It’s Fall, which means that here, anyway, the tomatoes rule the garden when many other crops have moved on. If you plant any reasonable amount of them, you run into ‘what to do’ quite quickly – It’s absolutely not OK to let them rot, of course – preservation is a must, but so is fresh use – When you can go outside and hand pick your tomatoes for any meal, its a thing to be cherished, far as I’m concerned.
Then you’re into a decision – whether to make something that uses fresh or cooked, but hey – Why not do both? there’s arguably no finer use of fresh from the garden tomatoes than great sauce for pasta and a nice, crisp salad on the side.
There’s a big camp behind the championing of canned tomatoes for sauces, and I get that – There are plenty of times when that’s what I’ll go for too – But not when a fresh alternative is right out the door. Besides, whether it’s a San Marzano, or any other designer breed, a canned tomato is still a canned tomato. It’s processed, and you simply must cook with them, if for no other reason than to disperse the taste of can. Frankly, I don’t care how good the original fruit was – It’s been living in a can, OK? All that aside, the canned camp will further exclaim that most tomatoes we can afford in the store suck for taste, and they would not be wrong – Excluding farmers markets and CSAs, and damn near anything you grow in your own garden, of course.
Finally, Canites claim their stuff has it all over fresh for juice, something you certainly desire in a good sauce. Depending on what you grow, it can take quite a lot of tomatoes to reach the equivalent of a couple of cans – Be that as it may, it’s my experience, and that of most gardeners I know, that home grown crop volumes are not a problem. Frankly, if you use more fresh tomatoes than you would canned in order to achieve a commensurate volume of sauce, one could logically argue that you’ll produce a richer, more complex product, (and the fresh pectin makes for nice thickening, too). Finally, roasting fresh tomatoes will produce all the lovely juice you could possibly want, and deepens the flavor profile as well – That’s game over, far as I’m concerned.
This year, we grew Mighty Matos, grafted plants that produce astounding yields and quality. Ours come from Log House Plants out of Cottage Grove, Oregon. If your local nursery doesn’t carry Mighty Matos, bug them until they do – The yield, quality, disease resistance, and heartiness of these plants is truly stunning. One of their varieties is the Virginia Sweet, a large, fluted, truly lovely little beast. What initially starts out as pale green ripens through orange to orange-red monsters of a pound or more – They’re an heirloom, beefsteak variety with a rich, tangy-sweet flavor that shines in sauces, salsa, and anything else you can think of. I highly recommend you try them next year.
Really, with ingredients this fresh, the trick is to go minimalist, and not add or do too much to what nature has already perfected. The recipe below makes plenty for 4 to 6 folks, or avanzi per due, (leftovers for two, I think…) A classic soffritto provides all the backbone you’ll need. You can scale this up or back quiet easily, too.
Fresh Tomato Pasta Sauce
12 – 16 fresh Tomatoes (pick enough to fill a baking sheet, and you’re good to go)
(Optional) 1 Pound fresh ground Pork
1/2 Cup Onion
1/2 Cup Carrot
1/2 Cup Celery
4-6 cloves fresh Garlic
1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/4 Cup hearty Red Wine
4-6 leaves fresh Basil
1 sprig fresh Parsley, (or 1 Tablespoon dry)
Shake or two of ground Chile
Salt and fresh ground Pepper to taste.
Dice onion, carrot, and celery, smash and mince garlic.
Roll and chiffonade basil leaves, mince the parsley.
Preheat oven to 400° F and set a rack in the middle position.
Cut all of your tomatoes in half, (if you like some fresh in your sauce, leave two or three out and just dice them)
Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet, and add tomatoes, cut sides down. Season lightly with salt and pepper, and drizzle with a little more olive oil.
Roast for 30 minutes, then remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle.
Measure and assemble remaining ingredients, then set your mise en place beside your stove for easy access.
In a stew pot, Dutch oven, or big, heavy skillet over medium heat, add the pork if you’re using that. Sauté until evenly browned, then transfer the meat to a large bowl, leaving the juices and fat in the cooking vessel.
Add the remaining olive oil to the pan and allow to heat through.
Add carrots and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add onion and continue cooking for 2-3 minutes more, then add celery and sauté for a couple minutes longer. Add the garlic and parsley and sauté for another minute, until the raw garlic smell dissipates. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Let the pan heat for a minute, then add the red wine, and scrape all the naughty bits loose from the bottom of the pan. Allow the raw alcohol smell to dissipate before proceeding.
Add one cup of water and allow to heat through.
Add the tomatoes by hand, removing the skins as you go – They’ll be super soft and easy to squish right into the pot – stir to incorporate.
Add the pork and stir to incorporate. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning as needed.
Allow the sauce to heat to simmering, then turn heat down to low. Continue a slow simmer for an hour or so, stirring occasionally. The sauce will be thin at first, but will thicken nicely as it simmers – Stop cooking when you’re sauce is a bit thinner than you like it, remove from heat, add the basil, stir to incorporate.
If the sauce thickens or reduces too much for your liking, add enough water to get things where you like it.
Taste and adjust seasoning if needed prior to serving.
The sauce will last for a few days, refrigerated in an airtight, non reactive container, but I’ll bet it won’t last that long.
OK, so yeah, I’m a food professional by trade – I manage a very busy bakery café. A lot of folks assume that us commercial types lord it over home cooks in materials, techniques, processes, and everything else good – Hell, a decent chunk of what I do here involves trying to translate some of those things to y’all. Yet there’s a simple truth that doesn’t get written about often enough, and it needs to be, so here it is – There are a lot of dishes that are better prepared at home than in any restaurant – No, really, there are. So, in other words home cooks, it’s time to stop sawing on that second fiddle.
In the best place I cooked and learned to cook, the presiding Chef never really told me exactly what to do. He didn’t recite, hand over, or otherwise precisely impart a recipe, ever. Instead, he told me to pay attention, and to use all my senses to grasp what it was he was trying to teach me. I’m quite certain that he didn’t actually have any recipes written down anywhere, (and I think that’s true in a lot of great places to eat, both home and restaurant). He wanted me to see, smell, feel, and taste my way to cooking well. That lesson has served me well my whole culinary life.
Cooking in many a restaurant is kinda like seeing a rock band live that sings every song and plays every solo exactly like you heard it on the album – It may be good, hell it might even be great, but is that really why your go to see them play live? As a musician, I don’t ever play the same song the same way. How it comes out is determined by the place, time, and my mood, and cooking should be done the same way. I make legendary Mac and cheese, but it’s never, ever the same. The basics of the recipe and process, the ratios of the béchamel, and the handling of the roux? Yes, those are consistent – But the cheeses and pasta I use, and the seasoning, well, that depends on what I’ve got – what I see, smell, taste, and feel when I scope out pantry and fridge. What I end up with is consistently excellent stuff, but it never is, and more importantly, doesn’t want to be the same every time. Even great restaurants are constrained by their menus, (albeit the truly inspired ones change that up, even daily). Good or even mediocre ones do the exact same thing every time, because that’s what a lot of diners want – To each their own, and to the rest of us, the spoils – I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So, did I mean that line? We can do better at home than most restaurants? Oh yes, yes indeed I did. I don’t know about y’all, but there’s a reason that we don’t eat out very often. What we can and do create at home on a regular basis far surpasses all but really good restaurants. Your kitchen can and should be absolutely no different. So why is that?
