Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Cooking from the Left Field: My Thanksgiving with Chef Watson

A couple of days ago I received a highly intriguing proposition. It came via email, from Chef Watson's PR team. They were wondering if I would be open to receiving a mystery box with ingredients and cooking with Chef Watson this Thanksgiving. Ha! It would be fine, I thought, it would be more than fine, except that I made it a point of my existence not to cook on Thanksgiving. The sole purpose of my Thanksgiving self is to find a loving group of friends willing to take me in and indulge me with their delicacies. On Thanksgiving I aspire to be fed by somebody else's turkey. On Thanksgiving my oven is off and so is my computer, because there is something to be said about spending a day with family and friends, away from the kitchen and away from the cyberspace.

But how can one say "no" to a box of goodies and a piece of mystery???

And that is how, yet again, I succumbed to the weakness of my character and with one press of the "reply" button managed to turn to ashes my entire Thanksgiving code of values. Not only that I will be cooking this Thanksgiving holiday, but I will be doing it with a computer.

Because, just in case you did not know it, Chef Watson IS a computer.

To be more precise, at its core Chef Watson is a computer program: it learns from the existing culinary knowledge, it "reads" and analyzes recipes to understand how ingredients are used in different dishes, what distinguishes certain styles of cooking or specific cuisines, and what ingredients are commonly paired together (like eggs and bacon). Chef W also leverages the information about flavor compounds and chemical composition of food, food pairing theories and human taste preferences. All this knowledge allows the Chef to come up with creative new ingredient pairings, which might surprise the cook. Scientist at IBM Research developed the system in partnership with professional chefs at the Institute of Culinary Education, and then worked together with Bon Appetit to build the Chef Watson app.

There we go, meet my cooking buddy!

In the spirit of full disclosure I work for the company that invented the Chef. I am a scientist. I happen to be one of those gals who create intelligent machines. We design algorithms and write code that teach computers to see, feel, deduce and reason. And cook! But no, I did not work on the Chef. The closest I came to the Chef is by having lunch in the cafeteria with the guys who created him. I also made a tiny contribution to Chef's early education, by lending him my Flavor Bible to consider in the development of the algorithms. (On that note, Chef, can I have it back, please?)

Now, one might ask, and rightfully so, why do we need computers that cook? It's a valid question. I see the point. Perhaps we don't. But we need better and smarter computers, so that we can make new discoveries better and faster, and interestingly enough, teaching computers to cook is an excellent way to advance their capabilities. Because cooking is one hard problem; it is a multifaceted decision-making process, which involves the science of food and molecular structures (we've all heard about cherries and milk, right), it involves cultural heritage (as in French vs. Asian vs. Mexican), universal truths (say butter and popcorn, or burgers and fries), it involves preferences and personalization (I hate, hate, hate cilantro) and a heavy dose of creativity. Cooking is art and science and everything in between, and by teaching computers how to master such a uniquely human task we are creating a computational toolkit to help us deal with many issues this planet is facing. We have a shot at accelerating drug discovery, a shot at identifying and developing new treatments for diseases, we can help reduce food shortages by understanding patterns of agriculture, or improve healthcare benchmarks and policies... Enough said, I hope you are a convert.

On the day my mystery box is scheduled to arrive, Miss Pain and I find ourselves stomping around the apartment with nervous anticipation. Is it going to be a dessert or main course? Will turkey be involved? Miss Pain is visualizing endless quantities of chocolates, while I pray for pecans, because I would really love to make a pie. And then the bell rings, the elevator door opens, and the surprise box is finally there, right in the middle of our kitchen, waiting to be opened. And as soon as the first ingredient leaves the box, we realize that we are up for a surprise.

We are up for many surprises.

To start with, it is not one box, there are three of them! We have enough food for the entire menu! Chef thoughtfully sent us the basics: onion, garlic, herbs, eggs and sugar. Canned tomatoes... Mindful of the holiday, he also packed some ground turkey, bacon (yes, yes, yes), mushrooms and pumpkin pure. But that's where Chef's Thanksgiving state of mind came to a halt, because there are no cranberries, no potatoes, no hazelnuts, no sausage and definitely no pecans. No apples either, he sent us hard cider instead. Chef W, what were you thinking? It's Thanksgiving man! It's Thanksgiving!!!

