Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Spätzle gives new meaning to "hand-made"

I've always loved spätzle, and now I love them even more. I love making them, looking at them, and of course, eating them.

Wintertime is the perfect time for
spätzle, partly because of its inevitably home-made look and taste, and partly because the vehicle that carries the spätzle tends to fall into the comfort food zone (goulash, ragout, butter, cream, cheese, etc). I once had a delicious spätzle with mushrooms at Flatbush Farm, and I've been craving it for weeks now. In an attempt to try it at home, I got some tips from a German chef and downloaded some recipes from Wolfgang Puck and Epicurious.

Last night I successfully completed part one of the process - the making and boiling of the dough. I have to say I've never had so much fun with food in my life. The ingredients are basic - flour, eggs, milk (some omit the milk and use water), fresh ground nutmeg, salt, and pepper. I added in a bit of chopped thyme for taste and visual appeal since the mushroom sauce will also have thyme, and I liked the subtle result.

The fun begins when you mix the dough - you do it with your bare hand. I can't quite describe the sensation, but because the dough is so smooth and silky, your hand sort of becomes one with the dough. There was a point of difference between the Bavarian chef
and Wolfgang Puck's recipes - Bavarian said mix the dough well, for 10-15 minutes. Puck said mix it minimally, just until combined. Being the masochist that I am, I went with the longer route and boy, did my arm get a workout!

You then let the dough rest in the fridge for about an hour before you begin the next stage of fun.

To shape the spätzle, you simply pass it through a hole-y colander directly into boiling, salted water. The dough is nice and elastic-y, a little mushier than pizza dough, so you have to really smash your hand into the colander to get the dough to squeeze out. It's pure child's play.

A word of warning, though. The fun ends when you realize what a mess you've made and remember you have a kitchenette with no dishwasher. And this isn't a clean-as-you-go kind of dish - you need at least 2 or 3 hands full-time. But it was all worth it, every gooey drop of it. The spätzle are happily resting in my refrigerator, waiting for their next stage in life. Yay! Tomorrow, I will introduce them to some interesting mushrooms, and possibly a guy named pancetta, pending on M's presence.

Recipe: Spätzle
Adapted from Wolfgang Puck
4 egg yolks
1 egg
1 3/4 cups milk
1 pound (about 3 cups) all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 ounces unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup peanut oil
2 ounces unsalted butter
1 tablespoon fresh minced parsley

1. In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks, egg, and milk together.

2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Add the butter, and egg mixture to the flour mixture and mix with bare hand until well blended and all the lumps have come out, about 10-15 minutes. Cover the bowl and refrigerate. Allow the batter to rest for at least 1 hour.

3. Bring salted water to a boil. Place a perforated hotel pan (or a large-holed colander) on top of the pot. Place the batter on the pan and force through the holes to form
spätzle. Cook until the batter rises to the top.

4. Skim cooked
spätzle. off top into a bowl of ice water to shock. When cool to the touch, drain well. Stir in half the oil. (At this point you can cover and refrigerate up to 2 days)

5. When ready to serve, over high heat place a large sauté pan until it gets very hot. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of oil and the boiled
spätzle. Let cook for 2 minutes without moving the pan to achieve a good brown color. Add the butter and start to sauté the spätzle. Sauté until golden brown. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Finish with a sprinkle of parsley.

If you're still reading, here's also a nice video via Chowhound, covering the basic aspects of
spätzle-making (click on the menu item on the left): How to make spätzle

My life (knife?) will never be the same

As I've mentioned in a few posts, my hands tend to get very numb while chopping at RestoX, and it takes a full day for me to get the circulation running again. As friend G. says, it's probably not a good thing if I want to keep my hand in good working order for what lies ahead (kitchen celebrity, fortune, etc). At first I thought it was the chest-high work surface, so I added an inch to my height with some clogs, but to no relief. Then I checked with Adam if I was holding my knife correctly, and he gave me a nod. Maybe it's my knife that's the problem? I've been working with a Wüsthof chef's knife, a well-respected German brand. But I'm not a 6-foot German, and there must be something in that, no?

What I've gathered from cursory research is that professionals actually prefer Japanese knives.
They're vastly different from German knives in that they're several ounces lighter (a monumental difference when you're chopping and mincing all day) and much more precise (helps "slice" delicate herbs, not mutilate them). They tend to stay sharper much longer since the blade is made of a hard, dense metal that doesn't dull as quickly as German knives. Another huge difference is the way the edge of the blade is designed. German knives are sharpened evenly on both edges, creating a "v" shape. Japanese knives are mostly sharpened on the cutting edge, the side that faces away from you, at an average 70/30% ratio. This helps with the precision factor.

