Usually on weekends, when I have a little extra time on my hands and a welcome interest in leftovers to revisit throughout the coming week, I do not go to Denny's for the Grand Slam Breakfast. I like throwing stuff in a wok or pot, albeit somewhat haphazardly, to see what happens. This is the sign of a lazy, no-talent hack. A hungry hack with a wok who occasionally comes up with edible piles of tasty stuff. Not a saute, line or even a prep cook. Certainly not a culinary artist and obviously not a chef.
But I enjoy cooking, and sometimes the results surprise me. As a fan of strong, hoppy, bitter beers and the spicy, savory foods that pair well with them, I tend to regularly traverse a few well-worn flavor paths, often employing excessive amounts of garlic, hot chilis, Thai and Indian spices, oil and onion, which I always dice finely and reduce into my sauce/flavor bases because I never enjoy big bites of onion. Some people do. Some people like Bud Light, too.
Occasionally I attempt new meal improvisations sans recipes, some that prove to be great successes, many that fail to impress, and a few that embody the very nature of kitchen failure itself. This pattern and success rate is analogous to my year of homebrewing beer as well, but that's a topic for another post. I thought it might be fun to revisit a few kitchen experiments, both triumphs and failures alike.
I devised a barley-vegetable-turkey sausage-bean soup the other day, and it won a soup-making contest at the office. My chili at least placed in last year's chili contest, but I learned how to make that from a buddy years ago, added a few flourishes of my own and never make it exactly the same way twice. I never claimed to be a chef or even a cook. I tend to learn something that works in the kitchen and gradually tweak it over a few years, experimenting with a little of this and a little of that but usually staying well within my comfort zone.
A real chef is trained, prepared, disciplined, knowledgeable, talented and innovative. His mise-en-place is always in place and impeccable. Though I may share a chef's appreciation for the mise en place and often maintain my own mise when cooking at home, I cannot claim much solidarity with the true kitchen professional, one who inevitably has the right tools and knows the history, science and methodology as well as he or she knows the knife scars on his or her hands. Anthony Bourdain describes the mise concept perfectly in his classic memoir Kitchen Confidential:
"Mise-en-place is the religion of all good line cooks. Do not fuck with a line cook’s ‘meez’—meaning his setup, his carefully arranged supplies of sea salt, rough-cracked pepper, softened butter, cooking oil, wine, backups, and so on. As a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system…The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed. If you let your mise-en-place run down, get dirty and disorganized, you’ll quickly find yourself spinning in place and calling for backup."
I have worked several restaurant kitchen stints in my time, mostly doing prep work or manning the fry station (if I wasn't washing dishes, bussing tables or serving). Early on, I too learned the importance of the meez, though the term didn't come along with my introduction to the concept. I was simply expected to keep my station neat and tidy, with plenty of whatever I needed, prepped and ready to go, clean, fresh and within reach, along with the requisite moist towel, typically hung from the apron strings around my waist.
I'm clearly an amateur, but I like my mise. Though I no longer face the pressures of a commercial kitchen, my mise approach remains intact. I like the prep work and enjoy having whatever I need, perfectly chopped, sliced, diced, melted or ground, to toss into the wok or various pots and pans at a moment's notice. I love stir fry but realize that despite the mise and ingredients, I'm doing it wrong from the get-go. I mean, who uses a non-stick wok?
Guilty. It's been a great wok, and I've gotten a lot of use out of it (thanks Mom!), but I know it's not what a real purist of the Asian kitchen arts would use, and the more serious I get about actually learning what the hell I should be doing in the kitchen, instead of just throwing things at the wok to see what will stick (not much thanks to Calphalon), the more I realize I probably need to invest in some equipment upgrades, after I get around to actually reading a couple of Asian-style cookbooks.
Read cookbooks, I say? Who reads cookbooks? For me it's never too tempting to reach for a cookbook when I hit the shelf for my next read, but an old friend who happens to be a great cook once told me that if you're not ready to read cookbooks cover-to-cover, trying to absorb their essence like a great novel, you're not ready to learn how to really cook. Most people just use them to look up recipes, do their best to improvise without them or simply avoid the whole messy enterprise of cooking.
Very few people I know ascribe to the cookbook-as-novel, literary consideration of the genre. I'm usually the improviser, rarely taking the time to even consult a recipe but realizing that if I aspire to advance my kitchen skills--and I do--I need to hit the books. And maybe get a new wok. Have you ever seen someone on a travel show (or in real life) cooking in a restaurant or on the street in Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Thailand, India or Laos with a non-stick wok? Me neither. They're always huge, steel and sizzling with fire.
Real Asian stir fry demands very high temperatures and a fast touch. One needs to create textures by actually searing ingredients, which is difficult, but not entirely impossible, with non-stick cookware, an invention that seems rather American--a cooking receptacle with a built-in insurance policy--a way to not totally fuck up the food that you most likely don't have any business trying to make in the first place, no matter how hard you try to burn the living shit out of it. Because you--yeah, you, the one with the non-stick wok--are most likely a lazy, no-talent hack, like me. From one hack to another, you, sir, with the non-stick wok, are no chef.
