Geography as Desinty

September 22, 2008 by

If you were watching teevee over the weekend, you were bound to have flipped past the episode of Dinner: Impossible filmed in Grafton. (You might have even seen the commercial on the Food Network last week, which featured first lady Gayle Manchin.)

Anyway, it turned out that Iron Chef Michael Symon and crew were totally screwed from the get go, because Grafton, for all its charm, is so damn far away from a large grocery store. Half of their cooking time was spent going to Sam’s Club and back, leaving them just over 2 hours to make dinner for 500 people. Now I realize that this is just a silly cooking show and all, but I thought the outcome was so totally appropriate for something filmed in West Virginia. Michael Symon’s greatest challenge was simply overcoming the fact that he was in Grafton, West Virginia.

People almost always equate success with things like talent and hard work, but it is just as often influenced by pure geography. Your options are greatly expanded or severely limited by where you you are physically located. Geography is even tied to life expectancy — the closer you live to a good hospital, the greater your chances of living a longer life. But my favorite, albeit imperfect example of how geography influences people’s lives: Look up a few of your favorite actors or directors on IMDB. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of successful American-born actors and directors grew up in either California or New York? Is there something in the water in these places that produces great actors? Of course not. Los Angeles and New York City are the centers of the entertainment business, and it’s as simple as that. It’s pure Geography. Regardless of socioeconomic background, If you want to be a part of something, you almost have to be where that something happens. If Martin Scorsese had been born in Welch instead of Queens, it’s highly unlikely that he would have grown up to make movies. He probably wouldn’t have even thought about it. Just like kids from Orange County California don’t dream of growing up to be coal miners.

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I admit to being jealous that Gayle Manchin got to meet Michael Symon, and hear his somewhat scary, yet somehow infectious laugh in person.

Gotta Love the Internet

July 29, 2008 by

If you got a problem, yo, I’ll solve it.

But seriously, I have the Lodge cast iron grill pan and yeah, I’ve been wondering if/when I’ll be able to use it again without smoking up my entire apartment due to the caked-on nastiness.

Seared Salmon with Beurre Blanc, Asparagus, and Couscous Salad

July 18, 2008 by

Salmon with Beurre Blanc, Asparagus, and Couscous Salad (taken with my cell phone, because I was hungry and didn't want to run upstairs for the digital camera)

H.K. and I were in the mood for salmon last night, which we usually have once a week, but we couldn’t agree on how to have it. H.K. wanted the Bobby Flay Glaze (as we refer to it), which is really delicious, but kind of heavy and sweet. I really have to be in the mood for it and I wasn’t, so I nixed that idea. I wanted a citrus reduction that I had made once before, but H.K. wasn’t a big fan, so he nixed that idea. We decided to just go to the grocery store and wing it, which I don’t usually do. I almost always have a list that I stick to (like a good little shopper), but last night I stood in the produce section until the grocery gods answered my prayer for a dinner idea.

We decided to have seared salmon with a beurre blanc, roasted asparagus with garlic, and a couscous salad. H.K. made the beurre blanc and I made the rest. I seared the salmon in a nonstick pan with a little olive oil. I tossed the asparagus with minced garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper and roasted it at 400° for about 8-10 minutes. The couscous salad I just kind of threw together without any particular recipe in mind.

Couscous is ridiculously simple to make, and I like to eat it in the summertime because it tastes good at room temperature. (I like asparagus in the summer for the same reason.) You bring some water to a boil (you can use broth too, if you’re into that), add an equal amount of couscous, give it a stir, then take it off the heat and leave it covered for five minutes. Presto! You’re done. To the couscous I added chopped grape tomatoes, avocado, green onions, and parsley, then tossed it all with a lemon vinaigrette.

Vinaigrette is one of those things that I think everyone should learn to make. It tastes significantly better than bottled dressing. Actually, that’s an understatement—there’s really no comparison between freshly made vinaigrette and vinaigrette in a bottle. One of the first cookbooks I ever owned was Mark Bittman’s The Minimalist Cooks at Home, and that’s where I learned the basic recipe for vinaigrette. (I think the last time I bought a bottle of salad dressing people were worrying about the Y2K crisis.) You can find Bittman’s basic vinaigrette recipe at his New York Times blog.

