Using molecular gastronomy for an "avant-garde" pot luck (recipes)

Balsamic beads and powdered peanut butter for a South Florida Foodies group pot luck luncheon.

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I had one major problem in my quest: The chemicals. I searched high and low online for a store in Miami that sold them, but failed. I did find online stores that would ship the chemicals from China. But, this would take too long. So, I conceded the powdered peanut butter and decided to focus on agar agar, a vegan gelatin substitute derived from seaweed. I had seen agar agar at Whole Foods in the Asian section, so I decided to find an Asian market to peruse. Also, Asbel's original recipe called for grapeseed oil, but I had to switch that out for olive oil. Olive oil freezes at a higher temperature than grapeseed oil, so I had to adjust the cooling time for the oil.

I Googled markets and discovered PK Oriental in South Miami. A quick call to confirm they had agar agar, and I was on my way. Much to my delight, I ended up in idea heaven. PK had multiple flavors of agar agar, as well as aisle upon aisle of fun items to drive my imagination wild.

Fun foodie ingredients

My initial idea for the balsamic beads was to create a one-bite salad and use the beads in it. I found unflavored agar and grabbed it. I had our salad course—a cherry tomato with a drizzle of olive oil, a fresh piece of basil and a few beads of 'balsamic caviar'.

I then had to recreate our sandwich course. I refused to entirely scrape the PB&J idea, so I needed to improvise. I found a package of mango flavored agar. Score. I then came across Thai peanut satay sauce and decided the spicy sauce and sweet mango would make a wonderful sandwich.

For our soup/dessert, I opted for coconut cream, coffee flavored agar, and almond flavored agar. It would be part soup, part coffee dessert.

While I was in Miami shopping, David was in Manhattan for work and managed a quick pop into Chinatown for some additional ingredients that would become the most unexpected hit of the party: his Taiwanese whole sesame crabs.

David and Omar

Omar, also in NY, was in charge of cocktail ideas. His 'Jonestown Surprise' was an early hit at the party. However, the longer it sat, the more intense the pulverized Thai chilies became, burning tongues by the end of the event. Surprise!

David, Omar, and I gathered Saturday morning to create our dishes, having not tested if they would actually work. Much to our delight (and somewhat surprise), everything except one cocktail worked. To save time, I made the agar jellies Friday night, so they could sit and congeal slowly overnight. Herve This warns that allowing jellies to congeal too quickly (i.e. the fridge or freezer as opposed to coming to room temperature first) will cause a molecular breakdown that will ruin your jelly.

Here are our creations, followed by pictures of other fun dishes from the event. Thank you to Maude Eaton and Jason Inasi for creating and hosting this wonderful gathering of foodies. And thank you to Asbel and Allison for the inspiration.

Bubble tea
  • Joan Nova
  • Bubble tea

Jonestown Surprise
Bakon vodka
Tomato juice (plain)
Wasabi Peas
Thai chilies

Combine vodka and tomato juice (1/3 vodka to 2/3 juice). Pulverize the wasabi peas and Thai chilies in a processor or bullet. Add to vodka/juice mixture. Add a few ice cubes and mix well. Serve in a shot glass with a garnish of Spam on a toothpick.

Summer Sunshine

Pear juice
Dried Taiwanese kumquats, halved

Combine one bottle of prosecco with a quart of pear juice. Add ice and stir. Serve in small glasses with a kumquat as garnish. If you allow the kumquat to soak in the bottom of the glass, it slowly re-hydrates and turns into a nice finish to your cocktail.

Bubble Tea (non-alcoholic)

Green Tea
Tapioca pearls
Coconut cream

Cook tapioca pearls as directed on package. Steep tea; I used two tea bags to make it strong. Combine tea and milk, adding coconut cream and honey to taste. Add tapioca peals. This is best served in a pitcher with a ladle, so guests can ladle the pearls into their cups.

