Categories
Essay Index

Five culinary trend predictions for 2013 that you will not find elsewhere

[one_half][I] used to work for a guy who preferred all communications from his reports to be in cartoon form. It was a bit maddening to enter a meeting with him, having meticulously prepared a PowerPoint presentation loudly bulleting the team’s biggest wins of the month, only to have it turned away with little more feedback than:

  1. Bigger fonts.
  2. Get rid of all this stuff and just make a cartoon/picture.

In retrospect, he was simply preparing me for the real world. One in which, it’s been said, people don’t read anymore. This idea continues to be reinforced in contemporary media, where long-form content has slowly given way to slideshows, cartoons, and “best of” lists.

Well. Who am I to defy a bonafide media trend? Why, for example, should I labor over a 3500 word dissertation on low-temperature short ribs when I could easily replace it with an infographic that says “David Chang: Thumbs up! Possibly fictitious Thomas Keller recipe: Thumbs down!”  ?

Unfortunately, I don’t yet have the technological know-how to give you what you really want: a slideshow full of stock images requiring a pageload for each item. Nor have I found the perfect advertisement to insert as one (or several) of the slides—one that autoplays a video with sound. Or better yet, two videos whose audio tracks are slightly out of sync, with dismiss buttons that run away from your cursor. But I can give you a list. It has five items, is a round-up, and includes the word “trend.”

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FIVE CULINARY TREND PREDICTIONS FOR 2013 THAT YOU WILL NOT FIND ELSEWHERE

1. The Middle Cambrian diet
The first chordates were found in the Middle Cambrian period, their diets largely dispensing with relatively modern, carboniferous notions as “vegetables” and “seeds.” In 2013, savvy diners will seek the comforting foods of their notochord-bearing ancestors, from roughly the era in which the pharyngeal slit and post-anal tail made their auspicious debuts. Cutting-edge restaurants will allow customers to sit mostly buried in fine sand, their heads exposed to easily capture locally sourced diatoms and plankton with layers of sticky mucus.

2. Antarctic hipster cuisine
The rise of “Asian hipster cuisine” in the late aughts has undoubtedly shown the value of marketing an entire continent’s cuisines as a single category of food made by and for people we, as a society, hate. Though one might be tempted to dub Africa the next “hipster continent,” those in the know look no farther than Antarctica, its pemmican hoosh, stewed penguin breast, and curried seal meat being the main attractions that promise to bring all the scrawny boys, mustachioed girls, and their penny farthings to the proverbial yard.

3. Giant cakes
Cake pops are a little 2011, no? We see 2013 as the year of the Maxi Cake. Be the first to impress your coworkers with a red velvet cake requiring several gallons of FD&C Red #40, and large enough to contain a burlesque dancer. Expect Starbucks to follow suit by pairing their 31 oz Trenta with a proportionately sized slice of Raspberry Truffle Maxi Cake, the flagship product of their forthcoming Starbucks Gigantes.

4. Urban sheepherding
If there’s one thing city dwellers learned in 2012, it’s that barnyard animals are hot hot hot! In the coming year, relatively modest pursuits such as chicken- and beekeeping will be seen as the stuff of dabblers, while more serious hobbyists will divert their attention to large animal husbandry. Sheep are the ideal solution for urban areas, as they provide, among other things: (1) nearly emission-free lawn mowing, (2) wool for their farmers’ extreme knitting projects, and (3) milk for our suddenly insatiable appetite for greek yogurt.

5. Medium format food photography
2013 could use more pixels. A LOT more. Need to share a quick shot of those organic nachos to Facebook? Leave the cell phone at home and whip out your Leaf Aptus-II/Mamiya 645DF+ combo. Nothing screams “food enthusiast” more than shooting tethered with an 80 MP camera at your cramped two-top. As an added bonus, the output file at 70 dpi will give your food blog the largest, most detailed header image known to man. You’re welcome.

Have we forgotten anything? Sound off in the comments!

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Categories
Essay Index

I’ve returned with a more attractive website, and this is why I was gone

[one_half][I] suppose you’re wondering what I’ve been doing since December 2011, when I made you those delicious Chilean Sea Pancakes. Perhaps I had died, or mistakenly thought I resided in some alternate universe where food blogs publish roughly 100 times less frequently than they do here. For better or worse, neither of those things is the case. Normally, I would have simply ignored my hiatus/sabbatical and launched into some poignant narrative about a potsticker I ate when I was 7. But I believe there are about a dozen of you who have been faithfully holding the mirror up my blog’s nose every once in a while to check for fog. And I feel like I owe you an explanation.

