Archive for November, 2008

Cooking with Wine

Posted in Food experiments at home, General food knowledge, Home cooking and more with tags , , , on November 30, 2008 by restaurantouring

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The late, great Julia Child proclaimed in the 1970s that you should never cook with a wine that you wouldn’t drink.  Her reasoning was that as the wine reduced in your food, flavors concentrated.  If the wine you cooked with had a good flavor, it would taste better as it reduced.  If the wine you cooked with had a bad flavor, the bad flavors would concentrate as the wine reduced.  Things seemed to make sense.

Of course, another aspect to this good wine / bad wine debate involves the tannins in wine, as well as general balance of flavor.  Thus, contrary to what Ms. Child advised, it may not be a bad idea to cook with cheap wine, either.  The idea is that as a good wine reduces, so do the tannins (besides the good flavors of the wine).  Too high a concentration of tannins and you potentially have bad tasting food on your hands, despite how nice the wine was that you used.

On the other hand, if you used a cheap wine, the flavors could potentially get better as things reduced and reached a better balance of flavors and tannins.  This has the added benefit of the fact that if you screw up the dish, at least you’re not wasting all that good wine for bad tasting food.

This all seems to make sense, despite the two schools of thought being at odds with each other.  So which camp should you choose to side with?

I say drink the good stuff and cook with the cheap stuff.  Not just because I’m poor (low level government employees/chumps like me don’t make a lot of money, despite the corruption that is the whole of New Jersey).  Note that I did not say that you should cook with bad wine.  Bad wine is bad wine, no matter how you look at it.  Not much can be done to improve a bad wine.  But there are plenty of cheap wines out there that don’t taste too bad after some cooking — especially if you’re cooking something already heavily flavored with it, like a well-seasoned beef stew or braise.

Likewise, there are plenty of good-tasting wines out there which you could potentially ruin by cooking it.  Besides, if it’s the good stuff, wouldn’t you want to drink as much of it as possible?  That way, you’re getting the pure flavor of the wine, without having all the tastiness get masked up by your food.  Flavorful dishes, like red wine braised short ribs, can hide the more subtle qualities of a good wine more than other foods cooked with wine, so it seems like there is tremendous potential for tremendous waste here.  If you want to cook with wine, I say you’re better off finding something less expensive with a similar flavor profile.

Experiment.  Try different wines.  If you find a wine you like to cook with, keep it in mind.  Stick to that wine if you’re really happy with it, but I say always leave your options open.  Try everything.  Be objective.  Taste your food.  And enjoy it.  Especially that fancy bottle of red you’ve been aging for ever.

But maybe with those braised short ribs, rather than in those beef short ribs, yeah?

Toasting and Grinding Your Own Spices

Posted in Books and gear, General food knowledge, Home cooking and more, How To's with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2008 by restaurantouring

Why you should toast and grind your own spices:

Spices are valued because of their essential oils, which remain locked up in whole spices.  To unlock, you simply grind those spices.

The reason why you should grind your own spices is because those essential oils are very volatile, meaning that they dissapate very quickly.  Logically, the pre-ground spices you buy at the grocery store are probably pretty flavorless already, since grocery store spices are typically months, if not years old already (And yes, this is true even if the bottle still has the stay-fresh-seal intact.  Sorry).

The reason why you should toast your own spices is because the act of toasting sort of “wakes up” those flavors and essential oils.  Suddenly, decent-tasting spices become extraordinarily deep and flavorful, and you really do get more bang for your buck.  Trust me, there is no substitute.

How to toast your own spices:

Toasting your own spices is easy.  Heat a clean, dry pan (I like stainless steel.  I use my clad pan.  A dry cast iron pan or a nonstick skillet both work very well, too) over medium or medium-high heat.  Once it gets hot, add the spices you wish to toast.  Keep the spices moving — toss the spices in the pan, stir it with a heat proof spatula, or just jiggle the pan vigorously on the stovetop, kinda like you’re making stovetop popcorn.  Once the spices start to smell really fragrant, remove the spices to a cool bowl or plate (plates are better, since there’s more surface area to spread the spices.  That way, the spices cool faster and steam doesn’t build up).  The whole process should only take a couple of minutes.  Just be careful not to burn anything!

Grinding your own spices:

This is where things get a little more creative.  There are many ways to grind your own spices.

First, before you grind anything, make sure that your spices have cooled.  Grinding spices that you have just toasted isn’t the best way to do things for two reasons: 1) steam may be built up in the spices, so that when you grind them, the spices get gluey and stick together in a clump, rather than in powder form; and 2) I think grinding hot spices promotes the dissipation of those volatile essential oils, which would negatively impact flavor and be counterproductive, considering the trouble you went through to toast your whole spices in the first place.

I own a terrible mortar and pestle, so that doesn’t really work for me.  My mortar and pestle is made of smooth, light-weight wood, which is why it does such a bad job at grinding things.  If I owned a marble, ceramic, or other stone mortar and pestle, I’d use it all the time.  There’s something quaint, satisfying, meditative, and cool about grinding your own spices with a mortar and pestle.  Just be sure that the grit on the interior surface / bowl of the mortar and on the end of the pestle is fine enough, and to your satisfaction.  Otherwise, your grind may be too coarse.  I should add that to my holiday wishlist: mortar and pestle, NOT MADE FROM WOOD.

