Archive for the Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts Category

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.

Top Chef Season 5 update

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Food on TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2008 by restaurantouring

I don’t mean to post twice in one day, but I think I’m in love with Leah, from season 5 of Top Chef. Her must-have ingredients are SALT, olive oil, gaarrrrrlic, butter (thank you!), and any pork product. PLUS, she loves to make homemade pasta! Oh, I wonder if she’d marry me if I made her a ring from a tortellini?

Seriously, though, Leah rocks. She and Eugene are definitely my top two favorites. I KNEW she rocked that quickfire with the apples and scallops dish!

Okay, sorry for stalking all of you on the Bravo website!

P.S. Jeff works at a beach club called DiLdo DiLido. *snickers*

Thoughts on food and cooking

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2008 by restaurantouring

Cooking is a very sensual thing for me.  It involves all five of them to varying degrees, some of which are obvious (taste, smell), and some of which may not be (sound, for example). I guess I’ve always known this somehow, but I’ve only recently consciously realized this (I’m slow.  Leave me alone).

I was watching my roommate cook earlier with his headphones on, blasting some random music, when I thought to myself, “I used to do that.  Man, I could never do that now.”

The sense of sound is just too important in the kitchen.  I used to cook with headphones on, too.  Big, honkin’, ridiculous-ass headphones, with the volume turned all the way up.  You know what happened when I was listening to music as I cooked?  Stuff burned.  I couldn’t hear any sizzling when I wasn’t looking, while trying to multitask (I’m a guy, therefore I stink at multitasking.  I admit it).  When the water bubbled away and the sizzling turned to extreme browning, which quickly became straight up burning, I didn’t know it until I smelled it.  Too late.  I stopped putting headphones on while cooking pretty quickly after that, and things got better, slightly.

The sense of smell is likewise important.  While we can only taste salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami, our olfactory system is what’s responsible for detecting the millions of aromatic compounds that influence flavor.  Taste, after all, is the most important thing when it comes to food.  Why eat food that tastes bad?

The sense of smell is useful in the kitchen as well.  It helps you determine what foods might taste good, and what food still needs to cook more.  What seasonings would work well together?  What aromatic ingredient are you forgetting?  Is something burning?

Which is why I hate it when my roommate smokes in or near the kitchen.  It stinks and it fucks up my senses and all of a sudden I can’t seem to focus my nose on my food anymore.  Is something burning?  Yes.  Yes, it is.  Your God damned cigarette.  Put it out, please.  And quit.  You suck at soccer now, anyway, which is reason enough.

Fernand Point would  have his waitrons bring patrons the check for their meal if they lit up a cigarette between courses.  “Obviously, you are done with dining.”

“We eat with our eyes,” and so visual appeal and plating are important.  Vegetables should be cut with care.  Certain foods (vegetables, for instance) should be uniformly cut not only to ensure even cooking, but to ensure that it looks good on a plate.  Food cooked in a pan should be cooked with the presentation-side first.  The idea is that the side you present the food on should be made to look as good as possible first.

Thought and consideration should be taken when developing a dish or recipe.  Does this dish need more color?  Maybe some red pepper, tomato, or red onion for color.  Maybe yellow pepper or lemon.  Maybe some parsley, dill, or cilantro for a touch of green, for example.  Are you making a terrine?  Add some visual appeal, some interior garnish.  If a dish looks good, it will probably taste better than an equally tasty but monotone, boring-looking dish.

Touch.  Experienced cooks can tell how done a steak is, for example, just by touching it.  Bread and some pastries will have a certain level of springiness to them.  Ripe avocados and ripe pears have some give to them, are absolutely delicious when ripe, and are fairly terrible when not.

But also, mouthfeel comes into play.  Is the okra slimy?  You’re doing it wrong.  Fat, besides being really, really tasty, coats the tongue and makes things tastier.  Gelatin has a similar effect, which is why gelatinous stocks are soooooo good.  Vegetables can either be crunchy and raw, al dente, or soft and mushy.  Same goes for dried pasta.  Some people prefer to have lumpy mashed potatoes.  Fried foods should be crispy.  Why is there eggshell in my omelet?  The crunch of a potato chip, the softness of a chocolate chip cookie, the crispness of a fresh, autumn apple.  Let the bubbles of champagne tickle your tongue.

But most of all, taste.  Why eat food if it doesn’t taste good?  Life’s too short to eat bad food.

