Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rule #2: Don't Drop the Nuts--On Moving On from Your Mistakes

As I enter the kitchen this evening, tying my bandanna over my still-damp hair, it dawns on me that I only have five nights left in this kitchen. What makes this an even odder realization is that I can't immediately rattle off what I've learned: I know that it takes me less effort to wash a tub of greens, to scoop out a bowl of ice cream, to crush a tub of ice.  My knife skills are improved, my time-to-oyster-shucked ratio has dropped dramatically, and I'm starting to understand the idea of small, carefully utilized movements in the confined space of a kitchen. I call out "Corner" in a loud clear voice without near collisions, and cleaning my space has become an automatic part of the cooking process.

But I'm nowhere near as versed as I thought I'd be when I first set out on this adventure, and I'm certainly in no position to lead a kitchen. I lack the absolute certainty of where the basil flowers should go on a plate of lemon shaker tart, or how to keep that neat margin of white space on the plate. And I'm nowhere closer to making duck confit, portioning out a chicken, or searing a steak. My education has come more from the mistakes I've made than the new opportunities presented...

But that also seems to be the nature of a kitchen: that you only learn through errors, through the moments you failed to be completely present. While crushing a sheetpan worth of roasted hazelnuts, using a rolling pin to whack each one into submission, I skim through my emails and find a rejection from one of my favorite websites. I'd sent them my Saturday night post on "Where I'm Writing From," and they declined to run it on their site. It'd nothing so devastating or surprising--no literary site got a good reputation by being all-inclusive. But it leaves me unfocused enough that, when rounding a corner with the tub of crushed nuts, it slips out of my hands and pours all over the floor. Just like that, 3-4 cups of hazelnuts and 20 minutes of work, gone. Cursing under my breath, I slip on rubber gloves and salvage those nuts that haven't touched the floor, then sweep up the remains in a dustpan.

"That's nothing," Geddes says cheerfully, adjusting the sous vide machine. "We had a kitchen intern once who dropped an entire speed rack full of hors d'oeuvres for a part of 300 people."

"Oh then this is small potatoes compared to that! I mean," I say, trying not to look too casual about wasting a lot of expensive nuts, "at least me dropping nuts can be quickly fixed."

"Yeah, true. His mistake become everybody's problem," laughs Geddes.

In a kitchen, mistakes happen all the time. Ovens get turned too high when two people are sharing it, a sheet of croutons gets forgotten and overbrowned, a ticket gets misread and a dish goes out too early. Even if you've spent a lifetime in professional kitchens, the likelihood that you will be on the inciting end of a fuck-up is very, very high. When that happens, much like in an office environment, someone gets a talking-to. Tempers can run hot, and walk-in refrigerators becomes useful for post-rush cooldowns. But the crucial part is not to take it personally--your dropped pan of ingredients is not your loss of self-worth. You can only assess the problem, patch up for the remainder of service, and focus on the next dish to be made.

This ethos--of fucking up, acknowledging said fuck-up, and moving on--is useful in a career that is ultimately never about you, but about satisfying the person on the other side of the wall. As Annie shows me how to cleanly quenelle some frozen yogurt, she emphasizes not "overworking" the scoop. "It'll get too soft if you keep going back and trying to fix it, so just turn the tub around and try again," she says, turning our container of honeyed frozen yogurt around so I can dive my hot spoon into a fresh smooth ridge. By curling the tip of the spoon over the yogurt as I release it onto the dessert, I can leave it with a glossy point far better than before. Finishing with a flourish, ultimately, seems more important than self-flagellating over the scoop's shortcomings. There's no real moment of mastery, except the moment of moving on.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Monday retreat: Turtleback, Rosario, and the Reasons for a Life of Leisure

When Monday is your day off, you feel compelled to use it for anything but productivity. And when the sun is high, staying inside and catching up on backlogged blog posts just seems silly. So on our day off, Melissa and I start out with a morning hike up Turtleback Mountain. We drive out to Westsound and walk up the Southern route, clocking about 4 miles round-trip of sweaty, thigh-burning distance. But the vistas make it entirely worth it.

We return home sweaty but invigorated, then buy a day pass at the Rosario Resort & Spa to use their indoor and outdoor swimming pools, sauna and hot tubs. Rosario is probably the most mainstream form of indulgence this Island has to offer, minus the high-end yoga classes in Eastsound. It's an incredibly beautiful estate, with lots of design details still intact from the Arts and Crafts-era. When the shipbuilding tycoon Robert Moran was told, while living in Seattle in his early 40s, that he was suffering from "organic heart disease" and only had a few years left to live, he retreated to the San Juan Islands and began work on the massive estate that now serves as the Resort's main attraction. Moran owned over 7,000 acres of Orcas (much of which has now been given back to the state as Moran State Park), and when his mansion was converted into a resort in the 1960s, it became a major traveler destination in the region.
Every detail of this place is beautiful, from the dark wood furniture of the lounge to the vintage metal pipes in the tiled bathrooms. Details from Moran's shipbuilding career are everywhere, from the hinges on the doors, keeping them fluid and completely silent, to the thick windowpanes of porthole glass, easily covered with rolled fabric window shades. Stained glass appears in almost every room, in murals ornate and streamed through with golden light.
The highlight of our day (minus lounging by the pool, reading, and soaking up the overcast sun) is the organ performance at 4:00.
Local composer Christopher Peacock plays the piano as we walk in, then walks upstairs to the library where he sits down to play the organ while displaying slides of the Morans during their heyday at the estate.
Once Moran had built the property, he lived for another 40 years--possible evidence that all he needed was to get away from city life. What strikes me is how much this place holds remnants of his leisure time as valued time--old magazines and maps, hundreds of books, and slides from family evenings surround the organ hall in glass cases, evidence of a time where pursuing pleasure was actively sought out rather than simply a daily entitlement.
When I'm in the city, and especially annoyed at my limited budget, I get vocally resentful about how people spend their leisure time in spas, meditation studios, and high-end department stores. The level of indulgence seems to me unwarranted for what I assume are mostly untroubled, unburdened lives. (I also wonder how relaxing a massage can really be when you get to have one every day.) However, looking around at the structure of the Rosario estate, and considering Moran's mindset as he developed the place, I reevaluate what it really means to "live well." Is looking out a window onto a beautiful vista an elitist indulgence?
Does swimming in a pool constitute luxury if it's designed to restore your ailing health?

