Friday, January 30, 2009

Another Book Review

My wife gave me the book Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Restaurant Reviews, Articles, Memoir, Fiction and More by Dianne Jacobs for Christmas. I finished it this week. It is a very well written book. I had a difficult time putting it down, amazing given such a dry and clinical subject.

The book lives up to its title covering everything from from food specific articles for magazines and newspapers to writing recipes for publication to writing about food themed fiction. The book also covers how to break into the various markets, how to get started and how to submit a proposal to an editor. I appreciated that Ms. Jacobs never sugar coated any aspect of being a food writer. This is not an it's-so-easy-if-I-can-do-it-so-can-you! book. She discusses low pay, writing for free, high out of pocket expenses, and low or infrequent reimbursements. She even briefly goes into the basics of expenses and taxes.

In the end as much as I enjoyed the book I also found it equally depressing. Food writing in any form is not a way to make a living. Ms. Jacobs makes no illusions that most freelancers and authors write about food as a part time or second job. I also realized that this work is very much metro-centric. This is a concept that I am only recently beginning to realize and understand. In a small town in rural America there is no market for doing local restaurant or food reviews and unless you are staff at your local newspaper, your submissions will most likely be pro bono, a point Jacobs makes perfectly clear. The cost of travel then for research, of anything food related, not just restaurants to review, becomes cost prohibitive quickly. About the only option open to the small town writer is fiction. And then, after all of that there is pitching your work to an editor, with a 95% rejection rate.

As I said, an excellent book that covers its subject in perfect detail. But for now I guess I'll just stick to my food blog. C'est la vie.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Murphy's Chophouse

Last night we had a wonderful dinner out, a rare treat. We went to Murphy's Chophouse in Murphy, NC for the first time. Being a Wednesday night we had no problem getting in without a reservation, they we probably only a third full at most. I think there were maybe eight other tables with patrons at 6:30pm. Naturally the outdoor patio was vacant with below freezing temperatures.

The hostess, who turned out to be our waitress also, opened the door for us on our arrival, always a good sign. She also smartly seated us in a back corner but at the same time did not ostracize us. This is important when you are toting a 2.5 year old who will be up well past her bed time and who hasn't eaten since lunch. Well, we did let Rose have some cake before we left in an attempt to tide her over. We learned later that our waitress, Tara, has a four year old girl, so she probably had some insight. Further proof, Tara brought Rose four pages from a coloring book and a big box of crayons.

This is a snazzy restaurant, more typical for a city like Atlanta or a suburb, than this rural area. Dim lights, big candle on the table, linen tablecloths and napkins, extensive wine list (new law for this area). However, this is the mountains after all. I dressed up by wearing a sport shirt with slacks but of course the old people around me were in their jogging suits and sweats. I know someone from Florida (surprise, surprise) who had eaten here before and complained about the high prices. Fancy burgers were about $9, steaks about $22. Again not far off the mark from the Atlanta area, and a lot less than the finer restaurants there.

While Rose was ordered a cheeseburger before we even looked at the menu to stave off a temper tantrum, Dinah and I had hard time trying to choose what tastiness to eat. There was so much that looked so good. We opted for a nightly special for the starter, crab and trout stuffed mushrooms with melted cheese with a light mustard sauce with a hint of horseradish. Two for each of us.

Dinah settled on the Ahi Tuna and opted to substitute her salad with soup. A tough choice because we both like a good Caesar salad and Dinah was told their dressing was homemade. Anchovies did not come on the salad but were available for a dollar extra. (Mmmmm, I love anchovies). She debated between French onion soup and the she-crab bisque but went with the bisque on Tara's strong recommendation.

I went with the blackened rib eye with blue cheese on top. Not my usual choice for a rib eye. I believe rib eyes are the best of all pieces of meat and are best served medium-rare, unadorned. But I was feeling adventurous. My debate was between the she-crab soup or the Caesar salad. Easy solution. I ordered the Caesar, with anchovies and added a cup of the she-crab bisque.

The soup came first. Maybe not the best she-crab soup we have ever had but right up there. The bisque was quite meaty, I think there were small scallops in there also. My first bite I felt was a little too heavy on roasted red pepper but it mellowed after that. I think we both would have licked the bowl clean if we could.

My salad came after the soup. It was not too big, maybe too handfuls and generously topped with wide anchovies. The best Caesar I ever had was at Rosebud's in Chicago. This one could have been up there if they had laid shaved the cheese on top of the salad. Nonetheless it was gone in a flash.

Fresh baked sea salt focaccia and herbed olive oil for dipping came after the salad. Rather unusual timing I thought but I have to give the restaurant credit, all the food was paced perfectly. Delivery was not too soon or late allowing for a comfortable meal. And I thought the mid meal delivery of the bread was actually genius. This way we didn't gorge per usual, overeating before the rest of our meal came out.

Dinah raved about her tuna. It was seared on the outside otherwise raw, as it should be, in 3/8 inch thick slices except for two near inch think wedges standing up as square triangles. It was served with an orange teriyaki sauce. I prefer my tuna much thinner, maybe 1/8 inch thick, but Dinah declared it perfect. Dinah's side was a mashed sweet potatoes with brown sugar and butter, like a sweet potato pie filling. Nothing overwhelming special about Murpy's versus another restaurant's but Rose couldn't get enough if it. Dinah had few bites to herself.

