Thursday, February 25, 2010

CR Johnson

It seems like only yesterday I sat down to write a blog entry about Shane's death. Yet, here I am again, stupefied as I try to write about the death of another Tahoe friend who died in the mountains. The Squaw community just can't seem to catch a break. Maybe that's because Squaw is just such a rad place that daring, big-dreaming people congregate there, and occasionally daring, big-dreaming people lose their lives pursuing what they love.

CR Johnson died yesterday while skiing at Squaw Valley. It's senseless.

My heart breaks for his sister Kahlil and his girlfriend Jami. I remember a dinner at Kahlil's house last spring. CR had nothing but compliments for his sister's vegetable stir fry and fresh lime margaritas. Jami didn't join us because she wasn't feeling well; the thoughtful CR made her a plate of leftovers to bring home. At the time, I was still in a back brace, and CR wanted to know everything about my recovery: how I was feeling, how my rehab was going, how I felt when I saw snow falling outside. As an athlete who had recovered from a coma back in 2005, CR easily could have turned the conversation into "Well, when I was in a coma, or what happened to me was..." but he didn't. He asked me about me, and he listened to my answer, a rare response from anyone these days, let alone a professional athlete. He always greeted me by name, whether at physical therapy or on the ski hill. He smiled broadly, and often. He hugged people.

The first time I met Jami was at physical therapy. She and CR had come in because her ankle was bothering her. I was stretching my back out, but from my inverted prone position I could see the lemon meringue pie Jami made for the physical therapists. They bickered for the next two hours about who got a bigger slice or who took the last piece.

I wish I could make a pie for Jami today. Would it bring CR back? Never. Will this blog change the sorrow that Kahlil or Jami or all of us feel? Probably not, but I can hope.

CR, you were cool as shit. You will be missed.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tip of the Day: Spoon-scrape Ginger

A staple ingredient of many Asian cuisines, ginger is a funny looking root. It's knobby, gnarled and dirty, but you gotta love its pungent aroma. Sliced or grated fresh ginger makes a flavorful addition to a stir-fry or a soup, to name a few of its varied uses.

Beforehand, it's best to peel its tough, light brown skin. Since most of the flavor of the root is concentrated just below the skin, use a spoon to scrape the skin off, rather than a peeler or a small paring knife. A peeler or a knife will remove the skin better, yes- but most of the flavor too. Wash the ginger root well, and then scrape its surface with a teaspoon. It will be plenty clean AND will retain its signature spicy-sweet taste.

Try this recipe for ginger stir fry from Food and Wine Magazine or
this hearty carrot ginger soup, a favorite of mine at Soupa in Squaw Valley Village.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tip of the Day: Mushrooms

Yesterday in class, we tried tens of different mushrooms: Shiitakes, pompoms, oyster mushrooms, white buttons, Portobellos, and hen-of-the-woods, to name a few. I had never been wild about mushrooms before, mostly because they seem gross when you grab them from the refrigerator drawer. The cap surface can be slimy, greyish, and spotted- in other words, unappetizing. That's why I almost never buy them. Yesterday, we learned there is a better way to store mushrooms, and I think I'm changing my fungi-phobic ways.

Take mushrooms out of the plastic bag and wrap them in damp paper towel. (This storage method is the best way to keep fresh herbs like cilantro, basil, or Italian parsley, too.) Mushrooms grow from decomposing matter to begin with, so it's best to keep them out of the bag, where moisture and condensation can collect on the bag surface and encourage spoiling and mold growth on the mushroom surface. When you do want to use the mushrooms, just wipe them clean with the moist paper towel and give them a quick rinse in cold water. Never submerge mushrooms in water or leave them soaking because their fibrous tissue will soak up moisture and make them mushy and flabby.

With all these varieties of mushrooms to choose from, I will definitely be eating (and properly keeping!) more fungi in the future.

Here my friend Nisha does her best Vanna White impression with my new favorite kind of mushroom, the Maitake mushroom, also known in the west as Hen-of-the-Woods. It looks like coral, but when cooked, it has an earthy, almost meaty taste and a slightly crunchy texture. DELICIOUS!

Monday, February 22, 2010

How to Poach-Fry Eggs

Wait, what? A poached-fried egg? That's right, my two favorite preparations of eggs all wrapped up in one. Our chef instructor, Patrick Clark (formerly of California Cafe at Stanford and The Cliff House in San Francisco, to name a few local establishments- he knows his stuff), casually mentioned something about a poached-fried egg he used to top hot vegetable appetizers.

