Scratch tracks, or salad theory

NCI5_POTATOOne thing that tickles me about Scratch: their website is not “scratch.com” or “scratchbakery.com” or “scratchdurham.com” or anything obvious like that. The first two of those URLs happen to be already taken, but I like that Phoebe either created the site before the store had a name, hated the available URLs that involved the word “scratch” and would seem appropriate, or just decided there was no reason to bother in the first place with the limiting convention of naming your site after your business. In any case, it’s http://www.piefantasy.com, which is extra fun because part of the intrigue about Scratch, and about Phoebe’s illustrious background as a pastry chef, is that the place is really just as much a cafe as it is a bakery–more the former than the latter, in fact. They make and sell pie, but proper breakfast and lunch food is really their bread and butter, so to speak. They only sell actual loaves of bread one or two days per week.

This general unconventionality and straying from the acceptable is on my mind a lot, given the life we lead (and often wish we led more, when circumstances shoehorn us into more “normal” routines, and sometimes pie-fantasize about making our life even less conventional, e.g. let’s move to Portugal/SE Asia/New Zealand/the coast/my sister’s house).

And it’s been on my mind about Scratch, too, more specifically. I keep thinking about the sweet potato salad. I thought it was just a brunch special, but it turns out to be a menu mainstay. The ingredients:

  • romaine
  • roasted sweet potatoes
  • pickled celery
  • croutons (are they cornmeal, or cornmeal-crusted?)
  • marinated garlic slivers
  • blue cheese dressing

When you look at these ingredients in a list, they do not look like ingredients you would think to combine in a salad the first place, let alone then consider whether they would collaborate on tasting good. But the salad is very good, almost addictively so. Part of why I like it is that you don’t see any actual hunks of blue cheese, which I don’t even like all that much, and part of why I don’t like it much is that it tends to overwhelm anything you put it in.  But the cheese in Scratch’s salad is a subtle part of the dressing. It plays well with others for a change.

Look closer and you can see the way the salad works. You have the sweet of the sweet potatoes against the salt in the cheese and the tang in the pickled celery. The croutons, odd as they are (I know you don’t like them), provide not only a new texture; they also impart a sense of completeness to the dish: it’s enough for a meal. The lettuce is romaine because you need a sturdy lettuce to handle all the flavors–and also–just thought of this–because there is just the barest allusion to a Caesar here: the blue cheese has the strong flavor that the anchovy would bring; the garlic hints at the garlic in a classic Caesar dressing; the sweet potatoes are standing in, in texture and color, for egg yolks. The pickled celery gives it all an acidic kick that actually recalls the tang of parmesan, just a little.

Yet I don’t think the salad derives from quite so much salad theory. It feels more organically, perhaps accidentally, conceived. I really admire dishes whose ingredient combination is not only not obvious but in fact seems counterintuitive. At [redacted], we usually have dishes with flavors married in ways you would traditionally expect, and when they’re unexpected it’s probably because of carelessness. The other night, they stuck the newly arrived yellowfin tuna on a set where some other fish had been–black bass, maybe–and I immediately wondered why they hadn’t put the tuna on a different seafood set, running concurrently under a different fish, that included capers, favas, and other Mediterranean ingredients that would have called to mind a salade nicoise. They hadn’t done that only because that would have meant thinking conceptually for a few moments, which no one at [redacted] has much time do these days.

But then I thought, Why does it have to seem like a nicoise? Isn’t it just depressingly conventional to succumb to that thinking, where every dish has to slide into familiar territory? I’m not big on extravagantly weird combinations, which too often veer into plate-undiscipline: weirdness covering for a lack of purpose, or in fact a tendency toward distraction and/or abstraction that is fronting for what is deep down an impoverished creative imagination. But the sweet potato salad at Scratch piqued my appreciation for experimentation on the footing of sound models.

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Meals of the week

mitchell umdJust catching up from the week:

Plate: Loin of pork with red curry-orange sauce, braised with sweet potatoes and carrots. Sauteed kale.

Discipline: Let’s see, you tweeted a picture of this one, didn’t you? (That’s sweet of you, although here is how I generally feel about that.) I think of boneless pork loin in the following baseball-biz terms: using this cut is exploiting a market inefficiency. Pork tenderloin at the farmers’ market will run you $16-$18 per pound. Boneless loin, which in some ways I actually prefer, fetches $9-$11. That is still a lot, but given how little meat we buy, I don’t really mind. It’s amazing to me what a single step down from the top of the food summit will achieve. I like pork tenderloin, too, but there’s no justification for buying it when you can get nearly the same level of flavor for something like half the cost. Also in baseball-biz terms, it’s how you use the piece more than what it actually is that sets its value. (Boneless loin actually gives you more options, too.) Cuts like tenderloin (filet mignon, etc.) are for people who don’t feel like cooking. They are pretty delicious just salted and peppered and then grilled five minutes or so. Truth be told, it’s not much more complicated to turn out a good boneless loin (or shoulder steak or whatever); you pay a premium for the luxury of not having to think about it at all. And for the “brand”: “tenderloin” is sexier than “boneless loin.”

