In response to a meme tag a few chainlinks away from the original, I began looking back to moments that were truly revelatory in my food consciousness. There aren’t many. How many can there be? There are many times when you learn something. I learned a lot hanging out in Keller’s kitchens. “Chef, why are you seaming out the tuna?” I asked. He stared at me, scraped up some connective tissues on his knife, the stuff he was removing from the tuna; it hung from his knife like saliva. “Eat this.” I chuckled. Ok, got your point. He said “Eat it.” He wasn’t kidding–he looked pissed. So I did. I learned a couple things there, but that’s not a revelation.
When Parker Bosley in Cleveland told me how to make duck confit–the notion that you could poach a really rich fatty piece of meat in more fat, that was a kind of revelation, and one that would, 14 years later result in a book called Charcuterie. It gave me a course, but I don’t think it changed me. A true food revelation, in keeping with its theological implications, changes who you are in some way.
This happened to me for the first time, at age 33 after about 25 years as an aggressive home cook, in Skills class at the CIA with chef Michael Pardus, about whom I’ve written plenty. We were making brown veal stock most days and had used the brown stock to make a brown sauce (brown stock thickened with roux and with more aromats). It all smelled brown to me. That was it. Admittedly, I had a bit of an attitude about anything thickened with roux–where I got that notion I have no idea (I really thought béchamel had about as much flavor and usefulness in food as drywall joint compound). Brown sauce was then combined with more brown stock and reduced to make a seriously, ain't kidding around brown, brown sauce, which Pardus said was a classical demi-glace.
One of the groups prepared Pardus’s derivative, or a la minute, sauce demo, one item of which was this mud-Jello he called demi. I’d tasted it. It tasted brown.
Then he did the Sauce Robert demo. Sauce Robert is one of the oldest extant sauces still pretty much in its original form, dating to Careme I believe. Pardus sautéed some minced onion, added white wine, reduce it a little, thwapped in the congealed demi, added some mustard and mounted it with butter. Then the whole class tasted (something you can’t do when your watching a demo on TV, which is why food TV will always be more about entertainment than about cooking), tasting spoons diving for the pan.
It didn’t taste brown anymore, it taste light and clean and delicious, smooth on the palate, bright from the wine and mustard, sweet from the mirepoix used along the way and now the minced onion. That something could go from drab brown to deeply delicious in a few moments was the first part of the revelation; the second was confronting the fact of my own deep ignorance. That was the moment I realized how little I knew about food and cooking and how vast this new country that I’d just set out to explore was going to be.
I remain devoted to Sauce Robert and to brown veal stock, which is probably the one preparation that, more than any other, can transform a home cook’s dishes from home-cook-like to that approaching high-end restaurant food. I’m serious–the stuff is magical.
So, herewith my recipe for really good veal stock, which I did years ago for Gourmet. The recipe says the tomato paste and pepper is optional–why the editors did that I don’t know. Always use tomato paste in your veal stock.
You can make a brown sauce by thickening it with a brown roux and more caramelized mirepoix, and skimming skimming skimming, then for a demi-glace adding more veal stock and cooking it down skimming skimming skimming. And this is a good lesson, but it’s a project. Veal stock, shallot, mustard, white wine, served with pan-roasted pork or some kind of pork, it’s traditional partner, is fantastic, a revelation.