The author at home

Monday, June 13, 2011

Buying Herbs From Dr. Know

Dateline: Saugerties, NY.

Just yesterday in the late afternoon, I finished washing garden dirt from my fingers after planting this summer’s new crop: lemon thyme, basil, purple basil, Thai basil, tarragon, rosemary, tomatillos, Japanese eggplant, and thirty plants worth of four varieties of tomatoes. The process has taken several days, beset as I was by rain. And then, last night, we were visited by an apocalyptic hailstorm, succeeded by more rain and high winds. The carnage from the hail left a handful of the tomato plants, one purple basil bush, and a tomatillo stalk lying broken, wilted, and dead in the garden mud.

I studied the corpses this morning and I have to admit that some part of me was grateful. Not grateful that the damage might have been more catastrophic to our 5’ x 18’ patch of agriculture (although I was relieved about that), nor that the economic toll was only about $4 worth of plants (and I was gratified by that, too). I was grateful for this: the slain tomatoes needed replacing and this meant I could head over to Woodstock and grab new saplings at Sunfrost, a locally sourced, organic vegetable store managed by Gary Miller, aka Dr. Know, aka guitarist for the Bad Brains, the best live band I’ve ever seen and one of the greatest outfits of all time.

(Bad Brains in the early 80s.
Dr. Know is the one up front, stroking his beard.)

Pretty much any description of the Bad Brains involves a density of superlatives: the most ferocious/wild/spirited/tight/kinetic. Anyone aware of them (and if you’ve ever paid attention to underground music, you know who the Bad Brains are) usually couches the terms of the discussion in tones of awe and reverence. Ask the Beastie Boys. Ask Henry Rollins and Ian Mackaye. Ask Ric Ocasek. Go ahead and ask Madonna—she signed them to her Maverick record label in 1995, though that worked out somewhat poorly. I first heard them as a teen, hormonally-blasted, awkward beyond measure in my raw-boned, spindle-shanked body, just dimly becoming aware that there was a whole other world hidden within the world. The music was insane and, to a lily-white New Hampshire kid, the fact that they were four Rastafarians was the corker to an already mind-rending package. All that vigor and velocity, with the Armageddon displosians of the Rasta faith. A couple decades later, I still listen regularly and the songs still make detonations inside my skull.

For grainy video proof, check out this version of Banned In DC from 1982 and a 1987 version of I.

This saga really began two of summers ago, at about 6:00 in the evening, where I warmed a seat at the bar of New World Home Cooking , a Saugerties restaurant owned by chef Ric Orlando. I had just introduced myself to Orlando and we’d sat talking about cooking and kitchens for a few minutes. The restaurant door opened and from out of the gloaming came a man. The man sat down to my left, a slightly older, gentle-appearing guy, with his hair tucked into a brown knit Rasta-styled hat. He placed an order. Orlando called out a “hello” to him and the two bantered for a moment. The guy looked familiar. Really, really familiar. It took a second to dawn on me.

After finishing his drink, he slid off his stool and left the building.

“Let me ask you something,” I said to Orlando. “That he a musician?”

“Yeah, he is. He’s the guitarist for—“

I cut him off. I was getting excited. The amplitude of my voice ratcheted up. “Is he the guitarist for the Bad Brains?”

“Yeah. He’s a Bad Brain.” I sat down on the stool just moments ago vacated by Dr. Know. I hoped there might be some metaphysical transference of energies. I waited. I waited intensely. Seconds later, I felt no different. So I meditated on how I had just encountered someone who’d brought me so many hours of pleasure and adrenaline. Ric Orlando continued. “He also manages Sunfrost up on 212 outside of Woodstock. Have you ever been there?”

“Once, but, man, I am going back tomorrow.” When I got home, I told Nelly the tale and we resolved to drive the ten miles to Sunfrost.

We arrived in the early afternoon to find Dr. Know at the edge of the Sunfrost parking lot with a hose in hand, addressing himself to steel shelves filled with herbs, vegetable seedlings, and flowers. For a second, I experienced a major disjunct at seeing this man—capable of wrenching utter thunder and blazing motion from the inner workings of his guitar—at home among all this newly sprouted vegetation. But then again, this was Woodstock, and it started making an absolute sense.

