If the pandemic has taught us anything it is perhaps that most of us have way too much time on our hands.
Suddenly, we’ve taken to paying close attention to things we barely knew existed just three or four months ago. Some people have developed acute cases of OCD, which compels them to clean everything in sight and compose lengthy lists of things-to-do and things-to-buy. The lists seem to focus on cleaning and purchasing things with which to clean.
Others have developed an urge for homemade bread and now spend countless hours nurturing little bowls of sourdough starter, naming each after Gold Rush towns in California. Others have taken to making skillet flat breads because in their haste to horde toilet paper and hand sanitizer they forgot to buy yeast, thereby helping create a black market that is now demanding up to twenty-six dollars for one of those little packets.
Even Amazon, which has the corner on every commodity known to man including ones we don’t even know about yet, has run out of yeast.
I’ve been spending some of my time on-line, feigning interest in odd products and then timing how long it takes for the first volley of advertisements about those products to reach me on Facebook. It’s usually under 15 seconds.
And to think, just a few short years ago we thought an algorithm had something to do with music.
One ad that came out of the blue said I was eligible for disability payments. Foolishly, I asked how much. It’s been almost a month now that I’ve been getting three, sometimes, four emails a day from somebody named Christy Collins. Because I didn’t fill out the disability form, Christy has been offering to get me into college, refer me to a dating service for the elderly, or provide me the names of local yacht cleaning services.
I’m beginning to suspect that Christy Collins might not be a real person.
In the meantime, I discovered a menu option on my email thingy that says “More.” I clicked on it and it responded, “Less.” This went on for a few minutes—more, less; more, less; back-and-forth, back-and-forth—until I conceded that Bill Gates does have a sense of humor.
And then one day, I joined an internet “community” that is international in scope and focuses, albeit not too clearly, on food. It’s a free site hosted by a big newspaper on the East Coast that won’t let you access its food section without an expensive subscription that does not even include the crossword puzzle.
One day last week I watched a video of a baby sitting in a large bowl of spaghetti, gnawing on a baguette. He/she/it was wearing a toque. Seriously.
Yet another reminder that you get what you pay for.
Pictures and videos of kids doing odd, yet somehow compelling, things with food is far more interesting than watching anything that any cat might do. Although there was a pretty funny video of a stoned cat miscalculating a jump to the couch that I saw recently.
The site asks that people be nurturing, civil, and not mention politics or religion, which makes it unlike any other community in all of history. That might be its appeal. People are genuinely interested—in one way or several others—in food. Some to the extent of ruining dinner by placing an infant in bowl of spaghetti. It does, after all, take a village to make dinner. Or something like that. Whatever.
Participants in this cooking community pose questions that are responded to by others in the community who know more than the person asking the question, which is usually how that whole Q&A thing operates.
For instance, one day somebody asked what she should do with two large packages of dried tofu. I was just trying to be helpful when I suggested using them as door stops. I learned that some people are really sensitive when it comes to tofu. And some people are that way about fruitcakes, too, which have been used as door stops long before anybody had ever heard of tofu.
Lots of people post pictures of whatever it is they’ve concocted in their kitchens. Just yesterday somebody put up a picture of a poached egg. It was breath-taking! An egg! Poached! Its yolk was broken, cascading over a crust of toast like yellow lava.
Taking pictures of food is a relatively new thing. Many restaurants in Chicago in the 1950s had photographers with cameras like the one Sonny Corleone smashed to pieces at his sister’s wedding. These photographers would take pictures of the dining parties and then try to squeeze them for ten bucks for a copy of the shot. It never occurred to anybody to ask the guy to take a picture of the food.
Of course, nobody would have wanted a black-and-white picture of their Steak Diane or Bananas Foster, both of which were very popular restaurant dishes in those days—probably because people liked to watch their food go up in flames right there in the dining room. (Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise; the 1950s were exciting times. The cars had fins, there were four television channels, and everybody looked like total dorks, especially if they wore glasses.)
