BY JONATHAN DEUTSCH

In our previous “Cooking School” on poaching, we extolled the virtues of gently cooking a tender bit of food in liquid just until it reaches the desired doneness. This can be done with equipment no more sophisticated than a pan and a heat-numbed fingertip or can be done more precisely with equipment like an immersion circulator — a sophisticated piece of lab equipment that made its way to high-end restaurant kitchens some years ago and is now available for home use — allowing the cook to select and maintain poaching temperature to the nearest tenth of the degree. One problem with poaching is that just as we allow the flavorful poaching liquid to permeate the food being poached, we also allow flavors to transfer from the food into the liquid; good for sauce-making, not as good for a flavorful finished product. The solution is to introduce a membrane surrounding the food being cooked. This addition allows the heat to transfer from the liquid to the food but does not allow the flavors of the food to easily transfer to the liquid. The membrane may be semi-permeable, as in the case of a natural sausage casing or may be impermeable like a vacuum-sealed bag. With impermeability, since the heat transfers from liquid to food through the plastic, but the flavor stays inside the bag, nothing pricier or richer in flavor than water is needed as a cooking medium.

Keeping the flavor inside and the water out is by no means a new cooking method. Traditional foods like tamales, dumplings, sticky rice steamed in banana leaves, fish en papillote (worthy of its own “Cooking School” lesson), haggis, filled pastas, torchon of foie gras, and spotted dick, to name a few, all use the principle of wrapping delicacies in an edible or inedible casing to keep the flavor inside and the water out during moist heat cooking. Much is made of sous vide (under pressure) cooking, another topic worthy of its own Cooking School lesson. Chef George Pralus, of Restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, France, who was focused on maintaining maximum yield when cooking foie gras, brought the industrial food processing method to restaurants in the 1970s. Over the past couple of decades, Chef Thomas Keller, coinciding with advances in vacuum sealing and circulation equipment, popularized the method in the US, making it accessible to restaurants, and, now, home cooks. Sous vide is the process in which the food to be cooked is vacuum sealed (the under pressure part) in an impermeable plastic bag, usually along with additional flavoring agents, and then poached at a precise constant temperature in the bag. There are some advantages to this method, to be sure. The vacuum seal reduces oxidation (browning) and compresses flavors together; low temperature poaching allows for cooking to an exact measure of doneness and the low temperature means there is quite a bit of room for error to hold a product until needed; slow cooking results in greater yield from retained moisture in the product.

But the effect of poaching through a membrane can be achieved along a continuum from a length of plastic wrap, in a plastic zipper bag, or through a proper vacuum-sealed sous vide bag. The defining characteristic of the procedure is that the flavors stay encased. In the recipes below, keep this continuum in mind. While the recipes specify various membranes, the reader, with home cooks in mind, can change it based on equipment availability. Consistent with the “Cooking School” philosophy, flavors and ingredients are suggestions and can be changed as well.

Like any technique in the cook’s repertoire, there is a proper time and setting for each. Thinking through not only how a food will be cooked—poached, simmered, stewed, roasted, grilled and so on—to best highlight its features, but also in what medium—wrapped with aromatics, swimming in a flavorful broth, or crisped from hot fat, for example—gives a cook no shortage of sophisticated possibilities. The next “Cooking School” installment builds on poaching by considering the techniques of poele and butter-poaching; poaching in fat rather than aqueous liquid. Why use water when one has butter?

THAI-FLAVORED LOBSTER

This lobster can be served with the strained liquid that remains in the bag and is delicious served with jasmine rice as an entrée, in a toasted hot dog bun for a variation on a lobster roll, or tossed with blanched vegetable “noodles.”

Serves 4

4 lobster tails in their shells

2 tablespoons coconut oil

1 inch piece lemongrass, smashed

2 sprigs cilantro

1 small jalapeno, thinly sliced

1 lime, thinly sliced

Fill a circulator with water and set to 135ºF. Place two wooden skewers down the length of each lobster tail, to keep them straight while cooking. Place the lobster, olive oil, lemongrass, cilantro, jalapeno, and lime into a vacuum bag. Seal the bag and place in the circulator. Cook for about 1 ½ to 2 hours, depending on the size of the lobster tails. Allow the lobster to cool slightly before removing the shell and skewers.

SPRING RABBIT SAUSAGE

This sausage can be served as-is as an appetizer or accompanied by brown bread, butter and a salad as an entrée.

Serves 4-6

1 pound ground pork

½ pound ground rabbit

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon pepper

2 asparagus stalks, peeled and woody ends removed

1 small red pepper, julienned

1 medium carrot, peeled and julienned

4 cups chicken stock

2 sprigs thyme

1 tablespoon french butter french butter

Bring a large pot of water to a light simmer. In a medium sized bowl, mix together pork, rabbit, salt and pepper. Place a 12”x24” piece of plastic wrap onto a work surface. Spread the pork and rabbit mixture onto the plastic wrap, making a rectangle, about a half-inch thick. Place the asparagus stalks in the center of the rectangle. Place the red peppers and carrots in a line along either side of the asparagus. Using the plastic as a guide, roll the sausage tightly into a tube. Twist the sides of the plastic wrap and roll to distribute the meat evenly. Cover the plastic with a sheet of aluminum foil and twist the sides to secure. Place the sausage into the lightly simmering water, and poach for about 45 minutes, or until a thermometer registers at 145ºF, rewrapping the sausage in foil if necessary. In a small sauce pot, bring stock and thyme to a boil. Reduce the stock for about 30 minutes, or until a ½ cup is remaining. Season the sauce with salt and add butter. Allow the sausage to cool before unwrapping and slicing. Cut the sausage into slices and serve with sauce.

FILET MIGNON

Serve as you wish or with the lobster recipe above for a surf-and-turf to remember.

Serves: 4

Four (1 ½ inch thick) 4 ounce filet mignon steaks

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

4 sprigs thyme

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

Fill a circulator with water and set to 135ºF. Season the steaks with salt and pepper. Place the steaks, thyme and butter into a vacuum bag. Seal and place into the circulator. Cook the steaks to medium rare, for about one hour. For rare, lower the temperature of the water to 120ºF, and for well done, raise the temperature to 150ºF. Remove the steaks from the bag, and allow to rest for about 10 minutes. Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat and add olive oil. Add the steaks to the pan and sear for about 3-4 minutes, or until browned.

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