A Culinary Audit of 2016
A meander through The Goo Year
There is something to be said about starting the year off on the right foot. Whether one leads with their left or takes this adage literally makes no matter as long as there is some sort of forward movement. As 2015 was the best food year in my life to date, it felt important to start 2016 auspiciously. We’re dealing with momentum here. As my culinary interests compound and 2017 sets the timer anew, I have some auditing to do as to how 2016 became the best of the best and what it will take for this next year to take that title. Anyway, it all started with an odd number of chicken feet.
A man cannot live on feet alone, but while those began the overnight steep and the long long release of collagen, a meal of the best of what was available in that one market that one time was prepared. As it was winter and cold and supplies were low because I’d been away, I did what I could with a few bunches of radishes and scallions and welcome myself into the new year with a poached egg and a tuna salad. To start the year I made humble food worth bragging about.
Those chicken feet steeped overnight and yielded a unctuous goo of perfect richness. A spoonful added made anything it touched all the richer. It went to rice. It went to beans. It went to broths and braises. It deglazed and reglazed. Never has a poached chicken breast tasted more chickeny than it did back in January. It even made the pork in my green chile taste more porky. To start the year I made something associated with poverty taste like wealth.
There are new things to try and classics to revisit. In terms of space and place and biography, pork green chile would probably be the closest dish I can come to that would evoke madeleine-like nostalgia. It’s a dish I am most critical of when I make it and most forgiving of when it is given to me. I’ll suspect a good restaurant is bad if they don’t do this well as it’s a matter of professionalism and pride of place. For Colorado it is a barometric dish that reveals much about its maker. It shows ones pressures and approximates their altitude. With this dish and a contented bite, I am nowhere but there and I’m high.
Perfection and polish of things prior known is fine and all, but to really get good horizons need be broadened. Mussels can be grilled instead of steamed and that stale bolillo can be sliced and toasted and let to soak in the shellfish liquor while the scallion takes the heat. Because why not? It’s a beautiful winter day and unless you try it in that unique circumstance how will you ever learn that a burnt piece of Mexican bread and a charred green onion are the perfect compliment to a Canadian bivalve? It is January yet and this could be the bite of the year.
Then there was the next bite. The one after that wasn’t bad either. I was doing some serious food when the weather was cold. Put some work in, work some sweat out, handle what needs be handled then stop. It is a special part of the day when it gets to that point I can prepare a meal. It’s playtime.
I don’t know a better way to describe it than that. Put something on to listen to. Take a look in and around. See what is and isn’t prepared and to what degree. Have a beverage and ponder the possibilities. There are the hard and fast things to review such as inventories and facilities and the more fluid considerations such as ingredients and scheduling and then that free contemplation of such things as memory and association and curiosity. What you should be looking for if this is your path is the inspirational clarity of how. How gets you there.
The rules of the game are determined. They are different every time. Each is set anew to the situation as it unfolds. They are merely constraints meant to focus the moment. There can be no perfect taste without that focus, that clarity, that singular statement. A revelatory bite means something specific. That being said, the rules don’t matter. There are an infinite number of ways to get there so any rules are arbitrary. It’s those laws of physics that really bound the field of play. Laws of physics and preconceived notions are all that stand between you and a perfect bite.
It’s odd to start recreation with a competitive assessment. This isn’t a competition. But it is though. To cook well is to cook better than before. I called the aim that perfect bite but really there is no such thing. The perfect bite is impossible for its ephemerality amidst the infinite. The competition is therefore with the self in the pursuit of a moment in which plate meets place and time and they dance. There is the possibility of magic in that moment. Create a bunch of magical moments and have a wonderful life. Even serious magic should be fun. It’s playtime.
It’s all fun and games. This one goes this way, that one the other. It’s not so much about refinement towards perfection but more of a refinement through experimentation towards a better understanding of perfection. Novelty is highly prized especially when it is attained with something familiar. Not to say there aren’t classics revisited, but those too are different than before because of the altered perspective caused by personal growth. The library of personal heuristics evolves with this growth so how you play the game at hand could and should be different than ever before. Aim for the magic in the moment for this moment too will pass.
Fortunately, time passes. Winter turns to Spring. Spring brings a blizzard. The blizzard knocks out the power and water. With enough shoveling, bottled water can be grilled for coffee. With the power out, the shellfish must be eaten. They chill in a snowbank with the last of the beer. Necessity is the mother of invention, but fortune favors the well supplied. I’d cooked an interpretation of moules frites the day before thinking eating and drinking Belgian was a fine response to terror. I wore sandals when shopping the day before the snow then wore many layers while cooking the next. When I sat down I had one of the finest meals of my life. It was a moment for my life of pure magic.
