Cooking for Space Aliens and Vampire Queens: Meet Food Stylist Janice Poon | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 504
January 29, 2021

Cooking for Space Aliens and Vampire Queens: Meet Food Stylist Janice Poon

Cooking for Space Aliens and Vampire Queens: Meet Food Stylist Janice Poon

We enter the world of intergalactic sushi joints and cannibal banquets with food stylist Janice Poon. She tells us about her work on horror and sci-fi films, from feeding vegan vampires to wrangling snails to make arm escargot. Plus, we learn hamburger history with burger scholar George Motz; Bianca Bosker explores the origins of the PB&J; and we make a fragrant beef stew from Vietnam.

Questions in this Episode:

“I’ve recently started cooking with white pepper. Are there any hard and fast rules when it comes to using white pepper versus black pepper?”

“I keep hearing about the benefits of cooking bacon in the oven instead of the stovetop. I don’t dare to try it because I’m worried that it will spatter all over the inside of the oven. Is that true, and if so, how can I avoid it?”

“I am a first time jam maker, and having trouble getting my jam to reach 220 degrees. I do not live in a high altitude, but not super low either. What is my problem?”

“I used to use pine nuts in cooking and baking, but I developed what I have since read is called “pine mouth.” It made everything I ate for almost a week taste awful. Why did this happen, and will I ever be able to eat pine nuts again?”

Milk Street Radio Janice Poon

Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Janice Poon is the person to call when you need edible amniotic fluid for the fictional birth of the devil. As Hollywood's go to expert for gruesome and sometimes challenging food styling, she takes us behind the scenes of some of her most famous creations, such as the 30-foot Subway sandwich, fake meat for a vegan vampire and arm escargot using real snails.

Janice Poon: Yes, there was a snail wrangler. The snails are so I mean, talk about divas. They want to go left, and you can't make them go right. They were always crawling the wrong direction it took forever to get that shot.

CK; Also, on the show, Bianca Bosker wonders, what makes a pb & j the perfect sandwich, and we make a Vietnamese beef stew with lemon grass. But first, it's my interview with George Motz. He's the host of the online series Burger Scholar Sessions. George, welcome to Milk Street.

George Motz: Thanks for having me.

CK: You're a professor of burgers. At least that's one way to describe it. You're not a fan of big chains, you're looking for something quite different. So, what are your rules about what defines a great American burger joint?

GM: Well, to me, a great American burger joint is one that takes the craft and the history very seriously. There. I mean, there have been chains that have been around for a long time, of course, as we know. But some of the best to me are the mom and pops in small towns that have just been doing it the same way they've been doing it for sometimes four and five generations.

CK; We're talking about places that the ownership is probably stayed in the same family most of the time. Fresh meat. Are there any other rules about how they prepare the burgers or anything else?

GM: Yeah, to me, I mean, obviously, fresh meat is number one on the list, you have to use fresh meat. Frozen beef is a big no, no, in my book, and there a lot of places that have been around for a long time that are unfortunately still using frozen meat. That's a big rule. Another one is that you have to appreciate your own history. There are a lot of regional burger specialties out there that are are true to themselves because they stayed so true to their core and their original burger that they may have made over 100 years ago.

CK: And there's a quote here that says ‘Motz says ketchup is the worst thing you can put on a burger” end quote, right?

GM: Yes, but I'm not being contrarian and it's actually true. I think that hamburger is so much greater than ketchup. Ketchup is very sweet. And I call for unfortunately, ketchup when it comes to the hamburger as a very bad history, I believe. Arguably it was introduced by chains in the 40s to get kids get children excited about hamburgers, and a little bit of a sweet component to a hamburger and the idea is that kids would eat their burgers more. But to me ketchup on a burger it's okay if it's mixed into a sauce. If it's just on there directly. It's just it's a really really horrible condiment to add to a burger on its own.

CK: Okay, the burgers you say Dyers deep fries, its burgers, and they've been recycling its grease for about 90 years now. So so tell me about the deep fried burger.

GM: Actually, we think it's probably over 100 years, I think at this point. So yeah, they've been deep frying burgers. And what they say is the original grease from from day one. It sounds insane. The deep fryer burger but if you think about it in the beginning, there were no flat tops. There were no flame grills you'd find in your backyard. The very beginning people made burgers in skillets. But the problem of course is that burger grease or the rendered beef fat tallow would collect when you'd end up deep frying your burgers.

CK: Steamed burgers in Connecticut. You say it's it's ugly, but it's also one of the tastiest. I mean, if you'd like a deep-fried burger would seem to me the steamed burgers at the opposite end of the burger rainbow

GM: Definitely the opposite for sure. It is a it's an amazing burger experience because when you bite into this burger, it's so moist. And it's just it's a very beefy experience and with of course the the upside to this is that it's not just about the beef, you go to places and Central Connecticut, like place called Ted's in Meriden will they'll actually do is they'll take a block of cheddar cheese, very mild, melty cheddar cheese a little steam that as well and pour that on top of the, the sort of gray block this this very soft gray matter. I mean think about it. Also, it's very close to the kind of meat you'd find in the dumpling which is also steamed.

