Monday, June 1, 2015

Spaghetti Westerns



The Spaghetti Harvest
I don’t have the numbers at hand, but I’d hazard a guess that I’m asked, “What’s your favorite thing to cook?” seven times out of every ten conversations about careers. In terms of questions unanswerable in polite society, it’s right up there with, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever read?” and “Hey, how’s the novel coming along?”

There isn’t one dish I consider “my specialty,” just as there isn’t one book I’d pick out of all the others. Cooking, eating, reading – these are all activities based on mood, availability, time, and inclination. It’s an altogether reasonable possibility that my favorite book has yet to be read, and I’ll practically die when I finish the last page, but the first 300 pages may be so incredibly boring that the discovery of this favorite is contingent upon being shipwrecked and finding the book in one of the suitcases bobbing in the lagoon of my desert island. And me! With so much time on my hands! Read away, girl, while your soft shell crab skewers brine in equal parts sea and coconut water, flavored with palm fronds and a pinch of crushed scallop shell.

But what if we look at the cooking question from a different angle? Rather than thinking about “a specialty” item, perhaps what the question really points to is a preferred technique. Instead of getting hung up on “what do you like to cook?”, I should instead think about how I like to cook. Much less of an annoying question, much easier to answer! I’m a pretty old-fashioned cook in this area – until I learn more about modernist techniques, I’ll stick to high-temperature cooking, an exercise in profound transformation. Indeed, watching the way heat changes the ingredients’ molecules provides a ready source of keen pleasure, and may be the number one factor keeping me in this profession. Of course, the way heat and stress work on the molecules of my body may be the number one reason to leave this profession. A story for another time.

Occasionally, the What’s Your Favorite Thing To Cook question rides in tandem with, What’s Your Favorite Thing to Eat? Again, does it really have to be just one thing? As with reading, my eating doesn’t really have any one genre to which I cling hard and fast. Well, there may be a correlation between my fondness for tacos and my affection for Los Angeles-based, homicide-detective-driven mysteries. But that’s different.

There is one dish, though, the Watership Down of my culinary cravings, and that is a humble plate of spaghetti.

I took a long break from eating pasta, mostly because I have the self-restraint of a St. Bernard puppy when it comes to semolina and sauce, but also because I had started feeling a bit loogy the morning after a spag bender. Granted, a strand of spaghetti isn’t a nutritional powerhouse, and if you’re eating half a pound at a time, either right before or right after two in the morning, you’re not going to feel so great. But life is better with spaghetti in it, it just is. So, I decided to try having a Lunch Pasta, take it slow, and just see how I felt later in the day. And hey! Despite a mild headache and racing heart brought on by the blood sugar influx, the daytime pasta experiment was a success.

Spaghetti was the meal eaten most often in my home when I was growing up. Shake cheese and butter. Chili flake. A perfect demilitarized zone on my plate between the saucy area and the pasta area – that way, I could enjoy three different dishes: saucy spaghetti, buttery noodles with cheese, and the middle area of slightly saucy, slightly buttery, slightly spicy. In retrospect, I suppose the third area was my first experience with umami. Whenever I ate spaghetti at a friend’s house and his or her parents mixed the sauce and the pasta together before serving, I experienced a sense of disappointment altogether disproportionate to the actual travesty playing out in the dining room. I may have even sulked a little bit, staring down at a landscape of uniform red, a plate of food wherein every bite tastes like the last one. Gross.

Making spaghetti sauce became more complicated as I grew older. That’s not quite true. My involvement in the process became more complicated, especially as spaghetti was a meal we could make with very little parental oversight, and we could usually cajole the youngest into doing the dishes. Thinking back on the process behind making a meat sauce out of a frozen block of ground chuck, an onion, a can of tomato paste, a can of tomato sauce, and some dried oregano, fills me with olfactory nostalgia. The opening notes of butter and onions, the gradual swell of browning meat, the sudden bright notes of tomato paste caramelizing on the bottom of the pan, the earthy, shrub smell of oregano, while on the big burner the metallic smell of heating elements on copper-bottomed pans gave way to the slightly low-tide smell of boiling salted water, which in turn gave way to the starchy wet flour smell of almost cooked pasta…..these were the instruments in a dinner concerto.

