Saturday, November 17, 2007

America's Best Test Cook

I was in unique fanboy mode last night when I made the pilgrimage to Books Inc. in Mountain View to hear Christopher Kimball. Mr. Kimball may be the single greatest influence in my culinary transformation, although I am equally indebted to the great food resources in the area. As I've documented before, an unsolicited copy of his Cook's Illustrated magazine helped turn me on to cooking, and turned me into the enthusiastic and less-untalented chef that I am today.

He was scheduled to start at 7:30, so I had time to eat dinner before going down. It was leftovers, but what leftovers they were! I had a slice of Cook's Illustrated's lasagna bolognese, a very rich and satisfying meat-centric lasagna; on the side was a sweet butternut squash puree from Joy and two handfuls of grapes. I decided to save the slice of pumpkin pie for my return, and hit the road. Immediately after arriving in the store, I realized that I would need to learn the opposite rule for book signings as I had learned for political events: get there early. I walked in the door at 7:25, by which time all the seats were filled, and the standing crowd extended most of the way to the door. I found a perch partly behind a standing display case, and stood my ground while still more people filed in behind me. We really packed the place. The store, which is off Castro street in downtown Mountain View, has a relatively small footprint but is two stories tall with a cafe on the second floor, and a good number of the visitors were perched up their with their coffee and books.

Scattered applause broke out when Christopher appeared. He is a pretty easily recognizable figure; a sketched portrait appears in every issue of Cook's Illustrated beside his editorial, which reads like a mildly demented version of Garrison Keillor's monologue in A Prairie Home Companion. Perhaps more importantly, he is the host of America's Test Kitchen on PBS, which is consistently judged as the best cooking show on television. He is tall, thin, bespectacled, and always wears a bow tie. It was actually that final detail that seemed a little off; he was wearing a full overcoat, and so had no visible tie. One of the bookstore employees escorted him into a back room, and we realized that the program wasn't actually ready to begin yet.

The audience waited patiently for another fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, I struggled mightily to get my iPhone to join Google's free wifi network. No dice. By the time the owner took the microphone, dark conspiracy theories were dancing in my mind about Google's hostile salvos against Apple's flagship product.

After a very short introduction, Christopher took the stage again. This time he had stripped down to his ATK clothing. Throughout his talk, he was every bit as animated, intelligent, and witty as he is on his show, which was kind of cool to see... I have the impression of him being a very bright person, and it was nice to have that confirmed. He also had a good sense of humor and a wryness that was very attractive.

As usual, I think I'll give a semi-random recounting of what I remember from his talk.

He loves coming out to California because of how nice the weather is. However, he thinks we Bay Area people are slightly spoiled for great food choices, and so we have unrealistic expectations for what food people will have access too. For example, eating locally in the Bay Area is great, but in Vermont, that would mean eating potatoes for six months of the year. He (good-naturedly) blamed Alice Waters for this.

They've finished shooting the first season of Cook's Country, a companion series to America's Test Kitchen that focuses on the home-cooking style of their Cook's Country magazine. The series wasn't shot in their Boston labs; instead, they bought and converted a Vermont farmhouse, and moved the staff up there. Kimball says that they will eventually move everyone up there permanently, "although they don't know that yet." The series should start airing in January.

He has had some interesting encounters with people on his tours. You would tend to think of Vermont as being a conservative place, but that isn't always the case. A lady in a black coat came to a book-signing and asked if she could take a picture with him. He said yes, and looked down to sign the book. When he looked back up, he saw that she had taken off the coat, and underneath she was wearing an apron... and not much else. They took the picture from the front, though, so it turned out all right. Another time, a young woman of about 28 came, which is about half the age of his typical fan. She was very nervous, and at one point blurted out, "It's just like meeting Brad Pitt!" Everyone at the test kitchen laughed out loud when he told that story. He took a video of the audience (that is, those of us there at Books Inc.) yelling "It's just like meeting Brad Pitt!" After he put away the camera, a woman in the audience yelled, "It's BETTER than meeting Brad Pitt!"

He's gotten a lot of letters over the years; most are positive, but the negative ones tend to be funny. When a Cook's Illustrated recipe goes "wrong", it's always because the cook deviated from the recipe. He can understand this impulse - most recipes have problems, and so cooks form the habit of trying to anticipate where the disaster is going to be so they can head it off. However, the whole purpose of CI/ATK is to find and fix all potential problems, so you really should follow their instructions to the letter, at least for the first time that you try a recipe.

He told a few anecdotes of "bad" recipes. One person complained about a spicy chicken recipe, which was awful - it was really tough. Did he follow the recipe? Well, he didn't have any chicken, so he used shrimp instead. Yep... he roasted shrimp for 40 minutes. And complained about how tough it was.

