Lobster off the Hook

Lobster with Vanilla-Blueberry-Mascarpone Ravioli, Asparagus and Three Sauces

Here it is, the massive, freaky effort of molecular gastronomy to be made by the adventurous chef or dreamed about by armchair cooks. Molecular gastronomy? you wonder.

Well, to be clear, the meaning of this term has mutated significantly in the 20 years since its introduction. It can mean anything from the use of industrial gels to create new textures to the abandonment of classical cooking techniques to using biochemistry to explain or predict interesting aroma synergies between disparate foods.

I like Harold McGee‘s definition the best. He calls molecular gastronomy the scientific study of deliciousness. McGee, along with Elizabeth Cawdry Thomas (who ran a SF Bay-area cooking school) and Nicholas Kurti (an Oxford physicist with a passion for cooking), are generally considered the founders of the movement. They presented their first workshop in Erice, Sicily in 1992.

It is well-known that lobster and vanilla are sympathetic flavors. Blueberry and vanilla also work well together. As it so happens, on a desert hike long, long ago, the idea popped into my head that all three could be combined in the same dish. Sort of the mathematical distributive property applied to flavors. But it took me until this year to accomplish the dish.

From the perspective of molecular gastronomy, foods that complement each other often contain similar aroma and flavor compounds. Blueberry’s fruitiness comes from esters like 3-isopropyl-butyrate and its woodsy note from benzaldehyde. Vanillin, the principal flavor compound in vanilla beans, is 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde. Real vanilla carries with it anther 170 flavor compounds, many of which are also esters. Our body detects similar chemical structures in receptors specific for certain molecular configurations. You can read a primer here.

The real question is why do vanilla and lobster pair well. A study of lobster tail meat by gas chromatography identified 47 aroma/flavor compounds. Among the major constituents were 3-methylbutanal (chocolate, malty) and 2,3-butanedione (buttery). You can see that these are vanilla-compatible flavors.

Due to the complexities of this recipe, I ask your indulgence in not writing out the recipes for all the components and sauces. Instead, I’d rather describe the dish to you, show you a picture, and call it quits for today. Okay?

Lobster with Vanilla-Blueberry-Mascarpone Ravioli, Asparagus and Three Sauces

Since one of the sauces is like a bisque made from the lobster carcass, you have to poach the lobster first, reserving the shelled meat for the finish. There were plenty of good one to two-pound lobbies available. After poaching, I cooled the lobster, removed the claw, thigh (?), and tail meat, and kept it away from Dave’s cats.

The shell and lesser legs were broken up and a salmony-colored sauce was prepared with shallots, butter, saffron, a tomato, a shot of cognac, cream, tarragon, salt and crushed white pepper. The sauce was sieved and kept warm for assembly.

The second sauce was for dressing the asparagus spears. It was a reduction of blueberries and pinot noir with some balsamic vinegar added. The third sauce was based on a beurre blanc and had to be made right at the end.

Next I put together the blueberry vanilla ravioli. Most people will opt for using wonton wrappers, but if you have an Atlas pasta machine as I do, you really should roll your own. The filling was equal parts of mascarpone (sweet Italian-style cream cheese) and ricotta. I found a brand of ricotta – Calabro – with no extra additives and it was worth the few extra cents! Supple and buttery like my homemade ricotta. To this I added an egg yolk, the seeds scraped from a Tahitian vanilla bean, and a pinch each of salt and white pepper. After dispensing the mixture onto the pasta dough I added a fingerful of wild blueberries from Maine. The reserved egg white helped stick the top and bottom layers of pasta together.

Pulling it all together. I boiled water for the ravioli and the asparagus. While those were coming up to heat I began the third sauce, a butter sauce called beurre nantais after the French city of Nantes. White wine (I used the delicious Montevina sauvignon blanc) and white wine vinegar are reduced with shallots until you are left with a sticky, acidic mess. A couple tablespoons of cream are stirred in just before it dries out. Finally butter, lots of it, is whisked in gradually. The result is a luscious off-white, airy sauce. It must be served right away.

