Pink Lemonade For Everybody!
9:50 AM EDT on May 13, 2023
Welcome to, uh, I dunno, let's call it Ask A Chefector, the column in which your internet food buddy (me) answers all of your questions about cooking and eating and food and pretty much anything else. Got questions about any of those things? Send me an email.
This week I only had a couple of questions to answer (send me some more!), plus I had been fiddling with a food-ish project that isn't quite complicated enough to warrant an entire blog-length post, so here is a hybrid type of deal: Some reader questions, and then also a little mini Chefector about a good way to make a frosty summertime beverage for a lot of people even if you don't have a whole lot of pitcher volume to work with.
As someone who loves to cook almost every type of cuisine, I have built up a long list of dishes that I can make with consistency. The problem this has caused, however, is that it may take several months to get back to making a particular meal, even if my wife and I really enjoy it. I always start making grocery lists that are way too long, before paring back when I realize there are not enough days in the week to cook everything I'm planning. I often feel like I'm missing out on something, even if I really like the food that I do cook every night. This backlog has also resulted in us almost never going out to eat (and taking up precious slots in the cooking schedule), which I also have mixed feelings on. As another cooking enthusiast, do you ever get meal FOMO? Are there special dishes you have accepted that you will maybe only eat once a year?
I only really ever get "meal FOMO" (I like this concept) about stuff that simple logistical constraints prevent me from cooking. There are ingredients and spices and stuff that would be absurdly wasteful or ridiculously complicated for me to try to get where I am: Alas, I will not be serving freshly caught razor clams in my kitchen anytime soon. There are preparations that aren't really plausible for home cooks with normal kitchen equipment: I will never have the kind of vertical rotisserie that would allow me to go fully al pastor or shawarma mode at home; if I want to prepare these, I will have to settle for poorer versions. And then also, I am not rich. Beluga caviar will not be on the menu on this or any Movie Night.
The special dish that I have had to accept only having once (or at most twice) per year is just a big ol' bushel of Chesapeake blue crabs, cooked in a big pot over a camp stove or a charcoal fire or in one of those huge terrifying steamer, uh, boxes or whatever that they have at the wharf. Crabs are seasonal, for one thing; they're horribly overfished, for another, and threatened by pollution and climate change; and they are expensive as hell, on top of all that. The trick here is that the Chesapeake blue crab, steamed beneath absurd drifts of any of the various, essentially identical Chesapeake-area crab spice mixes, is my actual single favorite thing to eat, and a crab feast outdoors in the sunshine is my single favorite type of social occasion. Now that I am Old, sometimes it occurs to me that there are only so many of these left in my lifetime; the question is whether the blue crab will survive as long as I do.
Gah. I'm sorry. That is very bleak. I will also go a year or two between smoked-brisket undertakings. It's just such a huge chore! It takes that long for my enthusiasm to bubble back up.
Favorite cookbooks for inspiration?
I'm pulling at least 1 recipe a week from one of 5 cookbooks to help unblock my personal cooking "writer's" block.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Excellent for beginners and experts alike. Especially like the suggested menus in the back.
The Wok: Super dense and technical, but a very good book for those who like a project and are fans of Kenji Lopez-Alt
Diasporican: I have no experience with Puerto Rican food, saw a review on tik tok and bought it immediately. Only 2 recipes in and I am hooked
Alton Brown Every Day Cook: Does this need an explanation?
Jacques Pepin—Art of the Chicken: I don't know how many recipes I'll use from this but it's a beautiful book and I'm enjoying reading it as a memoir.
I am not a big cookbook user, to be honest. I own several, as you might expect, but the only ones that get more than annual consultation in my house are:
- The Professional Chef, by the Culinary Institute of America (I have recommended this book a flatly embarrassing number of times in blogs over the years), which I value for its textbook-like focus on basic techniques and ingredients as the foundation of cooking, over recipes;
- La Cucina, by the Italian Academy of Cuisine, a gigantic compendium of sometimes comically simple recipes from a survey of Italian home cooks, which I like because cooking from it makes me feel connected to common people very far away from me; and
- A cooking-for-kids cookbook that my younger son sometimes likes to try out, and which I can't find right now, which is why I can't give you its title.
Another good food/cooking book I'm very glad to have and to have read is Tender, by the British (!) food writer Nigel Slater. I haven't used this as an actual cookbook in a long time, but it's great.
I have a maybe weird relationship with cookbooks. For many years from my late teens through my mid 20s I worked in bookstores. The cooking sections were always among my favorites to shelve, for the same reason that I liked shelving the sections for architecture, speculative conspiracy garbage, and cheap paperback genre shit: The books were fun to read when I was wasting time instead of doing work. The vast majority of cookbooks seemed as though they had infinitely more value as glossy volumes of photography than as actual cooking instruction, and that's still how I view most of them. The real gems (and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is one, though I don't use it all that much) are the ones rooted in fully-formed ideas about food and cooking, or broadly applicable principles of food preparation, rather than in the specific dishes a particular chef or food personality likes to cook. They're outnumbered a thousand to one by the ones that exist primarily to cash in on the fame somebody won through a TV show or a popular restaurant (or, for a while there, a popular cooking blog).
Which, hey, that's fine! Make a cookbook! It's cool. My point is I don't have a lot of use for a book of some famous cook's recipes. I want to learn how to make my own stuff. Or, even better, I want a new and larger way of thinking about and making choices about food and cooking. Hell yeah.