This website was born out of curiosity. Is it sustainable? Can I turn it into something? Can I do better? At the beginning of this blog, and through most of my life, actually, my favorite and best writing just happened. Words came out of me. I felt as if I were sitting across the room from myself, watching this gangly, bald man write. I found, though, that the more people started to notice what I was doing here, the more slowly the words would flow. I naively thought that I was close to turning my time-consuming hobby into a difficult career, and that in order to take the next step, I’d have to turn my blog into something else. But what? I wanted desperately to get things exactly right, and as a result, did nothing at all.

The first couple months of not posting were the hardest. I was terrified of losing relevance, equity, everything that I had worked hard to build. But it went by, and predictably, the world didn’t end. Another month went by, and then another. It got to the point where it’s now awkward to explain the concept of my blog to people who ask about it. I immediately have to point out that, no I haven’t actually been blogging lately and I feel vaguely guilty about it but I have Big Plans.

But you know? It’s also been kinda nice. It’s nice not going through the motions. It’s nice not to measure myself against standards I don’t necessarily agree with. And it’s really nice to cook. Ironically, I do that a lot more now. Not to develop recipes, or evoke some childhood memory. Just to cook. To feed my family. To enjoy making something. To relax.

In the meantime, I left science and started working in digital media. In doing so, I learned an awful lot about what makes publishers successful, some of which I may share with you here. The most important thing I learned is that it makes no difference whether you’re a conventionalist or a rebel if only a few thousand people are reading your blog. By saying that, I don’t mean it shouldn’t make a difference to you. I mean in the sense of trying to take the next step, earn some money, attract partners–you can’t start a business conversation with a blog of this size. It’s more important to go do awesome things and continue developing an audience. That’s the kind of cold-hearted, yet liberating reality that most people will not share with you.

I’m writing this because I miss you guys, and I miss thinking of my blog as a place to play. I want this to be fun again. I’m not trying to write a cookbook, land a column, be on TV, or otherwise go pro. I want to make things that I think are awesome, and I want to share them with you. I hope you’ll want to read them, even if they are not all about food.

Love,
Babychili

P.S. If you’ve been checking in, you’ve probably noticed that we’re changing the way the site looks. I wanted to build something cleaner and more beautiful, emphasizing words above all else. I think Amy Kim has done just that. There is some tweaking left to do, but what you’re seeing is most of the way there. I’d love to hear what you think.[/one_half]

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Categories
Baking Essay Index

Dear Science,

[one_half][T]hree years ago,one of my favorite musicians produced a record whose title was inspired by a note he scrawled in the studio:

Dear Science, please fix all the things you keep talking about or shut the fuck up.

My reaction (scrawled in kid’s handwriting):

Ouch.

As scientists, our goals are to understand where we came from, what makes us tick, and why things work the way they work. We’ve learned a lot. But some questions—especially the really interesting ones—are big enough that we just aren’t going to answer them anytime soon.

In fact, a large part of being a scientist is
being comfortable with failure. I often find myself facing a day in which nothing is expected to work. But in order to make progress, I need to spend that day (sometimes many days) confirming it.

It can wear on a person.

Some days, I honestly do feel like shutting the fuck up. Some days it feels strange, at this point in my life, to sit and label tubes or dispense liquids, wait for water to drip, for hours at a time. But there are rewards. Rarely, the reward is a home run. A Holy Shit moment where you see something that no one has seen before. More times than I’m comfortable admitting, those moments happen by accident. A mistake that suddenly clarifies weeks of confusion.

More commonly, the rewards are modest. Figuring out that you’ve consistently been doing something subtly different from what you’d intended. Realizing that a well-meaning colleague has, with absolute conviction, advised you to do the exact wrong thing. Usually, this is a small step. Nonetheless, it’s one that can be immensely rewarding. It’s the accumulation of these small steps that drives research. To be successful, you have to be at peace with the process. You have to willingly walk into failure.

* * * * *

I had high hopes for this post. Smoke. Lasers. Art forms new to the blog. I had intended to write a valentine to my neighborhood, with a dish inspired by its ethnic identities. Quite simply, that plan broke.

