PART 2: It's not pots & pans I need for these recipes. It's laboratory equipment!
Two years ago, Nathan Myhrvold rocked the cookbook world by self-publishing a six-volume, 2,400-page set of cookbooks called Modernist Cuisine out of the Cooking Lab, his culinary research facility in Tacoma, Washington. For the series, his team included chefs who had previously cooked with British legend Heston Blumenthal, a man who is said to have milked a reindeer in Siberia to make ice cream.
After eliminating several options due to the absence of laboratory supplies (nitrogen, trisol, a centrifuge) or because the food did not look like anything I'd serve guests (fish paper, and also beetroot-fed oysters, which emerge from their shells looking like something that did not survive The Dawn of the Dead), I settled on a relatively simple menu that incorporated water-bath and pressure-cooker techniques. Both of these methods offer lessons on the transformative power of heat plus pressure. Both require machines, one of which my grandmother would not recognize—the sous vide machine. With a sous vide, you vacuum-pack food in plastic bags and then suspend it in a water bath, sometimes for many hours.
I made a sous-vided white fish with red wine reduction, served with potato crisps and green beans (swapped in for the sea asparagus I couldn't source in the time allowed). The fish was the biggest surprise. Cooked in 102-degree water that barely scalds to the touch, and only for 20 minutes, it should have seemed raw. But it was silky perfection, entirely done, and moist as could be. As I fussed with my new sous vide machine, however, I neglected and then "broke" the red wine reduction on the stove and got a gritty-looking sauce—a classic first-year cook's error that would have had me clouted about the ears with a wooden spoon in any restaurant kitchen. But overall, the dish was a success.
The next night I tried another Modernist meal: pressure-cooker carnitas with achiote; some crazy-rich Joël Robuchon mashed potatoes; and vacuum-packed sweet caraway pickles. Again, solid results: each dish vibrantly flavored and, this time, no major mistakes.
Did Modernist Cuisine teach me anything useful for my home cooking? Yes. Vacuum packing the pickles delivered wonderful, intense flavors in just 24 hours. Cooking pork shoulder in a pressure cooker is a great technique for getting pulled-pork tenderness in about an hour and a half. Sous-viding peeled potatoes with their peels, before tossing the peels and then boiling and mashing the potatoes, contributed to a more potato-y flavor. And the sous vide fish is also a keeper. To never dry or undercook a fish again is a revelation worth the price of the machine.