He Blinded Me — And Darn Near Crushed Me, Too — With Science

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A 50 Pound Box of Books

A 50 Pound Box of Books

You say “po-tay-to,” I say “po-tah-to.” You say “hard-boiled egg,” I say “denatured proteins encased in an ovoid container composed largely of calcium carbonate.” Let’s call the whole thing off. Or rather, let’s not, just for the moment.

Many years ago, when I foolishly (and incorrectly, as it turned out) believed I could balance a Chem major with a second one in Political Science, managing the campus radio station, editing the Editorial page of the campus newspaper, and engineering an entirely unsatisfactory love life, I had a moment of epiphany. Most of the lab experiments we undertook were colloquially referred to as “recipes,” and it occurred to me that “recipes” — the ones I had gathered from family and friends for use in the kitchen — were little science experiments. I know, friggin’ duh. Next I’ll be telling you about water being wet.

When people say “a lot of love went into that recipe,” it usually means, “the cook spent a whole mess of time getting it right, and she can reproduce through sheer muscle memory processes that I (a newbie trying to imitate the outcome) am unable to replicate.” In our mashed-potato-bud-flakes culture, any skill that cannot be mastered in the time it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn is just too darn hard, so we might as well ascribe some mystical attribute to the perfectly cloudlike soufflé rather than admit that your grandma, or Wolfgang Puck, or Eddie down the block, is just better at following directions than you are.

After all, when we prepare food, we generally do one or more of three things: We heat it. We cool it. We mix things with other things. And in performing some combination of those processes, we change the chemical composition of the ingredients at the molecular level. Voilà! Science.

Enter Nathan Myhrvold.

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If that picture isn’t the archetypal image of a Scientist Doing Serious Science, I don’t know what is. Oh, wait — he isn’t wearing a lab coat. Nonetheless, he’s something of a polymath, having started college at 14, and breezed through a master’s degree in mathematical economics and a Ph.D in theoretical and mathematical physics from Princeton and a post-doc fellowship with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge before being named Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft. He has also competed on a team that won first place in multiple categories (as well as being named best team overall) at the 1991 World Championship of Barbecue. And here we have that moment of interfacial polymerization, where the two seemingly disjoint circles in the Venn diagram overlap, and magic happens.

Modernist Cuisine

Modernist Cuisine

After having left Microsoft, Myhrvold had enough time to pursue his passion for cooking. Setting aside for a moment the fact that he haunted kitchens like some Phantom of the Spatula, turning up in local Seattle joints as well as Michelin-starred outfits abroad, Myhrvold brought a special piece to the puzzle: money. Much as when Walt Disney was unsure of the eventual success of Disneyland (saying, apparently apocryphally, that even if he landed on his face, he was at least falling forward), Myhrvold wasn’t sure if an audience beyond a couple dozen existed for his $500+ set, but he (like Walt) had resources at his disposal to see his dream through to fruition. Suffice it to say that both ventures exceed initial projections wildly, though we oughtn’t expect to see a Pirates of the Portabello ride any time soon.

Just as an object, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking is breathtaking. Profusely illustrated (3,216 photographs), beautifully bound, it’s clear that no expense was spared in its preparation. In fact, there are over four pounds of ink — four pounds — contained between its myriad covers and spread among its 2,438 pages. But its primary appeal is a simple, step-by-step explanation of how this business of preparing food works. Myhrvold (with co-authors Chris Young and Maxime Bilet) isn’t the first person to tread this ground. The distinguished food writer Harold McGee waded into the deep end of the kitchen science pool nearly three decades ago with his indispensable On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Where Myrhvold et al. go McGee one better is in the use of equipment and techniques not generally common to the home cook… or to the professional chef, for that matter. [I remember one time when I was trying to clarify cactus juice and realized that a centrifuge would be the ideal tool, but who among us has one in the cupboard and would you really want to clarify 20ml at a time? Bring on the cheesecloth.]

Yeah, you could cook eggs with a bullet, but it would be dangerous, probably illegal, and very messy.

Yeah, you could cook eggs with a bullet, but it would be dangerous, probably illegal, and very messy.

As anyone who has read the blog previously — or even the first part of this post — can clearly ascertain, I’m a geek. I’m fascinated with the idea of working with liquid nitrogen in the kitchen, though if The Bride caught me doing so, she’d probably conk me one with the frying pan. Granite counters, after all, are not cheap. Many of the ideas and techniques enumerated in Modernist Cuisine will, alas, never make their way to my kitchen. But many of them will. As a for instance, his explanation of how a wok works has enhanced my stir-fry mojo.

The workings of the wok.

The workings of the wok.

For those who are less geeky, more thrifty, or would merely like to jump in at the shallow end of the kitchen science pool, Myhrvold and company have distilled the Modernist Cuisine monolith into a handy, single-volume set called Modernist Cuisine at Home. I haven’t read it (yet), but I’m given to understand that it contains more than 400 new recipes, and while pricy (it runs about $115, or the approximate cost of 3-4 cookbooks), I’m sure anyone so inclined will find it well worth the purchase price, given its lineage.

