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Showing posts from 2007

Ex-mas

Christmas Day, from a celestial standpoint, is no different from any other day of the year. There is nothing mechanically unique about it and no special provision is made for it within the clockwork of the solar system. At most, it is a day slightly longer than the day which precedes it and slightly shorter than the one which follows. (Its proximity to the winter solstice is among the real reasons we celebrate that time of year in the first place.) Despite containing almost exactly 24 hours, it always tends to feel like it “rushed by”, our perception shifted by the demands and expectations of the day. Everything about Christmas stems from what we choose to make of it.

From 1997 to 2007, I spent Christmas with my wife and we had an obligation to others during the holidays; the entity to which marriage also commits you - family.

For a variety of reasons which eventually boiled down to one, we went our separate ways in 2007. For the first time in well over a decade, I faced Christmas alo…

Dressing the Part

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In my former job at a software company, I was deemed smart enough to do presentations and classes on various topics to 50-1000 people (depending on the venue). I'd often rattle off obscure tips and techniques about our software which the attendees, should they ever read their user manuals, would discover was information they've had the whole time. It was because of that thin gap in human behavior - between needing information and seeking it out - that I made a living.

Getting up in front of a large number of people means dressing better than jeans and a t-shirt (though that would be my preference) so my dress code was "graphic designer business casual". Lots of black, non-distracting shoes, etc. Meanwhile, another speaker, Michael Ninness, always wore a suit. For a graphic designer audience clothed primarily in skateboarding brands, and in contrast to the other speakers, "Myke's" attire always struck me as an impressive, if somewhat fussy, choice. (The f…

Therapy and Obsolescence

A friend of mine worked in the printing business for over 20 years as an "etcher". In this case, etching refers to using chemicals on sheets of film to control color shifts on a printing press. As the "desktop publishing" revolution took hold, computers made it possible to make those same changes consistently, more efficiently, and without having to worry about the effects of those chemicals. Control of color was no longer a matter of chemistry in skilled and experienced hands, it was a matter of moving a slider on a computer screen. In the span of about four years, Robert's core skill was completely obsolete. Gone. Respectable, but quite useless in the new world of printing. Fortunately, he's smart and one of the nicest guys in the world. He joined the company I was working for and adopted the digital age. Unfortunately, digital technology within itself has obsolescence, and its cycles can be shorter than four years. Much shorter.

It was in the opening page…

Dad

At the risk of stating the obvious, food brings people closer together. My own reminder of this fact came about while researching the one person who first inspired me to ask questions about food - my dad.

The need to eat is common to every human on earth and, for most, food is essential to staying live. I like to think that cooks have embraced their own humanity; they've taken a fundamental need and wrangled into the consumption of a passion. Cooking well shares an unfortunate parallel with fuzzy toilet seat covers - a way to take that which we must do and make it a bit more elegant. I find beautiful irony in needing something on a physical level that I also crave on an emotional one.

In exploring food, everyone develops likes and dislikes and the results are as individual as our experiences. However, our preferences can only be based on what we've actually been given the chance to try.

Parents aim to expand the horizons of their children by introducing them to new things. Teachi…

Humble Holiday Traditions

Most people associate the holidays with food, especially those flagship holidays which fall in November and December. My associations between food and holidays are perhaps a bit unusual, but becoming more prevalent and perhaps threatening to the classic definitions of Christmas. While both of my sets of grandparents would do their own take on the Thanksgiving turkey dinner, it was definitely my maternal grandmother who created the most food buzz during Christmas. For some people, it's memories of slow-baked ham or maybe prime rib, but for me, it's tamales, Spanish rice, and menudo. While I cultivate embarrassingly little of my heritage, I am technically half-Mexican and tamales are as much a part of Christmas as egg nog.

Tamale preparation is a bit tedious. I also recall the thought of intentionally cooking with lard sounded a bit disgusting if not borderline suicidal. (My maternal grandfather, it should be noted, died of a heart attack and stroke at the age of 52. I couldn…

Star. Bucks. See? Now you get it.

"As long as people will accept crap, it will be financially profitable to dispense it."
- Dick Cavett
A fascination with trends can distract people from reality. Whether it's clothing, paint colors, language, television, etc., it's easy to lose track of what's important; or at least what is in good taste. Or even what actually tastes good. We're easily conditioned; simply seeing something often enough can make it, not only familiar, but acceptable and possibly desirable. Take for example how quick we are to recognize a pair of white cords dangling from the ears of someone walking down the street. Then there are the bite-sized dogs being carted from store to store by their owner as she babbles on a cell phone. Obviously the flurry of Paris wannabes is an extreme example, but that degree of influence trickles down.

Yet another symbol - the white cup with a green circular logo wrapped in a brown cardboard jacket topped with a bit of plastic - goes unabated. They, …

The Road Less Taveled

My exposure to wine was largely non-existent prior to 1996 or so. White Zinfandel, I’ll admit, was about the only wine I distinctly recall drinking. I suppose I just wasn’t a “wine” person. Yet.