Even in really good restaurants, there are things working against spontaneous creativity. Anyone who’s ever worked in a serious restaurant knows firsthand about the division between prep and cooking for service. Prep in restaurant cooking is huge, paramount in fact – The folks who cook for service might be the rock stars, but they’d never even get on stage without some seriously kickass prep cooks making it possible. It might not occur to you when you sit down in a restaurant, but let me put it this way – You don’t really think that every piece of beef, chicken, fish, every vegetable and salad, every dessert is made from scratch, just for you, and that nothing had been started before you got there and ordered it, do you? Don’t get me wrong, to a decent degree it is true that what you order is made just for you, and in great restaurants, it is all made from scratch. That said, I will guarantee that proteins have been portioned, prepared ahead, and/or par cooked, as have all those vegetables, salads, and desserts.
In a restaurant that does a hundred or more covers for a dinner service, there’s no way on God’s green earth that they could make all that to order and be even close to keeping up with the time constraints required for great service. This is just the fact of cooking at that kind of volume. My bakery café is pretty simple – We bake bread and various sweets, and we sling sandwiches, soup, and salad. Even so, it takes a lot of time to get ready to serve lunch to a couple hundred people. We start at five in the morning, so that’s about 6 to 7 hours of work by a half dozen people, all dedicated to getting ready for lunch. All that happens long before you ever sit down to eat. And again, that’s for a relatively simple operation. Now, you get into fine dining, especially cutting edge stuff, and you’re talking a hell of a lot more work than that to make sure that your dinner is spectacular.
And then there is the food, the raw commodities, what we use to make lunch or dinner for you. We use really good ingredients, and I mean really good. The best restaurants use stuff that makes mine look pretty pedestrian. But in a lot of good or merely okay restaurants, you’d actually be surprised about how meh the quality of the ingredients are. That’s not an attempt to rip you off, mind you – it’s simple economics. When you have a big menu, you’re making educated guesses about some potentially very expensive things, so more often than not, you buy good enough, not great. Then there’s the prognostication required for economic success – How much of dish A, B, or C will people order? How many people are really going to come in to eat on this day? Even if you’re really good at forecasting, you have to be prudent and conservative about what and how much you buy.
In the old days, there was a built in safety valve for this, called Garde Manger – That took care of a lot of leftovers in most restaurants, and it still does in some – That’s where stuff that didn’t sell becomes family meals for the crew, or get transformed into something delightfully new to offer guests the next day. This is not an easy job – It’s as much art as it is technique and ability. Because of that, you don’t see it in as many places as you used to, which is a shame. I will however take a moment to boast – that garde manger concept is exactly what we impart here on a very regular basis – Cook something on day one, and make a week’s worth of great meals out of it – It’s economical, it’s tasty, and it teaches you to cook on the fly, all of which are very good things.
So, in many ways, restaurants are constrained by menus, time, and economy. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions – The very good Mexican place in my little town in Washington state makes pork shanks that they cook low and slow all day, every day, that are absolutely sublime – But as many diners in many Mexican joints know, that’s an exception to the general rule. I’ll say it again, I can and do cook better than 90% of the places I might think about going to, and frankly, the other 10% are probably too damn expensive for me to justify. Even places I like, with a proven track record more or less screw up on an all too regular basis. A dish I I’ve ordered many times might be overcooked, proportioned wrong, or just made without obvious love and care on any given day. We tried a breakfast place the other week that is new in town and has been getting rave reviews. What I ordered, while initially visually appealing, was frankly lousy. There was little or no seasoning, and virtually 50% of the potatoes (in a hash dish) were burned and heavily soaked in oil – And it wasn’t cheap – And these were folks who claim three generations of restaurant ownership and management. Get the picture? Fact is, in our own kitchens we can do better, with great ingredients, for far less than those meals cost out there. And we do it in the place we love most, for the people we love most. What could possibly be better than that?
Take that pork I mentioned back a spell – it’s a relative bargain in the stores these days. So a big ol’ pork roast, set on top of mire poix in a slow cooker and left to do its thing for 8 hours? Try and find that around town. Pair it the first night with roasted potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, a hunk of crusty bread and a nice glass of red wine, and you’ve got a million dollar meal. The next night, shred that stuff, cook some rice, chop up some onion, some chiles, some cilantro, and some nice fresh cheese, and make the best street tacos you’ll find anywhere. Night three? How about taking leftover rice, combined it with some chopped up pork, a little ginger, some scallions, a scrambled egg or two, and a nice Chinese inspired sauce, and make fried rice to die for. And if there’s any left over on night number four, dice up that pork, make a nice red sauce, (crushed tomatoes, chicken stock, olive oil, garlic, lemon, oregano, and fresh pepper. Serve it over angel hair pasta with a dusting of grated parmigiana, and go wild.
And let’s not forget those ingredients. How often do you go shopping every week? Do you really love to cook? Then answer me this; what’s keeping you from stopping by the store every couple of days, and doing just a little shopping? If you do that, and let your eyes and your nose, and your imagination rule the roost, you’re going to end up with beautiful food. Yes, the best restaurants get food deliveries every day, but I’ll guarantee you this – you will be much better at picking beautiful tomatoes then I can when I look over the 80 pounds that comes into my café every day. The same goes for virtually all other vegetables and fruit, cheese and proteins, bread and pasta – and the list goes on and on. When that beautiful stuff comes home with you, and you’ve had a fortifying sip or two of that great red wine you bought, and you focus your attention on those gorgeous, fresh green beans you just bought, sautéing them in butter, with slivered almonds, fresh lemon juice and zest, and a sprinkle of sea salt and ground pepper? They’re going to be better than anything you could be served out and about, guaranteed.
If you’re from New England, and specifically Boston, you know all about Boston Brown Bread – Pared with Boston baked beans and fresh cole slaw, it’s graced many a Saturday night supper throughout New England.
The B&M company, not to be confused with the huge British food conglomerate, has been making baked beans and brown bread for over 150 years, and there’s a reason they’re still around doing just that .
A lot of folks, even locals, think that B&M is a Massachusetts based enterprise, but it ain’t so. Way back in 1867, George Burnham, started a canning business, was then joined by Charles Morrill, and Burnham & Morrill was born. B&M has been a fixture in Portland, Maine at One Bean Pot Circle, ever since.
Their rightfully famous beans are still slow cooked in brick ovens, and their brown bread is the one, as far as I’m concerned. Their cans are filled with batter and the bread is baked in the cans, and that’s just how you do it.