CK: So, let's talk about the butter burger. What is a butter burger?

GM: Only of course in Wisconsin can you have butter burger. (of course) The butter Burger. You know, the fewer ingredients you have, they all have to be the best ingredients you can find. And if you have a burger that has nothing on it than beef bun and butter, that better be good butter, right?

CK: But but I think you point out that the butter you don't want it to melt though so when you eat it, it's still supposed to be solid, right?

GM: Yeah, I mean, if you go to a place like Solly's in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, they make sure that they get that burger to your place at the counter as fast as possible because they know that the real experience is being able to bite into the semi soft butter that's still in that state before it melts completely. So once once that once a butter burger becomes melty it destroys the bottom of the bun anyway, so you have to eat the burger pretty fast. But one thing you do find yourself doing if you're at Solly's is that you do take you know that your half-eaten burger and you dip it back into the into the melted butter on the plate and it's it's impossible not to.

CK: The nutburger okay, so really, you take crush Sundae nuts, put them in a coffee cup and stir it with a bit of miracle whip, then ladle it onto the burger you want to defend that one to me,

GM: I just this is the specialty of the house of a place called Matt's Place in Butte, Montana, and it really is one of the those things I assumed was not going to work and I'm not a big fan of Miracle Whip. And especially I was thinking of nuts on my burger it didn't make a lot of sense but the idea that you know we all love, you know, salted peanuts on if you want to have ice cream, whatever. And it made sense on ice cream for me but I not in a burger put that I tried it. Then I said okay, this is definitely the reason people buy this order this burger at Matt’s Place because it is that good. And it's again, it's only three ingredients. It's very simple.

CK: Unlike the San Antonio bean burger with Fritos, Cheez Whiz and refried beans on top of your burger, right?

GM:
That is a hyper regional specialty of San Antonio, Texas right there. Ready fried beans on top of the burger with nacho cheese sauce or melted cheddar or something. And corn chips, or in the original case was Fritos.

CK: You seem to find a lot of charm in the Mississippi slug burger. It's kind of an interesting story. You want to describe what that is? Yeah, the

GM: Yeah, the slug burger goes back I think it's before the depression. There were hard times in the south, they were trying to find ways to stretch their meat. And what made the most sense was to take yesterday's bread and add it to the meat. There's some weird science going on there that nobody ever understood, I guess at the beginning, which makes perfect sense is that when once you add breadcrumbs to meat, and you start to cook it on a flat top, all that rendered beef fat goes into the crumbled bread and makes it a crunchy, very flavorful burger.

CK: Let's go back to the places you celebrate on your show. These are mom-and-pop places, generally speaking, how do they fit into this new generation and they want to know the origin of the meat and the bun. And it seems to be they're almost antithetical to that whole concept of telling the story. The story is that it's a mom-and-pop place that's been in their family for two generations, right?

GM: That's the story. The problem is, every single mom and pop that I become friends with in America, a lot of times they don't know their own value. They don't even know why they're important to the bigger picture. They don't know why someone else is copying their burger in Argentina, or why somebody is, you know, wants to get them on the phone for an interview in Japan, they have no idea why. And I find that fascinating.

CK: So, are they going to be relics of the Americans culinary past at some point in the near future? Or do you think they're in for a period of renewal, because that's where the markets headed.

GM: They're one questionably in for a period of renewal. And I believe it's going to last for a little while here because people are starving people want real things. people actually want to know that the thing they're eating, or the experience they're having is, is authentic. And these places actually help make that authentic moment real.

CK: George, it's been a real pleasure. Thanks for being on Milk Street.

GM: Thanks for having me.

CK: That was George Motz. He's the host of Burger Scholar Sessions and also author of The Great American Burger Book. Now it's time for my co-host, Sara Moulton and I to answer some of your cooking questions. Sarah is of course the author of Home Cooking 101. And she stars in Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. Sarah, do you want to take the first call?

Sara Moulton: Yes. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Amy from Raleigh.

SM: How can we help you today?

Caller: So, I have a question about the differences between black pepper and white pepper. I recently started using white pepper this I just saw it online. It was like I don't really know what the differences but I'm going to go ahead and try it. I've noticed that it seems to work better on salads, and like raw stuff rather than in cooking. So, I was just wondering if there's any like hard and fast rules on when to use black pepper and when to use white pepper?

SM: Let's start with your opinion. Why do you think it works better on salads and vegetables? When you say better what do you mean?

Caller: It seems to like to release a different type of flavor. Like I guess it wasn't as harsh as black peppercorns. It was weird because it seems subtle, but it also seemed to standout.

SM: I know it's very interesting. Okay, well, black peppercorn still has the husk on it. So, it's harvested and then it's dried. And the white peppercorn has the outer layer removed and then it's dried. And so, it's sort of like those components that are in that outer layer the black part of the pepper are what give black pepper I think it's I would say almost pungency or pop. You know, white pepper, although you said you know, it's interesting, it still seems spicy, but it's a different kind. Asian cultures really use white pepper a lot Chinese cooking. Chris, what do you want to say about this?

