A MOMENT WITH…Michael Ruhlman

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Michael Ruhlman is the author of nine books including Ratio, Charcuterie, and The Soul of a Chef, as well as the co-author of seven cookbooks written with notable chefs, including The French Laundry Cookbook.  He regularly writes about food for the New York TimesLos Angeles Times, on the web at Ruhlman.com and other food journals.  He has appeared as a judge on Iron Chef America, The Next Iron Chef and PBS’s Cooking Under Fire.

His latest book, the award winning ‘Ruhlman’s Twenty’, is available at Mac’s Backs locally and online to the world.  A fantastic book for every kitchen.

What is a typical day for you, how does your day unfold? My day used to be a lot more regular than it is now. When I was writing general nonfiction I would get up early and be at my desk at 7:30 and write until 11:30 and then be back at my desk at 3:00 and I’d write until 6:00 and… that’s how I wrote books…then by necessity I started to do all kinds of different things – writing cookbooks, making product, doing Internet commerce.  I have fragmented days now and I don’t have a routine day. But I do spend the first two hours of the day writing and after that it is whatever needs to be done – writing copy for Internet commerce, social networking (which I spend a lot of time doing and which as been very valuable).

However, I always like to make dinner for my family. I think that it is important that a family eats together – and that food is cooked in the house.

What are your favorite aspects of living in the Heights? What I love about living in Cleveland Heights is it’s proximity to everything you need and it’s scaled for pedestrians and not automobiles. Los Angeles is scaled for the automobile and it is spread out and sprawling and awful.  I can walk just about anywhere I need to go here – the grocery store, the library, Coventry. The only thing I can’t walk to is the Post Office, but other than that – I’m good.

I love the old houses.  I love the old street design, trees, affordability.  We live in a house that we couldn’t afford if we lived in Washington DC, Boston or any other bigger city. It has everything I could possibly want or need.

It is always been my belief that America has harmed itself by being a nation of vagabonds, by moving around and raising their families in series of disconnected homes.  I’ve only ever seen myself living in either New York, which I was never really happy in or living in Cleveland – my home.  It’s who I am.  It’s what I know. I know who I am – because I live here.

In the background, James (Michael’s son) nodded his head in affirmation as Michael spoke to me on the phone for our interview. (I was told)

If you could change anything about the Heights, what would it be?  I would not change anything. I would prevent old houses from being torn down. I would work to remove any blemishes on the city’s major architecture especially concerning the appalling architecture design that took over in the 1960’s.

One of the greatest things to happen to Cleveland Heights was that they didn’t put a freeway through it – which they wanted to do.  The only thing ‘difficult’ about Cleveland Heights is that it takes 15 minutes to get to any major freeway.  Some people think that’s an inconvenience but it’s really one of Cleveland Height’s greatest assets.  It wouldn’t be half of what it is today if they had put a freeway through it.

What is your favorite restaurant in town?  What’s the best thing on the menu? 

The Greenhouse Tavern – and I say that with such great respect for so many great chefs and restaurants in Cleveland.  From Lola to Fire, to Momocho to Flying Fig. Tonight we have reservations at Spice Kitchen & Bar on the west side, which I am looking forward to.

There are so many great restaurants but what I love about Greenhouse is that it’s just so original.  Jonathon Sawyer is such an exuberant cook, and his love of life comes through in the food. He is a force of nature and the food is just my favorite kind of food there is. He has a great beef tartar that is hand ground to order – served with fries and aioli.  They do a chicken fried lamb shoulder steak – you know that kind of thing is zany and delicious and wonderful.

I can’t say what the best thing on the menu is (it changes all the time) but my favorite dish because of it’s simplicity and it’s deliciousness is the foie gras with clams. Which they can’t take off the menu because people would become too angry!

When did you first have the ‘experience’ of a meal, of a combination of food?  It’s such an interesting question you ask. What a great question that is.  My dad grilled a lot, we grilled all year ‘round and I loved it when he grilled ribeyes. I loved the potatoes with them. We would also put Vidalia onions, when they were in season in the springtime, we would wrap them in foil and put them in the coals.  It was eating those meals, those fabulous fatty juicy delicious ribeye steaks with a baked potato with butter,and those grilled onions that I realized “Wow! – this is so great, the steak wouldn’t be nearly as good without the potato or without the grilled onion.”

I think I was fourteen or fifteen when I recognized that. I don’t think the quality of the food matters. Maybe it’s Dinty Moore’s beef stew you ate in the 70’s because your Mom was working and didn’t have time to make the real stuff.   So that Dinty Stew becomes your pet stone.  It’s the food itself, not the quality of the food.

If you could go back in history and have a meal with anyone, who would it be? Why? And what would you cook for them?  It would be Jesus Christ, because I have a lot of questions.  I would cook him an omelet and make him some really good bread.

What is the best thing about your job? There is no one best thing…but I guess the one best single thing is that I am in charge of my own time. I get to decide what I do, when I do it. I have always been a rogue – I’ve never been much of an employable person. So, I had to figure a way to be able to work for myself. I also always knew I wanted to be a writer, ever since I was in fifth grade.

The best part about my job is that it allows me to write for a living – to earn my daily bread through the thing I love to do most.  It’s what we all crave I think, and only a few of us are lucky enough to achieve.  But, I think if more people did what they loved – and followed through with it we’d have happier people – and the world would be better. I think we have stopped doing what we love.

You mentioned in your recent book, you always grab an onion when you grocery shop because you never want to be without on in the kitchen.  Anything else you always grab for?  

