Musings and Considerations

January 07, 2010

The Thing a Food Writer Isn't Supposed to Say

I have something to confess: over the past few weeks, I have been so grateful to have the Share Our Strength campaign to focus on and write about, because my food mojo?  Gone, baby.  Gone.  Like J. Lo's dignity.

Below is a photo of what was supposed to be a powder for the Orange, olive oil, almond, picholine olive dish on page 205.  A vanilla bean powder that used $40 worth of vanilla beans.  DOES THIS LOOK LIKE A POWDER TO YOU?

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That glob of stuff wasn't even salvageable because in an effort to try and find another way to powderize it, all the tapioca maltodextrin ended up making it taste like a My Little Pony-scented Yankee candle coated in Splenda.

This next photo is a shot of my attempt at adapting the Crab, cashew, parsnip, young coconut dish on page 309, since I can't eat coconut.  I had to use king crab instead of dungeness; I diced parsnips and milk-blanched then roasted them; made candied and spiced cashews, and tossed in some Thai basil, warm chard, wild rice, and an orange-saffron vinaigrette.  On paper it sounded good.  When I tasted as I went along, things were delicious.  But everything together?  SUCKED.  It tasted terrible, was just all wrong, and really, really bad.  I threw the whole thing away.

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You might be thinking, oh come on, Carol... these are elements and ingredients from Alinea recipes. You're not a chef.  Don't beat yourself up.  We love when you fail.  It's funny.

I reassuringly said the very same thing to myself, and then worked on a few other ingredients and components of other dishes.  They failed, too.  I didn't even bother to photograph them because there was really nothing to photograph.  I rationalized it by reminding myself that it's just a blog, I'm not a trained chef, and sometimes things just don't go the way I want them to no matter how much I'd like for that to happen.  I'm learning, and I have to keep trying.  But when 7 or 8 things in a row just don't come together despite my fastidiousness?  I was starting to take it personally.

I figured, maybe I just need a week or so away from the Alinea cookbook.  Give myself a break.  I watched a few old Seinfeld episodes and went to bed.  And then, the very next day?  I flipped my morning egg and it landed half in the pan, and half on the floor.  I make eggs nearly every single morning.  I bet in my lifetime I've successfully flipped more than 5,000 eggs, and on the heels of some really frustrating (and expensive) blog-related cock-ups, I'm now screwing up eggs?  THE SIMPLEST THING ON EARTH I KNOW HOW TO COOK AND I CAN'T EVEN DO THAT??!?!?!?!?? 

Oh, but wait... there's more.  

Over the next 48 hours, I:

Burned oatmeal;

Burned toast;

Cut my hand peeling an apple;

Broke the yolk on another flipping (ha!) egg;

Dropped a bottle of wine on the floor, shattering it to bits;

Dropped a 5-pound container of sugar (on my big toe, no less), sending sugar all over the kitchen floor and into the laundry room, which has cork floors, so GOOD TIMES getting granules of sugar out of cork's nooks and crannies;

Broke my butter dish;

Made meatballs that fell apart and tasted like crap;

Blew a fuse running too many appliances at once;

Overcooked some pasta and forgot to salt an entire batch of tomato sauce;

Forgot to put soap in the dishwasher before I ran it on full cycle.  Twice;

Burned a batch of chestnuts in an attempt to roast them over an open fire; and

Poured rancid milk in my coffee.

At first, I decided food was ganging up on me.  Or, maybe there was a full moon.  Or, maybe I was losing my senses of sight and smell and my dexterity as a result of growing up near Three Mile Island.  Then, I had a total Occam's Razor moment and it became really, really clear that the answer was simple: the problem was me.  I just needed to step away from that room of the house for a bit.  Everything I touched was turning to s-h-youknowwhat.

So, I waved a little white dish towel in surrender and decided to let others do the cooking for me. Maybe all I needed was a little inspiration, some good food in my favorite restaurants, some time away from my own kitchen to help get my mojo back.  On Day Two of the letting-other-people-cook-for-me experiment, I was inadvertently glutened.

You guys, I have not had gluten in my system for a very long time.  Within 45 minutes of finishing lunch, I was so very sick.  Hunched over in bed sick.  Clutching my stomach sick.  Running to the bathroom every ten minutes for the next 12 hours sick.  Knowing I was going to feel "off" for the next day or two sick.  Every single pre-diagnosis symptom returned, but was intensified and magnified x 1,000,000,000.  My face flushed, my joints ached, my temples throbbed, my fingers tingled, my insides burned.  

And... I lost it.  I broke down and sobbed, and with snot running and tears flowing and mascara smearing all over my pillows, I called a good friend and said the three words a food writer is never supposed to say: I hate food

[Actually, truth be told, there was a fourth word in there... an angry, angry two-syllable word... in between the "I" and the "hate," and I'm sure you can guess what it was.]

Because at that point, I honestly and truly hated food.  Food could blow me.  Food could go to hell.  In that moment, I never wanted to look at food, shop for food, touch food, eat food, think about food, or write about food.  I know, I know... those of us who write about food are aalllllwwaaayyys supposed to gush and love and emote sunshine, unicorns, and lollipops about every ingredient, every new discovery, showing awe, joy, and reverence for the simple pleasures of sustenance... but I just couldn't do it anymore.

It was bad enough that my cooking mojo was gone, but when my cooking mojo left, I feel like my writing went along with it.  I had a hard time pulling together my recent post about pork, because I'd made it before my luck turned sour in the kitchen, and when it came time to write about that dish (which really was so amazingly delicious; I just wish the blog post could've done it justice), I was so angry at food I could barely string letters together to make words, let alone words to make sentences.

Losing my energy and drive around food was one thing... I knew I could get through that.  But not being able to write AND getting glutened?  That sent me over the edge.  After failing at flipping a stupid over-easy egg, all I wanted was for something to taste good, and to eat well so that I'd be inspired to cook again.  And realizing that something so minuscule, so molecular, so accidental as someone touching something with gluten, then handling my food could make me so sick?  Fiona Apple couldn't have written or sung a song as angry and weary and angsty as I felt.  I was raw.  I felt like I was 13, screaming at my parents, "IT'S NOT FAIR!!! YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!!!!   I HATE YOU!!!!!!  WWAAAAHHHHH!!!"

Someday, I'll write about how much it sucks to have celiac.  While I'm relieved to know what made me progressively sick for a few years, I'm not one of those people who can be joyful or thankful about it or always find a silver lining.  I'm pissed and bitter about the things I can no longer eat, and having celiac makes me feel like I'm a pain in the ass everywhere I go.  I have to read every label and ask about every ingredient in restaurants, and make special requests and educate and apologize and answer questions, and it's exhausting. My friends are amazing, because they'll make an entire dinner party gluten-free when I'm on the guest list.  And my chef friends bend over backwards to make me feel welcome (and NORMAL) in their restaurants when I'm there.  But it's by no means easy to be always on the lookout, always hyper-aware, and always hoping that I can get through a meal that someone else cooked without being uncontrollably and embarrassingly sick an hour later. 

So where am I going with all this?

I was thrilled not just to be able to have something other than food and writing to focus on these past few weeks, but I also was bolstered by YOUR support of the cause and of my ridiculous antics to get you guys to donate.  Every comment, every email, every Twitter reply kept me sane during a time when I really thought I had no business writing this blog or anything about food, ever again.  Yes, I know there are bigger problems in the world than my current inability to cook, or write, or eat.  Believe me, I know that.  What I guess I'm saying is it's actually a relief to be able to admit that I said (and meant) the words, "I hate food."  Because I really did.  Being inauthentic serves no one, and I feel like we've got an amazing and smart little community here, and I'm hoping I'm not alone in the losing-your-mojo-and-losing-your-cool-about-it thing.  I sometimes have this weird misconception that I have to be perfect and 100% on my game when it comes to food, and when I'm not, I simply must find the humor in it.  Not this time.  And it felt good to let it all go.

