21 July 2009

Wherein I begin my very long mission statement

Okay, so, here's the deal.

First question: Does the world need another generic food blog? In other words, a bunch of entries saying, "Today, I cooked such-and-such from the latest Food and Wine. It was pretty good. Here's a picture." Or, alternatively, "Last night, I went to Bob's Steakhouse, and ha
d rib-eye. It was pretty good. Here's a picture."

Yeah. Not so much.

I read a lot about food, but I have to say, I'm always looking for something more than just description and narrative. The food writers I follow and enjoy all have either a point of view, or a sense of mission, or both. They want to accomplish something or help their readers to do so.

It's one thing to say, "I made the lemon cupcakes in Cook's Illustrated, and was happy with how they turned out," or, "Woo hoo, I pulled off a tough one from The French Laundry Cookbook." It's another thing entirely to write about what was involved in converting the lemon cupcakes to lime, and then trying to boost the tartness wherever possible, or to describe exactly how difficult it is to saw an animal's head in half, and the tools required to do so. I love reading about people learning thing
s, studying and experimenting and expanding themselves, and in the process teaching their readers the same things.

To take one example: M
ichael Ruhlman is a very smart man. He knows his stuff, and has a lot to teach. Still, his essays are most engaging when he takes a shot at a new recipe or technique, but screws up, at which point he either has to fix something to get back on track, or wing it and improvisationally transform the food into something else entirely rather than lose the dish completely. We can feel him thinking his way through the work, and coming out smarter and more experienced on the other side. And by extension, we do as well.

That's the experience I value as a reader, and it's my goal for this blog. Specifically, I am going to try to learn something, and
I'm going to do it in public so people can follow along.

Okay, what are you going to try to learn? Aw, I can't say just yet. I mean, I have to keep you in suspense for a little while yet. Just chill for a second.

All right, so, who am I?

I'm a reasonabl
y accomplished home cook. I'm not really interested in being a professional (ridiculous hours, repetitive work), but I really enjoy cooking for family, friends, and, of course, myself. I read extensively about food — books, magazines, online — and I cook several times a week. Usually the meal is simple, throwing things together in an hour, and sometimes it's more elaborate, occasionally comically so. I live in a great food city, and I eat a highly varied diet; in any given week I'll enjoy Chinese, Italian, Thai, Indian, "new American," Spanish, or just a hamburger. As far as my personal background goes, the mother's side of my family is ivory-white, while my father's side is a little more toasty-brown. Plus, my aunt is Vietnamese, which has put a lot of interesting food on the table from time to time.

I make an effort to eat new things as often as possible, and I try to cook them as well. Sometimes I nail it on the first try; usually there's room for improvement; occasionally it's a hopeless disaster and I have to call out for pizza. For the most part, though, I know what I'm doing
, and there's a decently straight line between my intent and what winds up on the plate.

Just for grins, here are a few of the things I've made over the years. Sure, there's a little bragging involved, but I am very aware, and you should be too, that these are just the successes. I have regular failures, no question; a few days ago I tried to turn store-bought corn tortillas into tostada bowls and wound up with squat. By featuring these examples, I'm not trying to show off or pretend I'm some sort of genius chef, because I'm not. It's more about setting the context of who I am as a cook.

First up, on the simple side, this is an oil-poached salmon, based on something I read by Charlie Trotter, if I remember correctly. The basic approach: At a very low temperature, I infused a couple of basic aromatics into olive oil for an hour or two (leeks and garlic, I think), then verified the oil was at the correct finishing temperature, and added the salmon. While it was cooking, I pan-roasted the new potatoes. I also used the aromatic confit as the basis for a sauce, and also julienned some fresh leeks and deep-fried them until crispy, to garnish the salmon. The advantage of the oil-poaching method is that it's almost impossible to overcook the protein; it's sort of like a sous-vide technique. You don't want to leave the fish in the oil too long, of course, but as long as you're reasonably engaged it's nearly foolproof.

Next: blanched asparagus, topped with lemon risotto. The risotto is actually a bit of a hybrid; I parcooked it, as you would if you were preparing it ahead of time, and then instead of finishing it with the remaining stock, I used the stock to make a Greek-style avgolemono, tart with lemon and thickened with egg, which I added to the risotto to complete the cooking. The result is richly aromatic and luxurious to the point of unctuousness, beyond the normal creaminess of standard risotto. It looks simple on the plate but it's a real kicker on the fork.

