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January 2010

January 26, 2010

Yuzu, pine, black sesame, shiso

My friend, Carlos, is the chef and co-owner of one of my favorite little beach restaurants, and he makes this really lovely arugula-beet salad with a goat-cheese vinaigrette. One day, last August, I texted him, desperate to nail one or two elusive ingredients in the dressing for that salad. I was trying to replicate it at home, and couldn't figure out what made the dressing so perfect.

Me: I'm trying to make the dressing you use on your arugula-beet-corn salad, and it's not quite right. What am I missing?

He texted back: Guess.

Me: Champagne vinegar.

Him: No.

Me: Rice wine vinegar?

Him: Nah.

Me: Lemon juice?  Lime juice?  Grapefruit extract?

Him: No.

Me: Fairy wings and butt cheese?  I GIVE UP.

Him: Jajajajajajajaaaaa! (he's from Argentina, and that's "ha ha ha" even though I still read it with a German accent in my mind, because, you know, Germany, Argentina, SAME THING.)

Me: Seriously.  TELL ME.  I BEG YOU.

Him: Yuzu juice.


Him:  .....

Me: No really, don't get out.  But really?  Yuzu juice?

Him: Yes.  Yuzu juice.

Me: Wooo-hoooo!!!!!

I got some yuzu juice (it's kinda expensive, so I used it sparingly), made that dressing, and was a very happy camper.

The first time I went to Per Se, I got a tour of the kitchen.  I salivated over their produce storage area and got to see, smell, and hold a yuzu for the very first time.  Epicurious says that yuzu is a sour Japanese citrus (true), used almost exclusively for its aromatic rind.  Um, really?  No mention of the juice, there, Epicurious?  That's not very curious of you.  Or epi.  Or WHATEVER.

A yuzu is shaped like a tangerine, the color of a lemon, and tastes a little like a lime, only more sour.  Actually, probably a lot more sour than a lime, because I don't think limes are really all that sour.  But you know how limes have that smoother nose-feel than lemons do?  That's why I guess I think that limes and yuzu are similar.  Yuzu doesn't make me think of the acid level burning the enamel off my teeth like a lemon does.  Yuzu is sharp, but smooth.  If only fresh yuzu were at all easy to come by, I'd love to squeeze one over a steaming hot plate of Pad Thai.  I bet that'd be otherwordly.

But this post is not about Carlos, Per Se, or Pad Thai.

It's about yuzu.

And, about splattering it on one's clothing when tape does not do its job.

And substituting sesame leaves for micro shiso.

And watching my neighbor's eyes grow wide as I sprinkle (generously) what she thinks is black pepper, but is actually black sesame seed powder.

And making something that is so tasty, I almost forgot I was in a food funk for nearly a month.

Let's get to it.

Because it took the longest to make, time-wise, I started with the Yuzu Powder element of this dish.  Here's a great example of how I knew the good juju was smacking down my bad cooking mojo: I needed 125g of eggs to make the yuzu powder.  I choose two eggs from the carton, knowing I'd need one, for sure, and most (if not all) of the second.  I cracked them into the bowl, one at a time, and ka-blam:


One gram short?  WHO CARES. 

I put the eggs and some tapioca maltodextrin into my Kitchen Aid mixer and put it on medium speed (somewhere between 5 and 6) for about 4 minutes.  The book says to let it get to "ribbon stage" so I took that to mean it's ready when it's thickened, and looks like cake batter does when you pour it and it looks like wide cascading ribbons falling onto one another:



I removed the bowl from the mixer stand and folded in the yuzu juice with a spatula:


Now, here's the tricky part.  The book suggests that you'll need to use an offset spatula to spread the yuzu-egg-tapioca maltodextrin mixture onto food-grade acetate before putting it into the dehydrator.  After adding the yuzu juice, it was really pretty liquidy, so I didn't need to spread it, necessarily... but I did use it to even things out a bit.  Into the dehydrator (on 150F degrees) for 4 hours.


