Welcome to Catalan Cookery! I hope you enjoy reading about my culinary adventures and delicious experiences in Catalonia, Spain.

Come check out my current blogging project,
Scrumptious Company, in which I chronicle my once-a-week dinner parties with pictures and recipes.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Olive Oil Update

I’m off to a great start with the olive oil project. Last week alone, I experimented with three different textures: olive oil jellies, olive oil ‘caramel’ and olive oil foam.

By ‘jellies’ I don’t mean jelly or jam or anything spreadable – I’m talking about those sugar-covered, fruit-flavored squares found in fancy candy stores. Gourmet gumdrops, if you will. But for this project, instead of using fruit, I used extra virgin olive oil.

Here’s how it's done: For the first step, I dissolved sugar, isomalt (a sugar substitute, but more on that later) and glucose (a pure form of the simple sugar) in hot water. I then added this to a blender, and while the blender was running, slowly drizzled in the olive oil. (It’s the same basic technique you follow anytime you make vinaigrette – slowly drizzling in the olive oil while vigorously whisking away at the vinegar, in order to combine the two into an emulsion.) I then added the seeds from a vanilla pod, dissolved some gelatin into the mixture, and poured it all into a rectangular plastic container. About an hour in the fridge was all it took, and the sheet of olive oil-flavored gelatin had firmed up to the perfect jelly-like consistency. Armed with a ruler and a sharp knife, I sliced the sheet into rectangles about an inch by a half inch wide. All that was left to do was dip these perfect little rectangles into sugar. And voilĂ , homemade olive oil candies! Super delicious!

The olive oil caramels were a blast to make. Not your typical caramel, they’re better described as drops of liquid olive oil encapsulated in a sugar (actually, isomalt) shell. Isomalt, the sugar substitute I had mentioned earlier, looks and behaves a lot like sugar. It’s well suited (more so than regular sugar) to being melted down, and blown or sculpted into special shapes and structures (a lot like molten glass).

So for this project, I melted a handful of isomalt in a little pot over a low flame. When it had become a hot liquid, I dipped the bottom of a circular tube (the pictures below show both a small silver cookie cutter and a longer white plastic tube) into the isomalt. I lifted the tube, with a thin film of liquid isomalt stretched across its base. I then poured about a teaspoon of olive oil into the top of the tube, which dropped through the tube, encapsulating itself as it sank, into a little teardrop of isomalt. Within seconds, the isomalt hardened to a glass-like consistency. The resulting ‘caramel’ was seriously cute!

The third olive oil texture I worked on was foam. We did about seven different trials, changing variables slightly at each turn, in an attempt to create the perfect mousse-like texture. My final trial yielded a consistency that was perfect – airy and light, but still substantial and very creamy.

Here’s basically what I did: Just like with the jellies, I had to again combine the olive oil and water into a thick and creamy emulsion. To do this I needed some help from a few specific chemicals – sucroester, which is an emulsifier for water, and mono-disaccharide, which is an emulsifier for fats. So I dissolved the former in the water and the latter in the oil, slowly whisked the oil into the water the same way I did for the jellies, and then added this emulsified mixture to a siphon. After a few hours in the fridge, the olive oil mixture was ready for action. All it took was a quick squeeze of the siphon trigger, and I had instant olive oil foam!

So, it was a pretty eventful week! And don't worry - There's more to come. In fact, as far as olive oil is concerned, we've only just begun...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A weekend excursion to Sitges

While my weekdays are spent here in Manresa, filled to the brim with Alicia-work, my weekends are always free for roaming the Catalan countryside. There are a number of places I’m hoping and planning to visit: Barcelona of course, and Costa Brava and the Pyrenees. Montserrat, a mountain with a historic Benedictine Monastery at its peak, is another must on my list of places to see. This destination is nearly a stone’s through away – the jagged mountains make for a spectacular view out our car window every morning on our way to work. But for other trips I’ll be venturing further away. I’m hoping to even stray a ways beyond Catalonia once or twice, perhaps take trains to Madrid and Seville. And of course, I’ll make sure to keep you updated on my whereabouts.

For my first excursion I chose a little seaside town, about a half-hour’s train ride south of Barcelona called Sitges. It’s a picturesque little village, with whitewashed buildings and narrow winding streets that twist and turn all the way to the Mediterranean. I spent a perfect afternoon poking in and out of shops and reading a novel on dock. And I treated myself to a delicious lunch at a cozy little restaurant tucked away down a cobblestone alley.

