>>> Bang for Your Buck
By staff writer David Nelson
December 4, 2005
Essential New Word of the Day:
mulchito (mUl’tšito) n: It may come as a surprise, but sometimes, I’m kind of a dumbass. This week’s word stems from the time I tried to make my friends a pitcher of delicious, frosty mojitos at a tropical party. Mojitos contain, among other ingredients, fresh mint. However, I was unaware that it’s added as the last step. So I threw the mint leaves in the blender along with he ice, sugar, etc. The result? A rather thick layer of mulch floating atop some puke-green concoction. Hence, the word “mulchito.” Try one today! Just be prepared to pick funky green shit out of your teeth for next several hours.
Over the course of my life, I've made myself hundreds of meals. I always thought I was a pretty good cook. I may not have a zippy catchphrase (like Emeril), or a hilarious ethnicity (like Emeril), but my skills have always been serviceable. And yet recently, I've had reason to doubt this. My meals have become bland, repetitive, and possibly toxic. It's true; last week I made myself a stir-fry, and I'm not ashamed to tell you that thirty minutes after I ate it, semi-digested beef and bean sprouts were launching out of my body in every conceivable direction. It felt like the ingredients just skipped the digestive process entirely, and in their panic to escape, fought back by becoming surprisingly jagged on the way out. Maybe this doesn't prove my cooking is getting worse, but it was certainly a wake-up call.
Worse, girls that I've been dating have flat out refused to let me cook for them, and I know it can't be because of the empty bottles of Rohypnol lying around my apartment. No, clearly my cooking ability has suffered in recent months from a lack of creativity, effort, and most importantly, income. If I ever wanted to achieve my dream of being the world's first nude break dancing chef, I needed to bring my skills up to scratch. I resolved to make a few changes to my cooking habits, and scoured the media for books, shows, and interpretive dances that might help me. And now you're going to hear about it.
“As a general rule, I don't like cookbooks. Anyone can just follow a recipe line for line, and if that's your idea of cooking, I hope you are enjoying life in Iraq, you communist.”
One of the first conclusions that I came to was that, maybe, hot sauce was partially responsible for my culinary decline. Either I'm ruining most dishes by putting in too much, or else years of fiery-hot meals have left my poor taste buds incapable of distinguishing celery from cellophane. As you may remember from my hangover experiment, I collect hot sauces, and have well over a hundred bottles of which I have personally consumed every drop. That, and that alone, is the reason my rectum is always so sore. Also, the air in my bathroom is slightly red and acidic. Glancing through these bottles, I don't see any warnings that prolonged use will affect my ability to taste. There is a warning on one that cautions:
“Use this product one drop at a time. Keep away from eyes, pets, and children. Not for people with heart or respiratory problems.”
These hot sauce manufacturers are clearly pussies. If I kept my hot sauce away from pets, how else would I internally marinate them for my Vietnamese neighbors? Actually, it's not just hot sauce makers who piss me off with warning labels. These days you can't pick up anything without being called an idiot by the manufacturers. A cigarette lighter cautions me not to let children play with it. A box of detergent instructs me not to eat it. Well, my cooking skill may have slipped a notch or two, but at least I've never said, “This soap makes my clothes their whitest! I bet it would taste great on Melba Toast.” And to whatever executive at Bic who thought I might be giving lighters to infants–you're an asshole.
So, cutting back on the hot sauce was the first step. Then, while rummaging around for something I could use to scratch my back, I realized that my cooking was suffering from lack of proper equipment. Actually, it's not that I lacked the utensils per se, more like my roommate was holding them hostage, as I have described in another article. So there have been no sharp knives, no whisks, no tongs, nothing between me and my food but a healthy bit of ingenuity. So, I improvise. When I need to flip my eggs, I won't hesitate to tape a playing card to a ruler for an insta-spatula. If I'm making mashed potatoes and can't figure out the access code to my roommate's secret potato-masher-thingy vault, I'll just put the spuds in a plastic bag and step on them. I am the MacGyver of the kitchen. And if that analogy was too easy for you, please also note that I am the Nolan Ryan of Tibet. But there's only so much a person can stand. You only need to strain your coffee though a sweat sock one time before you come to the realization that some things in your life need to change. So, I went out to the very best dollar store I could find and stocked up on all manner of kitchen gizmos. It was just a matter of time before I was back to my gourmet standards.
