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My favorite culinary techniques from Cooking Light and Molecular Cuisine

I had some doubts about the two classes I'd be taking at the end of my fall semester in culinary school. First, there would be Cooking Light: Contemporary Techniques for Healthy Living, and next would be The Science of Cooking: An Introduction to Molecular Cuisine.


I wasn't planning on learning how to cook light in carb-loving, salt-addicted Italy, for one, and for another, I wasn't sure I'd ever make espumas, gels, or any other "molecular" foods in my career as a writer.


While I still can't say with confidence that I'll be cold-smoking meats or cooking carrots sous-vide on the daily post-graduation, I must admit that it feels very enlightening not only as a cook, but as an eater, to finally understand just how nice restaurants pull off their signature Michelin-y tricks, like fluffy foams and spherical (yes, spherical) sauces.


As it turns out, it's not too hard to pull off these tricks yourself. All you need is the best ingredients, the right equipment, a scientific understanding of the processes, and a lot of time and patience. Easy! Here are some of my favorite techniques and recipes from my November and December culinary courses.

Seared scampi with shrimp-stock foam

Foams: Foams are one of the most typical — and my personal favorite — trademarks of a fine-dining meal. They're the result of an emulsion (or mixture) of air with a liquid or semi-solid substance. A tasty ingredient, like cream, is whipped until air is so well incorporated into the liquid that bubbles can remain suspended throughout it. We made foams out of shrimp stock, scrambled eggs, and pumpkin, but I'm partial to cheese. My cavatelli with seared scallops, truffles, and parmesan foam at La Farigoule in Vence, France, remains one of my favorite food memories to this day.


Making a foam can go one of two ways. Rich ingredients like eggs and cream contain natural emulsifiers that help foams get airy and stay airy for days at a time. We made our pumpkin and scrambled egg foams, which both contained cream, by blending the ingredients and pouring them into an iSi Gourmet Whip. (That's a cheffy tool that employs pressure and gas to dispense thick foams in pretty peaks.)


Frothier foams, like the shrimp-stock foam pictured above, are often made of thinner liquids that don't contain natural emulsifiers and therefore need a little help to foam up. Before we frothed our shrimp stock with an immersion blender, we added an emulsifier called soy lecithin and a thickener called xanthan gum to help keep the air bubbles from dissipating too quickly. These types of foams don't hold up for longer than a couple of hours, but they sure do make for an interesting textural element.


Deep-fried veal with pea gel and lemon gel, both made with agar-agar

E numbers: Speaking of sciencey words like lecithin and xanthan, I unexpectedly have become much more familiar with food additives, which are nicknamed "E numbers" in the European Union because of their numerical codes (E100-E199 for food colorings, E200-E299 for preservatives, etc.).


Nothing about the word "additive" sounds appetizing or even safe, but many E numbers actually come from natural, undangerous sources, like seaweed and crustaceans. Food manufacturers use E numbers to make foods prettier, creamier, longer-lasting, and countless other things. Chefs use them to make foods more interesting. That's where our class comes in.


One of our most commonly used E numbers in Molecular Cuisine was agar-agar, a thickening agent that comes from certain types of algae. It was our key ingredient for gels, which we made out of oranges, peas, and even the makings of a bloody Mary. Just boil agar-agar with water, blend it with your desired flavors, let the mixture set, and you get fancy Jell-O.


Shrimp tartare with orange, broccoli sauce, and squid-ink spheres

Spherification: Our other favorite E number in Molecular Cuisine was alginate, which also comes from algae. We used it to make culinary spheres, which are a lot like caviar in appearance and texture: They're delicate, wet-looking little balls that pop in your mouth to release flavor — and they look super cool on anything from tartares to potato chips.


One day, someone discovered that when alginate is combined with a type of salt called calcium chloride, A Sphere Is Born. To make black squid-ink spheres, we mixed shrimp stock with squid ink and a tiny bit of alginate. Then we poured the mixture into a dropper and squeezed it bit by bit into a bowl of calcium chloride and water. Boop! Little spheres came to life. We dunked them in plain water to get rid of any algae taste and finally used them as little black flavor bombs for shrimp tartare.