Moran came to Orcas believing that his life would soon be at an end, and lived to see his family grow and flourish in a beautiful setting. He wrote of the Island, "It is a wonderful place in which to forget one's troubles and worries and get back to Nature in her happiest moods; a delightful place in which to regain health--physical, mental and spiritual." He was sick in the city; he was well here. What was diagnosed as heart disease was most likely stress.

Several recent reports have investigated the effects of city life on mental health, and as I soak up the virtues of pseudo-country life, I can't help but peruse their findings. While debates are open as to its physical effects (does bad air cancel out the benefits of constant walking?), there seems to be clear evidence that city life tends to generate mental illness. The stress of social interaction--of hyper-vigilence at both work and play-seems to be as taxing as regular emotional trauma. It's no surprise to me that one's health could improve in the country, if only based in the reality that there are less people there. You have more time for the mind, more time to reflect and retreat. Your relationships, because there are less of them, may be more intense, but less overwhelming. If people retreat to the country to "take the waters," it also seems they do it to take the distance. Lying on the pool deck may only prove relaxing when it's quiet and nearly empty, as was the case for us today.
At the very top of the organ hall is a light fixture covered with stained glass designed by Tiffany & Co., depicting the muses. Inscribed on the front panel is a poem entitled "Opportunity," written by John James Ingalls, a former senator from Kansas.
Master of human destinies am I;
Fame, love and fortune on my footsteps wait.
Cities and fields I walk. I penetrate
Deserts and seas remote, and, passing by
Hovel and mart and palace, soon or late,
I knock unbidden once at every gate.
If sleeping, wake; if feasting, rise, before
I turn away. It is the hour of fate,
And they who follow me reach every state
Mortals desire, and conquer every foe
Save death; but those who hesitate
Condemned to failure, penury and woe,
Seek me in vain, and uselessly implore.
I answer not, and I return no more.

A poem about the fickle nature of opportunity, written by a senator probably procrastinating between reading bills, speaks volumes to me. It suggests that if the opportunity arises to treat yourself well--if it knocks in the form of a beckoning hike, a body of water, a chance to learn to cook--you have to seize it when it first arrives. To put it off, to hope it comes again later, is to resign oneself to a life of missed chances. What may look like leisure to some--my taking off from normal life, in the hopes of trying out another--may actually be the seizing of an opportunity that will never come again. The biggest struggle may be, if nothing else comes of it, looking back on this time and not merely seeing it as "time off." I'd much prefer to think of it as "time on."

Orcas Tour: Doe Bay, Salmon and Oysters, Becoming an Infovore

After last night's tumultuous realizations, it's a blessing to wake up and feel the freshness of morning, with the crows loudly cawing to each other from the distant trees. I'm squeezing in an expedition around the Doe Bay area of the island with Chris, who rolls in at 9:00am just as I'm finishing my coffee. Because Chris lives in the area, which requires a good 20 minute drive from the Inn, he's the ideal guide to this part of the island, which includes the Doe Bay resort, the town of Olga, and a handful of very special farmers who provide ingredients to the Inn.

On the drive out to Doe Bay, we turn down a tiny gravel road and stop at the salmon hatchery.
I've always been a salmon eater, but I assumed that catching it was a fairly straightforward matter: go out into deep waters in the early morning, bait a line, possess never-ending patience. But Chris tells me that a salmon's life cycle is in fact much more similar to that of a human being. They start out as chum in freshwater lakes and ponds, then make their way into salt water to grow to their full size, then as adults swim back toward freshwater sources (some say the same sources that they were born in) to reproduce. It's a little bit like growing up in a small town, living a wild adulthood out in the wide world, then going back to suburbia to raise kids and grow old. Of course, returning to freshwater after a lifetime in salt water is a suicide mission, and the full-grown salmon often die soon after reproducing and laying their eggs. What threatens a salmon's life even more is fishermen scooping them up out of the ocean before they have a chance to go home and reproduce. Overfishing of salmon in saltwaters means that the salmon population gets depleted rapidly; hence, the growth in popularity of farmed salmon, in which fish live their entire lives in pens, given genetically-modified feed that make them grow faster and fatter, and growing under very controlled conditions. It's sustainable, but hardly the most natural way to live life as a salmon, when your nature is to travel and to return home when you're ready. And the fish is more commercial--each filet has the same thickness and color, like a prepackaged McDonald's hamburger.

