Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

"Is that butter?" I asked her. -- City of Thieves, by David Benioff

Not a bad start to the day: there's a slug of whiskey in the cup of coffee to the left of my computer and a glass of champagne within easy reach of my right hand. The heady smells of thyme and rosemary curl up from the corners of the room, apple and pumpkin pies are ready for their baptism of fire, and the whiff of giblets simmering in stock on a corner of the stove wafts to the fold-out table where I am writing – the larger table was moved already to prepare for our hungry crowd. A small fennel frond is stuck to my slipper, and there is a gradual up-swell of activity in the kitchen as we check items off the list and tackle the ambitious menu. I should probably be chopping shallots or peeling poblano peppers.

Except, nothing about this feels like work because, every once in a while, the front door opens and another friend steps out of the Damp Dark, a Pacific Northwest specialty, shakes off their umbrella or gortex, and joins us around the hearth.

When I moved to Seattle in 1998, I fell in with a small group of Connecticans. A shared love of butter helped cement our friendship and this year marks the thirteenth Seattle Thanksgiving. A baker’s dozen – although, given the number of pies we’re making today, we should switch the apostrophe – a bakers’ dozen years.

(And I really do need to get started on the sweet cheese tart with gingered pears. Not to mention the yams.)

There have been rental homes on rivers and vacation homes on Whidbey or Lummi Island. There were dogs for many years, then none. There is one here today, which is a nice addition to the strata of controlled chaos, another player in the concerted effort to bring a feast to the table in a reasonable amount of time. The dog keeps the floor clean, especially nice because, after a decade of child-free debauchery, there are small hands everywhere this year, decorating cookies and sifting flour, feeding morsels to a gentle canine who is scared of the two cats.

Like a very soluble molecule, our Thanksgiving group is not always made from the same elements: I’ve missed a few years, my younger brother is in Quito right now instead of sitting at the table, doggedly peeling apples for pie. But the level of constancy among us continues to astonish me – here we all are, again, and right before dinner, when the warmed plates hit the table and we somehow manage to find room for seventeen different salads on the table or sideboard, we’ll join hands and go around the table to give mention to those things for which we are thankful. Because, in the midst of the relentless changes, losses, and joys that life brings there is the hearth, there is the family made from family-born and family-chosen.

What am I thankful for?


Thank you.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Sticky Topic

“So how’s this for a guiding principle: The work is more important than the personalities. We can be friends but let's not be sweethearts."– Young Hearts Crying, by Richard Yates

Well, Friends, today is October 14th and we all know what that means. That’s right. Today marks the 64th anniversary of the sound barrier being broken during level flight by Charles [Chuck] Yeager. If you’ve seen the movie “The Right Stuff,” you probably remember the scene when Sam Shepard, as Yeager, slightly squinty eyed in that delightful Shepard way, contorted his body to fit into Glamorous Glennis, the orange Bell X-1 that hurtled them both into aeronautic fame and now hangs from the ceiling of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C. In the movie, just as Yeager slides the cockpit door closed with a sawed off piece of broom handle (two of his ribs had been broken in a horseback riding accident), he asks for a piece of gum from the Flight Engineer. He made the gum look so delicious that I had to wonder for a moment – is gum the Right Stuff? 

Whether this delightful scene occurred in Tom Wolfe’s book, the source for the movie, I don’t know – I haven’t read it. But I do know from reading my McGee that gum has been considered delicious by humans for thousands of years:

“Europeans and North Americans chewed the relatively harsh resin of spruce trees; and the Maya chewed chicle, the latex of the sapodilla tree (Achras sapote) ten centuries before it was commercialized in New York City.”

Now, I’d learned about the chicle tree a few years ago during a trip to Guatemala with my Father and Stepmum. As we wandered around the jungle covered ruins of Tikal, ducking beneath tree branches mottled with white growths – perfect camouflage for a waiting boa constrictor – our guide pointed out a fairly nondescript tree and told us that it was chicle. Always a fan of meeting ingredients in their native form, I was delighted when, not a minute later, he pointed out another tree and asked me to smell the trunk. Never one to shy from smelling a tree, I leaned up to the bark and took a deep whiff. What was that? Apple pie? Beeman’s gum? A really good Dark and Stormy? Christmas time? Nope. It was an Allspice tree.

I may have been the only one in the group to find the proximity of these two trees as fascinating as I did, but truly, Friends, I believed in that moment that I’d cracked the Gum Code. That long-ago, one of the Mr. Wrigleys visited this jungle, took a look at the two trees, pulled a cigar from between his teeth, and announced, “I believe we have found a remarkable convergence of materials, see…perfectly suitable for manufacture of a Chewing Gum for pilots and other wizards of invention!” I suppose this could have happened, but let's not forget that the Maya were snapping gum (a punishable offense back then) long before the New York City sidewalks were bespeckled with flattened disks of chewed and spat out Juicy Loot. We have to thank for that a certain Thomas Adams, a New York inventor who was introduced to chicle in 1869, added sugar and that was that. The Wrigleys and Fleers followed soon after. And while clove, licorice, teaberry, sugar and sassafras were all early gum flavors, there's not much evidence pointing to an allspice version of the chewable tree secretion. The only Gum Code I cracked was the origin of the name "Chicklets."

There’s not a lot of gum chewing in kitchens. The last thing you want is a customer finding a piece of chewed Double Yumm in their pizza crust. The. Last. Thing. Sometimes customers place their chewed gum on the edge of a bread plate, especially in restaurants that offer only cloth napkins. When the gum goes through the dish machine, the hot water smears it all over everything, leaving behind a sticky, minty plate coating about four molecules thick, impossible to remove without acetone. And while I don’t recommend sticking gum to the bottom of the table or the underside of a chair, I do urge the dining public to refrain from sending their gum back with their other leavings. This work is already tricky without having to also ferret out nail polish remover. 

I'm reminded of Glamorous Glennis often during a shift because the burner I cook most everything on is a single, double-ringed gas eye of fire. When I sear livers in a rondeaux, my face is directly above the popping organs and fat, while my apron dangles just inches away from the tongues of fire that lick the bottom of the pot. This is a useful device for cooking enormous batches of stocks, gumbos, soups, beans, and also for shooting people across the sky.

Kitchens are – restaurants are – arenas in which daily dramas play out, dramas in which every employee must bring the Right Stuff because every employee runs into barriers and boundaries: The language barriers between the Spanish and English speakers; the boundaries of professional regard/disdain that exist between the Front of House and Back of House. The right stuff in a kitchen might mean having your station set up and backed up before service starts. But every shift is about pushing personal boundaries, learning something new, braving the demon that lives in the fire, and putting a perfect sear on a piece of halibut. This kind of Stuff comes from wanting, wanting to be the best at a station and not caring who knows it, wanting to be a part of a team, wanting to seamlessly present perfection on a plate.

Today is my favorite day for indulging in these personal reflections, a chance for me to unwrap delicious, fresh-flavored dreams and start chewing on them until next year. Were I to offer you a piece from the fresh pack of dreams, I would also offer this: There is, there must be, a certain grace, a humility that comes with knowing that there will always be those better and worse than you at your job, and that without the entire crew working together, nobody’s gonna fly.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Fall Menu, 2011

We would never call inexplicable little insights “hunches,” for fear of drawing the universe’s attention. But they happened, and you knew you had been in the proximity of one that had come through if you saw a detective kiss his or her fingers and touch his or her chest where a pendant to Warsha, patron saint of inexplicable inspirations, would, theoreticaly hang.  The City & The City, by China Miéville

