Viva Variation!

Mixed Greens

In living the research for The Silk Road Gourmet, I found that modern, western cookery imposed something of an artificial uniformity on the art of the kitchen by demanding that all food adhere rigorously to prescribed recipes. By comparison, in much of southwest and Central Asia, recipes are given with ingredients such as “greens” in them, with no specific mention of whether the cook means dill, cilantro, or tarragon. The ingredient, “greens” doesn’t refer to a specific set of shared knowledge like one might encounter in the west in, ‘dry white wines and lighter reds pair well with fish and fowl’. Rather, it allows the cook to improvise as to which sort of green(s) she wishes to include. This allows for a certain amount of creativity and individual variation on the part of the cooks and also allows them to use what they have on hand. It can and does vary the taste of individual dishes quite extensively, and recipe variations abound and can change by region, village or even by individual. Still other versions of recipes vary by ingredient – for example the five-spice rub for lamb or mutton will be different from one for quail or hen.

I welcomed and felt right at home in the midst of all this unpredictability and wondered why so much of this has vanished in western kitchens – whether they be home or commercial ventures. Was it a fundamental difference between the eastern and western worlds that led to this or was there a more subtle cause for this rigor (as in rigor mortis)? Is it because commercial consumers expect reliability – because they demand that the dish on Thursday taste exactly the way in did last Tuesday? Is it something so fundamental as the differences between a written and largely oral tradition for passing down culinary skills? Whatever the cause, it seems a real pity to me, and I hope that I hope that more people work to counter this unfortunate trend.

Food and cuisines are not ideal forms fixed in time and space. Since man (or, for the most part when it comes to the preparation of food, woman) is the great experimenter, cuisines are always evolving. Removing the individual variability from recipes cooked in home or commercial kitchens dampens the engine of change. When individual chefs and cooks feel ‘unworthy’ to vary a recipe out of say, Larousse or Escoffier, real exploration and evolution of ingredient and flavor combinations or preparation styles slow down and we are stuck with ever more elaborate presentations or change for commercial shock value instead.

When I was coming up, the term ‘elegant’ was a great compliment. It didn’t mean chic or stylish, rather it meant simple and beautiful at the same time. Simplicity was at the root of the definition, and still is. Elegant ideas can change the way people think or experience something, and occasionally, they can change the world. Not to be slavishly trendy, one idea that is changing western food preparation right now is deconstruction. Being lucky enough to have all three of Jose Andres’ restaurants within a few blocks of my office, I get to sample his take on this elegant idea a lot. Frankly the foams leave me flat and make me feel a bit geriatric. However, dishes like the ‘new way guaco’ and ‘deconstructed mole’ are really a wonderful thing to behold and to taste. Dishes prepared this way really are different – and yes, they really are elegant.

While home cooks are less inclined to engage in deconstructivist culinary acrobatics on a daily basis, they can change things by experimenting with flavor combinations that are new for them. Using “sweet spices” like cinnamon or nutmeg on a steaks or chops; changing lemon juice to lime juice when that’s what the grocery provides or by substituting dill or tarragon – if you like the former and dislike the latter – even if the recipe you are working with doesn’t suggest that as a variation. Don’t fear what may be unknown. Consult the recipes, but use them only to guide you – not to fence you in. Revel in the creativity and the freedom. Bring the spirit of the Silk Road home. (words by Laura Kelley)

The Music of the Stove

I love music. I avidly listen to a wide variety of music from the close harmonies of Orlando Gibbons to MJQ with the occasional Fall Out Boy hit thrown into the mix. I listen to different types of world music, and even like the modern fusion of electronica and world music found on the Six-Degrees label. I studied classical piano and the related subjects of theory, history and counterpoint for nine years at the local conservatory when I was a kid and usually bring a tape recorder on my travels to record the sounds of the world around me. Curiously, with all of the listening and playing that goes on in my life, I like it to be quiet when I cook.

Part of my quest for quiet is concentration – certainly this is the case when cooking a multi-course meal in which dishes have to hit the table at particular times and in a particular sequence. Part of the need for silence is a certain reverence for the food and the artistic act of shaping a meal into something more than just the sum of its ingredients. But there’s more to it than that. The lack of music playing in the background or sometimes blaring as I’ve encountered in some kitchens doesn’t really bring silence. What it does bring is the ability to listen and perhaps to hear what’s happening on the stove.

As big and somewhat brainy primates we rely on our eyes for most of our sensory input when standing at the stove. How many times have you said or thought, “That looks done.” The second sense that most of us use when cooking is smell. The smell of freshly baked bread or pastry can evoke powerful memories and feelings of well-being in some people. Smell, even more than touch or color helps us tell the difference, for instance, between onions that are caramelizing nicely and ones that might be starting to burn. For the most part, however, sound is a much neglected sense when it comes to the art of the kitchen. We look, we smell, touch and taste, but how often do we listen to the food we are preparing?

Yin and Yang Eggs

Take something as simple as sautéing an egg in butter. As the butter slowly heats, it becomes golden or just a bit brown around the edges as it starts to audibly bubble. The bubbling starts slowly but increases in tempo until it becomes a steady stream of sound when it is ready to be used. A crack of an egg on the side of the pan and a raucous symphony begins when the chilled egg hits the warm butter – that is unless you live near a farm, or have taken the eggs out of the fridge more than an hour ago – then the pan will sing a gentler song as the temperature differential between the egg and the butter decrease. As the temperatures between the two ingredients merge, the sound drops off in both volume and pitch and the egg begins the same slow bubble that the butter went through. As the egg warms, the collagen in it cross-links and becomes denser as the texture firms. As this happens, the pitch starts to rise until the egg is almost hissing as it comes done.

Try it sometime. Either promise yourself to listen as you cook next time, or better yet, listen to someone else cook – preferably with your eyes closed or back turned – and try to predict when something is ready by using mostly the auditory sense. You really can hear when the onions in the wok are done, can’t you?

We listen to each other eat all the time, and the sounds of people enjoying food play a large part in the satisfaction cooks and chefs experience in preparing a meal. We complement each other with kind words and occasionally gush over a dish. Even when trying to be polite, there are the sounds of mastication, and my favorite are the sounds we utter unconsciously when really enjoying something. For lack of a better term – I’ll borrow the phrase used by Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein – they are the “yummy sounds”. We’ve all heard them and we all make them – those soft, little grunts or sighs of pleasure when eating something delicious that somehow slip past the conscious superego that minds our manners. Yummy sounds make all of the work worthwhile.

If listening to each other eat creates a bond between the cook and the diners or even just between friends enjoying a meal together, does listening to a meal as it is being prepared create special links between the food and the chef? I say yes, and if you doubt that there can be a bond between humans and food, I urge to watch Tampopo again and not grin from ear to ear as master Goro instructs his student Gun how to properly respect the bowl of soup before he tucks in.

Cooking is like playing music – it is a performance art. No matter how hard we try to standardize the preparation of a certain dish, it often does turn out differently from batch to batch or from day to day. This is not only because of the variability of type and amount of ingredients, although substituting sweet parsley with cilantro or rau-ram could really change the fundamental taste of a dish, but it is also because of the mood of the chef and the sometimes tangled relationships that can exist in a family or in a kitchen.

I like to be clear and calm when I start to cook. This gives me space to listen (and see, smell and taste) the food I am preparing – and also allows me to bond with the food and let my skill and enjoyment of food preparation flow into the meal. When I have the space to approach meal preparation that way, it is far more than calories or even a beautiful presentation that I give to those dining with me – it is love. (Words by Laura Kelley; photo of Yin and Yang Eggs © Andreea Székely|