1: The Case for Paper

Congratulations! You fell for my devious plan to harvest your personal email addresses! I kid, of course, but for a moment it felt like that’s what I had done when I started seeing them all as you signed up. Which I thank you for greatly.

As I said before, I have no idea what form The Plate Cleaner will eventually take, so I’ll be trying out a bunch of things. If there’s something you particularly like, let me know.

One of my favourite sections of The New York Times Magazine is “Letter of Recommendation,” wherein someone recommends something that is not at all obscure or that it possibly never occured to you that it was a thing. Golfing with strangers, Treasure Island, ginger gum—anything is a possible subject. It’s not an attempt to monetize web traffic via Amazon affiliate kickbacks like “The Strategist” is for New York Magazine or half of the content on Buzzfeed at any moment. It’s simply an earnest apprecation of a thing. I often find myself mentally composing my own letters about subjects like “Booking the table for 4 before you know who you’re eating with,” or “Quality luggage and footwear.” So instead of mentally writing one, I decided to physically write one.

Printing Out Recipes

The first recipes I cooked from were from cookbooks like The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, and The Silver Palate New Basics. Or handwritten ones from my father for chili and jambalaya that I copied into the pages of a filofax that has gone missing in the house somewhere, much to my dismay. Once I started cooking more frequently, my cookbook shelf started expanding. James McNair’s Rice. (I really want to learn and write more about James McNair some day.) Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking—A Simple Art. Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. And that hasn’t really changed much since.

What has changed is how often I cook from cookbooks. It’s almost never.

It’s the Internet’s fault, of course. When sites like Epicurious came on the scene and as legacy publishers like the New York Times started putting their massive recipe archives online, I would print recipes out at work and bring them home to cook from, shoving them into a plastic folder afterwards.

Before that, it had never occurred to me that I could write in a cookbook. Probably a hangover from high school textbooks you had to return at the end of the year, mark-free. But a basically free printout? Write away.

Now my cookbooks are marked not just with tomato sauce stains and water damage, but notes about what worked well, what didn’t work, and what to keep in mind for future attempts at a recipe. It’s a practice I can’t recommend enough. And it would be all the more useful if I cooked from my cookbooks more often.

For the past few years, the recipes I cook from are almost all on my phone (or, previously, my iPad, RIP.) usually from Serious Eats, the Times’ excellent app, or Bon Appetit, although I find myself less inclined to visit that site much these days. Cookbooks get read on the couch, but when I’m stuck for what to make right now, I’m usually searching online.

Cooking from your phone, as I’m sure you’ve experienced yourself, is a pain. You can choose to kill your battery and set your phone so it doesn’t go to sleep or you can try unlocking it with messy fingers that smear onion juice all over the touchscreen, which won’t activate anyway.

Or you could just print the damn thing out. I did it for the first time in years recently and I will keep doing it. These days, I’m only cooking for one or two. Unless I want to be eating, say, cabbage rolls all week, I’m constantly needing to divide quantities given in recipes written to feed four, six, or eight. (Side note: I ate cabbage rolls four times this week.) And, inevitably, in the heat of the action there are one or two quantities that I forget to divide. And then all kinds of remedial action is required. But with a printout, I can cross out all the given quantities and write in the correct reduced amounts. I can underline and mark up to emphasize steps. And I can tape it to the upper cupboards (with the low-adhesive painter’s tape you should be using to label and date everything in your fridge), so it’s right in front of me when I need it. And it’s not taking up counter space. When the prep is finished, I pull the printout down and stick it to the wall beside the stove.

Is it the most environmentally sensitive way to cook?No, although I’m finding more and more recipes are formatted to print as a single page. But in the year and a half since I’ve bought my printer, I’ve probably used one quarter of a standard pack of printer paper, so it’s not driving my paper consumption through the roof. Plus, I just hold on to the printout for the next time I want to make it again. It’s also possible that by running my phone’s battery down less, it’s preventing (a very small amount of) power from being consumed.

