Monday, May 24, 2010

Enjoy the Silence

Sometimes we all need a quiet moment to reflect.  Music, reading and of course, a great meal are all wonderful forms of passive relaxation.  But, I find that going to a museum to wander with no specific course or exit time is my favorite secret selfish pleasure.  Here then, on this drippy, drizzly Monday, are some random favorites to ponder.  Quietly.

Friday, May 21, 2010

F&C Rewind: Culinary Myths; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of a Chef's Opinion

I'm often asked where I like to eat or what I like to eat on my night off.  So, let's just cut to the chase, and I will answer that:  I like to eat at home, and my favorite meal is a roasted whole chicken with root vegetables and golden brown Yukon potatoes, with a bottle of Rhone red.  Oh, and crusty bread.  Second place is Bolognese over bigoli (pasta), again, at home.  Red, again.

The part that most people have a problem with is believing that.  "Why would you want to cook on your night off?" Or, "Chicken? How boring!"

Whenever I get invited to someone's house for dinner (and it's not often, gang), I get the invariable, "Oh, well it's not going to be anything special; certainly not by YOUR standards."  Or my favorite, "Oh- I'm so intimidated, I'm just going to make a simple little's nothing, really!"  Awesome. Just cut the crap about me casting aspersions from my ivory tower, and feed me.  I'm hungry.

Ask any chef and they will likely agree with me:  we are happy when ANYONE cooks for us.  And, we do like to cook for ourselves and others on our day off, because it's entirely different.  It's for friends and family, usually, and there is no pressure, clock-ticking or bullshit involved.  Most often, it's with some inexpensive bottles of wine and a hunk of cheese to snack on while doing it.  See?  No silver domes, no homemade pate en croute or foie gras three ways.  So enough; it makes us feel like we give off some aura that says, "My brie doesn't stink."

So, what to make?
Tips on feeding the guys in white:  The more comfort-foody it is, or any recipe from your mother or grandmother, the bigger the hit.  Ethnic food is a big bonus, too.  I wouldn't try a recipe to impress if you've never made it before.  We don't do it to you, so let's just agree that is out.  Pasta is always a hit.  Just don't say you saw it on Rachel.  We'll be looking for something wrong.

Culinary myth #2: All chef's would rather eat sushi.  A: True.  We cannot get enough of it.  We would eat it every day, all day.  When we're tired, feeling a little peckish, and wanna grab a bite and a beer; SUSHI is our first choice.  When we wanna splurge and treat ourselves; SUSHI.  When our spouse is out of town and we really don't wanna cook; SUSHI.  In word association analysis, you say, "sex", we say "SUSHI".

Look- I'm not saying we DO eat it all the time; it's too damn expensive.  But if we could- well.  There it is.

Myth #3:  Chef's eat everythingA:  False.  For example, exception to myth #2; uni.  'Not down with the sea urchin, man.  Also, I am one of several chefs who, inexplicably, cannot and will not eat coconut.  There are foods I don't love, and I'll still cook with them.  But, sweetened, chewy, grainy coconut is not going in my mouth.  Coconut milk?  Love it.  Ask your chef friend what food it is they will not eat.  You'll be surprised.  And if it's coconut, I wanna know about it!

Myth #4 All Chef's Have Tempers.  A:  Mostly, true.  But let's clarify that.  It's how you handle that temper.  I've always seen it as a maturity issue.  A screaming, yelling chef who can't control his temper has issues with control of his/her own.  Those in control and confident don't need to fly off the handle just to get attention and respect or results.  Even when frustrated, the bigger picture indicates that this too shall pass.  Not to mention, I prefer the closed door session, anyway.  I'd rather resolve the problem one on one, while creating the most amount of personal anxiety for the recipient as possible without raising my voice and behaving like an ass.  Have I yelled?  Yes.  Will I yell again? Yes.  Like the gym teacher says, "I yell because I care."  Throwing things?  LOL! Really, it's strictly reality TV antics, guys, or the chef has a tiny...spatula.  NEXT!

