The Single Most Important Ingredient Every Recipe Needs
Remember a time a dish flopped on you? I can think of many.
Usually it was due to my carelessness, being too hasty or not reading a recipe thoroughly enough. Last spring I was experimenting with a vegan diet and misread a recipe calling for 2 tablespoons of flax powder and instead added 2 cups. I recall a brief instant where I hovered the measuring cup over the bowl thinking to myself, Hmm that seems like a lot, and then dumped it in. I also realized I had no white vinegar and chose to substitute apple cider vinegar. Big mistake. The pancakes took on the flavour of those already digested and mixed with stomach acid.
Other times my meals have gone awry because of lack of experience. A huge eye-opener for me was watching the movie Ratatouille. You know the scene where the rat secretly hijacks the soup in the restaurant kitchen that is being destroyed by an unexperienced worker, in an effort to save it? As his little lips sipped from the wooden spoon and adjusted accordingly, it donned on me that I should be tasting my cooking as I was making it. I know this is incredibly obvious, but up until that point, much like that unexperienced worker, I was just arbitrarily throwing in a little of this, a little of that, only to realize in the end that I’d gone way overboard on one or several ingredients.
And then there are times when it seems like I am doing everything right, and still the dish bombs. Even if it’s a recipe I’ve made successfully a zillion times. Why does this happen? Because in these times I am lacking the single most important ingredient:
A good meal, above all, is prepared with pleasure.
From my experience, taking pleasure in the process of cooking plays a huge part in its success. In fact, enjoying the process of doing anything plays a huge part in achievement. Those times when I prepared a meal that bombed, even if it was an old favourite, it was often because I wasn’t in the mood to cook. I came at it from a laborious angle thinking, Bleh guess I should eat something.
And then there are times I throw a meal together with whatever’s in my fridge. No recipe. All caution the wind. A glass (or two) of wine. Music playing... and by some miracle a tour de force appears on my plate. Why does this happen? Because in every step of the meal, I marinated it with pleasure.
When I first began to cook for enjoyment, not just sustenance, I remember inviting a friend over for dinner that has a natural way in the kitchen. Anything she’s ever made for me has been nothing short of perfection. I decided to go with a recipe I’d tried a few weeks back and really loved. I realized when I got back from running errands, however, that I’d forgotten the basil. Naive me thought, Oh well no biggie.
Dinner was a total disappointment. It barely resembled the magnificently-easy creation I’d made the first time round. Trying to redeem myself, I explained that really, it was good the first time! Then I mentioned that it’d called for basil but I’d forgot to pick some up. Wide-eyed she immediately responded, “Oh yeah, you gotta have the basil.” She wasn't patronizing me, but more so validating my excuse. It was also clear that in her naturally-gifted cooking mind, this was a no-brainer:
When it comes to cooking for pleasure, herbs are a game-changer.
From that point forward I gained a great appreciation for using herbs, especially fresh ones. I'll admit that every time I make something with fresh herbs, no matter how simple, I feel like a bit of a rockstar in the kitchen.
Herbs bring pleasure to a meal because they arouse our senses in a number of ways. As a garnish they provide aesthetic bliss, transforming the utterly mundane into artistic masterpieces. But herbs are so much more than good looks.
Their fragrance is probably the most appealing thing for me. In our first year of farming, my favourite and most memorable times were when we harvested the herbs. The smell was overwhelmingly delightful. Delightful is not a word I would normally use, but for this experience it fits. It was aromatherapy to our hard day’s work.
The nostalgia linked to smells adds a lot of oomph to herbs’ pleasure-making capacity as well. Every time I smell basil, I am instantly back in Spain. Every time I smell dill, I’m instantly brought back to pickling season with my mom. These good memories don’t strike me very often otherwise.
And then there is the obvious pleasure-packed taste that herbs bring to a dish. It’s amazing how in one little toss they can bring it to the next level. Think of a baked potato… meh. Now think of a baked potato with fresh chives and sour cream…. yes please!
Another thing that fascinates me about herbs is how culturally significant they are. When you try ethnic foods and think, Wow I’ve never tasted anything like that in my life, nine times out of ten it relates back to the herbs and spices they use. I haven’t actually done the stats on that one, but I feel pretty confident that I am dead-on.
If look, smell and taste weren’t enough, pretty much all herbs have medicinal benefits that make us feel better. Again, while I haven’t quite worked out the research to back my next statement, I am pretty sure that much like our pets, if you were to spend a few minutes touching the soft fur of sage leaves, your blood pressure would lower. As for sound, well that could be accounted for in the long, accentuated Mmmmmmmm that people make after tasting some flavourful herb dish.
With all their pleasurable qualities, it seems clear that herbs should play a prominent role in everyday cooking. I truly believe that they improve our lives by bringing pleasure to the table. After all, we are what we eat. I’ve noticed the availability of herbs increase over the last few years, but from my perspective one thing stands true:
Herbs remain underused in the common cuisine of North America.
Is it just me, or do they still have this reputation of being somewhat of an extravagance on your grocery list rather than a staple for your health and well-being? In an effort to expand our knowledge of herbs, I will be highlighting my favourites in coming posts.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear what your own experience has been with herbs. What are your favourites? Do you buy fresh herbs often? How do you use them? If you don’t really use them, why not? What do you love about them? What bugs you about them? I’m eager to hear your thoughts. And the next time you head to your local market or grocery store, remember:
To add pleasure to your meal, start with your shopping list.
Find the enjoyment is selecting a few simple ingredients to make something wonderful. The old adage goes, ‘Stop to smell the roses’. I would take this a bit further. Stop to smell the cilantro, parsley, rosemary, thyme... Admire the bounty. We are so fortunate to be able to go pluck whatever we want from an aisle.
Then go home, roll up your sleeves, put on your favourite record and let the magic happen.