Wednesday, December 20, 2006
It's the holidays, right? The holiday season connotes three very specific things. Joy. Love. Food. Of course, it also connotes Money. The thing about being a chef (or just a generally resourceful person, as I often find that I am) is that you can give food as gifts, and those who receive it are just as happy as if you has bought them a PlayStation 3 and a helicopter.
My food gifts this year are several fold, including spiced nuts, chocolate/cherry biscotti, and, of course, pretzel brittle.
The purpose of brittle is to give the sweet tooth a fix with some dark, hard crack caramel candy while avoiding sweetness asphyxiation by the inclusion of a salty snack (usually nuts, but, as you will see, pretzels are an awesome alternative). Satisfaction on both ends.
I must admit, I have never made candy before, which what brittle is considered. The thought of heating something to the temperature required to achieve the hard, "brittle" state that sugar acquires when it is cooled (approximately 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit), and then pouring it onto a cool surface makes me incredibly nervous. But - it is the holidays - a time to risk third-degree burns by caramel.
I have four twenty-something male friends who live in one house in Tallahassee and drink an incredible amount of Yuengling beer. Pretzel brittle is the perfect accompaniment to a yeasty, amber beer like that. A perfect pairing. Mike, Chris, Gordon, and Dro: this is for you.
Heating a mixture of corn syrup, sugar, and salt in a saucepan to 300 degrees (or until it starts turning amber) takes about 10-15 minutes, and make sure you have a well-calibrated candy thermometer. And a really really good potholder.
Here's the recipe, as promised:
1.5 c sugar
1/4 c Karo light corn syrup
1/4 tsp salt
2 c crushed pretzels
Heat sugar, corn syrup, and salt in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring until melted and incorporated. Bring to a boil. Use a paintbrush and cold water to melt any sugar crystals that form on the sides of the saucepan. Once boiling, insert candy thermometer and allow temperature to rise to 300 degrees F/148 degrees C. Mixture should be turning amber. Remove from heat and quickly stir in pretzels. Pour over oiled marble slab or cookie sheet covered in aluminum foil. Allow to cool. Break into pieces. Enjoy with medium/dark beers or frosty Coca-Cola - in the bottle, of course.
Saturday, December 02, 2006
While fishing through the aisles of familiar green peppers, tomatoes, and onions, you might have happened upon a few almost-foreign ingredients in your local produce section. These vegetables are not the ingredients that form the ubiquitous pico de gallo, and are generally not found in the eight-dollar salad you had for lunch at the corner bistro.
If you venture into the unknown and place one of these comestibles in your shopping cart, the cashier might look at you quizzically and point an airbrushed acrylic nail at your bagged item and ask you what they call that “thing.” You have no idea. Largely ignored or forgotten, these Lost Vegetables deserve a spot on our dinner tables.
Unfortunately, these veggies can be intimidating because of the lack of publicity they receive. Most reached their prime in the Middle Ages, and since then, very few have unlocked their secret flavors, textures, and health benefits. No one knows how to cook them, so they lay fallow on supermarket shelves. Never fear. The Lost Vegetables that follow are not only inexpensive, but very versatile and packed full of nutrients.
The Turnip (Brassica rapa)
Harold McGee, in his heralded book, On Food And Cooking, rebukes “The turnip has been under cultivation for 4000 years…it is mainly used by the poor and for animal fodder.” This is unfortunate. The round, white and purple root vegetable is a versatile and fiber-packed bombshell worthy of an ovation.
Packed with fiber and Vitamin C, the beautiful lavender color looks great in a raw vegetable platter with dipping sauces. The turnip is also an excellent source of potassium and iron. Their protective phytochemicals are useful for controlling glucose, a claim that their cousin, the potato, could never make.
The Leek (Allium ampeloprasum)
With their subtle, sweet flavor, the leek has been complimented by gourmands as being “the more refined onion.” It looks like a massive scallion (green onion), with a tender white root end and brittle, mostly inedible, dark green leaves. The leek has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years and is mentioned in the Bible as one of the things most missed by the Israelites during their exodus from
The leek has been called “the poor man’s asparagus.” While sharing few of the same flavors, the leek and the asparagus are distantly related through the Lily family, which also includes chives, garlic, onions, and shallots. The “poor” connotation transfers into the leek’s French name, poireau, which is a colloquial term meaning “simpleton.”
Far from being simple itself, the leek is an excellent source of dietary fiber, folic acid, calcium, potassium, and vitamin C. It has mild antiseptic qualities, and has some properties of an anti-arthritic. It also serves as a mild laxative or diuretic, and has been used by French women for centuries to shed those few pesky pounds before a big event, as recorded in the bestseller, French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano.
Use leeks as an alternative to onions in soups and omelets. Wherever lurks a flavor that is usually overpowered by the use of a strong onion, substitute a leek. They’re excellent flying solo, too.
The Parsnip (Patinacea sativum)
In the years before the potato, the parsnip reigned as the staple food to the Greeks and Romans. It is native to
Parsnips carry a light 63 kcal.serving of half a cup compared to ____ of potatoes. They have been deemed “excellent” sources of Vitamin C, fiber, calcium. Parsnips are also a good source of potassium, which is instrumental in lowering blood pressure, preventing and treating kidney stones, and preventing strokes. They pack a load of B-vitamins and folate, which aid in digestion and – ahem – regularity.
Store parsnips in a dark, dry place for a few days prior to cooking them. This will allow some of the starches in the parsnip to convert to sugar, making it easier to caramelize the parsnip and obtain a texture close to that of carrots.
Kale (brassica oleracea)
Perhaps you’ve seen what have been called “ornamental cabbages.” They have broad leaves with frilled edges and either a white or purple center. That’s kale. Kale is native to Asia Minor and the
However, that one piece of kale that usually gets scraped into the garbage can packs 10 whopping grams of fiber per serving, and is an excellent source of protein, vitamins A, C and K (1328% of the RDA), calcium, and manganese, all of which are instrumental to regulating our bodies and fighting away pesky germs and disease. Oh, and 1 cup of boiled kale has only 36 calories, so add it to your diet regimen as soon as possible.
