Monday, August 27, 2007
Sunday, August 26, 2007
McConnell's Farm, out in Moon, grows the best peaches in the region. Their family has farmed the same land for over 200 years, the original land granted in 1787 for service in the American Revolution. You can see it all here:
So Amy was kind enough to hook me up with 4 pecks of peaches that were culls, pick-outs, seconds, etc. They cost nearly nothing and were perfectly fine. I sorted into three piles; eating, juicing, and peach butter. The eating peaches were peaches with scars, small bruises, and spots, perfectly solid but not pretty enough for sale. I got about a peck of these and sent most of them to Jake's preschool for snacks for the day. A few others we kept at home, sent to the in laws', etc. The juicers were a little more damaged, but not too bruised or mushy. I got about a peck of these too. Most of the peaches went into the peach butter pot.
So, I have tried over the years to streamline the processes of putting up foods. I always follow the safety guidelines as set out by various Aggie universities but most often from the Penn State site for home canners:
but I try to use some tricks of the professional chef to make it less work in the kitchen. For the peach butter, I washed the peaches, cut out any really messy spots, removed the pits, and filled two large roasting pans. i placed these in the oven overnight @ 225 and cracked the door. This serves two purposes; it cooks the moisture out of the peaches and it fills the house with delightful peach aroma. In the morning, I put the peaches through the food mill into a large pot. This I left on the stove over low heat and asked Mary, my wife to watch and stir it. When it got thick enough, she shut it off and covered it. At night when I got home from work I added sugar and adjusted the taste and put it up.
Result: 26 half pints of peach butter.
For the jelly, I used Sure Gel Pectin and the juiced peaches. Juicing ripe peaches, as one may imagine, produces a thick peach juice and very little waste. I used this pulp and the instructions for peach jam from Sure Gel - 4 C. pulp, 1 box Sure Gel, 2 Tbs. lemon juice, and 5 1/2 C, sugar and it worked out to make the prettiest peach jam/jelly/curd. The jam is opaque, with a color halfway between egg yolk and sunshine. The process went pretty quickly: I juiced enough peaches to make almost 5 quarts of peach juice/pulp first. I cooked a batch of jam, sealed it and boiled it, and as the full jars boiled, I cooked the next batch of jam. Four batches of seven half-pints each was done in about 1 hour.
Result: 28 half pints of peach jam.
Of course, Jake had me open a jar first thing the next morning. We ate some together by the spoon.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
Friday, July 6, 2007
Margaritas - 1 part lime, 1 part Cointreau, 1 part tequilla (half Herradura reposado and half Cuervo, we ran out of the Herradura)
Pulled pork "al pastor" style - seasoned with achiote, chile guajillo, and Mexican oregano and slow-roasted in the oven all day
Cornmeal-crusted very fresh local tile fish
Fresh tomatillo salsa
Mango-habanero salsa (the mangoes were so sweet and ripe we drank the rest of them the next day as margaritas)
Sliced beautiful avocados
Iceberg of course
Chopped white onions
Chopped fresh cilantro
Some cheese of course
Mexican sour cream
Posole in green chile sauce
Little corn tortillas warmed on the griddle
The max tacos munched was, I believe, ten. I don't know, I was busy eating. The leftover pork made for great lunch snacks the next day.
Check out the video by Leslie of the introduction of dinner:
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
I love this coffee. The beans are great, the roast is dark but not burnt, the brand is engaging but not cute, and the coffee is really freaking good.
When I was at Berkeley, I met Peet's. The other members of Ken Raymond's research group were obsessed with it. To my taste, it was burnt and too strong. But over time Peet's wore me down and won me over. Maybe it was the scent of eucalyptus trees or the Pacific breezes or the endless artichokes for free from Ken's garden. But that strong coffee is as Bay Area as any scent/taste memory I have. When I left California almost 13 years ago, I had to leave it behind. Later, I re-discovered Peet's when they implemented their shipping program and I jumped aboard. But while the coffee is great at my house, it is not Peet's from the shop on the corner.
