Friday, June 27, 2014

Notes from the Prep List: Eggplant

As seen in a slightly different form on Food, 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, 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?”



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.

Chef Philosophy, 101

As seen in a slightly different form on Food, part of the Riot New Media Group, July 8th, 2013

There are as many philosophies about food and cooking as there are items on the Cheesecake Factory’s menu. Locavores, pescatarians, vegans, raw foodists all have their mantras, just as junk-foodies lick their orange fingers after finishing a bag of Cheezy Credos.  Restaurants exist to feed this diverse audience, a spectrum of people too tired to cook, those who are celebrating, those who read about the fried pig face in Seattle’s free weekly and simply MUST try it, and those who eat only sesame seeds mixed with fireweed honey and kale.
On the other side of the kitchen door, we have the people actually making the food, who labor in conditions similar to foundries and salt mines, who somehow manage the Sisyphean nature of restaurant cooking with aplomb (mild aplomb. Sometimes rage). Fries into the basket, basket into the oil, fries into the bowl, fries onto the plate. Repeat until you die. Don’t forget the salt.
As so many aspects of restaurant work resemble pushing a boulder up a hill, the conclusion drawn by Albert Camus in his Myth of Sisyphus is comforting, in a peculiarly French way. He wrote, “It is the struggle itself….one must believe Sisyphus is happy.” I had heard a different translation (I think in the movie “Party Girl”) that used the word “content,” but either way, the implication that the endless struggle to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, or cook sliders in the low, dark purgatory of Happy Hour, is in some way fulfilling, despite (or because of) the futility.

(The French are always comforting us in kitchens: the smell of shallots and thyme simmering in butter, a bouquet garni infusing a stock with bay, thyme and parsley, the way sauces bound by liaison have a fuller, richer flavor than those thickened by cream alone…)

Camus’s conclusion may explain why cooks stay on the line instead of working in the Front of House, where they would make three times the money – there are less existential reasons to stay in the kitchen, most of them related to temperament and alcohol intake – but line cooks are, by and large, a proud folk, not necessarily happy, but scarred, burned, marked and fulfilled in some way by work that barely pays the rent. If a line cook becomes restless with his or her particular boulder-hill combo, he or she can go into management, a career move bringing them closer to the real Sisyphus, as all accounts of the original have him down as a bit of a hubristic jerk, which is so much more like a Chef than a Cook.

There are Chefs who bully, threaten, yell, stomp, rule by fear rather than love. There are those who coddle their cooks, who serve them mint tea with honey during service. (Not really.) The philosophy behind the behavior of the angry Chef goes so much farther than simply being narcissistic outbursts, or exhibitionist stylings of a coward who is in so far over his head that he must resort to scaring the men and women who work near him. The truly great, scary Chefs are like that because they are in pursuit of the sublime, the moment when plating is finished, garnishes placed, and Beauty, impermanent, fragile, meant-to-be-devoured Beauty, looks back at them from the plate. The pursuit of this particular venaison blanc requires a team of lean, fast, line dogs, who love the taste of the hunt more than the security of health insurance or IRAs. The pursuit of excellence requires very high standards and no small measure of ferocity. One bad Yelp, one spawning oyster, and suddenly the table is tipped onto the floor of mediocrity. Excellence is the quarry for all Chefs, but the angry ones tend to get the most press.

My Chef philosophy rests as much with the public as it does on the shoulders of the cooks. We are not there to gallop across the countryside for ourselves. We are here to feed the others, the ones who chose us for the moments in their lives, the birthdays, anniversaries, idle Tuesdays, or sorrowful Saturdays. The moment a diner walks through the door, they have decided to include us, a gang of tattooed strangers, in their very lives. To me, that inclusion is a gift of astonishing worth, a jewel worth hunting for, and instead of devouring the prize, tearing apart the stag, and lifting bloodstained muzzles to the moon and howling (with whiskey in hand), I’ve tried to teach the cooks a philosophy that looks out to the dining room, toward a calmer, more sustainable quest for excellence, a sense of contentment. Next thing you know, I’ll be brewing minted tea.

