Bulldog Bites

a_day_at_el_bulliFor Christmas Mom and Dad gave me “A Day at el Bulli” which is a large and beautiful book illustrating (in gorgeous full page color photographs) just what the title says, from dawn over the Mediteranean to early the next morning when the trash is put in the dumpster. Included are details of the entire menu from their 2008 season including recipes with ingredients.

Stepping back a bit for those who aren’t familiar with el Bulli, it’s a small restaurant on the Catalan coast about two hours north of Barcelona, Spain co-owned and directed by chef Ferran Adrià (who also happens to be just about my age…). Almost single-handedly chef Adrià and his restaurant are responsible for the lastest haute cuisine trend of serving food in foams and gels and in many other unfamiliar forms.

These dishes don’t lend themselves to everyday cooking, but the ideas behind them do inspire many dishes, and putting them together is something that could be done for a special occasion. One weekend in January Alison and I invited a few people over to our (then) construction site of a home for dinner, and the opportunity to try out the book as a cookbook presented itself.

It began with a sketch on paper, as Señor Adrià seems to do according to the book:

miso soup start

Señor Adrià has recently been inspired by kaiseke, the royal cuisine of Japan, so some of the menu in the book are based on Japanese ingredients and components, many of which are normally dried and/or fermented and easily available at gourmet food stores. And there’s nothing more soothing on a cold winter night than a nice bowl of miso soup, so I chose to re-think that dish in the spirit of Ferran Adrià as a first course for our dinner when I’d be able to uses many sub-dishes in the book that make up other dishes.

As I mentioned, in some of his dishes Señor Adrià uses unusual techniques to isolate flavors and then present them in unusual formats (airs, foams, solid, liquid, etc). Lacking many of Señor Adrià’s magical processing aids and ingredients (which are natural at their base — made from seaweed, salts, isolated proteins, sugars, etc. and are commonly used in packaged foods), I was a bit limited in the possibilities, but I was able to do a little magic with commonly available ingredients.

Miso soup is made of dashi stock together with miso paste and vegetables and (often) chunks of tofu. Dashi stock is made out of seaweed (specifically kombu, or kelp) and bonito flakes boiled and then strained. The cookbook offered recipes for a rich dashi, as well as a separate recipe for making pickled kombu. Also, many of the recipes seem to use potato stock in some way, something I’d never thought of making or eating, and I thought it would help extend the idea of “warm and comforting” that initially appealed to me about miso soup even if it’s not directly tied to it.

It goes without saying that I would serve the complete soup as something other than a warm liquid…I made it a gelatin cube instead, and placed that at the center of the dish. I started sketching the dish beginning there. Around that static cube would be the components of the soup: hot broths to represent that aspect of soup, but composed of single ingredients — potato stock, and onion broth — to explore those flavors in depth.

Soybeans are a major component in the soup, fermented into miso paste; brewed into the tamari/soy sauce; and reformatted into solid hunks of soy protein and fat as tofu.

Seaweed is another important component of miso soup, as a base for the dashi, as are the bonito flakes. What seemed missing from this plate was a salad, and the book offered a pickled kombu salad recipe. I thought I could take this another step by drying the bonito flakes, grinding them into a powder, then dusting the pickled kombu with this, making a cock-eyed dashi salad.

Tofu can easily be acquired in Maine, and in fact the Belfast Coop now offers tofu made in Waldo County from Maine grown soy beans. At the same time, I have had a quart jar of my own dried soybeans staring at me since the end of the growing season. They are the remnants of my garden row of edamame soybean plants, the edemame pods that “got away” — matured beyond the green phase — and that I subsequently dried and shelled and stored in the jar. So I thought, “I know people who have made tofu at home, it couldn’t be that hard…” I looked up recipes on the Internet, and found out the the magic ingredient, what turns soy milk into solid tofu, is gypsum — Calcium Sulfate — which I have in my brewing supplies (it helps harden water which certain beers depend on) and which was utterly appropriate to our current construction project. It turns out that the process of making soy milk is very simple — soak the beans, grind them up (the KitchenAid wand is great for this) then cook the milk out of the grounds. After filtering out the grounds you have hot soy milk. From there, just make sure the soy milk is 165 degrees F, add a slurry of gypsum powder to it, mix, cover, wait 15 minutes, and then you will see a floating white curd formed in the now clear soy whey. It’s very much like cheese making. Ladle the curds into cheese cloth set in a cheese mold, cover and apply a weight for 15 minutes, and you now have tofu.

I represented the fermented/brewed side of soy beans by drying out about a 1/4 cup of tamari into about a tablespoon of crumbly black goo. I would add a few chunks of that to the top of the bland tofu for a real yin and yang soy bean product.

According to the book, Señor Adrià also likes to be creative with cocktails, and in that spirit I gelatinized sake and a sake-tini (vodka and sake with a pickled onion suspended in it) and offered them as cold cubes with the dish.

