Readers well aquianted with the food blogosphere will likely be familiar with Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot’s blog Ideas in food. Since December 2004 they have generously shared pictures, ideas, insights and inspirations online. As chefs they have eagerly integrated modernist techniques and elements in their cooking, allowing technology to improve their cooking whenever possible. No wonder I’ve been a long time follower of their blog! And needless to say I was also exicted to receive a review copy of their recent book Ideas in food: Great recipes and why they work.
First and foremost the book is a great collection of ideas explored by the authors. The ideas are exemplified through recipes (about 100 in total) which showcase the creativity of the authors, from the simple vanilla salt to innovative pasta and risotto techniques, red cabbage kimchi with a built in pH indicator, grilled potato ice cream and practical examples of how hydrocolloids can be utilized. It is certainly an engaging book, and my copy is filled with countless comments, “Try this!”, “Interesting!” and enthusiastic exlamations, but also question marks and disagreement. For some reason the book has been divied into Ideas for everyone and Ideas for professionals, the latter dealing mainly with hydrocolloids. But why the discussion of starch and gelation is reserved for the professionals whereas the recipe for homemade mozarella which calls for lipase, citric acid and rennet is placed in the “for everyone” section, eludes me.
As the title suggests there are not only ideas and recipes, but also exlanations that sometimes dig deep into food science. The real strength of the book are the cases where a deeper understanding of the underlying science leads to new ideas. Having explored potatoes and hydration of starch, a simple yet brilliant idea which comes out of this is the parcooked rice (65 °C for 30 min) which subsequentially allows for a superfast risotto. As elegant is the hydration of dried pasta by soaking in cold water. Once hydrated, the pasta is drained and kept in a closed container/bag in the fridge. When dropped into boiling water the pasta will cook as fast as fresh pasta. Combining this with other ideas led to a mac’n cheese made from roasted pasta that is smoked and then hydrated in milk, reserving the excess milk with the surface starch for later stage to help thicken the sauce.
Explaining the science of food and cooking in lay terms is difficult, especially when striving for simple and correct explanations. On some occasions the authors strike a good balance here, but at times the explanations are either too simplistic or too detailed to be of any real help. I was often left with a feeling that the text desperately called for illustrations for the reader to properly grasp the concepts, for instance in their discussion of amylopectin, amylose and starch granules. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to science text books, but the fact that Ideas in food doesn’t have a single figure, diagram or photo is a drawback in my opnion.
Ever since reading Hervé This’ book Révélations gastronomiques (available in German as Kulinarische Geheimnisse, not available in English) I have appreciated the approach that combines recipes with answers to the many whys that pop up in my mind. Comparing Ideas in food: Great recipes and why they work with This’ book, what shines through at places is the author’s lack of scientific training. Without doubt they know much more food science than the average chef, but it is surprising for instance that the Maillard reaction is not mentioned in their discussion of stocks. And the precision of the recipes is often questionable, especially regarding their use of metric units in the first section. Saying that 1/2 cup of milk equals 130 grams makes sense to me because I expect to see a rounded number. But an online conversion calculator I often use says that for milk 0.5 US cups = 121.8 g = 118.3 ml, so I would naturally have rounded this to 120 grams. On the other hand, when the authors state that 8 3/4 cups of water equals 1968.75 grams the precision implied by the number of digits will make for a good laugh for scientists reading this. And I’m puzzled by how the “cups” used apparantly range from 225 to 260 mL – is there something I’m missing here?. The ultimate solution to this of course would be to eliminate the United States customary units alltogether (sorry all Americans!). Ironically this is exactly what the authors did in the “Ideas for professionals” section.
In the light of the recent paper on the 6X °C egg the whole chapter on “perfect” eggs seems a little outdated. The recipes are probably fine (I haven’t tested them), but I was surprised to read that egg whites coagulate from 60-65.5 °C (this must be a typo) whereas egg yolks coagulate from 65-70 °C (true, but they start to coagulate at a lower temperature, and it’s a function of time and temperature).
To conclude, the compilation of great food ideas is what I found most rewarding in the book. And despite the shortcomings mentioned above I would wholeheartedly recommend the book, simply because of all the nice examples of how a new technique or theoretical insight can be extrapolated into related areas and lead to new ideas in the kitchen. I suggest that you get Ideas in food: Great recipes and why they work for it’s collection of ideas and the creativity of the chefs. But if you’re interested in the whys of cooking you will be better served by other books, the obvious choices being On food and cooking and Keys to good cooking by Harold McGee or The science of cooking by Peter Barham.
Ideas in food – Great recipes and why they work
Aki Kamozawa and Alexander Talbot
320 p, no illustrations/photos
2010, Clarkson Potter