Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Billy Taylor 1921-2010

Billy Taylor  1921-2010
We sometimes take for granted some of the jazz legends that are still living.  And so, when one leaves us, it stings a little knowing we won't be treated to any more of their artistry.  An American jazz pianist, composer, educator and jazz legend has passed on.  We will miss you, Dr. Taylor 

Friday, December 17, 2010

F&C Rewind: The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

Since it's cookie time, I thought I'd repeat a popular post from last year.  Enjoy the cookies- they rock.

I am not a baker.  Bakers are ultra-organized, super neat freaks and patient as Moses, as my grandmother used to say.  Baking is methodical and consistent.  And, contrary to the ongoing debate, it is an exact science.  Yes, yeasts and leaveners do have their own ideas about how and when they'll work, if at all.  But, the learned baker keeps this and any other factors under control by observation and accounts for any rogue ingredients.  A great baker doesn't get any "surprises".   And, for what it's worth, the most talented bakers I know are either Virgos or Geminis.  *Just sayin'*

Yet, for all that apparent rigidity and discipline, there is something very calming and therapeutic about baking.  If you're in the kitchen all day with your onions, garlic and other non-pastry ingredients, the chance to cook outside the box is a welcomed and delightful change.  It's like picking up a guitar; each time you play, it's always fun.  You pick up where you left off, tinker here and there.  And, the more you play, each time you learn a little more, and before you know it, you've got a list of songs you're good at.  That's baking, in a pie shell.

Just the sheer aromatherapy of baking can transform you.  I realize I'm preaching to the choir here; I mean, who doesn't swoon over smells of caramelizing sugar, fresh vanilla, warm chocolate, cinnamon and butter?  Baking is a treat for all the senses.  For me, the less gadgets, the better.  I want to get my hands dirty.  Give me a good set of mixing bowls, a killer scale and durable measuring cups and spoons, a Kitchen Aid, a sil-pat, great pans- and I'm good, yo.  
The second tenet of successful baking, after good equipment, is great ingredients.  Use good butter.  Please.  Know which flour a recipe calls for- and get it.  Farm fresh eggs are always going to be better than supermarket.  Period.  I could write a whole post on vanilla- just know that all vanilla is NOT created equal.  Cream and milk?  Fat is important.  And a little known fact, cream that is out of "date", is actually better for baking (It whips up faster).  Use fruits that are in season.  And finally, there is a reason why there are hundreds of types of chocolate.  Read a little about chocolate and educate yourself.  

I'm not talking just sweet baking, either.  Bread baking can soothe the savage beast.  Kneading dough with the sleeves rolled up is like a good workout.  And, the toasty, yeasty aromas that emanate from your oven on a Sunday morning or winter's afternoon can transform the moodiest, crankiest cook into the most blissed out baker. 

If there is one thing that baking has taught me, it's the importance of method, method, method.  If you follow a well-written recipe to the letter, you're gonna rock the house every time.  I think one of the reasons people fail when baking is because a recipe is too vague.  For example, the #1 reason cookies turn out flat and not fluffy is because people skip the step of chilling the cookie dough before baking.  It's like we can't wait another blessed second to get a steaming, gooey chocolate chip cookie off the sheet and into our mouth; if the recipe or chef explained why it's so crucial, we'd never skip the chilling process again.  

The liquifiers, other wise known as eggs and butter, require congealing with the other ingredients, the stabilizers.  When that little dab of dough hits the oven, the first thing to happen is the steaming of the butter and eggs.  If the dough is too warm, they go flat- instantly.  The colder it is, the longer it takes to liquify the eggs and butter, thereby allowing the cookie to retain its desired lumpy, chunky shape.  The steam released from the butter causes the dough to rise, aided by the eggs, and in just a short 9-14 minutes, depending on the recipe, you've got an enviable cookie.  

Don't stop there.  Follow that recipe!  When it says "cream the butter and sugar", know what you're doing and why.  By combining the two until they are one isn't enough.  You're incorporating volume that is equally crucial to the height of a killer cookie.  I've seen cookie recipes that call for using a paddle on the mixer, and some that call for the whip.  At this point, it's up to you.  Do you want a dense cookie, or a light, fluffy one?  This is the difference.  How about a c.c. cookie recipe that calls for all brown sugar?  Again, different sugars behave differently; brown sugar has moisture- whip it into butter and you're trapping air- which will work to your advantage for a fluffy cookie.  Double the amount of vanilla and your cookie tastes just a little more decadent than the ordinary.  Mix the chips (the last step) until just incorporated so you aren't activating the gluten in the flour further, and your "crumb" is larger.  "Overmix" and you have a chewier cookie.  Old baking soda?  Not nearly as effective as new.  Or, sift your flour, and your cookie is fluffier.  Do you see the numerous factors that contribute to the outcome of your cookie?  Yet, no one exlpains why.  

These are concepts.  Once you've experimented with them and ultimately obey them, they apply to all of cooking and baking.  

Freeze your tart shell like your cookie dough for a flakier crust.  Experiment with fat- do I use lard or butter?  Shortening or a combination?  Play with it until you find a recipe you really dig.  Experiment with moisture in your oven when baking bread.  Own a convection oven?  Whoa!  That's a whole other post, Bubbalouie!  But, know that heat source is a HUGE determining factor in the outcome of a baking product.

