Dear New York Times "Recipe Redux"

My short love affair with the “Recipe Redux” column in the New York Times Magazine came to an end on Sunday. Fascinated as I am with old recipes, I was thrilled to find a column that dug up ancient treasures like Chocolate Caramels (1881) and this 1904 bouillabaisse swimming in olive oil. The old recipe is followed by a modern update created by a chef, with only one rule, according to Amanda Hesser, the column’s author: “the chefs can improvise with flavors and techniques as much as they want, as long as they can later explain how they got from A to B.” Thus Chocolate Caramels have been transformed into Black-Sugar-Glazed Medjool Dates with Pecorino and Walnuts, while the bouillabaise becomes Olive-Oil Poached Cod with Saffron-Blood Orange Nage.

It’s not the painful inventory of each esoteric ingredient, or the exacting specifications that demonstrate you’re in the know (“dates” aren’t good enough anymore; only Medjool dates will do!), that pushed me over the edge. I’ve grown accustomed to that, since you can’t go to a bar without being forced to order not merely roast lamb but Happy Meadow Farms Lamb with Organic Creek Merlot Reduction and House-Grown Rosemary. And reading ingredients is fascinating to me.

What I can’t abide is “updating” that turns a perfect, simple recipe into a complicated production.

Things started to go downhill with June 6’s Rhubarb-Strawberry Mousse (1989). I’ll let the description of the modern version speak for itself:

As with many old desserts, the beauty of the dish is its simplicity. Yet without fail, whenever I’ve sent chefs a dessert recipe from the paper’s 159-year archive, they’ve found this very simplicity troubling. Modern desserts seem to require acid playing against sweetness, crunch jarring the suppleness, bitter challenging creaminess — a flood of contrasting elements that manage to divert our 140-character-length attention span, even if just for a fleeting moment.

So it was no surprise that after making this six-ingredient mousse, Melissa Perello, the chef and owner of Frances in San Francisco, returned with a modern, layered delight: a 12-ingredient, three-part dessert, made up of a ricotta mousse, a strawberry-rhubarb broth, garnish and cookies

Why? Why? Why take a dish whose beauty is in its simplicity and turn it into a “12-ingredient, three-part” monstrosity? It’s one thing if you’re a chef trying to woo customers. It’s an entirely different matter if you’re a home cook trying to put a meal on the table or host a dinner party after work.

Last week’s Saratoga Potatoes (1904) were the end. Saratoga Potatoes are potato chips. (Who knew that’s where they came from?) For the basic recipe, you slice potatoes as thinly as possible, fry in olive oil, and salt. That’s it.

We are told that the updated version, Crackery Potato Bugnes, are “so easy to make and . . . turn out so professionally that you’ll soon be whipping them up for every dinner party.” My version of “easy,” however, does not involve two bowls, chilling dough “for at least one hour and as long as overnight” and . . . well, this:

Using a ruler and a pastry wheel (one with a zigzag edge is nice for this job) or pizza cutter, cut long strips 1 to 1½ inches wide, then cut the strips at 2-inch intervals. (Again, size isn’t really important and the shape is flexible — you can make long strips, triangles or squares.) Using the tip of a paring knife, cut a lengthwise slit about ¾ inch long in the center of each piece. Lift the pieces onto the baking sheet. When you’ve filled the sheet, just cover the dough with another piece of wax paper and keep going. Roll and cut the other half of the dough and place these pieces on the baking sheet as well, separating the layers with wax paper. You should have about 60 bugnes. Chill for at least 1 hour or for as long as overnight.

I won’t be spending two hours chilling and God only knows how many agonizing minutes cutting up 60 slices of dough into cute little shapes for my next dinner party unless a fairy brings me a maid with far more patience and time than I possess.

Ms. Hesser needs to send those recipes to me. As God is my witness she will get an updated version for those potato chips: Britt Farms Yukon Golds Fried in Real North Carolina Pork Fat with Roasted Garden Jalapenos and Garlic.

Hmmm–I need to work on that . . .

I’m at the beach this week with the dozen or so friends I’ve been vacationing with for the last 12 years. We’re a group of food lovers, and over the years we’ve had memorable dishes, from an epic production of fried chicken to peach pie laced with bacon fat. (I believe in the goodness of that pie despite what everyone else says.)

Now, though, with only one member of our group under 40, things have begun to change. Suddenly, food issues of all sorts are putting a damper on our once free-wheeling, fat-laden extravaganzas:

1. Following her husband’s 40th birthday party a few years ago, in which he stored a whole pig carcass on ice in the bathtub for a few days, M.H. has, understandably, returned to her early vegetarianism.

