble with some perhaps outré but still intriguing modernist techniques (a bit of gelling and spherification) and give a couple of loaned sous-vide machines a run. Oh, and I wanted to be able to sit down between courses to actually enjoy the food with our six guests, without the whole thing lasting longer than the siege of Munster.
The six-course menu involved 36 recipes and sub-recipes pulled from books by the likes of Manresa's David Kinch and Per Se's Thomas Keller, along with a dish from Modernist Cuisine at Home. Tossed in were a couple of dishes that I was basically making up.
In the interest of full disclosure, I would add that my cooking partner, Robin Bashinsky, who works in the Cooking Light Test Kitchen, has restaurant kitchen sous-chef experience. It was Robin who got me to see the meal as the march of a million steps, with the final work being an "easy" choreography of sautéing, reheating, and assembly. The key was to select recipes that allowed a lot of advance prep. The key also was to junk Robin's Napoleonic plan for a Heston Blumenthal beef dish that was more complicated than instructions for assembling a Mars rover. We swapped in pork by Keller, a recipe that only contained six sub-recipes.
This would be by far the most complex meal that either of us had cooked.
Here's the menu:
Founding Fathers' Manhattan
Seared Foie Gras with Spherified Mango
Caramelized Carrot Soup with Microwave-Fried Parsley and Honduran Cream
(Inspired by Modernist Cuisine)
A Mess of Vegetables with Chicory-Potato "Dirt" and Pickled Mushrooms
(Adapted from Manresa)
Tidal Broth with Mushroom and Oyster Gels, Kombu, and Various Oceanic Treats
(Adapted from Manresa)
Glazed Sous-Vide Pork Belly with Swiss Chard, Wine-Poached Apples, and Green Mustard Vinaigrette
(Adapted from Thomas Keller's Under Pressure)
Passion Fruit Gelées with Freeze-Dried Strawberry Sugar; Icewine Spheres
What follows is a course-by-course account. Apologies for the quality of the photos, shot with my phone on the fly, in rather dim light.
WARM-UP: Cocktail & Goose
Along with my own Founding Fathers' Manhattan (one part Rare Wine Company Boston Bual madeira, one part Foggy Ridge Pippin Black Virginia cider, two parts Bulleit rye, and a dash of grapefruit bitters), we served small bits of seared foie gras topped with tangy solid pearls of spherified juice of mango and Meyer lemon. This is the easiest form of spherification: You add a warm calcium lactate solution to a juice (or vinegar) and dribble the solution with an eyedropper into chilled olive oil, whereupon solid pearls form. They rest in oil until migrated onto food via slotted spoon. The fruit tang worked nicely with the seared-fat flavors.
For several days I played around with frozen reverse spherification using chemicals and tools from a Molecule-R kit. The process produces a thin gelatin membrane around a liquid, and the wobbly blob pops in the mouth to release a burst of flavor. The "frozen" part refers to the fact that it's a much easier trick to drop a solid disk into a solution of sodium alginate (which initiates the membrane formation), rather than pour thick liquid in. As the disk melts, it forms its skin.
Easier than regular spherification, maybe, but it took me several tries to produce a proper blob. This one, for an appetizer, was made of curried coconut milk infused with Kaffir lime leaves. In the end, it was just too weird to serve as a starter, so I punted the technique to the dessert end of the menu and fired up the pressure cooker for a soup instead.
Second Course: The Soup
Anyone with a pressure cooker can make this recipe, which transmutes the dirty-sweet taste of raw carrot into a profound meditation on caramelization. This dish was a riff off the Caramelized Carrot Soup in Modernist Cuisine at Home (recipe here).
I added microwave-"fried" Italian parsley (also from that book) for a filament of crunch, and a swirl of salty Honduran cream to balance the sweet with a bit of salt. The caramelization is speeded by a bit of baking soda, a trick I don't really like with pan-cooked onions (too mushy) but that works well here. The pressure-cooker ichor is mixed with fresh carrot juice, which I made using a great slow juicer by Fagor then pureed. I made it mid-afternoon and held for reheating.
Third Course: Crazy-Complicated Salad
Manresa's five-page salad recipe called for assembling a botanical garden's worth of plants with chicory-flavored "dirt" streusel and something called Champagne Dew. This was the most daunting dish of all, but Robin made it look easy because of fastidious advance prep, seen here.
Here I learned why it's nice to have a Vitamix blender that's as powerful as a trolling motor. Two purees for the salad were made from pressure-cooked turnips and sous-vide pink chioggia beets. Salt and a small amount of butter are added. Three full minutes with the blender on high did the trick: stable, thick, essence-of-root-vegetable sauces.
