Food has always inspired art. Take Warhol’s soup cans, or the fruit bowls of Victorian still life paintings. Now, with the rise of avant-garde restaurants pushing the food frontiers, what we eat and how we eat it are increasingly influenced by art, and its abstract and imaginative concepts. At Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, you listen to the sounds of the ocean while you eat your oysters. At Noma you eat the table decorations as an entree, and at El Celler de Roca glass-blown candy filled with smoke is served up as dessert.
But creative cooking isn’t just for the professionals, here’s our top 10 tips & tricks to add a bit of Jackson Pollock to your Martha Stewart...
1. Put down your knife and pick up mandolins, microplanes and zesters to cut food into paper-thin slices, meticulous strips, fine peels and dainty grates. These create contrasting shapes and sizes to embellish and decorate... but watch your fingers!
2. Invest in a digital thermometer and discover a range of temperatures between cold and boiling. This is essential when tempering chocolate, making cheeses, cooking up sweet treats like marshmallows, toffee and nougat, and perfecting your Sunday roast.
3. Go primitive and invest in one of the oldest kitchen tools of all, the mortar and pestle, perfect for grinding fresh spices and herbs into pastes and powders. Try grinding toasted black sesame seeds to sprinkle over ice cream and roasted rosemary leaves over a vanilla panna cotta.
4. Turn liquids to solids with a gelling agent like gelatine (in sheet or powder form from most supermarkets). You can create sweet and savoury jellies, panna cottas and marshmallows. Try serving soup with parmesan marshmallows, add savoury jelly cubes to a salad, or turn your favourite liquor into jelly for a unique post-dining digestive.
5. Drying fruit and vegetables is a great way to create different textures, intensify flavours and for use as garnishes. This can be done in an oven at a very low temperature overnight. Try dehydrated lemons atop a roast chicken, crispy dried pears poking out of a chocolate souffle or candied dried apple with your pork chops.
6. There’s a heap of foods that can be used as natural dyes, such as beetroot, spinach, turmeric and squid ink. Starches like rice, flour and pasta, pick up colours instantly. We’ve made marbled ravioli using squid ink and ‘Rastafarian’ gnocchi using beetroot, spinach and pumpkin to create red, green and yellow dough.
7. Embellish dishes with edible flowers and decorative foliage like pea sprouts, sunflower shoots and watercress - beautiful additions to any salad, dessert or cheese platter. Beyond nature, try edible embellishments like edible spray paint, glitter, rhinestones and gold leaf. These are available from kitchen stores and online and are a easy way to snazz up the simplest of dishes.
8. Infuse & pickle produce with flavoured waters (rose or orange water), essences (almond, vanilla, peppermint), and alcohol (whiskey, tequila, rum). These can manipulate the expected flavour of foods, like cumquats soaked in earl grey tea and cucumbers that taste like gin. Beyond the burger gurken you can pickle all sorts of vegetables and fruit - beetroot, carrots and beans for salads, grapes, red onions or figs for a cheese platter, and pickled flowers are a tasty and beautiful alternative to capers tossed through pasta.
9. Think outside the round when it comes to plating up. Playful compositions and platings make for memorable meals. Innovate with objects found around the house (we cooked sausages on sticks recently for an earthy touch to a BBQ), or elements created by the ingredients themselves (Heston serves up bacon and egg ice cream in an eggshell).
10. Have fun! Don’t be afraid to play with new equipment, ingredients and techniques. Ferran Adria suggests serving your take-out fried rice with a soy sauce sabayon, Caitlin Freeman cooks up Mondrian-inspired cakes... we’ve had fun experimenting with decorative dishes like this parsley-imprinted ‘Wallpaper Pasta’. Who knows where you’ll end up… Heck, why not try ketchup jelly and some bacon dust with your Full English this weekend!
The Bookery Cook by Jessica Thompson, Georgia Thompson and Maxine Thompson (£17.99) is published by Murdoch Books.