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The Social Imperative of Cooking

Come, sit down. You're just in time for the first course.

As a professional cook, I'm often amazed at how few people understand how to cook and the processes involved. I've ranted in the past about those who simply don't have the frame of reference to enjoy high quality, well prepared food, but this goes beyond that. In the age of delivered pick-your-genre food and drive-thru on-demand garbage, knowing how, what and even why to cook seems to be increasingly rare. It shouldn't be. This is as fundamental as sleeping. Everyone should have at least a little knowledge on the subject. There are no greater bonding moments between friends, or family, than sharing the cooking duties and sitting down to enjoy the fruits of that labor. Not a one. Of this, I am completely, and irreversibly convinced. I will concede, however reluctantly, that this view might be a personal bias, but I really highly doubt it. I am consciously trying not to make this a rant, but I feel I need to give you some examples of just how disconnected, just how far the general public has veered away from very basic knowledge about food and cooking, and how little attention seems to be paid to what they (we) are shoveling into their (our) collective faces. Last year sometime, a woman who ordered some shrimp nigiri asked me if the shrimp was cooked. Let me break this scenario down for you, for you to truly understand my frustration. First of all, we don't list it on the menu as “Ebi”, as so many sushi places do. To the sushi savvy, seeing “Ebi” under the sashimi/nigiri listing on the menu it is generally understood to mean “cooked shrimp”. Second, we do not offer “amaebi” which is, under the same conditions, generally understood to mean “raw sweet shrimp”. Lastly (take a deep breath for this) the way we list it on the menu is “Cooked Shrimp”. Okay, I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, as far reached as this might be, that she MAY have forgotten what she ordered by the time it got to her given the fact that she was with friends, drinks were flowing, much conversation was had. It's conceivable that this scenario might be true. However, the final ingredient in the story is the fact that the plate was in front of her. She was looking right at it. Yet still asked the question, “is this shrimp cooked?”. My brain reeled. My disbelief at the question rendered me momentarily mute. It took me a few long and awkward seconds to even be able to cobble together the letters in my head to form the word “yes”, let alone utter them. The fact that she, an adult woman, old enough to get into the casino that I work at (which means she was at the very least 21), could not distinguish a cooked shrimp, sitting two feet in front of her face, from a raw one, sent my brain into convulsions that left me dumbfounded. Not to sound too particular on the matter, but let me give you another, more recent example. We have a roll on the menu listed as “Grilled Chicken Roll”. The creation of my co-worker, it consists of grilled scallion, roasted garlic puree, grilled asparagus, and (as one would expect) grilled chicken, rolled up in the usual American sushi fashion of rice-on-the-outside with nori, a sauce of my design (a thickened soy/citrus/ginger concoction), sweet chili sauce based on Mae Ploy, and micro cilantro. One customer a week or so ago, again, staring right at it, sliced, presented and two feet from his face, chicken well visible, asked if the chicken was cooked... It was CHICKEN! No cook or chef in their right mind would serve raw chicken in this country! The only places I've heard of in the world that can get away with that are in Japan, and even then it's only at places where the chef himself raised the birds and slaughtered them the day of service, therefore he knows that these animals were clean and well attended to to avoid the usual salmonella scare that accompanies factory-farm raised birds. Beyond my usual bitching that most people who are unfamiliar with sushi usually have the misconception that all of the meats served are in raw form. Beyond the fact that the menu clearly, and unambiguously states that these items are served cooked. These people could not discern for themselves, could not tell on sight, did not have the frame of reference or basic knowledge of food and what things look like when cooked verses raw, this seriously distresses me... at a very deep and alarming level...

Many new friends were made at this meal, and many old bonds strengthened.

