Les Halles Cookbook
A cookbook may not seem like a natural successor to a book about the culinary underbelly. I mean if you thought the blood spatter in the last entry was unhygienic, consider the hijinks he and his fellow sous-chef at Works Progress got into. “One night, with his full cooperation, we stripped Dimitri naked, spattered and filled his ears, nose and mouth with stage blood and wrapped him in Saran Wrap before helping him into a chest freezer in the dark, rear storage area of the restaurant, his limbs arranged in an unnaturally contorted pose—as if he’d been rudely dumped there postmortem.” They taunted the manager telling them that Dimitri was missing, and asked him if he could pick up a box of shrimp from the freezer—they being short-handed and all. There he found “the nude, fishbelly-white corpse of our missing comrade staring up at him with dead eyes through a thin layer of plastic wrap”. Sure, I can admire a practical joke like that, but I’m not saying to myself, “Wow, I really want to eat at Work Progress”. I mean frozen shrimp?
But it works well, because if you thought you liked being an observer in his kitchens, now you get to feel like a participant without being in one of his kitchens. Sure, he’s going to make you cook your own stock, and if you don’t he’s going to treat you like mal carne. But it’s okay somehow, because he’s over there, and I’m over here, and if a tincture of blood ends up in the crème brûlée, at least I know where it came from. And who are we, really, to think that a cookbook is going to help us to even approximate what can be made in restaurant kitchens? We don’t have Bourdain’s years of experience or the CIA education. We don’t have the Ecuadorian line cooks tourneeing vegetables. We don’t have the equipment, the suppliers, or even the time to do what restaurants do best. But he also begrudgingly obliges us, knowing that we don’t want to know this. “What you’d like to know is how t o make your next dinner party look as though you’ve got the Troisgros family chained to the stove in your home kitchen. Maybe you’re curious about the tricks, the techniques, the few simple tools that can make your plates look as if they’ve been prepared assembled and garnished by cold-blooded professionals”.
The opening of Les Halles contains many of the same suggestions as “How to Cook Like the Pros” in Kitchen Confidential: get a good knife, use heavy-weight pans, score good ingredients, make your own stock. When I bought the cookbook, I already had a Global chef knife. I bought it because it was shiny and said on the box that it was made by the same forging process as a Samurai sword. But apparently, it is also a good knife, the knife that Anthony Bourdain recommends, so I feel vindicated by that little vanity purchase. Unfortunately, I never followed the next part of Bourdain’s advice that was that you really only needed one good knife. So now I have five global knives, and I can never keep the heavy magnetic holder properly screwed to the wall. I won’t lie. I use them. But if you really want to get two Global knives, just get another Global chef knife, in case the first one needs to be washed, or your spouse wants one too.
I firmly agree with the heavy pan rule. I once owned Circulon pans because I foolishly trusted a Consumer Report recommendation. CR apparently, doesn’t test cookware at ridiculously high temperatures, doesn’t test for longevity or for Bourdain’s criterion: “A proper sauté pan should cause serious head injury if brought down hard against someone’s skull.” If you can’t afford top of the line stuff, a Lodge cast iron skillet will do well by most of Bourdain’s recipes. If you can afford the good stuff, though, be as selective with pots as you are with knives. Get a Le Creuset Dutch oven and maybe an All-Clad sauté pan. But stop there. I bought my Dutch oven as part of a sale package with a baking dish, a skillet, and a saucepan with a reversible lid that works as a skillet. It’s all pretty useless. These things just take up space. (If you’re compulsive, if nothing can stop you from buying more Le Creuset cookware because you’ve decided it’s a decorative motif, get yourself one of these: http://www.amazon.com/Old-Dutch-60-Inch-Cookware-Graphite/dp/B00005Q5GB).
Why heavy? Most of Bourdain’s cooking capitalizes on the flavor that comes from the browned bits of food that ends up on the bottom of a pan. Browning is important, not just because it’s ‘more cooked’ but because the high heat transforms the juices that comes to the surface of the meat. Complex molecules unfurl, break down, and recombine to form flavors that don’t exist otherwise. I remember when I was a kid I always put butter on toast before putting it into the toaster-oven, because every so often it popped out tasting like Worcestershire sauce. Somewhere between melted butter and burnt butter, there’s a magical zone where it tastes completely different. Same idea here. Heavy pans tend to cook through radiant heat rather than through the direct heat of the stove. Turn the heat off under a cast-iron skillet—it’s still hot enough to cook an egg. It’s not going to cool down when you throw a slab of meat on it, and at least in my experience, it can get pretty hot before it actually turns the fond to carbon. They usually all have metal handles too, so once you’re done searing something you can throw it in the oven where the temperature will be more controlled.
Ann bought me an All-Clad sauté pan for Christmas and I’ve enjoyed it so far. But never, under any circumstances, by All-Clad in non-stick. Yes, you need a non-stick pan, but anything heavy will do. There’s no point in buying a really expensive non-stick pan because it won’t last. All-Clad is meant to last a lifetime and is perfectly designed so you can sear a roast and then pop it in the oven. Non-stick coating isn’t any of these things. You might as well pay to have your wood floors stripped, sanded and polished just so you can put shag carpet on it.