What do you do when you lose your mojo... whether it's in the kitchen (professional or at home), at work, at home, on a project, in a creative endeavor, or anywhere?  Are you patient?  Do you soldier onward? Do you take a break?  Do you rant? Scream?  Cry?  Regroup and move forward?  Ignore it and pretend like nothing's wrong?  Go for a walk?  Blame someone else?  Fake it?  Burrow under a pile of blankets and watch bad TV?  None of the above?  All of the above?

I've spent the past two weeks watching movies, reading books (devouring them, actually), eating things other people have made me, and enjoying a really nice balance of solitude and the company of friends.  I'm slowly working my way back into the kitchen.  I made the scallion-potato cakes from Ad Hoc at Home, and they were good.  Perhaps a roasted chicken is in my near future.  Surely, an Alinea dish is around the corner.  In fact, I've got a post in the works on rendering beef fat, because one of the Alinea recipes calls for it.  And, if I can successfully oversee some fat melting in a pot, then maybe, possibly, perhaps... the mojo is back.

Up Next: Rendering Beef Fat

Read My Previous Post:  The Big Finish

November 12, 2009

Leftovers: Roasted Curry Pecans, and Viewer Mail!

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Using the leftover curry salt from the Duck, pumpkin, banana, Thai aromatics dish, I made one of my favorite snacks: roasted curry pecans.  It's so easy, you really don't need a recipe.  Here's what I do: melt a stick of butter in a saute pan, add salt, curry powder, and raw sugar.  Stir until butter is melted and all flavors incorporated (use whatever amounts you like, that will satisfy your particular tastes).  Throw in a pound or so of pecans.  Stir until the nuts are coated.  Then, dump the nut mixture from the pan onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Roast coated nuts in a 375F oven for about 15 minutes.  You'll be able to smell when they're done -- the curry smell will deepen, and you'll smell the sugar really start to caramelize.  Remove pan from oven and let them cool to room temp.  The whole process, start to finish, is 20 minutes at the most.

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While I have you here, I'd like to take a few minutes to respond to a couple of comments that have popped up over the past few weeks.  First, from "JoP," one of my most loyal and lovely FL@H readers who continues to follow this blog:

"Can you reflect yet about what it's like cooking from Alinea vs. cooking from French Laundry? FL dishes are familiar in the sense that they're salads, soups, entrees, desserts, etc.; Alinea's dishes are less familiar, tastings rather than typical courses, using ingredient pairings that one probably hasn't had before. One cooks out of FL and says, "Here's dinner." From Alinea, one might say, "Here's a bite (or two or three)." FL is elegant and refined; Alinea is playful (and elegant and refined). I guess what I want to know is: does cooking Alinea feel the same as cooking FL? Or does cooking Alinea feel like playing? Or maybe like doing a science experiment? I'm just wondering if the experience is different, and if so, how."

I've actually been thinking about this a lot lately, because I'm a year into this book and a little over a third of the way through.  I'm stepping up my schedule (now that my worklife has slowed to a normal pace), so I'm hoping to post full dishes twice a week instead of once a week from here on out.

But, back to JoP's questions.  You know, just last weekend, I went back and re-read FL@H from start to finish, and, as a result, spent a lot of time reflecting on where I was and where I'd gone in the first third of that project.  Before I started French Laundry at Home, I knew how to cook, I just needed to reawaken my senses.  I needed to get past some of the fears or uncertainties I had about what kind of cook I was.  I needed to prove to myself that I could cook every single thing in that book.  I was hungry to learn and to be challenged.  But above all, I needed (and I mean needed) to write, cook, eat, and learn, all at the same time.  It was primal.  It was from the gut.  It was from the heart.  I wanted to learn, and learn from the best.

I look back at some of the posts from my first year of FL@H and laugh, or cringe, or wince, or shake my head.  For example, the parmagiano-reggiano crisps?  I sweated through that first time making them, and they completely and totally stressed me out.  Now?  I make them without even thinking.  It's become part of my DNA; I go on autopilot.  I make a mean effing parm-reg crisp.  The duck roulade?  It was the first time I'd done anything sous vide, and I really didn't know I was cooking en sous vide.  But now? I can cook sous vide.  Nearly every single dish that first year changed everything about the way I cook.  It made me sharper, more intuitive, and more thoughtful about everyday cooking.  It made doing a braised stuffed pig's head seem easy and even enjoyable.

Cooking from the Alinea cookbook is different, but I fear that, for many people, my saying that implies that different is bad, or less than or not quite the other thing.  That's not the case here.  It's just different.  It's different in the same way that my starting French Laundry at Home was different.  Back then, I had never cut the face off a softshell crab.  I'd never whipped Brie.  I'd never cooked with morels.  I'd never diced something to 1/16".  I'd never broken down a baby lamb.  I'd never purchased a pig's head.  I'd never made a powder.  I'd never made a quenelle.  I'd never made veal stock.

But when French Laundry at Home was coming to its inevitable close, I knew I had so much more to learn.  I knew there were challenges way above my skill level that I wanted to try.  And, again, I wanted to learn from the best.  I haven't really talked about this before, but about eight months before the Alinea cookbook came out, I had separate email exchanges with two men in the food world who I greatly admire.  With both of them, I wrote about where I was with FL@H and what I might want to do next.  I floated the idea of doing the Alinea cookbook -- without knowing anything about it, and not yet having eaten there, either -- and they both said that they thought I was crazy, that it couldn't be done by anyone really, and that there was no way I could do it.

If you know me in real life -- hell, if you've read me long enough -- you know that telling me I can't do something is going to make me want to do it.  And as soon as I decided it was the next project I was going to take on, I felt that same buzz of energy and fear that I'd felt when I started French Laundry at Home.  That same uncertainty about what kind of cook I was.  That same fear of techniques and ingredients I'd never heard of.  That same hunger to be challenged. That same drive to write and cook and learn... and, again, to learn from the best.

So, much like the things I didn't know when I started FL@H, when I started this blog, I'd never made an antigriddle out of dry ice and a baking sheet.  I'd never used an immersion circulator. I'd never heard of some of the ingredients I'd be working with.  I'd never pushed myself this far out of my comfort zone in the kitchen.  But I wanted to, because I saw how I grew as a cook and as a person by cooking my way through The French Laundry Cookbook.  So, why not try another book that the industry and the media said was the most difficult, challenging, and not-for-the-home-cook?  Bring it.

Yes, sometimes the end result of an Alinea dish is just a bite or two, and yes, some of the ingredients, flavor profiles, and techniques are different, but my intent is still the same.  By the end of this, I want to have not just cooked every dish in the Alinea cookbook, I want to have grown in new directions as a home cook.  None of these dishes have felt like a science experiment, nor have any of them felt like play time.  Doing this blog feels like doing something I've never done before, yet within a context I'm comfortable in.

I think the best way I can explain how the two blogs are similar, yet a little different, is by drawing a parallel to the way I like to spend my vacation time.  A few times a year, I need to go to my favorite beach town.  It's just three hours away and many friends live there year-round, so I always have a place to lay my head at night when I need to hear the ocean and go for a walk along the water, even if it's just a quick day trip or for a weekend.  There are times when I just simply need to be there.  It's part of who I am.

