My mother, although multi-talented, had an aversion to the kitchen and has often said that I learned to cook at an early age “out of self-defense.” When she made chicken à l'orange by smearing a chicken with powdered Tang, I quickly developed a necessary passion for creating tasty things to eat. Somewhere in the family photograph album is a picture of me at the stove, age ten, happily stirring marinara sauce.

I developed a lifelong fascination with food; good food. There was even a foray of working as a chef’s assistant at a French restaurant during my mid twenties, just for fun. I had always loved watching Julia Child and knew that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to be revered. It wasn’t until I read her biography (long before the Julie & Julia movie) that I really became fascinated with her work. From that book, I decided to prepare her recipe for mayonnaise.

Upon tasting it, I wept. . . .

Search This Blog

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Taste and See

Julia taught America to cook; that is true. If one reads everything she published, you’ll be supplied with a wealth of culinary knowledge and expertise.

One principle of cooking that I’ve seen her advise only seldomly is to taste everything as you go. This is a rule I’ve learned to live by when cooking and, often, I’ve had to learn it the hard way.

I first learned of this rule during a brief foray into restaurant management during my late twenties. When all the cooks had prepared all that they could ahead of time, the managers would come around with a tray of spoons so that everything could be taste-tested. This proved to be valuable, for in one instance it was discovered that the baker had used salt rather than sugar in the chocolate mousse. (An easy mistake -- big bins of each were side-by-side in the baking section of the kitchen. The baker also had a proclivity for being hung over.)

Parsley, cilantro, and leeks are often muddy and require more washing than you'd think necessary. One can spend an inordinate amount of time preparing the perfect potato-leek soup, but there’s absolutely no way to recover it if it's gritty. Taste the chopped leeks or the cilantro before they go in. They may require another rinse or two.

Taste your oils beforehand, too. You may have spent a chunk of cash on the best olive oil, or worse, truffle oil. But taste and see. Sticking an oily finger in your mouth will never be seen on cooking programs, but do it anyway. Rancid oil is no joke.

While tasting every single strawberry might be appealing, I wouldn’t go that far. However, a bitter cucumber will occasionally present itself; tasting every one of them would weed it out. One might also encounter a flavorless watermelon or the errant pomegranate that has begun to rot. Taste and see.

I was recently preparing a Sauce Maltaise (orange-flavored Hollandaise) which called for grated orange peel. Sure, I tasted the final product only to discover that it had a slightly rancid taste. (Yes, the finger in the mouth.) Were the eggs bad? No, I had given them the smell-test beforehand. Was the butter old? Impossible -- it had been produced by a happy Amish cow in nearby Indiana only days before.

It turned out that the orange peel was the culprit. Although I had gorgeous, top quality oranges, the grated peel had absolutely no orange flavor; only a burning nothingness. Had I tasted the grated peel, I could have easily gone with a plain Hollandaise or perhaps veered off into a Bèarnaise direction.

I recall that whenever Julia or another chef handled food items with their hands, she always remarked that one must have “impeccably clean hands.” It bordered on being an obsession with her. With that in mind, I seriously doubt that she’d have advocated my finger-in-the-mouth tasting technique.

But let’s face it -- the food is going to be cooked, thus killing any bacteria. Besides, the number-panel on your microwave probably has ten times the amount of bacteria than is in your mouth. (I always keep bleach-water on hand when I cook, thus resulting in impeccably clean hands.)

Hopefully, the first time you serve your guests a gritty vichyssoise or a sandy salsa will be your last. From there on out, you’ll taste and see.

No comments:

Post a Comment