Since we’re always travelling for the holidays, I’m rarely in charge of cooking for Thanksgiving. But two years ago, I cooked my first, and for the time being last, Thanksgiving turkey. I bought myself an All-clad roaster, and had a heritage turkey shipped fresh from a small farm. While the turkey browned in the oven, drippings collecting over autumnal roots, I felt a sense of pride welling within me. This was not just a meal. It was a heritage, a rite of passage, and I wanted it to be a statement. I wasn’t going to let Thanksgiving be tarnished by those wobbly, genetically engineered Butterballs that can barely walk, let alone copulate. I wanted a lean, dark-meat, gamey bird that tasted like turkeys should have a hundred years ago, back when they still had noble names like Bourbon Red, Narragansett, or White Midget.
But when it came out of the oven, all glistening and gold, guess what? It still tasted like turkey. A good turkey, but still turkey, and the sad fact is that turkey doesn’t taste all that good. To quote Jeffrey Steingarten, “The true meaning of the Thanksgiving menu lies in the garnishes, not in the main course—in the uniquely New World cranberry, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, and other treasures the Europeans found growing here.” And for those dishes, a few of my favorites are Frank Stitt’s pumpkin cheesecake and Susanna Foo’s ginger cranberry relish. But turkey? If the Virginia colony even ate turkey, it was undoubtedly served alongside a variety of other protein including ducks, geese, venison, and lobster. Why has history remembered the turkey? I keep thinking that the colonists wanted to escape the repressive yoke of English cuisine, but I guess I should know better. The Puritans were not gourmets. They probably found the Virginia harvest and game too sensual, too venal for their parochial tastes. I can only assume that turkey is a kind of penance.
Which brings me to another big ado that lends itself to vague feelings of disappointment: Thomas Keller’s new cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home. I feel the same way about his cookbooks as I do about my first heritage farm turkey. It’s good, but is it worth the trouble? Ironically my best impressions of Keller were probably of his most humble contribution to the culinary world: a DVD extra attached to a mediocre Adam Sandler comedy. Keller consulted on the movie, Spanglish where he explained to Sandler what a chef might eat after a long day of work: a BLT. He explains briefly how to make The World’s Greatest Sandwich so that the tomato doesn’t make the bread soggy. More importantly, he adds a fried egg on top, cooked to lava-like perfection. When cut, the yolk flows down into the rest of the sandwich. I don’t know which was more of a revelation, the egg, or the thought that Michelin starred chefs spend their free time eating BLTs. But I was hooked. I have never made a BLT any other way. Jennifer McLagan’s recipe in Fat tempted me, but even its substitution of “bacon aioli” for traditional mayonnaise just seems like gilding the lily.
So when I saw the early ads for Ad Hoc at Home, this is the Keller that came to mind. The chalk pig on the cover made promises to me of more porcine goodness, and in some ways the book didn’t disappoint. There are many fine, homey recipes in the book, my favorite so far probably being the Crispy Braised Chicken Thighs with Olives, Lemon, and Fennel. But be wary of the marketing campaigns for cookbooks. Advertising, even when it isn’t outright lying, is designed to soften public opinion. Nobody sells soft drinks by saying, “Buy me, I’m really sweet,” because you know that already. Instead, they invent diet soft drinks for the calorie concerned. Those who worry about the taste, hear “Just for the taste of it.” Those who worry about carcinogenic sweeteners, hear “Coke adds life”. So it is with Keller. Keller’s reputation as a purist and perfectionist precedes him and may rightfully intimidate most home cooks. His recipes are as exacting as his restaurants are expensive. So I see first Bouchon and now Ad Hoc at Home as part of an ongoing effort to correct that image, and it only sort of works. The title Ad Hoc at Home does not refer to spontaneous improvisation or the comforts of your home kitchen. It refers to another Keller restaurant of the same name. So the title could just as well be “domineeringly precise instructions on how to cook in a restaurant”. Admittedly, both the recipe and the cookbook are a bit more “down home” than previous Keller efforts, but its an odd pairing of rustic dishes with Keller’s fever-pitched perfectionism.
Take, for example, his recipe for Chicken Pot Pie. It’s easy to think the man has changed by his unassuming intro:
I grew up eating Swanson’s frozen potpies—that kind of food is how a big family with a working mom survived during the week in the 1960s and ’70s.While it may have reached icon status due to the ingenious convenience food industry, its origins as a wonderful dish are why I value it now. I wanted to include it here because of its powerful association with home meals, and to show how good it can be when made at home.
This is a fine homage to the American working class, and the food they eat. It promises to return us to the comfort foods of our youth, but to rescue them from the automated traditions of convenience foods. But when you get into how he prepares a potpie, you begin to see early and often what separates Keller from someone like Betty Fussell or Fannie Farmer. Its not enough that the potatoes, carrots and celery should all be cut to ½ inch dice, they must also be segregated for cooking.
Put the potatoes, carrots, and onions in separate small saucepans with water to cover and add 1 bay leaf, 1 thyme sprig, and 8 peppercorns to each pan.
That’s right, eight shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be eight. Nine shalt thou not count, neither count to seven, excepting that thou then proceedest to eight. Ten is right out. By this point you have all the burners going on your stove and you’re wondering what you got yourself into. This is not your mother’s potpie recipe. Unless your mother was a highly functioning OCD patient who had a live-in staff of Puerto Rican dishwashers.
In retrospect, I can understand why the celery was singled out for blanching. Blanched celery taste less like celery, and in my book, that’s a good thing. But I can’t see the rational for simmering each vegetable in a separate pot when they will all be enjoying their Jacuzzi for exactly 8-10 minutes.
