Thursday, February 14, 2008

Size Matters

Up to this point in cooking school, we have mostly cooked only vegetables: vegetables as flavor bases for stocks, vegetables as soups, vegetables as side dishes, vegetables as salads, and vegetables as garnishes. While I've long understood the importance of cutting the ingredients of a dish to a uniform size so that they would cook evenly, until the last couple of weeks, I hadn't appreciated the degree to which consistent sizes and shapes could improve the overall experience of a dish.

We made two dishes recently that drove this point home. The first was a vegetable salad that consisted mainly of cooked chopped vegetables mixed into mayonnaise (freshly made by whisking oil into egg yolks). The salad was called "Macédoine of Vegetables," and Chef Marc told us that in France it is called a "Russian Salad." "Macédoine" is one of the standard cuts that we learned on the first day of class, along with julienne, emincer and some others, and it means to dice something into perfect cubes about a half centimeter (3/16 of an inch or so) on every side. Our salad had in it carrots, turnips, green beans, and peas, all cooked and cut to that size. In fact, Chef told us that since the peas were the one ingredient that would not be cut, the size of the peas we had should determine the exact size of the cut of the other vegetables: the goal is to have everything be about the same size. When I ate our salad, I immediately noticed how important it was that you really couldn't identify any of the different vegetables in your mouth by their size or shape. (Since the size was so small and they were mixed into a good mayonnaise, even the peas being round didn't stand out among all of those little cubes.) The consistent sizes and shapes of the different vegetables, and the fact that they were all cooked to the same degree of doneness (all of the vegetables were cooked individually, in different pans, because they cook at different rates), made you appreciate the flavors of each ingredient, since flavor was the only distinguishing feature of each different part of the salad.

The other dish was one that we made on Tuesday night, in our most recent class, the first of three classes devoted to fish during Level 1 of the program (the first 20 of 120 classes). We made striped bass "en papillote," which means sealed into a pouch made by folding parchment paper and then baked. I had tried to make a fish en papillote once a few years ago, and while it wasn't a disaster (when you come right down to it, it's not that easy to make inedible food if you have any idea what you're doing), it really wasn't very good. The dish we made Tuesday night was one of the best fish preparations I've ever had (and I've eaten at Le Bernardin). There were several "secrets" to it, but the only one completely new and surprising to me was the effect of cutting things to a consistent size. Before I get into that, let's cover the other keys to the dish. First, having good fish is obviously very important. We filleted the whole striped bass ourselves, and we could tell from the eyes and gills that it was good fish. I've said many times that I'll probably never buy fish in a regular chain grocery store again, because I'm not willing to make a scene about asking to inspect the fish before buying, so that limits me to fish sellers that I know and trust. At school, we get great fish. Second, it's important when making fish en papillote to use a large enough sheet of parchment to make a big pouch, and seal it really well. The cooking method you're using is really steaming, not baking or braising, and you need to have enough room in your pouch to create a big steam chamber, and you need for it to stay sealed or it'll dry out and bake instead of steaming. Third, as I knew already, these dishes usually have some white wine or other liquid added before they are sealed up and put in the oven, but I learned this week that you want to use a tiny amount of the wine, because otherwise you're braising the fish and not steaming it, and since it's sealed you aren't going to get the alcohol and the cheap "winey" taste out of the dish if you use much. We added only about 1 teaspoon -- not even a regular flatware spoonful -- of wine to our papillotes.

Now let's consider the accompanying vegetables, and their cut and preparation. The fish rested on top of a rectangular bed that was made up of two smaller squares of a couple of different cooked vegetable preparations placed side by side. One of the squares making up the rectangle was peeled, seeded, and diced roma tomatoes, cut to about a quarter inch in size (again, like the macédoine cut of the earlier salad), with absolutely no seeds or pulp, only the flesh of the tomato, that had been cooked along with some shallots and perfumed with garlic and thyme (which were removed before using the tomatoes in the fish). The other square, next to the tomatoes to form a rectangular bed the same size as the fish fillet on top of it, was made of white button mushrooms diced to the same size as the tomatoes, also cooked (in a separate pan) with shallots and a bit of lemon juice. Having those two vegetables cut to the same size and about the same shape, and cooked to the same texture, again made their flavor really stand out, since only the flavor distinguished them. On top of the fish was another rectangle made up of three sections of different vegetables cut into julienne (very thin matchsticks just under 3 inches long). Having the leeks, carrots, and celery in the same shape and size, and cooked to the same point and arranged carefully in three aligned rectangles, emphasized their flavors. Both cuts -- the macédoine on the bottom and julienne on the top -- were small enough that their textures did not interfere with each other, but rather complemented each other. A bit of the macédoine and a bit of the julienne delivered about the same amount of their ingredient into your mouth, but with just enough difference in texture to show off the three distinct layers of the dish: diced vegetables on the bottom, the fish fillet in the middle, and the matchsticks on the top. After eating the dish, I know that if we made the same preparation from a different fish that naturally flaked into larger pieces (such as cod, maybe), we would probably cut the vegetables to slightly larger sizes to complement the fish.

Another example where the size and shape of vegetables affected the resulting dish is my simple dinner last night, which consisted of spaghetti tossed with onions and carrots cooked in butter and topped with some soft poached eggs. Since I needed to practice (as always) my julienne, I cut some carrots into julienne, and cooked them along with onions sliced so that they separated into curved sticks about the same size as the carrots. Their long thin shapes went very nicely with my spaghetti, and the whole thing was much better than my earlier preparations of the same ingredients where I cut the onion into a large dice and the carrot into short (because I had used those "baby carrots" from the grocery) sticks somewhat thicker than the spaghetti strands. When everything is cut to the right shape, it's a dish that I wouldn't mind serving to guests.

Finally, a dish where I've always intuitively known that the size of the ingredients makes a big difference, but could never really articulate why until observing the idea in action over the previous few weeks, is the average tossed salad. It has always driven me a little nuts when things of very inconsistent sizes are thrown into a tossed salad, and the reason is that they won't taste right together and complement each other at all. When I have a tossed salad with large lettuce leaves, a half tomato, and finely chopped carrots or olives, I don't understand how that's supposed to fit together: the tomatoes should be halved and then the halves quartered, the olives should be whole, the carrots should be at least in jardiniere (french fry shapes a quarter inch thick and about 2 inches long). If you like your carrots grated or cut into a brunoise (cubes about 1/16-1/8 inch), I think they would go a lot better in your salad if you grated your lettuce or shredded it with a knife instead of tearing the leaves into pieces of a couple inches or more. In fact, thinking back on my most recent meal there, Lupa serves a salad of brussels sprouts with finely grated cheese and finely chopped nuts, and what makes it all hang together is the fact that instead of leaving the sprouts whole or cutting them into little wedges, they shred them into thin strips that complement the fine texture of the cheese and nuts.

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