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09 August, 2010

Molecular Gastronomy and Moustaches - A Unique Culinary Experience

Like most fanatics of the new and cutting edge, food ambassadors are constantly looking for the latest and relatively unknown in the culinary world. It surely makes for great dinner party conversation when you can talk about an unknown hole-in-the-wall in some unassuming and surprising part of town where you had "THE BEST blah-blah-blah" since your tour through Timbuktu in 2004. Well Saturday, I experienced one of the most unique culinary experiences ever, involving sodium hydropolyphosphate (or something), liquid nitrogen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a few brilliant guys from Brooklyn, NY, one with a moustache and the other wearing an ascot. Thanks to A Razor A Shiny Knife and their intimate educational, wildly entertaining and certainly unforgettable culinary experience, this home chef's perspective has widened.

The experience began quite early on a Saturday afternoon. The venue location was kept secret until the day before, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn the venue was just a few blocks from my home. At 2:55pm, I hopped into my car and drove 5 blocks (hey, it's LA...). In the beautiful naturally lit lobby of the Variety building in the Miracle Mile was the setting for a seven hour interactive and educational trip into the chemistry of cooking and the indulgence of taste.

The first couple of hours consisted of a number of demonstrations on how the home cook and dinner party host can include modern molecular gastronomy and modern techniques into their own cooking. The idea of molecular gastronomy, macrobiotics or anything else that reminds me of my 8th grade science and chemistry classes just kinda scares me... I've heard stories of people burning finger tips off from using liquid nitrogen, or explosions in the kitchen with some of these substances. I'm sure most of them are exaggerations, but still... Hence, to watch Michael Cirino and his extremely eloquent and well versed perspectives and explanations behind these modern techniques put me at ease, and actually motivated me to find my nearest liquid nitrogen distributor and a thermal immersion circulator for my kitchen arsenal.

The demonstrations were also immediately practical - how to sharpen your knives properly, the differences between Japanese and Western knives, how to dice a proper brunoise and skin and fillet a large whole fish - things for which a home cook may never get hands-on instruction or formal training. Not only do the event chefs show you the how-to, but they invite you to practice right there and then, and also offer suggestions on how to practice at home on your own as well. The interactive element to this event brings it into a whole new ballgame, one that you'll never forget but hope to experience again.

In between each demonstration and at times throughout the evening, Jonny Cigar, one of our veritable hosts, would break into some theatrical relief, reading passages from The Great Gatsby or Richard III. The entertainment and witty-isms kept the momentum of the evening, right on through the six-course meal that followed which included dishes prepared during the demonstrations by the chefs with the help of some of the volunteer guests.

On the roof of the Variety building, we started with a delicious cocktail called a White Elephant, which included fresh mint, simple syrup and a smooth white rum. It couldn't have been served in a better setting.

After our rooftop cocktail break, we were shown back to the elegant lobby-slash-dining room for our meal. The first course was the preview of our evening's indulgence. On a delicate placesetting was a deep fried mashed potato croquette with creme fraiche and caviar. The croquette melted in the mouth, and the tanginess of the creme fraiche paired beautifully with the savory caviar. The first course was paired with a clean and crisp Kinero Cellars 2009 'Alice' Grenache Blanc, the flavors of which danced on the tongue. I searched for signs of leftovers, but alas, was saddened that I could not enjoy this second course again.

The second course included deliciously sweet and pickled peaches prepared by sous vide (a technique that compresses food with pressure and elevates flavors exponentially by cooking the item in a vacuum-sealed bag and immersing it in a temperature controlled bath). Along with the peaches were crudo seabass pieces, topped with chervil, small sprigs of a sweet herb similar to parsley. The true star of the dish was not the seabass, but rather the unbelievably potent peaches and their exploding flavors. It was this dish that had me thinking about how I could save up to purchase my own thermal immersion circulator to cook sous vide at home. Again, thanks to this event, I would now actually entertain the thought of using this technique. I just have to find the extra $1,000 lying around for this investment. But I digress...

