Posts Tagged ‘hacker news’

March 29 2010

My HN Dinner #6

by Hang

From March 6th – 21st, I’m down in the bay area looking for work as a social interaction designer. I thought it would be fun way to meet people, while down here, to cook for a bunch of Hacker News folk. This is a recording of those dinners.

Hacker News

The 6th & final dinner was for Henry and some of his roommates and friends down in lovely Mountain View. After the last dinner, I was determined to redeem myself and go out with a bang. Henry is an ex-TechCruncher who is now working for a travel startup focusing on the Disney market.

The plan

After surveying Henry’s kitchen, he mentioned that he had plenty of great beer in the fridge and I spied some mushrooms & bacon so I decided that this dinner would be a very beer-focused menu that would also incorporate mushrooms & bacon. I know there’s a renaissance of beer friendly food menus over the last decade but I’ve always found it much easier to pair wine than beer and most of my attempts at pairing have not been as successful as I would have liked. The challenge of making a beer friendly menu made it a good challenge for me and allowed me to stretch my wings a little.

When we got to the market, there were some really great leeks which are unreasonably good with bacon & mushrooms and I’d been vaguely wanting to do a quiche for a while since I got down here so a mushroom & leek quiche with crumbled bacon would be the first course (one of the guests was vegetarian so all the dishes were vegetarian optional).

For the main course, I had already done beef, lamb, seafood & duck since I was down here so I wanted to finish with their pork or chicken to round out the range of meats. There were some gorgeous, center cut pork chops and one of the guests indicated that they really loved pasta so I wanted to do a dish with pasta that had a pork chop on top. From the pork, I spied some acorn squashes and pears also popped into my mind for some reason so the dish became spaghetti with a squash & pear sauce with a curry rubbed pork chop on top.

Finally, for the dessert, I had originally wanted to do a dish with port & dried figs but, since it was a beer menu, I used apple cider instead.

With all the elements in place, lets get to the food:

First Course

Mushroom & Leek Quiche, Crumbled Bacon, Garden Salad, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

The quiche was fairly standard, the salad cut the richness and the ale was light enough that it matched well with the quiche. One of the things I’m starting to appreciate about beer pairings is their ability to work very well with richness and using the bitterness to add backbone to what could be an overwhelmingly rich dish.

Second Course

Curry Rubbed Pork Chop, Squash & Pear Pasta, Arrogant Bastard Oaked Ale

Henry & his roommates looked at me like I had 2 heads when I suggested that we put pear in the pasta sauce and, to be honest, I had no clue where that idea came from or if I could pull it off. I think, for the oaked ale, the woody flavors really drew me to ingredients from the fall and pork, squash & pears were all classic, late fall flavors. I sauteed the cut up squash in butter and oil until it was brown, nutty & sweet, added onions, garlic & beer, cooked until it was soft and sauce like and then added the pears and cooked just a little bit longer until the pears were tender and on the verge of falling apart.

This sauce is probably one I’ll have to add to my standard repertoire. The sweet & bitter flavors played off each other well and the squash & pear turned into a thick, creamy sauce with enough lumps to keep it interesting texturally. Without the pork, it’s a wonderfully satisfying vegetarian dish and with the pork, it’s robust enough to be a complete meal.

Third Course

Cider Braised Figs, Yogurt, Wydmers Apple Cider

I love braising calymira figs since they suck up their braising liquid so well and also release just enough sugar & fig flavour to form an addictive, concentrated glaze. I’ve traditionally done them with port but this time I decided to use apple cider to keep with the beer theme. It was just figs, cider, honey & vanilla, boiled down into a glaze and topping some yogurt for a nice, healthy dessert.

After a whirlwind trip down to the Bay Area, I’m finally back in Seattle again and slowly recuperating. It’s definitely been a fun experience, meeting and cooking for a whole range of different people over the last 2 weeks and I’ve experienced some incredible generosity from hosts who have invited me into their homes. If you’ve been following along these posts, please post a comment and say hi.

The next few weeks are going to be an interesting time for me and this blog. There’s definitely another trip planned and a couple of essays I have brewing as a result of conversations I’ve had with people. If you are interested in keeping up with my thoughts, you should definitely subscribe to my RSS feed or follow me on twitter.

March 29 2010

My HN Dinner #5

by Hang

From March 6th – 21st, I’m down in the bay area looking for work as a social interaction designer. I thought it would be fun way to meet people, while down here, to cook for a bunch of Hacker News folk. This is a recording of those dinners.

Hacker News

Getting into the final stretch, I was starting to feel the strain of this trip a little. With cooking, like any creative endeavor, you have your good days and your off days and this dinner, although it was still perfectly tasty, wasn’t up to my usual standards.

Last Wednesday, I cooked for Rich, his wife and 2 of their friends. Rich is the founder of the lean startup circle in San Francisco and also the co-founder of Stylous, a women’s fashion startup. I always admire people who choose to build products for people who are not themselves because it’s a difficult thing to do. Non-technical people have been traditionally under served by the transformational shift in technology and anybody working to seriously address that imbalance is doing good work in my book. Rich is also the proud father of a 3 week old little girl so I was really happy to give both him and his wife a good meal and have them not think about getting food on the table for at least one evening.

Immediately, when I walked into the market, I saw these gorgeous beef shanks in prominent display and my mind immediately leaped to osso bucco. Osso bucco is a classic Italian dish, traditionally made with veal shanks but now more commonly made with beef. Apart from that, it’s a pretty classic braise, I make mine with onions, celery, carrot, garlic, tomato paste, red wine, beef stock, bayleaves & thyme. The classic accompaniment to an osso bucco is risotto milanese which is risotto flavored with saffron and marrow from the shank bones. Now that I had the main down, I really wanted to do a soup since I’d been doing mainly salads at this point. Rich had just had this week a minestrone soup and a tomato soup which were my first two thoughts so, in the end, I settled on a French Onion soup. Finally, for dessert, I wanted to do something with chocolate and chocolate mousse was an old standby that I could do in my sleep so that was the dessert.

