Don’t Thank The Chef

 

Daily Disney - Octopus Sushi Chef

I watched an episode of Gilmore Girls the other day which opens with Sookie, the chef at the inn where some of our main characters work, is standing over a table full of plates of food. She is freaking out because the guests sent back all of these plates because they tasted bad. One was too salty, one had no flavor, and one was “sewery.”

Sookie says that she tasted them all, and had her staff–ten people standing behind her–taste them. They’re all fine, so what is the problem with these jerk customers? She asks Lorelai, another character, to taste the food and tell her if she is crazy. Lorelai takes a bite of rice and says that she  now understands the word “sewery.” The food is terrible, and the staff were too scared to tell the chef about it. It turns out that there is someone wrong with Sookie’s pallet, and that’s why the food she served is all bad.

It made me want to put my foot through my TV screen. And I was watching this on a computer. But it was so infuriating that I blamed the entire medium of television, and in my rage I lacked the rationality not to blame the electronic device most commonly responsible for delivering it. Plus, I’m not going to mess up my computer. That’s nuts!

But anyway. This moment, and many similar ones on this mostly-good show, convey a common misconception that drives people in the food industry nuts. Not just because it’s inaccurate, but because it is poisonous and has genuine consequences. The misconception is this:

The chef cooks your food.

It’s not bloody true. Not only is it not true, it’s ridiculous. In this very scene of Gilmore Girls, we are shown the large staff of cooks in this kitchen. There are at least five or six of them, always running around making food while Sookie spends most of her time piping frosting onto elaborate cakes or hanging out with Lorelai. At least this show has a kitchen with a full staff. Most shows seem to think two or three people is enough to run a busy high end kitchen. This show has a full staff, although apparently all they do is peel potatoes.

There is no way for the chef to make all of the stocks, sauces, starches, sauteed items, grilled items, and other components that would have contributed to all of the food that went out being bad. Nor could she possibly taste and alter the seasoning of every single dish that they served. Especially when she also appears to do the baking. Sookie is shown as a very hands-on chef. Even a micromanager. But even if she paid special attention to each food item that went out, she wouldn’t have cooked it all, and she certainly wouldn’t have tasted each one. Are we supposed to believe that every time they serve a steak she cuts a hunk off and throws it down the old gullet to see if it has enough salt?

A chef is a manager more than anything. Even someone like Sookie who is always in the kitchen involved in the cooking, which is not the standard way of doing things, but it does happen. She is portrayed as the “genius chef” archetype whose food is a direct result of their ability to invent and execute amazing dishes. Those types of chefs do exist, but a lot of the reason their kitchens put out such great food is that they are good at training and managing a staff of excellent, professional cooks.

These cooks are the people who actually make the food. Not only that, they’re usually better at the actual execution than the chef who gets all the credit. The person who works the grill has thousands and thousands of hours of recent experience cooking steaks, of seasoning and sauces and preparing them in this exact way. That cook has more practice at the specific dishes on the menu than most people ever get at anything, because it’s a repetitive tasks. In a high end restaurant, the high standards and constant striving for perfection means that a good cook isn’t just practicing, they’re deliberately practicing. Which means they are always getting better.

The chef almost certainly can cook a mean steak. Once upon a time they may have been as good or better than the guy on the grill. But now the chef is almost certainly a little rusty. They aren’t in the trenches all the time like the cooks. Their priorities are different, as they should be. And they rose to that position not by being the best cook. At least, not necessarily. There’s a good chance the best cook in that kitchen is on that grill, and has been there for over a decade. The chef got the throne and the big paycheck because they can manage people, because they can make hard decisions, design menus, haggle with produce suppliers. And, a lot of the time, because they speak better English than the guy on the grill.

So yes, the chef is important. But they didn’t make your food. They ran a team of talented badasses who made your food. And they made a whole hell of a lot more money doing it, partially because the people who cut the paychecks have the same misconceptions as a lot of other people. The guy on screen with the great hair and the winning smile gets a lot more credit than the people behind the camera, even though their parts are equally important.

So don’t thank the chef. Everyone thanks the chef. The chef doesn’t need any more thanks. Find out who cooked that wild salmon so perfectly, and who made the almost impossibly delicate sauce, and thank them.

There’s a pretty good chance it’ll be the first time anyone ever did.

 

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Bravery and the Avocado

2012-170 Best Avocado Ever

 

Picking good apples is about patience. You carefully run your eyes and your fingers over the fruit to find defects, bruises, soft spots. If you don’t find any, and the firmness is good for the variety, you are good to go.