At Adam's suggestion, I visited Korin, a very zen Japanese knife shop in Tribeca that feels more like a knife museum. With the help of a wonderful sales person (a chef himself), and got myself a sparkling new Suisin Inox Gyutou. I came home and fine-sliced some scallions and parsley for my cous cous dish (recipe to come), and without the least bit of exaggeration, it was a life-changing experience. Oh my goodness gracious...

This topic probably isn't nearly as fascinating to you as it is to me, but I say, see the difference yourself! I open up my kitchen to anyone to drop by any time and try out the two knives side-by-side. I only ask that you give me some prior notice so I can pick up some chives and tarragon for you to backwards-slice.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Come and git it!

For the fund raising bake sale today, I made a huge batch of chai and it was gone in an instant. For just 32 cups, you must peel and slice 2 pounds of ginger - exactly a quart (quart it!). For the quality of ingredients and the manual labor it requires, it was a bargain at $3 for a "tall" and $4 for a "grande." Take that, Starbucks, with that phony syrupy nastiness you call "chai!"

Saturday, January 26, 2008

1,000 leaves and counting...

It was a day of herbs, herbs, and more herbs. Then some socco, rabbits and kohlrabi. The pasta machine is officially broken so luckily today I got a break from my friend, the tortellini.

Breakfast of champions
Leftover lentil soup with poached egg. Something experimental: a tangelo.

Task: Mince 2 quarts of shallots.
Notes: Don't laugh - this is has become my standard morning task at RestoX. To the anonymous chef from Munich - is everyone in restaurant kitchens sick of mincing shallots? If so, that means more shallots for me - I'm getting better and faster with practice.

Task: Julienne a quart of ginger.
Notes: Square off all the ginger pieces. Thin slice with mandoline (I don't understand why they don't use those nifty finger guards that come with the mandoline, but for fear of looking like a wuss I didn't ask. Luckily I got out of there with my 10 fingers intact). Layer ginger slices in a row, lengthwise, like fallen domino pieces. Cut julienne pieces across. I love how there's an organized and methodical process to even the most mundane jobs in restaurant kitchens. I will forever hear ChefX's quiet voice in my head when doing such tasks, "This ain't no rock concert."

Task: Slice (not chop!) a bunch of chives, parsley, and tarragon.
Notes: You combine these to create "fines herbs," a classic French herb blend used for flavoring and garnish. It's a very delicate herb combo, so it's added to foods right before serving - in RestoX's case, to the clam chowder.

In fine slicing these herbs, you realize why fine dining is what it is, and why it costs so much. My God, it took forever to get through these. As mentioned in a previous post, you never "chop" (gravity down) delicate herbs such as chives or tarragon. ChefX showed me how they do it at classic French restaurants - you slice with the backward motion of the knife rather than the forward. Adam does this exclusively and since he was the one who was supervising today, this is what I tried to do with the chives. Every time I tried to speed up, they came out chunky, so I had to do these super slow-mo. It must have taken an entire hour to get through the chives alone. It gives me brain cramps to think about it.

Next up was parsley. They
chiffonade the damn parsley at RestoX if you can imagine it. I mean, I like doing basil chiffonades but not parsley chiffonades, thank you very much. You must pick and stack up each and every freakin' parsley leaf carefully, then slice them into super-thin ribbons. It makes me want to curse thinking about this task.

Then there was the tarragon, which, much like the parsley, must be picked leaf-by-leaf, stacked, then backwards-sliced into squarish pieces.

One word on fines herbs: painful.

Task: Squeeze juice of 3 lemons and 3 limes.
Notes: This would have been a pretty fun and painless task had it not been for the double-insult cut on my index finger (I chopped right through my nail, twice, cooking at home. Haha! These days I think my knife is trying to kill me).

Task: Remove the flesh of 6 limes.
Notes: Cut off ends, then peel all around with knife making sure to remove the smallest sign of pith. V-cut into quarters to remove flesh. Cut pieces into 3 to be used as garnish for either a hamachi or mackerel dish.

Task: Julienne kohlrabi.
Notes: There's a system with these, too. Cut off the top and bottom ends, peel, slice in half, then thin-slice each half. Create vertical stacks of thin slices, then julienne.

Task: Remove meat off a pan of roasted rabbit.
Notes: They like rabbit at RestoX. It tastes much like chicken, but the texture is softer and more tender.

Task: Make socco.
Notes: I looked for a definition everywhere for these, but can't find it. If Goggle doesn't turn up any results, it must not really exist, right?

