Tuesday, December 21, 2010

If At First: The Necessity of Failure

Usually I hate failure.  Especially when failure comes at the expense of time and money that simply doesn’t exist.  For example, when a car or the human body fails I tend to be quite unhappy.  But we all muscle through semi-catastrophic failure, one way or another, and hope it never happens again.
                The kitchen, however, is a different story.  Aside from personal injury and property damage I welcome failure like it’s a loving teacher I haven’t seen for a while.  I’m speaking, of course, of recipe failure.  Don’t get me wrong … I don’t ever start to cook hoping that something unexpected or unpleasant occurs.  However, my heart rarely sinks when a recipe fails.  I consider culinary failure to be an invaluable teaching moment.   It’s absolutely silly to think that a wise cook doesn’t make a mistake; a wise cook doesn’t make the same mistake twice. 
                Think about the last meal you made that went well.  Let’s say that this morning you poached an egg, toasted bread, and brewed coffee.  Everything went well most likely because you’ve made it dozens, or maybe hundreds of times.  What about the first time ever you poached or brewed?  Maybe it didn’t go so well because you didn’t know how much you could play with the time and temperature you brewed the coffee for, or poached the egg at?  What about the utter simplicity of toasting?  Sure it came out perfect at ½” slices, but what if you want thick toast, or maybe a different grain of bread?  With so many factors, who’s to say which ones contributed to success, and which ones are irrelevant?  It’s through trial and error that we come to the most usable and memorable kinds of enlightenment. 
                This simple breakfast may be a bad example, seeing as each piece has little more than 1 or 2 ingredients, but things get more muddled when we’re making a recipe with many more ingredients, or making a culinary maneuver that we’ve never made before.  With complexity or novelty comes the probability of failure. Take exhibit “A” into consideration:

This is the first mayonnaise I made myself.  Only an escaped patient from the Galloping Senility ward would consume this stuff.  A failure - and I was upset about it, for sure.  On the other hand I learned the immense importance of continually whisking and very slowly adding oil when forming an emulsion.  Had I not learned this lesson at the get-go imagine how silly I would have looked if trying to make a mayonnaise sauce with friends around or in a time of need, and in my over confidence been slack with the whisk or hasty with the oil?
You only have to learn a lesson once when you learn by failure.  What the great thing is about cooking is that almost every lesson is transferable.  So when I go to make a hollandaise or vinaigrette I know standard procedure.  By the way, out of all the mysterious suspensions of oil droplets in water, otherwise known as a stable emulsion, mayonnaise is my absolute favorite.  I finally did get it right, too!  But now I never make it by hand, since I have a food processor and a stand mixer as options.  You could use either one, or still go the old fashion way with a metal whisk and stainless steel, or glass, bowl.  I use Alton Brown’s recipe from Good Eats episode “Mayo Clinic”

Party Mayonnaise
2 cups oil (he suggests a neutral one such as safflower or corn oil)
2 tablespoons chile oil
2 tablespoons vinegar (white wine or champagne, according to Alton)
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon ground mustard (powder)
¼ teaspoon sugar

Dump everything but the oils into whatever you’ll be mixing in.  If using a food processor give it a few pulses to get things started, otherwise beat vigorously with a whisk or in a stand mixer with whisk attachment.  Once mixed put the pedal to the metal with your mixer/whisk/processor and very. slowly. add.  the oil.  Start drop by drop.  You can pick up the pace with the oil once the emulsion looks light and thick, but don’t *pour* it in … a thin steady stream will do just fine. (If you get to the end and the sauce breaks do not fret.  Just break a solitary egg yolk into a clean bowl, whisk it up nice, and slowly add the broken sauce to it.)

Once you’ve got a beautiful mayonnaise put it in an airtight vessel and leave it on your counter for an hour.  This gives the acid a chance to kill whatever nasty bugs could potentially be in that raw egg.  According to Alton the acid is less apt to kill anything while it’s cold.  So after an hour stash it in your fridge for “up to a week”.

