On Being American

I don’t really know what strawberry rhubarb jam is supposed to taste like.

The women in my family aren’t jam making types, and… do they even sell this stuff in stores? Either way, I had never tasted it until I made it, and once I did, I couldn’t tell if it was any good. It seemed yummy to me, but I’m sure I possess zero instincts regarding jam. So I kept shoving spoonfuls of it in the faces of the boys I live with. “Good?” I’d say. “Any good?” And for once, I really didn’t know.

I’ve been thinking about this for a little while. Not about jam, exactly, but about my impulse to make things I know almost nothing about, things my mother never made. Jam, pie, cheesecake, jell-o molds, chili dogs, baked beans, green bean casserole. You know, picnic food. American food.   Continue reading

The Salt Cure

Making good food is mostly about salt.

Great chefs have an inborn intelligence for this, and in each seemingly careless sprinkle or pour is a measure of their animal instinct. Mortals like you and me have to be more careful with our seasoning. Because salt is pure taste–it’s the only thing that can make food taste more like itself–and it’s the foundation on which everything good and holy and savory is built.

Take the salt cure. Curing meat and fish is a timeless thing, born once of necessity and sustained now by the unassailable logic of pleasure. I can think of nothing I’d rather eat than a fatty, paper-thin slice of prosciutto or lox with a hunk of good bread. Better than sex? Maybe. Sometimes. It’s enough to make my day, anyway. This food is magic. Maybe it’s the raw, luxurious texture, maybe the seductive chemistry of salt and fat, that can explain my gut-deep hunger for it. Maybe explaining a hunger is beside the point.   Continue reading

On Shrimp Shells

I never order shrimp at restaurants. For the longest time my mom went around telling people I have a problem with the stuff.

And I let her. Because I do. I have a problem with shrimp. It’s not that they have juicy heads that gush brains, or eyes that stick out on stalks, or that they feed on detritus. It’s not that they’re cute, though they are. It’s that most people who cook shrimp don’t cook it right, probably because they are scared to death of demanding too much of the people they are feeding. The number one way to mishandle shrimp? Shell and devein them before cooking. The worst thing you can do to good shrimp is to do too much.

Any person who knows her food will tell you that the flavor in a shrimp is in his head and shell. So that stuff that mom’s throwing away, the supposedly nasty stuff we can’t eat, is precisely what makes shrimp taste like, well, shrimp. When I see what could have been a succulent, flavorful piece of meat split open in the back and curled up into a tight fetal ball, its proteins exposed to too much direct heat, I feel… wrathful.

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Put an Egg on It

eggs benedict

Is there any meal more indulgent than brunch?

I don’t think so. It’s an excuse to drink hard liquor before noon, an excuse to fry pancakes and eggs in bacon grease and eat too many bagels. Do I need to say it? I love brunch.

My favorite brunch meal is Eggs Benedict. I order it at restaurants whenever I can, but for me there’s nothing quite like the homemade version. Because at home, even despite the famous fussiness of Hollandaise sauce, I can make it the way I like it.

And that is with salmon cakes. Not Canadian bacon, not smoked salmon, but salmon cakes. You know–like crab cakes, but… with salmon. It has the richness of a crab cake but not the overwhelming saltiness of smoked salmon. The recipe I used is based on Ina Garten’s salmon cake recipe here. This recipe makes four gargantuan servings.

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This Pancake Won’t Fall Flat

ebelskiver3

I remember vividly the first time I saw a filled-pancake pan.

It was featured prominently in a Williams-Sonoma catalogue, with a recipe for lemon curd and marscapone filled pancakes. As soon as I saw it, something clicked. Pancakes. Filled with deliciouness. It was a no-brainer, but the possibilities were breathtaking. After doing some research I found out that the concept of a spherical pancake was Danish, and that these pancakes were known as ebelskiver.

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