It's been a rough couple of weeks. At the same time it has been a wonderful couple of weeks. Funny how the good and bad are always entwined like that. We've had some serious loss and some damage to the house. We've gotten to spend extra time with family members and were reminded of how much we enjoy each others' company. We were given a moment to appreciate the people that are with us and remember why relationships matter.
On Saturday I watched Amaya racing around the mats at her gymnastics class and she was grinning from ear to ear. There was no room inside her for anything but laughter and happiness. It made me feel good just to see it. It reminded me that our goal for this year is to find more joy. I want to do things that make me feel so good that there's no room for anything else. We get brief flashes of it from time to time. It's not the same thing as remembering to actively seek it out. Find the joy and everything else will automatically be better.
January 12, 2005
It seems as though there is always a book in progress. A notebook on the kitchen counter, scribbled post-it notes hanging from the cabinets; it's the story of our lives. There are always an assortment of small moleskin notebooks lying around, color-coded at the moment to differentiate between projects. This morning Amaya asked for a notebook of her own and proceeded to record her very first recipe. It's pretty bare bones, a list of ingredients, but for a not quite 5-year old it's quite an achievement. It's a recipe for "Breakfast Noodles." Angel hair pasta, boosted with organic frozen peas, cooked al dente, drained, returned to the pot, and mixed with a couple of large organic eggs beaten with a generous splash of soy sauce (Amaya does that part) until everything thickens and comes together. A simplified riff on pasta carbonara, it is her favorite breakfast (right now) and a fitting beginning for her first kitchen notebook. It's the things we love that motivate us to do more.
PS: The pumpkin pie was a request. We'll work on that recipe next.
It's that time of year again. TIme to shop sales and make lists and decide who you love enough to part with some of that hard earned cash. Here are a few good ideas for the cooks in your life.
The Thermapen is on sale from ThermoWorks right now for $89 and it is a major splurge. It's also a practical gift. It takes accurate temperatures faster than any thermometer out there making it perfect for all of your cooking and baking projects. We keep ours right beside the stove and hardly a day goes by when it doesn't see some sort of action. We love it even more than our laser thermometer. You can also buy it via Amazon if you hate filling out new forms online.
Everyone should have a good kitchen scale. This one by My Weigh costs under $40 and will work well for most home cooks. For cooks who like to work with hydrocolloids and other small quantity ingredients you can add a jewelers scale from American Weigh for under $10. These are the two scales we use in our kitchen and we would be lost without them.
Our current coffee of choice comes from Blue Bottle Coffee. You can order real pounds of freshly roasted coffee, Cascara Tea, various accessories and an autographed copy of their very cool book, The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee: Growing, Roasting, and Drinking, with Recipes to send to someone you love. Last we ordered the code: FREESHIPLOYAL got you free standard shipping in their online store and there's plenty of time before Christmas to get something for the coffee lover in your life.
And finally, for the sweet tooth on your list there is Monastery Candy. They make some of the very best chewy caramels, plain and chocolate coated, that we've ever had. Paired with a small jar of crunchy sea salt (which is good for everything), their caramels are close to perfection and reasonably priced too.
We were lucky enough to acquire a Waring commercial milkshake mixer. It was given to us to play with in our workshop and we were determined to put it to good use. We love milkshakes but we were convinced that there was more we could be doing with the machine. Cocktails seemed like a natural progression. Next thing we knew our back ordered PDT Cocktail Book arrived on our doorstep. It seemed like serendipity.
We decided to mix up the Old Flame, a deceptively simple cocktail consisting of good gin, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and an egg white. We had to adjust slightly for the agave syrup that we had on hand instead of simple syrup and happily squeezed Meyer lemons because we had them in house, but other than that we followed the directions as written except we shook one drink by hand and mixed the other in the milkshake machine. The difference was immediately visisbly. The one mixed in the machine had a much bigger head of foam and held together for much longer than the one we shook by hand. There was a 5-degree temperature difference, in Fahrenheit, favoring the milkshake machine as the colder beverage. It had a softer texture, washing across the palate like silk, with a softer alcohol burn than the other. While both drinks were very good, the one mechanically mixed defintely had an edge. There will be more experiments in our future to see if the type of drink matters and if and when there are times when hand shaking is best. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.
I have to be honest here, I didn't make it through Eat, Pray Love. It was a DNF (did not finish) for me for a variety of reasons and when I started hearing about her talk on TED I was skeptical. Fortunately it came up enough times to overcome my intial hesitation. This was a very good thing and it reminded me that there is more to a person than one book or song or drawing or recipe or restaurant. It's worth taking the time to find out more because you never know when you might find something inspiring. It is an entertaining and motivational talk. Yes, it is almost twenty minutes long and yes, you should watch the whole thing. I'm so glad I took the time to watch it. I may even go back and read that book again from a fresh perspective, or at least check out one of her other ones.
With the ability to roll dough really thin we have begun to wonder about the flavors we can incorporate into the dough and what phyllo can mean to us. Here we have made both sheets and strands of vanilla phyllo dough. Sure the first thought is something sweet, but the possibilities in the savory world with vanilla and really any flavored phyllo are pretty exciting. But really, let's think about this, we can now control the grain, the liquid, the acid, the fat and the aromatics. Sure, we could make other pastas for stuffing or lasagna with the same approach, but phyllo is one of those ingredients you do not often think about altering on the creation side of things.
One of our favorite meals is a plethora of oysters on the half shell accompanied by an abundance of hot, crispy French fries. An afternoon spent slowly sliding cold briny oysters down our throats interspersed with bites of crunchy, salty potatoes is one well spent. Oysters can easily be enjoyed either raw or cooked. Slicked with cream and spiked with chilies they can be a warm soothing spoonful on a rainy afternoon. Happily oysters are sustainably farmed shellfish and their industry has a minimal impact on the marine environment. That makes eating them a good thing for everyone involved, except perhaps the oyster.
