So a little while back, my good friends Rabbi Oz and Rabbi K who run an amazing Maimonides program over at UMD asked me if I would be interested in cooking for a sheva brachos they were putting together. My first and only question was, “Can I cook whatever I want?” The answer was yes, which may or may not have been a good thing.
Before I tell you what I made, I think now would be a good time to provide some background information for a technique called cooking en sous vide, which has been gaining popularity, and for good reason.
Sous vide, French for “under vacuum”, involves placing whatever you want to cook inside a vacuum sealed bag, and then placing that bag inside a temperature controlled water bath. You can basically cook anything in this method, from steak to eggs to even cake, but the results differ greatly from traditional methods.
Lets talk about steak. Back when I was a young lass, for some prescient reason I was tasked with manning the grill at all BBQ related events. I was foolish in thinking that everybody I’d be cooking for enjoyed their meat, juicy, tasty and bright pink in the center. On more than one occasion, a perfectly cooked medium-rare would be sent back, infuriatingly, with the complaint “I don’t want to get sick from raw meat!” So I’d throw it back on the grill and leave it there till it was the texture of the soles of my shoes. First lesson learned in cooking for your crowd.
Here’s the thing about steak-on-a-grill, though. If you do like your steak
raw medium rare, you’re gonna be cooking it until the temp at the center reads somewhere around 133 degrees. Chances are, though, that you’re grill surface isn’t hovering anywhere near that temperature. It’s probably closer to 400 degrees. And that explains why when you slice into that delicious slab of meat, the color will not be bright pink all the way through.
Here’s where cooking en sous vide in it’s most basic application saves the day. If you vacuum seal that steak, along with any flavor additions of your choice in a bag, and set the temperature of the water to 133 degrees, the entire steak will cook at that temperature for literally however long you’d like it to. Meaning, for a naturally tender cut like rib eye, somewhere around 30 minutes will do the trick. What’s awesome, however, is that you can take an impossibly tough but flavorful cut like chuck, or short ribs, and leave em at 133 FOR TWO WHOLE DAYS!! Yes, you read that correctly. It is the ultimate slow cooker. All of the toughness will be cooked out of the meat, but the temperature will not rise beyond 133, guaranteeing that the end result will be a succulent, tender chuck roast, and one that is also medium rare.
Now, cooking en sous vide is by no means a one trick pony. But that’s as much as I’ll talk about it for now. If you’re interested in seeing some of the fun stuff you can do with it, check if your local library has a copy of Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure. And check here, and here for resources on where to purchase an immersion circulator, the machine which will keep you from having to constantly turn your stove on and off, to maintain that precise 133, or 155 or 170 or, well, you get the point.
Now can I tell you about what I made?
So there’s a pretty popular recipe for 48 hour short ribs going around, from chef David Chang, which truly, is not at all that difficult. Here’s what I did:
First, the marinade for the meat
Clockwise, left to right:
Rice wine vinegar, Kosher salt, pear nectar, apple juice (I had to stop myself from drinking all of it–that’s right, I’m six years old. But Martinelli’s is BY FAR the best AJ you can buy), sesame oil, Lee Kum Kim soy sauce (also far and away the best variety), mirin, black pepper, scallion ends, onions and carrots. Also garlic, but forgot it before taking the picture.
So you basically boil all of this stuff together with some water and sugar for about five minutes, then strain and chill. It’s a delicious, simple Asian marinade.
That, my friend, is a Sous Vide Supreme, generously lent to me by my friend Dan. Even though I have a sous vide apparatus of my own, I was cooking for thirty, so the extra capacity really came in handy.
I neatly placed all 18 pounds of chuck roast into many different vacuum bags, along with a generous amount of marinade in each, and submerged them in the SUPREME!, and the giant crock pot I rigged with my own device. There they rested, cooking ever so gently for 48 hours.