It was time to turn to the media for some inspiration. One show I started watching was a little reality number called Hell's Kitchen. In it, some superstar chef from Britain (Gordon Ramsay) yells at would-be chefs, and when they fail to make food to his standards, he dumps it over their heads and makes them stand in a corner. It was amazing, in its own cruel way. Week after week, the contestants endured a litany of abuse and humiliation in order to win a restaurant to manage. Of course, when I'm cooking, I don't have usually have a British psychopath screaming at me to do it better, and I think I'm happy about that. But it does raise the issue of motivation. In order to start making quality meals again, I was clearly going to have to raise my standards and re-educate my palate. This was more difficult, and less faggy, than it sounds. I reasoned that cooking with alcohol is pretty classy, so I made big plans to make coq au vin, beer-battered fish, apricots with a sherry glaze…but one look in my cupboard, and I was down to pouring whiskey over cornflakes. Would the contestants on Hell's Kitchen have tried to make something using inferior ingredients? Not likely, unless they enjoyed getting knocked around by a guy whose hands are probably freakishly strong due to years of kneading dough. Actually, there was one contestant, named (and I kid you not) Dewberry, who probably wouldn't have minded. Seriously, this dude was so gay that after reading this sentence about him, I'm pretty sure you're gay now too. In any case, I added “buy better ingredients” to my list of cooking improvement bullet points.
With Hell's Kitchen over, I knew I had to return to my Japanese roots. And that meant…Iron Chef. The show that first interested me in cooking. It's clearly the best thing the Far East has ever given us. Just in case you’ve never seen it, a foppish food connoisseur dressed like Liberace snacks on a yellow pepper and descends upon a kitchen arena in a cloud of smoke, where he reveals a mystery ingredient. Two karate chefs then have one hour to make luxurious and demented dishes using it, while living, breathing Japanese stereotypes talk about the emotions in their large intestines. One of them invariably makes ice cream—even if the ingredient is something like pork or zucchini—and an elite team of food tasters spout mistranslated nonsense about how the soybeans bring honor to their soybean ancestors.
Now, it's possible that my cooking might not be helped by watching foreign chefs make desserts out of cuttlefish bladders. But I couldn't take that chance. I started watching Iron Chef regularly on the Food Network, and made sure to tape it when I was in jail, or passed out. And what have I learned? Actually, quite a bit. The tasters always comment on how the saltiness of one ingredient in a dish compliments the sweetness of another. Or the same thing with sourness and chewiness, and so forth. What this meant, in practical terms for me, is that I needed to start using more ingredients in my dishes. I had always been happy to cook a piece of chicken as is, but if I did that, no Japanese food taster would ever compliment me on how I harmonized the tenderness of chicken with the stringiness of pineapple and the alcoholicness of brandy. Now I'm boldly throwing whatever I feel like into a recipe, knowing full well that if it turns out badly, I can say it's the type of dish that would appear on Iron Chef. And if you think this cooking strategy sounds a little reckless, then you should come over and try my most awesome creation ever: a steak fried in butter, glazed with salsa, and lightly dusted with bacon bits, then fried again. For extra manliness, I also ensured the cow was not free range, and was in fact beaten to death by cruel Texan ranchers in underground cow-killing competitions.
