For my grandmother’s generation of Midwesterners, “salad” was a term used very loosely. “Salad” seemed to mean anything that had (or could have) vegetables in it, especially if the medium was Jell-O. A mid-century Midwestern “salad” made the right way was about 50% Jell-O.
Last Thanksgiving, I decided that I wanted a heritage turkey. Reading about the selective breeding1 and the bland tasting meat of commercial turkeys compared to wild and heritage turkeys. So, I asked The Fiancé. Prices may vary, but they are such that it is wise to ask your significant other for permission prior to purchase. She said, “yes” because she rocks.
When Thanksgiving morning arrived and my turkey had not, I worried. I called the farmer to ask when I should expect it. She told me, with concern in her voice, that the turkey had already been delivered – FOUR DAYS AGO. Like a condemned man, I went to my apartment building’s front office to ask if they had forgotten any packages for me. I knew my fears were confirmed as I opened the office door – I COULD SMELL IT.
The office smelled like spoiled meat. When the office worker found the package she proclaimed, “I got this a few days ago, I must have forgotten to give you a notice.” In what I think was a steady voice, I said, “That’s my Thanksgiving turkey.” Without missing a beat she replied, “We were wondering what that smell was.” To cap off the comedy2, the management office’s remedy was that they would buy me a new turkey – FOUR DAYS AFTER THANKSGIVING! I told them where they could stuff their turkey.
The dish surprised the judges by surprise with the simple elegance of its flavors.
As Ben’s brother, I am not surprised. I can see his influence as a team mentor. While I have never had this particular dish, I have had eaten many varieties of vegetable hash that he has prepared for breakfast. They are simple. They are elegant. They are flavorful. And, they all taste like victory.
Good food, sexy food is the result of passion and science. We talk a lot about passion in cooking, but passion alone can’t make a chocolate mousse cake. Passion can’t ensure efficient heat transfer, make proteins bind, crystallize molecules, or drive chemical reactions. There is science in your food, even if you don’t know how it got there.
I’m here to introduce you, the patrons of The Finch & Pea, to some delicious nosh, to stoke your passion for cooking, and to help you understand how cooking works.
Understanding the science behind a recipe – what the ingredients really are, how they interact with each other, how they change when you manipulate them – will make you a better cook, chef, and diner. When I go to write a cake recipe, knowing flour type composition, hydration ratios, chemical reactions of leavening agents, and methods for strengthen emulsions drastically affects the success of the recipe. Cooking isn’t just about passion. It’s about words you heard in chemistry and physics class. Words like heat conductivity, melting point, vaporization temperatures, phase transition, pressure effects on physical states, hygroscopic minerals, and density differentials all play an important role in almost every aspect of cooking.
Together we are going to explore the science behind everyday cooking. Why should you salt a steak an hour before cooking, but never right before? Why shouldn’t you use vanilla extract? How can baking soda ruin your cookies? How does granulated sugar “cook” your strawberries when poured over top?
I would love to meet the person responsible for the invention of meatloaf. I imagine them looking at a loaf pan saying, “Sure I could put bread in it. Everyone puts bread in it. But, what if I filled it with meat?”
My stepmom insisted that all of her children knew how to make a few basic dishes before going to college. At the very least, we wouldn’t starve. Meatloaf was the dish that fascinated me the most. Every time I see meatloaf on a menu, I smile a little and feel a sentimental urge to order it. I’ve included two recipes for this one. The first is my stepmom’s classic recipe featuring crushed saltines and ketchup.
The second is my “later in life” interpretation, just to show how food inspiration can come from those simple dishes that remind us of home.