The One Part About Cooking – The Ingredient
“Cooking is about two things; it’s an equation, very simple, regardless of what level you’re cooking at… It’s all about product and execution. If I can get a better product than the chef right next to me, then I’ll be a better chef. If I can get a better staff and a better product, I’m going to be an extraordinary chef.”
– Chef Thomas Keller
On the awesome “Dude, you going to eat that?” blog, Dr. Ricky recently wrote about matching ingredients to their appropriate application. This was in response to a comment I wrote recently that “it’s hard to deny the quality of taste of a well farmed bird.” Dr. Ricky makes a good case of evaluating the ingredients to a targeted preparation. That I fully agree with. However, he also argues that “there are preparations where a factory farmed bird is more appropriate than free range bird. And vice versa.” This is the point I find hard to swallow.
In his article, he takes the example of a Vietnamese beef stew with changes in ingredients from the traditional one. In the example, the restaurant used carrot nubs instead of ‘older, cheaper carrots’ as well as trimmed meat as opposed to fattier portions. In those examples, the cook chose to use (supposedly) pricier ingredients as opposed to rustic ones. Any cook worth his or her weight would tell you that this substitution of ingredients doesn’t quite make sense.
First off, when it comes to flavor, carrot nubs are pointless (pun intended). Flavor wise, I do not find them a superior product to ‘old carrots’ in any way, shape or form. In a personal taste test, I found them to be inferior both when eaten raw and in a stew when compared to regular whole store bought carrots. The process of shaping carrot to nubs involves rinsing them in bleach, resulting in flavors and nutrients being rinsed away. They’re also tiny and unsuitable for the cooking time of a stew. So the only case I can think of a carrot nub being superior product is when you want a carrot to taste less ‘carrot-ty’, a situation I cannot fathom.
And then there’s the beef. The whole point of beef stew is to break down tougher and gelatinous parts of cut of meat. This is low and slow method of breaking down connective tissue and fat is what makes stewed beef so tender, succulent and delicious. Using a lean cut for a stew misses the point completely.
So I do agree that the ingredient must meld with the target preparation. The misunderstanding here is the association of the more expensive ingredient as the ‘better’ ingredient. The price of a product correlates with demand and supply, not if it is a ‘better’ ingredient for a particular application. But to me, that is only one part of the picture to finding the ideal ingredient for an application. What I felt was missed out in making the point was the issue of quality of the product.
In a beef stew, that’s the source of the meat, how the animal is raised and what its diet consist of, not which pricier cut it was taken from. Assuming the same breed of cow, would a grass fed or grain fed cow encourage better flavor? What about a small holder’s cow vs. a factory farmed cow? Does the season of the animal slaughter make a difference? These factors come together to influence quality. With that, it is my opinion that animals raised with care and understanding of their behavior that lead to a better quality ingredient.
A factory farmed bird is more appropriate when we are looking at cost. But outside of that, I am really hard pressed to think of preparations where a factory farmed bird has better flavor or even texture. Stewing? Use a stewing hen. Roasting? There are breeds out there that are both flavorful and tender.
Dr Ricky ends his article by saying that “perhaps the real skill of a cook is no better demonstrated than a less than optimal ingredient is converted into a delectable dish.” I agree that this shows a lot about a technique of a cook. But perhaps the real skill of a cook also involves the ability to discern the quality of a product. You hear about chefs going to great depths to source for their ideal product, so much so that they end up growing some of their own produce. I think it is this spirit relentless pursuit for perfection that drives a good chef to become great.
Are there preparations where a factory farmed bird is more appropriate than a free-ranged one? What do you think?