I was first inspired to write this after the incident with the woman and her shrimp nigiri, but it was also very shortly after I read Anthony Bourdains most recent book “Medium Raw”, in which he dedicates an entire chapter to this very subject. So, upon recalling that chapter, I thought to myself, “he said it way better than I ever could...” thus, my inspiration for writing this piece waned. Bob also wrote a similar post on the subject. Link to that at the end. The more recent inquiry about the chicken roll, combined with a brief conversation on the subject with my compatriots here at the Rogue Estate, have convinced me that this cannot be reiterated enough. Indeed, we should be shouting this from rooftops. The act of cooking for oneself, or friends, or family, has nearly become extinct, it seems, in this country. I'm trying very hard NOT to soap box here, I'm merely trying to point out a fact that is very disconcerting to me on a great many levels. Maybe that is the very definition of “soap boxing”, but fuck it, I'm too far in to stop now... I truly believe it to be a social imperative, one of the things that family and community are held together by. Everyone, repeat, EVERYONE should have some basic cooking skills. I'm not trying to say all humans should spend time in a restaurant kitchen, that sort of thing is best left to the seriously deranged, I'm just suggesting that the country we live in, the good ol' U.S. of A., would be a better place for it. It's certainly a more economical approach, and given the economic status we face, that makes as much sense as any other reason I could possibly give. And as much as I hate to sound like I might be leaning to the right here, it is, more than most activities, an exercise in family bonding. I'm also not expecting anyone without a seriously bent psyche to sit down and read Escoffier cover to cover, nor am I expecting a reasonably sane person to study and memorize anything Keller has ever said in the history of ever. But there are some basic skills that should be taught to all mammals that possess opposable thumbs. Most of which a reasonably intelligent monkey could be taught. So there are no excuses. First would be knife skills. The ability to dice an onion or chop celery without losing a digit is a worthwhile and simple goal. Knife maintenance is another good thing to know, since the most common cause of cutting oneself in the kitchen is a dull knife. Basic cooking techniques would be next on my list. I'm not saying everyone should know intuitively how to make a beurre blanc from scratch that won't break after 6 hours in a steam well, I'm talking about basics. How to roast a chicken or turkey without overcooking it is as good a place as any to start. You don't need to cook the hell out of it, and for fucks sake, pull that pop-up timer out as soon as the bird is thawed enough to do so, and throw the thing away! Get yourself a meat thermometer. Seriously. Go! They're very cheap, and they'll prevent you from ever having to suffer through a turkey breast with the texture of drywall ever again! 165 is the magic number here, people. That's the internal temperature at which salmonella dies. 165 (F). Learn it, live it, love it! No bird on the face of this green Earth need be cooked beyond that. Proper handling of red meats is another useful skill-set. The barbaric abuse of steaks has gone on long enough. My disdain and utter contempt for “well-doners” is very well documented, but proper cooking and resting are essential to this endeavor, and a very poorly understood subject by most. The most important part is the resting. Whether you're shooting for medium, medium rare, or even rare, you need to let the meat rest before diving at it, knife in hand. I would MUCH rather cut into a piece of meat that's lukewarm than one that's overcooked or dry from improper resting. There are a couple reasons for this. Mostly, we're dealing with thermodynamics here (science!). The hotter a liquid is, the faster it moves around. Same is true of gases, but in the case of a Black Angus Strip Steak, we're talking about the liquids, the fat and juices and (get over it or stop eating steaks) the blood contained within. If you cut into that perfectly grilled hunk of meat-lovers heaven when it's too hot, all those juices will come rushing out and you'll be left with a perfectly cooked, but dry hunk of leather. You've just committed as close to what I would call a “sin” as I can muster. As David Chang puts it, in no better words than I could ever come up with, “this makes you an asshole...”