But, I wouldn't be who I am without opening myself up to new places, people, and things.  So, at least once a year, I like to travel to somewhere I've never been before.  Sometimes it's overseas, and sometimes it's here in the U.S. -- heck, sometimes I stumble onto new places on the drive to somewhere else.  Sometimes, I find places I want to go back to.  Other times I don't.  But it's about exploring and learning and leaving a piece of me there, and bringing a piece of that place back home with me.  And, what I love even more is when those new places become familiar places, because I fall in love with it and want to go back again and again.

I need both kinds of experiences.  The new and the familiar.   Same thing goes for me in the kitchen.  So, you see why ya can't -- or at least I can't -- fairly compare one to the other.  They're different, and yet so much the same in terms of how I allow them to shape and mold me.


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Let me take a minute to address the many, many emails and comments I've gotten with the suggestion that I cook my way through Ad Hoc at Home and blog about it.  I love that so many of you are loving this book. I love the way it's written and laid out, I love how open and friendly and non-intimidating it is.  And, I think it's the kind of book that can teach so much, and pretty much obliterates the need for 75% of all the cookbooks on the market today.  I think it's one of Artisan's best books, and if Ann Bramson and the whole Ad Hoc at Home team were standing here in front of me, I'd give them the biggest hug, because this book sings... it absolutely sings.

So...... will I cook my way through it and blog about it?

My answer to that is: No.  No, no, no.  And also?  No.


YOU do it.

Actually, you know what?  Don't.

And here's why. 

Ad Hoc at Home is written for home cooks.  It's why they named it Ad Hoc at Home, instead of just Ad Hoc, or the Ad Hoc Cookbook.  It's already all about home cooking, and it's chock full of recipes you can do quite easily, believe me.  Ad Hoc at Home is all about bringing people together at a table over plates of incredible food.  It's the kind of food you already know how to make, but Thomas shows you how to do it even better.  It's the kind of cookbook that should make you want to shut out the world for a few hours while you get your hands dirty and do some good, honest cooking.  It's written in such a way -- and the illustrations and the photography are so, so great in this regard -- that it doesn't need to be blogged for other home cooks to be able to cook from it.  In fact, I think blogging about it cheapens the intent of what the book has the power to deliver.

One of my favorite food people, Helen Rosner, did a behind-the-scenes story at Ad Hoc with chef Dave Cruz, and they also talked about how this very cookbook is the reverse of other restaurant cookbooks -- that it all started with home cooking

So, if you have Ad Hoc at Home, my advice to you is to step away from the computer and put down the digital camera.  Shove your Blackberry and iPhone into a jacket pocket in the closet.  Spend time with the people in your life.  Cook.  Eat.  Drink.  Laugh.  Enjoy.  THAT'S what the book is about.  It's not about Flickr or Facebook or Typepad or Twitter.  It's about connecting with people face to face, forks in hand, food on the table, and the great stories that come about when people turn off the noise in their lives and actually spend time together with no greater purpose or outcome than to enjoy one another's company.  That's what I love about this book.  It's the kind of food I want to cook and eat and never ever photograph or write about because the pictures and words could never possibly convey the feeling of what it's like to have people you love at the table with you, eating something you've cooked just for them.

But if you insist on reading a blog about how to cook something from Ad Hoc at Home, there's always this: Ad Hoc at Home, At Home.

UPDATE: Michael Ruhlman just announced on his blog that Ad Hoc at Home just landed at #7 on the New York Times bestseller list.  Remarkable, amazing, well-deserved, glorious, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer group of people.  LOVING this news!

Up Next:  Apple, horseradish, celery juice and leaves

Read My Previous Post: Pheasant, shallot, cider, burning oak leaves


October 22, 2009

Finding Crab Apples

Remember how helpful and supportive my mom was with my whole eucalyptus-magnolia confusion?

Well, she totally redeemed herself in my quest to find crab apples.  Yay, mom!

When I was in Madison, Wisconsin, I had a chance to go to their farmers market, which, may I say, WOW.  Hundreds of vendors, beautifully organized, hot coffee at the ready, cheese and other items for sampling, hot food carts at key points around the perimeter, good company on the stroll around the square... it's an incredible market, and I'm totally jealous.

On my walk from the hotel to the market early that cool and drizzly Saturday morning, my mind wandered to the tasks ahead of me that week both for work and for this blog, and I thought: It's October, I bet someone will have crab apples.  My flight was in just a few hours, so I figured I'd buy some, stash them in my suitcase, and hope they survived the trip home.  But I didn't know how many crab apples I needed; couldn't remember if I needed one pound, four pounds, eight bushels, twelve tons, or just three wee apples.

My parents were traveling, so I couldn't call them to ask them to check their copy of the Alinea cookbook.  My neighbor was minivans-deep in her kids' soccer practices, so I couldn't have her run across the street to my house and look it up for me.  Just before putting out an APB on Twitter, I texted my friend, Brad, who I knew would have his copy of the book nearby.

Of course, my text message woke him up (because it was 7 o'clock on a Saturday morning, and man, that was jerky of me to call so dang early), but he quite gamely looked it up, and texted back: 2 lbs.  Turned out no one at the market had crab apples, so I woke up Brad for no reason.  Whoopsie.  On to plan B.

I was going back to Pennsylvania to babysit my nephew that next weekend, so I called my mom a day or so beforehand to see if 1) the crab apple tree in our old house's backyard was still there, 40 years later; 2) there was anyone in town who had a crab apple tree I could pick from; or 3) there was still a crab apple tree at the orchard our uncle used to own.

She told me there was a crab apple tree on the wooded property behind their house (I hadn't known about that one!), but that the deer had already gotten to it, so that was a no go.  She didn't know if the crab apple tree at our old house was still there, so, she said she'd check over at the orchard, and let me know.

As I was driving up their way that next Saturday morning, she called to say that there was, indeed, still a crab apple tree at the orchard, and that the woman she spoke to there said I was more than welcome to come by and pick whatever I wanted.  So I did.

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Just a mile or two from my parents' house, is Forge Hill Orchards, which used to belong to my great uncle.  I have such fond and vivid memories of this place.  Smells.  Sounds.  Watching my grandfather and cousins help the crew sort and pick out the bad apples on the conveyor belt.  Feeling the fuzz on a fresh-picked peach.  Eating nectarines, and enjoying the juice dribbling down my chin.  Begging my uncle for a nickel out of the cash register so I could buy a bottle of Nehi grape soda (in a glass bottle) from the soda machine behind the cider pressing barn.  Watching cider get pressed, and holding a cup under the spout to taste it before it was pasteurized.

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Yes, that's Three Mile Island off in the distance.  Lots of memories there, too, but for another time.

Many, many fall days when I was a kid, we'd rush home after school, pile into the car, and go to the orchard to pick apples, buy pears, or just stop by to see what they were working on.  I remember not being a very productive apple picker.  I more enjoyed climbing the tree, finding the perfect limb -- way high up, or so it seemed at the time -- to sit on and daydream, and picking one apple to eat while everyone else filled their baskets.  Turning off the main road onto the farm lane back to the orchard used to have such a distinct sound when the road was still gravel.  It's paved now.  That bums me out.

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I stopped part of the way down the lane and, for the first time, realized how big this orchard is.  I mean, it's not a huge, bajillion-acre commercial mass-production orchard, but for our area, it's significant. Peaches, nectarines, pears, chestnuts, apples, plums, strawberries, chestnuts, and fruits I'm sure I'm forgetting... as far as the eye can see.

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But I wanted crab apples.  Just two pounds of crab apples.

I poked my head into the little orchard store to say hello before finding my crab apple tree.  I made my way down a small hill past the old cider-pressing barn and farmhouse, toward the picnic pavilion and pond where we'd had cookouts with my mom's cousins in the summer, and standing there just before the pavilion was a crab apple tree.  Without realizing I was doing it until after I'd done it, I reached up and touched my right cheek -- I swear, I could feel the sting of that one hard, little crab apple hitting me smack in the face when I was 10 and my brother was 8, and his baseball-throwing (and crab apple-throwing) arm was a force to be reckoned with.

