Sunday, July 29, 2012

Random Beets and How to Make Vegetable Foams

Abstraction is not easy to love. For every 100 people in this world who feel trepidation when looking at a painting by Da Vinci or Caravaggio, there is probably only 1 who feels this way about Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. There is always this sentiments of "That's it? My 2 year old could have done it." A few scattered pieces of vegetables and a sauce smeared on a plate usually evoke a similar reaction as contemporary art. If the ingredients were in an unfortunate car crash, that's probably what they'd look like when the impact would toss them onto the pavement.

Enough eating out has made me numb to contemporary plating. I neither like it nor dislike it. I simply ignore it since the only part of food that normally interests me is the taste. But recently a question has been gnawing at me every time I eat out, "If I wanted to plate food this way, could I?" I was not as naive as to imagine it was "something my 2 year old could do." But I had no idea how hard it turned out to be.

The best way to describe my food is Rustic Mediterranean. Most of these dishes involve no plating and are served family style. When I worked in a restaurant, I picked up a few "vertical food" techniques and if someone held a gun to my head I could make my food look presentable by piling the side dish into a cylinder mold and fanning out a sliced protein around it, but I don't usually bother. Given my lack of presentation skill, smeared sauces and "randomly" scattered ingredients give me serious hibbie-gibbies.

Deciding to confront my fear of scattered and smeared food, I set up a little experiment. I had to put together a first course that could be worthy of a Michelin 1 star establishment. Trying to do that as part of our normal daily life while serving a meal to Jason and our kids proved impossible. So I set aside one afternoon for this deceptively simple little trial while Jason was at work and the kids were in daycare.

Giving a contemporary plating to the kind of stuff I normally cook seemed ridiculous. You don't scatter roasted vegetables on a plate and smear some pesto around them. I have quickly learned that most of my sauces can't be smeared or drizzled without looking greasy or runny or generally unappealing. I have also learned that leaving white space around a roasted or braised vegetable doesn't work. The juice and oil leak out and ruin the white space. I decided it was not worth reinventing the wheel. What do most chef's do for contemporary presentations? They cook stuff sous-vide.

The ingredients I decided to work with were beets, radishes, Japanese turnips, pork belly, coriander, rye bread, and spinach. It took 3 hours of active work (not counting all the dish washing), and 48 hours start to finish. There was a lot of trial and error to end up with the right textures. I cooked pork belly, coriander seeds and beet foam twice before I got them right. But the biggest challenge came when I had to put stuff on the plate. No matter where I tried to place those little beets, radishes, and spinach, the arrangement looked either too symmetrical or completely off-balance.

This experiment was not without its successes. My beet syrup didn't spread into a puddle. My foam didn't collapse. My beets didn't bleed onto a plate ruining all that white space. It was a delicious dish. The vinaigrette made with coriander infused pork fat was a killer, and so was the beet syrup. I know the experiment was about looks not taste, but making it all taste good was part of the deal. Overall, it looked decent (at least to my aesthetically challenged eye). All I needed was a catchy name that was absurdly incongruous to the effort involved. Maybe "ham on rye," or something like that, and my little dish could be part of a $100 tasting menu.

But I have so much to learn to serve this kind of food for a real meal. Plate composition and mis en place are real weaknesses for me. I am not used to handling so many components that are time and temperature sensitive. I felt clumsy, inefficient, and generally incompetent.  It reminded me of the first time I made Julia Child's French Onion soup when I was in college. I ended up on the bed crying into a pillow in my attempt to escape the vicious onion fumes. Good thing beet don't make you cry or by the time I was finally done with this plate, I'd be crying into a pillow too.

You might be wondering why I didn't just try to recreate one of the recipes from Alinea, French Laundry, or Under Pressure?   Wouldn't imitating the masters teach me something? I have great admiration for Alinea at Home type of cooks. Such patience and dedication amazes me, but their approach would kill me. It reminds me of paint by number. Follow steps 1 through 100 and you too can paint Mona Lisa. That's not cooking -- it's my idea of hell. There is a lot of detail in these books, but they don't teach the cook the fundamental techniques or how to think and solve problems. What makes Julia Child such a great teacher is that she doesn't just tell you exactly how wide your onion slices should be, she tells you to learn to sharpen your knife and use a claw grip. She doesn't just tell you how many minutes to cook the onions, she tells you what they should feel like, smell like, taste like. Books like Alinea and Under Pressure claim that you don't need this touchy-feely stuff. Just weigh every ingredient to a hudredth of a gram, cook at a precise temperature for precise time, and voila -- nothing to worry about.   Grant will even tell you where to place each component on a plate. But change one small condition -- the thickness of your fish, the shape of your plate, or lack of one ingredient and this perfect system goes crumbling down.

Are there any sharable tidbits that I picked up from my 3 hour rendez-vous with what boils down to a beet salad? Of course!  How about a beet foam? Though this is the technique for aerating any vegetable juice or broth. This produces a relatively loose foam instead of the whipped-egg-white style foam I wrote about earlier.

