Kitchen Myths and Pretensions

Kitchen myths and pretensions – Virgil Evetts

Cooking is my favourite thing. It calms me when I’m stressed and excites me when I’m down.  I think about food when I open my eyes each day and it’s often my last thought as I drift off at night. It brings me true joy.

This is why I’m so offended by the sheer pretentiousness and/or laziness of so many perpetrators of the ‘art’. The preening, superior tones of the matriarchy and patriarchy of cooking célèbre have created an image of middleclass twattery that is applied to all of us who obsess about dinner. Such characters do exist, in droves sadly, but it’s a faddish thing. Chances are they will wash away on the next tide of domestic twee. The current global financial crises should take care of a good number of them.

The fact that I am a hopelessly middleclass twat is quite separate from my kitchen fetishism. When it comes to food I’m actually quite down to earth, as I suspect are a great many of us who are branded with the rather icky handle of ‘foodie’. We occupy a middle ground of loving good produce, and tradition, being deeply respectful of and excited by innovation, but still mindful of practicality and economy. Does that sound about right?

So, this week I’d like to dispel a number of common kitchen myths and pretensions that have been on my mind of late. 

 Copper bowls

Don’t they look pretty? So ‘rustic, so very country kitchen’. And of course you need one of these for whisking egg whites. How else will you get perfect stiff peaks?

By using a whisk in any old bowl, be it plastic, metal, ceramic or whatever.

Yes, copper looks nice [if you’re into that sort of thing], and it might make a slight difference to the eggs I don’t really know. Necessary?  No way.

 Extra virgin olive oil

Beautiful stuff this. It can be the saviour of salad, a revelation on good bread. It’s also probably the most abused and over-prescribed ingredient of the last 100 years. Repeat after me ‘EVO aint for cooking’.

Heating destroys much of the oils flavour and any remaining subtlety is lost in the rest of the dish. TV chefs with great jugs of EVO [no double entendre intended] are simply appeasing the show’s art director. Don’t take it as advice.

For frying or any other actual cooking treat EVO with the respect it deserves and use a lower grade of oil. Try, however, to avoid olive pomace oil; this is extracted by some ghastly chemical procedure and it tastes like it too.

 Flavour Shakers

Allegedly invented by and branded with the name of you-know -who [he of the dodgy Essex accent].
Come on. Seriously?  This is up there with steak knives that cut through tin cans on the list of pointless kitchen clutter.  The flavour shaker does nothing that can’t be done better in a mortar and pestle, food processor or with a knife for that matter.

 

European Wine
Now don’t get me wrong. Some of the finest wines around still hail from Europe.  But don’t take country of origin as a sign of superiority.  In my experience, a lot of midrange NZ wine is rather a lot better than far pricier French and Italian equivalents.  Also, quality aside, those of us who have spent a number of years mostly drinking local plonk may find European wines, especially whites, rather sulphurous. This is because EU regulations allow a higher preservative level in wine than is the norm down our way.  It varies from wine to wine and you do get used to it, but eggy-ness isn’t something I chase in my wines.

 

Cooking Wine
It’s often said that you shouldn’t cook with any wine you wouldn’t drink. Well, I’ve made a point of putting this rather bold statement to the test. I’ve cooked with some remarkably bad wines and some very decent ones too. And my conclusion?  It doesn’t make a jot of difference. By the time you have subjected a wine to heating and the addition of any number of  flavours, all wines taste [aside from the obvious difference of red or white] pretty much the same. Dare I say it but a cask each of dry white and red is a useful addition to the pantry. There are exceptions to this. Some recipes hang off the flavour of a wine [e.g. my asparagus risotto recipe in Perfect day food] , so as always use your discretion. But generally speaking, don’t waste good wine on the pot or tepid acquaintances. Drink it down with great food and only the very best of friends.

 

Tuscany
Enough with this region already.  Ever since Frances Mayes published her patronizing, dull record of restoring a Tuscan farmhouse [Under the Tuscan sun], the whole world has been obsessed. In food circles, the declaration made in Toscana is seen as some sort of guarantee of excellence. It may well be, but Italy has 19 other regions, all with ancient and intriguing food heritages and yielding fabulous produce and artisan products.  I’ve eaten some stupendous stuff in Tuscany, even better in nearby Emilio Romagna; but personally I think the food of the poorer, Southern regions is more interesting, for its sheer exuberance and creativity. Out of hardship comes innovation I guess.