The recipe-less instructions were: "You poach an egg, but then stop it in an ice bath, then once it's cold, pat it dry on a paper towel. Brush it with egg whites, roll in bread crumbs and drop it in pretty hot oil for a minute or so. You'll have a crispy, golden crunchy outer layer with a soft, still liquid yolk inside. It's the best egg you'll ever have." I was intrigued.

Saturday afternoon was cold and rainy, and I needed to do something, anything to raise my spirits. How about some good ol' fashioned comfort food? I decided to try this poached-fried egg to see if it was all that Chef Clark cracked it up to be.

First you poach the eggs. The first time I tried this out, I dropped the eggs straight into water with a little vinegar, but the second time I used an egg poacher with little cups.

Either way works fine.

While the eggs poached, I set up the ice water, which stops the cooking process and keeps the yolk liquid. Make sure your egg is solid enough that it won't break apart as you scoop it out; the little sucker has to withstand not only the ice bath but the breadcrumb roll as well. At 3:00-3:30, the eggs were perfect. I removed the eggs from heat and place them directly into the ice water bath.

If you're preparing other things with the poached-fried eggs, this juncture is a good time to get those items going. The eggs can just hang out in the ice bath until you're ready to use them. In fact, many breakfast restaurants will poach eggs before service and then quickly reheat them in hot water to order. That way, eggs Benedict doesn't take thirty minutes.

Once the eggs cooled fully, I pulled them from the ice bath and let them dry on a paper towel. Be gentle, these babies need TLC! I patted them dry, and then coated them with slightly whisked egg whites.

I rolled them in bread crumbs (if you don't have bread crumbs, they're easy to make, just crush up slices of toast) and used a strainer spoon to drop them into three inches of hot canola oil (not smoking hot, but starting to make that popping sound hot).

I left the battered eggs in the oil for a little longer than a minute; they should be light brown with a dark golden crispy skin when removed. Rest the eggs on paper towel.

When you do break the crunchy eggs open- over a Brussel sprout salad like Chef Clark served at the Cliff House, or over a wilted spinach salad like I had this weekend- the piping hot but still miraculously soft egg will spill liquid yolk onto your dish, acting as flavorful protein-filled dressing.

Though this method is time consuming, it's hands-down worth it. The second time (yes, they're that good, I made deep fried eggs twice in one weekend) was easier than the first, and my conversation with Chef Clark today confirmed that a few attempts is all it takes to master this preparation. I'm hooked; they're insane!

Here's my mom at the dinner table, about to enjoy the chopped spinach topped with the poached-fried egg:

I'll close with my father's favorite photo. Thanks Pop for documenting the event!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tip of the Day: Get Rid of Garlic Breath

You're on a date and you want the garlic rolls. Or you're grabbing lunch and the garlic bruschetta sounds delicious. The only catch: garlic breath. Garlic's funky effect on breath will ruin the post-date smooch or the close-quarters afternoon meeting. What can you do if you don't have Listerine, a tooth brush, mint floss and a whole pack of Doublemint gum in your pocket?

Eat an apple after garlic consumption. Apples contain a browning enzyme that transforms the offensive garlic thiols (the garlic compound chemically related to skunk spray, no wonder it's so awful) into odorless molecules. While many raw fruits and vegetables contain this browning enzyme, apples contain the highest quantities of it; consider how apples will turn brown almost immediately after they're sliced.

So grab an apple for dessert; not only is it a healthy choice, but everyone within a ten foot radius will thank you. (And your date might actually kiss you!)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tip of the Day: Buy Unpackaged Spinach

One of my favorite healthy greens is spinach. You don't have to be Popeye to enjoy spinach for its antioxidants, iron, and fiber at hardly any calorie cost. Everyone knows spinach is a nutrient-dense food, so why don't we eat more of it?

Probably because the spinach we choose to eat isn't all that tasty. We can dramatically improve the taste of spinach by purchasing whole bunches of the leafy greens, usually wrapped with a long twist tie at the super market, rather than the bags of prewashed baby greens or the plastic cartons of spinach. Spinach plants store all their nutrients and a remarkable amount of sugar in the stems of the leaves, where they would be protected during a winter freeze. This reserve storage location helps the spinach plant survive when nutrients are scarce. When we buy baby spinach leaves without the long stems, we lose the best-tasting and most nutritious part of the plant. Today in class we tried tens of different lettuces and leafy greens; I was amazed at how flavorful and sweet (yes, sweet!) the long stems of spinach leaves are.

So grab a bunch of spinach leaves and give 'em a quick wash. They're cheaper than the prepackaged sort; they're better for the environment without the plastic bag too. Oh yeah, and they taste way better!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tip of the Day: Keeping Bread Fresh

Despite the low-carb diet craze of recent years, I still eat lots of bread. Who doesn't? Proof of bread's fundamental importance to our diet can be found in many old sayings: "Give us this day our daily bread," or "Breaking bread" or "That's our bread and butter." However, if you don't keep your bread properly, you can lose a loaf to staleness or to mold. So what's the best way to store bread?

Take bread out of the plastic bag, and store it in a paper bag at room temperature. As water molecules evaporate slowly from the staling bread, a plastic bag will only collect the moisture on the surface of the bread and encourage the growth of molds, the blueish-green or gray-white circles we've all noticed on a week-old loaf. Keeping bread in paper bag at room temperature will allow the bread to transpire a little, without promoting staling like the cold environment of a refrigerator.

I haven't baked any bread lately, so I'll close with the most recent photo I have- the challah I baked for Thanksgiving dinner. This type of homemade bread will especially benefit from a paper bag storage rather than a plastic bag. (Or you could just eat any leftovers the next morning as french toast, like we did ;-)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tip of the Day: Fresh Eggs

How can you tell if your eggs are fresh? Old culinary guides advised cooks to feel if the eggs were still warm to judge their freshness. However, since we no longer keep chickens in the backyard or use eggs straight from the hen, it can be tough to tell how fresh your eggs are. Additionally, if you take eggs out of the carton and place them on the refrigerator door or in a plastic drawer case, you might discard the cardboard with the expiration date. So how can you tell?

A fresh egg starts out quite dense. A fresh egg will sink in water, so just place the egg in question in a bowl of water. If it sinks, you're good to go. Eggs evaporate water through their porous shells, thus the longer the egg sits on a crate in a truck, or on the grocery store shelf, or in your refrigerator, it is losing moisture and thus density. An old, spoiled egg will float. So if it sits on the surface of your water, toss it!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tip of the Day: Keeping the Kitchen Utensil Drawer Organized

After yesterday's post about using metal skewers to test the internal temperature of meat, I realized I don't have any metal skewers at home. I popped into our school library to look into reviews or recommended types of skewers to buy, and I found another interesting tip in a back-issue of Cooks Illustrated magazine.

Stick your metal skewers into an old wine cork. The cork will keep the sharp tips away from your fingers when you're looking for something else in the utensil drawer, and your set of skewers will stay together. Your skewer tips will stay sharp too, which means they'll slide into vegetables and meat cubes easier when it comes time for that summer barbecue. This trick will also work with the tips of small paring knives or steak knives that don't have a handy storage case.

I guess I didn't really find out which skewers to buy or where to buy them, but when I eventually do get them, I'll know how to store them!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tip of the Day: Checking the Doneness of Meat

Ever wonder how a chef just knows when meat is done? When I cook meat at home, I'm always slicing into the thickest part of the meat, looking for color cues or blood levels. However, this practice ruins my presentation, and it lets out all the flavorful juices I worked so hard to create with marinades and searing. So just how do chefs do it?

Take a metal kebab skewer and slide it into the meat so that the tip will be in the thickest portion. Let it sit there for 15 seconds; remove it, and press the skewer tip to the back of your hand or your cheek. If it's warm, your meat is done. This technique works especially well with fish, as fish can fall apart if you try to slice it open to check doneness.

If you don't have a metal skewer, slice the meat but serve it cut side down; that way your guest still sees an immaculate surface, and you minimize loss of juices.

My faithful blog readers will remember my pork cutlet failure; if only I had known this tip back then!

Why do we want so much choice, anyway?

I'm going to post two videos we had to watch for my Introduction to Gastronomy course, and my journal entry response. The videos were meant to be thought-provoking, and here I am, one full week and several assignments later, still contemplating what they mean.

The first video is a talk by the writer Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point). He claims that we are happier because we have choice in our lives.

The second video is a rebuttal by Barry Schwartz, a professor of Social Theory at Swarthmore College, who believes that too much choice actually makes us unhappy. Too many choices leave us bewildered and paralyzed and eventually produce self-doubt.

Gladwell's talk is compelling; he reminds us that to celebrate our differences is to celebrate life. But, if you have ever stood in the toothpaste aisle at the grocery store for 15 minutes like I have, absolutely dumbfounded by the choice between Arm and Hammer and Crest Complete Care, then you know what Barry Schwartz is talking about.

If you have a moment, watch them. They're wildly entertaining speakers, and their talks cut to core of our search for happiness. Please comment too; I'd love to hear if people agree, or if you think I have my head up my rear end on this one.