Top Chef Season 5 premiere

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Food on TV with tags , , on November 13, 2008 by restaurantouring
Stolen/linked from the interwebs

Stolen/linked from the interwebs

WARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE

While watching the season premier of Top Chef, season 5, I chatted with a friend online. She was watching it, too. Here’s our live conversation (with irrelevant bits deleted). Apologies in advance if anyone is offended. Please be aware that none of this will probably make sense if you either haven’t seen this episode, or if you’re not watching along with the conversation. This is the first time I’ve attempted doing a sort of live update / live blog, so bear with me. It’s not like anyone actually reads these things anyway [except for the 3 of you out there who I know]. Without further ado:

Me: my prediction: today’s elimination, if there is one, will be a girl
Friend: lol
Me: my other prediction: a girl definitely won’t win this season
Me: and my last prediction, maybe: there won’t be a single female in the last 3
Friend: lol

*Let me interrupt here to explain myself. I am not sexist and I do not mean to sound misogynistic. Girls just really need to step it up in the kitchen, man. It doesn’t even make any sense to me. Girls have more sensitive senses of smell. The olfactory system is a HUGE part of taste. You’d think that girls would have a better grasp about what tastes good and what doesn’t, just based on biological fact. And then there’s the stereotype of women in the kitchen. It really just doesn’t make any sense to me, because women should be KILLING men in the kitchen. Yet, the professional cooking industry is dominated by men, and recent winners of various (especially televised) cooking competitions have mostly been men (Stephenie, from last season, was the first woman to win Top Chef and she deserved it). So, ladies . . . please. . . . step the fuck up.*

Friend: i like him [Eugene]
Me: Me too. Dude, I hope this guy goes far
Me: I wanna be him. A dishwasher.
Friend: he looks Beshy [Jeff]
Me: He looks like a douche
Me: Yeah, he does

*Chef Besh is way too talented. This doppelganger, Jeff, is worse than just a cheap imitation. He’s a disgrace.*

[information about Ariane appears on the screen]
Me: hahaha
Me: like
Friend: nj
Me: i’m not trying to be misogynistic
Me: but man
Friend: Montclair too
Me: yeah
Me: i should go eat there
Me: since i live so close
Me: what’s it called again?
Friend: no idea
Friend: find it online
Me: i’ll catch the replay
Friend: bravotv.com

[info about Patrick appears on the screen]
Me: that dude is gonna fail
Me: recent grad?
Friend: hes still in school
Me: man
Me: that’s even worse

Me: he’s got his head in the clouds

[Richard appears on the screen]
Friend: aw, he loveable gay
Me: did he say queen?
Friend: ❤
Friend: yea
Me: lol
Friend: the queens
Friend: as in gays
Me: gotcha
Me: and yeah
Me: i got that hahaha
Friend: lol

Me: damn
Me: culinary school dude is gonna get eliminated
Friend: vicious
Friend: eh, i dont think so
Friend: they showed him talk
Me: i think so
Me: ooooooooohhhhhhhh [someone cuts his finger]
Friend: u gotta think TV
Me: true
Friend: the non talkers are usually out sooner
Friend: bc they arent deemed interesting
Friend: when they mixed this ep they already knew the outcome
Friend: skinny chick w blonde hair will go home
Me: hahaha
Me: EWWWWWWWWWW [Images of bloody apples show on the screen]
Me: gross
Friend: eww
Friend: what is tom going to say
Friend: fuck
Friend: ew
Me: his old restaurant is mad expensive
Me: gramercy tavern?
Me: like 85 bucks for TWO courses, I hear
Me: damnit
Friend: other girl
Me: the island dude failed [Eugene]
Friend: green headband
Friend: out
Me: geez
Me: brunoise is tough
Friend: ooof
Me: bust out your mandoline!
Friend: that is tiny
Me: yeah
Me: there’s two kinds of brunoise
Me: there’s regular
Me: and fine
Me: fine is like 1/16 of an inch square
Friend: this is like 1/8
Friend: or 3/16
Me: 1/8
Me: 3/16 is waaaaaaaaaaaay too big
Friend: she is gone
Me: whew
Me: island dude finished
Me: dude
Friend: haha
Me: that’s it
Me: listen to me
Me: TOMORROW
Me: i am going out and buying two knives
Me: a chef’s knife and a paring knife
Me: and i’m PRACTICING
Friend: lol
Me: i’m gonna buy a huge bag of carrots
Me: and i’m gonna practice
Me: she’s so effing southern [Lauren. She’s actually from Cincinnati, Ohio]
Me: she might get by just on charm
Friend: red tank
Me: yeah

[An image of a Shun 10” chefs knife shows on the screen]
Me: nice
Me: shun knife
Me: that’s what i wanted
Me: this salad is not creative at all [Lauren’s salad]
Me: thoroughly weak
Me: i missed that last one [Patrick’s]
Me: scallops, if they tasted good, will win [Leah’s dish, I think]
Me: nice
Friend: lol

[The judges pick the two possible losers]
Me: that leaves salads
Friend: aw
Friend: cul school is so sad
Me: yup
Friend: of course they have to break this up
Me: yup

[Commercial break]

Me: PATRICK
Me: GO
Me: FREAKING
Me: HOME
Friend: theyre def gonna eliminate another person later too
Me: yeah
Friend: crazy
Friend: 17 [people] is high tho
Me: DAMNIT
Me: i missed his dish again [Patrick’s]

[Lauren gets eliminated]
Friend: i told u
Friend: cul school aint leavin
Me: i called it tho, didn’t i?
Me: salad was too plain
Friend: he talked to much
Me: i called a lot of shit hahaha
Me: i can’t say i called anything
Me: dude i should blog about top chef
Friend: go for it
Friend: but u gotta post it tonite
Me: i should do a live update
Me: hahahahaha
Me: i’ll use this convo
Friend: yea
Friend: as ur notes
Me: yup
Me: or maybe i’ll just post the convo, taking out irrelevant stuff and our sn’s

[Top Chef house is revealed to the contestants and to the audience. It’s awesome.]
Me: swanky
Me: i should cozy up to gladware too
Friend: lol
Friend: where the fuck are they
Friend: i think its queens
Friend: where else is there a track?

