adventures in craft beer and real food

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sugar High Friday: Liquer

I've been meaning to make a gelled sparkling wine dessert for some time now, but I hadn't really felt inspired. That all changed when I saw this months theme for Sugar High Friday, hosted by Lick the Spoon.

When I set about looking for a recipe, I was very disappointed by the results. A Google search revealed only one recipe, and that got poor reviews. (In the recipe's defense, most of the reviewers didn't actually follow the instructions correctly.) In any case, I decided that as a chemist I should be able to create my own recipe.

I opened up my trusty copy of On Food and Cooking and read that while a gelatin can be prepared with as little as 1% gelatin, a 3% gelatin solution is much more traditional and robust. Having a proper concentration in mind, I decided that I wanted to prepare two cups of dessert. I pulled out my balance and discovered that two cups of Asti weighed 450 g. Therefore, to prepare a 3% solution, I just take 0.03 and multiply it by 450 g to get 13.5 g. Since my balance doesn't read to that precision, I just rounded it up to an even 14 g. Having weighed out 14 g of gelatin (about 1.5 packets of Knox gelatin), I was all set.

I poured 3/4 cup of Asti into a heavy saucepan with 1/4 cup fined sugar (I fine sugar by grinding it thoroughly with my food processor, but a mortar and pestle would be even better). And yes I realize that I should give a mass here instead of a volume, but I was lazy and I forgot to measure it. I heated the liquid on my stove until the sugar was dissolved. I then added the 14 g of gelatin and mixed it in with a whisk. (The gelatin will clump, but you should be able to work them out with a whisk. I tried using a spoon and a spatula just for fun and neither of them were viable alternatives.) Following the manufacturer's instructions, I then let the gelatin solution cool to approximately room temperature. This would normally be what we call a "bad idea" because we're leaving a warm solution sit around for a long time, optimizing conditions for microbiological growth. If you boiled the solution first, though, this problem should have been obviated.

When the solution has cooled sufficiently, pour it back into the container with the remainder of the Asti. Use a whisk to gently mix. Then pour it into two chilled glasses so that the liquid runs down the side of the glass. Straight into the refrigerator with it and you should be all set.

The next day, I had a tasty gelatin waiting for me.

If you don't have a balance (otherwise known as a scale), don't fret. My sparkling wine had a density of about 0.95 g/mL. To find out how much gelatin you need, know that there are about 12 g in each packet of Knox gelatin. Know, however, that this density is dependent upon temperature, brand, how much carbonation has escaped, etc.

The bubbles were frozen in place, creating quite a beautiful presentation. My only complaint is that the gel was cloudy, leading me to wonder if the solution could be clarified some how.

...but how does it taste?

It's a very adult dessert, not only because it's alcoholic, but also because it feels very sophisticated. Having grown up on Jello, my mind was surprised to taste sparkling wine instead of, say, cherry. It's great fun to let to gel melt on the tongue, slowly releasing sparkling wine into the mouth. There may not be any carbonation, but the flavor that I enjoy was there in full force. The strength of the gelatin seemed to be appropriate, but maybe it was a little too much. Perhaps a 2% gelatin solution would produce a more delicate result.

Although the taste is good, I recommend using smaller size champagne flutes. I also wouldn't recommend using anything drier that brut sparkling wine, but it may take some trial and error to come up with an appropriate sweetness by adding more or less sugar.

As a caveat, the use of Knox gelatin or any gelatin derived from bovine products might carry a risk of BSE. Although the FDA has set strict standards for industry, they may not be enough.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Restaurant Review: Royal Tokyo (Marshfield, WI)

Clang, clang, clang, clang. "Showtime," announced the teppanyaki chef as he struck his spatulas against the grill. The crescendo of sound mirrored my increasing excitement as I was about to experience teppanyaki dining for the first time. The rhythmic beating evoked a meaning that Chinua Achebe might have sought.

And then there was silence. Hugo, the chef, grabbed a squeeze bottle from a neat rack and poured some on the grill. Flames rose quickly and unexpectedly to the tall ceiling. And indeed, looking up, I did noticed some blackened spots against the white plaster. Now, I have seen advertisements for teppanyaki restaurants on television. But I immediately was surprised by the sensation of heat, which seemed elemental against a backdrop of flame and food. A burst of hot air against my face and it was gone. A simple reminder that cooking is all about heat.

Maybe I should start from the beginning.

Royal Tokyo is a teppanyaki Japanese steakhouse style restaurant in the heart of the historic district of Marshfield, Wisconsin. It's located in a very small building with historic roots. Marshfield developed as a railroad town and the building was once a train depot. Many years have passed and the entire time I lived in Marshfield (18 years), I only ever saw the building as an abandoned property. It was covered with grafitti and at least one of its cobweb filled windows was shattered. Nevertheless, my mother insisted on reminding me that when I was little I wanted to buy the building and turn it into a restaurant. It seems that someone beat me to it.

The property underwent a 320 Sycamore transformation.

The bricks have been restored to and are now very agreeable looking. There are now large elegant windows. As we walked through a pair of floor-to-ceiling exterior doors, we entered a surprisingly elegant setting. A stately lounge, complete with comfortable furniture and a fireplace, is situated in the front of the restaurant. The decor helps set the stage by suggesting Japanese influence. The lights, chairs, and cabinet all seemed vaguely and generically oriental. The couch, stuffed chair, and fireplace were standard-issue midwestern and could have been anywhere.