We drank Leitz 2002 riesling spatlese with this; I don’t recall the German-wine vineyard-site fine print on the rest of the label. I got it at one of Mark’s auctions for something like $25/btl. That’s cheap for really good spatlese riesling in its sweet-spot for drinking, from a primo vintage.

Plate: Grilled wahoo with rice and spinach.

Discipline: I bought this fish from Locals Seafood at the University Mall farmers’ market. That dinky little market can be refreshing sometimes, because there are like eight vendors and one of them sells stupid baked goods that I don’t pay attention to. I got to the market half an hour after it opened on Saturday, and one of the vendors had already sold out of everything; he was already packing up. (Well, it’s February; no one has much to sell.) I like going to this market every now and then. For one thing, Locals Seafood sets up there–the radius restrictions at the Durham market DQ them, which is stupid. So in Chapel Hill I can pick out fresh fish without having to order it in advance from those guys (whom I love).

For another, it can be healthy to go to a market where pickings are modest. You don’t overindulge, you don’t get spoiled, you don’t forget that farming is a seasonal, weather-affected endeavor. We had a snowstorm three days before this market on Saturday, and the major road that goes by Univ. Mall was rendered impassable and refugee-ish for 24 hours. I didn’t mind showing up not long after that event to find that my choices were limited to fish, greens, sweet potatoes, eggs and fresh lamb (from Fickle Creek). Since you have an aversion to lamb, it was basically a four-food display of choices. And the greens were really limited by the time I arrived: bags of spinach, weedy-salad mix, weedy-braising mix, and larger-sized bags of spinach and weedy-braising mix. The enforced discipline at the market meant transitive discipline at dinner, which we ate at 5:15 and was essentially two of the four things I bought at the market, plus rice. It happened to be delicious. But the effect was: Here’s all there is to buy: what are you going to do with it? Challenge accepted. The trick to it? Don’t try to do too much. This is like taking an outside pitch the other way for an opposite-field single.

We drank the rest of our Hobo Rockpile/Branham Zinfandel, which had been open for two days. I was happy to discover that it was still in good shape. Nathan told me this was the best Zin he’s ever had. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but for the price it’s close. Very light and restrained.

Aside: We wolfed this dinner down and then went to watch Duke play Maryland at Devine’s. I’m not going to lie to you: My heart was pounding for the last 20 seconds of the game, and when Mitchell’s shot somehow didn’t fall for Maryland, there was that astonishing, palpitating extra release of energy that comes after the climax, as your body offloads all the excess adrenaline it has built up. Maybe that’s why I wound up with a headache.

A little more about discipline here: Maryland’s Charles Mitchell missed that last shot that hung on the rim and then fell off and would have won them the game. It was Mitchell, a very emotional player, who got upset with the ref earlier in the game when he was whistled for an over-the-back on a rebound attempt. He was so demonstrative about it that his teammates had to calm him down as they went to the bench for a timeout. I remember thinking, you’ve got to get a hold of yourself, kid; this game is going down to the last minute, and it’s gonna require everything you’ve got, and you can’t be wasting energy on a call that goes against you. Sure enough, it comes down to this last shot, and he takes it, and it was hard not to think that his failure to master himself earlier in the second half came back for retribution and inched that ball out of the cylinder.

Plate: Golden tilefish.

Discipline: What did I serve this with? That baby tatsoi? I don’t recall. Rice, as per almost always. That was the night of the major snow; we were lucky that Locals got this fish delivered to us before the Triangle became a winter war zone. My point here is that tile, while evidently being a mercury-bomb (super-avoid!), is really delicious. It’s an improvement on grouper and about 25% cheaper. I think I read somewhere that a good amount of fish served as grouper on restaurant menus is actually tile. [Redacted] at [redacted] told me that their grouper orders routinely arrive with a couple of tiles mixed in, and they have to decide whether to send them back or just say hell with it and cook the tile as grouper anyway. Sometimes it probably just depends on what day/time it is and whether he feels like messing with the hassle of the phone call, rescheduling pickup, hawking over the subsequent invoice for credit, etc.

Two days later I made a little stew out of the remaining scraps of tile, and the stew was actually better than the dinner. Simple, too: cooked it in chicken stock with capers, garlic, scallions, chile flake, lemon. Over leftover rice. Fish stew, done well, is one of the great underrated meals.

