23 December 2011
I met my sous-chef where all good chefs and sous-chefs meet: Petco. She had built a little fort in her cage at the Adopt-A-Pet event, only leaving it to nuzzle my hand. Needless to say, she was straight-up hired. While at the store, Ella and I began talking – her mostly – about how living behind a Shakey’s Pizza was not all that awesome; how eating leftover Mojo Potoatoes and meowing at people was; about how birds are fucking evil and should be hunted down and killed; and about how, as underrated as it is, the movie The Third Man is pretty fucking amazing. After leaving Petco, and contemplating my future over some mediocre bar fries, then some terrible bar tacos, then some more (made passable by my affinity for, and frequent drinking of, cheap booze) delicious bar tacos, I decided that Ella and I should partner up, and even perhaps start our own place for food and drink. “Why the hell not,” I thought. I was, after all, a cook at heart, and in a job I was pretty sure was dead-end; and Ella, aside from being a stray cat, had just been fired by Eric Ripert, at Le Bernardin, after consuming a full three-quarters of the food she was supposed to have been preparing.
The night before we started our adventure, and full of Escoffier-inspired brilliance and The Glenlivet, I cooked one of the best meals of my life for my buddy, Ali. Roasted bone marrow, crostini topped with a melange of marinated veg, and seafood etoufee that would make John Besh fucking weep. I was so excited for the new venture Ella and I were to embark upon. But, if I’m being being honest – and before you cast Drew Berrymore as the voice of Ella in this Disney movie – you should know that the first few months of our culinary partnership was, to put it mildly, more fucking contentious then the Boer War and Darfur, combined. “You’re short rib braising liquid is anemic, at best!” she would yell. “You’re scared of cooking protein!” she would scream. “If you can’t cook fish en papillote, then why do you insist on doing it?!” she would growl. This was not an easy cat with which to work. And all the while I kept wondering (because I’m single-minded and irony ignorant), “Will the Bengals ever win a fucking Super Bowl during my lifetime?!?!” I could see in her eyes, and in the liberal way she would use her seemingly Adamantium-made claws, that she was reconsidering our arrangement. Things were dicey, but I still knew deep in my heart that something special was happening. I loved opening our little place every morning. I loved seeing her come in to work, ready to start the day, with that special look of deranged and out-of-place superiority plastered on her adorable mug. She had been beaten down, but she was still all spit and balsamic vinegar and white truffle oil.
Our venture started off in a stand-off. I wanted to cook the things I had always cooked, and was comfortable cooking, but she was adamant that I try new things, and that she scratch and hiss at me when she, herself, happened to be uncomfortable. Soon enough, though, she started to rub off on me (mostly on my leg): I started cooking things I wasn’t so comfy with, like Japanese food, and more protein, and larger pieces of the hobos I harvested during the winter months. She, too, seemed to get more comfortable. Less and less would she savage my appendages, less and less did she tag my walls with slogans, such as “THE ICKEY SHUFFLE WAS A STUPID FUCKING DANCE.” She began putting up with my more whimsical dishes, even when they didn’t work, and unbelievably allowed the occasional caprice of making two different types of mushroom risotto on consecutive nights (and she even let me kiss her on her head, every once in a while). She did insist, however, that I begin baking. “It’s baking or the claws” she said. At this point she had taken to sleeping near my face, so I took stock of my options and bought some damn flour.
After years of toiling away at our venture, I knew that Ella was the right sous-chef for me, and that expanding to baking was a good idea, even though baking scared me more than conjoined clown spider twins who sing a Cappella pop songs. “You will most likely fail at this,” Ella assured me, ever so tactfully, “so you should start with soft pretzels, because I know you love them, and I happen to want one in twelve hours, which is when you will finally finish a batch.” And you know what? I FUCKING DID. Then it was on to French bread, which I mastered as much as anyone can master French bread. Then sourdough. Then yeast rolls. Then more pretzels – this time filled with cheese, because that sounded fucking awesome, and Ella demanded them.
