Friday, May 27, 2005

The Tyranny of the Recipe

cookbooks2 I am a cookbook cook. I didn’t go to culinary school; I didn’t apprentice with a chef. In fact, I don’t, most of the time, have the confidence to just throw a few things together without measuring. I can, however, read a recipe. I can read a recipe in the same way a musician reads music--I can taste the dish in my head. This is really the only skill you need in order to cook, this ability to read with imagination. That’s not to say that I don’t make adjustments as I go along because along with imagining a recipe, you also need to imagine improvements as well. Here’s where experience guides you, I suppose. After countless dishes and innumerable recipes tried or discarded, a sense of where a recipe might go wrong (or right) emerges. I have Christopher Kimball of Cook's Illustrated to thank for my obsession with measuring. His unrelenting exactitude and almost pathological precision in cooking produces recipe after recipe that not only reliably work but which are imbued with an air of scientific mission as well. How wonderful to be able to quantify and control the messy business of cooking! How amazing to predict a successful outcome each and every time if (and only if) Mr. Kimball’s detailed instructions are followed exactly! I am helpless in the face of such towering authority. Yet I still stealthily make minor adjustments to the recipes I read and substitute what I have on hand for what I don’t have. Sometimes I read a recipe once and then can’t remember where I initially found it. So I recreate it as best I can and sometimes my recipe strays so far from the original once I find it again that suddenly it can be considered my original. Yet I still continue to measure (forgetting my somewhat arbitrary decision in the beginning to add a teaspoon here and a tablespoon there) and find myself now tied to a recipe that I’ve foolishly written down and therefore, must follow exactly from henceforth. And, of course, that makes me feel like a complete nutcase. I just can’t give up those measuring spoons (Japanese, calibrated, purchased from Williams-Sonoma nearly ten years ago for what was then the astronomical sum of twenty dollars). I’m addicted, I think, to the predictability of success. If I believe truly (and I do) that I can discern a jewel of a recipe amongst the dross, I always am compelled to follow its instructions to the letter. John Thorne writes about his mother and describes how she always first checked a recipe taped to the cupboard door even though she’d made it over and over again. I share that same insecurity. Actually, it should be called a neurosis, I think, given the patent silliness of this checking and re-checking of favorite recipes. If I were running back into the house to check whether or not I’d left the stove on, people might mention professional help or medication. Recipe checking though is regarded as normal. Professional chefs have tried to remedy this troubling problem that I think most home cooks seem to share, most notably Julia Child in her wonderful (and physically unwieldy) book The Way to Cook. She offers one master recipe for a dish and then enumerates variations, some subtle and some branching off into an entirely different direction. A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider is similar in technique although I haven’t had as much success with her recipes as I have with Julia’s. And even Jamie Oliver attempts the same educational project in Jamie's Dinners but his scope is much smaller with just one chapter devoted to improvisation in cooking. Pam Anderson, former editor of Cook's Illustrated and author of How to Cook Without a Book, is perhaps the most comprehensive proponent technique over recipe although she seems to be a bit conflicted: the following year her book entitled The Perfect Recipe came out in its second edition. Each of these chefs, however, in stark contrast to Kimball and brilliant but crazed writers like Rose Levy Beranbaum of The Cake Bible, aims to demystify the art of cooking and to encourage the home cook to attempt techniques that are second nature to the professionally trained chef. Julia, in particular, essentially seems to be saying that the authority invested by the reader of a cookbook in its author is misdirected; there can be no “perfect” recipe. A “perfect” recipe will always be a matter of personal taste, and although a gifted chef can offer guidelines to the reader, ultimately, that perfection will always reside in individual execution (which by its very nature will change from one meal to the next). Julia Child and the rest of the writers I mention want to give the confidence the reader has in the chef back to the reader. Alas, I have yet to embrace that kind of confidence. I read and research and continue to measure. Maybe one day I will be free of the tyranny of the recipe, even when that recipe is my own.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Diversionary Tactics

