Tag Archives: cooking

Variations On A Pimento

Happy Foodie Friday! Years ago I started serving pimento cheese as one of the snacks I had available as guests arrived for Thanksgiving. I can’t recall what started me down this path. As a Yankee, it was not a food that I’d eaten other than hearing about it being offered as a sandwich on-site during the annual Masters Tournament. The guests liked it and I served it thereafter. In fact, it became a household staple of sorts.

Little did I know at the time that I’d end up here in the South where pimento cheese is as common as mosquitos. What I didn’t understand, however, is how its use is as widespread as it is nor the seemingly endless number of variations, both personal and commercial. Everyone’s mama makes THE BEST pimento cheese and you can go from tailgate to tailgate at any pregame and find out just how different a single food can be. Of course, one look in any southern supermarket will tell you the same thing. There are dozens of brands and often several flavors (jalapeno pimento cheese, anyone?) from each brand.

As with many things southern, pimento cheese was born in the north and moved here. This is a terrific history of the stuff from Serious Eats but in a nutshell

The original version started out as something quite different: the marriage of cream cheese and canned pimentos, two popular and newly-available products of the industrial food trade.

It evolved into the basic grated cheese (usually cheddar), mayo (Duke’s, please) and pimentos recipe over time. The variations upon that basic theme are endless. I caused a bit of a stir when I presented my variation on the theme by adding green onions and Worcestershire sauce to mine, using two types of cheese. A friend ridiculed me until the friend’s mama tried it and loved it. So much for my Noo Yawk tinkering!

This is the third time I’m writing about pimento cheese and yet each of the posts has been different. Why I raise this topic here at all in a business blog is that it reminds me that not everything we do in business has to be completely new or innovative. Just taking something that’s basically good as is and making it a little better can be a win. Think about how Apple made the mp3 player better or Amazon transformed online shopping. eBay made a better auction engine and the Japanese saved their economy by taking things that were developed elsewhere and improving them.  It’s not finding the needle in the haystack that transforms your business. It’s often figuring out how to make the haystack itself just a bit better.

I’ve yet to sample any pimento cheese here that is made in a way that’s delicious but incomprehensible. Most of the time, it’s a variation that is smart and understandable and makes you wonder why you didn’t try that. I think a lot of the great things in business are just like that, don’t you?

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Cooking With Kids

What could be more fun on a Foodie Friday than cooking with kids? Mine are grown, of course, but I always loved the weekend because that was when we’d often find the time to get in the kitchen and cook together. As it turns out, there is something to be learned about business from this.

I think one benefit of getting children in the kitchen at a young age is that they begin to learn another language. While English was the language in our home, the language of food and cooking was another that the kids learned early on. Understanding what terms like simmer and boil meant and how they were different taught them precision. Learning the difference between dice, chop and even chiffonade helped them with knife skills, spatial relationships, and relative size.

Improving small motor skills is another benefit that kids get as they learn to use a knife or to crack an egg without shattering it or even to measure a cup of flour properly. Then there are the obvious benefits of learning what things taste like and being able to describe what they were tasting as well as what they liked and disliked. Finally, they were learning some science without thinking they were in class. Understanding, for example, that pancakes rise because of baking powder bubbles. Did I tell them it was because of an acid-base reaction that released carbon dioxide? Come on – they were kids! But they knew it made bubbles and the bubbles popped leaving the little holes they’d see in their pancakes.

This sort of process is exactly the one good managers need in business. New employees have to learn the language not just of business generally but of your specific company. Working alongside them, demonstrating and explaining as you go, is the only way they will get properly informed. Letting them do simple tasks, just as you might have kids stir and pour rather than dice and saute, lets them get a solid footing and the confidence to take on more complicated endeavors. It was always a mystery to me why some managers just sat new employees at a desk and then wondered why they weren’t being especially productive several months later. Unless you “cook” with them, they will probably never become all that they could be.

I think the main thing I got from cooking with my kids was a bond. Not only had we done something together but we’d made something together that we and others could enjoy. It’s the same in the office. Think back about the last time you were the new kid. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have someone take the time to build that bond with you as well as to help you produce your first great work?

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Grinding Your Own

It’s Foodie Friday and the topic is ground beef. I try, whenever possible, to grind my own beef and the thinking behind that is also thinking that can be used in business decision-making.

You can walk into any supermarket and purchase ground beef. In fact, you can be very specific about chuck vs. sirloin, the percentage of fat in the mix and often grass-fed vs. non. That’s great in my mind when you are making chili or meatballs or some other dish requiring that the beef cooks for quite a while. For burgers, however, I’m grinding my own. I’ll generally grind a mix of chuck, brisket, and short rib and I’ll usually grind some parboiled bacon into the meat both for fat and for flavor. The biggest reason I take the time to do this, however, isn’t the flavor. It’s food safety. I like to eat my burgers on the rare side and ground beef from a store is generally not safe to eat unless it’s cooked more than I like it to be. I know what’s in my mix and that it’s safe to eat when cooked to less than 165 degrees.

