Monday, May 10, 2010

Moosewood Macaroni & Cheese

I've talked up Moosewood often enough here that you might suspect I'm a shill for the restaurant, nothing better than a marketeer for their prodigious line of stylish reasonably-priced cookbooks available now for the low low price of... etcetera, etcetera.  The truth is, yeah, I loved the restaurant more than I hated it, and I have been nothing but happy with the food I've produced from the Moosewood cookbooks.  Since we've been trying out vegetarianism (we've been saying veggie-curious half seriously) the last month or so, we've been paging through the cookbooks even more than usual.  But after what happened last week, I'm starting to think maybe all my praise has been based on something transient, something distressingly more like good luck than good design, something like happenstance.  You guys, last week we made something from New Classics so abysmal, so abhorrently distasteful I am about to be forced to paraphrase myself, to reuse a line I first used to describe the crime against nature that was Tater-Tot Nachos served in the wilds of the midwest.  Are you ready for this?

It was so awful, I want to make it again just to take a picture of myself throwing it away.

It started out almost as innocently as a meal can start: we wanted macaroni and cheese for dinner.  Here's a useful rule of thumb: when the majority of the ingredients are included in the dish's name, the difficulty of execution is somewhere between poking yourself in the face and sitting in a folding chair.  Seriously, it's like cooking at a first grade level.  You put pasta in water, you add cheese.  Done.  Next. Meal.  In this way, we were bolstered.

The cookbook set us up well, too: to add some protein to your cheesy pasta, simply blend some tofu into this dish's cheese sauce, your kids will never suspect the extra nutrition!  And you know what, they probably wouldn't, either, because there is no way they're getting far enough into this dish to detect the subtle flavor of tofu.  Instead, the first and most egregious misstep was one rather obviously incongruous ingredient the addition of which they fail to even mention in the text: along with the cheese and tofu going into the sauce, you add raw diced onions and prepared mustard.  2 huge Tablespoons of prepared mustard.  In our defense, we questioned it when we were putting everything together, but ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we'd never been steered wrong by these books.  Where others have failed so spectacularly, Moosewood has held strong, had won the sort of trust necessary to even make us add an ingredient we knew we shouldn't.

After combination but before baking, the dish was the color and consistency of deviled eggs and had a smell akin to mayonnaise late in the process of turning.  Yet on and on we pressed, turning away our noses and hoping that all this would somehow magically transform into deliciousness in the oven. It took literally an hour and a half of baking (twice as long as indicated because the middle remained stubbornly cold) before we could dig into the finished product.  Once we chipped our way through the dry, insanely breadcrumby crust--yet another misstep, if a forgivable one--the interior just looked and smelled wrong.  The kind of thing you would send back if served it in a restaurant.  Instead of lessening in baking, the smell had intensified, building up to a stink that became more and more hideous as it permeated the room.  If we had turned back then and ordered a pizza, we might have been spared some measure of queasiness, but by then it was probably 9pm, we were completely famished and held still to our faith in the source.  So in spite of the evidence before us, we spooned it into bowls.
Dana, to her credit, made it maybe three bites in before she gave up; I am ashamed to admit that in my hunger and desperation, I somehow managed to polish off most of my bowl before pushing it bodily across the table.  Reader, let me put you there with us.  Below the crisp, nearly wooden crust, the texture was somewhere in the neighborhood of leftover egg salad, lukewarm and paste-like toward the center, molten and fluid along the edges.  The smell was some kind of heavy mustard and sulfur dried on the counter.  It tasted like culinary death, like holding sulfrous clotted ash in our mouths on a dare, only the dare was simply a late dinner of what should have been comfort food. The taste was overwhelmingly the bitterness of uncooked onions, unctuous and nauseating. There was mustard on the tongue, too, of course.  There was mustard besieging us on every side at that point, its presence inescapable within the four walls of the house, even after disposing of the leftovers, even after brushing--nay, scouring--our teeth, it remained.  That night as I slept, I swear to God that I could dream of nothing but the pervasive presence of mustard and onions.  This is how deeply we were failed.

