My ex-husband wanted a big birthday bash. He was a lover of big parties; I was not. The things that are important to me—good food and relaxed conversation—were not usually found at large get-togethers.
But it was his birthday not mine. So….
He requested a tropical party. I was able to warm to this concept because it gave me a large enough audience (and an appropriate theme) to try something I’d always yearned to cook: a spit-roasted pig. The lime-green, post-modern version of a mid-century house in Venice Beach, with its big backyard full of bamboo, papyrus, and succulents, would make a perfect backdrop. Tiki torches were dusted off, and at least one new Hawaiian shirt was purchased.
I set about the process of locating a rotisserie strong enough to hold a 50-pound pig, then set out to find a pig. The rotisserie was easy: I rented one. The pig proved more elusive. After following a trail of referrals that found me talking to people on intimate terms with animal husbandry in rural and urban parts of California, I finally found the right man in the last place I thought to look: the industrial section of downtown LA. But by that time the deadline for securing a whole pig in time for the party had passed. Only one day earlier, and I could have laid my hands on a perfectly pink and succulent porker.
I settled for two 25-pound pork legs, with the skin on (for that crucial crispy-skin effect). I decided to brine both, then smoke one and spit-roast the other. I prepared the brine in two huge plastic tubs, and brined the legs out on the shady side of the deck for three days, with large cutting boards on top to keep out any critters. (This is actually quite safe, at least in a relatively cool climate. Memories of the food hygiene class at cooking school reminded me that, if the legs were fully immersed in the salt solution, spoilage wouldn’t be a problem. This is how meats were preserved for long voyages at sea.)
The protein was under control and I was contemplating a Cuban mojo sauce with fresh citrus, good olive oil, and abundant fresh herbs. I would round out the menu with red ginger slaw, mango and black bean salad, shrimp and glass noodle salad, and key lime pie. For stand-up appetizers, I’d whip up tuna tartare on blue corn chips, jicama with green goddess dip, and flaming cabbage-head weenies. This last, a dish of Hawaiian origin that involved toothpicks, Sterno, and Vienna sausage, had once caught my eye in a magazine—an old magazine.
The guest list continued to grow; it included friends, family, and various colleagues ranging in age from twelve to seventy-eight. My ex had an old childhood friend from San Francisco; he’d be bringing his new-ish girlfriend to the party. I had met Nancy a few times, she was a nice enough girl—perhaps no great shakes in the intellect department, but in L.A., who’s counting? She also happened to be an ex porn star. I appreciated the “ex” in her description. Then the old friend called to say that Nancy would like to bring along an old friend of her own who was still “in the business.”
I voiced objection to this plan. “One porn star per party. That’s my rule.”
I was accused of being small-minded. I was a snob. It was base discrimination. And whose birthday was this anyway? The old friend insisted that his relationship with Nancy would be irreparably harmed if she couldn’t bring her friend (whose name, it transpired, was Tawni Ocean) to the Pig Roast. (“She’s really a very nice girl. Not like a porn star at all.”)
My husband sided with his old friend. There followed a spirited exchange of ideas.
Chastened and ready to Do The Right Thing by this possibly innocent victim of economic circumstance, I added Ms. Ocean to the guest list. There was a palpable buzz in the inner circle, but it wasn’t about the menu.
The day of the event dawned and I donned what would, unbeknownst to me then, be my outfit for the entire day and night: a bathing suit, sarong, and heavy-duty yellow rubber gloves. First, I man-handled one pork leg into the smoker and got the applewood chunks smoldering. Then, with help, I drove the other leg hard onto the spit, trying to counter-balance the awkward shape with the provided weight to make up for the uneven center of gravity. This leg would take eight hours to cook, and since the fire-bed was shallow, a new chimney-ful of mesquite charcoal would have to be ignited and burned down to gently-glowing coals about once every hour. Plus the coals had to be tended and stirred to provide more heat under the thicker part of the leg, less under the shank end.
I spent much of the early party running back and forth (and back and forth) from the kitchen to the rotisserie, tending the fire, basting the pork with orange juice, bringing guests cold drinks, and orchestrating the rest of what—I had now come to realize—was an insanely elaborate menu. In retrospect, I would like to have taken time out for a little cocktail break before the first guests arrived, but in what was becoming a rather disturbing theme, I had once again bitten off more than I could chew and the moment slipped away. Hell, I didn’t even have time to change into my party outfit.
Some time after I’d set out the first pupus, when a good number of people were helping themselves to Planter’s Punch, I noticed that my ex’s old friend had arrived. I hardly noticed Nancy, because I had eyes only for the rest of his entourage. Tawni was wearing extremely short, white leather hot pants with scuffed gold boots and a dirty white halter top doing very little to conceal darkly-tanned and rather wrinkled breasts. Much was wrinkled about this half of the entourage. She was also profoundly, deeply, staggeringly drunk. And loud. As the evening moved very slowly on, it developed that the entourage was also extremely, ah, forthcoming. About the hard night she’d had with a gang of businessmen at a hotel in the Marina, mostly, but there were other subjects and opinions, and everyone in that half of the backyard became familiar with them.
