Creating recipes with depth—with complexity and soul—requires more than just throwing things together in a pan. It’s really a combination of many factors such as knowledge of flavors, skill, and great products sourced from reputable farmers and artisans. Knowing the story behind the product is also important, and somehow makes its way into the flavor of the dish. Understanding where the food comes from and the people who produce it adds that complexity and soul to our food.
I have been fortunate to travel recently to places where some of the products that I use at home and in the kitchen at Le Bernardin are grown and produced. In Virginia for instance, I was able to visit Sam Edwards and the curing facility of S. Wallace Edwards & Sons Hams, and then go with Sam to the farm where the pigs that he uses are raised. Sam is committed to finding humanely and sustainably raised pigs from as close to home as possible.
When his grandfather began his curing operation in Surry, Virginia in 1926, the South was home to many pig farmers. In the deep South, the Spanish brought over their pigs from Europe and allowed them to forage in the woods. Later, the first settlers from Europe arrived on Virginia’s shores with their own pigs. Pigs reproduce and grow quickly which made pork a very important, sustainable source of food. With the pigs also came the European tradition of curing meats and in the South in particular, being able to preserve the meat through the hot summer (without refrigeration of course) was very important.
Smoke and salt curing pork continues to be a delicious and historic tradition in the South and Sam Edwards is one of the country’s most celebrated ham producers. Playing on the Spanish heritage and “Serrano Ham,” Sam’s family calls theirs Surryano. Sam took me on a tour of the curing facility including the salt rooms where the hams are coated in salt to begin the preservation process and the smokehouse where the hams hang to cure for up to 18 months. While the process itself is important, Sam also knows how important it is to source good pigs.
Over the last 25 years or so, small, family farms have been over-shadowed by large, industrial farms that are primarily located in the Midwest. This put many of the Southern pig farmers out of business, but Sam has met, and does business with a handful of relatively young farmers who are going back to the way their grandparents raised animals.
Leaping Waters Farm is 325 acres of some of the most gorgeous land I have ever seen. Southwestern Virginia is incredibly green with dense forests and mountain valley farmland. Alec Bradford, along with his wife Sarah and their daughters, live and work on this land raising heritage breed pigs, cows, turkeys and chickens as well as organic vegetables. The animals are humanely raised and the farm’s growing practices go way beyond even what the USDA requires for organic certification.
Alec believes in working the land and raising his products the same way his grandparents and the generations before them farmed. The way it was done before chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and steroids hit the scene—before industrial farming became the norm. The pigs that Sam Edwards obtains from Leaping Waters Farm are Berkshires and Black pigs that are allowed to roam the forests that surround the farm to eat wild plants, berries and acorns. The variation that nature supplies to their diet ensures a deep, complex flavor to the meat. It is a complexity that remains through the curing process and eventually to the table.
Building flavor in a recipe starts with good products, but constructing a harmonious, successful dish at Le Bernardin requires the skill as well as a knowledge of the ingredients and how they will work together on the plate. All of the chefs at Le Bernardin are encouraged to be creative and offer up ideas for new menu items. When someone has a new idea, that chef puts together what they think the dish should be and then we gather together in our conference room to taste and discuss the dish. The collaboration allows us to consider it, offer comments and critiques of each component that makes up the dish, and think about how the dish can be the very best it can be. Perhaps there is one component of the sauce for the dish that could be minimized, left out or added to make it better. Sometimes the main ingredient of the dish needs to be tweaked a little. Maybe it should be cooked in a different way or even switched out for something else—for instance switching a halibut to a heartier, fattier fish like salmon. Sometimes the smallest changes make a huge difference in the end result. In order to provide the absolute best food that we can to our clients at Le Bernardin, we must take many steps to develop the flavors in a deep and interesting way. The process makes our jobs as chefs more satisfying as well—it’s why we enjoy cooking and developing flavor.
Learning how to build flavors into recipes at home takes a little practice, but the more you understand the basics of cooking, the more it will become a habit. Soup is a great dish to start with. Soups, stocks and sauces are all related and can range from very simple, with just a few ingredients to incredibly complicated. Building character and harmony within a recipe is something that is learned by doing it.
In this episode, I will show you how to make a fairly simple soup. The preparation requires a few steps, but also utilizes very thought-out ingredients that provide certain flavor profiles. White beans cooked in chicken stock with a little bit of the country ham from Virginia, provides a hearty protein flavor base to build upon. Carrots and onions add depth and some sweetness. Green beans and zucchini provide fresh, vegetal profiles and tomatoes add acidity. These are the basics of a well-balanced dish. An easy and fresh pesto, made just before serving and stirred into the soup adds a very bright addition that really livens up the entire recipe.
It is all of these little steps, from the farm, to the artisan, to the cook that allow us to build flavor and make delicious food.