I was listening to the radio the other day when Melissa Block asked Quvenzhané Wallis, "What do you think it takes to be a great actor?"
And, with the straight-forward wisdom that only someone so young could conjure, Quvenzhané replied, "Concentrating."
It's my opinion that concentration is required to be great at anything, especially cooking. Everything from the most enormous kitchen disasters to the tiniest mishaps can usually be avoided by simply paying attention. That being said, cooking is a never-ending learning experience and you have to make mistakes in order to progress.
Before yesterday I had never cooked clams. I found this delicious recipe from Bon Appétit. The last step of the instructions reads: "Add clams... and cook until clams open, about 5 minutes." As you can see in the picture above, five minutes was far from enough time. Had I been concentrating I would have stopped and asked myself, "Is this what the fully cooked clams I've eaten in restaurants looked like?" But I wasn't. I saw that my clams had cracked their little lips, so, mindlessly, I pulled them out, pried one open and popped it into my mouth. On a related note, if you ever want to loose a few pounds, eat an undercooked clam. You won't want to eat for days!
Every now and then I see a recipe that says something like, "Place the egg in a 140 degree water bath, wait 45 minutes, then crack." That's the kind of instruction that you should follow exactly. But more often than not, recipe instructions are written with approximation at best. As Alton Brown discusses in his Nerdist interview, cooking times vary wildly because of the way heat is conducted in different models of pans, stoves and ovens.
I can't tell you how many times I've seen the directions "cook onions until soft and translucent, about five minutes." I can tell you how many times I've seen onions turn soft and translucent within five minutes: zero. You're much better off learning to cook by using your eyes, your mouth and your brain rather than your timer. The only real way to tell if an onion is soft or not is to put it in your mouth. Make cooking a multi-sensory exercise in concentration. Do what makes sense and what tastes good to you.
Let me end by quoting Michael Ruhlman- "Thinking in the kitchen. It's underrated."
What kitchen disasters have you learned from?
P.S. How much do y'all love my new 1920's punch glasses that I got at the Nashville Flea Market??
Here's a slightly simpler version of the original recipe that I have tried to explain using visual queues instead of approximate times:
Steamed Clams with Fennel and Spicy Italian Sausage
large pot with a fitted lid
2T salted butter
1 small yellow onion, diced
2 bulbs fennel, diced
1/2 pound spicy Italian sausage (2 links)*, casing removed
1 14.5oz can diced tomatoes in juice
1/2t dried oregano
1/2 cup dry white wine
20 littleneck clams
1/2 pound spaghetti
parsley, fennel fronds and parmesan for garnish
Clean clams and set aside over ice.
Cook spaghetti in very salty water according to package directions and please, make sure your pot is big enough. For 1/2 pound pasta, you'll need about a four quart pot. Reserve one cup pasta water. Drain, run under cold water and toss with olive oil.
In a large (4-6 quart), heavy-bottom pot, sauté fennel and onion in butter (with about 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt) over medium heat until they look translucent and do not crunch when you bite into them. Don't go so far as to let their edges turn golden. Add sausage and break it up with the back of a wooden spoon. When sausage is cooked through, you should see bits of brown starting to form on the bottom of the pan. At this point, add tomatoes, wine and oregano and another 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Use the wooden spoon to scrape brown bits off the bottom. When this mixture is warmed through, taste it to see if you want to add more salt or maybe a touch of red pepper. Bring everything to a boil. If your sauce looks dry, as though too much juice has evaporated, add 1/4 cup pasta water and go from there. Place clams in sauce, lip side up, and cover pot with lid. If your lid is clear, leave it on until the clams open at an absolutely obtuse angle. If your lid is not clear, check them every five minutes. When clams are done, remove them from the sauce. Discard any clams that did not open. Add pasta to sauce and toss it around until it is warm. Top pasta with clams, parmesan, parsley, and fennel fronds.
*Mine wasn't quite spicy enough so I added 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes.
Note: Clams are alive and should be cooked as soon as possible after purchase. It's also best to buy your clams on Thursday or Friday, since this is when most stores receive fresh shipments. You can easily make the sauce and spaghetti ahead, pick clams up on your way home from work and have everything ready to eat in about 30 minutes.