Since my last post here five months ago, my melanoma cancer escalated into an aggressive Stage IV metastatic melanoma, invading my liver, right thigh, and lungs, and most recently my brain. In early October I underwent treatment under a clinical trial at the National Cancer Institute (NCI, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)) outside of Washington, D.C. to get my melanoma under control, and that, for the most part seems to be working. One post-treatment requirement, however is that for a period of three months I eat only neutropenically-safe food. This is in order to prevent accidental food poisoning which could jeopardize my recovery.
This neutropenic diet requires that all the meats I eat be cooked at 165 degrees Fahrenheit or higher (74 degrees Celsius). If you try to cook meats in a pan, that makes the meats borderline “well done” – a terrible way to treat meats of any sort. “Well done” connotes shoe leather, with about as much moisture and tenderness. Fortunately my experimentation with sous vide cooking over the last couple of years has provided me a way to still create juicy, flavorful cuts of meat which are edible even on my neutopenic diet.
Sous vide translates to “under vacuum” in French, and is a way to cook foods at low temperatures using a water bath (a “bain marie” for prolonged periods of time) in order to create a desired texture and doneness, taking advantage of the temperatures at which proteins in food bond and components like collagen dissolve.
I have been experimenting with sous vide cooking for nearly two years now (see http://www.foodiemoment.com/category/sous-vide/ for a list of my articles on the subject), and have among my efforts one of the most widely cited articles on how to cook the perfect egg via sous vide techniques (see http://www.foodiemoment.com/2010/01/21/in-search-of-the-perfectly-cooked-egg-sous-vide-style/ ). When I started my sous vide cooking efforts back in late 2009, I opted to purchase an immersion circulator to regulate the temperature of my water bath – this was an expensive industrial unit. I also purchase a professional chamber-based vacuum sealer because I had not been happy with previous table top sealers I had used (and am still not happy with them). The Multi-Vac chamber-based system I bought was and is a real dream to use with all sorts of contents. A few months after I started my experiments, I came across word of the SousVide Supreme, developed in cooperation with old acquaintances of ours – Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades, authors of some excellent books on low-carb, protein rich diets. Linda and I had met the Eades at a conference some years ago.
The SousVide Supreme is a consumer-oriented kitchen appliance which holds about 10 liters of water and product. And the appliance takes up about as much counter space as a large bread making machine. Built into the the SousVide Supreme is a thermostat and heater to keep the water in the machine stable to about half a degree Celsius. I ended up purchasing a SousVide Supreme unit to use on Bonaire to supplement my immersion circulator (this way I could cook at two different temperatures). The device was originally priced at $499, but is now being sold for $399 (or $479 with a counter-top vacuum sealer).
There is also now a smaller “Demi” unit available for less as well.
When I was diagnosed with my cancer earlier this year and arranged to sublet an apartment in Boston to be close to Massachusetts General Hospital for my melanoma treatment, I arranged to have my original immersion circulator brought up from Bonaire. But, a few months ago, when the PR company for SousVide Supreme offered to send me a full unit for my use in Boston, I jumped at it, as it’s easier to use than the immersion circulator and it does its job very well and is easy to clean. At the time I had no idea that the special clinical trial to treat my melanoma cancer would leave me with neutronpenic dietary requirements for several months. Fortunately I was able to adapt some of my prior sous vide meat recipes to the new dietary requirement. The three meats I have successfully cooked neutropenically via sous vide have included super-thick pork chops, beef short rib, and duck legs.
One of the things I learned early on with cooking meat sous vide is that you need to start with the right cut of meat. Meats need to be well-marbled with fat so that the meat is properly lubricated as the fat and collagen begin to render. For thick cuts the amount of cooking time is generally not very important, although it’s still possible to dry out meat if cooked at a high enough temperature (like the 165F/74C my neutropenic diet requires). Thin cuts of meat are more likely to dry out than thick ones.
For the 2” thick pork chops I had the local butcher (Savenor’s Market here in Boston) cut for me, I made sure to brine the pork chops for six hours first – my brine ratio is 1 cup Kosher salt, 8 cups water and 3/4 cups brown sugar, and I rinse the pork chops after brining them before vacuum sealing them and cooking them for 18 hours at 165F/74C. Brining moistens the meat so you end up with nice juicy pork chops.
For beef short rib, the ribs need to be seasoned first with salt and pepper and then seared in a pan before being vacuum sealed. No brining required in order to keep the meat tender and moist (I cooked the short ribs at 165F/74C for 36 hours).
I mentioned previously that I’m not a big fan of counter-top vacuum sealers. When I brought my immersion circulator to Boston, I also ended up buying a SousVide Supreme counter-top vacuum sealer from Sur La Table. I admit my professional Multi-Vac chamber sealing unit, which cost about 25 times more has me spoiled. The problems I have with the counter-top unit are that I don’t get perfect seals, and when the things I’m sealing have liquid (like blood) in them, I get a lot of leakage. SousVide Supreme apparently has a chamber-based vacuum sealing system available now for around $800, but I’ve not had a chance to try it out myself at this point. If you plan on doing a lot of sous vide cooking, my advice is to save your pennies for a chamber-based vacuum sealer.
Learning more about sous vide cooking. When I first started cooking sous vide I had to cobble together information from chefs whose kitchens I was fortunate enough to have dined in as well as bits and pieces I found on the Internet as there were few books which covered the subject adequately (with Thomas Keller’s “Under Pressure” and Joan Roca’s “Sous-Vide Cuisine” among the first couple). Now however there are a number of more affordable book options, like Doug Baldwin’s excellent “Sous Vide for the Home Cook” and Jeff Potter’s “Cooking for Geeks”. Another great resource is the eGullet Web site. And should you be a real Foodie, Nathan Myhrvold’s “Modernist Cuisine” is a gorgeous splurge (but wait for the second edition which corrects a lot of typos). And I should add that the SousVide Supreme web site now also offers numerous instructional videos and documentation.
In about four weeks I will be off my neutropenic diet and finally able to eat my meats medium and medium rare, which will be a wonderful thing indeed. But until then I can use sous vide cooking to make my food more enjoyable and palatable.