Spaghetti at home was delicious, mostly because I could control my saucing (again, no control, whatsoever, when it came to portion size). But there have been other hot spots, as well. While I was living in a dorm, an impossibly long time ago, my roommate always made a point of letting me know when it was “spag night” in the dining hall, and I’d feel a glorious excitement about not having yet another bowl of cereal for dinner. There was Neopolitan’s (I mean, Neo’s, of course), a tiny hole-in-the-wall spot in Nederland, an old mining town up the canyon from Boulder. Their plate of spaghetti in meat sauce had a ratio of sauce to pasta that normally would have put my hackles up, but there was something about having such a generous ladling of sauce that I enjoyed. It was sort of like eating a vat of sloppy joe filling with a few strands of pasta left over from the pot’s previous use, as though they only had one pot in the kitchen and didn’t really clean it after cooking the pasta, the way I picture cooking for overcrowded summer camps.

My love affair with spaghetti may have hit its prime during “spaghetti special” nights at the Gondolier, a Boulder restaurant that has been in my friend Guy’s family for fifty years. Under the Gondo’s roof, I met a type of homemade spaghetti that inspired a lifelong love of wide-wale corduroys. There was also exposure to ravioli, garbanzo beans, olive oil and garlic “sauce”, tortellini, ricotta cheesecake, and so many other flavors, so many culinary collisions, so many glimpses into a world I had no idea I would belong to for this much of my life.

In terms of transformative processes, cooking pasta doesn’t necessarily have the same drama as cooking meat. The relaxation of a stick into a ribbon isn’t nearly as cool as the Maillard Reaction, but it does have its charms. It actually sounds kind of nice, almost like relaxing into a hot tub, or just taking a minute away from the fires and knives. Spaghetti and I are going to become a little closer in the coming weeks, not only because it’s relatively inexpensive, but because I’d really like to be able to answer that last question, the one about the novel.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Into the Fire

"...the firelight of their party was a pocket torch held under the blanket of the universe." July's People, by Nadine Gordimer

When we meet Buck for the first time, he is a dog drawn in spare strokes: Large, handsome, protective…all the things a rich Judge with a passel of grandchildren would want in a country-house dog. As the story progresses, however, and Buck becomes the hero of his own story, we see his transformation. We cringe when he’s beaten again and again, and worry, after 3,000 words about dogfights, whips, clubs, human-stupidity, and really bad weather, that he might not make it to the end of the book. But then, just as Buck decides to give up the ghost, he is rescued by John Thornton, a prospector with a heart of gold. Thornton rehabilitates Buck’s body and soul, and Buck responds to such ministrations as any thinking creature would. He falls in love with the man, and when Buck isn’t studying Thornton’s face or romping about the camp with him, he lies next to him, watching the campfire. As Buck’s eyes grow heavy, he sees visions of a primordial self, walking next to an equally-early version of human, visions of the deal struck so many years ago between these two species, flickering in the flames.

The fire, and the visions in the dancing flames, mesmerize Buck ever so slightly, just enough for him to ignore the call he hears ringing from the mountains, echoing among the black-barked trees in the dense dark forests, singing through the icy rivers running through the Alaska backcountry. As you know if you’ve read the story, the call becomes too strong to be ignored and Buck, who leaves and returns, leaves and returns, really only because he loves this man, finally leaves camp for days, harries a bull moose to a sad end, and then returns to John Thornton’s camp to find death and disaster. Not a dry eye in the house. But now Buck is truly free, unencumbered by any ties to humans, and off he goes, into the wild.

The Call of the Wild is, admittedly, an imperfect analogy for my career as it stands right now. Really, pretty flimsy. First of all, I don’t expect this current job to end with the sacking of the restaurant by invaders. I don’t expect to come back from a weekend to find overturned coffee urns, cutting boards on the floor, broken glassware, and slit-necked servers. That would be weird. I could, perhaps, make the case that I have pulled sleds with the best of them, over terrain that would have broken a weaker team’s collective heart, a case made in hyperbolic Londonian prose. I guess I could compare sled-drivers to head chefs, but I think that would make for really awkward reading, not to mention writing. But there are enough points of contact here that I’m going to make a loose effort, if only for the opportunity to talk about the infierno within the parameters of a story about returning from the forest.

