hide it in the mashed potato

I don’t get many opportunities to cook Thanksgiving dinner since it only happens once a year. When the opportunity arose that I could do a Thanksgiving 2018 for my sister, I made it a supper club.

This was the first instance of the supper club that had the three ingredient rule. My guests would give me three ingredients, and I would find a way to incorporate the ingredients.

the club personalities

My sister’s ingredients were pumpkin, cabbage, and Hot Cheetos. The third one came as a fast curve ball, but knowing my sister, this wasn’t too much of a surprise.

I don’t really snack, so Hot Cheetos are somewhat lost on me. When my sister and I were growing up, we were exposed to a multitude of snack foods. This included Hot Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos, Funyuns, Cheez-Its, Goldfish crackers, Maruchan Instant Noodles, the list goes on. I can’t remember the last time I consumed any of these. The fact that they’re still around tells me that they have an army of food scientists contributing to their staying power.

Occasionally, I’ll still see my sister eating Hot Cheetos with chopsticks. The chopsticks part is just my sister’s way of keeping the fingers clean, which is quite genius. The length of the chopstick helps her reach in the bag, because after you’ve been chomping for a while, you get red fingers, which moves up to red knuckles, which moves up to your entire hand. When I visit her place though, I have my pick of chopsticks that all look like they’ve been used for some sick form of acupuncture.

hide it in the potatoes

Pumpkin and cabbage are easy in the context of Thanksgiving, so I’ll just skip the thinking there. We’re more interested in the Hot Cheetos.

Using them whole, as-is, was a logistical nightmare. I didn’t want craggly-looking red witch fingers in my food.

  1. When thinking about how to use something like a Hot Cheeto, start thinking about what exactly it is. It’s red. It’s spicy. It’s salty. It’s got umami. When you think of it like that, suddenly the options open up. It’s a salt and a spice. I can spread it. It’s color. It’s a source of umami.

With that in mind, I powdered the Hot Cheetos to utilize them as the most fundamental of ingredients. Hot Cheetos as a salt-spice sort of mixture.

  1. What goes well with salt, chili, and a little bit of umami?

  2. What part of my dinner am I missing?

At the time, I was considering dessert options, so dessert it was. Perhaps challenging, but that’s what supper club is for, right? The spice and umami were quite powerful, so I needed an equally strong flavor to complement it. That meant subtle and light flavors were most likely out of play. Chocolate came to mind. Spicy, salty chocolate is a thing.

  1. What’s an over-the-top decadent type dessert I can draw off of?

Chocolate tart, chocolate pie, flourless chocolate cake - there’s a lot of options. Simply using the Hot Cheetos as a crumble or something wouldn’t be transformative enough, and it would be like eating Hot Cheetos with a chocolate dessert. It would essentially be chopping up raw ingredients and depositing them on a perfectly created “other” creation, and calling it a day. Nope.

  1. Back to the idea of a chocolate tart/cake/pie. When making this dessert, at what stage could I incorporate a salty, chili, umami powder?

I decided to go with a flourless chocolate cake, since it would be like fudge, and the dense chocolate flavor would help me balance the craziness of the Hot Cheetos. I didn’t just want to sprinkle the powdered Hot Cheeto in, since that would ruin the texture of the chocolate. In order to preserve texture, the first step would be to infuse the flavor of the Hot Cheeto into the cream and milk used in creating the chocolate mixture. My hope was that the spicy aftertaste and all of the qualities would show up in the chocolate via a milky medium.

I made the chocolate and tasted it. No hints of spice came through at all, not even the cheesy umami. Why?

You know how you drink milk in order to quench spiciness? It’s because a protein called casein in milk products binds to capsaicin, providing relief. I surmised that the spice (a form of capsaicin), bound up with the cream/milk, rendering the capsaicin generally inert, and then got smashed by chocolate flavor.

  1. So what was neutral tasting enough that could take on the Cheetos?

I had revert away away from desserts back to something more savory. How about potatoes? Spicy, umami, Cheeto mashed potatoes. Again, out of curiosity and a little bit of spite, I first soaked the Cheetos in cream and milk, similar to what I did for the chocolate tart. I then used the milk and cream in the mashed potatoes, but alas, all I ended up with was pink potato. What did I expect, right?

Because the flavor just wasn’t strong enough, I needed to take drastic action. This meant powdering the Hot Cheeto, passing it through a fine sieve to get a more or less equal sized powder, and then adding the powder directly into a batch of hot-off-the-stove mashed potato. The heat of the potatoes helped the Cheetos dissolve nicely, without ruining the texture of the potatoes. I could instantly tune the amount of spice and seasoning that I added to the potatoes. Powder, taste, powder, taste.

