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Literary scholar Rebecca May Johnson earned her PhD studying Homer’s Odyssey, but now she’s analyzing a new kind of text: Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce recipe. Johnson reveals how studying a recipe isn’t all that different from studying Ancient Greek, and what you can learn from cooking the same recipe a thousand times. Plus, Hetty McKinnon celebrates vegetables and her father's legacy in her latest cookbook, Tenderheart; Kenji López-Alt and Chris close out their egg-peeling debate with help from our listeners; Dan Pashman cements tinned fish as much more than a passing fad; and we prepare Chicken Fatteh from Jordan.
Questions in this episode
"Can I continue to reuse the oil from my fried chicken?"
"I'm allergic to mushrooms. Are there alternative vegetables I can use to achieve the same umami flavor?"
Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host, Christopher Kimball. Many people have read Homer's Odyssey. And many people have memorized their favorite recipes. Rebecca May Johnson has done both but with an obsessively analytical approach.
Rebecca May Johnson: The Odyssey is a text of someone going on a journey and having encounters with people and learning things through those encounters. And Odysseus only did his odyssey for 10 years. Well, how many people have spent, you know, 50 years cooking recipe? And what have they found out through that work through the encounters that that recipe has brought about?
CK: The journey from ancient Greece to dinnertime, that's coming up later on the show. But first, it's my conversation with food writer, Hetty McKinnon, about her latest book, Tenderheart, a book about vegetables and unbreakable family bonds. Hedy, welcome back to Milk Street.
Hetty McKinnon: Hi, Chris. It's so nice to be here again.
CK: This book is dedicated; I think it's fair to say to your father. And I want to ask a question about your father. So, you lost him at an early age? (Yeah) Was there something about him in particular, that made this bond so close? Was a losing him at age 15? It just sounds like there was a remarkable memory and relationship there. So so what, what really drove you to write this book and dedicate it to him?
HM: Hmm, that's a great question, Chris. After I wrote To Asia with Love, I really wanted to write a book about vegetables. I've been a vegetarian for most of my life, and vegetables really kind of influenced me to get started in food to start with. And so, I wanted to write this book that was my vegetable origin story. And in the process, I kept coming back to my father, for context, my dad worked at the produce markets in Sydney. And he brought home just an overabundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, I had to step over crates of oranges and bananas to get to the bathroom, that kind of thing. It was a really privileged upbringing when I think about it in terms of, you know, food. But after I lost him, all that overabundance stopped, and my mom's an immigrant from from China, and she had never been to a grocery store before, like in terms of buying fresh fruit and vegetables. So, for the first time, she was in her mid 40s at the time, she had to go to the green grocers and get one of those little plastic bags and fill it up with three potatoes. And that was a really a huge transition to our lives. And it left a really big mark, you know, you, you learn to live with loss and grief, and it comes out in different ways. I never really thought that I would end up being a cook and writing cookbooks. But in the end, there was no story that I could tell about my relationship to food, my relationship to cooking, without telling the story of my father. So, it was a really, it was a hard book to write. But ultimately, it is a real celebration of vegetables and plants and life. And I think to me, that's a beautiful homage to my father.
CK: Yeah, I really loved reading your description of him and his influence on your cooking. So, moving into the kitchen, what would you say are maybe three or four pantry ingredients you think people should have on hand to cook vegetables the way you do? Most people have soy sauce, I would think (Yeah) but what else do they need?
HM: I mean, I think the way this book was developed was really using pantry ingredients. So, Kimchi, I think is absolutely essential. There's a lasagna in the book that has kimchi in there. You know chilies like dried chilies, things that really amplify I think vegetables are a wonderful blank canvas. But you kind of really need things to amplify and make them exciting every night. Chili oil and chili crisp are so handy in my fridge. I've got you know miso, doubanjiang, gochujang. All those fermented paste will really do you very well. I think to cook out a Tenderheart you have to really rely on your pantry and make sure it's stocked with a lot of these kind of high-powered high flavor condiments which make weeknight cooking so much easier and faster.
CK: You obviously stir fry but I saw a recipe for stir fried Iceberg lettuce, which I really, I really liked. So how does that work?
HM: Yeah, so we're in Chinese culture we don't really eat raw lettuce. So, for most of my younger life, I grew up eating cooked lettuce. It's often served at the bottom of like braised mushrooms, or braised abalone, so there's like a thick kind of brown gravy on it super delicious. So, there's an Asian greens chapter. And the last recipe I added to this chapter was stir fried lettuce because I just felt like I needed to have that recipe in my book because it's something I love. And it's so central to the types of dishes that I ate growing up. It just has this amazing texture that you can't find in other vegetables because it stays a little crisp and its usually Iceberg lettuce and it stays crisp and it somehow absorbs you know, the gravy or whatever seasonings you add to it. And it's just delightful. So, I highly recommend it.
