Odd and Unusual Cooking Techniques
by Kate Heyhoe
Humankind's first experiences at cooking, over an open fire or perhaps in a container that was either open or covered, makes intuitive sense. Our present day kitchen stovetops, ovens, and outdoor grills evolved from this simple principle. But somewhere along the line, our species became more inventive with the way food cooks, as well as the vessels that can be used for cooking. Over time, our ability to manipulate heat grew more sophisticated, and in some cases, even bizarre.
Take underground cooking, for instance. Hawaiians roast a whole pig in the ground, in dug-out firebeds lined with banana leaves, and a good ol' New England clam bake steams shellfish, corn, and other goodies right in the sandy beach, not quite six-feet-under, topped with clumpy, salty, watery seaweed.
The nursery rhyme about four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie ("when the pie was open the birds began to sing") is based on fact, not fiction. In the Middle Ages, live birds were baked under pie crusts, and when the nobility cut into the pies, voila! Out flew the steamy little birds, no doubt squawking about their imprisonment and eager for their escape. But such a practice was more of a novelty, like ice sculptures, rather than an edible meal.
The French have derived all sorts of techniques for cooking in unusual coverings. In Beef Wellington, the classic dish of a roast beef wrapped in pastry dough, the beautiful baked dough shell is only meant to ensure that the beef stays juicy and tender, and the pastry itself is not intended to be eaten. A variation of this is cooking "en papillote," that is, sealing foods in parchment paper, to steam them without losing the natural juices. In this latter instance, not eating the wrapper makes very good sense.
I've adopted the simple cooking technique of roasting by cooking a chicken in a brown bag. You still need a pan for containing the bird and its juices, but the whole thing, pan and all, slides into a brown paper bag, which is then stapled shut, and baked in a regular oven. The bird stays juicy and the skin crisps up, with no splattering mess on the oven walls. Italians follow a similar technique for cooking vegetables in a brown bag, as demonstrated by David Ruggerio's zucchini recipe below.
A bain marie, or water bath, cooks containers of foods within a shallow pan of water, to ensure evenly gentle and slow cooking. Custards and egg dishes are typically cooked in a bain marie, but for a new way to slow cook beans, check out the Cannellini in a Flask recipe.
Salt, it was discovered, can do more than season foods and melt ice. A layer of salt is an excellent conductor of temperature, which is why raw oysters are often served on a bed of chilled rock salt. Salt also transmits heat well, so cooking on a bed of salt is a common practice, as is roasting a fowl or fish completely submerged in salt. The food comes out juicy and tender, and surprisingly, not overly salty.
Recipes Using Odd Techniques
Kate's Global Kitchen for October 2004:
10/01/04 99 Bottles of Beer, Hurrah!
10/08/04 Odd and Unusual Cooking Techniques
10/15/04 Slow Cooker, Crock-Pot Round-Up
10/22/04 A Kinder, Gentler Halloween
10/29/04 I Ain't No Vampire ('Cause Garlic Tastes Good to Me)
Copyright © 2004, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created October 2004