Friday, January 25, 2013

Agar agar part 2 - History and Noodles

It seems I owe everyone a brief history of one of my favorite ingredients: Agar agar.  It was invented in Japan where it is known as Kanten.  Agar agar is the Malaysian word for the algae it derives from. (pictured left)

Beginning around 700 AD, there was a popular dish in Japan called tokoroten.  This dish is made by boiling various seaweeds in water to create a seaweed flavored broth. The broth is then allowed to chill until it forms a firm jelly.

various seaweeds


 This jelly is then pushed through a box with a grate, dividing the jelly into noodles.  This is served cold, dressed with soy sauce, scallions, toasted nori, miso paste, etc.

The story of Agar agar continues in the Edo period of Japan (around 1600-1800s)  During this time, feudal lords were required to spend half of their time in Edo, the capitol, and the rest of their time in their individual domains.  On one of these journeys, Lord Shimazu of the Satsuma clan stayed at an inn called Minoya in Fushimi, Kyoto, where he was served tokoroten. The innkeeper, Tarozaemon, threw the leftover noodles outside.  He forgot about them for several days.  During this time, they froze at night, thawing and dehydrating during the day.  This process of freeze-drying repeated for several nights until Tarozaemon found the noodles.  He noticed their color immediately, it had paled considerably.  Curious, he remelted the threads and allowed them to chill.  They had reformed into a jelly once again, this time without the characteristic color and flavor of seaweed.  This would eventually lead to the creation and distribution of Kanten or Agar agar.

agar3The traditional process for the creation of Agar agar begins with seaweed, primarily those classified as red algae.  The seaweed is boiled and strained.  The resultant jelly is cut into blocks which are then forced through a cutter to create noodles.  The noodles are laid out on bamboo mats at the appropriate altitude, usually facing the sun.  Shaved ice is sprinkled over the noodles and they are allowed to freeze dry naturally for several days until they are dry and devoid of color and flavor.  This is how the thread agar that I prefer to use and which can be found affordably at most Asian markets is made.  One can see what a natural process this is.  Many people think of Agar agar as a "Molecular Gastronomy" ingredient.  Like many other ingredients incorrectly labeled this way, it is not a chemical, but a natural substance used traditionally for many years.
(for further reading:)

 In honor of Agar agar's humble roots as a noodle, I have selected a recipe for Milk Chocolate Pudding Noodles.


10 grams Agar agar, soaked in water for at least an hour and sqeezed dry
300 grams Milk
250 grams Milk Chocolate.

- First, add the milk to the agar in a pot and bring to a boil.

- Whisk thoroughly, it will be difficult to keep the milk from boiling over, this is normal.  If necessary, reduce the heat slightly.

- When the agar has fully melted (about 2-3 minutes) strain through a mesh strainer.

- There may be some small bits of Agar left behind.  This is normal.  It is very difficult at this concentration and in a liquid other than water to melt the Agar much more thoroughly.  
(This is one of the reasons I prefer the thread Agar.  Powdered agar, undissolved at this stage, would leak through the strainer and leave behind a grainy product.)

- Add the milk chocolate.  Whisk until fully incorporated.

- Meanwhile, take a very flat cookie tray, or other shallow vessel and line with plastic wrap.

- Pour chocolate mixture into lined pan.  Refrigerate until set (about 1-2 hours or up to overnight)  Be sure to keep level.

- When Noodle has cooled, gently transfer to a flat surface by lifting up on plastic wrap.

- If the mixture does not seem ready to pull away from plastic like this, allow to set in the refrigerator longer.  Do not fully wrap in plastic as some drying is necessary for agar to set correctly.

- Trim the edges and carefully cut off a nice even slice.

- Allow this noodle-like slice to drape gently over the plate and its components.  Pictured are some raspberry slices and violas.  The texture is like pudding, but the look is what makes it sick!

Additionally, this recipe can work with almost any fat-based ingredient: peanut butter, other nut pastes, marzipan, even cheese, especially goat cheese or marzipan.  Some play with the ratio may be necessary (a little less milk, a little more agar, etc) but it should be pretty close.  High fat is necessary, because the fat crystals keep the starch granules small, preventing the jelly from getting too brittle.

Cool beans.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Layering Flavors part 1 - Soffrito

I plan to have a few sections in this blog on “Layering Flavors.”  The overarching goal will be to try and teach a bit of what I’ve learned over the years about cooking.  Not cooking as in cooking from a recipe, but from ingredients and an experienced hand.

Today we'll be discussing Soffrito.  Soffrito is a Mediterranean/Latin American cooking technique which allows one to maximize flavors from aromatic vegetables and build a deep flavor base.  Imagine the difference between really delicious tomato sauce and really boring tomato sauce.  The latter was probably not cooked correctly.  Here we'll be going over how to avoid this.