[The two gay guys and the lesbian girl cozy up on some chairs on the balcony. They call themselves “Team Rainbow”]
Me: wow
Me: team rainbow
Me: nice hahaha
Me: there’s a rainbow t-shirt online
Me: that says “i’m a quitter!”
Me: and there’s a stupid looking, happy stick figure girl
Me: i want it

[Danny and Stefan, I believe, get into an argument about emulsions and vinaigrettes]
Me: he’s wrong [Stefan]
Me: vinaigrette IS an emulsion
Friend: dude hes gone

[Preview of the next segment of this episode of Top Chef shows. Jeff is running around like a chicken with his head cut off]
Me: what a spaz
Me: i hope this island dude goes far
Me: i wanna be a dishwasher, too
Me: she’s cool [Jamie]
Me: i like her

[Someone has to do Russian food for the challenge. He’s never done Russian food before.]
Me: do pelmeni, dude
Me: pelmeni sucks
Me: at least most pelmeni seems to suck
Me: do a tasty one

[Jeff talks smack about the Italian guy, Fabio. He basically says that Fabio doesn’t know shit about Latin food cuz Italy is on an entirely different continent.]
Me: uhm
Me: latin?
Me: another continent?
Me: spanish people are of latin descent too, you know

[Melissa, I believe, says she has no experience cooking Italian food]
Me: how could you not have experience cooking italian?
Me: italian food is like
Me: the first cuisine in America [to be elevated to haute cuisine status]

[Eugene says he’s never cooked Indian food before]
Me: dude, these guys seem pretty inexperienced
Me: never cooked italian
Me: never cooked indian

[Patrick talks about the Chinese dish he’s going to make]
Me: sounds boring
Me: i hate bok choy

[Carla complains about bones in her smoked trout]
Me: is she serious?
Me: she bought a whole smoked fish
Me: and she’s surprised there are bones in it?
Friend: yea
Friend: she will prob be gone
Me: COME ON
Me: don’t make me angry

[Jeff runs around like a chicken with his head cut off]
Me: he is Beshy
Friend: hellll yea
[Again, he just physically resembles Chef Besh. Otherwise, he’s trash]

[Ariane is having trouble cooking her farro all the way through]
Me: LID IT
Me: OMG
Me: PUT A LID ON IT
Me: it’s a grain
Me: water to grain ratio, 2:1
Me: put it on the heat, lid it, and let it steam to perfection
Me: quit futzin with it
Friend: what a dummy
Me: that was bad
Friend: no runnin in the kitchen [about Jeff again]

[Team rainbow shows on the screen. Meanwhile, Jean-Georges Vongerichten is revealed as a judge]
Me: team rainbow!
Me: holy crap
Friend: this bitch will be gone fast
Friend: within 2 weeks i say
Me: jean-georges vongerichten!
Me: he’s amazing
Me: which bitch?
Friend: black caterer
Me: the tall awkward one?
Friend: yea
Me: LOL

Me: big gay dude [Richard]
Me: he’s awesome
Me: oh, she’s cool too [Jamie]
Me: but i think he’ll win it
[Richard was facing Jamie in this challenge. His lamb was overcooked, so no one liked it.]
Me: aw damn. Overcooked lamb. That sucks
Me: nevermind

[the two chefs cooking Jamaican style present their dishes]
Me: neither dish was really “jamaican” to me
Me: just cuz you’re using jerk spices doesn’t make it Jamaican

[Tom comments about salting food, in criticism of a dish]
Me: oooh. Salt. that’s killer
Me: salt and pepper
Me: that’s killer
Me: salt is one of the most important things in the kitchen
Me: arguably the single most important thing

[Eugene ends up unknowingly making an amazing, classical, South Indian dish]
Me: eugene!
Me: mah boy!
Friend: he randomly made somethign real
Me: yeah

[Vong favors the European guy over Eugene]
Me: freaking euro connection [clearly, I’m very disappointed in the choice]
Friend: lady is gone [Ariane]
Me: i think so too
Me: but i dunno
Me: i think Patrick had a weaker dish
Friend: damn
Friend: they called her out [about the farro and about the dish in general]
Me: totally
Friend: that was like a TABOOO
Me: he’s playing the pity card [Patrick is arguing that he should be allowed to stay because he’s so young, fresh, and willing to compete for the experience]
Friend: hes stayin
Me: yeah
Friend: the producers love that shit
Me: i think he is too
Me: yeah
Me: she’s gone
Me: hell yeah

