It seems to me that, in some ways, it’s easier to explore culinary innovation in Britain precisely because we have no strong food tradition to enchain us.
Heston Blumenthal, In Search of Perfection
We’ve had a copy of In Search of Perfection on our cookbook shelf for a few years now, but never cracked it open because it is one of those books that are less a cookbook but rather a book on food; after all, it only contains recipes for eight dishes in the span of nearly 320 pages. It’s the companion to Heston Blumenthal’s first BBC series in which he sought to dissect favorites in British cuisine, ranging from bangers and mash to pizza, and figure out a way to create a “perfect” rendition of each dish (all while readily admitting that one’s personal Platonic ideal is another’s culinary hell). He’s known for being grouped in with other so-called “molecular gastronomists” (just don’t call them by that term) and his restaurant The Fat Duck is consistently ranked among the top three in the world, this year trailing only Norma and El Bulli. Blumenthal’s style of food is one that often requires various pieces of special equipment like sous-vides machines, and while they are certainly interesting to see in action on episodes of Top Chef, it’s one we’ve never really embraced because we don’t have the storage space for such things and Michael gets to actually be a scientist every day as it is–sometimes it’s best to leave your work at work and let the professionals and those who are passionate about it do it well.
The thing with Perfection is that it’s not really about that kind of experimentalism; while the recipes are not super-super-simple, done-in-30-minute affairs, Blumenthal explicitly states that he intended to make them as accessible for the home cook as possible. So when I realized that a ragú that I found on rice and wheat a few weeks ago was an adapted version of the Spaghetti Bolognese found in this book, I knew it was time to crack it open and read what he had to say on perfecting “spag-bol” (as it’s called in the UK). And really, there’s nothing that wacky or intimidating about his version–a few crazy spices and condiments that are added into the mix notwithstanding–save for time. It takes over 9 hours to cook from start to finish (though eight of those hours are the sauce simmering on the stove), which makes it perfect for a weekend project but only if you have everything ready to go on the morning you plan to cook it. So the folks at Saveur reworked the recipe in order to reduce the cooking time (more or less) but still expect a solid hour or so of active cooking time and three and a half to four hours of simmering.
This sauce is a revelation: rich and meaty as one would expect, but the licorice flavor from the star anise and tarragon gives the sauce a sweetness that is mellow thanks to the long cooking process. Maybe it was because the anise was so strong on my tongue, but I couldn’t really tell that there was any fish sauce or Worcestershire in the mix, but that could be that there was only a little of each added into the big pot and their role was to bolster other flavors instead. Like all good Italian sauces this is not one that overwhelms pasta, so the homemade tagliatelle that Michael rolled out went perfectly with this dish, even if Blumenthal noted that he had to use dried spaghetti in order to keep it somewhat recognizable to his fellow Brits.
The verdict: this is now our favorite ragú, and I think it’s time to start working through some of Blumenthal’s other “perfect” recipes. In the meantime, you can try this modified recipe here.