I will not abandon this blog

Wow...It has been a long time since I wrote anything.  What a slacker I am, right?


So much has happened.  Shortly after my last post, I walked into the kitchen of one of Charlotte, NC's fine dining restaurants and asked to work for free.  Six months later, I'm on salary and helping to run the kitchen.

I took a break from the restaurant 4 months in and toured Europe and Israel this summer.  I ate ridiculous food that inspired me.  I cooked a little (I had loads of fun finding ways to get a friend's daughters help me prepare meals).

In any case, this post has little substance except for a promise not to abandon it.   I need an outlet.  The pressure of cooking professionally has been intense, so letting out some frustrations and sketching ideas should help. And, even if I don't have as much time to put my ideas into practice or to practice the ideas of the masters, I won't abandon this blog; I want it to be a helpful tool.


So,  I'll try to write something at least a few times a week.  Could be a new recipe, an experiment, a copy, scenes from the kitchen, self-doubts (there are many) or encouragement (also many of these).


Dinner 02-12-2012

Monkfish was being sold at the grocery story.  That meant opportunity to try this (as it turns out) slightly sweet, mild, and meaty fish.   Not knowing about it, I turned to Thomas Keller for guidance.

The French Laundry Cookbook has a dish pairing the fish with a braised beef cut (oxtails).  Wow...fish and a rich braise.  This must be some fish, I thought.  Sure enough, it really holds its ground and pairs well with the sauce.  A lot of earthy flavors in this dish, with the salsify (another new ingredient for me), and porcini mushrooms.  All in all, pretty easy to do, and worth the effort since I had a lot of sauce left over and enough fish for a second meal.

I also have been trying to play with sugar decor.  I haven't gotten the results that I wanted (not pictured), but I did something simple, which you can see above.  This is simply a caramel drizzled onto a silpat in a pattern and then folded over on itself.

I whipped up a simple chocolate cookie wafer and had some pistachio gelato in the freezer, which I framed with the caramel decoration.  Fun stuff.


Making use of gelatin.  100 grams Sugar and 30 grams corn syrup melted with 15 ml water and 6 grams of gelatin.  Then whipped until fluffy and dusted with powdered sugar and corn starch.

Gelatin Conversion Factors

One of the things I'm frequently having to do is figure out how much gelatin to use to get some effect.  Complicating this is that gelatin comes in different bloom strengths, which correspond to their setting power.  Many recipes implicitly are based on "silver" strength gelatin.  I believe the powdered stuff you can get in the grocery store is silver gelatin.

If you have a gelatin of a certain strength and need to know how much to multiply the amount in a recipe calling for a different strength, you need to use a little formula to convert:

M_b = M_a * (B_a/B_b)

Where M represents mass, B is bloom strength, the b subscript the bloom strength you want to convert to and a subscript the one you are called to use.

To simplify this, I made a table of conversion factors, since the ratio of bloom strengths doesn't change, but the masses do.  To use this table, multiply the mass of the original amount of gelatin by the conversion factors below  to get the mass of the gelatin you want to use.  First, choose the row.  This is the strength of gelatin you want to convert from.  Then, go right across the columns to find the gelatin strength you're converting to.

Name (Bloom) Bronze (125-155) Silver (160) Gold (190-220) Platinum (235-265)
Bronze (125-155) -- 0.96 0.65 0.53
Silver (160) 1.28 -- 0.84 0.68
Gold (190-220) 1.52 1.18 -- 0.81
Platinum (235-265) 1.88 1.47 1.2 --

For example, suppose I have a recipe calling for 21 grams of Platinum strength gelatin, but I have Silver strength.  To find out how much gelatin I need, I find platinum on the left most column, then I move across the table to find silver.  The gelatin conversion factor is 1.47.  Amount I need is equal to 1.47 times 21.  I need 30 grams of silver strength gelatin.

Occasionally you'll see the bloom strength given directly.  Then you can use the formula above.

Also, you may see sheets of gelatin rather than weights.  In this case, use the table below to calculate the amount of gelatin per sheet.

Strength                  g/sheet
Bronze (125-155) 3.3
Silver (160) 2.5
Gold (190-220) 2
Platinum (235-265) 1.7

I'd like to thank Martin Lersch of khymos.org for publishing a guide to hydrocolloids.  Please visit his site.