We’ve reached the season when I begin to cast about, assess the work completed during the year versus the work yet to be done, and shake my head at the predictable results of doing the math. I begin to eye my sweaters with a certain anticipatory fondness. I oil my boots. This used to be the time of year for new pencils, protractors, compasses, and Trapper-Keepers™, items supplanted over the years by knives and Sharpies™. Here in Seattle, the sky shows off its cheeriest colors: Orphanage Grey, Bedlam Bedding, Paper-Pulp Pewter, and the days become acutely, palpably shorter. 
For me, these depressive forces conspire to make eating in good company, already a true pleasure, an absolute must. And if you’re in the business of feeding people, this is the time of year when you can safely ramp up the butter and cream, sprinkle on a bit more cheese, and help a brother mammal out with his layer of fat. When I was writing a new menu every three months, for my last job, this was the time of year when the narrative thrust behind the food was the most graspable for me, when I was most able to articulate to cooks, servers, customers and management the idea that food is story, and story is food. Maybe because Autumnal food is often the result of community efforts like harvesting, and putting produce up, and that telling stories to pass the time during the tedious, necessary work to preserve enough food for the winter is simply part of the human experience. 
At its best, menu writing felt like channeling, as though a great swirling collective Memory of Meals had gathered, storm-like, on the horizon, and I had only to set out pots to catch whatever fell from the sky. At its worst, however, menu writing was like a scene from the latter half of Danny Boyle’s "127 Hours," hours 85 through 119, perhaps. Most often, writing a menu meant a prolonged idyll among ideas about food and geography, time and people and gatherings, surrounding myself with books detailing whichever region’s food I was pitching, weighing the various menu items according to how much whimsy, accessibility, deliciousness and prettiness they had. And then I turned the menu in to the higher-ups and waited for the inevitable changes. Not everyone thinks whimsy needs to be on the menu.
I could not talk about menu writing without including a favorite bit from an early chapter in John Lanchester’s ridiculously delightful book, The Debt to Pleasure:
It seems to me that the menu lies close to the heart of the human impulse to order, to beauty, to pattern. It draws on the original chthonic upwelling that underlies all art. A menu can embody the anthropology of a culture or the psychology of an individual; it can be a biography, a cultural history, a lexicon; it speaks to the sociology, psychology, and biology of its creator and its audience, and of course to their geographical location; it can be a way of knowledge, a path, an inspiration, a Tao, an ordering, a shaping, a manifestation, a talisman, an injunction, a memory, a fantasy, a consolation, an allusion, an illusion, an evasion, an assertion, a seduction, a prayer, a summoning, an incantation murmured under the breath as the torchlights sink lower and the forest looms taller and the wolves howl louder and the fire prepares for its submission to the encroaching dark.
That pretty much sums it up, and includes the word “chthonic,” which I never get to use. Ever. Although future hangman games may be spiced up accordingly. 
As some of you may know, I am a reader. I am also a re-reader. I will revisit a story over and over again, despite the teetery stack of books not-yet-read, books-not-finished, and books-I-should-read-but-probably-won’t. In some cases re-reading is a retreat, a way to escape immediately from day to day kitchen life that doesn’t involve whiskey, a trap-door to another world.  Sometimes a re-read recontextualizes events in the daily life – a clear case of the subconscious reaching out and shoving a book into my hands when that story is the one I most wish/need to hear, or a story containing an element previously ignored or unnoticed, simply because that detail wasn’t (yet) pertinent. Those moments of discovery are to me what the glint of something shiny in the sand must be to a beach-dweller, who believed his stretch of sand well-combed.  And sometimes the only impetus is sentimentality, the indulgence of the desire to stroll along familiar paths, to run my hands over touchstones from my youth, to console myself that I am still the same girl who cried until she had hiccups the third time through Where the Red Fern Grows. All of these books have become a part of my subconscious’s library, a place I’d like to imagine cozy and fire-lit, without the overflowing file cabinets and piles of papers and dubious sense of organization employed by my conscious mind.
So, come menu-writing time, all these books – fiction, non, atlases, picture books, cookbooks – all those ideas, places, pictures, and thoughts, are at the disposal of the Subconscious, who, still in pajamas, eating a piece of toast with peanut butter, sipping a nice cup of coffee, puts together a little something and sends it up to the Worker Brain, who skipped breakfast and is running late but who will nevertheless recognize the value of the idea behind a Hemingway Menu, featuring foods from Spain, France and Africa…and look. Worker Brain missed the bus. But there is an Idea in hand. 
As I’m no longer in the business of writing a Fall Menu for an actual restaurant, I asked my Subconscious if I could take a look around, maybe see if I could come up with a Clog Blog, get a little work done. The reply was vague, the directions terrible, but I did find my way to a library where two books sat on a coffee table. Interestingly, it was the same coffee table we had in the house I grew up in. There was a note, but I couldn’t read it, so I turned my attention to the books.
The first, The Sugarloaf Mountain Cookbook is a community cookbook, printed on humble brown paper, bound the way things were bound in the ‘70s, with a black plastic spiral. The recipes were contributed by women who lived on the mountain where I grew up, some of whom suffered from a late-season overabundance of zucchini, others sharing tips about high-altitude cooking (a science lesson for another time). This cookbook is an especial favorite because my mother did the illustrations – when I wander through the pages I’m not really looking at the food, I’m looking at pen-and-ink evocations of my childhood.  
The other is never too far from my thoughts. I’ve read it over and over again, each time taking away something new –  the trials and tribulations of leadership, the buoyant force of hope and optimism against the oppressive forces of fear and ignorance, the value of teamwork, the sometimes pleasantly surprising outcome of talking to strangers, youth surrendering to old age, the usefulness of Story when a group’s cohesion begins to disintegrate.  And lately, as Seattle’s urban landscape more and more includes chicken coops, which means that hutches can't be too far behind, I can’t help but think about the deliciousness of rabbit.
I left the Subconscious library with a draft of “The Watership Down Menu.” Along with such items as “Owsla in a Blanket,” “Pipkin Surprised,” and “Chervil Chimichurri,” the menu would include Beer-Braised Hindquarters, with Roasted Swedes (rutabagas) and Flayrah Thlayli, with an especially hoppy beer and a nice tuft of lacinato kale and radicchio. Perfect for a Fall dinner with friends.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Recipe #3: Frog Pond Pasta with Salsify Slivers

“Wasn’t it made clear that civilization is not an end in itself but a theater or gymnasium in which the evolving individual finds facilities for practice? And when it comes to themes, how about the – but wait a minute. Hold on. I’ve been trapped.” -- Still Life With Woodpecker, A Sort of Love Story, by Tom Robbins

A couple of weeks ago I ordered a pound of salsify and brought it home so I could experiment with different recipes. What a lark, I thought, cooking for fun!

As a single person, and not an especially domestic one at that, I must confess to a slight sense of the Why-Would-Yas when I visit my tiny kitchen with its orderly row of hanging pans, the sink empty of all dishes but this morning’s coffee mug: why would I mess this up to cook for myself? This is a question directed toward one of my arachnid roommates, a long-legged spider crossing the ceiling, too busy to answer. She’s probably on her way to confront her terror of being trapped, yet again, in the bathtub. (Note to self: check tub before taking out contact lenses.) Because I cook professionally for hundreds and hundreds of strangers, I don’t spend much time feeding myself, though when I do, I garnish the plates. It's not that I don't like to cook, it is more a matter of fatigue and my innate unwillingness to take a busman’s holiday: thinking about cooking for one makes me feel tired enough to just go to a restaurant.

Anyway, I’d managed to convince myself that this would be a good experiment, so, as always, I turned to the cookbook shelf and began digging for information.

Escoffier, naturally, had some recipes tucked into the Larousse Gastronomique. You know how he gets. And McGee illuminated the family relationship that exists between salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), scorzonera (a.k.a. black salsify), burdock (a.k.a. gobo) and other members of the lettuce family, including thistles (a.k.a. artichokes) and sunchokes (a.k.a. Jerusalem artichokes) and talked a bit about fructose chains and carbohydrate stores, so there was that. Online sources were keen on the above-ground appearance of salsify, because it looks so much like a fluffy dandelion when it has gone to seed. On a recent walk around town, as I passed stands of feral fennel, rosehips ready for jams and teas, nettles sprung up in vacant lots, chestnut trees that will litter the ground with sweet knobs of proteins and carbohydrates in about six weeks, blackberries galore and fruit trees, productive but twisted from age, I reflected on the usefulness of knowing what salsify looks like above ground, should one ever have to forage for food in a post-apocalyptic Seattle. Arriving home after said jaunt, I confronted the as-yet-untouched bag of salsify languishing in the corner of my half-fridge. It was time to knuckle down and have some fun, dammit.

In appearance, salsify resembles a well-chewed stick abandoned by a forgetful Labrador. In name, Salsify may as well have been one of the rabbits left behind to fend for themselves in the Sandleford Warren, along with his glum, mathy friend Celeriac, and the long-lashed doe, Lamb’s Quarter…

And then the truth hit me.

I didn’t care about salsify. The most fun thing about it was its Latin name. I prefer the knobby, humble sunchoke and the sweet cynar flavor of artichokes. Hell, I prefer lettuce. But, I didn’t want the roots dissolving into a loosely contained pool of brown goo in the fridge (how wasteful) so I continued marching along.

Salsify is also known as “oyster plant,” which does nothing to inspire me, either – as much as I love oysters, I do not think about the details of molluskular anatomy and texture as I devour half a dozen Kushis in as many minutes. Perhaps it was a mark of the times that canned salsify was labeled “Oyster Plant,” as though sophistication was but a crank of the can opener away. As though a root that tasted of oysters was good news to the homemakers of yore. At last! All that goodness trapped in an easy-to-use canned form!

I mention yore homemakers because in my desultory search for either a recipe for salsify, or a new angle from which I might view the root and maybe even catch my ankle on something inspiring, I turned to Favorite Recipes of America, a collection of cookbooks made charming by age, sentimentality (my sister found them and gave them to me), the food, the photos of food, past owners’ pencil ticks next to some of the recipes, and the surprising amount and quality of ephemera that slips from between the cookbooks’ pages as I flip through.

I could digress, thinking about what it must have meant to Mrs. Antone Zelasko, of Tamaroa, Ill., to have her Illinois State Fair winning recipe for “Pineapple Secrets” included in a Volume I: Desserts, including party beverages. Or the frisson of pleasure that must have tickled Mrs. Sheryl Beckmann, Home Economics Teacher, Coleman, S. D., when her recipe for “Heart Stroganoff” found a place in Volume II: Meats, including seafood and poultry. Mrs. S. A. Hunt, Jr. of Columbia , S.C., must have been delighted when her recipe for “A Man’s Salad” was selected from the many offerings at the Favorite Recipes Food Fair for Volume III: Salads, including appetizers.

