Dear Diary

What You Think You Become: What Chef Brad Mathews Taught Me

If you have friends you text random questions to with absolutely no surrounding context at random hours of the day, use that as your frame of reference when picturing Chef Brad Mathews.

I met Brad at a tapas bar in Santa Monica, had an awesome time eating his food at Fishing with Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, and now anxiously await the opening of Cadet, a new restaurant in Santa Monica where he will be throwing down with Kris Tominaga from Hart and the Hunter. (Who in turn, is partners with Jeff Weinstein, who opened The Counter. If you want more of the Kevin Bacon-like degrees of separation, just ask Google. Don’t worry, it’s easier to keep track of if you don’t try to talk it out.)

Seriously though, isn’t that the best restaurant name ever? It’s more magical than Harry Potter. When I go, I expect all of you to join me. And bring friends. Otherwise, we can’t be friends.

See you at Cadet!

This month’s attempt to put my spin on a chef’s food memories and associations garnered some fantastic results.

Brad ate eggs at his (Great-) Grandmother’s house in the morning before school, but mostly remembers receiving one dollar from her to spend at a doughnut shop next door to his middle school each day. With a 30-minute window between the shop’s opening and the school day beginning, he would buy a fresh doughnut for 50-cents. With the remaining 50-cents, he would either buy 50 Swedish Fish (at a cost of one penny each) or play video games (Street Fighters or Lethal Enforcers.)

I respect anyone with a love for Swedish Fish and who actually remembers playing Street Fighters in a doughnut shop, so I became curious about what he looks for in a good doughnut. Midway through the coffee we have used as an excuse for meeting, he relates his love for the eclairs and Boston Creams at Bob’s Donuts in San Francisco, where the line of drunk hungry people wraps around the building at 2:00 AM and the doughnuts go directly from the fryer into a glaze into the box. Served while hot enough to release steam when torn open, this memory incites a tangent discussion about the ridiculous nature of chocolate.

Brad has shared several early food memories with me, thanks to being patient with my constant stream of questions over the course of our friendship, including a vivid one of thinly shaved venison heart over toast. Our conversation turns to chicken gizzards and his Uncle “Fireball” Marty, who uses them to make a tomatoey “hillbilly menudo,” served with peppers on a bun.

Which is more wonderful to discover: The Uncle sharing a name with the most disgusting-hangover-inducing whiskey known to man, or the fact that he makes a version of a soup known for curing the worst morning-after headaches?

For comfort food after a difficult day, Brad turns to pork shanks manipulated into a smoked pork bolognese, with his version of capitelli pasta shaped into “pigs tails.” As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have never associated pasta with comfort, but understand why people do. Still, his demeanor becomes more relaxed just by discussing pasta and the “good Italian” food he associates with date nights with his wife, so I make a mental note to try making some sort of pasta dish ASAP. (Not a bad excuse to carb-load.)

My inspiration increases when he discusses his desire to make “magic” food and describes brown butter as “something special.”

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The Way I See It #1: Pasta as Comfort Food – Shrimp, Corn, and Brown Butter Fettuccine

The culinary trends he hates to love revolve around menu items “everyone thinks they can do,” like crudo and pork belly. He pushes up his glasses and we share a bonding moment about our respective tendencies to be underwhelmed when we are served pork belly. “It’s supposed to be flavorful, salty, sweet, succulent, gelatinous, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth delicious,” he exclaims, going on to describe the ideal pork belly texture as being spoon-tender, with a caramelized top layer of fat after a day-long cure in sugar, salt, chili, garlic, and herbs and cooked on a low 250 until “ridiculously tender.”

When he’s sick, he eats pad thai and watches “Ghostbusters.”

Damn, I meant to ask him if he prefers the original or the sequel.

Occasionally, he’ll cure his colds with ramen, which he takes with pork, soft-boiled egg, green onions, and sambal. He mentions a dream from the previous night involving pork broth, flavored with ginger, garlic, and lemongrass after cooking the flavor out of a pig’s head and trotters (the hoof up to the knee, which he helpfully indicates on his tattoo.)

