Category Archives: Food

Recipes can be Tricky

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between restaurant cooking and home cooking, and between restaurant recipes and home recipes.

In a restaurant, you try to do everything way in advance, like at least a few hours and usually a day before you serve, and then just do the last bit at the very end. At home, you want a recipe that you can cook start to finish in a half hour. A recipe that takes a half hour start to finish is fatal in a restaurant: You want something that takes all morning to prepare, then can be held an arbitrary amount of time, and then finished and plated and served in just a few minutes. If it can’t be held – paella, risotto, Peking duck – restaurants often require advance orders or warn you it takes a long time to make.

And then there’s the recipe. In a restaurant, a written recipe is like crib notes or a set list. You know the song, and you’re going to perform it again and again tonight. Braise, hold, sear, plate w/ gremolata, side haricots. But you have to do it exactly the same way every time and the unstated details are endless.

It’s not written down on the notes, because you already know that the beef should be cut into exactly 6 ounce servings, that you must season, dry, and brown before braising, that the liquid is beef stock with wine, that it should be hot already, that the gremolata must be made with exactly the right ratio of lemon to parsley. You know, in advance, and from practice, that the beans must be blanched and shocked before service, and then heated with shallot oil when ordered and topped with toasted almonds when plated. Those instructions are written down somewhere, probably, but you’re not referring to them. Even so, you follow them strictly, because your food has to be consistent. You have to make that dish the same way all night, and you have to do it again next week, and it has to be the same as last time.

At home, a recipe is more detailed and also less strict. A cookbook recipe can’t assume you know all the details. It will tell you how to brown a piece of meat, how hot to make your braising liquid, suggest substitutions. If you don’t follow the instructions exactly, it’s not generally a big deal. Chef isn’t going to come over to the garde manger station and say your dice are wrong, and nobody’s going to mind if the chicken isn’t seasoned the same from one plate to the next or one week to the next.

I was thinking about this because I tried to write down how we cook our weeknight stir-fry the other day, and realized that I had no idea how much of anything we put into it. A few glugs of fish sauce, maybe? If I don’t want to get a spoon dirty I’ll just pour chili paste in straight from the jar. In a restaurant, you’d measure and weigh your portions of meat, but at home, we use whatever’s on hand, whether it’s a little extra or a little short.

This week we added corn and tomatoes because we had them lying around and they’d go bad if we didn’t. It turned out great and I kind of wish we’d measured what we did because it was better than usual. I can tell you exactly how we do it, but it’s still not a recipe. To properly tell someone else how we usually make the dish, we’ll have to measure more than we usually do, changing what we’re doing in some small way to give it the contours of a shareable set of instructions.

A Cookbook Not to Miss

David Tanis wrote in the New York Times the other day about a cookbook I wanted to highlight myself, Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Singleton Hachisu. I can hear the head shakes now–“Japanese farm food? What’s next?” It’s such a lovely book both as an object and as a cookbook. Nancy imbues the entire thing with her warm personality.  She packs so much information in this book but don’t be scared. She’s exacting about her ingredients and techniques but nothing is too difficult here.

The Poached Egg’s Moment In The Sun

Poached eggs are having kind of a moment these days, which is fine with me, although Bookdwarf isn’t as much of a fan. I like the way a poached or sunny-side-up egg can be both a protein and a sauce in a dish. But sometimes they don’t quite work out.

One of my friends has been recommending the Double Awesome sandwich at the Mei Mei Street Kitchen truck, so when I saw on the Boston Food Truck Schedule that it would be near my work, I stopped by. It’s a scallion pancake wrapped around two poached eggs, cheese, an herb pesto, and spicy ketchup.

That’s an ambitious project, especially for a food truck: It’s a lot of ingredients, a lot of last-minute assembly, and a completely absurd declaration of love for poached eggs. I can think of few things quite so ill-suited to being folded into a sandwich and served in a little box with no utensils. I guess it helps that you can eat this thing standing up, because you can bend forward at the waist to avoid dripping eggs all over your clothes. It’s messy and rich and soft and fun.

But it wasn’t great. The cheddar cheese overwhelmed the scallion pancake. The pesto was runny and under-salted and, if I can be pedantic, not technically pesto. The ketchup didn’t make sense with the pesto or the scallion pancake. Good, perhaps, but not up to the level that you’d expect from a revolutionary hipster food truck, not quite double awesome.

