Not everything we work with starts out in a state of perfection. There is local food grown by farmers, and food certified by groups like Oregon Tilth. There is organic food sold at markets, and there is what we are offered when we go to the regular supermarket
When nothing untoward has happened to food from seed to plate, it has its own truth, and often the best thing to do is simply shepherd that food via our cooking to the plate. I believe that the closer you are to the sources of food, the more you take this approach. The further removed you are from the sources of food, the cooking attitude seems to be more “look at what I’ve done,” rather than “look at what this is.” I prefer the latter, but occasionally can’t resist the former.
In order for food to speak a truth, I believe it must be in contact with the soil. Eating vegetables grown in greenhouses should be approached in the same manner as eating flowers grown in greenhouses; don’t go there. Basil or herbs grown in winter, grown in water; forget it. They offer neither flavor, nutrition, and the vibe is just wrong. With all the young people facing food issues, we need to wake up to the fact that we can’t just keep feeding bodies engineered foods without consequences. We weren’t designed to eat foods out of season, so forget those red objects sold as tomatoes or strawberries. Canned tomatoes would be better. Frozen local berries are perfectly acceptable. (See the Youtube on Sweet Potatoes).
Mushrooms come to mind because in France they are grown in caves whereas in the US they are grown in a sterile medium, potting soil.
Technically it’s dirt, but it’s not soil so yields a product that is mostly form without content. That said, we use them, but I wonder if we stop to wonder why because they don’t offer much flavor. Cook them in a little fat, they don’t taste like much. Thrown them on a pizza, or in a salad, and you wonder why you bother.
I came across a technique for cooking mushrooms 30 years ago which I have always used. It came from Michel Guerard, a chef who runs a 3-star restaurant specializing in spa food. Guerard’s ambition was to eliminate as much fat as possible from a given dish, while still having the highest expectations for flavor, taste, style, excellence.
Ordinary mushrooms are simply sliced and put into a dry skillet, sprinkled with salt and dry sauteed on the highest flame. As the mushrooms warm, the salt draws water from them. They wind up doing something that our mothers used to tell us and that didn’t have a good connotation: we could stew in our own juices. In this case of mushrooms stewing in their own juices, the technique concentrates whatever flavor they can muster from not having been gown in earth. As the cooking continues and the water evaporates, the mushrooms will develop golden caramelization, a sign that the flavor of the thing itself is concentrating. Once the skillet it dry, the mushrooms have developed color, the heat is turned off. Here is where we discover the point of applying magical technique.
Give the mushrooms a grinding of fresh pepper and experience an explosion of perfume filling the air as the heat activates the pepper. Follow this gesture with the addition of a persillade, garlic minced to cook quickly, blended with coarsely chopped parsley for freshness and herbal flavor. Toss the mushrooms with persillade, and you will attract attention from the aromas that fill the room. Knowing a little technique can help and ordinary ingredient a lot.
I like to tell the story of being in a small restaurant in Paris for lunch. The husband ran the kitchen, the wife ran the dining room. It was a work neighborhood so pretty much all the customers came for lunch at the same time, making the activity in the dining room very animated. The wife greeted people, settled them, gave them menus, took their order, made them feel welcomed. The husband prepared everything and she flew through the dining room holding it all together. The dining room sustained a good animate buzz. At one point, as the woman crossed the room with a tray full of food, she realized that the conversation in the room was going silent in the wake of her passage. She stopped, realized what the cause was, turned to the room behind her and said in a public voice, “Calm yourselves, it’s just Mushrooms Provencale.” Her point being that excellent mushrooms can be show stoppers.