“Like all magnificent things, it's very simple.” ― Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting
It's an exciting time to be a food enthusiast in America. The last decade has seen a gorgeous renaissance in our cultural approach to food. In the pacific northwest locally produced, seasonal produce is de rigeuer for any restaurant worth their salt. Home cooks overwhelmingly take the same approach. The reward for waiting until a fruit or vegetable is in season is in the food, itself. Nature cannot be forced and expected to produce results that are the same as when she is on her own schedule. I like ‘once a year foods’ things that can be indulged in because they aren’t consumed daily. The same holds true for seasonal produce. If you’ve ever plucked a ripe apple from a tree and eaten it right there on the spot, you have experienced ‘farm to table’ and you know the difference. It takes some planning to eat seasonally, but it is so worth it. I truly believe it is the little things in life that make it worth living. That’s how I feel when tasting the first blueberries of the season, or slicing into a juicy Black Krim heirloom tomato in the height of summer. Some things really are better than convenience.
I recently read an article written by a Japanese student advising other Japanese citizens on what to expect when they visit America. To the writers mind, we have no national cuisine apart from hamburgers. The Cajun pride represented in the comment section would certainly attest to the passion felt for one of our nations greatest regional cuisines. There are others like the rich traditions of New England seafood recipes, but what I gravitate towards, and what I find truly inspirational is New American Cuisine. My definition expands beyond fusion cuisine, but honestly what could be more American than that? Again, I’m talking regional, locally produced, seasonal cuisine.
I’ve been cooking now for nearly 20 years and I know what I like. I have little tricks and tips picked up along the way and I like to marry divergent techniques and tastes. I’ll just let you in on one of my my ‘secret ingredients.’ Nothing packs the umami punch like umeboshi plum vinegar. It’s my go to for dressing salads and vegetable dishes. A dash will set your hollandaise just right. I’ll even garnish soup with it. I love ume boshi. The same is true for capers, often overlooked, but always welcome. Anchovies, too are a fantastic garnish. With all of these things its the flavor enhancing quality I am after. They are a little unusual and that is how these ‘secret ingredients’ set my cuisine apart. I strongly encourage all serious home cooks to develop your own arsenal of flavor. This is what separates the amateurs from the heavy hitters. Feel free to borrow inspiration from Umeboshi, you’ll be glad you did.
I had an interesting revelation recently, the kind that is just so obvious one can hardly believe something so simple had been unnoticed by them for so long. After Downton and Sherlock had concluded I sat watching a travel program on Public Television. Rick Steves and I were transported to Provençal France. Naturally food is an important feature on a program about Provence. I’ve always been drawn to Mediterranean cuisine and I even edited and published a cookbook on Italian food in 2012. I had never made a study of what qualifies as Provencal cuisine, but after learning about it on the program I realized that much of my natural cooking instinct seems to be informed by this region. How fascinating! I was brought up largely on continental fare, and I do enjoy a rich sauce occasionally, but as with some of the heavier Italian sauces, there is a limit to how much one can and should consume. The Provençal style of French cooking speaks so directly to my regional, local, seasonal approach, as well as to my predilection to feature vegetables predominantly in my meals. Now I have something new to study and incorporate into my repertoire.
To my way of thinking, one can always learn more if that is what they want to do. I have a growth oriented perspective so it is only natural to me that I should continue my studies in cuisine. When I think of having something down pat, its more like memorizing the basic structure of a cake recipe. That is knowledge worth having and baking is fairly static. But there need be no limit on the creativity that comes out of the kitchen with regard to flavor, style and technique. What a treasure we have in our culinary traditions, particularly in America where the world truly is represented among our citizenship. The combinations are endless. What fun!