Art, craft, and shoemakers

Ideas in Food lived up to their name recently with the thought-provoking post “Are you a shoemaker?” Aki and Alex relay an anecdote from another chef as follows:

“Jacques Torres would often refer to the savory cooks as shoemakers because they were always fixing dishes at the end of the preparation process, adjusting the seasoning and compensating for any mistakes. On the other hand pastry chefs weighed and measured all of their ingredients each time they made a recipe and so the dishes were prepared properly from start to finish.”

As they note the increasing use of precision, planning, and scales on the savory side of the business, they then relay a comment from Wylie Dufresne who said, “”How can you reproduce a dish if you don’t know what went into it?”

It made me ask myself, do I even want to be able to exactly duplicate my dishes.

I understand why a restaurant chef would need to, but that is a world away from the home cook in love with the process of creating and sharing great food. I also see it as a world away from food as art form, and I believe that the cooking process can be as much about art as it is about craft.

However, I understand where Dufresne is coming from (or at least, where it sounds like he is coming from), because making art, and making a living from art, are two very different things. With the latter, the business brain often has to rise up and focus on what is popular and predictable rather than what is inspired. Inspiration means risk, risk means possible failure, and failure in the restaurant business can be deadly. So if most professional chefs save shoemaking for personal time, that would not surprise me.

Of course, “art” is also a loaded term, partially because the 20th century art market worshipped innovation at the expense of craft and technique. The word applied to food makes many think of haute cuisine and culinary stunts. But the word also represents the organic, the spontaneous, and the independent spirit, rather than the rote task of following directions.

If I actually thought that shoemaking was an accurate analogy, I would say that I love being a shoemaker. I never expect people to follow my recipes exactly, any more than I exactly follow my own. It begs the question why I blog recipes at all. Like many, I blog to push myself, to share, hopefully to inspire, and to engage in the invaluable process of trying to learn and teach at the same time.

There are also degrees. To Wylie’s point, I generally know exactly what goes into my dishes, just not down to the milligram. I taste for salt, rather than measure it. I do adjust and compensate, not just at the end but during the process. It’s part of the fun.

Answering my own question, do I want to be able to exactly duplicate my dishes, the answer is both yes and no. I am happy with “close enough”, and the freedom to veer off into uncharted territory. I hope you pardon this intellectual navel gazing, but I’m happy that Aki and Alex made me stop for a second and think through the how and the what and the why.

Making great natural yogurt: EasiYo

I never liked natural yogurt until my wife Lisl took me to Greece one summer, and all of a sudden my definition of yogurt changed completely. At that point I understood why all the Aussies and Europeans complained vociferously about American yogurt.

The only comparable yogurt that we could find back here in New York was Total, but it was expensive. Then Lisl’s mother came visiting from Sydney one year and introduced us to a home yogurt system from New Zealand called EasiYo. It is finally available in America and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is really easy, delicious and cost-effective. The international website is here, and their North American distributor (“Phase One Trading Group”) is located here. (We usually get the Greek and reduced fat yogurt bases.)

P.S. we have no business connection to this brand whatsoever — we just love the product.

Bittman, back to basics

A colleague of mine recently pointed me to Mark Bittman’s speech at the TED conference, which definitely shares an interesting perspective on trends in American eating and the impact of the livestock industry on the environment.

He also was kind enough to send me two Bittman cookbooks, including How to Cook Everything. I really like what I have read so far — it is unpretentious and back-to-basics. I don’t think that anybody, in any profession, is ever so far advanced that they cannot benefit from a return to the basics, let alone someone like me who still a relative beginner in this realm. Bittman, for example, has a whole section on beans — not just bean recipes, but an explanation of different kinds, dried versus canned, and the theory behind different approaches to cooking beans. That kind of information is surprisingly hard to find.

One can copy a complex Boulud recipe and certainly learn a lot by doing so, but to truly treat food like an art medium (which is why I love it), you need to understand the root theory and the building blocks. Painting is no different — prior to the 20th century’s foray into abstraction, artists were trained by drawing simple building blocks. Cezanne once wrote, “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth … lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth.

Still, there are basics and then there is the scientific foundation (how far people go usually depends on their artistic versus engineering bent). You don’t need to know what a monosaccharide is to cook, but there is an interesting blend of chef/chemist/innovator emerging these days (or maybe it’s always been here and I’m just clueing in now). Ideas in Food is an interesting blog that balances exploration without the reader needing a chemistry PhD.

Speaking of basics, I haven’t been writing here about the very simple dishes I do (last night’s speed meal was grilled lamb with a fennel seed, lemon & yogurt dressing, and steamed broccoli) because I figure they are boring. Still, in food as in life, the basics are important and I look forward to doing some more hands-on exploration of Bittman’s cookbooks.

