Today is Super Bowl Sunday, something of a national holiday here in America. I haven’t missed a game in nearly 45 years. Recently, I’ve started a little tradition before the Big Game: I watch the movie “Any Given Sunday.” I happen to think it’s one of the best football movies ever made, but really I watch it for one particular scene. The coach, played by Al Pacino, gives a motivational speech to the team before a pivotal game. In it, he points out that in football, and in life, it is the inches that matter.
Truer words have never been spoken. Inches — details, really — matter in life. They are the difference between good and great, between success and failure. In football, in life, and yes, in cooking.
I can think of few better ways to illustrate this than with the Italian classic cacio e pepe. All this dish consists of is pasta, black pepper and grated cheese. About as mundane an ingredient list as is possible. If you’ve ever eaten it, chances are you wondered what all the fuss was about. Chances are your cook cared little for detail.
Make cacio e pepe with cheap, factory pasta, pre-ground, stale black pepper and pre-grated cheese from a can and you will likely toss it and call for pizza. But cacio e pepe done with perfectly made pasta, high-grade pepper freshly ground and freshly grated Romano cheese — tossed together properly with just a splash of the pasta cooking water to emulsify it — will finally make you understand why there is a cult of cacio e pepe in Rome.
The French understand this, too. Vegetables roughly chopped will not taste or act the same as vegetables that have been carefully cut into dice, or turned with a paring knife into little footballs. And there really is a difference between an indifferently grown carrot and one that has been cared for by a skilled farmer. Doubt this? Think of your garden tomatoes in August. Now think of the impostors masquerading as tomatoes lurking in your supermarket now, in February.
The inches in our cooking extend deep into our kitchens. This is why my cooking will always be different from yours.
For starters, there’s a good chance my knives are sharper and my burners hotter than yours. A sharper knife slices more precisely, and a hotter burner creates a better stir-fry or sear. But it goes way beyond that.
When I make pasta sauce — simple, weekday pasta sauce — I will often use the last bits of the sauce I’d made a few days before as a sort of “starter” for this next batch. Similarly, I have a master stock I use to braise duck legs that I have kept going for six years. After I am done with each batch, I strain the broth and keep it in the fridge. If I am not going to braise again in a week or so, I freeze it. The depth of flavor you get from this old Chinese trick cannot be replicated with any new stock or broth.
Likewise, if I serve you a salad, chances are the vinegar in the dressing is leftover from a batch of pickled something. And the fat is either melted wild duck fat or olive oil saved from preserved peppers or mushrooms. Even if you do try this trick yourself, you don’t make pickles exactly the way I do, so your food will be slightly different. And that’s OK.
When you make stock, do you roast the bones first? If so, do you add water to the roasting pan, scrape off the browned bits and add that into the stock pot? You should. Do you add something to boost the body of your broth, like chicken or duck feet, or a calf’s or pig’s foot? Again, you should. These small details matter.
A tiny touch here and there when making a recipe can radically change its outcome. Think for a moment about fat, sweeteners, starches and salt.
Not all salts are created equal. A smoked salt will do something different to a dish than regular salt will. And coarse or flaky salt add late in the cooking process will assert itself on the plate, where fine salt will not. Remember, salt is salt when measured by weight, but if measured by volume they can wildly over- or under-salt your food.
I don’t use olive oil when I cook German or Nordic food. I use lard, or duck fat, or butter, or sunflower oil. Similarly, when I think of sweeteners of the North, I think maple or birch syrup, or maybe honey. Starch? Think rye, barley, wild rice. It would seem odd to me to design a dish for, say, North Dakota, and then put white rice in it. Similarly, I wouldn’t really use rye in a Louisiana dish.
Imagine the same plate of food done in two very different places: Duck breast with a starch, a vegetable and a sweet-and-sour sauce.
If I were in Minnesota, it would be duck breast seared with duck fat, served with wild rice, root vegetables — probably rutabagas — with a maple-and-malt vinegar sauce. If I were in South Carolina, it would be duck breast seared in lard, served with Carolina Gold rice, stewed collards with a smoked goose wing “ham hock,” served with a sorghum syrup-and-cider vinegar sauce. Same basic dish, yet by tailoring it to where you make it, the result is very, very different. These are the details I’m talking about.
Execution is arguably even more important than a dish’s design, however, and this is where that speech in “Any Given Sunday” really comes into play.
Figurative inches separate a perfectly cooked venison steak from an overcooked one, or a sauce that’s too acidic or too spicy. One pinch of salt can change a dish from bland to perfect to salty. Almost 10 years ago I was in a cooking competition and both of us competing made consommé. Each was good, but I lost that round because I’d forgotten to salt my consommé after it had been clarified. A fatal mistake that turned a magnificent dish into a little bowl of bland broth. I almost threw up in shame.
All of this is especially true in baking or in charcuterie, where you must create something without tasting it beforehand. This is why salt measurements in my sausage recipes are in grams: Yes, there is indeed a difference between 34 grams of salt and 38 grams of salt in a batch of links. You will notice.
Seek out the details, the inches, in your own cooking, in your own life.
Tinker. Practice. Adjust. Learn. Grow. Claw for that inch, because it is those inches that make up our lives.