CK: Well, there's nothing wrong with black pepper. It has its place but white pepper is more floral. It's more complex. It's more fleeting, you know, it doesn't last as long as pepper will in the mouth. So, I would just think of them as spices in the cabinet, along with the other spices for subtlety and aroma. I would go with white pepper and black peppers, you know more to hit you over the head with something strong, right, Sarah?

SM: Yeah, I'd actually agree with all of that.

CK: What?

SM: Yeah I know what's going on.

CK: But there's also I mean, there's Aleppo pepper or Urfa pepper, which is fabulous, which is sort of soft flakes, which is kind of chocolaty, I mean, there are Cambodian peppers, which are totally different. So, I just think there's a whole world of peppers out there, dried peppers, and I should do an ad for the pepper Institute, right? Yes, a whole new world of peppers. But you're right white and black are very different so

SM: There's no hard and fast rule. It's really a matter of preference.

CK: And we keep a pepper grinder on your counter one with white and black.

Caller: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I have both sitting on my counter right now. And I've been kind of using them alternately.

CK: Good for you

SM: Well, this is an interesting conversation. Thanks, Amy.

CK: Yeah, thanks for calling

Caller: Thank you so much. Bye

CK: Yeah. Take care. Bye. bye. This is Milk Street radio. If you need help solving a culinary mystery. Give us a call anytime. That number is 855-426-9843. One more time at 554-269-9843. Or email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com.

SM: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Mary from Lebanon, New Hampshire.

SM: Hi, Mary, what can we do for you today?

Caller First, I want to say that I enjoy your show and appreciate the opportunity to have a question that I had on my mind for a while.

SM: Happy to be here.

Caller: Oh, wonderful. All right, I always hear about cooking my bacon in the oven instead of on the stovetop. My concern with doing this is that it would spatter in the oven. And I would need to clean my oven more frequently. I have a self-cleaning oven and hate wasting the electricity to run the cleaning cycle more frequently. Can you help me with that?

SM: Years ago, I taught at this school called Peter Kump’s New York Cooking school. And that was the first I'd ever heard about baking bacon. I thought it was so weird. And the reason he suggested that we teach that way was to have the bacon not cook in its own fat. And also, to have it live flat.

Caller: Right

SM: You know, when you cook bacon in a pan it all curls up Oh, it's a way we did it. You line your sheet pan with sides, you know, like a large jelly roll pan with foil. And then I put a cake rack in it, or a square cookie rack really that fits inside, right? I don't just put the bacon right on the foil, right I put it on the rack. And then I lay out the bacon with little space in between. and then just bake it that way. And as long as you don't bake it at too high a temperature you can go with 350 - 375 it won't spatter, especially if it's aligned with foil, you should be just fine. And the bacon really comes out beautifully.

Caller: Oh, that's great.

CK: Sarah, didn't you just make a broiler?

SM: I mean, certainly you could use a broiler pan, certainly you could and then it would be enclosed. But the holes in the top. They're too narrow.

CK: Well, that’s true.

SM: I think with a cookie rack is that there's so much more room for the fat to come down.

CK: I did find I read somewhere that you could, in a skillet, I add some water to the skillet when cooking bacon on the stovetop. And that avoids a lot of the splattering at the beginning. But also, the bacon turns out to be flat

SM: interesting,

CK: because it gives you a sort of even layer of liquid to cook it in. And then of course the water you know evaporates over time. That seems to work out pretty well too.

Caller: Okay. Great. All right

SM: Well, there's two wonderful two possibilities.

Caller: Wonderful thank you so much

SM: Thanks, Mary.

CK: Thanks, Mary. You're listening to Milk Street Radio up next food stylist Janice Poon tells us how she feeds cannibals and aliens. That's right up after the break. This is Milk Street Radio I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, it's my interview with food stylist Janice Poon. She got her start working on the Nero Wolfe TV series. She later developed a specialty for making horror and science fiction dishes on the sets of the Hannibal TV series, Star Trek discovery, American Gods and more. Janice, welcome to Milk Street.

Janice poon: Oh, I'm just so thrilled to be here.

CK: You have quite a CV, but my favorite description of you is, quote, “the expert to call when you need edible amniotic fluid for the fictional birth of the devil”. That's like, did you ever think your career would come down to that description?

JP: You know, so often I find myself looking up and saying, how did this happen to me? Where have I gone wrong, where I find myself, you know, knee deep and amniotic fluid or, or loose oatmeal, really a lot of loose oatmeal.

CK: So, you're an unlikely person, I guess, because you grew up in a small Canadian town, your family ran restaurants, you thought at the time, you would never wanted to get involved with food again, you pretty much had it right.

JP: So, I think my grandfather won a restaurant in a Mahjong game or something and was having a terrible time but my dad sort of took it over when he was like 16, and made a go of it and built, you know, what was considered in our very small town, a kind of an empire. But I do know a lot about food because when you grow up in a restaurant, and of course, small family restaurant means that you're doing all the mise en place plus before you go to school, that sort of thing. And so, I thought I would be an artist because I thought that was pretty far away from food. So, I took commercial art classes and promptly went to work for one of those big fat ad agencies. But what happened to me is that fate decided to throw food accounts at me. So, all of my accounts were, you know, like McDonald's, Kraft. And there was always this person in the kitchen toiling away doing really bizarre things to the food to make it look natural. And I just thought, oh, that that's just kind of hilarious.

