I’m bushed. And my kitchen is a mess. This week, I’ve had all five burners and both ovens going at once and have used every single small appliance I own, with the exception of the waffle maker and the fondue pot. When I reached for the juicer, I heard my husband groan. When I started feeding cauliflower down the juicer tube, he just laughed.
For the past week I have been cooking like Shefzilla, the nom de plume of chef Stewart Woodman and the title of his new cookbook from Borealis Books. Subtitle: “Conquering Haute Cuisine at Home” (published October 15, 184 pages, $27.95). At the moment I feel more like the vanquished than the mighty conqueror, but I am full and happy.
Shefzilla the book includes well over 100 recipes (which Woodman compiled in a headspinning three months). I say “well over” because many of the recipes are, in fact, fully composed restaurant plates, including within themselves a protein, vegetable, starch, and sauce. Throughout the book, Woodman shares stories of coming up through the ranks in the restaurant world and how his cooking philosophy was born. Inspiring photos by Heavy Table’s own Kate N.G. Sommers make every dish look tasty and tantalizingly achievable.
My grocery list for the week recalled the war plan I draw up annually to produce a Passover seder for more than two dozen people. Except, instead of six dozen eggs and a shankbone, I needed everything from Chinese hot mustard and kimchi to grana padano. And my grocery bill was even larger. Make that grocery bills. I headed downmarket to Cub for peanut butter chips, way upmarket to France 44 for fleur de sel, as well as to the usual suspects at the farmers market and coop for good meat and veggies. I asked at every fancy deli counter in my neck of the woods for truffle paste (and finally gave up — next time, I’ll get it online) and begged butchers for beef neck bones. (One finally admitted that the reason he didn’t have any for me was that he liked to make his own stock out of them instead of the usual shankbones. He did pass along four pounds from the next week’s steer. Thanks, Clancey’s!)
And what a week of eating. We had poutine, beets in a silky soy sauce, a mysteriously smoky parsnip soup, vegetarian Bolognese with homemade pasta, and grilled zucchini pizza. We spooned thin cilantro “pesto” on chicken and nearly everything else. We had a lovely salad of baby arugula, roasted cauliflower, and moist, flavorful chicken patties, and then moved on to peanut butter brownies with peppercorn ice cream and pineapple sauce for dessert. On a strangely hot October evening, we drank watermelon-sake soup with guests who wondered out loud how it would taste as a sorbet.
We capped off the week with a dish that perfectly sums up Shefzilla’s cooking style: bacon-wrapped chicken with couscous cooked in cauliflower juice, pan-fried baby bok choy, and a kimchi–white wine sauce. In a nutshell: It’s all about the flavor. The more the better. Culinary traditions are just a starting point. If heavy cream and kimchi taste good together (and yes, they do), shut up and stir. If an extra step (like soaking and blanching the bok choy) is going to improve the meal, then quit whining and blanch.
Never has there been so much flavor on our dinner table. Never have I felt so defeated by the pile of dishes awaiting me afterward.
Now, I recognize that even Woodman is not advising us to cook like Shefzilla seven days in a row, that even he must give the food processor and the juicer a rest on the seventh day, if only to clean, but given the story behind the book, I decided to try it in the conditions under which my family eats, i.e., every single night. You see, this is the book Woodman wrote after Heidi’s burned down. Without a professional kitchen to cook in for the first time in decades, he turned to the unfamiliar territory of the standard range and oven, exploring the grocery store instead of having purveyors show up at his back door. He’s not exactly a fat animated apparition telling a rat “Anyone can cook!” but he’s definitely saying, “If I can do this at home, so can you. No excuses.”
You’ll learn a lot about flavor from Shefzilla but not a lot about technique. Nearly every evening I found a reason to be glad I already have some rudimentary cooking skills. Take the pink peppercorn ice cream. What flavor! So rich and delicate. And yet, if you cooked the custard base for five minutes on medium-high, as the recipe says, you’d have sweet scrambled eggs, not ice cream. If you’ve made ice cream before, you’ll probably read right over that and think, “Okay, now comes the part where I cook the custard” and just do it right, with fantastic results. If you haven’t, well, you might feel more like Godzilla than Shefzilla.
Another example: the poutine — double-fried potatoes topped with a caramelized-onion gravy and melted cheese. The recipe instructs you to cook the onions on medium heat for 40 minutes while stirring occasionally. That is a road straight to burnt, nasty onions. I have no doubt that Stewart Woodman can caramelize the hell out of a pan of onions, but his instructions won’t help a novice. In the end, when I put the final dish — having cooked the onions over medium-low for about 25 minutes while watching them like a hawk and stirring nearly constantly at the end — in front of my husband, he smiled and said a single word: “Five.” Yep. This was the poutine we had on a lovely date years ago at Woodman’s old restaurant, Five.
Of the dozen recipes I tried (and keep in mind that in Shefzilla’s culinary kingdom, one recipe often leads to another sub-recipe hidden in the ingredient list), I encountered only one true dud: the vegetarian Bolognese. Heavy on the red wine, it was oddly grapey and tart. I heeded his exhortation not to skimp on the butter and ended up regretting it. Too much of a good thing, and all that.
In other recipes, however, the bastard kept proving me wrong. Strain the parsnip puree for the soup? That’s going to be thin and yucky. (Nope, not at all.) Butter and soy sauce? I think I’ll skip that one. (Glad I didn’t. So glad.) Fish sauce and cilantro? That’s not “pesto.” (I don’t care what you call it, that is one tasty sauce.)
Through it all, Woodman’s voice comes through loud and clear. His stories of working his way up through some of the world’s great kitchens show him to be a tenacious, hard worker who suffers no fools. His editors, however, have done him an injustice. He’s a chef — a really good one — not a writer. So it’s not him I blame when his idioms get tangled up or when he writes something like “There is no better aptitude to creating great food than the ability to relax…” Come on, help a guy out! He doesn’t burn your onions when he puts a plate of poutine in front of you!
In the end, though, it’s all about the food and the flavor. As my week of being Shefzilla drew to a close and I washed the food processor one last time, I had two final thoughts: Damn, that was fun. And I can’t wait for Heidi’s to reopen.
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