Wednesday, November 28, 2007

East Eats West

This is the worst excuse for a blog post, but I wanted to share with everyone the work I've been doing for the Orlando Weekly. Here is the link to the On The Side column that I write. It's a short column (250-400 words) that is usually a restaurant review, cookbook review, or festival promotion. This week's column isn't posted. It's called "East Eats West," and just in case it isn't posted, since last week was Thansgiving and they might just decide to skip that issue and move to next week's, I'll post it below.

Be on the lookout by the end of the week for a new blog post. I promise it'll be great.

LINK: Orlando Weekly's On The Side Column

East Eats West

At China Hut on OBT, ignore the classic Hunan Beef and Moo Goo Gai Pan and ask for the Peruvian-style menu. Then order a bottle of chicha morada ($2.50). It looks daunting, but the violet Peruvian drink made from purple corn is fragrant and refreshing.

If you don’t speak Spanish or Mandarin, use your index finger to indicate your desire for a plate of arroz chaufa de mariscos ($9.50): fried rice served the Peruvian way – heaped on a plate and overflowing with pearly scallops, pink shrimp, and tender calamari rings.

For something with a little more heat and a striking flavor, move your finger just slightly down the menu to the ceviche mixto ($10.50)The ceviche, marinated in the juices of limes and lemons, defies the nouvelle-American version with sea scallops and instead marinates tender whitefish, shrimp, and calamari in a spicy mélange of red onion, cilantro, and jalapeno. It is served with a few pieces of chilled potato and a handful of cancha – toasted and salted Peruvian corn nuts.

While China Hut’s traditional Chinese fare may be less-than-remarkable, the flavors of Peru shine. Leave the lychee duck ($10.96) with its soggy meat, cloyingly sweet red sauce, and too much pineapple for the less continental. Channel your inner Incan and leave Bejing for Lima. You can get Chinese anytime.

(China Hut, 7615 Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando, 407-240-0467)

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Hunk of Malarkey: Top Chef Brian in Orlando

There was no application required for Top Chef: Miami contestant and fourth-runner-up, Chef Brian Malarkey. Bravo TV called him at the Oceanaire Seafood Room in San Diego, where he spends long days listening to Bon Jovi and Bob Marley in front of the stove as executive chef. They asked for his participation in the third season of the most highly-rated food show on television. For Brian, the prospect of being asked to“climb a coconut tree and cook” was daunting, but he accepted and went on to be a fierce competitor.

Brian is obsessed with seafood, and regaled me with anecdotes about eating freshly cooked squid on the docks in Marrakesh in Morocco, ink squirting from the grilled flesh. He smiles widely at me – and I can’t help but blush - as he talks about the “spirit of the fish,” its wild and untamed nature coming through in each of his dishes.

Recently voted San Diego’s Chef of the Year for 2007, Brian is at the top of his game. It’s no wonder that the uber-quirky chef from Oregon, donning a brown fedora instead of a toque, was such an exciting competitor. He’s easy on the eyes, too – and his food can only be described as inspired. Brian preaches “freshness, flavors and fun” as the main components of his food at the Oceanaire, and that mantra is seared into his culinary stylings. His food is the definition of unpretentious, even though his repertoire once included an indubitably rich blue crab crème Anglaise, and a famed foie gras sorbet, which he lovingly named, “ducks on a frozen pond”.

Chef Brian hosted a beautiful dinner at the Oceanaire in Orlando, the newest addition to the restaurant group’s thirteen other locations, on Thursday night. Five courses, five wines, innumerable flavors. Ethereal is the only word to describe the experience.

Picture this: A creamy scallop, deemed the “essence of the ocean” by Chef Brian, hit at the last minute with a squirt of lemon juice, black caviar and finished with red sea salt, sits next to an oyster shell filled wit ruby-red ahi tuna tartare, a classic kicked up into a perfect juxtaposition of delicate and fiery. An oyster on the half shell, spritzed with champagne and a strawberry mignonette finishes the beautiful trio d’amuses.

Second course was blast of Asian and Latino flavors called a “seafood sausage.” Rich Corvia sea bass and shrimp are held together by a delicate scallop mousse, sitting atop a sweet chili glaze and vibrant cilantro-ginger vinaigrette. It was paired perfectly with a Kabinett Reisling (the driest of German Reislings), the crispness of the wine cutting through the Asian spices and the heat of the sriracha and the minerality (hints of chalkiness and wet limestone) complementing perfectly the white wine poached mussels and conch toast sitting in the middle of the table.

A creamy turnip puree complemented a gorgeous dish of Alaskan Halibut, probably my second favorite fish after salmon. A crunchy fennel slaw offsets the flaky white flesh of the fish, glazed with a sweet and tangy sauce of orange juice and Absolut Citron, making it the perfect “screwdriver.”

The crowning glory – the most innovative incarnation of Surf ‘n Turf I have ever experienced. In most restaurants, a slab of New York Strip sits next to an awkward-to-eat in-shell lobster tail and a lifeless brown demi-glace. Not so with Chef Brian’s stylings. Several pieces of medium-cooked steak perched happily on top of vibrant red lobster claw meat, nestled in tiny asparagus tips and purple potato hash. Drizzled around the plate was not the useless and generally flavorless demi-glace, but a garnet colored beet and veal reduction, adding richness to the dish that no other sauce could even dream of accomplishing. It was topped with crispy fried slivers of parsnip, and let me just tell you - any chef brave enough to use parsnips on anything earns my Chef of the Year award. In my pants.

Port-poached pears stuffed with Camemzola cheese (a juxtaposition of Camembert and Gorgonzola, does it GET any better?) and a 150-year-old Balsamic vinegar reduction is only my favorite dessert in the history of eating. Paired with a frizzante Moscato d’Asti, the dessert was the perfect ending to the meal.

The vibrancy of Brian’s food matches his dynamic personality. Talking with him, or rather listening to him talk, one can’t help but wonder if the 11-plus hour days he works in the Oceanaire’s kitchen has taken a toll on his sanity. His body language is animated to the point of spasmodic, and his facial expressions are nothing less than cartoonish. But no one, much less myself, is telling him to pack his knives and go. I could have talked to him all night. The achievement of the evening was when he signed the evening's menu for my best friend, Veronica, a huge fan of the show, and Brian Malarkey groupie. As I flirtatiously tell him that she drools over his charm and wants to be the mother of his children, he scribbles, "Veronica - what shall we name our babies? - Brian Malarkey." Yes, I want to marry this man as much as every other woman in America.

The new location at Pointe Orlando, opening in May of this year, has become the 14th location for the Oceanaire Seafood Room, a “power seafood dining concept,” styled to look like the inside of an oceanliner from the 1930s. The restaurant captures the grandiose, luxuriant lifestyle of the era without compromising the intimacy that fine-diners crave.

With the freshness of the seafood (nothing stays in-house longer than 36 hours) and the inspiration of chefs like Brian Malarkey and Garey Hiles (executive chef of the Pointe Orlando location) the Oceanaire Seafood Room captures the “spirit of the fish,” and the translation of that spirit onto the plate is never lost. The impeccable service, charm, and calibre of culinary professionalism in this restaurant is staggering, and there's no way that the words "pack your knives" could precede the word "go." So do it. Go.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Ceviche Seduction

My whole body yearned for it; I had to have it. I ached to feel its touch, to understand its delicate sweetness. I heard that it could be rough at times, that it’s an acquired taste. But the truth is, when you’ve had it once, it’s like a drug. It makes your tongue tingle with excitement and heat. It makes you want to scream. You learn its intricacies and its contrasts from person to person. Everyone does it differently. Once you’ve taken the plunge, you want it over and over. You can feel it inside of you - the sensory overload of taste and color and smell - building up into something you can’t contain any longer. I wanted ceviche. I wanted it bad.