When I grind spices, I use an electric coffee grinder.  It’s sweet.  It’s got a rotating blade in it, kind of like a mini blender or food processor.  The blades are thick and sturdy, and rotate extremely fast.  The model I own (which is actually different and more expensive than the one in the link above, yet they perform equally well) is actually detachable, which makes cleanup a snap.  The best part is that it only cost me around 20 or 25 bucks, and it makes things so much easier.  If your coffee grinder can’t be disassembled for washing, you can just run some dry, uncooked rice or kosher salt through it to clean it.

You can also simply use a knife to chop or crack spices.  Sometimes, this is even more advantageous.  Black pepper, for example, tastes very different when used whole, ground (especially when it’s finely ground), or simply cracked.  Cracked black peppers are great for brines and for steak au poivre, for example.  You can rough chop spices with a knife or even lay the knife flat and pound on the side of it with your fist to crack spices open.  Be careful not to cut yourself!

Alternatively, you can put your spices into a cloth bag or fashion a satchet out of a couple layers of cheese cloth.  Then, you can use a rolling pin, a meat mallet, or the bottom of a heavy pan to smash the spices until it reaches the consistency you desire.

There are tons of possibilities, really.  It is up to you how you wish to grind your own spices, but please do not be discouraged.  For the sake of flavor, it’s worth it.

Where to get spices:

Internet sources are probably best for buying spices, as long as it is a reputable, professional source.  Alternatively, you can usually sniff out spice markets in your area by simply looking around (especially in foreign, unknown places).  You can also search for stores nearby on the internet.  I go to my spice guy, Mark, whom I wrote about in a previous blog entry.

Thomas Keller and Michael Ruhlman: Under Pressure

Posted in Books and gear, Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Food in the news, General food knowledge with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2008 by restaurantouring

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I have to admit that I’ve been pretty irresponsible with my money.  What can I say?  Last week, I came to the realization that I had been alive for a whole year since my car crash, and I became overwhelmed with joy.  I was so happy, in fact, that when my date cancelled on me an hour and a half before dinner, I went out and bought a knife.

Oh God, that sounds horrible (I’m mentally stable and a very nice guy, I swear)!  What I mean is that I went out and got something for the kitchen that I’ve been eying for a very long time — a GOOD, quality, 10-inch chef’s knife — as a sort of present to myself for still, somehow, being more-or-less alive.  Cost me around 315 bucks.  Irresponsible, I tell you.  But enough of this preachy, sentimental, boring self reflection.  On with the content (more or less)!

After spending some time in the kitchen with my new knife, attempting to perfectly brunoise some onions, I went over to Michael Ruhlman’s blog and found a post on preparing and eating bone marrow (One of my many, many, many favorite foods) and a slightly older blog post about Thomas Keller’s new book, Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide.  Reading on, I found that both Ruhlman and Keller would be speaking in Manhattan, at the Astor Center, on Saturday night, November 22, 2008.  To purchase a ticket meant forking over $125, and I was pretty low on funds (especially after buying that new knife), so I (of course) bought a ticket for myself.  It was worth it!  Or at least it would be.  Like I said — irresponsible.  Worth it!

Saturday came quickly, and I spent the day with my friend, Catie (the Editor), and one of her co-workers.  We ate at Shake Shack (but that’s another blog) and sat in a Starbucks (that’s definitely not another blog) to eat and chat. Time flew by and we parted ways so that I could go to this event (Many thanks to both Catie and Cristina for figuring out subway directions for me when I wasn’t paying attention!  To think that I was just going to wander somewhat aimlessly until I found the place — HA!).

The Astor Center is up the short flight of stairs next to Astor Wines & Spirits, near the corner of Lafayette and 4th St.  Upon entering the Astor Center, I gave my name to the girl at the front entrance to confirm my ticket reservation, hung up my jacket (I really need to get a coat, man.  It was freeeeeezing outside), and was offered some wine.

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I started with the 2003 Sierra Cantabria Rioja, a Spanish red wine.  I figured that would help to warm me up a bit, after walking around all day in the bitter New York winter cold (Technically still autumn, but when it’s 28 degrees outside and windy, I don’t care what season it is — it’s cold as balls).  Then, I made my way over to the trays of hors d’oeuvres.

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I started with the miniature sandwiches, reading the sign and snapping a picture before sampling the sandwich itself:

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This was followed by  3 bites of food, each on a little crostini.  All of them were fantastic, the pate campagne and the foie gras (naturally) being my favorites:

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At that point, the two speakers walked into the room.  I introduced myself to Mr. Ruhlman and told him that I couldn’t stop reading his books, which is true.  I read The Soul of a Chef in about 3 days and I read The Reach of a Chef in less than 2 days.  I’m on the T’s or maybe the U’s in The Elements of Cooking right now, and I will curiously start to read The Making of a Chef last, after I’m done with Elements.

I also said hello to Chef Keller, but all I could really bring myself to say was just that — “Hello!”  I guess I was starstruck.  And I thought I was better than that (HA!).

The two made their way to the front, where the chairs were set up on the small stage, and the discussion was soon under way.

projection_resize1The two were projected onto a screen behind the stage so that the people sitting in the back could see the action up front.  I would have preferred if they just worked on their sound system, since it was noisy and staticky and you could not make out what they were saying at times.

Still, the discussion between the two was interesting.  Ruhlman asked a lot of questions for the chef to answer, and I took notes about a few interesting things I learned that night.  For example, Chef Keller said that the cell walls of vegetables (root vegetables such as carrots, in particular) break down at 83 degrees Centigrade.  If you tried to cook a carrot sous vide at 82.9 degrees Celsius, it would remain forever crunchy because plant cell walls would never break down at those temperatures (Plant cells, of course, are made up mostly of cellulose, which is strong, crystalline, not soluble in water, and not digestible; pectins, which ARE water soluble; and hemicellulose, which are fairly easily broken down by acids, bases, and heat).

