Trekquinox Episode 08: Side Dishes – Bread, Food Cubes, and Gagh

So the infamous Heart of Targ did not stand alone; it came with a number of side dishes – to wit, Quadrotriticale Bread, Food Cubes, and Gagh (specifically Wistan Gagh, even). Two of these are quite basic, so I think we can safely cover them all in one post.

Quadrotriticale Bread

Menu Item #7 "Quadrotriticale Bread", or just plain Bread
Menu Item #7 “Quadrotriticale Bread”, or just plain Bread

Earl had brought this one to my attention when I’d set him to do some research on the foods of Star Trek, since it is not only mentioned but actually forms the crux of an episode plot. The Enterprise is brought to a space station using an ultra-high priority signal – the equivalent of “Defcon 1″ indicating a state of possible war – only to discover a nervous trade attaché wanted them to protect a shipment of fancy grain called quadrotriticale. Not only that, but the dialogue actually references it being a derivative of the real world grain triticale, developed in Canada. Yes, the famous Mr. Spock actually had a line in which he got to say “Canada”.

SPOCK: Quadrotriticale is a high-yield grain, a four-lobed hybrid of wheat and rye. A perennial, also, I believe. Its root grain, triticale, can trace its ancestry all the way back to twentieth century Canada…

Anyway, at the end of the day it’s just wheat, and so suitable for making dinner rolls. As a lover of cheese, I decided to make them cheese buns.

Food Cubes

Menu Item #8 "Food Cubes", or Diced Roasted Potatoes
Menu Item #8 “Food Cubes”, or Diced Roasted Potatoes

Star Trek was all about the primary colours, and particularly when it came to food. At this scene of a diplomatic reception about the ship, you can see coloured cubes of food. It was never clear what they were, but they were clearly futuristic… I guess. Anyway, this sort of nonsense is pretty iconic in the original series. I wasn’t even going to bother, but at some point during our correspondence Earl mentioned “I can’t wait to see what you’ll do for food cubes!” In the words of Barney Stinson, challenge accepted! So I had to figure out something that could be cubed, coloured, and would actually taste good. Since I have a good recipe for oven-roasted potatoes, I thought it could work with the application of food colouring (a vital ingredient more than once this night!).

Food cubes, uneaten
Food cubes, uneaten

I actually did make these, but they were taking a bit longer to cook than I’d anticipated, and by the time they came out dinner was over! And no one had the space to go back and stuff them in. So they sat looking picturesque on the dining room table for the rest of the evening. Happily, for those of us who stayed over (well, obviously me, I live here) they were waiting for us in the morning as a form of multicoloured hash brown – perfectly acceptable breakfast food! As it happens, yellow doesn’t work very well, despite being closest to a roasted potato’s natural colour. To get that vibrant, sports-car yellow that showed up on the TV show you kind of need to use chromium paint, which is highly toxic. But I think the blue and red turned out nicely. I’d probably up the concentration of food colouring even more next time, or work out a better technique for application to get an even spread, but I was happy enough with these results. Particularly since this dish could best be described as too little, too late. No, actually – too much, too late.

Klingon (Wistan) Gagh

Obviously gagh was mentioned in that episode I discussed earlier, in which Riker catalogues all the Klingon food he can get on the Enterprise (and later on the Klingon ship itself, still alive and wriggling). But it was also mentioned in a different episode, shown here in this part of the video menu:

Menu Item #9 "Gagh", or Garlic Pasta
Menu Item #9 “Gagh”, or Garlic Pasta

In this episode of Deep Space Nine, Ezri Dax (left) is a “joined symbiont” – the humanoid Ezri has chosen to bond with a Trill symbiont named Dax, following the death of the previous host Jadzia – and so while her personality is much different, she still has the memories of her previous lives. The previous combined entity Jadzia Dax had ordered 51 crates of gagh to celebrate General Martok’s 51st birthday, each of a different variety. Now that her humanoid half is Ezri, she is made nauseous by the thought of all that gagh and has it destroyed. But first she gets to describe all the various types of gagh. This episode marks the first time we have any inkling that there are different types of gagh. Obviously just written for this joke scene. Still, the final type she describes, wistan gagh, is the one that’s packed targ’s blood. Which is what it’s being served with! So clearly whatever I made must have been wistan gagh.

This one was pretty easy – it’s supposed to be worms, so it was clearly going to be a pasta of some description. The Italian Centre here in town has an excellent variety of some truly odd-shaped pastas, including one thick corkscrew variety which would make an excellent “serpent worm”. All I needed was some food colouring to make it look purplish and a recipe for pasta that would work as a side for steak. (If I could have found some plastic agitators from a kid’s toy that would have made them appear to move, I totally would have done that! But I didn’t find one.)

Anyway, after some experimentation I decided on a very simple pasta dish, since anything more complex tended to be drowned out by the flavours of the steak main dish. This ended up being Spaghetti Aglio e Olio – spaghetti, garlic and oil. Very simple, very tasty, very easy. Which was handy.

This replaced a different recipe that also involved Parmesan cheese, and I had also planned to steam some bok choi to sit atop it, in a desperate attempt to add a vegetable to the mix. But that too fell to the side in my rush. I guess the asparagus soup would mark the last vegetable in this dinner. Regardless, I would make this as a side dish or even as a stand-alone pasta dish again, even without the need to meet certain arbitrary theme goals. So it was all good.

For this entry I even have a good bit of trivia for you! The reason that the Star Trek uniforms for different sections were bright yellow, blue, and red, and probably the reason that the foods were equally bright and primary, is simple – it was one of the first TV shows shot in colour. So they were trying to maximize the impact by colouring everything, rather than going subtle.

Also, in the original Star Trek, the colours (while somewhat inconsistent, particularly to start) eventually settled down so that yellow was command, blue was science/medical, and red was engineering (and security, sadly for those nameless red ensigns who died at the beginning of every show; maybe they wouldn’t have died if they’d been wearing something less visible at a distance). Upon the release of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the mid-eighties, the colours had changed so that Captain Picard and Commander Riker were in red. The reason for the change? They had already cast Patrick Stewart and Johnathan Frakes in those roles, and both actors looked terrible in the gold – they didn’t have the colouring for it. So they just changed all the uniforms.

And so while Star Trek is famously racially colour-blind, they are not so in the art department. And with that cheesy segue, here are some cheese buns.

Cheese Buns

(This recipe is designed for a stand mixer with a dough hook. If you don’t have one, find out how to make bread dough using the strong-arm method and then just substitute where appropriate.)

½ stick (¼ cup)   butter
½ cup   milk
3 tbsp   sugar
¾ cup   warm water (105°F to 115°F)
4 tsp   instant yeast
1 tsp   salt
3½-4½ cups   flour

1 stick (½ cup)   butter
½ cup   green onion, chopped
1-2 tsp   garlic, minced
2 cups   cheddar cheese (or Gruyere is also good)

  1. Place milk, sugar, salt, and butter in small saucepan. Heat over low heat until butter melts and sugar dissolves. Set aside to cool to lukewarm.
  2. Dissolve yeast in warm water in mixing bowl. If butter mix is still hot, add 3½ cups of flour first and then add butter mix. (Otherwise add butter mix first.) Turn mixer to Speed 2 for one minute.
  3. Continue mixing for 2 minutes, adding additional flour ½ cup at a time, until dough clings to the hook and cleans sides of bowl.
  4. Knead on Speed 2 for 2 minutes longer, or until dough is smooth and elastic. Should be slightly sticky to the touch.
  5. Place dough in greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover. Let rise in a warm place, free from draft, for an hour (or until doubled in bulk).
  6. While dough is rising in bowl, immediately start melting the remaining butter in the existing saucepan. Sauté the garlic in the butter. Remove from heat and stir in the green onions, leaving to cool for the remainder of the hour.
  7. Punch dough down into a small rectangle and place on floured surface. Roll out to a 12″×24″ thin rectangle.
  8. Spread filling evenly onto the dough, leaving ½” around edges. Sprinkle half the cheese (1 cup) on top.
  9. Roll lengthwise into a jelly roll. Cut the roll into 16 pieces (or however many holes your muffin tin has). Place pieces into lightly greased muffin tin. Cover with a towel and let rise for another hour.
  10. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and bake at 350°F for 20-25 minutes.

Roasted Potatoes

These are basically the roasted potatoes from the Feast of Thrones pork roast, only sadly missing the pig fat part. Just dice the potatoes into cubes (if you care about that look) and then do the roasting exactly the same as described, only in their own dish rather than around the pork roast. I tried soaking the potatoes in water with food colouring, which was good for permeation but gave a very light, watery, pastel colouring. Better to mix it with a small amount of water and coat them after roasting.

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio

1 lb   spaghetti (uncooked weight)
6 cloves   garlic, thinly sliced
½ cup   olive oil
¼ tsp   red pepper flakes
¼ cup   chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 cup   finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (buy it pre-mixed and pre-grated)
1 tbsp   butter (optional)

  1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook spaghetti in the boiling water, stirring occasionally until cooked through but firm to the bite, about 12 minutes. Drain and transfer to a pasta bowl.
  2. Combine garlic and olive oil in a cold skillet. Cook over medium heat to slowly toast garlic, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low when olive oil begins to bubble. Cook and stir until garlic is golden brown, about another 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
  3. Stir red pepper flakes, black pepper, and salt into the pasta. Pour in olive oil and garlic, and sprinkle on Italian parsley and half of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese; stir until combined.
  4. Serve pasta topped with the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

It’s not traditional, but for extra richness you can add 1 tbsp butter when you toss with cheese.

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Trekquinox Episode 07: Interlude – I need a drink!

Whew! After that bit of cooking lore, I’m exhausted. Time for a drink! Or at least a look at the drinks of Trekquinox.

Star Trek "LCARS" style display of menu
LCARS menu for Star Trek Geekquinox

Like the foods, some of the drinks fell by the wayside, which is too bad, as there were some neat ones in there. But certainly there was no shortage of drinkables. As you can see from the menu, there were two non-alcoholic beverages there – Tranya and Raktajino – and one extremely dangerously alcoholic one – the Warp Core Breach.

Zero-Gee Mojito

I had hoped to greet everyone with a Zero-Gee Mojito as the arrived, as sort of a introductory delight for the palate and the eye. Well, everyone except for Earl and Scott, the two non-drinkers. But of course by the time people started arriving I was still deep into food preparation, and at some point it just seemed like too much work. So this never actually happened for Trekquinox. But at least now you’ll know what this menu item was all about. I’m preparing another dinner for a different group of people next weekend, and I think they shall receive the fruits of this labour.

