Saturday, May 22, 2010


There should be a post about foraging in North Georgia here, but it's not done yet. In the meantime, I'd like to make a humble suggestion to all recipe writers and publishers:
Stop writing recipes with volume measures for dry ingredients. Please. I've been making cookies weekly for work, and measuring cups and spoons are the single-biggest mess-maker in the whole process. Powdery ingredients like flour and cocoa spill easily, come in containers that can't accommodate measuring cups for scooping, and inevitably stick to said cups. Pouring ingredients like sugar is easier, but aiming to hit a small measuring cup is more of a challenge than a large mixing bowl on a scale, and sugar on the floor or counter is no fun. Converting from volume back to weight (how any recipe used by a professional kitchen/bakeshop measures ingredients) is imprecise. Scales are cheap. People learn. Measuring by volume inevitably looks like one of those "you're doing it wrong" infomercial segment, and I'm a professional.
Also: There are two types of cocoa powder, natural and dutched. One is acid, the other is alkaline, and they are used accordingly in recipes to maintain a certain acid/alkaline balance. Mix them up without making the proper pH adjustments, and your cake won't rise, or your brownies will taste funny. So could someone at Hershey's please explain to me the market for their new "premium" cocoa powder, "a select blend of natural and dutched cocoas?" No ratio given, some poor amateur baker, enthusiastic girlfriend--if I'm being sexist, the first man to email me about the cupcakes he made for his lady friend prior to this date wins a beer, courtesy of me--or excited child will grab this, see "dutched" go home, use it...and assume that baking is simply too hard, that it requires some deft, magic touch, special incantations, perhaps a conferring of the power from a high priest. Nope. Hershey's just wants you to buy more mixes.
Also: This is bullshit.Now to craft that into a well-thought-out, profanity-free letter to my councilperson.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


Sometime in November, I officially dropped below the radar. As days shrink, people seem compelled to spend the lengthening nights in each others' company--attended of course by food, drink, entertainment and revelry. We give the darkest months of the year to excess, and emerge blinking in the sudden light of a world resurrecting itself, with the promise that the grey and dark could inexplicably be beautiful, and soon.
From about November to January, I had, it seemed, only time for work, sleep and laundry. What little time I got with friends is remembered through a film of fatigue.

The past weeks winter has finally ebbed, and I have given more of my time over to exercise and gardening. I'm trying to rebalance, to work with more speed and drive and focus, and to leave it at the door. I am working to be a better cook and a person who can be something else when she's not.
Because cooks, sometimes, are assholes. When one person on the line screws up, other cooks can be merciless. I have seen a cook jabbed repeatedly for an entire shift over one early mistake, miscalculation or oversight. I've seen people fired for ostensibly trivial offenses. I've also seen every cook on the line pull a single person out of the weeds long before there's a problem. We accept these extremes--they're as much a part of the business as the crushing boredom early on a slow night and the pounding, ceaseless rush that goes on for hours.
I've learned so much over the past 6 months, but I have not become a better friend, partner or human. I'm trying to get back to that. I'm also trying to get back to this blog as a space to think, to explore ideas, and, if there's still an audience out there after my long absence, to communicate. Look for more posts soon.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Serenbe Farm Field Trip

Tuesday most of the cooks and the sous chef at Holeman got the grand tour from Paige Witherington, the farm manager. As you might expect from a line cook field trip, there were a lot of dick jokes, laughter, and a little blood.

The farm at Serenbe is impressive; at just 3.5 acres, it produced 38,000 pounds of produce last year, all of it organic. At the height of the summer season, Paige told us they were harvesting over 500 pounds of of tomatoes every week, and the squash needed daily pickings to keep up with the plants.

In order to keep an organic farm healthy and productive on heavy Georgia clay, Paige practices the "3 Cs" of organic gardening: cover-cropping, crop rotation and composting. She likes buckwheat for its quick turnover--it flowers within 3 weeks of being planted-- and sunflowers. "Their taproots can get 12 feet long, so they break up the soil." And the residents of Serenbe love having all-you-can-pick sunflowers.

The field of heirloom tomatoes was surprisingly orderly, the vines tightly trellised in long rows. They grow red, white and green zebras, and massive Speckled Roman paste tomatoes. Paige picked two and handed them to one of the cooks. "Take these and ripen them. They're great, meaty tomatoes." Later that night, the striped giants had already acquired a vivid blush, well on their way. Heirlooms are one of the most sought-after crops of summer, and demand isn't the only reason they're expensive; Paige said that 2/3 of them don't even make it to market.

