Fish cooked in a salt crust. Toya Legido/©ICEX
Author: Julia Pérez/©ICEX
Would it be possible to cook differently? Could we prepare the same old ingredients in new, better ways? Could we improve on time-tested recipes?
Culinary techniques are little more than a set of actions that we repeat almost mechanically, without stopping to think of new ways to do things. Until along comes a free spirit, showing curiosity and sparking rebelliousness. There is no doubt that Ferran Adrià marked a turning point in Spanish and global cuisine. His technical contribution to avant-garde cooking is unquestionable, but his intellectual contribution is even greater. He caused a re-think among his colleagues all over the world, encouraging them to show curiosity and to experiment.
Cuisine, Science and Technology
Following the example of elBulli, many chefs began to search for new methods that would allow them to achieve results that previously had been unthinkable. While using the latest technology, they were careful to acknowledge the cultural weight of the taste memory that existed in each location. All the new techniques developed over these years and the technology that has made them possible have helped expand know-how.
"One of the first things I changed when I started cooking," explains Juan Mari Arzak, "was the way we cooked potages. In my mother's day, everything was cooked together in one large pan - the meat, vegetables, and legumes. But I realized it was better to cook each ingredient separately. That way I could give each product the right consistency.
Martín Berasategui has adopted a similar process for the popular marmitako. "People used to cook the bonito (albacore tuna) with the other ingredients, leaving the fish dry and tasteless. But what I do is make a good fumet full of flavor, and then I use it to cook the potatoes and vegetables. When they're ready, I cut the fish into dice and fry them separately, adding them at the end. That way the fish is still moist and full of flavor."
The most significant changes in methods for cooking vegetables were introduced by Navarran chefs who daringly moved away from Spanish tradition to offer vegetables al dente, crisp, colorful and full of vitamins. Koldo Rodero, in collaboration with farmer Floren Domezain - has analyzed the vegetable universe in Navarre. "Traditionally, in order to preserve the color of the vegetables, other ingredients such as lemon, flour or parsley were added to the cooking water. We've found that, when you wash cardoons or borage, provided you keep them constantly under running water, you don't need to add anything. Nor should you pull off the threads because this process releases an enzyme that encourages oxidation. You should just trim them using a very sharp knife, cutting lengthways."
The work done by Ricardo Gil in collaboration with Laboratorios Olea, has helped him quantify the advantages of using osmotized water for cooking vegetables, determine to what extent they oxidize and see how oxidation can be avoided by reducing the level of water and using a cover to ensure that the vegetables remain fully submerged at all times. To this end, he has designed a set of baskets, one for each type of vegetable. These are placed in the pan to ensure that the original shape is maintained and no morphological alteration takes place.
Quique Dacosta has written what is practically a thesis on rice in his book Arroces contemporaneos (Contemporary Rices). In addition to analyzing rice varieties, recipes, utensils, etc., he explains his two-phase cooking method. This allows restaurants to have rice dishes prepared in advance so that they can just be finished off when ordered, but without affecting the texture. The rice is cooked in the traditional way, and after eight minutes, it is drained and the cooking liquid set aside. The grains are placed in an inverted bainmarie, i.e.,one containing ice rather than hot water, to cool down. During this process, cooking continues at a rate of 10%. When the dish is ordered, the cooking liquid is heated and the rice added to it until cooking is complete.
Sous-vide cooking for all sorts of ingredients has brought a real technical shift, even substituting and complementing such old-time methods as roasting. The main characteristic of sous-vide cooking is that the ingredients, whatever they are, retain their juices, aromas and nutritional properties. The possibility of prolonging cooking for a long period at a very low temperature is another way of preserving organoleptic characteristics.
Sous-vide cooking can even be used to prepare an escabeche, one of the earliest and most characteristic methods used in Spanish cuisine. Originally, the main purpose of an escabeche was to conserve food, especially in the summer months when it went off quickly. It was therefore necessary to place the food in an acid medium (vinegar) to which they added spices, herbs and vegetables with antiseptic qualities (garlic, coriander, bay leaf, pepper, and citrus fruit peel, for example).
Today, Iñaki Camba, in Madrid, explains that escabeches no longer have to preserve food and are produced for immediate consumption. This turns the escabeche into a dressing, and means the food does not have to be cooked for hours nor fried previously, as used to be the case. The goal is to maintain the flavor that certain foods acquire, because that flavor belongs to our taste memory.
Frying and Emulsions
Frying, one of Spain's most widespread culinary techniques, has been the focus of much research by Málaga chef Dani García, in collaboration with Raimundo García del Moral, Professor of Pathological Anatomy at Granada University. The result is what they call "21st-century frying", in which fish are fried whole, with their skin and even their scales. This makes them swell up, as if cooked en papillote, so that the flesh cooks inside its natural casing, holding in all the moisture. It is essential for the skin and scales of the fish to be intact - any cut or damaged fish cannot be cooked this way.
There is a whole range of preparations that basically consist of an emulsion of a fat or oil with other ingredients. They include the popular alioli from Spain's east coast, Basque pilpil, and the traditional Andalusian cold soups: gazpacho, ajoblanco, salmorejo and porra antequerana.
All these preparations have changed over the years either because of the arrival of new kitchen devices such as the Thermomix, which makes it possible to form emulsions of a smoothness that was previously unimaginable, because of changes in the actual process as with pilpil, or because of changes in the way the main ingredient is treated, as with the garlic in modern aliolis. "We never imagined," says García, "that a popular, everyday cold soup such as gazpacho could be transformed into haute cuisine. In 1998, when I was just 22, I made my first gazpacho with goose barnacles, following in the footsteps of Ferran Adrià and his lobster gazpacho. In this case, technology and moderate use of certain ingredients such as garlic were decisive for this new-look gazpacho."
Mari Carmen Vélez, in Alicante has done something similar with alioli. The traditional method of making alioli was to crush the peeled garlic cloves with salt in a marble or china mortar, forming a creamy paste. The oil was then added gradually in a process which, to avoid curdling, requires skilled wristwork and plenty of patience. She distinguishes between different types of garlic - purple Pedroñeras and white garlic are not the same - and sometimes prefers to use cooked garlic. This allows her to produce hundreds of different aliolis - with almond milk, orange, foie gras and seaweed, to name a few.
Something similar has been done with Basque pilpil sauce, to which chefs such as Martín Berasategui and Senén González have added new ingredients, achieving some unusual flavors. Traditionally, pilpil was prepared by heating extra virgin olive oil with garlic and then placing the pieces of cod in the pan with the skin side down. The pan then had to be gently but constantly shaken for the fish to release its gelatin, slowly forming an emulsion.
The problem is that the pieces of cod may fall apart when they bump into each other, spoiling the appearance of the finished dish, and it has to be served as soon as it is prepared, so it must be made portion by portion. "I found a way to prepare the sauce," says Berasategui, "by making an emulsion with garlic oil and the gelatin from cod skins, keeping the oil at a very low temperature. Then, just before serving, I sprinkle carefully-cut pieces of cod with the emulsion and place them in the oven, also at a low temperature. After about 12 minutes, the olive oil has penetrated the fish and the center has reached the right temperature."
Julia Pérez is a food writer who has worked for over 15 years as the gastronomy editor of several magazines. In 2005 she received the Spanish National Gastronomy Award for journalism.