Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Red beans & rice

What's good and cheap, has a complete set of amino acids... Rice and beans! Well, any grain plus a legume will work, so whole wheat bread and lentil soup would have done the trick, too.

What about red beans and rice? It's always tasted good when I've tried it, and it might be a fun thing to make. Let's see... should take about three hours, mostly unattended simmering at low heat on the stove.

So, off I went into cyberspace, in search of some ideas. Aha! Alton Brown has a recipe, so I can just stop right there. Yep, I've got the beans, herbs... check, check, check... pickled pork? What? It takes pickled pork? Three days to pickle? Three whole days? No! I said three hours, not three days! So, time to look under the hood and see what I can pull out yet have the dish still function.

Out went the pickled pork (so much for authenticity). I didn't have three days before dinner, but I did have bacon. There may have been some chicken in the freezer, but nothing resembling pickled pork, nohow, noway.

So, what makes pickled pork pickled? Vinegar, salt, spices... I have all that. Pork and three more days, well, that part will have to change. Bacon plus those spices and a few dashes of vinegar should be interesting, even if won't be as meaty as the pickled pork...

Three hour red beans & rice

Instant pickled bacon


  • Kosher salt
  • Yellow mustard seeds
  • Black pepper
  • Bay leaves, fresh
  • Garlic, minced
  • Brown sugar
  • Sriracha (or other) hot sauce
  • Aleppo pepper flakes (or Cayenne)
  • Bacon, chopped. Preferably uncured.
  • Apple cider vinegar - enough to just cover the other ingredients
Mix all this stuff together in a bowl and let it sit while you prep the beans.

The beans

  • Mirepoix (celery, onion, carrot, diced). This would be green bell peppers, celery, onion if it were summer and I was really being authentic. Since its' winter, I used French mirepoix instead.
  • vegetable oil for sautéing
  • Chopped/minced garlic
  • bay leaf
  • black pepper
  • Aleppo chili flakes
  • cumin
  • black cumin (kala jeera) - just a bit since this can get bitter very quickly
  • water
  • red beans, picked over and cleaned of rocks, sticks, etc.
  • dried thyme
  1. Sauté the mirepoix in the vegetable oil until it's translucent
  2. Add the garlic
  3. Add the bay leaf, black pepper, chili flakes, cumins and stir to mix well and heat.
  4. Add the bacon mixture, vinegar and all. Just pour it in.
  5. Add the beans
  6. Pour in enough water to cover everything, but not too much. The idea is to have just enough water to completely cook the beans but not much more.
  7. Add the dried thyme.
  8. Bring almost to a boil on high heat, then reduce heat to simmer. 
  9. After 90 minutes, check the beans. If they're almost done, start the rice.
The rice

  • Rice, long grain preferred but short grain sticky holds together well (not authentic, though, but at this point it's already moved so far from authenticity that it's moot)
  • Butter, unsalted
  • Kosher salt, just a bit
  • 2x more water than rice, boiling
  1. Melt some butter at low heat in a separate pot
  2. When the butter has melted, add the rice and salt. Stir to coat, and keep stirring to keep from burning.
  3. When the rice is a bit translucent, SLOWLY pour in the boiling water. It will steam sizzle and look pretty volcanic. If you were to add the water all at once, it would erupt. 
  4. Reduce the heat to very low and simmer the rice about 20 minutes. 
Once the rice is done, check the beans. If you're using long grain rice,  gently fluff it up a bit with a fork before serving. The rice can sit, covered, a bit if the beans need more time.

When the beans are done, you can thicken the sauce by puréeing some beans in the broth with a blender, then add it back to the pot.

Just place some rice in a warmed plate, ladle some beans over it, garnish with cilantro (if you really don't care about being authentic) and enjoy.

This is a great meal for the Great Recession, since it's cheap even by Scrooge's standards, and filling enough so you won't wake up at 3:00 am craving a snack.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


After an initial fiasco involving too much vital wheat gluten, I started over. Bagels, according to the formula given out in class, only need to proof for an hour after the dough is mixed. Then they're shaped, proofed another 30 minutes, boiled in alkaline water, topped and baked.

Much faster than artisanal bread, but would they be as good as the bagels I ate when I was little? Chewy, shiny, crusty things with a unique flavor unequaled by any mere bread. Things worth a special trip to Pasadena, worth enduring the interminable, endless time in the cosmetics department with my mother that would inevitably follow my bagel bribe.