Geek-o and The Man, or, more appropriately, The Man and Geek-o.

Geek-o and The Man, or, more appropriately, The Man and Geek-o.

Gotta give props here to three folks who taught me two very valuable lessons. My late maternal grandmother, who taught me that the kitchen isn’t a scary place. And my favourite chemistry teachers in high school and college, Claude Wiseman and the late Nobel laureate F. Sherwood Rowland (respectively), who taught me that the lab isn’t a scary place, either. [Although I have done some things in their chem labs that were scary, but those are other stories for another time.] In Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine, he’s fused those two concepts in a way that would make my mentors — and no doubt his — proud.

Note: Only the first and last photographs in this blog post are original; all others are ©Modernist Cuisine, LLC.

Shameless repurposing, part two — My Dream Date with Emeril

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Emeril and Thane

Last summer, I was contacted by the American editor of Style magazine (then Sands Style) to see if I would like to interview Chef Emeril Lagasse for the relaunch of the magazine. Like every cooking fan in America, I’d seen Emeril a gazillion times; unlike many cooking fans, I’ve eaten at one of his restaurants in New Orleans. Naturally, I agreed.

Despite his fireplug stature, Lagasse looms larger than life in virtually ever aspect of his being. He is immediately gregarious and extraordinarily self-effacing. He’s passionate about food. He loves to teach and to share what he’s learned. And he is remarkably generous in spirit.

Here’s a story that didn’t make it into the piece I had published: Part of the craft of managing a celebrity interview is figuring out what to ask him or her first. Way back when I was in college, my brilliant journalism spirit guide, Joseph N. Bell — a lecturer, because he was a working stiff, not an ivy-clad professor — told his class that something like 75-80% of one’s energy prepping for an interview should be devoted to formulating the first question. Famous (and even semi-famous) people are subjected to an endless parade of clueless journos who haven’t read their book or seen their movie or listened to their record, who inevitably kick off the interview with some slow-pitch softball such as “So… what inspired you to _____?” B-o-r-i-n-g. Shockingly, the rest of that sort of interview winds up with a lifeless string of canned answers to the canned questions.

The night before I was to chat with Chef Lagasse, The Bride suggested I might mention a shrimp and grits recipe she’d had at NOLA several years back, and for which she desired the recipe. “Excellent!” I thought. “Here’s a way under his radar.”

The cover, larger than life. The pic of Emeril, not so much.

The cover, larger than life. The pic of Emeril, not so much.

Our phoner kicked off with the typical pleasantries; underneath it all, I’m sure he was probing to see if I was actually interested in and/or knowledgeable of what he was doing, and I was curious to ascertain whether he was full of camaraderie when the red light was on, only to turn cold as a fish case haddock in its absence. As luck would have it, the two of us fell into sync more or less immediately. Even without asking, when I relayed the story of The Bride and The Grits, he responded with, “I’ll be happy to send you the recipe.” Within an hour of our interview’s conclusion, he (or one of his minions, at his direction) had.

Like most celebrated chefs, Lagasse had served his Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour apprenticeship many times over. And, like virtually all of the chefs I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing, he was generous to a fault regarding his team. Many of Emeril’s krewe have been soldiering on with him in excess of a decade (some even two!), a surprising display of loyalty considering the fluidity of movement in the world of haute cuisine. Clearly, the man is doing something right.

Some time after the story was filed, my editor invited me to the magazine’s relaunch in Las Vegas. The Bride and I made the pilgrimage, given that the magazine was kind enough to comp our hotel room. Emeril was just as engaging in person as he had been over the phone, and — ever the businessman — he asked his assistant to jot down my contact info, should we be of some mutual benefit sometime in the future. Fair play, that. I hope our paths cross again, even if just to hear him say “BAM!”

Every now and then, we all aspire to kick it up a notch.

Here’s a link to the article.

And this is the shrimp and grits recipe that kicked off our conversation:

As prepared family-style.

As prepared family-style.

NOLA’S SHRIMP AND SMOKED CHEDDAR GRITS
Recipe from NOLA Restaurant by Emeril Lagasse.

For the Shrimp:

Ingredients

2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 1/2 teaspoons Emeril’s Original Essence, recipe follows
3/4 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 recipe Smoked Cheddar Grits, recipe follows
1 recipe Citrus Buerre Blanc, recipe follows
1 recipe Abita BBQ Glaze, recipe follows
1 recipe Smoked Cremini Mushrooms and Rendered Bacon, recipe follows
1 recipe Grilled Green Onions, recipe follows

Instructions

In a large bowl, combine the shrimp with the Essence and salt and toss to blend. Set aside as you prepare the skillet. Place a large, 14-inch skillet over high heat and add the olive oil and heat until very hot. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter to the pan. Swirl to melt, then add the shrimp to the pan, being sure that the shrimp are in one layer in the pan. Sear the shrimp until well caramelized on the first side, about 1 minute. Turn the shrimp over and add the smoked mushrooms, bacon and Abita BBQ Glaze to the pan. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are well coated with the sauce and just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Add the remaining butter to the pan and swirl until melted into the sauce.

