Monday, November 10, 2008

Still not playing hard-to-get

November 10

Regular readers of this blog will notice that I go out a lot. If someone asks me to go to something — nearly anything, really — and I can squeeze it into my schedule, I go.
Some of my more elitist acquaintances have told me I should be more circumspect of the invitations I accept, and recently I, too, have started to wonder if maybe I should play more hard-to-get.
You don’t see my friend Andrew Knowlton hanging out at Lower East Side bar openings, do you? You certainly don’t these days, as his wife Christina just had a baby, but for years appearances of the guy, whom I met nearly a decade ago when he was a young whippersnapper cutting out press clippings for his bosses at Bon Appétit, have been pretty rare. And now he’s, like, a famous guy, with a fan page on Facebook and a Wikipedia entry. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he looks like Andrew Knowlton, but I wonder if his aloofness has helped.
Do you think my attention would be more sought after if gave it less often? Should I stop being such an event-slut?
The problem is that my job is to be out there, spotting trends, tracking down stories, getting scoops, and you just never know when something that sounds like a dud might be interesting.
Still, last week in Cleveland, during the IFEC conference, I despaired of picking one of the food tours to go on. I’d been to The Chef’s Garden many times. I didn’t particularly want to see the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame (although I do hear that it’s great). Michael Ruhlman’s speech from the night before convinced me that the West Side Market was worth checking out, but that was followed by a tour of Nestlé Foodservice’s kitchens.
Seriously, kitchen tours are something I can resist. That and wine cellars. Do I really need to see where the wine is aged? And how fascinating is a kitchen unless you have some sort of funky new equipment I haven’t seen before.
The West Side Market was cool, if for no other reason than the third-world prices of its meat and produce ($1/lb for blueberries, and I am not kidding), especially since pastry prices were sort of standard for the United States. And like Ruhlman said, you could find lamb heart and sheep head and all sorts of things there. I also liked the fact that the salespeople referred to all females as “girls.” I didn’t know that was allowed anywhere in the West anymore.
The Nestlé kitchen tour didn’t start well. They showed us a very brief high-tech promotional video with a bunch of buzzwords about providing its customers with various “solutions,” but nothing concrete. It was like watching a music video.
But then they split us up into teams and sent me into a kitchen with the food scientists, who taught me how to make lobster base.
They briefly showed us the ingredients for lobster stock — shells, mirepoix etc. — and then took us around the corner where they sautéed pre-cooked lobster meat (cooked on the lobster boats) with tomalley (that green stuff that’s the lobster’s liver) and roe in (unsalted) butter, making sure they held it at at least 180 degrees Celsius for ten seconds. Then they puréed that mixture with onion powder and the like, along with oleoresinated paprika, which is all the oil-soluble components of paprika, concentrated and used for flavor and color. That paprika was mixed with dendritic salt — scientists' way of describing the shape of a very fine salt — and added to the mix.
Then we put a little bit of it into a machine that tested its “water activity," to make sure it was low enough to have an acceptable shelf life.
Then we measured, if I remember correctly, 7.1 grams of it to be mixed with 230 grams of hot water to make lobster stock. We compared it to conventionally-made lobster stock, and it still needed more work. It needed to be redder, and I think I would have added more salt, although I suppose less salty is better than more salty.
From there we added cream, food starch that is stable when repeatedly frozen and thawed, chile pepper (I added more than our supervising chef wanted, but too bad for him) and brandy. We thickened it and poured it over chunks of cooked lobster, garnishing it with Chef’s Garden beet microgreens, and it was a passable bisque. I would have tweaked it a bit, and probably tossed in some more base, but chacun à son goût.
I love stuff like that, because the lobster base is how most restaurants make bisque these days (demiglace, too — I know fine dining chefs who order it, because the recipe’s basic enough and big food companies can do it much more cheaply and with more consistency), and it’s useful to understand that. I also like the precision of the whole thing, followed by a free hand with cream and brandy (but a rigid one with the starch), and whimsy with the garnish.


Markus said...

The West Side Market is a great haven for us Central European types - thanks to Cleveland's 20,000 Slovenians plus the Midwest's usual assorted other Slavs, you can get stuff like Topfen that will never ever make it into a Dean & Deluca, even at Dean & Deluca Prices.

Stephanie said...

Dearest Bret:
We all love you just the way you are. Please don't ever change!