BY Morgan Fecto
Watermelon, cucumber, cabbage—you know these seasonal staples pretty well, but you might not recognize them after chef Roxanne Spruance transforms them with compression.
“It’s basically been a part of every kitchen I’ve been in,” says Spruance, Chopped winner, wd~50 alumna, and chef/owner at restaurant Kingsley in New York. “We compress a lot of fresh fruits—you can pseudo poach pears and do super fast pickles on the fly.”
Compression starts with vacuum sealing ingredients in food safe bags, a familiar process for fans of sous vide. Bags go in a vacuum chamber, and the changing pressure inside the sealer ruptures the cell walls of plant foods, forcing out water and air. The process alters textures and helps ingredients soak in marinades or other flavor-enhancers in a hurry.
“It allows you to do things you can’t normally do,” Spruance says of compression. “We’ve done watermelon compressed with lime and fish sauce. You grill it or pan sear it, and it almost gets the texture of meat.”
The ability to manipulate texture is incredibly valuable for Spruance, who strives for a balance of textures as well as flavors on each plate.
She says: “We’ll get something from a local farmer or something in season, and then we ask, ‘What are the complementary flavors? What’s your salty, bitter, sweet, crunch, soft?’”
Hence her Gloucester Spot Pork dish, a texture-packed take on an Alsatian choucroute with compressed apples and cabbage.
“We take a savoy cabbage and compress it with a spiced riesling reduction,” Spruance says. “We use allspice, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, black and white pepper—classic favors you would use in sauerkraut,”
Cabbage, along with other heartier lettuces like kale and chard, are perfect for compressing because they’re robust and have a high water content. Compression tenderizes these lettuces, and removes their water content to make space for added seasonings.
“In Modernist Cuisine, they did lettuce compressed with liquid smoke for a burger,” Spruance says. “You can do really cool stuff by compressing vegetables because there’s a lot of water and air coming out.”
Seasonal fruits and vegetables also become more versatile when chefs incorporate compression into their kitchens. Spruance gets more out of pears, apples, and cabbage in the winter, melons in the summer, and many pickling vegetables in the spring.
“If you want a really crisp pickle, there’s a chance that it’s not going to be bright green anymore,” she says. “If you pour boiling stuff over green beans, they turn brown and grey, but pickling is nice with the machine because it keeps the color.” Spruance warns that compression won’t be quite the same without a commercial vacuum sealer and its pressure-changing power to alter texture (she relies on her Vacmaster). But home chefs shouldn’t despair: making quick pickles or a fast ceviche is still quite possible with a modest FoodSaver at home.
Compression gives the summer fruits and veggies a serious flavor boost.
Compression brings next-level texture and flavor to the watermelon in this bright, fresh salad from the late chef Michel Richard.
Compression makes the entire watermelon taste like the ultra-flavorful center. Celebrate the summer with this sophisticated and fresh salad.
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