Chef Keller, in the house
I can cook.
Can I cook?
I can't cook.
That was the voice in my head, after chef Thomas Keller came to The Post kitchen.
I did just about everything wrong, you see. Spectacularly so, down to the zesting of a lime.
Thomas Keller, a master at 54. The guy whose presence can turn any toque in America into a quivering pouding of insecurity. What was I thinking?
I wasn’t thinking that I’d be cooking for him. A few weeks ago, the chef was in town for a single afternoon. The Food section’s opportunity for a little face time was pulled together within 48 hours; Keller’s book publicist suggested that demonstrating a simple and seasonal recipe from “Ad Hoc at Home,” his fourth cookbook, would do the trick.
Fresh corn, good butter, cayenne pepper, heavy cream, chives, lime and salt are all that go into Keller’s Creamed Summer Corn, so that’s what I gathered: at the farmers market, in the organic grocery, from a kitchen garden and from my own fridge.
The equation I should have kept in mind is displayed prominently in Keller's book: great product + great execution = great cooking.
The chef was delayed and on a tight schedule, so I started prep work in a face-flushed rush. I swished the silk from corn kernels in a bowl, as described in “Ad Hoc at Home.” (Not exactly right, he showed me later.) I scrubbed the Microplane grater over the surface of the lime like Lady Macbeth was trying to rub out her damn'd spot. The corn kernels and butter went into what I thought was a large enough sauté pan.
I put a generous amount of cayenne in a pinch bowl and lined up spring onions, apples, kohlrabi and lemon cucumbers, just in case he felt like improvising.
By the time Keller came in, the corn in the pan was already past its prime. He was easy-going and lanky in a perfect white shirt, dark coat, jeans, low-key cowboy boots. Traded his jacket for an apron. His friendly inquisition was gradual: What are we doing today?
Where did the ears come from? Wasn’t it a little early for them?
Does this lime zest already have salt in it? (Yikes, I thought. That’s how much pith was included.) He demonstrated a better way to zest the lime. In a few minutes, with the underside of the Microplane grater facing up, he pulled it in even strokes across the peel, rotating the fruit until it was uniformly bare. All pith intact. Zest all green.
As he kibitzed with my fellow Food staffers Joe Yonan and Jane Black, he assessed all the edibles – mostly by nose.
Where did the butter come from? Have you smelled it? He used the word “rancid.” (Heart sank. Ears pounding. Can't. . . breathe.) Maybe not as fresh as it could be, we agreed, even though it came from a local dairy delivery.
At this point, it seems like he might have been unhappy. He was gracious. The points became teachable. The ears looked beautiful, but they had been picked too early. The kernels within smelled green and vegetal – not like corn. People don’t smell their food enough, he said. So pull back on the husk a little and sniff before you buy.
There was more: People misuse the term "season" when they talk about salt, which enhances the flavor of food. Pepper and other spices season food and alter its flavor. “People think they can take a recipe out of my book and do it and it will come out perfect,” he said. “They want to be good at it immediately or else they don’t want it. But they need to keep doing it over and over again. That’s how I got good at it.”
As painful as the moments were, Keller would put his hands on my shoulders and give a comforting squeeze. I imagined that, over the years, he must have developed the habit as a mechanism for making the very nervous kitcheneers around him feel more at ease.
The chef provided personal details that the three of us were unaware of, such as:
He knew Maryland’s Silver Queen corn. He spent time in Laurel when he was young, and at his grandmother’s house on Glebe Road in Arlington. He loved baseball. His uncle owned a tavern in Gambrills, and took Keller to Redskins games. In the summers Keller's mother took her kids to monthly bull roasts at Bowie Race Track.
He likes to play golf. Flying into D.C., he spied the course at Hains Point and vowed to give it a go someday. Open a restaurant in Washington, his old stomping grounds? No, he’s not interested in working more than he does now.
He took over creamed corn duties at the stove: Did we have a larger pan? More surface area was needed to finish the corn as quickly as possible, to retain whatever moisture was left. (A shoulder rub.)
He added the cream, then the entire amount of cayenne. A mistake. (I figured he’d take a 1/8-teaspoon-size pinch.) Well, it was going to be spicier than usual, he grinned. He added more cream to compensate. Chopped chives went in – except for the pieces that were larger than others or not quite cut through. (Another squeeze.)
When the chef asked “What’s next?,” he confirmed for me what all great kitchen wizards have in common. He was up for a challenge. “One of the hardest things for people to do is to glaze onions,” he said, so he choose two spring bunches and divvied them up between my paring knife and his. “They have to be the same size to cook evenly,” he said, so he gave me a few trimmed specimens to go by. This, I managed to do reasonably well.
