Harold McGee, Keys to Good Cooking and Kokumi

Hal McGee spoke on the taste map, kokumi and the futility of searing to seal in a steak's juices at Omnivore Books last night.

You may know Harold McGee as the father of modern food science, or maybe as the Curious Cook in New York Times columns on how to make better bread with less kneading or why some of us detest cilantro. As a food writer, I admire him for those things too.

But we share this weird Gilligan’s Island-like bond, since we were marooned along with a group of foodies at the American Chemical Society estate in Baltimore on Sept. 11, 2001.

So when I saw that McGee would be talking about his new book Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Food & Recipes at Omnivore Books in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, I decided to drop by.

He told a packed room he set out to be an astronomer and ended up as a gastronomer after getting to cherry- pick the science classes he wanted at Caltech. His first tome On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is a fascinating exploration of the ways chemistry explains why foods rise and brown – or not – in the kitchen. The new book is organized to be a cooks companion in case you’re trying to figure out how to make a meringue behave.

McGee, who lives near the bookstore, shared that his favorite cookbooks include The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers and Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli.

The best part of the night was the question and answer session. Now that you’ve gotten your head around the Japanese concept of savoriness called umami found in dashi broth, Parmigiano-Reggiano and tomatoes, get ready for its cousin kokumi. The latter is a sort of delicious sensation of mouth-fillingness. McGee says both seem to be related to the breakdown of proteins.

The Keys to Good Cooking is the ultimate, scientific how-to book for anyone who wants to make sure dishes come out right.

The tongue map you think you know is wrong. We can taste sweet, salty, sour and bitter any place we have taste buds, but there are certain tastes that are more intense on some parts of the tongue.

Think searing a steak or cooking meat in a wet preparation will keep it more moist? Sorry, those are kitchen myths not based in science. Want to know how to ensure a juicy steak, whip up fluffy eggs and moist muffins? For that you have to buy the book.

Salted Butter Caramel…Mmmm!

A tiny pool of Gale Gand's Salted Butter Caramel graced this chocolate pot de cremé.

Is there anything better than salted butter caramel?

I think not. I mean who doesn’t like the taste of sugar? But it’s even better with a bit of saltiness to make you want – no need – to take another bite. That’s why it’s so hard to put down that bag of kettle corn from the farmer’s market. Or why the addictive caramel and cheese corn mix first served at Garrett’s Popcorn in Chicago is widely imitated.

Salted caramel is usually associated with Brittany in France, where it’s called caramel au beurre salé. The style is said to have been created in the 1970s by a chocolatier and caramélier named Henri Le Roux. He added some of the region’s famous grey sea salt – aka fleur de sel de Guerande – to his pot of caramel. I have tasted Le Roux’s salted caramels – which come in an assorted box with flavors like caramelized apple tatin, bitter chocolate and orange ginger – and they were worth every penny.

For some reason, I was slightly intimidated by the thought of making salted caramel at home. But Gale Gand, the Chicago pastry chef, made it look so easy when she was the special guest at the Sweet Sundays breakfast earlier this week at Epcot Food & Wine Festival at Walt Disney World.

I picked up a good tip: Gale dropped little spots of caramel on a white plate to judge whether it was dark enough. In just a few minutes it went from pale gold to deep maple, so it doesn’t take long.

She served it atop a Chocolate Pot de Cremé with a Black Pepper Whipped Cream, but I can imagine lots of other ways to enjoy it.

Her recipe is so simple it’s Tweetable.

Gale Gand’s Salted Butter Caramel
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup cream
1/4 tsp. fleur de sel

Boil the sugar and water until it gets to the desired shade of golden brown. When it’s there, let it cool a bit. Whisk in the cream until it’s fully incorporated and then add the salt. Voila!

Dinner Tonight: Bistro Salad with Brioche Croutons

I could eat a Bistro Salad with real brioche croutons for dinner almost every night.

There’s something fun about eating foods at the wrong time of day. Pizza for breakfast or cereal for dinner is so much more interesting than eating either one in their typical time frame. Of course, eggs are one of those elemental foods that transcend the confines of time. What would Vietnamese com tam and grilled pork be sans oeuf? Or a big bowl of ramen noodle and pork belly soup from Momofuku Noodle Bar without the egg?

My favorite way to eat eggs at night though is on a Bistro Salad, the simple dish of frisée lettuce, bacon, croutons and a runny poached egg in a tangy vinaigrette. Some people call it Frisée Aux Lardons or Salade Lyonnaise. But that latter can also refer to a salad that comes with a tasty surprise of chicken liver, lamb trotters or offal that’s popular in Lyon. No matter, once you taste it, you’ll be calling it one of your favorite salads ever.

Bistro Salad with Brioche Croutons

3 cups mixed baby greens, like frisée
1/4 cup vinaigrette
salt and pepper, to taste
4 soft-poached eggs
3 slices thick bacon, cut in 1/2 inch sections and cooked
12 Brioche Croutons, recipe follows

In a large bowl, toss the baby greens with the vinaigrette. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. To assemble the salad, divide the salad greens between two salad bowls. Lay two of the soft poached eggs on the greens in each bowl. Sprinkle half the bacon pieces on each of the bowl. Top with the Brioche Croutons and serve.

