How to Cook Very Difficult Food

Photo - Cooking Difficult Food

For Cooking Light Magazine

It was while I was attempting to make “soil” that it occurred to me that my experiment with very difficult dinners might drive me insane.

This is edible soil, from the cookbook by René Redzepi, chef at the world’s most buzzy restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen. Noma’s soil is sprinkled on a dish called “vegetable field,” which was the second course for a dinner party I was going to hold for friends in the small dining room of my home. The soil dish came after blueberries and onions, before oxtails in dark beer, and before the finale of potato chips dipped in chocolate and fennel seed.

Only the soil wasn’t working. I’d combined wheat, hazelnut, and malt flours, each weighed by gram on a scale. I’d pulsed these ingredients three times in the food processor while dribbling in five grams of beer. I’d baked the mixture at 195° for six hours, and still didn’t have soil. Instead, I had rock—a solid sheet of beige slate. Push through a coarse sieve to remove the thickest lumps, the recipe suggested, at which moment I felt like heaving Redzepi’s book across the kitchen. There’s no room for temper tantrums in a small home kitchen, though, with no staff to terrorize, no TV audience to entertain. I had a job to do: cook really, really complicated meals all by myself over a couple of weeks from five really, really complicated cookbooks. Then serve to friends.

You’ve no doubt flipped through these massive, exacting culinary tomes, with their gorgeous photos and lengthy text. They have always struck me more as impressive publishing artifacts than instructional documents. In the case of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook, for example, you won’t find a recipe until you’ve read 140 pages of restaurant history and culture notes. The other books on my list, besides Blumenthal’s, were Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine Volume 3: Animals and Plants, Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure, and Daniel Humm’s 11 Madison Park.

“Long” doesn’t begin to describe some of these recipes. One for roast turbot calls for 84 ingredients. One for Black Forest Cake features 16 subrecipes and a cross-section diagram of the cake that looks like an architectural rendering. This is food that relies on staff, commercial-grade pantries, specialty equipment, and patrons who pay through the nose. Can we even call these “cookbooks” in a meaningful way? Is a Noma recipe for soil really a recipe, or is it a note from a brilliant artist saying: Don’t try this at home, folks? I was wading into hot waters to find out.

I didn’t train in culinary school or work in a restaurant, but I do cook in a focused way. I spend an awful lot of time at the stove, and it’s not unusual, on a Saturday morning, for my waking thoughts to concern what I will be cooking for dinner. But I knew, after studying these books, that a new level of planning would be needed.

Quite a few recipes auto-eliminated for practical reasons. Some called for ingredients I couldn’t source, like goosefoot leaves or Västerbotten cheese. Others were impossible to fit into the time I had—like the 48-hour Noma walnut juice. And many recipes called for gear I didn’t own: flash freezers, high-pressure vacuum packers, Thermomixes, etc.

This raises a point about restaurant-grade prep for the home cook: Even if you avoid the most gear-intensive recipes, you’ll need to buy or borrow extra tools. Start with a gram-accurate kitchen scale, because virtually every recipe is measured out in precise units of weight. (How much is 75 grams of beer? Just over a third of a cup, it turns out.) You’ll need more whisks, more mixing bowls, more sieves in ultrafine mesh—because nothing, apparently, is ever made in high-end kitchens without one or more strainings.

Also, you’ll want more small saucepans. If you just have one you use to melt butter and such, buy more, because there isn’t a recipe of this ilk that doesn’t call for the preparation of numerous constituent parts to be made in advance and held until plating. Blumenthal’s Saddle of Venison? By the time you serve this, you will have previously prepared and be holding: venison consommé, frankincense hydrosol, frankincense dilution, confit of vegetables, tomato fondue, sauce poivrade, a gastrique, blood cream, celeriac puree, celeriac fondants, celeriac rémoulade, civet base, red wine jelly discs, venison medallions, red wine foam, grelot onions, chestnut tuiles, and a butter emulsion. Needless to say, I avoided that recipe. I’m not a maniac.

PART 1: Hmm… I realize I need a week just to plan a recipe!

Chef Daniel Humm of 11 Madison Park is Swiss. His meticulous restaurant sits atop the New York food chain, up there in the clouds with Thomas Keller’s Per Se. His approach is continental/experimental; his insalata caprese consists of two sodium alginate–formed spheres—one of mozzarella foam, the other of tomato water—and tastes like insalata caprese.