Both our dishes came with a potato and carrot medley, not quite boiled, not quite sauteed. Very tasty but some of my potatoes were not cooked through. I had steak fries for my other side. They were good, the wide kind that I like, but they were the same as anyone else's. My steak was cooked perfectly. It was topped with blue cheese crumbles and some pickled ginger and rosemary for garnish. I tossed the rosemary but ate the ginger. I don't know why. The steak was bedded in a small pool of a black pepper sauce not unlike the sauce I would get with my steak au poire at Courtyard Cafe (sadly gone I think) in Bainbridge. In the end I continue to believe that a filet or sirloin would be a better choice for this style of dish, but I still wolfed it down eagerly.

It has been a long time since we have been able to enjoy a fine night of dining. Amazingly the bill totaled less than our expection by at least $20. Bonus!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Let Them Eat Cake!

Today's project was birthday cake. I decided to bite the bullet and make it from scratch. I don't think I have ever done that before. I also used the opportunity to explore several techniques. In the end I broke my strictest engineering rule, change only one variable at a time, too many times to count starting with making the cake from scratch.

I chose chocolate-chocolate chip with chocolate frosting. Because it's my favorite. This morning I picked up a few ingredients for the adventure. I looked for superfine sugar at the grocery. I know what this is, pastry chefs use it. It dissolves very fast. It is not the same as powdered sugar or confectioners sugar as that has a tiny amount of corn starch to prevent caking. Every bag at the grocery said superfine or extra fine so I knew that couldn't be the stuff. But I have worked with this before. I just weighed out 12.25 ounces per the cookbook instructions, then rounded it to 350 grams because I like that number better. Dumped it into my food processor and spun it until it started dusting out the top.

Aside: If you don't have a food processor, get one. I have no idea how I ever lived without one. I never would have bought one myself but we received it as a wedding gift and I bet I use it on average three times per week. They are awesome!

I then creamed that sugar with the butter, salt, etc.

While at the grocery I picked up some organic pastry flour. My cookbook cautioned against using pastry flour for cakes saying it results in a tender smaller crumb but also a more crumbly cake. So I went 50/50 with all purpose flour. I weighed it out, 8.5 ounces per the recipe and then rounded it to 250 grams. Then I weighed up 2.25 ounces of cocoa powder per my recipe and then rounded that to 65 grams because that is a nicer number too. I dumped both the flour and cocoa powder into the food processor and sent them on a whirl. This was a new technique I wanted to try. Using the food processor on the flour and cocoa aerated them, sifted them and homogenized them. Something I picked up from watching Good Eats on TV.

For the milk portion I used part of the "buttermilk" I saved from yesterday's butter experiment. It tastes just like whole milk. Hopefully it will be extra tasty in the cake.

My cookbook strongly encourages you to grease and flour your pans. Dammit if I could find my round pans. So I pulled out a 9 x 13 and buttered it instead of using the suggested vegetable shortening. Another new variable, or two! Floured it and then I decided to spread a thin layer of cake batter on the bottom of the pan before I added the chocolate chips. My thought was that this would help prevent all of the chips from settling to the bottom while baking. Who knows? I did a blend of milk chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate chips, maybe ten ounces worth. I tossed them in flour to try to prevent them from sticking together and clumping when I add them. I read about doing that with fruit once so I thought I'd try it. Probably gratuitous and unnecessary.

The cake seemed to bake well. Took maybe 45 minutes though. I'm not sure if the center ever really finished. I used a tooth pick of course but it is tough to tell the difference between cake batter sticking to the toothpick or melted chocolate chip. I tried to check with my temperature probe, looking for 209 degrees but it sucked for that purpose. I really need to get my fancy instant read thermometer. Unfortunately one corner broke off in the pan when I stripped it onto my cooling rack. I think I glued it back in place with a little frosting well enough. I was tempted to cut the cake in half and stack it to make a two layer cake, squaring off the edges. But the whole cake was fragile. I tried to put it on a plastic board and it started to crack and tear. I managed to invert it back onto a cutting board with minimal damage. Not the board I wanted to use.

I'm not convinced on using cocoa for chocolate flavor for cakes. I had the same reservation after making brownies. No surprise, this is the same recipe I modified for brownies. I find the cocoa is a little too bittersweet and little too unchocolatey for my tastes. I need to find another form, either real chocolate or perhaps Dutch cocoa.

I made a chocolate butter cream frosting using a four ounce bar of Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate, chopping it up in my food processor and then melting it in a double boiler. Since the bulk of frosting is powdered sugar I opted for semi-sweet chocolate to balance the sweetness from the sugar. I spun the sugar in my food processor to sift it before adding it to the butter and vanilla creaming in my stand mixer. The recipe called for 1-1.5 pounds of powdered sugar added in two batches. I did two 225 gram batches. A nice pretty number. Again I used the buttermilk left over from yesterday, finishing it up. I used a trick from watching Ina Garten and placed strips of parchment paper under the edges of the cake before I started frosting it. After frosting you slide the strips out leaving a clean edge. It almost worked perfectly expect for the broken corner pulled out with the paper! I think I repaired it well enough.