I’m fairly certain we drank that Contra Soarda vespaiolo with this. I super-dig this wine, another obscure one that would cost twice as much  money if anyone knew what the hell it was. If there is plate discipline, there is bottle discipline, too. Just look one inch away from center, there’s all this good wine that’s absurdly cheap for the quality. So much of poor value in the world of food and wine is just punishment of people who are too timid or lazy to do any searching or wandering at all. Life in general, too…

Plate: Grilled kielbasa and poached egg over shiitake mushroom polenta; salad.

Discipline: The egg was a last-minute idea (that whole “breakfast” joke that makes fancy-restaurant chefs feel so clever about themselves; also, we didn’t have enough food without the egg). The kielbasa was from Chapel Hill Creamery, whose meats I much  prefer to their cheese, which I find perfectly good but very poor value. $16-$18 per pound for cheese, a snack food? I can buy pork tenderloin for that! I think I’m one of those people who doesn’t “get” cheese; it’s lost on me. Also, dairy and my digestion are like an episode of American Gladiator.

This turned out to be quite delicious. Polenta is so easy to make, it’s almost cheating. I remember Mindy’s former beau, Bill (who cooked for [redacted] long ago, way before I worked at [redacted]), showing me how to make polenta when I was 24 and saying, “It’s almost impossible to overcook polenta.” And you can put almost anything in it. It’s like risotto for the lazy cook. The secret to keeping lumps out is to mix the cornmeal with a little cold water and make a slurry, which you then drizzle into the saucepan of hot stock. Whisk a few minutes; when it starts to thicken, you go take a shower and come back later.

We had Marquis D’Angerville 2004 Volnay Clos Des Ducs with this. Breaking out fancy stuff on a night when some solace was in order. This wasn’t a good year at all for Volnay, which may account for why I was able to buy 4 or 5 bottles cheap on distributor closeout. More discipline: know your vintages! If you do, that allows you not to worry so damned much about them. It’s more, know your producer. D’angermouse is really famous, and old (they still spell it “Vollenay”). The wine was delicious, and in no need of further cellaring, although it’s necessary to add that the cork was quite soaked and the wine perhaps accelerated in its evolution. A real treat.

Then we went to The Parlour and got ice cream. Wasn’t the narrative mostly about how mean the countergirl was? I liked my ice cream and you loved yours, but we talked mostly about the disaffected service. It didn’t occur to me till just now that she could have been someone we knew… or our daughter. We needed an extra scoop of comfort tonight, and to have some things because of other things we want more but can’t have.

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Just the facts, ma’am? (In a pig’s ear)

The-Castle-KafkaFurther to today’s conversation about the author of The Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata. (Here is the piece I read about him.) The question is whether there’s any validity to the claim that it’s OK to change facts in order to “seek a truth here […] but not necessarily accuracy,” as he puts it. “The subjects themselves were betraying a sort of unverifiability,” he adds.

And then we compared it to those ballplayers’ mistaken memories of that Durham Bulls game back in 1984. What they were doing was compensating, unthinkingly, for some unverifiability, whereas D’Agata was doing it on purpose. The Bulls all thought they lost, the Mets (well, Mike Cubbage) thought the same thing. That’s probably because the Mets won the series, so the fact of the game is subsumed into the truth of the series.

So tonight I sat down to start THE CASTLE and opened my copy, which I bought at Half Price Books in Austin about thirteen years ago, basically because James Kelman, with whom I’d been studying fiction (“studying fiction”!  What an overblown phrase–like I sat next to him by candlelight and we read passages from Henry James aloud or something! I took a fiction class with him, that’s all, and it had about twenty people in it), pronounced it “a fuckin’ masterpiece” and made us feel inadequate and lazy for not having read it. I have been carrying the damn copy around ever since (but not nearly as long as I dragged my copy of NAUSEA around before I finally read it, more than two decades later). It’s a handsome volume, and it has two forewords, one by Irving Howe, and the other by Thomas Mann, both of which I confess I found nearly unreadable: ponderous, heavy-handed, and given to just the kind of overstatement and windy interpretation that both writers advise against in reading the novel. Kelman was right about “Metamorphosis” when he insisted that it’s just a story about a young man who turns into a bug; likewise, THE CASTLE has to be read primarily as a story about a guy trying to get into a castle–that is, if you’re reading for enjoyment, which I am.

I knew something about the leeriness in which the incumbent translation, by a Scottish couple named the Muirs, is now regarded. I knew there was a new translation (actually, there’s more than one) based on a further restored “definitive” etc. text. It was from this new dispensation of Kafka’s work that the translation of THE TRIAL I just read was derived. How much did it matter which translation I read? I read the Muirs’ first lines:

It was late in the evening when K. arrived. The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there. On the wooden bridge leading from the main road to the village, K. stood for a long time gazing into the illusory emptiness above him.

