Little did my husband and I know when we gave our son Nicholas the six-volume, 2400-page “Modernist Cuisine” “cookbook” for his 31st birthday that our Thanksgiving kitchen would be converted into a chemistry lab.
Nicholas, a software engineer in Philadelphia, had become intrigued with modernist cuisine, which draws upon chemistry, physics and industrial food science.
With unbridled enthusiasm a few weeks before heading west to home in La Jolla for Thanksgiving, Nicholas began planning his “additions” to the traditional menu: creamed spinach, polenta, and two extra gravies, all made with the help of “molecular” ingredients such as xanthan gum, sodium citrate, liquid soy lecithin and Ultra Sperse-3 (your guess is as good as mine).
A week before his arrival Nicholas emailed me his “shopping list.” It included four pounds of corn on the cob, “lots and lots of parmesan rinds,” white chicken stock, brown chicken stock, liquid soy lecithin, and rendered duck fat, among other foodstuffs.
Also needed were a pressure cooker, an immersion blender, cheesecloth, a potato ricer, a juicer, and “a digital metric scale, accuracy to .1g. This is really imperative for all of these recipes,” he wrote. By UPS he sent, a package from on-line market “Modernist Pantry with little packets of stuff with names like Carrageenan and Kelcogel F.
On Thanksgiving morning, as Nicholas measured, mixed, minced and whisked to his heart’s content, I watched and wondered exactly how did we get from Cheerios-on-a-highchair-tray to cutting-edge haute cuisine?
Nicholas Shiftan and his younger brother, Ben, came into this world in the early ‘80s, shortly after I had chucked a career in politic programming for the San Diego PBS affiliate in favor of restaurant reviewing for the San Diego Union. Before Ben could walk I was named food editor as well, all of which meant that I had to eat out three or four times a week, as well as crank out a 50-page Food section every Thursday.
Very often while on assignment, I took the boys with me to wineries, chocolate factories, farms and ethnic markets Nicholas learned how to make Pommes Soufflées with me at a one-day class at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Ben accompanied me on his fourth birthday to a bakery that was famous for frosting the birthday celebrant’s “face” on the cake, a new concept at the time. (After much “sampling,” that interview was cut short when Ben threw up in the bathroom and his embarrassed mother tried to clean up the mess.)
The boys didn’t blink when dinner wasn’t served until 9 p.m.because I was testing recipes. However, they did roll their eyes every time I returned from nutrition conferences armed with new ideas, info and inspiration.
Famous chefs showed up in our kitchen now and then, sometimes for photo shoots, sometimes to cook dinner with me for charity events. Nicholas and Ben practiced their French with Jean-Marie Meulien, a Paris “two-star;” were intimidated by Jacques Pepin (“Why doesn’t he smile, Mom?”) and became instant fans of Wolfgang Puck when he offered to make them quesadillas when they came in from school.
So I guess it’s small wonder that they both cook dinner for themselves in their apartments in Philadelphia and San Francisco; are thrilled when Nana, my mother, sends gift cards to Whole Foods; call home often to rave about newly discovered restaurants or ethnic cuisines; and, yes, dream up kitchen adventures for the family, sometimes on nights when I was just hoping to open a jar of pasta sauce.
Which brings us back to Turkey Day, 2012.
On one side of the kitchen at the Wolf range, Nicholas first made a “molecular” gravy of chicken stock, powdered gelatin, xanthan gum, liquid soy lecithin and rendered duck fat that offered fabulous roasted turkey flavor and a remarkably smooth, velvety texture. One gravy was not enough so he concocted another from chicken stock, garlic and something called Ultra-Sperse 3 (described as “all-natural cold water swelling starch derived from tapioca”), to which dried cranberries, fresh sage leaves and cracked black pepper were added at the last minute
On the other side of the kitchen at the chopping block, Ben, 29, an attorney home for the weekend from San Francisco, cubed fresh corvina, minced jalapenos and juiced limes for the ceviche that he’d serve with cocktails. He’d sent me a link to the recipe the week before so I could gather the ingredients. My husband grappled with the Brobdingagian bird that would feed our group of 20. And just in case three-ring wasn’t big enough for this circus, my 90-year-old mother was swirling whipped cream and candied confetti on her contribution to the feast, the Chocolate Icebox Cake of my youth.
Christmas will be yet another chapter in “what hath a food editor mom wrought.” My husband and I (and the dog) are headed to our vacation home in the mountains with my new Blade Digital Pocket Scale and Hamilton Beach Big Mouth Juice Extractor in tow. Our sons will join us there next week, gifts and recipes in hand. Since Nicholas didn’t get to do his creamed spinach and polenta for Thanksgiving (I had suggested that his menu was a bit ambitious considering all that was going on in the kitchen that day), he is eager to turn clear chicken stock, clear parmesan broth and clear corn juice into a bowl of fluffy polenta. Ben has plans for homemade pork vindaloo, a recent discovery that prompted the phone call: “Mom, why didn’t you ever tell me about Indian food?”
And life goes on. One delicious dish, one learning experience (which is bigger: .1g or .01g), one laughter-filled kitchen adventure, one memorable family meal at a time.
Maureen Clancy blogs about memorable food and drink, personalities and trends, and culinary adventures near and far-flung at her website “Matters of Taste.” Over the span of 27 years, Maureen served as restaurant critic, food columnist, and food editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
She shares with mothering21.com readers three of her favorite recipes, all of which she will be making this holiday season for a festive meal.