CK: I think you have something in common with our kitchen at Milk Street because there is fennel group in our kitchen. And they like every time I taste something it always, they sneak fennel in, you do a fennel with gnocchi you do a pickled fennel niçoise. So, I should just say that many of the recipes in this book are not the same old, same old, I mean, some of this is is very inventive and different. So, tell me about fennel and gnocchi.
HM: Well, I love fennel. That recipe the fennel with gnocchi is one of my favorites in the book is one I make a lot my kids love raw fennel. It's quite a strong taste, but it's not divisive in our home at all. So, when I find a vegetable that's not divisive, I go for it. So, in this recipe, I actually turned the fennel fronds into a pesto. It's so good. It's very green, it's very herbaceous. And then I serve that fennel frond pesto with pan fried gnocchi and then I shave the fresh fennel and have that through the gnocchi. So, it's like this kind of contrast in flavors, the crispness of the shaved fennel, with the kind of spongy gnocchi and then, you know, the beautiful fragrant fennel pesto, you know, with this book, and that was why it was really fun book to write. It's like, I'm challenging people to think about vegetables in different ways and to think about the possibilities. If you pick up one, you know, one or two fennel, what are you going to do with that, that's going to make it exciting and interesting and beyond just baking it or cutting it into wedges and eating it crudity, like there's, there's so much potential in any vegetable, really,
CK: Grilling vegetables and roasting them are nothing new. But let's just take grilling like baby bok choy. So, if you were, I don't know, if you were in our cooking together and I had a nice hot grill outside, give me just a couple ideas for dealing with vegetables on the grill that I might not think of.
HM: Ah that you might not think of. I love to grill eggplant, for example, that's not new. But there's a really lovely recipe in the book that is grilled eggplant with nuoc cham, which is Vietnamese sauce, but it's a veganized version. But after you've grilled a vegetable like eggplant, it becomes tender. And it becomes very willing to soak up any flavors that you want to team up with.
CK: So so do you grill it like they do in the Middle East to death?
HM: Yeah, grill it quite a lot until it's.. I still want some texture in it. You know, I think that there's a there's a sweet spot where it just turns (creamy). You know, if you don't do it enough, it's going to have that robbery that you know when people always talk about the when they say it's that it always grates on your teeth and like that's an uncooked eggplant. So, if that's happening, that's nothing to do with the eggplant. It's because you haven't cooked it far enough. So, there is that sweet spot when, as you say it just turns creamy inside.
CK: Okay, last question. Jane Austen. Are you still reading Jane Austen?
HM: I love Jane Austen. I collect Jane Austen books. So, I have many different editions of all her books. But recently, when I was writing this book, I went back to try to find the edition that I had read when I was a teenager because it was all her books all seven books in one edition and so the writing was really really small. And I went to try to find it and I think I had accidentally thrown it out when I moved but I still have all the other Collected editions and you know I think she's incredibly witty and you know the things that she writes about so current, I think.
CK: And which is your favorite?
HM: I really love Persuasion. Persuasion was the first one of her books I read. I think that Ann Elliott is a different type of heroine. And she's surprising.
CK: So, you grow vegetables and you read Jane Austen. Hetty, thank you so much. It's been just a great pleasure to have you back on Milk Street
HM: Thank you, Chris. Thanks for having me as always.
CK: That was Hetty MacKinnon, author of Tenderheart, a book about vegetables and unbreakable family bonds. You can get her recipe for fennel and gnocchi salad with fennel frog pesto at Milk Street radio.com. Now it's time to answer your cooking questions with my co-host, Sara Moulton. Sara is of course the star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television, and author of Home Cooking 101. Hey, Sara, how are you?
Sara Moulton: I'm good.
CK: So, before we get started, we took a call a while back about cooking beans in an acidic liquid, you know, aka tomatoes, right?
SM: Yeah, I remember that.
CK: Yeah. So, we actually went back to the kitchen, and we did some tests. And it was kind of an interesting result. We took white beans, Great Northern beans. We tried tomato paste, just two tablespoons, actually. And then the other test was a big can 28-ounce cans of tomato puree. We tried putting them in with the beans at the beginning of cooking. And the other test was halfway through cooking. (Yeah) starting at the beginning of cooking was a complete disaster because the beans never softened. Halfway through also, they came out tough and sort of chewy. So, either tomato paste, or tomato puree or canned tomatoes. You really have to wait until the beans have fully cooked because otherwise, they just will never
SM: They'll never get tender.
CK: They'll never get tender.
SM: Glad to know full circle.
CK: We got a real answer.
CK: All right. Let's take a call. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: This is Lindsey Richardson from Fayetteville, Arkansas.
CK: It's a very musical way of saying your name. I like that. How can we help you.
Caller: I'm running away from my children right now. They're crying for me, but I'll try to keep this quick. I feel like I've gotten really good at frying chicken. I've been using peanut oil. And on occasion, I'll leave the oil sitting in the cast iron Dutch oven. At the end of multiple batches. There's all this like chocolaty__, at the very bottom, and it tastes like roux. And so, I was wondering if there's any good use for that.
