Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Another thing that got in the way: On February 14, 2010, I was, in the interest of being a considerate, affectionate Valentine, decided it would be a good idea if I freed the sink of the dishware and utensils left from the previous evening's eating. I took the knife with which I'd sliced and diced a number of things fearlessly in my homecookingschool classes, and set about divesting it of its grime. Well, that proved a task either too involved for someone like me, or a task too delicate for early morning dullness. The slice into the right side of my left index finger, like a similar one proudly performed on boot leather or a bright tomato before a live and catatonic audience of any good three a.m. informercial, seemed to occur effortlessly, and, at first, like with most damage humans inflict on themselves, didn't even seem that bad. I certainly wasn't trying to lay bare my internal finger organs, but there they came. Alpana intervened, cauterized, soldered, bandaged, and gave me Advil for the ache and whiskey to dull the embarrassment. I spent the rest of the day drunk--and our Valentine's meal, filet mignon, grilled asparagus, and, probably, a potato of some sort, was brilliant, though perhaps a little difficult for me to consume with cutlery--but, to be honest with you, dear forsaken blog reader, left me more than epithelially marred.
I'm still a little fearful when I encounter the knife cleaning--and have, perhaps wisely, perhaps idiotically, limited my encounters with it to cleaning. Perhaps I will emerge. Possibly I should consider reporting only matters having to do with kitchen skills that involve spoons and whisks and blenders and coffeemakers only. What do you think?
Oh, and the new URL is www.charlesblackstone.com/blog. As easy to remember as it is to wreak havoc on a romantic holiday by trying to wash the fucking dishes.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Made in Spain, 60611: The José Andrés Episode, or, Everything I Always Wanted to Know About Tapas (But Was Afraid to Ask, Since I Don't Speak Spanish)
“I need you to pick me up from work tonight,” Alpana said. It was Friday afternoon, and I’d just finished posting for the day when the phone buzzed. “We have shopping to do.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“Dinner’s tomorrow night. Remember?”
“Of course! What do you take me for? Some kind of buffoon?”
I’d actually forgotten. I knew a weekend cooking project loomed, but my focus of the day, the Martha-inspired Chach and Chang afterword I’d been inspired to add to the blog, had avalanched me with thoughts, such that I had lost sight of everything else, as is the proverbial wont of the particularist. Alpana’s request for a ride home brought me back to our current weekend’s mission, which was to be a little unlike the others we’d undertaken so far. Though, just like usual, we’d select recipes from a chef’s cookbook, plan a menu, shop for ingredients, prepare our dishes, and serve them to some friends, we had twenty-four fewer hours with which to work. Plans Sunday night necessitated a Saturday evening service. We simply couldn’t wait until tomorrow to begin.
My sensei and I had already accomplished one lofty task: we’d chosen our chef a few days prior. This week we’d study José Andrés, the jovial, jolly, avuncular, reverentially irreverent Washington, DC-based Spanish restaurateur and host of a hit PBS television show (not as big a hit as some, but pretty popular nevertheless). We’d actually met Andrés in person a couple of times before, in Aspen. The first time, at a late-night party at the Little Nell to celebrate the unveiling of a new mezcal a friend of ours made, the chef was wandering around in fine spirits, despite the late hour (which felt even later, given the altitude and all we’d been eating and drinking), meeting people, smiling for pictures, all the while orbiting the room with a Serrano jamon in a metal vise-like contraption. Using a knife he wielded like, you know, a chef, he sliced pieces of meat for the wine-drunk and smoked agave spirit-electrified attendees who supplicated. We chatted aimlessly for a spell. He called me Amigo, and this endeared him to me immediately. (I realize he likely called everybody else he engaged, in the very distinctive character of his spoken English, Amigo, too, but it was, delivered by this charming, unpretentious gentleman in a white coat, nevertheless touching.) I also liked what, as evidenced by his freely wielded ham, I discerned as his lighthearted and uncomplicated approach concerning food. While others at these festivals may be solely concerned with jockeying for position, making connections, or hawking their TV shows and products and restaurants, José Andrés here, in this industry-heavy room, seemed to want nothing more than to make people happy by sharing a simple pleasure. Though this was no rube we were dealing with; I knew that this man was the owner of several very expensive and highly sought-after DC restaurants, which, coupled with his television exposure, had brought him a level of fame and prestige that he could easily have used to distance himself from the crowds, but it wasn’t hard to see that he still reacted viscerally, spiritually almost, to his primary call: people were hungry, and he wanted to feed them. And I got the same feeling from Andrés the next afternoon during his seminar. This was a guy who loved ingredients—everything was, to use his word, astonishing—and to cook simply and beautifully for (and with) those you love (his young daughter, Carlotta, joined him on stage at one point to help chop) was what this was all about. His tapas dishes are small, and elegant—the word unpretentious returns to mind—and, moreover, a logical choice to serve when casually entertaining your amigos at home. Given our limited time to prepare this weekend’s meal, tapas—the focus of Andrés’s culinary point of view (did I really just use that term? Fucking Food Network) and that which comprises the majority of his recipes—seemed, upon first glance, to be a judicious alternative to the labor-intensive, myriad-ingredient cuisines we’d taken on in the previous weekends. With service a little more than twenty-four hours away, we knew we simply couldn’t take chances with seventy-six step ramen broths or deep-frying chicken that had to be brined for six months prior to dropping into oil (oil that had to be infused with five herbs for six hours each, and so on). We needed a menu that was easy to shop for, fast to prepare, was certain to please—and we needed it quickly.
