Ideas in Food in Ottawa: Intro to sous vide
In his 1998 Massey Lectures, entitled The Elsewhere Community, Canadian literary critic Hugh Kenner cites Ezra Pound as once having told him, “You have an ob-li-ga-tion to visit the great men of your own time.” I’ve tried to incorporate this thinking into my own way of living, so when I learned that Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food – a great culinary mind by any measure – was in Ottawa not only cooking dinner, but also offering classes at The Urban Element, it took me all of ten seconds to decide to sign up.
The only difficulty was choosing which of the two classes to take: Intro to Sous Vide or Intro to Activa. I already do a fair bit of sous vide cooking, so anything I learned would have real-world applicability in my own kitchen. On the other hand, since Activa is expensive and has a short shelf life, I figured this might be my only real opportunity to see it in action. So in the end, I signed up for both.
Intro to Sous Vide got started promptly at 10 – no small feat, given that the chefs had been up at least as late as their guests the night before, and were in the space early to prep for the demos. But I guess when you work in kitchens, sleep deprivation is a constant companion. We started off with a demo of retrograding starch for mashed potatoes, followed by an extended discussion on eggs. Alex talked about how they made the transition from the 63.8-degree egg to their current 13-minute onsen egg, and demonstrated a variety of egg preparations, some of which I’m looking forward to incorporating into my own cooking.
After a brief detour through sous-vide vegetable cookery, we started talking meat. I’ve said in the past that meat and eggs are the two areas where sous vide really shines, and I still believe this. We looked at components of several of the dishes from the night before, including the baby halibut, the elk strip loin and the beef tongue. Although we were told the time and temperature of each component, the point Alex stressed the most was the importance of finding the times and temps that you like. As long as you’re microbiologically safe, anything goes.
The real benefit to these classes was the ability to ask questions face-to-face: for example, I queried Alex on my previous experience with retrograde-starch mashed potatoes, and he suggested that the grittiness I experienced was likely because I didn’t boil the potatoes long enough on their second cook, or because I didn’t cool them down far enough after gelating the starch. I could have arrived at those conclusions on my own with enough experimentation, but it was nice to have the solution laid out for me authoritatively.
“Ideas” for sous vide cooking
- When making retrograde-starch mashed potatoes, sauté the potato peels in copious amounts of butter, strain, then incorporate the infused butter into the mash, to make delicious “roasted potato mashed potatoes”
- Potatoes that have had their starch retrograded aren’t just for mash: they can also be used for hash browns, and they won’t stick to the griddle
- For perfect poached eggs with a traditional look, cook 13-minute onsen eggs (see Ideas in Food), chill them down, then crack them open and reheat in simmering water for 1 to 1.5 minutes
- When searing meats after cooking them sous vide, butter works better than oil, because its makeup promotes browning reactions
- As an alternative to searing, consider rolling meats in a crust of chopped nuts or other crunchy ingredients