Kyle’s Kitchen Conclusions: Don’t get cocky, kid

Salmon+with+herb+cheese+and+lemon-peppered+asparagus+as+a+side.++Photo+by+Alexander+Bentz+%E2%80%9914.

Salmon with herb cheese and lemon-peppered asparagus as a side. Photo by Alexander Bentz ’14.

On April 29, I promised my housemates the best meal I could cook in hopes that they would write me a review. The hope was for a “Reviewing Kyle’s Kitchen” piece in this issue. All the credit with none of the writing.
So let me set a Tuesday night scene for you: I walk out of the kitchen, with two plates in hand. Upon each plate is a pink, firm salmon fillet, broccoli that has been steamed to perfection, and a perfectly moist cornbread, flavored with honey and charoset. The smell wafts from the plates into my housemates’ noses. Alex starts to weep. Sara applauds. On campus at a sociology dinner, Anna senses she’s missed something amazing. Gordon Ramsay shows up just to offer me a job and my heart swells three sizes.

Unfortunately, a more accurate depiction would mention that the plates actually had asparagus following a burnt broccoli incident or that I had to do a double take on the at-first uncooked fillets. The cornbread, while creative, could have been slightly moister. More or less, it was far from my best and much as I feared earlier this semester, I let my recent successes go to my head.

I’ll run through the various mishaps in the kitchen, touching on their hilarity, before concluding with overall positive takeaways I’ve had from a year of forays into the kitchen. At Macalester, a lack of cooking expertise at the beginning of the semester is not uncommon. So my hope is this story might inspire others to tackle their own kitchen calamities with the same fervor I did. But enough sentimentality, onto the laughter in disaster.

A watched pot never boils, but sometimes an unwatched pot smokes

That’s the general takeaway message of the broccoli incident. Long story short, it burned and I set off my first smoke alarm of the semester. (Not sure what it is about me and smoke these last few weeks.)

You see, I wanted to make a substantial amount of broccoli and thought perhaps it was best to place it in a colander to steam over a pot of water. In our house, we generally drop the broccoli in about a half-inch of water and let it steam as such. The colander method was not getting me anywhere so I quickly reverted and flipped the broccoli into a larger pot.
This larger pot had a top on it that fit well, but not snugly, such that it let out steam. This will be important later.

The over-cooked broccoli.  Photo by Alexander Bentz ’14.
The over-cooked broccoli. Photo by Alexander Bentz ’14.

So, I allowed the broccoli to steam. There were two whole heads in there, so I figured it take a while and I decided to dabble in a bit of economic theory with my housemates. They’re working on a study of bus waiting times and expected utility, so naturally I couldn’t pull away.
After a few minutes I thought, I should really check on the broccoli. A moment later, I caught a whiff akin to grass in a campfire. It was natural, but not quite normal.

In panic, I ran into the kitchen and discovered that the water had entirely steamed out of the pot, the broccoli had started to brown, and the bottom of the pot had a nice coat of soot. As if sounding my first mishap of the night, the smoke alarm rang, alerting my housemates, and sending Alex charging in.

Fortunately, I kept my cool. I moved the broccoli, at this point more a mush of different shades of green, to another pot and allowed the larger pot to soak for a minute. With my consumers in mind first, I grabbed eight asparagus, tossed them in a pan with canola oil and lemon juice, and started roasting. Within ten minutes I had a new side salted and peppered, and ready for consumption. I covered the asparagus and set them aside. After a minutes of scrubbing the pot, I had all but a few specks removed and I could breathe a sigh of relief.

So in the end, major crisis averted, which oddly, could, and I think should, be taken as a testament to my skill. If you placed me in a kitchen with a smoking pot of broccoli a year ago, you would likely need a fire extinguisher, a new pot and to get Chinese takeout on the line. I’m just a testament to measuring progress on an individual level.

The cornbread king gets creative

Now, I do not know if this has come up in this column before, but I’m something of a cornbread guru. My box recipe cornbread comes out golden brown and solidified for removal in near-perfect cubic pieces. It’s a niche skill, but I take pride in it.

Passion ablaze at the start of the cooking, the cornbread mix looked a little lackluster. So I popped open the fridge and two tupperware full of leftover charoset from our house EastOver celebration. Not sure how we ended up with so much, but no complaints now. I took out a handful of the apple, walnut, cinnamon and honey mixture and tossed it in the corn mix.
I spread the accented mix in the 8 x 8 pan, but couldn’t help but think it was missing something. I noticed our honey in the corner and maybe a tablespoon in a zigzag pattern across the mix. Then, I respread the mix, to distribute the honey.