Paradoxically, this should have been one of my best dinners but it ended up turning into one of my worst. Rich loves to cook and had a well equipped kitchen, we were shopping for quality, organic ingredients and we had plenty of time. And that, I think was the problem. It’s been a long two weeks and I’ve been fighting the onset of a cold over the last few days due to lack of sleep. I was feeling pretty puffed up from all the accolades I’d been receiving, both online and in person and I decided that I could coast a little and nobody would know the difference.

Unfortunately, it’s somehow always the easiest tasks which people end up having the most problems with. Because I wasn’t stretching myself or keeping my eye on the game, there were points at which I flubbed some basic things. Oversalting was a big problem I had with this dinner to a degree I don’t often have, flavors were just a tad off balance and there wasn’t that oomph I was used to delivering. However, these were still minor nits, overall, the food was still at the level of acceptable, just not great.

A digression on menus & food

For some readers, it may be obvious why I’m calling the above menu an example of coasting but, for the majority of people, they would look at that and think that was a perfectly delicious menu that they would be happy to eat.

It’s difficult to write for people with different experiences and knowledge about food. I’ve generally written these reports aimed at the highest level of understanding on the general principle that when I’m reading a discussion of a field that’s entirely alien to me, I prefer to read the undumbed down version. Even if I don’t understand absolutely everything, I still enjoy the general cadence and voice of someone talking in the insider’s language. This section is an attempt to reach out and educate people less knowledgeable about food so feel free to skip this if it sounds like something you already know.

There is a distinction, at least within Western Cuisine, between classic and modern cooking. In classical cooking (pretty much all cooking before the 1960′s) there is a corpus of classical recipes from which you drew on and everyone drew from that same classical corpus. The mark of skill for a chef was in the faithful rendition of the platonic ideal of a dish. You see the same forces play out in, say, American-Chinese restaurants today. Walk into any American-Chinese restaurant in the country today, from food court style all the way up to fancy, white tablecloth and you will find roughly the same set of dishes on the menu: Kung Pao Chicken, General Tso’s Chicken, Sweet & Sour Pork, Moo Shu Pork, Beef & Broccoli etc. Different American-Chinese restaurants may put their own interpretation on the general framework of the dishes and produce items of varying quality and skill but the craft of the cooking is in making a faithful rendition of some platonic ideal.

Modern cooking, from the beginning of Nouvelle Cuisine in the 60′s, became about throwing away the restrictive shackles of the classic french canon and thinking of food again as an inventive process rather than a replicative one. Nouvelle Cuisine is now derided as “tall food and small portions” but some of the changes were genuinely revolutionary but have so pervaded out food consciousness these days that we’ve forgotten their origins.

From Nouvelle Cuisine came the philosophy that the classic recipes were not unique, singular, harmonious expressions of ingredients but that the space of delicious things left to be discovered was far vaster than the few examples that were part of the classic canon. Modern cuisine prides originality as well as execution. It’s all about finding new flavor expressions or new ways of expressing classic flavor combination (deconstruction). As a philosophy, I have more affinity to modern cuisine than classical cuisine and, when I cook, the exploration of flavors and discovering of new dishes is a huge part of the appeal.

The way to recognize classical cuisine is that the dishes are named after people or places: Spaghetti Bolognese, Chicken a la King, Lobster Thermidor. The way to recognize modern cuisine is that the dish descriptions either are just a bag of ingredients or containn quotation marks. Short Ribs, Celeriac Puree, Summer Vegetables, A “timbale” of lobster with a “cappuchino” of mushroom, Duck, Leek & Mushroom “Lasagna”.

At it’s worst excesses, modern cuisine can resemble the ingredient mad libs that so often parodies it. Quails Brains on a Cucumber “Au Gratin” with Dark Chocolate “Foam” would taste exactly as horrific as it sounds. But what I’ve tried to show with some of my previous blog posts is how good modern cuisine is based on a solid foundation of learned experience and principles and the reasoning behind the process I use to innovate.

So, when I say that a menu is “tired” or “uninspired”, what I mean is that there’s very little thought put into the makeup of the dish and all I’m doing is providing a competent and faithful representation of a generic original. I was, in essence, making someone else’s food rather than making my food.

Back to the food…

First Course

French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup is all about the slow, careful caramelization of onions and I simply didn’t get the timing right on this one. A combination of not getting a start on this right away and using a pot that was too tall and narrow meant that it took an hour after I planned before the onions were caramelized to the point I would like. With enough gruyere & croutons on top, it’s hard to make a truly bad French Onion Soup but this was not one of my best.

Second Course

Osso Bucco & Risottto Milanese

Osso Bucco is all about exploring the wonders that is the shank. The shank contains some of the most flavorful yet hardest to cook meat on an animal. Braised with onions, celery, carrot, garlic, red wine, beef stock & herbs, it becomes a rich and tender chunk of beef. Risotto Milanese is the classic accompaniment as the bone marrow from the beef shanks can be used to enhance the risotto. This was rich and lovely, if a tad oversalted.

Third Course

Blood Orange & Pomegranate Chocolate Mousse

The chocolate mousse was rich and had just the right texture and sweetness. The pomegranates were a nice textural addition but the blood orange did nothing for the dish. Overall, it was a nice finish to the meal and I was glad it ended on a high note.

Next up, my 6th and final writeup of the HN Dinner series…

March 16 2010

My HN Dinner #4

by Hang

From March 6th – 21st, I’m down in the bay area looking for work as a social interaction designer. I thought it would be fun way to meet people, while down here, to cook for a bunch of Hacker News folk. This is a recording of those dinners.

Tonight, I cooked for Jaisen Mathai, a software engineer at Yahoo who is also trying to bootstrap a textbook and online learning startup, Ash, a friend of his, also at Yahoo, Piaw Na, a Google engineer working on the street view team and his lovely girlfriend, Lisa. Piaw is also the publisher of the fascinating An Engineer’s Guide to Silicon Valley Startups and it was a stroke of luck that I met Piaw at the time I did because this book is exactly what I needed, I ripped through it on the cal train back and it’s thin and packed full of content with zero fluff.

The Plan

I was looking forward to a fairly relaxed dinner after the hectic craziness of the weekend and the weather conspired with my goal pretty well. It was a glorious day down in Sunnyvale (I’ve learned enough about the Bay Area to know the answer to any question about the weather is “microclimates!”) and I wanted a relaxed, backyard style affair.