I ended up with a batch of pink-ass mashed potato that tasted like Hot Cheeto, still was generally creamy, and still had the good characteristics of potato. Nice.

takeways

In each step, the concepts in each line of questioning:

  1. What are the characteristics of the ingredient?

  2. What works with the specific characteristics of the ingredient? What does it remind you of?

  3. What stage of the dinner are you trying to prepare for?

  4. What is a classic I can draw off of?

  5. Where can I incorporate the characteristics of the ingredient within the classic?

  6. Your taste and opinion matter. Is it good, bad, neutral? What are you going to do about it?

The other solution is to not have sisters who enjoy Hot Cheetos.

the guide to salting

You’ve probably noticed that throughout my writing, I keep saying the word “seasoning”. I hope I haven’t confused you.

Seasoning is to “add salt” and salt is seasoning. They’re interchangeable. Salt is the medium and bridge that we use between our taste buds and the food we’re eating. Imagine it to be a conductor, a revealer, a form of matter that brightens and intensifies the natural flavors of a food.

start

Get a box of Kosher salt, preferably with no additives, and definitely no iodine. Iodized salt lends itself to an acrid sort of taste, which detracts from foods. There are some brands of Kosher salt (Morton) that use an anti-caking agent. I generally just avoid these. I use Diamond Kosher salt, which comes in a red box. It’s been tougher and tougher to find nowadays, but I know for sure that Whole Foods carries it. So does Amazon, but at a higher price.

Get a salt pig. A salt pig is just a bourgeois way of saying “a bowl that your salt sits in”. Make sure it’s large enough that you can pinch the salt, and rub it between your fingers. This will become the intuitive way to determine how much salt you’re adding and also the ability to uniformly spread the salt over the food.

experiment

Get some tomatoes, eggs, and non-salted saltines.

A simple experiment is to slice a fresh tomato into wedges. Taste one wedge first, no salt. Rinse out your mouth. Sprinkle some non-iodized Kosher salt on the second wedge, and taste it. What’s the difference?

Let’s do another taste test. Make two fried eggs. One with no salt, and another one, salted. What’s the difference?

Last test. You guessed it. Do the same thing with those saltines. What’s the difference?

You might’ve noticed that the salted items just simply tasted more like the food item itself. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the tomato, egg, or saltine tasted “better”, but the tomato tasted more like tomato, the egg was really eggy, and the saltine tasted more saltine-y than just cardboard.

That is the power of salt. Think of it as a channel that reveals a food’s true tastes. If you learn how to salt correctly, great cooking can be had with just one ingredient. Take that tomato as an example. If you have a great ingredient and some salt, you actually don’t need much else. Maybe some olive oil, but that’s pretty much it. A great tomato with the help of salt, can really stand out on your taste buds.

how do you do it?

If you got the right salt and a salt pig, you’re pretty much almost there.

You’ll want to:

  1. use your fingers and pinch the salt

  2. run the salt between your fingers and allow it to fall uniformly

  3. mix and taste

  4. repeat

  5. you might fuck it up, but it’s ok

Uniformity and how the salt is spread is very important as to how salt affects your food. If you don't spread it evenly, then the some parts of the food will be saltier than others, and well, that doesn’t lead to a good experience.

Uniformly sprinkling doesn’t necessarily mean laying everything out and painstakingly sprinkling everything carefully. It does generally mean salting at a height. It could also mean throwing it all in a big metal bowl, adding some salt, and tossing it up. The height strategy works well for meats, and the bowl strategy works for food items that are drier and don’t stick to salt very well. A great example is raw carrot. Salt doesn’t stick quite well to it, so I generally throw sliced carrots in a metal bowl, add some olive oil, and then salt and toss.

what’s really going on?

Let’s use salting meat as an example.

Salt, broken down to its constituent parts, is one part sodium and one part chloride. The chloride ion (a negative charge), attaches itself to the muscle fibers of the meat. The sodium (a positive charge) denatures the protein structure and allows it to hold additional water with much more ease.

There are two quick scientific concepts to understand here:

  1. Opposite charges attract and identical charges repel one another.

  2. Osmosis is the net movement of water from an area of low concentration to high concentration.

This is what’s happening:

  1. You salt your pork butt.

  2. There are negative charges on the meat fibers, and negative chloride ions from your salting attach themselves to the meat fibers. Positive sodium ions are also chilling around, attaching to the pork butt.

  3. The concentration of salt on the surface of the meat is suddenly very high. Water begins moving from the meat to the surface to equalize the concentration. This is osmosis.

  4. The negative charges on the meat are repelling one another, pushing the fibers apart.

  5. The water that moved to the surface of the meat plus the salt, now have enough space between the meat fibers to move back in. Think of a thin layer of salty water on the meat that moves back in.

