Sunday, December 23, 2007

Breakfast Merry-Go-Round

The Holiday period brings a slowing down in our business. In a business hotel like ours, the guest count declines steadily in the week leading up to Christmas and does not start to build up again until Jan. 2nd. The level of occupancy is at such a low ebb that we open for breakfast only during the 10 days from Dec. 22nd to Jan. 1st. Regrettably, closing completely on Christmas Day or New Year's Day is not an option: our parent corporation demands breakfast 365 days a year.

My 3 cooks (2 of them brothers and all 3 Mexican) requested the Holiday period off. Since we weren't open for dinner for 10 days, it was no problem to give Miguel, my dinner cook, the time off. But as for my 2 breakfast cooks, one full-time and one weekend, if I gave them the time off, who would cook breakfast? You already know the answer.

In an attempt to create some goodwill in my attempt to turn this ragtag group, with their varying levels of experience and commitment, into something approaching a professional team, I decided to give all 3 the 10 days off. Given that I worked the week before this Holiday period began, and will work the several days after until the weekend blessedly rolls around, I've denied myself a day off for the best part of 3 weeks straight. The saving grace is that breakfast only requires my presence for about 6 hours a day, but that day begins when I roll out of bed at 5:30. I'm a quick mover in the morning, so after a 15 minute drive, I'm in my kitchen by 6:00

Turn on the lights, the ovens, the flat-top grill, the deep-fryer, the steamtable, the heat lamp and the hot well for the oatmeal. Start the oatmeal cooking (I don't believe in quick oats: even the 5-minute variety cook for 30 minutes in my kitchen, and I make it with half water, half milk for a rich, creamy, fully-cooked oatmeal that needs no additions, though we surround it with raisins, brown sugar and walnuts). Put the bacon and sausage in the oven, quiche if it's on the mneu that day, set the timer. The timer is critical: without it, something will burn, guaranteed. Toss a few pounds of cooked, diced potatoes on the now-hot oiled flat-top, leave them undisturbed to brown. Set out the bowls of fruit on ice; canteloupe, honeydew, watermelon, pineapple, sliced peaches, mandarin oranges and, oh yes, prunes. Fill the juice dispensers; orange, apple and grapefruit. Turn the bacon and sausage in the oven, re-set the timer. Put the scones and muffins in the oven, set the second timer. Make a small amount of pancake and waffle batters. Don't forget to stir the oatmeal.

Remove the browned potatoes from the grill, put them in the steamtable. Clean off the grill, grease it with fresh oil, dip the French toast in batter and lay it on the grill. Take the bacon and sausage out of the oven and put in the steamtable, saving the bacon grease (still one of the world's great seasonings). Flip the French Toast. Breathe. take the muffins and scones out of the oven, set them on a rack to cool. Grab the day's first cup of coffee (the opening server made that, one thing you didn't have to). Remember something you forgot. Put the oatmeal in a bain-marie and set it in the hot well. Take off the French Toast, slice it, dust with powdered sugar, set in steamtable. Clean of grill one more time,oil it and pour on a healthy quantity of beaten eggs, scramble quickly and set in steamtable. Set the scones and muffins in a basket in the serving area. Grab the container of serving utensils, do a quick dash around the stations, setting out tongs and spoons. Set out quiche, if it's a quiche day. Or maybe biscuits and gravy, or breakfast burritos, or......! Set up mini-pitchers of pancake syrup in the steamtable. Check supplies of omelette ingredients. Check the clock. 6:55. Just made it. Pause for another breath. Dash to the bathroom. Make it back just in time for the first customer.

I'm now into my 8th day on this breakfast go-around and one day blends into the next, especially over the Holiday season, so that I have a hard time remembering what day it is, which is a bit of a problem because I have particular obligations on certain days in terms of ordering from particular vendors. Christmas Day came and went without much fanfare on my part. I worked 7 hours, drove over to our other house which we're remodelling, spent 3 hours or so there, working on the landscaping and went home. The rest of the family was at my wife's mother's house, which I find dreadfully dull, so I pleaded exhaustion and spent a pleasant evening in my own company. Tomorrow is my birthday and yes, I'm cooking on my birthday too so that will pass without fanfare. Who needs to be reminded after 50? New Year's Eve? Yes. New Year's Day? Yes. My breakfast stint finally ends on Jan. 2nd, but after that I go back to my regular routine. I finally get a day off on the 5th. Time to go fishing!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Diary of a Mad Chef!

