Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Little Things

I’m not entirely sure how to start this post. I’ve written and deleted the first line that many times that I can’t remember the original point I was trying to make.

I think that I wanted to talk about the non-linear process of cooking and how our experience of reading about food presents a distortion from the reality of cooking and eating, which happen in many more dimensions than two.

Ah, yes that was it, that’s exactly what I wanted to talk about.

I wanted to write about how the process of writing about cooking can be to the detriment of the actual act of culinary creation and how trying to capture the sequence of events that takes place when making a meal or dish is nigh on impossible. And I was sure that I had thought of a way to illustrate this but now I can’t remember that either.

Which is most frustrating.

I think what I am trying to say is that the vast majority of food writing seems to focus on the end result, the final product sitting happily on a plate and nicely lit, bathed in sun and captured for a single moment before being devoured. Whereas anyone who reads food writing, and I assume therefore, has a passing interest in the subject, knows that this is not the main attraction of the culinary arts.

The main attraction is in the creation: the process from conception to mouth, which is different for everybody and makes food writing, to a certain extent, a largely moot topic. We can try all we can to describe smells, tastes and textures but ultimately eating is the most subjective of actions that has to be experienced to truly be understood.

I am conscious of this, and have been for some time, which is why I try to focus less on the finished items that emerge from the kitchen five or six times a week and more on the process, the philosophy, the ideas and the incidental details because (aside from a few exceptions) I imagine you’d find it boring to read about what I ate last night in the same way you’d find it boring to discover that I took a shower or put in my contact lenses.

In short, because eating is so subjective, I try to find some common ground, try to pick out the relevant aspects of what I do in order to make this as interesting as possible to as many people as possible.

I don’t want this to be a record of the meals I’ve cooked and eaten, more an exploration of as many aspects of the culinary world as possible, rooted in reality and entrenched in experience. Because those are what we hold in common.

To bring this whole thing round to something more tangible, there are two things cooking in my oven at the moment: a ragu sauce and a loaf of bread.

I am fairly certain that nearly all of you have a favourite, tried and tested, recipe for making a Bolognese sauce and (if you are at all like me) there is nothing, nothing I can do to convince you that yours is not the best in the world. There is no point in posting the recipe I use because you will read it, utter something like ‘Idiota! I cannot believe he uses pancetta!’ or ‘He should add milk!’, and then move swiftly on. And the last thing the world needs is another meat sauce recipe

Likewise, you will have a bread recipe and method that you are unwilling to deviate from so there is little point to me saying ‘Don’t forget to add a teaspoon of salt’ or ‘try using a little rendered duck fat in your dough, it adds an incredible flavour’. You will utter an audible ‘pah’ and click off.

Instead I shall focus on the little things, things that are interesting and mostly relevant, things that can offer a little extra. Things like Soffrito.

In Italy there are two holy trinities: the first has something to do with the church but the second, and more important one, refers to the combination of finely chopped carrot, onion and celery that, when lightly sautéed, forms the foundation of countless dishes.

To many Italians it would be unthinkable to attempt to make a ragu without this trio of ingredients (much like the French version, Mirepoix, only cut much, much smaller) that add flavour and body in wonderful abundance.

Having watched many episodes of The Sopranos, I can safely say that I wouldn’t dare to argue with an Italian about something as important as food, consequently whenever I make a meat sauce, soffrito is always the first thing in the pan (I could launch into a lengthy diatribe about the importance of browning the mince, the addition of red wine and the absolute, unshakeable necessity of cooking for at least two hours, but I shall spare you that).

If you decide to try this can I make once teeny suggestion? Chop it all as finely as you possibly can – I use a grater for the carrot and celery – because chunks of vegetables in a ragu are a big no no.

OK, onto bread. Bread is mostly flour. With the price of grain currently pushing the cost of a loaf over a pound I would instead suggest that you try making bread at least once. It’s fun. It’s easy and it’s cheap: you buy top quality organic flour hand ground by Cistercian Monks on solid gold grinding stones and it is still going to be cheaper than buying a loaf.

Even when you factor in the cost of the extra ingredients, you can have three or four freshly baked loaves for the cost of a single supermarket one. Plus all those wonderful smells wafting through your house and the overwhelming sense of smugness/satisfaction when you pull your freshly baked loaf from the oven, slice off a chunk, smother it with butter and tear into it eagerly. An experience that no shop can provide.


Anonymous said...

Well, you pretty much hit the nail on the head I think Alex. SO many people are focusing on the end result of food, but it is tough to fall in love with food if you can't learn to love the PROCESS.

Your sofrito looks absolutely perfect. I can never get mine that fine. Grater is the way to go.


Anonymous said...

its the journey tht is beautiful...thnks for stopping by

Ash said...

love you're little array of food blogs and food banter.

James said...

Great comments, Alex. I'm with you completely on this. That's why I try to focus on my trials and adventures with cooking. The final dish is great. The way I got to it is even better.

Keep suggesting improvements ... just don't expect me to find duck fat around here (rural Philippines).

bee said...

it's interesting how the italian soffrito has different the latin american soffrito that incorporates bell peppers. loved this post.

Just Cook It said...

Nick - Thank you. And I'd really recommend using a grater for soffrito.

Navita - well said, agree 100%

Ash - thanks!

Thanks James, best of luck tracking down some duck fat!

Bee - Bell peppers would add a delicious sweetness, I;m sure. Thanks for your kind comments

Sarah said...

Alex, this is one of the most engaging discussions about food writing I've read. The most interesting blogs out there are the ones that are *not* merely recitations of what was on the writer's plate last night. The process of cooking is as much a part of the experience of "dinner" or "breakfast" as the eating of it.
For me, food writing is at its most enjoyable when the writer expands his or her focus beyond the plate by weaving in details about his or her everyday life.

Very interesting post!

Just Cook It said...

Sarah - thanks for the comments, very much agree with you. Food needs contextualisation