I learnt to cook from my grandmother, watching her stirring patiently a pot of ragù, or foraging herbs in the fields to make a salad, or an omelette. I learnt to cook because I was hungry for delicious, diverse food: my mum had a basic approach to cooking, which did not include “strange” ingredients such as butternut squash or thyme. She taught me all the recipes that nurture a family, though.
I learnt to cook through practice, cooking from cookbooks, from recipes picked up at the market, eavesdropping conversations at the butcher. I learnt the hows, but I did not know the whys.
Two years ago, I bought Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by Samin Nosrat, and my style of cooking became immediately more confident. It is also a great resource to learn a lot about Italian cuisine and our use of fat – think about extra virgin olive oil – and salt – think about Parmigiano and anchovies.
It is hard to describe in a nutshell who Samin is: she comes from a family where food has always played a fundamental role, she learnt the cooking techniques in the kitchen of Alice Water’s Chez Panisse, then she landed in Italy at Benedetta Vitali’s trattoria in Florence and at Dario Cecchini’s butcher shop and restaurant in Panzano in Chianti.
She studied journalism and food writing with Micheal Pollan.
She is a cook, a teacher, a writer for the New York Times. She published her first book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, an informative, amusing, illuminating cooking manual, which then became a Netflix show.
Her idea is that we can cook consistently well if we learn to master these four cornerstones: salt, fat, acid and heat.
In her book, Samin is constantly shaking my beliefs. I learnt to cook thanks to my grandma’s example and through lots practice, with this book I’m finally finding a sense in everything I do and going beyond my limits. I’m finally learning the whys.
I made her spaghetti alle vongole using three very unusual ingredients to me: onions, butter and Parmigiano. The old Italian saying ’never put cheese on seafood pasta’ was completely turned upside-down. Yet she says she learnt this trick in a trattoria in the Chianti area, so very close to home.
In my pasta alle vongole I would use extra virgin olive oil, garlic, white wine and vongole, clams. Well, I made her pasta for my dad’s birthday and the feedback was unanimous: outstanding. The ingredients were so perfectly balanced that you did not feel the Parmigiano as an intruder, but like the one thing that added an extra level of savouriness and acidity, that closed the circle of a perfect dish.
I made also her chocolate midnight cake, the first recipe I bookmarked in her book as I love baking with (olive) oil instead of butter. Another success, another recipe that pushed me to do things which were apparently weird at the beginning: all that salt! all that steaming coffee! The cake was moist, with an intense chocolate flavour, with a toasted, acidic note from the coffee and good cocoa powder. Salt, sweet, acid and fat perfectly balanced, once again.
This is why I love her book, this is why I love doing homework to put in practice what I’m learning, page after page.
When I started reading her book, I wanted to go through some of my staple recipes with the different perspective given by her tips, and see if I could improve them, to produce consistently good food. It is a never-ending process, and this is why I like it.
Samin, being a good teacher, pushes you to improve your skills. You never stop learning.
These are some quotes Samin’s book about salt, fat, acid and heat.
The primary role that salt plays in cooking is to amplify flavour. Though salt also affects texture and helps modify other flavours, nearly every decision you’ll make about salt will involve enhancing and deepening flavour. Does this mean you should simply use more salt? No. It means use salt better. Add it in the right amount, at the right time, in the right form.
As I travelled throughout Italy, I saw how fat determines the particular flavours of regional cooking. In the North, where pastures and the dairy cattle they sustain are abundant, cooks use butter, cream and rich cheeses readily in dishes such as polenta, tagliatelle alla Bolognese, and risotto. In the South and on the coasts, where olive trees flourish, olive oil is used in everything from seafood dishes to pastas and even desserts such as olive oil gelato. Because pigs can be raised in just about any climate, though, one thing unites the diverse regional Italian cuisines: pork fat.
The true value of acid is not its pucker, but rather, balance. Acid grants the palate relief, and makes food more appealing by offering contrast. Acid is salt’s alter ego. While salt enhances flavours, acid balances them.
As I travelled, I noticed that in every country, whether I was watching home cooks or professional chefs, and whether they were cooking over live fire or on a camp stove, the best cooks looked at the food, not the heat source.
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