Saturday, December 31, 2011

Chef vs. Critic. The pen is mightier than the toque.



I like reading restaurant reviews. Some, because the writing is so bad that it makes me wonder why the writer is still employed. Others more because of the writer's style and use of prose paint an enticing picture of a restaurant. Then there are those that give insight into the restaurant's approach, the plates, the flavors. Then there are pieces that really don't fit into any of these categories.

Instead of painting a picture of what someone might expect to find, enjoy, eat and experience at the restaurant, a local food critic embedded this data in a critique of what the restaurant's owner should have done. He griped about the architecture, how the place wasn't "Bohemian" enough, how the chairs were funky. Thus, I read the piece as more an attack on the restauranteur's failure to conform to the reviewer's expectations than a fact-based review of the establishment.

In the context of the review the dishes seemed disappointing, even though the reviewer apparently liked them. So, the overall review - although it got enough stars - seemed negative. Like the place was somehow a failure in the critic's view: too-serious waiters, predictable, just not fun enough.

Even with great food, who would want to dine in a stodgy, predictable restaurant run by someone who abandoned his vision, to eat food and quaff drink served by pompous waiters? Would you go, knowing it to be cursed with bad architecture and infested with ugly chairs?

I have no quibbles about the part where the critic actually reviews the food, despite a minor glitch over an ingredient. So it wasn't orzo. No big deal.

Understandably, the restaurant's owner did not take kindly to the review. So he replied, using Facebook. He made a lot of good points - notably that the restaurant is successful, he likes it the way it is (so do a lot of other people, apparently). There was a bit of an attack on the reporter of the "who is he to criticize, anyway?" variety.

Many people commented. Most, if not all, were supportive of the restaurant. Some went so far as to lambaste the reviewer, thereby incurring his wrath.

A few days went by, and the reviewer - who never bothered to reply in Facebook - wrote another article, this time expressing surprise at the reaction at the rancor over his review. A review he believed to be positive, in fact.

I didn't read it as especially positive. I thought it was strange to attack a restaurant based on what direction its owner did not take, setting the food reviews in a bed of criticism. I thought reporting was based on facts: interviews with the owner, direct tasting, all that stuff. This read more like an editorial piece, advocating change.

The critic's second piece devoted over 800 words explaining what critics do, what they know and how many restaurants they've been to. Apparently becoming a restaurant critic involves nothing more than being a reporter who gets the critic job. No culinary arts training, no superior knowledge of food origins, process or preparation. No experience working in an actual restaurant. I don't expect food writers to attend chef school, but what exactly is their path from no clue to Expert Critic? Taste buds and a nose? Read a few cookbooks and you, too, can be a Revered Critic (B.A. in journalism required)? That's it?

Isn't that like a science writer who can't tell a photon from a prion? Yes, a reporter can theoretically write an excellent piece using investigative techniques. But when something is set down in front of you for your dining pleasure, shouldn't you have some prior knowledge of how it's typically prepared, so you can better communicate the restaurant's style of preparation, its choice of ingredients? Saying something is yummy, tasty, bad or heavenly is not, after all, great journalism. More must be said, vivid descriptions of the presentation, flavors, balance; in short, make the reader experience what it's like to savor the food and revel in the atmosphere (or lack thereof) of the restaurant.

Before writing about what was presumably in the restaurant owner's head several years ago versus now, wouldn't it be better to interview said owner after all your tasting was done and your food reviews written? Find out what he's thinking, where he's going, what he loves and hates, why things are the way they are?

Yet, who am I to question established wisdom? Another journalist wrote that bloggers are not journalists. We're something else. Not necessarily bad, just not bona fide journalists. So I'm just an outsider howling in the wilderness. Ignore my questions, since they're from Outside the System. But I still think I'm right. Knowing a subject gives more insight, doesn't it? Interviewing the owner and chef would give insight, wouldn't it?

After the War of the Pens, the critic and chef allegedly talked on the phone for about an hour. The critic deleted some offending text that apparently was not kind to the chef. The chef deleted his entire original Facebook post (even the valid, non-insulting parts), then apologized in Facebook for things he said that were less than flattering to the reviewer. All is well. They're friends again.

Personally, I think the chef lost. I think that the critic, with free access to publishing to a large number of people, convinced him that argument was not in his best interests. Force won, again.

The critic also managed to promote a local blog that agreed with his review on all but two points. Not exactly neutral. Will he mention this blog although I'm critical of the style of the review?

The critic, who seems just as thin-skinned as the chef about people demeaning his skills or qualifications, managed to insult all who comment from the online community by calling them insincere and not credible. If the online community is not worth bothering with, why do they have a feedback/comment function on their web site? Oh. I'm not a journalist, so I have no right to question Established Wisdom. But still...

The moral of this story? If you're a restaurant owner and victim of a strange and perhaps unjust review, just let it slide. The critic has the entire power of the press to attack you. He may not be especially fair about it, either. Your defense will probably be quixotic at best; remember that Most Chefs Are Not Writers, and you're probably no exception. You're going up against Dirty Harry with a pop-gun. Give up now, unless you consider that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Another moral would be as a reviewer and critic, wouldn't it be normal to expect scathing attacks (or counterattacks)? Isn't that part of the process of free speech? Shouldn't staying calm when people query your competence be part of your professional demeanor? Wouldn't the weapons of sharp wit and scintillating prose work better than anger and revenge, if those emotions were indeed present?

A third moral is that you apparently really don't need to know anything specialized to become a journalist in that field. One size fits all. Know the right people, get the job, eat some food, start writing. You're now an Expert Critic! No wonder people frequent all those public review sites - the public may have greater knowledge than the professionals in many cases!

This could have been less rancorous on both sides, but maybe that wasn't the intent. Maybe rancor means excitement. Excitement means sales. Sales mean staying employed in difficult times.


Note: Any remarkable resemblance between the people in the illustration and the real people I'm writing about is just proof that I'm psychic. I don't know what either of them looks like, except that they're both male. I think.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Come for the patio, stay for the food

Is this a great space, or what?
Crispy Barramundi
Journeyman's lunch
Bourbon Chocolate Cake
Sometimes a place just grabs you and pulls you in. I was minding my own business, when I happened to smell something enticing, and this after I'd finished a filling lunch. Then I saw the space: an open, modern patio with a linear concrete fountain, bocce court, fire pits and tables arranged around the perimeter. At the rear of the patio, a modern structure with floor to ceiling windows showcased the kitchen, its staff busy prepping dinner. The main restaurant building stood to the left, housing the wood-burning oven from whence emerged that enticing fragrance of woodsmoke.

Today, when the question of lunch came up, an image of this place appeared. Never refuse a vision, especially when it might lead to an interesting meal. I didn't even know the place's name. There was no sign on the building, anywhere - a true Restaurant X.

I was expecting something Italian, after seeing that Bocce court. So, when the menu arrived, it came with a side of cognitive dissonance. Duck confit? Crispy barramundi, chicken with polenta... wood-fired pizza... Yeah, it's Italian, but a bit French, with a good helping of contemporary American in there, too. And I now knew the place's name: Union on Yale. Hmm. I almost liked Restaurant X better.

With choices like that, choosing something would be difficult. Confit, flatiron steak, wood-fired grilled scallops... I chose the barramundi. My companions chose the journeyman and a turkey avocado bacon sandwich.

The barramundi was as described: a perfectly seasoned fillet, topped with crispy skin, lying on a bed of greens surrounded by bean-turnip purée. Simple, elegant and tasty.

I had no idea what a ploughman's was. I thought it was a kind of sandwich, but instead it was a mix of clams and mussels in a tomato sauce. I thought the sauce tasted more French than Italian, maybe built on a base of mirepoix and stock, without the Italian basil-oregano flavor profile. I managed to steal a spoonful for a taste, but I have expert testimony for the freshness of the seafood. At the end of the meal, nothing remained but the shells; no piece of toast, no sauce.

On the sandwich side, the turkey-avocado arrived amid a mass of golden brown potatoes. They looked like half-length julienne fries, until I tried one. Instead of solid slices of potato, they were somehow formed from a purée, light and airy but less substantial than strips carved intact from a mother spud. The sandwich lived up to the turkey moniker, but the avocado was more a thin green line spread onto the bread than the expected generous slice that would stand up and proclaim its identity as co-flavor. The sandwich worked, due in large part to the support of crispy bacon slices and the full flavor of the turkey breast, brined and roasted on the premises.

