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Licking the Bowl

December 18, 2013

How do you know when food is good? It’s a big question, and it honestly has lots of different answers. I won’t bore you with them. Over the years I’ve revealed some clear biases on a few of these fronts.

Years and years ago, David Rosengarten wrote a book called Taste. I remember being very impressed with it the moment I saw it for because it included one innovation that I had never encountered in a cookbook. At the end of each recipe he had a checklist of criteria to evaluate your completed dish.

It was brilliant, if maybe a wee bit obnoxious.

Mostly because after a couple hours working on a challenging recipe with multiple components that require a variety of techniques, many people are simply proud to have completed the task. And they should be. Pat yourself on the back if you’ve ever tackled something out of the French Laundry cookbook.

But it’s one thing to make a recipe and another thing to make it well. And Rosengarten’s book helped to give home cooks the ability to step back from their dish and look at it a bit more critically.

Although lately, I’ve been taking a more primitive route when considering when a dish has been successful or not. And it simply involves a finger and my mouth.

Maybe I’ve been spending too much time listening to The Blerch. “Just one more bite,” he tells me. “No! Don’t throw that out, there’s some tasty stuff still left in the pot!”

Not too long ago I made a particularly delicious pot of pasta that was tossed in an olive oil based sauce of white beans and kale. It may not sound especially great, but what if I told you the beans were cooked from dry with aromatic vegetables and a generous Parm-Reg rind? And the kale was sauteed with anchovy, garlic and crushed red pepper? This dish had layers and layers of flavor.

And when all the leftovers were packed up at the end of dinner, I went back into the kitchen and dragged my finger all over that pot, scraping up some rich bits of bean sauce with pungent flecks of kale.

More recently I’ve been working on my hummus. There is still no winning recipe as of yet, but I promise to share more as I perfect my technique. Anyhow, even my less than successful attempts are still pretty darn good. The last batch was a bit too lemony, but that didn’t stop me. After I scraped as much of the bean dip from the mixing bowl into serving dishes as I could, I used my fingers to remove every last tasty morsel into my mouth.

Usually this kind of behavior is reserved for sweet treats. It’s hard to forget my childhood joy from getting to lick a mixing spoon or a beater after a batch of brownies was made. Licking the remnants of more savory dishes might be less common, but it’s just as rewarding. Those last bits of cheese on the bottom of a fondue pot? That’s a prize in and of itself.

Look, home cooking isn’t always going to be perfect. But if you are making dishes that inspire you to leave the civilized world behind and just attack the food with your fingers… well, David Rosengarten may disagree, but I would say you are doing all right.

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