Maybe There Is Something To This “Chef” Thing

I posted a recipe for marinated pan-seared tuna steak a few weeks ago. I got a few comments, but the comments from “stillnolongerachef” made a lot of sense. So I incorporated his suggestions into the recipe, and discovered, much to my chagrin, that successful, classically trained chefs know what they are talking about. At least this one does! I took his advice and the tuna turned out better than my first attempts. What is interesting is that the changes were minor, but the dish was noticeably better. I have updated the recipe to reflect those changes, so maybe I should call it “Jim’s marinated, pan-seared tuna steak.” Just in case anyone is curious about what ex-chefs do after they hang up their toques, he now makes spectacularly beautiful furniture and cabinetry.

Perfect Every Time? Not In My Kitchen

I made a simple pasta dish last night for dinner. Nothing complicated — it certainly didn’t stretch my knowledge or technique. And I had made this dish several times before, with excellent results. But last night was…boring. I couldn’t point to a particular problem, just that it wasn’t quite as good as all of the other times. What went wrong? I have no idea. Did I sauté the garlic and shallots incorrectly? Or maybe the shrimp was mislabeled, and it was really harvested in a Chinese shrimp pond next to a sewage treatment plant? My bet is on the arugula not being particularly good. But whatever happened didn’t ruin the dish, it just toned it down so each bite wasn’t a pleasure.

This has happened to me before, and it will certainly happen again. Consistency is tough — just think about your favorite restaurant and the occasional disappointing meal. It doesn’t mean that they are going down hill, just like my relative failure in the kitchen last night doesn’t mean that my wife will have to take over the cooking.

Simple, Simple, Simple

I had very little desire to cook anything last night. That is not to say that I wasn’t hungry. So fasting was out of the question. And both of us were tired, so whatever we did for dinner wasn’t going to include going out. I went to the market, hoping that some fantastic idea would leap into my mind as I walked the aisles. It didn’t happen, but they did have chicken breasts on sale that looked very good. And spinach is always a good bet, because it’s easy (and fast) to cook, and it tastes good.

I was all set, except for the trivial detail of having no idea what I was going to do with the chicken. When in doubt, use the biggest, heaviest tool in the kitchen. Ignoring the KitchenAid mixer, I picked up my trusty mallet. And not just any mallet. This mallet has beaten dozens of abalone steaks (but that’s another story). It would have to settle for a more pedestrian dish, but it was certainly up to the task. I put a chicken breast in a heavy-duty gallon ZipLoc bag and beat the hell out of it until it was about 1/2 inch thick. I used a sliding stroke, rather than straight-up-and-down, so the meat didn’t just turn to mush. I did that twice (two half chicken breasts, two people). A light dusting of flour, a bit of salt and pepper, and into a very hot nonstick pan into which I put a bit of butter (for flavor) and a bit of canola oil. Three minutes on each side, and the chicken was done. I deglazed the pan with some white wine (the crappy stuff in the back of the refrigerator), lemon juice and some parsley, reduced the liquid by half, and poured it over the chicken. The spinach was even easier. I heated up some olive oil in a big pot, sautéed one clove of chopped garlic, and tossed in the washed spinach. A few minutes on high heat, a pinch of salt and pepper, and we were ready to eat.

I describe this simple meal not to provide ideas, although it was tasty. The point is, cooking doesn’t have to be complex, or even planned. I cooked the chicken the way I did because I knew that my wife enjoys the tartnessof lemon juice. I pounded it because thin cooks faster than thick. I sautéed the spinach because it is the simplest and fastest way to cook it. Was it a glorious meal? No, but it was tasty and quick, and we both enjoyed it. Sometimes cooking isn’t the most important thing in the world!

What To Do With All That Cheese

Make macaroni and cheese, of course. But every time I make it, the cheese sauce separates. While it still tastes good, it isn’t the most appealing looking dish I have made. And getting the kids to eat it can be a problem. So what am I doing wrong? Does anyone have a great recipe for mac and cheese that will allow me to use whatever scraps and shards I have floating around in the refrigerator?

Beware Of Other Cooks

I blew up my oven once. Oh, not really. It was my mother’s babba-ghanoush recipe that blew up the oven. Or, to be more precise, it was the lack of an accurate description of the process of roasting an eggplant in preparation for making babba-ghanoush that led to the explosion. I had just moved into an apartment that had a fairly nice kitchen (for a change), and I wanted to start cooking. I needed a snack for some friends who were coming over, so I called my  mother and made a simple request, nothing outrageous like her Duck a L’orange recipe, which she had been perfecting for 20 years. No, I needed a recipe for dip. “Great! No problem! Here it is, dear. I hope you like it!”

