Pretty Ugly Things

Writing for the blog there’s this wall I hit, again and again, the roadblock to ever making a true record of my cooking.

It’s the problem of food photography. Bad pictures ruin good blogs. It’s just true. Because bad pictures, especially bad pictures of food, are an immediate sensual assault on the level of, well—forgive me—hardcore porn. Aggressively scatalogical, just plain nasty porn. (I’d argue here that the production and consumption of nasty XXX porn comes from the same impulse that produces and consumes nasty food porn, but I’m aware of my audience.)

This fact has pained me. It’s not that I can’t be bothered about pictures. I can. I am. It’s just that the foods I like best are, for the most part, pretty ugly. Brownish, yellowish curries. Black vinegar noodle soup. Stuff coated in fermented shrimp sauce. It’s all delicious, really, but no one needs to see that stuff. That stuff is private. Continue reading

Why Fusion Sucks

I have some complicated, maybe irrational feelings about fusion cooking.

My first response is not to trust it. The worst restaurants in Evanston are these doglike, pandering places that label themselves Pan-Asian or Pan-World, that will give their customers practically anything they want however they want it. One place, opened recently, serves chicken drenched in sauces from all over the globe, kind of: Thai peanut, Italian Alfredo, Japanese teriyaki. Customers can choose one, or choose all. The philosophy is have it your way. The result is that nobody leaves happy.

With these trendy new places the word fusion is code for “We’re willing to make it if you’re willing to buy it.” And more often than not, “Please think we’re cool.” Naturally this is bad for the form. And despite the worldly, progressive sheen of the word, I think it masks a certain kind of fear. It’s the fear of serving food that’s simple, food that rejects gimmick, fear of saying to the precious customer, “our food is good enough the way it is.” 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.

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The Perfect Caesar

I’ve spent a lot of time, maybe too much, trying to figure out how to do this one thing absolutely right.

But I hesitate to say “too much.” How much time is too much time to spend perfecting something that ought to be perfected? I wonder about this, because I’ve been making various grades of mediocre caesar salads for a few years now. Always different, always imperfect in some new way. Always galvanizing some new flawed approach.

And as far as salads go, this is the one I need–and I use that word purposefully, need–to get right. This salad needs to soar. Because it is so frequently botched, so misunderstood, so canned and thoughtlessly thrown together, and its elements, every one of them, deeply perverted in their commonest forms: lumpy, congealed milky white dressing from a bottle; bagged, oversalted croutons; pre-shredded, flavorless Parmesan cheese; and carelessly torn Romaine lettuce.

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End of Summer Peking Duck

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I feel like there’s a lot of mystery surrounding the preparation of Peking duck.

At most good Chinese restaurants you have to order it at least a day ahead if there’s any hope of getting it on your table. This has to do with the fact that there is a very narrow bridge of time in which the duck can be enjoyed as intended–that is, with supremely crispy skin and liquid fat.

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So Chinese restaurants aren’t trying to annoy you when they ask exactly what time you will be enjoying your duck, they’re trying to protect your eating experience, which I think is great. No self-respecting Chinese cook would ever leave Peking duck just sitting around. In fact my mother had this spasm of annoyance with me when I interrupted her process to take these pictures. So if the photographs are not up to their usual standard, blame the perfectionism of an exquisite cook. Continue reading

Steakhouse Broiled Tomatoes

broiled tomatoes with blue cheese

Now, it has come to my attention that a lot of people don’t like tomatoes.

The complaints vary. Raw tomatoes are slimy. Cooked tomatoes are mushy. I once heard someone say that tomatoes have an identity crisis—they’re not sweet enough to be eaten as a fruit, and not savory enough to be used as a vegetable. Fair enough, I suppose. If you’re eating nasty tomatoes. But I think life is too short to eat anything nasty, and nasty tomatoes especially. Because tomatoes are wonderful, and taste wonderful.

Plus, their health benefits don’t suck. Like other berries (yes, they are berries) tomatoes—especially cooked tomatoes—contain the most powerful natural antioxidants. Eating tomatoes can decrease the risk of skin cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer. Scientists are beginning to link tomatoes’ cancer-fighting powers to lycopene, the chemical pigment that makes tomatoes red. Tomatoes are also believed to prevent heart disease. They are also a good source of vitamins A and C. Among other things. Continue reading

My Favorite Steak Dinner

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“Steak dinner” doesn’t begin to say enough. There are endless variations on it, each one as classic as the next.

And the steak itself is open to interpretation. Between the cut, the marinade, the cooking method, the sauces and/or crusts, two steaks could become different animals all together. There’s no formula, no universal constant. The measure of a steak dinner comes from the people eating it.

traditional steak dinner

So a match of steak dinners is anyone’s game, but we here at the Spinning Plate thought our favorite steak could stand up to the toughest challenger: my father. Several years ago he and his friend Larry inaugurated Chuck Wagon dinner—a Friday or Saturday night devoted to steak dinners and male bonding. Initially my mother called the ritual Boy’s Date Night, but my father rechristened it Chuck Wagon to reflect the cowboy spirit. Over the years, Chuck Wagon has expanded to welcome countless guests. It now holds a hallowed position in our socializing, serving as a rite of passage for our circle of friends. Continue reading