Char Girl

In everything I’ve ever cooked, baked, or even merely applied heat, I have burned almost nothing.  And it’s not because I am some miraculous cooking genius, ‘cause trust me, that I am not.

The reasons are twofold.

Reason number one is because of my first kitchen role model; my mom.

We always joked that my mom does all the worrying, so we don’t have to.  I think a lot of it is a massively overgrown maternal instinct; she wants to take care of the whole world and make it all better.FB_IMG_1497871818034_resized (1)In the kitchen this manifests itself in two main ways.

No matter how much food is prepared, my mom is terrified there won’t be enough.  She’ll make five pounds of meatloaf, and fret that it’s not enough for the eight people expected to dinner.If she was a wedding planner or caterer, her head would regularly explode and she would likely take up strong drink.

Her other phobia is the one which contributed to the fact that I’ve charcoaled very few dishes in my cooking history.

Mom has a horror of burning food.

I’ve seen her almost in tears because something had more color on it than she thought was proper.  And anything darker than the golden shade of peanut butter is inedibley burned, and good for nothing but decorating the insides of the trash can.

If it sticks to the bottom of the pan that is evidence enough to her that the whole dish is ruined.  But, I have a fix for it, burned or just stuck.First scrape a little up and decide whether it’s burned or not.  Don’t go just by color—give it a smell and a taste.  If it’s not burned and just stuck, turn the burner down low and wait a couple minutes.  It will then be easy to scrape up and stir in.  Then, for the rest of the cooking time, turn it down a smidge, and stir it more often, making sure to keep the bottom unstuck.

What if it actually is burned?  Don’t scrape anything else from the bottom.  Get out a new pot and pour the food into it, making sure that the burned, stuck stuff stays in the other pan.  You’ll lose some of it, but that’s way better than having an entire foul-tasting pot of sadness going down the drain.

Sorry, I think the chicken might be a tad underdone.

The other reason why I seldom overcook food is simple and embarrassing.  I’m too impatient.  Normally I have the opposite problem—it’s tough for me to wait for things to fully cook.  Which is actually worse than overcooking; burned food tastes bad, undercooked food can kill.

But, I’m working on it.  I view it as a measure of my growth as a cook and a human to have the patience for food to cook the way it should.

I’ve recently started cooking vegetables in a manner that calls for them to be charred and blistered.I roast them in the oven.  It works for almost all types of veg.  I clean and trim them then dump them in a large zip top bag.  For two servings, I pour in about 1/3 cup of dressing.  And not only salad dressing, but you can use that; the other day I used Barnes Supply sweet onion dressing on some French beans.  I’ve also used brown butter on broccoli.  We really liked honey mustard and canola oil whisked together, with some thinly sliced shallots.

Once they’re coated let them hang out in the fridge for a while.  At dinner time I put a rimmed baking sheet in the oven and let it heat up.  For larger, slower cooking veg I set the oven to 400.  I lay them in a single layer and cook for about 15-20 minutes, giving them a stir about halfway through.For vegetables that cook quicker I put them on the top rack and use the low broiler setting.  They take about 10-12 minutes.

With very little effort you end up with fresh vegetables that are different, deeply flavored, and caramelized.  To me they are a testament to my growth.

But if my mom saw them, she’d run for the hills.Thanks for your time.

The books of Ruth

I have some food heroes.Shirley Corriher.  She is the intellectual godmother of Alton Brown.  Shirley teaches the “why” of cooking.  You can teach a monkey to cook, but knowing the “why” you do something is the true key to the kingdom.

It’s like trying to be a writer without knowing grammar or vocabulary.  Only when you know the rules can you then bend or even break them, and in the bending refrain from killing anyone, or burning down the house.Another hero is Christopher Kimball, founder of America’s Test Kitchen, a resource for step-by-step recipes, which if faithfully followed, will never disappoint.  The secret is the exhaustive research and testing that every dish goes through.  He is the man who finally got me over my fear of hot sugar and candy thermometers.  Because of him I fearlessly create things like marshmallows, pecan pralines, and fudge.

Last year the sober New Englander in the bow tie stepped away from A.T.K. to go into an entirely new direction of ethnic technique and less time and labor intensive food.Last month America’s Test Kitchen filed suit against its creator for intellectual pillaging and plundering, among other lawyer-ish things.  It’s as if Quakers were hauling the guy on the oatmeal box into court.

But the nerdy, awkward Christopher has taught me a master’s class worth of cooking.  And thus, remains my hero.

Although she will probably laugh herself silly at this proclamation, my mother is one of my food heroes.  She’s not a chef and if you ask her, she’ll tell you she’s not a great cook, but that woman never met a mouth she wouldn’t feed.  She is the soul of generosity.  No one has ever left my mother’s house hungry.welcomeAnd no one ever will.  There is always more than enough for any number of unexpected guests.  She might apologize for the plainness of the fare, but wouldn’t dream of turning away any one of the strays and odd balls I was constantly bringing home.  To her, hell is running out of food before everyone is uncomfortably full.

Since the seventies, Ruth Reichl (pronounced Rye-shill) has been a force in the food world.  Early on as co-owner of the Swallow Restaurant in Berkley, she was a pioneer in the food revolution that took place and transformed the way we all shop, cook, and eat.She has been restaurant critic for both the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times.  She wrote her first cookbook, Mmmm…The Festiary in 1972.

But The Kid and I discovered her later, when we read her second book, Tender At The Bone, originally published in 1998.  Her voice is funny, fearless, and above all honest.  I still chuckle when I recall the account of her mother’s cooking style and food philosophy which can be summed up with, “It doesn’t matter how old it was, what it smelled like, or looked like, if it didn’t kill you, it was fine.”

She shares stories of trying to remain anonymous as a critic in the Big Apple.  She used false identities, accents, and even theatrical disguises, in her work.  All of this in the attempt to get the type of restaurant experience which a tourist from Altoona would experience, rather than sweaty-palmed, four-star fawning.In 2014, she wrote her first novel, Delicious!.  It’s the story a young woman who moves to New York to write at the eponymously named magazine, which is then abruptly shuttered.  It is partially autobiographical, as Reichl was editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine when Conde Nast unexpectedly ceased operations.

But what I really like about that book, and her others is the way she perfectly captures varied people in all facets of the food industry.  Most of them love to eat, but more, they love to share their passion.

Walk through any busy kitchen, professional or private, and someone, or many someones will come up, hold a morsel to your lips, and direct you to “Eat!”.

And they’ll watch you.  For that look on your face when they know.When they know that they’ve done it again; they created happiness out of food.  Which is what gives them their greatest happiness.

Thanks for your time.