With all the ingredients made -- the Dew requiring a tricky last-minute foam-ation -- it was just a matter of assembly. At left, the beet and turnip purees with some baby veg. At right, the final salad, with flowers, the chicory-root dirt, and the dew. We sprayed on olive oil and added a few drops of syrupy old balsamic
Fourth Course: Into the Sea
The key to getting a complicated dish out with reasonable dispatch was factory-line discipline. Every bowl, plate, cup, glass, and piece of cutlery was organized in the afternoon. Many ingredients were prepped early that day, or the day before, or the week before (Robin did a lot in his kitchen), then labeled and organized for final assembly. The "dirt" for the salad, for example, began with a 48-hour potato dehydration. The pork sauce was a four-day campaign of reduction, deglazing, reinforcement, and straining.
Here, fresh mushrooms, mushrooms, pickled kombu, mussels, and oysters -- everything prepped earlier -- are ready for finishing with a delicious hot "tidal broth" (made with bonito flakes, white soy, and ponzu) and a mushroom gel. The dish, called A Winter Tidal Pool, was a slight variation of that in the Manresa cookbook -- delicious.
Fifth Course: Pork Time
In the middle of prepping Thomas Keller's indulgent pork-belly dish, Robin deftly averted disaster when the sous-vided pork pieces began to stick like the Devil's Own Glue to a large stainless skillet. He tonged the meat out (some stuck and tore away), trimmed and tidied the slightly ragged results, regrouped, and finished the meat in my favorite Calphalon nonstick, where it glazed beautifully. The pork had cooked for 12 hours sous vide, with herbs, and it was spectacular in its porky, sticky sauce (a sauce so unctuous from its five deglazings that leftovers cooled into a hard rubber disk). It was served with wine-poached apple balls, sous-vide kale stems, and a sauce of green apples and mustard that I had to improvise for lack of an ingredient.
The beauty of this home-priced PolyScience immersion-cooking gear is you can set up the rig anywhere, creating another cooking station -- not necessarily in the kitchen (here, in fact, my bathroom). But for the initial cost (you also need a machine to vacuum-seal plastic bags for the food to cook in), the sous vide seems as useful as a slow cooker or pressure cooker. It's simple to use, extremely precise, and produces foods of exacting, consistent texture while you're plotting elsewhere.
Chicken stock made with a few added chicken feet, obtained at a local Chinese grocery, added amazing body to a stock.
Dessert Course: Gelées and Blobs
The little Chinese cup contains a sip of chilled Inniskillin Cabernet Franc icewine and a spherified blob of the same wine (which I had infused with citrus peel and star anise). The blob was made using frozen reverse spherification.
As for the gelées, we'd been experimenting with homemade flavored sugars at Cooking Light and found that a tangy powder can be made by grinding white sugar with freeze-dried unsweetened strawberries. That's the coating on these passion fruit squares, also adapted from a Cooking Light recipe. We added fiercely explosive "popping sugar" (similar to Pop Rocks) on top, which came with the Molecule-R kit but is also available elsewhere.
With gelling and stabilizing powders, precision is important. Soy lecithin is measured out with a super-precise device that looks like a drug dealer's kit; I borrowed it from Cooking Light's nutrition editor.
Robin (left), with his favorite small chef's knife, and me, with my beloved but ridiculously big, spectacularly sharp handmade Takeda knife from Chubo
I had hauled the Takeda out to cut long, slippery, thin strips of pickled kombu.
What I Learned
The dinner was a hit, and I learned enough to recommend a similar stunt to anyone who wants to sharpen his or her skills under, as Keller would say, pressure. But first, make sure you partner with a good cook (preferably someone who was a restaurant cook in a former life). Plan the menu 10 days ahead; then define and divvy up every single duty. I drew up an Excel spreadsheet that included last-possible starting times for sub-recipes; ingredients; and cutlery and dinnerware notes. Meet several times to review the literature and the lists. Shop early and widely (don't settle for second-rate ingredients). Choose recipes that allow advance prep of most components. Borrow extra pots and pans and extra containers for the mise en place. Finally, practice: That spherified wine trick did work -- on the fifth try.
As guests left, I felt like a smarter cook, having absorbed a more systematic way to break down recipes, jobs, assembly, and service. Pouring myself a leftover Founders' Manhattan, I faced the last key difference between home and restaurant kitchens: no one but me to conquer an Everest of dishes.
Note: There were three loaner products tested for this dinner, the PolyScience sous-vide machines, the Vitamix blender, and the Fagor slow juicer. All rated a recommendation.