What DO You Do With your Cookbooks?

Do have cookbooks in your house? Do you use ‘em, and if so, how do you do that? Weird questions? I don’t think so, really – it’s a thing that maybe we should discuss more. It’s an opportunity for me to share some love I don’t think I’ve really every fleshed out before.

First off, have you read any cookbooks, cover to cover, page burner style? If not, I suggest you’ve not yet found the great ones – James Beard’s American Cookery, Claudia Rosen’s Book of Jewish Food, Marcela Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Grace Young’s Breath of a Wok, Diana Kennedy’s Essential Cuisines of Mexico, Rick Bayless’ Authentic Mexican, Shizuoka Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking, Fuchsia Dunlop’s Food of Sichuan, Lihn Nguyen’s Lemongrass Ginger & Mint, Claudia Rosen’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden’s The Food of Spain, Georgia Friedman’s Cooking South of the Clouds, Grace Young’s Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, Jeffrey Weiss’ Charcuteria, Carolyn Phillips’ All Under Heaven, Toni Tipton-Martin’s Jubilee, Felicia Campbell’s Food of Oman. Every single book in that list will captivate you – They’re meant to be consumed like the amazing cuisines and techniques they lovingly describe.

Others are more for reference, like Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, Page & Dornenberg’s Flavor Bible, Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise, Russell Van Kraayenburg’s Making Dough, Kenji Alt-Lopez’s The Food Lab, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, Josh & Jessica Applestone’s Butchers Guide to Well Raised Meat, Ruhlman’s Ratios, Ruhlman and Polson’s Charcuterie, Larousse Gastronomique, The Escoffier Cookbook – These provide a solid grounding in the science, technique, and history behind what we do in the kitchen – you’ll go back to those again and again over the years.

Celebrity cookbooks are, by and large coffee table stuff meant to impress and delight the eye, though there are notable exceptions. I should clarify that the pablum put out by TV or social media created people who’ve never worked a shift in a kitchen in their lives, and who generally couldn’t cook their way out of a paper bag on their own are not even considered herein – those folks and their output should be roundly ignored.

Stuff written by and with chefs who really can cook is another matter. While the books they offer tend to be part of their brand as much as anything, don’t discount the fact that most of those folks have put in their time and got where they got because they know their stuff. Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook was written with Ruhlman, so it’s done well without a doubt, and that Chef wants to share what he knows and loves. Bourdain was by his own admission a journeyman Chef, but he was CIA trained and steeped in French country food, and his Les Halles cookbook is a joy. Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin book is stunningly good, and his 32 Yokes memoir is a delight.

Memoirs from real Chefs are wonderful genre. If you’ve never read Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’ s raucous tell all that brought him to fame, you must do so. Bill Bruford’s Heat, Amy Thielen’s Give a Girl a Knife, Bob Spitz’ Dearie, Anya Von Bremsen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, M. F. K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating, James Beards Delights and Prejudices, Jacque Pepin’s The Apprentice, Jonathan Gold’s Counter Intelligence, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood Bones and Butter, and Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat, just to name a very few – There are stunning gems in this genre, and delightful tales.

Anyway, those cookbooks you got – I asked, ‘what do you do with them?’ It’s a serious question to wrap up this ramble. If, gods forbid, you’re just copying a recipe now and again, you’re frankly wasting the true magic of this genre. In a nutshell, that magic is this – If you read a cookbook, really read it – study it, work with, take some notes about what you really liked – let’s say one of Grace Young’s stellar offerings, like Breath of a Wok, then you’ll reap some of the passion and energy she put into that work. More to the point, one day out of the blue, you’ll think ‘I’m gonna do a stir fry,’ and before you know it, you’ll be pulling the core ingredients for that – veggies, herbs, sauce ingredients, without much of a thought. When that happens, then you’re getting what you should out of that wonderful book – and somewhere, a Chef-Author smiles.

Weighing In on Great Cookies

T’is the season for cookies, right? If you’ve got favorites or old family recipes that you love, I say cherish them, and certainly don’t mess with them – share them, and pass them on to your kids. If, on the other hand, you’ve tried other recipes and been sorely vexed and/or disappointed by the results, there’s a good chance you’re not to blame. Why is that? Most likely, it’s then that ratio thing – The thing that’s so vital to cooking, and especially to baking. Done right, cookies are easy as 1, 2, 3 – But not everyone follows the rules – It’s time to weigh in on that.

