Monday, February 16, 2009

Viva Sous Vide!

I have been longing to try out cooking “sous-vide” for a while, having tasted some of the dishes in restaurants and heard so much about other people’s experiences in trying it at home. And here’s the story of my first sous-vide experiment:

In case you have no idea what I am talking about, sous-vide is essentially a cooking technique which made use of a airtight plastic bag placed in hot water for an extended period of time (sous-vide means “under vacuum” in French). This way, food is cooked under vacuum under constant low temperature (below boiling point) and the result is dishes with intense flavor, delicate texture and never overcooked (that means tender and juicy)

It does sound fascinating, even though it’s nothing new really – the French’s been doing this since the 70’s (it’s said to be invented in the kitchen of Michel Troisgros), and soon many other chefs followed, particularly the Americans. Now, the likes of Ferran Adria, Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter are claimed to be some of its biggest fans (Thomas Keller even wrote a book dedicated to this very subject recently, or you can watch him demonstrate in his kitchen followed by lunch at The French Laundry for a hefty $10,000)

I won’t be too surprised if many of you have tasted the dishes cooked sous-vide style without knowing it – I suppose it doesn’t sound very appealing if the waiter told you that your $300 pork tenderloin actually came out of a pouch boiling in water (like those instant japanese curry) There are numerous news articles about this key technique in the “nouvelle cuisine” as well, and online forums and chat-rooms where people discuss (or even debate) whether 48C or 52C is the optimal temperature for cooking salmon sous–vide, for example. Well, I could go on and on but I guess if you wanna know more, you are probably better off researching on the web yourself - and wikipedia sounds like a good place to start.

Anyway, it came no surprise that many people started experimenting this at home, having tried the result themselves; but it does sound easier said than done. First, you do need some “special” equipment. To start, something that vacuum-process the food. That’s actually the easy part – remember those FoodSaver infomercial on Sunday mornings or weekend nights on home shopping network (for those folks living in the States)? That apparently would do the job nicely. And second, a device that is capable to maintain a hot water bath in a constant temperature, or immersion heat circulator as it’s called technically. A professional one can cause $10,000 plus and even an amateur model – one that attaches to your slow cooker at home - would cost $1000.

For my first experiment, I decided to invest in a FoodSaver and skip the immersion heat circulator; instead I use a cast-iron pot filled with water in the convection oven as a compromise. It’s not the most ideal but at least I have everything readily available. I was able to locate a local distributor of FoodSaver that sells the device online and at department stores’ consignment counters, so within a few days, I have one sitting in my kitchen (despite cyy’s strong protest. Ha ha!) And after some more research on the right recipe to try, I have my eyes set on this duck confit recipe found on Food and Wine Magazine.

Turned out sourcing the ingredients is the trickiest part in the whole process. The supermarket downstairs used to have plenty of duck legs available (along side with foie gras), but when I try to get some, they are all gone. The have-it-all City'Super didn't stock them either – the butcher lady instead tried to offer me lamb legs as alternative (?!!). Finally, I was able to locate a few frozen ones in the fridge of Oliver’s - good enough for me. So now I am ready to rock and roll.

The recipe’s straight-forward – defrost, then cure the duck legs with thyme, salt and pepper overnight, wash it, dry it, seal it in the vacuum bag, then they are popped into the oven (in a water bath) overnight (thermostat set at 110C, in hope that the water can be kept at between 80-90C throughout - in case you want the details) Next morning, the duck legs (still in the bag) are pulled out from the oven and cooled immediately in an ice bath. At that point, what I got is a bag (still vacuum-sealed) with the cooked duck legs wrapped completely in duck fat – and it can be stored in the refrigerator (for up to a week, I was told)

Just before it’s served, I opened the bag, scrapped the fat around and browned the duck legs in a pan (so the skin became crispy). Finally, along with some potatoes (sliced with skin removed), duck fat and jus, I roasted everything in the oven and voila, my duck confit with potato hash’s done. To complete this bistro-style dinner, I also made a cream of mushroom soup and steamed mussels, and open a much-enjoyable bottle of 1998 Ch. Haut-Bages-Liberal. What a meal! (esp considered this is just a random Wednesday evening) The confit dish's good (aromatic, moist, flavorful and all that) and I am happy. The totally cooking time did take long (spanned over 3 days) but at least most of the time I didn’t have to attend to it.

So now I am content to have found the perfect dish for the open-that-bottle-night at kitchen@17A, and next, I am going to take on salmon in my quest to improve my sous-vide technique. i will certainly share more after i did so.

More reading for your interest:
The Joy of Cooking with Plastic Bags – Slate Magazine
Under Pressure – The New York Times
Trying Sous Vide at Home – Wall Street Journal

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Wah. That sounds like a lot of preparation work, but the end result looks great. BB