Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Cooking with IBM Watson Part 1

My first awareness of IBM’s cognitive computing program, Watson, came from its debut on “Jeopardy” in 2011, where it demonstrated its language recognition and problem solving skills by destroying its human competition in a game of trivia. After that, all was quiet on the public front for Watson until IBM launched Watson Analytics. Since then IBM has had Watson on full speed ahead, most recently hosting a dedicated World of Watson event in Brooklyn, NY.

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From left to right: Caitlin Long, Cynthia Midyett Hardy, Jeneé Davis, Cassie Demeter, Kelsey Garner, Charlie Baird, Jan Johnston

 

The cognitive cooking campaign was designed to showcase Chef Watson’s culinary prowess, and resulted in the cookbook “Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson,” populated with recipes from the “mind” of a computer.

Prep Notes

As a real human being with real taste buds and a particularly picky palate, I was naturally skeptical of a computer chef. Sure the book features pretty pictures cooked up by professional chefs, but could a home chef actually make these crazy computer concoctions? And more importantly, how would these recipes taste? Given the fact that I love any excuse to have a potluck, I decided to put my crack team of IBM investigators on the case by hosting a Watson Dinner Party. In part one of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Cooking with IBM Watson you’ll get a behind the scenes look into the trials and tribulations of cooking alongside IBM’s Chef Watson. Between Cassie, Charlie, Cynthia, Kelsey, Jan, Jeneé and myself, we’ll deliver the home chef’s perspective to you first hand, without all the work!

Blackberry-Cherry Cobbler with Honey Whipped Cream
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I love a good cobbler, so I was excited to try Watson’s spin on one. During preparation, I encountered a few hiccups that are worth mentioning. While prepping the filling, I noticed that the mixture wasn’t adhering very well to the fruit. I chose to use frozen fruit, so this might have been a factor. The biscuit topping also proved challenging as it required more than an average amount of kneading before it would hold together. Overall the cobbler was an uncomplicated dish to make. The ingredients were easy to gather, the instructions were relatively straightforward and the preparations weren’t too time consuming. I would definitely make this again, but perfect the texture next time.

Noteworthy Tips from Chef Cassie:

  • A mixer is very helpful for whip-cream prep.
  • Given the lack of instructions regarding kneading the dough and the crumbly texture you have to work with, I would suggest watching a tutorial if it’s something you aren’t familiar with.
  • Don’t be surprised if the finished product is runny in spots (this isn’t the traditional cobbler texture).

Grilled Corn and Nectarine Salad with Toasted Spice Vinaigrette

The ingredients for this dish were easy to find, and the recipe was simple to execute. The only time-consuming part was prepping the corn and chopping/slicing the rest of the fruit and vegetables. Watson threw quite a few flavor curve balls into this dish. Toasting and crushing the coriander and cumin seed before mixing into the dressing really brought out a toasty, nutty flavor that added complexity to an otherwise simple dressing. I personally wouldn’t have thought to pair the more traditional Mexican spices of coriander and cumin seed in the dressing with the fresh basil leaves in the salad, but it proved to be a delicious combination. I would — and will — definitely make this again!

Noteworthy Tips from Chef Jan:

  • Add chicken or shrimp for a heartier main course option.
  • This is a great dish for summer. Fresh, in-season nectarines would only enhance an already very tasty recipe.
  • The recipe stated that fresh cilantro could be substituted for the coriander seed, but I think the basil/cilantro combo would have been more underwhelming than the basil/coriander pair.

Fennel-Spiced Ribs with Tangy Apple-Mustard Barbecue SauceIMG_5953

I’m a southern girl, so naturally I love a good opportunity to barbecue. Even though these ribs were anything but your traditional southern barbeque staple, they were a delicious surprise all the same. Before taking on Watson’s version of ribs, I had never toasted fennel and coriander before (P.S. it smells AMAZING!), and I thought the spice combination brought a uniquely savory flavor to the ribs. My main critique would be around the sauce. It would’ve been helpful if Watson or the chefs from the cookbook had noted how badly the sauce would separate overnight. Regardless, I will definitely make this recipe again!

Noteworthy Tips from Chef Jeneé:

  • Since the sauce doesn’t do well overnight, the sauce is best prepped on the day you plan to serve.
  • If you live below the Mason Dixon line you’ll want to secure your bourbon beforehand if you’re planning a Sunday cookout, though asking your neighbor for a cup of bourbon is quite comical.

Roasted Tomato and Mozzarella Tart

The classic combination of mozzarella and roasted tomato drew me to choose this recipe. I’m by no means a cook, so if you’re anything like me you might have to procure a couple of items like pie weights and a 10” tart pan previous to prepping this dish. The ingredients are simple, but the overall process to make the dish was a bit complicated for me. The key was getting the puff pastry part under control, after which, the rest of the recipe was really easy! I really enjoyed the flavor of this dish and would make this recipe again; however, for the second go round, I’d adjust the cooking temperature and time, since 425 degrees for the whole process resulted in a slightly crispy tart.

