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A visit with Ideas in Food: Sous-vide and Activa

This week, I attended a workshop with Alex from Ideas in Food.  I have been reading their blog (http://www.ideasinfood.com/) for years now, so when I heard they would be in Ottawa on a Tuesday, only hours away, I was keen to participate.  At this point in my cooking life, it’s not that I am so into ‘molecular gastronomy’ or ‘modernist cuisine’ persay, but their work has always felt inspiring to me.

Infused with passion, never forgetting about the ingredients at the source despite their techy approach, this couple of ‘chefs for chefs’ is constantly exploring, pushing the envelope, asking questions and diligently digging to find answers..  They remain excited by the seasons and the simplest of things. Their mission is fundamentally about useful ideas and delicious food, and they share it all. 

By the way, I highly recommend their recently released book, (‘Ideas in Food; great recipes and why they work’ by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot).  I haven’t tested any recipes among what appears to be a unique and generous offering, but there is more than enough value in the text alone with the science based explanations, and again the ideas that can’t help but get your juices flowing..

At the Urban Element workshops in Ottawa, sous-vide cooking and transglutaminase were on the agenda for a lucky few - largely chefs and cooks already operating in this universe.

I’ve been more modestly and hackishly cooking a certain amount of sous-vide for years now, but since I don’t have a circulator, I have been limited to small pieces of protein for low temperature cooking or fruit/veg that are cooked at a safer 85C range.  I can’t be sitting next to a pot stirring for 36 hours to make sure the temperature is stable at a precarious 55 or 64C, so close to the danger zone.  In any case, the only things I really want to cook sousvide are delicate, lean meats that are easy to overcook such as rabbit saddles, pintade supremes or piglet loin.  I am perfectly happy with braising tough cuts of meat in the oven, same with tongue, cheeks and etc.  I am equally fine with my larger, tender cuts of venison, beef or bison traditionally pan seared or roasted.  Why fix it if it ain’t broke.  Why add extra steps and take two days to cook something that can take an hour unless there is a clear benefit. 

Besides, I quite like the sensuous sizzle, transporting scents and primal heat of a ‘normal’ kitchen; I can’t imagine living 80 hr weeks in the likes of Marc Lepine’s lab-like kitchen at Atelier (the host for Alex’s dinner) with no ovens; only circulators, a thermomix, an induction plate.  I remind myself that I effectively chose a 1993 style kitchen over a lab when I left Biochem at McGill to cook.

However, when it comes to egg cookery, vegetable purées, fish and seafood, certain types of meat and offal, I undoubtedly see the point of sous-vide.  The advantages are improved control and consistency with temperatures tweaked to the tenths of a degree, the possibility of safe and easy low temperature cooking with a gentle even heat you don’t get in the pan, and the concentrating flavour effects of the vacuum which lock in taste, no leaching or evaporation as with blanching or simmering in a pot.    

After years of experience, a cook will usually manage to nail a ‘perfect egg’ be it shirred, poached or boiled, but with sous-vide, a monkey can punch in 1hr at 63.8C or 13 minutes at 75C (for a 60g egg) once you have figured out what your ‘perfect egg’ is.  Also, other possibilities open up - to have a warm egg yolk sauce that holds, or a no fuss poached egg without vinegar, a soft, hard-cooked specimen with no fear of grey, no matter who is on staff.

When cooking vegetables, you can keep them crunchy by remaining under 85C or conversely, pull off an intense and luscious purée with minimum added liquid/fat, no loss of flavour, no scorching..

With potatoes for mash, hash browns or gnocchi, you can avoid the danger of a gluey result by giving them a first cook at 64C for an hour to hydrate the starch, followed by a full chill, so that the starch won’t ever retrograde when you jack up your temperature to create a purée and proceed to whip the hell out of it. With this more intricate method, again a monkey can make the mashed potatoes.  One miscellaneous detail I really enjoyed was that he peeled the potatoes and made a potato peel butter which he used to mount his mash after slowly reheating the sliced potatoes – the flavour was ultra potatoey.

I also liked the tongue and sweetbreads cooked sousvide.  Not that I have never had a problem cooking either the old-fashioned way.  But if I had a brigade of monkeys, hmm..

As for the elk, a piece of raw looking filet that was actually cooked rare throughout, I was not enthralled, but I do see the appeal for certain cold dishes, and hot too, if seared for some crust after the fact.

The second workshop was devoted to Transglutaminase or ‘Activa’, three kinds: RM, GS and YG ..  This is a naturally occurring enzyme that acts as a catalyst in bonding proteins, which is why it has commonly become known as ‘meat glue’, although its uses go far beyond.

I have been intrigued by this since it came onto my radar because it really allows you to do things that were not possible before, like craft sheets or blocks of otherwise irregular shaped meat, neatly wrap fish or anything with bacon, produce even portions..  Alex awakened me to other novel applications too.

I did take a Hydrocolloids class in New York at the French Culinary Institute a couple of years ago with Dave Arnold and Nils Noren, and returned excited about their last minute add-on that was Activa.  Playing around in the following months, I came up with some decent, even extraordinary new dishes. Of course I did the bacon wrapped rabbit loin, bacon wrapped everything with a prettier product than before; I braised a lamb shoulder that I had deboned and put together for a nice even roast.  Occasionally, I felt irked by the amount of mystery powder I had to use, and how finicky it was.  I remember being annoyed that acidity, fat and all that I naturally wanted to season my meat with interfered with the bond.  I realized I could add flavour afterwards, but my old school blood coursing through my veins made me want to ditch this whole thing because I couldn’t play my way.

Anyhow, I eventually ran out of Activa, couldn’t justify ordering this expensive stuff only available by the kilo, and I didn’t feel like explaining it all to François..  It turns out we don’t mind the natural look of a piece of fish or tenderloin; it doesn’t need to be round or square does it?  I was simultaneously caught up in my reality, my ‘down to earth’ race with nature, processing and cooking our wild plants while running the restaurant; there was little time for fiddling unless it was about my ‘to do’ list with the plants..  No, I decided I didn’t need much of this ‘molecular gastronomy’ business. 

When I thought about it, the excessive manipulation and industrial food additives involved clashed with what we do in principle - our whole raison d’être being fresh Quebec wild terroir ingredients, reviving old traditons.  The complexity and fancypants, preciousness of this kind of food didn’t jive with our general outlook, disposition, clientele and rustic set-up. Not to mention that I couldn’t afford all the associated equipment; I don’t even have a powerful enough blender for a hydrocolloid hydration vortex and there is simply no room for a tank of liquid nitrogen in my dinky kitchen.  No, we weren’t destined to become a Noma (I didn’t know Noma at the time).

My unrealized Activa exploits remained lodged in the recesses of my brain though, the stuff too nifty to ignore.. And so, I was happy to be reintroduced to it this week.  After all, it is just an enzyme our body already produces.  In these food applications, it is used up, disappearing before it is eaten.  I found all Alex’s applications interesting and worthwhile.  He glued chicken skin to pre-sous vide cooked sweetbreads before searing, absolutely delicious.  He deboned a halibut and put it back together, cooked it sous-vide and sliced it up into cute little identical fish chops.  With the YG created for dairy, he made fresh cheese sheets or ‘noodles’.  I think I like the idea of eggless, flourless gnocchi or gnudi.

Now, I just have to get myself a proper circulator and some Activa before the season hits and I don’t resurface to think about it again until next March.  Anyone want to share some Activa?  Anyone know of a neglected PolySci circulator for sale?

Posted on Thursday, March 31, 2011 at 03:00AM by Registered CommenterNancy Hinton | CommentsPost a Comment

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