On Special Sauce this week, I had the pleasure of continuing my deep dive into the history of fast food with Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams. But before I tell you more about that conversation, we kicked off this episode, as we always do, with another round of "Ask Kenji."
Serious eater Nick Bastow asks Kenji why minced meat has to be cooked before it's added to a sauce, such as a Bolognese or chili. Kenji explains that it's not just about rendering excess fat but also about creating the right texture- which will be different if you're making, for example, his chili sauce for burgers and hot dogs rather than the other recipes named above: "In that recipe, what we actually do is, we take the meat, we don't brown it at all, we add our liquid to it, and we kind of break the meat up in the liquid. And the texture you get from that is completely, completely different.... Like a very chunky paste. So, rather than a chili texture, where you have big chunks of meat that are kind of bound in the sauce, you end up with a much looser- I don't know how to describe it without being completely unappetizing, but it's like a sludge." Though a delicious sludge, to be sure.
And, er, speaking of meat in unusual surroundings, Adam Chandler tells a great story about the real-life Colonel Harland Sanders, who sold fried chicken from a gas station in southeastern Kentucky for 20 years before "KFC" ever became a household name. Apparently, Sanders wasn't necessarily the courtly Southern gentleman the company portrays him as; according to Chandler, "He actually got into a feud over roadway traffic being diverted from a [gas] station and shot a guy." The story, which didn't make it into Chandler's book, just gets stranger from there.
Beyond telling the fascinating origin tales of Sanders and many other fast food chain founders, Chandler's terrific read also connects the evolution of fast food to the overall history of American culture in the 20th century, starting with the spread of motor vehicles and the increased mobility that that afforded some Americans. "[They wanted] food that was quick and easy, to go, which relates to the White Castle phenomenon in the '20s. This is 100 years ago. And wanting familiar experiences, wanting something that seemed safe. We didn't trust meat. We'd all read The Jungle and were afraid of ground beef. And so to have a restaurant, and eventually a chain, produce the exact same experiences over and over again, in stores that look the exact same, was comforting. And now, that could not be less comforting at all. We want personalized- it sounds dystopian to go into a place and say, 'I'm going to have the exact same experience wherever I go. It's going to look the same.' But a hundred years ago, that was a huge relief."
Finally, Stella Parks, the bravest Serious Eater among us, gives us step-by-step instructions for making one of her greatest discoveries, toasted sugar; a kind of dry caramel that's made simply by heating ordinary white sugar in a low oven for several hours. The result is a less sweet form of sugar that can be swapped out for regular white sugar in any dessert. "It's a great way to reduce sweetness and add complexity to your favorite recipes," Stella says.
How often do you get to listen to Kenji wax rhapsodic on browning meat, hear about the wild exploits of Colonel Sanders, and be schooled by BraveTart on the joys of toasted sugar, all in one terrific Special Sauce episode?
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/11/special-sauce-adam-chandler-part-2.html
This week's Special Sauce episode kicks off with Serious Eater Marc Lampert asking Kenji about the process of cooking with ingredients packed with umami. "Does umami cook out like an acid would?" Marc asked. Here's part of Kenji's response: "A general rule of thumb for cooking is if you can smell it that means that its concentration in the pot is going down...So if you are cooking a stew and it smells like there's this wonderful red wine aroma that means that the more you smell red wine in your house, the less is left in the stew. There's a finite bucket of it, and if it's in your house then it's not in your pot."
With Marc's question squared away, the episode moves on to my far-reaching conversation about fast food with former Atlantic staff writer Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America's Fast-Food Kingdom. He described to me the high school fast food ritual that started his journey: "On weekend nights, we would all pile into our cars and go to Whataburger. It was the last thing we did before we rushed across Houston to go home for our curfews. And that was our sacred ritual. I have the fondest memories of sitting down, and having breakfast with my friends right before we all went to bed...They have something called a breakfast taquito, which is eggs, a tortilla, hash browns, and American cheese...It's my deep-fried madeleine right there. It's just perfect."
I asked Adam why that taquito was perfect, and he said, "It was a comfort food for me. I think that was all I really considered it to be as something that even the adult menus at fast food restaurants kind of feel like a kid's menu. There's something about eating something with your hands, and taking it out of paper wrapping that feels kind of like a celebratory innocent thing...There was no formality required."
Adam and his wife even celebrate Valentine's Day with fast food. "We have a ritual for the last four years. We've gone to White Castle on Valentine's Day, so I have to do a special shout out for that because I don't know if you know this, at White Castle, they do table service every Valentine's Day. They have a red tablecloth."
Finally, the episode moves on to Daniel Gritzer, who talked about his favorite ways to cook a steak, which includes a technique that many cooks have been told is verboten. He said he does use a smoking hot pan, but then he busted a myth about flipping your steak just once while cooking.
To hear the rest of Kenji's explanation of how to use flavor agents, lots more fast food wisdom from Adam Chandler, and Daniel's steak-cooking tips, you'll just have to listen to the whole episode.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/10/special-sauce-kenji-on-cooking-with-fish-sauce-and-adam-chandler-on-fast-food.html
This week's episode of Special Sauce kicks off with our new culinary Q&A segment, "Ask Kenji." At the behest of listener Dave Shorr, Kenji lays down the law on the best way to freeze chicken. It’s a simple process that includes placing chicken pieces into a zipper-lock bag and pouring in a saltwater brine. Tune in to learn more about why- and be sure to read up on the benefits of freezing flat.