Maybe I should rename this site "Diary of a Mad Chef!" Being a chef is not all glamour and plaudits. Sometimes it's just bloody annoying and frustrating hard work. Yesterday was the Employee Christmas Party at the hotel, and who do you suppose got to prepare the food for the employees to enjoy? Me, of course! Now, this wasn't the first time I've cooked for a staff party at my own workplace, although the best companies I've worked for would host a catered party at a location away from the workplace, but whenever the party was in-house, accomodations were made to ensure that as many of the staff as possible could enjoy the festivities: the restaurant was usually closed for the evening, and the menu was kept simple so as not to burden the kitchen, so that chef, cooks and dishwashers could share the fun.
Yesterday, I bust my ass for 14 hours non-stop, first cooking lunch for the guests, then cranking up the pace to feed 80 or so employees and their guests, starting with hors d'oeuvres at 6:00. The menu was of my choosing, but I was left in no doubt that the owners had certain expectations: 4 appetizers, followed by 2 entrees plus a prime rib carving station, and dessert assortment. We began with Buffalo chicken wings, bbq meatballs, crab-stuffed mushrooms and jalapeno poppers, and, no, I'm not stupid enough to actually make those things from scratch! Then on to Chicken Parmigiana, Carne Asada, Rice Pilaf, Roast Potatoes and a sauteed Vegetable Medley.
Now, I was not alone in having to work my own employee party - the entire management staff was expected to pitch in to decorate the room, set up the bar, bus the tables, run the food and clean up afterwards, including re-setting the room for a lunch for 80 people the next day, an event that came with only 2 days notice! But I can guarantee that nobody else in that hotel worked as hard as I did. Usually I take a certain pride in turning out a good meal in the face of that kind of challenge, but not this time. My new recruit Matt, a recent graduate of a 10 month culinary program, well-intentioned but no real experience, and I cranked it all out without major mishap, but as the evening wore on I grew increasingly irritated at the stinginess of the owners, who were simply too damn cheap to pay somebody else to cater the party, and the wastefulness of the guests who would pile up their plates with food then not eat it. I got to watch that food being scraped into the garbage. Trust me there was nothing wrong with the food!
At one point during the evening I was presented with a Christmas card with a $100 bill inside. I didn't think much about it at first, but as my irritation grew, that $100 began to seem more like an insult and I wound up giving it to Miriam, one of my servers who has worked hard for me for a couple of years and become a respected co-worker, a friend and confidant. Miriam is a single mother with a delightful daughter, Christina, who calls me abuelo (grandpa). She was headed for Vera Cruz the next day to spend a month with her mother. So I said "buy something nice for Christina, tell her it's from her abuelo".
At one point my presence was requested in the party room for some party game or other. I simply told the messenger "Tell them I'm too f***king busy and I'm not having fun!" Miriam took my place for the drawing and pulled out a couple of $20 gift certificates to a restaurant that I actually like, the Poor House Bistro in San Jose (I rarely ever eat out). By the time I left the kitchen about 10:00 p.m. I was as tired as I've ever been after a day's work. And I still had to do some shopping for the event the next day. It was almost 11:00 when I got home and my wife was more incensed than I was! I had to be up again at 6:00 to start all over again on the lunch for 80, and the handful of jalapeno poppers that I had gobbled down in lieu of a decent meal did a number on my insides in the night. Not exactly restful.
It was clear the next morning that nobody who was working that morning really wanted to be there. I certainly wasn't bringing 100% of my attention to the job. At one point during lunch I made a pizza without the sauce - and it didn't dawn on me until about 3 hours later! The guest never said a word. Maybe she liked it! And then I discovered that someone had abandoned their soiled underwear in the mens room and I did the manly thing and disposed of it (in a sanitary way, of course and I did wash my hands extra thoroughly before going back to work).
And, as it happened, after Matt and I scrambled to put together the lunch for the 80 guests (a memorial lunch for a recently deceased friend of the owner's family) only 35 showed up! Leftovers, anyone?
I should run away and join the Circus! Cirque du Soleil is actually coming to town next month and they're looking for someone to cook for the performers for their 3 month stay. Interesting, but they don't pay enough. Can you imagine cooking for the stars of Cirque du Soleil for $12 an hour. That's pitiful. If they paid more I would do it.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Know your onions? The French do!

These are my wife's favorite soup bowls and the ones we use on Christmas Eve
The latest copy of Cook's Illustrated landed in my mailbox today, and I was interested to note that there is an article about French Onion Soup. This is something of a tradition in my wife's French-speaking family, to be served on Christmas Eve. Amusing isn't it that I, an Englishman, a "rosbif" as the French snidely say, am the designated French Onion Soup maker in a family of French origins. Truth is that I am simply so good at it!
The process of putting that rich silken concoction on the table starts at Thansgiving. We take the turkey carcass and throw it in the biggest pot we have in the house, which is the turkey deep-fryer pot (yes, deep frying a turkey really works, doesn't result in a greasy bird and saves a considerable amount of time, providing you follow sensible precautions and don't burn down the house or garage. It should always be done outdoors!).
But in this case I use the pot on top of the stove. In go the usual complement of onions, carrots and celery and enough water to fill the pot almost to the top. Then I fire up the heat and bring the whole mess to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let it cook until it reduces to perhaps a gallon, which may take all day and all night. This year it took 2 days on very low heat. By the time it's fully reduced that stock can just about stand up by itself, it's so thick and full of gelatin from the mass of bones. I fact, if you refrigerate it, the chilled consistency will be akin to jello.
You will often see the term demi-glace used to describe a thick rich beef stock. Demi glace means half frozen, in French, of course, which refers to the very solid texture derived from the high proportion of gelatin in the stock, when it is chilled.
In so many restaurants what passes for onion soup is a pitiful thing, consisting of a mass of quickly sauteed onions drowned in an over-salty beef broth, usually from a can, or heaven forbid, some instant thing called Au Jus mix! (Don't get me started on the mispronunciation and misuse of that term). Onion soup should NEVER be made with 100% beef broth! A mixture of chicken and beef broth is acceptable but the poultry should always predominate, by at least 2:1.
Obviously you don't need gallons of stock for onion soup on Christmas Eve, unless you're feeding 30 or 40 people, which is why I reduce it to a manageable gallon or so, because that's about all the room I have in my freezer.
Speaking of Christmas, it looks like I will be cooking breakfast at my hotel on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day and all the days in between, because all my cooks want the same week off and I'm trying to be Mr. Nice Guy, which may wear thin by New Year's Eve! Mind you, these days, I can barely manage to stay awake until midnight on New Year's Eve. All seems rather pointless at my "mature" age.
I will take the stock out of the freezer on the morning of Christmas Eve and throw it in a pot on the stove over low heat. No need to thaw out in advance. One of the the tricks with onion soup is to start out with a lot of onions, because they will reduce considerably in mass with the slow cooking that carmelization requires. Carmelization is simply the slow extraction of the natural sugars in onions and browning that sugar over heat. Don't try to make this process easier by using sweet onions like Maui or Walla Walla. They will simply make the soup too sweet instead of savory-sweet
You will need a heavy gauge pot, aluminum or copper-bottomed stainless steel. I put a splash of vegetable oil in the pot and turn the heat to high. When the oil begins to smoke I throw in all the onions. Quantity is not that important. If you wind up with too many carmelized onions, use them in something else. The onions will start to brown immediately. Stir them constantly for a couple of minutes to prevent burning. Despite what I may have said elsewhere carmelizing is not a euphemism for burning. After a couple of minutes turn the heat down to very low and let the whole mess do its work, stirring occasionally. The onions need at least an hour to release their sugar and turn sweetly brown. I quite often let them cook for at least a couple of hours. When they are reduced to a beautiful brown tangled mass of tangy sweetness, I throw in a handful of flour to create a simple roux amid the onions, with the oil that's already in there. I let that cook over low heat for a couple of minutes to let the rawness cook out of the flour, as always with a roux. Then I add a cup or so of white wine, maybe a splash of brandy (optional), a little thyme and a bayleaf or two, letting that cook together for another couple of minutes. Finally in goes the stock. Note, once again, this is a poultry stock not beef! Beef stock overwhelms the delicate flavor of the onions.
Again I turn up the heat to medium so that the mixture can come slowly to a boil, because a roux will not do its thickening work unless the liquid at least simmers. You don't want a really thick onion soup, but you do want body so there is just enough roux here to provide that, but no more. Once the soup has simmered for a few minutes and the roux has done its work, a little salt and black pepper is all that's needed to finish it. A slice or two of fresh baguette, brushed with melted butter and toasted in the oven floating in the bowl and topped with freshly grated Gruyere cheese melted under the broiler and you have a masterpiece, a meal unto itself.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Knife skills and other edgy subjects