Socco in RestoX world is a savory crepe in which to roll some complicated meat concoction in. As far as I can remember, you sift together 2 cups of chickpea flour, 1 cup of all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup of water, 1/2 cup of cream, 2 tspn olive oil, salt and pepper. Combine all ingredients together, ladle onto hot frying pan, swoosh pan around to spread batter, and when cooked to just past golden, flip. Adam let me make these from start to finish. I love the cooking part. It was a long and tedious day, but when you stick around long enough there's always something new to be discovered.

End notes
The past 3 times I've been at RestoX, ChefX has been mysteriously M.I.A. And the rest of the crew seems just as confounded as I am about it. As much as I like working with Adam (he tries to teach me what he can), I wish ChefX was around more to tell me what I could be doing better. He really knows how to put someone up to a challenge. I really miss that.

On a positive note, Adam suggested I come back for another night of service soon so I can actually cook something. Does this mean I'm on my way to literally being a kitchen apprentice "by night?"

Friday, January 25, 2008

Saffron: yuck!

Is it just me, or does saffron tast like dirty old socks? I've never used saffron before, and I'm not sure if I'll ever use it again. There must be some good use for it, but as far as I'm concerned it just smells and tastes funky. I kind of wish someone had warned me of this fact before I coughed up $10 for a tiny packet. If any of you know of a good way to redeem saffron in my kitchen, I'll give you $10!

Today I felt like eating a healthy, hearty soup to refuel after lying in bed for almost 48 hours straight. I pulled this lentil soup recipe off of 101 Cookbooks by Heidi Swanson. It requires minimal shopping (aka cheap and easy) and offers up some powerful nutrients - a perfect post-illness meal. I felt nervous about the lack of garlic, so I threw some in along with some ground black pepper and a few splashes of balsamic vinegar at the end for some depth and complexity.

Luckily, the saffron did not go in the soup. It was mixed with some greek yogurt for garnish. I WAS NOT A FAN. I couldn't get the taste of dirty socks out of my mouth. I did, however enjoy Heidi's suggestion for fried shallots. Fried? Shallots? How can you go wrong? Or can you? I've done this several times now at RestoX: thin-slice shallot rings with mandolin, separate rings to fluffy mass, batter with flour, filter out flour through sieve, deep fry until golden, sprinkle with salt. Easy. The only mistake I made was to wield a camera in the process, and most of my shallots burnt to a crisp. I managed to salvage a few sad-looking, unappetizing pieces for my meal, and in hindsight I may have been lucky on this one because I'm sure I would have eaten the entire pan-full had they come out gold and lovely.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


It was tasty. I hope to be having pizza for my birthday even when I'm hitting the ripe old age of 88. Carmen has been raving about Luzzo's quite literally for years. We finally went for my 33rd, unfortunately sans Carmen. It was truly delicious pizza, with a perfectly light but chewy crust, topped with tempting ingredients such as truffle pate, arugula, and quatre fromaggi (which M. forbid me to order despite having my lactaid pill...). Thanks for the reco, Carmen! We certainly missed you.

Thanks to all for your company and such thoughtful gifts - mostly culinary, one just laughter-inducing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

What's for dinner?

We all have our guilty food pleasures. In the wintertime, mine is to buy a box of clementines and eat as many as possible in one sitting. This often happens on days like today when I get home late from the office. To top the "meal" off, I treat myself to yet another form of pre-packaged treat, like chocolate. Today I broke open one of many Balisto bars, kindly sent to me from a friend in Munich - enough to sustain me the through the entire winter. It tastes much like a Twix bar, but made with muesli, yogurt and dried fruit. I tell myself it's a pretty healthy meal all things considered, but I know I'm not fooling anyone.

What's your guilty pleasure meal?

Monday, January 14, 2008

How sweet is

To offset the pain of waking up this morning, especially after the late night baking session on Sunday night, I skipped the gym and came straight home to relax, cook a meal of warm lentil salad (the perfect weekday meal), and clean up the mess I made in the apartment over the weekend. Last week's warm spell was nice but disturbing considering that it's the middle of January and I actually saw someone walking around with a tank top on. It's finally feeling like winter again, and that gave me occasion to make a little chai to top off the most perfect evening. M.'s mother makes the best chai in the world, no exaggeration. Unbeknownst to her, I long for her chai on many cold nights. My chai is a poor man's version of M.'s mom's, but it was good enough for me on this dark winter night.