Liquor Item #1 "Zero-Gee Mojito", or Spherified Mojito
Liquor Item #1 “Zero-Gee Mojito”, or Spherified Mojito

A bit gruesomely, the only images of liquid in zero-gee I could find in the Star Trek canon was from the sixth movie, in which a bunch of Klingon dignitaries are assassinated aboard their ship in zero-gee, so their purple blood is what’s floating around. Not appetizing, exactly, but certainly zero gravity. For those of you with a taste for organic chemistry, the alcohol molecule is modeled there in the upper left of the display.

Anyway, the trick is to find some chemicals which, when brought together, form a gel “skin”. They happen to be calcium lactate and sodium alginate. You create the mojito mix, add the calcium lactate to it (the use of club soda is also important here, to up the calcium content even further), and then freeze them into ice cubes. Ice spheres, to be exact; I bought a Japanese ice tray that makes ice spheres for this. Then when it’s just about time to serve, you mix the other chemical (the sodium alginate) into a water bath, and drop the ice cubes in, one or two at a time, for about three minutes. The outer layer thaws, the chemicals mix to form a waterproof (and edible!) skin around it, and then you take it out and rinse it with water to stop the reaction. Now you let the rest of the interior melt, and you have a liquid ball of mojito trapped in a bubble. Pop it in your mouth and bite down and it pops, delivering an instant mouthful of liquid mojito. Fun! For extra points, you should have frozen a fragment of mint leaf into the ice, so that now your transparent ball of liquid “miraculously” kept whole will also contain a mint leaf. An appetizer spoon is an excellent way of plating these spherical drinks.

The process is credited as “reverse spherification”, since the first common application of this is to embed your foodstuff in the sodium alginate, so that you can have little floating gel-balls of food in some other suspending liquid. So in this case, we’re permeating our drink with the “setting” material, and surrounding it in the “gelling” material. Hence backwards from the most obvious method, hence “reverse” spherification.

They don’t really deliver much of a drink, of course; imagine a weakly-mixed mojito poured into an ice cube tray. Basically it’s a one ounce shot (or less) of a mixed drink. But they are tasty! And can be complemented with an actual mojito, in a glass. Fun with science!


There is some debate in Star Trek circles whether this was originally Tang, or grapefruit juice, or some sort of fruit punch on set. However, I went with Tang, because it is the drink of astronauts, and what could be more futuristic than that? Not much more to say about Tranya, really.

Romulan Ale

In the context of the show, Romulan Ale is shown to be blue in colour, and despite its name is apparently extremely alcoholic and gets humans drunk after the first few sips. But as I already had a “hardcore” drink in the form of the Warp Core Breach, it seemed unnecessary to make this into a head smasher. Also, we like beer. So our ale was in fact just beer. But rather than an ale it was a Czech Pilsner, specially chosen by my resident Belgian beer snob Ellen. To make it blue, simply add food colouring. Because beer is naturally some shade of yellow, it’s difficult to make it come out pure blue. But blue-green is close enough.

Mike Totman drink Romulan Ale
Mike Totman drinking Romulan Ale

The technique is simple enough: start by adding the food colouring to the empty glass (adding it after the beer just lets it sit on top of the foam, unmixed) and then pour in the beer. You will find that six drops gives a good colour to a normal sized beer bottle. You want a light-coloured beer, or the end result is mostly invisible. Also, happily, the head of beer is of course white, so you do end up with a nice blue foam out of this.

Romulan Ale! Or close enough for the kind of work we do.

Klingon Bloodwine

Well, like all things Klingon this has either a disgusting or violent name – in this case, violent. I don’t believe it’s ever properly established on the show, but its believed to be made from actual fermented blood. This was another drink that suffered a bit of truncation – originally I had tracked down a recipe for Glühwein, the German mulled wine, but in the end my stove was in use, and it was already a pleasantly warm day, and we just wanted red wine. So that’s what it ended up being. Glühwein is a drink for a cold day, after all. But I do still have the recipe! Perhaps some Christmas season I shall bust that out again.

Warp Core Breach

Okay, this was the one strange and themed drink that we did actually make, which turned out quite excellently as both a science-y special effect and a drink too. At the end of day you could probably just call it a raspberry zombie – it’s a mixed drink containing many different types of rum (and some additional raspberry liquor), and instead of the mix being orange juice you use a passionberry-based energy drink; Monster or SoBe or some such. But then what elevates it from a simple rum drink to a beverage worthy of a Star Trek dinner?

The answer is simple:

Liquor Item #5 "Warp Core Breach", or Rum Zombie with Dry Ice
Liquor Item #5 “Warp Core Breach”, or Rum Zombie with Dry Ice

Dry ice!

In the context of this episode of Deep Space Nice, Dr. Bashir (on the right) says he needs help relaxing, and the bartender Quark says he has just the thing, and starts making a drink he calls the Warp Core Breach, which he say will relax the doctor for days. The doctor decides he doesn’t need to be that relaxed, and leaves it undrunk. In the context of the real world, the Las Vegas Hilton (which hosted the Star Trek Experience) had an actual bar, called Quark’s, and a real-world drink called the Warp Core Breach. It was the aforementioned rum-based drink with dry ice added for the fog effect. One had to drink it out of straws to prevent the accidental swallowing of dry ice.

To be clear to the non-scientific among you, dry ice is perfectly food safe – it’s just frozen carbon dioxide. Tons of it in the air you’re breathing right now. If it bubbles through your drink, it might pick up a hint of carbonation, but that’s about it. What makes it dangerous is the “dry” aspect; when it’s frozen it is at -109.3°F, which means it’s much worse than sticking your tongue to that metal pole you were warned about in school (at least if you’re from Canada or anywhere it freezes in winter). If it touches your skin you will get a nasty frost burn there. If you swallowed it, that burning would be somewhere inside you – most unpleasant!

So I made it safe by purchasing yerba maté straws, also called bombillas. Because yerba maté was a South American tea drunk out of gourds, and they didn’t have tea balls to hold the leaves in, they put the strainer in the straw itself. Probably bamboo or some other reed with holes poked in the bottom. Anyway, you can buy metal ones now, and it keeps the dry ice in the drink and out of your straw, so that you may sip in safety and comfort. I also bought some stainless steel insulated mugs, just for the style and the look, but it turns out if you drink it down fairly quickly so that there’s still some solid CO2 at the bottom, dry ice is cold enough to freeze liquor down to a slush. Jeff was making rum slushie. An unforeseen consequence, but not a bad one!

Some last-minute changes to the recipe as posted on this screen had to be made; for instance SoBe no longer makes their passionberry juice (or at least it’s not available in Canada). Similarly, Razzmatazz, a raspberry liquor made by De Kuyper, has since been replaced with the more staid sounding De Kuyper Raspberry Liquor – or at least that was what I was told from my American colleagues, since once again it’s not available in Alberta. Here’s the recipe I finally settled on; if you liked them at my party you could make your own, just without the dry ice.

2 oz   Appleton’s White
2 oz   Bacardi Limon
1 oz   Appleton’s Dark
1 oz   Kraken Spiced Rum
2 oz   Sourpuss Raspberry liqueur
½ oz   Appleton’s 151
20 oz (one can)   Rock Star passionberry power drink
dry ice

This is rather a large drink; we ended up mixing them in one giant cup and decanting a half into each actual glass before adding dry ice. Still not dissimilar to having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick. But that’s a different book, ain’t it?


A Bajoran beverage that was basically just a funny word for coffee. It had caffeine, it was served hot, people drank it at the beginning of the day or late at night to stay awake… coffee. And so mine was, thanks to my Tassimo coffee maker.

Ah, there’s nothing more refreshing that a post about drinks – except possibly a drink itself? I shall go investigate now.


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Trekquinox Episode 06: Baseball Sirloin, or “Heart of Targ”

At last, the main course! This one comes with a bunch of sides, but we shall start with the main item – thick “baseball cut” sirloin steaks, prepared sous-vide, topped with a slice of brie, some mushrooms, and a bourguignon reduction.

Menu Item #6 "Heart of Targ", or Sirloin Steak
Menu Item #6 “Heart of Targ”, or Sirloin Steak

Here you can see a scene (one of the definitive scenes for Klingon cooking) where Commander Riker, preparing to go on an officer exchange to serve on a Klingon ship – something no Starfleet officer has had a chance to do up to this point – has ordered every known Klingon dish he can, in order to try everything out. At one point in this scene he literally starts pointing to dishes and naming them. So this is a go-to spot for images and descriptions of Klingon cuisine. It’s here that we realize that Klingon food usually looks like it will require a feat of bravery just to get it into one’s mouth and one’s stomach.

Of course, Heart of Targ is supposed to be an actual heart, and for this scene the prop master went and bought some cow hearts, so it really is an actual heart. However I wanted to serve something that looked round, like a heart, but was actually, you know, tasty. Here’s where that sous-vide machine pays off again; you can’t really cook a 2¼” thick steak on a grill unless you want the outside burnt and the inside mostly raw. But coming out of the cooler, the entire steak was done to perfection a nice medium-rare throughout.

But regardless of the thickness, a steak is still just a steak. What really makes this a delightful dish is the sauce. It has an innocuous name in the Modernist Cookbook, simply “Red Wine Glaze”. I tarted it up and called it bourguignon because that’s basically what you’re achieving, and it sounds so much better to reference Julia Child’s most well-known dish. But that innocuous name was hiding a world of grief! Well, that’s unfair. It worked perfectly as described. It just turns out to be such an undertaking! This is the culinary equivalent of panning for gold. There’s a lot of work and a ton of dross (which I think is actually the literal term when actually panning for gold) to get a small amount of substance with incredible value.  For those of you who crave replicating this dish, the real sticking point isn’t so much the pressure cooker or even the sous-vide rig; it’s the incredible patience you will need to cultivate.

Okay, let’s break it down, as they say in the rap music business. You start with 3 pounds of ground beef, which you fry up and then discard. Yes, you read that right – get rid of it (okay, save it for something else). All we want are the drippings, which should work out to about a quarter of a cup of fat and oil. The frying and draining of all that beef takes a while; I generally scheduled over half an hour for this part. Including digging out all the ingredients and pots and pans and slicing of vegetables for later, let’s round it to an hour. Now you take a bunch of leeks and carrots and whatnot and fry them in that beef oil fat we got from the last step. This takes quite a while too, since there’s a lot of plant matter to get through. Eventually you add some tomato paste and stir that in too. Call it another hour. Then you add a bottle of red wine and reduce it to a syrup; add another half hour. Now you add a huge beef knucklebone and some more ingredients into it and seal up the pressure cooker, and pressure cook for two hours. Yes, two hours. That’s equivalent to, what? Maybe eight hours of normal stewing? I don’t know the math on that, but it seems reasonable given the time reduction it usually performs on other cooking tasks. Now it’s time to strain and discard again – nothing survives from this process except the liquid either. This stuff you have to strain through cheesecloth in combination with a strainer, so it’s time consuming. Let’s add another half an hour. Oh, but before you can even start the pressure cooker has to depressurize and cool, so let’s make the decanting and straining a full hour. Maybe an hour and a half to be safe, depending on how happy you are to be splattering yourself and your kitchen in hot hot liquid. But I don’t want this to seem ridiculous, so we’ll keep it to an hour. Rather than trying to skim off the fat, it’s easier to take a night to refrigerate it and just break the solid fat off the top. Still, you can’t put that boiling hot pot into the fridge as it is, unless you want to heat up everything else in there. So while this doesn’t really count as cooking time, you can’t actually leave the house or anything – you have to stick around for another hour or hour and a half to let the pot cool to room temperature. If it’s winter and you live in cold climates, then you can at least fast-track this by putting it outside for half an hour. We don’t count the time it spends in the fridge, but the next day, after cleaning off the fat, you then need to reduce it again, adding a few final ingredients and getting it down to a paste. Call it another half an hour.

