Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Joy of Dishwashing

Lately, I've been re-reading one of my bibles: Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. This is the fourth or fifth time I've read the book and just like the other times I'm getting myself all up in a tizzy. Suddenly, I'm feeling incredibly nostalgic for my days in the restaurant business.

Just the other day I said to my wife: I want to go back, work in a restaurant.

She then reminded me that I am currently enrolled full-time in graduate school, already have a full-time gig, and that I hardly have time to take a daily shower let alone re-commence my old, doomed career path.

I suppose she's right, but still. I go to bed, dream of fine-dicing carrots. I wake up, immediately think of demi-glace. In the kitchen, at home, I'm getting impatient and joyfully hostile. It's the sort of loving kitchen attitude I cultivated in the restaurants but it doesn't really fly at home, with my wife.

Recently, family came over for dinner. She was in a good mood, laboring over her spectacular risotto and a few composed salads. I was all hopped up on Bourdain and red wine so I walked in the kitchen, looked at her slightly overdressed salads, and said: Mmm, seaweed. She nearly broke down in tears.

Bourdain writes:

"If you are easily offended by direct aspersions to your lineage, the circumstances of your birth, your sexuality, your appearance, the mention of your parents possible commingling with livestock, then...professional cooking is not for you."

My wife is a beautiful home-cook and she makes no pretense to wanting to be a professional cook. I'm just an asshole.

The weirdest recent behavior, though, is my recent craving for dishwashing. I started in the restaurant business, like a lot of people, washing dishes. I was fourteen and I didn't break out until I was nearly eighteen. By then, I had learned to hate dishwashing with an all-abiding passion.

I distinctly recall my final night washing dishes. I walked up to my boss, told him I was finished. He said: Did you hose down the carts? I did not. So I went back and hosed the carts. Midway through, my boss walked up and surveyed my work. I gave him a little squirt. He was shocked. So I said: "You come back here, you're going to get wet."

Then I pointed the hose directly at him and pulled the trigger.

For five tumultuous, roaring seconds, I was King of the World.

I had never felt so liberated. It was the most glorious way to quit a job. And don't think that bastard didn't having it coming. He treated us dishwashers like degenerates (which we were, but still.) Among other things, he refused to give us gloves to handle the piping-hot plates, he paid us next-to-nothing, and he made me stay an hour late on my eighteenth birthday because he was unsatisfied with my mopping work. (I did a stellar job; he was just a mean bastard.)

It was always a sore spot for me that Steve worked at the same place as a waiter. The ethic, promoted by the boss, was that us dishwashers were sub-human and were to be treated as such by the staff. Steve candidly obliged.

So I suppose it's odd that after we finished our recent meal, I joyfully skipped into our kitchen and washed all the plates, all the pots and pans, cleaned the counters, and mopped the floor. I then made a stock for another risotto (my wife was going for a double-shot), melted chocolate for chocolate-fudge brownie sundaes, and brined two chickens, thereby necessitating a whole new round of dishes. Whatever. I didn't care at all. I was in love--with dishwashing!

I love people who don't mind washing dishes. I always think about a great anecdote from Bill Buford's New Yorker article "The Secret of Excess" about Mario Batali:

"One of my last recollections is of Batali around three in the morning—back arched, eyes closed, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, his red Converse high-tops pounding the floor—playing air guitar to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” Batali had recently turned forty, and I remember thinking that it was a long time since I’d seen a grown man playing air guitar. He then found the soundtrack for “Buena Vista Social Club,” tried to salsa with one of the guests (who promptly fell over a sofa), tried to dance with her boyfriend (who was unresponsive), and then put on a Tom Waits CD and sang along as he went into the kitchen, where, with a machine-like speed, he washed the dishes and mopped the floor."

That last simple, elegant sentence pretty much sums it up for me. Nobody really wants to do dishes. Dishwashing is real work. So you just put on a CD and, like a machine, do it. Today, years away from my early dishwashing travails, I love the sense of accomplishment I feel after washing a night's worth of dishes. I love going into the kitchen, sweating about two pounds off, and dropping to my hands and knees to scrub the floor. That's real work, something to be proud of. Perhaps that's why I hated it so much when I did it as a young man for money. I love dishwashing so much that I was corrupted by the cash. The promise of riches took all the joy out of it. Still, if (big if) I do go back to the restaurants, don't think for a second that I think I'm too good to wash dishes. To find no task to low or demeaning--that's the attitude I like.

Roasted Acorn Squash with Squash Risotto

I always get depressed in January because squash season is almost over. So I grasp at the last of season and try to make something immaculate. I originally published this recipe here.

4 acorn squash
3 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
6 cups water or gluten-free vegetable broth
1 cup finely chopped leeks
2 1/2 cups peeled and cubed butternut squash
2 cups uncooked Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped sage, divided
2/3 cup pine nuts
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped thyme

Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut each acorn squash lengthwise in half (from tip to stem) then scoop out and discard any seeds and stringy flesh. Brush insides of acorn squash with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil and season with salt. Place acorn squash, cut side down, in a baking pan and roast until tender but still firm, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, start the risotto by bringing the broth just to a simmer in a small pot over medium high heat. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy 3-quart pot over medium heat. Add leeks and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add butternut squash and cook for 3 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until grains are fragrant. Add wine and stir constantly until almost completely absorbed, about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the hot broth to rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is almost completely absorbed. Continue adding broth, 1/2 cup at a time, making sure that most of the liquid is absorbed before adding more. Continue until rice is almost tender, but still firm to the bite, about 20 to 25 minutes total. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the sage and season with salt.

Meanwhile, put pine nuts into a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground. Stir in thyme, remaining 1/2 teaspoon sage and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Set aside.

When acorn squash is cooked, remove from oven. Reduce heat to 300°F. Carefully turn squash over and fill each cavity with about 1/2 cup of the risotto. Gently press about 2 tablespoons of the pine nut mixture on top of the risotto in each squash half. Return squash to oven and bake until topping begins to brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer to plates and serve.


Steve said...

Wait a minute! I don't remember it like that. I hated that bastard too! He fired me one morning for coming to work 15 minutes late!

I recall sneaking you plates of food and whole cups of red wine several times from the bar. Where's the gratitude?

Seth said...

The wine was Carlo Rossi. It was hardly drinkable. You owe me some form of servitude.

Steve said...

Clearly, I was right in the way I treated you. Get back to your hovel of soap and water where you belong, knave.

Mark said...

I love doing dishes at Stephanie's. She cooks. I wash up and put away. Exploring her kitchen has been part of the process of getting to know her, a poking about which has been enriching for me.

And I've benefited from her visits to my ramshackle man-house. I do the dishes there too. She cooks. My kitchen is a humble thing, and I've enjoyed having her move about in it and rummage around in my drawers.

I could not resist that last line.

xysea said...

The acorn squash recipe looks divine! :)

Seth said...

The recipe is actually blasphemous.

David Swinson said...

Carlo Rossi? Shame, shame, shame.