Tomato-truffle sformato. If you don't know the term, a sformato is an Italian egg dish, sort of like a quiche, but crustless; it's heavier than a souffle but lighter than custard. They can be made in a big dish and cut, or prepared individually in ramekins and unmolded, as I did here. (The name "sformato" comes from the Italian term for unmolding a formed food, as I understand it.) There's myzithra cheese mixed in, and it's finished with basil oil. This is sort of the opposite of the dish above: whereas that one looks fairly straightforward until you eat it, this one looks (and smells) fancy, but is comforting and familiar to eat.

Semi-traditional Korean bibimbap. Why not traditional? I don't have the heavy stone serving bowls, which are heated so when you add the cooked rice, a brown crust is created around the sides and across the bottom. Other than that, this is pretty much the way you'd get it in a Korean kitchen. It's humble home cooking, designed to get rid of leftovers: a little bit of pickled vegetable, sliced or shredded meat, some of this, some of that, with an egg yolk stirred in for mouthfeel. There's also a bit of kimchi on the side, for crunch and spice. At a fast-food stand, the egg may be cooked (often scrambled) for safety reasons. The meat here is duck breast.

This is probably the most elaborate single plate I've made recently, one of several courses for a feast I created for my girlfriend's mother's birthday. It's basically a crab salad, but there are several twists. First, the two layers of crab (which includes creme fraiche, chive, and lime, plus jicama for texture) sandwich a layer of soft salsa, made with avocado, cucumber, and peach; there's also a dusting of crushed and toasted almond on top of the salsa. The red is a relish of roasted red pepper and pickled shallot; the green garnish is a daikon sprout. On the right is a radicchio salad, dressed with a vinaigrette whose main component is tomato water. I was really happy with how this one came together.

Now a couple of desserts:

This is your classic black rice pudding, familiar to anyone who's eaten a lot of Thai food and its relatives. You can find variations on this dish all over Southeast Asia; my use of pandan leaf to sweeten the rice makes it (mostly) Indonesian. (I'm fortunate to live in the Pacific Northwest, where the proliferation of Asian markets makes it easy to find pandan and other kooky ingredients.) It's finished with a bit of coconut milk, a combination of equal parts heated and unheated to get elements of both. There's some palm sugar as sweetener in both the rice and the coconut. And yes, the flowers are edible.

And finally: I described this to my guests as "tiramisu, rephrased." I love the flavors of tiramisu (sweet chocolate, creamy mascarpone, bitter coffee), but I'm tired of the conventional arrangement: gummy cake, predictable layers, you know how it goes. It's one of those desserts that's relatively easy to throw together, which means it's easy to make badly; it's rare to get one that's as transcendant as it's supposed to be. So I've made a small speciality out of coming up with different ways of taking the dish apart and putting it together in alternate configurations, emphasizing one or another variable element. As one example, I've stuffed profiteroles with coffee ice cream and a rum-mascarpone sauce. (I called this combination "tiramichoux," har har.) Here, I started with a variation on a Moroccan-style crepe (called a baghrir, made with semolina), spread it with a thin layer of coffee-chocolate ganache, rolled and filled it with a vanilla-infused creme patisserie, and dressed it with a rum-and-mascarpone sabayon. It's thick, heavy, and chewy, and, fortunately for me, absolutely delicious.

You've probably noticed by now, I'm a bit restless. I don't like to be confined to one style, and I don't like to repeat myself. I'm always looking to try something new, something different; I like adding taste and texture combinations to the repertoire so they can be thrown in, mixed and matched, as needed. I think of it as a toolbox, a knowledge base out of which different things can be pulled. I've ranged all over with my cooking, and I feel like I can dip comfortably into a lot of varying traditions as I work.

So — and here, patient reader, is where I finally get to the freaking point — it was with some surprise, and not a little excited anticipation, that when I started dating an Iranian woman several months ago, I realized there was a whole area of the world whose food I had, until that point, barely explored: the Mideast.

I mean, it's not a total blank: I know a bit about Turkish cooking, and Lebanese; I have a number of books (this one is excellent), which I've read or skimmed, and from which I've done a bit of cooking. I also took a class in Turkish food a while back, which was mostly recipe-based, but which provided a little grounding. In addition, I know something of the tastes of Afghanistan, thanks to a wonderful restaurant here in town. Then there's Morocco, which some people consider part of the Mideast, because of the Arab influence. I'll agree it sort of counts, though when I really look at the food, it strikes me as more of a cross between Spanish and North African traditions. But the region's other cuisines are largely a mystery to me, so it's not like I have solid reasons for thinking that.

