Test Club – Nov 2nd, 2009

This is a guest post by Josh Vickery. Joining Josh for this dinner were Earl Wagner, Michael Betancourt , and Lee Butterman.

Cooking with Jeff Potter presented a delightful mix of the familiar and the ultra geeky. The menu, printed from Jeff’s pending book, was presented to the would-be cooks for the evening and set the tone for the night.

  • Chicken: Roasted, but what’s a spatchcock and why would we want it?
  • Asparagus: Steamed, but in the microwave and in a sealed container (this sounded dangerous to me)
  • Potatoes: Boiled then pan fried, but why care about the starch content of our (starchy) potatoes?
  • Chocolate mousse: I thought agar was something reserved for weird jelly candies.

It sounded pretty darn geeky, but also delicious.

After some initial discussion the would-be cooks for the evening got to work. Spatchcocking involves removing the spine of a chicken, which transforms a naked bird into something that can be laid flat on a roasting rack and popped under the broiler, skin-side up to aid the Maillard reaction. Geeky yes, but not pointlessly so since it nicely browns the skin without overcooking the white meat. Yum. And we learned that never having cut up a chicken before is no reason to be deterred: kitchen shears conquer all.

Asparagus was easy, if scary. Cut off the ends (breaking, apparently, is no better), pop the stalks in a container with water, close the top and zap. The goal here is to cook the asparagus not just with microwaves, but with hot water. I’m not too keen on microwaves, but if I had a microwave I would use it for this, and I’m happy to report that whatever fears I had about closing the top were groundless.

Potatoes, it turns out, have different different starch levels. What this means is that if you want your pan-fried potatoes to be crispy, you need to pick the right ones. Luckily Jeff knows this (he’s writing the book) and bought the right ones.

On to dessert. Agar does not look like something you want to eat. It looks like a scary white powder. But it’s also quite a powerful gelling agent, and when used in the right quantity, sets without refrigeration, yet makes for chocolate mousse that tastes and (mostly) feels like, well, chocolate mousse.

Throughout the evening conversations revolved around cooking and other equally geeky topics, punctuated frequently by demonstrations, experiments and illustrations by our host and author extraordinaire. After melting chocolate for the mousse, phase transition points were discussed and Jeff whipped out a diagram that he had drawn showing the various phases of chocolate. While talking about molecular gastronomy restaurants, the topic of “super-tasting” came up. At this point Jeff pulled out specially treated strips of paper which taste incredibly bitter to super-tasters, bitter to medium-tasters, and like paper to non-tasters. I can now report that I am a medium-taster– I was disappointed that no one in the group was a super-taster.

When Mike brought up “fat washing” of spirits, Jeff’s ears perked up. Down came a bottle of Johny Walker. “About equal parts fat and spirits?” Jeff asked, proceeding to blend half a stick of butter into a measuring cup of whiskey. “No, I think you would use about that much butter for a full bottle.” Mike replied. Jeff sipped, grimaced. “Mmm” he declared. Clearly it was time for more research. Luckily for us would-be cooks and hopeful diners, Jeff is no slouch in that department.

The evening wrapped up with an attempt to make instant noodles. Not to cook noodles instantly, but an attempt to form noodles by squirting one liquid into a bowl of another liquid. Alas, the night had to end before the liquids were fully prepared, but I’m sure we will all be able to read all about it Jeff’s book.