To be fair, the potpie was delicious, but I think it would’ve been fine to just say, “Dice vegetables evenly and cook until fork tender.” But the book seems to be of that school which believes that precision is about quantification. I admire some kinds of fussiness, like the recipe for Black Rice, Farro and Squash that ended up taking me to three separate stores for ingredients. There are three different kinds of squash involved alone: Butternut, Delicata and Kobacha. But most of the step-by-step instructions are geared toward quantitative outcomes, and the desired outcomes often aren’t even that clear.
The instructions for Delicata are typical:
“Cut off the ends of the Delicata squash and peel it. Cut lengthwise into quarters and remove the seeds. Cut each quarter lengthwise into 3 pieces. Put each piece seed side down on a cutting board and cut on a sharp diagonal into 3/8-inch thick slices about 1 ½ inches long; discard the end pieces. You need about 1½ cups squash for this recipe (reserve any extra for another use). ”
Its hard for me to visualize this, and it strikes me as a bit odd to have to peel the
Delicata squash, since the Delicata’s is the only winter squash that you can eat with the skin on. Delicata’s raison d’etre is to be cut up into colorful crescents or rounds. But Keller wants 5/8″ dice, and so that’s what Keller gets.
This Taylorist approach to quantifying everything puts me less in mind of the chef in the Adam Sandler clip and more in mind of Phil Hartman’s chef on SNL. “People try to tell you that the secret to peppersteak is the seasoning, but we know differently don’t we? It’s getting all the pieces the same size”. It’s a misconception to assume that recipes will be more scientific or more foolproof if only you can add more precise measurements. Even if the average home cook had the knife skills necessary to make 5/8″ dice quickly and evenly, other variables would get in the way. The age, moisture levels and starting temperature of the squash will make a difference, as will the relative temperature of your stove. Since Keller likes cooking a great many things on “low” these differences tend to be exaggerated. In my kitchen, most of the times ended up seeming off by anywhere from 20% to 50%. And this is frustrating when the book usually calls for cooking aromatics for 20 minutes, and letting bacon render its fat for up to 45. I know that describing cooking in other terms is difficult. Keller himself admits that you have to learn to use your senses. You have to touch a steak or a filet of fish to know how “done” feels. But he also goes on to say that “No one can tell you how to do this. This is something you can learn only by cooking, by touching and remembering.” But that’s a cop out. This is the challenge that I think good cookbooks should really strive to address. Poets strive all the time to capture fleeting impressions that they will never be able to fully realize on the page, but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile to try.
That said, if you can overlook the excesses of Ad Hoc at Home, there’s a lot in it that is genuinely worthwhile. Just know what you’re getting into. Keller’s a purist, which means that he doesn’t really experiment much with the main entrees. He just gives you a slightly fussier version of what you might get from a dozen other cookbooks. The side dishes were more exotic than the main dishes, though and the “life savers” is full of mouth watering little things in jars: preserved whole lemons, cured lemons, oven-roasted tomatoes, soffritto, or champagne grapes to be steeped with yellow curry. This must be where Keller put all the flavor that he took out of the main dishes. I used to shy away from these sections in cookbooks, because they almost always require you to coomore than you need. But I’d much rather have left over roast tomatoes than the odds and ends of three different squashes that are now sitting in my fridge. It’s with those leftovers that you really get to improvise ad hoc.
I also liked the cheese primer. I love cheese, but I’m usually afraid of spending a lot of money on something like Humbolt Fog, when I don’t know what to do with it. But now I know. Serve it with fresh figs and honey. Even just honey is amazing. This probably isn’t a revelation to framagiophiles, but it was to me. And yes, there was, much to my great pleasure, a section on grilled cheese sandwiches, made with crustless brioche and Comte. They didn’t top the World’s Greatest Sandwich, but it’s good to know that there’s more to a grilled cheese sandwich than cheddar or Velveeta, but more on that next week.
In the end, as I shelve Ad Hoc for a while, I think what surprises me most is I actually followed these instructions to the letter. If I’m frustrated with this book, perhaps it’s because I approached it with too much reverence, but Keller is intimidating that way. After several weeks of cooking with Ad Hoc, I’ve come to have a recurring dream that
Thomas Keller is on Iron Chef, battling it out with Jose Garces. I’ve always liked Jose Garces, and I wish him well with tonight’s Next Iron Chef, but if for some reason he loses, he can still be a star in my Thomas Keller nightmares. On television, Garces is supremely confident and amiable to a fault, but in my nightmares, pitted against Keller, he’s understandably nervous. For some reason, Keller was allowed to bring not only a single sous-chef, but also a whole army of prep cooks who are endlessly slicing and dicing. “What’s he making over there?” Garces asks, pushing himself harder that he ever has before. Garces completes all the required dishes, and somehow manages to make a perfectly delectable dish out of a live peacock. The clock runs down, the buzzer goes off, and everyone’s eyes lock on Keller. In one hour, he has managed to make only mirepoix, and he hasn’t even plated it. Yet somehow, the judges find this perfectly acceptable and Keller wins anyway.
This is cooking with Thomas Keller. This will always be cooking with Thomas Keller. Don’t expect otherwise. Do not buy this book because you think it’ll be the “more accessible” Thomas Keller book. Buy it because you liked his other books and you’re prepared to put up with his fussiness. Or better yet, you’re prepared to stare him down in kitchen stadium and say, look damnit, it’s just mirepoix, and I’ll cook it all in one pan if I want to.