Something different? Something cool? Something unrelated to food? After all, you can't eat your computer . . . click here.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Pasta with Mussels

pasta2 Yesterday I became ambitious and decided to dust off my pasta machine and get cranking. Sadly, the demonization of carbohydrates has relegated my once coveted appliance to the top shelf where it has been gathering the proverbial dust. I'm tired of not eating one of my very favorite foods and so I assembled the ingredients. I use Jamie Oliver's recipe for homemade pasta dough, but since I can't remember which book it's in, I generally just wing it. Here's how I made it last night: 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups bread flour (about 8-10 oz. for those of us who weigh things) 3 large (organic) eggs semolina flour for dusting Throw it all in the food processor and process until it adheres and forms one or two balls (add more flour if it's too sticky; dribble in a little water if it fails to come together). Knead on a floured board for a minute or two until the dough is silky and somewhat elastic (it'll still be rather stiffish). Wrap in plastic and rest in the refrigerator for an hour. Remove, divide in two and return the unused portion, wrapped back in the plastic, to the refrigerator. Now for the fun part. Flatten the dough with your hands and run through the lowest setting of your pasta machine. Fold the two ends into the center and run it through again. Repeat. Move up to #2 setting and run through twice. Then, run the dough through each of the settings--taking care to dust generously with semolina--until you get to the second to last one. Cut your enormously long pasta noodle in half, and again, dust very generously with semolina. Attach your pasta cutter to the other side of the machine, and carefully roll the dough strip through, separating each of the strands. Hang on dowels or, like me, the back of a chair. Repeat with the other dough strip and then repeat the entire process with the other ball of dough taking it easy in the fridge. You should have enough for two adults and two children. You can either use the pasta right away (it should only take a minute or two to cook up in boiling, salted water [use a tablespoon or two of salt]) or leave it to dry, about three hours (now the pasta will take about five minutes to cook). For the mussels, I used Mario Batali's admirable recipe (here's a link to it). My only change was, instead of halving the recipe for two, I simply reduced the wine, garlic, shallot, and onion mixture down to a quarter of a cup or so and then added the mussels. I always think the steaming step in the cooking process of mussels and clams dilutes the sauce to its detriment, so this seemed a method to intensify the flavor sufficiently. The bread crumbs sounded unappetizing to me, so I omitted them. It turned out beautifully and my oldest daughter even ate a few of the mussels with her plain, buttered pasta. That, to me, is success.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Can Can in Carytown Redux

cancancarytown.jpg I want Can Can to be my favorite restaurant, I really, really do. Like a lovesick schoolgirl, I’m so taken with its looks and style and most of all, promise, I just want Can Can to love me as much as I love the idea of it. But, sadly, I’m disappointed each and every time. When, I sob inwardly, WHEN are they going to get the service together?? I decided to try lunch on for size and was thrilled to see that the evening crush is non-existent during the day. I had a lovely little table smack dab in the middle of the window so that I could inhale the fresh bread smell and watch passersby through the loaves on the rack next to me. My waitress arrived promptly, took my drink order and returned, again promptly, with my iced tea and nice little basket of delicious bread. I was particularly impressed with the diminutive pitcher of sugar syrup that accompanied my tea. Back in my waitress days, I heard over and over again, ad nauseum, about the impossibility of dissolving a spoonful of granulated sugar into a glass of iced tea (you’d think people could find more trying things to bitch about). So I thought the sugar syrup was a nice touch. While perusing the menu, I was torn between a traditional Croque Monsieur (a fancy grilled ham and cheese), the lobster salad, and the braised lamb sandwich. I finally settled on the lamb; it sounded a little heavy for this particular sunny day—braised lamb with roasted peppers, olives, and caramelized onions—but I was hungry and wanted something out of the ordinary. Surprise! My waitress brought me the braised pork instead. Nor did she offer to bring me the lamb instead when I pointed this out to her. Knowing the fury of cooks when a waitress keys in a wrong order, I didn’t push it. Fortunately, she did remember to bring me the delectable pommes frites (that’s French fries to you plebeians) sprinkled with coarse salt that Can Can is rightly becoming famous for. The pulled pork was pallid and virtually tasteless on focaccia smeared with whole grain mustard. The paltry apple onion jam on top did little to revive it. I tried salt, I tried pepper, but the sandwich remained stubbornly uninteresting. Then I tried the odd-looking, pale yellow slaw next to it. Wow! What fabulous flavor—tangy and spicy with hot mustard, and a few flecks of celery leaves (I found out afterwards that the “slaw” is actually shredded granny smith apples instead of the expected cabbage). I immediately piled this on top of my sandwich and ta da! I saved it! My sandwich was now highly palatable. Except too bad for me, as Junie B. Jones would say, I was getting too full to eat it all. I was even sadder when I realized I was too full (or too guilty for having stuffed myself with food I didn’t really want?) to have dessert. This, for me, is almost unheard of. Although that’s not to say I wasn’t sorely tempted. I dearly wanted to try the Meyer lemon tart or the beignets with cheese filling and white chocolate sauce. Or the chocolate pavé or the profiteroles or . . . it was hard to walk away. I vowed to return for coffee and dessert in the near future. Maybe even tomorrow. I love brasserie food and I think Can Can has filled a real void in the Richmond culinary scene. But damnit, can’t they get the food I ordered to me in a timely fashion, free of wait staff screw-ups? When I was in last for dinner I was appalled by the bar prices that seemed more suited to New York than little ole Richmond ($30 for two Grey Goose martinis and a glass of wine?? C’mon now!). I was even more appalled when I got home, glanced at our receipt and realized that we’d paid the wrong dinner check. My husband had handed the waitress his credit card without looking at the bill because it took so long just to get her attention. Time, as it is for most parents, was of the essence. Our babysitter was about to turn into a pumpkin. Hope springs eternal though, especially in cases of unrequited love, and I know I’ll have to give Can Can another try in a few months (or tomorrow for chocolate pots de crème). However, in the meantime, I’d like to hear about your dining experiences at my favorite/least favorite restaurant. Please avail yourself of the comment section of this post. It would be great to hear a different (or even the same) perspective.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Comfort in Richmond (on Broad St.)