In the 19th Century, Brown Bread was poverty food throughout the British Empire, although it eventually gained cache for the health benefits of the mixed flour used to make it. Brown Bread crossed the big pond, and became a staple for the colonists, then a sentimental favorite – Keep in kind, once upon a time, lobster was considered ‘poverty food,’ so there’s no stigma attached to liking brown bread.
Boston Brown Bread is a great recipe for folks who are nervous about bread baking – It’s easy, fast, and almost foolproof – Brown Bread is steamed, rather than baked, and requires very little prep time.
If you’ve never tried it, do. Served hot with fresh butter, ham, baked beans, and cole slaw, you got that legendary Saturday Night Suppah – And it’s great the next morning, too.
Boston Brown Bread
1 Cup Whole Milk
1/2 Cup Whole Wheat Flour
1/2 Cup Rye Flour
1/2 Cup Corn Meal
1/3 Cup Dark Molasses
1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder
1 teaspoon Vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon Allspice
1/2 teaspoon Orange Zest
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 Tablespoon Butter for greasing cans
NOTE: there are folks, (even B&M), who make this with raisins or currants within – I’m not one of them, but if you are, you can add a quarter cup to this recipe.
there are also purists who pull eschew the addition of flavorings such as vanilla, allspice, and orange zest – I’m not one of those, either.
Rinse and dry two 28 Ounce metal cans with one end of each cut off.
Move a rack to the bottom third of the oven and heat the oven to 325° F.
Choose an oven safe pot or dish deep enough so that you can fill it with water to about halfway up the sides of the cans. Boil enough water on the stove top to fill that pot or dish.
Lightly coat the insides of the cans with vegetable oil.
In a mixing bowl, combine wheat flour, rye flour, cornmeal, baking soda, baking powder, allspice, and salt.
Add the molasses, milk, vanilla and zest to the dry ingredients and thoroughly combine.
Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cans. Cover the top of each can with a double thickness of aluminum foil and tie securely with kitchen string. Place the cans in your deep pan and slide that into the preheated oven.
Carefully fill the pan with boiling water to about halfway up the sides of the cans.
Bake for 70 to 75 minutes. At seventy minutes, remove the foil tops. When the edges of the bread begin to pull away from the sides of the cans, you’re there.
Remove the cans from the oven, place on a wire rack to cool for 1 hour before sliding the bread out of the cans. If the bread is a bit sticky, a thin bladed knife run around the can will free it up.
Don’t forget to have plenty of fresh, local butter on hand…
I get asked on a regular basis why we do what we do here. Here’s my answer.
When I research a recipe or a subject, I look at a lot of food blogs, especially if I want to do something that I think is relatively original. I was doing that today, and I waded through a bunch of ‘very successful’ blogs. You know how I could tell that they were very successful? Because of the amount and general level of obnoxiousness derived from advertising on their sites – I left without reading through whatever it was I’d gone there to check out. And talk about non-sequitur? Ads for cosmetics, clothes, and a dozen other items having not one damn thing to do with food or cooking. In case you hadn’t noticed, I find stuff like that incredibly irritating. The Pioneer Woman, Rachel Ray, Tyler Florence claiming the cookbook is dead – all that? That’s not serious cooking, that’s hype, at best – The food equivalent of country music out of Nashville these days, (which I refer to as pop with fiddles). Frankly, if that’s success, well then, y’all can have it.
It’s the latest trend in monetizing what is ostensibly a food site. Monetize, if you’re unfamiliar, is an economic term. I know, ‘cause my Pop taught Econ at Harvard and MIT, (and who knows, maybe some of his smarts trickled down to me). What it means, literally, is to turn something into money – to utilize it as a source of profit. Now, if that’s why you have a food blog, good for you, but I’m out.
I was cooking for Monica and a good friend the other night, and it was his first visit to our kitchen, (though he’s had plenty of my cooking at the café). When he put his nose to the shaker of our signature seasoning salt, he couldn’t believe we’ve never monitized it. He’s a business man, and he greatly admires my cooking, so that was a compliment, no doubt, but it’s not why I labor away in relative obscurity here. That, I do because I have to – I gotta read, research, mull over, tweak, test, refine, create and write about food, and then share what I discover. Frankly, if no one read it but me, I’d still do it, (but don’t get me wrong, I greatly appreciate y’all being regulars here).
Now, for the record, down the line, I do intend to write a book or three based on what I do here, and frankly, I’m already working on that. Furthermore, if and when I ever come up with an original, really cool food item that I genuinely want to share with the world, I’ll do that too, (and frankly, that seasoning salt blend is getting mighty close). I do this because I love to, and because I’m driven to it – I could no longer stop writing about food than I could stop breathing.
Granted, there are a lot of great food blogs out there, but as The Corporate Machine figures out that they can profit grandly from our labors, all the ultra-commercialized stuff spirals out of control. It comes in waves, like boy bands. First, there was the need for nutritional info if you were going to be a ‘serious’ food blogger. Then came ridiculously professional-level photography, without which you couldn’t get a recipe accepted in any of the über-hip sites at the time. That morphed into full blown food styling, (right – like when we cook at home, every aspect of the meal is placed, staged, and choreographed – uh huh…) Now, if you’re cool, your site is festooned with multiple ads for a bunch of consumerist bullshit that has zero to do with food or cooking – This is how the next Food Channel Super Food Dipstick gets anointed.
I write about food for some pretty simple reasons. I’m interested in sharing recipes, methods, processes and such. I’m interested in sourcing, using wisely, and preserving food that is good for you in a world where much of what we are offered to eat is crap – Owned and foisted upon us by some pretty crappy mega-corporations. I’m interested in the science behind cooking, because I’ve never liked simply being told to ‘do it this way.’ I want to discover those cool secrets that professional Chefs and kitchens employ, and whenever possible, let the kitty out of the sack. That’s just how I’m wired. I trust that if you’re reading this, you’re interested in these things as well.
Today, some 8 years downstream from very humble beginnings, this blog has followers from all over the world. It’s won accolades from specific regions and countries for faithful renditions of beloved dishes. Stuff that I truly came up with first has been copied, and a couple of them are now fairly mainstream. It has a lot more followers and regular visitors than I ever thought it would – There are tens of thousands of genuine visits and visitors here every month. Is that a lot in the Big Picture Cool Food Blog scale? Well, no, when you consider that those tragically hip sites get millions of visitors – Frankly, I don’t really care about that, in the competing with others sense of the phrase – If you’re here, reading these posts, and you like them, and you come back when I post a new one, then I’m a seriously happy camper. While it still holds true that I cook to make M happy and write to make me happy, I love sharing stuff that helps y’all expand your horizons and eat well.
Now, all that said, I still get asked the following questions a lot, so let me just address them again – they are,
Why don’t you list nutritional information for your recipes,
Why don’t you post exact prep and cooking times, and
Why do you post exotic ingredients that I’m not likely to have?
