Let your nose lead you to a place of happiness and excitement
Pleasant kitchen smells can contribute as much to our happiness as the hearty meal it heralds
Before we eat our food, we see it, which is why we strive to make it look as good as possible. But before we see the food, we smell it – and the aroma of food is one of the key elements of its attraction, its satisfaction and its ability to make us feel well.
Walk into a house where there is an aroma of fresh bread, or the scent of meat slowly braising in the air and you not only feel instantly hungry, you feel immediately loved up.
Smell alters our mood, as aromatherapists know, but I reckon the ultimate aromatherapy is the scent of a chicken roasting in the oven, or a fist of basil leaves torn up by hand and scattered over a tomato salad, or bashed with mortar and pestle as you make some pesto.
Every cuisine has its olfactory heavy-hitters: the great Chinese trinity of spring onion, garlic and ginger sizzling in crazy heat in the wok; the Italian soffrito of sautéed onion to which garlic is added, followed by the rest of the dish’s ingredients; in Catalonia, this will be sofregit, with tomatoes added to the cooked onions.
We are led by our noses and it is good for us. Lovely food odours are calming, and create expectations that make us happy: sharing food; recalling a happy time from childhood; feeling hungry and then feeling sated; being with others.
But the smell of food is also exciting to our senses, which is why we want pickle in our hamburger, or juniper in our gin, or lemon curd in a cake.
Scientists often describe smell as a “primitive” sense, but smell has been an essential component of the development of the higher mental processes of the brain. The food and science writer Harold McGee has gone so far as to say that: “In a way, then, smell gave birth to the mind.” We smell, therefore we think!
There is a lovely passage by the American food writer Michael Ruhlman, in his book Ruhlman’s Twenty, where he describes the effect of the aroma of food cooking in a house quite beautifully:
“A decade ago, deep in a Cleveland, Ohio, winter, with nothing but blackness by 6pm, I was addressing bills I didn’t quite have the funds to pay, and I wondered why I wasn’t nearly as miserable as I ought to be. It was the short ribs braising in the oven, the kitchen windows steamed from the heat . . . Braised beef short ribs with buttered noodles.
“Braising sets the tone of warmth and satisfaction and fullness in your home, even when your bank account isn’t any of those things.”
Most of what we taste in food is due to our sense of smell, which is why you can get very knowledgeable wine tasters who don’t actually drink the stuff: they only need to smell the wine to identify its characteristics and to identify it.
Opening up potential
It is the smell of food that opens up its potential to us, because while we can smell thousands upon thousands of odour molecules, our taste buds are limited to the five major tastes: salt, sour, bitter, sweet, umami. It’s in the olfactory system that the real glory of our food resides, and that is why the smell of what we eat is so important to our wellbeing.
Here is the dish that makes Mike Ruhlman feel so content:
Red wine-braised short ribs
8 beef short ribs
2 large onions, cut into large dice
4 carrots, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 celery stalks, cut into 2.5cm pieces
2 tbsp tomato purée
3 cups fruity red wine
1 head garlic, halved horizontally
1 x 2.5cm piece of fresh ginger
2 bay leaves
1 tsp peppercorns, cracked
455g mushrooms, seared briefly in very hot oil
For the gremolata
2 tbsp minced fresh parsley
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp grated lemon zest
In a heavy ovenproof pot, add enough oil to reach 6ml up the sides and heat over high heat. Put some flour on a plate. Dredge the short ribs in the flour, shaking off the excess.
When the oil is hot, add the ribs and brown on all sides. You may need to do this in batches; you don’t want to crowd the pan or the ribs won’t brown. Remove the ribs to a plate lined with paper towels.
Preheat the oven to 120 degrees. Wipe the pot clean and sauté half of the onions in a film of oil over medium heat until softened. (Refrigerate the remaining onions until needed.)
Add a four-finger pinch of salt and stir. Add half of the carrots (refrigerate the remaining carrots until needed) and the celery and cook for about four minutes longer.
The longer you cook the vegetables, the deeper the flavour of the sauce will be.
For intensely deep flavour, cook until the carrots and onions are browned. Add the tomato purée and cook to heat it.
Nestle the ribs in the pot. Add the wine (it should come three-quarters of the way up the ribs), garlic, ginger and bay leaves.
Season with a three-finger pinch of salt and add the honey and peppercorns. Bring to a simmer, cover the pot with a lid set ajar, and slide into the oven. Cook the ribs for four hours.
Remove the pot from the oven and allow the ribs to cool, covered. When the ribs are cool enough to handle, put them on a plate, cover with plastic wrap/cling film, and refrigerate. Strain the cooking liquid into a tall vessel, cover and refrigerate. When the liquid has chilled, remove the congealed fat and discard.
Melt the butter in your braising pot. Add the reserved onions and carrots and sauté until softened, three to four minutes. Return the ribs to the pot and add the seared mushrooms. Add the reserved cooking liquid. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook over medium-low heat until the carrots are tender and the ribs are heated through, about 15 minutes.
To make the gremolata
In a small bowl, stir the parsley, garlic and lemon zest until evenly distributed. Serve the short ribs with the carrots, onions, mushrooms and sauce. Garnish with the gremolata.
John McKenna is author of The Irish Food Guide: guides.ie