‘The Main Ingredient’ and Culinary Prejudices

Gavin WrenFood Education, Food Opinion Pieces, The World of Food

butternut squash black background

Forgive me father.

It’s confessional corner again, time to lay bare yet another one of my peculiar little nuances regarding food.

This time it’s a distinctly partial perspective of mine, a way of approaching food which has taken years to become apparent, and taken quite some time to ultimately dispel. It affected how I planned meals, how I chose recipes and how I did my shopping. This particularly peculiar perception worked to furnish me with a set of culinary blinkers, which I’m glad to say have been cast asunder, left to lie in tatters at the kerbside of my culinary journey through life.

The Main Ingredient.

I have spent vast tracts of my life labouring under a misconception. I worked under the peculiar idea that when I make a recipe, there lies an item within it, just one single ingredient, which is so overwhelmingly powerful, vital and precious that it could be referred to as ‘The Main Ingredient’. Quite often, the main ingredient would be the protein source, specifically meat or fish, as if this one single cul-de-sac of a balanced diet held sway over every other ingredient in the school of food. Like protein sources were the school prefects, with fats being the greasy, unkempt kids smoking fags behind the bike sheds (do kids still do that?). I can only only guess this preoccupation with came from a lifetime of meals founded on a hearty, carnivorous diet, like a true Brit, with meals revolving around meat with vegetables, potatoes and a soupçon of sauce or gravy somewhere to liven things up.

It’s quite ironic that I’ve professed my lack of enthusiasm for the roast dinner, that traditional cornerstone of meat ‘n’ two veg meals, on this blog many times. It’s simply another hefty meal and projects none of the romanticised, homely apparitions that other people seem to glean from a slap-up roast dinner. It’s merely a big plate of food to me, which occasionally might find a place within my diet.

Whilst at university, a few friends and I were roast dinner fanatics. Not because of a deep rooted desire to recreate a homely feeling within our halls of residence, but because a cheap joint (of meat – especially yellow stickered ones), a lot of potatoes and carrots, plus a sack of garlic from Wing Yip is very cheap. It can be mixed and left in the oven for an hour to cook whilst we worked/talked/pretended to work/got drunk, providing an incredibly low maintenance cooking experience, no doubt making a hearty investment in my burgeoning waistline during that particular period of my life.

Living a lie.

Back to The Main Ingredient. The protein source. It’s all a big lie, I’ve been duped by myself, hoodwinked into a form of culinary prejudice, despite my existence as a hand-on-heart omnivore, equally happy amongst vegetables and tofu as meat and fish.

Because there’s no such thing as a main ingredient. Recipes are a group effort, they’re a combined front of flavours, with multiple facets and layers that mingle and co-operate or reflect and contrast to create whatever sensory performance finally appears on your tongue. To suggest that any single ingredient is the key to that theatre of taste is misleading. The only way protein can be The Main Ingredient is on your till receipt when you get to the checkout, because it’s inevitably the most expensive thing in your basket, bar alcohol.

An easy way to demonstrate why protein sources are often far from being the foundation of a recipe, is by switching it to another protein source and finding it can often have very little effect on the outcome of the dish. For example, take chicken and pork. I’ll wager you could interchange them in many, many instances without any detrimental effect on the overall effect of the recipe. White fish is so generic that I don’t need to say any more about the interchangeability of pollock, haddock or cod (I’ll probably get harangued by some fishmongers now). Taken to a greater extreme, try substituting chicken with white fish and I bet you’ll still have a beautiful dish in a great number of cases. To prove this, chicken and chips is rapidly replacing fish and chips as our national dish.

Several years of eating a largely vegetarian diet, along with the genius of Yotam Ottolenghi, has taught me look at things in a different perspective. It made me realise that I can lead a happy and fulfilling life without eating meat or fish once a day at 6.30pm. This revelation put a question mark over my preoccupation with the existence of a main ingredient, because when meat or fish aren’t on the table, what on earth was the main ingredient? Cheese? Tofu? Aubergine? Or, shock, horror, could it not exist and merely be a vapid apparition?

I have seen the light!

One day I had an epiphany, when a simple, maligned, store cupboard ingredient made me understand what I’d been ignoring all that time.

I was making a tomato based stew which required tinned tomatoes, so I grabbed a tin of cheap, supermarket own-brand chopped tomatoes from the cupboard. I watched the the loose, sloppy, pale red liquid divulge itself to the pan and thought there didn’t seem to be much tomato in this tin of tomatoes. The resulting stew tasted decidedly insipid. Instead of pouring forth a tin of thick, rich, velveteen tomatoes for the sauce base, I had added tomato flavoured water, a mere pastiche of tomato. Regardless of the protein source, vegetables, carbohydrates, fat or seasoning in that pan, the resultant stew was always going to lack a certain depth of flavour. The quality of the tinned tomatoes was easily as important as any other single ingredient in that dish.

Take pizza as another example. Not the heathen creations touted on many high streets across our country, but the authentic Italian pizza cooked at domestic oven-shaming temperatures, using fine ingredients, including the hallowed tomato sauce of pizza. This, my friends, is sacred ground.

Have you ever heard of the concept that you can get a good measure of a restaurant by trying it’s house wine? Well, in pizza restaurants there’s a similar concept, you measure their quality by ordering the Margherita, the most simple pizza on the menu. Consisting of a pizza base, with tomato sauce, olive oil, cheese and basil being the only toppings. That tomato sauce is easily as important as any of the other ingredients. If standards slip for just one of those constituent items, the end product will suffer. Under no circumstances should cheap tinned tomatoes be used to make the sauce, it’s one of the few things were I would rather go without (instant coffee being the other). Hunt high and low for the best you can possibly find, track down the most expensive tin of Organic San Marzano tomatoes, if you can find them.

The Margherita pizza is the perfect example of the absence of a main ingredient. If any single part of your pizza is below standard, be it the dough, the sauce or the cheese, then your end product suffers. No single part of it is more important than the others.

I have a dream…

Which brings me to the point of this discourse, that cooking is a holistic task. A dish is only understood by the collective sum of it’s parts, very rarely does a single ingredient carry an entire recipe. It’s a reciprocal agreement between a whole host of different constituents and a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link. Even just a final, gentle sprinkle of what might appear as merely a garnish atop your prized plate may also be the final, vital link in a chain of flavour that would simply cease to exist without it.

No longer do I see a slab of meat or fillet of fish as the cornerstone of a meal, I weigh the sprinkle of salt or the glittering garnish in equal measure, allowing equality and individuality to take pride of place amongst the inhabitants of my pantry, allowing them to exist as equals amongst even the most grand of ingredients.


Would you like a friendly e-mail once a month?

* indicates required