Always trust a man who is good with knives and willing to tattoo a pig on himself.

If you’re thinking a lot of my conversation with Brad was about pork, it’s because pork is an ingredient that makes him feel better, regardless of what has happened that day. (He says a whole roasted or grilled fish will also suffice.) Brad likes foods that require nurturing, and as such get mistaken for being finicky. Akin to a healthy relationship, he favors working with ingredients that require patience and skill to emphasize their versatility – think radishes, peas, fish (especially black bass), and stone fruit.

A few days after this conversation, I text him a photo of pulled pork, which I have finally gussied up the patience to prepare.

The Way I See It #2: Pulled Pork from my Inner Nurturer

A Thank You Card, In 100 Words (Since chefs opening new restaurants hardly have time to breathe normally, let alone read my blog posts):

Dear Chef Brad,

Talking with you seems to simultaneously make my brain simplify and stop worrying while making my cooking times longer. Thank you for your advice and feedback without ego – there’s a reason why myself and several others look to you as a source of knowledge. You’ve helped remove some of my insecurities about cooking pork, which led to a new goal being set and achieved….With help from our conversation (and that pulled pork recipe), my family will be trying my food for the first time in November. I can’t freaking wait for Cadet to open.

-S

Be Here Now, Or How Kettle Chips are Super Deep

Someone had scrawled a long paragraph down most of the bottom half of the stall door. Two phrases caught my eye before I took the time to read the entire passage. “I can’t stop crying, because I just feel like I don’t belong at UCLA.”  And “I don’t have anyone to turn to.”

I never met the person who wrote those messages. It had definitely been done within the past few hours, because the maintenance crew hadn’t wiped the sharpie from the door. What occurred during what was clearly a very bad morning/early afternoon? What prompted the final push to removing a sharpie from their backpack and losing control in such a strange juxtaposition between private and public? I wasn’t in the presence of mind to analyze the situation so thoroughly at the time, but I definitely wondered if she was anywhere near. And all right.

It was my first week of classes at UCLA. I had managed to find the Dodd building successfully and had some time to kill before Classics 10: Ancient Greeks. I wandered into the women’s restroom and stared at my reflection in the listless and brooding aesthetic perfected by teenage angst. My high school boyfriend had broken up with me via phone the first night of my freshman orientation, and I still wasn’t over it. I didn’t know my two new roommates very well and had already gained my Freshman 15  (soon to be Freshman 30) from drowning my feelings in Chipotle (I’d still rather customize a burrito bowl than a sundae, conceptually.) I missed my parents. I had never lived away from home.

I mean, I was a college freshman.

When I ducked into the nearest bathroom stall, I wasn’t expecting to see a paragraph of handwritten text describing exactly how I felt. In the selfish state of being that comes with feeling lonely and upset, I couldn’t do much more than let an overwhelmed feeling wash over me.

Yes, my stoic exterior is a shell (a shell that’s as thick as molasses-based BBQ sauce, but a shell nonetheless) for a burning passionate nature. I’m essentially a Vulcan. Or Shrek.

Daria 22
Maybe Daria hides her ears because they’re pointy like Spock’s. I digress. There are only so many nerd references one can make before it starts to weigh down an anecdote.

I also didn’t expect to see the plethora of scrawled responses. A multitude of ink thicknesses and textures made up the kaleidoscope of handwriting in the supportive replies. “Girl, we are Bruins. We stick TOGETHER!!” read one bubbly print, the I’s dotted with circles instead of dots. “You proved you were good enough by getting in! We’re the most applied-to university on the planet! This is going to be the best four or five or six or whatever years of your life and you get to live it with all of us,” read another.

I will never repeat this act in a public restroom again, but I reached out and touched the words. I didn’t want to introduce myself to every contributor and become their best friend, but I at least felt as though I’d be able to stomach a 75-minute lecture. I wiped the tears from my eyes, wiggled my feet around in my checkered Van loafers (I wore flat shoes then), and stumbled out of the restroom door. In a moment of movie magic, I bumped into a young man outside the door and knocked his laptop to the ground.