CK: So how did you get your first styling gig on the Nero Wolfe TV series?

JP: So, I was busily doing something else as I always am. I probably was having a store at the time or maybe I was designing ballgowns, for princesses. I can't remember. But a dear friend of mine was offered the job. And she just didn't feel up for it. And she said, well, is it something you'd be interested in with? Do you think you could do it? And I thought, you know, why not? And thankfully, I managed to get through without being discovered as a neophyte.

CK: But but Nero Wolfe, I've read all of his books like five oh, he he's a great grammand and gourmet. He had a private chef, as I remember. And there's actually a difference. And he had a Nero Wolfe cookbook it was actually published later on. But so, this was not humdrum. This wasn't hamburgers. I mean, this is pretty serious food, right?

JP: It was, but it was so much fun. But I didn't just leap into food styling for episodic television and then just stay there. After Nero Wolfe I was probably doing sculptures for restaurants and hotels at that time.

CK: This is your 30-foot Subway sandwich period.

JP: Oh, my God. Yes. Oh, Christopher, you know everything.

CK: Well, I’m just saying it's a long way from a TV series to 30-foot Subway sandwich.

JP: You know what's funny about that? I was making this 30-foot sub, but of course, I live in a 20-foot loft. I so I was building the subway sandwich, literally on my stairs on a slope.

CK: So, let's get back to movies for a second you say that movie food has to be edible because if the director wants them to be eating on camera, they have to have that option. Is that why it has to be edible?

JP: Yes, yes. Because you might think, and it might say in the script that David digs into a delicious roast turkey. But David, the actor doesn't feel like eating roast turkey. And then he picks something on the table that you've only got three of, and says I feel like my character would eat this. (Oh Boy) I remember once that happened to me with broccoli at the last minute and I thought I'm just going to throw this piece of broccoli on as a garnish. And everything is fine, except that they actually decided that broccoli was what he wanted to eat. And, you know, they do sometimes take 20 times to get their lines. So, you have to sit the same dish over and over and over again. Then you get somebody like Gillian Anderson, who must have downed three dozen oysters in one shot like, a crazy number of oysters in a shoot.

CK: I don't know if you know a lot about the history of this, but has food styling in the last 30- 40 years changed dramatically? I would assume, given technology and other things it has.

JP: Oh, listen, I have been at this for a while. And I remember back in the day, like a big TV was like, you know, 20 inches. But we did a scene once and the director decided that we didn't have enough people eating in the in the restaurant in the background, and he wanted to see more food. And we didn't have more food. He said, well, how about salad? Yeah, yeah, salads okay, serve them all salad. So, we just had a bunch of food coloring and colored a bunch of paper towels and crumbled it up. I know. It's terrible, isn't it?

CK: Really?

JP: Would I lie to you Christopher

CK: No but I mean paper towels for salad for lettuce?

JP: Oh, yes, you can get away with stuff like that.

CK: So, let's take a left turn into the horror genre. So, you show up on the Hannibal TV set on the first day, you show up with a bunch of pig's lungs, right? And then you go on and say, do you want a grizzly bruise lung that's purple and frightening or do you want something lovely and pink and almost a pillow? So, these are the kinds of considerations you being to the fore on the set?

JP: Yeah, we were really just new into the series. And everybody was just trying to figure out the sensibility. Like was it gory horror, or was it a romance? I mean, that's the whole thing that's so magical about film about TV and movies is that it is highly collaborative. You know, I was taking inspiration from the costume designers and from the set designer and it's like a little, you know, jazz thing going on.

CK: So, one of your most famous food creations is the arm escargot exactly what does that mean?

JP: Well, of course, I mean, they're grisly things done beneath the midnight sun and snails eating flesh is one of them that a lot of people don't know that snails are, are not that fussy. But what they have is there's a great long history, of course, as well with snails where the Romans had what did they call them? Well, anyway, little snail farms, cochlear gardens, that's what they call them. They didn't call them little snail farms because they're much classier than that right. And they would feed snails certain types of things, so they would taste a certain way.

CK: But you actually had real snails in this Yes. You had a snail wrangler?

JP: Yes. There was a snail wrangler. The snails are so I mean, talk about divas. They want to go you know, left and you can't make them go right. And it's hard to figure out what like do they go towards the heat? They were always crawling the wrong direction. It took forever to get that shot.

CK: I think the most disgusting thing oddly enough, though, on your blog was the fake innards for roadkill.

JP: Oh, those were so cute. How could you say they were?

CK: Well, it looked like someone who just run over a chipmunk and all his guts spewed out. Another example, you talk about, I love this you have a vegan vampire.

JP: Oh my god. I know you know like why I know

CK: talk about casting.

JP: Her character is a vampire Queen, of course. And she's visiting her unknowing next-door neighbor. And the next-door neighbor is making hamburger meatballs. And our vampire Queen hasn't had a drink in quite a long time. And she sees this bloody meat. And she her little hand just, you know snakes out to grab it and gobble it while the neighbors back is turned and our actress wouldn't eat ground meat, of course. And so, I made some out of you know, beets and potatoes and and it looked exactly like ground meat. So much so that when she got to set, she wouldn't eat it because it looked too much

CK: too real

JP: too real so they shot it a different way so she could just hide behind her hair or something.