For the couscous salad last night, I used lemon juice and a little rice vinegar as the acid. (Using lemon juice alone doesn’t taste acidy enough to me.) To that I added a minced shallot, a dollop of Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper. Then I whisked in the olive oil. A ratio of 3:1 (olive oil:acid) is too oily for my taste, so I usually use about a 2:1 ratio.

Once you get the hang of the ratios (which of course you can adjust to your taste), you can bang out all kinds of different vinaigrettes that will taste far better and be much cheaper than bottled dressing. For Cobb salad, I use a combination of lemon juice and red wine vinegar and I add minced garlic and a few dashes of Worcestershire. For Asian salads, I use rice vinegar (to which I sometimes I add lime juice), soy sauce, a little sesame oil (it goes a long way), and some Sriracha. Depending on what’s in the salad I sometimes throw in a little mirin or honey for sweetness or, if I want a nutty dressing, some peanut butter or tahini.

As you can see, I feel very strongly about vinaigrette. I’d like to make it my mission in life to convince every home cook to learn this basic recipe and abandon bottled dressings forever. It tastes infinitely better, it’s cheaper, and you make just what you need for that meal, so you don’t end up with eight different bottles of dressing in the fridge for all of the different kinds of salads you eat.

Cross-posted at Raging Red.

The Top Chef Drinking Game

March 27, 2008 by

Hippie Killer asked if I wanted to write for this blog, and I gladly accepted. For my first contribution, I’d like to offer up a Top Chef Drinking Game, which HK and I road-tested last night. Okay, we sofa-tested it. I’m a big enough Top Chef fan that I read the blogs on BravoTV’s web site. Well, not all of them, since they’ve got a slew of them now, but I usually check out the judges’ blogs and Lee Anne’s. She’s the former cheftestant (from Season 1) who now works behind the scenes for the show.

In her first blog post for Season 4 Lee Anne mentioned a Top Chef Drinking Game and noted, in a live-blogging-esque fashion, each time she had to take a drink during the first episode. So of course I went Googling for the game, but the results were disappointing. Admittedly, I only checked out the first couple of pages of results, but all I found was the same fairly lame version recycled on a bunch of different food blogs. For one thing, there aren’t enough items on the list. For another, the very first one is an uncalled for slam against host Padma Lakshmi, who is supposedly unqualified to talk about anything whatsoever. (Food snobbery, or snobbery of any kind, is insufferable.) Disappointed, I decided to create my own.

I won’t claim that this is the best Top Chef Drinking Game evah, but it’s better than the ones I found. I did borrow a few items that I actually liked from the others. HK and I whipped this up moments before last night’s episode, so I’ll add more to this list as we think of them. Readers are highly encouraged to add more suggestions in the comments. (Of course, this blog hasn’t officially gone public yet, but I suppose we’ll get a few Google hits.)

Without further ado, here’s the game:

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THE TOP CHEF DRINKING GAME

You know the rules.

Take ONE drink if:

  1. Padma says “Utensils down, hands up.”
  2. A chef says they’ve never cooked __________ before.
  3. A chef says “I’m just here to compete” or “I’m just here to win.”
  4. A chef can’t find something in the kitchen/pantry.
  5. Two words: Product placement. (Granted, this item alone could get you drunk off your ass.)
  6. The chefs draw knives.
  7. A chef makes a dessert when he/she doesn’t have to.
  8. You see a chef wearing Crocs.
  9. A chef makes a foam.
  10. A chef accuses another chef of copying an idea/style/ingredient, etc.
  11. A chef yells out how much time is left on the clock.
  12. A chef or judge says “Someone has to go home.”
  13. A judge asks a chef what the inspiration for their dish was.
  14. A judge says that a chef’s plating looks messy/sloppy.
  15. The judges say the food is too salty or not salty enough.
  16. Tom Colicchio says “This was a tough decision.”
  17. Gail Simmons is not at judges’ table.
  18. Anthony Bourdain says something that he thinks is clever.
  19. A judge asks “Did you taste it?”
  20. Gail mentions Food & Wine Magazine.

Take TWO drinks if:

  1. A chef makes a duo of something.
  2. A chef uses an ingredient that you’ve never heard of.
  3. A chef misses the whole point of a challenge or doesn’t follow the rules.
  4. A chef says that the guest judge is their hero/idol.
  5. Someone uses the phrase “molecular gastronomy.”
  6. Padma tells the chefs they will be packing their stuff in GladWare.
  7. Tom says “This is Top Chef, not Top _______.”
  8. Someone actually refers to the chefs as “cheftestants.”
  9. Someone utters any variation of the phrase “throw me under the bus.”
  10. Someone utters any variation of the phrase “stand behind your dish.”
  11. A judge says that something is inedible.
  12. A chef says “This won’t be the last you’ll see of me.”

