I have two sons, age 17 and 13, who are both well on their way to being excellent cooks. However, just as in almost everything in life, they have totally different approaches. My eldest, Alex, loves to experiment. If he is curious about how eggs will taste with a Thai peanut sauce, Heaven help anyone who is eating breakfast that morning. On the other hand, while he learns what flavors work together and which ones that do not this way, he sometimes finds surprising combinations that work. As he is getting older his experiments are becoming less strange and more successful, and he has a pretty good palate.
Jacob takes a much more conventional approach. He spends a lot of time at my side when I am cooking, and he takes copious mental notes. He does the same thing when Alton Brown is on TV. The kid is a sponge when it comes to cooking knowledge. If he sees me use smoked salt in a dish, then it becomes set in stone that smoked salt must be used. He can remember every step of a process, and even taught my mother how to make risotto when she came to visit. He took a class earlier this year called ‘Skills for Living’ that is basically what used to be Home Economics. It ended over a month ago, but his teacher is still giving him rave reviews. He not only was able to cook everything perfectly, he also helped anyone in the class who struggled, and was even able to diagnose problems when things went amiss and provide solutions.
So Alex takes a mad scientist approach while Jacob is a scholar, but the result is the same; both can cook very well. So, which way would I suggest fledgling cooks take? While I am a product of both approaches, I would say that Jacob’s style is probably most conducive to getting great results faster. He learns the basics and then later can get creative successfully because of his strong grasp of the fundamentals. Alex picks up the fundamentals almost accidentally as he lets his curiosity and creative nature guide him. This works for him quite well, but a less gifted cook might struggle along this path, especially if they did not have a mentor (or a brother) that can tell them why something went wrong.
When learning to cook or to pair wine with food, I am of the opinion that Jacob’s scholarly approach is the best way. Once a good foundation is laid, let the mad scientist Alex loose. Over the years I have taken the opposite approach when learning a new skill and have regretted it, despite having some success. When I was 9 years old I began taking drum lessons from an old Polish gentleman in my neighborhood. He wanted to teach me the rudiments required to be a great drummer, which is what I aspired to be, but beyond that we had diametrically opposing goals. He wanted me to learn Polkas, Waltzes, and Foxtrots because he had a side business pimping out his students in wedding bands that he put together. I wanted to be Keith Moon, Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell all rolled into one. Being entirely without a patient bone in my body, I naturally quit taking lessons after less than a year and taught myself by playing along with my favorite records. I eventually became pretty good and played professionally for many years, but without the fundamentals greatness was never an option.
I did the same thing with Web development, my current profession. This time it was not my impatience that caused me to be self-taught, there just was no other way at the time. Those of us who were using HTML for purposes it was never intended were making it up as we went along. But as time went on, being a Web developer required many more skills than just HTML. First I had to teach myself some basic design skills. Then I had to learn Photoshop. Then Web development split into designers and developers. Developers were doing some cool stuff and made a lot more money, so I started hacking away until I had some programming and database skills as well. So, while necessity caused me to learn code on my own, never attending design school or taking a programming class left me without the basics needed to be top notch at either. Luckily for me, having broad knowledge without any specific skills that make me indispensable turned out to be an excellent way to advance in my career.
So, those examples may explain why I am of the opinion that learning the basics of food and wine is the best way to start. Knowing what spices work together and with what ingredients provides the fundamentals that will allow for much more successful experimentation later on. Once classic food and wine pairings are learned, it is much easier to improvise. In other words, it is much easier to break the rules when you know what they are. Let’s look at some food basics first before moving on to some classic wine pairings.
One of the first combinations culinary students will learn is the Bouquet Garni. This traditional seasoning for broths, stocks, soups, and stews is really just a bundle of herbs that are either tied together with twine or in cheesecloth. The classic recipe is parsley, thyme, bay leaf, and peppercorns. This is also a combination that is very conducive to experimentation. Depending on what it is being used in, everything from cloves and allspice to marjoram and fennel can be added successfully.
Then there is the famous “Cajun Trinity” of celery, onion and green bell pepper that forms the basis of so much of the wonderful cuisine of Louisiana. The influence of that cuisine has spread to most of the surrounding states as well. My current hometown of Houston has been especially blessed by this influence due to both proximity and the influx of natives of New Orleans after Katrina. So many wonderful dishes start with just these three ingredients. As simple as it sounds, it does take practice and experience to use the “Trinity” properly. The reason is that no one can agree on what the proper ratio of these ingredients should be. While that makes recipes difficult, it does mean that finding the ratio that works for you will make your cooking unique. Like the next combination, the French mirepoix, the vegetables are finely diced and either sautéed or roasted. The possibilities available to a cook once this classic is mastered are endless.
The same can be said for mirepoix, which is probably the inspiration for its Cajun cousin. Mirepoix is simply finely diced onions, carrots, and celery. Unlike the “Trinity” however, with mirepoix we have a definite ratio to begin with, and it is very simple. Use twice as much onion as either of the other two ingredients. 2:1:1 is the classic ratio. A mirepoix can be use raw as well as either sautéed or roasted. Again, the variations are endless.
There is also a trinity of sorts in Asian cooking; ginger, scallions and garlic. This can be mixed together in different proportions to provide a large variety of flavors. Another Asian staple is 5 Spice Powder which is made up of star anise, cinnamon, fennel seed, Szechuan peppercorns, and cloves.
Then there are foods that just work well together or with certain spices such as pork and apples, beef and garlic, or lamb and mint. The same is true for certain wines and food. Learning the classic pairings can help you break the rules later. Not to mention, most of the classic pairings are classics for a reason, so trying them is a lot of fun.
Here is a short list of a few that never get old for me.
- Champagne and oysters.
- Pinot Noir and duck.
- Bordeaux and lamb.
- Sauternes and foie gras or blue cheese.
- Muscadet and simple, fresh seafood.
- Cabernet Sauvignon and steak.
- Sangiovese and tomato-based sauces.
Learning the basics of both food and wine is not all that difficult, and it will usually keep you safe from eggs and peanut sauce.