Here’s an excerpt from Charleston Style and Design’s latest issue and an essay I wrote about how cooking mistakes can actually be a good thing for healing laughter, learning, and even crying:
Cooking mistakes can be a good thing
Mom used to say that there is no use in crying over spilled milk. But as a chef and cookbook author who has spent countless hours in the kitchen, I can tell you there are benefits to a good cry.
I’ve witnessed a lot more grievous errors than spilled milk. I once worked frantically with a young French male apprentice under the watchful eye of decorated pastry chef Pierre Hermé. We were trying to prevent a huge vat of pastry cream from quickly becoming a messy batch of sweet scrambled eggs. We succeeded, barely, by straining the rapidly clotting batch, but not without sweat and tears. No shame in it, even for a French boy or this American girl. Lessons learned: Constantly whisk your pastry cream, and don’t let the flame get too hot…
For more, click on the link at the top of this page.
About the time my junior year in college rolled around, my boy-crazy roommates and I would indulge in one of our favorite games in our limited spare time. We called the game “baby-fooding.” It went something like this. One of us from our mostly naive and inexperienced lot would declare that she had an unexpected encounter with her current male fancy. She wanted the rest of us to analyze every nuance of that encounter. “He told me it was a pretty day and he liked my skirt,” she would declare. Great! “But, what does that MEAN? Does it mean he likes me or was he just being nice?” would begin the long list of queries. And on and on and on, until one or all of us would declare this discussion an official game of baby-fooding. The girls really had a field day when I came back from an hour-long interview with Doug Flutie and confessed I had asked him, for lack of better phrasing, if he “every got ball hungry (when playing football)?”
That confession (along with the peals of hilarious laughter it induced), like all the others in the baby-fooding sessions, got analyzed, chewed and re-chewed so many times it essentially was reduced to baby food-like mush. Mindless, meaningless mush.
Really, in the end, as most of eventually learn, things are simply what they seem, especially when it comes to 19 year-old boys and how their minds work when it comes to girls. And, so it is with cooking.
The Cook Who Thought Too Much
I started thinking about the uselessness of baby-fooding yesterday as I was researching the art and technique of making choux pastry. Although fabulous, it’s ultimately a fairly straight-forward pastry formed by combining butter and water, mixing in flour, and incorporating eggs until you have a pliable, glossy pastry that can be formed into sweet and savory delights such as cream puffs and eclairs. Or, so I thought from my training and extensive experience with the stuff.
Yet, the further I delved into the pages of cookbooks and online discussions, the more confused I became. Does one use bread flour, AP flour, or pastry flour? Does one incorporate the eggs with a wooden spoon (as I was taught at Le Cordon Bleu) or a blender to help regulate the temperature? Does one pipe or dollop the pastry? What’s the best oven-temperature? While I respect why these questions are important (to some degree), it all started to border on the edge of the ridiculous. My head began spinning with numbness, just like back in the old baby-fooding days. I decided to take a thirty minute break and watch Chopped on The Food Channel.
Bad plan, at least initially. Before I knew it, there I was again, deeply entrenched in the world of cooking over-think, and worse, one peppered with debilitating ego – a deadly combo in any kitchen. The chefs were given a basket containing walnuts, creme de menthe, golden raisins, and canned salmon. With this, they were expected to prepare a first course. My attention turned to the chef who decided to take 15 of the 30 precious minutes to prepare a walnut flour because he was certain “none of the other chefs would do (the same).”
I would give him an “A” for originality and self-challenge, except he had no plan for what he was going to do with said flour. He just wanted to make it to impress. It turns out, he made a rather banal dish with a bizarre sauce, but he went ahead and put the flour on top, because “he had made it.” Because it added nothing to the dish, it took away from it. Ultimately he got “Chopped.”
