Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Symphonic Cooking

"Most people eat to live, the French live to eat."

Food is a biological necessity, yes, but it serves so many other purposes. Food can be an art form that appeals to all of the senses, a social experience that brings people together, and a hobby that warms the whole house on cold and windy days.

Because food is a necessity, there seems no reason to scrimp on it. Food is one luxury that one must buy anyway, so why not spend a little more to make the experience more enjoyable. Fresh, quality ingredients make a meal so much more appealing.

Which is not to say that all food should be rich, sumptuous, or haute. Simple foods are enjoyable in their own right, and over cooking on what should be a simple occasion is as gauche as over dressing.

Properly prepared, food should be music. As music, in may range from rustic folk melodies to complex, ornate symphonies. It does follow certain rules of composition that - if obeyed - can turn the ordinary into the extrodinary. Dishes may stand alone, as single songs, or accompany other dishes as movements in a symphony.

Like good music, dishes seek a balance within themselves and with each other. Brassy acid sour flavors must be balanced with bitter woodwinds. Sweet strings must not be allowed to dominate, nor should salty percussion overwhelm.

One may build from the bottom. Carbohydrates are the basses: potatoes, bread, rice or noodles. These form the solid foundation that supports the higher voices. Though powerful, these are simple and staunch. Too much, and the dish will be heavy, slow, and ponderous, but too little and it may collapse in screeching. In beef stew, these are the potatoes and the bread accompanying.

The basses then work with the baritones and tenors: meat and sauce respectively. Meat adds the beginnings of counterpoint, and will be the bridge that holds the lighter melodies up from the bass. Beef or lamb bring a dark cello tone, while pork or fowl play a brighter and more soothing tone. The sauce may range from a darker gravy or red wine tenor that matches time with the meat, to the brighter white wine, cream, vinegar, or clear sauces that bring sparkle to the lower tones and counterpoint to the higher. Here are the chords played; either matching dark tenors to dark baritones and light to light for major chords, or dark to light or light to dark to achieve tension in minor keys. The beef stew plays upon three insturments here - the dark notes of the beef itself and the red wine and beef stock that accompany it.

Fruits and vegetables are then the alto voices. The acidic sour brasses of the fruits intertwine with the woodwind quality of the vegetables. Their flavors run their measures on top of the tenors of the sauce like horns and clarinets over cellos. With more fruit added, the dish can be regal and stern - too much and it becomes tinny and flat. With more vegetables, the dish becomes dark and woody - too much brings reedy and swampy overtones. Beef stew balances these with carrots (serving here as almost fruit-like in their sweetness) playing off of celery.

Finally, the herbs become the trebles. The dry herbs: sage, rosemary, bay, and thyme play fugues to the melodies of parsely, oregano, basil and dill. Too much of these, and the trebles will overdominate. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and tumeric can sweeten, but are best as trills, as an oversweetened dish becomes cloying.

Finally, the spices become percussion. In some dished, like salsa, these can be given free reign. In others, they must be restrained. Peppers and paprike, delicately applied, lend grace notes to the whole.

That, is symphonic cooking.


Anonymous said...

Did your mother teach you to cook?

Lord Carnifex said...

To a certain extent. My mother taught me that just about anything can go into scrambled eggs, and to never be afraid to try anything new, and that just because a dish has "always been done this way" is no reason to always do it that way.

But my cooking is also the result of standing over the stove smelling herb bottles. It's the result of waking up the house at 2:00 AM by setting off the smoke alarm with my latest creation. It's the result of a rule that no matter how foul, if it was edible and I cooked it, I would eat it.

Anonymous said...

Ah, my son, such is the relationship of the master to the novice. The novice must eventually burn his own creations in order to achieve the ultimate bakeish.

phaedrus said...

Have you seen the movie Ratatouille?