Pearl oysters are not the same as food oysters, so there’s no possibility of finding a rare perfect jewel in your dinner. The oyster you consume may contain a tiny pearl but it comes from a different family entirely. Edible oysters are from the Ostrideae family and are scattered in waters throughout the world. Two of the most popular varieties are the eastern American oyster, Crassostrea virginica, and the Pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas. The first variety is found in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the second in the Pacific. There are variations of these two species found from New York to Australia and everywhere in between. The three other cultivated species are the Kumamoto known as Crassostrea sikamea, the European Flat or Belon named Ostrea edulis, and the Olympia, otherwise called the Ostrea conchaphila.
Oysters grow best in areas where fresh water and salt water mix in spots that are protected from waves and storms. They tend to be oval or pear-shaped although their structure can vary depending on what they attach themselves to. Oysters reproduce in one of two ways. The European and Olympia oysters are hermaphrodites. Eggs are fertilized within the body and then carried in the gills for twelve days until larvae or spats form. The oysters from the Crassostrea branches begin life as males and then become female. They may change back and forth a few more times over their lifespan but remain primarily female after that first change. Females release eggs directly into the water and males do the same with their sperm. When the two cross paths the eggs are fertilized. These fertilized eggs mature into larvae in the water. Once the larvae have formed they swim through the ocean currents for two to three weeks, developing the beginnings of their shell, until they settle and attach themselves to a home using their sticky foot. There they remain until they are harvested and eaten by man or some other predator.
While oysters are not able to move by themselves, they can be dislodged by the pull of the waves. Their hinged shells are rough and irregular looking. The bottom shell is the one attached to their mooring, it is more curved and cup-like than the top. The shell itself is formed in layers with calcium carbonate in the chalky middle and nacre, better known as mother of pearl, forming the smooth inner lining. The hinge is connected to the two halves of the shell with two ligaments. When the inner adductor muscle relaxes, the shell can be opened and closed using the ligaments.
One of the main issues with eating raw oysters is the texture. People either love them or hate them. There isn’t much space in between those two stances. They are undeniably slippery and soft, salty, sometimes creamy, sometime mineral-y, slightly sweet, and to our minds, delicious. Our years in fine dining kitchens have led us to cleaning raw oysters for use in composed dishes. We would shuck the oysters and save the juice. Then we would trim around the visceral mass, that plump center piece, removing all of the myriad small parts surrounding it and setting them aside. We would use the oyster liquor and that trimmed meat to make a sauce to highlight the smaller, single bite of oyster.
When we were working in Maine we were lucky enough to get oysters delivered to us from down the road. Jeff was our oyster guy, Pemaquids were his bounty. Because we were local, he introduced us to jumbo oysters. These beauties came in shells that were almost a foot long. The oysters inside were large but not as gargantuan as the shells might lead you to believe. These plump beauties were singularly delicious and succulent. We used them to make a version of Oysters Rockefeller that was served in the giant bottom shells and the presentation was as popular as the dish itself. You will only be able to source oysters this large at their place of origin because the cost of shipping the heavy shells makes them prohibitively expensive anywhere else.
We are always looking for ways to make food taste better. Sometimes that means making it more approachable. After all if diners won’t taste something it doesn’t matter how good it is. We came up with the idea of gently poaching the oysters to firm up the flesh while still retaining the fresh briny flavor of the raw product. We don’t cook them for long, we simply shuck and then cook them sous vide in their juices at 48°C/118°F for twenty minutes. Then we ice them down to stop the cooking process. Finally we trim the poached oysters, separating out the liquid and reserving the trim, although you are free to serve them whole if you prefer. Then we see where inspiration takes us. The low temperature cooking allows the oysters to plump up and sets the flesh to eliminate the slippery texture that many people find unpleasant. They still have all the flavor of the raw oyster with the added benefit of a silky, resilient texture. In fact we have convinced a few confirmed raw oyster haters to enjoy oysters on the half shell with these softly cooked beauties.
Once the oyster has been poached we strain the juices and store the oysters in it. We use these oysters in both cooked and raw preparations. We’ve found that the poached oysters retain their shape and do not shrivel up or lose their shape when we cook them again. They fry up beautifully and we can use the liquor as the basis for a tart, briny vinaigrette to dip them in.
Here's a simple oyster preparation that still manages to layer flavors for maximum effect.
50 Pemaquid (or your favorite) Oysters
100 grams/3.5 ounces smoked ketchup
100 grams/3.5 ounces kimchi
30 grams/1 ounce minced preserved lemons
Use an oyster knife to open the oysters. Reserve the bottom shells from the oysters. Place the oyster and its juices into a bowl set on ice. When all the oysters are open place them into a vacuum bag and seal on high pressure. Cook the oysters in a 48°C/118°F water bath for twenty minutes. When the oysters are cooked place the bag in an ice water bath to chill them completely. When the oysters are chilled, open the bag, strain the juices and reserve them. Use a pair of scissors to trim the mantle and the muscle off the oyster. Put the trimmed oysters in the strained oyster juices.
Combine the oyster trimmings with the ketchup and kimchi in a blender. Puree until smooth. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Fold the minced preserved lemons into the kimchi-oyster cocktail sauce.
To serve spoon an oyster and some of its juices into the reserved shells. Top each oyster with a spoonful of the kimchi cocktail sauce.
We've had a lot going on lately and that's a good thing. In case you missed it we have a piece up over at Gilt Taste about cooking with carrot greens. Earlier this month we were also featured in the Sites We Love section over at Saveur. Finally we were excited to have the omelette souffle recipe from our book included in the July Trendspotting section of Food and Wine Magazine both in print and online. It's been a good month for us and our book. And our first book, Ideas in Food the photographs, a compilation of 170+ photographs of dishes is now available through ibooks for only $8.99.
