Where to now, Bobo?

The day has come. I have graduated from culinary school. Now is the time I should be entertaining various offers from illustrious food purveyors. Weighing the pros and cons of whether I should travel to Thailand or Argentina to get a taste of regional cuisines and broaden my cooking spectrum.

In reality, here I sit. I’m told that this time of year is the worst to get into a restaurant. It makes sense–the less dedicated rush off to visit families for the holidays and the low-guy-on-the-totem-pole sticks around because he has no choice. Thus, remaining both extremely busy and very lonely.

I started cooking school with a very vague idea of where I wanted to go following the 9th month stint. I figured that some revelation would hit as I was butchering and roasting and sauteing and cocotting. Now that I’ve completed my time there and worked two trails (interviews), at restaurants with great reputations, my vague idea has turned into nothing more than a vague notion. I may have learned a few skills but I have no idea how I want to put them to use.

And so, I continue my blog, in hopes that the aforementioned revelation will finally dawn.

An epilogue: I won the award for best menu project. Which is great. The menu project, in essence, was our thesis project: At least 4 courses with beverage pairings, the costing of a single course (meaning what would this sell for in a restaurant), preliminary illustrations and final pictures of finished plates, process shots of one course, an essay on how each course fits into our theme and a brief history of one main ingredient. The school touted all along about how there was a great prize to be won at graduation for the student with the best project. I got a book. A book on technique. Technique that I’d just spent nine months learning. Apparently, it’s the recognition that counts–at least that’s what I’m told.

Anyway, here is my menu, other sections of my project will be posted subsequently.


Because Knowledge is Power…

You probably shouldn’t watch this on a full stomach. If you’re squeamish, that is. Personally the visuals here don’t bother me.

The video below shows the digestive process in two subjects, one who ate Top Ramen, Gatorade & Gummi Bears, the other who ate home-prepared versions of the same meal. Watch it and see why you should be eating whole, minimally processed foods:

Stefani Bardin – Whole Food vs. Processed Food

Faking It.

I feel that I am at a point in my culinary education where my brain has stopped taking in recipes. As a person who rarely follows them, when I do “use” a recipe it’s only as a jumping point for whatever I feel like doing or creating a variation using whatever it is I have to use up–I’m looking at you truckload of turnips that just won’t stop. I’m now moving into a place where I simply repeat the demonstrated steps & otherwise go by instinct. However, with my ever present need for perfection, I then do a lot of second guessing–rarely with positive results.

Thus, upon our next assignment, I had a bit of panick. We were to draft a recipe–one that we enjoyed and often made at home–in the style of our textbook. The only recipes I generally repeat are the simplest ones–ones where you’d rather not cook, but you should eat at home because you can’t affored the price or calories of eating out…i.e. not suitable for impressing anyone.

And so, I approached the assignment from a different perspective: a method I enjoy and frequently use at home–the use of csa items from last week that I had better use before they turn. This week it was butternut squash and red delicious apples. But wait: conundrum. Butternut squash soup is kind of passe, maybe a little boring, so I had to enliven it somehow. Since I’ve made several variations of said potage, I was up for the challenge of making a new one & trusted my gut that it would work. It did. By roasting the squash first, the earthy, caramel sweetness of the squash shines through. An addition of star anise throws in a different, unexpected flavor, providing a counterpoint to the earthy and the addition of chicken stock provides a heartiness that water or vegetable stock might not.

Of course, a properly Frenchified soup wouldn’t be a properly Frenchified soup without some garniture. Luckily we’d had grits that morning for breakfast & because of an excess of grity goodness had been prepared (totally by accident….totally…) grit croutons were my go-to decoration.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Grit Croutons

For the Soup
700 g butternut squash (about 1 large) or other winter squash,
       skinned and cut in large dice
2 medium sweet apples, skinned & cut in mirepoix
1 medium red onion, cut in mirepoix
500 mL chicken stock
20 g butter
20 g olive oil
10 g brown sugar
1 star anise
10 g (½ t) Ceylon cinnamon
Salt and Pepper, to taste