When we got to the grocery store, Jaisen said he loved lamb (so he is obviously a cool guy) and the ground lamb looked like a fun product to play with so I instinctively went to kofta, a spiced, ground lamb dish popular in the Middle East & India. After confirming that Jaisen’s first childhood memory was not of his dying grandmother feeding him his first bite of kofta and that his family decided to honor their dead grandmother’s wishes by making her traditional kofta recipe on the anniversary of her death every year (always worth checking these things), kofta started sounding pretty good and the dish came together pretty easily.

From kofta, kulfi also popped into my head because it was another funny word starting with k. Kulfi is a traditional Indian style ice cream made without churning and from reducing down milk rather than using cream or eggs. Also like kofta, kulfi was another dish I was making for the very first time. Jaisen also said he loved pistachios so, after confirming the dead grandmother blah blah, pistachio kulfi was the dessert.

Kofta, Kulfi, Ceviche. From the exact other side of the planet but another funny word food. Sure, why not.

First Course

Red Snapper Ceviche with Grapefruit & Avocado

(PS: Thanks to Jaisen for owning a much better camera than I do. The difference really shows!)

The snapper seemed like the freshest ceviche friendly fish at the market and grapefruit and avocado seemed like it would make a good pairing. Normally, at this point, I would make up some post-hoc justification about how the richness of the avocado blah blah but, really, it never got that complex, it was just gut instinct this time around.

Ceviche is the art of marinating raw fish in acidic liquids so the acid cures the fish. In this case, the acid was lime juice and the little bits & bobs were olive oil, garlic, salt, honey, green onion & red onion.

Second Course

Lamb Kofta, Tzatziki Sauce, Salad & Pita

Man, a better camera really does make food look more delicious. There’s really not much more to say about this, standard recipes for all these components can be found on the internet.

Third Course

Pistachio & Cardamom Kulfi

Man, kulfi is delicious, I don’t know why I never made it before. I’ve never owned an ice cream maker so I’ve become somewhat specialized in sorbets instead of ice creams but a sorbet is generally a 2 day affair so I haven’t been able to make one this trip. It was only after I decided on kulfi that I realized it was, also, typically a 6 – 8 hour process. However, with clever application of thermodynamics, we managed to get the entire process done in 2 hours. Ash said my kulfi reminded him of his childhood which I take to mean it was a success.

It was nice to shift gears a little bit and go back to doing more simple food. The shift in pace has definitely recharged my batteries somewhat.

March 15 2010

My HN Dinner Party #3

by Hang

From March 6th – 21st, I’m down in the bay area looking for work as a social interaction designer. I thought it would be fun way to meet people, while down here, to cook for a bunch of Hacker News folk. This is a recording of those dinners.

Hacker News

The Setup

32 people, 7 courses & 7 hours to shop, drive, prepare & cook, just another one of those easy, casual weekend dinners :) .

I’ve made it somewhat of a specialty of mine to do very large scale parties within very restrictive time limits. I remember my very first, formal, fancy dinner party was 6 courses for 4 people and I was cooking for a week. After a while, I could knock out 6 – 10 courses for 6 people in an afternoon without breaking a sweat so I was looking for something to really challenge myself with. My 21st birthday provided the perfect opportunity with 21 courses, 21 people, 21 hours of eating, while I was drinking 21 drinks. That took a solid week of prep and made me discover my limit again.

Of course, the obvious sane thing to do would be to try it all again for my 22nd birthday with 22 courses in only 3 days of prep and no helpers and a much smaller kitchen. Did I mention that I was also in the process of moving out of that apartment, had a 20 hour plane trip to Australia the next day, departing at 5am?

Along the way, I also started enjoying improvised dinners like the one’s I’m doing down in the Bay Area. I would arrive deliberately with no idea what I was going to make, plan a menu while shopping and then cook in a foreign kitchen before serving to horde of hungry diners. These improvised dinners really forced me to think on my toes and hone a completely different set of skills. It was more like jazz and less like classical music. These were not dinners where it was wise to try out a brand new technique you just learned or play with flavors that you hadn’t tried before (so, of course, I do both routinely when I do these).

I had one that was 10 courses for 8 people that went from 12 hours to 7 hours of lead time because my plane got delayed due to fog. My host was a bit of a nervous wreck when I landed but we managed to make it happen and I actually managed to sit down and have a civilized cup of tea in the middle of prep because I was ahead of schedule. Another that was 7 courses for 19 people with only 5.5 hours to prepare. I didn’t find out till noon that day whose house I would even be cooking in and the guest list grew from 10 to 17 after I had already bought all my ingredients. However, both were on time, under budget and well executed, much to the amazement of both my guests and also myself.

32 people is, by a large margin, the most I ever cooked though and there’s always a point about an hour before I meet with my hosts when I worry that maybe today will be one where I’m utterly lacking in ideas and won’t have a thing to cook. So even though I had a generous 7 hours of prep time, I still felt in the pit of my stomach as the day was approaching that perhaps, today would be the day I had to tell 32 hungry diners that nothing I planned had worked out and that dinner would be Pizza from Pizza Hut…

A Quick Digression

A lot of people are curious about the logistics of scaling up a dinner party and I think it has a lot of similarities to scaling up a startup. I’m going to spill a lot of secrets here that I’ve never revealed in public before and, in the process of doing so, make my accomplishments a lot less impressive.

