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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Modernist Cuisine at Home

Seattleites are not noted for exuberance. We sit quietly in dark pubs, bright laboratories and dull cubicles. Our preferred "personal space" is vast, with the other person located, ideally, no nearer than Bellingham. Our fashion sense could best be described as "camouflage." We drive Subarus.

But beneath the Patagonia-and-pocket-protector facade lurks an inventive "why the hell not" streak. For example, after World War II we noticed we had a lot of extra aircraft engines lying around. So we bolted them to small plywood boats and invented hydroplane racing. The manufacturer of the Solo cup remains grateful to this day. In the 1960s one of our our own decided to string his left-handed guitar upside-down, play it behind his back and set it on fire at the Monterey Pop festival. Karaoke stylists belting out "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy" remain grateful to this day. In the 1990s a software engineer invented "Clippy," and well, not everything's a hit. But you get the idea.

So when former Microsoft engineer (not the one responsible for Clippy) Nathan Myhrvold got interested in cooking, he took a distinctively Northwest approach: Locking himself in a vast private laboratory (the "Fortress of Salsa-tude") he applied Science to food. "Science" in this case involved blowtorches, centrifuges and syringes, as well as bandsaws to dissect the appliances. I confess having a frequent desire to take a chainsaw to our balky coffeemaker, but Myrhvold is clearly more a person of action than I.

By all accounts the results were delicious. The "accounters" however, included no members of the general public, as Myhrvold's work required difficult-to-register-for-at-Macy's items like the $4,000 Pacojet instant ice-cream freezer ("handy tools for grinding tough ingredients such as fatty tissues and nuts into fine pastes.")

There was a book, "Modernist Cuisine." But at six volumes, 2,438 pages, 52 pounds and $600, it would never have fit between "Basic Deer Fencing, Illustrated" and my 50-year-old copy of "The Joy of Cooking" on our kitchen shelf even if we could have afforded it.

Thankfully these impediments to culinary adventure were removed last year with the publication of an affordable two-volume version called "Modernist Cuisine at Home." My husband being the kind of experimental cook who once described melting Brie as "a cheese pyroclastic flow" and calls testing a roast for doneness "taking a core sample," I snapped up a copy for Christmas.

The results have indeed been delicious. Steve has immersed himself, so to speak, the the art of "sous vide," following the book's direction to seal cuts of salmon in plastic bags and suspend them in a stockpot full of hot tap water for several hours until they develop a dissolve-in-your-mouth texture like meringue. Heavenly.

But as I devoured the last morsel and resisted the urge to lick the plate, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd had something similar when I was a child. Then I remembered: Forty years ago my grandmother used to wrap fish in SaranWrap and poach it in the dishwasher. Her Salmon a la Kenmore was just as tender, though it occasionally bore a minute aftertaste of Jet-Dri if it hadn't been sealed tightly enough.

Don't tell Myhrvold or my husband, but sometimes there is nothing new under what passes here for the sun.