Time for something new?

The recipe

Two weeks ago, I received a long anticipated phone call. “It’s here, you can come and fetch it”. Upon hearing those sweet words I got into the car and drove over to the Windhoek Book Den. I had bought probably the most expensive book ever sold by the shop and they needed a trolley to bring it to the car.

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet.

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking
Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking

The book consists of six volumes and some 2,400 pages and costs a month’s installment on a medium-sized family home.

It covers just about anything and everything to do with cooking: history and fundamentals, techniques and equipment, animals and plants, ingredients and preparations, plated-dish recipes and a kitchen manual (which is printed on washable paper).

An image from Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking
An image from Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking

After two weeks, the book still stands on my desk, unopened. Besides flipping through the kitchen manual, I have not even removed the plastic wrap. Never has a book intimidated me so much. I suspect that this book will change my life irreversibly and forever. Cooking will never be the same. Hence, the need to cling to my comfort zone, just a little bit longer.

Judging by the sheer number of websites and blogs, books and TV shows, restaurants and chefs dedicated to “molecular” or “modernist” cuisine, science has found its way into the kitchen over the past decade or so. And with it, food, cooking and eating have become surreal entertainment.

An image from Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking
An image from Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking

Flaming sorbet that does not melt. Ice cream that stretches like bubblegum. Butter made from peas. “Astronaut” ice cream that is taken to the moon and never melts. Instant noodles made by pouring cold liquids into hot soups. Just the other day I read of a project that looks for ways to create meals using a 3-D printer.

Is it all a fad? Will it last and take the place of a well-cooked, medium rare steak, or a well-fluffed omelet?

I believe that science is here to stay, and if Myhrvold and company have any say in that matter, that even home cooks will adopt modernist techniques, equipment and ingredients to create some food magic. Why?

An image from Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking
An image from Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking

Science makes life easier. Cooking proteins such as meat, fish and chicken (but also vegetables and eggs) in a water bath, sous vide style, reduces the time slaving over a hot stove. Home cooks like that, especially if they have kids. Pressure marinating vegetables in a cream siphon changed with N2O, takes a matter of minutes, not days of waiting. Brilliant.

Science brings consistency. Modernist cooking is all about producing consistent results. Hence, it requires accurate measurements. Temperature, volume, and ratios are often a home cook’s biggest enemies. Forget about cups, teaspoons, tablespoons etc. as measures of volume. The problem: not all cups, teaspoons and tablespoons are the same hence you may have too little or too much. Not good enough. Weigh everything, even your egg yolks. Cooking your steak to an internal temperature of 53°C is far more accurate than cooking it to “medium-rare”. Experienced cooks and chefs may better guess when your steak is medium-rare, but ultimately it is still a guess. Good thermometers do not guess; simple as that.

modernist-cuisine

Science can produce more healthy food. Ever wondered why cream gets stiff when whipped? It is because of its high fat content. Want a lower fat option? Simply add some xanthan gum to milk and whip. The addition of guar gum to a homemade salad dressing not only reduces the amount of fat required, but also prevents the emulsion from splitting.

Science is fun. Who does not want to eat something exciting? Who does not want to be amazed by their food? All it takes is a little understanding of a few science principles and some chemistry. The truth behind Heston Blumenthal’s flaming apple sorbet is gellan gum, the same additive that is used to make gummy bears. It can withstand temperatures up to 120°C which allows you to douse your favorite sorbet with vodka or whiskey or something similar and light it. As long as the flame burns below 120°C, your sorbet will not melt. N Zorbit M or modified tapioca maltodextrin turn fats into powders.  Methylcellose is a stabilizer that is soluble in cold water and gels at higher temperatures (above 47°C) thus enabling the chef to make instant noodles by pouring a liquid substance into a hot soup and watch them turn into set noodles right in front of your very eyes.

modernist-cuisine

So, will we see Namibia embracing modernist cooking anytime soon? I fear not. Getting to know the potential of these new ingredients takes time, especially if you have no chemistry background. It takes serious experimenting, which takes not only time (which many commercial chefs have little off) but also resources and commitment. The existing technology is getting cheaper but is still expensive here. Centrifuges, homogenizers and rotovac’s all cost a pretty penny, and might be out of reach for commercial chefs, let alone home cooks.