I had decided to base my dish on a somewhat fussy and time-consuming quiche recipe. My suspicion, after blind-baking the crust, was that it would not hold. It felt familiar to know that I had to try anyway. As predicted, the crust leaked. I continued baking until I was left with a sadly deflated pie adorned with a leathery mane of evaporated custard. It was, at best, inoffensive. Not “sexual,” or “seductive,” as Thomas Keller describes. Further research revealed that I was not the first person to have had difficulty with this recipe.

Weeks went by, during which I summoned the energy to try again. This time, I took much greater care with the dough. I realized that I needed to scale the recipe up, work the dough more thoroughly, and let it rest longer. Sure enough, the crust behaved much more like I hoped it would. It wasn’t nearly as fragile as my first attempt. It didn’t fall apart after blind-baking. It didn’t need much patching at all.

But it leaked again.

This time, however, it didn’t leak as badly. This time, the custard was silky and luxurious. There were many things about this time, some of them subtle, that showed I’d come a long way since not being able to bake my way out of an elimination challenge. I was faster, confident, observant. Small steps.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have taken on this recipe. When I would have given up after spending the better part of the day on an ill-fated quiche. But by now, I’ve tackled far worse problems. I know I’m still learning, and I know that I can handle this.

* * * * *

If you’ve ever attempted to reproduce an experiment from a high-profile scientific journal, you know that it’s often impossible to do without further guidance. The Materials and Methods section of a paper reads like a chef’s recipe, i.e., something that needs translating. It’s usually not malicious. Like kitchens, all labs are different. More important, the hands that execute each step are different. If you’re lucky, the author will communicate with you directly. But that doesn’t always help, and it’s ultimately up to you to navigate the myriad ways to proceed.

When I’ve cracked an ambiguous protocol, I like to document my process. Hopefully, I can save a colleague from making the same mistakes I made. One of these days, that damn quiche is going to work. And if I can understand why it did, I’ll tell you about it here. In the meantime, I have a message of my own to address to Science.

Dear Science,

You can be a real motherfucker. But through you, I learned how to imagine, how to teach myself things, and how to communicate and connect with remarkably different people. I wouldn’t have become the cook, writer, or person I am today without you. For that, I’ll be forever grateful. [/one_half]

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Categories
Essay Index

I am a baker

[one_half][I] am told that my sensei was one of the original Navy SEALs. A short, wiry man with graying curls, bright eyes and an angular face. He could not have weighed more than 130 lbs. But if I were unfortunate enough to get caught in his vise-like grip, I would soon receive just enough weight applied to my ribcage to feel as if I were being choked by a giant. This time, I was determined not to let that happen. Starting on the ground, I proceeded to attack, making repeated, futile attempts to turn him over from the tuck position. One mistake, and maybe 3 seconds after that, I found myself in the familiar position of tapping out.

Sensei stood up, straightened his gi, and looked me directly in the eye.

“I remember when you were weak. It used to be easy to move you around! Now?” He smiled, raising an index finger. “Not so easy.”

I was exhausted and soundly beaten. But all the same, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I had started practicing judo five months earlier. For the first 3 weeks, I could not get through the warmups without vomiting from exertion. Now I was stronger, faster, more physically intelligent, and better conditioned than I had been in my entire life.

As with many of my hobbies and obsessions, it was difficult to explain to people why I did it—why I kept going back to that dojo. I lived in New York and had a big job at a big bank, with the love of my life waiting for me at home. And yet I chose to spend 10 hours a week in a stuffy, windowless room, returning home with bruises, duct tape-wrapped toes, and a gym bag full of my own sweat.

To me, judo had nothing to do with wanting to fight, work out my aggression, or examine the state of my masculinity. What I valued about the experience was that it completely changed my perspective about what I was capable of doing.

If you are a grown man who is unathletic and cannot play basketball, you will likely not learn how to play during a pickup game in the South Bronx. You have to already know how to play. That, in a nutshell, was how I saw the world for nearly 30 years. I learned early on that I would be praised for the things I did well. Wanting approval, I pursued those things. And when I wasn’t sure whether I’d be good at something, I usually didn’t want to find out.