Recipe: Brooklyn Poor Man's Chai
1. Warm milk (regular or soy) over medium-low heat.
2. Meanwhile, peel and thin slice a knob of ginger, about half the size of your thumb.
3. When milk comes to a low boil, steep a bag of black tea (preferably darjeeling) and ginger in milk for 8 minutes or so until the milk takes on a gingery bite. If you'd like, you can also steep 3-4 cardamom pods and/or a large pinch of cloves along the ginger.
4. Remove from heat, sweeten with raw honey, sprinkle with cinnamon and freshly-ground nutmeg.
5. Enjoy!

Herby cookies

This past Sunday we had a little bake sale to support our church. As usual, the baking took place in the wee hours of the night before. The treat of the day was Rosemary Shortbread. Very simple, very delicious, and very dangerous to bake late at night when you're feeling the munchies. The heavenly scent they give off as they bake will make you swoon. There were some suggestions by readers to incorporate lemon rind into the dough, but since I was stranded in the woods at my brother's place with no lemon in sight, it will have to wail till next time.

Recipe: Rosemary Shortbread
Adapted from
3/4 sticks (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary, crumbled

Preheat oven to 350°F. and butter generously a 9-inch cake pan or coat lightly 1 9-inch round shortbread mold with vegetable oil spray (I used a cookie sheet for lack of either at the time, and it came out just fine).

In a bowl with an electric mixer beat butter and honey with sugar until light and fluffy. In another bowl whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and chopped or dried rosemary. Beat flour mixture into butter mixture until just combined.

On a lightly floured surface knead dough about 8 times, or until it just comes together. With floured hands press dough evenly into pan or mold. If using cake pan score dough into 8 wedges with floured tines of a fork and with flat sides of tines press edges decoratively (this is totally optional). Press small rosemary sprigs on top (very time-consuming and thus also optional, especially if you happen to have two cute but very demanding children).

Bake shortbread in middle of oven 18 to 30 minutes, or until pale golden, and let stand in pan for 10 minutes (be sure not to over bake). While shortbread is still warm, loosen edges from pan with a small knife and invert onto your hand covered with a kitchen towel. Invert shortbread onto a cutting board and cut halfway through round along score marks. Cool shortbread on a rack.

Enjoy with a cup of Earl Gray tea.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The anatomy of a tomato

Photo courtesy of Ulterior Epicure

Something is definitely up at RestoX. There was a still silence in the air all day. No hip-hop music playing, no bubbly ChefX cracking jokes, no chitchat. When I asked Adam how his week was, he gave me a stammering "o.k..., I mean...well... eh...can't talk about it..." Perhaps ChefX has decided they were all having too much fun in the kitchen?

Still, I couldn't be happier. At the end of the day as I was leaving RestoX, I asked ChefX if I could come in on Martin Luther King Day since I have a day off from the office job. He suggested I come in during service time so I could gain some perspective on all the prep work I've been doing. I'll be allowed to observe and help out with the food a little, too. It's just not possible to put into words how excited I am. I literally skipped home.

Breakfast of champions
2 mugs of latte. 3 egg ommlet with caramelized onions. Fennel salad with clementines and parmesan. Multivitamin.

TASK: Roll out pre-prepared squid ink pasta dough. Knead to setting 5, then cut thin on the spaghetti setting.
NOTES: This is a new pasta they're doing - squid ink pasta. When you pass the dough through the machine, its dramatic darkness is absolutely beautiful. Working with Adam today, I had the pleasure of learning something new. He kneads the dough a bit differently, folding the dough into thirds, not half like ChefX. This allows for more kneading action through each pass. Then on each higher setting he fold it into thirds again rather than just passing the dough through (more kneading action). When finished, the pasta should have a certain elasticity with a nice sheen. Mine was a bit flabby and limp. It was a great lesson - I learned something new!

TASK: Make a new batch of pasta dough.
NOTES: As you know, I've done this a few times already, but this time I learned to make the dough by feel, not just by throwing the ingredients together in the mixer. Once the ingredients are mixed, squeeze the dough around in the bowl - if they seem to "want to come together," as Adam said, turn it out onto the work surface and knead it out into a ball. But if it sill seems dry, add some lukewarm water to it, bit-by-bit till it has that "wants to come together" texture.

TASK: Mince 1.5 qt of shallots.
NOTES: Nothing new here, but it was nice to get the practice!

TASK: Peel heap of ginger.
NOTES: Ginger is probably the least enjoyable thing to peel because of its irregular shape. I cut off the knobbly pieces to create a regular shape, then peeled as fast as I could until I suddenly realized I was bleeding. I had peeled my finger. I had already cut my thumb the night before, so with this new injury on my middle finger, it really looks like I tried to put my hand in a blender. For your pleasure, I've included a photo of the lovely job (sorry, I'm developing a strange fascination with kitchen wounds).