CK: First of all, to get back to the frying, every time you fry in the same oil, the smoke point goes down, it degrades. So, at some point that oil is going to be kind of nasty and smoky.
SM: and a little dangerous.
CK: Personally, I would also probably just filter it, you know, in between with some coffee filters or whatever. That'll help keep the oil. But that's up to you. You can use it as much as you want. That's a good question. If you could use those little bits as the basis for a roux, it's probably very strong. You might use a little bit of it to flavor. Yeah, so you might use a tablespoon or something to flavor it, you could try that. I would probably use it twice. And I tried to filter it in between but I know as a kid in Vermont, you know, people used to leave their Dutch oven full of bacon grease or oil for months. And they cook on the same stuff. So, you know, it's a personal choice. Yeah, yeah. For months, they would have like half full of bacon grease, and they would just heat it up and fry something in it. And I think the only problem is at some point that oil is going to be so strongly flavored, it's going to overpower the chicken, right? I mean, you don't want to just taste that dark smoky oil, it's great, but might be a little overpowering.
SM: Those little brown bits in the bottom if you were not filtering them that those were the bits of flour that got nicely brown that was on the chicken. So, you're right, it's similar to a roux because what is the roux it's equal parts and butter and flour, or oil and flour that you cook and cook and cook you know for like a gumbo until it's a nice toasty color. And what happens the more you cook flour, the less it loses its thickening ability. So, a dark roux would you use for gumbo, you'll need more of it to thicken the gumbo than you would if you've never cooked it that far. You could certainly add it to a dish for its flavor use like you've got instant cooked roux, but it won't do much for thickening, if that is indeed what you're thinking of doing. But if you leave oil at room temperature, it is also eventually going to go rancid, and you may never be able to taste it because it's so flavored by all the stuff you've been frying in it. So, I sort of agree with Chris about only using it twice. I'd say if you want to save those brown bits, I would strain them out and put them in the fridge so that they don't go rancid and then you know experiment adding a tablespoon or two or you know, whatever to whatever dish just for the flavor. See it as a flavoring agent.
CK: And when you strain it out use a really fine mesh strainer. So, you just get those little bits that would also be helpful.
Caller: Yeah, yeah. We raise our own chicken.
SM: We heard some in the background there. Well, that wasn't a chicken, that was a rooster.
Caller: Oh, did you hear? (Yes) That's funny. I actually had to run away from my children just to make this phone call.
SM: Well, you better go back to him. I don't want him hanging off the rafters.
CK: Are you calling from a closet? Are you hiding?
Caller: No, I'm actually in my greenhouse.
SM: That was an intriguing question. So, thank you.
CK: Give it a shot.
Caller: Yeah. Well, thank you guys so much I love you.
CK; Thanks for calling. Say hello to the kids.
SM: All right. Bye
CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you have a kitchen problem, we're here to help give us a ring 855-426-9843 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com.
SM: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: Hi, my name is Amy.
SM: And where are you calling from?
Caller: I'm in Chicago.
SM: How can we help you today?
Caller: I love mushrooms. But over the years I've developed an allergy to them. (Oh, boohoo) Exactly. And I am wondering how I can find a good food substitute that does everything a mushroom does. So has good taste, good texture, adds flavor to a dish like a good umami bomb.
SM: Well, we can talk about umami and other vegetables, but there is no replacement for mushrooms. I'm sorry.
Caller: I figured.
CK: Yeah. This sounds like marriage counseling.
SM: I know really and it's so sad because I love love mushrooms, so I feel your pain. There’re quite a few vegetables that do naturally have umami among them. Onions, garlic, cabbage, but also carrots. And a lot of it I think has to do with proper seasoning, using umami ingredients with them Mizo in soy sauce, and I'm sure Chris will throw in some other ideas and cooking them to eliminate extra you know all the water in them. And they just come out so full of flavor. But Chris, do you have any suggestions?
CK: Yeah, I agree. There is no substitute. I mean, I think charring or heavily roasting. When I was in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago, I had charred cabbage with a sauce that was phenomenal. You know, who do cabbage do you think of it as water is fabulous? Yes, really good. And then you know, long cooked you know, a few years ago, people were cooking carrots for two or three hours in the oven. It dried them out but gave them so much flavor. All sorts of sauces. I mean, fish sauce, if you buy a good one is not fishy at all. And that's just a great thing to have around.
SM: To add to vegetables
CK: you know, anchovies, put a little bit of a couple of anchovies and we're making sauce with the onions. Miso is great. Tomato paste has a lot of umami is well you can make a paste with tomato paste in some seasonings and toss that with vegetables before roasting. That would also help. But there is no direct substitute.
SM: No mushrooms are so unique. I’m so sorry.
CK: So, any kind of mushroom you're allergic to?
Caller: It started with portobellos and then shitake and now button mushrooms. So, it's all gone downhill.