Additionally, I learned that despite being able to hold food at a certain temperature indefinitely (short ribs at 134 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 days, for example), you could still overcook food.  The wonder of sous vide cooking is that meat can still look rare or raw, have the texture of cooked meat, and be overcooked like a well done steak.

Attention was also given to the vacuum sealer machines that they use in the French Laundry and per se kitchens.  The kitchen staff discovered that you could compress foods such as spinach and watermelon inside one of these machines.  These discoveries have led to inspired new dishes, such as the vegetarian version of beef carpaccio:  compressed watermelon topped with a gelled mango puree “yolk” (When I saw a picture of this dish, I was disheartened to see the mango yolk idea being used here, since I originally wanted to use a mango puree “yolk” for my bacon and eggs dessert idea.  I should probably just make it, take pictures, and blog about it instead of talking so much about it.  I know gelling fruit purees with compounds like sodium alginate and calcium chloride isn’t original — Ferran Adrià’s been doing it for at least 7 years — but I was still disheartened).

Keller answered a few more questions by Ruhlman, and then the floor was opened up for questions and discussion.  There were only a handful of professional chefs in the audience, and almost everybody in the audience knew what sous vide cooking was.  I was quite impressed with that response, although I guess it’s not a surprise, since we’ve been seeing a lot of sous vide cooking on, for example, the Food Network.

Then, as quickly as it started, the discussion was over, and it was time to line up to get free, personalized copies of the book.  I hung around for a bit first, enjoying a glass of the sparkling white wine that was also offered at the event:

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The two [Ruhlman and Keller] were very nice, and Thomas deviated from his usual message when signing books (“It’s all about finesse!”) to a more appropriate, “It’s all about time and temperature!”  I also managed to get my copy of The Elements of Cooking signed by Michael Ruhlman, although I felt embarrassed to have that book signed at this particular event, since I did not want to insult Chef Keller in anyway (it’s Thomas freaking Keller, after all).

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All guests received a parting gift as well.  I believe it is a brownie or similar chocolate cake type treat.  I have not opened mine yet.  I will do so as soon as I take a picture of it in good lighting, and I will post up pictures of that as well.

Thanksgiving Day Turkey

Posted in Books and gear, Home cooking and more, How To's with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2008 by restaurantouring

Note: If you read this recipe before 6:15 PM EST on 11/24/08, you should take note of the recipe changes I’ve made.  I had to go back and check the salt content and I realized I was recommending too little salt.  I’m sorry I goofed!

I apologize to the couple I bumped into at Bed Bath and Beyond last weekend, who ended up buying that All Clad roasting pan after I talked to them (Hey, All Clad!  Throw me a freaking bone here, please!).  I promised you a recipe for my turkey brine, and I’ve put it off until now to do it.  I’ve been very busy, but I hope you’re still out there, checking this blog (probably not.  I have 3 readers that I know of, and sadly, I am one of them and another reader is someone I charged with editting my rants).

But I hope you’re still there, or at least searching around for another brine recipe, because I’m a firm believer that brining your turkey is the single best thing you can do for your Thanksgiving turkey.  Brining ensures that your turkey is properly seasoned throughout, and also makes sure that your turkey is moist and flavorful, even after spending a couple of hours inside the oven.  Brining also gives you a bit of a buffer, in case you forget the turkey and leave it in the oven for a little too long.  Luckily, if you have a probe thermometer, you can eliminate that problem altogether.  Finally, brining is simple, even if some people say it is unnecessarily arduous.  Personally, I say it’s unnecessarily arduous to try to chew through another piece of tough, dry, flavorless turkey, but that’s enough of that.  Let’s cut to the chase:

To brine, you will need a couple of special tools.  The first is a clean 5-gallon bucket, or some container large enough to hold your turkey submerged in about 2 gallons of the brining liquid.  Home Depot sells them for about 5 bucks apiece.  Be sure to pick up the lid to go with it, and wash it really well in the tub when you get home.  Make sure that you’re not trying to reuse the old bucket from the last time you decided to repave your driveway or something, since that won’t taste very good.  The second item is the  probe thermometer I mentioned earlier.  I like Polder brand.  I got mine for about 20 bucks at Bed Bath and Beyond.  Or maybe it was Linens N Things?  I can’t remember.    Either way, you can get it on Amazon.com for 20 bucks, too (as soon as the price drops back down to $20 that is).  Anyway, let’s move on.

Brines should be around a 5% solution of salt in water.  To achieve this, it is best to weigh your ingredients.  Hopefully, you have a food scale somewhere in your home.  If not, you can approximate this solution by dissolving about 1 and 2/3 cup of kosher salt into a gallon of water.  A little more salt doesn’t hurt either — just don’t use too much, and definitely don’t use less.  I use Diamond kosher salt — the kind in the red and white box.  A cup of Diamond kosher salt weighs approximately 4.8 ounces, and you’ll need 8 ounces of salt for every gallon.  Things would be so much easier if we used the metric system. . . .  You’ll probably need about two gallons of water to brine your turkey, so you’ll need about 3 and 1/3 cups of kosher salt.  Unfortunately, I have no idea how much the equivalent amount of regular table salt would be, because I almost never use the stuff.  Tastes funny.  I think it’s the iodine.  Again, hopefully you have a scale.  You should be adding a pound of salt (16 ounces) to two gallons of water (that’s 5%).

