From Food

Already sporting a subtle grease stain, center left.

How to Read the Prune Cookbook (with downloadable index and bonus glossary!)

Already sporting a subtle grease stain, center left.
Already sporting a subtle grease stain, center left.
More than a decade ago, I worked at Prune. Not for long, and not very successfully.

So of course I would say Gabrielle Hamilton’s cookbook, Prune, is brilliant in nearly every way. Because I am the very person around which its conceit is built–I, the hapless line cook who might very well ruin everything if I’m left to my own devices.

But it’s also great because, contrary to appearance, it’s a solid book for a home cook. Prune, after all, is one of those rare restaurants that combines the specialness of dining out with the immediacy and simple satisfaction of eating at home. Even if you haven’t eaten there (or worked there), I think it’s possible to appreciate this book and learn from it.

First of all, YES, it sucks, there is no index. I almost didn’t buy the book, out of spite, and vain hope that a second printing would include an index. Then I decided I’d just make one myself. Or at least a master list of recipes, organized a little bit better. HERE IS MY INDEX FILE. Download away! Pass it around! Doctor it up the way that makes sense to you and print it out and tape it in the back of your book, like I did. (Also, here is an online index of sorts; the bonus is that it’s easily searchable.)

Print double-sided, and trim the edges of the paper. It fits in just right.
Print double-sided, and trim the edges of the paper. It fits in just right.

Aside from this, it’s a marvelously designed book. The “kitchen notebook” look may seem like a gimmick, but it’s not. That binder exists; I have worked from it. It is just as stained, scrawled on and taped up as the book looks. It’s also in drab old Times New Roman, just like that.

Also, the photos: Some are harsh or strange or blurry. But they’re real too, in a way that so many food photos aren’t today. Yes, the kitchen lights bounce off the stainless steel so much it strains the eyes. Yes, the range is greasy, and the steam from the roesti potatoes makes them look like some unfortunate shag carpeting. Yes, cardoons and beans look disgusting–but they taste great. That’s real life.

Which is funny, considering how cookbooks generally peddle in fantasy. Usually, they’re softer and fluffier fantasies: You host grand regional-Italian dinner parties, or you live at River Cottage and raise wholesome pigs and raspberry canes.

Prune presents a fantasy too, of course. But it’s a tougher one—you work in a restaurant. Not like in a reality show–but like in actual reality. You’re a lowly line cook, and you probably get paid $12 an hour, if you’re lucky (assuming wages have gone up in twelve years; I got $10). You don’t know half the words people are using, and you don’t know where to find the knife you need.

So, on first pass through this cookbook, give in to this fantasy. Don’t read thinking you’ll jump up and cook from it tonight. Read like you’ve just started a new job, and you are desperate to learn because you are in way over your head. (This book captures that feeling perfectly. By the time I got to the end, I was sweating and had a headache and wanted to throw the book down and run.) Read in fits and starts, grabbing what you can.

Close the book. Take a deep breath and be glad you don’t really have a job in a restaurant. That shit is hard work.

NOW you can go back and read it like a regular home cook, like you’re going to figure out what this book’s all about, and what you might cook from it.

But wait! Don’t start at the beginning. Read the “Family Meal” chapter, the last one. This is the actual introduction to the book, where Hamilton lays out the philosophy of her kitchen: thrift, creativity, clean presentation, the joy of feeding others. That’s what guides everything else in the book, and in the restaurant.

Next, give a quick skim through the “Prep Daily/Weekly” chapter. The sauces and spice mixes in here are the backbone of many of the recipes. Full recipes will cross-reference back here, and you want to have a passing familiarity with some of the more distinct combinations (Smoked Tomatoes, for instance, or Salsa Verde). This way, when you’re reading and deciding whether to cook a recipe that calls for one of these ingredients, you can imagine all the flavors in the dish.

Equally important, the “Prep Daily/Weekly” section gives you a little window into how a restaurant kitchen runs. Almost never is a dish cooked from scratch, but rather assembled from parts, many of which can be reconfigured.

I don’t normally think home cooks should mimic restaurant kitchens, because a lot of it is bullshit-fancy and inefficient. But Prune is not a bullshit-fancy restaurant–the first recipe in this book is canned sardines on Triscuits, after all, with strict instructions not to make them look too “restauranty.” And it is most definitely not inefficient. What the cookbook reveals is how a kitchen runs to keep cooking every day. You too, as a home cook, should aspire to have a system in place so you can cook every day without reinventing the wheel. Take the pan juices from one dish to spike another one; take the scraps from vegetables to bolster stock; heck, decorate with leek ends and hollow bones.

