Saturday, January 24, 2009

High Heat is Not My Friend: Advice from the Pros on How to Cook Your Bass

So many Top Chefs call New York home, Tom Colicchio might as well be mayor. And yet, after two trips to the City and a decent amount of Top Chef stalking, Marcy and I hadn’t met any of them. My mom has no ambitions of befriending the rising stars of the culinary world, and even she randomly walked right past season 4 Andrew outside his private dining club. Jealousy gave way to discouragement. We threw down the autograph pads and concentrated on our plan to cook sea bass that night.

We got off to a good start when we walked over to Chelsea Market for the fish. Occupying an entire city block in the meat-packing district, the Market dates back to 1898, when the original Nabisco Bakery produced the first Oreo cookie. Today, the Market consists of the Food Network, restaurants, and 12 specialty food shops, including the Lobster Place, the largest purveyor of live lobster in the City. When we walked in, the smell of fish was so sweet that my dad said he’d like to engineer an open-air vent from the market to his living room. We put that project on hold, settling for a fillet of Chilean sea bass caught just three hours before, like all of the store’s fish.

Following a recipe from Colicchio’s book, Think Like a Chef, we needed a few other ingredients, and we headed to a small grocery across from the fish market. Then it happened – an angel appeared. A squat spiky-haired Indonesian angel. It was season 4 Dale. Marcy walked right past him, even though he was wearing his trademark taupe-rimmed glasses (not to mention a Buddakan chef jacket with his name on the breast). Amazingly, despite being focused on the bass, my Dale-dar was still working.

I will concede that Buddakan is located inside the Chelsea Market, so it only makes sense that the sous chef would be shopping for ingredients there. But after many frustrating attempts to meet Top Chef contestants, randomly seeing Dale felt as miraculous as Forrest Gump meeting JFK at the White House. Instead of telling Dale “I gotta pee,” though, we used the opportunity to get some advice about our sea bass. The recipe called for us to stuff the fish with roasted tomatoes, using a string to tie them in between two fillets – the idea being to infuse the tomato flavor into the fish. Given our inexperience with hog-tying fish, and my parents’ high expectations, we seemed to be courting disaster.

At first, Dale seemed a little reticent about string theory. Dale's most memorable moment from the show came after an argument with a fellow contestant, when he declared, “I try not to be a dickhead in the kitchen.” Considering Dale's aloof attitude towards us, though, it seemed that he was more open to being a dickhead in the supermarket.

But our charm won him over. We resisted the temptation to make any annoying “pack your knives” jokes, and after we told him about our dinner at Buddakan, he flashed a rare smile, leading to a quick tutorial on the bass. The gist of his advice was to give the fish high heat, or in his words, “blast it.” I realized that this approach contradicts Colicchio’s instruction in the book, highlighted in no less than 24-point font, “high heat is not your friend.” When you treat the ingredients gently, Colicchio explains, you get the best results in terms of flavor and texture. Dale was ladled off Top Chef for making bad butterscotch scallops. Maybe he blasted the scallops, too.

Ultimately, our excitement over meeting Dale didn’t stop us from ignoring his advice. I like Dale, but he is only a B-list cheflebrity, afterall. On the other hand, when Tom Colicchio says low sizzle, you low sizzle. So, even as my dad wafted about the kitchen, hungrily suggesting that the fish looked done, I kept adjusting the heat to make sure that the sugars in the food didn’t caramelize too quickly.

Maybe too proud of our fish tying, we forgot to cut the string before serving, but other than that, my parents gave the bass high marks. Despite the fairly complicated technique necessary to tie the bundle, the taste was winning for its simplicity – fresh fish and roasted tomato over a basic sauce of tomato juice, garlic and butter.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Top Chile

Marcy recently bought me the Top Chef Cookbook. So far, this gift has been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it has pushed me to grapple with recipes that are more lengthy and complex than the recipes listed on what I call houselor websites – those that are targeted at housewives and bachelors, two demographics whose only overlap is their desire to crank out food quickly and without any headache. and will get you dinner on the table faster than you can say microwaveable.

