The Art of Dining Out: Field Research

Though the primary theme of this blog is Practical Cooking, the ideas have to come from somewhere. In addition to idle daydreams about the perfect meal, the Practical Cook is a firm believer in research. I regularly check out cookbooks from the library, subscribe to two cooking magazines (it was three, RIP Gourmet), read cooking blogs, follow cooks and food writers on Twitter, and eat out with gusto.

Just the other evening, with the help of Complicated Vegetarian, TPC ordered almost the entire menu at an Indian restaurant that was recently opened by a passionate home cook. One more dish and an order of chapati arrived after this picture was taken.

Vimala's Curryblossom: One of Everything (Almost)

Vimala's Curryblossom: One of Everything (Almost)

And please meet the new love of my food life, uttapam. It’s like a cross between dosa and idli in texture and thickness, close cousin to the Scallion Pancake tradition in Chinese cooking, and topped with coconut chutney (sorry coconut haters, I love the stuff).

TPC's New Food Obsession: Uttapam

TPC's New Food Obsession: Uttapam

Earlier in the week, it was time for pizza. This slice is called “The Bermuda Triangle,” and comes topped with pineapple, pickled jalepeños, and feta cheese. It was like like a flavor face-punch. And so easy to replicate at home.

The Bermuda Triangle: Pineapple, Pickled Jalepenos, and Feta

The Bermuda Triangle: Pineapple, Pickled Jalepenos, and Feta

Out with the kids, Mexican. One day I’ll get organized and make tamales at home, but for now, I’ll dine out. The lesson learned here—my eldest likes both refried and ranchero style beans. So I can mix it up at Taco Night!

Spinach Tamale with Ranchero Beans and Rice

Spinach Tamale with Ranchero Beans and Rice

Dining out provides a great opportunity to:

  1. Try new dishes in relatively small quantities. This works great for kids, too. We pretend there just aren’t chicken nuggets on any menu. Be sure to offer them a taste of your dishes, even if they’re spicy or unpronounceable.
  2. Eat something you don’t want to make at home. For me, that’s anything fried and some desserts. Fried due to the mess involved, and because fried is crispier in a commercial setting. Desserts because I just can’t be left alone with an entire German Chocolate Cake, pan of brownies, or full-scale Banana Pudding.
  3. Enjoy the company of other people and the pleasure of being served. Remembering that there is joy to be found around the table is very important to appreciating all your meals more.
  4. Order something you’d never attempt to make at home. Even the bravest of us have limits. For me, it’s best to leave la lengua to the taco truck, and the incredibly complex authentic Chinese to the experts.
  5. Research new ideas. Chefs have good ideas and passion. Pay attention to the flavor combinations, the use of unfamiliar ingredients, and what you do and don’t like about your meal. Take those lessons home.

Clearly, I’ve got certain biases baked in here. I do try to skip chain restaurants in favor of Mom and Pop shops whenever possible. I tend toward cuisines from food traditions other than the one in which I was raised (but I will walk a mile for fried chicken, hush puppies, and pecan pie). And I attempt to balance price ranges—every day cannot be a white tablecloth restaurant day for Team Practical Cook.

When we eat out as a family, we try to do it on days where it can be an enjoyable experience for everyone. It’s important for the young ones to learn how to eat out with confidence, how to order, and how to behave. If they can’t do it that day, order take-out instead.

Most of all, enjoy your food. Slow down, taste it, and really think about what you’re eating. To quote Chef Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune (in quite a lively interview in the NYT): “I’m always very clear about what I’m hungry for, and what I’m not hungry for.” What great clarity to have and to strive for.

Coming up tomorrow, Fried Rice Recipe, featuring leftover Chinese take-out rice.

Share your field research! Post a comment, send an email (practicalcook at gmail dot com), Tweet (practicalcook).

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