Two years ago, I was standing in the back of a busy bakery. Knee-deep in conversation, eventually we began to discuss another local bakery. They had a ton of media buzz and were long on razzle-dazzle but for me, it didn't add up.
Every visit, I struggled to make the connection:
With the earnestness of a Catholic school girl confession, finally I admitted, "I don't get it." The dissappointment of a recent visit was fresh on my mind. And yet, the hype was so prolific, I began to wonder if my palate was out of whack. "Is it me?"
Chef lowered his voice and leaned in. Within of earshot, he said, "She doesn't understand her ingredients."
A chill washed over me. I thought about the tasteless cakes, enrobed in chocolate and garnished with adorable Japanese-inspired fondant flourishes. Cute? Yes. Delicious? Far from it. The elements worked, in theory, but on the whole, it came up short...every time.
Drawing a parallel to photography, I thought about lessons learned from Henry Cartier-Bresson. Breathtaking photography is anchored by the "decisive moment"-- that critical instant when a shutter click suspends an event, seizing the eye and heart of the beholder. While photographer Henry Cartier-Bresson is credited for coining the phrase, life itself is hinged on hundreds of these "decisive moments."
She doesn't understand her ingredients.
This was my decisive moment.
Succinct and to the point, it conveniently solved one riddle, while opening up a Pandora's box full of new questions.
Pointing the finger back at myself, I began to wonder, how well do I know my ingredients?
Baking is just butter, flour, eggs, and salt, right?
When I began to examine each ingredient, I tapped into a phrase cooking instructor Hope Sandler repeated over and over again in class. Reading through the recipes together, she'd point to an ingredient and challenge us to think, "What's its job?"
It's like zooming on the freeway at 60 miles an hour and then bam! You suddenly stop. Details and subtle nuances you never noticed, finally come into focus.
Recipes weren't just recipes anymore. They were gateways into new understanding. Comprehension...on a much deeper level...was beginning to take hold.
So I got cozy with my ingredients:
"Okay, butter, what's your job here?"
Cold and left in pea-sized pebbles, once the dough hits the hot oven, that cold butter creates steam. This, I learned, is one of the secrets behind flaky biscuits, pie crust and croissants. Eureka moment number 1.
Melted butter vs. room temperature butter in cookies? It's all about texture in the final product. (Melted butter + timing = chewy.) Eureka moment number 2.
And on it went.
Over the past two years, I've become obsessed with ingredients...and my enthusiasm has extended well past the kitchen. I read books on the "third wave" of coffee, and the cultivation of cacao. I've explored the vast differences between grass-fed and grass-finished beef, and the impact of terrior on beef. And I've walked through the muck at low tide, exploring Pacific Northwest acquaculture (oyster-, clam-, and mussel-farming).
I'll never forget:
My first taste of raw milk. It doesn't get more locavore than that. Cow to cup? 3 feet.
At Stumptown, I spoke with Panamanian coffee producers who described the impact of microclimates. On a single farm, variances in terrain and temperature can create multiple growing conditions. Harvested by hand, beans picked just a few hundred feet from each other...can vary dramatically.
On a visit to a goat farm, I was startled by an "off" taste in their cheese. Julia Wayne enlightened me. "That's because the lactating females weren't separated from the males." Taking notice of my befuddled look, she continued, "If a strong-smelling buck isn't separated from the lactating does, his scent will affect the milk." And she added, "It's the pheromones that get into the milk and make it taste super goaty. It's why a lot of people don't like goat cheese, I think." That pheromone-laden milk has a startling impact on the final product, and in my opinion, ruins the cheese.
Then, in a frigid cold meat locker, USDA-certified butcher Tracy Smaciarz walked me through the various sides of meat. Hanging on the rail, he grabbed a side of beef. "See this one?" We compare two sides, hanging next to each other. Pointing to one with yellow fat, "This one was grass-finished." It's counterintuitive, I know. Grass fed =yellow fat; grain fed=white fat. (The next time you're at the grocery store, check out the fat in their meat. Good luck finding yellow fat.)
Over the past few months, I've intensified my efforts to learn all I can. A classic example: My ears perked up when baker Heather Earnhardt said, "I hate their eggs...they're so watery." Until that moment, I never noticed. I reached for the homesteader's bible, the Encyclopedia of Country Living (Sasquatch, 2008), and tried to figure it out. Is it the age of the eggs? The feed? The breed? And ultimately, what impact did "watery" eggs have on the final product?
As you can see, that "decisive moment" has sparked many new adventures. And in the quest to get closer to my food, you'll be seeing more farm tours, producer visits, and chef interviews.
It's been a busy summer, and I've got lots to share! Stay tuned...