Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Keeper of the food

Photo curtesy of cygnoir from flickr Creative Commons

On day 3 of service at RestoX, Adam asked me to work with Chiquito, the garde manger. Garde manger means "keeping to eat" (which makes no sense), or "keeper of the food" in French. Also known as "pantry chefs," they're responsible for mostly cold foods such as salads and desserts, and simple hot dishes such as soups and appetizers. In French restaurants, they also work with patés and terrines, and make those lovely sculptured garnishes that make me feel ill. This is the first real paying job on the cooking line, and is probably the position I'll move up to if I ever graduate from "kitchen slave."

Chiquito's real name is Santiago, but everyone calls him Chiquito because he's shorter even than me, a 5' 1'-er. Like everyone else at RestoX, Chiquito is a quiet hard-worker of good character. After I found out his real name, I tried asking him in Spanish, "puedo te llamo Santiago?" and got howls of laughter from the dishwasher because it sounded like I was asking if I may love Santiago. What I really meant to say was, "puedo llamarte Santiago?" A pathetic effort after having studied the language all through Jr. High and High School.

Anyways, working the line requires a good memory, an ability to multi-task like never before, and of course, practice. It also helps to be alert, and to be a good listener in case orders come in with customized dishes. By the way, when you eat out, please try not to get all when-Harry-met-Sally on the menu and enjoy the dishes as they're written. It's mighty confusing to keep track of in a busy kitchen, and can be slightly-to-extremely annoying depending on the change. If you do decide to change it up a bit, just know that you won't be getting 100% love with your order.

As I mentioned in my last post about service, the most challenging aspect of working the line is figuring out timing. When you multiply the number of tables by the number of dishes by the number of components that go into each dish, it requires a lot of coordination and short-term planning. Aside from this timing factor, I dare say garde manger work is relatively easy.

Here's a sampling of some dishes I helped compose:
Winter salad:
Warm farro with butter and shallots and cool to room temperature. Drop pre-poached egg in simmering water to warm. Combine red endives and frisée with vinaigrette, salt and pepper. Mix only lightly and set aside. Lay a scant layer of itty bitty, cubed, roasted vegetables with cranberries on the bottom of a large bowl. Top with endive mix. Spoon farrow over greens. Create a small well in the center and carefully crack open poached egg into it (this was challenging but fun). Sprinkle with grated white cheese (I think a hard goat).

Duck confit:
Drop duck leg with skin side down into a pan with a good dose of olive oil. Pop into oven and let sit for 5-7 minutes. Meanwhile, heat grits in a pan and spoon a circle of it onto plate. Lay duck leg on top, spoon some of that magic brown sauce over it, and a touch of gooey okra.

Mackerel:
The grill chef preps the fish while I prepare the cold elements. Arrange strips of yellow and red roasted peppers in a circular shape. Squirt some dark puree thing (plum?) in a circle together with the peppers. Lay two stemmed, green olives outside the circle. Prepare watercress salad by mixing with thin strips of scallions and just olive oil, salt and pepper. When mackerel is cooked, position it in the center of the circle, and top with watercress salad.

Mushroom soup:
The soups are always pre-prepped and kept warm on the burner during service. Just pour into shallow soup bowls and garnish with mint-walnut pesto and a drizzle of olive oil.

Butternut squash soup:
Garnish with toasted pecans and shaved gorgonzola.

Clam chowder
This is a RestoX favorite. The grill cook prepares an order of scallops and squid. Meanwhile, add a sprinkling of itty bitty cubes of carrots and curried potatoes to the bottom of a covered bowl with a few cold clams and mussels. Heat this in the oven till very hot. When grill cook's prep is almost done, pull out bowl and add the grill cook's scallops and squid. Pour in creamy soup, sprinkle with fines herbes, and cover.

I was excited to plate some desserts, too, but the only order that came in that night was for a panna cotta that went to the "poor piece of meat" gentleman.

Some other observations I made:
• Ever wonder how chefs plate up everything so cleanly? They don't. The wait staff does a lot of the clean up. They roll up napkins like cigars, then use the ends dipped in lemon water to swipe the edges clean.

The entire staff (FOH and BOH) gets nervous when a customer has a question for the chef about the food because it usually means they'll have a complaint. On this particular night, one of the customers asked just how much bacon went into the butternut squash soup, but it turned out he had a bet going with his friend.

If you don't like your dish, you should either send it back immediately or not at all. One of the customers complained that his pork was, "a sad piece of meat," but he totally cleaned his plate except for 2 measly pieces. Ridiculous. I bet you can score a lot of amazing meals for free in this city pulling that trick! The manager refused to give him the meal for free and just sent out a free dessert. We'll never know how happy the "unhappy" customer was about that.

At RestoX, the dishwasher has it easy because the plates almost always come back clean, perhaps even licked clean.

The physical and social environment of the kitchen sure does me good. I went in feeling like a zombie, with only 5 hours of sleep, but as soon as I stepped into that kitchen I felt like a new person. That's where I need to be, using all of my senses, moving, breathing, tasting, interacting. I need to get off my buttocks, away from the windowless office and this computer. Some day, slowly but surely!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Candied Meyer lemon peels









The flavor of desserts made with olive oil intrigue me (i.e. gelato, chocolate mousse). I recently found a recipe for a lemon olive oil cake, which I plan to make later this week. Since it's a very simple recipe with no frosting or garnish, my idea is to dust the top with some confectioner's sugar and serve it with a dollop of creme fraiche and a few strips of candied lemon peels.