Years ago, after first reading Calvin Trillin’s essay, “Desperately Seeking Ceviche,” I knew ceviche was in my future. Trillin’s piece recounts his fateful taxi ride through New York’s Peruvian neighborhoods, sitting down with the taxi driver at several different cevicherias and searching for the best. His descriptions of creamy, tender seafood paired with crunchy vegetables and vibrant citrus made me hunger for what seemed to promise an out-of-body experience, the same kind of golden shimmer that floats over your body during a toe-curling kiss. That’s what ceviche promised for me.

I had done the sushi thing for years, experimented with sea urchin, and conquered the tartare and Hawaiian poke. There seemed to be only one real test of my love for raw seafood. It was ceviche.

To be fair, ceviche isn’t really raw. Scallops, shrimp, squid, or any other preferred seafood, which doesn’t necessarily have to begin with the letter “s,” is marinated for 18-24 hours in a kaleidoscope of flavors. An effervescent mix of lemon and lime juices, garlic, red onion, jalapeño, freshly ground black pepper, and inescapable fresh cilantro melt together to create a flavor-infusing fantasy world for the seafood. The acid in the citrus juices denatures and coagulates the proteins, essentially cooking the fish without having to apply any heat. After the marination period, the fish is removed, and fresh vegetables, citrus, and cilantro are chopped and mixed with the now excruciatingly tender, transcendental seafood.

Wow, what an experience. As a girl who eats with her eyes before she even opens her mouth, the sheer exquisiteness of a ceviche is breathtaking. Purple onion, red pepper, green cucumber and cilantro, navel orange segments, and the velvety richness of the white scallop are almost too much to handle. I have to dive in.

First bite, the pulp of the sweet orange sprays my mouth with sunshine. Onion and cucumbers crunch tenaciously between my teeth. All of a sudden, I am transported beachside as the silky bay scallop lies seductively in my mouth. It is overwhelming. I have to close my eyes to let out a sigh.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Soliloquy to the Sandwich

I hate to sound like a snob, but I can’t eat at Subway. Every sandwich, from the Chicken Teriyaki to that damned Classic Italian B.M.T. (does anyone really know what B.M.T. stands for? I don’t think so) tastes exactly the same. Even Subway’s lame attempt to be artisan by offering specialty breads like Parmesan Oregano and Honey Oat fails miserably in trying to up the flavor quotient in their misguided sandwich artistry. The sandwich has been manipulated, degraded, and bastardized. I feel as though a setting straight of the record is in order.

The sandwich, whether or not it really was invented by The Earl of Sandwich, is a part of history, and therefore should be respected for its purpose and function within the social strata. The sandwich is a portable juxtaposition of flavor, texture, and color. Take, for example, the classic peanut butter and jelly combination. This has remained a favorite for a reason. It isn’t decadent; far from it, but peanut butter goes with jelly for a specific purpose. The acids and sugars in the fruit jelly, cut through peanut butter’s creamy richness to form a perfect symbiosis. The dance is complete when these smooth textures are placed between two pieces of white Pullman toast. The crunch of the toast against the sweet and tangy jelly and fatty peanut butter harmonize perfectly. Not only texture and taste work this way, color is an important factor as well. Cut through a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and admire the even layering and vibrant color of the jelly against the orange-brown peanut butter. That’s the way food works, people. The perfect harmonization of taste, texture, color among mingling ingredients.

Unfortunately, it has been reduced to a marriage of convenience for unhappy breads, cheeses, meats, and vegetables – kind of like if Andy Dick were to marry a woman. They’d both be unhappy, and both be trying to hide something. Like a bad sandwich. Even if the ingredients are of excellent quality, if they are mounded haphazardly on top of each other, they come off as just being in bad taste. Like Brangelina.

Coming from Florida, I’ve been spoiled by Publix (our local chain grocery store) and their gargantuan sub sandwiches. Pile on a full pound of quality Boar’s Head meat and cheeses (I recommend the Cajun Turkey and Jalapeno Pepper Jack cheese) and eight times as many vegetables as Subway. If you have to eat it with a knife and fork, it’s a Publix sub. But it still leaves something to be desired. It’s big, yes. But does it taste different than any other corporatized sandwich? Not really. It just requires more utensils and a drop cloth.

I must own that sandwiches are neither made better or worse by their size. A “fat” or “horizontally challenged” sandwich could be just as worthless as one made with two slices of bread and a thin layer of pimento-cheese spread.

The true nature of the sandwich is so often abused, and unappreciated that finding a sandwich that truly fulfills the expectations of fine food is an event in itself. I am, myself, exhausted with the search and have given up for the time being. I have resorted to my own kind of Jackson-Pollack-esque sandwich artistry. The latest creation to come out of my kitchen is an Applewood-Smoked Bacon-wrapped Salmon Sandwich with Basil Aioli, Arugula, and Tomatoes on Whole Wheat Toast. The recipe follows.

1 4-5 oz salmon filet

2 slices of applewood-smoked bacon

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 slices whole grain bread, toasted

1 cup arugula

½ tomato, sliced

For Basil Aioli:

¼ c. mayonnaise

2 cloves garlic, minced or 1 tbsp garlic puree

1 tbsp lemon juice

¼ c. fresh basil leaves, chopped

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

Season salmon filet with salt and pepper and wrap in bacon slices until completely engulfed in bacon. Lay on baking sheet and place in oven for 8-10 minutes, or until cooked through. Poke the salmon with your finger (or a fork, if you’re a fraidy-cat). If it is firm to the touch, it’s done.

Mix ingredients for basil aioli together in a separate bowl while salmon is resting. Spread aioli evenly on both sides of the toast. Place ½ c arugula on each slice and follow with three slices of fresh tomato. Place sizzling bacon-wrapped salmon on top of one slice and flip the other half on top. Prepare for liftoff.

Indulge, and enjoy this sandwich with a full, heady glass of 2004 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay, my salmon-pairing wine of choice these days. About $13 from Total Wine.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Beyond "Baby Food": Comfort Restaurant

Comfort foods have gotten a bad rap in the past. Unsophisticated, mushy, and invalid are all words I’ve heard to describe foods like meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes. In a piece included in the Best Food Writing of 2001, William Grimes denounces comfort food as “baby food for adults” citing its universally soft texture and neutral color scheme (usually brown, white, yellow, dull green, etc). However, a new restaurant in Richmond, Virginia is giving restaurant goers a venue to relax and enjoy a meal as comforting as pink bunny pjs with footies. Appropriately named, Comfort is an unpretentious space filled with smells of home.

Richmond is an old city, marked by horse-and-carriage sized traffic lanes and a painted-brick downtown. It lacks finesse, but retains a certain charm that encases a budding restaurant scene. Comfort is a restaurant that maintains the kind of charm that reverences old tradition while showcasing a cuisine that brings traditional classics to a new level. The restaurant is painted a pale yellow and features an antique exposed brick wall behind the unpretentious bar area, which serves traditional cocktails like Sidecars and Mint Juleps. It only seats about 60, situated in a corner storefront complete with creaking glass door. Oak tables line the front of the house with a few intimate banquettes closer to the kitchen.

After being shown to the“fishbowl table” (the exact one in the picture above), we were given a simple piece of paper outlining our choices of appetizer, entrée, and side items. I quickly downed the sweetest of sweet teas, served in a classic Mason jar with straw, and ran off to the bathroom. Antique linen chests dot the individual restrooms, and a chalkboard with eraser and chalk tempted me. Scribbling a hurried, “Don’t miss!” after washing my hands in the porcelain pedestal sink, I hurried back to my dinner companions, my heels clicking on the ceramic tile floor that reminded me of the kitchen surfaces I used to play on as a little girl while my mother stirred her famous goulash at the stove.

