Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Chef Watson Salad: Corn, Nectarines, Cheese and more

Your robot masters have arrived, and they want to cook dinner for you.

Yep, it finally happened. I am the proud owner of a cookbook written by a non-human. A robot, to be exact. His name is Chef Watson, and his parent is IBM.

Chef Watson didn't write the whole cookbook himself, though. He had human minions who helped him refine the recipes after he bequeathed them with is food combinations. While it sounds like it could be a fun thing to do, some of his food combinations were ... interesting.

I browsed through the book looking for something I actually wanted to make. Like any cookbook, there are always things that are more appealing and others that are less appealing. And like many chef-driven cookbooks, this was not written with the average person's grocery store in mind.

For example, a promising-looking cocktail called for banana juice, a cabbage slaw required tamarind concentrate, and a pudding recipe called for double-smoked bacon.

And like many chef-driven, restaurant-like dishes, many of these required multiple components. The Belgian Bacon Pudding required sub-recipes of bacon porcini pudding, walnut financier, and spiced dried fruit compote.

Meanwhile, an Italian Roast Duck recipe required pickled mushrooms, vacuum-poached apples, shaved fennel salad, duck sausage, porcini red wine tomato sauce, and black olive and dried cherry coulis.

Of course, you don't have to make all of the components. Those vacuum-poached apples would be a great side dish to go along with pork or chicken. But still, it's fun to see what things Watson thought would be good to combine, even if I never make one of those very long recipes.

And that's the interesting thing about this book - the different foods that Watson combined to make recipes. We humans have preconceived notions about what goes with what. We know what flavors are in Italian foods or Mexican foods or Indian foods. Watson doesn't have those notions about what foods belong together and which don't. So Watson is comfortable combining things that our human brains might never consider.

Each recipe is rated on three metrics: surprise, pleasantness, and synergy.

When ingredients and flavors are not commonly combined in traditional recipes, Watson rates a recipe high on the surprise scale.

Pleasantness is about flavors that give people pleasure on a molecular level, which is called "hedonic psychophysics." This metric isn't about food tasting good or bad, it's about that molecular-level pleasantness.

Foods that share common chemical flavor compounds taste good together, and Western dishes lean towards those sorts of synergistic food combinations. On the other hand, Asian food tend to have contrasting flavors.

I browsed through the book and narrowed down my choices of a recipe to make right away. The short list was spicy tomato gazpacho with ginger; roasted tomato and mozzarella tart; fennel-spiced ribs with tangy apple-mustard barbecue sauce; grilled corn and nectarine salad with toasted spice vinaigrette, and shrimp cocktail (which is a drink with a shrimp in it).

I intended on making the tomato and mozzarella tart until I went to the grocery store and saw that they had both ears of corn and white peaches. Although the recipe's name include nectarines, it says that peaches are fine, too. I would have preferred yellow nectarines or peaches just for their color, but at this time of year, I was happy to get the white ones.

Although this recipe sounded like it could be good, I was skeptical. The corn and nectarines sounded quite pleasant, but I wasn't sure how the basil, rosemary, and toasted spices would fit. The first bite had my taste buds asking my brain what it was thinking. The second bite made me think it was okay, but just okay. The third bite had me taking another serving and thinking that I really, really, really need to make this again.

Grilled Corn and Nectarine Salad 
with Toasted Spice Vinaigrette
Adapted from Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson 
from IBM and the Institute of Culinary Education

4 ears corn, husked
1 tablespoon plus 1/4 cup olive oil, separated
Kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice (or combination)
1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
Several dashes hot sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
2 nectarines or peaches, sliced into wedges
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
1 cup fresh basil leaves, torn
1/2 cup crumbled queso panela or Cotija cheese

Brush the corn with the tablespoon of olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and the chili powder. Heat your grill (or a grill pan) and grill the corn, turning as needed, until the corn is cooked and is lightly charred in spots. Let the corn cool, then cut the kernels off the cob.

Toast the coriander and cumin seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat, tossing or stirring it to keep it from burning, until they're lightly toasted and fragrant. Pour them onto a cutting board. Let the cool, then chop them with a knife, grind coarsely in a spice grinder, or crush with a mortar and pestle.

Whisk the lemon juice, rosemary, hot sauce, remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add the corn kernels, nectarine slices, shallot, basil, and cheese. Toss to combine and serve.