Although I’m a bachelor, I like to think of myself as an overachieving one. Top Chef recipes are a pretty good way to test that. In fact, when I tackled my first recipe, I think I got a little taste of what it’s like to be on Top Chef. Did I mention that the new cookbook has also been a curse?

A list of the ways that my preparation of Chiles Rellenos, the dish served by Sara during season 3, made me feel like a Top Chef:

1. Like the chefs on the show, I was operating under severe time constraints. Admittedly, one small difference is that the contestants on the show are trying to finish cooking before Tom Colicchio tells them it’s time for the judges table, whereas I was trying to finish in time to eat dinner before going to bed. I got off work late, which, if I was making Barry’s 27 word long Bachelor Chow recipe, wouldn’t be a problem. But given Sara’s flair for complicating things, I found myself about halfway through the recipe at 10:45 pm. Worried that this was going to turn into an all-nighter, I began to scramble for the finish line, running around the kitchen like a Top Cheffer fearing Padma’s icy stare.

2. The recipe called for a higher level of skill than, for example, your average momwhothinks must demonstrate when making “happy apples.” This highlights another small difference between the Top Chefs and me: they actually possess that higher level of skill. The recipe required that I roast the chiles over a gas flame, turning with tongs until blackened. I quickly found that if you don’t burn long enough, the skin can be hard to peel. And if you burn too much, the flesh turns blackish – also hard to peel. After stumbling through the burning process, I found the task of peeling the skin of the peppers to be delicate as well; I didn’t want to remove all the blackened skin because I liked the char flavor. I began to appreciate why chiles rellenos are so expensive at restaurants. You’re paying for the labor. And such attention to detail, when you need to be doing something else, like going before Top Chef judges or lying in bed unconscious, is tough.

3. I enjoy artistically arranging food on a plate, but I find that your typical online recipe doesn’t provide much advice about how to Picasso-up your dish. The Cookbook recipe included a fairly long “To Serve” section, and the photograph was also instructive. The bell pepper sauce laid a foundation, and then I spooned some beans on the other side of the plate, forming concentric red and brown circles, an earthy backdrop for the big green poblano pepper, which is placed in the middle. An avocado slice goes aside the green butter to provide a clue about the butter’s main ingredient. And a sprig of cilantro gives you a hint of spicy pleasures awaiting you inside the pepper.

4. Just like the Top Chefs, I too toiled away in an effort to satisfy an audience that does not spare the rod when evaluating my performance. The Top Chef Cookbook required a two-page spread to cover all the put-downs Anthony Bourdain has used to denigrate chefs. And although Marcy has never accused my food of falling into “cat food territory,” she can be tough. Her criticism usually takes a more passive form, though, like getting up from the table and returning with a salt shaker. But I strategically arrived late in the evening to ensure that she would be hungry to increase the receptivity of her tastebuds. Then, as she took her first few bites, I aggressively fished for compliments – “Isn’t the squash a nice contrast in texture to the avocado butter?” – to coax her into compliments that would create a binding record, forcing her to give the meal a good score. When I told her how long the chiles took, I tacked on an hour to embellish the degree of difficulty, which, in our scoring system, accounts for one/fifth of the points. These tactics seemed to work as she initially called the food “great.” But then she grew quieter, and when she got up from the table, I knew the salt shaker was about to make an appearance. Ultimately, she gave me a good point total, but not the 100 that I hoped for. I gnashed my teeth at the injustice, like a Top Chef contestant who wasn’t quite good enough to win the Quickfire Challenge, holding back a range of angry comebacks so as not to damage my relationship with the judge.

The Recipe:

My Two Dales

It had been a while since I’d gone out to eat in the City, and it felt like it.

