The Science of Deliciousness

It might be Labor Day, but summer isn't really over until the blackberries are gone. Since it's harvest season and I'm still on leave from the workforce, I've been spending my time figuring out clever things to do with the bountiful produce of my neighborhood's back alleys. (Tonight: lemon verbena drops and blackberry meringue pie.)

Hoping to bring a little more order to the proceedings after a failed blackberry fish sauce, I cracked open Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking, written by one of the gurus of high tech haute cuisine, Hervé This.

This explains with charming prose the basic physics and chemistry of deliciousness, pulling most of his examples from classic French cuisine. The examples usually keep things clear and practically grounded, but occasionally lead to confusion - there's a parade of failed béarnaise and hollandaise sauces used to illustrate principles of emulsion, to which I couldn't relate at all. As an American home chef, I really never need anything more delicate than a roux.

As I'm not just an American home chef, but a West Coast hippie American home chef, I was also disappointed by the book's focus on animal products. Of 39 short chapters, only one addresses vegetables head-on; the salad chapter is actually about vinaigrettes. The only fruit in the book that is not destined to be fermented or preserved in sugar appears in a brief discussion of acids and enzymes and the ages-old topic of why apples turn brown. Otherwise, it's all meat, dairy, and eggs, with an occasional excursion into the land of bread and starch. There is nothing here that will help manage a CSA-induced attack of Kale Panic.*

The chapters are not only short but largely independent of each other, so Kitchen Mysteries is great for dipping in and out of. However the chapter titles don't always tell you what you'll take away to apply to your cooking, so it's not so useful in the kitchen - it's better as a bathroom book.

Bottom line: Kitchen Mysteries taught me quite a few things about cooking, but not so many things about science. Someone with a stronger culinary background (especially in French cuisine) and less of a scientific background may find the proportions reversed, but there is likely to be something in this for everyone.

*Actually, this week I'm having Cabbage Panic, and the chapter on mayonnaise did help me deconstruct some coleslaw dressing recipes. But the skillful drowning of perfectly innocent vegetables in mayonnaise is not really what I'm going for most of the time.

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Don't overlook the delights of fresh uncooked young kale as a salad. My Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother used to serve it with a boiled sweet and sour mustardy dressing that was a perfect complement to the crisp tasty greens. Yum!

One of my favorite ways with cabbage is to chop it up (not too finely) and cook it in oil with a bit of onion and garlic until it's brown and caramelized and yummy. (If it doesn't offend your food ethics, it's extra good cooked in a bit of pork fat, but regular oil or butter works well too.)

Huh! I would never have thought to caramelize cabbage - I'll have to try that. Though we're sadly out of bacon fat at the moment, having used it all up for kale and onions.

I like to chop cabbage (and maybe add chunks/shreds of any other fresh vegetable at hand like carrots or bell peppers), then make a dressing with canola oil*, rice wine vinegar, a bit of sesame oil, soy and fish sauce or worchestershire.

*while I like the taste of olive oil, I hate the way it gets thick in the fridge, and I make this slaw and eat it for several days.

By Paula Helm Murray (not verified) on 02 Sep 2008 #permalink

"while I like the taste of olive oil, I hate the way it gets thick in the fridge"

In the first share house I lived in as a PhD student, the overnight winter temperatures got so low that the olive oil and peanut oil congealed in the pantry.

If you haven't already encountered it, you might enjoy "What Einstein Told His Cook" by Robert Wolke. It's all about the chemistry of cooking, and it includes (simple) sample recipes to illustrate different phenomena. It addresses a lot of the annoying "but why do we do X?" questions that have pestered me over the years. Great book!