Picking fresh fish is about knowledge. The signs are obvious if you know them, and if you don’t they are so subtle that they shrink into invisibility. Are the eyes clear? Is the flesh moist but not slimy? Does it smell like the ocean instead of a corner fish-market? Hit all of the check marks of the secret fish-code and you are good to go.

Picking an avocado, on the other hand, is about bravery. The difference between a palatable avocado and a luxuriously smooth and buttery avocado lives in the nanometer-wide space where perfect ripeness and rotting mess dance pressed so closely it would be outlawed in some countries as obscene.

My wife usually asks me to avocados for our group guacamole or homemade sushi. She usually does. She’s better at picking out every other kind of produce item. She has both the patience and the skill to inspect every item and identify the desired traits. And she’s good at picking avocados. Her avocados are always decent, and she never gets a bad one. That’s the problem.

She’s scared of getting a bad one. In order to pick avocados that will make you shut down all unnecessary senses as soon as you put them in your mouth so you can focus all of your brain power on that single moment of culinary transcendence, you need to take a risk. You need to accept that the squeeze which tells you it’s perfect is nearly identical to the squeeze that tells you it’s rotten. You need to accept that sometimes you’ll be wrong.

It’s like making caramel sauce. The flavor is so deep because it’s already started to burn. It’s like dry-aging beef. The added complexity comes from the fact that decomposition has already begun.

We think of these states—burned, decomposed—as bad things. That’s what happens when things go wrong. When you’re not paying attention. We think of these states as binary. As unilateral. Because they frighten us. “I’m a bad cook and if I don’t pay careful attention I will burn the food.” That’s what nervous cooks believe, because they are so worried about the inevitability of catastrophe that they never see the beauty among the ruins. They pay close attention to signs that things are going wrong that they miss the spark.

It’s like a near-death experience that rekindles the lust for life. Sometimes clay is perfectly fired in the flames that nearly shatter it.

“See, that would have been too squishy for me,” people say about my avocado choices. “I would have put it back.”

Sometimes I pick a bad avocado. Every time I cut an avocado whose texture whispers promises of both ripeness and rot, time slows down. I know that not only is this moment about to define my upcoming meal, I am about to be tested. Validated in my risky method, or cast aside a reckless fool. Once I selected four avocados and every one of them was rotten.

When I bite into an apple that my wife has selected I know exactly what to expect. She knows how to make sure they aren’t mealy. That they are always sweet. That’s the joy, and the mundanity. A sane life requires some measure of inevitable happiness. But not all wonder should be on the color-coordinated schedule.

A perfect avocado is, to me, far, far superior to a perfect apple. Is it because of the pleasure it brings, or because of its elusiveness? When I cut open an avocado to find bright green flesh so soft I can spread it with my finger, with no hint of brown, my face melts into a ridiculous grin. My joy is so unabashed it’s embarrassing. My self congratulation borders on narcissism. For just a few seconds, I am an unironic fanboy of my own achievement.

So I’ll keep picking avocados like I’m robbing a bank. Sometimes they’ll be terrible, and we’ll have to live without slices of avocado on our burritos. Sometimes they’ll be magic. But I’ll always know that in the moment of selection, I lived.

Social Convention Dissolving Spray®

IMG_1381

 

I carry around a bottle of Social Convention Dissolving Spray®. It’s useful stuff. When I come up against a social convention I don’t want to deal with I hit it with a few spritzes of the spray. Then I can say and do whatever I want.

You can make it yourself if you have the ingredients. You take one part resistance to awkwardness, two parts lust for attention, and one part ignorance to potential consequences, and dissolve them to 12% in an aqueous solution. Let it age for a week or two, and bam. Your own Social Convention Dissolving Spray®.

My friends think I do this naturally. I don’t, although it strokes my ego—and therefore makes my supply of lust-for-attention more potent—that they think that. But I don’t just do it. When I want to experience the power and freedom that comes from making a deliberate ass out of myself in public I have to open up my skull, reach into my brain, and pull out the spray.

Some people do it as naturally as they breathe. Some people produce the spray in their sweat glands. Like pheremones. It weird and crazy when you see it in the wild. But I saw it today.

Mamacat—my elderly mobility and internal-monologue challenged mother-in-law—offered to take me out to breakfast this morning. I agreed because I like free breakfast, even though outings with Mamacat are trying. Getting out of the house with Mamacat is like pulling teeth from your breakfast cereal. Strictly speaking it’s easy, but by the time you are done you’re not sure you still want to eat the cereal.