Which means we’re talking about that ratio thing – it’s 1, 2, 3, as in one part sugar, to two parts fat, to three parts flour. Subscribe to that, and the cookies world’s your oyster. Violation of this ratio, on the other hand, will likely not yield good results, and therein lies the problem with a lot of the recipes you find online, or in poorly researched cookbooks.

It would be fair to ask, how do I know this to be true? Well, let me say this about that. I got an idea for a dried cherry/chocolate/almond cookie, but was short on time and not thinking very clearly. I grabbed something off the net that was kinda close, and subbed my stuff for theirs – equal amounts of dried fruit and nuts, (albeit theirs used cranberries and walnuts). What I got was a very tasty cookie out of the oven, although they were a bit wetter and flatter than I wanted. The next day, they fell apart. Just sitting in a storage box, they fell apart – a box of somewhat gooey cookie crumbs. I grabbed that original recipe and took a closer look. Their ratio was somewhere around 3-3-2, flour to fat to sugar, and that would explain my less than stellar results. My bad, and lesson reinforced. If you know the ratio, it’s easier to start from scratch than it is to trust a recipe from somewhere else.

The first bake - The absolutely wrong ratio The first bake – The absolutely wrong ratio

The other major contributor to epic baking fails is the use of volume measurements in recipes, instead of weight. Most professional bakers around the globe weigh rather than measure, for very sound reasons. Weighing ingredients is far, far more reliable, because you get much more accurate ratios. Fundamentally, a gram is a gram the world around, but a cup most definitely is not. ‘1 Cup’ can mean anything from .85 to 1.20 of a US Cup, and that’s a wide enough margin to cause issues. It all adds up to the fact that, if you want to learn to bake really well, you’re going to need to start weighing ingredients. 

That’ll require a decent digital kitchen scale, which are cheap and readily available. Get one that has a generous bowl for doing the deed, and portioning out ingredients for most home recipes is a breeze. Is it worth twenty bucks and a very simple learning curve to become a better home baker? Yeah, it is.

The very cool thing about all this is that it opens up the world of design-your-own recipes, rather than relying on someone else’s. The next thing you know, you’ll be using cookbooks for inspiration or reference, or for the love of what the author did, not because you need them to follow recipes.

Alright, so, if we’re committed, then let us examine ingredients a bit more, then a few thoughts on technique.

Flour. What type we use matters – unbleached white pastry or all purpose are the preferred options for cookies. Pastry flour has less protein than AP, (but more than cake flour), so it strikes a great balance of flaky and tender. Bleached is a no no, as the bleaching process messes with proteins, leading to reduced gluten production, (AKA cookies that don’t hold together well). Combining flours may be a thing you’ll want to do, depending on what you’re after. The classic Scottish shortbread recipe calls for unbleached all purpose white and rice flour, for instance. Whole grain flours add a denser, nuttier end result. A good rule of thumb is to use no more than 30% of those in your mix, (which doesn’t discount those who do a bunch more – to each their own.) Varied flour ratios lead to different results, of course. A higher proportion of flour versus the liquid contained in your chosen fat and eggs leads to a more tender crumb, (and a more delicate cookie.) A lower proportion generally produces a chewier texture. Note – if you do use a recipe that simply calls for flour, they mean unbleached white all purpose.

Sweeteners. Sugar isn’t the only thing you can or should use in a cookie recipe, but it’s far and away the most popular. In addition to its sweetening power, sugar helps cookies brown, (caramelization), and contributes to crispiness by sucking up some moisture from the dough. Sugar also helps cookies spread out as they bake, (and if the ratio’s off, as it was in my first go round, then oh boy, do they.) There are a bunch of sugars out there. Some folks think that pure cane tastes better than stuff made from sugar beets. There’s bakers sugar, which is a pure cane sugar that’s ground finer than the regular stuff – it does everything a bit more efficiently. Brown sugar adds a bit of moisture to the mix by virtue of added or retained molasses – That contributes to a softer, chewier texture.

