I had a little argument with a dear friend on Saturday night. She doesn’t think I should call my “Puerta Cerrada” supper club, “Ugly Food”.
“It will put people off,” she explained.
“Not if they read my manifesto,” I replied. “If they understand what it’s about it should make them keener. If they don’t, I don’t really want them as guests because it wont make them happy.”
“Oh, so what is your manifesto?”
“Ah, I haven’t written it yet, but it’s very clear in my head.”
And that is when I realised I had just spent a fortune on designing my kitchen all-wrong! Admittedly, I have eaten in restaurants with open plan kitchens where you can see the nice guys in their white uniforms, slaving and sweating over their hot pots. And frankly it doesn’t do it for me. And further, given that I am not as technically accomplished as most of the prima donnas that wish to be on display, I personally prefer the window that I have put in, that allows me to see out (standing) but not for my guests to see in (sitting).
So why, as an aspiring Chef, am I not interested in watching my peers hard at it? Because you can’t smell anything; Because the modern kitchen has an extraction system that sucks the slightest fugitive whiff of aroma out into the wild blue yonder; Because the modern view is you might actually affront your clients with smells of your cooking; But let them see, yes of course, they eat with their eyes!
Bugger! I have just punched a massive hole through three floors of my building and have a shiny silver chimney that goes to the moon. Why, because I believed the ventilation specialists, who claimed that I shouldn’t assail my customers’ nasal passages with food odours. Fine if I was intending a MacDaddy hamburger and fries dinner club, using rancid oil; not so clever as an ugly food producer. What shall I do? Open my window? Turn off the extraction?
Why do I spend time thinking about such trivial matters? Because I cook ugly food and despite an extensive search on the internet I can’t identify who came out with the folkloric but generally accepted concept, “you eat with you eyes first”. I suspect it was some fast food chain, trying to add premium value to their sub prime offering, with a bunch of easily manipulated focus groups and sadistic food scientists in their cellar.
That being said, attractive presentation of food is nothing new but the French were probably the first to assure that the food looked as good as it tasted. Most former efforts I suspect, achieved the reverse and unfortunately there still appears to be an inverse relationship in Argentina, where technique is still triumphing over flavour.
It’s not really a surprise. Most great French Chefs still quote their mother as their greatest influence. Did they come into the kitchen to be presented with a medallion of this, with a smear of that, and a dribble of the other, topped with lovingly tweezered microgreens? I doubt it. They came into the kitchen to be assailed by the aroma of a big pot of this, and the baking of that and the reducing of something else. Do you think they ever asked themselves, “I wonder how all that is going to look?”
Similarly, I was lucky enough to have a mother who produced consistently flavoursome food. Do you think I ate her bacon-laden lentil stew or her oxtail soup with my eyes? No, no one could have ever called it pretty, but a blind man could have followed the smell.
There is a reason blind wine tastings are done blind. It’s so you are not influenced by the flash or the marketing, the ancestral heritage or the price. Yes, they still let you look at the colour, swirl it round so the “legs” indicate its alcohol level, but the most important thing is to stick your beak into it, then suck oxygen over it in your mouth, in order to ram it into your nasal passages. Only then are you are allowed to use your taste buds. Try guessing what a food is, say a banana or a mango, with your eyes closed (having obviously recruited an assistant to randomly choose and feed you a random food type). Not that difficult. Peg your nose closed as well; Nigh on impossible.
So my manifesto? Flavour before photographability? Stuff that smells? Enough sauce to flavour each bite, not just a decorative dribble?
The first thing you learn cooking as a “professional”, is not to worry about wastage. Apparently man-hours cost more than ingredients. Which implies that lovingly made stocks and sauces are possibly not a profit centre for most restaurants? It may actually be more profitable to concentrate on presentation as long as you fool more than half of the people, more than half of the time.
But I don’t really want to be a restaurant chef. I am a happy home chef, I like to entertain, and most of my guests love three out of four of my courses (or more if you subtract the picante-intimidated argentines). I want to cook seasonal, using the stuff that my Bolivian has fresh. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn all the classic techniques. It does mean that if you say, “this doesn’t look too pretty”, I won’t pay much heed. If you tell me that my food is bland, I guarantee you don’t have to pay! Though your dessert may contain something from my little packet of nuclear chillies that has been sitting in a locked cupboard whose instructions start, “Before opening this packet put on gloves and a face mask….”. Sounds as though they will add a bang to a chocolate volcano!
