Cook Food Good

American Cooking and Technique for Beginners and Intermediates

Old ChefTalk Blog Posts

COOK FOOD GOOD – BDL’s Book Blog; First Entry — Parts I and II

Posted 07-29-2008 at 06:24 PM by boar_d_laze
Updated 08-02-2008 at 02:41 PM by boar_d_laze (Tweaking Title)

I. Introduction

As many of you know, I’m working on a cookbook. The information seems to have reached the important people, and I was asked by Chef’s Talk to blog the process. (H/T Nicko).

It’s a good idea for several reasons. Chef’s Talk thinks it will be interesting – as much for the writing and publishing aspects as the cooking components. Sure. Interesting. Okay for you. But, what about me?

I’m hoping the discipline of posting on a regular schedule will help me discipline the book writing process which has been giving me fits. I’m also hoping to use the blog to try some things out in terms of teaching, organizing and recipes and get some feedback on them; so they can be tweaked to work as well in reality as in my imagination (where they work great!). If there is any way to include the enthusiasm for learning that pervades this site, that will be lightning in a bottle.

We each have a role. Me blog. You feedback. Every two to three weeks, expect a new installment plus progress report. Meanwhile, I’ll sit here waiting for your responses. Alone. In the dark.

II. Book? What book?

The working title is, COOK FOOD GOOD: American Cooking and Technique for Beginners and Intermediates. Let’s call it CFG for blogging purposes.

CFG’s rationale is to present a modular approach to cooking and share some interesting recipes ranging from easy to challenging. By “modular” I mean that cooking is based on a finite number of techniques (“the basics”) which can be transferred to a variety of recipes and cuisines. Control enough of these and you can cook pretty much anything. This isn’t particularly controversial. Unfortunately organizing a cookbook by techniques rather than by particular types of foods is difficult – at least I’m finding it so.

When I first started this I was thinking about those few hundred things that every good cook knows, but for whatever reason never make it into cookbooks or Food TV. Things like: Tapping a piece of food on the side to get it to release before going under it with a spatula. How to hold a knife. How to preheat a pan. Those sorts of things. There are a lot of them and they’re sort of random. That got me to thinking about a better way of presenting them, which led me to the idea of quit fooling around, teach cooking, and be done with it.

CFG’s target audience is people who want to cook better. Just for now, let’s call the target audience, “you.” It’s catchy and suits you well. I’d like to get you to where you can cook a good meal every time; enjoy yourself doing it; and walk away from the kitchen knowing that you are a good cook. People get this look on their faces when they taste something that’s delicious. Their eyes narrow, their mouth relaxes into a half smile. It’s a wonderful thing to see. Cooking is a craft that occasionally approaches art. And as an art form, it has a unique advantage. The little flaws get eaten. It’s about satisfaction, fun and love – all of which you should have. Also, you should have a nice meal yourself now and then.

Sometimes cooking is hard work. That’s not so bad. Sometimes it gets a little tense, though. You feel the pressure. Get rid of the fear of failure and the flop sweat. The worst that can happen is you throw out a bunch of expensive food you were cooking for people you care about, say some bad words, send out for some pizza, go for a beverage run, and beat the pizza man home. That’s the worst. The absolute worst. The worst is not so bad. Don’t sweat it.

And, oh yes. It should be a decent read, too. Maybe not summer on the beach, but there’s no law which says a cookbook should be boring.

All of that cheerleading, and technique in a book. With recipes yet. A tall order which takes us back to fear of failure and flop sweat – only this time mine. There are quite a few contributors to Chef’s Talk that are making a big difference in my confidence and determination in seeing CFG through. You know whom you are. Thank you.

Enough with the introductions and the mushy stuff.

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III. What’s up Doc?

For the first installment of the blog, I thought it might be interesting for you to follow the recipe development and writing process. It’s a good illustration of the premise – building with common, fundamental techniques.