This fire, the one I now cook on four nights a week, is mesmerizing in the way all fires are. Buck’s campfire, the warehouse fire in Backdraft, the yearly torching of Christmas trees at Golden Gardens. Fire holds us transfixed. This fire is the centerpiece of an expensive, popular, Downtown Seattle restaurant; in a profession that prides itself on its fire and knives, this is a one to be proud of. And, in the age of knobs and propane tanks, working with live fire is a throw-back skill almost as cool as mastering scrimshaw, or thatch. (Francis Mallmann's cookbooks are a great inspiration in this direction; his food eloquently illustrates the ways in which fire can consume, transform, destroy, and make delicious.) 

The infierno was custom-built for the restaurant. There are two grills on either side of a three-foot wide coal-rack and chimney. Periodically, when the bed of coals becomes too ashy, one of the cooks throws about twenty pounds of charcoal into the grate, or sometimes, depending on who I’m working with, he’ll throw the entire forty-pound bag atop the grate, a bag twice as wide and long than the ones I buy filled with dog food. After a few moments of dwindling returns in the coal department, the bag ruptures, spills out a belly of fire, and whooshes into a hot lavender and white-gold phoenix. And then we’re back in business.

As it grows, the fire devours the oxygen in a twelve-foot radius. I notice a slight headache as the area around the grill, my cutting board, the rack where I hang my tongs, my neatly stacked pile of kitchen towels, becomes as inhospitable as the interior of an active volcano. The familiar quick dance-steps of professional cookery become sluggish as I struggle to breathe, fighting with the beautiful monster for a mouthful of air. Reaching into the fire to set a cast-iron pan on a pillow of salmon-colored coals is like reaching into a kiln; the heat smacking into my forearms and face is a physical force, a wall I must reach through, and I’ve learned that exhaling as I step close and reach in to the fire seems to help, as though my tiny tithe of air was found a sufficient token, and I’m allowed to pass. My towel, on the other hand, comes away from the fire burning, as though tiny orange insects are eating holes into it. I smudge the insects out on the brick wall next to my station, and reach back into the fire to flip over the scallops searing in their cast-iron hell.
   
Sound doesn’t carry across such a short distance, as though the fire is consuming our very voices; thinking about it now, I can’t remember whether the blaze makes its own noise, or if it just eats our words along with our air. When a new ticket comes in, I cross the space between us with one hand flung in front of my face to call steaks and temps to the other cook. My silver necklace heats up and leaves a red line around my throat. The pen clip sticking out of my apron pocket burns me when I cross my arms across my chest, and I let out a startled noise. My t-shirt is soaking wet within seconds, which means that if I leave the grill area, and its 900 degree environment, I will immediately be beset with violent shivers, as though I’ve been wrapped in a wet sheet and set on a mountain top.    

Fresh charcoal spits sparks in every direction as if protesting its transformation from inert object into fuel. As we rake the pile of coals into heaps beneath our grills, the sparks are like bees spilling from a kicked hive, but I learned almost immediately to ignore their tiny stings and to continue working through the swarm.

When the fire rages from the grate in flames three-feet high, the coals drop from the grate like newborn fire-salamanders, a species skinned in coral and rose. Eventually, the sparks simmer down. Eventually, the heat settles down to a bearable 500 degrees. If we don’t have any tickets working, I stare into the face of the beast and again, think about Buck watching a version of a world in which he is tame, struggling with the call he hears from the Wilds beyond the small ring of firelight. 

Like being a doctor or a lawyer, being a chef can supplant other identifiers. When people ask what you do, the question heard is, What are you? This is a question I’ve struggled with for years. I’m a chef. No, I’m a writer. No, I’m a chef and a writer. No, I’ll never cook again. I’ll starve before I go back into that world. I will write and illustrate children’s books and medical manuals. No wait, I’ll open my own restaurant, with sage colored walls and vermillion curtains, west-facing views over the water, wood-fired oven, a menu that speaks to the glacial moraine of the Riviera, the culinary intersection of Sea and Alps. And on, and on, for years, the answers changing depending on the audience, the mood, and the amount of vodka percolating through the system.

When the last chef job ended with the suddenness of being thrown off a moving bus, and I went into seven months of unemployment, I was free to run around and howl at the moon. I wasn’t making decisions based on paychecks or other people’s expectations, or my visions of food on plates, or my crippling case of carcass fatigue. Management style and the politics of restaurant hierarchy ceased to mean anything. These months graphed the geometry of freedom versus security, and, to a lesser extent, proved ol’ Janis Joplin right.