(Having read this last recipe – Lettuce; Pickled beets, sliced; Hard-boiled eggs, sliced; Bermuda or red onions, thinly sliced; Mayonnaise. Make bed of crisp, very green lettuce. Place slices of pickled beets on lettuce, adding slices of hard-boiled eggs and onion rings. Top with mayonnaise. Lemon juice may be substituted for mayonnaise and asparagus for beets – I have to wonder what one does with A Man’s Salad, either the beet or the asparagus version, when one has finished its preparation. Should I leave the salad outside on the porch and peer through the curtains, ready to pounce? Shall I place a plate next to a concealed pit and watch from a blind up in the trees? And what do I do if I catch one? To each her own, whispers the spider as she disappears into a corner.)

These women, their communities, their food: all so evocative of time and place. If one truly wanted to avoid writing about salsify, one could go on at some length about the sense of connectedness that forever comes from sharing recipes, and how, through these collections, one can catch a glimpse of lives – the newly wedded Mrs. Garrett Ballew, stationed on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., writing about “Veal With Vegetables,” perhaps her mother’s recipe, tucked into a hope chest and pulled out when Mr. Garrett Ballew brought some of his pilot buddies and their wives over for dinner. Or the Midwestern wholesomeness and hint toward the proximity of a decent kitchen garden, maybe a small orchard….maybe a few hens…seen in Mrs. Chris Jacobs’, Topeka, Kansas, recipe for “Cauliflower and Apple Salad,” from Volume III, a salad recipe made more notable by the absence of gelatin, a key ingredient to many favorites, including “Celery-Pepper Congealed Salad,” by Virginia L. Langston, Baton Rouge, LA. Please do not bring that salad to my next dinner party.

Of course, that’s what these cookbooks are for – the sheer number of contributing Home Economics Teachers is a dead giveaway – these books are meant to assist young people, almost exclusively women, with the making of home and keeping of family, with developing a sense of community, and the delicious sense that comes from cooking and sharing the feast that one is contributing to the greater good – that sharing actually is caring. These are “Tuna Unusual” casseroles (Mrs. John J. McHugh, Salt Lake City, Utah) carried to homes struck by tragedy. These are celebratory “Marshmallow Christmas Wreaths” (Sue A. Arnhold, Denver, Colo.) handed out to earnest carolers.

If I wanted to really stray from the salsify path, just wander right off into the woods, I could describe the section in the back of each volume that introduces the reader to Foreign Foods, like Mrs. Charles M. Thomas’ (Dover, N.J.) recipe for “Sjomansbiff,” and how the increased availability of certain ingredients in the heartland, combined with the culinary adventurousness of military wives, made dishes like “Nasi Goreng ” available to homemakers besides Mrs. Edward W. Sznyter, Jr. (Officers’ Wives’ Club, Honolulu, Hawaii). And then I wonder whether the... what? condescension? contempt? comraderie? we might feel toward our community cookbook-contributing forebearers and the evolving definition of "Conventionality" have anything to do with our attitudes about food.

Instead I try to stay on track.

Volume V: Vegetables, including fruits yielded results. Tucked in among recipes for “Sweet Rutabaga” (Fran Mollet, Conde, S.D.) and “Baked Spinach” (Elizabeth Curry, Home Economics Teacher, Marianna, Fla.), there are two recipes for salsify.

Mrs. Kenny Lehto, of Burbank, Cal., gave us “Boiled Oyster Plants,” which sounds tempting in a late Medieval sort of way, and Louise Hunt, of Kevil, Ky., offered “Salsify Casserole” (which was conspicuously absent from Volume IV: Casseroles, including breads), a wintery dish of oyster plants – canned or fresh— layered with crumbled crackers and then baked with salt, pepper, margarine and milk. If it were nuclear-winter cold outside I might try this, perhaps with a bit of shaved nutmeg and a bit of goat cheese. I’d also use butter instead of margarine, but that’s how I roll.

But it isn’t cold outside. It’s high summer here in Seattle, with temperatures rising well into the high seventies, the city sluggish beneath the heat. The patch of dirt outside my apartment has yielded a bumper crop of nasturtiums, mint, thyme, rosemary and various inedibles. It would be fun to try to incorporate some of these ingredients, as well…..

This train of thought is interrupted by the phone’s quiet announcement that a text message has arrived. And look! An invitation to a dinner party! What fun! I am galvanized, utterly relieved that I won’t be cooking salsify for one. I feel ready to participate, contribute, cook for others in an unpaid capacity! I look around to tell the spider, but she is nowhere to be found, not even in the obvious places like shoes and hairbrushes.

Without her vote of confidence, then, I text back an offer to Bring A Dish to share. Because suddenly I did care about salsify, after all.

Frog Pond Pasta with Salsify Slivers 1 box pearled cous cous or pastini
¼ cup olive oil, plus 2 Tbs for drizzling and 2 Tbs for cooking
1 Tbs lemon zest
1 tsp Rosemary, picked and finely chopped
1 tsp Lemon Thyme, picked and finely chopped
3 Tbs Mint, chiffonade
1 English Cucumber, peeled, halved, sliced on a medium bias
½ cup dried Cranberries, rough chop (currants would have been better, but I’m fresh out)
½ a Shallot, brunoise
½ # Salsify, peeled and “whittled” into slivers (if you’re not cooking these immediately, keep them in a lemon water solution to prevent browning)
1 tsp fresh cracked Black Pepper
1 tsp Red Sea Salt
5 Bug-free Nasturtium leaves and blossoms

1. Cook pearled pasta/cous cous until just done. Drain, spread in a thin layer on a cookie sheet or shallow baking dish, drizzle with 2 Tbs of olive oil and cool completely in the fridge.
2. As the pasta cooks, heat 2 Tbs of olive oil in a frying pan and cook the salsify slivers until golden brown, about 4 minutes over medium-high heat. Remove from pan and let drain on a paper-towel on a plate. Lightly salt while hot.
3. Combine ¼ cup Olive Oil, with herbs and lemon zest.
4. Assemble your mise en place.
5. Combine all ingredients – except for the Nasturtiums – with cooled pastini.
6. Dress and taste. Correct seasoning if necessary (this may need more salt if you like salty things).
7. Transfer pasta salad into a pretty bowl and garnish with Nasturtium Leaves and Blossoms in a whimsical, lily-pad sort of way.

Serves Six

Note: Almost any ingredient in this recipe may be substituted with an analog, though that’ll make it less frog-pondy.
Ms. R. R. Posey, BOH Booster Club, Seattle, W. A.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mastering the Art of Classic Rockery

"I'll never be
Your pizza burning..."
- The Stones

Every kitchen has one. Perched atop the metal shelving units that house the spices, tucked between buckets of dried fruits and legumes in the dry goods area, splattered with tomato sauce, smeared with buttery fingerprints and fuzzed by the ambient grease that saturates the air, the Kitchen Radio, battered nearly unto death, continues playing. Not so much like the band playing on the deck of the Titanic, more like the drums and pipes that lead young men into war.

How loud the music is played depends very much on the Management, and the time of day. In the incredible cacophony of a busy kitchen during service, where information is conveyed through either silent gesture or top-of-the-lungs shouting over the crash and clatter of the dishwasher, the endless retching of the printer, the Expeditor's commanding tones, pans hitting the stove, food hitting the oil, pans hitting the other pans in bus tubs on the floor, shouts of "Behind! Behind! Behind! Coming through! Hot! Screaming Hot!" or "Etras! Etras! Etras! Muy caliente! Cuidato! Etras!" as prep cooks and dishwashers wend their ways through the foxtrotting linecooks with refills of chopped garlic and portioned pastas, or to restock plates and grab filled-to-overflowing tubs of pans hot enough to melt holes in the plastic tubs before they reach the dishpit, the Radio isn't always heard, but knowing it's on is oddly comforting. Just as knowing a terrible thunderstorm is over because you can at last hear the busy gurgle of water in the gutters, we know the pounding service is over because we can hear the closing chorus of "Hotel California."

Left to their own devices, cooks will play the music a bit loud. (Of course, left to their own devices, they'll also be drunk before noon, smoke four packs of cigarettes a day, roll through a 300-cover night stoned to the gills, eat all the steak and crab, never refill the paper-towel dispenser or remove masking-tape labels from empty containers, never have a retirement fund set up, and never consider that the motivating force behind line cookery and the creation of beautiful food is nothing short of pure love.) Customers and servers have all experienced that moment upon approach toward the kitchen when the music from the dining room begins to compete with the music coming from the kitchen. These are the Borderlands, where servers and line cooks can mingle without fear of being mocked by their compatriots, and where customers behave erratically, suddenly unable to find the restroom or swerve to avoid a laden employee, as though their wits were addled by the competing gestalts. (In the decades I've spent in restaurants, only once in my experience has the dining room music synched with the Kitchen Radio. The song: "Don't Stop Believing," by Journey. So there's that.)

