pmk: what is the point?

have you ever seen iron chef?  i love iron chef.  they get the best chefs from all walks of life and gather them together in a huge “kitchen stadium,” play dramatic music, and have culinary showdowns using ritzy ingredients.  shaved black truflle, foie gras, filet mignon, aged cheeses, squab, shark fin and all kinds of other beautiful delicacies make their way into the cooking.

i like to watch the hour long episode (cheering all the while for the chef i want to win) on the edge of my seat, biting my nails during the judging portion.  when they pass the verdict, i invariably boo or affirm the judges decision in a very vocal manner.  and then i get up and go back to my normal life.

it is at about this point in time that i realize i don’t live in kitchen stadium.  i live in a tiny apartment with one room.  my kitchen has an electric stove with two burners and a temperature control that consists of four buttons (labeled 1, 2, 3, and 4 respectively).  i don’t have any shaved black truffle or foie gras or filet mignon.  i have eggs, pasta, chicken, bread, onions, and garlic on hand.

and that is what the poor man’s kitchen is all about.

i don’t have the financial means to make foods commonly recognized as “delicacies,” so i make my own.  i use produce from my friend’s farms when i can, and go fishing on occasion, but other than that i buy all of my groceries at the local grocery store.  the point of this blog is show you that, with nothing more than common foods, a little bit of time, and your own imagination, you can live a life chock-full of filling, beautiful, and delicious food.

and you can share that life with others, which is what it is really all about.  have friends over, drink a little wine or a few beers, and cook up a storm.  the camaraderie and hard work will make the food taste better than you ever could have imagined.

and then countless recipes sprang out of the woodwork.

i’ve been posting and cooking, and cooking and posting, and drinking coffee, and then cooking and posting some more.  occasionally, i even sleep.

but that archiving stuff, i’ve been neglecting that.

and so, in one fell swoop, i’ve decided to upload a boatload of recipes that have been skulking menacingly on the hard drive of my computer.

give them a quick once over if you have time, and should you feel the need, try cooking them once or twice and tell me what you think.  constructive criticism only makes us better, and i could certainly do with a little improvement.

mahimahi, pan-seared and swimmingly sauced.

sauce week continues uninterrupted.

sauces 4, 5, and 6 called for a slight change of pace.  sauces 1 through 3 were given the honor of adorning chicken breasts, and i think that may have been a little too easy for me.  so tonight i decided that only my favorite fish would do.  mahimahi, referred to by the japanese as shiira, has a super fresh white meatiness that is second to none.  moreover, it is notoriously tough to cook well.  the whiteness of its meat carries a downside; when cooked too much, it becomes heinously dry and nearly inedible.

i decided to challenge myself.  for the past few days i had been thinking about which sauces would be able to transform such an already magnificent fish into a masterpiece.  i decided on a garlic cream sauce, a shiso pesto, and a spicy mango sauce with mint.  i think everything went swimmingly.

feast your eyeballs.

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chicken, dressed to the nines.

if you hadn’t already guessed, it is sauce week in the poor man’s kitchen.  which means yesterday, i went out and bought myself a few cheap plastic sauce bottles and committed myself to making at least nine sauces this week.  but i can’t go about just drinking sauces out of the bottle, now can i?  i mean, i suppose i could, but i’m not so sure i would want to.

so instead, by taking mister mcgee’s lesson to heart, my plan is to make three meals this week which each highlight three sauces.  the goal of each of these meals is to take three pieces of a single food, prepared in exactly the same way, and by applying a different sauce to each, create three distinct and independently delicious flavors.

last night, chicken breasts were my sauce vectors.

i purchased three chicken breasts, butterflied them, cooked them in a pan with a little bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then subjected them to my first three sauces of the week.  and i even had two insane canadians over to my house to share in the bounty.

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sauce: so much more than just ketchup.

in the bible of cooking, a.k.a. on food and cooking: the science and lore of the kitchen, harold mcgee writes:

sauces are liquids that accompany the primary ingredient in a dish.  their purpose is to enhance the flavor of that ingredient — a portion of meat or fish or grain or vegetable — either by deepening and broadening its own intrinsic flavor, or by providing a contrast or complement to it.  while the meat or grain or vegetable is always more or less itself, a sauce can be anything the cook wants it to be, and makes the dish a richer, more various, more satisfying composition.  sauce help the cook feed our perpetual hunger for stimulating, sensations, for the pleasure of taste and smell, touch and sight.  sauces are distillations of desire.

