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Cuisine of the cosmic order when UT physicist throws a party

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

As a theoretical physicist at the University of Texas, Navin Sivanandam spends his days thinking about the birth of the universe.

When he comes home, he tackles an entirely different problem: chicken-fried queso.

Sivanandam, 31, specializes in cosmology, which means he's only half-joking when he says he studies the dawn of time. But he's also a serious cook, using his love of science to figure out how to make elaborate dishes for his friends at a supper club at his house. Homemade duck prosciutto, scallop-wrapped lardo, blue cheese soufflé and, at a Texas-themed feast earlier this month, sous vide chicken-fried steak.

Dave Pooley, an astrophysicist who works with Sivanandam at UT, says it's not all that surprising that someone like him is as drawn to cookbooks as physics textbooks. "There's this whole movement to treat food more scientifically," Pooley said as he nibbled on the first course: homemade pickles that were cut into spears and deep fried. "Food can be a creative outlet where you make something tangible instead of sitting on a computer manipulating data."

Experimentation and attention to detail are as important to physics as they are food, but food isn't just another problem to solve.

"I don't cook for myself," Sivanandam says. "I cook to entertain. I use cooking as a way to meet people."

In the eight years since the London native first moved to the United States to complete his doctorate at Stanford University, he's made countless friendships using food as an icebreaker. Sivanandam says it would be easy to live in a restaurant city like Palo Alto, Calif., or Austin and not cook, but there's something about the intimacy of feeding people in your own home that makes it worth all the effort.

At the Texas feast a few weeks ago, Sivanandam served 10 courses, all paired with Texas wines and beers, inspired by and sourced from the state he's called home for the past three years: jalapeño cheddar cornbread, prickly pear margaritas, butter-poached Gulf shrimp with black drum ceviche, sugar-cured quail, homemade quail sausage, watermelon drizzled with balsamic vinegar, chili made with venison and wild boar, honeydew melon sorbet, jicama slaw, grilled potato salad, brûléed grapefruit and peach cobbler with butter pecan ice cream.

As in his work with physics, sometimes theories and experiments don't work out as planned. When Sivanandam's attempt to make foam queso failed, he settled for chicken-fried queso, something he was inspired to make after trying fried beer and fried butter at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. Sivanadam figured that he could made traditional queso with Velveeta and Rotel and then freeze the liquid in cubes before breading and frying them.

He had worked out the dish in theory but hadn't tried it before the night of the supper club. "There's a good chance this will fail in a really dramatic fashion," he called out from the kitchen.

The chicken-fried queso was a hit, but it couldn't compare to another experiment that worked even better than he'd hoped: the chicken-fried steak he made with rib-eye that had cooked in a water bath for two hours in a sous vide machine that Sivanandam cobbled together with a cooler, thermometer and boiling water, an idea that came from one of Navin's favorite food blogs, "Serious Eats."

Before the final course, Sivanandam read an admittedly overdramatic label from the last wine of the night: "Like many things Texan, its origins are elsewhere. But over the years, tempered by climate, neglect and adversity, it has developed into its present state," he read. He knew it was cheesy, but kept reading. "The grape shows its developed heritage by its disposition. Tough, resistant — survivors tortured and tamed by the terroir it must inhabit. Able to live and thrive where others cannot abide."

It was a five-hour feast that no one was in a hurry to leave. His friend Deena Kalai had broken her usual diet of vegetarianism when the sous vide chicken-fried steak came out, while others walked the hallways of the condo building to make room for just a few more bites of cobbler.

"After eight years, it's hard not to grow fond of a place," he said as the dinner wrapped up and he finally took a seat with the friends he'd spent the past eleven hours cooking for and serving. His once-white apron was covered in smudges where he'd been wiping his hands.

Sivanandam's life revolves around physics, but like a not-so-distant moon that he'll never be able to shake, food always hovers nearby.

He's been in Austin long enough to do some post-doctorate studies, fall in love with brisket from Smitty's Market and win a pork-themed cooking contest during South by Southwest, but in September, he's packing up again to move, this time to South Africa for a stint at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, where he'll continue his work trying to figure out the details of how the everything up in the sky came to be.

The Kitchen Aid mixer and other electric appliances will go to various friends and family members, but he'll pack up most of his cookbooks and cooking supplies to take with him when he leaves for Capetown, South Africa, in a few months. He doesn't know exactly whom he'll be cooking for, but surely someone will take him up on an offer of a multicourse dinner.

The silver espresso machine in Sivanandam's office isn't going with him either. He's passing it on to Dan Carney, a UT grad student who was at the Texas feast and with whom he often debates the nuances of cosmic inflation while sipping espresso from tiny mugs.

Sivanandam has a few more dinners planned, including what might be the toughest challenge yet: a clean-out-the-fridge dinner to say farewell.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Sous Vide Chicken-Fried Steak

1 12-oz. boneless rib-eye

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup flour

1 Tbsp. smoked paprika

11/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. garlic granules

1/2 tsp. cayenne

Peanut oil for frying

Season steak generously with salt and pepper. Place in a plastic zip-top bag and squeeze out all the air. (A vacuum sealer is ideal for this, but you can get by with placing steak in the bag and submerging the bag in a bowl of water, taking care to keep the bag unsealed with the opening just above the waterline. The water will force the air out of the bag, which you can then seal.)

Fill a cooler with water at a temperature of 130 degrees. This is best achieved with a mix of boiling and hot tap water. Place sealed steak in cooler for at least one hour. When your cooler loses heat, top with boiling water as necessary, or start at a slightly higher temperature, about 135 degrees. You have some leeway in cooking time, but you must cook the steak for at least 1 hour. Longer is fine, as long as you keep the temperature near 130 degrees.

While the steak is cooking in the water bath, mix the flour and spices together. A few minutes before you are ready to serve the steak, heat peanut oil in deep-fryer to about 375 degrees. If you don't have a deep fryer, you can place an inch or two of oil in a dutch oven on a stove top and heat on high.

While the oil is heating, remove the bagged steak from the cooler, and remove the steak from the bag. Pat steak dry with paper towels and slice on the bias in 1/2-inch slices. You should see a perfectly cooked rare to medium-rare steak. Dredge steak slices in seasoned flour, then beaten egg, then seasoned flour again.

When oil is ready, deep-fry dredged steak until golden brown. This should be quick, no more than 2 or 3 minutes. The steak is already cooked; you just want to crisp up the outside. Serve with mashed potatoes and gravy made with bacon pan drippings.

— Navin Sivanandam