There's a small room that houses a bar set aside across the hall from the lounge. There are two wine bottle stands adorning either wall. The back of the room is decorated with dollar bills provided by guests. Frankly, this all seemed very plebian -- especially in contrast with the elegant decor, snappy service, and high expectations. The counter behind the bar had an orderly assortment of sundry spirits, many of high quality. There was also a sake-dispensing apparatus. Predictably, I had a view complaints with the bar. First, there was no drink menu thus putting the guest in the ackward situation of having to ask the barkeep what is available. Second, the beer selection consisted of mass market brews and was truly uninspired. This being Wisconsin, I expected to at least see some Central Waters beer for the offering. Third, the wine selection was very basic and the prices two high for the quality and level of service provided. Fourth, the wine was served in inappropriate glassware. Red wines ought to be served in glasses that seem to large for the volume added to them. Our wine was served in tiny glasses.

We had hardly consumed a third of a glass of merlot when a server lead us to our table. There, we picked which five-course prix fixe menu we wanted. You really only get to pick two of the courses, because the miso soup, salad, and ice cream dessert are otherwise always the same. I opted for the "turf and surf" special of filet mignon and salmon steak. I struggled to resist their sushi, but ended up getting a cucumber roll ("ninja sushi" with five pieces for $3 - $4) added to my dinner.

The miso soup came first. It was delicately fragrant and served in beautiful bowls that do the soup credit. Surprisingly, it had extremely high clarity. Other miso soups are cloudy. I suspect this one was clarified using egg whites, because it had a off-balance light flavor. Because of the extremely light flavor, the soup seemed very graceful and almost dainty. The seaweed at the bottom of the bowl didn't taste fresh and left me craving better quality soup.

Next came the salad, which was a pleasant admixture of ice burg lettuce and peaches with soy sauce. If my memory serves me correctly, I have never had any of these items together. Nevertheless, I thought that the sweetness of the peaches presented a good contrast to the saltiness of the soy sauce. And the crispness of the lettuce was impressive given the time of year.

My special order of "ninja sushi" showed up next in the lull between courses. Essentially, it consisted of seaweed rolled around rice rolled around cucumber. The course was artfully presented upon a miniature cutting board, to which I have always been partial. Four of the five pieces were expertly rolled and all five were absolutely delicious. My only complaints are that the rolls were cut into undesirably large sizes and that the chop sticks were difficult to use. I am accustomed to ones that are perhaps one and a half times the length of the ones at Royal Tokyo, and I prefer round to square. They just feel better in the hand. The short chop sticks accentuated the large size of the rolls.

It was at this point that our talented chef took the stage. I enjoyed a nice piece of salmon. It was cooked so that there was nice browning on the outside, but the flavor was still very fresh tasting in the middle. I may even have enjoyed it less cooked than it was, but I can only imagine the pressure to conform in Marshfield. Just before service, a lemon was squeezed onto the salmon which was expressed in the final dish. It went well with a glass of riesling that I ordered for this purpose.

Next came the filet mignon, cut into bite sized pieces. Because it was cut up and browned on all sides at the last moment and because the meat wasn't allowed to rest, I expected the meat to be dry and woefully overcooked. To my surprise and delight, the meat remained perfectly tender. Every bite burst with roasted beef flavor. The taste of the dish seemed to me like a concentrated form of the smell of my mother's beef stew dish. There's no other way to say it; the course was delicious.

Next came a course of steamed vegetables, but I was so full by this point that I was largely unable to eat much more. There were the usual assortment of vegetables, served with rice. The vegetables were just slightly undercooked, although I'm glad that the chef was able to avoid the usual vegetable mush that so many restaurants serve.

The meal ended with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream in a bowl. It had a good vanilla flavor, but was otherwise not remarkable.

My experience at Royal Tokyo was thoroughly enjoyable. As someone who enjoys cooking more than food, I love seeing the dishes being cooked, smelling the cooking, and interacting with the chef. For only $25 a person with wine, the price was right too.

Royal Tokyo is a welcome addition to the Marshfield dining scene.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

What is food?

I recently finished reading Fast Food Nation and wanted to write about it. Not wanting to say more about something that has been written about exhaustively, I decided to see what other people had to say about the book. As I performed some (admittedly cursory) research, I realized that a lot of readers don't seem to know what food is.

(I thought I'd respond to some of the negative hue and cry surrounding the book.)

The most common reasonable criticism of Fast Food Nation is that the book doesn't talk about fast food. People rail against Schlosser for blaming everything on kids dropping out of school to BSE on the shoulders of the fast food giants. These people do have a point in one regard. Every kid has a choice to stay in school or not; Burger King doesn't have a say.

However, anyone who maintains such a view against the book is exposing a gross ignorance about food.

I won't adopt the attitude of the stern moralist who laments at how "people these days" have lost a sense of connection between the source of their food and themselves. I will say, however, that I lost that connection. Maybe as an American I never had an appreciation for where my food came from. And finding this connection again has been a wonderul discovery for me, even as I acknowledge that I have a long, long way to go.

That hamburger you get at a restaurant came from somewhere. The meat came from cows, each with personalities, each raised in a particular environment of animal husbandry. That cow was then killed and processed into neat little quarter pounders. At each step along the way, people are trying to make a living. In buying six tacos for $5, you're supporting minimum wage paying jobs that don't provide employees with training or transferable skills. You're supporting meatpackers getting injured on the job. And you're supporting honest ranchers losing their land as they are increasingly bullied around by the meatpacking industry.

Food is more than something you shove into your mouth. Food originates from a place. Food originates from a person and is conveyed to you by people. What we eat and how often we eat it has historical and ethical dimensions. Food is what connects us to the earth and to each other.

I'm not advocating vegetarianism (I like meat too much). Nor am I suggesting that everyone has to slaughter rabbits as Thomas Keller did to realize the fundamental inescapable truth of cooking. That the goal of cooking is to transform something that lived into something worthy of that life.

Fast food falls well short of that goal.