Cooking from a cookbook on a weekly basis is quite new to me. Especially with this book it requires some planning to work around other activities. The thing is the recipes are long, the ones I’ve cooked so far have been on the shorter side (with the exception of the Radish Ravioli) and almost every recipe requires some piece of equipment or ingredient I still haven’t found. These past two weeks I’ve been busy cooking Christmas dinner and I had or actually, still have to, write a couple of papers with a considerable word count. I really haven’t had the time to cook a dish, since I didn’t want to use up any of the easy dishes, because I foresee a savouring of them for the long, long, long road ahead. Planning for this blog will improve in the future. I promise. First I thought I had to come up with a Fat Duck post. But hey, this is a blog, I could post something not related to The Fat Duck, I could do whatever the fuck I want (if that’s ok with you).
What I did do this past couple of weeks, cooking wise, is cook sous vide with my rice cooker, in particular Christmas stuff. I still had some foie gras and biscuits left from the Crab Biscuit dish, so I made some more rhubarb and made a small version of the dish for Christmas. I also cooked the pork belly recipe from the cookbook and made it into a course with different types of onions (caramelised, fluid gel according to the recipe in the book and pickled) and aged balsamic vinegar. From Under Pressure I remembered fennel is in their eyes one of the ingredients sous vide really shows its magic by cooking it all the way through, keeping the flavors and fennel itself intact and still possessing a crunch when you bite into it. Sort of like an excellent video transfer on a Blu-Ray disc a reviewer describes as ‘reference quality’ and a way ‘to show of your newly purchased high-end television’. I must say they weren’t lying. I cooked the fennel sous vide with some fennel seeds and Pernod and they were extremely tasty. To finish I fried them in a pan until they were browned. Delicious.
A part of sous vide cooking, like the fennel, is vacuum packing ingredients: placing them in a bag and sucking the air out of the bag. If you do this under full pressure some ingredients break down with a change in flavor and sometimes color. A famous example is watermelon. It takes on a completely different appearance and flavor. I thought why not pineapple? I vacuum packed pieces under full pressure, adding the juice of the pineapple scraps and poached it. You end up with little pineapple sugar bombs that are hard to reproduce without a vacuum machine. You could skip the step of vacuum packing the fruit and just poach it in pineapple fluid and let it marinate overnight in it to boost the flavor.
Another item for Christmas were sous vide cranberries. I vacuum packed them with grenadine and Cointreau (from the Crab Biscuit) and cooked it at 85°C for 30 minutes. I wanted to get away from the typical broken down cranberries, not that there is anything wrong with it, I just wanted to try something different. With this cooking method you can cook the berries through without cooking them to mush, so you end up with individual, cooked berries instead of a compote. If you get the chance it is a delicious and different way to cook them. Below most of the stuff I cooked for Christmas, layed out when I reorganised the fridge. I made a menu of the dinner, so I can always look back on what I made. If you’re interested you can find it here. It is in Dutch, but with Google Translate you can decipher it in no time.
With The Big Fat Duck Cookbook applying lots of sous vide cooking I started reading about it on the internet and in particular discussion boards. I think sous vide, wrongfully, has the name of being an easy cooking method, for the home cook that is. Short cooking times in particular, instead of longer cooking times (>1 hour), are more difficult than is often portrayed. Some important questions:
– How long to cook it?
– At what temperature?
– How much aromats?
– If you have a chamber vacuum machine, at what pressure?
– What type of plastic bag?
Cookbooks give guidelines, but if your piece of fish or meat is of different proportion the cooking time can differ greatly. You also have to discover your own preferences. If cooking meat or fish in the range of 45-65°C almost every single degree changes the outcome in a significant way. With tender cuts of meat or fish, requiring short cooking times, the process is further complicated by the maximum time your stuff should cook. If you cook these cuts too long they will become, in words often used, ‘pappy’ or ‘mushy’. You can’t keep your fish for an hour at 50°C without affecting the texture. It may still not be overcooked, but the mouth feel will be unpleasant. A good way to counter these issues is measuring the temperature inside the protein with a digital thermometer and foam tape. This way you can remove the pieces when they hit the desired temperature.
Another dimension of cooking sous vide is the amount of pressure you pack your food in. In the cookbook the pressure is listed in ‘mbar’ and in Under Pressure they express it in either ‘low’, ‘medium’ or ‘high’. Nils Norén and Dave Arnold, of the French Culinary Institute in New York, keep up a blog of their experiments and also put an article online addressing this issue. The amount of pressure you pack your stuff in before cooking is quite important. I haven’t figured out the logistics of my machine, because it doesn’t have a switch for low/medium/high or a panel for the desired mbar input, so I am still figuring out how my machine works. It definitely shows you don’t need expensive vacuum machines for sous vide, it only helps when you work with fluids and it enables you to compress the hell out of products.
When I have a conversation on food and cookbooks I often get the question: ‘How do you use cookbooks?’ Sometimes it is handy to follow a recipe, but I always think it’s better to read it through to get a feel for the style of cooking, maybe remembering some combinations or parts of a dish and check out unfamiliar ingredients. An example is the Momofuku Cookbook, a recent purchase. By the way, it’s a fucking good book, with fucking entertaining stories and fucking tasty recipes, to use the writing style of the book.
Tonight I was alone, had not eaten and the clock reminded me it was already 10pm. I usually cook pasta on these nights, but Momofuku ideas popped in my head and I started thinking if I could make something in the style of the book. I saw some leftover smoked pork sausage, and I knew I had some noodles in stock, so I instantly thought: RAMEN. I had some stock in the freezer and chucked in soy sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, konbu, black pepper and let it simmer. I cut the smoked pork sausage in pieces (gives the smoky flavor the bacon or katsuobushi imparts as used in the book), boiled some noodles, finely chopped leeks, cut some sea weed I had left from the Crab Biscuit recipe and added fresh chives that were laying around in the fridge.
It isn’t all made from scratch, but that is not important. It gave a bowl of leftovers combined in an, at least to me, unfamiliar way. I happily slurped all the noodles from the bowl. To me, this is what cookbooks inject in me, ideas I would previously never thought of. If I hadn’t been reading the Momofuku book, I would never have made this noodle dish.
I’ll be back with The Fat Duck next time. I hope soon.