Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eating on the Couch

By je * Other je Posts

There are few things I enjoy as much as food. New York is a glorious and dangerous place for a foodie. In addition to the great restaurants and food festivals, if you like to take your meals into your own hands, you can find any ingredient with a visit to your neighborhood meat market, stroll through the Union Square farmers market, or quick trip to Chinatown.

Growing up, my family didn’t eat out much, and it wasn’t until recently that I began to trace back the love of food that my parents instilled in me. I love my mother’s cooking--it is intentionally simplistic. Her repertoire developed over time, with roots in Haitian and Latin American cuisine. Influenced in part by our American friends, my sister and I grew up with very strong opinions about what we wanted to eat. My mother would rarely let us indulge in this country’s staples like pizza or happy meals, but she accommodated our requests by stripping out the exotic ingredients in our culture’s traditional food to make it all a bit more kid friendly. As a result, she’s naturally refined her technique to produce very clean and precise outcomes, despite her tendency to eye-ball everything—which, I will add, is incredibly frustrating if you ever ask her for a recipe. My father, on the other hand, was always a bit more avant-garde when it came to the culinary arts. Most of his formal education and professional work has been in food science, and a scientist’s spirit of experimentation was always in full display in the kitchen. Sometimes the result was nothing short of stellar, but I can remember vividly (and still taste) every gastronomic disaster. But you could tell he enjoyed the drama, mystery, and anticipation, and he never felt bad about the result of his curiosity.

These two approaches to cooking, and the underlying affinity towards food that I inherited, sadly, lay dormant in me until college. Until I left for university, I took most home-cooking for granted and I was content to stuff myself with cafeteria tatter tots, KFC twisters, or Italian BMTs from Subway throughout high school. I’m sure many of you have held similar attitudes, and some probably still do. Things changed sometime during the first semester of freshman year. Meal plan novelty lost its luster; I quickly became bored with the same fare at the all-you-care-to-eat dining halls, and so I begin to explore more of the interesting restaurants and cafes near campus. Then, in my sophomore year, I started to work as a waiter in a local Japanese joint and in the act of delivering all those California rolls and orders of chicken teriyaki to drunk sorority girls and pseudo-intellectual townies, I developed an appreciation for food preparation and the pageantry of food service.

Shortly thereafter, I took a 2-credit evening cooking class (how’s that for course selection!) and mincing garlic has been a wonderfully cathartic activity ever since. I followed the night class up with our college’s famous wine tasting course. Aside from the pleasures derived from drinking-for-credit, the class challenged me to begin thinking critically about the components of taste. I’m certainly no gourmand, but I now “listen” to food more than most people, and I try to bring some of the lessons learned with me into the kitchen. Over time, cooking has evolved from an inconvenient means to satisfy my daily nutritional requirements for life, to my favorite hobby.

And so for all of you aspiring amateur chefs, I wanted to share some tips to get you ready in time for your summer potlucks & picnics:

Get a Knife

My father always thinks of the worst case scenario, and he never liked to take unnecessary chances when it came to home safety. Keeping a large chef knife was, in some paranoid way, tempting misfortune. Consequently, we only had serrated steak knives in the home since they were functional, but small—mitigating much of the risk of injury. This, in my father’s mind, was an acceptable compromise. And so, much like how I always believed everyone ordered meat “well done” I assumed that this is how most households were run. Then came that cooking class in college. Class 1, lesson 1: “A good chef knife and paring knife are a must-have in your arsenal.” I’ve found this to be true time and time again.

When you’ve got the proper tool and form, cutting and chopping are a breeze and you’ll be amazed at how much better your food will look when it’s not being ripped apart by the jagged teeth of a steak or bread knife. There’s plenty of great information out on the web and I’ll leave the endorsements to the experts, but a good knife that feels comfortable in your hand is the best investment you can make for your kitchen. One warning, it’s very easy to go overboard when purchasing cutlery. I recommend doing a little research to find something that fits within your budget.