The book suggested it might take up to 6 hours to get crispy, but at 4 hours, it was flaking off the edges, and crackling off the sheet when I folded it, so I knew it was done:


While the yuzu powder was dehydrating, I made the Pine Yogurt.  This was so difficult.  NOT.  (I know, it's not 1992)  I put a few drops of pine extract into a small bowl of Greek yogurt, then stirred to mix, and stored it in a squeeze bottle in the fridge.


I knew I was tempting fate, completing that Herculean feat and moving right into something equally as challenging: toasting black sesame seeds for a minute, then pulverizing them in my spice grinder until they became a fine powder:


With that incredibly complicated step out of the way, I made the Yuzu Ice.  I brought water and agar agar to a boil, then stirred in sugar and yuzu juice.  I stirred it until the sugar had dissolved, then removed it from the burner and poured the liquid into a bowl nestled into a bowl of ice, so it could cool and set (which took 45 minutes):





In my old blender, it would've taken twenty-seven kabillion minutes to get to that level of smoothness.  I would have had to stop eight hundred times to agitate it and move all the contents around with a spoon to get it to puree.  With this blender?  Fifteen seconds.  No shit.  WHAT WAS I WAITING FOR!?!?!?

I smoothed the puree onto 3x9" strips of food-grade acetate (from the Little Bitts shop in Wheaton, MD), spread it thin with an offset spatula, then pulled a pastry comb (also from Little Bitts) across the top to create channels in each strip:




Now, here's a little something I teased in the beginning of this post.  The book shows how you bend and curl each acetate strip to create a curl that, when frozen, will result in a really beautiful twist of yuzu ice.  The book's instructions say to use masking tape to affix the strips to a baking sheet.  I did that, and the baking sheet pretty much laughed its ass off at me and didn't even stick for a second.

I tried with duct tape.  No go.

Then, I tried with duct tape holding it from the bottom, and freezer tape over the top to hold the strips down from that angle:


Um, yeah.  After about eight seconds, here's what happened with that plan:


SPROING!  And, yuzu glop all over my shirt and glasses:


So, I decided to just keep the strips flat and opt for getting the flavor right, not so much the exact look:


(The weird spots you see along those strips are bits of yuzu that got underneath the acetate strips. They were all quite lovely and uniformly stripey once frozen)

It took about 30 minutes for them to freeze solid, and once that happened, I julienned a few sesame leaves (couldn't find micro shiso anywhere), got the pine yogurt out of the fridge, pinched the yuzu powder flakes to make them more powdery, and got the black sesame seed powder all ready to go.

I scraped the frozen yuzu ice off the sheets and into a cold highball glass, then sprinkled some sesame powder, sesame leaves, and yuzu powder into the glass, along with a few squirts of pine yogurt.  Wanna see?


I called my neighbor friends, Sean and Linda, to come over (their kids stayed home to finish homework), and we smushed it all around a bit with our spoons, and then took a bite.

Tangy, sweet, sour, nutty.... delicious.  I love what the Greek yogurt does with this dish.  The yuzu is cold and soothing and really nice, and then the yogurt brightens it, but also gives it some heft.  Not much, but enough to make it feel like there's something substantial on your spoon.  The black sesame powder was a nice surprise, and I'm glad there's a lot left over.  Gotta figure out how else I'd use that stuff.  The sesame leaves added nice flavor, as well.

This dish wasn't a ton of work -- more waiting time than anything -- and I wish I'd been able to get those dang acetate strips to stay curled on the baking sheet to freeze in a bit of a curl.  But, all in all, this was a really nice, fragrant, and flavorful two bites.  I only wish yuzu juice wasn't so pricey. I'd use it all the time.

Up Next: Maytag blue, grape, walnut, port

Resources: Agar agar and tapioca maltodextrin from L'Epicerie; yuzu juice from Earthy.com; Fage Greek yogurt; scotch pine oil from Terra Spice; eggs from Smith Meadow Farm; black sesame seeds and fresh sesame leaves from HMart in Wheaton, MD; Domino sugar.