Kale can be used anywhere cabbage is found. Coleslaws and soups are a little brighter and flavorful with a deep green leaf of kale. That peppery punch that you taste will develop over time. After a light frost, kale is sweeter, so the prime time for kale is somewhere in midwinter, where it’s a fantastic addition to Thanksgiving and other holiday meals.
The Rutabaga (Brassica napobrassica)
If ever a vegetable has been lost, it is the rutabaga. The root vegetable looks significantly like a turnip, but without the purple pigment near the stem-end. Originating around 1660, it is believed to be a hybrid of the turnip and the cabbage. The name “rutabaga” come from the Swedish “rotbagga,” (the Swedish word for “thick root”) and is the reason why the vegetable is often called a “swede.” It is a popular accompaniment to haggis in
The rutabaga is beta-carotene rich, and jam-packed with vitamin A. It is also rich in calcium, encouraging consumption by people who aren’t able to get calcium from more popular sources such as dairy products. Rutabagas are also an excellent source of potassium, like the parsnip and the turnip.
Rutabagas are excellent substitutes for potatoes, add them to your next batch of mashed potatoes or serve them mashed and seasoned well. Their crunchy texture make them great to add to salads for an unexpected surprise. Rutabagas make excellent gratin, layered with grated Emmenthaler (more commonly known as “Swiss”) cheese, cream, salt and pepper and a sprinkling of nutmeg.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
I graduated with honors from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary academy.
I have worked as a personal chef in Paris, the undisputed center of the gastronomical universe.
I have read Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste twice, even though it hurt.
And I am looking for a job in Tallahassee, Florida.
I have a friend who graduated a few months before me. He is working for Chef Gordon Ramsey (most of you might know him from his uber-dramatic FOX show Hell's Kitchen) in London on the line at one of Ramsey's most sought-after dining concepts.
I have another friend who graduated at the same time as I did who is now working in the catering division of the Four Seasons Chicago, recently named the Best Hotel Experience by some swanky and reputable source.
And I am looking for a job in Tallahassee, Florida.
The past two days have been full of resume passing. Perhaps it would have been easier to throw my resume at people in say, New York, Napa Valley, or even Boston or Orlando (Chefs at Disney get a $1,000 bonus just for staying for a month). But in Tallahassee, I had nine possible employers. Nine. And every single executive chef or sous chef that I talked to in the past 48 hours had the exact same thing to say. "The Le Cordon Bleu? What in God's name are you doing in Tallahassee?"
I have to admit, Tallahassee isn't the chicest or most erudite of towns. Two things dominate the social landscape. Politics and college life. This fact, in turn, does two things: it limits the kinds of restaurants that succeed in the town (the kind politicians eat at, and the kind college kids eat at), and it limits the job field significantly. A town with over 60,000 college-age students willing to work for a pittance in the kitchen is much like the problem I would have had by staying in Chicago and working in a kitchen. Only the problem in Chicago kitchens is that if you don't speak Spanish, it doesn't matter if you ARE Escoffier; you're not getting a job.
It's true, Tallahassee wasn't my first choice, but the possibility of my attending FSU for graduate school and my ability to live here for almost nothing while I pay off my college loans was too tempting to pass up. Plus, I do believe that there is room in Tallahassee for a young, 22-year old, blonde American girl to show these down-home executive chefs that she actually can make some kind of an impact in this gastronomically-challenged town.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
Breakfast: Veggie omelet (1 whole egg, 2 egg whites, TONS of veggies), one peice of whole grain toast, optional coffee/tea (no milk, no sugar)
Lunch: A bowl of minestrone (2 cups), green salad tossed with lemon juice and olive oil, a peice of whole grain toast.
Snack: Nonfat cappucino/latte (optional Splenda), non-fat flavored yogurt (less than 120 calories/serving)
Dinner: Baked salmon on a bed of arugula, 1 cup steamed broccoli
Okay, day 1. I wasn't hungry all that much. But I have to admit, I was jonesing for something sweet all day. The nonfat Yoplait "Boston Creme Pie" flavored yogurt just didn't do it for me. Plus, I was decieved. Boston Creme pies have chocolate. The yogurt didn't have chocolate. A day without chocolate is like...well, that's another blog entry.
I did cheat a little bit with dinner. Oh, I had the salmon and the broccoli and the arugula (even though my family was eating beautiful fluffy rice), but the salmon was blackened, and the broccoli was sauteed in a little olive oil with garlic, soy sauce, and orange zest. Come on, I'm a chef, give me a break.
The hardest thing was not the drinking 8 glasses of water, and it wasn't the sticking to the menu at mealtimes. It was the snacking. During cooking, I have to taste everything. I also found myself opening the refrigerator at odd points during the day, mindlessly almost-reaching for the tub of ice cream or a peice of homemade peanut brittle. Hopefully tomorrow will be easier.
So there we go. I'm actually kind of hungry right now, but I'm going to try desperately not to eat. If I have to eat, I'll have a carrot.
That last sentence made me remember why I don't "DIET."
Saturday, November 25, 2006
I weighed this much during my senior year of high school. After high school, my weight has been up and down, but never exceeding 180 pounds. I have been (during this time between high school and now)obsessed with calories, a daily jogger, a Weight Watchers member, a yogi, a Pilates practicioner, and just about every other kind of healthy-method dieter. Oh, and in France, I lived on the 6th floor of a building with no elevator.
But this Thanksgiving, I kind of overdid it. Okay, I really overdid it. I can feel my waistline stretching, despite my efforts at healthy eating (read: I've been eating one slice of pizza or one chocolate-chip cookie instead of two ). So on Yahoo!.com tonight there is a blog posting for a 72-hour Thanksgiving detox diet.