  6. The pork butt proteins also have been denatured by the sodium ions, so they are well equipped to hold the water.

  7. These steps most likely occur asynchronously, but either way, your pork butt is going to taste better.

The process above is essentially what Serious Eats calls a “dry brine”. You’re seasoning the meat but not through a means of a very salty or acidic liquid. Just salt on the surface and the movement of salt and water back into the meat. This cuts down on the amount of water that could potentially move back in and dilute out the meat flavor.

It would be cool to see this in action one day under some kind of live microscope and not just have a theoretical understanding. For now, you and I can trust that salted pork butt tastes more porky than unsalted pork butt. History and every restaurant in the world also is evidence of this.

concept review

These are important understandings about salt. If you remember nothing else:

  1. Salt denatures proteins. Denaturing means changing the structure, which means tenderizing and increasing the water retention of proteins.

  2. Salt initially causes water to come out via osmosis, but eventually it is re-absorbed.

  3. Too much salt tastes acrid, too little salt tastes bland.

  4. Sprinkle and taste at every stage.

Now that you have a better understanding of the concepts, you cooking will take a quantum leap forward. Yes, you don’t need super fancy 20-ingredient recipes to make good food. Buy some great ingredients, salt right, and it will taste great.

salting meats & fish

I use a dry brine for all my meat and fish.

For meats, I do the dry brine overnight so that it’s ready the next day. For thinner meats, right before they hit the pan and a light sprinkling after is usually fine.

For fish, I generally do a generous, uniform sprinkle on both sides right before it goes in the pan. It’s also possible to do it overnight, but it’s highly dependent on the texture and denseness of the fish.

Eggs, I do as they’re cooking, and then a small smattering after I’m done.

salting vegetables

We can surmise that the dry brine process is very similar for vegetables as well. For some vegetables, it’s hard to get a uniform sprinkling on them, since salt just doesn’t stick to certain raw vegetables. This is why I generally salt them after oil or a vinaigrette, so the seasoning sticks.

Blanching or par-cooking vegetables is a opportune moment to ensure that the water you’re cooking the vegetables in is also seasoned. Similar to pasta, I make sure that the cooking water is as salty as sea water. Seasoned water leads to seasoned food. I taste the vegetables after they come out, and as I finish them in the pan, I season them again.

other forms of salt

Salt doesn’t necessarily just mean Kosher salt. It can mean anchovies, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, mushrooms, tomatoes, and parmesan cheese. Natural sources of salt exist, so it’s good to know when you use these items so you don’t over-salt your dish.

if you learn nothing else

  1. Get the right kind of salt (Kosher salt), no additives.

  2. Pinch and sprinkle uniformly.

  3. Taste, add, repeat.

faq

How do I know when I have reached the correct amount of seasoning?

With time and with experience, the food that you season should taste "vibrant" and more like the food itself. Alone, the food item with salt should be good. Anything under and it’ll be slightly bland, as if the flavors aren’t “popping” out of the food.

How do I know when I have overdone it?

Take a tablespoon of pure salt and just put it in your mouth. Note the acrid taste and your response. As you get closer to this response, you are overdoing it.

How else can I practice?

The next time you go out to eat, try and figure out where on the spectrum the chef has salted your meal. Is it bland or too salty? As you enjoy more foods at home with the proper amount of pure unadulterated Kosher salt, you’ll begin to calibrate your tastes.

Simple foods at home is also a great way to experiment. Similar to the tomato, saltine, and egg experiment in the beginning, try your raw foods with and without salt. Sardines with and without salt. Blanched vegetables with and without salt. Baked zucchinis with and without salt. Homemade chicken broth with and without salt. You’ll be surprised that the right amount of salt makes for great cooking.

how to learn from a recipe

In my last post I was talking about being very deliberate about how you approach recipes, and I talked about using Jerusalem by Ottolenghi heavily in my second supper club.

Let’s breakdown what I was reading in one of the simpler recipes, and I’ll show you exactly what applicable concepts I’m taking away from it, beyond just the measurements.

Afterwards, I want you to try this with any recipe you desire. Let’s get started.

the recipe

breakdown

For each section of the recipe, I will begin by zooming into the pieces that I want to break down.

This is just an overview of the recipe, some written context that Ottolenghi wants you to have. I read it only to get an essence of what to expect, especially if there are some cultural elements surrounding the dish that I’m uncertain of. I don’t hang on every word and it’s not supposed to be a section where I’m white knuckling it and setting myself up for failure. Enjoy the writing.

Here we go. These are the goodies. How annoyed are you when you start seeing the exact measurements for oil, herbs, and eggplant? I’m really annoyed. I totally ignore this stuff for now. At the very least, it doesn’t tell me how much salt I need, which is somewhat positive.

