What’s the first recipe in your cookbook?

I’ve been reading a lot of cookbooks recently. Some for research, some through authors I’ve met, some through random chance. And without naming names, I find that many miss out on the opportunity to sell the casual reader by making your first recipe absolutely irresistible.

I work as an advertising copywriter in my day job. Marketers know that regardless how good an ad is (or how good the product you’re selling), if the headline or email subject line or direct mail envelope doesn’t pull them in nobody’s going to read it. Well, “nobody” is a little harsh. Hopefully you have devoted fans who hang on your every word. But those folks are going to read you regardless. What you want is to convert the on-the-fence people who could become fans given the right motivation. That’s where your big sales potential lies.

Does your cookbook you start with a recitation of ingredients and core preparations? That’s preaching to the choir. What’s in it for the casual reader who has not decided to come on board with you?

Do you start with a section on appetizers? That’s the most common organizational strategy I’ve been seeing: let’s cover the meal from beginning to end. The problem is that many appetizers are not that interesting and the execution is more important than the ingredients, so you lose readers (potential fans) right away.

My proposal is this: open the book with 5 or 10 recipes that make your approach unique and exciting. The recipes should also be non-daunting; not necessarily cuisine 101, but without special techniques that require practice to avoid failure. Explain why you’re including the recipe, how you developed it, what it means to you. Repeat it in its appropriate section within the book if you like; initially you’ll think this is a must but your editor will eventually talk you out of it. Try that and see if it doesn’t get you some new attention.

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Recipe: Thai Beef Salad

Thai Beef Salad

Thai Beef Salad made with red cabbage

They don’t actually eat this in Thailand, as I understand, since it’s primarily a vegetarian country. So treat this as a starter recipe and doctor as you like. The key is the balance of salty/sour/funky/spicy/bitter from the fish sauce, lime juice, peppers and aromatics. Serves 4 as a side dish, or 2 as an entree with some rice on the side.

Ingredients:
½ lb good sirloin or flank steak, broiled or grilled to your liking but no more than medium rare
juice of one fat lime, about 2 T
1 T fish sauce (I use Red Boat)
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
½ jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
½ c aromatic herbs such as mint, cilantro or shiso leaves or a combination, finely chopped
2 c red or green cabbage, finely chopped
1 T simple syrup (optional, see note)

Method: prepare steak and allow to cool to room temperature on a plate. Add all other ingredients to a glass or metal bowl along with the juice from the steak and toss to mix thoroughly. Slice steak thin and lay on top. Serve immediately; unlike most of my slaws, this does not benefit from sitting around.

NOTE: some Thai chefs like to add a bit of sweetness, in the form of simple syrup, to offset the feral jungle funk of this dish. The syrup also adds a nice glaze to the components. To do this, combine 1 c white sugar and 1 c water in a saucepan. Heat slowly to a boil and turn off heat immediately. Stir to dissolve sugar as needed. Cool and add to taste; the rest will keep indefinitely stored in a jar.

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Gourmet vs. Gourmand Litmus Test

Cold Stone Creamery Jelly bellies

Ice Cream flavor jelly beans

Are you a gourmet who eats slowly and deliberately to enjoy the nuances of the food? Or a gourmand who gets so much pleasure from the process you like to shovel food into your mouth with both hands?

Here’s a (probably completely bogus) way to find out.

Get one of those fancy-flavor combinations of Jelly Bellies. (The ones above mimic the tastes of Cold Stone Ice Cream Parlor.) Eat and enjoy. What did you do there? If you separated into individual flavors and ate them one at a time, you’re a gourmet. If you popped them indiscriminately, taking amusement at the symphony (or cacophony) of tastes you created in your mouth, you’re a gourmand.

Of course, these are all chemically induced flavors and just a tweak of an ester separates on from the next, so all this should be taken with a grain of salt. Although not literally.

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Recipe: Mystery Creek Ranch Dressing

Mystery Creek Ranch Dressing

Nobody will know it’s not Hidden Valley unless you spill the beans

Like the best selling brand, but with 30 calories per serving compared to 140 for Hidden Valley. Which means you can dip veggies all day, guilt-free. Makes 1 cup (8 2-T servings).

Ingredients:
½ c whole milk buttermilk*
1/3 c Greek yogurt made with 2% milk (don’t use fat free)
1 T mayonnaise
1 t cider vinegar
¼ t garlic powder
¼ t onion powder
¼ t Kosher salt
¼ t fine ground pepper (white preferred)
¼ t MSG (essential, do not leave out, it’s the secret to the whole dang thing)
1 t finely chopped chives or parsley or ¼ t dried (either works; this is for color, not flavor)

Ranch Dressings compared

Mystery Creek on the left, Hidden Valley on the right. We’re a bit more liquid, but I don’t think that matters.