Less is More
He missed what really is the truest of true about good cooking. The best cooking doesn’t come with pretense and bravado or over-complication. It doesn’t require a thousand gadgets (or ingredients), or a doctorate. The keys to good and even great cooking are beautiful produce/food, respect for technique and ratio of ingredients, minimalistic and sensible treatment of the food, and balanced and beautiful pairing of textures and flavors. And, it always needs to be fun. In the kitchen and in life, over-thinking leads to inertia and exhaustion.
With that in mind, I’m heading back to the kitchen and the choux drawing board. I’m going to keep my head out of the game as much as possible, and let my training and tastebuds lead the way.
Happy cooking from my kitchen to yours!
As I come to the finish line of this next cookbook project on classic French sauces, it’s nice to take the time to reflect on the process. Thank you so much To Jane Kelly at www.eatyourbooks.com for giving me the opportunity!
August 31, 2012 by Susie
For this month’s author profile, we have some lovely insights into the writing and cooking life of Holly Herrick, author most recently of Tart Love. In her piece you’ll find surprising answers to questions like “What’s the hardest part of writing a cookbook?” and “How do you become a food writer?” as well as a charming personal anecdote about Julia Child.
Just underway with researching and writing my 5th and 6th cookbooks, I’ve learned a lot about this unique process over the years. My favorite part is always, at least initially, the recipe testing and development. The entire time I’m doing that, I’m scripting the writing in my head. Once I’m underway with this, I have a lot of fun with the actual writing, but I’ll never love actually writing recipes. It’s difficult work because it is so detailed and the author has to always keep the cooking skills and kitchens of her readers in mind. Consistency is a big part of it, and clarity, too. It’s a real balancing act of offering just enough details and hand-holding, without overwhelming.
The first two cookbooks I’ve ever owned were wedding gifts back in 1990, and they still remain near and dear to my heart, and kitchen. These are The Way to Cook by Julia Child and New Basics. Of the two, the former is by far my favorite and definitely the one I would take with me to a deserted island. My copy is tattered and torn and full of notes, and I love the music of Julia’s style, language and knowledge ringing through every single page. A lot of Julia is in Tart Love – Sassy, Savory and Sweet as she is literally and figuratively the reason I went to Le Cordon Bleu. As a child, I was captivated by her television show and eventually met her at a Food and Wine Festival in the late 1980’s. I asked her the best way to get qualified for food writing and her response, in true, to-the-point-fashion, was: “Can you get to Le Cordon Bleu?” Thanks to her, and a lot of other people, I did and in France, I not only fell in love with cooking and France, I also developed a passion for baking tarts, particularly savory tarts, which were a relatively new concept to me at the time. While I love all the recipes I developed for Tart Love, I have two favorites, or what I would consider signature recipes. The Panna Cotta Tart with Roasted Fresh Figs in Balsamic Honey Sauce, is elegant, beautiful and loaded with lovely flavor and texture contrasts. The inspiration? A beautiful bin of fresh figs at the farmers’ market here in Charleston, SC. I’ll never tire of the Vidalia Onion Tart with Bacon, Honey and Fresh Thyme which combines some of my favorite flavors and reminds me of my friend Simone, who is from Alsace, France, and inspired this recipe. Happy cooking, friends!
Lest you fear I’ve completely lost my marbles, I’m aware it’s not summer yet. However, here in balmy Charleston, spring is well past her fullest bloom, though still lovely. The official first waves of feels-like-summer-heat will arrive in a few weeks with the arrival of the Spoletians; invariably the two go together year after year.
So, I’m a little ahead of myself seasonally, a sensation that started, ironically when I went to the first Charleston farmers’ market of the season a Saturday ago. Sifting through luscious strawberries, long spears of asparagus, and pungent sweet onions, I was giddy with the fruits of spring. Yet, the grass fed beef and pork sausage I purchased from one of my favorite vendors jump-started my culinary mind to summer. Specifically, peppers, tomatoes, and their culinary bedfellow, chili.
Even in the doggiest days of August heat, I can’t resist making the stuff. So utterly wholesome, I load it up with colorful, peppery heat and plenty of grass-fed beef and beans. I usually finish it with some dark chocolate and a dab of local honey for sweetness, and it’s utterly delicious and very nutritious.
