Banana Cream Pie, Miso Salmon, "Mole" Tacos, and Instinct

Banana Cream Pie, Miso Salmon, "Mole" Tacos, and Instinct

FINALLY. It is here. (At least, it was here.) That blasted Banana Cream Pie.

After I posted last week, I realized that I was actually ready to make the damn thing. My bananas had been doing the last of their browning in the freezer, so when I woke up on Saturday morning, I took them out to thaw.  

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If you know me at all, then you know that I follow recipes TO. THE. LETTER. In order to be able to cook any recipe with any amount of confidence, I need exact measurements, exact ingredients, exact equipment. None of this a pinch of this, a splash of that nonsense. If the recipe calls for baby bella mushrooms, but the store only has creminis? Forget it — the whole thing is ruined. If the recipe says I need to use a chinoise, but I only have a regular ol’ mesh strainer? You best believe I’m ordering that unwieldy chinoise off of Amazon.

This is why I love the Milk Bar cookbook. Christina Tosi writes with so much of the detail that I crave — not only is she very specific about the ingredients and equipment and temperatures, she also is very specific about why each of these details matter. I love that I get to learn exactly why all of these things matter to Tosi, so I can figure out whether it matters to me. Sometimes it’s a matter of chemistry; sometimes it’s a matter of preference.

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So I started off with making a chocolate crumb on Friday night. I mixed dark chocolate cocoa powder (which, I’ll note, was NOT the fancy Valrhona cocoa powder that Tosi insists on) with some salt, a little bit of sugar, some flour, and some melted butter. Once it all came together to make little clumps of dark chocolate-y goodness, I spread it out on a parchment-lined baking sheet and popped that bad boy in the oven for about 20 minutes. Once it cooled down after coming out of the oven, I put those little flavor nuggets in a Tupperware container and hid them (because they were in danger of getting snacked on until they disappeared into M’s and my bellies).

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The next morning, I used the chocolate crumb to make the pie crust. I threw the crumb into the food processor to grind everything down to a sandy mixture, and then mixed the sand with some melted butter. Once the mixture held its shape, I transferred it to my pie dish and smooshed it around until it resembled something like a pie crust. (This is only my third pie crust ever -- these kinds of pie crusts have lots to teach me about patience, presence, and a gentle touch.)

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And then came the banana cream part. Those god damn bananas were so slimy, and smelled sweet with a hint of rot. It sounds alarming, but I put all my trust in Tosi and threw those bananas in my blender along with heavy cream, milk and some other stuff.

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I won’t describe the rest of the process because it would be tedious and probably boring for you. The highlights, though: heating the cream mixture slowly on the stove and whisking the hell out of it and also feeling like I was on the Great British Bake Off. Blooming gelatin for the first time ever. The heavenly smell of the banana and the cream and the butter, all combining to create something magical. Using food coloring for the first time in literally decades.

The final product was divine and well worth the wait. The banana cream was packed with banana flavor (from only two bananas!) and sweetness with a hint of butteriness. Paired with that salty dark chocolate crumb crust to cut the sweetness a bit, it was a perfect-tasting pie.

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The pie was demolished in two days.

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I love Nigella Lawson and her show, Nigella Bites. (And, as I write this, I’m realizing that I’ve been inadvertently inspired to name this project after her. Honestly, I didn’t mean to do it, but it’s a lovely homage, I think.)

Nigella is deserving of her own ode entirely, but I’ll briefly say that I had no idea who she was until about a month ago. I had an episode of Iron Chef America on in the background, and became captivated by one of the judges, who turned out to be Nigella. I asked M if he’d ever heard of her, and he looked at me like I’d just asked him if he'd ever heard about a delicious treat called chocolate. So we watched the entire second season of Nigella Bites (it’s all we could find on YouTube or any streaming service), and I proceeded to fall in love.

Now, if you don’t know about Nigella, here’s what you need to know: she’s not a classically trained chef. She started out as a journalist and somehow fell into having a cooking show. She delights in the process of cooking, as well as the end result. For her, taking the time to run a finger over the “crocodile skin” of a bowl of capers as she pours them into a bowl or marvel at the brilliant red “jewels” of pomegranate seeds as she drops them over a platter of shredded pork is as important as the finished meal itself. She emphasizes that the process of cooking should bring you as much joy as eating it does. In Nigella Bites, she does not give the viewer exact measurements and she does not measure exactly, except when she bakes. She adds spices to her dishes without measuring, and tells you, “Don’t be apologetic with the spices.” I actually don't know what that means, but I like how it sounds.