Myth #5 A Chef Cooks Your Meal, and Every Meal at a Restaurant  A: NOT.
People really think we are standing back there with our hands on everything.  Even in the smallest of restaurants, a chef can't prepare every single ingredient, cook every dish and assemble every plate.  A chef wears many hats.  The first is that of cook (or should be).  But typically, we are teachers (and babysitters) and we must make sure our cooks have the knowledge, confidence and tools to do their jobs.  The best pupils, therefore, produce food most like their chef would.  We also make sure your portions are consistent, taste for consistency of flavor, sweep the floor, drop a few baskets of fries when the fry-guy gets weeded.  We clean up constantly after lazy people.  And then, we find time to have the nerve to change the menu to keep it interesting for the guest, while having to build on a set of skills we've taught the cooks so they can execute the dishes.
You want to truly compliment a chef?  Tell them how good your meal was on a night he wasn't working.  Getting people to cook like you do, see what you see and have the same sense of passion and urgency as if the guest was sitting in your living room, that's a challenge.  I've had people tell me their food didn't taste the same as when I was there.  That's a CHEF FAIL.  Even though they might think it's a compliment.
How high you aim and where you set your sights determines whether you can consistently execute at that level, and ultimately if you succeed.  Some of the most talented cooks in this country are guys you've never even heard of.  They exhibit a discipline that is remarkable, with a huge sense of pride to match.  They get the credit for cooking your meal, day after day, night after night.  We get the credit for making sure it's exactly like we would cook it.

Finally, EGO: If there wasn't a healthy sense of pride of accomplishment, we might not be wowed by some of the world's incredible restaurants and the chefs who built them.  If there wasn't a desire to be the best, to make no mistakes, lead not follow- we couldn't come close to having perfection in a meal.  Ego is nothing more than walking the walk.  Some do, some don't.  My FAVORITE chef joke goes like this:

"What's the difference between a chef and God?  God doesn't think he's a chef."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

By The Book: A Cook's List of Essentials

I've lost track of how many cookbooks I own.  Yet, I always know when one is "missing".  I do know that as I get older, I buy fewer.  But, the other night I thought that it had been some time since I pulled out a cookbook just to peruse the contents for pleasure.  I grabbed the Frog Commissary Cookbook, an oldie, but a goodie.  I had actually just gotten a copy, so while it was published in 1985, it was new to me.  

By all standards of what a cookbook should be, it's one of the best.  It has simple, succinct recipes with quick, informative descriptions of ingredients, methods and dishes that may not have been common knowledge in the "decade of greed".  My favorite part is the "how to" tips in the margins.  I think it's useful to know, for example, the items and quantities to set up a proper bar for a cocktail party of 50.  Or, the essentials of setting up a raw bar, hors d'oeuvres buffet or continental breakfast.  This is real, practical stuff.  The style of food is eclectic and not pretentious.  But, by today's standards, the book would never sell more than 1000 copies.  

You see, it wasn't designed for the coffee table.  More like, it was designed to put your coffee cup on.  Nor does it have full page, glossy, sexy food porn shots.  It doesn't praise the farmer who delivers their eggs, it doesn't feature drawings or paintings from staff, and it doesn't cost $55.  It's a true utilitarian cookbook.  

The Moosewood Cookbook of old is another with easily-soiled, coloring book quality pages, and matching hokey drawings of dancing broccoli from a time when vegetarians weren't so annoying (yeah, I said it).  Another paperback, it may be the gold standard for diverse, non-meat recipes that runs the full gamut of appetizers to desserts.  And, I dare say they're healthy, too.

The Silver Palate is another crossover book that should sit on the shelf of the serious cook.  It too is from an age when the author sought to give not just a broad spectrum of current, creative and healthful recipes, but it came from an accomplished cook who, like Julia Child and James Beard, wrote for the everyday cook.

So, why then, do I have so many cookbooks if I already know how to cook?  I'm trying to figure that out myself.  After much consideration, beyond the obvious answer of "recipes", my collection provides inspiration.

