America’s Test Kitchen v. Au Pif

I recently thumbed through a copy of My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz and was transfixed by his discussion of the French ethos au pif or “by the nose” meaning that food is to be prepared by feel. A good cook can feel (and I would argue, decide) what needs to be added, adjusted and/or executed for optimal results. Lebovitz goes on to argue that many a modern home cook demand direct, thorough, details; every step outlined to a point where cooking is more Ikea assembly than creative pursuit.

Lebovitz doesn’t condemn or laud either approach but I’ve noticed in preparing a number of his ice cream recipes (which are are excellent I might add) that he is more comfortable with ambiguity than the average recipe writer. He’ll use language like “about” to describe a quantity. Jamie Oliver, whose recipes I use regularly, applies similarly vague descriptions such as “a glug of oil” or “a small bunch of cilantro.”

On the other end of the spectrum is America’s Test Kitchen – who analyzes the science of preparing particular dishes from the ingredients to the process to the tools. America’s Test Kitchen is the producer of many favorite recipes because as long as you follow everything exactly as prescribed, the results are spectacular. There is deep satisfaction in producing a product that comes out as advertised.

The push and pull between science and artistry in food is exceptionally interesting and recently I’ve been considering it in terms of failure. There is a movement in education towards “growth mindset.” The long and short of growth mindset is that how one thinks about their failures can impact their ability to learn. If you look at a failure and say “I messed that up and I’m a horrible person,” you are unlikely to be able to learn from the failure. If you look at the failure and say, “I can try this again and what changes might I make to be more successful?” you are likely to learn from the experience.

When we cook au pif  we introduce the possibility of failure. When we cook a la America’s Test Kitchen the possibility of failure is entirely removed. I can’t rattle off or reproduce America’s Test Kitchen recipes from memory, but Jamie Oliver recipes? His recipes require cooking au pif, and I’ve committed a whole slew of those to memory. The trial and error lead to more committed learning.

I’m not very comfortable with failure, in any form really, even in food. I often apologize for flaws in what I’ve produced (even though Julia Child directly instructs otherwise). But perhaps cooking a bit more au pif will help me to consider my food failures as valuable research and move the needle on my mindset. And if not, there is always tea to soothe me.

Kippis!

P.S. find David Lebovitz, America’s Test Kitchen & Jamie Oliver in my Amazon store.

Revisions

I always performed well in school so the necessity for or desire to spend time revising work did not come naturally. I often felt a one and done approach worked for papers, but my Dad made it clear to me that writing is rewriting – and if one wanted to improve their writing, they needed to be rewriting in order to do so. The message was received and I managed to continue to improve my writing in college even without Dad’s copious edits and attentive draft review. My instructors in graduate and undergraduate school commented on the quality of my writing. One instructor told me”I think your thesis is terrible, but the paper is so well written I’m going to  give you an A.” My writing is strong because I learned the important lesson of revision and even though patience is not my native nature, I could see in writing how making changes and giving yourself time could lead to a stronger end product. (Though truth be told I’m still too impatient to do that with this blog. 🙂 But that is the blogging medium, no?)

Last October I learned I have an endocrine disorder that impacts a number of systems but most saliently how my body manages insulin. Meaning responsible monitoring involves close attention to what I eat and when and how it impacts my glycemic load. And people, I loves to eat (not a typo, plural is intentional), so adjusting my expectations about what I can eat and why and when is a necessary challenge.

It’s May now, so I’ve spent six months digesting this news and reality and it’s left me with an important observation. I cook and eat better with restrictions. I was devastated at first thinking I would never eat baked goods again – and that isn’t really the case. Adding firm parameters around what I eat and when and why increases the creativity I take with food – which you’d think I’d learn from years and years of watching Top Chef, but no. In the last six months I developed a mindful set of habits that help me to make consistently good food choices, and therefore allow for equally regular (and prudent) deviations. These changes are a process and will continue to be so – but I’m confident in my ability to revise. Even though revising my picture of myself and my dining landscape is challenging and truly against my impatient nature, it’s a worthy pursuit and likely to lead to a stronger end product.

Kippis!

