I’ve always loved the thrill of exploring the unknown. My insatiable curiosity has manifested in all sorts of ways, whether heading into a unknown country in the midst of a civil war because they had incredible temples there that I might never otherwise have gotten to see, or plunging into a science fiction book in which a hapless ambassador from Earth finds himself on a planet where the natives shift from one gender to the other, or going to a restaurant where I had a great dish and ordering something different because I haven’t had it yet. Food offers so many possibilities to the intrepid explorer, and how can you know what you’re missing if you don’t try a bite?
For a decade or so I’ve been reading food reviews that talked about sous-vide cooking. Sous-vide, French for “under vacuum”, is a method of cooking food in air-emptied plastic bags in warm water (60ºC, 140ºF) for long periods of time. This cooks the food evenly, as opposed to traditional cooking in which the outside is always more cooked and the inside always less. The theory is that the food comes out moister and more flavourful. It sounded fascinating, though like many innovative ways of cooking the prohibitive cost of the equipment made it more fantasy than possibility.
But as Wikipedia notes, “Non-professional cooks are also beginning to use sous-vide cooking.” Anova, a big name in sous-vide, has introduced a home device for $165 Canadian. For that you get a tube, about two inches in diameter and just over a foot long, with a digital screen on its head. You attach it to a pot of water by a clamp at its waist, and in its foot is an immersion heater that heats the water up. You prepare a ziplock bad of veggies and flavours, submerge it in water to get all the air out, and zip it shut. The Anova app on your cell-phone lets you choose to heat the water to 142.5 degrees for 43 minutes, you plop in the bag and 43 minutes later the veggies are delicately cooked and ready to serve. What could be cooler than that?
Cervantes has a lovely proverb in Don Quixote, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” I had used the sous-vide device to cook a few vegetables over the weekend with varying results: the carrots were undercooked (too large pieces), the asparagus only okay (though they were lousy asparagus to begin with), and the mushrooms superb (delicate texture and deep umami flavour). So overall, a tie game. Tonight I went for salmon, and Diana, Simon, and I sat down to taste what salmon (135º F/ 57º C for 20 minutes) was like. We all like salmon, and I got a standard salmon fillet, of a kind I cook fairly often to test out.
It was indeed moist, and unusual in that the outside and the centre were equally cooked. It was far softer than a grilled salmon would have been, and more tender than even poached salmon would have been. The texture was...unusual. Simon said it was gelatinous, cheerily adding that as he liked salmon it was okay, but with something he didn’t like he wouldn’t find it acceptable. He’s my nephew and a kind and gentle person who wouldn’t want to offend his uncle. “Inedible,” was Diana’s verdict and as she didn’t eat it, it clearly was for her. I might have been able to convince myself that this was a fascinatingly different take on salmon had everyone else been enthusiastic, but as things were I wasn’t sure if I was in denial when I said it was really good. It was a whole lot like nothing I’ve ever had before, which I liked, but while it wasn’t undercooked, it didn’t quite seem as though it was fully cooked either.
Both Diana and Simon emphasized that they admired the way I tried new experiments, even if those experiments didn’t always succeed. I do admit that based on these verdicts my plan to cook sous-vide salmon for the ten guests we’re hosting on Saturday is, as my GPS would say, recalculating. The time and temperature I followed was supposed to yield a medium-rare result, and with a better cut of fish, and slightly longer/hotter settings there may yet be hope.
I had a ski instructor once who always emphasized that if you never fell, you weren’t trying enough new things. Mr. sous-vide and I have had a few tumbles in the early going, but I remain hopeful that with some fine tuning and we’ll be wowing the guests in no time. And what are the alternatives? The instructions that came with the sous-vide tube were careful to emphasize that one should not use it to power a hot tub, so that’s out. A shame really, as the prohibition made me think what a fine idea a sous-vide hot tub would be.
Besides, ultimately problems are just interesting puzzles one hasn’t solved yet. Optimism is another of my characteristics, as you might have guessed. I’m sure I have many great meals ahead. And I remain hopeful some of them may even be made with my sous-vide cooker.