I don’t want to validate my culinary learning process given that it is guided mostly by whim, but it is impossible to overstate how good those grilled mussels were. As I type this I remember swiping dill fronds through yogurt tinged mussel liquor and dipping my head back to make sure I didn’t miss a drop. Never have I nor had I ever. I hope I can have a revelation like that with mussels again. The difference between the bowl of mussels and glass of beer that were excellent and the pan of mussels and can of beer that were perfect is entirely one of circumstance. The first was just a normal exquisite meal. The second was an exquisite meal with obstacles overcome. The reason I was able to surmount the barrier with such elan is my techniques are all derived from play. The second meal was just so much fun.
I made it through the season. Snow came and went. Things got green again. I bounced around. Arizona was warm and tasty. Colorado was cold and cool and sunny and was getting warm. I headed to California. None of these places tasted anything like the others. They shouldn’t taste like each other. It was in California that I started to taste that green again. Bruschetta boards for friends with purslanes and basils and bitter greens and odd citrus with toasts of sour bread made with hemp and nori. California tastes different.
California tastes open. Perhaps it is that any bite of any new thing is its own revelation. So anything new is interesting. There is also that much more new out there. An ignorable maxim goes “if it grows together, it goes together.” Everything grows in California. Abusing that axiom there means everything goes with everything. It’s not wrong, but it is somehow less than right. It is open to interpretation and dependant on execution. Is there such a thing as having too much to play with? Restraint is as good as constraint as far as the moment’s concerned.
Let us be clear, one should only hold back when that extra push would take something beyond its apex. It’s about the potential moment not the potential energy. But efficiencies matter too. I may play with food but there is a time cost to that. It has to be more than just a heat and eat to be worth all I put in. But if I think of the learning opportunity and the meditative aspect and the honing of craft and continued acquisition of skill in relation to my cookery that time cost is worth the price. I’m not wasting time doing this and am not trying to do more than I need to. This is a good time spent well, unstressed and at ease aimed at getting to that point and no more beyond. I’m going for that ne plus ultra in the given moment.
Then the moment passes. With luck a memory remains. Hopefully that luck is good. Sometimes it is not about the food. Glass noodles with snow peas and pea shoots and grilled chicken and lap chong and dried shrimp and fried Sichuan pepper in an unctuous dashi sounds delicious. It probably was. I have no memory of what was surely a tremendous meal. I can look at a picture and know it to be excellent. This was nothing less than an excellent dish, I want one like it now. And yet it wasn’t so wonderful or dissappointing I can recall its consumption.
Now, this is a dish to remember. The shank of some kid seared and stewed to the point its bone gives. Spring garlic bulbs roasted and pickled stems and greens pureed. Heirloom barley forms the base for the elaborate broth and a dollop of creme fraiche gilds the inherent richness. I remember the chive flowers of this and how punchy they were. With refinement or to more mundane ends, I’d pull the pistils and stamens and petals from the flowers and scatter them around to diffuse their punch. This was the first long kiss of garlic breath. That is a memory enough when shared.
Let us ground the work because it is foundational. A new place and new space is as good as a new year. No time like the present to put a good foot forward. With remove from my experiments I have to try new experiments. Plus, the pig man had feet. His feet became my porcine goo. My porcine goo gave my ramen broth oomph, gave my lentils and white beans depth, gave my clams compliment and gave the veal braise liquid a silky note and shimmer. It was light enough to remain summery and added that bacony richness without the smoke or salt. All the brightness and freshness of the complimentary ingredients were amplified by this deep note, this culinary bassoon.
One of the things I appreciate most about cooking in California is access to ingredients I just can’t get anywhere else. It’s the little variants on all the produce that really make it intriguing. It is though the freshness and brightness give off these little piccolo like bursts and flits that make the underlying all the more interesting. The deep caramel note of the roasted onion has it complimentary counter in the crisp of the raw onion sprout. In California those top notes taste of a different octave.
The vegetables are amazing and wonderful, the variety of brassicas and leafy greens a treat to explore. But it is the seafood that is worth the trip. The delicate petrale sole just warmed through, the baby shrimps quick cooked with alliums and goo, the black cod grilled barely to flake, the clams with fennel fronds, the oysters, the oysters, the oysters. A friend says he won’t eat oysters without a view of water. That is a bit extreme for me, but there is something about hearing the lapping of waves while slurping back shells that force me to acknowledge his point. They are better that way.
