When we were in Berlin this past July, at a restaurant called Renger-Patzsch, our dinner ended with the perfect punctuation mark of a dessert: a chocolate tart with apricots and vanilla ice cream. It was memorable for its combination of elegance and simplicity; a tart isn’t easy to do, but this one, somehow, seemed effortless. I made a mental note that if I were ever going to cook a meal with European flair, I’d end it in a similar way. My moment came on Saturday, after I served that pork shoulder braised in Guinness to some friends.
What’s the difference between a home cook and a chef? For me, the answer lies right there in the pages of Daniel Boulud’s braising book which came out back in 2006. I’m a big believer in braising; nothing makes me happier than to sear a tough piece of meat, stir in some aromatics, add a cooking liquid, and then to let thing go for three hours, only to have the meat melt beneath the tines of a fork when you’re done, the sauce right there without any extra labor. But as for those individual elements–the meat, the aromatics, the liquid–the best I could come up with, if pressed, would be all the usual suspects: chicken thighs, onions, garlic, white wine, etc. That’s because I’m a home cook. Chef Boulud, on the other hand, fills his pages with the most startling combinations: beef shank with coconut and avocado, pork belly with pineapple and plantains, lamb shanks with mint, prunes, and bourbon. And so on Saturday, I decided to channel my inner-chef and make the recipe that called out to me the most: Pork Shoulder with Guinness, Dried Cherries, and Sweet Potatoes.
Sometimes I wake up with a specific craving that has no obvious root. For example, on Saturday morning I woke up with a craving for cornbread. Where did that come from? Was it the fact that I’d been watching the Sean Brock episodes of “Mind of a Chef” at the gym? Actually, that was probably it–strike that first sentence–because in the episode I just watched, he harvested his own corn, shocked the kernels in liquid nitrogen, and made the most incredible-looking corn grits I’d ever seen. I didn’t have grits in my cupboard on Saturday morning, but I did have cornmeal, which is where this idea came from. Then all I had to do was find the right recipe.
What’s with me and pasta? No, seriously, I’m really asking: how can I eat so much of it and never get tired of it? Sometimes I think it’s my own personal Rosebud, because my earliest food-related memories involve sitting at a little yellow plastic table on a gray carpet in front of the big TV, eating fusilli with Prego on top. Am I trying to recreate the innocence of childhood? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that pasta is so versatile and, more importantly, once you know the rules of how to make it–undercooking your pasta in well-salted water, then finishing it in the sauce, taking off the heat when almost all the liquid’s absorbed, and finishing with raw olive oil and grated cheese–it’s just one of the most impressive, delightful things you can make at home.
Finding out someone’s favorite color doesn’t do much for me. “Oh teal? How interesting,” I say as I fall asleep standing up, collapsing into a heap and waiting for someone to kick me awake. But finding out someone’s favorite flavors is a different story. For my friend Michael’s birthday dinner, this past weekend, I texted his husband John to find out what kind of desserts he likes and John texted back: “He loves banana cream pie and pretty much anything peanut butter.” Banana and peanut butter: what a fascinating window into Michael’s soul! As I contemplated my own favorite dessert flavors (definitely anything almond; mostly because I grew up eating rainbow cookies which are made with almond paste), I started flipping through Karen DeMasco’s Craft of Baking–which was partially responsible for the crisp I just posted–and I stumbled upon the perfect Michael dessert recipe: Banana Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Buttercream.
Wow, that’s a mouthful, but you have to admit it sounds good. I got the idea from the New York Times Cooking newsletter; Kim Severson was guest writing it for the day and she mentioned a trick she learned from our mutual friend Bill Addison who learned it from Nancy Silverton (how’s that for a game of telephone?). The trick is this: when making a cobbler or a crisp, brown some butter, scrape in the seeds from a vanilla bean and then stir the whole mixture in with the fruit. As far as ideas go, this is right up there with E = mc2. (How do you get the 2 up there? Where’s Einstein when you need him?)
Recipes, sometimes, are like dreams. You experience them but then, quite often, you forget that you’ve experienced them. And then you’re standing somewhere, and the memory floods back to you: “I was being chased by a gorilla through Filene’s Basement!” Or, in this case, “I once made a corn chowder so good that I wrote a post called CORNGASM and didn’t even share the recipe.” That was back in 2007, after I’d interviewed Chef Jasper White for Salon.com. All these years later, the memory of that chowder came back to me as I started planning the menu for our V.I.P. dinner guests. And after making it again, I can assure you: it really is the corn chowder of your dreams.
It’s time to face facts: summer’s almost over. At least summer in the sense of kids not being in school (most of them have already gone back) and summer blockbusters (I didn’t want to see “Guardians of the Galaxy” but someone told me there’s a talking tree in it so now I do) and summer clothing adorning the mannequins at your local mall (now it’s all stuff for fall). Still, if you live in L.A., summer’s not going anywhere. There’s very little weather-wise here that distinguishes June from July from August from September from October and so forth. Sure, it gets a little chillier as the months go by, but summer never abruptly ends the way it does in other places. Which is why this cobbler is something most of you need to make right away before you’re facing a pile of fallen leaves and why I get to make it for a few months longer than you. Be very jealous.