The most secret and valuable of ingredients – time

In today’s world, most of us are time starved. From the moment we wake up, to the minute we go to bed, we tend to be in a hurry. No longer do we start the day ingesting a leisurely bowl of porridge, steaming hot and topped with a comforting dollop of honey, accompanied by a rejuvenating mug of coffee or tea, pondering the morning papers – no, we’re checking our email, tweeting on twitter and keeping up with the domestic and professional tribulations our friends go through on facebook. Neither Mr. Stephenson nor Mr. Duess are strangers to these pressures.

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Photo credit: gadl on flickr

This kind of life then leads to the publishing of a plethora of recipe books and magazines, for those of us who can still be bothered to cook, promising culinary ecstasy in 30 minutes or less. Which is of course utter nonsense and the path to disappointment and mediocracy.

The truth of the matter is that good food takes time. Good anything takes time. Time, not unlike bacon, makes most things better. Wine, pickles, cheese, vinegar, bread, sausages. Even fish, if you decide to hang it in the smoke.

The good news is that once you’ve paid into the time bank, by curing bacon, smoking fish, feeding a sourdough starter or canning tomatoes, you are then able to withdraw deliciousness. And get a proper meal on the table, in ten minutes or less. A loaf of home made bread will not just still hunger, eating it will be an emotionally and sensually satisfying experience. It will make you happy the way a TV dinner never can. A basement full of shelves groaning under the weight of preserves, pickles and canned vegetables will warm your heart on a cold winter morning. And a  slab of smoked bacon, wrapped in cheeseloth, will fill you with joy and anticipation.

And all because you’ve added time, the secret, and most precious of ingredients.

  • justin

    My esteemed Mr. Duess,

    I understand very well the opinions you’ve offered up here. I agree wholeheartedly with your observation that we lose a tremendous amount by viewing cooking as an activity that operates on an efficiency model rather than being based on involvement, interest or care. We both, I feel its safe to say, like to see cooking as an ongoing part of our lives.

    I really like your idea of time as an ingredient. It is a way of discussing it without applying an absolute valency to it so that we can see how it operates in various cooking methods. If we look at things that are quick and good, I think we can open up this idea of “the ingredient of time” for more discussion.

    Lets take the Chinese notion of Wok Hay or “the breath of the wok. This is very much a heritage cooking methodology but takes very little time to do (though it certainly does take some time to learn). The idea is to cook your food as quickly as possible to create a combination of cooked, burnt, and fresh flavours. This is a fantastic combination that can only be achieved by cooking hot and fast as can be.

    More time is not better in this circumstance. Viewing time as an ingredient here is interesting because we can see that too much of it is like adding too much salt or pepper. In the case of “Wok Hay”, the idea is to go from raw ingredients, to heat, to palate quickly to reward the diner with the unique flavours that result from the speed of the method. In addition, I think that this quickness of preparation also connects one to the freshness of the food, the hotness of the pan, and the technique of the chef. This is a genuine form of culinary care.

    So while I agree with you that care = good food, and while I love the idea of time as an ingredient; I would say that, like salt, sometimes less is better.

  • Mr. Duess

    Dear Mr. Stephenson

    Your most valuable comment reminds me of a story:

    A man came to visit the artist, asking him to paint a picture of a cockerel. The artist nodded, and a price was agreed upon. The next week the man visited the artist and asked for his painting, only to be told that it wasn’t ready yet.

    The same thing happened the week after, the week after that and the week after that. Weeks turned into months and months turned into years. Finally the man was ready to give up, but decided to visit the artist one last time.

    “My picture,” he said. “Is it ready?”

    The artist looked at him, took a fresh sheet of paper and his brush and within five minutes he painted the perfect picture of a cockerel. Proud, with a magnificent stance.

    The man got angry: “It takes you five minutes to paint a cockerel and you made me wait five years? Why did you do this to me?”

    The artist didn’t answer, but opened a door into an adjacent room. A room filled with five years of paintings of cockerels, each one trying to express the essence of the animal until he had finally achieved it.

    The breath of the wok, while fast, is not something that can be mastered without the investment of time. You and I would make a huge mess of it, being untrained. Rushing things will get you nowhere.

  • justin

    Dear Mr. Duess,

    I might jest here that these discussions somehow always end up with a picture of a cockerel, but I will resist this temptation to agree and disagree with you once again.

    I 100% agree, training is important and takes time. It took me countless attempts and research over seasons to learn how to get even a modest Wok Hay flavour going in my tiny urban kitchen(IE no giant propane jets.) This does not change the fact that less time in the stir fry makes a unique and important contribution to the meal.

    I wish to make an important distinction that is not addressed in the story of the artists and his cockerel. The quickness of the drawing does not make the drawing better. In the stir fry, the shortness of time makes it better. In this case, less time is better, produces a better meal, connects you to the ingredients and the preparation better.

    I am very simply trying champion an interesting subtlety introduced by your idea of time as an ingredient. Less time is sometimes better regardless of the fact that it might take more time to develop the skill to use less time.

    The thing that I am after here is that not everything that is good takes lots of time. I would like to invite our readers to explore not only some of the more involved methods of food preparation, but also things that are quick and easy. Not everything that is worthwhile takes a ton of time. Pasta Al Olio would be another example – though quickness is not a factor in the yumminess here, it is a fast dish that takes 10 minutes to make. It does not lack heritage, its not about rushing, and it is not based on a model of pure efficiency. Its simply simple, quick and yummy.

    Perhaps I will draw you a friendly picture over a glass or two of wine the next time that we meet to discuss this matter.