Past a line of demarcation, where you can no longer hear the dining room music and can only hear the Kitchen Radio, whether it is playing Mexican polka, death metal, KEXP, KBCO, or Classic Rock, past that point lies the Kitchen Proper, a land of flashing knives, 22-quart containers filled with onions, stocks, soups, sauces… and, on the burner, bubbles rise and pop through polenta, beans, rice, or caramel in rondeaux three feet across, as though the chef had put "Molten Lava with Magma Preserves" on the menu. Careful: that'll leave a mark. The music provides a sort of force-field around us, as well as a tempo and a soundtrack to the night's work, its tinny treble rising above the shouts of rage, the crash of pans, bringing us together around a slice of "American Pie."

In retrospect, my musical education seems to be a collection of well-timed exposures, gradual inoculations with catchy lyrics, a general impatience with Judy Collins and my own experiments with What I Like. That's probably not too unusual; everyone has a Collins Point. It's just science. Just as everyone has a moment when they discover the tuner on the side of the radio.

Christmas, late seventies: lazy plop of snow from branches, mess from burst pipes cleaned up. Santa had left me a clock radio! Musical independence! I could grow beyond Abbey Road, despite my whole-hearted love for "Octopus's Garden" (which I listened to about 100 times a day until late last week), and the disturbing, but fascinating, discordance of "Come Together." No more "Cat Came Back," except for during the deep melancholic days of late eight-year-oldness, when I needed a boost that Danny Kaye just couldn't provide. Instead, I turned on the radio to 56-KLZ, Colorado Countreyeeyee. My country music phase began, a time for which I remain unapologetic to this day. Despite the townkids' stubborn refusal to listen to anything but KIMN, I held on to my Eddie Rabbit records and Kenny Rogers lyrics until the turn of the '80s. And then, except for a certain fondness toward men with beards, everything changed.

I'll brush past the early days of the decade, pausing only to nod toward "Evita" and ABBA, both discovered when I lived with my father in Vienna, both of them currents that steered me toward Kitchens and Restaurant Work. Also, at one time or another, both helpful demonstrators of why I shouldn't sing publicly. My rock star dreams faded when people politely put their hands over their ears as I warbled along to "A New Argentina," although, much later, other hopes arose when I learned to grill an Argentine steak and was met with applause and napkin-waving.

By the middle of the decade, I was saving my babysitting money to buy cassette tapes by the Fixx, Big Country (only their first one), Depeche Mode -- to this day, the song "Somebody" makes my vision blur and my heart hurt -- Howard Jones, and did I mention the Fixx? My hair was short, my tail was long. My t-shirts were black. My shoes were jazz. As the inexorable slide toward the 90s, and college, began, I discovered Oingo Boingo, the Psychedelic Furs, U2, and while the noisiness of punk rock never quite grabbed me the way it did some of my high school crushes, I did take to the clever writing of the Dead Kennedys, the Suicidal Tendencies, and the Circle Jerks, and I did discover the Clash, a band that will forever be on my iPod, or whatever new technology we have in store for us -- a brain chip, perhaps.

Somewhere in there, the "Boyfriend Factor" began to crop up in listening habits, if not actual purchases. Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Later still: Dave Matthews, Sublime. All discarded, tossed overboard along with affection, concert ts, and the other jetsam of failed relationships. And my own taste emerged like a wet chick from an egg: the Weakerthans, Radiohead, Feist, the Fighters of Foo, the Cold Players, Tori Amos, Johnny Cash, M. Ward...

But a curious fact remained. With a few notable exceptions, I'd never purchased a single album, cassette, cd or single by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Eagles, the Doors, Boston, the Rolling Stones, Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, 38 Special, Jim Croce, The Little River Band, or Crosby, Stills & Nash, and yet, I could sing along (quietly, really, practically under my breath) with hundreds of songs by these artists. Hmm.

September, 1987: I interviewed for my first Real Job (canvassing for SANE doesn't count. Never has anyone been less successful at anything). A friend had landed a job at Sea Galley, and her stories made restaurant work sound like great fun, so I'd narrowed my search from...well, actually, given the skill set of a 16-year-old, I guess I'd broadened my search from Babysitting and/or Weeding the Neighbor's Garden to include Kitchens. And I got the job!! And they were right in the middle of a run of Evita! Such fun. My first day, I pushed through the kitchen doors at Boulder’s Dinner Theater and into a bubble of Classic Rock: the Kitchen Radio was spinning yarns about Seeing the Southern Cross, Today’s Tom Sawyer, Godzilla Going and Going, and Mother's Little Helper. The Hobart dishmachine was crashing along in time (until the show started, when dishwashing became eerily quiet, a skill all kitchen employees should strive to achieve...just saying...), and I realized I'd been allowed into a circle that didn't welcome everyone, but, for those on the inside, there was nowhere we'd rather be. “More Than a Feeling,” indeed. These songs, at various volumes, in different kitchens form an intrinsic part of my restaurant experience.

If classic cooking is a convergence of ingredients and technique, the musical analog seems to be a combination of a band’s longevity and appeal, its “bandurability,” if you will. Epochs slip past and the same songs by the same bands are setting the tempo for the egg cooks’ mad scramble, the chef’s orchestration, and the prep cooks’ nightly playlist of tasks. Escoffier hums the Stones' "Satisfaction" as he tempers eggs into an Anglaise. The only difference is the gradual accumulation of bands that were, in my youth, just releasing records and are now being played on Oldies Stations. Makes me feel as though I should be carrying a cane. But you know, as I put on my dancing shoes (clogs) and get ready for work, it occurs to me that while Boy Bands may come and go, restaurants open and some fail, for me, through it all, kitchen work rests on the solid foundation of Classic Rock.

Dedicated to Brad Delp, who may have done it differently, or not at all, had he known how many Broiler Cooks his soaring vocals carried across the Rage.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Notes From the Prep List

"The earth was soft and crumbling, with a scattering of the weeds that are found in cultivated fields -- fumitory, charlock, pimpernel and mayweed, all growing in the green gloom under the bean leaves. As the plants moved in the breeze, the sunlight dappled and speckled back and forth over the brown soil, the white pebbles and weeds. Yet in this ubiquitous restlessness there was nothing alarming, for the whole forest took part in it and the only sound was the soft, steady movement of the leaves." - Richard Adams, Watership Down

Peas came into season not too long ago, which means that Seattle's chefs are throwing handfuls of the legumes into just about everything, and prep cooks all over town have funny little green stains on their thumbnails. Fava beans were just moments behind peas -- a duo as frankly tiresome as two heiresses on a four-day martini bender. A restaurant as busy as ours goes through about four cases of fava beans a week. The trash overflows with green husks and feet tire from just standing in one place, shelling and shelling and shelling. But they are delicious, and the time spend shelling, blanching and hulling is great for strolling down the somewhat mossy and overgrown flagstone paths of memory.

My thoughts turn toward childhood, favorite destination for a wandering mind, and the Kugels' garden. Their patch was a regular smorgasbord for a pair of browsing children: strawberries, snap peas, corn pulled from the stalk and eaten raw. In the vines that climbed through the stand of corn, I'd catch an occasional glimpse of a sleek green zucchini surrounded by crumpled apricot-colored blossoms and know that the dread -- and wonder -- of vegetable breads was right around the corner, as almost every household on that particular shelf of Sugarloaf Mountain harvested enough of the squash to keep the elementary schools open through bake counters were practically lousy with them.... The zucchini path beckons, so I shake myself back into the present and put on a pot of water to boil, salt it heavily (though not as heavily as I'm supposed to), and prepare an ice bath to shock the peas after their quick dunk in boiling water.

Guy recently planted peas on the back porch of his house, out where he parks the car, so he'd have a snack when arriving and departing. I've decided to try this idea as well, except I went for a blueberry bush instead of planting peas. Now I have to fight through a small flock of rapacious birds to reach my front door. Peas may have been the better choice.

Forced to choose between peas and fava beans, I will always choose peas. They are yummier, less steppy, and peas lack the power to evoke Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of one of fiction’s scariest monsters. And then there’s favism, which sounds like the punchline to a joke about nepotism, but is actually one of those ancient enzyme deficiencies that may have at one point suppressed malarial parasites in red blood cells, but now just leads to serious anemia. Peas just seem cheerier.

A monkey could be trained to shell peas, though it would eat most of them. One doesn’t really want a monkey in the kitchen. Maybe a small child, though I don’t really want one of those in the kitchen, either. But there’s some kind of historical precedent there – back porch, long afternoons, dogs lolling in the shade of the arbor, many hands, both old and young, making light work. I think if we put an ad on Craigslist we could probably drum up some kind of multigenerational team of shellers. And then I look around the kitchen, at the very young pantry girl, the line cooks all in various stages of the late, late adolescence that we like to call “their Twenties”, the slightly wizened dishwashers who shell peas and hull fava beans between running loads of plates and silverware, and I realize that we already have a pretty good multigenerational/multinational shelling team. We could probably take this on the road. Sell tickets, even.

