It’s not science fiction. It’s molecular gastronomy, a somewhat mysterious way of creating new tastes and textures in food through the application of scientific techniques.

Imagine a green salad made with frozen lettuce juice topped with vinaigrette ice crystals. Or a cranberry cosmo martini thickened with a chemical powder and cooled with spherified ice? For dessert, picture white liquid-nitrogen ice cream garnished with Shrek-green avocado foam.


It’s not science fiction. It’s molecular gastronomy, a somewhat mysterious way of creating new tastes and textures in food through the application of scientific techniques.


You may have seen it on TV’s “Top Chef,” where contestants occasionally add “wow” to their dishes with test-tube techniques and surrealistic plating.


Or you may have heard about some of the chefs considered the pioneers of molecular gastronomy: Grant Achatz of Alinea restaurant in Chicago; Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Girona, Spain; Homaro Cantu of Moto in Chicago; and Wylie Dufresne of wd~50 in New York City.


Chef Josh Sonneborn of 5flavors Catering in Springfield, Ill., got the urge to try chemical cooking after watching a molecular gastronomy demonstration in Las Vegas.


“As far as the molecular scene goes, it’s untapped. We are just seeing the beginning and I am thrilled to see something like this catching on and making its way out of Chicago and New York into Springfield,” said Sonneborn, who had no formal training in the method when he attended Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona.


But he and business partner Chip Kennedy did their own research. They perfected techniques that they now employ in their catering.


“One recent meal had pistachio-crusted sea bass with a pistachio foam. Another had a beet salad made with sodium alginate,” Sonneborn said. Sodium alginate, a flavorless gum extracted from the cell walls of brown algae, is used to increase viscosity and emulsify liquids.


Sonneborn recently taught a class at the local community college on molecular gastronomy. The first thing prepared was a cranberry cosmo with a “chewy cranberry sphere.” Some of the vodka drink, including dried cranberries, was gelled with the thickener Ultra-Tech and poured into small latex balloons. The round balloons were frozen with liquid nitrogen, the latex was removed and — voila! — icy cranberry spheres.


For the second course, the chef juiced arugula, spinach and romaine and froze it in a pan. With a fork scraped across the top of the ice, he dislodged bright green crystals and set them on a plate. Crystals from frozen red-wine vinaigrette were set on top of the frozen green salad. It was accompanied by a whole-wheat bread cube topped with Himalayan sea salt and served with granules of paprika butter that had been frozen with liquid nitrogen.


“It’s amazing how much the vinegar is enhanced. It seems much sharper,” said student Sue Sackett, of Williamsville, Ill. “It’s well balanced against the fresh tasting greens.”


The third course was sous-vide beef tenderloin (cooked in plastic in a hot water bath). The meat was topped with soy-lacquered candied bacon and pineapple powder, and it was served with carrot and pea purees, goat-cheese tapioca and alfalfa and broccoli sprouts.


The bacon was sweetened with isomalt, a sugar substitute that doesn’t crystallize as quickly as sugar. The pineapple powder was made of pulverized dried pineapple treated with maltodextrin for crunch.


Dessert was vanilla and cocoa-nib ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen and served with avocado-cayenne foam and mango glass (candied mango puree). The foam was made with mashed avocado, cream, water and cayenne, and it was foamed in an aerosol can with the help of nitrous oxide.


Sonneborn gets some of his cooking chemicals from the website www.trufflina.com. He said there are lots of other websites and blogs devoted to molecular gastronomy, which are good starting points for cooks who want to learn more about it.


“The cost is definitely more, and it takes a lot of time. There’s a lot of experimenting that’s involved with it,” he said.


“When we show it to a client, their first question usually is, ‘What is it?’ And their second question is, ‘How?’ ”


Recipes


These recipes use molecular gastronomy methods. Like most such recipes, measurements are metric.


Molecular Salmon Sushi


200 milliliters water


30 milliliters soy sauce (Kikkoman preferred)


30 milliliters rice-wine vinegar


2 grams agar-agar (a vegetable gelatin)


200 grams fresh salmon, minced


Small handful fresh coriander


1 tablespoon black sesame seeds, toasted


2 tablespoons lime juice


Salt and pepper


Heat water, soy sauce, vinegar and agar-agar; simmer a couple of minutes. Strain and pour into a flat tray so liquid is 2 millimeters thick. Allow to set.


Place salmon in a bowl with remaining ingredients. Cut the soy gel into 15-by-15-centimeter squares. Place some of the salmon tartare onto the gel and roll up. Serve with sushi rice and wasabi foam.


-- Chef Josh Sonneborn, Springfield, Ill.


Carrot Caviar


250 grams carrot juice (Odwalla preferred)


2 grams sodium alginate


2.5 grams calcium chloride


500 grams water


Measure 100 grams of carrot juice. Mix in sodium alginate and blend. Mix in the rest of the carrot juice and set aside. Any existing air bubbles will take at least 10 minutes to dissipate. Dissolve calcium chloride in the water while waiting.


Fill a syringe with the carrot juice solution. Put a strainer in a bowl with the calcium chloride solution so that it is mostly submerged. Slowly, squirt drops of the carrot mixture over the strainer in the bowl. The size of the drops can be controlled by the pressure placed on the plunger. Let the caviar set for 30-45 seconds. Move the strainer with the caviar from the calcium chloride solution and into a bath of water.


-- www.trufflina.com


Kathryn Rem can be reached a t217-788-1520.


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A primer on some of the commonly used chemicals used in molecular gastronomy:


-- Calcium chloride: The compound of calcium and chlorine, this salt is used to preserve and to maintain firmness and to give a salty taste.


-- Sodium citrate: A flavoring agent and preservative commonly used in club soda and lemon-lime soft drinks.


-- Calcium lactate gluconate: A soluble salt of calcium, lactic acid and gluconic acid, it’s used in effervescent calcium tablets. It has excellent solubility and a neutral taste.


-- Xanthan gum: Often found in salad dressings and sauces, this helps to prevent oil separation and to create pleasant textures.


-- Liquid nitrogen: Colorless nitrogen gas under pressure and cooled to a liquid state. This very cold substance has many medical and industrial uses. In the food world, it’s used to flash-freeze foods.