I have to admit, as well, that I've never followed a "diet" in my life. Healthy eating and education and exercise has always been my way to lose weight. So this is going to be the first time that I've ever actuall followed a prescribed meal plan.
Starting tomorrow, I'll post about my results. It should be interesting.
Oh, I forgot to mention how much I weigh. I'll put it in code. 200-45.5= my weight in lbs.
Yay for me. Wish me luck. The chef is dieting.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
For the past week, I have been physically unable to stop baking. Every new day sees a pie, a loaf of specialty bread, cookies, pastry, or some other variation on something else that has to be put in the oven for a specific amount of time.
Perhaps it's because I need to forget. I need to forget Paris. I need to forget how many times my heart has been broken. My time in the kitchen has turned into entire days. Sometimes I feel as though the only place I really belong is in the kitchen. I understand the kitchen, and it understands me. Even if i don't eat what I make (I usually don't), it's my time to meditate. It's like a cathedral. I don't speak. I don't sing. I don't dance. I just listen. I listen to the sizzle on the stove. I listen to my Kitchen-Aid whirring as the dough hook pulls the mound of flour, eggs, salt, and yeast into something that will make my house smell more and more like a home.
I usually cook all the time when I come home from one of my adventures. But baking, that's a different animal. When you bake, you have to hyperfocus. It is impossible for one to think about anything else when they are baking. You have to count the ounces of flour in the bread. you have to count the minutes you knead it. Sometimes you have to count the revolutions the bread makes around the mixer. You have to count the hours for rising and pay strict attention to the temperature where it is rising. Baking requires - no, demands - your full attention. Perhaps that's why I have been baking nonstop since I came home from Paris a week ago. I cannot think about Paris while I am baking.
And yet, all I think about while I'm baking is Paris. I think about the way the boulangerie smells at 4am under my 6th floor window. I think about the unhappy woman behind the counter at Boulangerie Caulaincourt with her automatic "Madame, bonjour!" before she takes my order for a demi-baguette, a croissant, and a pain au chocolat. I think about eating sugar covered profiteroles with Guillaume under a clear August sky, dipping them into my chocolat chaud. I have Proustian memories of Parisian boulangeries.
I have found myself making challah a few times this week. Challah is the braided Jewish bread traditionally found on Shabbat supper tables. I have to admit, I have been to more than a few Shabbat dinners in my short life, and the challah has always held a certain symbolism for me. The challah is only cut after the blessing is said (Baruch, ata adoni...etc, I won't pretend to know the whole thing). It is a kind of brioche without all the sugar. Instead, a tablespoon of honey is added. Of course, I speak of a Jewish bread in French terms. How very ethnocentric of me. They are beautiful though, and the dough is soft enough to sleep on and smells yeasty and fresh when it rises.
I also made a cinnamon raisin loaf this morning. I don't know what it looks like on the inside, or what it tastes like, for that matter. I should have made two. The cinnamon raisin bread and one of the challahs are gifts for friends tomorrow. I hope they eat them with Thanksgiving dinner. I hope they are worthy of sitting next to a stuffed turkey and a happy family around the table.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Suffice it to say, I've never had a macaroon (Le macaron, en francais) that I thought was really good. Until about 30 seconds ago.
Vacances is over. Vacances is the 6-week paid vacation that all French citizens get during the months of July and August where pretty much all of Paris shuts down and it's impoosible to get a good baguette (let alone a good patisserie) anywhere. Everyone is in the Cote d'Azur, Nice, Provence, Marseille - feasting on coq au vin and ratatouille in lavender fields with lots of chilled Chardonnays. La vie francais.
But now, the patissieres are returning to their shops and it is finally possible to walk 20 steps out your door and buy fresh bread. I went out on a limb today after my excursion to the Musee Maillol turned out to be fruitless (Tuesday is a strange day to be closed on). I went to the patissier just 20 steps outside my door and noticed that their specialty was macaroons.
A crash course in macaroon making might be in the cards: A macaroon is basically baked almond-flavored meringue disk. You can add colorings and other flavorings to make them prettier. The disks are sandwiched together by a hardish creme patissiere (which actually reminds me a lot of Oreo cookie filling (I guess Oreos could be considered American macaroons).
In this particular patisserie there weren't a lot of impressive looking pastries (I mean, hey they just got back from Toulouse last night!), but the macaroons were among the prettiest and most tempting i had seen. There were ten flavors and colors ranging from a verdant green pistachio to a regal purple creme de cassis. They were absolutley beautiful - I had to have one of every color, no matter what the cost, except for the blue "menthe frais" macaroon. I stand with my hero Jeffrey Steingarten when I adopted one of my mantras "food should not be blue." Plus, if it were really menthe fraise (fresh mint), it wouldn't be blue. Sorry.
I tried the purple one first - it was just screaming to be eaten. It was also the one I was most worried about. I was so, so wrong. A slightly crunchy shell encased a cassis-flavoured jelly like meringuey center filled with this Oreo-filling creme. The second, a coffee and chocolate macaroon just made it impossible to distinguish which I preferred.
Thusly, I have eight more macaroons left. Each with their own taste, but uniform in texture and gratification. I will attempt to be Proustian and concoct a sensory memory from each one. Lucky for you, I will keep it to myself. Not every madeline has a story to tell the world.
ADDENDUM: I just bit into the caramel macaroon and it gave me chills. I'm not even joking a little bit. And I actually hate caramel.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Nutella is a sticky subject. It becomes exponentially stickier due to the fact that it happens to be different all over the world. Italy’s Nutella is heavier on the hazelnut, guaranteeing at least 40 hazelnuts per jar. The French and Swiss Nutella is chocolate-happy, producing a sweeter, creamier product, even at room temperature. American Nutella, still largely unknown except to a select few who seek it out, is almost solid and tends to be grainy and waxy. It has yet to be perfected, since those who enjoy it are either just happy to have Nutella, or know no other trans-continental Nutella.