In a nutshell, here’s why;
Frankly, listing nutritionals means, more than anything, that I am determining what kind of portion size you and yours eat, and frankly, I don’t have a clue about that. On the sites that do this, portions are most oft listed in ounces, so let me just ask – Do you weigh what you cook and what you plate before you eat it? Didn’t think so… If I post a casserole recipe and you make it, how much do you eat? How about your partner? Do you have seconds, are there leftovers, and so on. This ain’t a restaurant and neither is your house. None of us need to eat the same portion for reasons of consistency or economic viability, unless maybe we’re on a specific diet, in which case you’re not getting your recipes here, (ideas though, maybe).
For the record, I predominantly scale recipes for two, with room for leftovers, the idea being that most of the folks visiting here, like M and I, cook that way. Factor in the consideration that we heavily champion the concept of cooking one thing that will generate several meals – A whole chicken, roast, or whatnot that can easily become three or four great meals- That’s the smart way to cook if you want to eat well, be efficient, and economically savvy. And I’m still not gonna list nutritional data, sorry – For that, you’re on your own. As mentioned liberally herein, a recipe is nothing more than an idea, a guideline at best – Most people can and will tweak it, often to quite a degree – You should read some of the responses I get along the line of, ‘I made it, but I didn’t use any chocolate’…
Don’t get me wrong, nutrition is important and should be monitored in some way, shape, or form. The best way to do that is to buy, cook, and eat good things. Buy locally whenever you can. Buy fresh food, and avoid highly processed stuff like the plague. Read the labels and avoid things that are there only to help some corporation keep things on the shelf longer, or to keep it looking pretty beyond the time it should. Grow anything and everything you can. Preserve what you buy or grow so that you can notably extend the time it is available to you. Make everything you can from scratch. That may sound more intensive than what you do now, but if you really care about nutrition, you’ll do it. And as far as our recipes go, whenever you need or want detailed nutritionals on our recipes, just use a calorie counting app, and you’re off to the races.
Next up is prep and cooking time.
Weeeeeellllll, how do I say this? Listing prep time is, in my not even remotely humble opinion, one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. The problem is actually pretty obvious. Listing prep time says we all prep at the same speed, and nothing could be further from the truth. Heck, I have three preppers in my cafe and they all perform differently… So really, the question is who’s prep time are we talking about? Mine? Yours? Emeril’s? I’ve been cutting things for decades and have pretty damn good knife skills; do you? I don’t even think about process and procedure any more, it just comes naturally – does it for you? And if your answers are ‘No’, does that make you slow? The answer to that isn’t rhetorical – it’s a resounding no. Listing prep time is often a disservice, for my mind. What it can and all too often does is to set up arbitrary determinations of success or failure in a home cook’s mind – It probably leads to mistakes, as folks look at the clock and start to rush or miss something things trying to keep up with an arbitrary determination of ‘normal’ prep time – Think that’s crazy? I assure you it’s not and that it does happen that way – It ends up souring a lot of folks on cooking, let alone websites and cookbooks.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How about what ingredients you have right on hand when you start your prep, how well equipped your kitchen is, how your day went, how many rug rats are flying around your feet, or how many critters need to go out right now? Get the picture? My bottom line is simple – No one should give a rats ass how long it takes, if you have the time and want to make it. If you’re cooking regularly, you either already have a decent sense of what you can and will accomplish in a given time, or you will develop one in time. If you really do like cooking and want to do it, you’ll do it.
Finally, there’s the exotic ingredient thing. Yes, I have a ridiculous pantry and spice cabinet, (ask M what she thinks of the Asian section alone.) You may or may not have a pantry like ours, but I really don’t think that matters. We have all this stuff because we dedicate a hell of a lot of time and energy into developing and perfecting recipes to share with y’all. Whether or not you need that much is up to you. Does a couple avocado leaves and a little annatto really make or break good chili? I think the question is rhetorical. Anyway, I don’t buy the ‘why do you use ingredients I’m not likely to have’ complaint for a second – in this day and age, almost anyone in this country and many others can get anything they want. And if you can’t, well, I’ve sent grits to Sweden, cornmeal to Australia, and mustard seed to Israel – if you don’t find something you wanna try, hit me up, and I’ll get it to you.
I’ve also gotta point out that a lot of what we do gets designed because we had stuff in house that needed to get used, so that’s what we put in there. Again, like a broken record, a recipe is a guideline – Don’t like hot chiles, but have sweet peppers? Use those, and don’t think twice, it’s alright. If you’re here with any frequency, you know we strongly encourage and desire experimentation on your part – If you’re making it, put what you like in it. In any case, did you know that you can’t copyright or claim recipes? True story, that – All you can call your own is the verbiage and order in which you explain how to make the dish – As such, I’ve got no more right to my recipes than you do, so go wild. Anyway, maybe you should check out Tasmanian Pepperberry, or Urfa Bebir. Only the Food Goods know what you’ll do with them.
We do this because, many years ago, dear friends who love to grow, cook, preserve and explore as much as we do asked us to. We do this because we have a love for good food and cooking shared. We do this because we hope to inspire such in y’all. That’s more than good enough for me.
As much as we love Thanksgiving, there’s a problem there, one that we’ve tried to address as an enduring theme here – managing and avoiding food waste. Huge amounts of it, and frankly, it’s not just the holidays. It’s every day, in our home kitchens. Massive waste. It’s time to address that.
Consider this shocker, courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Over this Thanksgiving week, Americans will throw out almost 200 million pounds of turkey alone.” That’s one weekend, gang. They go on to state that, “The average household of four is wasting about $1,800 annually on food that they buy and then never wind up eating.” And there’s more – “A recent survey in three U.S. cities found that the average American tosses out 2.5 pounds of perfectly edible food each week. At the top of the list: produce and leftovers.” And the coup de grace, “Households are actually the biggest contributor to the amount of food going to waste across the country — more than grocery stores or restaurants or any other sector.” All that food is the primary thing sent to dumps and landfills in this county, and that leads directly to the production of a hell of a lot of methane as all that stuff decomposes. Methane is a serious greenhouse gas – Not good in a world that’s rapidly heating up.
Now if you doubt those household waste figures, let me share something with you – As the General Manager of a cafe that does well north of 4 million bucks in sales annually, I have a few real concerns to deal with – I need to keep my folks happy, my guests safe and happy, and make money for my company. That’s it, in a nutshell. Do those things, and everything else will fall in place. Now, we certainly have waste, but let me put it into perspective for you – Our waste, our total waste, from a full time bakery and a kitchen putting out those kind of numbers, is around 3%. That’s roughly 1.5% from both sides, café and bakery. Now, compare that to the figures from the NRDC above and tell me – Do y’all think you’re anywhere near that efficient? The answer is a resounding NO – Not even close. That’s what we need to fix, because friends and neighbors? Your concerns are not any different than mine are, truth be told – You have to keep your crew happy, safe, and fed, and you cannot afford to waste the kind of money those figures up there reflect – None of us can.
There’s your post holiday bummer for you. So, as I always like to ask when somebody brings me gratuitous doom and gloom – What are we gonna do about it? Well, again, what we’re going to do is go back to talking about planning, and about thorough use of the food we buy. Why? Because we must, without fail.