I tried piping a fancy border around the top edge of the cake but I didn't have the correct tip so it didn't come out as nice as I had envisioned. I started to add a bead around the base but it really looked bad so I scraped it off. We had some left over red icing from Rose's cookie making and I used that for the script. I think it is the best handwriting I have ever had!

So here is my cake and my icing too:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

'S'mofo butter layin' me to da' BONE! Jackin' me up... tight me!

Yesterday's culinary excursion? Homemade butter. Simply because I can.

If I could buy cream in bulk I might consider doing this on a regular basis. It's too damn easy and I am really getting into controlling what goes into the food I eat. With homemade butter I can make it unsalted or lightly salted for spreading on bread. Or I could make organic butter with organic cream. It would be especially good for salted butter because I only cook with unsalted butter but I do like salted butter on bread. Learned that in travels to Europe and Canada. So my volume needs for salted butter would be low.

If you are interested in making your own, this web page describes the process better than I can.

Yield is only about 40-50% (two pints of cream gave me three sticks of butter) so it is unfortunately not cheaper to make your own than to buy bricks of four sticks at the grocery. But man, it is just so coool! Whip some up for your next dinner party. "Would you care for some butter with those homemade rolls? Oh I made the butter too." I need to look for a nearby dairy where maybe I can buy some cream on the cheap. Oh and maybe buy some butter molds.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Steak and Potatoes

On the weekends, while the rest of the house is napping, I like to watch cooking shows on PBS. Everyday Food is good. I really like(d) Primal Grill with Steven Raichlen. But my favorite is America's Test Kitchen and by extension Cook's Country. I can't really tell the difference between the two. I need to squeeze some coin out of the tight purse and make a donation to PBS/GPB in gratitude and maybe a subscription to Cook's Illustrated.

I like these shows better than many of the new shows now on Food Network which seems to have gotten a little campy trying to reach new audiences, read market. If you read on-line forums and reviews you find people have a love-hate following of the Cook's Illustrated family of shows and magazine and for that matter, Christopher Kimball. The things that people hate about them are exactly why I love the show; it's quirky, anal retentive and focuses too much on technique. I love it!

A week or so ago the show was about imitating a diner breakfast, fluffy omelet with home fries. I don't know what the potatoes' proper name is but they are the ones where the potatoes are cut into small 1/2 inch or so cubes and fried crispy brown. It was timely since I had just recently attempted the same meal for breakfast and my potatoes came out under cooked. The two big secrets I learned were to use yellow or white potatoes instead of baking potatoes and to microwave the potatoes before cutting and frying them. There was also a "hidden" secret in that some diners use a big heavy press when cooking their potatoes but on the show they did not have that luxury. Hmmm????

So, having recently been inspired to run out and buy a bag of potatoes, I set out to make these for dinner Saturday night. I over estimated and used six potatoes when three probably would have sufficed. That resulted in having to do two batches because once I nuked the potatoes I was committed to cooking them. I fried them in my large cast iron skillet in two tablespoons of bacon fat that I had clarified for some extra flavor. Unlike on America's Test Kitchen, I didn't have the patience or ambition to turn over each potato cube to ensure even browning. So I just flipped them with a spatula and hoped for the best. BUT, remembering that comment about the press I took another cast iron pan and put it down on top of the potatoes to act as a press. It worked very well. The only thing that might have been better is if I had heated up the second pan to cook the tops as I used it as a press. Now I'm wondering about one of those George Foreman Grills?

To go with the potatoes I pulled out the other half of a chuck roast I had used for pot roast a while back. When I was a kid we ate "steak" a lot. But steak in my family was not an expensive cut like rib eye, porterhouse, T-bone or even sirloin but a comparatively inexpensive flat two inch thick chuck roast that my Dad would cook on the grill and then serve us slices. My roast was far too thick to cook that way so I sliced it down into inch thick slabs. They looked like boneless T-bone steaks. It turned into a great meal of cheap steak and potatoes.

So don't think Food Network is where it's all at, PBS is still pretty good too. That said, I watched Chopped for the first time last night. I had very low expectations. I mean, how many Iron Chef shows do we need? Never a good sign when your network starts ripping off its own shows. But, I was pleasantly surprised. I haven't really warmed up to Ted Allen as a show host, but I actually enjoyed the show.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Movie Countdown?

Being broke we don't see many movies. Right now I really, really want to see Taken. But this may be my must see movie for the year. I'm afraid it will suck, and suck really really bad, but I so loved the book.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Eating Better From the Top Down

I read two articles today about top chefs' hopes that Obama can influence what we eat. Good articles. I provided links to both articles at the bottom of this post.

I learned in management that you have more influence on people than you think. People watch what you do. People copy you. If you're pissed off or don't get along with someone, your employees will be pissed off and antagonistic toward that same person also. And proportionally to the degree of loyalty they have to you. It can be a problem at times. Your children are the same way. If you are a Packers fan, your kids probably will be too. If you love pepperoni pizza, there's a good chance your daughter will also. This is one of the reasons why I was always angry with Charles Barkley's "I'm not a role model" comment. Yes you are. We all are. That's the problem. We are all role models; we all need to start acting like it. (That aside, I am a big Charles Barkley fan. I think he has come around. Better late than never. He was spot on about parents though).