Speaking of molasses, that and a bunch of other things, like corn syrup (uggh!), maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave nectar and good old honey can also be used. I recommend keeping maple syrup to the adjunct column, (it’s strongly flavored and expensive). Honey and agave nectar are popular substitutions these days, and for good reason – They add flavor notes plain old sugar can’t, and have far greater sweetening power. Due to the latter consideration, there are adjustments that must be made when using them – Honey is roughly twice as potent as sugar, and agave nectar around 3/4 more, so sweetener volume, and overall moisture, must be tweaked accordingly. Both are also somewhat acidic, so you’ll want baking soda in your recipe to balance that out. Both should be added and blended with fat prior to adding flour, just as you would with sugar. Finally, it’s a good rule of thumb to reduce your baking temperature by 25° F, because both agave and honey brown faster than sugar.

Fats. Butter is far and away the most common version used, although there are far more options out there – shortening, lard, ghee, cream cheese, heavy cream, various cooking oils, or combinations thereof can and are used in baking. Using any of those will give you differing results, of course – While most of what’s listed above won’t make a huge difference in color or texture, they will in terms of flavor, so be prepared to experiment. That said, fats don’t just add calories, they impact every aspect of a recipe, from overall consistency, to how they bake. For instance, butter has a notably lower melting point than many of the others noted herein, so if you see a recipe calling for half butter and half shortening or lard, what the maker was likely after was a cookie that wouldn’t end up as thin and crispy as a pure butter version would. When and if you use butter, use unsalted, because salted varies widely in how much salt is onboard.

Not all cookie recipes contain eggs, but most do, and for darn good reasons – they contribute significantly to the whole shebang. Eggs act as the largely unsung framework upon which everything else in a dough depends. They add moisture, lecithin (an emulsifier that helps disparate constituents get together), fat, and of course, protein. They help gluten do its thing, and contribute appreciably to flavor, texture, and mouth feel.

Leavening of some kind is present in the vast majority of cookie recipes. Baking soda helps cookies rise, and as mentioned, can neutralize acids like sugar and honey which, left unchecked, can mess with browning. Baking powder will also give a lift, and contribute to a lighter texture as well. Both add lift by generating CO2. Baking soda is pure bicarbonate of soda, while baking powder is that plus cream of tartar (an acidifier) and starch, used as a drying agent. If you’ve never noticed, there are single and double acting baking powders – Single means it needs moisture to activate and must be baked right away – Double means some gas gets generated right away, but most does not until baking begins, so it can hang for a time without negative effects.

Salt may be a minor ingredient, but it’s a critical one. Its unique ability to enhance flavor, separating molecules and making them available to our noses, is unmatched. It also helps strengthen the proteins within a dough, contributing to a nice chewy cookie. There’s a bunch of salts out there, and we’ve covered a lot about them here, (including our recent post on plastics in sea salts). In addition to a whole raft of varieties, these days you can also readily find different grinds. Used to be you’d need to find pickling or canning salt for a fine grind – now that’s widely available, and that’s what you want for baking – it disperses and blends much better than the coarser stuff.

Alright, let’s discuss technique. This may seem fussy, but in the end run, if you’re after making more than just a good cookie, it matters.

It is a best practice to have all your ingredients at room temperature when you’re ready to make a dough. One of the key things we need to accomplish when we do that, is to allow combined ingredients to form an emulsion that will trap and hold a fair amount of air – that’s what expands when we bake, yielding a light, fluffy cookie. Having your fat and eggs at room temperature lets a creamed mixture do exactly that – cold ingredients will impede that process.

Next, sift your dry ingredients. If you don’t have a sifter, run them through a ingle mesh strainer into a mixing bowl. Sifted flour, leavening, chocolate, what have you, is lighter, and incorporates better than non.

Creaming is what it’s called when we perform the most critical step in great cookie making – combing the fat and sugars and whisking them into a smooth, fluffy emulsion. This uniform, air injected blend is critical – Leavening agents produce CO2, yes, but they won’t do it well if they don’t have the trapped air, combined with a well mixed emulsion to hold it all in.

Once you’ve added the dry ingredients to the wet and have them uniformly mixed, stop messing with the dough – Excessive handling leads to tough cookies. 

Bake in the lower middle section of your oven, bake one sheet of cookies at a time, and spin the sheet 180° half way through the bake – All those little things add up to greater consistency and better goodies. If you really want to get after it, calibrate your oven with an external thermometer, so you know what yours really bakes at, (At work, we get right down to zone temps in our deck and rack ovens, so we know precisely where the hot and cold spots are.)