That concept I mentioned, thorough use of what we buy, starts with shopping. So let me ask – When you shop, you make a list, right? If not, (and I know there are some of you who just wing it, so stop fibbing), you’ve got to start planning, carefully, if you’re going to avoid the kind of food waste we’re guilty of here. That means going through your pantry, cupboards, freezer, and fridge, and seeing what you’ve got and what you might need.
The idea here is to change a critical aspect of the way most of us shop – Instead of thinking about what might be fun or nice to buy, we need to look at what’s already in your kitchen with a couple of perspectives – First, what do I already got that’d be great to cook with, and secondly, what do I got that needs to be dealt with right now – before it turns to waste?
When you do that, you find the things that are maybe on the verge of going bad, and you use them, convert them, make them into something you’ll cook with, rather than let them go to waste. Got tomatoes about to become long in the tooth? Put them in an airtight container and freeze them. You can make sauce, soup, or stew later, when you’re ready. In fact, any and every vegetable or fruit you’ve got that is ‘getting there’ should be treated this way – You don’t really think folks buy bananas intending to make banana bread, do you?
Case in point – M and I invented a Chicago Dog Pizza the other night, because, one – we wanted pizza, and two – We didn’t have any of the proteins we’d normally put on pizza, (No ham, pepperoni, mozzarella, etc) – What we did have was two very good locally made hot dogs that needed to get eaten, some sport peppers, and a couple tomatoes that needed to get used as well. I made some dough, and a sauce tinged with a little zing of yellow mustard and celery salt. We used cheddar cheese, and a little sweet onion, and it was actually fantastic – I’d go back to a place that makes that and order it again.
When I say ‘go through your freezer and fridge,’ I mean it! Touch everything there – EVERYTHING! We do this daily in restaurant work, and you should do it at least weekly at home – That’s the number one way to find stuff that needs to get used and get it in play before its too far gone, (And conversely, not doing so is the number one reason we waste so much food). I’ve seen a lot of fridges and freezers in my day, and many are downright terrifying. Don’t let yours get there – Police it regularly, and practice FIFO at home, (First In, First Out), combined with dating things in there, and you’ll be well on your way to running a tighter ship.
When you do make that list, think in much broader terms than one meal at a time. A chicken, one nice, fat fresh chicken, can easily make three meals – Roasted chicken, chicken tacos, chicken noodle soup. Turns that $15 bird into a much more efficient protein, doesn’t it? We talked pretty extensively about this in a couple of posts, one on Meal Planning, and one on Planning for Leftovers – Check those out.
And then, when you’re ready to go to the store, do yourselves a favor – Abide by the old adage, ‘Don’t shop hungry.’ Seriously – It’s why we shop on Sundays, our mutual day off, and go out to eat beforehand. Hungry shopping leads to binge shopping, and that’s bad for the wallet and the waste log. Stick to your list, and you’re good to go.
That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t snag something that looks great when you’re there – Just be judicious in that vein. The reason we waste so much produce is because its pretty, and stores do a great job of presenting it. That’s fine, and it’s stuff you should eat, but if you go getting all crazy in that department, thinking you’re going to use all this stuff before it spoils, nine times out of ten, you’re dead wrong – Pick a thing or two at most, and make sure you use it. If it floats your boat, add it to your list downstream. If it doesn’t, then move on.
A lot, and I mean a lot of folks snag stuff because they’ve heard of it, seen it on Iron Chef, or something along that line – The question is, do you know what Jicama tastes like? (It’s great, by the way – Sorry…) This being the 21st century, whip out the ol’ smart phone and do a quick research on what it is that’s got your attention. You may or may not like turnips, Chinese long beans, or star fruit, and a quick check can give you enough of a clue to make a more informed decision than, ‘it’s so pretty.’
Finally, when you get your booty home, think about waste when you start to cook. What we throw away day in and day out isn’t always waste – A lot of it is food we didn’t use. Those NRDC quotes came from a piece NPR did with Massimo Bottura, a Michelin starred Chef who shows us how to think differently about what we throw away. He even got some friends together, like Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse, and Ferran Adrià, to name just a few, and wrote a cookbook aimed at reducing household food waste. It’s a spiral-bound gem titled, Bread is Gold, and you want it in your culinary library. Check out the NPR piece here.
To get you started, here’s the best potato stock you’ll ever make. It’s a great thing to make, divide into portions, and whip out to make amazing sauce, soup, or stews with.
Potato Peel Stock
5 Cups Water
Peels only from 6-8 Potatoes
1 medium Sweet Onion
1 stalk Celery
1 Bay Leaf
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Fresh Ground Pepper
Rinse and rough chop onion, carrots, and celery.
Throw everything into a stock pot over high heat until it begins to boil.
Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cook for 2 hours.
Remove from heat, run the stock through a colander and discard the veggies
Allow to cool to room temperature, then portion and freeze, or use right away.
And finally, for the record, Kevin Rosinbum, a talented photographer and cook I know wrote this yesterday afternoon, above a picture of a glorious pot of homemade soup. “If you toss out your holiday carcass, you’ve already lost.” Truer words were never written.
We had that turkey dinner of course, followed by two rounds of stunningly delicious sandwiches, (I think I like them best of all). After that, what was left of the meat got pared off the carcass, and that got thrown into the oven to roast, and then into the slow cooker – Just the carcass and the aromatics it had cooked in – covered with water and left to do its thing for 8 hours. The result, strained once, is the most unctuous, fragrant, amazing stock you could ever hope for. With carrots, celery, garlic, leftover potatoes, and the rest of the meat, it’s now a pot of our own glorious soup, simmering away as I type.
We did up some ribs for dinner the other night, in honor of our middle son and his partner coming over for dinner. As we are want to do, we posted some pics all over social media, and as such, have had a bunch of requests for the recipe, so here goes – Spare Ribs with a Citrus Fennel Glaze.
The sauce is the star here, and for good reason. It’s a grade A example of the organic way M and I arrive at a dish, based largely on what we’ve got on hand, and often initiated by a single thing – In this case, a left over blood orange that had given up it’s zest for an earlier meal with our youngest kid.
Initially, we were leaning toward a Chinese style rub, but James is allergic to sesame, so we went off on a tangent. M found that blood orange and wondered aloud if we couldn’t do something with that. A short brainstorming session yielded what you see herein. This sauce could be used on a lot of things, from chicken or beef, to Brussels sprouts or carrots.
While this might seem like alchemy, I assure you, it’s not. Often, when we’re brainstorming things, I’ll whip out our copy of The Flavor Bible, a book that you aughta have in your kitchen, if you don’t already. You’ll find a wealth of parings and affinities therein that truly can and will spark your imagination and creativity.
And I can’t stress enough to be bold in endeavors like this – If you like stuff, and you think that stuff might go well together, then try it. If you’re at all nervous about committing to a full blown recipe, then cut off a little piece of this and a little piece of that, pop them your mouth, and see what you think. If it’s good, go with it. If it’s not, search elsewhere. That, in a nutshell, is how you build your own ideas into culinary reality.
