The Slow Cook (Prologue)
Here we are again, on the threshold of a brand new year, full of potential and opportunities. The last year has been rough for most of us : plans ruined, expectations thwarted, a whole new array of hardships piled on us all of a sudden. Yet, these testing times have been witness to our amazing resilience, a perfect example of how life can adapt in the face of a global crisis. Time heals a lot of wounds and is a mysterious, elusive concept, and it is Time which is the subject of our first series of articles for the year.
The first time I heard of Michael Pollan was in 2016, when a senior enthusiastically recommended a new Netflix series called “Cooked”. It had four episodes named after the elements of nature, each dealing with a particular type of cooking. Fire was about about the primeval method of cooking meat over an open flame, Air tackled the alchemy of transforming a bowl of flour and water into an airy loaf that sustained civilisations, while Earth demystified the cold fire of fermentation.
But it was Water, the second episode of the series, which was a particular favourite. It dealt primarily with slow-cooked dishes whose main ingredient is something simple yet sadly scarce in today’s world, time. With much of the focus on India, it talks about how commercialization is leading us towards the world of fast food that need little more than five minutes in the microwave to be ready.
It was when I hunted out the book and flipped through the pages that I realized that it was even better. Pollan, with his unquestionable mastery of language and genuine passion for food, pens with absolute eloquence a whole array of food-related topics, ranging from food science and cooking facts all the way to the historical and socio-cultural aspects of cooking. The mastery with which he keeps the narrative flowing is simply amazing. It is one of my most favourite food books of all time.
Part 2, Water, is the shortest of the four, but it resonated with me the most because it talks about the kind of cooking I was most familiar with. Indian households don’t cook much on open fires, nor is leavening bread or fermenting cheeses that common. Cooking in pots, on the other hand, is central to our culinary traditions, and it is what most of our home cooking is based on, think cooking rice or sautéing vegetables.
Pollan breaks this part down into subcategories, each based on a step from a recipe. In each part, he starts with a particular aspect of making a braise, like chopping onions, salting meat or adding stock, and uses it as a launching pad to explore a variety of related issues. Before we get to a braise though, we need to address slow-cooking from a border perspective.
Consider the Jewish Cholent, a slow-cooked stew made of beef, potatoes, beans, barley and spices amomg other thing. The ingredients are prepped and assembled at sundown on a Friday, allowed to simmer overnight, and enjoyed on the Sabbath, on account on religious notions that no hard work must be done on the Sabbath. This style of cooking has tremendous practical merit, where people could add the ingredients in a pot before leaving for work, let it cook through the day, and return home to a delicious meal, like the Italian peposo. The passive cooking style combined with the ingenious use to tough, inexpensive cuts of meat makes slow cooking an incredibly budget-friendly way of making delicious food.
Indian cooking being not too meat-heavy, doesn’t have a lot of recipes that involve hours of cooking, but when red meat did enter our culinary lexicon through the Islamic influence, our slow-cooked stews got the spice treatment like any other dish which took things to a whole new level. So, slow-cooked dishes can include anything from a simple Jewish cholent to a complex Hyderbadi nalli nihari.
The two commonest styles of slow-cooked dishes in the West are the braise and the stew. A braise is a style of cooking in which meat is cooked in fat at a high temperature, followed by a slow cook in a liquid till it’s done. While a braise uses larger cuts of meat, a stew employs smaller, bite-sized chunks. Braises and stews are time consuming, although most of it is passive cooking time. Just a little bit of kitchen work and several hours of patience is all you need.
The variety of techniques involved in a braise or stew translates into numerous nuances of flavour in the final dish. Pollan’s template for a braise, which he calls an “Ur-recipe”, summarises the apparent complexity of a braise brilliantly.
- Dice some aromatic plants
- Saute them in some fat
- Brown piece(s) of meat (or other featured ingredient)
- Put everything in a pot
- Add some water (or stock, wine, milk)
- Simmer, below the boil, for a long time
Pollan’s guide in his exploration of the braise was Chef Samin Nosrat, someone who, interestingly, I also came across first in a Netflix series, only to be even more impressed by its book version. Salt Fat Acid Heat has got to be one of my most favourite food books out there. With beautiful illustrations, handy charts and Samin’s personal, easy-going narrative, it demystifies cooking and breaks it down to its most basic elements. In “Heat”, she explores numerous cooking techniques, including braises and stews, which she mentions in the category of “Cooking with Water”.
Cooking with water comes long after cooking with fire in the history of human civilization, as it had to wait for the creation of fire-proof cookware in which to add water to cook ingredients in. Cooking foods in this way opened up new opportunities, rendering many tough plants and seeds edible. Pot cooking was born, a style which harmonises ingredients to create something much more than the sum of its parts. Of these the most complex is the slow-cooked braise or stew, a style of cooking which is on the decline in the fast-paced world of the 21st century.
We have talked about slow-cooked dishes a couple of times before. In our exploration of Nose to Tail Cooking, we talked about how cheap, inexpensive cuts of meat can magically transform over time to flavourful, complex braises. And of course, there was the elaborate article about Kosha Mangsho, recipe and all, which explores one the most beloved slow-cooked Bengali dishes, the steps for making which can be easily broken down into the six steps from Pollan’s Ur-Recipe.
This time, we will take a methodical approach to braising and slow-cooking in more detail, using chapter titles from Pollan’s book and illustrations from Samin’s as our guides. We will build on the stuff we talked about in our kosha mangsho article, this time with a global perspective, seeing how changes in ingredients and technique produce similar yet drastically different dishes.
Since it won’t be possible to talk about any particular dish in any detail in the actual article series, I will be putting up a list of some of the most famous slow-cooked classics from around the world, which will be out tomorrow. So, join me this month on a trip around the world, exploring the magic of slow-cooking.
A very happy new year to all readers of The Gourmet Glutton!