My menu choice was easy: Paella. This was something I’d always wanted to do: eat Paella in Spain. The traditional meal of this country, Paella is an absolutely gorgeous rice dish. It’s flavored usually with an earthy but bright combination of saffron, garlic and paprika, and it’s completely chock-full with any variety of seafood (clams, lobster, shrimp, mussels, whitefish, squid etc), sausages and vegetables (like peas, peppers and tomatoes), depending on where exactly in Spain it’s made. Each ingredient is added one-by-one to a special paella pan, and the flavors of earth and ocean build upon each other creating complex layers of taste that add up to pure fabulousness. And the best part: As all this goodness simmers away in a rich shellfish broth, a crunchy crust builds at the bottom of the pan - the true sign of a perfect paella. Mine displayed all the hallmarks of perfection – rich and earthy broth, sweet crustaceans, briny clams, tender squid, succulent peas and yes, that oh so satisfying bottom-crust!

My choice for dessert was just as simple a decision. I caught a glimpse of the fig tart when the couple at the table next to me shared a slice. The deep pink slices of fresh figs layered atop the cream filling shined like jewels – I didn’t even peek at the dessert menu! To wash it all down, a half-bottle of Cava, produced only miles away. Cava is Catalonia’s version of Champagne. A simple and light sparkling wine, it has all the delicious fun of Champagne, but it’s much, much cheaper!

All in all, it was a quick trip, but completely splendid in a dozen ways. The quaint streets, Mediterranean view and delicious lunch made Sitges the perfect location for my first weekend jaunt. A bit off the beaten path, but a wonderful spot for an easy afternoon.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Synopsis: The Garden, and Olive Oil

I’ve been assigned two main projects to work on here at Alicia, both of which I’m really excited about. I’ll be sure to have lots of smaller side projects scattered in for good measure (like the carrot air of last week), but my main attention will be focused on these two topics, which I’ll be working on simultaneously throughout the two months that I’m here.

The first involves Alicia’s garden. Many of the fruits and vegetables grown here are heirloom varieties, ones that are pretty rare, whose uses and attributes are not well known. For each of these varietals within the garden, Alicia’s goal is to create a document that describes its unique characteristics, lists its assets in regards to cooking, and depicts its best-determined cooking methods. This has been an ongoing project all season, and now it’s my turn to carry it out. Each week I concentrate on one or two varietals, experimenting with a wide variety of cooking techniques and preparation methods, and performing all sorts of taste tests.

Last week we harvested the last of our tomatoes, many of them still green. And so, as part of this project, I spent the week analyzing the best possible ways to utilize these green tomatoes. The most interesting (and delicious) preparation in my opinion was Green Tomato Marmalade. Following a very systematic process, and documenting each step along the way, I conducted a number of trial recipes, slightly altering and refining the method with each successive attempt, until I finally arrived at a marmalade that our taste tests deemed ‘the best’. I did the same with Green Tomato Pickles.

This work is such a perfect mix of culinary art and scientific research. At once, it’s the work of a chef and a scientist. Each endeavor is approached very methodically, and every step and result is recorded meticulously. The pace is careful and slow, so different from the kitchen environments I’m used to. I have so say, I’m could definitely get used to this!

The theme of my second project is olives and olive oil. The tasks of this project are threefold:
One, to research, test and compile a collection of traditional recipes featuring olives and olive oil, both from around the world and from Catalonia specifically.
Two, to test different curing techniques using the olives grown in the Alicia groves.

And three, to experiment with and document all the possible ways of manipulating the texture of olive oil. In other words, take this oily liquid phase that is normal olive oil, and turn it into as many different textures as I can: olive oil powder, olive oil pudding, olive oil jellies, olive oil ice cream, olive oil foam, olive oil pearls, olive oil pasta, spherical capsules of olive oil, olive oil air, olive oil soup, olive oil gummy bears, and so on and so on…
This project is really the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in the world of Molecular Gastronomy for a while. But it’s a big challenge too. Many of the current chemicals and techniques used to change the textures of food work really easily for anything water-based (carrot juice, for instance), but the game totally changes when you’re working with a fat, like olive oil. Luckily I have incredible mentors here, who so amazingly knowledgeable in this field. I’ll definitely keep you updated with lots of pictures of our successes!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Carrot 'Air'

I’m definitely getting into the swing of things here at Alicia! Every day brings on fun and interesting new projects. An especially neat endeavor of mine this week was making carrot 'air’. In other words, freeze-dried carrot juice froth! The steps are simple, the ingredients few (only carrots and gelatin), and the result is fabulous: a brittle orange sponge that instantaneously dissolves to nothing on your tongue, leaving an intense carrot flavor as the only clue that it was ever there in the first place.