We used a rack of spare ribs, but you can do any cut of rib you like, (Baby Back, St. Louis, Rib Tips, County Style, or beef ribs.)
Preheat oven to 250° F and set a rack in the middle slot.
Season ribs with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, (we use our go to seasoning salt for pretty much everything).
Wrap the ribs tightly in aluminum foil, fat side up and dull side of the foil facing out.
Set the package on a baking sheet, or the bottom of a broiler pan, and cook low and slow for about 2 hours, until the rib meat is very tender.
Juice from one fat and happy blood orange.
1/4 Cup Orange Marmalade
1/3 Cup chopped fresh Fennel bulb
2 small cloves Garlic
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Tabasco chile flake, (Use any chile variety you like here)
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Teaspoon Arrowroot.
Remove ribs from oven, set a rack on a high slot, and increase temperature to 375° F.
In a sauté pan over medium heat, melt butter, then add fennel and sauté for a couple minutes until it has notably softened.
Add garlic and sauté another minute until raw garlic smell dissipates.
Reduce heat to medium low.
Add orange juice, marmalade, and chile flake, stir well to incorporate.
Cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes, until the sauce is quite liquid, (that’d be the marmalade relaxing a bit.)
Add half the arrow root and stir to incorporate. Allow the sauce to cook for another minute or so. Sauce will thicken slightly – Add the rest of the arrow root if you want things a bit thicker.
Unwrap the ribs, and flip them meat side up onto the pan. Baste or pour sauce liberally onto the ribs in an even layer.
Return the ribs to the oven on the high rack, and cook for about 10 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and starting to caramelize.
We served ours with an gratin potatoes, a lovely green salad, and fresh, crusty bread. They were falling off the bone tender, and the sauce was a perfect foil to the richness of the meat.
I tweak and republish this post annually; I think you’ll see why when you read it.
See, I’m not out to be tragically hip, in fact quite the contrary. Or maybe Matthew Selman said it best; “I wish there was another word than foodie; how about ‘super food asshole’, or ‘pretentious food jerk’?” I just don’t wanna go there.
Granted, there are a lot of great food blogs out there, but right now, many are judged ‘Great’ because somebody took a really, really nice pic of some food, or is on the fast track to be the next Food Channel Super Food Asshole. Frankly, when the ‘best’ food blog sites reject people because they don’t meet criterion such as that, I’m more than not interested, I’m actively turned off.
I write about food from some pretty simple perspectives. I’m interested in sharing recipes, methods, processes and such. I’m interested in sourcing, using wisely, and preserving food that is good for you, in a world where much of what we are offered to eat is not very good. I’m interested in the science behind cooking, because I’ve never liked simply being told to ‘do it this way.’ I trust that if you’re reading this, you’re interested in these things as well. To be honest, if no one read this blog, I’d write it anyway, because I do it for me first and foremost; I gotta share what I love. That’s just how I’m wired.
So, when I look at ‘real’ food blogs, I see the stuff that, fairly often, folks ask me about here, or more to the point, ask me why I don’t do these things. There are three oft repeated comments, and they are,
Why don’t you list nutritionals and calories,
Why don’t you post prep and cooking times, and
Why do you post exotic ingredients that I’m not likely to have?
So, in a nutshell, here’s why;
Frankly, listing nutritionals means, more than anything, that I am determining what kind of portion size you and yours eat, and frankly, I don’t have any idea about that. If I list a casserole recipe and you make it, how much do you eat? How about your partner? Do you have seconds, are there leftovers, and on and on. This ain’t a restaurant, and I’d bet your house isn’t either; neither of us needs everyone to eat the same portion. For the record, I predominantly do recipes for two, with planned leftovers, the idea being general efficiency, and the fact that anything good will be great the next day. Other than that, you’re kinda on your own. I mean I can give you a great biscuit recipe, but how big you make ’em, and how many y’all wolf down is kinda your gig, right?
Don’t get me wrong, nutrition IS important and should be monitored in some way, shape, or form. The best way to this is to buy carefully and thoughtfully. Buy locally whenever you can. Read the labels on food and avoid the stuff that’s truly bad for you. Grow anything and everything you can. Preserve what you buy or grow so that you can notably extend the time it is available to you. Make everything you can, from scratch, at home. That may sound more intensive than what you do now, but if you really care about nutrition, you’ll do it. And as far as we go, whenever you need or want detailed nutritionals on our recipes, just click on our link for Calorie Count and go to town. There’s a mobile version out for your Apple or Android smart phone as well now.
Next comes prep and cooking time.
Weeeeeellllll, how do I say this? Listing prep time is, in my not even remotely close to humble opinion, one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. The problem is actually pretty obvious. Listing prep time says we all prep at the same level, and nothing could be further from the truth. Heck, I have three preppers in my cafe and they all perform differently… So really, the question is who’s prep time are we talking about? Mine? Yours? Emeril’s? I’ve been cutting things for decades and have pretty damn good knife skills; do you? I can stem, seed and core a tomato blindfolded, without cutting myself, in about 15 seconds; can you? I don’t even think about process and procedure any more, it just comes naturally; does it for you? And if your answers are ‘No’, does that make you slow? If I can prep Dish A in 10 minutes and you take 20, should you not make that dish? Of course not! And really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How about what ingredients you have right on hand when you start your prep, how well equipped your kitchen is, how your day went, how many rug rats are flying around your feet, or how many critters need to go out right NOW?! Get the picture? My bottom line is simple – Who gives a rats ass how long it takes if you have the time and want to make it? If you’re cooking regularly, you either already have a decent sense of what you can and will accomplish in a given time, or you will develop one in time. If you really do like cooking and want to do it, you’ll do it.
Finally, there’s the exotic ingredient thing. Yes, I have a whacky spice cabinet. You may or may not have a pantry like ours, but I really don’t think that matters. We have all this stuff because we dedicated lot of time and energy into developing and perfecting recipes to share with y’all. Whether or not you need that much stuff is up to you. Does a couple avocado leaves and a little annatto really make or break good chili? If you’re asking me, I think the question is rhetorical. And frankly, I don’t buy the ‘why do you use ingredients I’m not likely to have’ complaint for a second; in this day and age, almost anyone in this country, and many others, can get anything they want. I recently shared a bacon recipe with a pal from South Africa. He ended up having to go all over creation to find several ingredients, but he did it, ’cause he really wants to try my recipe. Kinda like that last discussion on prep and cooking, huh? Ive mailed corn meal to Australia and mustard seed to Israel; if you can’t get something you wanna try, hit me up, I’ll help. I’ve also gotta point out that we constantly encourage and desire experimentation, so if you’re making it, put what you like in it: Give us credit the first time, and then it’s yours…
I say that if you love cooking and great food, maybe you should check out Tasmanian Pepperberry, or Urfa Bebir; who knows what you’ll do with them?
