Two French ways to boost flavor in food: One good, one evil

How a couple of simple combinations of onions, carrots, celery and caramelization can transform all your cooking

Topics: Eyewitness Cook, Cooking techniques, Francis in France!, International cuisine, Food,

Two French ways to boost flavor in food: One good, one evil

This is a tale of two gentlemen of France, Dr. Mirepoix and Monsieur Pinçage.

Dr. Mirepoix was so kind his sweat was fragrant and sweet, smelling of carrots, celery and onions, and he was happy to share his charms. “Bonjour, Dr. Mirepoix!” his neighbor said. “I’ve got a bag of bones from the butcher and would like to make a stock! Would you mind coming over?”

“Mais oui!” the good doctor said, changing into a tasteful bathing suit. “I love the Jacuzzi!” He bathed in the stock for its last hour or so, sweetening the pot, giving it a golden color and a background of flavor, and he smiled and shook hands with the happy neighbor on his way out.

One day another neighbor called out: “Bonjour, Dr. Mirepoix! I am roasting a chicken and would like something to lay at the bottom of the pan to catch the juices and perfume the bird. Would you bring Mademoiselle Potato Head over?”

“Mais oui!” the good doctor said, putting on his tanning goggles and laying out with his tuber lady friend, smiling and shaking hands with the happy neighbor on the way out, not minding that his lady friend decided to stay for a while. “I’ll call you tomorrow!” she said to him. Only halfway home did Dr. Mirepoix remember he has no phone.

One day a third neighbor called out: “Bonjour, Dr. Mirepoix! I am either poor or a vegetarian and have no bones to boil in water. Will you come help me at least have a vegetable stock?”

“Mais oui!” the good doctor said. “But first, I must ask you for a favor in return. You must rub me down with a little bit of oil and warm me up in the pot!”

“What about Mademoiselle Potato Head?” the third neighbor asked.

Dr. Mirepoix gave a Gallic shrug. “You don’t want her in your stock,” he said flatly.

And so the third neighbor did as told until Dr. Mirepoix looked nicely sweaty, then poured in about twice as much water as needed to cover him for a humble but versatile vegetable stock. After about half an hour to an hour, Dr. Mirepoix dried off and shook the third neighbor’s hand.

And then one day a fourth neighbor called out: “Bonjour, Dr. Mirepoix! I tasted our neighbor’s vegetable stock, and it gave me an idea. Do you think you would mind coming over to flavor the rice I am making?”



“Mais oui!” the good doctor said, before going again, a little more emphatically than expected, into his need to first be rubbed down and warmed up with oils. The fourth neighbor agreed and started Dr. Mirepoix in the pot when the phone rang. “We have extra tickets to the new SATC movie!” the voice on the other end squealed.

The fourth neighbor promptly forgot about the pot.

After a while, Dr. Mirepoix looked up and started to wonder. He sweated profusely and started to get nervous. He sweated even more, and by now was starting to get weak. “I’m dehydrating!” he said. Silence. “Someone … some water, please! Someone help me!” he cried, never feeling more lonely. He could feel his tears dry up. He whispered, “I … forgive you, Pomme,” and he fainted.

The fourth neighbor came home from the theater, and no sooner than opening the door, ran to the kitchen and cried, “Oh no! What have I done?” Looking at the brown, sticky mass Dr. Mirepoix had become, the fourth neighbor sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, until, suddenly, there came a sound of electric guitar, the deepest, darkest, evilest heavy metal riff ever heard.

“Dr. Mirepoix! You’re alive!” the fourth neighbor exclaimed.

“Waaaaaaahhh! Forget Dr. Mirepooooooiiiiiix!!!!!! I am PINÇAGE!” the creature cried. “I can do anything he can do, but he could never make old men yell and young girls scream!” he cackled. The fourth neighbor was terrified and stabbed Pinçage with a spoon and, without thinking about it, licked it. The flavor was incredible — darkly complex, unidentifiable but caramel-seductive and deeply concentrated. The fourth neighbor, under a spell, fainted. Then Pinçage leapt out of the pot, strolled out the door, kicked over a boy on a tricycle, made out with your girlfriend, stole a car, and shot a man down just to watch him die.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Mirepoix (meer-pwah) is one of the most fundamental French aromatic combinations, used to give background flavor to stock, sauces, braises and soups, and even to stuff or perfume roasts.

It adds sweetness and aroma from the onion, sugar and earthiness from the carrot, and a floating kind of herbal intrigue from the celery. It’s an especially great way to add freshness and complexity to canned broths or stocks, giving those often otherwise lifeless liquids a bit of character.