So, I mixed water, salt, SAF yeast, a bit of vegetable oil. Kneaded well to develop the gluten, and placed the dough in a bowl to proof.

An hour later, time to boil some water with a fair amount of baking soda added and pre-heat the oven.

After proofing, the dough was spongy and seemed ready to go, so it got snipped into 3-1/2 ounce portions, rolled into long, spindly shapes and joined into rings with a deft three finger rolling technique.

Thirty minutes more proofing, then into the boiling water for a few minutes. In the water, the bagels puff up and develop a bit of a crustiness - all within a couple of minutes. They're still pale, a light tan off-white - not exactly appetizing, but they're starting to look like bagels.

Out of the water, drip dry, then onto a parchment lined sheet pan. Sprinkle with cumin seeds, sesame, salt, garlic... No poppy seeds. Put them on the list if I'm going to be serious about this bagel thing.

Toppings on, into the oven. I peeped through the door. The bagels began to take on a golden hue, darker, darker... Stop. In about twenty minutes, they were dark enough.

Out they came into the light of day to sit on a cooling rack. They smelled like bagels, but lacked the sheen of my childhood memories.

Now for the wait. The bagels would only develop their full flavor when completely cooled.

Finally they were cool enough (or almost) to taste. Picking one up, I noticed that it was much more springy than my dense childhood friends. I took a bite, worried that it would be more dinner roll than bagel. Not to worry. The necessary chewiness was not lacking. They weren't as chewy as my memories dictated, but they were a long way from being mere bagel-shaped dinner rolls. Not bad, even if they didn't zap me back to Stottlemeyer's Deli decades in the past.

In the future, I'll try a bit of vital wheat gluten mixed with bread flour to boost the chewiness, hopefully with that bit of malt that the formula called for but I don't have. I'm afraid that shiny, thick crust may have been due to the use of lye (sodium hydroxide) in the water instead of baking soda. Still, better not to burn holes in my skin just for a fistful of bagels, so I'll stick with the sodium bicarbonate for now.

If I can get the chewiness and flavor right, maybe I can time warp myself back to Stottlemeyer's Deli or Brookln Bagel Bakery, where I would eagerly scan the bins for my favorites: raisin, garlic, salt, sesame or all of the above. I also liked them plain, just the chewy dough and caramelized crust, pure bagel. So, for now I have some tasty rolls, too tender and soft to fully qualify as definitively bagels yet not altogether lacking in bagelness. A work in progress...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Stuffed cabbage (and a pepper)

Lately I've been looking at the question of how to use my new-found skills to create delicious yet cheap food. It must be cheaper than going to some fast food joint and eating Mystery Meat topped with Mystery Sauce mixed with Unusually Colored Vegetables.

Yesterday, it was eggs on a bed of kale. Yes, I'd if I must abandon junk food the alternative should be healthier.

Today, stuffed cabbage sounded good. The basic process goes like this:
  1. Make some sausage meat from pork shoulder, red wine, cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, scallions and garlic. Add a bit of powdered milk for protein binding.
  2. Blanch some cabbage leaves in boiling water, then shock them by dunking them in ice water.
  3. Wrap the sausage meat in the leaves, tuck everything in neatly, and arrange in a baking dish.
  4. Throw in a pasilla pepper, too. Stuff it and place in the dish with the cabbage.
  5. Sprinkle with a bit of salt, then add some unsalted chicken stock to keep things moist.
  6. Bake the stuffed leaves at 350° for about an hour.
  7. Use the excess cabbage leaves, along with some stock and garlic to make some cabbage soup (soupe aux choux) while you're waiting for the leaves to be ready. Purée all this stuff to make it feel richer.
There were no tomatoes in this, because they're not in season and I like to work up dishes that are made from things that are fresh and good now, not dependent on canning technology to make them work.

This would probably be better with red bell peppers than the pasilla. It really doesn't need a pepper at all, but I needed to clean out the refrigerator.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dim sum for the Year of the Dragon

What better way to celebrate the coming of the Year of the Dragon than with a bit of dim sum? I didn't want to just head to New Canton or Capitol Tea House or that new place I drove by on Broadway, though. For one thing, it was already past lunch time, so dim sum options expired.