But we had to stop for dinner first. It was six in the evening, and we were both hungry. Who can contemplate the future on an empty stomach? Alpana knew of a tapas restaurant in Andersonville, not far from her office, and it was at Tapas Las Ramblas that we sat, with copies of their menu and our two Andrés books, to dine and plan our courses.
The restaurant’s menu seemed a good place to begin. We wanted to sample items that might give us ideas and insights. A chorizo dish brought us both the thought to use chorizo and also an important fact: Spanish chorizo and Mexican chorizo (the latter, more commonly available in stores) are NOT the same. Spanish chorizo is less oily, and, in the preparation this restaurant served, had a consistency that was similar to that of a grilled kosher hot dog. Another tapa with anchovies was fun, though the much maligned pizza topping didn’t make the list. We didn’t like the squid dish we had, though since we’d enjoyed grilled squid elsewhere, it seemed like a good protein choice for our menu. We also had the Spanish torta, the omelet of onion sliced fried potato, and searched the books for something like that. We drank Albariño, (a perfect complement to the anchovy dish, Alpana said) and house Monastrell, chatted with the owner (who gave some more suggestions about where to find Spanish ingredients in the city, and also offered us the loan of a paella pan, if we’d wanted), and composed our menu. We opted to stay with the tapas-as-party-food theme and not attempt to make paella, which, though certain to be a crowd-pleaser, felt, well, kind of expected. Similarly, we eschewed tapas we’d had or seen on restaurant menus too frequently in the past (bacon-wrapped dates, baked goat cheese), since part of our project is to also serve our guests foods that are as interesting as they are delicious. Once our list was finalized, and we had what appeared to be a good variety of proteins, textures, and preparations, we were ready to go. It was late when we left, and so instead of beginning to shop then, we made the risky decision to wait until the morning, opting instead to go home and reunite with the pug. Besides, now that we knew what we needed, we wanted to spend some time thinking about where to get it.
Saturday morning we were in the car and on the road before we’d even had second cups of coffee. Though we had only simple ingredients to track down, given Andrés’s reverence for ingredients, it didn’t seem right to buy the first potatoes we came across. Finding the best available ingredients became our mission of the morning. Even though most of the farmers’ markets close up their stands in the beginning of October, there are a small number that continue to operate well into the colder months, using enclosed venues. The Green City Market, almost something of a carnival in summer, moves into the adjacent Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum when the temperatures stumble, but on this Saturday—fall bright and cool, not unpleasant, leaves still crunchy beneath your feet, grass green and dark with clinging dew—they’d set up their tables and tents outside. In addition to some very special (read: very expensive) potatoes, we picked up onions, garlic, fresh eggs (laid three days earlier!) for the tapas, and a quart of apple cider, which, after sampling, Alpana decided to use in making a seasonal sangria. From there, we went to a Lincoln Park bakery, popular among hungover locals, and also a supplier of bread to restaurants, for a loaf that would serve us in a variety of applications: in gazpacho, painted with a hand-grated tomato pulp and topped with ham and cheese, and in our “round-two” herbed stuffing recipe to use up the leftovers the next day. Despite our efforts to use only the finest products, we did briefly sneak into Costco, for some staples like flour and parchment paper, and tomatoes we knew were actually riper and more reliable than those that we’d likely find elsewhere. Then it was on to a new stop on the now-familiar shopping itinerary: a restaurant. Café Iberico, one of the first tapas places in which I’d ever dined in Chicago, also, according to the Tapas Las Ramblas owner, had a deli and sold packaged goods. Here we found the special Spanish chorizo he’d mentioned. We checked out a spice market in Old Town, where we bought pimentón and sampled candied ginger, and then zigzagged through the boundless River North road excavation and on over to Fox and Obel. There we picked up bacon, ham, cheese, and Spanish olive oil. We drove home with a weighted-down car, with plenty of reaffirming daylight surrounding us, optimistic about the work that lay ahead and our power to complete everything successfully, before midnight. (Though our joke was that we could get away with serving dinner at an hour in which many in the United States typically went to bed, since that was when people in Spain often sat down to their evening meals.)
It was after two-thirty in the afternoon when we unpacked and began our first menu item—the bacon ice cream, since it needed as much freezer time as it could get. After that, though, we approached the rest of the courses in no particular order. Nobody was in a panic, we had plenty of time—people weren’t coming until seven—and in our minds, the preparations were simple, because the dishes they yielded were small. And this might have been true enough, we’d discover as we went along, if we’d been a little better organized going in, instead of making whatever tapa we recalled needing, beginning at the beginning, not considering what ingredients it might have had in common with another down the line and attempting to consolidate some of the prep tasks, grating, say, all the tomato pulp we’d need at once, gathering all of our evening’s potatoes in one expensive bushel and wedging the lot, as what we imagined was (and knew to be) the case in a restaurant kitchen. To be fair, many of our tapas weren’t hindered by our haphazard approach. The meatballs, for example. Or the tortilla. I kind of think we wouldn’t have wanted to prepare an omelet too far ahead of service. But with other components, like the garlic aioli—something we knew had been troublesome in the past—you’d think we’d have had enough sense to give ourselves a larger window of screw-up opportunity. Having an aioli fail is depressing enough when you’re alone. When your guests are watching you, it’s even worse.