So… My wife, Linda, loves artisanal olive bread. Hey. Who doesn’t?

In truth, I’ve never been a particularly good or prolific bread baker (they’re usually the same thing). There were a few breads I did fairly well, and were enough for my purposes. But, when I thought about the book, I knew I wanted to include some breads. When I began to participate actively in Chef’s Talk I found there were a lot of people who didn’t understand “the basics” of bread making.

Yes. The pesky basics again. How long to let bread rise? It’s not a time it’s a volume. How do I measure, weight or volume? It’s not that important, you’re making dough with a particular “feel,” and not a Chem 116 quant. analysis (not a pleasant memory for me either); the bread you’re asking about should feel like … So forth and so on. That level of knowledge at least, I had and could share.

Renewed interest in baking combined with a need to develop recipes, and I started fooling around. Two “first drafts” of the book’s recipes are already posted in the “Baking” section of Chef’s Talk. Search for the Pumpernickel Sour Rye and Onion-Dill Bread – Scandinavian Style threads. (A note about these recipes: The writing is first draft, the recipes themselves are pretty well set. If you’ve any interest at all in intermediate breads which are “simple enough for a beginner,” give them a try.)

izbnso, a Chef’s Talk contributor (and one of the people to whom I owe much thanks) wrote to me about the Onion-Dill bread not long after the recipe was posted. One thing led to another, and she asked if I thought the cheese technique which gave the Onion-Dill bread such a nice, open structure would translate to an olive bread. As soon as I read “olive bread,” I knew I’d give it a shot. For Linda, or else. It’s a good idea to take her seriously.

I had my doubts about using cheese though, especially the cottage-cheese from the O-D. But I live in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California where there are many Mexican markets. A common Mexican cheese is a type of ricotta called requesón, and I’ve been meaning to fool around with it on general principles. So, why not?

The intention to bake a “new” bread is formed. There’s no recipe to mildly tweak, and nothing really close in my experience. So, what do I know going in? Quite a lot, actually. I know the basic flour, liquid, yeast, salt ratio for nearly ALL bread. That’s a heck of a starting point. I know curd cheeses release a lot of water as they’re kneaded, and that they lighten the loaf. I know requesón is saltier and drier than ricotta, and how to make one work like another – at least outside of bread. I know how bread dough should feel generally. I know which times and temperatures make which kind of crusts.

My imaginary palate told me the bread would need something extra to give it some sourness or it would be salty or, worse, bland. And, I know a few other things. Not many, but a few. In other words, the “basics” we’re all getting tired of being lectured about. Can I get an amen and a hallelujah? (One for the basics, the other for the bored.) Thank you brothers and sisters!

Creating recipes is as much about balance as anything else. You play with the taste bud receptors salt, sweet, hot, sour and “savory,” and the olfactory nerves which form the palate’s taste/aroma receptors on the roof of your mouth. And of course you work with the other senses as well. Particularly sight and touch.

Olive bread is all well and good for the bread. What about the olives? What goes well with olives? I thought I’d enhance the bread with pimentos, garlic, oregano, thyme, rosemary. The combination isn’t reinventing the wheel, but bread is essentially a comfort food. Besides these are common with olives, because they work. “Tastes good” is important. Since I was using requesón, I decided to add a little tang with cotija (the Mexican version of Parmesan) – since I knew I’d have to add Parmesan to ricotta because ricotta is so bland compared to requesón. Whether or not all that makes sense to you, it does to me.

The fact that I already have an Italian style garlic/herb bread in my quiver was a help – even if that one is built around a biga instead of cheese. I wanted a little less chew than the garlic/herb bread, but didn’t want to go as soft as the Onion-Dill bread where the cheese makes for a very tender bread. The proposed answer? Ciabatta. The large surface would make the bread bake in such a way as to impart some chewiness. Also: I wanted a hand-formed loaf after all the loaf pan breads I’d been doing; ciabatta’s an easy shape for beginners; and the texture I envisioned is typical of a Tuscan/Umbrian bread (a little finer and softer than a ciabatta from further south.) It all fit in my imagination. Taste, aroma, texture, new and familiar at the same time. Certainly good enough to take into the kitchen.

