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Comments by YACCS
Wednesday, April 28, 2004

What do you keep in your cupboard

What do you have in your cupboard?

New Wave Cooking: Do Try This at Home

Published: April 28, 2004

WHEN friends come for dinner we tend to cook what we know. There is no sense attempting sea urchin napoleons when roasted chicken and braised pork shoulder have proven to be crowd pleasers. But life gets dull without a challenge, so we decided to stir some risk and ambition into our routine, composing a spring dinner inspired by the new wave chefs, the ones turning culinary tradition on its head from suburban Barcelona to the Lower East Side of New York.

Even if you have never sampled their handiwork, you may have heard about such haute-cuisine iconoclasts as Heston Blumenthal, the chef at the Fat Duck in Bray, England, which recently earned three Michelin stars for a repertory that includes bacon-and-egg ice cream and sardine-on-toast sorbet (Carvel take note). There's Ferran Adrià, the chef of El Bulli in Rosas, Spain, and the de facto dean of avant-garde chefs, who spends six months of every year in a Barcelona lab refining such inventions as wonton wrappers made from the "skin" of scalded milk. On these shores are visionaries like Grant Achatz at Trio, who has introduced Evanston, Ill., diners to the pleasures of lobster slow-cooked with Thai iced tea.

They're the sort of chefs who consider themselves artists and philosophers more than fish grillers and asparagus poachers, testing the limits of a diner's trust (and often charging a king's ransom for the privilege), but succeeding far more often than they fail.

As for us, we had an agenda other than simply shaking off the winter doldrums with a night of kitchen gymnastics. We wanted to rifle through the chefs' high-concept tool bags for any techniques or tools that amateur cooks might take home. An encounter earlier this year with a bright red pixie dust at the Manhattan restaurant WD-50 had encouraged us: the powder had a fruity, exotic and deliciously intense pepper flavor. It was in fact a common bell pepper, Wylie Dufresne, WD-50's chef, revealed, dehydrated in a simple device you can buy on eBay for less than the price of a fancy cocktail, and then pulverized in a coffee grinder. If we could learn to tease sophisticated flavors from everyday sources, the exercise would be worth the risk.

So we ordered a dehydrator (rather than risk losing an eBay auction, we bought a brand-new Nesco/American Harvest dehydrator direct from the manufacturer, $59.95 at and went to work planning the menu. The cookbook "El Bulli 1998-2002," the nearly 500-page, nine-pound volume by Mr. Adrià and his associates seemed the ideal place to start, and fortunately a friend lent us a copy — it's about $200. Flipping through the book was an instant immersion in the new wave mindset, where sweet meets savory in alarming ways (olive and white chocolate, tuna and black currant), where hot and cold are transposed (barbecued corn sorbet, hot mayonnaise) and where textural expectations are upended wherever possible (cauliflower is couscouslike, almonds foamy).

Some of Mr. Adrià's tools seemed out of reach — anybody got a Pacojet, the Swiss-made, 2,000 r.p.m. frozen-food processor? Or a Thermomix, the German steamer/food processor? And the photos of the superminimalist kitchen at El Bulli with leagues of lab-coated chefs at attention, were intimidating. But the book got us thinking outside of the box.

Now most of us are not going to cook haute cusine at home, or even try. But this interested me because it covers a theme I've been thinking about for a while, what do you keep on hand at home.

There are a few basics which we all have, sugar, salt, black pepper, eggs. But whens someone raised the issue of canned olives, it set me to thinking. Fresh olives are available in delis, supermarkets, farmers markets. If you really wanted an olive, a nice, salty olive, this isn't the 1970's. Get fresh ones.

The same wirh cheese, bread and vegetables. We can get them fresh and eat them daily.

Americans tend to shop as hoarders. We get frozen food, hoard it, try to buy days out for bread and cheese and other things which taste best when fresh. When my mother was a girl, she went to the butcher for my grandmother, everyone did in the 30's and 40's. It was common and well understood. A supermarket was for canned goods. People expected to get things like milk and bread and meat as they needed them. Not to store and hoard.

We know most Europeans don't shop like this. They tend to buy as they need and cook as they need. But it is rare in France to cook at home for guests. Most eating in Europe tends to be either intimate, and at home, or takes place outside. Americans tend to cherish home cooking, even as more of us lose the basic skill of cooking.

But it occurs to me that to cook, you need some creativity and some flexibility and that requires both tools and basic food stuffs.

Everyone needs a good knife. A good knife matters more than most things, because it is so flexible. What is a good knife? One which has a reliable handle and feels good in your hand. That's it. Some folks might like a Wustoff, finely balanced and expensive, some might like a single cast piece of metal. It depends solely on your tastes.

A non-stick frying pan also is crucial. It can do most things on most days. I'd get one with an oven-proof handle. One of the great tricks of cooking is to start something on a stove and finish it off in the oven. You can then get crunchy and not oily.

I live without a food processor, but I can see it being useful. Unlike a bread machine. Most people get it, use it a couple of times and let it sit. Now, I know there are some of you who use it every day, and there are those of use who floss daily. You remain exceptions.

A deep, large pot is essential. It can serve as both pasta boiler and less admitted, a fryer. Instead of buying a dedicated fryer, a relatively deep pot can fry up most of what you need, especially with the metal basket most of the good pasta pots have.

What essential food stuffs should you keep around? A can of tuna, a can of salmon, rice, pasta, a lot of spices, canned tomatoes, frozen veggies, at least one frozen piece of meat, breakfast meats, eggs, canned mushrooms, kosher salt, flour, olive oil, pizza dough, two kinds of cheese.

A quick pizza is a great dinner when you're wiped out. Omletes and even sausages sandwiches can be a filling meal. If you get frozen peppers and onions, you pick up a roll and you have a hero in five minutes. The thing is to keep around food that you can fix quickly and when tired. Not just frozen chicken fingers and Hot Pockets, but real food which doesn't take forever to cook. Kielbasa is a quick meal on its own. Kielbasa and eggs is heavenly.

Quick cook rice and salmon with onions is one of my favorite meals.

The trick to stocking your cubbard is to have food you can cook quickly. Which is not a Lean Cusine and a diet soda. Sure, you can cook that quickly, but it isn't really a meal. It's frozen crap ladened with salt, which is what preservatives really are.

You should be able to have a hot, fresh meal when you come home, one you fix. The key is to make sure that you have the basic ingredients and tools to execute a decent meal. Yeah, you can save money and have better tasting food, but with a little foresight and planning, you can actually have food you can enjoy when all you want to do is sit down and watch the black people get voted off American Idol.:)

posted by Steve @ 1:11:00 PM

1:11:00 PM

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