You can either dissolve the salt in hot water, allow the brine to cool down, and brine your turkey in the refrigerator, or you can take your salt for a spin in your food processor for half a minute and dissolve it in cold water.  Processing kosher salt in a food processor creates a salt powder, which dissolves very very easily, even in cold water.  This way, you don’t have to wait for the solution to cool down before you dunk your bird inside.  Just be careful when opening the lid to your food processor — don’t inhale!  Lung-fuls of salt powder isn’t pleasant, trust me (not that I’m speaking from personal experience . . . or anything. . . .).

You can also brine your turkey on your porch or in your garage if the temperature outside doesn’t rise above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (I’d keep it outside at no higher than 37 degrees, just to be safe.  The windier it is outside, the better).  Alternatively, you can fill zip top bags with ice and slap them on top of the bird.  This serves to weight the bird down so that it is submerged, and also to keep the mix cold.  Replace the ice as needed, and make sure your zip top bags are good and waterproof, to prevent the melted ice from diluting the solution.  Brine overnight, and up to a day in advance.

That’s it.  A simple brine.

Of course, why should you be satisfied with just salt and water?  Sugar can be added to further enhance the effects of the brine.  White, table sugar will do in a pinch, but it has no flavor.  I try to add flavor whenever and where ever possible.  Here’s my recipe for my own turkey brine:

– 1 canister of orange juice or apple juice concentrate (it’s probably in the frozen section of your grocery store)

– 3 cups of kosher salt

– 1 cup of good soy sauce (I use Kikkoman because advertising works)

– 4-8 ounces of molasses (I believe they come in 12 ounce jars)

– half a cup of dark brown sugar

– a tablespoon of cracked peppercorns.  To crack peppercorns, lightly smash them with the side of a broad knife, or use the flat side of that meat mallet you have laying around somewhere.

– an onion, cut into quarters

– a couple ribs of celery, snapped in half or into thirds

– a couple of carrots, chopped into 1-inch chunks

– 3 bay leaves

– about 10 stems of thyme

– a bunch of parsley.  Also about 10 stems of it, torn up into pieces

– 10 sage leaves, shredded

– 5 star anise, smashed with the side of a knife

– a few cloves of garlic, smashed with the side of a knife

– a couple oranges or apples, cut into chunks

– 2 – 4 cinnamon sticks, snapped in half

– 232 ounces (two gallons, minus 3 cups) or so of home made vegetable stock.  If you use the canned stuff from the store, please be wary of the sodium content and adjust the amount of salt you add accordingly.  Also, please consider making your own veggie stock.  Just heat up two gallons of water and toss in some chunks of carrot, onion, celery, parsnip, and tomato.  Simmer for an hour or two.  Remove the solid chunks of veggies by straining.  Dissolve all the other ingredients into the broth.  You can probably (definitely) find better vegetable broth recipes online, since mine is very simple.

– You can also swap out some of the broth for wine or juice or apple cider.  It’s best to bring wine up to a boil, to drive off some of the alcohol, since alcohol may inhibit the brining process.

Again, brine your turkey for up to a day, flipping the bird (HA!  I swear that was unintentional.) halfway through the brining process to ensure that your turkey is seasoned evenly.  Then, remove it to your roasting rack and roasting pan, pat dry all around with paper towels, rub the turkey with oil, and roast it at 500 degrees Fahrenheit for half an hour.  This will give the turkey a very nice GBD (Golden Brown and Delicious) color on the outside of the skin.

If your turkey does not brown after half an hour in a 500 degree oven, a few things may be going wrong: 1) Your oven may not be calibrated correctly, so even though you set it to 500 degrees, it may not be reaching such a high temperature, 2) You may not have thoroughly dried the skin of the turkey before putting it into the oven, 3) There was too much acid in your brine (from citrus or vinegar or juice, etc), and the acid is preventing the turkey from browning properly, or 4)  You didn’t allow the oven enough time to preheat.  Allow an oven to preheat for at least half an hour before baking, especially when you need to bake at such a high temperature.  Other factors may be at play here, but these are the major factors that I can think of.

DO NOT STUFF YOUR BIRD.  Placing a rib of celery, a quarter onion, orange, or apple, herbs, spices, or other aromatics into the bird’s cavity is fine, but do not do not do not do not do not stuff the bird otherwise.  It won’t cook properly.

After half an hour, remove the turkey from the oven, put a double layer of foil directly onto the turkey breasts (to prevent the white meat from cooking too quickly and drying out), push the probe from the thermometer directly into the middle of one of the breasts (punching through the foil is fine).  Set the temperature on the probe thermometer to 160 degrees, and make sure you flip the switch on so that it will beep when the breast reaches that temperature.  You should also take this opportunity to wrap some foil around the wings and the ends of the legs, since those are small, thin areas that may burn easily if you’re not careful.

If you don’t have a probe thermometer, please try to get one.  If not, a 15-pound turkey should cook for another hour and a half or maybe slightly longer.  Larger birds will take longer and will most likely dry out more, even though you brined the turkey (don’t worry, the drying won’t be as bad as it normally might be).  Basically, try to avoid getting a turkey larger than 15 or 16 pounds.  Don’t be greedy and grab the 21 pounder.  It won’t cook properly.

