Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Windy City Cooking: Week 29

(Ed.'s Note- Every Monday, Chicago's Jason Hissong writes Windy City Cooking, a column whose title says it all. Enjoy! -Max)


Questions and Answers
by Jason Hissong
08 March 2010

My favorite sports writer, Bill Simmons, writes a reader mailbag column every five or six weeks or so. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this week I'm doing the exact same thing. I've solicited questions for a few weeks, and now, finally, the question askers receive their answers. So, without further ado, off we go.

If you have to pick one chef you would consider your biggest cooking inspiration/influence who would it be, and why? -Jonathan

I've thought about the answer to this all day. And what's strange about my answer is that, while I consider this individual to be my single biggest cooking inspiration/influence, I've never tasted even a bite of food he prepared. My single biggest cooking inspiration and influence is Tom Colicchio. Colicchio is the head judge on Top Chef, and owns or opened many famous restaurants- Gramercy Tavern, Craft, etc.

But the reasons I picked Colicchio is because of his book Think Like a Chef. It's the first cookbook I read that changed the way I view cookbooks, and recipes. Colicchio's thesis is two-fold, really. First, food is important because it unites us. His entire introduction is about how he came to be a chef and much of it has to do with family coming together for meals. Or, if not family, groups of friends. The second part, and the main part, of his thesis goes something like this: I could write a book of 300 recipes and that would be fine. You'd read them and learn how to cook those 300 recipes. But, instead, if I teach you the basic techniques and language of a chef, now you're free to cook anything you want.

And that's when it made sense to me. That cooking was an experiment. That recipes are guides. That if I know the fundamentals anything is possible.

Which have been some of your most memorable dining experiences outside of the Chicago area? -Ignacio

Great question. My first reaction is to say the numerous dinners I had at the County Arms in Cambridge, England. That was a special time and place in my life, and because of it my life has been blessed in many many ways. Mainly by the people I met there and the people I met because of them. I have a very capital R Romantic view of those evenings. It was the fall of 2002 and I was turning 21 a mere two weeks after our scheduled return home. But man, those evenings. . . The County Arms was this little place just down the street from our house. And we'd have to walk slightly downhill and on clear nights we could see Cambridge all lit up and gorgeous. And we'd get there and we knew the owner, Trevor, and his staff by name, and they knew ours, and we'd throw darts and eat fish and chips and drink pint after pint after pint of Guinness. I love these memories, and it's the first thing I thought of after hearing Ignacio's question. I'm not sure it's memorable because of the food, though.

If I had to pick a memorable dining experience because of the food it would have to be the meal I had at Jack Binion's Steakhouse at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I bet you weren't expecting that, were you? That meal was memorable because of the food. My NY Strip cooked just right- pink but not still bleeding. Fried mushroom caps that were not too heavy and greasy. Grilled asparagus still crunchy and vibrant green. Mashed potatoes creamy and just a tad lumpy. That meal was a gift from me to my parents for allowing me to stay with them for the year previous. I had just come off a disastrous year of living in St. Louis by myself and they graciously allowed me to come live with them to right the ship, so to speak. It was a great meal, and I am thankful to have had it, and to have shared it with them.

My concerns: making it fast, making it healthful, AND making it taste good. Ideas? -Jessica

I'm going to tackle this one backwards. Making it taste good starts with ingredients. In my experience there is a direct correlation between quality of product and how it tastes. Yes, the execution of the dish does contribute to taste, but generally the better quality of the ingredients, the better quality of taste.

Making it healthful: that's more difficult. I'm about to read Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food. I may have a different answer post-read, but, I like his book's tagline: Eat Food. Not Much. Mostly Plants.

So, to me, that means moderating the bad, processed, nutrient-lacking food and eating more food that grows from the Earth itself. The sun gives everything on this planet energy, and, to me, the more direct the path from the sun to me the more healthy it is. It's better to eat the things that consume the sun's energy than it is to eat the things that eat the things that consume the sun's energy.

Making it quick: That's more difficult. Certain things take time. They just do. There's no way around it. Because if you're cooking, say, a ham, it has to reach 160° internal temperature. That's when it's done and not a moment before. This takes time.

In a more specific way, I think one can circumnavigate a busy life schedule by planning. I know a family that plans their meals for an entire month. They're extremely busy people and it works for them and has for years. So, take some time to plan your meals. Then, when you are planning, plan meals that use similar ingredients. Or meals wherein the leftovers from one meal can become something else with very little manipulation for the next meal.

Hope that helps.

What is the best advice for a beginner that's living on a budget? More specifically, I want to try new recipes, but some require me to buy lots of different spices. The cost adds up and blows my grocery budget. Do I just need to suck it up and consider it an investment or is there a better strategy? -Katie

I often hear the spices question as the biggest obstacle to people starting to cook. And rightfully so. If anyone has ever gone to the grocer and seen the rows of spices, it's overwhelming. My suggestion is as follows: find two or three spices you really like and stick to them. Also, know that you don't have to get them all at once. Spread it out. Maybe start out with two or three but every month add one or two. A little spice goes a long way, and while fresh spices and herbs are always preferable they are not always practical. No need to blow the budget, but do experiment. That's part of the fun of cooking.

Speaking of spices. . . our very own editor and Beach City Cooking founder, Max, posted the following:

What's your favorite spice and why?

I love this question. And the answer is simple: pepper. Pepper is the king of all spices. I never use pre-ground pepper, I always grind it myself. It's my favorite because it's ubiquitous. It's my favorite because a little goes a long way. It's my favorite because of the smell, and the sound it makes as it grinds. It's my favorite because it accentuates flavors and can also deepen them. It's my favorite because it adds nuance and substance to simple flavors, and adds another layer of flavor to more complex tastes. So, there it is. Pepper. I'd be surprised if there are too many kitchens without it.

What Others Cooked For Me, What I Cooked, Where I Ate

Jason and I hosted our annual Oscar Party on Sunday night. I'd like to thank Karla for bringing her amazing meatballs. And Dana and Dave for that oh so good shrimp dip. And Julie for bringing the Stella Artois. I cooked hummus and and made a nacho cheese dip with Rotelle's. Good times.

I ate out a lot this week, but the only real noteworthy meal I shared was with Andy on Thursday night. We made dinner plans as I was literally on the train heading towards his house. We went to Bar on Buena and while I dined on the pulled pork sandwich with sweet potato fries, Andy had the B.O.B. Burger. Readers who have been with us for a while may recognize the place and the burgers, as I wrote about that very dish in Windy City Cooking, Week Five.

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