Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Daring Cooks Play With Powders

I know that most mothers tell their children not to play with their food. Lucky for me, my mother wasn't much for the traditional childhood prohibitions, so I feel completely free to play with my food and talk to strangers. Good thing, too, because today's meal requires a well-developed sense of play. Without an appreciation for a little wackiness, the challenge could easily turn into many hours of tedious preparation.

What kind of meal inspires thoughts like that? A Daring Cooks challenge that skirts the non-chemical side of molecular gastronomy, that's what! Sketchy (from Sketchy's Kitchen) has a small obsession with the scientific side of cooking and dared the rest of us to enter that world. If you're unsure about just what molecular gastronomy is, think foams, gels, and caviar from foods not usually associated with such forms. It is play with food at an intricate level. If that doesn't help (which it probably doesn't), a browse through Sketchy's MG-related posts will show you what our host has been playing at. Wikipedia has a pretty nice discussion of molecular gastronomy, too. If you follow links to some of the chefs mentioned, the Great Wiki will give you even more information.

The challenge recipe comes from Grant Achatz's cookbook, Alinea: Skate, traditional flavors powdered. I'm not going to reproduce the entire recipe here, but at its heart, it's skate, poached in a beurre Monte sauce, green beans, bananas (I'm banana-phobic; I can't even discuss it's intended role), and several flavorful ingredients dehydrated and powdered. The potentially-tedious part of the whole thing is dehydrating, crushing, and sieving of multiple foods.

Lemon and lime zest before poaching and dehydrating.

We were given some license to play, so my dish was Pacific cod (more environmentally-friendly than skate) with green beans and powdered mango, cilantro, basil, red onion, lemon and lime zest, and chipotle pepper. The mango and chipotle were already dried. The rest was up to me.

The zest after microwave-dehydration was complete.

My reaction to this challenge was mixed. On one hand, I loved the whole concept of having a luxurious, butter-poached fish (beurre Monte is an emulsion of a tiny bit of water and a whole lot of butter) dipped into the powders. On the other, dehydrating multiple foods without a dehydrator was daunting and the whole thing was way outside my normal comfort zone. So I did my homework. I read through the recipe's directions for microwave-dehydrating. Read some more directions online. And read the whole recipe-experience via Alinea At Home.

And then I got Husband to buy the fish when he went to town, so I had no choice but make it the next day.

I started around nine in the morning, getting my powders in order. The onions seemed like the longest project, so I got them small-chopped (should have minced them properly) and into the microwave at low-medium power (4 out of 10) for ten minutes. Then I stirred them and gave them another ten. It wasn't working very well. Over the next couple hours, in between dehydrating other things, I'd pop the onions back in on very low (2 out of 10) for three minutes at a time. Eventually, they were dry little nuggets and ground up to a very flavorful powder. (Sorry for the blurry photo; things were a little chaotic.)

Onions, finally dry, in the coffee grinder.

Freeze-dried mango, ready to pulverize. Beware! It gums up the works!

Other than the onion, which probably had an extra half-hour in the microwave, the dehydrating went pretty well. The citrus zest required poaching in simple syrup before it was dried. The basil and cilantro, in order to keep their color, got a second-long bath in boiling water, followed by the traditional post-sauna ice-bath. It worked. Both zest and herb retained their color once powdered.

Herbs in their refreshing ice-bath.

So then, the powders were all done. Whew! It was surprisingly early in the day. As in, still before the small one's nap. Instead of saving this for a post-Little-Girl-bedtime-dinner, I decided we'd eat it for lunch during her nap. So I moved on to the later stages of the recipe, which required me to keep kicking Husband off the computer so I could look at just exactly what I was supposed to do next.

Powders, clockwise from far left: lemon/lime zest; mango; cilantro-basil; red onion; chipotle.

