Time to 86 this critic-turned-cook. Stick a fork in me; I'm done. A reader recently gave me a gentle nudge, pointing out that it seemed as if I had strayed from my original mission of working in professional kitchens. It's been a while since I've punched a clock, donned an apron, and spent a day on my feet. I make dinners for my ever-appreciative and very generous neighbors a couple of nights a week, but I am no professional cook and I never will be. Here's why.
'Critic Turned Cook' on Serious Eats
Do you follow recipes when you cook? Or just wing it? My friend Kim O'Donnel asked me to test recipes for her cookbook The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour, which turned me around from an off-the-cuff cook to a firm believer in following instructions.
Adapted from The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour by Kim O'Donnel....
This spring, the director of the Queen Anne Farmers Market in Seattle invited me to show off my skills in the chef's tent. I jumped up and down at the chance, but the bad egg news almost killed my plans for a cooking demo.
Imagine my shock when my vegetarian-for-30-years friend Dan recently told me that he was ready to try eating meat again. A nutritionist suggested it, as a way to up his protein intake. And then imagine my giddy delight when he said yes to my suggestion that I cook his first non-vegetarian meal in three decades. The only proviso was that it had to be lean. No bacon. No huge honking steaks.
You know that sinking feeling when a recipe goes wrong? I felt that flutter in my gut when a portion of my cake slumped onto the plate as caramel icing dripped down three layers—it was a sweet sticky mess. This was after I had spent all day working on my entry for the Cake vs. Pie competition put on by fellow Serious Eats contributor Jessie Oleson at her adorable new Cakespy shop.
Like most food junkies, I've got a wicked cookbook habit. I constantly need a fix and, as a newspaper food writer/critic for many years, that itch was easy enough to scratch with a steady diet of review copies. I have also scored scores of recipe-filled tomes at bookstores, junk shops, and from friends. Yet, like all addictions, there comes a day of reckoning, and mine happened last week when a bin of cookbooks came tumbling down from on high in my ridiculously cramped and crowded garage.
Way back when I first asked Seattle restaurateur and chef Tom Douglas if I could come work in his kitchens, he asked if I also wanted to try some front-of-the-house shifts. I didn't hesitate: No way! I was terrified of cranky customers, the incredible amount of multitasking, and the risk of ticking off the cooks. It's hard to be a good server. How do you keep your cool when somebody's all fired up and in your face?
Lately, I've been obsessed with making ice cream. That's why I jumped at the chance to go on a dairy tour with a bunch of ice cream pros, a trip arranged by Barry Bettinger, the man behind Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream. A handful of Barry's fans/customers trekked out to Werkhoven Dairy Farm in Monroe, Washington, an hour's drive from Seattle.
I went to camp this week. Not weenie-roasting, Kumbaya-singing, capture-the-flag camp, but the Tom Douglas Culinary Camp: five days of demos and eating, cooking competitions and more eating, then some drinking and some snacks, and maybe the chance to chat up a famous chef like Vikram Vij from Vij's in Vancouver, B.C., a restaurant that's so freaking fantastic people are willing to wait three hours for a table.
My favorite food critic right now leads an intriguing double life. Kevin Cremin is the longtime radio broadcast producer for the Seattle Mariners. In addition to feeding announcers a steady diet of stats and player trivia, this Oklahoma native does a regular show called Road Eats every Sunday the team's out of town on 710 ESPN.
I've been a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance since 2004, the year I moved to Memphis and fell hard for the rich regional cooking traditions. Loads of glowing praise has been heaped on this incredible organization, but I've got to pile on: I've never learned so much or eaten so well among so many good people as when I'm at an SFA event. That's why I was more than willing to brave the wilting summer heat in Atlanta to climb on board a sweltering yellow school bus to explore the global South along Hotlanta's Buford Highway during this year's SFA Field Trip.
I've witnessed what could be the beginning of the latest, greatest trend, and it's holding a wine glass. Over the past week I've been to a couple of events that put winemakers in the hot seat as cooks—the results were phenomenal.
What do you crave when you're sick? For me, it's a blast from my childhood in the form of a bowl of Cream of Wheat. I knew I was really sick because no other food sounded good.
What's your signature dish? You don't have to be a four-star chef to have a dish that defines you. My grandmother was famous for her baked beans, fried chicken, and snappy dill pickles. Like the scribbled handwriting that has become illegible over time, my signature dish has shifted through the years.
This has been a lean year, but not necessarily a mean year. I've learned a lot about doing more with less. I still think "budget" and "economize" are dirty words, but cold reality transformed the way I shop and cook and, guess what? I'm up to the challenge. Here are my top five super cheap meals.
Is everything better with bacon? Maybe, but I would sure hate to see people burning out on bacon. Maybe cooks should come up with a plan to give this red-hot food staying power, so it's not just another trendy flash in the pan.
Perfection is a lofty goal rarely achieved in busy kitchens where there are tons of little details to execute. Which means there are so many ways for things to go wrong. Yet, it usually goes all right. It's such a sweet miracle when ingredients get put together by talented, hard-working people and sometimes, perfection appears on the plate. Here's a short list of some perfect bites.
Are you the kind of cook who follows recipes? Or do you wing it? At home, I'm more of a toss-it-together-and-hope-it-works kind of cook. Most of the time I pull it off. But recently a friend asked for my help coming up with recipes for gluten-free sausage dishes. Gulp!
Sometime between heavenly bites of crawfish pie at The Swamp Shack and blissing out over foie gras-stuffed rabbit at The Heathman, I had an epiphany: I no longer missed being a critic. I could give myself over to the pleasure of dining without having to worry about rushing home and taking notes.