Food is a science in Spain

December 17, 2006|By Carolyn Jung | Carolyn Jung,San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News

Into the stainless-steel mixing bowl goes liquid nitrogen, so cold it's below minus-320 degrees. A witch's caldron of wispy vapors spew as a mixture of ordinary olive oil and clear tomato juice is sprayed in. Then the extraordinary begins.

Whoever thinks oil and water don't mix has never seen them combine like this to create "popcorn." From this brew, fluffy kernel-like pieces emerge. They are cold and weightless on the tongue, melt into a slick of buttery fat in the warm confines of the mouth, and taste of delicate gazpacho.

This is "cooking" - modern Spanish-style.

At the epicenter of the revolution stands Spanish sensation Ferran Adria, the Capt. Kirk of gastronomy, whose personal mission has been to boldly go where no chef has gone before.

The excitement swirling around him and this gastronomic Spanish new wave was profoundly evident this month at the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus in St. Helena, Calif. This year's annual Worlds of Flavor International Festival, which focused on the cuisine of Spain, sold out even before the brochure was printed.

In the past 22 years at famed El Bulli on the Costa Brava in Spain's Catalonia region, chef-owner Adria's wildly provocative cooking has captured the imagination of legions of chefs from around the world.

The country that spawned the artistic geniuses of Gaudi and Miro has brought forth foams, "airs" (frothier, lighter versions of foam), and gelatin noodles that don't melt under heat - novel food textures with intense flavors.

Some may think Adria's so-called "molecular gastronomy" perplexing. Comfort food it is not. Manipulated food it is, with chefs now inspired to create sushi out of edible paper or morsels eaten off a bobbing antenna without the use of cutlery.

Conference chairman and Adria-protege Jose Andres points out, when it comes to food, "the Spanish have been doing magic for years." Andres, who cooked at El Bulli for years, and is now chef-owner of seven restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area, says one need look no further than the traditional Spanish dish of pil pil to see that.

In that Basque dish, rehydrated salt cod and a generous amount of olive oil are cooked in an earthenware casserole on low heat over the stove top. After about 20 minutes, without the addition of anything else, a thick, creamy sauce is somehow created.

Part science. Part "magic." Part wonder. It's what molecular gastronomy is all about.

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