The other day somebody asked what was the most dangerous piece of equipment in a kitchen? I wanted to answer, “Any cookbook by Rachel Ray or Sandra Lee,” but I refrained and answered, “A dull knife.” Anybody who has spent time in a kitchen knows this is the correct answer unless you happen to have a commercial deep-fryer. The reaction to my response was seventeen little laughing emoticons. I’ll never understand why that was funny.
And then, somebody wanted to know how to sharpen a knife. Apparently that person has yet to hear about YouTube, which currently offers somewhere in the neighborhood of seven thousand knife-sharpening videos, including several that demonstrate how to sharpen a knife using a rock. I then told the community that I have my knives sharpened annually by a professional who comes to town every summer in a broken-down camper with Ron Paul bumper stickers. Three people wanted to know where I live.
An unscientific poll of favorite ingredients was started the other day. It has a plus or minus accuracy variant of six percent. Why this would be of interest is anybody’s guess, but I did find it curious that a guy with a seriously Italian name said his go-to ingredient was star anise, which in all likelihood is nobody’s go-to ingredient. It barely qualifies as a spice. Garlic and onion were pretty much neck-and-neck in the poll.
Unlike a lot of what one sees in general on Facebook, this cooking community is happily missing a vegan neighborhood whose inhabitants want everybody to suffer as they do. Of course, that only makes sense. People who are serious about food are generally uninterested in eating hamburgers made from a chemically enhanced mixture of Cream of Wheat and grass clippings.
But my favorite experience in this utopian society of eaters is about the woman who was seeking advice about what she should eat to remedy a broken heart over her boyfriend’s dumping her. Several people suggested that the boyfriend was a worthless ne’er-do-well (or worse) and that she’s better off without him. How those respondents knew that is a mystery. Most of them suggested chocolate and alcohol.
There was no mention of tofu.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
I don’t know why this dish has all but disappeared from restaurant menus. It’s really quite wonderful. It’s easy to make and delicious.
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbs. unsalted butter, divided
4 (3 oz.) filet mignon steaks, pounded to about 3/4”
1 1⁄2 cup beef or veal stock
1 clove garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
4 oz. mushrooms of any kind, torn into small pieces
1⁄4 cup cognac or brandy
1⁄4 cup heavy cream
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
Dash or two of Tabasco
1 Tbs. minced parsley
1 Tbs. minced chives
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Season steaks with salt and pepper, add to skillet; cook, turning once, until browned on both sides and cooked to desired doneness, about 3 to 4 minutes for medium-rare. Transfer steaks to a plate and tent with foil.
Return skillet to high heat, and add stock; cook until reduced to 1⁄2 cup, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside. Return skillet to heat, and add butter; add garlic and shallots, and cook, stirring, until soft, about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms, stirring until they release any liquid and it evaporates, about 2 minutes. Add cognac, and light with a match to flambé; cook until flame dies. Stir in reserved stock, cream, Dijon, Worcestershire, and hot sauce, and then return steaks to skillet; cook, turning until warmed through and sauce is thickened, about 4 minutes. Place the medallions on two serving plates. Pour sauce over the steaks and garnish with parsley and chives.
There’s a long and boring story about the origins of this dessert at Brennan’s, a touristy eatery in New Orleans. In the ‘50s, this dessert, prepared table-side, ruled at fine restaurants all over America. This is Brennan’s original recipe.
1/4 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 cup banana liqueur
4 bananas, cut in half lengthwise, then halved
1/4 cup dark rum
4 scoops vanilla ice cream
Combine the butter, sugar, and cinnamon in a skillet.
Place the pan over low heat and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves.
Stir in the banana liqueur, then place the bananas in the pan.
When the banana sections soften and begin to brown, add the rum.
Continue to cook the sauce until the rum is hot and then ignite the rum.
When the flames subside, lift the bananas out of the pan and divide over each portion of ice cream.
Generously spoon warm sauce over the top of the ice cream and serve immediately.