1 hour + 1 hour + ½ hour + ½ hour + 2 hours + 1 hour + 1½ hours + ½ hour = 8 hours!

Cooking for 11 people requires more glaze than this will garner; I had to do this twice. It ate up two complete Saturdays across consecutive weekends.

Now my friend Earl described the end result as “…some kind of heavenly sauce beyond my poor power to describe,” for which I thank him, so it is darn tasty. But sweet merciful Zeus, is it a lot of work! It also makes an excellent finishing sauce for sous-vide ribs, should you be adventurous enough to concoct some of your own. Oh, and between the beef fat and the hours of stewing leeks, you (and your house) will smell like food for the whole next day. It meant that even with going out those Saturday nights to visit my friends after cooking, I was always hungry!

So now that we have some sauce safely squirreled away in the freezer, awaiting use, we need to actually cook the steaks. As mentioned, sous-vide cooks up the steaks quite nice, but when you take them out what you’re left with is… unappetizing. While the meat is cooked, the flavour of meat comes from the browning of the crust – what are called Maillard reactions. It’s what makes the crust of the roast, or the steak, or the crust of bread, and it’s where much of the flavour comes from. Also, it makes it look so much better, because after it comes out of the plastic bag it looks like you would imagine boiled meat to look. Grey is not a good colour to describe food. But since the meat is already cooked, you just want to sear the outside without letting much heat seep in, or it will move from cooked to overcooked. So the secret is very high heat for a short time. Sears it nicely. How should one apply said heat? There are a number of ways, the most prosaic of which is a very hot cast iron frying pan. But the better-favoured methods of the Modernist chef are either a blowtorch or a deep fryer. I went with the fryer, so I could use it for fries too. Pat the steak as dry as possible on a paper towel (water into hot oil = kaboom), then drop the steak in for 60 seconds. Finishes it nicely all around, including those 2¼” sides that the frying pan would miss.

Well, now we’ve got a couple of the essential ingredients out of the way – the steak itself, and the bourguignon sauce. (See? Totally more classy than “red wine glaze”.) One could stop now. Did I? Of course not. While eating at the steak house in the Edmonton Airport outbound terminal at Christmas (the actual name escapes me… let us consult the Internet, and discover it’s called… Houston Steaks and Ribs) they offered me a steak covered in a red wine sauce and also a thin slice of brie, taken “on the round” so that it was a thin disk about the same size as the steak. I approved; it seemed a good idea. So I took that notion with me, and when “Heart of Targ” became a steak in my mind, there seemed nothing to do but add this delightful finishing move. For future reference, it would probably be a good idea to freeze the brie a little bit before slicing with a wire cheese-cutter – things got messy.

As for the mushrooms? Well, steak goes with mushrooms. I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary for those; pick the kind of mushroom sautéing you like. I do butter and then finish with sherry.

Even with the timing benefits of the sous-vide rig, this dish was a crazy collision of timing. All the side dishes, plus the reheating of the sauce, plus the hot oil, all this required a bunch of things be done simultaneously across 45 minutes or so. That final hour required all of my efforts, and Ellen’s, and we could have really used three more arms between us and probably two more burners on the stove. Still, by the time this hit the table it was late, and everyone was well into “fuzzy time”, where they were willing to wait a little for the finale to appear on their plates. It worked out, though the delightful salad on the menu ended up being thrown under the bus in service to the main course. Ah well!

I don’t have a good bit of Trek trivia for Heart of Targ, I’m afraid. I can offer you this: one of the only other episodes in the franchise to actually show Heart of Targ was an episode from the spinoff Star Trek: Voyager. In it, the half-human, half-Klingon engineering officer is trying to observe the Klingon Day of Honour, which involves fighting, eating Heart of Targ for courage, and a bunch of other physically demanding stuff. As well in that episode, she’s required to go outside the spaceship in a space suit, which obviously involves hanging from suspension rigs to simulate zero gravity. As it turns out, the actor who played her was pregnant at the time, but few people knew. Fortunately one of the people in the know was the actor she had to film all the space scenes with, so he insisted on taking many breaks that day, and no one knew why at the time.

Okay, let’s get down to the recipes, shall we?

Bourguignon reduction, a.k.a. Red Wine Glaze

Rather than just type it all out again, I can now offer you a direct link to the recipe, since it turns out the Modernist Cookbook web site has posted some of their recipes, this one included:

Sous-vide steak

2¼” thick sirloin steaks (“baseball” sirloins)
a plastic Zip-Loc freezer bag, sandwich sized, one for each steak
vegetable oil

  1. Prepare for sous-vide cooking by filling the sink with lukewarm water. Place a steak in a bag, add approximately a tablespoon of oil, and then sink the bag slowly into the water, allowing all the air to bubble out. Lower the bag until the top is still out of the water but the ziploc seal is just submerged, then carefully seal the bag. There should be no air inside now. They can be refrigerated or even frozen at this point, in the bags.
  2. Cook in a hot water bath until the centre of the meat reaches the desired temperature; this time will be dependent on both the desired “doneness” and the thickness of the steak, and also whether you are starting from frozen. For this meal, with 2¼” steaks cooking to rare starting from frozen, I left them in for about 5 hours. Consult the charts below for exact times and temperatures. It’s better to overestimate than underestimate.
    If you don’t have a sous-vide rig for maintaining constant temperature, then you’re better off not starting from frozen (can shave an hour off), and a cooler is better than the kitchen sink since it holds a lot more heat in. You should be checking the temperature fairly regularly with an oven thermometer and adding more hot when necessary.
  3. You must finish the meat by searing it at a very hot temperature for a very short time; you may use a blowtorch or a frying pan, but I used a deep fryer. Ideally it should be at over 400°F for around half a minute. My deep fryer only goes up to 375°F, so I left it in for 60 seconds. The deep fryer or blowtorch make it easy to sear the sides as well as the top and bottom. If using a deep fryer, allow the temperature to recover to maximum between dipping steaks. Spend the time anointing the steak with sauce and cheese.
  4. In the case of this specific recipe, you should let the frying oil drip off, using a drying rack, for one or two minutes. Then dip it in the heated bourguignon sauce, then plate it and top with a round slice of Brie. After which you can add mushrooms and/or onions as you see fit.

You can get a good assembly line rhythm going – while you are finishing one steak with the sauce and cheese, there’s another drip-drying on the rack, and a third can be deep fry finished. This requires two cooks to do, but works out well.

Ingredient Rare Medium Rare Pink Medium
beef, filet 50°C/122°F 53°C/127°F 56°C/133°F 62°C/144°F
beef, flank 54°C/129°F 56°C/133°F 59°C/138°F 62°C/144°F
beef, ribeye 54°C/129°F 56°C/133°F 58°C/136°F 60°C/140°F
beef, strip steak 52°C/126°F 55°C/133°F 57°C/135°F 62°C/144°F
lamb loin, rack 54°C/129°F 57°C/135°F 59°C/138°F 62°C/144°F
pork loin chop n/a 58°C/136°F 60°C/140°F 62°C/144°F
pork tenderloin n/a 56°C/133°F 59°C/138°F 61°C/142°F
(temperatures in red are those that we prefer)

And now some timing information, taken from D. Baldwin’s “A Practical Guide to Sous-Vide Cooking” (

Thickness Meat
10 mm 19 min 11 min 8 min 30 min 17 min 12 min
20 mm 50 min 30 min 20 min 1¼ hr 40 min 30 min
25 mm (1″) 1¼ hr 40 min 25 min 1¾ hr 55 min 40 min
30 mm 1½ hr 50 min 35 min 2¼ hr 1¼ hr 55 min
40 mm 2½ hr 1¼ hr 55 min 3½ hr 2 hr 1½ hr
50 mm (2″) 3½ hr 2 hr 1½ hr 5¼ hr 2¾ hr 2 hr
60 mm 4¾ hr 2½ hr 2 hr 7¼ hr 4 hr 2¾ hr
70 mm 3½ hr 2½ hr 5 hr 3¾ hr
75 mm (3″) 3¾ hr 2¾ hr 5¾ hr 4½ hr

By the time you are cutting a “baseball” thickness sirloin steak, it’s basically a cylinder – roundish and not wider than it is thick. Hence why 5 hours was a good time for me.

Sautéed Mushrooms

2 cups   mushrooms, quartered or sliced
2 tbsp   butter

  1. Clean the mushrooms. The key to good sautéed mushrooms (according to Julia Child, at least, and who are we to argue?) is to not get them wet. Otherwise they are absorbing water instead of the flavourful butter, and they will tend to steam. So you should use a mushroom brush to get the dirt off the skins, and keep them dry. Then quarter or slice them down to a reasonable size (not required if you used bite-sized button mushrooms).
  2. Melt the butter in a frying pan and then add the mushrooms. You can vary the amount of butter to suit your tastes, and more is better – up to a point. You can overdo it. At some point the mushrooms will absorb all the butter, and you’ll momentarily think you didn’t use enough. But after a few moments the butter will start sweating out again.
  3. At that point, splash in a bunch of sherry. Again, this is to taste, but it should cover the bottom of the frying pan entirely; it’s just up to you to choose depth. Again, more is usually better, but only up to a point – too much sherry will end up putting too much sugar into them, and you’ll end up with mostly a butter and sugar candy, with precious little mushroom taste. Reduce the sherry until it’s a thick paste on the mushrooms.

Done! These mushrooms are an excellent accompaniment to any barbecued meat, even chicken, but best with red meats.


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Trekquinox Episode 05: Carbonated Fruit, or “Adam’s ‘Eden’ Fruit”

Well, this will be a nice short post – a palate cleanser, as this dish was meant to be, between the heavy Eggs Benedict and the even heavier main course. This was the first food item to be completely missed, but it wasn’t a great loss since it hadn’t actually worked.