We found this cool set of videos that we had to share. It's Everything is a Remix, it will be a four part series although there are only three videos available now. The idea is that everything out there is a remix of something that came before. Creativity is actually copying, combining and extrapolating. even though we may think we have original ideas they are grown from the seeds planted by everything we see or do in life. Pretty cool stuff.
Over at Gaping Void, Hugh wrote about How To Really Use the Internet. It's a thought provoking piece that led us to Austin Kleon and his post about How to Steal Like an Artist. Not about food, per se, but we're all creatives at heart.
And a late addition which I came across this morning, being 2 hours early for my flight to San Francisco ,is from David Lebovitz's brilliant blog. In an older post on making apple jelly he points us to the the University of Georgia's National Center For Home Preservation, a fountain of information.
An interesting Q&A with Amanda Hesser on adapting and writing recipes on Dianne Jacob's site.
And finally Five Misconceptions About Writing by Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson series and other wonderful books.
Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food-writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than thirty food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?
I've always been drawn to food. I suppose that might seem obvious because I've built my career around a culinary hub. Looking back I realize that it was more than the pursuit of a good meal that drove me, more often than not it was reading about a good meal that would make my imagination take flight. I read cookbooks for the essays rather than the recipes. If the story struck a deep chord and the recipe seemed accessible I would take the next step and attempt some facsimilation of the dish. But most of my pleasure came from my imagination. I may not have always wanted to consume the meals that were described; but I loved being transported to another place by the description.
The many instances where I would be carried away by someone's food writing would lead me to pursue other essays or novels by the same author. Unfortunately, many times they would leave me cold. It was disappointing and it took me a long time to understand that people write differently about food. It is inevitably more personal than almost any other type of writing. You cannot separate the writer from the subject at hand, there is no real way to write objectively about the things we eat and drink, and that is what makes food writing so special. Food is a universal language. Whether or not the writer acknowledges what is happening, any story about eating and drinking and cooking is a glimpse into the writer's psyche. That is what has always fascinated me, that brief window into someone else's world that is translated into terms that I can relate to. Sky diving or playing tennis may be beyond my capacity to empathize with, but culinary experiences are always accessible.
Because of this realization I am almost never satisfied with my own writing. I went from being someone who confidently submitted the first draft of every essay and paper to someone who ponders the meaning behind each syllable and then teetering back towards writing quickly in order to capture an experience and then editing to be sure that the meaning is correct. I've learned to appreciate writers who can create prose that flows like water across the page and those who can paint vivid pictures with a few choice words. The very best writing always evokes emotion and those who write about food have an endless supply of material. This sometimes makes it difficult to separate the good from the great but when something you've read stays with you, for hours or days or years, then you know you've found a great writer, even if it's the only thing they've ever written.
For us the key to writing about food is transparency, being as honest about our experiences as we can. If we can't share fully then we try not to write about an experience at all. I would hope that this is part of what keeps our readers coming back. What I love about the internet is that it has made an abundance of food writing readily available. It may not all be good but most of it is true and heartfelt and inspiring. A Google search beats combing through bookstores for memoirs and novels with food-centric themes to find interesting writers. There's a world of inspiration at our fingertips and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to sift through it.
Over at The Atlantic, Michael Laiskonis is talking about inspiration.
Everything you ever wanted to know about country ham from Cooking Issues.
One great drink from the Elements bar blog and not because it's Japanese...
And for dessert, whole wheat cookies from Orangette. (Because Alex might actually eat them now.)
Back tomorrow with more ideas in food.
As chefs I think it's easy to forget to cook for ourselves. That sounds ridiculous doesn't it? For most chefs their lives are devoted to cooking, to expressing ingredients, to making great food. What Alex and I do is a little different, we balance expressing our food on our time with helping other other chefs better execute their food on their time. And still somehow at the end of the day we are often scrambling to come up with something for supper.
Looking back to my younger days, no mater how nice family meal may or may not have been, as a young cook my most significant meal of the day was usually a burger and fries wolfed down with liberal amounts of beer at bar at the end of my shift. On days off we'd go for broke at the city's best restaurants to experience the different cuisines and to learn from what was on the plate and from what happened in the dining room. Still, when you gather a group of ravenous cooks to talk about food the conversation rarely revolves around fine dining or cutting edge ingredients. When we're truly hungry we talk about the food that resonates with us, the food we'd be happy to eat at that very moment. Burgers and pizza may be a given but depending on the company and the time of year, dishes range from porchetta to pupusas, banana pudding and fried clams, lobster rolls and shepard's pie, visceral pleasures rather than intellectual.
On the other hand, my most memorable meals run the gamut from utterly finger lickin' down home to fine dining. They are unique moments when the stars align and the food, atmosphere and company come together to create something completely satisfying on every level. Those meals are few and far between, and all the most precious for that reason. As chefs we choose the moments we wish to pursue and as diners we do the same. Choosing a restaurant may seem difficult but some days the hardest thing in the world is to cook for ourselves.
Don't get me wrong. There are definitely meals when I relish my solitude. Cooking for myself can be a true indulgence, everything exactly the way I like it with no compromises for anyone else. In this case, I'm speaking of meals at the end of the day or the week, when I'm mentally exhausted, my stomach is gnawing at itself from the inside out and I'm looking at the clock wondering what on earth to make for dinner. Nights when I want something simple and delicious, preferably cooked in one pan and eaten on one plate for easy clean up because I am one of those neurotic people who cannot sleep if there are dishes in the sink but I am cooking for at least one other small person who must be satisfied as well.