We continue to unpack. Kale (ugh), panko (???), pineapple juice, lemon, cumin and Swiss cheese. How very Thanksgiving! Although, the Chef came one step closer to redeeming himself with a bottle of bourbon. I like how he thinks! He? It? Now that I gave it a thought, I wonder how does one address a computer that cooks and thinks like a human? It is a profound question, one can spend hours debating the issue, but I have a menu to worry about, and a worrisome menu it is, hence I decide to leave the pondering to others and proceed to the kitchen.

Once everything is unpacked, Miss Pain and I take our seats at the dining table and begin to write down the ingredients on pieces of paper. It's a lot of notes. We shuffle the notes around, trying to figure out the pairings. I am determined to respect the Chef's choices, therefore, I pledge not to use any of the traditional Thanksgiving foods except the ones he sent us. There will be no pecans, no cranberries and no stuffing. No apple pie. No pecan pie. To honor the creative spirit of my cooking buddy, I also pledge not to use any of the blatantly obvious food pairings, like kale and crispy bacon, or God forbid a pumpkin pie! In my menu choices I will consult the Chef Watson app and let him guide me on this uncharted territory! And last, but not the least, I pledge to respectfully use every single ingredient the Chef sent me. Every single one of them, including panko.

This will be a lot of fun!

We start the menu planning with pumpkin pure. As I type "pumpkin pure" into the app, Chef comes back with his first recommendation: plum tomato, applesauce and kalamata olives. Chef, if you wanted me to cook with applesauce, you should have sent me applesauce! I continue to flip through the recommendations. After a couple of trials, I noticed that Chef really likes the pairing of pumpkin and tomatoes. Pumpkin pure, plum tomato, cinamon and mace. He also likes to pair tomatoes with lemon, and pumpkin with cheese. And he keeps on throwing mace and piment d'espeletter at me. Not bad, I can work with that. It is an ambitious combination and there aren't that many recipes in the Bon Appétit database to support it, as a matter of fact there are none, but I think I know what I would like to do... We'll make savory pumpkin biscuits with tangy tomato jam. That takes care of pumpkin, tomatoes, lemon and Swiss cheese. Four ingredients down, many more to go.

We then proceed to plan our turkey dish. The Chef says turkey breast, pear juice, lemon and marjoram. I do not have pear juice and marjoram, but I have pineapple juice and oregano -- that might do. The Chef seems to agree, because in the next iteration he suggests turkey breast, pineapple, port and oregano. I do not have port, but I have bourbon, he will have to take the bourbon, because that's what he gave me. We reach the decision in a split second -- we will be making turkey and bacon meatballs with bourbon pineapple glaze. Not only did it sound delicious, but as a bonus point, we took care of panko!

Time to think of mushrooms. W recommends a combo of cremini mushrooms, cider, red wine and asparagus. Thanks, but no thanks Chef. Cremini, brandy, onion, cider. Onion, hard cider, mushroom, thyme. Why does it sound like French onion soup? Very much so, a French onion soup blessed with mushrooms and fortified with cider instead of wine. A mighty good sounding French onion soup I must say! Case closed. Soup it is.

Now the dreadful kale. We have almost exhausted our ingredients, all but a jar of cumin and leftover lemons. Which kind of makes sense? I run the combo quickly through the app, and the Chef reaffirms it, suggesting that I make grilled curly kale. Really? Perhaps not quite grilled but dry roasted, because that's the only way I can tolerate it.

As we arrive to the dessert, we have pretty much used everything from the box; there is nothing else left but eggs and sugar. I look at the Chef, and he kind of looks at me, and we realize that there is almost an entire bottle of bourbon left. And I do not even have to check the app, I know that he will approve. I add the bourbon coffee cake to the list, and give the Chef a wink, and he sort of winks back, because great minds think alike! And we give ourselves a pat on the shoulder, because we did it, we created a perfect Thanksgiving menu.

And we used the bacon only once.

The Menu

Hard Cider, Caramelized Onion and Mushroom Soup


Turkey Bacon Meatballs with Bourbon Pineapple Glaze


Savory Pumpkin Biscuits, Tangy Tomato Jam


Dry Roasted Kale with Lemon and Cumin


Brown Sugar Bourbon Coffee Cake

Have a happy Thanksgiving folks, there is so much to be grateful for, as long as we keep our minds and our hearts open!