Eventually, our little kitchen found its footing, and Ella and I were busy toiling away the days sauteing, braising, baking, and frying, and living a nice little life. She had seemingly given up on yelling at me – though the threat was ever-present whenever fresh food was not immediate – and she had even taken to not digging her claws into my arms anymore. During the halcyon days – which became eventually, and thankfully, years – we hung out out, she and I, in the kitchen, and came up with a damn good recipe for moules frites; a great plan for an Italian meal; a nice recipe for a basic risotto; and even managed a take-down of those fucking hacks, Guy Ferry and Sandra Lee (though the better nature of Ella’s angels were imparted unto me, because I really wanted to let them have it). After several years, we were a success! Our little kitchen was the best little place for good food and drink in the town, and even though we never had any customers, or a restaurant, we were happy. And if happiness is measured in pleasure taken while sitting in the sun as it sets on the California coast, smelling dinner being made, then we were, indeed, the happiest people that the sun had the luxury of setting on.
The last meal Ella “Chairman Meow” Who Dey and I cooked together was patatas bravas. She sat dutifully by, in her elegant stance, knowing all the while that I was putting way too much paprika in the sauce. That she didn’t yell at me should have been my first clue. Not much more than a week later, in a far less comforting environ as our kitchen, I was holding my little Sous-Chef on her favorite blanket, on a metal table, in a strange room, waiting for the veterinarian to come. Ella had gone into kidney failure, a pros-pos of absolutely nothing except cruelty and pain and unfairness, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Had I my wits about me, I would have played for her Beethoven’s “Emperor’s Concerto,” because that’s the song I hope to hear when I, myself, have to cross the bar. I don’t know if that’s the song Ella would like to have heard, but I do know that the last sound she did hear, as the doctor administered the drug to stop her heart, was my voice.
25 August 2010
Cooking in the name of. I talk enough shit about Food Network, so it’s time to put up or shut up. I joke around a lot, but there are certain things you should know about cooking. And if the network seemingly devoted to the culinary arts ain’t going to do it, I will. What I hope to impart in these posts is a mini compendium of stalwart recipes which you can expand upon and make your own. Consider this the (semi) serious part of The Chef’s Prerogative.
Here’s what you should know about this post: (1) I’m fantastically drunk; (2) cooking is fantastically easy; (3) I really like the the adverb “fantastically;” and (4) I’m not altogether clear about what an “adverb” is. That having been said (or written, as it were), cooking is, as previously mentioned, easy. Not only easy, but wonderful. If you’ll permit me a bit of sentiment, I feel it’s my duty to digress. Cooking for those you love – or, if you’re like me, those you’ve just met at a truck stop, who may or may not be an actual lady – is a pretty special thing. Moms have done it for their families for ages, albeit with the help of Velveeta, bread crumbs, and Prego. Guys still drunk from the night before, but who are nonetheless willing to turn on a stove in the interest of morning sex, have done it, albeit with the help of one last gulp of tequila and several eggs of questionable expiration date. And I’ve even done it, albeit with the help of my ample member and a sensual kiss to the neck.
Cooking for someone special doesn’t entail – as Food Network would lead you to believe – a “Peruvian burger” or “meatloaf with a twist” or “Kwanzaa cake.” Even if you’re just cooking for yourself, cooking is a special thing. Cooking is a time when we can be masters. Cooking is a time when we can can take disparate pieces of nature and turn them into something which, hopefully, pleases without exception. Cooking is when we can have a three-foot space of fastidiously-controlled mise en place, which we can then utilize to make something that other people think is amazing. Cooking is when we turn that cramped, little space in our apartment into a concert hall – because, after all, we’ve made someone feel far more than they would have by, say, listening to Dvorak. You’re not going to paint a Matisse. You’re not going to blow like Miles Davis. You’re not going to compose a poem like Bukowski. But, in this life, what you can do; what has been imbued in you by the French masters, by the myriad recipes contained in your grandmother’s cigarette-stained library of culinary anachronism, by your will and whim to make those around you feel good; what you can do is be a master. You control how those who eat your food feel. You can make them happy. I don’t care if you’re the wife of an over-worked CPA, a husband to a big firm attorney, or a single guy who’s dying to make an impression; when you cook, you are in control. Not only of your ingredients, but of those who will experience what you have created. That, my handsome friend, is powerful. You are the chef – the knife; the ingredients; are yours. All you need is some passion, some technique, and some tried and true recipes. I can’t give you the first two, but with this inaugural in-between-post, I can endeavor to start giving you the latter. And with that, I get back to what this blog was all about: fucking recipes. Good, simple recipes. (And truck stop whores.)
So, let’s talk about risotto.