But today I'm here. Digging the 60 degree breeziness. Watching the sexy barristas make coffees. Digging on the stream of casually dressed office workers, young mommies, artsy/student-y/hipsters, neighborhood hanger-outers, guys in bike clothes, and other beautiful San Franciscans. Peet's is firing up a day that will include a long walk through Chinatown, an early dim sum lunch, a late afternoon meal at Slanted Door (a recap of last night's amazing dinner), and dinner at Bong Su. I'll have at least two more cups of Peet's today, maybe three. I'll eat great food and sample great cocktails and continue to enjoy an amazing day in California.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
Soft whole butter
1 # fiddle head ferns, trimmed and washed
2 oz. white wine
2-3 sprigs of tarragon
Little bit of very nice, sweet olive oil
Salt and pepper
Ramp Coulis (See below)
1) Prepare Ramp Coulis first.
2) Lightly season fish with salt and pepper.
3) Place skillet over medium-high heat. Oil skillet well. Place halibut in skillet, giving the skillet a gentle shake.
4) Allow fish to brown. When nicely colored, turn and finish second side.
5) When fish is cooked, remove from pan. Turn down heat a little.
6) Add a tablespoon or so of whole butter and the fiddle heads. Sauté for a minute or two. Add wine and cook to nearly dry with stirring. Stir in tarragon and a shot of olive oil. Adjust seasoning.
7) Place pool of Ramp Coulis on plate. Place halibut portion in pool of sauce. Spoon fiddleheads and liquid atop fish. Sprinkle a fiddlehead or two around the plate.
¼ # Cleaned ramps, leave and bases separated
1 ea. Shallot roughly chopped
1 Tbs. Butter
¼ C. Heavy cream
Tiniest grate of nutmeg
Salt and pepper
1) Finely chop ramp bases. Sweat in butter with shallots until soft.
2) Add cream and nutmeg. Bring to a simmer.
3) Finley chop ramp leaves.
4) Place cream mixture in a blender. Add ramp leaves. Puree well.
5) Strain, adjust seasonings, and keep warm.
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
How do we find Spring in the woods? Spring=ramps. It doesn't matter what the television or the calendar says, when I can walk through the woods and fill my sinuses with the sulfur skank smell of mature ramp funk, spring is here. Asparagus, a delightful spring treat, is about two weeks behind. Strawberries at least a month. Of the six creatures that go to the woods, only I search so eagerly for the first ramp patch. Zoe loves the trilium flowers, Jake the mud, Mary the chance to let the rest of us walk ahead while she climbs a tree in kid- and husband-free silence. Hannah and Emma enjoy rolling in fresh deer scat and long-dead animal carcasses. But I get off on finding the ramps. Sure it is great to see the young skunk cabbage (completely worthless as food) and the dwarf ginseing (absolutely non-medicinal). But the ramps, with their flavor and purgative qualities, are what I come for.
Since I have included a picture of ramps that grow in this place, I politely decline to disclose the location of our spring hike place. Suffice to say that it is on Western Pennsylvania Conservancy land and any harvest or picking is prohibited. I am loathe to encourage a soul unfamiliar with responsible wild foraging to make a digging foray and destroy the ecosystem there. However, the fact that my amazing ramp patch is off limits to harvesting is just fine with me. If I was allowed to harvest my ramps, I'd feel obliged to dig a shopping bag full and bring them home and worry over using them up before they rotted. And a small family can only take a few ramps. I get mine from people that have cultured their own patches or who I know are responsible wild-harvesters. Of course, I cannot deny that I'll pinch a leaf or two to munch as we walk. Never hurts anyone, just helps me to assess the quality this season.
My breath is bad, the ramps are good. It is a good year so we should eat them up!
I’m highly offended to see you in a dirty old pair of blue jeans.
And how can you be a real chef if you aren’t wearing a chef hat?
Huh, you tell me that!
And what the hell is this asparagus you’re talking about?
I have an idea for an article: “why the French can kick anyone’s butt when
It comes to cooking.”
Your favorite customers
He and his family are big fans of Mad Mex. I agree with the guy, the French sure can cook. They don't make very good donuts, however. Somehow, the French never worked that out. In case anyone missed it, he is being humorous in the e-mail.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
I made it through the whites and Syrah rose over this past weekend and am currently working through a bottle of the Montes Alpha M. Huge wine. Giant. I wish I had a skillet-seared ribeye the size of my head crusted in salt and cracked pepper with some brown butter ramps on top. A chunk of cabrales and some dark fruit bread on the side. I ate some brats with brown mustard, the wine wiped them out. Some ham from the fridge with Uplands Farms Pleasant Ridge Reserve Cheese http://www.uplandscheese.com/farm.html, gone. This wine is a bulldozer.