We went to a local diner that I quite like. It’s full of jars of jam on window sills and the kind of totem polls that would somehow fit in at a Denny’s. The host sat us down, and a moment later he sat another mother-and-son duo in the booth across from ours. The mother was younger than Mamacat, and the son older than me. This isn’t unusual given that Mamacat has 40 years on me. Plus she’s British. That ages you.

The mother wore a wool scarf and a knit hat. The son looked like he could play Jerry Seinfeld in a low-budget Lifetime movie about the drama behind the comedy. A few minutes after they opened their menus Jerry stopped an old man who was walking by and engaged him in a five minute conversation about whether or not he was from New York. I don’t know if they knew each other.

About ten minutes into the meal Mamacat finally finished her salad and got ready to eat her turkey burger. Her fingers were covered in honey mustard, and she fished around on and around the table for her napkin. It was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile I also needed a napkin, because I forgot to take my alergy meds today and my first napkin subbed in for tissue duty.

“I should have asked for more napkins when I had the chance,” I said to Mamacat. Mamacat hmmed in agreement.

There was movement next to me, and I turned to see that Wool Scarf Lady had leaned over and was handing me her napkin. A second later son Jerry did the same.

“Thank you!” I said, laughing as I took the napkins. As soon as I took the first one, Wool Scarf reached over and grabbed another one to hand me.

“You bet,” she said.

I almost made a comment about how sometimes evesdropping can be helpful, but I held my tongue. You never know how someone will take something like that. Fifteen seconds later the server showed up with yet another pile of fresh new napkins. Apparently I said my request in a loud tone.

“Wow,” I said to Mamacat, “it’s amazing how well that worked. I wonder if it would work for other things.”

“Could be,” said Mamacat.”

“Gee!” I said so everyone around could hear, “I sure wish we could afford this meal! I could really use a pile of cash right about now!”

Wool Scarf and her faux-Emmy-winning son laughed.

“Yeah,” I said, “maybe that was asking for too much.”

“Well,” said Wool Scarf, still laughing, “you’re no Jerry Seinfeld.”

I didn’t know what to make of that. Did that happen in a Seinfeld episode, or was she just criticizing my attempts at comedy? Maybe she’d been trying for years to tell her son that he looked like Seinfeld, but didn’t want to come out and say it. I wanted to respond, “I made you laugh, didn’t I?” But I didn’t. Because I’m not a psycho. I went back to my meal.

After we finished eating Mamacat paid the bill and I told her I was going to the bathroom. I went inside and sat down. A minute later someone else walked into the bathroom. I sneezed and blew my nose for the five thousandth time today.

“Is that you, sneezy?” said a voice from the other side of the stall. It was Jerry Not-Quite-Seinfeld.

I didn’t say what I wanted to, which was, “Um…can you not talk to me while I’m sitting on the toilet? That’s violating social convention and it makes me uncomfortable.”

Instead I hit myself with a little Social Convention Dissolving Spray®, and answered the question. “Yep.”

“What you got there? A cold?”

“Allergies.”

“In winter?” he said, in a tone that implied that I was lying. Because of the obvious advantage that would give me.

“I have alergies all year,” I said. “Indoor and out door.”

“Well isn’t that something?”

“Yep,” I said. By this time I was out of the stall and washing my hands, and he was using the urinal. But he never stopped talking. We continued to make small talk.

As I left the room he said, “Merry Christmas,” in a tone that sounded like it might be testing to see if I might screw up and say “Happy Holidays.” Or perhaps “There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his prophet.” I said Merry Christmas back, and left.

I got to the table and helped Mamacat up and prepared to leave.

“Bye,” said Wool Scarf.

“Bye,” I said, grinning. “And thanks again.”

“You got it,” she said. “What you got there? A cold?”

“Allergies,” I said.

“What are you allergic to?”

I laughed. “Everything.”

“That must be hard on your marriage,” she said.

I shrugged. “It’s worked out the last 10 years.”

“Are you allergic to your wife?” she asked. I couldn’t help the feeling that our friendly banter had morphed into an Epee match, and she was determined to score a point by hitting me in the toe.

“No,” I said.

“Well, then, you’re not allergic to everything, are you?”

“It’s a paradox,” I said, instead of dropping it like a sane person. I think I still had some spray on me. “Think about it all day. Some time around midnight it’ll hit you, and you’ll wake up and say ‘aha!’”