Be Intimate

For my 21st birthday, my girlfriend’s parents gave me a gift basket with some gourmet tortilla chips & salsas, fresh ground cumin & dried chilies, margarita mix & a big ass bottle o’ tequila, and two cookbooks (best gift basket ever!). One of these books, Mexican, has been close to me ever since, essentially becoming a fixture of the kitchen of every apartment I’ve inhabited in the 5 years since. The book is full of vibrant pictures and colorful descriptions, covering the salsas, sauces, steaks, and sangria of our southern neighbors. The Book begins with a section devoted to the ingredients used throughout the rest of the book, thus providing a quick reference if you find yourself confused about how to prepare jicama or the intensity of poblano chiles.

Over the years, I’ve probably made more than half of the recipes in this book and it’s been a great way to develop some depth to an otherwise superficial (yet strong) love of Mexican cuisine. Now, when challenged by the availability of certain ingredients or when moved by an improvisational whim, I’ve taken liberties when making my favorites and through this exploration I know what steps to skip in a recipe, when to substitute (and when NOT to), which dishes complement each other, and most generally, the effects that certain ingredients or methods of preparation might impart on the taste, texture, aroma, or presentation of a dish. It’s difficult to know any of this without the familiarity that comes with spending some quality time with a good book.

Don’t Forget to Share

Cooking for 1 usually sucks. Scaling back a recipe can be very tricky and can also lead to a lot of waste if your ingredients are not easily divisible. Maintaining a store of fresh ingredients is even worse—trying to use up a whole bunch of parsley before it goes bad might require adding it to your bowl of Cheerios in the morning. I’m lucky enough to live with two ravenous eaters; these guys massacre meals compared to me. Not surprisingly, they have been very supportive of my passion for the kitchen and they’ve been kind enough to provide honest and astute feedback with every meal. Now, if they could just remember to tip..

If you’re not lucky enough to have your own hungry hungry hippos down the hall, host a few dinner parties. They need not be elaborate, and having another set of taste buds to enjoy your work will be both rewarding and enlightening. When cooking for others, remember to mind the presentation.

Give Yourself Time

I violate this “rule” often. I tend to be pretty ambitious when allocating time to cook: I get lost or distracted along the way and guests arrive before I’m totally finished. It’s something I aim to improve upon in the future, along with flossing daily and watering my houseplants regularly. Fortunately, I’ve never had one of those epic disasters that might have required some intensive intervention to rescue a botched dish or an entirely new contingency, but it’s something every cook should consider budgeting a little time for, particularly for high-pressure or important dinners. There’s always a chance that something bad can happen, so hope for the best but plan for the worst.

When using a recipe, read through it thoroughly beforehand and identify the critical path to execute your plan without delay or hiccups. Be mindful of the state of the ingredients at start of Step 1: if something is already peeled/chopped/sliced, you may not have time to do this in the middle of step 3. For example, if you’re instructed to fry garlic in olive oil and add 1 chopped onion once the garlic turns golden, it’s likely that there will not be enough time for you to work on chopping the onion once the garlic is added to the oil, so you should finish your chopping before adding anything to heat.

Explore & Internalize

Professionals in every field (be it sports, science, or art) are constantly reviewing history while broadening their knowledge with new ideas. So eat out, try new dishes, order the same plate twice, and don’t be afraid to be creative with your own concoctions. While you’re enjoying these meals, try to think critically about your experience. Most people never move beyond “this taste good”, but there’s a lot more going on in your mouth that you should try to understand (I’m sorry that sounded dirty). What flavors pop? Can you detect some of the supporting cast of ingredients mentioned on the menu? How does this compare to anything similar you’ve enjoyed in the past? These are questions that will allow you to begin to unravel some of the magic behind food.


  1. the best way to serve a jicama is with chili powder and loads of lime juice over it.

  2. Twisters were the craziest!

    Question: when sauteeing, in what order should you put in the following ingredients so as not to burn or render completely texureless, while at the same time not leave mad crunchy, your various goods:

    onions, garlic, peppers, root vegetables, spices, herbs, salt/pepper, tomatoes, eggplant, squashes, water chestnuts, those mini corns they be putting in chinese foods, cabbage, tomatoes, and whatever else?