To serve, divide the grits between 8 entrée-sized shallow bowls. Drizzle about 2 tablespoons of the Citrus Beurre Blanc around the edge of the grits near the rim of the bowl. Divide the shrimp, mushrooms, bacon and sauce evenly between the bowls, and place a grilled green onion on top of the grits in a circle. Serve immediately.

Makes 8 entrée servings

For the Emeril’s Original Essence:

Ingredients

2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme

Instructions

Combine all ingredients thoroughly. Makes 2/3 cup

For the Smoked Cheddar Grits:

Ingredients

6 cups water
Salt, to taste
1 1/2 cups quick cooking or old-fashioned grits (not instant!)
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons butter
6 ounces grated smoked white cheddar cheese
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Instructions

In a large, heavy saucepan bring the water to a boil. Add a generous teaspoon of salt and the grits and stir with a wooden spoon to combine. When grits thicken, add the milk, cream and butter and return to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, partially cover the sauce pan and cook for 45 minutes to one hour, until grits are very tender, smooth, and creamy-thick. Add the cheddar, season with black pepper, and stir until cheese is melted. Serve hot.

Makes almost 2 quarts

For the Citrus Beurre Blanc:

Ingredients

1/2 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
1 2-inch strip orange zest
1 2-inch strip lemon zest
1 2-inch strip lime zest
1 garlic clove, smashed
1/2 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cubed

Instructions

Place all the ingredients except the heavy cream and butter in a 1-quart saucepan and place over high heat. Bring to a boil and reduce until the liquid is nearly evaporated, 12 to 14 minutes. Add the heavy cream to the pan and reduce by half, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and reduce the temperature to medium low. Add a few cubes of the butter to the pan and use a whisk to stir constantly until the butter is melted. Return to the heat and add a few more pieces. Continue to place the pan on and off the heat, adding a few cubes of butter to the pan and whisking until all the butter is used. Remove the sauce from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh strainer. Keep warm until ready to serve – do not allow the sauce to boil or it will separate.

Makes about 1 1/4 cups

For the Abita BBQ Glaze:

Ingredients

1 cup ketchup
1 cup Abita amber beer
6 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper

Instructions

Combine the ketchup, beer, brown sugar and crushed red pepper in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat slightly and continue to cook at a steady simmer until the sauce is translucent and reduces to a consistency thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, 5 to 10 minutes. Set aside. You should have about 1 1/4 cups of glaze.

Makes 1 1/4 cups

For the Smoked Cremini Mushrooms and Rendered Bacon:

Ingredients

3/4 pound cremini mushrooms, halved, or quartered if large
1 1/2 teaspoons Essence
4 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 pound bacon, diced

Instructions

In a medium bowl, combine the mushrooms, Essence and olive oil. Toss to combine and place on the rack of a stovetop smoker. Prepare the smoker over medium-high heat using applewood smoking dust, or the smoke chips of your choice. When the smoker begins to smoke, close the lid. Smoke the mushrooms until cooked through, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the smoker and set aside until ready to use.

While the mushrooms smoke, place the bacon in a 10-inch sauté pan over medium-low heat and render the fat from them until they are just beginning to get crispy, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the bacon from the pan using a slotted spoon and transfer to paper towels to drain. Set aside until ready to use.

For the Grilled Green Onions:

Ingredients

8 green onions, root end and tips trimmed
4 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper

Instructions

Place a grill pan over medium-high heat. Drizzle the green onions with the olive oil and season with the salt and pepper. Place the green onions on the grill and cook for 2-3 minutes, turning occasionally to ensure even browning. Remove the green onions from the heat and set aside as you prepare the rest of the dish.

As served at NOLA.

As served at NOLA.

Super fast, super easy, super tasty summer salad

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Tomato Watermelon Basil Salad

Tomato Watermelon Basil Salad

It’s hot. It’s muggy. It’s summer. Who wants to stand over the stove for an hour or two to make a nice risotto? Not me, that’s for doggone sure. Instead, here’s a no-bake, so-simple-a-kid-could-assemble-it dish magnificently suited for a summer weeknight. I first tasted a version of this at Church & State bistro in downtown Los Angeles, and I was hooked.

TOMATO WATERMELON BASIL SALAD
INGREDIENTS
3 pounds or so seedless watermelon, diced
1 package cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced (12 oz. or more)
4-5 sprigs of basil leaves, chopped or chiffonaded
3-4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar (or other wine/champagne vinegar) to taste
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt to taste

Slice and dice half a seedless watermelon (or an entire “personal size” watermelon, should you have one), chop up a fistful of fresh basil, take a 12 oz. container (or about 1.5 – 2 cups) of cherry or grape tomatoes and slice them in half, add about 3 – 4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and 1 -2 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss together in a bowl, allow the dish to chill for half an hour (or not), and have at it. Sprinkle just a tiny bit of kosher salt on each portion before serving.

For an interesting variation on this recipe, substitute chopped mint for basil.

As you can see from the photo, this salad pairs nicely with Pine Ridge’s Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend, as well as Ironstone Vineyards’ Obsession Symphony.