The onions went into a pot with a small amount of water, butter, sugar and salt. We three hovered over the pan to see what his simmer looked like; to us, it was a medium-low boil. He leaned in, to smell. The bubbles should not be so vigorous as to break apart the onions’ layers, he said. You have to watch and adjust.
For perfectly glazed onions, the trick was to not to have to take water out or to have to put more water in. He dispatched a green crisp apple into small turned pieces and added them to onions, their cooking almost complete. Off the heat, into a bowl, with a sprinkle of lime salt.
What could be simpler? If you pay attention, the Keller equation added up.
It was only after he left that the memory of missteps formed a mountain in my head and a sinking feeling in my chest. What a shambles. Exposed as the glorified home cook that I am.
At the same time, his publicist told me later, Keller was asking her as exited the building: “I think that went well, don't you? Do you think they’ll have me back?”
A chef friend of mine had sent me a coping e-mail earlier in the day: It would all be fine. Keller’s just a hash-slinger like the rest of us.
I could not agree less. I bought limes on the way home from work.
-- Bonnie S. Benwick
Creamed Summer Corn
The best way to achieve nirvana here is to use the best ingredients available. Pull back a bit of the corn husks and smell the kernels; they should smell like sweet corn, not green or overly vegetal. The butter should taste fresh.
If you use corn at its peak, it should take less time to cook than noted in the printed "Ad Hoc" recipe.
Adapted from chef Thomas Keller's "Ad Hoc at Home," with Dave Cruz, Susie Heller, Michael Ruhlman and Amy Vogler (Artisan, 2009).
6 ears super-sweet white or yellow corn, shucked
1 large lime
3 tablespoons best-quality unsalted butter
3/4 to 1 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped chives, preferably from thin stems
Use a sharp chef's knife to cut vertically down each ear of corn, slicing off the kernels. Place the kernels in a large bowl, then hold each cob over the bowl and use a spoon or the back of a knife to scrape any remaining corn and milk from each cob.
Use a Microplane grater to zest the lime, being careful not to include any pith. Cut the lime in half.
Melt the butter in a very large skillet (more than 12 inches across) or saute pan over medium heat. Add the corn; squeeze about 1 tablespoon of lime juice over the corn and season with salt to taste. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 to 7 minutes; the kernels should remain plump-looking yet any liquid in the skillet or pan should be evaporated.
Stir in 3/4 cup of the cream; add the cayenne and the lime zest. Mix well and cook for a few minutes, until the mixture appears slightly thickened yet the corn is still looking plump. Add up to 1/4 cup cream as desired for a creamier consistency.
Season with salt to taste; stir in the chives. Remove from the heat and transfer to a serving bowl. Serve warm.
Per serving: 180 calories, 3 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 70 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar
2 side-dish servings
A simple cooking technique produces an elegant side dish. The trick here is to let the water evaporate by the time the onions are cooked, and not add any extra water.
The recipe can be easily doubled.
MAKE AHEAD: Leftover lime salt can be wrapped in a plastic wrap and frozen for up to 1 week.
From chef-restaurateur Thomas Keller.
For the onions
1 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
2 bunches (about 10 total) spring onions, green stems trimmed, peeled and pared to a similar size
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tart apple, such as Granny Smith or Lodi
Sherry vinegar (optional)
For the lime salt (optional)
Finely grated zest of 1 large lime (no pith)
1/4 cup Maldon sea salt or fleur de sel
For the onions: Combine the water and butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. When the butter has melted, add the onions and sugar; season lightly with salt. Swish the mixture around to mix well; when the water has almost returned to a boil, reduce the heat to medium and cook uncovered for about 20 minutes so the water is bubbling mostly at the edges and checking occasionally to make sure the water is not bubbling too vigorously; if it seems to be jostling the onions too much, reduce the heat as needed.
While the onions are cooking, make the lime salt, if desired: Combine the zest and salt, mixing evenly, in a small bowl or freezable container with a tight-fitting lid.
When the water is almost gone from the saucepan, peel and core the apple then cut it into 8 wedges. If desired, use a paring knife to trim or turn those wedges so they resemble slim footballs, with tapering ends. Add to the saucepan and toss gently to coat. Cook for a few minutes until they have softened; by this time the onions should be tender enough to offer no resistance when the tip of a knife is inserted.
If any layers of onions have dislodged during cooking, discard them.
Add a dash of the vinegar, if desired; just enough to add flavor but not enough to make the onions taste like vinegar. Stir to coat.
Divide among individual plates; serve warm, with a sprinkle of the lime salt, if desired.
The Food Section
July 14, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Tales of the Testers | Tags: Bonnie S. Benwick, Tales of the Testers
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