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I stood under that tree and just breathed in.

Just fifty feet away, the orchard workers were burning wood in a large, shallow burn barrel to generate enough smoke to help keep bugs away.  Twenty feet away in the other direction?  A small pond with a slightly murky smell, but familiar nonetheless.  I think the rowboat turned upside-down at the water's edge is the same one we'd use to ride out into the middle of the pond after the sun had set to listen for that distinct bullfrog crrrrroooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaak.

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Smoke, drying grass, water, apples, and now, under this tree, the smell of crab apples.  When they're blossoming, they smell ever so sweet and floral.  But when the fruit is ripe, they have their own distinct smell.  A little like feet, and a little sweet like an overripe grape, with a hint of spice and a hint of green.  Earthy. Sharp. Unusual.

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I had my half-peck basket in the crook of my left arm, and used my right hand to pick. 

I could've stayed there for hours.

The sun was shining, the air was slightly smoky and crisp and cool, there was an occasional breeze, and I could almost taste the hot dogs my cousins and I ate and the marshmallows we roasted not far from this tree those many, many Indian summers ago.

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I picked and I picked, and wondered, why am I remembering picnic food?  I should be remembering what crab apples taste like, and it dawned on me: I'd never eaten a crab apple.  They always seemed so ugly and wormy.  Great as weapons (my brother and I played out our love for each other with fruit violence apparently, because my only memories of crab apples seem to be getting hit by them, or winging them at someone hard enough to leave a red mark and a lump on their arm), but I had no idea what they tasted like.  Sure, I'd read about them and could imagine by their size and shape that they were sour, but I needed to know for myself.

I took one of the ripest-looking ones out of the basket and rubbed it on my shirt to clean and polish it.  Shiny, half-red/half-yellow, slightly larger than a golf ball.  I took a small bite.

Chalky, sour, sharp.  Slightly woody.  Tough, not crunchy, and really, really tart.  Maybe a tiny note of sweet for the first 0.00000000000000000000001 seconds of the bite.  A clean, pointed nose-feel that went all the way up into my sinuses and out through my tear ducts.  Bite-y but not acidic or vinegary.  Weird, but not bad.

I couldn't wait to see how this sharp, pointy-tasting, dense and chalk-like little fruit was going to be transformed into a tasty (I hoped) sorbet, complemented by a pepper tuile, eucalyptus pudding, olive oil jam, onion jam, and white cheddar sauce.  So, I finished filling my basket, hopped in the car, and listened to the Avett Brothers as made my way back out the farm lane and away from the orchard, fiercely missing the dust cloud the old gravel road used to churn up in the rearview mirror.  Stupid progress.  Stupid pavement.

I've made the dish, and will post it on Monday.

But now, just an hour or so ago as I stood in line at the Whole Foods in Silver Spring, the woman in front of me put a small bag of crab apples (who knew Whole Foods carried crab apples?) on the conveyor belt and said to her daughter, "I don't know what we're gonna do with these, but we'll figure something out."  She turned and smiled at me as she continued to move things from her cart to the conveyor belt.

I smiled right back and said, "You're buying crab apples?  I just made crab apple sorbet.  Wanna know how?"

She smiled again, much bigger this time, and said, "I would love to.  I just saw these and we'd never eaten them before and wondered what they were like.  It wasn't until you just now asked me about them that I realized I had no clue what to do with them." 

So, I hand-wrote on the back of an envelope she'd dug out of her bag what I hope were good, simple instructions for the sorbet... or at least instructions that will work for her, in her kitchen.  I hope she finds as much delight in eating those crab apples -- in whatever form they take -- as I did in finding mine.

Coming soon: Crab Apple, white cheddar, eucalyptus, onion

Apple

June 01, 2009

Alinea at Home Extra: My dinner at Alinea, part one

So, where were we?  Ah, yes.... I landed in Chicago just before 5 o'clock, hopped in a cab (yes, I know I should've taken the train; my brain was elsewhere, as I'm sure you can imagine), and got to the hotel at 6:30.  Showered, changed, and ready to go by 6:50 (yes, I can be that fast when I need to), I met my friends, Jane, Maddy, and Megan downstairs in the lobby, and piled into the car to go to the restaurant.  Upon being dropped off, we walked through the door down the hallway and inside where we were greeted and taken into the kitchen to say hello to Grant (I could've stayed in that kitchen all night watching service and been a happy camper), then went upstairs to our table where the fun began.

Without further delay, here's the menu:
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Don't kill me, but I didn't take photographs of the food because I just can't bring myself to do that in restaurants.  I find it distracting, not just to me, but to the people I'm with.  I would rather pay attention to what's being served, and eat it while it's still hot, cold, or whatever, and stay present in the whole dining experience. For me, no photo can capture those defining smells, tastes, and surprises that come with the pleasures of being fed.  That said, you'll notice most of the courses below have photo links embedded; I've found other diners' photos to link to so you can satisfy your visual curiosity, if you'd like.  A big part of eating at Alinea is the visual aspect of it, I know.  I'm just old-fashioned about not wanting to take photos of my food in public.

In looking at the menu above, you'll see we did a nice round of wine pairings.  They did a very small pour, maybe 1.5 oz. of each, with more if we wanted it.  It was just the right amount and everything was so perfectly paired, I was glad we decided to do it.

Here we go:

We started with a champagne cocktail, which was a glass of Henriot Brut with Chartreuse, Akavit, and Orange Curaçao.  I never would've thought to add aquavit to champagne, but this combination was really lovely.  My neighbors and I get together on Friday afternoons to have drinks and watch the dogs and kids run around, and I think I'll have to make this for them very soon.  And, I generally don't buy or keep champagne at home because you can't recork the bottle and none of my friends are big champage drinkers, but I have a feeling we'd have no problem getting through a whole bottle in one go in a cocktail like this.  It was summer in a glass.

Jane, Maddy, Megan, and I cheersed each other over the center of the table, and as we pulled our glasses back to take that first sip, I noticed the black, tilted vase in the center of the table.  Having eaten at Alinea before and having strips of frozen wagyu as table decor, I was curious about what was in the vase.  We took turns sniffing it, and I could smell dry ice among other things, so I knew we were in for some sort of aromatic treat later on in the meal.

Our first course was a small dish with a little cluster of roe from Blis.  It was served with the traditional garnishes one is often served with roe, but these were presented in a non-traditional format -- a delightful foam, egg-dill crème fraîche, and a hint of lemon all played beautifully on the tongue with the silky, not-too-salty bursts of roe.

The plates were cleared and another wine pairing prepared -- this time, a Max Ferdinand Richter Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese, Mosel 1993.  I'm not usually a fan of Riesling because I find it to be too cloying and sharp, lingering longer than I would like.  But this was cleaner and softer (if that makes sense) than I expected it to be.  It went perfectly with our next course, the foie gras with daikon, shiso and yuzu.  The servers handed us each a small white bowl, designed to fit in the palm of your hand, instructed us not to set it on the table, but instead hold it in one hand while eating the foie off the fork.  Then, we drank the shiso soup out of the bowl.  I don't think it's a secret that I love foie gras.  I love its silky richness, and I love it in every preparation I've ever had, whether hot, cold, or room temperature.  This course presented it as two small cubs on a fork, served at just below room temperature with daikon and shiso flavors and the scent of the yuzu foam below.  It was the first time in my life I ever had a foie course that was light and airy and fragrant in this way.  I could've eaten three of these.  Or four.  Or eleventy hundred kabillion frillion.

