Archive | June, 2012

A new discovery?

30 Jun

Another great week has passed. Unlike the two weeks before, I only worked at Alicia until Wednesday, as I fell pretty ill on Wednesday night. I am still sick, but I am recovering slowly, relaxing and drinking tons of water. Despite my illness, this was probably the best week yet. After spending the weekend together with the other interns in Costa Brava, I returned to work full of energy (and pretty sunburned). I am really getting to know the people at Alicia, and I am becoming more and more accustomed to the working environment. As my Spanish is improving, I am able to communicate more clearly with the senior chefs and scientists as well as with my co-workers, though most of the current communication happens somewhere in the intersection between Spanish and English – that is, Spanglish.

Yet, my Spanish communication skills have improved significantly since I arrived. Together with my increasing gastronomic knowledge, this allowed me to inform my supervisors about an interesting observation that I made on Wednesday.  As I mentioned earlier, testing recipes is a part of my work editing the gastronomic lexicon. One of these recipes was an “herb sauce” made from pure mint juice and a thickening agent, locust bean gum. The recipe was successful and produced a very refreshing sauce with a relatively high viscosity. After the product was approved by my supervisor, I decided to try to mix some of the fresh sauce with cold water to drink. Dropping small amounts of the mint sauce into the ice-cold water, I discovered something incredibly interesting. As soon as the liquid entered the water, it formed small, solid, spheric bodies. These bodies floated in the water and could be moved around freely without any changes in texture. Surprised by this observation, I decided to drink the water, expecting to encounter a mint “solid” while drinking.

While I was drinking, however, I could feel no texture. In fact, the “solid” bodies seemed to explode as soon as they reached my mouth, leaving only an incredibly fresh mint flavor. This was confirmed when I tried to remove the “bodies” from the water and it did not work. As soon as the bodies were removed, they became the viscous mint sauce they were before entering the water. I immediately consulted my supervisor, a food scientist who was one of the people behind the cutting-edge creations of El Bulli. When I explained to her what I had seen, she did not believe me, as the viscous mint sauce should normally dissolve in liquids. To prove my point, I showed her the process. She was surprised, and called other scientists to come observe what just had happened. After an intense conversation in Catalan – none of which I understood – it became clear that no one could explain what had happened. The scientists decided to sit down and work on a proof.

Meanwhile, I decided to test if the same process worked in liquids with different properties, such as pH, salt concentrations, etc. Here is the result (The proof is currently work in progress):

In cold water; the time of discovery.

It worked in Bacardi, 37.5 % alcohol

It worked in pure vinegar, very low pH.

It worked in olive oil.

It did now work in Soy Sauce

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Artisan adventures: a small expedition to Northern Catalunya

30 Jun

Artisan adventures: a small expedition to the North of Catalunya

On Wednesday I and 7 other interns headed up to Northern Cataluna to explore the culinary treasures of Olot, a small town situated amid sleeping volcanoes. The trip was partly an occasion to say bye to David – a chef and historian who has been working at Alicia for the past month and who lives near Olot. Although I got very sick towards the end of the small expedition, I really enjoyed myself and was thrilled to witness the pure catalan authenticity and thriving artisans that can be found in the most surprising places.

Below is a small photo story from the trip.

L’hostalet, the village where David lives, is a small, sleepy village, where the 200 inhabitants all know each other; a town where a 2-meter tall Swede is a certain peculiarity. Working in his parents traditional catalonian restaurant on the weekend, David gets to witness the moments when his village wakes up, as people from all across Catalunya and Spain come to observe and enjoy the many culinary treasures of this small pearl.

And it is probably the tourism that allows artisans like this baker to survive only from baking bread the way it has been done for centuries. The bread – juicy, tangy and crispy from the long fermentation process – is prepared in a traditional stone oven and is sold to everyone from next-door neighbors to Swedish tourists like me. We got a tour of the small bakery that is located on the first floor of an old stone building. The temperature inside reflected more that of a coal mine than a bakery; it was clear that no one but the baker himself has evolved in accordance with the wood-fire oven and the heat therein.