Though it’s a bit early for the season, that’s what I found myself doing once again yesterday, and loving every minute of it. The fragrance of making chili is at least half the fun and my dog, Tann Mann, makes a virtual dance out of it the process that makes me smile.
This time, and in keeping with the true spring season, I decided to add some color and fiber in the form of Swiss chard. It’s a mild, tender green, and just needs a few minutes of cooking to wilt, soften and heat through at the very end of the cooking process. Think parsley on steroids! Be sure to wash the chard thoroughly, break off and discard the tough stems, and dry well. I cut them into thin strips, or a chiffonade. This is easily done by stacking the leaves, rolling them into a bundle, and cut into thin strips, horizontally across the bundle.
Another nice thing about this recipe, is that you can store it in the refrigerator for a couple days, where the flavors will continue to develop. Re-heat it in the batch sizes you need only, as you want to avoid over-cooking the Swiss chard, which will make it soggy and more grey than green.
To keep the fat content very low and the flavor high, I used sausage, too, but drained it very well after the browning process to remove almost all but a few tablespoons of the fat. This is why it’s important to add the majority of the spices after the browning and draining process, otherwise they will end up down your sink or in your garbage disposal, instead of in your chili. Feel free to lighten up on the heat if you have a tender palate. As always, be sure to taste and modify salt and pepper quantities to suit your taste. Happy cooking!
Chunky Spunky Farmers’ Market Chili
(Makes 10 – 12 portions)
One Tbs Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 pound grass fed beef (or substitute organic or ground beef)
1 pound sweet sausage (casings removed if applicable)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 Tbs roasted ground cumin
1/2 tsp red chili pepper flakes
generous dash paprika
pinch ground cloves
1 Tbs Mexican oregano
1 Tbs thyme leaves
1 medium Bermuda onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, halved, seeds removed, and finely chopped
1 poblano pepper, halved, seeds removed, and finely chopped
2 habenero chiles, halved, seeds removed, and minced (Note: wear protective gloves if your hands are sensitive to the heat from the chile oil)
1 jalapeno pepper, halved, seeds removed, and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
1 1/2 cups medium bodied, good quality red wine (such as Pinot Noir)
2 cups quartered rainbow Heirloom cherry or grape tomatoes
One 15.5 ounce can black beans
One 15.5 can Great Northern beans
1 1/2 cups beef stock (or water)
1 square (about 1 Tbs, chopped) dark chocolate, at least 70% cacao
1 Tbs honey
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Garnish: Sour Cream
In a large soup pot or Dutch Oven, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the beef and the sausage, crumbling into small chunks as you’re adding. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Stir, occasionally, continuing to break the meat into small, uniform pieces. Cook until browned, about five minutes. Drain off all but 2 tablespoons of the rendered fat, discarding. Return the meat to the pan.
Over medium heat, add the cumin, red chile pepper flakes, paprika, cloves, Mexican oregano, and thyme. Stir to combine. Add the onion, celery, bell pepper, poblano, habenero, jalapeno and garlic. Continue to cook over medium to medium low heat, stirring, until all of the vegetables have just softened, about five minutes.
Increase the heat to high. Add the wine and continue to cook until it has reduced by half. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the tomatoes, black beans, Great Northern beans (both with their liquor – it contains nutrients and fiber), and beef stock. Increase heat and bring up to a low simmer. Stir in the chocolate and the honey. Taste and add salt and pepper lightly as needed.
Cook on a low simmer, uncovered for about 30 minutes. Serve very hot in shallow bowls with a generous dollop of sour cream. (Note: Left-overs can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. The chili also freezes very well for up to 3 months).
The Post and Courier’s talented Teresa Taylor wrote a feature “For the Love of Tarts” about my new cookbook, “Tart Love.” Grace Beahm photographed me with a tart in my kitchen to illustrate the article. In the article, Teresa spotlights a few recipes from “Tart Love” and tells the story of my journey towards a love of tarts.