Utah chef Viet Pham trims fat from the duck breasts, pats them dry and then carefully seasons each one with Chinese five spice, smoked paprika and salt.
He places the meat in small plastic bags and removes the air with a vacuum sealer. These air-tight pouches are then slipped into a simmering water bath to cook.
It looks like a typical "boil-in-a-bag" meal. But this cooking technique, called sous vide , is becoming a way for cutting-edge chefs to separate themselves from their competitors. While the method has been around for decades, it's relatively new to Utah restaurants.
Experts say that sous vide , which means "under vacuum" in French, offers a fail-proof way to cook meats, fish and some vegetables. Pham and co-chef Bowman Brown have used the process to slow-cook eggs at Forage, their new Salt Lake City restaurant.
Food that is cooked sous vide is neither undercooked or overcooked. It's moist, fork-tender and infused with flavor. Food cooked this way has a texture and consistency unlike anything that has been baked, broiled, braised or grilled.
"It will be perfect every time," said Chef Christophe Bernard, academic director of cuisine at the Arts Institute of Los Angeles.
Sous vide was originally developed in France in the mid-1970s. While the cooking technique was introduced in the United States about a decade later, it didn't take off until 2000. That's when Thomas Keller, the famed chef at the French Laundry in Napa California, began using the method.
If you watch cooking shows such as Top Chef or Iron Chef America, you've probably seen the sous vide technique. You might have tasted food cooked that way at high-end restaurants, but you might not have known it, as the cooking technique isn't always listed on the menu. Beyond the chefs at Forage, restaurants ranging from Salt Lake City's Metropolitan, Pack City's Spruce, and Provo's Spark have experimented with the technique.
Spruce chef Saundra Middleton was professionally trained in France, but said she didn't learn the method until she worked at a California restaurant. She lists numerous reasons why she likes the sous vide method, including that meat cooks consistently throughout. Other foods, such as mushrooms, retain their color. And the bitterness in some vegetables, like endive, is eliminated. "You can't get these results any other way," she said.
A key element in the sous vide process is cooking the vacuum-packed food at a low temperature -- below 200 degrees --for a long period of time, a process similar to poaching. Prime beef, for example, cooks in 139-degree water for 45 minutes. A pork shoulder cooks at 176 degrees for eight hours. Other cuts can take 12, 18, even 72 hours. Pham's duck breasts will cook at 140 degrees for only 22 minutes.
Fish benefits the most from the process, becoming silky in taste and texture. Meat and poultry have a uniform color and feel. And sturdy root vegetables, such as carrots, beets and turnips, taste tender and buttery. Less successful are green vegetables, which lose their color via the sous vide process.
Fruits, when put through the vacuum-sealing process, turn dense and crisp. When spices and herbs are added to the bag, the vacuum process infuses the fruit with additional flavor. On a recent day, for example, Brown compressed apples with geraniums petals, creating a sweet, perfumed garnish.
In the summer, when the chef put watermelon through the compression process, it came out resembling ahi tuna. The dish was presented it to guests in a way that looked like fish, creating a pleasant surprising taste for guests when they bit into the food, he said.
The sous vide technique is now making its way into home kitchens, thanks to new appliances and cookbooks.
But you don't necessarily need any fancy equipment, Pham said. With a pot of water and a vacuum sealer -- which are sold in home goods stores --any home cook can experiment with the sous vide method.
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 celery stick, chopped
21/2 cups water
1 bouquet garni*
4 chicken breasts, skin on
1 small handful thyme sprigs
1 small handful rosemary sprigs
2 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons port wine
4 tablespoons Marsala
1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup chopped semi-dry prunes
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
4 freezer bags, as thick as possible
In a large pot, heat olive oil. Add onion, carrot and celery. Cook until softened. Add water, bouquet garni, and reduce to create a rich stock. Season with salt and pepper. Put one chicken breast in each bag, adding a few springs of the herbs, half a clove of garlic, one tablespoons port, one tablespoon Marsala and 2 tablespoons vegetable stock.
Extract as much air as you can and close the bags by tying a knot. Place the bags in a large pot with simmering water and cook for 20 minutes, shaking the bags twice to baste. Bags will inflate quite a bit, but make sure they do not burst.
In the meantime, place the prunes and orange juice in a non-stick pan and cook until the prunes have soaked up the orange juice. When the chicken is cooked, cut the bags open and transfer the juices into the pan with the prunes. Purée with a hand-held blender.
Arrange the chicken breasts on plates, drizzle with sauce.
*Bouqet garni is a combination of parlsey, thyme and bay leaf, tied together in a cheesecloth. You can make your own, or buy the mixture in the spice section of most grocery stores.
Servings » 4
3 pounds peaches, peeled and sliced
6 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup white wine
4 teaspoons torn rose geranium leaves, or a dash vanilla extract, or 1 1/2-inch cinnamon stick
Resealable plastic bag
In a large, resealable plastic bag, combine peaches, sugar, wine and desired flavoring. Squeeze out all the air and seal tightly. Heat a large, wide pot of water to between 140 and 150 degrees. Reduce flame to maintain temperature.
Lower sealed plastic bag into water. Cook 45 minutes. While cooking, keep the water at a steady temperature. If water gets too warm, add about 1/4 cup to cool it. (The first five minutes are the most critical; after that, the water should maintain temperature.)
Remove bag from water. Pat dry to avoid diluting juices. Empty peaches into a bowl and discard cinnamon stick (if using). Divide peaches and sauce among serving plates. Serve at room temperature.
Servings » 6
1/2 pound bluefin tuna, cut into 5-by-2 by-inch pieces
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Preheat a water bath to 139 degrees. Place tuna in a bag and add the oils. Vacuum seal. Place the pouch in water bath. Cook for 13 minutes. Remove tuna from the bag and put on a rack set over a sheet pan to drain. Serve.
(The French Laundry serves with tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, nicoise olives, and basil seeds.)
Servings » 4
Source » Under Pressure by Thomas Keller