Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Note to self: do not open a restaurant

Michael Yates just posted an excellent piece on the political economy of restaurant work in a capitalist society at Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate. It reminded me, no matter how much H and I occasionally fantasize about turning my modest skills as a chef into some kind of food-based independent business, that the main reason I devote so much time and energy to cooking (both cooking itself and research — reading cookbooks, watching cooking shows) is that it gives me the opportunity to engage in some unalienated labor.

I was also excited to read that Yates, one of my radical idols, also likes to watch cooking shows on TV — though, I have to admit, the competitive aspect of shows like Top Chef have always turned me off.

Also yesterday I was reminded of the modestness of my cooking skills. I wasn't planning to do anything particularly inventive for dinner — fish and chips, in fact: pan-fried tilapia, oven fries (I use the Cook's Illustrated recipe from volume 66, which is a bit complicated but worth it), and our staple winter salad of shredded cabbage, golden raisins and almond slivers, dressed with olive oil and a little salt and pepper. But I had also checked Hot Sour Salty Sweet out of the library and was reading about the cuisine of the Mekong, and had recently, on a whim, purchased some sichuan pepper. I decided to make some Chinese pepper salt (pan-roasting the sichuan pepper with flake salt, then grinding it together) — the aroma in the kitchen was enticing, and I started thinking about using it to flavor the fish (well, for the adults).

Tasting the pepper salt, I thought it probably needed something to complement it, like a dipping sauce. I didn't think a fish sauce base would work very well, and I didn't have any limes, so I ended up using equal parts clementine juice and soy sauce, adding a few drops of sesame oil and some chopped scallion. This was the successful part of the meal.

My great mistake was using corn starch to coat the fish (another experiment). Well, it wasn't that great of a mistake — the kids definitely liked the crisp crust on their non-sichuan-pepper-flavored fish. But, of course (and I should have thought this through), you can't mix a seasoning like crushed sichuan pepper into a corn starch coating the way you can into a flour coating. The cornstarch is too thin; it adheres to the fish but brings precious little pepper (or salt) along with it.

A decent meal, all and all, but needs some work before I can really publish a recipe, and, of course, I'll need to stop making these kinds of mistakes before I open that restaurant...

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