Inside the Mind of David Chang | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 428
September 24, 2021
Originally aired on September 18, 2020

Inside the Mind of David Chang

Inside the Mind of David Chang

We chat with chef David Chang about golf, the brutal first months of Momofuku and why he loves really good cheap food. Plus, we dive into the bizarre history of drinking around the world; Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette of A Way With Words give us a lesson on food names that double as cooking instructions; and we share a recipe for the best stewed beans you’ll ever make. (Originally aired September 18, 2020.)

This episode is brought to you by Sleep Number.

Questions in this Episode:

"I’m trying to up my spice game. Does Milk Street have a cheat sheet for a newbie to reference when stocking up?"

"A lot has been swirling recently about the proper way to grill meat. Much of this has come from Meathead Goldwyn who advocates roasting in an oven and then finishing on the grill. Can you put some science behind this meat grilling debate and put it to rest?"

"When I make your recipe for Punjabi chickpeas with potatoes, I always take the skins off of my chickpeas prior to cooking with them. Is that wrong or just a preference?"

"I have been making a blueberry quick bread for a couple years. It tastes divine but it always falls in the middle a bit. I have tried to tweak it. The only improvement I get is when I make it into muffins. Is there a way to keep it from not rising in the middle? I have tried so many different blueberry recipes but everyone agrees this one tastes the best."

Milk Street Radio David Chang

Christopher Kimball: Hi, this is Christopher Kimball. Thanks for listening to Milk Street Radio. You can go to our website to stream our television show, get our recipes or get our latest cookbooks. Enjoy this week’s show.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. David Chang is well known for his rebellious persona, but he does admit that age has changed his priorities. Today he speaks with us about what it takes to manage a restaurant, and why he is no longer concerned with being called a sellout.

David Chang [clip]: Selling out sometimes means getting older, and more mature. And you have to ask yourself, am I holding on to my pride and my ego because I need to remain pure and independent, and have my street cred and is my ego preventing my ability to better take care of my employees. And if that means I'm a sell out, then I'm a sell out, and so be it.

CK: Also coming up Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette tell us how certain foods contain cooking instructions right in their names. And later we share a recipe for the best stewed beans you'll ever make. The first step today it's my interview with Mark Forsyth about his book, A Short History of Drunkenness. Mark Forsyth welcome to Milk Street.

Mark Forsyth: Thanks for having me on the show.

CK: Your book A Short History of Drunkenness Did you originally set out to write a long history of drunkenness?

MF: I sort of thought about it. But a long history of drunkenness would I think be a history of the entire world given that pretty much every society on earth in all human history has drunk. So um, I thought I'd done just zoom in on various little points. And what was a wild west saloon like or what was the ancient Egyptian festival of drunkenness, like that sort of thing. Pick out little scenes and see the differences.

CK: So what was a wild west Salone really, like I've always wondered, I assume it had nothing to do with what I've seen in the movies.

MF: Um, largely nothing to do. The first most disappointing thing is those bat wings saloon doors didn't exist, which just ruins most of the westerns I've ever seen. Though, there is an aspect, which is actually very precisely correct, which you get in lots of movies. You know, when sort of Clint Eastwood walks into the saloon and asks for a drink, the bar man just pulls him a drink. And he chucks a coin on the bar. And he never asks how much the drink cost, and he never gets any change. That's actually completely historically accurate. Because what you would have is you'd have a two bit saloon usually there was a town that had two bit or four bits, saloons, four bit saloons with a nice ones, the two big ones were very cheap, and all the drinks cost two bits. So you could just throw your two bits on the bar. And that would always pay for the drinks. And that's why you still have that phrase of this is a two bit town. So that's accurate. People did get very drunk out in the wild west. Largely they were drinking whiskey just because that was so much easier to transport and an awful lot of it was fake whiskey flavored with weird things like creosote. In one case, I found there was a whole recipe book for how to fake various different kinds of drinks using just raw alcohol. So you put in some cold tea, some creosote, some raw alcohol, a little bit of sugar, and it will taste something like whiskey, but it really would get close to killing you.

CK: You asked the question, the eternal question, what happens when you give rats an open bar? What's the answer to that?

MF: Rats are, rats are very amusing. There are lots of experiments where they've given open bars to animals. And I can't help thinking that scientists are just giggling as they concoct these experiments. So chimpanzees, for example, just get drunk and stay drunk permanently. But um, rats do this very odd thing of, at the beginning, they all just get drunk, but then it forms into a routine. And they drink basically, twice a day, they drink just before they feed, which scientists called the aperitif. And they drink just before they sleep, which, scientists refer to as the nightcap. And then every four or five days in the rat colony, they suddenly all up their alcohol intake. So they appear to be having little rat parties every few days, where they all get drunk together, and it sounds rather lovely and rather human. But then there is a stranger and much darker side to it, which is that a rat colony has a very strict social structure from the top male who's called the king rat, down to the the very low status, males. And it's the low status males who drink the most. They seem to drink out of stress, they drink because they're miserable. Whereas the King ract is always a teetotaller, which is a bit similar. But it's very hard to say why they're doing because of how much we are projecting onto the animals of our own you have an idea. So for example, I mean, a fruit fly, which is a tiny little thing, which barely has a brain at all. But we know that when a male fruit fly is rejected by a female. It upsets alcohol intake. So it seems to be drinking to cure a broken heart. But that may just be some sort of strange projection.

