I like modernist thinking. I like the form, clean lines, and simplicity of modernism. However, on the topic of cooking, I’m all about mastering the classics. When I was invited by photographer Caren Alpert to participate in a test shoot featuring sous vide cooking, I jumped on the opportunity because I’d never done it before. Even though the objective was to get great pictures, the whole process had to be done right and I was very curious to see how this modern method of cooking would fuse with my old school sensibility.
Sous vide— under vacuum— was originally developed for large food service operations like cruise lines to preserve quality and facilitate consistency. There’s a lot to know about it, but in a nutshell, a foodstuff is placed in a bag and sealed tight with all of the oxygen taken out by a vacuum process. Then the bag is essentially poached in a water bath to a desired doneness controlled by time and temperature. Because the temperature of the water is kept consistent by moving it, “circulating” as it’s called, the doneness of the food item is the same throughout its mass. With cooking this way, you can make a large quantity of duck breasts at the same time and all can be perfectly medium rare.
Our plan for a two-day shoot was to take pictures of fruit and vegetables while cooking in the water bath the first day. These would be done on location in a modern kitchen showroom. For the second day, in Caren's studio we’d shoot beauty shots of finished dishes I created featuring each item.
Before the shoot, I had to quickly learn how cook sous vide. Since this method of cooking was quickly gaining popularity among chefs, the manufacturers of the equipment we needed generously lent us a vacuum sealer and a circulator. I did a lot of fact-finding on the web and read Chef Thomas Keller’s book on the subject, Under Pressure, a few times to really understand the process and the vernacular. Then I practiced vacuum sealing and cooking with the circulator to figure out how to get to the doneness and textures I wanted as well as how to manage this for flavor.
Artichokes were interesting to shoot because of their shape and what they’d look like sealed in the bags and immersed in the water. I found beautiful medium-sized artichokes, pared them down to the heart leaving a short length of the stem and some of the tender inside leaves attached. I cut them in half, scooped out the thistly bits from the center, rubbed a little fresh lemon juice all over each, added a light coating of extra virgin olive oil and fine sea salt, then immediately sealed them in the bag. I cooked them a couple days before the shoot because the entire process takes a substantial amount of time.
For the beauty shot, my devotion to all things Mediterranean led me to finish them with classic Ligurian coast adornments: a drizzle of Taggiascha olive oil, a little minced green onion, a scattering of small garlicky croutons, fresh thyme, and thin slivers of lemon zest.
Is this a Tuesday night way to make a small quantity of artichokes from start to finish? Probably not. However, the color, texture, and flavor of them was so fantastic from the sous vide process, “putting up” a large quantity when in season would be as good, perhaps even better, than traditional canning. Once out of the water bath, chilled immediately, and kept in the sealed bags, the artichokes can be stored in the freezer for later use. Slowly defrost in the refrigerator then serve at room temperature or slightly warmed with the Ligurian inspired embellishments. Take the pressure off with a glass of Vermentino while imagining the view of the sea from the hills of the Cinque Terre.