If you know me, you might think that Nigella’s style might drive me nuts. And in an earlier version of my cooking self, she might have. Now though? I love her.

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All this is to say that I fucked up no meals this week, and one of the meals that I did not fuck up was Nigella’s Miso Salmon recipe from the Simply Nigella cookbook. While I was making preparations, I muttered something like, “Nigella says I need xyz for this, buuutttt…I’m going to do this instead.” M looked at me and said, “Whoa. What’s going on here? Look at you, going off script!”

What can I say? Nigella gives me confidence.

Since we bought double the salmon, I doubled the marinade with no problem. And then — and then — I improvised the sides. I cooked up some quinoa with leftover vegetable broth and some smashed cloves of garlic. I sautéed some on-the-edge kale and seasoned it with salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon.

The salmon was perfect — the miso, fish sauce, soy sauce, and garlic all combined to make a dish that was savory, with a depth of flavor and salt that only umami can give. It was so delicious, and so easy to make. It also felt healthy. You know those meals that just feel satisfying and clean? This was one of those.

Alas, I took no pictures because I was too busy eating. I’m terrible at writing about food, aren’t I?

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My other success of the week was Slow Cooker Chicken Mole Tacos from the January 2018 issue of Cooking Light.

I’m 100% aware that the stuff I made is not mole. BUT! It’s still super tasty and was so easy to make. I simply salted a little over 2 pounds of chicken thighs and put them in the slow cooker.

Then, in my food processor, I put a can of whole tomatoes, a diced onion, smashed cloves of garlic, some chopped semi-sweet chocolate, raisins, toasted sliced almonds, chicken stock, cumin, cinnamon, adobo sauce, and chipotle chiles.

Nowhere in the recipe did it say, “Oh, by the way, this is a lot of stuff and you might need to process this shit in two batches.” I also ignored the maximum liquid fill line on my processor because who pays attention to that stuff anyway. I turned the processor on, and the mixture leaked out of the lid and all over my counter and the base of the processor. So, I'm here to tell you that you should pay attention to those markings. Unless you really enjoy cleaning red sauce out of every nook and cranny in your prep space, which I do not.

And then I poured everything into the slow cooker, put the lid on, plugged it in, and turned it on low. 8 hours later — tacos. They were delicious. The sauce is not mole, but it really wants to be, which is to say it is more like a hearty smoky salsa sauce with mole-esque undertones.

The result? Tasty-ass tacos. The recipe makes a lot of extra sauce, and I’m excited to use it in something else. (More cooking improv?! Who am I?!)

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While making food this week, I thought about instinct. Trusting my gut and my knowledge.

The banana cream pie wasn’t perfect. The filling didn’t hold its shape, even after a good chilling in the refrigerator. As soon as we cut a piece of pie, the filling oozed all over the plate. It oozed deliciously, of course, but oozed just the same.

The recipe had told me to heat and whisk the cream until it became a really thick glue, almost like cement. I whisked until my arm got tired and then kept going, and the mixture wasn’t thick like glue, but I thought it was good enough. I thought about continuing to heat and whisk, but I didn’t want to overdo it. I had a conversation with myself in the kitchen: “Should I keep going? No, I’ll stop here. Well, wait. Yes, maybe I should keep going. Hmm… no, I’m going to trust myself. This is good enough.”

Instinct isn’t coming out of the womb knowing how to do everything right the first time. So much of what we call “instinct” is just trusting your gut, your knowledge, your resiliency and ability to learn. It’s trusting your gut and what you know, and knowing that if you fail, you’ll figure out how to get it right the next time. Or the time after that, or the time after that. We get “instinct” from learning from others, from following directions, but also, paradoxically, from taking risks. The only way we can develop a gut instinct and build our knowledge is to learn the basics, make mistakes, adjust, and try things over and over again.

While I was heating and whisking that banana cream, my gut feeling wasn’t correct and neither was my knowledge. But that’s okay. I’m already planning the next banana cream pie, and, fingers crossed, it’s not going to fall out all over the place.

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