Thursday, 28 February 2008

Alchemy At Home: Saffron Vs. Beetroot

If you enjoyed reading about broccoflower espumas and rose water spherification, well then you're in luck, because it's about time for the next installment of my adventures in domestic culinary wizardry. This time rather than setting out to create an entire meal, I'm again concentrating on key ingredients and attempting to make something that brings their flavours together. I will also have to bear in mind the balances of texture and colour in the final product.
Saffron and beetroot - not exactly obvious culinary partners
My ingredients are saffron and beetroot, as distant from each other as is possible in just about every conceivable sense. One is the most expensive spice in the world made by drying the stimga of the saffron crocus - the other is a cheap root vegetable. One is a bright orange-yellow and the other is a dark purple. One has a delicate, honey-like aromatic fragrance, the other a bold earthiness. So how to pair these two totally different ingredients? A very good question indeed.

My jellified saffron waterThe most obvious answer (to me, at least) was to combine the two in a way that would individually accentuate, but most importantly differentiate, their opposing intrinsic qualities. According to this thought process I should create a saffron element that is light and elegant and a beetroot element that is strong and in-your-face. Or I could of course be clever and do the exact opposite in an attempt to completely throw my tastebuds into disarray. In this instance however I thought it best not to go against my better judgment and decided to stick with Plan A, at least initially.

My first port of call was to make a saffron 'water', a base from which I could begin to develop my ideas. In college we would make saffron water to add to pasta dough, but the method we used - bringing water to the boil, removing from heat, adding strands and leaving to infuse - never resulted in as colourful an infusion as I would have liked. So this time I followed the same method but also used a stick blender to shred and disperse all of the strands within in the water, maximising the release of 'crocin', the caretenoid dye that produces saffron's characteristic golden colour.

Measuring the IotaI then left the mixture to infuse and cool for a further ten minutes before passing it through a fine sieve. Once cool, I enhanced the liquid's sweetness with a touch of honey. By this time I had decided that I was going to create a soft gel with the saffron water, so I scaled and added one gram of Iota to the saffron water. The mixture was then brought back to a boil to activate the gelification properties of the Iota, removed from the heat and very carefully decanted into some spoons in which it was left to set.

So, that was the saffron element out the way. Now to focus on how to complement the dish with the earthiness of beetroot.

Grainy beetroot pureeConsidering that I already had a jelly-like texture in the saffron element, it made sense that the beetroot should offer a more solid presence. Thinking along those lines, I settled upon making quite a roughly textured purée to give some body and offer a stark contrast to the gelatinousness of the saffron. For this I again used a stick blender to blitz the cooked beetroot, gradually adding small amounts of cold water until it reached the desired consistency you see here. The purée was not passed through anything, simply left as it is to maintain the grainy texture I was after.

While I was fooling around with ideas for how to present this dish I realised I had quite a lot of the beetroot purée to play with. Knowing that I would only actually use a small amount, I decided to use the rest to make a light 'air' to garnish the grainy beetroot. For this I simply thinned out the remaining purée with cold water while blitzing, passed it through a fine sieve and added a small amount of Lecite. A few revs with the stick blender on the surface of the liquid then produced a bright pink cloud of foam that was stabilised by the emulsification properties of the soy lecithin-based Textura.

And here's the finished article. The idea - you guessed it - is to take the spoon with the saffron gel and use it to scoop up some of the beetroot quenelle with the fluffy pink air and consume in one mouthful. And the verdict? An absolute triumph, with perfect flavour, colour and textural balance all in one mouthful. And my flatmates didn't think it was too bad, either!
The finished article - Soft saffron gel with purée and air of beetroot


JF said...

cool stuff.

a question, though. why do you always refer to your chemicals by their spanish names (from the texturas line of products) as if they were invented there. lecithin, xanthan gum, methylcellulose and all their other friends have long been used in large-scale commercial production of food in most countries, and though i'm unsure of their origin, it's definitely older than ferran adria and his compadres.

keep up the good work.

- a fellow chef in san francisco

Richard said...

So what happens in your mouth - is it a conflict (as suggested in the title 'saffron vs beetroot') or did they really compliment each other? I'm guessing there is a complimentary note between the two - I always think that saffron has a touch of sweet-earthiness to it and beetroot also has sweet and earthy notes...
And how did you cook the beetroot? Just boiled or roasted? I think roasting brings out the sweetness a little more...

And my last question: How do you turn this into a main course? I'm thinking some sort of pork belly dish?

Wiglet said...

I am trying out your 'paprikás csirke' tomorrow on the family and I hope I can get youngest to eat it too.

I have children who love cooking and my teenage daughter wants to be a chef but is put off by the long hours and low money. I've pointed her towards your blog for a bit of inspiration.

Keep up the good work.

Trig said...

JF - I refer to the Texturas by their Spanish names because they have Spanish names. I know what the technical names for the chemicals are, but isn't it much easier to give them short and easy names? I can only guess that was the thinking behind the naming of Texturas.

Richard - it's not a conflict per se, in the sense that the two flavours are fighting each other in the mouth. I found that they really complement each other in a gentle way. The beetroot I roasted, wrapped in tin foil with extra virgin oil and Maldon salt. To be honest I never intended for this to be made into an actual meal, it's more an experiment with the components. I suppose pork belly could work though.

Wiglet - ask any passionate chef and they'll tell you that long hours and low pay is irrelevant to them. We do what we do because we love it and couldn't imagine life being any other way.

Pete said...

I'm seriously thinking of ordering the Texturas starter kit. Is there enough in there to start having a crack at some of this stuff?

Trig said...

Pete - definitely, although there's more than one kit. The spherification kit is a great place to start and lots of people buy it, but I'd recommend trying the mini-starter kit which has a bit of everything. Not cheap, though! The instructions that come with the kits are very good.

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