Another time, there was a CI recipe for cooking a $60 prime rib steak. It involved using a Weber grill, and was fairly time-consuming but with guaranteed results. A person wrote and said that he hated the recipe. It was 17 degrees outside, so he didn't want to use his grill, and instead he stuck that $60 steak under the broiler. (With this story, and all the others, the crowd groaned and laughed at the appropriate moments. It's a little humbling to think that, just two years ago, I would have wondered what the difference between broiling and grilling was.)

CI focuses on making foolproof recipes, and a part of this is that after the test kitchen has come up with a recipe, it sends it out to a group of volunteers. You can sign up on their web site if you want to join the pool. They don't pay you, but you're expected to make the recipe and answer a few questions, the most important one being, "Would you make this again?" Unless at least 80% answer "Yes," the recipe goes back into the test kitchen so they can fix it.

Kimball's staff likes playing tricks on him. The best one was a few years ago, when they did a butter tasting with different kinds of butter on slices of bread. He didn't realize until too late that there was chili powder hidden under the butter. Fortunately, there was a big glass of water handy. He didn't realize until too late that the "water" was actually vodka.

He asked how many of us watch ATK. A majority raised their hands. "Good, that's what I love to see." He asked how many people watch Rachel Ray. "Ah, I got five of you!" He wants to know what the deal is with her neckline. A few years ago, she was very modestly dressed; now, she has this swooping neckline. He has brought this up with Bridget and Julia - he thinks it's important for ATK to follow suit to keep up in the ratings. Someone shouted out, "Keep the bow tie!"

He hates selling things - that's why there's no advertising in his magazines. Also, he isn't very good at it. But, he gave a ninety-second plug for the book he was promoting, "America's Best Lost Recipes." This is a contest that they started over a year ago, and that was promoted in newspapers across the country, to find the handed-down recipes that were worth saving. As part of his research for this book, he learned that, in the 19th century, there were hundreds of thousands of recipes. Recipes were local, not just by country or region or even city, but by family, and there was incredible variety in the kinds of food people ate. That started to change during the 20th century, and especially with the rise of food magazines in the 1960's; most recipes fell out of fashion, and people estimate that today, there are about 5000 recipes in America. (I may not have those numbers exactly right, but regardless, it's a big drop.)

Now, most lost recipes deserve to stay lost. He knows that those of us in California get really excited about "heirloom this" and "heritage that," but the truth is that a lot of those older things just aren't very good. Most heirloom apples taste really bitter, and most heritage turkeys are really tough. However, there are gems out there, and the purpose of this book was to unearth those recipes which aren't common today but are worth holding on to.

His favorite recipe name in the book is "Naked ladies with their legs crossed" - I think that was included in the first issue of Cook's Country that I got, and I agree that it's a very memorable name. He also likes the stories that go with the recipes, like Grandpa's Angry Deviled Eggs, about which the submitter wrote, "Grandpa was a mean, unpleasant man, but he sure knew how to cook."

He opened up for questions. It was hard to hear most of them, but he did a good job of repeating them before answering.

Someone asked about the difference between CI and CC. He affirmed my understanding, which is that CC is focused on regional cooking - the sort of food he grew up eating. Those recipes tend to be a bit easier to make, and they don't go into as much detail about how they tested them.

There were a lot of questions about Thanksgiving and specifically roasting turkeys. The first one was his opinion on brining turkeys. He said that when he dies, brining turkeys will be on his tombstone. That was something they figured out a while ago - when you soak a turkey in water, it absorbs moisture, but that moisture escapes when the bird is roasted. However, if the water is salted, it breaks down the cellular structure, with the result that the flesh stays moist even if the turkey is cooked at 400 degrees. You shouldn't brine frozen Butterball turkeys, which are already injected with a brining solution, nor kosher turkeys, which are already salted. However, any fresh turkey should be brined. This is especially important for wild or heritage breeds, which have a tendency to be tough.

Someone else asked whether you could cook a turkey in a slow cooker. People started giggling, and Kimball was obviously caught off guard. He asked what size the turkey was, and what cooker the man was thinking of. He concluded, "Don't do it" and "Good luck trying to fit it in there... unless it's a two-pound turkey, it isn't going in." Even if it did work, he thought it would taste awful - it would be a braise, not a roast. The man complained, "But there's no room in the oven!" Kimball said, "Then do what everyone else does: deep-fry it and burn your house down." People laughed, but as Kimball explained, this really is a problem: every year, people try to deep-fry turkeys in their garage or lawn, and flaming grease causes fires, which sometimes kills people. In some towns, fire marshals drive around with loudspeakers warning people not to try it.

An earnest liberal college student talked about the suffering of animals in factory farms, and asked if Kimball would consider promoting vegetarian alternatives like tofu. Kimball said that he agreed about how appalling conditions are for mass-produced meat. He lives on a farm and can raise his own livestock, so he knows that they are treated humanely. He told a funny anecdote about their neighbor who raises three turkeys each year, which are named Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This year, they're eating Easter for Thanksgiving, because a weasel killed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Kimball is making sure that his children understand where food comes from. The first year they raised pigs, the kids named the pigs, which "did not end well." Later, he thought his son was getting a little too hardened, when he would walk past the pig stys and whisper, "Bacon!" Getting back to the question, Kimball was a vegetarian for about six months. In Vermont, "meat and potatoes" really is all that you can eat during the winter, so it's very natural for people in that region to eat meat. He respects people who choose vegetarian lifestyles, but he disapproves of meat alternatives like seitan - in his opinion, if you're going to be vegetarian, you shouldn't try to fake meat; instead, just find and enjoy really good vegetable dishes.

