Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Gardening at Greystone

"What happened to your face?" Rosario suddenly asked me the other day. My friend in the dish room at school was deeply concerned about the sunspots on my cheeks. I explained to her that I often get funny pigmentation on my skin in the summertime, underscoring that it was totally fine because I'm actually trying to look like a catcher's mitt by the time I'm 40.

But seriously, the real reason for my super dark complexion these days is the amount of time I've been spending in the student garden here at Greystone. The work can be exhausting, but I consider it an opportunity to get three birds with one stone: gardening, exercise AND some stress-busting vitamin D production all at once.

Located between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail on Deer Park cross road, our two acre garden plot is not impressive at first glance. Started four years ago by a small, dedicated group of students, the student garden is neither well-funded nor perfectly organized. We don't weed every day. The chain link fences that divide our plot from neighboring vineyards wouldn't mesh with a landscape architect's vision for a Napa Valley garden.

Somehow, none of that matters. I've wandered the neatly manicured rows of the French Laundry garden, across the street from that temple of haute cuisine in Yountville. I've poked around Brix' beautiful beanstalks and I've picked perfect parsley from Plump Jack's herb garden in Squaw Valley. I love our garden the best, if only because it's ours.

Our student garden has hay bales all over the place, but we know that hay, when strewn over the rows of plants, will help retain moisture. The fava bean remnants have been laying around for weeks, but that's only because we were waiting for them to dry out so we could clear the rows easily with a rake. The rose bushes need to be trimmed. Sometimes, the irrigation tape running the length of the rows will spring a leak, and pools of excess water- and weeds- will erupt uninvited.

But when smitten, we see what we want to see, and all I see is beauty.

Left: Serrano chiles waiting to spice up my avocado salsa verde

On days when I feel overwhelmed in the kitchen, I long for the garden. Cooking challenges me, but gardening soothes me. An afternoon in the garden erases bad knife skills, missed plating window times and disappointing dishes. An afternoon in the garden reminds me that cooking is only the final expression of a long, delicate process of coaxing dirt and seed to bear fruit. An afternoon in the garden gives me cotton-candy sweet sungold tomatoes and eggs with golf-ball sized golden yolks. Edible flowers pop with color that begs to brighten my dinner salad. Blackberries tease me with a few winners but mostly still-bitter fruit. I see geese swoop down to the irrigation pond in perfect formation, while our garden manager, Luis, tells me jokes that shake my ribs with laughter.


Do I sound like my father the poet, waxing philosophical about dirt, flowers and weeds? The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, I suppose. But things are happening in the garden this summer, both with vegetables and flowers, and within me. I feel closer to the person I want to be.

Now if only I could remember to wear sunscreen.

When we have enough of it, we sell our produce at the St. Helena Farmer's Market. Left: Our price board from the season's first market in May.

Edible flowers and herbs for sale

The gallina girls

Sungold tomatoes at various stages of ripeness

Sunflowers in bloom

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Did you know...? Nigiri and Sushi

...what nigiri means? or sushi for that matter?

Whether I go to Blue Ribbon in New York, Mamasake in Squaw or Fuki Sushi in Palo Alto, I love getting nigiri sushi. But before our Cuisines of Asia class today, I never really knew what I was ordering.

Nigiri is a thin slice of fish laid over an elongated ball of rice, with fresh wasabi underneath for some punch.
Close-up of Nigiri sushi with salmon held between chopsticks

However, the word nigiri means finger, and the name comes from both the thin, curved shape of the fish and the hands that create it. The elegant curve is meant to evoke a fish jumping clear out of water. Gorgeous, right?

Sushi itself refers to the rice, not the elaborate rolls we have come to equate with the name. Su- means vinegar and shi- refers to the cooked rice. Thus, the most important element in sushi is the quality of the rice. Supermarket sushi rice is invariably a cold, sticky mess, more closely related to wallpaper paste than the melt-in-your-mouth quality of good sushi rice.

Once we get the rice down, the fish element poses a larger question: what about the health of our oceans? A recent New York Times Magazine cover story warned of the end of blue fin tuna and the decline of our fisheries. How do I reconcile my love of sushi with a desire to be sustainable as well?

Here at school, our instructors frequently point us to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch for the latest information on sustainable fisheries. There's even an iPhone app for that! You can search by fish or by region, and Seafood Watch will rate how sustainable your choice is. Now it's easy to have your, fish and eat it too.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tip of the Day: Cleaning A Pan with a Burned Bottom

I learned today's tip from the ladies in the dish room at Greystone. Day after day, they take our scorched, greasy pans and clean up our mistakes without grumbling. I've burned a couple pans pretty bad, but they taught me how to release the nasty, tough bottom layer without hours of soaking or scrubbing.

