Cooking Styles: Simplicity

In this post I'm looking to set up the groundwork for (yet another) series of articles. With this series I want to focus on what makes a certain cooking style unique. I'll be focusing mainly on nationalities and ethnicities in this series, as each one has it's own tricks and techniques. On this maiden voyage of new topic, however, I want to compare and contrast three popular, yet different cooking styles that share a common undercurrent. Those would be Italian, Mexican, and Japanese. Have I lost you? Yes, they absolutely share a common thread, and that would be utilizing the best ingredients available with the least amount of tampering. Let me elaborate...
Italian Caprese salad, tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, balsamic, and olive oil.

Italian Caprese salad, tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, balsamic, and olive oil.

If you have a perfect tomato, or tomatillo, or tuna, the last thing you wanna do is over complicate the dish you wish to use it in! Let that perfect ingredient shine on it's own! The biggest mistake I've seen in my near 20 years as a chef is making a dish so complex that the "soul" of the star ingredient is restrained, over shadowed, muted, or nearly obliterated by too much medeling on the cooks part. Let me give you examples using the items I've already mentioned. Perfect tomato = caprese, imperfect tomato = into the sauce pot. Perfect tomatillo = salsa verde, imperfect = soup anyone? Perfect tuna = sashimi, imperfect = casserole (or some other atrocity upon which I dare not speculate...). Simplicity, more often than not, will yield the best results when dealing with something at the height of it's season. Which is another thing these food cultures have in common, a highly developed sense of seasonality, when an ingredient is at it's absolute peak. Every meal revolves around this concept, especially in Japan. Mexico not as much since their climate is tropical and sub-tropical they can grow pretty much whatever, whenever. Ever wonder how we get melons and berries in the winter and spring? Look at the label, their most likely from Mexico.
Mexican classic pico de gallo.

Mexican classic pico de gallo.

Every festival in Japan (and there are a ton of them throughout the year) is accented by the food selections, which are almost universally seasonal in nature. The traditional home meals follow this as well. Though, with the younger generation in Japan becoming more and more Westernized this is on the decline somewhat. Add modern shipping and flash-frozen items to the equation and for a modern nation nothing ever has to be "off the menu". The traditional foods served at these festivals remains seasonal and local, however, and Japan is still very big on tradition.
Taglietele Bolognese.

Tagliatelle Bolognese.

Italy, as well, has a strong sense of seasonality and locality. Most Italian dishes can be traced directly to a region, or even a city. A good example of this is a favorite pasta sauce, Bolognese, originating in Bologna. Southern Italy where it's warmer gave us the tomato based sauces, while northern Italy where the majority of dairy farms are gave us the cream based sauces. Fish dishes from the coast, cheeses from the mountainous north ect... A growing number of the top restaurants in the U.S. have adopted this mantra of seasonally changing menus and buying everything locally to ensure as little time spent in a warehouse or in transit as possible. Some chefs even go out themselves and meet with the farmers and ranchers to develop a personal relationship with them to ensure the best possible quality. No where is the concept of simplicity more apparent than Japanese sashimi. Top quality fish sliced thin and served raw. But then there's also Italian carpaccio, seasoned and briefly seared beef (most often tenderloin) sliced paper thin and served cold and very rare. Or consider the South American delicacy ceviche. Raw fish and/or shellfish marinated in citrus juice and various other herbs and peppers, at the chefs discretion, served cold, usually with corn chips or just a fork! Or the Mexican favorite pico de gallo. A variety of raw vegetables, usually containing tomatoes, onions and always chilis of some sort, tossed in cilantro and lime juice or cider vinegar.
Assorted sashimi tray.

Assorted sashimi tray.

Point being, these three completely disparate cultures came upon the same conclusions (for the most part) regarding food. Under any circumstances, do NOT fuck with perfection! Instead, find a simple way to showcase it. Let it be the star of the "performance". You'll eat much better for it... Jack

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