I baked off two ciabattas on Friday. How did it work? Fantastic, right? More like “Fantastic BUT.” The making went easily and Linda loved it. By her, it’s fantastic. So much for the big two.

BUT: Not enough and the wrong kind of olives (half a jar of salad olives). I don’t want to change the taste but have to quit fooling around and make a recipe adjusted for ricotta and Parmesan. The nicest part for me was getting the right amount of herbs on the first try, I’m constantly fighting a tendency to over season. The worst part was accidentally turning off the oven when I was fiddling with the timer, just as the bread went in. Overall, I’m lucky it worked this well, it doesn’t always.

That’s how a recipe gets made: A little knowledge of the subject, fundamental techniques, plus never growing out of the mud-pie stage, plus a little imagination. Can you do it? Of course. Don’t care? Just want the recipe? The Chef Talk version should be ready next weekend. I’d very much like it if you tried it.…ive-bread.html

IV. Is that all there is?

Next installment – two to three weeks.

Thank you (in advance) for the feedback I am about to receive.


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Cook Food Good – Part V – The Organization is Revealed

Posted 08-20-2008 at 04:39 PM
Updated 08-21-2008 at 08:54 PM



In case you haven’t been playing the Home Version along with the show, I promised in some of my Chef Talk posts this installment would discuss how Cook Food Good would be organized around technique, and how the recipes would be integrated.

Let me tell you the “how” has been driving me make your forehead bleed by pounding it on the table nuts for some time. There have been lots of great recipe books – some of which have done a good job of building technique. Most of us number a few of these among our favorites. A couple of famous examples are Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Child, Bertholle and Beck; and American Cookery, by Beard. These books, and many other wonderful books like them include wonderful instructions on how to handle food, but they aren’t ordered in a way which reveals how techniques relate to one another, and how the relationship helps the cook improvise, adapt and create – as well as execute. Too much trees, not enough forest.

Even the best books are organized around food types (“beef,” “pork,” “chicken,” and “fish”); or courses (“salads,” “soups,” “entrees,” and “desserts”). That may be the way we order at a restaurant, but it isn’t the way we make food. We chop, slice, saute, roast, and steam. We prep, we cook, we plate. We don’t lamb and we don’t soup.

You need a reason to set out to do something as stupid and futile as write a cookbook when you aren’t a celebrity chef – or even a celebrity. My impetus came from noticing that people who aren’t already good cooks don’t know when something they’re cooking in a pan is ready to turn. And no one, whether on TV, in a cookbook, or in any other way thinks it’s worth telling them. I dunno, man. Call me crazy, but seems like it might be important.

So, I thought to write a little book on the things every good cook knows but no one teaches. As I talked to more and more people who were learning to cook outside of cooking school, it became apparent they learned to cook dishes, rather than learning how to cook. Eventually, they learned enough from cooking the dishes to figure out how to cook. Nice. But gotta be a better way, right?

As far as I’m concerned, no one’s ever done a good job of writing a book that made learning the pieces part of integrating them into a rational whole – at least not in a way that made sense. Not that some very talented people haven’t tried. The best was La Technique by Jacques Pepin. The guy can cook, he can talk, he can teach … and the best he could do was a series of disconnected instructions on trussing a chicken, breaking a lobster and a bunch of other jumbled together stuff.

So, how? Better men have failed. Who do I think I am? Rachel Ray? Then it hit me. Escoffier. No. I don’t think I’m Escoffier. Escoffier was a hotel chef who came up with the way to organize cuisine and technique when he created the modern kitchen and its brigade around the end of the nineteenth century. I’m usually someone else. Anyway, Escoffier divided the kitchen into stations and each station had a responsibility for a type of cooking, or certain types of foods which required particular techniques. You know. The wheel I told you I was trying to reinvent with a forehead slam.

So, that’s how the technique sections of Cook Food Good is going to be organized – the way a pro kitchen is still organized around stations. In no particular order: Pantry and Cold, Sauces and Sautes; Roasts and Grills; Pastry, Baking and Sweets; Soups; Vegetables;and a right-handed reliever to be named later. Everything starts to make sense. I can put the outdoor Barbecue (smoker) and Grill sections with Roasts and Grills. The Knife section goes with pantry – each section gets its recipes. Each section has a prose spine with some general instruction, a few stories, and what not, plus a few beginner’s recipes spaced through the spine, following detailed descriptions of the required fundamentals.

What about the rest of the recipes? Who would cook them in a big restaurant kitchen? Which station? That’s where they go.

Speaking of “the rest of the recipes:” The list is growing like topsy. I’ve written a few since the last blog installment, about half of which have made it onto Chef Talk. Of the last two, one of them, “Truffled Polenta with Mariscos” is very high-end, eclectic and original. While the other, “Joe’s Special,” is hash, San Francisco as all get out, and simple as can be. In the book, both will go to the saute station with Joe’s near the beginning and the polenta at the end. If you can cook a Joe’s you’re about 75% of the way to executing Truffled Polenta. (Chances are, if you’re reading this, you can make both of them in your sleep.)

It all makes sense. So much so, I slapped my forehead. Ouch.

Hold me darling, I’m frightened.

Your comments are not optional – they are non-negotiable demands,

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Many Grains of Salt — Part the VIth

Posted 10-12-2009 at 10:20 AM by boar_d_laze
Updated 10-12-2009 at 07:15 PM by boar_d_laze


Long time no blog. Sorry about that, Chief.

What can I say? I had a rough year. And last few months – up until early September – Oy! Don’t ask. Speaking of not asking, I’d like to thank everyone who’s encouraged me to start blogging again.

One of the reasons I started this blog to begin with was to write about things which were hard to write about for one reason and another. In my case, the most difficult subject is knives. I’ve got a lot of information on the subject – somewhere between a book’s and a chapter’s worth. Editing it down to a useful digest is difficult, because so much of the information is contingent and/or inter-dynamic, and because there are so many different “good” and “right” choices. Worse, I’ve found is that contrary to most writing, the more organized I become the longer it gets.

While it’s something which must be eventually done, a blog entry probably isn’t the best place.

I also thought about doing a piece on sharpening – another thing promised but never quite finished. Unfinished for the same reasons – too much to say, too contingent, too interconnected, too many right ways,

Then I wondered if (barbecue) smokers might not be worth a shot. The subject presents all of the same hurdles from a writing standpoint, but for a lot of reasons, the most important of which is that there actually is a best choice for most beginners or people moving up to their first “good” smoker. Barbecues are just a lot more manageable than knives.

Eventually, a thought penetrated that block of cocobolo I call my head. The importance of making the “right” decision about the “best” piece of equipment is highly overrated. As a sort of parable, I try not to recommend most of the equipment I actually own and use. There are a lot of reasons, really. A partial list: I don’t want to use my recommendation as a validation of my own choices; I bought stuff a long time ago, and there’s better on the market; and I’m not you.

The best advice I can give about equipment purchases is to narrow down the possible options to a set – of all which are good choices. As long as you do this and bear in mind there is no “best,” you can’t go wrong.

Best advice, yes; but you and I both know that the kind of writing you see in airline magazine, which give you a sort of list of the types of choices, each and all of which according to the author are equally good, is not helpful. (That’s a lot of dependent clauses, what? What?)

It’s not really fair to leave you hanging on knives, sharpening or barbecues. So let’s see what can be said meaningfully – more in terms of how than what to choose. Over the next few days (or weeks, depending on my work load), I’ll follow this entry up with a few others on those subjects.

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