Maybe it's the pandemic or the political climate, but I'm just not into fancy restaurant cookbooks right now. This is a funny thing to say, considering I wrote one with a fancy chef not that long ago. Yet these days, the kind of food I want to cook is flavorful and comforting—proven classics from favorite chefs like Julia Child, Edna Lewis, Simon Hopkinson, or David Tanis.
Particularly interesting to me right now are books based on a technique or a specific style of cooking. I've always loved Jacques Pépin's books or barbecue tomes by experts like Steven Raichlen and Meathead Goldwyn. I've been on a yearslong fermentation kick thanks to Sandor Katz, Nancy Singleton Hachisu, Rene Redzepi, and David Zilber. I've also dug deep into electric pressure-cooker cookbooks, letting myself be guided by experts like Melissa Clark, Urvashi Pitre, and America's Test Kitchen. These are the books I want to have within arm's reach in my kitchen.
New to my shelves in the last few years are books by Hugh Acheson, a Canadian chef who decamped to Georgia, opened acclaimed restaurants, and started writing cookbooks that are right up my alley.
In 2017's The Chef and the Slow Cooker, he takes a countertop appliance that's not hip at all in the Instant Pot era and shows why and how it's still one of the most valuable tools in the kitchen. To do it, he uses a clever mix of wit and storytelling, but underneath it all is a description of how to take full use of this tool and make your life easier in the process. Slow-cooker cookbooks can have a surprising sameness to them with recipes for meatloaf, sloppy joes, mac and cheese, turkey chili, five other kinds of chili, and chicken cacciatore. Into this fray wanders Acheson with recipes for tripe, choucroute garni, poached eggs in romesco, a hearty Italian soup known as ribollita, and cod poached in vermouth.
Using the book, I found that Acheson spends a lot of time at the intersection of technique, flavor, and practicality. Other cookbooks have come and gone in my library in the last two years, but this one isn't going anywhere.
Needless to say, I was excited to recently find a copy of Acheson's Sous Vide: Better Home Cooking on my kitchen counter.
Sous vide, the technique where food sealed in a plastic bag is cooked in a temperature-controlled water bath, delivers stunning and consistent results. Fish goes from hard to nail to hard to fail. Pork chops can be a perfect medium-rare from top to bottom, with no gray bands. Cheap cuts can be turned into meltinglytender steaks. Chicken breasts are worth eating again. Soft-boiled eggs can emerge with just-set whites coddling velvety yolks.
Despite a growth in popularity in the past decade or so, sous vide remains a bit of a fringe kitchen activity, a little too nerdy for the general population. Perhaps the best-known cookbooks out there are Thomas Keller's Under Pressure and Joan Roca's La Cocina al Vacio (both way too nerdy for the general population), but nearly all the other books out there feel like they've been bankrolled by sous vide equipment manufacturers. There's been a peculiar need for a reference book with basic recipes that set the foundation and help you grow. Instead, we've mostly been left to the wilds of the internet.
This isn't a wholly bad thing. There are some excellent websites and recipes out there, but there is a ton of dross to sift through, and especially in the early days, it's hard to know what's what. (Full disclosure: I wrote about food on a four-month contract in 2015 for ChefSteps, which later went on to become a sous-vide manufacturer.) A well-written sous vide cookbook could make a significant impact, and while Acheson's isn't for beginners, it's earned a spot in the “technique” section of my cookbook collection.
I immediately appreciated the depth of the bench in the fruit and vegetable section, the largest in the book with almost 40 recipes. Testing began with the long-cook broccoli, mostly because I was getting hungry and had the ingredients on hand. It's essentially a long poach, cooking the crucifer in a mix of chicken broth, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and red pepper flakes. After two hours at 176 degrees Fahrenheit, the florets are then seared in a skillet and served under a shower of grated parmesan. There are faster ways to cook broccoli, but not many that are this good. It looks like nothing fancy and tastes like a million bucks.
I also made a purée of shelled edamame, which gets a similar treatment, cooking in stock with lemon juice, garlic, and a few fistfuls of spinach. After 30 minutes it all goes into the food processor, and it out comes looking like a green hummus cousin. Acheson suggests serving it as a hot side dish or as a cool dip, and I did both, then devoured half of it in one late-night go, alternately spreading it onto crackers and just spooning it directly into my mouth.
Later, I made eggplant in a mix of mirin, soy, and ginger. After that, I tried leeks barigoule, an Acheson riff on a classic Provençal dish usually made by braising artichokes. I also tried an acorn squash dish with pumpkin seeds, chocolate, and queso fresco, something that Acheson classifies as "wackier than it is." I tried the latter on family dinner night, getting my niece and nephew to grate the chocolate over the squash, and it got thumbs up from everyone at the table.