If I had my McGee with me here at work, and a better command of Spanish, I could tell the guys about the nitrogen fixing properties of legumes, that they are actually a fruit, not a vegetable, they are weirdly healthy for humans... I could tell them stories about legumes’ ancient cultivation – 9,000 years! Imagine that! I could even speculate about the co-evolution of legumes and humans. (And despite the work done by Gregor Mendel, we still haven’t managed to breed a pea that will open upon command.) I could tell them that four prominent Roman families (Fabius, Lentulus, Piso and Cicero) took their names from legumes (Fava beans, lentils, peas and chick peas, respectively). And perhaps most fun of all, I could tell my co-shuckers and shellers that beans and peas comprise the third largest family in the flowering plant world (after orchids and daisies) and, after cereals, they are the second most important to the human diet. That would lead to a treatise on the soybean, however, another path beckoning, another story left for later. Instead I mention that los dining room neccesitas mas chucharos.

Two quarts finished.

Left alone in the walk-in, the peas will rev up their little motors and start turning their sweetness into starchiness. After a day or two, tiny nubs appear, and the pea takes on the form of a sprouting seed, which is harder to throw into boiling water. Seems a bit sad to toss a tiny vessel of optimism into the pot. Invariably, at this point my thoughts turn toward the Siege of Leningrad, the food bank, and the scientists inside who starved to death surrounded by seeds and peas, while the city starved outside. This line of thinking leads to a furrowed brow, however, and one of the cooks stops next to me on his way back to the line from the walk-in and asks for a smile. I can do that.

The mind wanders. Risi pisi. Petite pois. Mushy peas. Split pea soup. Bags of frozen peas hardening into a solid block in the freezer, satisfyingly shatterable when a handful of green ice balls are thrown into a creamy bowl of macaroni and cheese. Gotta get your vegetables.

And look! The case of peas is shelled! We have but a meager three quarts for our labor, but I have the satisfaction of drawing a line through the item on the prep list.

The next item is “Roll Gnocchi.” Another path beckons….

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hold the Mayo

Vincent: know what they put on french fries in Holland instead of ketchup?
Jules: What?
Vincent: Mayonnaise.

Jules: Goddamn!
- "Pulp Fiction," by Quentin Tarantino

My relationship with mayonnaise began with all the promise of young love: Obsession, wild cravings, and, at last, a midnight rendezvous on the moonlit kitchen counter with a large spoon and a jar of Hellmann's®. I remember taking as large a spoonful of mayonnaise as a six year old girl could. My childhood affair with mayo ended somewhat violently that night, and if I dwell on the memory, I feel a bit woozy with regret. But time healed that culinary injury and I now name mayonnaise my favorite condiment. Although by the end of this piece that may no longer be the case.

The other day, my buddy Guy looked up from reading a menu description of a sandwich served with basil aioli and asked me, “So, when do we get to go back to just ‘mayo’?” The question made me wonder, have we reached a point in the evolution of diners where it is safe to assume that aioli equals mayonnaise in popular understanding? How different are they really?

Well, both are emulsifications – a temporary union between two substances that have nothing in common (water and oil, for example), brought together by a third substance (the emulsifier) (how’s that for a super hero name?) that helps the other two get along and can therefore create a sauce that is greater than the sum of its parts, but is still, by its very nature, unstable. What sounds like a stressful relationship is made more so by the fact that the oil droplets have to be whipped, beaten, pounded, shattered into a billion smaller droplets very slowly to allow the emulsifying agent time to do its work….

Without spending too much time describing the molecular structure of mayonnaise, think of a huge stack of clove-studded oranges piled up in a swimming pool filled with water. The cloves are the yolk’s emulsifying granules which break up and gamely surround the dispersed oil droplets – the oranges – sinking their oil-loving tail into the oil droplet while their positively charged “head” sticks out into the “continuous phase” (the water) of the emulsification and simultaneously repels the other droplets so the structure doesn’t collapse into a runny, oily pool. (The clove-studded orange provides a useful visual image, but it is a flawed analogy because the oranges would remain discrete objects with the removal of the cloves – they wouldn’t flow together to form a huge orange, even though that’d be cool. Instead, think of a screaming group of three-year-olds standing next to a pool. One by one, the group is separated into the pool where they are fitted with water-wings. It takes forever to split up the children, especially the sets of twins. Finally, the toddlers are all paddling around, unable to get too close to each other. That is an emulsification of children and pool, aided by the water wings. Remove the inflatable arm bands and the children cluster back together in their original state of being a screaming group.)

Aioli is traditionally made with garlic and oil, using a mortar and pestle, sometimes stabilized with bits of bread (as in the Greek skordalia), or potato (a situation in which the starch is acting as the emulsifier). In Spain, the Catalans put great store by their Allioli, which is perhaps the pinnacle of a garlic and oil emulsion, as it historically contained no other ingredients. According to one source, however, the time-consuming method of pounding the garlic and adding the oil drop by drop is falling out of favor in the modern world of the Cuisinart®, and egg yolks are starting to be used as a way of stabilizing the garlicky paste.

Mayonnaise is an emulsification of oil that uses eggs (really the yolks, which are themselves an emulsion of fat in water) to stabilize the final product. Unlike a charmingly rustic aioli, mayonnaise is eminently French, with all that that implies. Reading about the furious debate that surrounds the origins of the sauce, especially its name, spurs in me an almost irrepressible urge to end every sentence with some French flair: Some say the name comes from the French victory at Mahon (“Oo la la!”), others say the name “magnonaise” and claim it is a derivative of the French verb “to stir” – manier (“But how can zat be? Zere are zo many stirred sauces!”), while a third story holds that the name comes from the old French word moyeu, which means “yolk of egg.” (“Oui, oui! But ov courze!”)

All the restaurants I’ve worked for in the past decade make their own aioli (or mayonnaise), flavored with garlic, sometimes lemon or basil or chipotle (not all at the same time). But there was a time when I worked in houses that ordered mayonnaise in large quantities – the five-gallon container. On the big buckets that arrive at a restaurant’s back door, there is a warning about drowning hazards with a small drawing of a toddler tipping headfirst into the bucket; I can’t help but think, every time I see the picture of that clumsy, curly-headed child falling face-first into the bucket, that drowning in mayonnaise would be really awful, worse than drowning among pickles or blocks of feta cheese. Although the latter is a very close second.

In any case, the mayonnaise/aioli story is not without a narrative thrust – one can imagine the boat routes taken around the Mediterranean, and the ancient Roman’s proclivity toward planting olive trees and vineyards on every shore they landed upon was certainly an unforeseen benefit of imperialistic expansion. The world is criss-crossed with such migratory patterns of foods. These are the lines of history, exploration, and exploitation: not just the Roman’s spread of olive oil and vineyards, but also the Portuguese and Spanish bearing the chained-up flavors of Africa to the New World, and back again…

Guy looks up from his sandwich and interrupts me to ask where Miracle Whip fits into the mayonnaise-aioli story.

Well, okay. Let’s take a look.

As with the origins of the name “mayonnaise,” there seems to be some debate about the where the name “Miracle Whip” came from. Sources tend to agree, however, that this tangy emulsification hit the marketplace during the Great Depression, when folks could no longer afford the luxury of real mayonnaise. Miracle Whip® is going through a bit of a renaissance, right now, with advertising campaigns that highlight the fact that this “salad dressing” really isn’t for everyone. I’ve always liked ads like these, and it’s tempting to “Like” Miracle Whip® on Facebook™, even though I really don’t like Miracle Whip® in real life, especially not on french fries.

The migratory pattern of ingredients in this country is not unlike the spread of olive oil around the Mediterranean. So, the spread of mayonnaise in America began in New York City when a German immigrant named Richard Hellmann opened a deli. The popularity of his wife’s mayonnaise eventually led Richard Hellmann to open a mayonnaise factory (the American Dream!). A west-coast company called Best Foods® decided to jump on the mayonnaise spread-wagon, and voila! Hellmann’s® became the mayonnaise east of the Rockies, while Best Foods® held down the market to the west of the Continental Divide. Best Foods® eventually bought Hellmann’s® and, rather than try to force one brand on the entire country, the company retained the two names and tied them together with the Blue Ribbon familiar to all American mayonnaise eaters.

It is at this point in the story that I began feeling genuinely woozy, as though I'd kicked over a rock to reveal the squirmy things beneath it, and black helicopters will appear over my little house one night.

Large-scale corporate acquisition is not unlike the spread of the Roman Empire - just as Miracle Whip® belongs to the global behemoth Kraft®, Hellmann’s®/Best Foods® lives beneath the Unilever corporate umbrella.

Guy takes a sip from his cocktail and asks, “Unilever?”

Unilever is an enormous corporate empire, with a very friendly website, where they tell us that they are spending some time and money on things like Sustainability and Non-Evil Corporate Practices, for example, the large-font announcement that Hellmann’s® mayo is moving toward using only cage-free eggs. (There are some wild rumors flying around that Proctor and Gamble might acquire Unilever; you heard it here first.)Unilever places its origins in the late 19th century, when a guy named William Hesketh Lever invented a new kind of soap “to make cleanliness commonplace” in super-stinky Victorian England. Over the next one hundred years, Unilever acquired food brands such as Ben & Jerry’s®, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter®, Klondike®, Knorrs® and others. Unilever’s personal hygiene department went on to include not only Lever’s 2000®, but also Axe®, Suave®, Noxema®, Dove®, Vaseline® and more. What these products have in common, besides the oft-touted hair conditioning effects of mayonnaise, is that they are all manipulated fats and oils.