They only had one dessert. Chocolate bourbon cake. "How chocolate is it," I asked. "Very," the waitress replied. It was. Flourless, with a deep chocolate flavor and a bit of sour-sweet crunch thanks to a liberal sprinkling of translucent pomegranate seeds. All that work on plating, a beautiful, edible piece of art wiped out in a rush of spoons.

Wine - any wine - is currently $10 per glass. They're working on getting their cellar up and running, move on to sell bottles, but for now they're working it out. The current wine list may or may not work; some wines are still around, but others aren't, but they did have substitutes for what we wanted. They're still learning about flavor profiles, so hopefully by the time their wine cellar is stocked they'll have someone who knows them well.

If you're more the cocktail type, they do have a full bar. During our lunch, it seemed that margaritas were the thing to get.

You can eat, hang out or perhaps even play a game of bocce at Union On Yale at 232 Yale Ave in Claremont. Just look for the place with a great outdoor space, at least until they get their signs installed.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Rosetta Stone Required


Order here.

New year's specials (I think)

Your order, confirmed

Success! Food arrives, and it's what you wanted!

Dessert. I'm already craving more of these things.

Some restaurants just aren't for dabblers. This place is as hardcore dim sum as it gets. Once you're seated, you'll get a menu sheet where you mark your selections. In Chinese. Only in Chinese. I think the sole Roman letters were "X.O.", presumably for a dish made with X.O. sauce. They do, however provide all the pieces you might need for this puzzle. There's a booklet with photographs of the dishes, each numbered and given a brief description in English that usually works. If not for this Rosetta Stone, you would just have to guess which Chinese characters look appetizing. Once you've found your siu mai, har gow, etc. you just find the number on the order sheet and check it off.

They will ask what kind of tea you want the instant you arrive at your table - choose from a list on the front of the Rosetta Book. Yes! You can have Chrysanthemum tea, and you should. Although some say it tastes like water left over from boiling artichokes, it really compliments the food and is less intrusive than the typical jasmine. There is also asphodel, sounding like some Elvish concoction from the Lord of the Rings. Not to worry; it's a form of Oolong tea, not miruvor.

Mark your choices in the first column. I'm assuming that the second column is for a second plate of 燒賣 for example, if you're in the mood or perhaps didn't order enough in the first place. Once you've made your selections, someone will come to take away the paper - and the Rosetta Book! Noooo! They will kindly leave the order form, so memorize the characters or write the number for anything you might want to order in addition to your first round.

Once they've processed your order, they'll bring a printout in clear, easy to read Chinese characters to confirm that you did indeed order one plate each of 蝦餃, 蛋撻,  蛋撻...

Then the food will arrive, and they'll cross out the delivered items from your printed receipt. If you're quick, you might even see which characters went with which dish.

Our first dish to arrive would be the last eaten: 蛋撻, daan taat - sweet yellow egg custard nestled in airy puff pastry. We set it aside.

Other dishes began to arrive, burning hot out of the steamer. 蝦餃, har gow, shrimp dumplings.  燒賣, siu mai, another dumpling normally made with pork - but these tasted more of fish and shrimp and were topped with some orange roe. Then the lo mai gai, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, three small pieces with a bit of meat, some Chinese sausage keeping the rice company. Fried eggplant topped with a kind of seafood mousseline. Chive dumplings. Fried something or other with shrimp in it. Cheong fan, rice rolls filled with barbecued pork and a wonderful light brown sauce poured over the top. The best thing to do was attack the things that cooled first, like the cheong fan, giving the other items time to cool down to where they could be tasted. As plates empty, the staff efficiently whisk them away until only the daan taat remains, a sweet ending to a great flock of dim sum.

When you're done, wave someone over or gesture with the receipt book. Pay at your table, leave a nice tip, smile and leave.

If you love great, freshly prepared dim sum from a place that immerses you completely in Chinese culture, you'll probably be happy here. Everything we ate was top notch. No soy sauce or chili oil on the table, either - everything came out of the kitchen perfectly seasoned. We saw no forks, no English anywhere but the Rosetta Book. Some of the staff spoke English; others not.

Since they don't do carts, you might not be tempted to taste new yet enticing items paraded before your eyes. They might bring some char siu bao, BBQ pork buns by your table in a tray, but those things are filling, and I prefer to save room for variety.

Ordering is intimidating unless you're literate in Chinese. Prior experience in dim sum is a definite bonus here, but you only need one seasoned dim sum aficionado per table. Otherwise, you will have to either know what you want or dive into the deep waters of gastronomic adventure. Pick things at random from the menu if you dare, but remember that many things in that kitchen really require a guide.

But fear not! You can indeed choose well to emerge well-fed with a smile on your face. You could meet your new culinary best friends, their flavors forever etched into your brain. Dim sum is like that. You might even utter "mh goi" as you leave.

Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant is located at 3939 Rosemead Blvd in Rosemead. You can't turn left into their lot from Rosemead Boulevard, so plan to arrive from Valley Boulevard (or the side street) so you can easily enter the parking lot.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thirty-three years of burritos



All that fancy gourmet stuff is fine, but sometimes you just have to go back to your roots, bathe your tongue in thirty year old memories, remember the times you spent in that very spot, and wonder what happened to the people you knew back when...

We'd stop by El Tepeyac on the way back from school in 1978. I'd just started college, and my friend Mike decided to give me a valuable education in burritos. We'd go in his beat-up gold Chevy Nova, its black cloth seats smelling of time in the sun, early morning fishing trips and stale tobacco smoke. We'd inch forward in line, awaiting our turn at the order window, then the pick-up window. With a shout of "Hollenbeck! Machaca!", our burritos were handed out, creaking on sagging cardboard trays, rapidly passed out the window in a frantic moment where the price of failure would be the splat of several pounds of burrito hitting the concrete. Balancing them as best we could, we'd return to our table to devour them in the reddish-gold light streaming through the colored glass of the patio. All this fit well within a student's budget at around four bucks per burrito.

Phil and I loved the Hollenbeck, even though it made his forehead drip sweat. Mike's favorite was the machaca burrito, from which he'd carefully remove every trace of green lest a fiery jalapeño leave him gasping. We even tried a Manuel's special, a sleeping bag sized invention of the restaurant's owner. Once. One burrito, three people. I think we might have even finished it. Maybe. Then there was the machaca burrito. Shredded beef, eggs, sautéed onions, cheese and chunks of those incandescent jalapeños, now bred out of existence.

My friend Mike is now departed, but Manuel is still at the door greeting people. There have been some changes at the restaurant, too. The menu is a bit longer, and the Hollenbeck burrito is available with chicken and asada along with the traditional pork. The Hollenbeck runs almost ten bucks, the machaca a bit more. The silly little pile of lettuce no longer comes with the Hollenbeck. The machaca burrito now adds rice and beans to its former meat, onions, egg, fresh jalapeños and cheese. Those screaming hot peppers are but a memory.


What's in a Hollenbeck? Mass, and lots of it. Take a tortilla big enough to cover your entire head and face. Throw in some slow-cooked chili verde pork, then some freshly made guacamole, some rice, some beans. Wrap everything up like a small pillow, then pour some tomato-chili sauce over the top and drop some more chunks of the pork on top. Serve steaming hot. Eat fast, before your stomach realizes what you're up to. Don't drink large amounts of fluid for at least an hour - your stomach needs to work uninterrupted.

As for the Manuel's Special, just imagine the Hollenbeck. Double it. No, bigger. Triple it. This burrito is indeed larger than the average human stomach. The last time we ate one, it took four people. Just seeing a burrito that large is something that should be on everyone's bucket list. Put it last on the list if you plan on eating the whole thing at one sitting.


When we go, we look at our shadows, reaching back thirty years across the worn concrete of the patio. We have wives, families, responsibilities, retirement. We talk about old friends who've disappeared from sight. Mammon is more likely to be the focus of conversation than Venus. We think of playing outside under the sun instead of on computers, talking instead of texting; of times when driving a car meant freedom instead of obligation.

We don't bring our wives. They don't approve of this kind of mass consumption.

El Tepeyac Cafe is so famous that I probably don't need to even list the address, but journalistic integrity requires that all the information be here: 812 North Evergreen Avenue, Los Angeles.

In through the Open Door



Do the words, "Berkshire Pork Fat Mochi" give you any instant cravings? Or do you wince in disgust, thinking that only a pork-addled fool would even consider ordering such a thing? I hope it's the latter, because that leaves more for me!

The pork fused with the mochi by some alchemical magic, creating a smoky, umami mouth bomb accented with confetti-like nori. That shishito is more for looks than heat, since this is December after all: the plants need heat for heat. Dribbled over and around this marshmallow-shaped ball of doctor-scorned wonder lies a light ochre sauce. Maybe it's miso based. Maybe not, but it's the grace note that really makes the dish happen. This is not a regular menu item, so if pork is your thing be sure to order some while you can.