Method: Mix dry ingredients with cider vinegar in a jar and allow to sit for a few minutes to reconstitute. Add remaining ingredients and beat, stir or shake vigorously to dissolve lumps in yogurt. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving.

* It’s worth seeking out a dairy that sells whole milk buttermilk. I get mine from Argyle Cheese Farmer in Argyle, NY and it’s delicious. If you must use 2% buttermilk, increase mayonnaise to 1 ½ T.

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Tongue Casserole (or, what hath mom wrought?)

Scalloped Potatoes with Tongue...Mm

Scalloped Potatoes with Tongue

The folks at Vintage Recipe Cards tickled a number of readers’ fancies with my shared post on Fish Sticks with Pineapple, so here’s another idea-starter for tonight’s dinner or maybe that canasta get-together. I am impressed at how, at the same time mom was cooking so fearlessly and cluelessly, she boldly incorporated such organ meats as tongue, chicken liver and apparently uncooked bacon (all on the same page with the tongue casserole). It’s also not hard to understand why a generation swore off “variety meats” and American eaters are only now coming to their senses about offal.

Today, like the dinosaurs, these foods live only in our imaginations. And that’s a good thing.

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Recipe: Red Boat Onions

Red Boat Onions

Red Boat Onions (the green fleck is a bit of mint)

Delicious accompaniment to burgers or almost anything savory. Takes just minutes and a couple simple ingredients to add a new level of complexity and flavor.

Ingredients:
4 medium onions (preferably Vidalia or other sweet variety), peeled and sliced crosswise
1 T toasted sesame oil
1 T neutral oil (I used safflower)
1 t Red Boat Salt (or 1 T fish sauce)
1/2 t crushed red pepper
1/4 c chopped mint (optional)

Method: toss the onions with the oils and spices. Grill over medium heat in a metal basket, tossing frequently until soft. You can also saute but I prefer the drier result when cooked over a fire.

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A note to our readers

Over the weekend (I’m writing this Monday 7/28/14) we had to switch nameservers due to a capacity problem which would have been very expensive to fix. If you have had trouble accessing the site recently, with pages taking forever to load and possibly returning 500 errors, that is the reason. Hopefully it is solved now.

The bad news is that it’s taking a while to propagate so not all of the links are working properly. Hopefully this will be solved shortly. Also, I am not sure what happened to the comments… hopefully they will be back! For now, you can leave a fresh comment on any post including this one.

Also, if the site is still loading slowly try erasing burntmyfingers.com from your browser history (or just “empty cache” in your browser preferences). That should solve the problem of your browser still pointing to the old server instead of the new one.

Enough technical stuff… let’s eat.

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Red Boat Salt: just get some now

Red Boat Salt

Red Boat Salt, 4 for $10

I have previously written about the nectar which is Red Boat Fish sauce and why, considering the modest premium compared to generic nuoc mam, there is no reason not to make it your default fish sauce. Now Sam Luu, the operations manager, has introduced me to “Red Boat Salt” and I feel much the same way about this product. (Although I’m not going to make it a straight-up replacement for table sauce, as Red Boat recommends.)

Red Boat Salt is “hand harvested from mango wood barrels that held acclaimed Red Boat Fish Sauce for more than a year”. In other words, this is the stuff that accumulates on the side of the barrels as the sauce is fermenting and it it then dried and ground fine. It it salty and fishy and umami all at once yet with an added note that one taster, not knowing the origin, thought came from smoking. (Maybe it’s the resins of the mango wood?)

I tried some with some grilled onions (recipe here) and as the salt in a squid prep that was lightly-cured in lime juice with mint, drained and lightly oiled, then cooked on the grill. The results were mind-blowing. It enhances the other ingredients the same way salt does, but adds another layer of complexity.

Red Boat sells four 1-ounce packets of Red Boat Salt, which will last you a long time, for $10 with shipping included. There is no reason you should not order some of this right now.

 

 

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Recipe: Couscous with orange juice and fruit

Couscous Salad

Couscous salad with toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

Annie Sommerville has a wonderful recipe in Fields of Greens for couscous salad with pine nuts. Here is a variation that uses ingredients I have on hand at the place I stay in San Francisco. it’s a great accompaniment, served at room temperature or slightly warmed, to broiled pork or chicken. Serves 4.

