Has this happened to you? Your first meal at a restaurant is enjoyable, maybe even in 5-star territory. You rave about the place to friends and family. You can't wait to go back. And when you do, it, well, kind of sucks. This happens to me more often than not. WTF?
First of all, I dread eating somewhere new to me. It's a risk. You have to accept the possibility of failure, something I'm not always willing to do. Sure, I'll do it when I'm on vacation, but it's not like I have much of a choice. In more familiar haunts, though, the good dishes I know call out to me. It's when I get bored that I take the risk.
So, I walk in to a new place. I'm in borderline panic mode. What do I do? Do I seat myself? Who do I talk to? There's too much noise, I can't concentrate? Oh, yes, table for two. I sit down, grab the menu. What the hell does this mean? Why can't they call things by normal names? A burger for $12?!? Ga! What? Yes, I'll have the special. No, just a glass of water, wait, what's on tap?
Then the food comes, it looks wonderful and smells even better. And, damn, it's tasty. Before I know it, my plate is empty. If I'm not eating with my wife, I may even lick the plate.
Maybe that's it. I start with such low expectations that the meal can't help but seem good. When I return, though, I'm more familiar, better able to judge. I notice the lapses in service. This time I'm expecting good food and disappointed when it's not the best I've had.
I still take the risk, though. How else will I find the gems?
What in the hell does Star Wars have to do with food? Let me explain.
It is too easy to mock these movies. The acting is so wooden and the writing stilted that it's not much of a challenge to pick it apart. But there's got to be more to it than that. There are poorly made movies that I still enjoy despite their flaws. For the longest time I couldn't put my finger on what was truly wrong with Star Wars.
Then it hit me while I was watching Stake Land. (This is actually a pretty good movie, I don't mean to damn it by including it with Star Wars.) There's a scene, very brief with no dialogue, only the sound track playing, in which we see the characters sharing a meal. It cemented their bonds and filled me with warm fuzzy feelings despite it being a world over run by zombie-like vampires. IT FELT GOOD! That's what's missing from Star Wars.
I can only recall two scenes in any of the six movies where you see someone eat. Once in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke visits Yoda in his hut. Though hungry, the young Jedi cannot seem to stomach the bowl of whatever Yoda served. Not very encouraging. The other instance is in The Return of the Jedi when Leia shares a candy bar with an Ewok. Close, but not enough.
Thing is, a good scene with food is not hard to do. In the first episode of the greatest TV show ever, Firefly, you just know that fresh fruit is hard to come by, and there's Kaylee with a dearly bought strawberry, clearly enjoying it. Again, a short scene, but it conveys so much. This is what's missing from Star Wars: the sensuousness of food and how it can bind characters together in a meaningful, believable way. If you can see characters letting down their hair, talking frankly while emphasizing a point with a chicken leg, you can believe that they just might take down a galactic empire. A jug of an Italian red table wine with that couldn't hurt.
Everything I know about breakfast I learned from my father. It was he who fed me those early school mornings, at least when he was in town. I took care of myself when he was not because my mother was not exactly a morning person. The fare was simple: Either scrambled eggs liberally dosed with sauteed jalapeños or fried eggs, sunny-side up on toast. But the best was sunday brunch: omelets, pancakes or my all time favorite: corned-beef hash.
Yes, that's right! I'm talking about breakfast in a can. I still enjoy it to this day. Open up the can and plop it right into the frying pan. Sure, it looks like dog food (may even taste like it, for all I know), but when it's done right — the perfect balance between the crispy outside and warm, soft inside — it starts my day off very well, thank you. I'm not claiming this is better than home-made, which it's not. Just that the ratio of work to joy is quite favorable.
Doing It Yourself
If you have the time, though, and the circumstances are right, I recommend making your own. It's simple to do:
You need some left over meat.
I only make hash when I have some leftovers. The meat needs to be cooked before you start, so it doesn't make sense, to me at least, to set out to make this from scratch.