The fertile volcanic soil and the mountain climate of this region of Catalunya makes it an ideal place to grow corn. And corn they grow. I guess that I have to make a corn-analogy, because I am Carleton student. Here it is: It was almost like being in an exotic, interesting and mountainous Midwest. Or not… I guess the only similarity is the corn.

After some sightseeing, we jumped in to the car and headed towards Olot. Five minutes outside the volcanic city we met a family that runs an artisan sausage business. The family, very proud of their product, oversees the entire production process and makes sausages from around 1000 pigs a year. Even though 1000 pigs might sound like a large number for a small farm, it is miniscule relative to other farms in the region. That the region is famous for its meat came as no surprise when I found out that around hundreds of thousands of pigs become sausage each year, being exported to Japan, China and Russia. The farm was cute and the family was nice. However, the pigs did not seem very happy. Not a surprise, considering that more than 15 pigs had to live in an area smaller than 3 x 3 meters. We stayed at this place for more than an hour, and this left a few of us incredibly frustrated and tired . I still don’t understand what was so fascinating about making sausage from pigs.

Driving down a dark, winding road, we eventually arrived at another small farm. Sleeping in the car, I was woken up by a loudly barking dog, and immediately realized that we had arrived at a place that had something to do with sheep. Indeed we had. The last stop before dinner was a small goat-and sheep cheese farm run by a woman in her 70’s. We got a small tour of the production area and got to taste two kinds of aged cheeses; sheep’s and goat’s cheese. My favorite was the sheep’s cheese. At this point, I was so tired and hungry that I did not enjoy myself that much. We bought the cheese and headed and drove to a very special location in Olot, where we enjoyed the ingredients we had purchased: the sausage, the cheese, the bread, and some tomatoes and local white beans that David picked up at his parent’s restaurant. Right as we were about to eat, I got a fever, shaking vigorously.  As you might understand, I did not enjoy this part of the trip quite as much. Quite frankly, I don’t remember much either. However, taken as a whole, the trip was a great expedition. It was yet another taste of the richness that Catalunya has to offer.

Catalan Cuisine: Baccalao con Xamfaina (recipe by Angel Castel Roqueta)

30 Jun

Of those sacred recipes that Angel carries from generations of his family, one recipe might be extra special: the traditional catalan dish “Baccalao con Xamfaina.” Below is Angel’s own rendition on this catalan classic. Even though it is very similar to the original recipe, Angel’s recipe calls for more finely diced vegetables and does not include eggplant. Baccalao con Xamfaina is ubiquitous in Catalonia, as you can find it at almost any decent-sized restaurant along the coast. Yet, Angel’s version is probably the best dish I have eaten during my visit to Spain.

 

Baccalao con Xamfaina

4 servings

You need:

1.5 Onion, finely chopped

5 tbsp olive oil

1 clove garlic, sliced

1/2 red pepper, chopped

2 green peppers, chopped

6 tomatoes, seeds removed, diced and drained

1 squash, finely chopped

2 tsp salt

pepper to tase

1 tbsp sugar

3-4 cod filets, with spines

 

1. Heat up olive oil in a pan, and add onion and garlic. Medium heat.

 

2. Cook until light brown, and add green pepper

3. Add red pepper after 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper

4. Leave until cooked (5-8 mins) and add squash. Cook for 7 mins, stirring occasionally.

6. Add tomatoes and sugar. Stir and leave on low heat for 20 minutes.

7. When done,

 

Fish + emulsion

1. Remove spines from filet and drain on absorbent paper. Drain filet on absorbent paper.

2. Heat up 1/2 cup olive oil in a pan, medium/low heat. Make sure it does not smoke. There should be enough oil to cover the fish.

3. Cook the fish “sous-vide” and make sure that the gelatin from the cod disperses into the oil

4. When the fish is soft and cooked (around 5 mins), put aside and remove skin if necessary

5. Add the spine pieces to the olive oil and leave for around 5 minutes to extract the gelatin from the spines.

6. Cool down oil to around 36 degrees Celsius and emulsify (mix) using a handblender. When the desired texture is achieved, add 1/4 of the vegetable mix previously prepared and blend using a handblender. Then, add half of this mixture to the vegetable mix and mix properly.