She smiled and narrowed her eyes. “You’re a man of mystery.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I laughed.

It took Mamacat long enough to get her things together that by the time we got to the front door of the restaurant the Seinfelds were already there. They were chatting with the old man who may or may not have been from New York and his wife. All of them greeted Mamacat and I like old friends who haven’t seen each other in years because they never got along that well in the first place.

We all left together. I ended up holding the door for the entire party. As Jerry disappeared into his car half way across the lot, he pointed at me with one finger and gave me a wink.

Using Social Convention Dissolving Spray® sometimes has awkward consequences. But the nice thing about it is that you can use it only when you want to. The rest of the time you get to leave it in your brain and be a more or less normal person. Plus, it wears off.

Unlike pheremones.

Crimson on the Tongue

red red wine

 

On my twenty first birthday, my father took me to a bar in the Other Place. After years of yearning and wishing and imagining, I finally had my first taste of the color red. I thought the flavor would be angry, or passionate, or feel like pure love nestled against my tongue. I didn’t know what any of that might mean, but this is where my fancies ran.

In more grounded moments, I envisioned the flavor to be be spicy, or harsh.  To taste of actual red things such as tomatoes and cherries and cherry flavored syrups. Or perhaps to be an amalgamation of ever morsel that has ever been drenched in redness. Cinnamon candies and orchid petals dragonfruit juice sipped from a pomegranate skin.

The moment the fluid crimson touched my tongue, and its volatile scarlet sparks danced against my olfactory nerves, I knew how utterly and hilariously wrong I was. It did not have any of these flavors. Of course it didn’t. How could it?  It tasted red. Completely and totally red. How can I describe it. I can’t? Can you describe what the color looks like to a blind person?

I haven’t been back there since, but I dream about it. Someday I’ll go again. If I ever see my father again, maybe. But at least I have that memory. And something new to wish for.

I wonder what blue tastes like?

Probably blueberries.

Friendship in Another Language

Baguette Tradition

 

It took 20 minutes into my first day of my first real cook job for the chef to start yelling at me. How was I supposed to know I was supposed to bring my own knives? They don’t teach that in culinary school. After he berated me for 10 solid minutes, the chef straightened his hat, told me to borrow a knife from someone else, and stormed off. I already felt no confidence at all. I wasn’t really qualified for this job. Now I had to ask one of the other cooks for a knife. On my first day. I didn’t know whether to ask the scary woman from Texas who looked like she could bench press me, or the old woman in the pantry station who had worked there for 30 years and told me she had little patience for “all the new idiots they keep hiring.”

I was cringing in the corner, trying to work up my nerve, when I heard a voice from behind me.

“Here,” he said.

I turned around and saw a short man with glasses. He put a knife on the table next to my cutting board. Before I could say, “thank you so much!” he stepped to the left of the board, pulled out another knife, and started to help me chop carrots.

His name was Claude. He was one of the dishwashers. Later that night, I made him a badass sandwich for his dinner. Over the next few weeks he helped me prep whenever he was caught up with dishes. I made him food, and did my best to make his job easier. Claude was my first friend at the Sheraton. On one memorable occasion, the power went out in the hotel. It was South Florida during hurricane season. It happens. Claude and I were the only two who volunteered to stay. We spent a few fun and very strange hours making sandwiches for the hotel guests by flashlight.

During the next few months I made many more friends among my coworkers. It turned out the scary Texas woman and the pantry veteran were both very nice, once they realized I could handle myself. More employees joined the crew: a few fellow culinary students some temps from South American and Romania, and a new, much nicer, chef. By the time I got my first employee review six months after my hire I was friends with nearly everyone there, and legitimately close with a few of my fellow cooks.

My friendship with Claude, however, never went beyond that casual camaraderie we developed during those first few weeks. It was sad, but not surprising. Another data point in a pattern I noticed before, but never wanted to admit to myself. Claude was Haitian, and his English was about twice as good as my French. My French was terrible. Also, he didn’t speak French. He spoke Kreyòl. Claude was not the first example, but it was the first time I really accepted it: I couldn’t be genuinely close friends with someone who was not fluent in my language.

