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Fun factor

(article, Liz Crain)

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The first time that the chef and restaurateur John Gorham ate something I'd cooked was also the first time he came to my house. By then, in the summer of 2011, John was well known for his two restaurants in Portland, Oregon: Toro Bravo, a popular Spanish-inspired spot, and Tasty n Sons, a neighborhood brunch go-to. (He has since opened Tasty n Alder, a steakhouse-inspired eatery, in downtown Portland.) 

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I had been covering the Pacific Northwest food-and-drink scene for eight years, and I'd written the Food Lover's Guide to Portland. John and I planned to work together on a Toro Bravo cookbook, and things were happening fast; we'd secured a kick-ass agent to represent us and were working feverishly on a proposal that would go out to publishing houses later that year.

So I invited John, his wife, Renee Gorham, and the book's photographer, David Reamer, over to my house for an early-evening meeting. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Recipe testing for 'Toro Bravo' often became a social affair."]

Up until then, I'd brought John samples of homemade food and drink when we'd gotten together: a bottle of plum wine made from the Brooks plum tree in my front yard; some dandelion wine that I make every year with my friend and her daughter; a small package of homemade miso. He always thanked me and said that he liked them, but we never enjoyed them together, so I wasn't exactly sure how much he liked them. 

Honestly (and not surprisingly), I was a little nervous. Now John would see my crappy electric stove and my poor kitchen lighting — a cobbled-together, very-far-from-professional kitchen set-up. I got four new-to-me kitchen chairs that week, which helped. I cleaned the hell out of all of the counters and surfaces.

But what would I serve? I decided on a bunch of snacky food and drink, much of it homemade. After all, we weren't doing dinner — just an informal meet-up to talk shop. So I laid out a bunch of pickled things that I'd made, along with cured meats and cheeses, fruit from the yard, and roasted nuts, and we set to discussing the book. 

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As I turned away to open another bottle of wine, John asked, "Who made these pickled beets?" 

I couldn't tell what he thought of the beets by his tone, so I turned back to the table and gave it to him straight: "I did." 

“They're awesome," he said. "Super balanced.” 

Score!

John cares a great deal about pickled foods, as do I, and you'll get that if you read Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull. I would have been happy if he'd complimented anything I'd made, but the pickled beets meant a lot. (In fact, we've included the recipe for Toro’s pickled beets here.) The rest of the night was perfect — fun, in fact. Like so much of the project would be.

We spent two and a half years putting the book together. Probably half of that time was spent testing and writing the recipes, and the other half on drawing out and writing the narrative parts. The first 90-plus pages are stories parsed into a timeline that covers John's itinerant childhood — he went to 21 schools before he graduated from high school — and his coming up as a chef. 

[%image sangria float=right width=400 caption="Liz likes using the White Sangria recipe from Toro, substituting her homemade plum wine."] Throughout the entire book-making process, we stayed true to John’s number-one rule at home and at his restaurants: Have fun. 

We went to Spain for the book for five days in late 2012 with Toro’s chef de cuisine, Kasey Mills; Toro’s charcuterie manager, Josh Scofield; David Reamer; and our McSweeney’s editor, Rachel Khong. We averaged 15 food-and-drink-focused stops every day, partied till the wee hours every night, and woke up after a few hours of sleep for more. Fun! 

John and I took long Friday lunches for months to slurp noodles, eat sushi, share curries, and talk story for the narrative parts of the book. Fun! 

We had eat-drink-and-be-merry Sunday-night dinner parties at John’s home for a good deal of the recipe testing for the book. All of it: tremendously fun.

For years John has hosted Sunday-night dinners at his home as a way for his oldest daughter, Ruby, to enjoy meals shared around a table with friends and family. It’s also a way for John to cook foods and cuisines beyond his restaurants — a way for him to try out new dishes and recipes. 

Early on, John had the bright idea to turn the tables for the book’s recipe testing. We’d invite those friends and family that John had been cooking for for years over for Sunday-night dinners, and have them cook recipes from the book. John would be there to answer questions, I’d take pages of notes, and David would photograph it all. 

[%image dog float=left width=300 caption="Lots of testers (and tasters) worked on the recipes."]In fact, many of the photos in the book were taken during those Sunday-night recipe-testing sessions, which were super social, wildly fun, and highly effective. 

Recipe-testing for cookbooks, as I understand it, is usually a rather rigid and isolated affair. Established and well-known authors warned us against such a unorthodox way of recipe testing. They told us that we should take it much more seriously — that, with all of the socializing and merrymaking, things would get lost in translation. 

We did with that advice what we did with most of the advice that we got for the book early on: We smiled, nodded, and then went about doing exactly what we’d originally envisioned. We did the book our way 100 percent, and we’re all really proud of that. No compromises.

Although most of the recipe-testing for the book was done at John's home or at the restaurant, I also did a fair bit of testing in my own humble kitchen. One night, my friend Craig and I cooked up a big batch of the Salt Cod Fritters, along with the Aïoli, Avocado Salad, and White Sangria, and shared it with my housemate and her friend. Another night, my friend Rich and I cooked Toro’s Moorish Meatballs and Olive Oil Cake. Good times. (My current favorite recipes include the Harira, the Radicchio Salad, and that amazing white sangria.) 

Through it all, I learned so much — about writing and recipe-testing, sure, but also about cooking in general. I’m sure more will surface in the weeks and months to come, but this is what's percolating around my brain right now:

 How to make cocktails: Stir those composed primarily of spirits, and shake those that are primarily juice or another nonalcoholic liquid. (If you shake the former, it can bruise the spirits and bring out off-flavors.) 
 How to acquire kitchen equipment: Purchase pots and pans from restaurant-supply stores, or scavenge them from estate sales and thrift stores. (Forget all the super-spendy brands; they aren’t any better.)
 How to cook octopus so that it’s perfectly tender and delicious. (Don't worry, it's in the book.) 
 How to sweeten chicories: Bathe them in an ice-water bath to take the edge off their bitterness. (The bitterness is delicious to a certain degree, but softening that bite can be a good thing.)
 How Mugolio is made, and what the heck it's used for. (Dessert, anyone?)
 How much of a joy it is to have a jar of preserved lemons in the fridge. (Beyond the Toro recipes, I’ve used them in everything from soups and stews to deviled eggs, salad dressings, and hot sauces.)
 Ditto, for sherry vinegar. And I have a newfound appreciation for sherry, its parent ingredient.
 How to make the perfect sangria. And I discovered that I love Albariño wine. 
 How easy it is to brew beer. (I made the Toro Red — also in the book — with my brother last year, when I went home to Cincinnati for Christmas.)

So have at it, cooks! Just be sure you have fun in the process.

p(bio). A former Culinate columnist, Liz Crain* writes about food and drink in Portland, Oregon, and is an editor at Hawthorne Books.


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