Another summer crop is sorrel, which Paige has sown in a patch that she's hoping to make perennial. We've been getting mixed sizes of sorrel leaves, mostly large ones, but the smaller leaves are tender and succulent, and the trademark sourness is more complex and herbal. Getting sorrel year-round would be great

This fall, Serenbe's customers can look forward to carrots, beets, celeriac and parsnips. "I've never grown parsnips here, so I'm really excited." Having grown addicted to parsnips in England, so am I.

An unexpected bonus was the herbs and flowers. We got nasturtiums for the tomato salad, borage flowers, which taste like cucumbers for the bartenders, and spillanthes or toothache flowers for the novelty. These last are like a cross between menthol and novocaine, numbing the mouth and causing serious drooling. Naturally, they found their way, chopped or whole, into wilted nasturtiums offered to unsuspecting staff members with the entreaty, "The wilted ones are more peppery. Try it!" I spotted the spillanthes before popping the nasturtium in my mouth. A waitress and the food runner were less fortunate.

We stopped by the inground trampoline on our way out, and hit up the Blue Eyed Daisy bakery for sandwiches before rolling back to Atlanta and our Tuesday night shift.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I don't think it's late blight

But some sort of fungus has infected my tomatoes, and after a week of non-growth, I had to pull two of my three plants. This article is freaking me out a little.

Also, made peach ice cream. Lessons learned:

Mark Bittman's French ice cream recipe, plus peaches is too big for my ice cream maker.

Fruit added at the end will stay intact, but fruit pulverized into the base makes for a pretty good ice cream.

The flavor is good, but the texture is grainy and icy. Whether this is just a limitation with home machines, or a function of over-aerating the custard while it cooked and adding brown sugar at the very end (both of which seemed like ok ideas at the time) I have no idea.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Corn Chowder

I took the notes on the soup chapter Friday, so this week is soup week. Corn is at the height of season right now, and a chowder in the summer is a challenge. Corn is a popular flavor base for chowder and as corn provides its own milk and the boiled cobs make a corny stock for a base. Chowders generally are based on seafood, thickened with cream and potatoes, and contain a salted pork product. To keep the soup light, I started with the corn stock, and eschewed the cream in favor of mexican homily for another corn flavor. I suspect that grits, polenta or cornmeal could have been used, but the texture would have been more rustic and less creamy. I used country ham pieces. I intended to go with bacon, but grabbed the wrong package at the market. It ended up working better when I diced bothe the fat and the lean separately. I left the lean raw and fried the fat cubes in a very hot pan, and garnished with both. Here's the method:

Take the kernels off the cob, and roast with butter and salt. Milk the cobs with the back of a knife into a stockpot. Put the cobs in the stockpot with carrot and celery, cover with cold water and bring to a simmer for 30 minutes. Reduce if necessary.

Chop country ham scraps and render. Sweat onion in the fat. Pour the corn stock over, add half the roasted corn and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the ham scraps and puree. Add the rest of the corn and bring to a simmer.
Taste and season.

Cut country ham fat and lean separately into a small dice. Heat a pan with a littlle olive oil till the oils just starts to smoke and fry the fat until brown and crispy. Use equal amounts fat and lean to garnish.

The chowder had a strong corn flavor with porky, salty undertones from the ham fat. I like my corn chowder a little sweeter, so I added some reduced cream I'd been simmering just in case. I'll see how it is tomorrow.

Friday, July 10, 2009

We need to talk

Since I've gotten back to Atlanta, I've heard some great news. More and more friends are gardening, expanding their gardens, or getting loads of produce from parents who have expanded theirs. This enthusiasm for frugality, freshness, and communing with one's food warms a chef's heart.

Yesterday a friend of mine passed on some of the bounty from his parents' garden: a big bag each of squash and okra, and a quart of cherry tomatoes. Having had no good tomatoes in England, I was so excited to get them out of the fridge this morning: Sungolds, little baby red pear tomatoes, all brought back memories of the first summer tomatoes last year at Woodfire. As I cut them for our salad, something seemed...wrong. My paring knife could have been sharper, I suppose, and I used to halve little tomatoes on a cutting board, but it wasn't about the routine, it was the tomatoes. I cursed. The tomatoes were cold.