And so, as is common, my foodie nerd side gets carried away, and I approach a TMI phase.  If you follow this blog, you'll know that a common theme is "concepts and fundamentals".  Once you've grasped them, you have more control over what you're cooking.  No one is trying to make a scientist out of you, but when some of these tidbits are taken into consideration, it may help demystify cooking.  And that alone is worth the virtual paper this is written on.

The following is a straight-off-the-wrapper recipe for Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies.  And it happens to be the only one I use.

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar

  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 2 large eggs

  • 2 cups (12 oz. pkg.) Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Morsels

  • 1 cup chopped nuts

  • Directions

    PREHEAT oven to 375° F.

    COMBINE flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and nuts. Chill batter until firm, about 45 minutes.  Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

    BAKE for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

    Tuesday, December 14, 2010

    Chef Quote of the Week: David Chang

    "I think the basic thing that home cooks can learn how to do is just season properly. ... If the home cook realized how little salt they use compared to what's needed, it would make their food taste better."

    David Chang
    Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ko, Milk Bar and Ma Peche

    Monday, December 13, 2010

    Your Mother Should Know: A Culinary Top 10 List

    When learning to cook, the "aha!" moments are rare.  But they do exist, and my friends, I'm here to tell you:  listen to them.

    As I find myself well into the educational phase of my career (that is, passing on what I know to other cooks), I'm discovering that for every moment the world of cooking seemed like an endless expanse of culinary universe, I find that universe shrinking and starting to make more sense each day. 

    What some sources refer to as the culinary basics, our mothers and grandmothers would call good, common sense.  Let's face it; in the realm of chicken and egg scenarios, it's the all-knowing, multi-tasking matron of the hearth who came long before the Certified Master Chef.  For all those women who had no choice but to cook for their families when the house was empty of kids or working men, they did so out of necessity and survival, not expression of creativity or ego.  Before cookbooks and anything slightly resembling a home-guide for the kitchen were available, determining which pot was best for which dish, when a using a wooden spoon was better than a metal one, when to cover the pot, or leave it open- and when to turn the flame up versus down was trial by fire (pun-intended). 

    It wasn't until the supposed "masters" like Escoffier and Careme, Brillat-Savarin and other culinary giants came along with their guides and rules for doing it right all the time.  Most of these men served careers in the military first.  Upon leaving the service, they applied this new-found rigidity and culture of order to the craft of cooking, and in doing so, they turned it into a science.  They evaluated things like boiling points of water vs. sugar, they studied the effects of heat and steam on proteins and the differences of various cooking metals (i.e. copper versus aluminum).  They wrote the recipes for the basics, and, in short, they codified cooking to remove the guess work and make it a more exact science. 

    "So", you say, "my grandmother couldn't tell you the exact poaching temperature for a terrine, but I'm certain she has one of the most bad-ass pie crusts you'll ever make!"  And, you're right.  Ironically, it's the simplest of elements the housewife mastered in cooking that young line cooks and culinary students today can't grasp.  I think most cooks think not about putting the final product on a table to actually savor, eat and enjoy, but more about how it will look on the plate.  Taste has become secondary.  Tsk, tsk, tsk.

    More mothers and grandmothers have landed perfect pot roasts and mashed potatoes on kitchen tables they knew tasted good than can most line cooks today, I can tell you.  One factor is the incessant distractions for line cooks.  They fight boredom, extreme temperatures, long-hours, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, hangovers, ADHD and the insidious Top Chef scenarios which play out in their heads.   If only I were competing, I'd show them all!  Well, if competing on a cooking show is anything like taking your cooking practical at culinary school where you are judged on technique, creativity, mastery of basics and timing, let's just say that having a camera shoved in your arse won't make it any easier (certainly not on your ego when you're trashed by the judges in front of millions). 

    Upon graduating from CIA, I landed as a sous chef for my first cooking job.  Heading up my first kitchen, I had set a standard for myself:  never, EVER, let a dish go out of the kitchen that I wouldn't be proud to serve my parents or my instructors at school.  It worked for me.  But, line cooks also notoriously have a varying degree of quality acceptance in their heads which could be set very high one day, and very low the next, often depending on the factors mentioned above.  To fight that rogue thinking in cooks, I employed a mantra of thinking "ALWAYS".  "Always" was the sure-fire way to infiltrate the cob-webby minds of cooks to make sure that whenever considering cutting a corner, taking that shortcut or battling laziness, they would prevail by choosing the one correct route: the right way, always

    And so, this brings us back to why mothers and grandmothers have always had the upper hand on so many aspiring iron chefs, career line-cooks, hot-shot culinary snots and gadget toting food geeks; they learned by trial and error, not from books, a sous chef or even television. 

    Here then, in no particular order, whether you cook at home, as a hobby or on the chain gang somewhere in the masses of mashed potato houses, are my
    Top 10 Things You Can Do to Be a Better Cook:

    1. Control Your Heat- Oh, how I've watched a poor dish of veal medallions languishing in a saute pan that isn't hot enough, or a cream sauce on nuclear boil. A stove has knobs; USE THEM!