TASK: Peel carrots.
NOTES: Bo-ring. But it was fun to watch Adam thin-slice these on the mandoline, stack them, and create tiny matchsticks out of them. He did the same with the ginger. They were so thin and delicate, and he moved through them so swiftly. I was very impressed.

TASK: Make cross-shaped cuts at the narrow tip of about 40 plum tomatoes. Create ice bath. Blanch tomatoes in small batches in boiling water for about 1 minute until the peel just starts to lift up on the cuts. Quickly drop into ice bath. Peel off skin, cut into quarters, and remove seeds.
NOTES: When cutting the cuts in the tomato, I must have been moving at snail's pace. ChefX came by and said I needed to move faster before the tomatoes fell asleep, thinking I didn't care about them. He's funny guy, that ChefX.

At first I was really dreading having to seed so many tomatoes because in the past it's always been a very messy process. I first tried using a paring knife to remove the center rib, and then my fingers to remove the seed. This took forever, mainly due to the sliminess of the seeds that like to cling to your skin like there's no tomorrow. So I picked up the Chef's knife instead, and after a dozen or so I began to understand the anatomy of the tomato.

Beginning at the narrow end, slide the knife across to the stem end and cut off the dry bit along with the rib in one motion. The seeds lie in pools on either side of the rib. Instead of seeding from tip-to-tip, flush the knife with the rib, then drag the knife's edge from the rib to the cutting board. The pool of messy seeds will slide right off as a single unit in one fell swoop. Nice and neat. Rotate quarter and repeat. It felt like I was efficiently conducting micro-surgery. These tomatoes were to be dry baked, so Adam asked me to place the pieces cut-side-up on a pan lined with silpat. I just placed the pieces randomly on the pan. I was free-forming it. When ChefX came by, he said, "Woa, hey...his ain't no rock concert," meaning they had to be lined up in rows. I'm learning in the restaurant business, everything tends to be lined up in neat little rows like soldiers.

I've developed a routine of stopping in at Damascus Bakery on Atlantic Avenue on my walk home after work at RestoX. It's too hard to resist. I pick up a perfect little snack that I munch on as I reflect on the day and the quietness of the Brooklyn streets. Last week I picked up a delicious spinach potato pie. Today I loaded up on sweets for my family upstate, and the owner gave me a falafel and some gooey sweet thing to try. With the free samples and an invitation to the RestoX kitchen at service, I have to say it was a very contented walk home.

Friday, January 11, 2008

When in doubt, dial M.

With my imminent 33rd birthday and the recent realization of my dinosaur status in the food industry, I have to say I haven't been too chirpy about my hopes for a successful (or even semi-successful) career change.

Lucky for me, I got a call today from my trusty friend M., who always has a store of endless wisdom. Her advice to me was that no change comes without suffering and anything is possible if you have the will and creativity to do it. You forget this little fact when you've lived a comfortable corporate-office-with-bi-weekly-salary path for ten years. How ironic it is to have a creative job that corners you into an inside-the-box lifestyle.

I'm not one to make new years resolutions (as friend G. says, 'You're setting yourself up for failure'), and I've never been the type to fill out those "Goals" boxes in my agendas, but one theme I will anticipate for myself this year is hardship. Koreans have a saying that you can't buy the benefits of hardship in your youth with money. Well, I ain't gettin' any younger so I might as well put in my time now while I can and try to reap those benefits.

Thanks for all the support, everyone. And thanks, M., for coming to my rescue again.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Modern day hero

I just love this woman and all that she stands for. Some day, Ms. Waters, I will be working alongside you in Berkeley.

Here, a clip of the Edible School Yard at Martin Luther King Jr. High School:

Saturday, January 5, 2008

New year, no pasta

I woke up this morning feeling pretty bummed and discouraged about the day ahead. The looming fear I had was that I would continue my downward spiral from the last disastrous week, and be booted out of RestoX for good. What if this was the revealing moment when I would have to face the facts that I was not cut out for this industry?

I force-fed myself some scrambled eggs (2 whole eggs + 2 whites), some oatmeal, and an apple. I drank 3 cups of green tea, and downed a multivitamin. I find this is the perfect formula for not going hungry during my voluntary enslavement, but I always feel like a fat duck, ready to be turned into fois gras.

My favorite part of every Saturday is the walk to RestoX. With my knife, water bottle, camera and some snacks in bag, I step out into a quiet Saturday morning street in Brooklyn Heights. I always feel like a little kid let out of school, running to her special extracurricular activity, or like a kid approaching Disney World - a fantastical world of visions and dreams. Sometimes I even skip a little, unabashedly. Today's walk was a bit more solemn. I reviewed my kitchen mantras, repeated some Bible verses, and gave myself a big pep talk. 15 minutes later, I found myself in RestoX with a much more positive attitude.