CK: But it’s lovely in a way. So religion and drunkenness in many cases goes together, although not in the Western tradition, I guess.

MF: Well, we do of course, have communion. One of the strange things about the history of wine and winemaking is that wherever Christianity has gone, you've had to take wine in order to celebrate communion and that's why when all the Conquistadores were landing on the, in America and on the coast of California, particularly they had vines in their boats, because they had to plant the vines so they could start making wine so they could convert the natives and then have a proper communion. So it meant quite seriously that things like converting Iceland became very hard because any way you have Christianity, you've got to have your wine supply somehow getting there.

CK: Aztecs. You mentioned Aztecs liked more hallucinogens, they did not like alcohol. You said that a priest who drank was killed. A government official lost their job. A regular person would have their head shaved in public. So what, why was alcohol not part of the Aztec culture?

MF: A lot of the time if you, if you're a normal person, you would be strangled in public. And if you were a nobleman, you've got strangled in private, which seemed like a weird advantage to being a noble. It's quite hard to see how Aztec culture worked with drinking, they definitely had beer. They definitely got drunk. They measured their drunkenness on a scale actually, because there were 400 sacred rabbits of drunkenness. So you measured your drunkenness on a rabbit scale, you'd say I was seven rabbits drunk last night.

CK: So let's go to China, 1700 BC, one of the emperors drank a lot. I love this, he was happily drinking and writing his chancellor around like a horse. When his chancellor became exhausted and claps the Emperor had him executed. Just the day in the life, right?

MF: A day in the life, well, there were two Chinese emperors according to that, once you get far enough back in Chinese history, the Emperor's becomes slightly mythological. And you can't work out to what extent they existed. But there were two, there was the first Chinese Emperor had a wine lake built so he could paddle around it in a little canoe, and just sort of lean over the side and drink it. And a few generations later, you had another emperor who had a wine lake. But this time, he had a little island in the middle with a tree on it, which was hung with baked meats. So it's kind of a bacon tree or something. So you could paddle around on your wine lake and then pick bacon off a tree just sounds utterly wonderful. But the Chinese had a troubled relationship with wine though. According to legend, the the guy who invented wine, which was actually the will, the oldest known wine does come from China, but the guy who invented wine showed it to the first very wise Emperor. And he tasted it and said, This is wonderful. Have the guy executed, because it's too good and it will cause disorder in the world.

CK: True, but also great pleasure. So fast forward to today. Do you see the history of alcohol still today, affecting how we consume it? And where are we headed next with it?

MF: It's so hard to say where the trends are going. Now. I will say that we will never cut drunkenness out of our lives and I don't think we'll ever cut alcohol out. We need to say cheers. We need to mark time and place and weddings and funerals and New Years and birthdays and all these things. We need alcohol and drunkenness specifically as a kind of punctuation in our lives. And I think that's part of being human and that will never ever go away.

CK: Mark Forsyth, thanks for being on Milk Street.

MF: thank you very much for having me on.

CK: That was Mark Forsyth, etymologist and author of a Short History of Drunkenness. It's time to take your calls with my co host, Sara Moulton. She is of course the star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. Also the author of Home Cooking 101. Sara, are you ready to go?

SM: Chris, I am so prepared.

CK: Welcome to Milk Street, who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Josh from Chicago.

CK: Hi, Josh. How are you?

Caller: I am doing fantastic.

CK: Good. How can we help you?

Caller: Well, I'm calling because I am trying to up my spice game I have for such a long time had the typical spices, my salt, my peppers, maybe on occasion I'll go crazy now, some dried oregano or cumin. So I thought I would actually kind of break the mold this year and try and build out that spice rack that’s been for too long empty. And I'm just trying to figure out how does the guy kind of build out the spices and yeah, where does he start and what are some of the more interesting spices that one should have in their repertoire?

CK: Well, I'll give you five or six spices I think you should get. You mentioned cumin and coriander, you should definitely have those. I would have them ground and whole seeds, a lot of recipes. I use them whole or you toast them whole in a skillet for a couple minutes and then grind them up and you get lots more flavor. For pepper, Aleppo pepper and urfa pepper. Aleppo is particularly useful. It's a little fruity, it's hot. It's used in a lot of recipes around the Middle East. A smoked paprika, you can use water, old bread and some garlic and make a soup with smoked paprika. It's great. Turmeric I assume you have around but make sure you have that. And then two others, sumac which is used a lot in Middle Eastern cooking. And the last would be Sichuan peppercorns because they give you that sort of numbing experience in the mouth which is really unique and is used in a lot of cooking. So cumin coriander, cardamom, Aleppo, smoked paprika, turmeric, sumac, Sichuan peppercorns. That's more than five. But that's my list.

