Things I Love: Peanut Oil

June 29, 2014

When you think of peanut oil, you think Asia, right?  Turns out that's wrong.  Peanut oil is a red, white and blue product – and a legacy of World War II.

Dairy products were scarce during the war, and patriotic people replaced butter with margarine. But making margarine the traditional way proved problematic. The classic oil for margarine had been coconut oil, which came from the Philippines. With the war raging in that part of the Pacific, manufacturers seeking a replacement came up with the notion of using peanut oil in its place.  A plus: peanuts were a domestic product that were both abundant and inexpensive. The Planters people, noting its high burning point, began promoting the oil as a ration-friendly replacement for other fats.  (Lulu, the heroine of Delicious!, surely would have used it in her cooking.)

The heyday of peanut oil proved short-lived. Once trade routes between the US and the Philippines re-opened in 1945, coconut oil re-flooded the market, and peanut oil production waned. Undaunted, the peanut people began promoting another product: next time you celebrate National Peanut Butter day (January 24th), remember that peanut butter was not a ubiquitous American food until coconut oil returned to our shores, and food manufacturers needed to find another way to market peanuts. 

But the great interest in Asian cooking has been a boon to peanut oil.  It not only has a high burning point, but its fragrance adds new notes to stir fries.  You could make fried rice with other oils, but I can't think why you'd want to.



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Easy Spicy Chinese Noodles with Pork

June 25, 2014

There are some days – and this is one of them – when I need a bit of dirty spice to get me going. Something with meat and heat, something that will slither into my mouth, something that will leave a glow and remind me that tomorrow – or the next day – the sun is bound to come up. 

Most people would consider this supper, but few things make me happier in the morning. After all, why not?

Spicy Chinese Noodles

Cook a pound of Chinese noodles, dried egg noodles or spaghetti until al dente, drain, toss with a tablespoon of peanut oil and set aside.

Mince fresh, peeled ginger until you have a quarter cup (it should be about a 3 inch long piece). 

Chop 4 scallions.

Mix 2 teaspoons of sugar into 5 tablespoons of Chinese hot bean paste with garlic (or Korean Kochujang sauce) and set aside.

Heat a wok until a drop of water skitters across the surface.  Add two tablespoons of peanut oil, toss in the ginger and stir fry for about half a minute, until the fragrance is hovering over the wok.

Add a pound of ground pork and stir fry until all traces of pink have disappeared.  Add the bean sauce mixture and cook and stir for about 2 minutes. 

Stir in the scallions and noodles, and quickly toss.  Add a drop of sesame oil and turn out onto a platter.

Serves 4


My Dinner with Nathan: 25 Women, 35 Courses

June 22, 2014


When Nathan Myrhvold invites you to dinner, you'd be a fool to refuse.  Even if it means flying across the country for the evening.  I've been wanting to experience a dinner cooked by the wizard of modernist cuisine for years, and when an invitation arrived saying he was honoring women chefs at his Seattle lab, it was absolutely irresistible. 

I'll admit there were a few moments during the 35-course six-hour marathon when I wondered what the hell I was doing there. Most of the time, however,  I was too busy paying attention to what was on the plate – and in my mouth – to think about anything else.

Dinner began with this little cocktail:

Olive oil

Basil of astonishing intensity, Everclear, olive oil. A pure whoosh of flavor, dancing across the palate … and quickly gone. 


Elote: something cold, something new, much is borrowed…. nothing blue. One little bite that fizzles into the mouth and vanishes.


 Gazpacho reimagined as an icy cucumber sorbet in a sweetly tart puddle of berries. 


Chicharron reconsidered.  A  little cloud of gluten that's been microwaved until it puffs itself up into a fluff of pure texture. On top, icecream. Underneath, a deep dark dab of mole.  This was completely charming, utterly delicious.


The stunning texture of this tofu stopped me cold; it was so smooth, so… well, creamy.  I kept taking another bite, thinking "is there cream in here?"  Turns out there was.  A lot.  Fantastic idea; the fat and sweetness of the cream tempers the slightly plastic taste of tofu. 


Totally loved this "Thai squid salad." A smooth orange pillow of sea urchin custard hides a salad of something that look like bits of squid.  And yet the flavor of the translucent white bits says…. coconut. Still, this salad of young coconut does have an emphatic flavor of squid. See those little tendrils on the top? They're strings of  spicy squid jerky scattered beneath the cilantro. Bincho

Looks like a piece of binchotan, the enormously expensive Japanese charcoal that burns super-hot. But it's actually……


foie gras. 

