By Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2002)
I admit there is some truth in the saying “good things come in small packages”. But by the looks of plates coming out of today’s top kitchens, it appears that really good things ONLY come in the smallest of packages, and the smaller the better.
It isn’t only on the runway that youth and petiteness is revered. As far as vegetables go, small and hence young, usually means sweet. With meat, young most often means tender, and again sweet. There is no denying that youth yields some of the most pleasing characteristics. But there’s something to be said for a slightly older and gamier tasting hen, or a big carrot that can stand up to some long cooking and develop a deep, earthy sweet flavor. I have decided that it is time to root for the underdog and take a stand against the size discrimination rampant in the gastronomic world.
It suddenly struck me one day at work when I heard myself reiterating to a waiter that the green at hand was indeed arugula, not the mini or the regular, but the micro variety. With a dozen different baby greens in an array of sizes garnishing the dishes, the waiters are in a constant state of confusion trying to keep it all straight, periodically reaching for their spectacles. Trust me, you need glasses to detect the specific arugula shape when it comes to the micro green. You could just as easily miss it if you didn’t chew your food carefully. However, a leaf of the micro mizuna does acoompany the teeny stuffed beet perfectly, and the micro tatsoi is a most appropriate topping for that tiny cube of seared tuna.
Anyway, so here I was, both annoyed and amused by this waiter who was incapable of differentiating one micro green from another, and as I launched into a full explanation featuring the words micro, mini and baby enough times in one breath to sound the ridiculous bells, I could only chuckle. Perhaps I had reached the peak of serious nonsense in the cooking world.
In a high-end restaurant kitchen, the cooking comprises many details that clients could seldom detect, but the sum of which make the difference between mediocre and “wow” in taste. In the process of working towards this ideal, I had unconsiously found myself in a sort of surreal place, far removed from what most people consider cooking. Here, every dish entails twelve steps, most ingredients have a pedigree, and miniscule garnishes abound. In my days of only associating with itty-bitty vegetables, I could picture myself as one of the “Littles”, I found myself dreaming of diving into the jar of plums in porto or taking a nap on a soft bun on the proofing rack.
I knew I was muddled when I literally jumped at the sight of a regular carrot in my home fridge. Yikes! What was that hideous thing doing in my vegetable bin, I wondered. Oooh, and there’s a fully-grown, big, ugly pepper. Being the only non-condiment, non-liquid food items in my fridge, I cooked them up nontheless. After a most satisfying meal, I felt guilty for having looked at these poor “mutants” so snobbishly. Especially the carrot! Oversized or not, how could I ever disrespect one of the sacred trio of mirepoix ingredients in French cookery (onion, celery, carrot)? Shame on me! Come to think of it, the pepper too is noble in any size, being fundamental to Spanish and Cajun cuisine as a part of soffrito and the holy trinity. Double shame.
It was time to make amends, and stand up for the big, the old, and the shunned.
I have defended less popular ingredients and forgotten vegetables before. I recall getting indignant when raving about a sunchoke gratin I had made, and a French chef I worked with scowled and told me they fed sunchokes to their pigs in France. Jerusalem artichokes, like celery and potatoes, are humble ingrediends that have at times been dismissed, only to be rediscovered. They have always been noble in my eyes. They’re tasty, wholesome, versatile, and perfectly good food, so I retorted that their pigs only benefited from their masters’ ignorance, ha.
I also get mad when I see someone picking through the eggplants or cucumbers at the market, favoring the perfectly shaped ones. What does it matter unless you’re doing a buffet centerpiece, and even then? I suspect that the more unique looking ones taste better anyway. I get suspicious if my fruit, vegetable or fish filet is too nicely uniform in appearance. It probably means that somone is fiddling with the breeding or chemical environment somewhere down the line. And I don’t want a square watermelon, certainly not for $100, thank you. The Japanese, creators of this “luxury” watermelon really do take esthetic to an extreme. Thankfully, the Japanese chefs I’ve come across also back it up with quality, which is what matters most.
I’m all for a nice presentation, it just sould not take precedence. The look should promise the quality the dish will deliver. It provides an additional layer of titillation and pleasure. Sure, we eat with our eyes first, but more so after with our mouth and nose. Although I usually cringe at the sight of over-worked food, crazy architecture and too many colors of the rainbow, I can appreciate a pretty plate design. Contrasting colors and texture add an element of fun and surprise, forcing you to stop to pay attention, to be delighted before even beginning, the opening applause. Like putting on complimentary clothes and a touch of make-up on a night out, presenting food in visually pleasing way is fine if it enhances the natural beauty, just no clown make-up, please. As long as the food tastes like food in the end, not art. Don’t use pea coulis for green color if the taste of pea does nothing for the compositon. Don’t use small just because it’s cute.
Appearances always count, but with food, it’s much more about flavor. There’s no point in cooking up some gorgeous hothouse tomatoes that taste like water. Like I couldn’t go out with a boring guy just because he was good on paper. Life and tummy space are just too precious. A zucchini flower is darling, but unless it’s properly treated, it has as much appeal as a mouthful of burrs. If you’re using a highly seasoned, heavy vinaigrette, then forget aobut micro-greens; they will be dead before they reach the table. Baby corn isn’t nearly as satisfying as a fresh mature ear; it hasn’t had the chance to develop its true character.
Big isn’t completely out though, especially not in America, the land of the giant burger and towering Philly sandwiches, but in fine dining everywhere, everything seems to be shrinking except the plate. Some people still order jumbo shrimp, or impress their friends by tackling an oyster the size of a Frisbee, but generally the wee things win out. I can’t help but find little quails cute too, and oh, such adorable little eggs. Then again, a large duck egg, now there’s an omelet for two.
In my daily entourage of the young and the teeny in this glamorous world, I guess I needed to be reminded not to forget about the big guys, and keep my snobbery in check. There is life after youth. I still can’t help but gaze lovingly at the baby eggplants, they are beautiful, and less bitter, but then, there’s also a larger skin to flesh ratio. You see, all sizes have something to offer, and have their place in the kitchen. And then there is always the stockpot, or in a restaurant kitchen, there’s staff meal. And if we won’t eat it, then there are always the pigs to feed...