What I Made: Leftovers

Whipped up a pretty fantastic brunch today with literally 3 ingredients. And it tasted pretty fabulous on top of that!

I started with fresh garden tomatoes, a fact which I think is crucial to small ingredient dishes. In other words, if you don’t want to have to bump up the flavor to make your dish good, you have to use fresh tasty ingredients. Its a balance. Fresh food means big flavor, and will cost you. Not so fresh food can be transformed but takes more work.

I cut the tomatoes into big chunks and sauteed them in a non stick pan. No oil, nothing. I let them get a little bit stuck on the pan, and then doused with just a couple tablespoons of water, and lots ( I mean lots ) of seasoning, as well as about 3/4 cup of leftover rice. Let that simmer away until the water is gone; at this point keep mixing and the tomatoes will basically be gone as well….mashed into a glorious easy sauce. After that I added a slice of crumbled cheddar cheese, mixed that in to melt and added more seasoning.

All that was left was to eat it, and it tasted delicious. A sprinkling of fresh herbs wouldn’t have hurt this dish, but it honestly didn’t miss it. Very hot and satisfying. A sprinkling of hot peppers, or some garlic or lemon juice would also elevate it a little bit.

But easy does it. Leftover cooking is one of the best kinds. And tomatoes fresh out of the garden cannot be beat, of that I am convinced. They already have deep earthy flavor on their own, and that becomes condensed very quickly when you cook them down. Rice could be replaced by any number of leftover foods. Whatever you have on hand will probably work.

That’s all for now, but I figured I’d share such an easy and yummy dish. It made me sigh with delight.

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Reflections: Family Food

More than ever in the last few months, it is brought home to me how truly the food we eat is a reflection of who we are as humans. The food we eat directly correlates to how we function in our separate cultures, families, friendships and lives.

Growing up, family dinner was not an option, and setting the table and doing the dishes were, and for the most part still are, a scheduled and expected part of our daily routine as a family. I used to watch my Mom prepare dinner with wide eyes, always excited by the prospect of whatever yummy thing we were having for dinner, unless it involved eggplant or mushrooms of course. How did she know how to do it all, I wondered? I would watch her mash potatoes or throw together salads, concoct her amazing chili or stews and soups, and marvel in all the variety and anticipation. What are we having for dinner? was a very common question.

Dinner-times vary in enjoy-ability, because everyone’s mood really comes out at the dinner table. The stories of the day are shared, plans are discussed, and orders are given. Books were sometimes read aloud, especially during Sunday breakfast. I treasure all those moments, even the tough ones, because they allowed me to grow in knowledge and understanding of the people who I had no choice in spending most of my growing up time with, and this is an invaluable advantage in family life. But no matter what the vibe at the table, the food was always to die for. I think I remember two bad meals from my Mother in my entire life. She is a goddess in the kitchen. And she never made a big deal out of it. She accepted cooking as one of her many responsibilities as a mother. It took a lot of time, but at the end, she got to watch all her children devour it in about half an hour. On second thought maybe that wasn’t so enjoyable. 🙂

If your food comes out of a box the exact same way every day, you’ll expect everything else in life to work that way too. And eventually you will expect humans to taste like the box you expect them to come from as well. On the flip side, if you respect the endless variety and challenges of food and feeding yourself, you will look for and respect this quality in your fellow humans as well.

What is appealing about a powdered potato? Answer: You know exactly what its going to taste like, its fast, and it takes hardly any work. No one questions if it’s taste, while consistent, is worth tasting. No one asked why we want dinner on the table fast, or why all of a sudden we don’t want to work for our food. Maybe its because we don’t want to work for anything, or because we feel like we already worked hard enough at work, or because we are too impatient to get to the TV show we’ve been looking forward to all day to care what we eat. Or maybe its a combination of all these things.

Maybe if we looked forward to making what we are going to fuel our bodies with, our priorities would fall into a natural order. Either way, I know I thank my parents every day for making me conscious of the great joys and importance of food. And now I am off to make some fantastic carrot cake! It doesn’t get much better than that! (Well, perhaps the cinnamon rolls pictured above were close. 🙂 Thank you Cook’s Country!)

People’s Biggest Fears: Knives

They don’t buy them right, they don’t hold them right, and they don’t use them right.

