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Quarantine Cooking and How it Helped My Mixes

Well this got in just under the wire didn't it! I suppose to preface, we need to take ourselves back to the 14th of March, 2020. Berklee, as well as many of the other Boston Area colleges had abruptly ended the in person semester, the infection rates were skyrocketing, and a lot of people felt like their world was crumbling around their ears. I entered this new situation apprehensive not because it was new, but because I wasn’t exactly sure how I would conduct myself and I’m proud (and honestly a bit relieved) to say that I was a rock for a lot of people and I was, for the most part, unshaken by the new environment. I wasn’t made of stone though, the stress of finals combined with the new situation and the cabin fever got to me once or twice and left me a depressed log on the bed for an hour. This notwithstanding, I was able to handle it gracefully and keep going with work and life. I counted myself lucky that I was given the opportunity to get stronger, even if I was worried about the true outcome.

In any case, those who have talked to me in person at all since March will tell you that over the quarantine period I caught a bug, but not one that made me ill. In fact I’m very thankful that I was not ill over that period of time, as my senior recital would’ve been harder by a factor of four at least. This bug, rather than a virus was the cooking bug and my god, did I ever go headfirst into the deep end with it. I cooked a meal for five people every day for a period of three weeks and it go to the point where I was dreaming about chopping onions. This experience, while a net benefit to my cooking skills, also gave me a bit of an epiphany. A large portion of my favorite audio engineers, and many of my audio teachers as well all love cooking because the process reminds them of mixing. Building layers of flavor, balancing spices, you get the idea. I noticed that the more I cooked, the more I saw an uptick in the quality of my mixes.

I have no way to foresee if such an experience would provide you with a similar experience, but even if it doesn’t directly help your mixes, if it gets you seriously cooking then I see this as a win. I won’t provide specific recipes here, as these are readily available from the Internet and from your family. This is more about techniques that are useful when negotiating these recipes so that you don’t freak out about too many pots on the boil so to speak. Let’s dig in!

1. Garlic

This flavorful bulb is an essential component in many popular dishes presents a problem to many people who aren’t too familiar with cooking. It separates into cloves that are encased in an onion-like skin that is tricky to remove. Sure you could stand there and mindlessly peel the skin away or you can use a quicker way. If you put the flat of your knife blade on top of the clove and hit it with a closed fist the garlic will almost literally jump out of its skin. This will save you quite a lot of time and effort.

2. Chopping Vegetables

Consistently sized chunks of vegetables especially onions are very important when it comes to making appetizing dishes. Fortunately there is an easy way to attain this whether the intent is a rough chop or a fine chop and all it takes is a little knowledge of knife work. Lets take the example of an onion, as this can be an issue affecting the overall dish. After removing the skin, slice the onion in half from 12o’clock to 6o’clock (or rather from stalk to end). Take one of the halves and position it such that it cannot roll and the taper of the onion is towards your dominant hand. While holding the thickest part of the onion insert your knife vertically approximately 1 inch from your hand and move it down across the length of the half. Repeat this at intervals of your choosing across the onion until you cannot repeat it anymore, then very carefully turn your knife 90°, put your palm on the top of the half and slowly move the blade through the middle of the onion. Then chop vertically at intervals of your choosing. This will result in cubes the exact size you want. With a bit of practice you can get it really quick and you can use this method with almost anything from peppers, to cloves of garlic, to tomatoes, and even carrots and fennel bulbs.

3. Reverse Searing

This is a method for cooking particularly thick cuts of steak like tomahawk, rib eye, and sirloin but also for roasts, pork, chicken, and turkey. As the name implies, rather than using the usual method for cooking steak on a grill (as hot and as quickly as possible), we add a bit of extra time in order to prioritize the internal temperature of the meat before the sear. Let me explain, if you just rub a big hunk of meat (greater than or equal to an inch in thickness) around on a hot grill until it’s brown and crusty you’ll still have it raw in the center because despite how hot the grill might be, the heat wont penetrate to the degree that you want. This will result in a steak that is cooked “blue rare” which is absolutely an acquired taste. So in order to combat this, we cook the meat with only the indirect heat of the grill for a longer time until your thermometer reads your desired internal temperature then you sear for those lovely grill marks and crust that you like so much. Generally for the average steak of this thickness you want to set your grill so it’s reading about 200-225°F and place it on a cold part of the grill for 45 minutes. Make sure to keep the cover down during this process and make your temperature readings as quick as possible. Now, you can use horizontal or vertical separation from the heat source but for most grills it’s easiest to use horizontal. Once your ideal internal temperature has been reached, rub some olive oil on the part of the grill you’re going to sear on and increase the temperature to 750-800°F. Move the steak over to the oiled part and sear for approximately 1 minute per side for 4 minutes. It’s very important that once you put the steak back on the grill you do not touch it in order to let the grill do its work. Once complete do not let it rest and slice immediately. Taste for additional seasoning (which you did before even going near the grill) and serve.