I'm not sure Bush ever understood that influence. This really is the true power that a President has that makes them the most powerful person in the world, not military might, or economic power or endless connections. For Bush, it was fear and hate. What he feared and what he hated, the rest of the country began to fear and hate. I think Obama is different and I hope I am right.

I agree with these chefs quoted in the links below. If we can see that Obama appreciates food, maybe more people will appreciate food and the enjoyment of food. I'm not talking about over eating or over indulging. You CAN love the taste of chocolate and enjoy it, rapturously, without eating 1000 calories of it. And maybe you can learn to appreciate a fresh Red Haven peach instead of a generic grocery store variety or, shudder, canned. Or braised rabbit with carrots and potatoes. There's a good bet that your ancestors enjoyed that dish, why not you?

From what I've read the Obama family is like mine. They like food. They like simple food like chili and cheese pizza and they like the top of the line upscale stuff. They like to eat out a lot. So do we, or we did when we could afford it. That alone could help jump start the economy.

While I don't always see eye to eye with Alice Waters, she's right, put a garden in at the White House. Maybe more people would garden. I try my hand at it. I don't grow enough to sustain my family but it does help to at least supplement. And it goes a long way to eating better and healthier for my family. I can't wait for the frost danger to be over to start planting again.

Unfortunately eating locally grown food is not an option for everyone (a case where I disagree with Waters). I find it interesting that farmers' markets are really a city attraction not a rural one. There is no farmers' market here. The nearest one is actually Atlanta which I ADORE! Yes, our town does have a small one but only in the summer for Saturday mornings and from what I have seen there are more crafts than food there. But I do agree, more people need to be buying from co-ops, farmers' markets, CSAs, what have you. I rode my bike out yesterday and found what I think is a CSA local to me. I plan on calling them in the next few weeks. We used to be able to feed the world and now we can't feed our own? Something's wrong here. I know we have the same amount of farm land and crops, if not more. It's not a supply issue. It is a priority issue.

If you don't grow a garden, make it your New Year's resolution to grow something this year. If you've never done it or don't have a plot available, try something easy like beans or tomatoes. You can grow them in a large pot, easy, no muss no fuss. And if you already are a gardener, try something new this year. I'm thinking either corn or eggplant myself.

Top Chef's Push Obama to Improve Food Policy

For Alice Waters, Food Change To Believe In

Friday, January 23, 2009

Some Things Are Just So, So, So very Wrong

Yesterday we took Rose to the dentist (the best dentist, EVER), her first time. This was not an official dental visit, just a show and tell, look and see, so that when her first exam does come in six months she is not quite so scared. Rose was very excited. All week we built it up and and the whole drive there, we live an hour away, Rose kept demanding, "I want to go to the dentist!" Damn, Mom and Dad are good.

There were a couple of anxious moments, but the overall event was fun and enjoyed by Rose. She let her hygienist, Jen, count her teeth with the scary scraper thingy. Dr. Lykins looked in Rose's mouth with her mirror and Rose willingly did everything. My favorite part was when Jen opened the little tiny tub of tooth polish and Rose thought it was lip balm. Rose would stick her finger in it, lightly, and then spread the polish on her lips with her finger tip, and then lick her finger clean. Repeat.

So where is the food connection?

Ohhhhh boy.

Afterwards we were discussing with the Dr. Lykins and Jen how lovely Rose's teeth are, and her parent's teeth. My dentist LOVES my teeth. I never had a cavity until this year! It was depressing. Then we talked about all of the mouths of horror that they see. And how the parents bring their kids in with rotten mouths saying, "I just don't understand, she brushes her teeth and all." Bullshit. This is 100% the parents fault. Three years olds cannot be held accountable for their health care. For example, my niece and nephew used to get Coke in their baby bottle because their evil mother Misfit said their pediatrician told her the kids were too young to have juice. Do you think I'm stupid? Please. Or as I have witnessed many times, kids who get sugary drinks or snacks right before they go to bed. Come on!

So were discussing all of this and Rose's hygienist Jen pipes up that her sister-in-law gives her baby, as in under one year old baby, chocolate breast milk!!! I can't even count the number of levels that is wrong on. Jen was quick to add she was not related by blood.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy Obama Day!!!!!!!!!!!

Happy happy joy joy. I never thought in my lifetime I would see a President who is not white. I truly am excited and moved by today's inauguration. I believe that today is the greatest day in our nation's history, so far. I have enough cracker, Republican, or racist friends and family members (my brother doesn't read this) to know this as fact.

Thank God we finally have a presidential President. One that can not only speak but move you with his words. The hairs on my neck stand up when Barak Obama speaks. I can feel blood rush into my temples and my throat tighten up when I hear his speeches. I'm ready to go do something!

I don't know what though.

In honor of today I decided to serve dinner a la Obama, chili and pizza.

I searched the Internet and found that Obama is a big fan of chili. I even found a family recipe attributed to him. I made the chili yesterday so that it could sit and develop more flavor for tonight. I did have to modify it a little. I left out the green pepper. I don't have any and don't really like them anyway. I was out of turmeric and since curry powder has turmeric and cumin in it, I used a teaspoon of curry powder instead. It tasted fine to me. Besides, I think it added a little multi-nationalism to the chili, a perfect tribute to Mr. Obama. I used dried basil flakes instead of ground basil, a half teaspoon. Not having any tomatoes I used two cans of stewed tomatoes. And hey, they had green peppers in the cans, so I got that back. No kidney beans please. I really don't like them and lucky me, my wife is allergic to them (she misses them though). I coooked it all in my Dutch oven for two hours covered and the one hour uncovered. Right now the pot is sitting outside, probably frozen under an 1/8 inch of snow. I'll just heat it up in time for dinner.