CK: Yeah, started bad and got worse.
SM: Oh dear. So sorry.
CK: Yeah. So, I mean, one other thing I would say though, everyone's been talking about umami in the last 20 years. And I think it's a little overdone. If you look at most other countries, there's a balance of sweet and sour and charred and bitter. And umami is a taste it seems here in the States. Umami is the number one thing people want. We're going through our umami stage, I think, you know, a little goes a long way. And for example, in a beef stew, most other countries will use less beef and have many other flavors in the stew. So, umami is fine, but balance it with other things and you won't miss the lack of umami. If you have other things going on at the same time. That's why sweet and sour in almost all countries comes together. Right. It's a nice balance. So, try other kinds of flavors too. Yeah, yeah. That was my little soapbox speech.
SM: Okay, well, Amy, good question.
CK: Good luck with it.
Caller: Thank you.
SM: Thank you. Take care. Bye bye.
CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Coming up. A scholar of Homer writes her own culinary epic. That's after the break. This is Milk Street Radio. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Rebecca May Johnson is a scholar of Homer's Odyssey. She specializes in how classical texts are read, translated, and rewritten throughout history. But her interest in Classical Studies doesn't end with the Odyssey. She used the same framework to study another famous text, Marcella Hassan's tomato sauce recipe, she decided to cook it 1000 times to see what change with each preparation. The result of this culinary odyssey is in her book, Small Fires an Epic in the kitchen. She joins us now. Rebecca, welcome to Milk Street.
Rebecca May Johnson: Thank you very much for having me. I'm delighted to be with you.
CK: I've read a lot of cookbooks, as you can imagine the last 40 plus years or books about food writing your book Small Fires is unique. Could you briefly describe the concept of the book and what you're up to here?
RNJ: Gosh, it's a book of creative nonfiction. And I guess, I used the license of that as a sort of genre to bring in different ways of thinking different sources, from academia and literature to talk about cooking, and to try and really grapple with the kind of knowledge that we make in the kitchen. So, there's one sort of central recipe in the book, which I cook 1000 times and documenting that becomes a kind of epic, and a way of telling my guess, telling my life story, but also thinking about things. When we cook the same recipe 1000 times, what do we learn about ourselves? What do we learn about life in the world beyond ourselves and other people through that labor. I did a PhD in, in German poetry, specifically about rewriting of the Odyssey. And that makes its way into there too. So, I guess I grow to think of myself as some kind of, some kind of epic journey through cooking.
CK: Well, you probably have totally scared off half my listeners. But on the other hand, you probably intrigued the other half, and I'm part of the other half. So, you mentioned epic, and you talk about the Odyssey. And it was rewritten not too long ago by a German poet, Barbara Kohler. So, here's a line from your book. Cooking is a practice that deserves our attention. The recipe is just as epic a text as the Odyssey, if not more. So. Now, one might question whether a recipe is as epic as the Odyssey, but I'll let you defend that on your own. What exactly do you mean by that?
RNJ: Yeah, I was studying this Odyssey text that had given a lot of serious attention to domestic work. And it's rewriting the Odyssey looking at specifically Penelope’s work as a weaver. And then I, whilst I was doing this work over many, many years, I was doing a lot of cooking. And I sort of began asking myself, why am I not treating the kitchen as a space to do thinking, you know, I'm studying in theory in my PhD, but I'm not actually giving domestic work and then my work in the kitchen, it's due. And in fact, it has been the place that I found out so many things about how to relate to other people how to communicate with other people, research into the body, into the senses, into pleasure. So that's sort of one aspect of it. But then I guess, talking about it on the scale of a text like the Odyssey how many times has a recipe been cooked over how many decades and even centuries and I began thinking about all of the knowledge and the voices that get collected into the dish into the recipe through this time. And, you know, the Odyssey is a text of someone going on a journey and having encounters with people and learning things through those encounters. And Odysseus only did his odyssey for 10 years. Well, how many people have spent, you know, 50 years cooking a recipe, and what have they found out through that work through the encounters that that recipe is brought about? A lot, I would say, and I wanted to elevate the how we think about that laber and that time and the kind of learning that happens in that time by comparing it to the Odyssey, I mean, I suppose it is a bit of a, a bold claim, but I wanted to make a point by making that claim. And I and I and I believe it.
CK: So, you did cook a recipe 1000 times Marcela Hassan's tomato sauce. And you throughout the book you go and the number of 656 time, I found this, and my career has been about cooking recipes over and over again, although not 1000 times. Did you, did you actually during that process at the 1,000th time ended up being changed or having a deeper understanding of yourself or your life or the recipe at that point? I mean, was there a huge transition from the first to the 1,000th time?
RNJ: Yes, because I was cooking over this 10-year period. And each time I returned to the recipe, in a way, you're also returning to myself, you know, when I cook it, how do I feel about myself on this day or and then two years later, when I returned to it, and I guess it became a container for memoir.