Since the candied lemon peels can be stored up to 2 weeks, I decided to make a batch tonight. It requires minimal ingredients (just lemons, water and sugar), but requires some care and attention. I decided to use Meyer lemons since they're in season (saying this about citrus fruits in NY is a bit strange, but...) and are sweeter than your standard lemon, especially the peel, but a standard lemon will work just fine, too. Enjoy these over ice cream or, even better, dipped in dark chocolate.

Some notes on the recipe:
• Be sure to use organic lemons since you'll be preserving and eating the peel.
• After peeling off the strips, I trimmed off any additional pith on each piece with a paring knife to avoid bitterness. In general, pith = bad in any form of cooking or baking.


• I sliced the peel into thin strips so they'll look more delicate sitting on the cake, but you can make them whatever shape or size, depending on the application.


• I skipped the last step in the recipe where you cover the peels with extra sugar. I find this step totally unnecessary, and perhaps even a bit disgusting. It makes the peels much too sugary and gives them a grainy texture. Yuck.

• I doubled the amount lemons since the recipe calls for a boat load of sugar and water.
• Next time, I'll remember to reserve the sugar water for a lemonade.

Recipe: Candied Meyer lemon peels
Adapted from Epicurious
Ingredients:
2 organic Meyer (or standard) lemons, washed well
2 cups sugar, plus additional 1/2 cup if desired for coating
Water
Preparation:
Use a vegetable peeler to remove the peel from the lemon in vertical strips. Try to remove only the yellow zest, avoiding as much of the white pith as possible. If you see any additional pith, trim off with a paring knife. Leave in wide strips, or cut into thin slices as needed.
Save the lemon for another use.
In a small saucepan, combine the peels with 2 cups cold water. Bring to a boil, then drain off the water. Again add 2 cups cold water, bring to a boil, and drain. Repeat the process a third time, then remove the peels from the pan and set aside.
Measure 2 cups of the sugar into the pan and add 1 cup water, whisking until the sugar dissolves. Add the peels and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until the peels are tender and translucent, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the peels and let cool.

Optional: Measure the remaining 1/2 cup sugar into a medium bowl and add the peels. Toss to coat. Using a fork or your fingers, remove the peels one at time, gently shaking each to remove excess sugar.
Store in an airtight container. The peels will keep for several weeks.

Monday, February 25, 2008

ChefX, the devil's advocate and rock heads

This past Saturday, aside from learning about burdock roots (notes on that later), I had a very informative discussion with ChefX about culinary school.

He asked me about my 5-year plan, and if I was still considering going to school. I felt really honored that he asked, and it helped for me to talk through my thoughts with someone who's actually been in my shoes. ChefX never went to school. He moved up the ranks by serving his time in the kitchen for many years, being mentored by some formidable chefs in the city. So you can guess what his opinion of culinary school was: "DON'T DO IT!"

Here is a dialog between ChefX and myself as devil's advocate:
ChefX: The teachers are a bunch of "rock heads!!!" who will teach only outdated, archaic knowledge about food you'll never use in a real kitchen.
DA: But isn't this the case with any subject matter? Doesn't learning the foundation of any classic technique will seem archaic? I learned to make oil paints with ground pigments, eggs and cottage cheese. I didn't need to learn this skill, but it helped me come to a deeper understanding of the art of painting. Was it essential for painting? No, but it certainly enriched my overall experience of artists and their paintings.

ChefX: You'll spend $30,000 or more on a program that teaches nothing about the essentials of a real kitchen
DA: Yes, it's hard to justify that figure. This is what I struggle with. With education, I want to say it's all priceless, but then what if ChefX is right? What if it turns out to be bogus?

ChefX:
I don't believe in going to school for to learn a craft, especially not for that much money.
DA: Perhaps.But I would like to go for the academic knowledge, perhaps more than, the technical knowledge.


ChefX: Because every kitchen has a different way of working, you'll have to relearn everything in every kitchen you work in anyway.
DA: Not exactly everything. I will have a base understanding of how things work and why.
ChefX's retort: You can learn these basics just by reading tons of books and practicing the techniques at home.
DA's retort: I would spend every minute of the day self-learning if I could, but I only have a small window of time to read and cook. Jacques Pepin "Complete Techniques" calls to me from my desk, but when will I get through the 865 pages? I have a refrigerator full of ingredients for at least 3 different recipes, but that means of being up until 2 a.m. for 3 days in a row testing them.

ChefX: The most successful chefs never went to school. They all learned on the job.
DA: True, true. But those chefs, including ChefX, started in their teens or in their early 20's. Also, times have changed. From what I've read, these days a degree from a respected culinary school will help open doors and find the connections you need. And the argument that most successful chefs haven't attended school is not entirely true. Many have studied in European schools, either in France or Italy. Hmm... that gives me some ideas...