So what do I make on these evenings? It's almost embarassing to say. The dish a throwback to my Aunt Marie who always kept a box of noodle soup mix and one of pastina in the cupboard for emergencies. She would prepare the soup with enough pastina to turn it into a pasta dish instead of a soup. She would pour it into a deep bowl and just before serving she would add a generous knob of butter and grinding of fresh black pepper. Served with a spoon it was salty and rich and utterly soothing. I use organic canned chicken vegetable soup so that I can pretend there is some nutritional value involved and instead of butter I prefer layers of swiss or fresh mozzarella cheese, melted and stirred into the noodles. Amaya will happily share this and be perfectly content with her supper. It's a meal for when Alex is away and the metaphorical wolf is prowling at the door. By the time dinner is over I am relaxed and mellow, comforted by both the meal and the memory of the woman who inspired it.
I was flipping through Crust: Bread to Get Your Teeth Into by Richard Bertinet and I came across a reference to Cabernet flour. Of course we had to check it out and see what exactly Cabernet flour was like. In the book he used cabernet powder from Vinifera for Life, a Canadian company. With a little searching we were able to find a company called Apres VIn out of Washington State that also produced not only Cabernet flour but also Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling flours and both single varietal and flavored grape seed oils. They buy the wine pomace left over from the wine making process from wineries they like and use it to make both grape seed oils and grape-seed flours. I ordered a few flours try out and they generously added the last flour and a couple of their oils to try out. Our first experiment was these Cabernet Chocolate cookies and they were delicious. It bodes well for future experiments with these products. We'll keep you posted.
Cabernet Chocolate Cookies
8 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon chocolate extract
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup Cabernet flour
2 cups coarsely chopped chocolate or callets (we used a blend of valrhona manjari & caribe)
Cream the butter, salt and baking soda together using a either a hand mixer or a stand mixer with a paddle attachment until well blended. Add the brown sugars 1/2 cup at a time, beating until each addition is fully blended and light. Add the eggs one at a time, making the sure each one is fully absorbed by the mixture. Add the chocolate extract. Whisk together the two flours and add them to the butter all at once. Stir until just blended. Add chocolate and fold in in by hand. If the dough is too soft, chill for two hours before baking.
Line 2-3 sheet trays with parchment paper or silicone mats. Using approximately 2 tablespoons of dough per cookie, shape the dough into flattened balls either by hand or using an ice cream scoop. Place the dough balls on a sheet pan, leaving 2 inches between them so they have room to spread in the oven. Bake 5-8 minutes (7-10) if using chilled dough), rotating once, until cookies are golden brown and no longer appear wet in the center. Let cool on the pans for at least 5 minutes before removing them to rack or eating.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to go to my first In-N-Out Burger. I was excited because this would be my first time eating one right off the griddle. My previous experience with the burger was vacuum sealed and eaten at room temperature, an incredible experience, just not the same as eating at the restaurant. I ordered and sat back as they cooked my double double and fries to order. I was expecting greatness and the burger delivered. On the other hand I did not understand the fries. They were super crisp but chalky dry on the inside. If a french fry could have a stale texture this was it. And I did not know how this was done. I watched them cut and cook the fries right in front of me. So I left wondering and still excited to return. Next time I will just get another burger.
We're waiting for the snow to start here at home and Alex is on his way to Brussels for a speaking engagement at The Flemish Primitives. Much as Amaya and I wish we could be there but we have some other traveling to do this month and a whirlwind trip to Europe did not work easily into our schedule. This time we'll be living vicariously through Daddy. Hopefully soon we'll all be traveling together again for work.
Anyway since he's traveling & Amaya is a bit under the weather tonight we're sending you some interesting reading that we've found around the web.
When I was growing up I was lucky enough to be taken to the theater more often than most kids. I loved it, absorbing the music and the costumes, getting carried off in a story filled with drama and pageantry. The fact that we always went out to dinner beforehand made the entire evening an event. One of our favorite pre-heater haunts was Victor's Cafe 52.
That restaurant was my first exposure to Cuban food and like the theater that followed dinner, it took me to another place. I loved everything about that restaurant. The fact that most of the diners were speaking another language made it feel exotic and otherworldly. The fact that the food was delicious was an added bonus. Somehow the black beans and rice were unlike anything I'd ever had before and believe me I ate plenty of rice. The ropa vieja was a favorite as was the beefsteak Duran. Suckling pig and savory rice dishes were also delicious. But it was the green sauce that won me over. We started every meal with small, sizzling casseroles of garlicky shrimp and clams in green sauce. The shrimp were delicious, it's just that versions of that particular preparation could be found in many other places. It was the clams in green sauce that drew me in, and stayed with me, prompting me to answer "Victor's" whenever I was asked where to go to dinner before the theater. They were something special. Briny and earthy, they spoke of land and sea, bright blue skies and tropical horizons. I would pry each small clam from it's shell, bathe it gently in the sauce and carefully convey it to my lips. The flavors were bold and soft at the same time, evolving in my mouth as I chewed on the delicate meat. Frankly I could have made a meal of just those clams with good bread and a Shirley Temple or two.
As I grew old enough to ask questions about the food I found out that backbone of that dish was parsley and garlic. It's a simple and stunning combination that finds its voice in cuisines around the world. Earthy, herbal and balanced, that combination can make almost anything not just edible but worth savoring. It's been well over a decade since I last ate at Victor's Cafe. Although I'm sure it has change immensely over the years, as restaurants do, it's comforting to know it still exists there on the edge of the theater district. I like to imagine it filled with the buzz of happy dinners, basking in the scent of parsley and garlic. I like to think of it as a slightly magical combination that brings happiness whenever I employ it in my own kitchen.
As chefs we are often privy to the dining experiences of others. Some are good, some are bad. What we do is listen and learn.
