Carelessness is, or should be, unwelcome in any working kitchen. There is safety to consider; illness originates more often with the careless cook than from the ingredients themselves. But even when hands are washed and correct temperatures reached there is taste to consider. Limp and anonymous salad greens might not make everyone ill, but neither will they charm, and why serve charmless food? Happily, I haven’t eaten at a restaurant in recent memory that hasn’t stressed its use of peak local ingredients—farm-to-table—I believe, is the obsequious way most servers put it. But while local seasonality is all very well, the idea does have one rather unhelpful side-effect: it gives the impression that time, place and ingredients are immutable factors in creating a good meal.
So rigid an approach to food might be an attempt at authenticity. The logic is quite simple, and makes for very good television. A host—either an emissary from the place being tapped for the show or a crusty but trusted food personality, and often both—explores the place in question for the viewer. This is done from a first person point of view, with fluid and lively camera work, clever editing and plenty of close-ups of food and drink. The climax of the performance is when it is declared, usually during a dramatic sunset, that only in a place like this, with these humble local ingredients can meals be so perfect. The viewer is left with the impression that outside of say, Tuscany, authenticity is myth. I say that message is bogus.
I understand and appreciate the romantic allure of farm-to-table, hyper-local, and nose-to-tail food production, and I’m aware that many very fine restaurants have organized themselves (logistically as well as philosophically) around strict parameters of geography and season. But what, really, is so new about far-ranging trade and the globalization of ingredients? The Egyptians, Assyrians and Greeks each cultivated extensive trade networks. The Romans organized entire meals around exotic rarities, the more difficult to attain, the better. The Vikings took ample time off from marauding to sell their salted cod throughout Europe. And what of the Silk Road or the westward pursuit of the New World? In every instance, two things are exchanged: ingredients and knowledge. While some ingredients might do very well in certain places, isn’t knowledge of preparation the more important exchange? Put another way, I think eating locally is great; I just don’t assign the practice any metaphysical value beyond apparent freshness and taste.
More important to today’s home cook than historical food custom, however, is practicality, and it is here that too rigid an approach to ingredients is truly unhelpful. Consider the gnocchi, an Italian potato dumpling made using leftover potato, flour and egg. A very good gnocchi is tender and light rather than dense and gummy. This is best achieved by limiting the amount of time kneading the raw dough. Also: the russet potato is traditionally preferred to waxy varieties as the former has floury, drier flesh. But what if boiled waxy potatoes are on hand? Does gnocchi not get made? Or, worse, do the potatoes go unused? Do we forfeit technique for the sake of a single missing ingredient?
Certainly not in my kitchen. That’s because gnocchi is less a recipe than an efficient way to stretch some scant leftover. Done enough times and with a wide variety of potatoes, the technique self-adjusts to accommodate higher or lower moisture content, more or less starch, stronger or milder flavor. Where recipes are blind lists of requirements with little regard for variance, proper technique permits the flexibility that is necessary when dealing with something so fickle as an ingredient. In this sense, technique is both the opposite of rote cooking and the voice of reason as concerns ingredients.
Skin leftover potatoes and mash to a semi-even paste. Add an equal quantity of flour and a few pinches of salt. Dump onto a clean countertop and make a well in the center of the mass. Add an egg or two (or three or more, depending on the volume of flour and potato) and, using a fork, begin incorporating the egg, flour and potato. Mix to the constancy of dry bread dough, kneading only enough to incorporate all ingredients. Let rest for a few minutes. Cut the mass into several equal pieces. Roll these pieces into one-inch diameter logs. Chop half inch pieces from each log. Flick each piece off the tines of a fork to score one side (if desired) and store dusted with fresh flour until ready to boil. Boil: depending on size, gnocchis are usually ready one minute after floating to the top.