As you may have heard, the cookbook sensation of the season, if not the decade, is Modernist Cuisine, a six-volume magnum opus on contemporary cooking principles that will set you back roughly $500. Self-published by Nathan Myhrvold—the genius founder of Microsoft's research division, zillionaire, famed dinosaur enthusiast, and the world's most serious, best-funded amateur cook—it is a thrilling specimen, filled with scientific explanations of culinary phenomenon, ambitious graphics that would make even Edward Tufte's head spin, eyepopping photography, and recipes from the world's most famous, and famously provocative chefs. In short, Modernist Cuisine is fully Diderot-ian in its ambition to document the whys and hows of today's gastronomic techniques. Oh and, by the way, unless you placed your order some time ago, you can't have it—at least not for a while. The first run, scheduled for April 14, has been oversold, and Myhrvold's fans are waiting for extra shipments from the printers.
If you're on Myhrvold's list and growing impatient, or if $500 sounds like way too much money but you're curious about the techniques eulogized in Modernist Cuisine, there's an alternative. For you, there is in stock, and for only $25, another new book worth reading.It isjust one volume, in black and white, with not a single photograph, and a modest title: Ideas in Food. By food writers and restaurant consultants H. Alexander Talbot and Aki Kamozawa—almost universally known as Alex and Aki—the book is an outgrowth of their popular blog of the same title.
For the past decade or so, the gulf between forward-thinking professional kitchens and home kitchens has appeared almost uncrossable, in part because the former is so enamored of gadgetry (vacuum packers and their complementary temperature-controlled water baths, for example). Coffee-table cookbooks from chefs such as Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Heston Blumenthal, and the patron saint of contemporary cookery, Ferran Adria, reinforce this perception with their multicomponent recipes that seem impracticable without an army of assistants. Alex and Aki's book, by contrast, makes an effort not just to bridge the abyss, but to question whether there is such a well-defined separation at all. Traditional cooking involves just as much chemistry as newer techniques, they suggest. Along with funny futuristic methods like "cryo-blanching" (tenderizing food by freezing it and thawing it repeatedly) and "controlled-bruising" (marinating and concentrating flavors in watery produce by compressing it with a vacuum packer), the authors mix in recipes for old-school cottage crafts like making butter, vinegar, pickles, and bread (no-knead bread, of course).
Whether describing familiar techniques or new ones, Ideas in Food takes a pedagogic tack. In a series of short essays, Alex and Aki encourage their readers to understand the molecular reasons behind the behavior of ingredients, using colorful similes to help get our brains into the science. When writing about egg-white foams like meringues, for example, they say fats "are like kryptonite for the egg whites, rapidly causing them to lose strength. Fats work by destroying the surface tension of the liquid which is necessary for the stability of the foam matrix." Each essay on a technique or family of ingredients is followed by recipes. After an essay on dairy, there is a recipe for brown butter puree, its nutty flavor intensified by seeding the butter with dried milk powder; after a consideration of pasta cookery, there are instructions for infusing pasta with additional flavor by soaking it in a cold liquid (in this case watered down barbecue sauce) before cooking; and following the egg-foam discussion mentioned above, there's a recipe for crispy chocolate cookies cooked at low heat for five hours—slow-baked chocolate mousse or uncommonly buttery meringues depending on which way you look at it.
The most compelling recipes are those involving new-school tweaks to everyday home cooking, which may enhance efficiency, or deliciousness, or both. Alex and Aki write in typically understated prose: "We are not discounting traditional methods or procedures, we are simply trying new things to see if the evolution of technology and the supply chain have given us the tools to do things in a better way. The answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. But we never know for sure until we actually try to find out." Their cryo-blanching technique yields a less salty take on preserved lemons in a couple of days rather than a couple of weeks. Alex and Aki posit that vegetables cooked in vacuum sealed (or zip-top) plastic bags preserve an intensity of flavor that is washed away if you blanch your veggies in a big pot of water. I tried it with some green beans this week, and with artichokes too, and in both cases, the vegetables retained a bright, undissipated flavor that I hadn't encountered before. I feel squeamish about the additional plastic landfill that comes with the technique, but I'm kind of wowed by it nonetheless. Less ambivalently, I loved the trick of presoaking pasta in cold water, which allows you to cook pasta both very quickly and in very little water without making a sticky mess—a nice option when the kids are possessed of a sudden mutinous hunger.
Alex and Aki are always on the trail of intensifying flavor: They promote the concept of "micro-stocks;" that is, making stocks with very pronounced flavors (and contra French tradition, in a pressure cooker), like an extra zingy tomato stock rather than standard chicken or mixed vegetable. I was impressed with their mushroom stock recipe, though it needs to be used judiciously, as it's quite assertive.
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