Although I feel just as iffy about this school thing than ever before, at least I know where ChefX stands. He must have said the words, "don't go to school" and, "rock heads" about half a dozen times. Even the sous chef Adam, who attended school because he "got a late start" at 28 (oof! so young!), said he wished he had learned in real kitchens instead. So there it is. The big question mark still looms before me. What to do?

For now onto some food notes from Saturday.

Lessons
Task: Julienne a quart of burdock root.
Notes: Burdock root basically looks like a long, thin, muddy branch. Adam asked me to only rinse it lightly and rub it down with a towel, without peeling it. Once I did this, it still looked quite muddy and unappealing, and I was a bit skeptical. He taught me to slice the root on a bias, to create super-thin, long oval disks, then stack the disks like fallen dominos. You julienne them into super-thin strips, then cover them with some rice wine vinegar since they oxidize quickly.

The key here (as I discovered too late after enthusiastically slicing an entire root) is to slice and julienne only a small portion at a time so that they can be covered immediately with the vinegar. So the rhythm is slice-julienne-dunk, slice-julienne-dunk. I also realized after julienning them, why it's so essential to keep the muddy skin on. The tips of the julienne provided a really pretty contrast to the whites of the root. I love how everything is done with intent here.

Task: Slice a little more than half a quart of fines herbes.
Notes: I am no longer afraid of these. Well...maybe just a little afraid of the chives. With my super-sharp Japanese knife and a whole lot of practice, ChefX thinks I've "got the backwards slice down." Woohoo! Now if I could only work faster...

Task: Make pesto.
Notes: Adam toasted some walnuts, then asked me to crush them with the bottom of a saucepan. That's a new one! Such sophisticated techniques we use at RestoX. Meanwhile, we threw some shallots into a pan, covered them with olive oil, then let them sweat over medium heat. We also covered the nuts in olive oil and let them cool. Next, I made a chiffonade of about half a bunch of mint. Once the shallots were cooled, we mixed all ingredients together and seasoned.
This "pesto" goes on top of a mushroom soup for garnish, so it's more gooey and nutty than your typical green pesto with cheese.

End notes
After the "no school," talk from ChefX, I asked if I could start coming in for service during the week. He said I was welcome any time. Perhaps this is what he was aiming for - more free labor from Undercovercook! But I shan't be that cynical. Truly, we are both benefiting from this arrangement, like a bartering system. I don't know how long I can sustain two days at RestoX while still holding onto my day job, but we'll see.

Next up: service #3 at RestoX.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Street food longings

Around this time last winter, I wrote a post in Chowhound after a night of sleeplessness, longing for street food. I guess there's something about February that brings out this craving in me. I was reminded of this post, and thought I'd share it with you, with a few additions from my recent cravings. The responses were overwhelming, and satisfyingly international. You realize how cheated we are in New York with mostly "street meat" (terminology courtesy of Jenny) and cardboard "pretzels."

__

Last night I couldn't sleep thinking about various street foods around the world that are not readily available in this gastro-paradise, New York.

Do you have a street food you long for from your homeland or your travels? Here are some of mine:

1) In Korea there are numerous street vendors who set up shop on the streets, with just a picnic table and a tarp for protection. My favorite thing to get is duk-bok-kee, a dense, sticky, chewy rice cake (comes in thick and thin - I lean towards the thick) in a red-hot sauce. They also serve a brothy fish cake soup, with the fish cake on small skewers. What a combo!

As I recall, these street vendors are around all year. In the summer, you eat the spicy rice cakes sweating from the heat of the sun and the food. In the winter, the warming sensation of the foods contrast so nicely with the chilly air.

2) Bratwurst in Germany. Most meat stores have small openings out into the street. They'll grill a bratwurst, place it on a crusty white roll, and you gobble it up on the street with some good mustard. Some places also serve currywursts - wursts chopped into thick slices, sprinkled with curry powder and ketchup. Something about eating these on the street made them taste so much superior.

3) Warm goffre. A sticky belgian walffle I had off a cart in Paris one cold winter day. I was a poor student and this was the treat of my life!

4) Hot dog stands in Vancouver. They were made with 100% beef or vegetarian, and came with a great variety of condiments.

5) Gelato gelato gelato! Italy and Germany's got them everywhere. Why don't we???

6) Korean "boong-uh-bbang" or "pool-bbang," made of a thin pancake batter poured into a cast-iron "fish" mold, like a waffle. A dollop of red bean paste sits in the center. The best are light and crispy on the outside, hot and chewy on the inside.

7) "Hoat-dduk," a flattened sweet dumpling filled with brown sugar and pine nuts. It's grilled on a skillet with something heavy over it (like a panini) so it becomes golden crispy on either side. The sugar melts to extra-hot and squirts out, so you have to be extra careful when eating them. I always bite into them too fast and burn my mouth. I will never learn.

8) That reminds me of the very first and the very best "panini" I ever had. In Paris, there was a Greek shop near my language school. The owner set up a panini station right outside the shop, and I think he made only one kind of panini - chicken with some delicious green sauce. It may have been pesto. I don't remember much else that was in it. It was the mystery green sauce and the amazing bread that got me hooked. If I ever go back to Paris, this is the first meal I will have.