As we're coming into tomato season, and as I love the tomato with all the tenderness one can lavish on a vegetable, I feel compelled to speak out. Tomatoes are delicate and complex. Their unique, multi-faceted flavor comes from an enzyme system that plays out under the skin as soon as they start to ripen. The interactions between the enzymes give tomatoes their widely variant flavors, their singularly pungent aroma, and that bright, almost sparkling quality on the tongue found only in tomatoes off the vine.

Depending on the enzymes involved, refrigeration either slows or halts the chemical reactions. The smell goes first, then that effervescence, and if the tomato is still cold when you eat it, the tomato itself will taste flat, almost like a supermarket or winter tomato.

When I was taught about the enzyme system, I was told that after refrigeration, nothing can be done. It turns out that's not completely true. Within a few hours, it starts going again, albeit slowly and incompletely. A few days, and it's almost back to normal. I do recall reading that there's one particular enzyme that never recovers, and that may be true.

What's the right thing to do? Store them in a single layer at room temperature: sheet pans are great for this. If you have more tomatoes than you think you know what to do with, here are some ideas:

Make a tomato salad, salsa, or sandwiches.

Roast tomatoes, along with any hard herbs you may have laying around, and freeze them in their oil. Use them later for sauces or to spoon over meat, fish, or other veg.

Can them

Make tomato sauce or paste, and freeze it. Works great for tomato soup too.

Halve them, and dry them on a silpat in a low oven. Keep in oil.

Make tomato jam

Pan con tomate. For breakfast with a cafe con leche.

Give them to me. Maybe I'll give you back a jar of something good.

Any other suggestions?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Can I have my stuff yet?

While we moved a pallet of our most essential belongings over here, we left behind about twice that, scattered among our parents' homes, friends kitchens and backyards. I haven't yet bid my tearful "See you in six weeks." to my cast iron--I've got a farewell batch of cornbread planned for tomorrow night--but we're slowly whittling down to the wok, frying pan and saucepan that sustained us for our first month in the flat.

This makes my reader--and Mission: Professional Chef--a frustrating experience. I want to tick off brown stocks and sauces in my project book, try any of the awesome-looking grilling recipes in gourmet's June issue, make rhubarb mustard or try my hand at canning. When a chef finds herself unable to cook, stir-craziness can only ensue.

So here are some links. Try what's in them for me, won't you?

I want to try the sweetbreads, the chicken kebabs, and the pork roast NOW. I think that the rest can actually wait five minutes, but no more.

For foragers.

My quince mustard from the fall? Still awesome.

Canning in the NYT. Given the recession and the drive to minimize waste in the kitchen, tactics like preserving and foraging seem poised to become very popular, at least in the press. I loved curing bacon and making sausages; canning seems like a natural extension of the same ethos to make the most of what we have, and a great way for chefs to keep menus exciting by putting little whispers of last season's bounty on the plate.

This doesn't make me drool. But Nan helpfully reminded me of it in her comment to my last post. If you've got time on this Sunday, read about the challenges to our ocean life. If you just want to find out what to get for dinner, click on the seafood guide. If your fishmonger can't answer the necessary questions that you'll have about the source of your fish, don't buy. I know that the Dekalb farmers' market in Atlanta used to display lots of information about the fish that it sold.

I've really gotta get back to staring into space and dreaming of what I'll do with a charcoal grill, a smoker, and a giant stock pot.


I nearly forgot--I will likely be in Hilton Head in the next few weeks. I usually try to find markets, exciting if inexpensive restaurants, and fun foodie things to do, and I have little luck finding these things on my own. I will not be there over the weekend. Any suggestions?

Sunday, June 07, 2009


A new blog that I'm following is Ecoculinaire, written primarily by Nan Kavanaugh, partner of Scotty Schwartz, the Chef at 29 South in Fernandina Beach, FL. When I was still in school, Scotty hooked me up with the chef at PLaE for a stage during my spring break, and then generously brought me down to 29 South to work for a week in his kitchen. We've kept in touch intermittently, and the last news that I heard was that he was going local, probably a little over a year ago.

There's local, of course, and there's planting a year-round garden out back to supply your restaurant. Nan is the garden manager, and started Ecoculinaire a couple of weeks ago. Her blog posts are focused and well-written, and she clearly loves writing about the restaurant, the garden, and larger food issues. Her most recent post, on markets, has me excited to get back to the first one I can in Atlanta.