Crazy enough, we are serving the Montes Alpha M with the dessert course. We will be serving a selection of five miniature chocolate preparations: hazelnut chocolate napoleon, dark chocolate tiramisu, white chocolate crème brulee, chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich, and Mexican hot chocolate. It seems like fun to me to taste this rock star cock-swinger of a wine with a bunch of different chocolate flavors. So as I prepare to retire for the night, I decide to try some chocolate things with the wine to see how this will work out. I rummage around in the kitchen and find leftover easter candy from the kids' baskets. Cheap milk chocolate just washes away in the thick rush of flavor. A Reese's peanut butter egg, gone. But a couple of dark chocolate truffles from Jean Marc Chatellier http://www.jeanmarcchatellier.com are just the thing. The dark chocolate ameliorates the temperament of the wine, and allows some of the complexities of both the truffles and the wine to show through while reducing Alpha M's arrogance. After the chocolate is out of my mouth, the big wine seems softer, tamed and friendly. I like it best now, rounder and warmer. The braggadocio is tempered and true warm emotions filter through. Thanks Jean Marc.
I love to visit Jean Marc's shop. Every Saturday morning I take my beautiful and willful 5-going-on-22 daughter Zoe to riding lessons. We have a routine. As we wind though O'Hara Township we listen to the Saturday Light Brigade radio show. We get there, she rides Gypsy for a half hour, her teacher Erica way more patient than I ever am with Zoe's sass, and then we cruise to Sharpsburg to visit Jean Marc Chatellier's bakery. For about a year and a half I slipped in unnoticed, a complete stranger to the young women working the counter. Pittsburgh is a small town, the food scene even smaller, and I like to avoid being noticed as much as possible. I worry that I'll get caught talking to someone who needs/wants something from me or I'll be placed in a position where I'll need to give/do more than I want to. Call me a crank. It is what it is.
Finally my luck ran out, sort of. One morning Jean Marc peeked out from the back, probably a slow wedding cake week, and recognized me. We chatted for awhile and it turns out he loves to go to Mad Mex and really enjoys the Southwest wing sauce. This fact completely disarms me as I am a huge fan of the sauce, our worst seller of course, and have never understood why it is not more popular. If the French dude likes it (in the hierarchy of food-ness, French is always right unless Japanese are in play then then they win over the Frogs) then it is good, sales notwithstanding. I agree to get him a recipe, which I do a few weeks later, and we connect in a cheffy sort of way. I still have to pay for my croissants (best in the city) but Zoe gets a free treat now and then. I have yet to break it to Jean Marc that all Zoe wants are regular donuts and really dislikes his complex Napoleons but we'll get there.
Did I mention best croissants in the city? Jean Marc, help me find a pastry chef for Eleven!
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Even as Chefs, the Wrath of God stays with us. We are expected to be charming, attractive, and brilliant. We need to be available to balance the books at 9 AM and coddle the food critics at 11 PM. How dare we leave the restaurant for a vacation or a date with our sainted spouses? Surrounded by the lascivious temptations of young girls (and boys) of the service staff, we should remain true to these poor sainted spouses yet, if we transgress, so much the better for the titillation of the waiting public. Make money for the investors yet give the guests the best ingredients and a lot of 'em. Why would we be left riven like Job except to be tested? God hates us, he tests us, and we fail so often, so easily, so obviously.
But to survive and succeed, this is so holy. To work the hardest station and be crushed all night on a punishing Saturday, knowing as you fly that each plate shines and that you are fast and sure and in control of every move and that the flavors are correct and the fish is cooked perfectly and the Asshole, Over-worked, Sleep-deprived Chef cannot find fault with you except with your choice of date for later on, that is Brilliant. Nobody who hasn't achieved that can ever understand. I have never broken an athletic world record or recorded a #1 song, but I sure enough outplayed Jeff Bubin and Trent Conry at the Occidental on a few tough nights. And those nights, I know, I beat the odds and the Gods and I glistened like a diamond shard in coal tar mud. I beat God at his own shitty game and rose out of His muck and won. I beat it. I crushed it. I ruled.