While the exact measurements irk me, I still read them for broad strokes and balance, like I mentioned in the last post. Eggplant is obviously the main ingredient, and the rest of the ingredients are scattered in. Too many herbs and it’ll be too floral. Too much pomegranate and it’ll be like eating a minefield. Too much lemon and it’ll be sour as fuck. Too much garlic and you’ll be better off fighting vampires and whoever is in a 10-foot vicinity.

Just looking at the ingredient amounts alone, you should be able to discern that you’re not going to flood the dish with herbs, oil or salt, or even pomegranate, right? You have an idea it’s mostly going to be eggplant, studded with some pomegranates, interspersed with some herbs, and the fat n’ acid will balance each other out. On top of that, season correctly, and the rest of the flavors do the job.

What else can you learn from just the ingredient list?

I can note that eggplant, olive, mint, parsley, and pomegranate offer a uniquely Mediterranean taste. This is after all, a Mediterranean cookbook. I understand this is a potentially disastrous assumption, based on the quality of the cookbook, and the reputation of the author. We’ll address that later. For the time being, know that these are the ingredients they use, and once you know these general combinations, you can observe where these ingredients show up in other recipes and applications. Lamb with mint sauce, mint tea, and sardines scattered with parsley and olive oil are a few examples with just a small subset of ingredients that are uniquely Mediterranean.

Obviously, taste along the way, and you can reinforce where this “category” ends up on your palate, once you’ve finished cooking the recipe and are actually eating it. It’s hard to describe, but you know that this eggplant is different as compared to Chinese eggplant, which is blasted with basil and high heat, and comes drenched in hoisin and soy sauce. Those are Asian flavors.

Let’s move into the action portion of the recipe.

Burning the skin offers caramelization to the fullest extent, and layers a smoky flavor that can’t be achieved with just simple roasting. The obvious thing heat also does here is cook. Hot temperatures break down the cell walls of the eggplant, rendering them soft. This is the desired texture of the dish. Scoring the eggplant is mostly for safety purposes, as you don’t want a hot purple bomb ready to spit eggplant lava at you. Draining it helps to concentrate the flavor. Really, it’s about a pasty soft texture, not watery-ass eggplant. This is flavor concentration.

The rest of the recipe is marination, flavor blending, and a combination of temperature and timing. Mixing the ingredients together is a pretty easy thing to understand, you want the different flavors and textures to come together.

Herbs will come at the end as to not cause severe oxidation, as you want the colors of the herbs to remain vibrant. The acid in the lemon zest and lemon juice should help to some extent, but if you decide to mix them in too early, there’s the possibility that the greens lose their color.

Acid also comes in near the end, so you know how the acid balances the entire dish. Squeeze, mix, taste. Repeat until you like it.

Because the recipe sounds a lot like a warm salad, the serving time should be soon after finishing the recipe. I could imagine the oxidation process worsening if one decides to wait a day or two to serve. The eggplant will most likely dry out in this state and oxidize to some degree as well.

I’ll re-iterate here that is it vitally important that at every stage, we think about singular flavor development and correct seasoning at each step, so that when we combine all the ingredients together, well seasoned components come together to make a well seasoned final dish.

final concept review

  1. the relative amount of each ingredient is important

  2. the absolute amount of each ingredient is less important

  3. flavor development and layering of singular components make or break a dish

  4. timing is essential

  5. seasoning at every stage

  6. taste, taste, taste

A quick note about that assumption I mentioned earlier. Recipes and recipe authors should be vetted. Who wrote the recipe? Were they qualified to write it? Are they at the very least, candid in the context of the recipe? Have they spent time in the ethnic culture and the day to day living in the local milieu? The stories they tell can be revealing. These are reputation factors that lend objectivity and confirmation of how much I believe what I’m reading.

Reputation or not, I will affirmatively say that the best way to experience a cuisine is to travel. Nothing beats local ingredients, local knowledge, and recipe stories straight from the mouth.

This is not the last recipe breakdown that I’ll do, and because it’s a relatively straightforward recipe, I felt it apropros to start with this one. Stay tuned for more, obviously. There’s plenty to learn!

hating on recipes

The ingredients for this supper club were octopus, pomegranate, and eggplant.

the club personalities

This was one of the first “double date-ish” supper clubs with two couples present. W and T I’ll call them, along with the normal recurring members of my partner and I.

W is the type of person you want in your corner if you want something done well and done right. The quote “if you want something done right, do it yourself” comes to mind, and he’s the “yourself” part in there. He’s pretty much one of the few people I know right now that doesn’t hate his career choice. We’re in rarified air here, folks.

