Avocados from Mexico
Salty Caramel Pecan Pie with Avocado Marmalade.

American Cuisine Enters a New Era of Creativity

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Flavor enhancers that introduce over-the-top innovation without alienating diners who want to eat adventurously without going too extreme.
By Amelia Levin April 2017 Flavor

We’re entering a new dawn of molecular cooking and creative American cuisine. Though well-versed in the tools and techniques that made the likes of Ferran Adrià, Grant Achatz, and Wylie Dufresne popular, many chefs have returned to their roots, incorporating some modern methods with more classical cooking foundations in order to put a new spin on ingredients and enhance flavors. The goal: To innovate without going way over the top or alienating the everyday diner. 

At the newly opened Temporis in Chicago, co-chefs Sam Plotnick and Evan Fullerton make this kind of experimentation their mission. For an amuse-bouche or small starter, they combine raw fennel juice with a little modified corn starch, cooking the mixture at a low temperature in the oven to create a fruit-like “leather,” which is then set in the dehydrator four to six hours and gently shaped into crispy cones. The cones are stuffed with king crab and parsnip purée, fennel pollen, smoked trout roe, and a little lemon zest. They’ve also been known to use tomato juice in place of the fennel for a deconstructed tapenade. 

To create a serving vessel for a rabbit rillette, the duo make socca chips inspired by the Italian chickpea pancake. “We make a basic paste of salt and chickpea flour, pour it into a nonstick pan to cook paper-thin like crepes, and then bake them in the oven so they become lightly browned and crunchy,” Chef Fullerton says. 

For a riff on crème brûlée, the chefs make an inverted version infused with robust-flavored rooibos tea, so the custard is served warm and the sugar comes out cold instead of the traditional opposite. “We can set the tea steeped in warm milk with a little carrageenan, an algae derivative, instead of using a lot of egg yolks to help the delicate tea flavor shine through more, and it only takes three minutes before we serve it and send it out,” says Fullerton. Working ahead of time, he makes a tuile in place of the classic, crunchy sugar topping. He accomplishes this by searing, poaching, and dehydrating a kumquat and blood orange purée with lavender honey as a natural citrus-sweet complement to the rich tea flavor. 

“It’s so much easier nowadays to experiment with different molecular ingredients, but at the same time, we don’t want to ostracize anyone—we just want to make good food,” Fullerton says. 

Here’s a look at how some other chefs are transforming different dishes with both unique and everyday ingredients to achieve new twists on classic flavors. 

Umami Bumps

Many chefs have embraced fish sauce as an umami-booster for all dishes, including non-Asian ones. At Juniper in Austin, Texas, executive chef Nicholas Yanes takes things a step further by souring an Italian fish sauce called colatura di alici, adding just a few milliliters into the house-made salsa verde, a blended herb sauce. “This is a great way to enhance the entirety of a sauce or dish with just a couple of dashes,” Chef Yanes says. “It adds so much depth of flavor and umami. It’s a beautiful thing.” 

Marilyn Schlossbach, chef/owner of the eponymous restaurant group that operates Langosta Lounge, Labrador Lounge, A.P.Y.C., Pop’s Garage, and Russell & Bette’s in New Jersey, makes her own turmeric oil and sea salt to bump up the umami factor in different dishes. 

For the oil, Chef Schlossbach slow-simmers fresh turmeric in a non-olive oil and then uses that as the base for sautés, roasted vegetables, dressings, and her house curry, sautéing onions, garlic, ginger, lemon, and lime in the turmeric oil first to introduce a slightly caramelized, savory spice element. For the sea salt, she sources fresh sea water from a local oyster company, infuses it with lemongrass and lavender from her garden, and cooks off the liquid over a few days until it becomes a coarse salt. In the summer, she’s used a traditional salt box with trays and lets the salt water dry off outside under the sun. Infusing the salt with black garlic adds even more umami flavor while turning the salt a pretty dark, charcoal color that makes for a nice garnish on butters, salads, and other dishes. 

Sweet Tastes and Textures

These days, we’re hearing more about sorghum—used in syrup form as a natural sweetener akin to molasses and in its whole form as a popped grain meant to bump up the texture in different dishes. Chef Andrew Zimmerman of the Michelin-starred Sepia in Chicago, uses the puffed, Southern-grown and naturally gluten-free ancient grain in a pasta dish with housemade masa cavatelli, huitlacoche, and shrimp. 

At the newly opened Oak + Rowan in Boston, executive pastry chef Brian Mercury reaches for sorghum syrup instead of molasses, favoring its lighter, less bitter taste. A byproduct of cane sugar production, sorghum also has a very American story, adding more intrigue to the ingredient. “Sorghum production is kind of a dying art because it is so time-consuming and intensive, but you get a much deeper and richer taste that is smoother, cleaner, and rounder than molasses. And with subtle leathery, vanilla notes,” Chef Mercury says. “By using it more, hopefully we can help support the people who make it.” 

To produce sorghum, farmers harvest the giant corn-like stalks and then crush or pulverize them to squeeze out the green juice, which is then boiled and reduced until caramelized, similar to the caramelizing process of maple syrup. 

Chef Mercury uses the resulting syrup for his twist on a classic New England Indian pudding, with origins dating back to Colonial times. “Traditionally, the pudding is made with cornmeal, spices, and molasses—because that was more prevalent back then—and baked in the hearth in homes,” he says. “I replaced the molasses with sorghum to soften the flavor, and added a little roasted pumpkin to it for some toothiness.”

Chef Jim Christiansen of Heyday in Minneapolis uses avocados for a savory-citrus spiked marmalade that balances out a sweet and salty caramel pecan pie. After reducing and chilling glucose and lime juice, he adds lime zest, simple syrup, and citric acid, then folds the jelly-like mixture into diced avocados with a pinch of salt and more zest if needed. 

Acid Rush

Yuzu kosho, the Japanese condiment made from salt-fermented fresh chilies and yuzu juice, has found its way into more dishes as chefs experiment with alternative sources of acid as a flavor enhancer. In Chicago, Chef Noah Sandoval of Oriole adds the blend to a kampachi nigiri and tops the sushi pieces with toasted genmai rice for extra crunch. Chef Zimmerman of Sepia adds the seasoning to brighten up a rich corn pudding, balanced out by caramelized corn and crunchy jicama. 

Chef Bryan Petrick of Aerie at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme, Michigan, pickles watermelon rind to add more acid and balance out the sweetness of the watermelon fruit in dishes. “After we cut and dice the pink flesh, we take the rind—which is usually discarded as trash—and instead pickle it by dicing it and placing it in a mixture of Champagne vinegar, sugar, water, and a pinch of salt,” Chef Petrick says. “We pickle it for two to three days, and then mix it into a salad with the flesh, some arugula or spring greens, and basil. The dressing is a simple, reduced balsamic glaze.”