Making new friends is always a treat but difficult to do when you’re supposed to avoid social gatherings and remain six feet apart while masked. Luckily, I made two new friends last year when the food writer Ben Mims and his partner J made the same move that we made back in 2011 from New York to L.A.
Now, on this new-ish iteration of the blog (where my m.o. is to be much more casual about the whole thing), I find myself repeatedly talking about Cookbook in Echo Park. It’s where I do most of my grocery shopping and it’s pretty much the best food store I’ve ever been to anywhere. Look what I saw when I walked in there yesterday…
Sometimes people ask me if I barbecue and I say “no” and when they ask “why not?” I say: “Because I don’t really like my backyard.” And it’s true: we share one with our neighbors in our fourplex, and they’re all very nice, but it’s not very private and it also kind of looks out on to a gas station. So the idea of being back there for a long time with a pair of tongs and a brewski doesn’t really excited me much, even in summertime.
But that didn’t stop me last night from “grilling up” some steak. (“Grilling up” in quotes because, ya know, I wasn’t really grilling.) This dinner really was a triumph, if I do say so myself; I was welcoming Craig back from the Palm Springs Shorts Festival, where he spoke on a few panels. He was already glad to come home (Palm Springs is 105 degrees right now), but with this dinner he was even gladder. Let me tell you how I made it.
Laurie Anderson has a song–more of a performance piece–called “Only An Expert Can Deal with a Problem.” It’s a dark, satirical look at the way Americans defer so willingly to experts; whether it’s the talking heads on Fox News, hyper-judgmental celebrities on Fashion Police, or mental health gurus like Dr. Phil. And nowhere is this more evident, really, than the way Americans cook from cookbooks. I know because I’m an American and for the larger bulk of my cooking life, I was such a slave to whatever recipe I was following; if I didn’t have precisely 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking soda left in the canister, I’d throw everything away. Julia Child wouldn’t approve; on her show, once, I heard her say, “Anyone who doesn’t finish a recipe because they don’t have all the ingredients will never be a cook.” It took me a long time to get there but now I cook much more loosely, much more confidently, and cookbooks function less as sacred texts and more like casual idea-generators. Which is how this terrific dinner came about.
For the past few months, I’ve been buying kosher chicken breasts from Trader Joe’s not because I prefer kosher chicken breasts but because Trader Joe’s is underneath my gym and it’s way easier to grab chicken there than to make an extra stop on my way home. The problem with this is that kosher chicken breasts are brined in salt water and, as a result, they’ve spoiled Craig for more ethical, more sustainable chicken from our local butchers. I know this because I recently bought chicken from one of them, sprinkled it with salt, and cooked it and though Craig enjoyed it–he enjoys all of my cooking–he didn’t like it as much as the brined stuff I get much more cheaply after jogging for 60 minutes to the Footloose soundtrack. Brining, it turns out, is a powerful technique.
The New York Times is having a tough moment and though some are basking in the scandal, I’d rather take the Ira Glass route and turn the other way. Well not so far that I stop actually reading the Times; it’s still the paper of record, as far as I’m concerned. And though I’ve griped about the Magazine food section growing a bit stale (can’t we get a few other writers into the mix?), I still read it regularly, along with the Dining section where many of the recipes–particularly those by Melissa Clark–earn a bookmark in my browser. Last week, though, two recipes earned a bookmark in my brain; Julia Moskin’s steak recipe–which involves cooking a high-quality steak in a cast iron skillet with no fat, just salt–and Sam Sifton’s smashed potatoes, both of which I made on Sunday night for Craig who’d just arrived back from screening The Skeleton Twins at the Seattle Film Festival.
Many moons ago, a man in Paris wrote me an e-mail and told me about his food blog with a link at the bottom. I clicked it dubiously–we food bloggers get e-mails like this all the time–only when I clicked, the blog it took me to was unusually impressive. More importantly, the man behind it wasn’t just some striving up-and-comer, he was the former pastry chef at Chez Panisse and the author of several books. His name, as you are all aware, was David Lebovitz and soon after that early exchange we became friends: I visited him in Paris, he visited me in New York. We figured out food blogging together. And then a funny thing happened: he become wildly famous. People line up around city blocks to meet him and the David who was relatively obscure ten years ago is now an international phenomenon. What’s so great about it is that David is so deserving of his success; he’s a terrific cook, yes, and a wonderful writer, but what makes people love him so much, I think, is his heart. You can feel it beating in all of his work–on his blog, in his recipes, even on Twitter–but never has it been better represented than it is in his new, absolutely stunning cookbook My Paris Kitchen. It’s the kind of cookbook you need to rush out and get right now.
A few months ago, when I first conceived of Sauce Week, I set out to make a dinner for myself that promised to be so outrageously decadent, I’d have to close my blinds before eating the first forkful. The premise was pretty basic–steak and potatoes–with one key difference. I was going to drench the whole thing in that most indulgent of French sauces, a sauce that contains more butter than most people eat in a month, yet a sauce so rich and sultry it’s pretty much the height of sophistication and elegance: I’m talking, of course, about Sauce Béarnaise.