This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
The French ideal of a perfect cook is that he shall exactly understand the nature and properties of the substances which he employs, so that he may correct, or improve, such aliments as nature presents in a raw state. He must have a sound head, a sure taste, a delicate palate, and must never forget that "seasoning is the rock on which indifferent cooks make shipwreck."This is to say, that in the sublime culinary art, sense, tact, and experience are better than the learning which only exhibits, and sometimes defeats itself, in over-elaboration, and costly excess. President Loubet, at the Culinary Show in Paris (1902), said to the assembled chefs, and scullions: "France is famous all over the world for her literature, her arts, and her Cookery. Thanks to French Cookery, plebeians like you, and me receive crowned heads at our tables. Continue, then, to be good cooks: attend well to your sauces, and devote to them all your talent, so that they in return may heap honour upon yourselves." "The man," said Brillat Savarin," who invents a new plat is a greater benefactor to the human race than the man who discovers a new planet." But a natural aptitude for the art of cooking must be possessed - "On pent devenir fruitier; on est ne rolisseur".
In the time of our Queen Elizabeth the red-nosed cook ruled omnipotent in big kitchens; his sceptre was a rolling-pin, a case of knives swung at his side, and chests of spices were his crown jewels. Local dishes were then strictly retained. Devonshire had its white pot, and clouted cream; Cornwall its herring, and pilchard pies; Hampshire was renowned for its honey; and Gloucestershire for its lampreys. In 1750 the first public Restaurant was founded in France at Paris by a cook named Boulanger, over whose shop and dining rooms was displayed the Latin inscription, "Venite omnes qui stomacho laboratis, et ego restaurabo vos" - "Come to me all you who are hungry, and I will restore you to comfort".
Broadly speaking, it may be said that most forms of cooking actually lessen the digestibility of animal foods, and increase that of vegetable foods. Moreover, it is found by doctors that many sick persons can take raw, or much underdone meats more easily than other forms of nutriment. The general effect of cooking on the structure of meat is to lessen the consistence of its fibres by converting into soft gelatin the hitherto firm connective tissue which holds them together, also to remove fat by melting it down; the chief result of cooking on meat is to diminish its amount of water. That meat is rendered less digestible in proportion to the degree of cooking which it receives, is shown by the ascertained fact that three and a half ounces of beef, when eaten raw, disappear completely from the stomach in two hours, whereas when half-boiled the meat has not disappeared until at the end of two and a half hours, nor when wholly boiled until three hours have expired; when half-roasted it takes three hours to undergo digestion in the stomach, and when wholly roasted four hours. "Raw flesh," says Brillat Savarin," though it sticks to the teeth, is not at all unpleasant to the taste; seasoned with a little salt it is readily digested, and is certainly as nourishing as in any other form'.
The effect of heat on the albuminous parts (proteids) of foods is to coagulate them, this being effected at about a temperature of 170° Fahrt., or 42° below the boiling point. If the degree of heat employed in cooking goes beyond this, the value of the food is lessened by the hardening, and shrinking of the albuminous materials; the importance of which fact in its practical application to cooking has long been recognized, though commonly neglected, or disregarded in effect. In the cooking of vegetables the moist heat of the water, raised to nearly, or quite boiling point, swells up the starch grains, and ruptures their surrounding envelopes, so that the invading water makes a paste with the escaping starch, or a form of starch jelly. If green vegetables are cooked in any excess of water, their bulk is reduced, and their valuable mineral salts become dissolved away; so that in this manner their nutritive value is considerably lessened, though perhaps their digestibility may be enhanced; but their chief worth as food lies in their undiminished bulk, and in their mineral salts.
When a cabbage, or carrot, or potato, is boiled, a large proportion of the soluble potash salts pass from the vegetable tissue into the water, which is generally poured away, and with it the precious elixir which is the true preventive of gout, rheumatism, lumbago, and rheumatic neuralgia. The French housewife's method of cooking vegetables is far more sensible, and excellent: by her the quantity of water used is so nicely measured as not to require any abstraction, but it forms a sort of emulsion of the juices with the oil, or fat, which she always adds at the right time, and in proper proportion. Vegetables should never be salted until they are nearly cooked, else they will be hardened by this addition. It is interesting to know that the advantages of slow cooking are well recognized by some savage tribes; and in this respect the civilized cook has something to learn from them. For instance, the following is the method of cooking practised by the Kanakas, of the Friendly Islands: "A hole is scooped in the earth, and a fire is made therein with wood, and kept burning until a fair-sized heap of glowing charcoal remains. Pebbles are then thrown in until the charcoal is covered.
Whatever is to be cooked is enveloped in leaves, then placed upon the pebbles, and more leaves heaped upon it. The earth is next thrown back into the cavity, and stamped well down. A long time is, of course, needed for the viands to become cooked through, but so subtle is the mode that to overdo anything is almost an impossibility. A couple of days may pass from the time of ' putting down' the joint, yet when it is dug up it will be smoking hot; retaining all its juices, tender as jelly, yet withal as full of flavour as it is possible for cooked meat to be. No matter how large the joint is, or how tough the meat, this gentle suasion will render it succulent, and tasty; and no form of civilized cookery can in the least compare with it. No better illustration of the advantages of slow cooking could well be found "(Hutchison, Cruise of the Cachalot).