In contrast, Strip-T’s out in Watertown has a way with runny eggs and with everything else. You may have heard of this place, but if you haven’t, expect it to be everywhere shortly. It’s a great story as well as a great restaurant: Tim Maslow returns to his father’s old-school neighborhood joint after a stint with David Chang at Momofuku, and starts changing a menu that had been the same for 20 years. Cue the buzz on Chowhound, strong reviews from the Boston Globe, and coronation from Bon Appetit, and it rapidly becomes hard to get a table on a weekend.

It’s not just buzz. Grilled romaine with oxtail and poached egg – amazing. Chicken wings with a sweet/savory sauce made from Moxie – amazing. Homemade whole-wheat orichette with bottarga and tomatillos – amazing. A hamburger with a fried egg (yeah, there’s that runny egg again, and you can dip your fries in it) – amazing. Tripe with grilled cabbage – amazing. A donut – amazing. Panna cotta with raspberries and coconut pound-cake croutons and sea salt – amazing.

It all comes together: Concepts, execution, reasonable prices that come with a location on a side street near the Arsenal Mall. And those runny eggs.

Dinner Tonight, Well Last Night Technically

Mr. Bookdwarf and I have been eager to try cooking more recipes from Naomi Duguid’s Burma: Rivers of Flavor since our dinner party a few weekends back. Tonight we opted for a simple dish called Chicken in Tart Garlic Sauce.

Mince lots of garlic and ginger and make it into a paste with some salt. Heat peanut oil and saute until soft. Add in some green cayenne chilies, which I just happen to have growing on our porch. Add in some boneless chicken breast sliced into smallish pieces and cook for several minutes. Add in a cup of water. At first you think, woah that’s a lot of water. Trust me you want the sauce. It looks bland but it packs a lot of flavor. Bring the water a boil and continue cooking until the chicken is cooked through. Take off heat and add two tablespoons of lime juice. Salt to season. Garnish with some cilantro.

We made some brown rice to go with the dish. I winged a broccoli dish as well by stealing some of the ginger, garlic, and peppers before adding the chicken. Steam the broccoli. Drain the pan. Heat a little oil and add back in the aromatics. Toss in the broccoli and coat. I then threw in some fish sauce and chili oil that I had made for the dinner party. Delicious!

Burmese Food, or Why Haven’t I Known about this Food Before Naomi Duguid’s New Cookbook

When I got a copy of the cookbook, Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid, I had no idea what Burmese cooking was even like. As it turns out, geography is a pretty good guide: To the west, Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) is bordered by India and Bangladesh; to the north by China, and to the east by Thailand and Laos.

Ginger, lime, turmeric, and chiles fill the spice lists. Instead of fish sauce or fermented bean paste, the funky umami notes of Burmese cuisine come from dried shrimp and fermented shrimp paste. And shallots go on everything.

Sliced shallots

When I first sat down and read through it, I wished I had a whole month to cook exclusively from the book. I only had a few days, so I picked just one recipe to start with: Burmese Style Chicken Salad. Packed up for lunch with steamed rice and a lime-shallot dressing, it was an easy, healthy, and delicious meal.

Then Mr. Bookdwarf and I planned a party: Spice-rubbed Jerky, Fluffy Lemongrass Fish, Mandalay Carrot Salad, and a tapioca-and-coconut custard.

Everything was served with small bowls of hot chili oil, crispy shallots, and a powder made from dried shrimp that were reconstituted and crushed. The odd-looking shrimp powder was key, functioning like a southeast-Asian bottarga: You wouldn’t eat it by the spoonful, but sprinkled onto anything else it added mouthwatering complexity and richness.

Many of the condiments for the meal

Who knew that a plain-looking carrot salad could be so flavorful. Served in a bowl, you might pass on this–but that would be a huge mistake. This is THE BEST CARROT SALAD EVER.

The Mandalay Carrot Salad was a huge hit

Dressed with a lot of lime, fish sauce, roasted peanuts, toasted chickpea flour, and cilantro, this deceptively simple looking salad packs a lot of flavor. And it’s easy to make, too. I just grated some carrots bought at the farmers market on a cheese grater then tossed it with the other ingredients. That’s all.