If you don’t think you’ll use that much mayonnaise on your sandwiches, make it into a homemade French onion dip (sometimes called California dip), or use it as a base for other sauces like rémoulade, or tartar sauce, or a dressing like Ranch or Thousand Island.  I mixed a little capers, pimentos, and Worcester sauce into some and used it as a steak sauce.  Or mix it with a bit of tomato sauce (canned/jarred is fine) and a touch of ketchup and use it for dipping thick oven baked French fries, or for shrimp.  The possibilities go only so far as your imagination.
The point is, never hesitate to try a new recipe or technique for fear of failure.  Let failure be a teacher, instead of a bully.  And when worse comes to worse, your failed dinners could be the dogs gourmet dinners!  Comment below by clicking the "Comments" button, and share some of your favorite failures, and more importantly the lessons learned.  What are some new dishes you plan to make for the first time?

"The truth is, that all genuine appreciation rests on a certain mystery of humility and almost of darkness.  The man who said, ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed,’ put the eulogy quite inadequately and even falsely.  The truth ‘Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised.’ Until we realize that things might not be we cannot realize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light."
- Gilbert Keith Chesterton, "Heretics" 1905

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Let There Be: Cooking and the Creation of Food, part 1

My bachelor meals consisted mostly of instant mashed potatoes and homemade fried chicken.  Sometimes canned corn, too.

When I was somewhere between 5 and 6 years old I wanted to be a fireman.  Me, and every boy in America, that is, wanted to be a fireman when we were so young and impressionable that the only occupation we could truly comprehend is so full of valor, bravery, danger, and overall manliness.  Soon we start to understand that there are, presumably, other options.  And that’s when I decided that when I grew up I would be a chemist. 
                What, pray tell, does a chemist do?  According to my once limited knowledge, a chemist experiments with chemicals and compounds, creating new ones for only two purposes: 1) to blow stuff up, and 2) to cure cancer.  I, somewhat fuzzily, remember my Uncle Emil asking me when I was a young’un, what I wanted to do as a chemist, and my answer was to cure cancer (would that I could).  That’s roughly when the theme of creation entered into the definition of who I wanted to become.  I wanted to MAKE stuff.  To create.  And my brain was so wired that the external expression of those internal urges was to, at the time, know more about the microscopic realm and to use that knowledge to mold and make new things.  “Chemicals” that would cure diseases.  And, of course, other chemicals to blow stuff up.
                As public schooling tends to do, it dulled my dreams more than it inspired them.  By the time I was nearly finished with middle school I didn’t think much about what I was looking forward to for the rest of my life.  And, no offenses toward my parents, but they were in the midst of a divorce, so my transition from boyhood into manhood was one I was left to battle on my own, with whatever counsel and guidance I gleaned from my peers and grandparents.  Luckily the local trade school was making its rounds to the area schools to garner recruits who would forgo the usual high school for something more intriguing, and something they claimed was more promising.  It was their program in culinary arts that piqued my interest.  At that point I already enjoyed cooking, if only it was to help my grandmother prepare meals.  And my palate was finally growing away from Kraft Mac’n’Cheese to my grandfather’s home baked macaroni and cheese.  From frozen fish sticks to grandma’s chicken and noodles.  (I was an incredibly picky eater as a child.  I remember crying at the dinner table for hours because I wasn’t allowed to leave until I ate my peas, or the stew lovingly made by my mother. )

My skills at graphic designer weren't half-bad. I designed these name tags.

                Taking my cue from the visitors from Oliver Wolcott Regional Vocational Technical High School, and yes that is its real, ridiculously long name, I decided to head towards their culinary program.  To get into the program of your liking every student first had to take 3 days trials of each of the 12 shops offered by the trade school, then a 10 trial of each of their 3 favorite shops, and from there you would choose your preferred shop, and the school would place the top 20-25 contenders into each shop, depending on their academic performance, and aptitude for that trade.  In this process not everyone would get into the shop they wanted, and be turfed to a less desired one.  For most of the students this less preferred shop was culinary arts.  Because of its aptitude for mediocrity, and its lack of passionate teachers or students (at least while I was there) cooking lost the attractiveness I once saw in it.  I, instead, decided to study graphic communications for the following three and a half years. 
                I liked graphics.  A lot.  Primarily because it allowed me to externalize the same drive to create that both “chemistry” and cooking allowed.  But the post 9/11 economy, which no young adult should ever have to exit high school into (I graduated early summer, 2002), wasn’t receptive to my half-assed attempts to get a graphic design job.  I had one night job during my fall semester at college that lasted all of a month before I was laid-off.  And it was barely related to graphic design, as I merely washed and prepped large silk screens.