[Commercial]
[Tom gives his insights on Ariane’s and Patrick’s dishes]
Me: oooh
Me: the way he’s saying it
Me: makes it sounds like Patrick is gonna get eliminated
Me: no inspiration
Friend: damn
Me: wow
Me: so i don’t remember
Me: did i call that?
Me: i said a lot of shit earlier lol
Me: i don’t remember
Friend: u said a woman
Me: yeah
Me: but that was before i realized there was a culinary student here
Friend: culinary school dude is gonna get eliminated
Friend: yea
Me: yeah
Friend: but u didnt specify it was for THIS ep
Friend: lol
Friend: but ill allow it
Friend: not like i knew
Me: hahahahahaha
Friend: i was sure theyd keep him
Me: yeah
Me: i know
Me: aww
Me: she’s crying
Friend: shes gone
Me: i’m definitely gonna go eat at her restaurant
Friend: shes on my list

That’s it. Sorry again for the disjointed feel of the text. I’ll try to include time stamps if I choose to do this again, too.

Also, if I can manage, I will eat at Ariane’s restaurant, CulinAriane tomorrow.  I live 15 minutes away.  If I can get a seat and grab a plate or three, I’ll let you know how it was.  I’ll grab my camera, too.

Herbs, Spices, and Buying in Bulk

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts with tags , on November 12, 2008 by restaurantouring

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I admit, I buy spices in bulk.  I mean, I know the advice is to always buy fresh stuff in small quantities so that you don’t have a ton of product laying around getting stale, but who has the time for that?  Plus, that stuff is usually pretty expensive.

To me, why should I pay a few bucks for an ounce of spice when I could get a few ounces for the same price?  “Well, you don’t know how long that stuff has been sitting there,” some people say.  Well you don’t know how long the small bottles have been sitting around, either!

No.  I trust my spice guy.  A guy named Mark Stuart comes to my workplace every few weeks or so.  Brings a ton of herbs and spices with him.  He carries just about everything that you can think of that you might use on a day-to-day, regular basis AND he orders it as fresh as he can get it every time.  That way, he’s not selling old product.  For 2-3 dollars a bottle, you’re hard pressed to find a better deal, especially since you’re getting easily 10x the amount of spice from him as you are from your local grocery store.

Mark carries a lot of stuff — I won’t say he carries everything, cuz certain things like saffron, grains of paradise, and a few other exotics are just too tricky and expensive to carry.  For those spices, you have specialty stores on the internet.  But Mark has a lot of stuff.  It’s cheap, it’s fresh, and it’s good.

Hell, half my spice collection/cabinet is from Mark’s Harrington Farms.  And I have a biiiiiig spice cabinet (massive).

Look, if you’re concerned about quality and flavor, you really shouldn’t be too concerned, as long as you’re buying whole spices, toasting them, and grinding them yourself.  Use up anything you grind within six months.  Use up any whole spices within a year or two.  And if you don’t use up that whole big bottle, what’s two bucks?  If you’re serious enough about cooking to be buying spices in bulk like me, you’d probably be spending as much, if not more money on smaller quantities of spices than if you bought from someone you trusted, like Mark.

Hell, you should be toasting whole spices and grinding them yourself anyway (check back for a tutorial on how to toast and grind your own spices).  That’s how you maximize flavor.  I do it.  I have a coffee grinder, dedicated to grinding spices.  New coffee grinders are easy to clean, too.  You can either disassemble them and wash them, or simply grind up some uncooked rice in it to clean it.  Easy.  The flavor is unbeatable.

And if you’re still concerned about letting these spices sit around for too long, don’t worry too much.  Buy what makes sense to you.  For example, I can never seem to keep my cabinet stocked with allspice, fennel, coriander, and black peppercorns.  So, I buy those particular spices in bulk frequently.  I rarely use cayenne pepper since I have my own cayenne plant which produces plenty of chillis for me to use, dry, or pickle.  Finally, consider the possibility that you may not be using enough spices in your cooking to begin with.  On the other hand, maybe you simply don’t cook enough to begin with?  Either way, I still think that it’s a good idea to have some of this stuff around, just in case.  Whole spices last longer, too, so you’re doing yourself a huge favor and extending shelf life by buying whole.

Whatever you do, do me a favor and buy from Mark.  I don’t get anything out of this — I don’t get kick backs.  I wish I got kick backs.  If I did, though, I wouldn’t be writing about Mark — no offense (HEY!  ALL CLAD!  CALPHALON!).

Mark Stuart

Harrington Farms

78 Highland Ave

Harrington Park, NJ 07640

P:  201-660-7022        F: 201-784-9634

Email: Mandlstu@optonline.net

S&H on orders over $25 is free.

Taurids and Hot Cocoa

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Home cooking and more with tags , , , , , on November 11, 2008 by restaurantouring
I know

I know that's not Taurus in the background. It's Orion. It's tough coming up with relevant pictures for a blog though, especially if you're committed to providing your own photographs. Such is life, I suppose. . . .

City life sucks. I mean, I guess living in or near a city has its perks, but there are some pretty big down sides to it, too. Hell, I live in Orange. There isn’t anything in Orange. Well, there’s noise. And light pollution. Sirens. Annoying dogs. But that’s about it.

