Special Sauce: Supernatural Star Misha Collins [1/2]

One of the things I love about Special Sauce is how often I am surprised and moved by my guests. And this episode, in which I interview Supernatural star Misha Collins, who, with his wife Vicki, just published The Adventurous Eaters Club: Mastering the Art of Family Mealtime, is a perfect example.

Collins had a peripatetic childhood- “I think I lived in 15 places by the time I was 15,” he tells me—and often found himself living in parks and teepees. Yet his “idiosyncratic and eccentric” mother somehow managed to almost always gather the family at dinnertime, even if what they were eating was procured by shoplifting. When your mother teaches you how to shoplift a peach, I would say that that’s more than idiosyncratic and eccentric.

Before I was mesmerized by my conversation with Misha, Kenji answered Serious Eater Ryan Daugherty’s question about when to use dried or fresh herbs in preparing food. And to close out the episode, Daniel Gritzer schools us on the joys of making sous vide chicken wings.

I hope you tune in for a supernatural, moving, and surprising episode of Special Sauce.


Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce 2.0. Serious Eats podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we begin with Ask Kenji, where Kenji Lopez-Alt, Serious Eats Chief Culinary Consultant, gives the definitive answer to the question of the week that a serious eater like you has sent us.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: Generally, sort of like delicate leafy herbs like cilantro, parsley, basil, they tend to not be very good in their dried counterparts. Thyme, rosemary, oregano, they actually work pretty well in their dried forms.

EL: After Ask Kenji, a conversation with our guest, today in house, Misha Collins. He is, of course, an actor best known for his role as the angel, Castiel. Did I pronounce that right?

Misha Collins: Castiel.

EL: On the CW television series Supernatural, and has now written with his wife Vicki Collins, The Adventurous Eaters Club: Mastering the Art of Family Meal Time.

And finally on today’s podcast, a teachable moment from the Serious Eats test kitchen.

Daniel Gritzer: Sous Vide, which is one really, really, really great way to cook chicken wings. Let’s give one of these wings to try. The wings are juicy, formerly crispity and crunchity before they got doused in the sauce. Sous vide wings, they come out good.

EL: First up, our Chief Culinary Consultant, author of The Food Lab, Kenji Lopez-Alt. And Kenji, serious eater Ryan Daugherty wants to know when might you want to use dried garlic powder over fresh? That goes for other herbs and spices like oregano, thyme, et cetera.

JKLA: Yeah. Well, I can tell you a couple of times when I use garlic powder over fresh, and also dried herbs. For rubs, spice rubs, like something that you’re going to be rubbing on your ribs before you barbecue them, or on your pork shoulder, dry works a lot better there just because the fresh tends to burn or it tends to fall off and the dry is much easier to sort of incorporate into a rub evenly.

It also stores much better, so if you make a big batch of your rub, you can just leave it in the pantry. I also use it for things like dredging mixes, so like the fried chicken we do at my restaurant. In the flour mixture, in the dry dredging mixture we do garlic powder, granulated garlic, and we also do dried oregano in that, simply because the fresh would burn. If we put fresh garlic into that mixture and it adhered to the chicken, it would burn in the fryer and the dried doesn’t.

EL: And is it garlic powder more concentrated Kenji, and dried garlic?

JKLA: Well, not really.

EL: Not really?

JKLA: It’s a kind of different flavor. Fresh garlic and garlic powder have pretty distinctly different flavors. It’s sort of like fresh ginger versus powdered ginger.

EL: Right.

JKLA: They’re sort of the same, but they have a pretty distinct flavor from each other, a different flavor from each other. With the garlic, some of those flavors tend to go away when you cook it a little bit, so that’s why it works all right in dredging mixtures and in rubs and stuff, but you wouldn’t be able to … If you put fresh garlic on your pizza versus granulated garlic on your pizza, it would be a significantly different flavor. I was going to say that’s actually the other case where I often like using garlic powder, a granulated garlic, is sprinkling it on my pizza, and I think that’s just because, I don’t know, that’s just because there’s garlic powder on every counter.

EL: That’s because it’s your childhood memory.

JKLA: Exactly. Exactly.