Here in Coventry, and indeed throughout Warwickshire and the West Midlands, the farmers' market comes monthly. There's some good food available, but eating locally and sustainably has to be a hobby--even in the winter, most veg won't last a whole month. As someone who was pretty good at sourcing food, people who treated it like something that I did for fun, or something out of a pyramid scheme--"But how do you really know that the animal was raised humanely?"--had to be the most irritating response. When people view the responsible acquisition of their food as akin to a love of canoeing or needlepoint, they have no reason to examine what's in their refrigerators, how it got there, and at what cost.

As I was shopping at the supermarket yesterday, I was surprised twice: once when there was no garlic, which I didn't think was possible at a supermarket, and again when I saw wild Alaskan salmon on offer, for a price that, considering the exchange rate, was pretty competitive.

The state of English fish stocks is notoriously dismal; a cookbook I was reading this morning conjectured that soon the only fish that could be legally caught would be mackerel. Cod struggles, salmon has to be farmed, and fish like pollack and mackerel, which are actually abundant, are being roundly ignored by all but amateur fishers and responsible chefs. Wild salmon in America are faring little better, with the southern seasons getting shorter and shorter, or cut off altogether. The demand then turns to Alaskan stocks, which will, if history is any indicator, soon find themselves in the same situation. It's not responsible right now to fish too much Alaskan salmon, or to offer it in supermarkets over 6000 miles away.

The English are moaning at the moment: everyone loves salmon, and fish and chips apparently can't be made with any of the incredibly similar members of the cod family that have healthy populations. What are we to do?

Suck it up. Learn to eat more than two to three species of what the oceans produce. Encourage responsible fish farming or shelve your salmon recipes for the next five years or so. And then when you can eat it again, make it a treat, like anything that rare should be.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


At my current job, we live and die by the spreadsheet. I weigh everything, quantify recipes, and oh god, I know my formulas.
At my last job, when I wrote down recipes, it looked like a shopping list. Everything was to taste, and quantities were reserved for perhaps 20% of the recipes I was given there. By all accounts, Woodfire was in a more comfortable position than Millsy's. What gives?
Honey and I had a couple beers last night and hashed this dilemma out. This is what we came up with:
Years of experience: Tuohy has over 20 years of experience, and worked extensively in hotel kitchens. If you're going to find a costing spreadsheet, it'll be in a kitchen that is as varied and high-volume as a hotel's. I surmise that after awhile, a chef memorizes the costs of certain basic recipes, the same way that we memorize that a vinaigrette is 3 parts oil to 1 vinegar.
Premium price: Woodfire was fine dining. Millsy's? No. Sure, diners were paying a premium for unique, exciting ingredients, but as we were always told, they were also paying for them to be cooked and presented perfectly. If that's the model, then telling the cook (who is to be preparing and plating every dish to exacting standards) to make a sauce to taste assumes some variability, and the higher price covers that. In a perfect world, that means that the cook making your food can accommodate lovely, inconsistent products. Skill costs in every industry: in a restaurant, it costs the chef in wages, and in the dining room it costs the guest. But when a dish is consistently amazing, everyone's happy.
Waste, menu, and stock. We record every gram of wastage at Millsy's, so that the accountants can square our numbers. You can guess how this worked at Woodfire. Woodfire's menu also changed daily. Crate of corn in the walk-in? Guess how many places you'll see corn in the next three days. People tend to assume that a daily menu is some insurmountable task, that every dish on the menu changes daily. A daily menu means that chefs have the flexibility to find as many ways to sell what's in their walk-in before it goes off as possible.
Millsy's is also a bar, and like several of the restaurants where I've worked over here, if we run out of something, we have to buy it from the supermarket next door. It was probably easier to keep track of the kitchen costs at Woodfire.
Any other ideas?

Old post!

I usually get all excited about publishing a new post, as my razor sharp editing skills have...declined since graduation, and I'm a perfectionist.
Earlier tonight though, I stumbled upon a post I wrote after last Mother's Day. for the life of me, I can't figure out why I didn't publish it. Here's a link, if you're interested.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Learning outside the restaurant

I just finished the notes for chapter 25 of The Professional Chef, on cooking vegetables. It was by far the most intensive sitdown with the tome yet. After reading McGee, one thinks about fast vs. slow ways to cook veg and wet vs. dry. I came to the conclusion that were probably about eight different ways to get a vegetable from raw to finished. TPC lists ten. The difference seems trivial, but when committing to memory the advantages, disadvantages and rules for each one, ten feels like a lot. And I haven't even gotten around to the cooking yet.