What are your favorites street foods?

Eating is [fill in the blank]

Some quotes that agree with me, found on Edible San Francisco titled, "Eating is..."

Eating is...a political act; every time you eat, you vote with your fork.
—Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, New York University.


“Eating is...an agricultural act”
The philosopher- farmer Wendell Berry wrote that aphorism, often invoked these days, in his 1990 essay collection What Are People For?

Eating is...nice work if you can get it.
—Tom Philpott, Grist food editor and Maverick Farms cofounder.

Eating is...a way to connect with the earth, appreciate creation, and a tool for building community.
—Undercovercook

How would you fill in the blank?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Fried potatoes and the fat negation theory


Fried potatoes. It's everybody's weakness, at least it certainly is mine. I generally eat pretty healthy throughout the week even though by the look of this blog, it probably doesn't seem likely. The key for me is to not bring home any potatoes because they will most likely be fried.

On a recent trip to Trader Joe's, I saw a bag of cute little fingerling potatoes that I couldn't resist. I brought them home and, yep, fried them up.
I tried to recreate them in the way of RestoX, where the cut sides have a deep golden crust.


At the table, to negate the caloric and fat intake of the potatoes, I washed up a massive amount of arugula (the scientific method is to triple the amount of greens to fatty substance), drizzled it with a bit of vinaigrette and topped it with the potatoes. Et voila, the healthy basically canceled out the unhealthy! Pretty neat, isn't it?


Recipe:
Pan-fried potatoes
With guidance from RestoX and Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food
I pan fried these instead of roasting simply because I didn't feel like taking my entire collection of pots and pans out of the oven today, but I think they would be just as good, if not better, roasted. I would recommend using a cast iron pan, but if that's not available to you, any heavy-bottomed pan will do.

1 lb fingerling potatoes, washed
1/4 cup of olive oil (or 1/8 cup olive oil and 1/8 cup duck fat)
1 1/2 tablespoon rosemary needles picked off branches
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
Sea salt

1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
2. While water is boiling, slice potatoes in half, lengthwise, then cut large pieces in half widthwise to create as uniform pieces as possible.
3. When potatoes are tender but not falling apart, about 5-10 minutes or so (forgot to time it), drain them and let them dry.
4. In a cast-iron pan
, heat the oil and duck fat, if using.
5. When oil is hot, add rosemary and potatoes. Arrange the potatoes so the cut side faces down. Let it sit undisturbed for about 5 minutes or until golden brown.
6. Turn over potatoes to the other side for a few minutes, then stir and toss with garlic for another minute.
7. Turn off heat, then sprinkle with sea salt to taste.
8. Enjoy after allowing them to cool for a few minutes. Sprinkle with more salt if needed.

Muesli mush


I love mushy food. Korean pumpkin porridge, my mom's pine nut porridge, steel-cut oatmeal, ragouts, soup-soaked rice, and muesli mush. My friend C. in Bonn made this for me with amazing European-quality yogurt and muesli, and a local honey made by a family friend. She she shredded the apples into it, but I prefer them julienned for a crispy to contrast with the mushy. This is may sound gross, but I tend to like it even better the next day when the muesli is extra-mushy from having soaked up all the moisture.

Recipe: Muesli mush
1 cup good quality organic yogurt (Greek or any other creamy, fine quality yogurt)
1/4 cup muesli mix (you can usually find this in the dry bins of health food stores)
1/4 favorite crispy apple shredded, diced or julienned (pears and cantaloupe are good, too)
Drizzle of good raw honey to taste

Optional:
Large pinch of slivered almonds, pistachios or chopped hazelnuts (toasted or raw)
Dash of cinnamon

Mix all the ingredients together and add a little dash of cinnamon if desired. Ta-da! You have muesli mush.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Service at RestoX

I'm tempted to put about 5 exclamation points after that headline, but I resist. I went in on Monday for day 2 of service at RestoX, and it was quite the experience! Here's a recap of both days:

Day 1: Martin Luther King Day
I arrived at 4:00, which I realized was an odd time to start. This is usually the silence before a storm in restaurant kitchens. All the prep work was done and the only task I was given was to remove the meat off of a whole head of roasted pig.

Now I do love pork, especially in the form of a good German bratwurst or crispy bacon, but I'm mostly a vegetarian at home. The duck confit was the most animal thing I've ever made in a kitchen. I say animal, not meaty, because these days you can get plenty of packaged meat from the grocery that looks like a mysterious lump that perhaps came from something once alive.

This thing at RestoX, however, was undeniably a pig - with snout, eyeballs, brains and all. With some rubber gloves, I fearlessly tore away at the fatty head convincing myself that if I am to eat bacon, I am responsible for being acquainted with the animal that it came from. I ended up with a mound of fatty meat, and almost an equal amount of pure fat (plus organs and snout). Adam came by and said, "Wow, that was fast." Perhaps they were testing me to see if I would cry, scream or run. Little do they know how much I love bacon, and how much I take to heart The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The rest of the time, I mostly observed and ate.
Adam informed me that I was free to taste whatever I wanted, and I took that as a mandatory. If this counts as culinary education, I'm in! It was a smorgasbord of mystery ingredients all lined up in quart containers: finely julienned kohlrabi, tiny jewel-like dices of quince, vibrant cilantro puree... The most impressive were the delicious sauces all lined up on warming bricks along the stove, particularly the brown sauce. THE brown sauce. It was magical.

