Friday, June 4, 2010

Simple Ingredients

I am not a good cook.  And I am not saying that out of humility, fishing for a compliment.  I say that because I am not learned in the refined techniques of turning raw ingredients into perfectly crafted dishes, or pairing delicate flavors together to dazzle the pallet.  I have, for the most part, learned what little I do know by watching, by reading, and of course by making mistakes.

One thing that I know for sure though is that it does not take much to make something that tastes absolutely amazing.  It certainly doesn't take much to turn a few ingredients into a mess of tasteless mush, either, but that typically happens when we try just a little too hard.  The most important thing I have learned is that cooking is applying a certain amount of heat for a certain amount of time to raw ingredients.  Sure, there is some chopping and stirring and seasoning involved, but what gives the dish it's flavor, what causes it to succeed or fail, are the ingredients.

I think so often we are either so snobbishly aloof or so brazenly indifferent to the food we eat that we forget exactly what causes that particular emotional (or lack thereof) connection.  But believe me, the reason so many people seek out the best restaurants while others simply disregard food as anything but fuel will boil down every time to the quality of the ingredients in the food they eat.  The greatest chefs in the world will tell you that any menu begins and ends with the freshest, highest quality ingredients.  As a contrast to that, the lowliest fry cook at any fast food joint in the world will tell you that they don't know where tomatoes come from or when they are in season, they just know a slice of one is supposed to go on top of the patty.

The basic, raw ingredients come from somewhere, and it can't hurt to know where they came from and how many people have handled them along the way.  Obviously, the fresher the ingredient, the more honest and vibrant the flavor, and the fewer hands an ingredient passes through to get to your kitchen, the fresher it will be.  And whatever your ingredient, whether it is fiddleheads or flank steak, the fresher and more flavorful the ingredient, the less preparation needed to turn it into a spectacular meal.

I have never been particularly impressed with dishes that try far too hard to be something they are not; those precariously balanced towers of unnaturally shaped food or the modernist deconstruction of grandma's meatballs seem more like an ode to the chef's ego than real food.  I realize there is a time and a place for a dish prepared with such meticulous and single-minded precision.  But for me food is not precise or scientific; food is warm and organic, heartfelt, and not just a little messy.  The elegance and pleasure of a meal comes not from it's artistic design and presentation, but from it's simplicity; a dish that relies on the quality of just a few exceptional ingredients.

 Those ingredients, the raw materials of your dinner, are what make your meal delicious.  So often the meals I make for my wife and I on a weeknight after a long day at work are made with the least amount of fuss and preparation.  And more often than not, dinner is pretty darn good.  I won't lie; we've had some disasters.  But occasionally, we surprise ourselves and throw together something out of this world delicious.

But not once has it been because I am a good cook.  When you rely on the exquisit flavors of a few exceptional ingredients, you don't need to be.  Pasta with Chanterelle mushrooms and early girl tomatoes, Quinoa with fresh asparagus, sauteed green beans and garlic, or slices of fresh tomato with olive oil.  A few fresh, simple ingredients, prepared with minimal fuss, letting the flavors of your ingredients shine through.  Just add the heat.


RO said...

Joel, can you tag your pics (I can recognize the asparagus but not sure what the other pic is).
Thanks, RO

Joel said...

The second picture is of fiddleheads.