Caramelized Onion, Mushroom & Hard Cider Soup  

* 4 tbsp olive oil, divided
* 12 oz yellow onions, sliced into thin ribs
* 8 oz white mushrooms
* 8 oz cremini mushrooms
* 1/4 cup dry sherry
* 1 garlic clove, minced
* 1 cup hard cider
* 4 cups beef broth
* 1 bay leaf
* 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme 

* 1 tsp red wine vinegar
* 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
* salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large pot over medium heat, heat two tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onions and mix them well so that they are evenly coated in oil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the onions are caramelized and soft, about 45 minutes. Stir the onions often, to make sure that they caramelize evenly and do not burn.

While the onions are caramelizing, in a medium-sized pan over medium-high heat, heat the remaining olive oil. Add the mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms have released all of their liquid and are slightly browned, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, remove the mushrooms from the pan, return the pan to the stove and add the sherry to deglaze. Pour the sherry over the mushrooms. Season with salt.

When the onions are caramelized, add the garlic and cook for about one to two minutes until garlic is fragrant. Add the mushrooms, bay leaf, thyme, hard cider and broth, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain simmer, and simmer the soup, half covered, for about 15 - 20 minutes. Add the vinegar,
Worcestershire sauce and a pinch of pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Serve.

Note: Chef W and I did not go all the way to French onion soup here. We felt that it would be too much to start a Thanksgiving meal with. This is a lovely and light soup, just as a first course should be. Needless to say, you can always go that extra step and make it a French Onion Soup with Mushrooms and Cider. Once the soup is ready divide the soup between small but deep oven-safe bowls. Top each bowls with a slice or two of toasted baguette and sprinkle with grated cheese, then bake or broil in the oven until the cheese is thoroughly melted.

Serves 4

Savory Pumpkin Biscuits  

* 2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 tbsp baking powder
* 1/2 tsp baking soda
* 1 1/2 tsp salt
* 1 cup pumpkin puree
* 2/3 cup buttermilk
* 5 tbsp cold butter
* 6 oz Swiss cheese, shredded
* 1 tbsp brown sugar
* 1/4 tsp mace
* 1/2 tsp smoked paprika

Heat the oven to 425°F regular (400°F convection).

In a food processor combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt. Pulse a few times to blend thoroughly. Add the cheese and mix well.

Cut the butter into pea-sized dice. Place the dice into the freezer for a couple of minutes, so that they are very cold and very firm.

Add the butter to the flour mixture and pulse several times, until butter is well incorporated. (Alternatively, you can work in the butter with your fingers.)

In a small bowl, combine the pumpkin puree and buttermilk. Pour the dry ingredients into a large bowl and add the pumpkin mixture. Mix carefully until barely combined. (Be careful not to overwork the mixture. If you find the mixture too dry, add an extra drop of buttermilk.)

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Take about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the dough and place in a heap on the baking sheet (I used icecream scoop). Leave about one inch of space between the heaps of dough. Place the baking sheet in the middle rack of the oven and bake for about 16-18 minutes, until the biscuits are golden and crusty. Remove the biscuits from the oven, let them cool slightly and serve. 

Makes 16 biscuits

Tangy Tomato Jam

* 1 can (15 oz) diced tomatoes
* 4 oz (1/2 cup) cane sugar
* 3 tbsp lemon juice
* zest of 1/2 lemon 

* 1/2 tsp shredded fresh ginger
* 1/4 tsp cinnamon
* 1/8 tsp ground cloves
* a pinch of salt

In a medium saucepan combine tomatoes, sugar, two tablespoons of lemon juice, lemon zest, ginger, spices and salt and bring to a rolling boil over medium to high heat. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce the heat to maintain simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally for about an hour, until the mixture thickens and assumes the consistency of a rich jam. (Once the tomatoes begin to soften, press them with a fork or spatula to break the dice.) As the mix thickens, you will need to stir more frequently. Once the jam is ready, remove from the heat and add the remaining tablespoon of lemon juice. The jam can be stored in the fridge for about a month.

Makes about one cup of jam

Turkey Bacon Meatballs with Bourbon Pineapple Glaze

for the meatballs

* 1 lb ground lean turkey
* 6 oz smoked bacon
* 1/2 cup panko or plain breadcrumbs
* 5 tbsp milk
* 1 small shallot, minced
* 1 garlic clove, minced
* 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh thyme
* 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh oregano
* 1 jalapeno pepper (or up to taste)
* 1 tbsp ketchup
* 1-2 tbsp olive oil 

* salt and freshly ground pepper

for the bourbon pineapple glaze

* 8 oz pineapple juice
* 1/3 cup bourbon
* 3 tbsp maple syrup
* 1 tbsp cane sugar
* 1 tbsp unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 365°F convection.

