Back in the office from a successful and exciting 2011 StarChefs ICC, we thought it might be a good idea to recap what we considered as the highlights and what we were able to capture from this busy event. We start out with the workshop “Sous Vide Your Way” by Alex and Aki from Ideas in Food.
They really set out to push the limits by presenting not only new ideas on sous vide but also allowing the sold-out workshop to taste each dish, which included 5 variations of a group of ingredients:
- Venison Flank Steak Salad, Pickled Butternut Squash, Smoked Squid, Barrel Aged Venison Jus
- Venison Shank, Butternut Butter Cream, Lemon Scented Squid, Saltwort
- Venison Heart “Bolognese”, Coco-Cayenne Rigatoni, Coconut Milk
- Pecan Crusted Venison Heart, Coconut Cream Lentils, Diced Roasted Squash
- Coconut Milk Brined Venison Rack, Butternut Braised Cabbage
Alex and Aki were so kind to allow us to post in the following their own summary and recap of the workshop as a guest post right here, including their amazing recipes (link to recipe PDF)
By Aki Kamozawa & H. Alexander Talbot – Photos courtesy of John Sconzo
We were very excited when Star Chefs reached out to us and asked us to do a sous vide workshop for their International Chefs Congress this past year. Hearing that PolyScience was a sponsor for the event made things even better because it was an opportunity to play with some pretty cool new equipment.
After playing around with a used immersion circulator that we bought off of eBay back in the day, their immersion circulator was our first major investment into the world of sous vide. We still have that original circulator, along with a few others and it is still going strong in our kitchen. The Smoking Gun was another worthwhile purchase, allowing us to use small amounts of smoke to add flavor to ingredients and dishes in our kitchen instead of firing up the big smoker in the backyard.
Having attended the congress for the previous four years we were fired up to do something that would be both interactive and thought provoking.
5 courses in 50 minutes
In our minds sous vide cooking is a creative platform. It is a relatively low maintenance technique that frees a chef’s hands and mind to refine and create. Of course it’s not easy to present sous vide in a 50-minute hands-on workshop. Since it’s primarily a slow cooking process and we wanted to showcase a variety of different preparations, we asked ourselves how chefs learn best.
The first answer was by doing. The second answer was by tasting. Since it wasn’t feasible to have everyone do the cooking in the time allowed we decided to have them taste everything instead and experience the results of our sous vide techniques.
We gave out recipes at the end so that participants would know how we cooked everything and could take the techniques back to their own kitchens and tinker away, changing and extrapolating until they found their own perfect balance. Most chefs have enough accumulated knowledge and understanding of the cooking process to tailor sous vide to their taste, it’s just a question of having enough technical information to provide a solid jumping off point.
Of course we had a few things to say about our own experiences with sous vide. The most important being our belief that it is primarily a preparation technique and not a finishing technique. Yes you can use a circulator to re-therm something and bring it back to temperature before serving it but the real value lies in its ability to par-cook something, adding texture and flavor, giving the cook something ready to be finished “a la minute” before serving it to the diner.
When it comes to cooking meats, temperatures never fall below 50°C. This is because at 49°C the proteins in the meat really begin to do their thing, transforming raw, chewy meat into something juicy and tender. A myriad of changes begin to occur, mostly having to do with proteins and collagen, the end result being beautifully cooked meat.
As with any cooking method, in spite of being dubbed “idiot proof” there is always the danger of overcooking. In the case of sous vide the food may appear perfectly cooked but spending too long in the water bath results in meat that is strangely dry and flavorless.
The key is figuring out the minimum time needed to achieve your preferred results. It’s also important to acknowledge that while we can chart specific time and temperature ratios for different ingredients, you still need to test for doneness. Even if that test is simply feeling the meat, fish or vegetables through the bag to be sure that it is tender and cooked to your liking. Some days it takes a little longer than others. This is determined by the weight of your pieces and their individual composition. Never blindly assume that something has cooked long enough or that a smaller piece needs to cook as long as your standard portion. It behooves you to check each and every time you cook something to be sure.
We love what sous can do for vegetables, achieving a supple and tender texture that is almost impossible with any other cooking method. By adding flavored liquid to the bag, we season the vegetables as they cook so that when they come out of the circulator they are ready for anything. Cooking vegetables in their own or other juices produces something intensely flavorful and produces a liquid base that is can be used as the foundation of a vinaigrette, soup or sauce to accompany either the vegetable itself or anything else sharing the plate.
