We all know that we now inhabit a world saturated with food images, thought and language. Whether it’s competition-based reality TV featuring chefs and cooking, movies using cuisine or food as an axis off which to spin romance and drama, or the good old-fashioned cooking show with one chef executing recipes in front of an audience, food has entered the pantheon of national sporting events. Is that good or bad? That’s another column. For now, I want to focus on some ways of approaching food that have been re-popularized of late and have gained great currency with high level chefs. These ideas fit in really well with cooking local and cooking “whole” or unprocessed foods, as many of our Owners like to do.
The history of popular cooking can in some sense be boiled down to these simple steps:
- Things gain popularity because they are Good. Good can mean central to a region’s agriculture, informed by cultural or religious tradition or just incredibly delicious and practical—or all three.
- Things that are Good become co-opted because of their popularity. Demand outstrips the original means of supply and the means and methods change to expand supply and capitalize on the special place Good things hold in the market for food.
- Good things become hackneyed and compromised and new things arise to replace them. People still buy the compromised versions, but they assume utility appeal rather than being truly appreciated and valued.
Example: Baked Beans. This is not an especially hard dish to make—even to make well—and the canned versions are, to varying degrees, insipid or viscous and pasty. However, the real deal is excellent and the economy of the essential ingredients—beans, tomatoes, molasses (or maple syrup, depending on your proximity to sugar beets or sugar maples), bacon, onions—mean that it’s one of those fantastic dishes that cost little but give back a lot. It’s a classic example, too, of using meat as a seasoning instead of as a main dish—which was the common practice for everyday cooking in the pre-feedlot economy. Thus a dish called pork and beans contained almost no pork, but the flavor was enhanced immeasurable by the addition. Baked beans were among the first canned convenience foods, having been supplied to troops in the Civil War. But food doesn’t get popular based on economy alone. This dish was (and still can be) a masterpiece of unassuming home fare, the kind of food you don’t need to dress up for or think too much about when you take a mouthful. There are numerous other examples to be found in the canned and frozen food category, things that were once treasures in their original form but suffered the ravages of success.
Likewise, techniques change and go through their own ebb and flow. For the better part of the previous century, upscale food in America was frequently highly fabricated or heavily sauced and cooking methods like grilling and barbecue were for diners and tin roof joints. That’s all changed now, because people got tired of overeating as a status symbol and ambitious chefs got tired of making expensive, labor-intensive sauces like bordelaise over and over again. This is much the same as what happened in France in the 1960s during the nouvelle cuisine movement (literally “new cooking”) when chefs and diners abandoned the old classical cuisine for lighter and more vibrant preparations.
When I was in cooking school, I was attracted to language I heard good chefs using to describe flavors and dishes—”clean” and “deep.” There’s a lot of prosaic pomposity that takes place in the realm of food, but these terms cut through the foppish fog and really resonate—we all know we’ve eaten “dirty” tasting food and know just what that means. Maybe there are too many ingredients in the dish, maybe it’s been on the stove too long, or maybe the chef just wasn’t too careful with sourcing out ingredients or keeping the inventory rotated. “Clean” food tastes like you’re getting nothing but the essence of the dish and that whoever made it knew just when that essence had been fully achieved. “Deep” tastes sometimes indicate long cooking techniques, but not always. More typically, the chef hasn’t masked anything with excess spice or salt and you can taste with your whole tongue—not just the salty or sweet we all crave on the most basic level of appetite, but the bitter and sour tastes that make a taste into a flavor.
For me, you have to start by taking careful stock of how many ingredients you can realistically source well and afford. Usually people run into trouble when they choose a really ambitious recipe with a budget to match it, commit to it emotionally and then cut corners. So instead of really fresh seared scallops with Meyer lemon beurre blanc, you have bagged frozen scallops with lemon-butter sauce—maybe not terrible, but not what you intended or wanted. So start by thinking about just a few ingredients and if you start cutting corners on quality, cut the number of ingredients instead. Excepting baking, this can usually be made to work with imagination and judgment. Also, try to buy unsalted products exclusively and season yourself—butter and broth especially. Salt is a preservative and is used that way in processing food, so the presence of it usually indicates that the product is not fresh (Obviously true in canned broths anyway). Salt also exerts pressure on foods to draw moisture out of meats and vegetables, so their texture suffers. Don’t skip steps like de-fatting stocks and stews where applicable—fat carries flavor, but if it simply floats in a dish, it will only make it taste greasy.
Cooking deep flavors is harder to get at, but for me it means concentrating flavors to the optimal degree. First step in that process is usually figuring out if the ingredient you’re using contains just the right amount of water, too much, or too little. To illustrate: from a strictly chemical standpoint, a dried porcini mushroom is the maximum possible flavor concentration—but that’s too much. You need to reconstitute it and decide how powerfully it flavors the water or broth you’re using to do that. On the other end of things, raw apple juice or cider is usually too diluted to powerfully flavor or sauce out a dish. Reduce that cider to half its original volume, though, with a star anise, clove and lemon zest thrown in (and removed) and you have the start of a great sauce for pork roast. As I said, it’s a little harder because not everyone tastes these things alike.
And that’s enough talk from me. Hope this helps you get cleaner and deeper flavors in your home kitchen. As always feel free to write in with questions or comments about the articles here.