Then California is done. It’s back to Colorado. It’s back to turf because the surf isn’t the same. It’s back to grain jars on alpine picnic hikes. It’s back to grass-fed steaks and vegetables I’ve cooked before. It’s back to finding ways to keep things interesting when novelty is no longer a given. Beef neck braised with roasted chiles and orange peels, sure. Garlic chive flowers, great. Throw some anise hyssop on the salmon and some peaches on the grill, fine. The garden is bursting, the farmer’s market bustles and I’m going through the motions with it. It takes a bite pieced together from leftovers and ongoing trials to snap me out of my culinary ennui.
It’s just a squash from the garden that has been sliced and dehydrated. The tomato is similar. I had some eggplant puree from a baba ganoushy thing from the dinner last. The squash didn’t taste of much but sweetness and the tomato was suprisingly tart. The shallot in the eggplant mix gave the acid from the lemon a balance. I had some chive. I was just messing around, not even cooking really, just taking a lap through the kitchen. It was just a trip to see how the humming dehydrator was doing and a nibble to see about timing. That nibble led to thinking and that thinking led to this ratatouille like thing and the bite of it was revelatory.
That bite, in that moment, had that magic. I needed that magic. I needed to see a new trick to remember how much fun this time of year is in this place I keep coming back to. That bite came from a skewed perspective and showed me something new. So when I cooked again next I skewed that too. My food tilted and this was novel enough. I wasn’t so much reinventing the wheel rather was just fooling around with the spokes. I found I could roll with pickled garlic chive flowers. I found I could roast a chicken and cook a bavette to a new level of excellent. I found I could do old things better because I had a new perspective however skewed or elevated.
Then that season came to its end. The peaches went away, then the peppers, then the tomatoes and it was deep into autumn. It was time to prepare for that big meal of the year. Some people I care about were going to give it a pass because of reasons. I volunteered to cater with carte blanche on menu but for dietary restrictions. I started days prior by thawing the duck. The next it was butchered, its carcass and legs cold smoked over ice. I set its liver to soak and ate the other offal. A bone-in turkey breast took the smoke next. I rendered the duck fat from the trimmings and made some crumbs from the crackle. The smoked ice melted, I used this to start the duck bone broth. I put more ice on for the turkey. Some of that rendered fat went to confit the legs, more was for the turkey breast. Both would confit overnight by the steeping broth while the quail rested in brine.
I made pickles of carrots and onion for the pate then started work on the sides. Stella blue squash balsamic roasted with my apples, cranberries sauced with my tangerine peels and juice, brussels sprouts roasted in smoked duck fat, roasted red cabbage with pickled peppers and salsa verde, wheatberry pilaf with rainbow mirepoix and carrot pistou, wild rice with lions mane mushroom and celery cooked in that smoked duck broth, roasted turnips with a chimichurri of their greens and pickled watermelon radish. My fridge filled with separate ingredients to be composed on site. My quails dried of brine. My duck liver turned to pate. My confits rested in their luxurious baths. I was prepared for my away game.
In a few hours the days of work came together as dishes. I dry rubbed the quail and set them to roast, sliced the turkey confit and let it simmer, sauteed the duck breast and glazed with balsamic and set beet greens to take the fond. The indelicate task of warming and cooking and mixing and plating in a foreign kitchen concluded. The pate had tided over the people by the fire until the sideboard filled with composed plates. Then I brought the bird board out. It all came together. I can nitpick about individual pieces being less than they could be but the sum of this was a magical moment and because of who it was shared with this was perfect.
The rest of the holiday entertaining was great too. What an excuse to have friends over and honor them for who they are and celebrate the relationship you’d cultivated. And because some friends are gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, and you care more about the person than their dietary restrictions you revel in the constraint if only to show that person that you care. And the best compliment you can get is not the immediate “that’s delicious,” but the days later “that never hurt.” And this pursuit of ideal plates and ethereal bites is about so much more than just food. This is entertainment.
Entertaining is great, but being entertained is fun too. It was frosty cold when I hopped on the train carrying two bags of food and drink. I settled in for a forty hour picnic ready to see another view of America and the West. By the one room schoolhouse in a ghost town I made pour over and oatmeal. By the class-V rapids in the gorge I ate savory pastry. By the bald eagle flying into the sunset I drank whiskey. By the herd of elk in misty dawn I ate yogurt and poured more coffee. By Donner Pass I feasted on meats and cheeses and fruits. By the time I saw the Golden Gate I was warm and full and thoroughly entertained.