To go along with the chili, I made Mexican corn bread. My dilemma here was my wife always makes this and I don't know how. Growing up I rarely ate corn bread. I've never really liked it. If it is sweet and/or moist, I like it. But most of the corn bread I have ever had is dry and crumbly. I need a whole glass of milk to choke it down. I found a recipe in my Tex-Mex cookbook that looked promising, except I didn't have any green chiles, creamed corn or roasted red peppers. I had frozen corn though. I decided to simmer the frozen corn in milk. The recipe called for 32 ounces of creamed corn. I used my pound of frozen corn and enough milk to make it about 30 ounces. The end result I think was too much corn, but it worked. We had an ancient jar of jalapenos in the fridge but the expiration date had not passed. I chopped up a 1/3 cup and added them in with 8 ounces of shredded cheese. Finished what was left of the butter milk. It seemed awfully soupy. I'm not sure what corn bread batter is supposed to be like, so I added another 1/2 cup of corn meal. I ended up with two pans, one an eight by eight glass pan and I also used my scone pan. I prefer the scone pan because it makes nice pretty wedges. It was hotter than what Dinah makes but she gave it her blessing which means it was good.

I read that Barak loves pizza from a little dive in Chicago called Italian Fiesta Pizzeria preferring veggie or cheese. Pizza is easy. I'll make a crust this afternoon and press it out into a jelly roll pan. I think I have a can of diced tomatoes that I can use for a tomato sauce base. We don't have any mozzarella cheese but a blend of the cheddar left over from the corn bread and some Gruyere and Emmenthaler I have should go well.

Here's to a better and brighter future!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sometimes You Strike Out Swinging

A few weeks ago I bought some turkey thighs on sale, BIG sale. I have been intrigued with cooking turkey without roasting a whole bird. I don't like white meat and I'm not crazy about legs, so I jumped at the opportunity to buy thighs.

I didn't do anything special, which may have been a mistake. I just baked them in a dish with an aluminum foil tent until done. In just cutting the meat off the bone I thought something was off. Dinah felt they tasted fine. I thought the texture was wrong, close to rubbery and I didn't care for the flavor either. I wouldn't call it gamey but it was too strong. I ate two bites and fed the rest to the dog. Normally I say "if it's no good, we'll go out." But now we're too broke for that option so if it is no good the choice is to starve. This was a big, big disappointment. I'll revisit it another day and try a rub or a marinade or maybe doing them on the grill but for now I'm not pleased.

Not much for snack food either. I just made some popcorn. I make mine the old fashion way, on the stove. I find it tastes so much better than the microwave bag stuff that I can't go back. And I believe it is healthier since mine only contains popcorn and healthy oil. I'm still hungry though.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Family Secrets

Last night dinner was just Rose and me, Dinah was out mopping. I let Rose pick dinner, from a select few choices which I control (there's a secret to success in there). She picked Monkey Rings and pancakes. It was supposed to be an A, B, C, or D quiz. I don't remember A and C being an answer, but no matter, an easy enough dinner to prepare. Monkey Rings by the way are generic Fruit Loops.

But the real dinner to write about was the night before. Because I had been stock piling, I had everything I needed to make Beef Stroganoff except noodles so that facilitated a run to the grocery, with a coupon in hand, and made this a very inexpensive meal. This is not your traditional beef stroganoff. This is a quick and dirty, my-Mom-had-less-than-an-hour-to-make-dinner version. She probably got this recipe from a soup can or something but it still remains one of my all time favorite meals.

I've been eating this for at least 30 years and making it myself for over 20. My childhood friends still wax on and on about eating this dish. It's good enough for casual company or to serve to your family once per week. My dad, my brother and I have a tendency to gorge on this meal and eat waaaayyy too much. We love it that much.

So here it is, the secret family recipe. Easy to double or halve if necessary. Enjoy and if you make it, let me know what you think. And my secret? I like to eat the left overs, cold and heavily salted, for breakfast the next morning.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Olvida Cookware

I'm a metal guy. I love all things made of metal. And my passion is lowly cast iron. On the cooking side, I have quite a complement of cast iron pots and pans, perhaps even too many. I've had the good fortune to tour the Lodge factory where most of today's US made pans are made. Lately I've been cooking with a cast iron pan at least three times a week and loving it more and more with each time. So I really perked up when I saw a new type of cast iron pan mentioned in passing on PBS' cooking show Cook's Country.

This new pan is not black but shiny bright. It's made by a company called Olvida. What makes Olvida's cast iron cookware different is that their pans are nickel plated. The reviewers on the television show passed on this pan because of its expense but the fact that someone could reinvent the cast iron pan which has existed for millennia caught me hook, line and sinker.