For me, friendship is all about conversation. Whenever I take an online quiz about what Muppet or Lifesaver’s flavor I would be, I always mark “great conversations with friends” as my ideal way to spend a Saturday night. I fell in love with my wife because during the early part of our relationship we spent hours into the night talking and giggling about anything and everything. My favorite leisure activity is tabletop roleplaying, because a good session of a roleplaying game is just a fantastic conversation where you have superpowers and you get to double cross your friends with no consequences. I can have great conversations with people with vastly different backgrounds, opinions, education levels, or political worldviews.

But it’s impossible to have a great conversation with someone when you don’t speak the same language.

I have always considered this a character flaw. I am one of those people who likes almost everyone, even people who I should probably avoid. Not only did it bug me that I couldn’t get close to a non-English speaker, it made me uncomfortable. It always felt vaguely racist or something, even if I couldn’t exactly say why. It’s the kind of thing you might think, but you aren’t supposed to say out loud or admit to. Especially since it is difficult for many of us not to make emotional judgments about the intelligence of people who struggle to communicate in our language, even when we know intellectually that those judgments are unjustified.

The culinary industry is full of non-native English speakers. Claude was not the last person I felt I could have been good friends with, if I didn’t have this block. There was Ivan the Romanian cook, and Vicente the Mexican dishwasher, and many other coworkers, associates, and classmates over the years. I never wrote off these friendships as impossible. I kept trying, only to be disappointed and frustrated each and every time.

Until Salvatore.

Salvatore was a Mexican dishwasher who was promoted to be my assistant when I was promoted to lead prep cook and baker. His English was close to non-existent. Nearly all of the cooks at this particular high-end steak house (think $40-$96 dollars for a steak with no sides) were Mexican, and nearly all of them started out as dishwashers. This included the sous chef, the lead broiler, and the lead saute, who were three of the most competent people I have ever worked with. Salvatore was the best dishwasher they had at the time. That meant he got promoted.

He was a nice guy and a hard worker, but I was hesitant at how well I could communicate what I needed to him. Fortunately, the daytime dishwasher, Grande, spoke English and Spanish both fluently, and so was available to translate. It was rarely necessary.

Salvatore and I immediately had a good working relationship. He was a visual and kinesthetic learner. When I needed him to do something he had not done before, I showed him. After one or two demonstrations he picked it up.

While we worked, Grande translated some of the jokes that I made to Salvatore, and some of the jokes he made to me. Grande wasn’t going to win any awards for translations, but it was enough to make the prep shift a fun work environment. Plus, some jokes did not require translation, including the reigning lord and ruler of line-cook humor: the dick joke. I could put two oranges next to a baguette and have Salvatore in stitches. Or make references to “me pinto,” Mexican slang for “my penis.” It didn’t take long before I knew words for various body parts and sexual acts in Spanish, and Salvatore knew them in English. When I was young and pretentious I found this kind of humor beneath me. In kitchens, in the thick of it all, I learned to love it.

I taught Salvatore other English words, as well. He was a quick study. Rising the ranks at this restaurant explicitly required learning English, and Salvatore wanted to learn. Since the kitchen was made up mostly of Mexicans, Spanish was also necessary, and I wanted to learn. I taught him about food, and American culture, and he taught me about the Mexican slang and cultural elements I needed to ask for help and fit in with the rest of the cooks.

One day, about six months after Salvatore and I started working together, I came in to find a punishing prep-list. 12 hours of work to do in an 8 hour shift, and it absolutely had to get done before dinner service. I pulled Salvatore aside when he got there, and told him what we needed to do. Over the next few hours the two of us flew across the kitchen, slicing and buttering bread, forming crab cakes, cooking lobster, and making sauce after sauce after sauce. We worked like two arms on a single body, as fast and as hard as either of us had ever worked before. By the end, we both collapsed, laughed, patted each other on the back, and each told the other he was awesome in a mutated combination of languages.

That was the moment it struck me. Salvatore was my friend. Not like Claude had been my friend. Or Ivan. Or Vicente. He was a real friend, more than any of my native-English speaking coworkers with whom I had enjoyed some splendid conversation. It happened so gradually I didn’t notice my barrier disintegrating. I didn’t see that my stupid rule was thrown out the window. I had a friend, and neither of us could communicate with the other – verbally, at least – on anything higher than a 4th grade level.

It was easy, after that. Once a barrier like that is gone, it’s gone. I find non-verbal friendships a lot more accessible, now, and I probably always will. I don’t know if there was something about Salvatore that did it, or if I just had some growing up to do.

It doesn’t really matter.

How Can You Improve Cheese?

