Friday, November 13, 2009

Chach and Chang and Martha: An Epilogue to C&C#1

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 Id already gotten into the whiskey, and the sommelier said she was just throwing something unserious together to empty out the refrigerator, so I wasnt too distraught over not being able to chronicle a midweek meals preparation and glean a bit of knowledge from said preparation. Not being in the kitchen meant I needed distraction. I hadnt 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 Id 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.

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