Here then is my correct recipe for chocolate, almond and cherry cookies. This will make 2-3 dozen cookies, depending on how big you portion. And yeah, it’s in grams – That’s how the rest of the world works, so we might as well get with the program. And yeah, I did give you volume cheats, too, just in case you chicken out – using those will still make a pretty good cookie.

The second bake - The right ratio - Yes, please! The second bake – The right ratio – Yes, please!

Chocolate, Almond & Cherry Cookies (2-3 dozen)

380 grams All Purpose Flour (3 Cups)

230 grams Unsalted Butter (2 sticks)

100 grams Bakers Sugar (1/2 Cup)

80 grams Dark Brown Sugar (1/2 Cup)

115 grams dried Bing Cherries (1/2 Cup)

115 grams slivered Almonds (1/2 Cup)

340 grams semi-sweet Chocolate chunks (12 ounce bag)

2 large Eggs

10 grams Vanilla Bean paste, (extract is fine too – 2 teaspoons)

4 grams Baking Soda (1 teaspoon)

4 grams fine Salt (1/2 teaspoon)

Have your eggs and butter at room temperature before proceeding.

In a cast iron skillet over medium heat, toast the almonds, stirring regularly and keeping a close eye that they don’t scorch. Remove from heat when they’re golden brown and fragrant.

When the almonds have cooled sufficiently, chop them into roughly 1/4” pieces, and set aside.

Chop cherries into roughly pea sized pieces, and set aside.

Run flour and baking soda through a sifter or single mesh strainer, into a large mixing bowl.

For the lions share of the process, a stand mixer is preferred, but if you don’t have one, you can hand whisk – Just be forewarned, it’s going to be a bit of a workout.

In a stand mixer bowl set up with a paddle, add the butter and mix on low until it’s smooth and even – about 2 minutes. 

Stop the mixer, and use a spatula to scrape the butter down from the bowl sides and paddle.

Add the sugars and salt and mix on low until the blend is smooth, about 1-2 minutes.

Again, stop the mixer, and use a spatula to scrape the creamed mixture down from the bowl sides and paddle.

Add an egg and the vanilla paste to the creamed mixture and mix on low until fully incorporated – No more than 30 seconds. Repeat the process with the second egg, and again, 15 to 30 seconds tops – You don’t want to over-beat the eggs.

With the mixer on low, gradually add the flour mixture, and mix until fully incorporated – Stop as soon as that’s achieved.

Remove the bowl from the mixer, and add chocolate, cherries, and almonds, and incorporate with a spatula, until evenly mixed.

Now that it’s mixed, you can chill your dough – for at least an hour, if you want a taller, lighter cookie. If you prefer things a bit flatter and crunchier, go ahead and bake. That said, if you’ve got a really warm kitchen, it’s a good idea to chill the dough for at least a half hour before baking, just to make sure things don’t get too loose.

If you don’t plan to bake right away, just transfer the dough onto parchment paper, and roll it into a log about 1 1/2” thick, then add a layer of aluminum foil. That’ll hold in the fridge for a week, no problem. It’ll also freeze well for up to a month – Just let the dough thaw for 15-30 minutes before cutting off 1/3” to 1/2” thick slices, and then bake away.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 350° F, and position a rack in the lower middle section.

Line a baking sheet with parchment, or use a silicone baking mat.

Scoop heaping tablespoons of dough onto the sheet, about 2” to 3” apart.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, spinning the sheet 180° at about 6 minutes in.

Remove the sheet from oven, and slide the parchment or silicone onto a cutting board, cooling rack, etc.

Let them cool for 10 minutes or so before you dig in, and for at least a half hour before you store them – an airtight glass container is best.

Printing Restored

Yet another alert reader let me know that the print function for posts seemed to have disappeared, further noting, ‘I’m pretty sure you used to have one…’

Glad somebody was paying attention, ’cause clearly I wasn’t, and yeah, I sure did have one.

Anyway… Print services have been restored. There’s a little green button at the bottom of each post. Click that, and it’ll give you options to print, convert to PDF, email, and such. You can also edit, pruning off my long winded harangues and just printing recipes and what not, too.


No Fail Frying

Alert follower Ian chimed in this morning with a great question:

‘How would I bread something wet like a pickle spear, or tempura vegetables?

The smooth surfaces would make binding difficult, would it not?’