What the hell ever happened to margarine?

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In 2013, 200 years after the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul discovered margaric acid (the vital building block in making the original version of margarine), it’s pretty safe to say (in the manner of the final pronouncement on Iron Chef), in America at least, “The Margarine Battle is OVAH!” Go to the store; try finding something labeled as margarine. Seriously. It just ain’t there. Sure, there are old favourites, such as Parkay and Blue Bonnet and Imperial, all of which used to call themselves margarine, but the word itself is as welcome on their packaging these days as ants at a picnic.

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Originally produced in 1869, when another French chemist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, rose to a challenge posed by Emperor Napoleon III to make a butter substitute for the armed forces, the new foodstuff was originally called oleomargarine, later shortened to the trade name “margarine.” Mège-Mouriès tried to make a go of producing it commercially, but it failed, and he sold off the patent to the Dutch company Jurgens (not to be confused with the American company founded by Andrew Jergens of Jergens Lotion fame, though both made soap). In 1930, the company merged with Lever Brothers to form Unilever, which continues to make margarine — much of it not billed as such (including Promise, I can’t believe it’s not Butter!, and Country Crock) — even today.

Americans have long had a love/hate relationship with margarine, especially in the dairy states, where manifold laws were passed to marginalize its ability to compete with butter. In 1885, Pennsylvania banned the sale of “any oleaginous substance, or any compound of the same, other than that produced from unadulterated milk or of cream from the same, any article designed to take the place of butter or cheese produced from pure unadulterated milk, or cream from the same, or of any imitation or adulterated butter or cheese,” but it was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1898. An even more comical statute was passed in New Hampshire, which required margarine to be dyed Pepto-Bismol pink, and it too was struck down by the Supreme Court in Collins v. New Hampshire, 171 U.S. 30. The court concluded, quite sensibly, that “If this provision for coloring the article were a legal condition, a legislature could not be limited to pink in its choice of colors. The legislative fancy or taste would be boundless. It might equally as well provide that it should be colored blue or red or black. Nor do we see that it would be limited to the use of coloring matter. It might, instead of that, provide that the article should only be sold if mixed with some other article which, while not deleterious to health, would nevertheless give out a most offensive smell.”

Margarine Colour Blender

While the states were prevented from altering the product, that didn’t mean that the dairy lobby tucked its bovine tail between its legs and headed back to the barn. Margarine in its natural state is white, so states began to pass laws preventing margarine manufacturers from “adulterating” their product with yellow dye, and many of them levied a significant tax on any margarine that was so modified. By the turn of the 20th century, the dairy lobby had largely succeeded in cutting margarine consumption by more than half. Margarine manufacturers responded by enclosing a special bonus packet of yellow pigment with their wares, so homemakers could DIY their dye. [These colour restrictions persisted in Québec, believe it or not, until 2008!]

oleo-day-06-01-1958-018-M5

In fact, Wisconsin even today has a whole subsection of its state food regulations devoted to oleomargarine, including:

  • (3) No person shall sell, offer or expose for sale at retail any oleomargarine or margarine unless:
    (a) Such oleomargarine or margarine is packaged;
    (b) The net weight of the contents of any package sold in a retail establishment is one pound;
    (c) There appears on the label of the package the word “oleomargarine” or “margarine” in type or lettering at least as large as any other type or lettering on the label in a color of print which clearly contrasts with its background, and a full accurate statement of the ingredients contained in the oleomargarine or margarine; and
    (d) Each part of the contents of the package is contained in a wrapper or separate container which bears the word “oleomargarine” or “margarine” in type or lettering not smaller than 20-point type.
    (4) The serving of colored oleomargarine or margarine at a public eating place as a substitute for table butter is prohibited unless it is ordered by the customer.

It is also prohibited from being served to Wisconsin “students, patients or inmates of any state institutions” unless “necessary for the health of a specific patient or inmate.”

On the national level, the FDA takes over 700 words to define margarine, and the USDA requires that margarine “Shall possess a fine and pleasing buttery flavor. May possess acid, bitter, coarse, flat or oil flavors to a slight degree.” (I’m guessing nobody ever got prosecuted over that.)

04margarine

What flattened the margarine industry (or, more appropriately, the use of the word “margarine”) was the Great Trans Fat Scare of the ’90s. Trans fats, for those of you who skipped either the Food section of your local newspaper or chem class, are unsaturated fats (either mono- or poly-) that have been “partially hydrogenated,” or have had hydrogen added to them, in order to increase shelf life and decrease the need for refrigeration. They’re a cheap substitute for other fats and oils that suspend solids at room temperature, such as palm oil, lard, and butter. They have been linked to increased incidence of coronary heart disease, liver dysfunction, Alzheimer’s Disease, diabetes, cancer, and infertility, among other things. But they’re cheap, and market forces have brought them into our diet in great quantities. Since many margarines/buttery spreads/butter substitutes contained these chemical pariahs, they got swept up in the anti-trans-fat movement. To their credit, most butter substitutes — the former margarines — no longer contain trans fats (though some still do). But the damage was done. The margarine moniker had to go.

