Thinking Categorically About Food

People often ask me where my culinary creativity comes from.  This post addresses at least one major source which I call “categorical thinking.”  Saueressen is not just an artisan cooperative delivering farm-fresh fermented foods to the community, but also an educational institution teaching live-culture life skills, empowering people toward greater freedom, nutrition and culinary capacities in their lives!  This and other posts will serve as foundations for community-based workshop curricula, part of Saueressen’s work to reskill the local foodshed.

Contents

  1. The Foundations of a Pantry Chef
  2. Examples, aka Ethan’s non-specific relationship with food
  3. Making it happen: abundance, scarcity and fear

The Foundations of a Pantry Chef

A huge part of working with food effectively involves what I call “categorical thinking.”  That is, thinking about the different elements of the kitchen process and how they contribute to the overall dish.  In the specific case of ingredients, something might add saltiness, or moisture, or fat, or sweetness, or sourness, or umami, or chewiness, or creaminess, or bulk, it may act as a binder or thickener, aromatic, savory, any or all the above and more.

Thinking categorically about food allows us to improvise and empowers us to explore new combinations and hone in on core ingredients to keep stocked in our pantries.  This largely distinguishes a good pantry chef from someone who feels dependent on specific recipes and tools.   Don’t have that one ingredient?  Rush to the store!  Don’t have that one kitchen item?   Better go buy it!  Pull together your weekly shopping list based on your recipe plan.  Recipes, lists, cell-phone apps, endless specialized tools, oh my!  How did people get by without these things?  Pantry chefing saves time and money while leading to amazing discoveries.  Pantry chefing generally allows us to throw together fantastic meals from ingredients on-hand, and it affords us flexibility to substitute and experiment piecemeal and bit by bit with new ingredients even as we maintain a solid foundation.

Pantry chefing means knowing the true value of what we have.  For example, that lemon balm growing like a weed outside your building isn’t just for shits and giggles — it makes a fantastic culinary herb.  The first time I made zaatar, I didn’t have sumac on-hand, so I went to the store.  I couldn’t find it at any store, after trying several.  I did, however, remember that it imparted a lemony-sour flavor to the dish.  So I minced some lemon balm and macerated it in vinegar and added that into the zaatar.  It turned out fantastic.  Not exactly the same as zaatar with sumac, but still really good in its own right.  Lemon balm also makes a great pesto.  In fact, “pesto” just means “ground into a paste.”  You can make a pesto out of pretty much any tender, leafy aromatic herb.  Not just basil. Carrot fronds, parsley, cilantro, mint, oregano, sage, etc.

Everyone knows you serve fish with a slice of lemon or lemon juice, right?  Don’t have lemon on hand?  Try another citrus fruit.  Don’t have any citrus on hand?  Well, try pan-frying fish covered in a garlic-lemon balm paste (use a fat like butter, lard or coconut oil to smear the paste onto the fish) and vinegar (either in a marinade or as a condiment).  Or, maybe you have sumac on-hand.  Congrats — by substituting things out for the “citrus” and “sour” categories, your cooking just got a whole lot more creative!

Don’t have honey?  Mollasses, maple syrup, fruit syrup, sugary fruit preserves all do the trick, and vice-versa, while adding their unique footprint to the finished recipe.

Making mayonnaise?  It requires egg yolk, right?  Well, mayo is really just emulsified oil with added salt, sweet and acid components, sometimes a fancy “aioli” with aromatics like herbs or garlic.  What else works as an emulsifier?  Try substituting avocado for the egg yolk.  You might understand this instinctively, knowing that avocado makes great smoothies or can make a fantastic egg-free banana bread.  With categorical thinking, you just landed smack dab in the middle of a delicious bowl of vegan mayo — without any of those weird ingredients you find in the commodity “veganaise” you might buy at the store!

In no way do I disparage recipes or recipe-based weekly grocery lists.  I think they are great starting points for reskilling ourselves in the art of food prep.  But I encourage everyone to move beyond that limitation and develop their own culinary repertoire, vision and style.  One major way we do that is through categorical thinking.

Taste, smell, texture, size.  What ingredients cook quickly, burning easily or turning to mush?  What ingredients take a while?  What “residual flavors” do you want to impart?  Maybe you should cook those things first, unless their flavor burns off quickly.  Then add them last or even save them as a fresh ingredient or garnish.

