Tuesday, July 26, 2011

F&C Rewind: The Taliban Approves of Your Child's Lunch

UPDATE: Last year, I blogged about how Americans have at their fingertips the tools and resources to eat healthier foods more than ever before, in particular amongst children.  But, ultimately that responsibility lies with the parents.

Today, a very loud signal echoed back from that call in the form of a cave-in (even if small) from McDonalds.  Fresh fruit will be included in Happy Meals and French fries will be halved.  In some cases, you will be able to opt out of fries.

This is still a long way from giving children a sensible meal that comes with the marketing muscle of McDonalds, but it's a start. In fact, I made this challenge:  "If you don't think you can fight the big corporations, or if you think you don't have a choice or a voice, just think how McDonald's would react to losing a market share to people eating healthy.  They wouldn't like it, not one little bit. "
There are lots of issues to debate with this news, but in the mean time, I offer this blog post again to remind anyone who this subject is dear to, more and more these days, it's necessary to have your voice heard. 
Here's a good one.  CNN reports that 27% of young adults (17-24 years of age) are ineligible to join the armed services...because they don't meet the physical requirement.  The study says that obesity is the number one cause.  Retired generals and military types called the youths "too fat to fight"; but, rather more disturbing is that "75% of young Americans between the ages of 17 to 24 do not qualify for the military because of failure to graduate [from high school], criminal records or physical problems."

Let that sink in for a sec.

I clicked on the article because the teaser was about how school lunches are "a national security risk".  I am very passionate about the subject of school lunches, but more generally, how we feed our kids.  I can see where they were going with that link, but it's kind of a stretch.  I'd say the bigger threat to national security is education.  Clearly we need an overhaul of lunch programs so that kids are fed meals that don't double and triple load on carbs, rely on frying to give flavor and will provide actual nutritional value that isn't cooked completely out, say when broccoli becomes the color of an army jeep.

The "give a man a fish" rule of logic is in effect here.  If children have access to the knowledge they need to feed themselves in a safe and healthy manner, they'll develop good eating habits.  Don't just give 'em tuna salad on wheat and call it a day.  I remember when I was in school, the class called "health" was not about dietary tips.  If it was, maybe no one remembered because the subject competed with the more popular subject of "how to lose your virginity".  

But, the onus is on the school system to make sure kids have access to these options.  Pfft- scrap that- the onus is on the system to provide only healthy options.  If Junior wants to bring the belly-buster special to school five days a week, let him: at least the schools would be doing their part.  But, then comes the next important part: parent accountability.

Twenty years ago, who taught you about using a computer?  I can tell you the answer was NOT your parents.  To assume that parents have the inherent knowledge to provide good tasting, nutritious meals, is just assuming too much.  Again, it's back to education.  The mass producers of "easy" and "quick" meals of all sorts have done their homework, gang.  They know how many meals a week we don't cook.  They know how busy we are, how much money we spend on take-home meals and they provide hundreds upon hundreds of products that are supposed to make our lives easier.  Yeah- a hot dog and chips is easy, too.  

Ahhh, but there's the rub.  I live in absolute guilt that I allow my daughter to eat a "Lunchables" meal because she spotted one at the store and at only three years of age, recognized it is something "fun" that she wanted.  No one told her what it was, no cartoon characters on it; it was at the right height with the right colors on the box in the grocery store.  She swiped it off the shelf and literally ran away with it. Since birth, she has always eaten all the foods we eat.  Roasted and braised meats, fresh fish, cheeses, root veggies, grains of all sorts, and just about every vegetable I'd ever turned my nose up at when I was a kid.  But, all it took was one time to cave in and say, "oh- it's just for fun, it's no big deal" (said the crack user to his pusher).  