For the Croutons
240 mL water
240 mL milk
120 g instant grits
30 g butter
Salt and Pepper, to taste
Pinch of nutmeg
Oil, for frying

For the Soup

  1. Preheat oven to 375F. Toss squash with olive oil, salt, pepper, cinnamon and star anise and spread in a single layer on a sheet tray. Place in the preheated oven and roast until tender and starting to brown (about 30 minutes), tossing once during cooking.
  2. Melt the butter in a saucepot. Sweat onions for about 1 minute. Add apples and sweat, covered until soft. Remove the lid and allow the collected liquid to evaporate and begin to develop sucs on the bottom of the pan.
  3. Making sure to reserve the star anise, place roasted squash with apples and onions in a blender, adding just enough stock to puree.
  4. Return puree to saucepan along with star anise and brown sugar. Add enough stock to reach desired consistency. Bring to a simmer and cook on low for 10 minutes. Adjust seasoning and remove star anise. Keep warm for service.

 For the Croutons & Service

  1. Bring water and milk to a boil, immediately whisk in grits and ½ t salt. Bring back to boil, reduce heat and cook at a very low simmer, covered, until thick, whisking occasionally to avoid lumps.
  2. Once it is very thick, about 10 minutes, whisk in butter and nutmeg, plus an aggressive amount of salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  3. Pour grits into a 9X3 pan and allow to cool. Once cool, turn grits out onto a board and slice into 1-cm cubes.
  4. Bring oil to 350F and fry grit cubes until golden. Drain on a paper towel. Serve soup in hot bowls, garnished with croutons.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

Our second essay assignment: the history of a classic kitchen tool.

Upon penning the first draft of this essay, my computer decided some critical updates were in order. Upon downloading update 3 of 3, my computer decided that an endless loop of rebooting and attempting update 3 of 3 would be tons of fun. It’s being checked out.

In the meantime, I rewrote the essay. I started Classic Kitchen Tool redux at approximately 10pm; it was due the next morning at 9am. Luckily, again, it was only a page. And thus–

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

A cast-iron skillet is the cornerstone of any Southern cook’s arsenal. So too can it prove invaluable in the professional kitchen. With its unparalleled ability to hold and evenly disperse heat, a cast-iron skillet could be a perfect vessel for holding a warm sauce (providing it’s not a gastrique—the high level of acidity could create a toxic reaction) or searing a perfect pork chop. And since a cast iron pan can go straight from the stove top into the oven, if you’re working with an extra-thick specimen, a sear and a quick roast is only a few steps away.

Cast-iron has, of course, been used for centuries—from pagodas in China to cannons in the British Navy—although its turn in the American kitchen is relatively new.  Around 513 BCE, the Chinese invented furnaces hot enough to melt iron; prior to this method, pots had either been made of brass or had been beaten into shape. The casting process—pouring molten iron into sand molds—created a product with a smooth surface and a sturdy structure. Strangely, this process didn’t gain favor in the west until 1100 CE when the benefits of cast-iron finally shone upon the people of Medieval England. Eventually a New World would be established—unfortunately it was a world devoid of cast-iron cookery, as the first ironworks didn’t open in America until 1619.

Cast-iron would prove to be an essential tool for early settlers & frontiersmen alike. Indeed, “in their expedition to the Louisiana territory in 1804, Lewis and Clark indicated that their cast iron Dutch oven was one of their most important pieces of equipment,” (Rayment). And while every serious colonial culinarian surely had a cauldron hanging from the hearth or a spider (a large bowl with a tripod of legs) sitting above their cinders, it was later still before the cast-iron skillet would appear. Those had to wait, first, for another invention to take hold: the stove top.

Certainly I can’t leave off a discussion of the cast-iron skillet without addressing its most intrinsic use. Making a cornbread in any vessel that’s not a cast-iron skillet is an exercise in futility. A Pyrex dish or your grandmother’s ceramic soufflé pan simply won’t impart that delicious, crisp crust necessary at any Southern table. And unlike the Pyrex that exploded when you set it in a bit of water, or your grandmother’s dish that cracked while sitting alone, unused in the china cabinet, your trusty cast-iron will only improve with use— undoubtedly an added benefit when you’re making 200 pork chops a night.

