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September 23, 2007

Cooking style: Empiricist

Halo Effect, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

Amanda asks: What is your cooking style?

I love cookbooks and recipes. I'm especially fond of family recipes.

I love America's Test Kitchen because they are models of evidence-based cooking. They aren't afraid to experiment, but they subject their results to blind tastings and test their recipes exhaustively. If I make something out of ATK book, I can be confident that it will actually turn out the way it's described.

If I'm cooking from a recipe, I always follow it exactly the first time. If I like the results well enough to replicate the dish, I may repeat it exactly several times in order to make sure that I really know how to make it. Then I'll start tweaking it, one variable at a time, to get it exactly the way I want it.   My pad thai recipe is a very slight variation on the ATK pad thai. (I found I liked more shallots and a little less oil than they called for. I omit the beansprouts.)

It drives me (irrationally) crazy when people neither follow, nor write down their own recipes. I applaud innovation. There's no reason anyone should be bound to someone else's recipe. But if you don't write down your own procedure, how can you duplicate your results next time, or systematically improve on them?


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» She'll slice them with Occam's razor from The Ethical Werewolf
If the dish photographed above the post is any indication, Lindsay's cooking is remarkable for its parsimony. In keeping with the Quinean emphasis on ontological simplicity, very few objects are involved. [Read More]


I almost don't know when to stop! Take this evening, for instance...I was mashing a simple guacamole, I got it tasting just right. That's when I should have said to myself "stop, it tastes just right!" But I had that urge to add more. Fortunately I did stop, and, sure enough, it still tastes just right. But I really had to force myself to stop from adding a little more of this, a little more of that...

People, we have to know when to stop.

Recipes are like travel guides.

Some need to be followed slavishly, some should be jumping off points, and some are a little of both.

I can write down how to do things, but my food posts (which have been very light of late; living conditions are such that my kitchen isn't really mine, are more of the the, "this is what I did," not this is how much I used, and how long I diddled with it until I did the next thing."

I know how to cook. I've spent 30+ years working on becoming good at it. I've read books on the science of it (I commend, "On Food and Cooking," and "Cookwise" for that). I read books on technique, more than I read books of recipes.

I am an empirical cook. Based on my experience, I play with things to make them work as I want them to taste.

I do a lot of things by the seat of my pants (my>oyster mushroom recipe), but if you know how to cook you can come close enough that I would call it the same.

How can I recall...

By memory. I know what it tasted like. I know what I did to get there. I do those things, add those spices, until it tastes right.

Many moons ago I lost a recipe.

It took me years to recall what was in it (it was for dill bread).

But I did manage, at last, to add the scalded milk it needed to get the right crumb.

I'm a huge fan of both "On Food and Cooking" and "Cookwise." My other favorite in that genre is "How to Read a French Fry."

I don't feel the need to follow recipes, per se. I'm happy to put together dishes from the techniques I know and the ingredients I have on hand.

I just like to change one variable at a time so that I have a better idea of how each variation affects the end product.

I probably experiment more than the average cook. Over the last couple of months, I've been perfecting my recipe for fajitas at home. I make the dish about twice a month. It was pretty good to start with, but each time I change something based on a food science principle. (Heat, pan shape, oil, moisture, quantity and distribution of ingredients per pan...)

I've got my fajita method just about where I want it. If I'd just kept tinkering randomly, I think I would have ended up with a succession of mediocre fajitas without actually figuring out the method to make them turn out exactly the way I want them.

( comment made while listening to my boy Ahmadinejad speak at Columbia on CSPAN. )

Cooking style: Infrequent, barbarian style. High points include cooking bison burgers from Fairway Market with onions, or boiling pasta for a halfway decent sauce that I do actually make myself.

And I know a number of people, mostly men, but not all by any means, that cook less often or with even less skill than me! I have a friend in Manhattan who has not used his kitchen in the four years that he's lived there. That is astonishing. He's not the only one.

I'm taking some baby steps. Next one's going to be to learn how to make some serious chili, and if anyone has a killer recipe (not the hottest, necessarily, but the best ) I'm all ears.

Definitely an empiricist. I have a longstanding subscription to [i]Cook's Illustrated[/i] and the ATK books, and they're usually the first place I go if I'm looking for a new recipe. I also hang on Alton Brown's every word--if CI/ATK is clinical research, Alton is the bench science.

I'm bad about writing stuff down. You can get away with it in a lot of dishes, but when you're baking there's just no other way to do it. My baking went to another level when I got a good kitchen scale and started measuring ingredients by weight instead of volume, and if that can make a difference, you'd better believe you need to write stuff down.

I just love cookbooks. Even today when you can get any recipe you could ever want online, I buy one or two every month. I have about six inches before the collection exceeds the space I have for it.

I excel at making whole meals out of salads and experiment every time. No recipes, no writing anything down. Salad is a joy for me. It's the one meal I'm good at.

Pretty much everything else I tend to buy, which is a shameful thing to admit I guess. The bakeries and delis and health shop take outs are so damn good (and reasonably priced) there's no reason to make anything anymore. (Cooking's never been a big interest.) And I can't bake because I have no willpower and will eat every last cookie the minute they are out of the oven.


So how does *pan shape* affect the outcome of your fajitas?

I see no reason to bake.

My goal was to serve the fajitas fillings still sizzling on the small oval fajita pans--like do in Tex-Mex restaurants.

What I found was that my personal-sized fajita pans are too small to char the ingredients properly. The ingredients crowd and steam instead of forming a crust. Also, for steak fajitas, I wanted the meat to be extremely rare in the center and crusty on the outside. Whereas, I want the vegetables to be basically cooked through but also charred.