Any meat will do. For me, it's usually a left over roast beef of some sort, which is ironic since I don't like the canned roast beef hash, but have never made my own corned beef hash. I've used turkey after Thanksgiving and with ham after Easter, both worthwhile.
Chop the meat up fine.
I run it through my meat grinder once with the large die. You could just use a knife. I wouldn't recommend the food processor because it will turn the meat into a paste that isn't very tasty.
Dice up a potato.
You need the starch in there. Well I do, anyways. It ain't breakfast without it. Don't limit yourself to the potato, though. If you have any other leftovers in the fridge that look like they might work, chop them up and toss them in there, too. You can't go wrong with onion, peppers of any sort, garlic. Just make sure you dice them up small.
Toss all of the into a frying pan at medium heat with some butter or oil.
Add a liquid.
You might – might – be able to skip this step if your meat is particularly fatty, but even then, I wouldn't recommend it. Last thing you want is a dry, crumbly hash. You don't need much, a quarter cup or so should be enough. I've used my pig shots (2 ounces of pork broth), milk (yes!) or even gravy for my post Thanksgiving hash.
Keep cooking until you get a crust, but not so long that it dries out.
Throw a fried egg or two on top.
Is It Worth Ordering when Eating Out?
This is tough to answer for someone else because it depends on your willingness to suspend your disbelief. I know that the hash I order is coming out of a can most times I order it. Usually it works out just fine. The Yorkshire Diner in Manassas does it well. I enjoy it with a short stack of pancakes in addition to the usual sunny-side up eggs.
This isn't always the case, though. I've had hash served without any crispiness, could still see the shape of the can. In other cases, I've been served a uniformly consistent paste. Where they try to make their own? Doesn't matter, it was a disaster either way. And this really pisses me off. This isn't hard to do.
I'll Never Give It Up
Despite the less than pleasant experiences, hash will always be on my menu. The warm fuzzy feelings it conjures, memories of my father, make it a tasty meal, even if it is from a can.
I once announced in the typically grandiose way I use when I pontificate:
All that is wrong with American food culture can be traced to the recipe. I am suffering under its tyranny.
Rather than eliciting the usual eye-rolling, a vigorous debate ensued. My wife quickly pointed to the glaring weakness of my proposition: Recipes teach you new ways of cooking. And yes, she is right, if you already know how to cook! She is a master and almost never follows a recipe to the letter. For her, it is a starting point that she's riffs off of to produce an amazing meal. But therein lies the trap that recipes pose for the rest of us. Allow me to make my case:
Recipes Set Unreasonable Expectations
Things don't always work out as planned. Even the best chefs have flops when they try something new, but they learn from their mistakes. That flawless salmon Gordon Ramsay plates on camera is probably the thousandth time he's done that dish. Give him a recipe that uses an ingredient he's never seen before in a style that's new to him and, well, he's probably got a better than even chance at success. But for the rest of us? I wonder how many potential cooks were turned off by an initial failure?
I believe the overall quality of food in America would increase with the number of people who cook. I don't think we need a nation of Michelin starred chefs, just people who know what it takes to make the basics. We'd be less likely to put up with crap from others.
What can we do to get more people into the kitchen?
Recipes Teach the Wrong Thing
You cannot learn to cook from a recipe. There are too many variables at play for any one recipe to be the definitive answer: My oven behaves differently than yours. The meat I buy today is different from what I bought last week in size, shape and fat/connective tissue content. Etc., etc., etc... How can I be a success in the kitchen if I don't understand these fundamentals?
Rather than learning recipes, I should be learning techniques. How much easier would it be to follow a Coq au Vin recipe if you've mastered a basic roast chicken? Sure, they're not same thing (braising vs. roasting), but you'll already grok what heat does to connective tissue and the absolute lusciousness that follows.