  • Value is all about Perception – Cost. It’s always funny to me the lack of correlation between the amount of money I spend on ingredients for a dish and how much my guests like it. Perception is king and none of my diners care about how much it cost to make that dish. Sure, it’s easy to make a ribeye taste good but everyone knows a ribeye tastes good. To bring real value requires taking something which is overlooked and cheap and convince the diner that it’s the most amazing thing in the world. I lean heavily on this principle when I cook for others. Lots of cheap grains, vegetables & fruit and a little bit of meat, deployed very smartly and ingredients that are just exotic enough that they’re considered luxury, even though they’re cheap to buy (polenta, sorrel, duck, lavender…). I take much the same view to startups. I may be intellectually impressed by a company that deploys a difficult technical solution to an obviously important problem, but I get excited by a company that does something stupidly simple and scrappy that has a measurable positive impact on people’s lives because they managed to find something overlooked by everyone else and turn it into something beautiful.
  • Raw execution ability counts for a lot. Although I’ve never cooked with a professional chef before, one thing I notice cooking alongside amateur cooks is that I might not cut as meticulously as them but I can chew through a pile of prep a hell of a lot faster and that’s what’s important when you’re having to deal with scale. When push comes to shove, there are just some people who can simply crank it up much, much higher and that’s a very valuable skill to have, even though it’s only in very special circumstances when you absolutely need it.
  • Vertical scaling is always easier that horizontal scaling, up to a point. Cooking 7 courses is a hell of a lot easier than cooking 20 courses but cooking for 30 people is not all that much harder than cooking for 6 people if you’re smart about it. As long as you have large enough pots and powerful enough stoves, it’s just a matter of throwing more hardware at the problem.
  • Scaling vertically smartly requires astute menu choices. Like products, recipes can require a lot of manpower as they scale up or be relatively scale free. A 10 bone standing rib roast takes almost literally exactly the same amount of effort to cook as a 3 bone standing rib roast. But going for the most scale free recipes is also a mistake because what you end up with is buffet food. Anything that’s easy to scale, restaurants have already seized that market and turned it old hat. Instead, you want to strike a balance by doing something just a little off the beaten path, so that you’re still creating distinctive food.
  • You have to give up control. As an amateur cook, cooking a intimate dinner for 4 is a completely different thing from cooking for 30. For 4 people, you can be everywhere at once, plate each dish yourself and keep control of the entire experience. At some point, as the size of the event grows, you have to be willing to give up control and put your trust in others and let things slide if they’re imperfect. What makes restaurants such a challenging thing to run is to serve dishes to 200 people as if they were all individual parties of 4 and most restaurants succeed on execution, not raw talent. As an amateur, I don’t have that kind of luxury so I have to accept that I can’t deliver a uniform experience and work with it rather than against it.
  • Trust can help you lead people into interesting places. A lot of picky eaters I know have a standing policy that they’ll eat anything I make with the justification that “well, if I don’t like it, at least I’ll know it’s because of the food and not the preparation”. About half the time, they end up a convert and, somewhat ironically, many of them end up preparing that dish better than I can after a few years. Because I earned their trust, I was able to take them on a journey they never would have considered otherwise. Similarly, when I’m cooking with someone new, I make sure to have them taste a dish several times when it’s being made and get them to the point of comfort with the food we’re making. Having a stranger barge into your kitchen and poke through your pantry is a pretty intimidating activity, it’s only when I bring the other people in and have them trust me that they can actually focus on the food. If you want to bring people to truly interesting places, first, you absolutely must essentially gain their trust.
  • It’s all about making people happy. Probably my most uttered phrases of the evening were “are you having a good time?” and “I hope you’re enjoying the food”. In the end, I would guess about 60% of their “enjoyment” of the food wasn’t about the actual food at all but that I was visibly interested in their satisfaction and clearly cared about the quality of what I was making. Really, genuinely caring about your customer can erase a lot of sins. Whenever I hear a startup pitch that starts “we have a technique to…”, I automatically get 50% less interested. Whenever I hear one that goes “We found a lot of people hated…”, I automatically get 300% more interested.

Enough of this tangent, onto the food…

The Plan

I met my host, Tony at the Ferry Terminal Farmers market and I just spent about 20 minutes, wandering around, trying to spot things that inspired me. It was a bright, sunny day which meant that I was drawn to light, clean flavors that really showed off the freshness of the early spring ingredients. The first thing I saw was some really excellent lavender and I immediately started thinking of a dessert soup, crystal clear with the flavors of lavender, lemon and agave syrup (incidentally, something I’ve never used before). Possibly something like a grilled peach or plum in the middle would have complemented it really well but, unfortunately, we were still a bit too early for stone fruit season so that’s where I left off on that idea.

The next thing I saw was some really excellent sorrel with a clean, lemony flavor and I knew I wanted to have that in a salad. Luckily, the next booth over had asian pears that would pair perfectly so that was the core of the salad course locked down.

After that, I saw a booth with all sorts of great mushrooms and mushrooms and duck were unreasonably good together. Tony mentioned he had a ton of leeks at home and I’d been thinking a lot about lasagna the last few weeks and how the base of a lasagna could be tweaked into something much lighter and fresher.

From there, I found a stall selling some really great smelling stone-ground cornmeal which got me thinking about polenta. Tony was already planning to smoke some ribs so polenta was the perfect choice and we stumbled across a guy selling some excellent black kale for cheap so that course was also locked down.

I knew Tony had a lot of butternut squash at home which was perfect for a soup and, I had originally planned to do a Butternut-miso-sesame soup I’ve done a few times before but it wasn’t really fitting in with the rest of my theme so I really wanted to try Butternut with Orange and Chipotle (again, something I’ve never done before).

The final thing was looking for some scallops to go on top of a salsa I’d already been planning to do but we found a really great deal on some Texas Gulf Shrimp so we went with that instead.

First Course

Cumin Dusted Shrimp on a Corn, Avocado & Black Bean Salsa

Unfortunately, I was way too pre-occupied in the kitchen to have any time to take photos of the food (see: giving up control) so, unless someone else comes forward with pictures, these posts will be, sadly, text only.

The Corn, Avocado & Black Bean Salsa is an old, old standby for me. There’s very few dishes that I still cook more than a few times without changing but I discovered this dish in it’s platonic form about 3 years ago and I haven’t been able to tweak a single thing about it since then.

At it’s core, it’s 1 package of frozen corn, 1 can of rinsed, drained black beans & 1 diced avocado. From there, you add cilantro, garlic, cumin, jalapeno, lime juice, olive oil, sugar & salt. The absolute essence of this dish is balancing these different flavors to a harmonious whole. What makes it so special is that you take a bite and flavors dance around your tongue like a complex symphony.