Closing my eyes I can see huge vats of products in various stages of emulsification, vats filled with tallow and gelatinous materials trucked in from rendering factories all over America. Some of this mixture will be poured off, fragranced, and formed into soaps. The rest of it will find its way into supermarket freezer aisles, salad dressing sections, and the spread area. In this nightmarish factory, the idea of a clumsy, curly-headed toddler drowning in a vat of mass-produced mayonnaise suddenly seems much less funny and much more like a Sinclairian metaphor for early 21st Century living.

Granted, this is a somewhat irresponsible oversimplification of the process, and I must confess that a recent midnight rendezvous with my small jar of Best Foods® produced a very delicious fried egg sandwich, but I may begin making my own mayonnaise. Step off the grid, as it were. I’ve tried this twice – the first time produced a vile, runny concoction that forced me to take to my bed for half an hour, the second time yielded a delicious spread, perfect for turkey sandwiches. As long as no one asks where the turkey comes from.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rapini, Rapini

“…And is this the upshot of your experiment?” Rappaccini’s Daughter, Nathaniel Hawthorn
Yesterday I spent a good chunk of time poring through books – cook books, gardening tomes, collections of fairy tales – trying to find a direct correlation between Rapunzel and rapini. We’ve started using the latter on a few of the spring dishes and part of my workaday routine is blanching and shocking the greens, a task I find impossible to complete without eating at least 30 of the raw, leafy stalks, and then another 10 of the post-blanch lot.
The flavor of rapini, aka broccoli rabe, isn’t the tame chlorophyll-heavy comfort-food flavor of broccoli. Rather, rapini has a bitterness to it, a hint of wild, craggy slopes where only lavender and stunted pines can compete with the greens, and the only mammals are feral goats. At least, that’s what it tastes like to me. I crave the imaginary cheese made from the imaginary milk of these particular goats, because the calcium-rich greenery also has a hint of sweetness, and a genuine robustness that would come through the cheese extremely well. Ah, the terroir of cheese. The imaginary bees pollinating these lonely, rock-strewn fields of rapini and lavender would produce a honey that would pair exceptionally well with the imaginary cheese.
As you may recall, Rapunzel’s mother spent her confinement in a room overlooking a beautiful garden of “rapunzeln”, which the gravid woman craved in huge quantities, and her husband, not wishing to develop a sty because he denied a pregnant woman her wish, crept over the wall in the dead of night and robbed their neighbor’s garden. Unfortunately, their neighbor was a witch and all kinds of trouble come from stealing a witch’s vegetables. But I think Rapunzel’s mother craved calcium and folic acid and that’s why she kept fainting and carrying on.
Anyway, there I was, on the sofa, coffee close at hand, going through the indices of 40 different books trying to find a strand that would tie the tale to the kale – from McGee I learned that rapini belongs to the sprawling Brassica family (Brassica rapa), which, in addition to kale and rabe, includes cabbage, collards, cauliflower, mustard, arugula, radishes, rutabagas, turnips and more. What a family reunion! Delicate Watercress chatting with plump little Brussels Sprout, Rutabaga wondering whether he was in the right place – so many leaves! – and there’s Horseradish, sitting alone in the corner. Not entirely unlike other family reunions I’ve been to, actually.
Had I not been taking a break from the Internet the search would have yielded results a bit faster. As it was, I did track down a book version of the fairy tale in which “rapunzeln” was also called “lamb’s lettuce.” Back to McGee – lamb’s lettuce is our friend mâche, also known as “corn salad.” Not misleading at all. Imagine asking a grocer for some corn salad. She would point you directly to the deli case.
“No, no, I mean lamb’s lettuce.”
Blank look.
“Ok, how about some mâche?”
A smile, a nod toward the stacks of plastic clamshells containing a living bunch of the fragile greens. But at $26/lb, the point is moot.
Today I decided to fire up the ol’ Dell and take a turn around the interrooms. No more dilly-dallying around with “books” and “libraries.”
Somewhat unsurprisingly, my search yielded mixed results. There is a plant called “rapunzeln” (Campanula rapunculus) that has edible roots and leaves, with a slight radishy flavor. Aha! So, while not a Brassica, Campanula rapunculus may be some far-flung relative, uninvited to the Brassica reunion. Perhaps a long-held grudge exists between the two families. The Campanula family is all about bell-shaped blue flowers, which I mention for two reasons: one is that, while we don’t eat a lot of blue food, and I'm not sure a pregnant woman would have craved rapunzeln, a garden filled with blue flowers must have been very beautiful to look down upon; and, two, upon following up the “lamb’s lettuce” lead, I discovered that corn salad nee mâche nee lamb’s lettuce is part of the Valerian family (Valerianella locusta), which is notable for its small BRIGHT BLUE FLOWERS. Aha!
So maybe the Brother’s Grimm took an even older cautionary tale which simply mentioned a garden filled with blue flowers and then they, being Northern Germans and therefore accustomed to seeing fields of Rapunzeln flowers nodding in the breezes, nibbled by sheep (whose milk would produce a cheese with slight almond notes, a bit of a grass flavor and a clean, slate-like finish), simply plugged in the name of the local blue flower. (Here in Seattle, our common Bluebell is also known as “Squill.” And I don’t care how pretty she is: no prince would ever stand at the base of a tower built by a witch and call up to the princess, “Squill, Squill, let down your hair.”)
I happen to have a copy of Die Märchen der Brüder Grimm here with me and the garden is described thusly:
der voll der schönsten Blumen and Kräuter stand; er war aber von einer hohen Mauer umgeben, und niemand wagte hineinzugehen, weil er einer Zauberin gehörte, die große Macht hatte und von aller Welt gefürchtet ward.

They go on to talk about the schönsten Rapunzeln that was bepflanzen all over the place, but there doesn’t seem to be any mention of blue flowers. So where does this lamb’s lettuce business come from? A faulty online translation page that mistook Macht for mâche? That doesn’t make any sense. Mâche hails from France, where it grows close to the ground on the edges of fields browsed by dewy-eyed French cows (who would produce milk that would make a soft, slightly sweet cheese, hints of strawberry in the nose and finish).
There may be more digging to be done in the Grimm garden, given the fact that we’re talking about plants that were cultivated in the 17th Century and have since been swept up in the bewildering swirl of taxonomy, but for now I think the obvious answer is probably the correct one: Rapunzel was named for rapunzeln, and lamb’s lettuce is naught but a herring in sheep’s clothing.
All of which has absolutely nothing to do with rapini, which I am craving powerfully enough to sneak into work on a day off just so I can eat a few leafy stalks. Perhaps I’ll just go to the store instead. Should you find yourself with a bunch of rapini, treat it as you would broccoli, or kale, or watercress. Rapini would not appreciate being treated like a Rutabaga. I would quickly sauté it with olive oil, minced garlic (watch the heat of the oil – garlic can burn ever so quickly), and a handful of currants that had been soaking in either balsamic or sherry vinegar. Finish with a knob of butter, a good pinch of salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper. If it were me, I’d also put salt-roasted walnuts on the cooked greens, and maybe a sprinkle of feta cheese. Enjoy with friends, a hunk of crusty bread, wine and stories.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fortune Flavors the Brave

“Ridiculous as it may be that I should expect so much for myself from roulette, yet I consider even more ridiculous the conventional opinion accepted by all that it is stupid and absurd to expect anything from gambling.”
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Gambler

In the closing remarks left pinned to the kitchen bulletin board at my last job, I declared my long-held belief that cooks are among the luckiest people in the world. This was an assertion unexpectedly supported by recent events on I-95 – among the survivors of the horrific March 12th casino-bus accident were two gentlemen, both in their fifties, who both listed their profession as “cook.” These guys were practically still wearing hospital gowns and blood-soaked socks when they climbed onto the next available casino bus, ready to escort Lady Luck back to the tables, back to the one-armed bandits. I’m not sure there is anything lucky about line cooking into your fifties, I’m afraid, or being on that particular bus in the first place, but these guys told the papers they were feeling lucky.

This is not the “opportunity meets preparation” sort of luck, the predictable outcome of diligent networking and having your answers ready when you are called upon. The group practicing this variety of luck usually has their retirement accounts set up, they wear slacks and/or blouses. They have expensive hobbies. They tend to be seen as lucky by the less organized and more covetous among us, but this isn’t the kind of luck that spares: this is simply good analytics, and chance has very little to do with their success.