Also, if you master a technique, it becomes easier to branch out (for example, making your own stock with the left overs from a roast chicken). You have the building blocks that make good dishes. The more techniques your learn, the easier it is to assemble and reassemble these blocks into different meals.
Pick a basic technique and a general ingredient, then keep doing it until you feel comfortable.
Recipes Subvert the Shopping Process
I ideally, you should go to the store with an open mind, to see what's good today. A recipe driven approach makes this difficult. Unless you're able to memorize hundreds or thousands of recipes, what are you going to do? Flip through every recipe you have to find a match for what you bought? Sure, the internet and recipe searches make this easier, but how much effort are you willing to put into tracking down something worth cooking? This would be more manageable if you limited the number of items you bought, but you may need to make a second trip.
It's more likely, though, that someone is jonesing for a particular dish and goes searching for the ingredients. This is how we've ended up with flavorless tomatoes that are available year round. And the meat department? How often do you see something with a bone in it? They're usually arrayed in ready to use cuts. Please, don't get me going on boneless, skinless, all white meat chicken.
If you start with a technique, though, shopping becomes a zen-like journey of discovery. "Oh, look, duck. Hmmm, can't be that much different to roast compared to a chicken." You'll find yourself asking questions of both staff and other customers and actually getting answers you understand.
When you feel confident enough to take home a new ingredient, you'll know that you're beginning to master your craft.
Let me reiterate: There is a place in the world for recipes, but they should not serve as your entry point into the world of cooking. I find it interesting to leaf through Le Guide Culinaire. Most recipes are a few sentences, maybe 2-3 paragraphs. There are no lists or explicit steps. Here's one selected at random, Sole à la Dieppoise:
Prepare the sole and shallow poach in a buttered dish with 1/2 cup white wine and the same amount of mussel cooking liquor. When cooked, drain and place in a suitable dish, surround with a Dieppoise garnish and coat the whole with Sauce Vin Blanc containing the reduced cooking liquid from the sole.
How many assumptions are built into this recipe? You can't make money selling a book like this since only trained chefs will buy it. And that's the answer to my conundrum. Cookbook publishers want you to buy their books. They need to appear to contain doable recipes. I think it would be antithetical to their business model, though, to actually produce a truly useful volume. Most people would then limit their purchases. I'm looking at 6 shelves of cook books and magazines in my study, most of which are pure lists of recipes. I'm guessing that we've averaged cooking 2-3 from each book.
These are the types of food books I'd like to see more of:
Yes, there are recipes here with your lists of ingredients and steps. But that's only a part of the book. The author goes into the history of Tex-Mex; how it came to be and how it straddles the border between Mexican and Anglo cuisines. Not only do I have a recipe for an excellent chili gravy, but I also have a counter move when someone swings the term "authentic" like a club. This is a cookbook that can be read cover-to-cover.
This is not a cookbook, though it does contain recipes (pickled oysters, anyone?). It's a history of New York City told from the context of this bivalve. It's a fascinating read (dang, the oysters were the size of dinner plates when Europeans first showed up), but I appreciate the insight it gives me to one of my favorite foods. I understand this shellfish better.
Well, enough of my rant. I need to figure out how to prepare a flatfish.
I first ate at his restaurant in the late Eighties, at a time in my life when sitting down to dinner was an event purely about eating. I grumbled when I had to put on a suit and tie, muttered various synonyms for quaint when I first glimpsed the place and panicked when I saw the menu. I don't remember what I ordered, but I do recall that it had the element of randomness to it. The effect was immediate. I walked in as Saul and left converted to the total experience that a meal should be. The man himself said:
Listen, when people go to the restaurant, what do they want? A good time. A nice atmosphere. A good meal. It's simple.
Frequently at home, when remembering a place, we'll recall a great meal we had there or, just as likely, when making a dish at home, we'll reminisce about eating it on vacation somewhere. The sensual experience that is a meal – flavor, aroma, the sights and sounds, the very feel of it – all work to tightly bind your memories.
