When did you start cooking?
It started with a birthday gift from a neighbor when I turned 10 years old. A family friend gave me a cookbook – probably something she grabbed on the way out the door because she had forgotten to get a gift – and I immediately started making its recipes.
I was born and raised in the Midwest in a standard “meat-and-potatoes” family, so for me, cooking was a way to try new things that weren’t necessarily being made at our family dinners. It helped that my parents always encouraged me and my brothers to eat different foods – even if they didn’t eat them themselves.
When did cooking become a serious hobby?
By the time I finished college, I had read through enough recipes and gained enough skills to create my own recipes on the fly. Next, I wanted to learn about the science of cooking; in following a recipe, you’re following a protocol, but I wanted to know why the protocol was that way. I started to play around with recipes, and – partially inspired by Alton Brown’s television show “Good Eats” – tracked my “experiments” in the kitchen. It was just the scientist in me.
What is your favorite cuisine to cook?
I like to cook new things – I constantly am searching for new ideas and new flavors, and I eat pretty much any type of cuisine. One day, I might have a beef brisket on my smoker for 20 hours and have a barbecue. The next night, I might be prepping vegetables and making a broth for a Japanese shabu-shabu at home. Another night, I might go to a party and I’ll make a batch of gougères cheese pastries to take. I have expanded to cocktails, as well; instead of bringing a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer to a gathering, I invent a cocktail and I bring that instead.
I enjoy experimenting with many different types of dishes and cuisines, but I do have a rotation of “signature” crowd-pleasing dishes that I make a few times each year, like my lobster bisque. Living in Massachusetts, I can get lobsters easily and everyone loves it. People also enjoy when I make what I call “filet mignon meatballs.” I sous-vide chunks of beef tenderloin until they have a texture reminiscent of a good meatball. I toss those in black pepper and flash-sear them in a smoking-hot pan. Next, I deglaze the pan with cognac, add a homemade beef broth and heavy cream, and let the sauce reduce. I toss all of this together so that I have, essentially, a super-fancy version of Swedish meatballs. No matter how many pounds of that I make for a party, I never have enough. It’s gone in a flash.
Are there any challenging dishes on your cooking “bucket list?”
Recently, I set a personal challenge of perfecting pastries and desserts. I don’t eat dessert much, so I tend not to bake often. However, in the last year, I’ve dedicated my time to expanding my repertoire in that realm. Fortunately, my skillset for French sauces has served me well and transferred to making various forms of custards, so I have been making several types of custard pies recently. I’m experimenting with laminated dough like puff pastry, too.
I’m also in the process of exploring the wide world of meringue – studying the differences between French, Italian, and Swiss meringues, learning about the roles that acids and heat play in the process, and breaking down the individual components so I can tweak them for my exact purposes. That’s probably why I’ve been making a lot of custards … I’ve got to do something with all those leftover egg yolks.
Where do you find inspiration for your adventures in the kitchen?
Because I’m interested in learning why a recipe is written the way it is, my favorite sources are typically recipes that are written to teach you about the process, the ingredients, and – again – the science of cooking. J. Kenji López-Alt, a chef and food writer, has a great book called The Food Lab, which is a compendium and expansion of articles he published on websites like Serious Eats. He unravels the science of home cooking, breaking a recipe down into its different components, and sometimes spending four pages describing an experiment about how different pots and pans transfer heat.
If I’m looking for new, inventive techniques, I turn to the amazing cookbook Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. That’s how I learned most of what I know about sous-vide cooking, vacuum compression, and other modern techniques. Anything written by the chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller is fantastic. I also have experimented chemically, using different salts and ingredients to act as emulsifiers, so I have made my own American-style cheese that melts perfectly.
For desserts, I think Stella Parks’ BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts is required reading.
What do you enjoy most about the act of cooking?
Honestly, it’s sharing it with friends and family. That’s also probably why I like learning techniques from all over the world; everyone really bonds and connects when you share a good meal and a good drink.