Though a broken sauce is a sobering reminder, even to the staggeringly inebriated (after so much holiday sangria, and with my still-feeble kitchen dexterity, I simply could not pour that oil slow enough, as hard as I tried). I think the lesson to take away is that we’ve perhaps gotten a little too confident about the inevitable success of our dishes, too comforted by our safety in kitchen numbers (at least from my perspective), too trusting of our celebrity chef’s ability to, by virtue of what’s on the page, keep us from wandering off course. If we do end up astray, we’ve gotten used to relying on their ability to transcend time and space to reel us back in. Even if we’re not aided by divine chef intervention, it’s undoubtedly easier to pull off an unfamiliar or difficult dish if one has time to make practice batches, or even just to spend the time thinking and really planning out the meal—even more time than we’d allotted—to not only determine what the best combination of dishes is to serve but to also take a close look at the overlapping ingredients. We knew tapas, by design, by nature, only use a few ingredients. Why it didn’t occur to us that several tapas would need pulped tomatoes or diced onions or cubed potatoes, I have no idea.
Tapas did end up being a fun and mostly injury-free undertaking. The guests quickly forgot about the awry aioli, didn’t notice the bag of spinach elephant in the room, and were, overall, pleased. Nobody sent anything back, demanded to speak with the manager, or ended up in the emergency room on account of a chorizo allergy. And as far as the prep (and service) went, I felt pretty continuously involved in the proceedings. As I suspected at the tapas outset, having what amounted to six or seven main courses instead of only one and some side dishes in front of us to create required me to spend a lot more time in the kitchen, thinking, doing, and the act of which was, no doubt, hugely beneficial to my training. Next time we do this (which won’t be for at least two more weeks, as we sneak off to Europe for Thanksgiving, je suis triste!), I’m going to force myself to spend a lot more time attending to the preliminary steps, contemplating not only what dishes we’ll serve (like, say, a consumer in a restaurant zoning out when a server enumerates the specials), but identifying the actual constituent elements of each item. I may even try my hand at making the shopping list and selecting our raw materials. But don’t quote me on that. Yet.
Check out our Saturday tapas extravaganza shot-by-shot, annotated for your amusement and convenience, here.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Last night, while Alpana was preparing dinner, a dinner I was to play no crucial or even ancillary role in the making of, I watched television. It was late, and I’d already gotten into the whiskey, and the sommelier said she was just throwing something unserious together to “empty out the refrigerator,” so I wasn’t too distraught over not being able to chronicle a midweek meal’s preparation and glean a bit of knowledge from said preparation. Not being in the kitchen meant I needed distraction. I hadn’t turned on the TV in a while, so wrapped up was I in trying to making sense out of my past and how it would come to shape my future as a homeschooled chef, and I thought I’d catch up on some of the shows I superfluously DVR for these very slightly-besotted, semi-starved occasions.
After quickly dismissing my initial offerings:
a program hailed my attention. David Chang and his Momofuku cookbook were making a guest appearance on Martha. Martha and Chang were going to make grits and slow poached eggs, one of the recipes that caught my eye when we were planning our Chach and Chang episode, but one we hadn’t yet tried.
Seeing anything prepared on TV is somewhat absurd, nonsensical even, and hard to get your mind around if you think about it for too long. Since cooking is so inextricably connected to time (this goes into the oven for an hour, this must brine in the refrigerator overnight, these finish roasting at three in the morning, don’t you dare leave those in the blanching liquid for more than twenty seconds!), it seems more difficult than usual to suspend disbelief, as it were, and give ourselves up to compressed time—a familiar and seamless notion in prose. A two-minute cooking segment that takes a dish from start to finish, aided by numerous time-speeding practices such as having ingredients cleaned, chopped, measured, and arranged in advance, and “swap-outs” to show various phases of the process that would have been impossible to bring into being during a live broadcast, does little more than summarize, via the magic of the small screen, a process. I don’t suspect everyone is aware of this. I certainly never was before. I got it, but I didn’t really get it. It wasn’t until I’d recently attempted to prepare similar dishes, until I began to appreciate Chang’s philosophy about cooking—pretty absent on TV to the uninitiated—that I could say I was really aware just how much longer this abbreviated narrative takes to tell when you want to eat in real time.
Martha and Chang, at what appeared to be lightning speed, slow-poached a couple of eggs.
At the outset, they discussed “two” methods to preparing, one of which was to use a $700 water circulator. How ridiculous! Who’s going to have that? I immediately asked Alpana if we could get one. The other was the boil-it-yourself-and-monitor-the-temperature-like-a-crazy-person method we’d used. Once they got going, Chang and Martha did emphasize that the temperature of the water had to remain at 140 degrees. They didn’t, however, bother to tell us what the contraption beneath the eggs was, why it was there, or how to fashion a substitute at home. I don’t suspect I would have even noticed the device (it resembled an upside down deep-frying basket) if I hadn’t enacted this process a week ago.
