Sunday, June 20, 2010

Further Adventures Sous Vide

After the brisket I cooked sous vide for corned beef and pastrami, I cooked a whole batch of pickled pork tongue the same way – 48 hours at 135º F. Again the flavor was great, but the meat was not as tender as you get from traditional methods of cooking. I diced the tongue and simmered it gently in an adobo sauce, at which point it was really tender as well as flavorful. For both these meats, I think I'm going to bump the temperature up in the hopes of getting a more tender result.

I tried salmon sous vide, holding it briefly at 105º, the temperature at which the fish proteins just begin to coagulate. Imagine eggs just barely set. Not a winner for my family in the texture department, and I didn't taste any improvement in the flavor, so I'm not planning to repeat this one.

Then yesterday I was facing the task of cooking a whole pork loin for a party last night. This was a loin from the first of the super-sows I got from Stan, so I knew it would have a great flavor, but might be a little chewy. With sous vide cooking promising to make it tender, leave it juicy, allow me to serve it medium-rare – as well as leaving my afternoon free for a swim in my friend's pool – I had to try it. So after a couple hours in my smoker to add some flavor and bring the meat up to body temperature, I rubbed on a little mustard and sugar, salt and pepper, and some fresh, minced rosemary and sage. Then it was vacuum-sealed and went into a 140º water bath for the next 8 hours. To accompany it, I picked these red currants from my yard and cooked up this year's stash of jelly.

I really didn't know what to expect when I started carving, but the result of this trial was mind-blowing. Incredibly juicy, tender, flavorful pork, safely served medium rare. Not one person trimmed off the fat around the outside. One guest, who came back for 4 or 5 helpings, said, "I have to tell you, this is the BEST meat I have EVER eaten in my ENTIRE life!" By the time I left, the platter had been licked – and I do mean licked! – clean.

Now remember: this life-changingly delicious hunk of meat came from a mature hog, which is conventionally considered undesirable or barely edible. The animals we send to slaughter are typically juveniles (around 10 months old for hogs), because that yields the most tender meat, and consumers prize tenderness above all else. Until I told Stan I'd take his cull sows, the best he could do is grind the meat up and donate it to a local school. At the slaughterhouse, they all laugh into their Amish beards about such "old" animals and the idea that anyone would be crazy enough to try and do something with them. By making such meat fork-tender, while preserving its deep, mature flavor, sous vide would seem to be the magic technique for making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

This was so successful, I now plan to make all my bacon this way: cure it in a vacuum-sealed bag (which should reduce the curing time in half), then "cook" it in the water bath at 140º for about 6 hours, then cut the bags open and finish the bacon in a hot-smoker while liberally basting it. If it turns out anything like the loin (and why wouldn't it, since the belly comes from just below the loin?), this should be the best bacon ever: full of flavor, meltingly tender, and still juicy.

I can't wait to see!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Last month, I wrote about dipping my toes into the waters of sous-vide cooking, which involves sealing food in vacuum bags and then “cooking” by holding them at precise temperature in a water bath. The technique was developed decades ago, but only recently became an established technique in the highest of high-end restaurant kitchens such as The French Laundry and The Fat Duck, and, with the development of small-scale, self-contained machines, is just beginning to enter home kitchens. In addition to the stand mixer, the food processor, the breadmaker, and the rice cooker, you better start figuring out where you’ll find countertop space for a sous-vide “water oven.”

At a cost of $500 for the water oven and $100 on up to $1000 for the vacuum sealer, it’s not gonna happen soon. And frankly, I had a tough time seeing what this technique could do for me that would begin to justify the cost. When it comes to cooking, I’m something of a traditionalist – aka a stick-in-the-mud – and I’m much more interested in keeping things simple and in paring things down to essentials than in collecting shiny, new toys for the kitchen.

Just a few days ago, a bud and I had an entire, foot-and-a-half-long loin of lamb on the bone to eat for dinner. He had run out of charcoal, so we looked around the backyard and started breaking and sawing up branches he had trimmed off his ash trees months earlier. Once the fire burned down, we put a grate on top, set the loin off to the side, covered it, and went back to the serious business of deciding what wine to have with dinner. When we pulled the loin off 15 minutes later, it was a glorious, smokey-honey color, and the taste was out of this world. One of the best pieces of meat I’ve enjoyed in years.

How is all the techno-wizardry of sous-vide cooking going to make my life any better than that?

Two things convinced me to test the waters. One was the claim that even traditionally tough cuts of meat, such as brisket, could be cooked until tender simply by holding them at the desired temperature for longer. After 48 hours at 135º F, the story went, you got meltingly tender brisket that was still juicy – and medium-rare from edge to edge! Sounded too good to be true.

The second thing that convinced me to give it a try were temperature-controllers from Auber Instruments that cost a fraction of a dedicated sous-vide cooker and that allow you to maintain the temperature of a water bath in a Crock-Pot within one degree. Add to this that the temperature controller can also be used to achieve the same degree of accuracy with the Bradley Smoker (whose own temperature control mechanism is both crude and prone to breaking – more to come on this), and I was ready to take the plunge.

