BEST EASTER (EVER)

Home cook­ing is the most primal form of the art, says chef Mark Best. But a lit­tle tech­nol­ogy goes a long way

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - NECIA WILDEN

It’s those lit­tle tips you get from chefs that make all the dif­fer­ence, isn’t it? Those sneaky lit­tle cook­ing se­crets you’ll never see on MasterChef. Mark Best, chef, au­thor and pos­ses­sor of a book pub­lisher’s dream sur­name, is stand­ing in his home kitchen in Syd­ney’s Pyr­mont with his hand up a goose’s bot­tom. Be­ing a very large goose — and ex­pen­sive: $120 from Vic­tor Churchill, if you don’t mind — it’s tak­ing up quite a few hand­fuls of freshly made man­darin-paste stuff­ing.

Just like duck, goose is a fatty bird that re­wards a cer­tain knack. Be­fore cook­ing it, says Best, “it helps if you bash it with a dog brush”. He glances over at Chowder the french bull­dog, con­fined for now be­hind a dog­gie gate at some dis­tance from the kitchen. “A clean dog brush,” he adds.

“It per­fo­rates the skin per­fectly”, thereby help­ing drain off ex­cess fat dur­ing the roast­ing — done, of course, on a rack set over an oven tray to catch the drip­pings, af­ter an ini­tial blast in a sep­a­rate steam oven to “set” the skin.

So now my shop­ping list, in pur­suit of the Best Easter ever, reads: 1x goose; 1 x dog brush; 1 x steam oven. Bloody chefs. Un­like most chefs, how­ever, Best loves cook­ing at home. A cou­ple of times a week, he says. It shows in the way he moves around his kitchen, in the way he talks about cook­ing, in the way he writes about it in his just-re­leased Best Kitchen Ba­sics — quite the most per­sua­sive and ar­tic­u­late cook­book from a name chef you’re likely to read for some time. And it’s re­ally why I’m here, for this one-on-one Easter cook­ing demo, be­cause you don’t need to schlep all the way from Mel­bourne just to see some rock star trot out a few plat­i­tudes and recipes that ought never be set loose from a restau­rant.

“The trou­ble with restau­rants is they in­ter­fere with the pure art of cook­ery,” Best says. “At home you put the food on the ta­ble and say ‘it’s ready’; at a restau­rant the cus­tomers ar­rive and you say ‘ we’re ready for you’ — it’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent dy­namic.

“Home cook­ing is more primal, more fun­damen- tal. It’s closer to that cave­man thing of hunt­ing, gath­er­ing, putting some­thing on a spit …”

Not that a spit is any­where in ev­i­dence. On the sur­face, the one-time elec­tri­cian is more Harold McGee than Rohan An­der­son, his kitchen a tem­ple of new tech­nol­ogy. With the ex­cep­tion of the Ther­momix, all the main ap­pli­ances are AEG: for the past few years, Best has been chief poster boy for the brand. So there are two ovens here, one a stan­dard (I can’t bring my­self to call it a SMART oven), the other the lat­est it­er­a­tion of steam oven; a sous-vide vac­uum sealer drawer that works in tan­dem with the steam oven; an in­duc­tion cook­top plus in­duc­tion tep­pa­nyaki grill; and a combo mi­crowave and con­vec­tion oven.

I didn’t think real chefs used mi­crowaves, but with Best it’s the other way round. “I ac­tu­ally don’t use the con­vec­tion part,” he ad­mits.

The pro­to­cols of his spruiker’s gig not­with­stand­ing, the chef makes it clear the tech­nol­ogy is there to serve him, not vice versa.

And therein lies the para­dox: it’s eas­ier, in Best’s world, to achieve ar­ti­sanal re­sults with tech­nol­ogy than with­out; as much in his restau­rants, Mar­que and Pei Mod­ern, as at home. And it all comes down to the sim­ple sci­ence of tem­per­a­ture con­trol.

He de­fends the use of sous-vide against the naysay­ers on the ba­sis of its abil­ity to de­liver long, slow cook­ing in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment.

“It cops flak be­cause peo­ple don’t un­der­stand what it’s for,” he says. “It’s not cook­ing’s sil­ver bul­let. If you use it on steak it will come out like a ca­daver’s liver. But sous-vide can take a third-class meat and turn it into a first-class meat.

“So you don’t have to just use meats like brisket, shanks and cheeks for braises, and not ev­ery­thing has to end up brown and grey — so long as you keep the tem­per­a­ture un­der 65C. And of course you still want the carameli­sa­tion, the flavour, so you fin­ish the meat in a hot pan or on the grill.”