SM: All right, Josh, what are you going to be cooking?

Caller: Well, I traditionally cook mostly stews. So I'm trying to break out of that mold.

CK: I'd have two suggestions, saute the onions with some oil, cook them and add the spices with the onions at the beginning to develop some flavor. So no matter what spices you use, don't just throw everything in and you can use a cold pan with cold oil and put the onions in and then add your cumin or coriander, whatever you want and develop that for seven or eight minutes. Secondly, when you're finished with your dish, take a little bit of oil just like grapeseed oil or olive oil, take a little bit of spice like in Aleppo pepper would work or you could use turmeric or whatever you want. And infuse that on top of the stove. Just warm up the oil with the pepper in it for a couple minutes. And then drizzle it over each serving when you serve it. It's called tarka, it's used in Indian cooking. Those two things should up your game substantially because you get a lot more flavor at the beginning and at the end.

SM: Well I agree with cooking things in oil and also finishing with spices as well. But I would love for you to learn the flavor profile of each one of these spices. So I'd almost say take one at a time and cook in a little oil and taste it and see how you like it.

Caller: This is a new concept for me, a flavor profile. Well, this is wonderful. I'll now feel less intimidated when I walked down that spice file.

SM: Oh, you should, don't worry about it.

CK: Take charge. Throw your shoulders back. Look forward.

SM: Thank you.

Caller: Thank you very much. Take care.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you have a cooking question, give us a call anytime. That number is 855-426-9843, one more time 855-426-9843 or email us at Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi Howard Breslov calling.

CK: Is that the Howard Breslov that I know or is this a different Howard?

Caller: It is Chris.

CK: It sounds like it. So now you can ask me really embarrassing question. Right?

Caller: I’d never do that.

SM: Now I’m going to sit back. Howard, how can we help you.

Caller: Hello, Sara.

SM: Oh hello, and do address it right to Chris. Put him on the hot seat, please.

Caller: So we'll get right to it. A lot has been swirling around recently about the proper way to grill meat. Much of this has come from Meathead Goldwyn, who advocates roasting in an oven and then finishing on a grill and can you put some science behind the meat grilling debate and put it to rest? See what I did there?

CK: Yeah, this is a softball. The theory is this. If you cook a steak or meat over very low heat, it's evenly cooked from the outside in.

SM: so you have more rare or medium rare, whatever you're trying to achieve

CK: As Meathead says. what happens is it's not the heat cooking the inside of the meat, it's the outside of the meat that gets hot, and then that radiates heat to the inside of the meat. So if you use high heat, the outside absorbs a lot of energy and gets over cooked. By the time the inside comes up to temperature. So you start with low heat, mostly cook it and then at the very last few minutes you cook it in a skillet or over a high heat just to get a nice sear. The other thing that happens is you get sort of turbo Aging. Once the meat gets in that 175, 180 degree, 200 degree range, you actually get flavor development. I've done a blind taste test where you can actually taste the difference. So if you put a thick steak in an oven for half an hour, 40 minutes, 250 degrees, you are sort of aging the meat.

Caller: Traditionally, the reason I guess we all cooked a one of the reasons that many people have advocated for grilling is to seal in the juices, right?

CK: Searing does nothing to seal in the juices. I mean, it's not a bag of water, that's going to leak out unless you see outside. The only reason that liquid leaves is because the muscle proteins tightened, they twist and they shorten, and the water gets pushed out. And that's entirely a function of internal temperature has nothing to do with the outside at all. The other thing is, you know, if you cook chicken, I do it over very low heat for a long period of time and you get a great browning on the crust.

SM: Talking about what kind of chicken?

CK: Like a spatchcock chicken on a grill. Okay, cook a very low heat. Flip it, it turns out, you can get a great crust with low heat with time, right. And you don't have to worry about it burning and you don't have to worry about flipping it constantly. I think it's a great way to cook chicken as well.

SM: Oh, I like that. So

Caller: Same temperature, 250?

CK: Well, this would be an outdoor, I just put it on medium low on a grill. And then next to it. You can also have the grill on medium high. Or the other thing you do is if it's a three part gas grill, the center is off, and the two sides are on medium high. You know, you're almost roasting with indirect to say, great. You didn't think you get this much excitement.

Caller: No, you know this is exactly what I was hoping to get. I'm delighted to get this detailed answer.

CK: Yes. Start a steak, a thick steak and a 250 oven and then finish it on the grill or skillet.

Caller: Thank you so much.

SM: All right, Howard.

CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Up next, we're chatting with David Chang, host of Netflix's Ugly Delicious. Also author of Eat a Peach. We'll be right back.


CK: This is Milk Street Radio. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now it's my interview with chef and Momofuku founder, David Chang. David, welcome to Milk Street.

David Chang: Excited to be on. Thank you for having me.