From there, they quickly shifted focus over to konbu, which was to flavor the stock. (Martha did spend a couple of moments explaining the strange ingredient’s seawater origins, the year it took to dry out before going to market. I can’t imagine what the in-studio audience, or the at-home audience who hadn’t bought konbu at Super H before, made of this, if they foresaw, even fantastically, a way this product could make its way into their pantries.) Chang voiced a curious remark—that the water heating the konbu had to, like the egg bath, also remain at 140 degrees—which surprised Martha, and also Alpana, who was listening to these proceedings from our kitchen. (What was she cooking us? Watching all of this Chang-ing was making me even hungrier.) We hadn’t seen anything about a temperature restriction for the konbu when we’d made the ramen broth, and things seemed to work out fine then. Probably Chang, nervous because he had to do this on TV, misspoke; the recipe on Martha Stewart’s website only says, regarding this step, to “bring water to a simmer over medium heat.” A large block of bacon went in next. Then came the grits, which had been soaked overnight. As to this lengthy stipulated duration, Chang said “you don’t have to,” but come on, we know you do. (The website recipe offers a range, the low end of the spectrum “at least eight hours.” What is the difference between that and “overnight”? Is that like “under a hundred dollar” prices of $99.98?) Next they made shrimp in real-time, which of course you can do with shrimp, pondered the mysteries of carry-over cooking time, and then began to plate. The grits were ready and “darkened” (I barely even recall them going into the liquid; maybe they didn’t even show us that). Martha was delighted when she cracked the shell of one of the poached eggs (how long had the segment been going? Three minutes?) and revealed the beautiful, perfectly poached contents inside. I was amused that Chang cautiously mirrored her moves, with another egg in his own hands, just in case, one can suppose, Martha screwed up. The egg elicited its requisite sounds of surprise.
Then it was time for a commercial break. Grits, poached eggs, shrimp, konbu, dashi, a flawless plating, all before the Allstate and Three Musketeers ads! If only.
The break concluded with an unfortunately unironic plug for today’s guest, Rachael Ray. How could Martha’s philosophy of taking time to prepare, to appreciate, pursuing perfection, never settling for mediocrity, find anything remotely in common with Rachael Ray’s aberrations? Maybe this was supposed to be ironic; Rachael’s first-ever appearance was to be on Friday the Thirteenth. When we were back, Chang was still in the kitchen—a featured guest he certainly was!—and now helping Martha begin a kimchi preparation. She cut Napa cabbage. Chang added salt and sugar (pre-measured), and said this was to sit overnight. Other ingredients went in, and then the batch was quickly shuttled away and replaced with one finished. Also to detour our attention, cleaned, halved Brussels sprouts were awaiting them in an adjacent bacon fat-lined pan. Though we didn’t see it, we learned that the sprouts also had to go into the oven for a duration, and that apparently this pan (another swap-out that I barely detected!) had already been roasted at some earlier point. Butter went in (Chang likes to finish everything with butter, apparently; was that in the cookbook?), and within a few milliseconds, we’d plated, extolled, and were on to the Darvin Furniture commercial. When Martha returned, the cooking set was nowhere to be found. Now it was time for gardening with Anthony Anderson from Law and Order, which we found out is the second-longest running series after Gunsmoke. We also were informed that playing a cop on TV is very helpful in getting out of traffic tickets.
In the real kitchen, Alpana began to serve our dinner, a Batali-inspired squid ink pasta, with bacon, red pepper flakes, and—you might want to sit down for this—a slow-poached egg.
Though I was inordinately hungry, and couldn’t believe my egg-luck, I had a hard time getting the Chang segment out of my mind, what I’d seen him do, or what he’d seemed to do, the disparity between what they implied someone could make and the knowledge of what was really fair to expect, having worked out of the Chang book at home. My main grievance, as brought into sharper focus given the filmic medium, was the detrimentally inaccurate representation of the time involved. As I’ve probably mentioned before, I watch, and have always watched, a lot of cooking shows on TV (and, for reasons I don’t always understand myself, the Martha show). I’ve never followed them for anything more than entertainment, and for fodder to direct the occasional “Can we have that?” at my indefatigable spouse, but now that I’m actually getting involved in some of the cheffery, I feel like I’m watching these glossy televised undertakings with a more informed—and suspicious—eye. I feel even more strongly after Chang’s segment (and it’s definitely not his fault; he’s just promoting a book; nor is it Martha’s, who’s just trying to make for interesting daytime programming) that cooking on TV shouldn’t really be considered much more than entertainment, just as, I’d think, one isn’t taking real medical advice from St. Elsewhere or romantic counsel from 90210. Televised cooking “instruction” should be appreciated for what it is, a commercial, a way to sell ideas, products, get people to stick around to watch (or fast-forward through) other commercials. You can maybe walk away with some remote aspirations, vague notions of things you might want to try to make or exhort someone to prepare for you, but you should never believe for a second that you’re going to get anywhere in enough time to make two Momofuku dishes and a sand and cement planter with an actor who plays a detective on television before the end of the hour.