After gazing into the soft eyes of Sunday dinner on the face on the menu, we finally decided on our fare. One friend chose the baked trout, wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon. Accompanying the trout would be mashed potatoes and a generous helping of macaroni and cheese. The other friend chose a large porkchop, surrounded by green beans (Comfort would never be so pompous as to call them haricot verts) and creamed spinach. I chose meatloaf. I personally believe that meatloaf is harder to perfect than the most delicate of classical dishes. It is far too easy to end up with a dry, flavorless meatloaf that has to be doused with gravy or ketchup to retain any kind of integrity. I thought that by ordering the meatloaf, I would be putting the restaurant to the ultimate test. If you can make a good meatloaf, you can cook – at least in my book.

Everything was fantastic. It was pure and unfettered food that spoke volumes about the way Americans like to eat. The trout was perfectly flaky and, aided by the bacon, tender and moist. Pork chops, to me, are a difficult sell. They are often overdone and dry. This one was crusty and brown from searing with a pretty pink center that oozed juice and flavor. The crunchy green beans were blanched and then sautéed with bacon and its fat. Perfection. I don’t know why I love creamed spinach as much as I do. I wanted to ask for seconds. I was happy with my meatloaf as well. The two thick slices stood tall on my plate, ladled with a modest amount of mushroom gravy. Moist and flavorful, the meatloaf was a testament to Americana. The star of the show, though, was dessert.

I have had my share of banana pudding horror stories. I once spent eight hours assembling forty individual banana puddings in ring molds, Nilla-wafer crust lined with paper-thin long slices of banana and filled with banana-liqueur-spiked pastry cream and topped with whipped cream, for a Cypress Restaurant wine dinner. The one we ordered at Comfort was much less painstaking and equally – if not more – delicious. Served in a shallow ramekin, cookies and sliced bananas were placed on the bottom, and covered with vanilla pudding. It wouldn’t have been as exciting as it was if it hadn’t been bruleed. A thin coating of caramel was torched on top of the ramekin in the style of crème brulee. The crunch of the caramel against the silky pudding and tender bananas was almost too much to handle. Why didn’t I think of this?

Comfort is great food for a moderate price. Drinks, dinner, and dessert came to about $25 each for the three of us. If you, like me, grow tired of the hoity-toityness associated with fine food, stop by Comfort on your next road trip up I-95. It’s fuzzy slippers and Saturday morning cartoons.

Comfort: 200 W. Broad St. Richmond, VA 23220 (804) 780-0004

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Purdy Good Food

“There are shells in my pasta!” I exclaim to my dinner partner over the din of French slurred by too much wine and through the fog of cigarette smoke from the 15-year-olds at the next table. She smiles back at me over her heaping salad and pushes her sweeping blonde bangs out of her sea-foam eyes. They sparkle under the Tiffany-style lamps with as much anticipation as my voice portrays. We eat in near silence, every once in a while uttering an “oh wow,” showing reverence for the new culinary high we are experiencing. I dig into my Provencal-style pasta with fruits de mer that steams boldly with essences of tomato, anchovy, garlic, kalamata olive, and fresh basil that surround the scallops, mussels, and littleneck clams that inhabit my seemingly-bottomless bowl. I close my eyes prayerfully as I roll each flavor around on my tongue as it explodes in my mouth. The crunch of a freshly-picked basil leaf and then the creamy tenderness of a meaty sea scallop is transcendental as we sit in the red leather banquette in Nice, France.

I have shared many more meals with Dannii, each a journey in their own way, from the Italian Riviera to Delray Beach, Florida. Tonight, though, I am making dinner with her and her new husband Jess Purdy, Dannii’s equal in just about every way, at their new apartment in Reston, Virginia. We take a quick trip to Trader Joe’s and end up with a basket of Arborio rice (Dannii has been itching to learn risotto), cremini mushrooms, eggplant, and shredded mozzarella cheese. They seem like random ingredients, but we are about to surprise ourselves.

I teach Dannii the correct way to rock her pink-handled santuko knife while she slices the mushroom caps and minces garlic. She is a natural gourmand. I give Jess the task of searing eggplant slices in olive oil. The refrigerator delivers some extra surprises that are all on my favorite foods list: pesto (a staple in the house, I’m told), dried cranberries, and fresh rosemary.

I tend to the risotto, adding vegetable stock until the rice is al dente, while Jess and Dannii joke affectionately about how much fun it would be to cook naked. I encourage this endeavor, as long as bacon isn’t on the menu. Jess moves to the counter and begins to assemble eggplant napoleons by sandwiching the shredded mozzarella and parmesan cheese with a spoonful of pesto in between two thick slices of meaty eggplant. He slides them into the oven as I add the sliced cremini mushrooms and a palmful of fragrant minced rosemary into the risotto and season it. Jess starts taking pictures of his new wife and new friend posing in avant-garde style with random kitchen utensils and wearing frilly aprons.

The napoleons come out of the oven beautiful and brown like little ziggurats. I quickly add the dried cranberries to the creamy risotto and give it a final stir. The result is hearty and woodsy. Only a drop of truffle oil and some chopped walnuts would improve its exquisite texture and earthy taste. Our eggplant was chosen as a worthy substitute for meat. It was substantial and strong next to the risotto. Eggplant is too often used as a vehicle for other things without really standing on is own. The napoleons we made belied eggplant’s status as a “vehicle” and brought it into the forefront.

As we laughed around the small table in the IKEA-furnished apartment, we felt like we were running down the cobblestone streets of Nice against the March wind. After waiting four hours for our check, we decided that our waiter must have forgotten about us and gone home for the night. We chanced it and bolted. The sound of the maitre’d hotel calling “Mademoiselles!” after us in the chilly spring evening was exhilarating, even though we’d been busted. As Jess cleared our plates from the green placemats Dannii had made, we looked at each other and felt just as we had after pizza on the beach in Italy or Nutella crepes in Paris. Thoroughly satisfied and yet hungry for more.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Spanish-American War: Columbia Restaurant

Okay, I think I’m ready to talk about it. It’s been stewing in my mind for a few months now, while I thought of the right words to describe what happened. I’m not sure why it seems like a big deal, or why I felt so much trepidation in exploring my inner-most feelings about the experience, but nonetheless, it has been a journey. I have had to come to terms with myself, the horror and the pain, over the fact that I had a bad meal.

It sounds silly, perhaps, that I’ve battled with myself so much over this one dinner at a mediocre restaurant in a beautiful place serving bad food. I went to St. Augustine, Florida, on a long-weekend with my best friend and dining partner, Veronica. After asking locals where they liked for dinner and getting tepid responses, we chose a place called Columbia in the heart of the historical district on St. George Street, a bustling pied-a-terre full of tourists wearing fanny packs and buying faux antiques. Excited about the prospect of Spanish food, we made reservations at peak hours.

I like to eat at the busiest time of the night, especially when I plan on reviewing a restaurant. In Europe, peak restaurant hours fall between 8 and 10pm. In America, it’s between 5:30 and 7pm. At these times, the restaurant shows its true colors, and you can judge the place easily on three main symptoms of peak hours: attendance, service time, and food quality.