The scene is the Open Door Restaurant, a tiny izakaya nugget encrusted in a thick vein of mini-mall. Their take on this cuisine is fusion French-Japanese-everything else. You might find bone marrow logs sliced down the center and roasted. Perhaps duck confit tacos. Maybe something involving foie gras, maybe paired with sea urchin. You never know, but the odds are that the dish will indeed work, no matter how strange it may seem.

Whatever isn't on the menu gets scrawled in multicolored chalk on a large blackboard. Right now, Christmas lights provide most of the illumination, so diners would cross the dark room, squinting, to find their amuse-guele nirvana. Like those pork fat mochi balls. Heaven.

Adventures with small plates is what this place is about. Go ahead, mix it up. Everything is à la carte. Take some risks. If you don't like something, odds are someone else at your table will. There are twists on Japanese street food. Truffle butter edamame, takoyaki, inari... but they're elevated to fine dining status by an inventive twist where a sauce drizzles in, an extra step is applied. Often they pair ingredients, juxtaposing something unknown to your typical Samurai with something his obaa-san would have served.

We typically start with our favorite sashimi, white fish yuzu. They don't specify the fish - a wise move allowing them to pick the freshest white fish for their menu without getting locked in to a particular variety. The plate is a simple fan of thinly sliced fish, dabbed with something green, drizzled with yuzu, accented with a shiso leaf and a pickled cherry. At least I think it's a cherry. It's red, sour, and has a pit.

Then something perhaps a bit bolder, building up to bigger flavors. Chawanmushi arrives in a heavy bowl heated hot enough to burn Asian symbols in your arm, the custard inside heaving like something from Yellowstone. Hints of fish and vegetables infuse the soft custard. Another bite, a piece of shrimp this time, another.... shiitake. Another? Nope. Empty.

More food arrives. Takoyaki: little balls of something resembling pancake batter, topped with a bit of sauce, bits of seafood inside. Spicy weiners, really spicy. Hotter than those shisitos. Then eggplant miso cools things down again with simple eggplant rounds tossed in some kind of miso-based sauce and sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds. Then the yaki onigiri, triangular rice balls, fried, sitting on a sheet of seaweed (nori), topped with ume (pickled plum), shredded salmon or nothing at all. Break off a piece of the rice, wrap it with nori and enjoy. Yes, you need to eat the nori or the thing will taste flat. Besides, nori is good for you.

They don't stop with the food, either. Japanese micro-brews? How about a beer made from rice, like a gently bubbling very light sake? It's here. If you can pronounce it, it's yours for the tasting: koshinikari echigo. Say it just like it's written and you'll do fine. Don't expect big, bold flavor. It's extremely subtle, light and ever so sake-like. Some fools have called it bland, but pair it with delicate food and you'll find that it's the perfect foil to something like sashimi where you don't want an Arrogant Bastard who will grab all the glory.

Or, if you'd like a white ale that's a bit more Belgian, just say Hitachino Nest White Ale, o kudasai. There's even a cute red owl on the label. Sugoi!

Yes, they have sake. Probably more kinds than the beer, so if sake adventure is your thing, you'll be happy. But you get more beer for your buck.

Service is very attentive, and they will happily tell you of their current favorite dishes. You could get a comment like, "not many people dare to order that." Don't worry - if you like the main ingredient, you'll probably love the dish. My wife still talks about that bone marrow log, months after the meal (it's off the menu now, alas).

They don't allow photos of their food. There's a big sign on the door, then a notice in bold on the menu. No photos of any kind, not even blurry low-light grainy out of focus horrors snapped by cell phones. I would think that photos posted all over the place would be free publicity, but since those photos rarely if ever look appetizing they may have a point. They didn't say anything about doing an illustration afterwards, so hopefully they won't send Hideo* after me for retribution.

The Open Door sits in the back corner of a mini-mall at Atlantic and Garvey in Monterey Park (on the southeast corner if you're approaching from the South on Atlantic). Their address is 122 South Atlantic Blvd, but that may not help much unless you're just using it to program your GPS.

* Neuromancer.

Friday, December 16, 2011

It's Greek, but not as you knew it

serious chops!

the moussaka

The Great Fry Mountain!

Greek food's on the foodie map. Hot new cookbooks, restaurants that move away from soggy gyro sandwiches into things you might really find in Greece. Variety, freshly prepared ingredients: fish, lamb, beef, chicken. Grilled, baked, braised. Time to find out what all the fuss is about.

The Los Angeles Times wandered into Orange County and found Kentro Greek Kitchen. I followed a few weeks later.

This restaurant is a bright, modern space painted black and white instead of the typical blue and white. You order at the counter, take a number and they bring your food. Like the space, the menu is no-nonsense. Simply grilled meats, copious sandwiches. Salads, including beet.  Appetizers, even charbroiled octopus. Greek wine, Greek beer, Greek coffee (more on that later).

Yes, they have pita bread sandwiches, in new guise. Gyro sandwiches are gone, replaced with charbroiled pork, roasted and pulled chicken, braised lamb. I didn't eat one, though.

I didn't eat the flatbread, either, kind of like Greek mini-pizzas with things like arugula, figs, honey (all on one pizza).

I did taste the faques soup - lentils, tomatoes, celery and carrots punctuate a light herbal tomato-based broth. The lentils support the overall flavor; they're not the central focus here, so you get a progression of flavors as each vegetable gives a nod as it passes.

The loukaniko sausage - available as an appetizer or on a flatbread - comes sliced on a platter, grill smoke mixing with the meat and herbs for a savory bite just waiting for a dip into some fresh tzatziki sauce. The mezzedaki (appetizer) plate adds kefalotiri cheese and a couple of lamb chops. And that wonderful, tangy dill-infused creamy tzatziki sauce.

I suppose they'd lose their Greek cred if they skipped the moussaka. You can lose the gyros, but axe this dish and Helen of Troy will roll in her grave. This version is lighter, airier than most. Its flavors mingle, yet remain distinct without collapsing into a dense mass in the oven. It builds on thinly sliced potatoes on the bottom, adds eggplant and tomato sauce, then a thin layer of béchamel over the top. You can pick and choose between layers. You can have one bite dominated by eggplant and tomato; the next thinly sliced potatoes lightly graced with the béchamel. Or, you can try to smash three inches of moussaka layers into one all-encompasing mouthful and hope for the best.

I didn't go there. It wasn't my moussaka, and a containment failure would be embarrassing, to say the least.

My choice was lamb chops. They arrived in a generous pile, nestled next to a virtual mountain of fries, accented with a dollop of that luscious tzatziki. Ah, that was a marriage made in heaven: bistro-style fries flavored with kefalotiri cheese, dipped in olive oil infused yogurt tzatziki with its hints of dill and cucumber. Then a bite of the lamb, rubbed briefly in that sauce so its rich herbal flavor could counterpart the acidity of the sauce. Then a sip of Amethystos red wine.

They were out of galaktobouriko. Wait. No, we were in luck, a fresh batch was just coming out of the oven. Dessert would make an appearance after all. After allowing fifteen minutes for the dessert to cool, it arrived at our table. Flaky phyllo over yellowish custard, with not-so-flaky phyllo on the bottom that worked hard to prevent cutting the dessert. Despite the bottom phyllo layer, the dessert was a success due to the great job they did on the custard. Again, light and well-seasoned.

The final dot at the end of the meal was the coffee, Greek style. Elleniko, to be exact. Kind of redundant, like Greek Greek coffee. Interesting. Like espresso with sugar, but made differently. Somehow the grounds, a bit of sugar and water are combined in some brewing device, heated in a manner involving a bubble, then served in a small cup, like espresso. Except for the flavor, and the quarter inch of coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup. Brewing coffee this way really changes the flavor profile, not at all like adding sugar to already-brewed American coffee. Kind of a surprise on the first sip, then a bit of doubt: "do I like this". Another sip. Well... Another sip. Yeah, I think I could get used to this stuff.

There are still a lot of things waiting for me on the menu, calling my name in seductive Helen-like voices. Flat breads, octopus, dolmades, spanakopita, grilled fish with dandelion greens...

It's really too bad stomachs don't hold more food.

Kentro lives in a kind of "restaurant mall". Parking is strange - the closer you park to the restaurant, the less time you can stay in the space. Not a problem if you don't mind walking across a parking lot as a price you pay to enjoy a more leisurely meal. They're at 100 South Harbor Boulevard  in Fullerton. If you're coming from the 91 freeway up Harbor, turn before your GPS tells you that you've arrived. If you go straight, you'll miss the parking lot and have to circle around. The Amtrak station is across the lot from the restaurant, so you could even arrive in style by train.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Banh Mi!