After some time I made it to the Central Coast. It was a short trip for little work but there was time to play. There were several ways with sole and I got in good with the fish monger. He hooked me up when I asked for something weird. A king salmon collar set with belly slice became an interesting excercise. I had yogurt and dill so thought to go Nordic, but that wasn’t enough. As I broke down the pieces I saw them as different possibles. One collar took a tandoori marinade, the other a dry rub. The belly became a naked tartare and a sashimi rosette dusted with dill and a piece rolled in fronds to be roasted. It was one fish five ways and it wasn’t exactly Nordic or Punjabi or Japanese and it wasn’t not. It was all those things and more but I didn’t want to overthink it. I was too busy enjoying the contrasts and amplitudes of flavorful interactions based on my manipulations of three ingredients. I never sat down to this plate nor put fork to fish. I licked my fingers clean in bliss because of what I was able to do with this weird.
I licked my fingers clean the next night too. I finally had a chance to cook a live crab. Infrastructures what they were, I steamed. I green garlicked and chilied the drawn butter. I cracked and picked and mopped and made gutteral exclamations of indeterminable languages. I picked the crab clean and felt the best sort of dirty. Then I strained its juices and roasted its shell so this present from me to me could give and give. The juice went to greens and the shell went to stock and they came together with quinoa to bring magic lunches for days.
Then it was Christmas. The first gift I opened was a bloomy rind cheese. It isn’t my favorite holiday but have found the counter to the grinch is the gourmand. Persimmon both fresh and dried and good good sour toast are worth spending the leisurely morning over. A many mile beach walk a good way to spend a midday. A cider in the sun as ridgeback prawns are tended on the grill a fine afternoon. What better an evening than one spent playing with food? Punctuate and intermiss with long talks with loved ones and it was a holiday filled with cheer.
Boxing Day means moving on. I’d left some meals prepared for my absent hostess and her place better than found. Then I bombed Big Sur to the Bay and hopped a flight to LA. A few bites from some favorites to take the day off and the next day I’m back to the market. My bag fills with new things to play with and try. I see the fish monger from SLO and talk salmon collars and ridgebacks. He hooks me up with an uni tray from urchins alive that morning and a pack of frozen squid. After walking back by boardwalk I eat fat lobes on fresh baguette while waiting for the squid to thaw. I dissect and trim and clean and set the ink sacks and some tubes to simmer. I saute some tentacles and eat them standing. They are just too good to sit down for.
I am surprised it isn’t darker for how rich it tastes. The squid stock had gone low and slow and never took the black. I chalk it up to first timing. My attempt at black risotto would just have to be colorful. I’d simmered smoked ham hock for something else but had second thoughts. Since my squid couldn’t be that one thing it could be anything. I took it Spanish. The low slow rice got the hot fast finish getting a nice crust in one pan while another pan crusted up ham before getting the tentacles and sliced tubes. It was a best of both worlds of tender and crisp, of suffused and poppy, it tasted both clear and deep. It was a nice moment made better by the epiphany I could combine my broths and make squid hock goo.
It was a very good last goo of the year. A gelatinous umami bomb of surf and turf that gives complexity and depth but doesn’t overpower and can be altered with seasonings to compliment any cuisine. Nice. It went to making many things novel, making some magic from the mundane, making moments and memories. And it would have never been but for the standing over the stove question of “huh?” answered by “why not.” It came about because of wildly expansive thinking and mildly structured play. It didn’t have to work but it did and was therefore a suitable conclusion to a spectacular food year. I spent my culinary 2016 not only trying to impress myself but make that ever harder to do.
2017 will be a new year and that inspires reflection to inform projections. Food wise, I am in a beautiful but imperfect place desiring of improvement if only because of the strive towards ideal. I’m not there yet. But that is one of the greatest things about food, you can never have it all. There is always more, always something new, always something interesting to learn in the visit or revisit. Culinarily, I’m perfect for now and primed for the future and know I’m closer to where I want to be with it than I was when the year began. That I can be closer still next year when I reflect again and that I learn so much and have such broader horizons that my being closer is not an easy task. This is an exercise for my life and I’m gaining strength. Upon reflection, my best bites were mussels and 2016 was a strong year.