Next, I decided to turn to the world of books. As a general rule, I don't like cookbooks. Anyone can just follow a recipe line for line, and if that's your idea of cooking, I hope you are enjoying life in Iraq, you communist. Mind you, there are some pretty cute themed cookbooks out there, like the wrestling cookbook, where you can learn to make Billy Gunn's Grilled Badd Ass-paragus, and Stone Cold Cinnamon Ice Cream. Or the Star Wars Cookbook, in which you too can prepare your own Wookiee Cookies, and Boba Fett-uccine. But let's face it, these books might as well have been printed in crayon, given the type of reader they would attract. Instead of a cookbook, I needed something more instructive. Something I could relate to…
So, I wandered into a bookstore intending to find a quiet nook to settle down with the Complete Idiot's Guide to Cooking. Finding it was not easy, even for someone of above-average intelligence. These days, there are Complete Idiots Guides to everything, and just in case some topic is overlooked, there's everything else “For Dummies.” The damn bookstore had an entire wall of orange and yellow titles from this series, and some of them were downright horrifying. For example, I saw The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Being Psychic. Do we, as a society, want to give our idiots access to fantastic mental powers. I also saw The Complete Idiot's Guide to Improving Self-Esteem. I get the importance of brand recognition, and the series is certainly popular, but when a person is trying to improve his self-esteem with a book, it doesn’t help to call him names every single time he tries to do it. It's as counterproductive as betting a compulsive gambler that he can’t overcome his addiction, or printing weight-loss tips on a Twinkie.
In any event, I now know that it was naive of me to think that there would be just one, simple guide to cooking in this insane series. There are Complete Idiot's Guides to Latin cooking, non-fat cooking, cooking with kids (presumably, that means alongside kids as opposed to using them as ingredients), cooking pasta, and about a million others. Is there really a need for a guide to, say, vegetarian cooking? Is it so complicated? The key to vegetarian cooking is this: don’t include any meat. If your food would at one point have tried to eat you and you are not mulch, better try again, complete idiot.
Eventually, I settled on The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cooking Techniques and Science, because it sounded the least specific. I don't really trust science, but I thought I would give the book the benefit of the doubt. I didn't buy it, but there were quite a few useful tips. One tip I picked up from the book was about the application of heat and cooking times. I'm a very busy guy, and I don't have a lot of time to fuck around. So when I'm cooking, I want my food to be ready now, bub. I use the highest setting the stove will allow, and when that doesn't get the job done, I use my magical fire breath to speed the process along. But according to The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cooking Techniques and Science, different foods have different ideal temperatures at which to cook. Apparently, there is some benefit to cooking certain foods over a low heat, for a longer period of time. Well, after reading that, I felt just like the Amish after Jackie Chan revealed to them the secret of warp travel, as you can imagine.
No more burnt-on-the-outside, but frozen-on-the-inside fish sticks for me! I had always wondered why 1960's sitcom wives always complained about spending the whole day over a hot stove. Now I know it wasn't because their husbands were always either bowling, or at a lodge meeting. Slow cooking is the way to go. Especially if you can get someone else to do it for you.
Another useful tip from the book was to pay more attention to the presentation of your food. As a single guy, my first instinct upon reading this was to laugh out loud, and then write a letter to the author gently explaining how presentation is irrelevant because all food looks pretty much the same once we're done with it. But then I started thinking about how function follows form, or something, and I realized that if I made a concerted effort to make my meals look better, they might, in fact taste better. So, I went out and bought parsley, which is pretty much the extent of my knowledge about garnishes. Don't blame me. I come from a very anti-parsley family. If my parents go to a restaurant, and there's parsley on the plate, you can bet that they'll complain that the innocent sprig was occupying valuable plate real estate that could potentially have been occupied by, say, two or three more shrimp. I can't say for certain whether or not the presence of parsley improved the quality of my food, but I can tell you one thing: it tastes a whole lot better when you coat it in batter and deep-fry it.
So, after all of this self-improvement, was my cooking any better? To my enduring surprise, yes. I'm enjoying the benefits of my culinary improvement on almost a daily basis now. Anyone can just microwave a Pizza Pocket, but it takes a true artiste to douse it in honey mustard, cook it via hot steam, and top it with garlic and wasabi. At this rate, it's only a matter of time before Iron Chef calls upon me to defend the honor of my cooking ancestors. And when that time comes, I'll be ready.