There’s this notion that there’s an objective answer to the question, “Where’s the best place to eat in (insert city name) right now?”
Let me be the first to say that I don’t think it’s possible to be objective about such a thing. In fact, I’m planning a trip to Paris right now and listening to all kinds of advice. Many people are telling me about their favorite restaurants and I’m entering them into Google and though the menus look excellent, sometimes I just look at pictures of the restaurants on Google images and don’t get a great vibe. That’s enough for me to set that place aside, even if the food’s spectacular. Atmosphere matters just as much to me as the food (Craig too). That’s not true for everyone, but that’s true for us.
Why is it that there are things in this life that we KNOW are good for us and yet we don’t do them? Even if they’re easy? Even if the minimal amount of work that they require will yield enormous results, ones that’ll absolutely transform our day-to-day experiences for the better?
In case you couldn’t tell from the picture, or the title of this post, I’m talking about sharpening your knife. Raise your hand if you’ve had your knife sharpened lately. OK, very good, you can leave the classroom. Everyone else: listen up! Go to your kitchen right now and grab a tomato. Then get your main knife, your chef’s knife, the one that you use to chop everything. Drag it across the tomato without applying any pressure. Did it make a slice or did it barely make a dent? If it made a slice, very good, you too can leave the classroom. If not, it’s time we had a talk.
Cooking seafood for a crowd has never been my forté. The first time that I did it, over ten years ago!, I futzed around with a River Cafe Cookbook recipe involving potatoes cooked along with mussels, shrimp, and fish in a tomatoey broth. It was not a hit. The next time, about seven years later, I hosted an indoor clambake and though that was tons of fun, the sausage didn’t really cook along with the fish so I ended up dumping raw sausage on the table along with all of the clams and corn. I had to have everyone help me pick out all the sausage so I could pop it on to a cookie sheet and finish it in the oven. Again, not a triumph.
But last night I cooked seafood for a few friends and it was my best go at it yet. The key? Simplicity!
The idea of me teaching someone how to cook a few years ago would’ve been pretty laughable. I am, after all, The Amateur Gourmet, not The Gourmet Who Knows Enough About Cooking To Teach Others How To Do It (try loading that into your browser).
But, lately, I have to say, I’ve kind of hit my stride as a cook. I’ve been doing this now for over a decade and I cook meals at home about ten times a week (including breakfasts, lunches, and dinners), and after spending so much time in the kitchen, I guess you do get to a point where you’re more of an authority than not-an-authority. Which is why, when my friend Jonathan talked about wanting to learn how to cook, I said I’d be happy to teach him. I didn’t think he’d actually take me up on it. But then he did take me up on it and, this past Sunday, he was coming over at five PM to learn how to make some stuff. Suddenly I was cast in the role of cooking teacher. This was a lot of pressure!
A year or two ago, I got rid of my roasting pan. Not because I’m anti-roasting pan, or because I needed the space, but because I realized that my roasting pan had a non-stick surface and that I’d been scratching it up with a metal spatula over the years and that there was a teensy, tiny chance I’d been exposing myself and my loved ones to carcinogens whenever I roasted a chicken and that we’re all going to die and it’s all my fault.
So these days, when I roast a chicken, I rely on my largest cast iron skillet. Frankly, I think it works better. And I riff on the beloved Thomas Keller roast chicken recipe, the one I’ve been making for the past eight years, combining assorted root vegetables and potatoes and garlic in the bottom of the pan with a splash of vegetable oil, salt, and pepper, and then topping it with a chicken that I stuff with thyme and garlic, also rub with vegetable oil, before sprinkling with lots of salt and pepper. Only, I’ve been much bolder with a certain ingredient to really make my roast chicken shine. Can you guess what it is?
I once wrote a post on here called Ten Things You Should Never Serve At A Dinner Party that was mildly controversial. Craig’s sister Kristin was offended that I included “boneless, skinless chicken breasts,” so on my next visit to Washington State, she cooked up a Chicken Piccata that really put in me in place.
And now I’m about to put myself in my own place by refuting number ten on that list: sorbet. Here’s what I wrote then: “This is a dinner party, not a cleanse. If you’re feeling lazy, that’s fine, but at the very least, have the decency to serve us ice cream. But sorbet? SORBET? That’s it…I’m leaving.” Wow, I don’t even recognize the person who wrote that… especially now that I’ve made the sorbet that I’m about to tell you about. But first, the context.
People who meet me are often surprised when I describe myself as an introvert. On the surface, I come across as outgoing, exuberant even, but secretly I find human interaction to be very exhausting. Craig, on the other hand, finds human interaction to be incredibly stimulating. Not a surprise, then, that he describes himself as an extrovert. (We once read an article that said that introverts lose energy when they’re around people and that extroverts gain energy when they’re around people, and that made total sense to us.)
And yet, nothing is ever so completely black and white. Despite being mostly introverted, I still enjoy going out (especially to restaurants, surprise surprise) and despite being mostly extroverted, Craig can really enjoy a night in. Which is why, last Saturday when he flew back from New York, we had to have a discussion about our evening. A group of friends were going out and we were invited. I bought ingredients to make a delicious dinner. Craig’s ideal evening was for me to make the dinner and then for us to go out with these friends. My ideal evening was to make the dinner and to lay on the couch watching Project Runway. Ultimately, I gave Craig a choice: (1) we could go out and meet these friends, but if we did that, I’d want to go out to dinner first so I wouldn’t be smelly and also so I’d be motivated to go out; or (2) I could make this delicious dinner, but then we’d have to stay in. Craig puzzled it over for a second and then chose the only acceptable option considering that I’d gone shopping and that I’m his husband and really he’d been away for a week so of course he’d want to stay in, Option 2.
I had some very special guests coming over this past Wednesday and so I spent the weekend before that trying to figure out what to make. My first destination was the top shelf of my cookbook collection, where, as you now know, I keep the books I’m most excited to cook from these days. The book that I reached for was Nancy Silverton’s Mozza at Home which, I’ve come to believe, is Nancy Silverton’s best cookbook.
I own all of Nancy’s books–from her iconic Breads from the La Brea Bakery to The Food of Campanile (which she wrote with her then-husband, Mark Peel)–but this one is really geared towards the home cook, much more so than the others. Sure, it’s nice to know how she makes her sourdough bread (and I made that recipe once from Breads from the La Brea Bakery, almost a decade ago, creating a wild yeast starter with grapes and flour and water in an open Tupperware container… my roommate Lauren wasn’t thrilled), but it’s even better to know how she feeds her actual friends who are coming over for dinner. And as I flipped through the pages, I suddenly found my answer in the least likely recipe you’d ever expect to find in a Nancy Silverton cookbook: her version of Dean Fearing’s Frito Pie.