AROMATICS are the heated flavourings that give a dish its essence, its heart. Aromatics impart the distictive peaks of taste and fragrance that make you remember a dish, set it apart from other dishes, and make you want to make it again.
You can add anything you like to a dish, and everything you put into the pot or frying pan will in some way change the flavour, for better or worse. We all know the difference a heavy hand with the salt cellar can make.
But aromatics can range from herbs and spices to vegetables and combinations thereof, to vinegar, wine and sweetening agents. The trick is to learnt to know what works with what, what doesn’t, and to have the creativity to experiment knowing that if it doesn’t work this time, you’ve learnt something for next time and are becoming a better cook.
I take my cue on the subject from a book by Richard Olney, an American who lived in France and wrote a book called The French Menu Cookbook, which I regard as one of my culinary bibles. Olney did not write the kind of cookery book that is written today. Writing in the late 1960s, with a mid-1980s revision, he set out the art of French cooking in careful and gracious detail, before setting out a series of well-balanced and very French seasonal menus, all very detailed and precise.
It was in these pages that I first learnt the difference between a mirepoix (a gentle sweating in butter of chopped carrot and onion, often with celery, and herbs) and a duxelles, in which mushrooms are substituted for carrots. These are not dishes in themselves but vegetable aromatics which form the starting point for a dish.
While we think of all this as French, and it is, similar concoctions are the starting points for dishes in other cuisines, from Indian to Chinese. The latter will season a wok and get some basic ingredients going to form the flavour base, and then build that up. A good Indian curry starts with the braising of whole or crushed spices in ghee (clarified butter), followed by the addition of chopped onions before liquid and other items are added as the flavours rise and rise to become the strikingly flavoured dish it will become.
It’s the care taken with aromatics and the considered building-up of a dish that make the difference between a quick home-cooked meal and something with flavours and textures that make your palate sit up and take note. What got me thinking about this was the difference between two oxtail casseroles I have made in recent weeks. The first was thrown together in a slow-cooker and left for hours. The result was wonderfully tender but kind of bland and lacking interest.
So this time I started (using my tajine) by sauteeing chopped garlic and shallots gently in olive oil with grated lemon zest and whole black peppercorns, very gently and slowly to develop the flavours, then removed this and browned the oxtail chunks very well, slowly, over a medium heat in the same piot, to take advantage of the aromatics that had developed as the pot was seasoned for the dish. I also cooked lardons of smoked pork belly bacon (from the Continental butchery at the top of Kloof Street in Tamboerskloof) and added them to the aromatics with plenty of fresh sage leaves, torn apart.
Once browned in batches, I returned the aromatics to the tajine. I blended about 100ml good beef stock (I used Nomu beef fond) with 150ml dry red wine and 50ml port, and poured this in, seasoned with salt to taste, brought it to a simmer and let it cook for about four hours by which time the flavours were a hundred times better than my earlier version.
But making a great dish is like climbing a mountain – and just as there is an ascent when making a carefully flavoured dish, there’s a descent from the summit too.
The descent involves finishing touches that will turn a damn good meal into a memorable one. Most important is to turn down the heat for a while so that the fats can rise to the surface and then skim them off with a metal spoon. Also check seasoning, but only adding salt a little at a time so as not to over-salt.
At this point with this kind of dish I also use a ladle to scoop out the skimmed sauce and strain it into a saucepan to reduce it down over a high heat, which intensifies all of the flavours, before pouring this back into the pot. A further enrichment woud be to stir a knob of unsalted butter into the sauce before plating it, to give it a final perk of lustre and flavour.
The dish is, more or less, a variation on a beef Bourguignon theme, and the finishing touch would be a garnish of something that went into the dish – a sprig of sage, and/or perhaps a twirl of lemon zest.
Bourguignon purists will notice there are no mushrooms in the dish. I cooked them separately, braising in olive oil with lemon juice, and served them alongside, with a stack of aubergine and courgette slices, simply fried in olive oil as a light side dish to the heaviness of the centrepiece.