The other day I had a couple of hours to kill while waiting for my old man to go to a doctor’s appointment, so I went to the fancier co-op in the other town we were in. I love to go in there and wander around because it’s so much bigger than our co-op and has so many more types of olives; also they sell beer and wine. They also have a bigger variety of local apples than our co-op, but it’s not apple season yet so in this particular instance that was a moot point.
But! As I was in line waiting to check out, I made what may prove to be the single most awesome impulse purchase of my entire life. Everyone I have told about this purchase first made fun of me and then, after listening to me talk about it for several hours, admitted that I was indeed wise and good for having made it. It is none other than an issue of America’s Test Kitchen magazine titled BEST EVER SIDE DISHES
I have never watched America’s Test Kitchen and didn’t know what it was, but the cover of the magazine promised to teach me how to actually make good versions of common side dishes that are always made poorly, and I was like, huh, that sounds like a problem someone I know has (it’s me). I took it outside and sat at one of the picnic tables out front and ate pre-made vegetarian sushi and read the magazine and literally within three pages I was already excitedly texting everyone I knew to tell them I had just made the best impulse purchase of my entire life.
They use science and carefully-repeated experiments to figure out the best way to do stuff! It sounds so fun in there, like a lab. Each recipe is prefaced by a long narrative description of the problems and possible solutions the dish poses, written by whichever cook ultimately solved the problem. It’s so great because you’re nodding along as you read: yes, yes, that IS what always happens to my potato salad! Yes, that’s EXACTLY why I hate cucumber garnishes! I learned so much. For example: ASPARAGUS
I make pretty good asparagus. And in general asparagus is pretty hard to fuck up, in my experience, it’s not like you have to be Julia Child. I usually toss it in oil and salt, and then either roast it or sautee it, maybe throw some garlic in there. And it turns out…good! Little squeeze of lemon. Sometimes I have wondered “how do you get it all charred and crispy without it turning to mush?” and suspected that there’s something I’m missing, but googling it just always turns up the method I already use, so I figured I just didn’t have “the touch” or maybe I didn’t have a fancy enough pan. Boy was I wrong! It turns out that cooking it in oil means either it gets mushy before it gets browned or it gets browned before it gets cooked adequately, depending on what level of heat you crank it up to in desperation, but steaming it first and then sauteeing it (which solves the texture issue) not only loses a bunch of its flavor but is a huge pain in the ass and takes two pans instead of one (I also appreciate the pragmatism of America’s Test Kitchen; they’re always trying to find a way to do something in one pan and/or faster). The test cook was like “if only I could steam it and brown it AT THE SAME TIME.” So they took it down the hall to the science consultant, who pointed out that oil has 0% water and butter has 20% water, so if you melt half oil/half butter in a skillet, put the asparagus in, cover it with a lid, and let it cook on medium for a few minutes until it starts to get tender, THEN take the lid off and crank it up to medium high, you’ll cook it properly while still saving enough time for a good char. I tried it that very evening. READER, I MARRIED HIM
It worked like a charm! The most perfect asparagus, made by little ol’ me in my boring pan on my shitty 1970s era electric stove! I was so exhilarated.
I have also learned how to cook beets, although I will never use the technique again because it’s wasteful (wrapping individual beets in tin foil: fuck you). I just tried it to see if the asparagus narrative was a fluke. It wasn’t.
They have articles on squash, risotto, stuffed peppers, deviled eggs, gratins, corn on the cob, etc. In every case, they take a classic side dish and discuss the conventional problems with it. Gratins are so good when done right, but are so often done poorly, so they’re watery and sick instead of creamy and rad: why, and how can we fix the problem? Why the HELL is tabouleh always so disgusting? Oh, here’s why! It’s a very effective and compelling approach to recipe-writing. I learned so much about batter-frying.
My only beef with America’s Test Kitchen is the completely bonkers over-reliance on paper towels. What on earth?! These motherfuckers use paper towels for EVERYTHING. I don’t see how all the Costcos in the world could supply enough paper towels to keep up with their demand. People, just use a dish towel! Rip up a brown paper bag from out in the garage! Dear lord. I haven’t bought paper towels in probably four years and I never will again (probably not true). Ditto the use of saran wrap. Cover with saran wrap and let sit for 15 minutes?? Jesus Christ. “Every time I cook a meal I like to throw a pound of plastic into the ocean”
Anyway after this life-changing impulse purchase we watched a bunch of episodes of the TV show and it was similarly revelatory. We kept gasping and pointing at the screen and yelling I KNEW IT. We learned so much about cast iron, vegetable stock, and how to brown a steak, which we will never do but which was interesting. And indeed there was an entire segment just on which paper towel holder is the best (the heavy duty one that holds an industrial-size roll, obviously). If they would only change the title to AMERICA’S TOP PAPER TOWEL USERS I would be happy. I also finally bought an oven thermometer, inspired by this show. It turns out that my oven—which I have developed a conspiracy theory about in terms of my unverifiable feeling that there are wild discrepancies between what’s shown on the dial and the actual temperature—actually just needs more time to pre-heat than its readiness light indicates. Good to know!
This magazine puts to shame the only other magazine I have impulse purchased, which was a copy of Martha Stewart Living that promised to give me good ideas for lunches. IT DID NOT. They were all just sandwich variations; I know how to make a damn sandwich Martha.