With the cautions about the Muirs somewhere in my mind, I got snagged on “illusory.” This led me a few steps around the internet to an essay by Mark Harman (not that one, NCIS!), who did the more recent translation, and after all 22 pages of that I decided he’d convinced me that the Muirs’ rendering of the original was a shameful prettification and simplification and even narrow interpretation of the original and that I could by no means read another word of it. (We know what they say: Never take advice from someone who has a product to sell. But if we observed that rule absolutely we’d never buy anything and starve to death, probably. I’m reminded of the line in HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY that goes something like, this, after humankind has just proved to God that God does not exist and God “vanishes in a puff of logic”: “for an encore man goes on to convince himself that black is white and gets himself killed by a car on the next pedestrian crossing.” Sometimes it’s better not to look too hard at things.)

It’s obvious the Muirs took liberties with Kafka that the ethical reader would take umbrage at. We should deplore what they did, evidently, which was basically to twist Kafka around and mistranslate him. But were they–does all translation?–just “seeking truth here, but not necessarily accuracy,” as D’Agata puts it? I looked at a few paragraphs of Harman’s translation, which is almost certainly “truer” to Kafka but unquestionably less pleasant on the eye. He knows this, and his argument is that he’s not only more faithful to Kafka, he is also reproducing what he says is Kafka’s deliberately dodgy punctuation, run-on sentences, word repetition, and so on. But was it really deliberate? Harman suggests as much, and there is a little bit of evidence in Kafka’s notes, but it’s hard to say for sure. We do know that THE CASTLE was left unfinished. Would Kafka have cleaned up his prose and made the novel more beautiful? Maybe the Muirs were paying him more respect by assuming he would have improved on what he had done. In any case they probably thought they were polishing up his truth at the expense of his facts. I wonder if what D’Agata was doing with his essay could be argued to have been just the modern form of translation.

A little about food, because that’s this blog’s subject, right? This is a little cheeky, but to log a little restaurant “review”: we went to 35 Chinese in Cary for dinner last Sunday after I picked you up from the airport. This was funny partially because it seemed nearby but in fact turned out to be a solid half hour’s drive from the airport. And to give this an extra Kafkaesque kick (that word “Kafkaesque” just had to be used, no?), the restaurant did not seem to be where the map said it would be, and then we drove past the place something like four times before we found it, more or less in a parking garage in the most nondescript part of one of the most nondescript towns, Cary, I’ve ever been in.

First we had the rather Kafkaesque experience in which the waiter denied the existence of a separate “Chinese” menu (which was perhaps true) and then more or less refused to let us order the pig’s ear appetizer. We had to prove, or at least dissemble, that we knew what we were ordering and weren’t going to send it back to the kitchen after discovering that it wasn’t General Tso’s chicken or something. (We can now go ahead and say, “In a pig’s ear!”).

Not being allowed, as the white customer, to order the “weird” food in an “ethnic” restaurant, is sort of a near-cliche of dining culture (more “foodie” culture, I guess), but it had never actually happened to me before. In retrospect, I’m not entirely surprised that it did: remember that the hostess led us to the table with menus and chopsticks “in case you want to try,” as though even in the year 2014 chopsticks could somehow still be considered exotic or flummoxing utensils? This was a tip-off that they had gotten used to a very stodgy white portion of clientele who actually do find chopsticks weird and hard to use.

The waiter was really, seriously intent on not serving us the pig’s ear appetizer, and I almost let him have his way. But then I decided no, I’m ordering the pig’s ear appetizer, and finally he relented. Yes, this was comical, but I was somehow genuinely bothered by the whole exchange, and even left sullen, mainly by all the work we had to do with this guy just to get him to let us order a dish very plainly on the menu in English, like I had just finished reading (or participating in) an ugly, overly complicated version of what should have been a very simple dialogue: “I’ll have the pig’s ear.” “Yes, sir.” Something like that. I felt like we should have just ordered the egg rolls or dumplings or whatever it was he expected us to want and just leave him alone and follow the rules. This was Cary, after all.

The pig’s ear appetizer is not actually my point, though. It was pretty good, well-seasoned, and close to what I expected. We ordered tea-smoked duck and twice-cooked pork, both of which were good. The duck was surprisingly, pleasingly spartan: really just smoked duck on a plate. No sauce, no garnish, and with the pieces chopped and served in such a way as to preserve the anatomical figure of the duck’s legs and such, in sequential parts.

We didn’t finish the food and took it home. Two nights later, I repurposed the duck for a noodle soup: duck stock, pumpkin-ginger-something noodles we got in Southern Pines and will probably never see again, scallions, diced ginger. It was really delicious. You said you like it when I take uneaten restaurant food and turn it into something else at home. It’s fun to do. All I did was crisp the duck in a pan with grapeseed oil in it, but somehow this lacquered the skin in a way that was really good in the soup. And now, after my D’Agata and Kafka evening, all I can think is that I retranslated the duck, or rearranged its facts, in order to make some other truth out of it, which was as satisfying as the original, and now I’m not sure which translation of THE CASTLE I should read.