The shallot: It is a powerful and useful ingredient to have on hand. It really boosts the  flavor of so many different things and gives you great accessibility.

Fish sauce: It makes everything taste better without calling attention to itself. Of course, I put it in Thai chicken with macadamia nuts (for my daughter who love the dish at Lemon Grass in Cleveland Heights). But it also makes my tomato sauce taste better. That umami quality that is so excellent. It makes macaroni and cheese better – everything is alittle bit better with this umami ingredient.

What’s the most under rated yet ‘go to’ kitchen implement you use? The flat edged wooden spoon. Another great one that is unused, I just learned of this from Michael Simon is the plastic bowl scraper. Which now I always have say when I’m transferring minced onions to a pan, I just scoop them up with the scraper.  Someone gave one to me at a conference as their calling card. I am making kitchen tools with Mac Dalton (who also lives in Cleveland Heights) and I’m making one with my various ratios on it which we give out with our kitchen tools. That… and a BIG CUTTING BOARD. People hinder themselves by doing their prep work on too small a surface.

It’s not really about foie gras and clams. It’s about cooking at home and cooking at home means using a wooden spoon and using a wooden board that doesn’t hinder you.

For the beginner cook, where does one start?  

That’s really why I wrote “Ruhlman’s Twenty” to show anybody that cooking isn’t that hard and if you know just twenty basic things you can do just about anything. I would also encourage people to do the same recipe that they like over and over again and pay attention to the differences each time. I think too many people read a recipe, do it and then move on. This is something Thomas Keller always recommended to me and it’s advice I deem worth repeating.

 

What books are you reading at the moment? I am reading the galleys of my mentor of Reynolds Price. It was his last book, called Midstream.  He was in the middle of it when he died.That’s really why I wrote “Ruhlman’s Twenty” to show anybody that cooking isn’t that hard and if you know just twenty basic things you can do just about anything. I would also encourage people to do the same receipt that they like over and over again and pay attention to the differences each time. I think too many people read a receipt, do it and then move on. This is something Thomas Keller always recommended to me and it’s advice I deem worth repeating.

Patrick Melrose novels. They are very good but very difficult and grim.

Food wise, I just got and can’t wait to read Peter Kaminsky’s Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy (and Really Well).  Basically it’s about how a guy, a food lover such as myself – who hits middle age and realizes that his body just cannot get rid of the extra calories that it used to burn up easily and how he changed his eating to best maintain his satisfactions and yet eat more healthy.

What world topics are you most interested in? Food production.  Where our food comes from and how we get it, cook it and how we eat it.  That covers everything from climate to our families to our personal bodies and our personal health. We’ve taken food for granted for so long, it’s been so ubiquitous, so easy to get that we’ve forgotten how fundamental it is to our humanity. And, we have only realized how fundamental it is to our humanity once it started to make us sick and making the earth sick. Now we are paying attention to it.

World peace is also high up there!

I know you haven’t thought about breathing today, but if you weren’t able to breath – that would be pretty much the only thing you would be thinking about. We stop thinking about what we take for granted and we do so with food at our peril.

Who are your heroes in real life? My biggest hero is my Dad.

Thomas Keller is a culinary hero for he has never compromised his standards and has grown a business that deserves it’s accolades, and it’s prominence that has gone from employing 20 people to 1000 –  creating some of the finest food in the country and therefore the world, employed many and spreading a great ethic of hard work, of getting better every day, trying to do alittle better every day.  I would not be where I am with out Thomas Keller.

Do you have a motto you live by? No…I don’t have a motto… well a mantra, Yes.  Do what you love, do it well, do it all the time – and the world will be better. That’s pretty much all there is to it.  Be good to people.  Go out there and actively be good to people.  I could do better at that – I’m kind of a loner… Cook your own food for you and for your family, your friends and those you love.  Someone in your clan needs to be the cook.

Can you share with us a favorite comfort food receipt of yours? Poached eggs with spinach (more healthy and quite easy) or pasta carbonara.  (See below)

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Many thanks to Michael Ruhlman for sharing with us today.  Visit: http://ruhlman.com/ for further reading and information on the cooking world and Michael Ruhlman.

Poached egg on a bed of sautéed spinach, photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Poached Egg on Sauteed Spinach

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 shallot, sliced, chopped or minced
  • 1/2 to 3/4 pound spinach, rinsed
  • a few drops of vinegar or squeeze of lemon
  • 2 -4 eggs (one per person)
  • 1/2 baguette or other tasty bread
  • garlic clove, drizzle of olive oil or a little butter for the bread (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 – 4 glasses cold white wine (optional but recommended)

Put the shallot and butter in a large saute pan over high heat.  Fill a sauce pan with water and put it on to boil.  When the butter is melted and bubbling, give the shallots a stir, then add your spinach to the pan.  Use tongs to turn the spinach so that it cooks evenly.  Give it a three fingered pinch of salt and a few cranks of pepper.  When it’s three-quarters wilted, turn the heat to low and leave it alone. 

Put your bread in the toaster oven to toast (this may be the most complicated part of the cooking if your toaster oven is like mine, so prepare in advance if necessary).

When the water boils, crack your eggs into it and turn the heat to low.  Butter your toast (rub it with the sliced side of a garlic clove first if you want), or drizzle it with tasty olive oil.  Season your spinach with drops of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon.  Make a small bed on each plate.  Remove the eggs using a slotted spoon and when the white is congealed and the yolk is still soft, hold cloth or paper towel below the spoon to let water drain, then place the egg on the spinach. Finish the eggs with more salt and pepper.  Serve with the white wine.

 

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