 

Organic tastes better
Does it though? Not according to most blind taste tests. Beware the placebo effect. Just because we are told something tastes ambrosial doesn’t mean it actually does. The benefit of eating organically is more an issue of health and ethics. Organic practices have a lower environmental impact [but still leave their mark] than conventional methods, and such produce is less likely to contain harmful pesticide and fertilizer residues. In my books that’s more than reason enough to go organic. Certainly, your average organic chicken and pork will taste a good deal better than their bedraggled and abused factory-farm counterparts, but it’s largely down to lifestyle and diet, not the organic treatment per se.

So, before you set upon me in a dark supermarket aisle and tear me a brand-new and probably superfluous orifice, yes I do whole-heartedly support organic farming and horticulture; BUT I don’t accept the blanket claim that such produce automatically tastes better than bog standard.   It might do, but don’t count on it.

 

Salt
I love Maldon salt. That glassy texture and sharp salty tang plays so beautifully on the tongue. A pretty decent approximate is being churned [or sieved] out locally now by Dominion Salt.  It’s often the making of a good salad and a fine embellishment to many a rustic lunch. But that’s about where our love affair with sea-salt, be it flakes, rock or the lovely fleur de sel, should end. I’m usually the last person to advocate adulteration, but in the case of salt you really should be cooking with iodised. New Zealanders have among the lowest iodine intakes in the developed world [which is tragic considering we are surrounded by oceans brimming with fish]. If you’re determined to persevere with the whole sea-salt only thing, may I suggest you do a Google image search for ‘goitre’?

 Fresh pasta
There is a funny notion out there that fresh pasta is the only real pasta. Dry, on the other hand is just a poor substitute, favoured by the plebs who don’t know any better [bless them].Not true. They are, and always have been, completely different beasts. In much of Italy, dry pasta [pasta secca] is the norm. It’s very adaptable, depending on the shape and lasts forever in the pantry. It’s made with nothing more than flour [semolina or durum] and water. Dry pasta is no-nonsense, toothsome stuff and stands up well to Southern Italy’s salty, tomatoey, garlic and chilli-laden sauces

Fresh pasta on the other hand [pasta all’uouva], is more of special occasion sort of thing. Made with flour, eggs and water it’s a delicate, flighty creature, favoring dairy and meat- based Northern Italian-style sauces like Ragu all’Bolognese, but sulking into the background under too much tomato.

With the right brand [or better still home-made in the case of fresh pasta] and the right sauce, both can be the stuff of true contentment; but to my mind dry is a safer choice for the jaded weeknight cook.

 

Coffee

Coffee machine manufacturers have done a very good job of convincing that most image conscious of urban addict – the coffee drinker – that the only way to enjoy good coffee at home is with a very pricey piece of bench top clutter. Lies and propaganda. In the right hands, the old fashioned Alzheimer’s-baiting Moka pot can squeeze out a damn good shot or two. It’s all in the method. To get a café-quality shot from a Moka pot follow these instructions very carefully:

  1. Fill the water compartment to the valve.
  2. Fill the coffee compartment completely with espresso-grind coffee. Tamp down firmly.
  3. Screw the pot together and place on the heat.
  4. Lift the lid and keep your eyes glued to the pot.
  5. Just before the spluttering and squirting comes over all a-fluster, about 2-3 shots [depending on the pot size] of syrupy, inky-black coffee should ooze from the spout.

This is like the first pressing of olive oil, precious, flavoursome and ultra strong. Pour this elixir off and drink either neat [if you’re into main-lining caffeine] or dilute with warm, or preferably steamed, milk. This ‘first pressing’ has all of the sweet, almost chocolaty qualities of good coffee with none of the harsh, woody, burnt flavours that often dominate from a Moka pot. The coffee that follows, the second pressing if you will,  is best used in iced coffee, granita or boiled down for use in gelato.

I can offer you no useful advice for plungers or peculators. Here be dragons.

 

 

I think that will do for now. There are many other ‘consumer-beware’ proclamations and assertions that need to be stamped out – myths about fats, ceramic Vs induction Vs gas, stupid cooking buzz-words etc etc.

 

I’ll leave it up to you to add to my list…

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12 thoughts on “Kitchen Myths and Pretensions

  1. Totally with you on the salt. Apart from the iodine issue, wonderful Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten did a blind taste test of something like thirty different salts and found neither he nor anybody else could taste any difference between them.