So one day, when I decided to lay down the law, I took a ring mold cutter and cut real cheddar cheese and real baked ham into little circles and put in some simple crackers to see if the little Oscar Mayer meth-head would notice.  She did not.  The next month, I discovered Grammy sent home some Lipton noodle soup in a packet with her.  I was rushed, it was convenient, I made it, and she ate the hell out of it and asked for more.  Checked the label, sodium level was at 29% of RDA and contained MSG.  They got me again.  

And don't get me started on ketchup: gateway drug.

See, I'm not getting preachy, but even if we choose to not feed ourselves well, we need to get the kids we bred to a point in their lives where they can make informed, smart decisions about the future of their health.  I'd very much like to see new generations learn how to properly cook vegetables and enjoy them as much as any fried potato.  I'd like to see proteins from meat and fish become an equally shared portion of the plate, not the main event.  And, I'd like to see restaurants and grocers that specialize in this kind of trend flourish, profit and grow to a majority.  

If you don't think you can fight the big corporations, or if you think you don't have a choice or a voice, just think how McDonald's would react to losing a market share to people eating healthy.  They wouldn't like it, not one little bit.  And so, they would be forced to win-back what they lost to that ever-growing segment of the population who want more variety and more nutritious options.  No?  Maybe the Colonels were right then.  Maybe we are too fat to fight.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Cool It

Stop what you're doing right now, and have some ice cream.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Chef Quote of the Week: Anthony Bourdain

"I was about getting the biggest paycheck then, so I could see music, smoke expensive weed, do cocaine, that kind of life. It was less important to me that I would get good at my craft. I deluded myself into thinking I was good."   Chef Anthony Bourdain

Biggers with Roy Yamaguchi
 In the age of oversaturation of reality shows, we have reached a perverted gladiator-style of entertainment, and the arena is the kitchen.  We've come a long way from the Food Network's "Ready, Set, Cook!" in which perky host Sissy Biggers egged on a studio audience to cheer for their favorite cook as they raced against the clock to create a dish from a mystery basket of ingredients.  The winner was decided by a majority of flashcards held by the studio audience depicting either a tomato or a bell pepper for their favorite contestant. 

Today, debasement, sabotage, plot lines, humiliation and real live injuries are not just common, but necessary to attract viewers.  It is the Wild, Wild West, and there no heroes, just survivors.

So, it's very rare when a ribbon of truth ekes out into the MSM about what it's really like in a professional kitchen.  And, when it does, it seems to fall on deaf ears.  This is why I chose to make Anthony Bourdain my "Chef Quote of the Week."

Successful author and TV personality Bourdain recently had a very (public) self-deprecating moment, and it was directed at a portion of the audiences who one day aspire to culinary greatness.  He calls it "My Favorite Mistake".

"If you’re serious about cooking and your craft, do the opposite of what I did."

Read the full piece in Newsweek here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

F&C Rewind: Feeling Crabby

If there is one item I could live without ever ordering, preparing or seeing on a menu again, it's the crab cake.  It's become the most egregiously made, bastardized dish throughout the mid-Atlantic, with variations so vast, it's no wonder locals are so visceral in their opinions on the subject. 

For me, it begins with what people come to expect in a crab cake.  If there is anything other than boulder-sized chunks of crab in front of them, they complain of "too much filler".  Ughgh.  I'll get back to that, but I think it must stem from what people don't know about making these local delicacies.  The crab cake should be primarily crab with seasonings that complement the sweetness of the meat.  It should be moist and tender, properly seasoned, and it should hold together as it slides off a spatula and onto your plate or bun.  