Tomato salad with balsamic caviar
  • Carolyn Cochran
  • Tomato salad with balsamic caviar



Cherry tomatoes
Fresh basil
Olive oil (a very large bottle, you want it to be tall. I used a quart sized bottle)
Balsamic vinegar
agar agar

Begin by preparing your mise en place: core tomatoes (if you have a melon-baller use it; I had to use a paring knife), place a little drizzle of olive oil and a small piece of a basil leaf in each tomato. Set aside in fridge.

Creating balsamic caviar

Balsamic caviar:

Place the container of olive oil in the freezer for at least a half an hour, but not more than one hour. On the stove heat equal parts water and balsamic vinegar (I used 3.5oz of each). In a small mixing bowl, combine agar with water very slowly. You want to create a paste. You want to use 1% agar to your vinegar and water mixture; I used just over 3gms of agar to create my paste. Combine the agar paste into the vinegar mixture and stir until dissolved. Allow to slightly cool before placing in a kitchen syringe or other bottle-type instrument that will allow you to create small droplets. Pull the olive oil container from the freezer and place into a large bowl or pot. Create an ice bath around the bottle of oil. Carefully drop little droplets of the balsamic/water/agar mixture into the bottle of olive oil. As the droplets fall to the bottom of the oil container, they will congeal into 'caviar'. Once you have created enough caviar, pour the oil through a strainer to remove the balsamic caviar. You can reserve the oil for use at another time. Place a few pieces of balsamic caviar into each tomato.

Not your Grandma's PB&J

White bread
Thai peanut satay sauce
Mango flavored agar agar dessert

Make you mango agar dessert ahead of time. I made mine the night before. You can allow the dessert to congeal in fun molds; I used heart shaped silicone molds for mine. Trim the crust from your bread, then cut each slice into four smaller pieces. Smear peanut satay on each slice. Place a mango dessert jelly on each piece.

Coconut soup

Coconut and Coffee Soup

Dehydrated coconut cream
Coffee agar dessert
Almond agar dessert

Make the coffee and almond agar jellies ahead of time. I allowed mine to conceal in ice cube trays, for the shape. Follow directions on package for cooking the coconut cream. Allow cream to cool and add in coffee and almond agar desserts. Can be served in bowls or shot glasses.

Wasabi surf and turf

David's wasabi surf and turf

Lump crab meat
Wasabi spiked nori pieces
Wasabi powder (or pre-made paste)
Salt and pepper
Braised beef sliced thin on the bias
Taiwanese sesame crabs, whole

Boil potatoes until tender. Mash with cream and butter to taste, added salt and pepper as desired. Gently fold in lump crab meat to taste. Mix your wasabi powder with water, or add water to your wasabi paste to create a sauce. Lay small squares of the nori on your serving tray. Place a spoonful of the crab mashed potatoes on each nori. Drizzle wasabi sauce over potatoes. Place either a whole Taiwanese crab or a slice of beef on top.

click to enlarge Bubble tea - Joan Nova
Joan Nova
Bubble tea

click to enlarge Foodies - Joan Nova
Joan Nova

What happens when you gather forty South Florida foodie fanatics for a pot luck afternoon? An amazing afternoon of delicious food and homemade cocktails, of course!

Last Saturday, I was honored to join the South Florida Foodies for a pot luck party that did not only consist of fabulous food and drinks; I also enjoyed meeting and chatting with a diverse crowd of food lovers. While the SFLF group began as a small group of food writers, bloggers, and tweeters, recent press has caused our membership to swell to over 300. I met many people I had not seen at previous gatherings, and thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie that we mutually built over our love of food. As our head diva Maude so eloquently noted, "we come here knowing nothing about each other, and we bond and create friendships over food."

Each foodie in attendance was assigned the following: create one dish and one drink. The theme was 'avant garde'. As David and our friend Omar were joining me, we needed to compose at least three dishes and three cocktails.

I decided to go for the avant-garde with gusto. I took a course on molecular gastronomy with Asbel Reyes and Allison Beasmen (both of Sidebern's) several years ago, and relished the chance to finally use some of the techniques that they taught me. Namely, balsamic beads and powdered peanut butter.

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