CK: So, space whale steaks, I think you did this on Star Trek Discovery. How do you make those what are they made out of?

JP: Making giant space whale meat is not a problem. Making giant space whale meat for a vegetarian actor is a problem. But if there were not such problems, I would not have a job. These challenges are such that I'm the only one who will step forward and say, oh yeah, that's no problem. I happen to remember a Chinese dessert that my mother used to make out of chestnut flour because of what it is with meat it’s got kind of a floppy texture. And for a sushi intro to the galactical sushi joint, the chef wants to be able to slash it into pieces and flick it to the customers on the edge of his blade. So, it has to be just the right texture.

CK: So, you get a script and obviously describes the food in very general terms. From an artistic point of view, how do you go from script to actually sketching out the food? Do you actually sketch things out? I mean, physically sketching out what do you do?

JP: Yeah, absolutely, physically sketch things out, because that helps me see how it fits on a plate, I could see how it fits in perspective.

CK: So, you sketch out the escargot, and you have notes in the margins.

JP: Yeah, and lots of times the sketches don't make it to fruition. When it comes to designing the dish almost designs itself should I say? Because you read the story and you think, why is this scene in this script? Because everything you do has to inform the viewer in some way. Something more about the plot something more about the people like this particular scene that we just shot it in the scripts, it says the Emperor sits down for a bowl of soup. And something a bowl of soup. Why is he having a bowl of soup because a bowl of soup is a restorative, he's just been on a long journey through space. And so, it's logical that he would have a bowl of soup, you wouldn't have the stomach for a bigger meal. And so, what else about this bowl of soup do I want to tell? And I think well, he's traveling, he is alone, because nothing to find an emperor more than aloneness. And he's in space right. So, I wanted the other platters on the very long dining room table to represent planets like floating, I wanted to go for like a lonely space traveler, a Lonely Planet kind of feeling. And so, the images come from the idea behind the images.

CK: So, do you do you have philosophical discussions with people about which food is right for that situation when the other person doesn't really care whether it's an apple or a bowl of soup?

JP: Well, I think that it's part of my job to sell. It's not just my job to design, the food it’s part of my job to make the actor feel like he's really in the scene, to add to the ambience so that he doesn't feel like he's on a set. He feels like he's really in a palace. So, you try to make everybody's job easier. And a side benefit is that your food gets noticed. And then the director says, oh, I really want to show that.

CK: You'd love doing this obviously, you've been doing a long time. Where's the joy, excitement? Is it the creativity of solving the problem for the food and the script? Is that what it is?

JP: That's always fun. But the real joy, weirdly, comes when you avert massive disaster, because well, you know, anybody can make a pretty dish. But the real triumph is when it just seems like whatever has occurred, has created a problem so immense that most people would just turn around and walk away. And my father had this idea that he used to say to me says, you know what, the best way of approaching your life's work is to look at what's on your plate, metaphorically taking the worst thing and turn that do what you can to turn that into the best thing, and then everything will follow. And so, it is when I'm working on the set. You think, what is the worst thing that's happening here? Turn that into the best thing and then everything else just falls into place,

CK: Janice, it's been a rare pleasure having you on Milk Street. Thank you.

JP: Well, was that rare, medium rare? I want to know.

CK: It's always rare rare. Thank you

JP: Thanks.

CK: That was food stylist, Janice Poon. You know, cling-on’s enjoy a plate of serpent worms for dinner. And in the film, Oh boy, that protagonist eats a live octopus. And of course, Janice Poon has had to make giant space whale meat and fake roadkill guts. But this is nothing new humans have always eaten nose to tail from jelly mousse nose to tuna eyeballs to crispy tarantulas to fertilized duck egg. So maybe we ought to suspend the cultural bias. What looks like a plate of writhing worms to me might be an excellent first course to your everyday intergalactic being. It's time to chat with JM Hirsch about this week's recipe Vietnamese beef stew with star anise and lemon grass. JM, how are you?

JM Hirsch: I'm doing great.

CK: So, it seems to me that when you and I travel the world, we always end up eating chicken soup or beef stew or something like that, right? I mean, these are sort of common recipes. So, you were in Ho chi Minh City and did come across a beef stew recipe, but it's wildly different than what I grew up with and what you grew up with. So, where did you find the recipe? Let's start with that.

JM: Well, you know, it's interesting, I actually found one of two recipes. I was in what's called District Eight of Ho Chi Minh. And, and it's this kind of warren of back alleys and canals and it's the sort of area where the cooking and the eating spills out of the homes and into the street. And it's really, it's just, it's such a wonderful community. And, and on top of seeing all these, you know, beautiful people talking and gathering, you’re getting all their cooking as you're walking around, you're smelling ginger and garlic and fish sauce and lemon grass. And I'm being like, overwhelmed as I'm walking around. And all of a sudden, a woman pulls up on her bicycle next to me. And on the back of the bike is a simmering cauldron of soup, perched right above the rear tire with like red-hot coals keeping it warm. And you know, and it was a beef bourguignon, cinnamon, coconut milk, garlic and vinegar soup. It smelled amazing. And what I learned is it's actually a relative of a stew I was in Ho Chi Minh to learn, I was able to learn bok ho, which is a very brothy stew that's flavored with star anise and lemon grass, and tons of garlic and ginger and beef brisket.

