THE QUESTION: “Can you tell us more about yourself?”
The Answer: Well, you asked for it. And, a quick warning, I can only write as I would talk, and I feel super awkward when talking about myself. So please keep in mind that I could do with a linguistic glam squad when you read this...
This request comes from the masterminds behind Fredericksburg Parent & Family, who wanted to know more about why I cook, to better put my answers for readers in context. So this memoir-esque post will be some background on me, specifically why I don’t use recipes, then a description of my thought process through making dinner for my family one day last week.
On the left: My youngest brother's baptism, just after we adopted him at age two. He's now 16.
On the right: Our most recent family portrait, from about 8 years ago.
I grew up on a college campus. Several different ones to be sure, but there was always one nearby. This is because I was born my mom’s first year of grad school, after which she became an economics professor. She even met my stepdad on another college campus, at a seminar in Munich when I was 8. That summer I learned about soft pretzels, nutella, hazelnuts in general, and that yogurt didn’t have to taste like candy. At the time I apparently didn’t eat much else besides cantaloupe and tortellini alfredo, but I’ve been slowly traveling and eating my way through the world ever since.
On the left: My Girl Scout Troop in India, we left the day after I graduated from Jayem.
On the right: My drawing/art history class at Hadrian's Villa. That's my second favorite place in Italy, after the Pantheon
The important part of telling you this about my early life rests in the fact that professors publish papers. There are lots of sayings and theories about publishing I have heard from Mom and Brad; but there's only one that has had an impact on my own life and business.
For the inquiring/academic mind it can be hard to stop reading what others have written. But when my mom is talking about her PhD students she is always saying they need to be more interested in what they have to say than what others have to say, that that’s a key to writing well. I think this is true for all of the creative professions, including mine.
I have always been technique and process minded. I was in the marching band 8-12th grade at Jayem (James Monroe High School) and my Bachelor's degree is in visual arts from a tiny liberal arts school in VT. My first love in cooking was making sauces. With a roux, cornstarch, or a blender you can turn anything into a sauce. At a certain point I realized I was cooking the same way I would draw or make music, by instinct, with learned techniques. I had become more interested in what I might cook with the ingredients at hand than I was in any recipe.
My college graduation June 2011. On the right I'm with my Dad and his parents.
I still use recipes of course and can appreciate when one is well-written or makes a technique clear for casual/home cooks. And as with any profession it is important to keep in touch with trends and what others are doing. My main beef with recipes is that they rarely tell you the “why” of a given step and so many home cooks don’t realize what parts of a recipe or technique are integral and which they can improvise given their current pantry/time situation, which is one reason why so few people have confidence in their own cooking instincts and abilities. I wanted to write a food advice blog to help counteract some of that.
Some artwork from college. On the left is a collage about balance and constraint (plus cookies!).
On the right: my wall from the senior work gallery show. The drawing, a soundscape & toy were all made utilizing the same technique/process.
And so that’s me, and a little bit about why I’m here on FredParent. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to make each of you feel comfortable and confident enough with an ingredient or technique that you’ll be able to read a component in some unrelated recipe and think, “oh that sounds interesting, but I think I’ll use that idea in my own way”.
To put that in context and add some more fun pictures I’m also going to run through my thought process improvising dinner the other day and I’ll mark (in bold) the techniques/proocess/food science that if you were reading a recipe for this meal you might wonder “but why?” and therefore might skip to the detriment of the final product.
Dinner always starts at the store. First, you have to have a wide range of staples in the house in order to be able to improvise. These are going to vary with preferences from kitchen to kitchen but you have to have ample base staples (rice, noodles etc) and flavor staples (onion, soy sauce, vinegars etc,). Second, you have to go to the store often to be able to see when there is something fabulous, fresh and preferably local that would be a great focal point for a meal. In this case I saw a beautiful looking piece of local flank steak at the butcher shop downtown and bought it immediately with no plan in mind.
I think probably the two biggest things that make me capable of improvising a steak dinner are: I know what to look for in the meat case as well as what makes a flank steak “beautiful” & I know the components of a good marinade. Now, I don’t always marinate flank steak, but this was a dinner I was making for my whole family and my mom requested a wine marinade. Wine is a perfect base for marinades because many flavor compounds are only fat or alcohol soluble, without one or both the flavorings in your marinade won’t adhere to whatever you are marinating, and wine has the added advantage over oil because it is also acidic. So I put the steak in a ziplock bag (pictured below, left) shook in a little salt, found some tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce in the fridge grated in a couple cloves of garlic and a knob of ginger and then poured in about a third of a bottle of a bright, fruity wine.
8 hours later I pulled the steak out of the bag and dried it as much as I could because if there is residual moisture you will end up steaming instead of searing the meat, and that goes for all meat and most fruits/veggies you may want to roast. Then I spread it flat on a sheet pan and broiled it (too cold outside for grilling) The broiler had been pre heating for 20 minutes, which I know from experience is about how long my oven needs to get to 525 degrees. I cooked the flank 3 minutes per side, about 4 inches from the flame. After testing the doneness I could feel that it wasn’t quite done and so moved the rack a little farther away and cooked for an additional 2 minutes per side. While the broiler was preheating I hydrated some fine ground bulgur and stirred in dried cherries and almond slivers. For veg I slow roasted carrots earlier in the afternoon. And voila! Dinner (pictured above, right).