To demonstrate, we're makin' Ciuppino!

Ciupinno is a (not so authentic) Italian seafood stew.  Some folks say the name "Ciuppino" is just a fake Italianization of "Chip-in" because fisherman would just throw some of their days' catch in the stew.  Could be true.  My Italian-American family thinks the Italian word for bathroom is "baccauzu" as in back-house, same story.

The dish originated in San Francisco and typically includes Dungeness Crab.  You can add whatever seafood you like.  It must contain some flaky fish, as this adds to the chunky stewness.  I think that bivalves (mussels, clams) releasing their seawater adds a lot as well as the shells of prawns or shrimp, so for me, these are must-haves.  I also have squid in this one.


1 ea Dungeness Crab, steamed
1/2 lbs Clams, scrubbed
1/2 lbs Mussels, scrubbed
1/2 lbs Squid, cleaned and sliced
1 whole Fish (here i use Striped Bass), skinned, deboned and cubed (save the bones)
1 lbs head-on Prawns or Shrimp, cleaned (save the heads and shells)
1 ea White Onion, diced
3 ribs Celery, diced
1 rib Celery, whole
1/2 bunch Parsley, chopped (along with the celery leaves)
2 ea Bay Leaves
1 head Garlic, sliced (whole head, not clove)
1 tsp Red Pepper Flakes
4 ea Lemons
1 ea Lemon Peel
1 can good Whole Tomatoes
2 medium Leeks
1 bottle White Wine
1/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 loaf Crusty Bread

There are tons and tons of flavors in this recipe.  My goal is to put everything together in a way that all flavors marry, and we extract the maximum flavor from everything.

To start, put the fish bones, leek tops, 1 rib celery and bay leaf in a pot as above.  It looks funny, but trust me, all the fish flavor and body comes from those bones.  Cover with water, bring to a light boil and simmer (no more than 45 minutes, any longer and it will begin emulsifying the fish blood and fat and get cloudy and gross.  You want a delicate fish tea)

Meanwhile, heat the Olive Oil in another pot until barely smoking and add all the prawn heads and shells.  Saute over medium heat until well roasty and the oil becomes a beautiful ruby color.  Do not burn the shells.  Its important that we steep the shells in oil, as opposed to water, because their flavor is oil-based and not soluble in the water of the fish stock.  

Once the shells are done, move them to the fish stock in order to drain all the oil from them.  Drop the heat on the pan of olive oil and add the peel of 1 lemon.  Steep for 5 minutes

Remove the lemon and strain the oil for shell fragments.

(Don't worry, we'll get to the Soffrito soon.)


 Add all the garlic to the oil, keep over low heat and stir and sizzle until the garlic turns golden brown, about 10 minutes.  Add the chili flakes for about 10 seconds.  When its ready, this is what it should look like on the right ->

What's that?  Why yes!  That's correct! Both garlic and chili have primarily fat-soluble flavor, which is why they get added to the oil!  Now you're catching on.


About this time, the fish stock should be strained.  With a slotted spoon, gently remove all solids from the stock and discard.  Strain the resulting liquid through a fine-mesh sieve.  Return liquids to the pan and return the pan to medium heat and reduce.  Add all of the juice from the can of tomatoes.

Here is where it gets so interesting I'm kind of shaking a little bit!

Add all the Soffrito vegetables to the pot of oil and toasted garlic: leeks, onion, and celery.

It looks like a lot, right?  Don't worry, it'll cook down and become very flavorful.  Now you may be wondering why we've added Onions, Leeks and Celery to the oil pot instead of the stock pot, since these vegetables have primarily a water-soluble flavor.  Well, that's the magic of Soffrito.

In the above diagram, you can see row A, which shows what happens when you add vegetables to stock and try to reduce.  The flavor comes out and by the time you actually begin to break down and concentrate the vegetables, the liquid is so concentrated and reduced that it burns on the bottom.  Not tasty.  This is probably how someone you know makes tomato sauce.  I'm sorry.

In row B, the vegetables are slowly broken down in a mostly oil bath, which keeps their flavors inside.  They slowly release water and shrink down inside the oil.  When liquid is finally added, the flavor inside the vegetables ruptures forth and the resultant stew is much more tasty and intense.  This is how tomato sauce should be.  If you don't do it like this, it won't stick to your pasta.  Gross, right?  This is also the proper technique for Paella, Arroz con Pollo, Eggplant Caponata, variations of Ratatouille, etc. 

And look how far they cook down!! Awesome.

At this point add the canned tomatoes, after giving them a rough chop.  Cook them until the color becomes more monochrome and you can once again see the oil underneath the Soffrito.  Like this:

About this time, your tomato/fish reduction probably looks like this:


Thats perfect.  Dump the Soffrito together with that reduction and turn the heat off.