CK: Love your memoir, Eat a Peach. You have a lot of interesting stuff in here. But let me just start with this quote: “You think a salmon really wants to swim upstream and die?” Question mark. “They have no choice. That's how I feel too.” And I have to say reading a memoir like yours, I wasn't really expecting those lines. Could you just explain what you mean by that?

DC: Yeah, I've used that expression a lot. Number one, I think because I'm an avid fly fisherman, and I don't know if I oftentimes think like a fish. But I always ponder, you know, why would they swim upstream, to go back to the place of their birth in freshwater from the ocean, and ultimately, do something that's in their genetic coding, to reproduce and then die. You know, it's an incredibly, in some ways, sad and depressing thing, but ultimately, too it’s could be seen as beautiful. But, you know, in some ways, it's how I sort of think about the existential sort of plight, that I sometimes think about my own life, and that, you know, you have to continue to move forward, regardless of the circumstances. And that's the only guarantee you have in life, right, is that you're going to die. And I know that seems incredibly, like sad to think about, but I sometimes think about it in a way that's very refreshing. You know, it gets my, gets me moving.

CK: So let's start at the beginning. You grew up in Northern Virginia, your father was from North Korea, your mother from South Korea. You were a golf prodigy, which I did not know, in a very early age. But by the time you get to be what 10 or 11 other people started surpassing you. Was that motivational for you, was that difficult?

DC: You know, sometimes I think about Chris, and it's almost like gaslighting, like was I even that good because I never, you know, fulfilled as a prospect. But I think about it then. And I didn't really know what I was doing. And I was this cocky little kid because I just won and I beat everybody. But I don't think I ever grew to love it. It became something that I had to do. And, you know, burning out is a terrible feeling because I didn't have the mental experience or ability to understand why I wasn't good anymore. You know, that wasn't that wasn't easy to deal with.

CK: Also your dad, there's a little detail. I love memoirs, it’s the details that matter. You said he was the kind of guy who would order his meal ahead of time in a restaurant and then ask for the check halfway through that, that just sounds like the antithesis of your approach to food.

DC: It is the antithesis and simultaneously imprinted a giant, like giant part of who I am, you know, simultaneously, you know, it was, it was embarrassing, he would call before we would leave the house to go to a restaurant, order ahead. And we would be in and out in under sometimes 20 minutes. So, you know, it wasn't about enjoying the meal, it was simply just food and to eat something delicious as quickly as possible and get out. You know, part of my career I think has been exploring what's absolutely necessary in dining to strip away some of what might be nonsense, or trivial things. And I never thought about it until recently that wow, like my dad did leave that giant imprint on me.

CK: You also talk a little bit about the restaurant business when you got started at Cafe Boulud. You said the amuse bouche had a rule and the rule was it had to be made from scraps, it had to be one bite, it had to be incredibly delicious. But they weren't going to spend any money on you know, creating a separate prep for it. It was something you had to sort of create out of nothing. Is that, is that true of a lot of restaurants or was that just there?

DC: Yeah, that's true. For the most part. I mean, there were probably a handful of times where there was something, I remember one day getting a bay scallop and we made a dish that I've continued to riff on bay scallops with pineapple,and dashi. But I'm amuse bouche for the restaurants that I've been in, for the most part, like I would say, 99.9% of the time have always been, we're not buying you anything, use what you have in the restaurant, and, and be resourceful, be creative. You have to make something out of nothing, yet make it incredibly delicious and visually stunning. It becomes the bane of your existence. But that kind of pressure proved to be very fruitful for me.

CK: So okay, so you want to start your own restaurant at a very young age. Yeah, but you had a great concept, which I still may be is even more relevant today. You're talking about Japan, I could eat extraordinarily well in places that weren't punishingly expensive. And I don't mean cheap eats. You mean people who have an incredible devotion to their craft. But this was not the $250 a person meal. And I just think that's a lovely concept to start a restaurant.

DC: Yeah, that you know, and it was a variety of reasons as to why I started it. But I think one of the main reasons why was I never thought I was going to be good enough to open up a fine dining restaurant. But at that time of my life, I was fortunate enough that I traveled abroad. And there was a good stretch where I thought I would be an expat living somewhere in Asia, and I was able to travel and I think that's probably the most important thing if you have the privilege and luxury to be able to see how other people eat. And from China and Japan and Korea, and a little bit even in Europe, but specifically in Asia, I was blown away at just how well people would eat cheaply, right, even from the convenience store, to how college students would eat. But there was a rich food culture throughout Asia that I found was not only accessible, and you know, populist, but it wasn't fast food. It was something that I didn't know how to understand because it didn't exist in America, that you could spend, you know, $5 to $10 and have a beautiful meal. And it wasn't fast food.

CK: Well so you open the restaurant. I just love this. So someone, one of your customers had had your ramen, your noodles, said I've had this in Asia. If you think you're making Japanese food, I'm sorry, you're sorely mistaken. Actually, I have to ask you. Have you ever been to Japan? And so you redid, I think in the first few months, you rethought the menu and decided to do what you really wanted to do, I guess.