So I bought some briskets from Triple S, cured them for several days, and then cooked them for another 2 in my water bath. The briskets lost more juice than I was lead to expect, but that may be because my Foodsaver sealer is just too wimpy to draw enough vacuum. But, as you can see, the meat is still much juicier than you get from steam-cooking and beautifully marbled with fat. It’s definitely not as fork-tender as traditional, steam-cooked corned beef or pastrami, but, by the time I sliced it 1mm thick, across the grain, the difference was negligible. And the flavor is indeed great, so I’m definitely inspired to try further experiments.

Next up, pork tongues, salmon, pork belly, and barbecued brisket – but, don’t worry, not all together!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Last Yap

Although this appears as a new post, it's actually my last comment on the previous post. Stupid eblogger has a character limit on comments, so I had to make it a new post instead of sticking it where it belongs. Please feel free to comment, one and all, but I do have to move on. I have 3 briskets from Triple S Farms in the cure, and I can't wait to cook them sous-vide and see if that brings me one step closer to the ultimate pastrami. Stay tuned!

Jason, thanks to Stewart I'd already seen that post about a chef in Oregon head-butting the organizer of a pig cook-off because some of the pigs used in the event hadn’t come from local farms. Wow, talk about giving local foods a black eye!

Seth, while I don’t think opinions posted on a blog are required to meet the same rigorous standards as a news outlet, with editorial oversight, etc., I do try to be accurate and thorough, so I regret the suggestion in my original post that Black Dog had never bought meat from Triple S Farms, and I have owned up to it here and directly to Mike.

But to demand that I take responsibility for errors that you have simply made up or misread into what I’ve written is a little crazy. You say I “call[ed] Mike a slacker and a LIAR.” Care to cite one shred of evidence for this irresponsible claim?

As I’ve already said, giving the barbecue at Black Dog a score of 6 out of 10 is not an attack on anyone’s “work ethic,” and it certainly doesn’t translate into a letter grade of a “D-“ as you claim. A 60% on a test might equal a D-, but that’s only because 0% to 59% are all lumped together as one grade, an F. That’s actually a five-point scale, whereas I’m clearly using a ten-point scale.

So a 6 would translate instead into a letter grade of C+/B-, which, as I said, is not at all bad for $5, not at all bad considering that the restaurant is still new, and not at all bad considering, as I said, that my scale is based on all the barbecue I’ve sought out between Chicago and Clarksdale. If having points of reference outside of Chambanoy is enough to “come off as snobby,” I think that’s more of a reflection on the provinciality and insecurity of my critics. My ambition has never been just to blend in with the pack and to Yelp in unison. As Mike indicates in his comments, high standards are what keep you from settling for anything less than the best you can do.

Nor do I ever call Mike “a LIAR.” Instead, I report honestly that my server told me that Black Dog was buying pork from Triple S Farms, and I reported, honestly, that a number of people I know were under the impression that a significant portion of the meat on the menu came from local farms. As Jason spells out, since early coverage of Black Dog emphasized the local meat story, it’s not surprising that this impression could persist after Stan’s meat was no longer on the menu.

So is it “dogging it” for an employee to say that the restaurant is still buying meat from a local farm, when, in fact, it hasn’t bought any in six months or more or is it simply an honest mistake? I dunno; I admit I hadn’t done the research to give a definitive answer – and that’s why I posed it as a question instead of making it an accusation.

Seth, it’s not “misinformation” to report accurately what you were told and to point out the limits of your information. My information was limited, I admit, but it was not “misinformation.” The only point on which I was misinformed was in thinking that Black Dog had never bought meat from Stan, when it turns out they hadn’t bought very much and none recently. Readers can decide how big a difference this difference makes. In any case, I regret the error.

If you want to know what misinformation looks like, look no further than your accusation that I “call[ed] Mike a slacker and a LIAR.” Now that’s a perfect example of irresponsible extrapolation and “dangerous misinformation . . . intended to do damage.”

Instead of calling Mike a liar, I appreciate his honesty in setting the record straight and saying, “The percentage of locally-raised meat we use is low,” even while he wishes it were higher.

You claim I “botched the whole Mike-fucked-over-Stan-with-an-order part of the post.” First of all, I never said anything so boorish. Second, what I reported is that Stan had some meat custom processed for Black Dog, and by the time it was ready to deliver they no longer wanted it and Stan was stuck with it. I know, because I finally took the meat off his hands. Anyone can ask him, and he will tell them the same; Stan’s that kind of forthright guy.

If Mike doesn’t remember this incident, I’m confident that he’ll follow up, ask Stan about it, and try to make it up to him if he was at fault. He sounds like that kind of guy. Seth, if you’re so confident it never happened, can we assume that you’ve done some basic legwork and at least talked to Stan? Doesn’t sound to me like you have. Sorry to burst your bubble, but I immediately followed up with Stan about his initial collaboration with Black Dog, and he supplied further details about why he feels “burned” by the whole experience.

In short, Seth, the things that you accuse me of – being “boorish” and irresponsible, being so overconfident of my own interpretation of things that I don’t bother to do “an ounce of research,” and putting out “dangerous misinformation . . . intended to do damage” – all seem to be more true of your comments here than anything I have written.

If you feel like you understand me, declaring that you “suffer the same problems,” maybe it’s because you treat me like a screen on which you simply project your own problems. Illuminating, perhaps, but not in the sense you intend. It’s like a clip out of America’s Funniest Home Videos: watching a dog go a little crazy, barking at its reflection in a mirror of its own making.