Just Good


pickled corn, potato cake, halibut

I’m currently reading from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. The Introduction and subsequent chapters on General Principles and Scoring the Good Stuff (shopping) are the best I’ve ever seen on the shopping, preparation and service of a meal. (With regard to shopping, I’m concurrently reading Julia Child’s My Life in France, where she spends a chapter on developing relationships with your butcher, fishmonger, equipment shopkeeper, etc.)

The most useful thing I can teach you, is the concept of mise en place. As a cook, your “meez” is your first principle, your belief system, your religion, your Tao. All else springs from this basic relationship with your food and your environment. Literally speaking, mise en place means “put in place,” but it is so much more than that.

Having your meez together means that you have cleaned and cleared your work area in advance and have assembled every item of food and every utensil and tool you will require, and put them in accessible, comfortable locations, ready for use.

Try this when preparing for your next meal: Put everything in a heap in front of you. Every ingredient. Every tool. Then think. Think about the stages to follow. As you reflect on what you are going to do, and when and where you’re gonna put all this, a plan will emerge:

“Well, I won’t be needing the cream until later, so I’ll put that in the fridge. Someplace I can grab it quickly when I need it, The butter, Hmmm. It would be nice if it were soft when I use it. I’ll leave that out.”

And so on. THINK! Generally speaking, any recipe has three distinct stages, often separated by considerable periods of downtime.

He goes on to examine The Three Stages of Wisdom: Deep Prep, Prep and Final Assembly.

I knew all that, but I never thought of it in precise terms. Carol, the intuitive meat ‘n’ two food TV addicted home cook (those are all good things, love), often teased me about lining up little containers of stuff. Even so, there was usually a point where something would be not ready, or left out, or I’d forget the parsley garnish that was sitting, chopped, in its little dish. I wasn’t thoroughly thinking through every ingredient for every dish, the soft butter is a good example.

This meal was the second since I began using Anthony Bourdain’s tried and true prep and list-making tenants.

But things went wrong. Carol’s boss, a person with whom we go to ball games and on wine trips, gave her a ride home, and C said, “stay for dinner, oh, do we have enough?”

“If we have enough halibut, we have enough, looks big enough to me,” I said, pulling it from the fridge. So they hung in the kitchen, mixing drinks, and Sarah said, “Is it okay if I stay in the kitchen? I love watching the way you cook.”

“Doesn’t bother me,” and I went on cutting corn.

What went wrong?

All of these were first time dishes, and for all of them I was converting from a large recipe to one suitable for two or three, on the fly. So that involved some thinking.

The Pickled Corn was way too salty. I’m not sure why, but the recipe called for 4 ears of corn and I only had 3, so I intuitively scaled back. I didn’t do it mathematically. And, repeat after me, you can always add salt, but you can’t take it back out! There was one other thing; the recipe was a bit confusing and poorly written. It said, 4 cloves garlic. 4 cloves garlic what? Peeled? Chopped? Sliced? Minced? I peeled the cloves and put them in. Four cloves of garlic is a lot. I reasoned the mixture would be simmered, so that would work. Was I right? How can I know, the salt was overpowering.

The Potato Tortilla (I prefer to call it a Potato Cake) was overcooked. It’s the kind of potato cake you get in a wedge at a Tapas place; sliced potatoes bound together with egg. It’s important that it is thick, like a cake. I was doing half a recipe, and that’s fine for quantities of stuff, but when the dish is baked twice, there’s the temperature thing and the timing thing and the size of dish thing, and you have to watch it and keep checking. So, while having an audience really doesn’t bother me, it does blunt the concentration side of the brain. Also, for the second bake I used a 7 1/2-inch saucepan rather than a 10-inch skillet. So even though I took it out 10 minutes early, it had become—how shall I say—richly browned. I also forgot to finish with a drizzle of olive oil (Anthony would kick my ass!). But it tasted great, though a tad dry. I want to perfect this dish. It could become a favorite.

As for the Breadcrumb-Crusted Halibut with Thyme, it’s the old fish fight. Carol likes hers dry and hard, and I like mine nice and juicy and flakey. I know what to do, take mine out first. But again, there’s the concentration thing vs. the sociable host thing. Before I knew it, the timer went off, and the timer was for overcooked. And again, it’s baked. If it’s sautéed, I’m standing there and watching and touching. But baked, one tends to walk off and open the wine or something.

All in all, it was a good meal, but not damn good. I like damn good! Dammit!

One thought on “Just Good

  1. I just finished reading My Life in France by Julia Child, and want to append a couple paragraphs from that book relevent to the above.

    “My hope was that readers would use From Julia Child’s Kitchen as if it were a private cooking school. I tried to structure each recipe as a class. Ant the great lesson embedded in the book is that no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing. This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook—try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!” [297]

    “In Paris in the 1950s, I had the supreme good fortune to study with a remarkably able group of chefs. From them I learned why good French food is an art, and why it makes such sublime eating: nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care. If one doesn’t use the freshest ingredients or read the whole recipe before starting, and if one rushes through the cooking, the result will be an inferior taste and texture—a gummy beef Wellington, say. But a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience.” [302]


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