I own every cookbook from Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter, because I admire their style, their philosophy, their creativity and probably above all else,  their discipline.  I can pick up one of their books and feel their unique style ooze out of a phrase of admonishment.  To prepare food at that level requires a certain work ethic and commitment on the part of the chef.  At times, I'll open the books and page through them simply to look at their pictures, presentation or what ingredients they combine.  Maybe even peruse a particular season to get ideas.  Often, I just like to revisit an idea.  But, I rarely prop them open and "cook from them".  They are conceptual books meant for the lover of food and art.  This is the style of cookbook most common on the shelves today. 
In this same genre, I have the Inn at Little Washington books.  Along with Trotter and Keller, they tell of the building of their brand:  the loyalty of their staff, faithful customers and what a unique dining experience they are.  It's like buying the program at the ballgame.  You saw the show, now take the glossy keepsake home for years of enjoyment to come.

Another section of my culinary library is built on the "must haves".  My go-to book for classical Italian is Marcella Hazan, my Japanese, Nobu.  Baking, CIA and Cheese, Steve Jenkins.  Some genres require more than one, and as a Francophile, I own no less than 20 French cookbooks.  Paris cooking is covered by Patricia Wells, while country cooking is beautifully and completely rendered in Anne Willan's recent Country Cooking of France.  I have a rudimentary, yet useful book of recipes from the Basque region (in French).  I have the masters; Blanc, Doucasse, Guerard, Bocuse, Troisgros, Girardet.  Then, cross over into the US for the expats, and I have Ripert, Boulud, Robouchon, Richard, Jean-Georges and Pepin.  

Recipes from Da Fiore of Venice focuses on the gorgeous seafood and regional ingredients of the Veneto.  While the publisher BK (from England) has put out several primers on ethnic cuisine, of which Indian Cuisine has been the most useful to me.

Saveur's three book series on American, Italian and French cuisine is a must for their "real" recipes, grounded in tradition and authenticity.  It doesn't hurt that they have some of the most beautiful photography of any food magazine today.  

Back when I was just a waiter aspiring to take over the world, I bought a copy of Larousse, Gastronomique.  It is the mother of all culinary tomes, both encyclopedia and recipe collection at once.  It has entries on Antonin Careme and Julia Child.  It has the origins of salade nicoise and the proper way to make a vegetable "charlotte".  It's very...old school.  If, on the other hand, you need a reference guide, whether your a newbie or want to check your spelling on a menu, The Food Lover's Companion is the most user-friendly resource on the market.  There are three editions, two editions of the Wine Lover's Companion and now the Cheese Lover's Companion, the last husband-wife collaboration before the founder, Sharon Tyler Herbst passed away just a few years ago.

I suppose if there were one book that was a game-changer for me, it would have to be Gray Kunz "The Elements of Taste".  For an advanced cook, you long for a collection of thoughts and ideas that encompasses and sums up the building and layering of flavors from a conceptual standpoint with examples to back it up.  When this book was released, I read it from cover to cover.  I began to think differently in the way I wrote menus, created dishes, the way I seasoned food and more importantly, the way I corrected my seasonings.  The book is broken into four categories:  Tastes That Push, Tastes That Pull, Tastes That Punctuate and Taste Platforms.  And, rather than arranging food by course or primary ingredient, they identify 14 basic tastes (salty, sweet, floral, herbal, "funky," meaty, etc.).  The binding on my copy is beaten up, the pages slightly stained with wine and demi-glace.  It's the one book I don't loan out anymore, and it's because it's not in print anymore.  New copies on Amazon start at $355 each.

I have several books on only one subject from, pancakes and foie gras, to truffles and duck.  Soups, sauces, shellfish and seafood, mostly by James Peterson.  You need Harold Magee to answer those nagging questions about which boils faster, hot or cold water?  Or, how to hard-boil an egg without the green sulfuric ring around the yolk.  It goes without saying, but Beard and Child belong on your shelves, and should be read.  Craig Claiborne, Deborah Madison and Mario Batali have earned the right.  There are so many other great books- all of which have contributed to the enormous array of talent we experience today.  

