EL­E­MENTS OF THE TA­BLE

In her pur­suit of flavour, cook and writer Samin Nos­rat has dis­tilled the art of great cook­ing into its essence, writes DAVID MATTHEWS.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents -

Cook and writer Samin Nos­rat has dis­tilled the art of great cook­ing into its essence, writes David Matthews.

Ev­ery once in a while a book ap­pears that be­comes an in­dis­pens­able kitchen com­pan­ion for cooks the world over. With Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mas­ter­ing

the El­e­ments of Good Cook­ing, Samin

Nos­rat may have just writ­ten the lat­est.

By dis­till­ing nearly 20 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in cook­ing, tast­ing and teach­ing into four sim­ple prin­ci­ples, she has pro­duced a vol­ume that not only im­plores you to have faith in your own senses, but im­proves them, hon­ing the skills that are ap­pli­ca­ble to cook­ing well. It’s a ri­poste to so many recipe-driven cook­books that might look pretty and show you how to make a cou­ple of things, but don’t ac­tu­ally make you a bet­ter cook.

“We all al­ready know what tastes good,” Nos­rat says. “So if you can take a step back and say ‘oh, this doesn’t taste good – how do I make it taste good?’ That’s the ques­tion you’re try­ing to an­swer.” For her, that usu­ally means ask­ing whether a dish has enough salt, enough fat, enough acid, and whether she added them at the right time. An­swer these, she says, and it’s ba­si­cally all you need to get to de­li­cious food most of the time. “Those ques­tions can be an­swered by trust­ing your senses, by lis­ten­ing and look­ing and touch­ing and tast­ing, and also by us­ing your com­mon sense.”

Sense and the senses in­form Nos­rat more than any­thing, ref lect­ing the school­ing of a wide-eyed kid who swooned over the food at Chez Panisse in Berke­ley, begged Alice Wa­ters for a job, and went from vac­u­um­ing the din­ing room to work­ing in the kitchen. It was there she learned to cook and to taste, to fry an­chovies and fold ravi­oli, to heat oil to just the right tem­per­a­ture, and ex­per­i­ment with mak­ing moz­zarella

from scratch. She even had the chance to un­der­take a “grand cook­ing ex­change” in Cuba with then-col­league Danielle Al­varez, now chef at Fred’s in Syd­ney.

It’s largely down to Nos­rat’s years at Chez Panisse that her book fo­cuses on f lavour first, but Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat doesn’t just tell you that salt makes things taste good. It tells you when to add salt, how much to add, and how to add it, right down to il­lus­tra­tions of the wrist flick. It’s not about but­ter mak­ing things bet­ter; it’s about when to use cold, soft or melted but­ter, and, more im­por­tantly, why. It de­tails how salt pen­e­trates meat and veg­eta­bles, how but­ter of the right soft­ness read­ily coats flour to give cakes or bis­cuits un­ri­valled crum­ble.

“I was al­ways frus­trated by the fact that a book of recipes could pur­port to teach you how to cook,” she says.

“My goal wasn’t to say ‘these are my favourite things to cook’; my goal was to say ‘this is how to cook, this is how to make your food bet­ter, this is how to read a recipe and un­der­stand that it’s not the be-all and end-all.’”

Nos­rat’s recipes, then, be they for but­ter­milk-mar­i­nated roast chicken or ap­ple and frangi­pane tart, are demon­stra­tive rather than pre­scrip­tive, and con­fined to the back half of the book.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat also doesn’t look like other cook­books. In­stead of us­ing a pho­tog­ra­pher, Nos­rat worked with il­lus­tra­tor Wendy MacNaughton on play­ful flow-charts, graphs and step-bystep draw­ings that are as in­for­ma­tive as they are en­gag­ing. They punc­tu­ate and com­ple­ment the text – one page might fold out into a vi­brant colour wheel of the flavours of the world, the next might take you through an il­lus­trated step-by-step for Cae­sar salad with may­on­naise that seems to drip off the page. One par­tic­u­lar high­light is a pie chart al­lo­cat­ing im­por­tance to each of the senses; com­mon sense takes up half the pie.

“I come from a school of cook­ing where we make re­ally sim­ple food – we boil broc­coli and pour good olive oil over it,” Nos­rat says. “But it’s not just broc­coli and olive oil; it’s that I put the right amount of salt in the wa­ter, that I used re­ally nice oil, that I didn’t over­cook it – so there’s a lit­tle bit more. But if you can un­der­stand those things, and how to make those choices, you’re able to do a bet­ter job. It doesn’t have to be com­pli­cated.”

Sources of fat sep­a­rated into pure fats and fatty in­gre­di­ents.

The flow charts, graphs and step-by-step draw­ings that ac­com­pany the text are at once in­for­ma­tive and en­gag­ing.

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