Restaurant work, especially in a kitchen that doesn't change menus frequently, or approach dishes with ambition, can get tedious, and it's important for a chef to keep learning, even if it's got to be done at home. This week, I've found quite a few motivators to get me cleaning my fridge out at home, and trying things I don't get to try at work.

On working clean: I used to be a damn mess in the kitchen. Then one Saturday night I got the tongue-lashing from the chef. The rest of the week, the sous chef would come over at the correct times during service, and say "You might want to take this time and wipe down." At work now, I don't have a station, and keeping the whole kitchen clean is a sight harder than wiping down one station after every pop. But it makes such a difference, it's breathtaking.

Ratio I didn't get in on the chart and scale giveaway--I need new glasses more than a new cookbook, sadly--but I want this book. So much. Ruhlman's posts about the ratios and the variations one can get from them only fuel my longing. I love kitchen math, and ratios have always been the easiest way for me to make the same thing time after time. I can't wait to see what he's come up with.

Nostalgia?Perhaps. I learned a lot from Tuohy at Woodfire. I remember how amazing the vegetable ragout was, especially as it changed with whatever we had. I also remember the initial tedium of peeling favas, and the accomplishment I felt as I got better and faster at it. Tomorrow morning, I'll be at the market, looking for some asparagus, broad beans (what they call favas here) and spring peas.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Mission: Professional Chef: On Folding

No, I haven't made an angel food cake. Cake bakery terrifies me. Years of cheap ovens in cheap rentals have instilled a solid love of the braise, and an automatic distrust of promised success in anything as unforgiving as pastry.

This is where working as a chef comes in handy. That which I would avoid at home (where I have a functional oven for the first time since I left the nest), I am forced to do as a matter of prep. My love of measuring things has earned me the dubious honor of "dessert queen" in the kitchen, and thus I find myself making tiramisu and chocolate souffles a couple of times a week.

This, combined with the fact that my promised pay rise is tied to our ability to meet our forecasted GPs (gross profits) has made me fanatical about yield. To wit: I costed tiramisus at a yield of 15 from a recipe. My current--delicious--record is 18. But in the hands of a less-practiced chef, we got a grand total of 12. Obviously, this affects our margins.

My secret is in the folding, and Professiona Chef reminded me of finer points of technique that I'd learned long ago from an Alton Brown program. Folding carelessly or roughly deflates the egg whites, reducing total volume from a recipe. Here, as far as I'm concerned is the proper folding technique:

1. Mix all the heavy stuff together. This should really include everything but the egg whites or whipped cream used to lighten the final product. Taste. It should be delicious, if a little intense.

2. Beat your lightener to the desired consistency.

3. Immediately fold 1/4 to 1/3 of the lightener into the heavy stuff. Go for incorporation more than ethereal texture, but don't batter the lightener into flatness.

4. Fold your now-lighter flavoring mix into the rest of the lightener. Pour into the final pan or mold as quickly and gently as possible.

The above technique has the advantage of bringing the consistency of an often-heavy flavoring mix/component closer to the consistency of fluffy, light, and fragile egg whites or cream. It's easier to fold, and you keep the volume. And in a restaurant, that means two things: a guest ecstatic at the juxtaposition of lightness in texture and richness in flavor and higher actual than forecasted profits.

Plus the cook saves time through saved effort combining two diametrically opposed solutions. Also, I feel like a badass when I get more yield than I predicted. Score one for The Professional Chefas a casual reference.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mission: Professional Chef: Eliminating Waste

Chefs who like employment quickly learn to limit waste as much as possible. Any scrap that can be used should be. In a restaurant kitchen a wide variety of techniques is needed to get the most out of what you buy. Whole chickens are ordered, and broken down by cooks, to yield the usable cuts at half the price, plus material for stocks that go into sauces, risottos, soups, or staff meals. Vegetable scraps are saved for the same purpose. Restaurants that budget for staff food can use excess to feed the staff, and through the magic of accounting lose less than if the food were wasted. Specials are created to use excess food.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of wasted food in the West comes from the home. With the recession upon us, and my ambition to incorporate the chef's techniques in every facet of my cooking, avoiding waste becomes mandatory. So when I tired of taking notes about what I'm cooking, I looked to the bananas on the counter.

