I would like to begin this week’s “Tuesday Techniques” column–a column which appears regularly on Wednesdays–with a discussion of the word “technique.” I think people are intimidated by the word. It implies a “right-wrong” dynamic, something hammered home by Tom Colicchio on “Top Chef” when he criticizes improper technique. “You don’t know how to cut an onion?” “You don’t know that proper paella has a crust?” “You kissed Padma on the left cheek and not the right?”
This bullying has its merits. In a cooking school environment, in a restaurant kitchen, forceful drilling of proper technique produces top-quality chefs. At home, however, does it matter if you have a perfectly clear consomme? Not unless a perfectly clear consomme is something to which you aspire.
Most people, I’d conjecture, just want to make dinner. And that’s why TV hosts like Rachael Ray and Giada De Laurentis are so popular. They make cooking look easy and fun. In fact, those words “easy” and “fun” are often in their show titles.
But why can’t using proper technique, cooking on the level of a Tom Colicchio, be easy and fun? Why does Jacques Pepin’s “Technique” book feel so much like a text book? Why does writing this column sometimes feel like homework? Why does this paragraph have so many questions?
Passover is over, but I’d like to belatedly submit my review of the Dark Chocolate Egg Matzos I bought at Citarella a few weeks ago. Here’s my review: I didn’t really like it. Sometimes the combination of dry, crackly, salty bread-like substance (pretzels, for example) with creamy, bitter, unctuous chocolate is a winner, but not so with matzoh. Whereas pretzels have that salty edge, matzoh is pretty bland and chocolate can’t redeem it. It’s like on American Idol when Randy says, “If you can sing, you can sing anything.” Matzoh can’t really sing–it’s just a nice vehicle for other foods like that apple stuff I really like. Haroset. Give me matzoh and haroset any day, but keep the chocolate away.
Last week I started a series called Tuesday Techniques, a series where I cook my way through Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques the same way that Top Chef Judge Tom Colicchio did at the start of his career. Already, I’m on shaky ground: (1) my Tuesday techniques posts always show up on Wednesday, but Wednesday Techniques doesn’t have quite the same ring to it; (2) this week I didn’t really use the Pepin book to work my chosen technique, I chose the technique first and picked up the book later.
The technique I chose was “home fries.” I chose home fries because it was Sunday morning and I was going to make scrambled eggs and there were Yukon gold potatoes sitting on the counter. Now my normal Sunday breakfast fare is scrambled eggs with homemade biscuits or buttermilk pancakes. I don’t make home fries, normally, because the truth is I don’t know how to make home fries. They’re a staple on your plate at a brunch restaurant, but I always take them for granted. Often they’re disappointing: limp, greasy, under-seasoned.
So this Sunday I began my research. I did lots of Googling, I did open the Pepin book but his recipes for fried potato balls and soap-shaped potatoes didn’t really fit the bill. He did speak eloquently about my chosen ingredient, though: “The potato is probably the greatest food contribution that the New World made to the Old….The potato is a versatile vegetable; it can be boiled, sauteed, baked, fried, steamed, broiled, stewed and so on.”
The secret to making home fries, I soon discovered (after all my research) is a combination of two of those techniques: boiling and frying. First you boil, then you fry. It’s that easy.
So you’re getting married, moving into a new house with your betrothed and people are asking: “What should we get you?” You can register at a store like Williams Sonoma or Bed, Bath & Beyond but when it comes to the kitchen you don’t know where to begin.
That’s the very situation my future sister-in-law, Tali, finds herself in now that she’s marrying my brother. She recently asked me what she should register for and I said: “Tali, why would I tell you that over the phone when I can blog about it for all the world!!!” There was an uncomfortable silence and she said, “Ok, that sounds good.” What follows, then, is my advice to Tali and anyone else who needs to equip their kitchens.
Visions of food sometimes arrive and you wave them away like an annoying fly. “Why am I craving lobster bisque right now?” you ask yourself while castrating a horse. “Get that craving out of my head!”
But what you don’t realize, person who is reading this, is that a craving is a gift, assistance from the great beyond advising you on what precisely you are crying out for in the deepest, most desperate part of your soul.