Menu Item #5 "Adam's 'Eden' Fruit", or Carbonated Fruit
Menu Item #5 “Adam’s ‘Eden’ Fruit”, or Carbonated Fruit

The name requires some explanation – in this episode, a bunch of space hippies commandeer the Enterprise and take it to some fabled paradise planet supposed to be the first Eden. By dint of the fact that one of them is an ambassador’s son, and so the use of violent counter-hijacking measures is out, they actually make it to this planet by the end of the episode. Anyway, one of them is named (unsurprisingly) Adam, and upon arriving at their admittedly beautiful planet they find out to their horror that everything living on it is terribly acidic and toxic to humans. The grass burns their feet, the fruit kills them. “Perhaps mankind was never meant to find Eden… perhaps it’s the search that matters.” And so forth. Not hard to see the message in this one. Also not hard to see it was poorly written.

This episode didn’t inspire me to poison my guests (though Earl was a little reticent to try it based on the name, being familiar with the source episode), but there is supposed to be a neat trick you can play with dry ice: supposedly, if you leave fruit in a container with dry ice, the carbon dioxide fills the container and works its way through the skin of the fruit, impregnating the juice with CO2 just as pop is impregnated with it. The end result is supposed to be carbonated fruit – bite into a grape or an orange slice, and it will fizz in your mouth. It would be a good place for a palate cleanser in the meal, having just had people work their way through Eggs Benedict, which we now know to be an egg and butter extravaganza. And then moving on to steak? Some fizzy fruit seemed called for, and I was going to have dry ice on hand for the drinks.

Try as I might, I never got it to work. It chills the fruit quite well, and so it’s still refreshing, but I never got any of them to fizz. I tried leaving it for hours; then tried cutting back to the recommended half-hour in case too much was self-defeating; I tried open topped containers and nearly sealed containers. I tried letting CO2 slowly leach out of the ice, and I tried forcing it by dropping it in water inside the container. Nothing.

However, it didn’t really matter that much because by this time in the party it was later than I’d hoped, and the steak course was a ways away yet, and I didn’t have time. So there’s still a bunch of fruit in my fridge. I think perhaps one could use the much-maligned siphon to force pressurized CO2 into fruit – I suspect the pressure would help things along – but I’ve not done it, so I can’t say. At any rate, now the guests who were present will know what that menu item was supposed to be.

Next up will be the main course, in all its extravagance and magnificence. Just the sauce is a meal in itself – you’ll see!

I guess a bite-sized bit of trivia is in order. The dead hippie you can see in this menu frame was played by Charles Napier, which is amusing because Charles Napier’s career from before this episode right up to 2011 has seen him playing 196 movie roles, almost all of which have been authority figures – a lifetime of playing cops and hard-assed military men. Even in counterculture hippie movies of the 60s and 70s, he usually played the straight man or the cop. So it’s a rare thing to see him on the side of the hippies. And for playing against type, the sentence was death by poison fruit.

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Trekquinox Episode 04: Eggs Benedict, or “Transporter Accident”

Right, time for some real Modernism! A basic enough dish, your Eggs Benedict, but we shall apply some weird cooking techniques and some weird presentation, too.

Menu Item #4 "Transporter Accident", or Inside-Out Eggs Benedict
Menu Item #4 “Transporter Accident”, or Inside-Out Eggs Benedict

Technically this movie isn’t Star Trek at all, but a brilliant comedy parody called Galaxy Quest. The conceit of the movie is that the show Galaxy Quest (easily recognizable as Star Trek) was popular in the 60s, and now the actors all go to conventions to make money and play on their former fame, but aliens who saw the “historical documents” broadcast built an actual working ship, just like the one they saw in the show, and come to Earth to take “the crew” (who are actually just actors) into space to fulfill the roles of their characters. In this scene, the actor who played the engineer has just tried to use the transporter – unsuccessfully. When their friend on the surface, the “captain”, asks what happened, they all say everything is fine. But their clueless alien escort announces “The animal is inside-out.” Then it expires messily, and he concludes “…and it ex-plod-ed.” So my dish will be inside-out!

(As it turns out, I managed to fulfill the “…and it exploded” part too, much to my dismay. But that’s later.)

Pictures of eggs at different temperatures
The Book of Egg

So how does one make an egg inside-out? Well first of all, it helps if you can dial in the consistency of the egg exactly, which is where the sous-vide technique shines, you may recall. In fact, the obsessive-compulsive authors of the Modernist cookbook have put together a pretty page of photographs detailing the various “doneness” of eggs you can achieve at certain temperatures, as you can see. If you click on it, you might almost be able to read the text in the larger scale version. Almost. Let’s zoom in to the part that concerned me, the bottom of the left-hand page.

The perfect consistency of egg, in the centre
The perfect consistency of egg, in the centre

Probably the perfect consistency would be 165°F, but my girlfriend prefers hard to soft. For eggs, you perverts! A runny-yolked egg makes her physically sick; I saw it happen on the ferry once. So I tuned it up a little, to 172°F. Originally I had thought to put the white in the centre and the yolk around the outside by separating them and cooking the whites first. For this I needed to make sure that the yolk never ended up getting flaky, so this chart was of extreme utility. But in the end I gave up on that notion for two reasons: the first being that once covered with hollandaise sauce the exact colour of egg yolk, the effect would be kind of wasted. Secondly, again thanks to the hollandaise, I would have some leftover egg white at pretty much one to one for each poached egg. So it didn’t make sense to expand the inside white and stretch the outside yolk even further.

Egg pouch
Egg pouch

So the trick to making a pretty “flower” out of a poached egg is to gather it up in cellophane, making a little pouch. Then when you unwrap it, it will appear rather like a flower. Okay, that’s putting a little romantic spin on it; it really more the shape of an onion. But regardless, it’s more interesting than a flat patty of the kind that normally appears as part of Eggs Benedict.

Pan and Pam
Pan and Pam

The trick (well, my trick) is to start on a muffin pan. Then you just push the square of cling wrap down into it, give it a little spray of Pam or some other oil, and break your egg into it. Then you can gather it up and seal it. The sealing proved to be annoying, though. I’d originally thought to use a plastic-coated twist tie, but those things just don’t exist any more. Most plastic bags are self-sealing, and those ones from the grocery store are wrapped in paper. Not so good for sous-vide; they’d dissolve in the water and make a mess. I mean, it wouldn’t matter to the food much, but you’d still have to clean out the cooler afterward. No, I wanted plastic. Eventually the answer was found not in any grocer’s, but at the hardware store – zip ties, intended for small-scale electrical wiring. For a nominal fee I now have one thousand tiny little zip ties like the one you saw in the egg pouch photo. Perfect!

Zip ties
Zip ties

Anyway, after you’ve sealed your egg in whatever fashion you want, in it goes into the bath. If you’re just trying to make breakfast pretty for Mother’s Day (for example), you can just do the whole egg as I’ve shown it and drop it into a pot of boiling water the way you’d cook any other egg, for 4 or 5 minutes, then pull it out and unwrap it, and you’re ready to go.

However, that wouldn’t be inside-out. What I did was to start with the egg yolks. I separated the whites into 12 separate hors d’œuvres glasses, since I had them anyway for the hamachi shots, and it would make it easier to put them back together later. Then I set up 12 yolk flowers. I broke the yolks so that I could stir in some pepper and Worcestershire sauce, to give it a little surprise flavour. Those went in the sous-vide bath for a half-hour. Thanks to the yolks I was collecting for the hollandaise sauce I had extra egg whites, so I separated them into the same 12 glasses, so each had a double helping of egg white. Once the yolks were out and cooled, I started again with making flowers of egg white, laying on top of the liquid a slice of ham and then on top of that the egg yolk. When you packaged it all up, you had an egg with a layer of ham in the middle of it. Magic! Sorry, science! Really just some tedious manual labour. Those flowers went in the bath next, and half an hour later my eggs were both inside-out and cooked to perfection. At this point they were basically hard-boiled eggs, so they could go into the fridge until it was time to serve them.

Earl's photo of Eggs Benedict
Earl’s photo of Eggs Benedict

Now let’s discuss the hollandaise sauce. It’s usually regarded as a pain to make, but that’s because it involves a lot of egg yolks, and if you apply the wrong amount of heat or the wrong degree of heat you’ll end up breaking your sauce. It’s finicky. However thanks to the magic of the sous-vide we have total and perfect control over the temperature. This gives us a magical unbreakable hollandaise. That’s another half-hour, only at a lower temperature, so I had to adjust the bath downwards. When the time came at dinner, I finished the hollandaise sauce (finishing in this context means adding an appalling mass of butter to the yolk preparation along with a touch of mustard powder – thanks for that trick Dad!), broiled some English muffins topped with cheddar, and the whole thing came together. Thanks to Earl’s excellent photo skills and equipment there’s a fine picture here of the finished product.

Aside from a bit of a panic looking for twist ties for the Saran wrap, this one actually worked pretty much as I imagined it would right from the get-go. Except the perceptive of you will have noticed that on the menu it called for “hollandaise foam“. What’s that all about, you ask?

Well, one of the things Modernists like to do is create weird presentations. The inside-out egg is at least as much Modernist in concept as it is Transporter Accident. Foaming has become a much-used technique. You know how you make whipped cream? Well that technique works on anything that contains fat. So you can turn all sorts of things into foam. I bought a siphon from a Modernist cooking store online and was all set to make hollandaise foam.

I was following along the recipe – my Modernist cookbook’s recipe for sous-vide hollandaise actually contains the extra steps needed for foaming it; I wasn’t even improvising – and after filling the canister (not too full!) I applied the requisite two cartridges of nitrous oxide to it. Failing to note that my Modernist cookbook calls for a 1 litre siphon, and mine is a half litre. So after overpressurizing the hell out of this, I inverted the can as instructed and went to apply it to my dinner.

A little background: this was my testing night. But I was home late from work, and it took a while to get started, and then it turns out that all this fiddling around with zip ties and cellophane and eggs and half hour cooking cycles etc. etc. is all very time-consuming. Also, one of the ingredients for hollandaise sauce is white wine, so your humble cook and narrator was being ecologically friendly and finishing off the rest of the bottle. So by the time we’d actually reached the stage where the eggs were all done, and the muffins broiled, it was slightly after midnight. So not only was I starving, but I really wanted to go to bed. At any rate, inverting the can in the approved manner I slowly applied gentle pressure to the handle.

You know how when, at the end of a can of whipped cream, you get that last little bit where it spits out at you and splatters what remains at high velocity? Well, it’s annoying but never too bad because there’s not much cream left to come out, nor is there much pressure left. Now I want you to imagine twice as much pressure as there is supposed to be, and a can with nearly half a litre of hollandaise sauce to spray out. At first, nothing. A little more pressure, still nothing. Slightly more pressure, and there’s a tiny noise, like a hissing. One tiny iota more pressure, and blam! A fire hose of hollandaise sauce explodes all over the counter. It’s up under the fume hood of the oven, all across the backsplash, up onto the cabinets… it is seriously everywhere.  Now I’m drunk, tired, starving, and I have at least an hour of cleanup to do. I sat down and tried to enjoy the food, but somehow the foam that managed to stay on the plate did not seem appetizing to me at this point. It’s not bad in theory, actually; a light and fluffy hollandaise sauce. But it tasted like rage and betrayal in my mouth that night. I don’t think I got to bed until 2:00 am, and this was a weekday.