The revelation I experienced with judo was that, as a white belt, it did not matter whether you were a cop, wrestler, or out-of-shape equity derivatives trader. You were going to get your ass handed to you, respectfully, and effortlessly, by the black belts. There’s something liberating about everyone essentially starting from zero. And the entire dojo, from the yellow belts to the senseis, wanted us to learn.

Shortly after whipping myself into shape and purchasing a year-long membership to the dojo, I hyperextended my knee and never returned to the mat. I left as a white belt. But I also left knowing that I had transformed my body in ways that I had not thought possible. I entered the dojo detesting the idea of being a beginner at anything, because it meant that I could be dominated, shamed, or dismissed by others. I left embracing it.

A year later, I quit my job and went back to college. I volunteered in two labs and took undergraduate courses in math, chemistry and physics. I learned how to swim. I am now working on a PhD in biophysics. Someday, I may perhaps be convinced to sing.

As I see my daughter grow into her person, astounding as any parent imagines his child to be, I catch myself wanting to brag and outwardly gush over her achievements—exactly the behavior that I believe nurtured my fear of failure. I’m ultra-wary of raising a perfectionist, and I don’t want Esme to avoid new experiences the way I did. So I try to temper my praise and replace it with enthusiasm. But I think the best way that I can teach Esme to embrace being a beginner is to continue being one.

Over the past several months, I have put myself in the awkward position of being a beginner over and over again. I am exhausted and beaten. But I can now say that I’m a writer. Not a professional or seasoned one, but I write essays and tell stories, and I work at it every day. Similarly, I am now a relatively social person, connecting with people in ways that were inconceivable in my loneliest moments. I have also found that I am a beginning recipe developer, instructor, and producer/director of video.

And as of this past Thanksgiving weekend, I am proud to now call myself a baker. [/one_half]

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Categories
Essay Index

Snips and snails and puppy dog tails

[one_half][O]h, but it was an unpleasant feeling. My wife had long since gone to sleep when I reached the sobering conclusion, having read just three posts from Molly Wizenberg’s nearly 6-year-old blog, that I had been hopelessly, thoroughly scooped. Honey, wake up. No, seriously—wake up! There’s another blog here that has good writing and photos …

Okay, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that this didn’t happen in March 2010, that Molly’s memoir (which discusses, at length, her wildly successful blog) hadn’t already been on bookshelves for a year, and that I was not the last person on earth to read Orangette. Given those mental circumstances, I had to weep a little bit. Because before that fateful Waterloo moment, I was the proud, new owner of a free WordPress.com blog, and had begun writing about (wait for it … ) food. With a couple posts under my belt and some snarky comments in tow, I was confident that, of the 100,000 or so food blogs out there, mine would stand out as being the best written.

I’ll acknowledge that I was a little naïve about that one. But in my defense, I thought I was onto something different from what I knew to exist. As a spanking new blogger, I had begun my journey by pondering what makes a good blog. I read some of the pros (as well as some Jos) and accumulated bits of advice that I came to identify collectively as Best Practices for food blogging. I’m sure you’ve heard them, in some form or another. They boil down to something like:

  1. Keep your posts short.
  2. Cut to the chase.
  3. Post often.
  4. Take good pictures.
  5. Occupy a niche.

And so forth. Not horrible advice, really. But with myself as editor, I knew that I could not write this way. I certainly could not satisfy all these constraints while maintaining a writing voice that rang true to what I am: Completely neurotic and self-conscious. Was I really going to crank out pithy mood-prefaces to “quick and easy” recipes that were flavorful, healthy, and cruelty-free? Not when so many other writers were doing that much, much better than I possibly could. I wanted to distinguish myself, and for me that meant disregarding the Best Practices format altogether.

The concept I had in mind was to tell stories in the form of vignettes that illustrate the importance of food in my life. Stories long enough to tell you a little bit about me. I might write about the surreal experience of growing up in a moxanim’s household in Hawthorne. Or I might write about trying to do something wacky, like make fake skate wings out of diver scallops. But I would always leave room for myself to develop a distinct voice, which, in my mind, ought to be the most important part of any blog. If I do my job correctly, you’d want to read my posts, even if there is no recipe. And when there is a recipe? Well. You’re going to want to bang out that bad boy today.