While that was going on…
I decided to try a wacky recipe for dessert. I have a copy of David Lebowitz’s The Perfect Scoop, and therein lies a recipe for olive oil ice cream, paired nicely with roasted glazed apricots. Why not? Or so I thought. Later I realized, that since this was going to be a fleishig meal, I would have to use soy or coconut milk as the base for the ice cream. I think I rightly decided that either of those would be too overpowering against the delicate flavor of olive oil, so last minute, this is what I put together:
I’m realizing now that this picture doesn’t show you all too much. But, what I decided to make was a chocolate-coconut non-dairy ice cream. Now, chef Leibowitz has a recipe for this in his book as well. However, he recommends using coconut milk. Uh oh, I bought coconut cream. Two very different ingredients, with coconut cream being sweetened and thickened already in the can. So I left the sugar out of his recipe, and supplemented the cream with some soymilk, added some chocolate chips which had been melted in the microwave with some water, and, tada! Deliciousness all around!
So here’s where I hit a little speedbump. I have a KitchenAid ice cream maker, which is basically an attachment for your KitchenAid mixer which has that ice-pack liquid in its walls. The instructions are to put this bowl into the freezer for 24-48 hours before you want to use it, and the liquid will freeze colder than water. Add your base and churn, and give it on up for ice creamville!
Problem. My garbage freezer apparently doesn’t get that cold. And even after 48 hours, and a long 25 minute churn, my base was still the consistency of chicken soup. Not good. So I went out and bought some of this…
Yup! Dry Ice!
Totally saved the day. I packed the bowl full of that super cold stuff, covered it and put it in the freezer for an hour. When I added the base to the mixer that time, the bowl was soooooo cold that it seized up immediately and almost broke my paddle attachment. Trial and error folks, it’s how you learn!
There’s the ice cream churning.
There’s the bowl after I licked it totally clean. Well, not licked, exactly. It was still really stinkin cold, and had I stuck my tongue in there, I would have ended up with a Dumb and Dumber tongue-on-flagpole situation.
Along with the meat there are a few garnishes. Pickled mustard seed, braised daikon radish, coriander pickled carrots and blanched scallion. I got started on those. First the mustard seed.
Into my small saucepan went a mix of water, rice wine vinegar, sugar and salt. I boiled that up till everything dissolved and added the mustard seed, lowered the heat and cooked it for 45 minutes, until the seeds were tender. Really interesting taste and texture, something like caviar almost, in the way they pop in your mouth.
Next, the daikon:
The problem with the daikon was that the recipe calls for them to be braised in dashi, which is a fish base. That’s not exactly compatible with all the meat bathing in the water next door. So I tried it with some chicken stock instead, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the result. Live and learn.
The scallion and carrots you can see in the final plating.
So, after everything was said and done, I removed the meat from their bags, drained and strained the marinade and reduced it per the recipes instructions for a nice glaze to accompany the meat.
At the UMD MJXbox, I finished all the dishes. I seared some sushi grade tuna and plated that on a bed of cucumber noodles tossed with some sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper and ginger, topping it all with a little hoisin sauce mixed with a little orange and lime juice, and some crushed peanut.
Yeah, I know, I wasn’t so meticulous about my plating technique.
Then I deep fried all of the meat to give it a beautiful crust on the outside and plated it thusly:
The sauce is missing in this picture, but you can see how beautiful that meat looks, inside and out, with some very nice marbling and a bright pink interior.
A student whose name I forget now, suggested that I top all the ice cream with crushed pretzels. Thank you, whoever you were, because that was fantastic.
When it was all over, I thought about the experience and what I had learned. It was my first time cooking for so many people, 30 in all. I cooked most of everything in my tiny apartment kitchen, all by myself. Besides for some brain lapses in terms of shopping for ingredients, all the work took me less than three hours, start to finish, dishwashing time included.
I now know that the most useful tool I have in my kitchen is proper organization (also, that dry ice is very handy). If you are thinking about cooking for this many people, be sure to have every last step planned out to a T. Not only should you know exactly everything you need to do, but you should also figure out what two or three things can be done at the same time, which dishes or utensils need to be used more than once, how much time to factor in for chilling your food, and a whole other host of considerations.
At the end though, as much as you plan, stuff will go wrong, and you have to roll with it and come up with some alternatives on the fly. But the beauty is the realization that even though you haven’t met your original expectations, you can still come up with something equally amazing, albeit different from what you envisioned. Wouldn’t that be a great attitude to have about life as a whole?
Until next time!