Not using my phone is really the greatest upshot of all of this. When your recipe is on your phone, you are going to look at your phone. Which means you’re going to see what emails have arrived and your Facebook notifications. And cooking is going to become like every other activity of your day: a series of constant interruptions and distractions. With your printouts taped up and your phone in your pocket (Apron pocket for me for the insta stories. Thank God I don’t have to unlock it to take photos.) you are free to focus. To step out of the your day and the pandemic and for thirty minutes or two hours or however long it takes for that goddamn sauce to reduce, be completely in the moment.

What I’m Consuming…

  • I’ve made this recipe for “Spiced Indian Cabbage” twice in the last ten days or so and will be making a regular part of my repertoire. I love a new way to cook cabbage. The instructions are very bare-bones an don’t mention when to add the garam masala in the ingredients list. Perhaps I will make it clearer in a later issue once I’ve got more of a handle on it. For the meantime, adding a splash of lemon juice at the end would give it a nice hit of acidity.

  • How did I wait so long to start listening to Home Cooking, the podcast by Samin Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway? Salt Fat Acid Heat and Song Exploder together? I’m only one episode (of eleven so far) in, but I’m sold. Hearing Samin’s amazing laugh again is something I didn’t realize how much I had missed, especially in these rather laughless days.

  • I’ve also made Joe Rosenthal’s hoagie rolls twice in the last little while. Joe is a very thorough recipe writer. His Instagram account is a good one to follow, especially the stories, which often hold prominent people in the world of food to account for shitty behaviour.

You might have seen that over the weekend I called out Momofuku Toronto and David Chang for this Instagram story.

For a restaurant to take a Japanese name and then make fun of Japanese pronunciation was just galling. And the fact that Japanese is notoriously easy to pronounce layered on the ignorance. Within a day David Chang had reached out to me directly to apologize and to assure that he was both pissed and dealing with it. Shortly after that, the woman who wrote the post, herself a woman of colour, emailed to apologize as well. No excuses offered. They both said it was wrong and vowed to do better, which is all I could really ask of them. It was a great example of how to own the mistakes we all will inevitably make when it comes to dealing with race. It was also a great example of how even people of colour can internalize whiteness and turn it against each other.

What’s on the menu…

We are doing our part and have been limiting our trips to the grocery store to once a week since the start of the pandemic. (I don’t mean to suggest we’re special or unique in doing this.) So every week Beth and I hash out a meal plan for the week.

Over that time we’ve gotten better at overlapping ingredients so we don’t end the week with a whole bunch of partially-used vegetables. Here are some of the things we’ve got coming up:

  • Spam kimchi fried rice - Got the recipe from Mei, the girlfriend of one of my oldest friends and newsletter consigliere, Chris Frey. She makes it with tuna, but I wasn’t really feeling that, so I made it with ground pork, which was excellent. When I needed to add to a Costco order to get free shipping, a 3-pack of Spam did the trick. Really looking forward to this.

  • Guelph Soup - That’s a story for another time. Having it with BLTs, for which I will probably make another batch of Joe’s hoagie rolls.

  • Okonomiyaki - After all that fuss, how could we not have it?

  • And some kind of take out. It has been our tradition for as long as I can remember to order in on Fridays. We’ve ordered a lot using apps, even knowing that they take an awful cut from restaurants. A couple of weeks I picked Beth up at work and we drove directly to Brickyard Barbecue in Etobicoke to pick up some pulled pork and ribs. The route WAZE put us on wended us from Yonge and St. Clair through downtown Toronto to the QEW. Neither of us had been through the financial district since at least March. It was reassuring to see it was all still there. The next Friday we drove down to Le Swan to pick up dinner.

    It was the first time I’d set foot in a restaurant since March. Even though it was just to tap a credit card and grab a bag, it was great. At that point, we were done (as much as possible) with Uber Eats and Skip the Dishes and the like. We’ll go and reassure ourselves the city still exists and pick it up ourselves.

I’m too lazy to set up email for the platecleaner.com right now, so if you would like to send me any feedback, please contact me at here.