October 7, 2009
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How My Cooking Changed, Again

A few years ago, I read an important food blog post. Clotilde at Chocolate & Zucchini, was introducing a recipe, and explained that she had cooked this because friends were coming to dinner and it would go well with a bottle of wine she wanted to serve.

It had never occurred to me that you might fit your meal to the wine, instead of picking the wine for the meal. And this doesn’t just apply to wine; once you reexamine habits and prejudices, all sorts of things start making sense.

Here’s a recent weeknight dinner:

Now, back in grad school I’d have thought of this as company fare. And it would work fine for company. But it also works fine for a a pickup weeknight dinner. It’s relaxing, tasty, fairly fast, and fairly cheap. Some points:

  1. Hanger steak, if you can get it, can be almost as cheap as ground beef. It tastes great.
  2. Grilling is better than broiling or pan-frying. In the Boston winter, you just aren’t going to use the charcoal grill a lot — even if charcoal is the right way. A really good range with a grill is a great investment; you spend an extra thousand or two thousand bucks, but you save restaurant bills for fifteen years.
  3. We used to eat out a lot. It adds up. For the price of takeout, you can splurge on ingredients almost every day and still wind up way ahead.
  4. Shallots are your friend. Use them like onions. They are onions, optimized for cooking. (“Shallot” comes from the city Ashkelon; they’ve been in beta for a long time.)
  5. You can buy bacon for $3 bucks. I paid $8 for my wild boar bacon. But it’s more flavorful, so I can use less. It’s leaner — those wild boars work for a living — so it’s probably a little less bad for you. It’s selected and smoked with more care, so it tastes better. And I eke it out in small amounts to spice up lots of dishes.
  6. Farm shares are a good thing; the encourage you to cook things you don’t know how to cook. Like turnips.
  7. Unfashionable wine is fun. Bordeaux from the wrong side of the river. Portuguese wine: you can get a case of Vinho Verde for $50. Super-Tuscans with bad PR departments seem to be great bargains.
  8. OK, doc. Steak, and buttery biscuits, and bacon in the turnips, and more butter in the tart crust. And wine. It’s still healthier than fast food. Even out the strain. Tomorrow you can grill some fish, and worry about the mercury instead.
  9. Ratio changed baking for me, overnight. It’s not a mystery. It doesn’t require tons of precision. Get a digital scale, use it. 3 parts flour, 1 part butter, 2 parts water, and some baking powder and salt: it’s biscuits. Scones are even easier. Bread is good for you. (I’d have used whole wheat in the biscuits, but I’d just exhausted my second 5lb bag this summer)
  10. Make a pie crust at half-time on Sunday afternoon. Roll it out, throw some apple slices on top, sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Oops — no more cinnamon! No problem: they were great anyway. And they were great on Monday, and Tuesday, too.
  11. Regarding that cinnamon: I run out of ingredients nowadays that used to last me decades. One can of baking powder got me through the 90’s. I finished a can this year, and I’m half way through the second. Cinnamon’s gone, so it the vanilla. No problem: newer ingredients taste better, they’re better for you, and they’re cheap. You can buy a lot of cinnamon for the price of a trip to the diner.
  12. Warm the plates. Use wine glasses.
  13. It’s 45 minutes, maybe, from the time I pull up in the driveway to table. Less if I don’t do the biscuits – but then I’d probably want potatoes. Since I tend to leave work around 7 (on a good day), we eat late. But the delay is good; I’m less likely to obsess about work over dinner. OK: not much time for TV. Can’t have everything everyday.