Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Great British Adventures in Meat Glue

I love The Great British Menu me. It is hands down the greatest cooking programme of the moment, attracting some of the best chefs in Britain cooking some of the best and most exciting food in Britain. It seems to generate more traffic on twitter than any other show or sporting event (though to be fair I do follow a lot of chefs) and showcases more talent than anything Simon Cowell has vomited onto our screens.

In between the cooking they mix in some nonsense about the Olympics/Queen’s birthday/whatever it is this year and everyone pretends to give two shits about the theme while cooking their socks off. This year has lead to a great deal of rubbish talked about parallels between Olympic athletes and chefs, training, focus, dedication (it’s what you need...) and most entertainingly chefs ‘testing’ their dish on an athlete to see what they can learn (I think I missed the gastronomic criticism event at the last Olympics, is it part of the modern pentathlon or something?)!

Anyway, like GBM I have digressed into talking rubbish about the Olympics. Let’s not forget the food. The use of modern ingredients that change the texture or composition of the food is something that has really come to the fore this year in the programme and been the subject of much debate. These tools of so called ‘molecular gastronomy’ (a horrible phrase) are enabling chefs to create effects such as spherification where a flavoured liquid is suspended in a thin membrane creating caviar like balls and play about with temperature, creating cold things that ‘should’ be hot and vice versa. Up until now the use of these ingredients on TV has been part of the magician’s secret, something that is used behind the scenes, for example in helping Heston Blumenthal to create some of his spectacular illusions.

This science of food and cooking has been around for some time; Harold McGee’s excellent On Food and Cooking, first published in 1984 is a weighty and inspiring tome on the subject and the pioneering cooking of people such as Ferran Adria was always going to disseminate in some way to the mainstream. Companies such as MSK and Infusions4Chefs have enabled chefs without access to laboratories and teams of researchers to start using the products and techniques in their own creations and we are now starting to see talented chefs who have worked with them in various kitchens and have real experience in using them as part of their culinary repertoire to really ‘push the boundaries’ (sorry, slipping into GBM Olympic-speak again there).

So far so good then? Well no, not really. Much like foraging, the other current hot topic, there is a real danger that these techniques will be overused or done for the sake of it. As an example - a dish of steak and chips, done well (though not well done!) is a thing of beauty. You are not going to improve it by adding spherified tomato caviar, mushroom ice cream and a BĂ©arnaise foam just to show you can or by garnishing it with a bushel of Parson’s Spunkflower freshly pulled from a hedgerow just because it’s edible. If it doesn’t belong, it doesn’t belong however finely crafted or exciting it may be.

I have to admit to having a fascination with playing with my food though. I have in the past experimented with spherification and with hot jellies (though I swear yer honour I did not inhale) and I am really excited by the possibilities afforded not just by some of the newer ingredients but by the equipment now available such as water baths and dehydrators. There is nothing like eating a dish and being surprised and delighted by something unexpected or a new perspective on a classic flavour. One particular ingredient that I have fancied playing with ever since I read about it in Under Pressure, Thomas Keller’s book on sous vide cooking is Transglutiminase or Meat Glue. Basically it does what it says on the tin, combining meat protein while remaining tasteless and undetectable. Up until recently I have only seen it for sale in quantities too big and too expensive for my purposes (ie. messing about in my own kitchen for the fun of it). Lately I have found a US website called Modernist Pantry that sells it (and other items) in small, home use packages and ships internationally, so for the sake of about $14 I could hardly say no! Armed with my sachet of ‘Moo Glue’ (honestly that is the brand name), I set to work on a couple of experiments. Both of the dishes below worked well and I’d encourage you to have a go if you fancy the sound of them, whether or not you choose to use the meat glue.

Also, I would love to read your comments below, particularly your thoughts on the whole ‘molecular’ debate.

2 ways with Meat Glue

Chicken with Creamed Corn and Mushrooms
Serves 2

This dish is actually based upon a French Laundry duck recipe but mushrooms and corn are natural partners for chicken so it works just as well.

