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William C. Altreuter
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Monday, January 18, 2016

I'm sure someone somewhere has written about the idea of spending a Sunday cooking the recipe from the Sunday New York Times magazine. It is a deliriously bourgeois thing to do, on so many levels, starting with the fact that anything that involves food preparation and the Times exists on a level so far from mere subsistence that the activity in and of itself bespeaks a sort of leisure that in almost any other context would cry out for casting Maggie Smith in a cameo. Add to that the fact that the recipes in the Times magazine always feature at least one exotic ingredient that the paper helpfully notes, "can be ordered online." If the ingredient list says, "See note" the chances are overwhelming that you will never eat the dish in question. There are occasional exceptions-- I have a friend who by god ordered pimento wood in order to make a (very delicious) barbecued chicken once, but let's get real. If you are reading the Sunday Times at all, the likelihood that you are going to be getting out of your pajamas and going shopping is about as remote as your going to volunteer to rescue sea turtles. Sure, it might be worthwhile-- even uplifting, but it isn't happening this morning. Beyond that, there is apparently a Times rule that says none of the ingredients can be obtained from a single source. Macy's won't have some critical item. You could fly to London and go to Harrods, but the  dried mushrooms won't be there, and they are the entire point of the dish. If you live within a 25 mile radius of Times Square you are pretty much going to have to make a trip to Balducci's, then out to Flushing, then the Hunt's Point Market. If you live anywhere else in the industrialized world get used to disappointment, or commit to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle that will make walrus hunting look like a spa day. A recipe from the Times magazine is a commitment, just like living in a house designed by Philip Johnson, or setting out to reform public health in Thimphu, or anything else you read about in the Times magazine is a commitment. There's no room for dilettantes in the New York Times Sunday magazine.

Last week's Times had this recipe for pork chops in a pumpkin seed sauce. Sam Sifton, with characteristic understatement, said it is so delicious that the first time he had it it made him bang his spoon on the table with delight, so I thought perhaps I'd give it a try. As it happens A likes pumpkin seeds, so we had some on hand, lulling me into a false sense of confidence. I also reckoned I had an ace up my sleeve: probably Wegman's would have everything else I needed, but those ingredients at Wegmans would be fancy and exotic. I could go to PriceRite for the same items where they would be priced as staples! This proved to be mostly true, but I still found myself at the Lexington Co-op (chipotle peppers in adobo sauce). Two stores may be a record for me and a Times magazine recipe, a triumph somewhat diminished by having to go out twice in a raging snowstorm. Oh, and nobody had fresh plum tomatoes, so I had to substitute canned San Marzano. If I'd gone to Guercio's the day before I'd have had the right tomatoes. These are the compromises the Times magazine recipes force upon us: three stores minimum, or not quite the right ingredients. 

And how was it? Well, we aren't ready to talk about that yet. First, there is one more rule about New York Times magazine recipes we must discuss: they are written for people with a skill level that is roughly three to five degrees higher than the skills I possess. It's mostly subtle things, and they pretend this isn't so by pretending to describe the necessary techniques in terms so simple that I go storming in without any inkling that I am already waist deep in trouble. This particular dish had three such snares. The first was the chiles de árbo. Because I've been spending a lot of time in doctor's offices lately I had a good supply of latex gloves (Thanks, Obama!) so I figured I was ahead of where I usually am when handling chiles. Sam Sifton had a surprise for me, though. "Set a bare skillet over high heat for 5 minutes, then add the chiles. Toast until they are darkened and fragrant, approximately 4 to 5 minutes." Upon hitting the blistering surface of the skillet the chilies instantly blackened and released a choking smoke that would be a war crime in any other context. Just then A wandered in, having returned from attending services at her religious not-for-profit. This meant that we both got a dose of the chile vapors. Undaunted, I proceeded to the next step: "Return the skillet to high heat. Add the tomatoes, onion and garlic, and cook, turning occasionally, until charred, approximately 10 minutes." 
 I got a decent char on the vegetables, but I also thoroughly blackened the  stainless steel skillet, which earned me a sharp word from my lifemate. Several, actually. Still, as they say in Mexico, you can't make a pipian sauce without ruining the cookware. I pressed on, toasting peanuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, then making a puree of the vegetables, toasted seeds and chiles de árbo, which had been soaking in hot water.

"Add the oil, lard or chicken fat to a large, heavy-bottomed pot, and heat over medium heat until it is nearly smoking. Add the purée. It will sputter a lot. Lower the heat, and stir, cooking the mixture down to a thick paste. It will continue to sputter and pop."  I'd moved on to a different pan by now, and when A. returned to the kitchen she noted this. "Are you going to ruin every pan we own?" she asked. This seemed unkind, since I'd only ruined two, but perhaps the sputtering and popping and the eye watering aroma had her out of sorts. 

"So how was it, Bill?" Good. It was really good. A. rated the heat as between 8 and 9; I'd say it was between 7 and 8, depending on whether I was inhaling or exhaling. Now that I have the techniques down-- and a lot of leftover ingredients-- I might make it again. Or I might try building a sailboat. 
  




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