I first ran into Mrs. ChefX who seemed surprised to see me. Then I saw Adam, who seemed surprised to see me too, and even ChefX seemed a bit off. Either they forgot about me, or they didn't expect I would come back after last week's fiasco. In any case, they didn't tell me they no longer needed me there so that was good enough for me.

I don't know if ChefX thinks I'm no longer qualified for the job or if he was just showing me mercy today, but I didn't touch an inch of pasta dough or even go near the pasta station all day. I was so relieved. Instead, I got to cook a little, season a little, and learned a whole lot. I noticed that asking a lot of questions is usually appreciated, and I should never be afraid to do so. I have many good teachers around me, and they all seem eager to share their knowledge. What a blessing.

TASK: Mince a quart of shallots.
NOTES: I love mincing shallots. It's very satisfying, especially if you can cut them somewhat uniform. But my right hand becomes numb every time I chop anything, and I'm having some trouble typing. ChefX is over 6ft tall and he built the work stations to his height. It only makes sense for my hands to become numb when chopping 40 shallots at the height of my shoulders. I think I need some platforms.

TASK: Make salmon rillettes. Mince about 10 shallots, melt about 1/2lb of butter in pan, add shallots and let shallots sweat. Add white wine and allow it to reduce. Meanwhile, cut fresh salmon into 1-inch cubes. Add cubes to shallot/butter/wine mixture and poach on low heat till just cooked through. Once cooked, strain through a chinoise. Reserve liquid. Mash up salmon and shallot mixture until it becomes the texture of cat food. Separately cut up some smoked salmon into a tiny dice. Pick leaves off lemon thyme and combine with smoked salmon. Toss smoked salmon and fresh salmon mixture together. Season with salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper and curry powder. Add strained liquid little by little to taste. Quart it, label it, and save it in the walk-in.
NOTES: I couldn't believe ChefX gave me this task. What a treat - all of it! My favorite part was dicing the smoked salmon. It was a greasy and messy job, but once diced they looked like glistening coral-colored jewels. And when you add the bright green lemon thyme leaves... oy, how breathtakingly beautiful! Cooking the shallots over the stove was a treat, too. I looked around and saw about 5 other pots going - a potpourri of scents, colors, and flavors. Wow.

TASK: Thin slice 3 large onions and add to pan with about 1/4 lb of melted butter. Cook over very low heat for a very very long time until caramelized to death.
NOTES: I've caramelized onions before, but not like this. These onions must have been cooking for about 3 hours. In fact, that seems to be the secret to the potent flavors in all things at RestoX. Everything cooks forever. Once it's done, you only need a small amount for big flavor impact. Incredible. With the onions, ChefX will put into cute little potato cups (made with fingerling potatoes cut into 1-inch pieces and scooped out to form cups) and sprinkle with cheese.

TASK: Puree winter fruit soup mixture (quince, whole vanilla beans, apricots, and something else) in VitaMix blender, being careful not to let it explode. Pass through chinoise with ladle. Repeat.
NOTES: As mentioned in my first day post, the main thing here is to be sure the lid is on tight and to pulse the blender switch super-fast before letting it rip. ChefX says he's seen plenty of experienced chefs not do this right and be faced with a steaming VitaMix explosion in their kitchen. When passing the puree through the chinoise, be judicious with the ladle-pumping to prevent facial splashes.

TASK: Go next door and ask for 1/2 lb of gruyere (yummy), half loaf of bread, and some ketchup.
NOTES: I love going next door. It's surreal. I love walking into another kitchen, saying "hola" to their staff, navigating my bad Spanish to ask for the right things, and walking out into the street with an armful of random foods.

TASK: Grate gruyere and quart it.
NOTES: "Quart it" is ChefX's lingo for saving whatever in those plastic take-out quart containers.

TASK: Slice bread into 1/4" thickness, de-crust, and cut into quarters to create little white squares. Lay out flat onto baking sheet, dab tops with olive oil and pop into 300-325 degree oven until golden and crisp.
NOTES: Segundo helped me keep an eye on these. He's quite a teacher, and supercool. He really knows what he's doing at all times. Usually by the time 2:00 rolls around the entire staff is there and it's Segundo who hands out the tasks. As for the bread toasts, I guess this is where the salmon rillettes will sit.

