If Yan Could Cook. . .

Archive for August 2008

On Eating

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I just realized, with a small degree of horror, that I love to eat. Not the way a wastingly thin member of the upper class might say that, in the middle of a globe-trotting hunt for the perfect olive oil and the world’s greatest chocolatier, nor even just that I love to cook or that I love food. I love the actual process of mastication, of being in a state of eating, putting food in your mouth and chewing and feeling it enter your body. I would rather be eating than not eating. I would rather be eating and walking than just walking, rather be eating and reading a book than just reading. The best part of alcohol and vigourous exercise is that food tastes better afterward. The best part of vacations is the exotic food. There is almost nothing I can be doing that doesn’t make me want to reach for something to eat.

This has obvious consequences, both in terms of weight control and childlike stomachaches (“Well, Jimmy, that’s what you get for eating all that pie in one sitting!”), and the embarrassed delight of eating potato chips in the street. But I didn’t realize that I had anything I would characterize as a “problem” with food until I watched the astonished expressions of my siblings, on this trip, as I cleared the table. I always thought my whole family ate the way I did, but now their appetites seem dainty, birdlike, and I feel like an ogre ravaging the fields.

I’ve tried filling my house with fruit (because how can you overeat fruit, really), but it just gets ridiculous – no amount of fruit is large enough that I won’t eat it all in two days. It’s also distressing to have to treat yourself like a manipulative six-year-old, rarely having junk food in the house, keeping it on the topmost shelves, trying in vain to reason with its stubborn, illogical demands (“I. Want. A. COOKIE!”).

What I love most of all is eating in restaurants, every part of it, but particularly a long, slow, luxurious meal with one other person. Restaurant meals with lots of downtime where you can do nothing but speak in easy, intimate tones, lulled by good food and alcohol. There is no one in my life who shares this passion. For all of my friends, the question posed by dining out is usually “How quickly and cheaply can I get this over with?” or is something you only do with your significant other.

Someone told me, in that neofreudian way, that food is fulfilling another need that has nothing to do with taste or hunger, that underneath I am lonely, or horny, or unstimulated, or simply lost. It’s not like this is news to me. It’s not that food is fulfilling one need; it’s that it fulfills all needs. Look, here is guaranteed pleasure, in small, discrete amounts, that demands nothing of you, that can be bought everywhere, at any time, that you can manufacture at will, that society condones engaging in several times a day, that always feels good – whether elegant, social, and creative, or quick, dirty, and alone – and will always be there for you, so long as you survive.


Written by skimfu

August 28, 2008 at 1:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Killer Shrimp

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Blogs that link to other blogs are so very bloggy. It’s interesting that acting as a sieve for the lush, seething waters of the internet is now considered a creative endeavor. It’s like being a critic who only delivers positive reviews and doesn’t actually write any criticism, merely points (that over there, that’s good), under the assumption that anything bad will simply be ignored.

Sometimes I want to do this, just roll out lists of good things with minimal justification: Glenn Greenwald on Salon.com (he’s still angry in the midst of a culture of complacency and resignation)! Lore Sjoberg on Wired.com (he’s still funny for the sake of being funny without the heady, serious subtext and social responsibility that seems to be a requirement of comedy these days)! Hey Ocean (a band truly like no other, in no way imitative or derivative, incomparable, happy as an afternoon in the sun)!

Last night was the first time in several months that I followed a recipe more or less verbatim, so posting about it is very much an act of blog-pointing. Killer Shrimp from Jaden’s Steamy Kitchen seemed like a great party food, so I called up my usual party and went to work. I omitted the clam juice and only used about one and half pounds of shrimp. Her instructions about crushing the spices but keeping them whole made a mortar and pestle seem inappropriate; I worked them with a fork in a bowl. After tasting it early on, it seemed like the lemon rind was giving too much bitterness, so I pulled out all but about 1/6th of a lemon. Photos by Laura D’Alessandro.