T is easy going, has alot of stories about Instant Pots, and can keep up with you on skis, so if you decide to start a Bond-style avalanche, she won’t be buried. There will most likely be an Instant Pot creation at the end of the run. W can ski too, so expect him to be there as well, grinning. He may also have his own Instant Pot creation too. This is all starting to sound like a scary movie.

There was so much talk about Instant Pots because we had a huge argument on tenderizing octopus legs using its pressure cooking capabilities. Everyone except me thought that Instant Pots were the next almighty god in terms of functionality and usefulness. I’m a bit more old fashioned and prefer the low and slow way of cooking. To each his/her own, I guess. Maybe I’ll convert one day.

recipe schmecipe

The ingredients this time screamed Mediterranean to me, so that’s the direction I took it in. I only know that because I’ve worked with some of these ingredients before. If you’re not aware of the ethnic themes that come from certain foods, recipe books and some quick inter-webbing can help here. Jerusalem by Ottolenghi was one of the cookbooks I used, with some of the recipes being almost replicas, with a few of my own twists. Because I depended heavily on the work of others for this supper club, the majority of this post will be spent on the concept of a “recipe”, why a part of me really likes recipes, and why another part of me just rolls my eyes and makes me want to burn everything, including the recipe.

At its very core, recipes are just step-by-step instructions on how to recreate a dish. It tells you which ingredients you need, how much of each ingredient, and the process of disassembling and re-assembling those ingredients in order to achieve the final product.

There is no shortage of recipes on the internet. Everyone follows them. Whenever you make a great dish, someone asks, “what’s the recipe? “You gotta get me that recipe.” If you put yourself in their shoes and imagine what it is they actually want, it might sound something like “I want to know exactly how you made that so I can do the same exact thing and get the same exact result.” Many people don’t question this philosophy any further than that, but what I really hear is:

“I fear that the recipe does NOT turn out the way I want it to, and more often than not, I am disappointed.”

To that I usually respond, “did you simply just follow the recipe, or did you consciously check that you actually liked what you were cooking at every step of the process?” The difference is subtle but it’s hugely important.

I’m not saying we should never follow a recipe again, but there is a lot of worship and psychology behind the recipe. Most think it’s a safe haven, that if they follow it, they’re bound for golden arches. I think it’s mostly that recipes make us lazy. It removes the conscious component from cooking. That’s essentially what a recipe is telling you, right? That if you follow it verbatim, you will have a successful dish at the end. However, instead of blindly following them, what we really need is a healthy dose of awareness while cooking. In most cases, it’s not the recipe, it’s the cook. Keep this point in mind as I reveal more detail as to the shortcomings of recipes and how that interplays with the skills of the cook.

recipe pros

I want to play a bit of devil’s advocate and clear up some points on where I think recipes are essential. Despite my critical view of them, I still use them.

Recipes give me a good idea of broad flavor profiles. Nevermind that they used one cup of this or three-quarters teaspoon of that, I’m more interested that they used onions, celery, and carrots versus onions, celery, and green peppers. The first is classic French, the second, Cajun & Creole. The difference is drastic, and if you want to “learn how to cook” you want to take note of these differences in a recipe, rather than the exact amounts. The point here is that if you’re observant about what foundations go into a cuisine, and the concepts used in the “cooking” portion of a recipe, recipes are amazing tools for learning, especially if you’re involved, and not just using the recipe like an IKEA instruction page.

Recipes are important for ratios and balance. I get an idea of the amounts when I read a recipe. I take it in, but I don’t follow it to the letter. It’s more of a guide on what an appropriate amount of an ingredient. For example, if you put an obscene amount of honey and brown sugar in your homemade barbecue sauce, it’s not going to be a balanced barbecue sauce. Alternatively, if you’ve added the specified amount of sugar and the sauce still tastes like vinegar, you need more sugar, regardless of what the recipe says. Having a recipe gives you exact amounts, but that is not a stand-in on what you, the cook, is tasting in real time.

Recipes are fucking essential for baking, because here, we’re dealing with measurement science. You want your bread to rise correctly given the amount of dough you’re using? Pinches of this and that isn’t going to get you by. You can play a game of probabilities with your bread, but I don’t have that much flour to waste, so using recipes while baking is generally a good idea.

Recipes are important for culture. All of this shit your grandmother is making is better written down. Obviously, there are oral forms of communication, but really, when she kicks the bucket, you’ll want that recipe rolodex to make all of your favorites again. Unfortunately, most recipes from grandmothers never seem to turn out the same if they’re not the ones cooking it, so bummer.