I stationed myself where I would be out of everyone's way near Segundo, the sautée chef. When service hit I expected chaos, but there was no panic, no screaming, and no cursing. They were all really cool and silently graceful. Segundo left me small end pieces of whatever he was grilling, and they were all perfectly seared, perfectly seasoned - lamb, rabbit, veal, duck, hamachi, bass, salmon. But the most memorable was the seared fois gras. Adam plated up a mini version of it for me, with all the purees, sauces and garnishes included. I ate it standing up, and almost licked the plate clean. Classy, I know. It was the first dish I would ever think to describe as "mind-blowing," and it will be my last meal.

The takeaway from this first service night:
• How good the food at RestoX really is. All the labor and care they (we!) put into the mundane details really make a difference when the dish is finally composed. It really brought everything into perspective.
A well-run restaurant requires good collaboration and communication between the front of the house (FOH) and back of the house (BOH) staff.
The graceful orchestration of the wait staff, the garde manger, the dishwasher, the sautée chef and the sous chef. It was like a well-oiled machine.
The rhythm of a professional kitchen on a weekday: the lull of 4:00-5:30, the steady pick-up of 5:30-8:00, the exhilarating rush of 8:00 to 9:30, and the cooling down of 9:30-closing.
How much butter and oil is used in restaurant cooking.
I must somehow get a hold of some of that magic brown sauce because I will never be able to duplicate it at home.
Hmmm... this seems like something I could actually do.

Day 2: President's Day
My first task when I arrived was to dice some cucumbers. I diced them about a 1/4" size, then realized how ridiculously big and out of place they looked. At RestoX, everything is diced into tiny cubes, or finely julienned or minced. Adam agreed they were too big, so I used up a good amount of time quartering small-but-not-small-enough pieces of cucumber. Who knew cucumbers could be so humbling?

Afterwards, Segundo told me I should help Adam do some plating. I thought he was making fun of me, but Adam agreed I should help him. It still seems like a distant dream now, but it actually happened - I worked alongside Adam plating dishes that went out into the dining room for real people to put into their mouths. It was really difficult to keep my cool and not jump up and down like a silly little girl.

Each dish at RestoX
is a complex array of components - about 5-8 different ones, with some topped off with a salad with another 4-5 ingredients. I asked Adam how long it took him to remember all the combinations, and he said a week. I got a few dishes down pat, such as the seared fois gras which I've gone over in my mind again and again ever since that day, but the rest was a bit of a blur. Even remembering which shaped dish goes with what was difficult. But Adam was really cool, and he coached me through each of the dishes with much patience. Even when the garde manger spilled most of the labor-intensive butternut squash soup he kept his cool and first made sure the cook was alright.

I found the trickiest part of the night was timing. At RestoX, they like to lay down a smear of purée and warm up it and the plate in the oven while Segundo sears the meat.
When the orders come in five at a time with 4-6 people at each of those tables, how do I know when to start the purée smear, when to put it in the oven, when to grill the toast for the fois gras, when to start the pasta? When I asked Adam, he said it just requires, "Practice, practice, practice."

A few things I learned that are still fresh in my mind:
• When drizzling sauces over a dish, hold the spoon like a pencil, close to the bowl of the spoon, for more control.
• Searing anything well requires a good pan, a good amount of butter and/or oil, and the patience to leave the meat alone to seal in the juices with a nice (yummy) outer crust.
• Don't be afraid to use your fingers.
• When rinsing out black trumpet mushrooms, let it soak in water then drain till the water runs relatively clear. When to know it's clean? Cook one and taste (taste, taste!).
• When rinsing out manilla clams, soak in a bath of saltwater and the calms will spit out all their gunk.
• Near closing, throw away all fried ingredients (sage, shallots) and transfer all ingredients into new containers to keep only the freshest parts.

Now if I could only figure out how to gain more practice practice practice...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Kabocha squash = yummy


I'm well-acquainted with, and love butternut squash. It's quite appealing as far as squash goes with its graceful shape, its smooth skin, and the gift of a beautiful orange-gold hue when you slice it open. It's just sweet enough, has a firm but giving texture, and it caramelizes beautifully when roasted.

Recently I read about a Japanese squash called kabocha that seemed to have similar properties as the butternut. Last week I found a few at Whole Foods and immediately brought them home. From the outside, they're not as friendly looking as the butternut - a bit knobbly and thicker-skinned. They're also a bit more difficult to peel and slice into uniform shapes.

I decided to try them in my favorite recipe this winter, a pumpkin, white bean and kale ragout from a NYT article highlighting vegetarian Thanksgiving options. It's a nutritious, flavorful and utterly satisfying dish that I've made again and again.

I normally use a butternut squash, but this time around I tried the
kabocha. The kabocha is a bit starchier and sweeter than the butternut so it forms a delicious caramelized crust when roasted. It was so yummy I almost ate all of them right out of the pan. For lack of cannellini beans in my pantry, I used a combination of garbanzo beans and beluga lentils. I would recommend sticking with the cannellini beans for a buttery texture that marries well with the squash. I also omit the dried cranberries in the end.