But there came a time when the freedom of having nothing left to lose made me take stock. I should have something to lose, right? I have a career, a resume, a future, all of which require returning to the traces and pulling again. And this doesn’t have to be a bad sled pulled over pitted snow. So I waited by the edge of the forest until I saw a fire I wanted to be next to.  And now, having found it, I will pull. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Chef Philosophy, 201

“The human heart has a tiresome tendency to label as fate only what crushes it. But happiness likewise, in its way, is without reason, since it is inevitable.” 
 
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

When I learned Food Riot was shuttering the shop, I stopped wrestling with topics to write about, much less actually work on them. The piece about bok choy: Abandoned. The one about the Miracle on 46th Street? Nope. Pie Whimsy? Well, that one will live to see another day, once I get the recipe right. I can’t not write about my first successful lattice.

Rather than work on new pieces, I had a look at the work I did for that site. On the whole, I’m pretty pleased with it. Lord knows I could always use a good edit, but overall, not terrible. You have to break a few oeufs to make an oeuvre, right?

One of the pieces I reread with some pleasure was my first, written a year ago, back when I was so excited and happy to have the opportunity to write for another site. I like my blog, but it was fun to write for a larger audience, comprising more than my immediate family, some friends, and the odd cook who stumbled onto the site because she needs a new pair of clogs.

This particular piece was about Chef Philosophy, and it was a metaphor quiche – Sisyphus and the nature of restaurant work playing the part of ham, a hunter’s chase through the woods in search of a white stag in place of swissy custard. I hadn’t noticed the heady mixture, gazing as I was at my own navel. But after my dad called the mixed metaphor a “head-snapper,” I took another look and chatted with him about what may be my new favorite grammatical term. In spite of the head-snapper, his comments about the quiche-piece weren’t negative. Rather, he gave me another angle to consider.

Leaving the bounding hunt through the forest alone for just a moment, let’s look again at the idea that while work in general is Sisyphean, restaurant work epitomizes the nature of Sisyphus’s job to the nth degree. Every shift begins when you shoulder your boulder, every shift ends when you reach the top of the hill: The last pair of sliders during a late happy hour rush, SOLD; the final stack of pancakes, plated and windowed! The mats pulled, the floors swept and mopped, the till counted – all part of the restaurant’s daily cycle, a cycle which occurs during every dining period you provide. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The boulder reaches the top of the hill, and then it rolls back down.

For whatever it's worth, in my mind’s eye the boulder rolls down a hill a lot like the Ponderosa-dotted hills surrounding Boulder, my childhood home, which is, I understand, a somewhat  unuseful conflation of imagery. A boulder meets a Boulder, coming down the hill. Brains, man. Wacky stuff.

Anyway, even if we run down the hill because we are in the middle of a series of doubles, or clopening, or opening a new restaurant, we can’t beat the boulder. It has rolled, crashed, tumbled, bounced, and careened through the woods, back to the base of the hill faster than we can goat-hop down the slope. We shouldn’t even try to beat it. Instead of racing back down, let’s order a beer at Tantalus’s Table, a hot spot on the hill top (despite the owner’s extreme crankiness) and catch up with each other.

After all, the boulder isn't going anywhere; it came to rest at the bottom of the hill, after smashing through an abandoned barn, scattering a herd of mule deer, decapitating a fir, and crashing to a stop half-in and half-out of the creek. I will be wet to my thighs when I get behind that thing and shove. Possibly hypothermic.

When we've finished our beers, I'll start back down. But look there – a clearing, a fallen log where I can rest for a while, a moment, before getting my ass back down the hill and pushing again. A breeze whispers through the pine branches, subtle scents of vanilla play with the smell of mint and wet stone rising from a nearby rill. Maybe I’ll simply sit quietly and consider the elusive white stag, a chef’s sublime quarry, and the mysterious ways in which line cooks are (or are not) motivated. With no Food Riot to write for, no restaurant to cook for, and barring any unforeseen existential crises, I can sit for a good minute before I have to push again.

