Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking
Degrees of cheating II
It sometimes seems as though the food purveyors of the 21st century are determined that we should all be overweight, with high blood pressure and blood sugar .
Those of us who like to eat a healthy diet without going down one of the extreme routes (raw, vegan, low-carb etc.) can see what appears to be a healthy option on a menu, but when it appears in front of us it’s been tampered with, spiked with things we don’t want but which the providers think we secretly do.
One of the best salads I have ever had was a mountain of green leaves served in what looked like a chamber pot. It was exactly what I was in the mood for (serving vessel excepted): the kind of meal that makes you feel good as you eat because you can imagine it doing you good.
Try that in a fast food restaurant and it will come with croutons (i.e. fried bread) and bacon bits (i.e. salt and fat), with a bottled dressing that tastes great but contains who-knows-what. This is a form of cheating that insults our intelligence. We have decided that we’re not going to have the burger and the bun and the fries and the ketchup or the fried chicken with the fat that runs up our sleeves. We know the result will be short on the sort of excitement, comfort or whatever people experience with a load of hot fat and starch. But these people don’t take us seriously. It’s like asking for an alcohol-free cocktail but receiving something with a little vodka and a splash of Grand Marnier because we can’t be permitted to miss out on the fun.
Help yourself to a mound of vegetables in a Chinese restaurant and you will more than likely be ingesting monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer that has bothered people since its introduction more than 100 years ago. While what we know simply as salt – sodium chloride – has the very well documented result of raising blood pressure (which in most cases is a bad thing), MSG is a bit of a mystery. On the plus side is its undeniable capacity to make things taste more appealing, adding a sort of savoury flavour that is known as umami, it also produces a wide array of symptoms in some people which others may experience to a lesser degree and just describe as generally “feeling a bit weird”.
As the cook in charge of our kitchen, it is our choice whether we use these things, in moderation or at all.
While it would be unreasonable in many cases to not use salt, it’s important to know what needs it (from a flavor point of view) and what doesn’t. A plate with a lot of vegetables, for example, needs a bit of help. If you want to enjoy a muscular dollop of spinach you will need to liven it up with a sprinkling of salt or a small chunk of butter.
Something that recently came out of the sea, on the other hand, needs no such assistance, so your grilled or lightly fried fillet of mackerel benefits just from a squeeze of lemon juice.
You may find that what you prepare doesn’t quite match up to what you are served in a restaurant, but if that is because it doesn’t contain the volume of salt, sugar or whatever, it’s your choice: go against your principles or serve it as you want it to be.
As for bacon, while it is undeniably one of the stars of the breakfast plate, to throw it into every meaty dish you make is to throw in fat and salt, so it’s worth thinking about that. Similarly, if you add complexity to a stew or some other multi-ingredient dish (curry, chilli etc.) by adding Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, mustard or whatever fancy condiment caught your eye when you went shopping, bear in mind that they all contain salt, so you don’t need to automatically chuck a handful of that in too.
MSG? The simple answer is: don’t do it. Try harder in other ways. Better raw ingredients. Marinate it. Cook it longer. Cook it quicker, whatever it needs. There is nothing traditional about MSG. It’s a modern phenomenon that may eventually be discredited and abandoned.
Proper cooking – making things ourselves, rather than using ready-made dishes – is seen by some as making work for ourselves, and sometimes after a busy day it is a relief to stick a frozen pizza in the oven and switch off. But there is a lot of satisfaction to be had from doing it yourself. And if it doesn’t taste quite like a professional’s version, maybe that’s because they’re cheating and you’re not.