Fill the pot with enough water to cover the burned area and place it back on the stove. Turn the burner on to medium-low and just let it simmer. In the meantime, do other dishes. Try to make the dish over again, this time without the bitter, burnt taste. Or, if the creation can be salvaged, go ahead and eat. Twenty minutes at a low simmer will release the burned crust easily. Simple as that!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Key to Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies

Everybody loves a good chocolate chip cookie; they're simple to make AND they're wonderfully delicious. The recipe I've been using for years came off the Toll House chocolate chips bag. I love how easy the measurements are with just one stick of butter and one egg.

However, recent conversations with Corrie Beezley, a Greystone graduate who now runs her own cookie bakery The Farmer's Market Pantry, revealed that I've been missing two important components in cookie baking: 1) I haven't been using enough brown sugar, and 2) the cookie dough should be baked from frozen, not room temperature.

Following Corrie's advice, I tweaked my recipe a little. Instead of equal parts brown and white sugars, I upped the brown sugar ratio. I also used room temperature butter and egg, and then froze the scoops of dough before baking. This technique prevents the dough from melting across the pan. Cold butter holds it shape better and produces a taller cookie, rather than the flattened pancake type I've struggled with for years. Be patient with first, the butter coming to room temperature and second, the freezing process before baking. By freezing the dough, I finally achieved the moist, chewy cookie I've been trying to bake for years.

Notice I'm not saying they're the best EVER- those of us who have been to Wildflour Bakery in Squaw Valley know that would be a tough claim. But this recipe comes from years of tinkering and a few small changes in the method that really make a perfect homemade cookie.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
yield: 16- 2" cookies

1 stick butter, softened to room temperature (do not microwave to soften, this just produces runny cookie dough)
1 egg
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup + 3 TBSP flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup chocolate chips

1. Combine the butter, egg, sugars and vanilla until creamy.
2. Mix the remaining ingredients before adding to the butter mixture to insure ingredients are evenly spread.
3. Combine dry ingredients with butter mixture.
4. Using an ice cream scoop, make balls of dough on a plate and place in the freezer for at least an hour. Be patient. This step is the crucial part of the recipe.

5. Preheat oven to 375F.
6. Grease a baking sheet with a little butter, or use a SilPat silicone sheet if you've got one.
7. Place the cookies an inch apart on the sheet, and bake for 12 minutes, or until very light golden in color.

8. When the cookies look like they're a minute or two away from finished, pull them out and allow them to finish cooking on the pan. This technique creates a soft center without over-browning the outside of the cookie. Even if the cookies look underdone when you pull them, another two minutes on a hot pan will finish them off nicely. As soon as the cookies are firm enough, transfer to a wire rack or paper towel to cool.

9. Pour yourself a glass of milk and enjoy!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Tip of the Day: Kitchen Tools

People often ask me "What is one kitchen tool you can't live without?" While there are a few specialty tools that really make the difference between the professional and the home kitchens, most tools aren't anything nifty or high tech. Specialty stores like Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma would have you think otherwise; how else are they going to sell that Christmas Tree shaped spatula or motorized bread knife?

The truth is: most of the tools you need are already in your kitchen, you just need to re-purpose them.

Don't have a super sharp chef's knife for slicing tomatoes? Don't have a mandolin either? Use a serrated knife. The teeth will grab the tomato skin while you slice, keeping the tomato from squirting away from you under a dull knife.

Tired of cupcakes, muffins or cookies that turn out all different shapes and sizes? (I've run into this problem when children feel slighted because of a much smaller cookie or cupcake.) Use an ice cream scoop for even amounts of dough. With cupcakes, the ice cream scoop transfers the batter to the liners with much less spillage than a spoon.

For large parties, use an ice cream scoop to portion guacamole, mashed potatoes, and potato or pasta salad. (Just be sure you wash it after those chocolate chip cookies!)

Don't have a melon baller to scoop perfect spheres of fruit or to clean out cucumber seeds? Use a tablespoon measure.

No rolling pin in your kitchen for pizza dough or pie crust? Wash off the side of a wine bottle.

Is the salesman at Williams-Sonoma urging you to buy elbow-high oven mitts made of space age silicone for a cheeky $150? Tell him to buzz off; those gloves only make your hands sweat. Instead, keep a folded kitchen towel hanging on your apron string or just sitting on the counter by your workspace. You're not Homer Simpson in a nuclear reactor; you're a cook!

So don't sweat the equipment, really. Make like MacGyver and get creative with whatever you've got. Nine times out of ten, professional chefs are doing the same thing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Mango Avocado Salsa

Summer is the perfect time to take advantage of big, fresh tastes like mango, avocado, cilantro and lime. Make this salsa with grilled fish for a light and flavorful dinner, or serve with a vegetable quesadilla to revitalize your lunch routine.