First make the glaze: In a medium skillet or saucepan mix the pineapple juice, bourbon, maple syrup and sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once the liquid is boiling, reduce the heat and simmer, until the glaze is reduce to about 1/3 cup. Depending on the heat and size of the pan it will take anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes. When done, the glaze should have the consistency of runny jam. Add in the butter and stir to combine. Remove from the heat and set aside.

To make the panada, in a large mixing bowl combine the milk and breadcrumbs, and set aside. In a small sauté pan set over medium heat, heat one tablespoon of olive oil and sweat the shallot and garlic until translucent. Remove from the heat, let it cool, and then add it to the breadcrumbs mixture.

Chop the bacon finely to resemble ground meat. Cut the jalapeno in half, remove the seeds and mince the jalapeno. Combine the panada with the turkey meat and bacon. Add the jalapeno, thyme, oregano and ketchup. Season with salt and pepper. Mix with your hands until everything is fully combined. Leave the mixture in the fridge for about an hour or two (or in the freezer for about 20 minutes) to firm up.

Lightly oil a baking sheet. Roll the meat mixture in your hands into golf-ball sized meatballs and place on the baking sheet. Bake for about 18-20 minutes. (Be careful not to over-bake, as the meatballs will become dry.)

About 12 minutes into the baking, remove the meatballs from the oven and using a kitchen brush or a small spoon, brush them with pineapple glaze all over. Return the meatballs into the oven and bake for another couple of minutes, until internal temperature registers 160
°F. Take the meatballs out of the oven, brush with the glaze one more time and serve.

Note: The amount of glaze will be just about enough to brush the meatballs. If you would like to have extra for dipping, I recommend doubling the quantities.

Makes about 16 meatballs

Dry Roasted Kale with Lemon & Cumin  

* 8-10 oz curly kale
* 3 small jalapenos
* 1 medium yellow onion (about 6 oz), finely chopped
* 1 tbsp mustard seeds
* 1/2-inch piece of raw turmeric, grated finely
* 3/4 tsp cumin powder
* juice of one lemon
* zest of one lemon
* salt and freshly ground pepper
* lemon wedges to serve (optional)

Wash the kale, dry it completely and then chop finely.

Halve the jalapenos. Remove the seeds and then mince the jalapenos into 1/8-inch dice. In a bowl, mix the kale with onion, turmeric, cumin, lemon zest and jalapenos. Set aside for about 15 minutes.

Heat a large cast iron skillet or casserole over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds. When the seeds start to pop, add in the kale mixture. Roast the kale over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Resist the temptation to add any water to the skillet. Remove from the heat when the kale softens, and before it starts to discolor. Season the kale with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Serve slightly warm or cold (as a salad), with additional lemon wedges on the side.

Serves 4-6

Brown Sugar Bourbon Coffee Cake

* 1 cup butter, melted
* 8 oz medium brown sugar
* 3 large eggs
* 1/2 cup evaporated milk
* 1/4 cup bourbon 

* juice of one lemon
* zest of 1/2 lemon
* 1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
* 3/4 cup medium coarse cornmeal
* 1 tbsp vanilla extract
* 1/2 tsp salt
* powdered sugar (for dusting)


* one 6-cup bundt pan

Preheat oven to 350°F regular (325°F convection).

In a bowl mix the flour, cornmeal and salt. 

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs. Add the evaporated milk, bourbon, butter, vanilla, lemon juice, lemon zest and sugar. Mix until well blended. Slowly stir in the flour until just blended. Do not overwork the batter.

Pour the batter into a greased and floured 6-cup bundt pan. Bake for about 55 minutes, or until a long wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan for about 15 minutes, and then remove the cake from the pan. Let the cake cool completely. Before serving dust the cake lightly with powdered sugar. 

Note: This is a simple cake, to go with a cup of coffee after a long meal. If you would like to kick it up a notch, I suggest serving it with vanilla icecream and salted caramel sauce. Apple sauce would go nicely too.


  1. I think thats very cool, and the meal came out beautifully. I always love a challenge. Happy Thanksgiving!! Chef Watson is a great idea.

    1. Well, it was definitely a lot of fun... I am finding that I like constraints in cooking, like when you have only a few ingredients in the pantry/fridge and need to figure out what to do. This somehow streamlines my thought process and I begin to see things in a new way. Happy Thanksgiving Friday!


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