. Actually, that quote was in reference to overcooking a good piece of meat, but in principle we're talking about the same thing. Pan searing is another very simple and extremely useful skill to have. One that I've written about before, link to that at the end. This one takes a bit more skill and practice, but nothing more than 2 or 3 tries should get you well enough adept at it. This is a technique highly favored among professionals for it's ease and because it allows you to build a sauce in the same pan that will, no matter which direction you want to go with that sauce, invariably fit perfectly with the protein at hand since it will have the flavor of it, at it's best, most flavorful point, naturally incorporated. See the link for a more detailed description of that procedure. Vegetable cookery is another great skill to understand. The ubiquitous “green bean casserole” that pops it's ugly head up at far too many family functions across the country is usually an eye-rolling, cringing, or moanful occasion for me. It's almost always made from canned beans. You know the ones. The olive drab, army green, mushy and nearly flavorless variety. Just as infuriating are the canned fried onions that adorn nearly every variation. This is, quite simply, pure laziness. It takes nothing, literally no time difference, to make this dish with (wait for it) fresh beans! As far as the the onions are concerned, if you don't have a deep fryer handy in your kitchen, just leave them out. No one will mind, or notice the difference if fresh beans were used to begin with, trust me... And if you value your life, please, PLEASE do NOT use a canned “cream of something similar to mushroom” soup as the base... Again, that's just utter laziness. Saute some mushrooms with some onions and make a bechamel. Roux, onions, garlic, mushrooms, milk and/or cream, 15 minutes, done. Some vegetables lend themselves well to long cooking, and some very much do not. The distinction is an easy one to make. It's all about the raw texture, for the most part. There is some variance, dependent on individual factors, but this is a good rule of thumb, I think. Hard vegetation, like carrots, daikon radish, and acorn squash, to name a few, can stand up to long cooking times, and in some cases absolutely need it. Crisp plants, such as potatoes, summer squash, and zucchini, are better suited to moderate cooking, just until soft enough for a knife to pass easily through. Green vegetables generally need only a quick bath in hot water, butter or oil to be at their best. These would include things like spinach, green beans, broccoli, and asparagus. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Tomatoes, for instance. I can eat a freshly picked, raw tomato like an apple and only want for a salt shaker to be completely content. I'm also a huge fan of the long, low and slow cooked sauces derived from the same vine. This is a “gray area”, to be sure, but nothing that needs a pro chef or rocket scientist to figure out. Am I preaching to the choir here? Am I simply venting? I'm ok with that, mind you, if this is the case, but I truly think, believe, no, I know in my bones that we as a culture need to re-evaluate our relationship with food. With morbid obesity, childhood diabetes, and the sheer laziness that allows evil empires like the Colonel, Ronald, and the King to inflict these atrocities upon us, running more than rampant (they're running the fucking show!) I think, now more than ever, there is a need for a change in the Zeitgeist. A major overhaul in our attitude of, and demand for, better options. A return to the “family meal” would also go pretty far to help curb these trends. I have no such delusions as to think that it would completely answer the issue of poor public health, but it's the only logical place to start. There are a few moral quagmires and minefields in this debate, I recognize this. The “going green” and “organic” movements among them. The family in the slums of Detroit, for instance, aren't buying the Sav-More frozen chicken nuggets because they're the best tasting, best for you, good for the environment, or organic. They're buying them 'cause they're $4 for 5 fucking pounds... Income level plays it's part on what people eat as much as when and why, so only buying organic products is simply not an option for some. The general blasé attitude toward food that seems to have dug it's heels in very deep also contributes to this lack of public interest in seeking out locally produced ingredients, which, on balance, should not only be cheaper, but fresher than other options. Here in Michigan, we are privy to some of the best produce in the country. Our strawberries are stellar, our apples are better than anything out of Washington, our cherries are something of legend, the list goes on and, I assure you, on. Yet, you rarely see these products at the local neighborhood grocer, even when they are in season. Because the locals aren't asking for or demanding it. In most cases, they aren't even aware of the fact. It all comes down to public awareness and cultural apathy. I'm starting to feel a little more soap-boxy than I wanted, or surely, intended to. Though it all ties together, I also feel I'm getting a bit off topic. So I'll wrap this up. If we as a nation want to steer away from the corporate machine that is all to happy seeing us buy their crap disguised as food, knowing full well it will destroy our health, the journey starts at home. At the corner grocer. At your dining table. This will be a battle, of that I am not in denial. The battleground will be your dinner plate. They are a powerful many, but you really can decide the outcome. Learn a few simple cooking techniques/skills, find something you really like and learn to cook it well. Make it your “specialty”, and if you take a shine to the process, learn a couple more! It will serve you, your friends, and your family well, and in the end, will help build stronger relationships with them all. It really is as simple as that. Jack... Pan searing revealed. Bobs take on the subject.