“Are you going to say anything to him?” Nelly asked. We were both kind of gawking at Dr. Know in wonderment. When she was 14, dating a much older ne’er-do-well music producer, Nelly had actually met the Bad Brains in New York City and had hung out with them in a recording studio. Their bassist, Darryl Jenifer, had tried to talk her into breaking the relationship off for her own good. Nelly seemed no less impressed watching Dr. Know water his plants than I was.

“How can I not?” I said. We got out of the car and I approached. “Excuse me,” I called out. He stopped and turned to face me. “Are you, by any chance, Gary Miller?”

Dr. Know looked startled. Then he looked hostile. Then he looked like he wished he was anywhere else. He dropped the hose, said, “Yes, I’m Gary Miller,” and went straight into the store. I felt awkward. Then I felt bad.

Nelly and I perused the herbs, selected rosemary and thyme plants, and went inside to look at the vegetables. While Nelly shopped, I stood in front of a pile of cabbages, right in the stream of the air conditioner. Dr. Know came out of a door across the room and moved toward me, looking down at a clipboard. I said one more time, “Excuse me” and he glanced up and got that flashing series of looks on his face again.

“I’m sorry I interrupted you before,” I said. “I didn’t mean to intrude, I just wanted to say that you guys were the most amazing live band I’ve ever seen.”

“Oh,” he said. His whole stance relaxed. The hand holding his clipboard dropped down to his waist. “Oh. Man, the way you came at me, saying my name like that, I thought you were FBI or something.”

“No, just a fan. My name’s Jonathan.” We shook hands. After a few minutes, he took leave and Nelly and I took off. The next trip I made that summer, he wasn’t there. Last summer, we missed him on each of the several trips we made to buy herbs to grow in what was then our miniscule garden.

And then this year we went all out, excavating a much larger plane of land behind the garage for growing purposes. Which is how I found myself standing next to Dr. Know a few days ago as he helped me find the Thai basil, tomatillos, etc. from among his many outdoor shelves of plants. He didn’t remember me at all, but I didn’t care.

“No,” he was saying, “We don’t have any epazote this year. Sorry. No one bought it last year so we didn’t grow any this year. No, I’m sorry, we don’t have savory, either. The Japanese eggplants are right over here—” he moved to a shelf a few feet over and picked up a couple flats—“And you said you wanted Thai basil? It’s still pretty young so I’ll run to the greenhouse to get some for you.”

“Thank you very much. I appreciate it.”

“Any time, man.” He darted off.

And now I need to go back to Woodstock again, because of the rain and hail—not quite the fire and brimstone of Rasta theology, but no less a devastation to those poor few plants in the garden—and buy more herbs from Dr. Know. I guess I’m still after that metaphysical transference of energies.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Eat the Rich--PT.1

When I was in cooking school, fellow students would find out I was from New York City and make the inquiries: Did you ever eat at Bouley? Did you ever eat at Daniel? Did you ever eat at Per Se?

“No,” I answered every single time, not without some regret. “I’ve never eaten at any of those places.”

“Why not? You live in New York...”

I’d think about what I could nominally call an income, and how much was eroded every month by rent. I’d say, “Yeah, exactly. I live in New York.”

I spent two years exposed to culinary techniques, two years bent over a stove, face vulcanizing in the heat, trying to grab the rudiments and make them second nature. As I learned and progressed through the program, I recognized by watching my peers that cooking is like film, music, art, lit and just about anything else: there’s a wide cache of low talent out there, an even larger pool of the mediocre, a narrow echelon of the pretty good, and a head-of-a-pin sized group of the great.

A person can never read “The Wasteland” too many times, never over-hear Coltrane’s Ascension. Back in college, I paid $1.95 for the edition of The Wasteland and Other Poems I still read. I paid $20 in 1998 for the two-disk set of The Major Works of John Coltrane, which has both versions of Ascension, and I listened to one of the disks not five days ago for the thousandth time. This is a pretty good return on a pretty minimal investment.

