Lawyers who cook.
When I was telling my girlfriend about Jeffrey Steingarten, she wasn’t at all surprised he’d been a lawyer before jumping into food writing: “Sure,” she said. “He had a lot of money and since you can take clients to lunch, eating [unlike other hobbies like painting, skydiving, Tagalog prescriptive grammar] is something he could do on the job.”
I suppose there’s something to that. Steingarten has a clear bias in favor of French food — not simply “food in the French style,” but specifically food in France — which is hard to acquire in the States unless you actually have the money to go to France a lot.
But after that, I noticed that two of the food blogs I read regularly are written by lawyers — and then just now I discovered that even my favorite Filipino cooking blog is written by a lawyer.
I don’t have anything against lawyers or anything like that: but I’ve known a lot of them, both in food cities like New Orleans and elsewhere, partly because my ex was a paralegal. I knew a few who were big on restaurants, but they always talked about it as a social thing more than seeming to be an “educated eater” like Calvin Trillin. The only lawyer I ever remember talking about cooking was a friend of my parents when I was a kid, the first person to tell me I should try Thai food because I was complaining I couldn’t find enough spicy food.
So what’s up with that? Is there something specific about writing about food that’s going to appeal to the same sorts of folks as lawyering does? Is it purely coincidence? Is it a red T-shirt coincidence, where I’m only noticing it at all because it’s been mentioned recently?
I’ve been missing wild strawberries.
When I was a kid — a very little kid — there were wild strawberries growing down by the lake where we have our summer place. The houses are all built on a sloping rise crescenting the beach: the furthest one at one end looks out over the lake from a few dozen feet up on a little peak, we’re the next one after that slightly lower and set back more, behind evergreen bushes and low-growing wild wintergreen; and at the opposite end, the slope has come down far enough that you have only a slight rise, like a wheelchair ramp, from the beach area to the cabin.
From our place, you walked down the pine-needle-and-twig-covered hill to the beach, which was always a pain since we were kids and it was summer and our shoes were reserved for things like going to the movie theatre (it’s one of those places where everything’s got the r before the e) or to FrankenSundae to see what fresh hell we could wreak at the unlimited toppings sundae bar. J.B. Scoops — a major attraction of the area later, and now as well I assume — wasn’t even there yet, with their Chocolate Obscene and Smurfberry Crunch ice creams.
So you walk down this hill, and the lake is on your right when you get to the bottom, and continues in front of you and on to your left: you are facing the long leg of an L that has been mirror-imaged and turned ninety. This is Dog Cove, the far end of Squam Lake, aka Golden Pond — Rattlesnake Mountain is at the opposite end, and visible on all but muggy days, easy to spot with its bald patch of rock at the peak and Mount Washington and the other big brothers of the Appalachians towering behind it.
So your beach area here is square-shaped, essentially, with two of those sides on water — keep going to your left and you come across the docks where everyone keeps their canoes and sailboats, and if you keep going after that, the lake tapers off into a mosquito-infested pisstrail in the woods. Go straight ahead, and the bottom of the lake drops off sharply, so that as soon as you swim you’re in the deep end, with catfish below you. Going out from the corner into the water is a line of rocks, good for playing on, fishing from, looking for snails around, etc.
On the right is the “real” beach, with the sandy bottom, and the gradual slope from the shore so you can walk in the water before you swim. Sand’s piled up on the shore there for towels, castles, etc.
And in the elbow there, where the beach tapers out into grass, is where the wild strawberries grew. Not many of them. Three plants, I think, which means on a good day I’d find six strawberries, each of them the size of a Cheerio, tiny and more heart-shaped than ordinary strawberries, much more intensely flavored, like it was all packed in there: sweet, sure, but tart, like a mild Sour Patch Kid (which didn’t exist yet).
No one seemed to know about the strawberries but me, or at least no one bothered eating them. I showed them to my mother, sure, out of habit so she could make sure it wasn’t poison I was eating (before New Hampshire got sent to development hell, waddling around and eating things from the ground was a pretty common childhood pastime: there are tons of wild foods and cultivars that escaped from their domesticators hundreds of years ago, largely unnoticed).