A man was complaining about a recent restaurant experience. He detailed the fact that he ordered prime rib, end cut, well done and it arrived room temperature to warm. So he sent it back and ordered it again and when it arrived it was still just warm and not hot enough. Then he changed his order to well done steak and this wasn’t hot enough either. He sent that one back for yet another steak, which of course still didn’t meet his standards. He went on and on about how the restaurant had failed him. The question is if he wasn’t happy with the meat why didn’t he try something else? Why not give the restaurant a chance to please him instead of setting them up to fail over and over? The other question is why they let him keep ordering and didn’t send him on his way. At a certain point you have to realize that you can’t please the customer and you can’t fix the situation. So what do you do, cut your losses or keep trying?
In times of duress or stress it is important to eat well. The body needs nourishment to support physical activities and mental acuity. Of course these are the times when diets go out the window, we eat whatever is easy and quick, and if sugar and fat are involved, the more the better. We're in the midst of moving into our new home, Mother's Day weekend had it's own unnecessary dramas, and combined with the single biggest purchase and move we've ever made, it's safe to say that we haven't been eating well. It's hard to cook a good meal when you have no idea where the pots and pans are. Tonight after we picked up the cats and finally reunited the family (they've been boarding with family for the last two months) we drew a line in the sand. Alex ran out to the market for a roasted chicken and good salad greens. We cracked open a very nice bottle of wine. There was no bread, butter, or frills and none were needed. It may not have been home cooked but it was a simple, healthy and delicious meal. Nourishment is what we were after and we rediscovered how much better the world looks after a good meal. No pictures because I've never seen a chicken disappear so fast. We were tearing into it before we even had it on the plates. Tomorrow is another day for fun in the kitchen, today we're just greatful to have had access to someone else's cooking.
Here's a link to an entertaining and thought provoking post about the the problem with pinning your hopes on happily ever after.
I love the journey from A to B because:
1. The scenery is ever changing,.
2. I learn something new every time I open my mind.
3. I never know what will happen next.
Read the post and you'll understand what I'm talking about.
I've been reading Best Food Writing 2008 on my Kindle, don't get me started on how much I love it--especially the iphone application, it saves my sanity on a daily basis. Anyway back to the book, the 2008 version has a fair amount of politics and strong minded ideals between it's pages, the essay that really struck me today was one by Sarah DiGregorio, The Salami Maker Who Fought the Law, for Gastronomica, about Salumeria Biellese. Longtime readers know that we're fans of their work, they make some of the best salumi we've ever tasted. The article discusses the lengths they were forced to go to to get approved by the USDA. It's a thought provoking essay that shows that old school methods really do work, although most of the artisan producers will have a tough time coming up with the funds to prove their methods are safe for human consumption according to government standards. We're glad that they were able to push their approval through and we only wish it did more to help pave the way for other quality producers.
Today for lunch I ate cold pepperoni pizza and a chocolate dipped cupcake while I held the baby. As I savored the crumbs of moist cake that stuck to my fingers I remarked to Alex that it felt like a party. Years of birthday parties with pizza and cake were ingrained into my psyche so that even this unorthodox version still made me feel vaguely celebratory as I enjoyed it. My lunch had the upside of not being accompanied by the inevitable small dramas and upsets that occur at any children's party. On the other hand there were no presents or goody bags at the end of my meal. It was a fleeting pleasure that made me think of parties to come as Amaya slowly comes of age.
We've been working on a couple of projects, one about vegetarian cooking. The idea is to create luxurious vegetarian food. My own caveat to this goal is the need to use everyday ingredients so that the dishes are easily accessible and enjoyed. To this end we were talking about texture. Smooth, creamy textures, whether hot or cold, tend to feel luxurious. Much in the same way that silks and satins against the skin feel indulgent, rich textures on the palate make the dinner feel coddled and cosseted. There needs to be contrast and texture certainly, to awaken the senses and allow the brain and the tongue to participate in the experience, it was just the realization that luxury can be about more than simply ingredients, it can be the way a chef uses the ingredients to evoke emotion.
Both memory and texture came into play in my thought processes. Actual dishes or combinations can create an experience, like cupcakes and pizza. It makes me wonder, what food combinations resonate for you? What textures make you feel luxurious?
Sunday is really a good day to go through notebooks and post it notes. While in the past we have uploaded full notebooks and they are download-able on the side bar, we feel that sharing a page now and again might spark a few more ideas. I spent a few hours writing today and this is the top page of notes.
In the continued exploration of life, which in our world often revolves around food and wine, questions, important questions pop up. Let us take a look at wine cellars. Why do people collect wine? Why are wines cellared? As we are packing up our wine cellar I come to question our reasons for collecting and wanting to cellar wine. When we started it was difficult to get on boutique vineyard mailing lists and the availability of specific wines was scarce for those not in the know. Today, almost anything is available if you know where to shop. Sure, at times you may pay a premium though ask yourself what it would have cost you to buy a cult bottle of wine and store it properly from day one so that upon drinking it is at it's peak. If you were buying cases and had the opportunity to buy cases then perhaps you are a wine investor with disposable income which can be tied up in the world of wine. I wonder about that world today when any bottle of wine seems to be only a click, or at most a phone call, away. You may pay more for a single bottle although when is the last time you sat down to drink a case of wine?
So now let us look at restaurants. Why are wine lists so important? Is there a better way? I believe there most certainly is although I'm not sure the best way to articulate the change. If there is a more efficient model for buying and storing wine, why aren't we looking into it? In the same vein, perhaps this thought process could be applied to the purchase and use of ingredients, particularly for those interested in seeing and tasting quality food and drink without major funds to invest. It's definitely something to ponder in the current and future economic conditions.