My ex—after, perhaps, just a few incidences of eye contact with me—conferred with the (now very embarrassed) old friend, and a joint decision was taken to encourage the entourage to—how to put it—move on. There was a bit of difficulty with this operation. When the entourage had been packed, flailing, out the garden gate, I examined the party and found it to be seemingly unharmed. Everyone had noticed, yes, but other than just a few of us, no one would know she was a porn star, right? I smiled brightly while chewing off the inside of my cheek. Luckily, it was almost time to carve. The pork was so meltingly delectable, so porky, such a fine example of the pig’s unassailable claim to be the King of Meats, that the brief glimpse into the dark underbelly of Hollywood’s other film industry would be forgotten, right? (How was the rest of the menu? I can’t remember, I was too exhausted to notice.)
The next day, a thank-you e-mail arrived from a seventh-grade friend with whom I had recently re-connected.
“Wow, you give really great parties,” he wrote. “You’ve got it all: People, Pork, and Porn Stars.”
(excerpted from my 2007 book of cautionary tales, prescriptive solutions, and excellent recipes: The Relaxed Kitchen: How to Entertain with Casual Elegance and Never Lose Your Mind, Incinerate the Soufflé, or Murder the Guests; St. Martin’s Press)
The winter of my discontent is upon me once again, but I’m not going to play this time around. Instead of a long face, I’m sporting a can-do attitude, a real—not make-believe—smile, and a list of productive projects for my alone-weeks. (That’s not to say I’m not counting the days until I’ll be paired up with my partner again. FYI: 22.)
One project on my list: drop at least 3 pounds before my book launch—and all its very visible attendant activities—in early May. So when I am not dining out at one of Paso Robles’ excellent eateries (Monday night was deliciously spent at Artisan, for the Tablas Creek tasting dinner), I am and will be cooking something nice for myself. The candidate must be super-simple, packed with flavor, and good for my heart, mind, and belly (the one that’s too big for my skinny jeans right now).
Enter the One-Pot Salad. Put three small, halved potatoes on to steam. If they’re big, cut them into quarters. Mince a shallot. Slick a cast-iron skillet with olive oil; add a sliver of good butter. Cut an interesting sausage (here, Artichoke and Garlic) on a radically steep diagonal, 1/3-inch thick. Add the potatoes and the sausage slices to the hot fat and let them sizzle, undisturbed, until golden. While this alchemy proceeds, sip your chosen one-and-only cocktail. (Here, a fresh lime/blood orange classic daiquiri.) Turn the potatoes and sausage slices as the spirit moves you, to achieve an even, golden crispness. Shove this goodness aside and add the shallots. Stir until the shallots soften slightly, then remove the pan from the heat, and set the table with something pretty. (Successful solo diners maintain decorum even when no one is looking.) Key up your next episode of [insert name of current guilty-pleasure vintage television show here]. Now that the pan is merely warm, rather than sizzling hot: core a head of perfect, lime-green frisée and rain the lacy-feathery leaves down on top of the sausage-potato goodness. Toss. Squeeze over a touch of fresh lemon juice, grind in some black pepper, and scatter with French gray sea salt (or, your current favorite esoteric salt). Toss again. Dine. Ideally, do all of the above in fluffy pajamas with matching slipper. Or, not.
When you have finished this tasty, well-balanced meal, lovingly but quickly made with your own hands, call your lover and tell him or her how very much you miss them.
In the way that this country is supposedly now “Post Racist” (although, that hasn’t really worked out so well, right?), I have become Post-Crust.
Used to be (in the nineties), chefs wanted to put a crust on everything. Then they wanted to brine everything. Now they’re into braising tough, odd bits of animals. “Low and slow!” they bellow. (I ghost-write many chef’s books, so am right in the line of fire for such trends. And bellowing.) Bellowing, and cooking, often leave me in the mood for an expertly-executed, monumental cocktail, and thus my usual mise-en-place involves preparation for a chilled adult beverage.
I still like crust. But I’m completely over trying to get pastes to stick onto bits of protein and then ending up with a blackened, charred—and bitter—crust (or the crust is still in the pan and the protein is nakedly un-seared). Worse, applying the crust pre-cooking leaves me without the lovely caramelization that results when protein hits hot metal.
So, I have gone Post Crust. In other words, I caramelize and cook my protein just as I’ve always done (making sure said protein is nice and dry so I’ll get a good sear), and then put the crust on afterwards.
