Monday, February 22, 2010

Playing with Cornstarch

Last night, my Chef and I were wondering whether a cornstarch-thickened fluid would lose viscosity when subjected to shearing forces, so this morning I started doing some research. Unfortunately, my limited efforts turned up technical abstracts and youtube videos, and nothing much in between. On a side note, the youtube videos were pretty cool. "A Pool filled with non-Newtonion liquid" anyone?

So, I decided to do my own sloppy little experiment. First, I made a relatively concentrated cornstarch and water slurry and cooked that until milky-translucent and very thick. After noting the viscosity, I turned off the heat and started shearing the mix with a stick blender. The change in viscosity was obvious just from the way the blender worked. At first, with the blender submerged there was no movement on the fluid surface. After half a minute or so, the fluid was thin enough that immersing the blender caused great distortion even at the surface. Shearing had diminished viscosity considerably. Curious about whether letting the fluid sit would allow the gelling network to reform itself, I removed the blender and let the fluid rest in the still-hot cooking pot. it regained all or almost all of its viscosity in a few minutes. Unfortunately, I didn't design my experiment to separate the temperature and shear variables very well, so some of the thickening may have been due to cooling, rather than the absence of shear. I wondered about how further cooling would effect viscosity, so I transferred a small sample to a ice water bath. Both the sample in the ice bath and the sample in the pot cooled to a solid, soft, opaque gel that I could pick up with my hands.

A morning well spent.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fine Dining

A few weeks ago, I trailed at a very polished, professional kitchen putting out nicely plated, well-conceived food. I talked to a cook there about where I work now, which is a bar in Adams Morgan, a sort of gritty, wild-partying neighborhood. I talked a bit about the food we put out there, which I like to think of as often interesting and well-executed, especially for a bar. He said "well, it's not fine dining, is it." No question mark; a statement. I quickly agreed. A lot of our food is definitely pub grub and our prices are modest. We're a bar first and maybe last.

Last night changed my thinking. For Valentine's Day, we offered four special items, each featuring a game animal: a quail app, and entrees with duck, venison, and rabbit. Prices were still modest, though a bit higher than the regular menu. The quail app went for $7 and the most expensive plate, the venison, went for $20, which was probably still not enough to justify the food cost. The plates that went out, however, looked and tasted as good as the stuff coming out of that fine dining restaurant I trailed at. They could easily have fetched ten dollars more at a restaurant whose service, decor, and reputation matched the quality of the food. I don't think we'll ever do fine dining, but we served food on a higher level last night, and I couldn't be more proud.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Day of Chocolate

I had two great chocolate successes yesterday: bacon-chocolate truffles and emulsified hot chocolate.

The bacon truffles I made at work by steeping two strips of diced cooked bacon in the cream from a normal truffle recipe. They came out beautifully balanced, delivering both bacon and chocolate flavors in a way that really made the eater think about how those two play together.

Emulsified hot chocolate started as a concept because I wanted to serve hot chocolate to a vegan. In retrospect, just melting chocolate into enough water probably works fine, but I was drunk and thought instead of the old 'chocolate and water are enemies' maxim. Of course, that maxim made me think of Heston Blumenthol's Chocolate Mousse, made of chocolate and water. In the end, I decided to think of making the hot chocolate as making a fat in water emulsion for something like salad dressing or mayonnaise. I first melted some bittersweet chocolate, then added hot water a drop at a time. At first the chocolate did seem to sort of 'seize,' getting dry and clumped very quickly, but as I added more water, it turned fluid again. In the end, I got a perfectly smooth drink and my friends were presumably duly impressed by the process (and by the amount of time it took me to make a few cups of hot chocolate).

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bean Stews

The rustic nature of bean stews can keep me from making them when I'm consciously trying to produce food that is more challenging, technical, refined, or whatever. Luckily, the other day I needed lunch and my limited pantry was not inspiring elevated cooking, so I somewhat reluctantly prepared a bean stew. The result was one of the most complex soups I've ever had, and though I'm just a hair ashamed to be proud of it, that's not stopping me. Each bite offered a different flavor profile than the one before, as if the soup were constantly changing in the bowl. A few days ago, a coworker and I were talking about a dish of hers from our current menu that I am quite taken with. She said that it had been called one-dimensional or something like that, and I replied by saying (only half-jokingly) that we weren't good enough to cook in any more dimensions than one. Funny how this soup accidentally proved me wrong.

Ever-Changing Bean & Mustard Soup

Simmer onions, garlic, canned tomatoes, dried tomatoes, cannellini beans, pinto beans, bay leaves, and fennel seeds in water to cover. The idea is to make the beans creamy if they are not already, cook the onion and garlic, and leach the flavors of the bay leaves and fennel seeds into the soup. Fish out the bay leaves. Stir in steamed kale. Add water or reduce the soup for consistency - it should have some loose liquid, but not a huge amount. Season with black pepper and salt. Stir in a (TINY!) bit of Dijon mustard and some minced sage. Check seasoning and balance. No flavor should dominate the others.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Breads Breads and Pretzels

Finally made use of the ready-to-go dough by fermenting it overnight and then baking some pretty decent rolls this morning. I feel like the dough held up quite well in the fridge. The outside of the dough ball oxidized despite being coated in oil, but the rolls had great wheat flavor and decent texture in the end.

In other news, starting a pretzel experiment right now