It was a long, hungry drive from Sacramento to L.A. Although it's great getting here early, it also means no In-N-Out stop for lunch, since they don't open until 10:30 am. Nobody would likely call glass of orange juice and a banana hearty fare for the road, healthy as it may be.

So, upon arrival I headed to Banh Mi My Tho in Alhambra for a very tasty grilled pork sandwich. In case you've never heard of them, banh mi are a Vietnamese-French hybrid sandwich: French baguette, Vietnamese grilled pork, fresh hot chili slices, cilantro, shredded carrots, green onions, cucumber, vinaigrette. They're a great deal - a sandwich maybe six inches long won't even cost you three bucks.

These guys make the sandwich to order while you wait in a crowded, tiny market-like space, surrounded by Asian language newspapers, a large refrigerator full of all kinds of drinks, packaged foods, a display case full of egg rolls and some kind of meatballs, and other people waiting for their orders.

There's nowhere to eat inside, although there is a bench outside, more for waiting than eating, I'd guess. So, away we went, a sack full of sandwiches in hand.

After starving half a day, I grabbed my sandwich at the first red light and took a bite. The baguette crunched, yielding to softer dough, then the chewier meat and fluffy veggies. I took another bite, as the banh mi's mix of sweet-sour and savory flavors filled my mouth. Hunger began to abate. Another bite - this time with a big hit of fresh chili flavor, then feel the burn. Then cilantro... A very interesting sandwich and a great way rescue myself from the clutches of road trip hunger.

In case you're in the area with some cash money (they don't do plastic) you can visit Banh Mi My Tho at 304 W Valley Blvd in Alhambra.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Branzino dinner

Amazingly, one of our local supermarkets had fresh, reasonably priced branzino. Better yet, this is a farmed, sustainable fish - called striped bass in English. For some reason, the Italian name for the fish passed over the French and English versions.

By encasing the fish in a salt-egg white crust, you can bake it without the worry of pulling fish jerky out of the oven 30 minutes later. All the fish's moisture will be sealed in. The crust is a mix of egg whites and Kosher salt: 3-1/2 salt to one egg white by weight if you're someplace humid, 3-1/4 salt to one egg white if you're somewhere dry. I start by weighing the egg white in grams, then multiply to find how much salt I need. Don't worry about saltiness - you're using the whole fish, skin on. The skin will keep the flesh and salt separate. Stick some fresh thyme and bay leaf into the cavity of the cleaned fish, place it on a bed of Kosher salt, make the crust with some more Kosher salt, place it in a 375° convection oven for half an hour, peel off the salt (the skin will come off, too), fillet the fish and serve. Simple!

The velouté sauce is a bit less simple: blond roux, mushroom stock, some vermouth, some salt, some Pastis, some fresh thyme and bay leaf, strained.

The Israeli couscous is also simple - sauté some garlic in oil, toss in the couscous, stir it a bit, add mushroom stock until it's absorbed and you're ready to go.

The persimmon mousse needs some work - it was good, but it needed more persimmon, less cream, and more gelatin. The sugar content was about right - not too much but enough to avoid going too acidic. Luckily, our neighbor gave us a lot of persimmons so I can experiment.


After the Scary Cake Test


This is it. The Cake of Doom. The Cake of Judgement. My grade depends in part on the perfect execution of this amalgam of sweet, sour and technically difficult. Scoring the cake is apparently like Olympic skating, where degree of difficulty comes into play somehow. I'll never know what points were good and which were bad; all I'll receive is a final grade for the class. I will have the satisfaction that comes from inventing something and managing to turn the idea into something not only edible, but enjoyable. If you don't count the stress involved with 25 people all writing little notes about every aspect of the oeuvre.

The idea came from a question: why don't cakes use seasonal fruit, so they taste fresh instead of fake? So what if you can't make this cake in June. That just makes it that much more worth waiting for. So, although there's a bit of orange marmelade (and it could also be a tangerine purée simple syrup), all the fruit flavor comes from fresh, mostly uncooked tangerines.

It's not too sweet, either. It's not supposed to be a rich, heavy thing, but a light fruity interlude before taking a brandy and a fine cigar and heading away from the table.

If you're brave enough to try all this, please keep your common sense. I already found one mistake that would have transformed the thing into a vanilla cake - so think things over before you start. The ingredients are more or less in the order they would be prepared. The Bavarian cream has to be done as one of the final steps just before assembling the cake, since it needs to chill to set. The genoise, chocolate wafer and buttercream can all be made in advance.

This will make two, six inch diameter cakes. I like small cakes; they seem more chic and European that way. I suppose it could also be modified to work in a square pan, although the corners would be tricky.  To assemble, just read the assembly instructions and follow the diagram above. Then do it again, and again and again until it's all just a piece of cake.

Tangerine Dream Cake

Components per cake
  • White chocolate for drizzling   
  • Swiss meringue buttercream, Dark Chocolate   
  • Orange genoise    2    pieces
  • Orange (tangerine) Bavarian Cream   
  • Tangerine slices, seedless   
  • Simple syrup w/Cointreau (or equal)   
  • Orange marmelade   
  • Chocolate wafer (base)    1    piece
Yield: Two, 6” cakes.

Cake assembly
  1. Spread orange marmelade on the chocolate wafer, very thin.
  2. Measure a piece of acetate so that it is just wide enough to cover the fruit layer, but leave the top layer of the cake exposed.
  3. Spread orange marmelade on top of the chocolate wafer.
  4. Place the chocolate wafer in a 6” charlotte ring. 
  5. Spread tangerine-flavored syrup on top of one piece of the genoise, and place it on the wafer.
  6. Arrange tangerine slices around the perimeter, against the acetate, flat  sides down.
  7. Fill with  Bavarian cream to the tops of the tangerine slices.
  8. Add another layer of tangerine slices along the perimeter, rounded sides down (between the other slices)
  9. Fill just over the top of the tangerines with orange Bavarian cream.
  10. Spread flavored syrup on top and bottom of the other piece of the genoise, and place it on top of the buttercream.
  11. Chill until the Bavarian cream is completely set.
  12. Spread the chocolate buttercream over the top and sides of the cake.
  13. Carefully remove the acetate, and pipe buttercream to cover the lower, exposed, part of the cake. Decorate with crushed leftover pieces from the chocolate wafer mixed with a bit (careful!) of instant coffee.
  14. If it can be done without messing up the cake, place an acetate strip over the fruit layer, and place the cake in a refrigerator to chill and set the buttercream. If not, coat the tangerine slices on the sides with the apricot glaze.
Orange Genoise
Ingredients
  • Sugar    3.75    oz
  • Eggs    3    ea
  • Yolks    3    ea
  • Cake flour    4    oz
  • Sugar    1/2    oz
  • Butter, clarified, warm    1/2    oz
  • Orange extract    1/2    tsp
  • Tangerine zest    1/4    tsp
Yield: 
Two, 6” round cakes.     ± 1 lb 2    oz
Pan preparation
Parchment on the bottom, very lightly grease the sides.
Baking
Scale 6 oz batter into a 6" cake round, bake about 20 minutes at 375°F.
Doneness
The cake will spring back when touched; the cake edges will just begin to pull away from the sides of the pan if the pan has been greased.

Instructions
  1. Heat sugar, eggs, yolks over bain-marie to 120° F, whisking constantly. Transfer to mixer, add orange extract, whip on medium speed until the foam is pale and thick, and increases 3 times in volume, and holds a ribbon.
  2. Sift flour twice with the sugar. Sift one quarter of the flour over the egg foam, fold in quickly and gently with a spatula, repeat three more times. Stop folding when the last portion of flour is not quite fully folded in.
  3. Fold a small amount of the batter (one spatula full) into the butter, then fold all the butter into the remaining batter.
  4. Divide batter into two cake pans, pan and bake immediately.
Chocolate wafer
Ingredients:
  • Unsalted butter, room temp.    4    oz
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder    2    oz
  • Granulated sugar    7    oz
  • Eggs    2    ea
  • Vanilla extract    0.2    oz
  • A.P. flour    4    oz
  • Salt    0.1    oz
  • Water    0.3    oz
  • Baking powder (very small amt)    0.1    oz
  • Yield: makes two, 6” rounds    1 lb 5    oz
Directions:
  1. Preheat an oven to 350°F.  Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
  2. Put the butter in a large saucepan and set over medium heat. Stir with the whisk just until the butter is melted.
  3. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the cocoa powder. Whisk until the mixture is smooth and no lumps remain.
  4. Add the sugar and continue whisking until well blended.
  5. Let the mixture cool for 2 minutes.
  6. Add the eggs, water and vanilla and whisk until well blended.
  7. Add the flour and salt. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
  8. The batter will be fairly liquid. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking pan and spread evenly with an offset spatula. Spread it about 1/8 thick.
  9. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the wafer comes out clean, about 20 minutes.
  10. Cut the wafers into 6” rounds before completely cool (don't wait or they’ll crack). Mark the dough with an upside-down cake pan. Cut with a paring knife or small pizza cutter - or use a charlotte pan the same diameter as the cake pan.
  11. Let cool completely. 
  12. Break up remainder and use as crumb decoration for lower part of cake.
  13. You can also crisp the cake up by putting it in a low (200° F) oven.
Tangerine-infused syrup
This is for dabbing into the cake to give it more flavor.

