Saturday, November 26, 2011

omelet souffle + a diatribe on molecular gastronomy

Transglutaminase. Carrageenan. Xanthan gum. Isomalt. Calcium gluconate. Any of these sound familiar to you? These aren't part of a chemists laboratory, but staple items in top kitchens that use molecular gastronomy methods. None of these would have been part of the vocabulary of our hunter-gather ancestors, but they may open doors to new and fun ways to play with food.

Molecular gastronomy has been scrutinized by many as unnatural and not part of a healthy diet. As much as I love to sit down to a fancy tasting menu, I have to agree with this sentiment to some extent. Many of the food additives that chefs use in their kitchens have questionable health effects. Carrageenan, for example, can cause intestinal tumors in lab animals and is used on an industrial level to de-ice planes. Then there is the magic of transglutaminase which can glue scrap meat together making it indistinguishable from a prime cut.

These ingredients certainly do seem unnatural, and may pose a problem for those who have intestinal sensitivity issues, such as true celiac and Crohn's disease. Some of these additives do promote inflammation in the gut and may be very detrimental at certain concentrations. That's the problem with this issue, little is known about how much of these food additives can be tolerated. Certainly we wouldn't consume enough carrageenan to de-ice a plane but will the few grams contained in my pine-flavored foam irritate my stomach?

These and other food additives are of particular interest because I like to think of how I could use them to reinvigorate my sugar-free, grain-free diet. Chef Wylie Dufresne used transglutaminase to make pasta from shrimp—now that sounds Paleo-friendly. But can we call these ingredients food? Some of them are derived from natural sources like algae and bacteria. Somehow I don't think that when Michael Pollan said, “eat real food” he was thinking about food additives made from red algae.

Until I can figure out how to make pasta from pure shrimp, I will steer clear of using these additives in my kitchen. My dining adventures in the city will certainly call upon consuming some foams and gels here and there but these instances are seldom. In the meantime we can still play with our food by thinking about how to handle ingredients in unconventional ways. Use the techniques learned from the basics and expand them in new and creative ways. This is part of the philosophy of molecular gastronomy after all.

Let's begin with the simple omelet. Omelets are an easy way to turn eggs into something more exciting. Unfortunately, omelets aren't usually exciting. But if you make an omelet using the same techniques used to make a souffle, then you might have something more extraordinary for breakfast: the omelet souffle. This great idea comes from food scientists Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot of Ideas in Food. It may sound complicated for breakfast, but if you have all the ingredients at the ready, and work quickly, you can whip this up in less than 10 minutes.

Omelet Souffle

an experiment from Ideas in Food

3 eggs

scant ½ cup grated cheese (aged cheeses like cheddar, gouda, gruyere)

2-3 tblsp fresh herbs

1.5 tblsp butter (or oil of your choice)

Separate the eggs—put the yolks in a glass bowl and the whites in another glass bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer. Add a pinch of salt to the yolks and whisk them together. Whip the whites until soft peaks form.

Melt the butter in a 8-inch, oven safe skillet. If you use a larger skillet, like I did, the souffle won't rise quite as dramatically but will still turn out excellent.

Add 1/3 of the whites to the yolks and whisk together. Next, gently fold the yolk mixture into the remaining whites with a spatula until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared skillet and sprinkle all over with cheese. Place under the broiler for 3-4 minutes until the souffle has risen and the cheese has browned. Carefully remove the souffle to a plate and sprinkle with fresh herbs. Serve immediately.

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