I've already written about the value of a good knife, how to buy one without spending a fortune, and the basic technique to using a French or Chef's knife.
So let me expand on how to put that knife to good use, to make your cooking easier. As I stood at my work station today at the hotel, prepping vegetables for Thursday's minestrone (by decree of the owner, Thursday's soup must be Minestrone, just as Friday's must be Clam Chowder, a mandate which I find tiresome, but, hey, he signs my paycheck), it occured to me how often the simplest things that seem so obvious to me after 30 years of cooking are quite often a revelation to the home cook.
For instance I always tell my cooks to cut tomatoes with a good serrated knife rather than a conventional blade, and even some who cook for a living have never thought about this. Unless you have a super sharp knife, a Chef's knife will usually crush a tomato rather than slice it cleanly, hardly desirable if you're slicing tomatoes to garnish a sandwich. At home, consistent attractive slices may not be at a premium, but in a good restaurant professional standards demand that your slices are smooth and of even thickness. Now, there is a useful device for slicing tomatoes quickly and evenly, a Tomato King or similar brand names, but these are bulky and expensive and hardly suitable for the home kitchen.
That led me to thinking about slicing bell peppers and similar vegetables with tough skins. It's obvious to me, but perhaps not to everyone, that, once you have opened a pepper up it's much easier to cut it from the inside fleshy part out, rather than from the outer skin. You will find much less resistance to your knife blade that way. And, speaking of bell peppers, most of the bitterness in bell peppers resides in the seeds and the pithy ribs that line the inside. So always remove these before cooking. My standard method for dealing with a bell pepper is to slice off the top and bottom, then reach in and remove as much of the seed core as I can. I set the pepper on end and slice it into 2 equal halves, then lay each half flat, skin side down, and with my knife turned side ways, trim off the ribs. Then you are free to julienne, dice, chop, whatever.

A couple of weeks ago we were making devilled eggs for 100 people and I left the task in the hands of a prep cook and a dishwasher. When I checked on them I discovered that they had been slicing the eggs across the shortest circumference rather than lengthwise. When I asked them how the eggs were supposed to stand up for service I got nothing but blank looks. So I had to demonstrate the best way to slice an egg in half. Again a serrated blade works best, with a gentle rocking motion and not too much downward pressure. TIP: For perfect hard-boiled eggs, start with eggs in cold water, bring the water to a boil, then turn the water off. Wait exactly 8 minutes and you will have a perfect hard-boiled egg! If you are using them in a cold dish, shock them in ice water to cool as quickly as possible to prevent that dark ring from forming. And if you wonder why hard-boiled eggs are sometimes so hard to peel and other times the shell just about slides off, it all has to do with the age off the egg. As a raw egg sits in the refrigerator, over time a layer of gas forms between the shell and its contents and it's that layer that makes an egg so easy to peel. So, the freshest eggs are the hardest to peel.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Sidetrack: Cooking for the Governor

Back in the early'80s I was living in San Angelo, Texas with my ex-wife's mother (my ex-wife once told me with great venom that I should have married her mother) and I responded to an ad in the local paper looking for a cook to work for the summer at an RV resort in Southern Colorado. I was ready for a change of scenery so I interviewed for the job and accepted when it was offered. I threw my few belongings in the back of my beloved baby-blue Ford Econoline van, fitted out with double bed, sink, stove and aluminum rocking chair and headed off to Hidden Valley Resort, a broad riverside meadow dotted with trailer spaces around a timbered lodge, hunched in a sheltered valley between Pagosa Springs and Southfork, Colorado.