Except – the dog needs to go out, the dishes must be washed, agent letters must be written, and the bloody book must be rid of darlings. Perhaps this particular chapter in my career is not just a walk down a hill, but a chance to see, to fully apprehend, the sheer number and variety of rocks, boulders, stones, and pebbles we all push up hills, all the time, every day, as well as having the opportunity to see some folks I missed while I was occupied. I have momentarily abandoned my primary, half-submerged boulder to work on other things that will, no doubt, appear cyclical when they are at last completed, the next one begun. But seeing it as a cycle, with the big push followed by a pleasant jaunt, brings me closer still to understanding Camus. It’s not that Sisyphus is content because he has a job, maybe even one with benefits; he is content because he understands the nature of work, that, as with a latticed pie, effort brings reward, but pushing upwards is only half of the story. 

Next time on Chef Philosophy: Tantalus and the Benefits of Delaying Gratification (possibly until the end of time), or, Forget Fire: The Gods Offered Two Marshmallows to Humankind.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Radicchio is the Thing with Feathers

As seen in slightly different form on FoodRiot.com, part of the New Riot Media Group.  


A  few years ago, I put together a Valentine’s Day menu which included such treats as “The Broken Hearted Caesar” (hard-bias cut romaine, traditional Caesar accouterments, fried oysters), the “Soft Underbelly of Love” (pork belly, plate action, tangy driz), and “Because it is Bitter and Because it is my Heart” (grilled radicchio, shard of pistachio-plum brittle thrust into it, balsamic redux). This particular menu didn’t sell very well: the servers, save one or two, didn’t understand the references – either what they were or why they were there – and the diners really just wanted a seared salmon or a steak.  Maybe a duck breast, for the daring few. They weren’t there for the Chef’s not-altogether-positive ruminations on love, expressed through snarky menu names; it was Valentine’s Day, for crying out loud.

I was frustrated by the menu’s overall sales, but I felt a little bit sad the radicchio had had so few takers. Not only did the dish’s name inspire in me an upwelling of hilarity, a variety of glee I usually feel only when told jokes about what numbers say or do to each other, but “Because it is Bitter and Because it is my Heart” was understated in plating, well-rounded in flavor, gorgeous and delicious. And no one wanted to try it.

But I understand why not. 

Bitter is the last flavor we learn to like. A child will look at you with horror – real horror, like, Why are you trying to kill me? horror – if you present her with a frisee salad, or a dish of sautéed rapini. There is a basis for such terror – nature often uses bitterness to express toxicity, as any bird who has gone for a certain kind of caterpillar will tell you (if it weren’t dead). Our tongue’s taste buds demonstrate a certain amount of variation in flavor receptivity; they are not laid out quite as simply as sweet at the front, salty and sour on the sides, umami everywhere (maybe add pungency and astringency to the overall gestalt of flavors), and bitter at the back. But, that bitterness is tasted most strongly at the back of the tongue does seems like nature’s last chance to exit the highway, a last chance to spit out willow bark and think about its flavor later, like when you’re inventing aspirin.

Early experiences with bitterness include poking at cafeteria grapefruits, spitting out a mouthful of gin and tonic, and being dumped in my senior year via yearbook inscription. It is in my nature, however, to find balance, and now I taste the sweet in the ruby red, raise toasts with gins and tonics, and will maybe go on a date again someday… avoiding the bitter does not make sweet sweeter. Quite the opposite. Cue the beginning of my exploration of bitterness as a flavor, in food and life. Let the broadening of an emotional and culinary palate begin!

Top of the list of things to try was radicchio. With its striking combination of white and burgundy, colors I wanted to eat, hang as curtains, or wear like a boyfriend’s letter jacket, this bitter “green” is an object of absolute beauty to me. A quartered head looks like the feathers of an exotic bird, an animal time forgot. A rough chop of radicchio provides color and flavor in salads and sautés, a backdrop against which other ingredients can pop and shine. When radicchio is lightly marinated in a vinegary solution and grilled, flavors of char, acid, and bitterness combine to create a taste sensation I associate with being the survivor of a shipwreck off the north coast of France in the early nineteenth century – brackish, alkaline, salty, and as sweet as finding a bed of rushes and reeds.

More recent experiences with bitterness include discovering the Pacific Northwest’s extremely hoppy IPAs, ordering bitter melon in Chinatown, and losing my job. There are many times of the year in Seattle when any kind of blow to self, any experience with bitterness, is compounded by a low sky and half-frozen rain rattling against single-paned windows. But this is not that time. While it may be a little while longer before I feel grateful for an unlooked-for major-life-change, right now I have sunny skies, a hot grill, a feathery heart of radicchio, and my friends, who are toasting the summer with Negronis. I have time to think hopefully upon what’s next.  Right now, I will savor the sweet.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The French Toast Code

As seen in a slightly different form on FoodRiot.com, part of the Riot New Media Group. 


