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October, 2008 | Manolo's Food Blog
Archive - October, 2008

Master Chef

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A chef is master of fire, wielder of knives, and clanger of pans. In the post-contemporary, urbanized, ironized restaurant of trendy eating, however, a chef can become a tyrant, a scourge, and an annoying impediment to good eating.

There are sound psychological reasons why someone decides to pack knives for a living, reasons that usually involve an inability to sit still in class, a headstrong refusal to get-along go-along, and an innate prickliness even a mother can’t love.

Chefs are cantankerous. Why then, in the name of pleasure, in the name of all that promotes good digestion, should chefs conduct their bloody rites in front of you? Although watching chefs at work can be instructive, restaurants are not cooking classes.

At Momofuku Ko, a legendary downtown designation, scoring a reservation has become a mad video game. First you supply your e-mail, credit card, and password. The cognoscenti (not you) know that if you don’t log on precisely at 10:00 a.m. you’re sunk.

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If you win their lottery and finally get there, you take your seat on a bar stool above a narrow galley where three chefs work literally in your face. The Delphic menu instructs you mysteriously that tonight in exchange for $100 you will be permitted to eat whatever the chef chooses. Your only decision is one of price for “pairings” of wine and sake beginning at $50.

Be careful not to speak to the chef as though he worked in a service industry. In addition to handmade Japanese knives, he has attitude. For your trouble in scoring the reservation, this chef might very well settle a score with you.

When Mr. Henry took his seat precisely at his precious reservation slot – 6:50 p.m. – there was no else in the place. “Will you be serving us tonight?” asked Mr. Henry. “I’ll be cooking your food tonight,” replied the chef with noticeable annoyance.

Mr. Henry was not intimidated. This was not his first rodeo. He asked the chef to turn down the volume on acid rock blaring from loudspeakers, assuming rashly that song selection and decibel level had been set for chef’s prep, not for customer satisfaction. The chef pretended to fiddle with the volume knob.

Head chef David Chang chooses the music himself and like with the menu you get unexpected combinations. For music as well as for food, weird pairings seem to be the only reliable theme. If you expect citrus, look for pine needle resin.

Many dishes were stupendous. Frozen foie gras grated atop jellied consommé and buttons of mochi was truly an ambrosia, a completely original and completely captivating entrée. The venison was superb, as were the sorbets.

For the final course, fried cheddar cheese balls were entirely too difficult to digest. By the time the chef slapped the final course down on the counter, however, the wine and sake pairings, imaginative choices skillfully and charmingly poured by genuine waitresses, had worked Mr. Henry into such a glow he no longer had sense enough to complain about too much salt or too many fried things.

Gluttony is one of the seven deadlies, one Mr. Henry did not regret until much later that evening.

Sauciness is a quality that should remain on the plate.

The AGA con

Gong.Li.jpgMr. Henry likes to get the best. Failing to get the best, he prefers to do without. Back in the 1970’s when fine wine was scarce and expensive, for example, he opted for a libation more dependably available and cheaper, namely, whiskey – Maker’s Mark sour mash bourbon, to be precise. (Oh, the corn. He shudders to remember it now.)

Over the weekend in Florida he saw his first AGA cooker. It was beautiful, more beautiful than the Jaguar XK-E, more beautiful than Gong Li.  He rushed up to its enameled cast iron surface and promptly burned his fingers.
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The AGA cooker, you see, always remains hot. You fire it up and leave it on…..forever. It has no knobs or switches. Designed in 1920 by a blind Swedish Nobel-prize winning physicist intent on alleviating household drudgery for his long-suffering wife (you know the type), the AGA is ideal for a farmhouse in Upper Scandihoovia where the heat stays on all summer but awkward, and hugely wasteful, for a southern clime like Florida.

Manufactured in England, today the AGA has become the signature appliance of the British upper-crust über foodie. Each oven remains perpetually at its given temperature – 475˚, 350˚, and 175˚ respectively – with two griddles, one at a constant 800˚, the other at a constant 400˚. To effectively make use of this antique system a cook must learn how to shuffle pots from hot to warm.