    2. Work Clean- ALWAYS clean after yourself as you go. It is the key to organization mastery. A dirty cutting board is a dirty mind.

    3. Be Patient- You can make something fast, or you can make it the right way. Cut corners and you cheat flavor.

    4. Taste and Season Often- If you aren't tasting what you're cooking, you are not a real cook, but a robot. Enjoy your life of automated servitude. Or, season and taste your food and build a library of flavors, sensations and a vocabulary that will help you get the most enjoyment out of the culinary arts.

    5. Listen- Your food is talking to you. Very often it can tell you that you're doing something wrong, like cooking on too high heat or not enough oil in your pan. Food that snaps, slides, pops and sighs is teaching you about cooking. Listen to it.

    6. Smell- Your sense of smell can save you from using fish that is past "safe" or knowing the difference from toasted bread and charcoal. A simple pot of tomato sauce has that "finished" smell when the combination of onion, garlic, tomato and herbs have melded into one harmonious, heady aroma.

    7. Use Fresh- If you are ever asking which is the better ingredient(s) to use, the answer will 99.9% of the time be "fresh". Think about it. If taste is priority (and I think we've established it should be), then use fresh products. If you want to cut corners and make a quick stew our soup, use your canned beans, dried herbs and bouillon cubes. If you want to see the difference I'm talking about, try it the other way.

    8. Order of Ingredients- There is ALWAYS a right order to put ingredients in a recipe for maximum flavor and/or correctness. And you need to learn why. Sometimes it's scientific, other times it's common sense. A fresh pea takes, what- two minutes to cook? Add it at the beginning of a 45 minute soup, stew or saute and you've killed any flavor, nutritional value or color that poor legume ever had of gifting you.

    9. Use Proper Tools and Sharp Knives- You've heard this one a lot. So why do you insist on using tongs for every task, you filthy, dirty little cook, you? There is a big difference between gadgets and proper kitchen tools, particularly spatulas. Same goes for bowls, pots and pans. Stop being lazy. Also, sharp knives are better and safer to work with, always. But, if you insist, go ahead and cut your fingers off. You're giving the rest of us a bad name.
    UPDATE:  Case in point- this article in the WSJ one day later...
    10. Know When to Stop- There is always a time when you should stop; stop beating, stop blending, roasting, adding salt, adding other ingredients or just trying. Read your recipes and listen (ahem) to what they say. This one can't be taught, so you just have to learn it. Or, go ask your grandmother.

    Wednesday, December 8, 2010

    John Lennon: Oct. 9, 1940- Dec. 8, 1980

    "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."  

    Never are we reminded more of the preciousness of life as when someone special in our lives is taken from us suddenly.  I was 14 in 1980 when I heard John Lennon had been shot and killed.  I didn't know much about his life after The Beatles, accept that he was still alive and lived with Yoko Ono in a place called The Dakota.  That confused the hell out of me, since I heard he lived in New York.  

    As a musician, I was really into The Beatles as a kid.  My parents had their albums, and they always seemed to be on the radio.  When some of the girls in my class wept that he had been killed, I didn't understand what for.  It actually seemed a bit contrived, too.  They painted peace symbols in eyebrow pencil on their cheeks and temporary tears at the corners of their eyes to show their permanent sadness.  "The world suffered a big loss for Peace today", one said.  Still, I didn't get it.  Idolatry was too big a word for me to use back then, but I understood its usage.  Did they understand that?

    What I did get, however, was the huge musical loss we had just been dealt.  If ever there was to be a chance that The Beatles would reunite to play a concert, release a new album or even go back on tour, it was certainly most permanent now.  And that struck a strong emotion in me:  despair.  What could be or could have been.  Missed opportunities and potential represent some of the saddest of life's realities.  

    As I grew older, I began to learn more about my new hero.  I learned which Beatles lyrics were his- and it made sense.  He was at once sarcastic and satirical, roguish and romantic.  I learned about his activism and ornery side, too.  I read books about him and his children.  I even understood Yoko, his much maligned widow who still evokes a great hatred among people that is at best irrational, and at worst the opposite of what John Lennon was about.

    He made me laugh, too.  Like in a scene from Hard Day's Night, while the band is goofing off, he is seen quietly, yet curiously, holding a bottle of Coke up to his nose and snorting.  Subtle was John's forte.  In today's New York Times, Yoko Ono tells a story about how she and John used to laugh together.  And, one of her best and favorite memories of John was when they would make tea together.  Despite the myriad emotions we feel when we lose someone dear, the best way to overcome the grief and appreciate our time with them is with laughter.

    For me, however, it will always be the music of John Lennon and The Beatles that bring the fondest memories; and for my daughter, they're the kind I can pass on.

    Monday, December 6, 2010

    Silver and Gold? COPPER!

    Another holiday season upon us, and another year we revisit all the classic Christmas tunes that sing the praises of silver and gold.  Yes- precious metals lovely to look at and make that tree shine- but, none give the love that French copper gives a cook.  Glorious, gleaming, heavy-duty copper sauteuses and sautoirs, roasters and rondeaus, round paella and oval Dutch ovens, and the precious 1/4 quart cocotte for the escargots lover.  They give the feeling of preparing a meal for royalty.  The touch of one in your hand is like holding a precious stringed instrument or rare bottle of wine.  When I wash mine, I'm reminded of how I used to bathe my infant daughter in the sink, with warm water, gentle soap and a loving, fatherly caress.  Patted down gently with fine cotton cloth, of course.  And, if you look closely on the handle, you'll notice a set of lip prints where I lovingly bid "good night" to it. 