During the cooking school stint, I learned who was great in the hippodrome of culinaria. Like pretty much everyone else who isn’t just being obstinate and contradictory, I came to see Thomas Keller, owner of the French Laundry and Per Se, as something of a near-deity. Paging through his cookbooks, looking at his menus—it’s seeing a philosophy in action. Just to take a single recipe from the French Laundry Cookbook: Chesapeake Bay Soft-Shell Crab “Sandwich.” Keller makes a sort of tartar/gribiche sauce out of hard-boiled yolks, olive oil, cornichons, and their juice. A soft-shelled crab gets de-clawed, cleaned, seasoned, dredged, and fried in clarified butter that is “hot enough to sizzle when the crabs are added but not so hot that it pops.” Its claws are added a few moments later. Whoever is cooking it has already made brioche croutons and confited tomatoes, and washed a ¼ cup of baby arugula. A spoonful of sauce goes down on the plate, topped with the crouton, then the crab body. A piece of tomato goes down next, followed by the claws, and a crown of arugula. Sprinkle the whole thing with a couple of capers and serve. Maybe, to the novitiate, this doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but understand that in the French Laundry’s hands, each step, from seasoning the crab to making those croutons brings a surreal amount of technique to bear on it. The crab is going to have the exact degree of salt it needs, without the surfeit or debit of a single flake. It’s going to be one nice looking crouton. Every leaf of the arugula has been hand-selected. Every element will be the best, the most, the perfect. And the flavors and textures will reflect it.

Eat the Rich--PT.2

I just looked at the menu for tonight’s service at Per Se. A pair of selections: Broccoli "Velouté" with Sunchoke "Flan," Caramelized Sunchoke, Broccoli Florettes and Gruyère Tuile; 100 Day Dry Aged American Wagyu with Bone Marrow Custard, "Jardinière de Légumes," and Aged Madeira Bouillon. Again, the weird thing is that the components in and of themselves aren’t all that complex. This isn’t prestidigitation. It isn’t sci-fi. This is (relatively) traditional stuff. Veloute is one of those rudiments, as are custards and flans. Jardinière de Légumes is pretty much going to be (I imagine) a selection of julienned vegetables. The beef is going to be cooked as beef is usually cooked. But it will be superlative beef. An unbelievable degree of effort will have gone into the veloute. The Madeira bouillon will be exquisite. Every tiny constituent part will have been handled expertly. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Experiencing this food, some 12 courses of it, will cost each diner a minimum of $295, $100 more if you opt to include the beef on the tasting menu. More still if you opt for wine, which, if you’re already plunking down that kind of coin for the food, you probably should. So at the very least you’re looking at $600. And more realistically, probably around $850, which is more than half the rent on my 1-bedroom apartment. Still, do I want to eat there? Yes, I do. But right now, my appetites are definitely outstripping my means.

But if I had that money, if I could spend it and not miss it, would I go? Two days ago, my girlfriend and I went to Chinatown, to a renowned dumpling shop and got five absolutely, winningly exquisite fried dumplings for $1.25.

Can you compare the two experiences? Maybe not on the surface. But the end result? The end result is just a base, pure feeling of pleasure. What makes the experiences different is how you get there. Does the complexity of one experience make it superior? Is listening to one of the Brandenburg Concertos a richer experience than listening to “Machine Gun?” Or just different? If they’re just different, there is, presumably, still room for both, right? It depends on the day?

But can you justify spending almost a grand on a single meal?

I feel a strange schizophrenic fillip when I’m around Columbus Circle and see Per Se up there in all the glimmer of its exclusivity. I want to go in because I think Keller is a genius and I want to be in genius’ proximity. I want a sort of ultimate aesthete’s encounter. On the other hand, that glimmering exclusivity sometimes makes me feel like I should channel my inner Huey Newton into an outward act of aggressive class conflict.

$850 for a meal at Per Se seems (Sometimes? Many times? Often? Always?) a little decadent and not in the good connotation of the word, more in the Caligula sense of it. Or if decadent is a little too caustic, at least indulgent. And indulgence covers the waterfront; a dinner at Per Se might be a rarified sort of indulgence, but ultimately maybe not as far from the barbarian excess of Man vs. Food as Keller and Adam Richman imagine themselves. Which is a way of saying it’s all a little unnecessary.