Food is a constant across all cultures – we all have special foods for holidays, birthdays, and religious events. If you’re planning a wedding, for instance, you’re likely going to spend just as much time thinking about the food and the cake as you will thinking about almost anything else. And when graduate students successfully defend a thesis, what do we do to celebrate? We eat cake and drink something bubbly. Food is a social thing.
If you recall the fondest memories in your life, inevitably, they will involve food. I love when a friend remembers something from a barbecue we hosted three years ago; it makes me happy to be a part of that.
This question probably has an obvious answer, but how do your friends, family, and colleagues feel about your hobby?
I would say they’re happy about it. It’s connected us a lot. When I was a postdoc in Boston, we had 17 international trainees. Everyone had a different country of origin, but food united us. For example, I would ask, “Oh, you’re from Sweden. What’s your favorite Swedish dish?” Then I would research that dish and learn how to make it. My South Korean friend loved coming over for my version of hot pot but loved eating American barbecue with us, as well. Cooking has been a great way to connect with each other and share memories.
Do you think there is any overlap between the skills you use in cooking and the skills you use in your hematology/oncology career?
At my heart, I am a teacher and a student, and teaching and learning has been an important part of both of these pursuits. I share the same passion for teaching my students and trainees in my classes and lab that I share with my friends and family when they come over to eat.
This October, I’m hosting my fifth annual bacon-tasting event. Years ago, I started learning about various types of bacon, like how different pig breeds or types of smoking produce different flavors. At the same time, I was learning about Scotch and the full gamut of flavors available. That led me to the first annual tasting, where I prepared 12 different varieties of bacon from all over the world, paired with 12 different single-malt whiskies. I also produced an accompanying handout that explained where each product was from and included a space for people to take notes as we discussed the different breeds of pigs and preparation techniques.
It has grown since then: At the third annual event, I even had PowerPoint slides that I broadcast on my TV as I brought out each course. Now, in its fifth year, we have learned about pretty much every type of bacon that’s out there, so I have turned to creating a 13-course menu, with each course incorporating bacon in some way. I share the menu before the dinner and ask every guest to pair a wine with his or her assigned course. Again, it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to learn from and teach each other.
Disclaimer: When home cooking for a party, I rarely use precise measurements. Everything listed in this recipe is an approximation, so use your best judgment. Sauce too thick? Add some more cream – or cognac, if you prefer! Not enough salt? Add some. Meat not tender enough? Keep all the meat and sauce slowly simmering in a crockpot until tender. More than likely, if you are reading this, you are a hematologist – I trust you’ll figure it out.
Yield: Never enough
Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 4.5 hours
Special Equipment: Sous vide – or repurposed water bath from the lab
- 3 pounds beef tenderloin (or equivalent filet mignon
steaks) cut into 1.5-inch cubes
- ½ cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1/8 cup soy sauce
- 3 anchovies
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- ½ cup cognac or brandy
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- Preheat a sous-vide water circulator to 145°F (63°C).
- To make the marinade, in a blender combine the Worcestershire, soy sauce, anchovies, brown sugar, tomato paste, Dijon, garlic and vinegar, and blend until a smooth mixture is formed. Or, just buy some A1 sauce and move to step 3.
- Combine the marinade and the cubes of beef into a vacuum sealer bag or use a ziplock and the water displacement method to remove air, and seal. Place the bag in the water bath and cook for 4 hours. The purpose is to not only cook the meat but slightly change the texture to be reminiscent of meatballs.
- Remove the meat from the bag, pat dry with paper towels, and place on a cooling rack over a sheet pan. Lightly salt the surfaces of the cubes and apply a generous amount of black pepper. Preheat oil in a pan until just smoking and flash-sear the meat cubes, turning occasionally. Set aside.
- Carefully deglaze the pan with cognac and heat until the alcohol smell is gone. Or, if guests are already there, light the alcohol on fire for dramatic effect.
- Add the heavy cream and reduce to about half. Combine with the meat, coating all the cubes with the sauce, and serve right away. Alternatively, place in a slow cooker set on warm and set out for the party, stirring occasionally.