To boot, it’s been cloudy or rainy around here all this week. Yesterday was gorgeous, and today was even better.  But now it’s getting later. Now it’s dark and cold. And damnit, there are clouds. How the hell am I supposed to enjoy this meteor shower?

Maybe it won’t be so bad. I’m fortunate that the windows in my room face east. Maybe, if I sit up long enough, the clouds will disperse and I’ll get to see some of those slow-moving fireballs the Taurids are known for.

I’ve got a mix of hot cocoa here with me. It’s just 3 cups of dry milk powder, 2 cups of powdered sugar, and a cup of Dutch processed cocoa powder (Dutch processed cocoa powder is more easily dispersed in water. This is good for making hot cocoa), plus a teaspoon or two of corn starch (to prevent clumping) and a pinch of salt (to bring out the flavor), which I mixed together in a food processor for a couple of seconds. I’ve got my electric kettle here, a few bottles of water, and my lucky mug. Fill up my mug halfway with the mix, and top it off with hot water (or if I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll heat up some milk to make it extra nutritious). A dash of cinnamon, or maybe some cayenne pepper (oh yeah, baby), and I’m good to go.

And if the Taurids suck this year, there’s always the Leonids next week. . . although, I hear they’re gonna suck this year, too. Not like back in 2001. That shit was epic.

Yeah, maybe it won’t be so bad, after all. This cocoa is good. And this chair is comfortable. I might even fall asleep here tonight. Hopefully I don’t fall out of my chair.

Mushroom Risotto with Chardonnay

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Home cooking and more with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2008 by restaurantouring
Like the dino squirt bottle?

Like my dinosaur squirt bottle in the back? Can you tell that I'm a fan of Alton Brown? I used to have a T-rex squirt bottle, but someone stole it. Sadness 😦

A few months ago, I was cooking with my cousin, Sharon.  It was her birthday, she was throwing a party because she wanted to cook for everyone, and I agreed to help with the cooking.  She suddenly started panicking, because she realized she lost her recipe for a mushroom risotto that she really liked (it was a Rachel Ray recipe, and my cousin adores Rachel Ray for some reason).  After calming her down, we made this risotto, which I love.  The picture above was taken tonight, since I had it for dinner.  Apologies for the terrible lighting.  My apartment is poorly lit and it’s been rainy and cloudy all week, so I haven’t had much luck with the whole photography thing.  Also, I’m using a shallow frying pan here because, quite frankly, the pot I would normally use to make it was being used by my roommate.  It happens.  It’s not my pot anyway.  The pan, however, is.

I’m a big fan of not following recipes.  That’s because I strongly believe that as long as you understand what’s supposed to go into a dish, you can wing it and you can get by just fine.  Sometimes, you just need to know a lot more about some dishes, especially if it’s a complex and very refined recipe.

So the question naturally follows: “What is a risotto?”  To me, a risotto is nothing more than a flavorful rice porridge — sublime when it is executed correctly, and utterly bland when the proper steps aren’t taken to maximize flavor.  To elaborate, risotto is a rice porridge that begins with an aromatic sweat*, usually with butter and olive oil (which add flavor, as well).  Then, the rice (classically, but not always, with arborio rice) is toasted, which develops more flavor.  Then, liquid is added several times during the cooking process, until the rice reaches the desired consistency and level of doneness.  Some people like their risotto al dente.  I like mine softer.

But the heart of the matter is that risotto is basically a rice porridge.  And I’m Chinese.  We Chinese people know alllllll about the rice porridge.  We eat rice porridge for breakfast (literally)!

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So, we began the risotto.  First, we assembled our meez (or mise en place, if you prefer.  It’s French for “everything in its place.” *cue Radiohead song*): chop a medium onion, dice a rib of celery, mince a couple cloves of garlic, steep about 7 or 8 dried shiitake mushrooms in hot water, stare at a package of button mushrooms, and set aside those button mushrooms for another day because they can be too bland for me (although they’re great for making duxelle, but that’s another blog.  I hope I’m not infringing on any of Alton’s copyrights, by the way.  That would be teh suck).

Then, we melted some butter (if you have to ask, I’d say it was about 2 or 3 tablespoons, but I hate measuring, which explains why I’m such a TERRIBLE baker), added some olive oil to the pot (regular olive oil, not the extra virgin stuff, since heat spoils the great flavor of aromatic oils), and started the aromatic vegetable sweat by gently cooking and stirring the chopped onion, celery, and minced garlic over low heat.

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While the aromats sweat, filling the house with fragrant deliciousness, we retrieved the mushrooms from the hot water (I usually just use my bare hands because I’m an idiot and I think that if you’re gonna cook in the kitchen, you oughta get a few lumps anyway).  I sliced off the woody stems and threw those into a pot of barely simmering, home made chicken stock (WASTE NOTHING!).

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Then, I sliced all the mushrooms into 1/4 of an inch thick strips and added those to the sweat (you can brown mushrooms like you would a piece of meat, as well, but since these were reconstituted and totally waterlogged, it would be difficult to do.  Otherwise, I’m always a fan of developing as much flavor as possible, which would include browning mushrooms).

