Little Things Mean a Lot

I was thinking the other morning, as I was writing out a recipe for this blog, about how I often use qualifiers when listing ingredients. For example, rather than saying, “1 tbsp. butter,” I will say, “1 tbsp. fresh sweet cream butter.” Or instead of “salt,” I will recommend “flaky sea salt, such as Maldon.”

Gorgeous pyramid crystals of Maldon salt

Gorgeous pyramid crystals of Maldon salt

It’s because little differences in ingredients can mean a lot. Especially in simple dishes that utilize only a few ingredients. One of my favorite summer dishes is spaghetti with fresh tomatoes, olive oil and parmesan cheese. But you will get a very different product if you use Ronzoni pasta, waxy store-bought tomatoes, cheap olive oil, Kraft parmesan and Morton’s salt than if you instead choose an artisan spaghetti, ripe heirloom tomatoes, a good extra virgin olive oil, aged hard parmesan reggiano and Maldon sea salt.

It is also good to be able to discern between when to use a top-quality — and usually more expensive — ingredient, and when not to. I have friends who would use expensive French fleur de sel salt for their cooking. I explained to them that fleur de sel is a finishing salt, that all salt dissolves in the cooking process and tastes the same, and they would be saving .9o cents on the dollar by using kosher salt instead. I often suggest “farm fresh eggs” and top-quality butters such as French Isigny in my recipes. But if you are baking a cake, you won’t notice the difference and any old eggs and butter will do.

Here are some of the foods and ingredients where choosing the better ingredients will yield a noticeable improvement in your final product:

• The freshest fish
The reason seafood in fancy expensive restaurants tastes so good? Freshness, freshness, freshness! Even if I’m cooking it, I buy most of my fish from Japanese markets, where it needs to be fresh enough to be eaten raw.

• Better basics
I already talked about this above. Stock your pantry with handcrafted Italian pastas, heritage beans and grains, flaky finishing salts like Maldon or fleur de sel, and one or two bottles of good, fruity extra virgin olive oil. In your fridge, keep a fine European-style butter and a chunk of aged parmesan reggiano for grating, while your freezer should have some good bacon, pancetta or guanciale, some useful sausages such as Spanish and Mexican chorizos, homemade chicken stock, duck fat and good lard.

• Food you produced yourself
There’s nothing better than the taste of lettuce or tomatoes you’ve just picked from your own garden, watered and tended with care. Our neighbors clamor for our fresh eggs — from our happy chickens foraging on the hillsides of our property. They really are that much better. And try fermenting your own kim chee or sauerkraut — it’s easy, fun and healthy!

• Grass-fed beef
Cows that eat grass — their natural food — are happier. If you’re going to eat meat, you should try to choose it from animals that led good lives. Sure, it costs more. But that’ll keep you from eating it more often, which is better for you and also good for the earth. Plus, they’ve discovered that grass-fed beef is high in conjugated linoleic acid (shown in animal studies to combat cancer) and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. For flavor, I’ll choose grass-fed beef that was finished on grain for better marbling and flavor. Get dry-aged if possible.

• Artisan products
Artisan products are a tradition in Europe. But it’s only in the past couple decades we’ve seen an explosion throughout the U.S. in small artisan producers handcrafting fantastic local cheeses, charcuterie, butter, olive oils, breads, smoked meats and fish, heirloom grains and other products. Support your community, help the earth and improve your cooking — try your local artisan products!

• Local seasonal produce
Like I said above, the best and local-est local produce comes from my own garden. But when my tomato crop is ravaged by chipmunks or my artichokes fail, the next best thing is produce picked in the previous 24 hours and sold by the very farmers who tended the fields.

• Fat
Fat is back! Turns out all those years the big agribusinesses spent convincing us we should be eating margarine and canola oil, animal fats were better all along! So spread the butter — organic, raw milk if you can find it — scoop the lard and don’t discard the fatty bits of your grass-fed beef or free range chicken .

*    *    *

Our friends were cooking dinner for us recently. Possessing rudimentary skills in the kitchen, they had purchased steaks and were planning on cooking Mario Batali’s recipe for Fiorentino porterhouse on the bone.

If you look at the recipe in the book, Mario says, “The quality of the steak is the quality of the whole dish in something as simple as this classic…” And the recipe was pretty much just that — steak, cooked. (Plus a little salt, pepper and a brush of herbs.) Our friends had purchased sirloin steaks.