2. Janice and her son, Julian, are gluten-free because her doctor has told her that she has the gene that causes celiac disease and that she needs to avoid wheat. (Her husband occasionally refers to the doctor as “that quack.”) She also avoids dairy.

As an aside, I caught Janice giving cod liver oil to poor Julian yesterday. My attempts to infuse humor into the situation: “I can’t believe you’re giving him cod liver oil!” went unappreciated. “It would be better to help rather than hinder the situation here,” Janice said. I decided it was best to leave Julian to the therapist he’ll be seeing in about 15 years.

Janice brings a lot of her own food.

3. Donna and Mara do not eat seafood.

4. Everyone (except me, it seems) has an idiosyncratic aversion of one sort or another, including raw tomatoes, tapioca pudding, mayonnaise, Brussels sprouts, liver, rutabagas, coffee, coconut, olives and mushrooms.

We had for years managed to work around these dietary predilections with minimal fuss and only the occasional blow-up.

But then Shannon and Carol chimed in.

I was planning dinner for our first night and sent an e-mail to the group asking them to remind me of their dietary restrictions. This was a silly idea in the first place, akin to stubbing my toe on purpose or giving myself a series of paper cuts. So I deserve what came next.

Carol wrote back the next day. In sum, her message said that they didn’t eat grains in any form—rice, wheat, spelt, millet, bulghur, you name it–any kind of bean, or dairy. Apparently, she and Shannon have embarked on the Paleolithic diet, in which they attempt to eat like our Paleolithic ancestors, on the theory that this is what humans originally evolved to eat before agriculture stepped in and ruined everything. (Shannon apparently picked it up when he was training for a bike race.) In essence, this means they eat only meat, vegetables, and fruit.

There’s probably no point in commenting on the wisdom of adopting the diet of a people whose average life span was about 35, or on why meat would not be considered “processed” food. All I can really say is that approaching dinner, I faced the following SAT-like logic problem:

1. M.H. eats seafood, grains, and dairy but not meat.
2. Donna and Mara eat meat, grains, and dairy but not seafood.
3. Janice eats meat and seafood but not wheat or dairy.
4. Carol and Shannon eat meat and seafood but not grains of any kind or dairy.

Our fragile equilibrium had collapsed. Were I to attempt to prepare a meal that took into account everyone’s dietary restrictions, we would be eating only vegetables, fruit, and eggs. And there are only so many omelets you can eat in a week. (Later, I learned that Mara doesn’t eat eggs.)

Poor Shannon and Carol. Over the next several days, e-mails flew back and forth mercilessly, including one in which Rocco declared that he was feeling very out of style as an omnivore and was therefore going to try his hand at dietary restrictions by keeping kosher and requiring us to get separate kitchens for meat and dairy at the beach house.

I wasn’t terribly surprised when Shannon and Carol decided to stay home. They claim it was because they’d just moved and started new jobs and didn’t want to haul two small children on a cross-country odyssey just then, but I know better. They were afraid we’d slip some millet into their vegetables.

On Saturday night, we ate tacos. Everyone was happy.

Food, Inc.

Last night we went to see Robert Kenner’s documentary Food, Inc. at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival here in Durham. I should have loved it. The auditorium at the Carolina Theatre was filled to the brim with liberal locavore-loving foodies just like me, secure in the knowledge that our organic herb gardens were sprouting and our CSA deliveries were scheduled for just a couple of weeks away.

But if you’ve been aware of these issues since the 1980s, when you first read Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet (first published in 1971), and if you grew up on a farm where your grandfather pointed out at every meal that all that you were eating had been grown right there–and more recently, if you read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma–well, you’ve seen Food, Inc. Because the director relies heavily on Schlosser and Pollan’s expertise, large chunks of the film felt like a rehash of these books. We went over the corn thing again (cheap corn makes it cheaper to feed livestock grain instead of grass, leading to factory farms, leading to the need to pump animals full of antibiotics, leading to antibiotic-resistant microbes in the food supply) we spent lots and lots of time with the vocal owner of Polyface Farms, a sustainable operation in Virginia (whom Pollan also interviewed); and we learned, again, that meat packers work in terrible conditions and that chicken farms are dreadful.

It would be wonderful if this film reached a wide audience and brought about more widespread change. For those who haven’t read these materials, the movie will no doubt be eye-opening. And the movie makes specific calls to action in the final sequence that might help us take some practical steps toward making a difference (eat local, reduce meat consumption, and of course, “visit our Web site!”).

They film is optimistic about the future, noting that the actions of consumers can change the market and pointing out that if food conglomerate seem invincible, remember that Big Tobacco, once thought invincible, had been brought down. (Or bought by Nabisco.)