As always, thanks for following and asking – I love being able to help with stuff like this.

The short answer is – Yes – A smooth and/or wet surface is a challenge when it comes to getting a coating to hang on whilst deep frying, or for baking for that matter. As many of you know, we like to watch a bit of food porn, and Chopped is right there at the top of our list. The other night, we watched a professional Chef and culinary instructor serve fish breaded with an ingredient from the mystery basket – His breading fell off. His fish ended up dried out, he’d effectively missed a mandatory ingredient, and he got chopped – Even Pros get the blues with this issue.

A further problematic component is the solution(s); ask five people their advice/method, and you’ll get five different answers – Egg wash, no egg wash – refrigerate, don’t refrigerate – cornstarch, no cornstarch – And on it goes. If the problem has ever happened to you, (and if you tell me it never has, I won’t believe you), we’re here to tell you how to make the bad thing stop.

The first consideration when frying stuff is whether or not any treatment is needed. You certainly could fry almost anything with no coating at all, but you’re not likely to get what you’re after with some foods. Frying is a relatively high heat cooking method, and the density of oil means that heat gets right to work on your food and stays at it. Relatively delicate stuff like veggies, seafood, and chicken can and will get dry and tough real quickly if they’re not properly prepped for frying. The reason we coat things is threefold.

First, a good coating protects foods from drying out or charring, and promotes browning;

Secondly, it forms a tasty, crunchy crust;

And third, that coating forms a barrier that keeps food from absorbing too much oil and becoming greasy.

That’s a description of a good crust, of course, but not all crusts come out that way. A bad crust falls off, ends up tough and chewy, or soft and mushy – We’ve all experienced those, so the question is, how do we achieve a good crust?

The first aspect to explore is what to coat with; each permutation has its plusses and pitfalls.

There’s breading, which means some combination of bread crumbs and seasoning. I’ve made breading with crumbs from many different breads, cereal, crackers, and potato or corn chips. Breading certainly makes a formidable barrier layer, and can add a nice elements of crunch and flavor, but may do so at the cost of overwhelming the food being breaded. Things to keep in mind are crumb source and size – Crackers and chips generally have higher fat content than bread, so those can end up burning easier and/or tasting greasy, so compensate with attentive frying and proper proportion. Same goes for exceptionally large crumbs – a lot of oil can and will get caught therein if things aren’t just right, so reducing crumb size with a quick spin in a processor or grinder might be warranted.

Dredges are usually flour based with some added seasoning. They’re far subtler than breading, but in and of themselves, don’t add as much crunch, which in the case of, say, fried chicken, might be highly desirable. Things to watch here are quantity and source. Too much flour leads to tough, doughy coatings, too little to an inordinately fragile shell. All purpose and bread flours made from wheat are relatively high in gluten, so they stick well, but that also makes them potentially gluey. Low protein alternatives, like Wondra, cake, rice, or corn flour will make a thinner, crunchier crust that won’t get sloppy. Root and nut flours are not recommended for dredges, because they’re prone to rapid breakdown in the high heat range of frying, and can lead to soggy results. Finally, mixing in a little cornstarch rarely hurts – it’ll help dry things out a bit and acts as additional glue.

For both breading and dredges, the egg wash is a must as far as I’m concerned – That’s the glue that makes your coating stick, and without it, it’s a lot more likely to fall off. Pat your food dry before you coat it, and here’s a serious secret weapon: The double dip and cryo routine is a sure fire way to avoid catastrophic crust release; here’s how it works.

Set out bowls of egg wash, (1 tablespoon of whole milk per egg, beaten well), and your seasoned crumbs or dredge. Drag whatever you’re frying through the egg wash, shake it a couple times, then run it through the crumbs or dredge, shake or tap off the excess, then repeat – So, egg/dry/egg/dry. That second run will lock both the glue and the coating tightly onboard. Then, place your prepped stuff in a single layer on a waxed paper lined plate or pan, and slide that into the fridge for about 30 minutes while you heat your oil. The cryo-treatment keeps that crust firmly onboard until you fry. Again, watch your oil temp, as colder food will make it drop faster – Work in small batches and adjust temp as needed to stay where you need to be.