It wasn’t a Carrie and Big “Sex and the City” moment. It wasn’t even a “Kobe and Shaq exchange high-fives amid rumors of rivalry after that epic alley-oop play” moment. After getting mutually excited about the indestructible nature of Mac laptops, he noticed my red eyes.

“You okay?”

I smiled and replied that it had just been a long day.

“Freshman?”

I nodded.

“Don’t wait until your senior year to finish your GEs,” he joked. “You here for Classics 10, too?”

He slung his backpack to the floor and slid down the wall to sit, motioning for me to join him. He pulled a small bag of Kettle Chips from his backpack, opened it, and extended it to me.

“It’s rough, you know? You’ll be fine.”

He prattled on about professors, classes, and tests as we continued to dip into the bag of chips. He knew I wasn’t listening or attracted to him, that we wouldn’t speak after class or possibly ever again, and he didn’t care. He was selflessly giving me the opportunity to collect myself. He was providing me with multiple iterations of nourishment.

A $2.00 bag of Kettle Chips isn’t a quarter-inch thick piece of seared foie gras on toast or my Grandmother’s pumpkin pie, but I can’t see a bag without thinking of that moment, being grateful, and hoping that girl found the push into readiness she needed. It is an intense emotional journey to experience in the span of two seconds, but one I am continuously appreciative of.

“When a film’s heroine innocently coughs, you know that two scenes later, at most, she’ll be in an oxygen tent; when a man bumps into a woman at the train station, you know that man will become the woman’s lover/murderer. In everyday life, where we cough often and are always bumping into people, our daily actions rarely reverberate so lucidly.”          from Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

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Stirring Up Memories

It’s some point in the mid-90s, and I’m in elementary school. There is a two-tier black footstool in the kitchen, which I use to stand at the counter next to my mother while she cooks. Tonight, we’re having breakfast for dinner. I drag the stool over to the counter to “help.” I am still young enough (Full Disclosure: I will be this emotionally young until about age 20) not to process that Mommy is exhausted from making breakfast, throwing me out the door and into the car to get to school on time, and eight hours in an office. We always cook in chaos: bags of miscellaneous ingredients sag on the counter, magazines and junk mail are stacked across the dining room table, Tupperware and spice containers burst out of the refrigerator and pantry doors.

I suppose the prosaic way of phrasing it is that we’ve accumulated a lot of crap.

My favorite part of pulling up the stool next to Mommy at the counter is making waffles. I like being reminded to be careful when pouring the melted butter slowly into the batter. I like that the only thing Dad has to do to assist is whip egg whites into fluffy peaks, which he can do while watching TV.

Dad? Dad makes eggs. It doesn’t happen very often, but I think that’s because he’s not retired yet.

Hindsight being 20/20, I hope I didn’t insult my mother by having a clear preference for Dad’s scrambled eggs over hers. I have a feeling it was their allure. I was never allowed to help Dad make his eggs, so I had to surrender to the mystery. I didn’t know what herbs he used. I didn’t know how long they took to make. If you were to ask my father for the recipe, he’d chuckle and say he doesn’t really know what he puts in them. He does, but anything less specific than the way he makes hamburgers or meatloaf is something he claims not to know much about.

Remember, my father isn’t particular about what he eats. Just give him exactly what he wants.

The thing about food memories is that they have nothing to do with what is consumed in the moment we are eating, and everything to do with what is in our heads. After a certain length of time passes – one day, one month, one year – our inner recollections carry more weight than what actually happened.

Last week, I came across an article written by Aria Beth Sloss in 2013 with the following piece of trivia:

“In researching my novel, I came across Owen Wister’s Lady Baltimore, a 1906 novel that features a cake by the same name. Though the cake’s origins remain in dispute, one version of its legend has Wister responsible for inventing it. He made the ake sound so delicious that readers demanded the recipe. Fiction became fact. A story birthed a cake. What we believe is just one side of the truth.”

