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Yesterday I was lucky enough to eat lunch in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

One course consisted, as far as I could tell, of nothing but a selection of lightly cooked baby beetroot and deep-fried shallot rings. Yet the flavours in both vegetables were enormous, so intense that they were enough to carry such an apparently simple dish all by themselves. Furthermore I could easily differentiate between the different varietals of beetroot on the plate, something I don't think I've experienced before.

While no doubt expertly seasoned, the dish was not overly salty: I drank no more water than usual during or after the meal. And since the beetroot were just halved, they cannot have been reduced in any way to concentrate the flavour.

What do high-class restaurants do to their ingredients to promote such incredible flavour? Given the semi-raw state of the beetroot, I can only imagine it's down to selection of the best, most in-season produce. But at the same time I find that hard to believe. What else could be at play here? And where do I have to look in order to find produce of that quality for my own kitchen?

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    Their produce would be of a very high quality and many of the vegetables would have been cooked sous vide rather than boiled so they won't leach flavour. There's also probably a similar thing to the affect that when you tell people a wine is expensive they enjoy it more than people given the same wine but told it's cheap plonk. – Stefano Aug 9 '16 at 10:08
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    Are you sure they weren't (par)cooked in a stock high in umami compounds (glutamic/inosinic/guanylic acid, from a natural or artificial source), and that there was no seasoning with sugar/acids? – rackandboneman Aug 9 '16 at 16:40
  • @rackandboneman No, I'm just sure that the central reason isn't just the zealous application of salt. I'd be interested in hearing about those techniques if you feel they might have been a strong contributor. – Bob Tway Aug 10 '16 at 8:16
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    Umami does not mean salt, and sugar/acid are often not recognized as such unless so much of them is used that it becomes really sour/sweet... – rackandboneman Aug 10 '16 at 8:27
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You actually answered your own question, it's the quality and freshness of the ingredients which makes the food in a great restaurant so good. A heritage variety beet which has been hand weeded and cared for before being picked at the optimal time and cooked within a day will be a totally different eating experience than an industrially grown variety that has been picked for volume and pesticide resistance, grown for size over flavor and then takes a week between being picked and appearing in the supermarket.

Top chefs spend a great deal of time, effort and money sourcing the very best ingredients. Often the chef personally hand picks their ingredients, and some even control their own supply chain by having large gardens or even farms. Of course great chefs also are very good at preparation and flavor pairings, but with such simple dishes the ingredients have to stand up by themselves.

In order to get high quality ingredients you need to find a source other than the supermarket. Supermarkets rely on volume, and the varieties they stock are chosen for volume and shelf life - they are all competing on price so the longer the food lasts and the more that can be grown for less money the better. You aren't going to find the most flavorful varieties in the supermarket, and they will have been picked before they are at their peak so they don't rot before they get on the shelf. Farmers markets, food co-ops and the like are often good sources for high quality vegetables. You can also go to the same markets the chefs do (depending on where you live). Not all suppliers will sell straight to the consumer, but some do. Just be prepared to get up at stupid o'clock and be prepared to open your wallet wider than usual - the best does not come cheap! If you live in the countryside another option would be to drive to farms in your area and see if you can buy direct. A farmer can sell you produce for half the price of the downstream supplier and still make more profit.

Another option to get great vegetables is to grow them yourself, there's nothing better than a tomato picked straight from the plant and it's not hard to do. Growing your own is also incredibly cheap, you just have to be willing to put in a bit of time.

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    to grow you don't just need will and time, but also land and a suitable climate – Agos Sep 8 '16 at 10:15
  • @Agos : true, but there are often many varietals, so you may be able to find one that grows well in your climate. And you don't need land -- I used to grow herbs in pots on my apartment balcony, and before that in a south-facing window. For climate, you can get 'greenhouses' that are basically shelves w/ a clear shower curtain around it. These days I have peppers, tomatoes and herbs in pots on my back deck. What you do want is something south facing for most stuff, but southeast facing for tomatoes unless you're in a dry climate (the early sun helps to dry them out in the morning) – Joe Mar 30 '17 at 12:50
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    You'd only want south facing if you live in the northern hemisphere @joe, but you are absolutely correct. Agriculture is possible most places humans live. – GdD Mar 30 '17 at 12:54
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    @GdD : and excellent point. You'd want equatorial-facing, and equatorial & eastward for tomatoes. – Joe Mar 30 '17 at 12:56
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There are a couple things available here:

  • Cooking techniques can concentrate flavor, even if the beetroot just looks halved. Sous vide'd root vegetables are extremely flavorful, because all the juices are kept with the vegetable.
  • A slower, longer, roast can transform more starch into sugar without burning the outside.
  • Strains of produce (and anything organic) can have a huge variance. Think about the best strawberries or peaches you've ever had, compared to the worst foam-like produce you've had the misfortune to come across. In general, supermarkets will stock varietals that have a huge shelf-life, with flavor just an afterthought. Supermarkets also don't want to overwhelm their customers with too many choices. Good sourcing from a farm that would even grow an heirloom varietal, or an experimental new hybrid (we're talking good ole' fashioned horticulture, not GMO), makes a huge difference. Farms that can't sell to supermarkets are compromising their own bottom lines for their values, and take some little effort to find.
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    Hmm. Hadn't considered sous vide. Beet season is coming soon; I'll give it a try. (I don't have a proper sous vide rig, just something jury-rigged with a big pan and the oven thermostat, but it should suffice for something like this.) – Joshua Engel Mar 30 '17 at 18:44
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There is a hint in the "deep fried shallot rings". Unlike meats, vegetables tend to have rather more water in them than what is best for flavor and palatibility, so actually deep frying them is a good way to drive excess water out and concentrate flavor (similar to what happens when fruits are dried), as long as the loss of some volatile aromas is not undesirable. Such will also concentrate sugars and acidity, which are just as important as salt to support the actual (aromatic) flavor.

  • Deep frying will also caramelise slightly, which always (IMO) enhances the flavour of any onion variety. – Will Crawford Jan 2 '18 at 21:17

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