Me, I’d check the plants every day or so, or at least every day I remembered. They were damn. good. strawberries.
But we were at the end of the lake, and the current, such as it is, flowed in our direction.
So every day, the water took a little bit more of the beach with it, down into that mosquito trickle. And every day, the lakebottom lost a little more sand and accumulated a little more mud. So eventually, as they’d done every once in awhile before, the housing association pooled money together to a) dredge the lakebottom and get rid of some of that mud, and b) dump sand back in there.
Which was fine. It was good. I hated getting my feet in the muck accidentally, where it’d be suddenly and inexplicably cold, which I knew was a sign the catfish were going to eat me.
But the truck ran over the wild strawberries, and those big ridged wheels tore the plants out, roots and all.
They can’t be blamed: they had no way to know, and the strawberries were right there only inches from the footpath, where they’d remarkably never been trampled even by Flip-Flops, and no one really knew about them but me: no one knew that just as the French fraises des bois are one of the world’s most prized fruits, the truffle of the sweet-and-tart world, and has for hundreds of years resisted cultivation, so too is its cousin fragaria virginiana, which is indigenous to the Atlantic coast of North America.
That was over twenty years ago, and you just can’t get wild strawberries at the store — nor even at the Farmer’s Markets I’ve been to, because they aren’t farmed as such. You occasionally see wild strawberry preserves, but these are just as often the French fraises des bois — perfectly great, but silly to import when we have our own local analogue — or fragaria ananassa, which is actually a cultivated berry that’s the ancestor of the modern strawberry — smaller, tarter, tasty, but no virginiana, Santa Claus.
What I have learned from roasting three chickens this week:
1: Spreading a little bit of mayonnaise — enough to make it glossy, wiping away any excess that shows up as white — on the skin of the chicken, instead of butter, crisps the skin up until it’s almost paper-thin. The skin also seems to end up with less chicken flavor, but it’s hard to tell after doing it only once.
2: I really like roasting it breast-side-down, one of the ways Steingarten mentioned, instead of breast-side up. The thighs and breasts are done at the same time with no hassle or intervention on my part. I’m not sure how well this would work with a stuffed bird.
3: Marinating a chicken for three days in something with salt (mojo criollo in this case) amounts to brining it: enough so that the chicken tastes kind of like a cross between smoked chicken and ham. It isn’t a bad thing, but it doesn’t serve a chicken craving.
4: Coq au vin really does not work when I compromise and try to make it more traditional: my method layers potatoes, onions, and chicken thighs seasoned with green peppercorns and herbs, and an amount of wine such that when it’s first added, it doesn’t come up to the level of the chicken — but it might once the chicken and onion juices start to come. Anything else, and everything gets either too much or too little wine flavor.
5: Leftover chicken might be the most flexible and accomodating leftover meat, and not because it lacks taste. It’s the texture, at least in part — you can cook it wet or dry, long or short, and everything pretty much works out. When was the last time beef did that for you? Yeah, half past never is when.
The news is a few months old, but I’ve only just read it and didn’t see mention of it in the blog:
The 50 best restaurants in the world, according to Restaurant magazine. The blog world has been all up in arms about it for one reason or another.
Personally, I find the idea of making such a list — the best restaurants, not my favorite restaurants — surreal and ridiculous, enough so that I can’t mind it. Competence you could quantify, sure: and quality of service, and price (but how do you account for different local economies, in that case?), and freshness of ingredients: but how on Earth do you even establish criteria for “the best,” much less weigh them?
And even if Grape Ape and the Superfriends give you the powers you need to accomplish that, how are you capable of determing the 50 best restaurants right now — or even this year? Ideally, you’d go to each more than once: let’s say you go to each twice, that’s 100 restaurant visits represented by the top 50 … which leaves only 265 dining days, which means at best you’re picking your top 50 from a preselected list of 200 or so (in the world!), or you’re not going to a restaurant more than once, or you’re comparing lunches, dinners, and brunches.