honestly, i’m not too sure about that last bit, mainly because the phrase “distillations of desire” sounds like a masterfully crafted chef-themed pickup line, but i think our friend harold is on to something.  sauces are too often used as a substitute for food, a sort of catch-all of flavor that will fix any food that was botched but still needs to be consumed. ketchup and ranch dressing are the first two atrocities that come to mind.  they seem to be used in our modern society as a sort of culinary cosmetic rather than a creation which deepens or broadens the intrinsic flavor.  but even they were not intended as such.  condiments are, after all, sauces. for me to attempt to provide a history of sauce for you to read would not only be impossible, but most likely an eyesore.  massive blocks of text, dates, roman names, and elaborate french terms distinguishing each sauce from the next are not fun, per se. so instead, i’ll give you five of the most interesting moments in the history of sauce (in my opinion). 1.  in 239 bce, a chinese chef named i yin wrote a passage about the synthesis of flavors and the production of soups/sauces in the spring and autumn annals of master lu.  to summarize, he states:

in the business of harmonious blending, one must make use of the sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty.  […] it is like the subtlety of archery and horsemanship, the transformation of yin and yang, or the revolution of the four seasons.  thus the food is long lasting yet does not spoil; thoroughly cooked yet not mushy; sweet yet not cloying; sour yet not corrosive; salty yet not deadening; pungent yet not acrid; mild yet not insipid; oily-smooth yet not greasy.

its like the art of war, only about sauce.  i feel skilled when i make sauces at home, but i evidently need to work a little harder at it.  horsemanship and archery?  i yin, you are my hero. 2.  a latin poem written in 25 ce describes a farmer making what is called moretum, a cheese and herb based sauce that is a predecessor to one of my best friends in the entire world, pesto genovese.  i’ve desperately been trying to find a picture of this farmer to hang on my wall. moretum is still made today in greece. 3.  many roman sauces implemented a fish sauce, called garum, as their base.  sauce, however, were changed forever during the 14th century as a result of the crusades.  as trade (and ethnocentric unadulterated religious warfare) began to flourish between distant regions of the world, many traditionally implemented european spices became replaced with more exotic asian substitutes.  cinnamon, ginger, and almonds became commonplace.  almonds became the new standard nut for the thickening of sauces. the most important advent of this era was the cloth sieve, which allowed sauces that were rife with spices and large pieces of flavorful meats or vegetables to be strained.  the result was a smoother sauce than ever before. 4.  around the 16th century, vinegar and grape-based acids were replaced by lemon juice, and almond or bread-based thickeners gave way to butter, flour, and eggs.  hence, emulsions were invented.  and god thanked whoever decided to make the shift, because if they hadn’t, hollandaise would have never existed.  and i would be crying in a corner instead of writing this blog. 5.  around 1750, france entered the scene and drove home the fact that everybody was bad at cooking.  which is to say, copious amounts of money and royal endorsements for chefs across france prior to the french revolution provided the perfect atmosphere for meat sauces to flourish.  meat, which most of the world didn’t have the money to eat (much less make into a sauce) was first turned into consomme and bouillion, which would become two of the single most important bases for modern soups, stews, and sauces. in my humble opinion, britain has very rarely gotten anything right in the history of its cuisine.  i always imagine that the final step of any british recipe states, “boil until no further chemical change occurs.”  domenico caracciolli is noted as having said at some point in the 18th century that, “england has sixty religions and only one sauce,” that being melted butter.  in 1950, alberto denti di pirajno wrote in his venice published educated gastronome:

even today, [the english], incapable of giving any flavor to their food, call on sauces to furnish their dishes that which their dishes do not have.  this explain the sauces, the jellies and prepared extract, the bottled sauces, the chutneys, the ketchups which populate the tables of this unfortunate people.

and while i am only one among a myriad of people who offer withering criticism about british food, around 1800, almost as a direct counter-culture movement to french consomme, the british pioneered gravy. french cooking, especially in the realm of sauces, was pioneered and refined by those with monetary means to do so (e.g. royal chefs, professional restaurant owners, and notable authors of gastronomic articles).  and in england, the cuisine of the land was defined by what the common people of the land grew and cooked.  the concept that ten whole hams could be reduced into a single vial of intense ham quintessence was a point of pride and a demonstration of skill for the french, and a point of disbelief and criticism from the english.  who would waste that much meat? gravy, which is at its core only the remains of browned meat combined with local vegetables such as carrots and onion, some water, a touch of flower as a thickener, was the historic foil to the consomme.  it required nothing more than the ingredients that any person, regardless of social standing, would have in their pantry.  to cook, it required only the ability to simmer on low heat for a prolonged period of time. and thus, in less than 100 years, france and britain gave birth to two of the most important, most influential, and most delicious sauces in the history of mankind as a result of disliking each other.