4. Planks

Cooking with planks is a great way to get a lot of mileage out of fish and vegetables on a grill. Grilling on a plank is exactly what it sounds like, you take a plank and soak it in water for an hour or so then put it on the grill and put the food on top of that. Lower the cover and check every 5 or 6 minutes or so for 15 minutes. The type of food will dictate the type of wood you use but you can easily find premade grilling planks in your hardware store that will normally have what meat they taste best with listed on the packaging. For fish (salmon is a favorite in my house) cedar is an excellent choice. The grill cooks the food not only through indirect heat like the reverse sear method but it also heats it through the plank so that you can cook the food quickly and not have it fall apart or stick to the grill unnecessarily. Additionally the smoke of the burning wood will impart its own flavor to the meat while cooking giving your gas or charcoal grill the effect of a smoker. It may sound subtle but it’s a wonderful quality to add to your dish. When cooking with planks you’ll find it a good idea to keep a spray bottle full of water on hand in case the plank catches fire, if when you check the food you see a flare up just give it a few squirts and it will go away. You also don’t need an abundance of heat, 400°F will work for most things. Additionally if you’re cooking food prone to rolling (asparagus, Brussels sprouts, sausages, burgers, etc.), place your soaked plank on your hot grill for a few minutes so that it bows upwards then flip it over creating a nice trough in which your food can sit.

5. Building Layers

This final point is as recipie-ish as I’m going to get here but it’s rather important to understanding this concept. Lets take the context of a Boeuf Bourguignonne, a rather complicated but hearty and full-bodied French beef stew. The first step is to sear some decently lean chunks of chuck or rump steak in a stewpot or a casserole then remove them preserving the fat and the brown fond on the bottom of the pot. This is flavor level 1. We then add some blanched bacon or salted pork to the pot to sear as well. Stirring regularly and scraping the bottom of the pot so that some of the fond of the beef sticks to the bacon and the bacon leaves its flavor on the bottom of the pot. This is flavor level 2. When all meat is done, add your vegetables and a bit of flour and cook together scraping yet more of that beef/bacon essence onto the vegetables. This is flavor level 3. This is then braised in a 375°F oven for 2 hours. We then negotiate caramelizing some shallots in butter and sugar, and then we do a final assembly. Remove from the oven and taste for seasoning, stir in the bacon, the shallots, and the mushrooms. Cover and simmer for another 15 minutes with all elements added and any herbs you care to add at this point (just fish them out before serving). This is flavor level 4. Serve in the pot with fresh parsley. Serve with garlic bread and wine. This is flavor level 5.

So it goes for mixes. Organize everything and start with the faders down and routing set. Start with a basic volume and spatial balance. Then start adding tone shaping elements and dynamic processing while scraping up and enhancing the original balance. Let that braise while you add aromatics in the form of spatial effects like reverbs and delays (some of which are panned and all of which are EQed). Then assemble with bus processing and automation and serve with saturation, tape effects if appropriate, compression, subtle mix eq, and limiting.

To sum up, mixing and cooking for me have become almost one in the same. It’s an art that has its roots in science and can often be approached from either angle, and it involves the blending of flavors and building on a strong foundation. The real takeaway I had from this though is that any dish (read mix) can be improved with better gear and better environments but at the end of the day, proper technique, presentation, and knowledge of what plays nicely with what is the factor will elevate a dish with average ingredients to something great that can be enjoyed by whole families for generations to come. I hope this has inspired you to try your hand at cooking even as a hobby and I hope that this mixed metaphor has given you a new perspective on how I like to mix and perhaps given you a new way to try your hand at it yourselves.

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