Walking into a restaurant at 6pm and seeing it packed with people eliminates the possibility of the restaurant being bad. I use “BAD” as a general term describing the décor, atmosphere, service, and food, the four things reviewers generally use to rate eating establishments. The logic is simple, there are many people, thus something about the restaurant is attractive – usually one or more of the four categories. Columbia was jammin’. Glancing at the reservation books as I made my way to the maitre’d station, they would be full all night. We were led to a table on the third floor of the restaurant, overlooking a balcony and a courtyard. The ambiance and atmosphere of Columbia is breathtaking. The walls are textured yellow and orange on beige, the woodwork is left exposed with high ships-beams on the third floor ceiling. The building is old-Spanish style with the dining rooms like a hollow cube, all looking over a flowering Spanish courtyard. It was clear that the beauty of the restaurant was a major draw for clientele, mostly in their 30s and 40s, donning sport coats and light wraps. I hoped that the food would be as exhilarating.

After a visit from our blonde, pigtailed server, we took a look at the expansive menu. Very few restaurants I have been to that have menus spanning more than three pages have actually had good food. I have learned early, short menus generally mean more-carefully prepared food. Even the oldest restaurants in Paris, La Tour d’Argent and Le Grand Vefour, both temples of haute cuisine, have two-page menus displaying two or three entrees, appetizers, salads, and then desserts. I was completely overwhelmed and unable to make a decision. I did the unthinkable.

I have rules for when I go out to eat (but that’s another blog entry), and I broke an important one. After telling our server twice to “come back in 5 minutes” and still being unable to shy away from Veronica’s impatient glances and my seemingly chronic indecision, I asked our server what she liked. I never do this for two reasons. First, I don’t care. Second, I’m a classically trained chef*. I know what I like. I should trust myself when making decisions about food. I’m not sure what possessed me to ask our server this question, perhaps I felt so nihilistic as to think that I might be eating my last meal. Maybe I needed affirmation. Whatever it was, I will never do it again.

Generally, I don’t order shrimp at restaurants. I never feel full when I eat them (unless I happen to be in the Chesapeake Bay, and 3 pounds of steamed, spiced, seasoned shrimp are laid before me on nothing but a cafeteria tray), and so when the crab-stuffed shrimp with rice and vegetables was suggested to me, I was hesitant, but decided to risk it. Hey, I’d already ordered a four-dollar bottle of imported Spanish water, I might as well live. Veronica (wisely, it turned out) ordered a meat version of paella with chicken and chorizo and pork instead of the traditional seafood. I knew I should have ordered the paella.

After 45 minutes (we were warned that that’s how long the paella took to make), our plates were placed before us. All the anticipation in the known universe couldn’t have made my food taste good. My shrimp were overcooked and rubbery (I had a chef instructor in culinary school tell me that there was nothing worse than an overcooked shrimp. There is – an overcooked mussel.) and the crab stuffing tasted like cornmeal. I searched the stuffing for a red pepper or a shred of onion with no luck. Trying the “saffron rice”, I found no rich smoky flavor associated with both saffron rice and the deepest of Chardonnays. There was about a cup of it on my plate, so I forked around in it for a saffron thread. If they had really used saffron, there would at least be one scarlet thread. Nope. No thread. I had to conclude that they used the spice Turmeric instead of real saffron. Turmeric is a yellow powder used in some Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines. It’s often called “poor man’s saffron” because it’s much less expensive than real saffron threads (an ounce of saffron is about $8, an ounce of turmeric is probably $0.0001) but still gives the yellow color associated with the spice. Paying $34 for an entrée that advertises saffron rice but uses turmeric is appalling to me. I bit into a broccoli floret. It was cold and tasted like the Sysco box it had just come from. At this point, I’m mad.

Maybe I’m a pretentious snob (I am, no question about it) but bad food ruins my day. I also hate to send food back to the kitchen. But I did. The dining room manager came to our table to see if he could do anything. I told him it was just all wrong and I would help Veronica eat her paella.

The paella was fine. In paella, one uses short-grain Arborio rice, which takes longer to cook than regular long-grain rices like jasmine or basmati. It was slightly undercooked, but at least it was hot and not straight off the delivery truck.

I feel bad about rejecting food that’s placed in front of me. It’s an inner struggle between the critic (my chosen profession) and the chef (my other chosen profession). The critic in me relishes the ability to have people scurry about trying to appease me. It is the voice that tempts me to answer the question “how would you like that cooked?” with the smartass answer, “expertly.” But the chef in me knows the turmoil of the kitchen, the stress that comes with food being sent back, and empathizes with the sous chef that has to deal with it.

Regardless, pass up Columbia. Unless you get the paella. Or if you’re really acquainted with your inner demons.

*accredited to Veronica Curran

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Mixing the Empty Bowl, Full of Dreams

I wonder what he sees as he pistol-grips the whisk in the red plastic bowl. The big Jewish eyes, the big Moroccan eyes with the long eyelashes that span the Atlantic see more than I do as we cook together on the white tile floor. I wonder what the little girl, almost young enough to be unable to form words and ending her broken sentences with sweet sounds that should be words sees in the blue bowl she is banging with the wooden spoons. Does he see the beige batter, the crystals of brown sugar that we try to break apart with our fingers and unstuck them from the whisk. The hazelnut sized pieces are not sugar to him, they are tiny blue beetles that smile and watch Pixar films with him from dawn until dusk. The little girl with the soft black curls and delicate red mouth that opens wide for black grapes and yellow cherries blushed with red is stirring pink tulle and lace and Barbie heads in the bowl while her brother and I add the chocolate chips.

In France, I teach a little boy, whom I loathe, to make chocolate mousse in tiny glass cups from IKEA. I whip the egg whites into meringues after he cradles the yolks in his 5-year-old hands as if they were the fuzzy yellow chicks they would have become. We save the yolks for no reason and I battle the decision to tell him what they really are. He watches intently as the chocolate melts on the double boiler and his eyes widen as we softly fold the melted bliss into the stiff peaks of the meringue. I believe he knows what is happening and is present for the moment, but I also believe he is buttoning up his white lab coat and heating a blue chemical in a Bunsen burner, mixing with the green slime and waiting for the explosion of foam – like meringue. I know this because he brings me a bowl of rocks and chocolate syrup and plastic bath toys and jam in the morning to show me his “invention.” Then, he brings me a flower for lunch.

On the white American floors, we spill a few chocolate chips as we pour cup after cup of them into the cookie dough. I teach him how to snatch a little bit of it before spooning it onto the greased sheet pan. He grabs the spoon delicately looking up at me with a “like this?” look. I nod gently and smile as I heap the dough onto my own spoon, setting an example. His cookies turn out perfect – next time more egg for more chewyness – but they taste like innocence. They taste like the exact measurements that the recipe called for: two cups of imagination, melted hearts, and a tablespoon of reassurance. We sprinkle walnuts on half of the cookies and he presses each one into the small mounds like we squash the ants on the picnic table on the patio.

The little girl with the black curls and red mouth stirs her Barbie heads and makes sweet sounds that I wish were words.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Weed Whacking

I generally have a hard time admitting when I’ve bit off more than I can chew. So, when I agreed to make more than 1,000 pastries for a 300-guest wedding in addition to my full-time job as pastry chef at a renown restaurant and my part-time job as a corporate coffee barista, I figured that a few more hours in the kitchen could only be a good thing: more practice, more catering, and, most importantly, more money. I took it on without thinking twice or looking back even once.

The wedding reception was set for July 7th, 2007. Thirty-three percent more couples got married on triple-seven than any other day of the year, so I felt pretty special to be a part of the whoop-la. The chances of my being wed on 07/07/07 were less than zero, so catering was my only in. Besides, as I always say - those who don’t wed, cater.