Those su­per-sealed lit­tle plas­tic bags dou­ble as a stor­age de­vice. Best opens his fridge to show off the rows and rows of din­ners-in-wait­ing. One of them con­tains cooked-in-ver­juice red onion and ca­pers cooked sous-vide in the steam oven at 70C. Best opens the bag and throws the ca­pers away — well, sets them aside, at least. It’s only the light brine he wants, to set off the first course of the Easter feast, Mur­ray cod with pink onions, ca­per brine and lemon balm.

Mur­ray cod is sen­ti­men­tal for him, Best ex­plains as he takes a Ja­panese knife to the job of fil­let­ing the 2kg fresh­wa­ter fish, farmed in Mur­rumbidgee. “All we did when I was grow­ing up in Mur­ray Bridge was fish,” he says. Child­hood mem­o­ries loom large in his book, too: the taste of his nanna’s honey bis­cuits, mush­room­ing with his poppa in the Barossa Val­ley, suck­ing sher­bet from a licorice straw.

He pops the fil­let into the sous-vide bag with a few grains of salt, then slots it in the sous-vide ma­chine — in a drawer un­der­neath the mi­crowave — for a quick 100 per cent vac­uum. It makes a gen­tle hum­ming noise. “That sucks all the air out, you’re cre­at­ing a mi­cro-en­vi­ron­ment for the fish to cook in its own juices,” he says. Then it’s into the steam oven for 12 min­utes at 85C. No hot­ter, un­less you want to ruin that lovely, glis­ten­ing, gelati­nous qual­ity that re­sults from get­ting the tim­ing and tem­per­a­ture just right. Or if you don’t have a steam oven, a wa­ter bath.

The spices for the roast goose — or duck, since the orig­i­nal recipe is for crispy roast duck — go into the Ther­momix for grind­ing. So thumbs up to that, too? “Ac­tu­ally I don’t use it all that con­ven­tion­ally,” he says. “There are bet­ter ways of cook­ing risotto or bak­ing bread than a Ther­momix. But it’s a good combo of speed and heat, and you can con­trol the tem­per­a­ture.”

If he likes the steam oven, likes the Ther­momix, it’s fair to say Best loves his in­duc­tion tech­nol­ogy. Ini­tially he had a gas cook­top too, but never used it, so now it’s in­duc­tion all the way. “It gives such an even, sta­ble heat,” he says. “You can throw away your dou­ble boil­ers, you don’t need your rice cooker. You can melt choco­late in a pan straight on the cook­top. The tem­per­a­ture con­trol is that pre­cise.”

He of­fers proof, brown­ing the bli­nis for the starter on the in­duc­tion tep­pa­nyaki grill. They come off look­ing ridicu­lously per­fect. I make like a 1960s house­wife, my eyes pop­ping at the new­fan­gled dream ma­chine threat­en­ing to sup­plant a cast iron pan as the ob­ject of my af­fec­tions.

For the bli­nis — a Thomas Keller recipe — Best uses a creme fraiche he makes at Mar­que from a cul­ture sourced in Nor­mandy. Rather un­achiev­able at home, but he does sup­ply a recipe for home­made creme fraiche in his book. An­other tip: he washes the ocean trout roe in Ja­panese whisky, rather than the more usual sake, to lend a smoky, peaty flavour to the fin­ished dish.

Then, while the goose is roast­ing, Best preps the pota­toes. Un­con­ven­tion­ally, of course. First, he mi­crowaves them at 100C for about 10 min­utes. “You want the heat to be over 90C to pop the starch gran­ules,” he ex­plains — and that trans­lates to soft, lump-free spuds. Af­ter cook­ing, you drain off any wa­ter, dry the pota­toes and add them to the hot fat in the roast­ing pan.

It’s all com­ing to­gether. Best hands over a cooled blini (“they have to be cool, oth­er­wise the top­ping will just slide off”) with creme fraiche and ocean trout roe, plus a shot glass of Hi­jiki whisky.

Per­haps the drink is a con­so­la­tion prize. The goose is send­ing out its siren song from the oven, but I can’t hang around long enough to try it.

Bad tim­ing, hey. I’d never make a chef. Best Kitchen Ba­sics by Mark Best (Hardie Grant Books, $59.95) is out now. Necia Wilden vis­ited Syd­ney with the as­sis­tance of AEG.

Mark Best with goose, main pic­ture; Mur­ray cod, above; far right, from top, ocean trout roe, per­fect blini and stuff­ing the goose

PIC­TURES: HOL­LIE ADAMS

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