Bought for Honey's breakfast, I knew from their dull allover brown that they were gorgeously ripe. Unfortunately, I still haven't exorcised my food prejudice against bananas, and years of uniform, blemish-free, flavorless food in megamart produce departments have conditioned Honey against brown fruit. So banana nut bread it was. I got a couple of loaf tins and ingredients for the PC's recipe and then I weighed my bananas, a preliminary step that probably should have been undertaken before I left for the shops.

I had 1/6th of the banana needed for the recipe. This was fine; it worked out to one loaf, would get plenty of flavor and moisture from four bananas. I even tried a little of the raw fruit while I was making the batter. I'm not buying a bunch for myself anytime soon, but it wasn't disagreeable.

For the purpose of my project, I learned the blending method, mixing solid and liquid ingredients separately, and then quickly combining. As soon as they come together, they go in the pan and then the oven. Generally, the blending method is used for chemically leavened quickbreads that are supposed to be moist and tender. Mixing thoroughly works against this in two ways: liquid activates the leavening before cooking--since it's a chemical reaction, each recipe has a finite amount of lift-- and overmixing develops gluten in the flour. And nobody wants tough muffins.

The resulting bread convinced me that bananas could be delicious. Especially when the bread was toasted with butter--Grandma's poundcake treatment. Or toasted and turned into a peanut butter sandwich.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mission: Professional Chef: More than you can chew

The early stages of any project are marked with vast ambition. Last year I planted about ten different tomato plants of four or five varieties, and three kinds of peppers in our friends' back yard.

Professional Chef was no different. I saw no reason that every part of my meal couldn't contribute to my ultimate goal. Sooner begun, sooner done, right?

What I'd forgotten since my university days is that everything has a process and laying the foundation is the most labor-intensive part of learning. In the case of Professional Chef, taking notes about steaming vegetables, braising lamb and making chicken stock would be terribly disjointed if I neglected to cover the details of mis en place and prep technique. I decided this after buying for our dinner and starting the meal.

The lamb stew was good, the steamed sweet potato and rutabaga played nicely with it, and the brown rice pilaf was...edible. I'm allowing myself some do-overs in the name of perfection. I've gotten about halfway through the relevant sections of the text, finishing the veg mis en place chapter the other day.

Veg mis en place was really helpful. That's where I found the basic knife skills, information that isn't complex or difficult to remember, but is vital. It made for easy and highly productive note-taking, and even found me, Ms. anti-superfluous garnish, fluting a mushroom the other night when we were slow.

I still need to cover the actual cooking of the veg, and the mis and method for the rice. Since then I've cooked quickbreads (notes taken), bechamel (not yet), and I'm finding it much easier to cook through the book than to keep up with the notes.

But the slog continues. There are only so many mise chapters after all. Surely my pen will catch up with my pans eventually.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mission: Professional Chef

I've heard it for years. After I got in Scotty's car at the Jacksonville airport in March of 2006, and he sold me on bypassing culinary school. From Chef, every few months when I asked what I should be doing. From linecook on his blog last month.
"Buy Professional Chef, and cook through it. Learn all of it."

Professional Chef is the CIA's textbook. It's big. It's a little intimidating. It's kind of expensive, at least new. For nearly three years, I rationalized spending the money on expensive produce, beer, and to a far lesser degree, kitchen tools. Then I learned to play poker.

My first week here in Coventry, Honey taught me the game at the picnic tables outside the hotel we called home. Two introverts in a pub need a pretense to meet locals, to talk to people, and getting pissed enough to get over our shyness isn't a winning strategy.

It took months, but I'm now consistently decent at poker. I do well at the league game, but the cash games bring out the worst in me. I'm impatient, I try to bully new players, and inevitably get beat by someone I can't read. Finally, two weeks ago I committed. I was going to win money. I would stick it out through large chip stacks and small. I even kept myself from trying to scare off the new guy at the table--a good move, as he was a hell of a poker player. Fours hours later, I won £30 after accounting for our buy ins.

I'd lost my paring knife in February. The temptation to replace it was strong. But my need to improve myself finally, finally won out. Reader, I bought the book. It arrived a few days later, waiting for me two feet from my front door, as though the postman could lug it no further.