Batters are wet coatings, made with water, milk, or beer. Again, batter adds great crunch and taste, but done wrong it can override primary flavors, and lead to that chewy or mushy coating we mentioned earlier. Batters really require deep frying to shine, while breading or dredging can be done shallow with fine results. Dairy or beer generally works better than water for batters heavier than tempura; the water has a tendency to turn quickly to steam when it hits the oil, and can lead to that premature coating release we want to avoid. If you’re working with slippery food in this genre, a quick dusting of corn starch makes a great batter glue, and won’t appreciably affect taste. Finally, adding a bit of a chemical leavening agent like baking soda helps form a lighter crust.

My advice is to experiment freely, trying different combinations to arrive at a favorite or two. With all of these options, make sure you season your crumbs/dredge/batter – boring batter leads to more blah fried stuff than any other source. Keep in mind that seasonings get amplified by frying, so watch the salt especially.

Proper temperature is also a big part of good results. You should fry pretty much everything between 325° F and 375° F – Lower than that range will allow oil to enter the food, make things heavy and greasy; too much higher and most oils will start to smoke, which is dangerous and not at all tasty. More delicate stuff like veggies and fish go at the bottom of that range, chicken in the middle, root veggies at the top. Oil variety is up to you. We fry in peanut oil, because it has a nice, savory taste note, can be had relatively cheaply, and is a monounsaturated oil that’s relatively good for you. Canola is cheap and works well too.

For post fry draining, brown paper bags are our go to – You’ll get the crunchiest results using those instead of paper towels or newspaper.

For Ian’s primary question, deep frying pickles, there is a trick I like a lot. Use thoroughly chilled pickle chips, slices or wedges. Make a thin beer batter with 50% – 50% cake flour and beer. Pull those pickles, batter them, and place on a waxed paper lined plate in the fridge for about 30 minutes while you heat your oil. Again, that cryo-treatment really helps the coating stay put. Fry at 350° F, in small batches, closely monitoring oil temp. NOTE: If you like the idea of breaded pickles, try crushed sea salt and vinegar, or black pepper and sea salt chips as your crumb; they’re both pretty stellar.

For tempura and veggies, incorporating rice flour will help the batter stick better. Our go-to tempura batter is nice and light – It looks like this:

1 Cup ice cold Water

1/2 Cup Cake Flour

1/2 Cup Rice Flour

1 large Egg

2 Tablespoons Corn Starch

1 Tablespoon Baking Soda

In a mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients and incorporate thoroughly.

In a large mixing bowl, combine egg and water and beat to incorporate thoroughly.

Add half the dry mix and whisk gently to incorporate, then add the remaining half and combine thoroughly.

Fry veggies at 325° F; when they pop to the top of the oil and are light golden brown, they’re good to go.

Now, everybody say “Thanks, Ian,” for a great question!

Very Cool Guide to Common Veggies

The Plant Guide is a fun site, with some great history pieces
The Plant Guide is a fun site, with some great history pieces

A friend turned me on The Plant Guide, a pretty cool site with some fine gardening tips and tricks. They also have a definite bent for the history of things, just as we do here, including a very cool bit on the origin and history of common veggies and fruit.

A fair amount of this falls into the not what you expected category, and can definitely lead to some interesting further exploration.

check out the veggie history bit here.

Aromatic Bases – Humble Beginnings

We’ve just enjoyed our first snow of the season, one good enough to warrant plowing by the county and some cautious driving for a day or two. Nothing nails down the arrival of winter quite like that first storm. Our critters make it known, in no uncertain terms, that this means it’s time for some serious hunkerin’ down, and frankly, when the wind is ripping out of the north from the Fraser river valley at 30 knots with gusts on toward 50, I couldn’t agree more. That means it’s also time for serious, rib sticking comfort food, like soups, stews, casseroles, and such. Doing those dishes up right means we’ve got to pay special attention to the humble beginnings of such dishes – the aromatic bases.

Aromatic bases literally make the food world go round
Aromatic bases literally make the food world go round

So, what’s with the humble moniker, first off? Well, it’s an honest nod to the fact that what we’re going to employ in this role is rarely sexy stuff. The stars of this show are, in fact, the things that all too often languish in our kitchen. This is the stuff many of us buy at the market because it’s pretty and we have big ideas on shopping day, only to find, many days later, they’ve gone by the wayside – Carrots, celery, onion, peppers, garlic, ginger, fennel, leeks, turnips, parsnips, celeriac, and tomato, to name a good few. In that comfort food I mentioned, these lowly contributors will often play second fiddle, and may, in many iterations, be difficult to identify within a dish – Humble beginnings, indeed.