Building a solid wall and steps is still more straightforward and simple than making a hollandaise.  Except when there's building inspectors involved in the former!

                From there my main creative outlet for nearly 6 years was carpentry, masonry, and landscaping.  Which was fine, for the time.  I barely paid the bills, but I was able to create.  Houses, sidewalks, chimneys, fences, lawns, and so much more.  As all things tend to do, that came to a sad end.  I got a much steadier job, but with it came a very limited capacity to create.  It was at that same time that my, at that time, girlfriend (then fiancée, now wife) finished college and came home.  I rediscovered my long lost love for cooking as a form of creation.  I could now cook for more than just my lonely bachelor self! 
In these brief two years not only have I been practicing the craft, but I’ve been educating myself.  Recipe aren’t good enough, because they so limit one to cooking that dish alone.  I want to learn to cook, and to create new foods.  When I was much younger I took piano lessons for a couple years, and I had two books I had to study from: one book with pieces I would have to practice and learn, but the other book, whose purpose I didn’t know enough to appreciate at the time, was called “Piano Theory” and taught music.  I now thirst for these “Cooking Theory” books like my life depends on it.  They aid me in expanding my creative abilities, and applying them to all manner of dishes and ingredients.
The drive to create has defined me for as long as I remember.  I believe the desire to create defines all of us, to an extent, and that is what part two will concern.  The creation of food is my passion, if only to say I made something … anything.  Unlike a stone wall, though, I can now eat my creations.  Well … most of them.

At last my skills are finely honed into the worlds absolute best baked macaroni and cheese with smoked gouda, creamy havarti,  sharp cheddar, carmelized onions, double smoked bacon, and a panko/Parmesan crust on top.

“The Olive Garden recently sponsored a contest where the winner wins a trip to Italy.  I don’t know about you but I personally am hoping the winner is their chef.” – Conan O’Brien, December 14, 2010

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Brief Introduction to Bacon Coffee

Welcome! My name is Zach, and this is my new blog, Bacon Coffee. A name both odd and contrived, I know. There must be a thousand food blogs whose title is simply two foods smashed together, like one of my favorites, Vanilla Garlic. Which must beg the question, with so many food blogs out there, why should I start one, and why should you read it? To be quite frank, I don't have a niche yet, or an answer for that right now, other than food deserves all the blogs it can get. Also, I think I come from a unique perspective in the food-blog-o-sphere, in that I'm not a great cook or baker, or even taster. As I continue my journey in life I hope to grow wiser and more skillful, and hopefully share those tiny steps with you fine folks.

Why "Bacon Coffee"? That pretty much sums up my tastes. When a food is made well, it is really good - like real salt cured, and naturally smoked bacon, or a locally roasted coffee brewed to perfection. I love that. On the other hand, when food is processed, pumped with preservatives, mass produced, and given away a dime a dozen ... well ... I still end up loving it. Bacon and coffee from McDonald's or Wendy's is still better than none at all. Warning!: This blog does not condone the creation, or consumption of bacon flavored coffee, and will not be held responsible for over use, or abuse of either coffee or bacon.

By the way, I hope you're enjoying that photo of my spice rubbed, and seared roast beef tenderlion. I enjoy it sliced thick with hunger as the only garnish. Of course my philosophy on beef has changed much from when I was a child ... but that's another post.

All that having been said, I invite everyone to leave comments, let me know what sort of entries you'd like to see in a food blog, or what sort of questions you want answered, either about me as a food maker and eater, or about food itself. If I don't know the answer I will make it my purpose to figure it out and make the most entertaining and/or educational blog I can. So don't hold your breathe ... we're just getting started!

"Every time I think of you I know we have to [meat]
And I just can't get enough, I just can't get enough
It's getting hotter, it's a burning love
And I just can't seem to get enough of"
- Depeche Mode