Because the opening of the Ratatouille ride at Walt Disney World on October 1 is as good a reason as any, here now, a weeklong exploration of the 2006 rat-infested classic, Ratatouille.
It is my opinion that ratatouille sucks. Not the movie, or Remy the rat of all my dreams, but the actual French vegetable stew. I’m sure there’s a version out there that will prove my tastebuds wrong, but every time I’ve attempted to make it, the summer vegetables have all cooked down watery and muddled. Why am I eating this hot salad? This is why the denouement of Ratatouille has never quite hit me. I just cannot believe anyone, even a rat genius, could wow with an artful pile of zucchini.
But mostly, I was hoping Remy would put a previous experiment on the menu instead. In the early scenes of Ratatouille, on a scavenging mission with his brother, Remy finds a fragrant mushroom (most likely a chanterelle) and a piece of cheese. He combines them with some herbs and attempts to smoke them on a spit over an old woman’s chimney, only to be struck by lightning, causing the rat siblings to be shot off the roof, and his mushroom to puff up like popcorn. The result, he says, is an “mmmm ZAP” of flavor, a “lightning-y” tang that he is desperate to recreate, until he is thwarted by this old woman hellbent on eradicating his species.
Unlike the scenes in which Remy is cooking in a kitchen — through his human avatar, Linguini, or by running up spoons and asking his rat brethren to skate across pans with butter shoes — the drive in this moment is his own thirst to experiment and create new, delicious flavors. There is no menu or pantry to pull from, just his excitement at the random ingredients he’s found and how they might taste. It’s the type of cooking any passionate home cook aspires to — the ability to throw things together without a recipe, sensing the flavors without worrying you’re about to ruin all of your ingredients. Or knowing the risk, but taking it anyway, just to see what you can do.
Remy is, of course, an animated talking rat, and this is a movie that presumes, among other things, that a human body is an elaborate marionette operated by hair. I know the lightning cheese mushroom is not realistic. But it looked so enticing, like a crunchy balloon, or like if Eleven Madison Park made a Cheeto. I would very much like to taste an exploded mushroom. So to that end, I nearly set my house on fire.
There aren’t many recipes for applying lightning to mushrooms, but some people have tried to approximate what this might taste like. My first attempt at distilling the flavor of a storm came from Disney itself, which published a recipe for “Lightning-y Mushrooms” adapted from Fiction-Food Café. Already I saw a problem, though: This recipe calls for fresh, spreadable chevre, which is whipped with herbs and honey and stuffed into mushroom caps. But in the film, Remy is enthralled to find not fresh chevre, but Tomme de Chevre, a semisoft cheese with a grey rind that’s been aged for at least seven weeks. I opted to follow in Remy’s footsteps, and ad-lib where I could.
Remy also uses what appears to be a chanterelle mushroom, which my grocery stores didn’t have, so I settled for shiitake. Still, I quickly sauteed the mushroom caps in rosemary-infused olive oil with a dash of liquid smoke, lay a square of cheese on each, and baked them until the cheese was bubbly and brown.
It was a pungent bite, in a good way. The liquid smoke brought out the meatiness of the mushroom, with the cheese turning it into almost a mini burger. A fine enough hors d’oeuvre, but they were soft and melty when what the animated rat promised me seemed crispy and charred. This was nothing like lightning, and as I sat with the lingering flavor of liquid smoke in my mouth, its inclusion in the recipe felt like an insult.
I decided I needed to employ some actual electricity. But short of sticking a mushroomed fork in a socket and hoping I didn’t die, I had no idea what to do. So I called Chris Young, co-author of Modernist Cuisine, hoping he had come across something like this in his experiments.
Young explained what I was trying to do is called ohmic cooking, which is actually quite common, especially in the dairy industry. Picture how a power cord plugged into a wall tends to heat up. That’s because it’s a conductor for the electricity, and because a wire is not a perfect conductor, the resistance begins to generate heat. The same thing can happen with food when you essentially make the food the wire. “Water is a pretty good conductor of electricity. We’ve all heard the horror stories of the hairdryer falling into the bathtub and killing somebody,” says Young, So basically, the water inside the food or liquid, when exposed to a current, will conduct the electricity. But all the other stuff in the food will get in the way and create resistance, which creates heat, cooking the food.
