Thursday, June 02, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Illinois V - She Fed Me... with Science!

Before I started preparing this final Illinois post, I got what I have to call "Achatz-y". Those of you familiar with the famous molecular gastronome who helms Chicago's Alinea and who recently chronicled his battle with tongue cancer (which could have taken his life, much less his career), will understand what I mean.

Official Name: State of Illinois
State Nicknames: The Prairie State; The Land of Lincoln
Admission to the US: December 3, 1818 (#21)
Springfield (6th largest city)
Other Important Cities: Chicago (largest in the state and the Midwest; 3rd largest in the US); Aurora (2nd largest); Rockford (3rd largest)
Region: Midwest, Great Lakes; East North Central (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Cornbread & BBQ, Wild Rice
Bordered by:
Wisconsin (north); Lake Michigan (northeast); Indiana (east); Kentucky (southeast & south); Missouri (southwest); Iowa (northwest)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: popcorn (snack food); GoldRush apple (fruit); white-tailed deer (animal)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: typical Midwestern foods, especially corn; Native American and pioneer foods; state-specific foods (horseshoe sandwich, shrimp de Jonghe, Chicago dog, Italian beef); also note: deep-dish pizza and hot dogs were first made popular in Illinois

Grant Achatz is one of the leading lights in the whole "molecular gastronomy" movement. Molecular gastronomy is the culinary exploration of the chemical and physical properties of food. It is not something I know much about or have ever been very interested in investigating. Now that I know a bit more about it, I am quite intrigued.

Molecular gastronomy forces you to think of your pantry as a chemical lab of sorts. In his "Postmodern Pantry" section of Achatz's massive Alinea cookbook, Mark McClusky sums up the molecular gastronome's attitude towards food and ingredients:

Go into your kitchen and open your pantry. You're staring at a lab's worth of chemicals. Baking soda? That's calcium bicarbonate if you want to be technical. Cream of tartar? More accurately, it's potassium hydrogen tartrate... Cooking is chemistry. Even the techniques are the same: heating, cooling, purification, dilution, distillation, fermentation. The difference between a saucier and an Erlenmeyer one of familiarity. [McClusky, in Achatz 2008:16]
Achatz's cookbook is a good go-to source for all the typical ingredients and supplies one would ever need to do molecular gastronomy at home. And it is possible to do this stuff at home, as many websites and online communities, such as the Molecular Gastronomy Network and attest. But I am still a molecular gastro-noob, so instead of trying spinach foam, melon-cantaloupe caviar or right or anti-grilled anything right off the bat, I thought I would try something a bit more reachable for me, simply turning a liquid fat into a powder, using tapioca maltodextrin.

The recipe: Olive Oil Powder (Alinea-Style)

Tapioca maltodextrin is a modified food starch used by companies to put fats into powder form, but is used by molecular gastronomes to turn oils, butters, and such into powder (this video from Gourmet Magazine's Will Goldfarb shows how to make a nutella powder). There are a few purveyors of this fascinating ingredient, all of them online. You can buy it from a few places online, where it'll run anywhere from $9 to $23 for a pound, or do what I did and order a free sample from the National Starch website.

Unbeknownst to me, barely a month ago Anthony Cipolone of the blog Mr. Onion's Neighborhood did the exact same thing I am about to do, using the exact same recipe in the exact same ingredients. He loves this stuff, and I hope my olive oil powder turns out like his. Science, right?

You need three ingredients and a few supplies:

* tapioca maltodextrin (see free sample note above)
* olive oil (had on hand)
* salt (same)

Not only that, but you will need a digital scale that can display measurements in grams and/or fractions of ounces. The cheapest ones run around $30 at Bed, Bath and Beyond. You don't need a fancy one.

Measure out the ingredients: first the olive oil,

then the tapioca maltodextrin, which will fly all over the place if you're not careful (um, ahem),

and the salt.

Whisk it all together. At first I used my hand whisk but it all just gooped up inside the whisk, so I switched to a fork and then ultimately the whisk attachment on my hand blender, which worked the best.

Nope, the fork just isn't doin' it for me.

Okay, the whisk attachment. That's better.

Because I am clumsy, I had to add a little more tapioca maltodextrin at a time - yes I eyeballed it, which is not exactly scientific I admit.

In the end I came up with something very crumbly and pasty, and not in any way wet.

I did not exactly get a powdery texture, but after pushing it through a strainer (or by its more French-sounding name, a tamis) I got a more powdery substance.

When he did this, Mr. Onion literally said "Strangely enough, I ended up with what looked like grated cheese." I hear ya, brother. I got the same thing. But the taste on the tongue was clearly olive oil. The texture was very slightly grainy at first, turning to silken. It was a most strange experiment, to be sure.

And so my massive sojourn into Illinois is done, from hearty farm food to heartier sandwiches, to Polish and Italian food, to the height of food science, Illinois truly has it all. So this begs my next question: what about Indiana, which is right next door?


Achatz, Grant, Alinea. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2008.

Cipolone, Anthony
. "Tapioca Maltodextrin: Sprinkle on the Fat". Mr. Onion's Neighborhood, published May 5, 2011.

McClusky, Mark, "Postmodern Pantry". In Alinea, by Grant Achatz.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Illinois" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Illinois".


Big Onion said...

Hi John!

Thanks for visiting my blog and for the mention in your own! If you take the clumps and run it through a food processor it'll get it to a more powder-like consistency. By hand it definitely clumps, but processing it will do a better job of breaking it up.

If you do it with the tomatoes, add some basil. I was actually thinking that adding some finely ground dried basil to that mix of oil and malto might be a fun thing to try. Or maybe combine it after it's been powdered ... hm ...

It's fun stuff, isn't it?

John said...

It IS fun! I will have to try the food processor thing because shoving it through the strainer just ain't doin' it for me. I have lots of basil in my garden but the dried might actually work better in this case.

Bill C. said...

Great post! Don't waste your time on Indy though.. The only thing they offer is hefty speeding tickets ;)