There are perks to writing a cocktail blog. Not only do I occasionally get free bottles of booze sent to me (I have a big backlog of ingredients to write about), but there's also the odd party invitation now and then. One of the best, though, is getting to hang out with people like Dave Arnold and Nils Norén of the French Culinary Institute. (Remember Dave? He invented the Red Hot Poker.)
Besides teaching culinary technology and other things at the FCI, Arnold and Norén have a great blog about "tech 'n' stuff"; the "tech" part includes things like an exhaustive-but-fascinating primer on how to use a rotary evaporator to distill flavors, and the "stuff" part has all kinds of cool things, like The Skoal! Project, inspired by a badass 1967 photo of Max von Sydow shooting akvavit.
The upshot for the cocktailian reader? On June 12, Arnold and Norén are teaching a demonstration class on high-tech cocktails, and they were nice enough to give me a sneak preview. It began in typical mad-scientist freewheeling style, as Arnold told me that "everyone should have a carbonation rig." (I'd been looking at the Sodastream as an option, but Arnold waved that away and showed me his big CO2 tank he'd gotten from a welding-supply house.) First, Arnold and Norén -- wait a sec. You know, "Arnold and Norén" is good journalistic style, but this was a fun, goofy hour spent with a bunch of totally down-to-earth technical wizards. I'm gonna call 'em "Dave and Nils" instead. And that way I don't have to copy-and-paste that little accent over the E.
First Dave and Nils carbonated some water for me. Dave said "I don't drink flat water -- it's like bad seltzer." Fine, you say -- what's so impressive about fizzy water? Well, it was certainly fun to see made...the bottle is chilled and crushed (so there's minimal air inside), then attached to the CO2 line and the bottle inflates with a loud pop. Shake it a few times, and there's your seltzer. Dave then showed me water carbonated with nitrous oxide instead of CO2, which was interesting; the bubbles were smaller and less prickly-aggressive on the tongue, and the resulting seltzer was noticeably sweeter. Then, Dave and Nils carbonated some more water, mixing the gases (at about 75% CO2/25% N2O), giving me the FCI house blend of seltzer, which was very refreshing. This sold me: I'm totally gonna get me a carbonation setup...but Sangamon's Principle aside, I'll probably stick to the CO2.
Dave told me that he and Nils were interested in teaching the class June 12 because "it's a good way for us to show the stuff we're working on. We can't really do these things at the restaurant, so it's a good outlet for us." He then divided the techniques he and Nils would demonstrate into "reasonable", semi-reasonable" and "unreasonable" for the home cook, and said they'd show all three.
Dave, on using liquid nitrogen:
He uses it to chill glassware -- who has time to mess around with ice and water? You've got drinks to make!
Dave and Nils like to use pieces of pickled watermelon rind for garnishing cocktails...but they don't always have enough time to pickle them. So what do they do? They shave pieces of watermelon rind and "flash-pickle" them in a vacuum with lime juice and simple syrup -- the air is sucked out, and then when the vacuum seal is broken, the air forces the lime and simple into the watemelon rind, impregnating it with sweet-and-sour deliciousness.
You can do this with a vacuum pump, but the "semi-reasonable" solution for the home mixologist involves a large syringe, which can pull a vacuum enough to pickle the rind:
Dave and Nils also made me a refreshing "Gin & Juice" -- gin with clarified grapefruit juice (they add 1/2 % gelatin to grapefruit juice, freeze everything, then thaw it while straining through cheesecloth), then carbonate the whole thing. ("Gin loves bubbles", Dave told me. They also make their own tonic water with the carbonation rig.) The clarified grapefruit juice was interesting, with a very deep flavor but no pulp or traces of bitter pith.
I also sampled a solid Martini -- gin and vermouth mixed with liquid nitrogen to cool it, plus a dash of simple syrup and a pinch of salt. Pour the whole thing over a cucumber slice, then flash-pickle it in the vacuum pump, and you have a Martini-infused cucumber!
Nils then made me a "Swedish Chef", another intense, oddly refreshing drink with an unusual flavor combination. What, you want the recipe? Here you go: caraway-infused vodka (which smells exactly like good rye bread, confusing my nose), clarified apple juice (if it's not sour enough, they just add a dash of malic acid), a splash of St. Germain, a splash of Dolin dry vermouth, and a splash of cucumber juice. Garnish the whole thing with a slice of cucumber that's been flash-pickled with Plymouth Navy Strength gin.
Places for the high-tech cocktails demonstration class and tasting on June 12 are still available -- I know I'd buy tickets just to see these guys grilling hot dogs.