Medium Raw

[by Naveen]

I discovered Kitchen Confidential at the start of my year in Singapore and read his other books (and watched all of No Reservations) during my remaining time on the island. I explored as much of the local food culture as I could, while struggling to find a balance between my undergrad vegetarianism and Bourdain's total gastronomical immersion. He's not a role model, but he's always thought-provoking in a way that challenges my too-comfortable grad student life. The new book isn't the best introduction to his philosophy, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it as the transcript of a hypothetical conversation in a bar after a few drinks.

One of my reasons for reading Bourdain's travelogues and essays (as well as the similar books by Bill Buford, Gordon Ramsay, and Michael Ruhlman) was the intense devotion of each to their craft: a combination of relentless curiosity and almost inhuman diligence. What drives chefs? Bourdain looks at the case of celebrity chefs, such as Emeril, Godron Ramsay, and David Chang. With regards to Mario Batali:
"He gets off on successfully filling a restaurant that everyone said was doomed, or bringing the cost of food below 20%. He likes to do the difficult thing, the dangerous thing - like take a gamble that what America needs and wants right now is ravioli filled with calf brains, or a pizza topped with pork fat."

Does Bourdain have regrets? Yes, many. One of the biggest ones is not seeking out a challenging position in the kitchen of a top-ranking chef after culinary school. He writes:
"The simple fact is that I would be - and always have been - inadequate to working in the kitchens of most of my friends, and it is something I will have to live with."

Wylie Dufresne is a hero. Bourdain writes "To his constant peril, he experiments, pushes boundaries, explores what is possible, what might be possible." I caught a glimpse of this during a conversation with him at TEDx Cambridge and from my dessert at WD-50, so I'm hungry for more.

A major internal debate for me still is between the optimal nutrition of elite athletes like Scott Jurek and Brendan Brazier and the fearless exploration by numerous vagabonds and a smaller number of food critics. With regard to tasting menus, Bourdain writes
"If cooking professionally is about control, eating successfully should be about submission, about easily and without thinking giving yourself over to whatever dream they'd like you the share."
This excludes over-intellectualizing the food, taking photos of every course, and focusing more on the future blog post than the seamless passage of time.

Finally, back to his thoughts about vegetarianism:
"I guess I understand if your desire for a clean conscience and cleaner color overrules any natural lust for bacon. But taking your belief system on the road - or to other people's houses - make me angry."
He elaborates on this anger for quite a few pages.

Has anyone else read the book? Has it changed the way you eat?


First Foray into NYC Dining

[by Naveen]

Here's the synopsis of my first expedition to one of the dining capitals of the world:

wd-50: life-changing desserts: my top recommendation. Visit the website if the photo at the top isn't incentive enough.

Souen: Macrobiotic Meal: close to the opposite of the dessert last night, but also quite sastisfying. This plate was filled with piles of brown rice, plain beans, squash, broccoli, and hijiki, optimized for nutrition.

Otto: Olive oil gelato with sea salt: made me want to buy the Flavor Bible and read all of the "They Go Really Well Together" posts on the kymos blog.

Lombardi's Pizza: "Best Pizza on the Planet" according to Zagat: good, but not enough to have a charcoal furnace installed in my apartment. Excessive free pizza at grad school meetings has dampened my enthusiasm for pizza in general.

Liquiteria: like Jamba Juice, with more nutritional content and a correspondingly higher price. Meals in a bottle could be seen as a revolution in time-saving technology or a place to showcase conspicuous consumption.

Hummus Place: in defense of chain restaurants: I would be happy to see this spread to Boston.

Stogo: vegan ice cream, which is fascinating from a food science perspective (plant-based fats don't seem close to the complexity of the protein-coated fat globules in milk). Chocolate chip cookie satisfied my nostalgic cravings, but I would appreciate more adventurous flavors.

Recommendations for San Francisco? Chicago? Where else should I go?


Dessert topping or floor wax?

[by Naveen]

Dessert topping or floor wax? Both.

I recently returned from my first real (i.e. more than 24 hours) trip to New York, justified by the monthly meeting of the Experimental Cuisine Collective. The speaker, NYU Chem Professor Kent Kirshenbaum totally changed my view of plant-derived amphiphiles in one of the best science presentations that I've seen. He started with the Saturday Night live skit that introduced New Shimmer to the world. After some initial slides about the science of soap, he demonstrated how to make soap from various plant extracts, called saponins. A small amount of quillaja extract in a bowl full of water turned to foam with the help of an electric mixer. He used this to clean off the white board and some spots on his tie. When dispensed from an iSi whipper, it looked a lot like a dessert topping.