This dish is a bit time-consuming and requires a good amount of ingredients, but it's worth the effort. It keeps well, and tastes better and better each time you re-heat it. It's the perfect single-living meal. Enjoy!

Recipe: Pumpkin, White Bean and Kale ragout
Adapted from a NYT recipe
1 3-pound sugar pumpkin, butternut or
kabocha squash
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or canola oil
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 large leeks, cleaned and chopped, white and light green parts only
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed (or use 3 cups cooked white beans)
2 cups vegetable broth
3/4 pound kale, center ribs removed, leaves thinly sliced (about 6 cups)
2 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese ( 1/2 cup), more to taste, optional
1/3 cup dried cranberries, roughly chopped, plus whole berries for garnish (optional)
Coarse sea salt and grated parmesan, for garnish.

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Using a vegetable peeler or paring knife, peel pumpkin or squash. Trim stem, then halve pumpkin or squash and scoop out seeds (save for roasting if desired). Cut flesh into 1-inch cubes.

2. Spread cubes out on a large rimmed baking sheet. In small saucepan, combine butter or canola oil, syrup, 1 teaspoon vinegar, kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper and cayenne. Cook, stirring, over medium-high heat until butter melts; pour mixture over squash and toss to coat evenly. Roast, tossing occasionally, until pumpkin or squash is very tender and caramelized at edges, about 30 minutes.

3. In a large skillet, warm olive oil over medium heat. Add leeks, garlic, rosemary and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks are very soft and not at all browned, about 15 minutes. Add beans and broth and simmer for 10 minutes.

4. Stir in kale, and cheese if desired. Simmer until kale is cooked down and very tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in pumpkin or squash and chopped cranberries; season with remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Garnish with additional cranberries (if desired), sea salt and parmesan.

Yield: 8 to 10 side-dish servings; 6 main-course servings.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Typography issues irritate me so

You may have noticed the type issues I've been having in my recent posts. I tried and tried to fix them, but it looks like they're here to stay. If you haven't noticed anything, it's probably a good thing and it tells me you are a much better-natured person than I am. As an art director, a typophile, and a detail-oriented kitchen apprentice, I feel I must say, "Sorry for our appearances, but we're experiencing technical difficulties. Please forgive Undercovercook for her hideous typographic glitches."

A chocolate challenge


I love an occasion to bake a cake. It gives me opportunity to try out a new recipe and to learn some new techniques. I was instantly drawn to this cake in Epicurious for its shiny, drippy, chocolaty ganache that runs over the side of a mousse cake.

I did o.k. until I got to the ganache. The shortbread on the bottom came out perfect, though I would double the recipe next time for greater texture contrast with the mousse. It think it would also give the cake a stronger hazelnut flavor. The mousse came out well, too, though I prefer a more dense mousse with some heft.

The ganache, which I thought would be a piece of cake (no pun intended, truly), turned out to be a disaster. It seems so easy with just two ingredients - chocolate and cream. But it's all about timing, temperature and technique. It came out grainy and lumpy the first two times, and on the third attempt it came out smooth but not liquid enough to run over the side. I never got a photo of the final cake with the sad-looking ganache, because I was in such a frenzy to finish up and catch a bus. It wasn't the prettiest thing, but the crowd seemed to like it enough.

I did a little research on ganache. The key to ganache making is to use excellent quality chocolate (for good fat content), bring the cream to a boil (not just a simmer, as the recipe indicated), and cut the chocolate into tiny pieces (smaller than 1/4" pieces) that can melt quickly. I also think this method or pouring the cream over the chocolate would work better than the other way around. And finally THE most important thing: when you pour the cream over the chocolate, allow it to sit for a few minutes before you do anything with it. Don't move it, stir it, swoosh it, or even lay a finger on it. Just leave it alone! This keeps the fat molecules from separating out and creating a lumpy grainy mass of nastiness.

Best of luck to you if you give this a try!

Recipe: Chocolate-Hazelnut Mousse Cake
Adapted from Epicurious
Ingredients
For shortbread base

2 tablespoons hazelnuts,
toasted and skins rubbed off
3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

For mousse

1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin (from a 1/4-oz envelope)

3 tablespoons cold water or Frangelico (a hazelnut liquer) for extra hazelnut flavor

1/2 cup chocolate hazelnut spread such as Nutella (5 oz) [
Note: Trader Joe's and Whole foods have spreads that are cheaper and healthier respectively]
1/2 cup mascarpone (1/4 lb)

1 1/2 cups chilled heavy cream

2 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

3 tablespoons sugar

For ganache

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream

3 1/2 oz fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), chopped


Special equipment: an 8-inch (20-cm) springform pan; parchment paper; food processor if you don't want to chop all the nuts and chocolate by (hand like I did).

Preparation
Make shortbread base:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Invert bottom of springform pan (to make it easier to slide shortbread base off bottom), then lock on side of pan and line bottom with a round of parchment paper.