Out came yet another wine glass, into which went another white -- Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, Valle Isarco, Alto Adige 2007.  It's a beautiful wine, full without being heavy, citrusy without being tart or acidic, hints of apple and (maybe) pear, and one I'll certainly have my wine guy track down for me for summer dinner parties.  You know, that's one thing I really love about being able to eat at a place like Alinea (Per Se is also a great resource this way, too) -- the staff is so good at what they do, you can take away so many great ideas and recommendations for things you might otherwise never have learned about.  Some of my most favorite wines are wines I had first at a restaurant, and I'm so glad to have this one to add to the list.

Our next course was pork belly served in a cucumber juice-infused lettuce cup with a variety of Thai spices and flavors, and a shot glass off to the side with a really clean and lovely (and not overpoweringly spicy-hot) distillation of Thai green chili and lemongrass.  Now, I'm of the school of thought that it's really hard to screw up pork belly, but it also takes someone special to make it sing and make you go from, "oh cool, pork belly" to "HOLY MOTHER OF CHARLES NELSON REILLY THIS IS AMAZING!!!!"  This course was a perfect balance of cool, heat, salt, kick, and crisp.  Again, I could've eaten three or eleventy kabillion of these, too.

The one thing Jane noticed as the plates were put before each of us was that the lettuce cup was resting in a small pool of gel with basil seeds... and the basil seeds were arranged in absolutely perfect concentric circles.  We HAD to ask whose job it was to do that -- was there really someone in the kitchen whose sole job it was to perfectly align the seeds in every plate?  Was there a tool?  A method?  HOW DID THIS HAPPEN, because it was just so damn precise and gorgeous.  Our server maintained that there was no one was hovering over each plate with a pair of tweezers or toothpick (or duct tape or a probe) arranging all the seeds -- there must've been over a hundred in there -- in concentric circles.  I didn't buy it.  I'm pretty sure there's someone whose job it is (which is awesome, and I job I would totally want), or else Grant can make those basil seeds snap into place with just his thoughts... OOOOO, or I know, maybe he's secretly patented some sort of Basil Seed Force-Field Gun™ and if that's the case, I MUST HAVE ONE.  My birthday's in August.  It would be a perfect gift.  I'm just sayin'...

Our next course was of special interest to me because I knew I was going to be making it upon my return home -- Green Almond.  I've been learning about green almonds over the past few months, and speaking weekly with Suzanne at Stewart & Jasper to find out when they were going to be at exactly the right point to be picked and sent.  I love the preparation in the Alinea cookbook -- a rectangle of cucumber gel with the almond nestled in it, and tastes of salt, heat, sour, and sweet in each of the four corners.  I was curious to see how the version we were being served -- with juniper, gin, and lime -- would taste.  Oh my... It was smooth and light, but so flavorful.  It opened up into my nose and practically cracked open my tear ducts with freshness and citrus. It was lovely.

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I was a wee bit scared of our next course: soft shell crab, peas, five spice, duck.  For those of you who followed French Laundry at Home, you may remember my aversion to this beast.  While I enjoyed the taste of soft-shell crab meat, I haven't touched them since.  When I see them at the fish market, I look the other way and try not to vomit.  When Jane told me earlier she'd been working on an article about soft-shell crabs, I tried not to cry and pass out.  They freak me out, and just thinking about what it was like to eat textures of shell with meat together makes my shoulder blades twitch.  Again, the meat on its own is great, but eating external body parts I can identify is not my idea of an awesome Friday night. So imagine my delight when a plate with three little soft-shell crab legs sticking up is put down in front of me.  Granted, the plate was beautiful -- so colorful and fresh -- but knowing a sea cockroach was lurking therein was most unsettling.  The girls dug into theirs with great gusto, while I downed all the wine left in front of me before taking the most ginger, dainty bite.  I thought, if there's one dish I won't finish, it'll be this one -- I'll claim I'm "saving room" or I'll excuse myself to the ladies room for ten minutes while everyone else finishes theirs.  Something.  Anything.  Just don't make me eat this, because I know it's gonna suck, and I've already had a stressful day and was just beginning to unwind and really begin to enjoy myself when THIS abomination shows up on my plate, and just know it's gonna make me vom... :::: takes bite ::::   hey.... that's right, I like the taste of soft-shell crab, it's just the prepping and cooking of it that makes me wanna stab someone.  I'm such a pain in my own ass sometimes.  I don't think I ever would have thought to put soft-shell crab and duck on the same plate with hoisin sauce and peas, but man, this was GOOD.  Texture-wise, I didn't necessarily love the bit of crunch in the crab's legs, but it didn't make me gag or cry, so that's a homerun in my book, for sure.  This course was paired with a fantastic Alsatian wine, a 2006 Domaine Weinbach Pinot Gris "Altenbourg."  Another one I want to buy for here at home.

Up next was Black Truffle Explosion -- or, BTE as they call it "on the inside."  See how cool you are now, knowing some Alinea insider jargon?  (Meanwhile, they probably made that up just to see if I'll put it on the blog and make myself look like some kind of fartknocker calling it BTE but I DON'T CARE.  I mean, we all know I'm not referring to Better Than Ezra.  Duh.)  Black Truffle Explosion is what would be considered one of Alinea's signature dishes.  I don't think it's ever not on the menu, and I had it the last time I ate there with my friend, Claudia, and it nearly made me weep.  This time, though, it was a different preparation for me, and here's why: I have celiac disease.  I was diagnosed with celiac back in September/October of 2008, so I can't have BTE in its traditional preparation anymore (and yes, my whole dinner this night was gluten-free).  So instead, they did my serving of it in a truffle sphere (sodium alginate, etc.) instead of the ravioli-looking traditional preparation, which made it feel like it packed 900 times the truffle power, and thus, 900 times the pleasure for me.

Our dishes were cleared, and the staff brought out the most beautiful wine goblets with etchings of birds and trees and vines (reminded me of my grandmother, even though I'm pretty sure she didn't have these glasses at her house), and poured a Château Lascombes, Margaux, 2004 (which I instantly fell in love with).  On the table just above where our plates would go lay a folded napkin upon which they placed elegant, heavy silver -- a fork and knife.  Soon after came traditional china (with a gilded, patterned maroon band around the outside) carrying Pigeonneau à la Saint-Clair.  I knew Grant had been working on introducing a traditional course into the tasting menu, and when he asked me earlier that week about my inability to eat gluten and what substitutions they might have to make throughout the evening, he mentioned this course, and I was so so so glad and grateful they made my crust with rice flour because to not have been able to eat this squab would've been unfathomable.  It was the most tender piece of bird I've ever had.  This tarte, done in the Escoffier tradition, was comprised of the aforementioned squab breast (I just now closed my eyes and took a slow deep breath, and can totally remember what it tasted like, oh my) with mushroom and onion, and it was so flavorful and gorgeous.  I just now went back and re-read Grant's post on The Atlantic's Food Channel about this notion of making something old/traditional new/modern, and wondered what other diners thought/think about this course.  For me, good food is good food.  Great flavors are great flavors.  Exceptional cooking is exceptional cooking.  I'll take it any way I can get it.

Our next three courses were presented at the same time -- Mustard, Bacon, and Sweet Potato.

Mustard was this beautiful little frozen disk of mustard ice cream with passionfruit and allspice, and this registered both a wow and a whoa, and it was definitely one of my most favorite things to eat during the entire evening.  It was so powerful and flavorful, and just opened up into my nose, my eyes, and my brain.  More than a week later, I'm still thinking about it and how fantastic it was, and how I can make something like it here at home.  Mustard ice cream is just so counterintuitive (and certainly not something I could devour a whole bowl of), but with this one bite, I couldn't stop smiling and wanted more.