Wait, that sounds familiar. Could it be that your grandmother is a better cook than you? After all, you followed her recipe to the word…

This segues nicely into why recipes suck ass.

recipe cons

Recipes suck because they’re not a guarantee that your dish is going to be amazing. The primary reason why they are not a guarantee is because they suck at accounting for variable change. The kitchen you use to execute a recipe is not the same kitchen as the person who wrote the recipe. Your oven might have hot spots. They might’ve used iron-clad cookware, and you have the fancy copper shit. You only have a 6-inch saucepan and they call for a 8-inch one. The tomato they used is not the tomato you’ll use. If the recipe just calls for “tomato”, what kind of fucking tomato? Even if you get it right, those beefsteak tomatoes at Trader Joe’s are going to be different from the beefsteaks at the local farmer’s market. Sorry bucko, but those are going to be different, and when different happens, you’re already deviating from a recipe.

Let’s come back to that previous point about awareness and the fact that “it’s not the recipe, it’s the cook”. The example of awareness that I usually like to give revolves around seasoning, because that’s a highly customizable action that if you get right as a cook, yields a lot of benefit. For example, recipes make me giggle when they tell you exactly how much salt you should be adding. “Half a tablespoon,” it says. “Fuck you,” I say back. I pinch some Kosher salt, add it and taste what I have. If it’s good then I stop. If it’s not, I’ll add more. You can’t take back what you add, so I always add smaller and smaller amounts as I get close in on the desired taste. Your tastes are different than my tastes, which are different than the person who wrote the recipe’s tastes, but really, you’re the one cooking, so you get to be the chef. Ideally, we should be shooting for “well seasoned,” where the natural taste of the food, with the help of salt, comes out vibrantly. You see where I’m going with this? Sure, you can shoot from the hip and add exactly x amount of salt for y amount of food, but even if you’re making the same thing, all it takes is one small variable to change, and things start “not turning out the way they were supposed to turn out”.

The two points I’ll re-iterate here are:

  1. Recipes are never a guarantee. I’ll say it again. Recipes are never a guarantee. One more time? Recipes are never a guarantee.

  2. Your skill level as a cook has more say about the final product than what the recipe says.

And finally, the double edged sword. Recipes are “great for learning.” I said that in one of the paragraphs above. Recipes are also detrimental to learning, if you don’t heed the paragraph immediately above. When cooking, you need to learn to taste. Taste fucking everything. Taste it before it’s seasoned, while seasoning, and after seasoning. What does it need? Do you need to adjust it? Do you like it? Do you hate it?

At some point, you will fail and you will trash something you’ve just cooked. This is called learning. This is also the art of cooking. There’s science too, and in some cases, some laboratory shit, and of course, recipes, but it all won’t matter if you can’t adjust on the fly and know how to reach a certain standard of taste. Recipes make all these assumptions about what’s going on, and you cannot just accept that. You have to set the standard on “delicious” and hold yourself to that. No recipe is going to do that for you. Even if it does, you got lucky, and like most things in life where you want to consistently do a good job, it’s not luck.

sharpening the sword

So how do you learn from a recipe? I’ll break that down for you in the next post. I’ll take some of my thinking for this supper club and walk you through, step by step, the things that I pay close attention to when I read other people’s prescriptions on how to cook, and how it all goes down.

the inaugural supper club

The inaugural supper club was inspired by an amazing cornbread that was made at The Plimoth in Denver, Colorado.

This supper club didn’t quite follow the normal three ingredient rule that I laid out in the previous post. The theme was just corn. I wanted to make and share a cornbread that surpassed that of The Plimoth, and also utilize corn in every dish.

Before we get to the food, I want to outline what you should take away from this post. I’ll talk briefly about the essence of the invited personalities to my first supper club, a quick homage on “food appreciation”, and finally, the concepts that I used for this particular menu conception. As I continue with my supper club posts, I’ll sometimes return to menu conception, other times on cooking execution and timing, or straight up recipe how-tos. Expect to learn something new every time.

the club personalities

Un-repeated members present this time were J and R. Names have been shortened to protect the innocent. I don’t think they need protecting per se, but it adds a sexy, mysterious element to it, so I’ll stick with the shortened names.

J is the type of person who I would describe as a generous enabler. He won’t stop you from eating another plate of fried chicken, even if you’re on the brink of throwing up. Hell, he’ll even pay for it. This kind of theme pervades his personality, and I love it. This is why I keep him around. His type of generosity is rare nowadays, and he’s a refreshing role model for my imaginary self every time we hang out.

R is a humble, stay-in-the-present sort of dude. He doesn’t think frequently about the future, enjoys what’s in the here and now, and doesn’t dwell, complain, or shit-talk. He is a straight shooter, and has illuminated refreshing perspectives on many avenues in my own life. He also eats a lot, and doesn’t seem to gain any weight. He’s probably hungrier and more relaxed than you right now.