Most readers will probably follow Bourdain in the suggestions from Part A and Part B of the General Principles section, but they might struggle with Part C: Make your own Stock.
What’s missing in your home cooking? Why doesn’t that dish you painfully re-created from the chef’s recipe taste like it does in the restaurant? What’s wrong with your soup, your sauces, your stews? The answer is almost certainly ‘stock’.
Bourdain’s stock making boot camp isn’t fun, and you may never want to do it twice, but it certainly clarifies why so many sauces in restaurants are richer and more concentrated than the stuff we make at home. Stock is not “broth,” not “bullion,” nor anything that comes in a can or a box that says “stock” on it; real stock is made from bones and is loaded with collagen, nature’s thickening agent. When stock is reduced, it deepens, turns dark and glossy, and tastes like highly concentrated meat. When store-bought “stock” is reduced, it tastes like concentrated salt.
Here’s the point though where you really need to ask yourself, do you really want to make restaurant food, or are you happy just going to restaurants. Following Bourdain’s instruction I spent two days, one simply making beef stock, and the next reducing half of that stock into demi-glace. Demi-glace made me a bit giddy, because I saw that episode of Northern Exposure where Adam, the local chef and Bigfoot makes a recipe for demi-glace that involves reducing forty cows into a few spoonfuls of sauce. (Alas, I can’t find the video–so I’ll just randomly insert one of my favorite NE clips here). Demi-Glace it turns out, is not quite that wasteful, but stock alone involves using bones that still has a good deal of meat still on them, so it’s going to seem wasteful. And Demi-Glace is basically just stock reduced and reduced and reduced until it becomes a thick glaze. It’s miraculous stuff, but it’s clear that there’s a reason why you usually only find it in restaurants. It’s only practical to make if you make a lot of it. Again, it comes down to the fact that we don’t have the equipment, the suppliers, or the manpower to really do it well.
Equipment: Most people if they have a stockpot, get one that’s about eight quarts. That’s the minimum size that you would want to use to make stock, but the problem is 1) some stock recipes call for almost half that volume to be taken up by meat, bones, and vegetables so you’re really only getting about four quarts of stock, and that in turn may well end up being reduced. 2) You really need another eight quart pot or container (some people use a bucket) because you’re going to have to strain that stock into something when you’re done. Even with this equipment, however, the amount you’re going to end up with is still probably only enough to make soup a couple of times.
Supplies: In a restaurant, people have all sorts of bones and odds and ends left over from entrees that they can throw into the stockpot. Bourdain and other cooks always suggest that you can go to your local butcher and ask for bones, but I don’t have a butcher, or at least, the guys that I see regularly working down at the local grocery store probably aren’t what they have in mind. They don’t seem to do that much of the boning themselves, and the ones at Whole Foods or Foodsource seem to know that they can charge good money for bones. I’ve recently discovered however that if nothing else is handy, you can hit up Asian grocers. Our local H-Mart sells all manner of bones straight from the meat counter so you don’t have to ask if you’re feeling shy. Rib bones, neck bones, ox-tail, you name it.
Manpower: All that stock + meat + bone + vegetable weighs a lot, and so it’s hard for one person to carry the pot over the sink and strain it. It’s easily a two-person job, and it might be better if you owned a bigger sink. Better still if you had one of those pot filler faucets at the stove so you don’t need to carry it there in the first place. Bourdain actually didn’t have much useful information on how to deal with this challenge, so I turned to Alton Brown instead. Alton says siphon.
I tied a bit of cheesecloth to the end of some clear plastic hose. I put the end with the cheesecloth into the pot and ran the other end to a large bowl on the floor. You can suck on it to get it started, but you don’t want hot stock going into your mouth, so if you prefer you can put the whole length of hose into the pot, cover the end with your thumb, and pull it out. You did this trick with a straw when you were a kid, right? As long as your thumb covers the free end, the whole length of hose remains full, and when you let go near to the floor, transpiration will carry the stock the rest of the way.
Theoretically, it’s a great idea. The cheesecloth should strain the stock, and gravity does all the work. In practice, well, at least in my practice, it was a mess. The cheesecloth was a moot point, too because the suction was so strong that it still drew in meat and vegetable fibers to block the end. When it wasn’t blocked completely, the stock chugged out with such force that it sloshed over the edges of the bowl. Note to self: bowls are the wrong choice here, even if you have a gigantic one. Get yourself a bucket.
Subsequently, I’ve learned to just put most of the ingredients in by stages. I made a David Chang recipe that called for putting all the bones in, cooking them for several hours then taking them out with a strainer or spider. Then you put in all the vegetables, and so on and so forth. It takes longer, but it’s easier, and the ingredients take up less space in the pot so you can end up with more in the end.
Is it all worth it? Depends on what you mean by worth it. If you want to know why your food doesn’t taste like restaurant food, and if you want to just get a sense for the difference that a rich meat stock will make, then by all means do it at least once. If you think you’re going to use it regularly for making soup, though, I’d say think again. I still make stock occasionally, but I’ve basically decided that it’s too precious for soup. I save it for pan sauces and recipes that only call for a cup or two at a time. That way the little store I have in my freezer lasts longer.