    Truly, though- each year here in Delaware, we're treated to a rare event- the happenstance of residing in the state that is home to the U.S. warehouse of French imported Mauviel Copper Pots and Pans, along with Emile-Henry cookware, Rősle stainless steel utensils, Cuisipro multi-purpose kitchen gadgets and other high-quality brands of kitchen helpers.   The event is a two-day warehouse sale that is open to the public and offers them the chance to purchase all that these companies stock at up to 80% off the retail price.  Deck the Halls, indeed.

    Tuesday, November 23, 2010

    F&C Rewind: Let There Be Music!

    (originally posted on 12/9/09)
    It's really hard for a chef to post at this time of year.  But, when it's in ya, ya gotta get it out.   And so, I want to talk about an important part of dining (to me anyway), and while I'm at it, I'll try to tie it into the season.

    I have yet to speak openly about my absolute passion for music.  No- I'm not running out of ideas for posts early on in the game.  But, I'm so devoted to music- my music- that like food, when it is in short supply, I grow cranky.  I need food, I need wine with my food, and I need music with my food and wine.  Period.

    I am that guy.  I bring my Ipod to dinner parties.  I "suggest" music when it's not there.  When it's bad- I change it.  When it's soft, I turn it up.  When it's off topic, I steer back.  See- somewhere along the line, the same way that we integrate food into our memories, I've skipped a rail or two and now the three- food, wine and music- are inseparable, interchangeable, indispensable.  Some of you may think this is hype- I assure you, it is not.  

    This "merging of the passions" got serious with the advent of the Ipod and digital music.  Not that my front of house experience kept me from getting my fingers sticky.  But, when it became possible to create a playlist, without building a 90-minute mixed tape, without having to stick to 80 minutes of CD time, without any limitations on what plays, in what order and for how long- well- it's ON.  

    You have to get, first, that I link the culture of music to the culture of food.  For example, as cheesy as it may be, when I'm at a real Japanese restaurant, I wanna hear music that makes me think of Japan.  I don't want to hear classic rock.  I don't want to hear house and trance.  There is so much awesome music out there, that, yes- I actually do have music that is both culturally correct and cool to quaf sake and slurp sashimi to.  That said, I like to hear music when I'm eating that at least equals the rate at which I am chewing, and doesn't exceed it.  There are all kinds of statistics I could give you about intensity of music volume and even brightness of lighting in restaurants that directly affect the rate at which you eat.  But, I don't wanna ruin it for you.

    Then, there's Pandora.  The space-age, intelligent music service that is the closest thing we have to a free-thinking, non-sentient DJ.  It is nothing short of brilliant.  Once you get past the novelty of typing in a song or artist and hearing what comes out, then try to really challenge it;  add other artists, limit content, give it encouragement and reprimand it for being bad, and you've got the closest thing to a musical clone of you possible.  It's one step better than having someone take over your Itunes, because it resources music you don't necessarily have access to.  But, I digress.

    Can there really be a more quintessential holiday musical compilation than "A Charlie Brown Christmas?"  I argue, not.

    This incidental collection of music from the TV special is one of dozens of albums produced by the great pianist Vince Guaraldi.  He also has solo albums, he's recorded with his quintet, with an obscure, but ultra-talented Brazilian guitarist, Bole Sete- and of course, his trio.  But, no matter what recording, we all know the sound of the bubbling beat that begins the Charlie Brown theme.  We can picture Chuck and Linus hoofing through the snow to buy a tree while the trio lazily laments to O' Tannenbaum.  And of course, the chain of characters catching snow flakes on their tongues and sliding about the ice to Skating.  

    The lazy melancholy we can all connect to at this time of year is captured in every bar of every song.  But it's not all a downer.  Just like the holidays, we relate to the highs and lows we experience in a time that is charged with emotions, memory and life.  

    This is the cultural connection I'm talking about.  They're musically indelled images from memory.  It's hard, therefore, to be in a bustling bistro where classic French country cuisine is the fare, and they're playing the Gypsy Kings.  But, forget my cranky complaints- how much more ENJOYABLE would it be to hear some gypsy swing or Charles Trenet and Josephine Baker while finishing off a steak frites and a Stella Artois or carafe of beaujolais?  

    When you sit down to crack a bushel of crabs open and sip some frosty longnecks- do you pop in the Carpenters anthology, or do you work in a thoughtful playlist of Bruce Springstein, Blues, Nina Simone, 70's pop and the Stones?  I think I've made it clear which I'd choose.

    Yes, for those who know me well, this is for serious.  I'm willing to bet that for each of you out there who can name their top three restaurants ever, the one that is #1, you can also tell me about the music they play.  Even if you don't know the artists, you could say for certain there is a recognition.  Now, what about the rest?  *Come on- think aout it.*  See?