And I wonder why people are afraid of knives? These essential tools are a kitchen newby’s nemeses.

Rather than go through a complicated and confusing description of how to properly hold and use a knife, I am offering up this tutorial for your enlightenment.

Here are a few clarifications and additions that I think are helpful.

* When buying a chef’s knife, it should be at least seven inches long. Pay attention to the amount of space there is for your three supporting fingers under the handle. The more the better. You don’t want your fingers to be hitting your board the whole time. This knife is my suggestion, and it is still sitting as the top-ranked home chef knife by Cook’s Country.

*Buy quality types of the three knives they suggest. Unless of course you like spending an hour just chopping the food you actually wish was in your mouth right now.

*This onion chopping method requires a very sharp knife! If you don’t have one, take off both ends, and lay the flat side on your surface. Slice the onion half into half moon discs, holding them in place, and then rotate it and chop into pieces. I find the video method personally a little difficult to tackle right off the bat, but it is helpful if you need a very fine dice for something.

*Start slowly, focusing on the right hold and motion. It’ll still be faster than your previous method. Then you can gradually speed it up.

*Wooden cutting boards are always better. Always. And the bigger the better, as you have more room to spread stuff out, without having to worry about losing your tomatoes on the floor.

*Flat surfaces are your friend, whatever you are chopping. Cuts happen when people are trying to chop something with a dull knife, or on an uneven surface, whether from board or food.

There is a plethora of YouTube info on how to chop certain foods. If they’re not holding the knife as shown above, don’t continue to watch it. But the method is pretty universal, so you should be relatively safe conducting your own research.

Happy chopping! I leave you with a short sharpening instruction, just in case. If you have decent knives, you might want to invest in a steel. Good ones are as low as $15.

(Yes, this is technically called honing, because you are not actually put a new edge on the blade.)

 

Simple Stunners: Caramelized Onions

I wanted to open this post with a movie clip from RED 2; you know, the part where they’re driving away, and Sarah asks if there is a human being in the trunk and Marvin answers: “Yeah, I’ve been caramelizing his onions for a couple of days.”

I give you permission to laugh out loud for a couple of minutes. Its just so good. But…… I couldn’t find the movie clip.

Clearly.

Otherwise it would be here.

So just do yourself a favor and watch the whole movie instead. Right now.

 

…………. OK, so now its time to figure out what you did wrong while trying to caramelize onions.

Three things are necessary to succeed in this endeavor of caramelizing onions (wow, typing the word caramelizing is really difficult. Seriously. Try it.): a heavy bottomed pan. Butter. Brown sugar.

Oops, I actually meant four, cuz the fourth one is: patience. This is because it takes at least ten minutes for the onions to reach the translucent, very-cooked stage. It also takes patience to keep the heat on low, because it is soooooooooooo tempting to just crank it to speed up the process; and what do you think happens instead of the expected result of speeding up the process? Yup, they burn. You’re right.

So here’s the method. Put your heavy bottomed pan on medium high heat for two minutes. Add a couple tablespoons of butter to the pan (the amount depends on the amount of onion; I would say that 1 tblsp. per onion should start you off pretty well, but you will probably have to add more.) and wait until the butter is completely melted. (You can use oil, it just won’t taste quite as good.) The pan is on too high of heat if the butter starts browning really fast.

Add your onions to the pan. The chopping method is something like: cut the ends off the onions and then place them flat side down on the board and cut them in half and pull the skins off. Then put the new flat side down on the board, and slice as thinly as you can, in the same direction as you cut the ends off. Get it?

So you’ve added your chopped onion to the pan. Now you lower the heat, and you let them sweat. A little color isn’t the worst thing, but, honestly, it just isn’t necessary, so don’t worry about browning them at all, just cook them and cook them until they are absolutely limp. Depending on how good your pan is, and how hot your stove-top is, this is going to take 10 to 15 minutes. As they soften, the butter will brown slowly little by little, and so will the onions.

However, they will not truly caramelize until you add the brown sugar. This is how its done, people. Brown sugar. I mean, how do you think caramel is made, anyways? So dump a couple tablespoons of brown sugar into your very soft, totally translucent onions, and stir it carefully, while you try not to drool onto your beautiful onions. Cook on a still very low heat, for about 7 or 8 minutes, until the onion are deliciously dark brown and sticky and taste amazing. Also, season them at some point, it doesn’t really matter when; the salt especially brings out the flavor, as it balances out the sweetness.

