Okay, so after the first Q&A, even MORE questions came in, so this will be Part Two of Three... but never fear. If you don't see your answer here, it's a-comin'!
Q. How large a complement of pots and pans do you have? The New York Times and food bloggers love to write about how few items a well functioning kitchen needs, but you often have so many pots going at once. So what ARE your cupboards filled with?
A. Great question; and, a few of you submitted similar variations on this theme, so let me try to expand on what I think about this topic in general. I thought when I started this project that I was pretty well equipped, until I realized how many times things get strained or passed from one pan or pot to another. So, because I don't have lots of large containers as many restaurants do, I doubled up on some saucepans and stock pots, as well as sauté pans, too, now that I think about it. I also bought some extra strainers and cutting boards just so I wouldn't have to stop what I was doing to clean the only ones I had. Thankfully, I live in an area of the country where we have many, many places to buy quality kitchen goods at deep discount (I'm lookin' at you, TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Home Goods), otherwise, there's no way I could afford to have as much All-Clad as I've amassed over the past two years.
I think when food experts write about how few items a well functioning kitchen needs, they're probably talking about how you don't really need all that stupid crap that's advertised that, honestly, I think makes cooking a lot harder in the long run. It's not difficult to properly chop an onion. It just takes practice. Whacking it through one of those onion choppers damages the internal structure of the onion and you lose the taste of it and it also won't cook evenly. So, I'm pro-having enough pots and pans to make complex dishes easier to pull off, but I'm anti-gadget, because I think they're a waste of money. I really had almost everything I needed to do this project -- I just doubled up on a few things so that I could be more efficient and spend more time up to my elbows in good food, not dish soap.
Q. Do you agree with Ruhlman that veal stock is THE fundamental a home cook should implement in their kitchen? Is it really that much better than chicken stock?
A. Yes, I do agree with Michael that veal stock is a key fundamental in the home kitchen, and one that, for a long time, has been overlooked. I understand that sometimes finding veal bones can be a challenge because they're not readily available and sitting in the meat section of your local grocery store. That said, with a few phone calls, you could probably source some, and I think making veal stock is worth the effort because it can be used to create some amazing dishes. You don't have to do it The French Laundry way, and could use this simpler execution which still yields a great end result. As to the second part of this question, you're comparing apples to oranges here, because veal stock and chicken stock are two very different things and used quite differently -- so one's not "better" than another. Obviously, you can't make chicken corn soup with veal stock, just like you can't make a truly velvety bordelaise sauce with chicken stock.
Q. What do you always have in your larder?
A. I was going to take a photo to show you, but because my kitchen is so narrow and oddly shaped, I can't get a good shot of it, so let me give you the list of what I almost always have on-hand (I'm typing this answer from the butcher block in the kitchen as I do a little live inventory for ya): kosher salt, sea salt, pink salt, grey salt, a few different kinds of peppercorns, peanut butter, olive oil, canola oil, truffle oil, lemon oil, about nine different kinds of vinegars, Saltines, wheatberries, quinoa, oatmeal, Cheerios, vanilla beans, curry powder, saffron, raw sugar, regular sugar, light and dark brown sugar, five different kinds of wheat, baking soda and powder, corn starch, tapioca, corn meal, one box of Kraft Mac and Cheese for emergencies, club soda, tonic water, molasses, Karo corn syrup, Old Bay, PAM, Newman's Own spelt pretzels (aaaand, I just ate one and they're stale and chewy -- ew), and a bag of walnuts that got jammed way in the back that I'm throwing away because I think they're about 2 years old. I also have a random assortment of ground spices (cumin, cinnamon, etc.), but I rarely use them, so I think I'm going to have to toss everything (I'm seeing a bottle of dried dill that I'm pretty sure moved here with me when I bought my house 11 years ago) and start over.
It's an interesting time to ask me this question, because about three times a year, I put myself on a food-buying moratorium and force myself to use what I've already got so that I can more easily clean out the pantry and wipe down the shelves before restocking. I'm in the middle of one of these use-it-already! phases, and it's kind of fun and certainly a challenge when all you have left is quinoa, tapioca, and sherry vinegar and nothing in the fridge that goes with any of it. That's when I know it's time to hit the market.