Smarter cooks know that the fewer ingredients you use in a dish, the more you must respect the ones you do use. All those lovely lumps of precious crabmeat are held in trapezoidal compartments within the crab, and they're delicately extracted and separated into and sold as the valuable categories of jumbo lump, backfin, lump and claw meat.  Experienced crab eaters would never discriminate and abandon all the briny goodness that comes from eating all the various types of meats from their crustacean cronies.  But, try using something other than jumbo lump, and the average Joe screams heresy.  They are unaware that the only way to keep a crab cake bound together is to use complementary ingredients that help hold them into the signature "cake" form.  The intense and sweet flavor is often given from using a combination of the jumbo AND claw meat.  The delicate nature of the claw/leg meat (like that of the Jonah crab) also helps to bind when mixed with the base.  So, my ill-informed filler-fanatics, crab claw meat that binds, is still crab.  It's a wise use of crab meat and if you are going to produce them in volume, it helps keep them at a reasonable price.

Typically a little bit of egg, bread or mousse combination is used to help bind these two flavorful types of crab meat.  Egg alone will not do the trick, but adding fresh white, doughy bread crumbs, like from Wonderbread, help hold the crab together.  Taking the protein of shrimp or scallops and combining in a processor with egg white and heavy cream will give you a delicate mousse that is both flavorful and does the trick nicely of binding the crab.  Beyond that, what else you put in is a matter of taste.  Avoid putting in anything that will detract from the main flavor or cause too much moisture or dryness, and you've got your own personal version of the dish that made Maryland famous.  So, why then do so many of them suck?

For all the crab cakes I loathe, it is mostly because they are mass produced for a homogenized appeal.  Each chef has their own idea of what a good crab cake is, and very often it's one that appeals to the masses.  Nothing wrong with selling a lot of crab cakes, I suppose.  Hey, Yugo sold a lot of cars, too.  But, I'm long since past ordering one in a restaurant, simply because I know I will be disappointed.  Give me a softshell crab, on the other hand, and it successfully captures all the things I love about a properly made crab cake:  crispy, toothsome texture, held together nicely in it's own natural sauce and it's as about as "pure" as it gets.  Slap on a little remoulade or equally gooey-tart sauce on a toasted, buttery bun, and my hankering for a sandwich of fresh crab is satisfactorily sated.

I don't hate the crab cake.  Really.  And I'm certainly not being snobby about it.  In fact, I love them so much, it's out of respect for their uniqueness that I sound off.  So, I guess you could say that I am being a bit of a purist.  And, just to show you how much I care, I'm going to share my recipe as long as you promise to make them for only two people.  Four, at the most.  And not another crab cake more.

The main concept behind making this version of a crab cake for only a few people is that it forces you to concentrate on following the recipe and to not cut corners.  Additionally, when you've mastered making these, you'll feel as though each time you make them again, it will be for people you really love and want to spoil.  You'll be giving them something they can't get anywhere for any price!  Now you know why some chefs don't give up recipes.  So, for you, my faithful Fork-N-Corkers, I am willing to make an exception, all in the name of respect for that little puck of tide-water goodness: the regal crab cake.

Robear's Secret Crab Cake Recipe
Makes four 5 oz. crab cakes
  • 8 oz. fresh jumbo lump crab meat
  • 8 oz. fresh crab claw meat
  • 1 small onion, small dice
  • 2 ribs celery, small dice
  • 4 oz. whole butter
  • 3 leaves fresh basil
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
  • 1 dash or two of Tabasco
  • 1 dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise 
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
  • 2 pieces fresh white bread, broken into small pieces
  • Salt and White pepper

In 2 oz. of butter gently cook the celery and onions until soft.  Do not brown.  Add the Old Bay and basil.  Remove the mixture including the butter and set aside to cool.  

Combine the wet ingredients in a bowl and mix until just combined.  This is your base.  After you pick through your crab to remove shells, you will use it to bind the crab together along with the bread crumbs.  Season with salt and dashes of white pepper.  TASTE!  If you feel as though you could eat the whole thing right there, it's ready.  Fold the crab, fresh bread crumbs and some of the base together until it can hold it's own shape.  Resist using the entire mixture.  You are meant to have extra, but this is where people screw up:  when they add all the base, they try to compensate by adding more bread to dry it up, and this is where the perception of "too much filler" comes from.  You can always add more if you really need it, but the key concept here is to barely bind those ingredients together without turning it into a seafood meatball.