But I was haunted by the thought of Lappe’s book. Her goal was to get Americans to eat in a way that would lead to reduced hunger world wide–largely by drastically reducing meat consumption. Her argument, back in 1971, was based on the idea that our meat production system was terribly inefficient, requiring 21.4 pounds of grain to cattle for every pound of beef we produced. We were misusing agricultural land by deploying it to feed animals rather than people; we should restrict livestock raising to land that couldn’t be used for other agricultural purposes and feed cattle grass instead of grain; and our use of chemical pesticides to produce food in vast quantities was getting into our meat in uncertain and potentially dangerous amounts.

We could change everything, Lappe argued, by eating differently: “The act of putting into your mouth what the earth has grown is perhaps your most direct interaction with the earth . . . . What I will be suggesting in this book is a guideline for eating from the earth that both maximizes the earth’s potential to meet man’s nutritional needs and, at the same time, minimizes the disruption of the earth necessary to sustain him. It’s that simple.”

If only it were.

Sandwiched between Stanley Hauerwas and Barbara Kingsolver

Yesterday I went back to Bullock’s Barbecue on the 21st anniversary of my graduation from Duke. Today, I went to . . . . graduation at Duke. And ate a sandwich. Both acts offer strange and possibly unrelated commentaries on my past. You be the judge.

I. Graduation

I went to Duke’s graduation primarily because Barbara Kingsolver was delivering the address. But given that this entire year has dragged me unexpectedly through the zigzagging corridors of youthful emotion that were my college days, it also seemed fitting to revisit the last scene.

This is how I came to be standing in the basement of the football team headquarters at 9:15 with Stanley Hauerwas, the only other Divinity School representative in sight, talking about his son’s impending graduation from business school. Eventually we were joined by three others. I’m wearing my academic robes, standing around with a bunch of old people in those funny velvet berets. What the hell has happened to me? We stream out of the tunnel normally reserved for football players, a team of academic athletes, running onto the field for the last game of the season.

My graduation on May 10, 1987 was a sunny day full of promise. I had hidden a bottle of champagne in my dress, which my friends and I shared. Though the champagne was split 7 ways, the warm sun, the lack of food, and the bubbles all combined to make me ever so slightly tipsy–a necessity when you are dealing with nine family members, including three and a half parents. (My dad’s girlfriend never quite made it to parental status.)

There was no danger of a warm, tipsy morning today. It would be hard to conjure up more miserable weather–mid-fifties and raining, steadily enough to require an umbrella and make everything soggy, but not so much that the exercises could be legitimately canceled. (With no viable indoor venue, Duke always holds its graduation outside).

I sat sandwiched between Stanley and my boss Wes, one chair between us to give room for our umbrellas. I had decided not to wear socks because they didn’t go with my shoes, a decision I was to regret deeply as the morning dragged on.

My only view was of water dripping on to the robe of the professor in front of me. The ceremony was interminable. They conferred about a zillion honorary degrees. The student speakers spoke. They spoke well, but I was reminded, once again, that you’re never as clever as you think you are when you’re 21. (Or maybe at 42, for that matter.)

As my feet turned into frozen lumps encased in their shoes too stylish for socks, I kept thinking, “At least I’ll get to hear Barbara Kingsolver.”

If I’d read the speech, I would have loved it. She started off funny and warm and lighthearted, full of hope just like the graduates. But then middle age hit. The speech turned into a litany on the dangers of global warming, the energy shortage, and the general destruction of the planet that would ensue in about 10 years if the Class of 2008 didn’t forgo nice houses and cars and do something–because her generation had not. “Sorry, kids, we screwed up your planet. You’ll have to fix it now. No big house for you. Have a nice life.” To make matters worse, she had fallen in love with too much of the writing, to the point that she failed to realize that her listeners were sitting in a miserable downpour, with her words the sole barrier between them, their diplomas, and a hot cup of tea on the couch.

Walking out, I overheard the following conversation between an undergraduate and her parents:

Student (now alum): “The speech–that was the worst.”
Mom: “That’s what I heard.”
Student/Alum: “She used a metaphor in every sentence!”

“Maybe because she’s a writer?” I thought. The young woman sounded like the prince in the film Amadeus, who said of Mozart’s music, “Too many notes!” But then again, 21 years ago, that would have been me.

II. The Sandwich

After this, I trudged back home to comfort myself in the only way I knew how: a hot bath and a sandwich.

You have to understand that when I was a child I was initially deprived of sandwiches–at least the kind I wanted. My mother insisted on giving us wholesome, whole grain bread–it was around the same time as her wheat germ phase. And so I longed for the white bread, sometimes sans crust, that other kids got. And so my ideal sandwich is this: bread, mayonnaise, yellow mustard, and bologna. No vegetables. No fancy mustard. No asiago or sun-dried tomato or onion in the bread. Just the soft, tender bread, the salty meat, and wonderfully vinegary mustard, and creamy mayonnaise–enough that occasionally a small blob will fall onto your plate.