So I started writing that way, and feeling good about myself. Then I found Molly’s blog. And Luisa’s. My response was a resounding: Crap. I am forced to adore these two blogs because the authors clearly do not care one iota about Best Practices. They take their time. They tell great stories. And their voices kill. Despite my initial chagrin over being beaten to the punch (by you know, six years or so), I eventually calmed myself down with a key realization: They have their voices, and I have mine.

Whether you love, hate, or remain steadfastly indifferent to my blog, I may compel you to admit that there aren’t many others that read like mine. I am not famous, professionally trained, poetic, or ethereal. My posts are not short. I don’t post every day. And I don’t write in my speaking voice (I’m not nearly this clever in person).

But enough about what I’m not. I am a husband and a dad. The arrival of my daughter forced me to rethink my grad school diet of frozen pizzas and meals that come in pocket form. I am now compelled to prepare delicious, homemade meals for my family. Though I am fascinated by all cuisines, I tend to gravitate toward simple, rustic food with bold flavors. After many years in which eating out was my primary form of entertainment, I started to teach myself to cook some of my favorite dishes. In doing so, I went from being somewhat of a food nerd to being consumed, beyond any reasonable degree, by thoughts of food and cooking. I am a pretty serious geek. Despite repeated attempts at maturity, I continue to excel at being a smart aleck. And I am now learning to write about all of it.

It is perhaps for all these reasons that I currently toil in relative obscurity. But if you’ve read this far, if you’ve read me more than once, or spent any time wondering when my next post would come, I’m willing to bet that you like this blog. If I were to encounter you in an elevator, I would, in all likelihood, be too chicken to say anything. But if forced, at gunpoint, to pitch you, I would say something like this: At Babychili, we try our best to serve delicious posts that are fun to read, useful, and crack you up. Best practices be damned.

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Categories
Essay Index Rant

Perspective

[one_half]You may find yourself wondering what exactly goes on at Babychili headquarters that allows an entire month to go by with no posts. Fear not. There will be no shortage of the type of gratuitous verbiage you’ve come to expect from this blog. Should I offer some lame apology and then bitch about how busy I am? No; fuck that. We make our own beds, and choose how we spend our time. Instead, I’ll offer a confession to all you non-food bloggers out there. It has to do with how a food blogger views the universe. It’s not the most attractive thing about us, and it’s not what many of us would like to admit out loud, but it is true:

We are obsessed with stats.

CPM, Unique Impressions, Pageviews, Bounce Rate, Returning Visitors … You name it. They are like crack to a food blogger. There’s nothing like the frequent, fleeting approval that comes in the form of daily, unique visits to your site. It’s not the numbers themselves. It’s the subtext: Hey. You’re cool. We like you just well enough to have briefly paused at your site for, at minimum, x seconds. Keep up the swell work, and there is a minuscule chance that someday, we will perhaps rescue you from the slow, suffocating death that is your day job.

To the self-righteous among you who attempt to deny this, I have this to say: bullshit. Why else would you get so worked up about getting rejected from food porn sites like TasteSpotting (TS) and foodgawker (FG)? Why do you want your photo there in the first place? Immortality? Narcissism? Might it have something to do with the fact that the traffic on your post increases at least tenfold when it’s featured on one of those sites? Yeah, Sarah and Chuck (of TS and FG, respectively) have got it going on, and they know it. God bless ‘em. No one, beyond my 20 friends on Facebook, would have ever heard of my site if it weren’t for them. Do I get a little upset when a photo gets rejected? Of course. What red-blooded obsessive-compulsive wouldn’t? But ultimately, I realize that it’s impossible to argue with “we just liked other pictures more.” (Usually expressed by the referees as “Dull/unsharp.”) Right? I mean, you can’t argue someone into liking something, in the same way that you can’t debate someone into being attracted to you. (“Contention I: I am hot …”)

The dangerous thing about getting photos posted on these food porn sites is that the ensuing bolus of traffic is, in fact, like crack. Once you get a taste, perhaps several in a row, you get quite accustomed to certain outcomes. “Normal” (i.e., non- “enhanced”) traffic on a new post becomes sorely disappointing, or deflating, by comparison. It might as well never have existed. As a result, you could find yourself, for example, shooting pictures in a style that caters to these sites. Making meals multiple times for the purpose of a reshoot. Buying specific equipment to improve your chances of getting featured on the site. Wondering whether you should schedule a dinner party for 4PM to get better light. All fine things, as long as you know and are comfortable with what your objectives are.