EL: So what about using dried herbs in things like sous vide? Does that make sense?

JKLA: Yeah. There are certain types of herbs that do better dried than other herbs, so generally sort of like delicate, leafy herbs like cilantro, parsley, basil, things like that, they tend to not be very good in their dried counterparts. What actually happens is they have a very large surface area and the leaves are relatively thin, so a lot of the volatiles, the things that give them aroma, they leave as the liquid is evaporating from them as they’re getting dried so you don’t end up with a lot of flavor.

Other heartier herbs like rosemary, thyme, marjoram, oregano, herbs that actually have sort of slightly thicker, more succulent leaves and that grow in hotter, drier climates, they tend to actually retain their volatiles a lot better than the leafier herbs.

EL: I actually use dried rosemary a fair amount.

JKLA: So things like thyme, rosemary, oregano, they actually work pretty well in their dried forms, especially if it’s in something like a sauce or souse vide, something where there’s going to be a lot of moisture added back to it.

EL: Is there a kind of garlic powder that you prefer?

JKLA: I typically use granulated garlic for sprinkling, and powdered garlic if I’m putting it into like a spice rub or something. But honestly, I haven’t done a formal taste test or anything like that. I just grab whatever’s there.

EL: Right. Maybe it’s a definition of a commodity.

JKLA: Yeah. I think at the restaurant we get the big, I think we use McCormick, and they’re like, and they’re like the big restaurant service size one gallon tubs.

EL: All right. I think Ryan is in good shape. I think we have answered Ryan’s question and then some.

KLA: I hope so.

EL: So thanks, man. Talk to you next week Kenji.

KLA: All right.

EL: Kenji Lopez-Alt is Serious Eats’ Chief Culinary Consultant and author of The Food Lab. Do send in your questions to Kenji to specialsauce@seriouseats.com.

EL: Now it’s time to meet Misha Collins. He’s, of course, an actor best known for his role as the angel, Castiel?

Misha Collins: Castiel.

EL: On the CW television series Supernatural, which has had an insane run, right? It’s like 2008 to 2019.

MC: Yeah, we’re in our 15th season right now.

EL: That never happens.

MC: No, it doesn’t. I don’t know why they kept us on the air.

EL: Collins is also the co-founder and board president of Random Acts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding and inspiring acts of kindness around the world. He’s also a published poet. Very impressive dude.

MC: Thank you.

EL: And has now written with his wife Vicky Collins, The Adventurous Eaters Club: Mastering the Art of Family Meal Time. So welcome to Special Sauce, Misha.

MC: I’m very happy to be here.

EL: So the first question I always ask, in your case it’s particularly relevant, is tell us about life at your family table growing up. Your family table was not exactly traditional.

MC: That is true. I was raised by a single mom. My parents separated when I was three years old and I visited my father on every other weekend for most of my childhood, but he wasn’t really a cornerstone of my upbringing. But my mother and my brother and our dog were a very tight family unit, and we lived in Western Massachusetts primarily growing up and moved a lot. We were in a new home I would say on average once every nine months or so. I think I lived in 15 places by the time I was 15.

EL: So you were like an Army brat, only you were a different kind of brat.

MC: Right. An Army brat without the parents building up a pension plan.

EL: Right.

MC: Another thing I think that an Army brat family has is a cadre possibly, of other kids that are going through the same experience, and I was generally going to a new school every year and meeting kids that were in fairly stable childhoods and who knew one another and who were familiar with the school, so I was always approaching schools and new towns-

EL: You were the permanent new kid.

MC: Yeah, with a little bit of trepidation, and trying to figure out how I could ingratiate myself to the new communities and the new schools. My mother was very eccentric and iconoclastic. She talked about the revolution a lot. I was born in 1974, and we lived through a tumultuous political time in our country, and she didn’t want to have us grow up being conventional young men, so she would do things like dress me up in pink tights and paint my nails and send me off to Cub Scouts. Which I think in 2020 might actually fly, but in a working class community in Massachusetts, when you show up at Cub Scouts in the boys’ locker room with nail polish and long hair-

EL: Not so much.

