In Defense of Shortcuts

I can be a pretty big snob when it comes to taking shortcuts in the kitchen.

Or, more accurately, not taking them. My kitchen is stocked with ingredients, with component parts. No supermarket sauces, no store-bought stock, no cheats. (Sriracha, Smoque BBQ sauce and Hellmann’s mayo I exclude from this.) This isn’t thanks to some puritanical, pseudo-scientific health kick. It’s just that I’m a bit of a control freak, and rather thrifty — and meals taste better and cost less when you make them from scratch. I won’t even use the slow cooker, fearing lack of control over the seasoning. For better or worse, this is the true north that has, till now, guided my value system as a cook.

Continue reading

Wild One

To say that I have been reckless would be a bit of an understatement.

The revelations of the past few months — even of the past month — have inspired an elaborate wildness in me that the witnesses of my life are not quite accustomed to. You’re only young once, being the worried wisdom I’ve hung my hat on. Once, if you’re lucky.

Continue reading

Salmon Rillettes (One Good Thwack)

The sun loses itself behind a scrim of melted butter-clouds.

I move a mason jar filled with wildflowers so they catch the caramelly light. They die so quickly. The hardwood glows amber-gold. The sun burns beauty into our shoulders and thighs. We try to make the most.

I’m embarrassed to find myself these days writing mostly about weather. It can’t be helped. Last week I wrote about not writing, of all things, about the feel of quiet. What I meant then was not that I have nothing to report from that quiet. I meant I’m troubled about what to possibly mean.

Continue reading

Sweet Corn

I never called corn sweet until I moved to the Midwest.

In California, corn was just corn, something you ate with too much butter. But for four years now I’ve lived among farmers’ sons and for farmers’ sons, there isn’t just corn, but sweet white and sweet yellow and sweet multi—because here in the Midwest there’s also feed and seed and ethanol corn, a lot of it, and no one in his right mind would call that kind of corn sweet, whatever its color.

Seed corn. Feed corn. You say it with a kind of grimace. Cows eat it before we eat them. Yet the vast sweep of unsweet corn fields—bearded, detasselled, green, yellow, harvested, whatever—flat as a crisp new map stretched over a table, straight down to the geometrically flawless line of the Midwest horizon, is stunning.   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.

Continue reading

Mom’s Favorite Clams

I was thinking of doing something nice for my mom when I picked up a dozen Littleneck clams at Whole Foods.

I was thinking about New York City, about Little Italy, this clam house we both love there and always go back to. I find myself fending off the impulse to apologize for loving Little Italy. The thing is, my mother and I are perfectly content to be tourists when that’s exactly what we are. So this October, when we were seated on that patio again, and ordered, for the third time, oysters, white wine and baked clams, it was completely without irony.

Continue reading

Scallop, Egg, Orange, Endive

Today I did something I haven’t done in a long time.

I ruined some really good food. Or an idea of good food. I had this great recipe lined up. Seared scallops with orange saffron cream. While the sauce was going on the stove I started to arrange the photographs, the still lifes, like I do. For the first time ever I got to play around with my dad’s fancy digital camera. And…I got carried away. So that when I finally remembered the sauce, finally checked on it, it had…broken.

And when I say broken I mean this sauce was devastated. Unsalvageable. This is what happens when you ignore sauce. You leave butter and cream unwatched on the stove for too long and it will overheat. And when a fatty sauce overheats it de-emulsifies; it separates into its basic elements, grease and protein, and you’re left with chunks of milk curd floating like pond scum in liquefied butter. When this happens, you throw it away. There’s no saving it, no going back. I had to figure out something else. Continue reading