God Hates Line Cooks but, hell with him. We are the chosen and we build our powers on his hate. We are Supermen and Superwomen, succeeding AGAINST God's will.
God Hates Line Cooks but Tony Bourdain is the Devil.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
- ETHANOL DEMAND TO PRESSURE CORN SUPPLY
PRICES DRIVECOST INCREASES TO GROW CORN
- CORN INVENTORIES HAVE FALLEN SHARPLY
- COMMODITY TRADED CORN PRICE HAS DOUBLED
- FARMERS PLANTING MORE CORN PRESSURES OTHER VEGETABLE COMMODITIES AS SUPPLY IS REDUCED
- CORN FRUCTOSE- MAJOR INGREDIENT IN FOOD PROCESSING-RESULTING IN HIGHER COST OF GOODS
- CORN IS MAJOR FEED COMPONENT FOR ANIMAL PROTEIN PRODUCTION DRIVING UP COSTS OF BEEF, PORK, & POULTRY
- BOTTOM LINE IS OUR COSTS & OUR CUSTOMERS COSTS WILL BE HIGHER
This is a frightening picture as chicken and beef prices have been on the rise and produce prices are already high as a result of the food crisis. The best solution is to become a non-tofu eating vegetarian and go live in the hills where you'll grow your own food. Pick a spot near a stream for a grain mill and some hydroelectric power. Arm yourselves and build a windmill and learn how to compost.
But really, this will be huge. If our food infrastructure is to change for the better, the time is now.
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
This is a painful point, the place of almost becoming yet not being spring cooks. We ship stuff in by air from warmer climes where fiddleheads and asparagus have already appeared. I know it isn't sustainable but neither is waiting for true local springtime ingredients when the temperature reaches the upper 70's and our restaurant patios are full. How do I continue to justify roasted beets, squashes, and duck confit when my pasty winter nose is burnt by the spring sun? And of course I am impatient. I'm a chef after all.
What I really want is a farmers' market. They don't even begin to open for a month. I miss the farmers I see regularly throughout the summer. After years of buying from them for my home and for the restaurants, good friendships have developed. I'll find out about their children and grandchildren, dogs that were puppies last fall, new plans for plantings, and thoughts on items tried last year and rejected this year. I'll ask around to ascertain who will go through the trouble to grow me fava beans this year. I'll find my garlic guy in his usual spot and rush to his table realizing too late that the garlic he has at this point is little better than what I bought from him and cellared last year. I'll buy it anyways.
At this point in the year, I also take stock of canned vegetables in my basement. I know that I am nearly done with tomatoes 2005, the year of the amazing crop, and am getting into 2006, not such a great year. My refrigerator pickles are nearly gone but I know I'll never finish all the jam and apple butter I've put up and those six jars of salsa verde actually scare me a little. I'll begin to think about the seasons, what I'll put up and when it will come ready, and what I want to get eaten soon. I'll do a lot of tomato sauce dishes over the next few weeks, trying to clear out shelves and jars in preparation for the summer. I do want to make rhubarb jam this year. I missed the whole season last year.
Finally, I visit my herbs. Of course the trusty thymes and sages have wintered over. They're supposed to. And the winter savory has survived it's fifth winter, duh. There are a lot of onion-looking plants in the herb garden, either onions sprouting from seed or flower bulbs gone astray. I'll eat one soon and find out. Garlic has greened and begun to grow and I know that my tarragon, veteran of four winters now, will re-appear as it has every year. I consider the tarragon the apogee of my gardening career. I have never gotten it to winter over and now I have the super-herb. But both rosemary plants are gone. They seemed okay a month ago but somehow in the spring freeze-thaws they got whacked.
But it all will come soon and by late July, the profusion of light and heat and fresh vegetables will overwhelm me and make me wish for a simple time when the choices were fewer and decisions easier. Instead of trying to figure out where to get something green, anything green, like I am now, I'll be wondering how we'll use up these three bushels of zucchini I had to buy because the smelled so sunny and warm they must taste great. And the buzz of the June bugs will ring in the dust. And I'll wish for winter, and the peace and introspection that brings. And so it goes.
