|shards of toffee on whipped cream on cake|
I decided to keep cooking from Burma because if I stop I might never go back. Last weekend, I served Naomi Duguid's sweet-tart pork belly stew which is made by braising this unctuous, inexpensive cut with lemongrass, shallots, garlic, and dried hibiscus blossoms. The wrinkled blackish hibiscus blossoms serve, in Duguid's words, as a "souring agent" and the stew they soured was unlike anything in my gastronomic frame of reference. You expect braised pork to be rich, fatty, and mellow, but this meat was rich, fatty, and tart. As Michael Ruhlman writes in Twenty (more on that shortly), acid is typically used to "brighten" flavors, and I've had New Mexican pork dishes where tomatillos did just that. But the flavors in this Burmese stew needed no brightening. They needed dulling.
I'm not saying the stew was unappetizing. Not at all. We ate it with modest gusto. But it was just too confusing for our non-Burmese palates and I probably won't make it again.
|lots of mystery stems and flowers in there|
Monday night, I served Duguid's saucy beef and potatoes. To make this, you fry some shallots (of course) and ginger in hot oil, add cubed potatoes and brown them, add water and simmer until the potatoes are soft, add ground beef, spices, and chopped tomatoes, cook, cook, cook, and serve. It's Burmese hamburger hash, wicked ugly, but delicious and like everything I've cooked from the book so far, quick and easy.
That's all I have to say about lovely Burma for now, but I have so much to say about Ruhlman's Twenty I think I might burst. Twenty won prestigious awards and clearly speaks to a lot of readers and you might be one of them. I am not. I can't help it! It's just not in my nature to like this kind of book. I read Ruhlman's Twenty cover-to-cover and found it grandiose, inexact, and frustrating. Michael Ruhlman argues that cooking depends on twenty elegant techniques, while I think cooking is about ten thousand details. This might be the unbridgeable rift between lumper and splitter.
I'll briefly make my case and then cut to the happy ending.
Twenty is the somewhat arbitrary number of techniques that Ruhlman believes are essential to cooking well. He's pretty loose with his definition of "technique," and includes ingredients, like salt, eggs, and sugar, because understanding how to manipulate these ingredients entails learning techniques. For instance the chapter on eggs covers hard-boiling eggs, scrambling eggs (in a double boiler and reportedly delicious), shirring, whipping up mayonnaise, putting egg whites in cocktails, and a short disquisition on custards. Technically speaking, that's at least six techniques right there and you could argue that the very title of the book is misleading. But let's not.
According to Ruhlman, until you master his twenty techniques you're not going to get too far as a cook: "Without the culinary fundamentals nothing, nothing, of importance can be attempted. Classic chef arrogance and truth."
But once you have these culinary fundamentals down, the kitchen is, so to speak, your oyster: "There's virtually nothing you can't do."
Each essay (one per technique) is followed by recipes. I decided to bake Ruhlman's angel food cake, which is topped with whipped cream and homemade toffee because the photograph was so beautiful I wanted to tear it out and frame it. Maybe because I've baked dozens of angel food cakes, nothing in Ruhlman's essays on sugar, eggs, or batter, expanded my understanding of this cake. That's ok. But it was less ok that the recipe was imprecise and glitchy. Ruhlman never specifies what size pan to use nor does he explicitly warn against greasing the pan. In fact, he tells you to pour the batter into a "prepared pan." There are several ways you could interpret this, and a novice might take "prepared pan" to mean a greased pan, which would be the right guess for almost any cake except angel food. When I was learning to cook, I would have read that recipe, greased the pan, and ended up with an angel food brick.
I know this was a trivial slip, a forgivable editorial error, but it's an error that illustrates my point: You can master Ruhlman's twenty noble techniques, but bake your angel food cake in a greased pan and you're screwed. These countless quirky, puny, nettlesome details really do matter. A house needs a foundation, but it also needs doors, windows, and curtain rods.
On Sunday, I baked his cider vinegar tart. For years, I've been fascinated/repelled by the concept of vinegar pie, a mysterious dessert that regularly pops up in vintage American recipe collections, like my 1939 edition of Imogene Wolcott's New England Yankee Cookbook.
In the headnote Ruhlman writes, "Critical to the outcome of this simplest of all pies is the use of a good vinegar -- the tart is not worth making with bad vinegar. Otherwise it's better to use lemon juice!"
Given that good cider vinegar is "critical to the outcome of this simplest of all pies" I wanted to know what brand Ruhlman recommends. Bragg's, maybe? He doesn't say. Is organic better? Wood barrel aged? Unfiltered? Dark? Pale? Cloudy? Clear? Doesn't say. Short of arranging a cider vinegar tasting, does he have any advice? You have to dig for it, but in his essay on "acids" there's this pearl of wisdom: "You usually get what you pay for. A very cheap vinegar tastes that way. The best vinegars are delicious, not simply harshly acidic."
In other words, if you're not up for buying and tasting all the vinegars on the shelf, grab the most expensive one.
This non-answer was almost enough to make me resubscribe to Cook's Illustrated** right then and there so I could see the results of their 2006 cider vinegar tasting, which were hidden behind a paywall. Few people have spent more time pricing and testing supermarket foods than I have, and while you often get what you pay for, you just as often don't. Anyway, I refused to buy expensive cider vinegar on faith and used the 365 cider vinegar we had in the house. The resulting tart, which I brought to my sister's house for dinner, was barely edible. Imagine a thick, yummy shortbread crust topped with cold, sweet, congealed vinegar.
|Looks aren't everything.|
*Here's exactly what Ruhlman says about angel food cake pans: Even if he had a tube pan, he writes in the headnote, he wouldn't use one because it's so hard to get angel food cake out of a tube pan. (Actually, it isn't hard at all if you have a tube pan with a removable bottom.) He prefers to use a springform pan and after he's poured the batter into the pan, he puts a pint glass in the middle to create the hole. The accompanying photographs illustrate the springform method. At the end of the headnote he writes, "If you prefer a tube pan, line the bottom with parchment/baking paper." There is no mention anywhere of preparations -- parchment? butter? butter and flour? -- for the springform pan in the headnote, but in the recipe he refers only to "the prepared pan." As I said, you could read this several ways. Also, for the record, there's no need to use parchment in the bottom of a tube pan with a removable bottom, although nothing bad will happen if you do.
**This morning I succumbed and bought a 14-day trial subscription to Cook's Illustrated (which I must promptly cancel), so I could access the results of their 2006 tasting of ten cider vinegars. The two top rated vinegars: Spectrum unfiltered (22 cents an ounce) and a French brand called Maille (24 cents per ounce.) White House vinegar (6 cents an ounce) was moderately well liked ("good balance of acidity") while Heinz (6 cents an ounce) was unpopular: "very acidic without much apple." The most expensive vinegar they tested was Verger Pierre Gringras ($1.19 per ounce): "It smelled 'awful' was 'stinky,' and imparted 'burnt, ashy flavors.'"
I might have to keep that subscription.