Q. What products (not food-related, but kitchen-related -- for instance, I love Barkeeper's Friend) do you favor?
A. I use Dawn dish soap, Method hand soap, Cascade in the dishwasher, and I use Barkeeper's Friend when I need to. I am obsessed with Goo Gone, and love to get sticker residue off new purchases with it. I also have a bottle of some sort of magic lemon oil that I use on my butcher block island twice a year, and it smells so great. That's about it.
Q. By the way, how in the hell do you keep your stove so disgustingly clean?
A. Hilarious that FIVE OF YOU asked this question, or a variation of it. Here's the deal -- I have this disorder I like to call controlus freakitis, the symptoms of which are as follows: the inability to allow stains or other crap to remain on my stovetop or counters when I'm done cooking; the inability to "close up shop" for the night with dirty dishes left in the sink; and, an obsessive need to maximize the space and efficiency in my dishwasher so that it becomes an integral step in the cooking process. I start all major cooking efforts with an empty and clean sink, an empty dishwasher, and an empty trashcan, and I clean as I go -- meaning as I'm done using an item, it gets rinsed and goes right into the dishwasher. And, the counters and stovetop just get a spritz of whatever cleaning solution I have (usually 409 or Fantastik) and a good wipedown. I actually like the cleaning-up part when I'm done cooking. It's freakishly relaxing and is a pleasure to see the morning after. I'm also one of those nerds who scrubs the shelves of her refrigerator once a month.
You can rest assured I'm not an over-the-top OCD case -- my windows are filthy and I hate cleaning other rooms in my house. Ugh. I just like a clean kitchen. It makes life lovely.
Q. Pristine (minus your own notes) French Laundry Cookbook, or does it hold fond stain memories?
A. Speaking of clean.... kidding. I was so afraid to get my copy of the book all mucked up and nasty in the beginning, but now I'm happy there are blops of sauce and oil stains throughout. The cover is still in decent shape, but the binding is getting a bit ragged. It's in great shape, though. Let me show you what mine looks like:
Now, in contrast, let me show you a photo of my friend, Andy, using his. He's a chef at The Sheppard Mansion, and you can tell he has used his quite a bit for inspiration:
Q. Why no advertising on your site?
A. When Lee Gomes from The Wall Street Journal was working on his story about cook-through blogs, we had a bit of a back-and-forth on this very issue. I didn't start the blog as anything but a fun hobby, so the idea of running ads never occurred to me. As I thought about it more and was approached by some folks to run ads, philosophically, it didn't (and still doesn't) feel right to earn money (even if it would only have been 50 cents a month) replicating someone else's work. Yes, I know the writing is mine, but it just didn't feel like the right thing to do. In the past year, I've been approached by a few big advertising syndicates who wanted to run ads on my site, and apart from the ethical reasons I just listed, I couldn't do it because you can't control what ads run on your site. And really, it's just not appropriate or appetizing when you're reading this blog to see an ad for a laxative for nursing moms, an eco-toilet, or a fast-food chain. So, it's ad-free. For good. I'd rather people donate money to Share Our Strength or a charity of their choosing than have me earn money from cooking my way through this beautiful book.
Q. What are your favorite inspirations for cocktails to pair with meals? I'm always curious about the mixed drink concoctions of dedicated cooks. And/or what's the best Keller/wine pairing you've had so far?
A. I'm glad you asked this question because I definitely have an opinion on this issue. I love when I go out for dinner and there's a knowledgeable sommelier who can help me figure out what wines go best with certain foods, because this is an area I really don't know a whole lot about. However, what I don't like is when people (whether it's restaurant staff, friends, associates, or salesmen) become "that guy" about wine and go on and on and on about vintages and years and weather conditions and notes and nose and all the other terms that just make me go cross-eyed because really... I just want to enjoy what I'm eating and enjoy the wine I'm drinking. I don't need a twelve-minute lecture or explanation -- just make a suggestion, give me two VERY SHORT reasons why, and let it go. I'll ask questions when I'm ready, but chances are I've already lost interest because I really just want to taste it and see how I like it (this pet peeve also comes into play when you get stuck with a server who just feels the need to explain in great detail every item on the menu as if you can't read *cough*my waiter at Hook a few weeks ago *cough*).