The two main things you need to think about when using it are how small to cut it and when to add it. (Proportions are kind of give-and-take-y and to taste, but I’ll give you some suggested guides below.)

Ingredients

  • 2 parts onion
  • 1 part carrot
  • 1 part celery (theoretically by weight, but really don’t worry about it too much)

Directions

For fresh chicken or other meat stock:

  1. Traditionally, use about 1/8 of the amount of mirepoix as the bones, meaning that if you have 2 pounds of bones, use ¼ pound of mirepoix.
  2. Cut each vegetable into 1-inch chunks; add for about the last hour to half-hour of simmering. This size allows the flavors to extract over time, and not have the vegetables overcook and fall apart. Adding toward the end preserves a fresher, more delicate and pronounced flavor.

To make canned broth taste much better:

  1. Just set it to simmer for a half-hour or so with about ¼ pound of mirepoix to every pint of broth. If you’re in a hurry, just cut the vegetables smaller and simmer it for a shorter time.

As an all-purpose flavor booster::

  1. Sautéing mirepoix is a great way to start and add flavor to so many everyday items. Chop up a handful of it finely and sauté it lightly over medium heat until it sweats and the onions are translucent, and then from there cook a pot of rice. It adds a vegetal complexity that is intriguing and satisfying without getting in the way. Or do it (especially in a little butter) for your next tomato sauce, and see how it mellows it out.

While mirepoix adds a clean, fresh, vegetal complexity to your food, a lovely background, its evil twin pinçage is much more assertive. Pinçage (pen-sazsh, or something like that) is all about darkness — you slowly cook mirepoix (with the addition of tomato paste for more sweetness, balancing tartness, and oomph) to concentrate, soften and caramelize the sugars for an incredibly complex brown flavor.

Traditionally, pinçage is used instead of mirepoix in brown stocks (where the bones are roasted before simmering), but I find it to be a superb thing to keep on hand for whenever I want to make something with huge, deep flavor. It’s great for stirring into sauces of almost any sort, into stews and braises, or even, say, stirring it into a pasta or a grain salad to amp up the flavor. (Friends of mine make a salad of farro — you can use rice, quinoa, orzo, whatever – with pinçage, feta cheese, parsley, garlic, olive oil and vinegar. They had it at their wedding and liked it so much they figured out how to make it for their restaurant.) And best of all, you can make pinçage and keep it in the freezer for whenever you need it. It’s like having pure evil in your pocket. In a good way.

Pinçage

Ingredients

  • 2 parts onion
  • 1 part carrot
  • 1 part celery (theoretically by weight, but don’t worry about it too much)
  • Tomato paste, just enough to coat the vegetables
    Vegetable or olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions

  1. Cut your vegetables depending on how you’ll use them: In 1-inch chunks if you’re getting ready for a stock, or go ahead and chop them fine if you’ll use them as a magic flavor-amping stir-in. (The finer they’re cut, the quicker the cooking time. And here’s a tip — cut the celery smaller than everything else.)
  2. In a wide, heavy pan or pot, heat about a tablespoon of oil for every pound of vegetables over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onions and stir until coated. And now begins the long dark journey into night.
  3. Sauté onions, stirring often, until they soften and turn clear. Don’t let it brown. Add carrots. Stir. You’re going to be doing this a lot, so you might as well get a drink. Stir. When the carrots are starting to soften, turn the heat down to low. Stir every couple of minutes. The point of all the stirring is to make sure that none of the vegetables brown before the moisture gets really cooked out, because they’ll be in the pan a long time, and you don’t want to burn them. Sprinkle with just a little salt and pepper.
  4. When the carrots and onions are richly browned and have lost a lot of volume (we’re talking at least a half-hour here, and perhaps much more, depending on how much you’re making), add a few spoonfuls of tomato paste, just enough to coat everything lightly. Cook, stirring, until the tomato paste is rusty, brick-colored. Sprinkle with just a little salt and pepper.
  5. Add the celery. The celery is where this gets really annoying, because it will just give off water all night long, but you’ll be able to tell because you can see the steam. Stir, a tiny bit of salt, you know how this goes. Keep cooking until the celery totally softens or everything else threatens to go from deep brown to burnt black. Give the whole mess a taste. It might be a little too much on its own to truly be enjoyable, but give it a stir into any soup, sauce or whatever else, and see how sinister it gets. \w/!

 Corrected: The original version of this story misstated that one uses 1/8 the amount of bones as mirepoix in a stock. The proportions have been corrected and reversed.

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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