And that assumes you only eat out.
The more likely option is that few, if any, of the 300 judges have been to all 50 top restaurants this year, much less a significant number of those restaurants not selected — that the list represents, at its topmost ranks, the significant overlap of its judges’ experiences (which accounts for the French Laundry, as well as Nobu London instead of Nobu New York — it’s a UK-based magazine, so more judges would have been to Nobu London); and at its middle and lower ranks, those favorites which have garnered good reputations or happen to have a handful of fans among people who eat for a living.
The confusing things about my buying a box of Orville Redenbacher Cinnabon-flavored microwave popcorn are
1) I don’t like microwave popcorn: I like it popped with just enough oil to keep it going, on the stove, in a pot. I like the butter, if there is any, to be butter. I like the salt to be light.
2) I don’t like sweet popcorn, generally — if I’m putting anything but butter and salt on it, it’s cayenne or garlic. The exception is caramel corn, which I feel is an entirely separate thing.
3) I don’t like Cinnabon at all: it looks decent on the webpage there, but they make probably the worst cinnamon rolls I’ve had, and I’m including even generic store-brand cinnamon-rolls-in-a-tube in that “probably.”
4) I wouldn’t say I’m a cinnamon snob, exactly, but ever since discovering Ceylon cinnamon — real cinnamon, as opposed to the cassia (aka Chinese cinnamon, aka bastard cinnamon) that usually passes for it, at least in the States — I’ve had different expectations for it. Ceylon cinnamon has an almost citrusy note that made me understand why Cuban, Persian, and Mexican cooking all combine cinnamon and citrus.
And yet, I kinda sorta liked it.
You get a bag thing of microwave popcorn, you know, the kind that microwaves up into these puffs splotched with yellow from the dyed canola oil, only in this case it also has cinnamon on it — and I haven’t checked the ingredients, but I’m not even sure if it’s real cinnamon. It might be a cinnamon-inspired powdered topping with trace amounts of cassia oil, I don’t know. What it tastes like is the cinnamon they use in cereals and whatnot, your Cinnamon Toast Crunch, your Cinnamon Life, your Cinnamon Fruity Bombs A Go Go.
THEN THEY GIVE YOU FROSTING.
I mean, that white frosting that goes over cinnamon rolls? The stuff that SHOULD be pretty much confectioner’s sugar (icing sugar in the UK, I think, right?), water, and maybe some kind of stabilizer, but for some reason always has shortening and xanthan gum and beetles in it, or whatever? Yeah, it comes with a pouch of that that you drizzle over the popcorn.
Remember back in high school, when you’d come home from the bus stop, pop some popcorn, and pour some frosting over it?
No, you don’t. Because that would have been really dumb. Even when I was completely in the thrall of adolescence, microwaving marshmallows with chocolate chips to eat with a spoon, pouring butter on my French fries, even then, I wouldn’t have put frosting on my popcorn.
I don’t know if it’s the courtesy of giving me frosting for my popcorn, or the audacity of it, that made me kind of warm up to this Cinnabon popcorn. I mean, it’s a nice surprise at first, and then you realize you have a bowl of popcorn with frosting on it. And that you’d look dumb eating popcorn with a fork. But if you don’t, you’re going to get frosting all over your fingers. It’s like this weird evolutionary pop quiz.
So I’d bought basil.
More to the point: for two dollars, I bought a grocery sack full of fresh basil; by comparison, a small plastic pack of basil with enough for pesto for two, or a dish of Thai basil chicken, costs between $1.50 and $4.00 at the grocery store, depending on discounts and whether it still has the roots on. This was easily ten times as much.
And it was becoming less fresh. I woke up with a migraine today that required medication, which meant getting any work done was probably out of the question. So it was a good day to deal with the basil, especially since I intended to buy more this coming Saturday, whether I’d found anything to do with the first batch or not. I mean, it’s really fresh! And that price! It’s hardly the basil’s fault if I don’t know what to do with it.