Instead, I moved on to the next course, Sweet Potato.  We'd smelled the smoldering cinnamon a few courses earlier when another table had this, and it was all I could do to stifle the giggles because of how craptastic my attempt at this dish went.  Remember?

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Hoooo boy, that's sad.

I was super-excited to have this course to see what it REALLY was supposed to taste like, and was promptly humbled, shamed, inspired, and ass-kicked.  It was soooo good.  It actually makes me want to do this one over again in the fall because I have to do it right.  I HAVE TO.  It's too good not to.  The sweet potato with the bourbon, and the brown sugar, and the melty goodness, and the cinnamon.... seriously.  WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE????

The last element in this course was my old friend, Bacon (on a sex swing).  It's fun to see people eat this who haven't had it before -- to see their reaction to a strip of bacon, drizzled in butterscotch, twirled in apple, dangling from a wire.  It was just as good as I remembered it, and am thinking about making my version again this weekend as a little hors d'oeuvre before dinner.

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Alright, we've nearly reached the halfway point.  Just 13 more courses to go, so it's time for a break.  Be back in a day or two with the rest of the menu... Stretch your legs, have a glass of water, hit the bathroom, and meet me back here.  We've got more eating to do.


Up Next: My dinner at Alinea, part two

Read My Previous Post: Alinea at Home Extra -- So, That Happened; or, Junsai, bonito, soy, mirin.

April 05, 2009

I just flew in from Chicago, and boy are my arms tired...

Sorry it's been a few days since I last posted.  Working in the kitchen at Alinea has been utterly and completely exhausting.  I'm not sure if I can hack it.  I mean, Grant is such a taskmaster, and everybody there knows what they're doing and I am so in the shit nearly every night. I haven't had a day off since I started, and at the end of the night, I'm too tired to write or think or even open my laptop. The restaurant is closed today, so I thought I'd take a few minutes to update you on what it's like to work at Alinea.  Except, I'm lying, because I'm not really working there, and instead, thoroughly enjoyed this year's April Fool's Day prank.  Hee!!!

Those who know me only through this blog probably weren't aware of the two April Fool's Day pranks from French Laundry at Home: Chicken Stack-ups and Fruited Nectar Salad; and, French Laundry at Home Forced to Close.

The fake cease and desist from French Laundry at Home was fun, and I knew I wanted to up the ante this year, but had no idea what to do.  A few months ago, I was exchanging email with Russ Parsons, and we somehow got on the topic of what my April Fool's Day prank might be with this blog.  We tossed a few funny ideas back and forth, but none of them jumped out at me as "just right."  Then, a month or so ago just as I was falling asleep one night, I thought to myself, "hey, what if I announced that the restaurant hired me to work there?"  The next morning, I woke up and decided that it wasn't believable and actually might be offensive to the incredibly talented people who actually DO work there, and tried to come up with something else.  The more I thought about it, the harder it was to think of anything fun, creative, or workable.  So, I tried to write the "they hired me" post, but it just wouldn't come together the way I needed it to.

A week later, as I was waiting for a friend to meet me for lunch at Central, it hit me -- what if I asked Grant to join forces with me on the prank and go with the idea of him hiring me, and we shoot a video in the Alinea kitchen to make it all seem more believable?  I dug through my bag to find my little black Moleskine notebook and wrote myself a note that read: Alinea hire kitchen video Grant???!!!

When I got home that afternoon (after eating the most delicious shad roe, I might add), I drafted an email to Grant outlining the idea and asking if he wanted to participate.  And then, I didn't send it.  I saved it in my drafts folder and worried and obsessed over whether or not it was even appropriate to ask him to do this.  I knew he might be game for something -- he's done 4/1 pranks in the past -- but the whole notion of my even joking that I am qualified enough to cross the threshold of his kitchen made me hold off on sending that email for a week.  I mean, who the hell did I think I was, making such a request?

Then, on Thursday, March 19 (coincidentally, after yet another lunch at Central) I sent it, because I figured, nothing ventured, nothing gained.  And then?  I panicked.  Immediately after the whoooosh of it leaving my Outbox, I closed my laptop and left the house to get as far away from my computer as possible because: a) Grant will think I'm insane; b) the request will offend him and I'll be forever banned from the restaurant; c) holy crap, what the hell did I just do; and, d) all of the above.

When I came back home, I busied myself with a million little things to avoid opening my laptop (including folding laundry, which I despise doing) because I was sure my Inbox had a "never contact me again" email waiting for me to read.  Instead, when I finally summoned the courage to sit at my desk and open my laptop, I found an email, sent back soon after I sent mine, saying, "Sounds fun."

I squealed, and kicked the plan into action. We went back and forth confirming timing, tone, and how it would all play out.  In all, I think it took a total of fifteen minutes to finalize all the details. 

I hired a camera guy, booked my ticket, giggled to myself like a crazy person, wrote a script, and flew to Chicago four days later -- on the most beautiful Sunday in the history of weather in the mid-Atlantic and the Midwest -- hopped in a cab and went straight from the airport to the restaurant, where I met my camera guy out front on the sidewalk.

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When we heard the thunk of the deadbolt being unlocked by someone behind the heavy grey doors, we gathered our things and walked through those doors, down the hallway, and turned left into the restaurant.  Grant and his team were in the kitchen working (even though the restaurant was closed that night), and the place smelled amazing.  Lobster stock, rhubarb, chocolate... fifteen people working at their stations, chopping, straining, blending, vacuuming... the sensory overload (for someone like me who doesn't do this for a living) was equally intoxicating as it was paralyzing.  I wanted to just stay right where I was and absorb everything.  I wanted to jump right in and do something.  I wanted to build a perch high up near the ceiling and watch from above for months on end.

Instead, I shook Grant's hand and said, "It's so nice to see you again!"

My videographer, a fellow by the name of Marcus Quant (he goes by "Q"), and I set our things down at one of the 4-tops in the first-floor dining room, which felt slightly sacrilegious. 


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I took off my jacket and put it over the chair where I'd put bag (the first time in my life, by the way, I've gotten onto an airplane with just my purse and no other bags or luggage -- felt weird), and sat down at the table.  I'd written a script outline a few days prior, so I whipped out my copy and began reviewing it and making edits in blue pen while Q checked the lighting in the kitchen.  I could feel myself sliding ever-so-quickly quickly into a hunkered-down work mode that I made myself stop, for just a minute, to remind myself where I was.  I put down my pen, and ran my hand along the edge of the table as I turned in my seat to take in the quiet fact that I was sitting at a table in one of the world's best restaurants.  The room was lit naturally by whatever light could make its way through the semi-sheer blinds in the front window.  There was no one else there.  It was impeccably clean and orderly.  Just 20 feet away and just in my peripheral line of sight, one of the world's most creative chefs was moving from different stations in the kitchen to his laptop, to his yellow legal pad, back to one of the stations, then back to his laptop.

I had dinner at Alinea last summer, so I looked fondly over at "my table" just a few feet away and remembered that amazing meal.  Cobia.  Chicken Liver.  Yuba.  Tomato and Mozzarella.  Lobster.  Truffle.  Waygu.  Duck.  Bacon.  Chocolate.  Potato.  Rhubarb.  Watermelon.  Foie.  And more and more and more. 

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After a minute or two of marking up the script, I stood up and walked back into the kitchen (feeling reaaaallly out of place and reeeaaalllllly intimidated by my surroundings).  As we got ourselves miked and Q did a final lighting check, Grant and I chatted for a bit and ran through what we wanted to say and how it would all play out.  The original idea was to just stand in the kitchen and announce the "big news."  Right before we started our first take, Grant had the idea to add the walk and talk -- going further back into the kitchen and getting me started with my tool kit of the probe, duct tape, tongs, syringe, and smoke gun.  So, he gathered all the tools, and we just decided to ad lib that part as we went along.