Everything about our destination, Buddakan, was a bit mystifying. First of all, was this a nice restaurant, or a Las Vegas sex club? When we walked in we were greeted with loud music, paintings aglow with amorous shades of red, and a black-lit bar area crammed with boisterous twenty-somethings. My parents wondered if they were over the age limit.

The wait was too long, and, tired of standing, my mom sat down pretty defiantly on the narrow stairs, blocking the path of the twenty-somethings. Noticing the obstacle to his customers’ mating dances, a manager approached and ushered us past the bar scene and into a huge eating area.

Confusion persisted as Marcy and I schemed about how to hit our bull’s eye, former Top Chef contestant Dale. We’d read online that Dale worked the kitchen, and our mission for the night was to get him to autograph a Buddakan menu for us. Having bought Top Chef merchandise and arranged meetings with other Cheftestants in the past, we're definitely Top Chef groupies. By traveling over 300 miles from DC to meet Dale, we're also probably stalkers, but it's not like I want to get Padma's used napkin for my kitchen drawer or anything (I would frame it and put it up on my wall). Dale's got a mohawk, so we figured he’d be easy enough to spot, but the restaurant was the size of, well, a Las Vegas sex club. We realized he could be anywhere in this cavernous eatery.

Another confusing aspect to the evening was the Buddakan menu. Online, the prices seemed reasonable, but what I didn’t realize, as our waiter smugly pointed out, was that each item was amuse-bouche – just a few bites. He rattled off a dissertation on the proper ratio of cold appetizers; hot appetizers; noodle dishes; rice dishes; and beef, poultry, and vegetables. Eventually, he concluded that we would have to order about ten dishes. As I watched the color drain out of my parents’ faces, I realized that I had recommended that they take us to one of the most expensive restaurants in New York.

Hoping that the massacre of my dad’s wallet would at least finance an opportunity to brush up against Top Chef greatness, I asked the waiter if he could help us meet Dale. He looked at me as if I had just asked him to douse his grandmother with gas and light a match, then recovered and said he would check.

He returned a little later with our dishes. The food was very tasty, although I was looking for something a little farther off the eaten path. The only thing on the menu that made me curious was the ginger glazed veal cheeks with pickled apple salad. Everyone at the table rolled their eyes when I suggested ordering cheeks, suggesting that it was an overly eccentric choice, but I just took that as extra incentive to order them; I could enjoy the cow dimples all to myself. Because everyone had gone on record as anti-cheek, I carelessly positioned the bowl in close proximity to my dad – who ended up eating about three quarters of it. Even Marcy tried some and smiled, adding fuel to the debate over whether I’m turning her into a carnivore, or she’s turning me into a vegetarian. I do have to admit that I enjoyed the bed of apple salad almost as much as the cheeks.

Other highlights were the tuna tartare spring rolls and steamed sea bass rolls. The sea bass came in a sizzling scallion oil, which I liked so much that when I got back home I unsuccessfully tried to recreate it. Buddakan’s version was a little more tart than mine, so I added in some ginger, which drowned out the sesame oil. A work in progress.

Our waiter never got back to us about Dale, so we didn’t get our menus autographed. He just handed us the bill, and I resolved to buy my parents really nice birthday presents to make amends. To add insult to injury, after we left Buddakan we realized that we were thinking of the wrong Dale. Buddakan’s Dale is actually the diminutive, acerbic Indonesian Dale from season five, not the mohwaked, self-proclaimed “sleazy” Dale from season four. Back home, I fruitlessly scanned my memory for any recollection of seeing a sneering Asian guy in a double-breasted jacket. Next time, we’re storming the kitchen with our pens drawn.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Straying from the Recipe: Southeast Asian Squash Curry

I hung out over the weekend with this guy from North Carolina. His southern manners were ingratiating, but I also attributed to him some stereotypes about southern people: wedded to tradition, unimaginative, and, well, kind of boring. Then we got to talking about cooking. His eyes lit up with a glint of adventurousness, and he put me to shame. His tales of experimenting with ingredients and straying far from recipes made me question my own cooking nature: specifically, how conservative I am in the kitchen. If this hick gets all freaky with his spice rack, why I am such a recipe-clinger?

