A couple of years ago I sang the praises of Michael Pollan's book Food Rules, and recently I read his much weightier tome Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Both books are good, but they're quite different – Food Rules is like a (healthy) snack, whereas Cooked is more of a four course meal.
Anyway, Cooked contained a couple of revelations for me. I'm an enthusiastic but largely self-taught home cook. I did a year or so of cooking classes in intermediate [middle] school (where we made things like kumara chowder, red cabbage salad and stewed rhubarb, and I was once falsely accused of stealing a potato peeler) and I've also taken a few cooking courses as an adult. Now and then though I stumble across a truth universally acknowledged that I've completely failed to notice! The section in Cooked on boiling and braising contained several a-ha moments.
Mirepoix: apparently a mirepoix is a combination of onions, celery and carrots (or a subset of those or similar ingredients), sautéed in (say) olive oil and used as a flavour base for soups, stews and sauces. While I've frequently cooked dishes based on these ingredients, I'd never really appreciated the significance of the chemistry; the importance of cooking the vegetables first to bring out the aromatics prior to adding water. Many of my recipes (e.g. shakshuka, ratatouille, creamy mushrooms, carrot and coriander soup, chickpea delight and boeuf bourguignon) are based on a mirepoix, and I'll be more conscious in future of the order in which I add the ingredients.
Braising: Never really knew what this word meant! It seems that if you braise something, it is partially covered with water while cooking, so that the food receives both moist and dry heat, and this enhances the flavour. Again, something I was unaware of: I've been guilty on occasion of completely covering my stews in water while they cook, and this probably made them tougher and less flavoursome.
Hey – we learn new things every day! After reading Cooked I decided to put these new learnings into practice last weekend, and made my best boeuf bourguignon ever.
There is quite a nice synopsis of Cooked on the Guardian's website.