Sunday, 23 May 2010

For Good Measure

My measuring methods for cooking follow the "pi by thumb" rule, as the Germans call it: a phrase that conjures up the image of holding up one's thumb to the ingredient to be measured, slowly winking with one eye and intently staring at the measuranda with the other, followed by a shrugging of the shoulders and dumping of said ingredient into the communal bowl, shared by the other ingredients who already huddle together, content that they are in good hands and everything will turn out fine. Funnily enough, it usually does. And the fact that this laissez-faire (fancy French for "that'll do") attitude does not translate into sewing came at the price of a cheap length of calico - but that is a topic for another post.

The reason why I, a lover of order and perpetual exposer of the self to new experiences (in the hope of mastering them perfectly in an unrealistically short period of time) embrace both attention to detail and creative chaos in the kitchen is probably a result of my literary exploits: I often read alchemical manuscripts which are roughly 500 years old. Alchemy is, in fact, the story of the triumph of skill in the face of seemingly insurmountable technical difficulties: just how do you measure temperature pre-thermometer? Even if you knew to which degree to heat up your mixture of minerals and metals, how would you achieve that on a furnace, basically a barely contained open fire? And while we're at it: scales, regulated measurements and quality control of organic materials were not in place in the alchemists' heyday, neither were "Ye Olde Alchemy Shoppes" which would provide tried and tested alchemical equipment. Looks like alchemists had no other chance than winging it...

But alchemists had skill, a tool that is worth much more than a calibrated thumb or a high-tech oven. Alchemists found ways to make their recipes work, and to describe their experiences in their recipes. Heat, for instance, could be regulated by controlling the air that could get into the furnace, and by lowering or lifting a crucible to the point where the fire heated it to perfection. Alchemists often used feathers or other combustible materials, held at the hight of the pot in question, to figure this out: if the feather singed, the fire was too hot for a delicate mixture; if it did not burn to a puff of smoke within the wink of an eye, it was not potent enough to break down metals. Crude? Perhaps - but it worked. As for measurements, I have not come across many thumbs in alchemical manuscripts, but certainly some sticks: placing a stick into a pot of powder or liquid and marking the level of the same makes it possible to measure out the same amount next time round - the equivalent to measuring cups that are so popular in American kitchens today.

Of course, any measurement still involves opening a can of worms on the side. Hot, almost feather-burning debates have been occupying bakers' minds while their hands are wrist deep in dough: is measuring by volume, with abovementioned measuring cups, all right, or does any self-respecting home baker need scales to measure by weight? Culinary chemists have figured out what happens on a molecular level when ingredients vary in their proportions. But like alchemists, many cooks develop skill as they cook (and burn) food over the years, the skill to measure weight, volume and time, even without scales, cups or a stopwatch; and the skill to rescue mishaps, or feed the cat with homemade charcoal.

If you would like to catch up on your theory before plunging into the kitchen of uncertainty, Julian Barnes's The Pedant in the Kitchen is a wonderful collection of witty essays around the perils and joys of cooking. Here, he puts his finger on the issue of measuring, or to be precise, the correct application of recipes to the home kitchen:
For recipe writers, onions come in only three sizes, 'small', 'medium' and 'large', whereas onions in your shopping bag vary from the size of a shallot to that of a curling stone. So an instruction such as 'Take two medium onions' sets off a lot of pedantic scrabbling in the onion basket for bulbs that fit the description (obviously, since medium is a comparative term, you have to compare across the whole spectrum of onions you possess).
On this note, I say, so what if there's a bit more onion in one batch of your onion bhaji? Like alchemists, we can only find out by trial and error if we've got a knack - and possibly create an elixir of life or dish of deliciousness in the future, without relying on the pragmatic prose of writers of cookbooks.

Today's dish is a salad I enjoyed at a wonderful restaurant in Inverness, the Cafe 1. I am recreating this from memory, and not doing as good a job as their chefs, who are alchemists extraordinaire when it comes to creating transformative experiences in food. You know how to make a salad (I hope), so without further ado, here are the ingredients for you to throw together.

Pomegranate & Halloumi Salad
  • crisp lettuce leaves
  • some shaved fresh fennel
  • slices of halloumi, grilled
  • a scattering of fresh pomegranate seeds
  • dressing: creme fraiche with lime juice and spices
Bon appetit!

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