comfort Anthony Bourdain says you should never eat out at the beginning of the week in his book, Kitchen Confidential. He states unequivocally that the food is left over from the week before and the real chef has the night off. And so it was with some trepidation I made a stop at on Comfort on Broad St. Tuesday night. With a name like “Comfort,” though, how could a chef go wrong with things like meatloaf and pie, or mashed potatoes and string beans? A long, narrow airy space, full of light and a spectacular tin ceiling, Comfort easily integrates lots of modern blond wood without jettisoning the old storefront sensibility of downtown Richmond. Although the space tends to get a little loud as it fills up with diners, our table was far enough away so that normal dinner conversation wasn’t a problem. Add a wait staff that was attentive, quick and knowledgeable—what more could you ask for on a Tuesday night? We started with a straightforward appetizer of shrimp and grits. The creamy grits were redolent of sharp imported Parmesan and contrasted nicely with the perfectly grilled shrimp drizzled with a piquant sauce. Although our server called it a barbecue sauce, this particular sauce was non-smoky and delicately tangy. Fried green tom atoes as our second appetizer had a great cornmeal crunch to them and a nice peppery bite, accented by a remoulade sauce on the side. All of the entrees came with a choice of either two sides for the very hungry or three for the gluttonous (and are priced accordingly, $12-$18). For large parties, family style portions are available and I admit, I felt a little wistful as I saw a large steaming bowl of macaroni and cheese we ordered for the children. It was a hard choice; order the pan-fried catfish or the salmon topped with micro-greens? The creamed spinach or the potatoes au gratin? We finally decided on meatloaf and bacon-wrapped trout, but unfortunately, only the trout was a winner. It was smoky, moist and succulent from the bacon surrounding it. The meatloaf, however, was a disappointment. It was dry and compact, and although I could see what looked like little white bits of Parmesan inside, I couldn’t taste them. The pallid mushroom gravy did nothing to disguise what might have been (gasp!) meatloaf left over from the weekend. The sides we chose more than made up for this one misstep. Lovely braised greens enhanced with little chunks of country ham and a sprinkling of vinegar were merely a prelude to the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever eaten. Although just potatoes, cream, butter, salt and pepper, they were unbelievably light and fluffy with a few tender lumps. I ate all of mine and would have eaten my companion’s except that they were all gone. Neither of us had any room for dessert but forced ourselves to try one anyway. The dessert menu was surprisingly limited and between the banana pudding, two choices of ice cream, and the apple-rhubarb crisp, we chose the latter (with a banana pudding back up). It took a long time to reach our table, and although our server apologized, it really wasn’t worth the wait. Apples weren’t a strong enough foil for the assertive rhubarb and the excessive amount of cinnamon in the crumb topping (which had unaccountably slid to one side of the plate) was overwhelming. A generous dollop of slightly sweetened whipped cream almost saved the dessert—it was the real thing and a joy to taste. However, the banana pudding really hit the spot. It was actually, once scrutinized, a jazzed-up crème brulee (a favorite of mine) with a cookie crust and very thinly sliced bananas just underneath the crackling sugar topping. Although plain fare is ostensibly its mission, the food at Comfort both satisfies the nostalgic urge for the food our southern moms used to make while at the same time actually serving food far beyond the capabilities of most of the cream-of-mushroom-soup-toting mothers with whom we actually grew up. Overall the meal was a somewhat uneven but the mostly well-made individual dishes far exceeded the less than perfect ones. I’ll be back to Comfort whenever the craving for a home-cooked, I mean far better than a home-cooked meal hits me, Monday through Saturday.