Like all good hearted people, I love macaroni and cheese. I like experimenting with food more than the average bloke. If I see something with bone marrow or oil-cured grapes on the menu, I will probably order it. Nothing tantalizes me more than an ingredient or a dish I have never tried before. But I always come back to macaroni and cheese. Also fried chicken, but I’m not talking about that right now dammit!

I had an article on visceral imagination almost finished. It discussed quantum probability clouds, and privatized weaponization of psychological traits, and a mountain that literally stuns with its beauty. I was all ready to post it. Then I made dinner. And I have to share.

I have been making macaroni and cheese for almost as long as I have been seriously cooking. Longer, if you count Kraft. I have gotten pretty good at it. I thought I had the serious secret to flavorful mac down: use really good, expensive cheese. I learned this working in a high-end restaurant in Seattle with mind-blowing macaroni and a cheese. The menu includes $90 dry-aged steaks, fresh ahi-tuna tartare, and tableside caesar salad that is famous throughout the city. Almost everyone who walks through the door orders the macaroni and cheese.

As a caveat that I am going to throw in even though it disrupts the flow of the article, we once did a catering event for a party of high-end Swedish clients. They thought it was hilarious that a classy restaurant would serve them mac and cheese. They barely touched the stuff. High-end American clients usually polished it off even before they finished the steak-crostini or the organic crab cakes. Go figure.

The problem with expensive cheese is…it’s expensive. You probably saw that coming. Recently I discovered a way to add a richness and depth of flavor to make a macaroni and cheese that rivals those I have made with high-end sharp cheddar. It is effortless, and roughly as expensive as adding dirt. I suppose that depends on what kind of dirt you add. If you add the dirt from your back yard, that would be cheaper. But this is cheaper than store bought dirt. And at least as delicious, maybe more-so.

The secret? Nutritional yeast. If you know about nutritional yeast, it is mostly likely in the context of vegan macaroni and cheese. That’s how I learned about it. Nutritional yeast is exactly what it sounds like. It is an inactive yeast derived from the brewing process that is added to food. It is frequently used to simulate the flavor of cheese in vegan or non-dairy dishes. It doesn’t exactly taste cheesy. I would describe the flavor as more of a meta-cheesiness. It adds characteristics that are also found in cheeses, and if you eat some and close your eyes, you might sort of think you are eating cheese.

I was curious if it was good eating with cheese, as opposed to merely as a substitute for it. The internet was no help. I am sure someone else has tried this, and probably blogged about it. But that information is buried in a sea of vegan mac and cheese recipes. I like vegan mac and cheese, but it is a different dish entirely. So I tried it out. It is fantastic. You can’t tell the nutritional yeast is there. Like the soy sauce that I also always add to macaroni and cheese, the yeast enhances the cheese flavor without making itself known. I served this with an arugula salad, and it was an amazing meal. I can’t wait to try it with expensive cheese.

Yeast-enhanced Macaroni and Cheese

Serves 6

  • 5 T butter
  • 5 T flour
  • 1 t kosher salt
  • ¼ t cayenne pepper
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 t soy sauce
  • 6 oz sharp cheddar, shredded
  • 6 oz Monterey jack, shredded
  • 3 T large flake nutritional yeast
  • 3 T water
  • 2 T fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 pound dry pasta, cooked in salted water. I used rotini, but use whatever you like
  1. Warm the milk in a sauce pan, or in a container in the microwave until warm
  2. Melt the butter in a large pan over medium high heat
  3. Add salt, cayenne, and flour, whisk to make a roux. Cook for 1-2 minutes until lightly browned.
  4. Add milk and soy sauce, and whisk vigorously to combine. Warm milk will integrate with the roux more quickly and more smoothly than cold. Trust me, this extra step is work it.
  5. Once the sauce is thickened (it should have the consistency of gravy), ditch the whisk and grab a wooden spoon or heat-proof spatula. Add the cheese in 3 or four batches, still on the heat, stirring with each one.
  6. When the cheese is mixed in but not totally melted, take the pan off the heat, and cover. Let it sit for three minutes. This step ensures the cheese will melt slowly, and the sauce will be much smoother.
  7. After the three minutes, stir the now-melted cheese in.
  8. In a separate bowl, mix the nutritional yeast and the water together.
  9. Get your whisk, and…when I said ditch it, you didn’t throw it out or anything, right? You still have it? Okay, good. Get your whisk and whisk in the yeast-mixture.
  10. Stir in the fresh thyme. Check for salt level. Remember that even if you salted the pasta while cooking –which I trust you enough to believe that you did– the flavor of the sauce will be diminished by the neutral flavor of the pasta. It should be pretty strong.
  11. Mix the pasta with the sauce and stir to combine

There you go! Bob’s your dinner! Or your uncle’s dinner. Maybe the macaroni and cheese is named Bob? Should I go change that? Oh, whatever. Enjoy!