We had two slow-poached eggs left over last night. I thought I’d have one for lunch today, but then I found this awaiting me in the kitchen, prepared by my loving and considerate sensei. The instructions are mine. Alpana was concerned I’d forget to heat the turkey and cheddar wrap she made me, and I wasn’t entirely confident that I wouldn’t, so I left myself a memo. Tell me that’s not so strange.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Monday morning Alpana didn’t feel like going to work. Though she’d slept all night, she was still exhausted. She said she felt like she hadn’t had a weekend. This was partially my fault. Mostly my fault. I’d had us embark on another kitchen undertaking, one even more labor-intensive, emotionally and physically draining than the last. We began Saturday afternoon and finished late Sunday night. Now I, too, felt misaligned. I was hungover, and hadn’t even had that much to drink. There’d been some vodka and Tempranillo and Prosecco, but that wasn’t it. I was stuffed, but it seemed like from more than just too much chicken and brownies. We’d overdosed on cooking.
Just as we’d done with Momofuku the week before, I wanted my sensei to help me take a celebrity chef’s cookbook, plan a menu Friday night, shop for ingredients and begin preparing on Saturday, cook the following morning and afternoon, and then present our results to friends for the Sunday dinner series we’d informally begun hosting. I’d considered being true to the inherent premise of Chach and Chang, to continue cooking through his book, find several ultimately delicious but inordinately painstaking to prepare dishes, but you can only serve your guests so much Asian food. A new book had arrived earlier in the week, and we’d been perusing its contents. This chef, like Chang, is touted, revered, resplendent with accolades, but based on the opposite coast, in a sleepy decidedly un-East Village hamlet called Yountville, buried under the grape vines outside of Napa (yes, I know he has New York restos, but ignore that for narrative purposes). This time we used Thomas Keller’s ad hoc at home.
I’d visited ad hoc before. We didn’t actually get to eat there, or at Keller’s mainstay, French Laundry (even with connections; they were closed the night we were in town for a private party), but I’d been intrigued by Thomas Keller (at first because his name is so similar to one of my favorite writers, Thomas Beller), and so when I discovered the existence of this cookbook, I couldn’t wait to see it. The book’s subtitle is “family-style recipes,” so my initial suspicion was that making our way through the fabrication of these dishes wasn’t going to be as painful as it had been with Chang. And here we’d discover that the mere act of cooking wasn’t to be the most challenging aspect of the endeavor. Of course the recipes were difficult to a reasonable extent; to be a celebrated chef you must do things with sangfroid and panache and legerdemain, you must conceive of and execute more brilliantly than anyone else, because if you don’t, how can you justify having $48 entrees on your menu, or six-month-long waits for tables, and if you’re known for that sort of business, have not only gotten away with such business, but have gotten awarded for it, the expectation is that you must be and will be just as exacting in your eventual cookbook’s directions for the home chef (a book with a $48 list price, no less). No, here, as with Chach and Chang #1, the simple act of procuring the ingredients became a circuitous, frustrating, fraught battle of its own. You’ll recall from our ramen adventure that some of the condiments we needed to purchase didn’t even have English on their labels. Even though I suppose Keller’s cuisine is American, we had, in ways, just as difficult of a time finding some of the groceries a menu as seemingly simple as one with fried chicken and biscuits at its centerpiece requires.
What I learned:
1. They’re not trying to intentionally sabotage you. A pedestrian theory I’ve heard is that cookbooks and magazines and whatever sometimes throw recipes so that you fuck up and keep eating at their restaurants/buying their prepared meals/buying their products/watching their Food Network shows. (I think there’s a degree of truth in this, as evidenced by the discrepancies you’ll find if you’ve ever tried to compare the directions the TV chefs articulate during their program episodes to the corresponding steps on the network’s website, but mostly it’s bullshit.) And as I said above, I think people would be, to a certain extent, disappointed, given the chef’s iconic standing, if things were easy, or seemed easy. I don’t think any of this accounts for the actual problems, though. Mostly the cause for the outcomes going awry is the fact that the home cook often doesn’t know enough going in to anticipate issues before they arise, or before they derail, and know how to work through them quickly. I will discuss this more in point #2. But as for Keller, Chang, Robuchon, Batali, and the rest, I don’t think they’re equivocating because they’re afraid of you toppling their empires. Even if you end up cooking their dishes just as well as they do, it’s not going affect them. These restaurants aren’t going to lose business if people start making their dishes at home. Why? Because not that many people are going to want to bother. Not that many people are going to be equipped to bother, even if they wanted to bother. They’re still going to be famous and celebrated even if people know what goes into their secret blend of herbs and spices. (Isn’t it always true that people most fearful of someone stealing their brilliant ideas are the people who come up with the least brilliant ideas?)
2. You still need to have someone who knows what he or she is doing with you. As I alluded to in #1, if I were to take these recipes alone with the intention of following them exactly, I’d still grapple with contingencies and need to know the solutions, or run the risk of the entire dinner coming apart. An example from the weekend: Of course we knew it would be too, well, ad hoc an ingredient for the plebian and universally useful inventories lining the aisles of Costco, but we couldn’t find kohlrabi in the North Avenue produce store, or at the new mega Whole Foods a few blocks east, or even at Fox and Obel, the most special of the specialty stores, at the outer banks of Streeterville. If I had been shopping alone, I would have been inclined to take the first bad advice that came my away and accept it as fact. At Whole Foods, a produce department stocker suggested we use celery root. It seemed perfectly reasonable an alternative to me, as I had no alternative to use as a comparison. He appeared to know what kohlrabi was, and so I was inclined to trust him, but Alpana knew better. If I’d brought home celery root and we’d used it, what would have become of the recipe as a result? At Whole Foods, they also tried to fob sour cream off on us because they’d run out of crème fraiche, and the guy in charge of ordering was “on vacation.” Having had both toppings enough times before, I knew this couldn’t have been an even exchange. But what if someone more trusting than I (or without as much access to as many alternate stores as I) had been charged with the task? Disaster looms at every turn of the shopping cart. Or what havoc might one wreak on a recipe by assuming that a product called for is “close enough”? The ad hoc brownies required chocolate that was 61% to 64% cocoa. Predictably, we only found 60% on the shelf and had to look elsewhere. This leads me to #3.
