Sunday, April 19, 2009

BTO: Method over machines

Business Times - 18 Apr 2009

Method over machines

Getting the best out of your ingredients is all about what's in your head, not what's in your kitchen, says cooking-method expert Thomas Chai. By Audrey Phoon


UTILISING Gastrovacs, circulating water baths, smoking guns and the like may be the best way to do a bit of scientific cooking in a commercial kitchen, but the most practical method for home is to use your noggin.


Chef Thomas Chai recognises this, because even as he has access to any number of fancy machines as a regional executive chef for Givaudan, one of the world's leading companies in the flavours and fragrance industry, he regularly turns out elaborate meals at home without the use of complicated equipment.


On one cooking method that is picking up speed in US restaurants, the chef comments: 'Sous vide (the cooking of ingredients by placing them in airtight plastic bags and heating them over low temperature over an extended period) is getting really popular there and it's good - the food just feels like it's in a sauna, it doesn't feel like it's being cooked so it remains intact and happy. But I don't recommend it for use at home. Besides having to buy the special bags, it could take you three days just to cook one dish using that method!'


He suggests a more workable but still restaurant-like method of cooking at home that does not require out-of-the-ordinary equipment: doing a confit. 'The confit method is very practical because it's faster and you can also preserve and reuse the fat. For example, if you make a vegetable confit of tomato in olive oil with rosemary and thyme, all you have to do is to cook it at 75 degrees for one to two hours. And besides the confit, you'll also get a fragrant olive oil that you can use in a pasta.'


As shown, Chai - whose job involves finding out how cooking methods affect the final dish - is all for home cooks 'cooking more and getting to know your ingredients well' rather than spending on expensive equipment. He explains: 'Cooking is all about reactions, you need to know which method to use and what your ingredients are like to get the result you want.'


When making chicken broth, for example, the meat and bones need to be boiled for at least six hours at low temperature. That's because they contain lots of amino acids and cooking them that way will extract the acids so 'all the flavours will come out', says the chef, who contributed several of his recipes (such as the one above) to the recently-launched Singapore Symphony Orchestra 30th anniversary commemorative cookbook, A Symphony of Taste.


Start with a pot of cold water as the temperature change from cold to hot will also ensure that more proteins are released; this 'keeps the nutrition'. Chai warns, though, that this method is not popular with the Chinese as it results in a murkier broth - 'if you want a clearer soup then start with hot water', he says.


He goes on to talk about the Maillard reaction in the cooking of beef. (The term refers to when denatured proteins on the surface of meat recombine with the sugars present - this happens most readily when the temperature is between 150 and 250 degrees Celsius - thus changing the meat's colour and creating flavour.) 'If you don't brown beef before slow-cooking it, you won't get such a fragrant aroma and there'll be no brown note,' he says. 'The Maillard reaction produces more complex flavours so to get the best flavour out of your beef, sear it first. Then you can cook it at 75 degrees for six or seven hours.'


Ingredients-wise, Chai favours a practical approach too. 'Singapore chefs and cooks should use more local ingredients because the price for imported produce is not reasonable often due to the currency exchange,' he says, recommending organic vegetables from Malaysia that 'can compare with those that are from France, Australia etc'. For chicken, because the region's farmed poultry is 'not there yet in terms of quality', the chef likes using kampong chicken to make dishes such as a kampong chicken confit as the free-range birds have more flavour.


Chai buys most of his ingredients from the Sembawang wet market when he's cooking for his family but goes direct to the wholesale fish markets for seafood because it's 'cheaper and fresher there'.


'But you need to get up early - the fish markets open from 2am to 5am!' he finishes.


Seared wagyu beef with morels and black vinegar sauce
Serves 4


For the beef:

400g wagyu striploin
30g dry morel mushrooms
1/2 tsp natural salt
1/2 tsp fresh crushed black pepper


1. Oven-roast the dry morels at 180 degrees Celsius for 5 minutes until crispy, then grind them in a coffee grinder until they become a powder.


2. Mix the pepper, salt and morel powder well.


3. Cut the beef into 2cm-thick slices and coat with the mixture. Set aside in the chiller.


4. To cook, bring the meat to room temperature by removing it from the chiller 10 minutes before cooking. Melt the butter and oil in a cast iron pan. On medium heat, sear both sides of the beef until the desired doneness is achieved. Set aside to rest for 5 minutes.


For the sauce:

30g dry morel mushrooms
3/4 tbsp rock sugar
1 tsp ginger
1/2 cup brown beef jus
2 tbsp aged black rice vinegar
1 tbsp cold salted butter


1. Soak the morels in warm water for 10 minutes then sieve away the water, reserving a 1/2 cup of it.


2. Cut the morels in half, rinse with water briefly to remove impurities, and strain.


3. In a stainless steel sauce pot, melt the rock sugar with the 1/2 cup of morel water.


4. Add the ginger and beef jus. Simmer for 15 minutes to reduce its volume to half.


5. Add the morels and black vinegar and simmer for another 10 minutes. Set aside.


6. Just before serving, heat again and whisk in the cold butter to thicken the sauce.


For the garnish:

55g green honey peas
155g green asparagus
1 cup chicken stock
Pinch of salt
1/2 tbsp corn oil


1. Remove the honey peas from their pods. Using a peeler, peel asparagus thinly.


2. Bring the salted water to a boil, then add a little oil and blanch both vegetables for 10 seconds.


3. Sieve and pour into an ice-cold water bath to stop the cooking.


To serve:


1. Arrange the beef and vegetables on a plate and spoon the sauce over before serving.

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