Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Year in Eats 2010

Favorite Restaurants in 2010:

Eleven Madison Park (Manhattan)
In 2010, Eleven Madison Park was awarded a Michelin star, an award that many thought was long overdue. Having finally eaten a two-course lunch there earlier this year with my sister, I can easily say that the food and service were impeccable. The entire experience at this gem among upscale restaurants was the shining-est star of my culinary year.

Sadly, though, part of me does understand why it went so long without a star. When I booked the lunch, I had to call to ensure the restaurants was still offering a two-course weekday meal at all (we didn't have the luxury of time that day and had to be in and out in under 90 minutes). The web site didn't match other information online, but the hostess assured me, yes, two-course lunch for two, no problem. And within six weeks of dining there, all the online information had changed again. The restaurant changes its basic offerings every few weeks, but it shouldn't. New Yorkers love it. Out-of-towners love it. I've got to assume profitability is the driving force behind the constant change; if only Eleven Madison could just float on doing what it does best, it would be far and away my favorite restaurant of all time.


Mary's Fish Camp (Manhattan)
My god Mary's Fish Camp is hip. The food—elegant yet soulful platters of fish—is fresh and perfectly cooked, which is all you can hope for in a fish restaurant. The setting is casual. The servers and hosts are on the ball. The scene is swinging. I felt like I could laugh, and drink, and rock to the buzz of the place all night, except that I was distracted by a crisp fillet of John Dory with a summery sweet apricot sauce and a scoop of cous cous to help soak it up.

Chiyono (Manhattan)
Ages ago, a girl at a party recommended I try Chiyono. "It's Japanese homecooking. This one woman cooks everything herself. Get the miso cod. I have been there so many times and I always order the cod, and the woman always yells at me that I have to try something else."

I dare say that recommendations like these are easy to ignore, especially when the person suggests you spend your hard-earned dining-out money on some unknown East Village hole-in-the-wall. Chiyono is a treasure for creating affordable yet composed main courses in a peaceful atmosphere. Smooth stones act as chopstick rests. Large wood tables are inviting. The saikyo-yaki (cod broiled with miso) was everything I had hoped for a mere $13!

To any of my New York-based friends (or potential visitors) who are reading this: I will gladly return to any of these places. Pick a day. Let's eat.

Monday, December 20, 2010

What an Inexperienced Cook Sees

Monday night is Boyfriend's turn to cook. He volunteered to take Monday dinners on a regular basis, realizing that he could often plan ahead and do most of the shopping and work on Sunday, when there is no rush.

So now on Saturday, he'll ask, "What should I cook on Monday?" and we'll flip through cookbooks or brainstorm together. He likes to try recipes that are just a little outside his comfort zone without being too far or too intimidating (teachers might recognize this as "ZPD" or Vygotsky's zone of proximal development). He's got the basic braising technique down to the point that he now seems to veto most one-pot slow-cooking meals. He can already do that, and he wants to try something a little more difficult.

This Saturday, I was sipping coffee and flipping through a new issue of La Cucina Italiana magazine. "Anything good in there I can make for Monday?" Boyfriend asked. I skimmed the pages, found the issue's special section, and said, "Ah frittatas! You love frittata. We haven't made tortilla [Spanish frittata] in a while. Let's do one of those." I sped-read some more. "How about a risotto frittata with gorgonzola? It's just eggs, cheese, rice..."

"No no no," Boyfriend said. "I'm not doing risotto. And besides, you don't like risotto."

"You're right. I don't like risotto as a dish in itself. But I don't mind it in things. Remember how much I liked those risotto cakes?"

"No," he said. "I'm not making risotto."

My head down, I glanced over the recipe one more time. It really seemed quite simple: cook rice, whisk eggs with other stuff, tap breadcrumbs around a pan, pour it all together, and bake. Done.

Then I realized how long the instructions were. They bled onto a second page. I read over sections of the recipe more closely and saw how needlessly complicated it all must seem. The instructions for cooking risotto require the cook to measure out precisely half a cup of piping hot half-water-half-stock every 10 minutes and slowly pour it into the rice and stir and stir. The inexperienced cook will read that and see a list of complicated steps that require multiple pots of ingredients and carefully timed actions. And that's not even the whole recipe. That's just one part!