I also wanted real pot stickers, with thicker skins. The supermarket skins tend to be thinner, for steamed varieties. So, the skins are just a form of pasta, bascially... flour, water, egg, salt. Shouldn't be too difficult...

So I scaled out the ingredients, put them in the food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulsed a bit, added some water, pulsed again until a dough ball formed. Tested it with a finger. Enough water - or too much? Seemed a bit soft... we'll see. Into the refrigerator for an hour to rest.

The chicken was from scratch, too. The dark meat and tenders went into the filling. I reserved the breast meat for another day, since it would have been a waste to grind it up. Added cabbage, green onion (scallions), garlic, lots of fresh grated ginger, salt, cilantro. Placed the filling in the freezer to firm up while I rolled out the wrappers.

I cut a piece of dough, ran it through a pasta roller, folded, repeated, and kept going until it turned silky smooth. It worked!

After that, if I wanted square wrappers I could just cut them from a strip out of the pasta roller. If I wanted round, I'd smooth out the dough in the roller, then wad it into a ball and roll it into a round, using corn starch to keep it from sticking.

Stuff the wrappers, follow any pot sticker recipe and done!

The other thing in the  plate is a crispy rice ball. Same stuffing, roll in slightly undercooked sticky rice, finish in 400°F oven.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

80 ingredients. Chemistry degree preferred.

Someone gave us some "bear claw coffee cake". Someone, I suspect, who does not know I'd rather not stick the output of several chemical factories in my face and call it food.

The package contained one gooey, sticky, and very puffy long roll liberally decorated with some kind of icing. It  was light, as it should be with both yeast and chemical leavening agents working to puff it up. It was also light in the flavor department, lacking that rich, buttery, flaky quality punctuated by a bit of almond crunch that people used to associate with bear claws.

I imagine that anyone buying these things is not too worried about flavor. Nor are they likely worried about toes.

Bear claws normally have toes. They're just cuts in the dough, but still. This thing had none. Not only was it chemical-laden, it was toeless, too.  Maybe adding "coffee cake" to the name eliminates the need for toes, but still. Couldn't they call it "almond coffee cake" and skip the ursine references altogether?

I'm starting to think that "coffee cake" is a synonym for "flavorless things dunked in coffee so you don't know they're flavorless." Therefore, anything with this term in its name is automatically suspect. But that's another topic. Back on subject!

A toeless bear claw! Imagine! Someone actually bought the thing. What were they thinking?

Wait. Many people must buy the things, or they wouldn't be there in the supermarket, arriving daily to sully the image of Danish pastries. No toes, little flavor, wrong texture, yet purchased no doubt by the thousands by people across the nation whose taste buds have gone on permanent holiday.

Really, though. What's with this toeless thing? This is America, dammit! We could put a man on the Moon, but we can't put toes in our bear claws? What has happened to our once-great nation? Can nobody find a cost-effective way of toeing bear claws in a factory?

Have we degenerated so much that we don't even know that bear claws have toes?  Has this puffy toeless tribute to chemically-dependent foodstuffs become the new bear claw norm? Have we become a nation of sheep, passively herded by multinational agro-corporations in whatever culinary direction they choose?

Does no supermarket shopper remember that these things were invented by chefs proud of their craft, who carefully crafted simple, natural ingredients into something truly worthy of eating?

Yet, some do remember. The craft of Danish pastry is still taught in cooking schools. My textbooks list eleven or thirteen ingredients for bear claws. Their formula uses laminated, or folded dough to create zillions of layers alternating butter and yeast-leavened flour. Well, maybe only about 512 layers, but still that's a lot. This is done by sealing a block of butter into the dough and then folding, folding, folding. Each fold creates more layers - the same technique used for croissants. The result is heaven. Puffy sheets of dough that practically float in the air, backed by a rich, buttery flavor. Real almonds, butter, sugar and egg for the filling.

Bear claws I would eat:
(yes, they would have "toes"!)

bread flour
instant dry yeast
almonds (almond paste)
cake flour
apricot glaze

(optional: almond extract, vanilla extract)

These are the ingredients used in the industrial strength bear claw coffee cakes
These things had eighty ingredients, unless I missed a repeating ingredient that threw off the count.