Yet without these hidden gems adding their je ne sais quoi to our winter fare, what we get is a pale reflection of the real thing. They’re called aromatic bases for a reason. In addition to key vegetables, aromatics may include herbs and spices, and occasionally a little protein as well. Gently sautéed or sweated in a little oil or stock, the magic is released – Our dishes gain the satisfying depth and breadth they demand. Literally every cuisine around the world employs some form of aromatic base, from here in the states to the farthest reaches of China. Some are more famous than others, some quite obscure, but no less worthy of exploration. Something as simple as a one veggie change in a standard mix can bring about entirely new flavors, and in many iterations, that’s exactly what has happened. Let’s have a look at a few of these.

Mirepoix - 50% onion, 25% each carrot and celery
Mirepoix – 50% onion, 25% each carrot and celery

The French Mirepoix is arguably the most well known aromatic mix out there – Technically, (and in keeping with classic French cooking’s fussy reputation), mirepoix is two parts onion to one part each celery and carrot, and the portions are weighed to assure an accurate blend – That’s more precision than you need or likely want at home, so eyeballing or volume measuring those proportions is just fine. So, whataya do with mirepoix? More like what can’t you do with it. First and foremost in my mind is making stock and broth – Without it, you’ve got bupkis, with it, you’ve got depth and breadth of flavor like nobody’s business. D’accord, it’s also a base for soups, sauces, and stews, a bed for roasting meats and poultry, a great salad blend, and the list goes on. If you’re a regular here, you know how often you see us use it. ‘Nuff said.

Spanish sofrito looking particularly fetching
Spanish sofrito looking particularly fetching

In Spain, the signature mix pays homage to gifts from the new world that arrived many centuries ago, namely tomatoes and chiles. Initially viewed with some suspicion, the locals eventually recognizing the error of their ways and adopted these gifts as the heart of their go-to aromatic base. Before that, especially up north in Catalonia, the signature mix was onion, leek, carrot and a touch of salt pork. Afterwards, tomato, green chile (Mild, but not sweet – Anaheims or mild Hatch are perfect), onion, and garlic, with a little olive oil and paprika became the thing – Sofrito, which still rules the roost. This kind of blend spread across the Spanish empire, and as a result, everything from the tip of South America through Mexico and the Caribbean employs some variation on the theme. From the Spanish dishes that blend indigenous cuisine with Moorish and new world influence, to Cuban picadillo, it’s everywhere you want to be.

Recaíto - A slice of Puerto Rican Heaven
Recaíto – A slice of Puerto Rican Heaven

My favorite variation on sofrito comes from Puerto Rico, where I was introduced to it as a kid. Recaíto is the name, and it looks absolutely nothing like the Spanish stuff – it’s fueled by Culantro, (eryngium foetidum), or foul thistle. That’s a cilantro cousin, but much more pungent – stronger in all the aspects that cause some folks to not like either herb. Combined with aji dulce, (a small local pepper that looks suspiciously like a scotch bonnet, but is sweet and mild), onions, garlic, and a little cubanelle chile for a touch of heat, you’ve got a green sauce made in heaven. That alone with good rice is absolutely delicious. It’s also great as a marinade for proteins, and as a base for, you guessed it, soups and stews. Recaíto is perfect stuff to stick in an ice cube tray and freeze – Instant inspiration at your finger tips.

Italian Soffritto - Don’t call it mirepoix!
Italian Soffritto – Don’t call it mirepoix!

Around the corner in Italy, the base of bases looks something like France’s, but naturally is different enough to brook argument over who came up with what first, (Don’t get me, or all them folk, started, OK?) It’s fundamentally the same as mirepoix, but with important twists – It’s called Battuto when it’s raw, and soffritto when cooked (I think the extra consonants are there to make sure you truly understand that this ain’t Spain). Onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and garlic, sautéed in olive oil. In keeping with Italian temperament, there are no recognized ratios, and if you ask, you’ll get a blank stare, a loaded shrug, and raised eyebrows – Translation – Do what you like, it’s your food. What to do with the raw blend? Make a big ol’ batch and freeze it in single use sized portions – Then you’ve got your base ready when you’re short on time and long on inspiration. Finely dice a little smoked ham and mash that together with your battuto – Toss that in a pan with olive oil as the start of an epic pasta sauce – Capiche? We can’t leave Italy without a nod to the third variant and coolest variant of their aromatic base concept, Odori. When I was in Italy many moons ago, shopping with my Sis who studied there, a trip to the market for vegetables included the question from the vendor, ‘vuoi qualche odore?’ Literally, do you want some smells? If you nodded, they’d toss a carrot, a stalk of celery, a little parsley and basil in your bag, gratis – That was just a little something to get things going once you got back home – Toss it in a pot with water and make whatever you like – It’s your food. How sweet is that? Grazie, mille grazie.