Monday, April 2, 2007
Cooking is the only art from where the creation truly becomes part of the recipient. Each atom in your body (with the exception of oxygen) came from food or drink that you placed in your mouth. From milk nursed as an infant to the junk food of adolescence to last Saturday night’s steak, you are what you eat. Your health is affected, your mood, your soul. And without love by the cook, food is simply nourishment. With love, it is beauty and life.
When we opened Casbah eleven years ago, we had an unusual problem in the dining room. People were getting busy. In the course of the first year, we had couples making out on the bar banquette, fooling around under the tables, and going all the way in the bathrooms. It seemed every weekend gave the staff another ribald story to titter about at the bar after work. Never in my life have I worked in a restaurant with so much action going on, the occasional cook and waitress making out in the stockroom notwithstanding. It could have been the excitement of a new, darkly lit, fashionable restaurant. It may have been the racy art on the walls. But I have always thought that it just might have a little bit to do with the fact that the Chef had fallen in love and was cooking with the passion and desire of the newly smitten. I was in love with her, and in love with the food, and in love with the world. I wanted everything I made to be perfect and everything she ate to be delicious. By extension, everything in the restaurant had to be perfect. People ate my love, and drank my love, and felt it bloom in their hearts. Some of them got frisky.
So those of you reading this that were involved in those private and not so private trysts at Casbah all those years ago, I am glad to have helped you get lucky. And to any children who are a product those wild nights, you are almost of the age where you will begin to fall in love. I hope those once wild parents of yours give you the benefit of the doubt and let you revel in the bittersweet ecstasy of new love when you stumble into it.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Chicken and Dumplings for Mary
3 or 4 bone-in skin-on chicken breasts
2 C. Diced onions
5-6 ea. Cloves garlic, sliced thinly
2 C. Diced carrots
1 C. Celery, sliced into half moons
1 C. Celery Root, peeled and diced
2 # Red Bliss or small Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered
2 Tbs. Chopped fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
1) Place chicken in large pot. Cover with chicken stock and bring just to a simmer. Cook until chicken is just done. Remove to a plate and allow to cool.
2) Add all vegetables and thyme to stock. Season well with salt and pepper and add more stock if necessary. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook until vegetables are done.
3) While vegetables are cooking, remove chicken meat from bones and shred or dice large. Add to pot when vegetables are cooked.
4) Spoon in dumplings while keeping pot at a simmer. When completed, allow to simmer for a few minutes. If broth becomes too thick for your taste, add a little more stock. Personally, I like it thicker. Also, check seasonings. Pepper and salt make a world of difference in a simple dish like this.
5) Scoop out two bowls and eat in front of the fireplace with some champagne and some crusty bread.
5 # Chicken necks and backs (a whole chicken or various pieces and parts work well enough)
1 Large onion, peeled and chopped
1 Carrot, peeled and copped
2 Stalks celery, chopped
3 Head garlic, split crossways
1 tsp. Black peppercorns
1 ea. Bay leaf
Lots of sprigs of fresh thyme
1) Place chicken (organs are good too but not livers!) into stockpot.
2) Place onions, carrots, and celery into pot.
3) Place garlic and herbs in pot. Cover with cold water to 1” above ingredients and place pot on stove.
4) Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a minimal simmer. Skim fat and foam immediately! Cook 2 hours at a low simmer, skimming fat and foam regularly.
5) When done, skim fat and strain through a coarse mesh strainer. Strain again with a fine mesh strainer.
6 ea. Eggs, brought to room temperature
¼ # Butter softened to the point that it is partially melted (one stick)
1 ½ C. Flour
(2 Tbs. Chopped fresh thyme or rosemary, optional because I skip this when I want my small kids to eat them and don’t want to freak them out with green stuff.)
Salt and pepper
1) Whisk eggs lightly to break yolks. Add butter and incorporate well. If the butter is not very soft and beginning to melt and the eggs are not room temperature, this will be difficult to do. There may still remain little pieces of butter in the eggs. This is okay.