    Funny thing is, when you dine in Europe, the lights are turned up and there is no music.  WTF?  Where did all these dimly lit, cozy restaurant images come from in our heads with romantic period music lilting in the background? I'll tell you where:  AMERICAN CINEMA.  Because, sitting in a real, classic Italian pizzeria in Verona or a boisterous brasserie in Paris, there simply is no music- and the lights are like the DMV.  

    One of the more surprising recommendations from Thomas Keller's recent cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, is to make sure music is a part of your kitchen experience.  Chef Charlie Trotter is also an avid fan of music- he likes everything from Portishead to John Coltrane- and even modeled one of his cookbooks after the concept of the jazz improvisations of trumpeter extraordinaire Miles Davis.  What more appropriate way to describe a menu that changes daily, relies on the classics, but provides combinations that are artful, modern and thought-provoking?  Self-indulgent? Yes.  Accurate?  Absolutely.
    So, get in touch with your inner DJ.  Poke around the internet.  And, when  you hear music at a restaurant you like, someone has made great strides for you to notice, even if you don't notice.  Ask what it is.  Search engines these days, like the ones from Pandora, Amazon and Itunes are so advanced, you're bound to find music you enjoy while dining, cooking or just throwing back some cocktails.  Now I like the sound of that.

    Monday, November 15, 2010

    Chef Quote of the Week: Guy Savoy

    "Cuisine is an art, and I believe that cuisine, much as it cannot be understood without an understanding of the ingredients, cannot be appreciated without a convivial atmosphere. A well-filled plate is no longer enough. If you want people to have a good time, there needs to be other parameters, from the décor and the atmosphere to the people and the relationships that they create. There is no magic formula. Alchemy is personal." - Chef Guy Savoy

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    Martini Hour

    This Monday, November 15 at The Grand in Wilmington, one of the funnest (and my favorite) bands playing today, Pink Martini, will perform.  Start your weekend early with a video from the 1951film that inspired their cover of the song "El Negro Zumbon".  And, see you at the show on Monday!

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010

    Thanksgiving 2010: Musings, Tips and Advice for the Wary

    Last week, President Obama used a term to describe his impression of the outcome of the mid-term elections.  He said the Dems took a "shellacking" (personally, I liked Baby Bush's description in '06- "We took a thumpin'!"- better).  I thought immediately of the type of photo above and how much disdain I have for food magazines that depict the stereotypical, impossibly glassy roast bird on their November covers when there are so many other non-literal and beautiful foods that make the holiday memorable.  But, hey- sex sells.  More apropos would be a king-sized bottle of Xanax next to some cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.  So, irrespective of my pet peeves, I've decided to lead off my holiday post anyway with the Turkey as imagined by Rustoleum.

    Here are some thoughts on the upcoming holiday.

    Today, I read an interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times about how food affects moods, notably, the chemical reactions that take place in the brain- and which ones are real and which are myth.  Among the ones that didn't surprise me (coffee improves energy and mental performance- um, duh.), there were a couple that did.  Eating turkey, for example, it is shown does not induce sleepiness.  
    "...each molecule of tryptophan has to compete with many other amino acids to get into the brain, says Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness. A Thanksgiving feast will make you groggy, but tryptophan isn't the reason..." 

    Or how about chocolate as the cure-all, aphrodisiac, natural-high?  Not so much.
    "...chocolate contains many components with the potential to enhance mood, but the chemical effect of each of them is small. It does have low levels of stimulants, but you can get a lot more from other substances," she says. The caffeine content is very low, so coffee is better for that kind of kick (see?). The sugar might give a temporary lift, but it's subtle. And the phenylethylamine that people say is supposed to make you feel in love — well, many foods, including salami, are much higher in phenylethylamine." 

    Got that?  Salami, folks.

    While we're on the subject of turkey, one of the age-old Autumn quandaries is, "When is the bird done?"  I can tell you that any turkey that comes with a pre-inserted pop-up belly-button is going to be drier than Regis Philbin's jokes.  It's set to pop at 170 F.  This relieves the producer of anyone getting sick if they may have pulled it early.  But, in reality, you can pull it at 160 F and it'll carry over a few degrees, be safe, tender and moist.  That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. You don't want to know what temp I pull it at.  And, all my family is still aliveDo yourself a favor: get yourself a probe- instant read-out, easy to clean, digital thermometer:  they're twenty bucks. 

    Are you cooking for 10 or more?  Just as prized as the second dishwasher has to be the second microwave.  Think about it.  You get everything together early, seasoned and ready to rock- and it's time to pull the trigger on dinner.  You actually have more plates than people, and by the time you get them all to the table some are warm, none are hot.  Letdown.  Load 'em on, zap 'em up, send 'em OUT! Yahhh!!

    We're approaching Beaujolais Nouveau time, that third Thursday in November when we're treated to one month-old wine which is usually drunk within two.  I like to think of it as headache in a bottle.  Because it's only barely been fermented 6-8 weeks, comes from the lowest quality vineyards in Beaujolais and is produced in excess of 49 million liters each year.  With Thanksgiving falling so close to the release, consumers typically pay $1-2 more a bottle because stores know they need to have it, and the French know it.  JUST SAY "NO".  