At 28, I met my girlfriend “Gigi” who had been a chef at several noteworthy places in San Francisco. During the 2 years we were together, she taught me more about food than I had any right to know without the same rigorous training she had endured. While teaching me how food "works", she also unwittingly ingrained the notion that food and wine are inseparable.

Years later, I got to experiment with that combination of food and wine as I traveled on a robust expense account. Part of my job to travel and take potential "influencers" out for a good meal. Hey, someone had to do it. However, as I've learned from Jeffrey Steingarten, we must sometimes "unlearn" before we learn. One must overcome prejudices in order to appreciate food, travel, or even other human bein…

Shark Fin Soup

I never really imagined I'd write a combined commentary on my two hobbies - food/cooking and underwater photography. How could they, with seemingly so little in common, ever merge into a single entry? In fact, with my enjoyment of fish as a main course and a photographic subject, one might even argue they are at odds with one another. They can hardly be performed at the same time (though easily in sequence - shoot, spear, cook), and - quite frankly - each is an expensive enough hobby unto itself, I'd hardly need to combine them.

Yet, during the Shark Shootout this year, the topic of shark fin soup was raised during our "shark awareness course". A commentary was born.

The cutting of shark fins is a tricky topic. Note that I said "cutting" because, in some cases, the animals are hauled out of the water, their fins removed - I'm sorry, sawed off with a knife - and then tossed back into the ocean, essentially immobilized and bleeding. One hopes that other sha…

Cast-Iron

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I heard a salesperson in a cooking store explain to a customer that "iron is a good conductor of heat." That’s true when compared to air or wood, but compared to copper or aluminum, it’s hardly a contender. While iron (cast or otherwise) does not take or conduct heat easily, it does retain it very well. Iron likes whatever temperature it is now and doesn’t easily change. It will eventually give-in and start heating up and, when it does, it's like a big thermal fly-wheel. This is where cast-iron wields its charm.

If you get a thin stainless steel pan nice and hot, then throw a thick steak on it, it'll cool down almost instantly. There just isn't enough mass in the pan to fight back against that big, chilled chunk of protein. Perform the same task with a hefty cast-iron pan, and you'll find the steak will continue to sizzle as the pan gives up heat from its own reserves and takes on new heat from the flames (or coils or magnets) below.

However, all of that powerf…

All-Clad - Is it "All-That"?

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In any activity, using the best available tools is ideal. While that pursuit is often tempered by budgetary restrictions, budgeting for and spending what is necessary on quality tools for cooking is almost as crucial as what is spent on ingredients. I was reminded of the importance of such tools while preparing dinner at the home of my friends Rick and Erica.

I had decided steaks were to be the main course so I grabbed a somewhat thin, but serviceable, pan from their cupboard, cranked up the heat on their electric cooktop (notably identical to the one featured in the Brady Bunch), and parked the pan on those familiar glowing coils for a good preheating.

As I seasoned the meat, an odd and downright eerie sound began emanating from the stove, almost as if it was moaning. While searching for the source of the sound, the pan slowly began to warp, like something out of "The Terminator", gradually curving toward me as if coiling up and preparing to strike. I took a step back, unc…

"Add pasta." Okay, when?

Regardless of one's level of culinary skill, it is still quite possible to walk out of a restaurant thinking, "How did they do that?" Some aspects are obvious - the best ingredients give best results - but others can be a bit more elusive such as the tendency to cook everything in a single pot, the goal to reduce the number of dishes to wash. Hard to know how much damage has been done to our expectations about flavor and certainly texture.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was cooking a minestrone-esque soup and presumably followed the recipe which put pasta in a pot alongside raw carrots, celery, meat, etc. These other ingredients all required much longer cooking times than the pasta resulting in, as you'd guess, overcooked pasta. Way overcooked.

But there were more subtle issues. Even in California, there remains a generational tendency toward dried herbs and pre-made packages of "seasonings". I watched him cut up the carrots with a dull knife and thumb pos…

Farmer's Market, or Buyer's Market?

I read Michael Ruhlman's blog regularly for genuine insight and snarky commentary. I love that he goes out of his way to not only acknowledge when he's wrong, but to stand vocally and emphatically corrected.

In this installment, a casual mention of an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer noting that our general assumption of a farmers' market is that of cheaper produce. Mr. Parsons, of course, set him straight.

One part of the Plain Dealer article that struck me is that the pricing of farmers' market produce was 28% higher than that of supermarket produce. Rather than being cheaper, it was considerably more expensive, on a percentage basis.

I suppose our (or at least my) assumption that farmers' markets would be lower stems from the prices you get out in the countryside as you drive by their farm. It's you that's incurring the expense of fuel and time to hunt down such bargains.

I've always found the charm to be, not of lower prices, but of higher quality …

Table or bar?

One aspect of business travel I cultivated (largely out of necessity) is the fine art of dining alone. I've since come to accept, and often even prefer, dining at the bar as it offers a number of efficiency-boosting dining options.

