On Cookbooks

February 9, 2010

Rereading Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece on cookbooks made me mad all over again. Because it seems to me that in all that overintellectualized hyperventilating he misses the main point. When he asks why we read cookbooks, he assumes that all cooks are like him. And that’s just wrong. Before asking why we read cookbooks, we need to question why we cook in the first place.

He does it in a vain search for perfection. “We reanimate our passions by imagining the possibilities,” he says, “and the act of wanting ends up mattering more than the fact of getting. It’s not the false hope that it will turn out right that makes us go on with our reading but our being resigned to the knowledge that it won’t ever, quite.”

I have to say that this thought is completely alien to me.  What’s “right”?  As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing. For me one of the great pleasures of cooking is that nothing ever turns out the same way twice. Each time you walk into the kitchen you are setting off on an adventure. What will it be like this time?  Will it make people happy?

And that, to me at least, is the crucial question.  Gopnik seems to cook for himself; for him it is an act of wanting. I cook for other people, and to me, cooking is an act of giving. When I leaf through cookbooks or magazines I am imagining all the people who will be sitting around my table, and I am looking for food that will make them happy.

In the end it is their pleasure that will take me back to the kitchen for the next experiment. I love the physical act of cooking – the feel of the knife as it slices through the apples, the scent of the onions as they caramelize in butter, the moment when the cake comes sashaying out of the oven. But more than that, I love to watch as everybody takes the first bite, and then, hurriedly, another. And another. 

Right there at the table, as we all sit there eating, I am already imagining how I might improve upon the recipe. Better ingredients? A different technique? We are constantly learning to cook, both by reading cookbooks and by cooking. But the very first lesson for every cook is this: no recipe is ever perfect. That’s the point.  It’s only a meal, and there’s always the next time.

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Thai-like Noodles

February 4, 2010

My Americanized version of Thai noodles

1/2 pound very thin rice noodles, preferably Thai rice sticks
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup white vinegar (or unseasoned rice vinegar)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound ground pork
4 scallions, white and tender green parts, sliced into 1/2-inch lengths
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
2 limes (juice only)
1/2 cup salted peanuts, finely chopped
1 lime, cut into 6 wedges, for garnish
Sriracha Chili sauce

In a large bowl, soak the noodles in hot water to cover for about 20 minutes or until soft, then drain and set aside.

Combine the sugar, fish sauce and vinegar. Set aside.

In a wok, heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is very hot. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, just until they change color, about 1minute. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

Add the garlic to the wok, and as soon as it starts to color and get fragrant, about 30 seconds, add the pork and half of the scallions.Cook just until the pork loses its redness, 2 to 3 minutes, then add drained noodles and mix quickly. Add the fish sauce mixture, reduce the heat to medium and cook 5 to 8 minutes or until the noodles have absorbed all the liquid.

Clear an area of the wok and crack 1 egg into it, breaking the yolk.Tilt the wok to get as thin a sheet of egg as possible and scramble just until set, about 1 minute. Then mix the egg into the noodles.Repeat with the remaining egg. Add the shrimp, remaining scallions and red pepper flakes and mix thoroughly. Add the lime juice and cook,stirring for 1 minute.

Transfer the noodles to a platter and top with a sprinkling of peanuts.Serve with lime wedges, the remaining peanuts and lots of Sriracha.

Makes about 3 servings, depending on how hungry people are.  I could probably eat this entire amount by myself.  And it's excellent for breakfast the next day.

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Birthday in NY

February 2, 2010

Leaving Los Angeles seventeen years ago was one of those consciously life-changing events. We left, at least in part, because I had gotten the job at the New York Times, and CBS was happy to have MIchael work out of the NY bureau. But the more important reason was that we wanted to bring Nick up in New York instead of LA.

It's a decision that I have never regretted. This is a generous city, and any child who sets out to explore it can't help learning a great deal. Nick and his friends find adventures in every borough, and it's been a joy to listen to the tales that he's brought home from Brighton Beach and Gravesend.

It did not surprise me that Nick wanted to be home this weekend to celebrate his 21st birthday.  And once again, the city delivered.  On the day before his birthday he and his friends began the day in Chinatown with lunch at Xian; they all insist that the lamb face salad is one of the best dishes they've ever tried. They went on to Di Palo's, where Gemma fell in love with the man demonstrating his aceto balsamico, and then slowly wandered uptown to Lincoln Center where they managed to find $15 tickets for the ballet.

They were hungry when it was over, so they took the subway down to Momofuku Ssam Bar and found themselves seated next to the band Yeasayer.  They had pork buns and pickles, and at the stroke of midnight, the band began singing Happy Birthday to Nick, making the entire restaurant burst into song.