Cooking is a journey to be savored. It’s about exploring the possibilities to be found on the way to delicious. Some days we become so focused on the end goal that we miss opportunities along the way. Learning to balance the need for experimentation and the need to achieve goals is a skill that needs constant refinement. It's the blending of ingredients that creates something truly special. We hear talk about comfort food, molecular gastronomy, classic French, down home Southern, fine dining, diner food, the list of pigeon holes goes on and on. We're simply about food that tastes great and looks appetizing, perhaps even beautiful, although flavor always comes first. This is a concept that gets a lot of lip service in various forums and still when it comes down to describing a particular chef or restaurant's food we often fall back on easy labels that don't do them justice. We all want an easy explanation when the reality is that truly great food often resists an easy definition. Inspirations are drawn from all the experiences in a chef's life and from the experiences of any cook working alongside them. It's impossible to draw distinct lines around any cuisine and yet we are often compelled to try.
In our own cooking we fall down the rabbit hole again and again, searching for new perspectives and ideas. When we surface from the kitchen we are asked again and again what kind of food we cook. The answer stumps us every time. There is no single category that defines our food, or even that of any other chef we know. Peer into the pantry of the classically trained chef and you will find hydrocolloids and Activa on their shelves. Tiptoe into the kitchen of a "New American" chef and you will find truffle oil and Espellette pepper. Eyeball the menu in a classic American steak house and you will probably see some Wagyu beef from Japan. These are just ingredients, techniques have traveled so far and so fast that we are hard pressed to find ones that are used for only one purpose or cuisine. This melting pot is what makes food so fascinating and cooking so much fune. We are privileged to live in a time when information travels at the speed of light and we can share methods across thousands of miles and adapt ingredients to our individual visions of delicious.
This is not about food, here's a link to a very funny post on one of my favorite non-food related blogs: The Lipstick Chronicles. It's a great illustration about the difference between men and women via shoes. I read it to Alex this morning and he insisted that I post it here. Now if you change the shoes to kitchen equipment and reverse the roles, well then you have both sides of the story...
PS: the post after that one is about restaurant peeves from both sides of the table so there actually is something industry related for people who must have their fix.
These are healthy cookies. At least I tell Aki that since she "snuck" a bit of oatmeal into these peanut butter and peanut M&M cookies. I could say that we sit down to oatmeal for breakfast almost everyday. These cookies and some Counter Culture coffee make four am a whole lot more doable.
Michael Laiskonis has a very important, informative and inspiring post on ice cream and cooking. Its principles speak and define cooking today and for the future. Michael gets it and shares it.
For those who haven't seen this, it's a brief recap and video of Jay Rayner's day with Ferran Adria. It's an interesting glimpse into the world of El Bulli in Adria's own words, especially for those of us who have not been lucky enough to make it out there. You just never know what you'll find over on the Word of Mouth blog.
frankincense is the crystalized sap of a tree and should be utilized more in cooking
modernizing a craft
violet brined sea urchin applying the values of cooking
marrow and minced meat
foie gras minced meat contrasting flavor
The last part of the round table we participated in last Friday centered around "hot topics". It started with a discussion of buying local produce. They started with a story about an independent chain of supermarkets that is known for it's sourcing of local products. The caveat was that the company does not hold the local producers to the same quality standards that are required from the national suppliers. This is turn sparked some debate among the professors present as to whether or not this was actually true since the chain in question was training their local sources in order to bring them all up to the minimum standards by next year. Regardless, the next question posed was whether buying local produce (meaning from within the state, and yes there was a discussion of what the term local actually means and its fluidity from person to person) from Walmart was in the same spirit as buying local from the farmer's market or independent store.
We moved on to a discussion of virtual water, which is basically the amount of water that goes into creating a food product. This is important because there are billions of people on this planet without access to clean, potable water. The suggestion was made that as chefs and restaurateurs we should base some of our decisions on the virtual water value of ingredients and perhaps even boycott products coming from countries without clean water resources for the population in an effort to create change. I'm sure that I don't have to tell you that these statements sparked all kinds of debates, both for and against using virtual water value as an assessment tool in food service purchasing. Either way it gave us plenty to think about.
We talked briefly about animal husbandry and organics. It was pointed out that organic farmers have no incentive to treat sick cows with antibiotics because then the cows must be quarantined and can no longer be used for milk that is certified organic. The reasoning was that the animals are made to suffer for longer periods of time because farmers actually delay treatment in order to avoid lowering production. It was also pointed out that regular, non-organic milk is screened for antibiotics and no milk with any trace of antibiotics is allowed to be sold in the United States. The question posed was why do people choose to buy organic and is it really better.
From there we moved on to carbon footprints. We all know that rising price of gas has greatly impacted our food system. The idea of eating locally is one that has been embraced for reasons of sustainability, economics and pollution. At the round table it was pointed out that for those of us living in New York, wine transported from France actually has a smaller carbon footprint than wine that comes to us from California because the wine from France travels by ship and wine from California travels by truck. So if you use the carbon footprint as your gauge for being a responsible consumer it is better to buy wine from France if you live on the east coast. Again, this opened a rather large can of worms from many different viewpoints not the least of which is whether or not buying American is better than sending the money outside of the country and whether or not some wineries ship by train and whether that has a smaller carbon footprint than the ship that travels from France.
Now these were brief presentations and meant to be provoking. I've been making my way through Marion Nestle's book What to Eat and so I found all of this pointed controversy both interesting and exhausting. There was one person at the table who actually asked the question "why should I care about these things?" His point was that if the government doesn't get behind these issues and there is no change in policy and regulations and his bosses aren't interested in supporting these choices because the consumers dining in his restaurant don't really care, what is his incentive to jump on the bandwagon and spend the time and effort to research all of these issues and make considered choices? One answer was preserving the planet for his children. He acknowledged that he would like to do that but that because the choices are so convoluted and that the information is relatively hard to find, that the amount of work that would go into tracking down the information was more effort than it was worth in terms of the actual impact his decisions would have on the problems.