Remember, you can always add more of anything, but you cannot take away. Err on the side of caution when it comes to adding the sugar; you don’t want to over do it and ruin all your hard work.

A really awesome optional addition would also be balsamic vinegar. Again, add it a little at a time. It just goes so well with the sweetness, and adds loads to that signature stickiness that you want.

This wordy tutorial is the first in a series of basic recipes that are what I think of as “showstoppery”. Which clearly is not a word, but should be. Basically, not many ingredients, simple method, but fantastic results.

Caramelized onions bring to mind French Onion Soup (yes, that is why it is so good), quiche, grilled cheese, potatoes, a topping for pretty much any vegetable, and whatever else you feel like on any given day. They’re versatile, which is always a good quality in food I think, and. they. taste. amazing. Enjoy!

 

Restaurant Recollections: How Service Works

Two weeks into my new job, I started to realize that I was an anomaly in this business, and had become indispensable to the team. That might sound wildly egotistical, but it was the truth. The slowness and apathy of my coworkers startled me every day, even when I thought I had seen the worst of it. Most of them didn’t go so infuriatingly slow on purpose; they just didn’t have any incentive to do a good job, or any care for food or customer service.

While it was a blessing to be the best worker, besides my two awesome Persian friends, Pardis and Valeska, who both happened to be women (go figure!), it also meant that I got stuck working just the salad and sushi station for a solid four months or so. Being on top of it and keeping the station together means that you won’t be able to move on from that station for a long time. It was fun though, especially when I was scheduled with Pardis or Valeska, or both, and if the sushi rice was cooked correctly. The three of us had a blast, because we all did our part and coordinated well, which means we would also get out of there before everyone else. Line cooking doesn’t just involve cooking the food for the tickets; as a night worker, you also have to close up all the food and clean all the stainless steel. Thank God The Beach House was big enough to hire a floor cleaner. I sure hope I don’t have to explain why this was so nice. But the cleaning still took forever. And everything has to get stocked and wrapped in plastic wrap for the lunch service the next day.

Service works like this: the tickets print as the servers punch them in. All the different stations received the entire order. If there were only salads or cold foods on the bill or ticket, you make them right away because the table has not ordered any other hot food. If there is no item made on your station on the bill, you smile evilly, crunch it up dramatically, and toss it in the trash (or, alternatively, punch it dramatically onto the spike.) On the other hand, if there is a salad and a steak on the bill, you have to wait until the steak is being plated to make your salad. It’s a simple concept, but gets very complicated very fast.

I used to work in a restaurant where the tickets were hand-written.(And yes, I give you permission to try to imagine all the different types of handwriting that servers can produce. Its mind-numbing.) There was no electronic system because the place was so small. The ticket holders were the same everywhere though. And I am still amazed that they actually work. I mean, really, how is it possible that those little silver balls actually hold on to the paper. This must be a freak of physics.

Anyhow, to get back to why line cooking gets really complicated really fast. 2 or 3 tickets is fine, easy to keep straight. But now imagine ten, and they all have a different mixture of fry foods, salads, saute station, and grill. (And they are covered in modifications (mods) and little extras people want added to what is ACTUALLY ON THE MENU (why did you come here again?! I mean this is a seafood restaurant, and you are allergic to seafood!! I don’t appreciate you putting your life in my hands on a whim!!)) The entire line is trying to communicate their ticket times to each other over the noise of the fan (oh, yeah, the fan. More on that later) the ovens the fryers the banging of pots and pans from the line and the dish pit the splutter and hiss of food cooking the creaking of equipment the banging of plates. Or the line cooks aren’t communicating, and instead the servers are yelling at everyone trying to get their tables put up. Which is much less desirable than option one. Believe me. Because servers are worried about making their tips, something we lowly line cooks are much less concerned about.

Those are pretty much your two options. Line cooks who communicate and those who don’t. It’s the biggest skill a kitchen worker needs to have. Not just because it keeps the restaurant running smoothly, but because that worker will get his ass kicked if he isn’t communicating. Which usually results in someone from another station coming over to get him out of the weeds, and then everyone being pissed at him for the rest of the night for messing up their awesome service. No big deal. Not communicating means later/longer clean up time, which is something everyone hates, even the guy who caused it.

