There’s few things in life as satisfying as cooking my own food – especially when it’s just plain tasty and healthy. That’s not to say I’ve not had many a mind-blowing meal out at restaurants, both fancy and not. I’d have a nervous breakdown, though, if I ever thought for a minute that – living many hours from my parents and their delicious cooking – I had to rely exclusively on restaurants or friends to provide me any sustenance more exciting than a can of tuna or baked beans.
I blog about food because I love good food, and I love making it. I also believe making it myself is healthier; but if nothing else, cooking gives me fine-grained control over what goes in the food I eat.
I’m befuddled by the sheer number of people in my social circles that are just downright scared of cooking. The excuses abound. The truth is, cooking is just about following instructions – so my philosophy is that anyone who can build even the simplest of LEGO sets can throw a delicious meal together. Of course it takes practice to do this with confidence, and a bit more practice to feel comfortable experimenting – but there’s no need to experiment in order to create something wonderful.
The trick to recipes, as with any learning, is just to remember what you did and how it turned out. Did you like it? Do it again sometime! Was it disgusting? Either don’t make it again or, if you think it should have turned out differently, set the recipe aside and come back to try it some other time. In this blog, which is about many things and, as such, a good reflection of its author, I have begun to collect the recipes – food, code, and otherwise – that I’ve either tried or want to try. Many of them are a map of my life – the family dinners that my parents made for us, things I’ve discovered along the way, meals that my partner enjoys eating or making with me – but a few others are noted to make sure I don’t make the same mistakes again. That, and if my house burns down after a fondue gone horribly awry, taking all my dog-eared cookbooks with it, I want these selected treasures in a virtual place that I can come back to – because they’ll be the cornerstone of any home I ever live in.
Often, “cooking” food has nothing to do with applying heat. It can simply be about preparing a tasty snack, and at its base, I’d say cooking is like the difference in chemistry between atoms/elements and molecules/compounds: the act of uniting two different ingredients qualifies as cooking. For example, while putting a slice of cheese on a cracker is hardly complicated, the experience of eating the combination is markedly different than eating each separately – and that’s just it: cooking creates a gustatory experience unique to a combination of ingredients that can’t be attained by simply eating the ingredients separately and leaving the mixing to your stomach.
Recipes are just a sequence of combinations. Combinations can be simple or complex; they can involve only ingredients, require heat, cold, or catalysts – not to mention physical exertion. Combinations can even consist of different forms of the same component – take ice and water, for example, or milk and cream.
But one of the most basic yet useful combinations in the world of cooking involves just two ingredients, if you don’t count the act of combining them a certain way as its own component. Used to enrich sauces of all kinds, and to thicken gravies and stews, it retains a french name – appropriately enough not only because of the abundance of traditional french recipes calling for sauces or resulting in rich stews, but because the french also played a significant role in codifying the art of coooking.
Beurre manié (kneaded butter) is just equal parts:
Usually measured by tablespoon rather than by weight, these ingredients are placed in a bowl proportionate to the quantity being made (a few tablespoons of each is typically sufficient for most purposes) and combined (typically with the help of a fork, used to mash the butter and flour together). It is easier to mash them together in a bowl that has a flat bottom. The result is simply a mundane paste.
Why is it so useful? Why not just add flour directly to the liquid to be thickened?
Like most starches, flour is an effective thickening agent on its own – but just like corn starch, when exposed to non-fatty liquids its powder form will not disperse evenly. It probably would over time, except for what happens next: the flour particles that hit the liquid first combine with the liquid on their own, at a molecular level, to form a dense goo (in part, that’s what we want) that immediately encases the flour particles that follow before they come into contact with any liquid. The result: a very clumpy sauce that isn’t nearly as thick and velvety as intended. It can take quite a while to whisk the clumps down to size, but you’ll never do more than reduce them to something slightly smaller than is visible to the naked eye.
How does the butter help? The butter, when mashed into the flour, isolates the particles effectively from each other without chemically interacting with them. When the butter melts in contact with the warm liquid to which the paste is being added, it effectively escorts each flour particle to the liquid and then leaves the particles to combine directly with the liquid rather than allowing them to encase each other.
The added bonus? Butter, a known flavor enhancer (with few peers, some say), makes everything better :o)