We shot two takes, and that was it.  Easy peasy.  The first take was good, but the second take is the one you guys saw.  It felt more real, and the audio was better.

Grant and I de-miked while Q shot some b-roll footage (that I ended up not needing), and had a chance to talk for a bit. Guys, I could've stayed in that kitchen all afternoon.  All week, even.  It was fascinating to watch people work, and the place smelled amazing.  It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, the sunlight was streaming into the kitchen, and it felt like some of my favorite Sunday afternoons at home -- something simmering on the stove, beams of light coming in through a few windows, and the kinds of aromas that make a house smell like home.  

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Knowing Grant and his team had work to do, Q and I went back to the dining room to pack up our things, said our thank yous, and went on our merry way.  In and out in 30 minutes.  Outside, Q handed me the footage to take back to Washington to edit and drove away while I perched myself on the steps of the brownstone next door.  I whipped out my phone to check in with my friend, Marisa, who knew what I'd been up to and was anxiously waiting to hear how it went.  But before I dialed or stood up to hail a cab, I sat still for just a moment soaking in a bit of the sun and feeling the breeze on my face, and wondered how the hell I got to be so lucky to get to spend time with a chef who is not only one of the most uniquely talented individuals in his craft, but also who is incredibly generous, funny, smart, and intuitive.  Someone who one moment looks so focused, serious, and intimidating, and yet a split second later whose grin makes you feel like he's someone you've known for a lifetime.

Over the years, my work has taken me all over the world and put me in contact with and in close working relationships with some very well known and very influential people in business, politics, philanthropy, finance, and entertainment.  But I can honestly say it's a rare few who are of genuine character and who actually do the hard work day after day to stay on top of their game and shape others around them.  Grant Achatz is one of those rare few, and it was an honor to spend a few moments with him on a sunny Sunday afternoon in his restaurant.  I'm going back to Chicago in a few months for dinner at Alinea, and it'll take every ounce of resistance for me to not build that perch in the kitchen and never leave.

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I left 1723 N. Halsted and hailed a cab back to the airport for my flight home.  Yes, I flew in, shot the footage, and flew right back home just in time for a few hours of sleep before starting yet another hectic workweek.  In the cab on the way to Midway, I called Marisa, I called my parents, and when I got to the airport, called Michael Ruhlman to let him in on the secret and see if he'd play along on his blog, which he did.  As I waited at the gate for my flight, I was giddy and exhausted, giggly and happy, hungry and distracted, inspired and thankful.  My mind was going a million miles a minute, and from the moment we were wheels-up in Chicago until 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, April 1st, I was much like a five-year old on Christmas Eve. Worse, probably.

I had dinner with two friends at CityZen on April 1st Eve.  It was a special dinner we'd planned long ago, and I had yet to let them in on my little secret.  They'd seen my Twitter and Facebook updates planting the seed about an upcoming "big change" and "big decision" -- and they wanted to know if I could tell them my big news.  When I said, "Um, well?  Those updates are actually part of an April Fools Day prank that involves a video I shot with Grant announcing that I'm moving to Chicago to work in the kitchen at Alinea..." they nearly howled.

After I hit "Publish," I knew I was going to approve only the "wow, congrats" comments in the beginning to keep up the facade, and then release all the other comments later in the day (so, for people in the future who are reading this, that's why some of the comments from that day may seem chronologically a little wackadoo).  All day long on Wednesday, my phone rang off the hook and my email was buzzing with messages from friends and family members who were either incredibly thrilled about my big (fake) news or kind of pissed off that I didn't personally tell them I was moving to Chicago, and I thoroughly enjoyed replying with, "have you looked at today's date?"  I know payback is hell, but it was more than worth it.  Grant is a good sport for playing along, and you guys are good sports for being so supportive all the way, whether it was real or not!

So, there you have it.  I'm not working at Alinea.  I'm staying put right here in Washington, working my butt off at a job I love, and cooking and writing and eating (the other job I love).


Special thanks to: Marcus Quant (and Terry Maday for sending Q my way); Chris Shlemon (for editing and general scotch-drinking awesomeness); and Nick Kokonas for helping everything come together.


Up Next: Verjus, lemon thyme, beets, olive oil

Read My Previous Posts: Alinea at Home -- BIG NEWS!!!  and Dry shot, red peppers, garlic, oregano.

March 02, 2009

See, here's the thing...

I'd planned to finish writing my post about Pear, eucalyptus, olive oil, black pepper today.  I spent the weekend with family and friends celebrating babies, engagements, and other lovely things.  First thing on my to-do list for this morning, this Monday morning, was to wake up early, finish that post, and push it out to the blog so it could greet you as you checked your feed or your bookmarks before diving into your busy day.

And then, this happened:

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When I went to bed last night, after having had my neighbors over for dinner followed by dessert and a glass of scotch by the fire at their house, there was maybe a half-inch of snow on the ground.  Because we'd been told ALL DAY SUNDAY we were under a HOLY CRAP YOU'D BETTER GO BUY DIAPERS AND MILK AND BREAD AND TOILET PAPER WINTER STORM WARNING  BECAUSE YOU MIGHT STARVE TO DEATH OR HAVE A CALCIUM DEFICIENCY OR NOT BE ABLE TO WIPE YOUR ARSE BECAUSE THERE IS 6" OF SNOW ON THE GROUND, PEOPLE, AND DON'T FORGET TO DRIVE LIKE A MANIAC AND ACT LIKE A HUGE JERK THE WHOLE TIME YOU'RE AT THE STORE BUYING THOSE ITEMS BECAUSE YOU ARE CLEARLY THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE ENTIRE PLACE, I was totally bummed that, once again, the big old winter storm warning turned out to be nothing but a misting of rain and a light dusting of snow.

Before heading off to bed, grumbling about stupid-idiot-meteorologists-we-never-get-snow-here-anymore-blah-blah-blah-bittercakes, I checked my calendar and to-do lists for the morning, certain I'd have to work and that it would be business as usual.  It was going to be a killer of a week with meetings, events, deadlines, and media interviews with clients.

I woke up just before 6 o'clock this morning (which I never do on my own) because it was quiet.  Too quiet.  The kind of quiet only a blanket of snow can bring.  I quietly edged out of bed, peeked through the blinds, and was face-to-face with a tree limb covered in snow.  I shoved my feet into my slippers, threw on a robe, ran downstairs, flung open the front door, and just took in everything around me.

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I've written before about how much I love snow, and that magical things happen when it snows.  But today's snowfall was the most significant one we've had all winter and granted us something we rarely ever get here in these parts: a snow day.

I don't know what it's like where you live, but here in Washington, DC, snow days are special.  School closings aside, they're a tacit agreement that work can be suspended for a day.  That while you'll still probably check your voicemail and email every few hours, you don't have to respond.  That it's okay to go back to sleep for another hour or two, then wake up to make a big breakfast, and abandon whatever plans you might've had for a day in which you get to press the pause button and just stop and take it all in.


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I've lived in and around this city for nearly 23 years, and snow days don't come around all that often.  Here in the nation's capital, like other cities, we work hard.  But, the one thing we don't do well is play hard.  We like to think we do or tell people we do, but we don't. 

