Friday, March 15, 2013

Postmodernist Cuisine

A great meal is an incredible way to engage the senses and bring people together. Delicious food is amazing. I love to eat, and some days I even feel like I’m a pretty good cook. On other days, my work in the kitchen can be a disaster. On those days, I’ve often wondered why things turned out the way they did. My curiosity has led me to read hundreds of articles and many books explaining the “whys” of cooking. I’ve done a significant amount of work in both basic and clinical science, and so understanding how ingredients are transformed into delicious food has been a fascinating, enjoyable experience. Along the way, I’ve gleaned a few tips that have really improved my food.

As I understand it, Nathan Myhrvold’s book Modernist Cuisine may be the most influential book on cooking science. Sure, there are plenty of food science texts that explain many similar concepts, but these tend to be read by people in food manufacturing. Those books are best known for their contributions to a processed food industry that has flooded the market with cheap, unhealthy foods that are specifically tuned to satisfy basic cravings for nourishment. Modernist Cuisine presents so much more than that. It’s a confident title, but it’s also Myhrvold’s name for a movement that uses a rigorous understanding of food science to produce technically perfect, wonderfully artistic foods that delight the eater. The ingredients and techniques of Modernist Cuisine are unfamiliar to many people, but the results can be spectacular. Unfortunately, the amount of work that goes into the preparation of these dishes may be equally stunning. What may be great for a Michelin-starred restaurant is difficult to pull off in the home, and nearly impossible to incorporate into a busy schedule with work, children, and other responsibilities. The excellent companion book Modernist Cuisine at Home simplifies this somewhat, but many of the recipes may still be too complex for a busy weeknight meal.

As I’ve cooked in a more technical fashion, I’ve found that the things I’ve learned from Modernist Cuisine have actually made some of my cooking much easier. Sous vide is the ultimate slow cooker. Modern hydrocolloids can simplify sauces without diluting flavor. Pressure cooking may not be new, but it’s an awesome to whip out a delicious meal in just a few minutes. In other words, most home kitchens are not using many of the greatest cooking innovations available. You could be eating better without much effort!

My approach to cooking can be explained simply. I love eating food that tastes delicious, and I’ll go to almost any lengths to make it. However, my time is also limited, so only things that are fairly simple make it into my regular rotation. Hopefully I’ll be able to communicate a few of these dishes here, and I’ll do my best to cite the source of my inspiration. My other interest is in food science and safety. I don’t buy a lot of fad health claims, and you’ll be sure to hear from me about many of these in the future. I am often wrong, but I try not to be wrong for long. As a general principle, I strongly support Michael Pollan’s advice to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He and I would disagree on a lot of things—including the meaning of the word food. But overall, I love the sentiment. Don’t worry too much about individual nutrients. Adjust your diet if it begins to stray into frequent indulgence of unhealthy foods, but don’t be anxious about what you eat. Cook for yourself and enjoy delicious, wholesome food.

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