I have to confess that I still find myself a little mystified by the level of fail here.  I'm still not clear on how a simple dish went so hellishly wrong.  I mean, even Trader Joe's makes their microwaveable macaroni and cheese a winner, how could something so much more work intensive be so far off the mark?  While we didn't get a picture of me throwing the remains of this ill fated adventure away, we got this:
 Why did you have to make Dana so sad, Moosewood?  Why, oh why, have you betrayed us?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

On the recipe

I love recipes.

Yeah, I'm man enough to admit it, right up in front of all of you gathered here today.  Okay, okay, I know I've talked before about how difficult it can be for me to follow a recipe to the letter, but whenever I cook I do pretty much invariably have something in front of me.  See, I love everything about recipes.  The precise seemingly logical measurements, the linear directions, the sense that, like a map, if you follow their lines precisely, you will always get where you intend to go.  This is really satisfying, and it speaks to the age we live in, too.  You probably know this but if you study any art long enough you'll hear reiterations of the idea that everything has been done, everything thought, everything said and heard.  We humans have been here on Earth doing stuff long enough that we don't really have anything new to offer, just the same old things, hopefully combined in some new way that, immediately after you do it, becomes just one more thing that's also not new.  So when it comes to cooking, it's not much of a stretch to say that everything you're thinking of throwing together in a pan, someone else has made it first.  And if you look deep enough on google, they've probably blogged about it too.

Think too hard on the implications of this concept and it'll drive you absolutely mad, but once it wiggles its way inside you you kind of have to learn to live with it.  Me, I like to imagine that this concept of reiteration is one of the cornerstones of modern civilization, that it's comforting to be living in the shadow of history, and recipes for me just reinforce this.  When I cook from a recipe, I'm just consciously reiterating a previous meal, attaching myself to a newer form of someone else's experience with a dish, when I then blog about the recipe, I'm constructing the underlying associations that society depends on.  I am not saying that this is my motivation all the time, but sometimes, sure, I'm doing it to do it so that it will be redone.

As you might imagine from this, I cook from recipes quite a bit.  But more and more I find that my developing sense of how things work in the kitchen leads me away from whatever recipe my laptop screen is open to and toward the cupboard, or the fridge.  I guess, despite all my tangled beliefs about the power of the recipe, all my reliance on the formula, I'm finally learning to cook.  I'm sure that there are a million names for this realization, for this act of breaking through the recipe, but the one that keeps running through my head tonight is this: I'm cooking freehand. 

Tonight, as Dana ailed on the couch tending a fever as sudden and furious as a sunspot, I had the idea that I'd make her a soup.  It was only after I'd diced the aromatics and started digging veggies from the crisper that I realized I was going about this differently than usual.  I hadn't hit up tastespotting, hadn't dug through the food-stained catalog of printed out recipes we keep in a binder near the stove, hadn't even really referenced the recipes I've followed so many times I have them by heart.  I just wanted soup so I put together soup.  I tasted broth, and I frowned at vegetables like normal but I was doing something much more interesting than usual.

Ultimately, the soup turned out all right, good for what it was but still a little unbalanced with flavors, and perhaps that is one of the things that turns me off of cooking freehand, the sense that if something doesn't turn out quite right, it's not the fault of the recipe, it's my fault.  There's no scapegoat.

Anyway, the soup's not the important thing (though it was very pretty) it was just a dish that got me thinking.  So now I'm curious: what's the breakdown on this issue like in the general population?

So this is a quick sort of poll, a post that needs responses from you.

When you cook, do you dig out recipes and follow their instructions or do you cook freehand, gripping like mad to experience and--if you're a science-minded cook-- the ratios of what goes with what?  Okay, why?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Busted Belly Benefit

In case you didn't hear, our dear dear friend Alex Solla has run into some pretty serious medical problems for the better part of a year.  In fact, his last few months have been repeatedly punctuated by the sort of medical emergencies most people don't recover from.  This has left him with a stack of medical bills and physically unable to pursue the pottery from which he earns his living.  You can read the nitty-gritty of Alex's last few months here if you've got a strong stomach and you're so inclined but I just wanted to post to say this:

If you're anywhere in the Ithaca area this Sunday at around 6pm, you should stop by the Rongo in Trumansburg to support someone awesome who needs--and deserves--a hand.  Plus there'll be "two awesome live bands playing and a fantastic auction of art, fine crafts, and lots of fun stuff from local wineries and bed and breakfasts," so you'll be able to grab some wicked stuff.