Take THREE drinks if:

  1. A chef makes a trio of something.
  2. The challenge was obviously created primarily for product placement and doesn’t really have much to do with being a chef (I’m talkin’ to you, Bertolli Frozen Dinners!).
  3. A chef cuts or otherwise injures him/herself. (Not that I wish for this to happen!)

Do a SHOT if:

  1. A chef gets kicked off (á la Cliff in Season 2) or quits the show.
  2. A woman finally wins Top Chef.

HAPPY DRINKING!

Shamelessly Self-Congratulatory Food Pictures

March 7, 2008 by

I really don’t want this to be one of those food where I get to pretend to be a real chef by posting dozens of very staged (but not too staged!) pictures of me prepping various ingredients. But since you sort of eat with your eyes, and a picture says a 1000 words — here are some highlights:

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Chicken with lemon-caper sauce and asparagus with sweet mustard vinaigrette. Garlic bread. Yes, the vinaigrette was left over from the night before, and no, garlic bread doesn’t really “go” with this meal. I just wanted some fucking garlic bread. The pith from the whole lemons gave the sauce a slightly bitter note that I wasn’t nuts about. But it was still very good. And finally…

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Pan-seared meyer lemon gnocchi. Yes, it’s the recipie from the front page of this month’s Food and Wine magazine. This was the first time we tried making gnocchi using a potato ricer to break up the potatoes. Lesson learned: if you’re making gnocchi, a potato ricer IS NOT OPTIONAL. This was the first time our gnocchi came out “pillowy.” And who am I kidding with this “we” crap? Red made this. Side note: you can occasionally find meyer lemons around this town if you look. They’re not as sour as normal lemons, and their zest has distinct flavors of — get this — thyme. I’d like to try it again with the brightness of regular lemons.

The Trying Game

February 28, 2008 by

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I think I make decent risotto. But who the hell knows. The only risotto I’ve ever had is my own. A fundamental reality of living in Charleston is that if you want to eat well here — or any other cracker-assed town for that matter — you better learn to cook. The good news is, I enjoy it. And it sure beats the other 2 options:

1. Eat at the same 4 or 5 places ALL THE TIME. There are good places to eat in this town. Just not very many of them.

2. Throw down big bucks to eat with the coal heirs and doctors in South Hills. Believe me, if I had the cash, I’d consider it. Stuffy atmosphere be damned. If the food’s good, I’ll deal.

And again, option 3: DO IT YOUR DAMN SELF.

Now the problem with this is, if you’re trying to hold yourself to some sort of standard of quality, it’s hard to get it right when you’ve never experienced the standard yourself. My family ate hamburgers and soggy spaghetti slathered with jarred sauce when I was growing up. When we did go out to eat, it was usually someplace Mom had saved coupons for. And last I checked, Pizza Hut still doesn’t serve risotto. But the ‘Hut is hardly alone in that distinction.

But you see where confusion might arise. What if I’m making the culinary equivilant to Durer’s Rhinoceros? But hey, fuck you, I at least get points for trying.

I can say this much — I know for certain that my risotto is better than Gordan Ramsey‘s. Allow me to explain. The whole point of risotto is cooking the rice in such a way that the outer layers of starch melt away to form the most velvety, creamy, silky sauce you’ve ever imagined. But there’s no cream. Butter, yes; cheese, maybe — but no cream. The rice does all the work. It’s the whole point of risotto. To add cream defeats the purpose in a fundamental way. Or. At least that’s what I think.

Ramsey par-cooks the rice, cools it on a sheet pan, then reheats it with cream at the time of service. It’s a major time saving method, and lots of chefs at lots of restaurants do it. And it might taste great. If Gordon makes it, I’m sure it does. But it’s not risotto. If the waiter doesn’t warn you that the risotto takes 30 minutes to prepare, well. I know what I would do.

So. The really great thing about learning how to make risotto is, once you get the method down, it’s a blank canvas upon which infinite variations are possible. The one at that top was mushroom, topped with mushroom.