The experienced cook, on the other hand, sees "Rice in pan. Hot water in another. Add water to rice here and there. Easy. So, what else can I be doing while that part is working itself out?"

Experienced cooks can read short-hand. Here's an example of recipe short-hand in action. A friend on Facebook asked for a recipe the other day, and I wrote:
Recipe: graham cracker crumbs + butter. Mash into bottom of square or rectangle baking dish=crust. Layer walnuts, choco chips, coconut. Drizzle with sweetened condensed milk. Bake until ... baked. For more precision, Google "seven layer bars" or "magic cookie bars" and omit butterscotch chip, because butterscotch chips are nasty.

An inexperienced cook would panic. How much? What does "mash" mean? Don't I have to preheat the oven for baking? How many minutes does it need to bake?

The experienced cook sees that this recipe doesn't actually require any proper baking at all. It's an assembly job with heat added to help hold it all together. There's no chemical composition change. Sure, the top gets toasty, but that's about it.

Notice how in this post I used the terms "experienced" and "inexperienced" rather than "good cook" and "bad cook?" Those words actually got drilled into me when I was taking master's level courses in composition. We always referred to "experienced writers and inexperienced writers," in part, I think, because it leaves the understanding that anyone can become experienced. It's not about talent. It's about how much practice you've had, and cooking is the same.

Sometimes with cooking, I personally view it more as "competence" that comes through experience. Once you've gained a certain level of competence, it's very easy to practice and become more experienced; but before you've reached competency, the curve is quite steep.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Tech and Home Ec. Gold Medal

In eighth grade, I won a gold medal for being the best student in "the technology and home economics classes." As far as I know, the award wasn't based on grades. It was sort of a "teacher's choice" award given to someone who showed a keen interest in the subject and some kind of promise.

After I had received the award, my mother teased me mercilessly. "Ha ha. Got the gold medal in home ec., did you? So, you're the best there is in the eighth grade at baking cookies and sewing teddy bears?" This was the early 1990s, before having an interest in food and cooking, or hands-on crafts, was cool.

What I didn't ever tell anyone is that I was really proud to have won the "tech" part of the award. Technology class was actually two courses: wood shop and metal work. In wood shop, we spent several weeks learning how to do mechanical drawings, which are essentially simple blueprints. I could have done mechanical drawings all day long. I loved it so much, I began entertaining the idea that I might study architecture in college. I remember being able to look at my work and see that it wasn't perfect. I felt slightly frustrated that my hands weren't as steady as some of the other students'. But the desire was there to improve. I wanted to work on them. I wanted those drawings to be better. And I think that's what showed through to the teacher.

Home ec., on the other hand, was a breeze. To get an A in the class, all you had to do was not cut class, follow both written and oral instructions, demonstrate basic time-management skills, and not set anything on fire. In a typical class, students would receive on paper a recipe or sewing pattern, hear additional oral instructions from the teacher, prepare their workspace with other students in their group, follow the instructions, and clean up. Complete this in 50 minutes, and you got an A. The students who got B grades were the ones who threw flour at each other, didn't wash their utensils thoroughly (or at all), screeched and squealed while working, forgot to preheat their ovens, and gossiped when they were supposed to be sewing. The projects we completed were ridiculously simple, too. The grand finale in sewing, for example, was to make a stuffed toy "ghost," a single-colored, single-fabric, amorphously shaped blob stuffed with cotton, in two weeks. It was a joke class for me, and I sometimes resented that it was required.

Not my photo; image from Wrapables.com.

But wood shop challenged me. I remember talking to the teacher — Mr. Scarpetti was his name I think — the way I couldn't talk to any other authority figure. He looked like a middle-aged, skinny, Canadian version of Freddy Mercury, with a bushy mustache, a curly mop of hair, and a red flannel button-up. We had actual dialogues, back-and-forth conversations, in which we said what we were actually thinking. We thought through ideas that were both related to the class and on the very periphery. We talked about intellectual curiosity. It wasn't so much Mr. Scarpetti's demeanor that set him apart. I'm sure plenty of other teachers engaged with the students this way during extra help sessions or after class. It's just that I couldn't or wouldn't talk to other teachers in the junior high like this. What made me able to talk to him was the nature of the class. It was wood shop. We walked around and got the tools we needed when we needed them. We worked on projects at our own pace. It was free-form and independent with basic ground rules. I loved it.