Now, on to answering the question at hand. I don't pair cocktails with meals. Before dinner, along with some little things to nosh on, I usually serve wine or offer an apertif -- such as my longtime favorite of Lillet blanc with a splash of club soda and a thin slice of lime or orange. During dinner, I offer both a white and a red (because I have friends who have allergic reactions to one or the other, and would prefer a white wine with steak as opposed to, oh I dunno, ending up in the ER in anaphylactic shock). And after dinner, coffee. If I'm having a party where the focus is more on the bar with heavy hors d'oeuvres, then I have all the classics on hand to make traditional drinks: martini (gin-only), Manhattan, Side Car, etc. I can't stand this current trend of mixing a bunch of crap in a shaker and calling it a "-tini." Drives me crazy.
As for the best Keller/wine pairing I've ever had, at Per Se, we had a lovely wine with the cheese course that was just delicious... but here at home, I just serve whatever I have on-hand if anyone wants anything, because I'm not really serving these tastings in a full menu -- they're just one-offs, most of the time.
Q. When it comes to food-related books (not cook books), what are your must reads? I’ve always loved cooking but I never really read about it until I picked up Ruhlman’s first book a few years back. I read it in a few hours and it really solidified my dream to give up corporate America and do what I really love. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to fulfill that dream but I love to read about others who do.
A. It's no secret that I am a fan of Michael and his writing. I also really love Russ Parsons' books How to Pick a Peach and How to Read a French Fry. I refer to Harold McGee quite a bit when I want to know more about the things I'm reading in some of these books, as well. Here are some of my favorites: Appetite for Life; The Apprentice; Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant (one of the best covers, ever); Like Water for Chocolate (the book is so much better than the movie); A Cook's Tour; Comfort Me With Apples; and probably the very first food-related book I ever read, What's For Lunch, Charley. I have a huge stack of other food-related books I've been skimming, and stopping and starting, but sometimes I just get fooded out and need to read about something else. When I travel, I love to take along one of Kimberly Witherspoon's great compilations because they've got great short stories by and about so many great chefs -- it allows you see another side of their lives.
I have to confess that many of the policy- and issues-related books about food and food culture sometimes get to be a little too much. They're incredibly well written, don't get me wrong, and they pack a powerful punch that gets people to sit up and take notice on the issues they may not think about day to day. It's just that I deal with policy and politics every single day of my life with work, and when I want something pleasureable to read, these kinds of books just don't top my list.
If you're interested in food books that other people love, there's a Chowhound thread about it that might be of interest.
Q. My question revolves around movies. Some food movies are great (Mostly Martha, Big Night, Dinner Rush); some, eh, not so much (Simple Irresistible with Sarah Michelle Gellar as a chef (!), No Reservations). Are there any scenes that inspired you during this magical ride as much as the music you cook to?
A. Without a doubt, a huge inspiration is the feast scene in Big Night -- the drama, the big reveal, the table of friends -- I just love the whole movie. It's a great cast, and probably in my top 5 favorite movies of all time. Mostly Martha (the original) is a great film, as well. And, I also watch Babette's Feast from time to time, as well as Bread and Tulips. Some may disagree with me, but Tampopo made me want to rip my ears off, and I found Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and Tortilla Soup just not my thing.
I actually like movies that incorporate food into the storyline and give it a symbolism that you don't really even get, or think about, until long after it's over. Rebecca Epstein has a great list on Gastronomica's web site of the roles that food has played in movies.
Q. What kind of cook were you before you tackled TFL cookbook? Did you debone, fillet, etc. before or just as part of the experience?
A. Before my grandmother died ten years ago, she used to joke with me that it's too bad women today didn't do the whole "setting up house" transition with their mothers when they left home after high school (or college) and got married, because she was convinced that the only thing I knew how to make was macaroni and cheese, with the occasional hot dog. Not long before she died, she and my grandfather came to my house for Sunday lunch, and I think she almost fell out of her chair when I actually pulled together an entire meal from scratch. So, that's a very roundabout way of saying that before starting this project, I wasn't a very technically advanced cook (I'm still not), but I also wasn't microwaving stuff or hitting the prepared foods bar at Whole Foods. I was somewhere in the middle.