7. Add the cod filets to the sauce and serve over spanish rice.

 

Some pictures…

25 Jun

Profile: Angel Castel Roqueta

21 Jun

Angel is one of 8 interns at Alicia this summer.

Considering that Angel was born and grew up in the gastronomic paradise of Girona, I was not surprised when I got to witness magic that this young aspiring catalan chef brings to the kitchen. Angel grew up in a home where much emphasis was placed on traditional catalan food; a home where his grandmother would embrace the traditional catalan recipes kept within the family for generations. Angel remembers: “during Christmas, the family always got together and cooked escudella – a traditional broth made with a myriad of ingredients, including carrot, ribs, lamb, pork and potatoes.”

His first own dish, however, was a lot simpler than a special broth that requires 3 hours of careful preparation. At 8 years of age, he decided to take charge of the brunyols (a form of Spanish doughnuts) during Easter, and he was surprised by the stunning result. “This is when I first realized how much I love cooking,” he says. Even though he started light, he quickly learned more advanced recipes, including baccalao xamfaina and catalan hamburgers.

It was not until he discovered Ferran Adria things became real. At 12 years of age, he started to see cooking through an entirely new set of prisms. After hearing about El Bulli, he became obsessed with Ferran Adria’s philosophy and techniques, and started teaching himself new skills. “Ferran Adria has remained my greatest role model ever since,” says Angel smiling.

This obsession led him to enroll at a 4-year gastronomy program at Escuela de Hosteleria de Girona shortly after he graduated from high school. The university, which is considered one of the best public culinary schools, has produced legendary chefs such as the Roca brothers and March Puig Pey – the pastry chef of El Bulli for 17 years.

Angel is just about to start his last year at the institution, and in retrospect, it is clear to Angel that “a combination of the school’s venerability and my own hard work brought me to where I am today.” As such, the rising catalan chef had the opportunity to work in several great restaurants. Among them are the Michelin star restaurants Restaurant Massana in Girona, l’hostellerie de la pomarede in France, and Can Jubany in Barcelona. While Angel has many rewarding (and frightening) experiences from the restaurant business, the experience at Can Jubany was the most meaningful. Not only did Angel learn a whole lot at this restaurant, but it also happened to be his way in to Fundacion Alicia.

Through his obsession with Ferran Adria, Angel had naturally gotten to know Fundacion Alicia. In his own words, “working for the foundation was my goal for a long time, but I never really found a way in.” At Can Jubany, however, Angel got to know two people who had worked for Alicia. Suddenly, Angel found himself in San Frugos the Bages developing products for a big Spanish enterprise.

For him, Alicia is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. “To me, it is amazing to be at the only center in the world where top food scientists and cooks come together and learn from one another,” he says. He adds: “I am honored to be at Alicia, as I get to work some of the world’s best food scientists and chefs. For someone who is passionate about food, Alicia is amazing. Not only does Alicia have some great names behind it (Ferran Adria, Joan Roca, to mention a few), but the interdisciplinary and creative environment is incredibly stimulating; it is nothing like a restaurant, where time is as scarce as stress is ubiquitous.” The best part? “If I have a question, there is ALWAYS an answer.”

Angel is working at the foundation for the same amount of time as I am. According to Angel himself, this is not enough.  After graduation, he hopes to return to Alicia for 6 months to learn even more. In addition, he hopes to get a master’s degree in culinary arts at Basque culinary center, with the long-term goal of becoming a professor of culinary arts.

At present, though, Angel is incredibly happy to be at Alicia, and is pleased to have fulfilled yet another goal. As a true artist, however, Angel is never pleased; he always aims higher. At present, Angel has yet to fulfill what has been his dream since age twelve: to work for the El Bulli foundation when it opens in two years.

“If I get to work for El Bulli, my life is complete,” Angel says with glowing eyes.

Even after knowing Angel for less than two weeks, I have no doubt that this will happen.