Catering is one of my favorite things. When I attended culinary school, I never intended to work in a restaurant, even though Fate had different plans. I am, and have always been, deeply interested in catering small dinner parties and events. The intimacy of the interaction with customers, getting to know their personality to create a menu distinctly for them, has always held such appeal for me. Living in France, I was able to cater a few small formal dinners and to this day they remain the most fun work I have ever done. Except for rolling out 300 buttermilk biscuits every morning for six months. That’s the apex of fun. But when I got the opportunity to be the pastry chef for this huge wedding event, I jumped at it.

I received the e-mail with the seemingly innocuous dessert menu four days before the event. On first glance, it was pretty straightforward: mini key lime tarts, petit fours, éclairs and profiteroles, mini flourless chocolate cakes, and mini cheesecake bites. After three hours of math (figuring portion size, ingredient amounts, components, temperature and time for baking, etc), I deemed it a surmountable task. What I didn’t take into account was the inevitable time crunch. Whip 1,000 servings, 7 different pastries, and 2 other time-devouring jobs until fluffy. Fold in endless fatigue, a sick pet rabbit, and gallons of sweat and bake. A recipe for disaster.

On the morning of Saturday the 7th, my best friend and I had our pet rabbit euthanized. The ordeal took more than the three hours out of my day. It also took all of my emotional commitment to my work and threw it in the incinerator with our white-and-tan bundle of joy. In the restaurant business we use the term “in the weeds” or “weeded” to describe a situation in which there is no way (short of a foodservice miracle) that all the food will be at the ‘ready’ stage on time. Saturday morning, I was past the weeds and into the rainforest. To get out of the jam, I would have needed more than a Troy-bilt lawnmower chipper-shredder. I needed a team of Amazon indigenous persons with machetes in hand and blowdarts to fend off Poison Dart frogs.

By 7:15pm, guests began arriving at the historic Exchange office building in Thomasville, Georgia – 45 minutes to the north on armadillo-strewn County Road 319. Two buffet tables sat in the middle of the rococo ballroom drenched in magenta and black flowers and ribbons and candles. After 2 hours of fretting over melted ganache, bruleeing the meringue on top of the key lime tarts, barking out orders to my impromptu assistants, filling the profiteroles, and topping the cheesecake with finely-chopped strawberries, we overflowed the tables with beautiful platters of sandwiches, fruit, and sweet things.

Taking some trash down the elevator, I ran into the bride’s father, a tall, handsome salt-and-pepper gentleman with a genuine smile and ice-blue eyes that glistened with tears. He thanked me for making his daughters wedding great. “We have been to 6 weddings this summer alone, and we had the best food at our own. We were so blessed to have had you. Thank you.”

At the end of the day, as the last guests danced to Don’t Stop Believin’, everyone was happy. Backbreaking and heartbreaking though it was, no one noticed that there was not marzipan on the petit fours, the ganache on the éclairs had melted into almost non-existence, and the meringue on the key-lime tarts had begun to weep. The bride and groom were off to Jamaica, and Steve Perry was on the speakers. It couldn’t have been better.

Looking back, I probably should have looked before I leapt. I probably should have taken into account that the restaurant was going to be closed for a week and would reopen on the Friday before the wedding – doubling my workload at the restaurant and leaving me little time to get anything done for the wedding before the night-crew came into the kitchen and usurped my stove and convection oven. But I didn’t. Through my tears, I lit my blowtorch.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Hollywood Goes Back To the Kitchen: Ratatouille

“Have you seen Ratatouille?” That’s how my conversations have started for the last two weeks since the movie about a rat-chef in Paris came to theatres. Here is the answer for all of you. Yes. I have seen it. Yes. I loved it.

For my readers who haven’t seen this movie yet, Ratatouille is about an unusual rat in the French countryside who longs to live his dream of being a great restaurant chef in Paris. Events transpire in the luckiest and unluckiest of ways, and he gets his wish. It’s a hilarious and touching Pixar film about how by small means, great things can happen if you just have a little faith in yourself and your friends. Spend the $9 and go see it.

The thing that impressed me about Ratatouille was not the storyline (predictable as it was), or the humor (a typical Pixar mix of adult themes and Stooges-esque slapstick CG antics) – it was the accuracy and delicate nuances of restaurant kitchens that they magically captured. The restaurant kitchen is a highly complex and fluid environment. When one works in a restaurant kitchen for an extended period of time, one develops what Bill Buford, author of Heat, calls the “kitchen sense.” You become finely attuned to the way things move, smell, and feel in the kitchen and eventually become an integral part of the whole. The restaurant kitchen is a living thing, the cooks are its organs, and together, we create a separate entity – fuller, richer, and more complete than the sum its parts. Ratatouille did so much to portray this. The smallest details – the dish machine, the call of “coming down the line!!” in the background, the stacks of eggs on the pastry station – it was all so tangible that it made going to work the next day like stepping back into the movie.

Of course we all have our favorite parts of the movie. The best line, of course is when Remy says to his brother, “You don’t know what it is…and you’re going to EAT IT!? You can’t just HORK it down!” Perfect. I have to remind myself to not hork down the gorgeous plum-glazed lamb shank I plan on eating this weekend. But, bar none, the best moment in the movie is when the cooks find the rats in the restaurant for the first time, and they all grab a weapon with which to fend off the vermin. The pastry chef (second to the left in the still), true to form, grabs the blowtorch. It’s true – it’s real – and it’s spot on.

I can’t imagine the amount of time that the animators at Pixar had to have spent in restaurant kitchens in order to do the research necessary to make the movie so incredibly accurate, and not just within the restaurant, but in Paris in general. Down to the street signs, the rendition of Parisian landscape, skyline, street layout, and ambiance was incredible – down to all of the patrons of the restaurant, at the parties, or on the streets wearing black. They really do. The plating of each dish in the movie was enough to make any chef take notes and sketches.

But perhaps the best thing that came from the release of the movie is that when I buy eggplant, zucchini, squash, bell peppers, and tomatoes, I won’t hear a chorus of “Rata-WHAT?” when my friends ask what I’m making.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Whatever: Valentine's Day At A Semi-Dysfunctional Restaurant

This blogpost was originally written on Tuesday, February 20th, 2007. It was deleted, revised, and then reposted due to popular demand and lots of whining from On Food And Eating fans. Enjoy.

It is well documented that every line cook in every slightly dysfunctional restaurant has a "whatever" stage. It usually arrives at the tail-end of a disastrous dinner service, around the third or fourth hour, and may or may not be accompanied by the phrases, "Fuck this place," "I'm finished," or, on rare occasions, a walk out the back door.

Many things can trigger early onset of the "whatever" stage. Too many orders coming into the kitchen at once, repeatedly being ignored by either clueless servers or disinterested kitchen staff, and so on. It's different for everyone.

My recent trip to the "whatever" stage came on Valentines Day of 2007. Valentine's Day is the busiest day of the year for the restaurant industry after Mother's Day. Our executive chef decided to leave at 8:00. Orders were piling up on both hot and cold sides of the line. Everyone was yelling for everyone else to "shut the fuck up, for fucks sake." I think we all got to "whatever" at the same time.

Isaiah, our appropriately-named, indescribably-quirky grill guy usually gets there first, bemoaning the inevitability of there not being enough filet mignons cut for the night. Tonight is no exception. Being Valentine's Day, there is the clichéd Surf & Turf on the menu, comprised of (you guessed it) a lobster tail and a filet mignon. However, many patrons decide (for whatever reason) that they prefer to order Surf & Surf (two lobster tails) or Turf & Turf (two fillets). In a really hot, really noisy kitchen, this could be a problem when yelling out orders. "Surf" sounds a whole lot like "Turf." Some would say that they even rhyme. Isaiah was unable to handle this. After a 25 minute argument during the busiest dinner service of the year about the nuances of the word "surf" as opposed to the word "turf," and incessant bitching about what the servers could write on their order ticket, Isaiah uttered the first "whatever" of the night. He then went back to making all of his steaks medium-to-mid-rare, regardless of the specification on the order. Isaiah's "whatever"s are generally followed by two or three "don't talk to me"s in rapid succession.