Don't do what I did a few years ago when my non-stick wok was new. I was experimenting again, but that's how we learn sometimes, right? I'd had the wok for a little while, and it had worked well, as far as I could tell, but the searing textures I mentioned just weren't happening. I knew I was doing something wrong. I hadn't even begun to suspect the wok at this point. I figured it was most likely my own lack of skill.
I picked up a book called The Cuisines of Asia, by someone named Jennifer Brennan, who didn't sound very Asian but seemed to know what she was writing about. I had some lean beef I had cut into long, thin strips after tenderizing them and applying a dry rub of seasonings. I had read what Brennan wrote about the importance of stir-frying with intense heat in order to achieve the requisite searing of the meats and veggies I would be including. Brennan emphasized, along with the heat, the quick rotation involved in the cooking action, the desire to maintain almost constant motion of the food against the interior of the wok, pausing only momentarily to achieve the perfect sear.
Reading Brennan, I knew I was onto something. I knew I lacked the elusive sear, and maybe the lack of high heat was the culprit. I started my usual flavor base with oil, garlic and onion, but this time, because I was using red meat, I added worchestershire and soy sauces to the mix. I cranked the heat until my bubbling brown base was basically boiling and approached the stove with my steak strips. In one smooth motion, I slid the cutlets from my board into the cauldron, and SPLOSH! The whole thing literally exploded from the stove top.
Amateur night in my kitchen had achieved its towering apotheosis of idiocy. Have you ever flicked drops of water from your fingers onto the surface of hot oil in a pan? It sizzles and pops. Multiply this reaction by a factor of 500 or so, and you will get an idea of the unintentionally improvised explosive device I had created from what was intended to be dinner. We spent the next few days sponging up, and in some cases painting over, the widely scattered, oily brown splashes of sauce on the kitchen walls, floors, cabinets and ceiling, as well as the bathroom door (adjacent to the stove) and bathroom wall, floor and ceiling. My apron was a mess, but I avoided the scalding oil in my face, somehow. Smooth move, kitchen hack.
I gave up on the high-heat Brennan style of stir fry with my wok and now play to its strengths, trying to brown and nearly sear things with medium-high instead of high heat and with more time instead of attempting any more flash-frying. Once and a while, when throwing things at my wok, I hit on something worth replicating.
Though bacon and eggs are neither what one often thinks of when imagining stir-fry ingredients nor regular residents of our refrigerator, something made me decide to grab some when last we hit the supermarket. Was it a craving? A hankering? Had a pork and dairy poltergeist seized upon my impressionable Sunday afternoon mind, already in an admittedly ill-advised and compromised state--shopping while hungry? Or in the immortal words of TIME-Life's Mysteries of The Unknown, was it something MUCH MORE THAN THAT? I was out of control, shopping off the list, grabbing things that looked good, meat, dairy, processed, whatever.
It all looked good, but it didn't make me feel any better. Who wants to be stuck shopping in a crowded place full of other depressed people dreading Monday morning, surrounded by shelves full of food you can't eat until you get home? Like the guy in The Clash song "Lost In The Supermarket," I could no longer shop happily. I had to have some bacon and eggs. I had to get home and make some Asian Breakfast. Right after I grab those two frozen pizzas and some cans of chili stuff because it is officially chili season, is it not?
So yeah, Asian Breakfast, the true Breakfast of Champions. People, I will attest that Wheaties in a bowl with milk is no Breakfast of Champions. It's more like something you sprinkle on top of a real breakfast, isn't it? Cereal is the breakfast of those who have been bludgeoned into submission by their jobs and no longer care about breakfast, especially at 6:30 in the morning. I know because I eat it all week. The weekend demands a better breakfast, does it not? You have the time. Make it count. Why Asian? Well, it's Asian-style cooking, I suppose. It's basically a stir-fry. A stir fry breakfast? What is wrong with you, dude, you may be asking yourself.
Well, consider it briefly. If you're like me, you aren't that hungry most weekday mornings. You stumble out of bed earlier than you'd prefer and either force yourself to eat something because you know you need calories, or you get by on something less than a meal, like coffee and a bagel. I never developed a taste for coffee, and though I like bagels, they aren't refrigerator regulars around here. I get tired of cereal sometimes, and it feels like a real treat to have something hearty and flavorful for a late-morning weekend breakfast.
So how do I do I this? Here's how: Cook a cup of rice. I prefer long grain Basmati. Scramble four eggs and set them aside. Prepare eight slices of crispy bacon and chop them up. Cook a cup or two of peas or green beans and carrots. Concoct a flavor base of olive or peanut oil with a diced onion, several diced garlic cloves and some spicy Thai peppers. Fry the rice in the flavor base with generous additions of soy sauce. Add the veggies, eggs and bacon. Add a bit of salt and pepper and whatever seasonings sound good to you. Stir to fry, but be careful not to let it explode in your face. Enjoy. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Asian Breakfast.
Try it. You'll like it.