Lower the heat down to 350 degrees and bake the turkey until the probe thermometer starts beeping at 160 degrees.  Do not open the oven door in the middle to check on the turkey or to baste it.  Leave the fate of the turkey up to the Thanksgiving Day / Polder gods.  Remove the turkey, let it rest for half an hour, and then you can carve and serve it.  It is important to let the turkey rest for two reasons: 1)  At 160 degrees, the turkey can still harbor salmonella.  Salmonella dies at 165 degrees, and the carryover cooking will easily bring the temperature of the turkey to above 165 degrees.  2) meat that has had a chance to rest after roasting has the benefit of being juicier, since the liquids in the hot meat have the chance to settle and become reabsorbed by the strands of protein in the meat.

Summary: Roasting a Thanksgiving Day turkey is easy.  All you have to remember is to avoid getting a bird larger than 15 or 16 pounds, always brine the bird, never stuff the bird, and once it is in the oven, don’t go futzin’ around with it and opening the oven door repeatedly.  The rest is simple, as well: 1) brine (repetition never hurt anyone), 2) pat dry and rub the turkey with oil, 3) roast for half an hour at 500 degrees, 4) cover the breasts, wings, and drumstick ends with foil, 5) finish the turkey in a 350 degree oven until a probe thermometer tells you that the temperature in the middle of a turkey breast has reached 160 degrees, 6) rest the turkey for half an hour, and 7) enjoy!

P.S.  Fans of Alton Brown’s show, Good Eats, will notice that this recipe basically follows Alton’s method for roasting a whole bird.  Clever, you.  Alton Brown rocks my socks.

CulinAriane, in Montclair, New Jersey

Posted in Food on TV, New Jersey Restaurants with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2008 by restaurantouring

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So, if you watch Top Chef on Bravo TV, you probably know Ariane by now. She and her husband, Michael, own and operate restaurant CulinAriane in Montclair, New Jersey. I had the pleasure of meeting both of them after eating dinner at their restaurant last night.

I’ll start by saying this:  I know Ariane hasn’t been doing well on the show.  I know that she’s consistently landed herself on the elimination block in both episodes so far.  And I know that she can do better than that.  She’s a Culinary Institute of America graduate, along with her husband.  They’ve gotten culinary educations from the most prestigious culinary school in the country.  She can do better.  She’s worked at some great restaurants and gotten some strong experience.  She can do better than the TV version of her has done so far.  I know it.  And my stomach tells me it’s true, because I ate her food and it was good.

The restaurant is located at 33 Walnut Street, off of Grove Street, which is one of the main roads running through that section of town.  The place is small.  In fact, it is downright tiny.  When I called to ask questions and to make reservations last week after the premier, the girl who picked up the phone told me that the restaurant was 10 tables, tops.  I counted even fewer than that, since some of the deuces were pushed together to form a couple 4-tops.  No matter — the place was charming, cozy, and warm — a welcome respite from the freezing cold and gusty winds outside.

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Dinner started with an amuse bouche of seared tuna loin with a mango salsa.  A triangle of crispy fried wonton skin sits on top.  This was a single, complimentary, refreshing bite, which was followed by the bread and butter — in this case, the croissant pictured above with a covered ramekin of soft butter.  Ariane’s patrons previously complained, requesting that she provide them with plain dinner rolls, but she persevered with her croissants because she felt that the croissant more accurately reflected her cooking.  Even though this is a minor part of the meal, this shows me that she’s got character.  It shows me that she has standards, and that she has the conviction to stand by those standards — even if it means ignoring her customers and going with what she believes she should serve, and how it should be served.

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My appetizer arrived, and the roasted chanterelles, lobster mushrooms, and goat cheese polenta with veal demi-glace (topped with crispy shallots — an elegant and refined version of onion rings) smelled so intoxicatingly good that I dug right in, completely forgetting to take a picture of the dish until I was halfway through with it.  When I first saw the menu, I thought the choice of goat cheese was an interesting and safe choice.  I initially told myself that I would have preferred a cheese with more character than simply goat cheese, but it ended up working beautifully with the dish.  My only complaint was that the polenta was a bit on the runny side, since this was looser than the grits I have for breakfast on occassion.  Clearly though, this was a minor complaint since I became visibly upset when I emptied my bowl and scraped the bottom with my spoon for whatever bits of polenta goodness I could scrape up.

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Next up was Ariane’s signature dish, which has been up since the restaurant opened.  The seared sea scallops with mushroom ragout (I, apparently, was fiending for mushrooms that night.  That sounds funny, “Fiending for mushrooms.”  It’s not like that.), white truffle oil, and mushroom syrup were delicious.  Perfectly seared, tasty mushrooms, delicious sauce — it was a very good dish.

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I finished my meal with a dark chocolate peanut butter mousse cake with a crushed peanut covered truffle.  The plate was garnished with fresh raspberries, mint, a raspberry coulis and a persimmon coulis.  I ordered this instead of the lemon meringue martini, because the description of this dessert made it sound more complex and interesting.  In retrospect, I should  have ordered the meringue, considering that turned out to be Ariane’s worst nightmare on the show later on that evening.  Oh well.  I’ll try it next time.

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This was what was left of my dessert, because I am a disgrace.  I must be getting old, because I can’t even stuff my face like I used to anymore.  It kinda sucks.  I really didn’t want to disrespect the kitchen by not finishing my food, since it was all very good, but I was full and my sweet tooth was more than satisfied (it was a big friggin dessert!).