Is this an un-American distinction? Have I forsaken the land of the free just for a moment of anything-slathered-with-specifically-French-Nutella bliss? I’ve been told as much. The president of Ferrero-Rocher, an Italian by birth, has voiced his preference for the French and Swiss versions. Is he ex-patriate? Or does he just prefer a higher chocolate-to-hazelnut ratio?
Americans have become paranoid. Before leaving for France, my father handed me a pair of surgical-style masks, explaining that they were specially fabricated for use during nuclear holocaust, and urging that I keep them in whatever bag I happened to be carrying at the time. Upon arrival at the airport, I had to throw away my $25 Estee Lauder lipcolor because the Transportation Security Administration thinks I might be mixing it with liquid nitrogen in the airplane’s lavatory. Yet, somehow, I still didn’t have to show my picture ID in order to board the aircraft. I don’t understand that. “Ex-patriate” (or “expat” to their friends – themselves, usually) has become a dirty word again, equal to “Communist” in the 1950s and 1980s and “Jihadist” today. It is the age of the new propaganda. Advertisers layer page upon page with American celebrities (i.e. Paris Hilton - but never Johnny Depp, he’s Parisian) in order to show the world that not only does America carry the best products, but it also has the most beautiful, most visible people. Blowing up America would not only cause the destruction of Jenny Craig weight-loss centers, but also would cause the destruction of Kirstie Alley, who is beautiful again and therefore should not be blown up. Meanwhile, I flip through 50 pages of Dolce&Gabbana and Candie’s ads in order to get to the first-page-masthead of the Vogue I’m reading just to see if Jeffrey Steingarten’s post as food critic has been vacated and lies in waiting for my culinary verbiage. All of this while I’m on the treadmill, attempting to get thighs like Nicole Richie.
Am I being too harsh on America? I doubt it. Maybe I am a little bit un-American. I never fail to cite the 1997 incident when a controversial American filmmaker (who shall remain nameless) orchestrated the First Annual Healthcare Olympics. The only three countries who participated were Communist Cuba, Socialist Canada, and the good ol’ Democratic U.S. of A. The three countries were tried and tested on three specific criteria. Length of time it took for a person with a minor injury to wait in the clinic, amount of money charged for services, and amount of paperwork needed to file in order to complete the healthcare transaction.
A report of the Healthcare Olympics was scheduled to air on the NBC Nightly News. However, the results of the Healthcare Olympics turned out to be – well – not in America’s favor. In fact, the United States came in last. Much like rugby. Following the United States was Canada. Those damn commies won. Now, not only were Cubans beating our immigration system to a pulp, they were also undermining the pride of the United States – no, not Hilary Duff – our flawless healthcare system. NBC asked the director/producer very nicely (read: forceably) to alter the results. They requested that Canada and Cuba switch places. They didn’t mind being beaten by Castro, they just minded being beaten THAT BADLY by the commies.
How I know this is that I read Adventures In A TV Nation by Michael Moore (oops.) while at BYU. A Michael Moore book at BYU? Yes. That is what makes America great.
What else makes America great? I can think of no better midnight snack than 20 extra-hot wings from Hobbit Hoagies in Tallahassee, Florida with several cold Bud Light’s to wash them down and a round of pool with good friends. Grilling is the best way to eat anything (I’m counting the healthful factor too, otherwise my vote would have gone to deep-frying). Our flag is one of the prettiest around. I love Target. Our president is much more entertaining than either Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, or Chancellor Angela Merkel. I love the United States.
I guess I just don’t compliment America enough. I just figure that it’s general ignorance of other cultures (mostly the ignorance is centered around the mid-West and Southern states (including Texas) – sorry Oklahoma), and “rugged individualism” makes compliments from a young woman like me unimportant. America has enough crippling self-esteem. Why does it need me to validate it?
France, on the other hand is quite aware of other cultures. It just prefers its own. American mistake this “preference” for dislike, enmity, and even hatred. I have heard claims that French people treat Americans badly when Americans try to speak French, and it goes awry. Sorry, but when was the last time you heard an American make fun of the way an Asian person pronounces the English “R”. Hmmm? When was the last time you heard an American mock a Japanese tourist for asking “You take peektcha!??”
Lighten up. There’s no reason to hate on people who love the French. There’s no reason to hate the French. Except that their Nutella is better than yours.
As a peace offering to my American friends, I’d like to offer my new recipe for Nutella soufflés, which can be made with American, French, Suisse, or Italian Nutella. But not English. Gross.
40 g/1.5 oz unsalted butter
185 g/ ¾ c caster sugar
2 cups crème patissiere (see Why Are Cream Puffs… entry for recipe)
4 oz Nutella, heated to approx. 97 degrees F
3 tbsp chocolate liqueur (optional, but I love it – ooh, even better: Grand Marnier)
12 egg whites
3 tbsp caster sugar
confectionary sugar (for dusting finished soufflés)
Brush inside of eight soufflé dishes with softened butter, then coat butter with the caster sugar. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (205 degrees C) and put a large baking try in the over to preheat with it.
Warm the crème patissiere in a bowl in a double boiler, then remove from heat. Whisk in warmed Nutella
Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form, whisk sugar into meringue gradually until mixture becomes glossy. Add half of the meringue to the crème patissiere to soften it, and then fold in the remainder of the meringue with a large wooden spoon or spatula. Pour into soufflé dishes.
Put the dishes on the hot baking try and bake for 15-18 minutes or until soufflés are well risen and wobble slightly when tapped. Poke a skewer through a crack in the soufflé. It should come out slightly moist. The internal residual heat from the soufflés will cook the rest of the soufflé by the time it gets to the table. Serve IMMEDIATELY and watch magic happen.