But a good service is one of the most rewarding and exhilarating things in the world. (While some might be tempted to argue this point, I would suggest that they try it first.) And spiking that last ticket, after completely demolishing about twenty-four of them in an hour, is so awesome. Giving your station coworker a high-five (if they were any help) and knowing that you just flawlessly executed so many dishes, that feels so good. And you know what, it even feels good when you don’t flawlessly execute them, because in a place like the Beach House, which made every sauce from scratch, you have confidence in the yumminess of the food, and that it made someone, or 300 someones, happy.

What I Ate: My Guide to Vancouver

I did actually make something this week. Which I could technically write about here, on this post that is technically supposed to be what I MADE, but……. I just ate too much good food on the trip I took last week, and I must talk about it.

The thing I loved most about living in Vancouver, besides the daily panorama of the ocean, was the food. Small town life can’t offer the variety and surprises in ethnic foods that the big city has in spades. So the planning of my recent visit there revolved mostly around food. The food I knew I needed to eat there that does not exist where I live now.

Ironically, the first thing I have to talk about is not food, but drink, and is readily available everywhere. But the roast I have in mind is specific to Vancouver, and tastes as unique as a unicorn would look nowadays. In other words, this coffee is like no other. And its JJBean. And its awesome. And it is the first must in my guide to Vancouver.

So moving on to actual food, there are literally hundreds of sushi places in this city, probably thousands. And they are all fantastic and very affordable. So we had sushi on Friday night. And it was so yummy. But the real story here is that my sis made us try tamago, which is a random strange sort of sushi dessert, lightly sweetened eggs, cooked in a special folded over pattern, and served with sushi rice. I know, crazy. But it was actually…………sort of good……………in a very weird sushi-ish way.

The next day was Granville Island time, and the highlight of this was the amazing Gelato that I had never tried before. They had Ferrero Rocher gelato. Made in house. I mean, I ask you, does it get any better than that? I also gave into my cravings at the market, and bought weird cheese and specialty salami, and feta-stuffed olives (I won’t be forgetting those soon) and parsley and garlic olives. Wow. I still do not know how people who do not like olives survive.

AND, I must bore you with yet another drink must have: Barrel-aged gin. It is caramel colored, doesn’t taste like gin at all really, and is made in the Granville Island Distillery. Unbelievable. And worth every penny.

I cannot go through every thing I ate, because it would take way to long, so I will leave you with an idea of something sort of Turkish/Persian/Middle Eastern called chicken shawarma, which is the most flavorful charred fantastic chicken you will ever taste. Whether its in a pita wrap or dumped over rice, it doesn’t matter. It is one of my favorite things about Vancouver. We get it at a place called Al Basha, along with falafel and all their other house made goodness. Its insane. Argh, I’m starting to salivate just thinking about it. Jamie Oliver has a shawarma recipe in his Comfort Food cookbook but I have yet to try it.

Oh, and there is also the amazing chicken tomato chili that my sisters made, and that we demolished because it was so good. and the knock your socks off chai place. Like I said, this would literally never end. So I shall say farewell, and hope that my word-vomit on all things food in Vancouver wasn’t too unbearable.

Ciao!!

Flavor to Savor: Cumin

I am a little saddened to be the purveyor of the rather unfortunate news that traveling for vacation has, for me at least, the effect of dulling one’s inclination toward creative pursuits (wait, did I just claim that this is a creative pursuit? Haha.) Even though I have found this to be true, it doesn’t mean that the vacation was completely unproductive. In fact, I was blessed to be able to try food both new and old. Fantastic sushi, tamago, olives, gelato, doughnuts, shawarma, falafel, coffee, pastries and Indian. More on all these amazing experiences is forthcoming, but it just so happens that I purposefully mentioned Indian food last, as today I must finally actually complete the blog post on cumin that I tried to start before my vacation (!), and cumin just so happens to be a really big component of Indian cooking. I concede that it is just one facet of the amazing plethora of flavors that is Indian cooking, but nevertheless I do believe that it is my favorite of them all.

Cumin is a spice, usually sold in a dry powder, that is ground from the seeds of a flowering plant. As I tried to do research on this my most favorite of spices, I could find nothing that was really interesting about it. And apparently all people have to say about its flavor is that it is “nutty and peppery” (what?!) and is often confused with caraway.

