Staff Writer | June 9, 2010 9:00 PM
Cooking is scientific, culturally specific and artistic. The manner in which a chef or home cook manipulates food creates a feast, quick meal, celebration or aberration. An onion can be "bloomed" and deep-fried to create a greasy, flour-fried heart stopping death bomb or braised then caramelized topping a bison burger that turns the traditional American burger into something special.
Chefs hold the secret to making the ordinary, extraordinary through training, artistry and being culturally aware of the origin and seasonality of food.
Cook with your head and your heart. Think about how you are cooking and learn the technique, culture and art behind the meal. Know the difference between saute, broil, braise, steam, roast, bake, fry, grill and charbroil. Understand the culture behind regional eating and prepare regionally specific food artistically.
Good cooks use seasonal, regional and culturally appropriate ingredients. Winter denotes thick root vegetable stews and roasted meat while summer demands dark red and yellow heirloom tomatoes, freshly grown basil and eating alfresco - eat in season and regionally.
Caprese salad loses its freshness when ingredients used are not fresh and in-season. Orangey-red tomatoes purchased in the winter seldom offer the juicy freshness of one ripened in the chef's backyard garden. Hydroponically raised basil purchased in February from your local grocer tastes like basil but misses the peppery, grassy, sweetness developed from being kissed by the warm July sun. Food tastes better when purchased from the grower in-season or grown in your own yard.
Food has a culture. Fusion - the act of taking foods from different regions and different continents and combining them into new recipes - has changed the culinary world to make the most obscure combination of food acceptable and "cutting edge." With fusion we gain culinary adventure while losing culinary culture. When combining food from Northern Italy with foods from Southern Italy we create a culinary revolution while disregarding hundreds of years of Italian gastronomic history.
In Northern Italy fish, potatoes, rice, corn, sausages, pork and an incredible selection of cheeses are the most common ingredients. The tomato is virtually absent in most Northern Italian regions. Fresh pasta is the norm with gnocchi, polenta and risotto being the main course. Oil used in cooking is usually lard or butter with olive oil seldom used.
In Central Italy tomatoes make an appearance in Bolognese sauce and ragu and tortellini are important elements. Southern Italy offers the beautiful tomato, peppers, large qualities of olives and olive oil, garlic, artichokes, oranges, ricotta cheese, Mediterranean fish (anchovies, sardines and tuna) and capers. Dry pasta is a staple and made from durum wheat flour or semolina - mandated by Italian law.
The food in this small and prideful country is vastly different traveling north to south. Suggesting a tomato, anchovy topped pizza to a Northern Italian could be insulting while a Southern Italian would pass if offered risotto. Paying homage to the region and culture of the food we eat and prepare is not just culturally sensitive but culinarily correct. Food tastes better if prepared from fresh ingredients, harvested locally and cooked while fresh and in-season.
Imagine the possibilities. Last summer we planned an Idaho culinary cultural feast with our friends. We decided to cook dinner with food found naturally in North Idaho in July. We met at the farmer's market, purchased our vegetables, natural rack of lamb, flowers for the table setting, and supplemented our finds with food and herbs harvested from our garden. The food was delicious and the experience memorable.
Recreating the same experience in January is difficult but achievable. Items canned or frozen from our summer's garden, deer, elk and fish harvested from Idaho's wilderness and apples and huckleberries picked locally recreate the sense and memories of the seasons past. This is our culture. Let us examine the science and art behind food.
Preparing food correctly is paramount in ensuring food tastes well, has the right texture and is visually pleasing. Understanding simple cooking techniques allows a home cook to prepare food with confidence.
• Saute - add a little oil to a saute pan - one tablespoon or less. If you add more than a little oil to a pan, the food cooking process changes from saute to fry. The goal is to sear the food and create a beautiful brown color. Start with the side of the food that will be up on the plate or the "show side." Don't crowd food in the pan. This will create the food to steam and not brown.
• Frying - add just enough oil to allow the food to swim in the pan. Oil temperature (350-356 degrees) is very important to create a crispy crust and prevent the oil from penetrating the food. Frying at too low a temperature will create a soft, oil-filled food. The purpose of frying is to produce a flavorful exterior with a crisp, brown, crust that acts as a barrier to retain juices and flavor.
• Grilling, charbroiling and broiling are all forms of grilling - grilled foods heat source is below the food. Grilled food should have smoky, slightly charred flavor resulting from the flaring of the juices and fats which render out as the items cook.
• Braise - sear the main item in a small amount of hot fat. Add water or stock, cover and place in the oven or over medium heat on the stovetop. Braising tough cuts of meat tenderizes the cuts for easy chewing. Braising vegetables turns the braising liquid into a delicious sauce that has many uses.
• Roast - roasted foods are cooked through contact with dry, heated air held in a constant environment. The foods natural juices turn to steam and penetrate the food more deeply. The pan juices make the sauce for the roasted food.
I offer a challenge. Pick your own culinary historic region - Northern Italian, Southern Ireland, Scandinavian, Southeast Asian. Research the culture behind the food and prepare a culturally accurate meal with friends. Taste what the food from your origin really tastes like. Bon Appetite!
Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out www.foodforthoughtcda.com.