Prune, Blue Cheese, Preserved Meyer Lemon

While working with the blue cheese, I thought I felt something "pruney" about it.   I happened to have a jar of prune juice  waiting for use.

I mixed 250 grams prune juice with a 100 gram simple syrup and 8 grams of methylcellulose (F450).  One of methylcelluloses' neat tricks is that you can make heat stable foams out of them, which I did.  You simply whip as you would if you were making a meringue.

I then dehydrated piped puffs of MC-prune juice mixture until they were crispy.

To incorporate the blue cheese, I used the left over Carrageenan mixture  from the toasted walnut oil experiment (see previous pictures).  One of kappa carrageenan's neat properties is that it will release its liquid when agitated (syneresis).  So, I blended my left over blue cheese custard, pressed through a chinois twice, and and filled the prune juice puffs with a smooth "blue cheese pudding"

To add another dimension I broke into one of my jars of preserved meyer lemons and sliced a piece thinly.

You get a burst of intense salty-citrus flavor right off the bat.  This seems to come from nowhere, as though it burst through out of nothingness.  Then, crispy crunching and sweetness from the prune, which disappears very quickly.  This disappearing act is one of the nice features of the methylcellulose "meringues." And slowly mingling and then shining through is the piquancy and saltiness of the blue cheese.

A nice experience, and sure to be refined in the future.  Any ideas?


Walnut Oil and Danish Blue

I spent part of today working on an idea that came to me while falling asleep last night.  This is destined to be a component rather than a main ingredient.  Its hard to recall exactly the train of thought, but I was thinking about yogurt covered raisins at first.

In my first attempt I used the following proportions:

Walnut Oil Pebbles:Tapioca Maltodextrin at 100:24

Milk:Blue Cheese:Kappa Carrageenan at 100:20:1

There were two problems I needed to deal with.  First, the walnut oil pebbles did not crisp in the pan, but would stick and lose outer layers of malto.  Second, when coated with the blue cheese mixture, the malto balls would simply release the oil and melt away.

I tried increasing the ratio malto to 40%.  This worked much better when heating the malto balls.  They held together much nicer, and started to brown a bit.  I'm still having trouble getting a blue cheese coating, however, since the malto would absorb the extra liquid before the kappa had a chance to set.

Ok, maybe I need to make the malto balls crispier by heating over higher heat.  This seemed to form a protective shell around the balls.  This worked a little better.

Still more playing needs to be done.  I'd like a firmer set, so I may mix in iota carrageenan and/or locust bean gum.  Also, I don't like handling the malto balls because they're quite fragile, so I think I'll try to crisp them in a hot oven next time.

The ratio in the end was this, which still needs to be tinkered with:

Walnut Oil:Tapioca Maltodextrin at 100:40
Milk:Blue Cheese:Carrageenan (Kappa:Iota):Locust Bean Gum at 100:10:1 (50:50):1

Tasting notes: the crispy exterior of the maltodextrin gave way to a creamy toasted walnut flavor.  Of course this works well with blue cheese, which was only hinted at, but that should be able to be rectified in future iterations of this.


When we lived in Houston, we had the fortune of living around the corner from a great little (I do mean little) bagel shop.  They made bagels fresh every day, and many days the line would double over itself and go out the door.  Standing room only.  

Well, since we moved to the Davidson/Charlotte area we haven't had really good bagels.  As with many things these days, I thought, "why not make them myself?"  The recipe came from the CIA's textbook, so that's handy

A jar of diastatic malt syrup (diastase enzymes FTW), and a quick trip to the grocery store for garnishes got me all set to go.

Bagels are garnished with minced onion & garlic, salt, sesame seed, fennel seed, caraway seed, and poppy seed.  With smoked salmon, thinly sliced red onion, capers, and cream cheese.

Coq au Vin

Another post involving a braise.  This time its the classic Coq au Vin.  Braises are great because they create a warming rich sauce packed with flavor.  This one has wine and stock as its base.   I'm not going to say much about this because there are 1001 recipes online.

My chicken was served with potato puree (just how much butter can YOU pack into a pound of potatoes?), halved baby carrots, and haricots vert, both blanched in salted water, and sauteed mushrooms.