3. Just because you have access to a gourmet foods shop doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to find what you need there. We live downtown, in a big city, and have a car, and are monomaniacal, so it wasn’t terribly hard for us to go to three different shops in search of fancy challah or chocolate chips. But what if we’d been trying to ad hoc dinner from somewhere else? And hello, what about seasonality? These recipes, though immortalized in their glossy tomes and, seemingly, perennially ready to make, cannot transcend time and space and geography and season. So far both famous chefs I’ve studied have, in their texts, alluded to the fact that sometimes substitution is necessary. What they don’t mention (and, quite possibly, are unaware of) is that even though people will read and attempt to work from their books all across the country and perhaps the world, that they are cooking from one specific location, using foods available in their specific locations. Thomas Keller’s ad hoc is in Yountville, David Chang’s ham hocks are brined in Manhattan. This ineradicable condition has implications in their work, their aesthetics, consciously, unconsciously. (The same is true of writing. Would I, in Chicago, have the same concerns and interests as my colleague Jill Talbot, spinning her boot spurs in Oklahoma City? Sure we have overlaps, but the view from her window is decidedly quite different from the one from my own.) We can try as best we can to imagine what these chefs were thinking, what was available to them when they were doing the thinking, we can try to replicate their conditions and pantries, but the fact remains that though the books look excellent on everybody’s coffee table, and though amazon.com can ship a copy anywhere on the planet, some of these recipes simply cannot be made outside of major metropolitan areas—and even that geography only gets one so far. On a Saturday night in November in Chicago in 2009, There. Was. No. Kohlrabi.
4. Even if you can do it, even if it can be done, you may not want to part with the time. Again, Alpana and I will, for the most part, go to great lengths to achieve our kitchen dreams. We’re fanatics. We decided we were going to make ad hoc’s fried chicken, and goddamnit, that’s what we were going to do. But you, a more rational person with diverse interests, may have other exigencies in your life during the evenings and have competing interests and obligations over the course of a weekend. Though you may be intrigued by the idea of what a tomato that roasts for six hours in your own oven tastes like, you may find it inordinately disconcerting that you will need to wake up at three in the morning to silence the beeping that your oven’s automatic shutoff is demanding you acknowledge. And also, as was Alpana’s case in the ad hoc aftermath, you may not be so thrilled at the prospect of returning to work Monday morning feeling like you never really left the office Friday, given that you hadn’t stopped doing something for long enough to read your long-neglected Weekender New York Times subscription or to enjoy an episode of Cooking for Real, currently clogging the arteries of your unwatched DVR queue.
5. Extra equipment is necessary, but consider whether or not you’re ever going to use some of this stuff again (and want to spend the money, even if you foresee many future opportunities to diffuse garlic oil or weigh your kosher salt). Before we even did any grocery shopping, we made a trip to Sur La Table for some of these accessories. Yes, we needed an ice cream attachment for the Kitchen Aid to prepare Keller’s dessert. And yes, we had to have a scale, since Thomas Keller doesn’t cook with Morton’s salt. Post-challenge, I’m happy for the addition of both of these items to our kitchen; I can now measure out a perfect portion of Alpana’s morning cereal without having to use a measuring cup, and we’re already dreaming about the batches of bacon gelato and cookies and cream we’re going to turn out in the future, but I realize amassing gadgetry, regardless of degree of adhoc-ness or extent that the items may offer more diverse applications, isn’t for everybody. Especially if you live in an apartment like our last, where we were so short of space that we had to keep pantry items in the hall closet, which also doubled as my gym clothes drying rack.
6. Even if you can do everything perfectly, it’s still not always worth it. (See again #4 for texture-adding cross-reference.) Despite the lack of kohlrabi (we skipped it and made our vegetables with just radishes and Brussels sprouts), and having to redo a batch of caramel sauce that had gotten too brown, everything came out perfectly. The guests were happy, ate themselves into stupors, and were astounded that we’d served them chicken we fried right in front of them, fried chicken many of them had a hand, literally, in the frying of, and ice cream that had been churned on the premises, hours before they arrived. But Monday morning, we all felt like shit—hosts and guests alike—assaulted by salt, dizzy from drink, vaguely guilty about the time and ingredients squandered in the name of, I don’t know, the pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment, the pursuit of culinary hedonism, the thrill, the pursuit, the chase. It just didn’t seem as fulfilling, so unquestionably right, in the aftermath. The knob on the door to the apartment was sheathed in oil. (Should I have handed out wetnaps after the meal?) The kitchen was greasy. Our dining room table, which, during the week, I use as an office, looked like the sidewalk in front of Carmine’s after a Saturday night before its Sunday morning hosing down. Even with a window open, the air in our home was redolent with KFC. And there was all this grease left over. Literally. Bowls of it. It was like our kitchen—though gleaming after Alpana, in a fury of second wind following the guests’ departure and my subsequent passing out, decided to leave no spattered Le Creuset pot left behind—ached. The food was good, the enjoyment high, the learning indelible, Thomas Keller is king, etc., but did we have to do it? Could I not have learned my lessons in a kitchen with less viscous air?