Vegetable Foam (some chef's call this "Air")

Special equipment:
  • Scale with 0.01g precision -- I use a tea scale that sells on amazon for $12-15
  • Immersion blender
Here are some ideas of liquids you can use:
  • beet juice or stock
  • carrot juice
  • tomato water (salt chunks of ripe tomato, let sit 30 minutes, drain the water to use for foam)
  • porcini liquid (soak 1/2 oz dry porcini in 1 cup boiling water, drain through a sieve lined with paper towel)
  • any fruit juice
  • cucumber juice
  • water or stock infused with saffron and drained
250 grams liquid
0.75g soy lecithin (not the lecithin sold at health food stores)

  1. If you are a bit short on liquid, add enough water to make it 250g (about 1 liquid cup).
  2. Warm up the liquid in a 2 quart pot. The size of the pot actually matters. You want the liquid to be deep enough so that the blade of the immersion blender can reach it, and you want the pot to be wide enough so that the liquid is exposed to lots of air after you get your immersion blender in there. Doing this in a tall narrow container that tightly holds your immersion blender doesn't work. I tried.
  3. Add soy lecithin to the liquid and whisk to dissolve.
  4. Immerse the blender into the pot and blend on high speed moving the blender around. You want the blender just skimming the surface of the liquid so that a lot of air gets beaten in. When enough foam forms on top, let it sit for a minute to stabilize. Skim it off with a spoon and use to top your dish.
Tips and basic principles:
  • More lecithin will not get you more foam or more stable foam. In fact it can destabilize it.
  • Lecithin is an emulsifier found in egg yolks, but soy lecithin is vegan and safe for people who can't have eggs.
  • Don't divide this recipe in half. The liquid won't be deep enough for your blender.
  • For more tips, and excellent chemistry reference written for a lay person (more from a cook's perspective than a chemist's), check out Hydrocolloid Recipe Collection on Khymos Blog. The best reference I've found so far.
  • Try to serve within 5 minutes after foaming.
*     *     *

Some notes about the dish I made. This is for my own use to remember which mistakes not to make the second time.

Day 1
  • pork belly (bought it sliced 1/3 inch thick, 3 inches long)
    • salted, peppered, vacuumed sealed, sous-vide at 190F for 1.5 hours. chilled in ice water, refrigerated
    • removed from bag and tasted -- too tough.
    • simmered for 1.5 hours covered in a skillet on very low with a little chicken stock, bay leaf, and whole coriander seeds
      • I first tried deep frying coriander seeds, but they came out too hard and unpleasant, so threw them in with the pork to simmer. they came out great -- with a little crunch, but relatively soft.
    • removed bacon out of braising liquid, chilled, refrigerated
    • discarded bay leaf and reduced braising liquid over high heat. by the end there was slightly more fat than juice left. cooled and refrigerated.
  • beets (candy striped and regular red)
    • peeled, cut into wedges, sprinkle with a little salt and sugar.  Vacuum sealed with a little butter.  I gave each beet type its own bag to preserve the color.
    • sous-vide at 190F for 50 min
    • chilled in ice-water. refrigerated.
  • radishes
    • cut in half, sprinkled with a little salt and sugar. Vacuum seal with a little butter.
    • sous-vide at 190F for 10 min
    • chilled in ice-water. refrigerated.
  • Japanese turnips
    • cut into wedges, sprinkle with a little salt and sugar. Vacuum seal with a little butter.
    • sous-vide at 190F for 10 min
    • chilled in ice-water. refrigerated.
  • beet broth
    • I happened to have some left over cold beet borsh, so I strained it and used the liquid as beet broth
Day 2
  • pork coriander vinaigrette
    • warmed up the braising liquid in the microwave until fat melted
    • stirred in red wine vinegar and dijon mustard
  • warmed up 250g of beet broth in a small wide sauce pan. added 0.75 grams of soy lecithin and whisked to dissolve
  • seared pork belly in a little grapeseed oil, removed, set aside
  • Toasted very thinly sliced rye toasts in the same skillet where pork belly was cooked, removed and set aside.
  • Removed the vegetables from bags, reserving all the liquid in a cup
  • warmed up the vegetables in the skillet, removed and set aside
  • poured reserved juice, maple syrup, and balsamic vinegar into the skillet and reduced until syrupy, poured all but 1 tsp into a squeeze bottle.
  • arranged 3 pieces of bacon on a plate and brushed with pork vinaigrette
  • coated beets with the beet syrup remaining in a skillet and arranged on plate
  • arrange a couple of radish and turnip pieces on the plate
  • dress baby spinach with pork vinaigrette and placed behind the pork belly
  • tucked in rye toast
  • arranged a few rye seeds from the vinaigrette on the plate
  • painted a few beet syrup swirls on the plate
  • whipped the surface of the beet broth with immersion blender. scooped off the foam and arranged several dollops of it on the plate


Nika said...

Thank you for this post! I'll admit, taste is most important, but I have a soft spot for presentation. Even though I don't think I would ever attempt this at home (though the general idea of this "ham on rye" sounds delicious), I think it's important to discuss aesthetics as well as flavour. We eat with our eyes as well as with noses and mouths, and like with contemporary art, for every Pollock (or, like, Kandinsky) there's a lot of over-zealous doodling out there that missed the point... I thought your dish looked quite elegant, by the way. :)

I am curious about the function of the foam, however. I honestly don't think I've had that before, so maybe I don't get out enough. Is it added for flavour? Or texture? Or just for kicks?

Helen said...

Hi Nika,

The foam is for texture. It shines the most when used as a sauce for delicate dishes. For example, if you have a piece of fish cooked sous-vide or a delicate creamy soup and you want to accent it with something without overpowering it, a foam works extremely well. Of course, the dish in the post is not a good example of that. But it was more like an exercise for me ;)