Is it a pain to clean the grinder? Yes. Does it take more time than just opening a package from the store? Of course. But the results are much better and exactly what I want even if it costs a bit more and take more time. That’s exactly the process any business goes through when making a “build vs. buy” decision. Let me run you through the steps.

First, you need to validate that you actually need the technology you’re considering. In burger terms, I’m hungry so I need food. I have a legitimate need. In considering tech, you need to figure out if you’re finding a solution without a problem existing. Next, you need to pull together core business requirements. My burger must be safe to eat when rare, it must hold together on a grill, etc. You need to involve anyone whose business is affected by the proposed tech to be sure all constituents weigh in on requirements.

The technical architecture requirements come next. If you’re looking outside, can the product fit in with your existing infrastructure? Does it meet whatever standards your business has already? It’s only after the above steps have been taken that you can start to evaluate build vs. buy. In my case, I have a need, my requirements are clear, I’ve asked my dinner guests if they like burgers, how they want them cooked, and what they put on them. I figured out I’m building the beef but buying the rolls, mayo, pickles, onions, and tomatoes even though I could also build them.

The final steps in the evaluation concern costs and support but you get the point. Some managers start evaluation solutions before they pull together requirements and the overview of the environment in which the solution will live. While it was an easy decision for me to grind my own beef, few business decisions are as easy and require planning and forethought. Make sense?

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Mageirocophobia

It’s Foodie Friday and today we’re going to address what for some people is a debilitating problem: mageirocophobia. I know – how can I think about something I can’t even pronounce? Well, hopefully, it’s not something you think about at all, but it might just get you thinking about something that goes on in your business life, so read on.

Mageirocophobia is the fear of cooking. Yes, such a thing exists. It can take many forms and even experienced cooks might have a little of it. For some folks, they’re fine cooking for themselves but the thought of cooking for a large group – a party, a large family gathering – can become a problem. Maybe that’s when they opt for a caterer, telling themselves that they’ll be busy preparing the house when in fact they’re afraid of failing. For some people, they’re afraid to cook for others or their children, worried that they’ll poison them by serving undercooked food. In other cases, it’s a simple fear that what they’ll serve will be inedible, or at least bad enough to cause ridicule. Some people are just afraid of the entire process – sharp knives and hot pans can cause cuts and burns (I know that from personal experience!).

As with most fears, a fear of cooking is really a reflection of other things going on such as a strong need for approval or a fear of failure. It can cause people to do odd things such as never serving chicken to guests or insisting on overcooking pork. Some people I know are terrified by sharp knives and the blades in their kitchens are always dull which, as any good cook knows, causes more accidents than sharp knives do.

Some of us do the same thing in business. A decade ago I wrote a post that asked each of us to consider if our fears in business are rational? Fear of failing is not irrational but it can be debilitating. We listen to the negative voice in our head that tells us we can’t do something and we’ll be a laughingstock when we fail. We play it safe. We take the safe route and don’t push to scale quickly, avoiding new markets or products. Ultimately, as with the fearful cook, we miss out on pleasure as we avoid pain.

I’ve made my share of mistakes in both the kitchen and the office. I try to learn from each one and move on. We all have a bit of fear in new and difficult situations – we’d not be human if we didn’t. We need, however, to push through our fears if we’re ever going to achieve our goals, don’t you agree?

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Old Bay Bacon

It’s Foodie Friday! A friend of mine made some bacon a while back that might have been the best bacon I’ve ever had. It wasn’t so much that it was a nice thick cut nor that it had been perfectly cooked although both were true. Something had been added to the bacon that enhanced its overall porkiness (bacon fans know what I mean) and threw in some extra flavors for good measure. I was smitten.

I asked what was done and the answer was Old Bay. Yes, that Old Bay, the one you have hiding in the back of your spice rack to add to the shrimp and crabs you never quite get around to boiling. While the chef used the same technique I do for bacon (400-degree oven, bacon on a sheet pan for 20 minutes or so, maybe on a rack if you’re feeling ambitious about clean-up), they had sprinkled the raw bacon with Old Bay. It was transformative.

You might not be familiar with Old Bay if you don’t live here in the eastern U.S. It’s a spice blend long associated with Baltimore. Invented in 1940 by a German immigrant fleeing the Nazis, it became ubiquitous in the Chesapeake area and is one of my favorite spice blends. Celery salt, mustard, pepper, bay leaves, cloves, pimento, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, and paprika – 18 spices in all – make up this magic dust.

