Smoke billows from the sagebrush centerpiece I have just set on fire, as I hurry my dinner guests out to the patio. Their eyes are watering, and one of them has begun to puff his cheeks like a Japanese blowfish.
Contrary to appearances, this is not the beginning of a party fiasco. It is, in fact, a home version of the trendiest niche in avant-garde cookery, known as Extreme Cuisine. Its aim is to experience familiar elements in a new way, and things are progressing as planned, thank you very much. "Bon appétit!" I say, and motion that it is time for the group to down the contents of the tiny metal spoons we have carried out with us: equal measures of pumpkinseed dust and glowing green Pop Rocks.
While my subjects - er, guests - contemplate the "zip-zap" of the crackling candy on their smoke-infused palates, I explain that they have just experienced an amuse-bouche (French for a mouth-treat), and it's time for the first course: Enter the test tubes. They do not blanch at the prospect.
They know this is coming because, upon arriving, they read the full dinner program and menu - which they subsequently ate. (The menus were made of soy paper. My guests - J and Lisa Gonzalez - and my husband, Dan, all noted that they tasted quite sweet).
Before we go any further, let me say there is a range of opinion about my attempting mad-science cookery. My son says everything I feed him already fits that bill (he declined to come to the party). Some good friends say cooking anything at all might be considered extreme for me. Since the point of tonight is to find a more creative approach to preparing holiday feasts, my editors figure that my dubious cooking credentials make me a fine candidate for experimentation. If I can do this, anybody can.
The idea came from a new 13-part Internet-only cooking show that launches Nov. 21 called "Eat This with Dave Lieberman" (foodnetwork.com/eatthis). In the episode entitled "Science influenced food/extreme cuisine," the goal is to use a scientific approach to food - deconstruct familiar foods and eating habits and rearrange them in new and unusual ways.
"So, you'll find scientific methods and equipment that you'd usually find only in a lab," says the host by phone. Things like liquid nitrogen (to deep-freeze popcorn, which emits smoke when eaten), high-pressure carbonators (for putting those tiny bubbles into fruits and vegetables), pipettes, and skewers. A piece of cake, I think. I got an "A" in high school chemistry.
Still, it's clear that I need help in planning a menu, so I put in calls to several celebrity chefs. Talking to the restaurant chefs, some of whom have patents on their new gadgets (an aromatic corkscrew utensil stuffed with garlic, herbs, and orange peel, for example) is harder than expected. I contact Wylie Dufresne from wd~50 in New York, Homaro Cantu at Moto in Chicago, and James George Sarkar from Venue in Hoboken, N.J. (The maestro is "sooooo busy right now," purrs one assistant.) Happily, the humble high-hat from Hoboken thinks it's a kick to talk me through a basic try-this-at-home menu of Franken-foodery.
He suggests altering the molecular structure of pumpkin to change a diner's perspective on it. "You might serve your pumpkin carbonated," says Mr. Sarkar, "broadening people's minds because it can be fun and different not to cook the way we have for hundreds of years."
He knows the limits of my home lab/kitchen ("Does my son's chemistry set help?" I ask), so he tries to expand my tool kit. But when I tell him I'm not going to buy a CO2 cartridge and BB gun compression chamber, he comes up with an alternate suggestion. "OK, go to 7-Eleven and pick up some Sour Apple Pop Rocks. Dust the roasted pumpkin seeds in your blender and mix those together," he says. "That," he says with a laugh, "comes close to carbonated pumpkin."
Armed with my basic tools, I assemble a meal plan. Combining the amuse-bouche with the burning herbs introduces a smoked "taste" through the sense of smell rather than from the tongue. All the items aim for similar contrasts: squash soup, served in test tubes rubbed with sage; puréed peas served through a large turkey baster into crystal champagne flute glasses; sweet-potato ravioli, packed with turkey and cranberry stuffing, with cranberry juice ice cubes melting on top; roasted pumpkin chunks, marinated in brown sugar and butter, with frozen graham cracker crust cubes, served on skewers; whipped cream with pumpkin pie spices in a beaker for sprinkling; club soda with white cranberry juice ice cubes for meltdown flavor.
Given that I am cooking, serving, and trying to eat all at once, the evening is full of minor calamities, as well as uncontrollable laughter: no matter how finely I purée them, the peas are too thick for the turkey baster. The sweet-potato raviolis fall apart, and the graham-cracker crust cubes are top-heavy on the skewers, tipping the pumpkin bases into the whipped cream.
But, say my guests as they chase pumpkin cubes, it's the taste that counts. "It doesn't matter what order all this goes down," says Lisa, "it all tastes great inside."
"Words fail me," says her husband, J, of the whole experiment.
Lisa and Dan are more effusive. "It really made me slow down and think about food in a whole new way," says Lisa, to which Dan adds: "It made me think about all the conditioning we have with food, the textures, the serving size, the order we eat in."
But J finds his inner spirit of experimentation as he contemplates his flute de pois when he is heard to mutter, "If I threw these on the ground outside, this holiday season we could have peas on earth."