Salt, Pepper, and Fat or How I learned to stop eating out and love home cooked food
Have you ever wondered why a lot of things always seem to taste better when you eat at a restaurant? I’ll give you a hint, it’s in the title of this post. A cook being scared of salt, pepper and fat is kinda like a ship’s captain being scared of water or a call girl that is scared of...I won’t finish that thought. But needless to say that in all cases you probably won’t get the results that you were hoping for.
Over the years I’ve watched A LOT of food related television and internet videos, in addition to my own kitchen adventures (and misadventures). In fact, some of my fondest food memories from childhood were watching old episodes of Julia Child and Justin Wilson on PBS with my dad. You know what I’ve found? Almost without exception, every dish utilizes this trinity of ingredients in some capacity: meat, potatoes, veggies, eggs, desserts, even salads. Yes, I said salads. Why do you think the salads at restaurants always taste better? Oh and if you think that vinaigrette doesn’t have fat in it, what do you think olive oil is?
Somewhere along the way, most of us were taught to try to avoid fat and that anything that tastes good is bad for you. I’m certainly not here to argue about health concerns or give any manner of health advice. My Viking belly leaves me in no position to do so with a straight face. But I will say that I have always treated skinny cooks with a level of suspicion. The germans have a saying, “Liebe geht durch den Magen” which literally means, "love goes through the stomach." Suffice to say that I have enough love to go around.
A simple test case
To illustrate my point, let’s examine the humble potato. A potato by itself is starchy and mostly flavorless. (Disclaimer: I have traveled to Peru, where potatoes originated. They have hundreds of varieties of all different shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and flavors too. For the purpose of illustration, we’re talking about basic plain old russet potatoes that you get in a bag at any grocery store.) But with a little help, it becomes something that even the most fussy of eaters will beg for.
French fries? You’re going to fry them in some manner of fat (oil) and then before they cool down, toss them in a bowl with salt and pepper.
Baked potato? Throw it in the oven. When it’s done, you’re going to cut it open and add at least salt, pepper, and butter. Hash browns? Mashed potatoes? Scalloped potatoes? Potato casserole? Pomme Frites? (Yes, this is literally just french fries again, but I like to pretend to be sophisticated sometimes) They all will contain salt, pepper, and fat. I could go on, but it’ll just make me more hungry.
Season early and season often
One of the biggest mistakes that I’ve seen kitchen novices make is not building up a baseline of seasoning and flavor from the very beginning of a dish. If you think that you can just saute up some naked veggies in your favorite non-stick frying pan and then allow everyone to add their own salt and pepper at the table, your guests will probably remain polite, but suggest that there’s no need for you to go to all the trouble next time and you all should try the new restaurant up the street.
Instead, start with some butter or oil in the pan and add salt and pepper right after the veggies. This will give the flavors some time to come together and actually become part of the food instead of just having little crunchy bits on top of it.
Also, someone way more educated about food than me once said that cooking is the act of removing water from food. Do you know one thing that salt does besides enhance flavor? It draws out moisture. Who knew science could be delicious?!
It will take some trial and error to figure out how much of each component you find the most pleasing to you. But over time, you should be able to figure out how much “a pinch” of salt or “a couple grinds of black pepper” are.
So, do yourself a favor; Get yourself a salt cellar with kosher salt, a pepper mill with black peppercorns, and roughly 1 Paula Deen (somewhere between 2 and 20 lbs) of unsalted butter to start. Get to know these items and become friends with them. You aren’t scared of your friends are you? Oh, and leave your butter, at least the stick that you’re currently using, out of the fridge. Yes, it’ll be fine.
More than just kosher salt, black pepper, and butter
On a final note, as you expand your culinary horizons, you’ll undoubtedly come across other ingredients that serve the same purpose as these basic staples. Asian cuisine, for example, typically makes use of soy sauce (salty), white pepper and/or a variety of chili and bell peppers, and neutral oils. They all have their place and sometimes it’s fun to play mix and match as you gain more experience. Soy sauce and chipotle pepper on a steak anyone?!
Hopefully, you’re ready to start cooking with some real flavor. Your guests will thank you for it.