Ingredients
1 c instant couscous
1 c fresh squeezed orange juice*
1/4 c water*
2 T champagne vinegar
2 T chopped red onion
2 T good olive oil
1/4 c (approximately 8) dried apricots, chopped
2 T dried cranberries or raisins
1 t salt
2 T hulled sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or pine nuts

Method: Heat vinegar and onion over low heat for 2 or 3 minutes, till it gives off aroma. (This reduces the sharp onion taste.) Add all other ingredients EXCEPT couscous and seeds and bring to a low boil. Turn off and let it sit for 15 minutes to rehydrate the fruit. Bring back to the boil and pour over couscous; stir to mix evenly. After 15 minutes check for salt and tenderness. If too dry heat some water and mix in another 1/4 cup; stir in thoroughly, cover, and wait another 15 minutes. Lightly toast the seeds over low heat in a nonstick skillet and mix in just before serving. Serve lukewarm, cold or at room temperature; the only way I don’t like it is hot.

* Check the directions for the brand of couscous you use for liquid/grain ratio; you can always add a little more water but you can’t take it out. You can vary the proportion of orange juice and water, but don’t go below 2 parts juice to 1 part water.

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Is this the best Banh Mi?

Sing Sing banh mi, inside

Is this the best banh mi? From Sing Sing Sandwich Shop, San Francisco

After the event with Andrea Nguyen the other night, I sat down to read her book. She rightly describes banh mi as a synergy of bread, protein, vegetables and condiments which must be in the proper proportions. Synergy? When properly done, it’s more like a symphony. And just as some enjoy Beethoven, some John Williams, some John Cage I expect there is room to interpretation as to what that proper proportion should be.

I have never been to Vietnam, but that doesn’t disqualify me from judging an American banh mi any more than not eating a burrito in Mexico disqualifies me from judging a burrito. (And that was a misdirection since burritos are American, not Mexican; actually, I have eaten burritos in Mexico and they weren’t particularly memorable.) What I am looking for is the best representation of what we in the U.S. think of as a Vietnamese sandwich based on the choices and experiences we have here.

Sing Sing interior

Waiting for sandwiches at Sing Sing

We all know that Lee’s are okay for a chain but far better can be had. On the east coast, as a rule there’s dramatically less filling than in the U.S. west and south. That’s just wrong.* All drums and horns without the sweet violins and woodwinds in the middle. I want more filling, period. West coast style. The question is what that filling should be.

Andrea let me in on a secret which turns out not to be a secret at all: a hole in the wall in a divey section of San Francisco that many people judge the best banh mi. (She did not say that by the way, just that I should go there.) It’s Sing Sing Sandwiches, and it’s just over a block from the iconic Saigon Sandwiches shop.

Sing Sing banh mi, closed

Sing Sing banh mi, closed; note the strand of fancy pork with its casing

There was no line, a few guys waiting, and they asked you to take a seat while they made your sandwich. Totally nice people and winsome décor. Vietnamese music playing and a window counter which had originally been meant for eating, but their plants are doing so well they have been allowed to take over the people area. Outside the passing parade was as if, to quote one Yelp reviewer, many of the denizens had spent time in another place with the same name.

I brought it home to inspect it more closely.… would not have felt comfortable dissecting it in the presence of these gentle folk. It doesn’t look like much when you unwrap it, but when you split the halves there’s a visual explosion of variety. That’s because they hollow out the bun to get as much stuff as possible in there while preserving a trim profile.

Sing Sing dissected

Deconstructed: the bread has been scooped out to make room for the condiments

The stuff included pate, sliced fancy pork (but a less processed kind than that used at some places… note the strand of real casing hanging off the edge in the “closed’ photo), mayo, daikon, carrot, green onion, cucumber, jalapeno and cilantro. More ingredients than at Saigon and in better proportions.

The taste? A symphony indeed. Everything went together so smoothly I could barely discern individual ingredients and went more by texture: the crunch of daikon, the slippery smoothness of cucumber, the satisfying mouth feel of pate. And I pretty much forgot about the bread. It was minimally crackly but faded in importance because the filling was so spectacular.

Happy plants at Sing sing

Happy plants have taken over the window counter area

Is this the best banh mi? Is Snow’s the best smoked brisket? Does Burger House in Dallas make the best cheeseburger? Maybe something better is out there, but the chance of finding it is like tracking the elusive Higgs Boson. Why speculate when greatness is staring you in the face?

* A few days after writing this post, I was in Westminster’s Little Saigon and picked up a couple of sandwiches at one of the Banh Mi Che Cali locations. Long on bread, short on filling, just as I remember from previous visits. But the place was full of Vietnamese people who were very happy with their choices. One’s banh mi mileage can obviously vary. Lots of pate and extra spicy, pour moi!

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