Classic braising techniques can be translated to sous vide and by adjusting your cooking time you can play with new textures. What sous vide also gives you is the freedom to grill, sear, fry or sauté the finished ingredients and add a beautifully caramelized outer layer to the preparation. As with any new twist or technique, we truly believe that if you can’t improve on the original there’s no point in changing it. Sous vide is a tool to help you create food that is more intensely your own. In the end it’s all about creating something delicious and flavorful that you would be more than happy to sit down and enjoy yourself.
The inspiration for our dishes and techniques stemmed from our ability to use the wide range of Poly Science equipment and the availability of a variety of different cuts of Cervena venison. With the tools and the ingredients as our inspirations we then rounded out our plates with several other key ingredients: coconut, butternut squash and squid.
In our first preparation, the venison salad we added a few additional elements to add flavor and depth to the dish. The first major tweak was creating a faux barrel-aged rare au jus. We used The Sonicprep ultrasonic homogenizer to infuse the juices we collected from cooking the venison flank steak with the flavor of charred, whiskey barrel wood chips. We seasoned the jus with Red Boat fish sauce and added a bit of body with the addition of 0.1% xanthan gum. This deep red jus was the thread that wove all of the elements together. The second key note in this dish was created by using the Smoking Gun to cold smoke the squid rings. One cycle of whiskey barrel smoke gave them a rich aroma and made each bite seem meatier and more complex in flavor.
In the second dish we wanted to highlight the texture and juiciness of the venison shanks. We cook them at 57°C for 24 hours. Using our method, the collagen in the shank does not have enough time to denature and become gelatin. What does happen is that the meat becomes fully cooked and remains juicy. The key is to remove all the silver skin and connective tissue from the shanks. The trimmings were not discarded. Instead we added them to the cooking liquid from the shanks and simmered them together to extract the flavor and gelatin and allow them to be absorbed into the sauce. Then we strained it and used it to glaze the meaty nuggets of shank meat. We paired the venison shank with the lemon scented squid tentacles and the butternut butter cream, which was made with the assistance of The Sonicprep.
Venison Shank, Lemon Scented Squid Tentacles and Butternut Butter Cream
Our third dish was a pasta course. We made the noodles at the Arcobaleno booth at the Star Chefs Congress using one of their pasta extruders. The sauce was a variation of classic Bolognese made with ground venison hearts. As we were tasting it we realized that it needed a bit more sweetness and creaminess. We had several cans of coconut milk on hand for our other preparations and it seemed only natural to reach for it. The addition of one can of coconut milk to our sauce transformed it into something exceptional.
Salt Curing Venison Heart
The fourth course featured slow cooked venison heart. Originally we felt that we would need to cook the heart for 24+ hours. As it was cooking we checked on it regularly. At the 8-hour mark we felt the heart beginning to soften. At nine hours the heart reached the texture we were looking for, firm with some resistance but clearly tender within. The batch of hearts we prepped for the Congress needed to cook for 10 hours to achieve this same texture. Attention to detail and culinary awareness always pay off. Cooking is an inexact alchemy for all of its science and ratios. In the end a chef has to trust his or her senses above all else. To finish, the venison heart was then re-thermed in a water bath, laid out on racks and basted with aromatic butter. We then used the incredible candied pecans from chef Philip Speer, half of the dynamic duo that heads Uchi and Uchiko in Austin, to improve our pecan crust. His pecans are cooked in a brown sugar syrup until they become “goopy,” about 90 minutes. Then they are drained, deep fried, and seasoned with salt and sugar.
He made them for his workshop and they were so amazing that now they are a staple in our pantry. We served the venison heart with our coconut lentils and a diced roasted butternut squash gel.
Vanison Rack Absorbing Finishing Touch of Pine and Cedar Aromas
The final course that we served for the workshop was venison rack. We brined it in coconut milk and then cooked it sous vide. After it was cooked we were able to re-therm it and then remove it from the bags and pat them dry. Then we dipped them into liquid nitrogen for thirty seconds to freeze the exterior and followed immediately with a dunk into a 375°F fryer to evenly brown it. The racks were then placed on a rack covered with cedar and pine branches to rest and allow the aroma of the evergreen to gently permeate the meat. The “roasted” rack of venison was served sliced and topped with torn cabbage leaves which were cooked sous vide at 85°C for 1 hour in a butternut squash “cream.”
It was a little chaotic, in a good way we think, getting everything served, trying to explain our approach to sous vide cooking and giving participants time to taste and absorb the food. What we tried to show through the execution of multiple dishes in a confined environment is that technology may help improve efficiency, creativity and functionality but you still need to rely on your knowledge, experience and the use of all of your senses in order to weave everything together into something delicious and special that clearly represents your personal sensibilities.