Best Laid Plans and ‘Definite Inconsistencies’

Best Laid Plans and Definite Inconsistencies

………………

Cooking entails a lot of failure, at least for me. Not having a typical culinary background, no catering college or teenage years spent in a pro kitchen, a lot of the dishes and components I work on require a lot of finessing before they work how I want them to. This is sometimes a major source of frustration but I know that it will pay dividends as I discover for myself what makes certain things a success or a failure.

In the spirit of this process I and some friends organized a small project night at which we would present anything we had been working on. The date for our first happily coincided with the announcement of the World’s 50 Best on Monday, a evening of serious culinary geekery was assured. Myself, Josh Pollen and Mike Knowlden (two-thirds of Blanch and Shock) and David Bradley (The Curious Confectioner) had worked projects for the first event.

It was an eclectic mix of components and plated dishes, not everything was pleasant (I take most of the blame for this) but it was all exciting.

Josh presented a couple of items he had been working on first. Having recently staged at Noma where he had had the opportunity to present a dish at their Saturday Night Projects one of Josh’s dishes was a reworking of what he presented there. Having made a dough including hay and lightly fermented cider he wrapped potatoes in it and cooked them in the embers of a fire.

They had to be broken out of their black sarcophagus before being served with hay butter and jack in the hedge. They had a great texture, being chewy and resistant but in an entirely different way to traditionally cooked potatoes (though arguably cooking in embers is the most ‘traditional’ method we have).

The plated dish

Josh had also worked on a combination of shallots and onions, pickling some in whey, pressure cooking others and making a burnt onion consomee.

Whey is an ingredient that is increasingly being used by chefs, it has some interesting uses as a base for sauces or in macerating meat. Looking to use it where you might otherwise use water can add new layers to a dish. As Ideas in Food tweeted recently ‘look for flavour everywhere’. Whey is simple to extract, simply strain yoghurt overnight through cheesecloth (it is more effective with something pressing it down).

The onions themselves had both good and bad elements, I loved the pressure cooked ones – they reminded me of shallots my mum cooked along with our Sunday roast. The ones pickled in whey didn’t seem to carry a great deal of that flavour though. The burnt onion consomee was a definite success, complex but with a nice clarity of flavour.

Next up Mike showed us some Spanish morcia that he had pickled in apple and dill vinegar. This was a riff on the pickled chorizo in the excellent Ideas in Food book. The sausage had absorbed a lot of the vinegars flavour and was pretty aggressive but the liquor it was pickled in held promise, we all agreed it needed some mellowing though.

It did work on a really good basis though, why don’t we pickle meat in the way we do vegetables and fish?

David had brought along some lotus root, an ingredient that none of us had really encountered before. As you can see from the photos it has an incredible structure, like the spokes of a wheel or – as Mike suggested more darkly – the chambers of a revolver. They were cooked in a glaze of mirin, soy, malt and vinegar and defied our efforts to place it into a sweet or savoury category. Its texture was toothsome and resistant but not crunchy, unlike anything I’d eaten before. We spoke about the possibility of utilizing the negative spaces in the roots structure, filling them with purees and gels or even doing this to the whole root and then serving it tableside, French-style.

Agar is known for creating brittle jellies prone to syneresis (where water leaks from the gel structure), this can be very useful and we take advantage of it in superfast agar clarification. Mike was playing around aspect of agar and tried dehydrating jellies that he made using it. Not having an original it is difficult to say how much they changed. They had shrunk but the texture remained too similar a standard agar jelly. Ironically I think that this is exactly the kind of project these nights are designed for, ostensibly it was a failure but there are few other forums in which we can test ideas like this.

Blanch and Shock make a cake involving meringue folded through the mix and Mike presented a cake where he had deliberately not thoroughly mixed the batter in the hope it would bake with chunks of chewy meringue throughout. Whilst this wasn’t quite the result we got but David observed there were ‘definite inconsistencies’, which was kind of the idea. I think the idea is a good one, almost like a cake version of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, how to execute it is another matter. The use of marshmallow rather than meringue might create a more definite split between cake and chewy goodness.

My projects were up next, the first being my tobacco foam and then a plated dish using wolfberries. I hadn’t enjoyed a great deal of success tweaking my foam into a pleasant form and I went with what I had, infusing cigar leaves into skim milk then foaming with an immersion blender.

I felt so ‘Ferran’, just serving a foam on a plate. Sadly the result was as expected with the prickliness of the tobacco only coming through and none of its toasted, malty notes – ‘like eating stinging nettles’.

A foam

Sometimes you have to know when an idea hits a dead end and this was it. Much as I love the concept I don’t have the kit to create the component I actually want.

Next up I plated a dish based around wolfberries. Wolfberries are more commonly known as Goji berries, but as the former sounds so much sexier I decided to run with that. They were rehydrated in their own juice, pureed and turned into a mousse, it was served with a spiced chai tea fluid gel and crushed gingerbread.

They have a very earthy flavour, unlike any ingredient in the palette of flavours I normally use and I’m not sure it is a favourite. The mousse also contained too much gelatin and so didn’t quenelle properly which pissed me off. The fluid gel was a real success though and is probably the element I will follow up on.

I had some of the spiced tea concentrate left over so I churned it into ice cream for staff dinner at the restaurant one night and it went down a storm. I think it could suit a panna cotta nicely with the gingerbread in tuile form.

The evening was a real success, as chefs it is surprisingly rare to get open and genuine criticism of what you create. It was great to be able to do this in a relaxed environment and to try and push the boat out in terms of what we were serving.

I imagine there will be a few more project nights in the pipeline and, as ever, it will all go up here for you guys to see.

To see more of the work of those involved at this one their details are below, definitely worth a look.

Josh Pollen & Mike Knowlden run food design and catering company Blanch and Shock. They approach food from a non-traditional background and you can catch their work at various different pop ups, installations and collaborations that they do around London. They helped set up the quarterly dessert-only dining club Eat Rich or Die Trying. See their work at their website and follow them on twitter @blanchandshock.

David Bradley AKA ‘The Curious Confectioner’ creates sweet treats that look amazing and taste even better. He also participates in Eat Rich or Die Trying. View his beautifcul creations at his website here.

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