Is it done yet? Take a sniff - the nose knows

March 31, 2004|By ROB KASPER

THERE ARE PROBABLY as many cooking styles as there are senses. The other night I tried a new approach, at least for me - cooking by smell. I worked on a Bolognese meat sauce until the aromas wafting up from the pot passed the sniff test.

There was, for example, a step in the making of meat sauce that called for pouring a cup of dry white wine on the sizzling meat and cooking "until the wine has evaporated." Rather than eyeballing this step, I nosed it.

I simply put my proboscis over the simmering brew. For a while, the steam coming out of the pot smelled like grapes. When the winy bouquet disappeared, I turned down the heat and moved on to the next step.

That called for adding 1/2 cup of milk and 1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg to the sauce. Again, I was supposed to stir until the liquid had evaporated. Again, I relied on my snoot, stirring and sniffing until the distinct spicy aroma of milk and nutmeg had vanished.

Usually I rely on other senses, mostly sight, when I cook. I rigorously follow recipes. I have a habit of placing the recipe I am using in a clear plastic lectern designed just for recipe-reading purposes. I bought that stand some years ago as a Christmas present for my wife. She rarely uses it, preferring to prop the open cookbook on the kitchen counter.

The recipe holder is, I guess, a kind of beacon in a storm for me. When the recipe is in its proper place, I can stay on course. My wife, who is a more accomplished indoor cook than I, needs no such prop.

When she uses a recipe, she props it up anywhere she likes, sometimes moving it around the kitchen as she works. This drives me crazy. She also has a much more relaxed view of following a recipe. If midway through the preparation of a dish she discovers we are missing an ingredient, a dash of nutmeg, for instance, she skips it or substitutes for it and keeps sailing along to success.

I am more rigid. First I take attendance of the ingredients, then I push off. If an ingredient is missing, the mission is delayed.

There is also cooking by feel. Only experienced hands can pull this off. This is the way Grandmother and Mother cooked. They were not bound to measurements and strict time limits. They kneaded the bread dough until it "felt right." They stirred milk and flour into the bottom of the roast-beef pan until the consistency of the gravy "looked right." Nowadays, it is the way some restaurant chefs cook, trusting their touch rather than the dictates of a printed recipe.

For me, cooking by feel is restricted to the times I am working with a few extremely familiar dishes. For instance, I have tossed together the Sunday-morning pancake batter - a cup of flour, 3/4 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/4 teaspoon salt, a cup of buttermilk, 1 beaten egg - a few hundred times.

Yet some Sundays the batter runs thin and needs a spoonful or two of additional flour. Other times it feels as though it needs a shot more of buttermilk, so the batter will drip off the mixing spoon in just the right way.

Although I am gaining proficiency mixing cookbook author Lydie Marshall's basic vinaigrette - 1 clove crushed garlic, 2 tablespoons raspberry vinegar, 1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard and 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil (the O brand of extra-virgin oil, which mixes olive oil with the juice of crushed limes, is pricy but delivers flavor worth every penny) - I still have consistency issues. Some days as the vinaigrette is poured on salad greens, it is lugubrious, some days it is watery.

As for cooking by smell, I probably have been doing it unconsciously for some time. Long ago, for instance, I became familiar with the smell of burning food. But it wasn't until the other day while making cookbook author Marcella Hazan's meat sauce Bolognese that I made a conscious effort to sniff my way through a recipe.

The aroma session started when I dropped 2 tablespoons of chopped onions in a sizzling mixture of 3 tablespoons of both olive oil and butter. Usually I cook the onions until they are translucent. This time, I waited until they lost their pungency. Then into the pot went 2 tablespoons of chopped carrots and 2 tablespoons of chopped celery. This produced sweet smells as the heat released the sugar in the vegetables.

The meat, 3/4 pound of lean ground beef, was cooked gently, only until it lost its red color. This was also, it turned out, when it stopped smelling like raw meat. Then came the wine, followed by the milk and nutmeg.

Fittingly, the final fragrance in the making of this Italian sauce was the perfume of tomatoes. Two cups of Italian plum tomatoes, roughly cut, were brought to a boil, then simmered for several redolent hours.

The balm of the bubbling Bolognese sauce floated through the household, building anticipation for a satisfying supper.

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