eno it all: culinary breakthroughs

Salted skillet; caramelized onions.

Food writers need to be very honest with themselves about what they don’t know. Especially in the kitchen.

I saw a well-known editor at an event about mushrooms a few months ago and was happy to hear him admit that he just didn’t know that much about them and was there to learn. For my part, I just picked up this salted skillet cleaning trick last week.

It’s not enough to simply show up at a food event and brass your way through a snotty assessment of a wine or a dish (unless you are That Guy, who has been drinking expensive wines since he was a teen. If so, you go on with your bad self.) You’ve got to cook. I’m entirely mediocre compared to several of my culinarily trained peers, with flashes of largely-accidental awesomeness. The trick, of course, is to do a lot of it, which in this economy and the cooling weather comes more easily.

And yesterday I stumbled upon this incredible essay that made the whole cooking thing seem so … rock and roll.

Gourmet‘s Adam Houghtaling (clearly a music freak) explains how the great avant-garde/ rock musician Brian Eno created a deck of cards back in the 70s — choose-your-own-adventure credos for his fellow artists, including one-liners like, “Once the search is in progress, something will be found.”

Houghtaling passed his deck of cards to a test kitchen editor at the magazine, and sat back to watch a sort of zen beauty unfurl. The cook pushed boundaries at Eno’s behest, pairing fish with cheese in an Italian dish (a no-no) and another time deciding to “be extravagant” — he whipped up a dish starting from cream.

Yesterday I worked all day to perfect a sweet recipe for a shoot, which came out so well I had folks hustling over to my apartment to consume the leftovers. There were these extra sliced strawberries sitting in my fridge in a giant bowl of balsamic, sugar and black pepper. Macerating nigh to death. Strawberries get angry after sitting in sugar for too long. If a bowl of strawberries could furrow its eyebrows at you, this one would.

I’d had no time to hit the wine shop for my guests, and there wasn’t a drop of liquor in the house except for a lone ranger PBR, a bottle of Bulleit, some bad vodka, and a mouse’s worth of gin. Bourbon plus strawberries — egh, I’ve had berry-infused bourbon before and it was horrid. But bourbon plus rosemary, which I had kicking around … I took a nip from the bottle and broke a leaf in my mouth. Awesome. Added a leaf of mint. Better.

Mint-rosemary simple syrup materialized in my saucepan. A slick of it with bourbon, on the rocks, was aromatic and bracing. But I could do better, and as my friends licked their plates clean I brought out the angry strawberries. Balsamic versus simple syrup. Tart and sweet. Bourbon for character. Strawberries, pepper, rosemary and mint for depth of flavor. A guest suggested club soda to top it off and man, was it good — a kid’s smoothie adult-o-fied, swirling with fruit and herbs.

“Once the search is in progress, something will be found.” I came across Houghtaling’s piece hours later. It neatly parses the notion that cooking, at its most pure, provides a depth of comfort that is hard to find elsewhere.

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