Whatever reason you like buying a cookbook, it is personal and you don't owe it to anyone to explain why.  These particular books have broadened my knowledge and creativity in the culinary arts, and I hope you find the list of use.  No matter what your level of cooking, is there ONE cookbook that changed your life?      

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Children of the De-Evolution

It seemed inevitable that with the growing education of middle America in all things food, that it would eventually trickle down to our kids.  One of the most recent stories to reach the news (and in the form of a debate, no surprise) is whether kids "belong" in fine dining establishments.

There was a time when people believed that children should be seen and not heard.  They were fed hot dogs, peanut butter and jelly and buttered noodles, and then their parents went out for their anniversary or birthday to eat chateaubriand, even though they couldn't pronounce it. 

Indeed, there was also a time when there were many true fine dining restaurants, too.  The kind that made careful choices of their linens, Bordeaux selection and staffing based on one thing, the discerning tastes of their diners. Those restaurants still exist in part, mostly in metropolitan areas.  But, the days of white table cloth restaurants competing for the title of "best restaurant" have passed.  These days it's not fashionable or economical to eat in a fine dining restaurant.  Or own one, either. 

Even our definition of fine dining has changed significantly.  The term could almost be interchanged with formal dining.  Those linens I mentioned had a high thread count, with nary a poly-cotton blend among them (it showed bad taste).  To offer Bordeaux or any old world wine wasn't enough; to show you were a serious contender, there had to be multiple chateaux and vintages that showed the depth and breadth of your cellar.  And the guest knew it.  The staffing?  Well, let's just say chain dining has properly killed fine dining and the formal, career waiter.  

There are still a few establishments left today that breed their servers as if they were in boarding school.  What the hell am I talking about?  Most older operators know that you can teach someone to serve a cocktail, take an order, ring it in and properly open a bottle of wine.  But, what you can't teach is good manners.  You can't teach your staff to innately know there is a line you don't cross with a guest.  You were either raised a certain way, or you weren't. 

Treating the guest with respect, patience and an all around good nature was the number one unspoken prerequisite for getting a job in a fine dining restaurant.  Having the thick skin to deal with persnickety requests, over-served codgers, diva mistresses and self-important dowagers was held in higher regard than owning six pens that match (and light up!).  It may be referred to as "old school" today, but those who know are nodding their heads right now.  Lord, just knowing the difference between a soup spoon, a boullion spoon and a dessert spoon would be my test for an aspiring fine dining server today.  They might hemorrhage if I gave them a fish knife or fork!  There rarely is a butter knife these days, and they're not needed.  Between restaurants having to cut costs to be able to turn a profit, and the passing of old traditions like setting the table with all the proper flatware, stemware and show plates (a.k.a. chargers), it's no wonder the old guard are like the last of the jedi.

Not too long ago, young, inexperienced waiters started out as bus persons to learn from being in the environment of a formal restaurant and shadowing the lead server.  Even now, this American version of an apprentice is a position all but gone from restaurants. A bus person would earn partial tips and a sub-minimum wage.  So, if you take away all the ruffles and flourishes of fine dining, the server has more time to clear and reset their own tables.  Bye-bye bus boys.  A food-runner, on the other hand, is now in high demand.  They stand at the ready in the kitchen and shuttle food to the dining room and deposit at the guest's place setting.  Then it's back to the kitchen to run more.  They are worth their pay, because they speed up the dining pace. 

No, what we have today is a new breed of dining- fast casual. There's no need for all the fuss of decades past.  Today's style of dining and serving is chummy.  It's folksy and self-deprecating.  It's approachable in a way that says, "We wouldn't dare offend you as much to imply you weren't properly dressed or suited to dine with us."  In short- one size fits all- please deposit your money in any way you see fit.  And, from an operator's view point, can you really afford to turn anyone away?  