Monday, August 14, 2006
Some proclaim the pride of France to be foie gras, to be cheese, to be bread – with its crusty shell encasing a vulnerable center. Some exclaim it is Escoffier!, it is Bocuse!, it is Ducasse! – with their gallivanting the world collecting Michelin stars and claiming to need none of them. Even some exclaim that the pride of France is it’s tradition, is it’s history, is it’s religion – of which none really exist…anymore.
Non! J’exclaim. All are anathema! The pride of France is its confiture. Its jam.
Taking the shape of its decagonal jar, the jam in France is its own Ecole Superieur. A mock hand-written label signifies its homemade taste. Its ability to be licked, nay, plucked from the glass with the fingers – allowing its gelatinous sugars to drip from the tip of the nail to the base of the digit where it inevitably becomes stuck in the well between the lucky one and the less fortunate. No discrete motion efficiently extirpates the jam. The tongue must engage in battle. It must ride forth from the cave that holds it captive and ride into the valley with a single purpose. The hand must twist and maneuver to provide the path for the tongue. Perhaps, if you are lucky, the drip in the well contained a caviar of raspberry, a preserved cherry, or a shred of strawberry.
You must work for your confiture - even in France, nothing is really free. If you are lucky enough to be able to pry the lid free of the jar (in my world, the jam never has time to stick to the sides long enough to become a hindrance), if you are lucky enough to smell the rendered fruit – never the sugar, if you are lucky enough to open a jar of Bonne Maman confiture, you have just begun your morning.
Confiture has risen to a higher level in Europe than it ever has in America. Americans use jam as an enhancement for otherwise tasteless and unexciting bread. Jam is sandwiched between cream cheese and butter as a mere condiment. Europeans know the true abilities of jam. It has been tried and tested and proven worthy. Confiture in France is the true compliment to bread. Adding confiture says to the bread, “I am proud of you.” Butter is optional. Cream cheese – the waxy, completely tasteless commercial variety - is heretical.
There is nary a food that confiture does not enhance. Spread on pork, cherry confiture increases the smoky flavor of a ham, a chop, or a slice of bacon. Strawberry jam creates a sweetness and moisture in chicken and game that never could have existed without it. Perhaps my favorite, however, is a FG&J sandwich. A thin layer of goose liver pate and an equal layer of raspberry confiture on a soft piece of pain de campagne. I am swooning.
The pride of France may be its white yogurt. But no yogurt is sweet enough without a full spoon of jam.
Sunday, August 06, 2006
Possibly the most underappreciated and least known among the major international cuisines, Greek cuisine yields some of the most colorful and tempting combinations of texture, smell, and, of course, flavor. When it's done correctly. Unfortunately, while most Americans have no trouble at all pointing out an anemic enchilada or a mediocre moo goo gai pan, it is a much more formidable task to take down a turbid tzatziki or recognize a so-so spanikopita. It is much easier to produce Greek food that is passable but not perfect due to the almost mystical nature of the cuisine in most of Americana.
On a recent trip to Taki's "Greco-Roman" restaurant in Leesburg, Florida, it became apparent why Leesburg isn't on the Top Ten list of world culinary capitals and why Floridians so often choose the Chili's or Red Lobsters that dot the highways when it comes to dining choices.
Upon entering Taki's, the sounds of the well-known Greek musicians Nelly Furtado and Timberland greeted us with a hearty and welcoming "promiscuous boy/let's get to the point." It probably couldn't get any worse. And then it did. Our meal was narrated by Casey Casem counting down America's Top Forty, which somehow included "Unbreak My Heart" by Toni Braxton, several BeeGee's songs (appropriately enough, "Tragedy") and of course, the ubiquitous soon-to-be one-hit-wonder Daniel Powter. I was jonesing for some Yanni, regardless of Barry Gibb's striking resemblance to the same.
Other than the music, the typical and unimaginative decor, which I'm sure was purchased as a package from Greek Restaurant Decor Depot, added little charm to the space. I looked around disinterestedly at the false window cut-outs in the drywall, made to resemble an airy, sunshiney villa on the turquoise Aegean. My culturally-astute dining partner (read: My mom) earnestly wondered aloud why Greek people have such a strong prolivity towards limestone statuary. Easily, this was the highlight of the evening.
We were introduced to our dinner by no cordial means. My selection of the Greek Combination Plate #2 consisted of a slab of flavorless, greasy spanikopita, several phyllo dough triangles filled with goat cheese, a skewer of pork souvlaki, and a square of slightly congealed moussaka (flippantly referred to as "Greek lasagna" for us dumb Americans). Everything needed salt, first of all. Such an elementary flavor miscalculation meant only one thing. I called to our punk-rock princess of a server (who, incidentally, had VERY cute hair) and asked her about the abominable spanikopita and equally-as-offensive "triangle thingies" (I clearly astonished her with my distinguished command of culinary argot). Further investigation and rather probing questions revealed what I had suspected: both were delivered frozen and subsequently reheated for service. I was, rather smugly, told that if our server had been a kitchen staff, she would probably have been upset, but since she had "nothing to do with whatever happens in the kitchen" she couldn't be emotionally involved with the food. This kind of disconnect jarred me, and was the greatest downfall of what otherwise would have been a passable meal. Knowing that the staff did not stand behind the food made everything just a little more disappointing - and worthy of a blog review.
I do have one significant point of praise, however. The souvlaki (marinated pork tenderloin skewered and grilled) was fantastic. The skewer dripped with juices and packed quite a punch of flavor. Bravo. Serve a couple of pieces of that delectable pig with some of the housemade tzatziki (a sour cream and cucumber sauce that lacked a significant amount of garlicky glory, but was nonetheless very good), some warm pita slices, and a few tomatoes. I tremble.