At some point, I completely lost perspective.

This is how a crazy person views things: I have a very small blog, so my daily traffic on a non-post day is something like 50 unique visitors. The traffic when I get a post featured on both TS and FG on the same day? Hundreds to thousands. In sum, not high enough to crack the nut, but a hell of a lot better than 50. And that’s not including the residual traffic I get from TS and FG on days 2 – 5. Since it’s not realistic to count on getting featured at both sites, let’s be conservative and say there’s a 10-fold improvement in traffic. If I post at 1/5 the rate I normally would, BUT make sure that each post has a killer photo that will likely make it in, I’m still getting twice the number the impressions I would otherwise.

So. If I’ve cooked a nice dish, have a good story, have perhaps written a post, but have no photos taken in decent light, what should I do? TS and FG likely won’t accept any of the photos. A sane person would go ahead and post. In my distorted, stat-fiending perspective, I found myself thinking, No one is going to read this if it’s not on TasteSpotting. (Which is not true, incidentally.) But having that as the standard became paralyzing. Do I reshoot the whole thing? Do I try to get a hero shot with just one of the ingredients? Maybe I’ll just hold off and work on something else …

Then fellow blogger Jean from Lemons and Anchovies (which is a fantastic site, if you haven’t already visited) said the thing I needed to hear:

@lemonsanchovies: @brhau I’m sure your pictures are fine. Post already!

And that’s when I finally articulated mentally what was (in retrospect) obvious, but what I had, up to that point, failed to convince myself of: The point of my writing this blog is not simply to maximize the number of impressions. Duh. If it were, would I be throwing up a fucking marathon post about sous vide short ribs? Further, if I want to develop as a writer, what I need to do is write regularly, even if no one reads it. Cook, and write. I need to get over all this hand-wringing about whether the food porn gods will look kindly upon my pictures.

So that’s it. I’ve decided to give slightly less of a shit about getting stuff onto TasteSpotting. Not that I won’t continue to try like hell. But as a start, I will soon “release” a post that doesn’t contain a single gawkworthy photo.

Coming Soon—A dinner party, featuring David Chang’s Bo ssäm[/one_half]

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Categories
Dinner Party Essay Index

Judges’ Table

[one_half][P]erhaps the part of Top Chef I enjoy most is the awkward bit of melodrama that occurs in the last 5 – 10 minutes of each episode. You know, when Padma sends the Elimination Challenge winners back to the stew room to summon “some of your colleagues.” Accompanied by a doomsday gong and some uber tense music, the judges proceed to chastise and infantilize the bottom performers of the week, often eliciting unironic tears. I particularly like the character Tom Colicchio plays—He is simultaneously flabbergasted, disappointed, personally offended, and silently outraged at, for example, a contestant’s decision to pair peanut butter with tomatoes. My wife really has a difficult time watching it, in the same way that she has trouble with Curb Your Enthusiasm or the original version of The Office. But for me, this is pure psychocandy. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. But I can’t not watch. Erin and I will often joke with each other:

Did you taste it before it went out?
Did you make the sausage yourself, or is it from Whole Foods? [disappointed eye-roll]
Well. The flavors were good, anyway.

When we say these things to each other, it’s always in good fun. But there are times, particularly if I’ve spent a lot of time on a dish, that I feel like I’m standing in front of my own judges’ table. And not for the winners.

* * * * *

I love cooking for dinner parties. I love everything about it: the menu composition, the shopping, the planning, the mad dash to get each course out … I’m a bit sloppy and slow as hell, but I do feel like these are the rare times that I really try to push myself to do something extraordinary. I used to play it safe, and only choose dishes that have a LOT of latitude. Like braises. I mean, how exactly am I going to screw up cooking fatty meat really slow? But at some point, I figured that if I’m going to try something that’s a bit out there, a dinner party with close friends is one of the lower stress environments to try it. Worst case, they’re probably still going to like you. Plus, they’re generally willing to cut you some slack for being an amateur and free. But it’s still stressful to me. After all the shopping, the anticipation, the prep … it’s a little deflating to screw things up. On top of that, dinner parties are usually hard to schedule, and there’s never enough time. Now that I have a kid, I feel the added pressure of trying to execute efficiently while the limits of my wife’s patience are being repeatedly tested by my two-year-old daughter. But it usually works out. And when it does, it’s very satisfying. The stress is also part of what makes it fun.