The national average of profit margin for a full service restaurant is 10 cents on every dollar.  Some do better, some do worse.  Above 20% is extraordinarily rare.  With the cost of energy, food and spirits rising, the only way to keep that margin is to raise prices or cut costs.  86 the butter knives. 

Yes, there are those out there still practicing their art.  There are those that are the last of the golden years of dining.  White gloved servers lifting silver cloches from bone china, all in unison as the guest hoists their sterling silverware to dig in.  And they're not all white elephants, either.  Even today, new restaurants open with $30 entrees, vertical selections of cult cabernets and floral budgets.  But, they usually don't intend on making a return on their investment.  An old restaurant joke goes, "How do you make a million dollars in the restaurant business?  Start with two."

The trip down memory lane was necessary, therefore, to answer the question, "Do kids and fine dining mix?"  Let's go back to the credo of the restaurant manager:  good manners start at home.  If parents take the time to teach their children what is proper behavior in a public place, they can expect good results.  If a child cultivates a taste for foods their parents eat, and as a result comes to appreciate that a trip out to a restaurant yields great rewards, and oh- ice cream!- they're going to get it.  Trust me.
On the other hand, if the parents decide they're going to use Lacroix at the Rittenhouse in Philadelphia or Per Se or La Bernadin in New York as a litmus test for their toddler's road test in etiquette, it's not only poor judgment, they're asking for the caustic stares and indigestion that comes from getting up and down 10 times during your meal.  But, practice common sense.  Just because you can afford to spend $45 on a steak for junior doesn't mean you should.

Now that I've eulogized fine dining, I'm not necessarily ready to bury it.  I never believed for once that it would go completely away.  It's just hiding and holding back until we fully understand what it is we've given up with informal dining and the chain mentality.  For every franchise owner out there, there is an operator who started in the business at the bottom and worked all the way up.  They, too, know the economic viability these days for formal restaurant start-up.  But, they, like myself and many others out there sit patiently waiting.  The day shall return when a new generation will learn about the ways of the past.  And there will be a place for the gentle sophistication of the formal, fine dining restaurant in this country again.  And a child shall lead them.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Just Like Honey

“Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology? We shop at home, we surf the web, at the same time, we feel emptier, lonelier and more cut off from each other than at any other time in human history.” from the novel (and film) "Contact" by Carl Sagan

Late last night, when I deleted my Facebook account, the captcha (random confirmation) words were "truffles out".  I kid you not.  If ever there were a sign from the cosmos, this was it.  I had to stare at it for a few minutes, completely amused and somewhat mystified.

I suppose I was asking for it.  I so resisted joining the "collective", only because I truly didn't miss what I didn't have.  My friends told me it would be a great way to promote my blog.  It seemed like the right thing to do; for an egotist.  As a reader of Ayn Rand, I didn't mind the "ego" part.  I had a lot to say, and I wanted to share my passion and love for all things food, wine, beer and creative thoughts alike.

But, something crept in.  Not what I expected.  It wasn't an addiction, as I know it.  It wasn't a fad.  It wasn't even vanity.  Ok- maybe a little.  But, ultimately, it was a trap.  I began to think that the only way people would listen to me, appreciate me, notice me- was through Facebook.  It makes me feel a little ashamed, now.  Posting on FB is supposed to be like stepping into a virtual town square and screaming, "HEY! Check out what I'm thinking!  'Listen' to this!  'Watch' that, 'join' us!  But, in reality, it was more like doing stand-up at an open mic, unable to see if anyone is in front of you listening, yawning or sleeping.  You long for a "like" or emoticon of approval. 
It began with the naive thinking that sooner or later we were all destined to become a part of the hive.  But, when I began to search for the people I knew had consciously avoided joining and then failed in finding them, I was silently jealous. 