I failed to mention my mother's meal of "baked spaghetti Parmagiano with mushrooms" simply because it was not worth mentioning until now. Noodles overdone to the point of mushiness, slathered with a tablespoon of red sauce, lightly broiled bagged pre-shredded mozzarella (which added more of fat than of flavor), and sprinkled auspiciously with canned mushrooms just didn't merit any explanation other than the explanation I just gave. It definitely doesn't deserve further criticism.
I do not believe I will return to Taki's, regardless of the longevity of the establishment. If anything, the fact that Taki's has stood unchallenged in Leesburg for 20 egregious years is only evidence of my prior postulation: Americans just don't know Greek food. Instead of spending the money and going to Taki's, save a few more dollars and go to Chicago. Eat at Kosta's on Halsted in Greektown and experience true Pelopennesian perfection. Socrates will be proud.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
For one minute, I'm going to name every comfort food I can think of. Ready. Go
Mac and Cheese
Green bean casserole
mashed potatoes with gravy
Chicken Noodle Soup
Fried Green Tomatoes
Au Gratin potatoes
Okay, that wasn't a lot. And clearly my Southern roots are showing. I should touch them up. I mean really, who would put fried green tomatoes on the list of comfort foods besides a true Southern belle. Ditto for creamed spinach.
Tonight I made a fantastic meatloaf. I had a rather difficult night last night and an equally difficult day, so the only real answer was meatloaf. And Caramel Praline Crunch ice cream, of which I am partaking at this moment. Praline. There's the Southern-girl-ness again.
Sorry, I got distracted. My house started so smell like heaven smells (or what I imagine Heaven to smell like) about 25 minutes into the cooking process. The reason for this is that I WRAPPED THE ENTIRE MEATLOAF IN BACON. Let me say that again in italics in case you missed it in caps.
I wrapped the entire meatloaf in bacon.
It was insanely good. As a result, the meatloaf was not only tender and savory (thanks to some fresh sage and another result of my being brought up by a Maryland native - Old Bay seasoning), but when i cut into it, all the juices and bacon fat just poured out like the most incredible waterfall you can even dream exists in the rainforests of Hawaii. Or the jungles of Hawaii. Whichever. Of course I saved the fat. My brother and I are going to be making a substantial pot of clam chowdah tomorrow, and the bacon fat will come in quite handy.
The juice alleviated the need that some meat loafs have to be drowned in ketchup in order to stay moist. A friend and I were discussing the the addition of ketchup to meatloaf this evening and agreed that a meatloaf should be prepared so as to not require ketchup, but that it is an acceptable addition if said meatloaf happens to be dry. I think that my meatloaf tonight was the exact opposite of dry. That being moist. To the point of incredibleness.
I even forgot the Lea and Perrins. I'm amazing sometimes. I mean all the time.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
How appropriate. I'm Chocolate.
|You Are Chocolate Ice Cream|
Friday, July 21, 2006
I walked in and Chef Gail handed me a Cryovac bag full of red, fatty, Frenched (meaning bone out) lamb chops. Let me first say that I love Chef Gail. Let me also add that lamb is, by FAR, my favorite meat. I was going to say that it's my favorite protein, but that's so not at all true. I would take seafood over a land animal any day. Though the fat in the land animals is so so much more tasty and useful for things like...oh...CONFIT (the thought of which makes me tremble).
I had been talking to my friend Gilbert on MSN this afternoon while I was thumbing through the first French cookbook that I ever owned as a lass. Actually I was 20 when I bought it, never thinking I would ever go to France, much less become a classically trained French chef. THere was a recipe for a dijon-mustard and green herb crusted lambloin (the chops are cut out of the loin, in case there is confusion amongst you). I had to try it. But alas, a thorough perusal of my apartment refrigerator yeilded only the dijon mustard. Not enough to make the lamb. When Chef Gail handed me the lamb tonight, it was like...being kissed for the first time. By Matt Damon. And Brad Pitt. At the same time.
She also handed me a bag of green beans, telling me that they were my vegetable, and for me to think about a starch to put on the plate as well. Since I was going all Francais for my meat, I decided to pull a few more recipes from my classical repertoire to make the perfect French entree. I decided on Haricots Verts au Provencal (green beans with tomatoes and shallots) and glazed carrots and (here's where you gasp) turnips.
I have read a lot about turnips. That's probably the only time you'll ever hear that sentence. You'd better reread it. I have read a lot about turnips. Chef Alain Passard of L'Arpege (doesn't it seem like every French chef's name is Alain? I think I might have to name one of my sons Alain.) calls the turnip "one of the world's great Lost Vegetables." I must agree. I love turnips. Especially glazed with honey and carrots and lots and lots of black pepper. This is weird though. I decided to go out on a limb and cut the turnips into little balls with my melon baller. This turned out to be a fantastic idea, and would have been even more fantastic once someone invents a way to use a melon baller on a carrot. I might die when that happens. So, in essence, I'm left with a masticated turnip that's been melon-balled until it looks like an enormous Whiffle ball, and about 40 little turnipy spheroids. Sitting next to the carrots, the turnips look like mothballs. It looks like I'm glazing MOTH BALLS. I decide not to use the melon aller on turnips anymore. I think sweet potatoes would be a good candidate to be melon-balled.
Everything turned out fabulously. Though I prefer my lamb medium rare to rare, I recognzed that sometimes people are scared of meat that isn't completely done all the way through - so I went for the medium-well route. It was a success on all fronts. The meat was still juicy and SO tender, I can't even stand to think about it even now. The mustard got a kind of smoky flavor. There's nothing like standing in the kitchen surrounded my 10 other chefs in training, holding two Frenched lamb chops by their bones, shaking them like maracas and doing a little shimmy, looking out into the cafe (there's a huge window where everyone in the Cafe can see what goes on in the kitchen (it's part of the 'experience')) and seeing that 20 patrons are watching intently and laughing at your little shimmy, and then biting whole heartedly into one of those delicious and succulent little lamb lollipops. Wow. I wish I had one right now.