Humm writes in 11 Madison Park that he does not experiment for the sake of experimenting, but almost everything I looked at involved preparations and ingredients I’d never heard of: apple snow, celery cream, daikon vinaigrette, basil gel, candied olives. I chose a two-course menu: langoustine with celeriac and green apple, followed by John Dory poached with citrus, daikon radish, and olive oil. Obeying the manifesto of the local, I swapped West Coast spot prawns for the langoustine and West Coast halibut for the John Dory. I believed these were approachable dishes, the appetizer essentially a ceviche, the main course evolved only modestly from dishes you might find in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I quickly discovered, however, that both were deeply complex and involved.

Lesson one: Read the recipe, say, a week before you intend to cook it. By the time I’d done my shopping and prepared a work plan—there were a dozen pages of itemized tasks taped to my kitchen cabinets at one point—I realized I had, at minimum, 48 hours of work ahead of me. The appetizer involved making a fish fumet as well as juicing three dozen green apples and freezing the seasoned juice overnight. The main course required dried citrus to be made from grapefruit and blood oranges, another 12-hour preparation.

Not all of these advance preparations worked perfectly. Citrus pieces left in my low oven overnight weren’t dried; they were petrified. The celery oil simply would not separate from the celery water and solids no matter how many hours I strained it through paper towels. I left it to cool overnight on a windowsill and extracted the oil with an eyedropper my wife had to run out to the drugstore to purchase. Twenty-four hours of effort for three tablespoons of product. This is where apprentices and line cooks come in mighty handy.

After 24 hours, I also had celery cream, a citrus beurre blanc, pickled daikon radish, blanched and shocked edamame beans, and a daikon vinaigrette. The final plating came together fairly easily. If you can endure, or even enjoy, this level of prep, and if you plate very precisely with one eye on the book’s gorgeous photographs, Chef Humm will make you look like a pro at the table.

I learned a valuable lesson from Humm: The elements of a complex dish may taste odd alone, but when they come together on the plate, magic happens. Alone, the celery cream was cloyingly rich and sweet. With fluffy apple ice folded in, it was beautifully balanced. The daikon pickle was so unpleasantly pungent I put it on the back porch until serving time. But when it was gently fanned out over the fish—which is poached in a thickened chicken stock strongly seasoned with garlic and thyme—the pickle cut the richness of the dish and harmonized with the beurre blanc and vinaigrette.

What does a cook live for but the reaction of his guests? They raved. They loved the intense combinations of flavors. Spot prawns with celery and apples: light, refreshing, salty, tangy, and sweet. And very pretty, too, all swirled with shades of green and that flash of pink from the shellfish.

As for the halibut, one guest actually said: “That might be the best thing I’ve eaten in my life!”

PART 2: It’s not pots & pans I need for these recipes. It’s laboratory equipment!

Two years ago, Nathan Myhrvold rocked the cookbook world by self-publishing a six-volume, 2,400-page set of cookbooks called Modernist Cuisine out of the Cooking Lab, his culinary research facility in Tacoma, Washington. For the series, his team included chefs who had previously cooked with British legend Heston Blumenthal, a man who is said to have milked a reindeer in Siberia to make ice cream.

After eliminating several options due to the absence of laboratory supplies (nitrogen, trisol, a centrifuge) or because the food did not look like anything I’d serve guests (fish paper, and also beetroot-fed oysters, which emerge from their shells looking like something that did not survive The Dawn of the Dead), I settled on a relatively simple menu that incorporated water-bath and pressure-cooker techniques. Both of these methods offer lessons on the transformative power of heat plus pressure. Both require machines, one of which my grandmother would not recognize—the sous vide machine. With a sous vide, you vacuum-pack food in plastic bags and then suspend it in a water bath, sometimes for many hours.

I made a sous-vided white fish with red wine reduction, served with potato crisps and green beans (swapped in for the sea asparagus I couldn’t source in the time allowed). The fish was the biggest surprise. Cooked in 102-degree water that barely scalds to the touch, and only for 20 minutes, it should have seemed raw. But it was silky perfection, entirely done, and moist as could be. As I fussed with my new sous vide machine, however, I neglected and then “broke” the red wine reduction on the stove and got a gritty-looking sauce—a classic first-year cook’s error that would have had me clouted about the ears with a wooden spoon in any restaurant kitchen. But overall, the dish was a success.

The next night I tried another Modernist meal: pressure-cooker carnitas with achiote; some crazy-rich Joël Robuchon mashed potatoes; and vacuum-packed sweet caraway pickles. Again, solid results: each dish vibrantly flavored and, this time, no major mistakes.