CK: So, besides the usual suspects like lemongrass and fish sauce, is it just a function of having those flavor profiles with the indigenous ingredients? Or is there something else about this stew, that really marks it is different?

JM: Well, you know, it is the classic flavor profile of Vietnamese cooking, which is ginger, garlic, fish sauce, lemongrass, and it is that combination, but what made it so appealing to me is the intensity of those flavors. I mean, you know, the stew uses a five-inch chunk of fresh ginger for example. And and that's just the start, you know, there's a ton of star anise and lemon grass, and all these amazing, wonderful flavors that combine in just in such copious amounts that you get this strong flavor, but also this strong aroma that’s so savory and a little bit sweet. And it's just the way they combine it really sets it apart.

CK: Now is this served with rice with a classic baguette is this served with noodles. How do they serve it?

JM: They serve it over rice noodles, and that's all done at the table. You know, you bring the soup to the table and you ladle it over some very tender rice noodles. And you know, you throw some garnishes on it some fresh herbs and maybe a little bit of chili garlic sauce on it, to crank up the heat a little bit. One of the things that set apart the version that we learned is many recipes call for using coconut milk as part of the broth. But the woman I learned it from uses coconut water, and she likes that because it has the flavor of coconut but without all the heft.

CK: So, here's an existential question. So, you you you get to Ho Chi Minh city have a beef stew that has just these amazing flavor combinations. So, unlike what you grew up with, does that permanently change your view of a recipe like beef stew? Like you'll never go back and make the American version or is this just another option?

JM: I think it has to change it, but I think it changes it for the better and not necessarily because I would now only make Vietnamese beef stew. But one you realize the commonalities that we have across cultures, you know there are beef stews everywhere. And you take this kind of common ingredient and frankly a common approach to a common ingredient and and bring so many different flavors to that same formula. It's it makes me excited to make beef stew of any variety because you know that it's something that you can play with and experiment with and take in so many different directions.

CK: JM, thank you. A Vietnamese beef stew with star anise and lemongrass sounds delicious. Thanks.

JM: Thank you. You can get this recipe for Vietnamese beef stew with star anise and lemon grass at Milk Street Radio.com.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Next up Bianca Bosker upgrades the p b and j. We'll be right back.
I'm Christopher Kimball and you're listening to Milk Street Radio right now, Sara Moulton and I will be answering a few more of your cooking questions.

SM: Welcome to Milk Street. Who's calling?

Caller: Diana calling from Vermont.

SM: How can we help you today, Diana?

Caller: This summer I was canning a lot of rhubarb. And I thought I have so much canned rhubarb why don't I try making some rhubarb jam. Rhubarb strawberry, I added strawberries to it. The problem that I ran into was, I wasn't able to get it the temperature that was necessary to make it congeal, and make it turn to jam. I think they recommend 220 degrees or so. And I'm not particularly high altitude. I just wondered if you had any suggestions on what I could do to make my jam gel.

SM: I don't think it had to do with the altitude and wondering if it had to do with the sugar. You need the right amount of sugar in order to get it up to 220. Did you cut back on the sugar I wonder?

Caller: I did cut back on the sugar yeah, because I don't like things too sweet.

SM: Yeah, I think that might have had something to do with it. Also, what kind of pot did you use?

Caller: I was using a stainless steel.

SM: Was it a wide pot? Because that helps.

Caller: No, it wasn't a super wide pot. It was like a two-quart size

SM: So, Chris makes jam. So, I'm sure he's ready to just jump right in. I really think probably it had to do with the sugar. Anyway, Chris?

CK: Well, I think you're right I, if it's mostly water, it's going to boil it to 12 and ever get higher. A couple things I've found after years of doing this, I went out and bought a copper pot. And I found that it was expensive but if you're going to do it on a regular basis, it does make a difference, oddly enough, because it conducts so well. The second thing I found is that small batches work better, like making four cups at a time. If you make big batches, the temperature is going to be inconsistent depending on where you take the temperature. And it's very hard to control. So smaller batches are better. I agree with Sarah about the sugar. And fourth thing is if you're setting up a pectin and even though recipe say you don't need pectin for certain things you do. There's a low sugar pectin, it comes in a pink box, you want the low sugar one because otherwise, if you use the high sugar pectin, then it's not going to set up properly. So that's a little trick that some people don't know. But I think smaller amounts even if you don't have a copper pot, keep them out small and make sure there's enough sugar in there. And you can still do a low sugar version by with rhubarb however, there's so little, you know, you’re going to have to use a fair amount of sugar (Yeah) to get that up. Also, I don't know how you took the temperature. Were you using an instant read thermometer?

Caller: No, I was using I think it's called a candy thermometer.

