What Thomas Keller Taught Me

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home.  I settled onto the couch and strategically balanced the oversized, very heavy book on my lap.  By the time I had finished flipping through its pages, not only were my thighs numb, I already had accumulated about a half dozen recipes that I wanted to try.  Did I expect anything less?  Probably not.

How is this any different, you may ask, than any other new cookbook acquisition?  Consider this – while other cookbooks may give me collections of recipes that I’d like to try, thumbing through Ad Hoc at Home has managed to actually change the way that I think about cooking.  If you’ve ever seen the dozens of cookbooks that occupy their own Billy bookcase (and half of a second one) in our library, you would know that this is no small feat.  I’ve gone from collecting recipes to collecting techniques, and Ad Hoc at Home is a treasure trove.

One of the first recipes that I tried out of Ad Hoc at Home was actually listed as an ingredient for another dish that I wanted to make.  The soffritto, which is one of the components of a roasted pepper recipe, calls for only three primary ingredients – spanish onions, plum tomatoes, and olive oil – plus one minced clove of garlic at the end.  Easy enough, right?  And yet, the actual recipe itself, when done in accordance with Keller’s instructions, takes five hours from start to completion.

From a process perspective, nothing could be simpler than this soffritto.  Just chop the onions, toss them into a pan with a generous amount of olive oil, then simmer away for 2 1/2 hours.  At that point, create a tomato pulp by stroking the cut plum tomatoes against a grater, add that to the onions, and simmer for another 2 1/2 hours.  One pressed clove of garlic finishes the dish.

You would think that such a simple recipe would yield standard results – a sweet caramelized onion flavor, some acidity from the tomatoes, but nothing fantastic, right?  This is where the magic of Keller’s technique shines – the resulting soffritto has such a depth of flavor, it’s tempting to just break out a spoon and eat it straight from the pot, thereby nullifying five hours worth of toil for five minutes of pleasure.  The overall experience is a subtle shift in perception, a quiet realization that, if treated with enough care and attention, even the humblest of ingredients can surprise you.  I used the soffritto in the roasted peppers, then gradually depleted the rest of the batch by stirring it into scrambled eggs and folding a spoon of it into a batch of home fries.

My one admission is this – I didn’t carry the recipe through to its full five hour preparation time.  It’s not that I didn’t want to, it’s that I was forced to end it early after realizing that the soffritto was browning way too quickly.  My burners were not designed to sustain such a low simmer as what Keller’s recipe demands, and I was forced to take the soffritto off of the heat to save it from turning into a charred mess.  So, as soon as I get my hands on a flame tamer, I’m going to tackle this recipe again, and do it right the next time.  As good as the soffritto was after three hours, I can only begin to imagine how it will taste after five.

And one day, I may just find myself in Yountville, sitting down to taste the original.