We do this because dear friends who love to grow, cook, preserve and explore as much as we do asked us to. We do this because we have a love for good food and cooking shared. We do this because we hope to inspire such in y’all. If that ain’t good enough, so be it.
There are tens of thousands of threads, posts, and pages out there describing exactly what you absolutely, positively must have in your kitchen – And no two agree completely. That might be a good or a bad thing, depending on ones desires, budget, and available space. Arguably, the lions share of such information deals with cookware, and I’m ready to boldly wade in. What you absolutely need is cast iron, and if you had to pick one piece over all others, it should be the Dutch oven – It’s must have kitchenware.
First off, what exactly is a ‘genuine’ Dutch oven? The answer is, there are several, and most of them aren’t Dutch any more. In essence, it’s a flat bottomed, fairly deep, (typically 3″ to 5″), thick walled, (read, heavy), pot with a nice, snug lid. Past that, it’s called many things – Whether it’s a Dutch Braadpan, Aussie Bedourie, South African Potjie, an Eastern European Chugun, or a North American Dutch Oven, they’re pretty much the same thing and used similarly – that means that everything from stewing and roasting to baking and boiling gets done in this one marvelous pot.
There are dozens of folks tales about how the Dutch oven got its name, but here’s the straight skinny – Back in the 1600s, the Dutch refined the process of casting metal cooking pots by employing a dry sand mold, which yielded a notably smoother finished surface than what they’re neighbor’s were producing – That made using and cleaning them much easier, and once the rest of Europe got a taste, serious importation of the pot began and grew. In the dawn of the 18th century, Englishman Abraham Darby refined the casting process further by fueling a blast furnace with coke rather than charcoal, opening the way for cast iron cooking vessels. In a nod to the folks he learned the sand mold trick from, he called the pot he cast, (similar to a braadpan), a Dutch oven, and the rest is history. At his Cheese Lane Foundry, an apprentice named John Thomas further refined the molding process, employing a casting box and core that allowed relatively thinner and lighter pots to be produced. They were so successful that Darby enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the trade well into the 1700s – It was his wares that first made their way to North American shores.
So, what are they made of? While plain cast iron rules in North America, those Dutch braadpans are much more likely to be enameled steel. There are cast aluminum versions, and the legendary Le Creuset enameled cast iron French Oven has legions of fans – And for the record, technically, an enameled Dutch oven is a French Oven – It’s a formal nod to that famous company that first produced the combination.
Once the Dutch oven hit our shores, changes were inevitable. Shallower, wider pots prevailed over their English forebearers. Stubby legs appeared, to allow coals to be placed beneath the oven, and a flat, flanged lid followed, so that coals placed on top of the oven stayed there, and out of the food. Both those innovations are widely attributed to Paul Revere, who did indeed own a foundry, and who’s name graces a line of cookware to this very day, but beyond everybody saying he did it, I couldn’t find one solid confirmation of the legend. Bailed handles, lids with handles, and various other iterations followed, and remain available to this day. Check out the website for the ubiquitous Lodge foundry, and you get the picture. Dutch ovens were almost exclusively made of cast iron here, and were considered so valuable a commodity that they were religiously passed on from generation to generation, often to a specific recipient. As the country grew, Dutch ovens traveled, starting with the Lewis and Clark expedition, and they’re very much still with us.
So, with all that history and all those options, you don’t have one in your kitchen? Or worse yet, you do, it it’s gathering dust, unused? Time to remedy that. If you don’t have one, I’m gonna say again, you need to invest in one, and in investment is literally what you’re making – Just as it was back when, a good quality Dutch oven, properly maintained, will serve you for a lifetime, and then be ready to be handed on to future generations. If you’ve got one and aren’t using it, time to get it down, inspect it, clean it, and put that puppy to use.
Now, if you’re buying, what should you get? That depends on what your predominant use will be, and how many people you typically feed. The first decision is new or used – Either is fine, but don’t expect to readily find a killer cheap deal on first class vintage cast iron – Those days are largely gone, although if you’re not in a hurry, and diligent about searching garage and estate sales, eBay, and Craig’s List, you can still find a decent bargain now and again.
If you’re going to buy, you’ll be hard pressed to do better than Lodge – There’s a reason they sell more cast iron than anybody else – They’ve been doing it since 1896, and their products, service, and designs are tried, tested, and top notch, (There are other fine makers, so poke around before you land.) If you’re cooking for 2 to 4 folks, a 10″ oven will do just fine. More than that, and you’re going to be better off with a 12″ pot. If your primary use will be your home kitchen, with an occasional foray to the camping world, you’ll be well served by a Lodge L8DD3, a 10″ 5 quart, double Dutch oven with a domed, handled cover that doubles as a skillet at the campsite. Between the 4.5″ depth and the domed lid, you can get a lot of stuff into this oven – I know, ’cause this is the one we own and use here, and the one I got for my Sis, so yeah, I think that highly of ’em – And if you’re a regular visitor here, you know that’s no bullshit, because you’ve seen this very model working here many, many times. One caveat – The L8DD3 doesn’t have legs or a baled handle, so you need to be a bit more careful around a campfire, but I assure you there’s not much you can’t do with it out in the wild – and speaking thereof…
If you’re looking for an oven specifically to camp with, then you’ll do better with a Lodge L10DCO3, what they call a camp oven – This guy features everything you want in an oven that’ll get used predominantly with coals – Legs, bale handle, and that possibly Revere designed flat, flanged lid. Those attributes are important because, when cooking over coals or wood, you need to be able to effectively distribute heat in different ways, depending on what you need the oven to do. A few years back, I wrote a piece about camp cooking with a Dutch oven, and you’ll find that right here – It’ll provide plenty of specific info on how to vary the number and placement of coals or briquettes to achieve effective baking, roasting, or simmering when you’re out at the campsite.
And as for that versatility I mentioned a while back, suffice it to say that there’s truly not much you can’t do with this oven. From soups and stews, to braising and roasting, sautéing or baking, a cast iron Dutch oven will provide dependable, even heat and consistent performance. And then there’s the certain je ne sais quoi imparted by cooking in cast iron – Everything tastes a little better, at least to me it does, and frankly, I can’t think of a better reason to use one, (and not a single reason you wouldn’t.)
As with all good cookware, cast iron requires care and maintenance. Rather than repeat the mantras, I’ll just point you to Lodge’s page for seasoning, and for care and maintenance – Do what they tell ya, don’t do the stuff you shouldn’t, and that oven will serve you and yours for decades to come.
NOTE: Because, without fail, somebody always gets in touch and asks how much, in this case, Lodge gave or paid me, rest assured – We don’t take freebies, and we don’t get paid by purveyors – We bought our stuff, just like you do, every time, no exceptions.
It happens in every professional kitchen, to some degree, every day – And folks, truth be told, it happens exactly the same way in our home kitchens, too. Classically, it’s known as being dans le merde – You might not know the term, but I guarantee you know the feeling. You’re in the shit.
