Thursday, January 15, 2015

#15. Spackle

Sometimes you can't hold it together.

Sometimes the base is thin and tasteless and you wait and wait for it to have body and depth and salt and spice and it is just a formless pan of watery nothing.

Sometimes you have to fake it.

I don't like faking it. Never have. Not my scene.
I don't like pretending something has history and affection and breadth and range and it really is just Office re-runs and more complaining about All That is Incorrect About Marisa Miller.

Sometimes when you don't have the energy to wait for things to get thick and rich you need spackle. 

There was a guy named Dave because there is always a guy named Dave. This one was tall and red-headed and in my class at cooking school. His dad owned a fishing boat in Bellingham and he worked in the summer throwing salmon into a tank, and spent the rest of his time going to cooking school, where I met him, and working the line of a tiny, weird Italian restaurant in Wallingford.

Lots of cooks won't tell you about the hundred awful places the worked on the way to the French Laundry. Like, they went straight to ordering truffles and sampling wine and they forget all about the time they flipped patty melts at Jumbo's Clown Room for a year while the other cook puked into a trash can IN THE KITCHEN right next to the line.

Delusions of grandeur are not my thing, and it wasn't my vomit, so I'll tell you all about my guts and glory and expect you to hang in there with me. Everybody wants to bang the shit out of a crazy person. They just don't want to admit it.

I digress.

The tiny, weird kitchens I cycled through on my way to all this fame and fortune taught me some stuff that I've used on royalty, presidents, and my mother. Never knock. Just learn what you can and give back to the people.

Bizzarro Italian Cafe in Wallingford was built by its owner, David (not my BF, who was chef when he gave me the job and then told me he'd just given notice?!?) for a very small amount of money using his very own tools and buckets. The kitchen was a replica of a Eurovan, right down to the tiny under-counter refrigerators that required you to bend over every two minutes and keep your neck angled so you didn't end up head-butting someone in the dick when you came back up.10' x 10' MAYBE, and a crew that consisted of Darren and Dave, the chef and sous, Jose, the prep/dishwasher, and yours truly, pantry bitch, because I was a girl and this is where they put us on the come up. It's a testimony to something that in Seattle, the city of ever-changing eateries, that it's still in business 25 years later.

Kitchen size is no big deal if you have an 8 seat place and all the time in the world. This place had 40 seats and humped through 300 covers a night on a Tuesday. For basic pasta, a choice between Caesar and balsamic, and either Bananas Foster or bread pudding for dessert.

A few things can be done to accommodate so many in such a short amount of time.

You can serve pre-made food, which means Newman's Own dressing or sliced cheesecakes from Sysco. These are expensive and it is unlikely that man who builds his own restaurant is going to spend that money on such nonsense when there are stale bread ends everywhere.

The game is figuring out the fastest way to get the food into the dining room because Kathleen, the ancient waitress in Baby Jane Holzer/Hudson make-up who thinks she is Edith Piaf, singing for her people (they love this shit, btw, ask any old Seattleite who has been and they will have witnessed it) is timing your ass and if she isn't pulling 25% every 35 minutes, you will hear about it from Jose, whose plates will be all off and he won't have enough of something and Darren will have to come in from the alley where he smokes after every set is pushed through and rip you a third new one in addition to the two you just got.

This is spackle.

Either roux that is 'thinned' by cream, or bechamel that is cooked to death. You pick.

You've been waiting for it to make you look good at a dinner party. It's for mac and cheese and alfredo and rigatoni with butternut squash, sage, prosciutto, and walnuts if you need me to have a flashback with you. It is a perfect base for the sugar and booze sauces that are perfect on, yup, bread pudding and Bananas Foster, and also whatever else you pour bourbon caramel on. It stabilizes the food. That's it. It's like a good bra, not a fancy one. No one knows it's there, but your boobs look great in that dress all day because it is hiding underneath.

C'est voila:

1. In a heavy-bottomed dutch oven or saucepot, no bigger than 4 qt. melt 1 stick (1/2 cup, 4 ounces, 8 T, this is what I mean) of butter on low heat and add a cup of all-purpose white flour. Bleached or not doesn't matter.

2. Stir quickly until smooth and cook for about 5 minutes. If it starts to turn brown or get nutty, turn heat lower.

3. Slowly incorporate 2 cups of room temperature half-and-half, stirring constantly, so it doesn't break. Keep stirring frequently until it has thickened enough to resist the spoon. It will take about 30 minutes. Scrape into container and let cool.

If you did it right, it will have the consistency of firm ice cream. Throw a large spoonful into a hot pan, add some more cream and start experimenting with all the things that you use bechamel for and are always sorry about when you wonder how that discharge got in your mouth. A good start is spackle, cream, brown sugar, a shot of whiskey, and a bit of orange juice. Just spooge it all in a pan, crank the heat, stir a bunch till it reduces and bubbles and pour it on something sweet. Cooking is science, but not rocket science. I only seem like a genius.

This isn't meant to take the place of veloutes, beurre montes, and other a la minute methods we use in kitchens but if you don't know what those words mean, or are cooking for 300 tonight, I think you're really going to love it.