(1) The basil sandwiches I mentioned.
(2) Pesto. Boy, it takes a lot of basil to make pesto. No, I didn’t use a mortar and pestle. I know. I know. But I didn’t. Making it with the stick blender still makes better pesto than I’ve had in half the restaurants that offered it when it was The Big Thing (and more than that, now that pesto has become a sort of greenish cream sauce so many places) and all of the grocery stores. The only better pesto I can buy is the jarred olive-green stuff I find inconsistently, from … Roland, I think. I know it when I see it.
Anyway, I didn’t have pine nuts and am more focused on using up odds and ends around the house this week than I am on shopping, so I used pistachios — and semifirm sheep’s milk cheese instead of parmesan, a substitution which made much less difference than I expected. Also used fried garlic, largely because I had fried a bunch of garlic, and realized anything I didn’t hide by putting into the pesto was going to be eaten because my fingers and teeth were acting against my will.
I now have a pesto so dark green it looks like something a pine tree shat out after eating the Emerald City of Oz. I had been worried I might confuse it with the roasted green tomato puree on the same shelf; no such danger.
(3) Basil cream sauce. My girlfriend periodically craves this cream sauce a roommate introduced her to, made simply from basil and scallions steeped in cream and slightly reduced. Made a batch of that, which will probably be part of her lunch all week.
(4) Basil-chile, um, syrup.
See, I read about these nectarine conserves Steingarten made. You make a thick sugar syrupy type deal, and you pop the fruit in there, and the juices thin the sugary candy stuff so that it isn’t candy.
“Well,” I thought. “Basil doesn’t have juice the way nectarines do. Neither do these serrano peppers I’m using up. So really, I better add some water at the same time, if I want basil-chile conserves,” which is what I actually wanted. So I added the water. And the sugar, of course, seized up into a big lump of caramel. And as I tried to cook it down, it got darker and darker, and caramellier and caramellier, without actually not being syrup anymore.
I grew up in a household that made its own maple syrup, boiling down giant tubs of sap all day to make tiny jugs of syrup, and I knew that I was pretty bad at it.
“Cool!” I said, steeping the basil and chiles in the syrup, “Basil-chile syrup! There are like a BILLION uses for that!” I meant the British billion, too, in honor of Freaky Trigger. Somebody’s pancakes are probably going to hate me.
(5) Thai basil chicken. I know it should be made with actual Thai basil when possible, but regular basil is what I had, and I’ve found it’s good with anything but lemon basil. (It probably could be good with lemon basil, it just hasn’t been when I’ve made it.) Leftover roast chicken, a little Thai caramel sauce, a little soy sauce, a lot of sriracha, a lot of scallions, a lot of basil. Probably twice as much basil as I usually use, since I had it to spare.
(6) Basil-infused olive oil, with a whole crapload of basil leaves: enough so that a few hours later, the oil is already very noticeably green. I wonder if there’s a ceiling, a saturation level, a … what’s the chemistry term, equilibrium? is that the one applicable here? … to how much basil oil can seep into olive oil, or if this could actually come out strong enough to need dilution when it’s done.
And finally, I was done with the basil! Except it turned out I had twice put aside the basil for the basil chicken, and only remembered the second time, so I had enough left for another batch.
If I didn’t have work to do tomorrow, to make up for today, I’d try to figure out a way to make Thai basil chicken sauce, for those times when you want to make Thai basil chicken but don’t have fresh basil and can’t get it at the supermarket: chile sauce, basil leaves, and maybe some soy sauce would help keep the leaves not-tasting-like-crap-ish.
I’m Bill, whom some people know as Tep from abbreviating my last name, and I’ve been thinking all weekend about what on Earth to post about, while being engrossed by cooking: it’s Independence Day, and a holiday for me is pretty much an excuse to play around with food according to some thematic guideline.
