Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Learning Curve

One of those days on the cooking front. Anyone who cooks has made mistakes. My devotion to cooking began with a mistake over soup. Today all girls learned important lessons.

Alison received her first Chef Stripes, and learned that hot ovens need to be respected.

Ellie learned that Baking Soda and Baking Powder are not interchangeable, and we are doing a second batch of cookie dough.

Trish learned that it is OK to dry dishes when the stovetop is on, but don't put plastic things near the back!

I learned that it's better sometimes to just watch Dr. Zhivago . . .

Julie and Julia

I finally saw the movie Saturday night. I had been afraid to, fearing disappointment. It wasn't the casting. Certainly not with Meryl's Julia. Even before hearing her spot-on Julia, I knew she could pull it off. Heck, If Meryl (and I call her Meryl because I went to High School with her cousin Amy) announced she was playing the title role in a remake of Conan the Barbarian I'd believe she could pull it off!

Amy Adams was wonderful in Enchanted, and she's a redhead. I have a thing for redheads. I started to cook because of a redhead.

Jane Lynch? My sister didn't know her. Sorry Yinnie, if you don't know Jane Lynch you are watching the wrong movies. She is great.

Then there is Stanley Tucci. If there is a cook out there who doesn't revere him and Tony Shalhoub for Big Night, I will show them how to break down a carcass on their carcasses.

No, my worry was trying to parallel Julie and Julia with My Life in France. Look, I loved lurking at Julie's blog (I still do) and enjoyed Julie and Julia, but the comparison of the two stories seemed like comparing Mastering the Art of French Cooking to the Rochester Hadassah Cookbook. Both are inportant to my culinary life, but not equal in their impact.

I was wrong.

The movie was delightful, the acting and script. What got to me was the penultimate scene, the one pictured above, where Julie Powell leaves a pound of butter at the Julia's Kitchen display at the Smithsonian. I giggled when I read it. I cried when I watched it.

I suddenly realized what I had missed before in the Julie/Julia story. I remembered the importance of Julia to my cooking, and realized that Julie basically served as a representative of all the lives Julia touched! A pound of butter left on the altar of Saint Julia.

Thank you Julia.

And thank you Julie.

Bon Appetit!

Three Wishes

From today's BuffNews, and just because he's a friend doesn't mean he isn't right . . .


1. I wish that small-scale farming, animal raising and dairy operations would grow from a niche market to a sizable part of the nation's food system. Making cheese, curing ham and growing vegetables can become lifetime careers for people if there are customers willing to support them. That can only happen if enough shoppers begin to understand the value of variety, flavor and supporting the local economy.

Tastes great, creates jobs, gives everyone more choices. What's not to like?

2. The U.S. government would reorder its approach to federal food spending, cutting down or ending subsidies to politically powerful food-related industries like sugar, corn and corporate farms. Figure out the fairest, most effective way to spend the money on food for the hungry instead; it's a better investment.

3. I wish the City of Buffalo would sink some development money into restaurants that a community needs, instead of those that are politically connected. Like, say, a solid full- service Chinese place with its own roast meat counter, like Greater NY Noodletown on the Bowery, or Congee Queen in North York, Ont. Or how about tax breaks for a fully capable Ethiopian place, or Mexican tacqueria?

I'd add a wish that people would realize that food is not medicine, a lifestyle choice or financial issue. Food is joy, food is family, food is life. And life's to short to eat bad food!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Weighty Matters

A difference that makes no difference is no difference - William James

Or not. If you can accomplish a task with one button push rather than two there is a difference.

This is prompted by what I hope will be a lively discussion, between Michael Ruhlman and James Peterson over measuring by weight vs. volume in baking, that started on Facebook. (For the record I am with Peterson on flour (too many variations even with a single brand. It's one of those are where experience is the best measurement) and Ruhlman on just about everything else.) Now I am a big fan of digital scales in the kitchen, but this seemed a good opportunity to tear in to the "tare" debate.

To quote Inigo Montoya: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Many educated cooks recommending features on a digital scale, including Michael and Alton Brown suggest that you look for a "Tare" or zero function as if they are the same. Michael, who despite what must be an overflowing inbox is unusually gracious in responding to my e-mails, said: "zero function and tare are the same thing no?".