Here is the basic technique: Carrots are peeled and juiced, and then a carrot foam is made. To do this, gelatin is dissolved in the juice, and the mixture is added to a siphon charged with pressurized N2O, i.e. nitrous oxide, i.e. laughing gas, i.e. the stuff inside whipping cream canisters. Actually, that's a good point – foams, fancy as they sound, are basically no different from whipping cream. Only instead of cream, another liquid is used. In this case, carrot juice. The gelatin is added to support the formation of the froth.

So this carrot juice/gelatin mixture is poured into a siphon, charged with pressurized N2O, cooled in ice water for a few hours, and then the frothy carrot foam is pumped into small cups, just as you would pump whipping cream from its canister. Then these little cups are placed into the freezer. Once frozen, they’re placed under vacuum and freeze-dried over the course of a few days until all the moisture is evaporated, and all that’s left is pure essence of carrot. It really is a spectacular treat – a little poof of pure carrot-ness that just melts in your mouth.

This was my first venture into (or even near) the realm of molecular gastronomy, and I have to say, I had a lot of fun with it. For the most part, high-tech cooking is not my cup of tea – I prefer much more a rustic, traditional fare, both for cooking and for eating. But I’ve always been fascinated with the science and aesthetics of molecular cuisine, and while I don’t think I’d ever want to devote any large amount of time to studying it, I’m awfully glad that I have a few months to experiment with it here.

And of course, a project like this is small potatoes at the Alicia Foundation. Many of the chefs and scientists here are alums of El Bulli. To them, carrot air is as basic as it gets, High-Tech Cooking 101. While much of the work done at Alicia is in the name of research, this carrot air utilized techniques that have been perfected years ago. This simple task of mine was actually for a public demonstration. Alicia has many daily visitors, and this little treat was part of a demonstration regarding textures and sensations of food. Simple or not, the end result was really cool, and it was tons of fun for me!

Friday, October 16, 2009

My Life in Spain

I'm here. I'm now in Spain. Actually, I can even pretty fairly say that I'm now living in Spain! Yes, it may be for only two months. And I am by myself, while Ben is all the way back in Chicago. But I'm working here. I'm staying in an apartment, not a hotel. And this is certainly not a vacation. A grand adventure, yes, but a vacation, no. So yes, I'd have to say that, by definition, I'm living in Spain. And that feels pretty cool to say.

And in another sense too - in the sense that I'm squeezing the most out of every minute here, savoring each bite, celebrating every sight, and soaking up all that I can learn - I am most definitely living here. Really, truly living in Spain.

I flew into Barcelona last Monday afternoon and was met at the airport by one of my new housemates, Iftach, an Israeli chef who, like me, is an apprentice at the Alicia Foundation. Our apartment, which we share with five other chefs from all over the world, is located in a quaint hillside town called Manresa, about an hour's drive outside of Barcelona. Let me just say, I adore Manresa. Here, people laugh a little when I say this. They say this town is nothing special compared to other little towns across Catalonia. But to me, Manresa is simply magnificent. It's just jam-packed with all those story-bookish elements you'd hope to find in any little European town: cobblestones and fountains, sidewalk cafes, tiny bakeries and butcher shops, an old gothic cathedral looming over it all, even a shepherd who roams the town's outskirts with his flock of sheep. It's just all too neat. I'm continuously surprised and delighted at every turn, and I've quickly become enamored with this new home-away-from-home.

So, I want to fill you in a little more on exactly why I’m here. For the next two months, I’ll be working at a research center called the Alicia Foundation, a food and science institute in the heart of Catalonia, Spain. Alicia has recently partnered with my culinary school, the CIA, and so I, along with two other alumni, was sent here to participate in a collaborative exchange program.

The Alicia Foundation was founded a few years ago by a famous Spanish chef named Ferran Adria. Okay, I know that a lot of you reading this are chefs/foodies yourselves, so please, by all means just skip ahead a few paragraphs here. (Or risk being offended by the vast over-simplification I’m going to spin on the following topic.) But for all of my friends and family who aren’t so immersed in the world of food, I’m going to now give you a little bit of basic background information, which should help elucidate what I’ll be up to…

For several years, and in many, many people’s opinion, Ferran Adria has been considered to be the best chef in the world. Not one of the best. The best. He owns a restaurant named El Bulli, which is located in the same region of Spain where I am now. Just as its chef is the best, El Bulli has been rated time and again, the absolute best restaurant in the world. Among many other contributions to the culinary world, Chef Adria is known as being one of the main driving forces behind a modern, scientifically-focused style of cuisine often referred to as Molecular Gastronomy.