Eat the Rich--PT.3

I find I can appease the at-odds impulses by doing something I think is really noble: cooking at home and cooking really well.

My girlfriend, Nelly, and I rarely go out to eat. For one reason, we’re poor. For another, at some point, the pepito mole with homemade tortillas, the raviolis filled with bacon and swiss chard, sauced with brown butter, began tasting as good—and, hey, if I’m honest—usually even better than what we’d get if we could go someplace affordable.

There aren’t any Indian places right around my apartment that I’m very keen on, so when I get the craving for korma, which I not infrequently do, I either just repress it, or pony up the $12 for a white cardboard container of the stuff. It’s usually quite greasy. You can taste the raw cream dumped into the sauce at the last minute for enrichment purposes. It contains what I estimate to be about $0.75 worth of ingredients.

The other night I got hit with a craving. I was about to say, “Screw it,” but then I said something different. “You know, you went to cooking school. You did your externship in an Indian restaurant. Get off your ass and make yourself some korma.”

I opened up a couple of cookbooks so I could get the general idea. I had the requisite spices in my cabinet: a garam masala mix that I’d made for another dish not too long ago (so yeah, some of the pungency was long gone, but nonetheless), cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and cumin. I had a bag of raw sliced almonds in the freezer. I had ginger, I had garlic, I had an onion. I went to the market and bought two pounds of chicken thighs, a container of yogurt, two plum tomatoes (out of season, I know, but...) and some cream. Once I was back in the kitchen, the rest unfolded over about 25 minutes.

I peeled the tomatoes, diced them, and set them over medium heat with a little oil to cook them into a paste (3 minutes prep, 10 in the pan). While this was going on, I put two or three handfuls of the almonds into a blender with three garlic cloves and a peeled 1-inch piece of ginger (2 minutes prep), along with a quarter cup of water. I blended it smooth. I ground a tablespoon of cumin (1 minute). I diced the onion (a minute and a half).

I heated up some oil in another pan and tossed in eight cardamom buds, four cloves, and a 1-inch piece of cinnamon and waited for them to pop and sizzle (2 minutes). I added the cumin and a tablespoon of garam masala and cooked it until I could really smell it (1 minute). I poured in the almond paste and cooked the water out of it (2 minutes). I added the tomatoes. I poured in a good shot of cream and added a little more than half the yogurt. A little water to make it all stirrable. Then I brought it to a simmer (2 more minutes). I cut the thighs into little chunks and tossed them in the liquid (5 minutes), stirring it all together, and covered the pan, letting the whole mix barely simmer—just an occasional bubble—for about 30 minutes. I had time to drink a beer and watch most of an episode of Sons of Anarchy while it cooked. Upon completion, I let it sit for a few minutes and, in the meantime, made some Trader Joe’s Basmati rice (1 cup of rice to 1.5 cups water), which took about 15 minutes, unattended, allowing me to finish the SOA episode I was engrossed in. About an hour in total, at a cost of maybe 8 bucks. It was really tasty, not greasy, not cloying with the taste of uncooked cream, and I froze at least three meals of leftovers. I felt subversive—take that, shoddy restaurant cooks up the street—and virtuous, which I’m not used to feeling. I was alone that night. I ate dinner in front of the TV—more SOA—and enjoyed myself immensely.

Eat the Rich--PT.4

I like eating at home because it’s comfortable. I like being alone with my girlfriend. I like it when a few friends are around. There’s no discomfiting check business at the end of the meal. If I were a different writer, I might—right here—also start waxing on about the spiritual bounty, sense of togetherness, and holy spirit of communion that comes from eating with friends and loved ones at home. I won’t, though.

The perception of home cooking is that it’s maybe a bit boring, which I don’t buy. Obviously it can be. But mastering a few fundamental principles (generally speaking, low heat for eggs, high heat for most other things; it’s done before you think it is; it’s never as hard as you think it’s going to be; when you’re sautéing, don’t play with the food—it’ll let you know when it’s time to flip it, etc. etc.) keeps it from being dull. I have a lot of cookbooks, and I use them. I’ve got some fundamentals down and my timing isn’t as bad as it used to be. I have Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook, Bouchon, and Ad Hoc At Home and I’ve made things successfully from all three. And I’m not a genius.