Now we need to get all those bits that the Soffrito left behind in the fat soluble pot.  Pour the bottle of white wine into the (now empty) Soffrito-bits-pot.
Simmer until reduced to 1 cup.

Add the wine to the Soffrito and reduction pot and season to taste with Lemon Juice and salt.  Add an aggressive amount of salt, as the seafood we'll be adding will dilute things a bit.

 It tastes really eff-ing good, doesn't it?  I love this stuff.  The prawn oil...mmmmm, that's what gets you going.

Now we add seafood.  Start with the fish, you want it to end up flaking apart by the time we're done.

Add the clams and bring to a full boil over high heat with the lid on. Then add the mussels and close the lid again.

When everyone's opened up (about 2 minutes) add the chopped parsley and celery leaves.  Lower the heat to a medium simmer and add the shrimp, squid and everyone else we forgot. 

On the right you can see the flakes of fish as the shrimp just starts to cook through.  Keep the heat at medium and gently stir until the shrimp turns pink.

As if you could wait any longer, you needn't try.  Grab a warm loaf of crusty bread and go to town.  Don't forget lots of napkins and a bowl for extra shells.  Dining partner optional, but usually grateful.

If you wonder if I look like an idiot in the kitchen with a camera in one hand and a spoon in the other, the answer is yes.  Its totally worth it to be able to share my love of food.  Seeing it all laid out like this is totally sick.

PS, apologies for the "diagram"

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Farewell Le Cigare Volant

As many know, Le Cigare Volant restaurant closed this week after its final service Sunday, December 30th.  We had a hell of a run and learned a lot.  The future of Bonny Doon Vineyard is to continue to make great wine, and it was awesome to be a part of that for a while, and really cool to see those same principles applied to a different context.

One of the first dishes I had concieved of when I knew I would be Chef of Le Cigare Volant was a reimagining of S'mores.  Growing up in the Bay Area, the Santa Cruz Mountains will always have a "camping" context for me, and the beaches always make me think of bonfires and toasted marshmallows.  When I heard about the upcoming closure, I knew I wanted to see this dish brought to completion, as a Farewell to this restaurant and the great people of Santa Cruz who supported us during our time there.

Here is an easy recipe for Marshmallows, it is great because you can change up the flavor easily:
(as long as you use a water-based flavor with little to no fat.  Think teas, juices or purees)

28g Gelatin Sheets
150g Honey (or invert sugar)
70g _________ (flavored liquid of choice, I used water with one drop of spruce essential oil)
105g Corn Syrup (or glucose)
300g Sugar
70g _________ (as above)
Powdered Sugar and Cornstarch, as needed

- Soak the Gelatin Sheets in ice water for 10 minutes
- Squeeze dry and place in a mixer fitted with a whisk, add honey and first 70g of liquid
- Bring Corn Syrup, Sugar, and additional 70g liquid to a roiling hard boil
- Pour over ingredients in mixing bowl and slowly bring up to medium speed, whipping until stiff peaks form
- Oil a plastic container and fill with marshmallow, spreading level.
- Allow to set at room temperature for 1 day
- To cut, dust with 50/50 Powdered Sugar and Cornstarch, keeping very dusty.
- Store in sealed container.

Spruce Marshmallow

For the rest of this dish, we made a graham cracker sformato by baking graham cracker crust in an oval mold.

We then piped some italian meringue onto the plate and torched it.

Next, the dish got topped with some foraged herbs, juniper and sorrel.  The dirt pictured is a bit of cookie crumbs.

To recreate the character of the melted chocolate, we tried several approaches.  In the end, the best way to recreate melted chocolate was to simply melt chocolate.  We fancied it up a bit by doing it on chocolate meringues.

The ice cream is made by toasting and then melting marshmallows into a bit of milk before freezing in the ice cream machine.  Simple, but delicious.  Creating  a recipe for this was the hardest part of the realization of the dish, because S'mores usually don't have ice cream.  We needed to find something that would create interesting temperature and texture, without disturbing the original flavor context.  Many other flavors didn't work.

The dish is finished by toasting wood chips and serving in a cast iron pan.  The guest is given the Spruce marshmallow to begin, and allowed to toast it over the flames.  Afterwards, the flames are extinguished using a mason jar (another Santa Cruz-y staple) and smoke is allowed to fill the jar.  We then set the jar over the ice cream briefly, thus creating Smoked Toasted Marshmallow Ice Cream.

Here it is in video form:  My final gift to Le Cigare Volant and the wonderful people of Santa Cruz who supported us during our time there.  Thanks again.  I'm sure we'll all be seeing one another in a different setting, very soon.