Below is my journal entry.

Though many people had a negative reaction to Barry Schwartz’ TED talk, I found his argument to be quite compelling. His quarrel is not with choice itself, but rather the sheer number of choices in our lives. Schwartz doesn’t claim that choice leads to paralysis, but rather he argues that we have too much choice. Additionally, had Schwartz been given more time to speak, he might have argued that the proliferation of choice is indicative of a larger problem. Instead of feeling cornered by his talk, we, as his audience, are meant think about why we want these choices, why personalized lattes with three pumps of vanilla syrup, no bubbles, are going to make us happy, why we clamor for choice. Schwartz wants us to consider what this American need for choice truly represents.

The answer that comes to mind is our selfish values. One student plainly said, in response to customers’ inane requests at his Starbucks job, “But what about me?!” We are an individualistic culture, concerned first and foremost with ourselves. As Chef Briwa noted in class, Europeans are much more committed to communal eating values than Americans. Instead, we value what I want, not what is best for the group, what is best for the environment, or what is even available. When we say we want more choice, particularly when we talk about food, we are often saying, “I am the most important thing, my preferences should be catered to, my needs fulfilled.”

Perhaps this selfishness stems from the lack of choice in our work lives. This connection became clear to me when I re-visited Michael Pollan’s article, “No One Cooks Here Anymore,” (New York Times Magazine, August 2, 2009), a biting critique on take-out and ‘Top Chef.’ Explaining why Americans spend less and less time in the kitchen, Pollan notes that we work a lot more than we used to, a total of “167 hours- the equivalent of a month’s full time labor- to the total amount of time we spend at work each year.” Suddenly, we are working one more month but it’s still a 12 month year. The demands of our jobs leave us with no choice, but we should be thrilled that Subway now bakes bread in six varieties; garden herb, no way!

Instead of focusing on choice, an empty buzzword now that it’s been claimed by big business and politicians, shouldn’t we focus on just being happy with what we’ve got? I don’t need seventeen kinds of tomato sauce; I’m just happy to be having dinner with my family. I don’t need forty possible crust configurations for my pizza; I’m just glad I don’t live in Haiti right now. I am no Buddhist monk and serenity now often escapes me, yet we can try. Instead of saying, “I want it my way, and I want it now,” shouldn’t we just be thankful we were invited to the feast in the first place? Wouldn’t we all be a lot happier then?

For these reasons, Pollan, Schwartz and I are of the same mind, really. We should cook more because it puts us outside ourselves; we start to consider the needs of others, and we are happier for it. Gladwell’s argument that the proliferation of choice has made us happier neglects the root of the problem; we shouldn’t be unhappy people in the first place. Perhaps we should return to that grateful, convivial mentality, and recognize that we are lucky, that the good of the group is better than solely that of the individual. Perhaps then we will have chosen to be happier.

Did you know...

...where the word restaurant came from?

Like most things that have to do with formalized food, the word restaurant comes from French. It originally referred to boullion restaurant, a restorative broth that was served at taverns, inns, and roadhouses to revive weary travelers. As innkeepers began to offer more substantive meals than just broth, the name stuck and the broth name came to mean the place where it was served. Cool, huh?

Considering that restaurants used to be places you would go to be restored, to take care of your health, I can't help but laugh at "fast-food restaurants." Maybe if we keep in mind the origin of the word restaurant, we will be much healthier.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tip of the Day- Buying Fruits at the Grocery Store

I recently read an article in Gourmet magazine that advised against using "tomato-shaped rocks" that are found in your corner grocery store. Well, what do you do if you don't have a farmer's market close by, or it's the dead of winter and you're- GASP- eating a tomato out of season? Or your bananas are neon-green and chalky but you don't want to wait a week for them to ripen? How can we make the most with what we've got?

Enclose the fruit in a paper bag with another already ripe fruit (it need not be the same fruit). The ripe fruit emits ethylene gas and your target fruit will soften and sweeten because of its concentrated environment inside the paper bag. Tomatoes and bananas are climacteric fruit, meaning they can be harvested mature but hard, but then exposed to ethylene gas to ripen then. This after-harvest ripening doesn't always happen, but this little paper bag trick can improve dramatically the quality of the fruits we buy. Pears, avocados, and kiwis are the other climacteric fruits that will ripen well with the paper bag enclosure.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Tip of the Day- House Plants

Today's tip comes from the Garden Club here at the CIA; we've been talking about the unexpected benefits of gardening and a fellow student mentioned this tip. When I saw it echoed on the pages of Sunset magazine, I knew I had to pass it on.

Plants take compounds from their environment and filter them as they use the carbon dioxide in the air for their necessary life functions.
Place your smaller, potted house plants by the kitchen sink. They will naturally filter the occasional funky smell you can't seem to get rid of. This practice can also help with persistent bathroom scents.

Better for your home, and less expensive than buying Febreeze!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Tip of the Day- Buying Olive Oil

There are seventeen varieties of olive oil at the grocery store; you grab one of the cheaper ones because they're all the same, right?
That used to be my mentality. Yesterday, an Italian olive oil producer with a small farm just outside Rome came to visit the CIA, and he taught us some useful things about getting your money's worth when it comes to olive oil.

Buy olive oil in tin cans, or if there are no tin can varieties, get the darkest glass bottle. Since olive oil is pressed from the fruit of the olive, there is quite a bit of chlorophyll in the oil. The more it is exposed to light, the more oxidation will occur. This process will drastically alter the taste of the oil, and detract from its natural peppers and smoothness.

Caponetti's Organic Olive Oil

Buy the extra-virgin variety. It's usually only a couple dollar difference between the no-designation kinds and the extra virgin stuff, so spend a few extra dollars and you can be sure you are getting olive oil pressed from young (flavorful, antioxidant-rich, therefore healthy) olives. If you don't see a designation, as in it just says "Mediterranean olive oil," then what you're getting is probably a second or third press, where the waste (squeezed olive flesh, pits, leaves etc.) from the first press is squeezed again.

Lorenzo Caponetti, the Italian olive farmer, runs a bed and breakfast and sustainable farm in Tuscania, a small town in Lazio 80km northwest of Rome. Check out his website for olive oil purchasing information and photographs of his beautiful property.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mind your P's and Q's!

Ever wonder where that saying came from? You're about to go to a job interview; your mom tells you to mind your P's and Q's. Or you're in line for coffee right behind the town gossip; maybe you should button up the juicy talk. It means to watch what you say, to tighten up your program, to hold it together.

Today in lecture we learned that the saying comes from 'minding your pints and quarts," as in watch how much beer you drink. While we typically don't see beer served in quarts anymore, the saying stems from British temperance efforts to get people to drink less. This origin makes sense, because if you watch how much you drink, you won't be a blabbermouth.

Tip of the Day: Peeling Eggs

If you like healthy protein on the run, hard-boiled eggs are hard to beat. They provide an instant kick of energy, suppress hunger with their high protein content, and are pretty easy to toss in a pocket for later.

However, hard-boiled eggs that are several hours removed from boiling (or have been sitting in the fridge for a while) can be really annoying to peel. The shell breaks into little bits, sticking to the egg white with confounding persistence. Our breakfast buffet here at the CIA includes hard-boiled eggs, and I have spent the last several mornings picking at eggshells for a longer time than I would like.

So I asked a chef instructor, and I learned that a quick hot water bath followed by a cold water dunk will recreate the last minutes of boiling, and thus tell the eggshell to release its desperate, clinging hold.

You're at work, you say, and don't have a stove-top laying around? A cup of hot coffee (don't worry, the coffee won't flavor your snack, the shell is still on!) and a cup of water is really all you need. It's the temperature change that will help you peel that egg.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tip of the Day- Freezing Meat

What is the best way to freeze meat? We all grab an extra package of ground beef or some chicken breasts for that day when we want protein for dinner but all we have is a box of pasta and some Prego tomato sauce. Toss the meat in the freezer for a rainy day, right?

Well, sometimes the meat will go bad, or freezer burn will get to the steak before we can. Or some freeze jobs seem to damage meats worse than others, leaving us with a texture terribly far from the original quality of the meat.

There are better ways to freeze meat to reduce texture damage and to prolong its freezer shelf life.

The faster the meat freezes, the better. Put your freezer at its coldest setting, divide meat up into the smallest workable pieces, and freeze it unwrapped until solidified. Then wrap as tightly as possible with plastic wrap.

A quick freezing reduces the size of the ice crystals, and smaller ice crystals mean less damage to the protein cell membranes. Reduce this cell damage= keep better meat texture.

Even with rapid freezing and proper wrapping, meat will oxidize, noticeably decline in flavor, and eventually spoil. Here's a short chart with the approximate time that it will take for quality to decline significantly.

Ground beef, cooked meat: 1 month
Fresh fish and poultry: 1-2 months
Pork: 6 months
Lamb and Veal: 9 months
Beef: about 1 year

*from my new bible, Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," 2004, Scribner.