Still, that tasting menu at Per Se is 12 dishes long. I couldn’t ever do it at home. No space, no access to those ingredients, not enough time. But, also, I can’t make dumplings at home that are going to taste like they do from that place in Chinatown. I know I’ll be eating those dumplings again long before I could ever think of going to Per Se. Even if I could bring myself to go. The conflicts are never resolved.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Face First, Straight into My Own Limitations--PT. 1

Despite all the glamour and romance of its flash and adrenaline and motion, I knew all along that my career would never unfold in a restaurant kitchen. This set me apart from my peers at the Culinary Institute of America, most of whom took it as a given that their path would lead straight to the line and go from there. It wasn’t that I was immune to the glamour and romance. During those moments in class when everything was in full swing, I really dug the camaraderie of cooking as part of a team. I dug the physical push of it all. I liked the sweat. I liked the heat. I liked the heft of a sauté pan in the hand. The levels of testosterone in my blood seemed to double when I was cooking against a deadline. I could understand that Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential was really a grease-streaked “Ode to Joy” and not just a nicely lurid expose.

But at the same time, there was another thing that set me apart from my peers: I was pretty old. Not ancient: I’ve got all my teeth. I know where my car keys are right now. Retirement is still several decades off. But I was a lot older than the other students. Sometimes, during class, I’d find myself pressing my hands into the small of my back, where the muscles were becoming antagonistic. Sometimes my feet, on which I’d been moving for hours, would plead for mercy. And one day, I went to lift a mammoth pot sloshing with many gallons of stock, felt tensions and weaknesses in my body where I hadn’t felt them before, and decided to ask someone nearby to give me a hand. I don’t know: maybe anyone would have needed assistance with a pot that heavy; I was still holding my own, still pretty fit and strong, but the evitable was starting to become in-.

And I was old in another way, too. Being yelled at made my hackles twitch. Being ordered around stoked some pretty dark impulses. Being a codger meant I’d been on my own and independent for a long time, and I’d put a premium on precisely not having to answer to anyone. Yeah, yeah, yeah: I know we all answer to someone. But I’d done my best to minimize it when I could, even if that effort was frequently unsuccessful. Still, I don’t think it takes an analyst to see a common theme among some of the people I idolize: Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, John Cassavetes, Bob Dylan. No one told Miles Davis anything, especially not that he could only wear jeans to work on Casual Fridays, or that he had just 30 minutes for a lunch break.

Somehow, before culinary school, through a weird leap of logic, I began understanding that cooking could be freedom and emancipation. Freedom and emancipation from a desk, from a fluorescent-lit sepulcher built around a pulsing computer screen, from (sorry, Joseph McCarthy) an alienation from my own labor. Cooking was the best manual job there was.

But my feet hurt and I was stubborn. Seventy-five, 90 hour weeks: that emancipation ultimately doubles back on itself. One night during my school externship at Tabla, when everything that could go wrong went wrong, and one of the sous chefs stood over me, cursing at me, physically pushing me, screaming out my incompetence for minute after minute after minute without letting up, a stretch of time so bad I had tears of frustration and rage in my eyes, I vowed this would never happen again.

A love for the act of cooking, and an anti-authoritarian streak; these were tough inclinations to marry.

Face First, Straight into My Own Limitations--PT. 2

I did pretty well at the CIA. My GPA put me near the top of my graduating class, and generally, the food I put out seemed to be pretty good.

But I dodged a bullet while I was there: I never did any real line cooking.