2) Add flour and seasonings and stir in gently. Do not over-work the dough. It should be soft and sticky, a little thicker than a batter but not as tight as a soft dough.
3) Place a small amount of dumpling dough onto a spoon and scrape two or three dumplings into the simmering pot with another spoon. When the dumplings float, allow them to cook a minute or two more. Remove and taste. If the dumpling falls apart, add a little more flour and stir it in gently. If the seasonings need to be adjusted, add salt and pepper.
4) Continue to scrape dumplings into pot. I like to make them the size I get when I scrape 4 or 5 off a large tablespoon.
5) Bring back to a simmer and allow to cook for a few minutes.
8 ea. Whole chicken thighs
1 bu. Fresh thyme
½ C. White wine
1 qt. Chicken stock
¼ C. Olive oil
1 Tbs. red pepper flakes
3-4 ea. cloves garlic, sliced thinly
1 # Rapini
¼ # dried figs, sliced
1 ½ # Fresh gnocchi (frozen)
¼ C. Grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 325º
- Heat a large, high sided skillet. Season chicken thighs generously with salt and pepper. Sear, skin side down, until the skin is well-browned. Turn legs and brown the second side.
- Place whole thyme sprigs over chicken. Deglaze with white wine. Add chicken stock to cover.
- Place in oven and cook until thigh meat is tender, about 45 minutes. Remove and allow to cool. When cooled, remove liquid and reserve. Separate meat from bones and reserve.
- Heat a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add oil, pepper flakes and garlic. After a few seconds, add rapini and toss. Season with salt and pepper, add figs, and cook with tossing for 5 minutes or so. Add reserved chicken.
- While the rapini is cooking place gnocchi in pot of boiling salted water. When done, drain and add to rapini mixture in pan. Place pasta pan over heat, add a little of the chicken braising liquid, and bring to a simmer. Serve in pasta bowls with crusty bread, top with Parmesan, and serve with crust bread
4 ea. Whole bone-in chicken breasts
2 # Small red bliss potatoes, halved or quartered
1 ea. Large onion, diced large
6 whole heads of garlic, all cloves peeled and whole
¼ C. Olive oil
1 bu. Fresh rosemary
2 C. Chicken stock
2 Tbs. Butter
Salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 500º . Place a heavy cast-iron Dutch oven with lid inside while pre-heating.
- Toss potatoes, onions, and garlic with olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper.
- Season chicken breasts on both sides with salt and pepper.
- When Dutch oven is very hot, place potato mixture in Dutch oven. Place half the rosemary sprigs on top, then chicken breasts, then remaining rosemary sprigs.
- Close lid and cook for 45 minutes without opening. Gently shake Dutch oven occasionally to move potatoes around.
- When done, remove chicken and potatoes to a platter. Place Dutch oven with onions and garlic on a burner. Add chicken stock, bring to a boil, and simmer until reduce by ½ to 2/3.
- Remove from heat, stir in butter, and serve with potatoes and chicken. A crispy, simple salad of iceberg lettuce and mild blue cheese goes nicely with this dish.
Nothing can engender more controversy in a restaurant than Family Meal. For those unfamiliar with the term, Family Meal or Staff Meal is the dinner prepared by the kitchen to feed the staff before dinner service. Too often, it is cheap, poorly prepared, insufficient, and/or downright disgusting. Nobody wants to be the one to make Family Meal. It usually falls to the lowest ranking cook. When I first worked at the Occidental Restaurant in
A shelf was set aside in the walk-in cooler for all the leftover mise en place, bits of vegetables a little old for service but not too bad to eat, a pile of grilled steaks from last night’s banquet that didn’t get served because the host didn’t account for the Indian family, lettuce beginning to wilt, poached bits of fish trim, yesterday’s bread, and, on Monday, a big bucket of cracked eggs left from Sunday’s brunch service. My responsibility was to convert these bits and pieces into a suitable meal for forty to fifty people. It had to be presentable enough for the raging and abusive Sous Chefs. It had to be filling, satisfying the brigade of Salvadoran dishwashers that frugally ate their one meal a day at the restaurant. It had to have vegetarian options for the two servers who, stridently vocal, didn’t eat meat and haven’t eaten meat in 11 years and have a right to a meal without meat. It had to taste good or I’d risk the ridicule of the senior cooks, which at that point was everyone. And, ideally, in the Chef’s eyes, it should cost nothing and take no time away from my set-up, itself a formidable task.
Theoretically, my morning counterpart would set me up for Family Meal. But as busy as he was with prep and lunch service, he’d usually leave me little help. Usually, none. He’d leave me nothing prepared for staff, little mise en place for my station, and scant notes about what was needed for either. Demoralizing at first, my survival of this situation made me a nearly indestructible line cook. I began to arrive early, working off the clock for a few hours to get my prep done. I drove myself to get faster, becoming more efficient in my work. Finally, I’d take items home and prep them there. An especially daunting item was the daily production of perfect lemon, lime, and orange segments, at least a pint each, as well as hair-fine lemon, lime, and orange zest, blanched, 1 cup each. Picking thyme was a good one to take home as well, because it is a slow and delicate process, and because it was a favorite piece of mise en place for other cooks to ‘liberate’ from my station.
Once I developed a program where I was consistently ahead on the menu mise en place, I began to turn more attention to staff meal. I’d toss out a simple meal one day; salads with focaccia pizza, and then use the time to prep the next day’s meal. Two ingredients that were perennially on the Family Shelf, squash guts and greens stems, were always a challenge. Squash guts were the remnants of yellow squash and zucchini that had had their yellow and green exteriors shaved off with a mandoline for vegetable spaghetti. This was the most despised ingredient, always present, always flavorless. Greens stems were the stems and heavy leaves of greens, often Swiss chard and rapini, that were unsuitable for ala carte service. These two vegetable parts danced with each other in my meals. I’d try to get the texture and flavor of the greens to balance the bland sogginess of the squash guts. This dance occurred in pastas, risottos, casseroles, soups, and on pizzas.
Pasta was and is a Family Meal favorite. Cheap, fulfilling, and easy, we always kept a big sack of dried inexpensive penne for Family Meal. Everything can become a pasta. Chicken hind quarters were usually in abundance as we butchered whole chickens for the chicken breasts. Occasionally we’d pull all the beef, veal, and pork trim out of the freezer and grind it up for meat loaf. The two days worth of Family Meal this provided was a godsend, giving me a whole day off of Family Meal to catch up on ala carte mise en place.
Of course, what I learned through this process, in addition to how to plan my production days in advance, please entirely disparate groups of hungry people, and keep up with a ridiculous load of prep responsibilities; was to cook, really cook real meals for real people. The process of preparing plates of food in a fine dining restaurant is assembly and production. We make this sauce, pre-roast that meat, pre-blanch these vegetables, then, to order, finish the sauce, re-heat and slice the meat, and re-warm the vegetables in butter and season it all. It is the only way to produce hundreds of plates a night, and I was learning that skill every day at the Occidental. But what I also learned every day was cooking at a more fundamental level. I made stews, soups, and casseroles. I roasted, grilled, and barbecued chicken hind quarters every way imaginable. I cooked dinner, placed it on the stainless steel table in front of my station, and stood there prepping my station for dinner service. Each member of the staff then filed by and filled their plates, commenting on what I had presented them. They would comment after too, mocking or praising, sometimes both at once.
I fed the people. At 3:45 PM, every day, I was the most important person in the restaurant, especially if some particular tasty treat had wandered onto the Family shelf. If Family Meal was especially bad, I’d not be invited for beers after work and the chefs would scream at me and everyone would complain. If really good, I might get a smile from the pretty redheaded waitress named Sara that I knew I never had a chance with. But it was immediate, the pain and joy. And intimate.
Two meals, simple and quick to prepare, are adaptations of Family Meals I have made. Both are chicken, and you can actually use the leftover Rosemary-roasted chicken to make the Gnocchi dish if you like. One might even get you a smile.
Gnocchi with rapini, squash, braised chicken, and figs
A white Burgundy, such as a true Chablis or an unoaked American Chardonnay such as 2006 Ponzi Chardonnay Wilamette Valley
Rosemary-roasted chicken breasts, new potatoes, garlic pan broth
Icardi Barbara d’Alba ‘Suri Di Mu’ 2000