Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving at Home

Is there anything better than Thanksgiving at home? I have never celebrated Thanksgiving anywhere but my parents house in Palo Alto, 26 years straight. I suppose the day will come when that will change (as it did this year for my older brother Ben whom we missed very much), and I will be very sad to have to skip this divine meal. Luckily this year I did come home, and we feasted in fine form.

I'm probably more than a little biased when I say that our Thanksgiving dinner was something special, but it really felt like it was. In past years, the turkey has been dry, or the cranberry relish tasted a little too much like saccharin, or the mashed potatoes got heavy whipping cream instead of whole milk (sweet mashed potatoes are just plain gross, trust me). Not the case with our dinner this year. Last night we hit it out of the park.

I started the day making bread, and I might have gone a little overboard. I made a loaf of challah bread, braided with sesame seeds; two baguette shaped loaves of classic four ingredient bread (flour, water, salt, yeast); a loaf of sandwich bread for leftover turkey lunch; and cheddar dill biscuits just in case we needed something else savory with dinner.

Here I am with the just-braided challah bread, about to brush it with beaten egg whites to produce the shiny crust.

The loaf rose tremendously, forcing me to move several racks in the oven to accommodate its height. It turned out just about perfect, and what remained after dinner we used for eggy cinnamon french toast this morning.

I also made some macaroni and cheese from scratch, taking Cook's Illustrated advice that evaporated milk holds the macaroni together much better than regular milk. Instead of using massive amounts of extra sharp cheddar for flavor, I opted for fresh ground nutmeg (see the mortar and pestle below), Tabasco sauce, gruyere and monterey jack cheese to accent the cheddar. It was a hit. Trevor asked if it would be weird for him to put the mac and cheese in his leftover turkey sandwich. Flattered, I said no, it wouldn't be weird.

The Goodrich's brought the turkey, brined first and then roasted with mango pits in the cavity for a unique aromatic touch. Coupled with my mother's exquisite not-too-sweet cranberry relish, the usually plain turkey transformed into a moist, slightly fruit-flavored delight.

There seemed to be no shortage of wine, nor laughter, as we enjoyed creamed succotash, mashed potatoes with chives and cheddar dill biscuits with butter. Eric told us of his travels to Peru and Italy, while Trevor explained the banalities of corporate life at his law firm. Elizabeth and I tried to outdo each other with gravy servings, and my dad did his best impression of Grandpa Earl, holding court in our wood-paneled dining room.

The photo, slightly out of focus, is an accurate representation of my vision at the time.

Though everyone was completely stuffed (BUSUG NA!), we soldiered on through dessert, a delightful assortment of fresh creme chantilly, a fruit tart from Douce France, Racki's pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust, and pumpkin pie that had never even heard of canned pumpkin. Did we need dessert? No. Was it too much, almost painful to eat? Yes. Did we do it anyway? You can bet your bottom dollar we did.

While my waistline would suffer remarkable growth if we were to eat like this all the time (no telling how much butter goes in those mashed potatoes, or the number of eggs in the cheesecake), I would be a very happy person. What a wonderful holiday Thanksgiving is.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why do I cook?

The title to this post is a simple question, and the toughest philosophical questions often start this way. "Why are we here?" or "What do I want in life?" are easy questions to ask, but frequently impossible to answer.

I realized today what my answer is, at least to my title question; I realized today why I cook. I cook because I like to nourish others. What could be more fundamental, more essential, more life-affirming than the act of nourishing others?

This epiphany occurred at 10:45am, after making my thrice-weekly delivery of hot soup and a sandwich to a 80-something-year-old man who lives in Squaw Valley near the Village. His daughter, concerned that he wasn't getting enough protein and good, hot food, arranged for Soupa to deliver soup and a sandwich every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Good deal, right?

Now, the astute reader will notice that today is Tuesday, meaning I don't normally deliver lunch today. Truth be told: yesterday I forgot. And I felt awful, just awful, positively suicidal that I had forgotten this octogenarian's hot meal. So today, I took extra care in preparing a Soupa club, a triple-decker toasted whopper with chicken, ham, bacon, tomato, lettuce and cheddar cheese. I filled the bowl to the absolute maximum brim with sweet pea and ham soup. I raced to his front door to make sure everything was still hot when I arrived. I cared.

And that is when I realized why I cook, why I love chopping vegetables, why I love tinkering with recipes and spices and herbs, even if I might not make the perfect cookie or the perfect spaghetti sauce from scratch every time. I cook because it provides me the opportunity to care for others. I never liked the holier-than-thou attitude of educational development work in my Masters program. While the underlying goal is the same- to help others in some way- I have found that my style is to share food, rather than push ideology.

Maybe it is selfish to cook so that I can feel satisfaction, so that I can feel like I am helping others. But perhaps the motive is beside the point. I do know that my 80-year-old friend smiled from ear to ear this morning and thanked me by name. There's no better reason to cook, no better reason to work, than that.