I wanted to try again, so I ran a practice run again the next night, this time budgeting my time more wisely – but still a late dinner. And this time, I used just one cartridge of compressed nitrous. A light squeeze, gradually increasing the pressure, and this time it was working! The foam was dispensing in a nice tubular pattern as it should! I went to move to the next one, and… blam! Once more, it exploded. After the cleanup, I briefly contemplated my options. This time the plate had at least come out looking okay, if not the kitchen. What if I got a garbage bag out to serve as a backstop for the spray, and finished each plate safely inside? Then I came to my senses and said, as every great chef has done before me, “Fuck it!” Regularly constituted hollandaise sauce would be fine. The siphon has retired to the cupboard, as yet untouched since the fiasco.

All right, Star Trek trivia. Well, the original Star Trek was known for being very progressive for its time, in that many races were represented on the bridge, and presented as equals and not stereotypes. Nichelle Nichols (who played Uhura) is famous for two race-related stories: the first was that she was thinking about quitting the show, because she hadn’t been getting a lot of lines, and no less a person than Martin Luther King, Jr. begged her not to quit. He told her that as a black woman being portrayed as an equal to all the white men on the bridge, and in a non-stereotypical role, she was a tremendous role model to all blacks but particularly black women. Well, in her own words, “when MLK asks you to do something, you do it!” She remained on the show for the rest of its run. The second thing she was famous for was the first interracial kiss on broadcast television. In the context of the show it was forced on the two characters whose bodies were being controlled by aliens, but despite this the show stirred up a firestorm in the American south and many stations refused to run it. Apparently the network was terrified that this would happen, and they asked the show’s director to film two versions of the scene, so they could choose later. One version of the story has it that the cast, knowing that it meant a lot to the show’s creator to break this racist boundary, delayed and fiddled around during filming until the light was almost gone, making it impossible to get the alternate shot. Apparently William Shatner, the other participant in the kiss, made sure to have a goofy face on in the alternate take with the last rays of sunset coming down, in order that the “suits” would have no choice but to air the scene that was written because there was no usable alternative. And so it went out that way, the first interracial TV kiss.

Fast-forward to the Next Generation show in the 80s. Levar Burton played the new engineer, and had previously been famous for playing Kunta Kinte in Roots. He had fond memories of Star Trek from his youth, and recognized the important role it played for showing good role models for black kids. Whoopi Goldberg asked to be allowed to be on the show, in the decade when her career was exploding and she was considered far “above” a TV show like this, for the same reason – to honour the role the original Star Trek played in breaking through black stereotypes. And in a later season, there was one more noteworthy black cast member who appeared on the show. She didn’t get a lot of lines, but she represented perhaps the most direct link to what the character of Uhura represented to black youth in the 60s: the character of Lieutenant Palmer was played by Mae Jemison, real life astronaut and the first black woman in space. She played a transporter operator. I trust she never turned anything inside-out by accident!

Hollandaise Sauce

100 ml   dry white wine
50 g   shallots, minced
35 g   white wine vinegar
75 g   egg yolks (5 or 6)
20 g   water, or stock for flavour (depending on what it’s being served on)
1 cup   unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp   salt
1 g   lemon juice (or malic acid or citric acid), can add more lemon juice to taste

  1. Combine wine, shallots, and vinegar in a pot. Simmer until the liquid becomes syrupy, about 8 minutes.
  2. Strain, discarding the solids, and measure 20 g (4 tsp) of the reduction.
  3. Blend egg yolks and water/stock in with the 4 tsp of reduction.
  4. Seal in airtight bag (Ziploc container), using the water-displacement method to seal it without air. Cook sous-vide at 149°F for 30 minutes.
  5. Blend the melted butter into the mixture.
    I added some mustard powder for a little “kick”. This is the step to make flavoured variations, by replacing some amount of butter (typically 20 or 40 g) with an equal amount of some other ingredient like hot sauce or garlic.
  6. Add the salt and lemon juice and serve warm.

You can also add it to a siphon and pressurize it at this point – if you want to paint your kitchen.

Poached Egg

This can really be left as an exercise for the reader, but in case you feel like getting scientific, here’s the chart of egg temperatures from Modernist Cooking at Home (as shown in the earlier photo).

Temp. Whole egg White Yolk
131°F pasteurized, 2h pasteurized, 2h pasteurized, 2h
140°F semiliquid starting to gel runny
144°F onsen egg runny viscous
149°F firm onsen egg loose syrupy
154°F poached barely set jammy
158°F soft-boiled tender fudge-like
162°F peeled yolk is spherical silky pasty
165°F both set, best bet just set just solid
172°F medium-boiled, elastic moderately firm moist
176°F hard-boiled firm tender
180°F rigid very firm slightly dry; greening begins
183°F rigid rubbery dry; greening increases
187°F solid brittle and rubbery powdery; more greening
194°F solid very brittle and rubbery very powdery; a lot of greening

Eggs Benedict

2   English muffins
4   poached eggs
Sliced   sharp cheddar

  1. Halve the English muffins and place them on a cookie sheet on parchment paper. Broil on a top rack until lightly toasted. Remove from oven.
  2. Cover each half with sliced cheddar cheese. (Sharp and orange, so as to stand up to the flavours and to also stand out visually.) Return to the oven on broil until the cheese is melted and the muffins are toasted a darker brown than before.
  3. Plate; top with poached egg. Cover with hollandaise sauce. Serve.


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Trekquinox Interlude: sous-vide cooking and PIDs

Okay, before we roll up our sleeves and dive into the truly Modernist cooking bits, let’s pause for a bit of science and explain exactly what sous-vide cooking really is.

Sous-vide literally means “under vacuum” in French, and I emphasized that part of it for my dinner, since vacuum and space are clearly thematic. But truly, it’s not so much about the vacuum packing as about the constant and exact control of temperature. The vacuum sealing is just a means to that end.

Ask yourself why timing is so important in cooking. If you like a soft-boiled egg, you know to cook it for three minutes. If you want your stake medium-rare, you’d better take it off the grill at exactly the right time. Why? Because we’re applying a much higher heat than we really want the food to be at. An egg yolk that’s actually at 212°F, the same temperature as the boiling water it came out of, is green and crumbly and tastes of sulfur. Not at all what anybody wants. So heat is pouring into our food, and our job as cooks is to figure out when the exact right amount of heat has entered the food, and then take it out – it’s “done”. And that’s a tricky business. Not to mention that when the center of something has reached the perfect temperature, then the outsides are going to be much hotter. It’s pretty much impossible using conventional cooking techniques to have a piece of meat or vegetable be the exact same temperature throughout. So what if we could just set the temperature we want? A medium-rare steak should be 127°F internally. So if we submerge it in a bath of water (safely sealed in plastic with no air in it, so that the air isn’t insulating it and making the bag float, and so the water is actually surrounding the food and in total contact with it) and wait long enough for that heat to permeate your food, then it will be the exact right temperature. You can’t overcook it!

That’s the basic idea behind sous-vide. You dial in the temperature you actually want your food to be, drop it in, and after some number of hours your food will be exactly perfect. Also, you can afford to be sloppy on the time – while there is some breakdown of consistency if you leave it for hours and hours longer than is necessary (and that’s an excellent technique for doing ribs, as it happens), you can leave it sit for an extra half-hour or hour with no ill effects. Making it much easier to make everything else come out right. Also, you can fit a fair number of steaks in a hot water bath the size of a camping cooler. Need to cook steaks for 20 people? No problem; provided they all want theirs to come out the same “doneness”.

It’s worth noting that sous-vide is a slow-cooking technique. The nature of heat is that it flows from hot areas to cold, and also that it transfers faster where there’s a bigger temperature gap. An oven at 450°F cools fairly quickly to the point where you can safely touch the racks; it takes about the same amount of time to cool from “safe to touch” to room temperature, even though it’s dropped probably 330°F in the first ten minutes and only 50°F in the second ten minutes. The closer it is to room temperature, the slower the heat transfer occurs. So your three to four minute egg is a half hour sous-vide; steaks should sit for two to four hours depending on their thickness. But while slow, it will eventually reach your perfect, perfectly controlled temperature.

So for things that only need to cook for half an hour or so, like eggs, it’s easy enough to just fill your sink with water of the right temperature. It won’t lose enough heat to matter. For a few hours (as in for steaks), filling an insulated cooler and sealing the top will do the trick. You probably want the water a few degrees warmer than you need, to account for a little bit of heat loss. My Modernist Cookbook suggests that would work fine for a “tailgate” party, if you wanted to sous-vide steaks, without any other heating technology.

But if you’re in for the long haul – if you want to cook ribs for 72 hours, for example – you’ll need some sort of heater that can maintain an exact temperature. That’s where the technology comes in.

PID controllers
PID controllers

Earl captured this photo of my sous-vide rigs in action (well, one is mine; the other I borrowed from my friend Doug, as I needed to cook two things at different temperatures). Those boxes with the readouts are PID controllers, the green cable leads to the heating elements, and the tinier boxes are simply aquarium pumps, to force bubbles through the water to keep it circulating. Cool science! Well, cool technology at any rate. While by the standards of a normal dinner party this would be pretty ugly and best hid in the back room next to your washer and dryer, for my Star Trek dinner party it was just what the doctor ordered!

Those particular boxes are a brand called Sous Vide Magic (made in Canada by one guy named Frank Hsu; go local boy!) They are pretty clever, and flexible. For starters, the box is controlling the heater via a standard plug; you plug the heater in to the Sous Vide Magic box. This means if you have any kind of electrically powered heating vessel – a crock pot, a rice steamer, even a deep enough electric frying pan – then you can just plug it into this, dangle the thermometer into the water, and it will use your existing electric appliance to maintain the water at an exact temperature. This is pretty slick if you already have a crock pot of some kind.

Of course, the additional component (that would be the green cable and the heating plate it’s attached to, along with the aquarium bubbler) frees you from your crock pot and pretty much gives you the ability to use anything at all. Any big pot you own. Your kitchen sink. Any watertight cooler (which is all of them, pretty much). The bigger the container the more you want it insulated, so as not to burn out the heating element (which is possible in North America; European plugs draw so much power that they have no trouble keeping up with massive water heat loss). Really, if you’re going to invest in one of these machines, the additional $30 to pick up a cooler is trivial, and it’s absolutely the way to go.

The sous-vide part – what about the vacuum?