Texturizer Spotlight: Methylcellulose

18 Jun

“We should come home from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day with new experience and character”

-Thoreau

 

Today was a great day at Alicia. Not only did I get a lot of work done, but I also got to make some fantastic recipes. While most recipes I have encountered thus far in my work have been incredibly interesting, I must say that today was something special. Why? Methylcellulose.

Methylcellulose is a complex carbohydrate that is extracted from the cell walls of superior plants. For many years, it was used as a texturizer in large-scale industry, and only relatively recently has it made its way into high-end cuisine (For instance, The Fat Duck, a Michelin-star restaurant in England, is well-known for using this product in the famed “hot ice cream”). Generally, methylcellulose is used as a gelling agent, but unlike most other gelling agents, methylcellulose solidifies when hot and melts when cold. In other words, has the opposite property of most other gelling agents.

Until today, I worked with other gelling agents, such as kappa, iota, gelatin, agar-agar and gellan elastic gum (most of these are either extracted from algae or are byproducts of carbohydrate fermentation by prokaryotes). The cooking processes for all these gelling agents are very similar: add the gelling agent to your working solution at room temperature, bring to a boil, and cool down immediately. For methylcellulose, however, this process is – quite intuitively – different. When using methylcellulose, you add the methylcellulose (powder) to your working solution and then cool it down to below 5 degrees Celsius in order to allow the jellification process to start through hydration. When your solution has reached a temperature below 5 degrees Celsius, you heat it up to between 50 and 70 degrees Celsius, at which it solidifies and becomes a gel.

A gel that solidifies at high temperatures and melts at low temperatures sounds too good to be true, as it opens up many new culinary territories for exploration. At first, I had a hard time grasping the potential beauty of such a texturizer actually, but after seeing it with my own eyes, I was sold. Today, I made two recipes. Using methylcellulose as glue, I made “veggie burgers” from only garden-fresh vegetables (the methylcellulose worked as glue that made the vegetables stick together when heated in the pan. When these burgers cooled down, the adhesion was lost). The coolest recipe by far, though, was the “hot cream flan” – a highly unique take on a traditional flan. Instead of eggs, this flan recipe used methylcellulose to bind the ingredients together. While the recipe was incredibly simple – basically only methylcellulose and whipped cream – the result was stunning.

In fact, the texture-and taste sensation that followed is difficult to describe in words. Basically, the experience was dominated a hot and smooth, yet fairly solid, whipped cream texture that slowly but steadily melted on your tongue, filling your mouth with the invincible goodness of cream and vanilla.

After some brainstorming, I and two coworkers decided to take this already great sensation to a whole new level. And indeed, by adding fresh rosemary, local rosemary flower honey, toasted pine nuts, and wild strawberries, we managed to concoct a dish equally pleasing for all senses.

The result?

A journey through multiple dimensions.

First, the protagonist, the main actor: slightly gellified, vanilla-flavored hot cream. Then, a polarizing companion:   toasted pine nuts adding crunch, contrasting the softness of the ingredient in the spotlight.  Suddenly, a juxtaposition, a dichotomy. The fresh, tangy, wild strawberries enter the scene, twisting the reality that you so pleasantly enjoyed. The juicy berries explode as you take a bite, and it seems as if there is no return to where you once were. Behold; do not be overwhelmed, help is not afar. Sweet, smooth honey starts bringing you back to the starting point. But you never fully return, because amid all this confusion, something new has appeared, and it sticks with you on the entire journey. Its name is rosemary. Even though it is a distinct new actor in this game, it calms you. As time passes, you become habituated. Suddenly, you realize that you have completed the cycle of texture and flavor.

The adventure ends just as well as it started.

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A small creation: hot cream flan with rosemary honey, toasted pine nuts, and wild strawberries.

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veggie “burgers” made from asparagus, carrots, peppers.