A long and you may think unnecessary lead-up to a recipe, invented a couple of nights ago that turned out deliciously, and strangely doesn’t seem to have anything like it that can be discovered by a google search of the most obvious terms and ingredients. A further advantage (for my inflation oppressed Argentine friends) is that it provides a hearty portion (mashed potato included) for less than 15 pesos a head. There is however, and for me this justifies a restaurant’s price (any idiot can cut up expensive Foie Gras and stick it on a piece of toast), a hefty investment of time.
It’s winter now in BA, which means it has dropped under 10 degrees C, as in “Summer” for you Brits, as in “estamos muriendo de frio!!!” And both I and La Doctora have been ill. Flu. Obviously, it’s the temperature change, down from 21 degrees three days ago. “Eso te mata, la verdad, te maaaata”. I really hadn’t eaten for a couple of days and was ready for something warming. And strongly flavoured. But I didn’t want to run around looking for ingredients, I was still too weak! So I went to the fridge, to see what was there. Onions. Why is it whenever you go to buy ingredients you never remember whether you still have onions, so you buy more just in case? I was not just suffering from flu after-effects but also from Onion Build Up. Time to rectify both.
The most obvious solution was French Onion Soup, but that lacked protein so the resolution was a sherry, enhanced (Spanish?) chicken dish with a reduced and turbo boosted French onion sauce. Maybe they serve something similar in Perpignan? Let’s call it Catalan Chicken (though if you stop before the chicken and sherry part it’s also French Onion Soup) and here we go;
Drag all your onions out of the fridge, buy some more, slice all roughly, you need several kilos (too many doesn’t exist), then stick them in a big pot with olive oil and go for it over a high heat for at least 20 minutes stirring regularly!…no onion burning required! Garlic and finely chopped ginger will enhance.
Lower the heat, and cook for another 40 minutes, stirring regularly, throwing in a couple of teaspoonful of sugar half way through if they don’t seem sweet enough. Then the secret; For the soup, the onions should have acidity. They don’t have much here, so bung in some apple vinegar. For the sauce don’t be shy, bung in lots. And give it another 10 minutes at least. The truth is, the longer and slower you cook this mountain of onions, the better it will taste. If you want to be El Capo de Capos, you can go up to 5 hours!!
Ok, recipes diverge here. If you are making the classic soup you need beef stock. You remember? The one you made with the bones the Carnicero gave you for your “dog”. Add stock to your browned onions (maybe add one star anise) bubble for a bit, do the crouton and cheese thing, add a swig of sherry and listo…it’s only time invested.
For the chicken dish, use chicken stock, obviously. Three kilos of leg and thigh (pata y muslo) currently cost 39 pesos. Feeds five butchered badly (yes you have to remove the bones and rip the skin off), don’t worry about taking the bones out in a sophisticated manner. The more flesh on the bone, the better the next stock (otherwise you can buy chicken carcases for about 4 pesos a kilo and get your butcher to do the work).
Fry the chicken hot with a bit of soy sauce, cut up when well browned and throw into sauce (maybe with a chilli and another big swig of Sherry) and again, cook slowly (time, time, time). If possible, finish cooking and leave overnight to intensify.
I’m not publishing a photo of the end result, because it looks like so many of the other foods I cook. Brown. My cooking teachers tell me that a bunch of different colours on the plate will make my food more “attractive”.
Would I find my Puligny Montrachet or Mersault de Hospice de Beaunes more attractive if it had some carefully crafted colour layering? Ni en pedo (I bet you can guess what that means)!
But close your eyes and stick your nose into it. Does it smell brown? No it smells like the result of hard labour. Sweetness and acid, meaty sauce soaking into creamy yellow (skin on) mash. Some carrots for taste and ok, they do give a bit of colour.
Un exito! If your friends don’t like this just get new friends. After all, it has taken you hours.