CK: Forget those, those don’t work very well. They're too slow to react, I think. And so, I would get an instant read thermometer with like a six-inch probe. And that way, (okay) quickly get the temperature also, last thing I'll shut up. You can, you can tip the saucepan away from you a little. So, when you dip the end of the probe into it, it's deep. And I would swirl it around a little bit. And then you'll get an accurate reading. But if you just dip it in and its sort of shallow, it depends where you're taking the temperature. You may in fact have been at the right temperature, but you just couldn't measure it properly. That's the other issue. Now you know everything I know.

Caller: Those are great tips. I'm a novice I have to admit, but I'm going to try again.

SM: Well, thanks. Diana.

CK: Danna Thank you.

Caller: You're welcome. And thank you too.

CK: take care.

SM: Bye bye

Caller: bye bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio if you need help in the kitchen. Give us a call anytime. That number is 855-426-98431 one more time and slowly 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: This is Sandy from Harwich, Massachusetts.

CK: How are you?

Caller: I'm fine. Thank you.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: Well, many, many years ago, I used to cook with pine nuts, and I use them quite often. Then I developed a condition I later learned is called pine mouth. Everything I ate for about a week tasted like dirty garbage. The taste is really indescribable. It happened twice, and I gave up pine nuts forever. I taste when I cook, so I don't really think they were rancid. Someone suggested to me that it was the country of origin. But I couldn't find any information about that. And I was hoping you could help me.

CK: Well, two things. First of all, pine nuts go bad really fast. So, if you, you probably won't be eating pine nuts anytime soon, but you should keep them in the fridge. And that's true for all flours and nuts should be refrigerated. But that's not going to cause the problem. The problem, as I understand it, and I'm not an expert, is that they're different species and certain species may cause a reaction in people versus others. So, you may just have run across a particular growing region that a particular species of pine nut to which you are allergic, my understanding is that you're probably not allergic to all pine nuts. It just depends on the species you got hold of

Caller: So, there's really no way I can tell right?

SM: Well, I was going to say I think from what I understand, I mean, there's like 20 different species of pine nuts. You know, they're grown in China, Korea, Russia, Afghanistan, Europe, but also in the southwest of the United States. And I've heard about this thing before, and it's related to one of the species that's grown in China, but I think you'd be pretty safe if you got them from the southwest, the pinon. They're pretty distinctive. I think you can buy them online. And then you could be eating pinenuts again and making pesto

Caller: Wonderful, you may have solved this 30 yearlong problem.

CK: Thanks, Sandra.

Caller: Thank you so much. I'll look for those.

SM: Yes, yes. Thanks, Sandra. Take care.

Caller: Thank you.

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

Caller: Hi, my name is Lee Porter from Fayetteville, Arkansas and here's my tip. Recently, I'm in lemon Jell-O which calls for lots of lemon peels. After stripping the lemons, I was left with the inside of about a dozen lemons. I put them in a bag and stored them in the freezer and thought I'd figure out something to do with them later. One night while making a pasta sauce that called for lemon juice. I thought I'd experiment with grating the frozen lemons into the sauce. It turned out great. And then I find myself shredding frozen lemons into all sorts of dishes like risotto, salmon or chicken, potatoes in soups. Really any hot dish that calls for lemon or citrus. I hope you too can enjoy this resourceful method.

CK: If you'd like to share your own cooking tip on Milk Street Radio please go to 177 Milk Street com slash radio tips. Next up its regular contributor Bianca Bosker. Bianca, how are you?

Bianca Bosker: I'm doing very well. Chris, how are you?

CK: What fascinating thing are you going to regale me with this week?

BB: Well, I would like to talk about one of my favorite recipes. You take two slices of bread. You spread peanut butter on one side and jelly on the other and make voila! a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Now, I've always thought of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich as being kind of the perfect unimprovable food. But I recently went down a peanut butter and jelly rabbit hole and have since developed a very serious p b & j inferiority complex. There is a variation for example I found from PBJ la that not only starts with round slices of bread that they put into this custom-made contraption to seal the edges and cut the crusts, but they fill it with things like salted pecan butter and apple jam with Angostura bitters and orange zest in a peanut butter sandwich!

CK: oh really? Please

BB: I haven't even told you about the you know toasted pine nut butter with sage basil cherry tomato jam or Google olive oil balsamic. Okay, I'll stop. But I had a similar reaction, you know, does that count? (No) it got me interested in you know, what is the definition of a peanut butter sandwich? You know, where did the p b & j actually come from?

CK: Actually, I don't know anything about its origins?

Uh huh. Well, according to the book, Peanuts, the Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, 1896 was the year that peanut butter sandwich recipe is burst on the culinary scene. According to this book, the first one was actually in Good Housekeeping. And it called for using a meat grinder to grind peanuts into a paste and spread them on bread that was closely followed by recipes. For peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches, peanut butter and Worcestershire sauce sandwiches, peanut butter with cayenne pepper and paprika sandwiches. And what is also interesting about its development from there is you know, I tend to think of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as being simple, like a wonderfully satisfying low-cost meal but the early peanut butter sandwiches were actually a delicacy, they were reserved for high society functions and they were served at all the fancy tea rooms in New York

CK: Because peanut butter was expensive at the time?

