One of my favorite places to spend time is in the kitchen. It is partially driven by my love of food and wine. It has also served as an escape from my "work" world. When I am in the kitchen, I can make whatever I want. I can do it on my own. Projects can take a few minutes but rarely more than a few hours. It is a real joy. I also love to discover new things to do in the kitchen and new ways to think about cooking. So, it was with great interest that I picked up a copy of Michael Pollan's latest book, Cooked. I've loved Michael Pollan's writing on food and what we've done with our food supply. I was interested to see how he approached cooking. The short version: it taught me a lot about food and how to cook it the right way; it has inspired me to do more and has given me a reason to have great patience and embrace "slow food."
I was initially suprised to learn that despite Pollan's prolific writing on food, he was not much of a cooki. It never occurred to me that someone so knowledgeable about food as subject wouldn't have already been pulled into cooking. But, that was the case here. To remedy this situation, the author decided to dive deep into four basic types of cooking by attaching himself to experts in each area. He organizes his discovery by tying these basic cooking techniques to the ancient essential elements of fire (BBQ), water (braising), air (baking) and earth (fermentation). His journey and great writing make for some great reading and deep insights into the history of these techniques, how our food preparation has been "corrupted" and what we can do to return to the essence of good food.
My only real 'beef' with this book is Pollan's choice of North Carolina pork barbeque as the basis for his look at fire-based cooking. Don't get me wrong, there are some great insights here about how to approach slow, smoke-cooked meats. He covers everything from how the discovery of fire to how it allowed humans to evolve into a more intelligent species. He discusses how feed lot processed meats have robbed us of flavor and nutrients. There is more than I could ever cover here. But, the nearly trivial mention of good Texas brisket in the scope of important barbeque was an issue for me. It's a worthy read - but beware fellow Texans.
I really enjoyed this section. It tied together a lot of diverse cooking styles for me in a way I hadn't considered. The similarity between pot-based dishes from so many cultures had never been made so clear. I also gained respect for why it is important to cook long and slow. There is some serious chemistry going on with braises and understanding these things can make the difference between a quick, sloppy sauce and a classic ragu. This chapter inspired me to dive back into pot dishes and caused me to spin up a series of gumbos, creoles and a massive pot of jambalaya. Each dish took the better part of a day and I loved it. Next up will be a spree of French and Italian inspired braises.
The beginning of this section dives deep in the process of making a classic, naturually fermented sourdough bread. Again, slow is the rule. Prep starts the night before, bulk fermentation all morning, proofing and shaping and then baking - pretty much a 24 hour process. It's not time intensive as there are few actions in between lots of waiting. But, you learn the chemistry involved in making a great loaf of bread and how we've completely destroyed what used to be healty by condensing it down to something quick and easy. I was fascinated to try all of this but had these nagging issues that kept popping into my head: isn't white flour bad for you? isn't gluten evil? how can you talk so glowingly about bread!
Thankfully, this is thoughtfully and deeply addressed and explored in the latter part of the 'Air' section. Pollan gives provides and illuminating look at the difference between naturally fermented (sourdough) bread vs. those from commercial yeasts. He shows how this effects the chemicals that cause gluten reactions and slow digestion of the grain. He traces the history of how we've come to discard all of the healty parts of a wheat kernel and what you can do to get it back. It left me feeling like bread wasn't evil - it's just the way we've mass produced it. So, I've embarked on my own sourdough, whole grain journey. Judging by my initial efforts - I've still go some learning to do. But, I think I'm on a good track.
This is probably the area I knew the least about. Pollan focuses on vegetable fermentation (mostly sauerkraut and kimchi), cheese and mead/beer/wine. The biology in this section was fascinating and really opened my eyes to how important the broader ecosystem of our bodies are. It is fascinating what our obsession with eliminating germs has done to the pro-biotics we need to survive and get a glimpse of the possible hostile effects it has on our health. It's amazing see what can be done with some cabbage, salt and time. And, the walk through the evolution of a "stinking cheese" was all new to me. It was really fantastic. I've already made my first crock of 'kraut and can't wait to start the kimchi next!