Ingredients
  • Tangerine pulp    4    oz
  • Granulated sugar    4    oz
  • Yield    8    oz
Instructions
  1. Place all ingredients in a stainless steel pan. Heat until mixture thickens.
  2. Remove from heat, strain through a chinois.
  3. Dab into genoise cake to give it moistness and flavor before assembling the cake.

Orange Chocolate Swiss Meringue Buttercream

This works with Italian meringue, too - just use the type you're most comfortable with.

Ingredients
  • Egg whites    4    oz
  • Cream of tartar    1/4    tsp
  • Sugar    8    oz
  • Vegetable shortening    2    oz
  • Butter    12    oz
  • Orange extract    1/4    tsp
  • Chocolate, melted & cooled    4    oz
  • Yield:    1 lb 14    oz
Instructions
  • Place the egg whites and sugar in a stainless steel bowl on top of a bain-marie. Beat with a whip until the mixture reaches 120°F.
  • Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a mixer, whip at high speed until stiff peaks form and the meringue cools to 80°F. This is now Swiss meringue, but it could be done with Italian meringue, too. At this point, either process would work - and the following steps will be the same.
  • Little by little, add the soft butter and chocolate and continue to whip. Add each piece after the previous one has been incorporated. In the same way, whip in the shortening.
  • Continue to whip until the buttercream is smooth.
Tangerine Slices

Ingredients
  • Clementine mandarins, whole    20    oz
  • Yield, peeled (85%)    17    oz
Instructions
  1. Peel mandarins.
  2. Separate slices
  3. Cut enough slices to go around cake in half, exposing inside of fruit. Place cut side of fruit against acetate when assembling cake.
  4. Reserve 8 slices per cake for decorating the top.
  5. Press remaining tangerine slices into Bavarian cream layer or eat them. If you peel as you go, there won't be a lot of tangerine left over.
Tangerine/Orange Bavarian Cream
The tangerine pulp was unstrained, so it would add a bit of texture to the Bavarian cream. This was part of getting more of a "real fruit" feel to the cake, although there's no reason the pulp could not be strained. I think there's more flavor this way, though.


Ingredients
  • Gelatin, grains    1/4    oz
  • Cold water    2    oz (5 T)
Crème Anglaise   
  • Egg yolks    2    oz
  • Sugar    2    oz
  • Milk    4    oz
  • Vanilla    1/4    tsp
  • Orange extract    1/4    tsp
  • Tangerine (mandarin) zest    1    tsp (or orange zest, or omit)
 Whipped Cream
  • Heavy cream    8    oz (1 cup)
Flavoring
  • Mandarin purée    4    oz
  • Yield:    1 qt 1 pt (48 oz)
Instructions
  1. Soak the gelatin in the cold water. Make sure you stir it into the water; don't just dump it in or you'll get a strange floppy gelatin disc and some turbid-looking water instead of well-hydrated gelatin.
  2. Prepare the crème anglaise: Whip the egg yolks and sugar until thick and light.
  3. Scald the milk and slowly stir it into the egg yolk mixture, beating constantly.
  4. Cook the crème anglaise over a hot water bath, stirring constantly, until it thickens slightly. It should coat the back of a spoon, temperature 170°F. Don't get it hotter or it will curdle!
  5. Stir the gelatin sheets into the hot custard sauce until it is dissolved.
  6. Cool the custard sauce in the refrigerator or over crushed ice, stirring constantly to keep the mixture smooth.
  7. Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Do not over-whip.
  8. When the custard is very thick but not yet set, fold in the whipped cream. Custard should more or less hold its shape when dropped from a spoon.
  9. Add the tangerine purée. Do NOT add this to the hot milk/egg mixture, as the milk will curdle instantly. Poof! Ruined! Start over! So, don't do it. Instead, add the purée only after the milk has been tempered into the egg mixture!
  10. Spoon the mixture between the tangerines in the cake. Add to just cover the tangerines, leaving a bit over 1/8” over the fruit. Shake the cake gently to settle the Bavarian cream.
Apricot Glaze
This is for coating the tangerine slices to preserve them a bit better and make them glossy. It could presumably be done with strained tangerine jam or jelly, if you could find it instead of apricot glaze. You can also mix apricot jam and simple syrup, although it will be clearer if you strain the jam first.

Ingredients
  • Commercial apricot glaze    1    oz
  • Water    1    oz
  • Yield    2    oz
Instructions
Dilute glaze in water, bring to a simmer, whisking to prevent lumps.
Use warm, or at least while still somewhat liquid.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Before the Scary Cake Test



Tomorrow, my doom awaits. A cake must be made, to perfection. A cake perhaps never made since the dawn of time. My entire culinary future could rest on the successful completion of this dessert. Yes, that's stupid, but that's the way things are set up.

So, what to do while the stress mounts? Diligently study arcane tomes of cakery? Delve into the mysteries of gelatin-stabilized whipped cream and créme anglaise?

I think not.

Pan sear some excellent grass-fed beef, with a flavor of the fresh shoots of springtime, grassy, exuberant, bold. Add some lazy man's Bordelaise sauce - a pan sauce with a medium-dark roux, wine, fond, onions, celery, salt. A bit of tarragon-flavored beurre composé. A trio of artisan cheeses: Valsetz chevre, Twig Farms washed rind, Saint Nectaire. A wine worthy of the task: a Merlot by Solune in the Sierra foothills. Some sourdough baguettes an hour from the oven. Start with a fruity Garnacha for the first toast.

Add music. Sing in Portuguese and Spanish. Berekere, Barabare, O Vento, Depois os temporais, Los Ejes de mi Carreta, A Samba me cantou, Destillando Amor... Dance with the cat, too (he's amused).

Lie down and watch the lights of the room spin and twirl.

Ready?

Perhaps not, but at least relaxed. Tomorrow is a good day to die!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fancy French Fish


Plus français et tu meures. 

As they'd say in France.

I had some leftover shrimp stock, so we decided to see if I could successfully do something with a few  frozen flounder fillets from the freezer. Fantastic!

I soaked the fish in cold water for about 30 minutes, out of the bag. The water sucked in a lot of fish protein in the process, and I probably would have lost a lot of flavor if I'd thrown the water out. Instead, I heated it, skimmed off the white foam (a.k.a. protein) and added it to the shrimp stock.

A bit of clarified butter, some flour for a roux, some salt and that stock and voilà! Velouté sauce. That's the stuff under the fish and those strange arcs of unknown vegetable.

The fish got a bit of salt, some lemon juice, some Aleppo pepper. The dredging flour got the same things, sans lemon juice.

Into some more clarified butter it went, then out just before it was done to throw together a fun little pan sauce with some scallions, lemon thyme and a whiff of garlic. Throw in some pastis, a bit of dry Vermoouth, a bit of salt and there it is, a dab of something tasty to keep the dish from falling flat as a flounder.

This is one of those things that's not going to jump out and grab your taste buds. It's subtle. The acid balance (lemon juice) and salt have to be just right. Not enough salt and flat flounder. Not enough acid, ditto. Taste, taste, taste. Adjust, adjust adjust. When it's right, you'll get a clean fish flavor that will start to fade into boredom, then suddenly get picked up again with a salty-savory-acid zing.

Those aren't potatoes. That would be boring. Something with more flavor needs to happen here. Something brassicaceous. Something you can bake slowly to draw out all its flavor while letting it stay crunchy. The miracle vegetable? Kohlrabi. In this case, the fancy purple variety. It was just oven braised at 350°F with a brunoise of celery, some salt and some turkey stock. It took about an hour before I was happy with it. This is something to keep checking so that the stock doesn't scorch. I didn't add oil, since the slices were going right into the velouté sauce, and there's enough butter in that to keep any fat freak fabulously happy.