Okay, so what about vacuum sealing your food? Well, you can buy vacuum sealers and specialty plastic for it, and that works really well. Actually it’s great for storing food in the freezer too. But it’s not necessary – I borrowed Doug’s old one, but I didn’t need it for anything in my Star Trek dinner. You can just use a Ziploc freezer sandwich bag. For my baseball sirloins, I put in a tablespoon or so of oil (helps displace the last of the air) and the steak, and then lowered it slowly into a sink full of water. You wouldn’t want to use your sous-vide bath, as it will be hot enough to burn your hands. Just a sink full of pleasantly not-too-cold water. Squeeze out any air that’s trapped under the steak or in the oil. Lower it down until the top of the bag is still above water, but the zipper part of the Ziploc is just under the surface. Then seal the bag. There will be no air in it, and if you’ve done it right no water either. Voilà! Suitable for immediate immersion, or freezing for storage. Oh yeah – sous-vide works great straight from frozen too; just allot some extra time for the thawing, like an hour or so.

PID – Proportional, Integral, Derivative

So what exactly does that mean? Buckle your seat belts, because we’re approaching the on-ramp of math, where we’ll cruise for a short while before exiting wiser and more informed. Don’t worry, I shall make it as painless as I can.

In my engineering screen, I spelled out PID because I wanted it to sound all tech-y and science-y. But they are usually just referred to as PIDs. The calculus of them is actually horribly complex looking, but it turns out if you look at computer code designed to actually do the work, it’s much simpler in application than in the theory. As a computer programmer who hated calculus, I was soothed.

Okay, let’s imagine you’re driving your car while blindfolded. Anyone who’s reading, feel free to try this at home. You are listening for the sound of those “rumble strips” to tell you when you’re at the edge of the road. You’re cruising along, and from your left you hear the sound of the rumble strips, still fairly quietly – you’re close to the edge, and slowly drifting further onto them. So what do you do? You wrench the wheel over to the right as far as it will go!

Clearly that’s a dumb idea; you can picture how that ends with your car careening wildly between the edges of the road until you flip. Instead, you want to turn the wheel only as much as necessary. If you hear the strips softly, you’re just at the edge and you want to turn gently back. If you hear them loudly, you would turn the steering wheel more.

That’s the proportional part of the name. If something’s a little cold, you add a little heat. If it’s a lot cold, you add a lot of heat.

Okay, back to our life-threatening car. We’ve turned the steering wheel a little to the right, and the sound of the rumble strips is getting quieter. But we’re not getting off them fast enough. At this point, you make the decision to turn a little more, since what you were doing isn’t working fast enough for your liking.

That’s the integral part of the name. Ignoring the actual math derivation of the name, you’re ramping the speed up (or down) when things are going the right way but not fast enough (or slow enough) for your tastes.

Okay, back to the death race! We’re doing pretty well at this point; happily we’re driving through the Canadian prairies so the road is straight as an arrow for hours and hours of driving time. But we’re in an old Oldsmobile 88, and it’s got kind of drifty steering. When we steer gently away from the rumble strips, we’re fixing the problem, but too slowly. But when we try and turn just a little more to adjust the rate of change, the next thing you know we’re across the yellow line and dealing with the same problem on the other side of the road. The road is just too narrow, and we’re weaving back and forth, or oscillating. Well, if we were dumb we’d just keep bouncing from shoulder to shoulder, but we’re smarter than that. After a while we realize that if we don’t compensate quite as much, we can anticipate the “bounce” and account for it. With a little practice measuring the time between shoulders we can straighten the car out in the middle of the road and actually be driving straight for long periods of time.

That’s the derivative part of the name. It’s the part that damps down swings around the target value and settles into a stable equilibrium.

Right, that ends the math lesson! The point is, it will raise the temperature up to what you want by controlling the heat, and it’s smart enough to settle down at a constant stable temperature. Just what we need for our sous-vide cooking.

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Trekquinox Episode 03: Asparagus soup, or “Plomeek Soup”

Ah, the soup course! Easiest of all, as it happens. In the original Star Trek series, they only mentioned one alien food by name, and that was the Vulcan dish “plomeek soup”. Not even given a goofy space name, like Rigellian bloodworm soup, just an alien name of a vegetable. Also, that sort of gives one carte blanche. It could be anything. It ended up being asparagus.

Menu Item #3 "Plomeek Soup", or Asparagus Soup
Menu Item #3 “Plomeek Soup”, or Asparagus Soup

In this shot of the menu you can see the soup splattered all over the left-hand wall, thrown by an enraged Mr. Spock, who was going through some personal issues in this episode. It starts with the angry soup-throwing, and ends with berserker rage and murder. It’s difficult to see clearly, but there was a close-up of the tray earlier, and it’s actually purple in colour. However it turns up in later series as just about any colour – green is certainly one of them – and all we can say for sure is that it’s a kind of vegetable, since Vulcans are vegetarian. There’s actually no cream in this recipe, and more stuff, but I was doing this one from memory. Still it captures the essence; it’s a simple simple recipe.

Audrey with plomeek soup
Audrey with plomeek soup

Anyway, I had this good recipe for asparagus soup kicking around and decided that would do the trick. It would also end up being pretty much the only green vegetable in the whole scenario, so probably good for our vitamin balance. In an eleven course meal it was important to just have a taster of the soup, because there was a lot of food on offer. Fortunately I’d already bought a set of tasting bowls for just such an occasion! As you can see in this scale shot, it’s not too much to handle.

One of the great advantages of this soup, from my point of view for this night, was that you could cook it the day before and then just reheat it when the time came. You are even supposed to use the same pot you were sautéing in, so it was one less dish used. Okay, there’s no pleasure in life but that one must purchase it with an equal moment of pain – I was running out of room in the fridge. But still, prêt-à-manger was clearly a big win for me!

I confess that it was a little disappointing for me; I had remembered trying it for the first time and thinking it was fabulous, but clearly that had reset my expectations and this time it didn’t live up to the promise for me. I mean, it was fine, but not as good as I remember. Fortunately no one else had tasted it before, and so all the guests thought it was great! It represented a trip down memory lane for Ellen, as this was one of the dishes we were taught to cook at an Intuit team-building day in Leduc. It also happened to be Ellen’s… third day at work? It happened on her first week. So not even there a full week and we took off for the day to drink and cook and eat. Not a bad place to be! Probably the first time she and I really met, also. So I have fond memories of eating, drinking, and meeting my future girlfriend, all while getting paid for it!

So, trivia… This episode is called “Amok Time”. We typically use the word amok (or amuk, or amuck) to mean hyperactive, as in “my kids were running amok at Chucky Cheese”. But the word is actually Malaysian, and it literally means “mad with uncontrollable rage”. People who run amok (mengamuk, “a furious and desperate charge”) typically grab a weapon (commonly a sword or dagger) and kill as many people as they can. It’s recognized as a true mental disorder in the DSM-IV TR, a culturally-dependent one. They theorize that in a culture where honour and physical prowess are still prized, and suicide is forbidden, that it represents an opportunity for dishonoured individuals to commit “suicide by cop” (or crowd) while regaining a small amount of respect as an individual to be feared and respected. At any rate, since the plot of this episode of Star Trek involves exactly this berserk killing rage, the title is far more accurate than most people suspect. Hardly surprising; this episode was penned by Theodore Sturgeon, one of the more thoughtful and erudite of the science fiction authors of the day.

There’s another science fiction connection here, a more modern one. While the term is in fact used by Indonesians, they actually have shifted towards using amuk to describe the behaviour of violent mobs. Their more recent term for the individual berserker rage is gelap mata (literally, “darkened eyes”), due to the fact that people in the sway of a true psychotic break tend to have massively dilated pupils, which makes them appear black. In the science fiction novel “Aristoi” by Walter Jon Williams, he supposes a future in which nanotechnology is prevalent. These are tiny molecular-sized machines which can assemble (or disassemble) anything at a molecular level. As early as the 1980s Eric Drexler suggested that this is a power with a terrible capacity to go wrong, since if these self-replicating machines lose track of their programmed limits on when they should stop disassembling matter and replicating themselves, they would represent an unstoppable plague which would digest all matter it encountered until the whole planet was remade. In Walter Jon’s universe, this is how the Earth was destroyed, from runaway nano from an Indonesian research lab. In his future, this runaway engine of destruction (nicknamed “grey goo” by Eric Drexler) is in fact called “mataglap nano”. A mad destructive rampage, characterized by a dark cloud of nanobots – gelap mata indeed! A good bit of business there, since he never deigns to explain any of this, and it’s left as an exercise for the reader to try and figure out his Indonesian neologism, and thanks to his modified word order and spelling it’s not as simple as Googling it.

Let us hope your mata are gelap only by hunger for this soup!

Asparagus Soup

(from “Simple, Fresh, Delicious” by Lovoni Walker)

1   leek, white and tender bits only, sliced
6   shallots, large, chopped
1 tbsp   oil
1 tbsp   butter
2 tbsp   flour
1 cup   dry white wine
2 cups   milk
2 cups   chicken broth (oops, guess it wasn’t really that vegetarian!)
2 lbs   asparagus, trimmed of woody ends, cut into 1″ lengths
salt and fresh ground pepper

  1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the leek and shallots and cook for about 10 minutes or until softened.
  2. Add the butter and stir until melted. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for one minute. Gradually stir in the wine, milk, and broth. Bring to a boil and add the asparagus and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook uncovered for about 20 minutes or until the asparagus is softened.
  3. Put the asparagus mixture in a blender in batches and blend until smooth and frothy. Return the mixture to the same pan.
  4. Stir over medium heat until hot. Serve hot.

This soup is best made on the day of serving. Serves 4 to 6.

Upon re-reading this, I bet it would taste better if still frothy – but sacrifices had to be made in the name of expediency; it was adequate when refrigerated after Step 3 and heated the next day. And Saturday was already full of other food.

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Trekquinox Episode 02: Hamachi shots, or “Gorn Meat Gunpowder Shots”

The next item on the menu was one I’d settled on as early as mid December. While I was down in San Francisco for work (technically Mountain View, but who can tell the difference who doesn’t actually live in the Bay area?) my colleague Miles and I went to a restaurant recommended by our boss, the overarching Director of our department. Alexander’s Steak House, as it happened. This turns out to be one of those restaurants where, when you buy a steak, that’s all you’ve bought – now you have to pay for a side of potatoes, and a side of vegetables, etc., etc. Very high end, very nice. (Very expensive! Our expense claim would have been a firing offence were it not for the fact that it was our department head who recommended it in the first place. Yikes!)

