Welcome to the first ever Burning Questions, your advice column for all things food and cooking. Wow, you guys have no shortage of things that vex you! Today, I wanted to start with three from readers Emily, Hali and Jane…
Q. How do you find those perfect vacation restaurants? Yelp? Google? I like to do some planning prior to a trip so we eat great meals, but I find the research so overwhelming. — Emily
A. I hear you, Emily! I’ve had no choice but to nail the formula here, mostly because I suffer from Vacation Meal Anxiety, that thing where you feel like every bite of food consumed while traveling has to deliver the optimum experience, packed not just with flavor and hyper-localness, but memories and meaning and joy. The syndrome is not curable, but it’s common and manageable. Here’s how I treat it:
Step 1: If we are headed to a city or a popular food destination, the first thing I do is check out the comprehensive archives at Bon Appetit City Guides. I wrote and edited stories for BA for years so I know how rigorous they are about vetting restaurants. They curate a tight list, and are generally pretty democratic about price points and vibes. After a quick cross-reference with an Eater Heat Map, I hand over the short list of names to my 15-year-old daughter, who plugs them into instagram. It’s kind of incredible how fast you can get a sense of a restaurant’s vibe and food from the photos and their followers (i.e. probably a good sign if, say, @inagarten is liking a place left and right). We examine the restaurant’s feed, but pay more attention to its tags, which offer more candid moments from customers.
Step 2: Enter whatever makes the cut into Resy or OpenTable and pray to the summer vacation gods that at least one of them takes reservations. If they don’t, call ahead and get the download on eating at the bar (if you are sans kids) or the best hours to avoid a long wait. Remember: It’s the same menu at 5:00 p.m. as it is at 7:30!
Step 3: When in doubt, ask a local. Not just the people you meet at the playground or on the beach, but insiders embedded in the food culture of a town, i.e. the barista at the coffee shop or the guy in the food truck making your bulgogi. I never would’ve discovered the migas tacos at Austin’s Veracruz if I hadn’t asked the server at a different restaurant for his must-eat list. And that would’ve been tragic.
Q. Our Dutch oven is terrifyingly splattered and stained. Is this normal? How to clean? How to prevent? Why did this happen? — Hali
A. Never trust a cook with a clean Dutch oven! Your pot’s gunky grease sheen — I mean, its patina — are evidence of the best kinds of food: stews and soups and braises that infuse your home with warmth and love and aromas that instantly announce THIS IS A HAPPY PLACE to whatever lucky person walks through your door. The 40+-year-old oval Le Creuset I inherited from my mom is many things — well-loved, well-worn, well-functioning — but clean is not one of them. Don’t fight it, embrace it.
Q. Would love some summer recipes that won’t make my house 15 degrees hotter. We don’t have a grill either. — Jane
A. The most obvious answer here is, of course, to not turn on your oven. Weeknight sushi bowls are a godsend if you have access to a good fish market — rice is the only thing requiring heat; Caesar Salad with seven-minute eggs (instead of chicken) is the current MVP of our warm-weather rotation, as are cold sesame noodles, best made in the morning while the sun is still low and kind, then chilled all day and topped with cool cucumbers and cilantro; I swear that on a July night in New York, cold soups like Martha’s avocado-cucumber-yogurt number drop your body temperature by at least five degrees, and the whole thing can be made with one knife and a blender. In a few weeks, of course, all of the above suggestions will be irrelevant because the tomatoes will be singing, and these sandwiches will be the only recipe you’ll want or need.
Hope this helps! What other burning questions do you have?
(Photo illustration by Maud Passini.)