Some quick research confirmed that yes, this stuff is quite pricey, but really good cookware is. To compare, a 10" Olivida skillet from Chef's Resource is $99.95. A 10" Lodge skillet from Wal-Mart is $13.97. Wow!!! Not enough yet though to turn me off, if the quality is there. At first glance Lodge has two advantage for me, price and made in the USA. Just being an industry insider, I know there is no way the Olivda pans are made in the US, probably China.

I should probably take a moment to go a little sideways here and explain my feelings on China. While I rant and rave about China, I don't hate the Chinese. On the contrary, it is quite the opposite. I love their history, their culture, their beliefs. I can say that my very limited understanding of Tao has had an impact on my life (I read Eva Wong's book cover to cover and refer back to it often). What I do hate, and with proper use of the word "hate," is the their government, their business practices, their manufacturing practices and their human rights practices. But most of all I hate OUR country's shipping of jobs, income and products to China, devastating our economies, our families, our security. That's what I hate.

Lodge makes 99% of all cast iron cookware made in the US. If you see, buy, or own any cast iron cookware made in the last 10-20 years that does not say Lodge on the back, it was made in China. My fear with Chinese cast iron cookware is the potential lead content. I had a friend of mine who works in a foundry send me some lab results on some cast iron his company had purchased from China. These castings were not for skillets but who knows what any given Chinese foundry also produces. On these tests of a random sample the lead level was 0.004%. Most US foundries will run the potential of high scrap with those lead levels and those castings would never go out the door. But we are regulated here in the US, not so in China. The lead is elemental, so if lead is present in cookware, it could leach out. That's why I don't buy Chinese cast iron cookware. Lodge's enamel ware by the way is made in China. While the enamel would protect the iron, you need to ask yourself what is the potential lead content in the enamel from China or what if the enamel chips and you continue to cook with it?

Yesterday I had a wonderful phone conversation with the owner of Olvida. And yes, my assumption was correct, the raw castings come from China. I can't blame him from a business perspective, the cost of a pan is 1/3 what a domestic foundry would charge. He does have a double edge sword though. The Chinese castings have a high scrap rate and he can't return them. After discussing with the owner his unique process, I feel much better about buying an Olvida pan even if they originate in China. The nickel coating permanently bonds to the iron surface, sealing it and eliminating any risk of potential lead leaching out into food.

All of the finishing of the pan is done in North Carolina. It is quite a labor intensive job which explains part of the price but also means at least a few American employees are making a buck. The coating's use on cast iron was originally developed for the automotive industry but it is the same coating used on many nickel plated pieces of equipment in the food and pharmaceutical industries. The coating is not pure nickel so any fears of nickel allergies can be put to rest. The process is technically called Electroless Nickel (EN) coating and uses a nickel-phosphorous alloy. The coating makes the pans non-stick, non-reactive and scratch resistant. The big selling point to me is that the Olvida pans are NSF certified. This means that they can be run through a dishwasher, a requirement for restaurants. You can't do that with regular cast iron. Think about that next time you order fajitas.

So the newest thing on my wish list is a 10" Olvida skillet. I hope that it will exceed my expectations. If I get one, I'll report back. If it exceeds my expectations, I'll probably have some Lodgeware I'll be selling.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Rôti de Porc au Lait

I'm sitting here listening to Mozart in Egypt and thought that I would take the time to revisit my Christmas dish and write up the recipe for it.

While this dish is from my idol Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook, I don't think there is any special relationship between this recipe and him. I think it is just part of any classically trained chef's repertoire. Julia Child has a very similar recipe in her cookbook.

I'm a technique guy. This is probably why I enjoy target shooting more than I do deer hunting (that's not to say that I don't enjoy hunting). Or why at the gym I concentrate on trying to achieve perfect form rather than how much weight I can lift. It is coming out in my cooking and for the better. For years I would have shortcutted a recipe like this. Too often in the past, if a recipe called for browning the meat, I just made sure it was cooked. Now I actually BROWN the meat, not just turn it gray in the pan. It is a significant difference. I must not have been the only one because I heard a student reminded of the same point in my first quarter cooking class. So if you want to take your cooking to another level, remember a little detail like that.

This isn't a food magazine quality photo of the dish, but here is how my Rôti de Porc au Lait turned out:

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Basic Sourdough Recipe

Here is my basic sourdough recipe that I have been using. I started with the recipe found on the Sourdough Home web site and then tweaked it to my likes. I have this thing about round metric measurements. For example, a tablespoon of butter is 14 grams. I use 15 grams because 15 is a much nicer number and easier to divide or multiply if necessary. Likewise, I don't like a measurement of 180g of sourdough starter so I use 200g, a much nicer number. Odd I know. I assume it is the anal retentive engineer in me. That also means that my personal weight equivalents for flour do not match any standard published out there (one cup is often given as 4.5 ounces which is 127.6 grams. I'll use 125 instead, a much nicer number).

I opted not to post a recipe for the Basque Sourdough Bread that I made until I can have an opportunity to make it again "correctly" and successfully. I did however post a picture of it. This Basque recipe results in a lighter, softer loaf, both the bread itself and the crust. I attributed this to a combination of using shortening and baking enclosed in the Dutch oven.


Friday, January 09, 2009

Salvage Operation

Sometimes you just know a recipe is wrong.

