It’s not a big secret that I love to cook. Give me an entire day in the kitchen and not only will I prepare something delicious to share, but I’ll enjoy every minute of it.
Inevitably, a guest will ask me for a recipe, and I’m happy to part with it. Unfortunately, I will often hear back from that same guest, “I followed your recipe, but it just wasn’t as good as when you made it.”
Perhaps you have experienced something similar, trying to replicate a great recipe and not finding success. There are a number of reasons behind this phenomenon.
Number one, let’s not underestimate how much better a dish can taste simply because someone else prepared it. Great food, prepared especially for us, is a gift. Secondly, equipment does make a difference.
Some recipes really do call for specialized, or even commercial-grade, equipment. However, most recipes can be produced in a kitchen stocked with a small inventory of well-made equipment. A sharp knife and a cast-iron skillet suffice for a feast of recipes.
The most likely reason for different results from the same recipe is the quality of ingredients. This is the single, fundamental commentary that I have heard from more chefs than any other.
Good raw materials are the culinary pole star: procure fresh, quality ingredients and treat them with respect. Simple recipes, with fresh ingredients. Our modern food system is a miracle of processing, distribution and marketing. It relies on science, technology, logistics and the hard work of farmers, laborers, truckers and packers.
But for simple freshness and guaranteed quality, the supermarket model of distribution can’t compare to a good farmers market. Large farms, selling through distributors and long-distance shippers, can’t mature their produce as optimally as a farmer selling at a farmers market 50 miles away.
Seeking economy of scale, a large farm will tend to harvest a large swath of acreage at the same time, even if the harvested crop is not evenly mature. Farms selling to distributors that ship long distance will often harvest prior to full ripeness, to avoid produce rotting in transit or in a warehouse.
A grower selling at a farmers market can wait for peak ripeness to harvest because the time to market is so short. Small farms have to focus on quality, not quantity; that’s their competitive edge. Customers reward them by paying more for flavor. If you want to cook like a pro, procure your ingredients like a pro.
Get the freshest ingredients you can, directly from the farmer whenever you can. If you do this, you are well on your way to cooking great dishes. If you shop the Napa Farmers Market, use a sharp knife and a cast-iron skillet, follow time-honored, simple recipes and still don’t get good results, I don’t know what to tell you. Try to get invited to a friend’s house for dinner, I guess. But even then, I’d recommend stopping at the Napa Farmers Market to pick up a few goodies for your host. At the least, it will help get you invited back.
Grilled Romaine with Parmesan Peppercorn Dressing
This super-simple dressing was a crowd-pleaser for decades at my old haunt, the Pizza Man Restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can give it more of a California edge by getting some cheese from the Napa Farmers Market and grating it yourself, as well as by making your own mayonnaise. If you can’t find romaine, you can use this dressing on whatever lettuces you find at the market, maybe adding some grated carrots and red cabbage.
Parmesan Peppercorn Dressing:
You have free articles remaining.
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 clove of garlic (or to taste), finely minced
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Romaine lettuce, 1 head for every 2 to 4 people
Make the dressing: In a bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, buttermilk, cheese and garlic. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Prepare a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill. Trim the extra soft outer leaves from lettuce.
Halve or quarter the romaine lengthwise. Lay the pieces on a tray cut side up. Dowse them in dressing, soaking the cut side. Grill the romaine until it is well marked by the grill and has softened. Serve immediately.
Serves 2 to 4.
Kids activities at the Napa Farmers Market: Bring your youngsters to the market’s Education Station on Tuesday and Saturdays for Story Time at 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
There might be coloring, matching games or other fun activities, too.
On the KVYN Music Stage: On Saturday, Aug. 3, Darleen Gardner will be performing. On Tuesday, Aug. 6, Oscar Reynolds will be our guest musician.
Harvest of the Month: Through August, enjoy comparative tastings of fresh produce at the market’s Education Station at 11 a.m.