These days, there’s a fair case to be made that butter substitutes are no worse for you, and possibly even better, than butter. After all, butter is richly laden with saturated fat, which is itself associated with coronary heart disease. And then there’s the whole animal exploitation/treatment issue, which is another topic for another time, but deserves consideration. Wise consumers will peruse the product’s contents (trans fats are now required to be identified separately from saturated and unsaturated fats), and choose accordingly, striking a balance between the palate and the peril.

Whether you opt for buttery spread, butter substitute, vegetable oil spread, or some other ersatz dairy product, when they say, “I can’t believe it’s not Butter!” you would be more than justified to respond with, “And I don’t believe it’s not margarine.”

Coda: A persistent myth circulating around the Interwebs claims that “margarine is one molecule away from being plastic.” Two quick rejoinders: 1) It’s not true, and 2) So what if it were? Water (H2O) is one atom away from being toxic (hydrogen peroxide, H2O2). Salt (NaCl) is an atom away from being chlorine gas (Cl2). Get over it.

Je suis sous vide

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Sous Vide Supreme

Sous Vide Supreme

First off, I should explain the headline, because those of you who go to Google Translate to figure it out will discover that the phrase — at least in machine-translate speak — roughly equates to “I am vacuum.” And you might infer (possibly even correctly) from that translation that I had, in a cross-cultural display of bilingual ineptitude, intended to say, “I suck.” Not true. It’s up to you, dear reader, to determine if I suck, but it’s up to me to determine if that’s what I intended. The more appropriate translation of “sous vide” is “under pressure,” and on this Bastille Day, that’s precisely what I am.

Just to the right of the keyboard where this post is being composed sits a machine that The Bride gave to me as a Christmas present. In 2011. Here it is, nearly half way through July 2013, and it still sits there unused, mocking me. Not because I’m not keenly interested in giving it a spin, but because it terrifies me. Let me back up for a moment.

Sous vide began as an ingenious solution to a difficult problem: When you cook fois gras, it shrinks. And at $50+ per pound, even a little shrinkage hits the wallet in a pretty dramatic way. Just about 40 years ago, Georges Pralus invented the technique of sealing food in plastic and cooking it at low temperature for Restaurant Troisgros (of Pierre and Michel Troisgros fame) in Roanne, France. The technique has been adopted by restaurants across the world, not only to save on foie gras shrinkage (something that we in California don’t have to deal with because it’s been outlawed — wink wink), but to help tenderize meats gently, and without using additives. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense; typically, when you’re cooking meat, your intent is to bring the center of the meat to a given temperature, and the way we’d always done it was to apply a heat that was way too high to the outside, letting the energy radiate from the surface into the center until the desired temp had been attained. Done skillfully, this results in a perfect steak/chop/rib/whatever. Done poorly, the outside of the meat morphs into leather, encasing a Goldilocks band that’s “just right,” and an interior that’s a meager step above raw. What sous vide allows a cook to do is to set the temperature in the circulating water bath just slightly higher than the desired core temperature of the item to be cooked, place the bag in the water, and walk away for a few hours.

Yep, you read that right. A few hours. Sometimes as many as 72 hours. Anybody who’s used a slow cooker is reasonably familiar with the anti-microwave nature of this method. It relies on thinking things through well in advance of the meal; no spur-of-the-moment “Gee, I’d like some carnitas!”-type decisions here. And I’m good with that, at least most of the time. I usually know how many people will be dining here a couple of days in advance and am capable of following a calendar to schedule my meal-building appropriately.

So I started reading recipes and digging into the underlying science — it’s just part of my process. I read Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide. I read Sous Vide for the Home Cook by Douglas Baldwin, Michael Eades, and Mary Dan Eades. I read the relevant passages in the massive six-volume set Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet. I plowed through innumerable articles on the Interwebs. And in addition to the joys and benefits of this exciting new technique, I uncovered a staggering amount of information about food safety and how to avoid serving things one doesn’t care to eat, such as colonies of Escherichia coli O157:H7. And Salmonella. And Clostridium perfringens. And Bacillus cereus.

Let me say at this juncture that I keep surfaces in my kitchen pretty clean, but I wouldn’t want a USDA inspector poking his nose around with a black light and swabs for petri dishes. And I certainly don’t want to serve a lovely, tender roast that sends my dinner guests off to hospital. So I read more. And more. And more. For a period of time, I became convinced that I’d have to prepare my food in a hazmat suit, install negative air flow isolation chambers at both entrances to the kitchen, and finish my chemistry degree or run the risk of becoming known as the South Bay Poisoner. Clearly, along that route lay madness — or, in my case, paralysis.

Recently, as the Sous Vide Supreme was sticking out its figurative metal tongue at me from its perch below the printer, I had an epiphany: my kitchen isn’t so very different than many restaurant kitchens that employ this technology successfully. And unless one happens to be dining with Harold McGee or Nathan Myhrvold, the likelihood of the chef holding an advanced degree in food science or chemistry is fairly small. In short, I can do this.