So when Erin asked me to cook dinner for her new friends the Javiers, I was all over it. Yes! I’ll make those braised short ribs! No … I’ll make corned beef! No! I’ll do corned short ribs … Wait—I’ll sous vide that shit!!! Over the course of a week, I went from suggesting a main dish that I’d made successfully a bazillion times, to a three course meal (increased to four courses while I was at the farmer’s market on the day of service), that involved baking (which I hadn’t done since my home ec class in 7th grade), and many other things I’d never tried before. Here was the menu:

Yam greens with blood orange vinaigrette

Chilled english pea soup, made with pea shell consommé

A modern, disassembled reuben: sliced “smokeless pastrami” (corned short rib cooked for 48h @ 60C, coated with crushed tellicherry pepper and coriander seeds, and pan-seared); steamed sourdough bun with caraway seeds; sauerkraut braised in apples, juniper berries and gin; cave aged gruyere; sriracha aioli

(above paired with a Dogfish Head 90 min IPA)

Toasted marshmallow milkshake

Couldn’t stop thinking about it. I actually had too many ideas and had to edit down to the menu above. I was completely stoked to try all of these things. Right up until about 2 hours before service, when it finally hit me. I have NO IDEA what I’m doing. I was fairly certain that everything would be edible, but I quickly realized that I was a bit out of my depth in terms of gauging how well things were going. What were the dishes going to look like? What if they didn’t taste amazing? How would I react? Should I have chosen more courses with recipes? Then, the bone-chilling realization: These people don’t even know you. Which means the “friend exemption” doesn’t apply!

As it turned out, the meal was, in fact, edible. Some of the elements were downright tasty (the beer for example, was sublime). But it was not—at all—the amazing meal that I had imagined. I definitely made what were, in my mind, pretty obvious mistakes in execution. So if this were Restaurant Wars, I might be going home, even without a team to compete against.

Fortunately for me, our guests were (and are) an extremely gracious, lovely family. We had a fantastic time, and they seemed happy enough with the food. Additionally, I can now do what TC cheftestants can’t: Go back and rework every dish to my satisfaction. So over the next several posts, I’ll be telling you how I went about making things right with most of these courses. Not sure if I’ll do that salad again, since I can’t find those particular greens anymore, and my mistakes were somewhat trivial (not enough acid, not enough tasting). But if you want to make a great salad, you can start with Spinach with Marcona almonds, Beemster, gremolata & walnut vinaigrette, if you haven’t made that yet.

Coming up (today, in fact, since I made you wait so long for this one): Chilled english pea soup, made with pea shell consommé

To be continued … [/one_half]

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Categories
Essay Index Sous Vide

The search for sustainable skate, or How I became obsessed with the concept of suburban sous vide

[one_half][I] sometimes find myself wandering off the deep end. My wife now hears me thinking out loud, and offers, with an air of mild concern: “Sometimes?

It all started weeks ago, when I began to go through what I fully expected to be a trivial exercise of selecting any of a number of vivid, food-related memories to attempt to recreate and write about. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be recounting the first time I had eaten skate. OK, let’s see … Kabab Café in Astoria … Big flavors … Chef Ali El Sayed’s lyrical description of ingredients … Got it! I was excited and energized. It had been years since I had last eaten it. Summer ’01, at the dearly-departed Patois on Smith St. (Brooklyn), classic preparation—pan-fried with a beurre noire. This was going to be good. I just needed to source the wings. I knew that skate wings weren’t expensive, but that they might be tricky to find. So I started researching specialty markets in the Bay Area, particularly ones that consciously support sustainable fishing practices. Unfortunately, the search terms “sustainable,” “seafood” and “skate” yielded discouraging results. According to The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch:

Previously discarded as “trash fish”, skate has become an increasingly important fishery as the populations of other bottom-dwelling fish (such as cod and haddock) have declined. As a result, several skate species in the Northeast are overfished or in serious decline. Skates, like their close relatives, the sharks, are highly vulnerable to overfishing since they grow slowly and are long-lived.

In addition, the majority of skates are caught using otter trawl gear, which causes considerable damage to seafloor habitats. Otter trawling is also indiscriminate, catching both intended and unintended species. These unintended species are unmarketable, illegal or undersized fish that are subsequently discarded dead or dying as unwanted catch.