Risotto is three things: (1) short grain rice, (2) stock, and (3) confidence. The risotto you want depends most on the second of those aforementioned things. Pick a good stock, be it seafood, beef or vegetable, and then you’re off. Now for the serious shit: Heat some oil in pot No. 1. Put your stock in pot No. 2, on a different burner, and let it simmer. All the aromatics you need are a smattering of shallots. Sweat the shallots in pot No. 1 (keep the heat low – there’s no need to rush.) When the shallots are done, dump in your rice, and stir to coat with the oil (maybe one minute.) Splash with vermouth (or white wine) and let it burn off for about two minutes. Put in a bit of stock, and stir. Stir until the stock gets soaked up, then put in more stock. Don’t worry – it won’t take all that long. Keep doing this until you get the – sorry, my cat is nestling up to me, right now, and she’s just so cute – consistency of the rice you want (you want it to have a little bite.) This is your basic risotto recipe, and you can add to it as you see fit. Throw in some veg or parm or bacon or mushrooms, or whatever else is in your chef’s heart. Risotto couldn’t be more simple, and if you don’t use it to get laid, I will, personally, punch you in the head.
Man, cooking is great.
Asia has given us many wonderful things: tentacle porn, ninjas, ninja stars, the song “Heat of the Moment,” and gravure models, among the best. But to my mind, Asia’s greatest export is what I will affectionately and blanketly, in my cultural insensitivity, call “the noodle bowl.” A huge bowl of broth, meat, toppings, and deliciously alkaline noodles is perhaps my favorite food of the moment. This will change as soon as I see a picture of a cheeseburger, but right now, I am on a noodle kick. I’m lucky enough to live in a place with a ton of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants, most of which offer some form of a noodle bowl, as well as a side-order of hilariously-translated menu descriptions*. Unfortunately, money spent on noodle bowls is money not available for sponsoring my African orphan, Douglas Asenbach TheChefsPrerogative. As such, I have taken to making heaping bowls of noodles in my home, instead. I’m still in the “Ah, fuck it – let’s just throw everything in there” stage of this recipe’s development, so feel free to experiment on your own and commit seppuku when it all goes wrong.
Wondrous Ingredients of Luck Terrific!
Rice wine vinegar
Whatever else you got
Making Most Happy Foods Wonderful!
Look, I’m no Asian chef, and, as stated, I’ve only recently begun making these things, so cut me some fucking slack if I’m not using nori or naruto or Hello Kitty, or whatever else makes noodle bowls authentic – feel free to put some of your manga on in the background while making this, if it will make you feel better. In fact, I bought David Chang’s wonderful book, Momofuku, for the sole purpose of getting better at this whole “Asian cooking thing,” but, after careful study, I have come to the conclusion that that shit is fucking hard! Seriously, it scares me and makes me want to cry.
Because of the inherent difficulty of making authentic J-cuisine, and the time constraints imposed on me by my almost impossible cosplay schedule, I opt for a simple, yet tasty, noodle bowl, which appeals to both my appetite and inherent affinity for randomly chucking shit in a pot, guided by nothing but a peculiar mix of impulse, intuition, and martinis. That such a mix was also the impetus for landing me in a Oaxacan jail for the past four months bodes well for the final, inevitably perfect, presentation of this dish.
I generally start out by sauteing finely diced shallots, onions, and assorted veggies in peanut oil. I then add mirin and rice wine vinegar, because those are Asian. This is followed by adding shitake mushrooms and a mixture of whatever stock or broth I have in my pantry, as well as soy sauce. Seriously, whatever you got, throw it in – after all, this is generally where I get all “Dr. Frankenstein” on my ramen. For whatever reason, I always feel it necessary to let the mixture reduce a lot, then add more stock, then reduce again. Whenever my impeccable and almost Helios-like culinary intuition kicks in and informs me that the broth is now ready – that any more cooking would ruin it, but any less and it wouldn’t have been complete – I throw in tofu, bok choy, and whatever else I can think of, to finish it off like I was a Korean masseuse at a Japanese massage parlor. Pour the broth over boiled noodles of your choosing, and top with pork shoulder you’ve conveniently roasted to perfection before-hand. On the side, I like to have a bowl of julienned radish and cucumber, some hot sesame oil, and a jar of seasoning I stole from my local Japanese restaurant.
