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   Neither Hot Nor
   Cold, but Perfect

   by Amanda Hesser

  As viewers of "The Restaurant," the painfully contrived reality television show, learned in a recent episode, serving cold food does not go over well with diners.

  In the middle of a busy night, Rocco DiSpirito, the chef at Rocco's, did his best to halt the stream of cold food coming from the kitchen, hollering at his team of cooks: "Guys, I'm sick and tired of people telling me the food's cold! Stop serving frozen pasta, and get the food up there hot!"

  For the show's producers, if not for its audience, this may have counted as drama, but it wasn't Mr. DiSpirito's anger that lingered.

  Hot food, as Mr. DiSpirito surely knows, is not always the best food. In fact, promoting hot food only perpetuates a culinary myth and a relatively new habit of thinking. Indeed, the opposite is true. In the summer, no one really wants to be eating things so hot. Temperature is like any other sensation. And it has its limits. Ice gives people headaches. Not pleasant. Food that's at 180 degrees or more burns people's mouths. Not pleasant.

  Temperature should be seen as nothing so blunt. In cooking, getting the temperature right is as important as seasoning with the right amount of salt. The one difference is that with temperature you can be more playful — at least once the food is cooked.

  The temperature game is fairly simple. As heat is applied to food, its essential oils, or volatiles, are released, which increases the food's aroma and flavor. Warm or perceptibly hot food is at its most floral, but cold food in a person's mouth meets the body's 98.6 degrees and will soon warm around its edges, thus releasing volatiles and becoming more flavorful by the second.

  In the contrast between the two poles lies pleasure. According to a study published in 1993 by Robert J. Hyde, a professor at San Jose State University, and Dr. Steven A. Witherly, the president of Technical Products Inc., a food consulting company, what really excites people's palates is "dynamic contrast," or change.

  "Neurons in the brain," Mr. Witherly said in an interview, "respond to contrast more than anything else." And change of temperature is right up there with change of texture and change of smell.

  There is one chef, Ferran Adrià, who really understands this principle. Mr. Adrià's restaurant, El Bulli, is perched on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, where summers are very hot. One of his best-known dishes is a pea and mint soup. The soup is very good, but pea soup alone was not going to make him famous. Mr. Adrià uses temperature to raise the bar. The soup is served in a small glass; it begins hot, but as you drink it, it somehow becomes cooler and ends cold.

  Genius, people have said. They might not say the same for the warm apple pie and ice cream their mothers served, but it's the same trick. Warm pie, cold ice cream. Delicious.

  The examples are countless. Hot French fries and room temperature ketchup. Ice cream and hot chocolate sauce. A cool frisée salad with a hot fried egg on top of it.

  All of which is fine, except when you're boiling hot yourself. In this heat, no one really wants to eat warm apple pie or anything else in the upper temperature ranges. There are many theories about why people in India drink tea and juices at room temperature when it's hot. Some say it is because ice is not readily available. Others contend that it is because if you drink hot fluids or eat hot food when it's hot out, you make your body work to cool it off, therefore making you even hotter.

  Some cultures serve spicy food in hot weather, which some people claim is intended to make you sweat and then cool down. To me, it has always sounded like stomping on someone's toe when he has a toothache, to distract him from the pain.

  When I am hot, I do not want to sweat more. In this heat, it's best to stick to a regimen of smaller temperature ranges.

  But then there is the issue of cooking, which is important, especially if you do not have air-conditioning. Salads may sustain you for a little while, but eventually you'll need to turn on the stove. So what I do is cook things ahead of time and use temperature to my advantage. The food cools off a little, and so does my kitchen, and I get to take a shower before my guests arrive.

  Many dishes that you might otherwise serve hot can be adapted to this approach. Something like zucchini soup can be cooked just briefly, left on top of the slowly cooling stove and served warm. Or it may be chilled so that it is cool but not cold. The temperature will come as a pleasant surprise and won't shock anyone who has a delicate constitution. No one will miss having to blow on the soup to cool it down. Hot food is memorable, but for many of the wrong reasons.

  Besides, there's more to pleasure than temperature. The other way to shake up those neurons is to add fat, salt and acid, or, more appetizingly, flavors like butter, soy sauce or lemon juice.

  With roasted lamb, which is done at 425 degrees an hour before dinner, you can serve a strongly flavored sauce. One I enjoy is like a loose pesto, but with anchovies. It's pungent, salty, fragrant and you don't miss the temperature change one bit.

  You can do the same with, say, a potato and tomato tart. Bake it and get the potatoes crisp on the edges and the tomatoes wilted, then let it cool off. You will discover that potato tarts are quite lovely when barely warm, and the acid in the tomatoes makes the neurons leap to life.

  And when it's not painfully hot, as it has been, you can be more playful with temperatures. Serve the lamb warm (rare lamb will never be hot anyway), and with it pass around a cool salad. Or prepare a lightly chilled soup and sprinkle it with hot roasted spices in oil.

  Temperature is dynamic and sensual. A hot meatball is a good thing. Red sauce at medium hot does not burn anyone's tongue. And a scoop of gelato flushed by a shot of hot espresso can be stimulating, even thrilling. But Mr. DiSpirito may want to wait until his show is off the air to explore those possibilities. They might ruin the riveting drama of unhappy guests.

  • Recipe: Roast Lamb With Basil-Anchovy Sauce
  • Recipe: Zucchini Soup
  • Recipe: Tomato and Potato Tart

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