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Dad and daughter cook up scientific delights in kitchen lab

TAMPA

Reagan calls dibs on adding the sugar.

Barely taller than the blender resting on the counter, she carefully pours a tablespoon of the white granules in with the raspberries and calcium lactate.

Then it's her father's turn. Steven Finch gently places small scoops of the now blended raspberry mixture into a sodium alginate bath.

Reagan roots for success. She cheers when she sees the raspberry ravioli hold its shape as expected in reverse spherification.

She smiles at the camera.

The 10-year-old with bangs and a freckled nose darts barefoot around the room, eager to help her father in what is a kitchen without a kitchen.

There is no stove. There is no oven. But there are two immersion circulators for sous vide.

They call it the Lab.

Working in the Lab

And on any given day, you'll find a project in the works from dad and daughter. Over the past year and a half, the duo have cultivated an unusual pastime: molecular gastronomy. Together they've taken this scientific cooking approach to make chocolate spaghetti, carbonated strawberries, and a fruit ravioli held together by a chemical reaction.

This branch of food science advocated by the likes of famed chefs and restaurateurs Thomas Keller and Ferran Adriá is also known as culinary physics or modernist cooking. Most of the recipes are driven by temperature rather than time. That works for a father who started a software company more than two decades ago and now travels at least one day every week. He usually cooks enough to leave leftovers for the family, including 6-year-old son, Alex, and wife, Susan, who is content to be a taste tester.

With a webcam trained on the cooking area in the lab, which is in a separate building behind their bright green South Tampa home, Finch can check in on a 72-hour brisket or chicken, cooking via the sous-vide method, and call or text Reagan when the water looks low.

"I can be in San Diego or New York, and I can be cooking Saturday night dinner," Finch, 48, said.

Though Reagan's younger brother, Alex, a.k.a. Mister, sometimes joins in, this is a father-daughter activity.

Finch always maintained an interest in cooking, and an article about sous vide — the art of cooking food in sealed bags in water baths over long periods of time — in Wired magazine sparked his interest. Now Reagan is just as enthusiastic, and she joins him in the lab wearing her own lab coat. The recipes and techniques are often pulled from Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold. He says software is easier to write than some of the recipes in this six-volume collection with a $500-plus price tag.

"I'm very fortunate to have a daughter with not only the interest, but the capacity to share my interests," he said. "She's actually a little person."

Grape expectations

Most of their experiments are successful, but occasionally, there are mishaps.

There was the grape explosion. Now they carbonate raspberries and strawberries with aplomb, but the first go with the soda whip was a lot messier. Grapes shot out of the whip like they'd been stuffed into a cannon; they landed on the blinds. Purple goop everywhere.

Ketchup, they also learned, does not like to be smoked. Reagan said that's all part of the appeal.

"It started with raspberry ravioli. That was the first molecular thing we made," Reagan said. "Next, chocolate spaghetti. It's fun to see how it turns out. You never know what's going to happen."

Other dishes include goat cheese ravioli made with the reverse spherification method and braised pork shoulder with jellylike balsamic sheets served on a miso soup spoon.

With the help of her dad, Reagan can explain how to make this stuff. Yes, she has an A in science.

In their lab, the shiny red cupboards keep beakers and flasks on a shelf above wine glasses. A big tub of tapioca maltodextrin hangs out in the same pantry with something homemade called Nutella powder, which Reagan suggests serving with banana.

On the counter next to the sink is a traditional blender next to a Keurig coffeemaker — and a $900 sous-vide immersion circulator, which cooks their chicken or other meat for the week slowly in a low-temperature water bath inside a vacuum-sealed bag. This process melts the collagen in tougher cuts like skirt steak or brisket, Finch said.

"That's why it's so soft. It melts in your mouth," Reagan said. "Mmm, it tastes really good."

Finch often uses a handheld food smoker to add a smoky flavor to food in seconds. Reagan goes for applewood or cherry. Her brother always asks for mesquite.

These tools allow them to manipulate food far beyond the traditional kitchen. But it's not the exclusive method of cooking at the Finch home. More than half of the cooking (in the main house) is traditional, though it's often interjected with an element from the lab. Saturday morning may have eggs Benedict on the home menu, but he may use a soda whip to top it off with a hollandaise foam.

A young yet advanced palate

Reagan is always peering around him, asking if she can add that or mix in this. She's proud when projects turn out well.

She's exuberant in their home videos of the culinary experiments, and they also spark Reagan's creativity. As Finch prepares to smoke chicken, Reagan wonders aloud, "What would happen if you smoked a banana?"

This pursuit has formed a young eater who is not picky or a snob when it comes to food, though she does have an advanced palate for her age. She loves kale. And artichokes. Escargot? No. She says she's not a garbanzo person, but she loves when her dad cooks them with lime and pepper. On the first day of the school year, she was a blissful kid with a cheeseburger and fries.

Her food knowledge is beyond that of most elementary school kids. She recognizes that some of her peers don't know what an artichoke is. Reagan said that makes her sad. Finch is on a first-name basis at Williams-Sonoma, where Reagan loves to visit, and the bartender at Ruby Tuesday knows her name and her order: Shirley Temple. The family also goes to Datz and Dunkin' Donuts for the egg sandwich breakfasts.

It doesn't all have to be from the Lab. But their modernist projects have led to something else: a trip.

Finch, who has been to all of Thomas Keller's restaurants, among them the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, and will take Reagan later this year to Per Se in New York. He has never seen any other children, but he knows she'll appreciate it.

Reagan can hardly wait.

With mention of the trip, she whispers, "I want to go to the French Laundry, also." Her father laughs.

Maybe on the next trip.

Ileana Morales writes the In Our Kitchen column for the Taste section. It publishes on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. She also blogs at alittlesaffron.com.

Dad and daughter cook up scientific delights in kitchen lab 06/11/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 3:42pm]

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