Did Modernist Cuisine teach me anything useful for my home cooking? Yes. Vacuum packing the pickles delivered wonderful, intense flavors in just 24 hours. Cooking pork shoulder in a pressure cooker is a great technique for getting pulled-pork tenderness in about an hour and a half. Sous-viding peeled potatoes with their peels, before tossing the peels and then boiling and mashing the potatoes, contributed to a more potato-y flavor. And the sous vide fish is also a keeper. To never dry or undercook a fish again is a revelation worth the price of the machine.

PART 3: Suddenly realize that I don’t have any dirt.

The 11 Madison Park and Modernist recipes had been a hit but introduced me to a new level of kitchen concentration that was mentally and physically exhausting. With Noma, by the time my dirt had turned to rock, I was contemplating outright failure.

I had a rather odd-looking jar of pickled shallots in blueberries in the fridge. I’d failed in my quest to find edible spruce shoots, despite a surfeit of spruce in the Vancouver area. I still had to prep and blanch my carrots, radishes, baby leeks, and sunchokes; mash some potatoes; blanch and separate white onion leaves; blend parsley oil; bone the eight-hour braised oxtails; reduce a sauce that would later be infused with verbena leaves; make potato chips and dip them in chocolate and sprinkle with seeds. Oh, and mustn’t forget the apple gel, which I was improvising with a recipe from 11 Madison Park (using agar-agar) because I could not find the gelling agent required by Noma, called Gellan. When I contemplated my solid sheet of “soil,” it felt as if my whole dinner could come apart at the seams.

I took a deep breath. Dinner was still two days away! According to my planning charts, 48 hours was just enough time. By the afternoon of my party, the blueberry pickled shallots for the first course were getting quite intriguingly flavored: sharp and sweet, with a zing of acid. The parsley oil dressing was maybe less promising, tasting to me quite a bit like pureed lawn clippings. But my veggies were blanched and shocked and looking colorful for my “vegetable field.” The mashed potatoes sat fluffy and light in their butter. And the oxtails for the main course were smelling spectacular. Who knew verbena could make demi-glace taste refreshing? Apple gel garnish, ditto: Perfect discs of apple-y goodness. There was a moment of satisfaction and calm, followed immediately by the realization that I still didn’t have any dirt.

Dirt! One cannot serve up a Noma vegetable field without dirt. No time to think. Just make something, I said to myself. Which is how I learned a secret. You can spend two days following Redzepi’s recipe, and perhaps it will work for you, but you can also make fabulous dirt in 15 minutes in a skillet stovetop by browning the malt and hazelnut flours with a bit of sugar (I used caramel-brown palm sugar). Shake and scrape over decent heat. Moisten with melted butter and … my dirt was better than his dirt: golden brown, sweet, crumbly, and clumpy.

The bigger surprise came when the guests sat down. They ate in silence. Then they cheered. I mean about everything. Blueberries and onions in a swirl of parsley oil might sound odd, but it tastes magical, foresty, and alive. The vegetable field was crazy good, the veggies peeking up out of the mashed potatoes, which were covered with the famous dirt. And the oxtails cooked overnight and sauced with verbena were remarkable, rich, and light. Afterward, everybody stood in the kitchen eating the leftovers: oxtail, veggies, soil, apple gel, pickled shallots. I’d been in the kitchen for three days. I wasn’t hungry anymore. But for all its pretense, Noma’s wacky food made people very happy. That was a take-away I won’t forget. I might never make dirt again. But I had learned that stretching almost to the point of panic in the kitchen can have its payoffs.

PART 4: Ouch! I burn myself twice and drop a plate.

Having felt momentarily overwhelmed during the Noma meal, I planned even more obsessively for Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure, a book of sous vide recipes. Keller is the most revered practitioner of perfectionist restaurant cooking in America. Yet Under Pressure felt like the most approachable of the books I tackled. With the exception of the variety meats section—which serves up corned beef tongue with pain perdu, confit of calf’s heart, etc.—most dishes seem familiar: Spanish mackerel with serrano ham, for example, and blanquette de veau. Prime beef is served with spring garlic, glazed carrots, bone marrow, and bordelaise syrup.

This is white-tablecloth food, certainly, but it doesn’t appear undoable. Which is why you want to read these recipes very carefully before beginning. A humble-sounding new-crop onion salad appetizer requires eight hours if you don’t have more than one sous vide machine. A Rabbit and Bacon Pressé main course won’t work for dinner tonight, as it starts with a preparation involving boning rabbit flanks, chilling them, layering with bacon and transglutaminase, chilling them again, vacuum-packing, and chilling a third time for six hours, after which you still have to sous-vide the package for 12 hours, bring to room temperature, and then brown in oil. (There is also a three-hour rabbit liver mousse and a 12-hour poached apricot.)

