A is for aromatics

I have a lot of cookbooks. My favorite, however, is one of the oldest in my possession, and arguably the most battered. It’s Richard Olney’s The French menu cookbook and the 33 year old inscription is signed by my wife Diane in 1988. She wrote: My dearest Tones, I hope this gives you – and therefore me! – many happy hours. I love you, Di. We can both attest that his wish came true and remains true. The book collapsed and even the hardcover today is chipped, if not still fried.

This column goes well with this recipe.

My favorite chef, on the other hand – in the context of the contemporary culinary craze of one in two famous cooks being a ‘celebrity chef’, whether his fame makes sense or not – is also, now, one. of the oldest: Marco Pierre White. Ironically, White doesn’t even recognize himself as a “boss” anymore and clearly has little time for the white apron hordes rummaging through the trough of fame. (While doing a cooking demonstration in Cape Town a few years ago, he spent all of his time making a bechamel sauce, seemingly bemused that the public expected more of a complex foie gras terrine or centerpiece of the opera cake. I liked the point he was making: Do you want to cook well? Master the béchamel.)

The French menu cookbook was first published in 1970. Richard Olney was an American living in Paris, and the book – its debut – is one of the most important culinary works of the last century. Some early copies are highly sought after and sell well. It contains a series of menus of French regional dishes, beautifully composed and matched with a selection of wines. Of course, they will have to be adapted to today’s wines, unless you are a billionaire or own a château with a large private cellar.

But the best part of the book is the first chapters, where Olney walks you through the basics of French cuisine. He explains its value in the first paragraph of its opening chapter, French cuisine and menu composition:

“Good and honest cuisine and good and honest French cuisine are the same thing. Certainly there are national dishes, just as there are regional dishes – the sage and onion stuffing and apple pie will forever remain British and American (although there is nothing unique about it. in the first apart from the choice of herbs, and the second is nothing but a Apple pie with a cover), as well as White butter remain French – but it is comforting to realize that the principles of good cooking do not change as one crosses borders or oceans and that the success of a preparation depends only on the knowledge of these principles and personal sensitivity.

And so, he has defeated his own argument that the dishes cited are British and American, while also making the real point he makes: that much of the world’s great cuisine comes from French cuisine. He asserts the rustic beef stew with modest eloquence:

“The stages of its preparation are identical to those of beef bourguignon, carbonnade, rabbit bunny, mutton navarin, Where coq au vin. Potatoes au gratin… ”(as my mother from Yorkshire used to do)“… and gratin dauphinois are the same, just like creamed eggs and onions and tripe eggs; The pot roast is a rustic beef fashionable…” (see, mom, you cooked French) “and dinners of boiled meat and vegetables are found in French cuisine as stews and garbages. “

After a massive explanation of what wine is and the (then) French wine industry, it comes to my favorite section: Mechanical, aromatics and basic preparations. This is where you learn to always have “a sharpening gun” handy – “stroking the blade several times on the steel should become as automatic as brushing your teeth to face a new day” – and how to mince an onion, which should be “first cut in half to create a flat surface against the cutting board, then each half thinly sliced, given a quarter turn, and sliced ​​again”. This is precisely how I always treat an onion, and I forgot that was where I learned it.

Aromatic. Pages 49 to 63. The kind of book opens on these pages if you do not count pages 181 to 290 which fall entirely from the book and need to be picked up on the floor.

“The basic cooking methods don’t change,” writes Olney; “It is the choice of aromatics and the ways in which they are used that distinguish not only national and regional styles, but also the personalized cuisines of individuals. “

As an aside: because some people in my immediate sphere are concerned that braaié chicken might be pink to the bone, I was persuaded, somewhat reluctantly, to cook pieces of chicken first. So I make an aromatic broth, throwing in whole cloves of garlic (pricked with a knife), fresh oregano from the massive bush near my braai, a few pieces of carrot and coarsely chopped onion, a lemon cut into quarters, a bay leaf and star anise, and a few peppercorns, and bring the chicken pieces to a simmer. Once the chicken has been removed to go on the coals, you can remove the solids and reduce the broth to a tasty reduction and use it as a baste, or dip the cooked pieces in it before serving.

“To illustrate some national differences,” Olney continues: “In Italy, garlic cloves are fried in olive oil until they begin to color, then are discarded before the other items. of a stew or sauce are added, only the puff of garlic flavor in the remaining oil to flavor the dish; the French chop or crush it, sweat it in oil without coloring it , to avoid the bitterness of the browned garlic, and let it crumble by slow cooking; the Spaniards chop the garlic, fry it until it is brown and cook it with other ingredients, infusing a preparation with a more violent flavor.

(I love this choice of adjective. It’s the only form of violence you’ll find in these pages.)

Basil also obtains the regional distribution:

“In Italy, it is used for multiple and wonderful uses, often in association with tomatoes, raw or cooked, in particular in Sicily and in the south of Italy but also, or of course, in the Genoese pesto; in France, although it is commonly present in recipes from the 17th and 18th centuries, today basil is traditionally only used in the south, abundantly and exclusively for the concoction of pistou soup, an ancient heritage of Liguria; in Greece, it is planted to ward off flies but is never used in cooking.

Olney makes no mention, understandably, of the use of basil in Thai cooking, which he might have done if he had lived in our time in a world of kitchens within easy reach and of a world of ingredients in our supermarkets.

Oregano near my braai, meanwhile, while “a day before southern Italy and Greece, is so foreign to French use that, although it grows in the wild, scenting the air of all the south of France, few people recognize it in its natural and dried state. and crumbled, it is identified as pizza grass – “pizza grass”. Thus the French respect oregano as much as the Greeks respect basil. Here in Cradock where I live, in the Eastern Cape Midlands, my oregano and basil must be cultivated, but wild garlic grows everywhere, with its tiny garlic-tasting lilac flowers, and it’s luckily drought tolerant. . A nice finish for a cheese pizza, oregano or not, or scattered over a salad.

Master everything in the aromatics section of Olney, mirepoix and duxelles to the primordial hierarchy of vegetables, and you’re well in the way of French cooking, or just cooking, because, as he says, you use the basic technique and then adapt it to your national kitchens or whatever. simply to yours “sensitivity”. Like oregano in chicken broth.

The primordial hierarchy of vegetables? I thought you weren’t going to ask. Says Olney: “Among the aromatic vegetables, the main ones are alliums – onions, shallots, garlic, leeks. Without them we would be helpless in the kitchen. Next, in order of importance, are carrots, mushrooms and celery.

Well, he’s talking about French cuisine. Our culinary world has changed; we have established ourselves all over the planet and the world has come to us, in our stores and in our pantries. But there is still something to be said to know the basics. To cook well, as the great Marco suggested, you must first master the béchamel. DM / TGIFood

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion of the Year 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is now available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.

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