Here's the solution: heat a cast iron frying pan and two fajita pans. I essentially sautee the vegetables in the cast iron pan over very high heat, letting them scorch a little. Meanwhile, I arrange one portion of steak on each fajita pan, which is by now extremely hot. I only flip each piece once with tongs. Then I transfer all the steak pieces to one hot pan and all the veggies to the other and bring the two plates to the table.

Phantom, your comment made me think of my dad, who doesn't know the first thing about cooking. A few years ago I asked him if he knew how to cook rice, and he said "well, I've never done it, but I've seen your mother do it, and I know that you put the rice and some water in a pot, and that it takes about half an hour." For nearly his whole life, he's had someone cooking for him (in chronological order, his mother, the airforce, my mother, me and my sister). During his college years, when he might have learned something about cooking, he lived in rented rooms without kitchen privileges, so he ate cheap diner food and food that didn't have to be refrigerated or cooked -- he told me that he once lived for a week on a bag of oranges and a box of oatmeal cookies.

In those days, of course, it was normal for men not to know a thing about cooking. Now it's not normal for anyone to cook, except as a profession or a hobby.

Mexicans cook most of their ingredients separately, then assemble at the end. The exception being sauces. Very, very, very complicated sauces, traditionally.


But Janet, the odd thing, is back then, only men were respected chefs.

How 'bout the panini fad? I'll tell you, I'll take a really flat, really pressed, Cuban sandwich, over a Mediterranean panini any day.

Lindsay: Hrmn... I suspect that when I have kids I'll do more writing down. I'm not running a production kitchen, I don't have people I need to have replicate my dishes, and I can recall them well enough to replicate them.

But I can write them down. I can even; absent notes, write them down well enough that other people can replicate them. I tend to make one tweak at a time, just as with your fajitas. Part of what took so long to get the dill bread replicated was fiddling one thing at a time.

You might want to look at Tom Colicchio's, "think like a chef". I bought it about three years ago, and when I got around to reading "Kitchen Confidential" was amused/pleased to see Coliccio was on his list of chefs he liked/respected.

He's got a lot of stuff on how to riff an ingredient (or a technique) so that it makes the centerpiece/focus of things.

There are also some nice bits of prep-work. I am really fond of the "intense" tomatoes.

Get tomatoes (about 2 dozen) fresh is best, but it works with supermarket as well).

Slice them in half; remove the stems and cores.

Place them in a bowl with 1/2 cup olive oil, 2 heads of garlic; peeled and cloved, some kosher salt and black pepper. Mix all gently.

Place them, cut face down, on a pair of baking sheets lined with parchment paper, scattering the garlic and some sprigs of fresh thyme amongst the tomatoes.

Pour the olive oil and juice from the bowl on them.

Put the baking sheets in a 350F oven. After twenty minutes remove them, and pull the skins off. Pour off any juice which has rendered and reserve.

Return to the oven, and reduce the temp to 275F. Check every so often and remove the rendered juice. When the tomatoes have shrunken, and are wizened, but not dried, removen them and cool them. Put the garlice, the tomatoes and the juices into separate containers.

This will keep in the fridge for up to a week, or freeze for about six months.

The result is bright, and intense, tomato flavor. It makes a handy way to make things taste as if one used heirloom tomatoes. It's fresh, despite the cooking.

I've used them to top pizza, enliven a jar of sauce, etc..

Why do I need to write this down when I've got pecunium?

I believe you have uncovered a psychology question that could be part of that stupid HTFP or whatever it is 2-d psychology scale. Intuitive v.s. judgemental, etc.

I improvise mercilessly and usually like what I get. I hate having the same experience twice, except for music. Can't read the same book or watch the same movie. Where this goes wrong is that I always order the weird stuff on the menu and often am not happy with my dinner.

But Janet, the odd thing, is back then, only men were respected chefs.

Yes. This is still largely true, alas. And true of all the household arts.

mudkitty: It is to blush. Thank you.

For the sake of Irony... I'm working on a cookery book. Not so much recipes, but technique. How to do the things one needs to do, so that when one learns to think like a chef, one knows how to execute.

My guilty pleasure for tv is Top Chef. Re-reading Colicchio's book (Clarkson Potter, 2000), I was reminded why he is the judge... the challenges set to the contenders are how he cooks. He has a section called, "Trilogies" where he takes three ingredients, and presents several treatments for them.

I suppose, were I to choose a style, it's jazz. One has to have the fundamentals of theory, and the mechanics of craft. After that, one has to be able to mix the two, with an idea of where the theme is going, and a willingness to be "out there," while looking to, "bring it home."

The ingredients are the other players (and sometimes one actually has other people... which adds another level of excitement, challenge and opportunity), and the audience is going to be brutal.

I'm more of a rock and roll/soul rather than jazz...soul food, yum!

Can anyone believe what that dufus Oh Really said about Sylvia's? Look, he said it. He actually said it. One has to be truly racist when ones tries to give a compliment and it comes out racist. Let him eat cake.

Mudcat and mudkitty live and die by Top Chef. What a fantastic show. What a great formula, speaking of irony.

As Julia Child (my hero) once said, "If you learn the techniques, you need never look at a recipe again."

My approach to cooking is very right-brained. Lynne Rosetto Kasper says, for example, that when making tomato sauce you have to let the tomatoes speak to you and tell you what they want to be this time.

Here's the difference between writing and cooking; with writing, if you put too much in, you can always take it out. Not so with cooking.


What Jack said. Lab-grade materials and scientific process gets you Triscuits, as assembled in the factory. There's a different evidence-based model to follow, and that's observation and duplication. It may take longer or shorter, or slightly different quantities, to get the right shade or texture or taste, but once you've got it right, you'll know it next time.

But I always regret not writing down my grandmother's recipes before she died.

It shouldn't be an either/or issue.

Bee's knees - The

Woe is me

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