Music to Cook By: Great Northern; Trading Twilight for Daylight.  There's tension, there's beat, there's a lyrical shine, there's haze, there's a mellowness... all in all, a fantastic album to have on while you're puttering away in the kitchen.  It's great background noise, and every now and then, a lyric or guitar riff will prick your ears and bring you back to earth. Love it.

Read My Previous Post: Bison, cranberry, persimmon, juniper branch aroma

January 19, 2010

Bison, cranberry, persimmon, juniper branch aroma

I'm ramping back up to cooking.  It's going well, but I still feel like I'm not yet totally in my own skin.  Getting glutened threw me for a bigger loop than I originally thought.  Instead of 2-3 days of feeling like crap, it took a little over a week to feel like myself again.  I wish I could explain it in greater detail, but the after-effects of getting glutened are so disgusting and embarrassing and soooo not appropriate for a food blog, that I'll spare you.  Trust me on this.  You're welcome.

As I begin to emerge from this food funk of mine, I am reminded of what a strange time it is in my professional life.  I always forget how slow January is.  I forget that, every year, I bust ass up until the week before Christmas, and then it slows to almost a complete halt.  Then, it takes my clients a few weeks to get their own work up and running in January before they have things to throw my way.  I've been a self-employed media consultant for almost nine years, and with the exception of a political transition year such as last year, January and August are dead, dead, dead here in Washington.  It's the nature of what I do, and the kinds of clients I work with.  I look forward to the August lull, because it means I can spend time with friends at the beach.  The January lull is a different kind of animal.  Going from a food and writing funk into a slow period professionally was a bit freakish for a day or two, but because I always seem to have a personal to-do list a mile long, I've started tackling it all.

One of the things on my to-do list that really helped me get my cooking mojo back was to completely clean out, scrub, reorganize, and inventory my pantry, freezer, and refrigerator.  I'm kind of a neat freak as it is, but I needed that physical, tactile activity -- touching ingredients, making lists of what I had, replacing things that needed replenished, and appreciating what all was in my kitchen.

You guys, I made lists.  (Like you're shocked.)  But it's true.  I wrote down (and categorized) every single ingredient and food item so that I can more more efficient and resourceful in my everyday cooking, not just cooking for the blog.  My friend, Joe, refers to the crisper drawer in his refrigerator as "the rotter" because he, like so many of us, buys produce and never gets around to using it before it goes bad.  I'm so guilty of that, and it's just wrong.  It's so wasteful, and I don't wanna do that anymore.  And, I need to stop buying meat for awhile -- I have enough meat and poultry in my freezer to last me the next 3 or 4 months... not kidding.  I mean, here... look at the lists I wrote and taped to the fridge so that I can use things and cross them off and be smarter about the way I cook day-to-day:

And then, there's the list of all the Alinea-specific ingredients I had to inventory and reorganize (hey! I needed a reason to go to The Container Store):


I know, some of you are thinking she's completely and totally lost it, let's run for the hills! but you must know that this exercise was so incredibly motivating and energizing, and I highly recommend it even if you've got the good mojo goin' on.  It's remarkable to see it all on paper.  It's humbling.  It makes me want to kick my own ass for all the times I've said, "I've got nothing to eat, so I guess I'll get Indian food tonight."  It's made me completely rethink my entire personal cooking and eating plans (and budget) for the next six months.  More importantly, though, it made me feel like I was back in the driver's seat in my own kitchen, and I needed that.

Having done all that and ready to crack the Alinea cookbook open once again, I decided to tackle the Bison, cranberry, persimmon, juniper branch aroma dish (page 323), and see how it went.  I'll say now that I'm pleased... almost even thrilled.  But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves now, shall we?