OK, NOW you can look at the recipes. It’s pretty much up to you from this point on. What you’re hungry for, what you feel up to tackling. Some dishes are easy; others are fiddly. Bite off what you can chew–and there’s plenty even for beginners to chew, especially the various stews and braises, and many of the vegetable preparations.

A lot of the reviews I’ve seen have wished this was a more user-friendly book. Really, it’s friendlier than it appears. It’s intense where it matters (Breton Butter Cake, my god). By contrast, where the instructions seem dangerously cavalier—those cases are almost always where if you wing it, you’ll probably be OK. Because in order to cook well, you, the home cook, need to do your own thing.

This isn’t the case in a restaurant, where consistency is what matters, and your job as a line cook is to perfectly reproduce the vision of the chef. But you don’t work in a restaurant, remember? Isn’t that a relief?

So this book is in fact nudging you, the non-professional, out into the world to cook better, gutsier food. Cooking is not a matter of quarter-teaspoons or simmering for precisely 12 minutes in precisely the right pan. Cooking is making do with what you have, and developing your own instinct for when vegetables will be just the right texture.

Rare for a restaurant cookbook, Prune is good at helping you develop that side of cooking. Discussing how long to cook eggs, GH warns that it can vary–are they cold from the fridge? In the roasted capon recipe, you get a great and thorough warning to keep an eye on the bird–sometimes your croutons can get too dry, or, if the bird is quite juicy, the crouton can get soggy. Paying attention to details like this and making adjustments as you go is how restaurant cooks make dishes consistently well, even with inconsistent ingredients. And this is how good home cooks succeed too. It is never due to setting a timer for exactly 48 minutes or whatever the book says.

Read the recipes for technique, and listen up when Hamilton hectors. Because what matters most of all is your attitude. Lazy, sloppy, making excuses–none of that is appreciated at Prune, or in any kitchen. “I understand the egregious lack of oven space here,” Hamilton writes in one recipe, “but let’s do things right anyway.” In that sentence is a pep talk for anyone with a too-small kitchen.

Thrift is critical too–and always key for a home cook. “Don’t throw your mistakes away” is a tip that comes along with a way to salvage cream past its sell-by date. It’s encouraging you not just to rethink your blunders, but to value ingredients. “This is how we show our respect for the people who made this,” Gabrielle once told me as she wiped a mustard jar clean with a spatula. The natural outgrowth of that attitude is the entire “Garbage” chapter, a beautiful testament to the nobility of scraps.

In this way–that is, in the way of putting you in the right mindset for running a good kitchen–the Prune cookbook is very helpful. You want the kind of rustic, tastes-like-the-home-you-never-had food that Prune serves? It’s all in here, and you can cook it.

GH’s only-in-this-restaurant-kitchen instructions actually strike me as a perverse reality check. This is how we do it, she’s saying, and you’ll never be able to do it quite this way. But that’s OK—we all know the restaurant thing is a conceit, a bit of fiction. The important, real thing is that you get in the kitchen and make it. What matters is that you care enough to make it good.

If you doubt this last part, go back and read the “Family Meal” section again.

Not required of you, the home cook: hunkering down to eat in the crotchlike hideout that  is Prune's pasta station.
Not required of you, the home cook: hunkering down to eat in the crotchlike hideout that is Prune’s pasta station.

Bonus glossary!

Here’s some lingo that caught my eye, and some of the more cryptic admonitions. Feel free to ask about others in the comments.

Balsamic = In the “Family Meal” section, GH says never to use this. That’s because the good stuff is insanely expensive and should not be tossed on a salad. (There’s also crappy balsamic vinegar, the cheap stuff you get at the supermarket. Presumably you could use this in a Prune family meal, but let’s be honest, there is something a bit cheesy about a balsamic vinaigrette. Salad should not be sweet. I wrote about the various grades of balsamic vinegar here.)

Blended oil/”our oil blend” = EVOO cut with vegetable oil, 70% EVOO/30% veg, for applications where EVOO would be overwhelming or a waste. (It’s explained on p463, but of course, without the index, you have no way of knowing this until you happen across it.)

Football = A plate shaped like a…football. Regular people would probably call it an oval. Of course, how you plate things in your own home is entirely up to you.

