Saturday, August 30, 2008

Simply Cooking

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about craft. Cooking the simple meal. Writing the sharp, deliberate sentence. Craft is the way we work, a way of doing things.

I taught The Old Man and The Sea this summer. I used the book because Hemingway's ridiculously terse prose is a great way to introduce emerging writers to the idea of craft. The book urges conversation about the technical aspect of writing, the nuts and bolts. It's also a great way to get paid to talk about fishing. Double score.

Say what you want about Hemingway's life but when he wrote, he was tight. His sentences are lean and effective. Like a meal of olive oil, salt and bread, wine. Deceptively simple.

The novel's opening line has it all:

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."

Like this one, great opening lines can be read as microcosms of the entire story to come. The drama and struggle all unfolds in concentric circles rippling outward from it.

In the line above, the reader gets the whole story in one shot, framed in one tiny window. Yet nothing is betrayed--the fight to come, the eventual loss, the lonely walk back up the beach, Santiago's dream of the lions in Africa. For those of us who are familiar with the book, I think these things are what lie hidden behind words like alone, skiff, Gulf Stream, and taking.

There is a brilliance to Old Man's opening line. Perhaps it is in the way Hem says it all, but still keeps things hidden. The essential mystery of the piece is still concealed. Like the faces of people in Rene Magritte's paintings, there is always an element of secrecy. That small kernel of truth buried at the core remains unknowable. His craft is in how he lays all of that down in so few words.

Like Hemingway, Magritte's work is full of concealed faces and objects.

But it all translates in the kitchen as well. Cooking and writing share so many natural commonalities. That's why we write this blog. That's maybe why many of you like to read it. You. Us. We know these things. It's our little inside joke. It's the reason why some of our favorite books are always cookbooks.

To me, great cooking and great writing share a common minimalism, an economy of resources. I like both best when they are unadorned, laid bare to their essential elements. Efficient. Penetrative, to the heart. Crisp and clean, like a blade. High and tight, like Derek Jeter's haircut.

But just like a great opening line of a novel, the first course of a meal can also be a microcosm. It might capture the essence of the entire meal to come. It might tantalize. If the art of seduction is the ability to both reveal and obscure at the same time, then let that be the first course.

Take my typical Friday night meal: fresh bread, roast chicken, green vegetables, potatoes, garlic, olive oil, water, red wine. I think it may be the perfect meal. It is also the simplest.
Chicken soup is the necessary first course for this meal. It needs to be. Every ingredient in the soup is something that will be served again, but in a different form later on: meat, vegetables, potatoes, spice, water, salt, warmth. When stared deeply into from above, the best chicken soups auger the meal to come. This soup must be eaten carefully.

For six years my wife has come up with hundreds of variations of these same simple ingredients every week to near perfection. The only variables are vegetables, maybe some fish here and there. Usually salmon. Maybe herring. But the main components of the meal are the same every time.

She calls me at work. She says: What should I make for dinner?

I go: It's cold outside. Can you make a chicken soup? Do we have time to make challah? Should I make garlic when I get home?

She says: What do you think?

Then: Love you. Bye.

I believe her. Hanging up, I sometimes pause, say a quick word of thanks. I have to remember to do that more. One word prayers are sometimes the most effective.

Before she hangs up I hear the shrill, hysterical voices of children in the background.

I think to myself: Please, just let there be soup.

She never has time to make the meal. Yet every week about an hour after sundown, the meal doesn't so much come out of the kitchen as emerge. It wafts out. I smell it coming before it arrives. (This happens even in early December, when the sun sets at 4:15 pm.)

If I ask her how she had the time to make such a meal, she is aloof and evasive.

I demand to know. I again ask how she did it.

She smiles and turns around, walks into the kitchen.

She's all: I don't know. I just somehow did.

Voice lilting as she speaks: I even had to hold the baby in one arm all day. He was crying. I cooked with the other. And did the bills.

Some people are secretive about their craft.

I stand amazed, but suspicious. She even went to the store for the wine? It simply can't be. I begin to snoop around the kitchen. I lift pot lids to sniff inside. I inspect things. From the corner of my eye I watch what she does with her hands.

She says: Get out.

Later on, the meal is a smashing success. She tells me not to drink all of the wine. Soon some reading, then bed.

Cooking with simplicity is less of an art and more of a mastery of the basic elements of what can satiate the body and soul. How to really make a meal. All great cooks have this. Some people just have an intuition of what ingredients will truly work in a dish or a meal. In the greatest ones, it's an innate alchemy. It's a knowledge of how to mix the best spices or how to invite the right guests. It's like Remy in Ratatouille.
The best cooks know how to make a meal out of the simplest ingredients.

When shopping at the market, the bread we buy should have no more than four or five ingredients. Anything more is asinine. As for preservatives, most of us live in areas where we have twenty-four hour, seven-day a week access to fresh produce, meat, or fish. Therefore to buy anything containing preservatives is ludicrous, offensive. There is no need whatsoever. The same goes for food dyes. Absolutely preposterous.