Since creating an account last September, I've read some of the most interesting viewpoints on FB, and been exposed to some of the most idiotic and ignorant rants at the same time.  I met some wonderful new people and introduced some people to each other.  I've laughed my ass off at some of the most ridiculous videos and comments.  And, when there was nothing interesting going on in my real life, I surfed other peoples comments, profiles, photos- but, that's the whole point, right?  So, why then did it feel so unsavory?  When did it go from being fun to feeling dirty?  It was like being stuck in the mall, but without the fountains and Cinnabon.

It was a tremendous platform for advocacy.  And lunacy.  There were 1.7 million people who "liked" the prayer for Obama to Die, yet only 800,000 (at my last check) to petition FB to remove the page for its blatant racist and hateful bent.  My most memorable experience was watching a particular page climb in membership from 750,000 fans to just over 1 million in less than a half hour!  Each time you hit refresh, it would climb exponentially.  The page was about as harmless and vacuous as you can imagine:  "If I can get 1 million fans, my sister said she will name her baby 'Megatron'".  The site now has 1.7 million "fans".  The baby, a boy, is due in August.   

People would cut and paste "status" updates that advocated awareness for anything from special education and autism, to spousal abuse, human rights and cancer.  It was the platform for me to create my very own page condemning the anti-immigration law recently passed in Arizona.  It raised awareness for approximately 70 people who joined.  I posted information and updates daily from articles and websites both conservative and liberal, mainstream and private, ethnic, domestic and foreign.  I learned a lot on the subject and still feel strongly about my views.  But, it was a bit like preaching to the choir.  I knew the people who joined the page were intelligent, compassionate people who had a firm grasp on morality and altruism.  So, who was I hoping to convert?  The person who would rather feed their virtual guppie than discover the US Constitution being flouted daily?  Not gonna happen.

To connect with others in my field, it was about as ideal as it could get.  Chefs work a lot.  To be able to share ideas, photos, specials, inside jokes, and gripes while at work or after a shift, was the ideal.  And in many cases, I found myself visiting their establishments to say "hello" in person and eat their marvelous creations, drink their spirits.  And I'll continue to do so.

I hated high school.  It was never a secret.  So when I found so many people coming out of the creases of the internet to be FB friends, I did so with caution. Why would these people want to know about my life after all these years?  Did I really want to know about theirs?  Let's just say that the most ironic part of friending former classmates was that of the 50 or 60 I reconnected with, I found that the same 7 or 8 people I regularly hung out with and genuinely enjoyed being with in school were the same 7 or 8 I shared regular conversations, jokes, stories and photos with on Facebook.  I will miss the sarcastic and subversive posts of my friend Steve.  Picking up with our friendship in the last six months was like we had never stopped.  Yet, we've already decided to get together (with a "new" chef friend, no less!) and reminisce over some good food and cold beer.  I'll miss occasional updates from my former art teacher, though it goes without saying that we'll stay in touch through emails and possibly even visits.  My buddy and pal, Penny, and I have already met up and shot the breeze, and I've no reason to doubt we will again, after so many years, some shit is still funny!

But, despite the boundless nature of FB, the ability to connect with people from all around the world felt the same as connecting with someone I just saw an hour ago at work.  It became soulless.  The fact that most recent comments, messages or posts of interest were electronically whisked right into my pocket made it even less interesting.  Normally, I'd be bowled over to see photos of food from the former sous chef I worked for in France; but, something got lost in translation (and it wasn't the French).  At times I would sit and stare at the screen the same way Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson would look out their hotel window in the movie of the same name.  With millions of people zipping about in a city that never seems to come down from a neon buzz, it was about as exciting for them as watching a lava lamp.  Sober.

Keeping up on how the business of Facebook was evolving and how it was slowly, incrementally implementing their mission statement to make the business of information gathering profitable became a daily exercise for me.  I tried to believe that I had the right to my privacy, when at the same time there were approximately 270 people I was sharing my morning breakfast with and digital moods.  My sister sent me an email about a site called Spokeo.  She explained that just by typing in your name, email address or phone number, all the information that you thought was secure on websites like Amazon, Facebook, blogs, message boards that require sign-in or memberships- it's all available for anyone to view online.  For only $2.95 a month, you could get a membership for a year that gave you full access to the personal information of just about anyone who has ever used a computer.  And in some cases, there is information that is shared from sites that aren't even online (census).