1. When there are no open tables and a line of people out the door waiting for one (via reservations or on the list as walk-ins), there is often room at the bar. Unfortunately, the seating philosophy is a bit of a free-for-all that requires a delicate mixture of manners sufficient to avoid conflict and assertiveness to gain yourself a seat. I've found a drink in hand passes the time nicely while waiting for a spot to open up and also allows for a perusal of the menu and/or wine list.

2. Once seated, the entertainment value of a bar seat really begins. For one thing, bartenders don't usually remain “in character” the way servers do. They will be polite and helpful while tossing napkins in front of you like a seasoned blackjack dealer, but the mom…

Pepper Grinder Nation

Among the many steak house/chop house trends I've complained about in my blog is the Paul Bunyan-scale of their offerings. The steaks are enormous, portioned more appropriately for 4-legged carnivores than us upright-walkers. Steak knives apparently needed to be scaled accordingly. I have yet to see a steak knife be delivered to the table without eliciting a quiet but clear surprise. They seem more like evidence in a murder trial than a dining utensil. We are then forced to wield this serrated, comically-huge implement and pretend it feels natural. They seem a better fit for survival in a jungle than simply dividing a steak into chewable portions.

Shortly after being offered this "meat saw", the waiter then asked if I'd like fresh-ground pepper. The origins and usefulness of this practice elude me; for one thing, if I do want some, why do I need to wait until he goes and gets the “Louisville Slugger”? While he/she goes to get it, the food has cooled in the mean time.…

Food World Glitteratti Ripping Me Off?

Or are they simply getting around to the inevitable and most wides-spread offense?

Who's to say? Michael Ruhlman takes on the ubiquitous and offensive Chicken Ceasar. GO>

The Second Level of Molecular Gastronomy - The Why

With all the fuss being made over molecular gastronomy, including whether it is even a technique or style of cooking at all, it was hard to resist dabbling in it myself. Why? Because, obviously, in my decade of cooking for friends and relatives, I've mastered all there is to know about fundamental technique, am in touch with where food comes from having harvested rice, picked apples, slaughtered all manner of livestock, poultry and fish, prepared meals from every ingredient known to mankind, and have a technique for presentation worthy of a show at the Met. Okay, none of that is true. I simply wanted to take a shortcut.

While there are plenty of opinions and commentary on the web and in various blog zones regarding the molecular approach to cooking, there is remarkably little in the way of actual, technical advice and instruction; even those from whom you purchase the ingredients. All seem a bit reluctant to hand over much in the way of useful, technical info.

Xantham Gum for insta…

The first level of molecular gastronomy - making ice cream

As a six-year old, you've begun to understand a few things about the world such as gravity (you know it's there, but not why), wind (handy for various things), walking and presumably talking. Eating is mostly solo activity only requiring occasional parental intervention to open a carton or explain how the hell you eat an artichoke. (They're not really self-explanatory.) It is still a somewhat awkward process as the dexterity for knife and fork requires a bit more practice, slightly stronger (and larger) hands, and a certain tolerance for an intermediary between hand and food. Preparation of food (other than cereal) is largely a mystery usually handled by mom when you're hungry, and occasionally by grandma should you so much as look like you might be thinking about hunger. Grandmothers will usually make you something "just in case".

Of all foods, ice cream is one kids understand implicitly. They know all they need to; it involves cold, sweet, summer, and occasi…

Abalone > How did I miss that?

I've always hated ketchup which may seem odd given its popularity. Not that I am one to hop on the popularity bandwagon, but I love everything else that surrounds ketchup - burgers, fries, and Coke. Where did this odd bias come from? My brother.

For as long as I can remember, he put ketchup on everything; two pieces of bread with ketchup in the middle constituted a "sandwich". He ate ketchup on potato chips, mounds of ketchup on fries, ketchup ketchup ketchup. It didn't help that I already had a distaste for so many foods in this country being sweet; of which the worst offender of all time is "Miracle Whip." If you've ever naively mistaken it for mayonnaise, you know the palate-wrenching horror that ensues. If you haven't imagine oily cake frosting. Yeah, nasty.

In essence, I had 30 years of prejudice against ketchup. I've done just fine in defiance of it, cringing should it wind up in a burger without my knowledge, but I knew that to truly &quo…

The "other" electric cooktop

My first real foray into cooking was on an electric stove. Not the sleek, stealthy modern variety with a black glass surface, but rather a relic of the late 70s featuring those iconic glowing orange coils. The combination of its car-cigarette-lighter technology and analog clock (which continues to keep good time) seems so frank and honest, how could I not love this thing? Those twisting spirals looking not unlike those on a vinyl LP of the same era harkening back to a simpler time when both cooking and music reproduction were performed with flat, spiral technology.

As anyone who has cooked on both gas and electric can tell you, the biggest feature missing from those vertigo-inducing coils is immediacy. They can take a minute or so (literally) to heat up and must then, in turn, heat up the pan. In short, the time from "inspiration" to "a pan hot enough to do anything with" is enough to kill the moment.

Flame from a gas stove comes out around 2500 degrees (which, acc…