Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Measure of a Cook

Having recently watched the movie "Today's Special" (2009, Aasif Mandvi), I noticed a recurring theme that I've seen in a number of cooking-related films: the idea that a cook should "cook from the heart".

Movie Poster

In the movie, the cook is repeatedly told that he over-thinks his cooking, that his work has no fire, that he needs to stop measuring, and that he should listen to his heart and gut. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that in the end, when he throws caution to the wind, his food turns out to be fantastic and the customers are happy and everything is right in the world.

The same basic theme pops up in "The Ramen Girl" (2008, Brittany Murphy).

Movie Poster

Here the main character is told to cook from the heart, and to put her feelings into the ramen soup.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed watching both of these movies. They're both light-hearted romantic comedies that involve food - fun to watch, easy to forget afterwards. That being said, I think they reinforce a belief about cooking that is inaccurate and that can discourage novice cooks: good cooks never measure.

It may be that some good cooks don't need to measure out precise quantities of ingredients, but they are always measuring. They evaluate the smell, taste, color, texture, and consistency of a dish almost constantly while they work. They have a built-in knowledge of the size of a teaspoon of spice, a tablespoon of oil, or a cup of milk. They weren't born with this knowledge though. They gained it by making the same or similar recipes over and over, hundreds of times, until each bit of information was permanently ingrained.

Because they have internalized all that information, they know which ingredients to be precise over, and which ones allow lots of leeway. To an outside observer, it may look like the cook is just throwing ingredients into the pot haphazardly, but with each one there's a mental note of "That seems about right." That's where the "heart" and "soul" come into cooking.

If an inexperienced cook tried to work the same way, the results would likely be less than ideal. They may get lucky, but sooner or later they'll end up with an inedible mess. Therefore it's vitally important for new cooks (or even old cooks trying new dishes) to follow a recipe. This gives them a basis for comparison, which they can then change as their skills and experience allow.

Unsurprisingly, this also applies to cooks who try recipes from medieval sources. To make the challenge more difficult, such sources typically not only lack measurements for quantities or temperatures or times, but they can even lack the common basis of experience that a cook can use to measure these things. The cook must rely on their modern experiences and constantly question their assumptions. Sometimes it works and the dish turns out well. Sometimes not, and the cook has to dig in to figure out where it went wrong. In those cases it really helps if they've measured the ingredients.

Most importantly, if the cook has measured, they can write the recipe down and share it so that others can learn.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

La Maison Rustique - March

From: L'agriculture et maison rustique, Charles Estienne (Rouen, 1658).

The works that the laborer should do for each month of the year.

(Chapter 10)



In March sow in the first days the flax, dyers woad (if it was not sown in February), oats, barley, millet, fleabane, hemp, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, lupins, small corn, vetch, beans, and other similar marks.

Give a second work to the fallow grounds, which are well rested, and smoke that which are prepared for sowing.

Weed the corn, take the grafts to fasten when the trees are in sap, and before the buds emerge. Plant the fruits of chestnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and filberts, and the stones of olives, and apricots, and diverse other fruits.

Draw up several seed plots of apples, pears, mulberries, and other similar fruits: Plant the plants of foot herbs, like asparagus, artichokes, required cardoons, sage, lavander, rosemary, strawberries, gooseberries, roses and lillies, gourds, cucumbers, mellons and pumpkins.

Dress all the gardens, as well kitchen gardens in beds, and sow there the necessary seeds: prune and bear the roots of the vines and fruit trees, so that they bear more fruit: saw away the tree roots: gather together the branches for heating.