Enriched bleached wheat flour
(wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid)

Palm oil
Whole eggs
Yeast (how does the yeast survive in all this stuff?)
Soybean oil
Mono and diglycerides
Invert sugar
canola oil
wheat gluten

Enriched wheat flour
(niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid. Again.)

Corn flour
Guar gum
Artificial flavor
potassium sorbate
dried egg white
sodium steryl lactylate
natural flavor

Bleached enriched wheat flour
(niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid. Again.)

Calcium propionate

(sodium aluminum phosphate, baking soda, aluminum sulfate, fumaric acid, monocalcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate)

Dried egg yolk

Calcium disodium EDTA


Vitamin A palmitate
Sodium bicarbonate
Sodium acid pyrophosphate
calcium sulfate
polysorbate 60
Citric acid
Xanthan gum
Wheat starch
Silicon dioxide (A.K.A. sand)
Sorbitan monostearate
soy lecithin
Dried whole egg (already got the yolk & white, so why not the whole thing this time?)
Modified food starch
Enzyme monocalcium phosphate
Ammonium sulfate
Azodicarbonamide (ADA)
Beta carotene
High fructose corn syrup (had to be in here somewhere, didn't it?)
Stearic acid

caramel color
(contains sufites, Water, Sodium benzoate, Citric acid) No actual caramel was used, apparently.

Nonfat milk powder
Vitamin E

Vegetable shortening
(palm, canola and/or soybean oil)

mono and diglycerides (can you ever have just one of these?)
polysorbate 60
TBHQ - preservative
cellulose gum
ascorbic acid (good old vitamin C)
natural and artificial flavor
sodium hexametaphosphate
sodium benzoate
propylene glycol (not to be confused with ethylene glycol)
mono and diesters of fatty acids with BHT as preservative (my favorite ingredient here, really sounds chemical, and there are preservatives for things that don't themselves sound very appealing!)
Calcium acetate.

Contains: Wheat, Milk, Soy, Egg, Almonds. (how did those things get in here?)

Friday, January 20, 2012


Raclette is kind of like fondue's poor stepchild. Where fondue caught on in America to the point where virtually everyone has a fondue set of some kind buried in their closet, raclette seemed relegated to the "what's this?" category of strange appliances married to obscure dining methods.

It's a bit more complicated than than spearing some food with a funny-looking fork and immersing it in bubbling cheese or boiling oil. You need to steam some vegetables beforehand. Then you should have some sliced cheese, typically (no surprise here) Raclette. From France.

Raclette is one of those cheeses that's a bit fragrant, but very mild. It melts perfectly and its taste marries well with steamed vegetables. It used to be available at Trader Joe's, but as with all things from that market, you never know how long they'll be available. The more expensive cheese shops should have the stuff, too - or at least an acceptable substitute. Something earthy, a bit stinky. In a pinch you could use cheddar or Gruyere, but this would not be the rockin' taste of raclette.

We used Yukon Gold potatoes, kohlrabi and broccoli. I'm not wild about the broccoli, since the kohlrabi has a similar flavor and has the added advantage of faking people into thinking they're going to eat another piece of potato. I think turnips, potatoes, kohlrabi, sunchokes and maybe parsnips would be interesting to try, all steamed ahead of time. Cauliflower and broccoli work, too. Brussels sprouts would probably be worth a try, and maybe even Chinese broccoli or bok choy.

After that, things are simple. Take a slice of cheese and place it in the tray, then place the little tray under the top tray of the raclette machine. Nothing happening? Oh. Yeah, you have to plug the thing in and let it heat up.

Once your cheese is hot and bubbly, take out the little tray and dump the cheese on your vegetables, or on some ham or even some salami (saucisson, actually). Place another slice of cheese in the little tray and repeat the process.

Drink something appropriate, like a dry rosé, a Riesling, a Vin Gris d'Alsace, un Sylvaner...

So, that's it. Simple, easy, and virtually unknown here in the United States. We got our raclette machine in a close-out for half price. Our friends, who also lived in Europe, found theirs sitting dust-covered on a top shelf in a crowded cooking shop, where it had apparently lived for years. They, too got a good discount on their machine.

So, if you come across a dust-covered raclette machine while rummaging in a store, or perhaps receive one from an eccentric European friend or relative, you're now ready to invite some friends, fire the thing up and enjoy a simple meal.

Bad cork. Good wine.