First We Wonder, Then We Braise

Braised Beef Short Ribs

37, day eleven.

I like sauteing as much as the next guy. I would never turn down a properly cooked and seasoned standing rib roast. I have spent hundreds of hours trying to perfect the delicate and misunderstood art that is oven-frying. But my favorite cooking method of all has to be the braise. A lot of people who know how to cook don’t know how to braise, or that it is easier and more rewarding than they realize.

Braising is what happens when you try to roast something and boil it all at the same time, only you don’t have enough liquid and you leave it in for too long. Does that make sense? It doesn’t? Let me start over.

Braising is cooking something, usually but not always meat, in liquid for a very long time. Pot roast is the classic example of a braised dish. Another classic example that everyone grew up with is mango-braised pork with mojo and kiwi-orange coulis. Or at least, it should be.

Why do I love braising so much? The liquid allows the item being cooked to maintain a constant high temperature without drying out. This let’s connective tissues dissolve, and all sorts of wonderful transformations to happen that are not achieved by any other cooking method.

Braising has a lot going for it.

Braising is Easy

Braising in its simplest form requires only a smidge more culinary skill than microwaving a hot pocket. If you use a slow cooker, it’s even more idiot proof. You just throw your meat into the slow cooker, add some liquid, and turn it on. The hot pocket on the other hand requires you to open the box, pull out the pocket, wrestle with the plastic packaging, figure out the crisping sleeve, and bung it in the microwave. There’s no way to tell if it’s done other than to take a bite, and find out whether you are chewing through partially frozen pastry and meatballs, or releasing cheese-flavored magma into your unsuspecting mouth.

I used to eat a lot of hot pockets.

Advanced braising requires a few more steps, but they’re easy. We’ll get to those in a minute.

Braising is Cheap

The whole point of braising is to transform tough, borderline inedible ingredients into succulent meals. The cheap cuts of meat – pork butt, beef chuck, chicken thighs – are not only acceptable for braising, they are preferable to their more expensive cousins. It would be a waste to braise a tenderloin. That’s okay. You can keep your tenderloin. My chipotle-honey braised seven bone roast and I are doing just fine over here by ourselves.

Braising is Delicious

I can certainly appreciate a good steak. The problem with steak, and roasted chicken, and pork chops, and anything cooking using a dry-heat cooking method is that it is difficult to get flavors deeply into them. Sure, you can coat them with a spice rub, but then you are only flavoring the surface. Or you could marinade them. Marinades are great, but why not just cook directly in the marinade? That’s basically what braising is all about. The liquid that serves as the cooking medium in a braise can be as flavorful as you want. Because of the long cooking time, that flavor will infuse deeply into the item being braised. At the same time, the connective tissues break down and render the resulting product succulent and satisfying. The word unctuous applies.

Braising is Fast

Braising is not fast. That last point was a lie. I apologize.

Proper braising takes hours from start to finish. HOWEVER, very little of that time requires you, the cook, to do anything. If you are using a slow cooker, you don’t even need to be in the same building for most of it. The actual hands-on time involved is minimal.

Braising is Idiot Proof

You cannot overcook a braise. Even if you left your pot roast in the slow cooker for ten extra hours (and kept turning the cooker back on), it would not be ruined as long as there was still liquid in the pot. It might fall apart more than you planned. Instead of delicious pot roast, you would have delicious shredded beef. Nothing wrong with that.

I often cook braises in a roasting pan in the oven. Several times I have misjudged the liquid and heat levels, and opened my oven to find that all the liquid was gone and my braise was dry and crusty. I added more liquid, stirred it up, and continued the braise. In every single one of those occasions, it turned out great. I have never lost a braise. On one occasion it turned out better than I originally planned, as the liquid cooked down to a syrup and the syrup caramelized, releasing rich and savory flavors that would not otherwise have been there. I now sometimes let the liquid cook off on purpose to achieve this effect.

