Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Fat Duck Cookbook, by Heston Blumenthal

Originally released as the Big Fat Duck Cookbook (and selling for the enormous price of $250), I recently got ahold of the plebian version of his cookbook when it turned up on the shelves of my local library. As much as Heston Blumenthal’s 3-star cooking is firmly grounded in the latest scientific understanding of the elements of food, the end results are more of a synaesthetic fantasy. In other words, it’s an enormously fun read, but the food is not something anyone in their right mind would be tempted to recreate at home. Here’s a taste:

“The first opportunity to try out what we talked about came in October 2006. Moët & Chandon were honouring Nick Knight with a masked ball at Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s Gothic Revival villa, and he invited me to provide canapés. Nick had created a dream-like set-up, with fencers in one room and what appeared to be a leopard pacing through another. We turfed one of the rooms, ‘planted’ lime trees, set up a tape loop of English summer sounds – the buzz of wasps, pastoral violins, Richie Benaud’s cricket commentary on a distant radio – created by my friend the DJ and producer Matthew Herbert, and wheeled in an ice-cream van and a couple of handcarts to serve up black-and-white slush puppies (renamed Dalmatian puppies) and a sundae with vanilla and strawberry ice cream garnished with black olive and leather purée. There were sorbet-pink balloons filled with helium and cut-grass oil; each was stamped with the words ‘SUCK ME,’ and when people did, the room was filled not only with squeaky voices, but with another classic summer aroma.

“There was also a camping stove serving up Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream, but the real magic featured in the presentation of chewy sweets with edible wrappers… Occasionally, too, the guests crowded round the camping stove would be amazed to see a tail-coated magician pluck a petal from a rose, drop it into a frying pan and toss it until it turned into an egg, whereupon he cracked it into the pan, which he then handed to a chef who used it to make ice cream …” (121)

For all of you hoping that I might try to emulate some of these feats of legerdemain for this this year’s Lar-B-Q, I’m sorry to disappoint. Food is fun, and the Lar-B-Q is always leavened with a fair amount of silliness (I am working on a bacon bourbon caramel popcorn for this year’s event), but turning food into a circus act, sideshow, or freak show (honestly: leather purée?) is so not my thing. Blumenthal is fascinated by the science of cookery and, for a little, light, bedtime reading picks up a hefty catalog of laboratory equipment to stimulate his dreams of new culinary creations.

While I share his fascination, my bent in the kitchen is all in the other direction. He is driven to create dishes that are ever more refined, more elaborate in their production, and more reliant on the latest scientific technology. In my cooking, I’m increasingly interested in returning to basics and seeing what can be done without electrical gadgets – with a mortar and pestle, with fire, with my own senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste.

This contrast in cooking styles was brought home to me, as I brought Heston’s book along with me on a trip this past weekend to Memphis. Mention Memphis to other people and they might think of Elvis, Graceland, and Sun Records, but Memphis makes me think of barbecue. Although we were lucky enough to score tickets to hear Nora Jones at the grand, old Orpheum theater, we preceded that with a pilgrimage to the shrine of Memphis barbecue: Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous restaurant. (The dry-rubbed ribs were nicely spiced and almost as good as mine; the pulled pork from the shoulder was dry and disappointing.) The day before, making a mere 60-mile deviation from our route, we sought out the 17th Street Bar and Grill, in Murphysboro, Illinois, whose barbecue team had won more top awards in the Memphis in May competition than any other team in history. The ribs here were also very fine, with just the right touch of fruitwood smoke, but still not as good as mine.

(I don’t mean to brag, since the superiority of the ribs I cook at home is not necessarily a reflection on any skill of mine; there’s only so much magic a restaurant can work with the sad material that commercially-produced pork has become.)

Barbecue is about as basic, as elemental, as cooking can get. Dig a pit, make some charcoal, cook the meat in the smoke of the charcoal, slow and low, until done. In many ways, the simpler, the cruder the setup, the better the barbecue. It’s the antithesis of Heston Blumenthal’s “laboratory,” where he cooks up his food. And yet. And yet. As I chewed on the tougher, connective tissue in the pork shoulder and ribs, I couldn’t help thinking that even a tradition as venerable as barbecue might still be improved, that some cross between Heston’s high-tech and barbecue’s low-tech might yield the tastiest ribs, pulled pork, or brisket ever.

Specifically, the technique of cooking meat sous-vide or in vacuum-sealed bags has enormous potential for breaking down the tougher, connective tissues while never taking the temperature of the meat beyond medium-rare and drying it out. Can one have juicy, meltingly tender ribs that still have the crunchy exterior and deep, layered flavor of traditional barbecue? That would be the holy grail!

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