QUICK ‘N EASY OR GOOD, OR BOTH?
So, what are we going to cook? Good food.
I’ll wager if you Google “Quick and Easy Meals” you’ll come up with thousands of hits. (3,820,000 to be exact) Lots of meals are quick, and easy. Landing a jet airplane is quick and easy, too, if you have training, technique, practice and concentration. I cook for my wife most weeknights. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes to put a meal together from scratch. Meals like that are quick and easy and good, because the ingredients are good, the technique simple. (She works harder than I do, and if she is not home at the appointed time, I eat mine, put her supper in the icebox and turn out all the lights in the kitchen. She is a very tolerant woman.) The meals I cook for her are quick, and they are easy -- and good.
Good. That’s what you should bring to your cooking.
You should also do this because you love to cook. Most of us are not really great cooks, and never will be. I met Paul Prudhomme once in a business setting some years ago. His mind was so creative, and he very simply came up with great ideas. It was just incredible how he thought about food. We aren't Paul Prudhommes. Folks like us should cook because it is fun and because we do so in a sprit of giving.
It is not, and should never be, a competition or occasion for showing off.
When I was a young man, my wife and I went to a party where a downright beautiful young woman was talking about cooking. She was all about what dish could be on the menu with what other dish, and how the skin of the perfect red ripe tomato should look. The French names of dishes rolled from her perfect mouth like a gustatory road map of La Belle France.
I felt lucky to understand that Sauce Chaud Froid just means “hot cold sauce”.
Someone said, “Jimbo likes to cook.” She replied that maybe we should have dueling whisks at 100 paces.
I declined, looked into her eyes and said that cooking should be like making love, not like mortal combat.
Her pale complexion colored to the hue of that talked-about tomato.
I was a lot younger then, and could make comments like that without security being summoned.
The point is still the same. Cook because you love to cook. And just try to make it taste and look good.
There are some things that I believe make any other dish good: Ingredients, technique and concentration.
1) A dish made with second-rate ingredients that tastes really good is the mark of a good cook, though making garbage taste good is a sorry way to approach cooking. The mark of a really good cook is that same dish made with dedication to the best ingredients available. Let the quality of your ingredients drive your choice of menu! True, enough butter and plenty of salt can mend everything but a broken heart. But nothing replaces quality ingredients. Use what’s best.
2) You’ve got to build flavor into what you cook. With respect to that genius of cooking Paul Prudhomme, seasoning is not magic. Study his cookbooks; he uses lot of technique to build those flavors, and of course he is a genius with spices. Still, it takes those good ingredients, and technique. Jacques Pepin’s book, La Technique, is a must have. It is by far the most dog-eared cookbook I have (and repaired with some manly-man duct tape along the spine). I think the technique of putting vegetables into the hot roux (like Chef Paul does) builds more flavor than plopping pre-made and cooled “peanut butter” roux into the pot. Right or wrong, technique is the missing link in turning a recipe into good food. A recipe is a blueprint -- and that’s all it is. It takes technique to turn the plan into something good to eat! Little things mean a lot. Technique -- how you do a thing -- is the key.
3) Attention to detail. I earlier mentioned a few childhood kitchen fires in my distant past. I was an avid reader as a child. I also wanted to cook. It did not take long -- or many repairs to the kitchen -- to teach me that you can do both -- but not at the same time. If you are going to cook --- cook! Except for those low and slow beauties of the food world (and there are lots of them) you can’t cook and watch television, read a book or talk on the telephone. Inattention leads to burned food -- or worse! You have got to be dedicated to what you are doing. Do the very best you can every time you cook. Plate an egg you cook for yourself as carefully as you would plate a dish for your new mother-in-law. Garnish, serve and prepare dishes with verve, concentration and elegance because that’s the way you do things. Every time. Work at cooking because you love it.
Be organized, be focused, gather those ingredients and use that technique!
Cooking through a book page by page would be like eating your way around the grocery store. First, we’d gobble up all the vegetables and fruit, then all the deli food. Then we‘d have all the meat along the back wall, then pause for a bite of butter and swig of milk in the far corner, then up the far side for a few eggs and a little cheese.
Sounds disgusting, doesn’t it?
Let’s make a menu instead. It makes sense to organize the dishes based on how you’d eat them, rather than how they appear in the book.
Sure, it will be all seafood. If that breaks a rule, call the food police. We’ll plan a menu, cook it -- and then eat. I’ll lean on my friend at the local grocery store for advice on wine. (No kidding, a grocery store in Foley, Alabama, has a great selection of wine at prices that let you enjoy it. http://cainspigglywiggly.com/ ) The seafood will come from wherever I can find the best. I’ll lean on some other friends in the seafood business to tell us how to pick a fish..
I’ll also ask for some advice on selecting the crab, fish, oysters and shrimp that make up these dishes.
Next time: Let’s shop. Let’s cook!