And here’s one from the vault:

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Butternut squash with pancetta and…dear God, is that fried sage on there? If only I could put the amount of motivation to work in the rest of my life.

FYI, I’ve found that I prefer the flavor of basil to sage with the squash and pancetta.

Because Chili Doesn’t Have Beans In It

February 25, 2008 by

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I make chili. It’s probably a lot better than the chili you make. But that’s sort of the point in making chili — it can taste exactly the way you like it. While my recipe continues to evolve, there are few things I’m totally settled on:

1. I don’t use ground beef. That stuff is for amateurs. I buy some sort of cheap, lean roast — the leanest I can find — and cut it up into pea-sized chunks. It takes a while, but it’s totally worth it. Be sure to actually brown the beef in a hot pan. You’re missing out on an entire layer of flavor if you don’t.

2. I use as many different kinds of chili peppers as I can stand to chop up. This time I used Anaheim, poblano, jalapeño, habanero, chipotle green and red bell peppers. Why? Because it tastes better that way. The variety of peppers act on different areas of the tongue. Or something like that. Go easy on the chipoltle — a tablespoon can change the flavor of the entire pot. I like lots of little uniform chunks of veg in the chili. “Competition” chili, this ain’t.

3. Lots of roasted cumin. And a little homemade curry powder, or better yet, garam masala. Not to much. Keep it in the background.

4. And I always serve it under a big pile of cheese, with chopped green onions. Always. After I take the picture, of course.

Sometimes I make my own chili powder. Sometimes I throw in crushed up stale corn chips. Sometimes I even put chocolate in it. And sometimes, I top it with a fried egg. But no beans, please.

French Onion Soup

February 24, 2008 by

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1. If you make this stuff with any regularity, which you should, you owe it to yourself to get some ovenproof crocks for proper service. Which means properly gooey cheese and crunchy bread. It’s just more fun this way.

2. Onion soup is, unsurprisingly, all about the onions. It takes a while to get them caramelized, and it’s worth it. I hear Thomas Keller spends 8 hours doing it. Fuck yeah.

3. Don’t be afraid to periodically deglaze with good ol’ water. Caramelization good; burning bad.

4. French onion soup requires booze. It really doesn’t taste right without wine in it. I tried.

5. Gruyere is where it’s at here. If you use mozzarella, just save yourself the trouble and go to Bennigan’s.

6. Most soups taste better after they sit in the fridge for a day or two. This isn’t one of them. Which is just as well, because I don’t advise eating French onion soup two days in a row. Just don’t. Your friends, pets, neighbors and Air Quality division of your town or municipality will thank you for it.

Cobb Salad Daze

February 22, 2008 by

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Ah, the Cobb salad.

The original creation of Robert Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby in Los Angeles, California. The story’s out there if you want to read it. There are many subtle variations, but Cobb salad the way I like it has:

1. Not too much blue (or gorgonzola, or roquefort or whatever kind of blue you like) cheese. I love the stuff. I really do. I just don’t like too much of it on a Cobb salad.

2. Chives are great, dude, but I have no reason to pay 3 dollars for sub-standard chives when I can use really great green onions that cost $.79. It’s a cost / benifit thing.

3. No overcooked eggs with gray, powdery yolks. I mean really people. Eggs are wonderful. Hard boiled eggs are wonderful. HOW TO BOIL A FUCKING EGG: 1) Boil water. 2) gently place egg into boiling water; let boil for 10 minutes. 3) Remove egg and let cool. 4) Enjoy.

4. Avocado: I love the things, but I don’t find them entirely necessary on this salad — especially if you can’t find nice ones.

5. The dressing. It’s really important. it is not a standard vinaigrette. Recipes are out there. Here’s a clue: Worcestershire sauce is not optional.

You Chose…Poorly

February 19, 2008 by

We ordered Papa John’s tonight.

It’s kind of weird. Once upon a time, whenever I ordered pizza, I felt like I was really living the good life. Not so much anymore. “Fuck it,” it usually goes, “Let’s order pizza.”

Little known fact: the quality of delivery pizza all depends on what happens to it as it steams in the box. The big chains all design their pizza from the ground up for that — they’re designed to steam in the box.

That’s why local pizza joints — and real pizza, for that matter — don’t hold up well when delivered. It’s like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: once the pie moves past the Great Seal, bad things start to happen.