Living in Washington, and working in politics especially, means you work 24/7.  Not that you're always in the office or on the phone wheeling and dealing, but I feel like in this city, the lines are blurred or nonexistent between politics, work, the news, family, and friends, which can be really great, but can also lead to feeling like you never really have a day off.  Don't get me wrong: some of the best and deepest personal relationships I have came out of a professional setting at first, but it's hard to live here and not talk shop when you're technically supposed to be off the clock.  It's common for a dinner party or night at the movies to end in a quick round-up of something you read in the Post or the Times, or who's going to call whom on behalf of someone else to make sure someone votes a certain way on a piece of legislation or hires the right lobbyist or gets involved in one coalition or another.  It's neither good nor bad.  It just is.

That's where snow days come in.

They allow those of us who take ourselves way too seriously a day to hole up at home, not answer the phone if we don't want to, not go into work, and not feel guilty about ignoring our to-do lists for 24 hours. It's a chance to stare out the window at the birdfeeder, watch crap TV, and not make the bed because you may crawl back into it a few hours later for an afternoon nap.

Snow days bring out the best and worst in people.  In my case, today's snow brought out the best in one of my neighbors who, with his son, not only shoveled my front sidewalk, but also shoveled a path around my car and to their front door so we can easily get to one another's houses until the snow melts.

So, to thank them, I decided to make Cream of Walnut Soup from The French Laundry Cookbook.

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But wait, Carol, I hear you saying.  Isn't this blog supposed to be all about cooking your way through the Alinea cookbook?

Absolutely.

But I realized something today that I hadn't really thought about, and I credit the snow and the gift of a day off it brought for making this connection.

Two years ago (almost to the day, in fact), I made Cream of Walnut Soup for the very first time.  I was only six weeks into French Laundry at Home and was still holding the book at arm's length.  I was intimidated by that book and felt like it was almost too pristine for me to touch, let alone cook from.  I was still figuring out the hows and whys, and was nervous as hell every time I opened the page to a new recipe.  But this one dish, the Cream of Walnut Soup, I'd made on a day it unexpectedly snowed and it was the first dish in that book, now in hindsight, that I feel I really nailed and got right.  I will forever associate this taste with feeling like I'd stepped over a giant threshold into some kind of acceptance and warmth, and I'll always associate it with a snowy day when I got to have some welcomed, needed down time.

It's never felt right to make it since then.  It just doesn't taste the same without snow on the ground and grey clouds straddling the sky.  It only feels right to make this on a day like today.

So, when I saw the snow on the ground this morning and had the ingredients on hand, I knew I wasn't going to finish my other post, and instead reached for The French Laundry Cookbook, which has a permanent home on my kitchen counter propped up alongside the refrigerator.  Opening that book again reminded me, almost startlingly, of what it felt like two years ago to be cooking my way through it.  And, as I pulled ingredients from the pantry and fridge, it made me think about what it's been like to cook from the Alinea cookbook so far.

Am I still a little nervous when starting a new recipe?  Sometimes.

Do I keep the book at arm's length?  Yes. But not in the same way as I did The French Laundry Cookbook.

Cooking my way through the Alinea cookbook has felt different because it is different. Not only are they different restaurants and books, I'm cooking my way through them from different perspectives.  I never ate at The French Laundry before cooking my way through that book, but I did eat at Alinea  before starting this blog.  I never met Chef Keller until I was nearly done with that blog, but I met Grant Achatz before starting this one.  The French Laundry Cookbook had been around for nearly ten years before I started cooking from it and writing about it, whereas the Alinea cookbook had been out for ten minutes before this blog went live.  I was bored and restless and needed something challenging to engage with when I started French Laundry at Home, but started Alinea at Home at a time when my personal and professional lives were and still are the busiest they'd ever been.

I guess what's interesting to me in all this is I, like many others, I think, am a creature of habit and really, really, really don't like being outside my comfort zone.  The funny thing is, I'm great at counseling my clients to reach out in new and more creative and risky directions, but when it comes to me, I like my routines, and the things and people I'm comfortable with.  I've been this way my whole life.  Seriously, ask my parents; they could write a freakin' encyclopedia on how to raise a daughter who is stubborn and likes things the way they are so don't alter anything or she might have a conniption.  And while I'm sure experts would say it stems from some deep-rooted psychological something or other from when I was probably a minute old, it's just who I am and I make no apologies for it. And even though my being this way actually works in my favor more often than not, I do get frustrated with myself from time to time because it has the potential to translate to missed opportunities and laziness... two things that I hate more than I hate the notion of change.

Truth be told, I'm envious of people who are really creative and innovative risk-takers, and whose brains work in ways mine doesn't.  I admire people who can sit down with a guitar and an empty page of sheet music and pull together a song, or who can paint and draw, or do an architectural rendering. And when it comes to food, I am mesmerized by and a little jealous of someone like Grant Achatz, who can do what he does in the way he does it, because my brain is just not wired like that at all.

And that's why I think I was drawn to the Alinea cookbook above anything else.  Because it's so not me, but represents traits and skills I admire in others, but had not yet been willing to take the risk to figure out how to adapt or embed in myself.  I don't know if it's possible for me to change in that way or explore the possibility of rewiring (or even just tinkering with) my brain in this manner, but I knew I needed to get better about breaking out of my comfort zone, and doing it with food seemed to me to be a path that would make me the most willing to learn.

While The French Laundry Cookbook seemed daunting at the time I first took it on, as I now look back on it now, it was full of ingredients I recognized, measurements I was familiar with, and techniques that I mostly knew but needed to perfect.  The Alinea cookbook has far more ingredients I've never heard of, techniques I've never tried, and measurements I was resistant to (using a scale) but now can't believe I haven't adopted sooner.

Cooking my way through The French Laundry Cookbook enabled me to walk into the grocery store without a list and still be able to figure out what I could cook based on what looked fresh and good.  It strengthened the techniques and thought processes that eventually got me away from cooking from recipes and, instead, relying on my intuition and experience.

I have no idea what the Alinea cookbook is going to have taught me when I push that last post to this site, and that's weird, yet oddly comforting, because while both books are very different, I'm still the same person cooking from them.  Today, as I was peeling a pear and toasting some walnuts, I thought about what my Cream of Walnut soup will be with the Alinea cookbook.  What will be the dishes I most associate with certain times, places, moods, and events?  What techniques or flavor profiles will I learn that two years from now will be commonplace in my own kitchen?  Instead of stepping out of my comfort zone, I wonder how far my comfort zone will expand.  What will I excel at?  What will be dismal failures?  What will frustrate me?  What will create, cement, or remind me of certain moments and memories?

Two years ago, when I celebrated a surprise snow day with Cream of Walnut Soup, I never could have guessed that that would be a significant taste memory today.  Even bigger than a taste memory, I suppose.  A state of mind memory.  And, I'm grateful for it because it's so unexpected -- I mean, I already loved snow and snow days more than anyone I know.  How awesome to have something so delicious to layer on with that.  And the layering takes on a whole new perspective when I think about pears and walnuts in their raw form, and what taste memories I have of them individually over the years.  To then have this extra association of Cream of Walnut Soup on top of all that is pretty cool.

So, I guess today's snow day has made me even more curious as to what, in the future, I'll be able to look back on from the Alinea cookbook and think (and sorry for the convoluted math-like equation I'm about to drop on you), "Man, I already loved W, X, and Y on their own because of reason A, but when paired with Z and then made together as B during this certain time of my life, it's created this whole new association, which is even cooler than the original ingredients were to begin with."

Do you have any really, truly significant food/taste/situational memories?  Wanna tell us about 'em?  Comment away, my friends.  Comment away.


Up Next (I promise): Pear, eucalyptus, olive oil, black pepper  (and the winners of the dried hibiscus!)

Read My Previous Post: Tripod, hibiscus

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  • I'm cooking my way through the Alinea Cookbook. Because I can. I think.

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