Cooking well is a simple thing.
I cooked for many years with varying degrees of success. As I refined my skills, my cooking became increasingly complex. I utilized every technique and obscure ingredient I could track down, usually within the same dish. Sometimes the food would be incredibly delicious. I would marvel at my culinary prowess, basking in the glow of my own gastronomic genius. Le chef naturel.
Other times — .what the — ? I could never figure out what went so drastically wrong. Lounging before me, in a burgundy enameled-cast-iron Dutch-oven, would be a perfect looking pot of something. The colors and textures were right, the aroma enticing. Then I would taste it — flat. Not bland, flat. The herbs were right, the meat seared to perfection, the vegetables crisp-tender, but the dish tasted flat.
Times like this left me pondering. Times like this taught me humility. Times like this left me pondering in humility as I pondered whether or not to be humbled again by such humility. I wanted to quit cooking, convinced I had lost the gift.
Then Fatherhood happened. Humility, on all levels, became a daily event, especially when circumstances lead to me becoming Mr. Mom to my daughter. For two years, I took over the household duties.
At first it was overwhelming. Unarmed with a parenting manual, or the innate, intrinsically God-given instincts that a child-bearing woman seems deemed to suddenly possess upon the completion of bearing a child, I stumbled, fell, and then injured my boyish pride. A swift snap-kick of reality upside my head left me dazed and doubting — but I forged ahead out of the necessity and the desperation to care for my girl, her Momma, our dog, and my ego.
I got a grip on it. Routines became a routine thing. Extra time, a creeping vine, creeped its way into routine being a routine thing, and so I unexpectedly found myself a bit of it, as well as the mindset to use it.
I took my daughter to the library. She walked with dinosaurs and swam with killer whales. I wrestled great tomes of culinary technique. I held no interest in recipes. I wanted to learn how and why things happened. Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and Harold McGee became close kitchen companions. The previous two explained the how; the later, the why. I diligently worked my way through all they had to offer. I followed them with other writer’s works. My eyes and mind opened. My cooking drastically improved.
The most surprising revelation was how simple it is to cook great tasting food, using only a few ingredients, solid technique, and a few tricks. Start with the two basics.
Salt and Pepper
This is the purest form of seasoning, and the least understood. If you have iodized salt in your kitchen, throw it away or use it to melt the ice on your sidewalks in the winter. Iodized salt has a metallic flavor. It consists of very fine grains, making it difficult to control the amount being used. It often contains anti-caking agents. I prefer my salt to contain salt and to taste like salt.
Kosher salt is generally coarse, allowing you more control over the amount used. It is also pure, thanks to kosher laws. Sea salt is best, but usually more expensive. If you have the good fortune of having an Asian market nearby, you stand a very good chance of purchasing five pound bags of sea salt for under $5.00! This is not Fleur de Sel or Sel Gris from France, but it is pure sea salt at an incredibly affordable price. If not, use kosher salt for general seasoning and sea salt as a finishing salt, which is a flourish over your food, right before eating.
The proper way to dispense salt is to pinch it between your thumb and your index and middle fingers. Holding your hand roughly a foot above the food, rub the salt between your digits as you move your hand over the food. The higher you lift your hand, the wider the area of dispersal. Impress guests by making a huge production of it. Or not.
The term “salt to taste” appears throughout many cookbooks. The key here is to add a pinch of salt, then taste, add more, and taste again, and so on. At first, you will get very full, but after a while you will get the hang of it and not have to taste as often. The most important skill you can develop in the kitchen is your ability to season well using salt. As you gradually add salt, take notice of the effect it has on the flavor of the food. Perfectly seasoned food will not have a perceptibly salty taste, but it will taste heightened, a better version of what it was. Better is better.
Pepper should always be fresh ground. Black pepper has the boldest flavor, white is slightly milder. Grind pepper over food twice: once at the beginning stage of cooking, then once again just before serving the dish. The first time adds depth of flavor. The second: bright, assertive notes. Be generous with the grind.
After the two basics, I offer a Japanese word: Umami (ew-MAH-mee). The closest translation in English would be savory. Many foods are naturally high in Umami: tomatoes and tomato paste, potatoes, mushrooms, truffles, eggs, cream, milk, anchovies, sardines, tuna, beef, pork and asparagus. Some increase in Umami during curing and/or aging: hard cheeses like Parmagiano Reggiano, Manchego, aged Cheddar and aged Gouda, as well as pork products like bacon, fresh and dried sausages and hams. Red wine, beer and port are all rich in Umami, as are homemade broths and stocks. Many Asian ingredients are high in Umami, such as soy sauce, fish sauce, miso paste, Bonito flakes, shiitake mushrooms, seaweed, dashi and green tea. Worcestershire sauce and ketchup are both loaded with it. Think about a burger topped with aged cheddar, sauteed mushrooms, bacon and ketchup, and — well, I think you get the idea.
Or introduce some of these Umami-rich ingredients into a dish without drawing attention to it. An anchovy or two, minced and stirred into a pot of tomato sauce makes the sauce richer without tasting fishy. Add a bit of tomato paste and it is a completely transformed dish. This one-two punch of anchovy-tomato paste also works very well in a pot of lamb or beef stew. As a matter of fact, my stew usually contains stock, red wine, port wine, bacon or pancetta, well-browned meat, tomato paste and anchovy. The last two are not at all noticeable, yet they add enough backbone to elevate the stew to a new level. Altogether, that is a lot of Umami working together to make a big, bold, rib-sticking pot of comfort.
Next: quality ingredients may sound like a no brainer, but they are often ignored for financial reasons. I publicly declare two things: I always use quality ingredients, and I am far from being financially well off. The most difficult part to work through is the concept, no, the fact, that good quality ingredients pack much more flavor than poor quality. This means you use far less of it. Take a piece of mass-produced supermarket cheddar, slice it up and serve it on some of those four-letter-word crackers that everything supposedly tastes better sitting on. Go ahead, now, try it. I bet you can plough through a half pound and a half box. I used to. Now cut off a chunk or two of 10 year Cheddar from England, or 5 year Gouda, or 2 year Parmagiano Reggiano, leave out the crackers, and take note of how much you can eat.
I promise two things: you will only be able to eat a small amount of the great cheese, and you will feel completely sated. I have also done this with maple-flavored syrup versus pure maple syrup, and found that I use an enormous amount of the fake stuff to try to make my pancakes better, and a miniscule amount of the real stuff, which tastes infinitely better. This worked on my six year old daughter, too. Think of the calories you save in the long run, and the health benefits to your loved ones.
Better ingredients also mean fewer ingredients. If you are spending extra for locally grown, handpicked asparagus at the height of their season, cook them correctly and let them shine on their own with just a pinch of sea salt, fresh cracked pepper and a drizzle of great extra virgin olive oil. No need to complicate things.
So, you have seasoned properly, incorporated Umami, used terrific ingredients and it still tastes flat. This brings us to the final trick, which is to brighten the food up. We do this with acid. Lemon juice and vinegar are usually the source. Once again, the trick is to introduce the ingredient without drawing attention to it. I have added as little as two or three drops to a pot of stew, and it was enough to heighten all of the ingredients to the point of distinction. The carrots stood out from the lamb, which stood apart from the potatoes. The flavors were individualistic, and yet cohesive. A little acid goes a long way, so use discreetly until you master it, and continue after you have.
These are simple, inexpensive ways to make your meals taste great. Incorporate them into your cooking and it will suddenly come alive. The eye-opening moments, the revelations of taste and aroma, will defy logic.
Then you realize — cooking is a simple thing.