The key to why popcorn pops is its unusual moisture-proof hull. As the kernel is heated beyond the boiling point, the water inside begins to turn into steam and expand. Since the hull will not let steam out, the pressure inside the kernel begins to rise. The hull can handle a pressure of around 135 psi before bursting open. At this point, the pressure inside the kernel is released very rapidly, expanding the starch and proteins into a dense foam that sets quickly.
The link between humanitys development and the evolution of cooking techniques is well-documented and perhaps even obvious. Less apparent, however, is that along the way, many traditional chefs and cooks turned up their noses at new and emerging gastronomic tools and techniques of their time.
Some new products, such as the pressure cooker, initially seemed destined for mass-market adoption, but have never become commonplace. Other, much more outlandish-sounding contraptions, perhaps most notably the microwave oven, eventually became so widespread that a backlash occurred and people waxed nostalgic for the way food used to be prepared. But somewhere between the Kyocera hand-honed ceramic knife and the Slap Chop are the inventions that simplified difficult, time-consuming, or previously unfeasible kitchen tasks enough to become essential tools in their own right.
There are Luddites and technophiles in every realm and every generation. Despite its title, Modernist Cuisine doesnt take a strong position on old versus new. Rather, the book was created to explore the boundaries between the conventional and the avant-garde, and to push the envelope of modern cooking. Modernist Cuisine employs science to discover and explain how things work, why they dont, and how to achieve culinary feats formerly considered impossible.
Does water boiled in a microwave oven or on an induction burner taste or behave any differently than water boiled over a gas flame or on a wood stove? Does anyone miss the prolonged stirring, beating, whipping, and kneading that is now handled by the ubiquitous electric mixer? Is a pinch or a dash somehow better than a gram or a microgram as measured by an electronic scale? Whos to say that the ultrasonic pressure cooker wont someday soar in popularity like the microwave oven or that the rotary homogenizer wont ultimately be as common as todays electric blender? Stranger things have happened.
Historys culinary scientists, inventors, and pioneers had to create every recipe, implement, and technique in use today. The team behind Modernist Cuisine is aware that not everyone wants to be on the bleeding edge of food science. But someone has to do it. Otherwise, sharp rocks and pointed sticks would be the only tools of the culinary trade.
Masters of a given skill or discipline often converse using a passionate and descriptive language that is somewhat unique to their craft. Mechanical engineers use terms like fluid motion. Architects describe structures as having dynamic lines” and “elegant curves. Drummers use bright” and “cold to describe the sounds of certain cymbals.
Artists often say that a particular work or the raw materials from which it is made, speaks to them in some way. Some artists can translate what a piece says to them into language that evokes that feeling in the rest of us. Maxime Max Bilet is one of those artists. On a recent visit to The Cooking Lab, I asked Max about the role language plays in the creation and enjoyment of his art.
In art, as in science, a common language for expressing values and variables enables collaboration and progress. Scientists use math to convey theories and findings while artists rely on adjectives to express the elements of a piece. But as Max points out, Whether or not you have the words for it if someone is giving it their love, their creativity, and their hard work, you experience it no matter what your involvement with food is. Everyone connects to food and I wouldnt presume that we know better.
Nathan, Max, and I recently had the pleasure of meeting chef René Redzepi from Noma while he was in Seattle promoting his wonderful new book, Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. I really admire what René set out to accomplish at Noma and am impressed by his well-deserved success. Renés sincerity and passion are apparent when you talk to him. And, while he is perfectly fluent in English, his modesty and restraint constantly reminds me that he is very much a Dane.
I recognized this personality trait because Id seen it before. There was a period in my life when I lived in Sweden, and I spent enough time in Denmark with Danish friends to recognize that, in both countries, there is a profound sense of social responsibility that influences nearly every aspect of day to day life. Scandinavians like to cooperate: with each other, with society, and with nature. Indeed, the word Legoperhaps the most famous Danish exportoriginates from the words leg and godt, which together roughly translate as play well. Those lucky enough to have dined at Noma have experienced firsthand how closely Renés cooking cooperates with nature and expresses a profound sense of place. And, having spoken with friends who have spent time cooking with René at Noma, its clear that the importance of cooperation and openness goes beyond the food and cooking.
Speaking of food, we didnt go hungry on our night with René. Chef William Belickis hosted the reception for chef Redzepi and his cookbook at Mistral Kitchen. William prepared an outstanding menu inspired by the cooking of Noma, adding a few great dishes that were distinctly his ownthe tandoori-charred lamb loin with a sauce prepared from lettuce was not only delicious, but also reminded me that lettuce is often given short shrift as a versatile ingredient. The meal also reminded Nathan, Max, and me how fortunate we are to live in Seattle. While we wont be cooking with musk ox or wild sea buckthorn anytime soon, the Cascades and Puget Sound offer an abundance of ingredients that can only be found here and can imbue our cooking with a sense of place that is uniquely Pacific Northwest.
At Augusts International Food Bloggers Convention (IFBC) in Seattle, the Modernist Cuisine team prepared a dish they (rather modestly) described as carrot soup for the kickoff reception. Before heading downtown with the team, I caught Maxime “Max” Bilet and Anjana Shanker at The Cooking Lab and asked them to describe the dish they were preparing for the reception.
Max and Anjana describe their carrot soup.
The process to which Max alludes is one of many in the book that involve the use of a pressure cooker to achieve unique tastes and textures. Anjana explained that the carrot soup presented at the reception would have a better and more complex flavor than its more familiar, ungarnished form. To demonstrate, she walked me through the plating process and described the various roles played by the additional ingredients.
Anjana plates the carrot soup.
The final product was indeed a bit hit at the IFBC kickoff reception. The turnout at the Modernist Cuisine table was fantastic. The team received many compliments on both the carrot soup and the BLAD (sample pages from Modernist Cuisine) they handed out.
IFBC Kickoff Reception
But as the reception wound down, one thing stood out for me and perhaps the other fortunate tasters at the event: Calling it carrot soup just didn’t do it justice!