My hands tear wildly at the packaging and parcel tape – the only thing separating me from my shiny new copy of Modernist Cuisine at Home, the book that promises to translate the techniques of my cheffing heroes to my home kitchen. In case you’ve never heard of it, Modernist Cuisine at Home is the follow up to Modernist Cuisine, the epic undertaking of superbrain-cum-cookery obsessive Nathan Myhrvold, a man whose career spans working on the quantum theory of gravitation with Stephen Hawking (yes, really), and being Microsoft’s first chief technology officer.
Having started cooking at nine, only to get waylaid with a pretty serious career in non-edible matters, he came back to gastronomy when he retired from Microsoft aged 40. In 2011, along with co-chefs Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, he published Modernist Cuisine, an encyclopaedic, six-volume, 2,438-page behemoth. It expounded the techniques, equipment, ingredients and recipes of the world’s Modernist (note the capital “M”) chefs – the Hestons, Ferrans and Changs, that, in Myhrvold’s view, do for gastronomy in terms of aesthetics, innovation and taboo-smashing, what the Modernists did for art.
While aimed at anyone with an interest in contemporary cooking, it was also not entirely approachable for the likes of me – home cooks who are interested in busting out some of these science-led, precision cooking techniques to improve their food, but who might not own a combi-oven, sous-vide machine, Pacojet or Electrolux Grand Cuisine kitchen.
Which is where Modernist Cuisine at Home comes in. The whole idea is to provide Modernist recipes for the home kitchen in a less intimidating way than the original tome – taking the key concepts introduced in MC and breaking them down and simplifying them.
As well as being lavishly illustrated, it includes 400 new recipes, a glossary of cooking terms, some amazing tips and, brilliantly, tells you how to create makeshift versions of hi-tech kit, enabling you to slow-cook steak in an ice cooler or mimic a wood-fired oven in a conventional one.
The recipes are generally more informal than the first book, and heavy on the comfort food, albeit highbrow comfort food, so you can learn how to make the Modernist hamburger or crispy chicken wings, Korean style, and a wonderful two-page spread of different grilled cheese combinations: such as camembert and gruyère on brioche with ham and mushroom and aged white cheddar on sourdough with apples. It shows amateurs how to make their very own “perfectly melting cheese slices” out of any cheese of their choice.
Despite this being more approachable than the first book, Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals this is not. A pork belly BLT, for example – which, rather than bacon, calls for pork belly that’s been brined for 24 hours and cooked in a water bath for 36, takes five and a half days to prepare. That’s pretty heavy going for a sandwich. Many of the recipes still call for kit you still might not have at home, though the “Stocking a Modernist Kitchen” section takes you through some of the tools you can acquire to sharpen your skills, such as microplanes, digital scales and digital thermometers, all of which my inner geek chose to invest in.
Having spent the past five years interviewing chefs waxing lyrical about sous vide (water-bath cookery), I’m keen to master this technique – but there’s one problem: no sous-vide machine. No matter, I turn straight to the “improvised water baths” section, which shows me how to cook items in makeshift water baths ranging from pots on a low gas setting, to hot tubs and kitchen sinks. I opt to cook salmon in the kitchen sink which is possible because the sink, or a large metal pot in the sink, can hold a constant temperature for up to an hour: way more time than is needed to cook fish.
Using the “Basics” chapter, which has extensive recipes for making things such as your own infused oils, special sauces, condiments, spice mixes and brines, I make a seaweed brine for the salmon, to “season it, firm it, and protect its delicate colour”. It’s seriously simple to whip up, with just salt, sugar, lemon zest and some flakes of kombu (optional), and after removing the skin from the fillets I leave them to brine for a few hours.
I remove the salmon and brine from the fridge an hour before cooking, so that the fish can reach room temperature, and then follow the instructions for bagging up the two fillets in zip-lock bags, each with two tablespoons of good olive oil. I remove the air from the salmon bags without a fancy vac-pac sealer, using the “water-displacement method” described in the book: submerging the bag in water to squeeze out the air – to about 1mm below the seal and then zipping it.
The next step is setting up the water bath – which simply involves running hot tap-water until it reaches the target temperature of 50C: five degrees higher than the target core temperature of 45C: which will cook my lovely organic salmon fillets to rare. I then fill the metal pot with the water, check the temperature with the digital thermometer, and immerse the bags. All I need to do now is set a timer for 25 minutes, and let the water gently work its magic.
While the salmon’s cooking in the sink, I get cracking on my side dish: Sichuan bok choy cooked in the microwave. A small confession here: the recipe proper calls for a combination of fermented black bean and chilli paste, sous-vide spiced chilli oil and Shaoxing wine: none of which I manage to source in time, so instead I substitute the sous vide chilli oil and fermented black bean and chilli paste for some Sichuan chilli paste I pick up in my local Asian supermarket, and use mirin instead of Shaoxing. The sauce I end up with, after simmering these ingredients together with some toasted sesame oil, hoisin and soy, has a sweet yet umami depth that I’m pretty happy with.
I prepare the bok choy in a jiffy by just cleaning them, splitting them, and placing them on a plate covered with a microwavable clingfilm lid, but wait until the salmon is done before I microwave them on full power for two minutes. I then take them out and let them rest, while I slide the salmon out of their bags and into a frying pan with some melted butter perked by a bit of five spice. The book recommends basting fish and meats cooked sous vide in a little butter, to add that pan-fried texture and flavour – but to do this without compromising the careful cooking of the fish I have to be super quick – just 30 seconds on each side.
I plate up: putting one fillet on each plate along with a couple of halves of bok choy which I season with the deep chilli Sichuan sauce. The verdict? The salmon is butter-soft, melting in the mouth and tastes intensely of the sea. There’s a purity and richness to it that’s better than any other salmon I’ve ever cooked. Together with the crunchy but silky boy choy and deep, spicy sauce it’s a balanced and satisfying dish and something I’d happily serve up at a dinner party. And not just to be able to say that I cooked it in the kitchen sink.