There are two things I definitely lack, when it comes to Mideastern food. First, and most important, is a grasp of the foundations, both in preparation and flavors. Yeah, you can eat something and say it sort of "feels" Mideastern; everybody knows hummus, for instance, and the sesame-taste of tahini can be recognized in other dishes. Also, if you've ever had bastilla, you will know how the pronounced flavor and aroma of cinnamon sets the food apart, so you can't mistake the dish as coming from anywhere else. And, of course, there's the saffron. But these are just ingredients; I'm talking about building blocks, traditional combinations, like tomato-basil-cheese-and-olive-oil in Italy, or bonito-kombu-miso in Japan. And if you've cooked any Thai food at all, you know that while fish sauce goes into everything, it isn't used in exactly the same way from dish to dish. That's the kind of information a cook really needs to succeed in a cuisine.

Which leads to the second thing: a sense of the distinctions of regionality. Again, in Italy, you can't really call yourself knowledgeable unless you can recognize the difference between a Tuscan red sauce and its Roman equivalent, or unless you know that pasta in the south is typically made with flour and water, whereas the northern version also includes eggs. As an even more extreme example, there's a world of difference in the cuisines of India; in the West, we tend to see a sort of rolled-up generic hybrid of the various traditions in our unspecifically-labeled "Indian" restaurants, a hybrid that combines the rice and vegetables of the south with the meats and tandoori of the north, and maybe some of the seafood treatments of the west, in a way you'd never see at their source. But Mideastern food? Right now, as I write this, I couldn't even begin to explain what separates, say, Egyptian food from Syrian, because I have absolutely not the first clue. And with Mideastern food being largely unknown in the West, not only was I clueless about it, I didn't know I didn't know it — which is to say, I wasn't aware of it as a knowledge gap.

That is, of course, until I began a relationship with a woman from Iran, who will be known in these entries as my Persian Princess. (Don't laugh, that's what she asked me to call her. And if you make fun of her, she will cut you. You do not, repeat not, mess with a Persian girl.) She is, absolutely, a sweetheart, generous and kind and funny, as well as being very smart and ambitious and professionally capable. She's also beautiful, with thick curly hair, huge dark eyes, and smooth olive skin. I have no idea why she's giving her time to a smart-ass like me, but she is, and my life is immeasurably richer for it.

She's also tiny, just a hair over five feet. She's like an exotic leprechaun, looking up at a world of regular-sized people. Just kidding, baby. Ha! Ha! Don't cut me.


One of the first things we discovered we have in common is a passion about food. She cooks Iranian classics, of course, but also appreciates what other countries have to offer. If it tastes good, she likes it. She boasted a little bit about Iranian food, and said she'd cook me a traditional meal. I said, okay, that sounds interesting, sure; I don't know anything about it and would love to try it. I had no idea what it really meant, because, again, my basis of understanding was essentially null. But it was an opportunity to learn something, not to mention being a way to get to know this cutie-pie with the diamond-bright smile, so, hey, I was up for it.

Little did I know, a world was about to open up.

Unfortunately, I made a mistake: I cooked for her first, before she could cook for me.

I don't remember everything I made that night, but I do know I pulled out a few of the stops. Not all of them, because I didn't want to seem like I was trying too hard, but I definitely did want to impress her. I know I made lamb chops, with a dab of minted yogurt sauce, and zucchini on the side; and I think I made something with squash, a soup maybe. I remember being happy with the results, though, and she was impressed.

Too much so, actually — she said she was intimidated by what I'd made, that she was worried I might be better in the kitchen, and now she wasn't sure she wanted to cook for me.

And I said to myself: well, shit.

This meant I didn't get to appreciate an authentic home-cooked Persian meal until I after met her mother, who laid out an amazing feast on one of my early visits. Since then, the Princess has, thankfully, overcome her nervousness, and started cooking for me, with great success. Seriously, she didn't have anything to be anxious about. Between her and her mother, and a number of other friends and family, I've enjoyed a variety of different dishes, and started to get a handle on what the food is all about. It's been an eye-opening, and delicious, experience.

It has also, I should admit, been a bit of a challenge.

Because here's the thing: Persian food can be described a lot of ways, but one thing it is not, certainly, is obvious.

People in the West, especially in America, have been hungry for novelty for a long time. Starting with the rise of the Chinese restaurant (however bastardized and diluted the food might be, compared to the original), through the expansion of Italian and Mexican and Indian and Greek and other restaurants, to today's explosion of Thai and Ethiopian and sushi, we've shown ourselves quite accommodating to a variety of flavors from around the world. Spain is very hot right now; tomorrow it'll be Vietnamese (pho is just the tip of the iceberg) and Brazilian and Korean and who knows what else.

But one thing all of these food traditions share is that the flavors pop in some way. There may be layers of construction to the taste, undercurrents that are perceived only with time and reflection, but there's a bright and immediate character to each bite, something to hook you right off the bat.