Our friends came over for a rainy day lunch, a surprise bottle of Bordeaux in hand. Not just any Bordeaux but an older bottle, before those idiots decided to write, "Grand Vin de Bordeaux" on each and every bottle (when every bottle is "great" none of them are). This wine really was better than the average "great" Bordeaux, noted by the "Grand Cru" part on the label. So, this bottle had a much better than average chance of truly being great.

Our friends received it as a gift, a long time ago. It sat in their cellar, sleeping, for over two decades. Most wines would fade, becoming mere wraiths of their former selves, their bold red color going brownish. Some, however are up to the challenge.

They said to throw the wine away, it probably wasn't good. But they were curious. The cork was rotten. "So, it must be spoiled! Look at that cork!" they said. "Probably not worth the effort of opening it," they added.

Well, if there's one thing corks on old bottles of French wine like to do, it's disintegrate. Slowly, I managed to thread a corkscrew into the rotted plug. I pulled, carefully, slowly, coaxing out the cork, feeling it start to slide. Was the piece coming out intact? I pulled, cautiously. The cork emerged from the bottle. Success!

This was definitely a wine to decant. Two decades leave a lot of sediment, and the decanter would have allowed us to trap a lot of it in the bottle. However, decanters don't live long here. They either fall and shatter or something hits them from above, spraying shards all over the dining room.

So, pour carefully, just a taste, into a glass with lots of surface for aeration. I sipped. Everyone looked on, expectantly. I made a face. "Well," I said, how about I tell you it's horrid rotten swill and disappear into the other room to finish the bottle?". This may have been unclear, for someone actually said, "Don't drink it if it's bad!". I was just giving them an out, but in the end everyone tasted. "It's not that great, is it? Not much flavor."No, not yet. The wine's too cold. Let it warm up and breathe and try it again. It's far from being faded, it's not oxidized, and it's too bad I don't have some nice duck, venison or aged beef lying around to eat with it.

As the wine warmed, people smiled. They drank. Sipped, actually, trying to make each drop count. The wine diminished inexorably despite our best efforts to make it last. In the end, only a thin sediment paste remained in the bottom of the last glass.

Nobody regretted opening the bottle. So, if people arrive at your door with a musty, dusty bottle of something they found in the depths of their closet, cellar or basement, cork looking more like soggy paste than something that came from a tree, don't be hasty. Give it a try. It could be vinegar. It could be brown, oxidized swill. Its flavor could have slowly ebbed over the years to leave a thin fluid with little resemblance to its former self. Or it could be the start of a wonderful memory and something to talk about for years when you gather again.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Taillerins aux myrtilles avec choux de Bruxelles

Parfois des colis remplis de choses interessantes arrivent dans le courrier... on ne dit pas d'où ça vient. Il faut mieux se taire sur le sujet. Mais on peut dire qu'il contient des choses tres interessants.

Comme des taillerins aux myrtilles. Que faire avec? Alors, on va réfléchir... Je veux quelque chose de bien pour la santé. Pas de lard fumé, du porc, de la graisse.... On regarde dans le frigo... choux de Bruxelles. Échalotes. Céleri. Panais. Oui, peut-être avec un peu de sel fumé, du poivre, du cumin... Oui, ça doit marcher.

D'abord, on fait bouillir de l'eau pour les pâtes. 

Pendant que l'eau chauffe, on fait un type de mirepoix avec des panais, du celeri et des échalottes. On laisse frire un peu dans l'huile d'olive, avec un peu de sel et du beurre. Un peu de Xérès, et au feux doux pour terminer cet étape.

Pendant que ce mirepoix se prepare, on cuit des choux de Bruxelles à la vapeur, mais pas trop cuites. On veut qu'ils restent un peu croquante - car on va les faire sauter plus tard.

Quand le mirepoix est devenu plux moelleux, on ajoute du cumin moulu et du poivre - et puis les choux, et on laisse frire un peu dans l'huile d'olive. Quand c'est bien melangé, on laisse en attendent le cuisson des pates.

Quand les pates sont presque parfaitement al dente, on les egoutte et on les verse dans la poele avec les choux et le mirepox. On melange le tout et hop! Dans l'assiette avant qu'il refroidisse.