I was getting into a groove with the book, and while the recipes were sometimes a bit cheffy, they also tended to be profoundly good, leaving me both wanting more and thinking about the food I'd made for days. They're also classic sous vide, often starting with slow, precise cooking in the bag, followed by a quick sear on the stove or under the broiler for flavorful browning.
Switching over to the Birds (& Eggs) section, I made some “63.5°C Eggs,” a chef's magic number for the perfect soft-boiled egg, where, after an hour in the water, they emerge with creamy, loose whites and silky yet firm yolks. Experiment (or just look it up) and you can work your own magic on the textures of the yolks and whites by tinkering with the cooking times and temperatures. Acheson also suggests popping two eggs in a mason jar with gruyere and sautéed onions and spinach, covering and cooking them in the water bath for an hour. It's simple yet sophisticated, and if you're on the ball, you can prep large numbers of these ahead of time for a low-stress, high-impact brunch.
I also scored with mojo chicken. Blitzing garlic, oregano, nutmeg, and cumin with a bunch of cilantro, lime juice, OJ, wine, and olive oil in a blender and pouring it into the sous-vide bags creates a lovely Cuban-inflected medium for cooking chicken. That cooks away for two hands-off hours. When it's done, you sauté onions in a skillet, pour the chicken and cooking liquid out over them, brown it all under the broiler, and serve it with beans and rice. It's an easy recipe to follow and the return on investment is high.
Later, I made stunning pork ribs for a group, acquainting myself with the lovely guajillo pepper, which is part of both the rub and the sauce. The ribs cook for 12 hours at 165.2 degrees, which meant I did all the prep the night before, woke up at 6:00 on a Saturday to drop the bags in the water bath, then went back to bed. That night, I pulled the ribs from their bags, patted them dry, broiled, sauced, broiled again, and served them. They had a texture just shy of fall-off-the-bone and a deep meatiness. Mid-meal, my meat-aficionado brother-in-law Ben looked over at me and said, "Damn fine ribs, Joe Ray."
My pièce de résistance, though, was the pâté de campagne. Traditionally made in the oven inside a covered terrine nestled into a water-filled roasting pan, pâté always felt like a complicated, high-risk project. In Acheson's book, though, I felt a sense of assurance.
"This is the kind of food I want you to develop confidence in," Acheson says in the headnote. "It will open so many doors to the culinary world, and soon you will dream of opening up a place called Mes Terrines in the South of France."
So I made the pâté, creating a farce—a mixture of ground pork butt, cubed fatback, puréed chicken liver, and spices, enrobing it in smoked bacon from Bob's Quality Meats near my home in Seattle. Instead of the traditional preparation, here the terrine (or loaf pan) is bagged and submerged in the sous vide tub for two hours at 149 degrees. When it emerged, I pulled out some Dijon mustard, sauerkraut, and a bottle of red, then I called my wife. We were in heaven.
Acheson's book isn't for everybody. You'll need to pick up the basics of sous vide elsewhere. Considering the lack of competition, I was surprised not to find more fundamentals in it—stuff like simple steak and chicken breasts you can cook in a hurry on a Tuesday, or a time/temperature chart that can give you guidelines at a glance.
The big fault in the book is a weird one—its relationship with cooking vessels. Food cooked sous vide should be done in what you might call a uniform layer in the bag; for example, two steaks next to each other in a bag will come out just right, but two steaks stacked on top of each other in the same bag will not give you the desired result. In that “wacky” acorn squash recipe, two squashes cut in half-inch slices along with all of the other ingredients are supposed to fit in a gallon-size plastic bag. Ditto for 5 pounds of ribs. The pâté calls for a single terrine mold or loaf pan, and I had more than enough farce for two full loaf pans. I had similar issues with the eggplant and decided ahead of time to do the chicken in two bags because I didn't want the mess of starting in one, then realizing I needed two.
My guess here is that the “recipe conception” team and the “scale the chef's recipes down to something that serves four” team forgot to meet one last time before going to print. It was a surprisingly consistent problem throughout the recipes I tried.
If you've cooked sous vide before, you'll pick up on this problem quickly and realize that you'll need to divide ingredients between two (or more) cooking bags, which can be a pain. If you're newer to the game, you might not figure this out until you have a handful of raw chicken and nowhere to set it down. Proceed with caution.
I also wish the introduction was a bit more expansive and featured more step-by-step photos of the recipes in process, which would cut down on guesswork.
Yet Acheson's Sous Vide is good enough to overcome these problems. The recipes are excellent and imaginative and—importantly—doable. Flip through just a few pages and it's amazingly clear that they are conceived by someone who loves to cook and eat. If you are comfortable in your home kitchen, Acheson's combination of palate, technique, and friendly teaching style help you achieve what the best cookbooks do. Not only does he guide you through excellent-tasting recipes, he hands you the keys to the castle and turns you into a better cook.