I have not dined at L'Auberg Chez François for a while now. Twenty years ago, it was practically the only place of its kind. Now, however, someone looking for a high-end experience has many options. I moved on. I feel really guilty about that. I am happy to see that his sons will continue to run the place. I shall make a reservation soon.
Thank you François Haeringer, you made the world a better place.
A while back I was having dinner at a new place with colleagues after a particularly grueling week of work. Exhaustion and wine had combined to make me lose my focus in the conversation and I only came to attention when I heard someone say, "They have really good food here, I wonder how you can scale an operation like this to make some serious money." I smacked my hand down on the table and shouted, "You can't scale good food."
Awkward silence, everyone in the restaurant looking at me. My friend asks, "Why not?" If I had read this book, I would have had a good answer, but I would have tempered my opinions somewhat. How food is created in America is a complicated story. There are clearly some bad guys who do not care for good food or the health of those who eat it, but it's not obvious who wears the white hats.
First of all, this book is a great read and in a format I greatly enjoy: one part a deep dive into an interesting subject and another part travelogue. He breaks it down into four stores: Industrial production with a tour of the Midwest, Industrial Organic on the west coast, a process he calls beyond organic in the Shenandoah Valley and finally an attempt at living the Hunter-Gatherer existence in California. Each one of these stories could stand on its own, but the combination truly brings America's perplexing relationship with food to light. I took these lessons from the book:
Do Not Look to Corporation for Dietary Advice
Given that eating is something everyone does, the food market can only grow as fast as the population does. This means the only way for a corporation to profit at a Wall Street acceptable rate is some combination of lower cost of production and convincing consumers to spend more for the same thing or to eat more of it. The former means ruthlessly standardizing the production of food. Mr. Pollan ably demonstrates why this is destroying the environment and making us less healthy. As for convincing us to spend or eat more, that's not hard. We seem to be prey to all kinds of marketing gimmicks and health concerns which Corporate America has no problem stoking as they have just the antidote to sell us.
Organic Processes Are not a Panacea
The only way large organic concerns such as Whole Foods can work is to scale things up. This, ultimately, requires a standardized (there's that word again!) distribution network. Small farmers cannot reliably meet their demand, so only the large concerns succeed. Yes, it is true that this is healthier than regular industrial food production, but it is not environmentally sustainable and, arguably, uses more energy than non-organice food production.
Doing the Right Thing is Hard
Part of the reason many farmers have gone industrial despite it being a losing business is that it is extremely easy. You only have to work for a small fraction of the year and you don't have to think much, industry tells you what to do and when. Sustainable farming that produces healthy food requires a lot effort and thinking in order to balance the diversity of plants and animals that a sustainable concern needs to manage. Those willing to do this deserve our support. I shall seek them out and give them my business. And why not? Sure, it will cost more money, but the food will taste so much better.
A Well Thought Out Animal Rights Philosophy
I love meat. I always will, but that doesn't mean I condone maltreatment of animals. I have had difficulty arguing against folks such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They seem to provide a good moral argument that's difficult to contradict. Mr. Pollan, though, does this well. I agree with his statement on page 328 of the paperback version of the book: "What's wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle." We can humanely raise and slaughter animals. Moreover, a healthy environment demands that animals are eaten. It's part of the cycle that we break at our own risk.
A Losing Battle?
The weak arguments that I did make to my workmates as to why good food shouldn't and can't be scaled were met with a shrug of their shoulders. "Why bother, then?"
A good meal should be more than just a business proposition, more than just the sum of the ingredients that went into it. It's the appreciation of the effort, wonder at a magical combination of flavors and the joy of the people you share it with. I hope this wins out.
Coming from the south, I figured I knew fried chicken. Then I had my eyes opened on a visit to Asia. The whole eastern reaches of that continent knows chicken. From a high-end Chinese restaurant in Singapore to a local chain outside of Seoul, I was never disappointed.