Dropping the ravioli and asparagus into their respective water, I plated onto warmed plates by first making a spider web with the lobster sauce and the beurre nantais. The asparagus was laid out like spokes radiating from the center of the plate and the ravioli arranged on top, in the center. The reserved lobster meat, momentarily reheated in a little melted butter, was placed onto the ravioli and the blueberry reduction sauce drizzled around and over the asparagus tips. A few stray blueberries and chopped tarragon completed the presentation.

Experiments in the science of deliciousness.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes 2010 – Final Tally

  • No. 7 – Bacalao con Patates Dulces (Spanish-American salt cod and sweet potato casserole), best served with a hoppy American ale
  • No. 6 – Moules à la Normande (French-style steamed mussels with creamy bleu cheese finish), serve with a semi-sweet hard cider (check out Farnum Hill).
  • No. 5 – Ceviché Mixto (Peruvian cold seafood salad with chilis and citrus juice), served with a cold pilsner or the Classic Cocktail: the Pisco Sour.
  • No. 4 – Fried Smelts (Italian, with a mushroom risotto and fennel-burdock side salad), served with an Italian saison-styled beer.
  • No. 3 – PBR and Caviar (Russian-White Trash Fusion) Dine like a rock star, served with ice-cold cheap beer.
  • No. 2 – Cedar Plank Salmon (Nouvelle Native American) First, cut down a cedar tree…
  • No. 1 – Lobster with Vanilla-Blueberry-Mascarpone Ravioli, Asparagus and Three Sauces – A massive, freaky effort to be made by the adventurous chef or dreamed about by armchair cooks.

Cheers and Happy Holidays! TPJ

[Ed. TPJ has been under the weather, literally and figuratively – hence the delay. The dish was prepared before Christmas, in case it matters. Many thanks to Neighbor Dave for kitchen privileges and reader BR for suggesting the Seven Fishes thread.]


Bose-Einstein Physics Meet BBQ

As is the way with great discoveries, scientific and otherwise, today I invented the Q-ball by combining essential tidbits from earlier enlightened philosophies. I employed Occam’s Razor, which as applied to food preparation can be interpreted as the “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients” (Julia Child).

I also employed Quantum Physics by accepting the conundrum that while every electron lives at its own little orbit, these orbits are infinitesimally close to one another, and in fact, we never know if that little bugger is home or out gathering charge. In other words, everything is just a blob. (Matt to Dr. Scala: “You mean you’ve lied to us?” Professor: “Well, yes.”)

And then there is the third component: Tennessee Pork. Slow roasted natural pork butt, cooked overnight in the slow cooker with a bottle of rauchbier (smoked beer), ancho chilis, and beaucoup cumin, then shredded and mixed with chipotle BBQ sauce. Recipe follows.

So what happens when these concepts are synthesized? Do we get the next Halliburton loophole to shave more dough from the federal larder? No, this is much more world-changing. More precisely my invention is called a ‘Q-Ball (note the apostrophe – since it represents a contraction of BBQ). The ‘ball’ part will soon be self-evident, but let’s further describe this ball as a non-topological soliton.

One example of a soliton is a standing wave. (Source: botheredbybees)

BBQ, as we all know, is short for bar-be-que. But whatever that means is up for debate. I doubt I need define a soliton, but just in case you tuned in from a fermion universe, a soliton is a collection of bosonic particles in an equilibrium configuration, neither gaining or losing bosons. Solitons comprise constituents which are held together by weak forces and is envisioned as more or less, you guessed it, as a standing wave or a blob.

You probably remember from advanced statistical mechanics that there are five elementary bosons and my ‘Q-Balls use all five. (No quarks or leptons are required.) They are, in no apparent order:

  1. the gluon (also called gluten) is the elastic force that allows the ‘Q-Balls to expand during photonic irradiation and condense during cooling without disintegrating into fermions,
  2. the weak force Z (representing zweibel (DE) or in English: onion),
  3. the weak force W (it represents the energy of cabbage; we’re not sure why ‘W’ but then cabbage is a bit of a mystery, isn’t it?),
  4. the photon (this is how we cook the ‘Q-Balls for maximum enjoyment, and finally,
  5. the Higgs bosons, sometimes called the “god particle,” which due to a misspelling by an editor was actually supposed to be Pig’s bosons, often served with BBQ sauce. [Ed. it has recently been proposed that there are five different bosons of this type: 1) pork butt, 2) back ribs, 3) shoulder, 4) shank, and 5) bacon. Sausage is actually a composite boson made by a collision of any Higg’s boson with the strange quark, which itself is a fermion. Other physicists call the research into question. You don’t have to own a particle accelerator to own your very own boson.]