I was trying to make a Basque sourdough bread from my Wooden Spoon Bread Book. This is supposedly a bread that Basque sheepherders would make in a Dutch oven at the beginning of the day, bury the pot in the coals of the fire and have it ready to eat when they came home. The recipe described a stiff dough but what I ended up with was ridiculous. This dough was so crumbly, so dry, I couldn't even work it into a ball. So I threw it back into my stand mixer bowl and added another two tablespoons of shortening bringing the total to four tablespoons of shortening. This was a little better but still, I had to beat the dough into a ball shape. It was stiffer than Rose's Play-doh. And even though it was ball shaped, it was full of cracks and crevices. At no time would I describe my dough as "smooth and elastic."

Then it was supposed to rise in a Dutch oven, double in size in about two hours. I gave it overnight, maybe 18 hours. It got softer but never rose, never doubled.

Ok, this isn't me, no fault of mine. Even when I was making it I found it hard to believe that there was no call for any liquid. No water. No milk. No oil. Nothing but two tablespoons of shortening. I actually have two copies of this book, a first edition and a recent edition. I compared both books and both recipes are the same.

So I looked in my Basque cookbook. Yes, I have a Basque cookbook. No recipe for any bread though in that book.

So I turned to the Internet. There are a gazillion recipes for Basque Sheepherder's bread that are amazing similar, but not sourdough. Actually there is only one recipe that seems to have been copied gazillion times (one of my pet peeves with Internet recipes). So I did a search for Basque sourdough and two recipes popped up each calling for one cup of water.

Soooo, I like the word "so," so this morning I put the now slightly softer but unrisen ball of dough back into my stand mixer. I knew that if I tried baking it in the oven, I'd just end up with a round block of cracker. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I flipped the switch and the dough broke up very nicely in the mixer.

Now what I should have done was slowly pour water in with the mixer on and just add enough until I had a stiff dough that climbed the sides of the bowl. What I actually did was dump the cup of water into the bowl and mixed it into a paste. Damn.

I ended up adding an additional 2 1/3 cups of flour to get a soft but sticky dough. I kneaded it by hand until it felt good. It even passed a window pane test for me. I formed it into a smooth ball, popped it back into my Dutch oven and let it rest to double. It took longer than two hours but in eight hours I felt it had doubled sufficiently. I have found that every batch of sourdough I have made takes a very long time to double, often overnight, so I think that length of time was probably more correct than what the book called for. I would bet a yeast packet would have given me a dough that doubled in two hours.

I envision my little yeasties hung out in that dough ball all night and this morning were screaming, "feed me Seymour." That water and flour addition was the key.

Baked it covered in the Dutch oven for about 75 minutes and am quite happy with the results. I forgot to slash the top but that's a minor nit.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Class Begins Today!!!

Except I'm not in it.
I can't tell you how crushed I am. All good things must come to an end some time. We just plain ran out of money. Even with the money I made last month, there just wasn't enough to cover an electric bill that doubled, vehicle registrations, insurance(s), doctor visits, prescriptions, etc.

I guess there won't be any brilliant posts about school, class and professional cooking for awhile.

I'm bummed. I'm depressed. And sick on top of it. And the weather is crappy wicked. Not a good day.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Crock Pot Roast

It's really hard to screw up pot roast. Or is it?

Growing up, my Grandmother would fix a pot roast in the oven every summer for a few dinners at the Lake. She had this thing about eating meat well done. WELL done. In my family we eat our beef medium rare. I think it was because of my Grandmother I became a salt addict. I needed half a shaker to get that roast down every time. Rawhide would have been a more tender, more moist meal.

My Mom seems to have recently discovered the crock pot. I'm not sure why. I know we had one in the house my whole life and I've seen her use it. Their big thing is ribs in the crock pot. She told me recently they cooked a roast for dinner in the crock pot and the vegetables were amazing but the meat was the driest they had ever had. Worse than my Grandmother's she said! They had to throw it out.

I asked her if the meat was on top of the liquid. "Yes." And there ya go.

The roast I made for tonight's dinner was perfect. It was very simple. Just some carrots, a few cloves of garlic, an onion. I used the white of a leek too. I didn't use any spices though. Interesting. Well except for a little salt and pepper. One thing I did that I believe took my meal a step above the average is I used a box of beef stock instead of water. I used six cups of stock to get the beef under the liquid level. (The box is four cups. I used an additional two cups that I had frozen in the freezer).

After the roast was done, I took it out and put it in a casserole dish. Then I strained the vegetables out of the liquid and added them to the casserole dish and put them in the oven to stay warm. Then I poured all of the liquid into my large skittle and boiled it down to less than half of what I started with. I spooned the reduced liquid over the meat and vegetables. I wish I had time to clarify it and make it a little thicker. Next time. This concentrated the flavor and the extra step took my pot roast to another level, in my oh so humble opinion.

The box of organic beef stock had too much salt in my opinion. Not overpowering and fine for my tastes but maybe not for others.

I think that to really do this right I need to sear and brown the roast before putting it in the crock pot. A little note to remember for next time.

Other than that it was the perfect meal for today, since I seem to have finally caught Rose's cold.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Sourdough Scones

I whipped some of these up today, at least that's what I am calling them. I was intrigued by a recipe in one of my favorite cook books, The Wooden Spoon Bread Book. I've had this cook book for ten, maybe fifteen years, great book. In the book it is called skillet bread and emulates a pioneer-era bread made in a cast iron skillet. To me it tasted like scones.