The friends looked confused by the recipe’s three lines of instructions, so I took over. As I was finishing the grilled steaks on a cutting board dressed with garlic and olive oil, my friend said, “Sean, you’ve diverged significantly from Mario’s recipe.” I pointed out that the steaks they had purchased, while high quality, were not porterhouse on the bone. So you would not get the same result and these steaks would benefit more from a slightly different treatment.

In the kitchen, little things can mean a lot.

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15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Max
    May 16, 2014 @ 01:42:54

    I’ve never commented on your blog… Today you moved me…. I CONCUR!

    Reply

  2. Michelle
    May 16, 2014 @ 02:19:42

    Back in the olden days when people (for some reason) were reluctant to share recipes, my mother used to always say: “Go ahead and share it with them. They’ll never do it right so it won’t taste anything like yours anyway” Sad to say it’s often still the case.

    Reply

  3. Ben
    May 16, 2014 @ 16:53:24

    Agreed, Sir. These days I’ve gone totally Alice Waters on guacamole. My recipe for the past couple years has been reduced to *perfectly ripe avocados, * freshly squeezed lime juice, & *Maldon sea salt. For some reason, the Maldon works, really, really well in the guacamole. I think it’s because the creamy, slightly bitter, avocado doesn’t get obscured, you still get hits of salt, and the textural pops of the flaky salt contrast the creamy texture of the avocado so well.

    Reply

    • scolgin
      May 16, 2014 @ 16:56:47

      My guacamole is equally simple, although just slightly different — avocado, a clove or two of garlic grated on the microplane, and Maldon. Try it like that sometime — the garlic really accentuates the flavor of the avocado without distracting from it. I find when people throw too much in there — onions, cilantro, tomato, scallion, etc. — it confuses the flavor. And actually, the simpler guacamoles are the more traditional Mexican ones.

      Reply

      • thefatcook
        May 23, 2014 @ 14:10:59

        So I did try guacamole according to your method. I liked the heat of the garlic. I still added a bit of lime juice before putting away the leftovers to prevent any oxidization. However, ever since I bought a vacuum sealer leftover guacamole is a much more successful endeavor.

        Totally off topic, this weekend is going to be my annual BBQ to feature the 20-hour smoked pork shoulder on the grill. Side dishes to include Blue Cheese Coleslaw & Maple Baked Beans w/ fresh ginger and Chinese chili paste.

      • scolgin
        May 23, 2014 @ 15:19:55

        Hey, I’m doing smoked pork shoulder too! Actually, I’ll do the first 8 or 10 hours in the oven, just because my smoker is kind of hit and miss. (It’s basically just a metal cylinder with a pan for wood and a grill.) Also doing a TX brisket and muffaleta sandwiches and buttermilk fried chicken, slaw, mac & cheese and collard greens. (We’re expecting just shy of 100 folks.)

      • Ben
        May 23, 2014 @ 15:23:51

        Question for you, why not do the smoker first and then finish in the oven. Don’t you think you’re going to get better smoke penetration when the shoulder is still raw?

      • scolgin
        May 23, 2014 @ 15:33:03

        Maybe, I don’t know. I actually don’t think it’ll make that much of a difference. I also find that sometimes meat can get TOO smoky, which I don’t love. So hopefully this will be a happy medium.

  4. thefatcook
    May 16, 2014 @ 16:59:14

    I love microplaning garlic! So cold here in Chicago, hope it’s warmer there.

    Reply

    • scolgin
      May 16, 2014 @ 17:01:21

      I’lll trade you 25 of our heat degrees for 25 of your cold degrees. It’s been in the upper 90s and low 100s here all week. It’s 10 a.m. and we just closed up the house and put the AC on.

      Reply

  5. Jessamine in PDX
    May 17, 2014 @ 06:49:50

    Oh man. Before I started working at my job my boss had no clue about finishing salt. He would use fleur de sel for anything and everything, and he would use Kosher the same way. Totally interchangeable. Finally, five years later, he’s getting it! Have you seen Jacobsen’s salt around? I know we both have shelves (and shelves!) of salts but if you come across that one give it a try! Harvested here in Oregon and so tasty quite a few well-known chefs prefer it over Maldon.

    Reply

  6. Sally
    May 17, 2014 @ 10:13:41

    Couldn’t agree more with EVERYTHING you say in this post – from meat, fat, agro-business, the best simple ingredients…the lot. So glad to have found your blog. Love the title and the strap line 🙂

    Reply

  7. Laura
    Feb 23, 2015 @ 07:11:37

    Wow this one was especially informative…..

    Reply

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