The relationship between Industry Professionals and Brunch is a mixed bag, at best. Take a staff of hung-over, sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated servers and cooks, and have them interact meaningfully with customers who are themselves hung-over and sleep-deprived to varying degrees, customers who may be eating with friends, or slogging through an awkward morning-after breakfast with someone whose name is either Brad or Brian, Janie or Jenny. Invariably there is a multi-generational table where Grandmother can’t hear what anyone is saying because the music is too loud, while little Timmy sneaks eleven packets of raw sugar from the coffee service, pours them into his water, and drinks it. Fifteen minutes later, Timmy is zipping through the restaurant making truck noises, while the servers dodge and weave to avoid him. Grandmother falls asleep after her third Bloody Mary. At the next table, Brad/Brian and Janie/Jenny watch with the shared contentment of two people who realize they have something in common, after all. They plan a second date and agree they’ll never have children. Their contemporary at table 136 gently shakes Grandmother awake because the server just dropped the bill, and brunch for seven is an expensive proposition.

We hammered out a Brunch program at the place I last worked in February, while the Seahawks were distracting most of our audience and we had a few weeks to work out the kinks. Years of working in houses with busy brunches made me ever-so-slightly leery – I didn’t want my adrenal gland to fail because of a misfired order of white toast. I wanted our Brunch to be super yummy, and extremely executable. I wanted to capture the traditional, the foods people crave when they wake up on Saturdays and Sundays, while putting a slight spin on some of the items to make a dish more in keeping with the restaurant’s aesthetic: Make it pretty; make it good; somehow reflect the intersection between comfort and elegance; and try to juxtapose those two qualities in plating. 

One of those dishes, French Toast, captures these disparate elements pretty well. Made with baguette soaked in a custard of eggs, milk, sugar, pinch of salt, pinch of cardamom, and pinch of cinnamon, our Pain Perdu is cooked on the flat top, dusted with powdered sugar, served with a Three Citrus Syrup and Beecher’s Honeyed Blank Slate, a young cheese texturally similar to ricotta. Our French Toast hits a few chords – sweet and tangy with the cheese and citrus-rind syrup, an interesting alternative to butter and maple syrup, classic but redefined… For me, however, the dish hit the Proustian Chord most strongly…

Flashback to 1980.

Saturday morning after a sleepover and my friend’s dad is making French Toast. An already promising morning – watching cartoons in our pajamas! – turned into a defining moment in my culinary education as I fell head-over-heels in love with the eggy-buttery-powdered sugar combo. I was amazed by the way the bread acted as a vessel for either jam, OR syrup. Or blackberry AND apricot jams. Sweet little rafts, conveyances for even more sugar. The French, thought I, as I helped myself to a third or fourth piece, the French really know how to make toast. I watched him make a second batch and was absolutely blown away by the simplicity of the process. You mean to say, I thought, with just eggs, a splash of milk, some sugar, cinnamon and bread, maybe some powdered sugar or syrup or jam or whatever, you get French Toast? A breakfast so much greater than the sum of its parts as to astonish.

This moment of clarity was an early example of burgeoning culinary independence – not long after this pivotal breakfast there came an evening when we children were in charge of finding our own dinner, a “Pick Night,” a fairly regular occurrence when our mother was working. As per usual, I stood in front of the open refrigerator for far too long, computing the work versus satisfaction of a fried egg sandwich or a bowl of spaghetti. As I ran through steps and ingredients, I remembered I had another trick up my sleeve: Bread, check, eggs, check, milk, sugar, cinnamon, powdered sugar, check, check check! Butter, check! We were GTG for French Toast! That night, I Frenched an entire loaf of Roman Meal and watched with enormous satisfaction as my siblings chose their own adventures – apricot jam and a spot of maple? Sure! Strawberry jam and a piece of cheddar? Do it!