It’s always a good time to create new traditions. It’s why I created a section of this website titled “New Classics.” When I get to the point far, far, FAR down my road map in which I am a mother, I’m not entirely certain if I will share more food stories or food lessons with my child(ren), but I’m going to have a two-step footstool in my kitchen next to my counter.

After that sentimental interlude, I present you with this thrilling photo of my father leading my scared nugget self on a horse ride through a park.

horsie

“You’re A Decadent Girl” – Starting Exploration of The Dom Perignon and Birkin of Spices

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”          –Mae West

We’ve all felt like this on occasion. And it’s freakin’ great.

There is nothing wrong with embracing excess. In the midst of truffle-mania, things wrapped in bacon, and “topped with a runny egg” taking over the universe, I’m more interested in the subtle indicators of decadence that drive up food cost.

This is not to knock any iteration of “truffle” on the market. (With the exception of truffle oil. Seriously, y’all. Don’t buy that stuff. There’s a ridiculously high likelihood that it hasn’t been made from real truffles. A chemist has made a pungent scent, bottled it, and called it flavor. Buy salt or the expensive shrooms in their natural state.) At an average of $5 per gram and $2,000 per pound, shaving these bad boys over pasta, steak, eggs, or rice is still one of the easiest ways to throw down the “foodie” gauntlet.

Trivia: Truffles (specifically white truffles), Beluga Caviar, and Saffron are the only food items to grace the planet’s top-25 “most valuable substances by weight” list.
Other substances on this list include diamonds, heroin, meth, cocaine, LSD, plutonium, and Californium 252 (the isotope used to find layers of oil and water in wells clocks in at $27 million per gram).

So what’s up with saffron? Why do these red-orange flower filaments cost up to $2,000 a pound? Why do we pay between $7 and $14 for a few threads?
Saffron threads are picked by hand, and it can take around 75,000 individual threads to produce one pound. An additional complication is that saffron needs to be harvested between DAWN and 10:00 AM, otherwise aroma and color decreases.

Trivia: Saffron has been traded for more than four million years. Iran currently has the main market on saffron, being responsible for 90% of its production.

I’m planning on making a saffron risotto at some point during the next few weeks. I want the natural buttery texture of risotto with the honey-and-hay scent of saffron. Maybe with an egg yolk on top. Shit. That’s another cliche. Does it matter? Probably not.

Personal Trivia: Saffron is supposed to be the signature scent for the Sagittarius sign of the zodiac. I’m not entirely certain how down with that I am.

Vanilla is directly after saffron on the “most expensive per unit volume” list.

Why vanilla?
First, I’m not talking about the extract used in most forms of Betty Crocker baking. Nothing wrong with it, but that’s not what’s being discussed. Think vanilla beans. Vanilla flowers are persnickety little buggers. They have to be hand-fertilied, or they’ll die. They have to be picked at very specific times, or they’ll die. PURE vanilla extract clocks in at $8.50 for 4-ounces, with individual beans costing $1.89 EACH.

Trivia: We can thank our fascination with vanilla flavor to its expert cultivation by pre-Columbian mesoamerican Aztecs, leading Cortés to become fascinated with both vanilla and chocolate during his expeditions in the 1500s.

I have to admit, I’m not very innovative or kinky with my use of vanilla beans. I’ve only used them for flavoring custards……and enjoyed it in ice cream.

Stay tuned for updates on my anxiety at using two of the most pricey ingredients in the world. I’m sure there will be plenty of sarcasm and memes utilized as coping mechanisms.

A Meditation on Deep Fried Things

While at dinner with a friend, my eyes popped. It was just a piece of shrimp tempura. Breaded, fried, served with a sauce. Why all the fanfare? It was the first time I can remember taking genuine pleasure in something deep-fried in far too long.