MC: And pink tights, you’re ostracized. So, I kind of had to find a way to blend in and disappear a little bit as a kid in new schools, and I think that it built a lot of character in a lot of ways, and made me more resilient and adaptable and independent than I otherwise would have been. But at the same time, there’s a certain lack of stable foundation that was challenging.

EL: I had not the same kinds of travails in my own childhood, but you do become resilient and eminently adaptable, but it also has a cost. It exacts a cost that you can’t deal with as you’re going through it, but you almost have to deal with it at some point in order to really resolve some of the issues that came out of it, I assume.

MC: Yeah. I’m sure you’ve found the same thing, but I feel like I’m a 45-year-old man and I’m still discovering things and unpacking them and repairing them, I think. There are definitely things that you take away from a childhood like that that give you real strength.

One of the things that I love about my childhood is that I know that you don’t need money to be happy and you can get by on just about nothing, and that gives you, I think, quite a bit of power going into the world because you don’t feel beholden to the comforts of … I don’t feel beholden to the comforts of money. I’m okay with scarcity. At the same time, I don’t know that I was really terribly good at connecting with people or making friends, and I probably still struggle with that.

EL: Yeah. So, you wrote this amazing piece in The Times, and you wrote that “times were often lean, but one luxury we always had an abundance was food, even if it came by the five finger discount. My mother taught me how to steal peaches from the Stop and Shop grocery store when I was four. We were stealing from the man. It was a justified rebellion against an unjust system.”

EL: So, whoa. Okay, those sentences made me stop in my tracks. That’s pretty intense. I was actually thinking about this movie, Shoplifters. I don’t if you’ve ever seen it.

MC: Oh yeah. Yeah.

EL: Because in there the father figure, who turns out not to be the father, teaches the kids how to steal so they can eat. And so, wow. I mean, talk about that. Talk about getting conflicting messages from your mother. It’s like, whoa.

MC: It’s funny, because now hearing you read that, it paints a portrait of a parent who was raising children without a moral compass, and I think that was not at all the case. This was righteous rebellion. We were stealing … We would never have stolen from the local co-op, but this was from a corporate entity, and these corporations were out to exploit the proletariat. I actually felt the exhilaration of feeling like I was part of a rebellion at that point, and frankly indoctrinated into that at a really young age. At the age of four, I was aware that it was us against them. We were the little guys and that we had a justice on our side. At the same time, it’s a complicated thing to be training a little four year old how to steal.

MC: I have a very distinct memory of the fruit island in the Stop and Shop, and me grabbing a peach. This was the first time that I remember ever shoplifting anything. I grabbed the peach and then I ducked down behind the island, and my mother said, “No, no, no, no, no. You can’t do it like that. You have to take it. You have to be very calm. You have to not look around. You can’t show that you’re distressed at all or that you’re nervous, and then you put it in your backpack.” Then we would go up to the cash register and we would pay for some of the groceries, so that we were distracting them, and then scoot out the door.

EL: And you just, I assume, felt that there was nothing particularly abnormal about this because you had nothing to compare it to.

MC: Right. Yeah, this was my normal.

EL: Yeah. You weren’t stealing from somebody or something that needed the money, you were stealing as part of an ethos. Right?

MC: Right.

EL: As part of like, this is the way we work the system to fight the man.

MC: Right, precisely. Yeah.

EL: You also wrote, and I’m going to quote a couple of more sentences from the piece because it was so beautiful, “My upbringing taught me you didn’t need money to be happy, that you didn’t have to play by the rules, that the whole world was just begging to be explored. But now by the hindsight of fatherhood and from the comfort of a therapist’s couch, I see that while my childhood had been rife with adventure, it also had been lonely and frightening and wanting.” So you were always reconciling those two things, weren’t you?

MC: I wouldn’t say I was always reconciling them, because as a child I struggled at times. I felt sad and lonely, but I didn’t think that it was because of my childhood.

EL: Got it.

MC: I thought my childhood was full of adventure, and I was proud of my childhood. Up until when I was 25 I don’t think I looked back on it and thought that there had been any damage done by that.

EL: Right, and that there was anything dysfunctional about it.