The business model for Spokeo isn't so much to get people to buy access to other people's information.  Oh no- that's so 1990's.  When people see that someone is pimping their personal and private information online, the immediate response is not "who got it and how did they get it?", it's "how do I get it OFF this site??".  And lo and behold, what does Spokeo offer just below the memberships that legalize identity theft??  A product by Reputation Defender called MyPrivacy.
"Delete private information from Spokeo, Peoplefinders, People Search and other online databases using My Privacy."  
Talk about good cop, bad cop?!?  You can also go to the bottom of that same page and delete yourself from Spokeo for FREE.  Just carefully follow the directions.  If you still can't do it, Google "how to...".

I suppose I was really never pushed over the edge by something like Spokeo or that someone could get or would want my credit score.  I mean, really?  But, having considered deleting my account and even threatening to do so a few times on FB (an empty threat if ever there was one), it seemed the right time to end the Facebook Experiment.  It only required my FB password and typing the randomized phrase "truffles out". *delete*

And then, there was a virtual silence.  A great, glorious silence so golden, it was if all the engines of every car on the information super-highway had stalled, coming to a screeching halt and then- were silenced forever.  I stepped away from the computer in the most confident and contented way, toward the front door and walked out into the Spring night.  I stopped and took the deepest breath- and then exhaled.  And, then I smiled.

I was Bill Murray coming out of the elevator of the hotel and walking into the crowded streets of Tokyo.  Hitting "delete" was like chasing Scarlett in that last moment before he might never see her again, and in that instant- as if on cue- I could hear in my head the echoing snare drums and the impudent reverberating guitar from the opening bars of the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey" as the credits rolled:

"Listen to the girl
As she takes on half the world
Moving up and so alive
In her honey dripping beehive
It's good, so good, it's so good
So good"

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Feeling Crabby

If there is one item I could live without ever ordering, preparing or seeing on a menu again, it's the crab cake.  It's become the most egregiously made and bastardized dish throughout the mid-Atlantic, with variations so vast, it's no wonder locals are so visceral in their opinions on the subject. 

For me, it begins with what people come to expect in a crab cake.  If there is anything other than boulder-sized chunks of crab in front of them, they complain of "too much filler".  Ughgh.  I'll get back to that, but I think it must stem from what people don't know about making these local delicacies.  The crab cake should be primarily crab with seasonings that complement the sweetness of the meat.  It should be moist and tender, properly seasoned, and it should hold together as it slides off a spatula and onto your plate or bun.  

Smarter cooks know that the fewer ingredients you use in a dish, the more you must respect the ones you do use. All those lovely lumps of precious crabmeat are held in trapezoidal compartments within the crab, and they're delicately extracted and separated into and sold as the valuable categories of jumbo lump, backfin, lump and claw meat.  Experienced crab eaters would never discriminate and abandon all the briny goodness that comes from eating all the various types of meats from their crustacean cronies.  But, try using something other than jumbo lump, and the average Joe screams heresy.  They are unaware that the only way to keep a crab cake bound together is to use complementary ingredients that help hold them into the signature "cake" form.  The intense and sweet flavor is often given from using a combination of the jumbo AND claw meat.  The delicate nature of the claw/leg meat (like that of the Jonah crab) also helps to bind when mixed with the base.  So, my ill-informed filler-fanatics, crab claw meat that binds, is still crab.  It's a wise use of crab meat and if you are going to produce them in volume, it helps keep them at a reasonable price.