It's a conundrum. I was sorry that they left these topics for the very end of the discussion when there was so little time to explore them. At the same time I have to admit that the more information I receive, the more complicated the choices become. Buying local seems like an easy choice until you start dissecting what local means, how local supplies are processed and the carbon footprints involved. The question is how much information is too much? How informed can our choices be? Most importantly how economically viable are responsible choices. I don't have any answers as of yet. I know that we try to make the best choices that we can. I just don't always know if they are the right ones. The more information I get, the less sure I am of the right answers.
These are the final results of driving to Ithaca and back in the same day. We participated in an interesting round table up at the hotel school at Cornell, ostensibly about menu development and really about a variety of issues that are cropping up in the restaurant industry today. It gave us lots to think about and after two long drives on top of days of travel, our brains are fried. We'll post more about the round table tomorrow.
We'll just leave you with this question to ponder, interestingly, the theme for the Star Chefs Congress next weekend. What exactly is the responsibility of the chef? The basic answer is creating and executing great food and all that entails, the more complicated answer encompasses education, responsible sourcing, staffing, and safety. So what do you think? What is the responsibility of a chef or a restauranteur in these modern times?
In a workshop today a chef related a story about working at the old Le Cirque. He told us that Jacques Torres would often refer to the savory cooks as shoemakers because they were always fixing dishes at the end of the preparation process, adjusting the seasoning and compensating for any mistakes. On the other hand pastry chefs weighed and measured all of their ingredients each time they made a recipe and so the dishes were prepared properly from start to finish. It was an interesting anecdote because scales are becoming much more common in the savory side of the kitchen. As cooks the transition to weighing and measuring was not a natural one. We chafed at the tyranny of the scale before realizing how much easier it made things in the end. As Wylie once said to Alex, "How can you reproduce a dish if you don't know what went into it?" How indeed. These days the scale is never far and scribbled post it notes decorate the kitchen cabinets. We've learned to embrace precision, although heaven knows there times when we were guilty of being shoemakers without ever realizing that it was happening.
In our world Wednesday is green market day. We may occasionally venture out to Union Square on a Friday or a Saturday, though Wednesdays are a given, if we're in town to do some cooking, we're at the green market on hump day. This morning was rainy and overcast so we decided to go out for breakfast first to give things a chance to clear up.
We drove off the Williamsburg bridge and headed straight for the Clinton St. Baking Company. We had heard great things about this place and we weren't disappointed. My blueberry pancakes were enormous and light, with extra blueberries scattered about. I must confess that I prefer real maple syrup and butter to their hybrid maple butter, but the chorizo on the side helped bring things into balance. Alex's southern breakfast with soft scrambled eggs, fried green tomatoes, cheese grits, and a hefty serving of bacon was awesome and that's probably what I'll order next time. There will definitely be a next time.
After breakfast there was time for a quick stroll to the Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery to pick up an assortment of cupcakes before heading over to the green market. If you've never tried these cupcakes, you really should. They are not too big, not overly frosted, extremely moist and tender, and pretty damned tasty. We had a cupcake tasting after dinner tonight and although the lemon was the clear winner, the runners up were pistachio and chocolate with vanilla frosting. The chocolate on chocolate was a little bit dry and we didn't actually get to the pumpkin or red velvet, which means breakfast tomorrow is all taken care of. I must mention the Bob which I ate right after breakfast as a kind of pre-tasting test. It, though not part of the formal eating of the cupcakes, is my favorite.
We were remarkably restrained at the green market today and decided to make a quick stop at Whole Foods on our way out of town. Among the usual plethora of beautiful produce there was a dazzling display of polished looking ostrich eggs. Alex whipped out his camera and was politely asked not to use it by a nearby produce clerk. So you'll just have to imagine these beautiful, cantaloupe-sized ostrich eggs. They are $39.99 a piece. There were also organic chicken eggs and duck eggs nestled close by. We wondered if perhaps they were stocked there in honor of the rumored Top Chef filming, or perhaps Whole Foods just has that kind of demand. We restrained ourselves from purchasing one, budgetary restrictions and all that. The beautifully stacked display did make us wonder though, how can you tell when an ostrich egg is fresh? There's no labeling of any kind, you can't float them in water or crack them open to check the height of yolk of tightness of the white. They're not wrapped or labeled in any way although they are in refrigeration. Still, for $40 an egg I'd like to know that I'm getting a youthful product.
Any ideas on freshness or uses for such an egg?
There's a new brand of ice cream on the market. It touts single origin chocolate and vanilla flavors. Each one is meant to be an expression of the cacao beans or vanilla beans from a specific place, like Ghana or Costa Rica or Madagascar. I love the idea behind this story, heaven knows there are plenty of chocolate companies doing the same thing. Why not use ice cream as an expression of quality ingredients and terrior? Today I finally tracked down this elusive ice cream at a Trader Joe's here in Queens. It came in a four pack of individually sized chocolate flavors and I eagerly opened the first container. I took a bite and immediately went for the ingredient list. I was not surprised to see that the last four out of five ingredients were locust bean gum, guar gum, carageenan and lecithin.
Now we spend a lot of time teaching people about hydrocolloids and how to use them. The first rule in our book about these ingredients is that if you know they're in a product then you're probably using them the wrong way. Hydrocolloids are ingredients which may help a chef change and enhance the texture of food. If what you're making becomes unpleasant then you've failed at your task of creating a great dish. This was brought home to me tonight when I was chewing on my first bite of chocolate ice cream. Texture aside, there was no intense chocolate flavor. It was there and there were clearly nuances to the chocolate but the entire experience was muted. It was as though someone had put a filter over my taste buds so that I was getting a blurred version of something that could have been amazing in clearer focus. I'm not one to waste calories on things I don't like so after giving Alex a taste (sharing is caring after all), the ice cream went in the garbage.