Since I find caraway to be one of the most disgusting things on the planet (clearly no bias here) I am disappointed by this vulgar association. And by the fact that no one can say anything more exciting about cumin than that it is nutty and peppery. These descriptions are far to vague and off the mark for my taste, and while I understand that reading a description of a flavor is not the most exciting thing, I am pretty sure it could and should be more exciting than that.

Also, the only interesting historical things I ran into were long and exhaustive lists about all its health benefits. While I am glad to hear that my joy in eating it is not ill-founded, I do not find these lists anything interesting or noteworthy. I you, dear reader, would like to read them yourself, feel free to type “cumin” into google.

I digress. Moving on; cumin does not remotely taste like caraway. Instead, cumin enjoys the distinction of being the only spice necessary for a great guacamole, and the spice that gives a great curry its mellowness. It is the softness behind the bite of that amazing Indian curry you had the other day (oh, wait, was that just me?) I do not think of it as peppery at all. It shares some of the spiciness of chile powder, but none of the kick.

I could go on forever. 🙂 My advice? Try it yourself, and not just in guacamole and curry. Get adventurous with your cumin cravings. Its worth it.

People’s Biggest Fears: Heat and Hot Oil

On Sunday I had the distinct pleasure of making Parmesan truffle fries for my lovely family. (Well, at least some of my family.) Watching the fries bubble away, (after a rather scary incident during which I let the oil get way to hot and, yes, it overflowed just a little bit when I dunked the fries in), I began to understand the real reason why people invest in deep fryers, and an idea for a new “Fears” post started to form in my head.

First to settle the deep fryer question. People who want to deep fry foods are not in the least afraid of the hot oil; this is not a reason to buy a deep fryer. They buy them because what the deep fryers are really there for is to maintain the heat level of the oil. Home frying is fine as far as it goes, but it is difficult because the oil is constantly getting hotter and cooler, especially when one is using an electric stove (as I was on Sunday). In other words your first batch of fries or chicken or what have you might take 15 minutes to get crispy and the next batch only 8. The commercial deep fryer’s job, and the reason it is useful, is to maintain a constant heat level, so that you don’t have to worry about whether or not your oil will suddenly and terrifyingly overflow onto your beautiful clean stove.

But your “I buy take-out six times a week”, wants to cook more at home, first jobber is not home deep frying food. Neither is your busy Mom, or your working Dad, or your has-to-work-12-hours-a-day-to-pay-the-rent single person, all of whom also want to try and do a little more home cooking. In fact, a lot of people are far away from any notion of deep frying, and for now can’t even get over the fact that they need to use hot oil to cook their food if that is what they want to do.

Friends I have cooked for become frightened when I leave the pan on high heat for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. They shoot glances at me like “Isn’t that pan going to shoot up into the sky?” Then I pour oil in, and people really start to freak out. “Is that hot oil?”

Yes. Yes it is. And, believe me, it is your friend. It loves you and you should love it back. You should also treat it with respect and care. But really, that is all it requires to offer you its unbridled affection.

Yes you might get burned. More than once. It will hurt. But you will get over it. And the payoff is unbelievable. Hot oil gives you the sear you desperately want on your steak and  chicken, but you are too afraid of heat to acquire (although, be warned any meat you cook must also be dry in order to get a sear). Hot oil also gives your kitchen that amazing smell that will have your family or guests wondering “What are you cooking?” Hot oil allows you to actually fry an egg, or sautee some vegetables. Your veggies will be bland if they do not have some color on them: and it must be the color brown, from the sear they get, as they come in contact with the hot oil.

I’ve already talked about how fat and seasoning are really basic flavor builders. Well this is the third absolutely necessary one. Everything else is really just for show or decoration. For example, your steak will taste amazing if it is well-marbled (has fat in it), if you season it, and if you allow that first contact with the pan to be one of high heat and hot oil. All the other trappings (Black pepper!, cheese(blue of course)!, balsamic!, red wine reduction! mushrooms! THYME!) are just to add to what already tastes amazing. Trying to use them to fix your cut of meat is pointless.