So, really, it’s just a optimization problem in 8 dimensions… except the optimization space is non-convex! Anyone with a palate can find the first local maxima by just progressively tasting and figuring out it “needs more X”. Doing this will get you a pretty good salsa. The flavors will be well saturated and pleasing.

But there’s actually another, hidden local maxima that turns a pretty good salsa into an amazing salsa. I discovered this point completely by accident the first time I made it and it’s had me hooked ever since. The trick is, this hidden local maxima occurs at a point when everything tastes significantly under seasoned. To reach this point requires a certain amount of faith since everything will taste wrong up until the point where it tastes right. You have to resist your instincts and just trust that there exists an island of stability. However, if you overadd any even one of ingredients, you can’t bring it back into balance except to get to the well saturated local maxima. I’ve gotten to where I’m sufficiently skilled to hit that hidden point around 20% of the time. Luckily, this was one of the times and my guests tasted the amazing salsa rather than just the pretty good one.

This salsa is great as a dip with corn chips or as a base for some sort of lightly flavored protein. I’ve done it with scallops, shrimp, lamb chops, pork tenderloin, chicken breast, flank steak among others. This time, there was a great deal on shrimp so I made a cumin dusted shrimp to go along with it. Pro-tip: Brine your shrimp in a little bit of salted ice-water before cooking to make them plump and crisper.

Second Course

Salad of Sorrel, Mustard Greens, Spinach, Asian Pear, Walnuts & Cranberries, Sherry Vinaigrette.

The sorrel and the asian pear at the market really spoke to me and I wanted to really build a salad to highlight those two ingredients. Walnuts were great because they added an earthiness that allowed the clean, sharp flavors of the sorrel and pear to stand out. The asian pears had plenty of crunch so I only needed a nut with a light amount of crunch, otherwise I probably would have added some slivered almonds as well. The mustard greens added a bitterness that would bring out more of the sweetness and the cranberries added another depth of sweetness. Spinach added the astringency that allowed the lemony notes in the sorrel to be expressed. Finally, I noticed that Tony had some of the amazing O sherry vinagrette which I proceeded to steal half a bottle of (sorry Tony). It’s expensive enough that I never worked up the courage to buy it for myself but now that I’ve tried it, I think I need to get my own bottle.

Third Course

Butternut Squash Soup with Orange

Ugh, I don’t want to even go into what a mess this was behind the scenes. Suffice it to say, there is a god that blesses fools and madmen by providing a miraculous recovery of food in the final minutes of cooking. By some stroke of luck, I’ve been unusually blessed by that god. I can’t count the number of times where I’ve been disappointed by a dish and then, literally within the last 5 minutes of cooking, it transforms into something tasty without me touching it. How it happened in this instance, I have no idea but it was OK the last time I tasted it in the kitchen and pretty tasty when I got a bowl of it in the dining room.

Fourth Course

Duck, Mushroom & Leek Lasagna

Edamame, Mushroom & Leek Lasagna

Mmm… This, personally, was my favorite course of the night. I’ve very recently started thinking the idea of a lasagna is great but the traditional manifestation is slightly heavy, stodgy and way too much effort for something that’s comfort food. However, the basic idea of lasagna is one that’s remarkably open to adaptation and can serve as the base for a lot of different flavor pairings.

In this case, some shiitake mushrooms at the farmers market that looked great and that was the original basis for this dish. I’m a huge fan of the duck+mushroom combination and I’ve played around with many different iterations of it. In this case, I really liked the idea of using asian mushrooms, shiitake & oyster, in a western flavor palate. Asian cuisine has a much more nuanced idea of texture compared to western cuisine and so shiitake & oyster mushrooms are both, in my opinion, appealing mainly for their texture rather than flavor. This was great for me because I wanted to keep the flavors toned down and concentrate on the textures.

Lasagna is different from other pasta dishes because it expresses a much larger range of textures. Ideally, you should have a brown, crisp-yet-gooey layer of cheese at the top, the feathered, crispy edges of pasta, the soft, silky core and chunks that add textural interest.

For the duck lasagna, I seared then braised the duck legs in a little bit of white wine and water with some salt and pepper. Then sauteed the mushrooms with the leeks, added a roux and made a sauce from the braising liquid. The duck legs were shredded and added to the sauce and then layered it with fresh pasta. A mix of Parmesan & Gruyere was sprinkled on top and it was baked until I remembered to check up on it again.

The vegetarian lasagna was made a bit more complex to make up for the lack of meat. Every meal I’ve made on this trip thus far has been very vegetarian friendly. I really feel for our poor vegetarian brethren and how they can never, ever, taste something that’s as delicious as the meat version of a dish so I’ve really tried to at least make my vegetarian alternatives at least 80% as tasty (cmon guys, I’m just joking around). Anyway, for the vegetarian lasagna, I replaced the duck with edamame and used milk to add a bit more richness to the sauce.And, just for the vegetarians, I sneaked in a few pinches of truffle salt into the dish that, IMO, completely lifted the dish to another level. You’re welcome, guys.

Fifth Course

Ribs, Kale & Polenta

Tony was the man with the smoker tonight and he managed to smoke a fine set of ribs. All my job was for this course was to build the sides that would make his ribs shine.

Polenta (aka grits) has been a traditional side for smoked food for a very good reason. It’s a wonderfully, rich, creamy base that adds the necessary heft to the dish.The key to polenta is great corn and time. You need at least medium (preferably coarse), stone ground polenta to make something approaching halfway decent, Bob’s Red Mill is at virtually every grocery store in the US and is a good product. Artisinal or heirloom polenta is one of the few things I’m willing to pay foofoo gourmet prices for because even ridiculously expensive polenta is still dirt cheap. The other key is that you just need to leave it alone for a very long time. Keep it gently bubbling on the stove, stir every 20 minutes or so to keep it from sticking and, at the 3 hour mark or so, it transforms into this wonderfully aromatic base, rich with corn flavor.

