When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong

I have been known to boast – frequently – about my general inability to follow a recipe. I view recipes more as guidelines, and delight in swapping ingredients in and out, depending on what I have available in the pantry/fridge and what’s in season at the time. Back in my Cuisine en Locale days, we wouldn’t even think of writing menus until after the market had dictated what we were working with. I learned how to make turnips tasty, a million things to do with beets (beyond what I had already taken back with me from Belarus), and how, in August, you must put corn and tomatoes into absolutely everything, because they are quintessential summer vegetables – the fleeting ones that we lose so quickly and then dream about in the middle of our winter doldrums.

Yes, I am an arrogant cook, who, most of the time, escapes disaster-by-laxity with sheer luck and high quality ingredients. Every so often, though, I realize that there is still so much about cooking that I don’t know.

The other night I decided to co-throw a dinner party, to get to know new friends better and to use up the copious amount of CSA vegetables which were starting to crowd my fridge. My plan was to grill fish and vegetables and to make a huge grain salad for the side. For the fish, I looked to a CSF – a new community supported fishery, which is bringing shares of local fish to a drop-off point in my neighborhood. I oped for whole fish from Cape Ann, thinking a) it can’t be that hard to filet a fish, and b) it’s so much cheaper to do it myself. So I had Red Snapper from Gloucester, bulgur wheat, onions, kale, zucchini, tomatoes, and cucumbers. On top of that, I had a whole mess of herbs.

I was trucking along with my grain and veg preparations when I thought that, since I was already grilling, it would be the perfect time to bust out my assignment for this post – a recipe for barbecued tongue from Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal. But I was already in the weeds with the fileting o’ fish. I had no filet knife, and was struggling to puncture the spine of the snapper and separate it from the bones, much like one would when taking chicken breasts off of the backbone. I hacked the hell out of those fish. In a most unpretty way. I was actually heartbroken to see the amount that I had wasted (the Depression-Era cook in me rolled over in her grave). After a very stressful half hour, the sad little filets went onto a platter with rosemary, lemons, salt, pepper, and oil.

Prior to grilling, I had glanced briefly at the recipe for barbecued tongue and thought that I understood the instructions. I mean, barbecue. Tongue. Right? The recipe called for a mustard seed glaze that I somehow couldn’t find in the advanced edition of the book… so I made it up. (Little bit of olive oil, some lovely sweet, grainy mustard from Silverbrook Farm, some acid, salt and pepper.) I whipped out the tongues I had in my freezer from a previous jaunt out to Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds, dipped them in the marinade, and walked out to the grill. At first, I was totally enamored with the way the tongues were looking. They charred beautifully. I couldn’t wait to  boast (some more) of my kitchen prowess! Then I pulled them off the grill and took them into the house to assess them. I could already taste the tongue, with a little dab of horseradish, deli style.

My delusions of grandeur shattered after cutting into them. The meat was still bleeding on the inside, despite the sexy char on the outside. Nevermind the bleeding, though. This tongue was chewy. Inedibly so. I had forgotten the most elemental thing about cooking tongue – you’re supposed to poach it ahead of time. And then peel off the membrane that encapsulates it. Had I taken the time to read the introduction to Odd Bits, I would have received many helpful hints from everyone from Thomas Keller to the author’s own mother, about how to best handle this particular piece of offal.

I’ve since actually begun reading Odd Bits and am finding it to be a great resource on how to use those lesser-known, more economical pieces of meat. I have also learned a valuable lesson – when the impulse strikes you to brag about your ability to cook anything without using a recipe, do yourself a favor – read the recipe and bite your tongue.

Published in: on 31 July, 2011 at 13:54  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I love this writing. Cheers.

  2. Thanks, Warren! Nice “meeting” you.

  3. Sounds like an offal mess :-) I, too, am one of those cooking daredevils who’s probably never followed a single recipe to the letter. But, then, I rarely dabble in fish, meats or organs! Vegetables are so very forgiving. Thanks for sharing your mis-adventures!

  4. Well, couldn’t have everybody thinking I did everything right all the time? I have had some serious disasters, but I’m a better cook because of them. Up until now, it’s what has allowed me to “remake” those vintage recipes. Ah well :-)

  5. Lovely bits here in this post. Great writing and all sorts of places where I find myself nodding in silent agreement.

    On another note, isn’t all the mysteries… the things we don’t know, and have yet to master… the things that keep us cooking?

  6. Thanks, Lori! It’s true.. And it’s disasters like this that make for very interesting conversation pieces ;-)

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