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To Each, His Tastes


I recoiled in horror and blurted out, “Oh God, no!”

I was teaching a cooking class and someone had just asked me about using cooking wine from the grocery store. It’s a reasonable question, just one that I thought most folks knew the answer to. I had the grace to blush at my reaction, apologized, and explained that the stuff sold in stores is heavily salted, poor quality wine and that you should always use something you’d drink. I suggested he try a swallow of cooking wine sometime and would understand why it was a bad idea.

Click to view larger versionI was reminded of this embarrassment while reading an article by Patricia Leigh Brown in the New York Times. Brown had asked Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse and a leading promoter of local/seasonal foods and what might be termed “thoughtful” eating and cooking, to help her change her family’s eating habits. According to Leigh. Water’s said, “The microwave? I’d get rid of it.” This is exactly the sort of thoughtless food snobbery I was guilty of on the wine question.

I couldn’t live without my microwave. I use it for cooking some things (it’s the best way to steam cabbage or cook corn on the cob). But I use it far more often for reheating leftovers from meals I make from scratch. This evening I’ll be heating a leftover pasta dish consisting of pasta and onions from the supermarket, fresh tomatoes and bell peppers from the farmers market, and some lamb sausage I made myself using meat from a local organic producer. Heating such a dish in a skillet is cooking it twice, while a microwave can. in fact, be used to restore it.

Don’t get me wrong, I have tremendous admiration for Waters and as David Lebovitz, a former pastry chef at Chez Panisse points out, “Alice is an idealist, which is someone who imagines things that are…’ideal’. We need people like that.” Lebovitz is right, and those of us who appreciate high-quality ingredients prepared with care and respect owe a great debt to Waters and her boundless evangelism. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t guilty of some snobbish attitudes — just as most professional chefs are. It’s a disease of the trade. It’s a disease of most trades.

This disconnect from “ordinary” people was on view at The View a few weeks back when Waters appeared as a guest displaying a huge array of food from New York’s famous Union Square Greenmarket. Host Joy Behar, clearly unimpressed with the provenance of the produce, asked, “But you can get all this in a normal grocery store,” clearly wondering why a trip to the market was called for. In fact, after Waters described preparing a chicken for roasting Behar asked, “Can’t you stick a beer can in its vagina?” Whoopi Goldberg had to explain chicken anatomy to her. Clearly the disconnect runs in both directions.

Waters isn’t alone in her attitudes, however.

Mario Batali, whom I dislike but respect, rants incessantly that the sauce on pasta should be a condimenti, it should only moisten the pasta — this is the purist’s approach. Marc Bittman, whom I like but don’t respect, suggests in a recent article that there’s nothing wrong with going heavy on sauce and light on pasta, emphasizing the low-carb sauce over the high-carb, high-calorie pasta.

None of this is terribly important in the grand scheme of things. What matters is what you like. Does it taste good – to you?

The pasta I made last night really doesn’t have a sauce beyond some of the fat from the sausage, the juice from the tomato, and some grated cheese. This is what I wanted and it tasted great. But other times I want lots of good rich tomato sauce spiked with leftover beans, broccoli, cauliflower and maybe a can of tuna. I have a basic tomato sauce I make in quantity and then freeze in one pint bags (freezing being another thing the purists hate) for later use. I often thaw the sauce in my microwave for a spur-of-the-moment meal.

We all face practical constraints, except possibly for chefs such as Waters and Batali, and we and our families are best served when we acknowledge our limitations in skill, ingredients, and equipment and do the best we can within those constraints. That doesn’t mean giving up and not trying to prepare the best meals we are capable of. Doing our best may mean going out of our way to buy at the farmers’ market, or using canned tomatoes when the farmers’ market isn’t a practical option. Excellence is always worth the effort, but not always worth the strife. There’s a balance that works for you.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I like and admire Jacques Pepin who is a great chef and yet worked for Howard Johnson (yes, that Howard Johnson) developing recipes that could be frozen and shipped to the restaurants to serve. Pepin was focused on getting the best food he could to Johnson’s customers given the constraints the restaurants faced.

And although I’d never consider using grocery store cooking wine (I’d do without first) perhaps that doesn’t matter to you and, if not, that’s fine. But as I suggested to my erstwhile student, try a swallow of cooking wine before you decide.

You can leave questions, comments, and remarks here.

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