And so, warm and satisfied from my bath, I ate and pondered the lesson my meal could offer to Barbara Kingsolver: Remember the joys of being young, and for the love of God, don’t pile too much crap on your sandwich.

Mis-en-Place for the New Year

Thanks to everyone for your comments and encouragement this year. Happy 2008 to all!

Here at The Not-So-Newly-But-Overly-Well-Feds we have committed ourselves to a new plan for 2008. We will learn how to be a better cook, and we will take you along with us.

“But you already know how to cook,” you say. “Is Fred going to try something besides exploding eggs in your pots and welding Wonder bread packages to the stovetop?”

Yes, I can cook, and no, Fred is not getting anywhere near my kitch . . . I mean, the kitchen if I can help it. But I know squat about the technical side–the part where you measure things, and know maybe half of the terms a professional chef might use, and can explain why you shouldn’t use a cast-iron skillet for a tomato sauce.

My plan was spurred, or inspired, by a post on Michael Ruhlman’s blog by Bob del Grosso. I quote here because the post was part of an excruciatingly long thread, but here’s the link. Explaining why home cooks get inconsistent results, he writes:

“One day the cook leaves a roast out on the countertop for an hour or so before cooking while on another day he pulls it from the fridge and slams it right into to oven. The pre-warmed roast cooked to 125-130, carried over to 140 is evenly rare while the other roast shows a ring of well done on the outside and lens of rare in the middle.

One day he lets the roast rest in front an open window and finds that it only carries over to 130 and on another day he shoves it into a corner and it carries to 150.

Point is that it is not good enough to only focus on the quality of ingredients or the steps that one follows while constructing a recipe. It’s also important to focus on the totality of the cooking (And eating!) environment and to be aware of things like internal and surface temperatures of foods prior to, during and following cooking.

I may be stating the obvious here, and I certainly mean no condescension, but when you take cooking seriously, it gets very very interesting and very very challenging.”

Well, my goal is make my cooking more interesting and challenging this year, and to learn things, and to record it here.

Let’s start with the towel on the shoulder from my last post. I learned (far too recently to tell you when without embarrassment) that’s part of my “mis-en-place,” which is simply the practice of setting out everything you need before you begin preparing a meal. It’s something I’ve known and ignored since childhood. It’s possible the technique was developed by August Escoffier (1846-1935), who pioneered the “brigade” style of French cooking, but I bet my great-great-grandmother was doing the same thing in Appalachia around the same time.

Here is my mother’s advice on mis-en-place. I was going to cite some other sources, but after consulting them I was reminded, once again, that my mother is always right.

First, about your kitchen setup:

You will be a better person and a happier cook if you keep your kitchen organized–not perfect, or even tidy, but organized. That is, put everything back in exactly the same place every time, and make sure most frequently used items are handy. Example: Pots and pans should be within easy reach of the stove, with those you use daily towards the front and those used less often in the back. All those who desire to “help” in the kitchen should have the system explained to them, or they should buy you a label maker for your birthday.

Now, for the actual cooking:

1) If you’re using a recipe, read through the entire recipe first. If not, decide what you’re going to make and what ingredients you’ll use. Check to make sure you have all the ingredients and equipment you need. I only sorta kinda do this, which certainly makes my cooking exciting and interesting, especially when I set out to make, say, an omelette and discover the expiration date on the carton of eggs was two months ago. But things will be different now. Really.

2) Put a towel on your shoulder for cleaning up accidents and make sure you have cleaning items (sponges, paper towels, etc.) close by. (Okay, what the pros say is actually slightly different. In Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain writes that he merely squirreled away his favorite towels at the beginning of every shift. But you get the idea–be prepared to clean up after yourself.)

3) Determine the equipment you need–measuring spoons, skillet, bowls, pots, cups. Set it out. If you’re short on countertop space, you don’t have to pull everything out–just check to make sure it’s clean and exactly where it should be.

4) Prepare as many items as possible before you actually assemble the dish: chop vegetables, grate cheese, measure liquids, etc. Clean up your mess as you go. Place prepared items in bowls or plates and set aside.

5) Pre-heat oven and move racks as needed. Check the recipe again, make sure everything is in place, and get going . . . .

This may sound intimidating, but it’s a heck of a lot better than setting out to make pecan pie on Christmas Day, then spending over an hour looking for an open convenience store that sold flour, only to discover the two bags of pecans you had in the freezer were actually 1) over two years old and 2) walnuts.**

** Okay, I did find a bag of pecans underneath some ancient, frozen wheat germ. . . . see what I mean by “organized”?