Take the experience I had yesterday. I was leaving work at Food Network (you have to call it Food Network, not “The Food Network” or you get fired) and I walked past the seafood store down there in the Chelsea Market and I had a vision of scallops on a citrus risotto. Was I craving this? Not necessarily. Did I really want scallops for dinner? Maybe, I wasn’t sure. But that vision was insistent. “You must make me,” the vision kept saying. “Scallops and citrus risotto is what you will eat.”
Finally, I caved and bought a pound of large, diver scallops which I brought back on the subway (my lucky subway neighbors!) and when I got off the train I hurried home to look up the citrus risotto from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. I also read about it online and after reading my friend Heidi’s post on the recipe (a basic risotto recipe with grapefruit and lime segments added in) I took her conclusion to heart: “god, this would be great with oranges or lemons.”
I made a citrus risotto with lime segments, grapefruit segements and the segments and juice from a navel orange. I seared the scallops Batali-style in a non-stick skillet. And friends, believe me when I tell you, this dinner was a triumph.
I know it’s a triumph because Craig’s reaction to a pretty good meal is often a head-nod; his reaction to a triumph is: “Oh my God, this is so good. What did you put in this? I love this.”
Don’t thank me, Craig: thank my vision. What follows is how you can realize my vision at home….
Let’s end the week with yogurt. Not just any yogurt, though; let’s talk about Icelandic yogurt, otherwise known as skyr.
Now I’d never heard of skyr until I heard about Siggi. Who’s Siggi? He’s a friend of my friend Sasie, one of Craig’s film school classmates. When I first met Sasie and told her that I was a food writer, she said: “Oh you have to meet my friend Siggi and try his yogurt!”
Now that’s quite a weird thing to say, except that Sasie’s friend Siggi has a remarkable yogurt story. I made a date last Saturday to go to Siggi’s TriBeCa loft to sample his skyr and to make skyr smoothies. Not a very typical Saturday, but Siggi’s not a very typical person. This is his story and the story of his skyr.
Tom Colicchio, that most formidable of judges on “Top Chef,” shocked me the other night when, during an interview on PBS’s series Chef’s Story (with Dorothy Hamilton) he revealed that he hadn’t gone to cooking school, he taught himself everything he knows using Jacques Pepin’s “La Technique” and “La Méthode.” (This is corroborated on his Top Chef bio page.) “Let me get this straight,” I said to myself. “To cook on the level of Tom Colicchio, to be that formidable, all I have to do is buy two books by Jacques Pepin?”
The answer was a resounding “no.” No, I wouldn’t have to buy two books; I’d only have to buy one–those two books have been consolidated!
Yes, this is THE book that Tom Colicchio worked his way through to become the toppiest of Top Chefs. When you open it, you feel like you’re looking at a physical fitness textbook from 1965. Every technique is broken down photographically the same way that an old P.E. book would break down a jumping jack: Stand legs apart (photo), lift hands over head (photo), leap in the air (photo), spread arms and legs (photo), land (photo) and repeat.
There’s something musty about this book, something incredibly dated (there are chapters on making orange baskets and apple swans). And yet, that’s all on the surface. Underneath that surface are the core fundamentals of French cooking, fundamentals that have launched thousands of careers, that are responsible for some of the finest food being prepared in this country and around the world. For example, just opening the book randomly, I find Technique 158: “Cleaning Squab and Other Poultry.” Most of us don’t find ourselves with a dead squab on our kitchen counter on a regular basis but many of us have dined in restaurants that serve squab. When that squab shows up at the kitchen door, does the chef shriek and moan: “How in the world will I clean this domesticated pigeon?” No: he knows his technique. That’s why fundamentals are so, well, fundamental. They’re at the core of all great cooking; they are the wings that allow the greatest dishes to soar.
I want my dishes to soar. I get asked all the time: “Are you always going to be an amateur? Are you ever going to go to cooking school? Who’s your favorite Golden Girl?”
The answers–maybe, no and Dorothy–suggest that I embrace my lack of experience while showing an absolute willingness to advance. My Colicchio revelation–that you can teach yourself French techniques by practicing from this book at home (“I used to cut up stalks and stalks of celery practicing my knife skills,” he said on the show) leads me to declare Tuesdays to be Technique Tuesdays. Each Tuesday we will attempt a new technique from this book and hopefully, through my own experimentation, you will be inspired to try them too. Maybe, after a few months, we’ll be master chefs and we’ll open a restaurant. Or maybe we’ll realize we have no natural talent and quit cooking and become accordion players. Only way to find out is to begin…