Once the onions, celery, and garlic turned translucent, I added a touch more butter and olive oil (since there wasn’t enough), turned the flame up to medium-high heat, heated up the pan, and added the arborio rice (about a cup of it).  I toasted the rice and stirred it occassionally, to prevent sticking.

Once the rice started smelly nutty and turned a golden brown color, I deglazed the pan with chardonnay, and flamed the pan because I think I’m cool (I’m not).  Remember to always be careful in the kitchen, and keep a fire extinguisher nearby, just in case.

Then, I cooked this mixture down until it was almost dry to try to drive off as much of the alcohol as possible**.

Then, once the mixture was mostly dry and starting to stick to the pan (be careful not to let it burn!), I deglazed it again with the reserved water from when I reconstituted the mushrooms (That water is full of good mushroom flavor.  Also, WASTE NOTHING!).

After that, it was simply a process of dosing the rice with liquid just to cover, cooking it down till it was fairly dry, and adding more liquid to cover, until the rice had taken about 5 – 7 doses of stock or water, or until the rice reached a desirable consistency and level of doneness (whichever one came first).  Don’t worry about the rice getting mushy.  The rice is pretty hearty, plus the toasting helps to slow down the rate that the rice absorbs liquid, so by the time all that stock is either absorbed or evaporated, the rice hasn’t lost too much of its integrity.  The key is in proper, frequent stirring, which allows enough of the starch to mix with the liquid to make the rice creamy, without actually adding any cream.  Of course, if you want to add cream (and parmesan cheese, highly recommended), you can do so to very good effect.

I used homemade chicken stock, which is ridiculously easy to make at home, provided that you’re like me and in the habit of saving up all your chicken bones (WASTE NOTHING!).  In fact, it’s a shame that more people don’t do it, because that crap you can buy at the store is terrible.  I’ll include a recipe for chicken stock one of these days (probably soon), but it’s really easy, and good recipes can be found online quite quickly and easily.

Risotto Redux

Risotto Redux***

That’s it.  Risotto, with mushrooms and chardonnay.  Maybe with some chopped, flat leaf parsley at the end for flavor and garnish.  Started with an aromatic sweat, toasted some arborio, dosed the mix with wine, mushroom water, and chicken stock, and cooked it down until it was done.  Delicious.  And even more delicious the next day, since time allows the flavors to meld and deepen.  You can also make this with a touch of cream or with some shaved parmesan cheese.  Or both!  Why not?  The variations are endless.

another angle

another angle

* The term “sweat” in cooking refers to  cooking [vegetables] without frying or sauteing them.  It’s done over low heat, so you shouldn’t hear any sizzling, or you shouldn’t hear vigorous sizzling, anyway.   This gentle cooking allows the aromats to flavor the oil and whatever food that will be cooked with it.  Properly sweated veggies will turn soft and translucent (well, onions, garlic, and celery will.  Good luck trying to make carrots and peppers turn translucent, though!).

** You can never really totally cook out the alcohol when you’re cooking with it, so if you’re pregnant or cooking for someone who may be pregnant, you should probably avoid cooking with wine and alcohol whenever possible.  Yes, the amount of alcohol is tiny, but better safe than sorry, I always say.  The acidity that wine brings to the table can be substituted with just a little bit of lemon juice, added towards the end of cooking to brighten up the flavors.  Just deglaze the pan with stock, water, or the mushroom water instead of deglazing with wine, but it won’t be the same.  Depends on your taste.

*** I actually made the risotto again a little while later, since I had left over arborio rice that I wanted to get rid of.  This time, I stirred in some freshly grated parmesan cheese and some left over basil cream sauce from a roasted vegetable terrine I made earlier (WASTE NOTHING!).  I also had some asparagus, which I later threw into the mix, but that’s not pictured above.

Plant Sex

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Home cooking and more with tags , , , on October 30, 2008 by restaurantouring

So, while tending to my basil plants by the window, I got to thinking: “What a terrible life it must be to be a plant.”  I was in the process of cutting off a couple of the stems that have taken flowers when I thought of this.  When a basil plant flowers, any leaves that grow are smaller and less flavorful.  So, in the interest of taste, the flowers should be removed.  Any why not?  Basil is useful!

But, I mean, think about it. . . . plants don’t get to have sex whenever they want to, if humans are involved.  Take the case of my basil, for instance.  No flowers means no sex.  For the human (me), no flowers means bigger and better basil leaves.  I’m like an evil, selfish god to that poor basil plant.  I can’t imagine what it would be like if there were some sort of evil god out there, cutting off my reproductive organs.

Luckily, humans (for the most part) are useless.