Next, Little Tong Noodle Shop owner Simone Tong explains how she came to open a restaurant serving mixian. These rice noodles, which are typically served in a brothy sauce with an array of toppings, hail from China’s Yunnan Province, and were largely unfamiliar to her customers. We both agreed that building a restaurant around a relatively unknown dish might not have been the wisest business decision, but she was undeterred. "I was naive and I was brave," she says. “I was like a New Yorker, confident."
Tong’s confidence and bravery were well rewarded. "Yeah, like you and many other food writers, supporters and foodies, they eat my food and they decided that they like it and they share the stories...and slowly, gradually people come. People come and I cook."
Finally, we listen to Serious Eats' very own pastry wizard Stella Parks as she tackles an at-home version of the famed (enormous) Levain chocolate chip cookie. “These cookies are no joke,” she says. “They came not to play, but to slay. You can kill a man with these cookies. Not that you should, but if you needed to, it would certainly get the job done.” You can watch the full video of her process and get the recipe for those cookies right here.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/preview?record=448957
This week's Special Sauce kicks off with our new culinary Q&A segment, "Ask Kenji." This time around, Kenji schools us and serious eater Paul Anderson on the differences between cornstarch and flour when used as thickeners. Among them: Unlike flour, "cornstarch tends to break down when you hold it hot," Kenji says. "So you've been to a Chinese buffet, and they have the pot of hot and sour soup that's been sitting there all day, that's usually thickened with cornstarch, and as it sits in that steam table over the day, it'll actually get thinner and thinner.... [it] breaks down over time. So, a sauce that you made [that] was nice and thick and glossy the day before, when you microwave it and reheat it the next day, it might end up really thin and watery." Keep that in mind next time you're wondering why your takeout leftovers don't hold up so well- and when you're making big batches of your own saucy dishes that you hope will last the weekend.
After that, we meet Little Tong Noodle Shop chef and restaurateur Simone Tong, who has made her Yunnan-style mixian noodles required eating (and ensured their place on our list of best NYC eats under $15. Tong tells us about her initial experiments in cooking, as a high school student in Melbourne, Australia. In Australia, she first discovered the joys of Vietnamese pho, and cherries: "I had cases and cases of cherries. I have this microwave, so I'm like, I want to make fried rice in the microwave with egg. And so I ate that for a week, and then during exam time...I decided to mix salad with Caesar salad dressing and soy sauce." Despite her adventurous tastes, there's one very basic ingredient that Tong still can't personally get behind—of course, you'll have to listen to the episode to learn what that is.
Finally, we check in on what's been happening in the kitchen lately at Serious Eats HQ, where Senior Culinary Editor Sasha Marx describes his process for making homemade trapizzini, a terrific Italian street food invented by Roman pizzaiolo Stefano Callegari. "It combines Roman pizza al taglio, which is our equivalent of pizza by the slice, and the tramezzino, which is a type of sandwich served in Italy that's made on white bread cut into triangles," Sasha explains. The result is a thick, puffy, beautifully golden focaccia-like bread, ready to be split open and filled with whatever strikes your fancy, from meatballs to stracciatella cheese to marinated artichokes. You can get the recipe and/or watch Sasha making this elevated take on a Pizza Pocket here.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/10/simone-tong-starches-trapizzini.html
For the first segment of this episode of Special Sauce 2.0, Kenji takes a question from serious eater Phil on how to make naan in a Big Green Egg. It starts with our grilled naan recipe and ends with a 60- to 90-second bake on a pizza stone.
Next, ice cream Jedi Master Nicholas Morgenstern, of Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream, talks about how he comes up with his notoriously inventive flavors, like Burnt Sage, Black Pepper Molasses, or the Banana Kalamansi ice cream he had me taste on mike.
His ice creams are excellent on their own, but Morgenstern also has a sundae bar in his shop. Why? "The ice cream sundae has come to represent the egalitarian indulgence that ice cream can be in this country...everyone can have an ice cream sundae,” he told me. “Ice cream is already strictly an indulgence, and you're taking it to another level by adding the things that if you were a child and could have whatever you wanted, you would have on there. It turns out everyone wants to have that." To prove his point, he also came to the studio with a seriously delicious chocolate peanut butter sundae he's named the Rosenthal, named after friend-of-Special-Sauce Phil Rosenthal, the host of "Somebody Please Feed Phil" on Netflix.
The final segment of the episode captures low-key rock-star Chicago chef Rick Bayless teaching me the secrets of making the perfect fresh ginger sparkling margarita. Bayless is a master storyteller and explainer, and he does it all without a script or a teleprompter- pretty darn impressive.
With these three great guests, it's an episode you won't want to miss.
The full transcript for this episode can be found over here at Serious Eats: https://www.seriouseats.com/2019/10/nick-morgenstern-kenji-rick-bayless.html