Monday, December 21, 2009

Tip of the Day x5

5 Tips to Becoming a Better Cook

By no means am I an expert; at work I am reminded daily that I have lots to learn on the road to becoming a professional chef. However, there are a couple general practices I've learned that have helped me a lot and made cooking more enjoyable. I hope they can do the same for you, my dear reader:

1. Take care of your knives. Knives are the most basic tool a cook owns; even without fire, a knife can make a meal. Never put knives in the dishwasher (I know our moms told us this rule, but I forgot it once in front of our chef and I will never forget it again). A little soap and water will certainly be enough cleaning. With sharper knives, chopping and slicing are easy tasks instead of frustrating (or even dangerous) chores.

2. Cook clean. By cooking clean, I do mean hygenic, but I also mean keep a clean work station. Wiping counters as you go, washing tools while sauces simmer or bread bakes- all of these little moves while cooking contribute to a better work station. When cooking at home, these little steps mean you have less to clean afterwards, when the food coma has set in.

3. Be resourceful. Can the little celery leaves from the center stalks be used to garnish even the most simple plate? Can last night's roast chicken be sliced elegantly for a chicken Caesar? Can I keep my stale bread ends for croutons or bread pudding desserts? Yes! Think of your leftovers and trimmings not as scraps but as pieces of a larger puzzle. You'll be amazed how you can lower your food costs.

4. Follow a recipe. Unless you absolutely 100% remember every little piece to a recipe, be sure to read what you're about to do. Respect the food you're cooking; a haphazard, slapdash approach to a dish will show. It is important to a have a feel for what you're cooking, but until you really know flavors and ratios, freestyling can backfire, like my homemade tomato sauce that was more like an oregano-thyme smoothie. Yuck.

5. Go for it. The only way to learn to cook and to improve is to do it. Cook new things, recipes you've never considered, use spices you can't pronounce. I've only scratched the surface of the possibilities in the last six months. Cooking is a trial-and-error activity. What's the worst that could happen? You get to eat your mistakes!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tip of the Day- Parmesan Cheese

I love Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, but I have to admit I sometimes buy Grana Padano or Asiago cheese instead because the real stuff is so expensive. If you do splurge for Parmigiano, a great way to get more out of your wedge is to use the rind. Yep, the rind of real Parmigiano cheese is edible, it just needs to be softened up. You can keep the rind in the freezer until you want to add it to a simmering soup, especially Italian soups like Tuscan White Bean or Ribollita. Give it at least 20 minutes, and the rind will soften and add its salty flavor to your broth.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Homemade English Muffins

Few things are as comforting as a toasted english muffin. They are crunchy on the outside, chewy under the crust, perfect with butter and soup. I have never met anyone who dislikes english muffins. They're like kittens or pink Starburst candy: everyone is a fan.

English muffins aren't baked in an oven, as I previously thought. They are cooked on a griddle, flipped once to give both sides their flat, golden crust. They are simple to make and well worth the wait.

I used this recipe:


* 1 cup milk
* 2 tablespoons white sugar
* 1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
* 1 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
* 1/4 cup melted butter
* 6 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 teaspoon salt

1. Warm the milk in a small saucepan until it bubbles, then remove from heat. Mix in the sugar, stirring until dissolved. Let cool until lukewarm. In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, combine the milk, yeast mixture, butter and 3 cups flour. Beat until smooth. RUTHIE'S NOTE: do not use a hand-held mixer with two removable egg beaters. My first go of things I did, and the dough just wound itself up the beaters and became difficult. Second time, I used a spoon and my hands, and it worked fine. Better, if you have one: a countertop Kitchenaid Mixer with a dough hook. Then Add salt and rest of flour, or enough to make a soft dough. Knead. Place in greased bowl, cover, and let rise.
3. Punch down. Roll out to about 1/2 inch thick. Cut rounds with biscuit cutter or drinking glass. Sprinkle waxed paper with cornmeal (or plain bread crumbs) and set the rounds on this to rise. Dust tops of muffins with cornmeal/crumbs also. Cover and let rise 1/2 hour.
4. Heat greased griddle. Cook about 10 minutes on each side on medium heat. Let cool before storing.

recipe from:

The only change I made was I substituted one cup of whole wheat flour with the regular flour. Also, this recipe calls for a cornmeal dusting, which I didn't have. Instead, bread crumbs worked just fine.

