Saturday, June 21, 2008

Until It Looks Right

I was speaking with a friend of mine last week who wanted ideas for a dinner party. She’s in New York now (*sniff*), and she told me what was in season there: She was still seeing lots of springtime produce. I suggested a strawberry-asparagus salad and explained the basic process (blanch 2-inch chunks of asparagus, slice strawberries into wedges, dress with red wine vinaigrette, serve) and then told her I garnished with mint. “How much mint?” she asked. I answered with my normal response to such questions: until it looks right. Get the food to look the way you want, and it will be close to the way you want it to taste.

This insight may be one of the many things my friend Tom taught me. Or we may have arrived there independently. I forget. Certainly, “until it looks right” was a common direction of his.

It’s the rule I use for salads of various kinds and salsa. Probably other dishes as well, but those are the ones where I do it consciously. Come to think of it, I add chocolate chips to cookies until the mix looks right.

Consider my friend’s strawberry-asparagus-mint salad. If you looked at a bite and saw the dark green of minced mint, what would you expect it to taste like? What if you looked at a bite and saw chunks of strawberry and asparagus gilded with little flecks of green?

How you, as a cook, choose the look is up to you, of course.

Tonight I made myself (Melissa is away) a pasta salad with figs, tomatoes, and basil. I added the chopped figs and tomatoes and mixed. I looked in the bowl and saw a sea of creamy yellow pasta with islands of red and purple. I added more figs and tomatoes until there were equals amounts of each color. Then I added minced basil until each bite had 5 or 6 flecks of green, which looked about right. Then I tasted. It needed salt, a little lemon oil, and nothing more: The ingredients were balanced.

Maybe this is obvious: I don’t know. But in my quest to cook from technique and not from a set of instructions, it’s been one of my most valuable guides.

Some other notes on salads that may be helpful as the mercury climbs up the thermometer’s tube. Mix with your hands: You won’t damage the ingredients, and you’ll end up with a better mix. Cut ingredients into similar shapes: Don’t do horizontal slices of strawberries with wands of asparagus. Finally, taste is the final decider: Cooking by look just gets you most of the way there.

Incidentally, I would have loved a figgy Semillon or a crisp rosé with my tomato-fig salad. The Semillon would have complemented the figs in the dish and contributed acidity, while the rosé would have done the same for the tomatoes. But I had a simple Greek red in the refrigerator, so I drank that instead.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Learning To Grill

I remember the first time I tried to grill. I was just learning to cook well — about 13 years ago — and I decided to make a grilled something-or-other as dinner for a friend. I thought I knew the basics of grilling — it’s called cooking over fire, right? — but the flame on my charcoal kept going out. I kept adding lighter fluid.

When you find yourself battling with your girlfriend about whether the food tastes too much like lighter fluid, you’ve already lost the war.

Since then, I’ve learned more about grilling theory: You want an ambient heat, not roaring flames. But I have almost no grilling practice under my belt. Melissa and I have always lived in apartments, and a potential grill has faced the same problem as our smoker: No outdoor space. Not even a tiny deck because, believe me, I’d have used it.

But now we have a modest backyard, and on Memorial Day weekend we took advantage of my one day off and signed ourselves up for Americana 101 by buying our very own grill. I asked meriko what I should buy, and she told me all the things she loved about her large Weber kettle-style grill with the ashcan below, the vent above, and the liftable wings on the grill itself. Other foodies have confirmed that it’s the one to get.

But many have asked why I didn’t get a gas grill. I have a gas stove. If I wanted to cook over gas I would use that. No, I want the experience of hot charcoal, the taste of fire and smoke, and the variable temperature.

Plus, a gas grill is too easy.

If you’ve never learned to grill, how do you give yourself a crash course? I started with Cook’s Illustrated’s How to Grill. (As an aside, of the magazine’s many attempts at repackaging their recipes, I have always liked their first, the diminutive How Tos, the best.) It gave me pointers on fuel (hardwood charcoal), fire starting (use a chimney), getting the heat up, and setting up a grilling environment (high stack of coals on one side for high heat, one layer on the other side for lower heat). Within half an hour, my grill was fired up.

I am by no means a grilling master — our thin, lean porterhouse steaks came out medium instead of the more flavorful rare — but the grill is a permanent fixture now, and, assuming I’ll have a less hectic schedule this summer, we plan to use it often.

Remember me? I used to blog here. I’ve missed writing for OWF, but I’ve been very busy at work. I wasn’t joking about having one day off Memorial Day weekend. If you haven’t done so yet, visit and see what I’ve been up to. And while I didn’t work on Creature Creator, you should check out the trial version of this truly fascinating toy. You can find my creatures by looking for MaxisPuzzle in our “Sporepedia”.