March 11, 2009
I was asked a question the other day, sort of as one foodie to another. The question was, "Do you know what a ''finishing oil'' is?" The questioner had heard a TV chef use this term. The chef was plattering a steak and told the viewers she was going to put a little finishing oil on top. Hmm ... well, this led me to thinking about where one (me) goes to find out answers to questions in the world of gastronomy. (Note to A.C.: I think she -- the chef -- was full of it and made this up, as I can''t find it used anywhere that Google goes. Making up words is not unusual for chefs.)
I really don''t know much about food when I think of all the years of intense study and work training that real chefs have, so it is important to me to know where to look when my brain won''t supply the answer.
TV is one choice. One thing about these TV chefs (and some not on TV as well) -- it used to just drive me insane to hear Emeril Lagasse mispronounce words and be just an all-around idiot when describing his techniques. "I''m just sort of whisking this sauce, you see."
Well, Emeril, you are either whisking it or you''re not. There is no "sort of whisking."
"This mayonnaise here, well, it''s kind of like an emulsion." No, Emeril, it is an emulsion. After tolerating his ineptness for a few years I realized I could just turn him off (I''m a slow learner). So I did. There are a few others who get my dander up as well, like Rachel Ray or some of the newer stars. On the other hand, there are a few who are stars to me as far as expertise is concerned. The Barefoot Contessa (Ina Garten) can do no wrong on my food planet. Neither could Sara Moulton, who no longer seems to be on. Tyler Florence and Alton Brown both have food cred in my book as well. I listen and learn from them, rather than just being entertained.
When you need to know
So, where do I go when I don''t know the answer? I have one book that is my first go-to tool: "The Food Lover''s Companion" published by Barron''s Educational Series, a dictionary type book that gives the definition and/or history of terms from "abalone" to "zwieback." And the appendix has really useful tables such as "Ingredient Equivalents" and "Substituting Ingredients." I could have used the "Smoke Points of Popular Oils" last week when I set the stove on fire while making homemade matchstick French fries for the grandkids. They were terrified rather than impressed. You may have to go on-line to find this handy guide, but I do encourage any foodie to have a copy.
For Christmas in 1988 my parents gave me a copy of "Larousse Gastronomique," the new American edition. The original French edition was written by Auguste Escoffier in 1938 and became the bible for French cuisine for decades. The American edition was much heralded, and I was thrilled to have a copy, although I didn''t then and don''t now have the time, skill or inclination to prepare a cold ballottine of duck.
The preface to Larousse says the tome is "intended to be a synthesis of the science of nutrition and the art of cooking, but an attractive synthesis, as pleasing to the gourmet, cook and the aesthete as to the historian and the sociologist." I''ll admit it is a little heavy, but it is a great source for classic recipes, definitions, histories and trivia. Complete with photographs, it is written as an encyclopedia, beginning with "abase" (a sheet of rolled-out pastry) and ending with "zuppa inglese" (a Neapolitan dessert). It is l,168 pages long with no helpful appendices. This book would not have helped me when I set the stove on fire.
I have several books on technique, but the one with the dirtiest pages, filled with dribs and drabs of whatever was on my fingers, is "La Technique" by Jacques Pepin (former sidekick of Julia Child). This one may be out of print, but it is wonderful, filled with step-by-step pictures and easy to understand direction.
Like Larousse, I may not have the need in 2009 to make oeufs en gelee (eggs in aspic), but this wonderful man saved my reputation twice.
Once, I had offered to cater the wedding reception for the daughter of the owner of the nightclub in New York where I worked (story for another time). She wanted poached salmon and beef tenderloin. I had the chef order the salmon for me. No one told me that salmon had skin, and scales, and fins. Yes, they -- all 12 of them -- came in whole. Gutted, but whole. I opened my book, turned to page 138 and started. Oh, and did you know that whole beef tenderloins also come untrimmed? Neither did I. That technique is on Page 268, and to this day you can throw as many of them at me as you like: I''ll trim each and every last one.
I have encyclopedic Chinese and Italian cookbooks that act as references for me as well. They have any dish I need to know. One is "The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook" by Gloria Bey Miller, and the other is Marcella Hazan''s "The Classic Italian Cookbook." Lastly, I implore you all to have a copy of "The Joy of Cooking." I am on my second copy, and I still use it to look up cooking terms as well as good basic recipes.
Of course, there''s always the Internet, but it''s not as much fun as pulling down a book and getting lost in it.
Anne Freeze, a self-professed foodie, was a restaurant general manager and owner of a gourmet food store before moving to Columbus. She is a volunteer for The Hitching Lot Farmers'' Market in Columbus. She can be reached at email@example.com.