Adventures in Spain: Part 1

15 Jun

“I want to be a true scholar, I want to grasp, by the collar, What’s on earth, in heaven above, In Science, and in Nature too…”

GOETHE, Faust

This summer, I am spending 7 weeks interning for Fundacion Alicia, a gastronomic center located in a picturesque village outside Barcelona.   The mission of Fundacion Alicia – a foundation started in 2003 by Ferran Adria of El Bulli (If you don’t know this man, look him up. He is the Dali of the kitchen) – is simple. Fundacion Alicia, according to its website, “is a research center devoted to technological innovation in cuisine, to the improvement of eating habits and to the evaluation of the food and gastronomic heritage. We are a center with a social vocation, open to everyone to promote healthy eating.” In other words, Alicia aims to improve the life of all cooks worldwide, for professionals and amateurs alike.

At Alicia, this mission comes to life in its two different departments: research and health. The health department focuses a lot on educational outreach, holding workshops for people with special dietary needs (cancer patients, diabetics, people with allergies, to name a few) and children. The workshops are held on a daily basis in Alicia, but some are actually held “on the road”; Alicia has a big truck that travels in all of Spain to ensure that their work reaches those who really need it (very similar to Jamie Oliver’s truck in the U.S). Comprised of cooks, nutritionist, and scientists, the health department works closely with the research department to optimize the processes that will lead to a greater understanding of health issues.

The research department in and of itself, however, is different. The research department houses some of the best food scientists and chefs in the world (Chef Marc, for instance, was the pastry chef at El Bulli for 15 years). In this interdisciplinary environment, chefs, scientists, historians and nutritionists join forces in developing and exploring the cutting-edge techniques and products that lay the groundwork for modern cooking. The work ranges from historical research on olive oils to product development of high-calorie foods for arctic adventurers. Even though much of its work is simply spearheaded by the foundation itself, the research department takes on missions from large businesses and other outside actors. Due to the fact that this involves product development and recipe development, there is a lot of secrecy surrounding this work. Thus, I will not be able to provide as many details as I would like about the work conducted in this department.

Every year, Alicia brings in people from across the world to train at the foundation. There is a limited amount of spots, and only around 8 lucky people are accepted for each training period. Most people who come have a lot of experience working in high-end restaurants, gastronomic labs, or other similar environments. As you might understand, that I had been accepted was a pleasant but equally shocking surprise. In fact, when I found out that I was accepted to the internship program (as one of the youngest people ever) I realized that this summer I would embark on a once in a lifetime adventure, working with some of the best scientists and chefs in the field of modern cooking.

After one week at Fundacion Alicia, I am in paradise; after only one week at the foundation, I have become immersed in the wonderful and inspiring world of science and cooking. As I have gained plenty of gastronomic knowledge from coworkers, scientists and chefs, the form and function of the prism through which I view food has changed completely. Now, I am starting to understand not only that certain things happen, but why and how they happen; how the interaction of numerous variables creates what we know as texture and flavor.

I am doing research on texturizers, which include gelling agents, foaming agents, thickening agents, and emulsifying agents. Currently, the foundation is developing a gastronomic lexicon that will be published later this year. The book provides detailed descriptions of the underlying chemistry of texturizers and how they can be used in the culinary arts, and it is mainly target towards chefs. Together with Gashaw Clark, another intern and a rising junior Harvard, I am testing and optimizing different recipes from the soon-to-be book as well as revising the language in which it is written. Synthesizing material from various sources, I am combining theoretical and practical work. It is least said enjoyable; not only to I get to learn and understand the theoretical aspects of the texturizers, but I get to see the texturizers in action while replicating incredibly inspiring recipes. If nothing changes, I will probably work on this project until I leave in the end of July.

Every day, visitors from all the corners of the world visit Alicia to observe Alicia’s amazing 2 hectare organic farm, its facilities, and, of course, the work that’s being conducted within its boundaries. Simply, these people come to observe a beautiful process that Ferran Adria in the book Cooking Science: Condensed Matter eloquently describes as, “with every day that passes, scientific and culinary knowledge are establishing closer ties in order to consolidate a stable relationship.” At present, I am honored to have the privilege to be at the forefront of this development, and as the days go by, I am becoming more and more certain that this is what I see myself doing in the future.

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