If using a food processor, pulse hazelnuts with sugar in a food processor until nuts are finely chopped. Add flour, butter, cocoa, and salt and pulse just until a dough forms. If chopping by hand, chop hazelnuts fine, then combine flour, butter, cocoa and salt with a mixer just until a dough forms.

Press dough evenly onto bottom of springform pan with your fingers. Prick all over with a fork, then bake until just dry to the touch, about 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer base in pan to a rack to cool completely, about 30 minutes. Remove side of pan and carefully slide out parchment from under shortbread, then reattach side of pan around shortbread base.


Make mousse while shortbread cools:
Sprinkle gelatin over water or Frangelico in a 1- to 1 1/2-quart heavy saucepan and let stand until softened, about 5 minutes. Heat gelatin mixture over low heat, stirring, just until gelatin is melted, about 2 minutes. Whisk in chocolate hazelnut spread until combined and remove from heat.

Whisk together mascarpone and chocolate hazelnut mixture in a large bowl. Beat together cream, cocoa powder, and sugar in another large bowl with an electric mixer at low speed until just combined, then increase speed to high and beat until cream just holds soft peaks. Whisk one third of whipped cream into mascarpone mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whipped cream until well combined. Spoon filling onto shortbread base in pan, gently smoothing top, then chill, covered, at least 3 hours.

Make ganache and glaze cake:
Bring cream to a simmer in a small heavy saucepan and remove from heat. Add chocolate and let stand 1 minute, then gently whisk until completely melted and smooth. Transfer ganache to a small bowl and cool, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened but still pourable, about 20 minutes.

Run a warm thin knife around inside of springform pan, then remove side. Slide cake off bottom of pan and transfer to a serving plate. Pour ganache onto top of cake and spread, allowing excess ganache to drip down sides.

Cooks' notes:
• Cake, without glaze, can be chilled up to 2 days.
• Cake can be glazed 6 hours ahead and chilled, uncovered.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Extending the life of mushrooms


I've been studying up on some classic French techniques in Jacques Pépin's Complete Techniques in order to better prepare myself for RestoX, and I came across a duxelle of mushrooms.
I had never heard of duxelles (the name originated from the boss of a famous French chef François Pierre La Varenne, who came from d'Uxelles), but apparently it's one of the staples of classic French cooking. And according to Mark Bittman, it's a great way to salvage less-than-perfect mushrooms in your fridge or just the unused stems of mushrooms.

This incredibly simple sautée of mushrooms and just a few staple ingredients right from your pantry can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week, or in the freezer for 1-2 months (a Chowhound article cleverly suggests freezing them in ice cube trays). There are endless possibilities with duxelles. You can toss them into your omelets, soups, or risotto, slather onto toast, or stuff them into something like lasagna, pastry dough, or ravioli. Just make sure to season them well after they're cooked, my guess is in order to prevent force-sweating the mushrooms.

I realized too late that duxelles are not the most appetizing things to photograph. It looks a bit like dog food, but it's quite yummy. And I can now add this to my growing stock of food that can be preserved for months. A comforting thought indeed. When the time comes, I think I will top some grilled bruschetta with it, along with some good ricotta.

Here I provide Mark Bittman's recipe, witch is just the simplified version of Jacques Pépin's.

Recipe: Duxelles
Adapted from How to Cook Everything
3 tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil
1/4 minced shallots, scallions or onion
About 1lb mushrooms (preferably an assortment) finely chopped*
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Place butter in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. As the foam beins to subside, stir in the shallots. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften, 3-5 minutes.

2. Stir in the mushrooms. Cook, stirring, for about 10 minutes, until they've given up most of their juices. Turn the heat to low and continue to cook, stirring, until almost all the liquid has evaporated.

3. Remove from heat and season well with salt and pepper. Use immediately or store in refrigerator for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for 1-2 months.

*By hand or with a food processor

Sunday, February 10, 2008

This is another dish I find to be pure comfort food. It's also a dish I would have been intimidated by three months ago. But in reading some recipes, I discovered it's actually quite simple. It was once a peasant dish that evolved from a need to preserve food, but now it's become a somewhat fancy-pants dish. I realize this is mostly due to the time and planning rather than the technique required to make it. This is truly what slow food is all about.

This was also the first time I hacked a full duck, so I had the feeling I was navigating uncharted territory trying to figure out how best to butcher the legs. It was a bit of a wrestle with a dose of squeamishness.

First you cure the duck legs overnight in salt, garlic and some herbs (I used some organic lavender from great source out in California). In the meantime, you render some duck fat. There's so much to say about duck fat I don't know where to begin. First, how to render it. You remove all the fat and skin of the duck, cover it in water and simmer over low heat for about an hour. The water evaporates and you're left with crispy duck cracklings and fat. When you pass all of this through a cheesecloth, your treasure reveals itself as beautiful liquid gold. You can also munch on the cracklings with a sprinkle of salt.

Now duck fat probably sounds nasty and artery-clogging, but in fact its chemical composition is closer to olive oil than to butter or lard. An article in the New York Times describes on the "French paradox," particularly in the region of Gascony where the majority of their diets revolve around goose and duck fat. Apparently they have the lowest rate of cardiovascular disease in the country. It probably helps that they enjoy a nice glass of red with whatever dose of duck fat they're consuming that day. If I ever go on a diet, it will be of fois gras, duck confit and red wine. I will probably live to be 100.

