So why do we find purées so satisfying? Well, to borrow an argument from Phil Howard, and in the process to sound fairly pretentious, a purée offers a mouthfeel that is entirely unique. It carries flavour and coats the mouth in a way that sauces simply don’t. And of course, as a chef, it’s just easier to make things look fancy with a well-placed purée. Or perhaps we just find them comforting because they remind us of baby food. Whatever the reason, despite some food critics’ despair at ‘cheffy’ swipes across plates, I have to admit I think purées, thoughtfully made and carefully utilised, are an excellent tool for a chef.
My musings on purées have been brought about recently by various comments I’ve seen from chefs, several of which have led me to conclude that not enough high end chefs actually give the necessary thought to the preparation of (primarily vegetable) purées.
Now don’t get me wrong, in the grand scheme of things, I reckon purée preparation is going to come pretty low down the list in terms of important things to be focusing on in life right now. But it seems easier to comment on them than on an actual news story, so I’ll stick to discussing blitzed foods.
A method of preparation should be considered based on the role that the ingredient is going to play on the plate, rather than blindly cooking to a particular philosophy. For example, omitting cream for the sake of omitting cream or to modernise is a foolish notion which I dislike greatly. The question should be whether cream will help to make the best tasting version possible of a dish (unless you’ve a health food fine dining thing – in which case I cannot help you). Often the answer may well not be to add cream, which does have a tendency to dull flavours. However, context is everything. So here are a few options for different approaches to purée making.
As I’ve discussed before, a very pure carrot purée can be made by simmering carrots in carrot juice and blitzing the final product. The only ingredient is carrots, and the presence of whole carrots in the final mix helps to add body to the purée.
Sweetcorn is a good example of when the final usage of the purée needs to be considered carefully. A sweetcorn purée can be made in the fairly classic way of simmering in cream or milk then blitzing. However, sweetcorn’s natural flavour can, in my opinion, often end up somewhat muted in this preparation. By removing corn from its cob and juicing it, or by just juicing defrosted frozen sweetcorn, then cooking it slowly over a low heat, the liquid will thicken itself due to the natural presence of starch (I believe!) This helps make an incredibly pure sweetcorn purée which is much lighter than one made with cream. There is nothing wrong with either but the role the purée will play in the final dish can help to decide which road to go down.
As molecular techniques become more widespread, the ‘chemical’ options on offer to chefs to make purées become ever wider, and I won’t attempt to go into them in depth here. However, one that I will touch on which does merit attention is that of purées made with agar agar, more commonly known as ‘fluid gels’. These are made by setting a liquid to a jelly using agar agar and then blitzing it. This way, any juiced fruit or veg can be thickened to a purée with no need for any additional cream, solid ingredients or anything else that might dilute the flavour. This creates very intense, pure purées. The effect can be changed slightly if solid ingredients are blitzed with the set jelly. So, roasted mushrooms blitzed with a mushroom stock set with agar will create a strong mushroom purée but with a bit more body due to the addition of the solid ingredients.
Besides the purity of flavour that this method can achieve, the agar agar, when blitzed, gives a particular ‘mouthfeel’. The fluid gel also has the useful property of ‘behaving’ very well as it holds its shape once placed on the plate.
Sometimes cream is the only sensible option. Take a celeriac purée to accompany a game dish. Celeriac has a strong, earthy and distinctive flavour that is more than capable of standing up to the fattiness of cream and, when puréed, is often paired with rich game meats. In this case, I would argue that what we’re looking for probably isn’t a fresh, light thickened celeriac juice. We’re after something comforting and velvety that will match the richness of the game. For this we might simmer the vegetable in cream until soft, then blitz the lot. This produces an undeniably rich purée. However, by simmering in only the amount of cream the final purée will require, flavour that does seep into the cream during the simmering will at least still end up in the final product.
Cream is not always the answer. But neither is a wholehearted commitment to purity of flavour. Chefs need to think about what exactly a dish is trying to achieve and therefore what different elements of that dish need to contribute to the finished plate. Cooking to a philosophy is all well and good, but not at the expense of looking at your own dishes with a critical eye, particularly in relation to the diners’ actual eating experience of the dish, something that all too often seems to be forgotten.
Sometimes it can just become too complicated and involved. Maybe I should aspire to this instead.