The years of Brunch service, of kitchen work in general, may have blinded me somewhat to the intricacies of breakfast cooking. Maybe because of repetition, anxiety, or a wandering mind, I don’t always see what I do. I suspect the same holds true for mechanics, doctors, lawyers, and other trades people, but there are those “open-refrigerator moments” when things click together in new ways. When I realized – and retained – that eggs, bread and milk meant more than a fried egg sandwich and a milk back, I shifted from being fed to becoming a feeder.

 I’d cracked the French Toast Code. There was no going back.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Notes from the Prep List: Eggplant

As seen in a slightly different form on Food Riot.com, part of the Riot New Media Group, October 3rd, 2013.

"Somebody brought a few foxglove leaves in with some spinach from the garden...." - Agatha Christie, Postern of Fate

Maybe because I’ve read too many inter-war British murder mysteries to trust any member of the nightshade family, or maybe because my expectations are always baffled by the slightly slimy reality, I’ve struggled with eggplant for years. All the breading, soaking, and searing in the world won’t make an eggplant cutlet into a Wiener schnitzel no matter what it looks like on the plate. Baba ganoush is delicious and nutritious but it’s as drab looking as wallpaper paste. And when people claim to love eggplant, I can’t help but view them with a Miss Marple-esqe suspicion – if the butler didn’t do it, then the murderous culprit was definitely the gardener who substituted deadly nightshade for salad greens; who could love such a fiend? 

So, when eggplant appeared on a prep list of never-tried preparations, I was skeptical. Eggplant gets all squishy when cooked, the flesh texturally similar to an overripe banana, the skin as tough as a shark’s. In a restaurant where everything is beautiful, and on a menu with no room for the word “gloopy,” I was even a little bit balky. But cooking is about learning, and the culinary horizon recedes even as you think you’ve gained ground because quail eggs no longer give you the heebie jeebies…. There was nothing for it but to sally forth. 

My first step was to make a mental shift from the name “eggplant,” which conjures images of a sulfurous garden patch littered with shells and broken yolks, to the more European “aubergine,” which sounds like the name of a French exchange student who hasn’t yet lost her baby fat. (I like the idea of Aubergine and Courgette sharing a tiny apartment during their second semester at NYU, meeting for falafels in Washington Square, struggling to make ends meet, but generally having a good time in the big American city. Courgette has more boyfriends, but Aubergine finds her true love: math major and trombone aficionado Celeriac.)

The aubergines in the walk-in are beautiful, it’s true. A hotel pan of purple. Helpful website “Cook’s Thesaurus” lists no fewer than 14 varieties of eggplants, as well as their respective names, regions, skin-thicknesses, and relative bitterness. (A complete collection of eggplants from around the world is as diverse as the students in one of Aubergine’s night-school ESL classes.) We’re using Japanese eggplant, which are less bulbous than the American variety, and less bitter. Instead of the dark, brooding purple of a mid-winter night sky, the Japanese eggplants are cheerful and bright, like parasols or lilacs or silk blouses. Their looks are not their problem, for sure.

The recipe has me split the eggplant lengthwise, roll the halves in olive oil, salt, and black pepper, line them on a large sheet pan (which I oiled beforehand) and roast until tender. Which happens a little faster than you might think. When they’re pulled from the oven, the bright purple is all gone and the vegetables resemble old black ballet slippers. Yum! That’s not sad-making at all!

After they’ve cooled, scrape the flesh into a large stainless steel bowl and add a good amount of nuoc cham. Wait, what? That’s right. We’re not climbing into the northern Italian Alps for this eggplant dish, nor are we stepping off the gangplank in Tunisia. We’re in Hanoi, baby.  (That the eggplants are Japanese and the preparation is Vietnamese is just a coincidence; you are not getting involved in a land-war in Asia.)

Nuoc cham is a traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce made with garlic, chili peppers, lime juice, and fish sauce. I like adding a pinch of sugar, a little Sambal, and I think thinly sliced Serrano peppers are delicious in this. I’ve found that “Three Crabs” fish sauce draws the fewest cats, but do expect a certain, um, robustness to the smell.

For twenty split eggplants, add two cups or even more of nuoc cham. Right now the preparation will resemble a slippery pile of sardines, or newspaper ready for a papier-mâché project. Add a half cup of mint chiffonade and a full cup of basil chiffonade. Taste for salt and spice. You may notice the flavor of the eggplant has become slightly sweet, you many also notice yourself eating a lot of this before you label the container and put it on the prep shelf. Hmmm. Perhaps the problem was trying to make aubergine something it is not – it is spongey, it is weird, it isn’t ever going to sear perfectly, and maybe that’s okay….tasting it again as an accompaniment to scallops or trout, after the plate is finished with another member of the nightshade family – tomatoes, or perhaps a few quarters of roasted tomatillos – I realize I’m in the presence of deliciousness. The dish is greater than the sum of its parts; this is one of the reasons we cook.