It's massive. I threw it down on the pass at work with the announcement that if my fellow chefs--who have heard my unequivocal pronouncements that one cannot put members of the brassica family in stocks and demi glace, that a vinaigrette does not contain that much mustard and can't be made with just malt vinegar--thought I was obnoxious before, they were in for a world of hurt. The plates under the pass rattled. The CD in the stereo skipped. The new commis chef chuckled nervously.

I've bought two notebooks, and will buy a third for the portion of the book that deals with ingredient identification and food safety. I have taken detailed notes on the mise en place and method for stocks, the mise for meat, and tomorrow on the preparation of grains and legumes, the blending (or muffin) method, braising, and steaming. I will work my way through the entire 1200-page tome, taking notes and committing to memory everything that I need to know.

My job here has been frustrating at times, and less rewarding and educational than my year at Woodfire. I am resolved that the next time I have to find a new one, to be confident in my role as chef. Expect updates.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The special you'll never eat

Every cook coming up the line knows her limitations; those areas where knowledge, experience or palate are lacking. The kitchen, or at least a good kitchen with a good chef, is not forgiving, and if you operate in oblivious unawareness of your shortcomings, you won't do so for long.

I'm not a fish person. I like to eat pork and vegetables. Baking, charcuterie, the types of cooking that take time and care well in advance in order to be successful are where I'm happiest. Fish is generally fast: cook it quickly, and just enough to be tasty. Serve it simply, with light flavors so that the guest tastes the fish he's paying for first. In the world of line cookery, fish requires skill. Also, it's expensive.

Or at least that's how I see it. There's a high likelihood that I've made a bogeyman out of fish cookery. And I want it to stop. Yesterday we got a shipment of red mullet. The chef was out and it wasn't on our specials board. I talked with our senior chef de partie--an admitted fish-hater--about what to do with it.
"What's it taste like?"

"It's awful. Very, very earthy. But the skin stays that gorgeous red colour. Maybe a risotto?"

"Hmmm. or something with orange and olives."

I went on my break and thought about risottos with fish. The idea has never quite appealed to me, but a citrus risotto with an earthy fish fillet sounded promising. And I could introduce the senior chef de partie to gremolata, one of my favorite garnishes for it's ability to lighten and elevate the flavor of dish without overpowering it, and to bring more colour to the plate.

My risotto was too lemony, so it took a lot of butter to bring it back to the proper flavor, and the the fish--seared on the skin side, and finished in the low section of the grill with cracked pepper--stuck to the pan, so I lost that beautiful skin, but the whole dish tasted great. I'd like to add peas to it if we served it.

It won't make it onto the specials list, though. I'm a commis chef, and my duties don't include creating a special. A fish risotto would be pretty out of the ordinary for us. And as today is my day off, I'm not there to make the case to the junior chef de partie and the head chef.

But it was good fun on a slow Monday night. I liked the fish that I made. I'm curious to try other preparations, fish and shellfish.

In other news, I want:
On the Line. I've been looking at the excerpts all morning, and it looks so good.
Ratio. Not out yet, but looks like one of those really useful books.
A bigger case for knives and tools. I haven't found one I like yet, but I'm typically indecisive.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Green Eggs!

I had the rare Sunday off, and Honey and I were hungry. It was one of those days when what's in the fridge is all technically food, but whether or not it can make a coherent meal is debatable.

The cook's mind immediately goes to fantasies in the face of potential breakfast and an empty stomach. I wanted gofio pancakes, either sweet with fruit, or savory with dried porcinis. No milk, no porcinis, and only a sad banana, killed that dream.

All our cheap knives--which I'm not wild about after the dull chef's knife turned and cut my middle finger a couple of weeks ago--were dirty. So I decided a knife-skillsless meal would be a good idea.

Pancetta scraps, a grated potato and enough time to render fat and wash some dishes yielded passable hash browns.

About a half-cup of Canarian mojo verde, an ounce and a half of grated pecorino that needed to be used weeks ago, and three eggs made an olive-drab omelet batter.

This omelet was not about proportion, delicacy or technique. It was about making three eggs for two people into a meal that would keep us satisfied for more than an hour and using food that would otherwise have been wasted. It was also about being damn tasty, and I plan to keep up this practice of using sauces as omelet-extenders in the future.

American and British breakfasts are meat-heavy affairs, and I completely agree with Mark Bittman about the necessity to consume less meat. I've tried to start treating meat more like a condiment. Since this means adding bacon or pancetta scraps to nearly everything, Honey hasn't complained. And since I'm using pieces that would otherwise be thrown away, we're reducing our waste. Green eggs indeed.