It wasn't planned, but it was a great way to turn 21. The joy of this city is its sheer serendipity.

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Bananas with Uni

January 27, 2010

Madrid Fusion
Last night Paco Roncero cooked dinner at the Casino; we gathered beneath all those romping putti to pick at an elegant, minimal meal.  A smidgen of raw pigeon was encircled by little dark balls.  Some were made of truffles, the other were, according to Grant Achatz, who was sitting next to me, raw apple rolled in dehydrated blueberries. I liked that very much, but it left me hungry.

At one point Ferran came over to talk about why he's decided to close his restaurant.  He said he hadn't made a new dish in two years, and it drove him crazy.  He wants to foster creativity, and he's considering how to do it.  He's been working 15 hour days; he needs time to recharge. At least I think that's what he said; the truth is that I have the hardest time understanding the words that come out of his mouth, no matter which language he is using. And yet he talks so passionately, so forcefully, I feel as if I'm absorbing the meaning through my skin.

Evenings in Madrid do not end early. Afterward a group of us went off to the Urban Hotel, where a baby-faced bartender named Junior invents wild and wonderful cocktails.  And then on to Casa Lucio for the famous huevos estrellados (eggs with potatoes), jamon iberico, cheese and anchovies washed down with copious amounts of red wine.  Around 2 a.m. I looked around the table and realized what a startlingly international group we were.  An Australian journalist who speaks 4 languages; a Belgian photographer who speaks as many.  A sommelier from Delhi, and an American who spends half his time in Spain. 

The people who come to Fusion are a wildly mixed group of chefs, writers and food producers from just about everywhere.  They gave Alain Ducasse (whose session was called, "Dialogue with a Genius"), a huge ovation. But the most fascinating encounter has been Andoni Luis Aduriz, who described his adventures with nixtamalization.  (It's a process the indiginous people of Mexico have been using for thousands of years; soaking corn in limechalk water makes it much more nutritious.)  Andoni calls it the "second skin," and I loved watching him cook.  He soaked peeled salsify in lime water to give it that crisp coat, then roasted it, split it open and served it on a bed of quinoa mixed wtih roe and topped with goosefoot.  The salsify was soft and creamy inside its second skin, and the grain bed looked like a perfect contrast.

Next he nixtamiled beets, cooking each little round until it had the wrinkled appearance of a prune. He served these little surprise packages with plum juice and sancho pepper.  But the tour de force was Jerusalem artichoke; nixtamilized it took on the precise character lump crabmeat.  When he mixed the little white shards with crabmeat there was absolutely no way to tell which was which. I desperately wanted to taste it.

Andoni's final dish was an homage to a Japanese chef.  He peeled tiny bananas and plunked theminto a lime water bath to give them a crusty second skin. He baked them and then topped each one with deep orange oblongs of sea urchin. uni. Trying to imagine the flavor in my mouth, I come up blank. I may have to make the dish myself because, unfortunately, I won't get to Mugaritz on this trip.

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January 24, 2010

The subways were a mess yesterday; on the 1 you you had to go uptown to get down, and the 7 halted before the end of the line, spilling the entire train into overcrowded buses.  It took almost two hours to get to Flushing, but that somehow seemed right. Jostling along in that jerky bus I began to feel that I was in Hong Kong or Macau, and when we finally disembarked it was into streets so choked with people it was impossible to walk at anything faster than a crawl. .

Descending into the Golden Mall, fighting through the powerful funk of fermented tofu, really is like entering another country.  Ordering cold knife-but noodles and lamb burgers, with their intense cumin-tones is as difficult as making yourself understood in some foreign land. "Huh?" the woman behind the counter says, screwing up her face, and you resort to pointing.  In the next booth, where they sell a dozen juicy little pork buns for three bucks, the woman comes out shreiking when yousit down a tone of their grubby little tables with food from another stall. Children cry, people fight, garbage overflows – and absolutely everything you eat tastes wonderful.

Afterward we walked, past all the shops with their electronics, their exotic fruits, their cured meats, to M&K, a tiny little restaurant serving the food of Qindong (where the beer is made).  Too much of what we ordered was beer food – even the fried gingseng root seemed more fried than root- but I can't forget the eel, which delivered sweet, spice and richness with each bite.  I loved the cucumber salad, too, laced with garlic and little strips of pig skin.  And the rainbow fish, velvety little chunks tossed with lamb, was a wonderful, a fish with the texture of clouds and the flavor of air.  In many ways a virtual fish – all texture, no taste.

Leaving, we picked up duck buns at Corner 28. And as we flew through Queens on the 7 train, looking into all those second story windows, we still had the taste of China on our lips.

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