Monday, June 04, 2007

Less Is More

Why do we get interested in cooking?
For me, early on it was the mudpie mentality. "Candy? You can make candy? I'm doin' that." I had made popcorn balls, saltwater taffy, caramel apples, lollipops and peanut brittle all before the age of 16. I loved the chem-lab aspect of it.
Later, cooking was about flavors, and for an untrained hippie cook, that usually meant knocking all the dried-out spices off the shelf and into the pot. Well, that, and actually learning how to get a pot of rice to cook right. Complicate things! Fun!
Then there was the phase of ethnic imitation. Homemade potstickers. Curry. Risotto. Ingredients? Whatever! Make substitutions, go on a scavenger hunt, but just do it.
I still like those foods. I'm not saying I'm any good at making them; they are a little time-consuming.
But this morning, reading Michael Ruhlman's The Reach of a Chef, I came across a quote from Thomas Keller that completely defined my lunch — and my cooking — today: "If I have a better product, I can be a better chef than you."
And today I was a better chef than you.
Lunch was buttered asparagus, previously blogged here. They are simply spears of perfect fresh asparagus rolled around in a buttery cast-iron skillet until they develop brown blisters. Accompanying the asparagus was stunning buttered baby carrots, cooked just the same way in a separate skillet.
The only seasoning was sea salt, applied at the table.
I think it would be immodest for me to tell you how we swooned and drooled and invoked metaphor after metaphor for the flavors of this simple, simple meal. (Oh, all right: "meat, cookies, butter, pudding, squash, mmmnngggh, unbelievably filling.") And how the house smelled afterward of an unknown, captivating, mingled scent, best described as "really damn fine food."
But the truth is, I did next to nothing to these simple ingredients. True, it was an inspired next-to-nothing, and I recommend the method. The secret, though, was that I had "a better product." Killer ingredients, right, Keller? Nature did most of the work. I just got it all hot and bothered.


Pam said...

You are absolutely right. I cooked our asparagus this evening to your simple recipe and it was truly the essence of asparagus - delicious! Thanks for the tip.

sfmike said...

That used to be the essence of Judith Ets-Hokin's mean punchline to a story she would tell about some stupid previous students. She explained that they were a pair of old ladies in the front row of a lecture/demonstration, who were saying to each other, "Well, anybody can make something delicious with those [expensive] ingredients." And Judith paused, gave them an impatient stare, and would say, "That is my point exactly, ladies. Why do we use Extra Virgin Olive Oil? Because it's more pretentious? No, Because It Tastes Better!"

dancingmorganmouse said...

I've got asparagus for dinner tonight, I may try your version.
I started to cook because I couldn't afford to eat out as often as I wanted, I later found "prep" work a good way to wind down after work. I still enjoy cooking because it means we can eat rather well, reasonably cheaply (& it makes the house smell good too).

Barbara said...

For a moment there I thought I'd written that post. Well I could have written that post but you say it so much more eloquently than me.

katiez said...

Perfect simplicity!
And those are real baby carrots - as in young carrots not yet grown into adult carrothood as opposed to those squat things in plastic bags that are really monster carrots whittled down by machine into something resembling severed index fingers.... I don't like those....

farmgirl said...

Yes, yes, yes! My own little version of that is: Less Fuss, More Flavor. If you start out with these amazing ingredients (which aren't actually so amazing but are simply real) you hardly have to do a thing to them. And this is doubly nice since by the time you finish growing and raising them you're often too tired to cook! : )

That said, I must stray from my raw carrot regime and make some of these. Absolutely mouthwatering.

El said...

In early spring, I pull my overwintered parsnips and prepare them the same way. *Orgiastic* is the word I would use to describe the sensation of eating them.

Kevin said...

I had some of the best carrots I've ever eaten the other night, they'd been cut into matchsticks and then sauteed with pancetta. A really marevelous flavor combination.

Abby said...

I love simple roasted (or grilled) vegetables with brown rice. Simple. Filling. Fabulous. Good food doesn't have to be difficult!

Susan said...

You're so right. When you eat truly fresh produce like these carrots, their nature flavor just shines.

cookiecrumb said...

Pam: I'm so glad you tried it. (Also... the essence of butter. Gotta have the butter!)

SFMike: Good one. I'd like to hear her rant if a student asked "What can you tell me about cooking with wine?"

DMM: I like your description of prep work as therapy. Too bad some people think coming home from work means too tired for cooking.

Barbara: Oh my, what a compliment! Can I come over for supper?

Katie: You bet your booty they're real baby carrots, from Star Route Farms in Marin (you can click through on the main post). Not those abominations they run through a pencil sharpener.

Farmgirl: Nice to see you! Yeah, sadly, many people don't know what real food tastes like and are scratching their heads over our delighted writhings. "Whul, I've had carrots. Nothing special. What's she talking about?"

El: OK, now I want overwintered parsnips. Do they require snow? Probably. We have a pretty wet winter here.

Kevin: That just might be doable, chez cookiecrumb! Not pancetta, but we just did a charcuterie binge, and there's all kinds of cured meats in the fridge. Thanks.

Abby: Oh. I forgot the brown rice! :D

Susan: Their natural flavor was the entire platform of this meal. But the icing on top was the hot butter bath and the caramelization... Oh... (How's your tendinitis? Miss the frequency of your blog.)

Pam said...

Oh, yeah, the butter! Loved the butter! I added the salt (fancy pants fleur de sel) while cooking as the butter was unsalted. Killer.

Sam said...

the trouble is - I went to Manresa recently and he has better vegetables than anyone. I'd like to pretend this isn't true, but really, his vegetables whip even the farmer's market's arse. How depressing.

cookiecrumb said...

Pam: Giving credit where it's due, is all. Butter.

Sam: Kinch is using a small farm which is growing food especially for him. And it's being grown "biodynamically," which I don't understand yet but will probably be hearing more about.
I haven't eaten at Manresa, but I'd bet my carrots yesterday could kick a little fanny. No, not even a little? Sigh.
Anyway. Yeah, sort of depressing that "average" farmers market vegetables might not be as good as they could be. Which is why I moved, so I could grow my own! If I could figure out what "biodynamic" means. Doesn't it mean organic chicken shit, because that's what I'm using! :D

Sam said...

I am not 100% sure about the biodynamic but it has something to do with ritual cow horn planting and crystal shaving I think.

But I had the tenderist little radish there which I can't get out of my mind - I have been looking for it at the farmers market ever since but I havent found it yet. It was pale pink and perfect.

Maybe you can grow me one.

Sam said...

i still think the farmers marklet is excellent, just maybe not the absolute pinnacle

cookiecrumb said...

Sam: Of course, you're right. I remember now, reading about the techniques. Seems so wiccan. Is there a special dance involved?
I'll try to grow you a perfect radish. We'll have to wait a few months; the warm weather now makes them harsh.
(Off-topic: Where are you at on pears?)
And I agree the market is about as good as we can do (short of growing your own, and even I have a brown thumb, so it doesn't always work). The farmers are commercial, let us not forget, and they might be sacrificing utmost quality in order to get sufficient quantity. Bless their hearts.