In the days when we thought we had money, we used to go for breakfast to The Crest House in Culver City, a big "family restaurant" with a dark, dingy bar attached. We'd play racquetball for an hour, shower, then sit in the bar (away from the "family" section) and have Bloody Marys and a big breakfast that lasted us 'til evening.
Chuck, a crusty bartender right out of a sitcom, made the best Bloody Mary we've ever had, and when we left L.A. he gave us the recipe. I promised never to share it, but one secret was Angostura bitters, lots of it, which provides a deep, ineffable sweetness. Expensive, perhaps, but bars can afford to bump up their non-alcoholic ingredients since their profit margin is obscene.
Back to The Crest House. After a while, we segued into our practice of unusual breakfasts. I don't remember when we first discovered that the previous day's baked-macaroni-and-cheese was a winner, but thereafter, whenever we could get it, we did. It featured chopped ham, something we'd never encountered, but beyond that it was simply the best goddamn mac-and-cheese around. I tried to make it on my own — aged cheddar, sweet butter, Italian rigatoni and so on — but nothing I did matched theirs.
We'd gotten to know the chef, Gus. A tall, graying Chicano autocrat of the kitchen, he operated on a very strict food-cost spreadsheet — although this was long before spreadsheets. (He baked macaroni in huge stainless-steel inserts, which were then transferred to the steam tables, whence they would be scooped into au gratin dishes and put under the salamander to brown.) There was a tang, a special flavor at the root of his sauce. Not exactly cheese, but what was it?
We asked. Sorry, he smiled; it was one of his specialties. "It's all up here," and he tapped his temple. "I write it down, they don't need me; they can hire some kid who can follow directions." And that was that.
At least until we decided to leave the music business and move to Humboldt County. "Gus," I pleaded, "We can't live without your macaroni. The people up there are uncivilized. They think macaroni-and-cheese is Kraft Dinner." And he relented. A very special favor, he smiled, but don't tell anyone.
The Crest House closed in 2005, the property sold to developers, and by now has turned into condominiums, like much of the west part of L.A. So Gus' secret can be safely revealed.
Sorry, fellow gourmets, it was ordinary commercial chicken base. You used to have to get that in restaurant supply stores, but now it's available as Better Than Base. (Which it isn't, really, other than that it contains yeast extract instead of monosodium glutamate.)
You start (according to Gus) by making a simple roux with oil, flour, white pepper and nutmeg. Then you add milk and chicken base, whisking to make a thick sauce, to which you will add al dente cooked elbow macaroni (or other tubular pasta), then cubed cheddar and Swiss cheese, together with chopped chunks from the previous night's leftover baked ham. The sauce coats the pasta and allows the cheese and ham to become little pockets of flavor.
Not exactly rocket science, but who would ever guess that the key to cosmic baked macaroni is chicken base?
Oh, and the final touch? After it has baked, before heating and serving, over the top of the casserole you place slices of American cheese. Yep, that's what I said. No, not cheddar, just plain American. Another secret ingredient. It gives the top the perfect oozy texture.
So right there you have three secret ingredients. Oh. Sorry, did you miss the third one? It's nutmeg. White pepper carries the heat, but when the black outer layer is removed it takes with it a significant aromatic note. Nutmeg restores that, and adds its own subtle aroma.
Anthony Bourdain's book, Kitchen Confidential, tells how, having already learned the discrete use of "bases" by working in greasy spoons, he wowed the instructors at The Culinary Institute by secretly adding it to his sauces. It's a dirty little secret of professional cooks. They are supposed to prepare their own stocks. But anyone who's worked in the food industry knows that time is not your friend, labor is at best irregular and if you can find short cuts, well, who's to know?
In the late '90s, Alfred Stoffels, a clever journeyman cook who had bounced around the West Coast, married a Humboldt girl and started a small restaurant in Rio Dell.
Al's Diner quickly gained an underground reputation for the best food on the North Coast — if also for the funkiest decor. Al did not use base. He made everything from scratch, and his menu was idiosyncratic, small and very blue-collar. His servings were mammoth, as befits a lumbermill town. He became friendly with the local hunters, fishermen, mushroom hunters and pot growers, and many were the wondrous — and totally illegal — meals we consumed there. I can't imagine driving an hour each way to eat out, but we did.
