This is a very simple thing–chopping vegetables and cooking them in butter or olive oil before adding them to your dish–but it makes a HUGE difference in the outcome of your meal. A few minutes investment transforms an okay dish into an outstanding dinner.
The idea comes from Michael Pollan’s book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. I’m fortunate enough to own a signed copy of it, and if you eat food, you should read it. I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan, and though I haven’t read all of his books, I’ve really enjoyed the ones I have. He explains why adding certain combinations of vegetables to dishes enhance the flavor in the second part of the book, called Water.
Simply chop onion, celery, garlic and a carrot as finely as possible, cook in butter or olive oil until they’re soft, and then cook the meat or protein in the same pan. Begin with celery–and I know what you’re thinking–that celery is tasteless, and how on earth can it add much flavor to anything? But you must not leave out the celery–it’s essential, trust me. Actually, don’t trust me–trust Mr. Pollan:
“…a group of volatile compounds found in celery called phthalides, though completely tasteless by themselves, nevertheless enhanced the perception of both sweetness and umami when they were added to a chicken broth. Way to go, celery.”
So let’s start with chopping–here’s how I chop:
I hold the tip of the knife stationary with my left hand–it doesn’t come up off the cutting board during the whole process. My right hand holds the handle of the knife and I chop the vegetable from one end to the other, stopping to scrape the food into a small pile when it gets too spread out.
I start with celery, and chop it first, while the butter or olive oil warms in the pan over low heat.
As soon as the celery is chopped, it goes into the pan, and I cover it with a lid, and start chopping the onion. Once the onion is in the pan, I start chopping garlic. Smash the garlic by placing the clove under the blade of the knife and press down:
This makes the garlic much easier to peel. Once those three are in the pan, it’s time to chop the carrot. I cut carrots in half lengthwise, and put the flat side down on the cutting board, so they’re more stationary and easier to chop.
I cook the garlic/celery/onion/carrot mixture until it’s soft, about 15 minutes or so, while I’m working on another part of the meal. If you have extra time, Pollan talks about how the taste improves the longer and slower you cook everything down, but in a regular weekday night, I don’t always have extra time, and I’m sure you don’t either.
The veggies will be soft, so if you have any kiddos that are texture eaters, and don’t like crunchy vegetables in meat dishes, it shouldn’t be a problem. (We’re the only weirdos like that? All right then, moving on….)
I’ve added the mixture to pots of beans, ground meat, and to roasts in the crockpot.
Try this with a recipe you regularly eat–the difference will be night and day. Onion and garlic powder just can’t hold a candle to the real deal, and all four of these vegetables are usually inexpensive.
Share your own cooking tips in the comments, or leave me ideas for future Cooking Basics 101 posts!