Well, the job didn't exactly work out as planned and I was asked to leave about 5 weeks in. The owners claimed they didn't like my cooking, but to that point I was only cooking for the staff as they straggled in to get the place open for another summer, and the staff claimed to love my cooking. My suspicion is that the owners got wind that their Mexican maid, Virginia, had been meeting me secretly in the woods at night, away from prying eyes.

Truth is that Virginia wanted a baby with blue eyes to take back to Mexico with her at the first opportunity and I was the paternal candidate at hand. I can honestly say that I declined to co-operate fully with her plan, but I didn't entirely resist her advances. So I suspect that the owners had a suspicion of what was going on and decided to nip it in the bud.

As it happened, I knew a couple of people in Pagosa Springs, Wayne and Nancy Walls, who operated an outdoor outfitting operation, based at the Fairfield timeshare resort on the pleasant road between Pagosa and Durango. I had met Wayne and Nancy a year or so earlier when I spent several days participating in a "Long Dance" ceremony and sweat lodge near Socorro, New Mexico. We had all become quite close in our few days in the desert, as one does sitting naked in a rough brush shelter in the desert with a bunch of strangers sweating like pigs, and so I had already gotten in touch with Wayne and Nancy as soon as I arrived in Pagosa. The day that I was cut loose from Hidden Valley I stopped at the Post Office on my way out of town, with no destination in mind, and I bumped into Nancy who immediately offered me a job as a driver for the bus they used to ferry river rafters to and from the San Juan River. They had an empty trailer on their property, and I moved right in.
After a crash (!) course in bus driving I got a commercial license and started work. A few succesful runs later I was asked to take on other responsibilities and I wound up taking groups to the Durango Silverton Railroad, dropping them off at the station in Durango, then racing up the mountain to pick them up in the historic mining town of Silverton to pilot their bus along the steep and winding road down the mountain and home to Pagosa. The drive was gorgeous and the tips were plentiful.

I also drove groups to Creede, another historic mining town to the east, which had a particularly good summer theater company, as well as the grave of Robert Ford, the man who shot Jesse James. I would stop on the way up to Creede in a pretty alpine meadow, fix a pleasant picnic lunch for the group, then on to the matinee performance in Creede. Add to that Friday night Bingo runs to the Indian reservation and occasional 4-wheel drive trips and it was a busy and varied summer. But the highlight was always the trip to the Anasazi ruins on the Ute Mountain reservation, near Towaoc, south of Cortez

These ruins are less well-known and thus less-visited than the far more famous Mesa Verde, but well worth a visit. We had a special arrangement with the tribe that allowed us to enter the reservation through an unposted rear entrance and meet the local guides, at a simple thatched ramada near the ruins, where we set up a picnic lunch for ourselves and the guides. From there the Ute guides, led by a wonderful character by the name of Art Cut-hair, would lead the group through the ruins, along the cliffs, through the dwellings and we would almost always be the only group there. The highlight was "Eagle's Nest", a cliff house that could only be reached by an almost vertical 20 ft rough wooden ladder, with great views of the canyon lands beyond. I got to know the area and its history and the guides themselves so well that on one occasion, when there wasn't a guide available, I was given permission to lead the group on my own. I loved that trip! It was a beautiful and evocative place, and I hope it still is.

So, Roy Romer, the Governor of Colorado at that time, decided to bring his entourage down from Denver to spend a few days on the reservation. We were asked to outfit the trip and, of course, I was to be the cook. We all camped out in teepees, including Governor Romer and his entire staff, and bathed in the river, no showers, no comfy beds. I did some of my cooking over the campfire, although I did use a 2-burner propane stove for much of the work.

It was great fun, though I never had time to leave the campground. The Governor and his folks spent about 3 days hiking the area and visiting the ruins. Governor Romer was pleasant company, a down to earth fellow who enjoyed oatmeal for breakfast and chocolate cake with milk for dessert. I used to have a cheerful photo of myself taken with Roy Romer and his staff at the camp, but I haven't seen it in years.
I spent 2 delightful summers in Pagosa Springs, wintering in California. Then disaster struck. I was returning from a 4-wheel drive trip when the vehicle I was driving, which had been overheating all day, caught fire as we drove through downtown Pagosa Springs and burned to the ground. The guys at the local gas station nicknamed me "Sparky" after that and my relationship with Wayne and Nancy soured and I never went back. The paying guests who were with me on the trip were quite delightful and tipped me heavily out of sympathy, and their kids drew me a crayon rendering of the disaster!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Want that cutting edge? Get the right knife.

Let's face it, we all know great home cooks (your Mom, Grandma etc.) who never owned a decent professional knife and still produced great food every day. But we all know that the trend is towards creating a professional looking kitchen at home, with commercial ranges and ovens and all the great gadgets. But owning a top quality knife doesn't make you a great cook and neither do fancy knife skills. Professional chefs on TV may make you gasp with their dexterity with knife or cleaver, but that in itself doesn't make their food taste good. It suggests that they have spent a lot of time in a fast-paced professional environment that demands speed and efficiency to save on labor, but that's all, so don't assume their food is great because of their knife skills. It's just a circus act. So don't mutilate yourself trying to imitate the pros. Finger parts in the food are never appetizing.
But, let's assume you are serious about having professional quality knives in your kitchen. I do 90% of my knife work with one knife, an 8" Chef's knife, also called a French knife (can't escape that Gallic influence). That means that the blade is quite deep at the handle, at least 1&3/4" to avoid rapping your knuckles when you use the knife correctly. From the handle the knife curves smoothly to a point. The whole point (sorry) is that, in most uses, the tip of the knife never leaves the cutting surface, the entire blade comes into contact with the cutting board and the cutting is done in a rocking motion, up and down, tip to back. This is faster, more efficient, less hazardous and less tiring (and quieter!) than the all-too-familiar hacking motion that most home cooks adopt, where the whole blade comes up off the board and down again. But I don't expect you to change the habits of a lifetime. I've taught many classes and I always demonstrate proper technique, but I stress that I don't expect anyone to go home and start using a knife like a professional.
You really need professional supervision for that, just to tell you what you're doing wrong because invariably you will wind up performing some spastic parody of the professional chef. It feels awkward at first, but it really isn't that hard, otherwise how would some of the clowns on TV be able to do it and talk at the same time!
The knife I use is not some super Scandinavian-styled work of art with price to match, or part of some Magic Knife set seen on late night TV (OK I've been suckered into buying a couple, but, after the novelty wears off, they only see the light of day when someone in my kitchen is knifeless (a cardinal sin in a professional) and wants to borrow a knife. I'm not going to let them destroy the good stuff!
My knife is a Victorinox with Fibrox handle, costs about $25. Just Google "Victorinox Fibrox" and you should find the best deal. Mine came from Amazon. It has a deep blade, essential if you have large hands, and it keeps a sharp edge for longer than most knives I've tried over the years. It's also recommended as a "Best Value" by Cooks Illustrated (I'm telling you, subscribe if you haven't already, and they still don't pay me to say that).
The Fibrox handle is a plastic composite of some kind, but it's quite substantial, again important if you have good-sized hands. If the handle is thin, and not hefty, your hand will get awfully tired if you have a lot of slicing and chopping to do. The handle is comfortable and doesn't feel cold like wood or metal.
When you use this kind of knife your hand should be well forward on the handle so that your thumb and forefinger are actually straddling the blade rather than the handle. These 2 digits should sit in the indentations on the handle where it meets the blade. These indentations make the grip more comfortable. If you grip the knife back towards the butt of the handle and use it a lot you can look forward to carpal tunnel! The further forward you grip, the less stress on the wrist. Also it doesn't hurt to have your work close to you, so you can lean over the board and put the force of your whole arm and shoulder into what you're cutting, when you're cutting up whole chickens, for example.
As far as I'm concerned, anything bigger than an 8" or 9" blade is great for hacking through the jungle, but unnecessary in the home kitchen. Why pay for more blade than you need?
Other than my trusty 8" Chef's knife, the only other essentials in my knife kit are a paring knife and a serrated slicer, the parer for more delicate work and the serrated slicer for cutting soft foods that a French knife will mash or mangle, such as bread, or hard-boiled eggs, or tomatoes. A very sharp Chef's knife will slice tomatoes, but you have to keep it very, very sharp, and let's face it, who has the time for that. As for sharpening, you need a sharpening stone or good electric sharpener. If you bought a knife set, complete with wooden block and 6 steak knives you didn't need, it probably came with a steel, the cylindrical metal rod that you see mass murderers in horror movies sharpening their 15" machetes on before they slash the semi-naked, always beautiful, 6 or 7 girls who were witless enough to walk into an obviously creepy situation.
The truth is that a steel does not sharpen. It restores a sharp edge, which gets bent over slightly with use, so that the knife will cut better than before you used the steel, but it does not actually sharpen. A lot of older chefs will simply use the backside of another knife blade to do the same thing. I do it myself when some fool has put the steel in the wrong place and I can't find it.
One mistake a lot of cooks who haven't been properly taught make is to simply run the center of the blade up and down the steel, trying to look professional, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and they wind up grinding a hollow in the blade so that it can no longer perform its' proper function. Every part of the blade of a Chef's knife must come into contact with the cutting surface to do its job properly.
For real sharpening you need a sharpening stone, preferably one with more than one grade of grit: fine, medium and coarse, just like sandpaper. Start with the coarse and work through to the fine. Sharpening oil is useful, too, but I confess that most of the time I just dip my knife blade in the deep fryer!
I do have a number of other knives in my armoury, including a Japanese-styled santoku, which is like a cross between a cleaver and a Chef's knife, with a shorter, semi-curved blade. I see a lot of them on TV shows and I have used mine occasionally, but I find the handles on santokus are generally too small, so I always go back to my old favorite. A slicer with a long, narrow blade is useful if you find yourself elected to carve the roast at Sunday dinner. So what other kitchen tools do you really need? Watch this space......

Friday, November 23, 2007

Give Thanks that Thanksgiving's over!

Let me say first of all that I dislike Thanksgiving and any holiday that involves major consumption of food. The overindulgence is quite sickening. But Thanksgiving is the worst. There seems to be the feeling that excessive consumption is what defines Thanksgiving. Growing up in England where Thanksgiving is unknown, I don't have that nostalgia-fuelled compulsion to eat myself into a stupor, then force myself to eat even more before the effects of the first session have worn off. This doesn't make me very popular with my wife and her family for whom every gathering requires the preparation of more food than they could possibly eat, accompanied by alcohol, of course, which erodes the willpower of anyone interested in eating sensibly. Familial pressure is a powerful force, resistance is often difficult. Be that as it may, we as a nation will continue this tradition, so I may as well give you some useful advice about cooking your turkey.
This is all too late for this year, but hopefully you'll remember to come back to it next year. People ask me all the time for the best way to cook a turkey, how do I cook my turkey. The truth is I don't cook the Thanksgiving turkey, my brother-in-law Mark does, although this year I did smoke a turkey just because I wanted to play with my newest toy, a propane smoker. With the propane providing a constant heat I can put the turkey in the smoker last thing at night and let it cook all night at 200 degrees and it will be nicely done by morning.

But, since most of you don't have a smoker of any kind, there are 2 tricks to cooking a turkey so that the breast meat is not dry and all the meat is well-seasoned and flavorful.

The single most useful thing to do with your bird is to cook it upside down. It's really obvious isn't it. The white meat breast is naturally less juicy than the dark meat, and gravity only compounds that problem by allowing whatever juices are in the breast to drain down to the lower parts of the carcass. Which is why when I'm serving a turkey that has been cooked in the conventional way(or if someone else is serving, I do this when they're not looking) I flip the bird over and snag the 2 oval-shaped pieces of meat that sit in shallow depressions on the spine. These "pearls", which are naturally tender, have absorbed all the juiciness that has drained down during the cooking process. They slip out very easily when you pop your finger underneath them and push. These 2 pieces are the very best of the turkey, a kind of turkey tenderloin. I would be quite happy with just those on my plate at the Thanksgiving table.

Last year just before Thanksgiving I was teaching a class at Viking HomeChef here in San Jose in which I recommended this method. A couple in my class had attended a class the night before given by a "celebrity chef" who disdained the upside-down method. They had tasted his turkey and they tasted mine. Mine was the clear winner. It works. If you're concerned that a turkey cooked breast side down will not present well at the table, turn it over for the last hour or so to give it that nice golden-brown breast.

The second most useful thing to do with your turkey is to brine it beforehand. Brine is, in its simplest form, a salt solution:

1 cup of salt per gallon of cold water for a 4-6 hour brine

1/2 cup of salt per gallon of cold water for a a 12-14 hour brine

Since many frozen and self-basting turkeys are injected with some kind of sodium solution, you may want to minimize the added salt, but a low salt brine enhanced with other flavors will still achieve the desired result, which is to add moisture and flavor to the bird before it cooks. To enhance the brine you can add one or several of the following: garlic, lemon, pepper, sage, poultry seasoning, maple syrup (seriously), rosemary, brown sugar, honey or whatever your imagination tells you might go well with turkey. 2 gallons of brine should be sufficient for most birds, an extra large bird might need 3. Brine your turkey in an extra large ziplok bag in the refrigerator, and rinse the brine off the surface before cooking. Rub the breast with a couple of tablespoons of butter before you flip it over into your roasting pan. If you're concerned that the breast might stick to the roasting rack, you can spray the rack with some kind of pan spray, or put a layer of aluminum foil or parchment paper (NOT wax paper!) with holes punched in it over the rack and spray that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Books for cooks

In the internet age, you can have access to literally thousands of recipes without owning a single cookbook. Mind you an online recipe can't replace the simple pleasure of cracking the spine of a new cookbook and drooling over the illustrations. I use,, amongst others. One of the advantages of using these sites is that the recipes, posted by home cooks, are, in many cases, reviewed by other users of the site, so you can more easily select the best version of a particular dish.
But this doesn't spell the end for books on food, as opposed to recipe books, and I have 2 particular favorite reference books. One is "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee, the other is "The Food Lover's Companion" by Sharon Herbst.
"On Food and Cooking" is sub-titled "The Science and Lore of the Kitchen" and this is where you turn to find out where our foods come form, what they're made of, what chemical and physical processes take place in cooking and why transformations take place, tips for selecting the best ingredients and preparing them successfully. This is food science made cook-friendly.
"The Food Lover's Companion" is a food dictionary containing some 6,000 definitions of foods, dishes and cooking terms, an invaluable resource.
I still occasionally fall back on the tried-and-true "Joy of Cooking" or the "Silver Palate" cookbooks, but these days, more often than not, when I have to prepare a dish that I'm not that familiar with (not that a chef would ever admit that) I go to or Google it. This reminds me that the first time I ever made a Hollandaise, in a Holiday Inn in Irving, Texas just down the road from DFW airport many years ago, I was not about to let the Chef know that I had never done it before, so I casually informed him that I knew how to do it, no problem. I had memorised the procedure from "The Good Cook" series of books by Time-Life (an excellent collection for the aspiring cook, if you can find it) and I proceeded to make a perfect Hollandaise (with a sigh of relief).

Friday, November 9, 2007

What's worth watching?

I mentioned yesterday that the only magazine you really need if you're serious about becoming a better and more knowledgeable cook is Cook's Illustrated, which has a companion TV show, America's Test Kitchen, also well worth watching. So let me tell you what else I watch and what I don't. Let's get this out of the way first. I think Emeril is a great self-promoter, but a terrible cook, so I refuse to watch his antics. I used to enjoy Gordon Ramsay, before he went global and saturated the airwaves with however many shows he has on now.
In case you're not familiar with Ramsay, he drew national attention in England, not for his culinary success but for his obnoxious way of treating his staff. He was featured on a program about Britain's worst bosses, filmed secretly in his restaurant being thoroughly unpleasant to the poor unfortunates who worked for him. But, unpleasant as he is, his outbursts stem from a passion for excellence in cooking and a refusal to accept anything less than the best, which is why he is one of England's most succesful restaurant owners and chefs. So he parlayed that notoriety into a fascinating reality show called "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" in which he was invited in to fix restaurants that were in trouble. Ramsay pulls no punches. If you watch this show in England or Canada, the language is quite graphic and crude. Fortunately, perhaps, here in the US most is bleeped, although a lack of familiarity with some English slang does let the occasional obscenity slip through. Earlier this year I was in Canada visiting my brother for a surprise 60th birthday party, and I watched a Ramsay episode there and the uncensored version was a little hard to take. In fact, big brother Tom actually told me to turn it off because he didn't want his wife listening to it. Different personalities, Tom and I.
But, language aside, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares was a fascinating program because Ramsay would zero in on what was not working and get in the face of who was not working and tell them exactly what he thought of them, but also what they needed to do if they wanted their restaurant to survive. Some were sullen, some belligerent and some were shamed into restoring their pride and commitment to good cooking. It was painful to watch at times, but Ramsay knows his stuff, knows what works, knows that you fit your menu to your market. This was not about 3 or 4 star dining but about well-prepared food cooked in a clean and well-organised kitchen with a motivated staff.
Then America discovered Ramsay and we had the American version of RKN, and "Hell's Kitchen" and whatever else. Saturation. I stopped watching.
Another chef I enjoy watching is also something of a renegade, the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Anthony Bourdain, who is now to be seen mostly on the Travel Channel in a show called "No Reservations". Anthony Bourdain wrote a book several years ago called "Kitchen Confidential", an account of his career as a chef in New York. There was little glamour here, it was drugs sex rock and roll, a sordid behind-the -scenes look at life in a working kitchen. I found myself nodding and smiling a lot while I was reading it: there was a familiar ring to much of it.
So now Anthony Bourdain travels the world on the Travel Channel's dime, experiencing the culture and cuisine of exotic cultures. He is frequently sarcastic, pithy, irreverent, and at times poetic. He never fails to entertain.
And then there's Robert Irvine, another English chef (not the oxymoron it used to be. Or maybe he's Welsh) in "Dinner Impossible". Each episode, with little notice, Robert is given an almost impossible challenge of feeding some large group or other in extremely difficult circumstances with limited time, limited equipment and sometimes no food on site. Irvine always seems to be on the brink of failure, yet always seems to somehow pull it off or come very close. It's actually quite nerve-wracking to watch as he teeters back and forth between good humor and downright irritation, but fascinating nonetheless, though I suspect that it's more interesting to fellow professionals who can appreciate the magnitude of his achievements each week.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A soupcon more on soups

Truth is I could write a book on soups. (Anyone like to pay me to take a sabbatical?)
The hotel owners are Italian and somewhat anal, so Thursday is Minestrone day (Friday is Clam Chowder, of course, groan!) At least I have the opportunity to be creative Mon through Wed.
There was a time when I used canned tomato products in minestrone, but not anymore. With canned products, no matter how good they are, you cannot escape the suspicion that you are eating a thinned out marinara sauce with vegetables added. So I take the time to dice fresh tomatoes. As always I start with my diced onions, carrot & celery (no pureeing today) coloring on low heat. At the same time I cook the white beans separately (Cannelini in this case,which I soaked overnight).
When my aromatic vegetables are nicely colored, I add a little minced garlic, cook that for a couple of minutes then add the diced tomatoes and a little Italian seasoning and let that cook down until the tomatoes release their moisture. At that point, the next additions are personal preference. I usually add diced zucchini, sliced mushrooms and a little chopped cabbage (green peas will go in at the end. I think it's a crime to cook peas any more than absolutely necessary. I prefer to thaw them and warm them and that's it.)
If I'm vague on quantities on all this, it's because I think you should experiment to find out what you like and how much of it. Diced, cooked potatoes are good, so is turnip. So often in cooking, consistency is lauded as a virtue. But if you're consistent you'll never get any better. Consistency is the enemy of improvement. In our restaurant we are obliged to be consistent: consistently good. But we only arrived at that by experimentation.
I had some roasted red pepper left over from quiche I made for the breakfast buffet, so I threw that in too. Of course, one of the owners, the most vocal one, doesn't like bell peppers or Italian seasoning and is quick to tell me so. I tell him he's anal and a disgrace to his race. He laughs, fortunately, but I'm too old to kowtow.
Now in goes the chicken stock. Even water is fine at this point: there's plenty of flavor in that pot. The cooked beans can go in now, also. Bring the whole mess to a boil, then let simmer so all the flavors can blend. At no point have I mentioned pasta which is an essential for minestrone. I cook separately a small amount of firm-bodied pasta such as penne, take it off the heat before it's fully cooked and cool it under cold water, then cut it into small pieces to be added at the end. If you add large-sized pasta earlier in the cooking process it will absorb too much liquid and you will wind up with a pot full of very mushy, bloated pasta, vegetables and not much liquid. This is especially important for me because that soup is going to sit in a soup well for several hours.
Add the peas and let simmer for a little longer, turn off the heat and season with salt and pepper to taste, then add the cut pasta. Done! Enjoy!

Cooking Magazines: There are lots out there, some of them more coffee table fare to impress your houseguests than anything else. But, honestly, there's only one cooking magazine you really need and that's "Cooks Illustrated". It's un-glossy, contains no advertising, only useful information about food and cooking techniques, well-researched and tested recipes and honest reviews of cooking equipment. It's always a pleasure to read and always inspires me with new recipes. Also check out their TV show, "America's Test Kitchen", usually found on PBS. And they're not paying me to say this. They don't even know I exist!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Soup of the Day, a stock item

As the Chef in a moderately-sized hotel in Silicon Valley, it's part of my daily routine to prepare a Soup of the Day and a Daily Special. Soups are one of my favorite things to make and fortunately as a result of years of practice I make excellent soups. (When I worked in the cavernous kitchens of Pac-Bell I was known as the "Soup King", making two soups a day in 50 gallon steam kettles). The requirements are more modest these days, but I prepare all my soups in more or less the same way. I like to make my own stock, though I'm not averse to enhancing it with commercial soup bases.

Chicken Stock: Obviously it's part of my job to save the hotel owners money, so I look to be as economical as I can. So let's say I decide to make Moroccan Chicken or Chicken Cacciatore as the Daily Special. I always have whole chickens on hand, the least expensive and most versatile way to buy chicken. When I cut up my chicken for the special, I remove the backbone and the wingtips, parts that probably aren't going to get eaten anyway, at least not in this part of the world. Although if you watch "Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern" on the Travel Channel you know that someone somewhere is eating every single part of a chicken, except perhaps the feathers!
Then I take those removed parts and roast them in the oven because I would much rather have a stock with the color and flavor of roast chicken than one made from the raw bird. I throw those parts in a pot with the peelings and scraps from onions, celery and carrots that I've saved over the previous few days, cover with cold water because cold water gives a less cloudy stock, bring to a boil and let simmer for at least a couple of hours, longer if I can, adding water as needed.
Then I discard the solids, and I have a chicken stock with color and flavor that didn't cost anything to make because I used the scraps left from other dishes.

I almost always start my soup with a "mire poix", another one of those unnecessary French terms that plague the food business. It simply meams a mixture of diced onions, carrot and celery, the "aromatic" vegetables, in the ratio of 2 parts onion to 1 part carrot and 1 part celery.
I put my heavy soup pot on low heat with a splash of vegetable oil, and when I see that shimmery web in the bottom that tells me the oil is hot, I toss in my mire poix and let it sautee slowly, stirring from time to time, so that it develops color without burning (if you're planning to puree the soup, a little burning won't be noticed. Just tell yourself that you never burn anything, you just carmelise in different degrees) .
Today I made Cream of Mushroom, so the next thing to go in was a couple of cupfuls of sliced mushrooms. I added a couple of tablespoons of beef base to the mushrooms to bring out maximum flavor and let them cook down until they released all their moisture. Then I added chicken stock to cover and a little more, turned up the heat until it came to a boil and then let the whole thing simmer for a half hour or so until the vegetables were soft.
I took the pot off the heat and pureed the contents with an immersion blender. Mine's a household model, not especially expensive, although the largest commercials ones cost several hundred. Once I had a smooth puree I put the pot back on the stove, added a couple more cups of sliced mushrooms (hint: an egg slicer makes a great mushroom slicer and won't cut your fingers. works for strawberries, too). After those mushrooms have cooked down a little, I turned off the heat, added cold milk (2% is fine) to the pot, approximately equal to half the liquid that was already in the pot and add my roux. Roux!? Who!? (pronounced "roo", another gallicism).
Roux is simply a mixture of liquid fat and flour. It can be melted butter or margarine, chicken fat (liquid gold), beef fat, bacon grease, or in the case of a Cajun roux, very hot oil. The fat and the flour are combined and cooked over low heat to get rid of the raw flour taste. Then it's ready to use. It is simply a thickening agent. But if you add roux to a boiling liquid, the clumps of roux will solidify and cook before they can disperse and do their job, leaving you with little roux dumplings in your soup. That's why I add the cold milk and turn off the heat, to bring down the temperature to a safe point to add the roux. Then it can be whisked in easily.
Once the roux is well dissolved, I turned the heat back up to medium and let it do its work, at least another 15 minutes or more. If you decide your soup is not thick enough and you need to add more roux you will have to let the soup cool down again (adding a few ice cubes will usually do the job quickly).
Once the soup is nicely thickened, smoothly pourable, not thick enough to lay bricks, turn off the heat, let cool a little, then season with salt and pepper. You will get a better sense of taste if you don't burn your tongue as soon as you put the soup in your mouth. I generally prefer the milder taste of white pepper to black for most soups and for white meats. I will add a small amount of heavy cream at the end for a touch of richness.
Ever wish you knew what professional chefs know? Ever wonder why it looks so easy on TV when your attempts at cooking always produce a soggy or burnt mess? Does it really annoy you when professionals tell you how easy it is? After all they've spent years getting it right, you haven't. And you don't have time to fit in an extra career as a professional cook. So, maybe I can help.I've spent 30 years cooking professionally, in restaurants, hotels, catering companies and even over a campfire for a former governor of Colorado! And I still cook at least 5 days a week, sometimes more. Last weekend I served breakfast to 62 hungry (goes without saying)college football players in 15 minutes. I've trained many professional cooks and given instruction to home cooks. So I know a few tricks of the trade which I will share with you. I've written newspaper cooking columns. I'll tell you which is the only cooking magazine you need to buy, and which TV cooking show will actually educate you rather than merely entertain. I'll share some of my favorite recipes and techniques for making cooking easier, less time-consuming and show you ways to succeed in your own kitchen
by Kitchen Insider
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Monday, November 5, 2007

Why should you listen to me?

Ever wish you knew what professional chefs know? Ever wonder why it looks so easy on TV when your attempts at cooking always produce a soggy or burnt mess? Does it really annoy you when professionals tell you how easy it is? After all they've spent years getting it right, you haven't. And you don't have time to fit in an extra career as a professional cook. So, maybe I can help.

I've spent 30 years cooking professionally, in restaurants, hotels, catering companies and even over a campfire for a former governor of Colorado! And I still cook at least 5 days a week, sometimes more. Last weekend I served breakfast to 62 hungry (goes without saying)college football players in 15 minutes.

I've trained many professional cooks and given instruction to home cooks. So I know a few tricks of the trade which I will share with you. I've written newspaper cooking columns.

I'll tell you which is the only cooking magazine you need to buy, and which TV cooking show will actually educate you rather than merely entertain. I'll share some of my favorite recipes and techniques for making cooking easier, less time-consuming and show you ways to succeed in your own kitchen