More photos from St. Helena

A midday glass of wine never
hurt nobody. Plus I'm on

Maya Papaya checks out
the Le Creuset pans as
we run around like kids
in a candy store. Why
purchase seven issues of
Cooks Illustrated, a fish-
specific spatula and
a new neon green ceramic
paring knife? Because you
really NEED them.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Culinary Confidential- On campus

Last week I visited the Greystone Campus of the CIA, my new home come January.

I had never been to the town of St. Helena, so this trip filled in a lot of gaps in my mind. The downtown strip is filled with old bookstores, overpriced women's clothing boutiques that also sell $20 bars of soap (crazy, right?), and a yummy diner with a long table urging guests to share space with others.

After visiting the dorms, I quickly decided I will live off campus in a house I found a few blocks from school and a few blocks from the town center. I think I'm just too old for dorm life. A note on the dorm kitchen said "Closed until further notice. I told you guys to keep this space clean. -RA" Enough said.

This trip really heightened my excitement about starting school. The Wine Spectator Restaurant where I will finish my training next year serves great food. While I would recommend skipping the pumpkin empanadas, don't miss the prosciutto-wrapped ling cod- UNREAL good.

The campus is worthy of a Travel + Leisure magazine spread. When my mom and I walked into the main building, the castle in the background of this photo, I felt almost inconsequential, lucky to be there, belittled even. The towering entryway, the three-feet-thick walls, the three meter wine barrels in the Napa Valley Wine Makers' Hall of Fame: all of it was simultaneously inspiring and humbling. I may be able to cook a nice dinner, I might nail some homemade English muffins from scratch, but I ain't shit just yet.

I always feel like I have more to write, more to say, but it's getting late and I think I need some sleep. I'll keep my conclusion brief: I'm two months out, and I'm pumped!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Employee Breakfast on Opening Day

It's Opening Day at Squaw, and I'm waiting for the crowds to come. We got snow last night, not enough for the whole mountain to open, but enough for the plows to wake me up this morning.
I hustled over to Soupa to open for breakfast (shameless plug: we have a killer bacon, egg and cheese sando) and brew some coffee, but no one is fighting for first chair (YET!).
In the meantime, I decided to make myself an open-faced toastie, with onions, tomatoes, pepperjack cheese and a sunnyside-up egg. Add hot sauce and a cup of coffee and I'm ready to ski. If only I wasn't working...

Enjoy it out there, friends! Come get a cup of soup when you've skied out Exxtra-bitchin'.

Friday, November 13, 2009

My desk at Soupa

This prep station is where all the delicious soups are made at Soupa, the lunch cafe where I work in Squaw Valley. We make all our soups from scratch, starting with the stock all the way up to the herb garnishes. It's a wonderful, sunny place to chop vegetables and people-watch at the same time.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Culinary Confidential- It's happening!

I am going to culinary school.

Not in some far off, hypothetical, "Man, it would so cool to go to culinary school" way, but rather in a "Starting in eight weeks, I am looking at a massive tuition bill and 4 semesters of school in Napa" way.


My ship finally has a keel under it. For a month or so, I felt like a 17 year old in high school who constantly checks the mailbox for the early decision college letter.

Honestly, I'm a little nervous for the following reasons:

What if everyone in St. Helena is snotty and elitist? I guess I survived fraternity parties at UVA, it couldn't be that much worse. AND who am I kidding? I grew up in Palo Alto.

What if all the other students at culinary school have wicked good knife skills? I need to get on the chopping onions practice program ASAP.

What if the instructors are really mean and try to make me cry? I'll share advice from some fellow line cooks: "Smoke weed, then you won't care if they yell at you." I thought about it for a second, but then I concluded that I would burn my hands and slice off my fingertips if I tried to cook high.

Their advice, however, is pretty telling of the culinary profession. Perhaps it isn't true of everyone, but it does seems that lots of chefs operate on stimulants or depressants to deal with the pace and the stress of the job. Is that what I want to become?

No, I don't want to become an embittered, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, principally nocturnal control freak. That model is the kind of chef I would like to avoid. (Enter Gordon Ramsay's photo here.) I'm not going to be Giada DiLaurentis either, I mean, c'mon! Who cooks with that much cleavage out anyway? Put the girls away for a half hour, I can't focus on the risotto.

But I digress. The kind of chef I do want to become is a skillful one. I want to pick up some sweet skills. How I then apply those skills- whether as a chef de cuisine or a test kitchen chef or a food writer or recipe developer or food stylist- is still uncertain. I suppose it also depends on what kind of job I can get. Maybe a cooking instructor would be the perfect job, I could combine my love of food with my interest in coaching and teaching.

I can't know right now how it will all play out. The point is, as my girl Jillian would say: it's happening!