DC: Well, you know that those first six months were brutal. We were certainly going to go out of business. And you know, we started off talking a little bit about ruminating on death and, and how that can motivate you. And when you're faced with the prospect of going out of business and your business dying, you're like, okay, the things that I thought were important aren't that important. The things that I thought that I couldn't do, who cares? We're gonna go out of business anyway. And you know, the best way I could describe, you know, the sort of pivotal moment for us was like, we're not going to serve dumplings. You know? Back then I thought, if you were going to serve noodles, you had to serve dumplings, you had to serve fried rice. And these were sort of the stereotypical side dishes of serving something in a noodle house. And then it dawned on me most people even want what a noodle house was, most people don't even know what a real bowl of ramen is. So I was like, who cares? You have these ideas that you want to do, but you're like, oh that's just too far fetched people, they won't get it. And then when you find that you have basically like two to three weeks of money left, you're like, screw it, you know, just try everything, right? Who cares? Exactly.

CK: So you also talk about the reality of the restaurant business and you talk about every day, you'd have to climb a ladder to clean out the air conditioners, compressor, the vents, because of a tree in the neighborhood that had some strange flower on it. You know, dealing with the sump pump and other problems, how much of the restaurant business is really not exploring your art is just the day to day, cleaning out stuff, and making sure the electricity works?

DC: Ah man, that is like all day, that is your entire life. Just dealing with the most idiotic things that are constantly breaking, it's hard to focus on actually cooking. Because you're now responsible for the livelihoods of employees and your guests. You know, maintaining a building in New York City is incredibly difficult. So you find yourself, you know, you just never have a moment of quiet, because you're constantly fixing something. And then you finally reach a point where you accept it. Right? Like if you talk to a lot of restaurant owners that have been not unnecessarily successful, but they've endured it. At some point, you stop fighting and complaining about the situation and you learn to sort of let it wash over you and realize that this is just part of reality now and you learn to accept it. And you learn to become better at dealing with it. And the best way I could describe it is you just sort of surrender to the idea. And then you reach another level.

CK: Well, I think it was Bill Buford telling me recently, he he pointed that out too. But he said, you know, 12 hours a day of doing the same repetitive task. At some point, you get to the top of that hill, right or the bottom, and you start to love it, you start to love the repetition, you start to love the work.

DC: Yeah, I mean, it's one of the reasons why we decided to choose the cover of the book, which is basically a riff on the myth of Sisyphus, it is the most existentially absurdly stupid job you could possibly do. You spend 12 to 14 hours a day, making something that's going to disappear in the toilet, you know, eight hours later, after somebody consumes it, it's, it's so dumb. And yet we treat it so seriously. And I think that the reality is, is at some point, if you if you get it, it becomes like everything, the monotony, the what I jokingly say is the stupidity of it becomes liberating, and becomes like a weird metaphor for life where doing the work becomes the best part of your day. Because when you step back, and you really, truly appreciate it, it's this job that it's a little bit of sportsmanship, it's a little bit of teamwork, it's physical, it's science, it's artistry, it's business. And I have a hard time finding any other job that has that we have to like truly juggle all of those things. To be great at it.

CK: A lot of people sell out in this business. You almost sold out to a fast food chain. At one point, you write about a developer, I think, who wanted to do business with you, when you discover deep in the contract that you'd have to take over one of his losing properties and fix it? Is that in your business, is the idea of selling out a problem? And do you think people who do eventually sell out lose their soul in the business or you think that's the right endpoint?

DC: You know, I've wrestled with that question of selling out a lot in my life. And I would argue that if I was a younger version of me in my early 20s, I'd say this guy's a sellout. Now, right? And you know what? selling out sometimes means getting older, and more mature, or staying young and rebellious. And for me, it was how do you always do better to take care of everybody? And so much of our growth originally was trying to get healthcare for everybody, you know? And that was the thing is when you have to ask yourself, am I holding on to my pride and my ego because I need to remain pure and independent and have my street cred? And is my ego preventing my ability to better take care of my employees? And if that means I'm a sellout, then I'm a sellout. And so be it.

CK: Or even survive as a business.

DC: Or even survive as a business. Exactly. So things change for sure.

CK: Let's talk about you for a second you, you say your method was a dangerous, short sighted combination of fear and fury. And you also talk about getting depressed. Are you at a stage now where you sort of outgrew all of that in life? Now you have a, you know, a kid. Have you outgrown that period of your life? Or is that still with you?

DC: Um, no, I don't think I'm ever going to outgrow it, that is something that is going to be with me, you know, forever. I still wrestle with all of these things. You know, the default setting as it was, and, and, you know, that's, that's my, that's my duty. The challenge I presented myself to make sure I try not to make the same mistakes and to grow and to be a better person to hold myself accountable and, and to acknowledge my weaknesses and, and, and, and to be transparent. And I think that the only thing that's really been different, Chris is, as I've gotten older, I'm more willing to share it with people and the people around me. And before when I was going through whatever trials and tribulations it felt like I was totally alone. And while I still feel totally alone, at times, I know, unequivocally now that there are people that even my worst moments will help me out.

