PART 4: Ouch! I burn myself twice and drop a plate.
Having felt momentarily overwhelmed during the Noma meal, I planned even more obsessively for Thomas Keller's Under Pressure, a book of sous vide recipes. Keller is the most revered practitioner of perfectionist restaurant cooking in America. Yet Under Pressure felt like the most approachable of the books I tackled. With the exception of the variety meats section—which serves up corned beef tongue with pain perdu, confit of calf's heart, etc.—most dishes seem familiar: Spanish mackerel with serrano ham, for example, and blanquette de veau. Prime beef is served with spring garlic, glazed carrots, bone marrow, and bordelaise syrup.
This is white-tablecloth food, certainly, but it doesn't appear undoable. Which is why you want to read these recipes very carefully before beginning. A humble-sounding new-crop onion salad appetizer requires eight hours if you don't have more than one sous vide machine. A Rabbit and Bacon Pressé main course won't work for dinner tonight, as it starts with a preparation involving boning rabbit flanks, chilling them, layering with bacon and transglutaminase, chilling them again, vacuum-packing, and chilling a third time for six hours, after which you still have to sous-vide the package for 12 hours, bring to room temperature, and then brown in oil. (There is also a three-hour rabbit liver mousse and a 12-hour poached apricot.)
Still, I did find a two-course menu that seemed challenging but doable. For the appetizer: caramelized fennel with almonds, orange confit, caraway seed, and fennel puree. For the main: glazed pork belly with Swiss chard, white wine--poached apples, and green mustard vinaigrette.
I started Thursday for a dinner party on Saturday. Thursday was shopping and putting the pork belly into a brine. Friday, the belly had to go into the sous vide, and Keller's signature pork stock had to be made. Saturday, the apples, the chard stems, and the fennel (in three batches) each had to be sous-vided. Saturday afternoon I had to do the orange confit and the almond puree, cook and hold the chard, make the vinaigrette, and portion the pork. Just as guests arrived, I caramelized the fennel and browned the pork belly, which stuck and began to fall apart. I burned myself good, twice. I dropped a plate. My kitchen sink was backing up, and I ran out of pots. For the first time ever, I couldn't find my knife.
I stepped back. I took a sip of a delightful Mission Hill Reserve pinot noir that I'd been saving for just this type of emergency. Then I plated.
Two things had happened along the way. At about the sixtieth hour of prep, I stopped measuring out the gram weight of everything. As I was turning to Keller's book for the 900th time to check what amount of olive oil he demanded for reheating the chard (15 grams), it occurred to me that surely I could eyeball something so basic. I didn't really care if the orange supremes were turned into orange confit by steeping in 250 grams or 750 grams of simple syrup. Did I trim the finished pork belly to ensure I had exactly 71.25 grams per serving? I did not. I cut and measured by eye. And dinner was good.
More than good: The salad of fennel was pretty and light. The pork belly, a bit more ragged than in the pictures, was densely, deeply flavored. And I took satisfaction in a bit of improvisation: The pork stock had seemed a little thin, even after being reduced, so I jacked up Keller's sauce with a couple of cubes of oxtail glaze borrowed from the Noma dinner three nights before. It rocked. My guests loved it, and I slept nine full hours that night.