Given the usual pattern of my columns, I know you’re expecting some disaster. But it went really well. I wouldn’t advise serving this at your next passover, but honestly, it’s a nice twist on the recipe and a great way to use up your leftover charoset.

A raw deal for the night

"Impress Your Date" with this salmon.  Photo by Alexander Bentz ’14.
“Impress Your Date” with this salmon. Photo by Alexander Bentz ’14.

At this point, you might be wondering, so where are the real screw-ups? Don’t worry, I haven’t gotten to the salmon. The salmon was like a final in your blow-off class. The one you go out drinking the night before only to leave the test with your soul in tatters. Drama aside, this dish got out of hand.

The dish, Salmon With Herbed Cheese, came from the “Impress Your Date” section of College Cooking 101. The dish had just two ingredients, two 6 oz. salmon fillets and a simple herb cheese spread. It’s a pretty straight-forward recipe: spread the cheese on the salmon, wrap it in foil and bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.

The salmon came from Coastal Seafoods, which is just across the street next to Great Clips in that plaza that is nearly entirely irrelevant to a long-haired, non-foodie. I walked in and purchased 1.6 pounds for three people, so everyone could have an 8 oz. cutlet. Do you see where I went wrong?

I increased both size and number of fillets. A smarter cook would adjust and increase the temperature or cooking time accordingly. Myself? I unfortunately carried on my day, somehow ignorant of the discrepancy.
And out popped the salmon 15 minutes later. It looked fine to me. A little pink, but that’s the color of salmon. I brought it out and was Alex let me down quickly, but easily. “It’s good, it’s just, it’s not cooked.”

Naturally, my face fell and I brought them back into the kitchen to bake, this time open-faced in the oven at 350. My confidence shaken, I really did not know what I was looking for in the salmon. Alex, came in and graciously saved the day, working with me and approving the final batch.
I was let down, but as my Professor Chad Topaz said the other day, “When something you are in charge of goes wrong, take responsibility and make sure it does not happen again.”

The first part was easy, I apologized. I washed most of the dishes in apology. We ate our dinner and it was a pleasant time for all.
For the second part, I’ve looked up all there is to know about a properly cooked salmon. A fillet needs 10 minutes per inch when baking at 425 degrees. Remove after the proper amount of time and check for doneness. A medium done salmon is pink and firm, lightening and firming the more done it is. Also, salmon will cook for five more minutes after you take it out of the oven, so it should not be completely done upon removal, but allowed to sit for a bit.

Salmon with herb cheese and lemon-peppered asparagus as a side.  Photo by Alexander Bentz ’14.
Salmon with herb cheese and lemon-peppered asparagus as a side. Photo by Alexander Bentz ’14.

So basically, if I ever offer to cook salmon for you in the future, rest assured that I’ve done my research.

A year of experiments

In the last year, I have made some considerable progress. Last semester, I struggled to make a dish called peas and eggs. Tuesday night I improvised Charoset and Honey Cornbread. That said, I served very rare salmon and burned two heads of broccoli. So, I’m still prone to mistakes in the kitchen, but these are mistakes that I would not have been able to make last semester. Plus, I learned a lot Tuesday night.

First, do not pick a recipe you don’t like. I found myself in this position, bored with the salmon. It had literally two ingredients and felt almost like cheating to impress my dates that night. I went forward with it anyway, but the whole time did not really enjoy the process. Aside from sustaining yourself, you should cook for the enjoyment.

Second, improvise when you are bored with a recipe. That’s where the cornbread came from. I’m sure someone else has tried it, but it was new to me and really quite good.

Third, cooking can take you new places. If it wasn’t for last night’s meal I would never have walked into Coastal Seafoods as a Macalester student. Cooking Polish sausage has taken F&D editor Sara on adventures across the Twin Cities, and I know many other friends who travel the cities in search of recipes.

Fourth, it’s best not to stress about the cooking. That is what makes the little slip-ups so frustrating. Barring unsafe kitchen practices, a burnt dish is not a reason to get frustrated, but something you can solve and learn from.

And I guess last of all, I’m not about to get a job as a professional chef, but I bet this cooking column could transfer into a hell of a youtube channel. Please comment if you agree.