With a nod to the French, our third course took on the traditional duck and foie gras plates, and turned them on their head. In the center of the plate was duck confit that had been deconstructed - shredded apart, and then bound together through a natural binding substance such as sodium hydropolyblahblah. The shredded duck confit was then rolled into a cylinder shape and left to rest and bind together. The resulting product then could easily be cut into slices, or disks, of duck confit. It was then topped with a lightly cooked duck egg yolk and fried duck skin, and served with a bed of baby greens. However, the binding technique used on the foie gras BLEW MY MIND: using the binding substance to cooked foie gras, it was then cooled and hardened into a consistency that could be shaved, a la 'foie gras snow' or shavings as the topping to this already over-the-top dish. And just for good measure and to maximize the over-the-top-ness, shaved summer truffles were added. Just in case all of those rich delectable and mouth-watering flavors from the duck and foie gras weren't enough. Here was the line, and they just crossed it. Crossing the line was never so good. This mouthful of jubilee was paired with a Kinero 2009 Rustler, a tangy white wine with grapefruit and melon flavors, which matched the earthiness and richness of the dish very well.

I know, I know! Look at that!!! It was so much more amazing to eat than to look at... We enjoyed a repeat visit of the Kinero 2009 'Alice' Grenache Blanc as a pairing.

A surprise 'three and a half' course item came out next. A play on the first course of the potato croquette, creme fraiche and caviar, this demi-course consisted of a confit fingerling potato, creme fraiche and flash frozen blackberries that were then crushed to mimic the caviar. Earlier in the afternoon, the blackberries had been the subject for the liquid nitrogen demonstration, and after being instantly frozen, their subsequent product was bursting with blackberry flavor and cleaned the palate brilliantly for the next fourth course.

In a further demonstration of the wonders of binding substances, our fourth course consisted of deconstructed short ribs that were shredded, and then bound together and cooked to appear as a cut of filet mignon. It was unbelievable, and unbelievably tender and flavorful. In similar fashion to the duck confit, the re-constructed short ribs were cut into round medallions and served with a red wine bone marrow gravy and paired with sweet carrots and sugar snap peas. Our faux mignon, as I called it, was paired with a Denner 2007 'The Dirt Worshipper', a bright and jammy red, similar to a Malbec, but with its own earthy and unique finish.

After all of the previous rich plates of reconstructed and reinterpreted food and flavors, our two dessert courses were the nail in the 'Unforgettable Experience' coffin. The fifth course consisted of a triple cream made from a rich brie, served with a pecan praline crunch, with fresh raspberries and blackberries. But again, not to be left to traditional techniques, our triple creme was served as a snow, having been thickened with a sodium hydroblahblahblah, and then chilled to a grating consistency. The result was like a sweet melting of parmesan-like cheese, but in the flavor of buttery brie. It was equally as beautiful to look at as it was to taste.

Finally, our sixth and final course of the evening was a flourless chocolate cake served with a strawberry mousse, and a mint crisp and crumble, the latter being vegan yet having a crisp buttery consistency (you'll see the light green mint crisp standing in the crumble in the photo below). The first demonstration of sodium hydrophosphablahblah was with a mint syrup - pureed fresh mint in a simple syrup, and then whipped with the binding substance in a mixer. The result was a thick cream like substance that was layered onto disks and placed into a dehydrator. The final product on my dessert plate was fascinating and delicious.

Now I need to invest in a dehydrator as well. I really hope you are all taking notes for Christmas and my next birthday... Both desserts were paired with a light Juve Y Camps Rose Cava, by the way. There could be no better way to end the experience.

The evening was truly unforgettable and left me with wanting more. I certainly hope that A Razor A Shiny Knife are able to return to Los Angeles soon, because by the next time they return with another culinary experience, I'll finally be able to say (AND SPELL) Sodium Hydropolyphosphblahblah.