Noteworthy Tips from Chef Cynthia:

  • Carve out a good chunk of time for the numerous steps this recipe calls for (especially if you’re not accustomed to working with puff pastry, it took me two hours!).
  • Use the tart pan gauge for the amount of pastry needed while rolling it out.
  • Parchment paper and cooking spray are your friends!

Michael’s Italian Roast Duck
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As an avid home cook, I was excited to work through Watson’s collaboration with Chef Michael Laiskonis. Duck is a perennial favorite in our house, and this was no exception. The dish was mostly a homerun, and we’re likely to enjoy it again (albeit in a simplified version). The flavors were in perfect harmony, the ingredients were easy to source, with a substitution made only for the mushrooms (and even then only because I wasn’t interested in driving to a second Whole Foods). The biggest foul I would call on the recipe was the significantly lacking time estimate given by Watson and the IBM kitchen. Perhaps if you’re a professional chef with a supporting team you might be able to pull this off in two hours, but I enjoyed a full five hours of mincing, stirring, simmering, sautéing, and slicing — thankfully that’s my idea of a perfect Sunday afternoon.

Noteworthy Tips from Chef Charlie:

  • This dish is not for the culinary novice, requires hours of prep time and acute attention to detail.
  • De-boning a whole duck instead of buying boneless duck breast opens up a world of culinary possibilities such as: duck stock for risotto, duck legs for confit and rendered duck fat for gilding the lily on just about anything sautéed.
  • The dried cherry/apple/olive brunoises was by far the standout component. Leftovers from plating are great on their own as a salad!
  • Be prepared for the high cost of this dish. The lengthy list of ingredients doesn’t come cheap.
  • Depending on preference of thickness for plating, you may want to add extra time for further reduction of the tomato-ginger agro dolce.

Party Bourbon Punch

I was attracted to this recipe based on its simplicity and take-me-back-to-summer mix of juices. Shopping was a breeze since all of the ingredients could be found at most grocery stores, and preparing the drinks was even easier than shopping — just a few squeezes, shakes, pours and slices and we were ready to enjoy. The flavors went well together and skew more traditional, but the final drink was far from boring with a bit of tart, a bit of sweet and a little bubbly.

Noteworthy Tips from Chef Kelsey:

  • When I make this in the future, I plan to include a muddled peach (and orange if I have low pulp juice) to increase depth and complexity.
  • Remove the alcohol for a punch that’s great even for the kiddos!

IBM’s Chef Watson Web App

Being the baking fiend and tech geek that I am, I had already obtained access to the beta of IBM’s Chef Watson web app with bon appétit. Naturally I decided to throw all caution to the wind and prepare the next two dishes directly from the freshly digested data of Chef Watson. With no human prepared cookbook interpretation, the results were a little rougher, but possibly more surprising.

Mango Gazpachot20150118_221728_richtonehdr

Unfortunately the Chef Watson web app doesn’t give you helpful tips like the book does in regard to prep time. (In fact it barely gives coherent instructions in some cases). I’d chosen a gazpacho thinking that it would be quick and easy. While the assembly was simplistic and uncomplicated, the prep time was lengthy with a tedious amount of chopping, dicing and mincing of ingredients. Even though I used less than called for the volume of veggies was still very high, as you can see in the picture, and led to a very thick gazpacho. Though it was more than I had bargained for, the gazpacho was surprisingly hearty yet deliciously refreshing. I will definitely make this again!

Noteworthy Tips from Chef Caitlin:

  • Go fruit and veggie heavy for a healthy and refreshing summer salsa or topping for grilled shrimp and chicken.
  • Cut down the ingredients significantly and add additional vinegar and cream to perfect the consistency of the soup for a more effective gazpacho.
  • Would be very helpful to have a good tool to assist with all the vegetable chopping and dicing necessary.
  • Ripe and crisp fruits and veggies (especially ripe mangos) are necessary.

Cocoa Cookies

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Being a seasoned baker, I was looking for Watson to throw me a curve ball with its spin on a molasses cookie. However, with the way that the app is set up, there’s a finite number of base recipes from bon appétit that Watson has to pull from. Once you find one you like, you can then tweak it by adjusting the specific ingredients desired or level of surprise. Though I wasn’t able to find a molasses cookie, through a series of search adjustments and sifting through recipes, I came across a cookie recipe that was heavy on the cocoa powder with dark corn syrup for the sweetening agent and almond extract for a flavor twist. It sounded interesting, but the actual execution of the recipe didn’t work as expected. The copious amount of cocoa powder called for made for a very powdery and dense cookie that had issues staying together. I’m sending Watson back to the drawing board with this one. The flavor idea was there, but once the recipe was executed the texture and structure was not.

Noteworthy Tip from Chef Caitlin:

  • I plan on working the almond extract and cocoa power into a more traditional cookie recipe so I can get the benefit of structure with the flavor portfolio that this recipe offered.

 

After all our painstaking preps, we still had the best part to come. Eating our spoils! View pictures and recipes on our Facebook and check out part 2 of our blog series for a dinner party featuring our most prestigious and nebulous of guests, IBM’s Chef Watson!

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