Ceilings and floors

Raising quality is costly.  It’s worth doing only if the benefits exceed the costs.  But it’s impossible to figure these out until after the work’s been put in.  Here are some observations.

Boston’s Back Bay. Obtained from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boston_Back_Bay.jpg.

I’ve been told that the effort I put into cooking is excessive, at least compared to an average home cook.  It’s hard for me to think about this because I haven’t actually surveyed home cooks.  What does this average home cook like?

Anyway, I understand where the comment comes from.  It’s not a big deal when family and friends share this with me.  De gustibus.  However, seeing this sentiment glorified in print is a totally different story.  Here’s the long passage from a series of cookbook reviews — the book in question is Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons Cookbook — that set off this post.

Even the easy recipes seem labor-intensive. Take “September: Recipes for Busy Times” (What a Martha chapter title!), which is “devoted to relatively simple and quick dishes for those taxing weeks.” Orecchiette With Chicken, Swiss Chard, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, which looks wonderfully like comfort food, involves soaking white beans overnight, browning a chicken, then simmering it in stock (which you have made yourself), taking the chicken apart to cut up the meat, reducing the stock you’ve cooked it in, cooking the white beans, boiling the pasta separately, and of course washing the chard. It involves washing at least five vessels, by my count, and that’s if you soak and cook the beans in the same container, which he doesn’t, and don’t count the cheese-grater….  Anyway, I get what I imagine to be a similar comfort and taste amperage out of winging a similar orecchiette dish that a friend made for me once: It uses sausage (you only have to sauté it) and broccoli rabe, though any bitter green would probably do, and Pecorino Romano along with the Parmesan. No beans.

The more I think about it, the more Portale struck me as the epitome of what I don’t like about celebrity chefbooks. In the end I don’t really care if his recipes are wonderful, or even unprecedented. The world is full of amazing recipes already; what I’m always looking for is a companion who will tell me how, and who won’t make it more complicated than he has to, and who will give me good reasons for what I’m doing (reasons better than because I said so!), so that I learn something, too, that I can apply to the rest of my cooking.

I have two issues.  The first is a basic one.  I’m not sure how the reviewer can write, “I get what I imagine to be a similar comfort and taste amperage out of winging a similar orecchiette dish.”  In cooking, the only way to judge a dish is to eat it.

The second issue is the important one.  The reviewer’s critique is that the costs of cooking Portale’s way exceed the benefits.  Specifically, she objects to small inconveniences, such as pre-soaking beans, working with stock, and using greater amounts of equipment.  In a sense, I agree.  I would tell beginners to cook simpler recipes given how slow and how prone to mistakes they necessarily are.  But at the level this reviewer is probably cooking at — in my mind I’m thinking people who can cook the recipes in a Saveur, Food & Wine, or Bon Appetit without breaking a sweat — this attitude, in my opinion, is crazy.

In cooking, it’s easy to improve as a beginner.  A beginner home cook does so many things wrong that he or she can get a lot of mileage out of fixing a mistake.  There is a lot of low-hanging fruit, such as browning proteins when it makes sense, properly dressing greens, seeking local produce during each ingredient’s peak season.  These low-hanging fruit are gone by the time a home cook is comfortable with  those magazine recipes.

When a home cook is competent, the relevant comparison is restaurant cooking.  If you’re not eating in, you’re eating out.  All else equal, the better a cook you are, the less you should eat out.  So for me, it’s useful to think about the reasons why really good restaurant food tastes better than mine.  Some I can’t address: high-end ingredients, more manpower, better equipment.  But some I can.  These are the effort- or thought-intensive little things the reviewer decries.  Read below on how Thomas Keller treats fava beans, by way of Soul of a Chef (sorry, no page number from Google Books):

The way Keller differed from the chef-instructors I’d known was not to contradict them but rather to exceed them; he took what they taught students and brought it to crazy levels.  I’d cooked fava beans for Dan Turgeon’s class….  You pop them out of their enormous pods, blanch them, shock them in ice water, then peel them — cooked, the skin peels right off….  At the French Laundry you peeled the favas before cooking them and you removed that itty-bitty germ poking out on the side, which can be a little bitter….  Keller explained that the favas’ color was better because acids and gases get trapped beneath its skin, dulling its beautiful pale green color as it cooks, and it stays fresher.

He provides useful instruction on salt, here:

When you use salt to intensify flavor, though, it should be barely perceptible. Nevertheless it will have a profound impact on the flavor of the dish as a whole (it should taste better, but it shouldn’t taste salty). In our kitchens, we do this by adding salt early in the preparation through the use of different types of brining: wet and dry.

I can vouch for his approach.  During a vacation in Napa Valley, my wife and I ate at the Bouchon in Yountville.  We shared a Bibb salad and I had a roasted meat with flageolet.  Those flageolet stole the show.  They were perfectly seasoned, tasting fully of bean without being salty.  We ate a few dishes and the main thing I remembered was the seasoning.  As they say, “God is in the detail.”

Sure, doing things the “right” way, as advocated by very good restaurant chefs is costly.  It takes discipline to wash a sauce pan right after you finish using it, to keep a sink clear, and to run the dishwasher as soon as possible.  It requires focus to properly de-grease sauces and brown meats for stock on a regular basis.  From experience I know how tempting it is at the end of a long day to not do these things.

But I really enjoy eating good food.  I’ve noticed the difference when minding these little things at home.  So I can report that, yes, the benefits can exceed the costs for a home cook.

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