The more you tease at the meaning of luck, the more slippery the strands become – there is a striking difference between the luck of preparedness and the luck the draw, there are those who are “lucky to be alive” and those who are “lucky to have never stepped foot on a casino bus,” there is chance, risk, gambling, odds-playing and the occasional stroke of luck that looks like benediction. You see this in kitchens all the time: there are cooks who are always prepared, their lists are completed, their mise is set up, their back-ups are filled and easily reached. The other cook, the one who was mostly ready before service, will play the odds throughout the evening – he might have only eight orders of mussels, but he knows the house hasn’t sold more than seven in one night since the dish went on the menu; a big part of his set-up is leaving several things to Chance, an unreliable employee at best, and, the occasional sauce notwithstanding, a really terrible line cook.

When the twelve top comes in at five minutes to close, both line cooks are already wiped down and ready to head out the door. Both line cooks see the twelve top, both experience a frisson of dread, followed by feelings of joyful good fortune when the seated group reveals they are only in for drinks and desserts (the bartender and pantry cooks might not feel so lucky). Chance and Preparedness head to the bar for their shift drink, making fun of the pantry cook on their way off the line. As their careers unfold, Chance will probably stay in the rank and file. Preparedness will probably go into management. Both will probably become alcoholics.

Luck manifests itself in odd places in kitchens. There are a million anomalies: weather, newspaper write-ups, a cook’s plantar wart acting up, and each anomaly acts as its own set of butterfly wings flapping in the walk-in.

But what happens when relying on luck – on chance – becomes a way of life? What happens when a good cook decides to become a professional gambler?

Let’s visit 1987 for a moment and take a quick look at a cautionary tale. And, no, this is not a way of steering the reader clear of the Chicken Cordon Bleu. For a frozen brick of chicken, ham and cheese, smothered in a Knorr’s powder-based white sauce, it really wasn’t too bad.

Back then, Boulder’s Dinner Theater's kitchen was staffed by four guys in their mid-to-late twenties, a couple of recent high school graduates, and one 17-year old girl with close cropped hair and a pretty long “tail” that she sported in honor of Rupert Greenall, the keyboard player for the Fixx. This girl caught the fancy of one of the cooks, a young man who happened to be working on his poker career. Every girls’ father’s dream. Over the course of the next few years, she learned one or two things about gambling, and graduated from college with some clear ideas about risk versus reward, luck versus winningness, and truth versus consequences. So maybe there was a little bit of imprinting, thinking that gambling and kitchens go together like a suited A-4 and an A-A-4 flop.

A good Chef is able to sift through disparate factors and come up with the number of specials you should run, the poundage of root vegetables necessary on any given evening, the projected busy-ness on a week by week basis. Restaurants, like any business built upon sales of a product and the vagaries of the public, are usually staffed by decent gamblers, a lot like the professional handicappers you see at the dog track, the older guy poring through the program with a yellow highlighter. A good Chef, like a good gambler, is a numbers player, a non-risk-averse adrenalin junky, who will only occasionally look to Chance to get the job done.

I was talking to my friend Guy about the relationship between gambling and restaurants the other day over a game of Seattle Six Dice, a game in which numbers players and riverboat gamblers can harmlessly splash around in a wellspring of luck; it’s a haven for us. He pointed out that Vegas rules apply to successful restaurants, too: The House always wins. A great Happy Hour is like a casino with loose slots – folks will come back and spend more.

In a recent Esquire magazine interview, Las Vegas Iron Chef Michael Seymon had this to say in response to the question, “Do you think part of being a good chef is being a good gambler?”

MS: Being a chef, you can't let yourself get stuck in waves of emotion, which makes you a good gambler. Any chef or restaurateur — when you're getting into a business where 70 percent of them fail — I would say is pretty good at risk-taking.

I wonder if he also feels lucky.

Luck may be no more than a matter of perception, which means you get to have as much as you can perceive around you. I believe that cooks are lucky, not because they are gamblers, but because there is something gorgeous about the impermanence of food, something about the disruption and subsequent consumption of a composed plate, that calls to mind the good fortune of glancing out of a car window to see a double rainbow -- transient beauty. I believe cooks are lucky – that I am lucky – because there is in what we do the occasional glimpse of the sublime.

And then a server bears it away.

Friday, April 1, 2011

April First: Breaking News

Seattle, WA -- A.P. The New York Times announced today that it will suspend all food writing for the foreseeable future, in both the print and online versions of the newspaper, except for a little-known collection of online scribblings entitled, "Clogs." The news has stunned such food-writing luminaries as Ruth Reichl, and reports from the Lower East Side suggest that Gabrielle Hamilton, Chef/Owner of the spectacularly unappetizingly named "Prune" and author of the recent chefography Blood, Bones & Butter, was in fact, set back on the heels of her own scuffed and stained clogs. Mark Bittman, regular contributor to the food section of the paper, reacted to the news by buying a ticket to Oahu, saying only that he welcomed the vacation and looked forward to some good hot Hawaiian lunches. Seattle-based author of "Clogs," Robin Posey, was surprised by the news. Breaking away from chopping an enormous pile of green peppers and celery to speak to this reporter, Posey responded to the news with this statement: "How fun!" Posey recently returned to the kitchen world after a six-month hiatus. She has written "Clogs" in a sort of on-again-off-again way for more than a year. When asked how often the dining public can expect a column, Posey eyed the pile of vegetables and responded, "Well, more than before. But probably not daily." The New York Times was unavailable for comment.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Holding Fast

"It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs - and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it.
It takes off a lot of anxiety."

- George Orwell,
Down and Out in Paris and London

Of all the vegetables in all the kitchens in all the world, why green peppers and celery? 22 quarts of each? I have a throbbing, quarter-sized blister where my knife callous used to be, the fingers on my left hand are a little bit numb and tingly, and my feet feel as though they’ve been bound and gagged, thrown into a basement, held for ransom, and forgotten. But you know what? Even surrounded by copious quantities of the only two vegetables in the world I don’t like, I am suffused with a peculiar joy. I got a job!

Just in the nick of time, too….I was running out of books to sell. In fact, the epigraph I wanted to use for this clog blog was in a book sold to buy three eggs, an onion and a pound of spaghetti. My cupboard was bare. Really, really bare, which meant I was using the fun, cheffy stuff in place of staples: Instead of crushed red pepper, kosher salt, olive oil or sugar, I was using imported pimenton picante from Madrid, Hawaiian red sea salt, Meyer-Lemon infused olive oil, and Tasmanian leatherwood honey. I had long since used the two remaining potatoes and the can of corn to make a thin, but edible chowder. I was wearing pants that hadn’t fit me for years.

I must confess that my efforts to find a job, while consistent and generally optimistic, did not represent a truly whole-hearted Job Search. Because really, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I was willing to become penniless in order to find out. Nothing really motivated me to work, neither fear nor food, and I didn't really expect anything to unless I were really and truly against a wall. And even then, I figured I’d probably be okay – we no longer have a Debtors' Prison, and my friends and family are known for their generosity. Anyway, I wasn't retiring. I was restarting.

One of the ancillary effects of taking six months off from any sort of regular paid work is that you start to question the value of doing anything you don’t want to do. Ever again. If most of those six months was spent on a boat, and most of that time was spent staring at the vast openness of the South Pacific, you can really wrap yourself around an existential axle. So when it came time to return to the land of the employed I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about all the options: I could become a farrier, or a trapeze painter, or a world-renowned entomologist…. The job I should have been seeking with vim, vigor and artisanal vinegar was the job I was most reluctant to land: Chef.

There are chefs in the world who believe there is no better job. They are chefs through and through, with all that that implies, chefs who grew up wanting to be nothing else, the way other children grow up wanting to be dancers, professional athletes, or doctors – they are consumed by WANTING it enough to get it. I am not one of them.

I liked being a chef because I am bossy, creative, hard working, and I derive a real pleasure from feeding people. (There was also that set of pans Santa brought me when I was four and which I played with on dead stump stoves on our lower lot. That could be a smoking gun.) But, for a while now, the fear of being exposed as a fraud has had its own ill side-effects, most often manifested through teeth gnashing, a short fuse and the occasional public outburst. The day-to-day realities of being a head chef are exhausting: Charred flakes of adrenalin spinning through the blood because a customer got wheat instead of white toast, a pretty good appetite for nicotine and rye but little else, except for maybe a sandwich eaten quickly while hiding in the mop closet. The fact remains, however, that I have a decent career and a solid restaurant resume' -- it would be foolish to throw away my professional momentum.

I've worked in kitchens since I was 17. I love being a part of this enormous family, and, however tempting it might seem to quietly stock toiletries on the shelves of "Bed, Bath and Beyond", future restaurant hiring managers might see the decision as the professional equivalent of a facial tattoo. What I needed was a job that kept me in the family, taught me some new stuff while leaving time for taking long walks, reading copiously, experimenting with the Oxford comma, and writing. I wanted a life.