Half sheet = A full sheet pan is the right size to fit in one those rolling bakery racks; it is too big to fit in your home oven. A half sheet pan is, obviously, half that size and will fit in your home oven. (It is somewhat bigger than a cookie sheet you’d pick up in a grocery store, though.) A Silpat (nonstick mat) fits a half sheet pan perfectly.

Hotel pan = A deep rectangular stainless pan, the kind you see in hotel buffet lines, that slots into a counter with a steam bath underneath. Of course you won’t have one at home, and you won’t need one because you’re cooking smaller quantities. A flat-bottomed pot with straight, medium-heights sides will do. Also, there are third pans and half pans. See pics here. You don’t need any of them.

Quenelle = What’s wrong with a quenelle? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with a quenelle: It’s a bullshit high-toned unnatural shape for a scoop of ice cream. Would you make a quenelle at home? No, of course you would not. Plus, it requires the garde manger person to fiddle around with two damned spoons, when she could be doing something a lot more productive with her limited time and space.

Sacramento tomato juice = The internet swears this is the proper brand for Bloody Marys. (I personally have not developed my palate much in this respect; I have no idea.) The reason GH stresses this in the book is because she’s letting you know why her Bloody Marys taste so good. Should you not make a Bloody Mary from this book if you can’t find Sacramento tomato juice? Of course not!

Sally/salamander = When God makes open-face cheese sandwiches, he uses a sally and it’s all oozy and blistered brown in about six seconds. When you, mere mortal, want to broil something, you will have to use the thing in the top of your oven, or the broil setting in your toaster oven. It’s wimpy, but what’re you gonna do? (On the plus side, you will probably not inadvertently scorch your meal by turning your back for a second too long, nor will you singe all the hair off the back of your hand from reaching into your toaster oven, as you would in a sally.)

Wax = Jargon peculiar to Prune, I think, for a freebie given to a good or familiar guest. (I think it had something to do with bikini waxes, and zipping that charge right off the bill…maybe?)

One Crazy Trick for Working Productively at Home

Freelancers! I finally cracked it!

And it’s the most boring thing in the world:

Pretend like you have a real job.

These are the images that come up when you search for "office job." Coincidentally, they are the same images that come to mind when I think the phrase "office job."
These are the images that come up when you search for “office job.” Coincidentally, they are the same images that come to mind when I think the phrase “office job.”

Starting time is 10 a.m. You get a lunch hour–that’s when you do all your fiddly errands, like running to the frame store, or looking at rugs on eBay. (Ignore the unfairness that, in a real office-job situation, people don’t relegate eBay searches to lunch hour.) You knock off around 7 p.m., and spend your evening painting the living room, reading books, whatever.

I KNOW. The whole point of being a freelancer is so you don’t have to do this crap. But…it works. At least it worked for me for the last critical two months of finishing my book draft. (It’s done! It’s done. 150,000 words, give or take. Now: the long wait.)

But, of course, fooling yourself into thinking that your writing is as important as a regular office job, and that you absolutely have to show up for it–well, that requires a whole other bag of tricks. Such as:

1. Clock in with Toggl.
Usually I use Toggl to make sure I’m earning an OK hourly rate on low-paying jobs. For the book, I just used it to make sure my butt was in my chair for at least seven hours every day.

2. Clear your schedule.

Like this, for instance. Note the absence of holidays as well.
Like this, for instance. Note the absence of holidays as well.

For a freelancer, saying no to work is the most painful thing in the world. But you’ll have to do it until you get this one thing done. You know how you tell yourself that you work more efficiently when you have a few projects to play off each other? It doesn’t work when one of those projects is massive and genuinely requires all of your time.

3. Be married.
It’s nice to have someone to pay the bills and cook meals, in the background.

4. Don’t be married.
Regular human interaction, such as giving and receiving love, is just too distracting. Also, another human in your space who keeps different hours from you can be too distracting.

5. No, wait, be married.
What am I thinking?! Of course you need love and human support. What would I have done without Peter? Then again, it did help that he went to Australia for ten days. That was when I could really set up a regular work schedule.

6. Embrace electronica.
You need low-key, nonstop music. No lyrics. I like SomaFM: Deep Space One for mornings, Earwaves for afternoons. Def Con Radio occasionally, because the weird motivational samples make me feel like I’m at a different job.

7. Log out of Facebook.
Some people resort to turning off the Internet, but I found that if I just logged out of Facebook, I quelled the urge to visit it all the time, because logging back in was a hassle. All my other time-wasting strategies are relatively harmless (except for those eBay rugs…). If you do need something stronger, Concentrate is a good Chrome plugin.