First step? Puffed rice.  Now, I know in the book, it says "puffed barley" but barley contains the dreaded g-word, so I decided to play with some wild rice and see if I could make it work.  First, I toasted it:


I cooked the rice in hot water and salt, according to the package instructions, then dehydrated it for a few hours:


While the rice dehydrated, I took the steeping walnuts out of the fridge.  The day before, I toasted some walnuts in the oven, then put them in a saucepan with some milk and walnut oil, and brought it to a boil.  After it had cooled to room temperature, I covered it and let it steep overnight in the fridge.  This day, I strained the liquid into a small saucepan, added sugar, salt, and agar agar and brought it to a boil:



After it had boiled for a minute or so, I strained it (again) into a small bowl and put it in the refrigerator to set, which took about 30 minutes:


I broke that solidified walnut awesomeness into small chunks and put them in the blender:


The instructions say to blend it until it becomes smooth, which didn't necessarily happen.  Instead, after much blending and agitating and further blending, it ended up having the consistency of cat food:


So, I made the executive decision to add small increments of milk and walnut oil as I continued blending to facilitate the smoothness:


Eventually, I ended up with this:


It was a lot creamier in person than it is in that photo.  Much like Christina Hendricks at the Golden Globes, but I digress.

I refrigerated the walnut pudding until it was time to plate.

The next thing I did was make the cranberry puree.  In a small saucepan, I heated cranberries, sugar, and red wine vinegar until the cranberries were soft and starting to break down, and the pan was nearly dry:


I strained the cooked cranberries into a blender and whacked the hell out of them, then strained them into a small bowl:



Cooked cranberries is one of my favorite smells.  Didn't know that until I made them like this for this dish, but wowzers. 

Next, I got the bison tenderloin ready to be cooked sous vide.  Remember the rendered beef fat?  Here's what 25g of it looks like:


I put that in a sous vide bag along with the 100g center-cut bison tenderloin, and let it cook in a 130F-degree water bath for 25 minutes:


When it was done, I cut the bison into small rectangles and stored them in the fridge:


Then, the final element: persimmons:


I removed the tops and the bottoms, and poached them in what felt like a weird ratio of sugar to water -- 5:1... yes, you read that correctly 500g sugar, 100g water. 


 When they were done, I cut out cylinders using my 1/2" cutter...


... but realized they'd be too big (the bison pieces wouldn't wrap around them the way they were supposed to), so I trimmed them down a bit into smaller rectangles:


By now, the rice was dehydrated, so I brought some canola oil up to 425F degrees and deep fried the rice.  Now, I knew it wouldn't be puffy like barley is, but I was hoping the rice would have some good, earthy depth to it, and it did.




Crunchy, deep-fried rice is delicious.  Why do they not sell this in movie theatres?  WHY, I ASK YOU?

Last, but not least, I ground up some dried juniper berries to be used in the final plating:


Now, here's where my photography just gets criminal, and it's a shame because this was really not that hard to shoot.  I guess I was just too focused on getting it to taste right.

So, with all the elements in place, I did the final step -- which is wrapping the bison around the persimmon pieces, then searing the seam of each one, before placing it on a hot river stone to serve it.  Here's the wrapping around part (and again, my apologies to those of you who like pretty things, which I know is everyone, so SORRY, PEOPLE OF THE EARTH):

I had a tray of black river rocks in a 400F-degree oven, waiting to be used in this final step.  The book calls for (and displays a beautiful photograph of) these stones nesting in a bed of juniper branches.  That's the one element I had to skip in this dish.  I wish I hadn't, because juniper is so lovely and fragrant, but it wasn't possible.  So, I put the hot stones on a bamboo board and put a round of bison and persimmon atop it (you'll see the bubbles in the photo below where the meat hits the hot stone and sizzles), and then topped each bite with a pinch of crushed juniper berry, a little blob of walnut pudding, a little blob of cranberry puree, and some crunchy deep-fried rice:


Yes, the bison fell apart on its way from the saute pan to the stone. 

Yes, I "plated" it on its side instead of the way it was done in the book.

Yes, the photo above looks like something you might find in the tumors chapter of a med school textbook.

I don't care.


The only thing I might've done differently is add salt to the meat when it's cooking sous vide.  After I tasted my first one, I salted the rest with a tiny pinch of Maldon sea salt, and it woke everything up.