Deep frying has popularized with large assistance from fair culture. If you can eat it, someone somewhere has has attempted to submerge it in batter and hot oil. Why the allure, though? It’s not the most original cooking method. For me, it’s the trashy indulgent nature of it. I’m a rebel. I like being bad.

I mean, sticks and stones may break my bones, but chains and whips excite me. Just ask Rihanna what I’m taking about.

Not only that, but eating fried food creates automatic bragging rights. By eating something deep fried in the wake of Type 2 Diabetes, heartburn, and various other medical media surrounding the correlation between saturated fat and disease, you become the Andrew Zimmern of calorie exploration or the Anthony Bourdain of grease.

Wait. GREASE.

That’s it! Well, one of several “its.” A large factor in enjoying fried food comes with how much excess oily or fatty matter is left in the final texture and taste. Deep-fried food should be hot when served, seasoned – and I mean it has to taste like something besides batter, and battered an appropriate amount – otherwise all you’ll taste is flour. And don’t get me started on the condition of the oil something is fried in. If the oil has been sitting for too long (i.e. old oil), is at too high of a temperature/burning, or the food is left in the oil for too long, that rancid taste runs through what you’re consuming.

The phrase “Deep Frying” wasn’t documented until the 1930s, with the popularization of potato chips, but European and Arabic cultures in particular have been deep-frying for much longer than that – think Middle Ages and the BCE region. I lack this length of experience with deep fried mania, but I still feel comfortable sharing my opinion on what is and isn’t worth pursuing.

Deep-Fried Do, With The Indicated Provisos:

  • Banana Chips – Only if coated in sugar, honey, chocolate, or spicy goodness. The singular time I will tell you something sweet is an addicting snack food
  • Croquettes/Croquetas – When made well, these cure hangovers in ONE bite. Creamy bechamel sauce with various meat, veg, and spices, AND it’s fried? I’ve been known to inhale these three-at-a-time. For my twenty-second birthday party, the group of friends I went out to dinner with ordered FIFTY of these for the table to share.
  • French Fries – Definitely possible to screw up, but always worth searching for the unicorn.
  • Chicken – See above reference to French Fries.
  • Pommes Dauphine and Crab Puffs – If you can find one, try it. Not everyone makes either of these, which means they’re usually made well.
  • Pickles – Only if the creamy dipping sauce is actually flavorful and not cheap bottled ranch bullhockey.
  • Beignets, Malasadas, Donuts, Cronuts, Bomboloni, Churros, Funnel Cake, Loukoumades, Zeppole And Various Savory and Sweet Fried Dough Concoctions – Exploring this aspect of deep-fried is worth a post by itself. Note: If it’s not coming directly out of the fryer, into a glaze or powdered sugar, and into your possession, it’s not worth getting. When you bite into it, steam should escape. Please don’t let the variety of donuts I know the names of discourage you. You’ll get there.
  • Samosas – Don’t let me get near a bag of one of these. Just make sure there isn’t an audible tinge of grease hanging around. They should be flaky, light, and full of flavor with no taste of oil or sogginess.
  • Arancini – For those of you who don’t speak Italian, these are fried risotto balls. See above reference to samosas for how they should taste.
  • Chicharron aka Pork Rinds – Never by themselves. Always as a top garnish or appetizer vessel. Make sure they’re spicy.
  • Corn Dog – Only if it’s dipped in real pancake batter and the sausage is made in-house. FYI: Chorizo corn dogs are never worth it.
  • Falafel – Only in New York City or from a similar sort of cart
  • Fish and Chips – Only in England, Scotland, or Ireland. Everywhere else is a terrible imitation. The breading will be too thick.
  • Tempura – Make sure the batter isn’t as thick as your pinky and that your dipping sauce doesn’t taste of salt.
  • Tortilla Chips – If I have to tell you what a good tortilla chip should consist of, you haven’t had a good one yet. Keep looking for Prince or Princess Charming and you will get your Disney-esque Happily Ever After.
  • Tonkatsu anything in Japanese Culture – It must come over rice and have some sort of glaze over it. It should glisten with desirable goodness.

