To fiddle or not to fiddle
I’ve just eaten the same simple tomato salad, three nights in a row, and wow. I’ve been eating pretty solid tomatoes all summer, but they are tasting soo great right now. I might just be clinging onto the last tastes of summer as the nights get colder. I’m already sad to see the greens go (I bought some cultivated arugula last week for the first time), but with the abundance of late harvest veg, it’s not feeling like such a big deal yet. Not to mention that I’m forever distracted by the stops and starts of the mushroom season (I’m still waiting on half the varieties). But oh, when the tomatoes go though, that will be tragic. Good thing I love autumn. And good thing I managed to find the time to execute my annual ‘Operation Tomate’, canning 60L of tomato sauce, without which I don’t know how I would ever survive winter.
As I sat there admiring my wall of brilliant red mason jars, revelling in my fresh tomato thoughts after finishing off yet another lip smacking tomato salad, I thought I should get some of this tomato love on paper. But then I realized that I’ve done that many times before. I put down my pen and paper and began catching up on my internet reading material, until I came across this. What, why, no, you have got to be kidding!? I had no choice but to pick up my pen again.
Check it out - A beautiful deconstructed, reconstructed (however you want to call it), nouvelle ‘Insalata Caprese’! Peeled heirloom tomatoes, injected with basil oil, mozzarella balloon filled with tomato water foam, olive oil powder, basil gel "leaves", balinese sea salt. http://www.playingwithfireandwater.com/foodplay/2008/09/insalata-caprese.html
Kinda neat, but really, why bother? These chefs are CRAZY.
Maybe I’m just getting old and lazy.. Maybe it’s because the summer season is winding down and the tomatoes are at their best, and that I was still relishing the lingering tastes of my most delicious field tomato salad with fresh cheese, a good EVO with chili and coarse salt. Or maybe it’s just that I had just finished a crazy week in the kitchen cooking more complicated food (but nowhere near as complicated as that Playing with fire and water stuff above).. Altogether, the idea of fiddling with the Caprese at this time of year just irked me.
Don’t get me wrong, I do love to fiddle. And sometimes you have to fiddle with food to make it special. Sometimes too, you just feel like tinkering because you’re a cook and that’s what you do; and sometimes you just have no choice because customers are paying for something they can't make at home. But at other times, all that fiddling can be counterproductive, and seem just plain wrong.
The point of manipulating and cooking ingredients (ie.fiddling) usually involves necessary transformation to a more palatable form or at least embellishment of some sort. With perfectly ripe produce though, it more likely only means time lost and inherent denaturing of the product.
This ‘Caprese Salad’ is only the slightest example of how far out the new wave of a certain breed of chefs armed with the latest in molecular gastronomy, their powders, gels and talent have taken modern food. Not that it’s a bad thing. I’d have to taste the dish; however, honestly right now, I fancy just reading about it while munching on real tomatoes - that François carefully selected which then sat and ripened on the counter until eating them messily as is, was THE ONLY option.
Not to say that I don’t appreciate the contributions of these cutting edge cooks. This level of fiddling requires creativity, research, refinement, and skill. Although I do think they are insane, I have enormous respect for the lot, especially the original leaders like Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufresne, Heston Blumenthal, and Achatz, and now including this new bunch online (more approachable, but just as serious). I was once a disciple of the chef set, curiously exploring it all myself, convinced that this marriage of science, technology and traditional cooking was the epitome of haute cuisine, the ultimate. I have since lost the thread, I’ve been lapped and left behind by the whole movement, yet I still tune in somewhat out of curiosity, for the mental exercise, more than anything.
