My good friend, Max (not his real name, upon request), is an avid cook with a keen interest in ”“ shall I say ”““alternative” cooking methods.
These include smoking meats, and lately, dabbling in sous vide cooking. French for ”under vacuum”, sous vide is a cooking method that involves packing food in a plastic bag, vacuum-sealing it, and then poaching it in water for a long time over low temperatures. First developed in France in the late 1960s, some chefs believe that food prepared in this way retains more of its juices, is softer and tastier compared to some other methods of cooking.
Max’s kitchen is a study in stainless steel gleaming from high-tech cooking machines that — if not bought brand new — then, “… I buy from eBay or get second-hand.” I drool at his sophisticated oven that has the ability to slow-roast meat overnight and another oven that can bake up to eight pie crusts simultaneously. The new apples of Max’s eye however, are his sous vide machines; one small, one large, the latter of which looks like an infant’s wading pool outfitted with an ominous contraption. They hold court underneath a metal awning holding a plethora of spices.
When Max cooks, he pulls out all the stops. Today, he’s serving a beefy menu more varied and infinitely more interesting than any other steakhouse. First, there’s the American Kobe Prime tri-tip that has been in the sous vide machine at a steady 135°F. Two cuts of Prime Angus rib eye were cooked at 132°F, and the Kurobuta pork has just been removed from its 30-hour bath at 148°F. Sticking my finger into the water, it’s barely warm, and the meats look like gelatinous masses trapped in a paste of garlic, olive oil, butter, and herbs. The sous vide bag works as a seal impervious to water and air, keeping in both juices and smells; and slow-cooking in water facilitates a unique transfer of heat.
As Max promises me, there are a bag of eggs in the sous vide machine ”“ organic browns and ordinary whites. He knows all too well about my obsession with these ovoid glories, and he’s thoughtfully cooked some for me. I can’t wait.
Sous vide cooking is a science that transforms Max’s kitchen into a lab where hisses and sizzles are replaced with the barely audible bubble of water baths. He reaches in and pulls out the bags of food. I remember from my research that foods must be chilled before sealing otherwise the pressure inside the machine will “cook” them during the sealing process. The pressure must also be adjusted for other proteins so that the food stays compact but firm. Max tells me how he miscalculated the cooking time for salmon, thus rendering it soft and mushy.
When Max cuts open the plastic bags, I hear a soft whoosh! and I imagine the flavor releasing. The bags let go of their delicious cargo onto a roasting pan. The golden swirls of olive oil pricked by herbs of green floods the metal. Since moisture loss is kept to a minimum with sous vide cooking, these steaks have maintained their tremendous size. On cue, my mouth begins to water uncontrollably and the carnivore in me shifts to fifth gear.
The meat still looks rare ”“ and it is ”“ although I imagine what magnificent steak tartare could come from it. Some sous vide methods can cook a steak to desired doneness but Max decides to finish the meat off with a short sear. He fires up his cast iron griddle, and when it starts to send out smoke in long, wispy streaks, he slaps on the meat. Immediately, a most gratifying hissss! is heard, signifying the meeting of meat on metal. My stomach growls in unison. “Medium rare, right? Medium rare?” Max asks harriedly, looking over his shoulder to ask me. Standing from a distance, Max looks like he’s enveloped in a curtain of smoke. “Yup!” I reply happily. Well-done meat eaters are not welcome here.
After a brief dalliance with the grill, the meats are retired to a chopping board to rest. I can’t help but notice how their juices are literally creating pools of liquid (much like the one in my mouth). Then Max retrieves something from the chiller, his frame almost totally hidden by the massive door. Max’s friend, Gary, steps into the kitchen at this point, and we see that Max is about to slice up a kilo of foie gras. Good lord, we’re cookin’ now! Dredging each thick slice in flour for that unctuously crispy crust, Max quickly sears the liver that will be paired with the steaks.
In the dining room, our little gathering is composed of me, Gary, Max, his brother, and three other friends. After delivering the gratuitous “Ooh, my cholesterol!” and “You eat this and then die!” statements, everyone lines up and digs in.
Max hands me the eggs that have been “poaching” in the sous vide machine for the past two hours at 148°F. Almost weak with excitement, I watch as Max cracks the egg open gingerly and tilts the shell. The egg slithers out like custard. I’ve never seen an egg cooked this way before: the white and yolk are cooked almost to the same consistency, but while the white is almost gossamer, the yolk stands up straight, shyly peeking out from under its pale cover. Feeling that this is a monumental moment for me, Max ceremoniously hands me a teaspoon. Carefully, I scoop out some egg and let it rest on my tongue. Silken and light, it has an ethereal quality, like having my lover’s tongue in my mouth. (Apologies to those with more conservative sensibilities). Starry-eyed and giddy, I throw my arms around Max in a bear hug. “I love you, Max!” I squeal. “Thank you for cooking these for me!” People who know me well are used to these demonstrative outbursts of mine: I’m not at all shy in showing my gratitude.
At lunch, Max is ever the scientist. To his dismay, the rib eyes are cooked to medium, leading him to mutter, “Gotta work on this next time.” Yes, they’re an iota more done than he (and I) would like, but it doesn’t detract a bit from their magnificence. The Kurobuta pork (Japanese Black Hog) is painfully tender with an almost ham-like flavor. It’s the tri-tip beef that is most surprising for me. Cut from the butt portion of the bottom sirloin, I learn from Max that it’s the most flavorful beef one can purchase at a reasonable price. Cut against the grain, the meat is like brisket but infinitely more tender. Paired with the various sauces that Max has whipped up, this feast has everyone at the table swooning to the floor. Sigh, everyone should be lucky enough to have a Max in their life.