I always liked to experiment in the kitchen, but it really wasn't until I started working from home seven years ago that I could set aside the time to cook when I wanted to. I had decent knife skills, I could flip an egg without a spatula, and I had a pretty good handle on the basics, but also knew I had plenty of room to grow. That's why this project has exceeded my expectations beyond anything I could have imagined -- it's really pushed me waaaaayyyy far beyond my comfort zone, and it's made my everyday cooking that much easier.
I'm not great at deboning or filleting, but that's why there are lovely people in the world called butchers and fishmongers. I like to let the experts handle the things that I would otherwise screw up, and therefore potentially ruin a lovely piece of meat/fish/what-have-you.
Q. What is the best ingredient/technique/recipe you've discovered since starting this blog?
A. Without question, the best ingredient/technique/recipe I've discovered is none of those three things, per se. The biggest takeaway or lesson has been all about patience, communication, and focus. Have I used ingredients in new ways as part of this project? Yes. Have I cooked things I've never cooked before? Yes. Has my opinion on certain foods changed? Absolutely. But it would be way too difficult to try and narrow it down to one or two things and call them the "best." It's much bigger that that, for me. I'm not at all patient in my everyday life. But in the kitchen, I've been able to be more patient, and really focus on what I'm doing so I can see how food changes color and smell and texture and taste throughout the process. And, doing this blog has really reinforced my notion that more often than not we really need to step away from the computer and enjoy the company of others when it comes to food. There are so many amazing food blogs, web sites, and forums out there -- but I so much more enjoy getting out to the markets and getting to know the folks who grow the food I use... and I really love cooking these dishes because it means that at least once a week, I have a house full of people I get to eat, drink, and laugh with, which is perhaps the most important thing of all, for me.
Q. What is it you most love about cooking?
A. Two things: solitude, and togetherness. I love to cook alone. I really do. I have many well-meaning friends who, when they come over, would love nothing more than to pick up a knife and start chopping, or stir something in a pot, but I love to be in the kitchen alone when I cook. It's just my thing. Depending on what I'm making, I do enjoy having my friends hang out in the kitchen with me, chatting away and drinking a nice glass of wine, but because of my controlus freakitis (see above), I prefer to cook alone. Now, when it comes to the whole eating thing, there's nothing better than sitting down at the table with friends as they chatter and talk and laugh and pass the food around to serve themselves, and then ............ complete silence, as they take their first bite. Sometimes, it's a nail-biter, especially if I've tried something new, but I love it when they take absolute pleasure in what I've made. It's so gratifying.
Q. With your obvious love of music, which 5-10 albums do you think French Laundry At Home fans should have on their iPods?
A. You're joking, right? This is almost impossible to answer. Let me give it a shot:
Styx; Paradise Theatre
Deee-Lite; World Clique
Green Day; Dookie
Beastie Boys; Licensed to Ill
Ella Fitzgerald; everything she ever recorded
Louis Prima and Keely Smith; everything they ever recorded
Prince; Purple Rain
Howard Jones; Dream Into Action
Janet Jackson; Rhythm Nation
Lyle Lovett; Joshua Judges Ruth
Madonna; The Immaculate Collection
Steve Miller Band; Greatest Hits
Whatever compilation has "Jam on It" by Newcleus on it
.... yeah... this isn't working, because I'm leaving so many great artists, songs, and albums off the list. That's why I think iTunes is so wonderful, because I can create playlists of whatever I want. Sorry, I tried to answer this one. I really did. It's just too hard.
Q. Did you have huge 80s permed hair and acid-washed jeans to go with your fine music selection?
A. Whoever asked this must know me well. Yes, I had a perm. Yes, my permed hair was held in place with many cans of AquaNet. I only had one pair of acid-washed jeans in my lifetime, and they were also pleated and had pink ticking. They, sadly, did not have laces up the side, or those awesome cut-out hearts.
Q. Who did you think was hotter, Andy or Paul in OMD?
A. Neither one of them floated my boat, actually, because I was too in love with Stewart Copeland (nerd alert!) and the lead singer from A-Ha.