  2. Last I read the jury is still out, but leaning towards, as you suggest no risk. At any rate who really wants to be coherant in their 90s? I plan on being vague, cantankerous, as conveniently forgetful and inconveniently incontinent as possible. With or without my Moka pot.
    Thanks!
    Virgil

  3. Shiver me timbers, but isn’t that what cheap wine was invented for? And the best thing is that if you’re a long way from a bottle shop and you run out of good wine, there’s always the cooking wine.

    Another waste of kitchen cupboard space has got to be the rice cooker. If you can’t cook rice in a saucepan, then you really are buggered.

    And the popcorn maker. Pah-leeease. The same goes for microwave popcorn any day, although the microwave stuff can be handy if you’ve got into the cooking wine.

    The jury is out on the herb miller. I bought one for a distant relative and didn’t send it. I tried using it and it was pretty useless, so I resorted back to my Japanese knife. But I didn’t quite understand the instructions for the herb mill, so it might just have been *me*.

    Talking of that Japanese knife (a rectangle knife, wooden handle with Katana on the blade), I must say it’s been one of the MOST handy kitchen items I’ve ever had. My late father from Toronto, Canada, gave it to me a few weeks before he died (in a pasta-draining accident that started a chain of fatal events… long story). I’ve had it since 1996, never sharpen it, and it can still take a finger off if you’re not being careful.

    Another indispensable kitchen item is a cheap plastic salad spinner from The Warehouse. And an electronic egg boiler and poacher which I thought we’d never use, but I do – two or three times a week. Making the kids a boiled egg and soldiers has never been so stress-free.

  4. I’m with you on all of this, especially the Tuscany thing. (However it’s EmiliA-Romagna. I only know this because I live here, though.) In short, Frances Mayes is full of crap. And now the whole world (it seems) thinks Italy *is* Tuscany. It’s depressing, really.

    Then again, the best food I’ve had in Tuscany hasn’t been in tourist spots, but in little holes-in-the-wall no tourist would set food in (but I bet you’d love). Simple is always better, unless you want a challenge, or to change things up a bit.

    I can vouch for everything you’ve said as it relates to food and Italy. I’ve got a Moka, and it’s my favorite way to have a coffee. I’ve got simple tools, and they suit me just fine. I used iodized salt for cooking and sea salt for garnish.

    Then again, I keep everything as simple as possible. I find that works best.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly about the use of wine. It does of course depend on the recipe but if the wine is boiled to a reduction, it is going to subtantially change the flavour of the wine. Would anyone ever do that to Penfolds Grange???

    Likewise, the use of EVO for frying. I have done the taste test and can tell no difference. It’s a different story when a swirl of oil is added at the end however.

    Another pet hate of mine is the trend for restaurants to use truffle oil on everything. Most of the time it is used as a poor substitute for the real thing (the oil having only briefly glanced at the truffle) and adds nothing to the dish.

  6. Great article Virgil. So true about the food pretensions. I think the placebo effect has a lot to answer for when we are told (or led to believe), that one way is the best way. I used to be so caught up in all of that but now I have been cooking for long enough to know and trust that I know what works for me. When I think of how much good wine I have wasted in a dish it makes me shudder! I was given a flavour shaker for last Xmas (not that I had asked for one), and I have NEVER used it once. In fact I can see a trade me listing coming on…

  7. Loved your article on kitchen myths and couldnt agree more on your comments re “Under the Tuscan Sun”, fresh pasta, salt, etc. I use my Bialetti stove top coffee maker and will try your suggestion to get the best coffee flavour – great article, thanks.

  8. Well said. I agree on cooking wine – I use anything – if it’s dirt cheap on special, the better. Has anyone actually made a dish with cheap wine, then made it again with good wine, and blind tasted it to see if the difference is discernable?

    I think we can get caught up in the kitchenware brochure – want this, need that – and forget that our grannies cooked for years and years with minimal gadgets.

  9. Another one is people who only eat “fresh” food rather than frozen or preserved/canned. The fresh food may well have lost so many nutrients in storage or transport so frozen would be preferable. Preserving fruit and vege is a way of supporting local farmers all year. In saying that it is tricky to buy canned NZ fruit at the moment but there is some out there or we can do our own. I like the sweetness and texture of tinned peaches no matter how lower class they may be.