Notes From the Prep List: Gnocchi

As seen in a slightly different form on Food, part of the New Riot Media Group, July 15th, 2013
"Now and forever now." - Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
Somehow, in the eighteen years I’ve spent in kitchens, I managed to work every station, climbed from the Hobart dish machine to the dizzying heights of becoming a Chef de Cuisine, ran a multi-million dollar restaurant for three years and thirteen menus, and never worked as a prep cook. Dishwasher, yes. Grill cook, Sous Chef, Lead Line, yes yes yes. But it wasn’t until I decided to step down from management for a minute that I discovered the allure of the Prep Shift. Even though I am again a Sous Chef, because I can't seem to help myself, I don’t work on the Line. I wallow in the luxury of simply making food, as though I am preparing for a huge dinner party every night.  Of course, there is a bit more stress (and fewer martinis) than if I were cooking at home. There is an element of riverboat gambling to what I do – I look at the numbers, plan my night, and push my chips in; if I’m on a roll, none of the cooks will rush over to me with wild eyes and sweaty faces, waving an empty six-pan around. I will hit my marks and the food will be ready before the guys need it. It usually works. But some of the items are a bit process heavy – I can bust out blanched rapini in under ninety seconds, but then there are the spicy-sweet accompaniments to charcuteries, the forcemeats themselves, the tiny-cubed caponata, and the humble little dough balls we call “gnocchi.”
What begins as a tub of ricotta, egg yolks, Parmesan, nutmeg, salt, white pepper, and flour spends some time in a stainless steel bowl, a lump of dough, resting, a bland illustration of potential energy. This mass goes through several iterations: The rolled snakes, the cut pieces, like pillows, perfect for a tiny bed and a clothespin-sized doll who doesn’t mind getting a little flour in her hair. And then the finished pieces, grooved and thumb-dimpled, the declivity perfect for a single drop of sauce, one flake of parsley.
The longer the cut pieces sit, the more they want to return to their original state. The longer the dough itself sits on the table, the greater the chance one edge of it will begin to crack with unincorporated flour. So I have to work fast. There are two distinct flour piles on either side of the table. One pile for my palms so I can roll a chunk of dough into a shape I haven’t really dabbled with since kindergarten play-dough and high school pottery. It’s a long cylinder, slightly smaller across than the diameter of my ring finger. With a bench scraper, I start cutting the pieces – if it were my ring finger, the first cut occurs just between the cuticle and the first knuckle. These first cuts, these first few gnocchi, mean I’m out of the woods – if the line needs more, well, see: We have more! The gnocchi exist, only to a point, but this is a good point at which to have arrived. In gambling terms, I’m now holding a pair of twos instead of bluffing with a six-high hand.
I have time for these reflections because the Pantry cook called in sick and the other prep cook is trapped on the line making salads and desserts instead of standing next to me, either rolling and cutting or rolling across the board and onto the sheet tray. The thirty minute, two-person prep task has become a Buzz Lightyear affair, the snakes and pillows stretching and piling to infinity and beyond. I have two choices. I can go insane, or I can roll the gnocchi and get on with the next task in about an hour, depending.
Roll, cut, sprinkle, roll, roll, roll.
The gnocchi are like snowflakes, no two alike, or, as I prefer rolling across the diagonal, the little gnocchi resemble sea-shells, the sheet tray is a strewn beach.
Roll, cut, sprinkle, roll.
There is a closed-in-the-closet sensation below my belly, claustrophobia brought on by feeling trapped in a never-ending task. I think, I’ll throw away a pound of dough. No one will be the wiser.
Roll, cut, sprinkle, roll.
But then I pass the mid-point, take the filled tray to the freezer and line the second with parchment paper.
Start again. Rolling and cutting. Rolling and cutting.
The clumps stick together like eight-year-olds in a haunted house.
Roll, roll, roll, roll.
The tension has given way to calm, the realization that this too shall pass. I will reach the end, roll the last gnocchi. In quantum terms, in a parallel universe, this task is finished, and gnocchi exist in a perpetuity of completion… It’s okay. Rolling gnocchi is finite, like life, love, peace, and hot showers. The task, like so many seemingly-endless prep list items, has changed the way I approach any seemingly endless task. Knitting, writing, walking, reading The Classics: Just one sticky little square after another.
The pillows-turned-shells will be blanched, portioned, cooked and served over pork. My sense of touching and overcoming the Infinite dissolves into knowing I have created something delicious, with time to spare. My pair of twos held.