Science Backs Your King, Part X

In my recent series about cooking to impress, I mentioned that assigning a regional name to a dish makes your feast fancier regardless of the dish’s actual provenance. Social science has since confirmed the clue:

According to Jurafsky, very expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.

Notice that this doesn’t say anything about the actual quality of food, as my tips didn’t. It does, however, tell you that classier places assign origins, meaning that your assigning of origins will make you food seem classier to the eater.

Book Review: You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty

You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty, by Dave Barry

For a long time, Dave Barry’s books consisted largely of his columns from the previous decade, which was disappointing to us loyal readers who had already read most of his writing anyway. Dave officially stopped writing his column years ago, although it seems like he’s merely stopped publishing it – his most recent book seems to be largely composed of things he’d have published in column form before. Now, of course, it’s brand new material, and while some of it is longer and gets more in-depth treatment, his style is no different than what you’d expect every Sunday at the Miami Herald.

Fortunately, Dave is still hilarious. Even his trip to Israel – a topic that most Americans can say maybe three things about – is engaging and interesting, funny but apolitical. Freed from his wordcount shackles and profanity filter, Dave is as funny as ever, crossing his former limits without using them as a crutch.

Recommended for fans, and highly recommended for non-fans.

Excerpts:

Clothes: “As a general rule, do not wear “ironic” clothing unless you wish to make the bold fashion statement: “I’m still living off my parents.””

Wine:  “In an hour it will be urine , same as Bud Light.”

The ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey” trilogy: “I don’t know because I haven’t read them, although I fully intend to do so in the future if the only alternative is crucifixion.”

Women: We still don’t know what causes women to wear shoes that hurt, or fill their homes with reeking decorative candles that provide no more illumination than a lukewarm bagel, or watch The View, or put small weird-shaped pillows on beds that already have pillows, but we assume some kind of mutant brain proteins are also causing these behaviors.

 

 

Amazon Review: Eastbound & Down

Eastbound & Down was an HBO show, which permits it to explore areas a network or basic cable show could not. As a result, it’s hard to pass an overall judgment on this show: on one hand, it’s daring and even experimental; on the other, it indulges some of the worst sitcom tropes. Overall, though, it’s more of the good than the bad.

Kenny Powers (Danny McBride), briefly dominant as a relief pitcher in the major leagues, has fallen the heights of fame to being a guest in his brother’s house in suburban North Carolina. Forced to actually work for a living, Kenny becomes a substitute teacher in his old high school, where his old flame (Katy Mixon) is engaged to the principal and a former nobody named Stevie (Steve Little) is still in love with the idea of Kenny as a supercool celebrity. This is an interesting start that the show takes across multiple countries and states as the four seasons carry on, a bold move made possible only by Danny McBride’s fearless Kenny. In this regard, the show is commendable – a network show would never get away with the setting changes that accompany Kenny. As a celebrity in his own mind, one that is close to returning to the glory days, Kenny is fascinating, especially when forced confront the reality of his situation.

However, while the experimental side of the equation works out, the show fails some basic sitcom tropes. Stevie’s mancrush on Kenny, while sometimes funny, often forces him into situations that are both unrealistic and unfunny. While Kenny’s ignorance of his effect on others can be endearing, Stevie’s complete lack of success and confidence wears on the viewer. The buttmonkey just isn’t funny, and the more the show dumps on Stevie, the less funny it is.

The show’s 29 episodes contain a few missteps – Will Ferrell’s cameos are surprisingly disappointing – but on balance, it works.

Fancier Feast: Reader Question

I received the following reader question on the post regarding multiple courses:

Would you suggest splitting side dishes off of the entree course in order to add courses? If so, do you have any comment on the best way to do so?

Here’s how I replied:

Jim,
I think you’re asking if serving side dishes in separate bowls/plates or even family style is desirable. The answer is generally yes, with a few caveats:
-family style is inappropriate for guests with power, like bosses
-multiple plates/bowls per person can be messy, so small bowls on the entree plate are preferred.
Family style is good for dates, because people can eat more of what they like, giving them a better overall eating experience.

I’ll add here that multiple plates/bowls per person is difficult to do logistically. However, if you have very small dishes that can be placed onto the entree plate, it’s a great way to add a side – including liquid sides – while separating it from the entree both physically and conceptually.

Also, sharing a family side with your date is a good bonding experience.

Fancier Feast: Minor Happenings

There are a few tips for impressive food preparation that are usually helpful but are require some more judgment or are less universally applicable than the four major tips I’ve already blogged about. I’ll list them below.

1. Toast bread.

Whatever bread (or chips, for that matter) you serve should be warm. Toast it in a pan or heat it up in an oven before serving.

2. Olive oil.

The only fat used in cold dishes – like salads and dips – should be olive oil. Drizzle a bit extra on top before serving.

3. Butter.

Use butter to excess in hot things – sauteed or baked things should be fortified with butter at all times. Don’t make this a habit, but on a special night, yes.