Eventually, we were full, and the fridge was full of leftovers, and I had a chicken I’d roasted for no reason except wanting to, and I had time to think less specifically, so I sat down to return to pleasure reading: I’m making my way through Steingarten’s It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, which is sometimes wonderful and sometimes frustrating. He mentions a sandwich in the essay I’m reading now, of butter and sliced black truffles on bread that’s left to sit in the fridge for two days to let it all infuse together, before it’s grilled.
Well, I thought. Now that’s something.
Because ultimately, that’s what I love: not recipes, but models, templates, implications. Think of never having heard of soup before, and then being given a bowl of chicken noodle soup. Nevermind the specifics of that bowl — it could be terrible, but if you’re paying attention, you’d still infer soup, and maybe you’d recognize the possibility of tomato soup as a fusion of this new-fangled soup thing and your favorite red sauce. Maybe you’d go the other direction, viewing soup as a sub-class of sauce, and try to sauce your steak with a reduction of chicken noodle. Who knows. Either way: you’d be inspired beyond recipe.
I grew up in rural/suburban New England, with its long and tired tradition of not seasoning anything, at a time when there were no ethnic restaurants and frankly few restaurants at all. When my mother moved out of our house of fifteen years, a friend of hers came to help me pack up the kitchen so my mother could focus on trickier stuff: and the spices we threw out, many of them barely touched, were the same ones we’d had when we moved in. They weren’t large containers. The exceptions were the warm brown spices used in apple pie: there are two times you use seasonings in old-fashioned New England cooking, apple pie (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove) and poultry stuffing (rosemary, sage, thyme). Everything else is a salt and pepper world. It wasn’t my mother’s fault — her family’s been in New England for as long as there’s been a New England, and she did a good job (great baked chicken, excellent sweet potatoes, perfect sourdough bread) with what was available.
But pretty much everything since my early teens — when I discovered Tabasco sauce, Thai food, Vietnamese spring rolls, and the Philadelphia cheese steak — has been a constant process of inferring soup.
So I thought, hey, you know what I don’t have? Black truffles. You know what I do have? Some reasonable bread and some homemade butter that’s a little tangy from the buttermilk I used to culture it. And a huge bag of basil so fresh I smell a cloud of it every time I open the fridge, bought insanely cheaply at the Farmer’s Market.
And that’s what I’ve got in there now: two short rolls of bread that’re the closest local analogue to baguettes, spread with butter, coarse salt, and a handful of basil leaves, infusing for two days before I grill them enough to melt the butter without cooking the basil. Total cost, about thirty cents.
So that’s me, introduced.
A couple of years ago, when I was 16, I remember listening to Never Mind the Bollocks a lot. In particular I remember a family holiday to France that summer where I swelled with anger at having to stay in a nice hotel in the Dordogne and being stuck in the countryside unless I went anywhere with my parents. Of course if I’d have been in a town I wouldn’t have done anything at all – it was the principle, and at that point principles mattered to me. (Of course now it’s the perfect holiday and my principles are already lapsing into lazy pragmatism.)
So, anyway, I listened to the Sex Pistols fairly consistently all the way through those ten days. In particular, I remember one night-time drive through the countryside where every song off that album filled me up with explosive energy, not in a violent way, but in a way that seemed to empower me and place everything in a different perspective – with the Pistols by my side, I had some sort of pride in my moroseness. I didn’t have to care about anything. I was right, and sod the world and what it thought of me. It was a welcome adrenaline rush, made larger by the intimacy of complete immersion through headphones – a secret to everyone else.
Nearly two and a half years later, I pull out the LP after not having listened to it for a while. When the guitars in Holidays in the Sun crash in over the marching, I expect to be filled with that vital energy yet again, to feel good. And then it just feels like lazy, boorish pubrock. I can’t go crazy to this, it doesn’t fill me with anything apart from slight indifference. And it makes me think, were those few days in 1999 my 1977? Are the Sex Pistols irresistible at certain moments and only then their album takes on the attitude it needs to become essential to someone? And then I think, but that’s what music does isn’t it? Fills us with energy and emotion when we really need it. Suddenly I wish I had those principles again.