As a rule, I don’t make a habit of feeding into routine holiday tropes. One of my culinary pet peeves is the November issue of every American cooking magazine with a cover photo of a turkey, inside a zillion recipes for stuffing and pecan pie. I do not make heart-shaped steaks for Valentine’s Day. I won’t make red, white, and blue cake for American summer holidays.
But, given the absolute shit-show of a dumpster fire that was 2020, it feels appropriate to celebrate its eventual demise with some New Year’s culinary resolutions for 2021.
1: More Shark Coochie, Less Meat and Two Veg
In a meme-heavy year (we’ve all earned advanced meme degrees in 2020) my favorite is a Twitter post : “I wanna be one of those basic girls that’s really good at making shark coochie boards or whatever. You know, these: [picture of a big beautiful cheese and charcuterie tray].” And just like that, my vocabulary changed towards this choose-your-own-adventure meal of cheeses, meats, vegetables, fruits, condiments, crackers, and breads.
I’m so fortunate to work with crew who get behind “sitting-down cheese parties” as a post-guest ritual. It’s time to move this into the mainstream, as part of weekly lunch or dinner menus. Much of our yacht crew population grew up on Lunchables or some similar cheese/meat/cracker combination for lunch. This year, I’m taking it big time.
2: Use All of the Cookbooks
A newbie asked a Facebook yacht chef group about the best cookbooks to lug on board. “Karen” responded with absolute and utter shock that no self-respecting professional chef should be cooking out of cookbooks. Apparently, “Karen” doesn’t understand how many brain cells we chefs have lost frying them in the heat of the galley and to “accidents” with our whipped cream chargers.
Who can remember recipes, ingredients, amounts, times, and temperatures? Seriously, the brain is a powerful, but fallible, organ. Sure, a good chef can whip something up from whatever is in the fridge, but our work requires more precision and education: when in doubt, consult recipes.
I haven’t been going to as many restaurants in the past year (almost none). Takeout isn’t the same. Textures and subtle nuances are lost to a to-go box environment and delivery time. So, instead of lavish restaurant meals, I re-invested that money in cookbooks of all kinds: Indonesian, Ethiopian, Indian food, and other important things like cakes, cookies, and tacos.
In 2021, I’m actually going to cook out of them, not just use them for cool Instagram props. Teaching myself a new technique or style from cookbooks is a lot more work than just going by instinct, but in the end, I’m a better chef from the effort. And authentically stained cookbooks make cool pictures.
3: More Plants. Less Dead Animals.
For reals. I’m not talking about little succulents and herbs all over the galley — although I can 100 percent get behind cooking in my own little jungle. I’m talking less animal foods, more plant foods. This is also a lot of work. Absolutely everything tastes better with bacon or whacking great gobs of butter. Creating and coaxing layers of flavor and texture in the absence of meats and animal fats requires learning a whole new lexicon of umami: working with mushrooms, miso, kimchi, and a million other plant products.
For the record, cheese is a live animal product. And, really, after a year like 2020, no one’s asking anyone to give up grilled cheese, shark coochie, and quesadillas.
4: Less Amazon, More Small Shops
I get it, Amazon is so easy. I can be listening to a podcast or reading about an interesting ingredient, pause for less than a minute to type it into my Amazon search bar, click thrice, and have it the next day.
That’s less time than it would take waiting for the left-turn filter at a traffic light to pull into the parking lot of a local shop.
It’s most likely a third-party vendor on Amazon selling the hard-to-find rose harissa or curry leaves that are so important to the recipe (from one of my many cookbooks), so they get some of the profit. But Amazon makes a tidy sum from it as well. Ultimately, it is me, the consumer, who is missing out. There is so much to learn from popping into an actual shop. Shop owners always want to talk about their product. If the specialty shop is regional, say Middle Eastern or Thai, the owner almost assuredly comes from there. This is the time to listen and learn from them. They have so much knowledge about their cuisine and possibly even the dish you want to prepare. Let them teach you.
Another great aspect of local specialty stores is the possibility of shopping sprees. When I was shopping for tahini on Amazon, I didn’t know that life-changing preserved apricots were even a thing. When I went to the halal grocers, they were mere inches away from each other on the shelves, and my shark-coochie boards have been next-level ever since.
5: More Bowls, Less Meals Eaten From Paper Towels
As a hard-and-fast law of the universe, working chefs have the worst diets. We’re well-intentioned, but time just isn’t on our side. We mean to have a healthy meal while whipping up whirlwind feasts for everyone around us, but, well, somehow, again, we end up stealing bites of leftovers reheated in a paper towel.
Adios to that. I’m going full-on bowl food. The same leftovers can just as easily be microwaved in the soothing, comforting curves of a bowl, then layered and drizzled with any combination or permutation of my zillions of condiments (plant-based and made from my cookbooks or locally sourced, of course).
6: Legitimize the Spork
I’m declaring 2021 the year of the spork. The perfect vehicle for driving brownie with ice cream — and practically every other dessert — to the mouth. How else to better enjoy bowl food?
Tahini Sauce Spiked with Soy
Inspired by a potato dish in Ottolenghi’s cookbook, Flavor, this sauce is a perfect way to unite a pile of leftovers in a bowl, or is the star of the show with chicken, butternut squash, or any grain and vegetable.
> ½ cup/120g tahini (stir very well before using to combine the solids and fat)
> ¼ cup soy sauce
> 3 Tbsp mirin
> 3 Tbsp rice vinegar
>1-3 squirts of hot sauce (to your taste)
> 2-4 Tbsp water
Combine all ingredients until smooth. Sauce will thicken as it sits; thin with as much water as necessary. This has a pretty long shelf life, but, really, you will end up putting it on everything, so even though it keeps a while, it won’t last long.
This column originally ran in the January 2021 issue of Dockwalk.