The dry-steaming technique at work

Dry steaming: Dry steaming might actually be my favorite technique we learned in Molecular Cuisine. Though it dirties several pans, it's a worthy production for its impressive results. Take our dry-steamed, curry-infused scampi, for example:


Put a small saucepan on the stove over medium-high heat. Add a little bit of water to the pan to protect it from any damage due to dryness. Put another pan on top of that and add any non-moist flavoring of your choice, like cinnamon, dried chilis, or, in our case, about a half a cup of curry powder. On top of that, add a steamer basket with your protein — in this case, a few scampi. (Use tape to seal the pans together if there are any gaps.) Cover the basket with a lid, walk away for about 15-20 minutes, and open the lid to find that your scampi have been delicately infused with the aroma of curry — without directly touching the spices or the heat source at all.


Dry steaming works because the heat from the bottom pan wafts up toward the middle pan, heating the flavor compounds inside and causing them to infuse whatever is in the top pan. The flavors are volatile (meaning delicate), so the longer you cook the protein after it has been dry steamed, the more flavor it will lose. That's why we simply pan-seared our scampi for a few seconds on each side and enjoyed them right away.


This multicolored salad is an exercise in blanching, searing, steaming, or roasting vegetables according to their colors

Preserving vegetables' colors: Keeping broccoli bright green and carrots vibrantly orange post-cooking is something our chefs have drilled into our culinary brains since my first class, Introduction to Professional Cooking. In Cooking Light, we drilled this further by prepping dozens of vegetables every single day. There are some general rules to follow:


--If you want green vegetables to stay green instead of gray, you should blanch them in salted water and then immediately plunge them into cold water.


--White-ish veggies, like turnips or cauliflower, should be cooked in acidic water (water plus lemon juice or a bit of vinegar); otherwise, they'll turn a bit blue-gray.


--Red, yellow, and orange vegetables (like bell peppers) are flexible, so I tend to blanch them in salted water or simply roast them in the oven, and they always look cute.


Other vegetables are a little trickier. Take the purples, like beautifully jewel-toned carrots, potatoes, and beetroot, for example. Blanch them, and their color will leach out into the water. Roast them, and they'll also become a bit dull. Our magic recipe for beetroot is to cook it en papillote (wrapped into a foil pouch) at 180°C/350°F for 40 minutes. This also works for potatoes. Our purple cauliflower magic involves sous-vide bags and steamer ovens, which, yeah, I would never use at home, so I'd suggest eating it raw. Grate it over pasta or salad, and it looks like violet fairy dust.


Beef-tongue ravioli with carrot-ginger sauce

Beef tongue: Boiling beef tongue is the opposite of modern, technology-involved cooking, but I just had to address that it has been one of my most memorable adventures in culinary school so far. Low in fat, deeply rooted in traditional Florentine cooking, and sexier than chicken breasts, beef tongue seemed the perfect choice for us Cooking Light kids to use as a ravioli filling for a Ganzo Friday Night Dinner, which is frequented by Italians.

A tongue emerges

Beef tongues are shockingly large. As in, when we pulled three hulking tongues out of huge pots of simmering stock (made with water, tomatoes, celery, and onion), I couldn't help but think that they looked like Dutch clogs. Once we successfully laid the cooked, piping-hot tongues on a sheet tray, I was chosen for the lovely task of prying off the skin with knives and tweezers. Then I spent at least an hour chopping them into tiny bits, which I finally flavored with salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon zest, parsley, and garlic. On Friday, my classmates and I stuffed the mixture into beautiful green ravioli, colored with chlorophyll, and served them with hot beef stock and a carrot-ginger sauce. It was a really lovely homage to Florentine-style beef tongue, typically served on a sloppy yet tasty sandwich.

