Behind the Scenes: Marinade magic
April 15, 2012
As the season winds down, restaurateurs who are on my radar screen for the summer, such as Jean-Michel Chelain (The Left Bank in Vail) and Daniel Joly (Mirabelle in Beaver Creek), are preparing for well-deserved mud-season rests.
Given that I need a rest, too, I decided to continue to focus on techniques I’ve learned during my experiential research outings this winter. I realize talking technique isn’t as “juicy” as describing the frenetic scenes in a busy restaurant, but hopefully some of these pointers will help you construct your own memorable dining experiences.
This week I went back to Chef Adam Roustom, owner and executive chef of Blue Plate Bistro in Avon, to pick his brain about techniques. One afternoon I sat with Roustom – who had his treasured copy of Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” – close at hand. Roustom is intrigued with the science of food, so I thought it would be fun to chat with him about the transformation of meat, fish and poultry when immersed in an acidic liquid for a period of time. In short, marinades. Although marinades are not often used in his winter fare, in summer marinades make an appearance both on his menu and at his “family (staff) meals.”
Transforming edible raw materials into culinary delights is little more than a chemistry experiment. In his treatise on the science of food, McGee defines cooking as “applied chemistry, and the basic concepts of chemistry – molecules, energy, heat, reactions – are keys to a clearer understanding of what our foods are and how we transform them.” The “four basic food molecules” are water, lipids (such as fats and oils), carbohydrates (sugars, starches, pectins and gums), and proteins. How chefs and cooks manipulate these molecules using energy, heat and reactions is what cooking is all about. Little did we know the basics we learned in high school chemistry are building blocks for culinary creations!
I’ll leave the debate as to the exact origin and first usage of the word “marinate” to the etymologists, but one thing is certain, it’s a Mediterranean word that appeared during the Renaissance to describe the pickling (brining) of fish. At that time adding flavor wasn’t the issue; keeping disease-causing agents at bay was. The popular Middle Eastern dish, shawarma, was originally soaked in vinegar not to add flavor to the lamb, but to preserve it and extend its shelf life in the heat of the region. Vinegar, once used solely to preserve meat, is a key ingredient in marinades and is thought to open the pores to allow the flavors to penetrate beyond the surface. But truth be told, I found in my research there is no consensus on vinegar’s role in the process.
Fast forward to our modern cuisine and refrigeration. Marinades today are made primarily from acid-based liquids usually mixed with herbs and other seasonings to tenderize and add flavor to fish and lean meats such as chicken and pork. Supermarket shelves are full of concoctions of all sorts, the majority of which are laced with preservatives and chemicals. A good rule of thumb about processed food labels: if you can’t pronounce it, our bodies won’t recognize it. So why pay money for the bottle, the ingredients you don’t need or want and the energy it takes to produce and ship it when the ingredients for great marinades are usually at your fingertips?
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Food philosophies are derived from life experiences, and for Roustom its marinades, particularly seafood from his childhood home in Syria and later on Cape Cod. Roustom believes marinades are a great way for home cooks to express themselves by using favorite flavors in ways probably not previously considered, such as fruit purees, peach juice and hot sauce.
Marinades require acids such as wine, vinegar or citrus to activate the process. A nonreactive vessel – definitely not aluminum – is needed. Personally, I find zipper bags work great. Beyond that, there aren’t many rules and there are as many different variations as there are ideas that pop into a chef’s mind.
For example, Roustom doesn’t like to use oil in his marinades, yet many recipes call for oils. He finds it drips onto the grill, causing flare-ups and messy cleanups. Salt is another problematic ingredient that tends to dry out meat if marinated too long. Too much and you’re brining, an entirely different technique. Sugar often adds nothing but trouble as it chars and burns too easily. Fructose in fruit rather than the glucose in sugar might be preferable when seeking a sweeter taste.
I asked Roustom to throw out some ideas readers could use to enhance their grilling experiences this summer. Fish has a more delicate flavor and muscle structure so it requires lighter seasonings. Deviating a bit from his prohibition on sugar in a marinade, Roustom likes a blend of maple syrup, Banyuls vinegar, and chervil on striped bass. Chicken and fowl are great with lemon, orange or even peach juice, plus garlic and rosemary.
When I arrived, Roustom was busy creating a quail marinade from garlic (lots of it), distilled white vinegar, ginger, flat-leaf parsley, Syrian spice (his own magical concoction of Middle Eastern spices) and other goodies I lost track of. Roustom eschews the use of marinades on ribs. “What’s the point?” he asked. In his opinion, the abundance of fat translates into an abundance of flavor and moisture.
For pork and chicken, Roustom is experimenting with Japanese eel sauce, ginger, soy sauce, garlic, scallions, rice wine vinegar or lime juice. Although thinner cuts of pork can dry out if marinated too long in soy sauce, pork roasts can withstand a longer time in the marinade.
There is a multitude of resources available on the Internet and in bookstores that are useful when figuring out your own optimal way to marinate. I found “The Zen And Myths Of Marinades” on AmazingRibs.com to be entertaining as well as informative. I posted the link on my Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets.
But the best resources are your imagination and those basics you can find in your own pantry, wine storage and refrigerator. So have fun this summer with fresh fruits and meats that appear in our grocery stores and farmers’ markets. It’s all about experimentation where failure is an option.
As Roustom pointed out, pastry chefs have little or no margin for error. It’s nearly impossible to salvage a cake that’s missing a key ingredient. But for marinades and grilling, saving your failures from the rubbish bin can be easy as lopping on some hot sauce or other condiments. It may not be the result you were seeking, but it could possibly be an even better one.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.