One of the trade-offs is specificity.  Most people who make recipes don’t really seem to know what they are doing.  But there are many recipes out there that call for specific ingredients and processes, and for good reason.  While thinking categorically in many ways lowers the bar and makes recipes easier, it also means we need to broaden our expectations about the results, because it will most often result in different tastes and textures in the end product.  It’s also possible to acheive results very close to the original recipe, but I think mimicry should take a back seat to discovery as the goal.  Different does not mean “better” or “worse.”  Our goal to produce a satisfying, delicious, pleasing result always remains, even though the result might be slightly different than that one recipe you found on that one website or in that one book.  Or maybe you have a recipe handed down to you through generations of family folklore.  You can decide whether you commit an act of tribute or sacrilege through creative categorical modification.

On a similar note, sometimes a specialized tool really does the job better, more quickly, more safely.  On the other hand, it takes a chunk of change from your wallet and will just add to the already-formidable kitchen clutter (don’t try to tell me you don’t have kitchen clutter without explaining exactly how you’ve managed to work your way around that landmine).  For the longest time, I didn’t have a double-boiler.  But I have pots and bowls. So I just nested a small glass bowl neatly inside a pot of slightly larger diameter filled with water and made sure the bottom of the bowl didn’t touch the bottom of the pot.  It worked well enough.  But the second-hand dedicated double boiler bowl I have now gives me greater capacity and it allows me to use the pot lid.  And at the end of the day it’s also, you know…a bowl.

I do the vast majority of all my food prep with a chef’s knife and a paring knife.  I love learning new knife techniques.  However, if you make a lot of julienned vegetables — consider them a staple in your weekly household fare, rather than a phase — then it might be worth getting that one device that makes julienning a little easier, faster and safer for us mere mortals.

Here’s some more examples of categories I think about, to get you started…consider this a window into my mind, how I think about “specific dishes”

Examples, aka Ethan’s non-specific relationship with food

Tabbouleh:  minced aromatic salad, usually with a salt and acid component, diced fruit (dried or fresh) and a minced carbohydrate (for paleo, i use apple or carrot or dried fruit; for gluten-free, try quinoa instead of bulgar wheat) and lots of olive or avocado or walnut oil to give it a moist mouth feel.  The last tabbouleh I made was from carrot fronds with lots of supplemental aromatic herbs, including mint, oregano, sage and lemon balm.  It’s a great way to dispose of a wealth of herbs.  Tabbouleh also makes a great summer dish because it doesn’t require heating up the house — another food category.  During the hottest days, I tend to focus more on light salads, coleslaws with sides of cold meats (like salami or smoked salmon or chicken).

Sausage:  minced or ground salted aromatic fatty meats
As long as the meat is minced or finely chopped, it’s fatty enough, and salty enough, it starts tasting a lot like sausage.  Beyond that, no matter what other ingredients I add, it always turns out great sausage.  I just made some ground beef sausage with finely minced fennel fronds, basil and mint blossoms (stuff from my garden), garlic, onion and wine vinegar.  The meat wasn’t fatty enough, so I minced some frozen bacon fat and added it in to the mix.  Turned out fantastic.  Consequently, this is how I started adding organ meats and other nutrient dense offal back into my diet.  Texture and taste are acquired, and I can say I have not, in the course of my life, acquired a fondness for the texture and taste of liver.  However, when I chop it and mix it with aromatic herbs and spices and salt it, I love the texture and taste.  I can still tell it’s liver, but now it’s…surprisingly good, and even more nutrient dense than plain liver (is that even possible?).  Try one teaspoon of salt per pound of meat, and go heavy on the aromatics.

Kraut:  brined and fermented brassicas, undrained, plain or with other ingredients.

Chi:  brined and fermented brassicas, drained and flavored with an aromatic paste or pesto.

Sauerchi:  The best of both worlds.

Fries:  stripped or julienned starchy vegetables, fried and salted.  Use medium-high heat (depending on the veggie) so they are a bit crispy and brown on the outside and tender on the inside.  I can’t eat potatoes, but I make fries with sweet potatoes, sunchokes, carrots and other roots and tubers, even squash strips or kholrabi.

