Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide – Thomas Keller leads the way »
Talking 'bout a revolution
By Robyn Lewis
It's not every day that you pick up a cookbook that totally changes your perception of food and cooking. As a child foodie, I can just remember when Cuisine Minceur by Michel Guerard hit the bookshelves in the 70's; after the butter-laden recipes of the 60s, its low-fat cooking was a relevation (hard to believe nowadays) and the food and flavour combinations - now commonplace - shocked chefs, home cooks and my parents alike. (It's still a classic.)
So, standing in a bookshop with towers of cookery books inviting me on armchair culinary tours of just about everywhere, wondering what might come after Flavours of Southern Patagonia, my eye was drawn to a cover depicting rows of bright scarlet on a black background, that looked like an oil painting but turned out to be stalks of rhubarb. At first I thought they must be raw; no Sargasso sea of greenish-pink threads my mother used to overboil, and which - guided by Raymond Blanc - I can now cook intact. But not keep red.
Even closer inspection revealed the rhubarb to be encased in plastic - vacuum packed. Cryovac has been around for 50 years, and is used mainly for food storage - suck out the air and it leaves little oxygen for bacteria. From Asian noodles to ham and frozen fish, we see it in our supermakets daily. This is not new. Neither is cooking in it, as airline caterers and prepared-meal dieters can testify. So, what is? And what's it doing next to the name Thomas Keller?
Keller is chef and founder of The French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley, Caifornia; perhaps the second-hardest restaurant to get into in the world. And for good reason - not only is Keller the only American-born chef to have two three-starred Michlin restaurants (the other being per se in New York) - but The French Laundry is consistently rated the best French restaurant outside France. The cookbook of the same name (published in 1999) delivered 150 recipes exactly as used in the restaurant, which you were simultanously urged to follow precisely (using your gram scales) as well as for creative inspiration.
An inspire it did, along with propelling Keller to global culinary greatness, his standards of perfection (and food safety) becoming the new chefs' benchmark of the 2000s. So, what's with the scarlet rhubarb?
Under Pressure is somewhat of a misnomer. Sous vide means 'under vacuum', and it is this combined with cooking the food at below boiling point that is the revolution. No longer do you have to overcook the outside to ensure the interior is not raw. And no longer does the colour leach out, along with the flavour that our new generation of farmers work so hard to capture, and (presumably) the vitamins.
However, even the sous vide method was developed in the 1970s, by one Georges Pralus attempting to cook foie gras without losing its shape or fat. (Similarly, Cuisine Minceur was born of the necessity for a healthier way of cooking - to lure figure-conscious Parisiennes 800 km to his new wife's spa hotel in South-West France). But like many radical changes, they take time to find broader acceptance - and a creative adventurer like Thomas Keller to bring them to public notice.
Under Pressure condenses the past ten years of experimentation with sous vide techniques at The French Laundry into one book. A warning - do not attempt the recipes at home, unless you have a near commercial kitchen, a team of uncomplaining sous-chefs/kitchen slaves, and unlimited time. Further warning - read the section about food safely very closely - bacteria can multiply fast at temperatures of 65 C. The recipes are more for professional chefs.
But - if you are like me and see some astonishing possibilities on the horizon - turn to page 272, where you will find a table of foods from bananas to quail, artichokes to octopus, fennel to lamb, with the precise temperature required and exact cooking times. Rarely do chefs divulge such secrets. (Being at the pinnacle, Thomas Keller and his team have little to fear). Hallelujah, I cry.
That sous vide can be very successfully applied to vegetables and cheaper (read tougher) cuts of meat offers enormous possibilities for the home cook, armed with a home 'food saver'/vacuum packer and a cooking thermometer. The main constraint to its application in Australia is the lack of a supplier of a water bath/circulator, and the current parlous state of the A$. I'm going to experiment with a thermometer and the gas cooktop, and dust off another 70s relic, the crockpot - set on low. (85 C seems to be the main temperature for vegetables, surely achievable?).
To turn these techniques into a genuine revolution, however, will require more than curiousity about what sous vide could do for notoriously difficult-to-cook-and-keep-tender foods like abalone, kangaroo and venison, and the summer glut of stone fruits, or the desire to impress one's frends with the perfectly rare 'roast' beef. I can see this being driven by environmental, as well as health and flavour concerns. As food and especially water becomes increasingly expensive, techniques to conserve both, and save energy, will gain ground.
We're only at the forefront, and there is still much experimentation to be done, but my prediction is that sous vide techniques and equipment will be in many more kitchens within the next decade, and Australian chefs like Justin North of Becasse will continue to lead our own wave. Bring it on. The next culinary decade is about to become exciting - thanks to books like Under Pressure and the generosity of geniuses like Thomas Keller.
Under Pressure is published by Artisan, New York (2008). RRP US$75.00 (A$110). VisitVineyards.com/Winepros Archive subscribers can purchase Under Pressure from our book partners Seekbooks at a discount of 12.5% off RRP (postage extra).
Read more about sous vide in Australia on The Food Blog.
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