February 1, 2011

lettuce have some fun

One of the things we learned in lecture was the reason behind tearing lettuce.

Apparently the abundance of water molecules in lettuce means that when you cut it with knife, the water molecules get sliced through and turn brown from oxidation. This is why lettuce should be torn, at least when you're talking small quantities. (In an industrial kitchen like ours, tearing lettuce simply isn't an option. I'd be there well into the night.)

As a student chef last week, I neither cut nor tore lettuce. I juiced it. More specifically, 2 lbs of it accompanied by 2 lbs of arugula and 4 lbs of spinach (with a Jack LaLanne juicer in honor of his passing). Most of the leafiness ended up as discarded pulp, but the richly-colored greenness that was juiced out seemed to me the essence of health. So pure, natural, and green.

Anyway, the liquid was needed to prepare a frozen salad recipe from the cookbook Alinea. The chef author supposedly scoffed at the idea of salad between courses as a palate-cleanser (quote Chef Morse, "he did not think that chewing a bunch of leaves was palate-cleansing"), and developed the frozen salad as an alternative, not merely to cleanse the palate but refresh it with the frozen tinglyness.

So after the juicing we poured it on a sheet pan and put it in the freezer. And every half hour or so we would use a fork to "rake" the ice crystals as they formed. (For those of you familiar with making granita, it's basically the same process, except with granita you would be using fruit juice and a circular bowl and you would stir rather than rake.)

In addition we also froze some red wine vinegar, employing the same sheet pan + raking process.

Eventually for assembly we scooped the frozen salad into little tasting cups, topped it with a minute amount of vinegar ice, then added olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper.

frozen salad

Most of the class's reaction ranged from "interesting" to "blughh". It was certainly interesting for me, and undeniably palate cleansing/refreshing. I think the vinegar's acidity sharpened the frozen sensation so that you felt the crystals acutely on your tongue, in a way that you wouldn't experience with granita or other frozen/semi-frozen treats.

Out of all of the things I've made, this is definitely the one that oversteps the boundary into molecular gastronomy, which is interesting in the academic theory kind of way - interesting to explore intellectually but hard to translate to reality (not just because it's a lot of work - all that juicing!, but because people tend not to understand/appreciate it - hence the "blughh" of some classmates' reactions).

Molecular gastronomy or not, it is a play on texture - an instance where you alter taste/sensory experience by putting the material (in this case, salad) through an unexpected preparation method (juicing then semi-freezing). I will be on the lookout for more chances to play in this way as I go along!

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