CK; So, but let's talk about the recipe, okay, because there's a lot of back and forth in the world of food these days about what a recipe or who owns a recipe or whatever, you say a few things interesting. So, the language is only a holding pattern for the recipe. It's not its origin or its terminus. And then you also go on to say this frustrates those who seek to identify and venerate the original version of the recipe. So, if one had a bifurcated choice here that is a recipe is carved in stone, and is a thing, versus a recipe is a starting point. But there are innumerable outcomes from a recipe which camp are you?
RNJ: I'm in the latter camp, as you might imagine. Yeah.
CK; So so, when you cook that sauce 1000 times, at some point, didn't you totally transcend the recipe, and you were no longer tied to work in any way whatsoever.
RNJ: I wouldn't say I was no longer tied to it but I feel like it sort of gave me a foundational grammar in the way it transformed my understanding of ingredients, and how to use them and how to wait for them to reveal themselves. It gave me in a way the control that grammar gives you over language, to sort of use it and then sort of speak in my own voice. And then also, when you have a mastery of something or when you understand how to use a language, you can then subvert it or transform it through your use of it. And, you know, I use translation as a metaphor a few times through the book to think about what cooking is, as an act and I, I have found that useful to think about how that process of transformation happens. And the changed dish is nonetheless in a big relationship with the sauce dish. And I think that's one of the wonderfully democratic things about recipes is that as soon as somebody cooks a recipe, their own ownership inevitably becomes part of the story of that recipe.
CK: You define cooking, as lots of things. You start out cooking is physical, and I just want to read something of yours alone. Begin the epic by summoning a body, then decide how to clothe yourself for what lies ahead, how to dismantle the traps you will encounter on your journey. And then I love this line. The erotics of tying my apron strings tightly. So, there's a sensuality or sexuality in cooking as well as a physicality. You want to just talk about that.
RNJ: Yeah, I felt it was really important to begin with the body in the kitchen. You know, it's it's a space, it's historically quite loaded with lots of sort of norms and ideals about gender and you know, certain performances of domesticity which people have felt oppressive and stressful and unpleasant. But also, being quite open and honest about the erotics of that space and that it is a space of pleasure and desire. We think about satisfying our own desires and other people's desires, and also investigating those desires. It's an intensely erotic space. And so yes, I talk in in quite frankly, guest quite acts sort of kinky way about how I wear an apron and the pleasure of apron strings, tying it very tightly. There's a sort of bondage element there which I wanted, very consciously to bring out and to think about how to have the body you want in the kitchen at the beginning of this cooking journey and and then everyone will have their own version of that.
CK: You have an interesting point about cooking with love. I thought it was fascinating. You said it was a writer in the 1970s who argued that housework is not seen as work because it's considered an expression of love. And then you say the phrase Cooking with Love is used to avoid thinking about the cook and the specificity of her life that is, you know, the fact that she or he may not actually want to be cooking, or, or is sort of like, you know, a house, domestic servant. So, so cooking with love papers over some of the deeper issues in cooking in certain situations.
RNJ: Yeah, exactly. And I felt it was really important to dismantle this pressure to perform a sort of certain gladness and sort of joy in the kitchen, you know, and I drew on the work of Sylvia Federici, this important feminist thinker, who wrote that because of this association of performing tasks like cooking, because of its association with love, I guess often maternal love, we cease to be able to perceive it as labor that one may not want to do or withdrawn from doing, go on strike, you can say, I wanted to clear the way to perceive it as work that we don't have to love it. We can also reject it and refuse it and want to say I hate this.
CK: Let's talk about cooking as pleasure which everyone likes to say. And you talk about Nigella Lawson, a fair amount. You said that when she talks about her own pleasure, which she does a lot that's part of her charm, I think you said, this shocks me, what does it shock you?
RNJ: I guess, the confidence in claiming authorship of her own work in the kitchen. And the boldness of it felt unfamiliar to me. And it was scary and exciting at the same time. Yeah. And I think, you know, from speaking to other people who've admired her work, I think, you know, she gives great inspiration to many people, by showing people how to be confident in claiming their own work and claiming their own pleasure in the kitchen, which there's lots of discourse around, you know, feeling guilty about certain foods and, you know, the sort of pressure on women often to be sort of modest about their own kitchen labors and things like that. So, the fact that she wasn't wasting her time with that she displays a certain self-possession and confidence in that space, which I you know, is very inspiring, and interesting and mesmerizing to watch on the screen, actually.
CK: On one hand, I'm a big fan of just cooking and eating, and have your mind, your intellectual mind turned off entirely, because you are experiencing it in the moment, and you don't have to really think about it. Many years ago, I was out rabbit hunting in the winter with this guy, local guy in Vermont, and three feet of snow and, and he made a fire, and we had hot dogs. And these weren't great hot dogs. I still remember that meal because it was you know, 25 degrees out and the dogs and snow and we were hunting, and we ate hot dogs. And you know, there was nothing intellectual about that moment whatsoever. But it's still, you know, it's one of the great meals I've ever had it on some level. Do you think this is what culture does at some point? It overthinks itself and maybe there was a time where people just enjoyed food? And they didn't need to talk about it? I mean, why is there this overwhelming need to talk about food? Which I'm fine with because I find it fascinating. But why do we talk about food? Why should we talk I guess.