Well, one of the things they offered was Alexander’s Real Hamachi Shot. I think you can actually find it on their menu. Well, it was beyond delicious. Also very pretty in its presentation. So I ended up taking notes on my phone, and pictures of the dish, and pictures of the menu. When I got home I started researching what could have possibly gone into it. Eventually it would become this:

Menu for Hamachi in Truffled Ponzu
Menu Item #2 “Gorn Meat Gunpowder Shot”, or Hamachi in Truffled Ponzu

By the time I’d finished dissecting the appetizer and the menu, I was actually most of the way there. It just required fine-tuning the proportions. It’s a miraculous little dish in that, when done right, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – as much as I like every single thing that goes into it on its own, you couldn’t take away a single bit without lessening the effect. Synergistic, is what it is. And delightful! Also, it comes in tiny little glasses with tiny little forks for mixing them up before shooting them back all at once.

This is what led me to the Star Trek connection – tenuous, but any excuse to set these up! It was the shooting part. In the episode “Arena” (seen in the menu above), Kirk and the nameless Gorn are sent down to a planet by powerful beings who are intent on seeing them fight to the death (for reasons I won’t belabour here). It turns out the Gorn is slow but virtually indestructible, and Captain Kirk makes no headway at all in a physical battle. At any rate, in a nod to the science part of science fiction, quite suspiciously all of the ingredients for making gunpowder and a crude bamboo cannon to fire diamonds at the beast are all close at hand. So Kirk runs around collecting the various powders and chemicals to make a cannon. No doubt today it would lead someone to insist that this sort of televised violence is responsible for gun deaths in the United States. Instead of, say, actual guns. However in the 60s they just managed to make a chemistry lesson into an interesting part of an action TV show. So hats off to them for that; education for the win I say!

So my guests would be muddling together ingredients in a tiny glass like a culinary pipe bomb, just as Kirk did in that Star Trek episode. The keys to this dish are the truffled ponzu sauce, and also frizzled ginger. Oh, and also the daikon radish sprouts. That ended up as the piece of technology I brought to this particular dish – it calls for daikon radish sprouts, the kind that often top a piece of nigiri sushi. But even in the hippie health stores, it’s uncommon to find them sprouted for sale – they are not garden-variety (as it were) like alfalfa and bean sprouts. However you can buy the seeds, and also a handy little ventilated plastic container designed for sprouting them without letting them get moldy. Hydroponics, in other words. That’s the futuristic bit. Truthfully I’d hoped that there would be a magical zero-maintenance way of growing the sprouts, but in the end it comes down to soaking and then draining them twice a day. The well-ventilated container helps, but you could do it just as effectively with a bowl and a daily dose of paper towels if you were so inclined. Just takes more work and makes more of a mess. There’s no fire-and-forget sprouting where you open up the closet a week later and they’re ready. Sigh.

It also wants frizzled ginger – turns out this is just slivers of ginger deep-fried. Painstaking, but simple. And it was possible to find a recipe for truffled ponzu online, though I ended up changing the proportions to balance the taste. With truffle oil, a little goes a long ways as it turns out. Well, that’s mostly it; there were no amusing catastrophes in the creation of this dish. There was a small bit of confusion when I served them up, as some of my teetotalling guests thought they were liquor at first, but eventually everyone tried them and everyone was clamouring for more. Even those more timid folks who were really dubious about a mix of random elements centred around raw fish. I tell you, this one (fiddly though it is to make) is a real favourite of mine. So good! And as I said before, it also looks pretty.

Hamachi shooters on the counter
“Gorn Meat”, or Hamachi, Shots in Truffled Ponzu Sauce

Hm, Trek trivia: well, recently they’ve remastered the original Star Trek series, mostly replacing the special effects shots with newer computer generated models, and cleaned up the prints, but they’ve been pretty rigorous about leaving the live action stuff alone. However, in this particular episode, the Gorn (still looking like a big rubber suit with bulging silver bug eyes) in his opening close-up now has a brief blink. That’s all they added to him, but it is startling to see the first time you watch it, knowing that it was just a rubber suit at the time. Also, any real chemistry teacher would suggest that following Kirk’s actual method would never result in anything like an explosion or a cannon; technique, fine grinding, and exact proportions are what you want for half-decent gunpowder. Still, who needs gunpowder when you’ve got truffled ponzu?

Alexander’s “The Original” Hamachi Shot (gleefully stolen)

Hamachi (sushi-grade yellowtail)
Truffled ponzu sauce
- ¼ cup Ponzu sauce
- 1 tsp. truffle oil
- 1 minced truffle
Frizzled ginger
- 1 ginger root
- 1 cup vegetable oil
Thinly sliced jalapeño
Avocado cubes
Daikon radish sprouts

  • Truffling ponzu sauce
    1. Buy ponzu sauce from an Asian grocer. It’s Japanese soy sauce with lemon or lime, and some other additives. I do have a recipe for making it from scratch, but I didn’t bother and it tasted just fine.
    2. Add 1 tsp. truffle oil and 1 tsp. chopped truffle for every ¼ cup of ponzu.
  • Frizzling ginger
    1. Cut ginger root into thin slices (ideally using a mandolin), then cut into thin strips or shreds with a knife.
    2. Deep fry in a pot @ 360°F for 3-4 minutes, until brown and crispy, stirring frequently.
  1. Add one “finger” of hamachi, about ½ cm × ½ cm × 2 cm, to glass.
  2. Add two or three frizzled ginger strands.
  3. Add one or two cubes of avocado, about ½ cm³, or the size of your baby fingernail.
  4. Add one thin slice of jalapeño, cleaned of seeds.
  5. Top with a pinch of daikon radish sprouts. Make sure to get two or three leafy heads.
  6. Add two tsp. of truffled ponzu sauce, being sure to stir vigorously first. (The oil tends to separate.)
  7. Serve.

Nothing to it, really, as long as you’ve gone to the trouble of frizzling the ginger, truffling the ponzu, and growing the sprouts ahead of time. And you have to have hors d’œuvre glasses for serving it in (though I bet 2-oz shot glasses would work). Simple, yeah. Go to it!


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Trekquinox Episode 01: Risotto, or “Smorgas-Borg Cube”

Well now that we’re all conversant with the theme of the dinner, and the menu, let’s get down to brass tacks. But wait – the hallmark of science fiction (well, bad science fiction) is that one must mangle common idioms. Star Trek was in many ways groundbreaking, but at the end of the day it committed many of the sins of bad science fiction. For instance, no noun survives unadorned with either some alien planet name, or a techno-sounding suffix, or worse yet the epithet “space” – you know, to let you know that this is the future somehow. Alternatively is the use of the phrase “your Earth…”, as in “10 of your Earth minutes”, to let you in on the amazing secret that the speaker is not from Earth, as if you hadn’t guess by the profusion of tinfoil on the set and goofy costumes. So let us instead get down to Denebian brassium space tacks, and waste no more of your Earth seconds.

This was one of the last dishes I conceived of, despite its placement on the menu – at this point I had a lot of the main dishes fleshed out, but nothing in particular for appetizers. I did have the “Gorn Meat Gunpowder Shot” in mind, but that’s an amuse-bouche, really; not much to it. So I wanted something I could hand to people as they came in. But I had nothing in mind, and no Star Trek theme to hang it on anyway. Then my friend Paul, in a fit of genius while I was describing the dinner preparations to him, said “let me think… you need to have a Smorgasborg”. Brilliant! The best pun of the night. Of course, I wasn’t about to have an actual smorgasbord, since that’s kind of an entire meal idea. So instead I just dwelled on the Borg aspect.

For those of you not in the know, the Borg were big bad alien menaces to threaten the Federation in Star Trek: The Next Generation. They were half organic and half machine, or cyborg, hence their name. They had a communal hive mind thing going on, like a self-organizing machine, and so cared nothing at all for art or culture. To reflect their practical natures, their spaceships were simple giant cubes made of a partially open structure – the simplest form to build. So a cube was clearly in the works.

Eventually I decided on an excellent recipe I picked up from Tidings magazine, for miso risotto and duck breast. I did a quick test on the risotto and realized it was easy to form into cubes, if you had a form, like making a sand castle with a bucket. Only ours would be a rice cube. Then I could offer up pickles and olives as the self-serve portion, thus slightly justifying the “smorgas” part of the name. Success! The course was born. Here’s a still from the menu:

Menu for Miso Risotto with Duck
Menu Item #1: “Smorgasborg Cube”, or Miso Risotto with Duck

(The “Wolf 359″ reference is for the star system where the big battle took place in the show, which is where I took my footage from. A special effects extravaganza.)

Borg recharging station, with pickles and olives
Borg recharging station, with pickles and olives

I felt like I needed something for the serving, to “Trek” it up a little, and happily a little online store called ThinkGeek served me well – you can buy a little science toy which is essentially one of those Van Der Graaf spark balls, flattened into a disc, where green sparks arc in a futuristic way. It turns out these had been used in the actual show (well, a larger version) as the Borg’s recharging stations in their ships. So I threw that down behind the pickles and olives to make the presentation super-geeky (as if it wasn’t already, yes, I know).
You can find an animated clip of this on my friend Steve’s blog post about the dinner.

Now to make it “Modernist”, or at least technical, I did up the risotto using a pressure cooker. But that’s merely an option; this dish works just fine making the risotto in the traditional way. But let me tell you, if you do own a pressure cooker, then it is the only way to make risotto! So easy, so excellent. For those of you who are still risotto virgins in the kitchen, here’s the science of risotto, from Modernist Cuisine At Home.

Starch, released by short-grain rice during cooking, is what thickens dishes like paella and risotto. Natural starches are composed of two types of polymers, amylose (which is better at gelling) and amylopectin (which thickens by binding up water). Plants contain differing ratios of each, which is why short-grain rice works best for these dishes, but long-grain rice doesn’t.

Inside a plant cell, starch is typically stored inside granules, which have a layered structure like an onion. During cooking, the starch granules absorb water, swell, and become sticky. But the rice doesn’t thicken until the cells burst open and release the sticky granules.

That is why we stir the rice as it cooks: to break open the cells and release the starch into the cooking liquid, thereby thickening it. Continued gentle stirring then prevents lumps from forming. To see the gelling power of starch in action, allow a risotto to cool – it gels into a solid mass.

There is no need to stir rice when you cook it in a pressure cooker because the process forces so much water into the starch granules and plant cells that many more of the cells burst on their own.

There’s only one thing better than risotto, and that’s risotto that you don’t have to stir! I’m a total convert to the pressure cooker now, at least for the right applications. Risotto and paella definitely fall into that category.

Of course, nothing goes entirely smoothly. The first time I cooked this dish I didn’t have a pressure cooker, so I was doing it the traditional way, but that wasn’t a problem. However, the duck… ah, the duck. So the recipe calls for searing the duck skin on a frying pan in a hot hot oven (450°F) and simultaneously roasting the meat in the oven. I tried this in the Big Green Egg at the same time, going for a compare-and-contrast thing. Now, the BGE always does a fabulous job, and it does impart a delightful smoky flavour, but our taste test (Ellen as always serving as a willing volunteer for testing!) showed that when done on the Egg, you couldn’t really tell it was duck. It tasted just like chicken. Good, smoky, but that stripped away the subtle differences between duck and other birds. So the oven was the way to go for this one, or you might as well just use chicken breasts.