Mr. Duarte introduced himself to me during my meal, while I was waiting for the next plate to come out.  I mentioned that I would be missing Top Chef since I wanted to come and eat at the restaurant.  He promptly invited me to join him and his wife, family, and friends at a local Irish pub, 3 blocks away.  I initially decided that I wouldn’t do so, since I figured it would be creepy.  Then, at the end of my meal, since I was repeatedly asked to join everyone in watching the new episode, I obliged and managed to capture a thoroughly bad and blurry picture of the 3 of us:

This was taken

This was taken with a Canon XTi that I set on self timer on top of a mostly empty glass at the bar. I stupidly pointed the thing too far right, which explains the lean. Also, the bar was REALLY dark, so apologies for the blurriness.

The Duartes were some of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.  Chef Ariane Duarte was especially charming — she was clearly upset at how she represented herself in culinary competition, especially with her nightmare lemon meringue, but that was okay, I thought.  She was down, but clearly not out, as the old, trite saying goes.  She has the support of her friends and her family, while she works hard to support her own family.

During dinner, while looking around, I noticed that as early as 9:15, there were a pair of 4-tops that stayed empty for the rest of the night.  “What a shame,” I thought.  It would have been great to have two more parties there, to round out the evening and pack the house.  “They deserve it,” I thought, in a gluttonous daze from the ridiculously good polenta.

So what’s my final verdict, you ask?  I think that almost everything that has been said in this blog (in previous entries, of course) about Ariane’s cooking so far has been accurate.  Even before anyone said anything about her cooking on Top Chef, I looked over CulinAriane’s menu on their website, and I said that it didn’t look inspired or original.  For example, I’ve been making a seared fish dish with mango salsa since I was about 16 years old, even though I never read a cookbook, never had it in a restaurant before, and I didn’t watch the Food Network at the time.  I’m pretty sure I’ve had a very similar scallops dish somewhere before, and I would much rather see it as an appetizer than as an entree, especially since I was getting tired of eating it after the 2nd or 3rd scallop.  Additionally, the dish could have used some textural contrast (maybe the crispy shallots?), since it was just soft scallops on top of soft mushrooms (I suppose you can only use crispy shallots and mushrooms so many times in your menu before it gets old, though).

Additionally, for a restaurant that has been described as seasonal, I was surprised to see fresh berries on the menu.  My dessert had raspberries and the special dessert of the evening was a blueberry and white chocolate bread pudding with butterscotch sauce.  I had issues with that, but I suppose berries are used all the time in plenty of dishes all over the place.  It’s just not the same when you have to import your berries from some South American country or some other faraway place, you know?

No matter.  At the end of the meal, I heard a number of guests leaving the restaurant while saying, “That was so good.  That was so worth it.  That was soooo good.”  So, in the end, does it really matter whether or not the menu was cutting edge or inspired or original?  If the food is good, and if it is prepared with care and good technique, why is it necessarily a bad thing that it isn’t inspired?  It obviously makes the people of Montclair happy.  And after all, isn’t that what cooking for other people is all about?  Making them happy?

I’ll tell you what would make me happy — if I got to work as a part time dishwasher on nights and weekends.  I should look into that. . . .

CulinAriane restaurant is located at 33 Walnut Street, Montclair, NJ 07042
Phone: 973-744-0533
Fax: 973-744-0733
Hours: Wed – Sat, 5:30 – 10:00
Reservations are highly suggested.

Top Chef, Season 5, Episode 2

Posted in Food on TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2008 by restaurantouring

Warning:  There are more spoilers in this post!

So this week, I almost missed the new episode of Top Chef because I was busy eating at Ariane‘s restaurant, CulinAriane, in Montclair, New Jersey.  Luckily, everyone was going to a local Irish pub to hang out and watch the new episode after dinner, so I tagged along and not only got to watch the new episode (except the first 5 minutes or so.  I missed the beginning while briskly walking through the freezing cold), but I also got to meet with Ariane and her husband, Michael.  I’ll write about my experiences at the restaurant and what I thought of the food tomorrow.

Tonight’s blog update is mainly possible because of my good friend, Catie, so consider her the guest blogger for tonight.  Catie sometimes leaves comments under the alias “The Editor,” which is exactly what she does for me and this blog — she edits.  She sent me comments through instant messenger, and I’m just reading, transcribing, and reflecting upon what I saw at the pub on TV, so my facts may not be entirely accurate.  If anyone has any clarifications or an additions or comments, please let me know!

TOP CHEF: Show Your Craft, Ep. 2

The quickfire features the lovely and gorgeous Ms. Donatella Arpaia as a guest judge, along with the also beautiful Padma Lakshmi.  Apt, because Ms. Arpaia is so friggin hot in New York.  The challenge features a food that 100 million people consume a year.  Or maybe 100 million of these things are consumed a year.  I’m not sure.  Either way, the food they all have to make is hot dogs, so a woman named Angelina (?), who is apparently famous in New York for her hot dogs, wheels a street cart into the Top Chef kitchen.  Essentially, this is a battle of sorts between the Top Chef contestants and Angelina’s hot dogs.  Everyone has 45 minutes to create their dish and present it to the judges (Padma and Donatella).

People panic.  Ariane, in particular, apparently hasn’t made a hot dog since 1989.  And no wonder — [most] American manufactured hot dogs are disgusting!  Quality made hot dogs are sublime, though (but that’s another blog).

According to Catie’s comments and her recap, Fabio is doing a panini dog. It has goat cheese and roasted bell peppers with it.

