From Restaurants

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?)

New Mexico #5: Top Tastes

I ate a lot of good stuff. There’s a Flickr set here, showcasing my post-trip belly.

Highlights included:

*Doughnut from a bakery on 2nd Street in Raton, NM

Best Doughnut

It had all the crunch of a good cake doughnut, and all the airiness of a perfect yeast one. The bakery is this very bare-bones operation–a huge room with about three tables, no decoration, and a quite old, hunched-over woman shuffling slowly from table to cash register and back. The kind of service where you just stand there and wait to be acknowledged, and she finally says, after she’s completed every aspect of the current task, “OK, who’s next?”

*Roast mutton on frybread in Crownpoint, NM

Mutton

Beverly and I went to the Navajo rug auction in Crownpoint, which happens once a month or so. It takes place in the elementary school gym, and a few food vendors set up out in the parking lot. Only one had the roast mutton; others just had Navajo tacos (frybread with all the taco filling stuff on top). This created an awkward situation, because early on, I’d chatted with one girl while buying a drink and said, “Oh, I’ll be back for food.” And when I came back, I totally bypassed her and went for the mutton vendor, and sure enough, she gave me the evil eye.

But it was worth it. That there’s some locavore eating, man. Mixed in with the charred slab of lamb was a slick roasted green chile, the perfect amount of heat. It was all a little hard to deal with because there were so many bones, but we managed. I think Beverly dubbed it a Navajo gyro in the end.

*Fried chicken with red chile at Halona Plaza, Zuni Pueblo

Fried Chicken

I think I’ve raved about this particular chicken before. What’s better than fried chicken? Fried chicken with red chile on the side, of course. Eaten in the back of a grocery store, and washed down with a fountain Coke, ideally after having spent a long day in a hot car. And good thing it’s good–it’s nearly the only thing to eat in Zuni.

*Indian rice ball at The Curious Kumquat in Silver City, NM

Rice Ball

Just when my trip was seeming like slightly ahead of schedule, I figured I’d add some tension by driving all the way down to Silver City for dinner. When I was there in April, I had just missed eating dinner at the Curious Kumquat, and I was totally staggered by Chef Rob’s ideas for food. So I grabbed Beverly, and off we drove. And drove. And drove. That town is waaaaay down there, man.

We rolled in just around dinnertime, and set to eating. Rob basically gives a list of four or five entrees, and then builds a tasting menu around each one. It’s an insane amount of work, as each little taste for each entree is different. I immediately opted for the vegetarian Indian mix (again, still trying to counteract my heavy meat intake). One of the early courses was this little deep-fried rice ball, filled with a little nugget of cheese. Like arancini gone Indian. I mean, I’m sure there’s actually an Indian treat like this, but that’s what’s so great about it–eating this made me think across all ethnic boundaries and ponder rice balls the world over. And its little fuzz of sprouts on top was just adorable. And it was perfectly spicy. And I had little hits of spices popping off in my mouth for many minutes after, as I sat there grinning.

We ended the meal with something else brilliant, which I have no picture for: ice cream made of Samuel Smith cherry ale. Rob explained that he hadn’t boiled down the beer, like so many recipes for beer ice cream tell you (yeah, all those recipes–I’m clearly not reading the right books), so it wasn’t sweet or too intense–just nutty and a little hit of cherry.

Needless to say, I highly recommend the drive to Silver City–from wherever you are.

*White port with tonic water and lime at Jennifer James 101 in Albuquerque.

We ate many other delicious things, but this drink was so refreshing and lovely. Writing this in muggy New York heat, I could definitely use one now…

Haven’t gone to look at the Flickr pics yet? You really should. It’s not often I show you my stomach.

New Mexico #1: Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn
New Mexico #2: A Tale of Two Stews
New Mexico #3: B Is for Bizarre
New Mexico #4: Reading a Menu
Flickr sets here and here

New Mexico #4: Reading a Menu

I drove around in the middle of nowhere for quite some time: Chama, Tierra Amarilla, Cimarron, Clayton, Springer, Wagon Mound.

In those places, menus say “Eggs” and “Steak” and “Side of bacon.” It’s pretty straightforward.

So by the time I rolled back into fancy-pants New Mexico, where they use figurative speech and throw their adjectives all over the place, I felt like my critical-reading skills had withered away to nothing.

At a great cafe near the Pecos (La Risa), I read the whole menu and fixated on the “Grilled cheese with pinon pesto.” Ooh, clever! I thought–what a great adaptation to local ingredients.

Only much later, after my grilled cheese with perfectly normal pesto, did I remember that, uh, yeah, pesto always has pine nuts in it.

The next day, I was reading the menu at La Casa Sena. Oooh, halibut ceviche! I thought. I ordered it, and gagged. Murky, dirt-y fish. The guy next to me asked, “How is that, anyway?”

I said, “Honestly, it’s nasty–it’s got that dirt taste.”

“Yeah, I thought that was a weird choice for ceviche, halibut being a bottom-feeder and all.”

Argh! I knew that! It had just been erased from my brain by driving a thousand miles through landlocked country. The guy got up and waltzed away, looking smug.

Later that same day, after my nasty ceviche, I wandered over to the Rooftop Cantina, the place upstairs from the Coyote Cafe. I already knew the Coyote Cafe was a total disaster. But I’d heard the cantina had less ambitious food that hit the mark more often.