P.S. I have no segue into this, but check out this very funny New Yorker bit on Fourteen Passive-Aggressive Appetizers

Preserving Roma Tomatoes: redux

A few weeks ago, I posted about making a simple pasta sauce that stunned me with its flavor because we were using these incredibly sweet preserved tomatoes given to us by a good friend who lives in Harrison, NY. I asked her to fill me in on the process they went through, and she was kind enough to oblige with the below description. This summer Lisl is hoping to join them as they undertake the process once again, so hopefully we’ll get some good pictures:

“It was a hot and steamy August day when we assembled in my mother-in-law’s garage to make the sauce (or gravy, as it is referred to in these parts). By the time I arrived the garage was already set up with an industrial size pot on a burner placed in the center of the space and a couple of restaurant size pots on a stove top. On one side of the garage was a tressel table with well over 100 empty jars, small and large, awaiting the finished product.

Angela had purchased 4 bushels of Roma tomatoes from a New Jersey farmer. Each one had to be cut into quarters and the seeds and juice squeezed lightly out and then tossed into the big pot. I worked with my mother-in-law, sister-in-law and twelve-year old niece for hours quartering tomatoes and tossing them into the gently boiling pot, stirring occasionally. As the pot filled up, we began with the two back-up pots.

Some time after we finished quartering the tomatoes, Angela set up the machine for removing the skins and any pulp or seeds. The machine reminded me a lot in appearance of an old meat grinder my grandmother had used when I was a child. The sauce that came out was of a fairly thin sauce consistency, but the by-product – the skin and pulp that had been removed – was very thick, rather like tomato paste. Angela explained that we had probably not been quite diligent enough in squeezing out the tomatoes in the first place ( I was probably guilty here – as a novice it pained me to see all what I saw as ‘good stuff’ going to waste), but that this was just a base sauce that could be used in preparing a wide range of dishes.

The sauce was put back on the burner for a while, and a little salt added, if I recall correctly. A couple of basil leaves were placed inside each waiting jar, then finally the boiling sauce was poured with great care into each. The jars we sealed with the two-piece preserving lids – the top placed on then screwed down as tightly as possible (with great care to avoid burning), to be followed by a little pop as the suction sealed the jar tight. “

Peas in a Pod

Today was one of those up-crack-of-dawn at work mayhem days, followed by a slew of family errands, so a nice dinner was definitely not in the cards. Still, I was able to pause for a moment or two with my three year old and teach her the fine art of eating sugar snap peas.

When I was little, I loved to crack open the pea pods and nibble out the peas — a fabulous confluence of tactile and taste. It was fun to see Audrey happily sitting up on her chair eating peas with Daddy and enjoying the fruits (dare I say vegetables?) of sharing and discovery. And of course, when patience runs short with pod cracking, there’s always the crunch crunch crunch of downing the whole thing!

Dinner at Venticello in San Francisco

While Giff tends the kitchen at home in Rye in 100 degree heat, I have been on business in San Francisco. After meetings were finished yesterday evening, I went with a colleague to Venticello, a small Italian restaurant on Nobb Hill. We took a cab from downtown; the streets around there are incredibly steep and it would have been an adventure in my suit and heels. Brought back memories of wheeling Audrey around there in her stroller on our visit in March (wearing sneakers then).

The restaurant is on the corner of Taylor and Washington and boasts a peek-through view of the Bay Bridge through the corner window, open to take advantage of the gorgeous weather. Still on NY time, the restaurant was nearly empty when we arrived and we were early enough to grab seats close to the view. (The photo here looks back at the dining room away from the view at the pizza oven.) The service was friendly and reasonably attentive, although I discovered a service peeve – waiters who obsess over the possessive. Why did this waiter describe the specials as his very own? “my soup today is…” “my appetizer special is…”? Does he really think we believe he’s going down to the kitchen to put it together personally? Or that he designed the menu? “Our” would have been so much more appropriate. I know – picky, picky.

The food was very good. I had a lovely beet, bibb lettuce and tomato salad to start served in a raddicio cup (which went by the tongue-twisting name of Barbabietola) and the rabbit special to follow. Rabbit is not something I usually gravitate towards, but there was something very warm and satisfying-sounding about the dish (guess the waiter did his job well there) and I had great memories of a rabbit dish Michael Granne cooked for us once (my then 13-year old niece Ashleigh was visiting at the time and we had to tell her it was chicken; she was appalled when she discovered what it was, but had eaten and enjoyed most of it by that point). I remember being pleasantly surprised at the color, consistency and flavor of the meat. This rabbit came stewed in a delicious brown sauce with mushrooms, carrots, tomatoes, served around polenta – I really enjoyed it. The meal was rounded out by a lovely Italian red wine chosen by my colleague from Taurasi in the Campagna region. Altogether a very good meal.