The Simple Things

The simplest thing, like the proper application of salt and pepper, can make or break a dish. Salt is one of the most elemental and essential ingredients in cooking. Try a French fry with salt and without it and you will know immediately what I mean. I don’t claim to truly understand the alchemy that exists between the magical combination of salt with black pepper, but I think it is perhaps the greatest gift bestowed by nature on cooks after fire.

In most recipes, I generally suggest that you use “salt and pepper” to taste. This is the simplest instruction in most recipes, yet always one of the most important. It is the one instruction that relies on you, on your taste, your experience and your knowledge of not only your own likes and dislikes, but those for whom you are cooking. The correct proportions of these two key ingredients separate not only good cooking from cooking that is substandard, but at the highest levels of the profession, can separate the good from the truly great in the kitchen.

This is one of the most challenging aspects of cooking on Dinner: Impossible. It is only on the rare occasion that we are not cooking for large numbers of people, certainly many more than you would typically have at your dinner table or even at your typical backyard barbecue. Using too much or too little salt and pepper when you are cooking in a giant pot or an industrial-sized cooking kettle can cause a disaster of epic proportions, ruining meals for hundreds. Luckily I have a lot of experience cooking for large numbers, so I can usually tell by feel how much is appropriate to whatever I am working on, but in general the principles remain the same. A good cook needs to know how much is too much and when enough is just right.

Fleur de Sel, Hawaiian red clay salt, even good old kosher salt are all excellent choices for your home kitchen and each offers a slightly different shading to your flavors. Make sure you grind your black pepper in a good pepper grinder and try to keep your supply of peppercorns as fresh as possible. Sprinkle salt by hand from about your shoulder height over the food you are cooking and you will get even coverage and distribution, just like the perfect snowfall.

Pay attention to the simple things when you are cooking and you cannot go far wrong. Combinations like mirepoix: diced onion, carrots and celery; the trinity: diced onion, celery and green pepper; or in Italian cooking, the quattro evangelistas: diced onion, celery, carrot and finely chopped parsley, are all tried and true beginnings for nearly any savory preparation, soup or stew, even roast, that you may have in mind. Garlic is a beautiful addition to so many dishes, and a head of roasted garlic can transform even a simple slice of bread into a gourmet feast. Go the extra mile an learn how to make a simple pan sauce or an easy gravy and you’ll add a whole new dimension to your mealtime offerings. When you shop, shop for the freshest ingredients that are closest to their natural states.

Most of all, cook from the heart, and you’ll never be lonely when the dinner bell rings!