How good can Chinese food be?

Get ready for some wild speculation:

Different foods have different degrees of upside and downside. Pizza, for instance, has sky-high upside and almost no downside—it’s really hard to mess up hot bread and cheese. Foie gras, on the other hand, has high upside and devastating downside.

I fear that Chinese food—or the popular American rendition of Chinese food—is the rare cuisine that has both low upside and high downside.

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Is Your Body Ready?

We spend a lot of time—I spend a lot of time—talking about food. We pick apart every morsel and molecule of our meals, analyzing the taste, texture, appearance, and of course mouthfeel.

But sometimes, my friends, I fear we’ve got this all wrong. I fear that in our endless quest for better bites, we have forgotten who eats the food.

It’s us.

We eat the food.

Remember?

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In Defense of Buffalo Wild Wings

I visited Buffalo Wild Wings last night to watch the NBA playoffs. It was, in a word, transcendent.

Buffalo Wild Wings is a really good restaurant. I am not being sarcastic or ironic. I’m being serious. I already want to go back.

To begin with, this place is filled, I mean filled, with televisions, all of them showing sporting events. The TVs are so constant and unspeakably gigantic that you can rotate your head 180 degrees and never stop looking at Steph Curry.

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It’s Time to Face Your Tears

Onions are the mortal enemy of facial orifices.

The horror of chopping into a particularly pungent onion is familiar to us all. One minute you’re looking classy in your nicest apron and the next moment you are weeping profusely over the cutting board. You can barely breathe. Your upper lip is covered in snot. Rubbing your eyes makes it ten times worse. You’re overwhelmed by pain and you can’t see, let alone think clearly, so you throw your face under a running faucet and scream like the Browns just won the Superbowl. And now your dinner guests are slowly backing out of your house. The whole thing is just so embarrassing.

There are no two ways about it. Onions hurt. They burn. They sting. Every time you slice, chop or dice an onion, you rip open thousands of cells, stirring up a noxious potion of previously inert chemical compounds. The chief ingredient in this potion is a little molecule called thiopropanal sulfoxide, and it is uniquely prepared to crawl in your nostrils and set fire to your eyes.

But onions are also the most important ingredient in cooking.

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Tri-Tip and The Problem of Meat

This Father’s Day, my family elected to cook the family BBQ classic: tri-tip.

We bought two smaller tri-tips , so my mother and I decided to cook them different ways. My mom opted for Santa Maria style grilling,  turning the meat every four minutes and basting with a mixture of oil, red wine vinegar and garlic. I used Thomas Keller’s tri-tip recipe, in which you brown the outsides with oil and butter, and then slow cook it in the oven.

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My Tri-Tip, awaiting butter and rosemary.

Both cuts of meat received a paprika and black pepper dry rub about 2.5 hours before they went on the grill. If you’re planning properly, you’re supposed to rub and refrigerate overnight. I can see why, as my hasty spice work did little to improve the flavor.

The final products were… just ok. The Thomas Keller recipe produced a better texture, while the grilled meat had a more distinct flavor.

And this is my ultimate problem with tri-tip: it’s never as good as you hope it will be. It’s easy to overcook, and unsatisfying compared to other cuts of meat. During our Father’s Day meal, I realized that the portobello mushrooms we grilled for our vegan family members were abundantly more flavorful, not to mention less taxing on my vascular system. (Portobello marinade: olive oil, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, garlic. Very delicious.)

Admittedly, I am no fan of red meat. But still I wonder, why do we value it so highly? Is it really so delicious? Or has red meat been perverted into a bloody status symbol, the Cadillac for the posturing philistine?

I believe we are deceived. We are stuck in a sort of Plato’s cave – Plato’s Meat Cave – and the shadows on the wall force us to rejoice in the chewy labor of the Stakehouse. If we only turned around, we could discover the truth: that chicken, fish, lamb, and most roasted vegetables, are more capable and delectable than the tri-tip and T-bone.

It is time for liberation. And a portobello mushroom burger.

(Note: none of this criticism of steak applies to Dave Yasuda’s sous vide steaks and Chandler’s fillet, which are absurdly and inconceivably delicious.)

Clock Management

There’s something you should know when I enter the kitchen. I’m going to be there a while.

Anyone who knows me will tell you: I’ve always moved at a slow (some might say glacial) pace. I always brought a book to the bathroom as a child. I get distracted easily by newspaper box scores, my cellphone, and passing birds. I often stare into space for 90 seconds in between tying my shoes.

The point is, I’m not an abundantly effective man. And it is never more obvious than when I am in the kitchen.

You want cereal? You’ll need to give me 5 minutes.

You want some 6 minute rice? Well that will take 20.

Need me to sauté an onion? See you in an hour.

You want a pork roast? Please have my AARP card at the ready. I’ll be eligible by the time I serve dinner.

This chronological impairment is without doubt the greatest threat to my young culinary career. Good cooking is, in large part, good clock management. And to the accomplished chef’s Bill Belichick, I am the overmatched Andy Reid (only frustrated Chiefs fans will understand this).

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Anyways, the true sign of a good meal is that everything retains the correct temperature and consistency when it hits the plate, and subsequently, our mouths. If you don’t respect the omnipotent role of timing in cooking, you could end up committing a deadly food sin — like reheating sautéed spinach, or (gasp) serving a cold breakfast meat.

And on the note of shamelessly reheated and aggressively ash like spinach, lets talk about the dinner I made the other night.

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I was cooking dinner for my family. I made seared chicken with a blueberry reduction, turnip mashed potatoes, and sautéed spinach. I was trying to utilize many of the recipes that Nicole graciously demonstrated for us on Monday.

My chicken was simple — a chicken breast, cut into small medallions/fillets, and fried in a pan with butter, salt and pepper. The result was pleasantly chicken-y, and that’s about all I can say. I should have cooked it less, and seasoned it more, but how much can you really do to chicken?

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The reduction sauce was undoubtedly the highlight of the meal. I started by cooking down frozen blueberries and water in a saucepan with four halved and peeled pears. Once the berries had cooked down and the pears were fully poached, I pulled the pears out, they would be used as dessert later. After I had cooked the chicken, I added more butter to the delicious chicken grease, and sautéed shallots in the yummy swirling fats. Then I poured in my bubbling blueberries, an aggressive amount of balsamic vinegar, and a splash of apple cider vinegar. I let the sauce cook down and vinegars sweetened up deliciously. I added a pat of butter mixed with cornstarch at the very end to thicken up my creation. It was delightful atop the chicken.

But here’s the trouble, I had already made mashed turnips and potatoes (which had good flavor, but owing to my use of the turnip, entirely to watery). All this time they were sitting idle on the counter in my kitchenaid.

To make matters worse, I had stupidly sautéed a huge pile of spinach before making the chicken, and it was becoming hypothermic alone on the counter. All the time that I took constructing my sauce had made these important side dishes colder than Ice Cube in a Coors commercial.

From beginning to end, making this simple meal of potatoes/turnips, spinach, chicken and sauce took me nearly two and a half hours. Two and a half hours. Thats as long as Fellowship of the Ring. In that time Frodo made it from The Shire to the hills of Emyn Muil. I made some lukewarm chicken. That can be called nothing other than inexcusable.

Whatever the variances in kinetic energy, my family consumed the meal, and deemed it somewhere between edible and yummy. I was glad to have fed them and glad to have practiced a variety of cooking teqniques.

But the great question of timing hangs over me.

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If time is money, I am a very poor man. But the nice thing about time is, there’s more of it in the future. And there are many hours still to come where I may serve everything at the temperature it deserves.