Persian food, based on the several months I've been exploring it, doesn't really have that. It's got a reputation for blandness, for being boring and underseasoned; Rick Steves, the public-television travel host, loved the country of Iran when he visited recently, but called the food "not very exciting." I disagree, for reasons I'll explain below, but I can see why people would say things like this. The lack of the aforementioned pop, I think, is a big part of it, and a major reason why the food hasn't really caught on.

When we eat a foreign dish, we expect to put it in our mouth and experience something. Maybe we'll like it, maybe we won't, but we expect to have a reaction of some kind. The food of Iran doesn't give us anything to which we can immediately respond; it's subtle and reserved. Not only that, but because of the culture in which it was developed, the dishes share many creative elements, which can trigger a feeling of sameness, of repetition, as you continue to eat. So even if you like the first few things you try, you may feel like you've exhausted the potential of the cuisine fairly quickly, and begin to get bored. I know I had a bit of that reaction; in the second or third month, I was asking myself, "Is this all there is to it?" This, I think, is where Rick Steves, and those who share his view, are coming from.

It's understandable, but it's also not fair, I think. Persian food, again, is not obvious, but it's also not bland, either. What it is, I would argue, is sophisticated.

(You want bland? Try Hawaiian food. The best thing that ever happened to the local taste buds was the invasion of all the foreigners. Sorry, islanders, no offense, but your food? Sucks.)

One of the facts you have to keep in mind when thinking about all things Persian is that the culture is old. Not old like the downtown movie palace from the 1920's, which draws predictable editorial lamentations on its demolition. No, I mean, really, really old. More than 1300 years ago, when the Arabs rolled into town bragging about their newfangled monotheistic system, Iranians had already been following the teachings of the single-god prophet Zoroaster for nearly a millennium. By the time of the Roman Empire, the Persians had already built and lost two massive dominions, one more than half the size of Rome at its peak, and another that was more than half again larger. So not only was it probably the biggest ancient empire ever, it also predates everything else of significance. And even as these authorities have risen and fallen, as the people wearing the crowns and stamping themselves on the money have shuffled in and out, the Iranian culture, in terms of its identity, has remained fairly stable and continuous. This is a people that knew who they were, creating music and architecture and government, when the West's Northern-European forebears were still grunting and hitting each other with rocks.

So, yeah. Old.

The point, obviously,
is that there have been thousands of years for the various aspects of the culture to be refined and polished, and the food, the more I've been exposed to it, clearly reflects this. It's not the first time I've felt this way, either; I had a similar sense of history when I got the chance to visit Tuscany a couple of years ago. I was deeply struck by the food, and distilled my response to two basic observations.

First, it felt as though the food had very nearly been perfected, finished even — that these people had been living here continuously for countless hundreds of years, generation after generation working with the same raw materials, and had figured out, over all that time, the ideal methods for handling their ingredients and preparing their food. And second, from household to household, from cook to cook and table to table, there wasn't a lot of variation in approach, that everybody made their meatballs and their lasagna and their grappa pretty much the same. Sure, the locals would argue that assertion, pointing out that this woman makes her pasta with purchased eggs but that woman uses eggs from her own home-grown chickens (and debate with one another about whether or not that actually makes a difference; Italians love to argue). From an outsider's perspective, though, these differences can be found in a fairly narrow band, compared to how people outside Tuscany make the same food. It's as if they've already done their experimentation, and have collectively arrived at the perfect recipes, so there's no need to look any further. And having been blown away by the meal I had my very first day in Italy — hell, by the very first bite — I can't see as how I would question that conclusion.

I've been having an equivalent reaction in my (so far) limited experience with Iranian cuisine, though with a somewhat different slant. Its merits have not been as immediately obvious as they were with Italian food; there, I had a basis for comparison, a lifetime of experience with Americanized versions. "Oh," I said after a couple of revelatory swallows, "so that's what it's supposed to taste like."

But the food of Iran? I have, again, no foundation. It's good, without question, and the more I eat it the more I come to appreciate it. It is, to repeat the adjectives from above, refined and sophisticated. It's not marked by a single assertive characteristic; rather, each dish is a balanced blend of flavors, a distinctive whole that sums up century after century, lifetime after uncounted lifetime, of culinary refinement. The food doesn't assault your senses: it's restrained, calm, graciously elegant — almost polite, if you get my meaning. And while with Italian food, as noted above, I had something with which the idealized original could be clearly contrasted, for Iranian cuisine I am lost in terms of tradition and comparison. I mean, I know it's different, certainly, but ... different from what?

Which is, in the end, the circuitously long explanation for why I've decided I need to learn how to cook it.

In the next post: my plan of attack.


  1. This is the best mission statement I have ever read... I am very excited to follow your blog

  2. I look forward to more posts. Love the mission statement.