This is a word that not a lot of chefs like, but to be honest, there is no agreed-upon term to describe this type of cuisine, and so, for the sake of simplicity, Molecular Gastronomy is the word I’m going to use. It refers to cooking methods that utilize specific chemical products, industrial equipment and scientific techniques to give a whole new twist on food. Dishes are deconstructed into their prime ingredients, and these ingredients are transformed, through manipulation of their physical and aesthetic qualities, into something unfamiliar, or altogether new. Even though you may have never heard the term itself, I hope you are at least vaguely familiar with the type of cooking I'm describing. Portions are often small, and it’s usually pretty high-end fare. Food of this style seems almost futuristic, and just well, in a word, scientific. For a good picture of the kind of food I’m trying to describe, check out this site. I’m actually sending you to the website of a famous Chicago restaurant called Alinea. It is completely unrelated to the Alicia Foundation, but the El Bulli site doesn’t have too many pictures, and Alinea has some great ones. I just really wanted something visual to support what I’ve been trying to explain in mere words, because I want you to have an idea of the kind of stuff I'll be dabbling with while I'm here.

Okay, on to bigger and better things! And that brings us back to the Alicia Foundation. I feel so blessed to be here because I truly think that there’s no other place on earth quite like it. Alicia is a culinary research institute focused on the health and science aspects of food and cooking. It’s dedicated to exploration, research and technological innovation in the kitchen, and education for the cooking industry, and society as a whole. At its heart, Alicia is a pure celebration of food and science.

It’s an incredible facility, a beautiful modern glass building set on the campus of a medieval monastery in the midst of the Catalan countryside. The bright and spacious kitchen is filled with the most state-of-the-art cooking equipment. There are fruit orchards and olive groves on the campus, along with a gorgeous garden filled with endless varieties of heirloom vegetables. I’ve experienced five days at the Alicia Foundation so far, and I can tell you for certain that this place is incredibly special.

Now that I’ve taken care of some of this background information today, I can focus more next time on details of my daily work at Alicia and my adventures in Catalonia. I really must apologize for being so tardy with this post. It has been an overwhelming first week! But now that I’m all settled in, I’ll definitely be able to report a bit more regularly. I already have tons of neat stuff piling up that I want to share! Please do stay tuned…

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A first hello. And a bit about me and my newest project.

Hello, everyone. My name is Kate French, and I’m so glad that you have seeked out / stumbled upon / followed my link to my blog. Either and any way, I am very happy that you’ve come to visit. Thank you so much for being here.

Well, a little bit about myself to start. I live in Chicago with my husband, Ben (who, I must say, is one of those persons who is just too good to be true). I am a chef, and like most chefs, I love food, and everything, everything about food. Since moving to Chicago (about six months ago), I have been busy building my own catering company, Hilltop Kitchen. It’s been a blast. A scary, overwhelming blast at times, but mainly, a blast in the general sense of the word. That is, really, really fun.

With this little business of mine just barely off the ground, I can still afford to dabble in some other fun culinary projects. While I stay pretty busy prepping for events and refining my business plan, I’m still lucky enough to have the time to do things like teach private cooking classes, attempt some food-writing, and perform the occasional personal cheffing gig. I adore these special projects. And I’m happy to say that I’m about to endeavor into the best one yet!

And that’s what leads me to the topic of this blog. On Sunday, October 11, I leave for Catalonia, Spain! I will be representing my alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America, through an exchange program with the Alicia Foundation, a culinary research center in the mountains above Barcelona. The Alicia Foundation is an incredible institution, devoted to gastronomic heritage and technological innovation in cooking. I am ridiculously excited, because this is truly a world-class place. Want proof? The famed chef Ferran Adria heads the board! Need I say more!?

I’ll be working with the Alicia Foundation for just over two months, right up until Christmas. I’ve been sent a list of potential projects that I may be assigned to, but as of yet, I know very little of what I’ll actually be doing day to day. All I know for sure is that for two months, I’ll be completely immersed in the rich and vibrant food culture of Catalonia, all the while surrounded by some of the best chefs and food scientists in the world.

This blog is a way for me to share this experience with all of you, my family and friends. This is one of the biggest adventures of my life, and with or without a blog, I’d definitely want to keep a journal. So while I’m at it, it’s an easy step to post on-line, and share with you all. Since most of my friends are chefs and foodies too, I thought you may all get a kick out of my stories. Even for you non-culinarians out there, I hope you enjoy the stories of my travels and accounts of my new project.

Thanks so much for reading!