So, bison.  I really like bison. It's not as steak-y as steak (which I crave almost daily), but it's smooth and hearty, and I really enjoy it. I've had it in restaurants, but I've never cooked it at home.  So, instead of just ordering the center-cut of the tenderloin (which the book calls for), I bought a whole tenderloin (thanks to the awesome guys at Gunpowder who come to the Takoma Park Farmers Market), and used what I needed for this dish, and froze the rest in individual cuts.

But, bison with the persimmon?  Really nice.  Beautiful balance, flavor- and texture-wise.  I don't eat persimmons all that often -- they're an odd hybrid, flavor-wise, I think... kind of tomato meets pear meets acorn squash, with a hint of (I think) mango and/or apricot.  I can't tell.  It's so complex and unique, and I need to remind myself to eat these more often, because I enjoy them when I do.

So, bison with persimmon = homerun, but then add the nuttiness of the rice with the sharp, tart sweetness of the cranberry and the smooth, mellow walnut pudding?  And, a palate-opening hint of juniper? 

That's what I love about this book -- these are not flavors I would EVER put together on my own.  I'm really good at food shopping without lists or recipes or books.  I see things and know what I'd put together and how I want to cook them.  But I can't imagine for one second, two years ago, going into the grocery store and thinking, hhhmmmmm, there's some persimmon and cranberries... so let's head over to the meat counter for some bison, and then pick up some walnuts and rice, and oh! can't forget about the juniper!  I mean, WHO DOES THAT?  Oh yeah, Grant Achatz.  Which is why getting back in the saddle and cooking from this book is so important to me.  There's so much I want to learn.

Up Next: Yuzu, pine, black sesame, shiso

Resources: Bison from Gunpowder Trading; walnuts and juniper berries from the TPSS Co-op; agar agar from Terra Spice; La Tourangelle walnut oil; Lundberg rice; David's kosher salt; 365 canola oil; Ocean Spray cranberries; Terra Medi red wine vinegar; Fuyu persimmons from H Mart in Wheaton, MD; Domino sugar; black river rocks from Behnke's.

Music to Cook By: Ra Ra Riot; The Rhumb Line.  I love this album, and now that I've read the heartbreaking Rolling Stone review (I didn't know anything about these guys), I love it even more.

Read My Previous Post: Rendering Beef Fat

January 14, 2010

Alinea at Home Extra: Rendering Beef Fat

Deep breath.... stretch fingers.... aaaaand, go.

One of the elements in the upcoming Bison, cranberry, persimmon, juniper dish is to use rendered beef fat as part of the sous vide process.  Now, I know you can buy rendered beef fat (or tallow, as it's also called) in cute little jars for $8 or $9 in grocery stores, but I needed a kick in the ass to get myself back into the kitchen, so I decided to make my own.

I mean, really: if I can't dice some beef fat, add water, and let the fat melt, I should just quit cooking altogether and crawl into a cave.

I wanted beef fat that I knew had been handled well in a butchering environment, and the closest butcher-ish place to me is Max's Kosher Market in Wheaton, Maryland.  They do all their butchering on-site, and have really good product, so I knew I'd be all set.

What I didn't expect is that they wouldn't charge me for the fat.  Could this be a sign that my bad mojo is turning around?  I told them I just needed a pound or so, and they wrapped it up nicely for me and sent me on my merry way.  Thanks, guys!

I'd never rendered my own beef fat before (I'd never needed to use it to cook anything), but I remembered reading Lisa Fain's pork fat rendering post on her blog, Homesick Texan, so I drew from that and got started.

Here's the beef fat:


I cut those two slabs into a 1/2"-ish dice.  Note -- cutting through fat is easier than it might seem.  It's not slippery or gooey or gross at it.  In fact, it felt like cutting through cold butter.  You don't have to do exactly a 1/2" dice.  Anything 1" or smaller will work.  Just try to keep them all relatively the same size.  More importantly, there should be no meat at all on these pieces.  Meat will leech blood and other impurities into the fat as it renders, then it'll burn, and you'll end up with nasty bits you don't want, and that are impossible hard to strain out.


