Sunday, May 8, 2016

From Loaves And Fishes to Vapors And Foams

 Most of you are familiar with the Biblical passage of Matthew 14:13-21, the one that tells the story of Jesus’ retreat to a distant and isolated area off the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Though he went there seeking solace to mourn the beheading of his friend and mentor, John the Baptist, throngs of people followed him.  His reputation for healing the sick and ailing preceded him. 
     So it was, after a long day of prayers, blessings and laying of hands, Jesus, his disciples and the 5,000 followers, were, of course, hungry.  Out of genuine concern one of the disciples suggested, since it was getting late, perhaps it would be a good idea to send the people away so they could go home or into the village for something to eat.  “That is not necessary - you feed them,” replied Jesus.  This response was met with reactions like; “But Jesus, we don’t have that much,” (I’m paraphrasing) “Hey man, we have only five loaves of bread and two fish here!”  They continued to moan, “That’s barely enough for our own supper!” 
Jesus sighs, somewhat exasperated, and calmly directs his brethren to bring the sparsely filled basket to him. 
After casting his eyes to the Heavens, reciting a few prayers and bringing blessings upon the scant meal, Jesus divided the contents of the basket into twelve pieces and told his followers to continue breaking the bread and distribute it among the crowd, along with the fish.  Still somewhat leery, but trusting Jesus, the disciples did as they were told.  As they moved among the crowd, from person to person, the twelve were stunned to see there was indeed enough, actually more than enough.  For after dispersing the original five loaves of bread and two fish through the immense crowd and enjoying their own servings, everyone’s stomachs were filled to satisfaction, all 5,000 men, women, children and the disciples themselves.
     While I won’t go into the many lessons of the story, I would like to consider the dichotomy of it as compared to one of our current day Modernist Cuisines; Molecular Gastronomy.  If you are not already familiar, this type of cuisine offers sophisticated diners a blend of physics and chemistry on their plates, along with visual feats not commonly obtained with edible ingredients.  Not unlike the meal partaken by Jesus, his disciples and the swarming crowd, the servings are small yet evoke exhilaration and excitement.  It’s true, good ingredients can do jitterbugs, jives and cha chas in your mouth, and when the dance is over, we are joyful and satisfied. 
     Akin to what Jesus did that wondrous evening, chefs are pushing the food envelope (or basket) by applying the mystery of science to food in such a way they succeed in springing surprise and delight to our palates by way of transparent ravioli, clear canapés or even air-laced essence of fruits and vegetables for their followers.  Though we usually view Jesus’ actions as miracles rather than science experiments, we can be no less impressed with this seemingly new fandangled approach to preparing and serving food. 
In its purest definition, Molecular Gastronomy is the science that studies the physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking.  I always get a kick out of asking my younger students how we can
change a liquid into solid.  The usual response is “by putting in the refrigerator or freezer” – water to ice.  Then I ask; “and to change a solid into a liquid?”  That answer comes as,” over fire or heat, to melt it down.”
  “So then,” I continue with a raised eyebrow, “ how is it that liquid cake batter comes together as an edible solid when we’ve subjected it the heat of an oven for 25-35 minutes? Certainly none of you have baked a cake in the freezer, right?”  Silence.
     Requiring a balance of the left and right sides of the brain, chefs who embrace this style of food preparation employ the science of a laboratory with the art of culinary concoctions in the kitchen.  In the case of Jesus and the 5,000, the fish was likely caught in the nearby sea and the flat bread hand-kneaded and pounded then baked by, well . . . anyone in the crowd.  No fancy names or dollar signs were assigned to the meal they shared that evening on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  As for today’s Modernist Cuisine, likely there will be more than a few dollar signs on your menu.  And while your meal may start out with a line dropped into the ocean to catch the fish, that fillet will then be seasoned, cooked, pureed and shaped or manipulated.  From there who knows.  The chef may add some liquid nitrogen or use a whipping siphon to create a wispy, cloud-like sphere of halibut artfully framed with golden droplets of a mustard, thyme and caper sauce.  The sphere precariously set atop a miniature cake platter on a stark white plate with swirls of vapor encircling the masterpiece.  When brought to your table, you wait and watch as the vapor fades and then . . . dig in. 
A lovely depiction of edible Vapor c/o Pinterest
     If you’ve ever taken one of my cooking classes, you know I love food history.  (I’d like to mention the fact that “set” foams have been around since the 1700’s, in the form of meringues and mousses.)   I am forever intrigued by the changes and evolution our food takes in taste, form and function.  How far we’ve come from Chex Party Mix, Chicken a la King and Shrimp Cheese Balls.  Remember those green Jell-o molds?  Whenever I saw one in the refrigerator, which wasn’t often in my family, I would stand aghast at the suspended bits of fruit cocktail that ran throughout.  Now we have edible foam, vapors and essences, presented as entrees or side dishes built to vertical heights in near perilous arrangements which we eagerly dismantle.  On rare occasions I’ve stated something was actually too pretty to eat. 
Again, care of Pinterest - there are so many edible experiments out there for you to try!
     So just how long does the flavor of a good foam last on your tongue?  Only a moment, but with an honest appreciation of the artistry, your anticipation of the taste and wonderment of texture, when you finally spoon the airy concoction into your mouth, you realize that moment in time, though brief, was a worthwhile one.  If that particular epicurean experience wasn’t on your Bucket List, you'll add it as soon as you get home.  That dismay I felt as a child, standing in the gaping door of the refrigerator looking at Frankenstein-like Jell-o molds has given way to admiration and joy.  Especially when the flavors of a gelatinous rhombus of mango or icy garden peas assembled like a string of green pearls swirled in a Yin-Yang pattern around a comet of  compound butter leave the tines of my fork then bursts with an unexpected pop against my taste buds.  It’s magical. 
I can do Jell-O shots but still can't bring myself to eat this.
     Don’t get me wrong, there isn’t a chef among us who would balk at a simply and well prepared, freshly caught fish, served with a chunk of homemade bread dipped in olive oil, as Jesus and his followers did that day. 
      But the strides and creative experimentation associated with Molecular Gastronomy is mind blowing.  I refer you to Twist by Chef Pierre Gagnaire.  Located on the Las Vegas Strip, Chef has made a name for himself with creations such as Japanese Potato Foam, Gin Jell-O and Grape gelee.  Or é by Chef José Andrés.   This restaurant located in The Cosmopolitan serves its guests mercurial dishes such as Skate fish with Truffle Air (foam), their take on the empanada; a fois gras cotton candy gyoza.  A friend recently recommended I try the Beet Gazpacho.  Evidently, it’s not your average bowl of cold tomato and vegetable soup.  The menu items tend to be fluid, with the chefs taking into consideration seasonal foods and ingredients but one item you’ll not want to miss is their Sangria.  A “twist” on a cocktail in the form of those lovely, icy dipping dots, arranged in your glass in such a way, that you don’t eat it rather you savor each “sip” with a small tasting spoon.
     While Molecular Gastronomy cuisine tends to be light and served in small portions, many of the restaurants who brave the offering have multi-course meals, so you leave with a sense of immense satisfaction and perhaps some pride at your courage to try something so different and innovative.

