Norman Van Aken's A Word On Food
12:40 pm
Wed June 4, 2014

Caramelization

Inevitably I have a conversation with nearly every chef that comes to work with me as well as the students who attend my cooking classes. It has to do with a cooking term “caramelization”.

Pictured from left to right, Onions in a skillet going through the cooking process of caramelization.
Pictured from left to right, Onions in a skillet going through the cooking process of caramelization.
Credit Norman Van Aken

It is one of those skills that defy perfection for quite some time. In fact, many people think that they are caramelizing “just fine, thank you” but they aren’t. They are typically either cooking too fast and burning or cooking too slow and sweating.

As a child the charms of caramelization were found in the nearly burnt but not quite carrots of my mother’s pot roast. As a teen I loved going to a nearby family’s home for their wonderful parties held in their backyard that showed off their Greek heritage cooking. Before we got into the driveway I could see the spiral of smoke coming off their Weber grill and I dashed to join them. Shish Kebab was made memorable by the fire-tinged edges of the onions and bell peppers maybe even more wondrous than the marinated grilled lamb. By the time I was in my very early twenties I was living in Key West and finding caramelization in those life-altering sweet maduro plantains that earned a ‘highest point so far’ flavor ‘flagstick’ in my brain and sent me packing to find out how to make things that taste as potent as those were. It took some time … but I got there.

I was reading an article on the subject of physics the other day and the gentleman writing the piece was discussing the winter sports of skiing, sledding and skating. He illustrated that these three sports were examples of a type of classic mechanics that he reduced to what I found a unique term for those activities The term he used was friction. The way to enjoy those sports was to control the friction. You wanted to go fast, but not too fast.

It is precisely the same in cooking with the act of bringing food to a perfect degree of caramelization.

Let’s get a pan, some fat and some food and hit the slopes -- So to speak…

I have started a trillion recipes like this. “Have some olive oil and butter ready. Have some vegetables like chilies, garlic, onions, leeks, carrots, and fennel or celery ready too. Now heat a heavy bottomed pan and add the oil and butter. When the butter begins to melt add the vegetables and stir well to coat them. Now listen to them watch them and guide them occasionally by moving them around the pan as the friction and heat do a tango of hug and release.”

Sounds simple, right? But it just isn’t. Not at first.

Did you ever see a trick and decided it would be easy until you actually tried it yourself?

I remember a boyhood buddy being really good with a bullwhip. He could make that think crack! The day he showed me his prowess he did about 20 times flawlessly. CRACK! I was dying to try my hand at it! Finally he handed the length of rawhide over to me and stood back. I carefully lay that whip back behind me, just like I’d seen him do, and then I flung my arm forward with all my might. CRACK! Right across my backside! Pain! Of course I just kept trying and he kept laughing. I hadn’t learned yet how to control the friction.

Such is life ….  caramelization …  and bullwhipping.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

RECIPE FOR CARAMELIZED PLANTAIN MASH EN RELLENO

Yield: 4 servings.

A "mash" by itself is not the prettiest thing to put on a plate, so here, we package the plantains in a jade-green jewel box of roasted and peeled poblano chile. It also gives us the left-to-right combo jab of sweet to heat.

The rellenos can be made up to a day or two ahead of time; just cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator until ready to cook. Bear in mind that if cooked straight from the refrigerator, they'll need a little longer to warm through.

  • 2 poblano chiles, stems left on, blistered in hot oil and peeled
  • ¼ cup peanut oil, for frying
  • 2 very ripe maduro (black) plantains, peeled and cut into 1/2 –inch-thick slices
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Salt and Black pepper to taste

Carefully cut the poblanos (and stems) in half lengthwise and set aside.

Heat the peanut oil in a large skillet and carefully place the plantain slices into the hot oil. Sauté over medium-high heat until very dark golden, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Turn them over and sauté until brown.

Remove the plantains from the skillet and drain on paper towels.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the plantains in a bowl and mash with a fork.

Mix in the butter, salt, and pepper. Carefully pack the mashed plantains into the poblano chile halves with a spoon.

Transfer the chiles onto a baking sheet and place in the oven for about 10 minutes or until they are heated through.

Related Program