Some ingredients are hard to get and are not locally available. Hell, I have tried and other than agar-agar, xanthan gum and guar gum, my enquiries have provoked only blank stares or nervous giggles. Namibia is not a country filled with curiosity or the desire to innovate. Thankfully, however, we have the internet.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in the way of modernist cuisine in Namibia, is our unwillingness to try something new. Get confused and frustrated. Try something new and make it our own. Move things forward. Obtain new knowledge. Push aside the fear for the unknown. I suspect chefs and diners are equal in their commitment to the tried and tested.

Melktert ice cream
Melktert ice cream

Just last night I dined at a new restaurant in town. After speaking to others and reading some reviews I looked forward to trying something new. Yet the menu contained only the bog standard Namibian fare. The food was well cooked, but I could not muster the courage to finish yet another lamb shank. My fellow diners finished their sole, but I could see no enthusiasm in their eyes. Nothing out of the ordinary, down to the same old ice cream flavours: strawberry, chocolate, hazelnut, Amarula, chocolate and mint. Sadly, it has all been done before and will be attempted many times more in the future.

For this week, I provide a recipe that celebrates the traditional flavours of melktert – a favourite with most – but as an ice cream not a tart. And if you could get your hands on some guar gum (try the health food section of Pick-and-Pay, or the whole-food section of SuperSpar) add 1/8th of a teaspoon to the mix. It makes a huge difference.

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85 Comments Add yours

  1. Rhoda Jones says:

    This sounds absolutely amazing and there should be more chef’s in restaurants willing to try something new. I have not yet been at a restaurant (apart from Garnish) that has been GOOD, however even there I find that if I have the correct ingredients, I can make it myself, and in the cases of most other restaurants, I can cook better than they can.

    I absolutely love your recipes and am looking forward to trying them over December when there is some peace and quiet! Thank you for a wonderful blog – it really is very interesting.

    1. Thank you! Stay in touch and please let me know how these recipe work for you. I am so excited!

  2. ablue2 says:

    Wow! The photography is amazing. I now want these books. Well written!

    1. I agree, the pics are brilliant. They have recently released a book on the photography. I have it on order and can’t wait for it to arrive 🙂

  3. That melktert ice cream looks amazing. I agree it would be amazing to be able to go to a place a try something “new”. That being said I also understand that they have to sell the food. Most (?) many people don’t want to try something new, or their idea of new isn’t exactly thrilling to those with a more adventuresome spirit when it comes to dinner. I guess for many it is a double edge sword.
    Good luck with those books.

    1. I agree. Economic reality often takes preference over creativity. Yet, I believe the two can be combined, the challenge is to figure out how. Sadly, for many, this seems to be a bridge too far. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

  4. Wow. So got to get my hands on a set of those books

    1. They are so worth it. They are a heavy read. Takes you on a mad roller coaster looking for new ingredients that you most likely never heard of, new equipment that is to be found only in science labs, and techniques that are truly intense and sometimes quirky. Be prepared: this is a journey – a weird and wonderful one. Good luck!

    1. Thanks for reblogging.

  5. I love you passion and your post has inspired me to try harder.

    1. Thank you taking the time to visit and comment. That was very kind of you.

  6. generationhr says:

    My daughter (age 20) and I do most of our cooking by smell, taste, and touch with minimal reliance on measuring cups and spoons and the kitchen scale. No two meals ever come out quite alike but we enjoy treating cooking as an art rather than as a science. Terry Portillo http://generationhr.wordpress.com/

    1. Awesome 🙂 Many people miss the point: cooking together is not only about eating together, but also about the quality time shared in putting it on the table: tasting, discussing, tweaking, learning, making a mess, cleaning up. Where else do we get to do this but in the kitchen?

      1. I completely agree, I feel as though the social side of cooking will be lost as it become more about science. Yes the food may taste better but will it have any heart and fond memories to go with it or will cooking be a series of mathematical problems that will remind us of algebra class at school?