RNJ: I think people have always talked about food, you know, there's lots of food and the Bible or classical Greek literature, you know, the Odyssey is absolutely replete with meals. Every sort of social interaction half the time involves a meal. Food is always on people's minds, you know how to get it, what's good, what's not good. But I think you know, all of life is worthy of our thought and care and attention. And, you know, like love, for example, love is something that we experience in the moment in the most incredible transformational way. But it's also worthy of thinking about it in different contexts and how it how it works or when it's allowed or not allowed or whatever other things like that. You know, I absolutely love dancing, cooking, drinking, etc., with friends. But that doesn't make it uninteresting to me is something to think about, which humans have always felt the urge to do, I guess it was it's partly what distinguishes us as a life form, that desire to think about the things that are part of our life.
CK: Well, I think Rebecca you and I need to have dinner together, cook dinner together because I love the book, Small Fires and I love the way you think about food. You know, it's a stepping off point for anything you want to talk about. And I hope to chat with you again. Thank you.
RNJ: Thank you so much for your wonderful questions.
CK: That was Rebecca May Johnson, author of Small Fires an Epic in the Kitchen. The Odyssey is yes an epic a 10-year struggle to return home from Troy. Rebecca May Johnson would like us to think of cooking as epic it takes a lifetime to master. It involves perseverance, hard work pleasure, as well as insight into others their delights and prejudices. Perhaps religion and cooking share some common ground. Religions offer a practice that puts one on the road to enlightenment. So why not a recipe? Say a Hail Mary, chant a Buddhist mantra or make that tomato sauce 1000 times. In the end, I'd like to think our time in the kitchen brings us one step closer to salvation. You're listening to Milk Street Radio Now let's head into the kitchen with JM Hirsch to talk about this week's recipe. Chicken fatteh. JM how are you?
J M Hirsch: I'm doing great.
CK; You know, you take a lot of photographs when you travel 1000s (1000s) But I do remember one of you sort of crouching in the desert and Jordan, which was one of the more unusual ones. So, what were you doing there and what did you bring back?
JMH: Oh my gosh, there was so many amazing foods. But one of my favorites was actually not one dish but a class of dishes called fatteh. And fatteh is a reference to broken bread. And that is actually the basis for this entire spectrum of recipes. And it's a very common kind of comfort food almost dare I say, Jordanian casserole-ish, which probably isn't a great way of selling it, but it really was incredibly delicious. So true to traditions around the world. People historically never wanted food to go to waste. And in the Middle East, left over flatbread was often turned into fatteh and it's a very simple process of taking these leftover pita’s that are possibly stale and crisping them either in oil or in a dry heat of an oven. And then topping that crisp bread with any manner of toppings. Now one of my favorites was topping with hummus and chickpeas and vegetables. But absolutely one of the best was chicken fatteh which combines this crisped pita bread or flatbread with shredded chicken and rice and tahini yogurt lemon sauce, it was really a wonderful it's frankly it's a delicious hot mess.
CK: So is the rice. Just one choice you could use chickpeas or other things legumes.
JMH: You know the rule with fatteh is that aside from the fact that you have to have the crisp flatbread, anything goes I had eggplant fatteh, I had chickpea fatteh, I had hummus fatteh, chicken fatteh, anything goes. So, a lot of people just say mix and match what you like.
CK: So, this is spices, crisped bread, cooked chicken, yogurt, tahini, little lemon juice. That's the basic approach.
JMH: That's the basic approach. So you take your flatbread and like I say you can either fry it until crisp or we found it just as easy and plenty of cooks in Jordan did as well just throw it into the oven until it's nice and crisp, brush it with some olive oil, crack that up and you take some seasonings and you poached chicken and then you tear apart your chicken. You can use that same water that you used to poach the chicken to cook your rice and then you just start layering you layer your crisped pita bread. You layer your chicken you layer your rice and then you can throw on this amazing what they call the holy trinity of Jordanian cooking a mixture of yogurt, tahini, and lemon juice, you throw that on there, they almost always have some chopped nuts on top especially almonds. Throw that on there. And what you get at the end, even though just seems like you know, a multi-layer dip almost. It's really a wonderful combination of flavors and textures. And it's so delicious and satisfying.
CK: And the pomegranate molasses on top right. (Yeah, exactly). That's the one thing about you could end every recipe with and then pomegranate molasses on top because it's sweet and sour.
JMH: Exactly. And it adds a nice punch to all those other flavors.
CK: So, chicken fattteh, this is from Jordan I also had in Lebanon. It really is the all-purpose casserole of the Middle East. It's delicious jam. Thank you.
