Category Archives: Philosophy

Tri-Tip, and The Problem of Meat

This Father’s Day, my family elected to cook the family BBQ classic: tri-tip.

We bought two smaller tri-tips (I have no if that is an allowable plural), so my mother and I decided to cook them different ways. My mom opted for Santa Maria style grilling,  turning the meat every four minutes and basting with a mixture of oil, red wine vinegar and garlic. I used Thomas Keller’s tri-tip recipe, in which you brown the outsides with oil and butter, and then slow cook it in the oven.

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My Tri-Tip, awaiting butter and rosemary.

Both cuts of meat received a paprika and black pepper dry rub about 2.5 hours before they went on the grill. If you’re planning properly, you’re supposed to rub and refrigerate overnight. I can see why, as my hasty spice work did little to improve the flavor.

The final products were… just ok. The Thomas Keller recipe produced a better texture, while the grilled meat had a more distinct flavor.

And this is my ultimate problem with tri-tip: it’s never as good as you hope it will be. It’s easy to overcook, and unsatisfying compared to other cuts of meat. During our Father’s Day meal, I realized that the portobello mushrooms we grilled for our vegan family members were abundantly more flavorful, not to mention less taxing on my vascular system. (Portobello marinade: olive oil, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, garlic. Very delicious.)

Admittedly, I am no fan of red meat. But still I wonder, why do we value it so highly? Is it really so delicious? Or has red meat been perverted into a bloody status symbol, the Cadillac for the posturing philistine?

I believe we are deceived. We are stuck in a sort of Plato’s cave – Plato’s Meat Cave – and the shadows on the wall force us to rejoice in the chewy labor of the Stakehouse. If we only turned around, we could discover the truth: that chicken, fish, lamb, and most roasted vegetables, are more capable and delectable than the tri-tip and T-bone.

It is time for liberation. And a portobello mushroom burger.

(Note: none of this criticism of steak applies to Dave Yasuda’s sous vide steaks and Chandler’s fillet, which are absurdly and inconceivably delicious.)

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Clock Management

There’s something you should know when I enter the kitchen. I’m going to be there a while.

Anyone who knows me will tell you: I’ve always moved at a slow (some might say glacial) pace. I always brought a book to the bathroom as a child. I get distracted easily by newspaper box scores, my cellphone, and passing birds. I often stare into space for 90 seconds in between tying my shoes.

The point is, I’m not an abundantly effective man. And it is never more obvious than when I am in the kitchen.

You want cereal? You’ll need to give me 5 minutes.

You want some 6 minute rice? Well that will take 20.

Need me to sauté an onion? See you in an hour.

You want a pork roast? Please have my AARP card at the ready. I’ll be eligible by the time I serve dinner.

This chronological impairment is without doubt the greatest threat to my young culinary career. Good cooking is, in large part, good clock management. And to the accomplished chef’s Bill Belichick, I am the overmatched Andy Reid (only frustrated Chiefs fans will understand this).

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Anyways, the true sign of a good meal is that everything retains the correct temperature and consistency when it hits the plate, and subsequently, our mouths. If you don’t respect the omnipotent role of timing in cooking, you could end up committing a deadly food sin — like reheating sautéed spinach, or (gasp) serving a cold breakfast meat.

And on the note of shamelessly reheated and aggressively ash like spinach, lets talk about the dinner I made the other night.

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I was cooking dinner for my family. I made seared chicken with a blueberry reduction, turnip mashed potatoes, and sautéed spinach. I was trying to utilize many of the recipes that Nicole graciously demonstrated for us on Monday.

My chicken was simple — a chicken breast, cut into small medallions/fillets, and fried in a pan with butter, salt and pepper. The result was pleasantly chicken-y, and that’s about all I can say. I should have cooked it less, and seasoned it more, but how much can you really do to chicken?

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The reduction sauce was undoubtedly the highlight of the meal. I started by cooking down frozen blueberries and water in a saucepan with four halved and peeled pears. Once the berries had cooked down and the pears were fully poached, I pulled the pears out, they would be used as dessert later. After I had cooked the chicken, I added more butter to the delicious chicken grease, and sautéed shallots in the yummy swirling fats. Then I poured in my bubbling blueberries, an aggressive amount of balsamic vinegar, and a splash of apple cider vinegar. I let the sauce cook down and vinegars sweetened up deliciously. I added a pat of butter mixed with cornstarch at the very end to thicken up my creation. It was delightful atop the chicken.

But here’s the trouble, I had already made mashed turnips and potatoes (which had good flavor, but owing to my use of the turnip, entirely to watery). All this time they were sitting idle on the counter in my kitchenaid.

To make matters worse, I had stupidly sautéed a huge pile of spinach before making the chicken, and it was becoming hypothermic alone on the counter. All the time that I took constructing my sauce had made these important side dishes colder than Ice Cube in a Coors commercial.

