highs & lows…

savor the wins and take the hits.

The last few weeks need to be presented as a giant hamburger. There’s a popular management exercise where you intentionally position negative feedback between two positives – the sandwich approach or the hamburger method. This is supposed to cushion the blow so constructive criticism can be better received. It’s debatable whether this approach is effective, mostly because in practice people chicken out and dilute the negatives while inflating the positives. I openly accept occasional flaming-scorched-earth failure, having wallowed in it with at least average frequency. Consolation is always just around the corner. And with just a minor tweak, the sandwich methodology works for me: rather than tempering the duds and miscues, I use it to clearly contrast what worked well with what didn’t both with my sports photography and my cooking exploits. Failure can be painful, embarrassing and revolting, but always valuable. So I take the hits, recoup and learn to do better.

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

Julia Child

It started with the Cioppino, an Italian American seafood stew and ended with Chicken Karahi, a tomato curry of Pakistani origin. Both were home runs across the board, so my confessional lies sandwiched between. I managed to make a platter of rubbery Mexican chicken breasts that surrendered all taste and texture to what should have been a sexy and exotic marinade, followed by the most revolting Indonesian meatballs ever, which were closer to salty, hot mothballs. Both were aggressively and unforgivably yucky. I don’t want to be consoled by the delicious Cioppino or Karahi because I need the contrast to remind me, “Darlin’, don’t do that again.” Along with the victories, these fails will be integrated into my mental cookbook and I’m okay with that. Just look for them in the chapter titled “Utter Crap.”

The idea for Cioppino came to me after a I read a New York Times Cooking article about mussels and how they have remained a sustainable, affordable luxury when everything else is noticeably more expensive/outrageous. Since I always seem to default to pasta for mussels, I went to the Google to learn all about San Franciscan Cioppino. The recipe I actually used is based on a noted restaurant version but locked behind a NYT paywall. Giada de Laurentiis knows what she is doing so I included her recipe link above. The main difference, and I cannot overstate my delight in these two additions, is using 5-6 toasted star anise pods and a couple of tablespoons of roasted garlic butter in the marinara (and a dollop on the toasted bread used for dipping.) Her use of fennel might provide the same mild licorice flavor kick as anise, but that roasted garlic butter was insane. Also insane – the presentation, which I can only imagine topping with crab legs or maybe a lobster tail next time. There will definitely be a next time.

Fresh from my victory lap, I wanted an easy weeknight Tex-Mex vibe. Did I go to my beautiful new “Art of Mexican Cooking?” No. No, I did not and I paid dearly for that act of betrayal. Presenting Michelada Chicken, according to Ali Slagle:

“This spicy, tangy chicken is flavored with — you guessed it — ingredients that make a michelada. This recipe combines beer, Worcestershire, hot sauce and lime for a marinade that results in surprisingly tender meat and a sizzled crust, as well as a sauce that, for obvious reasons, is good enough to drink.”

It was not spicy. It was not tangy. The meat was not tender nor was there was any semblance of a crust. Not only will I never, ever make this again, you can be damn sure I’ll never order a Michelada. At first glance these photos look fine – the bright colors and layered textures imply a slightly exotic, but fresh and healthy dinner. The sheet pan veggies were typically delish and Mother’s guacamole is always on point, but I assure you, that chicken was inedible, an affront to all chicken. I can still hear Husband trying to hide the evidence: scrape, scrape, scrape.

fail #2: disgustingly salty Indonesian meatballs, bland farro and old arugula

Clearly on a roll, I attempted to improvise a few days later. My redemption menu was Indonesian ginger-garlic meatballs in a sweet red pepper reduction with a farro-butternut side salad. This went wrong in almost every way, mostly because I was cocky and careless. To start, the recipe suggested that ground pork was a more flavorful option than beef, and I wholeheartedly agreed. I pulled out some hot Italian sausage and made the meatballs accordingly. Two big errors – first, in no way did I account for the salt and seasoning already in the pork sausage. It required no additional salt whatsoever but I forgot and naturally added the exact amount called for in the recipe. Well, not the exact amount…which leads me to the next mistake. I used the wrong salt. Actually they used the wrong salt. I cook with Diamond Crystal Kosher which is milder and more crumbly than its denser, much saltier rival, Morton. The recipe called for Morton so I used extra Diamond to compensate. There is a formula for this substitution and I ignored that formula. So I ended up with a skillet of little greasy salt lick balls.

But here’s my favorite part: the butternut squash. I planned to incorporate sweet roasted squash with the farro in a pomegranate-garlic-lemon-yogurt dressing which seemed to work with the Indonesian spices in the meatballs. But I decided to walk away from the oven to enjoy a glass of wine, some cooking tunes and good company instead of babysitting my oven. Or setting a timer. I ended up with crunchy burnt squash croutons and in a rage I scrapped the pomegranates. But waste not, want not, so you can see the croutons sprinkled on top in the photo, mocking me.

at last something divine: Chicken Karahi

Maybe I’m stubborn or a glutton for punishment. Maybe I’m just intensely competitive, but last week I did not quit so I will simply call it resilience and take a bow for Chicken Karahi. A karahi is a wide, deep circular pan used in throughout the Indian subcontinent – pretty similar to a wok, a few of which I happen to have. Chicken Karahi, named for said pot, is an iconic Pakistani curry flavored with tomatoes, ground spices, garlic and ginger. This quick version afforded me a few shortcuts and it was still outstanding, worthy of more research and another round without a shot clock one day. My family is still talking about it so I know I nailed it.

There were some critical elements that gave me a much-needed advantage, especially on a random Wednesday night clouded with exceptionally low expectations. First I do have a masala dabba stocked with Indian spices, especially red Kashmiri chili powder and lots of cumin. Also, I can’t stress enough the importance of ghee (now found with cooking oils in most grocery stores) and the unimportance of fresh tomatoes (I used a can of diced with the juice.) Another help was jarred garlic-ginger paste, two herbs that are often used in combination. Useful, since I found no fewer than three old, shriveled ginger roots rolling around in the rotter this time around. Most importantly, I steered away from the salt (duh) but added a squeeze of lemon and a dash of turmeric for brightness. This is the kind of meal that draws Food Taster to my kitchen every time, so my mission is to make it only occasionally or he will never leave.

Recently I’ve thought a lot about the principle of high risk/high reward. Not surprisingly, I found myself considering how that approach infiltrates many, but not all aspects of my life. I will always be too much of a rule follower to go completely rogue, but I continue to dance ever so closer to the line each year. For me both cooking and photography exploit the play between risk and reward but with the luxury of a built-in backup plan. Because they blend art and science, both of my favorite pursuits allow generous amounts of professional fakery when things go south: the food may be inedible but the photo is fine, or vice versa, but seldom both. While I feel like an imposter most of the time, the tension does keep me honest – I crave both freedom and structure, rebellion and safety, independence and allegiance. Duality serves as the safety net that gives me the confidence to go big or go home.

So I have wins and I have fails like everybody else. I’ve just bragged and confessed all about the food, but my sports photography mirrors the same sentiments, top to bottom: practice endlessly to gain skill, acknowledge timing and embrace luck, be fearless enough to place yourself in the action.

go big or go home

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