1 whole chicken
3-4 large chard leaves
1 tbsp transglutiminase (meat glue)

500g sweetcorn

200g mixed wild mushrooms
1 clove garlic – finely chopped
Chopped parsley
A splash of truffle oil

For the sauce:
250ml red wine
1 large onion      )
2 carrots               ) roughly chopped
1 leek                    )
A few sprigs of thyme
1 litre brown chicken stock

·         Take the breasts off the chicken. Skin them, keeping the skin in as large pieces as possible. Trim them of the fillets and any fat or sinew. With the rest of the chicken take off the thighs and legs to reserve for another purpose, keep the wings and roughly chop the rest of the carcass for use in the sauce.
·         Lay both chicken breasts, skin side (though skinless obviously) down on your board and season with salt and pepper. Using a sieve, dust the cut side with the meat glue as if dusting with icing sugar, ensure all is covered. Lay the one breast on top, fat end to thin end (top to tail) so the cut sides are facing each other and the skin sides are facing out. Roll tightly in cling film to create a cylinder and put in the fridge for at least 6 hours to set.

·         To make the sauce put the chicken wings and carcass into a hot pan and brown for at least 10 to 15 minutes or so, ensuring you achieve a good colour to all of it. When well coloured chuck in a glass of water and scrape away to get all the good bits off the bottom. Keep the heat high and stir occasionally until all the water has gone. Now chuck in the red wine and repeat the process. When the wine has all but gone throw in your vegetables and thyme. Again, keep cooking to colour them up. When you have a decent colour on the veg pour in your chicken stock and deglaze again. Reduce the heat to medium and reduce the liquid. When the liquid is down to the level of the bones (or roughly equivalent in volume to them) strain through a fine sieve (and preferably through muslin) into a clean, smaller pan. Reduce on a medium heat until the sauce is thick, dark and glossy.
·         Lay the chicken skin flat on a baking sheet and salt generously, leave for a couple of hours. Roast at 190C for about 20-25 minutes until crisp.
·         Blitz about 2/3 of the sweetcorn in a food processor and squeeze out as much juice as possible. Warm the juice in a pan until it thickens then add the whole corns and season to taste.
·         Trim the chard leaves then blanch them in a large pan of boiling salted water for a few seconds, put them straight into iced water then to refresh them, pat them dry and reserve.
·         Place the chard leaves flat on a sheet of cling film so they overlay a little and form a rectangle large enough to hold the chicken and season with salt and pepper. Unwrap the chicken and roll in the chard to cover. Roll tightly in cling film and tie the ends to ensure sealed. Chill.

·         Poach the chicken in water that is just below simmering until it is cooked (about 20 minutes), check by taking it out and squeezing it to check that it is firm. If you are unsure then use a temperature probe though if more cooking is required then wrap in another layer of cling film to cover the hole.
·         SautĂ© the mushrooms and garlic off, finishing with some of the sauce, the truffle oil and the parsley.
·         Slice the chicken into cylinders (marvel at this point at how you have created a perfect cylinder of chicken!), serve on the creamed corn and sauce the chicken with the mushrooms. Top with the chicken crisp and add more sauce if required.

Cod and Ham Sandwich with olive powder and tomato
Serves 2

In the restaurant we had recently served a dish using Monkfish wrapped in Parma Ham and it got me thinking about another use for meat glue using the same flavour combination. This actually works quite well if like me you are a fan of crisp fish skin as it allows you to have crisp skin on both sides of a fillet!

Cod – 1 piece from the tail end of the fillet large enough for 2
2 slices Parma Ham
1 tbsp transglutiminase

200g Black olives

1 punnet – small tomatoes (choose something with reasonable flavour such as the cherry plum tomatoes or pomodoro)
2 sprigs Rosemary

·         Slice the Cod in ½ lengthwise to give 2 pieces of similar size and shape. Lay them skin side down on your board. Using a sieve dust both pieces with meat glue as though dusting with icing sugar. Lay the parma ham on top of one fillet then top with the other, keeping skin sides facing out. Wrap in cling film and place in fridge with a small weight on for at least 6 hours.
·         Blitz the olives in a food processor to as fine a puree as possible. Place in the centre of a clean tea towel. Bring up all 4 corners together and start to twist from the top, creating a ball with the olives in. Twist to tighten the ball and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Cover a plate tightly with cling film to create a drum like skin. Spread the olive mixture as thinly as possible on the cling film. Microwave on low power for approx 30-40 minutes until fully dried out (may take longer, keep putting back on for 5-10 minute bursts until done). Then re-blitz.
·         Place the tomatoes on a baking tray and cover with a little olive oil and some salt, scatter the rosemary over the top. Bake at 100C for about 30 mins so slightly shrivelled but still moist. Blitz and pass through a fine sieve, season.
·         Portion the cod into nice squared off pieces. Pan fry the cod on one skin side to begin with then the other until cooked through and with 2 crisp sides.
·         Serve with the olive powder, tomato puree and chopped basil.

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