Above: Pan-seared sea bass on a bed of arugula greens and mango avocado salsa, topped with crispy leeks.

Mango Avocado Salsa
yield: 2 cups (enough for 2 dinner portions, or 1 portion of salsa dip)

1 ripe mango
1 avocado
1 red bell pepper
1 shallot (small, purple onion look-alike)
1 leek (cut off the woody green top and just use the white bottom bit, but trim the roots)
1 ear of corn, grilled and cleaned off cob (see yesterday's post)
1 jalapeno pepper
1/4 bunch of cilantro, rough chopped
1 lime, juiced and zested
salt and pepper

1. If you're using the salsa as a bed for grilled fish, thinly slice all the vegetables and combine. It will resemble a shoe-string salad. If you're making a salsa for chips or dips, chop everything into rough squares.
2. Toss with the cilantro and lime juice and zest. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Tip of the Day: Clean Corn Quickly

The perfect summer vegetable? Corn on the cob. We're in prime corn season at the moment, and sweet corn on the cob ranks high on my list of things to throw on the grill. Yet, pulling the husk and the silk threads can be a little annoying. The thin silk strands can stick to the kernels, making more prepreparation than you bargained for.

Don't peel the husk or silk before cooking your corn. Instead, throw the whole ear of corn, husk and all, right on the barbecue or straight into a 350F oven for 10 minutes, at least. The heat will cook the sticky silk threads and make them easier to pull off.

Protected in the husk, corn can stay on the grill or in the oven for nearly 30 minutes and be fully cooked through. Leave the corn for a shorter time if you just want to peel the husk and silk, and then boil the corn in water. I prefer to toast the corn "naked" on the grill for a slightly smoky taste.

Summer corn ideas:

Pull the husk and silk back, but don't detach from the cob. Tie with a short piece of twine for an elegant backyard presentation.

Turn the corn vertical and run a knife down the cob to free all the kernels.
Then: Add to a chopped salad with tomatoes and avocado.
Add to any salsa for some bright yellow color.

Stir kernels into cornmeal dough for cornbread; bring to your local summer chili cook-off.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Best Summer Idea Ever: Pizzas on the Grill

It's the Fourth of July, and everyone has the grill going. If you're in need of barbecue inspiration, here's a list of (nearly) everything under the sun that can be grilled: 101 Reasons to Light the Grill. NY Times Dining columnist Mark Bittman recommends the simply genius (#89 Cuban pork sandwiches and #97 Pound cake) and the playful stretch (#3 Tofu? #10,11 AND 12 Corn, and #101 Olives for a dirty martini. Really?). Filled with mostly good suggestions, the list does suffer one glaring omission: grilled pizzas. Trust me, these thin-crust charred pizzas will end for good your off-again-on-again abusive relationship with the frozen, grocery store variety. Just try it. You'll never cook pizza in the oven again.

But won't the dough melt through the grill? you balk. How is that possible? my friends ask incredulously every time I've made pizzas in this way. The key to cooking a pizza on the grill is heat; the grill must be hot hot hot. Think of a wood-fired oven; those babies are glowing red. By keeping the cover on the grill for at least ten minutes before cooking, you're essentially pre-heating the oven.

The next crucial component is the dough. Pizza dough is easy to make, and can be made well beforehand. Actually, the dough is best if it's made the night before and allowed to rest overnight in the refrigerator. However, if you don't decide on dinner plans until the last minute, don't worry. You can make the dough, let it rest while you prepare your toppings and still be good to go.

This dough recipe comes from my good friend Deborah, a fellow culinary student at Greystone in St. Helena. Though initially hesitant to share her secrets, Deborah eventually caved to my constant pestering after I saw her cook pizzas on the grill at school. The thin crust pizzas crisp up in a few minutes with the barbecue's high heat, and the char marks on the crust impart a smoky, rustic flavor that neither a pizza stone nor a regular baking sheet can produce.

Pizza Dough
yield: about 10- 8in. pizzas

4 cups flour (you can substitute up to 2 cups of whole wheat flour if you like) + additional flour for the counter/rolling out process
2 cups warm water
1 oz yeast (1 little packet)
1 tsp sugar
1 TBSP olive oil
salt to taste (I like 1-2 TBSP)

optional: 1/3 cup rough chopped herbs, like marjoram or oregano to give the crust a little color. I had some dried oregano and marjoram in the spice drawer, I just tossed some into the dry flour before adding liquid.

1. Pour warm water and sugar into a small bowl; add yeast. Give the mixture a quick stir and let sit 10 minutes to activate yeast.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour and salt (and herbs, if using). Make a little well in the middle of the flour.
3. Smell the bowl of yeast; it should smell like a bakery at 6 am full of fresh, warm bread. Add the olive oil to the liquid.
4. Pour the liquid into the well in the flour. Mix well with a wooden spoon.
5. The mixture will be a little wet, so add a small handful of flour as you mix it until the dough is manageable. It should ball up and not stick too badly to the sides of the bowl. Once you can handle the dough, sprinkle a large handful of flour on the counter or on a cutting board (put a wet paper towel under the cutting board to hold it in place). Move the ball of dough to the floured surface and knead for 5 to 10 minutes.

I tend to use kneading time as a stress release. Remember your boss who likes to ignore/berate/harass you? Now's the time to work that out. The more you work the dough, the more you activate the yeast and start the formation of the dough texture that we love so much.
6. Once the dough is elastic, place it back in the mixing bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it rest in a warm spot in the kitchen for about an hour; it will grow in size. This is desirable. Don't freak out. Your dough is alive.
7. After an hour, punch the dough down and reshape into a ball. At this point, you can put the dough into a gallon plastic Ziplock bag and leave it overnight in the refrigerator. It will continue to grow in size, but at a much slower pace because of the cooler temperature.
8. If you're using the dough right away, break it into baseball-sized clumps, and roll out into pizza rounds. If you don't have a rolling pin, a wine bottle works. We MacGyver'ed this move at a recent dinner party and it served us just fine. Less-than-perfect circles add to the rustic, homemade quality of these pizzas, so don't trip too hard on the shapes.
9. Lay each rolled out pizza onto a piece of waxed paper, layering wax paper between each one. Put the tray of stacked dough in the refrigerator until just before you're going to make the pizzas; the colder the dough, the better it will transfer from the waxed paper to the grill, and the better it will hold its shape.
10. Get down to it. Clean a hot grill with a wire brush. Lay the dough straight onto the grill rack. When the dough cooks half-way through, it will be rigid enough to flip. Turn it over and then spread a thin layer of sauce, leaving a border all around the edges for your crust. Top with cheese (always less than you think you need, too much cheese contributes to saggy pie a la Pizza Hut) and whatever toppings you can imagine.

For sauce, I like Rao's tomato sauce and Buitoni pesto, both available at most grocery stores. (The ambitious can make their own sauces too; that blog entry is forthcoming. ;-)

Since the heat comes from below on a barbecue and the pizza dough cooks so quickly with this technique, I like to cook my toppings beforehand so they only need to warm through. That way, once the cheese is melted, you know the pizza is done. It also helps to have all your toppings ready in bowls; easy access to the toppings is key to inviting guests to create their own.

Some of my favorite toppings are:

Caramelized onions- thinly slice two yellow onions and cook them in a saute pan over medium-low heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring every so often.
Below: onions at the beginning of the process. Let them cook down until they're brownish and sweet, seen in the white bowl in the photo here to the right.

Your kitchen will smell good enough to bring the neighbors around, and the onions will develop a deep brown sugar color and taste. A good task to knock out while the dough is rising.
Sauteed mushrooms- slice white mushrooms and saute over medium heat with a tablespoon or two of white wine. When the wine is nearly all cooked off and the mushrooms are soft, reserve them in a small bowl for topping later.
Shaved Parmiggiano Reggiano cheese.
Dollops of goat cheese.
Rounds of fresh Mozzarella.

Roasted garlic-take a whole head of garlic, paper skin still on, and place in an oven-safe pan. Coat with a little olive oil and just leave the pan in a 375F oven for 45 minutes, or until the softened garlic can be squeezed easily from the paper. A little sticky, this roasted garlic paste can be spread right onto the crust or dotted onto the sauce.
Arugula or Spinach.
Thinly sliced tomatoes.
Pepperoni or salami.

Grapes sliced in half (really! An unexpected but welcome sweet note)
Fresh basil leaves.

My favorite combination: caramelized onions, goat cheese and arugula on a pesto pizza. Yes, I love goat cheese on everything but this combination of flavors is sweet, rich, slightly bitter and salty all at once. On the pizza below: tomato sauce, sauteed mushrooms, caramelized onions and Parmesan cheese. Also a winning mix of flavors.

Unlike burgers or tri-tip steak, which can monopolize the grill and bring out macho fire-monger tendencies, the grilled pizza party encourages all guests to participate in the production of the meal.

Herein lies the beauty of grilling pizzas. Everyone can top their pizza as they see fit. The only requirement is that we gather around the grill and discuss our topping tactics and techniques with a cold beer in hand and the setting sun shining in our faces.

Happy Fourth of July!