Every student works in two of the CIA’s campus restaurants. This means virtually every student will do some line cooking. Line cooking is a skill, something you get trained to do, and a lot of my peers were trained to do it, and do it efficiently. Most of them had some real experience at it anyway, either working in restaurants before they came to school or at their five month externship midway through their studies. I didn’t. I was a prep cook at my externship and, while I was at the two CIA restaurants, I was a prep cook at the first, and prepared the staff meal every day at the second. I didn’t mind; I got decent at butchering chickens and filleting trout, and preparing mass quantities of food that the other students ate before they were line cooks for the evening. I had also decided that my own shining path would lead to cooking privately and doing catering. Catering would be like having a pop-up restaurant every time you did a gig, and cooking privately seemed an idyllic way to cook for a living without the inhuman hours. No getting screamed at. No severe hierarchies. And much better money...

So when I realized I wouldn’t be doing any line cooking, I was a little wistful that a whole skill set was getting away from me, but I figured ultimately, it didn’t matter that much.

But then again, maybe it would. To be a skilled line cook means you have speed and precision on your side. If you have speed and precision, you can do some pretty complex things in a very short amount of time. You can manage many tasks at once, and each one will be performed well. I had gotten infinitely faster than when I first walked into school, but probably not quite fast enough. Nor quite as precise.

Face First, Straight into My Own Limitations--PT. 3

Gerard Viverito was one of the first instructors I had at cooking school. He was the fish guy and he taught us the fine points of identifying aquatic specimens and butchering them. He was a tough bastard and we were all frightened of him. He was also one of the best educators I’d encountered and I admired his intellect immensely. He was known as a monster of a cook. And he was almost exactly my age.

After I was out of his class, I’d bump into him at the supermarket or in the hallway. I began to get to know him a little better and, by the time I graduated, I was pleased to count him as a friend.

I was also pleased when one day he emailed me and asked if I’d work a party he was catering a few towns over in Millbrook, New York. I agreed with no hesitation. That was how I found myself running face first into my own limitations.

When we got to the party site and set up in the kitchen, the first thing he had me do was sear crab cakes. The party was all about kids and the menu was supposed to be kid-friendly; so there were crab cakes, chicken satay, sliders, and a few other crowd-pleasing items. When I put the pans on the heat, we had a few hours before the party began.

“Don’t cook these,” Viverito said to me, referring to the crab cakes. “Get me good color, but don’t cook them through. They’re going into the oven right before we serve them and I don’t want them dried out.”

“Got it,” I said. I splashed some oil into the pans—four of them—and started searing. I probably had 25 crab cakes going.

“You’re cooking these!” he said a few minutes later, visibly annoyed. “I told you: just color them. Into the pan and out. In and out. In and out.”

I was jostling the four pans. They were smoking from the high heat. Oil was splattering all over the place. Okay: In and out. In and out.

I was not fast enough. I put in a new batch and let them sear for a second. Then I went to flip them. By the time I got done flipping them over, the cakes in the first pan were already past done.

Viverito was at my side, bumping me out of the way. “Jonathan, man, you’re killing me here.” He pulled two of the pans away, removed the crab cakes, and placed the two pans into a nearby sink. “Don’t work with more pans than you can handle.” I finished searing the rest of the crab cakes exactly as specified, wiped up the oil, wiped out the pans, and asked, “Okay, what’s next?”

“Nice,” Viverito said, looking at the last of the cakes I’d just done. He piled up a few large trays of small, thin hamburger patties. “Same deal with these: I just want color. Don’t. Cook. Them.” For some reason, I fished the third and fourth pan from the sink and set them on the burners, too. I waited for all the pans to heat, and started getting color on the burgers, not cooking them. But these things were thin; I could tell they were cooked before they had colored. I cranked the heat higher and started in on more.

“What is it about this concept that you’re not getting?” He was at my side again. “Didn’t I just say, ‘Don’t work with more pans than you can handle?’”

I ditched one of the pans and kept cooking. The rest of the night went well. A few weeks later, he hired me again, and that went fine, too.

But I was bothered beyond measure that things had gotten away from me, that I had lost control of what I was doing. Line cooking. Juggling many things at once. Finishing cooking school without that missing skill was like owning a computer and not knowing how to access the Internet.

Afterwards, while I was cooking us dinner, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “I think there’s no avoiding it: at some point I need to go back to a restaurant for a little while. There’s something crucial I missed at school. If I’m going to make a go of this, I need to fill that gap.”

So I’m going to have to fill that gap. More to come...