JMH: Thank you. You can get the recipe for chicken fatteh at Milk Street Radio.com
CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio coming up Dan Pashman tackles the tin fish trend after the break You listening to Milk Street Radio a few weeks ago J Kenji Lopez Alt and I debated our favorite way to cook and peel eggs. Now, I argued that you needed a humongous ice bath to get perfectly peeled eggs. And Kenji said, well, no, it's really the way you cook them, not the ice bath. So, we wanted to hear from you which side of the debate you fall on or the methods you think are even better than ours. And here's what you shared.
Caller: Hi, it's Tim calling from Dover, MA. I'm definitely on Chris's side when it comes to making the eggs. I followed it precisely this weekend, and it came out perfectly. Great egg salad.
Caller: Hi, this is Rebecca Holden. And my tip is to use an Instapot I find that this theme helps separate the shell from the egg and the yolk is cooked absolutely perfectly.
Caller: Steam has a lot of energy that that can really scale within the number of eggs that you might be cooking.
Caller: This is Tina calling you from Germany. The method I use is somewhere between Chris’ and Kenji’s because I don't put the eggs into ice cold water.
Caller: I partially agree with Chris's method in that, plunging it in ice water is extremely important. But I disagree with Chris and Kenji’s method both that they're missing a critically important step. Before placing the eggs in the boiling water. You should pierce the blunt end of the egg with a sharp needle.
Caller: Hi, this is Lauren. I don't have ice at my house. So, I just put a metal bowl of water in the freezer. And then I dropped the eggs in there for a few minutes. And since I've been doing that, they have failed perfectly every time.
Caller: There was some question why a small batch of ice water wouldn't be as good as a large vat. If you have a small vat, you're going to have the area surrounding the hot eggs, warming up and staying warm for a while until convection transfers the heat and cool things down.
Caller: I find putting a touch of baking soda in the boiling water can really make for a perfect peal.
Caller: I think the egg around the side of the pan to break up the shell all the way around. And then it's always really really easy, easy to peel it.
Caller: Hello does R__ Hartman I worked my way through college in his restaurant in Eugene, Oregon. Every day, we would cook up at least five or six dozen hard boiled eggs. We just boiled them with salted water, and then ran cold water over them for about 10 minutes. rarely had a problem.
CK: Thank you to everyone who called, emailed and to the one listener who sent us a letter. As promised, I went back into the kitchen at Milk Street to try Kenji is method. And so, let's get Kenji on the line and tell them what we found. (Hello) Hey, Kenji it's Kimball here in Boston.
J Kenji Lopez Alt: Oh, hey, Chris. How’s it going?
CK: Yeah, I'm calling back. Because we took your advice, and we tested more ways to cook eggs to make them easy peal. (Oh, yeah). The long and short of it was this, either steaming or boiling water seemed to work well, okay. We still actually prefer boiling a little bit. But if you get the egg shocked with hot water, or hot steam, that's obviously important. You're right, starting in cold water, which is what you and I used to do a long time ago does not work. That was the worst method, right? But I'm going to hold my ground here on on the shocking with ice water. You don't need a lot of huge bowl, which did a lot of ice in proportion to the water and the number of eggs. And it does seem to make a difference that if you get it really cold and helps get out. I mean, just letting them sit at room temperature. That does not work very well. I guess running under cold water would be pretty good. But we pretty much agree. The only thing we really disagree about what is the benefit of the cold shock at the end?
JKA: Right, right, right. So, I think we both agree that the most important thing is starting them hot, whether it's steaming or boiling, starting them hot, as opposed to starting them in cold water, is what really makes the most difference. As far as the shocking them afterward go, you know, I personally didn't notice much of a difference in the testing that I've done there. But I do wonder if maybe part of the difference in the way we tested is, rather than the rate at which the egg is cooling, I wonder if the final temperature is what's important so that eggs that go into ice water, will get down to that, you know, that real fridge ice cold temperature faster than an egg just placed like in the refrigerator, for example. And the cooler the egg, the firmer it's going to be, so it'll be easier to peel.
CK: I sort of had this silly notion that if you shocked them in really cold ice water, that somehow the egg sort of retracts and shrinks from the inner part of the shell, (right) Maybe something that actually should be tested, and not just be theoretical.
JKA: Yeah. And then you also have to keep practicality in mind, like, I'm not going to sell my basket with ice cube when I make a single boiled egg.
CK: Come on. I thought you were saying to me, no, no, no, you can use a fairly small bowl, but you got to use a lot of ice and you only have a few eggs. It's fine. Kenji we’ll agree to agree this time and look forward to the time we can agree to disagree, which is even more fun.
JKA: I'm sure that will come. Yes.
CK: Thank you. You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Now it's time to hear from our friend Dan Pashman. Hey, Dan, how are you?