Although physicists can only theorize about the Q-Ball, you can easily make a ‘Q-Ball at home. The idea came to me because in Lincoln, Nebraska a similar construct, called a Runza, is available from fast-food chain restaurants throughout the city. Let me point out, and I make no apologies here, that a Runza is filled with fermions, not bosons, and therefor must comply with the Pauli Exclusion Principle (the theory states that it is impossible for one to be in the same room with a television playing Pauly Shore’s Bio-Dome). Fermions, remember, can only occupy one quantum state at a time. Thus, eating a Runza means that all other quanta cannot co-exist in your digestive tract, hence the rapid escape of other waves and particles. The name is a reference to this effect.

Wikipedia provides instructions on how to construct a Q-Ball, but since my calculus is rusty, I suggest you try my method instead. I think you will find that ‘Q-Balls illicit a much more sympathetic response from one’s body since the bosons can co-occupy the same quanta as the colon. Add to this the fact that left-handed fermions can interact with the W force (remember: the cabbage), so at least for southpaw fermions, eating ‘Q-Balls should have no adverse effect on digestion. Right-handed antifermions should have no problems either; right-handed leptons should take a Tums.


Ingredients for 4 Blobs

  • 1 cup shredded cabbage
  • 1 med. onion, slivered
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked, shredded pork BBQ (see below)
  • 1 lb of ready-made pizza dough

For the Shredded Pork

  • 3-4 lb pork butt
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 6 cloves
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teas of peppercorns, cracked
  • 1 tbsp cumin, ground
  • 2 whole, dried ancho chilis
  • 1 12 0z bottle of rauchbier (smoked beer)
  • 1/3 cup your favorite BBQ sauce


Place the pork, onion, spices and beer into the slow cooker. Cooked on low for 7-10 hours until pork falls apart on touch. Cool, remove pork to a plate. Sieve the liquid, discarding the cooked onions and spices and reserving the liquid. Place 1/2 cup of the reserved pork liquid in a small pan and cook with the BBQ sauce until reduced to a thick sauce. Shred the pork and add to the sauce, coating evenly. Correct for acidity, sweetness, and seasoning with cider vinegar, brown sugar, and salt & pepper, respectively. Set aside.

Meanwhile saute the shredded cabbage and onions with the oil. Add the garlic 5 minutes later. Cook the mixture down until limp and translucent. Cool, then combine with 1 1/2 cups of the shredded pork to complete the filling.

The 'Q-Ball

Divide the dough into four pieces. Using your hands or a rolling pin, make a 5-inch circle of one piece and place 1/4 of the pork cabbage mixture in the middle. Bring the sides of the dough up and across, sealing with the opposite side to make a leakproof bundle. (If it doesn’t stay altogether it can’t be a soliton.) Repeat for the remaining ingredients. Place apart from one another on a greased pan and allow to site in a warm place for 30 minutes to begin to rise again. Bake at 400ºF until the crust is golden and firm, approximately 25 minutes.

These are so good, they could win the Nobel Piece (sic) Prize. Enjoy! TPJ

Nano Nano Pico Femto

I think the last time I owned a TV was when Mork and Mindy was still in its first run. Those shows first aired before home brewing and microbreweries were legalized. Shazbot! Really?

What, pray tell, does Mork from the planet Ork have to do with brewing? Nothing, I hope, except the current term for ultra-small microbreweries is nanobrewery and that sent me back to Mork’s interplanetary greeting “Nanu nanu.” Now I’m remembering those horrible rainbow suspenders. Yikes, I even owned a pair. TMI!

How small is small? (Source: http://www.thefoodsection.com)

The nano label grew out of the oft-heard microbrewery term, micro meaning one millionth and nano, the next more diminutive term, meaning one billionth. I guess that makes a homebrewer making 5-gallon batches on the stove a picobrewery, unless that homebrewer is a woman, in which case it’s a femtobrewery. Can you tell I was a chemist in a former life?