Steak frites

The Modernist's take on steak frites. A single fat french fry, starch-infused until it makes a deep growling crunch when you take a bite. Paired with a little bit of steak pudding. 


Give Peas a Chance. Peas (Green Giant, we're assured),  centrifuged until they've separated into a smooth, sweet pea puree and….


this wonderful clear green liquid.  They call it "pistou" and it sings a song of spring. (In the photo at the top Nathan's holding the centrifuged peas.) 


 Green and white asparagus.


"Baked potato."  This is made in some fashion that involves torturing the potato skins until they turn into an entirely new substance, then recombining them with various ingredients so that they taste like baked potatoes with sour cream and feel like nothing so much as a cloud. Eating this I have a little moment of rebellion: baked potatoes, all by themselves, are among the world's most satisfying foods. This, on the other hand, is extremely interesting.


These are the sweetest carrots you will ever taste.  I love the coconut cream in there, and the crisp little curry leaf. 


Nathan's notion of cappuccino: a porcini broth so potent that one sip lingers in the mouth, resonating, a musical chord that's reluctant  to die. The foam on top is dusted with dried porcini.  And yet, as you sip this elixir, marveling at the flavor, the strong scent of coffee suddenly hits you, flooding all the senses, causing utter confusion. "It's a drop of coffee butter," Nathan exults.  For me,  it's the most memorable moment of the meal.


Brassicas in various states of crunch and crumble.


 Lobster.  One intense little bubble of liquid bisque.


 "Spaghetti alle vongole." No spaghetti. No vongole.  Totally great.

Geoduck neck cut into pasta, with the minced belly below. Afterward Nathan walks around the table holding out a geoduck, seeming slightly disappointed that most of the chefs are completely familiar with the strange, enormous mollusks with their laughably phallic necks.  

 The most traditional course: salmon, with its own puffed skin (see chicharron, above), broccoli stems and little lemon pearls.



France in a bowl.  Frog's legs. Snails. Garlic. Ramps. Wait… aren't ramps an American vegetable?  I am just about to mention this when I have a swift memory of eating at Pierre Gagnaire 20 years or so ago, and asking him about a flavor that was new to me.  "C'est l'ail des ours, Madame," he said.  I'd never heard of the garlic of the bears, but I looked it up.  Definition: wild leeks, ie. ramps. France in a bowl indeed.


Quail egg in a nest.  Except there's no quail, no egg. Inside that shell is a stunning replica of an egg that was constructed out of passionfruit. 




Nathan calls this "omelet," and I've had it before. I've never understood the urge to make food that's more decorative than delicious.



Beef stew.

Basically a consomme made with beef and blood which has been flashed with carbon monoxide to set the color. "So cool!" said Ashley Christensen, who was sitting next to me.  Add beef marrow. Enoki mushrooms. Vegetables.  Result: pure flavor. Loved this


All through dinner we'd been looking at four fat chickens, hanging there, obviously waiting rto go back into the oven.  We stared at them, eager to see what the Modernist Cooks were going to do to the chicken.

Suddenly the chickens were in the oven.  And then they were being carved with great ceremony. The skin was crisped to the crackling point. The flesh was soft as velvet.  

The process: the skin had been pulled away from the skin, as if it was a Peking Duck. Then the bird was injected with brine, chilled for days, roasted upside down in a slow oven – and finally finished in a flourish of intense heat. 

It's great chicken. But is it worth all the trouble? 


Rye pasta. Butter. So good.



Pastrami on rye. The pastrami is brined, smoked, cooked sous-vide.  It's pretty amazing.

My phone ran out of juice at this point, so I missed photographing the end of the meal. We had a wine course, which involved adding salt to red wine.  Didn't work for me.  There was a posset of tea, which tickled me: ending the meal on such an old fashioned note.  

But then there was this: Nathan calls it "Breaking Bad," and it was so interesting I cajoled another guest into sending me a photograph.  


 A very cool alcohol delivery system….