Stefan seems to be doing the same thing, I think. He later changes it to a “world dog,” with beer!

Eugene (one of the two competitors I’m really rootin’ for) is making a maki roll, sushi style. Sounds weird to me. I hope it’s good.

Radhika is making a pork, lamb, and ground chuck, Indian-inspired hot dog, which seems like the obvious choice in terms of flavor profile, given her background, but it sounds like it would be tasty. Heavy spices and fatty meats = love at first bite for me.

Jill is making a hot dog summer roll, with a soy chilli sauce, but instead of making her own dog, she’s using pre-made hot dogs.

Danny is making a pork and horseradish dog in natural casing.

Hosea is making a bacon and roasted red pepper dog with some red wine vinegar dressing.

Carla is making a lamb and pork sausage, with kraut and caramelized onions.

My home girl, Ariane, is making a chicken sausage with bacon.

My favorite lesbian, Jamie is making pork and beef, lemon zest and cayenne dog. Unfortunately, there seems to have been bits of bone in her dog. Sucks!

That’s all the info I’ve got so far on the quickfire. On with the judging!

So the ones up on the chopping block are Jill (because she used store-bought hot dogs) and Stefan (apparently the global-dog idea was terrible, especially because it looked so terrible).

The top chefs were Radhika (the judges loved that she was embracing Indian cuisine), Hosea (everybody loves bacon), and Fabio (people loved the flavors and the Mediterranean feel of the food).

And Radhika wins! The judges loved her Indi-dog. Lovely. I want one.

Now, for the elimination challenge:

The contestants will be “opening their own restaurant,” only not really. Rather, they will be working at Tom Colicchio‘s restaurant, Craft.

The challenge is to prepare a 3-course, New American lunch menu. There are no teams. This is all done individually. The guests will be 50 rejected Top Chef candidates, so they will most likely by hyper-critical judges of the food.

The contestants have $2500 to spend at Whole Foods. Hosea goes for crab meat, but it looks like it’s all from a can. Jill goes for ostrich eggs, because she thinks that will make her stand out. Jamie is going for some sweet corn to make a soup with herb infused oil and mint chiffonade. Ariane is going to make a lemon meringue martini, just like the one served at her restaurant. One of the many loves of my life, Leah, is going for another scallops dish (to see why I love Leah, read this previous post of mine). Jill is going for an ostrich egg quiche. Fabio is making beef carpaccio with olives and shaved parmesan cheese, except he’s taking a page out of the molecular gastronomy/avant garde cooking book and gelling his olive puree with sodium alginate and calcium chloride! The bastard *shakes fist*. Carla is doing a dessert made with some sort of laminated dough, maybe puff pastry, with some cheddar cheese on the side. Apparently, it’s very good. Hosea is making a sort of salad-like preparation, I think. He’s pairing the crab meat with a mango salsa type of appareil.

The 50 rejected Top Chef candidates don’t seem as angry and resentful as some of the competitors feared they would be. Too bad, hahaha. It would have been interesting. At any rate, Hosea gets called out on using canned crab meat. Fabio gets praised for having a very good dish. People seem to love Jeff’s dish (some grilled meat, I think. I can’t remember.) and Jill’s soup. Carla’s dessert is a hit, despite the funny looking wedge of plain cheddar on the side of the plate.

So it turns out that Ariane’s lemon meringue was far too sweet. So cloyingly sweet, in fact, that Padma spits out her bite into her napkin. Donatella Arpaia and Tom Colicchio likewise make faces when eating the dessert. Jill’s ostrich egg quiche is bad and Donatella comments that it tastes like glue. Hosea’s crab meat dish doesn’t sit well with the judges either, since the texture is on the slimy side of disgustingness.

Ariane defends herself, saying that she couldn’t tell if her dessert was any good because she kept tasting it and tasting it and it eventually started tasting the same. Hosea had no real, good excuse, since everything on the plate (and Tom Colicchio agreed) should have tasted good together, at least in principle (seafood and a tropical fruit sauce or garnish is extremely common). Jill was unfortunately unable to come up with a good excuse, and purportedly gave the lamest excuse for her dish in all of Top Chef history. Quite frankly, she was just too upset to come up with the words to explain herself.

The judges love Fabio’s dish. Donatella comments that the dish is probably the perfect lunch, and original to boot (gelled purees using sodium alginate and a calcium salt isn’t original, in my opinion, but it sure isn’t as ubiquitous as mango salsa). They also love Jamie’s soup and a couple other dishes.

Finally, the winner: Fabio
The Loser: Jill. Sadness. She packs her knives and goes home.

Other competitors eliminated thus far: Patrick and Lauren.

Again, tune in tomorrow for a review-of-sorts of Ariane‘s restaurant, CulinAriane!.

Cast Iron

Posted in Books and gear, General food knowledge, Home cooking and more with tags , , , , on November 18, 2008 by restaurantouring
fire eater

fire eater

This is my cast iron pan, Fire Eater.  Yes, I name my pots and pans.  Don’t judge me!

Anyway, Fire Eater is a 12 inch cast iron pan, made by Lodge.  He came pre-seasoned, which was nice, but seasoning cast iron really isn’t all that difficult.  But I’ll get to that.  First thing’s first:

What is cast iron?

Cast iron and cast iron cookware is made by pouring molten pig iron into molds made of clay or sand.  The molten metal cools and is removed from the mold, and thus a new pot or pan is born.