Comments from the Chautauqua Institute Lecture on Food

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Food in the news with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2008 by restaurantouring

A reader on Michael Ruhlman’s blog left some interesting questions and comments in response to the previously posted lecture from the Chautauqua Institute, which you can also view here.  I thought I would post the conversation here, as well, because I think where our food comes from and how it is grown or raised is a very good and important question to ask.  It is a complicated issue, to be sure, and food has a greater impact in this world than I think most people give it credit for.  For example, food has an impact not only on our health and our bodies, but it has political, ecological, environmental, and economical implications as well — and more.  I joined in this conversation fairly late in the game, so I actually refer to a much earlier post.  Apologies!  Anyway, without further ado, here’s part of the conversation so far:

Despite Chef Barber’s misanthropic idealism I agree that the most ecological and ethical choice is also the most delicious, but it is also the most expensive. And while we may not have “an inalienable right to protein” many of us most certainly do not have the luxury of being self-righteous about our food origins, owning multiple successful businesses (restaurants in his case), or befriending Spanish foie gras farmers either. How is making food more expensive (albeit much tastier) going to help feed the hungry? Just curious.

JBL

I think the argument for making food more expensive in the hope that there will be more food for the hungry is pretty shakey no matter which way you look at it as it assumes that poor people are somehow going to have more money to pay for food.

Honestly, I think that the biggest reason for poor nutrition is not lack of access to good food, but a lack of money and the access to high quality education and housing and information that money provides. And the reason there is not enough money among the underclasses is that our lovely global economic system is set up so that wealth trickles up not down.

Moreover, super fresh food like the kind used by the the Dan Barbers and the Kellers of this world will be available cheaply and on a massive scale unless it is grown much closer to where people actually live -And with over 80% of the population of the US living in cities and increasingly urbanized suburbs that seems like an impossible task.

Mr. delGrosso, Am I to understand, given your second paragraph, that poor people are too stupid and ill-informed (and obviously too broke)to make better nutritional assessments and that somehow the global economy is to blame?

@JBL:

Not sure how it can be argued that if you have less money, you are going to have fewer opportunities at an education. And if you are less likely to have a good education, you are more likely to make ill-informed decisions. Of course, it’s a generalization. But I didn’t see anyone call anyone else stupid.

I really wish Barber expanded on the inalienable right to protein.

Mr. Escobar,
You are correct, not stupid per se, just ill-informed (or ignorant or unlearned, or you say tomato I say tomato). But we don’t need a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree to hear about saturated fats, high cholesterol, high calories, evil carbs, artery-clogging fats, etc…we just need a television.

And Mr. Escobar,
I will argue that one indeed CAN get educated in this country if they’re broke; in the form of grants, loans, scholarships, etc..I speak from experience! Unless of course you happen to be a white male/female which opens up a different can of worms.

JBL:

I was pretty careful to avoid saying that one couldn’t get educated. Lots of people do. I said fewer opportunities :). Strong disagree that TV teaches you anything about nutrition, or how to eat healthy. If anything, it is a continuous swirl of contradictory messages.

Pablo Escolar,

Point taken with respect to your egg shell walk; and if you think TV is a “continuous swirl of contradictory messages” try college! (kidding…sorta’)

While it is debatable that even the “news” objectively informs (teaches anything), free information is available, via various media, for anyone who cares or chooses it to actively pursue.

@Pablo Escolar,
Also seems like you’re “paisa”! 🙂

Oh no! Knowlton is a judge?! Kill me now!

JBL

It’s axiomatic that lack of access to money, results in a reduction of access to high quality education or, more to the point, the didactic experiences that enhance critical thinking skills and that help people make wiser eating and other life-style choices.

Also, being poor kind of limits what one can afford to eat to what they can afford.

How you read that I was suggesting that the poor are too stupid to make wise choices is not at all clear to me. I’m pretty sure that IQ scores follow a more or less normal distribution throughout the global population. Of course, the same thing cannot be said of money spent on education.

As for the global economy being to blame for limiting the choices of the poor, well, I’m not willing to go so far as to suggest that an abstract concept can cause anyone to do anything. However, I am sure that the global economic system is not the result of a unanimous decision by a myriad of businessmen and government officials that the end product should be the intellectual, physical and monetary enrichment of the poor.

Mr. delGrosso,

“It’s axiomatic that lack of access to money, results in a reduction of access to high quality education…”

We just have to agree to disagree with respect to this point. Where you see axioms I see non-sequiturs; in fact, I’ve already provided a counterexample.

“Also, being poor kind of limits what one can afford to eat to what they can afford. “

That’s also true for the non-poor (credit not withstanding).

Pertaining to your statement regarding the IQ of the entire world’s population I hasten to say: “I don’t know”.

I also do not think that the global economic system is the result of any unanimous decision period (wacko conspiracy theories not withstanding).


JBL,

Not to dismiss anything that has been discussed already (about education, socio-economic status, etc.), but this response is about your original post, which asked “How is making food more expensive (albeit much tastier) going to help feed the hungry?”

The point of all this is NOT to make food more expensive. Rather, it is about becoming conscious of where our food comes from and understanding what it does to our body, what it does to our environment, and how our environment impacts us in turn. It’s a cycle. It’s about appreciation of that food. Only then can we hope to affect and justify [massive] change. Hopefully, once we better understand food in and of itself, we can not only make food healthier, but stop wasting so much of it so that the poor and hungry can have something to eat as well.