MC: Right. And on balance, my childhood was incredibly … I think I had a secure attachment with my mother. My mother was there. She was loving. She never failed to convey that love to me and my brother. So she served as my anchor emotionally, and that was unfailing. But because the rest of our life was so fractured and so nomadic, she was my only anchor.

EL: Yeah, because as you said, how do you establish connections with any kids when you’re moving every few months?

MC: Right, and when you’re showing up at school in pink tights at a working class school you’re also getting alienated by your peers, and so the other kids actually ended up being kind of frightening to me.

EL: I read your Wikipedia page, and somehow you escaped and you ended up at a prep school, Northfield Mount Hermon, and then the University of Chicago. What a narrative your life has been. How did that happen?

MC: Now that you’re asking the question, I’m reflecting on it possibly for the first time. But one thing that I know happened as a result of my childhood and and partly as a result of feeling like I wasn’t fitting in with other kids, is that I was a smart kid and I could win the favor of my teachers. So when I was in school, I did very well in school. It was like the thing I could throw myself into and be safe and get some accolades.

EL: Some positive feedback.

MC: And some positive reinforcement. So I did well in school, and we lived in the town of Northfield for a little while, which was where Northfield Mount Hermon is. They had a program that had been implemented from the inception of the school where local day students could get pretty much a full ride if they were in need, and we were in need, so I could go to a fancy high school for free as a day student. Then I ended up basically getting the same deal at the University of Chicago.

EL: Amazing.

MC: Yeah. At the time, I thought I was going to go into politics, so I was sort of on a very clear path. And that wanting to go into politics was also born of my childhood and of my mother talking about politics all the time, and making me and my brother very aware of the plight of people in need in our country and around the world. It felt like that was the right place for me.

EL: Yeah. Again, and this is the final sentences I’m going to read from the Times piece, because it gets us back to food. Which is, “I recently found an old journal in a box in the back of my closet, and on the page from a decade ago where I had taken inventory of the good and bad of my upbringing the word cooking is circled and underlined with urgency in the plus column, as if I was thinking that food had been the cornerstone of happiness in my youth.” Elaborate on that. I mean, that’s an amazing statement.

MC: I think as a nomadic family, we moved around and we brought with us what we could, and in terms of material objects, there was very little that was a through line. But we did bring with us from place to place the tradition of sitting down for family meals every night.

EL: Even if you were in a teepee or in a park.

MC: Right. Even if we were sitting on a log in the woods in the rain, we would be sitting down and eating together. There were no distractions. There was never a television on, and there was no coercion in getting to the dinner table. There was no question about it. Not because it was an edict from an authority figure, but because we all just coalesced around dinner and loved it.

EL: You needed it.

MC: Yeah.

EL: It was a permanent form of glue for the family, right?

MC: Yeah. It really was important to us. We would go spend Christmas with my mother’s mother, my grandmother, and she was a cook as well, and food was a centerpiece of that family interaction. And for me now that I have kids, I notice that when I’m feeling like a guilty or absent father, the way that I most quickly show my affection and love for my kids is I just make them food. It’s like the way that I know to convey to a child everything’s safe, everything’s okay, and I love you.

EL: Yeah. But in 21st century America, and maybe all around the world, it’s hard to do that, right? There are lots of pressures that are forcing people not to eat together.

MC: Right.

EL: Both parents are working, kids are all over the place. But you obviously, I think as a result of your upbringing, it was important when you had a family and a wife that you made that same time for dinner.

MC: Yeah. It feels very important to me. I think sometimes I’m actually kind of maybe forcing my agenda of cooking on my kids. Like, “Come on guys, let’s make something in the kitchen.” A lot of times they want to go outside and I want to work in the kitchen, and I have to check myself and say, “Okay, we’ll go play a little bit of soccer first before we get to canning the pears.”

EL: Right. Because the act of eating a meal and preparing it is imbued with so much more meaning for you than it is for them.

MC: Yeah, I think that’s true. Yeah.

EL: So you end up being an actor, and I’m just assuming that like all actors, you struggled for many years before you found yourself on the set of Supernatural. So, tell us in a few sentences the arc of your acting career.