After making this dish a couple of times, and another in which the eggplant is cubed, sautéed with (so much) olive oil and garlic, deglazed with balsamic vinegar and later folded together with similarly prepared Fennel, Courgettes, Red Onions, and Basil, I found myself liking Aubergine more and more. I’m not quite ready to embrace her and kiss both cheeks. But I’ll let her into the kitchen.  

All Summer in a Melon

As seen in a slightly different form on Food Riot.com, part of the Riot New Media Group, July 31st, 2013
Professional cooks live on scraps of rib-eye trim, bowls of rice cribbed from the steam table, and the odd sandwich slapped together on the fly, eaten while crouched behind the line before the next slew of tickets hit. On days off, I might order a pizza or some Thai food, or go out for a burger and a beer, perfectly happy to let someone else do the cooking. But still, even with the relatively recent arrival of other people’s children, even with the responsibilities of jobs and Grown-Up Stuff, there are occasional evenings when my friends, family, and I carve out enough time to cook and eat together.

The last time this happened I decided to put together a watermelon salad. A simple affair of watermelon, cucumber, jicama, serrano peppers, a lot of cilantro and mint, a splash of vinegar, and just enough salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Perfect for a hot July evening, the salad is a refreshing accompaniment to grilled foods and a flavorful antidote for dehydration. I went with cubes of various sizes for the melon, cukes, and jicama, and thin rounds for the serranos. Pleasantly Sesame-Streetian shapes, comfortably within my Cheffy OCD parameters. The herbs were a rough-chopped green confetti.  Wee! 

My brother tasted it and made a face — “What is that white stuff?”

“Jicama.”

“Hexama?!”

I’m laughing now; he thinks food should be taken in capsule form and the inevitable food fanfare of these evenings is almost lost on him. Tasting a spicy-savory version of tried and true watermelon was brave…but his face! Oh, the hilarity.

The two of us stood in the kitchen and talked jicama, among other things, while our friends put the children to bed. But I couldn’t stop eating the salad. I’d ask a question and then stuff my face while he answered. When the four of us sat down to eat, I grudgingly shared the third I’d left in the bowl. But my spoon kept wandering back. I badly wanted to forgo any semblance of manners and simply tip the bowl back, just guzzle the sweet-salty-spicy melon water.

As the summer wears on – and I’m lucky out here in Seattle where temperatures rarely top ninety – my thoughts turn again and again to the blatant, unapologetic refreshment of a watermelon salad. Throw in some feta! Top it with toasted pepitas! Make a black pepper syrup! Such a forgiving, amenable ingredient, as well as a handy way to transport water across deserts. So, I guess Watermelon Salad with Serranos and Friends was my second favorite thing I ate in July, beating Fried Chicken Bits Over Reheated Rice, and Grits with Some Stuff. There was a Cheese and Tomato Sandwich coming in a close third, but the winner turned out to be an exercise in simplicity.

With watermelons on the brain, I recently went ahead and bought a small one from one of the vendors down at Pike Place Market before heading in for another long, busy shift at the restaurant. Coming home from work: late, tired, too thirsty for water, too dehydrated for vodka, I opened my little fridge and there it was! I had forgotten all about it!

Next to a heel of bread, a knuckle of cheddar, and a short stack of mostly empty to-go containers, there was my favorite July treat: A watermelon split and devoured in the light of a propped open refrigerator door, the juice puddling a bit on the checkered floor. Standing there in the dimly lit kitchen, I wiped the juice from my chin with the back of my hand and let my mind wander. Summer and rind, sunshine, sprinklers, kiddy pools, and hot grass. The shopping trip for a new Trapper Keeper still weeks away. Hot dogs, grape soda, road-trip Tropicana orange juice. Dampened dust, tepid lemonade. The mild melancholy of having no seeds to spit. The urge to go jump in a lake. I was slurping up all the Julys, past, present, and future, the watermelon refreshing my spirit. Truly delicious.