So you may know that duck is a very fatty meat, and so preparing it (in my experience) generally leads to something that is either quite fabulous or just plain awful – there has never been a middle ground in my life on that one. Total success or abject failure. Because of the fat. Now my first attempt led to total success on the flavour front; it was an easy choice. But on the cooking front? I mentioned that duck was a fatty meat, right? My oven was a disaster exceeding the scope and breadth of the Yorkshire pudding meltdown from the Feast of Thrones. I might as well have filled up a water balloon full of fat and put it in the oven until it exploded, except that would have actually been more work. The oven had a pool of fat at the bottom of it, and a thick coating on every single surface up to and including the roof of it. That pool? You could actually see ripples in it when I opened the door to extract the duck from what was now some kind of smoker, or fat-powered kiln. That weekend was a self-cleaning weekend, and I’m not convinced my oven doesn’t need another go-round at the full 5 hour cycle to finish the job.

This led to the purchase of a splatter shield – a simple bit of mesh, like a strainer, only flat – which goes over said dish. Cost me something like $2.89 at Ikea, just because I happened to be there with friends and spotted one; I’m sure they are readily available everywhere. Compared to my hourly rate at work multiplied by the hours of oven pre-cleaning and oven babysitting, a savings of Brobdingnagian proportion. If I never need it again, it was still totally worth it! On the actual day of Geekquinox, the oven survived unscathed and it had no effect on the cooking of the meat, exactly as it’s supposed to work. Dunno if that counted as either Modernist or particularly technological, but I was happy with that bit of gadgetry, let me tell you!

To finish off I shall attempt to always give a bit of Star Trek trivia before the actual recipe. In this case, the big battle against the Borg marked a two-part cliffhanger across seasons, and it led to two things: the first was that in the aftermath, in which the captain had been “assimilated” by the Borg (implanted with cybernetics and forced to battle his own people before being rescued), the writers of the show allowed actual consequences to sneak in. He didn’t just sail off into the next episode unaffected; they allowed it to colour his behaviour for the next year. Which marked a milestone in the franchise, of longer story arcs and consequences, which to my mind made it much better fiction. The other amusing bit turns out to be that when asked for a nail-biting cliffhanger, the Executive Producer had already made the decision to leave the show and let someone else have a turn in the big chair, and so he crafted a cliffhanger in which Captain Picard was stolen and assimilated, the Borg were invading our space, and nothing was capable of stopping them. And he had no idea whatsoever how it could be resolved. It was a bit of a practical joke on whoever came after him; he said himself he felt it was unresolvable. Then Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, managed to talk him into staying for one more season. So he was hoist by his own petard, painted into an insoluble corner by… himself! Heh. That amuses me.

So here is the recipe, both as it appeared in the magazine and the modified pressure cooker version I actually made. During the actual dinner this ended up being the second course served, but I really intended for it to happen sooner. Oh well! The wine was flowing, and so all was forgiven.

“Four Whistle Farm” Duck Breast with Wild Mushroom Risotto and Miso Broth

(From Tidings Magazine, profile of Brayden Kozak of the Three Boars restaurant)

3 tbsp   light miso paste (shiro miso, called “white miso” even though it’s not white)
4 cups   hot chicken or vegetable broth
3 tbsp   extra virgin olive oil
1   shallot, finely diced
1   garlic clove, minced
1 cup   mixed wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (or minced)
1.5 cups   Arborio rice
½ cup   Shaoxing wine (or sherry)
2 tbsp   malt vinegar
2   duck breasts, cleaned and skin scored
2 tbsp   butter

  1. Dissolve the miso paste in the hot broth and set aside.
  2. Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet, and sweat the shallot and garlic until softened. Add the mushrooms and cook until softened. Add the rice and toast until white and opaque. (This instruction always puzzled me, since Arborio rice comes out of the box white and opaque. I just toast it for a while, until I feel good about it.) Add the wine and the vinegar, cooking until absorbed.
  3. Add enough broth-miso mixture to just cover the rice (about two ladles-full) and stir until absorbed. Repeat until the rice is cooked through and creamy. Reserve a small amount of broth to finish the plate.
  4. Meanwhile, heat a cast iron pan in an oven you are preheating to 450°F. Season the duck breasts with salt and pepper. Remove the pan from the oven (using gloves, obviously!) and place the duck breasts skin down into the pan. Roast until the fat has rendered, the duck becomes crispy, and the meat is medium rare. Set aside to rest.
    Important note!: unless you love oven cleaning, you will want to put a screen over your cast-iron frying pan at this point to contain the inevitable splatter.
  5. Finish the risotto with the butter and adjust the seasoning to taste. Place the risotto in a shallow bowl and top with thin slices of duck breast. Pour a small amount of broth around the risotto and garnish with leaves of baby basil and Maldon sea salt.

Pressure cooker variant:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 450°F, with your frying pan inside. (Obviously you need a frying pan that doesn’t have a wooden handle for this.) You can start the duck here, i.e. copy of Step 4 from above:
    Season the duck breasts with salt and pepper. Remove the pan from the oven (using gloves, obviously!) and place the duck breasts skin down into the pan. Roast until the fat has rendered, the duck becomes crispy, and the meat is medium rare. Set aside to rest.
  2. (Just as above) heat the oil in the bottom of your pressure cooker, and sweat the shallot and garlic until softened. Add the mushrooms and cook until softened. Add the rice and toast until you feel like it’s done some good (see above for why). Add the wine and the vinegar, cooking until absorbed.
  3. Add the broth, and the miso. Seal and cook for 7 minutes at pressure (start timing when the little stick pops up to say it’s at full pressure). Release the pressure and open. It’s possible you will need to either add a touch of water or to reduce it a bit more, just to fine-tune the process. But often it’s ready to go at this point.
  4. Form the risotto into a Borg-like cube on the plate, and add a slice of duck to the side.
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Well, several Geekquinox dinners have come and gone since last I blogged about them, and I may go back in time for those two at some point, but after the fall of 2012 (Autumnal Geekquinox, that is) I decided I needed another themed dinner, and so I spoke out. Foolishly? Perhaps. Regardless, because one of my friends is a huge Star Trek fan, I told him it was his turn to shine, and that the next dinner would be Star Trek themed.

And so Trekquinox was born! So having thrown down the gauntlet of themed dinner, I had no real ideas of what I could do. But it seemed to me that for a futuristic theme like that, I could break out the Modernist cuisine and cook with a little science. Also, it might provide an excuse to buy or borrow a lot of kitchen gadgets, and sending me to the kitchen store is like sending the characters from the movie Trainspotting to an all-you-can-shoot heroin bar. I’m uncontrollable. So this seemed like a good idea. My friend and fellow chef Doug had gotten the ridiculously complete and expensive Modernist Cuisine cookbook for a past birthday, so I had all the techniques documented relatively close at hand. (This didn’t stop my from buying myself a copy of Modernist Cuisine at Home, the slightly more modest 1-volume, $100 book. Come on, both kitchen hardware and a book at the same time? This is a heroin and cocaine speedball for your humble narrator.)

So after spending, oh, quite a lot of time (months) thinking about what to serve and how it might tie in thematically, and discussing it with (annoying) my girlfriend, I eventually settled on an ambitious 11-course meal. Or more, or less, depending on whether you count the drinks. As you will find out later, some items landed on the scrapheap of expediency as the night progressed, but it was an ambitious menu nonetheless. Both figuratively and literally, the creation of the actual menu was an ambitious project. I wanted to make it look like a Star Trek display, and in the end crafted a video menu that could play on my TV and look like a Star Trek computer. Devoting 2 minutes of footage to whatever episode or episodes the course was related to, along with surrounding LCARS display (the style of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s displays on the TV show), it weighed in at around 35 minutes. And video editing is time-consuming! So hours and hours were spent literally creating the menu, rather than creating the food that the menu was listing. Folly number 1! Still, here is the main menu screen to serve as a reference for the rest of these posts.

Star Trek "LCARS" style display of menu
LCARS menu for Star Trek Geekquinox

So, food and drink fit for… well, people with big appetites and a lot of time, it turns out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a dinner party which takes its own sweet time – the longer the food lasts, the later people tend to stay, even (and especially) the non-drinkers. But several of these items were planned and never panned out, and were truthfully not missed by anybody. And there were some highlights to be proud of!

Still, if I learned anything from this entertaining evening (for the guests and myself) or the terrifying weeks (for me the planner, who was perhaps a tad ambitious here), it is this: seven or eight courses is plenty. Not only is it about as much as one cook can feasibly handle, even with a day or two off to prepare, but it’s all that anyone can eat. Interest in food dwindles, interest in drink and talk swells, and after that you’re just shouting into an empty forest. Metaphorically. With the food.

Lest I end up sounding entirely too bitchy, let me be clear that I’m glad I attempted it, that everyone had a great time (or at least is spectacularly good about lying to me to spare my feelings, and I don’t really associate with that sort of friend), and I nearly pulled it off. So read on, dear friends and worthy enemies, and we’ll go through the dinner course by course.

I did mention that Modernist cooking takes a lot of science? In the full, 6 volume edition of Modernist Cuisine they make use of a $30,000 laboratory centrifuge. Not available, it turns out, at Bed Bath & Beyond, nor even the Paderno store. So I didn’t go entirely certifiable in the shopping department, but a lot of these did require some unusual technology. In fact, I have an LCARS display for that too:

Star Trek LCARS display of technology used
LCARS display of weird cooking technologies used

Cooking sous-vide (“under vacuum”) features highly in Modernist cuisine, and so I did buy myself a Sous-Vide Magic PID controller. Full of buttons and LED displays, it would by no means have looked out of place on the decks of the original Star Trek show. In fact I had two, since I borrowed Doug’s as well – I needed to be cooking simultaneously at two different temperatures. Pressure cooker (bought), vacuum pump (borrowed), deep fryer (owned already) are some of the other technology highlights. The ceramic 3D printer sounded exciting, but the place I found that will do 3D printing for you are a European and U.S. shop, and only ship via UPS. So no matter how small and cheap the gewgaw you’re producing, UPS will charge you a $50 Customs processing fee. No thank you! Also, it turns out that modelling stuff in 3D is harder than it looks. So that was the first casualty; the plan had not survived contact with the enemy. At three weeks to go, my enemy was time and a little inherent Scottish cheapness, found too late.

So there’s the start of the tale. Next time, we’ll dive in to the first listed menu item (and the best pun of the lot), the Smorgas-Borg Cube.

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