I think all of this may come from a desire of mine to have everything boiled down to its basic elements. To simplify. To find the grand unifying theory. Hashem Echad: God is One

I think I need that. I need to know that truth is always simple yet everywhere and unadorned. It's ubiquitous. It's as uncomplicated as a single line of prose.

In his poem The First Words, Seamus Heaney writes:

My only drink is meaning from the deep brain,
What the birds and the grass and the stones drink.
Let everything flow
Up to the four elements,
Up to water and Earth and fire and air.

Isn't that so tight? But I love that- the final dissolution of all things into their basic elements. It makes so much sense to me.

It's is as simple as the way a meal is reduced to bones on a plate and half-conversations lingering in the air. It's the way salt dissolves in warm water when stirred, giving itself over so utterly and completely. It's the way some things vanish into the air when they need to. Just like that.


Chilled Peach Soup

It's peach season now on the east coast. Baskets full of peaches line local farmer's market. Often, though, you buy a basket and some peaches are just too ripe. A soup is a great way to use the overripened, bruised, but still ridiculously sweet peaches. Seth originally published this recipe here.

6 large ripe peaches
2 cups water
1 cup apple juice
1/4 cup honey
Zest and juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper to taste
Mint sprigs

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Cut a small "X" through the bottom of each peach, then drop them into the water to blanch for 20 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer peaches to a bowl of ice water. When peaches are cooled, drain well then peel them, starting from the "X" at the bottom of each peach. Discard skin and pits and transfer peaches to a blender.

Add water, apple juice, honey, lime zest and juice, salt and pepper and blend until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, about 2 hours.

Pour soup into bowls or cups, garnish with mint and serve.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Potato, Light of my Life, Fire of my Loins

Potato, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my dinner. Po-ta-to: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Po. Ta. To.


Ladies and gentleman of the jury! I've endured a brutish affection for Potato for nearly four years. Before I succumbed to her alluring spell I rarely palpated her flesh or sunk my teeth into her ethereal hollows.

Recently, though, my affection (affliction) has threatened to take over my life.

In fall and winter, sometimes far into spring, I balance my Potato affection with a healthful Sweet Potato romp. Lately, though, my preferred Sweet, Jewel, has been conspicuously absent from the grocer's bin. Let me say, the other "Sweet" the Garnet, is a sham--impossible to cook, finicky, and dry. Jewel works: she cooks to a creamy texture. Garnet, for some reason, shams: she hardly ever achieves a suitable texture.

Perhaps it's a storage problem. Sweets are typically "cured" after harvesting, then stored for months. In On Food and Cooking, Harold Magee notes: "True to their subtropical heritage, sweet potatoes store best at 55-60 F. Chilling can contribute to 'hardcore' a condition in which the root center remains hard even when cooked."

I hope you don't refrigerate your Sweet, or your Potato.

Magee also notes: "At colder temperatures their [potatoes] metabolism shifts in a complicated way that results in the breakdown of some starch to sugars."

I hope, too, you don't buy Sweets or Potatoes from a grocer that refrigerates, lest he ruin the supple quality of your perfect little jewel.

Unfortunately, Someone's been ruining my Garnet. I've tested her from Asheville, North Carolina to Philadelphia: without a doubt, she refuses to cook perfectly.


Perfection is a courageous cook's goal, even if it's an unreasonable, unattainable goal. But unreasonable behavior might just be the touchstone of the best cooks; after all, the passion generated by the unreasonable pursuit of perfection usually inspires a fabulous meal.

I'm talking about the pursuit of perfect ingredients; an extreme attentiveness to cooking; and an even more extreme attentiveness to the food itself: its finicky needs, its demands.

I honestly feel in the bottom of my heart that this is a human being's most frankly honorable pursuit: the adamant pursuit of cooking perfection. It's impossible, of course. But the trying, the very trying, is what matters: you cook for others, after all, and your effort is your honor: the honor you feel and the deep, humble honor you bestow upon others.

All you have to do is try, really hard.


The potato's needs are often underestimated by the home cook. The obvious example is the typical mashed potato: watery and lacking true potato flavor, this dish often tastes acutely of butter and salt; one mere taste is an indication of the cook's lack of effort.

Perfect mashed potatoes require pain.

First, the potatoes (Yukon Gold or Russets are best) are simmered (not boiled!) whole.

The potatoes are then peeled after simmering, while still relatively hot, and mashed.

This is a simple, but lengthy and pain-staking method, sure to burn your fingers. And yet, the burn is a symbol of love--love for the potato; love for the family and friends you are cooking for. When you serve the perfect mashed potato your guests feel that love with each ethereal bit.

The courageous cook will hurt themselves simply to offer love. The courageous cook's mashed potatoes say: I adore you. I want to please you. I am Humbert, you are Lolita!

The lazy cook's mashed potatoes say: I hardly care about you. Please eat this butter and salt-laden dish so you might die quicker. I am Humbert, you are Charlotte, Lolita's pestering Mother.

