My son, who’s turning 4 this month, is a hard case at the dinner table. He once ate everything from turnips to gai-lan, but somewhere around 18 months, the gates closed for vegetables. I have tried to be patient with the deforestation of his diet, and in the past few months there has been progress: At a recent lunch, I caught him chomping on a carrot before his (organic) hot dog, something he would never have done if he knew I was looking. And although he refused to taste the radishes we grew in our garden this year, he did take one to bed with him as a makeshift stuffed animal. Still, spinach is off-limits, green beans are opprobrious, and even corn makes him gag.
In an effort to expand his palate, I’ve followed the standard parenting guidelines without much luck: I keep putting veggies on his plate, even if he won’t eat them; I eat lots of them myself; and I regularly cook with him. I’ve even tried the morally questionable practice of sneaking veggies into his favorite dishes (a la Jessica Seinfeld). The Critic—as I like to call him—was not so easily fooled: He quickly detected a quarter cup of squash in his salmon cakes the other night and declared them strange. Frustrated but not yet willing to give up, I enlisted the help of an unlikely accomplice: El Bulli chef Ferran Adria. Adria is perhaps the most famous chef in the world, known as a leader in the field of “molecular gastronomy”— a kind of kitchen alchemy that transforms prime ingredients into surreal concoctions using high-tech tools and commercial food additives. His recipes are full of surprise and playfulness: strange juxtapositions of hot and cold ingredients, intensely flavored frozen powders, and mysterious liquid-centered gelatin orbs made through a process called spherification. The Adrian table is as much magic show as it is dinner, and I wondered if the Critic might have an affinity for such playful food. After all, he’s a fan of alphabet pasta, fruit gels shaped like Legos, and animal crackers.
Together with his brother, Albert, Adria is now selling many of his favorite additives under the label Texturas. So I plunked down $200 for a kit from Dean & DeLuca, the New York specialty retailer. While high-end foodie gift boxes are usually filled with spices or chocolates, this one contains calcium gluconolactate, powdered xanthan gum, agar agar, and lecithin. (For the intrepid gastronaut, these additives can be found a la carte at L.A.’s super chic Le Sanctuaire and pastry-chef provocateur Will Goldfarb’s Willpowder.net.) The Critic immediately gravitates to the giant syringe that came with the kit while I tear through the slim recipe book.
We decide to make tomato spheres (featured in the Texturas booklet) and Asian-seasoned broccoli spheres (my own creation). Before he heads off to preschool, the Critic and I go to work, adding Gluco (the calcium gluconolactate) and Xantana (the powdered xanthan gum) to tomato water (the juice from shredded tomatoes filtered through a cheesecloth) and to a thin broccoli purée. It turns out my son’s a champ with measuring spoons, digital scales, and hand mixers. Later that day, the Critic is less gung-ho about our project; he knows that once the spheres are made, it will soon be time to taste them. Working in small batches, we drop spoonfuls of the tomato water and the broccoli broth into an Algin bath (sodium alginate and water), and then we watch them congeal.
The tomato water doesn’t really transform into spheres so much as blobs with little tails of clear gelatin. And here my son begins to get really nervous; realizing that he will have to eat not only something tomato-flavored but something that in shape and overall texture most closely resembles a tadpole. Though not perfectly spherical, the broccoli actually comes closer to the intended effect. Each orb has a clear skin of gelatin, and, inside, there’s a soupy shot of purée—a liquid surprise not unlike that inside a Shanghainese soup dumpling.
When tasting time comes, the Critic cries as if I were feeding him brimstone. The tomato gel slides down his chin, but the broccoli doesn’t even make it that far—I don’t have the heart to make him taste it. His baby sister, 8 months old, is rather less horrified—she rolls a tomato sphere around in her mouth.
I give the spheres a try, too. Unlike my son, I think the tomato is quite yummy, although the gelatin is too fragile and bursts before I get it to my mouth. (For $200, I’d expect the Texturas kit to provide significantly more advice on troubleshooting.) With more experimentation, no doubt, I could form more perfect jellied marbles or the smaller spheres known as “caviar,” but it’s clear that spherification isn’t helping my son get into vegetables.
I feel bad about terrorizing my son, but I decide to try one more gag. The kit includes a tin of Lecite or lecithin, an emulsifier, which Adria uses to create whisper-light “airs” of lemon juice, soy sauce, and vinegar. I recall a picture of Adria with a bowlful of carrot air from the cover of the New York Times Magazine, so I grab some carrot juice, acidify it with lemon, and add a touch of maple syrup for sweetness. (Hey, give the kid a break, yes?) After mixing in a few doses of Lecite, I whiz away at the surface of the liquid with my hand mixer and watch as bubbles erupt wildly from the surface. This is fun. After a few minutes, I scoop up all the bubbles and freeze the first batch of air. Then I invite the Critic to help me whip up a second. This time around, he thinks molecular gastronomy is a gas.
Upon tasting, the frozen variant helps me imagine what carrot-flavored frost might be like; the unfrozen version is like a mouthful of soap bubbles, but tasty. The Critic asks if he can put carrot bubbles in his next bath. “Mom, I really do like it,” he tells me in his most earnest voice. I’m not sure how much I’ve expanded his palate—after all, carrots are the one vegetable that don’t horrify the Critic. Nevertheless, I begin to feel that perhaps this silly experiment is worthwhile–it has sparked, ever so briefly, a sense of vegetal wonder. And then, after a few mouthfuls of carrot air, the Critic informs me that he’s ready for a real dinner.
I can sympathize with my son. As much as I appreciate the theatrical aspects of my most extravagant restaurant meals—frozen beer foams and liquid-nitrogen poached meringues! I’m always grateful to return to “normal” food afterward, like a bowl of pasta. The Critic gets his real dinner, with plenty of fruit on the plate and a morsel of roasted eggplant—which he tosses onto the ground.