Rapid Reviews: April Roundup

Fine finds and dines (admit it, you like alliteration):

Little UncleI have a great friend who works on Capitol Hill that always takes me to excellent spots for weekday lunch. This month we visited Little Uncle which recently relocated from Pioneer Square. This tiny Thai eatery features a diverse menu to suit a variety of tastes and caps of their excellent food with interesting house made sodas and a delicious iced tea brewed with pandan. I ate a black cod soup and taste tested my friend’s beef noodles. Both were rich in clean, fresh flavor and light on the dense oily quality that I often find in fast Thai places. As if yummy Thai food weren’t enough, the toasted flavor of their iced tea makes sky rocked this place to the top of the Capitol Hill lunch rotation.

Bar NoroesteA friend from college recommended Bar Noroeste as a peer from her culinary school days is working the line. And by working the line I mean kicking ass and taking names. Bar Noroeste’s approach is to reimagine traditional Mexican dishes through a Northwest lens, and while that sounds odd as odd can be, the food is excellent and charming. The prix fixe menu includes a number of levels so all diners can find a comfortable price point, and they will serve prix fixe menu items a la carte as desired. The eggplant guacamole arrives amongst a mountain range of rye crisps and is unexpectedly yum. This opener is followed by a beautiful scallop ceviche and korean BBQ-esque spread of taco meats, veg, and pickles. The particulars of the meal change with the season meaning regular visits are a reasonable necessity. Be warned though, the dining room is indeed a bar in the strange Northwest fashion of long and narrow meaning you watch servers hustle and bustle and almost blow the house down all night long. However, the fresh, superb menu makes this literal sideshow less bothersome.

Agave DreamFacing up to the reality of insulin resistance + insatiable desire for treats results in taste testing and exploring alternative sweeteners. Agave Dream ice cream made an appearance for “dry” root beer floats earlier this month (1/4 cup root beer, 3/4 cup club soda, 1 scoop Agave Dream Vanilla) and was SO satisfying it quickly made a second performance in chocolate. The glycemic index of this ice cream makes it perfect for those who are watching their blood sugar. Matt recently told me Agave is bad and leads to a fatty liver, etc. etc. etc. But for the occasional ice cream treat, I think Agave Dream is an appropriate indulgence and helps me meet my nutritional demands even when I’m “off the wagon.”

Didn’t Make the Cut

Carlile Room: Everything we ate here was delicious and interesting and unexpected for Tom Douglass, but not unexpected in a wider culinary landscape. Also the decor was odd. It’s a retro-kinda-tiki thing? With branded China plates? In my book the whole look is a miss. I’d happily go back and eat or drink, just won’t be expecting anything earth shattering.

Kippis!

Ross & Artichokes

Ross lived with Matt and I for one year before dying tragically in a rock climbing fall. He was a downright luminous person and we miss him every day. I especially miss him on warm sunny mornings as most of the spring and summer he lived with us the three of us sat on the front porch drinking up the sun, coffee or tea and each other’s company. I think most people find a couple with an adult roommate odd, or unusual – and perhaps that is so. But Ross really fit into our life and was a friend to both of us. We’d quietly and not so quietly hoped he’d live with us always.

While Ross lived with us Matt worked Sundays. Ross and I spent many Sundays together watching movies, visiting IKEA, running errands or cooking. Sunday was Ross’s night to fix dinner and he often bit off more than he could chew. Once he made breakfast for dinner that included bacon, homemade hash browns, eggs AND french toast. I think he used every pot and pan we owned that night. One of the things I loved most about him was that he was “all in” for almost anything – including dinner. He was an eager and appreciative eater, who I never saw  eat to satiety which made him a wonderful person to cook for. In addition, he was always the first to stand up and work on dishes, even when he (or I) HAD used every pot and pan in the house.

One Spring Sunday Ross came home from the grocery store with everything he needed to make dinner. I don’t remember what dinner was exactly, but I do remember that the first thing he did when he got home was pull out two artichokes and hold them up for me. He looked at me across the kitchen and said with his incredibly wide and genuine grin, “We’re going to eat these before Matt gets home, he doesn’t care about vegetables.” Which is true. Matt does not care about vegetables or really fiber in any form. Ross always made sure I had vegetables when he cooked and was a willing participant in the vegetables dishes I served.

