Cook leaned over the counter and scattered a blizzard of salt over a tray of meatballs. "Salt is the key," he instructed. "You need enough to make all the flavor in the meat brighter, but not so much that people wonder what you are trying to cover up."
Cook mentions salt at least twice a day. I think the repetition is pointless since the pasta he made us on his first day proved the point once and for all. But a look around the Stoned Soup kitchen shows that salt isn't the only difference between the pros and the amateurs. The visible difference is that Cook works clean. You can tell that Leslie has been cooking because something is not put away after. A jar lid on the counter, a pan left on the stove or a wrapper discarded by the sink are her signatures. Jennifer forgets to turn things off. We have gone through several waffle irons, paid high gas bills after the oven ran over the weekend and scrapped burnt crust off the slow cooker thanks to Jennifer's absent mindedness. I like to "feed the dog". In the days when Lute the Wonder Dog was on patrol, I could chop vegetables with wild abandon, secure in the knowledge that the flying bits would never hit the floor. Lute could detect falling food from three rooms away, launch into motion and snap up a falling carrot before I even knew I dropped it. She passed away a year ago, and I miss her every time I have to get the broom out. Of course, there is no mistaking Frank's signature - every dish in the kitchen is covered in unnamable goo and haphazardly stacked far and wide. The pantry spills out onto the kitchen floor. Strange smells bubble up from the grey grunge filling the sink. Thousands of colors paint the inside of the microwave and some sort of contraband is hidden in the drawer under the stove.
Cook is another case altogether. While he works there are no messy mixing bowls in the sink, no stains on the stovetop, no onion ends next to the cutting board and no disordered appliances fill the counters. He manages this with an easy efficiency that resembles magic. The salt flew randomly through the air, but every grain landed on the ground meat. He dipped a tray of rolls in melted Buerre Vert, slipped the tray in the oven and with a wipe of his towel, there is no trace of mess. He pulled a basket of fries from hot oil and by the time I finished sprinkling truffle salt on them, the fryer was move out of the way to cool and there were no traces of oil to be found. He is a miracle of cleanliness and order.
There is a griddle on the stove and everything Cook needs is within reach. The meatballs are on a cool tray, the rolls are toasting in the oven, the fries are in a bowl in a warm corner next to the stove and a plate of neatly arranged cheese, pickles, onions and sauces is at hand.
Cook put his hand a few inches over a large griddle to see that it was scorching hot. His experience is enough to verify that the griddle is ready. While he reached for the meatballs, he told me that you can test the heat by flicking some water on the griddle. If it dances around, the surface is hot enough. He placed a few of the meatballs on the griddle and smiled at the satisfying sizzle. Then he did something shocking. He took a spatula from the jar on the counter and mashed the meatballs into flat patties.
"Ahhh!" I screamed, horrified. "If you mash the meat like that you'll squeeze out all the juice!"
Cook flashed his pitying face and pointed at the frying meat. "Do you see any juice?"
It was true. Tiny drops of fat had begun to render in little moats around each patty, but not juice was flowing. Cook explained that you can't squeeze juice from cold meat. Not only would the smashed patty be juicy, the greater contact from pressing it to the pan would caramelize the outside to make a delicious salty crust.
The rich smell of grilled meat was not only evidence of great technique, it also spoke to the quality of the ingredients. Cook insists that you have to know your providers to be sure you are getting the highest quality products. I stopped him right there. The last time he got on this subject, I learned about how the farmer manages his pastures to give the best food to his cows, how he inspected the animals every day to monitor their health, how he exercised them carefully to give the meat the perfect mix of toned muscle and fat. This was going great until he mentioned the name of the cow. That was too much for me. I like eating meat and knowing that the animals are well treated is nice, but once the animal had a name, I started giving serious thought to becoming a vegetarian. Not serious enough though - I still eat meat, I just avoid becoming friends with my food.
The rest of the meal was just as local, but a little easier to think about. The fries came from potatoes grown up in Skagit County on an organic farm run by a former Microsoftie who prefers dirt under his finger nails to carpal tunnel syndrome. The onions were from Walla Walla. The cheese came from a dairy Woodinville who hires college girls to tend the curds while they read their text books. He claims that his milk maids make the smartest cheese in the northwest.
The salt, working clean, great ingredients and great technique raise even a simple slider to a gourmet tour de force. Cook pulled the patties from the grill at the perfect moment of medium rare and began platting. Three rolls went on each plate (He likes odd numbers, it has something to do with Japanese training). The meat settled on the buttery toasted roll. One slider got a heap of grilled onions and mushrooms (Frank raised these himself in the basement). Another was dressed with teriyaki sauce and a thin pineapple slice (flown in with a chef friend). The last got a slice of cheese and a slice of bacon (The pig was named Benjamin. Cook can be a dick sometimes.)
We enjoyed our sliders with tall glasses of iced tea on the front porch. One of the neighbors stopped by for a few fries and to gossip about the Wilsons' feud with the Jansens. Other neighbors drifted by enjoying the pleasant summer evening. Cook passed out a little amuse bouche of tomato and cheese to spread the luxury around. There's nothing like burger night in the Stoned Soup kitchen.