A bottle of Muscadet sur Lie, a bit of sourdough whole wheat bread and the meal is complete. Unless you want a piece of that tarte tatin for dessert.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Pies: One required. One fun.



I had to bake a pie for Thanksgiving, as part of a class. A complicated cake wasn't enough; there had to be a pie, too. So, I made my favorite French pie: Tarte Tatin. Then I made the required Good Old American Apple Pie (also a favorite).

So here they are, with a posting date before class. Just in case someone says that I missed another deadline. They're often rather vague and confusing. Late work isn't worth sweetened condensed armadillo spit, so it's best to turn in something crappy on time than something well done a bit later.

I also made a banana/ginger hand pie. But that's really outside the scope of this class.

J'en ai marre! La plupart des gâteaux faits dans ma classe contiennent des noix, des noisettes, des saloperies d'allergènes divers... et je ne peux pas les manger après avoir passé un temps fou à les préparer!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Turkey Sausages


It's the day after Thanksgiving and not a creature is stirring. At least, not in the kitchen. Everything is pretty much ready to go. The sausages were made from the wings and thighs when the turkey was boned. We did make some garlic mashed potatoes and pita bread, but that stuff is easy.

Turkey sausages
ingredients
  • Dark turkey meat, silver skin removed.
  • Powdered milk (binder)
  • Minced celery & parsley
  • Lemon juice
  • A bit of cider vinegar
  • Fresh cranberries
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • Duck fat. Use a lot to keep the sausages from getting too dry. Pork fat could also work.
  • A trace of sage

Instructions
  1. Get everything really, really cold. If you're using a meat grinder, put it in ice water for a while to chill. 
  2. Season the meat, mix everything together and run it through the grinder.
  3. Make a small patty and fry it. Taste to adjust seasonings. Adjust the spice mix as needed
  4. Stuff hog casings with the sausage mix.
  5. Preferably, hang in the refrigerator to let the casings dry out a bit overnight. If you can't do this, no big deal.

Grill the sausages and enjoy. I cooked the pita bread on the grill, too. Fast and easy.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving!



So, you were expecting photos of roast bird and apple pie? The bird looks like a big, skin-covered sausage when it comes out of the oven. Sliced, it's tender slabs of meat veined with green flavor-enhancing herbs. There was no cranberry sauce - the berries went into the rice, and were very happy there. No stuffing, either. Just tangy, sweet-sour yams that complimented the turkey and rice to perfection.

A thanksgiving menu

Food
Cranberry rice medley
Citrus-baked yams
Boneless turkey breast roast
Tangerine Dream cake
Sweet Potato Pie
Whole wheat country loaf au levain

Wine
Pinot Gris Reserve | Jean Albrecht '10
Grüner Veltliner | hugl '10

The turkey
  • Bone the turkey, separating the breasts from the tenders. Reserve the drumsticks, use the thighs and wings for sausage meat, make stock with the neck & bones. Save as much skin as possible.
  • Brine the turkey breasts with some rosemary sprigs overnight.
  • Puree celery and parsley. Add lemon juice. Add room temperature butter and puree until you have a gooey mess with butter and herbs. Place this in a bowl and rub all over the turkey breasts and tenders.
  • Place the reserved skin on a cutting board, place the breasts & tenders on top, pull the skin around over the meat and truss. We didn't have enough skin to completely cover the meat, but it's not a problem as long since the exposed meat will be placed on the bottom in the braising liquid.
  • Place in a ceramic or other non-reactive baking dish, add whatever liquid is left from the celery/parsley/lemon mixture, then add some turkey stock made from the bones.
  • Roast at 360° for about 90 minutes.
  • Let rest, then carve. Done. Serve with some of the braising liquid and pomegranate seeds as a garnish.

The Rice
Simple. Salt. Brown rice. Wild rice. Fresh whole cranberries. Unsalted turkey stock.
Put all this in a pan and simmer for about an hour on very low heat. We used brown basmati. Don't use white rice since it needs a lot less time to cook than wild rice and will turn to mush.

The yams...
I'm not sure what's in these, except lemon juice and simple syrup flavored with nutmeg, lemon juice and zest. They're steamed, mashed, the syrup goes over the top and they're baked.

Tangerine Dream cake
The base is a dark chocolate wafer, then orange marmelade, then tangerine genoise flavored with simple syrup infused with pureed tangerine, orange and vanilla extract. Then tangerine Bavarian cream. Then another layer of the genoise. Cover the whole thing with chocolate Swiss meringue buttercream and garnish with tangerine wedges.

I didn't make the sweet potato pie (a friend brought it), so I can't say much about it except that it was excellent.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Big Healthy



Whole grain wheat. Buckwheat. Sunflower seeds. Sourdough starter. Slow proofing. All this makes for some interesting and healthy bread.

First step, the night before: mix some whole wheat flour with some buckwheat flour, add some sourdough starter and water, but no salt. Mix well, and place in the refrigerator.

The next day, roast some sunflower seeds, add to the mix along with more whole wheat flour, a bit of bread flour, some salt and more water. Knead well, until you can do a windowpane test with the dough - stretch it into a flat sheet between your fingers without tearing. The dough should be a bit sticky and supple. Don't worry about the soft, sticky dough - as long as it more or less holds its shape as a ball (instead of collapsing/melting) you should be fine.

Set the thing in a bowl to proof, until it doubles in volume.

Punch down, form into a ball , turn out into a basket lined with a couche well coated in flour with the pretty side down. Let it proof some more.

When it looks large and fluffy, transfer it to a cornmeal coated peel and slide it onto a hot stone in an oven preheated to 500°F. Carefully squirt some water on the sides of the oven, or if you want to be really careful, into a heavy-duty sheet pan. This creates steam that helps the loaf rise.

Bake about ten minutes at 500°F, then lower the heat to around 450°F and bake for approximately 40-45 minutes to develop a wonderful, thick crust. Watch the loaf occasionally to make sure it's not burning.

When it's ready - the interior will test about 205° F - place the loaf on a cooling rack. Eat it any time after it's cool.

This loaf, being whole grain and full of nuts, should taste great and give you lots of fiber and vitamins in the process. It's kind of like drinking a rich, dark beer compared to that light diet stuff.

Friday, November 18, 2011

iFail



Loud, enthusiastic applause! Welcome! We love you! You're our greatest asset!

Be not fooled! As you walk into the room, minions of the Great Pomme clap, long and loud. Yet in their hearts, how could the very people who greet you so enthusiastically not know that in a mere two days a message like this will be sent to many of the people they so enthusiastically applauded:

"Hello,

Thank you for your interest in opportunities with Apple. As you can imagine we received a large number of qualified applicants for this role. At this time we have chosen to move forward with other candidates. I want to personally thank you for your interest and for investing the time to speak with us about this opportunity.

Thank you again for your time and interest in Apple. We wish you the best in your future endeavors."


It started with people being herded to tables in the cheap hotel's breakfast lounge. We seated ourselves at cheap looking round tables clad in cheap synthetic wood, on cheap looking metal chairs with cheap looking red vinyl cushions. There was nothing to read. Bare. Cheap. Eventually, our handlers infiltrated the space, handing out papers to fill out, duplicating information that we'd already been sent electronically. They chatted with some, ignored others.

Once the chatting was over and the forms filled out, we were ushered into another nondescript room filled with ranks of the same cheap steel and vinyl chairs, greeted by a wildly clapping line of interviewers standing in front of a large screen.

We had to watch videos about how great Apple is. How successful they are. How it would be such an honor to work for them. While all the while they were hatching their strategies to eliminate an unknown number of people in the room. Yes, unknown, for when the question of how many hires they were contemplating, they said they didn't know. Disingenuous for geniuses, masters of dataflow, analysis and computation. Don't know? I suspect they knew to sixteen decimal places, but were too sneaky to blurt out the truth!

Like Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies, the adversary, father of all lies, prince of darkness, the devourer, Mammon, enemy of righteousness, Abbadon, angel of the bottomless pit, their apparent sincerity was but a deception. Their "handpicked" candidates were not so appreciated as they would have you believe. We were like sand to be sifted for pearls, discarded after false show of sincerity and enthusiasm. It was, alas, nothing but smoke and mirrors. Hype. Hollywood. False feel-good.

The event was presented as something different, somehow better than other companies. Yet, in the end it wasn't. It was just Apple's way of spinning a cheap way to screen people into some kind of "festival". Five employees interviewing probably 300 people. Cheap. Nobody had a personalized interview. Some might say they cost-reduced the initial rejection interview screening phase by conducting group interviews. Even the pens they gave out were from the hotel, not Apple. If Truth were to walk naked through the corridors to proclaim a fit title, it might be the Screening And Rejection Event. Who would come for that?