From beginning to end, making this simple meal of potatoes/turnips, spinach, chicken and sauce took me nearly two and a half hours. Two and a half hours. Thats as long as Fellowship of the Ring. In that time Frodo made it from The Shire to the hills of Emyn Muil. I made some lukewarm chicken. That can be called nothing other than inexcusable.

Whatever the variances in kinetic energy, my family consumed the meal, and deemed it somewhere between edible and yummy. I was glad to have fed them and glad to have practiced a variety of cooking teqniques.

But the great question of timing hangs over me.

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If time is money, I am a very poor man. But the nice thing about time is, there’s more of it in the future. And there are many hours still to come where I may serve everything at the temperature it deserves.

The. Bite.

Everyone knows the bite.

Some say it happens about halfway through the burrito. Others maintain that it’s three fourths of the way down. And still others say it’s a third from the bottom.

It’s hard to say where exactly the bite resides. Every burrito is different, and everyone attacks their burrito in a different way. But make no mistake: it’s in there. There’s always a bite.

What is the bite? Simply put, it’s the one magical mouthful in every burrito that is unequivocally the best. A moment of culinary crescendo, where every flavor and texture comes together. The bite that makes you moan in exclamation despite your mouth being full. It’s the bite that keeps you, and me, and everyone else in the subtle, subconscious worship of taco trucks everywhere.

For years I wondered about the bite. For much of my life I doubted its existence. Burrito ingredients are evenly mixed throughout the tortilla enclosure, I reasoned. How could any one mandibular selection be superior to the next? It all seemed so strange.

Until one day, perhaps a year ago. I was alone in Chipotle, wolfing down a beef burrito. It was a good burrito, not earth shattering, but consummately enjoyable. And then, as I moved into the second half of the burrito, everything changed.

Because I took the bite. It was the perfect mix of meat and beans, just the right amount of avocado, a dash of salsa, a dash of sour cream, and all of it tied together by perfectly melty cheese. Alone though I was, hunched over and chewing in a deserted chipotle, I growled like a grizzly bear in the midst of a salmon run.

As I walked triumphantly from the establishment, I couldn’t help but marvel at the bite. I felt like the kid at the end of Polar Express, looking down at his train ticket with “believe” spelled out in hole punches. There really was one magical bite in every burrito.

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Experiencing the bite is like switching to boxer briefs — once you’ve combined the strengths of boxers and tighty whities, you can’t go back. You are fated to notice the best bite in every burrito from San Francisco to Atlanta. From Baja Fresh to a Chula Vista Taco Truck.

The bite is almost always accompanied by the shutdown of your facial musculature, and a huge increase in obnoxious verbalizations (most common among these are “holy shit”, “oh my god”, “sweet Jesús take me now”, “mmmmffffmmfph”, and on occasion “I need a private moment”).

Once I became aware of the bite, I moved into phase two of my burrito-coming-of-age (some people might call this buberty, but frankly I’m uncomfortable with that phrasing). In phase two, you start asking questions. Where is the bite? Can I predict the bite? What is in the bite? Why is there a bite? What is the meaning of bite? Are you there burrito? It’s me Margaret. (Well at least you start asking the first three.)

But here’s the frustrating thing — much like literature and art, the best bite a burrito is an enigmatic and deeply personal experience. No one can answer these questions for you, you have to search within.

All that said, here is my personal bite theory:

  1. The bite occurs roughly 66.6% of the way through your burrito, with up to a 15% variance in bite arrival time.
  2. The deliciousness of the bite is derived from the combination of beans, avocado, cheese, and the juices from the meat. If one of these four is missing, the best bite will not be possible.
  3. Ingredients that often enhance the bite are — salsa, sour cream, and especially flavorful meat.
  4. Rice is incapable of having any impact on the bite. It can neither heighten nor diminish the resulting flavor.
  5. The angle, enthusiasm, and size of the bite all affect the ultimate sensation in unquantifiable ways. As a general rule, you don’t want your bite to be a nibble, but you also shouldn’t resemble a python unhinging it’s jaw.

What does this mean for all of us burrito eaters out there? It’s really hard to say. The science of the bite is in it’s absolute infancy at this time, and we’ll need years of research to really come to terms with the momentous mexican food implications.

In the near future, though, the bite might present a new method of burrito evaluation. Similar to golf, in which you can play a game with a “best ball” partner, we could start grading burritos on a “best bite” basis, in which we compares burritos exclusively based on their most tasty mouthful.

Ah, but I have speculated enough for one blog post. It’s 2:52 AM and supposedly I have a life beyond burritos that requires some sort of attention.

Before I leave, I must implore you — seek out the bite, for in finding the bite, we find ourselves. In that one precious and singular moment, when there is nothing in your world, nothing at all, except for flavorful black beans, avocado and gooey pepper jack, you understand transcendence.

In that moment, we are something more than together; we are snugly wrapped, in the light and love of the burrito of life.