For all that I can’t get overly excited about molecular gastronomy or progressive cuisine, it seems to me that … all this scientific and experimental approach to cooking has just got to be a big cover-up for big boys wanting to have a lot of fun! And I am all for having a great and rollicking time in one’s own kitchen. Cooking has to be ‘fun’, otherwise, sooner or later, it will just degenerate into “chore”, “bore”, and plain, gastronomic “gore” of the worst kind.
Friend L., who is the best home cook I know, and I decided we would band together to organise a birthday dinner for two friends who were born on the same day, with seafood being the theme. The party of 8 people inexplicably expanded to 15 and that’s when we decided we’d have to come up with a menu that wouldn’t have us slaving in the kitchen during the actual dinner. We came up with some nibbles to accompany our drinks, and then a plate of amuse-bouche, followed by two kinds of pasta dishes (we did away with the main course), L.’s home-made sorbets and her inimitable lemon-cream pavlova. Very civilised. And then there was birthday cake too …
The plate with all seven fish-inspired amuse-bouches was already featured in the post I wrote recently on chilled asparagus and clam soup.
If you look at the spoon on the right, what you see is a blue bed of ‘sea’, with some ‘seaweed’ and slices of calamari. And that, my friends, is my alchemical ichthyological creation … a sushi jelly of sorts, if you like.
I have another friend who is a brilliant home cook, who lived in Sardinia for a few years and had access to some top quality seafood to experiment with. And it was she who told me that she once made a risotto of seafood served on blue-coloured rice. She coloured the rice with Blue Curacao liqueur. This was circa 1985 … and, yes, very eighties! Anyway, for some reason, and definitely inspired by said friend’s risotto, I thought the idea of serving a bite-size piece of fish (the calamari) on a sea of blue could be quite fun.
I thought I would use the liquid from cooked mussels for the taste. Real Hijaki seaweed for the, duh, seaweed. And in order to ‘gel’ the sea, I would resort to gelatine leaves. They are actually called “colla di pesce” in Italian, i.e. fish glue.
Let me tell you that although this is probably as molecularly gastronomic as I will ever get … I ended up getting all excited and had an anormous amount of fun preparing it. Take a look!
This is the liquid rendered by 1 kg of cooked mussels. (If you want to see how to steam mussels open, take a look at my post “Mighty is the Mussel” of January 5th). Sieve the liquid through a piece of cloth or heavy kitchen paper.
And here are the rest of the ingredients. (1) Half a liter of mussel broth (the colour is a bit off, due to the lighting when this photo was taken, apologies there. It is more of a milky colour in real life – see previos photo). (2) A bottle of Blue Curacao liqueur. (3) A packet of gelatine leaves for a total of 12g. soaking in a bowl of cold water on the right. Elena is holding some dry leaves in her hands, aren’t they lovely! Underneath her hand is a pyrex dish that I lined with greased parchment paper.
The mussel broth had been heated until it came to a boil. Elena is squeezing the gelatine leaves to get rid of excess water. They look, as Nigella Lawson once so aptly described them in TV programme, like creatures of the deep. All squishy and squelchy …
Elena plopped the gelatine leaves into the hot, but not boiling, mussel broth … and hey presto! within seconds they melt away!
THE EXPERIMENT BEGINS
The idea was to add 1 spoon of the Blu Curacao at a time until I reached the depth of colour I wanted.
Looking good … I might have added a drop more curacao to get the sea to look even bluer but I was afraid that the sea would then taste more of curacao liqueur than of mussels! Colour mission accomplished!
MAKING THE SEABED
Pour it into a pyrex dish lined with parchment paper that had been lightly greased with olive oil. I wanted to make sure that the sea gel wouldn’t stick to the glass when I was going to cut it up later on.
We put the pyrex dish in the fridge and left it until the following day. It probably takes 4 hours to gel properly.
Gellification Mission – accomplished!
PUTTING EVERYTHING TOGETHER
The next day, just about two hours before the dinner guests were due to arrive, we got our calamari, cleaned them and cut them into fillets.
I used a very sharp knife to cut a ‘lattice’ of lines on each fillet … a series of cuts diagonally in one direction, and then in the other direction, that overlap and form a lattice. Then I cut the 4 fillets into half, covered them in olive oil, and cooked them in a non-stick pan for about 3-4 minutes. The calamari were removed from the pan and cut into baby-thin slices.
The Hijaki seaweed was left to soak in some water for 15 minutes, then squeezed, and then fried. We drained it and patted it dry to get rid of some of the oiliness.
The gellified seabed was removed from the fridge and put onto a wooden board. And friend L. had got the job of slicing it into mini squares that would fit onto the ceramic spoons. Oh the concentration in the kitchen! you could have heard a pin drop! And, thankfully, phew … it worked!
Not the sort of dish one would prepare frequently but it got me thinking: There is no end to what one can create with gelatine in the kitchen.