BB: It’s expensive, it was you know, harder to make. And so, these tea rooms offered things like you know, peanut butter and pimento sandwiches, peanut butter with meat and lettuce, peanut butter with watercress. So again, a little more a little more savory. Even, there's a great old one that that included peanut butter with edible Nasturtium flowers. That started to change in the early 20th century, peanut butter makers started coming up with new manufacturing techniques that brought down the cost of peanut butter. So, made it more accessible. They added more sugar to their recipes, which made it more enticing for kids. And in the 1920s you also had the da da sliced bread or the sort of commercialization of sliced bread.

CK: Well, you know, my my father was born in the 20s. So, in his generation sliced bread was a novelty.

BB: Oh, yeah, I mean, it was a game changer as he can perhaps attest you know, the 1920s was really what cemented the peanut butter sandwich as a part of the American diet. During the Great Depression. They were handed out in breadlines. They were also offered as part of free lunches iin schools. But what about the jelly? So apparently the first printed peanut butter and jelly recipe was in 1901. In a Boston cooking school magazine, it called for three very thin layers of bread and peanut paste along with current or crap Apple jelly. And the recipe creator said as far as she knew it was original. But in retrospect, it does seem somewhat mysterious how we settled on peanut butter and jelly rather than peanut butter and Worcestershire, let's say. Chris any thoughts on how we got there?

CK: I mean, first of all, we we had an increasing sweet tooth since about 1900.Two: Welch's grape jelly or somebody probably got hold of this and marketed it to death, I would guess and three, salty and sweet are just a natural those are my three off the cuff suggestions.

BB: I love those suggestions. Some historians think that it was during World War Two that it happened because the US military rations included peanut butter and jelly. So, soldiers combine these things. But to people outside the United States, peanut butter and jelly is as it turns out, a pretty perplexing combination. I hadn't realized what a uniquely American dish that is. I also hadn't realized the intense fervor of debate around the proper way to actually make a p b & j. I have to of course ask you Chris. What what is your go to recipe here?

CK: Oh, I was going to have to correct you because you had it all wrong. No, you have to cover both slices with peanut butter and put the jelly in between. You can't put the jelly right on the bread. Sorry, that's just obviously going to make it soggy so

BB: Well, you are clearly a professional. But this also raises the question of the ingredients. There was a survey I think it was Smuckers probably, but they found that American adults prefer white bread over any other kind of bread. (Yes) Creamy over crunchy. (Yes) And apparently grape jelly is the favorite followed closely by strawberry

CK: Seedless blackberry maybe but yes, no. But you know, Al Roker once told me that it's his favorite sandwich. And I would you know I would have to agree it's right up in the top two or three. For me. It's it’s the perfect thing. And when you mentioned people in LA, messing around with it, it's just, you know, please don't

BB: Well, I thought that at first but hear me out. As I went further in, I got completely inspired by all of the other combinations that people have recently been making, you know, peanut butter and Doritos, peanut butter and guacamole, peanut butter and chicken liver peanut butter with melted Hershey's Kisses and siracha. I mean, I was inspired, you know, maybe it’s a throwback to that 1896, paprika and cayenne. I actually started experimenting with all of the hot sauces that I could find in my fridge combined with peanut butter.

CK: And?

BB: Would you like to know the results?

CK: Actually not really because I think this is just absolutely revolting. But go ahead. Well, I

BB: Well, I will say just you know for the record, I tried everything from Thai chile to gochujang, my favorite was p b and s, peanut butter and siracha sandwich,

CK: oh no

BB: I actually think is not going to dethrone the peanut butter and jelly but was a lesson to me in keeping a creative mind around these old staples.

CK: Oh I don't know. Just because you can do it. It doesn't mean that you should do it.

BB: I just think sometimes you have to think outside the box or outside the jar of jelly as the case may be.

CK: There is perfection in the culinary universe occasionally. And p b and j is just one of those things. So, we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one. Don't mess up my p b & j. Bianca, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

BB: Thank you.

CK: That was journalist Bianca Bosker. Earlier in the show, I spoke to George Motz about his favorite regional burger joints. Back in 1967, my sister and I spent the summer in Kampala, Uganda with my mother, who was there to do research. We soon found a place called Christos; it was the only burger joint in town. The flavor of that burger was absolutely unique, almost addictive, and it's become the lost burger of my childhood. Now Christos is long gone. Although I did find a 60’s photo of the interior recently on Facebook. It's been replaced with upscale eateries. That burger haunts my dreams even today, but I guess I'm glad that it's now lost to history. You have to remember that memories taste better than a real thing. If you tuned in too late, just want to listen again. You can download and subscribe to Milk Street Radio on Apple podcast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcast. To learn more about Milk Street, please go to 177 Milk Street com there you can download each week's recipe or watch the latest season of our television show or order our latest cookbook Cookish. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 books. We'll be back next week and thanks as always for listening.

Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH. Executive Producer Melissa Baldiino senior audio editor Melissa Allison production assistant Sarah Clapp, production help Debby Paddock additional editing by Sidney Lewis audio mixing by Jay Allison at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole Massachusetts. Theme Music by Toubab Krewe. Additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by the Public Radio exchange.

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