Here, my protein is a small rack of lamb from our excellent butcher in Paso Robles, J & R Meats. First, my rack is patted thoroughly dry and allowed to come to room temperature in a light, olive-oil bath. Meanwhile, I assemble the ingredients for a Monumental Martini. This is not an ingredient in the crust, but I find it to be a helpful addition to the atmosphere in my kitchen, and an aid to cooking well.
Then, I season all over with French sea salt, freshly ground Tellicherry pepper, and a pinch of dried oregano brought back from Santorini. (Mindful of the capers in the crust that will eventually coat the rack, I under-season slightly.) I sear it in a 450° oven until the interior reaches 125°, mindful that it will continue to cook—a larger rack, having the same circumference, will cook in the same amount of time. At this point, you could let the rack stand at room temperature for awhile…say, half an hour—the ideal time to savor your chosen, chilled adult beverage. Here, I have executed a truly Monumental Martini. (Camera angle may lead to an impression of excessive size. Or not.)
How To Do This ar Home: In a mini-prep, pulse the following ingredients for your crust: well-drained capers, crispy panko (ideally, toasted), flat-leaf parsley leaves, a touch of minced shallot, and just enough mayonnaise to make a crumbly mix that holds together. Smear this into an even layer on the rounded side of the already-cooked rack of lamb, and run the rack under a hot broiler until the crust turns golden. Voila! A perfect crust. Of course, the crust may still fall off when you apply knife and fork, but at least by that time it’s on your plate, not in a pan.
My insatiable, knows-no-bounds quest for The Crispy Bits in life began early.
Every year when my dad carved our small family’s small turkey, he would announce “The skin people can come in now.” An only child, I was the only skin people. It was Heaven.
I have a crispness imperative. In my own small family now, Stella has a chew imperative; my husband’s imperative is visual, emotional impact in theatre.
Here are a few of my favorite things:
- Pork skin crackling
- Real Peking duck
- The top of a creme brûlée
- Pan-fried “grilled” cheese sandwiches containing a plethora of butter
- The surface of a smoking-hot-pan-seared slice of foie gras that’s been previously dusted with spiced flour
- Frico (lacy, melted-cheese “cookies”)
- Lobster mac and cheese
- Grilled pork confit
- Apple Crisp, Crumble, and Betty
- The puffed, golden crust of a pizza (aka corniche) cooked in my wood oven
It is not only food that can be crisp. A view, a sentence, a performance, a paragraph, the memory of a fine day in a young love affair—all these things may be crisp. An argument can certainly contain crispy bits. My mother’s tone when disappointed was often crisp. I can awaken feeling crisp (aka brittle) after a night of too much wine—even exceedingly good wine.
Thanksgiving offers several crispy opportunities, and I would be a cad not to grasp them all. But the most important “crisp-ortunity” on the third Thursday of November is the skin. For years, I wet brined my turkey, thus forgoing crispy skin in favor of succulent flesh. No more.
The “Judy Bird” as interpreted by Russ Parsons and presented by the estimable Food52 details the process of dry-brining better than I can. Yes, the recipe will produce a turkey with unimpeachably succulent, tender flesh—completely unlike any turkey previously executed with a wet brine. But skin of almost ethereal crispness can only be achieved with the addition of one extra step: The Butter Blanket. I’d like to think this process is my own invention—since I’ve been doing it since 1982—but I’ve never published the recipe and it does appear elsewhere in the lexicon of turkey recipes. With The Butter Blanket, there is no need to hassle with starting the turkey breast side down, then awkwardly turning the hot bird over. Skip the following paragraph if you are only here for The Butter Blanket.
Start with the recipe as published. (But I do suggest the following change—and several others: Use French gray sea salt in place of kosher salt. Pulse the salt in a mini-prep with a teaspoon or so each of ground fennel and dried thyme, plus two capful of Boyajean orange oil.) Proceed as directed, dry-brining your Diestel or other high-quality bird for three full days in a huge ziplock bag (the kind designed for storing winter clothes). Pat the bird as dry as possible (don’t rinse!) and then place uncovered on a rack in your refrigerator for about 12 hours. Remove from the fridge and stand at room temperature, covered with a clean kitchen towel, for at least 3 and ideally 4 hours. (Recipes never tell you how long it takes to bring a 16-pound turkey to room temperature—although they do say it’s crucial to do so—because they are afraid of the health department. An hour or two simply won’t cut it, and a bird that’s still cold inside will cook unevenly, yielding a tough, dry breast.) Do not stuff the turkey, please. Stuffing deserves a place at the table, but should never be cooked inside the bird.
