The Joy of Food at Room Temperature: Plus an Antipasto Recipe
Much more of the world serves their food in the bacterial 'Danger Zone' than we Canadians might expect. Even at your own family gatherings and potluck dinners, you'll be eating plenty of food sitting above six degrees celsius. Yet restaurants and food shops in this country are forced to serve dishes neutered by cold.' We are deprived, by the timidity of our food inspectors, of experiencing just how much temperature can impact taste.
Many of the world's most celebrated food cultures serve food room temperature. The Bouchons of Lyon, France's gastronomical capital, shuffle the same pots of room temperature appetizers like green lentils and pickled calf's food salad from table to table through service. The great Tapas bars of San Sebastian lay pickled sardines and potato-egg Tortilla d'Espana on their bars in the morning, replenishing, but never chilling, their offerings through the day. The Georgian Supra feasting table is laid heavy with 'cold' dishes well before guests arrive. If those salads, pickles, and walnut pastes tasted like they'd come from a fridge, however, there would be outrage across the table. Those 'cold' dishes were clearly not made fresh!
In fact, dishes served freezing cold are aberrations enough to make them exciting. Think about how you feel when you eat a luscious forkful of chilly tiramisu or a crisp, refreshing, boule of sorbet. These are special occasion foods, marked by the significant effort and infrastructure required to deliver a dish at a very precise temperature to your table.
Chris McDonald, formerly Chef-Owner at Toronto’s Cava, is a firm believer in the pleasure of a room-temperature dish. In a chat over the phone, he explained that a lot of the flavour in food is delivered by fat. “Something like Peperonatta,” an Italian ratatouille-like dish built around peppers, garlic, and olive oil, “is something you would never eat cold as the olive oil would be on the verge of congealing.” According to McDonald, “the same goes for any food with butter, your body has to warm up the cold butter to get to the flavour of the food.” If served at room temperature, closer to the temperature of your own body, you can experience the dish in a more complete way. As well, Chris points out that cold foods have to be more aggressively flavoured to overcome their temperature. Ice cream, for example, is far more sweetened than other desserts because the cold temperature will numb your palate.
Chris and I both agree on why Canadians are so ‘fridge-happy.’ We’re wealthier than so much of the world. With well-equipped kitchens and massive fridges, we have the real-estate to chill food rather than eat it fresh. Chris points out chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s autobiography. When she lived in Italy she was shocked to see so much food left out on counters and at room temperature. Instead, people shopped daily and worked through the produce sitting out in the kitchen. Their fridges & iceboxes, generally smaller and more primitive due to constraints of space and money, are reserved for the foods that really need to stay cold.
To Chris, we forget that “what came first was the food, pre-refrigeration traditional food, and what came next was the fridge.” Our compulsion to over-refrigerate has meant that for many North Americans foods like Hummus are understood as cold. I was joyously shocked when I got to Israel and found hummus restaurants serving bowls of freshly made room-temperature hummus. It tasted about a thousand times better than the cold plastic tubs of Sabra left littered through my childhood.
Hummus brings me to a key point. To my taste, nothing showcases the pleasure of room temperature food quite like the mezze-style, relaxed-pace dining of mediterranean and middle-eastern cuisines. Chris gives the perfect example: a casual meal of bread, the most common room-temperature food, stuffed vine leaves, bean dips, and cooked greens dressed in vinegar, all laid out and picked at while diners engage in heated arguments. This sort of eating, only now entering the vogue of western dining, and only really in restaurants, makes food seem ubiquitous. Mealtimes are not a set hour, wherein a cold dish is followed by a hot, in turn followed by something cold. Instead food is simply a part of the afternoon as it slowly turns into evening. Plates are shared without anxiety over temperature, dishes are eaten with equal nonchalance and joy, flavour becomes a core part of daily, if not hourly, life. Chris puts the joy of this kind of room-temperature dining exactly saying, “it’s about hospitality...providing a table full of food that doesn’t require you to eat at an exact moment is an act of generosity, the meal conforms to your schedule.”
To fully demonstrate the point, Chris selected a recipe for me to make. Marcella Hazan, one of the first great cookbook writers to preach the gospel of Italian cooking, has a simple recipe for “Peppers and Anchovies” in her Classic Italian Cookbook. In Chris’ mind this dish, somewhere between veggie and condiment, should be served neither hot nor cold.
You will need.
4 sweet bell peppers - any colour you like (so long as it’s not green)
1 can of anchovies
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
Place the peppers under a hot broiler, turning as each side blisters and chars slightly, remove the peppers, seed and peel while still hot
Cut the peppers into strips around 1½-2 inches wide
In a serving dish of your choosing lay out a layer of peppers, add about 3-4 anchovy fillets, a few capers, and a few cloves of crushed garlic, a sprinkle of salt, some fresh cracked black pepper, and some oregano
Repeat the above step layer by layer until you fill the dish, top off with olive oil
Let sit in the fridge overnight, bring out of the fridge at least one hour before service
SERVE AT ROOM TEMPERATURE!!!! (and prove Chris and I right)