As Ross steamed the Artichokes he talked about learning how to do so from his Mom. I told him my Dad used to fix artichokes sometimes for us as well.  When the artichokes were finished, Ross melted the butter and brought everything to the table where I sat with my book. As the spring sun streamed in across the table we worked away on the tender, rich flesh at the base of the leaves. Artichokes require you to eat slowly, they are a Zen dining experience as you pull out each leaf, revealing the choke with each bite. When we’d finished, Ross looked up, thrilled and said “Watch this!” He took the choke and with a knife and his hands ripped it open to reveal the heart. He dipped it in the butter and ate it, as I watched slack-jawed. I’d never seen anyone eat the heart out of a steamed artichoke, I’d always been under the impression that you had to be careful with them, which for me meant avoid them, because the choke could indeed choke you. When he finished Ross looked at me and went to work on the second choke saying, “it’s the best part!”

I miss Ross at every meal. Sometimes more, sometimes less – but always some. Losing Ross taught me that often times  life’s best parts end up wrapped in something difficult or scary. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth seeking out, revisiting, and spending time with. I can’t see or eat an artichoke without thinking of Ross, and gratefully artichokes are not the only food that make me think of him. Often remembering Ross or imagainging his delight in whatever is on the plate is indeed the best part of the meal.

Kaipaamme sinua Ross. Kippis!

Top Tastes: New York 2015

Kirstin and I spent a glorious week in New York last summer eating, going to shows and ogling our favorite drag queens and snuggling up in our micro hotel, Yotel (which frankly, I highly recommend). It’s taken me almost a full year to share the highlights – but better late than never.

1. Teamonade at Veniero Pastry

The very last day of our trip we were IN VAIN hunting for a delicious, hot, soft pretzel (apparently that is not something you can find in New York on a Tuesday unless you buy a shitty one from a street vendor) and at the point that Kirstin was about to explode with frustration I managed to walk us into Veniero Pastry. Visiting Veniero’s is like going back in time partly because everyone working there is 60+ and partly because it is the type of pastry shop that no longer exists. There is nothing twee about this place, it is no-nonsense. After gaping at the to go counter which featured five yards of miniature cannoli and cream puffs, we seated ourselves in a gilded room with the giant menu. We ordered and ate a number of EXCELLENT items, but the standout was Teamonade. Lemon sorbet with iced tea. Get in my life. This combo is one I intend to replicate this summer and can’t believe I lived a whole thirty years without.

IMG_43762. Salty Pimp at Big Gay Ice Cream

This dipped cone is LEGENDARY and made for a truly profane experience on a muggy New York afternoon as little could contain the ice cream from oozing and squirting. This cone met and exceeded all my expectations and is an item that is worth eating on every visit. My waistline is grateful that there are 2,862 miles between me and the Salty Pimp on most days.

3. Sweet Corn Ravioli at Jean Georges

Kirstin and I splurged on one very fancy lunch at Jean Georges preceded by a long walk at Central Park. I was VERY unhappy with the table we were seated at (I presume due to our youthful joie de vivre) as it was located up against a wall and next to the kitchen entrance which meant there was a steady stream of servers hustling past throughout the dining experience. However, the food was excellent and ornate, if a little cold at times, all of which is to be expected. The standout dish I labeled as transcendent which tickled Kirstin to no end. The Sweet Corn Ravioli were light and bright in flavor, dressed in basil butter and a sweet tomato salad. Each bite was a little burst of summer flavor at its finest. It was the only thing we ate where we’d wished we’d ordered two.

IMG_44024. Gravlax at Russ & Daughters

In the category of foods on my must eat when in the vicinity list is Gravlax at Russ & Daughters. Kirstin and I ate bagels and lox at a different place on a different morning, and while far exceeding anything we could get on the west coast, they still did not measure up to Russ & Daughters. Part of what makes Russ & Daughters excellent is the experience of ordering in their tiny, packed shop and taking in the varieties of lox, smears, dried fruits and chocolates as well as breads, bagels and more. Russ & Daughters is a destination and a favorite of Tina Fey (per a shout out on Thirty Rock). Not to be missed.

