Saturday, September 29, 2007

Essential Ingredients in my Cooking

I think each chef eventually comes up with a gorup of favorite ingredients they end up using over and over again in their repertoire. They may become part of our repertoire because we truly love the ingredient or it ends up becoming so familiar that we feel our cooking would not be complete with out just a little bit of that seasoning. I have a friend who adds Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce to everything.

So I thought I would offer all of you a list of a half dozen items I love to use in my cooking. They aren't all items I use often, some are occasional items that can be difficult to find, but once found and used, you will see why I love them

Olive Oil
I have a true appreciation for olive oil in my cooking. My particular love comes from trying many regional and specialty oils produced by artisan craftsman. When I cook Provincial French cuisine, I reach for a variety of oil from that region. If I am cooking Moroccan cuisine I will use an oil produce in that country. Each country in that portion of the world creates their own style of olive oil, be it Italy, Spain, Greece, and you can even find olive oils created in Napa Valley (O is a favorite) or even Australia. You can also get flavored olive oils, with black or white truffle (great in risotto) and I have even been tempted with a wasabi infused oil from Earthly Delights recently which I can't wait to try.

Gone are the days that we once only had iodized or kosher salt to choose from. Today we can get regional sea salts from France, Greece, Spain etc. We can also get volcanic seas salts from Hawaii and Grey sea salt from France (a high moisture salt). If you want salt smoked, you can have it, you can also get it smoked specifically with alder wood, chardonnay oak barrels or other specific woods. Again, regional cuisine desires the salt from the region it is from as those flavors develop in each ingredient used in its dishes from the animal proteins, vegetables and in this care right down to its salt. Did you know that there is a salt museum in Germany?

It's another regional product, you may be noticing a pattern. Nothing beats making a French sauce with a high quality, high-fat content butter (above 80%). All butters in the USA, well mass marketed ones are below 80%. One exception is one made by Plugra at 82.5% butterfat content. Another American favorite is from the Vermont Butter and Cheese Company with a ridiculous 86% butterfat. Now I suppose you could put this on your toast in the morning, but I use it for pan searing items and finishing my sauces with. The European counterparts include my favorite from France, Isigny.

Sometimes I feel like an Englishman from the 18th century cooking with so many Indian, Thai, Moroccan and Ethiopian spices. I love the flavor combinations one can make from cumin, coriander, turmeric, black pepper, saffron, cayenne, chili powder, star anise, fenugreek seed, dried fenugreek leaves, pink peppercorns, white pepper, (I don't like green peppercorns much), and a bunch more. I keep my own blends of masalas on my shelfs depending on what I am cooking ie. fish, meat, vegetarian. I love the spice blends of Paul Prudhomme as well from New Orleans. The ability to make a blend of spices that feature the flavor of the spice, while bringing out the essence of the food being cooked and giving just enough heat to make you smile. Asian countries from the Thailand and Korean areas are more likely to use fresh spices like coriander leaves and fresh chilies, which give a much different type of spice which I love as well.

If you haven't made stock before, you are missing out on a true foundation of cuisine. It's called different things in different cuisines and it is made different ways as well. Of course the French version (which is an obvious favorite) is complicated with roasting bones, or not roasting bones and then the same for the vegetables and then a long process of slow simmering and skimming. This liquid can be used to make sauces, soups, braised dishes and a multitude of other creations. In Italy it is known a brodo or broth, which incorporates meat along with the bones for a potentially more flavorful but less viscous liquid as the meat ratio requires more water and not all of the marrow is always exuded from the bones. A difference with many Asian cuisines is that they use water to make many of their soups and sauces, but if one pays attention, they require bone in meats and the soup or source is cooked for a long time and is in essence creating a stock or broth in the process.

This may seem out of place with this list of essential ingredients for any pantry, but this is my all time favorite food item at the moment, I eat it raw and also incorporate it into many dishes. I used to believe it should be only appreciated in its essential form, but now that I have played around with it a bit, I love to cook it into simple flash cooked saute dishes. This is a fresh milk mozzarella that I first tried when I took a Taste of Italy class at the Culinary Institute of America a few years ago. It is ridiculously good, it is only produced in Italy and must be flown in the next day to preserve its freshness as it will sour within a few days. The sites usually say seven days, but seven days is too long. It is in fresh mozzarella with cream in the middle mixed with curd. I recently found a version imported by The Bedford Cheese Shop that has black truffles in the center, how can that not be good?

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