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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