There’s a business point or two to be made here. First, we can’t be afraid to try new uses for old products or people. I would never have thought to put Old Bay on bacon but it’s magic. Maybe you haven’t asked a senior member of your staff to do UX testing on your new digital presence, but why wouldn’t you? If someone who, in theory, is less adept at the digital world can appreciate what you’ve done, odds are that your real target will like it as well. Or take an old product like a tape that was invented to keep ammo cases dry, change the color, and voila! Duct tape. Or maybe a heart medicine that had an unusual side effect in many men and suddenly, Viagra.

Second, to my knowledge, Old Bay’s recipe has never been changed. There’s always a tendency out there to tinker with successful products through line extensions or even wholesale revamps of the product. Resist it. Look at Craig’s List – it’s still pretty much the same as it was when it launched 23 years ago. No bells and whistles, no streaming video, just classifieds and a whole lot of success. Create new things but don’t dilute the brand and don’t ever jeopardize the cash cow. There is Old Bay flavoring in many products, but the core product – the spice blend – has never changed.

Sprinkle a little Old Bay on something – bacon, a Bloody Mary, popcorn, almost anything – and remind yourself that greatness can endure even as we find new ways to incorporate it into our businesses.

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Copycat Recipes

This Foodie Friday we’re contemplating the field of endeavor known as copycat recipes. If you read any food sites, at some point you come across recipes which attempt to replicate some of the more popular dishes from chain restaurants. Yes, you too can have unlimited Red Lobster Cheddar Bay biscuits and Chick-Fil-A sandwiches at the same time!

There are books of these recipes and I’ll admit to having tried a couple over the years. While I’ve come close to duplicating a few dishes I’ve enjoyed in restaurants, the results were not exactly the same. One wouldn’t expect that though. I’m not using the same ingredients (the bacon I buy may not be what McDonald’s uses) nor do I have a commercial convection oven or deep fryer. Still, they were enjoyable enough and in a couple of cases, the experience inspired me to create my own variation that I liked even better.

I think these recipes can be fun for some but they miss a fundamental point. Making Girl Scout Samoas at home, besides being incredibly time-consuming, doesn’t support the Girl Scouts. When I want a “hot now” Krispy Kreme, I don’t want to wait a few hours for my homemade versions to rise and fry. What makes some of these dishes so good, in part, is that you don’t have to cook them. They’re risk-free, they’re ready when you want them, they’re always available, and they’re consistent. And of course, that’s the point today.

It’s quite possible that someone will try to copy what it is you’re doing if you’re doing it well. In the case of recipes, the cook can’t turn to the copyright law to protect the dish. Recipes aren’t subject to copyright. Mp3 players had been around for several years before Apple “copied” the recipe and improved it. One could argue that Apple was the victim when Microsoft “copied” the graphical interface that became Windows from Apple, who had “copied” it from Xerox. Sure, you can file a patent to protect you but that immediately makes how you’re doing what you’re doing available to anyone. They can then produce a variant on what you’re doing. Each of the folks in my examples made the recipe their own. That’s the point. You protect your secret recipe in either of two ways and the law has little to do with either.

The first is never to make the product public so no one has a chance to duplicate what you’ve got. Obviously, that’s not a great solution. The other way is to make sure that you produce the end-result to a consistently high standard which is risk-free for the customer, and that you provide that customer with an unrivaled level of support and service. That’s why copycat recipes will never be as good as what you get when you dine out. You copy?

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Taking The Temperature

Foodie Friday! As much as I’d like to write about Pimento Cheese on this Masters’ Friday, I have a business thought that comes from an article I read on whipped cream. The folks at Cook’s Illustrated, about which I’ve written before, have a science page as part of their website. On it, they present the results of their ongoing tests into food preparation and one of the things they investigated was the old saw that you have to start with cold cream if you’re whipping the cream to stiff peaks.

The short answer is that yes, temperature matters and the colder your cream (and bowl and beaters) the better. You get much better results that way – a higher volume and much less whipping time to get the results you want. In fact, cream at room temperature never really got to stiff peaks at all. As I read the piece it occurred to me that the kitchen isn’t the only place where the environment matters.

You don’t have to look very far into the business world to find companies that produce excellent results because the management creates optimal conditions for the team to do so. I’ve worked in places where I’ve seen two similar departments produce very different results based on how the managers treated the staff. I wouldn’t say that one department had very different levels of skill or intelligence but it did have some managers that created the best conditions possible for success. They outlined the group’s goals clearly. They were supportive and encouraging. They didn’t hesitate to praise great work (and publicly!) and they very quietly made sure that the underperformers knew they were not meeting the standards of the group. The people in the group weren’t impersonal names on a page. They had personal relationships with each person and communicated effectively with each person. They led by example and didn’t hold themselves above the group or to a different standard of behavior.

Creating the right conditions for success really is the only job a manager has. Much like making sure the cream, beaters, and bowl are cold, they make it easy for the team to produce the best possible outcomes with the least effort and drama. Doesn’t that sound like a plan?

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