Jim, our diminutive-but-capable sous chef, got there next. Working the saute/fish station, Jim often has the pleasure of dealing diplomatically with questions about vegetarian preparations, monosodium glutamate, replacing side dishes with other ones (usually ones we don't have), and inventing child's plates. On a normal day, when the entree menu is mostly static, this is tolerable. But not on Valentine’s Day. After the 6th can-we-replace-the-Jerusalem-artichokes-for-fried-green-tomatoes question, Jim throws his hands up, tongs in the right hand, towel in the left, shakes his head and says loudly (but not yelling, Jim is not a screamer), "Whatever, man. Whatever." He says this defeatedly to ex-acting-student-turned-possibly-career-server Will, who saunters away, inevitably feeling guilty. Jim takes a sip of his "Pepsi" and begins the dish: rosemary-scented lamb rack with cranberry Israeli couscous and, now, fried green tomatoes. Jim's "whatever"s are usually followed by hearty, "I hate this fucking restaurant," and then "but you know -," then a half-furtive-half-impish glance over at me across the food window at the pantry station, "whatever," he finishes.

I hardly ever get to the "whatever" stage of the evening. This is due to several things. 1.) The ease of the pantry station. Three salads, maybe two appetizers, and then the desserts. Boring. 2.) My high tolerance for the stress, the yelling, and the bitching. But not on Valentine's Day 2007. Tonight, I am getting sick. I have been feeling it coming for weeks now, and I can't fight it any longer. I have to listen to Dan, our expediter (he's the one who calls the orders as they come in from the dining room), a testosterone-laden, chain-smoking, 19-year-old Italian, flirt with the new hostesses that Chris, our general manager, hired because they're hot - not because they can read, which, it's obvious by this time, they can't. I also have to listen to Isaiah continuously bitch about the Surf vs. Turf ordeal, and listen to Jim tell Isaiah to "shut the fuck up, for fucks sake." Yes, it's ten o'clock and we're still taking appetizer orders when we're supposed to be closed at nine. Shut up. Make food.

I am about to lose it. I have been quiet all night. I have been telling myself silently for the past 4 hours that if I have to fucking work this fucking station one more fucking time, I'll fucking kill myself. Salads are piling up on the food runner's table next to me, impeding my progress on the next order. None of them are being acknowledged but any food runners/hostesses/servers/anyone with arms, when I finally yell (I AM a screamer), "Is ANYONE with ears working in this restaurant, or am I just -- god DAMMIT. WHATEVER. I don't give a fuck anymore." And that's what my "whatever" is always followed by - a very loud, very sincere, "I don't give a fuck."

"Whatever-stage reached!" Isaiah announces to the kitchen. We are all ready to give up and walk out - except for Dan. He will futilely keep hitting on hostesses (who are all, inevitably, named Leslie) until they finally realize that he's serious and will avoid him for the rest of the night.

Isaiah is really the only one with a stage past "whatever." After that, he goes into hysterics. Everything makes him laugh. The laughing is mixed with something that's supposed to be "hell yeah" but just ends up sounding like "Eleagh." Listening to Isaiah laugh makes me even more angry. I have to go into the walk-in freezer and consort with the vegetables to calm myself down.

At 11:30pm on Valentines Day 2007 , there are still people in the dining room. A girl server comes in and tells me that her table wants a creme brulee and a cheesecake. I take off my apron and say, "tell someone who cares." I walk out the back door.

"Goodnight, sweetheart," Dan says as he puffs on the evening's last cigarette.

"Fuck off," I mutter in his general direction.

"Whatever," he replies.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Frog Legs and Fine Fare: Catfish Johnny's

Under a few hundred live oaks, their mosses dragging the ground under a cool October sky, is the town of Lake Panasoffkee, Florida. Only 900 residents populate the town. It is not even a dot on the map compared to its neighbors – Orlando to the south, Tampa to the east. But while diminutive in size, it holds the secret of a regional style of cooking found from Biloxi to Nashville to Charleston. Traditionally, the line of Southern cooking has been drawn at the Florida/Georgia Parkway. However, the breadth of Southern lifestyle, ingredients, method of preparation, and culinary personality crosses the border and extends as far south as Gainesville, 200 miles into the state of Florida.

While commercial chains like Cracker Barrel attempt to hone in on this down-home, rustic style of food preparation, no restaurant I have found comes close to the level of mastery, the cornucopia of ingredients, and the comfortable ambiance of Catfish Johnny’s in “Lake Pan.” Catfish Johnny’s is a low-key, casual dining restaurant, boasting indoor seating for 50, outdoor patio seating for 25, and a dance hall with a bluegrass band every Saturday night. It preaches the gospel of Southern cuisine – fry everything.

A typical Southern meal includes generous portions – no one is to leave the table hungry. At the end of the meal, third or fourth glasses of sweet tea are poured into Styrofoam cups, topped with lids, and sent home with each guest – a typical gesture of Southern hospitality.

An assortment of fried seafood is always available in the South, especially freshwater fish and reptiles. Catfish Johnny’s is no exception. A typical combination plate includes piles of gator nuggets, fried oysters and clams, fried catfish fingerlings, and, yes, fried frog legs, which I love. For the less adventurous Southern connoisseur, fried chicken, grouper filets, and butterflied fried shrimp are also available.

Vegetables get simple treatments, the preferred method of cooking being frying. A hot plate of fried okra is always on hand, ready to be smothered in Crystal Hot Sauce, straight from the plant in New Orleans, Louisiana. After Hurricane Katrina, the plant was utterly destroyed, sending lovers of the hot sauce scrambling to buy water, batteries, and cases of Crystal. But, I digress. Another time, perhaps.

Johnny is there, too. He’s always occupying the table in the corner of the restaurant. There’s only one corner, really. His table is guarded by at least five of his close friends and a petrified alligator head from a 12-footer that Johnny ‘wrassled’ in his yesteryear. His white beard, silver hair, and rosy, bespectacled cheeks make him the jocular personality you would expect from a man bearing a nickname like, “Catfish.”

Dine indoors or out under the live oaks, and Catfish Johnny’s will be an authentic Florida experience. All it really needs is a swamp. But you wouldn’t want 6-inch dragonflies as dining partners.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Real Mexican

Alan’s blonde hair, hanging in tousled curls, was spattered with blood. He clumsily fumbled with his white Hanes undershirt and worn khaki cargo pants as he crossed the rocky clearing toward our primitive campsite. The dark scarlet streaks that hideously painted his clothing belied the grin across his boyish face.

“He skinned that thing in three strokes. It’s grotesque. He’s trained for this one ceremony all his life, and performing it is his sole purpose in the tribe,” Alan said, never wiping the sparkle from his eyes.

Thousands of miles high in the Sierra Madre mountain range, our camp was in the tiny settlement of Rowerachi – a home for 200 Tarahumara Indians, and our domicile for the past two weeks.

After the blazing sun and work gloves and repetitive 50-pound lifting, we were all tan, tired, and happy. We had painted schools in Chihuahua city, installed a shower and sink in an albergue (homeless shelter) in Cuatehmoc, and planted crops with the Tarahumara. Our service to these people was about to be rewarded with some hearty Mexican fare.

A boiled goat.

And home-made tortillas – which are, by all means, transcendental pillows of rough cornmeal and fat.