Honorable Mention

1. Crudite with Boiled Peanut Hummus at Danny Meyer’s Porchlight Bar

My first introduction to boiled peanuts was in Texas when a friend of mine cracked open a can and sat on the couch eating them with her fingers. I could not get over the texture and added it to the list of things you only see in the South. This Hummus though was SO delicious (and provided a vehicle for much-needed vegetables) that I’ve bought two cans of boiled peanuts on Amazon since returning home to replicate the dish.

2. Creme Brulee with Sour Cherries and Marzipan at Jean Georges

I’ve eaten more creme brulee in my brief lifetime than I care to admit, but this one is among the top ten. The addition of marzipan and cherries at the bottom made this classic feel new and fun.

3. Cheesesteak with Broccoli Rabe

The very first night we arrived very late and went out around 12am or 1am for dinner. A block from our hotel we ducked into a bar serving philly cheesesteaks and my heart started to thump because this was a COMPLETELY UNRESEARCHED SELECTION! And as you know I hate to waste a meal. Much to my delight – the cheesesteaks were not only excellent but interesting to boot. I ate steak with broccoli rabe and it satisfied my need for vegetables and for delicious fare. I’d go back and eat it again.

Never Again

1. Lobster Roll at Red Hook Lobster Pound

The Lobster Roll from Red Hook Lobster Pound was on my list for TWO New York trip cycles. I was thrilled on this trip to finally be able to try their lauded Lobster Roll and I learned the following: a) it is nothing special and b) I don’t think lobster is worth the high price point. Maybe Lobster isn’t for me, or maybe one should just eat it in Maine. When I eat Lobster in Maine someday, I’ll let you know.

2. Fika

Fika is of course near and dear to my Scandilicious heart and I LOVED tucking into their cardamom scented pastries on a previous New York trip. You can imagine my delight on this visit to find that Fika locations had popped up all over the city including next to our hotel. We stopped into Fika on a number of mornings and I don’t think expansion has done them any good. Our food and pastries were sub par to say the least and even with a commitment to all Scandi foods everywhere, I don’t think I’ll go back to Fika.

3. Fancy Corndogs i.e. I hate Horseradish wd-50

Kirstin and I both eagerly anticipated our brunch reservation at wd-50. Wylee Dufresne is a veritable God of modern molecular gastronomy and we were PSYCHED to see how those influences played out. What we found was a restaurant that felt rather dated or common – waiters in striped french aprons, glass bottles of water on the table, wood and rot iron paneling bar features. Perhaps we’ve dined too much in Seattle or perhaps Seattle is a thief but nothing about the wd-50 dining experience felt special or unique. In addition, the dish I was MOST excited about, chinese sausage served as miniature corn dogs, came with horseradish sauce. I hate horseradish. I pride myself on liking and trying most things, but try as I might, I can’t get over horseradish – all it does is make me want to gag. So overall, wd-50, a disappointment. I did use this disappointment as a justification for a second trip to Shake Shack for a summer corn dog special. But are multiple trips to Shake Shack so wrong? SEATTLE Danny Meyer, SEATTLE. It’s a happening spot, just saying.

Kippis!

 

Raccoon Roundup

Recently I’ve received some truly incredible tea & raccoon accoutrement – please note:

An adorable Art Print from NatalPrintil_570xn-879088526_me0j

A cake plate d’jour from West Elmrachel-kozlowski-fireside-animals-raccoon-cake-stand-c

There are further methods for outfitting yourself for Tea with Raccoon, and you could start by exploring this list I’ve curated on Etsy or trolling ebay for this Anthropologie Raccoon plate that I need. in. my. life. Or you could, you know, leave these efforts to the more devoted tea and raccoon fans (ahem).

 

 

Kuppi Teetä

The first full phrase I learned in Finnish was “kuppi teetä, kittos,” which means “cup of tea, thank you.” It was really the only phrase I needed. I’d slide my little tray down the cafe line, pick up a pulla from the case and order my tea. After counting out my euros and lamenting the cost a bit internally (upwards of eight American dollars for a tea and a pastry) I’d sit and take in the quiet, cool Helsinki landscape. I don’t remember much about what I would think or how long I would sit, but it was my favorite moment of the day.