Monday, September 10, 2012

How to sound more like a chef

Cute things you can say to sound more like a chef, at least a chef on TV:

  • "Break it down": Chefs don't chop things up and they certainly don't cut them up! The process of using a knife to make a thing be in smaller pieces is known as "breaking down" the thing, as in "breaking down the lobsters" or "breaking down some broccoli." Bring that broccoli to its knees!
  • "Bake off":  And I'm not talking about the Pillsbury Bake-Off! Chefs are fond of inserting an unnecessary "off" after various cooking verbs, e.g. "bake off those cookies," "roast off the quail." It makes you sound super casual. Just bake 'em off!
  • "Make it rain": This is what you are doing when you properly season a "beautiful piece of meat" or a pot of water in which you're going to cook, e.g., pasta or some of that broccoli you previously broke down. You should keep kosher or sea salt in a little crock so you can grab a big pinch and "make it rain" from a good 8-12 inches above the food. 
  • "Developing flavors": "Seasoning," by the way, means adding salt. Everything else you do, such as adding garlic or deglazing with wine, is developing flavors. 
  • "Acidic" is the new sour: If you're commenting on the vinegar or citrus component in a dish, don't say "sour"; instead refer to the level of acidity, e.g. "There's a nice bright acidity in the salsa that cuts the fattiness of the pork."

Other ideas? Speaking of my cheffy life, John and I finally fulfilled my dream of playing a home version of Chopped this weekend. On Friday, he brought home a "mystery basket" of ingredients for me to use in our dinner: whole trout, radishes, watercress, and orange marmalade. I thought this was a perfect beginner basket, challenging (I've never worked with whole trout or watercress before, and I don't like orange marmalade) but not so challenging as to take the fun out of it or to result in a disgusting dinner we'd then be forced to eat. I made:
Roasted trout with lemon-herb butter
Radishes two ways (braised in more butter and sliced raw in the below salad)
Watercress and butter lettuce salad with radishes, chopped eggs, and marmalade vinaigrette 
The salad with the marmalade vinaigrette was my favorite part, worth repeating now that we have a big jar of the stuff. The components were a blob of marmalade, a blob of dijon mustard, minced shallots, a dab of honey, sherry vinegar, tiny splash of soy sauce, salt, pepper and lots of olive oil. It was very savory with just a hint of bitterness from the bits of peel.


  1. You are clearly better at this than the chefs at the local restaurant where (a month or so ago) I was served marmalade-coated salmon that tasted exactly as you would expect marmalade-coated salmon to taste. And I say this as someone who sort of likes marmalade. (The other marmalade adventure of note, recently, was gin + marmalade at Madam Geneva's in NYC, which was great.)

    1. Gin and marmalade sounds pretty tasty.

      I remember, in college, making a salad with spinach, grapefruit and avocado that didn't transcend the ingredients at all; it tasted exactly how you'd expect it to taste. I like all those things, but it was still really disappointing.

  2. There are lots of unnecessary prepositional adverbs in the air these days: separate out, chill out, connect up. I say "connect up" myself; I picked it up (picked it?) from Ashbery. The one that really irritates me I keep hearing from students: fail out. "Please, Mr. Grove, I don't want to fail out of your class." "Okay, if you do thus and so, I'll pass you THROUGH." And this phrasal verb solecism irritates me: based OFF. "A film based OFF the novel by Cormac McCarthy." That really pisses me ON.

    1. I also think "based off" sounds tacky.

      Another thing I hear kids doing is saying "right now" seemingly unnecessarily. As in, "Are you kidding me right now??"

    2. "Are you kidding me right now??"


      "Oh. Then when were you kidding me ya jerk???"

    3. I first started to notice this odd preposition scramble when people (in the corporate world) started saying "going forward" instead of "from now on," sometime back during the '90's. And more recently, when people started saying "I'm down with that" to mean "that's fine with me" or some such.

      The linguist Mario Pei (in The Story of Language describes several different types of grammar or ways that grammar can be put together or function:

      Inflectional, where grammatical relationships are formed by changing the ending of verbs, nouns, etc.: Russian and Latin are a couple of examples of heavily inflected languages).

      Polysynthetic, where a single word might include a noun, a verb, a predicate phrase, an adjective, etc. (Pei cites one of the indigenous languages of the East Indies as an example).

      Syntactic, where the grammar is built on the word order of a sentence (Chinese is the example Pei gives).

      Prepositional, where the grammar is built largely on prepositions. (Pei cites English as an example of a mainly prepositional language.)

      Many languages are a blend of two or more of the above types, though some tend heavily toward one type or another in particular.

      I tend to experiment a lot with the prepositions in my poems. I find it effective sometimes to use a preposition not usually associated with a particular verb, or as a way of fine-tuning the type or direction of movement that a verb evokes.

      "The rain blows down on the field," or "The rain blows out over the field," or "The rain blows off across the field," or "The rain blows in onto the field." -- Each of these is talking about basically the same thing (rain on a field), but the exact character of the movement of the rain varies a little from one example to another. At least to my eye and ear.

      I've often found, when I've been working on a poem, that if a line or phrase isn't working well, I can often fix it by changing (or adding) a preposition in the right place, rather than by changing a verb or a noun.

    4. The rain example is a good one. Incidentally, I like "blows out over" best -- it really evokes the way rain looks when it's also windy. "Blows off" makes it seem like the rain is giving you the brush-off.

      I often like stacked prepositions in poems, now that I think of it. There's a line in my book about "throwing rocks out onto the pond" (which is frozen). That's one of those "moves" you have to watch out for overusing though, lest it become a kneejerk habit.

    5. Hmmm. I suppose "blows off" could sound like the rain is giving you the brush-off. Though since the line says "blows off across" the field, I'm not so sure.

      (Once years ago when I was playing Pictionary with several other people, for one of my turns I had to draw a picture of "off." The only thing I could think of to draw was a light switch on a wall pointing downward. And I'm not any kind of great artist at drawing. Nobody had the slightest idea what it was.)

      I'm not sure if I subscribe to the "moves" theory regarding poems. FWIW.

  3. When I was a kid, "right now" was a bluffing challenge to a fight. You'd shove the guy's chest and say "Right now!" (Oddly like that VanHalen song that goes "Do it right here and now!") If you were particularly hormone-stoked you might append an epithet like "asshole" or "fucker." Then the guy would shove you back and say "Right now!" Often you'd exchange more shoves and "right now"s until your anger dissipated or you felt you'd made a sufficient display of virility and could back down without losing face.

    1. Yeah nobody ever actually fought. Lame!