It was just as much fun to eat as the recipe promised. Two baguettes for five people was actually not enough – there was so much sauce-mopping and shrimp-shucking to be done. A big fruit salad of cherries, honeydew, strawberries, and grapes provided a nice balance to the spicy heat. The heft of the meal and the cold Mexican beer going around left everyone in a pleasant daze. My friend Phil pointed out that my apartment is well-equipped for dinner, but not after dinner – there is nowhere for everyone to pass out comfortably, rubbing their stomaches.

It’s tempting, in something like this, to be modest or self-depreciating, to paint myself as a bumbling amateur. And I wonder if I’m supposed to respond to compliments about my food that way (aw, shucks, it’s nothing, the shrimp is a little overcooked, anyone could have done it). Most of the time I give a slight, tilted nod, a gesture I’m pretty sure I picked up from my father. Is this respectful, or arrogant? The food was fantastic. You couldn’t have done it as easily. I agree completely.

And in a professional kitchen, we snipe at each other, make backhanded comments. A cook I know convinced the boss to buy small egg pans because he couldn’t use the flat-top. The next day, this conversation:

Him: “Don’t you love the new pans?”
Me: “I don’t know. The eggs do look kind of cute. They’re all right, the flat-top was alright.”
Him: “Yeah, but that’s because your eggs are always perfect. You’re good.”
Me: “…So what are you?”

This kind of conversation is so common that no love was lost between us. Although that is nothing compared to the evils we inflict upon the waitstaff. One day I came in and two cooks were laughing hysterically. “What happened?” I asked.

“We made one of the waiters cry,” was the response.

Written by skimfu

August 20, 2008 at 8:16 pm

Posted in Shrimp

Photo Day

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All the previous posts for August have been updated with photos.

Last night (post to come) may have been the last grand meal before I leave for California, and I won’t be doing much cooking out there (maybe boiling vegetables for a truly brilliant three-year-old). At the same time, my brother in law is quite the skilled foodie, and all of my family out there are knowledgeable and classy restaurant-goers, so learning and tales of deliciousness are inevitable.

Written by skimfu

August 20, 2008 at 9:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Leek-Potato-Fennel-Celery Soup

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I dislike cream soups conceptually. Soups with clear broth are much more harder and riskier in all senses – presentation, crowd-pleasing, transparency of ingredients. Many restaurants make what can only be described as garbage soup by simply running a handblender through broth and any vegetables that are starting to go bad or were extraneously prepared. It always looks and tastes fine (never terrible, never spectacular) and no colour – not even the murkiest grey-brown – is considered strange. You can even let them ferment. We had a broccoli soup at one place I worked that developed an interesting sour kick to it. I ate a bowl every day for a week; my coworker said we would stop serving it once I started to hallucinate.

All that said, last night I made a leek and potato soup variant that made me feel how I imagine it feels to be popcorn: warm and buttery all over.

I used two leek stalks (just the white and light green), one bulb of fennel, three medium golden russet potatoes with the skin on, half a white onion, and two stalks of celery, all finely sliced. The whole pile wilted in a sea of butter (actually only about 1/4 cup), garlic, and chicken bullion, and then simmered in just enough water to cover everything. Finally I ran it through the blender in batches. It was thick and rich even without adding any cream. Best served with a piece of crisp pancetta on top (to add salt without adding salt) and a few fronds of dill from the fennel bulb.

Today, for complicated reasons, I ate breakfast in Shawinigan, Quebec, a white-bread town about two hours north of Montreal. It was hard to find breakfast. Mostly there were bars filled with old men, drinking deep at ten in the morning.

Written by skimfu

August 19, 2008 at 2:05 am

Posted in Soup, Vegetarian

Buttermilk Pound Cake & Flambéed Pineapple

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A young woman from France, doing a stage at a restaurant where I had the entirely ludicrous and nonsensical title of “head brunch chef” , taught me how to flambé fruit. That same day, she saw me haul out a box of cream cheese and asked what it was.