What is your favorite recipe from the book you couldn’t get published?
Look, wiseass, we never really got that far, OK? It was just a barely completed proposal. If I remember correctly (I deleted the document several laptops ago), it didn't even have, like, a list of recipes in it. Probably it would have included at least some of the stuff that had already made it into Foodspin columns; of these, I feel like the chicken cutlet one came out particularly good, as well as the one about braising a big chuck roast in tomatoes and wine. Presumably, had the process advanced to the actual writing-the-book stage, it would have included stuff that wound up being Chefector columns, like the Green Action, the citrus salad, and the thrown-together stuffed peppers. Also I probably would have pioneered a world-revolutionizing technique for the best-ever roast chicken. Inspired by my achievement, scientists would have perfected cold fusion, and a century of carbon pollution would have been rolled back by now. Oh well. Sometimes you just have to make fun of Penn Holderness online.
A Good Way To Make A Nice Frosty Summer Beverage For Everybody, Even If You Only Have Limited Pitcher Space To Work With
As mentioned up at the top, I played around this week with a food-type project that isn't quite laborious enough to warrant the full blog treatment. That project was Pink Lemonade. We were watching The Sound of Music (shut up), and Max Detweiler was sipping (uncomfortably, the big doofus) at a tall sweating glass of pink lemonade, next to a big sweating glass pitcher of pink lemonade, and, God, my God, all I wanted in the world was a big cold glass of pink lemonade.
There are a lot of recipes for pink lemonade—more than you might guess, for such a simple-seeming beverage. Probably this is partly because "pink" is not actually an ingredient, or even a flavor, and so there are lots of different ways you can add it to lemonade. Some recipes are just lemonade with, like, some store-bought cranberry juice cocktail, or some of the pink syrup from a jar of maraschino cherries, stirred into it. That's fine! If that is what you want, vaya con dios, my friend. Personally I think you can do better than that.
(Some other recipes, sickeningly, are lemonade with a drop of red food-coloring stirred into it, and are beneath contempt. Again: There are so many ways to add the color pink to lemonade!!!! You do not have to choose literally the only one that adds nothing else but color to the lemonade. It's not like regular lemonade is ugly! It's fine-looking! A fine-looking beverage. The pink, beyond looking pretty, should indicate something special about the lemonade.)
Anyway what I wanted was pink lemonade made with real fruit, from (give or take the refinement of cane sugar) scratch, that would actually taste like, well, lemonade plus. As is my custom, I fixated on finding a way of accomplishing this that would be A) more complicated than necessary, B) time-consuming, and also C) maximally homemade, within plausible limits.
I did this on a Saturday. We were having people over that day—there'd be a grand total of 10 or 11 people in the house—and I decided I needed a way to make enough pink lemonade for everybody to have, at the very least, a nice tall sweating glass of their own. But I only had one pitcher to work with, and definitely was not going to make, like, serial batches of pink lemonade throughout the day. What I wound up doing was making some insanely potent concentrated pink lemonade stuff, and then instructing everybody to pour it over fizzy water and ice in their glass, for their own little individual pink lemonade.
What I did was, I made a very powerfully sugary raspberry syrup. This was three cups—cups!—of granulated sugar and a cup-and-a-half of water, heated and stirred in a saucepan until the sugar was fully dissolved and the liquid was crystal clear and, uh, syrupy; at this point I chucked in probably two cups of fresh raspberries and stirred them around and simmered them until the berries had fully dissolved and the liquid was an outrageous deep rose shade. Then I poured the liquid through a fine mesh strainer (to catch the raspberry mush and seeds) suspended over a wide funnel sitting in the mouth of a tall heatproof glass jar. Then I set the jar aside, loosely covered, so it could cool; once it was room temperature, I mixed a bunch of the syrup in my pitcher with the juice of, like, I dunno, several pounds of lemons. Probably like... 24 lemons? A lot of lemons! We are talking about a lotta frickin' lemons right now.
The resulting liquid was preposterously strong. It tasted like being absolutely jump-kicked in the face. It tasted like being struck by lightning. But also sweet and delicious. Had there been, like, five times as much of it, it would have made the deadliest sorbetto or granita imaginable. It was a rich, preposterous pink. On a hunch, I sliced another couple of lemons very thin, dropped the slices into the half-full pitcher, and socked the whole thing into the fridge. Then when everybody came over I told them: This is stupendously strong and will instantaneously dissolve your pancreas if you try to drink a glass of it; if you would like a glass of pink lemonade, pour a little of this over, like, four times as much water (fizzy or flat) in a glass, with ice, and stir it with a chopstick.
The sliced lemons turned out to be the right call. At a certain point my son, not having heeded my earlier admonishment, poured himself a glass that was like 50-50 of the concentrated goo and water. He might just as well have poured a glass of maple syrup. In any case now there was way less of the concentrated stuff—but! The sliced lemons had made it more intensely lemony over time, and more bitter, so I just added some more of the pink raspberry syrup, and a little bit of water, and that restored some of the volume without throwing off the balance of flavors too much.
Anyway, it was good as hell, and there was enough for everybody! In fact it was so good that it was gone before it occurred to me that I had meant to snap an attractive photo of it, and now could not. So, ironically, the stuff in the glass in the photo up there is just ... lemonade, with a drop of red food-coloring in it.