I am hardly a food editor so don’t take me too seriously, I know a little about food and what I like. The basis for almost all French cooking is butter, garlic, onion, and shallot. For Italian, substitute olive oil for the butter. America has lost its way in the food world. Butter is bad, olive oil is not too good for you, don’t fry (we confuse saute with frying in a lot of oil, if you remember Florence Henderson in the vegetable oil commercial), eat red meat sparingly, etc. Americans have a love-hate relationship with food, we really don’t know how to enjoy the stuff. So we run around trying every new fad than comes our way. Julia Child brought the basics of French cooking to our shores but we never really understood what she was trying to teach us, we simply heaped on the sauces and gained the weight. We still eat processed food stuff we call cheese. Less than one percent of Americans have ever had a raw milk cheese. Most of us can’t tell the difference between a cheese that has been made from goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. Spain and Italy have some of the best goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses and let me tell you, when you can get the ones made from raw milk they are simply heaven. But heaven forefend, Americans are the one’s who must the sanitary hand wipes when they enter a hardware store. Yes, stop the spread of germs, our immune systems are some poor. Our grocery stores will throw out perfectly good fresh food simply because it doesn’t look perfect and we are too squeamish to eat imperfect looking fruit and vegetables. Our beef must look bright red or we perceive that it is unfit. I like to buy the beef that is very close to the sell by date and keep it in the fridge for another week just to let it age more. Yes, aged beef is not bright red and it has more tenderness and flavor. We, as a country, no longer understand food.
The LaRousse Gastronomique is my bible. That encyclopedia of food preparation taught me quite a bit. It taught me to understand food as more than something one stuffs one’s mouth with (heavens, I ended my sentence with a preposition, I will be consigned to editorial hell). Of course no one has stated the argument for enjoyment of food better than that great French Chef, Careme when he wrote The Physiology of Taste. All the different foods have their own basic theme in the great scheme of aroma and taste. You know, our tongues have a very limited ability to sense any more than sweet, salt, sour, and acid, along with the varying combinations of the four. Why does food taste so good or so bad? As one eats and chews that bit of food in the mouth, the vapors enter our nostrils through the back of our oral cavities. Now if you want to sample the aroma of the food or wine, then deeply inhale before you take a bit or drop and hold those vapors for a while in your nose. Let your Jacobsen’s organ do its work, that’s the organ with all the neurons that identify the various components of the aromas. Now take a bite or a sip and let the food or wine lay in your mouth for a moment. Try to feel its texture on your tongue and cheeks. You know there is a difference in the texture of chuck, sirloin, filet, New York strip, round, skirt, and almost all the other different cuts of beef and pork as well as chicken. And they all have a slightly different taste as well. Beef is not beef, is not beef. The same goes for tomatoes. And the preparation of food changes its behavior, changes it chemically and structurally. Onions all have a sharpness to them, some far more than others. Take a white onion or a shallot and saute pieces, sliced, chopped, or minced in butter for a while and watch it become translucent. Then add a little white wine and reduce the liquid. That yellow to brown color tells you that the onion is caramelized, some of the starches are breaking down into sugars. Now your onion has a truly different taste and texture than when it was raw. Both are good, depending on the context in which you are eating that onion.
Good cooking is really about variation on a theme. Take some butter, chop or mince some onion, garlic, and shallot, and the world is your oyster. What you add to that determines the particular theme you wish to pursue. Basil or parsley or crushed rosemary or dill or a combination. Here in France as well as Spain and Italy, it is this practice of starting with the basis of cuisine that makes the meal. I love being able to buy the ready made sauces in little cartons so that when I want a particular sauce for a meal I can heat and serve it. Yes, I have made sauces the traditional way. First start with the making of the stock, a process that takes two days and is expensive. A good stock makes a good soup. If you want to know how good the chef is in any restaurant, begin with a clear soup, a consume. If it is nothing to write home about then pay your bill and find a better place to eat. From the stocks comes the soups and the sauces. Sauces are nothing more than variations on a theme. Reduce the brown stock, add in a little concentrated tomato sauce, some seasoning, and a little butter and roux. It may call for wine and more reduction time. You might add some sour cream to give it that certain piquancy. I recently found a beef stock concentrate that I use as a glaze. Add a bit of mustard (please, not French’s yellow crap or that other American favorite, honey mustard) or balsamic vinegar and coat your steak or pork chop on each side and brown for 15 to 30 seconds. Ads wonder flavor to the meat without adding much in the way of calories. That little extra is what cooking is about. It makes the difference between shoveling food in your mouth and enjoying each bite of flavor. This is how you learn to understand food, one bite at a time.