    Gamay, on the other hand, the principal grape producing the historic crus of Beaujolais as well as the swill in clown-colored bottles, is ideal for the multi-flavored meal in mid-November because of its versatility.  This isn't really to get you away from drinking other suitable wines for Turkey Day, as much as it is to say- "Hey, if you're gonna drink gamay, why not drink a good one?" The Domaine Ricard Le Clos de Vauriou from the Touraine is one I'll be sipping- or I should say, one I have been sipping for the last six months. Always served with a slight chill on it, it was a great red for a grilled Tuna Nicoise salad in the heat of summer, not to mention a nice bridge to the heartier and earthier foods of Fall.  And now, with everything from pumpkins, mushrooms and turnips on the buffet, to Turkey, salmon, apples and sage- gamay, especially this one, is my choice for Turkey Wine 2010.  And, how does $12 a bottle sound?

    The next part is...uncomfortable.  It involves the subject of multiple desserts. 

    I enjoy desserts just as much as the next person.  I appreciate the time and effort put into a nice homemade pie or torte, or miniature cakes and cookies.  But, I gotta tell ya' when there are six or more choices for dessert, I can only eat one, maybe two of those choices after all that other food before I approach hemorrhage stage.  And I FEEL BAD for those people who made them when only one piece is taken or, God forbid- NO ONE has touched them because they lost the popularity contest or simply because the desserts have outnumbered the guests.  HOST and HOSTESSES this falls squarely on you Now, I know you're going to say that everyone gets to take them home- yadda, yadda, yadda.  Yes, this is true; but, perhaps part of the overindulgence we experience from Thanksgiving is perpetuated by the "more is more" maxim.  We can break the chain now!

    Or, maybe I just feel bad about the uneaten desserts.  Pass the Xanax, please.

    Friday, November 5, 2010

    Chef Quote of the Week: Gray Kunz

    On what he looks for in hiring cooks: "I don't necessarily need to see the resume. For me, it's the character the person has. Maybe that person doesn't have all the technical skills, but I can teach technical skills. The skills I can't teach are character, determination, goodwill, persistence. Someone who wants to learn has a very good, positive attitude in the profession. These are things that will come as a package to a person."  
    Chef Gray Kunz
    Cafe Gray

    Sunday, October 17, 2010

    Opus, Where Have You Gone?

    Is it me, or are people becoming nastier?  Less patient, more paranoid.   Where is their lust for life?  Doesn't anyone remember the kumbaya of "Our Time in Eden" by Mother Earth herself, Natalie Merchant?  Or the little books urging us to not sweat the small stuff, to learn from our Kindergarten experiences and embrace the Eckhart Tolle that is supposed to reside in all of us??

    When you go through a cycle of surreal circus news like we've had the last few weeks- celibate, creationist witches for Congress, bullying teens turn suicide tragedy, modern-day Red Scare politics, gay-bashing, and a general paranoia among people- you long for an island of sanity to escape to.  (Although I confess a little grumpiness of my own; e.g. I can't even enjoy my Phillies in the playoffs because FOX and TBS manage to turn the great Fall Classic into a gimicky, dumbed down, American League-leading Yank-fest, with vapid commentary.)  It all calls for a steady and consistent IV drip of common sense, sarcasm, irony and wisdom. A tonic to help the masses look less like asses.  For me, the daily and Sunday comic, Bloom County used to be that bromide.  No- religion.  Opus, where have you gone?

    This isn't your ordinary pine-for-the-days-of-old kind of post.  I don't need the "that was then this is now speech".  Bloom County was timeless- like the Beatles or Roald Dahl books.  

    Each delicately crafted character held a collection of human hopes, dreams, frailties, and flaws.  And, yes- anxieties!  Who can forget Michael Binkley's closet?  Spawned from normal kid fears of things that go bump in the night, Binkley's closet became a hilarious stage for the freakiest of pop culture icons to strut and fret upon.  Tammy Faye Baker, Jesse Helms, Richard Simmons and Milton Friedman were some of the more memorable fodder to hit the strip.  Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov (how long did he live as president?) and Cuban Leader Fidel Castro showed up one night to haunt Binkley, but it turned out they had the wrong closet- it was supposed to be Ronald Reagan's. 

    Bloom County held a cast of mini-eggheads (both human and woodsy animal-type) who knew more about philosophy, politics, etiquette, love and hardship than their adult counterparts.  The womanizing Steve Dallas was getting dumped on more regularly than a daisy in a cow pasture, that is, until he was captured by aliens and turned into a feminist.  Binkley's single dad showed all the hardships and frustrations of being a single parent during toddlerhood.  Cutter John, the soft-hearted but passionate wheelchair bound friend of the Bloomies led high-speed excursions on his wheel chair through the meadow on the USS Enterpoop.  Any reference or connection to Star Trek, it seems, is guaranteed acceptance among the general comic reading public (see: Comicon for proof). Because we can all laugh.

    We all understood the constantly frazzled Bill the Cat: we've been there.  It is uncertain whether he was left that way by some drug experiment (or experimental drug!) or whether he was simply toting an extra chromosome around.  He's been a televangelist, a cult leader, a presidential candidate and a rock star, all supporting the theory that crazy is as crazy does.  Just look at the aforementioned week of news topics.  Either way, his trademark "ACK!" has many a day summed up my feelings of life as a cat in an adult world. 