TASK: Pick watercress leaves.
NOTES: Segundo showed me a really clever way to pick through the leaves of watercress. You start at the stem end and cut off about an inch of it. Holding the bunch in hand, remove the rubber band and pull out whatever leaves are loose from between the stems. Cut into the stems another inch. Pull loose leaves. Cut into stems one more time, and you're left with only the leafiest parts. This was a nice, clean, efficient way to work with watercress. It's good logic.

TASK: Thin slice shallots on mandoline. Add about 1/4 cup of flour and toss. Strain extra flour out through sieve. Warm mixed oil (canola & olive) over heat till hot. Add shallots and fry till golden. Strain, then season with salt.
NOTES: It's funny how even seasoning something with salt in a professional kitchen seems like a huge responsibility. ChefX says to "season from above," meaning sprinkle your salt from up high (my guess is for better distribution). He let me taste and decide for myself if it was good. How bad could deep fried and salted shallots be, really?

TASK: Cut off tops of roasted peppers and de-seed. With cut side down, drizzle with olive oil. Pop in oven till roasted and softened. Remove peel.
NOTES: Peppers are probably one of my least favorite vegetables, if not the least. And I don't understand roasted peppers - what's the big deal? Wouldn't life be just fine without them? The sentiment becomes even stronger when I have to peel the darn things. If you're lucky, the peel comes off in one fell swoop, but most likely you'll have to pick at the tiny bits that cling to the meat as if for dear life.

End notes
I'm pooped, but happy and relieved. The physical exhaustion is pretty intense and I don't understand how chefs survive this lifestyle. But I do understand the desire to go back day after day despite all this. The food is always calling.

Friday, January 4, 2008

What a beautiful mess: Part II

The Cookies were baked in the wee hours of the nights before Christmas. It's all a big buttery blur. I'm just glad I did not decide to become a pastry chef. In baking, there's no color unless you're adding something fruity, everything smells the same - either of butter or chocolate, and you feel a bit guilty feeding it to the ones you love because you know it has the potential to kill them (sorry friends and family - please just eat them in moderation).

I've been looking for a good, classic chocolate chip cookie recipe, and my search continues. It has to be slightly crispy on outside, perfectly moist on the inside, with a nice golden color and a certain give. This one was close, but no cigar. Hmm... I may need to get a KitchenAid mixer to experiment further...

My favorite to make and to eat was the chocolate covered macaroons - I got the recipe off David Liebovitz's blog, and I thanked him for it directly on Facebook. The process of cooking the coconuts with sugar and vanilla was as laborious as cooking risotto. But it was thoroughly satisfying and fun - the way all cookie-baking should be. I began with dipping the macaroons in chocolate, but later had more fun drizzling the chocolate over them. I think they turned out prettier and more expressive, though less chocolatey.

The third recipe, the brown butter sandwich cookie, was the most labor-intensive and utterly not worth it except for my friend M., who said it was her favorite. As M. knows being the mother of two adorable kids, you should not be lured by the cuteness things. Cute = a whole lot of trouble. These cookies looked so cute in the pictures I saw that I just had to make them. You shape them by pushing the crumbly dough into a teaspoon, gently slide them off the spoon onto the baking sheet, cool them, then sandwich some jam between them. When you have 2 batches of dough to shape with a measly little teaspoon at midnight, these cookies stop looking cute real fast. I began with raspberry jam filling as the recipe suggested, but they looked a bit bland on the outside. I then decided to try chocolate filling dipped in more chocolate, and was happy with the outcome. The best part of this process was browning the butter. I will be browning more butter in the very near future, just to see the lovely bubbles and smell the caramel scent.

I hope y'all enjoyed!

Feeling ill

Oof. Day 4 at RestoX was a complete failure. The overwhelming feeling I have is that I’m not cut out for this. I just don’t have the knack for it. Even if I do, I’m beginning this process way too late in the game. I feel like a 32-year-old just picking up a violin to become a concert pianist… this is just not realistic, is it? There’s a part of me that’s telling me to just give up, that this is crazy. What can I possibly do in the food industry at this age? But then there’s also this gut feeling (not hunger) that I must go on, that there’s a light at then end of this dark and fuzzy tunnel. Yes, I must do this. I can do it. Must…Go…On...

Things went awry from the very first moment I walked into RestoX. The first bad omen: there were almost no chef’s jackets in the changing area. Normally, there’s a huge pile of fresh, clean, sparkling white jackets hanging on the rack. Then, when Adam asked me to fetch some shallots in the walk-in, there were no shallots. Note to self: no shallots = a bad day.

