People’s Biggest Fears: Heat and Hot Oil

On Sunday I had the distinct pleasure of making Parmesan truffle fries for my lovely family. (Well, at least some of my family.) Watching the fries bubble away, (after a rather scary incident during which I let the oil get way to hot and, yes, it overflowed just a little bit when I dunked the fries in), I began to understand the real reason why people invest in deep fryers, and an idea for a new “Fears” post started to form in my head.

First to settle the deep fryer question. People who want to deep fry foods are not in the least afraid of the hot oil; this is not a reason to buy a deep fryer. They buy them because what the deep fryers are really there for is to maintain the heat level of the oil. Home frying is fine as far as it goes, but it is difficult because the oil is constantly getting hotter and cooler, especially when one is using an electric stove (as I was on Sunday). In other words your first batch of fries or chicken or what have you might take 15 minutes to get crispy and the next batch only 8. The commercial deep fryer’s job, and the reason it is useful, is to maintain a constant heat level, so that you don’t have to worry about whether or not your oil will suddenly and terrifyingly overflow onto your beautiful clean stove.

But your “I buy take-out six times a week”, wants to cook more at home, first jobber is not home deep frying food. Neither is your busy Mom, or your working Dad, or your has-to-work-12-hours-a-day-to-pay-the-rent single person, all of whom also want to try and do a little more home cooking. In fact, a lot of people are far away from any notion of deep frying, and for now can’t even get over the fact that they need to use hot oil to cook their food if that is what they want to do.

Friends I have cooked for become frightened when I leave the pan on high heat for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. They shoot glances at me like “Isn’t that pan going to shoot up into the sky?” Then I pour oil in, and people really start to freak out. “Is that hot oil?”

Yes. Yes it is. And, believe me, it is your friend. It loves you and you should love it back. You should also treat it with respect and care. But really, that is all it requires to offer you its unbridled affection.

Yes you might get burned. More than once. It will hurt. But you will get over it. And the payoff is unbelievable. Hot oil gives you the sear you desperately want on your steak and  chicken, but you are too afraid of heat to acquire (although, be warned any meat you cook must also be dry in order to get a sear). Hot oil also gives your kitchen that amazing smell that will have your family or guests wondering “What are you cooking?” Hot oil allows you to actually fry an egg, or sautee some vegetables. Your veggies will be bland if they do not have some color on them: and it must be the color brown, from the sear they get, as they come in contact with the hot oil.

I’ve already talked about how fat and seasoning are really basic flavor builders. Well this is the third absolutely necessary one. Everything else is really just for show or decoration. For example, your steak will taste amazing if it is well-marbled (has fat in it), if you season it, and if you allow that first contact with the pan to be one of high heat and hot oil. All the other trappings (Black pepper!, cheese(blue of course)!, balsamic!, red wine reduction! mushrooms! THYME!) are just to add to what already tastes amazing. Trying to use them to fix your cut of meat is pointless.

Now while oil will splatter a bit, that is nothing to be afraid of. When you can feel the heat from your pan about 2 inches above it with your hand, you are ready to pour the oil in. Once the oil starts to shimmer and move on its own, it is ready for your ingredient. Allow whatever you are searing or sauteeing to stay on this high heat for a good minute or so without stirring to get that color, and then begin to mix. Once you start to feel like you have to mix it too often or the color is looking a little dark, so after about a total of three minutes in the pan or so, turn your heat down to medium to finish the cooking process. You will be golden!

Restaurant Recollections: Who to Hire?

The cold food section of the line has a ridiculous amount of food packed into its tiny storage space. It is a square work area, with fridge and freezer mounted on the wall directly in front of you, salads and toppings to the left, and oysters, desserts, and all the other crap we needed to the right. Also on the right, across from the oyster station, is the sushi station. Those preparing sushi are facing those preparing desserts or oysters.

The sushi side does not  have a fridge. Instead the biggest hotel pan gets full of ice, and the tiny 9th size hotel pans full of sushi ingredients are balanced precariously on it. By the end of the night the ice is melted, and the 9 pans are flipping over into the water every five seconds, since they are way to light to actually just float. (Another genius in that kitchen and I later came up with a solution to this problem.)

Don’t ask me why the oyster station is right next to the dessert station. It doesn’t make any sense and it never will. Anyways, it is still my first week  at the Beach House. We are nearing the end of the night. I believe there were two salad guys on shift, plus me, as I was technically still in training. The key lime pie needed almond crumbles and whipped cream on top, and wouldn’t you believe it, we ran out of whipped cream.

I spy the mini-Hobart (like a kitchen aid stand mixer, but Hobart brand, which is also the brand that makes the huge-ass sit on the ground mixers) on the bake station, which is  across from the sushi station, and go grab the whipping cream from the walk in fridge to whip it. I pull the mini-Hobart off the shelf (yes, we really call them that), and whip up the cream with a splash of vanilla and a tiny bit of powdered sugar. It is only after I do all this, that I realize the other salad guys are staring at me with gaping mouths. Apparently they all had no idea how to make whipped cream, let alone the courage to pull down the mixer and do it.

Later that night, the shift leader who is also the grill cook, whose name is Dylan, tells me that normally the salad people would have had to ask him to make the whipped cream for them.

What is the point of this whole story? Simply that, sadly enough, most restaurant workers who aren’t meat cooks don’t know anything about food. Like anything. This is why it takes so long to train them. If someone does not know the difference between iceberg and romaine lettuce, you’re not just teaching them your menu; you have to teach them really basic stuff too. And adults just aren’t that good at memorizing new stuff.

When someone is trying to memorize all this new info about types of lettuce, and colors of peppers, for example, he is liable to make a lot of mistakes. And he is going to take forever to train. This is the quandary most chefs and restaurant owners face. And there is not a lot they can do about it, since they usually can’t offer a high enough salary to entice the people who actually know about food or have real skills.

What I Made: Eggplant with Pesto

I imagine that eating Styrofoam would remind me of eating raw eggplant. I find the spongy dryness of this vegetable completely unappealing. The seeds when cooked are slimy, and the taste was, for a long time, nothing to write home about.

Of course, it is naturally my Mother who has slowly begun to change my mind. Home alone, and with an eggplant in the fridge, and dozens of bags of frozen pesto, I took a cue from her and decided to make eggplant with pesto.

I guess long story short, I prefer the slimy version of eggplant to the spongy Styrofoamy one. Guess what you need to put on eggplant to make it palatable? (Of course I am speaking to anti-eggplant people.) Well first, you have to dice it up really small, to minimize the seediness and the slimy strings. If you dice it small enough, it becomes more of a sauce-like consistency, and the unattractiveness of the veggie is certainly mitigated.Then all you need to finish the magic trick is some of your Mom’s homemade pesto. If, for some weird reason, you do not have any of this on hand, you can substitute with olive oil, pine/walnuts, and basil, as well as salt and hopefully Parmesan cheese.

Because it is so very spongy, eggplant will soak up oil forever, and no matter how much you dump on, it always seems to disappear within a couple of seconds. That is why pesto is so great with eggplant: it is mostly oil! All I did was sautee the finely diced eggplant with oil and salt and pepper until they got nice and brown, and then dumped the pesto on. Presto, amazing dinner!