    But perhaps the one we could all fondly relate to was the neurotic, bowtie wearing penguin, Opus.  Often mistaken for an iguana, he was given to fits of shouting loud declarations calling for fairness, common sense and acceptance of the absurd.  His late night habit of ordering from infomercials and an addiction to herring showed the imperfect side of us all.  His frequent chats with "the sky", from the safe haven of Bloom Meadow, mirrored American existentialist feelings in a rapidly developing world of technology and rapidly declining morals.  Searching for something he couldn't have or long lost (in his case, his mother) was the common thread through the strips' years, though he did achieve satisfaction in the end.  Opus was more than the underdog.  He was "someone" we could lean on in uncertain times (which seemed to be ever present).  He was a panacea. 

    Just like other rebirths, spin-offs and imitations (even if by the original creator), Bloom County was more than the sum of its parts.  And, now more than ever, we could use a daily dose or two of the silliness.  Quoted in the late 70s about his newly minted comic, creator Berkely Breathed said, "As I see it, the world is getting more dangerous. But of course it's getting funnier proportionately, hence a mixed blessing. Clearly this decade is in need of some serious analysis on the comic pages."  

    Timeless, I say.  Timeless.

    Friday, October 15, 2010

    Ferragamo or Laurent Perrier? A Chef Chooses

    I must admit, it's a glorious feeling reading an interview with one of the greatest living chefs and finding out how wonderfully down to earth he is, and dare I say, just like you.

    Ferran Adria is one such chef.  He recently gave a talk in New York City as part of a promotion of a new biography that both canonizes him and demystifies him at once, even if in the process a little man-crush gives way from author Colman Andrews, formerly of Saveur magazine, my most cherished food porn rag.

    Chef Didier Oudill
    In my years of working under chefs of a certain stature, when a down-time arrives and you have time to watch the rare and beautiful beast in his own habitat, you learn as much about his methods as you do the man behind the cuisine .  One such chef, Didier Oudill, was my chef during an externship at the Hotel Cafe de Paris in Biarritz, France.  He was disturbingly introverted and often gave to fits of pacing the kitchen while staring at the floor with knitted brow, as if solving an intricate theorem.  So, the other cooks and I would titter when he took a call in his office from one of his many friends around the globe, as he shouted in exuberance to hear their voice, while somehow seeming to make up for the distance with his elevated tone.  "Hah-looooooooooooo!"

    And, it was that dichotomy that was both unplanned and revealing.  An "aha!" moment, but certainly not at the time.  I imagine I've had more than a few cooks think I was a patient off his meds in the past when doing the very same thing- trying to solve a problem completely unrelated to all that was in play at that moment, but no less important. 

    When Chef Oudill would let his dog, Lipp, roam freely through the kitchens, it instantly humanized this mystery man.  When his kids visited and stepped inside the sacred laboratory (and he didn't freak), you knew there was a real man inside.  And, when, upon heading home I presented him with a "thank you" gift of a unique Laguiole knife whose soul purpose is for slicing lobes of foie gras, he seemed genuinely grateful and elated.  Not every stagiare is so fortunate to have a picture completed; no, some spend the rest of their career in kitchens trying to put an early experience with a "culinary madman" into perspective.

    Or, you could come out of a high-profile interview like Adria did this week and appear downright playful, humble and inspirational in the process.  Andrews commented that Chef "dresses simply" because he'd rather spend his money on fine champagne than shoes because he'll remember the bubbly.  (If I had this guy's bank roll, I think I'd find room for both- just sayin'.)  But, perhaps the comment that resonated with me so much was one that captures my whole philosophy on food:  it's “very complicated and complex. I don’t know anything about food...maybe, a bit more than most.”
    Then, offering an example, "it would take a lifetime to know about tomatoes. It’s not a joke. Multiply that by all the ingredients you can.  If you don’t have a humble attitude about food, then you’ll be dead.”

    Thank you to Patricia Talorico for reporting this exciting and unique talk.

    Tuesday, October 5, 2010

    On Sharing Good Wine, Part II

    A "blue moon" is one of those over-used superlatives indicating something so rare and so fancy-pants that everyone should take note.  I admit it's both fun, but trite to use, but then my friends and I didn't really consider that when we dubbed what we thought was a once in a lifetime opportunity to taste uber-rare wines, while attempting to pair lofty cuisine worthy of their pedigree, would be the first of...more?

    While a true lunar blue moon occurs when there is a second full moon in a calendar month (that's about 7 times every 19 years), we truly thought our opportunity was more akin to the mythical type (you know- like almost never?) than the literal.  Yet, math was on our side.

    Last year, I blogged a dinner amongst these same friends that documented the very scenario above.  Given the enormity of it's rareness, we thought we were not likely to see one again, any time soon.  It featured some of the most precious and sought after wines in the world- including a 1975 Chateau d'Yquem, multiple first growth bordeaux, a 1963 Vintage Taylor Port and a 1919 Chateau Haut Brion, all provided by a passionate food and wine lover simply because he saw the enthusiasm with which we produced the first menu.  It was, like the first time 10 years earlier, a night to remember. 