The lovable geeks at Cook's Illustrated put it this way:

"Peeling and cutting before simmering increases the surface area of the potatoes, through which they lose soluble substances such as starch, proteins, and flavor compounds, to the cooking water. The greater surface area also enables lots of water molecules to bind with the potatoes' starch molecules. Combine these two effects and you've got bland, thin, watery mashed potatoes."

Perfect mashed potatoes should taste like potatoes, ethereal, earthy, merely accented by other flavors like butter and salt, not dominated by those flavors. This is the fey grace, the elusive shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the perfect mashed potato from the boring ineptitude of the careless, fatty, salty mushed spud.

Roasted potatoes offer a different texture, a new challenge. The perfect roast potato offers a crisp, crunchy outside and a moist, creamy flesh. Lazy potatoes merely tossed with oil and roasted in the oven rarely achieve this sort of perfection. Lazy potatoes are usually moist throughout, but offer no textual variation, and are often too soft, sometimes mushy.

Harold Magee offers the simple solution:

"If preheated to 130-140 degrees...[potatoes] develop a persistent firmness that survives prolonged final cooking. This can be valuable for...potatoes whose outer-regions are inevitably over-softened and may begin to disintegrate while the centers cook through."

Magee is talking specifically here of boiled potatoes for potato salad, but the same principle holds for roasted potatoes: pre-cooking, or par-boiling, potatoes ensures a crispy exterior.

The geeks at Cook's Illustrated agree:

"Parboiling...produced a potato closer to our idea..."

Unfortunately, the geeks go on to say: "...but preparation required considerable attention owing to the additional step."

This, from the same cookbook authors who urge you to brine your birds, who boast of having made 38 different versions of crème caramel to find "the absolute best version."


The perfect roast potato begins in a pot of cold water. You bring it to a slow simmer and you let it be for five minutes. The whole process takes less then ten minutes. You can clip your nails, read a bit, eat a snack, have a smoke--is this "considerable attention"? And oh, by the way, that extra pot: rinse it out; no big deal!


Can you spare ten minutes for perfection?

If not, please consider this: After having eaten your half-assed potatoes, when you're on the couch, watching TV, think about those ten minutes, think about all the ten minutes you might have wasted in your life, all the simple little moments you might have missed.

I like how George Saunders describes it in his essay "Buddha Boy":

"You know the feeling at the end of the day, when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away and, for maybe the first time that day, you see, with some clarity, the people you love and the ways you have, during that day, slightly ignored them, turned away from them to get back to what you were doing, blurted out some mildly hurtful thing, projected, instead of the deep love you really feel, a surge of defensiveness or self-protection or suspicion? That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets?"

I read this and think solely of my wife, the insane love I feel for her, and the incredible gap between my substantial feelings and my daily expression of those feelings.

Why the gap?

I get tired. I feel unwell. She annoys me. She shows up late. I show up late. It's hot. It's cold.

There's always something.

Lucky, for me, I cook, we cook.

Dinner saves me, each night, from regret.

I put my effort, my heart into each meal. With love, I try to close the gap. I simmer my potatoes; I peel them while they're hot. This is heroism, to me. The goal, the simple goal, is my wife's pleasure.

I am thinking of steam and angels, the secret of persistent firmness, prophetic mashers, the refuge of cooking. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Potato.

Perfect Mashed Potatoes

This recipe is adapted from Cook's Illustrated's recipe, in The New Best Recipe. My recipe, I think, highlights the potato's flavor more than the Cook's Illustrated recipe; it's more healthful too, and ultimately more satisfying: it leaves one feeling light, not heavy, ready for a little post-dinner dalliance. I call for peeling the potatoes by hand, but a food mill or ricer works wonderfully well in this recipe, producing the most light, airy potatoes imaginable. Finally, make sure you add the oil BEFORE the coconut milk...I won't explain why.

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup coconut milk (full-fat is best)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 25-35 minutes. Drain. Reserve pot for mashing.

Meanwhile, warm the coconut milk in a medium saucepan over low heat. Season the coconut milk with sea salt, and black pepper to taste.

While still warm, cut each potato in half, then peel the skin with fingers or a small paring knife. (Alternately, and much better, place the potatoes, skin-on, into a ricer or food mill.) Drop the peeled potatoes back into the pot you used for boiling.

Gently mash the potatoes with a potato masher. Add olive oil. Add the warmed coconut milk, and gently season with additional salt and pepper, adjusting seasonings to taste.


Roasted Red Potatoes with Olive Oil & Fresh Herbs

Fresh herbs and lemon zest brighten the potatoes, as they intensify the flavor of the olive oil.

1 ½ lb small red new potatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons fresh herbs—basil, thyme, and/or marjoram
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Sea Salt, fresh ground pepper

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Cover potatoes with salted cold water by 1 inch in a 6-quart pot, then simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes.

Slice potatoes in half. Toss potatoes with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a few pinches salt in a bowl. Spread potatoes in 1 layer in a large roasting pan, skin side down, and roast in middle of oven, turning once, until golden, about 20-25 minutes.

Toss with remaining tablespoon olive oil, herbs, sea salt, lemon zest, and fresh pepper to taste.

Serve immediately.