The only thing I'll mention is that I was happy with my technique on this one.  Fluting mushrooms is much easier.  Also, I'm always happy when vegetables are cooked properly.  I hate under/over cooked veggies.  I don't know why, but it really makes me sad to see poorly cooked veg.

Dinner 01-20-2012

Roasted beet  salad, marinated in grapefruit juice and red wine vinegar, with chopped tarragon, chives, shaved red onion, and a drizzle of olive oil.  Sweet and refreshing as always. 


I think braising is my favorite technique. Makes a great sauce, and tenderizes cheap, tough cuts of meat. Beef short ribs pan seared then braised. Braising liquid starts with sweated bell pepper, jalepeno, onions, garlic. Then added san marzano tomatoes, tomato paste, 2 cups of strong coffee. Sauce is finished with a cup of unsweetened chocolate. Garnished with chopped cilantro.

This dish was great.  I like things that really concentrate their effects on the nose rather than fooling you into thinking tastes are on the palate. The coffee and chocolate give this dish a mysterious aroma  that pairs extremely well with the browned meat.  The red bell pepper you don't taste directly, but I think it adds a very subtle sweet highlight, which accentuates the chocolate aroma.  The cilantro and jalapeno give this dish an earthy/spicy balance.

Gateaux aux amandes. So tender and light in texture. Elegant flavor of almond. Served with a spoonful of a strawberry-rhubarb compote like thing, and whipped cream (siphon method).


I do love to make (and eat, of course) desserts.

Merveilleux, a French confection. Two sweet meringue cookies with a layer of chocolate mousse, then covered with vanilla flavored whipped cream and shavings of chocolate.

Start by forming a french meringue.  I used two egg whites, a quarter teaspoon of citric acid, and about 200 grams of sugar.  In the mixer, I whipped the eggs and acid to a froth, then added the sugar all at once.    I then let the mixer go on high speed until stiff peaks.  Once the meringue reaches the right consistency, I put it into a piping back with a 1 cm plain tip.  

The whipped cream is made in similar fashion, but no acid.  I put a cup of heavy cream with a half teaspoon of vanilla extract and maybe a third of a cup of sugar.  I let this whip until stiff peaks as well.

The chocolate mousse I made by melting chocolate in a steel bowl over a saucepan with simmering water.  I added some cream and whipped like mad over an ice bath.  

Now that the components are made, time to bake.  The meringues were piped into 4 cm disks on parchment paper and baked at 195 F (90 C) for 1 hour, then 185 F (85 C) for another hour. I cut one open to make sure the centers were baked through.  If not (mine were not since I made them a little thick), bake for 10-20 minutes more.  Let cool completely

To finish, I spread chocolate mousse on one disk and placed another disk on top.  I covered the meringue sandwich with whipped cream using an offset spatula.  Finally, roll in chocolate shavings.  



Sometimes inspiration comes from areas far outside one's area of study (in my mind we are all students in one way or another).  I just wanted to share a couple of things that have been on my mind.

First, a post from The Incidental Economist on what it means to be a professional (something I've thought about as I try to reconcile multiple definitions of the term "chef"):

My views on professionalism are highly influenced by Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go, by Toshiro Kageyama (1978). Kageyama was a professional Go player who reached 7-dan in 1977.
Each spring sees the opening of another baseball season. This is one of my favorite spectator sports, but every year there is one thing that bothers me about it. That is the way that semi-professional, university, and sometimes even high-school stars enter the [Japanese] professional leagues and immediately display a skill that puts their veteran teammates to shame. There hardly seems to be any difference at all between amateurs and professionals. Amateurs play for pure enjoyment, while professionals play to make a living. The difference between them ought to be much greater.
In every confrontation with a real American professional team it seems that what we need to learn from them, besides their technique of course, is how uniformly faithful their players are to the fundamentals. Faithfulness to fundamentals seems to be a common thread linking professionalism in all areas. If we consider the American professionals as the real professionals in baseball [circa 1978], then I think we have to consider their Japanese counterparts, who tend to pass over the fundamentals, as nothing more than advanced amateurs.
The reason for the lack of polish in Japanese baseball is probably just the short history it has in this country. [...] I feel certain that no racial physical inferiority consigns us to second place. [...]
A professional has undergone elite training in competition from childhood; [...] His mental, physical, and emotional strength all have to be fully developed. If  he lets up anywhere, it will show in his performance. [...]
No professional regrets the time he has to spend studying. [...]
Professionals do this unquestioningly. Even a gemstone has to be polished. ‘A man is always moving either forward or backward,’ says Kano, 9-dan. ‘He never stands still.’ [...]
[T]he fundamentals have to be handled subconsciously. For example, if you watch the way a star infielder moves in baseball, you will observe that no matter how difficult the bounce or how hard the line drive, he meets it frontally, faithfully following the fundamentals. The ball comes at him in a fraction of a second. The question is not how well he understands the fundamentals intellectually, but whether or not his body can respond instantly. What you are seeing is the result of long days of practice and effort. [...]
You have to soak up the fundamentals as you practice on your own, studying them until they become part of your very being. If the fundamentals do not operate subconsciously [...] you have not mastered them yet.
And so it is, in baseball, Go, and all things. I think of these words often when I observe the pinnacle of performance in any field and when I see amateurs striving for professional-level performance.
Second,  a post from John Cook, a programmer based in Houston (I think):