I highlight these essences because they form the positive interactions that led to a hopefully successful evening. They’re the type of people who are open to more than just a feeding, but rather, a complete experience. I want them to have seconds, I want them to tell me right then and there how they’re feeling, what they’re tasting, and what all of it reminds them of.

Indeed, the supper club was created with some selfish intentions in mind, but ultimately, its success is tied to my guest’s enjoyment. Making sure that the personalities mesh and build on top of one another is part of that enjoyment.

the cornbread anchor & food appreciation

I want to talk a little bit about food appreciation, and I’d like to start with the concept of “specificity”. Specificity in what you want is important in cooking.

Taking the example with cornbread, I want:

  1. concentrated, dense corn flavor

  2. secondary flavors of thyme and cracked black pepper

  3. a slightly crispy top

  4. a slightly wet middle, properly seasoned

  5. properly sweetened, caramelized and crunchy sugar

  6. just shy of crumbly but soft

To me, these characteristics describe the “best” cornbread for me, but best is subjective. We see this kind of bickering in food reviews, where people write vague statements such as, “OMG this was the best/worst cornbread ever!”

The point I want to make here is not to judge foods based off of blanket statements involving the “best” or “worst.” “The best” is a somewhat lazy way of describing food. “Best” is throwing a vague, shitty tablecloth over the details that comprise your opinion.

Going back to the point of specificity, you’ll notice that I am very specific about the details of my cornbread. Those six points above are details that I appreciate in an ideal cornbread, and those are the standards I will use for all future comparisons of cornbread. The cornbread made in Denver at altitude is surely different from the cornbread made in my kitchen, which is surely different from the cornbread made somewhere else, but they are all subject to the same standard.

Because I am being so specific, even if a cornbread hits four out of the six qualities, I know exactly where it falls short, but more importantly, I know the four points that can be appreciated in the moment. That appreciation in a point of time is critical for many areas in life, cooking and eating included. All we’re doing in this case is taking a more granular view of our experiences, and that enables us to enjoy so much more without feeling like we somehow got gypped out of a “best” experience.

menu conception

We’ve been talking about this stupid cornbread for what seems like an eternity, so before we continue with that, we can talk about the conception of the rest of the menu. Rewind. Corn theme.

When faced with an ingredient that I have to extend across an entire menu, I begin by understanding the characteristics of that particular ingredient. Knowing its composition is just the first step, but it’s an important one because it informs us on how it will react to kitchen experimentation.

You can do this for any ingredient. A little bit of thinking goes a long way. The five senses is a nice way to start:

  1. What is the composition of the ingredient?

  2. Look at it. What color is it? How do you feel looking at it?

  3. Smell it. What does it smell like? What does it remind you of?

  4. Taste it. What does it taste like? What does it remind you of? What’s the texture like? What do you hear when you’re chewing?

I do this with all my raw ingredients and while I’m in the midst of experimenting at all stages. It’s a line of questioning that I employ as frequently as I do seasoning. Corn and it’s color, aroma, flavor, and texture can be modified when heated, cooled, chopped, blitzed, powdered, and cut with other foods. The heirloom, colorful corn on the cob you get from your favorite farmer will have different characteristics than the corn on the cob you get from a supermarket, which is different from frozen corn, which is different from canned corn. While you don’t need to do a crazy academic breakdown, understand that your output will be dependent on the inputs and what you do to those inputs. When you know the characteristics of your ingredient at every step of the way, you’ll be able to better control the outcome.

There’s another concept I employ, which is a bit more meta. I talked about the composition of ingredients, but sometimes you’ll be using food products instead of actual ingredients. You can zoom in and zoom out on how processed you want the food item to be. Zooming in, you can use a food product differently than what it was intended to be, like crushed cornflakes as a breadcrumb for hot wings, or zooming out, you can re-create a corn product, like using purple corn to make purple maize corn tortillas. The possibilities are endless. It’s mostly asking the right questions and trying a bunch of stuff in the kitchen.

So back to that cornbread. Cornbread was only part of the main dish. The rest of the dish would be delicious others that would be paired with the cornbread. I went with traditional Thanksgiving favorites, hearty items that would complement a rich, dense hunk of bread. Rosemary roasted chicken, broccolini blasted in chicken fat, and roasted butternut squash. Obviously, not a lick of corn used aside from the cornbread, but the cornbread was supposed to be the spotlight for the main course.

The cornbread had five to six cycles of experimentation before I was content with it. It wasn’t entirely a “mix it and fix it” sort of deal. Some of these accoutrements included:

  1. precisely measuring the corn flour to all-purpose flour ratio for the right consistency.