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Like You’ve Been Here Before

Cranberries-1024x801It pains me that we haven’t been cataloging all the food we’ve eaten since 2009, but maybe fifty years from now (when I fully expect both of us to be still alive), the four-plus years we missed will seem like a mere blink. It’s just that beginnings are important. Off the top of my head there was the rabbit ragout on polenta that was basically just leftovers a couple of years ago, but I still remember it. There was the red drum with collards and green onions that wasn’t very good but we made it right after coming back from Topsail and ate it at your old apt. while we watched Duke win the National Championship in 2010 (and drank that outrageously fancy Chevalier-Montrachet that I bought for next to nothing on closeout from a distributor). There are hundreds more but they just get embedded in the layers of rock that constitute a marriage, maybe. Food gets consumed. I read recently somewhere a line from a writer who writes only about liquor and cocktails. He said that writing about drinks is only viable if you think of it as a form of comic writing, and I think that spirit (so to speak) is the correct one. Even bad food is sustenance, so taking it seriously (like a “critic”) is ridiculous in a sense. Look no further than last night, when you made those pancakes out of what remains a mystery-flour (rice? fine cornmeal? rodent poison?) just so you could top it with some of that little jar of cheap, Hero brand honey that you pinched from your hotel room in Chicago. Wasn’t it all about the significance of that honey, how you traveled home with it? You hated the pancakes so much that you didn’t even finish them, but I did and found them somehow very satisfying. It was 11:30 p.m. at that point and you hadn’t left the house all day. Why was that so charming?

What I wanted to write about was Christmas dinner before I forget. There was the major ordeal of mere shopping for groceries, as you and your Mom spent what seemed like half the day going all over the county and coming up empty. And then you and I headed out on our own and found a stuff-white-people-like, free-range-non-GMO-etc. turkey at the very first place we stopped, that little not-really-farmers-market (more like a clearinghouse of local-ish edibles) called Mt. Airy Market or something, just a few minutes down the highway from your folks’ house. Not only that, the turkey was small enough to be appropriate for our small family dinner, which was itself a minor miracle, especially on the day before Christmas (and not only that, the thing was halfway thawed out already). We hemmed and hawed at the price a little but there was really no way in mind that we were leaving the place without that damn turkey. It was obvious to me that it was exactly what we needed and let’s face it: I have a really good instinct for food. I don’t why I have it; I just do. It’s a frivolous asset, yet it does come in handy sometimes, and more to the point it just can’t be helped, so why try to stop it?

I thought we handled Christmas dinner beautifully, especially under the circumstances. It wasn’t our kitchen, and we had to improvise when that can of sweet potatoes you opened for your souffle turned out to be… what? Rancid? Old? Just brown? Meanwhile, I recall having cooked exactly one turkey in my entire life, for Thanksgiving in 2001 at my sister’s post-grad-school sublet in the Haight-Ashbury in an ancient oven with no thermostat. It happened to come out just fine, so with that in mind I decided that I knew exactly what I was doing and set to work on the turkey, now thawed. (I imagine we must have cooked our own turkey last year, but I have no memory of what we did, exactly, with that one they mistakenly way undercharged us for at the co-op market in Chatham County. Did we roast that and then make stock? Or was it just turkey parts that went straight into a soup? I can’t recall, for some reason.)

The other reason I proceeded like I had lots of experience roasting a turkey was that I had your niece helping me, and I think the thing you have to do with kids is act like you’re in control, like you know not only what you’re doing but how things will turn out, and let the kid have total confidence in you. You want to project authority, and by authority here I mean the sort of authority writers need to have: come with me, I know where I’m going, and I can make sense of all of this for you as we go along. Writing is teaching to a very great extent.

So I had your niece help me cut the turkey’s neck off. I let her use a really sharp kitchen knife even though she’s only ten and not tall enough for the counter height. She did a good job, and I happened to be lucky that she’s such an attentive and compliant kid (and also unafraid of a bloody turkey neck, an eight-inch chef’s knife, and her hands coated with a mixture of bacon fat and dried herbs). I’m also fortunate that Kelly is a really great Mom. I was going to say “laid-back,” but that makes it sound like she isn’t invested. She is, and one of the things she’s invested in with her kids is the notion that accident and injury are not only something you shouldn’t try to avoid, because they’ll happen anyway, but that in fact they will teach you something valuable. I think your sister’s home-schooling of the kids is what gives her this quality, this ability to court danger, just a little, because whatever may befall the family is happening at home. And because home schooling has a little bit of the frontier to it, and accident and injury are basically just beyond the frontier of the everyday. “Laid-back” isn’t right at all. It’s actually very intrepid. Campbell didn’t make a good approach on the lemon I gave her to cut and came somewhat (but not very) close to slicing into her thumb. I thought, Oh, okay, that could have happened. It somehow would have been alright.

