How well do you know your onions?
THAT'S FOOD: ‘Giving a carrot the attention it deserves.”
Now, is that the kookiest title imaginable from the page of a cookery book, or what?
If I told you that it was the work of a fairly crazy Swedish chef, would you reckon we were back in Muppetland, where the Swedish chef used to fire spaghetti around the kitchen as he spoke nonstop gobbledegook?
Come to think of it, the Muppet Swedish chef was probably just saying, “I’m giving this carrot the attention it deserves, folks,” over and over again, in perfect gobbledegook.
Well, it might sound daft, but I want to propose that paying our carrots the attention they deserve is a very healthy thing to do, for both our minds and our bodies.
The crazy Swedish chef who pays carrots lots of attention is Magnus Nilsson, of Faviken Restaurant, who is currently enjoying super-cult status for his cooking at his restaurant, and for his splendid cook book. Nilsson devotes an entire page of his book to describe the sort of attention a carrot needs.
“For me, a process like this is a thing of enormous beauty,” writes Nilsson. “It shows dedication, intelligence and thought from the chef. Does it make the dish you are eating better? Yes, if even only a fraction.”
That might sound excessive, but what if I told you that an earlier cookbook author, Robert Farrar Capon, devoted an entire chapter of his classic book, The Supper of the Lamb, to the correct way to appreciate an onion?
‘Onions are excellent company’
Actually, Farrar Capon, an Episcopalian priest as well as a demon cook, suggests you sit down at the table and contemplate the onion for an hour before you even lift the knife. “Onions are excellent company,” he writes.
Are these guys crazy, or what?
Actually, they aren’t the slightest bit loopy, because they understand something truly fundamental about cooking. And they understand how everyone can become a better cook, and enjoy cooking all the more.
People who claim to hate cooking do so because they can’t, or won’t, give cooking the time it needs. Time spent cooking, they argue, is time that could be better spent doing something else.
Pleasure from cooking
But to extract pleasure from cooking, you must give yourself to the process it needs and demands. You don’t need to chat to an onion for an hour, of course, but you do need to spend whatever time the dish needs, even if it is only one of Jamie’s 15-minute sprints.
As soon as you do this, you will find that cooking time is actually an oasis, a balm for your fretted consciousness, a spa for your brain, some time-out for your creativity.
And the real beginning of this process is to pay attention to the ingredients on your table – the onion; the carrot; the chicken breast; the Parmesan. This attention to what is at hand underpins Nilsson’s striving “to become a little bit better at what I do every time I do it”, as he explains in his book.
Just like your own cooking style, and just like the dish you will prepare, every ingredient is unique. Recognising them as such will make your own cooking better, and more individual. Paying attention to the ingredients each time will mean that you too will become “a little bit better”.
Robert Farrar Capon’s ode to the onion says this: “the onion is not a ball, but a nested set of fingers within fingers, each thrust up from the base through the centre of the one before it”.
What a lovely perception and realisation to arrive at, that this ubiquitous taken-for-granted kitchen ingredient is a “nested set of fingers within fingers”.
We tend to think of cooking as being all about action. But, for our health and for our cooking, it helps to think of cooking as contemplation also. Consider it, then cook it, and you will enjoy your cooking, and your eating, all the more.
John McKenna is author of The Irish Food Guide guides.ie