      2. Thanks for the contact. Much appreciated. I feel one does not have to happen at the cost of the other. The science side can be great fun, and most of it is not complicated. Making ice cream with dry ice or liquid nitrogen enthrall kids! They get to be Harry Potter! Popping a magic berry and experiencing how some sour turns into something sweet is magic – even for the most cynical adult. It does not have to be complicated, or just about the science. It is about fun and being creative; giving others that something special and unexpected. And we get to learn a lot of cool stuff along the way. Give it a bash and see what responses you get!

      3. I think I am going to have to this weekend and write about it! I’m not usually so cynical I think it’s because it is the morning perhaps.

      4. I get it, not a morning person either 🙂 Let me know how it worked out for you.

    2. Ah ha, but cooking (at least baking) is science! So much science and if you put things in in the wrong quantities, no magic(science!).

      1. 🙂 Did not know that breads and cakes are nothing but set foams? Science is more than just accurate measurements, it is the chemistry between ingredients that is truly amazing.

    1. Thanks for reblogging.

    1. Thanks for the reblogging.

  7. Lovely post and amazing photos! Don’t be daunted! Go into the new food world! As you embark on your new food adventure, we pray it takes you to amazing and love-filled new places. (http://sophiaspockets.wordpress.com/2014/01/13/a-prayer-for-new-beginnings/)

    1. Thank you Sophia! It only it was little easier to get the modernist ingredients here on the south-western tip of Africa.

  8. Shreya says:

    The pictures made me hungry ! Awesome recipe and thanks for sharing

    1. Thank you for the kind words. It means a lot.

  9. wow, amazing! Very inspiring pictures. amazing work 😉 congratulations! I had just started a blog recently and you really got me inspired now. You can check us out on http://www.hybridablog.com if you have time

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I’ll make the time to visit your blog sometime soon. Good luck and all the best with new venture.

  10. msodhi2000 says:

    My mouth was actually watering at this point!

    1. Cool! Thanks for taking the time.

  11. Monica DiNatale says:

    You can’t make a great recipe without experimenting! Keep trying!

    1. I agree. It is what makes it fun 🙂

  12. Eating healthy is good for everyone

  13. the pics are beautiful as is your heart-felt concern. i so understand about the use of science in food these days and yet not being able to use the newness enough. Somehow, even though the science fancies me I yet love the simplicity of all the foods and the warmth of food cooked with love and estimates.
    Congratulations on being freshly pressed and good luck.

    1. Thank you very much for the kindness.

  14. Wow – these graphics are FANTASTIC!

    1. Yes, indeed the folks at Modernist Cuisine did a spectacular job.

  15. It looks so delicious!!!

  16. I just read about this book online a few days ago. I am so curious, I want on for myself! Thanks for sharing. I am going to check out our library…..maybe?

    1. It is really worth a try. I know of no library in my part of the world that would consider buying a book such as this.

  17. eldascloset says:

    u got me with that pic! looks delicious

    1. Yes. The guys at Modernist Cuisine did some amazing images. I know they have just recently produced a book of photographs from their project. It should be great. Makes me wish I could afford one of those high speed cameras. A man can only dream 🙂

  18. Scal says:

    wow these pictures are stunning , changes your perception not only in cooking but the world .I hope many more people will start to take a fresh approach to everything they do . If i get get some liquid nitrogen i would love to try some of these new techniques especially pastry related . lovely post thank you 🙂

    1. Hi there. I use LN in many dessert courses. Without a doubt, makes the best ice cream and sorbet. Let me know if you try something. Thanks for stopping by.

  19. There is drool all over my keyboard. Inspiring. I need to go brainstorm something new!!

    1. Thank you. It is very kind of you.

  20. tony4082 says:

    Reblogged this on playmaker2415 and commented:
    When you see this picture it let’s me know it’s time to eat and stay healthy so that we as people can enjoy life to its fullest and help one another.

    1. Thanks for the reblogging.

  21. Thank you very much for sharing this!!

      1. Will get back for sure!! #Greetings

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