small improvements

Someone on ask metafilter is asking for new hamburger recipes. Funny that people actually know what to answer. I mean, we’re talking about hamburgers. What I would find interesting with hamburgers is how they are cooked, technique-wise. This is much more important than what happens in terms of authenticity if I mix another teaspoon full of this, that or the other into the burger mix. Spices and combinations can be improvised, cooking techniques much less so. A spoiled burger remains spoiled, no matter whether we’ve added thyme or not.

The small good things that happen in the kitchen have little to do with recipes. They are about spending tiny bits of time on actions that make all the difference. Reducing watery matter is one such example. Last Friday, I oven-pot-roasted (in white wine) a huge minced-beefy meatball filled with feta cheese. I could elaborate on how much mint and caraway seeds I used in the mix, on the way I blended the beef, onions, spices and breadcrumbs in the bread-kneader of my kitchen blender for a very long time in order to achieve that smooth cohesion which prevents the feta from escaping through the burst-open sides of the meatball during roasting, or on how high the oven temperature was.

But what happened at the last minute is, in fact, much more important for the success of the whole dish. Here comes a beautifully steaming roasted meat-heap out of the oven, we lift it out of the pan, let it rest, carry the potatoes and the salad out to the dining room, slice the meat and look at what else there is left to do: take care of a few cups of medium-thin meaty, slightly winy juice. Many people would simply pour whatever sauce they’ve got left in the pan over the meat. Easy, isn’t it, meat ready, sauce ready, nothing to add. These people don’t realize that they are four minutes away from heaven.

The pan is already hot. Onto the stove-top with it, heat on high. Let it bubble, and stir. Now taste (why don’t people taste their stuff while it is still in the kitchen?). Correct whatever needs correcting. Add cream (unless the sauce doesn’t need cream but something else). Boil on, taste again, correct again and decant into whatever you want to serve it in.

There are hundreds of traditional recipes for sauces that ask for a much more elaborate approach than this. For making one of these, I would reserve time and I would prepare myself well by reading up on the issue. Professional cooks need to have them at their fingertips – I don’t. What I just described is not one of these elaborations, it’s not even a recipe, and in terms of extra effort and time investment it is not really worth mentioning at all. In everyday cooking, however, this manner of approach makes all the difference.

Another example. Long ago, I found a ‘mediterranean fish’ recipe in one of my newspapers. Apart from some Italianate spicing, the recipe used lemon juice and olive oil. At the end, the food journalist made some important points of her own: “If I would cook this at home,” she wrote, “I would not use the lemon juice and the olive oil.” Right, why not take bananas instead of fish while you’re about it? Lemon and fish, of course, go together so well that we can talk about a symbiosis. For me, the combination is no matter of choice. Before breading any fish I intend to fry, I free the fillets from their remaining bones, cut them into manageable pieces and marinate them in lemon juice for a while. This eliminates most of the fishy fry-y smells and it improves the texture and juiciness of the fish. One doesn’t even taste the lemon’s sourness afterwards (if one would object to it). Again, in terms of extra work, the lemon marinade is a very small addition to the normal routine, but it makes a noticeable difference.

While I do recommend using lemon juice in almost every kind of fish, I normally don’t believe much in standardized kitchen solutions. In a very entertaining and informative German book Wurst (DuMont 2006), one of the authors, Vincent Klink, describes why he adds browned butter to potato puree instead of fresh butter. “To throw fresh butter into the pan does indeed add calories, but not much taste. The butter must be browned, only in this way does it get its fantastically nutty groove (his words, not mine).” (p. 130) I have always added fresh butter to mashed potatoes. Of course I tried Klink’s method instantly. It was certainly good. But so rigidly put, this advice is bad. Fresh butter gives a distinct, totally different taste to potatoes than browned butter – they are two entirely different manners of flavoring, both in their own right. In cooking, as in much else, reductionist thinking is unhelpful.

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