Now while oil will splatter a bit, that is nothing to be afraid of. When you can feel the heat from your pan about 2 inches above it with your hand, you are ready to pour the oil in. Once the oil starts to shimmer and move on its own, it is ready for your ingredient. Allow whatever you are searing or sauteeing to stay on this high heat for a good minute or so without stirring to get that color, and then begin to mix. Once you start to feel like you have to mix it too often or the color is looking a little dark, so after about a total of three minutes in the pan or so, turn your heat down to medium to finish the cooking process. You will be golden!

Restaurant Recollections: Who to Hire?

The cold food section of the line has a ridiculous amount of food packed into its tiny storage space. It is a square work area, with fridge and freezer mounted on the wall directly in front of you, salads and toppings to the left, and oysters, desserts, and all the other crap we needed to the right. Also on the right, across from the oyster station, is the sushi station. Those preparing sushi are facing those preparing desserts or oysters.

The sushi side does not  have a fridge. Instead the biggest hotel pan gets full of ice, and the tiny 9th size hotel pans full of sushi ingredients are balanced precariously on it. By the end of the night the ice is melted, and the 9 pans are flipping over into the water every five seconds, since they are way to light to actually just float. (Another genius in that kitchen and I later came up with a solution to this problem.)

Don’t ask me why the oyster station is right next to the dessert station. It doesn’t make any sense and it never will. Anyways, it is still my first week  at the Beach House. We are nearing the end of the night. I believe there were two salad guys on shift, plus me, as I was technically still in training. The key lime pie needed almond crumbles and whipped cream on top, and wouldn’t you believe it, we ran out of whipped cream.

I spy the mini-Hobart (like a kitchen aid stand mixer, but Hobart brand, which is also the brand that makes the huge-ass sit on the ground mixers) on the bake station, which is  across from the sushi station, and go grab the whipping cream from the walk in fridge to whip it. I pull the mini-Hobart off the shelf (yes, we really call them that), and whip up the cream with a splash of vanilla and a tiny bit of powdered sugar. It is only after I do all this, that I realize the other salad guys are staring at me with gaping mouths. Apparently they all had no idea how to make whipped cream, let alone the courage to pull down the mixer and do it.

Later that night, the shift leader who is also the grill cook, whose name is Dylan, tells me that normally the salad people would have had to ask him to make the whipped cream for them.

What is the point of this whole story? Simply that, sadly enough, most restaurant workers who aren’t meat cooks don’t know anything about food. Like anything. This is why it takes so long to train them. If someone does not know the difference between iceberg and romaine lettuce, you’re not just teaching them your menu; you have to teach them really basic stuff too. And adults just aren’t that good at memorizing new stuff.

When someone is trying to memorize all this new info about types of lettuce, and colors of peppers, for example, he is liable to make a lot of mistakes. And he is going to take forever to train. This is the quandary most chefs and restaurant owners face. And there is not a lot they can do about it, since they usually can’t offer a high enough salary to entice the people who actually know about food or have real skills.

What I Made: Eggplant with Pesto

I imagine that eating Styrofoam would remind me of eating raw eggplant. I find the spongy dryness of this vegetable completely unappealing. The seeds when cooked are slimy, and the taste was, for a long time, nothing to write home about.

Of course, it is naturally my Mother who has slowly begun to change my mind. Home alone, and with an eggplant in the fridge, and dozens of bags of frozen pesto, I took a cue from her and decided to make eggplant with pesto.

I guess long story short, I prefer the slimy version of eggplant to the spongy Styrofoamy one. Guess what you need to put on eggplant to make it palatable? (Of course I am speaking to anti-eggplant people.) Well first, you have to dice it up really small, to minimize the seediness and the slimy strings. If you dice it small enough, it becomes more of a sauce-like consistency, and the unattractiveness of the veggie is certainly mitigated.Then all you need to finish the magic trick is some of your Mom’s homemade pesto. If, for some weird reason, you do not have any of this on hand, you can substitute with olive oil, pine/walnuts, and basil, as well as salt and hopefully Parmesan cheese.

Because it is so very spongy, eggplant will soak up oil forever, and no matter how much you dump on, it always seems to disappear within a couple of seconds. That is why pesto is so great with eggplant: it is mostly oil! All I did was sautee the finely diced eggplant with oil and salt and pepper until they got nice and brown, and then dumped the pesto on. Presto, amazing dinner!