When I make polenta for others, I stuff it full of milk & butter & cheese because who cares about calories at a dinner party. But for just a private dinner at home, I sometimes just like polenta made with just water.

an actually quick digression on diets

My philosophy on dieting is pretty simple: make each calorie count. There’s food that’s high calorie but just tastes damn good so I feel no guilt about eating it: bacon, that strip of fat on a steak, home made potato chips. There’s also food that’s high calorie which, while still tasty is just not worth it: Mayo, for me, most baked goods, crappy catered food. Butter & cheese adds a tiny bit of deliciousness polenta but I’m also pretty happy eating polenta without it. As long as I make sure each calorie I’m ingesting is pulling it’s weight, I don’t feel much guilt about my diet.

back to the food…

Something bitter is also a classic accompaniment to smoked meats and, for some reason, I’ve been on a kale bent this month. I’ve cooked more kale this month than I have ever in my life. I think everyone goes on one of these streaks once in a while and it can be useful for me to explore a single ingredient in a much more focused way. In this case, I sauteed the kale in the classic way with olive oil, red pepper flakes and crushed garlic. But, at the end, I added just a touch of white wine and maple syrup to add an interesting sweet-sour dimension as well.

Sixth Course

Lemon & Lavender Soda

I was working on some sort of Lavender & Lemon with agave consomme idea as a dessert but nothing was really gelling. As soon as I got to Tony’s place though and discovered that he owned a sodastream, I made a rapid pivot and decided to turn it into a pre-dessert palate cleanser. Of course, I’ve never made a soda and lavender is one of those notorious ingredients that can become cloying and overwhelming if you use even a little too much and I was infusing it into an unknown quantity of liquid so… yay for experimentation.

I first infused the lavender & lemon zest into a tiny bit of vodka that was first warmed up, then cooled down, then heated for a few minutes to let the alcohol boil off. After straining out the bits, I added lemon juice and agave syrup until I think I got a concentrate that was fairly balanced and threw it in the freezer. Just before service, I charged up a canister of water and then added it to the concentrate until there was just the right level of sweetness. I learned from this experience that making soda for the first time without a recipe is a pretty hair raising experience. If you don’t stir enough, the concentrate doesn’t get fully mixed, if you stir too much, you stir all the carbonation out. If it takes you more than 2 or 3 attempts to balance it, you’re soda is too flat from overstirring. If you add just a bit too much soda water, your soda is too bland and you can’t recover from that. It’s a tricky balance to hit. Luckily, we hit it pretty spot on that night.

I served the soda in these cute espresso cups that Tony had and I filled them each individually with about 3/4 oz of soda and instructed each person to take it like a shot. I originally learned from Thomas Keller’s writings that it’s  important to leave the diner wanting more. That they took it as a shot was important because I wanted them, at the end of it, to be left feeling like just one more sip would have been enough to be satisfied.

Seventh Course

Chocolate Pithiviers with Pistachio Frangipane

Luckily for me, I wasn’t in charge of the dessert course. One of the guests is friends with the founder of Bakery Bites, this awesome indie bakery in Berkeley. The concept is every week, they make a different bakery treat and sell them through their website. These were pretty awesome and it was great that I didn’t have to think about dessert.

Reactions

The frustrating thing about cooking for strangers is that it’s very hard to get accurate feedback. Social pressure forces people to only say positive things. I’ve developed a system that I use now that helps in allowing people be more honest about their feelings. After dinner, I go around and first make people to promise if I ask them a question, they have to answer it. Then, I ask them “what was your least favorite thing I made tonight?” Asking this, and forcing people to answer it, makes them open up and gives them permission to move past the standard social politeness. I’ve been surprised since I started doing this how much more honest the feedback has become.

For this meal, the responses were split pretty evenly between the different courses which I take as a sign that I did a good job. Every course had a person who named it their favorite and also someone who said it was good but not on par with all of the rest. Personally, that seemed in line with my own experience. For virtually any meal of this many courses, there’s going to be some that just don’t work. Amazingly enough, this was one of those rare meals where everything came together. I have to say, I’m pretty damn happy with how all this turned out.

A chance to answer some questions

Well, if you’ve read this far, then you obviously have way too much free time you’re trying to waste so this is probably a good place to waste some more of it. Over the last few dinners, there have been some common questions that have cropped up so this is a mini FAQ about my cooking:

  • When did you start to cook? I started cooking simple meals for my family in high school. After I moved into the dorms, there was no kitchen but I was still reading about food so by the time I moved out, I had a giant list of things I wanted to try and went on somewhat of a food bender. I started getting really serious about cooking in 2003 when I spent half a year in Hong Kong on exchange and had access to incredibly fresh wet markets and my own kitchen. So I guess I’ve been cooking somewhat seriously for about 7 years now.
  • Did you ever get any professional training? No.
  • How did you get so good at it? I tend to be somewhat obsessive about my passions. I don’t really know how to do things halfway. As a result, when I got into cooking, I really got into cooking. It’s that whole 10,000 hours of practice thing. If you’re conscientious in always pushing for improvement, you just keep getting better. That being said, I’m pretty good for a home cook but I don’t even try and compare myself to serious restaurant chefs who do this as a full time job.
  • Have you ever considered doing this full time? No
  • Why not? I cook for people I like. To do it as a job would ruin the appeal of it I think. The Food Network has trained us to think of cooking as this sexy glamorous career but, really, it’s stressful, physically demanding and incredibly long hours. Cooking as a hobby allows me to experience the good bits of preparing food without all the drudgery.
  • What cuisine do you prefer cooking? Oddly enough, even though my ethnicity is Chinese, I started off cooking very classical French and that still remains somewhat of a sentimental cuisine for me. Growing up, my mother would be cooking all of these lame authentic home cooked Chinese food while my friends were eating this amazing stuff from Pizza Hut & McDonalds. Cooking at home started as a defensive move as it was the only way to get western flavors into our home. It’s only been recently, after I left Australia for the US that I started seriously exploring Chinese food. Italian food is one that I still have somewhat of an aversion to. Sure, it’s fun to eat, but I, personally as a cook, find the whole “buy great ingredients and treat them simply” ethos kinda boring.
  • When is the next one of these happening? I don’t know. I have another week in the Bay Area and I’m committed to cooking another 3 dinners. There’s definitely going to be another trip down here in a few weeks and a 99% chance that I’ll eventually end up here. Watch this space I guess.
  • What do you do when you’re not cooking? Well, I’m glad you asked that! I’m currently the founder of a startup that’s in the middle of defunctifying itself and looking for the next step in my career. What I do is think very deeply about how we should be designing social software and then using that deep thinking to come up with specific designs that fix specific issue of social interaction. It’s a new approach to looking at software which I think has the potential to completely transform the way that software design is done (I don’t want to oversell it in this venue so talk to me in person and I’ll try to convince you why that’s the case). What I’m looking for is a job that allows me to do a lot of the sort of design work and makes people measurably happier with their lives. If this sounds even remotely interesting to you, email me at [email protected]. Unfortunately, I’m completely booked out this trip as far as meeting for coffee goes but I’m always happy to talk on the phone. If you know of a company that would be interested in hearing me speak about these issues, I have a 30 minute – 1 hour presentation that I give on my approach to designing software called “Designing for Narratives”. More info will be added to the site as I make time to start documenting a lot of the work that I’m doing so, if you subscribe to this blog, either via RSS or twitter, you can be notified as I put up more content.

If you’ve read this far already, please post a comment, even if it’s just to say hi. Writing something this long is a pretty grueling process and finding out that people are actually interested in what I have to say is the only reward I get. Thanks!

March 12 2010

Hacker News Dinner Party #2

by Hang

From March 6th – 21st, I’m down in the bay area looking for work as a social interaction designer. I thought it would be fun way to meet people, while down here, to cook for a bunch of Hacker News folk. This is a recording of those dinners.

Two nights ago, I cooked for Gabe Smedresman and Dani Fong and a few of their close friends at their San Francisco apartment.

Gabe was at Yale when he created the Turf game (archive.org link) which became somewhat of a minor sensation on campus and he’s now in San Francisco working on a new game which I describe as SimCity meets Fantasy Football. From what I understand, he plans on building a virtual map of the world in which players can buy, run and sell real businesses in virtual space. It sounds like a fascinating project and Gabe has some really interesting thoughts on social game design, backed by real experiences with his work on Turf.

Dani is a fellow PhD dropout like me but far more accomplished. Dani is the co-founder of a alternative energy startup,working on more efficiently storing energy as compressed air. They had just announced series B funding that day so that put us all in a celebratory mood. Dani also keeps an articulate, fascinating blog with tons of fresh insight.

The Plan

Gabe & Dani’s was the first party where I had no idea about what I was going to cook until I got to their house. Menu planning is somewhat of a skill, independent of cooking ability. The art of coming up with a good menu involves a good many things: Making sure you showcase high quality ingredients, you’re getting good value for your money, you have the right equipment to cook all the dishes at the right times, making the menu descriptions sound appetizing, and dozens more. But by far the two most important criteria are balance and contrast. A dinner that is too rich and fatty will end up leaving diners bloated, too many soft textures can end up resembling baby food. Instead, a great dinner should contain enough variation to keep the palate awake and interested.

For a geek like me, menu planning is like a giant constraint satisfaction problem. Relatively casual cooks will struggle just to fulfil the basic requirements of a good menu but for more advanced cooks with a deeper repertoire, combinatorial explosion happens and the challenge is, instead that there are too many possible menus, all of which would be good.

So especially for cases in which I need to make up a menu on the fly, I will often end up making completely arbitrary constraints on myself that reduce down the possibilities to a manageable set.

In this case, my first additional constraint was that the food should be vegetarian friendly since 3 of my guests would be vegetariants. Once I got to the market, my thinking went that the green beans looked really good and the lamb shoulder was on special so I wanted dishes that would incorporate those two. Salad Nicoise popped into my head since I hadn’t made it in a while and, while no french lamb dishes were instantly appealing to me, I really wanted to explore how lamb and fruit paired together and a lamb & apricot tagine really spoke to me (and chickpeas would be an easy sub for the vegetarian guests). Given two roughly Mediterranean dishes were on my mind, I thought a really interesting theme would be a study of how different countries around the same region would be drawing from roughly the same larder and yet use different philosophical approaches to come up with drastically different cuisines.

With the menu gelling together, lets get cooking!

First Course

Nicoise/Tuna Nicoise Salad


One of the things I associate with the French cuisine was it’s deep classicism and penchant for fussy, technical cooking. Tuna Nicoise is a dish that’s deeply old school without feeling tired or outdated in any way. This is not a reinterpreted or deconstructed Tuna Nicoise, it’s simply a deeply unironic rendition of the original because it’s original components work so well together. At the same time, it’s also an absurdly fussy dish. The eggs, potatoes & beans are each cooked separately, to just the right consistency, components are individually placed on the plate rather than being mixed up in a jumble like a normal salad and eating it requires you to actually pay attention so that you can assemble a complete salad on your fork.

In the end, it was fresh, light and a good way to start off the evening.

Second Course

Tuscan Kale Soup


In this dish, I really wanted to highlight the skill of Italian food at bring out deep flavor from a set of very humble ingredients. The soup was deliberately minimal: kale, onions, garlic, red pepper flakes, olive oil, white wine, vegetable stock, salt & pepper. Italian food is all about little tricks that add just that one iota more flavor that, when combined together as a whole, end up stunning the people who are eating it. The onions were very thinly sliced and then sauteed over low heat for over an hour until they were brown and subtly sweet. The stems from the kale were separated from the leaves and cooked alongside the onions in the last 20 minutes. The kale leaves were briefly sauteed to add just a bit of browning. The blanching liquid from the Nicoise was used to add just a subtle amount of body. All really minor details that separate a merely ordinary kale soup from a truly special one.

The end result was a soup with a stunning depth of flavor for such a humble pile of ingredients. I’m always surprised when I cook Italian food since it’s not a cuisine I prefer cooking but it’s almost always voted as the best dish of the night. This case was no exception.

Third Course

Chickpea/Lamb & Apricot Tagine with Cous Cous


The Tagine was my baby of the evening. Even though I enjoy the ethos French & Italian cuisine, the lamb tagine was far more my style of cooking. The tagine really highlighted Morrocan cuisine’s masterful way with spices so that it all comes together as a harmonious, complex whole. Morrocans have been cooking sheep for generations and their cuisine has gotten very good at using the complex interplay of spice to tame the rich gaminess of lamb. Also, the blurring of the lines between sweet & savory with fruits & honey being a major component of savory dishes is also something I love playing with because it’s so alien to the classical western tradition.