At every step I made like I knew exactly what we were trying to do, but really I was just hoping for the best and figuring that if we put enough bacon fat on the turkey, that would compensate for whatever other mistakes I might be making. I think most cooking is way too overthought, way too over-measured, especially where slow-cooking is concerned, and although it wouldn’t have surprised me if the turkey was a disaster, I just trusted that it would be fine. I didn’t even quite realize what you were up to with the side dishes, and I thought the cranberry-orange-peel relish you made was quite delicious. Somehow, getting you out of our home kitchen (and maybe, just as importantly, into your family’s home kitchen) seemed to liberate you from this idea that you can’t cook well. (You’d probably be a better cook if I didn’t/couldn’t cook at all, or if our kitchen were bigger and more accommodating. I’m so used to tiny cooking spaces that it feels normal to me.)

A lot of it, though, had to do with your being home: you’ve been here before. Whenever there’s that familiarity, or even the assumption of familiarity (like pretending to know how to roast a turkey), we can do things we didn’t think we could do. I remember Steven Forrest once telling me that bravery wasn’t about choosing to be brave. If you have to stand there for a minute and decide to do the brave thing, it’s too late. “You have to be the bravery,” he said. It’s much easier to be the bravery when you feel at home, of course. The hard thing about life is being the bravery when you feel out of your element, which is precisely when and where the bravery is most necessary. Sometimes this can be really small, like the time in SE Asia, during my first trip there 2001, when I was supposed to go back to Jakarta after two weeks in Laos; instead, in Bangkok airport, where I was supposed to make a connecting flight, I walked over to another airline’s counter and bought a ticket to Cambodia. Hardly a big step, but it somehow changed not only my life but my ability to see what was possible in life. This sort of total disregard for what’s expected is something I’d like to practice more often, although I understand of course that you can’t just do this whenever you want, especially in a marriage, and in fact I wouldn’t even want to. There’s that line between smart risk and sheer recklessness, just as there’s one between compliance and complicity. In any case, if “plate discipline” is a multipurpose phrase, one of the things it no doubt refers to is marital uprightness. “Playing the game the right way” does have major benefits.

The turkey came out more or less perfectly, and I wasn’t surprised at all. I wasn’t surprised that the cranberry dressing you made was good, or that any of the sides were good. Honestly, I thought the best thing we made was the green beans your aunt had put up. What did I do–I threw some industrial leftover ham in them, maybe some onions? There’s a point at which, if you’re really doing everything with a sense of unerringness, you can’t mess up. And it felt very right to me to leave the leftovers (and the two bottles of wine) for everyone else when we drove home the next day. Like, we don’t need the lingering proof for ourselves. I hadn’t even quite noticed that you had spirited away some of the cranberry relish until we got home from the beach a week later with our mackerel, and then put the two together: pow. Like, any questions?

It’s pretty hard not to think about kids all the time, for obvious reasons, and the other thing I was thinking was that they are themselves a little like the turkey I roasted. If you just act like you know what you’re doing and then stick them in the oven and leave them there to do what they’re supposed to do, they’re going to turn out fine as long as you check on them periodically and don’t overexpose them. What I like about your sister, and mine, is that they project authority, but a loose authority, and don’t question that nature, be it the everyday or accident, is going to do most of the work itself.

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Merry Christmas, Adam!

red silk bow copyIt’s late. After 2am on Christmas eve. My sister and I have just eaten the cookies and drunk the milk that her children left for Santa Claus. We have finished wrapping the presents and the last stocking has been stuffed. But there’s still one more gift to prepare. I’m not sure if this is a gift for me or my husband Adam. Maybe both.

A few weeks ago, Adam proposed that we write a blog together. He had noticed that this blog was languishing–my initial efforts to write this blog were somewhat stymied by the time commitments of my new job at Duke Press and the on-again/off-again nature of my cookbook project with Scott–and he thought sharing the blog would give us both an informal place to share something that is usually a solo endeavor. I have to say, I wasn’t very enthusiastic about this idea. After all, writing is solo for a reason, right? I felt like this was my private space. Also, Adam writes so easily, so consistently, and so …uh… lengthily. I wasn’t sure I wanted to share my little corner of the internet with so active a voice. Nonetheless, I promised I’d think about it.

I didn’t have to think long before I realized that I must have been planning for this eventuality from the get go. I mean, “Plate Discipline”? I might as well have just called it “Adam and Heather” or “Baseball and Food” or anything else that expresses our coincidence of interests. But just because I wrote a dissertation on food and Adam writes about baseball (check out his most recent work at bullcitysummer.org) doesn’t mean we will stay within our tidy distinctions. Maybe he’ll use Plate Discipline to write about food; or maybe I’ll decide to write about baseball; or maybe neither one of us will write about either of those topics. And maybe I’ll maintain my radio silence and he’ll take over. I don’t know what will happen going forward, but I want to use this post to say, Merry Christmas, Adam. Merry Christmas and welcome. Your password and user id are under the tree.