The Butter Blanket: When your patted-dry, dry-brined turkey has been standing naked at room temperature for about 3 1/2 hours, preheat your oven to 325° (lower than the starting temperature given for the Judy-Bird; 300° if it’s a convection oven). Cut two lengths of cheesecloth long enough to cover the bird (on a rack in a roasting pan) from stem to stern. Open the fabric out flat, then fold each piece over so the cut ends meet. Stack. You have created a four-layer blanket of cheesecloth wide and long enough to fully cover your bird. Melt 6 ounces of salted European butter in a small saucepan and swirl in 8 fluid ounces of medium-dry Sherry or Madeira; grind some—or a lot of—pepper into the butter. Holding the cheesecloth blanket by the top two corners, dip the blanket into the butter mixture and thoroughly saturate (don’t let go of the corners or you’ll never find them again). Lift up and let drip for a moment, then smooth the blanket evenly over the bird, tucking it in around the edges. Brush some of the remaining butter mixture over the blanket, pour a cup of water into the roasting pan below the bird, and pop the pan into the oven, legs toward the back. Baste every 20 to 30 minutes, first using the remaining butter mixture from the pan and then using the pan drippings (the water will have now evaporated). When the temperature at the thigh reaches about 165° (after about 2 hours, give or take), remove from the oven and transfer the bird to a platter or a cutting board with a channel around the edge. Let stand for 30 minutes, then pull off and discard the (now very unattractive) cheesecloth. Ask someone capable and trustworthy to carve, while you deglaze the roasting pan with some of the wine in your glass—don’t worry, you’ll have enough later; just think sacrifice and bliss. Add the pan drippings to your mostly-made-ahead gravy. Sit down at the table and accept the praise.
I’ve always felt that turkey was misunderstood in America, and its certainly misunderstood in other parts of the world. A bird so outrageously good deserves to appear at table more than once a year. Why shouldn’t this tasty t-bird feature in your dining plans for Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Easter?
When I was writing Joachim Splichal’s cookbook (Patina: Spuds, Truffles, and Wild Gnocchi), that highly-respected chef gave me a short, one-sentence piece of advice that permanently removed any fear of stirring. However, I know that, for home cooks, risotto ranks right up there with souffle in the “I can’t do it!” realm.
Here’s what Splichal told me, back when I was testing every incredibly-complex, restaurant-style recipe for his book in a home kitchen (with home-style skills and ingredients, natch): “Brigie, risotto must take eighteen minutes, from start to finish.” Period. End class, end fear of risotto. (For the full effect, imagine this being uttered in a deep and guttural German accent.)
To clarify, the eighteen minutes in question begins when you add the rice and ends when you remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the enrichment (butter, cheese), if any. So, when I decided to include a seafood-and-cured pork risotto in my upcoming book about cooking in California’s Central Coast wine country, the timing was never in question. Whenever I set out to develop a recipe (twenty-four cookbooks published, and counting), my first question is: How is this different, better, more finely focussed, than anything I’ve done before? What job do I want this dish to perform, what role will it take—value will it add—to the menu, or the recipe collection, of the buyer of this book?
Preparation, red wine risotto.
All ingredients should be assembled before the kick-off.
I must have been channeling travels and tables in Italy when I came up with this combo: Scallop, Smoky Bacon, and Red Wine Risotto. (I’ve discovered that starches—whether it’s pasta, rice, or even farro—ratchet up several orders of magnitude in flavor when simmered with some red wine, instead of just broth or water.)
No need for big, pricey, diver-caught scallops here—I want them bite sized and happily mingling with the plump, wine-swollen grains of Arborio—so little bay scallops are fine. For my cured-pork content, I wanted more than just any old bacon, so I sourced dark and smoky slices from the excellent New Frontiers market in SLO (San Luis Obispo). With all ingredients measured and assembled, I was ready to begin.
A little olive oil in the pan—about a tablespoon—helped begin the rendering process for the bacon, and smoothed the arrival of the next party-goer: red onion. Then came the scallops—but only for a minute or two—then I scooped everything out with a slotted spoon, leaving behind the smoky fat. In went the rice and on went my mental timer: 1:36 on a sunny Paso Robles Sunday afternoon.
I stir to coat the grains with smoky fat and begin a slight caramelization; when the rice starts to sizzle, in goes 2 cups of ’08 Zuma Vista, an earthy Syrah/Grenche blend made in Malibu by good friends. When most of the wine is absorbed, I commence adding my warm chicken broth. All the while, I regulate the heat so the liquid simmers excitedly but not explosively, keeping my eye on the clock and gauging my progress so that, when 1:54 pops up, I’m ready to return the scallop/bacon mixture to the pan, then pull it off the heat and stir in my enrichment (1 1/4 cups of grated Grana Padana) and my bright note (3/4 cup chopped baby arugula).
The reward for my efforts? A rich-bright-savory-smoky mound of seafood-flecked, wine-purple goodness. Happy faces, empty plates, and a truly estimable wine for quaffing with our wine-country lunch. Not to mention, another recipe for my next book that will enrich cook’s lives from Seattle to Sasketchewan. A recipe I can be proud of. I’d offer nothing less.