Dan Pashman: Well, Chris, I'm a little peeved today. (Oh, dear) I must say. You know, I watch food trends, just like you do. And and I am annoyed to see this new trend. Everyone's talking about tinned fish.
CK; Oh, boy. Here we go. Yeah, I've noticed the same thing in the last year and a half.
DP: They're talking about it like it's something new.
CK: Yeah. Well, I think didn't Napoleon have someone invent tinned food?
DP: Right. And when I was going to say when we were growing up, and those two things didn’t happen concurrently no offense. They called it something else. We called it canned fish. Yeah, good point. Right. There was nothing wrong with it. It was delicious. And now some marketing geniuses have decided to call it tinned fish. Because it sounds fancier.
CK: Well, I will defend it only in that the quality that you can get now of some of this tinned fish is actually quite good. Which is different than when I grew up. The range and quality of the stuff now is actually quite good.
DP: I hear you It pains me to admit it. But I do agree with that. The fish inside these tins is generally higher quality than the sort of cheap supermarket stuff and I like that there's a wider variety. Of course, there's always been canned salmon. But there's a wider range of higher quality. These tend to salmon, I've seen cod liver, of course, lots of sardines. Then again, if you've been seeking out high quality Italian and Spanish tuna in olive oil in the glass jars, which has been around for a while, like none of this is new. So, I'm just I'm annoyed that they're trying to pretend that it's new. That being said, I agree with you that I'm glad it exists. Because I think that it's very practical. It's like a great thing to have in your pantry for when you want something that's delicious and healthy and quick.
CK: Well, it also is an anti-trend. I remember back in the 70s when I was first doing a lot of cooking. And don't say 1870s Dan, that's that's an old joke. You know, everything had to be made from scratch, I was making my own baguettes and eclair, you know, everything was done from scratch. The idea that you buy something in the store was just indefensible. But it turns out that even the French will go to the patisserie to buy the tartar. They don't make their bread, they don't make their desserts most of the time. So, the thing I do like is now we can mix and match stuff you buy in a store with stuff you make at home. And it's not, you know, oh, I bought that in a store and it's you're no longer considered a serious cook. So, I do like the dare I say at the informality of of being able to shop for part of your dinner, which you know, that's okay.
DP: What's your go to with a nice, canned tinned fish? Like it's lunchtime, we're taking a quick break from work. You come into the kitchen; you want to whip up something? You grab the can. What are you doing with it?
CK: I don't eat tinned fish. Wait. I just made a big case for but the one thing I do a lot though, to be fair. I do like a couple anchovies dissolved into oil when you're cooking onions or sofrito. It doesn't add any fishiness. This just adds depth of flavor. So, I do love that. I think a little bit of smaller fish like anchovies as part of a foundation to a stew for example or soup. I think that's great. So, I'm all in favor of that.
DP: All right, let's go back. Why don't you eat tinned or canned as I call it, fish?
CK: How much do you charge an hour for your psychoanalysis?
DP: Oh boy,
CK: Before I answer this…
DP: We've really hit on something. It's okay Chris, this is a safe space for you.
CK: I know why. I'll tell you.
DP: let it all out.
CK: Here's here's why. In 1969, I drove from London to Nairobi. And for most of that time, I ate nothing but canned foods, lots of tinned fish. And we're not talking about gourmet fish here. So Dinty Moore beef stew and canned salmon. So, I think after three months of living off of canned foods, that may have had an effect on my, the rest of my tinned fish experience.
DP: So, you overdid it in 1969. And you haven't recovered.
CK: I’ve got to restart. I got to take a fresh look.
DP: Yeah, I mean, that's it's been a while, Chris. Yeah, it's something similar happened to me with tequila in high school, and I got back on the horse eventually.
CK: Well, yeah, the tequila horse is easier to mount than tinned fish is. Well, I mean, but but to be serious. I do think a lot of these companies, there's even restaurants now that specialize in tinned fish. It's okay. I mean, the quality is good. And it's a way of getting things you probably couldn't get otherwise. So, I don't know. I guess I am for it.
DP: All right. And I want you to try some so that you can say that even more definitively. Chris,
CK: Anchovies and tuna just doesn't get me into the tinned fish Club.
DP: I'll send you some cod liver.
CK: Dan Pashman. Thank you.
DP: Alright, thanks, Chris.
CK: That was Dan Pashman, host of the Sportful podcast. That's it for today. You can find all of our episodes on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. You can learn more about us here at Milk Street at 177 Milk Street.com. There you can become a member and get full access to every recipe, access to all of our live stream cooking classes, free standard shipping from the Milk Street store and more. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and kitchen questions and thanks as always for listening.
Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH, co-founder of Melissa Baldino, executive producer Annie Sensabaugh. Senior Editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah Clapp, Associate Producer Caroline Davis with production help from Debby Paddock. Additional editing by Sidney Lewis audio mixing by Jay Allison at Atlantic public media and Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Theme music by Toubab Krewe, additional music by George Bernal Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX.