Sunday, March 15, 2009

Coltrane is Dumplings, or, Why I Don't Use Recipes

First off, big thanks to all of you who replied to my call for potluckees. The response was great and encouraging, and we'll be figuring out the logistics in the coming week or so to get the potluck happening. Most of all, it was great to hear such enthusiasm and learn that in a sea of $75 "Farm-to-Table" dinner price tags, I'm not alone out here in my desire to create/revive something a bit more real. I'd still love to hear from anyone else interested in the potluck; just email me at

Moving on, some readers have asked why I don't really include recipes in my writing, and I'd like to explain. Basically, the goal with my writing is to approach food from a more conceptual mindset. Believe me, I understand the recipe thing; I used to really need them to get me going, but over the years as I've advanced as a cook (in experience--not necessarily skill level), I've found them much more useful as a muse of sorts; an inspiration; a starting point.

There's a chef named Marco Pierre White, a wonderful (if psychotic) British chef, the first Briton and youngest chef to be awarded three Michelin stars (who unfortunately is now taking the Gordon Ramsay route of becoming a television personality, but that's neither here nor there). I saw him giving a recipe and demonstration of making a roasted pork belly once, with a great glaze and some roasted veg. I'm drooling just thinking of it now: the fat layer was so good and crisped up, and the sound of him cutting it...mamma mia! It was the crispiest crumbliest most mind blowingly delicious looking/sounding thing ever. And the glaze...mmm...the glaze. So, from that, in my head, it's simple: "I wanna make a crispy pork belly roast, and a sweet glaze, and some roast veg to go with it." And I think that's the best place for any cook to start. Whether they ate something, saw something, read a recipe somewhere, I think that ultimately, it's best to have a concept and visualization of what it is that you want the end product to be.

So, I visualize how many people I'm feeding, and how much I selfishly want left over for sandwiches, and I go to Paulina and get a good piece of belly. Then, I go to the market, hopefully the farmer's market, but if it's winter and the market isn't really happening, it'll be Stanley's, or somewhere like that. It's kind of a good time for citrus right now, so I'll pick up some oranges or those good honey tangelos that are around. I'll consider the spices I have in my cabinet, maybe get some good cider from my friend at Seedling Farm, you know, things that taste good with pork. Thyme/apples/oranges/cinnamon/star anise, things you've tasted with pork before and that will work as a glaze. Honey to thicken it and make it more unctuous. Veg that looks good. Then, simple as that, go home and make it happen.

Rub the belly with some olive oil, and season it generously with salt and pepper. Put it in a hot stove and let it roast until soft and tender inside and nice and crisp on the outside. Throw the veg in the oven when the pork is akmost done. Turn up the heat a bit if it needs more crisping. Realize the cider is too thin to be a glaze, so reduce it, and throw in aromatic orange zest and juice, spices, and honey 'till it's nice and gooey. Remove all from heat. Slice, serve attractively on a plate. You know? It is just that easy.

Of course, there are benefits that experience brings, and I'll concede that sometimes to gain this experience, recipes are necessary as a guide. Especially with scientific things like baking and brines and cure and that sort of thing. But the more you cook, the more experienced you become, and the more you believe in yourself as a cook. And the easier it is to know when a roast is done, flavor combinations that work, what product looks good, and how much you need to get. And this is the reason I'm aiming my writing away from recipes. You see, when recipes are followed, they tend to make cooks a bit short-sighted. "The store only has light brown sugar and no dark brown sugar!" "My recipe calls for kale and all they have is the blue ribbon cabbage!" "This recipe calls for organic milk from the morning milking of Ayrshire Cows by Amish Farmers on the third morning after the blue moon and all the Jewel has is commodity Dean's brand milk!"

I believe that cooking and the ability to cook is inside each and every person--it has to be, as preparing and eating food is one of the few basic instincts necessary for survival for everyone on the planet. We just need to find a way to unlock and remember that knowledge and understand what our senses are telling us, and learning from recipes is a great way to do that. But as we fill our mental larder with food knowledge, those messages get bigger and more improvised based on the skills and knowledge we've obtained and honed. It's like a musician reading sheet music, or an actor holding their script on stage. And if we listen to our food carefully, and cook from the soul, we are quite capable of cooking like an improvising musician or well rehearsed actor. We can feel food as opposed to thinking it. And just as music is so diverse and so interesting, so is food. Everyone interprets their relationship with food in a different way. Every culture has some sort of dumpling; but ravioli is worlds apart from bao. John Coltrane's Equinox as performed by Jose James is unique from a random Columbian band. My mom's mac and cheese is different than your mom's mac and cheese.

So that, in a very large, opinion-riddled nutshell, is why I don't include recipes on Food on the Dole. But I would love to make it clear, that if you ever, ever have any questions about the food I write about, or how to prepare it (or anything else for that matter), please let me know and I'll be happy to discuss it with you. But please realize that this is about as far as my knowledge of Trane goes.