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What have I learned so far?

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Dear Chef Bourdain;

Believe it or not, this isn’t JUST a plea for attention – no, I actually set out to learn about what’s been missing from my culinary skills.  So it makes sense to think about what I’ve learned from the dishes I’ve made so far. I’m only a fraction of the way through the book, with all of the most challenging recipes yet to come. But still, if I haven’t learned anything at this point, then I’m basically a brick with lips and should probably hang it up.

Well, some folks might argue that I’m still a brick with lips, but I have learned at least a few things. One of the things you hammer on in your book is the importance of the mise-en-place. Put even more simply, you’ve got to have a plan. Any recipe, and especially the complicated ones that the French are famous for, has a (no doubt metric) ass-ton of steps. If I’m preparing just one thing, I still have to have my ducks in a row, because it’s no good to get the chicken out of the cooking liquid and then not have softened butter handy for the next step – timing is essential.

This is way more important when I’m trying to do a few things at once. Recently I tried to do coq-aux-vin and frisee-aux-lardons on the same night. And the frisee has a component of chicken liver vinaigrette, which isn’t especially simple, either. So that’s three different things, all of which have multiple steps and ingredients – I really had to have a plan in place. I wrote down everything and about how long it would take and made a sort of project plan.  I also read and re-read the recipes. And you know, even that wasn’t sufficient – I did find myself scrambling for a couple of things I hadn’t portioned out ahead of time. And especially I didn’t count on just how long it took to reduce liquid and stuff, so my timing was off.

So there’s something I learned – plan ahead meticulously and remember that even that is going to fall apart. It’s kind of like how we trained for shit in the infantry – you make a really detailed plan, drill for it over and over again – and then throw it out the window as soon as the situation develops. But if you didn’t have the plan and the experience, you wouldn’t have the confidence and instinct to improvise successfully, so you have to do your homework. Otherwise, as The Oatmeal tells us, we might as well just eat out.

The other lesson I’ve picked up on, at least in part so far – is flavor. To whit, salt and onions. When we were eating the Coq-au-Vin, it was in dire need of some flavor. I was pretty disappointed at the vast effort it had taken to make something without a lot of flavor. Then Nathan put some salt on it. It was like the sun coming out on a cold day – suddenly it was bright and warm. The same was true of the potatoes dolphinnoise; I was too shy with the seasoning while preparing it, and the end result suffered for it. Salt makes the flavor pop.

I know exactly why I’m so parsimonious with the salt. It’s my grandmother’s fault. My grandma was a Southern lady from North Carolina who learned to cook in the land where anything was better fried, and jello counted as salad as long as you served it on a piece of lettuce with some mayo. Seriously. Grandma believed in only two spices – salt and pepper, and frankly she felt pepper was a little too foreign and weird to be really trustworthy. Salt, however, she loved with a gusto that rivaled New Jersey and spray-tan. We could always tells Grandma’s potato salad at the church picnic because it was the one that tasted like it had soaked in the Atlantic for a few hours before being served. And my grandfather, god bless him, would put more salt on whatever she made from the shaker.  So yeah, I come from people that love too damn much salt. But that’s no excuse for not using enough, and I’m resolved to season more aggressively in the future.

And onions. I never liked ’em, man. Partly they just disagree with me a little, and woe betide anyone trapped in an enclosed space with me after I’ve had onions. Having a dog is convenient for more than just getting what’s on the floor. Also, peeling and chopping them is an unpleasant experience that reminds me of my first job at a cheesesteak place in Philadelphia. At 13 I was chopping onions and slicing up sirloin on an industrial slicer. But your poulet roti was a revelation – I don’t know if it was the buddy onion or the anal onion that made it magical, but it had flavor like I’ve only dreamed of. That was some magical shit  right there. For a while I’ve been replacing onions with shallots in recipes, because they’re more subtle and don’t bug my stomach as much. No more – I’ll use the onions because it’s just worth it.

That’s what I’ve picked up so far. Well, that and a few pounds. Christ, how do the French stay so thin? I think I could boil a stick of butter in heavy cream, add a half pound of salt and it’d be a popular soup in France. My exercise regimen is going to have to get seriously kicked up if I’m not going to end this project twice the man I used to be. Literally.

Don’t worry, I’m still pretty stupid. You’ve got lots to teach me, chef.


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