Now if only we could get around to eating more of our leftovers while they're still edible...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Food News and Links I Like

USDA trims patas negras, doubles price:

Drunken Animals in the NYT

New Orleans Cookbook

Or you could call it recipes for a recession: Cheap Lentil Ragout and Pasta.

Lots of NYT links this time around. I'm cleaning out my reader after the honeymoon. Expect more from Serious Eats and Ruhlman later.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Missing the Point

In the book that I'm reading, Terry Pratchett describes a desk:

"There was a blotter on the oversize desk, but it was part of it, fused to the surface. The drawers were just raised areas of wood, impossible to open. Whoever had made the desk had seen desks but clearly hadn't understood deskishness."

Sometimes, bellying up to the English table makes me feel like sitting at this fictional desk. Sandwiches in coffee shops are freshly made every day. In factories, and then shipped in. The gourmet sandwiches advertise applewood cheddar--whatever that is--next to "reformed ham."
Pubs make their food fresh, according to recipes in the Ma Broon's cookbook. Then they store the food in a residential refrigerator and reheat it in a microwave to order. Pie and pasty shops advertise deliciously slow-cooked fillings, well-seasoned. They arrive par-baked and frozen at the shop, and a baked the day of service. This is advertised as "fresh baked." A commercial that I'm watching right now is marketing frozen salmon as the sort of high-quality product that deserves the simple treatment. Without salt. I've seen lots of cured meat labeled as salami or chorizo, but it bears no resemblance to what I've had in Spain or in fine delis. Most of it is obviously salted, cooked meat stuffed into casings.

There is a lot available here that looks like food, but it seems that an understanding of foodishness is lacking. Gorgeous Scottish or Welsh salmon could be shipped fresh to the entire country within 24 hours of being caught-there's no need to freeze it. Surely the students who work in the coffee and pie shops can assemble sandwiches and learn how to cook. And as we're fewer than 100 miles from Tamworth, namesake of the famous pigs. Perhaps we could use ham that doesn't sound like it's been on the wagon for awhile?

I'm aware that these little deceptions occur in America, but I know the language to find them there. My only salvation has come from knowledge of processes generally employed.

I've tried to be gracious and inoffensive to the country that's generously hosting me and employing me. But my inability to find the quality food that I know is produced here is frustrating. The acceptance of unpalatable food in tins and jars, just because it's sold by a high-street grocer, is a disservice to a nation that's in need of healthy, honest food. And after six months I feel like accepting these practices condones them.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

I'll bring the hot sauce...

I might be romanticizing, but the food, drink, music, art and other aspects of culture in a place are fascinating, and separate one otherwise indistinct place from another. Since we've moved across the ocean I've pretty much stuck to English and Continental food, with the occasional foray into Chinese, per Honey's newfound interest. I love Southern food, and I still cook a good Southern meal about once a month, but without the stoneground grits, the gorgeous pink turnips stunning array of winter greens, it just doesn't feel, well, Southern.

Of course a lot of major components to the Southern meal can be found in England, and that's what I've tapped whenever culinary homesickness strikes. For New Year's Day, I bought some spring cabbage, English cider, smoked streaky bacon--ham hocks can be found, but it requires more planning than I'd invested--and broke out the black eyed peas that came as part of our flat's furnishings. A little chunky tomato sauce went into the peas, in the hope that Honey would like them if they tasted less like peas. And my gorgeous, gleaming cast iron cornbread pan was pressed into service, along with the stoneground cornmeal from Riverview, smuggled in a Dutch oven back in July.

I should have made pepper sauce months ago, when we emptied our first bottle of olive oil, but I'm indolent at best, and the greens needed something. So I dredged up and modified a friend's hot sauce recipe: Equal parts cider and white vinegar, a good bit of cayenne: at least 4 tablespoons for about 250 mL, and about an equal amount of hot and sweet pimenton, mixed evenly. This is all based on taste, as I sure wasn't measuring while trying to make hot sauce, retrieve cornbread, and dish out peas and greens.

Sitting on the couch and eating for money and luck, with my good smokey hot sauce, humming "Unhappy" by Oukast, I felt comforted, even I daresay optimistic. And honey and won respectably at the casino the next night, so maybe there's something to these old rituals.