Fortunately I had some Haagen Daz Chocolate Peanut Butter in the freezer. It's my current go-to flavor and I happily erased the memory of the other with it's smooth, creamy texture and well balanced, indulgent flavor. It's not perfect but it is as close to it as I'm going to get with a ready made product that is relatively easy to source. Ingredient list: Cream, Skim Milk, Sugar, Peanut Butter (Peanuts, Peanut Oil, Sugar, Salt), Egg Yolks, Chocolate, Cocoa Processed with Alkali. Now I'm not saying that one should never use hydrocolloids in ice cream. I'm saying that if adding them doesn't in some way improve on the original formula then there's no point to it. Some things are improved with a bit of tinkering, low fat chocolate milk with a bit of carageenan being a good example, other things not so much. In this case it felt like the hydrocolloids were in there to extend shelf life and stability at the expense of taste. There is something wonderful about the way that the flavor of ice cream blooms as it melts against your tongue that is lost when the texture is too thick and gummy. It's moments like these that give all hydrocolloids a bad name.
Every so often we come across some interesting stuff on the internet and feel compelled to share. This week has been a good one for procrastinating while surfing the net...
Every summer for practically forever my family has rented a house on the beach in Rhode Island for a week in August. Among the many culinary delights available there is one of my favorite things, Rhode Island clear chowder. It is exactly what it sounds like, a clear soup, briny and redolent of the sea, studded with clams and potatoes. It's not something I've found in any other state and so I make sure to get my fix whenever I'm in the vicinity. Apparently I'm not the only one who loves it, over at Leite's Culinaria there's a recipe for this regional specialty.
Fresh cheeses are another favorite. Making them at home is easy and very rewarding. Tartelette has a beautiful write up of making Petit Suisse in tandem with Canelle et Vanille, another wonderful, dessert oriented blog.
This week I stumbled across Straight from the Farm and discovered 17 random fact about honeybees. This completed a theme as I had just finished reading about bees in Gourmet magazine. The loss of the honeybees to colony collapse disorder seems to be a clear warning sign that all is not right with the world. The idea that bees are succumbing to an illness that bears a disturbing resemblance to AIDS in humans is a sobering one.
Last but not least, over on The Chocolate Life you can check out some very cool silicone molds, ostensibly for chocolate but really useful for whatever else your imagination can dream up as well.
*Last minute addition, there's an amazing post over at Jaden's Steamy Kitchen on how to make Xiao Long Biao, steamed soup dumplings. It will make you want to run right into your kitchen, or at least to your nearest dim sum fix.
One of the benefits of being chefs is that occasionally we get invited to educational demonstrations like the one we attended today at the Institute of Culinary Education. The demonstration was hosted by Valrhona chocolate and featured Philippe Givre, Valrhona’s French pastry chef and assistant director of L’Ecole du Grand Chocolat; and Derek Poirier, Valrhona's North American Pastry Chef. It was a four hour presentation featuring four recipes and some of our favorite chocolate and definitely time well spent.
As chefs, continuing education is incredibly important. The world of food is ever-changing and it's easy to get set in our ways and forget to keep pushing our horizons outward. French pastry is not either of our fortes, we tend toward more American style desserts and so it was a lot of fun to be exposed to this very different approach to desserts. Yes there are classic recipes and techniques that span international style, but the perspectives and the approaches can be very different. I love being able to look into someone else's world and see glimpses of where their inspirations come from.
The recipes that were demonstrated were very solid, with an attention to detail that we both appreciated. I've already been inspired to go back and rework yesterday's sorbet technique for a slightly more labor intensive approach that will yield more consistent results. I'll update the post when I finish this tonight.
One of the very best ideas that we took from the demonstration was caramelized white chocolate. Let me state that again, it was caramelized white chocolate. The chefs at Valrhona roast their white chocolate at 266 degrees Fahrenheit/130 degrees Celsius for approximately 45 minutes, stirring occasionally until it reaches the desired color and flavor. Obviously you can adjust cooking times to your own taste. The caramelized white chocolate is simply amazing. The flavor is rich and creamy and almost like butterscotch. Too my taste and nose it was all brown butter, I had to resist dipping my finger in the bowl of melted caramelized white chocolate as it was passed around for us to observe.
Of course we couldn't leave well enough alone. After much discussion on the drive home, Alex fired up the pressure cooker. We chopped the chocolate and sealed it in a bag and cooked it at high pressure for 30 minutes. The results were much darker and deeper than the version we tasted this afternoon. Of course here too, you may adjust the cooking time to suit your own taste. There is definitely something to be said and recipes to be made at both ends of the cooking spectrum. Caramelized white chocolate, oh the places we'll go...
You cannot let it get to you. Often times frustration gets to me. As we have been working through dishes in a new kitchen more failures than successes have occurred. We've talked about the need for practice and rehearsal in cooking so that when dishes must be executed, they are the best they can be. Yet these past few days, recipes we have written, rehearsed, tested, and tasted are failing. We are not doing anything differently, we are just doing them in a different environment, and still the recipes fall flat. Intellectually I know the importance of cutting bait and moving on. At times like these Aki may indulge me even when she feels that I have waited too long to cut my losses. Frankly, even when things aren't working, it's hard for me to abandon the previously tried and true. Four combined attempts later I finally had to admit defeat.
Where does that leave us? Testing new ideas in a place where we have learned more than we anticipated. Read: failed way more than we anticipated. Still we were able to dust ourselves off and carry on. It dawned on me yet again that working with others and being surrounded by passionate individuals is essential in the process of learning and improving. The inspiration of your peers can push you past failure to eventual success.
This weekend we are very lucky to be working in a kitchen filled with passionate individuals who really care about food and cooking. (And it boasts a well stocked pantry to boot.) Now with tools in hand we must move beyond trivial frustrations and work towards creating and executing tasty food. That's what tomorrow's dinner is all about. With a little help from some friends and fellow cooks, we know that we can make it happen.