Cast iron is tough and durable.  It can take a beating, and it can dish out a hell of a beating too, if you’ve ever been attacked by one.  It’s heavy as shit!

Cast iron is a pretty bad conductor when compared to other common pan materials (copper, aluminum, stainless steel), but because it is so heavy and dense, it can dish out a lot of heat over a long period of time.  When cooking with cast iron, be aware that the parts of the pan directly over the flame will be hotter than other parts of the pan, so don’t be surprised if food closer to the middle of the pan burns or browns first.

Cast iron is elemental.  It is, after all, made from iron.  Without proper care, cast iron will rust.  This can be prevented by seasoning the pan and rubbing it with oil or fat to give it some resistance to water and moisture.

Seasoning

The black sheen on a properly seasoned cast iron pan is actually a thin layer of carbon residue from the seasoning process.  With proper seasoning and care, cast iron’s surface is virtually non-stick.  It has the added bonus of being durable and tough enough to withstand scratches from metal utensils and tongs, unlike teflon coated non-stick pans.

Cast iron, if it is unseasoned, is easy to season.  Additionally, cast iron benefits from periodic seasoning.  Seasoning your cast iron pan once a year is perfectly fine.  In fact, it is recommended.

How to season a cast iron pan

To season a cast iron pan, preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  Gently scrub your cast iron pan with a mild dish detergent, plenty of hot water, and a mild abrasive or green scrubby (Scotchbrite, or something similar).  Dry the pan thoroughly by either wiping it with a towel or by heating it on the stove until the water evaporates.

Apply a thin layer of oil to the pan.  Try to get into every nook and cranny: inside, outside, and all around the pan.  Refined, pure oils work best.  In fact, vegetable shortening is probably the best choice here, despite the trans fats in hydrogenated oils.  This is because the seasoning process essentially “burns” off the hydrogen atoms in the fat rubbed on the cast iron pan, leaving only a thin layer of carbon behind.

Once the pan is properly lubricated, place it upside down in the hot oven and leave it there for an hour.  It would be wise to place a sheet pan underneath the cast iron, on a lower rack, to catch any oil or fat that might drip off the cast iron pans.

After an hour, shut off the heat and allow the cast iron to cool before removing it from the oven.  It is seasoned.

Washing cast iron

Don’t.  If you must, use some kosher salt and a napkin to act as an abrasive.  Strictly speaking, cast iron probably should not be washed.  It should not touch soapy water.  If necessary, use a scrub brush or scrub pad and plenty of hot water, but never soap.

After washing, it should be dried and rubbed with more oil or fat, and heated.  Saturated fats work best, so bacon is your best friend (bacon is my best friend anyway).

If you have a problem with this, do not use cast iron.  If you wish to wash cast iron regularly, do not use cast iron.  If you think this is unsanitary, do not use cast iron.

What is cast iron good for?

Almost everything.  It is great for searing foods because it can hold so much heat and dish out that heat so well.  It’s great for transporting foods too, since it gets hot and stays hot for a long time.  It’s amazing on camping trips, since it is so durable and useful that it can be used right on top of coals or on the fire.  It’s dirt cheap to buy new and worth its weight in gold in the right hands.  Plus, plenty of it can be had at garage sales and yard sales for just a couple bucks.

A cast iron pan, for example, can serve as a pan, a griddle (if you flip it upside down), a fire tamer / heat diffuser if you place other pots or pans on top of it (this works especially well with cheap stockpots when making soup or a stew), a meat mallet (although it does not do this job especially well sometimes), a weight, and more.  You can cook in it, roast in it, and even bake in it.  Yes, bake.  As in cakes and breads.  Yes, cakes!  And breads!

Some dishes just taste better when cooked in a cast iron pan or dutch oven.  There doesn’t seem to be a good explanation of why this is true, but it does seem to be true.  For example, a New England clam chowder just won’t taste the same if it’s not made in a cast iron dutch oven.  Most stews benefit from being cooked in a cast iron dutch oven as well.

Cast iron is also great for deep frying or pan frying because it can stay so hot.  When frying, it’s always a struggle to try to maintain your oil temperature (350 degrees Fahrenheit, for example).  With cast iron, it is less of a problem since any heat that gets sucked up by the cold food you are frying is replaced by heat stored up in the dense cast iron.

Health benefits

Just about everything cooked in cast iron picks up extra iron, which is a good thing, especially if you’re anemic.  Additionally, since the surface is virtually nonstick, you don’t need to use a lot of fat or oil to cook in it.  In some cases, cast iron can be used in lieu of a nonstick skillet.  This is healthful because plenty of nonstick skillets are coated in teflon, which can produce harmful fumes and chemicals when heated up to about 550 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cast iron does no such thing.

What you shouldn’t do with cast iron

As mentioned earlier, you shouldn’t cook too many acidic foods in cast iron pans.  Acid may eat away at the seasoning.  Additionally, soap may also eat away at the seasoning, which would ruin the surface of the pan.

Extreme changes in temperature are also not recommended for cast iron cookware, since the pans could crack or split due to thermal shock.

You shouldn’t let cast iron sit, soaking in water.  Remember that iron rusts.

Remember that cast iron retains heat very, very well.  So be careful around it.  You never know when it might be hot.  Always handle pans with a dry side towel, just in case.  Bigger pans often have a loop cast into the opposite side of the handle.  This is very useful.

Finally, never hit someone with a cast iron pan.  Them shits are heavy and can easily be used as a deadly weapon.  Otherwise, anything goes.