CK: You knew Tony Bourdain. In the book you talk about having a series of meals with him with just the massive amount of food. He texted you after that dinner and the text said, be a fool for love. I think I know what that means. But what does that mean to you?

DC: You know, I again, I think about that a lot too. And I think Tony just was like, I think at the end of the day, we all know what makes us happy. But we're afraid of the repercussions of actually doing it. Whether it's out of fear, or embarrassment, or some kind of anxiety, that whatever action you actually want to do, in everything we want is on the other side of fear. And I think that's what Tony was saying is whatever's in your head that's preventing you from being happy, or finding love or being more fulfilled. Just throw that away.

CK: David, a real,real pleasure having you on Milk Street and I wish you all the best. Thanks.

DC: Appreciate it. Thank you for having me on Chris.

CK: There was David Chang, founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, also host of Netflix's Ugly Delicious. His new memoir is Eat a Peach. Chang commented that the only thing that is certain about life is death and the death in fact refreshes one's appreciation for life. Chang is not alone. In ancient India corpses were left exposed in charnel grounds, people actually witnessed decomposition, a vivid reminder of one's mortality. Stoicism, a Greek school of philosophy, believes that everything was born to die, a reminder to focus on what is truly important, which for them was spiritual progress. Yet not every philosopher agrees. A 16th century philosopher Montane mused that obsessing over death is a bit like putting on her fur coat in summer, because we'll need it at Christmas. But perhaps a modern writer, Irvin Yalom said it best. Although the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us. It’s time to head into the kitchen at Milk Street to chat with Lynn Clark about this week's recipe, Mexican stewed beans with salsa fresca. Lynn, how are you?

Lynn Clark: I'm great, Chris.

CK: I always start these things by telling you where I went.

LC: I'm so lucky.

CK: Which you don't appreciate. But I went to Mexico City. specifically to cook beans with a chef. His name is Eduardo Garcia. He owns Maximo restaurant in town, but he told me to meet him at the canal. It turns out Xochimilco is in the Southern District of Mexico City, which is surrounded by mountains. And hundreds of years ago, the Aztecs took a lake and built islands which was used for agriculture. So you essentially have a series of canals between the islands and the food was grown and then by boat brought in to the center of town of course, you can't do that now because it's all built up. But the canal still exists. You get on a barge. Early in the morning, it was cold and misty, very romantic. And we motored up for about half an hour to one of these islands, which he uses as sort of a cooking school. It was absolutely gorgeous. And so we got there, he used it because casuela, a pottery pot, over woodfire, of course, cooked the beans for a couple hours, made a sofrito and also made a salsa fresca. And that was the meal. We had blue corn tortillas with it, which were handmade right there. We forgot to bring spoons. So we used the tortillas as spoons, which I got pretty good at as a shovel. And these enormous bottles of beer to go along with it as well. You know, 1000s of miles and up a canal on a barge to cook beans. And for good reason, because these were absolutely phenomenal. So replicating that here, we had to make, I guess a few changes, right?

LC: We did. So Eduardo uses a very local pinto bean, really young pinto bean, the pinto beans, we were able to get access to really didn't live up to your memory of this magical voyage you took down the canal to the island. So we had to substitute with a cranberry bean.It’s very similar in terms of how it cooks up, it's really velvety inside, very meaty bean. And that's really important here because the bean is really the star of the show.

CK: Meaty is exactly the right adjective, because it feels like a savory meat dish almost. The beans become meat. So the sofrito was slightly different, right?

LC: It was. It was kind of surprising to me, I've cooked a lot of Latin American food and always use a sofrito. You know, it's usually onion, garlic, tomato, a little bit of jalapeno or guajillo chili, and you use that as a base of whatever you're making. Eduardo does it slightly differently, which makes the most sense and adds it at the end. So all of those flavors are really nice and fresh and bright. I'm surprised I've never seen this before. But it was really like, of course, you would add this at the end. Why wouldn't you want those flavors to be fresh?

CK: Yeah once in a while I have a culinary moment where I feel like a total idiot. I mean, it does happen more frequently than I'd like to admit. But when he did that, and I asked them, he said, well, that's because it tastes fresher. If you added at the beginning it would taste tired. So for 40 years, I've been adding it at the beginning. This is one of those lessons you can take with you, right.

LC: It seems so obvious. And then at the end you add the salsa fresca, which is a raw salsa. Tomato, red onion, jalapeno, cilantro, really again, nice fresh flavors added to these stewed beans.

CK: So 1000s of miles up a canal to an island and cook beans with Eduardo Garcia. And this was just a fabulous day and this is just a great dish. Mexican stewed beans, savory, meaty, and the sofrito. At the end of the salsa fresca and a few tortillas to use as a spoon.