“Uh, fromage à la crème?” I tried, having heard a Francophone waitress call it “Fro-Cro”.

She told me that they didn’t have cream cheese in Paris. “So what do you put on bagels?” the dishwasher (the human being, not the machine) asked.

“Nobody eats bagels in France,” she said.

I brought this up with the only other person I knew from France, and he scoffed. “Of course there are bagels and cream cheese in France. In some part of France. People from Paris just don’t eat anything other than Parisian food, just like people from Provence only eat Provençal food. ‘French food’ means nothing there.”

A group of friends came over last night for dessert. Each person got a slice of pound cake with a border of flambéed pineapple on one edge, a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, and crosswise drizzles of storebought caramel syrup. Photos by Laura D’Alessandro.

I halved this recipe to make a buttermilk pound cake in a loaf pan (it calls for a 10-inch tube pan), omitting the lemon extract, and it came out quite well.

I carved a pineapple into large chunks (this turned out to be quite ugly – I’d use finer slices next time) and let them sit in a syrup made of brown sugar and their own juices for about an hour. These went into a pan of butter to fry on both sides on medium heat.

For the fun part, I warmed some good rum slightly in a separate pan, then drained off some of the buttery syrup (boo!) from the pineapple pan. Once the rum was in with the pineapples, I tilted the pan over the flame of my gas range so it would catch, then kept the pan moving to spread the flames. The pineapple didn’t pick up as much colour as I hoped, but I think that’s because I used a nonstick pan. The storebought caramel syrup was more of a decorative flourish and an afterthought; I bought it ages ago to put in coffee.

After eating and drinking (I thought the cake went very well with my rum and lemon juice), we went out to one of the most famous clubs in town – a rooftop terrace a hundred-stories up – only to discover we weren’t, as a group, very club-going people. But somewhere, in the depths of my soul and my closet, lies someone who can dive into the sweaty-cheering-meatmarket-pounding-throbbing-blackout-beat, someone who did.

Serendipitously, a friend from those days e-mailed me this morning, saying she was heading back into town. One of the best things about adulthood is that no one asks you to be any one thing in particular – you can be as many things as you want.

Written by skimfu

August 17, 2008 at 2:25 pm

Posted in Dessert

Dill & Yogurt Potato Salad

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The boy sitting next to me at the bus stop today had the kind of lanky frame and ambiguous face that could have been fifteen or thirty. Yet he had the sincere, oblivious beauty of a child: not the genetic luck and coif that aids our grown-up hunt for a mate, but just plain newness. The world had yet to rub off his shiny finish. We smiled at each other and said some things, and I thought, “You must be very young.” His bus arrived first and he saluted me through the window, earnest as a boy scout.

Children are like potato salad: at once too intense and too wholesome. This is why they pair so well with hot dogs. They need to be mellowed out by cynicism and flavourless pleasure.

It was hot today and I am suffering from a massive caffeine-withdrawal headache, so I just ate cold potato salad for lunch, balancing it on my stomach in a cushy chair in the living room. I boiled the potatoes right when I woke up, drained them, rinsed them in cold water, and then stuck them in the fridge to forget for a few hours. They say if you cut your potatoes before boiling, you’ll end up with a mushy salad that comes apart. I’ve found, though, that as long as you stop the cooking at the right time, your potatoes should hold their own and be soft all the way through.

Plain yogurt, finely chopped green onions and celery, iceberg lettuce, lemon juice, a spot or two of dijon, salt, pepper, and sprinkling of sugar, all mixed together in a bowl. It’s more than the actual temperature that makes it seem cold. Something about iceberg and celery and raw onion, their bursty sharpness. The yogurt also does a good job of making it creamy without the weight of mayo. Sprinkle with dill (I have a bulb of fennel in my fridge still awaiting judgment) just before serving.

I don’t know how photogenic this very blob-shaped dish will turn out to be.