Beef tongue with lemon, parsley, and olive oil as a ravioli filling

Below are some Cooking Light recipes. None of them involve spheres, gels, or tongues, but they are all things I'd happily make again.


I failed to get a nice picture of my ragu, so here's the one that inspired it: Grouper and lime ragout from Burro & Acciughe

Fish ragout


If you, like my mom, aren't too sure about fish ragout, give it a chance. It's great and, if you ask me, a more fun way to eat whitefish than by itself. I made it for staff meal one day at school, and it was a hit. I used leftover cooked umbrine filets, but you can use any lean and flaky whitefish, like bass or tilapia.


Ingredients:

--2 yellow onions, minced

--2 celery stalks, minced

--1 carrot, minced

--2 heaping spoonfuls tomato paste

--4-6 filets of cooked whitefish, cut into small pieces (You could use uncooked; just account for the cooking time)

--Juice and zest of 1 lime, with more if needed

--Red chili flakes or powder, to taste

--Vegetable stock, as needed

--Salt and pepper, to taste

--1 pound of any pasta you like, cooked

--Handful of fresh basil, chopped


Instructions:

1. Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Cook onions, celery, and carrot until soft. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Add tomato paste and stir, allowing the mixture to "toast" for a minute or so. Add fish, lime zest and juice, and chili, and stir.

3. Lower heat slightly. Cook until fish is thoroughly distributed throughout the sauce and flavors meld, about 5 minutes.

3. Deglaze pan with vegetable stock, adding more as needed to create a more liquidy sauce.

4. Stir in pasta vigorously to coat with sauce, adding stock or pasta cooking water, as well as salt and pepper, as needed. When pasta and sauce are fully combined, stir in basil and serve.



Cauliflower-miso puree


I've said it before and I'll say it again: I love baby food — or at least "glorified" baby food that contains enough sophisticated ingredients to qualify as adult food. This cauliflower-miso puree fits the bill. We served it underneath seared beef sirloin and sauteed radicchio, but I'd happily eat it in any case as a substitute for mashed potatoes.


*We used red miso paste in class, which is the strongest variety. For a more subtle flavor, use white or yellow.


Ingredients:

--1 head of cauliflower, separated into florets

--Juice of 1 lemon

--EVOO, as needed

--1 teaspoon miso paste

--Salt and pepper, to taste


Instructions:

1. Cook cauliflower in boiling lemon water (to preserve the color!) until soft, about 6 minutes.

2. Drain and place in a blender with olive oil, miso paste, and salt and pepper. Blend until smooth, adding more olive oil as needed to make it creamy.


Rabbit ragout, Cooking-Light style


For health purposes, our rabbit ragout contains no flour, no wine, and a lot less oil/fat than the classic — but it's still luscious and full of flavor, thanks to the long cooking time.


Ingredients:

--2 whole rabbits (about 3 pounds), cut into 1-inch pieces

--Salt and pepper, to taste

--2 yellow onions, minced

--2 celery stalks, minced

--1 carrot, minced

--Vegetable stock, as needed

--1 14-ounce can tomatoes with juice

--2 bay leaves

--Fresh thyme leaves from 1 sprig

--Fresh rosemary from 1 sprig, chopped


Instructions:

1. Season the rabbit on both sides with salt and pepper. Add just enough olive oil to a good nonstick pan to keep the rabbit from sticking, and sear until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Set aside.

2. Add onion, celery, carrot, and a little bit of olive oil to another large nonstick pan (this helps reduce the amount of oil needed). Season with salt and pepper and saute until caramelized and softened, around 20 minutes. Deglaze the pan with vegetable stock if too much browning occurs.

3. When vegetables are cooked, add tomatoes, bay leaves, thyme, rosemary, rabbit, and another cup of stock. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the rabbit is tender, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

4. Remove bay leaves and serve with pasta, polenta, or mashed potatoes. (We served it with fresh pasta and a little bit of finely chopped pistachio.)

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