That's enough for tonight. More food fun tomorrow.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Sunday, July 16, 2006
Last night I made chocolate-chip cookies using Splenda instead of sugar and Smart Balance-Omega 3 instead of butter.
I'm going to chalk this attempt up to my current quest for low calorie junk foods that I don't have to feel guilty about without all the ridiculous preservatives that make it possible for Snackwell's cookies to be still viable snacking options after they've been in your pantry for 6 months or more.
Needless to say, these cookies, while they probably averaged about 150 calories less than the traditional Toll-House cookie (it should be noted that the Toll House cookie is the official state cookie of Massachussetts. Yeah, they're that good.), but they were three things that a chocolate-chip cookie simply should not be. Cakey, poofy, and smooth.
The usual remedy for the cakey/poofy thing is lower oven temperature. The lower temperature allows the cookie to spread out. Lower temp also means that you have to leave the cookies in there for a longer amount of time, which caramelizes the butter and sugar together to a certain extent, and creates the chewy texture of a perfect cookie. For these cookies, however, the lowing of the oven temperature just made the cookies less poofy - but still cakey and difficult to eat without milk. Oh - and I'm lactose intolerant. And I refuse to admit it enough to take Lactaid. I just thought that was an important point, seeing as how it stifles my cookie-eating rituals.
As for smooth - I'm blaming that on the Splenda. I'm also blaming the fake sugar flavor on the Splenda. I watched a Whose Wedding Is It Anyway? on the Style network the other day and the bride said that she was having the baker make a Splenda cake for the wedding. Good luck with that, baker. My current view is this: leave the Splenda for sweet tea and lemonade. Drink zero-calorie beverages when you're consuming full-calorie, full-fat sweets. You'll be happier.
Here's the lesson. I'm warning you - it's tres francais.
Butter and sugar rock.
Monday, July 03, 2006
Apparently, according to www.joyofbaking.com, the French thought that the little spheroids created by the pate a choux when it bakes looks like little cabbage heads. I think that's stupid. They look like pate a choux.
If anyone's interested, creampuffs are a fantastic rainy afternoon activity. Just make sure you dip them in chocolate. :)
I was laying awake this evening thinking about Breyer's "All Natural" Vanilla - which seems to be the entire world's idea of the paragon of ice cream perfection. I have a feeling it has a lot to do with the vanilla bean specks that Breyer's markets shamelessly. I have an issue with this ice cream because I am a snob. Vanilla ice cream should not be as white as a Michigan snowdrift. It should be pale ivory or golden ivory, depending on whether it is French vanilla or regular vanilla. Breyer's "All-Natural" is virginal white. With black specks, of course. Creme anglaise is the base for all ice creams. It contains milk, sugar, cornstarch, and (here's the kicker) eggs. The yolk of an egg is yellow, right? So a creme anglaise should be a little bit yellow (a lot yellow if it's French vanilla, since the addition of about 7 egg yolks per gallon of creme would make it much deeper). Breyers is, of course, not hiring thousands of underpaid workers at their packing plant in Nowhere, USA to stand over a hot pot of delicious creme anglaise in preparation to make true vanilla ice cream. But this does account for my distaste for Breyers vanilla, which I feel is too icy and shallow of a taste to be considered real ice cream. It is a good vehicle for toppings though, which I readily will add to the top of any Breyers brand. Vanilla ice cream should be silky, rich, and very vanilla-ey. It shouldn't be vanilla-ey just because there are "bean specks" in the ice cream. I would also like to point out that vanilla beans are DISGUSTINGLY expensive, which means that there's no way in hell Breyers could charge $3.99 and still be making a profit if they used real vanilla beans. Unless they're taking a loss on that just to make up for it with the Heart Healthy sub-brand (which isn't real ice cream, because it tastes like crap) which they charge a hefty $6-7 a half-gallon for.
Alain Ducasse has recently (2002) opened a restaurant in Paris called 'Spoon.' The premise of the restaurant is to bring much more shamelessly modern cuisine to a place where French cooking is considered a religion, and it is very difficult to find fusion cuisine. 'Spoon' is supposed to encourage the French people to learn about the cuisine of other countries, and even try to expand their ideas about their own classic dishes. It's meeting with much resistance, as you can imagine.
Ducasse has, to the chagrin of many, placed Ben and Jerry's ice creams in many of his dessert, marketing them by their names. Ben and Jerry's is almost impossible to get in France. I've tried. When you do get it, it can cost almost $15 a pint - considering the abysmal exchange rate I had to live with for 5 months early in 2005 (it's much better now). There has been so much negative talk about this move by Ducasse, even though Ben and Jerry's is second only to Breyers in sales in the US. Personally, I don't see what the problem is. Ben and Jerry are two hippies from Vermont who use all natural ingredients (except for xanthan gum, I might point out), and who inspire their ice creams from musicians like Dave Matthews Band ("One Sweet Whirled"), The Greatful Dead )("Cherry Garcia"), and of course my favorite, Phish ("Phish Food"). Someone please tell me why I would want to slave over a creme anglaise, add extra ingredients and flavorings, wait for the ice cream maker to warm up/cool down, extract the ice cream (which usually ends up about the same consistency as lightly frozen glue), and then clean the whole damn thing, when I could just pick up a fantastic pint of Chubby Hubby (malt ice cream, fudge swirls, and peanut-butter-filled pretzel bites) and call it good. I just don't understand people sometimes - especially those of the French variety. I think Ducasse is on the right track.