I am heartened that this style is making it to the US. The Korean chain Cheogajip Chicken has a location in the Centreville, VA area. There is also BBQ Chicken and Beer, which widens the typically narrow Korean menu with more options. Even the local Grand Mart had an excellent spicy fried chicken.
Note that I used the past tense on that last sentence. Apparently, customers have been complaining about the bones, so the curse that is boneless, skinless, all-white meat (BSAWM) chicken has claimed another victim.
I don't understand this. When you strip out the skin and bones, and limit yourself to only the breast meat, you're stripping out all of the flavor. All a whole chicken really needs is salt and pepper. A sauce is never a bad thing, but you don't need too much. I can no longer eat the spicy fried chicken at Grand Mart. The meat is rather dry and there is way too much sauce which, I assume, is to compensate for the lack of flavor normally supplied by the skin, bones and dark meat.
This is what's wrong with BSAWM-ness:
First of all, it lack's flavor. Try eating a chicken breast prepared with nothing but salt and pepper. Sure, if you brine it first, it will be moist, but it will still be flavorless. Look at how this is prepared in most restaurants: This type of dish is usually swimming in sauce or served with a side dish that has an intense flavor.
Because of point 1, it's not as healthy. What do you think is in that sauce? I'll bet half a paycheck that it's loaded in sugar and salt.
It encourages unhealthy eating habits. You eat boneless chicken much faster than a bird with bones. It's better to eat slowly. Your body will feel full with less food in your belly. I find it interesting that the BSAWM version of Grand Mart's spicy fried chicken had about twice the meat of the original dish.
BSAWM encourages animal cruelty. A natural chicken does not have enough white meat to make for an economically viable business producing only BSAWM. The factory bird with large breasts cannot move, even if it was given a free range opportunity. It is a freak of the industrial process.
BSAWM is a lie perpetrated on a gullible public. I am angered and saddened that my yum has been yucked.
I may be naïve, but is it truly asking too much of restaurants to provide me with information that actually helps in making decisions? Yes, I know the answer to that. They're out to make money, so why would they risk sending me to somewhere else? This post, then, reflects yet another windmill I'll charge.
The source of this rant is this sign at my local Baja Fresh:
I don't mean to pick on Baja Fresh. I do like the place (though not as much as Chipotle). It's just a convenient example of restaurant speak: It's not meant to provide you with real information in order to make up your mind; but rather to convince you that you've made the right decision. Let's take a look at these statements:
Our salsas are made fresh daily using only top quality produce.
"Made fresh daily," that's useful information that differentiates Baja Fresh from others. "Using only top quality produce," oops, this violates a rule of mine. Descriptions should have plausible alternatives and make a meaningful distinction. Top quality? Would anyone say they are using low quality ingredients? And produce? How else would you make salsa? They should have stuck with just the first half of the sentence.
We use only boneless, skinless chicken breast marinated and charbroiled.
Boneless, skinless, all white meat chicken is evidence of the depths to which American cuisine has sunk. And these guys are bragging about it! Of course you're going to have to marinate the stuff; otherwise, there would be no flavor in the meat. You might was well be using cardboard. At least then you could brag about the fiber. And that's just the point. They're trying to convince you of how healthy their food is in a way that's easy to demonstrate, but then they overcompensate in other areas they don't tell you about, like the fact that any entree with that chicken has nearly a whole day's recommended allowance of sodium. Just what is in that marinade?
Our lean steak is trimmed and charbroiled.
Again with bragging about the removal of the flavorful parts of the meat. Maybe if you left the fat in, you wouldn't have to load your burrito up with cheese, sour cream and guacamole. I'd be that you'd wind up consuming less fat that way. Go to any street food vendor in Mexico and order a taco. All you'll get, in general, is nicely cooked meat in a tortilla. No toppings are needed.
Our special recipe beans are made fresh daily using no lard.
