One hallmark of today’s greatest chefs–e.g. Thomas Keller of Per Se and The French Laundry, Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck–is their devotion to molecular gastronomy, which uses a knowledge of chemistry and the scientific processes involved in cooking and curing to make their dishes otherworldly and astounding. Perhaps the most common example of this is when molecular gastronomists use liquid nitrogen to make ice cream; the extreme cold of liquid nitrogen, much colder than ice, allows for a rapid freeze. The fast freeze keeps the fat particles small and prevents ice crystals from forming, for extra creaminess. Another is the now-popular sous-vide method of cooking, where a thermal cycler keeps a water bath at an item’s ideal, perfect cooking temperature, so you can get a piece of steak, poaching in a vacuum sealed bag, where not a single bit is overcooked and everywhere is tender.
Molecular gastronomists use their new cooking techniques, borrowed from science, to make new and interesting concoctions. This increased latitude of possibility enables them to let their imaginations run wild. Thus we get Thomas Keller’s signature “Oysters and Pearls“, Adria’s surprising “Olivas Sfericas“, and this “Carrot and Orange Lolly” from Blumenthal. These ideas are playful; they take a familiar dishes or food items and add new spins to make them unforgettable. They trick your eyes into seeing a green globe as an olive, but when it’s placed in your mouth, the outer layer breaks apart to release an intense flavor of olive oil. Molecular gastronomy seems to go hand in hand with a new take on food that’s fun, and joking. Sometimes you don’t even need the gadgets and chemicals to make an interesting dish, just a sense of humor, some creativity, and a willingness to experiment!
Ferran Adria did an interview with a NYTimes journalist several years ago, and his dinner gave me an idea for a play on one of my favorite foods–sushi–that you can also easily make at home and surprise some friends!
All I used were 1) dragonfruit, 2) some tomatoes, 3) and some oranges. Dragonfruit is a fruit you can often find in Chinatown. In Chinese, it’s called huo long guo, or fire dragon fruit. Despite a boldly colorful exterior with vivid purples and greens, the inside is shockingly spartan: blank, white flesh and small black seeds, like kiwi seeds. The taste is extremely mild; it has the texture of eating watermelon and about as much flavor as one of those unripe, more thirst-quenching than sugary melons.
Since we’re making a play on sushi, we slice the white-fleshed dragonfruit into slabs, like dominoes. They represent the rice. Next we peel the skin off of the tomatoes (if you’re dextrous and the skin comes off easily, with your fingers, and if not, very carefully with a knife). You want to preserve as much as possible of the deeply red tomato flesh just under the skin. Cut slices of the tomato, and place it on the dragonfruit slabs: that’s tuna sushi! I made a balsamic and olive oil mixture that I dabbed under the “tuna sushi” to resemble soy sauce, and to give it a bit of extra flavor. Next, suprème the orange so you don’t get any pith (the white membrane). Stand the orange up, slice down the sides to remove only the peel and pith, and then cut wedges. These represent salmon sushi. You can probably experiment with a lot of different fruits and “sushi”; I didn’t think the orange worked well because it didn’t look enough like salmon. Maybe next time I’ll try papaya for salmon, roasted sweet plantain/banana for eel, and lychee for scallop.
What other fruit/fish analogues do you think would work well?