In his latest book, Cooked, Michael Pollan chronicles his entry into the kitchen where he, and ultimately his family, share lessons in cooking and eating, not as islands but as a family. By happy coincidence, my sister just discovered a poem by our mother who passed away at age 93 a little more than a year ago (are you ever prepared for that milestone, the loss of your mother? I wasn’t.) Her poem exemplifies what Pollan is talking about in Cooked. Here is a partial rendition of Mom’s poem:
A Very Simple Joy
by Shirley Boudreaux
What is so sublime as the aroma
of fresh baked apple pie?
When it permeates and mixes
with an indiscernable feeling of love
Within the interior walls of a home.
Where family members
have experienced small and
large triumphs and defeats
The triumphs heightened by
The defeats softened by the caring
of the others.
O, I tell you, nothing equals it.
Mom expressed the family harmony rendered through our gatherings in the kitchen and at the table. Pollan tries for the same message and explains why he hopes to revive the art of cooking with quotes from a food consultant who I think is a bit harsh in his assessment, but here goes. We don’t cook at home because “we’re cheap and lazy and the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook?”
If you’re reading this, the answer is probably “you”. Take a bow. You are the solution.
As usual, Pollan is not satisfied with simply learning to cook and share; he wants to understand the process down to the last molecular change wrought over the fire or in the stew pot. A remarkable example of that is his reporting of the thousands (no exaggeration) of new compounds created when you put smoke and fire to meat. Fire’s effect on the simpler constituents of meat is nothing short of amazing. You will enjoy the book and learn a lot about the how and why of cooking in the process.
Cooking remains one of my most tranquilizing endeavors. Not to mention the dining among family and friends that follows.
Why would we give this up? It “heightens the triumphs and soften the defeats”, right? Shirley said so, and you can take that to the bank!
From the Pit to the Pot
When Pollan goes from open fire to the stew pot, he starts with the mirepoix (mir-a-pwah), a diced fresh vegetable base that is the foundation for almost all good stews, soups or braises. The point of mirepoix is twofold; it adds complex flavors to your pot and it provides a cushion at the bottom that prevents whatever meat you are cooking from sticking or burning in the pot. What I didn’t know was the many variations in vegetables and herbs which distinguish food cultures. The classic French mirepoix is always onion, carrot and celery sauteed in butter. But if you add garlic, fennel or parsley and saute’ in olive oil, you have an Italian soffritto. Change it again to onion, garlic and tomato and you have a Spanish sofrito. In my home state, it was onion, bell pepper and celery, known in Creole South Louisiana as the holy trinity. While I was originally taught that vegetable oil was the medium (way back there when we thought hydrogenated vegetable oil was a good thing), I now use olive oil and butter combined.
The mirepoix continues to transmute as one moves progressively east, but the point is the same - all pot-cooking starts with an aromatic vegetable/herb base, no matter your food culture.
Add one more step which I found counter-intuitive but spot on after trying it at the suggestion of my youngest, John Henry, repeated later by a famous Italian chef. When warming up the pot with oil and butter, wait until the butter or oil begins to smoke before adding the vegetables. I always thought of this as a bad thing - I’m burning it, right? Turns out the extra heat represents one more of those molecular changes Pollan talks about -it adds a nutty flavor to the bottom of the pot without losing the taste of the fats. It’s another layer of flavor.