Saag:  spiced leafy green vegetables stewed in fat and broth until tender and mellow.  I make it with bumper crops of spinach, wild spinach (pigweed/amaranth greens), and chard, mostly, but you can use pretty much any leafy green, even kale or collards (although it will take longer to cook and have a different texture).  You can get rid of a LOT of greens in a single pot of saag.  I use the tender stems, but chop them like celery and onions and add them in at the beginning with the rest of the soup base so they have extra time to heat and reduce and tenderize with the rest of the base ingredients.  Otherwise, they might ruin the smooth and creamy texture.  The spices are up to you. Sometimes I do something more mediterranean, but often I use combos of ginger and cinnamon and clove.  Meat optional, but I always cook the veggies in the base very well before adding the greens, deglazing several times to reduce and dissolve them (for texture) and caramelize their sugars, bringing natural sweetness and depth to the dish.  If I have it on-hand, I’ll add bone broth or extra fat (coconut or dairy cream, butter, coconut oil, lard, etc) to enhance creaminess.

Frittata:  a beaten egg mixture poured and cooked over stir-fried vegetables — a savory egg pie.  Prepped on stovetop w/a lid on the pan or finished in the oven to crisp the top.  A quiche is just a frittata with a crust around it.  Michelle Tam of Nom Nom Paleo got rid of the carbs but kept the crust with her Prosciutto-wrapped mini frittata muffins (is it a muffin?  is it a frittata?  is it a quiche?  Yes!), in a great example of creative categorical culinary thought.

Soft tea:  a home-brewed soft drink made from tea, sweetened and fermented to add some sourness and carbonation.  Examples of soft tea include kombucha, which tends to be pretty acidic, bordering on unfinished vinegar (not my cup of tea), and ginger beer (which requires steeping the ginger in boiling or hot water for a while to extract the gingery goodness).  I like my soft teas with a subtle sourness that sets them apart from kombucha, very little sweetness (because the sour isn’t overwhelming and my body doesn’t do well with lots sugar and I the flavor of the tea itself to come through the sourness and the sweetness) and moderate carbonation.

Revisit what you know about “soups” and “stews” and “pies” and baked and stovetop dishes, marinades and sauces and others.  Categorical thinking tends to focus on prep techniques and processes just as much as ingredients.  Much of the results reside in the process.  For example, sometimes taste comes from process rather than ingredients. The first time I brought my ginger beer to a party, someone said, “mmm, it tastes like it has lemon in it!” I said, “it doesn’t.”  It has three ingredients:  water, honey and ginger. “How did you get it to taste lemony?” she asked.  “I sweeten and ferment it until it sours mildly with lactic and acetic acid, then I resweeten it slightly and bottle it to carbonate.  That way it stays low-alcohol.”  <long pause>  “…So, you’re saying it doesn’t have any lemon in it…?”

Categorical thinking cuts both ways, like a double-edged sword.  You can get all the ingredients right, but still screw up the process.  Or, thinking about it differently, you can create a completely different dish using the same ingredients with a different process.  Don’t want frittata?  Have an omelette instead!  Or some stir-fried veggies and a side of eggs over-easy.  Same ingredients.

Consider the techniques, texture (e.g,. fibrous, crisp, mushy), cutting/chopping pattern, tastes, smells, nutrition, tools (how are you going to get the skin off that raw winter squash?), functional roles (is that going to work as a binder?), etc.

I often substitute leeks (aka “bunching onions”) for both onion bulbs (cooked) and green onions (raw) in many dishes, because I have them on-hand (they grow prolifically in my garden with little or no help for me, stocking me with onions for months out of the year).  I sometimes also think of “alliums” as a culinary category, much like “citrus” or “parsley” (carrot greens, celery greens, etc).  Don’t have onion?  I can still add garlic or chives.  Different, but still pungent-sweet-good.

Want to do barbeque chicken, but don’t have either a grill or a barbeque sauce?  Well, barbeque sauce combines a sweetened fruit base with alliums (onions — oftened caramelized — and/or garlic), acid (such as vinegar or lemon juice) and salt.  The last barbeque sauce I made was from blueberries.  It’s a very strongly-flavored condiment that adds to and enhances the flavor of the entire dish, so don’t be afraid to go heavy on the acid, salt and sweet.  The grill adds a smokey flavor, but you can still easily achieve the browning by searing the salted chicken at high heat before slathering in sauce and baking or braising.  I can’t have tomatoes, but I also love making barbeque sauce and sloppy joe’s using applesauce or apple-based ketchups as a substitute.  Delicious!