In the end, the Lamb Tagine accomplished all of those things. The lamb was tender and moist, the broth was thick, complex and well balanced and the dish was warm and satisfying. Just when I was thinking that the Tagine was the perfect cap to the meal, one of Gabe’s roommates had another surprise for us all…

Fourth Course

Home Made Banana Bread with Nutella


Gabe’s roommate, Daniel, went and baked us all some banana bread and we all slathered them thick with nutella while they were still warm out of the oven. Remember when I said that the most important criteria for a good menu is balance and contrast and that careful thought needs to go into every course to ensure that they fit well into the meal as a whole? Well, this banana bread was a completely unplanned addition added at the last minute with no consultation with me and, you know what? It was a great addition to the menu because the most important criteria for a successful menu is that it is made with love and care and this had both in spades.

My dinner party with Dani & Gabe was possibly the funnest time I’ve had in San Francisco this trip because, not only was there good food, there were also great people to be sharing it with. It’s experiences like this that made me glad I did this little experiment.

Tomorrow, I will be cooking at the house of Tony Stubblebine & Sarah Milstein for 30 people. Unfortunately, tickets for this event is already sold out but if you’re coming, I look forward to cooking for you!

Hacker News Dinner Party #1

by Hang

From March 6th – 21st, I’m down in the bay area looking for work as a social interaction designer. I thought it would be fun way to meet people, while down here, to cook for a bunch of Hacker News folk. This is a recording of those dinners.

Hacker News

In the first of my Hacker News Dinner Parties, I was cooking a vegetarian feast for James and his lovely girlfriend in their Berkeley pad. James is a lone startup guy, with some really interesting thoughts about how do we remake education into a more participatory process and how do we pull in the ambient, out-of-classroom experiences to add depth and context to the learning experience. He’s also, at this very moment, on The Startup Bus on it’s way to SXSW. The Startup Bus is this crazy experiment of seeing whether hackers work like plutonium atoms. If you jam them in a tight space under sufficient pressure over enough time, will something really interesting happen or will we end up with corpses strewn along the road and a suspiciously higher incidence of cancer for the next 50 years? Obviously, anyone willing to do something so ridiculous would be fun to cook for.

Seeing as how we had to pop in to The Startup Bus sendoff party first to drink some of their beer and talk to a bunch of cool hackers, it wasn’t until 8:30pm that we actually got started on the cooking so this first dinner ended up being pretty simple but still delicious. Also, I figured out that night that having a fully charged camera battery is pretty useless when it’s not actually in the camera so apologies for the poor quality iPhone pics.

First Course

Salad of Greens, Pears, Pumpkin Seeds & Brie, Honey Mustard Dressing

The key to a good salad is contrast. This salad had the crunch from the greens & the pumpkin seeds and the softness from the pears & brie. It had bitter from the greens, sweetness from the pears & honey, salty & pungent from the brie and sour from the sherry vinegar in the dressing. As long as you follow these principles, salads are a great platform to improvise & riff from. All the ingredients for this salad were pulled out of James’ fridge because they needed to be used up. Less is more in this case, choose a few key ingredients that you want to showcase the harmony. In this case, the salad had the right balance between all of the various elements and it turned out pretty tasty.

Second Course

Penne with a Roasted Bell Pepper & Grape Tomato Sauce

This is an old standby of mine which I return back to because of the purity of flavors. It’s a recipe that I developed independently although I’m sure it’s a common dish in many cultures.

At it’s core, it’s simply roasted bell peppers and grape tomatoes. Core & flatten a sheetpan’s worth of bell peppers (about 6), brush them with oil and place them under a broiler for 15 – 20 minutes. You want the skins charred and blackened so don’t be afraid that you’re burning them. Once they’re nicely charred, put them in a bowl covered in saran wrap and the residual steam from the peppers will help loosen the skins. Throw the grape tomatoes in the same sheetpan and put them under the broiler again until they’re burst and also slightly charred. After about another 10 minutes, the grape tomatoes should be cooked and the peppers are cool enough to handle so pull as much of the skin off as you can with your hands and then roughly chop the peppers into 1/2 in pieces. Put half the peppers & tomatoes in a blender & puree, then mix in the other half as chunks, correct the seasoning and mix with the pasta and serve. That’s it! The simplest version of this dish is just two ingredients! The puree provides the body for the sauce & the chunks add a bit of textural contrast. This technique also really brings out and highlights the inherent sweetness and complexity of good ingredients. Because it’s such a simple base, it’s also another great jumping off point for riffing off a theme.

At this dinner party, we sauteed some garlic, green onion & chilli flakes in some olive oil, added in some white wine and reduced it down and then hit it with a splash of lemon at the end to add a bit of zing. Basil, oregano or other herbs are great. For non-vegetarians, I commonly do this with some chicken breast, shrimp or pork tenderloin. Replacing one or more of the bell peppers with chilli peppers adds a interesting heat to the dish. It’s really a great starting off point for a lazy weekday pasta dinner.

Third Course

Creme Caramel with Honey Glazed Apples

I’ve never been much of a sweets person so desserts are, admittedly, not my forte. That being said, a creme caramel is really a brainless, easy to knock out dessert. The custard base is some combination of eggs, milk & sugar. I still have to look up the proportions every time so don’t feel guilty if you can’t remember them. In this case, I used a caramel base but any sort of jam also works great as a base (Saffron-Cardamon with a Rose Petal Jelly base is ridiculous). Put them in the oven at 325 in a water bath and just cook until they jiggle like a fat man running up stairs. For the apples, peel, core & dice some apples and sautee them in butter until you get bored. Add some honey and just a little bit of lemon juice to cut the sweetness and you’re done. Simple, brainless and a very “cheffy” style dessert.

I have to say, the first of these Hacker News dinners was a resounding success. The food was good, the wine was plentiful and James was a really interesting guy to talk to. Tonight, I’m going to BayCHI (I’ll be the guy in the red fedora) so hit me up via email at [email protected] if you’re also planning to be there.

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