    Two months ago I got the call that our benefactor was coming back to town for business, and he wanted to do it all again, just 14 months later.  As with the first two times, he chose 12 wines from his expansive and impressive cellar, emailed us the selections, and then shipped them overnight with painstaking care.  Except this time, we had not six weeks to prepare a menu and line up our game plan, but three.   

    When faced with the prospect of pairing world-class wines from first-rate vintages, you don't think about busting out the molecular gastronomy and culinary bells and whistles.  It's all about the classics.  Example:  a pairing from the first dinner 10 years earlier, which will forever be indelled in my memory, was as simple as it was brilliant.  A 1962 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti "La Tache" was paired with a locally raised, braised rabbit leg with parsnips and local mushrooms.  Simple.  The rabbit was simmered until "confit tender". 

    It wasn't until days before our seafood purveyor, of all sources, queried whether we'd be interested in taking some fresh Maine wild blueberries that were being brought in by the same guys who were shipping day-boat halibut.  The answer was a resounding, "DUH?".  And so, to bridge that all important gap between what could be a white wine course or a red wine course, we added the berries to our braising juices and let them simmer.  The result defines the term "sublime" (there was another impressive Burgundy paired with the dish from an equally impressive producer and vintage- but, the la Tache was so incredibly on point, and our elementary rabbit dish was so wonderfully complementary, that it silenced our group).  Its extraordinary complexity and delicateness commanded a moment for us to regroup our thoughts before continuing.  The perfect balance of components, married with a harmony of fruitiness, acidity and earthiness leaves me swooning to this day.  Such is the power of the classics.

    Sticking with that formula, a forward team that consisted of just myself and my surrogate "chef brother" Paul met one steamy, humid Sunday eve last month to handle the latest challenge.  We gathered our notes on the latest round of wines, and, to lend some inspiration, we opened and reverently sipped a 1990 Chateau Latour.  As is common, we aligned the wines in order of likely service and fleshed out an outline of the basics:  main component and main flavor profile.  With 12 wines slated for consumption, we decided to pour two per course, with the dinner lasting at least six courses (supplementary wines are often added by equally passionate attendees).  But, we knew the crux of how it would all go down.  We had only three days after that to consult a couple other possible chef friends who would participate to fine tune and finalize the menu, order our special ingredients and prep.  All this while working our full-time jobs, managing our personal lives and performing our duties as Pere de la Maison.  Challenging? Yes.  Fun? Of course!  Nerve racking?  Well... you answer.  The previous two dinners had consisted of no more than 10 attendees, and the most recent was looking more like 7 or 8.  No matter, it like the others, had to be perfect.

    Why does great wine command such respect and awe?  Like architecture, it's man's greatest achievement of harnessing nature to produce a product solely for the purpose of his pleasure.  

    The menu was finalized and the pieces fit into place, as they so often do.  Pairing food and wine is an art, yes- but, it also becomes an exercise in common sense.  Delicate wines require delicate preparations, aggressive ones need a little push.  Never repeat ingredients.  Create diversity of textures and temperatures.  Contrast and complement.  Multiple courses should build in intensity then back down- begin gentle, finish gently.  Leave the table sated, not stuffed.

    Despite how it may read, the following menu and wines were the final choices, and they followed all the guidelines above.  The pictures, of course, tell the real story.

    Warm up: A little pre-game with Charles Gardet & Co.

    1st Course
    Ragout of Veal Sweetbreads “Blanquette”- with beech mushroom, local sweet corn, tarragon and veal jus (not pictured)

    2000 Chevalier Montrachet~ Bouchard Pere et Fils
    2000 Montrachet Marquis de la Guiche~ Joseph Drouhin

    2nd Course
    Braised Oxtail over quinoa and Doctor Martin lima beans - with thyme infused braising juices

    1989 Chateau Mouton Rothschild~ Paulliac
    1989 Chateau Lafite Rothschild~ Paulliac
    A little "fuzzy", I know- but trust me. 

    3rd Course
    Crispy Colorado Lamb Rillettes – risotto style “potatoes” and hen of the woods mushrooms 
    (Rillettes in prep stage)

    1990 Chateau Latour~ Paulliac
    1966 Chateau Gruaud Larose~ St. Julien (not pictured)

    Fourth Course

    Pink Peppercorn Crusted New Zealand Veal Rack - truffle scented heirloom eggplant and lingonberry demi glace

    1995 Colgin~ Cabernet Sauvignon
    2000 Inflagrante SQN~ Syrah

    5th Course
    Coconut Milk and Rum Braised Short Rib
    With mole sauce and savory baked ricotta

    2003 Harlan Estate~ Cabernet Sauvignon  
    2006 Erna Schein “Fat Boy”

    6th Course
    Roasted Black Mission Fig – gorgonzola dolce, pulverized prosciutto, pistachio and honey

    1971 Chateau d'Yquem~ Sauternes

    7th Course
    Chocolate Espresso Pot d’crème with blackberry

    1963 Graham's Vintage Porto

    Chef Contributors: 

    Paul Bouchard, Matt Crist and Robert Lhulier
    Wine Inspiration:
    D. Paige and Ron Bouchard


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