4. Plate the sauce.

Spoon a bit of whatever sauce goes with your entree onto the plate, in a pattern or a squiggly line. It’s classy.

5. Bacon.

Wrap foods in bacon (or turkey bacon, which I use). Assuming your guests will eat it, this is a really easy way to improve your dish by making it more complex and tastier. Smell definitely works in your favor here.

Fancier Feast: Part 7

Today’s tip is aesthetic. I’m not entirely sure why it works, but it works.

Tip #7: Use Irregular Shapes

You’re cooking someone a homemade meal, but if it looks like it’s restaurant-made, that’s how it’ll be judged. If, instead, it looks homemade,  you get held to a different standard, and this works in your favor. (See Tip #1.) One way to achieve this is to have your dishes bear the stamp of home cooking: lack of uniformity. Avoid molds whenever you can – homemade cookies or rolls or pizzas or flatbreads should look homemade, which means different from each other and with irregular edges. Cut your own meats and cheeses; it will lend them a natural variance.

Remember that variance is your friend: it lets people choose that which they prefer. In entrees, when they’re stuck with what you gave them, irregularity signals the dish is custom-made, fresh, artisanal. These are good associations.

Bonus Tip: This section has been intentionally left blank.

Tomorrow: A reader comment.

Fancier Feast: Part 6

We continue our series on impressive cooking with more  food preparation, which so far has been a minor part of the process. Today, We continue with an additional ingredient that will make your meal classier than it would have been otherwise.

Tip #6: Hit Them With Your Best Shallot*

*Yes, inspired by Bob’s Burgers, which you should already be watching.

If you’re trying to impress, shallots are your friend. They’re the onion’s classier, fancier cousin, the one that went to art school in Europe for two years. Use shallots anywhere you’d normally use onions and reap the benefits. They’re best deployed in salads and salad dressings (“a variation of Flemish kale & tomato with shallots and toasted pine nuts”), sauteed with your cooked vegetables, and in most of your sauces. Avoid it in combination with other strong acidic flavors – say, salsas – because it can clash with other dominant flavors there. Once sauteed, though, it’s relatively safe.

Because it’s pricier and more labor-intensive than onions, the shallot should be used sparingly in your day-to-day cooking, but use it at crunch time.

Bonus tip: To derive maximum benefit from shallots, it’s imperative that you announce that the dish contains shallots. The word alone is classy.

Tomorrow: Getting in shape.

Fancier Feast: Part 5

I promised to help you cook to impress in this series, and you may have noticed that so far there has been no actual cooking. Rather, so far it’s been framing, lying, multiplying, and conscripting. Today, however, we begin to engage in actual food preparation.

Tip #5: Go Nuts

Nuts make your meal classier. that’s all there is to it. Almost every dish is made more complex and fancier by the addition of nuts. Think about it: kale & tomato salad is way less impressive than a kale & tomato salad with pine nuts. Roasted Brussels sprouts are a good side; roasted Brussles sprouts with walnuts are better. Fried rice with cashews is better than just fried rice. Nuts are also pretty interchangeable; yes, cashews should probably go with savory meals, and hazelnuts with sweets, but even that’s not mandatory. Basically, any nut makes your meal more complex, adding a new flavor and texture, without requiring you to actually think about what you’re doing. Nuts go best with salads and roasted vegetables, so they can be used to improve appetizers and sides.

One note: nut allergies can ruin this for you, so ask in advance. Presumably, if you’re cooking for someone, the dietary restriction question has already been floated, but if not, keep the nuts out at first. If you determine they’re okay during the course of the meal, it’s not that hard to toss a handful of pine nuts into a salad.

Bonus tip: Toasted nuts are classier than plain nuts. To toast nuts, warm them in a pan and announce kale & tomato salad with toasted pine nuts.

Tomorrow: the classy vegetable.

Fancier Feast: Part 4

So far you’ve learned how to set expectations, lie about geography, and diversify. Today, you learn to conscript your guests into helping you make a good impression. We’ll be taking advantage of a few human cognitive quirks: people appreciate things they have to work for and they take responsibility for their actions.

Tip #4: Make Them Work For It

People will appreciate your meal way more if they play a part in its creation. Presumably you can’t make your honored guest dice the onions, but you can still use them in the post-serving assembly. Think sushi: you put much of it together yourself, adding soy sauce, wasabi, and ginger in proportions of your own choosing. Do the same with your dishes, especially non-entree dishes: make your guests work to put food together. This could just mean providing a couple of dips, or multiple items to be layered on a cracker, or sauces that can be combined in different ways.

The benefits of this can be huge. First, because they are actively involved, people tend to think of this food more positively because they put some effort into it. Second, by participating, they accept soem of the responsibility – basically, if the food turns out poor, you’ll get some benefit of the doubt as people assume they perhaps mixed the sauces incorrectly.

Bonus tip: You always get bonus points if you try someone else’s assembly and agree that it is, indeed, delicious.

Tomorrow: Actual food preparation.

Thoughts on law, economics, sports, food, and pop culture. Not necessarily in that order.