Twenty/20 Project: Conclusion

Ruhlmans20Day 20: Conclusion.

This experience has been…illuminating.

I learned so much more than the “twenty” techniques and ingredients as presented in this book. It’s been quite transformative, and I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would. It helped that I had so many people who commented both on here and on Facebook and twitter…it was so gratifying to know that at least a few people out there were enjoying it.

Speaking of my “audience” – if you’ve been following this project and are interested in getting the book, here’s a few helpful links: IndieBoundBarnes & Noble (available in hardcover and as a nook book), and yes, Amazon (boo).

I thought it best to break this out into bullet points. Also? I love to make lists…it’s a weakness.

Here we go:

  • I learned to put my trust in what the cookbook had to offer: Basically, I forced myself to not tweak any recipe unless circumstance demanded that I do so (I’m looking at you, Raw Zucchini Salad and Grill-Roasted Prime Rib). I put my culinary life in the virtual hands of this book and went with it. Scary and worth it.
  • Hey! I can bake!: This was a particularly surprising revelation, as I had proudly declared that “am so not a baker” for years. You would think that my crowning achievement on this tidbit would be making Angel Food Cake not once but twice. Nope. My high point in the baking arena was not burning my first batch of cookies. Booyah.
  • I learned to make peace with onion (or at least, onion flavor): This surprised the hell out of me because I had thought that I was just going to not have onion in my kitchen ever. EVER. The lightbulb moment of “oh crap I’m missing something in my cooking” was perhaps a lesson so profound for me that it was worth the price of the book alone.
  • I became a more confident cook overall and stopped second-guessing myself: Because I had to focus on one recipe each day and write about it without fail, I didn’t have time to second-guess myself. Even more than that though, working with this book helped me realize (and in some cases, remember) that I was capable of more in the kitchen than I had been doing. It broke me out of a culinary rut that I didn’t even know I was in. Very freeing.
  • Now that I’m finished with this project, I feel like I just attended Culinary Boot Camp: Seriously, I do. I feel like even when I was covering topics that I was at least a little familiar with, the practice of going through them methodically made even the most basic of lessons new again. Like I said in my “progress report”, there is tremendous value in cooking your way through a cookbook. In my case, I happened to pick a particularly good example of a cookbook that not only gives you great recipes but it will teach you some valuable lessons.
  • I might have found a whole new niche for myself: The exercise of writing about this experience as it happened opened my eyes to the possibility that I could (and further, should) try my hand at writing about some of my other passions beyond books. It lead me to FoodRiot, for heaven’s sakes. I can promise you, had I not been planning this for January, I never would have had the confidence to grab that opportunity when I saw it. I know it seems strange to relate that to “what I learned from this book“, but I am not kidding when I say that this was a transformative experience.

Aside from those bullet points, I feeling very inspired these days, not unlike how I felt after I saw Julie/Julia. Speaking of Julie Powell, I will tell you first-hand: that girl is a freaking rock star. I only did twenty recipes in all, and it was a lot of work. I cannot even imagine what she went through to do 524 recipes in only one year. I had a lot of respect for her already. I now realize she’s a superhero.

So now that I am finished, I do want to say a couple of things:

To Michael Ruhlman and Marlene Newell – The support and enthusiasm you showed was both awesome and humbling. And Marlene, I so appreciated your willingness to help when I felt like I needed it. I only hope that you both enjoyed reading about my quest and that I did right by this book. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Bonus: at last count, I think I sold 10 copies of the book from the entries on my blog. You’re welcome. :)

Last but never least, to my Sous Chef, taste-tester and partner in crime, Jason: thank you a million times over. I really could not have stayed focused and completed this project without my husband. Every day he did the dishes and made sure that I had enough time to write and tend to this project. He made last-minute trips to the grocery store, helped take pictures, and generally made things easier. He even routinely came into my office while I was finishing writing that night’s entry, and would silently leave a mug of hot chocolate or chai tea. So thank you, my dear. You are truly the best. (awwwww).

I’m going to take a day off of writing, but stay tuned because there are some great things coming…

Related Links: (Marlene Newell’s website)

Twenty/20 Project: Chill


Hard-boiled eggs chillin’ out. (c)2013 Reese M.

Day 19: Chill

Special Note: This is the final section of the book. I know, it flew right by didn’t it? For those that might be wondering, it’s Day 19 because I covered two sections in the beginning (Water and Salt) on one day. My “Day 20″ will be my attempt at a “conclusion” to this whole project. That will be posted on Monday, January 28th so I can have two whole days to obsess and re-write. :) Now, back to your regular programming…

My Impression:

Michael brings up an excellent point at the very start of this section – “When we define cooking, we almost always do so in terms of applying heat to food” (p. 322). Agreed. I think most people don’t consider that chilling food, or shocking things in an ice bath, or freezing things for that matter is also a form of cooking.

He explains further:

…few skills teach us as much about the way food and cooking work than understanding the power of stopping or reversing the application of heat. 

The chilling-cooling technique can be divided into two categories: simply removing food from the heat or plunging food into coldness – in other words, gentle, gradual cooling or abrupt cooling. (p. 322)

I have had a bit of experience wielding this technique on a few occasions, most often where cooking fresh vegetables are concerned. I don’t always do this, but I try to cook them ahead of time, and then shock them in ice water so they don’t get overdone or lose their lovely color. It’s a great way to keep things well-timed in terms of getting meals together, as re-heating vegetables after they have been cooled rapidly is never an issue.

Midway through the essay for this section, there’s a photo guide to cooking and shocking fresh vegetables (in the case of the pictures, green beans). It’s helpful, and the pictures are fantastic (as all the pictures in this book are), but it kind of interrupted the “flow” of reading, if that makes any sense. I can be a bit of a stickler for stuff like that. On the other hand, it is a really, really minor quibble. I’m only mentioning it because it kind of stuck out for me personally.

Ruhlman goes on to provide a handy “list” of sorts by way of a part of the section titled “What Foods Can I Cook in Advance?“. I’d almost suggest that if a cheat sheet style of information from this book is ever produced, that list should be among the tidbits. That’s why this book such a handy reference tool for later.

There is also a small but significant part of the section devoted to “thoughtful freezing”, which mostly covers how to properly seal/wrap food for the freezer, and most important – don’t forget about it being in the freezer. Seems elementary, sure…but how many times have we all just let stuff go bad in the freezer? I’d rather not fess up – but I’m so guilty of that it’s embarrassing.

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Twenty/20 Project: Fry


Pork chops frying. (c)2013 Reese M.

Day 18: Fry

My Impression:

Well after last night’s dinner party, I was only too happy to continue on my way with a simple dinner for two. I don’t normally fry much for dinner, even less so when discussing dishes like pork chops.

In fact, and don’t hate me Ruhlman, we don’t eat much pork in this house. I’ll give you a minute to yell at the screen…

Done? Okay.

I promise, it isn’t because of some need to not eat pork…it just kind of happens that way. It really is as simple as that. To be fair though – bacon is a notable exception.

But I digress.

Here’s the lowdown on this section:

Both panfrying and deep-frying cook food at very high temperatures uniformly and efficiently. In addition to the added expense of oil, many people avoid deep-frying because they’re afraid. Others avoid it because they associate it with high calories, others because of the way the house smells the next day (an exhaust fan really helps!), and still others because they don’t like the cleanup. (p. 304)

It should come as no surprise to those that know me that I generally don’t fry food in my house for pretty much all of those reasons. Sure, sometimes the high-calorie reason trumps the others, but honestly? Fear is the biggest reason. If there is nothing else I have learned from this book, it’s that I should not fear a cooking method. I knew that this was going to require that I just ignore my fear and dive right in.

The rest of the essay portion gives a matter-of-fact approach on how to utilize the frying method. Everything from “Three Rules for Deep-Frying” to “Awesome Potato Chips“, it’s pretty well-covered. It definitely helped me lose my fear for tonight’s installment.

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Twenty/20: The Dinner Party


Flowers from my mom. :) (c)2013 Reese M.

This could have easily been titled: “Why you should never make dinner party plans while half in the bag during New Year’s Eve“.

First things first: The Dinner Party Plan:

My husband and I went out for New Year’s Eve with some friends of ours. All six of us went to a local wine bar for food…and LOTS of wine. It was great fun, as it always is with them, but there are always side effects when we all get together.

We have a tendency to plan out when we’ll all see each other next. It’s not a bad thing, and I’m glad that we have enough foresight to do this kind of planning – otherwise we would all see each other much less, I’m sure. I had told them all about my plans for January (this project) and they seemed intrigued by it. They know that I am a bit of a cook, but I think that the idea of me cooking my way through a cookbook is perhaps something that they would have not necessarily thought I would take on.

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Twenty/20 Project: Grill


Weber grill. Image shamelessly lifted from the Weber Grill website.

Day 17: Grill

Special Note for this Section:

This entry in particular will get special attention as I hosted a dinner party for this recipe. I will follow my previously laid-out template for this entry, telling you my impression of the introductory essay. However, for the recipe itself, and the evolution of this dinner party, I’ll break that out into another post. It’s a story, so I promise you it will be worth the extra wait. I plan to post the dinner party entry no later than 11pm Pacific Time tonight.

Let’s dive right in, shall we? 

My Impression:

Grilling is something that we’re all familiar with, I think. It reminds us of summers in the backyard, when nights are warm and inviting. Ruhlman calls to mind the nostalgia that grilling makes us all think of…but there is a hint of something different in this section…an unapologetic judgement.  Let me explain:

I admit that when I read this section, I was in the midst of my “isn’t-life-HILARIOUS” story that will be told in the next entry. So when he waxed poetic on why gas grills were, for all intents and purposes, inferior to non-gas grills, I perhaps took it a bit more personally than I would have otherwise. I have a gas grill.

You see, I agree with his point about gas grills being not really the same thing as a “natural” fire (or coals) way of grilling. I had not thought of the mechanics behind that kind of reasoning, but it did/does make sense to me. Here’s a sampling:

Grilling is different from other forms of cooking in that the heat is alive. …[It] is in continuous flux. Moreover, we don’t usually have a temperature gauge, so grilling engages our senses in ways that other forms of cooking don’t. We sense how hot a fire is by standing near it, holding a hand over the coals, or sensing the heat on our face (that’s a hot fire!).

…All this is why grilling can be so much fun – because it engages our bodies and minds more than any other form of cooking.

…And this accounts for half the reason I don’t like gas grills. (p.290)

He goes on to cover different types of grilling, including kinds of heat that the grill offers (direct vs. ambient). His discussion of ambient heat makes the point of why gas grilling is so very different from using natural heat (coals). Like I said, I don’t disagree, and I can certainly understand the difference in tone here from the other sections. The method of grilling is so much more visceral, it perhaps stirs stronger feelings than you might think. It also explains why, in my heightened state of awareness where this meal in particular is concerned…I felt well…bad about having a gas grill.

Luckily, he also goes out of his way to say the following:

What I have to say about grill technique applies to gas flames and natural coals alike…

…Much of this chapter will apply to gas grills, but not all. (p. 290)

The entries that follow will cover tonight’s selected recipe: Grill-Roasted Prime Rib…and why that isn’t exactly what I ended up preparing…

Twenty/20 Project: Poach


Halibut poaching in Olive Oil. (c)2013 Reese M.

Day 16: Poach

My Impression:

Poaching is a technique that I have always associated with eggs…and little else. Sure, I’m well aware that you can use poaching as a cooking method for a variety of things, but not unlike my thoughts of braising in relation to meat, I just had a habit of not thinking beyond poaching eggs.

Ruhlman goes into some specifics about the types of food that he uses to demonstrate poaching in the book, which I found rather helpful, given my admission above. He says:

When we use the term poach, we almost always refer to cooking something that’s already tender. I think it’s a meaningful distinction. You can poach a brisket in stock for hours and hours until it becomes tender, but I like to reserve the terms braising and stewing for this kind of long, slow, moist cooking meant to tenderize. (p. 274)

Admittedly, some may read a passage like that and decide that he’s merely splitting hairs, and perhaps he is. I suppose that when you buy any cookbook, you need to keep in mind that you are, by default, submitting to that cook’s definition of terms like this. I am sure there are plenty of cookbooks out there that might say that when you cook a brisket using this kind of method, it really is poaching and not braising or stewing. I, for one, was prepared to take on Ruhlman’s definition. Very much a po-TAY-to/po-TA-to kind of thing.

He continues:

The temperature is the defining attribute of poaching, as it has a highly controlled and uniform impact on the food. (p. 274)

This is a good point, and something that I didn’t realize that I knew before I read this. For much of my cooking history, I had developed an understanding of certain principles without even realizing what it all meant. In this case, I thought about this and realized that I never attempted to poach eggs in a strong, rolling boil…I always did it in hot water that was not quite bubbling. Eureka. :)

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Twenty/20 Project: Braise


Braised Fennel with Thyme. (c)2013 Reese M.

Day 15: Braise

My Impression:

This was an interesting section for me in more ways than one. First and foremost, Ruhlman does a nice job here covering exactly what it means to braise something – whether it’s vegetables or a cut of meat – because there can be a bit of confusion when discussing this type of cooking. In fact, he full-on admits to the confusion: “There is no definitive consensus among texts of chefs” (p.258).

While that can be a bit of a muddy way to start the conversation, it is true. Whenever I think of braising, I would think of cooking something in a pot, usually in the oven, using low heat and at least some liquid. The other thing I would think of when the term braising would come to mind? That it is a cooking method for meat…nothing else.

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Twenty/20 Project: Roast


Bird, bird…bird is the word. (c)2013 Reese M.

Day 14: Roast

My Impression:

I have looked forward to this section for a long time now. Before I discuss that, let’s cover what was in this section, shall we?

Roasting kind of takes some cues from the previous section on sauté, in that Ruhlman discusses the fact that when you roast, you’re dealing with the application of “dry heat”. There is no moisture involved when you roast. Makes sense, as most people are familiar with the yearly ritual of roasting a turkey for Thanksgiving, and there is never instruction to add moisture to the roasting pan. Sure, you might baste with the juices from the turkey…but you don’t add anything to it. It’s all dry heat.

I’ve only recently come to the roasting club. By that I mean, I have roasted vegetables when I would think to do so, and I’ve hosted Thanksgiving two years in a row, so I’m familiar with roasting a turkey. But what made me look forward to this section more than others was the opportunity to roast a whole chicken.

I’ve probably seen far too many cooking shows in my life already, and the concept of being able to do a whole roasted chicken has been burned into my brain. I can’t remember if it was Alton Brown or Anthony Bourdain who insisted that it was a skill that any self-respecting cook should have…but I have been secretly embarrassed that I have never attempted to roast a whole chicken before now.

During one of my very brief encounters with Michael Ruhlman on twitter, I mentioned to him that I would be using the recipe for whole roasted chicken from this book because I had never attempted it before. Here’s how that exchange went down:

Michael: You’ve never roasted a whole chicken, ever?

Me: Nope. Unbelievable, right? Just haven’t managed to get around to it for some reason.

Michael: You should try the recipe I wrote about in Slate, unless your [sic] solo.

So I looked up the recipe as written in Slate: Roast Chicken for Two, a Recipe.

You’ll notice that it’s fairly simple. You put the chicken in the oven, then you have sex, then you have dinner. :D

For the record, I used the recipe as written in the book, so stop blushing in the corner over there, Mom.

I will say that he makes a good point about using cooking as a way to connect with your partner. I think there’s no better way to spend an evening together than preparing a meal. Dividing up the work and enjoying what you’ve made is a lovely experience, and I highly recommend it. If you choose to incorporate the practice of having sex while the food is cooking, then all the better. It’s certainly more fun than waiting for things to cook on the stove top or finish in the oven. Or, as was the case in our house today, yelling at Comcast while dinner was cooking.

Anyway – onward!

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Twenty/20 Project: Sauté

Day 13: Sauté

My Impression:

Once again, I thought I knew what sauté was. Hot pan, quick cooking. Easy. Fun.  And it is that. But just like all the other techniques and ingredients in this book, Ruhlman opened my eyes to more. First, was this little revelation:

I’d never considered that we sauté bacon. It may be a matter of semantics, but the truth is, words do matter and we do need to know varying levels of heat when we sauté. I sauté steak at a different temperature than I sauté julienned zucchini/courgettes. And this is why sauté is one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, of the techniques to master. (p. 228)

My first thought was – “holy crap, you do sauté bacon!”.  Followed by – “huh…different levels of heat…“. It’s funny how these little discoveries can be so very simple, and yet take you by surprise. Once you look at it from a varying-temperature standpoint, you realize that there is far more to sautéing than meets the eye.

Ruhlman continues his usual discussion on the nuts and bolts of the different levels of sautéing, which is both informative and interesting. He does invoke discussions here from his experience in culinary school more than some of the other sections of the book, but in the context of the difficulty of this technique, it makes sense. Near the end of the essay section, he breaks down the recipes that follow into the different temperature levels of sautéing that he discussed. That is especially helpful if you want to refer to a recipe to practice the technique later.

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Twenty/20: Soup


Look everyone! Free advertising for Progresso! (c)2013 Reese M.

Day 12: Soup

My Impression:

I’ve been looking forward to this section for some time now. I’ve had a long head-over-heels love affair with soup. It can be simple or complex – take all day to prepare or be ready in minutes. I’m a big believer in the concept of soup-as-a-meal. It’s one of my very favorite things.

Ruhlman agrees, of course, about the endless possibilities and loveliness of soups. Following his now familiar format, he dives into the nitty-gritty of different types of soups, breaking down the components in an easy to follow way. He even has a discussion of what part garnishes play in different types of soups. It pulls in some of the lessons from the other sections beautifully – highlighting Think, Water and Acid:

[Soups] nourish us by capturing all the nutrients in the ingredients and transferring them to us spoonful by spoonful down to the last swipe of a crust of bread. 

What makes this happen is the magic of water, its ability to extract flavor and nourishment and disperse them throughout the soup, to carry any garnish, and to receive any seasoning. 

…The most important skill in making delicious soups of any kind is learning how to evaluate a soup. Think about it. Taste it, and think some more.

…Ask yourself if the soup would benefit from a little acidity. (p. 216 – bold for emphasis is my own)

It’s probably just a trait of mine to read passages like that and get all giddy about the way the material ties together. I’m a nerd, what can I say? Still, it’s nice to have passages that call back to lessons from earlier sections. Makes for a very “Hey! I am learning something!” moment. :)

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