Once you cut them with a cookie cutter or upside down water glass, let them rise and then just throw them on a greased griddle. Flip after ten minutes, watching the muffins that are closest to the heat source. My muffins in the center of the griddle browned much faster than the ones towards the edge, and I sacrificed a couple in my first batch because I didn't rotate their positions.

Here they are mid-griddle session:

The finished product is different than a Thomas' English Muffin from the grocery store; it doesn't have quite the spongy nooks and crannies of commercial muffins.
However, homemade english muffins toast better and their heartier texture is better suited to savory and sweet toppings. We enjoyed them with eggs and La Victoria Hot Salsa for breakfast, as well as spread with butter and topped with cinnamon and sugar sprinkles for dessert.

The recipe can be time-consuming; it is about 40 minutes of hands-on time plus the rising time in the middle (which is perfect time to clean up, get in a quick walk, or just watch Jeopardy!). Don't be deterred, though; the recipe is straight-forward and these babies are worth the time.

I have suggested a few toppings, namely the eggs and salsa and the cinnamon and sugar dessert toast. Now I'll end this post with a poll- what is your best english muffin topping? Mini pizzas? Cream cheese AND cheddar? I want to hear everyone's variation!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tip of the Day Revision

This morning we made better bacon in the oven, but I have an addendum to my previous Tip of the Day.

Be sure to use a cookie sheet or baking pan with an edge. Flat baking sheets with no edge will allow the bacon grease to spill into your oven or all over your kitchen when you go to move the pan. Commercial sheet pans have edges to contain the grease, and I forgot that little detail at home this morning. Oops!

Also, it took a little longer to cook the bacon in a home oven- about 20-25 minutes total. I think commercial convection ovens are more efficient.

Apart from the slightly longer cooking time and the nasty grease spill, the bacon came out just right: flat, barely crispy, and the perfect addition to a scrambled egg and avocado breakfast sandwich.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tip of the Day- Soups with Noodles or Rice

I'm feeling a little sick today, and my sore throat and stuffy nose are asking for a homemade chicken noodle soup. Today's tip is how to make a homemade noodle soup or rice soup that will hold for a few days without the preservatives of canned soups.

Cook your noodles or rice separately, and cook them a little underdone too. Add them only when you're ready to eat the soup; otherwise the noodles can disintegrate and change the consistency of your broth.

We use this technique at Soupa to keep a soup overnight, and it also proves useful if a guest asks for something without gluten.

If only getting rid of my cold were just as easy!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tip of the Day- Better Bacon

Bake your bacon.

I love bacon, but it's got to be just perfect for me to justify the grease. I recommend ditching the frying pan; bacon can burn really easily and it tends to curl up into little unappetizing shoelaces dripping with fat.

When cooked in the oven, bacon stays flat and cooks more evenly. Lay the bacon on a flat cookie sheet with parchment paper under it and just pop it in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes. Your hands will be free to cook whatever else is on the menu, your shirt won't be spattered with fat, and your burner will be available for coffee or eggs.

Don't cut the bacon out of your diet, just make it better!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tip of the Day- What to do with stale baguettes

I never seem to eat a whole baguette before it gets too hard. I recently learned that stale baguettes can be salvaged as thinly sliced crostini if you pop them in the freezer. Leave the baguette in the freezer for at least an hour; then when you go to slice it, the frozen bread will hold up even when sliced paper-thin. Give the slices a sprinkle of olive oil and salt and pepper and toast in the oven for ten minutes. The thin, golden toasts can be used in refreshing summer hors d'oeuvres like bruschetta or as the perfect garnish for heartier winter soups like butternut squash.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tip of the Day

This tip may be old news to some readers, but I recently learned to store tomatoes on the counter, not in the refrigerator. The refrigerated air will make the normally sweet tomato turn acidic. Plus, most tomatoes are picked well before they are ripe, so keeping them at room temperature allows them to ripen faster.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tip of the Day

I don't have Eggs Benedict at home as much as I would like, given the calorie total and preparation difficulty of Hollandaise sauce. Today's tip is simple: just skip the Hollandaise and add other flavorful, moist ingredients to create a healthier Benedict at home. While Hollandaise calls for lots of egg yolks and butter, use instead avocado, tomato and a softer poached egg to get all the flavor and moisture of a traditional Benedict without the heavy heart-stopping sauce. With this lighter version, you don't have to be afraid of eating both halves of the english muffin!

