Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Taste and See

 For my first ten years of cooking, I hardly ever tried a bit of what I was making, in the early stages. Instead, I would taste near serving time and then, usually, add a mad flurry of seasoning in a desperate effort to make the dish taste as I'd hoped it would.

 Of course, that only works to a degree, and it wastes a good deal of spice or other seasoning, because the flavors have to do all their work upfront instead of being able to meld and deepen through cooking. You also tend to use more salt, and who needs that?

 Now, it's not a bad idea to add a small shower, at the end of cooking, of the seasonings you used early on, to bring up and brighten those flavors-- a sort of callback. This goes for uncooked foods, too; anything you prepare can benefit from a final sprinkle. But that tactic should be done as freshening, rather than an attempt to do a major adjustment. Real adjustment comes from gradual, attentive tasting and adding, from letting time work it's magic. The adjustment in my own approach was just as gradual, but steady, once it began.

 My epiphany came while cooking for work-- taking care of young children and their parents, I found myself cooking for families with different palates than my own, who were used to using less salt in some cases, and had drawers of spices very different from my own stock of favorites. My crazed dump-in-a-half-jar system was not appropriate, I knew, for tender young taste buds. Neither did I wish to stress my employers' budgets that way, in the name of caring for them.

 So, I began to taste for seasoning, and to get a sense of the ingredients I was cooking with, during the chopping stage of prep. It is difficult to cook decently with food you didn't pick out personally, without tasting first. The tomatoes can look ripe and rosy, and still taste flat, bland and watery. the carrots may be sweet or bitter and soapy. Tasting as you chop informs your understanding of the textures of the food as well-- and that can be critical to the success of a dish. Knowing how hard, how ripe, how juicy an ingredient is, will help you know how much heat to apply, or how much of a tenderizing element, such as vinegar, that you might need to add.

 This must seem pretty obvious by now, yet so few cooks of my acquaintance do this, that I'm  surprised.  Many talented home cooks I know, never taste. They still turn out good food, but imagine how mind-blowing their dishes could be, then, if they took these extra steps during meal prep.

 The final burst of clarity came after I began working as personal chef to a fantastic boss with a sophisticated, well-traveled sense of taste. Her palate, and her husband's, had been honed by living in some of the finest food cities on the planet, and I wanted very much to please and delight, as well as nourish them. I found myself using fewer seasonings, in lesser amount, to greater effect than ever. I often asked my boss to taste along with me, thereby getting a sense of what she enjoyed. We talked about the food, and I got to experiment freely, in a truly well-equipped kitchen. My cooking, after a long evolution, had solidified into a recognizable style that was generally pleasing and always well accepted. My food had gotten better, my use of ingredients had reached new heights--  a more judicious and informed way of seasoning had truly transformed my cooking. I went on to serve other clients, with their own unique senses of taste, and today, sampling the raw material before cooking is second nature to me.

 What about you?


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Making Food Difficult, or Making Do?

 Quite often, as I am hanging around food and recipe forums and blogs, looking for inspiration, a new approach to an old idea, or maybe even-- shock of shocks-- to learn something from other experienced cooks, I find myself disheartened as I read, by the human need to deify some process or skill, tool, or recipe. It's happened so much recently, I want to speak about it here.

Example: making your own pie crust used to be the norm, but because it is not anymore, people now fear it; and when they fail the first time, they assume it is due to the recipe, or that pastry-making is such a difficult and arcane process that you must have wizard-like powers and a magic spell to pull it off.

 You don't. What you need is practice, so that you can get beyond the fear that leads to the few mistakes that may ruin your pastry. And a little understanding of the chemical facts, though just practicing will get you there. It's actually very simple and straighforward, but try telling that to someone that messed it up once. They won't believe you, no matter your experience and skill.

 Instead, they'll spend hundreds of dollars on specialized equipment, cookbooks and flours. They'll listen closely to authoritative blowhards who tout "foolproof" recipes or complicated methods. The fact that my grandmother made superlative flaky, light and tender crusts with the cheapest of ingredients, a simple old rolling pin and a floured tabletop, makes no impression on these people. Her lack of formal culinary education doesn't convince them they could do the same with practice. They want instant success, they want Credentials, and they want to learn something more impressive than the fact that the chunks of cold fat, barely blended into the flour, will cause the forming dough to puff around them, and then melt in the oven, leaving hollows that make that flaky crust. It's just the truth-- it's not sexy, it's not scary, so why make use of it?

 When you complicate it, you rob yourself of the chance to grow naturally as a cook. It's sort of an odd idea, to want to avoid giving yourself time to make mistakes and learn from them, when you could just pump cash into the problem. The approach extends to everything from cookware to the proper way to use EVOO. People get a little information, and then let guidelines become sacred laws; people see a professional on TV use a technique, and then defend every aspect of that experience, making it precious. And when it isn't working, they go looking for a new object of worship, a new guru, a pan made with more expensive metals.

 It's cooking, it's baking, and though there are some truths that hold-- like the temperature at which water will boil at a given elevation (and depending on the purity)-- most things about cooking, indeed, about recipes themselves, are changeable, adaptable. Most elements of cooking get better with practice. If the recipe didn't work for you, why not try to figure out why, instead of deciding that the person who encouraged you to try it was wrong? Why not read up on the process a little more, so you can see where you might have gone wrong, then try it again and see what happens? Surely, if you have extra cash to spare going from recipe to recipe in search of perfection, you can afford to retry a recipe; and the bonus is, you'll have some understanding of it already, having tried it once. You're more likely to succeed the second time, with care and attention. It's far more practical than starting over from scratch with another unfamiliar recipe.

 Learning to make the recipes, techniques and tools at hand work for you, is learning to rely on your own taste, your intuition, yourself. It is, in fact, learning to cook. And once you've given yourself permission to explore what once went wrong, you'll better understand why when it goes right. You won't need to search for the right recipe to fit your ingredients most of the time-- instead, you'll understand how to adjust recipes to suit what you have, how to substitute one tool for another, how to make a dish go from "meh" to "wow!" without a run to the store.

 Cooking is a most personal endeavor, and you alone can set your comfort level-- but you alone can push your own boundaries. That, I believe, is a better type of search.

Peace, Mari