“Now, it turns out it’s pretty hard to generate lightning bolts on demand,” says Young, and even if you could, the average lightning bolt is about 300 million volts, or 30,000 amps. In comparison, you probably get about 120 volts of electricity out of your wall plug in the U.S.. With lightning’s power, instead of the beautiful popcorn mushroom Remy ends up with, he and the mushroom would probably just explode, as the water in both him and the mushroom would boil and burst into steam almost instantaneously. Luckily, Young outlined a way for me to cook mushrooms using a lower amount of electricity so that maybe I could see what Remy was going for and not explode my own body.
First, I had to buy a variable transformer, which allows me to control the voltage coming out of my wall. “I would take two sheets of aluminum foil, because aluminum foil is a pretty good conductor, and I would sandwich the mushroom between those two sheets, not letting the top sheet and the bottom sheet touch,” he said. And then, using battery clips and a stripped extension cord, I’d connect the foil to the transformer, and the transformer to the wall, in order to carefully control the voltage going through the mushrooms. The mushrooms, ideally, would act as a conductor between the two pieces of foil, heat up from the electricity, et voila: mushrooms a la power surge.
Young hypothesized that I’d get a lot of char on the outside while things were raw on the inside. But if I kept the power low, maybe the water in the mushrooms would begin to slowly boil and I’d get a bite that tasted lightly poached. As if a very weak lightning bolt had gone through them. I enlisted my spouse, who has a mechanical engineering degree they haven’t used in a decade, but at least some latent understanding of Ohm’s law. We stripped the wires, and they finagled a grounding ... something ... using a razor blade and a jar full of dirt. They insisted it was for safety; I didn’t argue. While they were busy setting that up, I sandwiched together the mushroom caps, cheese, and rosemary, and laid them between two sheets of foil.
With everything plugged in, I put on rubber gloves and turned on the transformer to its lowest voltage. Nothing happened. No sound, no sparks, no deadly explosions. Inch by inch, I turned the knob higher, until it was up to 120 volts. Suddenly, I heard the faintest crackling, like a breeze was crinkling the foil. So I waited, and waited, and after about 10 minutes I started smelling hints of dirt and herb, and the crackling became louder. I peeked between the foil and saw sparks shocking the mushrooms, and some of the cheese beginning to melt. Maybe this would work!
Okay, the food did start smoking at one point. A lot. At first I was freaked out, but my partner reminded me that, worst-case scenario, I would have three on-fire mushrooms on the kitchen counter, where we could easily turn off the transformer and douse them with water. I had promised my editor I wouldn’t die attempting this. [Editor’s note: This is true.] But for the first time I realized what an absolutely absurd task I’d taken on.
The smoke never escalated to a fire. But mushrooms with cheese and herbs aren’t a very even shape or density, so they’re probably not balanced conductors of electricity. Despite my best efforts, the mushroom sandwiches were all different shapes, and the foil wasn’t resting evenly on all of them. I attempted to smush the foil around as much as possible, at one point sticking wooden toothpicks through the foil into the mushrooms so I could be assured there was always contact. But even then, they were cooking unevenly. After about 15 minutes, one was perfectly melted and poached, while the others were still half-raw.
Still, I ate them, and there was indeed something lightning-y to them. The char wasn’t smoky as if it had been grilled, but had a metallic tang to it, accented by the piney rosemary. Whichever consulting chef came up with the dish (Thomas Keller maybe?) was clearly onto something. I was compelled to eat even the ones that hadn’t been cooked, as if enough bites would lead me to the flavor and texture I saw in my mind’s mouth. This unfortunately resulted in intense nausea, because raw mushrooms have tough cell walls that make them hard to digest by the human body.
I remain disappointed that neither of these attempts resulted in an exploded, electricity-infused ball of fungus. I know the puffed mushroom on a stick Remy winds up with is about as realistic as him flying above the Seine on a sheet of paper, or 500 rats tying up a health inspector. But so much of what continues to resonate about Ratatouille are its excursions into food realism. Every artist I know acknowledges that illustrating food is one of the harder parts of the job, but every sauce, soup, and pasta swirl in this film makes me want to eat. And while I can cook just about everything else Linguini and Remy make (though never ratatouille), the lightning mushrooms will forever elude me.
Anyway, is anyone in the market for a variable transformer?