“Definitions look good only in ink on paper, for midterms, thus implicitly are useless for life in general.”
These days, between fires in a barrage of assignments, midterms, and projects I’ve been burying myself (and possibly my responsibilities) beneath a commendable mound of food literature and documentaries, two of which include Anthony Bourdain’s Layover on Netflix, tand a veg-driven number by chef-turned-farmer-turned-chef Joshua McFadden.
Each of these offers a slightly different perspective on what good cooking is. Considered in isolation, each would appear to be the bottom line.
Bourdain argues that the most genius cooking comes out of desperation, of a need to make ends meet and thereby elevating low-rank ingredients to iconic heights. McFadden simply states that great cooking starts and ends with pristine ingredients.
Is there a right and wrong? You cannot blame a mother for seeking out only the freshest organic produce to feed to her two young children. You cannot say that an age-old dish that has carried its nation through famine and drought is bad cookery. But what happens when you push these to the extreme?
Before that let’s lay down some rules, so that our ‘extremes’ are realistic (oxymoron, but a needed one nonetheless.)
Resources are finite
As a millennial, raised in an era when sustainability, greenness, and the food crisis are all the rage, I understand this intuitively. However, to many in my parents’ generation, the ocean is still bottomless, the soil is still inexhaustible, and they have no idea that a couple of drops in their glass of water probably came from Bathsheba’s bathtub that night David saw her from his balcony.
Rich and poor people exist
I’m not talking about the poverty line. I’m simply saying that wealth and resources are not identically distributed among each person on Earth.
Ingredients are either “high” or “low” end; the sum of both may feed the world.
While my definition of high might not coincide with yours, in this simplified universe everyone’s definition at any given point in time of these terms are identical. We also assume that neither of these categories alone can feed the world. I’m feeling generous, so I’ll say that high end ingredients can feed half the world’s population (the rest is fed by low end ingredients).
At this point if you’re still with me, then you’re basically done the proof.
If in pursuit of great cookery everyone cooks with only high end ingredients, then the poorer half of the world would starve to death. Or they might decide that they’d rather have bad cooking than death, if they’re not such die-hard foodies. Thus one’s ability to produce great cooking is first and foremost defined by your wealth. In other words, great cookery is a privilege, not a right.
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time stomaching such a conclusion.
Now suppose that great cooking is driven out of desperation, of transforming low end ingredients to palatable dishes. Then yes, the world is fed, but then there would be no need, nor reverence for great ingredients and those who painstakingly produce them. Ingredient quality would deteriorate, and so would production integrity. Soon to follow would likely be a plummet in public health, due to prolonged consumption of degraded ingredients and excess salt, sugar, and fat.
To be honest, a world like this doesn’t excite me at all.
So what to make of all this? I say, definitions look good only in ink on paper, for midterms, thus implicitly useless for life in general. A great dish at the end of the day should be something that moves you – be it because of its history, or the way it connects you to nature, the person who prepared it, or the way it embodies the moment. In other words:
A chef does not qualify the dish, the dish qualifies the chef.
If you’re comfortable with making fresh pasta and have your favourite recipe tucked in your back pocket, this is a dish where it will really be worthwhile to get your pasta machine rolling, just use a higher ratio of egg yolks to whites. If you’re not too keen on the idea, by all means just seek out a good quality dried pasta which you can easily find in any well-stocked grocery. The key here is to toss your pasta in the dandelion pesto while drizzling in hot pasta water until the sauce becomes creamy and coats the pasta entirely. Blanching the dandelion greens and garlic before blending into the pesto helps keep the greens vibrant, tames the bitterness, and extends its shelf..err, fridge life, so don’t skip that step.
- 1 bunch dandelion greens, ends trimmed
- 2 large garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 c grated pecorino romano
- 1/2 c almonds, well roasted
- 1 strip lemon zest
- 1 tsp sea salt, or more
- crushed coriander seeds and chile flakes, to taste
- 3/4 c good olive oil (one that you’d be happy tasting straight out of the bottle)
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, prepare a large bowl of iced water.
- Plunge the dandelion greens and garlic cloves in the pot and stir until all of the greens turn a deep, vibrant green. Drain and shock in the bowl of ice water until completely cold. Squeeze out any excess moisture.
- Add the roasted almonds, chile flakes, coriander seeds, salt, lemon zest, pecorino, garlic cloves, and dandelion greens to a blender or food processor.
- Pulse on medium speed to roughly chop the ingredients, then with the motor running, dribble in the olive oil until a textured sauce comes together and there are no discernible chunks of garlic or almonds remaining. You may need more or less olive oil, so don’t add it all at once. Don’t use a speed any higher than medium as that could turn your olive oil bitter.
- Taste and adjust your seasoning – it be mildly bitter near the back of your palate, assertive with salt, and slightly tingly with the chile.
- Spoon into a mason jar, tap gently to release any air bubbles. Pour in a slick of olive oil at the top to seal and screw on the lid. You can freeze this for up at least 3 months, store in the fridge for 2-3 weeks, or enjoy straight away.
Pappardelle with Dandelion Pesto and Small Poached Eggs
- 1 1/2 lb fresh wide pasta, such as pappardelle, or 1 lb dried
- 1 cup dandelion pesto
- 10 to 12 small eggs, or 6-8 large, poached
- grated pecorino romano, to serve
- chile flakes and black pepper, to serve
- extra virgin olive oil, to serve
- Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a rolling boil, add the pasta and cook for 2-3 minutes until supple but toothy in the center. (If using dried pasta, cook according to instructions on the box, subtracting 1-2 minutes from the stated cooking time.)
- Fish the pasta out of the pot and into a large bowl with the pesto. Toss gently, adding a bit of the pasta water at a time until the sauce emulsifies and becomes creamy, coating each strand of pasta.
- Divide among 4 plates, top with 2-3 small poached eggs, or 1-2 large ones.
- Top generously with grated pecorino romano, sprinkle on some chile flakes and black pepper, then finish with a flick of extra virgin olive oil.
- Serve immediately.