LC: Why not? And big bottles of beer

CK: And big bottles of beer. Actually, they refer to them in Spanish as turtles. They're about as big as a large turtle, just absolutely delicious. Thank you, Lynn.

LC: You're welcome. You can get this recipe for Mexican stewed beans with salsa fresca at

CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Coming up. Grant Barrett and Martha Barnett give us a language lesson on food names that double as cooking instructions. That are more in just a moment.


CK: This is Milk Street Radio I'm Christopher Kimball. Next up Sara Moulton and I will be answering a few more of your cooking questions.

SM: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Amanda Ruth.

SM: Hi, Amanda. Where are you calling from?

Caller: Blandon, Pennsylvania.

SM: What can we do for you today?

Caller: Well, I have a question. Whenever I use canned chickpeas beans, such as like in your Punjabi recipe, I feel the need to squeeze off the outer skin prior to premium in the pot. Because like the skin is kind of loose already. I don't like that floating in my final dish. So I was willing, is this a normal process? Or am I messing up the flavor of the dish?

CK: Just if you want to know how old somebody is, you ask them if they remove the outer skin in their chickpeas, because I'm old enough not to care. I just do not care. I make hummus without doing it. I never bother. When you cook chickpeas, if you cook them with some baking soda in the water. you soak them overnight. I mean you're talking about canned. They will kind of fall off on their own anyway. But I would say this is a matter of personal preference. Life is––I don't have enough years left to worry about skins on chickpeas.

Caller: I have too much time on my hands.

SM: No, this is what you care about. You're not messing up the recipe by doing it. You're just taking a little more time and if you're happy doing that you should do it.

Caller: Okay, yeah. All right. Yeah. I will keep on squeezing that then.

CK: Now is this because you you don't like the way it looks or you don't like, it just looks, feels gross the skins?

Caller: Yeah, it's kind of looks gross to have like just like that skin and I only see it when it's canned chickpeas. When I start with the dry ones, I don't usually have a problem with it, but just the canned ones are already kind of loose. So it just kind of bothers me a little bit.

SM: Again, the baking soda method. Toss that can drain chickpeas with some baking soda and warm them in the microwave briefly, and then you can roll them in a towel and skin should come off.

CK: You gotta rinse them in water. It's like hazelnuts. The other bane of my existence. Use big kitchen towels. You put the kitchen towel down, put the hazelnuts or the chickpeas on it, cover it and just roll it back and forth, and that'll get rid of most of them.

Caller: Okay,I'll try that next time.

CK: Well, thanks for calling.

SM: Take care.
CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you're looking to master a recipe, or perhaps a technique, give us a ring, the number is 855-426-9843. That's 855-426-9843. Or simply email us at Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: This is Mary Jo.

CK: Hi, Mary Jo, where are you calling from?

Caller: Minneapolis.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: I am having problems with a blueberry recipe. It's a quick bread, you know, and it's just I cannot get it to not sink in the middle. And I've tried quite a few different things. But I'm thinking maybe it doesn't have enough leavener in it. Originally, the recipe called for a cup of sugar and a cup of flour. So I reduced the amount of sugar thinking that might have. But that didn't seem to do it. I've tried a couple different things. But I need some ideas. The recipe is so tasty.

CK: So what else is in it? What are the other ingredients, the major ingredients?

Caller: There's a four ounces of cream cheese. And usually I do about a cup of blueberries. There’s an egg, cup of flour. I put three quarters cup of sugar, half a stick of butter, and then egg and then teaspoon baking powder and a quarter teaspoon of salt.

CK: When you use the, did you ever use the full cup of sugar and then reduced it? Did that change things when you reduce the sugar?

Caller: No, it didn't. I thought it would because it was kind of trying to read and I thought well maybe it's got you know too much sugar or something in it. And it didn't seem to make a difference. It still just doesn't seem to want to puff up. I’ve made every other kind of quick bread and I've never had a problem like this. It comes out okay in muffins, but it's just not as moist as the loaf usually is.

SM: My friend Jeannie Anderson wrote this cookbook called the Doubleday cookbook. She had this section in there about what goes wrong with cakes. And I seem to remember when you know about cakes collapsing in the center, that it was usually either too much sugar, you already sensed that, or too much fat. But I also had another question. However, you're not having this problem with your other quick breads. So it's probably not the issue which is do you know that your baking powder is fresh?

Caller: Oh, yeah.

SM: Okay, so that's not the problem.

CK: I think you've nailed it. I think there's not enough flour. You have a cup of flour, free quarter cup of sugar. You got a cup of blueberries. You got cream cheese, you got butter.

SM: You’ve got six ounces of fat.

CK: Yeah, I think you've got too much fat to flour. I would up the flour by at least a quarter cup or a third cup. And see if that does it. The reason the muffin’s not a problem is because you have less volume, and therefore the structure will work better than in a big loaf pan. But I think there's just too much fat in this to flour.

SM: Maybe just a tiny bit more flour and keep everything the same, you're saying?