Still, I did find a two-course menu that seemed challenging but doable. For the appetizer: caramelized fennel with almonds, orange confit, caraway seed, and fennel puree. For the main: glazed pork belly with Swiss chard, white wine–poached apples, and green mustard vinaigrette.

I started Thursday for a dinner party on Saturday. Thursday was shopping and putting the pork belly into a brine. Friday, the belly had to go into the sous vide, and Keller’s signature pork stock had to be made. Saturday, the apples, the chard stems, and the fennel (in three batches) each had to be sous-vided. Saturday afternoon I had to do the orange confit and the almond puree, cook and hold the chard, make the vinaigrette, and portion the pork. Just as guests arrived, I caramelized the fennel and browned the pork belly, which stuck and began to fall apart. I burned myself good, twice. I dropped a plate. My kitchen sink was backing up, and I ran out of pots. For the first time ever, I couldn’t find my knife.

I stepped back. I took a sip of a delightful Mission Hill Reserve pinot noir that I’d been saving for just this type of emergency. Then I plated.

Two things had happened along the way. At about the sixtieth hour of prep, I stopped measuring out the gram weight of everything. As I was turning to Keller’s book for the 900th time to check what amount of olive oil he demanded for reheating the chard (15 grams), it occurred to me that surely I could eyeball something so basic. I didn’t really care if the orange supremes were turned into orange confit by steeping in 250 grams or 750 grams of simple syrup. Did I trim the finished pork belly to ensure I had exactly 71.25 grams per serving? I did not. I cut and measured by eye. And dinner was good.

More than good: The salad of fennel was pretty and light. The pork belly, a bit more ragged than in the pictures, was densely, deeply flavored. And I took satisfaction in a bit of improvisation: The pork stock had seemed a little thin, even after being reduced, so I jacked up Keller’s sauce with a couple of cubes of oxtail glaze borrowed from the Noma dinner three nights before. It rocked. My guests loved it, and I slept nine full hours that night.

PART 5: Enough already: I run out of steam.

I had pushed Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook to the end of the challenge as a way of avoiding a rematch. You see, I’d done a Blumenthal cook-a-thon once before, three days of making a chili out of his book In Search of Perfection. I had pressure-cooked beans and brined beef short ribs, scoured the town for Devil’s Penis chiles for the nine-ingredient chili powder, made onion confit and roasted red peppers, mortared star anise, added the red wine, and generally followed every instruction until it was time to serve, at which point every person at the table said exactly the same thing: tastes like faintly chili-ed Asian beef bourguignonne.

My triumphs with Humm, Redzepi, et al. had left me with insufficient time to prepare the Saddle of Venison with 19 constituent preparations. Moreover, my eyes had glazed over. My legs were sore. My brain was foggy. I’d been doing the work of two dozen cooks, and I needed to sit down. I knew I was a different cook than I had been. Being forced into the mind-set of top-of-their-game professional chefs had pushed me to be more creative yet more methodical, to demand more from myself than the same-old same-old cooking I had been doing. But right now I needed comfort food.

So I made one of those family dinners I don’t serve to guests. It was my mother’s recipe and it, too, had constituent preparations, but you can buy them at the grocery store: a can of cream of chicken soup, a can of mushrooms, some Worcestershire and soy sauces. Brown ground beef with onions and a pinch of nutmeg. Combine with yogurt, et voilà!: hamburger stroganoff.

Heston and I did not meet over a main course at all. For dessert, though, I managed to eke out a Blumenthalian preparation: jelly two ways. One is derived from blood orange, the other from yellow beet. Blumenthal devotes two pages of deep thinking to this dish: “If memory can boldly (and incorrectly) assert that orange colour = orange fruit, what part do memory and expectation (and for that matter genetic programming and survival mechanisms and cultural conditioning) play in our daily interaction with food, in our adventurousness, in our likes and dislikes?”

Very good question, possibly, but not on my watch. Yes, after a couple of hours of preparation, the jellies basically worked, although the yellow beet preparation turned dark green, nothing like the photographs. But the stroganoff took 45 minutes and turned out perfectly. That is, it turned out exactly as it has turned out each of the countless times I’ve made it, as it had for my mother before me.