Next week I hope to report on some lesser-intensity lessons. We didn’t get much of a chance to learn anything between the Chang weekend meal and the Keller, thanks to a couple of slow-cooker meals and a night or two of events that kept us out of our kitchen and eating food that came from other chefs’, but I do intend to divide up my classroom time between everyday lessons that don’t come from a book and these entanglements with the words and pictures and obscure ingredients and esoteric equipment of my chef-heroes. I know one of the downsides to these advanced-level undertakings is that I, a novice, get quickly overwhelmed, as evidenced by my tendency to step away from the process and busy myself with non-kitchen things, like dog walking or checking my Google analytics, and getting distracted is certainly counterproductive. I think I was most present during this weekend’s lesson when we were working with the side dishes. I got to practice one of my favorite kitchen tasks: chopping. Slicing the Brussels sprouts, removing the tails from radishes (infuriating the dog, who didn’t understand why he wasn’t getting to eat them as I sliced, to no end), hacking corn off of cobs (a task that brought with it great hand and wrist discomfort), here I was focused, active, and confident about my results. I was distracted during the brine production and didn’t go near the actual chicken frying operation, once it had begun. Though, even as an innocent bystander, I still ended up scented like a Benihana guest.
Check out all the pictures and my step-by-step commentary here.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
We’d eaten at Momofuku on a trip to New York a couple of years ago and I’d been trying to recreate the experience here, in Chicago, both in restaurants and at home, ever since. A noodle place that many seemed to want to compare to the peerless aforementioned David Chang concept opened up here, a place that specialized in ramen, opened up and we ate there a few times last summer. The food was pretty good, better, certainly, than anything else around, but it was missing a key component: the egg. We asked the owner about it, why he served his ramen without one. He said, very unapologetically, that that was just how he did it. He may have alluded to something about the time-consuming nature of preparing eggs, or if he didn’t, that’s certainly a factor he must have weighed. At the time, to my mind, this was the only thing missing. I vowed to return again, this time smuggling an over-easy or poached egg (how the hell I was going to smuggle an egg into a noodle shop, I had no idea), but we never got around to it. (The thing about restaurants, as any of you who live in big cities and go to them frequently will attest, is that it’s hard to go to all of the new places you want to like and all of the old places you do like, and, especially if you don’t eat out that much, you end up apologizing to slighted restaurateurs a lot.)
I discovered bi beem bop could, kind of, respond to my need to have an egg atop a bowl of something. Of course here there was rice instead of noodles, but the whole of the thing is mightily pleasing, especially after you’ve learned to mix everything up before eating, instead of picking up a bit of this green and that pickled carrot, as though you’d been presented an airplane meal of multiple components pushed together for serving efficiency. Korean food (or Korean food purveyors) didn’t seem as reluctant to top their bowls with eggs, though sometimes the eggs would come more cooked than I would have liked, which compromised their mix-in magic. Still, though, I had a means of Momofuku-ing a little, without having to get on a plane.
When the David Chang cookbook came out, we found our answer. His technique for soft-poaching batches of eggs is slow (45 minutes!) (45 closely-regarded minutes!) (Not walk away and come back in 45 minutes minutes!) but, goddamn, it really works perfectly. I’d have been just as happy to prepare instant ramen and accent with the new trick we picked up, but, alas, the chapter in the Momofuku cookbook doesn’t end there. There are other toppings to prepare. And there’s the ramen broth itself.