Anyone who’s worked in a professional kitchen knows the term. My first professional kitchen training was French, then a Basque kitchen, then another French outfit. ‘On est dans la merde,’ was a thing I heard early on, and quickly came to understand – If you want the proper pronunciation, it’s onnay don la maird – It means, we are in the shit, and in it deep. It’s a colorful phrase, indeed. The Americanized version is ‘in the weeds’, but it means the same thing, and it’s rarely good – I’ll explain my choice of rarely over never down the line a spell.
What in the shit or the weeds means is simple – It’s the Murphy’s Law of cooking – What can go wrong, will go wrong, and usually at the most inopportune moment. It makes sense, frankly. While some advocate that the phenomenon is more prevalent and has greater negative repercussions in a fine dining outfit, I personally think that’s hooey. Let’s face it, we’ve all been to a fast food chain when they’re in the weeds, and frankly, I have zero doubt that staff and patrons there feel it every bit as acutely as they would at The French Laundry. It sucks, bad, and sometimes it can be damn near impossible to get out of quickly or cleanly. Yet most of the time, that’s not true, thank the gods.
Before we explore the what, a moment to discuss the term – Where does in the shit/weeds come from – The etymology isn’t crystal clear. Some posit that it stems from a sports analogy, hitting a golf ball into the rough, or getting tangled in seaweed during a swim. Mark Liberman, a Professor of Linguistics at Yale, suggests it refers to getting off the beaten path, and that strikes me as closer to the mark, (no pun intended). It’s hard to say how old this chunk of kitchen lexicon is. A search for the origins or first use of the term as kitchen slang yields almost nothing of value, it’s an arcane term that apparently hasn’t been explored well. My earliest finding for it is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. The inference therein is that the term was common among kitchen staff then, so it likely has its roots back a spell from Orwell’s time.
What being dans le merde means is, overwhelmed. In a restaurant, it means that something has swamped a station or stations, and they can’t keep up. When everything, literally everything, must be precisely timed and finely coordinated, that’s all it takes to bring about disaster. And if the orders keep piling up after it’s happened, it’ll take that much longer to get out of.
What I do nowadays in the cafe during peak periods is expedite – I’m standing on the front of house side of the pass, the high counter where completed plates are placed by the kitchen staff when they’re ready to go. I give everything one more check, confirm each element of the plate with my QC, and then hand the plate on to a server. But in reality, I’m watching the clock, and all the stations. My QC, (literally Quality Control – The most important person in that kitchen), the one who has final say on what comes out to me, has control of her line, but her back is to it most of the time, whereas I’m facing the various stations – She can feel what’s shaking, because she’s really good, but I can see it – The expressions on faces, the sudden slow down in assembly steps as somebody gets bogged down, the lack of plates at a given station, where there should be several. As such, a great deal of what I actually do is orchestrate things to keep us from being dans le merde. It’s a constant, demanding dance, and I love it.
Now we reach the point of asking, so what? Why would we be interested in exploring a term that describes catastrophic failure? The answer, my friends, is simple – Search your hearts and memories, and you’ll find plenty of examples of this happening to you, in your own kitchen. Sure, we’re not Le Bernardin, but the fact is that, on a Tuesday night, after a long, hard day at work, when you’ve got to have dinner on the table for your family in X minutes, and the shit hits the fan, it matters a great deal. It has happened, and as sure as hitting a deer while driving eastern Washington, it will happen again, and therein lies the crux of the matter – When it does, what will you do? The sitcom and cartoon answer is, order pizza, and sometimes that works, but the fact remains that most of the time that’s not an option, so, just as I do at work, we at home must act to save the day.
Craig Thornton is the wildly creative LA Chef and founder of Wolvesmouth, what he describes as, “a communal dinner party, kind of like the old-world salon.” A dinner party that just happens to be one of the most sought after dinner reservations in that town. In an interview a while back, he said something that speaks perfectly to why understanding and studying being dans le merde is important – “Cooking is creating a big fucking problem and learning how to solve it.” Truer words were never spoken. No matter how accomplished you are, no matter how broad your repertoire, Murphy says that things will go wrong when you can least afford it. Made Yorkshire pudding a thousand times? You’ll fuck it up on Christmas Eve, with the whole fam damily in attendance. Think about it – Cooking is chemistry, math, history, memory, ambition, imagination, all done with a cornucopia of methods and processes almost guaranteed to make all that fail at some point. It’s a given, and as such, we need to recognize and acknowledge failure – Bow to the gods of chaos, and then smile back at ’em. Failure is, quite literally, a vital part of the cooking process. As with most things in life, it’s not what happens to us, but what we do about it when things don’t exactly go swimmingly that tests our mettle.
So, what’s the take away, S’il vous plaît? The answer depends on the disaster. Fortunately, this being the 21st century, answers are but a click away, if you don’t already know one. When a disaster hits your kitchen, it’s time to go into triage mode. Whatever the crisis, when it happens, you need to do what we do at work. Stop for a moment. When you’re in the shit, it feels like you’ve just got to forge on, a la the Winston Churchill quote, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Fact is, that’s usually not a good idea when everything is going to shit.
Disaster requires a moment of observation first and foremost – What went wrong? We may or may not be able to answer that question, but you need to take the time to observe and assess. Thats literally what I do at work – “Gang, stop – Let’s figure this out – Do we need to move people around, do we need more hands, what’s the deal? Let’s figure it out and fix it.” That’s why up there in that second paragraph I said being dans le merde isn’t always bad – If you’re barreling down the wrong path and something critical brings you to a full stop, it can be a hidden blessing – You only ruin one dish, instead of a whole meal.
Take stock of what happened – If you’re not sure what it was, grab your smart phone and google that sucker, ‘why did my Sauce separate?’ With all the resources out there, you’ll likely not only find the cause, but a wealth of possible solutions as well. For the time being, screw the sauce – What’s done is done, and a minute or two more isn’t going to do a bunch more damage. Here’s another tip – Ask for help at home. If you’re a solo cook, (as most of us at are), you’re probably not big on helpers, (I’m not, as many well know). That tendency is, in fact, the cause of many disasters – you’ve taken on a big ass menu of stuff that’s new to you for a party, and wham, things go to shit – Ask for help – Chances are good there’s a spouse, kid, hell even a neighbor you can call on in a pinch. That extra set of hands, eyes, and heart may be exactly what’s called for.
Finally, accept the circumstances. Soufflé pan cracked mid bake? May be salvageable, may not – If not, what’s your alternative? Perfect scrambled eggs are a thing of beauty – No, they’re not a soufflé, but after that disaster, who would argue with great comfort food? Burned the butter in the sauté pan? Don’t wipe it out and charge forward. Stop, get a new pan, take a sip of wine while it heats up. Take a deep breath, get rid of whatever distraction that drew your attention from where it should have been, and calmly go forth to culinary success.
If nothing else, I’ll guarantee you this – Screw something up in an epic kitchen fail, and it’s a safe bet you’ll never, ever do that again. Count your hidden blessings.