In Praise of Objects

To be a cook you have to love the material world, and to love the material world it helps not to have to much of it. Spending some of your life in abject poverty is a good lesson in value. A cup of coffee from a railway station vending machine after a night spent shivering in a deserted city square (1992) is still the finest cup of coffee I have ever had. My 1976 Toyota Celica, although incapable of driving faster than 50 mph without developing engine troubles, was a cherished companion for years due to the personal significance of the nights I spent sleeping in it (I actually wept when it was towed away by the wreckers, 2002). At a time when my main meal of the day was a usually a half a loaf of bread and a cup of Maggi instant tomato soup (1995), I learned the importance of appreciating food when it’s plentiful. Poverty makes you feel life more keenly. George Orwell writes particularly well on this subject (Down and Out in Paris and London). So does Knut Hamsun (Hunger).

These days I live a little better, but I believe satisfaction follows some kind of diminishing and logarithmic relationship with money. Satisfaction dramatically increases in the initial rise from utter poverty up to a certain level (frugality, perhaps) and then begins to drop off. Spending two million dollars on a meal does not make you twice as happy as spending one million. It barely makes you twice as happy as spending $100. My point is that, the richer you become, the less you are relatively enjoying your wealth. In other words, you feel like you should be more satisfied than you are. Sour grapes? Maybe. We fringe-dwellers are fond of justifying our miserliness.

That being said, here are some my favorite possessions and investments:

My favorite item above all is my adjustable pepper mill. Until I got this beauty, I was ignorant of one of my basic creative choices when cooking. Pepper is a marvelous and mutable substance and only an adjustable grinder will allow it to show off its talents. Steak requires coarse pepper to coat it before frying. Poached eggs need a medium grind, enough to be distinct but not so much all you taste is pepper. Sauces usually need a fine grind. Additionally, without a grinder you cannot experiment with all the pepper varietals out there. I am fortunate enough to live around the corner from a spice store that sells pepper by the ounce, and have so far tried tellicherry, Sarawak, Sichuan, garlic pepper, and various blends of white, pink, green, and black peppercorns.

There's certainly too much pepper in that soup!

There's certainly too much pepper in that soup!

If you blog about them, they will come. Since my last tagine post, where I ranted about the merits of Le Creuset cookware (which was aptly pointed out to me is some of the most expensive in the world) a friend of mine who has actually been to Morocco (and who, in direct contradiction to the many very lavishly photographed Moroccan cookbooks at the bookstore, told me that most daily Moroccan food tends towards the bland and awful) made me a present of a genuine clay tagine. I told him I couldn’t accept the tagine he’d dragged all the way back from backpacking in Morocco. He told me he had a spare. I asked him why he’d dragged two clay tagines all the way back from backpacking in Morocco.

He explained what it was like to bargain in a Moroccan market.

This bloke won't haggle!

This bloke won't haggle!

So. Here I am with a clay cooking pot that needs to be seasoned regularly, treated with kid gloves, placed on a heat diffuser to avoid cracking, and fills the house with the smell of pottery when I use it. I love it. I don’t know how long it will be in my life, but I love it.

Here is how I seasoned my (unglazed) tagine:

Soaked it in water overnight.

Let it air-dry thoroughly.

Rubbed olive oil into it, top and bottom, inside and out.

Placed it in a cold oven, set the oven to 300° F, and left it for two hours.

Turned off the oven and let it cool. By this time I was getting anxious to cook dinner, but you can’t rush a clay tagine.

Coated it with olive oil again.

Boy, could that thing soak up olive oil!

Boy, could that thing soak up olive oil!

This tagine can not be used to brown food. To cook with it, I place it on a heat diffuser, set the burner to the lowest setting (the only time in my life I’ve been glad I have an electric stove), and put the ingredients in, including liquid. It takes a good while to get to a simmer, but you just can’t rush a clay tagine. You can’t, also, add cold liquids once it’s hot or hot liquids once it’s cold, in case it cracks. What a hassle, eh? Yet what a marvelous way to relax.

clay tagine

I have one knife. One single solitary knife. It’s a Solingen carbon steel chef’s knife with an eight-inch blade (there are a great many high-quality knives on the market, but I like Solingen because in Medieval times the folks of Solingen were renowned as the finest sword makers in Germany, which I think is badass). I use it for everything. I don’t have blacksmith.phpa boning knife, a paring knife, a slicing knife, a lettuce knife, a cleaver, or an ulu. If I did I wouldn’t know what to do with them. My knifework is rudimentary but versatile: freshly honed, my chef’s knife can slice ripe tomatoes.  I use it to cut onions, to crush garlic, to slice beef to sashimi thinness, everything, in fact. When I’m cooking either it or my wooden spoon is permanently in my right hand.  I’ve had it for years, reground it twice, and keep it honed with a steel I picked up at Goodwill for a buck. (Actually, I do have one other knife, but it is 12,000 miles away in a storage crate so I don’t use it often. My other knife is an 8 ½” Japanese sushi knife which has the distinction of being the sharpest thing I have ever owned, but I never mastered the art of the single edge bevel. All my cuts drifted away like badly sliced golf swings, so when I moved to America, into storage it went. Wait, I have one other knife, a bread knife, also from Goodwill. So I lied.)

For many years, or at least two, I have wanted a Silverstone frypan, and I recently bought one to replace my heavily coated and charred aluminium beater (from, you guessed it, Goodwill). Silverstone was recommended by Jeff Smith, the frugal gourmet himself, and if Jeff Smith recommended I jump off a cliff I would at least look over the edge.

My new Silverstone frypan disappointed me, for all the wrong reasons. It worked way too well. It was so uncannily non-stick I couldn’t coat it with oil, which instead skidded over the surface and pooled at one end like mercury. This meant any food I dumped in either dry-charred, or soaked up all the oil. Since it didn’t have any kind of a seasoned surface, I knew immediately nothing would brown properly (I love to brown food. ‘Blacken’ might be a better description). I cooked onions on and on into the night, waiting for the moment they would cease to resemble a vegetable and start to resemble roast beef, but they didn’t. It was all too healthy. Now I have a weird impulse to find a foodstuff that WILL stick to and blacken on a Silverstone, but I don’t know what it could be. Caramel, perhaps.

My other complaint with the Silverstone is that it is too easy to clean. That is, of course, the point, and it is recommended that soap never touch a Silverstone – why would you bother when you can wipe it sparkling with a single paper towel? – but I’m the kind of person who doesn’t feel they’ve really cooked a meal unless the dishes have to be soaked overnight and then scrubbed to within an inch of their lives. My wife, who is less weird than me, finds the easy-clean aspect appealing. Each to their own. In my own way, I do love my Silverstone, but I don’t think I’m emotionally ready for it. I look forward to growing into it over the years.

1 comment to In Praise of Objects

  • Slowness is something which is being forgotten. Take the bus. Walk there. Weave the entire lattice top to your pie. Season your tagine. Take a break to write a poem about it.

    I totally get it. Lovely.