MC: Well as I mentioned earlier, my intention after college was to go into politics. I interned at the White House and I got a job at NPR in Washington, DC, and I was really disappointed with what I saw at the White House, and I thought, “Oh God, I have to come up with a whole new plan here.” I thought it was going to be the best and the brightest minds under one roof. This was the Clinton administration. And instead what I found was the halls were filled with people who were sycophants, whose parents had donated money to the campaign. They were all yaysayers. There was no real discourse about political ideas, which of course is actually what you need in an administration. You need people who are going to be in lock step and are going to support your decisions, but I was too young and naive to know that.

So when I saw it, I thought, “This is not for me.” I thought, “I will try to find another way that I can have an impact.” I think there’s a lot of hubris in this, but I thought, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll become an actor. I’ll get famous and then I’ll parlay my celebrity into some sort of political influence.”

EL: Oh, because that happens all the time.

MC: Right. I mean really, really completely naive, and totally full of myself. Then I moved to LA and I thought it was going to take a couple of years to attain a certain level-

EL: To become rich and famous.

MC: To be rich and famous. And it took a long time to become-

EL: It took a decade, probably.

MC: To become moderately comfortable and a C-list celebrity. But somewhere along the line I stopped thinking about that end goal of I’m on this path so that I can have influence, blah blah blah, and I just started becoming an actor, and I was just acting for the sake of acting and not for this aspirational, high-minded goal.

Then a couple of years ago we got a new president, and that lit a fire under me. It was actually during the campaign when I started to think, “Oh, Trump might get elected. Oh, this is serious,” and then my C-list celebrity started to come into play and I thought, “All right, well I can use the platform that I have.”

EL: By the way, I think it’s at least B-minus, okay?

MC: Well you, as everyone knows, grade on a curve, so thank you for your charity. In a strange way it feels to me a little bit like it’s come full circle, and now that the show’s ending and after 15 seasons I’m asking the question, “Okay, how can I be of use in the world?” I don’t know what’s next for me. I don’t know if I spend a lot of time on television sets after this or not. I’m trying to do some soul searching and figure out what I really want to be when I grow up. But that’s, in a nutshell, my path.

EL: It’s an amazing path, and you accomplished much more as an actor than almost any actor I know. To be a working actor and to have made some money doing it is actually an incredible accomplishment, and maybe it’s to the resilience you discovered you had in your childhood.

MC: Yeah, I think possibly. I think obviously there’s a lot of dumb luck that comes into play. It’s not my fault that the show that I’m on has been on for 15 seasons or has the devoted fan base that it has.

EL: There are conventions for Supernatural. I notice this-

MC: We have conventions. There are tattoos with face on them. I mean, it’s hard not to be full of yourself in this context. But yeah, we have a really, really devoted fan base, and it’s quite remarkable to be a part of.

What was it? I think it was Freakonomics at one point. Maybe it was in the book Freakonomics, but they said that pursuing a career in acting is like pursuing a career as a drug dealer. It’s very, very difficult to be one of the kingpins, to be successful in the field.

EL: Right.

MC: The odds are so bad that it takes a certain personality that’s defective that wants to even pursue that in the first place, because 99 out of 100 people are going to fail at that and then you’re just going to be a low level street corner drug dealer, or barely getting food on your table as a background actor.

EL: Yeah. Well Misha, we have to leave it right here for this episode of Special Sauce, but you’re going to stick around and tell us all about your two terrific kids, West and Maison.

MC: We just say Mason.

EL: West and Mason.

MC: Yes, we anglicize the French spelling.

EL: And your wife Vicki, and your family collaboration on The Adventurous Eaters Club. Thank you for spending so much time with us on Special Sauce.

MC: Thank you so much for having me, and I can’t wait to talk about the book.

EL: Now it’s time to head over to Serious Eats test kitchen to discover what our Managing Culinary Director Daniel Gritzer is cooking up. No need to take notes. Details of Daniel’s recipe are at seriouseats.com.

Daniel Gritzer: One really, really, really great way to cook chicken wings, sous vide. Here’s what sous vide can do for you with wings. Wings are the perfect part of the chicken. You’ve got the ideal ratio of skin. They kind of eat like dark meat because there’s so much like juicy skin and all sorts of good stuff in there, but they actually cook more like white meat. What that means is that they can dry out, especially if they’re exposed to high heat for a long time. That’s tricky because wings are small, so it really doesn’t take very long for the heat to penetrate to the center.

