First off, Happy Holidays everyone!!
In looking back over the past year, I realize that in pursuit of my passion on a day to day basis, that I am always learning. Eating out, discussing food, sourcing ingredients, cooking, it all affords us the opportunity to learn. But while i learn something every day, there are those “A-ha!” moments that you have that stick with you. That change how you look at a cuisine, an ingredient, or a dish.
We started Foodosophy 18 months ago for a variety of reasons, but one of the primary ones was to learn from other people, and to share what we learn. I thought it would be a nice way to end the year by sharing, and encouraging everyone else to share things that they’ve learned.
So without further adieu, I would like to present my Top 5 things I learned in 2009.
1. Balance is everything
I think the most important thing I learned this year was the importance of the element of balance to all dishes. It’s amazing how once I finally understood this, how easy it was to identify what was off with certain dishes, or how to correct mistakes in the kitchen.
I read once that human beings naturally gravitate to symmetry. I believe that our taste buds generally gravitate towards balance. Too salty, sweet, sour, spicy, bitter – and it fails to meet with our desire for balance. This isn’t to say one of the elements of taste cannot not be predominant over the others – but that the further exaggerated it gets (excessively sour, or excessively spicy for example), the more structure and balance in the other elements are required in a dish to support it.
2. Eggplant needs to be treated with care
I like eggplant, but was never able to do a very good job of it at home. It always tasted overly bitter, and overly greasy. Well, i learned a few things that really helped me get the most out of eggplant. The first is it needs to be salted before cooking. This draws out a lot of the moisture, and a lot of the bitterness. Secondly, don’t cook eggplant with much, if any, oil. Eggplants are sponges (a lot like mushrooms) – they will keep soaking up oil if you keep pouring some in. I like to lightly toss eggplant in oil, and cook it at high heat to get the best of the flavours. This is after salting, and rinsing the eggplant. Breading, or dipping the eggplant is also a better way of treating it.
3. In Vietnam is the next great culinary culture from Asia
I covered this in my “Foodosophy on Vietnam” but this was really paradigm shifting for me. Prior to my visit to Vietnam, I considered that their best, most interesting dishes were mostly meat, done in Pho, Bun, and grilled. In actual fact, beef, and the quality of the beef is not great, is not used nearly as extensively as seafood, or chicken. Good beef is imported, and unapproachable for your average Vietnamese family. There are so many more styles of cooking in Vietnam than what we’ve been exposed to, and the diversity, complexity, and quality of these other dishes make me a bit sad that we don’t have the opportunity to eat them here in North America. What was once the choice of Bun, Pho, Com, or Banh Mi made me realize that Vietnam is as great a culinary culture as China, Japan, and other culinary centers in Asia.
4. Good Chef’s like to be trusted
Over the year, I grew increasingly more and more interested in how to get the best out of the chef. Based on my experiences with Omakase, i wondered if the same theory would hold across all different types of restaurants – trusting the ordering (based on a few parameters like the number of courses, or a budget) to the chef result in better than normal experiences. Unfortunately, it was not always the optimal system of ordering.
I discovered that in a restaurant where the chef held high standards, asking “what the chef recommends” would usually result in a great meal. In restaurants where it is more of a numbers game, you would usually end up with the highest margin item on the menu. Smaller restaurants were more likely to deliver a great experience than a large establishment. Restaurants you frequented more than once would also be more likely to deliver a more custom tailored experience than at a restaurant you were visiting for the first time. Lastly, the busier the chef, the less likely they were interested in deviating from the normal menu.
So, if you’re looking a unique kind of experience, where the chef prepares a special one of a kind meal, choose a restaurant with high standards, that is smaller, that you would consider visiting repeatedly, and don’t ask during the mad rush – try and dine slightly earlier, or later.
The one parameter i didnt check was calling ahead requesting something. I just feel like i would be creating too much hassle for the chef to request that upfront. Just feels a bit too high maintenance for me to be comfortable with it.
5. Low and steady temperature is the key to cooking meat well
Over the past year, i’ve subscribed to the theory of low, steady heat for cooking meat. Either in braises, or in direct heat, i find that low and steady, with a longer temperature, results in better tasting meat with better texture. I cook steaks almost exclusively in a cast iron fry pan at medium-low, and allow the temperature to slowly rise to the desired doneness. Just make sure you wipe the moisture off the surface for optimal sear, and pre-heat the pan. You’ll have more tender, more flavourful meat as a result.
Anyway, these were some big breakthroughs for me this year. Hope you enjoy them, and more importantly, share what you’ve learned this past year. Either in our comments section, or in your own blog (please post a link in the comments so we know where to go!). Happy holidays everyone.