Portugal has heavenly stuff called Refogado – onion, garlic, chiles and tomato, though there are more than a few cooks there who would refute that, and point to onion, garlic, saffron, and smoked paprika as the true mix, (and truth be told, that’s my fave) – I’d say you’re hard pressed to lose going either way. This mix is amazing with seafood, which is no surprise, or course, but good with much more than just that.

Say Cajun and you want the Holy Trinity
Say Cajun and you want the Holy Trinity

Here in the States, we have one true base we can lay claim to, thanks to the Cajun folk – It’s called the Holy Trinity – onion, celery, and green pepper, and really, nothing else, although some folk do like to whip a little roux right in with that as it cooks, to kind of get a leg up on things, yeah? The usual ratio has a couple of camps – those who do equal measures of each, and those who portion like mirepoix, 50% onion, 25% pepper and celery. Whip that up, and jambalaya, gumbo, and anything else your heart desires is on tap.

How about some of the lesser known versions? Well, there’s suppengrün in Germany, which means soup greens and is perfect for same – It’s carrot, celery root, and leek, (and for the record, celery root is the root of the celery you buy in the store, and while related, it is not the same as celeriac). This stuff goes wonderfully with silky potato soup, or braised beef and cabbage.

There’s a version in Hungary that employs onion, cabbage, and paprika – I think that begs for sausage and potatoes, and I’m willing to bet nobody over there would argue much with that.

Although the cuisine of China is highly regionalized, one could land on scallion, ginger, and garlic for their more or less universal trinity. Heck, that combo with nothing more than good soy sauce is amazing in and of itself – From dipping sauce, to moisture for fried rice, to marinade for pork or chicken, you’re in like Flynn.

In India, garlic, ginger and onion would work. Just set your mind’s eye on that, and all sorts of things come to mind – From chick peas to chicken, that blend will rock.

Jamaica could be well represented by garlic, scallion, and thyme – Add that to lime juice and some hot chiles, and the sky’s the limit.

Most West African cuisines share chile, onion, and tomato as their big trio, and here again, what a great launching pad. Tofu, rice, veggies, chicken, beef – Yes to all of the above.

In Thailand, you’d be on the money with lemon grass, kafir lime, and galangal, for which ginger is a reasonable substitute. Marinate shrimp, chicken, or beef. Rice dishes, soups and stews.

Making your own aromatic base? Yes, you can add seasoning.
Making your own aromatic base? Yes, you can add seasoning.

Now, none of this veggie laden listing is meant to state in any way that This Is The Way It Must Be Done. Even with mirepoix, there’s poetic license. I’ll add two caveats to that – One, cut your veggies to the same size, whatever that is – That’ll assure even cooking, and Two – Season your base lightly with salt and pepper when you cook it – That’ll do much to bring those flavors to their fullest.

What it does mean is that you’ve now got a solid base from a whole bunch of cuisines to springboard from. While there are herbs here and there in the stuff above, know this – Just as every Italian Momma makes the best sauce, period, every one of them does it differently, and so should you. Use what you like, it’s your food. Not sure if something goes with that combo? Build a tiny little sample and try it – If you like it, go wild.

I just posted a bunch of pics of split pea soup the way we do it, which includes lemon zest and juice – A bunch of people asked, “Lemon, with split pea soup?” The answer is yup, we love it – That lemon brings a brightness to what can be a heavy soup, elevates the herbs we use, and helps cut the fat of the ham a bit too – If that sounds good to you, try it. If you don’t like lemon, try lime, orange, grapefruit, whatever floats your boat. And for the record, the aromatic base for that is shallot, garlic, celery, and carrot, and it rocks.