Rating: Avoid

Well, that certainly is a pisser.  But I’ll admit that aside from carrying around their convenient, wallet-sized recommendation cards, I really don’t know much about Seafood Watch. What if they’re just a bunch of raving lunatics? I did a bit more digging. I did find that Seafood Watch is considered to be one of the more conservative voices, and that they are often criticized by (wait for it …) industry organizations. OK, that tells me absolutely nothing. Ultimately, my decision-making calculus goes something like this: Seafood Watch and The Monterey Bay Aquarium are very well respected by scientists. Though I haven’t examined the data myself, they do make arguments for their recommendation. I have not heard argument #1 on the other side. (And not for lack of looking. Remember that I really want to hear the other side). So by presumption, I am forced to play it safe and assume that Seafood Watch knows what they’re talking about.

So basically, the upshot of all this is: Crap! Stupid otter trawlers! What about my food moment? What about my damn blog post? What am I going to do, post a rambling, recipe-free essay about sustainable skate? Somewhere in midst of my man-sized hissy fit, I stumbled upon the apparently ingenious, yet contextually absurd notion of making “imitation skate.” I’ve heard several times (always anecdotally) that people used to make imitation scallops out of skate wing. That idea always seemed strange to me, since the textures aren’t really alike. But if it’s true, what about trying the inverse transformation? What could possibly be better than reproducing a protein that costs $2.99/lb out of ingredients costing at least 5 times that?

I immediately consulted my sister, who, as you may have gathered from my previous posts, knows everything about cooking.  Her response:

You are getting into the realm of molecular cooking, which is outside my knowledge comfort level.

We both had the same first guess (which in retrospect, was not a good guess): cook the scallops sous vide. Sous vide? Like many of you, the first I had ever heard of this technique was when Hung Huynh used it in Season 3 of Top Chef, presumably after going all kinds of tasmanian devil on a chicken. Since then, it’s made a regular appearance on the show, with mixed results. Sous vide is French for “under vacuum,” and describes a technique in which food is vacuum sealed and cooked in a water bath for a long time at relatively low temperature. On TV, this usually involves an immersion circulator (pictured above, in a gorgeous photo by Deborah Jones), a piece of lab equipment that can reliably maintain water temperature within a very narrow range (+/- 0.1 C). The technique has a very simple premise, which is that food will not be overcooked if you do not raise the temperature beyond the point at which you want it done. Therefore, you can hold the food at this temperature for a long-ass time, if you want to. Creative chefs have applied the technique to coax flavors and textures out of their food that are ordinarily not attainable by other means.

As a parent, I am firmly entrenched in the trailing edge of culinary (and most other types of) fashion. So while I may have missed the initial burst of popularity of sous vide @ home, this still sounded pretty damn high tech to me. So high tech that it must be able to make fake skate! Now, where to get the immersion circulator? If you don’t have $1000 to blow on a piece of equipment that might make the dish you want, it helps to have foodie friends. I was fortunate enough to be able to test drive a commercial quality immersion circulator. The result? My wife can attest to the fact that when I got this thing, I was like a Chinese restaurant on Christmas. Trust me, I was sous vide’ing everything in sight. In doing so, I learned several key things:

  1. Cooking scallops sous vide does not make them taste or feel like skate.
  2. Just because you use a fancy technique doesn’t mean your food will necessarily taste good.
  3. When properly deployed, the sous vide technique can yield astonishing things.

Since I can’t borrow a $1000 immersion circulator forever, my next goal was to figure out how to rig up a device that could accomplish the same thing with a substantially lower price tag. After all, if you really need to do it, you could get similar results the old-fashioned way, by using a large pot of water on the stove and obsessively checking/adjusting its temperature. That’s what is now affectionately known as “ghetto sous vide.” But I wanted something a bit more refined than that. I wanted something safe, cheap, and automatic. Something a little nicer than the ghetto—more of a “suburban sous vide.” Fortunately, these problems have been solved by many other people. I am currently in the process of assembling my rig, and will digest the information I’ve learned about this process in the very near future. Subsequent to that, I will return to documenting tasty things cooked by me, some of which may involve suburban sous vide. Stay tuned! [/one_half]

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(photo © Deborah Jones Studio from Under Pressure by Thomas Keller)
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