Smoke and Mirrors

2007.Jun.20 Wednesday · 0 comments

in Food & Recipes, Life

 Changes to nature do not occur in a vacuum.”

– Kevin Lafferty, scientist

Papillote Frio de TomateBuenos Aires – Though I know what Dr. Lafferty means, and I’m sure he went on to clarify this in regard to whatever he was talking about, he clearly hadn’t attended a class on vacuum cooking. Now, the first thought that popped into my head was the old Ron Popeil Daisy Seal-a-Meal. It didn’t involve a vacuum, just pressing out some of the air and then sealing the food for freezing, boiling, etc. – it was the ultimate do it yourself boil in a bag cooking – of course, it really never worked very well. I had one, I know. Still, it was ever present in my mind during last week’s class, as we explored primarily various techniques using a vacuum machine – a ridiculously large contraption the size of a small dishwasher that sucks all the air out of everything, collapses it all, seals it in a plastic bag, and costs thousands of dollars – just what every home cook needs around. Take, for example, this item, a papillote frio de tomate, or a cold paper pouch of tomatoes… which it isn’t… it’s a strangely labor intensive way of making marinated tomatoes that I didn’t quite get the purpose of. Note that it doesn’t seem to be vacuumed out, though it actually is – it was vacuum sealed with a small piece of dry ice in with the tomatoes, fruits, and herbs, which of course chills it down, and fills the bag back up as the dry ice vaporizes, leaving a vaguely hazy smoke in the bag – I gather the idea is to turn this out into someone’s bowl at the table – of course when the waiter cuts the bag, the smoke pours out… how festive. In the end though, other than the show, it’s just a bowl of cold marinated tomatoes, blueberries, and raspberries flavored with thyme and oregano.

Melons marinated in vacuumStaying in the marinated fruit world, these are two different preparations that are being presented together. What they simply are are cubes of melons that were dumped into a syrup marinade, and then semi-vacuum packed. Not quite all the air was taken out – apparently doing that would completely collapse the melons and you’d end up with mush, so they only brought the air pressure down to about a quarter of normal atmosphere – which ruptures cell walls, and allows the marinade to enter the cubes rapidly – essentially accomplishing a day long marinade in a matter of a couple of hours. The green melon was marinated in a syrup with basil and mixed peppercorns, the watermelon in a syrup with menthol candies that had been melted down and mixed with the syrup. I guess there’s the plus of time saving, and perhaps a bit more intensity of the marinade getting into the fruit… though honestly I couldn’t tell the difference from doing it the traditional way.

Sardine TerrineI guess I have to accept that a lot of this stuff is done just for presentation’s sake. This, for example, is a simple sardine and roasted pepper terrine. Flavor-wise, no different from any that anyone might put together in a terrine mold, cut into rectangles, and serve, garnished with whatever (in this case with a crumbled black olive caramel). The difference is in the, shall we say, tightness of the terrine – the sardines and peppers are layered in a rectangular mold that’s open on top and bottom, with a loose fitting cover on top and bottom – so when it gets vacuumed out, it all collapses evenly, with the covers pressing the terrine together smoothly. Definitely all about pretty, it doesn’t change anything in the way it tastes.

Thai style chicken wingsOkay, here it got a little more interesting – one of the main reasons that folks are doing vacuum packing is something called sous vide cooking. At its simplest, it’s cooking something at the temperature you want it to end up, slowly. So, for example, if you want meat to end up medium rare at 145°F, you cook it at that temperature. Now, if you did that in a standard oven, you’d end up with shoe leather as it dried out. Instead, you vacuum pack it with whatever spices and marinade you want, and then cook it in a water bath that’s held constant – of course, involving another piece of equipment – this big water pan with a paddle that keeps the water circulating and an electronically controlled heating system that keeps the water temperature exactly constant for as long as you like. Another big plus of this, because you’ve picked the final temperature, you can literally leave the meat or whatever in for as long as you like – it won’t overcook because the temperature never goes to that point, and there’s no air to dry it out. So you can toss something into it and leave it overnight or whatever. In this case, chicken wings in a Thai green curry marinade – cooked until well done, which then makes it easy to slip the bones out – so they’re served boneless, with a little more marinade, a five spice milk foam, and, of most interest honestly to me, homemade ricotta – which I now know how to make!

Vanilla Salmon in smokeBeyond the technique above, this was about presentation of course. The salmon was cooked via the sous vide technique to come out a nice juicy medium, and infused with a vanilla marinade – interesting, though I thought a bit out of balance – not that vanilla and salmon don’t work together, just that the particular ratios used were a bit overpowering. It’s served with a reduced citrus juice, some chopped up mixed citrus fruits, and, a dome of smoke. The smoke is produced by this little gadget that’s sort of like a mechanized bong (not that I’d know anything about those)… it’s a little electric air blower with a nozzle to insert wherever you need to blow smoke… so to speak… and a bowl on top where you put wood chips or whatever it is you want to burn and creat smoke. Apparently easily available at hardware stores these days, though I’m not sure what other applications something like this would have. So here, they blow smoke into a big bowl, and then plunk it down over the salmon on the plate, and once again, the waiter will remove the bowl at tableside with everyone oohing and aahing as a puff of wood smoke is released into the room. I’m all a-tingle…

Calamari parmentier with smokeStaying with our smoky themes, this is a weird one… First off the “calamari parmentier” – What this is, and in a way kind of cool, is thin dowels of squid body that have been tossed in sweet paprika (too much of it if you ask me), and then lined up in a plastic bag and vacuum sealed, then they’re pressed together to form a sort of sausage shape, and cooked in that sous vide bath for about ten minutes, just enough to set the squid. When cooled and cut in thin slices crosswise, you get this kind of cool mosaic pattern from the squid and paprika coating… but all you can taste is the paprika. It’s garnished with a little mashed potato (according to the recipe colored with squid ink, but our instructor said he hates the color it turns out so he doesn’t use it), some sauteed baby squid, and herbs. Then it’s presented atop a bowl that’s been plastic wrapped and then filled with smoke via a teeny, tiny hole. What happens, and what he’s demonstrating here by tapping on the plastic, is that as you dig into this with your chopsticks or fork or whatever, little puffs of smoke arise from the hole in the plastic – giving the aroma and looking pretty. Of course, if you wanted to actually cut any piece of this, it’d be impossible, you’d have to transfer it to a plate… a bit too, ummm… foofy if you know what I mean.

Oyster with smoke pearlA fun presentation here – no vacuums, just some smoke. An oyster that’s served raw with a foam made from the oyster liquid and some prosciuto consomme – a nice bacon and oyster combination. Then a little “pearl” is made for presentation – from a mix of liquid smoke and oyster water, done using the whole alginate and calcium chloride techniqute I talked about a few classes ago. You end up with this sort of milky colored sphere, which gets enhanced by dusting it with a little silver dust or silver food coloring to make it shiny. And each person gets a cute little pearl – which tastes like smoked oyster water when you bite into it. Okay, I can get behind that one… it’s cute.

Next up… the deep freeze…


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