Le goût des myrtilles reste bien prononcé dans les pâtes, et le mélange des couleurs mauve et vert change de l'habitude. Un peu "Star Trek" peut-être, mais ça donne envie de voir si le goût est aussi insolite que les couleurs. Presque. Sans le cumin rôti, le goût aurait du être plus fade, les parfums des ingrédients pas en harmonie... mais le cumin rends copains les parfums diverses, marient l'acidité des choux avec le fruit des pâtes. Et mieux encore, pas de crème, de gras, de lard... que le huile d'olive, des pâtes et des légumes. Mon toubib sera fier de moi pour changer de l'habitude!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Once again into the fire

It's time to start a new semester. I'm not nearly so motivated than I was in the past.

Much of this is due to some really unpleasant people - students with unpleasant dispositions who saunter around dispensing insults like evil stepsisters tossing shredded hate confetti.

Part is the realization that other than becoming a great home cook, I may never earn even a pittance in this career, so I could very well be wasting everyone's time. Worse, if every chef I met is correct, even if I do secure work it will likely be neither enjoyable nor creative.

So as the dawn of new classes looms, I look upon tomorrow with trepidation. I recall unpleasant moments from last semester, words spat by three different students at other students, overheard in different situations...

"You need to leave, now."
"You're not wanted here."
"That's my seat. Get out!" (it wasn't).

These and even nastier comments were all uttered by students to other students. The real comments weren't so nice as this, however. I've just blanked out most of what I heard after several weeks of re-immersion in real life.

What was the justification for these comments? I don't really know. It certainly wasn't because someone is striving to create a good learning environment.

Could it come from too much reality TV? Could it be that some instructor at school talks like this, making them think this is the way a professional working environment should work? Some kind of positive feedback for negative actions?

From what source stems these people's superior knowledge and authority? They're at best two or three classes ahead of those they disdain. Were they like that before they came to the program, or were these wicked ways somehow developed during their training? Encouraged somehow, morphed into some strange topology where the most unpleasant peon is superior and only the most adamantly arrogant win? Win what? The accolades of instructors? Which ones? Why? Where is the most beneficial outcome here?

Strange. This can't be mere coincidence, can it? The same intonation, the same snide yet smug barbs spit from sneering lips. Three people, all using the same speech pattern, like they're repeating something they learned, somewhere. If not in the culinary arts program, then where? Its like there's a class, Kitchen Insults 101, where they hone their vitriolic skills before being unleashed into the world. A class whose motto is, "Never praise your underlings when you can belittle them".

And why would they think that creating a negative working environment, deriding others instead of showing them how to improve, slinging petty insults would produce better food? Wouldn't a happy, creative team in the kitchen be a good thing? Isn't a petty, backstabbing, snide pack of hissing vipers something unlikely to function well? Is culinary greatness somehow achieved not by acts of brilliance and leadership, but by grinding the competition, both real and imagined, into the dirt?

After seeing and hearing these unpleasant women in action, I know that I would not want to eat anything they cooked. I'd like to say the nastiness were gender neutral, yet it did not seem to be. Well, this semester could change all that. Maybe this time it will be unpleasant males, or a foul-sounding bitter blend of both sexes chewing away like rats gnawing on dessicated bones.

If a wizard were to gift those arrogant, opinionated and inflexible students with the ability to play musical instruments, put them on stage and bid them perform, it would not be pretty. If they remained true to their natures, each student would strive to dominate the others, to the detriment of the audience. Some might exit the stage, unwilling to put up with the strife, their talents wasted. In the end, there would be one dominant musician; everyone else would be relegated to the background. In life as it is on television. Master Chef, Chopped, Iron Chef. One winner, zero sum. Not variations on a theme but one melody to rule them all.

Kudos to an educational system that underscores the unpleasantness of a new career, even going so far as to insist people volunteer for events and then deriding them for not having a complete skill set. They're students! Get it? Students don't come pre-trained; that's what they're taking classes for. "Oh my God! You ruined that piece of meat! It's trashed!". Right. It wasn't sliced perfectly, but after being held for service, or reheated, slapped on a plate, doused in sauce and accompanied with hastily spooned accompaniments it's highly unlikely anyone would even notice that its edges were more jagged than the norm or the uniformity of the pieces lacking.

Needless to say, I won't be doing a lot of volunteering for special events this semester, at least not without taking a careful look at who will be in charge and who I would be working with.

What kind of effect will these things have on my job prospects? I can imagine a potential employer saying, "You went there, huh? We had to let the last five people go. Three were insulting, one refused to work where we wanted, one decided to modify all our formulas, and all thought they were the chef, the boss, the supreme leader. One even got into a shoving war with an employee. So, why should I think you're different?"

The employer would be right to ask such a question. If I were a chef and saw that kind of behavior in my kitchen, I'd give warnings. If it persisted, probation period over. Fail. Out you go. Or maybe I'd use their speech pattern: "You need to leave. Now. Just get out."


One instructor even seemed to encourage favoritism over learning. Skilled students were told to self-organize into teams that would produce the perfect dessert, leaving the rest to sink or swim. "Part of a normal workplace is self-organization" or something like that.

Remember choosing people for teams as a kid? The best players would be the team captains. They would then take turns picking their team members, going from the best to the worst. Humiliating if you were the last pick, but at least the teams could theoretically come out even and compete on an even basis.

It didn't work that way in this class. Using the same analogy, the team captains would form their own team, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. Hah! Losers! Not the best way to spread the excellence.

The whole "best people first" thing was a great way to encourage stress. There were at least two fights, probably encouraged as a direct result of this social setup. I don't think anything got beyond yelling and maybe a bit of shoving, but still. Assault and battery really should not be part of the curriculum.

But. This isn't a group of kids choosing players on a field. This is training for professional food preparation. What newly hired recent graduate could waltz into the workplace and tell people to regroup into favorites and dregs? You get hired. You go where they tell you, do what they tell you and work with everyone. You learn how things are done. Your skills improve. You teach others. You don't put on airs and refuse to be part of the team because you consider someone your inferior.


Call me an idealist, utopian, dreamer, fool - but I still think things can and should be different.

Like a ray of light piercing last semester's foul miasma of oppressor and oppression, and instructor brought in films of great French chefs working in their kitchens. They collaborated, invented, tried dishes that they decided didn't work, slung ingredients, pushed the envelope. Never did they descend into petty individual competitions. They were part of a team, like a group of musicians creating a harmonious symphony. They were not afraid to fail. One even went so far as to say that a dish improved over its life on the menu, and by the time the menu changed, the plate was almost perfected.

I would like to work in that kitchen. I imagine it like a jam session, where some goal is outlined and the kitchen team gets to play with their food, testing variations, failing, learning, creating. Eventually, a new dish would be ready for its unveiling, something that would thrill, surprise and delight the house's patrons.

Why can't we strive for this model, where fun, skill, teamwork, creativity unite? If we're going to work long, hot hours for low pay, couldn't the experience be uplifting and creative?

The Expert

"Am I bothering you?"
The Expert's bored eyes swing around.
"Yes. I'm an expert and a genius. Nothing you possibly ask me could possibly be of any interest."
"Oh. So you can't recommend a great wine under ten dollars that goes well with flounder?"
"Of course I can. I'm an expert and a genius".
"You're interfering with my pose."
"The wine? Which one, please!"
"Yes." He grabs a random bottle.
"Drink this".
"What's it like?"
"It's white."
"So, why is it good?"
It was too late. The Expert had already walked away. Someone Important just arrived.


August, 2012. 
Not a single crappy hit. Maybe I should have said "naked expert" or "stark naked porn star expert". But then you'd have to wear special protection just to read this.


I'm not taking that class in regional American cooking. It's expensive - more than buying some cookbooks and learning on my own. Then, there's that part about certain regional American cuisines that I'd either never make or transform into something healthier and above all tastier. Chili, however, is not one of these things.

A great bowl of chili is a meal in itself. There's enough heat to wake things up without going so far as to inflict pain - but chili heat is an individual thing. One person's wonderbowl could be another's gut burning instrument of torture.

People really get passionate about the stuff, like they generally don't about, say, meatloaf. Here in California and the West, chili cookoffs are big events. People argue over which peppers to use, beans vs no beans, how herbal, should coffee and chocolate be ingredients, should the meat be ground or chopped... luckily there's no one definitive chili recipe.

I made white chili a few months ago, using fresh Hatch peppers from New Mexico. Now, in the midst of winter, it's time for the more traditional red version. I like meat and beans, several kinds of chili and quite a bit of herbs. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, a bit of celery and stop. Nothing else is necessary.

The peppers bring so much flavor and complexity that adding all kinds of secret ingredients would just be overkill. Sweet-hot, smoky, fruity... it's all there ready to be coaxed out.

So, here it is: my entry into the chili Hall of Fame. Or just a good bowl of red. The Hall of Fame can go elsewhere, since this started as simple cowboy food and all that highfalootin' nonsense just gets between a man and his food.

  • Chili cascabel, dried (Not too many. Substitute ancho if you want things sweeter)
  • Chili morita, dried (You could use chipotles, but these are better. Careful! Hot!)
  • Chili Hatch, dried - New Mexico, hot.
  • Chili Hatch, dried - New Mexico, mild
  • Pinto beans
  • Garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • Roast cumin, roast coriander seeds
  • Sage (fresh or dried)
  • Oregano, dried (or Mexican oregano)
  • Bay leaf, if you feel like it
  • Onion, dice
  • Celery, diced
  • A strip or two of bacon, roasted in the broiler
  • Flame-roasted tomato (canned).
  • Beef chuck roast, diced and browned in the broiler. If you're going more cowboy and have a bigger budget, use buffalo meat and add a bit more sage.
  1. Soak the beans for a few hours. Some people soak overnight, but I can't really tell a difference.
  2. Get the broiler hot in the oven.
  3. Place the diced vegetables on a parchment-lined sheet pan and broil them until they start to brown a bit, even burn a bit on the edges. Reserve.
  4. Place the meat on the sheet pan and broil until brown, turning to get lots of caramelization. Reserve.
  5. Do the same with the bacon. Reserve.
  6. Slice the chili pods so they don't hold air and place them in boiling water. After about 10 minutes of boiling, they should be soft. Take them out to cool - and don't throw away that chili water!
  7. When everything is browned, place it in a pot and add cold water.
  8. Drain off the water from the beans and add them to the pot.
  9. Remove the veins and seeds from the chilis, place them in a blender and add some strained chili water - just enough so you can blend everything together. Save any excess chili water. This also works with an immersion blender and it's easier to clean up.
  10. Add the puréed chilis to the pot.
  11. Put the garlic in the blender, add some strained chili water and purée it. You can't have too much garlic - even a whole bulb is not too much.
  12. Add the herbs and pepper, but not the salt.
  13. Start with high heat to get the water hot, then reduce to a mere simmer.
  14. Taste to see if you need more herbs. If it's too hot, well... oops. Too late now.  Chilis are supposed to be good for you, so enjoy the burn. The only thing you can do is rinse more beans and add them along with more water. You could also add meat - but at some point you'll have a huge amount of chili and if you're a wimp it might still be too hot. Next time, make meatloaf instead - or add the chilis a little at a time, tasting for heat in between. All chilis are different so this is the only safe method. You can also eliminate the hot New Mexico peppers in favor of milder varieties.
  15. When the beans are just about cooked, add the salt. This supposedly gives you tenderer beans, but there's really no consensus on this at all.
  16. Skim off any scum that forms on the surface of the water.
  17. Keep simmering until the beans and meat are tender - probably about three hours. The goal is to use low heat to gently melt all that connective tissue in the meat, and get those proteins into the liquid where they'll do interesting things. 
  18. Once everything is tender, adjust the salt to your taste and eat. 

Don't eat too much. Chili is never at its best the day it's cooked. If your intestinal system permits, have another bowl tomorrow. And the next day. By then, you'll start to know just how the cowboys felt.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Reveillon 2012

Uncork the Rose d'Anjou and put the bottle in a wine bucket.

Place a generous round of foie gras atop a bed of sautéed kale seasoned with a bit of four spice, salt, sherry, and a touch of beef stock for richness. Serve with individual French levain rounds.

Place the pommes Annette on a warmed plate.
Slice the chicken breasts on a diagonal, then overlap them on the pommes Annette.
Drizzle with the sauce (pan sauce made with a brunoise of shallots, sherry, pomegranate juice, a bit of beef stock, salt, butter and crème fraîche.
Garnish with pomegranate seeds.
Serve with slices of French levain bread.

Arrange some French cheeses on a platter: Camembert, Fourme d'Ambert, Petit Basque.

Pop the cork on the Asti. This wine is a little bit sweet, perhaps even sweeter than this rather tart pie.
Slice a piece of tarte tatin and plate it.


Then, go to your friends' place and eat a pane con pavo.

Try not to explode.