OK, we have something moderately useful here. It's good to know they make the beans daily. I'd like to know more about their special recipe, but that's probably too much information for a sign. However, the "using no lard" is a non sequitur since lard would only be used in making refried beans, which Baja Fresh does not do. Now, I could get into an argument with you about why you should use lard in that case (dang, they taste so much better that way), but that's not the point. Again, they're trying to make you feel good about your choice for lunch regardless of how healthy the meal actually is.
Our fresh chips are made in 100% cholesterol free canola oil.
This sentence seems to have the highest density of helpful data: fresh chips, cholesterol free and canola oil. OK, that last might not be a meaningful distinction since I'm not sure why canola would be better than any other vegetable oil. However, what is important here is the word that they do not use. How are chips made? They fry those suckers! Can't have that word up there, I guess, since it would shoot to hell any health credibility they might have garnered in the 4 previous sentences.
Don't let this stop you, though, from enjoying their fried fish taco. They're quite tasty. And 3 of them have fewer calories, less sodium and about as much fat as any of their burritos. This is the point I'm making: If you're primary concern when eating is health, then you shouldn't be relying on the health claims made by the person selling you the food.
I can no longer blog like an over-educated suburbanite. I cannot afford to have my focus scattered among all the possibilities. My priority must be to fight the forces that would deny me a good meal.
I am besieged by vegetarians, animal-rights activists and other assorted health nuts would force upon me their vision of what is acceptable to eat.
There are 5th columnists within my walls who seek to undermine my resolve through accusations of presumptuousness, insinuations that cheap and easy are the only appropriate positive adjectives, or a willingness to compromise my health in the pursuit of maximum profit..
The dust on the horizon, is it Anthony Bourdain coming to my relief with a mercenary band of drink-addled chefs who take pride in their ability to make a great meal? Or, perhaps, it's an irregular force of farmers' market denizens with fresh supplies?
I just hope it's not Alice Waters' Army of Locavores who would seek to impose upon me a peace not much different than that sought by my enemies.
Think about what you eat.
Give me the info I need to make a decision, don't make it for me.
Different is not bad, give it a try.
Once in a while, make it yourself with fresh ingredients.
And chill, a meal is more than just the food.
In short, Don't yuck my yum!
Plan of Action
I will focus on rebuttals to the arguments of my enemies and expositories on my unusual yums. While I may still review restaurants and the media, it will only be as a means to the above.
We must speak up!
As part of this effort, I will move old posts that no longer comply with the new editorial policy. You may find some of them on another of my blogs: This is Centreville.
I've been encountering stories lately that make the claim that Paris is over-rated when it comes to food. I don't know if it's laziness or the inherent Francophobia present in many Americans, but it disturbs me greatly. First is from a column in the National Review by Lisa Schiffren. Here are some points she makes about Paris:
Food is too expensive
Few places are truly child friendly
You cannot have a meal whenever you want, you have to abide by their hours
Meals take forever
There is a lot of bad food, especially around tourist joints
So, basically, she wants the American experience in a place and time of her choosing. No wonder American tourists overseas have such a bad reputation. This quote, though, is the kicker for me:
There is much excellent food, of course. But who wants really excellent food every day? Sometimes you just want to get everyone fed and get on with your activities.
What are you doing in Paris, then? Stick to Disney World.
Where, in fact, were any dishes affirming the country's rep as the great culinary stronghold of the Continent? Because it wasn't just one bad meal, you see. In a week, we had maybe one good, never mind great, meal.
She provides the reason for this a few paragraphs later:
But if you're a casual tourist, you need to know: You're not going to find a fabulous meal around every corner.
Ah, so I see. She doesn't want to do the work find good places. Paris was never that way. You've always had to get off the beaten path to find the best food at reasonable prices. Despite her claims that it takes an expert to find good food in Paris (she names Joe Yonan who's the food section editor), anyone can do so if you're willing to do some research. Use the internet, ask locals and get off the main streets! Only the lazy, idiots or your those with your typical American palate could return from Paris without eating well. I have no sympathy.