The beef dish was fascinating: Thin sliced, rubbed with spices, and dried slowly in the oven for a couple hours, it became light and slightly stiff.
The spice rubbed beef before the oven
Then we fried it in hot oil until it was crispy and the turmeric in the spice rub was a rich red color. (Mr. Bookdwarf’s nails remained yellow for days). A now-closed Thai restaurant we used to go to in Union Square had a dish a little like this, and it was one of our favorites. Now that we know how to make it at home I have a feeling it’s going to wind up on party menus again and again.

Spice Rubbed Jerky

The photo of the Fluffy Lemongrass Fish doesn’t do it justice. You take a firm textured white fish–hake is what was freshly caught the day I shopped–and poach it in water with turmeric added. It gives the fish a lovely yellow hue. Meanwhile, you grind some shallots, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass into a paste.

Poaching the fish

Then once it’s cooled for a few minutes, you flake the fish into smaller pieces. Then saute the lemongrass paste in a large saute pan or wok for about five minutes. Add the fish and break it down even more in the pan. Transfer to a bowl, season with fried shallots, lime juice, and salt. Again, it’s a deceptively simple dish.

Fluffy Lemongrass Fish

I decided to make the Tapioca Coconut Delight because it was something I could make ahead of time. It’s a tapioca base topped with a coconut custard. Sounds simple. Something went wrong however. My tapioca never fully set and when I tried to spread the coconut custard–which was delicious by the way–it smeared and ruined the top. It didn’t look pretty, but my guests ate it up anyway and scored it a victory. I have no idea what went wrong. Next time I might just make the custard and turn it into an ice cream. Or perhaps I should try again. After all, no one likes to feel defeated by a dessert.

I’m looking forward to working my way through more of the cookbook – the entire chicken section looks fantastic, especially one called “Village Boys Chicken,” which is supposed to be a recipe for how you’d cook a chicken if you’d stolen it. First, I have to steal a chicken…

Note: More photos of the cooking process are here. It’s becoming more obvious that I need better lighting: As it got dark outside, my pictures got darker. Soon, I think, I’m going to get some decent photo lights.

Weeknight Dinners

People constantly ask me what we make for dinner now that I’ve graduated from culinary school. Maybe they imagine I’m whipping up souffles and Beef Bourguignon, but the reality is that I still work a full time job and neither I nor Mr. Bookdwarf gets home before 7.

Over the years we’ve developed some easy but tasty weeknight meals. Our most common weeknight meal is usually a stir-fry made with whatever we have in the fridge. It’s really great when you get some stuff from the farmer’s market. We usually make it with ground pork, bell pepper, cabbage, and carrots, but you could do just about any combination. Last night it was pork, bell pepper, cabbage, kohlrabi, and corn. Everything’s an estimate, we don’t measure, and it never comes out exactly the same, but it’s usually good and pretty quick.

Weeknight Pork Stir Fry

About a pound of ground pork (or substitute other protein: cheap cuts of steak, chicken, tofu, whatever).

2-3 carrots

1 onion

1 red bell pepper, diced finely.

Half a cabbage and/or whatever other vegetables you’ve got around the house. This time it was kohlrabi and corn, but it could be broccoli or snow peas or whatever was at the market or whatever’s going to go bad first if you don’t eat it tonight.

Hot peppers

A knob of ginger about an inch and a half long

3-4 cloves of garlic

Cilantro or thai basil

If you have them on hand, mushrooms and water chestnuts are nice.

Sesame oil, 2 tsp or so

Hot sauce (garlic-chili sauce or sriracha or both), I use a lot!

Fish sauce, 1 TBS

Oyster sauce, 2 TBS

Put your meat in a big bowl, and grate in ginger and garlic. Throw in about a half-tablespoon of sesame oil, and about a tablespoon of hot sauce, maybe more if you like it spicy, and some fish sauce. Use at least a tablespoon of fish sauce. Throw in your diced bell pepper as well, why not. Stir it around.

Cut your carrots into little ovals so they’re about the same size. Set them in one bowl. Cut your other veggies up and set them aside in the same way, and :  You’ll wind up with four or five bowls of assorted sliced vegetables.

Heat up a big pan with a little oil. You’re going to par-cook your veggies in batches, not all the way through but until they’re slightly tender.

