Monday, February 4, 2008

Release the Starches

Often when I first meet people and it comes out in the course of our initial chit-chat that I like to cook, their natural response is to ask what kinds of things I like to make. I've never really found an answer to that question. When called upon to describe the things I enjoy cooking, I seem to only see either the trees, or a forest formed on a generalization that, if blurted out in a couple of words, would come across in a way not all that much less awkward than my inability to answer the question at all. For example, one good description of the kind of cooking I enjoy is that if you divide the universe of cooks into John Thorne's categories of Pot Cooks and Knife Cooks, I am a Knife Cook. See what I mean about an answer that can be worse than befuddled silence?

A lot of the things I like to cook illustrate some basic cooking process that pleases me. A good example is the thickening of a sauce that happens by the release of the starches naturally present in the food being cooked. The archetypal dish for this process is risotto. The short-grained Italian rices used in risotto have a lot of soluble starch near their surface. As you stir them during cooking, you dissolve that starch into the liquid around the rice, and before long the starch creates a sauce that looks a little like a soup in an American Chinese restaurant that has been thickened with cornstarch.

In class last week, we made a potato-leek soup in which the vegetables were left in pieces in the soup, in contrast to the more common version of the soup in which it is pureed at the end to a thick, velvety finish. Our version consisted of thinly sliced leeks and onions, and thin (about 1 or 1.5mm) slices of potato cut into pieces about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. When we began cooking the soup, it was not clear to me what the goal was, or in other words, at what point it would be considered done. As it simmered slowly, you could see the soup grow "heavy" as the starch in the potatoes began to leach into it. Knowing that potato-leek soups are often pureed, I started thinking that we would cook it so long that the potatoes would disintegrate into the soup -- they were sliced thinly enough to make this possible. Then, as Chef Marc was walking by during one of his reconnaissance missions around the room, he glanced into our pot and suddenly turned the burner off, and said, "That is perfect." And as soon as he did that, I thought, "Ahhh, I get it!" The goal had been to cook the soup just to the point that the potatoes had released all of their starch into the stock to thicken it, and then stop while the very thin slices were still intact. The soup was delicious, and it's a dish that I found fun to watch cook and slowly turn into its own thick but nearly fat-free sauce.

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