And I’m going to. I’ve made myself a promise — now repeated in public — to enjoy the benefits of sous vide cooking while summer is still in full swing… if only to relieve the pressure.

Should you see any news stories about the South Bay Poisoner cropping up, all I can say is that it wasn’t me. I was miles away at the time, and I can prove it.

Santa Fe Sunrise

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The Bride and I, a couple of decades ago, opted for Santa Fe as our honeymoon destination. Practically nothing outside Guantánamo screamed “honeymoon” less to me than Santa Fe — going to the desert in the middle of summer seemed unpalatable in the extreme — but it’s always been a good policy for me to pay attention to The Bride’s desires (as evidenced by the fact that, decades later, she’s still The Bride). As it turned out, the greater Santa Fe area is gorgeous, and our day runs out to several of the Northern Pueblos were both charming and informative. [And when I think of it, Houston in the summer makes Guantánamo seem like Ibiza by comparison, so please disregard my previous knock on Santa Fe.]

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The cuisine was something of an eye-opener as well, from Cindy’s Santa Fe Bite-Size Bakery’s addictive chocolate pepper cookies to the local sparkling wine, Gruet. We were served a complimentary glass — one of the many perks of being on one’s honeymoon — and we drank it with some hesitancy at first. New Mexican sparkling wine? Seriously? Turns out that the Gruet family, which had been making sparkling wine in France since 1952, was on vacation in New Mexico in 1983, and decided to put down roots and make both sparkling and still wines south of Albuquerque. Quite frequently, we serve it to our friends, introducing it to newbies with the phrase, “How about some refreshing New Mexican sparkling wine,” just so we can see the look of shock and horror in their eyes. It never gets old. Really.

But I digress.

One day, as I was idly wandering the Interwebs, I came across a blog titled The Domestic Mama & The Village Cook, which featured a dish called “Idaho Sunrise,” which was apparently originally adapted from a recipe featured in Marion Cunningham’s The Supper Book. Basically, it’s a twice-baked potato with an egg on top, stuffed with mashed potato and bacon and chives.

As usual, I decided to tinker with the recipe to suit my palate, and came up with something I like to call the “Santa Fe Sunrise.”

Santa Fe Sunrise

Santa Fe Sunrise

SANTA FE SUNRISE (makes 4)
Ingredients
4 previously baked potatoes
4 tbs butter or sour cream or butter-like substitute
1 can chipotle chiles in adobo sauce OR 1 can diced green chiles
4 oz. grated cheese (pepper jack, cheddar, whatever you have around)
salt, pepper
4 medium eggs
scallions, cheese, chopped tomato (or tomatillo) for garnish
dash hot sauce

Bake the potatoes the way you normally would. Then, slice off the top (see picture) and scoop out as much of the interior as you can while allowing the potato shell to hold its structural integrity (I usually leave about a 1/4-inch “wall” in the interior). Mash together the potato innards, sour cream/butter, adobo sauce OR diced green chiles, grated cheese, and salt/pepper to taste. Refill the potatoes with the mixture, leaving a well deep enough to allow for the egg. [One quick note: the adobo sauce is plenty hot even without the chipotle peppers, which you can reserve for another purpose, and one would be wise to mix in only a little of the sauce at a time, tasting along the way to ensure it doesn’t completely immolate your tongue… unless that’s what you like.] Crack an egg into the well, and place potato back into a preheated 375°F/190°C oven for 17-25 minutes or until eggs are just set (you can tell, because the whites are just barely white, maybe even a little translucent still). Garnish with scallions or chives, cheese , chopped tomato or tomatillo, and a dash of hot sauce, if desired. [I prefer Tapatío hot sauce myself, but Tabasco works just fine, if somewhat inauthentic to the Southwest vibe.]

The excellent aspect of this recipe is that it’s as easily adapted to vegans’ diets (you can sub either a vegan spread or almond milk or vegetable broth for the sour cream/butter and omit the cheese), as carnivores’ (fry up some bacon to a crispy crunch and crumble it into the potato stuffing).

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And no matter how you make it, the Santa Fe Sunrise goes great with a glass or two — or a bottle or two — of the Gruet Brut Rosé… just to keep the New Mexico theme intact, of course.

Shamelessly repurposing

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Baguettes I baked in Paris, January 2013

Baguettes I baked in Paris, January 2013

Because I just turned in a 1350-word piece today on Chef Herb Wilson of SushiSamba restaurant in Las Vegas for Style magazine, I’m not feeling especially loquacious this evening, but from what I understand, blogging is like exercise, and once you make some lame excuse to avoid it, it’s all downhill. Accordingly, I’ll point you instead to a fairly long piece I wrote a while ago for the LA Review of Books called “Around the Table,” in which I manifestly did not review a trio of praiseworthy books: The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, by Adam Gopnik; Dinner Chez Moi: The Fine Art of Feeding Friends, by Laura Calder; and In The Small Kitchen: 100 Recipes from Our Year of Cooking in the Real World, by Cara Eisenpress and Phoebe Lapine.

Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik and I grew up in Philly around the same time, and for some reason that I can’t fathom (unless it’s some combination of talent, luck, drive, and the fact that I spent much of my adult life in what used to be known as the record industry), he has become a fairly famous regular contributor to the New Yorker, while I am writing a after-dinner blog post in my breakfast nook. Like me, he has an abiding love of France — you almost can’t dislike it if you ever visit, and all the advance PR about Parisians being snotty has been, in my experience, just plain untrue.

Laura Calder

Laura Calder

I’d probably be smitten with Laura Calder even if she weren’t such an engaging TV host, cook, and native of New Brunswick, Canada, where I also was born. Her program, irregularly scheduled on the Cooking Channel, is called French Food at Home, and it’s a breezy, fun, entertaining, and informative half hour, fifty of which have made a more or less permanent home on my DVR. This most recent book (Dinner Chez Moi) had been scheduled for an American release last year, and while that somehow that never seemed to happen, it’s readily available on the Amazon.ca site. Her casual style belies the rigorous training she received, not only in a variety of kitchens in France, but also in the Canadian Army (though her food is anything but institutional).

Cara Eisenpress and Phoebe Lapine

Cara Eisenpress and Phoebe Lapine

And finally, Cara Eisenpress and Phoebe Lapine are a pair of “quarter-life” bloggers who turned their website into an Internet sensation and a book. They have an uncommon common touch when it comes to cooking with limited resources (both in terms of space and capital), and their book contains just possibly the Best. Lentil. Recipe. Ever. I wish I’d had their insight — and focus — at their age. Actually, I’d be pretty pleased to have it even now. This is a must-have book for anyone graduating to their first apartment, and who aspire (or ought to aspire) to something more than a life of take-out. It’s practical and fun and full of great ideas for the kitchen and the informal salon that so many of us home cooks wind up hosting.

Howard Johnson's Plate

Howard Johnson’s Plate

Full disclosure: Not long after my piece appeared in the LA Review of Books, I had the opportunity to meet Adam Gopnik, and because both he and I waxed rhapsodically about the joys of Howard Johnson’s in our respective works, I picked up a pair of vintage plates from HoJo’s on eBay and gave him one. The other is in my kitchen, a reminder of two ten-year-olds who grew, each quite happily, in very different directions, but for whom the phrase “28 Flavors” will always evoke a potent memory.

In Praise of a Very Fancy Blender

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First off, let me say from the outset that I’m not a “juice guy.” Sure, I’ve seen the infomercials and heard the testimonials and been subject to in-store demos, just like the rest of us. And I love juice; very few liquids on Earth bring me greater pleasure than a fresh-squeezed glass of blood orange juice. But I’m not persuaded that juice can rightly claim the curative powers that its disciples ascribe to it. So it wasn’t for that reason that I found myself on Craigslist, obsessing over finding my first VitaMix (or Vita-Mixer, as it was known then).

Last year, I had promised to make mushroom soup for a Thanksgiving gathering at our friends Rick and Lori’s house, and I knew that some of the attendees had dairy issues. Accordingly, I mused aloud on my FB page as to whether I should substitute almond milk, or cashew cream, or some sort of ersatz non-dairy sour cream substitute as a thickening agent, to give it a “creaminess” without using cream. My pal (and head chef at Papilles Bistro in Hollywood) Tim Carey commented, “I never use cream. Get yourself a VitaMix.” Okay. When you get advice from the guy who has made the best cauliflower soup you’ve ever had in your life, it makes sense to listen.

VitaMix products are expensive. No, really. They are. Very. Expensive. Then again, so are Maybachs, and for much the same reason. I’m pretty sure I could throw a handful of gravel in my Vita-Mixer and come out with a lovely powder, suitable for sprinkling over a fruit cocktail that found itself light in mineral content. The one that I bought — a Vita-Mixer 4000, used, for $200 — had been in service for over a decade and a half, and the guy who sold it did so only because he had been given a new one as a present. It’s a champ, the very one pictured at the top of this post. Easy to clean, easy to use (though I have twice made a pretty comical mess of the kitchen by failing to secure the so-called “Action Dome”). The original cookbook, which came as part of the purchase, claims that one can actually use the device to cook soup, due to the friction of its rotors against the canister’s contents. That may be so, but the idea of having to listen to this device at full throttle for half an hour is about as appealing as being subjected to an extra-innings Justin Bieber concert.

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I made a mushroom stock from water and leeks and carrots and parsley and garlic and dried and fresh mushrooms (dried oyster and black trumpet mushrooms, fresh Eryngii, Maitake, and Bunapi mushrooms), then I sautéed a bunch of fresh mushrooms (I think there were seven different varieties of fresh mushrooms in the soup) and some spices, combined the whole lot (mushrooms, homemade mushroom stock, a bit of olive oil, a little fresh rosemary and oregano, and some salt and pepper) in the Vita-Mixer and puréed like a crazy man.

Sautéed and puréed fresh mushrooms

Sautéed and puréed fresh mushrooms

[Incidentally, there are consequences to puréeing hot soup in a food processor whose lid has been too securely clamped; the steam forces the liquid out of the container at high pressure in directions hitherto unimagined at a velocity just barely less energetic than an Olympic gymnast’s free-form floor event. Live and learn.]