From The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
Now listen to the rule of the last inch. The realm of the last inch. The job is almost finished, the goal almost attained, everything possible seems to have been achieved, every difficulty overcome — and yet the quality is just not there. The work needs more finish, perhaps further research. In that moment of weariness and self-satisfaction, the temptation is greatest to give up, not to strive for the peak of quality. That’s the realm of the last inch — here, the work is very, very complex, but it’s also particularly valuable because it’s done with the most perfect means. The rule of the last inch is simply this — not to leave it undone. And not to put it off — because otherwise your mind loses touch with that realm. And not to mind how much time you spend on it, because the aim is not to finish the job quickly, but to reach perfection.
It can be hard to know when something deserves the kind of polish Solzhenitsyn talks about. Sometimes you’re in the realm of rapidly diminishing return and it’s time to move on. Other times, the finishing touches are everything.
I like both of these posts because they deal with something I struggle with daily and seem to fit nicely together.  At the start of any endeavor, you must struggle with the fundamentals by learning to accomplish the most basic tasks with excellence.  You also must push your boundaries and get that extra 1-3% of refinement.  That extra push at the end that is referred to in John Cook's post is a moving target.  As a novice you learn fundamentals and the last inch is about something different than if you're Thomas Keller and at the top of the game.   While the same terms may apply (finesse, refinement, ???), the first post addresses that it isn't until that last inch towards unconscious skill at a task is achieved that you have a new last inch to push towards.

Olive Oil Gel

It has been a while since I've written anything in this space.  It isn't that I've been completely inactive, just lazy about updating the blog.  There is some catching up to do.  Regular posting commences...now.

One of the things I'm committing to is work on creating new dishes.  To this end, I started a tastes diary of sorts where I write down ideas for things that I come across by accident (soy sauce/toasted walnut oil, granny smith apple/roasted garlic/white chocolate...etc.) and tastes I enjoy in dishes I've attempted.

As a further step in this development is learning to create new textures and flavor combinations with techniques I have learned.  That is what is below, as a test.  

I took some olive oil and made a gel out of it.  This isn't an invention of mine, but something I wanted to add to my repertoire. It is really quite easy, if you've made gelatin before.  I made a couple of shapes.  First were cubes, which I think mimic croutons.  Second, I made a thin sheet, which I then cut up into strips and rolled. 

The manipulation of ingredients into different textures and shapes often brings excitement to a plate.  I've experienced this.  I'm not sure why, but these sorts of things do have an effect on the taste.  At least a partial explanation might be that we (I, at least) pay more attention to the taste of the food when it is presented in an unusual way.  Whereas something like olive oil might pass nearly unnoticed, the fruity mouth coating deliciousness of a piece of this gel is quite prominent.  The gel helps, too, keeping the oil on the palate for a longer period of time. (As a side note, interesting research into this topic.)

I'm looking forward to refinement and learning how to make more components of dishes like this.  Time to let the creative juices flow.

water 100 ml
glucose 25g
sugar 80g
isomalt 100g
olive oil 200 ml
5 sheets gelatin (silver strength, so I think I used about 15 grams)

1. heat/dissolve sugar, glucose, isomalt in the water
2. At around 90C, add in bloomed gelatin
3. Add olive oil and blitz in blender/immersion blender/food processor
4. Pour & set

(Recipe adapted from khymos.org)