So I headed over to The Berkeley Bowl for the few ingredients I needed. It was, and probably still is, an incredible place, filled with amazingly fresh produce in mind-numbing variety. I chose the eggplant carefully, following my mom’s instructions perfectly. I even got some fresh pita (that was my special touch). Now realize, this was before I became the gastronomic genius that I am today. I could make a few things, but I wasn’t particularly skilled in the kitchen, and I certainly didn’t think about cooking as a technical exercise. My mom told me to put the eggplant on a baking sheet in a 375°F oven, so I put the eggplant on a baking sheet in a 375°F oven. What’s so tough about that? I retired to the living room (about ten feet away — I wasn’t living in the lap of luxury at the time), turned on the TV and watched some baseball!

Then, the kitchen exploded. The eggplant, without the benefit of any air holes poked into it with a fork, had heated up quickly, and the very hot and rapidly expanding air inside had nowhere to go. It fought off detonation for a good 20 minutes, but in the end, Boyle’s Law had to be obeyed. It blew with such force that the oven door banged against its hinges, bounced closed, and banged against the hinges again. And that wasn’t all. Mixed in with the rapidly expanding gas was the meat of the eggplant, now artfully sprayed across my kitchen floor and wall. After spending not nearly as much time cleaning as I should have, I poked around and found a jar of crappy salsa. That, along with the fresh pita, was the snack for the day.

I was hell-bent on babba-ghanoush, however, so a few days later, I tried again. And I’m no moron; I figured out what had happened and stabbed the new victim with a knife a few times (more like 30 or 40 times — I wasn’t taking any chances). Everything went well; I even spent a few minutes getting some of the seeds out of the flesh of the eggplant. Hey, attention to detail is everything in a pro’s kitchen! Except that the babba-ghanoush tasted pretty boring. So, I tucked my tail between my legs and called my mother, who promptly told me that I had forgotten the garlic. What garlic? “Oh, I must have forgotten to tell you.”

Why do I bring this up? Because last weekend, my wife’s aunt brought a large container of hummus to our house for the Yom Kippur break-fast. She makes excellent hummus, but this batch was incredible. I didn’t get much, and I had to fight off the rest of the gluttons for what little I did get. So I e-mailed her the next day and asked for the recipe. Now, this woman is a lovely, kind, gentle, and generous soul. And what did she do? She sent me a recipe that was, to say the least, somewhat lacking in detail. There is a common thread here. But I don’t think that it is that no one wants to share great recipes. It is not as simple as that, or even conscious. Destroying my paint job just to be the only one who can make great babba-ghanoush? Sending me an obviously disingenuous recipe, hoping that I try  it, and fail, just so that she can be the queen of hummus? No, I think that the omissions are completely unintended and are a product of the way that some people think about cooking. My mom rarely uses measuring tools; she just seems to know how much salt or cream or thyme or oil is needed. And while I have never watched my wife’s aunt cook, I’ll bet that she is the same way. And because cooking is more visceral, the idea that I would have to be told that babba-ghanoush needs garlic or exactly how much olive oil the hummus needs is just…silly. Of course it needs garlic! What are you, an idiot? And you put enough olive oil in the hummus to make it taste good. What’s so difficult about that?

But I’m stubborn. I am going to get that recipe for hummus. She’s coming over next week, and in exchange for a cup of my fantastic coffee, she is going to make hummus, in my kitchen, under my watchful and, quite frankly, suspicious eye. Hopefully, she won’t slip in some secret ingredient while I’m not looking.

The Child Who Ate Cauliflower (And Other Fairytales)

I found some great looking swordfish last week and decided to grill it in a mustard marinade, and I sneakily decided to introduce cauliflower, hidden by the great grilled fish, to my wife. Oh, she makes all the appropriate noises about loving vegetables, and her desire to eat a healthy diet, but her most fervent food desire is a big steak with crispy fried potatoes.