One of the things I remember talking about with Mr. Scarpetti was precision. While looking at another student's mechanical drawing, he said, "Those lines are supposed to be a quarter inch apart, but they look more like three-eighths." He pulled a measuring tape from his shirt pocket. "Yep. See?" He showed the student the actual measurement. I peered at the drawing, too.

"How can you tell just by looking at it?" I asked.

"I've been doing this a long time. When you measure things over and over again and over again, when you see it over and over, you can just tell," he said.

"You can tell just by looking the difference between two-eighths of an inch and three-eighths of an inch?"

The idea of developing true expertise in a craft was not something I had thought much of before; but now, seeing it in action, it was absolutely astounding. I had a thirteen year-old's moment of awakening. I realized how much I craved expertise, that it was one of those larger things that unified so many other things I liked and wanted to pursue.

I had forgotten about all of this until recently, when I started to think about learning precision knife skills. When I talk about wanting to master knife skills, I'm not talking about being a competent home cook. I'm already very competent. What I want to do is cultivate a level of expertise that I don't have currently. I want to be able to look at a julienne cut and know, just by sight and touch, whether the measurements are correct. I want to be able to take a jumbo carrot and be able to decide how many batons I can get out of it before squaring it off.

Early next year, I'll be taking a 5-week course called "Fine Cooking 1" at a New York-based cooking school. My goals are to 1) come out with some new skills that I don't have now and 2) have a deeper understanding of some cooking techniques that will allow me to continue learning by asking new questions, as I think that's the real path to cultivating expertise.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Recipe: Burger-Topping Onion Jam

After musing about practicing knife skills, a friend of mine suggested I make onion marmalade as a way to use up several pounds of onions after I would presumably dice them to practice more knife skills.

One look at the onion marmalade recipe, and I was sold. It is divine as a burger topping and just as good as a condiment on a cheese board with crusty bread.

Onions are my favorite vegetable, and jam (the version I spun out was much closer to a jam than a marmalade, a word that implies citrus to me) is by far my favorite condiment.

I ended up adding chili flakes to my version, but also scaling back the recipe significantly, wanting to try it once before committing to making a bigger batch. I also scaled it back because I remembered that of all the precision knife skills I want to practice, neither dicing nor thinly slicing onions are among them. In an average week, I easily chop, slice, or dice 2 pounds of onions. On the other hand, I really don't care for potatoes, so I have yet to Tourne a single one. I also need to work on the measurements of my julienne and brunoise cuts. But onions? I am masterful with onions and will happily keep a jar of this sweet and spicy jam on hand for burgers, sandwiches, and cheese boards for the rest of my life.


Burger-Topping Onion Jam
Makes about 1 1/2 cups, or two small jars' worth.
Note: This recipe can be doubled or quadrupled.


1 pound onions
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes


1. Peel and either thinly slice or rough chop the onions. Rough chopping them will result in a chunky jam with more oniony zip, while thinly slicing them will yield a smoother and more mellow product.

2. Heat a large Dutch oven or heavy skillet over low to medium heat. Add the olive oil and onions, and stir to coat them. Partially cover the pot or skillet and be patient as they sweat. Stir the onions ever 5 minutes or so, until they are soft and perhaps beginning to brown just a little, about 15 to 20 minutes. If the onions have not browned at all, uncover them and raise the heat ever so slightly. You don't want to see any crisping or burning — just a color change.

3. Raise the heat to medium. Give the onions a few final tosses while the temperature inside the pan rises, then add the wine immediately and deglaze anything that may have stuck to the bottom of the pot.

4. Add the sugars, salt, vinegar, and chili flakes. Stir until the sugar has dissolved and the onions are well coated. Continue cooking, uncovered, until the liquid becomes syrup-like, bearing in mind that it will jell a bit more after it cools.

5. Leave the pot uncovered while the jam cools slightly, then transfer to sterilized jars (while the jam is cooking, drop the jars and lids into a pot of boiling water for a minute or too and then let them air dry). Store in the refrigerator.