I am an enthusiastic learning. When I first moved to Italy, I convinced the director of the Italian language school where I was studying to place me in a class well beyond my comprehension level because I was desperate to reach a language fluency that would enable me to shoot the breeze with the barista at the bar across the street from my apartment. I’m not sure how this became the yardstick I used to measure my progress, but it did. I never reached that level of effortless fluency I initially sought, but I did achieve fluency in stumbling my way through small talk over a steaming cappuccino, which proved rewarding in its own way.
I am also an impatient learner. I want the answer quickly. I hate convoluted word problems, which made studying for the LSAT akin to an elevated form of Chinese water torture. I frustrate easily when I try something new and don’t catch on quickly. I want to be good at whatever I do, and I’d prefer to not make mistakes.
This drive for perfection and fear of making mistakes made me a terribly anxious, yet highly motivated, student in culinary school. I was hungry for knowledge and eager to find mastery in my new chosen craft, which I loved dearly. By then I was in my late 20’s and should have known better than to assume that two years in culinary school would transform me into a chef with a refined palate.
I understood then that mastery does not come through willful self-determination. Mastery is a long game that favors the Tortoise for his slow, steady progression. It comes after years of toiling and coming up short, after countless iterations of failure and misfires. One must possess a genuine love and appreciation for the process to stay in the game. In that sense, true mastery is an anathema in a culture where we worship at the altar of Instant Gratification and Two-Day Shipping.
I knew this, but my ego and the fear of failure that dogged me kept me from relaxing enough to allow the process to unfold naturally. I studied my textbooks dutifully and neatly wrote out my recipes on 3-by-5 cards. I memorized the ratios for stocks and base sauces. I stayed after class and asked my instructor for help with a sauce that was giving me particular trouble. I chose the most difficult internship I could find, volunteered to deep clean the school’s kitchens in my off-time and practiced small dicing potatoes at home.
So you can imagine my horror and indignation when, two years later, I sat on the graduation stage with my peers feeling totally and utterly unprepared for what awaited me. The vast space of what I did not yet understand about cooking loomed in front of me. Insult compounded on injury when the academic coordinator announced that I had been awarded all three academic achievement and leadership awards. I literally could not have efforted any harder, and yet mastery felt just as far away as it did on my first day of class.
Working to attain a level of fluency in whatever it is you most long to master – be it knitting or parenting or bread baking or Excel or drawing or string theory — is a subtle process, and progress (I’m not even sure that’s the right word for it) can’t always be clearly tracked like the line items on a check list. Patience isn’t a virtue; it’s an essential piece of the puzzle.
I’m grateful that I developed a strong work ethic early on in life as it has helped me achieve tremendous and beautiful things. In the worlds of writing and professional cooking, it has proved essential. But I’ve had to learn the difference between having a strong work ethic and pushing myself beyond reason because deep down somewhere I harbor a sneaky suspicion that I’ll never be enough. I’ve used the excuse of having a “strong work ethic” to self flagellate and obsess over making everything happen now, now, now, prompting great suffering in my life. I’ve glorified the Hare for his speed and agility, as if Ia could out-run insecurity, fear and doubt. Now I’m getting much more curious about the Tortoise.
Halfway through my first culinary skills class, I suggested to my instructor that the school add another class to the curriculum: Introduction to Sauces. I knew sauce-making was a key skill that every good cook possessed, but I hardly understood it. During my first skills course, we made chicken stock every morning for the rest of the school, and I was frankly nonplussed by the whole affair. On its face, stock is not very exciting. You simmer a bunch of bones with some vegetables for a long time and get some murky liquid that reeks of meat. It turns out that bones, especially chicken backs and feet, veal shins, oxtails and the like, harbor vast reserves of flavor-packed collagen. Exposed to slow cooking in water for long periods of time, they generously exude flavor into the liquid, leaving you with what I can best describe as a highly fortified meaty tea (take note that stock can be made from pretty much any kitchen detritus, not just animal bones and carcasses, although bones from animals do possess the unique characteristic described above). This meaty tea serves as the base for all kinds of sauces.
Pan-sauces use stock to lift up the meaty bits that stick to the pan during searing and amalgamate into a luscious glaze through natural reduction that’s made even more luscious with a couple of cold pads of butter whisked in at the end (a process called mounting). Braises are made all the more substantial through the use of stock as the cooking medium. Chicken thighs braised in chicken stock comingle as the liquid gentle reduces and concentrates to create a convenient sauce with moist, fork-tender meat all in one pot. The definition of delicious convenience!
During culinary school, sauces were a great mystery to me. It seemed like they were the glue that held every dish together, and yet each recipe confounded me. How did a pan sauce work, and how was I to know to add diced cornichons and Dijon mustard to a pan-sauce for pork chops versus chopped shallots and rosemary to a steak sauce? How did a whole pot of boiling stock transform into one cup of rich, vicious demi-glace? Where did flavor come from?
I’m still tangoing with the last question, and I imagine I will for as long as I cook. In culinary school, I longed for a succinct explanation for how to create flavor. Turns out, much like truth or beauty, the mechanics of flavor cannot be distilled into neat bullet points that fit on a 3-by-5 card.
I wish I had had Susan Volland’s excellent book about modern sauce-making as a resource then. It takes much of the mystery out of sauce-making, and her essays are brilliant. Some of her more salient points include:
- Consider plain water as an empty vehicle through which almost anything is possible.
- Never stop practicing seasoning. It is a life-long skill upon which you can always improve.
- Sauces are personal. Nobody builds a ham sandwich in the exactly same way. Don’t be afraid to make yours “just the way you like it.”
I’ve mentally divided the world of sauces into two very broad categories: Cold and Hot. Cold sauces include, but are not limited to: yogurt sauces (think labneh and tzatziki), salsas, chutneys, romesco, pestos, vinaigrettes, chermoula, aiöli, relishes, pickly things like giardinera, gremolata, chimichurri, compound butters and infused oils.
Hot sauces include reduced stocks (think jus and demi-glace), hollandaise, beurre blanc, béchamel, brown butter, gravies, curries, barbecue, tomato and pan-sauces.
This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the myriad possibilities, but you get the idea.
I like to keep a couple of sauces in rotation in the fridge to simplify weeknight meal planning. A couple good sauces mean all I have to do is steam some rice, roast some vegetables, scramble a couple eggs or sear a piece of fish and dinner’s done.
Zhoug, a spicy Yemeni herb sauce, is one of my all-time favorites. In Jerusalem, Yotam Ottolenghi describes zhoug, which he calls the Israeli national chile paste, as a kind of Middle Eastern gremolata and encourages you to keep the texture coarse as if it were made in a mortar and pestle. You can do this by hand-chopping the herbs and chilis or by pulsing them in the food processor. Or just say to hell with it and blend everything in the VitaMix.
Trader Joe’s make a pretty good version of zhoug if you’re allergic to cleaning your blender or the food processor. It should be burn-your-mouth hot, so if your chilis aren’t particularly pungent, consider upping the ante. And if you don’t like cilantro, I feel so sorry for you.
- 1 bunch Italian flat-leaf parsley, including stems
- 1 bunch cilantro, including stems
- 2 small green chilis, rough chop (I used 1 large serrano)
- 2 t toasted cumin seeds, ground in mortar and pestle
- ½ t ground cardamom
- ½ t ground clove
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 t kosher salt
- Pinch of sugar
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2-3 T water
Place all the ingredients in a food processor or blender minus the water. Pulse or blend until a coarse paste forms. Add as much water as you need in order to attain a coarse paste consistency.