COOKING—and the communality of eating—is an important part of the glue that binds society together. A person eats to satisfy hunger, to survive, but a person cooks to please the senses, to make food more palatable and digestible. We do this not only because we have to but because we like to.
Almost everyone takes pleasure in eating; it is an experience common to every society and culture. People around the world smile much the same way when they bite into a perfectly ripened tomato, picked from the vine and still warm from the sun. Eating ensures survival; eating well provides the opportunity to slow down and enjoy life for a few hours out of the day.
The purpose of this book is not to document the latest fashion in food, or to dazzle people with food based on a school of architecture, but to illustrate that everyone, with a little concentration and passion, can prepare flavorful and deeply satisfying food. We wanted to write a book about the food that is important in our lives, meals made from only the best ingredients, and the techniques of cooking we use to enhance and combine these ingredients.
The common qualities in the food of Campanile cannot be traced back to a defined region or to a specific era. We prepare the food that we want to eat. Because California is blessed with a climate similar to that of the Mediterranean coast, much of our food is influenced by the cuisine of that region. Our cooking philosophy has very little to do with intricate plate arrangements, but is simply: Does it taste wonderful and look beautiful? For the recipes in this book we have tasted and tested and cooked and cooked again, until we can state that this is a book of food that pleases our senses.
COOKING, TASTING, and KNOWING YOUR INGREDIENTS
If the chef at your favorite restaurant isn’t actually tasting the food, something is sadly lacking. You want that chef to dip a spoon in the sauce from time to time, to sample a leaf of arugula drizzled with vinaigrette, to sneak a crumble of browned veal sausage as it goes from the sauté pan to the plate. If the chef isn’t always tasting the food, it probably isn’t at the level it could be. He or she should be bursting with curiosity: Does that sauce obliterate the subtle flavor of the meat? How much is too much? Is the crushed black pepper a little too pungent on that pasta? Is the flavor of the fish too strong for the delicate flavor of the broth?
TO WRITE A BOOK ABOUT THE FOOD THAT IS IMPORTANT IN OUR LIVES, MEALS MADE ONLY FROM THE BEST INGREDIENTS.”
In our restaurant, we try to ensure that every dish is tasted before service, so that the flavors are genuine, the contrast of textures is balanced, and the realization of the dish is true to the concept. Throughout the evening, the chef should occasionally steal a little bite to taste the dish, in order to make sure its integrity is maintained. The same principles apply to the home cook as well. Blindly following recipes will help you learn to cook at first, but it will eventually hinder you as your confidence and knowledge develop. Most of the trouble with less-than-satisfying home cooking is from lack of self-confidence and attention. If you don’t pay close attention to the flavors of what you cook, you won’t develop the knowledge you need to be able to taste a dish and know exactly what it’s lacking.
You need some knowledge of flavor and the courage to trust your perceptions. Taste what you make; if it seems a little flat to you, try salting it a little more or adding a squeeze of lemon juice or some chopped herbs, just to push the flavor in what you think is the right direction. The knowledge to be adventurous in cooking will come with some time and practice, but if you care about what you’re doing and pay attention, most of the mistakes you make along the way will not be disastrous. Make notes on the recipe so that the next time you will remember the changes you made. Use a pencil so you can change your mind.
If you hurry through a dish and don’t taste it until it is on the table, it’s too late—there’s nothing you can do. Think about what you’re tasting, what the various ingredients contibute to the whole, and what effect the cooking technique has on those ingredients.
If a steak needs to be well browned for flavor, for example, brown it well; don’t back off or pull the heat down. Pay attention: Don’t burn it, but give it a good browning; there is a lot of flavor in that color. Even a prime, well-aged ribeye steak doesn’t look good if it’s cooked to a pale gray, and it doesn’t taste like much, either. The more familiar you become with the food you cook, the better you will be able to know when the flavors are perfect.
You might push too far sometimes and ruin something. Just try not to do it when you’ve got a dozen well-cocktailed guests seated in the dining room expecting the Meal of all Meals. At least some of the meal should be based on dishes you feel comfortable making. On the other hand, the greatest advances sometimes occur when working under intense pressure, and that can be a wonderful surprise—not only for your guests, but for yourself as well.
CHARACTERISTICS OF INGREDIENTS AND COOKING TECHNIQUES
Different foods have different characteristics: flavor, texture, size, shape, fat content, moisture content, chemical composition, and so forth. Therefore it makes sense that certain foods respond better to some cooking techniques than others. A tender, well-marbled steak should not stew on the back of the stove all day long. Not coincidentally, if you quickly grill a steak-size portion of Select-grade beef brisket, you might be chewing all day long. Hamburgers exist because there is meat on a steer that needs to be ground, or at least cooked a very long time, to be palatable. At Campanile, we try to match our cooking techniques and our raw ingredients. We try to cook harmoniously with the food, not against it. Fresh fava beans need only the slightest cooking to brighten their flavor. Potatoes, however, need to be cooked through completely to be enjoyed. To reduce that cooking time, one could grate the potatoes into hash browns, much like hamburger, and sauté them, or slice them in quarters and roast them with high heat until they’re well browned and crispy. The characteristics of the food itself are the best guide in determining the optimum ways of preparation.
Whereas grilling and roasting can be seen as arts, baking is surely more of a science. In reality, baking and roasting are essentially the same method of cooking, but when we refer to baking we generally mean the making of breads and pastries—a common element being that most of these foods are leavened in some way. A leavened product is one that uses gas (air, water vapor, or carbon dioxide) to rise. The baking heat then sets the risen shape before the gas has escaped, resulting in the basic texture of bread or cake. One small exception to this is pies, which do not really rise, but still require precise measuring of ingredients and even heat to bake properly.
In other methods of cooking there are usually many paths to a good end product, but in baking there are only a few. There are endless ways to produce a leaden loaf of bread or tough, flavorless cookies, but only by doing every step properly will you end up with perfect results. In baking there is far less margin of tolerable error in the measuring of ingredients, the way in which they are combined, and the precision of the heat in the oven, than is allowed for roasting. And of course in this light a baked potato should be called a roasted potato, but common usage prevails.
Blanching is primarily a method of partially precooking food, usually in boiling water. In restaurants it is used primarily to reduce the time necessary to cook the food during the service rush. Blanching is especially useful if you intend to grill vegetables. The high heat of the grill is such that many raw vegetables will burn on the outside before they are cooked all the way through. If they are blanched first, they need be on the grill only long enough to finish cooking and absorb a smokey flavor. Additionally, blanching will reduce the bitterness in many greens such as kale, mustard greens, and collard greens.
To blanch vegetables properly, it is important that you have a generous amount of well-salted boiling water and a ready container of ice water into which the blanched vegetables must be plunged to stop the cooking process at the right moment. The vegetables should be in the ice water only long enough to chill them—just a few minutes; any longer and they will start to lose flavor.
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.