So the other night, I found myself in a pickle: an interesting recipe for southeast Asian squash curry – and very few of the ingredients in the fridge. Inspired by my laid-back yet daring friend, I threw recipe to the wind.

But even the part of the recipe that I planned on following seemed a bit of a stretch. Squash with fish sauce? Do people from Thailand really eat squash? Despite misgivings, I prepared the ingredients. Then, my substitutions began: I went with leeks in the absence of onions; traded bok choy for spinach, and just to completely fly my foodie freak flag, I threw in turnips. And I put carrots in there too!

I felt alive and free, but then I dumped in too much cinnamon. Not the first time – I think I subconsciously make this blunder sometimes because years ago an ex-girlfriend accused me of having a whole bunch of completely full spice bottles – suggesting that I was spending more time buying my powders than shaking them. Scarred, I now shake vigorously to empty those babies out.

As the food cooked, I took a taste and what stood out was the variety of texture. Many good contrasts between soft and crunchy, particularly enhanced by the bok choy. But, as expected, my enthusiasm with the cinnamon had been a mistake – it gave the dish a sweet earthy taste that reminded of a middle eastern tagine, which detracted from the delicate southeast Asian feel that was already jeopardized by the squash. Thankfully I still had the chili paste and coconut milk, which pushed the taste of the food forcefully in the direction of Bangkok. Still, I tried to compensate for the cinnamon by tripling the amount of fish sauce that the recipe called for, but the cinnamon refused to be quieted. Sweet won over pungent, although the next day when I ate leftovers at work, the burning smell of the fish sauce overwhelmed the guy at the cubicle next to me, forcing him outside for a smoke. You know your dish is smelly when people choose cancer over it.

The highlight of the evening was that the squash worked with fish sauce. And I was also pleased that I refused my last-second impulse to run to the supermarket for cashews. Just before plating my fiery curry, I craved the nuts and wondered how they would even further enhance the mixed textures – but I remembered my southern friend’s rebellious influences and stayed true to my goal of departing from the recipe, which included cashews. That, and plus after I taste-tested the squash in fish sauce, my hunger spiked to a level that it couldn’t be delayed by even the shortest cashew run.

Southeast Asian Squash Curry (from

Active time:20 min
Start to finish:35 min
October 2008
We love the many textures and flavors of this spicy coconut curry with butternut squash, spinach, and cashews. Bottled red curry paste keeps it supermarket-friendly.

1 tablespoon plus 2 tsp vegetable oil, divided
1 1/2 lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 (14-oz) can unsweetened coconut milk (do not stir), divided
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons Thai Kitchen red curry paste
1/3 cup water
1 (2- to 3-inch) cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
5 oz baby spinach (5 cups packed)
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce, or to taste
1/4 cup salted roasted cashews, chopped
lime wedges

· Heat 1 Tbsp oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Sauté squash with cumin and 1/4 tsp salt until beginning to brown, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
· Add remaining 2 tsp oil to skillet and cook onion over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup coconut milk from top of can and cook, stirring, until fat starts to separate and look glossy, about 2 minutes. Add curry paste and cook, stirring, 2 minutes.
· Add squash, water, cinnamon, cloves, and remaining coconut milk and simmer, covered, until squash is tender, about 8 minutes. Stir in spinach and cook, covered, until just wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in fish sauce. Sprinkle with cashews.
Serve with: jasmine riceCooks’ note: We’ve also got a web-exclusive recipe using the leftover red curry paste.
Recipe by Maggie Ruggiero
Photography by Romulo Yanes
quick kitchen,
maggie ruggiero
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