Go for a lighter Eggs Benedict and even your plate will smile at you.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Review: The Refuge

Did you know there was a happening Belgian gastropub in San Carlos? That's right, San Carlos.

I didn’t know, but I was lucky enough to go there a few weeks ago with my close friend Christie, and her parents Mark and Cindy Ginanni. We had a blast.

I have to preface this restaurant review with a note about the Ginannis. Everyone has that friend that can sniff out a good time, knows where to find the goods, always knows “some guy” who can hook it up. The Ginanni family has this role down pat.

Are you thinking about taking a vacation in Italy/Germany/Mexico? Mark and Cindy know a count who is just dying to host you at his villa.

Looking for something to do on a quiet Monday night? The Ginannis are hosting a pizza party around their backyard wood-fired oven. You have got to come drink wine and toss dough.

We once went to the beach in Half Moon Bay but we were met with cloudy, freezing weather. Instead of being bummed out, we used kelp for a jump rope and snapped perfect candid shots while laughing our asses off.

I could go on forever, but I won’t because this blog is supposed to be about food. The point is- the Ginannis are people who got the joie de vivre memo and they encounter great food and experiences because of it.

Thus it was no surprise that they were the ones to introduce me to Refuge, a gem of a spot on a slightly random residential street in San Carlos.

Refuge makes no bones about their primary purpose in life: to serve good beer. They have a beer list that puts most restaurants’ wine lists to shame in terms of size and variety. My two favorite Belgian beers are Delirium Tremens and Duvel, and Refuge had these two plus many more I had never seen. I also love raspberry beer (I know, I’m a girl), so I couldn’t pass on the St. Louis Framboise Lambic. Whether you’re looking for a dark, chocolate-looking beer, or something fruity, Refuge pours your beer any way you like it.

While I’m not arguing that beer drinking as an activity needed improvement, Refuge sure adds a little fun with the different shaped beer-specific glasses. Cindy ordered the beer Kwak only because it is served in a narrow beaker with a wooden coachman’s handle. It’s brilliant marketing by the Belgian beer makers. Why not have another beer? I want to see what kind of glass will accompany it!

The food at Refuge is the perfect complement to its beer-loving identity. We ordered the charcuterie platter, which comes in several sizes. We picked nine items (but you can pick any number you like) from their list of house-made sausages, salamis, and a variety of cheeses. Our obliging server returned with a plate piled so high, we could barely see each other over the slices of crusty bread, the candied nuts, the apricot compote, and the country paté.

Or was my vision going because Delirium Tremens is 10% alcohol by volume? Nah.

Also, the headier Belgian beers pair perfectly with cheese; I loved the creamy Explorateur cheese, while Christie favored the Chimay Grand Cru. Don’t miss either of them if they are still offered on the menu.

For my Bay Area friends who are tired of eating in downtown Palo Alto or the Marina in San Francisco, Refuge is a more-than-worthy alternative. The list of beers alone is reason enough to go; their delicious food is a bonus. If you’re lucky, you’ll see Mark and Cindy, or some other member of the Ginanni clan, and soon you’ll be smiling at ridiculous glass arrangements like this one below and laughing so hard you’ll want to write about it nearly a month later.

The Refuge
963 Laurel St
San Carlos, CA 94070
(650) 598-9813

Tip of the Day

I've been working in two professional kitchens for about six months now, and I am learning a lot.
I decided to do a (nearly) daily post, not too long, that shares these little nuggets of useful kitchen information. Hopefully, these tips will be news to some of my readers. Everything that I share here will be something that I didn't know before I started working in a professional kitchen.

Tuesday Tip of the Day: When using a cutting board to chop vegetables, herbs, meat, anything, place a damp tea towel or rag under the board. The damp cloth will keep the cutting board from sliding around on your counter top, reducing the effort it takes to chop things cleanly and keeping your fingers safe from errant knife strokes.