I am of a nature that is enthralled with new ideas and ideologies, adventures (and the prospect of misadventures), and the secrets of antiquity as well as modernity. I never tire of learning, and as I become contentedly entrenched in the idea of middle age, my lupine appetite for knowledge grows more ravenous, a midlife crisis of an intellectual nature. I have become an obsessive, info-sucking sponge, lapping up every nano-byte ever written, spoken or sung about my latest curiosity. Then, when I am dangerously close to becoming an authority (or more likely, somewhat knowledgeable) about a subject, like adolescent lovers, I abruptly lose interest and move on to the next best thing.
With cooking, it is no different. In younger years, I obsessed over cuisines, making my way around Europe and Asia, a layover or two in the Middle East and North Africa, a sojourn in Mexico. Then I spent years entombed in libraries, picking over every tidbit of cooking technique, followed by hour-upon-hour testing in the kitchen, only to almost master a method and then move on.
So where does inspiration come from?
A good starting point is the aforementioned technique. If you have a solid foundation in cooking techniques, you possess an arsenal of possibilities. One bunch of asparagus can be pan roasted, oven roasted, steamed, sautéed, grilled, pureed, boiled (please don’t) or blanched, without doing much else to them. Yet, each technique produces different results and flavors. A soft-boiled egg is quite different than a hard-boiled egg, or a sunny-side up, scrambled, or coddled egg. Separate the yolk from the whites and anything is possible. Yet the ingredient remains the same.
In Seasonal Cooking, I wrote of seasonal cooking. Seriously, I did. Ironically, in that article, I forgot to mention the biggest reason I cook seasonally is boredom, or rather, the desire to avoid it. Every year, I eagerly anticipate the first great tomatoes of late summer. When they begin to arrive, I hoard them and use them in every conceivable way. And just as I tire of them, their brief season ends, and butternut squash arrives and I add them to everything, in every form. I bake them, and then puree them with butter, nutmeg, cinnamon and pure maple syrup. I blend them into soup, or make a filling for homemade ravioli, or stuff them full of wild rice and mushrooms and roast until tender.
Just as I tire of winter squash, winter itself sets in and real cooking begins. Whole roasts and long braises… rich meaty dishes with root vegetables and wine and port sauces. Handmade horseradish Spaetzle served with Short Ribs Braised in Port. Loin of Pork, butter-flied and filled with fennel, onions, fresh thyme, and Sambuca or Pernod, then rolled, tied, and roasted to tender perfection. Great heavy pots of ragu and Bolognese sauces, laden with savory meats, earthy mushrooms, sweet garlic and herbs.
Twenty pounds later, spring arrives, and the food becomes s lighter, greener, more delicate. After winter’s bold, layered, robust flavors, it is time to turn to nuanced cooking. Fragile herbs like tarragon, chervil, parsley, spring thyme. Mache and sorrel. Baby arugula and spinach. Asparagus and Fava Beans.
The inspiration is in the ingredients, as well as the weather itself. It stems from an arsenal of solid techniques, in addition to an understanding of the basics of multiple cuisines.
A final source is to approach your dish by looking for contrasts and balance; hot and cold, soft and crunchy, sweet and spicy, green and red. Bite into a piece of Veal Parmesan… mild, milky mozzarella followed by tangy tomato sauce, a crunchy layer of crispy bread crumbs, then moist, succulent, savory veal. Maybe you prefer not to eat veal, so you substitute chicken, eggplant, pork cutlets or fish. Leave out the meat all together, bread the mozzarella, fry and dip in tomato sauce. The basic concept remains intact, but inspiration leads to many possibilities.
This is the beginning of the journey. As we travel this road together, we will learn the details behind the techniques. We will delve into different cuisines, and explore how to continue to find inspiration in everyday cooking with simple ingredients, along with gourmet ingredients.
I was going to continue, but just got a great idea for another article….