Hotel logo pens? They were too cheap to even part with a souvenir branded with the Apple logo? The pens weren't even retractable. It's not like anyone was expecting an iPad, but still... doesn't Apple believe in swag to add physical hype to their cheerleading? No? No. Did they bring signs directing people to the event room inside the hotel? No! Unnecessary cost! Not too user-friendly, when it comes to recruiting. Clapping and video is cheaper than creating a look with actual objects, it seems.

They even spin the job benefits. Full time employees get some; part-timers get scraps, but only after three months' employment. Let's see the likely outcome… work November, December… (let's just imagine that the work is seasonal) FIRED. Not even two months. No bennies! iFail!

The applause was in the end more a brutal slap in the face than if it had never happened, a mockery of everyone they rejected, like a hot kiss followed by a kick in the groin. Better that they had saved their applause for the anointed few who passed through the fruity gates into Apple Nirvana. Why waste applause on people you plan to reject a mere 48 hours after you so "enthusiastically" greeted them?

I remember noting that none of the people doing the interviewing had been at Apple for more than five years. Some had been there less than a year. I then thought: if this company is so wonderful, how come none of these people has been there longer than a few years? If Apple is Nerd Asgard, why the relatively short employment spans? I'll never know. The applause wasn't for me; it was only for the people they wanted. I was but a spectator.

Monday, November 14, 2011

White hot chili



Every time I've had white chili, it's been boring. Not much depth, no heat, not a lot of campfire. It's not something I see people making in the Wild West. Still, when I looked in my cupboard, there were some Cannellini beans. Normally the things are for cassoulet, haricot de mouton, fool... but this time for some reason white chili just popped into my head, and stayed.

This recipe does indeed have heat. My lips are burning (happily) as I type this. There are several ways to reduce the burn. You can buy medium or mild Hatch chilis instead of hot, or mix them with some other, less picante type of fresh pepper. Remember that the green chilis are what gives this soup its flavor, and leaving them out would leave it undeserving of its chili title.You could also remove all the seeds and white pithy stuff in the middle of the peppers - although that's difficult when the peppers are frozen.

Ingredients
  • Smoked ham hocks
  • Mesquite smoked Hatch peppers from last summer, kept in the freezer for just this moment. I left most of the seeds in for more heat.
  • Toasted cumin, toasted coriander seeds, ground
  • Garlic, lots of it.
  • Fresh thyme
  • Fresh oregano
  • Mirepoix (onion, celery, carrot)
  • Cannellini beans, soaked overnight
  • Garnish: strips of Mexican string cheese or Mozzarella, or queso seco. Fried tortilla strips would work well, too - especially if they were blue corn and tomato, mixed.
Method
  1. Sweat the mirepoix, then add a bit of chopped garlic.
  2. Purée a lot of garlic (I used a bulb) in some water with some of the fresh herbs and pour it in the pot. Scrape the bottom to get any fond that might be sticking there. 
  3. Add the ham hocks.
  4. Add the pre-soaked beans and enough water to cover them plus a bit more. Keep checking the water level, and add hot water if needed. The goal is not to add too much water and dilute the flavor.
  5. Add the cumin and coriander. I want these ingredients in early so that their flavor mellows a bit and helps season the beans. I was pretty generous with these guys, but things mellowed out once the pot cooked a while.
  6. Add salt and Black pepper (White pepper if you're a French chef, but I like the taste of black better). Green pepper should work too. Some people say that if you add the salt before the beans are done, they'll be tough. Others say different. So, I added a bit of salt at the beginning, and adjust for taste before serving.
  7. Simmer at low heat for 90 minutes. They may need another 30 minutes or so - keep checking the beans.
  8. When everything is ready, take out some of the beans and water, add more fresh herbs and purée them all together. Add this back to the beans. If the broth is thin, you can purée more beans or just let it reduce at low heat, without boiling.
I'm just serving this with sourdough bread, heated to get it crispy. Simple enough.

It doesn't have the toasty, deep, earthy flavor of red chili - but the green chili does come through, along with the smoke and herbs. It's also lighter and shouldn't stain your tablecloth. It's not vegetarian, but if the bacon or ham hocks were omitted and more smoked chilis, herbs and garlic added, it could be.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

More sourdough: bâtard




There are probably too many bread photos up here now, but since I baked this loaf it might as well settle down here with all the others. Besides, gotta have some French bread if I'm studying French cooking techniques.

This is a lean dough - flour, water, salt, sourdough starter. Knead well, and don't add too much water. This is supposed to be a stiff dough, so tacky to the touch is good enough. Primary fermentation overnight in the refrigerator, then a warm-up on the bench, then shaped into balls and benched, then formed, proofed in a warm oven and baked.

This bread is better warm, eaten not too long after baking. It could be the weather, too - it's been a bit humid lately.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sourdough Ciabatta



These take patience. Pure sourdough starter, a mix of whole wheat and unbleached bread flour. Some salt and water. The dough was mixed very wet by hand with a spatula, then immediately placed in the refrigerator for an overnight ultra slow proof and also to let any enzymes present munch on the whole wheat to develop more flavor. Then more proofing at cool room temperature in a bowl. Then stretched, proofed some more on the bench, then shaped, proofed some more at room temperature, then proofed some more at about 90° to speed things up. Finally, baked to an internal temperature of 96° C (205° F).

The initial dough is very, very wet. Like wet paste. Sticky, gooey, stringy. As the process moves forward, flour gets into the dough from the bench proofing, then when the loaves are shaped. The bread proofs on a couche to dry it out a bit more (funny word, but we're stuck with it). The end result is loaves that can't easily be picked up since without a lot of support they'd flow right out of your hands and on to the floor. However, all that moisture and stretching develops the gluten. The long proofing leads to happy yeast and lots of air bubbles in the bread that make it light and airy.

When the loaves go into the oven, they're almost pizza flat, but rise quickly. I'd rise quickly if I were in a 260° C (500° F) oven, too!

They're done in about 20-30 minutes, ready to eat in another 90. All bread needs to cool for a bunch of food science reasons, but the bottom line is that it has better texture and flavor after cooling than it does hot out of the oven.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

It's Alive!


My parents mentioned a few months ago that they'd bought some sourdough starter for me from King Arthur Flour. They put it in a box and everyone pretty much forgot about it. Until we showed up, and there it was, still in the box. Unfed, untouched.

I gave it a sniff. Smelled like sourdough. So back in the box and away it went to Sacramento, where I watered it, fed it and waited. In a few hours, there were some bubbles. Then froth, and a good sourdough smell. Still alive!

This was the first bread from the new starter. It's made with bread flour, a bit of whole wheat flour, water, salt, the starter, some pâte fermentée (previously made up bread dough), and a good dose of sourdough starter. I did throw in a bit of SAF yeast for insurance, but much less than normal. This dough is well hydrated and a bit sticky. It's not so wet that it sticks to the bottom of the mixing bowl like ciabatta, but rather wet enough to be supple and velvety in the hands.

As soon as the dough was mixed, it went into the refrigerator for an overnight cold, slow proofing. Initial fermentation was then done on the counter as the dough warmed. Then it was benched, formed and baked in a 500° oven with a bit of initial steam.

It has a light sourdough flavor, probably because I could have proofed it longer but didn't have the time. Next time I make bread, the leftover uncooked dough from this batch will be used as pâte fermentée. That should give a bit more sourdough flavor and complexity.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Beauty without brains



I tried Blogger's pretty new templates. Beautiful! Dynamic images flying off the pages, color, motion, glamor. User-chosen themes, the works. Too bad it was as stupid as it was beautiful.

This blog is powered by Google. So, you might naturally assume that it would let you find things easily and quickly from within the blog.

Not.

The pretty new interface's FIND function couldn't find every instance of a search term throughout the site and display it in a convenient spot atop the page for your convenience. You couldn't type "confit" for example, have it search this blog and display every article containing that word so you could pinpoint the post you were looking for.

It was like a retarded hunting dog that could find but not fetch. There was no feedback, like "not found". So if you typed "hojaldre" or "xercorsderefliers" you would get the same result: a blank search box. In fact, "hojaldre" does exist in this blog, but it's an older post. Older posts aren't displayed by the find function and brought to the top of the page. It's up to you to find them.

Oh, did you want social media? Well, forget it. Apparently impossible to link to a post. You could only "like" it in Facebook. Not link to it so that it would come up on your wall. No button for that.