The second challenge was to make something that tasted good enough to put on butterscotch pudding. Many middle eastern desserts incorporate all types of unique plant extracts, like salep, an orchid extract used to make stretchy ice cream (see this Cooking Issues post for more info). In this case, Prof. Kirshenbaum used a different extract to make meringues and a type of mousse, which the audience got to try. They had a somewhat bitter, herbal taste which was balanced by some fresh fruit toppings. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but the recipe could use some work before going mainstream. Still, there is an expanding market for vegan or egg-free desserts. A company called Angel Food in New Zealand is making vegan marshallows and meringues, and there are likely others out there.

Not only are these saponins floor cleaners and dessert toppings, they could potentially be used as medicine. There is a long list of the purported health benefits of saponins. Many of the claims are probably too general to prove, but there is preliminary evidence that they can bind to cholesterol, suggesting the possibility to be used in a cholesterol-lowering drug. The Masai people of Africa eat a diet rich in meat, dairy, and cattle blood, yet have surprisingly low cholesterol. This could be due to their practice of cooking their food with the bark or stems of certain plants that contain high levels of saponins.

Even if a cholesterol-lowering, floor-cleaning, vegan confectionery doesn't hit the supermarket shelves anytime soon, I still had a great time learning about saponins. Perhaps I should watch old SNL skits for more PhD thesis topic ideas.


PhD in Chocolate

[by Naveen]

a model of the solar system, constructed by master chocolatier Enric Rovira, one of the inspirations for this post

My latest obsession has been the science of chocolate. After several literature searches and interviews with people about the transformation from cocoa pods to chocolate bar, I'm starting to get a sense of feasible thesis topics, which would be both scientifically interesting and industrially relevant (as well as delicious). Two main frontiers in the chocolate world that can be explored from a soft matter physics perspective seem to be:

1. Design a simple, reliable "temper-meter." By melting and cooling molten chocolate in a specific way, chocolate makers can create a solid bar that is glossy on the surface and breaks cleanly. If this procedure isn't done right, the chocolate can be crumbly and develop an ugly whitish coating on the surface, called bloom. The main difference relates to how the cocoa fat molecules are stacked within the chocolate: well-tempered chocolate has all these molecules packed tightly together. Unfortunately, the only way to determine this conclusively is with x-ray diffraction, which isn't especially convenient for artisan chocolate makers. A more common method is to measure the temperature of the chocolate over time as it cools, which works okay, but apparently there is still considerable room for improvement.
2. Glossy coated almonds (or nibs, cocoa beans, etc.). In a technique known as panning, the nuts are placed in a large rotating vat and molten chocolate is slowly drizzled over them. As the nuts tumble around, a layer of chocolate gradually develops around each nut. Somewhat surprisingly, the resulting coating is smooth and fairly resistant to bloom, despite not undergoing the specific tempering process. However, it's still tricky to attain a glossy, rather than matte, surface on the product, so additional coatings are typically used in the industry.

Armed with my physics knowledge of mechanics, electricity and magnetism, acoustics, and (high-school level) chemistry, I think that I can discover some interesting things while I pursue these problems. If I'm incredibly lucky, I could help solve some major problems in the chocolate industry. At worst, I'll have fun playing around with chocolate.


The Science of Vegan Cooking

[by Naveen]

After recent inspiration (both in terms of running and cooking) by Brendan Brazier, Scott Jurek, Matt Frazier, and Terry Waters, I've been doing more vegan cooking lately. This has prompted a slew of food science questions, since eggs and dairy play such a diverse range of roles in a whole spectrum of foods. I could write a whole series of posts about this, but for now I'll just give some examples, ranging from the straight-forward to potentially intractable:
  • Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble: My version of this dessert got rave reviews, even by swapping the butter with coconut oil (and the sugar with stevia). However, the crumble probably wasn't too sensitive to the physical properties of the fat (e.g. water content, melting points) and it's hard to make a dessert like this taste bad. Many other pastries depend more critically on the type of fat used, so doing a one-to-one swap might not work.
  • Six-seed Soda Bread: I can replace the buttermilk with 1 cup of non-dairy milk + 1 T acid, but the buttermilk provides more than just acidity to balance the baking soda. Which milk substitute and which acid would go best with the recipe? I used unsweetened vanilla almond milk and apple cider vinegar, since that's what I had in the fridge. I'll want to look more into flavor pairings before going further.
  • Cashew cream: I've come across several recipes that utilize cashews to replace traditional dairy creams, of the both sweet and sour varieties. My own attempt at blending soaked cashews and apple juice was quite palatable, but wouldn't fool anyone in blind taste tests. How can I replicate the complex emulsion of protein-coated fat globules with something from the plant world?
  • Aged vegan cheese: An even more ambitious target would be to find a non-dairy substrate for culturing the rich microbiota that lives in a piece of aged Camembert or Bayley Hazen Blue, for instance. Experiments are scheduled for later this month.
Any other ideas? I know rheologists, microscopists, microbiologists, and mixologists to help find answers.