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Risotto: It’s not $!#%* rice pilaf!!!!

ArborioWhat makes the perfect risotto? A cynic might respond that with enough butter and cheese, you can make anything delicious. But although our two fatty friends go a long way toward creating heavenly goodness in quite a few dishes, they are not the miracle ingredients in a well executed risotto. They are more like the finishing touches on a dish whose success or failure has probably already been determined before the fat has joined the party.

Risotto, often made with arborio rice, is an exercise in stirring and patience (and stirring) and symmetry (and more stirring). Why symmetry? Because, the grains should feel creamy and luxurious in the mouth, yet be able to maintain their individual integrity. They should be soft enough to savor but firm enough to bite into. Symmetry (of heat distribution, of ingredient size, of liquid measurements, etc) is what helps ensure that your risotto does not glom together in a textureless mass. “There’s nothing worse than mushy risotto that’s gotten too puffy,” says Scott as he starts Wednesday’s demonstration. “We’re not making (expletive) rice pilaf!” So throughout the morning’s risotto demonstration, he keeps coming back to this concept of symmetry (make sure you add the same amount of liquid each time, keep the heat of the liquid and the heat of the risotto as close as possible, make your mirepoix and your rice grains the same size). Apparently, with risotto, we’re not just going to quickly chop or throw a bunch of things in a pot and scream, BAM! We’re going to be methodical so we can control our variables. That might sound a little boring or tedious, but trust me, the final product is BAM! enough.

Today, we are joined in the kitchen by longtime Nana’s regular Richard Bruch, who has brought his daughter Susie in for a risotto lesson. Susie, now living in California but in town for the Duke-Carolina basketball game, told me that she had stopped ordering risotto in restaurants, because after growing up on Nana’s risotto, she was almost always disappointed when she tried it elsewhere. Given Susie’s high level of cooking skills and personal knowledge of the country’s finest restaurants, I’d say that’s very high praise. Hopefully, after a morning in the kitchen with Scott, she’ll at least go back to California with the ability to treat herself to a risotto that won’t let her down

We begin with a short discussion of rice. Scott explains that short- or medium-grain rice (like arborio) work best for risotto because of the way such rice absorbs the liquid. He also notes that because we’re trying to keep things consistent that it’s ideal to use a brand of rice that packages its product using grains of more or less the same size. You don’t want some kernels taking on more liquid than others, which would occur in rice of different sizes because of their variable surface areas. In general, a package of rice with smaller kernels will be more expensive than larger grains and will have greater absorption properties because, as Dr Bruch added, of its increased surface area. I confess that I was desperately scanning the high school partition of my brain’s hard drive to figure out why the surface area of a smaller kernel would be greater than that of a larger one when thankfully Susie chimed in to clarify that he meant a greater surface area to volume ratio. Ah, ok. That makes sense. So, presumably if the surface area to volume ratio is greater in a small grain of rice, absorption to volume ratio will be greater in a small grain, too. But, I’m not a scientist and haven’t sought to verify that yet, but it is fascinating and makes for interesting conversation as we pour the hard, small grains into a pan of heated oil and wait for Nana’s risotto magic.

As I’ve said, the secret to risotto according to Scott is the consistency of proportions, sizes, and so forth. That extends even to the Mirepoix, which he throws in a robot coupe to chop it down to the same size as the rice grains. After each grain of risotto has been coated with the oil in the pan and stirred well, he adds the mirepoix and stirs and coats it with the oil as well. Rather than having variable chunks of carrots cooking unevenly amongst the rice, we now have bits of onion, carrots, and celery all cooking with rice of the same size. The flavors are more easily absorbed and the vegetables cook evenly. Next comes two cups of white wine. No great need for your best wine here. Today we used a boxed wine that calls itself a chardonnay. It is adequate for cooking because the alcohol will burn off by the end of the process anyway. I make a mental note to ask if that is why we’ve used the wine as our first liquid added, but forget because Scott is giving a tip about stirring.

Like hammering, which a beginner will almost always practice inefficiently (using the whole arm rather than allowing the weight of the hammer to do the work), stirring also  gives away a beginner, who will engage the arm and shoulder when a smaller, more efficient motion would do the trick.  Since risotto is an exercise in stirring endurance, Scott is showing us how to use the wrist and the angle of the spoon to save the arm so we can stir, stir, stir…..

We add beef short rib stock 2 cups at a time and it’s hard for me to describe how good this stock smells. (Note: we added 2 cups of stock, just as we earlier added 2 cups of wine, because we are maintaining sameness and controlling our variables.)  If you have the luxury of some beef short ribs stock on hand, people, DO NOT hesitate to use it in some risotto. The aroma and flavor will blow your mind. But watch the salt, because beef stock will have a tendency to enhance the saltiness of your final product.