The one thing that continues to unsettle me about this new trend is the underlying goal of complete and utter transformation, the implicit denaturing of real food, not to mention the use of all the gums and powders associated with the processed food industry. Although cuisine has always been about transformation and all these tricks are basically just new tools and techniques for chefs, it’s just TOO MUCH fiddling for me. It clearly does not mesh with the parallel trend of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, the shortening of the distance between farm and plate and the shunning of industrial, overly processed food. No, this direction is akin to a swing of the pendulum back to acrobatics for the sake of acrobatics, as in the old French style of chaud froid, and sculpting food, that I thought we sensibly left behind for the sake of taste.. Food can always be a canvas, but that’s not not always in our best interest. Our parents and grand parents didn’t seem to think that playing with our food was such a good thing either.
In any case, the contrast between this fancy Caprese Salad and the simple one before me, which could not have been better at this moment in time, drove my conviction home, leading me yet one step further from ‘molecular gastronomy’ in principle.
My cooking style at the restaurant lies somewhere in between these two in terms of degree of fiddling. In fact, I am constantly torn between the fiddle and fiddle-not camps; out of respect for the ingredients, out of principle and practicality , I hold back, while my artistic sense, curiosity, drive and desire to please, tug me the other way. I’m forever scolding myself for over-complicating things, forever struggling to find that balance in composition that best shows off the ingredients, that best represents our style and concept, that will humbly wow and surprise, all while being true to myself, creative but grounded, straight up but not boring..
(The extent of my fiddling with the Caprese (at the restaurant): Arugula, pickled hedgehog, smoked duck, boletus oil, wild grape ‘balsamic’, mushroom salt )
Even as I try to keep my fiddling to a minimum with my feet firmly planted in the woods as opposed to a fancy lab-kitchen, I shall likely remain plugged in and fascinated by the likes of Ideas in Food, Playing with Fire and their nouveau style Caprese Salad.
The Ideas in Food team http://ideasinfood.typepad.com/
is a favourite source of these antics and reflections. You can tell despite the convoluted technique they use, they have true passion and a reverence for top ingredients. They never cease to amaze and inspire me; they get me thinking wow that’s clever! (or occasionally wow, that’s ridiculous!). I admire their hard work and dedication to their mission (ie. my full inbox). And they come up with the darnest of things, often brilliant and surprising ideas and combinations of ingredients that get me excited. There was the coffee pasta lately that I found intriguing even if I am not a fan of flavouring pasta dough because it cuts the gluten and usually involves a waste of resources as flour really deadens the flavour. But they used a hot water dough, and I also couldn’t help but think that a certain wild mushroom stuffing would rock with the coffee. Then there was their creative and practical notion of speed-infusing with sous-vide which isn't all that new, but they are really working it. On the flip side, there is the occasional combo that elicits an ugh, like bananas and marrow.. They were at their best when describing the creative process the other day, which I thought hit the nail on the head when it comes to exposing a chef’s thought process (and really who better than them).. But then the next post offered up some banality like ‘Guess what, cooking vegetables in their skins provides more flavour’. At times like this, I can’t help but think they are so off in their own bubble of a deconstructed world of beakers and scales, that they sometimes forget about the real world and real food. Similarly though, many ‘regular’ cooks are so caught up in a routine that they forget about all the possibilities for new flavours and pure fun out there.
The truth is that there are many more hits than misses, and either way, it is exciting stuff. Obviously, I love that they (and people like them) are there to be pushing limits and exploring novel ideas. Although I have no desire to cook like that anymore, I do admire them and thank them all for stretching my mind in the subtlest of ways. I don’t know about fiddling so much with the Caprese Salad, and I still believe in ‘real food’ way more, but good on them for carving out a niche and making the culinary arena more dynamic. Wouldn’t it be boring if everyone out there was serving up the same Caprese Salad au naturel, no matter how fresh and sustainable. I suppose there’s room for all kinds of food and people, chefs, restaurants, and Caprese Salads out there. All dressed up listening to classical music, in some exotic locale on vacation, the new-fangled Caprese salad might work better at seducing me than the simple one I want at the end of a hard summer’s night in the kitchen... It all comes down to good tomatoes, time and place, and who’s doing the fiddling.
P.S. Can you tell I like the word 'fiddle'?