Monday, February 9, 2009

Review: Under Pressure

I'll preface this review with a plug for The Gastronomer's Bookshelf. This site "is a collaborative book review site covering a wide range of titles on food, wine and gastronomy." I encourage you to check it out and offer reviews of some of the books on your shelf. Here is my first submission:

The 2008-2009 class of modernist cookbooks was stellar. It seems that chefs and authors have recognized that a growing class of home cooks has filled their pantry with calcium lactate, agar agar, gelatin sheets and lecithin. The days of flashy coffee table books filled with out-of-reach food porn has pushed aside for star studded cook books filled with National Geographic worthy photos and accessible (albeit challenging) recipes. Among this class we can find Johnny Iuzinni, Grant Achatz, Joel Robuchon and Thomas Keller. The latter leads the class in its yawp to cooks and chefs across the globe that its time to look forward while keeping your roots solid and well honed.

Keller’s Under Pressure quickly rose in the sales ranks with the ancillary support of a rash of media espousing the virtues of sous vide cooking. In this day and age, which cook hasn’t thrown their marinated chicken breast into their food saver in hopes of punching out impeccable flavor?!

As someone more keen on pastry than carnage, I bought the book to make sure I wasn’t going to kill anyone with my sous vide play. Once I cracked the spine I realized I was in for a surprise. I expected both forms of sous vide – beef and chicken, but was happy to see vegetables and fruits, fish and shellfish, “variety meats,” and cheese and desserts. These recipes are sandwiched between “The Fundamentals” of Basic Principles, Basic Techniques, Safety and applications in the home kitchen.

At just shy of 300 pages with high quality color pictures on half of the pages, and more recipes than my vacuum packer can handle, this cookbook packs a wallop. Consider sous vide’s espoused virtues – “Fruits, which are especially susceptible to rapid oxidation and discoloration, remain bright when cooked sous vide rather than becoming dull and brown,” or “Fish, perhaps more than any protein, has such a small window of doneness that it requires the most finesse on the part of the cook. Sous vide makes cooking fish easier and more consistent, especially in a busy kitchen.” These are tidbits that welcome the home cook into the industrial kitchen with open arms.

While many home cooks are intimidated by cookbooks of this girth and lingo (which is quite accessible), Under Pressure offers easy to follow recipes. I have recently prepared a handful, each resulting in perfect dishes: Spanish mackerel and Serrano ham en brioche; Salad of heirloom beets, Anjou pear, mache, dried walnuts and blue apron goat cheese coulis; and Peanut butter mousse with caramelized bananas.

Just as university tuition balloons, this book carries a hefty price tag ($75US, although it is already marked down to $47.25US on Amazon). Is it worth it? If you’re buying it for the food porn, it is a good option, although better exists. If you’re buying it for the sous vide technique basics, you’re better off reading eGullet’s expansive (and overwhelming) thread for free. But if you’re interested in rolling up your sleeves, plugging in the circulator, and cranking out some amazing foods, then this is a great option for you.

No comments: