Sunday, March 28, 2010

Recipe: Avocado Salsa Verde

It's springtime in California, and this warm, sunny Sunday calls for avocado salsa and cold Pacifico cerveza. I've adapted this recipe from a old issue of Food and Wine Magazine; they found the original recipe in a cookbook from a hotel in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Coincidentally, my friends Catie and Connor were married in San Miguel de Allende last summer. Throughout our stay, we enjoyed bowl after bowl of guacamole and salsa verde much like this recipe I'm sharing now.

Here I am in the San Miguel outdoor fruit market.

You don't have go to a fresh market like this one, however, to obtain the ingredients for this recipe. Staple ingredients combined in flavorful ways make this recipe one of my favorites. Simple to prepare, this salsa verde makes guests feel special because of the grilled jalapeños and the fresh tomatillos.

Serve with blue corn tortilla chips, tacos and lots of cold beer. Feliz Primavera, amigos!

Chunky Avocado Salsa Verde

2 jalapeños
2 TBSP olive oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 pound tomatillos, husked and chopped (Tomatillos look like green tomatoes with a papery husk on the outside. Don't worry, even SaveMart has them.)
1 avocado, diced (Cut the avocado in half. Pull the pit. Scoop the flesh out with a spoon and cut into squares as if it were a graph paper grid.)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro (You can omit the cilantro if you dislike its flavor, but I highly suggest including it. The avocado can taste a little too creamy without it.)
1 TBSP fresh lime juice

1. Heat a grill pan. Grill the whole jalapeños until charred. Their outer skin will turn black; that's OK. Stem and seed the jalapeños. (Scoop all or some the white seeds out if you don't want too much spice. Leave the white seeds in if you're name is Trisha Patel and you were raised on chilis for breakfast.) Finely dice the jalapeños.

2. In sauce pan, heat olive oil. Add diced jalapeños, onions and garlic, and cook over moderate heat until golden, about 10 minutes. (At this point, your entire kitchen will smell crazy delicious.) Add tomatillos and cook until softened. Transfer to a bowl and let cool.

3. Stir in cubes of avocado, cilantro and lime juice, season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. Party.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tip of the Day: Fish Lowdown, Skip the Escolar

From our Seafood Fabrication class, I've picked up a lot of useful information about the muscular structure of fish and the effect on eating quality.

For example, sole and halibut are flat fish (both eyes on the top side of the body!) that lounge around the ocean sea floor, getting very little exercise. The fact that flat fish are such couch-potatoes means their flesh will taste very mild and will pick up the flavor of any accompanying sauce. For this reason, halibut makes it way onto many restaurant menus.

On the other hand, high activity fish (long distance swimmers like swordfish, salmon and tuna) have very developed muscle structure and highly vascular flesh. Consider the rich maroon color of ahi tuna, or the vibrant pink-orange of salmon; these fish migrate thousands of miles and their flavorful flesh proves it. Flat fish will be comparatively lean because they don't need energy reserves, while high activity fish will be rich in healthy fats and Omega 3s.

One fish with remarkable fat content is escolar, occasionally seen on specialty seafood or sushi menus. Despite escolar's novelty, even the most intrepid eater should skip it. The human stomach cannot digest the chemical structure of the fat in escolar, meaning it causes upset stomachs and other digestive problems (ahem) shortly after eating. Instead, try toro, the fatty belly of ahi tuna. The Japanese market pays top dollar for toro, so it's rarely seen here. Occasionally, toro does make its way to the U.S. If you see it on a menu, ask for a sashimi or nigiri portion- it's beyond delicious!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


After my blood test for shellfish allergy came back negative, I decided to make a concerted effort to try more seafood. Luckily for me, our Seafood Fabrication class is full of opportunity to taste oysters, lobsters, clams, mussels and crawfish.

Picking out my next oyster...

In this shot, I chose an oyster from Tomales Bay, just north of Point Reyes. Glad to know for a fact I'm not allergic to these briny, tasty delights.

The Importance of Salt

Our chef instructors tell us over and over again: the difference between merely acceptable food and memorable food is salt. We seasoned our boiling pot of potatoes, corn, Andouille sausage and Sacramento Delta crawfish with heaps of salt.

We're talking CUPS went into this crawfish boil. Louisiana native Chef Tucker Bunch (could he be from anywhere but the South with a name like Tucker Bunch?) tossed in handfuls of peppercorns, Bay leaves, coriander and chili flakes too, but the amount of salt surprised me.

The taste, however, was perfect. The live crawfish don't actually absorb that much cooking liquid since they still have their shells on. The potatoes aren't cut at all, and the corn picks up more spice than salt. Lunch was so finger-licking good that the limited elbow room at the counter caused a few spats. Alright, it was mainly me telling others to back off my real estate, but that's only because I couldn't get enough!

I do try to limit my salt intake for health reasons. My doctor reminds me to eat less salt every time I come in for a physical. While lower salt intake does have health benefits, don't cut it out completely. Salt is an essential nutrient and a vital ingredient.

Salt was once the most important commodity in the world. In Roman times, its value was so great that payment for labor or services was often made with salt. Our speech today reflects this ancient practice with the word salary (from the salt root sal-) and expressions such as “any man worth his salt.” It is also reflected in the fact that I love sea salt on everything from dark chocolate to hard-boiled eggs.

For more interesting food facts and history, check out:
Mark Kurlansky's book Salt, a history of the mineral's importance
and Harold McGee’s food lore and science bible, On Food and Cooking

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tip of the Day: How to Get Rid of Fish Hands

From my photographs this week, it’s clear we’ve been handling a lot of fish. While fresh fish shouldn’t smell foul, it does have that unique aroma that sticks around for quite a while. Clothes, hair, and hands will smell like fish for hours after cutting the stuff. An outfit change and a shower will usually do the trick, but sometimes your hands just keep stinking. What to do?

To get rid of fish smell, wash your hands with lemon juice and salt. The abrasive salt will scrub the last remaining offensive particles from your skin, while the lemon juice refreshes with its clean, citrus scent. After cutting cod, skate, trout, monkfish and salmon this week, you can bet your bottom I’ve been using this little trick a lot. (Just be careful if you have scratches or paper cuts on your hands, the lemon juice will sting!)

Best Suited Cooking Methods for Meat

One of the most valuable lessons from our Meat Fabrication class has been the linking of various cuts of meat to their original location on the animal. Where a cut of meat comes from on the carcass will inform the best cooking methods for that cut. As a general rule, the further from the hoof, the more tender the cut will be.

Osso buco is a cross section of a calf’s leg bone and its surrounding muscles; it must be slow braised since these muscles exercise with every step the cow takes, and thus produce tough meat.

Consider the tenderloin- a long muscle that runs along the inside of the rib cage, far from the hoof and protected from strenuous exercise by the ribs. It’s not surprising that the word tender is part of its name, nor that filet mignons hail from this region of the animal as well.

The most surprising discovery from our butchery lessons last week was the provenance of the skirt steak, cut from the diaphragm muscle in the belly. Responsible for drawing air into the lungs, the diaphragm contracts thousands of times a day, meaning skirt steak will be terribly tough. Now it makes perfect sense that skirt steak is always marinated for long periods of time; otherwise, it’d be too chewy to enjoy.

It’s remarkable how a simple anatomy lesson can teach so much about appropriate cooking methods. Our Chef Instructor reminded us that to butcher meat properly and to cook it well is to honor the animal that has died for our dinner. I buy that, for sure.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tip of the Day: Cleaning up Fish Guts

Today's tip: When scrubbing down countertops covered in fish scales, guts, and slime, be sure to use plenty of soap and water but DON'T scrub so vigorously as to splash your chef instructor with fishy soap scum. Invariably, he will not be amused by your hurried cleaning, and he will use the word "demoted" to refer to your kitchen status post gaffe. True story.

Aside from my total shank on the clean up, I really enjoyed Fish Fabrication today. We cut, from the top to the bottom of the cutting board below: flounder, trout, and Thai snapper.

Here I am with my filet'ed flounder.

Lastly, I get a little fresh with the trout. He was making big eyes at me; I had to!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Did you know... Dry Aged Steaks

Picture the scene: you’re at a classic steakhouse, the kind with tall leather banquettes, wood-paneled walls and maitre d’s in white tuxedo jackets. The extensive wine list intrigues you, the Bearnaise sauce calls your name, and the dry aged steak must be tasted. If it’s ten dollars more than the filet mignon, surely it’s the best cut on the menu.

But... ever wonder what you’re paying for?

Meat Fabrication class focuses on the different ways to concentrate flavor in meat, and dry aging- hanging large cuts of beef in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room for several weeks- is one of them. Historically, meat products were preserved either with a heavy, dry salt cure or through this dry aging process. The former method gives us prosciutto and jamón serrano (how thankful are we!), while the latter produces the valuable dry aged steak. However, the reason an aged steak is so expensive is because dry aging is actually a form of controlled spoilage; the outer section will have to be trimmed off to reveal the flavor-concentrated center. Once trimmed, the remaining steak is sublime but expensive because so much meat has been lost to spoilage. When you order an aged steak, you pay for more complex flavors, yes, but you’re also paying for a large portion of meat that isn’t on your plate.

This discovery will not deter me from ordering aged steaks in the future; I’m just amazed to learn the elaborate preparations and efforts that haute cuisine requires.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Breaking Down Lamb- Vegetarians Might Get Squeamish...

Ever wonder what a whole lamb looks like?

The neck is curled up on the far side of the saw.

Below: the hind legs of the lamb get split into their two sides, right through the pelvis.

Tip of the Day: Skip the Pre-marinated Pork

Ever see those marinated pork tenderloins at the grocery store? I’ve tried the Teriyaki and Lemon Pepper varieties; I thought they were pretty decent, but I was a little worried that I couldn’t control the salt content since they're vacuum sealed. While these pre-marinated pork tenderloins may seem like a convenient time saver, we learned today in our Meat Fabrication class that the meat is actually defective, and these flavor-enhanced tenderloins are the pork industry’s attempt to sell less-than-optimal pork meat.

Left: a whole pig, cut the long way. Thanks to Anne's hand for perspective.

What do I mean by defective? This pork is safe for human consumption, but the reason it has made its way into a pre-marinated package is because after slaughter, this pork meat was designated PSE, an acronym for “pale, soft, and exudative.” Since it doesn’t have good pink color, lacks healthy, firm texture and exudes all its moisture (read: gets slimy quickly and dries out quickly upon cooking), this meat isn’t suitable for pork chops, cutlets or roasts. I have to commend the pork industry for their inventive marketing, but the fact of the matter is these “enhanced” tenderloins are injected with sodium phosphate and flavorings to make a buck on meat that would otherwise not make it to market.

Instead, look for pork meat that has a darker pink color (more flavor than pale white meat, see photograph below) with moderate fat marbling for the best quality. Is Hormel going to send their henchmen to straighten me out? Maybe, but I have been duped before by enhanced pork products; I figured I had to share.

Below, our Chef Instructor Tucker Bunch breaks down a pork loin.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Tip of the Day: Don't Stuff Poultry

Today in Meat Fabrication class, we butchered chickens and discussed the numerous ways to cook birds. One of the most important lessons of the day was to cook the bird evenly, which can be tricky with whole poultry (whole chicken, turkey or smaller game hens). Because I tend to like rice or apricots or bread stuffing with roasted chicken, I was shocked to learn that it's best NOT to stuff a bird. Wait, what about Thanksgiving stuffing? What about delectable Cornish game hens?

The key to stuffing a bird is using only aromatics (lemons, herbs, or onions) instead of rice, bread or other grain products.
Aromatics will flavor the chicken or turkey from the inside out, but they won't affect the internal cooking temperature. In contrast, bulky stuffing only promotes bacterial growth inside the bird. The slow, warm cooking temperature in the cavity coupled with the starchy stuffing ingredients create the ideal, cozy environment for growth if bacteria are present (not quite the Cancun party of sponges, but comfortable, nonetheless).

Heavy stuffing also prevents the bird from cooking evenly. By the time the stuffing has cooked through, you've overcooked the heck out of the bird. No wonder Thanksgiving turkey can be so hard to get right.

While it's true we're months from the holidays, this tip also can be applied to whole roasted chickens, a year-round favorite.

Tomorrow we are butchering beef. Keep you posted on our next lesson!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tip of the Day: Keeping Cheese

This week has been dairy overload here at Greystone. Monday night we tasted Mexican cheeses (Panela, Oaxaca, and Queso Fresco) in Spanish Club. Tuesday night's Cheese Club meeting showcased fresh and aged goat cheeses from Vermont. Wednesday was a dairy tasting that involved buttermilk to skim milk and everything in between. In this photo, I'm trying yet another cheese- I can't remember if it was Vella Dry Jack, Farmstead Cheddar or Carmody. They're all blending together!

More important than just eating all these cheeses, however, have been the lessons in how to keep cheese in the refrigerator. Cheeses are actually living things; the bacteria in cheese respire and change the nature of the cheese, while preserving the cheese at the same time. So what's the best way to keep cheese?

If it's a fresh cheese (like mozzarella fresca, feta or mascarpone), keep it tightly covered to retain moisture, and store in the back of the refrigerator to keep as cold as possible. These cheeses are just one step away from fresh milk and should be handled similarly.

If it's a soft, bloomy rind cheese (like Stilton Blue, Brie, Camembert or Mt. Tam), wrap it in paper or perforated plastic wrap; these cheeses need to breathe. If they are wrapped tightly in plastic, their exhalations will cause condensation on the inside of the plastic wrapper and create new, different (i.e. bad for that cheese) types of mold.

If it's a hard cheese (like Cheddar, Gruyere, or Grana Padano), it's alright to enclose in plastic wrap. These cheeses aren't quite as alive as the softer cheeses, meaning their moisture content has pretty much run its course.

American writer Clifton Fadiman once said, "Cheese is milk's leap towards immortality." In respect for the gifts and pleasures of cheese, I think it's only appropriate that we help it towards immortality as best we can. It's just so darn good!

Photos: Desserts at Culinary School

The gorgeous, overflowing bounty found daily on the culinary school dessert table. This photo collection is dedicated to the "candy kitchen crew," the most precise, talented group of cooks around.

A rainbow of petit fours. As lovely to look at as they are to eat.

Almond Rochers and Madeleine cookies (Proust, eat your heart out).

Mini strawberry cream tarts and Chocolate Bouchee sandwiches

Chocolate Othellos (think high class Twinkies)

Mini Mousse Cups with fresh berries and Dark chocolate coins topped with dried fruits and nuts

Chocolate Coconut Tortes, topped with the coolest chocolate wafer I've ever seen. How do they make those?

Assorted truffles rolled in cocoa

Did I mention I have a terrible sweet tooth? ;-)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tip of the Day: Ditch the Sponge

We are two days from taking our Food Safety certification exam, the ServSafe test. Not only do chefs need to be talented cooks, but we need to know how to run clean, safe kitchens as well.

Today's tip doesn't have to do with cooking, but rather food safety. Because the average kitchen sponge is dirtier than your toilet, use a wire brush or a thin, green scrubber pad instead when washing dishes. The thick, foam structure of a sponge is to bacteria what Cancun is to drunken spring breakers: party time. No matter how often you run your sponge through hot water or where you store it, the sponge is just too dirty to be used for cleaning food items.

The wire brushes and thin, green scrubber pads will dry much faster and have less porous surface area, making them less hospitable environments for bacterial growth.

While I prefer to stay away from scare-tactic tips, I couldn't keep the "sponge-is-dirtier-than-your-toilet" image to myself. Don't let this stop you from cooking at home; just cook clean!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Root of the Word "Avocado"

Avocados are a hallmark of Californian cuisine and I love them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But ever wonder where we got the name?

The word avocado comes from the Central American language Nahuatl, spoken by ancient Aztecs and some indigenous Mexicans today. Referring to the avocado's pear-like shape and its bumpy skin surface, the Nahuatl root word ahuacatl literally means "testicle."

Sorry for being juvenile, but I'm never gonna eat an avocado again without chuckling a little inside.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tip of the Day: Avoid Sticky Pasta with Lemon Juice

Despite the low-carb madness of recent years, I love pasta. No matter the dish- linguini with cream sauce, spaghetti and meatballs, ravioli, capellini primavera, I love them all- the most important element is how you actually cook the pasta. How frustrating is it when you cook spaghetti but then it turns into that sticky tangle in the strainer?

Two cooking techniques to avoid sticky pasta: 1. Use lots of water (5 quarts of water to every pound of pasta) to dilute the starch released during cooking and to keep the noodles separated.

2. Add a little lemon juice to the boiling water. Most municipal water companies add calcium and magnesium to tap water (giving it a mineral taste frequently called "hard water") to prevent pipe corrosion. While this treated city tap water is fine to drink, the alkaline pH of the water breaks down the noodle surface much faster than neutral or slightly acidic water. Lemon juice balances out the pH of the water and reduces stickiness.

If you're not going to eat the pasta immediately, you can also toss the noodles with olive oil to prevent sticking.

Culinary School Photos

Maui onions, cipollinis, pearl onions, green onions, leeks, and gingers for our root vegetable tasting. Our chef instructor had us chop these up and caramelize them to taste their differences.

The lunchtime dessert table, which is fully stocked everyday with truffles, cakes, pies, and tarts from the Baking and Pastry classes. INSANE.

Citrus Tasting in our Product Knowledge class. We try Minneola oranges, blood oranges, Meyer lemons, Persian lemons, key limes, Rangpur limes, kumquats, pomelos, ruby grapefruit, I can't even remember them all. We do this tasting for every subcategory of produce (lettuces, root vegetables, apples and pears, cabbages, spices). Definitely beats regular lecture classes.

Germinating Seeds

I joined the garden club, and I'm learning heaps. Here Deborah and I prepare trays for cucumber seeds. When they sprout, we'll transfer them outside to the garden. When they're fully grown, we'll sell our produce at the St Helena Farmers Market!