Typically a little big of egg, bread or mousse combination is used to help bind these two flavorful types of crab meat.  Egg alone will not do the trick, but adding fresh white, doughy bread crumbs, like from Wonderbread, help hold the crab together.  Taking the protein of shrimp or scallops and combining in a processor with egg white and heavy cream will give you a delicate mousse that is both flavorful and does the trick nicely of binding the crab.  Beyond that, what else you put in is a matter of taste.  Avoid putting in anything that will detract from the main flavor or cause too much moisture or dryness, and you've got your own personal version of the dish that made Maryland famous.  So, why then do so many of them suck?

For all the crab cakes I loathe, it is mostly because they are mass produced for a homogenized appeal.  Each chef has their own idea of what a good crab cake is, and very often it's one that appeals to the masses.  Nothing wrong with selling a lot of crab cakes, I suppose.  Hey, Yugo sold a lot of cars, too.  But, I'm long since past ordering one in a restaurant, simply because I know I will be disappointed.  Give me a softshell crab, on the other hand, and it successfully captures all the things I love about a properly made crab cake:  crispy, toothsome texture, held together nicely in it's own natural sauce and it's as about as "pure" as it gets.  Slap on a little remoulade or equally gooey-tart sauce on a toasted, buttery bun, and my hankering for a sandwich of fresh crab is satisfactorily sated.

I don't hate the crab cake.  Really.  And I'm certainly not being snobby about it.  In fact, I love them so much, it's out of respect for their uniqueness that I sound off.  So, I guess you could say that I am being a bit purist about it all.  Hey, I'm allowed!  And, just to show you how much I care, I'm going to share my recipe as long as you promise to make them for only two people.  Four, at the most.  And not another crab cake more.

The main concept behind making this version of the crab cake for only a few people is that it forces you to concentrate on following the recipe and not cut corners.  Additionally, when you've mastered making these, you'll feel as though each time you make them again, it will be for people you really love and want to spoil.  You'll be giving them something they can't get anywhere for any price!  Now you know why some chefs don't give up recipes.  So, for you, my faithful Fork-N-Corkers, I am willing to make an exception, all in the name of respect for that little puck of tide-water goodness: the regal crab cake.
Robear's Secret Crab Cake Recipe
Makes four 5 oz. crab cakes
  • 8 oz. fresh jumbo lump crab meat
  • 8 oz. fresh crab claw meat
  • 1 small onion, small dice
  • 2 ribs celery, small dice
  • 4 oz. whole butter
  • 3 leaves fresh basil
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
  • 1 dash or two of Tabasco
  • 1 dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise 
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
  • 2 pieces fresh white bread, broken into small pieces
  • Salt and White pepper

In 2 oz. of butter gently cook the celery and onions until soft.  Do not brown.  Add the Old Bay and basil.  Remove the mixture including the butter and set aside to cool.  

Combine the wet ingredients in a bowl and mix until just combined.  This is your base.  After you pick through your crab to remove shells, you will use it to bind the crab together along with the bread crumbs.  Season with salt and dashes of white pepper.  TASTE!  If you feel as though you could eat the whole thing right there, it's ready.  Fold the crab, fresh bread crumbs and some of the base together until it can hold it's own shape.  Resist using the entire mixture.  You are meant to have extra, but this is where people screw up:  when they add all the base, they try to compensate by adding more bread to dry it up, and this is where the perception of "too much filler" comes from.  You can always add more if you really need it, but the key concept here is to barely bind those ingredients together without turning it into a seafood meatball.

Form four cakes onto a plate, cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.  This is also a key step: don't skip it!

When it's time to cook, turn your oven to 355F.  In a non-stick pan, put a couple tablespoon of oil and heat the pan to medium hot (only lightly smoking).  Use a spatula to gently lift the crab cakes and place them in the pan.  Add the remaining 2 oz of butter now.  First, the pan will sizzle, then it will subside.  It will build back up to a hiss first (that's the steam) and then finally return to a sizzle.  When you see that the edges are beginning to brown, use your spatula and with both hands slowly turn the cakes.  Place the whole pan in the oven for 12-15 minutes.  Serve immediately from the pan.  

Open some pinot blanc, Macon chardonnay or other white to complement the sweetness of the crab.  Bon appetit! 


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