No plug-ins, either. No extended functionality. Just pretty. Really beautiful. 

So, goodbye trendy dynamic interface. Hello old yet functional look. It was a beautiful relationship but alas beauty without brains only works in Hollywood.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Potato-Kale soup for a cold fall night


We were supposed to make potato-leek soup in class, but came up dry (no leeks). So, I decided to make it at home. I went to the market, and guess what? November is not a good month to buy leeks. Nothing. Drier than Death Valley in August (not counting badwater and Salt Creek).

They did have kale, though. Nice green color, healthy, should make good soup. Same basic technique as with the leeks, so still good for practice.

Potato-Kale soup
ingredients
Small dice onions
Small dice Russet potatoes
Small dice celery
Kosher salt
Kale
Lemon juice
A dash of cream
Julienned carrots for garnish

process
  1. Sweat the onions and celery in some oil
  2. Add the potatoes and enough water to cover, and not much more
  3. Simmer until the potatoes are tender
  4. Rough chop the kale, push down over the potatoes, cover briefly to wilt.
  5. Blend everything with an immersion blender. If you want the kale to have a bit of texture, go to the next step. Otherwise, you can cook it 10-15 minutes to soften it up, but I thought the texture was more interesting, and less cooking normally means more vitamins.
  6. Add lemon juice to taste and just a dash of cream
  7. Adjust salt, garnish with julienned carrots, serve.
 The carrots aren't just there for color. They're the missing ingredient from the mirepoix, left out because I wanted a vibrant green soup with no ground up orange bits. Set on top of the soup, they bring back the earthy carrot flavor missing from the mirepoix. They even add a few gratuitous vitamins.

This was the perfect soup for the coldest, rainiest night this fall. It's filling, so it could almost be a meal in itself, accompanied by a bit of bread.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rejection letters: what if...?



What if rejection letters, when they bother to send them, actually said something interesting and useful? What if, instead of say-nothing pieces of corporate pablum, they informed, amused, guided? What if they just told the brutal bitter truth, without any sugar coating?

What if a company, in the rare instance where they bother to send anything at all, also set up a feedback or question channel? So there could actually be some real communication? Do I mean waste some employee's precious salary time to actually respond to follow-up questions by useless people? Yes indeed. Useless people still talk, they might have even been customers. They might not be so useless if you communicate directly - maybe their lives don't fit into predefined little boxes on a computerized application form. You never know. 

Here are some rejection letters that will never get written:

Brutal Truth

Dear Applicant,

 In analyzing your application, we determined that you have more experience and education than our managers. Hiring you would make them uncomfortable, and we worry that you might not be controllable nor fit into our corporate environment. 

Please stay away. You make us nervous.

The Management

Honest

Dear Applicant,

We get so many applications that we just let the computer sort them out. There's not really much difference between all of you, so it comes down to this: since you didn't know anyone in the store, we didn't hire you. Next time, remember that boot licking is a valid tactic.

I'd say that we wish you the best of luck in your employment search, but that would be a lie. I really don't care.

If by chance you become friends with one of our managers, re-apply. If not, don't bother.
The Management

Sadistic

Dear loser:

If we wanted to hire you we would have called. Some technocratic MBA in our company requires us to notify useless toads such as yourself whether we want to or not. If it were up to me, you'd remain in suspense forever and I could do something more useful with my time than write form letters. You really don't deserve anything.

We looked at your application. It tells us that you're a washed-up, unsexy basket case who can't do any better than to apply for a no future, part-time seasonal position doing menial tasks that could be done better by a monkey. Your life is a waste, you'll never amount to anything, and there's a reason your love life isn't working.

In case you're too stupid to figure that this letter means NO, it does. We don't want you, we never will, and please don't ever come here again, not even to buy a cork to plug your leaky butt.

Mr. de Sade, personnel.

Feel good

Dear Valued Applicant,

We loved everything you've done with your life, but regrettably cannot hire you at this time. 

Our store is small, and even though you seem wonderful, we just don't have room to hire that many people. We'd really like to hire everyone, but we can't.

Thank you for considering us as your employer. We are honored by your confidence that we could make you happy in the workplace. Thank you again.

Thank you for your time and we're so very sorry that we can't hire you.

Have a nice day and thank you again,
The loving, caring personnel department

Poetic
Electrons flash, phosphor glows,Information flows luminous.
Eighty-three words, a life.
Digital Freud 101010... 101010;
Analysis/cognition/evaluation/calculation/correlation.
Helium II heart.
Conclusion.
Result.
Sorrow.

Paranoid

How did you find us? Why did you apply? It seems you have knowledge, experience and skills. It says you work hard for low pay and don't mind. Are you here to take my job? I have fifteen cats and three turtles to feed! You can't do that to me! I have needs, and you're trying to destroy my life. Did John in human resources put you up to this? Well, I'm on to you now. I know he's wanted me out ever since I broke his beer stein at the office party five years ago. I see what you're up to and it won't work! I'll stop you! You can't work here! I'm not afraid of you! I say who gets hired, your plot is foiled! You won't infiltrate my company. Your evil attempt to destroy me is over. Terminated. 

Bonkers

I had a pair of socks that looked just like you. They didn't have any toes. Maybe you have toes, though. Socks are nice. I want them back, but rodents took them away for nesting material. I never saw them again, just like I'll never see you. 


Depressive

I don't know why you want to work. There's really no point. It does no good to work when the government and the banks will just take your money away and leave you shivering in the cold. What would you buy with it? Stupid things that you'd never remember ten years from now. Buying things only makes you feel better for a few minutes, then you get the bills and feel worse because now you're more broke than when you started. You only think you need a job, but you don't. You don't need anything, because nothing matters. Whatever you do, you'll die eventually, probably alone and unaided. That's life. It's all dark, there's no hope. Your money will run out, you grasped at the wrong straw and we're throwing you into the raging current to drown, bloat and wash out to sea. We only hire people like myself, who see reality for what it is.


Short, direct and obscene

Hey Asshole!

Who the fuck told you that you could work here? You can't. Your application wasn't good enough for us. Looks to me like you don't know shit about anything, so don't come back later knockin' on my door. It's closed. 

What do you think we are, a charity? We're not here to save the world, pal. We're here to get rich. So we owe you nothin'.

My asshole boss makes me respond to jerks like you, so between you and me, I'm gonna tell you some things. The pay here sucks, it's not even enough to buy cat food, there aren't any bonuses, they ask for unpaid volunteer hours to "stay competitive" but the shithead bosses all drive new fricken Audis. Figured out where you'd fit in? Yeah, right in the shit, up to your eyebrows.

Louie, personnel

We are the one percent

There are 49 million people living in poverty right now in this country, almost a fifth of the population.

You're one of them. 

I'm not. I have a fat bank account, a stable of luxury cars, properties all over the world. My mistress gets more money per year than the operating budget of Burkina Faso. I also happen to be the boss of the huge conglomerate that owns the store where you applied.

I don't care about you, because you're poor. If you weren't poor, you wouldn't have tried for a low-paying temporary job and I wouldn't be sending this message. 

You'll stay poor and I'll stay rich. There's not a damn thing you can do about it. We own the government. They won't help you.
Geeky

:-(


Succinct
No!

Informative

Dear Applicant,

Our state-of-the-art job applicant analysis software scanned your application. While we cannot give you a favorable response to your request for a job, here are the results of the analysis:
  • The computer determined that based on your experience and education that you're older than our standard hiring age. Perhaps you should try babysitting.
  • Your skill set was excessive for someone who would just be selling knick-knacks, expensive little machines that sit on a counter, gizmos and cookbooks. You would just be bored.
  • We received over 1204 applications for this position. Some were recommended by our employees. They get the jobs; you don't.
  • Your use of words such as "consequentially", "numerically" and "mise en place" place you outside of one standard deviation of the current norm for Pacific State Standard American English. Our customers wouldn't understand a word you would say. 
  • Your experience in this exact position was insufficient. You indicated three years or more of sales experience, but it was not in one of our stores nor a virtually identical store run by a competitor. We require that you did the same thing for at least ten years, sold the same items and were never promoted.
  • The position you applied for requires a total lack of ambition. It's seasonal, so no matter how well you perform you will be released from employment on December 25th at 1:00 am after you finish cleaning and re-stocking the store.
  • Currently, we prefer applications filed in text mode: U will C 4 me is gr8t 2 wrk @ your biz. This communication form wastes less server space.
We hope this information will be helpful to you in the future, and that it will console you to know that there was really no possible way for you to get this job short of a close personal connection with the Management.

So long,

The Management