Cooking from Thomas Keller's 'Under Pressure'

"We spent roughly seven and a half hours re-creating two recipes."

Grilled Octopus Tentacles, Chorizo, Fingerling Potatoes, Green Almonds, and Salsa Verde

Grilled Octopus Tentacles, Chorizo, Fingerling Potatoes, Marcona Almonds, and Salsa Verde.

20081210-underpressure.jpgOver the weekend, my good-humored boyfriend, Al, and I tackled two recipes from Thomas Keller's latest cookbook, Under Pressure.

This handsome book is an ode to sous vide cooking and offers instruction for its use. The book is the third collaborative effort by Keller and Michael Ruhlman, following the French Laundry and Bouchon cookbooks. We've had the pleasure of cooking through the earlier volumes and met the arrival of this new book with anticipation.

Two years ago, Al bought a laboratory-grade immersion circulator off of eBay (which he adequately sterilized, he swears). Since then, we’ve managed to clutter the kitchen with additional hardware like a more-portable immersion circulator, a FoodSaver vacuum sealer, a Vita Prep high-speed blender, three kinds of chinois, a Superbag, an electronic pressure cooker, a heat gun, an NO2 canister, a meat grinder, a meat slicer, a dehydrator, and a microgram scale. Then there’s “software” like xanthan gum, Versawhip, methocel, tapioca maltodextrin, sodium alginate/calcium gluconolactate, agar, and lecithin. We've grown progressively comfortable with technical, precise cooking.

In particular, we've fallen in love with sous vide. Truthfully, I'm a late convert to the Cult of Meat, but our sous vide preparations have made me a born-again flesheater with missionary zeal. Meat is rarely as juicy or as velveteen as it is slow-poached in a controlled bath of 55.5°C. (I confess; I also get a special thrill witnessing my doctor’s horror as my LDL-levels climb to all-time highs.)

Before the advent of Under Pressure, home-chefs undertaking the challenge of sous vide looked to information from a handful of pioneering amateurs such as Nathan Mhyrvold or Douglas Baldwin. Though their calculus is far from sexy, used as a reference, their experiments established clear and helpful guidelines for further experimentation at home.

20081210-tkbook-highlight.jpgContrast that with Under Pressure. The book has been heralded as the definitive guide to sous vide cooking, which may be true by circumstance more than intent.

Under Pressure, as it so states, is a literal documentation of recipes found in French Laundry and Per Se, written by professional chefs for professional chefs, presuming access to professional-grade equipment. This statement is buried inconspicuously on page 38 and more forbiddingly intones: “No modifications have been made to accommodate cooks preparing [these recipes] at home.”

Fueled on defiance, Al and I were ready for the challenge. Even without the required $4,000 chamber vacuum, we would conquer all. We selected two recipes that seemed intrguing and complimentary: Grilled Octopus Tentacles, Chorizo, Fingerling Potatoes, Green Almonds, and Salsa Verde and Caramelized Fennel, Marcona Almonds, Navel Orange Confit, Caraway Seeds, and Fennel Purée.

We began cooking at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, sitting down to "dinner" 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Excluding trips to Whole Foods and Wegmans to find a "1.15 kilogram Mediterranean or Japanese octopus," we spent roughly seven and a half hours re-creating two recipes.

The meal, though tasty, wasn’t anywhere near seven hours' worth of tasty.

Caramelized Fennel, Marcona Almonds, Navel Orange Confit, Caraway Seeds, and Fennel Puree

Caramelized Fennel, Marcona Almonds, Navel Orange Confit, Caraway Seeds, and Fennel Puree.

General Observations of the Book

1. The biggest challenge in cooking from Under Pressure is that its recipes resist compromise and restrict substitution. The techniques and choices are not always appropriate outside of the restaurant kitchen, and more problematically, choices are not fully explained. The type of curious cook who would even consider the investment of a chamber vacuum is sure to wonder about the rationale behind preferred cooking times and temperatures.

2. Keller's recipes don't scale well for home-cooking and we direct this criticism specifically toward its sauces and purées. The effort toasting, grinding, rinsing, draining, chopping, blending, straining, and re-straining yields so little reward. All this effort for a 200-gram mash.

3. The gauzy macros, shot axonometrically, do little to clear the mystery of how to plate a dish. This would be a minor quibble with most cookbooks, but is a major one with Under Presssure. Photographs depicting the proportions of the many components of a recipe would be helpful. But the book's food porn, lush as it is, is more useful as inspiration than illustration.

4. The book is written with exacting detail but is sometimes not specific at all. Though we were instructed on how much cumin seed to use, down to the Nth milligram, we were given no indication whether the plated dish was to be served hot, cold, or whenever we got around to eating it. In general, the recipes also fail to define the desired volume or thickness of ingredients, which is particularly important for sous vide.

5. Though the recipes are not written or laid out with the same modularity as they are in the similarly beautiful Alinea cookbook, it does appear possible to break down a recipe by its components and tackle them at will. Grilled Octopus Tentacles, Chorizo, Fingerling Potatoes, Green Almonds, and Salsa Verde is not a recipe we’ll undertake in its entirety again, but we’ll certainly use sous vide to tenderize octopus in the future. Some Keller preparations are sensible undertakings. Combined with certain shortcuts, they can yield equally delicious results.

6. There is a danger in cooking a Keller recipe by cherry-picked components, however. Keller’s components are often overcharacterized by a single flavor. The component may seem overpowering eaten on its own but is balanced when the dish is eaten as a whole. As an example, the fingerling potatoes eaten alone tasted terribly medicinal. They were dominated by the taste of bay leaf. But after the plate was assembled, and after we took care to spear each forkful with potato, chorizo, octopus, almond, and a wet swab of purée, we finally understood what we were meant to taste—the nano version of four Spanish tapas.

What Keller and Ruhlman have really done is document recipes from the recent French Laundry–Per Se corpus. As a French Laundry II or a Per Se Paint-by-Numbers, the book succeeds. There is pleasure in reading, cooking, and eating from it. However, as a practical guide to sous vide cookery, Under Pressure doesn't quite meet the mark. It struggles to generalize the specifics of the recipes into broad sous vide principles. Moreover, the reader is easily lost in the minutiae of its preparations.