Works Referenced

Rayment, W.J. “History of Cast Iron Cookery.” Cast Iron Cooking, 2012. Web. 15 January 2012. http://www.holidaycook.com/cast-iron/

“Shaping History: Vintage Cast-Iron Baking Pans.” Martha Stewart Living, October 2009. Web. 15 January 2012. http://www.marthastewart.com/272109/shaping-history-vintage-cast-iron-baking

“Equipment and Utensils Required for a Functional Kitchen.” The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cuisine. 2007. Print.

“Cast-Iron Cookware” Wikipedia. Web. 15 January 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cast-iron_cookware

A Lusty Little Pepper

As I said in my last post, occasionally I have to write essays for school. It seems the typical required length will be but a page, so I thought I’d give them a second audience and share them with you. Our first assignment was to research the history and culinary uses of an herb or spice with which we were unfamiliar. Here is the result:

A Lusty Little Pepper

When faced with a recipe requiring a spice I’ve neither seen nor heard of, I have a tendency to first seek out an alternative. Of course I always keep that spice in the back of my mind, hoping that one day I’ll happen upon an epicerie and think to lay down my cash and experience the real thing. Such was the case a few weeks ago when I came across Paula Wolfert’s recipe for Spiced Butternut Squash Soup reliant upon the cubeb pepper.

Although native to Indonesia, and thus nicknamed Java pepper, the cubeb seems most prevalent in Moroccan cuisine and is a star ingredient in the North African spice mix Ras el Hanout, consisting of up to 20 herbs, spices and aphrodisiacs. In fact, cubeb too has been used as an aphrodisiac throughout history. It is mentioned in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights that Shams-al-Din is given an edible paste made from cubeb and other sundry items as an aphrodisiac remedy for infertility. Those attributes are also reflected in South Asian lore; “Unani physicians use a paste of the cubeb berries externally on male and female genitals to intensify sexual pleasure during coitus,” (Wikipedia).  Various other medicinal qualities have been alleged of this wee peppercorn:  physicians of the Tang Dynasty used it for everything from darkening the hair to restoring the appetite, “Sanskrit texts included cubeb in various remedies. Charaka and Sushruta (both ancient Indian physicians) prescribed cubeb paste as a mouthwash, and the use of dried cubebs internally for oral and dental diseases, loss of voice, halitosis, fevers, and cough.” (Wikipedia) Interestingly, more than one culture has also been known to use cubeb as a ward from demons.

Not to be outdone, Western medicine has also recognized the varying effects of cubeb on the humors of the body. In the 17th and early 19th centuries the London Dispensatorie published that cubebs “cleanse the head of flegm and strengthen the brain, they heat the stomach and provoke lust…and are very profitable for cold griefs of the womb,” (Wikipedia). Cubeb’s antiseptic qualities have also proven useful as an ingredient in remedies that treat bronchitis and most medically significant, gonorrhea.

Resembling an engorged black peppercorn with a clove-like stem, the cubeb is said to “have a warm, pleasant aroma, lightly peppery but also allspice-like, with a whiff of eucalypt and turpentine,” and is said to pair well with bay, cardamom, cinnamon, curry leaf, rosemary, sage, thyme and turmeric (Norman 229). When attempting to prepare the soup mentioned above, I was told to substitute equal parts black pepper and allspice. The aroma that emanated from my mortar and pestle was floral, spicy and sweet: a heady and intoxicating scent perfect for high-end cologne, or your next lamb tagine. True cubeb is said to carry a bitterness—one of the reasons it lost favor through the years. However, New American cuisine seems to be taking a turn for the bitter; so, perhaps it’s a time for this lonely spice to find a few new, and perhaps, lusty friends to rediscover the attributes prized by so many cultures before us.

Works Referenced

Donnelly, Kristen. “Paula Wolfert’s Moroccan Recipes.” Food & Wine October 2011. Print.

Norman, Jill. Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s References. New York, NY: DK Publishing, Inc., 2002.

Barber, Kimiko, et. al. The Illustrated Cook’s Book of Ingredients. New York, NY: DK Publishing, Inc., 2010.

