Tuesday, May 17, 2011

1 / (Shepherd's π)

This was not the post I originally intended when trying to showcase some things you could do with transglutaminase, aka meat glue. Since this one was a success and the other was an epic failure (something that I plan on attempting again soon), I thought I'd start with the success.

Before we get into the food, let's talk very briefly on transglutaminase. Without going into some of the more gory details of its use in the human body, the short of it is that transglutaminase forms protein polymers, bonding proteins together. Cooking Issues has a very thorough and detailed explanation of how it works and some ways to use it in their post Transglutaminase, aka Meat Glue. I won't regurgitate too much of their information here, but let's just say it's amazing stuff that has a variety of applications. I'm more interested in its novel uses ... obviously.

It took me awhile to find a source for small amounts of transglutaminase. After sending multiple requests for samples to Ajinomoto, the company that manufactures Activa RM (the most commonly used transglutaminase), I realized my only options were to find someone to share or to just give in and order a kilogram of it online. Given the cost of a kilogram and the small amount I was hoping to get for my few experiments, ordering it online wasn't an option. Enter RareCuts: my saviors. Intrigued by its usage, they ordered it in bulk and are selling 2 oz. portions from the store for only $8. This was the perfect amount and a reasonable price. Their goal is to supply folks with not only great cuts of the usual meats (their strip steaks are amazing) but also with hard-to-find items like this, or other exotic meats. (Rattlesnake, anyone?)

A lot of molecular gastronomy plates end up being small and eloquent. They're beautiful, but I could hardly call it a meal. While I appreciate creative plating, if I'm making something at home I can't justify spending a lot of time for something so small. (The Egg Ikura was an exception to that rule, obviously.) Some days, especially with cool weather (which we've strangely been having), I'm more of a meat and potato kind of guy. Something hot, delicious, and smothered with nostalgia. So how could I use meat glue for something more hearty than gluing a piece of bacon to a scallop?

One of my favorite foods from growing up was shepherd's pie. My mother made it with ground beef (which would technically make it cottage pie), vegetables, and mashed potatoes in a big casserole dish. It was the kind of thing that was delicious even the next day. Despite the structure of it, the combination of meat, potatoes, and vegetables is a pretty standard "American" meal. In trying to come up with a method for combining these ingredients, my standard train of thought (filled with meat, wrapped with meat ...) came to mind. A meat sphere, filled with potatoes and vegetables! (And cheese! Why the heck not?)

First, I mapped out my plan.

I decided to coarsely grind a fairly lean roast I had picked up. I have this plate on my meat grinder called a stuffer plate (sometimes referred to as a kidney plate, because of the shape) that is normally used when stuffing casings for sausage. When used just for grinding, it makes these wonderful lumps of meat. I thought these chunks would be better glued together than a finer grind and would give a more substantial and "whole meat" texture. The goal was to create a shape that seemed as if it was "grown" that way, not ground and smooshed together.

Here is the meat glue, as well as a balloon. Wait, what? A balloon?

I needed something to help hold the shape of the sphere that could easily be removed from the inside without a lot of effort. Knowing from childhood experiments that a balloon full of air and placed in the refrigerator will deflate (air molecules contract in the cold, etc.) I filled it partially with water.

Next I spread out the meat and sprinkled it with the transglutaminase, then mixed it thoroughly. Wear gloves. This stuff is funky and will try and bond with the skin on your hands ... not quickly, of course, but you'll feel it start getting sticky and it's hard to easily wash off.

I then sprayed the balloon with some olive oil from my mister, wrapped the balloon in a layer of meat mixture, making sure there were no open spots (a brightly colored balloon might've been a better choice), and then wrapped everything very tightly in plastic. This went into a Ziploc bag and sat overnight while the transglutaminase worked its magic.

The next day, before dealing with the meat, I prepared my fillings. The mashed potatoes were a fairly simple recipe, something I decided I'll be covering in an upcoming post on The Basics. For the vegetables we had some in the freezer that I cooked with some chicken stock in a pot. I added a little roux to thicken it up and let it cook down for awhile.

Next came the meat: I unwrapped the plastic and cut the balloon to drain the water, then slipped out the balloon. Knowing what I was planning on putting inside, I decided to open up the hole a bit to give me some space. I know this is pretty awful looking (I've heard it compared to a number of unpleasant things), but the main thing was that it held its shape and was actually waterproof!

I followed my map and filled it first with a layer of mashed potatoes using a piping bag so as not to damage the sphere too much, then a layer of shredded cheese, then vegetables in their sauce, then topped it off with a bit more mashed potatoes.

Cooking this was going to be interesting. I decided I would wrap it foil, bake it for awhile, then open the foil and let it brown a bit. I figured this way it wouldn't cause a lot of "trauma" to the meat sphere while still making sure the meat cooked enough through. I rubbed it with some olive oil, salt, and an herbs de Provence blend that a colleague of mine at work had put together, and wrapped it loosely in aluminum foil. It went into a 425 degree oven for about 30 minutes.

After this time I opened it up, turned up the oven to 500 degrees, and let it cook for awhile longer to brown a bit.

In order to make it look a little more presentable, since it resembled a meat volcano, I topped it with more shredded cheese and let it go a little longer until the cheese started bubbling.

And there it was: meat, potatoes, vegetables, and cheese. All in a small little package. The meat was thick enough that it was still pink on the inside. The insides sort of liquified, but I realize now that I should have made the potatoes drier than I did so they could soak up some liquid. There were plenty of juices in the tinfoil, however they ended up making a great little sauce to poor over top of the slices.

I wasn't sure what to call this, really. Is it an inverted shepherd's pie*? A meat version of a boule? A stuffed meat ball? (No, no. Already did that one.) I have no clue what to really name it, but let's just call it delicious and leave it at that.

* Obviously, I went with this one ... more or less. Heh.


  1. Another big shout-out to RareCuts for becoming a local supplier of meat glue for hobbyists such as myself, and for having some awesome product for sale, in general!


  2. FANTASTIC - I would say to call it a Shephard's Sphere!!!! Balloon worked nicely! Nice pie plate :)

  3. What an awesome idea! It looks seriously amazing. I mean, a meat sphere filled with cheesy, potatoey, vegetabley goodnes? AMAZING. Also, thanks for sharing rarecuts.com! That's perfect for finding stuff for my blog (rattlesnake included!)

  4. I'm curious, how was the texture of the meat? I have been considering trying to make a duck sausage using transglutaminase to make them casing-less. Do you think it would help bind the fat if I wanted to use duck fat instead of pork fat?