Modernist cuisine — sometimes called “modern gastronomy” or “molecular gastronomy” — is, to say the least, controversial. While its most ardent enthusiasts call it magic in the kitchen and observe chefs creating dishes in this discipline must create at another level, technical and formal, others don’t. Its detractors call it form over substance, smoke and mirrors not cooking. There is about it more than a whiff of “cheating.”
But gas ovens are “cheating,” aren’t they? Refrigeration? Cheating. Not killing that cow yourself? Yeah: definitely cheating.
Where modernist cuisine is at its best, though, is where you don’t even see it. Many chefs, even some whose reputations were built on modern gastronomy (Richard Blais, I’m looking at you) have begun to trade the smoke and the mirrors in for the textural and technical advantages a modernist chef’s toolbox offers. Instead of focusing on the whiz-bang you just marvel at how good the dish is. This “molecular gastronomy” is all about quietly solving problems.
One problem we have every year is matzo balls. Another is what to do with all the leftover matzo following the end of Passover. As a general matter, matzo balls come in two varieties: floaters and sinkers. I’ve never been a fan of sinkers. Both are valid choices, at least in theory, but if I wanted a heavy ball in my soup I’d go with a Mexican albondigas (meatballs).
I knew the theory of floaters: incorporating beaten egg whites into the matzo balls makes them light, fluffy and airy. The issues — which, of course, I’ve experienced the hard way — were not beating the egg whites enough or incorporating the solids into the egg whites too heavily. So I knew I would have to beat the egg whites nearly to the point of stiff peaks. I would also have to be very, very gentle in folding in the matzo meal.
But I also had a trick up my sleeve: a little bit of modernist cuisine. The ingredient in egg whites that lets them do their magic is called “lecithin.” It is an excellent emulsifier. Of course one of the basic tools of the modern gastronomy arsenal is soy lecithin. So, to amp up the effect of the egg whites I decided to kick up my matzo balls with a teaspoon of soy lecithin.
It is, ultimately, the less well-publicized side of modernist cuisine that matters to me. Instead of being about bells and whistles, showmanship and surprise it is about finding a new way to solve an old problem. Who care’s if someone calls it “cheating.”
Tomato Matzo Ball Soup with Pickled Garlic Chive
For the Pickled Garlic Chives
8 garlic chives (found at most Asian markets, particularly Thuong Phat in Linda Vista or 99 Ranch in the Convoy District.)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
For the Soup
4 Roma tomatoes, whole
3 Mexican onions, skinned and quartered
3 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil
2 leeks, cleaned and chopped in quarter moons
2 jalapeño chile peppers, seeded and sliced
4 key limes, juiced
8 cups chicken stock
For the Matzo balls
1 tablespoon canola or grapeseed oil
½ cup matzo meal
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon soy lecithin (Kosher soy lecithin is readily available from a number of sources including online at http://www.modernistpantry.com/soy-lecithin-powder.html)
6 cups chicken broth, stock or salted water
For the Garnish
1 bunch, fresh cilantro, separated into leaves with about 1/8 inch of stem (optional)
1) Make the Pickled Garlic Chives.
Bring a saucepan of water to boil on the stove over high heat. Trim the garlic chives to about 3 inches, or wherever the chive stems get excessively fibrous. Submerge the garlic chives in boiling water for about three minutes, removing them before they fully wilt. Meanwhile combine the remaining ingredients in a big bowl and whisk to fully dissolve the solids. Pour the dissolved liquid over the garlic chives, adding water as necessary to cover. Refrigerate for half an hour.
2) Roast the Vegetables for the Soup.
Preheat the oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Place the tomatoes, onions and garlic on an oiled hotel sheet or roasting pan and place in the oven. Roast the vegetables until the tomatoes are blistered and the onions are beginning to brown, about half an hour.
3)Make the Matzo balls.
Separate the whites from the yolks of the eggs, putting the whites in the bowl of a Kitchen Aid or other similar mixer. Reserve the yolks. Beat the egg whites on high until the form soft peaks. Meanwhile beat the egg yolks and oil using a wire whisk and then combine with the whites. Combine the matzo meal, salt and soy lecithin in a bowl and fold into the egg mixture as gently as possible using a plastic spatula. This is a job better done by two, one folding gently and the other pouring the solids in gradually. Refrigerate for half an hour.
4) Make the Broth.
In a large soup pot, sweat the leeks in the remaining oil over low heat for three minutes, until just translucent. Add in the roasted vegetables and the broth and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook for ten minutes. Add in the lime juice and chile pepper and simmer for fifteen minutes.
5) Cook the Matzo balls.
Bring the broth (or stock or salted water) to a boil in a large pot. Meanwhile, cover a hotel pan with wax paper. Remove the matzo ball material from the refrigerator. Working with moist hands (have a bowl of water handy to refresh), take a heaping tablespoon of the matzo ball material and form into a ball. Gently place the balls in the pot of boiling broth. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered for fifteen minutes.
6) Plate the Dish.
Ladle the Chicken-Tomato Broth into soup bowls. Float three Matzo balls in each bowl and garnish with cilantro leaves if desired.