As I’ve been writing this, and simultaneously perusing some ramen-oriented sites on the internet, I have come to the realization that I’m kind of massacring a centuries-old cuisine, and doing to it what Sandra Lee does to all manner of food and table-scapes. But, listen: if you want a proper bowl of ramen (as well as all manner of other delicious Asian treats), go get you some Momofuku from Barnes & Noble, and follow its great recipe. It’s a great book – if not exactly user friendly (seriously, I’m a big fan of ramen, but I don’t know if I want to cook a gallon-and-a-half of broth, dude) – and the author uses the word “fuck” a lot. And, in defense of my horrific and ethnically insensitive “recipe,” this is how Chang describes what he deduced as the ramen recipe of a very popular Tokyo ramen house: (1) Soy sauce placed in bowl, then stock, (2) gigantic helping of noodles, (3) toppings are placed, (4) finished with a touch of stock. So it seems ramen is not about some specific recipe, but rather about the simplicity and quality of its constituent parts; a quality which, like all seemingly simple things, takes millenia to perfect. I’m not saying you and I should give up trying for the perfect, authentic noodle bowl, but I am saying that you’re a white guy who drives a Saab, so maybe just be happy with a reasonable facsimile you can make in your house, without a centuries-old recipe and the patience of Confucius. If, however, you can find a place that serves good pork buns, just give up and go there, instead.
*An actual description from a small noodle joint I recently visited: Kink pork noodle soup to the last drop drink, became one of the ingredients, and balanced a “taste of Santoka” also say one cup. The image of a sophisticated finish to taste both beautiful slender women. Koume icon is decorated with chocolate in the middle of the bowl is topped with only noodles shiora. I like the noodles and beautiful, slender women, but I’m a little disquieted by the thought of that chocolate in my ramen.
“Dinner was always a big thing in the joint. We had a pasta course and then meat or fish. Paulie did the prep work. He was doing a year for contempt and he had a system for doing garlic. He used a razor and he sliced it so thin it used to liquefy in the pan with a little oil. Vinnie was in charge of the tomato sauce. I felt he put in too many onions, but it was a good sauce, anyway. Johnny Dio did the meat. He didn’t have a broiler, so we did everything in pans. He smelled up the joint something awful, and the hacks used to die. Everybody else in the joint was doing real time, all mixed together, living like pigs.”
-Ray Liotta, as Henry Hill, in Goodfellas
“I cut myself slicing the garlic like how the bad man told me to, and now I have a owie.”
–The Chef’s Prerogative, after cutting his finger with a razor blade
Perhaps it’s because I’m a de facto Italian, but the cooking of my make-believe homeland has always struck me as being about more than just food. One can’t overlook the copious amounts of meats, cheeses, and pastas, naturally; but Italian food, to me, seems to be about something more than just what’s on the plate. I’m not going to wax too rhapsodic about the communal and celebratory nature of Italian feasts, but let’s just say that Italian feasts offer a respite for the soul from the burdensome weight foisted upon it by a cruel and despotic reality, allowing it to blossom into its true and evanescent nature, nurtured by food, family, and friends, and imbuing in its very nature that which heaven and joy have imparted at their union in that most sacred and special of places, through no less than a repast fit for Gods, but befitting of we mere mortals. Also, it tastes good.
When I have people over for a night of greaseball Italian fun, you can bet your sweet, mocha ass I’m putting out a plate of antipasti, I’m wearing my badass gold chain, and I’m sure as hell not skimping on the Chianti that I make make in my bathtub (it tastes like going blind!). After the guests arrive, I usher everyone into the kitchen with me, to help out and to help themselves to whatever sous chef Bruno hasn’t eaten off the table. “But is there Frank Sinatra on, TCP?” Hooo, boy – not only is there Frank Sinatra on, but as an added attraction, I’m singing along to “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” like I was at the fuckin’ Copa! Shit, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in my charming little apartment during Eye-tie dinner time, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s more than a little reminiscent of the Bacchanals in ancient Rome (mostly because everyone’s throwing up, afterwards.) In other words, cooking a big Italian meal for friends and family is, perhaps, the best and most enjoyable use for a kitchen man has yet had the good fortune to devise. Here’s how you can achieve such a raucous, wondrous night in your own home, right after you buy a fuckin’ cool track suit.