Hatchery is a step towards a sustainable middle ground for fisheries--instead of trapping the salmon in pens until ready for harvesting, a hatchery nurtures the salmon's natural lifecycle, making sure that the fish get a full period of growing fresh, swimming to sea, and coming home again before being fished. It's a little like being a free-range chicken: the salmon are watched and nurtured, but never contained. Using the techniques first developed by the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, hatcheries use man-made channels built into the natural landscape to easily funnel the fish to and from freshwater ponds. During the first part of their lives, in which they grow in freshwater, the hatchery workers clip the adipose fin (the little nubbin near the fish's tail, a vestigal fin that doesn't affect their swimming) to identify the future grown fish as wild hatchery fish.
When the fish are ready to go into saltwater, they swim down the manmade channels out into the sea, clearly marked so that fishermen know that they are not permissible for catching. Given a free pass from being fished, the salmon grow to full size, make their way back into the freshwater inlets...
And here's where things get really interesting. The hatchery workers pull the fish out of the water and lay them in long trays, where they scoop out the roe and semen. They put the fertilized eggs in trays and place them back in the freshwater pond (while keeping the caught fish they need to sell.)
This is not only a more humane way of catching and killing the fish (they die without being bruised by nets or mutilated by hooks), but it also guarantees that every fish that's caught still lives on with its eggs being hand-delivered back to freshwater. What you get in return is a sustainable salmon population, and a fish that looks, tastes, and behaves almost exactly like wild fish. The sign at the hatchery reads "Long Live the Kings,"--the hatchery is all about keeping the king (and sockeye) salmon alive and available for the future.

This is an INCREDIBLE amount of work, and it means a huge amount of dedication on the part of the people who work at the hatchery. They spend hours hunched over the chum with nail clippers cutting the adiposals, monitor their swimming paths and water and weather patterns, and sit poised ready to pull them in when they start to return home. Their channels make it possible for the salmon to grow up on top of the Island's naturally-occurring aquifers, layers of water-permeable rock, underground fountains whose water drips from melting glaciers, creating some of the purest and most mineral-rich water available anywhere.
"I've done some experiments with the aquifer water," Chris says," and used some of it in my garden. The plants that got aquifer water grew twice as big as the others." My mind is reeling at the potential in these hatcheries, where fish get the best water, the most nurturing, and the biggest chance at a sustainable future. If all restaurants were like the Inn at Ship Bay, all would carry this kind of protected, yet totally natural-tasting fish, and the flavor and dining experience would be exponentially richer.

Harvested but sustainable food is not an oxymoron--what it requires is a deliberate practice of living one's life in harmony with the natural rhythms of the world. As Chris explains to me over breakfast at Doe Bay, the resort on this end of the Island, living on Orcas often means being more in touch with your surroundings. I slurp up my breakfast (a ridiculously flavorful duck egg poached in olive oil, served over spicy greens, tomatoes, smoked mushrooms, and grits), and envy his early morning patterns: wake up, go for a walk, swim, sweat, eat a good breakfast, work on his garden and boat. All this before coming into work, where he crafts beautiful ingredients into gorgeous dishes for the community to enjoy. The last few years have been rough for Chris, with a series of personal setbacks, but he's actively pursuing a more balanced, happy life, and it shows in the way he carries himself in the kitchen. If someone has made something he loves, he'll bound over to them, eyes wide with glee, and say, "What's in this?" He brings energy and joy to his work, and it's not clear if that's a byproduct of the Island or just one of his natural traits.

It's something that's in full swing as we walk around the resort after breakfast--unlike the space at Rosario, replete with gorgeous architecture and luxurious amenities, Doe Bay is more like an adult summer camp (with more youth-friendly pricing). Cabins and yurts cover the property, which looks out over the gorgeous Otter Cove and a small private beach, and there are open-air hot tubs, saunas, and massage and yoga studios.
It's a lot more like a nature retreat than a hotel, but that makes it all the more appealing, especially once we get a look at the garden, which provides an enormous amount of the resort's produce and poultry. Young staffers are weeding and watering everywhere--many volunteers at Doe Bay, as well as at several other farms on the island, found these opportunities through the WWOOF program, which connects people to local farms for seasonal work. They receive a small stipend, room and board, and in return work in gardens and in the local community. It's a great educational experience, as well as great enthusiastic staff for the summer season.
Of course, Doe Bay's farm is designed to feed the Doe Bay community--it's a great farm, but fairly minimal compared to the sprawling fields of Orcas Farm, our major farm stop today.
Owned by George Orser, there are at least 50-60 beds of growing produce. If Jay-Z had a farm, this is basically what it would be. Chris basically wanders into the territory--when you've lived on the Island for over 15 years, you know your neighbors well enough to drop in unannounced. He points out the flowering arugula, growing in tall, spicy stalks.
He's growing things on this farm I've never seen before--on our right is a bed of what looks like four-leaf cloves, but will eventually grow into buckwheat.
On our left, beds of strawberries are nestled beneath white netting. A robin flaps wildly about underneath it, and eventually frees itself and flies away. When Chris picks off a few berries to taste, I can see why a bird would risk its life to get in: they're the sweetest, juiciest I've ever tasted.
But George, just like any other farmer on Orcas, is subject to the unpredictability of the season. When the rainy season lasted much longer than expected, he told Chris that he was sure his seedlings would be drowned. Looking at the cracked earth now, it's hard to believe that, but when Chris steps down on the still-slightly-squelchy ground, you start to wonder just how long it will take to see if George is correct.
Farming is quite different than cooking--when you're tasting a sauce, you can tell midway through its cooking process if it might need more salt, more spice, more butter. By contrast, farming is a lot more like baking--you can put all the required ingredients into the batter early on, but until you see it puffing up or lying flat in the oven, you can't know if it will turn out ok. The proof is in the final product.