Form four cakes onto a plate, cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.  This is also a key step: don't skip it!

When it's time to cook, turn your oven to 355F.  In a non-stick pan, put a couple tablespoon of oil and heat the pan to medium hot (only lightly smoking).  Use a spatula to gently lift the crab cakes and place them in the pan.  Add the remaining 2 oz of butter now.  First, the pan will sizzle, then it will subside.  It will build back up to a hiss first (that's the steam) and then finally return to a sizzle.  When you see that the edges are beginning to brown, use your spatula and with both hands slowly turn the cakes.  Place the whole pan in the oven for 12-15 minutes.  Serve immediately from the pan.  

Open some pinot blanc, Macon chardonnay or other white to complement the sweetness of the crab.  Bon appetit! 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A June Chef's Table

The Chef’s Table
at the
University and Whist Club
Of Wilmington
June 17, 2011

Crab and Corn Fritter~ Yellow tomato cocktail sauce
Venison Tartare
Matanzas Creek, Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County, 2007
Denver Leg of Venison provided for a nice alternative to beef tartare.  Balsamic caviar beads provided an unexpected burst of sweet and tart.

Sweet Corn and Crab: a classic pairing.  Yellow cocktail sauce was stripped down to its basic components: fresh horseradish, fresh tomato, vinegar and sugar.

Fresh hydrangeas were rescued from the yard.  In summer the club is surrounded by alternating powder blue and rust-purple blossoms.

Amuse Bouche
Chilled Tomatillo Soup
with Sope, toasted cumin and Fava Bean Puree
Chateau St. Michele, “Eroica” Riesling, Columbia Valley,
Washington, 2008
This close-up of the garnishes for the soup features a warm sope, corn relish, cilantro blossom and fava bean puree.

First Course
Mediterranean Mussels
Leeks, tomato, tarragon, semolina
Joseph Hofstätter, Pinot Bianco, Atlo Adige, 2009

Ten pounds of Mediterranean mussels gave their lives for this course.  Here they are simmering in leeks with their steaming liquid, white wine and butter.

With their counterparts: tomato, tarragon and toasty semolina bread.

Second Course
Veal Cannelloni
With Hand-packed ricotta, beech mushroom and sweetbread ragout
Domaine Dominique Guyon, Bourgogne,
Hautes Cotes de Nuits, 2009

Continuing with a course of hand-made pasta, a veal ragout and artisan ricotta fill a cannelloni, while beach mushrooms and sweetbreads back up the earthiness.

Watermelon, Tomato Vine and Basil Sorbet

All-Natural Dry Aged Beef Loin
Braised beet greens, poached garlic and sauce foyote
Marchesi Antinori, Tignanello, Tuscany, 2007

A whole strip loin was slow roasted and carved to order.  Placed atop tender braised beet tops with a traditional bearnaise sauce enhanced with fortified veal stock and roasted garlic cloves.  Magnificent with the Tignanello.

Goat Cheese Tasting
Cowgirl Creamery “obanon”, Toma Della Roca, Midnight Moon
And Moilterno al Tartufo; macerated apricots

One of my favorite cheese courses yet, the truffle cheese was just as exciting as any- but the apricots macerated in riesling stole the show.

Cherry Clafoutis
with Armagnac and Honey Ice Cream
Domaine Carneros, Rose “Cuvee de la Pompadour”, NV, Carneros

Perhaps one of my favorite desserts of all time, the classic Cherry Clafoutis, here with frangipan and cherry-port reduction.  The ice cream lent a decadent richness hard to put into words.

This wine (and winery) is very underrated.  Nearly all pinot noir, the fruit was superb for the clafoutis, and another refreshing summer course.


French Macarons
Strawberry, pistachio, Lemon and Praline

Our pastry department came up big with these textbook French macarons. 


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