Monday, February 18, 2008

The Simple Joys of Mirepoix

I'm teaching my husband how to cook. He helps me with my mise en place on big recipes, stirs and flips, and keeps an eye on slow braises and stews. It's a great thing to have an extra set of hands in the kitchen.

In teaching him, I've tried to follow the guidelines I learned in cooking school so long ago. We've started with knife skills and are moving on to stocks and soups. He's a slow prep cook and I give him a hard time about it. I don't know if it's just that I'm quick or if he truly is as slow as the culinary sloth I think he is.

I haven't really been strict about teaching the fundamental cuts for vegetables (brunoise, baton, small, medium, and large dice). It's now become a priority. If I don't specify right up front the exact size I want the vegetables, they are likely to become very small dice. He really likes to cut things small, he thinks it takes more skill and he's anxious to please. But most of the time these little bits are too small. I can sometimes turn them into a good thing, pureeing them into a sauce as a final step. But, most of the time, they turn to mush before the dish has finished cooking.

One of Bruce's most favorite lessons in cooking has been the basic mirepoix (onion, carrots and celery). The novice cook may not appreciate these three basic ingredients. But the knowledgeable chef knows the value of this first step in most any classic dish. Mirepoix is the first set of ingredients for almost all stocks, soups, stews, braises, and roasts in French cooking. Whether vegetarian or meat filled, all dishes are enhanced by starting with these three vegetables cooked slowly (sweated) in a little olive oil or butter. These simple ingredients become magically fragrant and add an amazing richness to home cooked foods. They fill the kitchen and the house with the warm savory fragrance of ... home, of food lovingly prepared, of something good, simmering slowly.

We love garlic and often add a few cloves in after the vegetables has been sweating over a nice low heat to add a distinct piquant richness that only garlic can. There are a few different varieties of mirepoix with other such additions or subtractions. Here are a few I find useful:

Cajun or Southern Mirepoix: Onions, Celery and Green Peppers

Southwest or Mexican Mirepoix: White Onion, Garlic, Chile Peppers

Indian Basic Aromatics: Onion, Chiles, Garlic, Ginger cooked in Ghee (clarified butter)

Italian: add a few cloves of garlic; use olive oil instead of butter or a combination of both

White Mirepoix: Onions, Celery and Parsnips (leeks and mushrooms often added)

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