Making it happen:  Abundance, Scarcity and Fear

In the end, the categories you use reflect your individual focus and priorities, including your skills, tools, preferences, challenges, etc.  Some people just cannot bring themselves to make tabbouleh without parsley.  Others cannot bear to think of orange as a substitute for lemon.  All of which brings up another wonderful point:  categorical thinking helps people explore and develop their individual culinary voice and vocabulary.  It leads to culinary diversity, which I find wonderful because when you and I talk shop, we’ll offer one-another unique perspectives on food prep.  Our dialog creates even more ideas and possibilities to explore.  So, you don’t like orange juice with fish because it’s too sweet and not sour enough?  Yup.  What if we add some apple cider or wine vinegar to it?  No, it’s not lemon juice but…hmmm…mmmm…interesting.  Ya know, I’d like to braise a chicken in this!  Oh, wow.

Thinking categorically starts when you flip the switch from the train of thought that asks, “what ingredients or skills or tools don’t I have?” to “what ingredients and skills and tools do I have to meet the spirit of the need at hand?”  This describes the difference between scarcity-based and abundance-based thought.  Scarcity thinking confines us in a cacoon of fear, limits and controls us.  In contrast, abundance thinking frees us to relate and experiment and experience and grow and share.  Another positive consequence of abundance-based thinking is that it implies and facilitates greater gratitude, graciousness and appreciation for life, which also helps enhance our mood and make us happier and healthier.  When I make mistakes, I now look for the lessons and growth opportunities.  Not only do I become better, stronger, etc as a result — but it also lowers my stress level a lot.  More specifically, thinking in terms of abundance about categories of food, ingredients, processes, techniques and tools provides us endless possibilities to explore.  Which of the literally infinite possible things can you do with an onion?  I know a few…and I aim to learn more all the time.

Some might think, “Ok, that’s all well and good, but where do I start?”  You start wherever you are at, with whatever you know and whatever you have.   You learn to trust yourself and your senses and your vision and imagination — the more you use them, the greater they grow in strength and sensitivity and usefulness.  I started over a decade ago with nothing but a cheap chef’s knife (that I still have and love) and the knowledge that I liked making quesadillas.  My quesadillas steadily evolved from cheese in a folded tortilla, fried.  Then I added some veggies and salsa.  Then I caramelized some onions.  Oooh.  After a year or so, my quesadillas started looking more like fried tacos, stuffed full of delicious veggies and meats and sauces, but they still had that cheese and crispy fried tortilla.  This is called embellishment, an important component of categorical thought.  Try it with grilled cheese, or pasta, or any other simple dish you know.  Then, when things get complicated, revisit the basics.  After years of making soups, I recently discovered a new favorite (and nutritious) comfort food:  rich bone broth, slightly salted, with fresh thyme and coconut milk.

You develop culinary skills by practicing and picking up hints and tips here and there and making mistakes and learning from them.  It took me ten years until I observed and learned how to hold a chef’s knife…and as long to learn how to keep it sharp and file down the spine so that it doesn’t bite into my hand.  I don’t regret those intervening years at all — far from time wasted, they remain filled with amazing adventures and discoveries along the way.  I learned many easy and difficult lessons.  Most recently, when I almost severed my pinky finger from my hand, I learned the importance of always a. staying attentive and present to the task at hand, b. clearing and maintaining a clean and uncluttered workspace for food prep, and c. letting the knife fall, if it falls, rather than trying to catch it.  I feel incredibly grateful for those lessons — they have made me a better person and contribute in many other indirect and unseen ways to my life.  Similarly, by adding too much oil or salt to a dish, I learned how to identify “enough.”

I tell people that “I eat my mistakes,” as a way to both literally and figuratively ingest them and pick them apart so I know what to do better or differently next time and really let the lessons sink in.  By relishing learning opportunity, I don’t allow my fear of mistakes to paralyze me so much anymore.  Yes, I still fear mistakes.  When I release myself from fear of making mistakes, even my mistakes become gifts.  Sometimes, they represent the greatest gifts, as some of my biggest mistakes have also led to some of my biggest successes and points of growth.  That to me represents the immense power of abundance-based thought.

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