I put the fat cubes into a heavy pan (I'm using a Le Creuset here, though I'm pretty sure any heavy pan will work -- cast-iron enamel is preferred, though):


Then, I added a bit of water.  I didn't measure it precisely as I poured, but in eyeballing it, I'd say there's maybe a cup of water (for a little over a pound of diced fat).  But, since fat floats in water, it looks like there's more water than there really is.  My advice -- just put the fat in, and pour some water in until it barely surrounds the fat:


Cook over high heat (a 9 out of 10, if your stovetop has number dials) until it boils (this took about 3 minutes):


Then, reduce to medium heat (I turned my dial to a 5) until the water cooks off (takes about 20-25 minutes):


Then, cook over a low heat (I turned the dial down to 3) until the fat begins to melt.  You'll hear cracks and pops and sometimes a BLAM or two as the fat releases air and moisture as it melts.  See the fat splatches all over the stovetop? It was also on the windows and floor.  And, after I thought I'd cleaned everything really well, I found three giant fat blobs on the ceiling.  

It'll cook for 45-60 minutes before you start to hear those cracks and splats goin' on.  After that point, you'll see that some of the fat is starting to turn brown.  It's at this point you should stir it every 10 minutes or so -- and wear an oven mitt while you do, use a long handled wooden spoon, and don't stand directly above or in front of the pot.  When you stir and agitate the fat, it will splatter, and it's hot as all get out.  I'm glad I had my glasses on, or else I'd have had fat in my eye, I think.

Once the fat chunks have begun to turn brown, and renders the liquid fat, you've only got about 20-30 minutes to go.


Line a fine-mesh strainer with some cheesecloth (or, if you don't have cheesecloth, then be prepared to strain it twice) and pour the contents of the pot of fat through it into a heatproof (heat-safe?) bowl.


Discard the brown cracklings (or save them and salt them while still hot, for a snack -- though I think they're not as tasty as pork cracklings), let the liquid fat cool for a bit (10 minutes), then pour it into an airtight container.  I used a Mason jar:


I let the liquid cool for a bit longer in the jar (another 10 minutes) before putting the lid on it and storing it into the fridge.

After it's been in the fridge for a bit, it'll turn whitish and become opaque:


And there you have it.  Rendered beef fat.

Oh, and before I go... you guys?  Your comments on the last post?  Your emails?  Your Tweets?  Amazing.  Just amazing.  Thank you so much.  You have NO idea.

Up Next: Bison, cranberry, persimmon, juniper branch aroma

Read My Previous Post: The Thing a Food Writer Isn't Supposed to Say

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?

DSC_0017 (I'm not yelling AT you; I'm yelling NEAR you)

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.


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

January 05, 2010

The Big Finish: Alinea at Home/Share Our Strength final results and prize winners


You guys, I'm blown away.

You all donated $10,118 to Share Our Strength.

That's FANTASTIC!  Thank you!

Courtesy of Twitter and the random number generator at Random.org:

The cookbook winners were: Trina Smith, Adam Teitelbaum, Kurt Libby, Sally Newton, Kate in St. Louis, and Matt Barr.

The four winners of the two Central Michel Richard gift certificates, Whole Foods gift card, and Alinea Starter Kit are still being sorted out -- one of the winners is on vacation (according to his email autoreply), but everyone who won has been notified directly via email, so congrats!

And, the winner of the stay and dinner at The Sheppard Mansion is Bill Colwell and his wife, Robin.

Thank you to everyone who donated, as well as to those who supplied the giveaway items.

Oh, and since we went over $10,000, it looks like I'll be eating softshell crab with durian.  However, while typing that last sentence, I just now realized that softshells aren't in season until the 2nd or 3rd week of May, so let me figure out a workaround on that.  I'll eat durian, for sure, but if you have suggestions for something other than my eating softshell crabs, hit me in the comments.  Or, if you want me to wait until May to eat the crab and durian together, I'll do that.  Your call.  I leave the decision in your able, typing fingers.

Thanks again, you guys.  $10,118.  I couldn't be more proud of each and every one of you and how supportive you are of Share Our Strength.  You're the best!

Be back soon... but until then?  Jazz hands!


Alinea Book


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


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