First, I cut my green beans into cute teeny rounds. Then, I tackled my last powder. The fish is supposed to have one edge dipped in toasted spray-dried cream powder. Uh-huh. Like I have access to that in Desertville. I don't even have access to cream in Desertville. But the always-clever (and very fast) Daring Cook, Audax, came to the rescue with his idea to use powdered coconut milk for this part. And that, I do have in Desertville. It's an artifact of my life in Isolationville. The concept of paying shipping for cans of coconut milk was too much, so I started to rely on the powder instead. I sifted a packet's worth onto a Silpat and baked it for just over four minutes, until it just started to turn brown. One more step closer.

Time to make the beurre Monte. I was making so little -- just over a quarter of the full recipe -- that my water was evaporating before it could really boil. Slightly problematic, but I worked around it and ended up with a lovely emulsion. A little went into a pot with an equal amount of water for the green beans, and the rest went into a pan, again with an equal amount of water, for the fish.

The cod in barely-simmering beurre Monte sauce.

My cod was thicker than skate would have been. A bit denser, too, from what I remember of the only time I've eaten skate. So I wanted to be sure it got cooked through and the beans didn't get soggy. So once the fish was in the pan, I plated my powders (not entirely successfully, from a purely aesthetic view) and got the beans into their butter.

The plate awaiting the cod.

The beans didn't take long to get to crisp-tender. And luscious. Definitely luscious. I got them on the plate, ready for the fish. My powders were supposed to be a little more dramatic in their presentation, but I don't have a lot of dish-choice and my fish was big for the plate. I thought I had a good compromise, but it was lackluster in the end.

The final product might not have had the presentation wow-factor, but the flavors made up for it. The fish and beans were rich and buttery, while the powders, quite obviously, weren't. But they interacted with each other very nicely, almost like putting a post-cooking rub on the fish. I loved the brightness of the citrus when the bite included a good wallop of the lemon-lime powder. I loved the toasted coconut flavor and wished I had both toasted it a bit longer and used a little more.

For a dinner, it would definitely need something more. Cooked potato slices under the fish, perhaps, or a mash of cauliflower and potato. If it were one course of many -- say appetizer, salad, this, a cheese course, and a dessert, it would stand fine alone.

I don't know that I'll make this particular dish again. It was a lot of work. But I'm already finding other uses for the powders. I added the leftover onion, citrus, and herb powders to my standard flour/nutritional yeast breading for tofu. Tonight, we'll have those fried slices stacked with grilled eggplant, onion, and zucchini, with a tomato sauce and parmesan cheese.

It was a good experience and definitely a challenge, which is what I was looking for when I joined the Daring Cooks! Thanks, Sketchy!


  1. I just love this posting everything about it - your words are so true this is one interesting ...no... very intriguing recipe and it seems it wasn't that hard in the end and thanks for the compliment. In ways I'm in envy that you are in 'nowhereville' it means that you are always forced to think about the challenges and this leads to excellence. One very good posting. Cheers from Audax in Sydney Australia.

  2. PHENOMENAL JOB!! Not only does your dish look beautiful, and so clean presentation wise, but your choice of powders to enhance, especially the mango and chipotle, are unique and creative - not to mention delicious and spicy!

  3. I'm agree with both... yum!

  4. Excellent post! Great perspective on molecular gastronomy. I also enjoyed your "On the Spot" piece; you obviously have a global approach to food despite your Isolated Foodie status. I'm impressed with your confident approach to this challenge and I think your presentation looks great with all those vibrant powders.

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  6. Your photo series look really beautiful. You did such a fabulous job!

  7. The mango powder sounds delightful with this dish! I bet some mango slices also would have been great under the green beans (in place of the other unmentionable fruit) to add a little substance too. Great job!

  8. That looks amazing! I'm intrigued by the mango powder which looks divinely yummy! Great job!

  9. Well, thanks everyone, for the lovely comments!

  10. Ooo, basil and mango powders, lovely twist. And the ways you are already using the leftover powders sounds pretty wonderful too. Great job on this challenge!

  11. Nicely done! The mango is a nice addiction (and addition) to the dish. Delicious looking plates (food) too!

  12. Sweet mango and spicy chipotle powders add great color and flavor to your very photogenic dish! Great job!

  13. Beautiful job on this challenge!! I love all of the flavours you chose for the cod =D.