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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

End Game (or Overtime)

For the last three weeks, I've been embroiled in a recipe-testing and writing job that has taught me much about how people in this country cook and eat—and by people I mean selected NFL players and NBC on-air talent. I learned that with very few exceptions they don't do acidic foods or anything with top notes, and also that my can opener was not top-of-the-line enough for meals prepared entirely with products from the center aisles of the grocery store. I learned, too, that some of that food can be really delicious and satisfying—although I guess I always knew that. Shrimp Creole made with frozen cooked shrimp? Surprisingly good! Kahlúa cake made with boxed mix and instant pudding? I ate the whole damn thing! Sheet cake (from a mix) with peanut butter and chocolate chips? A new family favorite!

Because some of the players were less, um, detailed in their approach to recipe-writing, I got to create a few dishes basically from scratch, which was fun—especially the turkey necks dish, which I developed based on a conversation I had with a very old black woman as I was standing stupidly in front of the turkey section at the Kroger and wondering how in the hell I was going to cook them. I understood only about every fifth word, and this being Georgia I had to assume she was saying "boiled" and not "broiled," but I'm pretty sure that what I came up with was in the right spirit and that the fullback or tailback or whatever in question would be proud. (Turns out, though, that the Chalmerses don't really like turkey necks apart from the amazing gravy you get from them.)

Another fun thing about this project was that I got to write a bunch of short "regional food" sidebars. I didn't know about the Indiana specialty sugar cream pie before last week (Dad? Have you been holding out on me?), nor did I know that 49ers were also once called sourdoughs. And my brilliant husband helped me out of an excruciating mind block by writing a bit about the Black Panthers' Free Breakfast for Children Program (it works in the context of the Oakland sidebar, if maybe not in the context of a book largely funded by NBC; we'll see if it makes it in).

In the middle of all that middle-America stuff, I was asked to test a Top Chef season-four recipe (I was a tester for the Top Chef cookbook that came out a couple months ago). Not surprisingly, it featured rack of lamb and mushrooms (last October I made about sixteen racks of lamb, and the fridge was overflowing with every kind of mushroom imaginable), and required about $98 worth of ingredients. My plating was haphazard at best—I was tired, and I didn't know exactly what to do with the two different blackberry sauces—but it was a wonderful respite not only from the casseroles and cake mixes of recent days but from my usual easy one-dish, one-pot suppers. It was almost inspiring.

It's been great work, but I'm very happy to be (almost) done with it for the time being, if only so I can cook whatever I want to cook. (Stay tuned for sugar cream pie.) On Friday, we went out with a couple friends to the Five and Ten, and I took it as an opportunity to eat kind of the opposite of football-player food. We had lots of oysters. I'd been wanting to try Kumamoto oysters for about a decade, ever since reading somewhere about them being topped somewhere with a cucumber gelée, and the nice cucumber mignonette they came with here meant I could basically fill that gaping culinary void. With a dry rosé. Continuing with the top notes, I insisted we order the appetizer of marinated white anchovies with grapefruit and little peppery herb shoots, one of my favorite things to eat anywhere. I had a perfectly pan-roasted Scottish salmon—it was pale, almost white, with extra-crisp skin—with sautéed cucumbers, Red Mule grits, and a caper and lemon cream sauce. We had dessert, too, a not-too-sweet Earl Grey panna cotta with another lemon sauce and lemon cookies (which were good themselves but totally unnecessary). Oh, and continuing with the smoke notes, I splurged on a Lagavullin, neat.

Anyway, that's what's going on here. Mr. Chalmers brought flowers home yesterday for my birthday, and he played the guitar for us, and the bug has been an unbelievable pleasure to work and play with lately (she's good at stirring, among other things . . . like taking naps). She had a special visit from her grandma from New York last week. And she was excited to go with her dad to daycare this morning so she could play with "Abby, Abby, Abby!" I miss her already.