  2. brown butter sautéed corn into the batter for texture.

  3. balancing the sweetness of the corn with the brown sugar.

  4. seasoning with salt and thyme.

What you’ll notice, hopefully, is another concept here, which is flavor layering. Normal cornbreads rely on the corn flour to ensure that the corn taste comes through. I was thoroughly not impressed with just corn flour, so I had to find another way to get corn into the mix. I’ll skip over the parts where I screwed around with flour ratios, which was really to get the moisture content I was looking for.

What’s the best way to add corn flavor? Add corn. Maybe not in it’s original form, but heating a generous handful of freshly cut kernels in some brown butter (delicious in its own right) not only adds texture to the final product, but the butter caramelization deepens its sweet taste. Therefore, I added less brown sugar to make sure we weren’t sweetening the pot up too much.

This is flavor layering. I’m using corn in multiple stages of the bread itself, taking into account the raw ingredient (corn) and a food product (corn flour). There might be modifications and other additions that help enhance them (heat and butter), but I’m combining it to layer that corn flavor in. Can you think of anything else I could’ve done to add to the corn flavor? How about water for the batter that has corn flavor extracted into it from the cobs? I didn’t do this, but that is potentially another way to layer flavor.

Now, thinking about the appetizer, sometimes I just want the corn in it’s original form. Not everything has to be layered like crepe cake. When things are simple, you want the quality of the original ingredient to stand on its own. So, not frozen corn, not corn from a can, but the freshest ears of corn. I cut them from the cob when ready, and this corn offered an uncanny sweetness and aroma that canned or frozen corn couldn’t offer.

Because the corn was in its original form, my goal was to keep it crunchy but not raw, sweet, but also peppery. Sautéing seemed like a good way to go, but keeping it crunchy reminded me of “salad”, so I had to create a dish where the corn’s sweetness was expressed, but it still retained a pleasant crunch. I eventually settled with a corn succotash, mixed nicely with water chestnuts and black eyed peas, finished with caramelized shallots and chives.

Finally, for dessert, I originally attempted some kind of corn flavored egg concoction. Experiments included a corn mousse, corn flavored whipping cream, and corn meringue. Once again, it’s critical that you know the characteristics of the ingredient. Desserts are sweet. Corn can be sweet, but it requires the right variety and some heating. Or, it might just require some sugar. We want to continually practice this kind of logical questioning:

  1. What varieties of corn have more sugar than starch?

  2. How can I bring the sweetness out of corn?

  3. How can I extract the corn flavor into something else that can be made sweet?

  4. What are some traditional desserts that can take on sweet corn?

This was a trying experience since I fucked it up from the start. My initial thought was, “I’ll just mix corn and some milky liquids together so I get a milky liquid that tastes like corn, and I can use it in a dessert.” This is extraction. Before you go off and pour raw corn into heavy cream, I’ll save you the trouble and nicely recommend not blending raw corn into cream and whipping it. Even after filtering it with a sieve, it coated my mouth like a wine full of tannins, since the fibers have not had time to break down. It’s like eating cream in a field of hay. It coats your mouth with this unpleasant texture, and I wouldn’t doubt experiencing corn farts afterwards.

Thus, for the dessert, it was less about flavor layering and a little bit more about extraction. I wanted the qualities of corn to be expressed in the ingredients used to make classic desserts. Slow extraction of corn flavors into cream, or maybe pureeing sweetened and sautéed corn before adding it to a whipped base of egg whites is what I was thinking. If I were successful, it might’ve been a delicious corn cream, with candied corn, in a fruit salad. Sounds interesting right? Unfortunately, extraction of raw and cooked corn just didn’t jive with my taste buds, so I ditched it all and just did a normal fruit salad with a vanilla Swiss meringue.

As a short note, ditching things is going to be part of the process. I won’t serve anything that I wouldn’t happily eat myself, and that’s the non-negotiable standard that I hold myself to.

menu preview

That’s the final menu for this round of supper club. I won’t delve too much more into the details, since several items and experiments went horribly wrong, but that’s the experience of being “in the weeds.” You live and learn.

As a point of reference, here’s a round up of all the concepts we hit on:

  1. understand the characteristics of your food

  2. understand the quality of the food in multiple products and stages

  3. five senses

  4. how can you use the food in it’s original form?

  5. what kind of food products are there?

  6. how can you use the food in it’s original form and re-create a food product?

  7. what modifications can you use at every stage?

  8. how can you layer the ingredient using flavor, texture, and taste?

  9. how can you extract the flavor or essence from the food?

  10. what are some classics that can take on the flavor of the ingredient?

Go forth, and do not be afraid to experiment in the hot box.

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