In the meantime, there was the not-insignificant problem of how to pay rent. I applied for Unemployment in the spirit of, "Well, it never really hurts to ask." Vestigial loyalty to the company I’d spent my thirties working for prevented me from describing the real reasons people quit being chefs in restaurants that serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and change menus every three months (mostly just a profound awareness that your life is being shortened by unfavorable Yelp reviews). So, when the letter arrived that explained why benefits were denied (according to my case officer, quitting a job to go sailing isn’t a good enough reason) I was disappointed, obviously, but a little relieved, too, because maybe NOW I’d be scared enough to get a job, any job, just get a job, girl. Also a little embarrassed – I couldn’t help but picture the good people at the Washington State Unemployment Office laughing their heads off when they heard about my claim, because they couldn’t see the whole picture – I didn’t quit to go lounge on a yacht in my bikini (I usually wore shorts, and there wasn’t a whole lot of lounging), I quit because I needed to step off the side of my known world. Because you know what, Unemployment Office people? I do know a good reason to quit when I see one and when I left that job, I know I couldn’t have made a better decision.

And that, plus $2.50, will get me a bus ride. So, I’ll walk, thank you very much. And keep mulling over what I want to do.

I continued baiting my little hooks and throwing lines into the water, thinking about the different kitchens I’ve worked in, all the different cuisines, the chef mentors I’ve known, the crews who have worked their asses off with/next to/for me -- a connection somewhere would ultimately emerge. After trying out in a couple different houses around town, my resolve to continue cooking was further weakened ("You want me to do what with the frog legs? All of them?"), and I went so far as to send out resumes to a few Development Departments.

Then one day the phone rang and I spent an evening working with the Prep Lead in the kitchen of a crazily busy new restaurant. He had been a chef for years and, as the night clipped along and we split up the list of stocks to make, vegetables to chop, gnocchi to roll, caul fat to temper, he said, "Make a little less, live a little longer." Occasionally I ran to get fries for the line, enjoying the reversal of roles (I spent years yelling, "Fries to the line!" the way other Professionals yell: "Oxygen!", "Suction!", or "Ammunition!"). At the end of the evening, I gladly accepted the Chef's offer.

Suddenly, I had a job, in a high-end Cajun-Creole house…what’s especially funny and wonderful to me is that when I moved to Seattle from D.C. in ’98, I worked in a Cajun-Creole house under the tutelage of Hilary “Hilbo” Craig, a grizzled Vet not two inches taller than I who ceaselessly encouraged me to stay in the culinary world instead of retaking the MCAT. He was a mentor and a friend. So when I slipped my clogs off that first night, tired but employed, I felt as though Hilbo had thrown in a good word for me during one of his smoke breaks in the alley behind the big restaurant in the sky. I felt grateful.

But green peppers and celery…really? Cajun-Creole is so easy to roux-in.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

“[Boxer’s] answer to every problem, every setback, was ‘I will work harder!’ ”George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Years ago, I attended a function in a 30th floor apartment on the Upper East Side, one of those places that astonishes because it isn't unique in that Big Bad City, despite the tiny balcony off the corner of the living room -- the building's bowsprit, where you could stand and watch the snow swirl up the canyons of Third Avenue. My memory of the evening brushes past brown kitchen appliances, along an olive-shag carpeted hallway lined by sagging bookshelves: Was this a retirement party? An 80th birthday? Couldn't tell you without a hypnotist. But I do remember snacking on appetizers built around the Ritz cracker, and striking up a conversation with another partygoer; the Chardonnay must have gone to my head, because I usually run a bit shy. I can also remember feeling rather clever at the time, because I was living in NYC and working as a w-r-i-t-e-r, a species that shares the same astonishing ubiquity in that town as 30th floor apartments.

"So what are you working on?" she had asked, after I'd tipped my hand, revealed my brilliance, etc. "Well," said I, sipping Ernest and Julio's finest, "I'm working on a piece called, 'Gelatin: the Other White Meat.'" I beamed. Although work on said piece had progressed only through the arduous process of coming up with a catchy name, I felt ready for Letterman. And then, in one of those coincidences that simultaneously evoke two feelings -- being happily swaddled in Zeitgeist, and a claustrophobic, almost fatal kind of self-boredom -- she revealed that she was a writer, too, and her last project had been a Jello™ Cookbook.

Well. You can imagine.

She was helpful and encouraging, but I wasn't ready to do much more than continue in the same vein in which I'd started: reading ingredients lists and feeling a sense of delicious dread when I spotted gelatin. Boy, talk about ubiquitous: lozenges, gummi candies, sauces, marshmallows, low fat ice creams and yogurts....

But let's step a little farther back in time, back to the day my relationship with gelatin really bloomed: Middle of June, 1980. Maybe '79. Down the road, across the valley and up a winding road from our little mountain neighborhood tucked into the foothills west of Boulder, there was a cluster of "abandoned" barns -- the galvanized roofs were rusted, the pine boards were silver and splintery, but the barns were still used to shelter three thick-coated, semi-wild, geriatric horses and their hay, an admirable solution to an equine problem usually solved with a quick call to the glue factory. The barns were on an expanse of land that had belonged to Ernie Betasso until 1976 when he'd sold the land to Boulder County to be preserved as Open Space. A true cowboy, the last of the lot, Ernie'd continued making his daily rounds until he died. The Betasso Preserve became the backdrop for all sorts of childhood hijinx, and there are gullies over there that should have been, by rights, the final resting place for my clumsy young bones.

The Betasso Preserve was my destination on that long-ago summer day, and after I'd hung up the heavy white receiver and untangled myself from 13 feet of phone cord, I announced I was going to play with my friend Heather. Snacks were an important part of these excursions and I had my eye on a new treat, an act of undiluted brilliance, an indulgence in my ultimate fantasy: Instead of water, or Country time, or red 5-Alive, I'd bring peach Jello™ its liquid form.

Oh, how I looked forward to cracking the seal on my lukewarm dissolved-protein-sugar-water beverage! How I longed for that first, slightly viscous sip! The only thing missing was a hand-crafted crayon and magic-marker label reading Tepid & Tasty, or Gee, Your Drink Smells Terrific.

Heather was not impressed. Which was fine. More for me! I wonder, though, would I remember that day with such clarity if Ernie himself hadn't discovered us in one of the barns, where we were determinedly pulling a hay-bale apart? Maybe beside the point, but I sure froze up when that old cowboy walked through the barn door. I don't know who among us was the most surprised, but to this day, the smell of peach Jello™ brings on a suffuse guilt and an urgent need to pee.

I have other reasons for avoiding gelatin. Hospital food flashbacks from an early childhood bout of dehydration, my father's jokes about fast-food milkshakes (clutch chest, look at beverage with horror, gasp: "Flicka!"), the Summer 2009 menu's house-made marshmallows for the s'mores -- nothing smells more like a barnyard than hot gelatin mixed with corn syrup at high speed until opaque.

But is gelatin empirically nasty? Can a substance used to create the fragile diamond-paned windows for gingerbread houses be that bad? How can something associated with such beautifully old-fashioned words like "hartshorn" (deer antlers) and "Isinglass" (the swim bladders of fish) smell like a pig-wallow?

The answers are roughly the same for the first two questions, namely, it really depends on how you look at post-slaughter rendering processes, what your personal tolerance for horror is like, and how you decorate for Christmas. Without such processes in place, there would be no pots of paste for people to eat during sieges, no sense in licking wallpaper while the Germans try to get in. Without Germans there would be no gingerbread houses. Without our history of boiling bones and skin to extract collagen, there would be no humor in jokes about eating shoes. None at all.

The third question requires a little light parsing, but, basically the answer lies in the molecular structure of gelatin. Okay. So, think about your favorite sweater. If it’s old enough, there is probably a dangling piece of yarn you really want to pull but you don’t because you know the sweater will unravel. Take a closer look at the yarn: it’s made up of several long strands of wool spun together; if you really wanted to, you could tease it apart into a woolly pile. Don’t. Instead, now think of collagen – a tightly woven, fibrous connective-tissue protein that provides strength and elasticity to bones, tendons, skin and other animal bits. That collagen is made up of long strands of gelatin (chains of amino acids) which form a sort of yarn twisted into a triple helix. These three strands knit themselves together to form collagen, and like most proteins, they can be “unraveled” by heat. Unlike other proteins, however, gelatin doesn't curdle or break as it heats and cools. Instead, the strands group themselves into a loose, “woolly” pile that is remarkably stable, translucent, wiggly-jiggly, and – an added bonus to the cook – these bonds will dissolve again at a temperature roughly approximate to the inside of your mouth, releasing liquid and flavor along with a difficult to duplicate “mouthfeel.” Both hartshorn and Isinglass are collagen-y and were used back in the day to create sweet and savory gels, but the reason the powdered gelatin we used to make homemade marshmallows smells so amazingly, awfully porcine is because today’s gelatin is made not from antlers or from swim bladders, but mostly from pig skin. Along with the skin and bones left over from cattle slaughter and the odd, unlucky horse. But mostly pig. So, from that one animal we happily harvest bacon, ham, pork chops, and cafeteria-style desserts. It's going to be hard to change that system.

Substances like agar agar, pectin, and carrageenan will behave sort of like gelatin, but are actually carbohydrates, not proteins, so, you know, they’ll act a little differently, too. A story for another time. Which, perhaps, begs the question, why a gelatin story at all? Why now? And I think about writing, and living in New York, and a childhood in the mountains, and the answer becomes clear: three strands suddenly gelled.