Initially, you’re right. Locally growned, “natural” foods WILL be more expensive than conventionally grown produce and factory-farmed meat, but there is a massive ecological cost to those methods that is difficult to quantify, yet it is catching up to us today in the form of polluted air and waters, obesity, and sickness and disease from food-borne illnesses. Salmonella and E. Coli occur today in far more resilient forms, and are also present in greater quantities of our food. Thousands upon thousands of people get sick every year from contaminated batches of meat and even vegetables (spinach salad, anyone?).

The alternative (one of the alternatives, anyway) is to buy locally. Not only does this help local farmers and local economies, but because small scale farms are better able to control quality and the conditions under which their animals and plants grow, the potential for sickness and disease is greatly diminished. The shorter the distance that food has to travel from farm to plate, the less time there is for food to spoil. Additionally, there are fewer hands involved in the exchange of raw foods, which may result in less of a chance for cross-contamination as a result of long-distance shipping. Finally, if the food DOES happen to be contaminated, the pathogen(s) has less time to reproduce to significantly harmful levels (bacteria need time to multiply) AND the contamination should be limited to a relatively small quantity of food produced in a specific region, unlike the massive recalls of millions of pounds of hamburgers that have occurred over the past few years.

Thus, a better question might be, “How much money is spent on medical care as a result of food-borne illnesses caused by commercially grown food?” Or, perhaps, “How much money is lost through a lack of productivity as a result of people being sick from these food-borne illnesses?” If we knew the answer to those questions, the answer should be clearer.

My personal answer to this problem is a combination of Michael Pollan’s first three sentences in “In Defense of Food,” and of one of Chef Barber’s responses during the Q&A session, “Vote with [my] forks.”
1) I will eat food: not that expensive, unsatisfying, processed crap that harms both my body and the environment, AND benefits big companies that thrive off of carelessly grown produce and livestock.
2) I will eat mostly plants: Meat’s more expensive and I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables anyway. It’s healthier to boot. Plus, if everyone eats less meat, there’s more of it to go around. A part of the law of supply and demand is that, with a given supply of something (we’ll use meat as an example), decreases in demand result in a concomitant decrease in cost. Since meat is highly perishable, the meat will need to be sold quickly, even if it is at a lower cost. This example (admittedly, none of what I’ve said) isn’t foolproof, I know, but it is a suggestion. I am not claiming to be infallible.
3) I will not eat too much: See above, but apply that to food as a whole.
4) I will vote with my fork: (Also, see number 1) I personally would trust a local farmer more with making sure that deer (which, btw, also carry E. Coli! Imagine that!) don’t go prancing all over his or her farm, shitting all over the leafy greens that I eat (spinach salad, anyone?), than a factory farm of epic proportions which may not be able to do this — may not even care– in an effective way at all. If I have a significantly more expensive cut of locally raised meat, it will probably be tastier and healthier, and I will be damn sure to eat all of it, and probably also to stretch it out so that I can keep my food budget down. It’d be too much of a shame to let that beautiful food go to waste otherwise, unlike the tons and tons of food waste produced by restaurants and home kitchens in our throw-away culture.

To further lower the cost of food, I personally grow some of it. Hell, I just watered my basil plant while reviewing this ridiculously long response. With technology, home gardens of even miniscule scales are possible with little mess or effort. For example, Michael Pollan gave a lecture in New York’s Public Farm 1, where I met Dr. Paul S. Mankiewicz, Ph.D while standing in line for book signings. Paul — and I apologize profusely if I am mistaken or if I am forgetting anyone — is the inventor of Gaia Soil ( http://www.GaiaSoil.com and http://www.GaiaInstituteNY.org ). With Gaia Soil, easy, lightweight, convenient gardens can be created in almost any environment with access to light (it’s nighttime now, but my baby basil seems to be doing just fine photosynthesizing with the ambient light from the various fixtures in the room).

My point is this: I believe that even with these proposed, dramatic changes, food will not become significantly more expensive to obtain. Additionally, any increased costs in obtaining food may very well be offset by the lower incidence of illness as a result from food poisoning. Health of both body and planet will improve, local farmers and economies will benefit, and the only losers will be big agri-business (which is a GOOD thing). Hopefully, others will think the same way I do in terms of not letting more expensive food go to waste. That way, less food overall is eaten (a potential solution to obesity!), and less food will be wasted or go bad and spoil overall. With decreased demand for more expensive foods (meat), costs will likewise decrease (farmers tend to produce more to break even with production costs, rather than produce less to artificially increase prices for profit), enabling the poor to afford food as well.

I look forward to your response. Also, sorry for the wordiness. I’m REALLY good at that.

I forgot to mention the costs of fossil fuels required to grow, fertilize, harvest, refrigerate, and transport the goods, but you knew that already anyway.

Interesting Talk on Food

Posted in Culinary ruminations and other random thoughts, Food in the news with tags , , , on October 28, 2008 by restaurantouring

Check out Michael Ruhlman’s blog for a very interesting talk about food.  He and Chef Dan Barber both speak for twenty minutes, with an additional 20 for Q&A.  The whole video is over an hour long, but if you’re like me (and you love love love food), you’ll wish it were longer.  You can also find the video here.