Brioche Croutons

Makes 1 cup
3 one-inch slices brioche
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
sea salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the crusts from the brioche slices and then cut them into cubes that are about 1/2 inch square. Put the brioche cubes on a baking sheet. Reserve the crusts for another use if you like.

Combine the melted butter with the olive oil. Drizzle the butter mixture over the brioche cubes, tossing them lightly to make sure they are well-coated.

Put the cubes in the oven and let them brown for 15 minutes. Halfway through, using a spatula to turn them over. After 15 minutes, the croutons should be a golden brown and fragrant with a toasty buttery smell.

Remove from the oven and sprinkle with sea salt. Let cool and store in an airtight container until ready to use.

Make more of these than you think you will need; you will eat a bunch of them before they ever hit the salad.

Skylite Snowballs: An Icy Taste of Baltimore in the East Bay

An icy strawberry and jasmine tea treat from Skylite Snowballs' visit to Piedmont Avenue in Oakland.

I lived in Baltimore as a kid. And while I’ve indulged in local delicacies like steamed blue crab and crab salad, apparently I missed out on the icy treats that Baltimoreans call snowballs. Until today that is.

I was driving up Piedmont Avenue in North Oakland when I spotted a pale blue truck with a a row of colorful flavored syrups in the window. I parked and then walked up to the truck, just as an excited couple was approaching. They follow @Skylitesnowball on Twitter and were happy to find the truck.

Kate – the cheerful young woman who launched Skylite Snowballs on Labor Day weekend, told me snowballs are always served in a cup, unlike Midwestern snow cones. The ice is grated more finely than a snowcone, but it’s not as fluffy as Hawaiian shave ice. In Baltimore and around the state of Maryland, snowballs are an old-fashioned treat that’s sold at carnivals and from little shacks.

This article Cold Comfort from City Paper explains that snowballs are sold around the state, often for just a dollar or so. Historians trace them back to the turn of the century, when ice wagons would sell a cup of shaved ice. The most popular flavors there are egg custard, cherry and chocolate, with a dollop of marshmallow creme on top.

Kate’s are different because she makes the flavorings herself, using seasonal fruit like strawberries, and artisanal ingredients like Tcho Chocolate and Four Barrel Coffee. So hers cost $3 to 5 for a basic snowball, plus $1 more for marshmallow or chocolate topping.

I tried one with strawberry and jasmine tea flavorings and liked the way the floral taste of the jasmine mixed with the soft strawberry flavor. The whole effect was kind of mild, so I sprinkled some Stevia powder on it at home and it was just right. Next time, I’m having a classic chocolate snowball with marshmallow. If you want to try one, follow Kate @Skylitesnowball on Twitter.

I Love This: Gin & Rosewater Perfume by Tokyo Milk

This fresh scent perfectly captures the aroma of lime zest, quinine and rosewater.

Just after my 21st birthday, my friend Wendy took me to a busy bar in downtown Chicago for my first grown-up drink. I remember standing at the bar, scanning the menu and trying to decide what to order. She suggested I order a Tanqueray and tonic. While I’ve changed up my brand of gin, the G & T has been my fallback cocktail ever since.

I’ve never grown tired of the aromatic contrasts a simple gin and tonic presents. There’s floral and spicy gin, the watery scent of quinine mixed with the bright bitterness of the freshly squeezed lime.

I was instantly transported to that first bittersweet sip, when I sniffed this Gin & Rosewater perfume by Tokyo Milk. We were browsing through Flutter, an artful shop on Portland’s Mississippi Street that carries an eclectic mix of vintage clothing and jewelry, toys, pretty beetles in resin and whatever else catches the owner’s eye.

With it’s juicy brightness and seductive rosewater notes, this Gin & Rosewater perfume makes for an instant pick-me-up, even if it’s nowhere near happy hour.

Crab, Chanterelles and Ned Ludd in Portland

Chef Jason French scored with Dungeness crab and Oregon chanterelle mushrooms over grilled artisan bread.

This past weekend, I flew up to Sandy, Oregon – a little town 30 minutes outside Portland – for my friend Isabel Cruz’ 50th birthday celebration. Isabel and her husband Bill Tosheff recently purchased a 60-acre farm, which was the setting for the birthday bash.

One of the many surprises of the weekend was meeting Jason French, the chef from the popular Portland restaurant called Ned Ludd. At first I thought it was an unfortunate name for a restaurant. But it took on an awkward elegance when I figured out that Ludd was short for Luddite. At Ned Ludd they cook everything over wood fires, and that’s exactly what French did for the party.

Ned Ludd Chef Jason French - with cool culinary tatts - gets love from Isabel Cruz and Bill Tosheff.

The first course was Dungeness crab and local chanterelle mushrooms over grilled rustic bread, and it turned out to be my favorite dish of the night. French drizzled the brown bread with Spanish arbequina olive oil and squeezed on some fresh lemon to heighten the flavors. I think I’ll be making my own version this weekend.