Maybe they tasted like scones because once again I screwed up and used baking powder instead of baking soda. Maybe, but I don't think so. The bread doesn't sit to double in size like a normal sourdough bread recipe which leads me to believe that the starter is added for flavor not for the yeast action.

Once again I used lard to make a bread recipe and I am beginning to lean away from using it. I can taste just a subtle hint of it in the bread and don't care for it. I think lard might be fine in stronger flavored foods or if you use jelly on your bread but I think bread is just too delicate. I'll have to try again but I think buttermilk might mask the flavor in biscuits. Frying in lard is another story. That usage I really like and have made excellent hash browns and potato pancakes.

Here is the recipe if you would like to try: Sourdough Scones.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

A Book Review

You may wonder how or why I am reviewing a non-food related book on a blog about food, but I can tie it together, near the end.

I finally finished this book. I pre-ordered it from Amazon so I got it right when it came out in June but it has taken me way too long to finish it. One because life got in the way and one because it's not my kind of book so I really had to push hard to get through the first third or half of the book. It's a chick book. I don't read love stories. If I do an Amazon review, I'd give it four out of five stars just because of that. The writing though is excellent. The story, if you like love stories and relationships isn't half bad, but I take one star off just because it isn't my cup of tea.

Those of you who don't know me are probably wondering why I pre-ordered a love story if I don't read them and then took the time to read it. Because the author and I went to school together, and at one time we were very good friends.

If you were to ask me in high school or ask me now even, about my closest and best friends back then, Shawn would have been in the closest five. Now those five might not feel the same way about me, but that's how I felt about them. After graduation we all scattered as some many tales of high school friendships go. I lost track of Shawn then and have truly missed him ever since. I really do. Over time most of us have somehow reconnected. A few of us are far from Columbus now so we aren't as tight as we once were but the emails and Christmas cards are there. There's occasional trip back home. And of course fantasy football.

I did try to find Shawn after high school but the rumors I had were that he went to OU, fell into the wrong crowd, got strung out and moved west. I don't know if any of that is true or not but he did head west. Last year my closest friend started a reunion website of sorts and through six degrees of separation managed to get Shawn's email address. She passed it on to me and I immediately emailed him back. To my surprise he replied! He's now living out in Wyoming, living in the skier's paradise he always dreamed of and just published his first book. I would also say that he has aged very well and I say he looks quite dashing and debonair. I'm insanely jealous of him. The being an author part, not the rest.

I'd love to be published. I've started two books that I think qualify as novels. One was about an economic coup of China by Hong Kong after the British handover, kind of a turning of the tables concept. I think I made it to chapter three before that faded out. I still have a file cabinet full of source material. The other is actually half finished and was about an assassination plot of Fidel Castro by a Miami business man. I'll be honest the plot is not that original, I lifted it from The Dogs of War. But I haven't touched that work in probably five years. Time is running out I think, though I can extend it a little by changing the name Fidel to Raul. I guess you just have to be in the right mindset or mood to write. And truthfully, I don't think I am any good.

So back to Jessica Z. I was blown away with the writing. Why? Because Shawn wrote in first person from a female perspective. To me writing fiction in first person is extremely difficult to pull off and then to write from the perspective of the opposite sex raises that difficulty exponentially. I could never do that and I think Shawn did it brilliantly.

Shawn really developed a relationship between the main character and her sister. And he nails it. He could have been writing about my wife and her sister. But it is astonishing because Shawn doesn't have a sibling. None that I remember at least. Nor were his parents divorced when I knew him and he pulls that dysfunctionality off with complete credibility. The relationship between the two sisters and the mom was almost the same as my ex-wife's with her mom. Shawn really did a great job of character development in this book.

I was astonished at things I recognized in the book that even though I have not spoken or heard from Shawn in twenty years! (Ten years man. Ten years!) I'm sure it is only natural, as an author you draw on your own life experiences. The physical description of Jessica I recognized right away. A large part of Shawn, at the least the guy I knew and how I would extrapolate him out to be, is in the character of Patrick. Another character from Dublin, Ohio? Yeah go figure. There were many, many more little details like that. I won't go into them all in case someone out there also knew/knows him and wants to read the book. And all of the sex in the book is so, SO Shawn. I think I even recognized a flashback or two!
I was thrilled when Shawn emailed me back. We only exchanged a few times and that's ok. I'm sure he is far busier than I am with the book and travel, a new book in the wings not to mention his own family commitments. He sent me a podcast of an interview that he did and it was amazing to hear his voice. It was as if we were back in high school, exactly the same. In the interview Shawn discusses that in order to not pick up another author's writing style, when writing he reads nothing but food books and really got into Michael Ruhlman, something we have in common. When I queried Shawn about Ruhlman I mentioned how I wish I could attend CIA but can't afford it, so I'm doing the local tech school culinary arts program. That is when he told me he worked as a sous chef at a resort in Wyoming. He may still in between books. And of course, I was jealous again.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!!!!

Happy New Year all.

In case you were wondering, there have been no culinary delights since Christmas, not even for New Year's Eve. We ended up at Arby's for that. Don't ask because I'll just get pissed off all over again.

Here's to a brighter and happier 2009!!!