Start with the carrots, then set them aside. You may need to add a little more oil. Then cook your other veggies. You can pile them in with the carrots if you want. Then your onions, and set them aside. Then your hot peppers. You may need to add a little more oil between batches, or not. Just enough to keep stuff from sticking.

Then take everything out of the pan and get it good and hot and fry up your meat. Don’t stir it for the first few minutes: You want it to brown. At this point Mr. Bookdwarf usually goes to wash a couple of dishes because otherwise he gets impatient staring at it, and stirs, and it won’t brown right.

Once it’s browned on one side, stir it. If you’re using ground meat, now’s a good time to make sure it’s broken into approximately even bits. Let it brown a little more – but don’t cook it so much that it dries out entirely. When it’s just about cooked all the way through, add your par-cooked veggies and stir until everything’s hot. Add your mushrooms and water chestnuts, if you’re using them. When the mushrooms have softened, drizzle on about a tablespoon of oyster sauce and your cilantro or basil. Did you forget anything else? All your ingredients should be in by now.

Stir everything around a little more. Taste it. Make sure everything is thoroughly hot and all the flavors are blended. Maybe add more hot sauce. You can always make it more spicy.

Put it over brown rice. It’s good garnished with more basil or with a bit of lime.

Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery

I have every single one of Thomas Keller’s cookbooks. And no, even as a culinary school graduate, I haven’t cooked anything from Under Pressure, the sous-vide treatise/coffee-table book, but I’ve lingered over every page. I do make the fried chicken from Ad Hoc At Home, and I’ve made a handful of other dishes. Mostly, these are inspirational and aspirational. Making a Thomas Keller recipe, even if you take shortcuts, is still generally better than following lesser masters to the letter.

The latest from Keller is the Bouchon Bakery cookbook. And yeah, it’s an inspiration. I don’t care if it’s already over 100 degrees in the apartment: I’m going to preheat the oven, turn the fan to high, and tell Mr. Bookdwarf to fix me a cold drink, because it’s time to start cooking Thomas Keller dishes again.

The Mourad Cookbook Dinner Party

Earlier this summer, Artisan sent me a review copy of Mourad Lahlou’s new cookbook, Mourad: New Moroccan and asked me to give it a try, in competition with staff from a number of other bookstores around the country. We packed some lemons in salt and put them in the cupboard, tried to decide what to cook, and then got incredibly busy doing other stuff, most significantly culinary school. Now that I’m in class from 4:30 PM to 12:30 AM twice a week,  I barely have time to cook at home! It was only this past weekend that we finally managed to get our acts together around the house and throw this thing down. Normally we’d do a cookbook-centric party as a pot luck, but with this one, and on this schedule, I wound up doing all the cooking myself, with the odd assist from Mr. Bookdwarf on measuring, washing, roasting, and running out to the store for extra turmeric and paprika on Saturday evening.

The Menu

We did have the advantage of knowing what the other bookstores had cooked, and were able to try different recipes. So our menu worked out to be four courses and bread:

The Book

Julia Moskin recently recently reviewed Mourad: New Moroccan in comparison with a more traditional Moroccan cookbook, The Food of Morocco, from Paula Wolfert. I think she does a good job of explaining where Mourad Lahlou fits into the world. He’s definitely a fascinating voice for a cuisine that hasn’t really had a star turn in the US, and he’s doing some really interesting stuff modernizing a traditional menu.



I should caution you, that this book is not for the faint of heart. Lahlou’s approach reminds me of Thomas Keller’s: The ultimate product is fantastic, but there are tons of intermediate steps to get there. Traditional Moroccan cuisine draws on labor-intensive, all-day-in-the-kitchen roots, and Lahlou keeps those while bringing in the precision and demands of contemporary restaurant food. I was pleased to see that Lahlou provides both volume and weight measures for everything, which makes it easier to follow his lead. However, his measurements are oddly precise: One spice blend called for 40.2 grams of turmeric, and 0.3 grams of star anise. My digital kitchen scale is great, but it’s just not tenth-of-a-gram precise. Maybe Charlie Sheen has a kitchen scale that goes to the half-gram, but I don’t.

I’d also have liked to see more substitution suggestions, but that’s a quibble. Our bean dish called for corona beans and Lahlou helpfully listed several alternatives, but on the other hand, we did spend a few minutes in the store with our phones looking up the difference between green cardamom and black cardamom, before throwing the green cardamom into our spice grinder.