Proof #1: This my scale, a horribly expensive Edlund E-80 I picked up at a restuarant auction for $10 because it had no cord (works well and is quite mobile on a 9 volt battery, or could work on one of those universal cords, but why?). It has both a Tare and a Zero button. Michael's own more affordable scale also has both. Why would a manufacturer give you two buttons that are identical when they can charge you the same but save money on the extra button? We'd never know the difference

Proof #2: They work differently.

The zero is so easy to understand a caveman could do it. Turn scale on. Put container on. Press zero. Scale goes to zero. Add 500g stuff. Press zero. Scale goes to zero. Add 300g stuff. Press zero. Scale goes to zero. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. This is the function useful for the cook.

The tare button has a different, specific task. My Dad's 1941 edition of Webster's defines tare as: "A deduction of weight, made in allowance for the weight of a container or vehicle". Useful for portion control or at the Wegman's Olive bar where the chek'em'out person can correct for the weight of the plastic. But that's not optimal for cooking. Turn scale on. Put container on. Press tare. Scale goes to zero. Add 500g stuff. Press tare Scale goes to . . . combined weight of stuff and container. You basically have turned the tare function off. Press tare a third time and it will re-tare to zero. But that is an extra button push.

Considering that if you boot up with a container on the scale it automatically tares, the tare button is acually redundant. YMMV, but that's what I tell classes.

So is this a difference that makes no difference? Weigh in!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Wednsday In The Dining Room With Georg (with apologies to Sondhiem)

Sometimes, in this world of Molecular Gastronomy, we seem to forget that some of the simplest preparations are the most satisfying. Some of the best had origins as peasant food. I have talked about Choucroute Garnie before, but this was special.

The dish is basically meat and Sauerkraut. The wurst was from Spar's, as usual. I added some slab bacon (both as lardons and just in hunks), and some Canadian bacon. Somewhere in freezerland is a smoked pork hock that would have enjoyed the company, but I couldn't find them. Oh bother. Some juniper berries and caraway seeds.

The wines were dry Rieslings, both for cooking and quaffing, but not Alsatian though. I am a homer, and used wines from the Finger Lakes

What made this meal special was the company. Our friend Georg was in from Albany and over for supper. Oh, and this was made with my first batch of home-cured sauerkraut, and Choucroute is ALL about the kraut!


Monday, December 7, 2009

Stop the Insanity

What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer. - Francis Bacon

Anyone who works in a restaurant deserves respect. It doesn't matter if you are slaving on the line trying to keep your fluid levels up while the instant read on your shoulder reads 14oº, or just trying to get that caked up crud off the silver before it goes back to the front of the house. Chef, line cook, prep cook, salad bitch or dish dog - all are worthy of respect.

There is a special place in the pantheon for the cook who manages to parlay his/her skills in the kitchen "empire". You can lose the quality by spreading youself to thin (see, English, Todd) or simply crash and burn (see, DiSpirito, Rocco). But by doing this you may get an appearance on a television show. Maybe a nationally syndicated one. Fine. You have done your work and made your bones. So don't frak it up by repeating one of the oldest cooking canards around - especially in front of your son. YOUR SON!

Two weeks ago Richard Sandoval , owner of like 14 reastaurants, was on the PBS show Chef's a Field, with his son, spouting the calumny that one sears the meat to seal in the juices. It doesn't work that way!

This is not applying a lit torch to a recently hacked off limb to cauterize the bleeding (I love that scene in The Vikings when Erik frees Ragnar's hands and gives him his sword so he can die fighting as a Viking. Then Aella hacks off the hand that freed Ragnar).

There are just too many signs that this belief is a false assumption - ending in the pool of jus that collects on the cutting board after your perfectly cooked strip steak has rested (you are resting your steaks, arent you?). Sop some of that up with a piece of nice crusty bread and tell me those juices were sealed in!

You don't have to trust me. In the culinary world where opinions are the rule, there is one voice that is pretty universally accepted. The voice is that of Harold McGee. "Searing does not seal in the juices" The Curious Cook: More Kitchen Science and Lore at page16. Argue with him at your own peril.

Now don't take any of that as meaning you shouldn't get that cast iron skillet smoking hot and flop that slab of beef in it. Plenty of good things happen (see, Reaction, Maillard).

But, when you get yourself on a syndicated TV cooking show, know the basics of our craft.

That means you too, Emeril!

Here endeth the lesson.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -