Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pork Cutlets with Tomatoes: Fail

I cooked dinner tonight. It wasn't good.

I cook dinner pretty frequently; usually it's good. I enjoy cooking, and admittedly, part of the reason why is because I think I'm good at it. I came into the kitchen tonight with this little swagger in my step, my cooking ego and perceived abilities flying high following my boyfriend's recent "You've been killing it in the kitchen" comments.

Armed with fresh ingredients from Reno's Trader Joe's (further fueling my overconfidence), I set out to cook pork cutlets topped with Roma tomatoes on a bed of sauteed onions, with brown rice and wilted spinach. Easy, right?

I called my mother for her recipe; I have the warmest, fuzziest, round-stomach-rubbing memories of her pork chops. (The astute reader will notice the discrepancy between my mother's chops and my cutlets.) She talked me through the whole process, from the browning of the pork to onion-then-pork-then-tomato layering with chicken broth to keep the onions from burning.

At this moment, I thought, this recipe isn't too involved. I could even go jump in the shower while they simmer. At least I had the sense to stay at the stove, though now I wonder if it would have made any difference.

The fact of the matter was: I wasn't working from a recipe, but rather a phone conversation, and a scatterbrained conversation to boot. She said to leave the pork to simmer on the onions with the broth for AROUND AN HOUR. That the directions on the pork suggested mere minutes of cooking time, no matter. I was half watching Jeopardy and my mom was driving through 101-85-280 traffic in the Bay Area. We were distracted and I was confident. How could I possibly mess this one up?

Of course, I over-cooked the pork. Pork chops are thick cuts of meat, while cutlets are thin, little cutie pie slices. This mistake was not a question of a few minutes, but rather a quarter of an hour. I knew the pork was overcooked when I went to test its doneness with a slice to the center of one of the cutlets: I could barely get the knife in there, the pork was so rubbery. I might as well have tried to slice cowboy boots with a butter knife.

My loving boyfriend, ready for the meal of century given how wonderful the kitchen smelled with the sauteed onions, was honest. He said it was just OK. He told me it was a lovely home-cooked meal, but it was OK.

We agreed immediately that they were overcooked, and suddenly I felt like a failure. Why is it that a simple dinner- let's be real, I'm not cooking complicated creations yet- can take the wind out of my sails like that? What will happen when I'm really a chef and I get a shitty review? Is my skin thick enough for this shit?

As we finished dinner, we diplomatically characterized the meal as "not my best, but not my worst," which is true, because I once drunkenly spread peanut butter on the outside of a cheddar cheese quesadilla, and that, surely, is my worst.

But how else am I going to learn as a cook? This process of anticipation and subsequent disillusionment with a failed meal is valuable in that I never want to repeat the feeling. That I will repeat this experience is a given. However, if botching a dinner serves as motivation to become a better cook, I'll take it.

Pork Cutlets and Tomatoes Drowned in Onions and Broth

Believe me, they are under there somewhere. They hung out there for WAY too long. You cook and you learn.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Culinary Confidential

If the name for this new section of my blog sounds familiar, that’s because I stole it from Anthony Bourdain. He is the New York chef who wrote “Kitchen Confidential” and stars in the Travel Network’s show “No Reservations,” in which he treks all over the world and eats delicious (and occasionally questionable) local specialties. I figure he has my dream job, and he seems pretty damn cool, so why not bite his style?

It’s mid September, and I am waiting to hear from the admissions office of the Culinary Institute of America- Greystone, the CIA’s Napa Valley campus. At the beginning of the summer, I applied to their Culinary Arts program, a 21 month program that will teach me everything about cooking, food safety, and kicking general ass in the kitchen. They don’t market their program with those words specifically, but after the first couple bumbling months, I hope to be kicking ass and taking names. Maybe I’ll be washing dishes and taking orders, like I am now, but I hope not.

I wonder if I am the only 26 year old who feels a little lost at the moment. Perhaps lost isn’t the word, but I do feel a little rudderless. I’m on a good ship, she’ll take me where I need to go, there are winds blowing, but I just can’t seem to steer. I don’t want this culinary school experience to prove as disenchanting as my grad school time at Columbia. (Enter clichéd bit about unfulfilling academic office work here).

So the winds are blowing, but I don’t know where to go. Stay in Tahoe and continue learning about food with my two cooking jobs? Go to the CIA in Napa? Apply to the French Culinary Institute in New York City to be closer to a dynamic restaurant scene? (And Zabar’s cheese selections...)

While I love my active life in the mountains at Lake Tahoe, perhaps I need some city ambition and pace to kick-start this career choice. Or maybe St. Helena will be the perfect setting to focus wholeheartedly on food and wine. Such a tough decision! Then again, if I’m choosing between a mountain paradise, California wine country, or the city that never sleeps, I’m doing pretty damn good.

Wherever I choose, at least I know I have already picked food. I have always loved cooking, both for myself and for others. Food dazzles me with possibilities. A couple weeks ago, I had plum and cucumber sushi. I know it sounds simple, but I had never tried a plum and cucumber roll. In addition to being visually pleasing with vibrant purple and green stripes poking out through ivory white rice, this roll was one of the best I’d ever tried. I wonder why more sushi restaurants don’t have this crunchy cucumber with smooth plum spread creation. Is it a sushi purist’s nightmare? Am I close to committing the cream cheese sushi sin? I hope not, because if I see it again, I’m ordering it.

My point is not that plum and cucumber sushi is bomb (which is true) but rather that I love food so much I’ll sit down to write a paragraph about it. My point is that food is so universal and so ubiquitous, why wouldn’t I choose a career in this field? We all eat every single day (except for Kelly Ripa, who only eats on Thursdays). I could travel anywhere in the world and be a cook or a food writer investigating local cuisine. How sweet will that be?

In the coming weeks, I should hear from the CIA-Greystone admissions office with a yes or a no. As a friend and former California Culinary Academy admissions officer put it, the CIA is one of the few culinary academies in the U.S. that “actually rejects people.” I find that news encouraging, because I want to go to a good school. I want the best preparation. I want to finish my program feeling prepared for the cooking world. I want to kick some ass.

Stay tuned for what happens next!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Pacific Puffs- San Francisco

If you haven't gone to Pacific Puffs yet, Cow Hollow's newest corner sweetshop, I forgive you: it's been open less than a month. But if you don't go after reading this, you're missing out big time.

Pacific Puffs, on the corner of Union and Fillmore, serves only cream puffs but they are perfect cream puffs. They have several varities; alas, I've only tried one since I visited on a Sunday evening and they were cleaned out of nearly everything. We were lucky enough to snag the last three Chocolatier Sugar puffs, a choux pastry filled with a dollop of whipped chocolate cream goodness. My girlfriend Erin and I happily bought the last three for a fair $9, and we took our first bites while still in the shop.

The pastry is somewhere between brioche (but less eggy) and croissant (but less flaky) and heaven (but minus the prerequisite good behavior). The chocolate whipped cream is what the Puritans were worried about; it's so lightly chocolate it doesn't feel like a sin. I can't wait to go back and try the classic puff with vanilla cream or the fruit puffs as well. Trent, holler at your girl when you come up with more varieties!

Due to ridiculous zoning restrictions in San Francisco, Pacific Puffs actually bakes their pastries off-site and brings their goodies in the morning every day. This fact works well in their favor, since I would have climbed in the back of the shop with a spoon looking for more whipped chocolate cream- that's how good it is.

The off-site bakery issue only becomes a problem when you have a sweet tooth on Sunday afternoon at 5pm and they can't throw a couple more in the oven for you (my predicament exactly).

I have to say the second best thing about Pacific Puffs (after how crazy yummy good they are) is how light they are. I didn't see a nutritional breakdown on these babies so I can't make any dietary claims, but they don't have the heavy feel of ice cream or cupcakes. A chocolate cupcake with three cubic inches of frosting can leave me feeling like I've torpedo'ed an entire day of sensible eating. Pacific Puffs don't give you that feeling. About the size of your palm, a cream puff is, as the name suggests, a puff. It's airy, it's light. Go to town, girl!

It's the best dessert you can grab, because it satisfies the craving without overwhelming you. I suppose if you want to be overwhelmed, they do come by the dozen.

Pacific Puffs
2201 Union, corner at Fillmore


Write me. Write as I speak, as I think. Write in a way that sounds like Ruth, that my friends and family will recognize, that new readers will appreciate as honest and fresh. Don’t try to be Frank Bruni- that Santé review was an awful attempt. Don’t try to be Julie Powell- who can yell at her husband and eat that much butter but still be charming? Plus, I don’t know anything! I’m not a chef yet. I’m not a food critic yet.

Sometimes, as I try to find a job and a vocation and a place in the world, I still feel like a little girl playing dress-up in her mom’s closet. A woman is meant to wear these clothes, this lipstick, these high heels. Yet, the dress doesn’t fit, the lipstick is all over half my face, and the shoes make me trip.

That’s what it feels like when I try to write like a Food and Wine editor or Wine Spectator travel correspondent (ok, Croatian food is good, but not that good). Perhaps that’s why I write so sporadically; I am writing in a style that I don’t enjoy.

So the new rule stands: Write the Ruthie way, whatever that may be.