Q. What's your culinary holy grail (besides cooking thru TFLC)? A food item, a dinner cooked by someone, a piece of equipment?
A. I was just talking about this question with a friend of mine, because I think my answer would have to be something I wouldn't have said a year or two ago. Before I started this project, I think my answer would have been "dinner at The French Laundry," but now that I know that's going to happen and now that I've had my world view of food changed pretty dramatically over the past two years, I think my culinary holy grail would be to own a few acres of land on which I would plant the most amazing garden, as well as have a few chickens for eggs and for eating. I'd love a normal-sized farmhouse, with an upgraded eat-in kitchen and a large dining room with a long table and many, many chairs so that I could throw some great dinner parties. Oh, and unlimited funds to make all this happen so that I could just plant, grow, cook and eat all the time, without that pesky thing we call work getting in the way.
Q. Not having slogged through the archives yet, have you found any techniques/combinations that you could forget about? (I'm channeling my own go at FL's eggplant caviar [with blinis and peppers] that yielded only so-so results.)
A. What do you mean you haven't slogged through the archives yet? Don't you know it's a great procrastination tool while you're at work? I know it's cliche, but I really did learn something from every single dish I've done here. Granted, some of the lessons were that I didn't like a particular ingredient, or that I was able to change my mind about something (yay, oysters!), but ultimately, there's nothing I'd dismiss or completely forget about.
Q. What will you blog about after you've finished French Laundry at Home?
A. I'll soon announce what my next project will be, but there are some other things that have to fall into place first. The Travel Channel's Andrew Zimmern wrote about me on his blog not too long ago, and wondered if anyone would be daring enough to cook his or her way through the upcoming Alinea book. Without revealing too many details too soon, I can tell you that doing just that is on my agenda as part of a bigger project I'm currently developing and plan to launch in the fall. I've known about the Alinea book for some time now and have been anxious to see the final product. And, now that I've eaten at Alinea, it's all the more exciting, and personal, and something I really look forward to doing.
So with that, I'd like to spend a little time telling you about my dinner at Alinea. As you may or may not know, Alinea's chef/owner is Grant Achatz, who once worked at The French Laundry. Grant recently won the James Beard Award for Best Chef, and The New Yorker recently ran what I thought was a really beautifully written piece on Grant's culinary background, his approach to food, and his recent battle with tongue cancer. What I love about Grant Achatz is his inventiveness, creativity, and risk-taking -- all of which are imbued with a sense of culinary familiarity, if that makes sense.
For instance, take a look at the menu my friend, Claudia, and I were served:
None of those flavors are strange, and very few were new to me... nearly everything listed on that menu was something I'd eaten before. But.... I'd never eaten these flavors in quite this manner. For instance, we've all probably had a caprese salad: slices of fresh tomato, slices of fresh mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper. Now imagine a plate being brought to the table, then gently placed in front of you as the server describes the frozen mozzarella foam, the tomatoes prepared seven ways, the basil ice cream... honestly, there was a part of me that wanted to roll my eyes at the frozen mozzarella foam, but I couldn't. I really couldn't. Why? It was so damn good it made my head explode and my eyes roll back into my head. It was really fun and inventive and just off-the-freakin'-charts good.
We got the chance to meet Grant that night, and it was an honor to meet the man behind such a wonderful meal. It's funny, but he looks quite serious and stern in his photos, but he has one of the most engaging smiles I've ever seen. His kitchen was humming, but in a very quiet sort of way.
In all, it was a really fun night that opened up my palate in ways I hadn't done before. My friend, Claudia, took some photos and did a more thorough write up. Me? I'm still processing it and trying to find a way to describe it without solely relying on gutteral sounds and comic book action hero noises. I can say this: I came home from Chicago the next day looking at food through yet another whole new lens.
Up Next: French Laundry at Home Extra -- Bearnaise Mousseline
Read My Previous Post: Pacific Moi with Fresh Soybeans, Scallion and Radish Salad, and Soy-Temple Orange Glaze
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Okay, so after the first Q&A, even MORE questions came in, so this will be Part Two of Three... but never fear. If you don't see your answer here, it's a-comin'!