Wednesday, December 27, 2006

HFF Speculates: Why We Fuck Up Cooking

I'm not saying I fuck up cooking. By and large I'm a competent home cook. But it took a long time and many many pots of overcooked pasta, burnt onions, and virtually raw vegetables. How did I figure out what I was doing? I'm not sure exactly. Trial and error, problem solving, attentive reading, and knowing what I like and why, I guess.

In my own personal experience, and in talking with friends, here are what I think our the main reasons that we fuck up cooking:

1. Impatience. Impatience manifests itself in two ways--we use too high of heat and we cook things for too short of a time. We just turn on our burner (worse if its electric) and throw on our food and next thing we know the garlic is black and our chicken is charred. But then after charring our chicken we pull it out of the pan--only to enjoy a blackened chicken breast that is raw in the middle. The lesson? Cook over medium-low to medium heat. Use a good pan that heats evenly. Don't let your oil get too hot. Keep your food moving (unless you want to blacken/brown something). The burner never needs to be past medium unless you're boiling water or searing meat.

2. We don't follow instructions. There's a reason that recipes and cooking techniques require specific orders. There's a reason a soup tastes better if you cook your bacon in oil and then you cook your onions in the bacon and then you cook your carrots in the onions than if you just cook everything separately and mix it together at the end. Flavors integrate and build on each other. Wine added early on to deglaze a pan and form the base for a stock serves a different purpose then wine added later to supply aromatic liquid for steaming food. Crushed red pepper cooked in the oil plays a different flavoring role then red pepper added at the end of cooking.

3. We don't know what we like. Knowing what you like--and being willing to explore--is fundamental to home cooking. When you combine competency with basic cooking techniques with culinary curiosity, you're going to steepen your learning curve. Plus, if you try cooking something that you know that you should like, you'll have a clearer sense of whether or not you fucked up what you were trying to cook.

4. We follow recipes. Okay, so this sounds contradictory to some of my earlier notes, but hear me out. Recipes only work if you have a foundation in basic cooking techniques. When you combine uninvolved recipes with a plethora of Food Network shows that teach you how to assemble ingredients in a pan rather than teaching how to cook you get a lot of people trying to cook beyond their abilities. Once you learn how to roast chicken, scramble eggs, pan-fry fish, steam broccoli--once you learn the basics--then recipes can be great for teaching you new flavor combinations and cooking approaches. Attempting a buche de noel before mastering a sheetcake is like trying to take on an eight-way interracial gangbang when you've never even masturbated before.

So what then do I recommend?

1. Cook and cook a lot. Experiment. Fuck up. But pay attention to your fuckups and learn from them.

2. Learn the basics. I recommend Mark Bittman's seminal cooking text How to Cook Everything. Bittman's book presents introductory sections on types of food and then breaks those down into specific food items--always teaching the basics on how to prepare and cook those items before he delves into more elaborate recipes. It's the best book for learning the whys and hows of cooking pretty much everything. Honestly, there've been maybe three things that I haven't found in the Bittman....

3. Get the right equipment. I don't mean you need to spend a fortune, but spend $20 on adecent knife and $30 on a good frying pan. Nothing All-Clad or Le Creuset or Henckels--just stuff that isn't scratched, warped, dull, and paper thin. Get a sharpening steel for your blades. A gas range should be a deal-breaker when you're apartment hunting, too. You can't learn to cook on electric. You just can't.

4. Learn your spices and seasonings. Don't be afraid to use salt. Practice and see how different dried and fresh seasonings behave in cooking. A pinch of aleppo sauteed in olive oil makes for an estrus-inducing pasta sauce. A teaspoon of dried herbs turns scrambled eggs into a romantic post-coital breakfast.

5. Never watch the Food Network again. Except Iron Chef and maybe Good Eats. Maybe. Gone are the days when actual chefs with actual talent (Mario Batali) taught you about cuisine, culture, and cooking. Instead you get a bunch creepy career women trying to make other creepy career women feel less guilty about not having time to actually cook for their families by teaching them how to open some cans and dump then in a casserole dish. That's not cooking. You don't need a tv show to explain that to you, you need the recipe on the back of the can of Hormel chili. Maybe I'll start watching again if they come up with a show that combines Giada de Laurentiis' tits with Rachael Ray's ass and Emeril Lagasse's blowjob skills all under Paula Deen's benevolent, watchful eye. So much cream cheese. I'd also watch Marc Summers straighten fringe at the French Laundry.

Seriously though, between that giant head and her spectacular rack, Giada should not be able to stand upright. It's a paradox of physics. Like bumble bees.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

HFF Quickie: Yoshi's

Yoshi's, Oakland's venerable jazz club recently hired a new chef and overhauled their menu in an attempt to revitalized what had become a staid, unchanging menu of traditional Japanese food and outdated fusion food. Not to say it was bad before--Yoshi's has always served some of the best sushi and sashimi in the area--but this new menu is a giant leap forward.

The menu changes weekly, and is broken down into a family-style/tapas format with dishes grouped by type (small plates, carpaccio, smoked sashimi, salads, shellfish, tempura, grill, sides) with everything served a la carte. The excellent sushi and sashimi selection is also still available.

We dove right in, trying an array of menu items. First up was the ohitashi trio--three cigars of densely-packed blanched spinach each topped with black sesame, vinegar-miso dressing, and tofu-walnut puree. Pretty good. The spinach itself was a little underseasoned but the toppings were well done--in particular the tart, earthy miso.

Next up, the smoked hokkaido scallop sashimi. Sliced sea scallops, lightly smoked, and topped with salmon roe and truffle oil. The scallop ensemble was deliciously full-flavored. The spicy citron puree on the bottom was a bit overpowering--strong, heavy, and smoky it got in the way of the comparatively milder flavors on top.

Asari clams steamed in sake and miso were fucking great. The clams were tender, the broth rich and redolent. The broth itself was a bit salt for solitary consumption, but complimented the clams beautiful.

Two tempura dishes: one, a mix of organic vegetables (that somehow included asparagus in December) was decent; the other, silken tofu and avocado was great. Crisp fluffy batter and a nice (if underseasoned) tentsuyu broth.

The finale--the most entree-like--was the kurobuta pork chop. The thick, fatty chop marinated in a broth similar to what the clams were steamed in. It was pretty damn good., One would imagine that it'd be hard to fuck up a cut of meat this fatty, but I've had versions that were either too puckeringly salty or glazed with a sickeningly sweet teriyako-ish syrup. So this was nice change of pace.

Yoshi's has also expanded their sake selection and marketing with a very nice, detailed, and focused sake menu. The two tasting flights Yoshi's offers are each very distinctive and well-articulated. Yoshi's has become a friendly spot for sake novices to get their feet wet.

Once we got into the jazz club itself we satisfied our fish craving (a limited appetizer, sushi, sashimi, and dessert menu is available during the shows) with an order each of unagi and saba sashimi and hamachi nigiri. Phenomenal. The eel was sweet and dirty like the a dirty river, the mackeral firm and oily, and the yellowtail soft and buttery with just enough lingering firmness to hold in a hint of oiliness.

So, in the end Yoshi's was pretty good. Well worth a stop before seeing a show in the jazz club (10PM show ticket-holders can reserve their seats in advance if they're dining). Worth a visit for dinner on its own? Sure. Nothing mind-blowing but some really good (and probably continually improving) food.

Eight stars!

510 Embarcadero West
Oakland, Ca 94607
510-238-9200 or
Total cost for two (six plates, two sake flights, tax, tip): $130