George emerges from the trees and gives us a hearty hello on his way out to town. He points out his ducks as we make our way to the exit--it's a good thing he pointed, because otherwise I'd never have spotted them, perfectly camouflaged as they are against the tool shed...
We've got one more stop to make on our way back to the Inn: I've been craving a taste of fresh oysters for the last three weeks, but a 7-mile bike ride seems hardly the best way to get it. Chris makes up the difference, and we turn up the dusty road to Buck Bay, where we load up on oysters and manila clams, pulled fresh from the water...
The oysters are huge, as big as my hand--their rings can tell you how many years old they are (most are at least 3-4 years.) The manilas, Chris says, will be perfect for steamers, and we buy two pounds' worth. Surrounding our "catch" with ice will keep them fresh until we're ready to eat them. Chris hoists them high, a bounty of treats for our lunch.
Several other people are pulling into Buck Bay as we drive down to the shore. Chris shows me how to pick sea beans, which initially make me pucker up with saltiness but then turn crisp and flavorful. Foraging for ingredients seems, ultimately, about finding the right spots, and keeping your eyes open for that perfect patch of seaside vegetables.
When we get back to the Inn, Chris throws the sea beans and clams into a pot, dousing them with butter, white wine, and green garlic, and steaming them open. We slurp them up, with lots of bread to mop up the sauce. It's a true indulgence, a perfect treat in the hot afternoon sun.
As I'm wiping the plate with a hunk of bread, I start to wonder where my appreciation of this day comes from. I'm not a farmer. I'm not a fishermen. I have little to no success growing or catching my own ingredients. But visiting the hatchery, walking the rows of the farms I've visited, meeting the butchers and farmers as they deliver their goods to the Inn, has transformed the way I experience my food. Instead of solely tasting the butter and wine of the clams, I taste the limey acidity of the shore. When I slurp the oysters, they taste (as fresh fish should) exactly like the sea. The location of my food, and the people who brought it to me, have become as important as the food itself.

But I have my doubts: could this engagement with food's origin story continue to a more remote location? Would people really like to know where their food comes from, if they can't easily get to the farm, the fishery, the picked-over woods? Can you call yourself a locavore if your ingredients are local, but not your information? Surely thrilling at a flavorful seafood dish sits at one end of the foodie spectrum, and way at the other end is those who know all about the salmon's life cycle, from the freshwater krill to the saltwater growth to the suicidal mission towards reproduction. But I have to believe that being a foodie means, at least for a good chunk of those who would claim the title, having an investment in food's backstory, being interested in how dishes and culinary experiences come together over a long period of time. At tonight's pizza, which sold like crazy, a little boy was so fascinated by Annie's rolling out the dough and decorating the pizzas that he had to literally be dragged back to his parents' side to select his choice of soda. (He went with Jamaican Ginger Ale.) Another little girl said, when she approached the table with her parents, "I'm not hungry, so I don't want one," but came back with dustings of flour and tomato sauce on her face, saying "I'm still hungry--it was yummy!"

There are many stages to being a locavore: you can buy regionally, buy locally, buy neighborly. On an island like Orcas, much more so than an island like Manhattan, you can buy your greens from one farmer, your fruits from another, your eggs from your neighbor's coop, your fish from your local fishermen, and your oysters from the beach a mile away. If you go one step farther, where buying food is tantamount to buying information, you might as well be an "infovore" as well--someone whose experience of food comes from knowing it intimately. There's a reason New Englanders will pay $8 per person to go picking at the height of berry or apple season--they like the proximity to the experience of getting their food. They pay to know the heft of a bag of freshly picked apples, the finger pricks of a raspberry bush, the heatstroke of a day spent in fruit fields. They live vicariously through their food.

At your moment of deepest involvement and immersion, food transforms your state of mind--not just what you know, but how much you determine is worth knowing. There is a vast difference between picking over fillets of salmon at a good grocery store, and learning the science of how a fish should live and die. Knowing that tomatoes and strawberries withstand Bikram-level heat for months in a greenhouse makes you savor the ripe sweetness of the fruit even more. Munching on tonight's pizza--carrying the last seven oysters, a juicy, salty addition to the sweet tomato and herb crust--I know that my mind has been changed by what I've learned, what I've seen goes into the food I eat. A dish tastes richer because I know not only where its components have come from, but also what stories it contains.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Day Trip Steamed Clams and Sea Beans

2 pounds manila clams
1/4 pound sea beans
1/2 stalk green garlic
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup white wine

Pour the clams into a pot and layer the sea beans and green garlic on top. Add the butter in slices over the top and pour the wine over everything.

Cover with a lid and heat until the clams steam open, above three minutes. Empty the lot onto a plate and pour the liquid over the top (or reduce it down to thicken as a side sauce.) Eat with lots of bread, outside, with sunshine and cold white wine.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Where I'm Writing From: On an Island of Disarmament

Normally I write in the stratosphere of prestige. From an office building in New York, I tend to scrawl story ideas into the Notes function of my iPhone, thoughts on essays or articles that I think will find an audience. These ideas don't always come from my own curiosity, but often from what I think other people will want to read about. Every day the debate wages on about whether writers work to satisfy themselves or satisfy their audiences--a valid debate, given how many times writers seem self-satisfied. But when you're writing nonfiction, and especially when you're writing about food, you feel a need to feed your readers. Much as a friend visiting my apartment might be forced to eat a plate of cookies,me urging on "Ess, ess, you're so skinny!" I write to promote, to push, to watch someone else devour it. This is what one hopes for every time they blog--that hungry readers pounce, that things go viral.