Katzer, Gernot. “Spice Pages: Cubeb Pepper (Piper Cubeba, Cubebs).” Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages. 25 April 1998. 08 January 2012.

“Cubeb.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 2 December 2011. 8 January 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubeb&gt;.

Everything I Need to Know I’m Learning a la Minute…

Eventually, you will give in to peer pressure. My suggestion is to simply stop trying to resist it; probably, your peers have a better scope of your life than you do anyway.

And so it is that I have begun a new track: culinary school. For years family and friends have suggested that I look into it, yet I’ve always been hesitant–thinking of cooking as a mere hobby. Now, my hobby has become the thing occupying most of my time. If I’m not practicing the fussy French cuts or attempting a technique demo-ed in class, then I am studying for my upcoming test (tonight!) or writing an essay–something I didn’t expect from culinary school.

A note on essays: one would assume that at the age of 31 the time for computers crashing when one has an essay due the next morning at 9am a thing of the past. Not so.

Thus, this blog could take a turn for the educational. I promise to not bore you with tales of the precise measurements and pronunciations of those aforementioned cuts. I vow not to deride you when you neglect to degorge your bones before neglecting to whip up your own homemade stock. I will see to it that, although I’m being bombarded with every classic French dish that ever was, my readers continue to sail the seas of the adventurous and only use recipes as inspiration points. I will, however, regale you with the dishes I make that are better than anything you’ve ever done. (Hopefully.)

I hope you’ll wish me luck & that you’ll say a prayer that I suffer fewer cuts and burns than my classmates.

Christmas time is here….

…time for joy & cocktails!

You have waited too long to find gifts for everyone on your list. You could take to the interwebs & satisfy your list in a manner completely devoid of the season’s spirit or you could turn your kitchen into an apothecary for the night & prep libations for friends–or just for yourself, after all, you’ll need them when the family shows up next week.

For Festivus gifts this year, I made a few boozed up garnishes: Maraschino Cherries & Vermouth-Spiked Cocktail Onions.

The simplest way to do this is to find some pearl onions and some sour cherries and soak them in liquor for a few days. But, if you want to get fancy, a few spices and herbs can take it to phase 3, peppering your holiday celebration with spicy, herby, warming drinks to satisfy any lush.

If you had thought really far ahead you could’ve gotten sour cherries when they were in season. But you didn’t. Shame. If you have a Trader Joe’s near-by, however, you can pick up a jar of their Morello Cherries in light syrup. If you can’t find those, I suggest getting sweet cherries & adding lemon juice the solution I’ll reveal below.

For my cherries, I toast a handful of slivered almonds with 2 t whole black peppercorns in  a dry pan. Once the almonds have taken on some color & start to waft with aroma, I pour in 2/3 cup of the jarred syrup (use the rest to make cherry limeades!) combined with 1 1/3 cup Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur. If you can’t find Luxardo locally, any Maraschino Liqueur will work, or in a pinch you could use Cherry Brandy. I bring that to a good simmer and then set it aside to steep.

In the meantime, I’ve prepared some canning jars. The ones I used are Quattro Stagioni 5oz, apparently the Ball Jars of Italy. Cute & a little different than a standard American canning jar, they have a great neck with which to tie a ribbon and are available at The Container Store or online (also available in 8.5oz). After sterilizing them, I put in each a sprig of thyme, a ribbon of lemon peel and a half stick of cinnamon. Then, I divide the cherries among each and strain the concoction prepped above over the cherries. If you find that you don’t have enough solution to cover them completely, pour in a little extra liqueur straight. If you want you can then give them a second boil a la proper canning technique. These make a really delicious Manhattan, the cinnamon adding a warm holiday-infused sweetness to every sip.

For the onions, I basically followed this recipe from Saveur, tied each jar with a pretty ribbon and included a recipe for a Dirty Gibson. But after tasting them, I can tell you to make plenty & then use one jar for a quick dinner: simply sear a piece of fish in some olive oil, remove the fish, tent and then pour the contents of one jar in the pan, reduce it and serve with some roasted cauliflower, maybe a squeeze of lemon over the top. Delicious.