Primo – Antipasti
Antipasti (Italian for “you can a-now commence-a the stuffing of-a you face”) is most commonly served as an appetizer platter of meats, olives, marinated vegetables, and Cheeses. There are really no rules when it comes to preparing your platter, but keep in mind that your wife probably isn’t going to let you get away with describing the three pounds of sausage on your plate as “an appetizer.” The key to a good antipasti plate, much like making your college seem more inclusive by photo-shopping a black dude and an Asian chick onto the cover of your admissions brochure, is diversity. By “diversity,” I mean, of course, “an ass-load of prosciutto and half a shit-ton of cheese.” The simple fact is that prosciutto, in my opinion, goes so far in its succulence as to push in on bacon’s territory (if only slightly) as king of the delicious pork applications. If I ever learn that kids in Italy get prosciutto and cheese sandwiches packed in their school lunch bags, I’m going to be seriously pissed off. Although, when I picture an Italian kid at recess, I see him smoking an imported Marlboro Red, drinking a glass of wine, and making kissing noises at the girls, so I guess it kind of fits. Fits like a glove made out of stereotypes.
Primo – Pasta
Unlike that pasta bowl you just ordered from Domino’s, the pasta course in a traditional Italian meal probably won’t feature a ton of meat, seafood, or poultry (nor unlimited breadsticks, I’m being told.) And, while you may view the pasta, itself, as a mere conveyance with which to get that cream sauce from the plate to your glutton-hole, Italians take pride in the intrinsic deliciousness of the noodle. I try to make my pasta from scratch as often as possible, but with me being lazy and that shit being hard, I’m often wont to opt for the dried stuff, instead. For the vast majority of home cooks, this is a better option than getting out your stand mixer, coating your entire kitchen with flour, watching the Reds’ season implode, and punching walls and pets when you realize that you did all that work for nothing (it’s kind of a metaphor for life, in that way.) Because Italian feasts generally equal the caloric intake of an entire African nation – approximately 10,000 calories (sorry, Africa) – I like to make the pasta course fairly light. Make a simple sauce of crushed San Marzanos, garlic, bay leaf, oregano, thyme, parsley, and salt and pepper. And, as always, kids, just put a little sauce in a pan and toss in the pasta with a little of the water. Serve with bread you painstakingly bought at Ralph’s.
Secondo – Meat or Fish
Now that you’ve already eaten a full dinner, it’s time for the main course! Generally speaking, the main course in an Italian dinner is comprised of cigarettes and tight pants, but for our purposes we’ll focus on the more traditional option of meat or fish (or meat stuffed with fish, if you’re having dinner at John Madden’s house and actually think this joke is funny.) Sausage, game, poultry, or even more prosciutto is great, and all, but I’m a big fan of roasting a whole fish for this course. This is mostly due to the fact that it makes me look like an honest-to-goodness chef, but also because I like the idea of serving my guests something that features pin bones (because at least one of them, at some point, will spill wine on my floor, that’s why.) The great thing about roasting a whole fish is that it’s easy and allows for lots of freedom in terms of seasoning, type of fish, and lying about how you caught the thing yourself. Take a fish and place it in foil. Add oil, a drizzle of white wine, salt and pepper, and lemon. Stuff the cavity with herbs of your choosing, you sick bastard. Make four slits half-way to the bone, cover with foil, making a large packet, and bake at 450 for 35 to 45 minutes. Bangzo! You’ve now got a nice, whole fish that you can serve family style. And because we’re talking about Italian food, here, you have full license to make some inane and unfunny reference to “sleeping with the fishes,” just like I did up there, because we’re totally the only ones who thought of that.
Dolce – Conclusion
By now you know that I don’t do desserts (unless they’re dressed provocatively and promise to leave afterward), so I’ll just use this section to wrap up the post. Big, Italian dinners are a great way to get together with friends and family, and have them eat all your food and never thank you for cooking, even though you spent $150 at Whole Foods, and stood in front of the stove all day, which wasn’t all that comfortable, because it was hot last weekend, and I don’t have air conditioning, and, also, I think the cat I adopted is probably crazy and bites me when I try to pet her, which really doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but fuck it, I’m on a roll.
So, anyway, grab your friends and family, put some gel in that hair, talk with your hands, lose your temper because someone looked at you wrong, and make some Guido magic in your very own home. And, remember, nothing goes better with Italian food than aggressively oggling pretty girls and telling them “Eh-oh, if you like dat sausage, hon, I got sumthin’ ovah heah you really gonna like,” while grabbing your crotch. P.S. If that doesn’t get you laid, nothing will. Mangiare!