Labels aside, there is a discernible uptick in the number of very, very small breweries these days. I’ve had the chance to visit several lately and have quite a few more on my radar. What surprises me isn’t so much the beer they’re making. Beer can be great, good, or so-so, no matter the size of the brewery. I’m interested by the simple fact that these operations, producing barely more than a prodigious homebrewer, have chosen to clear all the legal and fiscal hurdles necessary to sell their beer. Licensing, zoning, financing, and distribution is challenge enough for professional brewers and restaurateurs, but these folks have done it. And why? And how!

What is a Nanobrewery?

Defining the nanobrewery is like trying to typify the Belgian bière de la saison. It doesn’t lend itself to a singular profile. At this point there is no legal definition and that makes the taxonomists among us fidget. There have already been cases of larger breweries cashing in on the media buzz, supplying beer to festivals that were supposed to showcase only nanobrews. And there are the major breweries that started out as what we would today call a nanobrewery: Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione on his 10-gallon system or Jeff Lebesch brewing those first batches of Fat Tire in his basement and delivering them from the truck of his car. When did they cease being a nanobrewery?

Here are just a few of the definitions currently being given:

  • One one-thousandth the size of a microbrewery, that is producing fewer than 15 barrels, or 465 gallons, per year. (OldGrowth)
  • A brewery with a batch size of 10 to 75 gallons. (Michael Skubic)
  • A brewery with a batch size no more than 3 bbl (91 gal) and no pub attached.
  • A brewery whose brewer keeps his/her day job. (attributed to MSN)
  • The embodiment of “mom & pop” brewing. (Ian McGuinness)

I like the “mom & pop” notion. These are beers from a cottage industry sold only in the immediate vicinity. One must truly seek them out. When you stop in to have your growler filled you comfortably discuss the weather or the fender bender you just avoided down the street. You are not surprised to find out that the brewer’s mother was friends with your aunt and that the pumpkins in the latest beer were grown by your neighbor. Nano isn’t so much about size as it is about proximity.

Element Brewing produces hand-bottled strong specialty ales presented with cork and cage closures and a tissue label.

Perhaps more interesting than definitions is the fact that many of these operations seem to be a result of a poor economy or re-evaluation of one’s career. Bill “Lefty” Goldfarb resigned from the roofing trade and started Lefty’s Brewing Co. Founder of Great South Bay Brewery, Rick Sobotka, is a board-certified anesthesiologist (I think he’s kept his day job). Steve Howe, founder of Las Vegas’ Plan 9 Brewing started with Mr. Beer kits, suffered a failed Internet business, and took on the financial risk of starting a 2-bbl system.

Scores of others claim to be simply homebrewers bringing their beer to a larger circle. Some nanos, like White Birch Brewing near Manchester, NH, have quickly grown into larger systems and seem to be making a real go of it. Element Brewing is run by two experienced professional brewers, not newbies at all. After just a year of operation they have maxed out capacity on their 4-bbl system.

The individual business models of the nanos seems to fall into one of two classes: 1) you are a glorified homebrewer trying to recoup some of the costs associated with providing your family and friends with beer, or 2) you plan to grow and starting this small is a way to limit financial risk and initial capital requirements.

Cave Mountain Brewing in the Catskills. Hey, that looks a lot like my homebrew system!

Northeast Nanos

Current estimates suggest there are about 50 nanos nationwide, but numbers could go upwards of 100 depending on how one defines the nanobrewery. There seems to be a concentration of nanobreweries in New England and New York. The Pacific Northwest is the other regional concentration. This may indicate that local and state authorities in these regions are not hellbent against new brewing businesses. I venture that it might be more difficult in the bible belt.

To date I’ve visited these Northeast operations.

And here are some I hope to visit soon.

And three more on Long Island…

I won’t be surprised if someone says, “Hey, what about XYZ Brewery?” That’s the nature of the beast, nanos are low on the radar and may not be well known outside of their very limited distribution area. Half the fun of sniffing out new beers is in finding the brewery in the first place!

Cheers! TPJ

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