8. Eat an easy breakfast.
If you are, for instance, waking up hours before your partner (and not because you’re one of those oh-I-can-only-create-in-the-cold-clear-light-of-dawn people, no sir, but only because said partner sleeps till noon) and you want to get right to work with a minimum of fuss, you must dispense with all morning food creativity.

To this end, I have started every day since, oh, October 2012, with two slices of a particular Swedish-ish fruit-nut bread. The indomitable Cristina Topham, aka The Wayward Chef, gave me the recipe, in a slightly more Swedish form.

I cannot praise it enough. It’s like granola, but granola you can spread butter on. It keeps you full until noon, when said partner may awake and fix you lunch.

This is what comes up when you search for "Swedish office job." Everyone talks about Sweden's great social services--but no one mentions the lack of heat.
This is what comes up when you search for “Swedish office job.” Don’t they have heat in Sweden?

Freelancers Breakfast Bread
This bread may actually be the one crazy trick to working productively at home–many thanks again to Cristina Topham.

I buy all the ingredients in bulk and keep them in the freezer (nuts, rye flour, seeds especially), so they don’t go rancid. For a denser, more sour bread, you can shift the flour more toward 2:1 rye:AP. Don’t ignore the flax seeds–they have a nice slippery quality. I made it without them once, and it was meh. And note the long bake time: You must make this on one of your free evenings, not in the morning.

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together in a big bowl:
1 1/4 cups rye flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup flax seeds
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup nuts (I usually use pecans; you can break them up by hand, rather than chopping)
1 cup dried fruit (I usually use cranberries or cherries because I don’t have to chop them; apricots are good too, but should be chopped)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

In a measuring cup, combine:
1 3/4 cup buttermilk (or regular milk with the juice of half a lemon squeezed in; or yogurt thinned with milk)
1/4 cup each maple syrup and molasses (or all molasses)

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir. Every time I make this, it’s a different consistency, but it tends toward super-thick, like glue. Don’t make yourself crazy stirring in the flour–if there are a couple of dry spots, it won’t matter too much.

I bake this in two smaller loaf pans, so I can freeze one; you could also use one large one. Either way, butter it or line it with parchment paper. Squash the batter into your loaf pans and smooth the top with a wet knife (that’s the Cristina Topham pro-tip right there).

Bake on the bottom rack for between 1 hour (two small pans) and 1 hour 20 minutes (one large pan). Let cool on a wire rack. Slice thin and eat with lots of butter and pinch of crunchy sea salt, plus very milky coffee, which, Cristina tells me, is the Swedish way.

Irish Coffee: The Winter Writer’s Choice

Phew. Went off the radar there for a while. Much of January and February was spent writing a draft of my book (I guess it’s safe to call it by its name now), The Crimson Sofa.

It got a little hairy at the end. After weeks of wrestling with the structure of the Morocco section (so many tiny details Morocco has!), I read a New Yorker story by John McPhee about his various strategies of organizing his stories. That provoked this:

scary mess
If you see a theme here that I’m not seeing, let me know, OK? I mean, a theme besides mentally disturbed.

It didn’t really work. The draft I turned in frayed at the end like a faulty piece of rope from which our hero has already plunged to his death. I’m trusting the solution will come to me.

So I took a break. I went to Santa Cruz and the Bay Area, where I savored a fine Irish coffee at Brennan’s in Berkeley.

The nice thing about San Francisco is that Irish coffee is a year-round drink, not just a St. Patrick’s Day thing. This is likely due to the climate and lack of central heating. Irish coffee warms the insides when you need it most–like, say, July.

My father, Patrick O’Neill (so right there you know he’s qualified to judge), has strong opinions about Irish coffee.

First of all, the glass has to be just right: tapered, so the cream stays in an even layer as you drink to the bottom.

Brennan's honcho says: These glasses were historically used for flips, before being adopted for Irish coffee.
Brennan’s honcho says: These glasses were historically used for flips, before being adopted for Irish coffee.

After a scare, they are now available again from Libbey, even retail. (Before, you had to buy them in cases of 36, which is how I came to have 24 and my father has 12.)

Then, the coffee has to be strong. And the sugar goes in the coffee, not in the cream.

Great for breakfast!
Sugar Duck approves of the Irish coffee recipe.

And the cream has to be thick, but not whipped stiff.

Brennan’s understands all this. The rest of the world does not always, and will sling you all kinds of crap (the world does this a lot; be vigilant).

So, in honor of St. Patrick, and my father Patrick, and what the heck, a book that’s still as drafty as a San Francisco Victorian…make yourself an Irish coffee today.