Not to my surprise, I was asked to roll out the pasta for tortellini and tagliatelli. But not so fast! ChefX announced that today I would be receiving a tortellini tutorial - another bad sign. Without a word, he placed a beautifully executed tortellino on the work surface. I admired it and said, “Beautiful! You must have made that one.” He did. Then he placed an ugly duckling version next to his and said, “That’s yours.” Oof. My gut still wrenches as I write this. Remembering that moment will always bring me to the ground. If ever you think I need a slice of humble pie, this is your weapon.

Painful lesson #1:
Never, EVER, think you know what you’re doing. Never think that you have it all down. Even after you’ve been doing the same thing for 10 years, there’s always room for improvement. All this time I thought I was being humble, but clearly I thought the tortellini were mine. I mean, ChefX did coin me A. Tortellini after all… As with any situation, pride can just sneak up on you. Just like that.

I rolled out the dough, cut out the circles, and tried to emulate ChefX’s pasta craftsmanship. I’m not being dramatic here either. Those two tortellini were as different as night and day. If you saw ChefX’s piece de résistance, you would agree that it was a thing of beauty. Try as I might, I could not get my tortellini to look like his. Close, but the subtle difference made all the difference – not unlike the difference between a real Van Gogh vs. a replica. I feel so discouraged knowing ChefX honed these skills over decades of practice. How will I catch up, if ever?

Painful lesson #2:
ChefX explained that your tortellino shape is affected by whatever thoughts you get lost in. After the “lesson,” I was feeling like a complete failure, scared that I wouldn’t be allowed back at RestoX, anxious, nervous, mad at myself… all of these things. So what did my pasta look like? A scared little bear with it’s arms around itself, shivering in a cold, dark corner. What did ChefX’s look like? A radiant, open rose bud.

The thing with tortellini is that they’re so malleable, and every single one has to be sculpted into shape. If you don’t have the consistency of the pressure and angle of your fingers, each one will turn out slightly different. Yes, one could argue that this is the beauty of hand-made food. But then again, as ChefX explained, there must be some form of consistency in your food, day in and day out. This is a huge part of customer satisfaction. As my friend M.’s father says, a sign of a great cook is consistency. I’m presently feeling incredibly discouraged, but deep down inside I feel so determined. I can still do this. I just have to have respect for the process, and practice, practice, practice. Maybe I’m just delusional.

Painful lesson #3:
If you have a question in your mind, ask it! It all goes back to asking good questions. The dough that morning was extremely moist. Dry dough is a nightmare for tortellini making, but wet dough is the bane of tagilatteli making. All these weeks ChefX had always put out a quart of semolina flour (to sprinkle the sheet and tagiatelli with) and next to it a quart of all-purpose flour. I always wondered what the all-purpose flour was for. Hello? Why didn’t I just ask? I could shoot myself for my sluggish thinking. I ran the wet through the machine 20 times. It was still wet. I rolled it out thinner and thinner till it hit 7. Still wet. As I discovered later, this is what the all-purpose flour was for – duh. I lay the thin pieces out to dry a little, then ran them through the tagliatteli setting. I ended up with a sheet full of straggly lumps of dough. A nightmare. The logical thing to do would have been to ball it all up and start over, but my nervousness from the tortellini tutorial spurred me to keep going (and maybe lack of sleep from cookie-baking didn’t help either). Another note to self: When engaged in kitchen work with minus 5 hours of sleep, expect to make stupid mistakes.

Painful lesson #4:
ChefX said if I see myself approaching a train wreck, just stop and ask for help. Don’t continue thinking things will get better because most likely, they won’t. And you’ll end up making more work for yourself and others. I think the tricky part is recognizing when you’re approaching a train wreck or not. Most likely with food mistakes, the only answer is to throw it all away and start over. As ChefX says, “When in doubt, throw it out”.

The most painful thing about all of this was that Adam had to create a whole new batch of dough and roll it out again himself. It was a double-whammy of guilt layered with hurt pride…

My last task of the day was to slice some chives and tarragon. I always hated the way herbs look sad and wilted after you chop them. Clearly the kitchen of RestoX feels the same. Herbs bruise easily, so you ever chop them – you slice them. There is a subtle but great difference between the knife skills, but with herbs as delicate as tarragon, you pluck off the leaves one-by-one, creating a nice stack. You run your knife forward, through the stack, not directly down, so that you slice into the herbs with the forward motion, not with gravity coming down. It helps to have a very sharp knife. Apparently, gravity down is a big no-no in all professional kitchens. You’d be kicked out of the kitchen for it.

Luckily, ChefX didn’t kick me out after that long and horrifying day. Tomorrow is day 5. I will get to sleep early, chew my breakfast of champions slowly, and try to keep my kitchen mantras top of mind.