Served with a boiled goat. A whole one.

Alan had been among the few of us brave enough to watch the killing and blood-letting ceremony. The tribe had prepared an all-night gathering to commemorate our service and thank us in a formal way. Medicine men and tribal elders danced and struck goat-hide drums adorned with silver trinkets and dried nuts and seeds until the sun came up. The donkey that stood guard next to our camp brayed excitedly, waking us at odd intervals as we slept next to a dying fire under the trillion stars that shimmered above us.

The goats neck was sliced with a sharp blade with a bone handle, supposedly painlessly and quickly. The blood from its carotid artery was quickly clamped by a pair of rough, tan hands, but not before it sprayed abhorrently in all directions, as Alan’s formerly pristine undershirt attested. One of the elders dipped his small hand into the clay pot used to collect the syrupy lifeblood from the goat. He chanted a blessing of thankfulness and commitment to the Tarahumara gods and released the goat's animal spirit to them. He deftly flicked drops of blood to the cardinal points of the compass in order – north, south, west, east – in the sign of the cross.

After the final repetition of the ritual, the goat slinked lifelessly away in the arms of two men in identical plaid shirts and yellowed jeans. Their besandaled feet were rough and calloused from work, the way mine should have been inside my high-end running shoes and triple layered socks. I silently cursed my fifty-dollar pedicure and longed for a pair of black, rubber tire-soled sandals held on by quarter-inch rope straps. I watched them saunter away and hang the goat by the neck to a thick log rooted into the ground by thousands of years of tradition.

The goat’s eyes stared through their opalescent sheen straight into the distance, to a point invisible to everyone except dead goats. Another man in a flannel shirt with straight black hair and a wide nose approached the upright animal with macabre familiarity. In three quick flashes of his blade, the goat was skinned naked. Completely exposed, the body was rubbed with oils and spices as it was prepared for boiling.

My travels in tourist-free Mexico had lead me to eat things I never thought I would eat, nor think I will eat again. In a cubbyhole taqueria in Chihuahua City, I was in the mood to try something new – tripas, or “tripe” in more familiar terms – was the taco of the day. Bathed in spices and masked by red cabbage, queso fresco, and lime, the innards were a new texture – soft and chewy – probably not an everyday staple, but not vile enough to be passed by without thought. Cuahtemoc afforded us the best roasted chicken I have ever eaten. Juicy and tender, crisp and flavorful, served with verdant salsa verde, it was a treat each of the five times we visited La Albergue de Pollo.

Goat, however, was not on my to-eat list. At 9:00 am as we said adios to the Rowerachi settlement, its sparse landscape and parched buildings, its people warmed our hands and hearts with handshakes and smiles, leaving our insides as glowing as our skin. We watched as they extracted the whole goat – head, innards, and hooves – out of the steel cauldron. We watched as the women in vividly colored dressed pulled off the grey meat in large hunks and thrust it toward us gratefully, robed in a fluffy tortilla.

Our first shower in two weeks awaited at the bottom of the mountain, in the logging town of Creel, twenty miles – and four hours – down a rocky, steep grade. And while we packed our gear into the black SUVs we arrived in, the bitter, gamy taste of the goat, so graciously prepared, was the sweetest memory.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Gnocchi with Mom

My mother did not teach me how to cook. Unlike most students at culinary school, I didn’t stand next to my mom and stir the pot of simmering sauce. I didn’t watch my mom bake peach pies from a 5,000 year old family recipe. I was off playing with my chemistry set, or practicing the piano, or writing and illustrating a book of poems. Food was necessary, but if my mom had just served us a plain Ball Park hot dog on a plate, I would have bee happy. There was no family restaurant, no gourmet dinner outings, and no storytelling in the kitchen. My mom, whom I know recognize as an amazingly intuitive and instinctive cook, never taught me a thing in the kitchen. The lessons she did teach me, however, have carried over into my culinary life and have made me a better chef.

The one time I do remember cooking with my mom was upon the arrival of our new cookbook series, “Look and Cook,” a marvelously detailed and photographic set of instructional books from TimeLife. These cookbooks were truly idiot-proof. Mom told me to pick out a recipe from the “Italian Country Cooking” book and we would make it together. Most of the recipes from the book were fairly simple, lots of pastas, pizzas, and some antipasti – but, being Holly Kapherr, I chose the hardest, most time-consuming recipe in the book. Spinach gnocchi.

Gnocchi is a small nugget of potato pasta that is rolled into long, inch-thick logs and then cut into inch-and-a-half pieces before being thrown mercilessly into a pot of boiling water. I have seen old Italian mamas (and Mario Batali, who might as well be an Italian mama) put the dough in a garbage bag and cut off the tip to make an enormous pastry bag. The gnocchi bag is put under their arm like a bagpipe, and squeezed with the elbow. The gnocchi come out as cute little tubes, and are met with the mamas thumb or a pair of shears to cut the gnocchi right into the boiling water. I have not been able to do this, nor will I ever, most likely. This kind of advance gnocchi-making is not for the “Look and Cook” home chef. You can add lots of things to the dough, including lemon zest, figs, or, as in this case, spinach. Gnocchi is probably one of my favorite things, but now it carries a history behind it. I will probably never make gnocchi (or its tinier cousin gnocchetti) ever again. After spending five hours rolling the dough and cutting the little gnocchis and watching most of them disintegrate into nothingness in the pot, my idea of gnocchi is that they should, and for me always will, come frozen and parboiled.

All through the grueling tedium which was our gnocchi adventure, I never once (and never have since) saw my mother throw up her hands in despair and defeat. She is the kind of woman who takes a step back, takes a deep breath, assesses the situation, and comes up with a more efficient way to deal with it than throwing a tantrum (the option I usually choose, along with a pint of ice cream and mindless television). I thought about this today, being Mother’s Day, the day after I ruined eighteen crème brulees in the space of 4 hours (in 4 batches) by leaving them in the oven too long and curdling them into cheese and whey. I was about to cry, give up, and walk out, when I thought about the way my mother dealt with our gnocchi. Our feet hurt that day, and my seven-year-old attention span was drained to empty, but my mom kept going. When a gnocchi fell apart, she spooned it out gently, rolled it in some flour, and dropped it right back in.

I want to handle my life like my mother handled the gnocchi. I love you, Mom.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Oven Jockey

According to Chef Tom Beckman, a medium-bald, bespectacled bread-maker in Chicago, there are two kinds of chefs in this world – those that have a secret affinity for the baking and pastry arts and those who want nothing to do with it at all. The former enjoys the world of the savory – the smell of caramelizing mirepoix, the sizzle of the salmon as it lies prostrate in the pan – but quietly shivers with anticipation as he watches the chocolate soufflé rise or smells the rosemary as it browns on top of the focaccia. The latter, however, replaces that quiet shiver with a gag reflex and a cold sweat.

I am happy to be a part of the first group. Since Cypress Restaurant has eliminated the lunch service, my usual station as sauté cook has been relinquished. I will never again make a Monte Cristo sandwich, I will never again cream rice into mushy, mushroomy bliss, and I will never pour two-hundred degree Cream of Artichoke soup on my hand ever again. Actually, I probably will. But in the meantime, I will be over at the pastry station. I will be rolling dough into perfect circles for flaky biscuits. I will be whipping chocolate and butter into devilishly rich flourless chocolate cakes. I will be covered in flour, and, when I itch my nose (which, inevitably, will itch), I will look conspicuously like a cocaine addict.