Written by skimfu

August 16, 2008 at 4:32 pm

Posted in Salad, Vegetarian

Dirty Little Things: Battered Zucchini and Carrot with Dipping Sauce, Pancetta-Wrapped Cheddar Jalapeno Shrimp

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Whenever I am struck by a vague sense of malaise, I try to refine it. I ask my body what it wants, if it is large or small. The feeling is strongest when I am leaving work, and the high, bright, manic note I sing all day, aided by a steady stream of free espresso, finally fades out. Once I am surrounded by strangers and not coworkers and superiors and customers, strangers driving cars in the same lane as my bike or sitting across from me on the metro, everyone lost in their own small private worlds, staring into nothing. There is no longer so clearly something I should be doing, something I have to be doing while I am on someone else’s clock. Nobody’s looking at me.

The option I always consider first is food: what food would fix this feeling? A candy bar? A slab of meat? A full grapefruit, crammed into my mouth one half at a time? Boiled vegetables over rice as bland, warm balm?

If the answers I get are only more emotions, I keep asking the same question: but what do you want? Yes, you feel like you didn’t get anything done today. Does that mean you want to do the laundry? Yes, you feel like your life is going nowhere. Do you want to block out some time to write, or hide under the blanket?

Often it is enough to identify the desire, without actually meeting it; it is enough to know that I want something so simple, something you could probably buy off the internet. Meandering, unfocused loneliness and grief is crippling, terrible. But if it is reduced to an articulated, tangible want – I want somebody to put their hand on my back – it seems so achievable, not a big deal at all.

I cook like this, too. For better and worse. When I eat something good in a restaurant, or that someone else has made, I refine the pleasure in my head: what, precisely, do you like about it? Which part? At its simplest incarnation, what is this thing you’re enjoying? How could you prune out everything else? How could you bring yourself closer to the core of the experience?

I dislike wading through all the sweet potatoes you get with vegetable tempura, when all I really want is the carrot and zucchini. And it’s not really the tempura I like, it’s biting through batter that has sopped up oil, all crispy and naughty, to get to the wholesome, tender-yet-firm heart of a vegetable. The way a sweet potato melts and mushes doesn’t do that.

So tonight I made up my usual batter of flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and pepper, sliced up a zucchini and two carrots and dipped them in this dry half of my batter, and then laid them out on some parchment. I read somewhere that this makes the batter adhere better, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. The batter is finished with a splash of lemon juice and a big pour of beer, mixing until it is the thickness of pancake batter. The slices were battered and fried in oil. For the dipping sauce I used about two parts soy sauce to one part rice wine vinegar to two parts simple syrup (sugar dissolved in boiling water). A small bowl of steamed white rice rounds out the setting.

I’ve made cheddar jalapeño shrimp quite a few times before, and it’s always a hit. If I make it for six people, everyone’s disappointed there isn’t more; if I make it for two people, both wind up feeling sick all evening. I used to use bacon and long skewers, but I found this was difficult and the shrimp overcooked before the bacon even started to crackle. This time I used pancetta and individual toothpicks, instead. First I butterfly the shrimp, slitting along the back (the bigger the shrimp, the easier this is), and then tuck a sliced strip of jalapeño pepper and an equally tiny amount of strong white cheddar inside. I put each shrimp onto one piece of pancetta, laid out like a piece of paper, and then just roll upward and stick a pick in it. Then into a hot (400-500 degrees C) oven for a while (15-20 minutes).

The thrill of these is very similar: it’s a two-stage taste that surprises you, every time. First is the delicious, classic, primally fatty mixture of shrimp and pancetta, then there is a small burst of heat and cheesy goodness, all contained in a tiny, perfect package.

I had a friend come help me eat these dirty little things and drink – after all, it doesn’t take a six pack of beer to make batter, but that’s no reason not to buy one!

(Nearing the end of the roll now.)

Written by skimfu

August 13, 2008 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Pork, Shrimp, Vegetarian