Well I’m jumping ahead a bit because I’ve put off posting this long enough and need to get some sleep tonight. But I will just add that we learned a trick to partially cook the rice and then spread it out on sheet pans to cool it so that if you’re cooking this for a dinner party, you can spend time with your guests and reduce your pre-serving risotto cook time to 6-7 minutes–as opposed to disappearing for the 20 or more minutes it takes to cook the risotto straight through. After thinking about it, I can’t believe more recipes don’t suggest or explain this tip, especially since it must be a very common practice in the restaurant industry.

So we cool our rice, talk a little basketball, then get it going again. Our final product is amazing. After the final cups of stock are stirred in and the rice is puffed up into soft but ever so slightly al dente kernels, we turn off the heat and add the ever magical caramelized onion puree (I’m pretty sure COP is going to need its own blog post), the butter and grated cheese and it’s ready for us to try. I’m not gonna lie to you. It’s pretty much perfect–maybe a touch salty, but here’s the thing, it’s not at all mushy–even with the interrupted cooking process.  And nor is it the copious amounts of butter and cheese that gives it its creamy tastiness. I made a point to try the risotto before the butter and grana padano went in the pot, and I assure you it was already creamy and flavorful and of a just right texture. Like I said at the start, the butter and cheese are just icing. It’s the cake that counts. No amount of butter can save a mushy grain, quite the opposite. And, say it with me, we’re not making rice pilaf!

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Lobster: The timid and squeamish need not apply

boiled-lobster-R032787-ssToday when I went to pull on my sturdy Ariat paddock boots, there was some sort of funk on the toe.  I knew immediately what it was–lobster guts. Yesterday was my first day in the kitchen with Scott Howell of Nana’s in Durham, NC. We tore apart 120 lobsters and cut the bodies open to set aside the tomalley and the roe. Some of the gunk ended up on my toe apparently.

Why was I in Scott’s restaurant kitchen at 10am? He’s decided to write a cookbook and I am assisting him.  There are obvious ways that I make sense for a job like this.  I wrote my PhD dissertation on French culinary discourse and closely studied cookbooks for literally years.  Also, before my PhD years, I worked in Paris for cookbook author and food critic Patricia Wells, so I’ve been around the food world in one capacity or another since 1994.  But there are also ways that I make no sense at all. I’ve never actually written a recipe.  And despite my knowledge of culinary history, trends, techniques, etc, I am hardly an expert cook or even an advanced cook. I’d say that like many folks out there these days, I’m an expert diner, a chronic if discriminating eater outer. Even at home, it is my new (and obviously well chosen) husband who does most of the cooking, though I suspect that is about to change.  But in all sincerity, I actually think my unadvanced skills in the kitchen will end up being a plus rather than a negative. I don’t take cooking steps for granted and thus immediately hear it when Chef assumes the reader inherently knows what the experienced cook would be thinking/doing/seeing.

In other words, I’m educated enough not to need explanations of words like remouillage and mirepoix, but uneducated enough to need clarification on sensory descriptions like cook lobster tails till firm.  What the heck is firm? Show me.  Cooks tend to say things like, put it in a hot oven and cook it til it’s done. The rest of us say, how hot? how do we know when it’s done?

So yesterday the plan was to sit down with cookbooks and discuss what we liked and didn’t like and determine a plan.  Instead, an order of live lobsters showed up. That became the immediate  priority.  I knew, of course, as does anyone who’s ever seen Annie Hall, that it’s quite common to throw live lobsters in boiling water. What I hadn’t seen before, and certainly didn’t wake up thinking I’d be doing, is the dismemberment of the live lobster.  He picked up the first one while talking to me and while it was moving about, he just twisted off first one claw then the other, then snapped off the tail and put each part in separate buckets (all still moving).  ACK! Is this really happening on my first day in the kitchen?  What did I sign up for? I love animals. I’d sort of gotten complacent about the whole killing part again. Well you know what they say, if you can’t stand the heat….

So rather than just watch, I asked for a lobster, took a deep breath, and twisted off the claws, then broke off the tail and silently apologized and thanked it for its yumminess. Once the claws and tails had been  boiled and ice-bathed and set aside, it was time to prepare the bodies for roasting (used to prepare the lobster stock).  This entailed turning the somehow still moving lobster body, hard side down, on the cutting board and cutting it open to discard the stomach, then separate and set aside the tomalley and the roe.  The messy guts are also not for the squeamish but after 50 or so, it’s just another chore.

As most people realize, restaurant cooking is not as glamorous as it looks on tv. The amount of work that goes into lobster risotto would blow your mind.  5+ hours preparing the lobsters, another 2 hours roasting the bodies and making the lobster stock, and that’s before anyone’s even thought about the risotto itself. And that’s where we picked up today and where I will pick up tomorrow.

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