It has only been a week since I started my new, sweeter life at the much cooler end of the kitchen. And yet, I have already gained new pastry awareness. I can put a tray of pecans in the oven and not set a timer. 13 minutes later, I will smell their toasted doneness wafting out of the steely convection oven, and my clothed hand will reach in and deftly pull them out. I can smell the cornbread croutons crisp and brown. I know the amber color of the caramel when it is ready to be made into brittle. I know the slam-slam-flip sound of the pizza dough banging against the side of the mixer when it is set to be slid into a cold, oiled bowl, covered with film, and placed on top of the oven to rise.

The greatest thing, to me, about being a pastry chef – and also probably my downfall – is the ability that the mind has to wander. When working a culinary station like grill or sauté, it’s BAM BAM BAM. Your mind never has time to slow down. While your body is sweating and shaking, your mind is also sweating. You must remember what’s on the stove, whether that salmon was medium or medium-well, whether it’s going on a salad or as an entrée, what the side dishes are, what needs to be fired next, whether it gets blackening spice or not, how long it’s been – HOLY SHIT – HOW LONG HAS THE FUCKER BEEN IN THE OVEN!?

That’s what your mind sounds like. Culinary stations are an uphill battle. And all the while, the ticket machine goes chik chik chik onto the next table’s order.

But while you’re working your forearms rolling 144 tiny biscuits, which are affectionately known at Cypress as “flat nasties” because they’re, well, flat, and “nasty good,” you can think about so many other things. What you have to do that day, your plans for the future, whether or not to break up with your boyfriend, and so many other random thoughts. Singing along with the Eagles “Tequila Sunrise” is also acceptable while cracking and separating 40 eggs for four measly quarts of crème brulee custard that will be gone the next day.

There is a science behind the cracking and separating of the eggs. Gloves, of course, are essential – no one likes an eggy hand. Crack the egg on a hard surface and pull it apart (over the trashcan) into two separate but equal hemispheres. Catch the yolk gently in your left hand as the mucus-esque white dribbles through the slivers between your fingers. I love how heavy the yolk feels by itself and how delicate it is in my palm. Don’t make this too automatic though – I often find myself cracking the egg into the trashcan – white and yellow – and then cursing at myself and thinking about how much that single egg cost and how much money we could have made from it. That’s what restaurants do. Everything – every last raspberry – is a lesson in food costs.

I am quite surprised that I am so enamored of the baking arts. My first exposure to real baking was right before Christmas in my Intro to Baking class at culinary school. Getting the basics right – creaming butter and sugar to the right consistency, whipping meringues until they are shiny and stiff, and thwapping the back of a baguette to make sure it’s hollow inside – were not such a problem. The problem was the oven.

I don’t want to seem too self-deprecating, but I’m not the most graceful woman in the world. As my boyfriend Gordon puts it, gravity doesn’t look good on me. Nor does it like me very much. Gravity, coupled with heavy objects and several hundred degrees of heat, on the other hand, is a shoe-in for complete disaster. I’ve had several unfortunate experiences with ovens, not the least of which includes grabbing a 500 degree plate with my bare hand, feeling it stick to the flesh on my fingers, and then throwing it eight feet across the kitchen. I had three beautiful blisters develop directly after the five minutes I spent crying in the walk-in freezer. But the first time I ever became truly afraid of the 8-foot-tall convection oven monster was in that first baking class.

Becoming too comfortable with heat was my first mistake. Underestimating the weight of a full sheet tray laden with white chocolate and cranberry biscotti was the other. The rack that the sheet tray was on was about five feet high, and grabbing it with my right hand, covered with a cloth, was proving to be difficult. I am also about five feet high. The tray slipped off the rack and hit me square on the side of my chin, scorching the skin and giving me a nice looking scar that remained for months – turning from red, to blistered, to dried-up skin, to scab over several weeks. My boyfriend at the time, Cory, started calling me the “oven jockey” and made fun of my battle scar for weeks. He didn’t last much longer than that.

It’s a sweet life, I have to admit. Working from eight until two, smelling the chocolate in the oven and knowing the exact moment when the finished cake cracks, pouring cream over butter and chopped chocolate to make a satiny ganache, and discovering the endless combinations and cooking methods that make the coupling of cream, eggs, and sugar into thousands of different things – lemon curd, pastry creams, crème brulees, ice cream – is enchanting. But while I try to tame the oven, and while I learn the hard way not to overcook custards (so they don’t end up as Grand Marnier cottage cheese), I’ll be thinking about where this will take me, how much more desirable I will be as a chef with pastry experience, and what color I should paint my toenails.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Little-Known Fact

I thought this was fantastic. Something I just learned...

The term "biscuit" comes from the French meaning "twice-cooked."

Bis - twice
Cuit - cook

The term also originally referred to any bread or pastry that are baked until dry and hard (a la biscotti) - but has evolved into the American morsel we love - full of solid fat, baking soda, and buttermilk.

That, my friend, is our heritage.

Pour THIS over your biscuits this time around:

Southern Oyster Gravy

4 oz. bacon lardons (or streaky bacon, coarsely chopped)
1/2 c. chopped leeks
1/2 t. garlic, minced
1 1/2 c. heavy cream
8 shucked oysters, drained and rinsed
Salt and Pepper, to taste

In a hot pan, drizzle 1 teaspoon olive oil and add the bacon lardons, cook until fat has been extracted and bacon is crispy.

Add leeks and garlic, and saute until the garlic is fragrant and the leeks are transparent.

Gently pour in heavy cream and add oysters.

Reduce until thick, about 1 minute. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pour generously over fluffy, hot biscuits and garnish with chopped fresh parsley.

Grandma Food

Three seventy-something-year-old men break into a chorus of “Daddy’s Little Girl” as they cradle their vodka tonics in their hands reverently. In the pastel light of the retirement community-style living room, full of white-washed oak furniture and sea green carpet, the Master’s tournament glows on the television and murmurs in the background. A tan woman with squinty eyes and a brusque Long Island accent bastes a massive ham covered in dried fruit: apricots, pineapple, cherries, and – appropriately – prunes. The smell is almost as overwhelming as the rousing baritone coming from the trio; we are all laughing through our tears.

“Did you bring your Tupperware, Veronica?” Grandma asks. Our care package is already being planned, the remnants of the feast are already being packaged up in our minds eye, ready for the three-hour trip back to Tallahassee. There will be creamy peas and mushrooms, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, au gratin potatoes, slices of the massive ham, and an incredible sweet potato pie with golden raisins and spicy ginger (“I’ve never made it before. I hope it’s good,” Grandma says furtively of the delectably transcendental and utterly perfect pie).

The dinner begins with the pouring of wine, of course. White Zinfandel for the older ladies, Merlot for the rest of us. After appetizers, none of us are willing to wait very long. Along with the customary chips and salsa and crudités, buttery crackers accompanied an unusual layering of cream cheese, cayenne pepper, apricot preserves, and sliced almonds. Unexpected, crunchy, creamy, sweet, and spicy. After that, our appetites are ready – we need Grandma Food.

We pass the bread around as the virtues of Jonathan Winters are extolled, John Travolta’s home is admired, and more wine is poured. We laugh, we pray for rain, we talk about Passover dinner, and the old times in New York. We pass the pie. We drink from our wine glasses with palm trees etched in the frosted glass. We talk about the Clintons, Obama, McCain, Edwards, and the Kennedys. We pontificate over Frangelico, Kahlua, and a three-layer sorbet bombe.

Grandma Food is always the same – comforting, homemade, unmarketable, and perfect. It always fits in the Tupperware. It always tastes the same when you heat it up. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter are all Grandma Food holidays. After the egg hunt, we all sit down in at the lace-covered table and pray that allergy season will be over soon. But it’s Florida, and there will always be pollen. And there will always be Grandma Food.