Sometimes we find it without even lookin’, sometimes it keeps knockin’ at our door without us knowin’, but sometimes we do find it and it changes our very core… OK, maybe not so grandiose. It may be as simple as makin’ that first Bolognese sauce or startin’ that first exercise routine or simply makin’ us step out of that box known as the comfort zone. Or sometimes we simply try to inspire others… which is sort of my mission today.
Actually, I’m not the most inspirational or motivational personality around. Vince Lombardi is quoted as saying, “Winning is not a sometime thing … it’s an all the time thing.”
The Gochiso Gourmet would have said, “Winning is probable 50 percent of the time… losing is also probable 50 percent of the time.” Or perhaps I may have paraphrased Winston Churchill during World War II, “Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!”
But in any case, inspiration needs to come from within. Maybe something we see, hear, read or even dream unleashes this wave from within. But it still needs to start there. So I know my simple column won’t inspire you to cook if that’s not your calling. Nor will it inspire you to ride like Armstrong (heck, I can’t ride like Lance even if he towed me). But perhaps it may alter the path.
Inspiration in the Basics
What are the basics in cooking? Good cooking vessels? Well, not really since spit roasting doesn’t require any vessel other than a spit and fire. OK, the fire part requires a good oven or stovetop. Well, I really enjoy a good steak tartare or sashimi, which doesn’t require heat at all; only fresh product and prep utensils, such as a good knife. OK, I could go into fresh artisanal product ad nauseum, but unfortunately, not all of us can procure heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving (or are willing to pay upward of $10 per pound for these birds) so I’ll skip good product for now. Get it if you can (or are willing to pay for it) or make do with supermarket product.
Therefore, I’ll focus on prep tools and arguably the most important prep tool is the knife. Yes, I know Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal got by on fractured flintstone but the original article will probably cost you more than a good Japanese or Swiss Vanadium-Molybdenum steel blade. So purchase the modern version. I still remember the first time I used a Global 8-inch chef’s knife to cut my usual lunchtime carrot sticks. Like cuttin’ through buttah! The only downside is that these blades are so sharp they literally can cut paper thin slices off of your finger nail if you try to slice too fast. And I’ll be the first to admit, they aren’t the sexiest blades on the market. While the welded (with no apparent weld seams) handles render the knife as hygienic as possible, I’m still a sucker for lacquered wooden or ply knife handles. And while the blades are very easy to sharpen on a whetstone, I’m also still a sucker for that decorative Damascus pattern or tsuchime-hammered pattern.
But Global knives do simplify basic kitchen prep work. And most of their blades do come in less than $100 retail. Therefore, if you’ve been limiting your personal culinary creations by using that decades old Ginsu or those old Gerbers, look for culinary inspiration with a set of Global knives.
The Spice of Life
Though I love to use a variety of spices whenever I cook and continually search out new individual or combination of spices, the simplest can sometimes be the most rewarding. Before mankind started picking stigmas from Crocus sativus (saffron), harvesting both the aril and seed of the Myristica fragrans (mace and nutmeg) or navigated the Spice Route, he probably flavored (and preserved) his food with the most basic of all seasonings: salt.
Remember that salt is one of the basic taste sensations in the human palate — there are no basil taste buds or cinnamon taste buds or garlic taste buds but the palate can distinguish salt. In fact, salt was so important to the Romans that “salary” has its root in the Latin “salarium,” which referred to money paid to Roman soldiers to purchase salt. That being said, I’m not talking about the simple table salt found in that dark blue container that pours when it rains. I’m talking about the colored and flavored artisanal salts used to finish dishes both in traditional and non-traditional applications.
For starters, artisanal salts come in all colors from the pink Jurassic and Himalayan salt to the Grey salt from the coasts of Brittany to the reddish-orange Hawaiian sea salt to the black salt from India to the various hues of off-white sea salts available worldwide. They all have subtle differences in flavor and texture and often give a pleasing subtle “crunch” when judiciously sprinkled on one bite items like sushi, sashimi or tapas.
One of our regular wine group members, Mr. K, is an avid collector and consumer of these artisanal salts, so much so that he extols the virtue of these salts with the same exuberance as describing the flavor sensations in aged vintage Champagne. I personally love using various smoked sea salts to season and finish dishes.
An unexpected place where these salts shine is on sweets! I often purchase Fran’s Gray and Smoked Salt Caramel. Gray salt is lightly sprinkled on dark chocolate covered caramel or smoked salt is sprinkled on milk chocolate covered caramel. Delish! Since chocolate and caramel simply coat the palate with richness and fat, the light sprinkling of salt helps cut through the fat and since salt is also a flavor enhancer, makes the chocolate and caramel taste even better.
Ever since trying these confections, I’ve been a believer in salt and dessert. The Mrs. also makes an Olive Oil Orange Cake, which while delicious on its own, is highlighted by a sprinkling of flaked sea salt over the top of the cake. Everyone who tries the cake agrees that the salt makes it better!
So hopefully you’re now inspired to go out and purchase some good salt for yourself or an acquaintance and perhaps use it in a way you never thought of before (dessert perhaps) — or simply use it to finish a dish.
Finally, the Vessel
So unless you only spit roast your food or consume everything raw, you’ll eventually need a good cooking vessel. If I had to choose just one vessel for multi-tasking, it would be a porcelain-coated cast iron Dutch oven.
Earlier in my youth, I went for anodized aluminum vessels like Magnalite or Calphalon because both were well made and eventually developed “seasoned” bottoms that inhibited sticking. However, if you nicked the anodized surface and did a slow braised in acidic medium like tomato sauce or wine based liquids, you could detect a bit of metallic qualities in the finished product.
Then I discovered All-Clad, especially the copper core line that heated fast and even and with a stainless interior, imparted no flavor to the finished product.
However the copper core isn’t magnetic so it can’t be used on induction tops. The d5 line can be used on induction tops (and I still regularly use this product) but long oven braising means loss of liquid since the covers don’t produce a tight seal. That’s where cast iron pots come into play. Porcelain coated interiors which are as non-stick as they come, magnetic so they are compatible with induction burners and tight fitting covers so you don’t have to worry as much about liquid evaporation during long oven braising. The downside? Cost. I initially procured Le Creuset, which runs in the $200 to $500 range. However cost isn’t as much of an issue as many companies (and celebrities) market their own lines of cast iron cookware from Mario Batali to the domestic goddess Martha. They can also be quite heavy but I simply see it as a means of burning off some of those calories I’ll be consuming from the braised oxtails or lamb shanks or short rib that lie within.
So if you perchance don’t have a cast iron Dutch oven in your cooking arsenal, hopefully I’ve inspired you enough to at least browse the Le Creuset section and if it suits you, then purchase from the Batali or Stewart line of goods (or even spend the extra $$ with the Le Creuset line).
So like I’ve stated, I know I can’t inspire you to cook if that’s not something you really want to do. Nor do I expect all of you to immediately head to the store to purchase all of these items. Hopefully what I did accomplish is to start that little ember glowing, perhaps piquing your curiosity in obtaining a new knife or cooking vessel or in using salt in ways you never thought of before reading this column.
Personally, cooking is much more than simply feeding the body basic nutrients required for life. Putting a part of yourself into a dish for family and friends provides the essential elements required not just for life but for living — for feeding the soul. Bon appétit!
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at email@example.com.