On a recent trip to Panama City Beach, my best friend and I stopped at a "Homemade Ice Cream Parlor." Honestly, the ice cream was mediocre. The flavors were excellent - mint without being too Listerene-ey, chocolate without being too cocoa-ey - but the consistency was just what I mentioned. Lightly frozen glue. But serious props to the old guy behind the counter, who I'm sure has been running the place for the last 400 years. I looked overwhelmed at the menu of 15 flavors when he asked for my order and breathed, "Crap..." The man looked at me and said, "Hm...I'm pretty sure that's the only flavor we don't have." The comment elicited a chuckle from me, but I silently thought, "You don't have Phish Food." I guess I just like xanthan gum in my ice cream.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Last night, I attempted a Cuban black bean soup that ended up more like a andouille-challenged Jambalaya. It was fantastic though, I must admit. It even elicited a compliment from my brother, who is completely impossible to please with cooking other than his own. He even got up for seconds – the ultimate compliment. Of course the “jambalaya sans andouille” was topped with avocado cubes and crabmeat. Anything topped with avocado and crabmeat will bring a standing ovation to even the most somber of dinner tables – at least in my limited experience.
My mother is not used to my obsessive gourmandism quite yet. My projactulations of “Oh my heck, this chicken is AMAZING” or “This is the most beautiful mango,” or “I can’t wait to get my hands on those poblano peppers,” has taken her a little by surprise (happy surprise, I’m gathering). She makes comments like, “ I’m glad you’re so in love with the chicken, dear,” which sounds a lot to me like, “That chicken is the reason you’re not married,” or “ Calm down about the chicken, dear, you’re scaring away the boys.”
Regardless, my obsession with food will not relent. It will simply fester until it becomes something that chefs and editors alike will have to reckon with.
I’m trying to think of something to do with all of those zucchini. That tart is coming to mind from the June issue of Saveur – puff pastry, ricotta cheese, Monterey jack, lemon zest, and sliced zucchini. I think that sounds like a fabulous lunch for tomorrow.
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
This evening I was discussing the wonders of Olestra with a dear friend of mine. For those not familiar with the brand Olestra, it is an alternative to butter, oil, and other cooking greases that contain high doses of saturated fat. Synthetic though it is, its praises have been sung by great gourmands such as Jeffrey Steingarten and Rachael Ray. Okay, not Rachael Ray - but I'm sure she'd love it if she could pry herself away from her precious EVOO. More on this later. However, I have also hitched my wagon to the Olestra oxen and told them to drive on with all deliberate speed. That being said, my dear friend told me of a story worth relating with regard to the wonder of Olestra.
Perhaps you remember the phenomenon of the Wow! chip that occurred a few years ago. These chips were said to be as flavorful, as satisfying, and as exciting as the regular brand of potato chip. These chips came in all the same "brands" of chips put out by Frito-Lay, including (but not limited to) Doritos, Original Lays, Wavy Lays, and Fritos. However, the start difference between these Wow! chips and the original chips was the cooking liquid used in the MASSIVE deep fryer owned by the production factory. Instead of using corn oil, peanut oil, or partially-hydrogenated soybean oil (my personal favorite), the Wow! chip used liquid Olestra. Now, Olestra contains no saturated fat - the fat that slows down digestion of foods containing fats and coats the arteries, eventually causing arterial blockages and subsequent heart troubles.
At the time that these chips were becoming popular, around the year 2000, a friend of my friend consumed a significant portion of these chips. One side effect of Olestra not listed on the package of Wow! chips is their ability to pass through the digestive system at an ungodly rate. The friend came to school one morning and declared, "So...last night I ate pretty much a whole bag of those new Wow! chips and...well....wow." I really appreciated that story because it not only serves to remind us that good health comes with a price, but also that we should eat foods containing or cooked in Olestra in close proximity to a restroom.
I am beginning to read It Must Have Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten (the illustrious gourmand, judge on Iron Chef America, and current food critic for Vogue magazine). I finished The Man Who Ate Everything a few months ago, and am already finding this sequel to be far more entertaining. I will end my blog post with this quote from him.
"My goal is not to sudue Nature. My goal is to eat Nature."
May we all gather our stamina in pursuit of so noble a cause.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
On second thought, I don't think asparagus or broccoli have ever been said to lend a "kick" to anything. But I'll bask in being the first one to have granted the compliment to our green veggie compatriots.
Until I actually make the recipe - here it is, courtesy of Saveur, June 2006:
4 tbsp. Butter
1 scallion (white and light green parts only), finely chopped
3 ½ cups arborio rice
1 cup white wine
¾ cup heavy cream
Finely grated zest of 3 lemons (about 1 tbsp.)
¾ cup finely grated parmigiano-reggiano (about 2 oz.)
Julienned zest of 1 lemon, for garnish
1. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil over high heat on a backburner. Meanwhile, heat 2 tbsp. of the butter in a heavy-duty medium pot over medium heat. Add scallions and cook until softened and light golden, about 2 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring constantly, until translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Add wine and cook, stirring constantly, until rice has absorbed most of the wine, about 1 minute.
2. Add 1 cup of the boiling water to rice, using a ladle, and cook, stirring constantly, until water has been absorbed, 2-3 minutes. Repeat this process 5-6 more times, until rice is al dente. (You’ll have water left over.) Add cream and grated lemon zest and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes more. Remove from heat, stir in remaining butter and parmigiano-reggiano, and season to taste with salt. (If risotto seems to thick, add more water to adjust to desired consistency.)3. Spoon risotto onto plates and garnish with julienned lemon zest. Serve immediately.
Here's what one blogger has to say about the dish. Her comments will be duly noted.:
"The next dish on the menu this week was the Risotto al Limone from Saveur. I'd been drooling over the picture for weeks, and I was happy with the way it turned out when I made it. Lemony but mild enough not to offend the non-lemon lovers of us, it was a lovely starter. My only concern is that even after adding an additional scoop of water while cooking, the risotto was almost too al dente. I did halve the recipe, adding the water in 1/2 cup increments instead of full cups, so that may have changed things, but I'd still suggest testing the risotto before you move on to the cream part of the recipe."