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The resulting soup — at least the part of it that I didn’t have to wipe off the cabinets, counters, and floor — was magnificent; creamy, hearty, aromatic. And I owe it all to the wonders of what might be the single most essential countertop kitchen device other than the toaster — the VitaMix[er].

Gluten Allergies — Part in our bodies, part in our minds?

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no gluten

An interesting post by Alan Levinovitz in the July 9th issue of Slate suggests that the current mania for gluten-free food may spring from a psychological, as well as physiological, condition. Setting aside for the moment the 1.5% or so of the population that has celiac disease or wheat allergies, for which there is medical documentation, I’ve run across a great number of people who say they just feel better on a gluten-free diet.

Quoting from the Slate article, “Scientists are applying themselves to the riddle, and last February Slate’s Darshak Sanghavi reported on an Italian study that confirmed the existence of gluten intolerance (“nonceliac wheat sensitivity”) as a third, “distinct clinical condition.” In the study, one-third of patients who self-identified as gluten intolerant did in fact experience symptom relief after adopting a gluten-free diet. Case closed, right? Pass the gluten-free pasta.

Not so fast. An important implication of the study is that two-thirds of people who think they are gluten intolerant really aren’t. In light of this, the even-handed Sanghavi suggested that “patients convinced they have gluten intolerance might do well to also accept that their self-diagnosis may be wrong.”

The mind is a powerful influence on the way we feel, so even if there is a significant psychological component, that most assuredly doesn’t invalidate the positive effects that many people report when going gluten-free.

You can read the entire article at Hold the MSG.

Thoughts?

Kicking it, and kicking it off

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Gluten-free Chocolate Chip Cookies

Gluten-free Chocolate Chip Cookies

When I was a wee sprout, the first real food I ever got to make “by myself” was chocolate chip cookies. The “by myself” is in quotes because I was performing under the hawk-like eye of my maternal grandmother, in whose company I had spent many hours in the kitchen prior to my first “solo” flight.

Chocolate chip cookies are a pretty good place for the budding baker/cook/chef to start, because the recipe on on the back of the Nestlé Semi-Sweet Morsels package is fairly bulletproof. I’ve made my own mods over the years, adding ingredients ranging from malt to orange zest to ground-up Altoids, changing the sweetening agent mix, modifying the flour — graham flour chocolate chip cookies were a remarkable failure, and maybe someday I’ll be motivated to figure that one out — but I had never made gluten-free chocolate chip cookies until the 3rd of July, 2013.

I had interviewed Chef Thomas Keller for Style Magazine, the in-house publication of The Venetian and The Palazzo in Las Vegas, and part of that interview centered around the gluten-free craze, and how his restaurants (The French Laundry, Per Se, Bouchon, Ad Hoc) dealt with it. Turns out, he had commissioned one of his chefs, Lena Kwak, to develop a gluten-free flour that looked, tasted, and behaved like “the real thing.” It is marketed as Cup4Cup.

The flour is not inexpensive, but Gilt.com had one of its flash sales, and I bought a 25lb. bag of Cup4Cup for $69. [Yeah, I know that seems a fairly excessive way to jump into a new product, but it was a great deal.]

Long story short, I made a double batch with my standard recipe, and the cookies came out great. Really tasty, if I do say so myself, every bit the equal of the ones I’ve been making for the better part of half a century. Nicely done, Lena. And Thomas.

You can find Alton Brown’s interesting and informative — if somewhat cornily acted — program on chocolate chip cookie variations at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MYuXRaW0B0. And here’s a link to Cup4Cup: http://www.cup4cup.com/about-us/.

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Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies [Double Batch Style]

5 1/2 cups Cup4Cup® gluten-free flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups (4 sticks) butter or margarine, softened
3 cups packed brown sugar
3-4 tablespoons vanilla extract
5 medium eggs, room temperature
4 cups (24-oz. pkg.) NESTLÉ® Toll House® Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels
2 cups chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 375°F / 190°C

Combine dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt) in one bowl. In a separate bowl, beat butter/margarine, sugar, vanilla until creamy, then add eggs and continue beating until they are incorporated. Gradually stir in flour mixture, chocolate chips, and nuts. Drop dough onto ungreased baking sheets. Bake for 9-12 minutes or until golden brown. [I turn the sheet midway through, because my oven doesn’t have evenly-distributed heat, but you probably won’t have to worry about that.] Remove from oven and put cookies on wire racks to let them cool. Eat, or serve to friends, or both.

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Temple of the Tongue is gonna be (I hope, anyway) a funky amalgam of cooking tips, restaurant reviews, interviews, links to videos, my magazine articles, all sorts of odds and sods about making — and eating — food. Friends have been bugging me to do this for years now, and I’ve finally caved. I hope this little journey we’re taking together will be enjoyable, or, as we used to say back in the radio days, “If you’ve had half as much fun today as I have… well, then I’ve had twice as much as you.”