Cooking from the Ingredients Up
Let Your Ingredients Inspire You
A couple of days ago I was walking to a morning dentist appointment. It was early, before midtown Manhattan gets so crowded that you're forced to break your stride to accommodate the sidewalk clogs. I was briskly making my way through the East 40's when I came across a pile of restaurant trash, neatly stacked up and waiting to be collected. Ringing the heap of green garbage bags were about a dozen empty 10-gallon plastic jugs, each in a cardboard frame and each labeled "salad oil." There was no brand or logo on the boxes, nor any explanation of what "salad oil" was. Canola? Corn? Coconut? Palm? Chemically-induced last pressed olive oil? I wondered if this was a day's worth of empty oil cans. Or a week's. No matter. It was a lot of oil.
There was something repulsive in this urban tableau of oil-stained cartons so proudly stacked in front of what many would consider one of New York's best restaurants. Its name doesn't matter because I knew this scene could have been on any sidewalk, in front of any restaurant. Ingredients are expensive and it must be very difficult for a commercial kitchen to resist cutting costs when they can. Like substituting generic "salad oil" poured from a 10-gallon drum for one with a label proudly declaring its source.
Knowing what goes into what I eat is one of the reasons I cook. So when I saw that stack of oil drums I felt a bit smug because I had just come off of a week of cooking with truly great ingredients.
A Journey For Pork Fat
In a winning game of extreme food shopping, I had taken the Q train to Brooklyn with the single purpose of buying cured pork jowl, also called guanciale. Guanciale is a key ingredient in a classic Roman pasta dish called "Bucatini alla Gricia" that I was making for a special dinner for my brother-in-law's birthday. I was using a recipe from Faith Heller Willinger's new book, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, that she got from the great Roman restaurant Checchino dal 1887. The dish is made with only three ingredients: pasta, guanciale, and grated pecorino cheese. You can easily substitute pancetta, but an authentic, uncompromised ingredient can move a dish from good to great, and I knew that Blue Apron Foods in Park Slope carried the hard-to-find guanciale. As I put the steaming bowl of the finished glossy pasta on the dining table and saw the look on my brother-in-law's face, I knew the schlep to Brooklyn for pork fat had been worth it.
That same day I received a UPS delivery of melons sent to me as a gift from my friend Larry Loewinger. These were Hand Melons from Hand Melon Farm (tel. 518-692-2376) in Greenwich, New York. Larry had been raving about these upstate New York melons. "No, no web site. No, you can't buy them in New York City. They're the ultimate melon. They're only available in August. I'll ship some to you." He was right on each point. The melons perfumed my apartment even before I opened their carefully packed box. Larry had generously sent four melons and one was added to the menu of that night's birthday dinner, its bright orange flesh covered with paper-thin slices of domestic Berkshire prosciutto that I had also bought at Blue Apron Foods.
On my way back from Brooklyn I had stopped at the Union Square Greenmarket. It was pouring rain and the temperature had dropped, leaving the farmers soaked and shivering and grateful for customers. I found small, tender zucchini that I would slice lengthwise and cook just enough to remove the rawness, then dress with a tiny drizzle of unfiltered olive oil -- nothing out of any jug labeled "salad oil" -- and sea salt. The main course was Vitello Tonnato. I used Marcella Hazan's recipe for this unexpected but perfect combination of poached veal roast with a sauce of my own hand-made mayonnaise, capers, lemon juice and canned tuna fish (Tuna fish and veal? Trust me, yes.). Dessert was a batch of simple brownies, made with Scharffen Berger 70% bittersweet chocolate, and store-bought Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. I was proud of the meal because each element had clear flavor but equally important to me was knowing the source of each ingredient.
Let the Ingredients Inspire Us
When it comes to cooking in our city kitchens, whether a hurried weekday dinner for our family or a special meal for a loved brother-in-law, I know most people aren't going to spend a morning in pursuit of a half-pound of guanciale. But that doesn't mean that we all can't try and practice cooking from the ingredients up.
So the next time you see an empty industrial-sized canister of some no-name item sitting in a restaurant's trash pile, forgive yourself a little smugness and just declare, "not in my kitchen."