The guests seemed to enjoy the experiment. I thought it all tasted better than I could have hoped. Several people got addicted to the solid bits of tamari all by itself, asking for more of that, as well as more of the soft, warm, and rich pillows of tofu. I was very pleased with how everything turned out, and especially liked the kombu salad dusted with bonito powder — but I love all things sour, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. Alison said that she liked the whole experience too, but wondered why go to the trouble of deconstructing miso soup when we might have been just as satisfied with a simple bowl of hot miso soup instead? Why overprocess ingredients to create unusual forms when Alice Waters points out that when you start with the highest quality ingredients, you can’t improve them through processing, therefore aren’t we best able to experience those ingredients with the simplest and most straight-forward presentation of them?

Why?

The book, as I mentioned, is mostly color photographs on glossy paper with brief captions. The meaty text of the book is inserted on slightly smaller sheafs of thin colored paper. These discourses, like little lectures interrupting a slide show, are on topics such as “The early years of Ferran Adrià” (he played minor league professional futbol for six years), “How does the reservation system work?” (they get over two million requests for 8,000 seatings in their six month season); “Shopping in Roses” their local town where they try to source as much of the ingredients as possible”; and “The kitchens at el Bulli” (an architectural and functional explanation). Ultimately taken together these lectures describe their philosophy of serving remarkable food in remarkable ways.

However, if I had to pick a short statement from that text of how Señor Adrià would answer Alison’s question it would be that he is “radically reassessing the cooking techniques” applied to all dishes and ingredients in all known cuisines. By reading through the book it’s clear that serving fresh and local ingredients are the first priority of their cooking, not serving weird versions of those ingredients. The “weird” creative methods, such as deconstruction, applied to those ingredients are their effort to feature what they have determined are the essential components of those ingredients, and if that means experiencing that component in a different form than is conventional, then they will do that, but only if conventional techniques are less satisfactory. In addition, when we are presented with flavors in radically different forms than we are accustomed, we are prodded to re-experience the flavor, instead of comparing it to our expectation. When we bite an apple, we compare that apple’s flavor and texture and aroma to our experience of eating every other apple we’ve ever eaten. When Señor Adrià presents you with apple in the form of pasta (I’m making this up), but with every bit of apple flavor available in the raw ingredient present in that pasta, you can’t compare that to “a bite of apple” and so can reassess your relationship to apple flavors without any preconceived expectations. Likewise, if Señor Adrià were able to construct a cool crispy globe flavored with lobster essence, it would jar us into re-experiencing that flavor and texture.

In response to the Alice Waters maxim — start with the best ingredients, and do as little to them as possible — I would point out that some of the ingredients she uses are highly processed. Cheese, for example, is radically altered from its initial form of fluid milk using disparate processing aids: rennet, cultures, and salt. If we followed Ms. Waters strictly, we would drink a glass of excellent goat milk alongside a simple salad of greens instead of creating her signature warm goat cheese and arugula salad. But vinegar is also highly processed (double-fermented fruit juice), so the dressing would then be oil and herbs only…and oil, actually, is a semi-processed ingredient, so one might simply toss whole olives with arugula and herbs to go with a glass of milk. Of course that might not be a bad first course to a dinner, but I would argue that her signature salad is quite a different culinary experience, and is not the worse for using a few excellent, but highly processed, ingredients. When Señor Adrià makes pine nut marshmallows (pine nut oil, geletin, and milk which is then coated with ground toasted pine nuts), is that so different from Ms. Waters roasting garlic for hours in olive oil until it’s a paste, then serving that as a spread on hunks of bread? I would argue that the only difference is that Ms. Waters uses “classical” cooking techniques to reinvent garlic as a flavor and texture, and Señor Adrià uses classical and non-classical cooking techniques to re-imagine pine nuts. How can we say that only classical techniques are “correct?” If so, it’s a long and winding road to reach consensus on what “classical” techniques really encompass, and I dare you to even stare down that path.

Another way to approach Señor Adrià’s dishes are to imagine an alien arriving at his restaurant for its first ever meal of Earth’s food. Would that alien question the foams, gels, airs, cryo-crystals, and powders of flavors and their arrangement on the serving plates? Of course not. And who are we to stand over that alien’s shoulder (or glozznel, or whatever appendage would be appropriate) to say “that’s not supposed to look like that” and “he didn’t make that right” over and over? What could be more annoying? And ultimately ineffective. The alien will decide what tastes good and what doesn’t directly — no meta kibbutz necessary. And that’s how all cuisine should be measured — directly. Because one cusine’s delicious sweet maple syrup is another cusine’s weird boiled tree sap. And so on.