So we went through the whole thing. We shopped at a Korean megamart in the suburbs, stocked up on things like fishcake and twenty pounds of meat (whole chickens, chicken parts—the recipe calls for things like backs and necks and joints attached to this and that meat—pork belly, pork shoulder) and ingredients for sauces, brought it all home, and began the process. I began with a brining exercise, which required me to handle the proteins, wash my hands, be vigilant about not cross-contaminating. Alpana did most of the prep; I haven’t gotten to wielding a knife for anything more serious than dicing onions yet, and, to be honest, seeing the, er, actual pork belly segments of the pork belly was . . . weird. I’m still not completely okay with watching my wife break down a chicken. I like that she knows how to do it—I’ve seen many a cooking reality show contestant whine about not knowing how to do this properly, as well as those at first confident getting castigated by the judges for screwing it up—but it’s undeniably graphic. We’ve done it a couple of times in my early homecookingschool classes, and so I don’t wince as much as I did the first time I saw it from a distance closer than across the room, but we’d just conversed with an actual live pig on our trip to Michigan a couple of weekends ago, and it was just . . . very real. I can understand, sort of, the contradictions in our lives in the world and our lives at the dinner plate, and the inability to weather the hypocrisies that might impel some to become vegetarians. I love our dog; how could I watch this happen (or delight in the aftermath of what happened) to an ostensibly as-adorable and potentially lovable pig? Honestly? I didn’t feel that attached to the pig we met at that Michigan winery. He didn’t really seem keen in engaging, wasn’t, as the saying always seemed to suggest, so smart. I’ve had more interesting conversations with Haruki. So my soul-reckoning was short lived. We had cooking to do. After those meats went into the refrigerator to begin their overnight cure, there was a lot more to do. Things going into the oven, things to come out. At certain points, the timers on the stove, on the microwave, and on my Timex were all set and counting down to certain steps’ done points. I found it a lot harder to keep track of what was timing what. I am not yet a good kitchen multitasker. This is why I’m working with a professional, my teacher, my sensai, my sommelier, who can remember many, many things going on in a kitchen. Maybe overload caused me to tire out. (Also just general exhaustion; we began around six and things were going on, on, on into the night.) I tried to pick up tasks as I found them, but it was hard to stay focused. I needed distraction, television (there were, fortunately, many DVRed 90210 episodes to have on in the background), to interact with Haruki (who, for most of the cooking, stayed infinitely more focused than I did), other things to think about and look at. I definitely have a long way to go until I can remain on a lengthy (or, hell, even a short) cooking duration without stopping for water or to check Twitter.
But this leads me to a discovery that came out of the first Chach and Chang experiment. When you’re a beginner, you don’t want to cook alone. I was about to qualify with “unless you have to,” but who really has to? Okay, so you have no spouse with restaurant experience and a natural ability to cook and knows how to follow a recipe and also just sense when things are going right or wrong and can buy packages of Asian ingredients that don’t even have any English on their labels with aplomb (and who wants to take the time to help you learn a thing or two). Do you have a roommate? A friend? Have you ever heard of Craigslist? Isn’t a stock first-date scenario from television the one where a self-styled professional amateur chef makes dinner for his prospect, to show off, to impress her? I propose the opposite: you go on a date and together attempt to create dinner. I guess it would be weird to do this on a first date, what with the going to a stranger’s kitchen part and all. But then again, Craigslist. You can find someone who is not only going to willingly come over to cook, but maybe someone who actually fetishizes such things. NSA can also mean “No (Cooking) Skills Allowed.” Seriously, though, I don’t get what the big deal is (the notion probably originating from television) that to show any kitchen weakness is to present yourself as somehow less desirable than someone who is proficient. I have always freely admitted that I can’t cook. But I still never tried letting someone teach me. Now that I’m enrolled in cooking school, it’s hard to believe that I went so long without trying to do anything about filling the gaps in my experience, never demanding of any of my friends and paramours who were so inclined to give me a lesson or two (instead of just simply feeding me) especially when the rewards of teaming up with someone else are so delicious.
Here are the annotated photographs from the entire delicious ordeal.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
I didn't grow up in a kitchen. I'm not even completely sure I grew up in a house with a kitchen. I remember microwaving frozen dinners, pouring bowls of Cap'n Crunch, and eating in many, many restaurants. I have friends who have mothers who had specialties, like, say, fruit pies. My mom's specialty was Froot by the Foot. As a child, I found Soup Starter intriguing. I asked my mother to buy it, envisioning the delicious soup it would help her create. She said making soup was too difficult, nearly impossible, but she was happy to empty cans of Campbells into my bowls. And I was happy to eat them.
In middle school, there was Home Ec. A charming class, a paean to a bygone era, a hangover from the decades when the wood shop down the hall was still a shop and not a makeshift auditorium. There were projects that involved turning on the stove, chopping things. I remember little of the actual techniques, but the chef salad and the little jars of jelly we somehow effected in forty-five minutes were really quite tasty. We also had sewing projects in those years. A friend and I decided to farm our work out. For about fifty bucks we were able to have our little pillows sewn by a real seamstress. I turned mine in completed, as proud of it as if I'd done it myself. Ben decided to rip out a few stitches of his puffy green smiling worm before the due date for (what he imagined to be) teenage authenticity. Similarly, when it came to our actual culinary assignments, we bribed, cheated, evaded, eluded, and did whatever we did to avoid having to roll up our sleeves. Did the roles defer to the girls? Did Ms. Harris step in and have to reroute derailed toasted cheese sandwiches? I have no recollection. My most vivid class memories are of tuning the teacher's radio and finding The Escape Club singing "Wild West," and finding the line about living in the eighties, headed for the nineties very, well, apt.
I graduated middle school, and then high school, and then college, and then graduate school, barely able to prepare more for myself than a ham sandwich with swiss cheese and miracle whip on wheat bread. I made Hollandaise sauce and poached salmon a few times in that first grad school apartment of mine. I destroyed a nonstick pan trying to sear ahi tuna. Eventually I abandoned the elaborate experiments and moved back to Chicago. There I poured bowls of cereal, ordered pizzas and pan-Asian food, and ate in restaurants, restaurants, restaurants. I had friends that could cook things and sometimes I'd have dinner at their apartments. They'd often send me home with leftovers. My Wrigleyville apartment had no sink disposal, and it was just as well. I didn't need to use my sink to do very much when most of my food showed up in plastic containers, often with their own disposable (sorry, environment) plastic cutlery.
This was my life with food.