But that's another story. There weren't a lot of things I learned from Al that can be applied to home cooking. One thing I gleaned was his seasoning of meats before pan frying or grilling. Lots of dried dill — the tart herb perfectly complements the natural caramel produced by the surface heat.
I should mention that I'm not a fan of the "just rub a fresh clove of garlic over the steak" style — way too subtle for my taste — so I've always used several seasonings. Now our routine includes dill, along with freshly ground pepper, salt, granulated garlic and onion, and sometimes one of several ground chilies we keep on hand, or (not with) mustard flour. Yes, it works with hamburger and fish as well.
This brings me to the topic of "blackened" cookery. The style began in the early 1980s, with the coming to prominence of Paul Prudhomme, the New Orleans chef who began using it for cooking Gulf redfish. Our short-lived restaurant adventure in Eureka, Byrd House, adopted it, since we were not equipped for deep-frying, and it was both delicious and far less caloric. As with many things we proposed, Humboldt County demurred.
But in our home cooking, we've found it to be a miracle — we use it for every kind of meat (including hamburgers) and especially fresh fish. We are rigorous about rare meat and fish that is still flaky— what most line cooks consider underdone. This technique preserves the moisture of the interior while searing the surface with a savory crust. So it's what we do whenever we decide to splurge on a steak or a couple of filets.
Here's the basic idea. Melt some butter. Turn on your hood fan, and open doors or windows, because smoke is going to go everywhere unless you provide an outlet. Get the air moving.
Now heat a cast-iron frying pan of the right size. Do not spray with Pam or oil, just get it really, really hot, at least 10 minutes (some cooks prefer to use an oven).
Let's back up a bit. You have previously applied the spice mixture to each side of the steak, chop, breast and/or filet, pressing or rubbing it so it will stick. You've refrigerated it for at least 30 minutes.
Just before cooking the first side, pour a teaspoon of melted butter over the top, then cook that side so that the butter blackens along with the spices. Pour more butter on the top side when you are ready to turn. (Cooking length is not something I can address here.)
For a more authentic Cajun taste, here's our "blackened" mixture:
Finely grind, and store in a sealed jar, a combination of:
fennel or anise seeds
chilies (at least two dry pods, with seeds)
crumbled bay leaves
dill fronds (dry)
garlic granules or flakes
onion granules or flakes
Does that seem like a lot of spices? The original Prudhomme recipe includes maybe a dozen more, including sage, curry powder, allspice, etc. When we first attempted it, I was skeptical, being of the school that wants to blend and marry a few particular elements so I can taste the way they work together. It might seem that all these flavors would "fight" on the palate, but they don't; the mixture is surprisingly effective. There is no identifiable flavor, and the meat is sealed in a savory crust that enhances its natural taste. Sauce would be overkill.
This treatment of spices reminds me of advice I got from the Mexican culinary historian Diana Kennedy. She intended it to apply to Mexican food, but it is a magical technique that works with all dry spices and herbs: Before you add them to the pot, "toast" them. Easiest is a plain cast-iron skillet on medium-high heat. Add the spice and stir just until you can barely smell the odor, or you see a slight haze appear. Then remove from the pan and let cool before grinding.
The easiest way to test this is with cumin seed. By itself, cumin is a pungent, sour, slightly acrid flavor; pan-roasted, it is a rich, floral, aromatic one. It loses none of its boldness, but adds subtlety and élan to anything it seasons.
Now, like the pedant I am, I enumerate this column's secrets: Angostura bitters in Bloody Marys, chicken base (along with nutmeg and American cheese) in baked macaroni, dried dill as a "rub" for meat and fish and the pan-roasting of spices. Not a bad first effort, methinks. Who knows what secrets have yet to be revealed?
Do you have "secret" ingredients and techniques you'd like to share? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If possible, please, make it something I can test myself before inflicting onJournalreaders. And let me know if I can credit you.