But today, I write in a place of suspended cynicism. Three weeks ago, I left the confines of Manhattan, the steel towers of self-proclaimed importance, and decided to test my skills as a fledgling cookbook editor in a working kitchen. The restaurant I work for is also on an island--on Orcas, one of the San Juans, off the coast of Washington State. Its area is nearly twice the size of Manhattan, yet like Manhattan, it's the largest of its neighbors, and the biggest attraction in the area. Instead of an apartment in Morningside Heights, I live in the loft of a cabin at The Inn at Ship Bay. It's a kitchen committed to local ingredients, in all the crunchy ways you might expect, and beyond.

Farmers and fishermen stop by to shake our head chef's hand and swap stories. They carry crates of hot strawberries, dripping sea urchins, flats of broad, brightly-colored greens. The vegetables I wash, chop, and chiffonade arrive with dirt and sometimes slugs hiding in their crevices. The oysters I shuck, careful to keep my hand glued to the counter for fear of driving a knife up into my face, release the briny juices of their seaside homes. The flowers I pick to garnish our desserts come thorny and pale-petaled from our garden--I use my fingernails to shred bachelor buttons into plastic containers, where they'll later be scattered around slices of velvety chocolate ganache. Nasturtium blossoms sit precariously atop salads tossed with blue cheese and roasted hazelnuts. Lettuce leaves get stacked like Jenga blocks.

Deer wander close to our front door, nibbling at the fruit trees and only running when we threaten their lounging space. As dusk sets in, music from adjacent houses wafts over our grounds. Campfires of burning cedar and locals smoking pot routinely fill my nostrils. I'm sung to sleep by birds that sound like belching bullfrogs, and am awoken by cawing turkey vultures. I wake up and walk into town, where store managers initiate friendly open-eyed conversations before I'm fully caffeinated. I slip and fall on gravel-covered roads, and SUVs stop to inquire if I and my newly shattered phone are OK. I nod and smile in response, and thank them for their concern.

I've spent the last five years in a community where your strength is partly defined by your ability to disdain the unnecessary: if you can keep your focus off the subway crazies, the noises outside your first-floor apartment window, the other twenty-somethings competing for a slice of the rapidly disintegrating pie, you might just make it in this town. Blinders are useful in a big city, and help to narrow your vision to notice only what you deem important. But, as the African writer Binyavanga Wainaina wrote, "Seeing is almost always only noticing." And when you've spent most of your writing life narrowing the lens, you manage to cut out quite a lot.

After a night of easy cooking, light still pours into the valley that surrounds the Inn. The chefs gather together after service, open a bottle of wine, fill their dinner plates with leftover vegetables, rice, mashed potatoes. I slather heavy butter on the ends of bread loaves, let its sweet saltiness meander over my tongue. I strip off my rubber gloves, which serve to cushion my first major chef injury, just starting to heal after two tender weeks. My finger will be abbreviated for at least a few more months, and forever just a little bit strange-looking from what it's undergone.

I wander back to my cabin, the leftovers of my gratis wine poured into a Mason jar. I park myself in an Adirondack chair, notebook in hand, and watch the night's wedding party pour out onto the lawn, ready to play a round of bocce despite the impending nightly descent of fat black flies and mosquitoes. The bride pads out in her cream- and rose-colored gown, her feet cushioned by Japanese slippers, bearing a glass of long-anticipated wine in her hand. One of the guests, toying with the groom, says "Doesn't it make you even a little bit excited that you could damage something so valuable?"

He could be talking about his new marriage, or his status in the bocce game, but there's also something for me in this. My current "status" is valuable: I live according to certain aspirational parameters of a successful life--the stability of a great job and the continued awesomeness of great friendships and relationships. But even so, as my jar of wine empties, I feel something spread thick and sweet across my mind, cloying my certainty that what lies back in New York actually carries value.

If I write for page views, for an invisible audience whose approval I desperately want, I will immediately strip the complexity of my thoughts. To communicate how much this island has disarmed me, and to do it in a manner ready-made for a DIY-inspirational tale starring Amy Adams, is to reduce it to a series of melodramatic highs and lows. I would have to make villains out of my mentors, and love interests out of my co-pilots. The members of my community would be stock stereotypes, played by character actors with fascinating faces and limited dialogue. My dive onto the gravel would become an action scene, my knife mishaps a horror film. I'd reduce the moments that have surprised and delighted me, and the things I've learned that have proven me woefully uninformed, to plot points instead of the slow unfurling discoveries they actually are.

In Tweeting out my latest entries, in disseminating them across my various media-world connections, I fear cheapening my subject matter, and I fear a writing process that makes the mountains around me into paper moons. I fear the self-promoting impulse that might make me the protagonist when, in fact, I am the least interesting character. In short, I fear being a successful writer, or executing any of this in a manner that seems too readable. I aim to capture a story, but I fear doing it for anyone other than myself.

I told myself long ago that the goal of this project was not to become a chef. It was not to become an editor in the acquiring sense, or a writer in the published sense. It was, whatever its side effects might be, designed to be something I did for myself, for the opportunity to shake up my daily life. And as I write each day, jotting down notes on the things that have moved me with my wounded yet proficient fingers, I aim to be self-satisfied, if nothing else, in the truths I put down.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Lightest Touch, and the Deepest Biases

Texture--the sense of touch, of thickness or thinness, of a substance's weight--is hugely important when it comes to how we experience food. Just as sipping a wine can feel like silk, velvet, or light cotton, a dish's buoyancy, the way it sits on your tongue, can tip you toward loving it or hating it. You can't know a bread's risen without gently prodding it for springiness, that a asparagus should be trimmed without first snapping it at its natural breaking point, or that a steak's done without pressing your finger into the center of the meat. Getting touchy with your food is precisely the point.

I'm starting to wonder, however, if some higher power wants to keep my hands off the food. On a run into Eastsound today, I slipped on a fresh batch of gravel, and ended up skinning my left hand against the road, along with shattering the glass on my iPhone. (Whether the addition of gravel to the Orcas landscape is a rustic touch, or one that heralds future paving, I'm not sure, but I was maybe 20 feet away from an SUV when it happened, so something tells me the change is not so ideal for crowded country roads and narrow pedestrian shoulders.) In the kitchen, this means that both my left and right hands bear enormous bandages, and that I'm constantly slipping in and out of rubber gloves to protect my cuts. Nothing is more uncomfortable than when I have to knead out the butter chunks in a streusel topping for tomorrow morning's muffins. I'm wincing with pain each time I roll the dough between my palms. And it feels like yet another setback--so much of successful cooking depends on your ability to roll the dough between your fingers, to hold the bread steady as you slice off croutons, and to maneuver the greens on your salad place for the best possible presentation. But the work requires I get my hands going again--juicing oranges, dressing pizzas for lunch, and, yes, shaving fennel on the mandoline. (Wally forces me to confront the damn machine again, and finally holding it at the right angle, with my fingers curled way back, produces a pile of clean vegetable shaves, fingertips not included.)

My challenges, however, are no match for Geddes's, who after lunch heads outside with a giant basin of spiky sea urchins.
My first meal at the Inn involved sea urchin--little hunks of buttery golden roe--in a seafood pappardelle, and my initiative to order it was because I'd never eaten it in a non-Japanese preparation before. It's also something I rarely get the chance to prepare myself, and so when Geddes was ready to extract it, I was more than ready to watch the process. He hoses off the needles of the urchin, which are still wiggling fairly vigorously, and its colors, red and deep purple, drain out into the water. He slices a knife in and around the mouth of the creature, and scoops out its digestive organs to expose the gonads, the creamy pockets we'll be serving up over the pasta.
Lots of water with undigested seaweed spills out--I imagine any creature with such a flavorful diet possesses a rich flavor by default. Geddes scoops out five little hunks of yellow seems like a lot of work to go through for so little cooking material, and apparently many restaurants end up using the exoskeleton of the urchin as the platter for the roe, filling it with ice the way we prepare our oyster platters. The spikes stop moving, and for a second I think about suggesting an appetizer prepared kebab-style. This idea doesn't last long, as Geddes moves onto the remaining five urchins still writhing in the bucket.

Lucky for Wally and I, our prep work today consists of whipping up a fresh batch of ice cream--the exact flavor of cheesecake, perfect for topping the rhubarb cobblers (two desserts in one!)--and preparing breakfast platters for the next morning. Our specials are the same as yesterday, which means that Wally will dominate when it comes to the salad station, and I'll set to work answering the dessert tickets. I'm finally getting the hang of preparing out frozen treats: dipping my spoon into a stream of hot water before each scoop, scraping the scoop up against the sides of the container, and pressing the tip of the scoop firmly into the bowl before squeezing and letting go. Instead of the mushy dollops I used to generate, they now come out clean and teardrop-shaped.

But texture comes back into play again: Annie introduced several new dishes to the dessert menu, one of which is "chocolate pâté", a fudgy ganache shaped like a loaf and served with slivers of strawberries, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, and a perfectly shaped dollop of creme fraiche. I know from my experiences of slicing the chocolate tart last week that thick desserts like this respond well to hot knives. However I still get the occasional slice that refuses to leave the blade, laying thick and heavy against the steel and impossible to plate. In order to manipulate the aspects of the dish--slicing off two thin pieces of chocolate, scooping the creme fraiche, and cutting strawberries on the diagonal to make a little fan--I need a dexterity and lightness of touch. With gloves on, I'm covered in melting chocolate almost right away, and dishes need to be wiped down for smudges before they can go out.

Will customers even notice? I wonder. The beauty of our plating is so beyond what someone might do in their home kitchen, I think, that to criticize it seems almost beside the point. For me, going to a restaurant means giving myself over to a thought process and attention to detail that I rarely commit to my home-cooked meals--at home, I rarely fan my vegetables out over my quenelle'd rice, or drizzle a sauce slightly over a piece of meat. And I certainly don't think about flowers or garnishes...maybe because they're rarely available, but also because it's so beside the point. In home cooking, even when it's the meditative end to a stressful day, I'm all about the speed of execution, and rarely about the presentation. I eat my rice, veggies, and minimal protein in cereal bowls, and a heavy squirt of Sriracha is my colorful "garnish" for most dishes.

But when I go to a restaurant, I want something that I can't achieve myself. Unless I've heard it's the restaurant's specialty, I almost never order chicken, simple pastas, or classic chocolate desserts. I lean toward the odder ingredients: the side order of farro, the plate of pickled nasturtium flowers, the whole trout for two. (It's the same reason I lung for the chicharonnes every time they appear--when will I next been deep-frying duck skin in my home kitchen?) When I first heard about the sea urchin on the menu two weeks ago, I immediately jumped at it--because when could I really do that for myself? And yet, as I watch the tickets come in, I see very few orders for the urchin special. Is it that the diners simply want other things? Or is it an inherently less adventurous crowd?

Yesterday, as I went back for my second helping of sweet Thai fried rice with vegetables, Angela was bemoaning the absence of good Thai food in her life. "It's my favorite thing to eat, and to make for myself," she says.

"Why not incorporate some Thai stuff on the menu?" I ask, loading up my plate.

"Well, we've tried it before--we did a few dumplings as special appetizers--but the customers didn't really go for it," she says.

"There's not much ethnic food on the Island," Chris says. "I love to cook with Indian spices, but it's too hard to get the ingredients, and too hard to sell, to be cooking like that all the time."

Tonight that idea of community expectations starts to come back to me as I slide up plate after plate of desserts into the window. So much of what we like to eat is about personal preference. I can never have too much pepper or spice in my food, but when I'm preparing croutons for 100 customers, I have to seriously cut back on my pepper distribution, barely dusting each slice of bread before toasting. Similarly, Chris has had to adjust his sense of what works to what the customers want--"I had to see how done they wanted their beans before I could know how long I had to cook them...we were told in culinary school that there's a 'window' of doneness for every food. Steak cooked medium rare is 145°F, not 150, not 140. You can't really deviate far beyond that window." I think about the techniques I've always used to see if a steak is done--i.e. cutting into it and seeing it's not too red for me to eat--and start to see the problem when cooking for other people. You may like your cannellini beans with a little toothiness, your greens slick with oil and pepper, your steaks juicy and just barely less than raw, but on the other side of that kitchen wall, there are customers with preferences that may be vastly different than yours. If I'm making a run at this as a real career, I have to learn to pull back as I drizzle that balsamic or scoop out that citrusy sauce--I have to imagine my hopes and expectations as a customer, what I may be anticipating, and adjust as best I can.

Last night Angela slipped us a few leftover bites of homemade goat cheese and chive gnocchi, and it practically floated, it was so light and airy. I could've eaten an entire hotel pan and still wanted more. But tonight, as I sliced yet another stubborn plate of chocolate pâté, I think of my gnocchi-loving friend, who craves weighty dumplings in thick sauces of cheese and butter, and wondered how she might react to these fluffy morsels. I slice one chunk of the dessert as thin as a cracker, but the second slice as thick as toast. It's the only compromise that makes sense to me--something for all kinds of tastes.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Chemistry of Cooking: An Unscientific Approach

A Wednesday in the kitchen can play out relatively uneventfully, unless you set out early to learn a whole new language. At 9:30am today, I am already up, fed, and sitting at a bar with several wine glasses in hand.
Just as she did a week ago for her tutorial on white wines, wine guru Cindy Wulf is walking us through a workshop on the best reds on our restaurant's menu. This is part of Geddes's initiative to get the waitstaff--and his chefs--to understand the ways our wine menu pairs with our dishes, and to appreciate and promote the consumption of those wines. Cindy's right there with him when she says that when she sees "people eating their foods without a bottle of wine, I just want to walk over to them  and ask, 'Are you even tasting your food?'" The bleary-eyed lot of us laugh, but she's got a valuable scientific lesson to teach us: that when we take a sip of wine, the acids and tannins interacting on tongues scrape our palates clean, preparing us to experience all the subtle nuances in our carefully prepared food. I take copious notes.
She takes us through eleven different bottles (thankfully spit buckets are on hand), passing us glasses of their essential scents and undertones (cups of fruits, spices, and special notes like chocolate, mushroom, and coffee beans) and asking us what we can detect in our little sips.
We poke our noses like hummingbirds into our glasses, take deep inhales, and swish around little mouthfuls to see whether the wine feels heavy or light, velvety or silky on our tongues. I learn that I prefer the Willamette Valley pinot noir's earthy, spicy flavors, which make it ideal for our charcuterie plate, and that I go nuts over the buttery finish of the merlot from Sonoma County.
Cindy also exposes the great nerdy in-joke behind the celebration and condemnation of pinots and merlots in Alexander Payne's great wine comedy Sideways--the character played by Paul Giamatti says he adores Pinot Noirs above all other wines, in part because they're very difficult and finicky to coax into existence, but that they produce flavors of unparalleled complexity and beauty. He also utterly condemns Merlots, railing against them before his major dinner date, saying "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!" This did enormous damage to the Merlot market in the United States, but the great irony is that the character's favorite wine, the wine he resists opening until the end of the movie, is a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. "The joke in this," Cindy explains, "is that Miles doesn't want to accept and appreciate his own qualities, because he's aspiring to be like this super-sensitive exclusively-available Pinot it's basically a story about self-loathing, in the guise of a hugely nerdy wine joke."

The science of the wine tasting leaves me wildly excited about all the crazy things that can happen in the chemical interactions in the glass, on the plate, and in the mouth. Apparently a lower yield of grapes of the vine means a greater concentration of flavor in each grape; Cabernet Sauvignons are almost always blends with other varietals (because of their high tannins and acidity) except in the soil of the Napa Valley, and they taste more like citrus to women and more like vanilla and apple pie to men; Syrahs smell "like a pig on fire in a blackberry bush," carrying notes of bacon fat, berries, and spicy hot wood. One should never serve Cabernets with oysters, because the tannins of the wine will mix with the iodine salts of the seafood and make them taste metallic--apparently that rule about only serving white wine with seafood isn't just good behavior, it's also good chemical sense.

Good chemical sense becomes the modus operandi of the day. Our biggest project in the kitchen for tonight's dinner is to whip up two new batches of icy treats--a fresh batch of chocolate ice cream (to replace what we exhausted yesterday), and a new flavor of sorbet, kiwi, to replace the plum on our menu. Annie's recipe for chocolate ice cream will come with a few modifications--she wants to infuse the flavor of cardamom into the ice cream, and she strips the eggs from the recipe, to make it less of a custard. I've made ice cream before--in a tiny 2-person ice cream maker, with mixed to disappointing results--and I don't know what's been going wrong. But as Annie walks me through the process--first infusing the whole milk and sugar with the cardamom seeds and cocoa powder, and bringing the whole pot to a boil before pouring it over chunks of semisweet chocolate--I can see just what a difference it makes to know the interactions of temperature and texture when putting together a recipe.

