In my last post Real Chicken Soup I stated what is probably the most important concept in making great food. It is what separates good chefs from great chefs…Quality Ingredients. In fact, I have probably mentioned something like this in every post I have published, whether it is how to pick the best butternut squash or the best pots for your kitchen. Quality matters! In other words: what you don’t add is just as important as what you do add.
Some concrete examples are in order: I had a sous chef in a previous life who liked to try and shock me with odd ingredients. He would put onion skins and egg shells into the chicken or veal stock, just to see what I would say. In each case I did not say much: my response to the egg shells was that, as long as they were fresh, there was a drop of egg whites that would contribute a small amount of albumin to the stock which couldn’t hurt. The onion skins are a slightly different matter…I asked my sous chef to put an onion skin into his mouth and chew it up which he did. After letting him chew it for a few seconds I asked him what it tasted like and how much flavor it would contribute to the stock. He had to admit that it would not contribute anything to the finished stock. I also pointed out that the skin of the onion often harbors dirt, mold, and the occasional insect. The lesson here: use common sense when it comes to ingredients, they need to be clean, fresh, good tasting and add something to the finished product.
The end result is always the last word for me. This implies that menu items at my house are often something that catches my eye in the supermarket on a particular day. It also means that I tend to shop more than once a week especially for vegetables which are very perishable. I choose meat by the way it looks or the type of dish I am going to prepare rather than by the price. This brings up a rather unpleasant memory for me. I had an employer once tell me that a great chef can take a ungraded piece of meat and make it taste and feel like USDA Prime meat. I can tell you that this is not true! Great chefs shop well, buy the best, buy only what they need and cook them perfectly so as not to ruin great products.
I will leave you with some advice that is becoming very popular and that I agree with wholeheartedly. Buy local because produce that is picked ripe and travels only a short distance is better than produce that is picked under-ripe and travels halfway around the world and; buy seasonally for very much the same reasons. I always buy the best quality I can find and prepare each item properly so that the inherent quality comes through.