By DELBERT HORROCKS
After we decided to get in the restaurant business, but before we opened, I enrolled myself in a self-taught, crash course in cooking. This involved reading a lot of cookbooks and trying a lot of recipes. Being forced to eat your own mistakes, I figured, was probably as good a way to learn as anything.
The two prominent cookbooks of that era were Chez Panisse by Alice Waters and the Cajun cookbook of Paul Prudhomme, the inventor of pan-blackened food. Both books took vastly different approaches, the Chez Panisse book being somewhat elitist while Prudhomme’s book seemed more like something a guy from my side of the tracks could be comfortable with.
Waters’ approach was to use the best of everything. Not a Costco shopper this girl or one you’d expect to see at Fat Albert’s corner market picking up a head of lettuce. Instead she’d be off to Shangri-la Farms where lettuce was ten times as expensive but grown without fertilizer by a dedicated group of left leaning college graduates, who, this being Berkley, were all playing Led Zeppelin backwards at the time.
Once the lettuce got home, it was scrupulously sorted with only the top ten leaves surviving. The rest was composted along with any concern this degree of fussiness would cost her patrons a bundle. Choosing meat was a similar process. She’d start with a side of beef, discard the bones, and then proceed to chop the beef into chunks small enough to fit in the stockpot. Only the tenderloin would be used and even it would be trimmed within an ounce of its life. Alice would then very critically examine this remaining eight ounces of centre cut tenderloin, sometimes shaking her head sadly before throwing it in the garbage. “Not good enough,” She’d say. “Get me another cow.” Meanwhile, every rabbit in the neighbourhood was rummaging through her compost marveling at the bounty.
Prudhomme’s method was all about seasoning and his outrageous cooking method. Everything was so highly seasoned; he didn’t have to rely on the finest of ingredients. Like deep-frying, this level of seasoning can cover a lot of faults. Don’t know what to do with that old sock? Dredge it in this and throw it in some hot oil.
Instead of using fresh herbs like Waters, (Who would search for the plumpest rosemary bush in a 200 mile radius, pick maybe two twigs, then bring the rest of plant home for the rabbits who are now so fat they travel back and forth between lettuce leaves on golf carts.) he used everything in dried and powdered versions; garlic powder, cayenne pepper, dried oregano, basil, etc. All of which seemed innocent enough until you factored in the cooking method, pan-blackening. (Ominous drum roll reserved for moments like Godzilla climbing out of Tokyo Harbour, King Kong scaling the Empire State Building, or Dick Cheney crawling out of bed.)
Let’s run through the method for pan-blackened fish. Trot to the store for a piece of white fish, Fat Albert’s will do fine, thank you. Dump a whole pile of the above mentioned herbs and spices onto a plate, melt some butter and dredge the fish in it, then in seasoning mix. Put in fridge so butter hardens up.
Here’s where the fire department’s ears perk up. Turn burner on high, gas or electric, doesn’t matter. Place cast iron frying pan on burner. Go read a book, maybe one on safe cooking practices. Wait a full ten minutes, every five seconds of which you will be looking at your watch feeling sorry for the frying pan and wondering nervously if there are any laws governing such treatment of a cooking implement.
Drop buttered, seasoned fish into pan. That’s the last you’ll see of it for quite some time as the column of smoke rising from the pan will make the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki look like a bonfire. At this point in time you’ll become fully and painfully aware that cayenne pepper brought to this temperature is as lethal a cooking ingredient as mustard gas.
Scramble to open all windows and doors, before chain sawing a hole in roof. Be prepared for neighbourhood commotion. “Holy cow, the Smith’s place is on fire.”
Oh, oh. The phone. “Hello. It’s who, the Space Challenger. You’re orbiting how many hundred miles above the earth? Do we have a problem? The smoke? No, it’s just a little cooking experiment. Thanks for the call.”
Quickly prepare story for emergency vehicles that will soon be arriving in mass. Fire engines, the toxic chemical truck, and of course an ambulance for the frying pan.
Oddly enough, the fish will be pretty darn good. The house, not so good. The caustic smoke will render it totally uninhabitable except by firemen who will be using it for hazardous materials training exercises for at least a month. The one, and only one, time I tried this cooking method, I ended up, because it was raining, eating in the doghouse on the deck. Alice Waters, I’m sure, is still laughing.
Cayenne pepper can wreak havoc on wine so you’ll want something cheap and white. The current batch of Cono Sur (tocornal) chardonnay is a spectacular bargain at $15.99 for a large bottle. Hope you have better luck than I did with the smoke.