Deep-Fried Don’t Question, Just Don’t:

  • Twinkie, Mars Bar, Snickers, Klondike Bar, Oreo, Coca Cola, Butter (Yes, Deep-Fried Butter Exists) – Anything stereotypical of a fair environment that sounds like the best iteration of a childhood sweet isn’t what you think it is. All you taste is batter.
  • Pizza – The base is usually an inexpensive frozen pizza. That should be enough to turn you off.
  • Finger Steak – Steak is meant to be moderately bloody. Deep frying it detracts from the carnal caveman desires eating a skillfully cooked ribeye invokes.
  • Ravioli, Mozzarella Sticks, and Jalapeno Poppers – More often than not, the cheese ends up burned and gives the sensation of gnawing on dry-cleaning bags.
  • Hushpuppies – I don’t care how light these are supposed to be, the sensation is that of swallowing lead.
  • Chimichanga – See above latter reference to hushpuppies. These are worse.
  • Calamari – Really? You like the taste of rubber?
  • Onion Ring – See above reference to calamari.
  • Chicken Fried Steak – Gravy is needed to add flavor for a reason. Just don’t.
  • Egg Roll – A prime example of things that taste like nothing but the wrapper containing the bulk of the dish
  • Oysters or Clams – They’re supposed to taste like the ocean orgasmed on your tongue, not stale bread crumbs.
  • General Tso’s Chicken – There’s actually chicken underneath that nonsense? I would never have been able to tell.
  • Noodles – Really? A wok isn’t enough to bring the flavor out?
  • Scotch Egg – Why would anyone ruin the gorgeousness a well-cooked egg inspires by breading and frying it? Madness.
  • Spam Fritter – I am the largest Spam advocate on the mainland, but these are too much nonsense. Enjoy Spam for what it is. Did I really just advise that?
  • Agedashi Tofu – Another that only tastes like batter and oil.

Jury is still out on buffalo wings.

Let me know if you agree, disagree, or want to add something to either of these lists. I’ll be here.

So Obvious, It Should Have Slapped Me In The Face: This week, I Simplified.

“The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity.”          -Douglas Horton

I’ve been rediscovering my love of the farmers market. Once upon a time, when I was in the midst of looking for a job and would get random, glorious weekdays off, I would attempt to orient those days around one of the many farmers markets dotting the Los Angeles cityscape. I eventually stopped going, because “life happened.” (See below for details.)

Working a classic 9:00 -5:00 is exhausting, but the one thing I can’t fault about my new position is the consistency. I know exactly when and where I’m available. Per always, it’s not often – that hasn’t changed much since I was a teenager. When I call my parents, it’s usually from the car, and one of their first questions when they pick up the phone is, “So where are you driving to now?”

If it’s a Saturday morning, I am headed to the farmers market. It is the one place I go without a shopping list. I don’t even take one of my notebooks with me. When I go to the farmers market, it is to get out of my own head and into my visceral instincts as an eater: What looks good? What sounds good? It allows me to cook both in and of the moment. Try it.

The summer growing season still seems to be at a peak, though fall is attempting to work its way in edgewise. Saying goodbye to perfect tomatoes, corn, and stone fruit makes me shudder slightly, but as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” (Also, to the dudes selling pomegranates this early last Saturday, thanks for simultaneously getting me excited and killing my soul. I wasn’t quite ready for life to start all over just yet.) The farmers market forces me to simplify, and it’s not only because I going in with a limited amount of cash and no shopping list.

I know the concept is difficult to grasp sometimes. I am definitely guilty (as we all are) of over-thinking and over-complicating things. My goal this week is to streamline my ingredient lists and simplify what my palate is experiencing. It started with the photo below:

Indigo Rose Tomatoes, Burrata (which I would still love to figure out how to make), Membrillo, Olive Oil, Fig Balsamic, and Salt

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Subtract the obvious. Add the meaningful.