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Jackson Pollock meets the photo-realists

I like to watch other people cook.

It’s a treat to observe a skilled cook, amateur or professional, beat a path through the kitchen. There is something balletic about it, a process obviously organized yet, as with other arts, open to improvisation, a creative duration seasoned by a dialogue between maker and made.

As with painters, there is a wide range of styles among cooks.

There are the photo-realists of the kitchen, tightly bound to measurements and ingredients, slaves to the model, less prone to allow the process to stray far from the norm.

At the other end of the spectrum are the abstract expressionists of food, given to deceptively spasmodic action, able to free themselves from the standard while remaining on the fringes of the genre.

I tend to gravitate to the latter style, despite the example set by the woman who first taught me about cooking — my aunt Hazel, the consummate measurer, the Mistress of Fret. Her example keeps me somewhat under rein, just this side of the rim of ruin. Hazel taught cooking: her students needed discipline in order to emerge from school with a usable skill so, in her prime, Hazel served as an example, kept her edge sharp whether at work or at home, cleaving to what was correct at all times.

Even with that ominous, precise presence in my past, I’m prone to experiment, to fool with recipes, to allow taste and texture and color to lure me away from the bondage of a recipe. I fling ingredients like Pollock tossed pigments; I mess with forms like Picasso dissembling the image of his mistress.

So, every once in a while, I need to expose myself to other approaches.

It is refreshing to take a trip to the other side of the fence, to witness an anal-retentive cook work in a spotless environment. It is a return to bedrock for me, to Hazel and her immaculate workspace, her total focus on the “right way” to do things.

I had a chance to make the journey to a far corner of the culinary universe some time back at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California.

Kathy and I stumbled on the place during a trip up the Napa Valley, from Napa to Calistoga, with a side trip through Yountville to worship at the altar of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. There was no chance of getting a reservation at what many chauvinists consider the world’s greatest restaurant (they have obviosly never been to Hong Kong Barbecue on South Federal Boulevard in Denver), but merely driving past the place and seeing a horde of sandaled and scruffy acolytes tending the organic garden across the street from the restaurant was enough to allow us to absorb some of the golden radiation.

It’s hard to miss the CIA: it sits fully visible from the highway, up a steep slope, a giant grey castle of a place, looking for all the world like one of Louis XIV’s government buildings.

The joint reeks of pretense and accomplishment: there’s nothing frazzled or abstract expressionist about it.

And there was nothing elastic about the guy who presented the demonstration. He was dolled up in his toque and his long white coat — remnants of a time long ago when refugees in an Orthodox monastery cooked for their protectors and adopted garb similar to the priests, only white in color.

This fellow was wound tight and zeroed in on the “right way” to make a tomato tart with basil sauce.

It was interesting — as much of it as I experienced.

The problem is I fell asleep during the class. As you, dear reader, know, I have an extraordinarily short attention span. If things don’t happen quickly, if there are plenty of distractions in the environment, I phase out and jump the track.

After a minute or two at any endeavor, I am diverted by noises, shiny objects, anything on the periphery of my vision. When confined to a seat for more than a minute or so I begin to twitch and shift around. My mind wanders: I think about my favorite existential philosophers — especially Heidegger whom, I suspect, also suffered from ADD, and confused people in order to hide the fact — and breeds of dog. I easily enter a revery aboiut my Boston Terrier, Butch, who terrified me when I was 12. I begin to hear songs in my head and conjure images of Myron Florn and Mitch Miller.

At the CIA, the instructor set out on task and I stayed with him for a bit. Then I noticed the television sets above the kitchen in the amphitheater. I watched a guy punch buttons on the television control panel, then I doodled on my sample recipe. Pretty soon I was hearing a Rickie Lee Jones tune, then a ditty from a Steely Dan CD, a snippet of Imogen Heap, then … darkness.

I went to sleep. Just after Bruno, or whatever his name was, finished rolling out his tart dough.

I woke as Bruno chopped fresh basil for a sauce.

He was so finicky. I felt somehow second class. Perhaps third.

Ordinarily, I watch a cook, relate what he or she is doing to something I’ve done in the past, make the necessary mnemonic connections in order to download the basic scheme to the personal hard drive, then calculate whatever variation I intend to produce once I hit my own kitchen.

This time, I was lost.

Oh, sure, I’ve made a bunch of tarts in my time, but I really wanted the model from Bruno, from the CIA. If I’m going to subject myself to perfection, I want to get something substantial from the experience. Something I can toy with, in my imperfect way.

I turned to Kathy to ask a few questions. She was fast asleep. She had consumed too much sparkling wine down the road, then ingested a massive sandwich in St. Helena. She was like a python that swallows a small deer: Only a semicomatose state will allow for proper digestion.

When the demonstration ended, Bruno sliced up a couple tarts and everyone in the amphitheater tromped down to the counter to get a nibble.

It was just fine.

But, I was peeved. Now, instead of making an immediate jump from what I had seen to my version, I would have to make the darned thing according to the recipe and go from there.

Back home, I set to work, reading from my complimentary CIA recipe. Several key words are obscured by clumsy doodles.

I preheat the oven to 375.

I take out the food processor and put 1 1/2 cups flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon kosher salt into the bowl. I add 6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces. I pulse until the mix is crummy. Pulsing the blade of the processor, I slowly add an egg beaten with 3 tablespoons of cold water. I pulse until the dough starts to come together then I remove the dough to a sheet of plastic wrap, form it gently into a disk and pop the disk into the fridge for 45 minutes to an hour.

The sauce is simple. A mess of basil (oops, excuse me… 1 packed cup of fresh basil leaves) is finely chopped. To the basil is added a half cup extra virgin olive oil, 2 teaspoons white vinegar, 2 teaspoons water and salt and pepper to taste. Voila.

Once the dough is chilled, it is rolled out to 1/8-inch thickness, set in a tart pan and stippled with a fork. The tart is blind baked for 25 minutes (I use dried beans atop parchment). It is removed, the beans taken away and the now matte surface of the dough is brushed with egg (one beaten egg and a pinch of salt). Back into the oven it goes for another 10 minutes.

While the crust is baking, I halve a pint of cherry tomatoes (actually I use what are called “grape tomatoes,” just as sweet as cherry tomatoes, only harder to cut in half). I cut the tomatoes by holding a number of the little buggers in place with the palm of my left hand while, with my erratic knife skills, slicing the lot with a stroke of the blade parallel to the cutting board and, more importantly, to my hand.

The tomatoes are mixed with two cloves garlic, sliced very thinly, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, a teaspoon of sugar and salt and pepper to taste.

When the tart’s 10 minutes in the oven pass, the oven is turned down to 325. The tomato mix is spread atop the tart dough and the whole shebang is baked for another 40 minutes.

Cooled to room temp, wedges are served with the basil sauce spooned at the diner’s leisure.

Easy.

And decent.

But capable of a fix.

I can’t help myself. Sorry, Hazel.

Next time, I think I’ll add another tablespoon of butter to the dough, and I’ll refrigerate it a bit longer. I’ll amp up the amount of cheese by at least half, maybe double it. I’m also toying with the notion of slipping some type of pork product into the tomato mixture. Perhaps some pancetta, sautéed with a teensy amount of finely diced shallot or white onion. Maybe a touch of julienne of prosciutto or, horrors, a super-fine julienne of a hard salami. Perhaps I’ll work lemon juice into the sauce in place of vinegar.

I’ll do that next time.

And next time I go to a demonstration with an anal-retentive chef, I’ll try to stay awake.

Perhaps if I hum something by Led Zeppelin …

This story was posted on August 2, 2013.