I flipped open the menu, gave it a quick glance, and ordered the vegetarian tacos, because I’d been eating a lot of “Steak” and “Eggs” and needed some greenery. I saw something about “olive-oil-macerated tomatoes,” which really makes no sense at all, but ignored it. (Maceration usually implies making a texture change by soaking something, and really, there’s no way you can change a tomato’s texture by soaking it in oil.)

My plate came, and it was hideous.

Terrible Dinner

I swear it had been beamed straight from Wolfgang Puck circa 1988. Not only were those “oil-macerated tomatoes” really sun-dried tomatoes, but they were swimming in pesto dressing. There was some kind of deep-fried something on top of all the lettuce, and two slabs of mozzarella on either side. My god–how many food cliches can they pile on one plate?! Oh, and there was some squishy flatbread stuff, which I guess was supposed to be the tortilla part of my “taco.”

I felt dumb for falling for ridiculous menu-speak, and letting my craving for vegetables get in the way of sensible ordering. After that, believe you me, I eyeballed my menus very carefully, mentally combining all the described ingredients to ensure they added up to something that would not be the festering fever dream of a 1980s chef-to-the-stars.

After that, the eating got much better. More on that in the next post…

New Mexico #1: Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn
New Mexico #2: A Tale of Two Stews
New Mexico #3: B Is for Bizarre
Flickr sets here and here

Happy Mother’s Day: Women in the Kitchen

So it’s Mother’s Day, and I should probably be calling my mom instead of writing on my blog, but it seems like a good time to first say thanks to the woman who made me eat salad every day when I was growing up. And also to talk about women working in restaurant kitchens.

I just read this post by the chef-owner of a restaurant called dirtcandy, about how girls can’t cook. She’s upset that women chefs get a relatively small number of James Beard Awards. Which, on its face, seems reasonable, because so few women actually work in restaurant kitchens. But she also points out that women chefs get very little press coverage compared to men–and of course it’s media buzz that drives the Beard Awards. So it’s not very encouraging for women coming up in the ranks.

This disparity is all due to one thing, I think:

Vegetables.

Let me explain. I started to think about this last year when I noticed that Naomi Pomeroy, who runs the restaurant Beast in Portland, says on her restaurant’s website:

Our food is simple, refined, and–dare we say–feminine.

What constitutes “feminine” food? I pictured some Bronte-esque spread on lace doilies. Meringues. Candied violets. But of course Pomeroy is a lot smarter than that.

I thought back to when I (briefly) worked in restaurants. Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune was, and still is, a singular restaurant. I wanted to cook, but I didn’t want all that “yes, chef” and who-gets-to-wear-black-pants bullshit to go with it. I didn’t want to put garnishes on things with tweezers. I wanted the challenge–the heat, the instinctive action–of the restaurant line, but I wanted to cook food I liked. Prune was the only restaurant in New York that seemed to offer that–and it still is.

What’s the difference? Simply: Prune cooks whole meals, and that includes vegetables. There’s always a salad–a real, good salad, with hearty greens and an aggressive dressing, not a token “mixed greens” salad that the consultant told the chef he needs to put on the menu for the ladies. You have to order vegetables, because they don’t come with the main dishes. And if you don’t order greens, your server (if she’s Tamara) will advise you to, or else you might be in a world of hurt.

In your average (run-by-a-man) restaurant, you get some deep-fried appetizers, maybe a goat-cheese salad if they’re feeling a little livelier than the usual token mixed greens, and then you get your main dishes, which are all big slabs of protein with some sauce and a symbolic amount of Frenched green beans buried underneath. This is why I hate going out to eat.

The only restaurant I’ve gotten excited about recently is Momofuku and its iterations. Those are some meat-heavy restaurants, and a lot of the vegetables are deep-fried. But at least the menu is set up in a way that you can go heavy on the veg and light on the meat. I don’t need or want vegetarian–I just want a little freedom from the tyranny of the protein slab.

America’s food culture is totally screwed up–we all know this. As a nation, we hate vegetables. In fact, as Jamie Oliver recently showed, a lot of Americans don’t even know what vegetables look like. Popular, lowbrow, fast-food culture is largely responsible, but it doesn’t help that high-end restaurant culture reinforces the problem. Perhaps the new obsession in seasonal food will offer a new, non-gender-specific way of dealing with vegetables.

But for now, food that’s “good for you” tastes bad, and when you go out to eat, you “splurge.” This has a lot to do with restaurant machismo. A friend opined that all the big-knife, swearing, meat-obsessed chef culture comes from men overcompensating for the fact they’re doing what’s perceived as “women’s work.” I think she’s right. Restaurant kitchens and their products are for putting on a show, for doing something special–not for doing something as workaday as nourishing people.

Of course there are exceptions to the meat machismo, such as Thomas Keller, who has a vegetarian tasting menu at Per Se. And David Chang has raved about vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu (although his tone had a whiff of holy-crap-I-didn’t-know-you-could-eat-so-well-without-pig-parts about it).

Then there’s the flip side: April Bloomfield is a well-known woman chef and gets praise all the time. And why’s that? Because she serves giant f-ing stuffed trotters. Just looking at the menu at the Breslin makes me tired, like I’ve been following some intractable political situation in the news, and now just don’t want to read another word about it. And if Naomi Pomeroy’s restaurant weren’t called Beast, and she didn’t have pics of herself carrying around a pig carcass, I doubt she’d get much play either.

Aside from Bloomfield, women chefs aren’t popular, because they make you eat your vegetables, just like your mom.

For which I say again: thanks, Beverly.

(Yes, I call my mom by her first name. I don’t know why.)