French Laundry Sea Bass and Blogger Breakdown
Thomas Keller. It is a name that strikes fear, admiration, lust, and gustatory bliss into the hearts of many. Nearly everyone in America and surely all the food-crazed souls on the planet know of this guy. He is the crème de la crème. His French Laundry catapulted him to fame, but his arduous and meticulous journey to that gem is what I respect the most about the man. I rarely cook from cookbooks, but I view his as coffee table tomes in the best possible way. (I actually read my coffee table tomes- that’s maybe an important note.) I don’t fully comprehend why he felt the need to put together Ad Hoc, but other than that, his weighty books are the anchor to my whimsical heart. The voice of twine-wrapped reason behind my chicken wings, the chinois strainer to my chicken-head stocks. I’ve been feeling a little down lately about matters de cuisine. I think everyone experiences these peaks and valleys, but I’m in a low one right now. It’s odd, being in the height of produce season and all; I should be basking in the bounty. But I’m not. Instead I’m basking in a rare (because white) glass of Sauvingon Blanc, reflecting on how I got to this place in my culinary perspective.
I guess you could say I’ve had some great successes since I started intensely scrutinizing, cataloguing, and photographing every plate that graces my table. Among other things, I had the pleasure of enjoying an all-expenses-paid journey to the Gansevoort Hotel in NYC’s Meatpacking district to have fun decorating cakes with Kelly Ripa and Buddy Valastro, for example. I also made the cut to Fox’s new seeming-hit MasterChef, which I’d likely never have heard of had I not had the blog, since I don’t own a TV and don’t much keep up with that sort of thing. The latter was a life-changing event. When I was in California doing a reconnaissance mission at the grocery store we were restricted to shop at for ingredients for our premiere signature dish on MasterChef, I had an interesting conversation with the fish monger (if you can call him that). I needed Dungeness crab for my dish, and in the process of trying to explain this to the guy, no fewer than five times he said to me, “Rachel Ray just uses the crab in a can. Why can’t you use the crab in a can?” Initially I played Ms. Nice Girl and politely explained that it was really important that I have the Dungeness because I was from Seattle, blah blah blah. I couldn’t say anything about it being for a TV show, so he just assumed I was some entitled broad off the street dissing his canned crab. When he said “Rachel Ray uses the crab in a can” for the fifth time, however, I kind of blew up. It was the culmination of a lot of stressful events and I fear I took something out on him that didn’t entirely have anything to do with the poor guy, but I gave him to it straight. “Do I look. Like. Motherfucking. RACHEL RAY?” And then I huffed off.
The events ran their course and I eventually got my Dungeness crab (albeit canned- wtf, Whole Foods, LA?) but the moment was not lost on me in terms of sorting out who I really am in this crazy culinary world. I have this big bravado of confidence that I am GOING PLACES. I am sure of it. I never let my circumspect insecurities seep out in my blog posts, video vignettes, or twitter updates, because I am the shit. I know all there is to know about this culinary show and I am WAY BETTER than Rachel Ray, so why hasn’t someone given me my own show, goddammit? Because maybe I’m not. Maybe I don’t work as hard, maybe I squander my meager talent for combining esoteric ingredients in elegant ways just because I can. Maybe I have nature down pat but my nurture is hanging out somewhere in middle school. I’m too cool to cook from cookbooks. I am WAY BETTER than Rachel Ray. Or maybe I’m not. The woman is a machine. An empire. A Martha-in-the-making minus the jailbird chic. I would probably do well to get off my damn high horse (or heels, as it were) and pay some respect to those who have come before me. Good things come to those who wait, but better things come to those who work hard. So that, my friends, is what I am starting to do.
There will be no more skating by on my laurels and lavender. I’m going to start gnawing the marrow bones of my respected predecessors, and I mean that in the best possible way. My own recipes will be tested many times before they appear on this site, and I will bite the bullet and begin the learning process I never wanted to admit I needed. I want to take it to the next level. I am not interested in dipping shortbread in Callebaut for the rest of my life. I want a real motherfuckingcareerinthiscrazythingcalledcookingandtheonlywaytogetitistoPUTITINYOURMOUTH. I want to make my THIS IS IT and live to see it. So I’m going to start at the beginning.
Well, sort of. I guess it’s kind of insulting to call Thomas Keller the beginning when he is so clearly the ultimate frontier. But hell, I respect him so much and his books (again, with the exception of Ad Hoc) represent such a challenge, that I’m going to cook from them. Intensely. And really learn what he has to teach. I’m also going to admit my shortcomings. This is meant to be a real journey and even though I’ve been cooking far more than recreationally for 15 or so years, I still don’t know how to properly truss a chicken. I just learned how to tie a butcher’s knot last week (courtesy of Russ, the soulful proprietor of Rain Shadow Meats in the Melrose Market). If you asked me to pinch a filet and tell you if it was medium rare or medium, I’d probably guess wrong. I’ve been skating on unabashed cavalier fearlessness for far too long. It’s time to learn the ABC’s. So brace yourselves, there may be some boring posts ahead in which I detail the enchanting art of debearding a mussel properly or suss out the real difference between the eight and ten inch chef’s knives. But it’s for a greater good, my friends, and it’s high time I put some technique behind my wild mind. I started by cooking from Keller a few weeks ago. Under Pressure has become a bible of sorts, since I am a big fan of sous vide. Today I took a departure from that and cooked from The French Laundry. I made skin-on sea bass with parsnip puree and spinach spheres. I learned a lot. I made a broth from mussels, then reduced it to a syrup along with vanilla bean and saffron. Then I turned the syrup into a sort of beurre monte by adding cream and butter. I wasn’t happy with my emulsification abilities. I will do it again and get it right, even though it tasted perfect.
I learned how to quickly dry fish skin so it crisps properly. Shave it in one direction with a knife, then go back over it with the knife like a squeegee. It works wonders. I learned that all white wine isn’t straight from the devil, since I had to buy a nice bottle to use a cup in my stock, and I wasn’t about to let the rest go to waste. I learned that poaching parsnips in cream makes them amazing, but in truth, I kind of already knew that:) I learned that I am missing a critical piece of kitchen equipment. It is a sieve like a chinois but it is flat and round and it is for pressing things through in order to achieve a perfect texture, like pureeed soups, and in this case, my parsnips, which I had to laboriously shove through a strainer. It is called a tamis, and it is considered a “tool of refinement.” I want to be refined. How else is the Foodie Fashionista s’posed to take over the culinary world if she doesn’t know everything about everything? And that’s a lot to learn from one humble recipe. Writing one humble post. It was a dinner that exploded on my tongue. Every flavor perfectly clung to the next. There was not an instant of incongruous hesitation about this or that not being just right. It was just right. It just was. I want to be that, and I believe I will be. Great things are on the horizon. But I am still a young Jedi. I think I just called Thomas Keller Yoda, so I had probably better sign off. Exes and Oh Baby’s, Linda
ps- this was really from the heart. So much that I wrote it all in one run-on-ey long paragraph and I’m now going to go back and separate it from itself. Like lobes of foie gras.