I'm trying to wrap my head around this meal, but it's not like anything I've encountered before. The food lab isn't a restaurant.  They're not offering you a performance, or an all-encompassing experience, as restaurateurs like Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz, or Wylie Dufresne do. This is food in a different mood, food in the service of science. Much of it is about let's do it because we can, rather than let's do it because it's good.  (The omelet, for me, falls firmly in that category.)

But we're lucky that someone – Nathan Myrhvold – is doing this.  There's been a long history of scientists with an interest in the chemistry of cooking.  It seems particularly wonderful that at this moment, when science has made so many fascinating new discoveries, we have someone who's applying these new techniques – and enormous imagination – to food.

I left the table thinking that this was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the best meal I've ever had. But it may be the one that gives me the most hope for the future. 

The chefs:

Joanne Chang: Flour and Myers & Chang

Ashley Christensen: Poole’s Downtown Diner, Beasley’s, Chuck’s, and more

Amanda Cohen: Dirt Candy

Dominique Crenn: Atelier Crenn

Lauren DeSteno: Marea

Kerry Diamond: editorial director of Cherry Bombe

Sara Dickerman: writer for

Renee Erickson: Walrus & The Carpenter, Whale Wins, and more

Elizabeth Falkner: formerly of Corvo Bianco, Krescendo, and Citizen Cake

Katie Hagan-Whelchel: ad hoc

Maria Hines: Tilth, Golden Beetle, and Agrodolce

Carolyn Jung: writer for Food Arts

Anita Lo: Annisa

Emily Luchetti: Farallon and Waterbar

Carrie Nahabedian: NAHA and Brindille

Melissa Perello: Frances

Naomi Pomeroy: BEAST

Iliana Regan: Elizabeth

Ruth Reichl: author of Delicious! and much more

Karen Shu: ABC Kitchen

Nancy Silverton: Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza

Ana Sortun: Oleana

Christina Tosi: Milk Bar

Anne Willan: founder of Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne

Claudia Wu: creative director at Cherry Bombe



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A Good Flight

June 22, 2014

Silly soup

Flew home from LA last night on Jet Blue's new Mint – their version of first class. 

It was the sweetest service I've ever had on a plane; the stewards all seemed genuinely eager to make this a comfortable ride.  The seats were swell (although much better if you get the single pods as opposed to the double seats).

Even the food was decent!

Actually, that cold carrot ginger soup, above, with its savoury little marshmallow, was pretty silly.  A strange, sticky texture.

But this cod with white beans and fennel in a tomato caper broth was very pleasant.


And these fontina filled gnocchi, with little bits of black truffles and creamed leeks, were a fine solution to the many problems of airline cooking:


The menu, by Saxon +Parole, offers an array of little plates.  You choose three.  My final choice, a mushroom mousse, looked nice, but was extremely, unpleasantly sweet.  And it succumbed to the perrenial airline problem: refrigerated bread goes stale. 


Dessert was smart. Fruit. And Blue Marble mint chocolate chip ice cream.


Why did I try it? Just for science; I was curious how Jet Blue would handle first class food.

You wouldn't make a reservation just for the food, but I can't remember the last time I was sorry when the plane landed.

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June 17, 2014


Sometimes I feel so lucky.  Last night was one of those times. The great BBQ Pitmaster, John Markus, invited us over for dinner.  He was smoking a slew of meat; Chad Brauze, chef at Rotisserie Georgette, was doing the rest of the food. Susan Orlean and her husband John Gillespie were coming too. Did we want to join them?


JM was standing in the kitchen when we got there, pleasant chaos all around.  Meanwhile Chad was mopping the meat with this thyme butter 


and calmly placing all the other dishes on the table. He'd worked magic with these vegetables, coaxing out elusive flavors until they were fully capable of standing up to the spectacular meat.






In addition to huge amounts of  beef and an entire cornucopia of vegetables there was this "competition chicken"


along with a few more dishes I neglected to photograph (ie. entire racks of pork ribs).

By the time we got to dessert we were eating in the dark, which is my only excuse for this truly terrible photograph. You'll have to take my word that this white-chocolate dusted strawberry shortcake, made by Chad's wife Ashley, was a transcendent version of the classic cake. Little wonder: Ashley Brauze is the pastry chef at Cafe Boulud.


Afterward, John pulled out another treat: Pinhook Bourbon.  Bourbon

Smooth. Mellow. Rich. There could not have been a better ending to this spectacular feast.


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