Recipe for Salmon Mousse

16 ounces of smoked salmon or left-over cooked salmon    
*Additional smoked salmon pieces for wrapping/draping if desired    
16 ounces of cream cheese – softened                        1 teaspoon fresh dill + extra sprigs for garnish
juice and zest of 2-3 lemons                                        Salt and pepper to taste                                             1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper                                      ¼ cup brandy
1-2 tablespoons heavy cream                                       1 small jar of salmon roe or other caviar

Place cooked, chilled salmon into bowl of food processor.  Make sure there are NO pin bones or other inedible parts to your fish prior to putting it into mixing bowl.
Add cream cheese, 1 teaspoon of fresh dill, salt, pepper, juice and zest of 2 lemons, cayenne pepper, heavy cream and half of the brandy.  Blend ingredients together until a smooth paste is formed.  Taste to adjust seasoning to your liking.  If you need more salt, pepper, lemon or dill, add it.
If mousse is too thick add remaining brandy to thin slightly.  But remember, you want a consistency that can molded or spooned into individually shaped servings.Once mousse taste exactly how you want it, you may:

       A)Spoon into individual ramekins – then garnish with salmon roe, caviar and/or fresh dill
        B)Spread into a fish shaped mold that has been lined with plastic wrap for easy removal from mold
        C)Shaped into rounded mounds then wrapped with remaining smoked salmon pieces
        D)Spoon into a piping bag and pipe onto top of cucumber slices
           E) Spoon onto triangles of toasted bread 
Individual salmon mousse mounds draped with smoked salmon trimmings.

Thank you Sur La Table - my home away from home. 

A molded mousse.  Hello Happy-Weird looking Fish? 1955 called and they want their decorative accents back. 

Most simple of all - salmon mousse piped onto cucumber slices and garnished with caviar.  My favourite!!

*By the way Food Friends - I will be leaving for my Culinary Adventure to Italy this week.  Please follow me and Nancy as we walk along the Franciscan Trail raising awareness and hopefully money for Alzheimer's disease.  I'll be sharing more recipes and sharing our experiences.  Go to  You can help the cause by visiting our funding site at <>