Drop the wings in your immersion circulator, run them for the time it takes, take them out, dry them off, fry them, you’re done. Easy.

All right, I’ve got my wings here. How are we going to cook them sous vide? Well, the first thing we’re going to do, it’s really easy. I’m just going to season them with salt. Flip them.

If you’re doing wings you can use a vacuum sealer bag, but the cooking time is so short that I usually just revert to some gallon zipper lock bags. Load up a bag or two. If you’re using zipper locked bags, what you want to do is use what’s called the displacement method to press the air out. So, I have a vessel of water that hopefully won’t overflow while I do this, but all I’m going to do is push my bag down in there, and then push, push, push, push, push, and the water will create enough pressure to more or less get the air out. It’s not a perfect vacuum seal, but it’s fine.

I’m doing this in cold water because my sous vide bath has already heated, and if I’d tried to do this with the hot water bath I’d burned my hand. I know this because I’ve made that mistake before and burned my hand.

So, I’ve got my immersion circulator set up. I have this one set to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, but what I’ve found with all my testing is you have really two roads you can choose that both will get you great, slightly different results. You can do 160 degrees Fahrenheit and cook the chicken for two hours in that bath to get wings that will end up fall off the bone tender. The bones just slide right out. Or you can do 165 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the temperature I have going in this bath right now, and just cook the wings for one hour. That’s going to get you wings that are so juicy and also tender. Not quite the same level of fall off the bone, and just a little bit more kind of springiness still to the meat.

Choose your temperature, get your chicken set up, and just lower it right into your hot water bath, and depending on the temperature you’ve chosen, you’ll let it go for one or two hours.

So once they’re done, you want to take them out and arrange them on a wire rack and dry them in the refrigerator overnight or eight hours. Get them nice and ready for the fryer. And as it just so happens, I’ve already done that and I have a batch ready to go. Let me get them.

All right, I’ve got my frying station set up. I have my wings. They have been dried overnight in the fridge uncovered just to get excess liquid off so that they fry up nice and crisp. Let’s do it. Let’s get some frying going on. My oil is about 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Here we go.

Now let’s see how much the oil rises up. I may be able to get more wings in subsequent batches, but I don’t want to overflow my pot because I’ve made that mistake once before and it was scary. Stand back. I’m just going to fry them until they’re golden and crispy, which ballpark at this temperature is going to be about three minutes, but you just go by what it looks like.

Because I’ve done the sous vide, these wings are already cooked. It’s really just a matter of getting them crispy. That’s all I’m trying to do here. Crispy and warm to the center. I’m doing Buffalo wings to demonstrate the process right here, so I’ve got my little sauce pan of Frank’s Red Hot with some butter melting into it. That’s all the sauce is. I’ll serve it with some celery sticks and blue cheese dressing.

All right, here we go. Let’s take out our first group. Get them onto the paper towels to drain the excess oil. In we go. Stand back. I’m going to taste just one of these right now that came out of the fryer. The skin is light crispy. Let’s try a wingette. It’s looking pretty good. Let’s sauce these babies.

Give them a good stir. Get my celery sticks. I have cooked these sous vide, which is one really, really, really great way to cook chicken wings. Let’s give one of these wings a try. The wings are juicy, formerly crispity and crunchity before they got doused in the sauce. I don’t honestly want anything to do with the drumettes, I just want the wingettes. Sous vide wings, they come out good. It’s just another tool in your toolbox. It’s just another option you have when you’re deciding how you want to go about cooking your wings, and it gives really good results.

EL: Details of Daniel’s recipe and a video are at seriouseats.com.

That’s it for today. Next week on Special Sauce, Kenji will be back to answer with his usual scientific precision your culinary question of the week. Do send in your questions to specialsauce@seriouseats.com. Plus, the rest of Misha Collins’ amazing journey into The Adventurous Eaters Club. All this on next week’s Special Sauce. So long, serious eaters. We’ll see you next time.