I've never been much of a science geek. (Even now, I can picture Nick laughing at home, chemist that he is, saying "That's an understatement.) Any argument you can make to me about why technology is, or why a process has to go in a certain order, will be followed up by a bleary-eyed "Why?" and an argument about the need for highly specific rules. But cooking is the only kind of chemistry I've ever totally embraced--maybe it's because the results are so much more fun to observe, or maybe because I'm just that much more motivated to get the formulas right. (If only I'd graduated a year later from high school, there would've been a course called "Chemistry of Cooking" that could've filled my science requirement and set me on my culinary path much earlier.) Lately I've been pouring over the pages of Herve This's Kitchen Mysteries, a book Nick gave me as a Christmas present, for clues that will not just help me cook better, but also help me understand when things go wrong. I'm still perplexed when my cobbler biscuits puff up unevenly (with layers flaking and puffing up more on the right than the left), but learning that's a sign that butter hasn't been incorporated consistently through the dough (when baked, chunks of butter will produce pockets of air and moisture--great when you're making croissants, not so good when you're making pie or tart dough). When you squeeze lemon juice over a sliced avocado, the citric acid slows the breakdown of the enzyme that causes the fruit to turn brown. When you blend butter into the final minutes of a sauce, knowing as "mounting the sauce", you make sure that the presence of the glossy, shiny flavors of the fat and salt remain of the sauce's smell, taste, and mouthfeel.

Just as we have to combine bleach with cold water, rather than hot, to keep it as a sterilizing cleaning agent, so too do you need to structure your cooking process in the right way to keep it effective. Annie has to add the cardamom into the heating milk, rather than at the end of the process when she stirs in the cold cream, because the flavor will more easily infuse into a hot liquid than cold, and bind to the fat in the hot milk in a more pronounced way. And when she pours the prepared liquid into the ice cream machine, she has to be careful to watch both the icing and mixing functions, alternating "so it doesn't get too icy, and doesn't get too much air-whipped into it." If she lets the container get too cold, it may start to incorporate ice crystals; if she lets it whip too long, it may start to get chunky, like butter. It's all about keeping the liquid at the perfect temperature and aeration until it reaches a smooth, creamy consistency.

The same thing is true when we have to whip up the kiwi sorbet--instead of blending the sugar and water into a simple syrup (as people often do when making sorbets), she has Wally puree the fresh fruit, add sugar, and then slowly pour in water until it reaches the ideal level of sweetness. This, she says, "is to keep it from getting too sweet, so that what you taste is the freshness of the fruit, not the sugar." She also has him add just a touch of vodka to the mix, so that it doesn't produce too many ice crystals in the churning process--a genius touch, when you think about how many times your perfect container of sorbet might have huge chunks of ice crystals (i.e. the "protective ice") growing on top. (Annie also notes that this is a perfect way to make sure that frozen baked desserts don't freeze completely. For example, if you're slipping a piece of cake into the freezer that you'd like to enjoy later without defrosting, you can gently paint it with a water-and-vodka mixture. The vodka will keep it from freezing to the core.)

As we're cleaning up later in the night, I see Angela place an enormous pot of veal stock on the stove. This, she explains, will bubble all night, just barely simmering, so it can reduce to a demi-glace, a spoon-coating sauce infused with the thick, rich flavors of the veal but with the liquid content reduced by half. I imagine that there is a technical term for how high the heat needs to be to maintain this balance over the next 14 hours, i.e. a slow boil or a gentle simmer. "Just barely bubbling--farts in a bathtub," Angela says. I wonder if it was a master chef that coined this term, but when I take a look into the pot I see that, yes, this is exactly what she was describing.

Through the last three weeks I've been attempting to steep myself in a lifetime of cooking education: I'm trying to understand the physics of sawing a knife down the curves of a grapefruit, the reasons for tearing rather than slicing salad greens, and the difference that a soil based in clay versus limestone can make on the flavor of a fine wine. But even with all the chemical interactions in play, sometimes even the most sophisticated cooking methods can be described with bodily humor. No matter what the terms may be, understanding the reasoning behind the steps of a recipe are doing a lot more than just making me a better cookbook editor--they're making me a better, more deliberate, and far more informed cook.
As I sip my end-of-day glass of Chris's wine of the night--an excellent Côtes du Rhône from an area just near Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the best place for the wine in the Rhône wine region--I'm finding nuances in the flavor I never have before. I can detect the blackberry and the currants, the tangy acidity washing up the sides of my tongue, and the corduroy softness of the liquid on my palate. I'm also savoring it as a complement to my family meal salad, tangy with a few chunks of roasted hazelnuts and blue cheese. There's complexity here at the molecular level, and I can't decide whether I'm supposed to analyze it, articulate it, or just enjoy it.

P.S. One of the main ingredients of a great recipe is the diners, and those diners who rave about the meal afterwards are the best customers you could hope for. It's only though a community of supporters and readers that you can get as far as you have with telling a not only do I have to thank you, the readers who are sticking with these reports from the front of the line, but also to @TKReviews, @mrsfridaynext, @FaithBlackGirl, @wathiranganga, and @fignaz for tweeting out links to this blog. Every day you entertain and enlighten me with your Tweets, and by sharing my stuff, you give me a chance to help out all of your super-enlightened followers as well. I'm lucky to have your support...