Someone asked if he would do a book or program on recipes with fresh California produce, like figs and persimmons. Kimball said no, because it is too regional. He needs to pick recipes with ingredients that anyone in the country can get. Again, he thinks that eating fresh local produce is wonderful, but most of the country can't do it, or at least not with the good results that we can in the Bay Area.

Someone asked if they could make a strudel the day before Thanksgiving. He said no; it wouldn't stay crisp for that long.

There was a little chatter about pie crusts. Pie crusts can be very finicky. Last year, they had a group of Newsweek reporters out for Thanksgiving, and he wasn't satisfied with the way the pies they cooked turned out. So he gave this problem to one of their newest test cooks, a really bright MIT graduate, who spent several weeks on it. They ended up with a new recipe, published in the November/December issue of CI, for foolproof pie dough. The secret is adding vodka: vodka adds moisture, but it doesn't promote gluten formation, due to the alcohol. Of course, the alcohol burns off during baking, and so you're left with a stable, tasty pie crust. (With this comment and others, Kimball amazed me with his encyclopedic memory - he could remember the quantities of flour, water, and vodka, as well as the temperature and time to use in baking.)

"What was your worst kitchen disaster?" "Oh, wow... we don't have time for that." He mulled over it a bit, then settled on a time that he was going to cook a peach and blueberry cobbler for the national press. When he went to pull it out of the oven, he let the pan slip, and the whole mess fell down to the bottom. Since it's a gas oven, it immediately started smoking. His staff shoo'ed the reporters out of the room. In ten minutes, he mixed and rolled out another set of dough, tossed it together, and began baking again. He didn't have any more peaches, so it was just blueberries this time. The second version turned out great, but the reporters asked him, "Wasn't this supposed to be a PEACH and blueberry cobbler?" He said, "No, just blueberries."

An older man wanted to know if CI would make a recipe for fudge. Christopher would love to, but they won't do a recipe unless it's foolproof, and they haven't found a foolproof recipe yet. They put one of their cooks on it, who spent months trying hundreds of versions, and in the course of all the stirring he did, actually dislocated his shoulder. And, they never published the recipe... they just couldn't get something that would work every time. Afterwards, Kimball wondered, "Well, what does Martha do?" So he looked at a Martha Stewart recipe for fudge. At the end of the recipe, she says, "If the fudge doesn't turn out, then pour it over ice cream." She has an answer for everything!

Someone praised their web site feature Cooking for Two, and asked if there were any plans to do a "for two" book. Kimball said that no web site feature has ever had as positive a response as the "for two" one has, and so they're definitely going to be doing something with it. He joked that it was so popular, he was considering adding a new feature, Cooking for One. "How sad is that?" he asked. There was actually some applause when he first mentioned For One, though, and I have to admit that I was among them. He laughed, and said, "What's the next step? Cooking for None?" His overall feeling is that cooking for two means, cook for six and freeze the rest. That said, they'll probably be doing a book on it, sooner rather than later.

A young lady asked how to join the test kitchen. He says "the good news is, you won't have to work for me." They're fairly large now; the organization employs around 90 people, and they even have a full-time human resources employee. As a test cook, they'll bring you in and give you a few recipes to make. They'll watch you do it, but won't talk with you, since that can make people nervous. At the end of the day, they'll give you a recipe to fix at home. Everyone gets the same recipe. You come up with the best version you can, then you write about how you did it. The qualities they look for are patience, skill, and good writing ability.

After the questions, he started signing books. I headed to the front of the store to buy one - seeing the crowd when I first arrived, I grabbed a position without first buying one. I grabbed the one he was promoting, America's Best Lost Recipes. I would probably get more mileage out of the other books they had, like the family cookbook or best international recipe; the Lost Recipe "only" has about 150 recipes, and a good half of those are for desserts. Still, it's a fun book, and I really was buying it for the signature more than the content anyways... it's not like I've ever run out of dishes to make.

It took about an hour to reach the front of the line; he was being really kind and spending some time chatting with everyone who went through, posing for pictures, and so on. I had one of those weird shearing sensations when I finally got close to him... from a distance, he had looked and sounded much like he does on his show, but when you're right in front of him, you can realize just how old he is. That isn't meant as an insult or anything, it just surprised me a little, though I gather it's a very common reaction upon meeting someone from television or the movies. Regardless, he was really pleasant, and I happily walked out of the store clutching my precious book. I can't read what he wrote, but that's all right. It's another brick in the wall of Chris Getting Way Too Interested In Cooking.

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