But I like cauliflower; I don’t have any experience with fooling myself into eating it. Many people are put off by the faint sulfur odor of some cauliflower dishes, so I had to minimize the rotten egg stench (as she describes it) while still making it palatable. I also didn’t want to spend hours in the kitchen. After all, grilling a piece of fish takes about 5 minutes, and I wanted the cauliflower to be as easy. I decided to roast it in the oven, with a bit of garlic and wine. Easy, easy, easy! I cut the cauliflower into large florets, put them in a baking dish, sprinkled some minced garlic over them, and added a cup or so of white wine to the bottom of the dish. I then covered it in aluminum foil and roasted it for about 30 minutes at 400°F. Then I removed the foil (hoping that would allow some of the sulfur odor to dissipate), drizzled some olive oil and tossed a tablespoon of grated parmesan cheese over the florets and cooked it for another 15 minutes to brown the cauliflower.

The cauliflower went very nicely with the swordfish, and you can’t beat the meal for simplicity. But the stunning part of this overlong story is that our 13 year old saw me making the cauliflower and asked to help. Then, when we sat down to eat, she decided that cauliflower was the best food in the universe and insisted that she have it for a snack when she came home from school the next day.

How To Cook A Lobster

Overcooked lobster is still pretty good, but my guess is that most people have never had perfectly cooked lobster. The usual suspects call for about 15 minutes in boiling water for a 1- or 2-pound lobster. Ridiculous! I just cooked an 8-pound lobster for 18 minutes, and it was perfect. The meat was moist and tender, without any of the graininess or toughness that is all too common in typically cooked lobster. The nice thing about not overcooking it is that the lobster tastes great on its own. You really don’t need melted butter or mayonnaise.

The problem is figuring out how long to cook the small ones. For big lobsters, it’s easy. Ten minutes for the first pound and 1 minute for each additional pound. I added 1 minute to the 8 pounder’s cooking time because it was a hard-shell beast, with very thick claw shell, and I thought that it might need a bit extra. For small lobsters, I would decrease the initial time to 8 minutes. So, those typical 1- to 1¼-pound lobsters would get a startlingly brief 8 or 9 minutes. Seems like they would be raw, but they come out perfectly! Try it — you’ll be convinced.

Plagiarism or Paean: Stealing Recipes.

So whose recipe is it? At what point may I claim a recipe as my own? I have read thousands of recipes, made many, and modified some beyond recognition. When does Marcella Hazan’s OssoBucco become mine? Or Tyler Florence’s onion toast? When I change ¼ cup chopped parsley to ½ cup? Obviously not. But all cooks base their cooking on something they have seen, or read or eaten. When does modification merge into creation? I have created dishes that I think are original, but I am sure that I can find something similar in pretty famous cookbooks! Am I a plagiarist?

No, I am not. But with age-old techniques and classic preparations there is always going to be some similarity. The trick is knowing when your changes have made a new dish rather than a rehash of an old one. That’s one of the reasons why so many cookbooks read the same. But no one is accusing Jacques Pepin of copying Raymond Oliver’s stuff! And I will happily read both of them to see whose recipe for beef stew I like better. And if neither appeals to me, maybe I’ll blend the two, and throw in a dash of Craig Claiborne! And then it will be mine…I think.

Feeding Your Guests Before Midnight

My wife and I were shooting the breeze recently and she had a great idea for the blog. “Why don’t you write about how to plan a meal so that you can actually spend some time with your guests?” I thought it was a fantastic idea for about three seconds, and then I realized that I don’t know how to do that!

The obvious answer, and one that has been amplified by dozens of good food writers and chefs, is that you shouldn’t plan more than one dish that requires your attention in the kitchen during the meal. Sure, lots of foods can be made in advance, but what about the great dessert that you want to serve along with your amazing grilled lamb? Does that mean that your guests have to eat cheese and crackers as a main course, or a scoop of ice cream for dessert? No, it means that they should adjourn to the kitchen and shoot the breeze with you while you cook them a great meal. What’s wrong with entertaining in the kitchen for a few minutes? Or even better, your wife (or husband?) can do a strip tease while you finish baking your award-winning dessert!

The reality is that you have to improve your efficiency, simplify your menu to exclude labor-intensive dishes, or accept the crowd in the kitchen while you frantically juggle pots and pans as your wife glares at you for making her college roommate wait for her dinner. But what is the point of killing yourself with the pressure of pumping out perfect meals. We invite people to our home for dinner because we enjoy their company. We think that dinner should be considered a bonus. And a good dinner should be considered a rare and unexpected treat! That doesn’t mean that I won’t try hard. I will work my tail off because I enjoy cooking good meals for my friends and relatives. But I will not agonize over an overcooked lamb chop or an unemulsified dressing. And if I want to spend a few more minutes in the kitchen, contrary to Emily Post’s directives, well, that is my privilege. And everyone migrates to the kitchen eventually anyway, so I won’t be alone.