After curing for a day, you the legs submerged in the fat for 2-3 hours (I went to the gym during this time to work off the cracklings from the night before). Once they're cooked, you can preserve it in the fridge for up to 6 months covered completely in the duck fat. With the remaining fat, you can strain and reuse it to fry up some potatoes or drizzle it on popcorn in place of butter. I love how the fat keeps forever in the freezer. How economical.

My duck is now sitting in the fridge, ready to be reheated and slathered with some lavender honey, served with a side of polenta and an arugula salad.

Recipe: Duck Confit
Adapted from Epicurious
3 tablespoons salt
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 shallot, peeled and sliced
6 sprigs thyme (or in my case, lavender)
Coarsely ground black pepper
4 duck legs with thighs
4 duck wings, trimmed (optional - traditionally, you confit just the legs)
About 4 cups duck fat (the rendered fat of about 2 ducks)

1. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of salt in the bottom of a dish or plastic container large enough to hold the duck pieces in a single layer. Evenly scatter half the garlic, shallots, and thyme in the container. Arrange the duck, skin-side up, over the salt mixture, then sprinkle with the remaining salt, garlic, shallots, and thyme and a little pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 days.

2. Preheat the oven to 225°F. Melt the duck fat in a small saucepan. Rinse the salt and seasonings off the duck. Pat dry. Arrange the duck pieces in a single snug layer in a high-sided baking dish or ovenproof saucepan. Pour the melted fat over the duck (the duck pieces should be covered by fat) and place the confit in the oven. Cook the confit slowly at a very slow simmer — just an occasional bubble — until the duck is tender and can be easily pulled from the bone, 2-3 hours. Remove the confit from the oven. Cool and store the duck in the fat for up to 6 months.
This is another dish I find to be pure comfort food. It's also a dish I would have been intimidated by three months ago. But in reading some recipes, I discovered it's actually quite simple. It was once a peasant dish that evolved from a need to preserve food, but now it's become a somewhat fancy-pants dish. I realize this is mostly due to the time and planning rather than the technique required to make it. This is truly what slow food is all about.

This was also the first time I hacked a full duck, so I had the feeling I was navigating uncharted territory trying to figure out how best to butcher the legs. It was a bit of a wrestle with a dose of squeamishness.

First you cure the duck legs overnight in salt, garlic and some herbs (I used some organic lavender from great source out in California). In the meantime, you render some duck fat. There's so much to say about duck fat I don't know where to begin. First, how to render it. You remove all the fat and skin of the duck, cover it in water and simmer over low heat for about an hour. The water evaporates and you're left with crispy duck cracklings and fat. When you pass all of this through a cheesecloth, your treasure reveals itself as beautiful liquid gold. You can also munch on the cracklings with a sprinkle of salt.

Now duck fat probably sounds nasty and artery-clogging, but in fact its chemical composition is closer to olive oil than to butter or lard. An article in the New York Times describes on the "French paradox," particularly in the region of Gascony where the majority of their diets revolve around goose and duck fat. Apparently they have the lowest rate of cardiovascular disease in the country. It probably helps that they enjoy a nice glass of red with whatever dose of duck fat they're consuming that day. If I ever go on a diet, it will be of fois gras, duck confit and red wine. I will probably live to be 100.

After curing for a day, you the legs submerged in the fat for 2-3 hours (I went to the gym during this time to work off the cracklings from the night before). Once they're cooked, you can preserve it in the fridge for up to 6 months covered completely in the duck fat. With the remaining fat, you can strain and reuse it to fry up some potatoes or drizzle it on popcorn in place of butter. I love how the fat keeps forever in the freezer. How economical.

My duck is now sitting in the fridge, ready to be reheated and slathered with some lavender honey, served with a side of polenta and an arugula salad.

Recipe: Duck Confit
Adapted from Epicurious
3 tablespoons salt
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 shallot, peeled and sliced
6 sprigs thyme (or in my case, lavender)
Coarsely ground black pepper
4 duck legs with thighs
4 duck wings, trimmed (optional - traditionally, you confit just the legs)
About 4 cups duck fat (the rendered fat of about 2 ducks)

1. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of salt in the bottom of a dish or plastic container large enough to hold the duck pieces in a single layer. Evenly scatter half the garlic, shallots, and thyme in the container. Arrange the duck, skin-side up, over the salt mixture, then sprinkle with the remaining salt, garlic, shallots, and thyme and a little pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 days.

2. Preheat the oven to 225°F. Melt the duck fat in a small saucepan. Rinse the salt and seasonings off the duck. Pat dry. Arrange the duck pieces in a single snug layer in a high-sided baking dish or ovenproof saucepan. Pour the melted fat over the duck (the duck pieces should be covered by fat) and place the confit in the oven. Cook the confit slowly at a very slow simmer — just an occasional bubble — until the duck is tender and can be easily pulled from the bone, 2-3 hours. Remove the confit from the oven. Cool and store the duck in the fat for up to 6 months.