The Process

You do have a spice grinder, don’t you? Because if you’re cooking from Mourad, you’re going to be toasting and grinding your own spices. You can do it with a mortar and pestle, a blender, or just a big heavy pan, but a spice grinder is really handy. We still copped out and used store-bought harissa, but the other spices we did toast and blend ourselves. A lot of the other steps in the book are like this: He’s doing it the right way, and it’s going to be amazing, but it’s going to involve a dozen steps and you’ll wish you had a sous chef. Mr. Bookdwarf, although helpful, doesn’t count, even if he does say “yes chef” when I ask him to get me something from the pantry. The chicken was the easiest dish, with a marinade before grilling, five minutes on the grill, and vinaigrette after. It produced a delicious and tender dish that disappeared rapidly. The bread, too, was pretty easy, at least compared to a multi-day whole-wheat sourdough. The pepper salad wasn’t terribly hard, although each individual component required several steps: It’s easy enough to roast some peppers, and it’s easy enough to peel a ton of garlic and poach it in olive oil, and it’s easy enough to pack a half-dozen lemons in salt for a month. But each step takes time, so you have to plan ahead.

We were most surprised, I think, by the curry ice cream. I guess you’re asking for a surprise when you make something like that. It’s basically a creme anglaise (yeah, I’m in culinary school, so what?) infused with Lahlou’s curry spice blend, and frozen in an ice cream maker. And it’s basically amazing. It’s strongly spiced without being spicy-hot, and a beautiful, dessert-like shade of yellow from the turmeric. We might even add more hot pepper next time, but we’ll definitely be making that again. And the garlic confit. Oh hell yes.

The Result

I don’t feel vain saying this party went well. It was, honestly, an amazing meal. The preserved lemons were not something I’d had before, and we thought at first that we’d done them wrong because they were oddly slippery. But I’m definitely going to use them more in the future. Same with his garlic confit– the garlic, in fact, was one of the few things that was simple to make and will likely be a staple for me. You just peel a bunch of cloves of garlic, cover in olive oil, set on low heat to simmer until soft and golden, and put it on anything and everything. The roasted peppers were fantastic, the baked bean dish rich and satisfying in a manner I’d never seen before, and the rolls were soft and warm and, when topped with harissa and chicken, incredible. I also don’t feel like I’m understating things when I say it was a ton of work: I started cooking on Saturday afternoon with the spice blends and ice cream base, and didn’t finish until about 8:00 on Sunday when the beans came out of the oven for the third course. I’m looking forward to learning more about Moroccan food, and making more recipes from this book, although maybe not quite so many all at once.

For the complete set of pictures from our party (and all my culinary-school adventures), visit my Flickr page.

First Day of School

Last night was my first class at culinary school. I found the whole thing very fun and intense. Eight hours of school after a full work day will be challenging but rewarding. Last night’s topic was fruits and nuts. I made granola and a berry gratin with creme fraiche and brown sugar. Here are some not very good photos:

Berry Gratin with Brown Sugar

I’ll be bringing my camera with me to class, so hopefully have better photos of the whole experience.

An Ode to Panzanella Salad

I have a confession to make: I didn’t like tomatoes until just a few years ago. I didn’t like tomato sauce either except when on pizza and only if it was minimal and certainly not that chunky style. I’m not sure how to explain this but suffice it to say, I was missing out on some great food. The turn around happened after I tried some heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and basil drizzled with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, a classic dish. It’s like a bright light went off in my head and I could imagine all the possibilities of cooking with tomatoes.

Move forward in time and now my absolute favorite summer meal is the Panzanella salad, simply bread and tomatoes. It’s taken me a few summers to perfect making it. At first, I kept wanting to add more vegetables. Now it’s simply shallots, cucumber, tomatoes, fresh basil, feta cheese and homemade croutons dressed with a easy red wine vinaigrette. Behold!

It's such a pretty salad.

As long as there are heirloom tomatoes available, I make this as often as possible. I think making the croutons gives it an extra deliciousness. I simply cut up some bread, toss with olive oil, salt, and dried herbs. Then bake it at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. Voila! They taste good enough to eat like crackers. Here’s a close up so you can see what’s going on in there.
Yum, panzanella salad.