Mmm, creamy.
Mmm, creamy.
Irish Coffee, the Astoria Way
Don’t balk at the sugar. It helps support the cream on top.

For each glass:
1 tsp sugar
Glug Irish whiskey
1 tsp Greek Nescafe (or any euro-brand instant espresso)**
Heavy cream, whipped till thick

Pour boiling water in the glasses to heat them up while you get everything ready.

Rinse out each glass, add your sugar, whiskey and Nescafe, then fill with hot water till about a quarter inch below the rim. Gently spoon on the cream.

**OK, fine, if you don’t want to use Nescafe, then brew strong, un-fancy coffee (no top notes of grapefruit or leather or whatever) and fill the glass 2:1 coffee:whiskey, leaving about quarter inch at the top for cream.

Irish Coffee, the Brennan’s Way
Here’s Brennan’s advice, in video form. Watch it for the excellent justification of the use of non-fancy coffee.

And don’t fret about the manufacturing cream: its main asset (aside from being extra-creamy) is that it holds its peaks longer than regular cream. But you’re not running a bar where you need to keep the cream whipped all day. Are you?

Breakfast of champions.
Breakfast of champions.

American Museum of Natural History: Our Global Kitchen

I’ve been traveling so much, I’ve really lost the thread with New York. I mean, on Wednesday I got on an uptown train instead of a downtown train by accident. I don’t think I’ve ever made that mistake, at least not while I’ve lived here.

So what better way to feel New York-y than to go to the august American Museum of Natural History? You know, the one with all the taxidermy.

I went to the preview for the new exhibit Our Global Kitchen. It opens today, November 17, and runs through August 11, 2013. (I shouldn’t tell you that far-off end date–it’ll make you feel less urgency, and then you’ll wind up missing it. This happens to me all the time.)

In short: You should go. It’s fun, and you’ll learn something. And, since it’s the AMNH, the dioramas and models are great.

I could have stared at this model of the push-pull farming technique all day.

The details: This is a really ambitious exhibit. Where to begin when you want to cover what the whole world eats, three times a day? Oh, and it’ll cover the food-supply chain as well.

As a result, it feels a little compressed, a little rushed–each section of the show could easily be expanded into its own exhibit. Then again, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about global food, and food production, so maybe it’s a perfectly good introduction to the issues and to non-American cuisine–which everyone should get.

Let's just take a look at another one of those models, shall we? (photo courtesy AMNH)

To my taste, the food-industry section, which starts the exhibit, could’ve taken a stronger “It’s time to change this!” stance. And certainly the curators’ comments before the show were more in this vein–the word “unsustainable” came up a lot.

But there’s some progress. This same exhibit 30 years ago would’ve been sponsored by ADM and Cargill, and had a thoroughly gee-whiz-technology-is-great tone. At least now we get the cons of fish farming listed alongside the pros.

And you get square Japanese watermelon! (photo courtesy AMNH)

After all the supply-chain stuff, the rest of the exhibit feels a lot more colorful and fun. There’s a fancy show kitchen, where you can eat actual food, and there’s a mirror where you can stick out your tongue and see how many tastebuds you have. There are buttons to push to smell things, and touchscreens to learn about banana transport. You can post your food pics to Instagram with the tag #CelebrateFood, and they’ll show up on screens in the exhibit.

But the meat of the exhibit is still the actual physical stuff. There’s a whole wall of cookbooks from around the world. There’s a vaguely obscene-looking Mesoamerican popcorn popper, and beautiful molds for Korean rice cakes.

See what I mean about the popcorn popper?

And there’s a vivid diorama of a just-before-Cortes-landed market in Mexico.

Somewhere in there is a basket of grubs! (photo courtesy AMNH)

I also loved the set rooms and meals from different places and times in history: a Roman empress’s breakfast, Kublai Khan’s buffet on the hoof…

In the same room, the juxtaposition of Gandhi’s typical breakfast with Michael Phelps’s is fascinating. It struck me as the stealth message of the exhibit. If Americans learned to eat more foods from elsewhere–more vegetarian staples, more flavor and spices–we might all put a lot less stress on the world’s food systems.

And definitely settle in for the second big video presentation, at the end–all about celebrations and special foods from around the world.

I’m glad such an august institution as the American Museum of Natural History has taken on such a huge and meaningful subject as food. And I hope it sparks some thoughts in people who haven’t thought so much about food yet. There’s a lot more to taste out there…