When it comes to seasoning braised meat, it is hard to go wrong. I have thrown all sorts of spices and random ingredients into the braising pot, and it has never turned out bad. Once I put nearly every dried herb and spice I had into the pot just to see what would happen. The shredded pork that resulted was strange, but also complex and delicious. During braising the flavorful liquid penetrates the meat, and at the same time the meat releases juices and flavorful compounds into the liquid. It has the effect of merging all the flavors together and softening. The results are almost always fantastic.

The most common mistake people make when braising is they do not let it cook long enough. I worked in a restaurant that was well-known for its corned beef. Customers asked me over and over why our corned beef was so tender and satisfying. Many of them had attempted it at home, and it was never this good. “Leave it in another hour,” I told them. The same goes for pot roast, ginger-soy braised beef short ribs, bourbon-braised chicken thighs, or anything else you are braising. As long as there is enough liquid in the pot, longer braising is better braising.

The following recipe is intended to be a master recipe for braised meat. It creates a complex-tasting dish that is flavorful and distinctive but still useful for a wide variety of applications. I’ve made it into tacos and burritos, stir fried with it, slathered it in bbq sauce for pulled pork sandwiches, and tossed it with pasta and frozen peas for a quick dinner, just to name a few. The seasonings can be modified to suit the application. It is also dead easy. There is very little prep work, and if you skip the searing step there is no prep work at all. You can make a big batch and use it throughout the week in a variety of meals, or make an even bigger batch and freeze.

Braised Meat: The Master Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 3-4 lbs pork, beef, or lamb. Pick whatever is cheap. The more connective tissue the better. It’s easier if there is no bone, but a bone is fine. Good examples include pork butt, lamb shoulder, beef chuck roast, and brisket.
  • Enough stock or broth to cover the meat ¾ of the way up in the pot. Water will do fine if you don’t have broth, and a mix of chicken and beef broth is great for pork or lamb.
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 2 tbs tomato paste, or 1 tbs chopped canned chipotle in adobo if you want it spicy
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed, or 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 t dried thyme
  • 1 t dried oregano
  • 1 t dried basil
  • ½ t black pepper
  • ½ t allspice
  • ½ t curry powder
  • 1 pinch dried ginger
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt
  • oil for searing
  1. Fill your pot half way up with stock or water. Add soy sauce and all dry ingredients. Taste to check for salt-level. It should taste quite salty but not overpowering. Add salt if necessary.
  2. Cut the meat into large chunks. If you are feeling lazy, or hurried, or you don’t want to have to wash your knife and your cutting board, you can skip to step 5. It won’t be as good, but it’ll still be amazing.
  3. Heat two tablespoons of oil over medium high heat in a large frying pan. Add the meat, in batches if necessary to avoid crowding. If you crowd it, you won’t get a good sear. Cook until well browned on all sides.
  4. Put the meat into the cook pot with the liquid. Pour off the oil and get rid of it. Put the pan back over medium high heat. Add a quarter cup of water to the pan, and stir it up until all of the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Pour it into the cook pot with the meat.
  5. Make sure there is enough liquid to come at least ¾ up the side of the meat. If you need more, add a little more stock or water. If adding water, add a pinch of salt to keep the salt-level balanced.
  6. If you are using a slow cooker, turn it on. You’re done! Put it on for as long as it’ll go, usually 6 hours or high or 10 hours on low, depending on how long from now you want it to be done.
  7. If you are not using a slow cooker, put the pot in the oven at 300 degrees, covered. Cook for 3-4 hours, covered. Check it ever hour and make sure there is enough liquid, adding water if necessary. The meat is done when it is very tender. It should come apart easily when pulled with a fork or your fingers, if you are a professional cook and have burnt them so many times you can no longer feel heat or pain, your fingers. I do not recommend this.
  8. The cooking liquid can serve as a jus to eat right along with the meat. If you are feeling a little more ambitious, you can turn the liquid into a gravy. Taste to make sure it is not overwhelmingly salty. If it is, add water until the salt level is just right. Then thicken it in a pot over high heat with a mixture of water and cornstarch. Alternatively, you can cool the liquid and use it to braise something else later. The second braise will be even better than the first.

The spices and seasonings can be altered as you like to taste. As I said, it’s hard to go wrong. I chose the above mixture for a few reasons. First of all, it is delicious. Second, it has a complicated flavor that goes well in a variety of applications. Third, it is kind of weird, and if you follow it you will realized how much room there is for experimentation.

There it is. The braise. My favorite of all cooking methods. Braised foods taste like they took all day to make, because they do. But they are surprisingly little work, and the flavors and textures are completely worth it.