CK: Yeah, I would give that a shot. I think another quarter or third cup should solve it.

Caller: Okay, I've got some blueberries in my refrigerator. I'll give it a shot tomorrow morning.

SM: Okay, and Mary Jo, please let us know how it goes. We need to hear back did that work.

CK: But I mean, if it doesn't work, then don't bother.

SM: Yeah, don't call us.

CK: Please do, please do let us know.

SM: We'd like to know. And we're rooting for you.

Caller: Thanks for your help.

CK: Thanks Mary Jo.

Caller: Bye bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Now it's time for some culinary inspiration from one of our listeners.

Listener: Hi, my name is Stephanie and here are some tips for garlic. If a recipe calls for minced garlic, it's way easier to just grate it instead of cutting it and you end up with the same result. When you go to fry that minced garlic. Put it into a pan with cold oil and then that way to heats up together and it won't burn as easily.

CK: If you'd like to share your own cooking tip on Milk Street Radio please go to Next up it’s Grant Barrett and Martha Barnett host of a way with words. Grant and Martha, welcome back to Milk Street.

Martha Barnette: Hi, Chris.

Grant Barrett: Hi, Chris.

CK: So which words are unique confound me with this week?

MB: Well, I've been thinking about the fact that the names of foods aren't arbitrary, that they may sound unusual, but some names simply contained cooking instructions inside the words themselves. I'm thinking of words like bouillabaisse, for example. Are you a bouillabaisse fan?

CK: I've actually had it in southern France. Yeah. Well, I actually I had it with my brother. And he's allergic to shellfish. So I had two portions. So it was a very successful outing for me.

MB: It's such a lovely sounding word, right, but it simply means literally boil, then lower. It's got the cooking instructions built in right there in the word from French.

CK: So bouilla means boil, right?

MB: Right. And then the baisse in there is like a base in English, meaning to lower you a base yourself, you lower. So it's got the cooking instructions right there in the name of the dish. And there are a lot of food names that simply mean to cut, for example, the word schnitzel, from German. It comes from a root that means to cut and it's a relative of, of words like Schneider in English and Snyder, which mean tailor, it has to do with cutting once again.

GB: Yeah, and that suffix, el suffix is a diminutive suffix, which kind of makes it small and cute. And it's the same suffix on the end of bagel.

CK: Well, yeah, I know, the Austrians in particular. Everything's cute.

MB: Feta cheese comes from a Greek word that simply means cutting. And again, it's related to the Italian word, fettuccine, which means ribbons, which is very picturesque, right?

CK: Well I mean, you'd expect the Italians to be picturesque, I mean,

MB: Oh, they are, all those pasta names like farfalle, which means butterflies and ombelichi sacri, which means navels of Venus, sacred navels.

CK: Ombelichi sacri? I never heard of that. What’s that?

MB: It’s tortellini. But they call it ombelichi sacri. Which is like umbilicus. It's like your, like your navel. It's the sacred navel.

CK: That's so much better than tortellini.

MB: Yeah, it's a lot more sexy, right?

CK: Yeah, that's good. What else do you have?

MB: Other words that have the food process in their name, or words like pesto, which literally means pounded. It's, it's a relative of pestle and piston, those pounding terms. And couscous also comes from Arabic, a word that means pulverized.

CK: That's interesting, because couscous isn't, it’s the opposite of pulverized. It's taking flour, and rolling it up with just a little bit of water into small pellets, right? So you're making something out of flour. You're building it up. You're not pulverizing it. It's kind of interesting,

MB: Right yeah, it may have to do with the way you got the flower in the first place

CK: That could be stepping back in time in the production process. So let's go back to the original one, bouillabaisse tells you how to make it. I think that would be a fabulous book. I mean, you know, all the recipes have the directions and the name of the recipe. Lovely concepts.

GB: Some of them are very long. Preheat the oven to 375.

CK: Grant and Martha, dishes that tell you something about how they're made right in the title. Thank you so much.

GB: Our pleasure.

MB: Thank you, Chris.

CK: That was Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette, hosts of A Way with Words. You know, my favorite words are contranyms. Those are words that contain opposite meanings. To clip means to attach but it also means to cut off. To sanction is to approve or penalize. To bound is to tie up or to leap. In the world of food garnish means to decorate, but it also means to take away as in garnish wages. So I think you could garnish someone's dinner plate by adding parsley, or by taking away the mashed potatoes. Who says the words don't matter? That's it for today. That's it for this week's show. CK: If you tune in later or just want to listen again, you can download and subscribe to Milk Street Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find your podcast. To learn more about Milk Street, please go to There, you can download each week's recipe, watch the latest season of our television show, or order our latest cookbook Milk Street Fast and Slow: Instant Pot Cooking at the Speed You Need. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street and on Instagram and Twitter at 177milkstreet. We'll be back next week with more food stories and thanks as always for listening. Before you go, I want to congratulate Travis and Elsa on their recent marriage. Here's to a lifetime of joy and happiness around the table.

Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street, in association with GBH
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