If you want to make breakfast muffins, the thing is wonderful. You don’t have to wait for your oven to reach temperature. Bread bakes to perfection. Toast on the griddle is especially delicious.
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The price, however, is gargantuan. The elegant four-oven model costs more than $15,000.

Price notwithstanding, in your covetous heart of hearts don’t you want the best oven money can buy? No. It’s a con. Like designer luggage, the AGA is an indulgence best left unfulfilled.

Four years ago when Mrs. Henry decided to renovate their kitchen she quickly concluded that a Wolf or Viking professional range was simply too big for household needs. Although the Thermidor had its attractions, the Dacor 30” gas range in stainless steel finish won the day. Its cast iron range top is sturdy, handsome, and easy to clean. The convection oven (used principally to brown baked goods) works well to eliminate hot spots. Its most important feature, however, one used almost daily, is the ceramic radiant heat broiler. Fish is cooked perfectly in 10-12 minutes. Asparagus browns in half that time.

A two-oven kitchen, convenient if you routinely serve state dinners at the White House, is for most people a waste of money and space. One oven, one refrigerator, and one LARGE kitchen sink are all any family kitchen needs.

In truth the choice of oven is not all that critical. The cook’s capabilities are more important. If you use an oven thermometer, you may ignore the readings on your oven’s own thermometer, readings which are often misleading because temperature varies from front to back and from side to side within the oven. Moreover, if you cook in an enameled cast iron dutch oven pot, you can achieve the highest quality braised meat dishes in a perfectly ghastly old oven like the one that graced the Henry’s apartment when they bought it, an avocado green contraption they swore would be out on the street in minutes but which gave yeoman service for 20 years.

Ruhlman Rules

Most of Mr. Henry’s friends don’t yet own a copy of Michael Ruhlman’s The Elements of Cooking, but soon enough they will. ruhlmancooking.jpg

Borrowing the format from The Elements of Style, Ruhlman’s book is an instant classic. Its prose has been lovingly reduced to a pure, essential cook’s stock. Essays on heat, sauce, and the egg are delightful. A short essay on the veal stock in itself is worth the price of the book.

 The essay on salt as the critical kernel of any cook’s knowledge, however, was the most surprising and most enlightening.

Do you really understand an emulsion?

Can you make sauce á la minute?

What is a “mother sauce?”

Should you salt meat ahead of time?

Do you understand the fundamental distinction between dry heat and moist heat?

How many knives do you have in your kitchen? (You only really need two.)

Should you cook tomatoes in your cast iron pan? (No.)

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If you know the answers to these questions, you are already a genuine chef. In that case you will be pleased to read Ruhlman’s eloquent distillation of rules you learned the hard way. For the rest of the us, The Elements of Cooking is a free semester at cooking school.

Rosemary and Thyme

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At The Bent Spoon in Princeton, New Jersey, they serve Earl Grey ice cream, an ethereal afternoon treat. They also serve apricot ice cream with thyme, equally ethereal, as well as chocolate ice cream with orange, mint or rosemary.

Mr. Henry understands the pairing of apricot and thyme, an exotic blend redolent of ancient Andalusia. At Nadia’s table he once ate rabbit stewed with prunes and thyme, a dish he would gladly reproduce at home if rabbits weren’t so cute, so fluffy, and so popular with younger eaters in the household.

Thyme is a sensual aromatic, less strident than rosemary. In the ancient world thyme was burned as incense. Rosemary is pushy, not as insistent as cardamom or clove, perhaps, but pushy nonetheless. Dried rosemary can easily overpower a tomato sauce or pot roast.

When Mrs. Henry ties fresh rosemary stems to a loin of pork, the oven fills with a delicious rosemary smoke that transports you to Provence. Rosemary goes well in sautéed mushrooms with bacon, garlic, and shallots, in meat stock, and in savory sauces using dry white wine or vermouth. Lamb absolutely demands it.

But rosemary with chocolate??

Despite serious misgivings Mr. Henry placed faith in the kitchen wizards at The Bent Spoon. Yesterday he braved a cupful of chocolate ice cream with rosemary, a pairing that seemed to defy imagination. Two distinct flavors from two distinctly different flavor groups came together into a heavenly post-prandial delight, an aromatic combination that simultaneously cleansed and perfused the palate. The experience was worth an hour on the New Jersey Turnpike.