So that’s a long long way of saying that a deconstructed miso soup, rather than shattering a satisfying whole, explodes it into number of new possible (and possibly more satisfying) flavors and textures. Speaking for myself alone, I can say that my first sip of the hot potato stock was a revelation: earthy like dirt, but sweet dirt with the mouth-filling starchy satisfaction. The onion broth (which I’d served once before) was delicate and aromatic with an onion’s fresh essence, as well as being warm and comforting. A sip of potato stock and then a sip of onion broth felt like embracing the enormous warm marble columns of the sturdy foundation of western cuisine…and this is in the context of an eastern cuisine dish. The fresh tofu was grainy but silkly like delicious clay mud clouds with a sharp ethereal grassy note. The tamari paste was a punch in the mouth of gritty salt and sour smelly socks. Together they united in their oppositeness. And the pickled kombu salad, julienned into juicy thin strips and tossed with rich fishy powder, was a reset button for my palate: an ice pick of vinegar contained in the crunchy but supple strips surrounded by a wafting of ocean stink, like standing on a summer beach at low tide eating a warm pickle. Only better.

Everything but the potato stock is contained in some form in the soup, but none of those flavors would be as distinctive or powerful as they were after being teased out and re-submitted to the palate. Obviously I got a lot out of it. Alison and others may not have had an equally rich experience, but I bet they enjoyed being poked in the ribs a bit by a first course. (We had a beef stew for the main course, which was very good on its own.) Perhaps the level of enjoyment depended on your level of food obsession, so I couldn’t criticize someone who didn’t really “get” it, but likewise I hope I’ve explained how it’s equally reasonable to have gotten a big kick out of the exercise. It’s not every day cooking, but el Bulli isn’t every day dining, either. And I would argue that that either experience might echo against future meals that might lead us to ask “What would Ferran do…” and in that way multiply the pleasure, because ultimately “A Day at el Bulli” is about the pleasure of a good meal.

4 thoughts on “Bulldog Bites

  1. WOW
    Thanks for the penetrating essay. Will that fit in your Tilth Cusp?
    I read the book before shipping it and vowed that if any of our European traveling party scored a reservation on the 0.4% chance, I’d go… any time. (Actually, a lesser chance: Our European traveling party was 5, so we would need 5 of the 8000 seats. He also said “regular customers” get preference, further slimming the chances.)
    But I digress – and overanalyze.
    I made “simmered black beans” a couple days ago, a recipe from By MARTHA ROSE SHULMAN in the Health section of the NYT. Soak black beans. Cook on very low heat for 2 hours with water, onion, garlic and cilantro. Excellent.
    Served the beans alongside Jamie Oliver’s Mothership Tomatoes. Peel and seed and chunk fresh ripe tomatoes (hothouse heirloom tomatoes are now at the Farmers Market), put in a strainer and liberally dose with salt (I’m still using the stuff from Brittany), toss and salt again, toss and let stand for 15 minutes. Serve with pepper, a pinch of crumbled dried Mexican oregano and olio nuovo.
    That meal seems pretty basic and natural and unprocessed to me.
    How would Señor Eric break that down? V8 Juice might be another worthy subject. Fascinating.
    By the way, how do you make potato stock? Onion broth?

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  2. Potato Stock
    (from “A Day at el Bulli”)

    400 g potatoes
    500 g water
    salt

    Clean and cut the potatoes, skin on, into 1/2 cm slices

    Cover with water and boil over a medium heat for one hour. Remove the froth continuously.

    Strain carefully to prevent the stock from becoming cloudy.

    Season with salt.

    Onion Broth
    (from Eric)

    two large onions diced small
    1 quart water
    pinch of salt

    Bring the water to a boil, add the onions, bring the water back to a boil, then turn the heat off.

    Let steep for at least 30 minutes. Strain. Season with salt

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  3. V8 would be a great deconstruction project because it’s got a great vegetable/tomato/salt/spice thing happening. I could envision tomato gel strips (like pasta) in a clove and caraway oil with “meatballs” made of carrot, celery, and onion (separately)…

    As for your dish — there’s no obligation to deconstruct every dish…good tomatoes and good beans are a good thing, and I don’t think Adria would argue against that. But he might have fun trying to discover what about the dish (texture? flavor? temperature? a combo?) is it that’s so satisfying, and then try to reimagine it with an emphasis on that quality. Or present a very different set of ingredients (blood oranges and sesame paste…) that can present the same qualities.

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  4. Better than eating a warm pickle on a beach at low tide? Fat chance!

    Nice essay. I find this same Ferran/Alice dichotomy whenever I travel from here to Italy. French and Italian cuisines are based on the most of the same ingredients but they are completely different experiences because the French tend to process stuff and turn it into impossibly rich, delectable morsels, often served in an intense sauce. The French have even figured out how to process a duck’s liver inside the duck! The Italians, meanwhile, tend to leave the ingredients alone, cooking each one to its own existential perfection, then serving them alongside each other in sublime partnerships. I don’t go to Spain enough.

    Like any other art form, cooking arose from function: making ingredients safe and easy to eat. However, as you are doing this, it’s not hard to add the additional layer of making it pleasant to eat. Pleasure: that universally subjective and complex muse. What would we be eating without her?

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