Sunday, March 26, 2006

In response to Kerry's question in my last post's comments section...
Hey, if people ask, I will tell :)

Artichokes...they *are* intimidating and even as someone who has been taught the "correct" way to handle one, I am loath to do so unless absolutely needed. Truthfully, it's alot of work for a very little amount of usable product. That said, the idea of canned is kind of icky and bottled in oil is just greasy. So, if you want to make your own, here's how you do it:

Half a lemon and reserve one half. Squeeze the other half into a bowl and fill the bowl the rest of the way with water. Throw in the juiced lemon half for good measure.

Take the artichoke and, using a bread knife, cut off the very tip (about 1/2"-3/4"), rub with remaining lemon half.

Start removing leaves. You want to get rid of all of that green. That also means peeling the stem (which is edible) and probably having to take a paring knife to the little bits of leaf left at the bottom when they are removed. Keep tearing off leaves until you get a artichoke that is a very lovely pale color. Occasionally give it a rub with that lemon half or a dunk in the bowl of water. Artichokes oxidize and turn brown very quickly, so keeping all exposed cut parts covered in an acid is essential.

Once you've removed all of the green, it's now time to remove the "choke." This is a furry mass in the center of the artichoke which is very unpleasant to eat. So, grab yourself a melon-baller or, if you don't have one, a teaspoon and start digging away. There should be a nice little entrance in the center from cutting off the top previously. Just stick the implement of choice in there and start scraping. Basically, you'll see alot of small leaves with purple tips coming out. You want to get all of those out, along with any very small, bristly looking leaves. Remember to keep dunking and rubbing with the lemon juice.

When that is done, well, you're done. The artichoke is ready to be cooked however you'd like. In class, we braised them with a bit of stock, some tomatoes, olives and such and it was very yummy. Hope this helps!

As for the link to the "Dream Dinners" article..well, first let me explain to everyone else what "Dream Dinners" are. Basically, it's a service where working men and women choose their meals for the week and, once a week, go into the Dream Dinners kitchen and are given all the ingredients needed and the recipe needed to assemble their meals. They then put together their meals for the week, which are then packed up and sent back with them. That way, come meal-time, they just need to pop the container in the microwave or oven and have a complete meal with almost no work.

In theory, I don't think this is necessarily a bad idea, especially if it's a mealtime that would normally be spent getting take-out or crappy food. That said, I do agree with Madhur Jaffey (who is quoted in the article) in that the people who do this are fooling themselves. They are not cooking, they are *assembling*. There is a difference. Example: At Olive Garden, your food arrives at the site pre-made. The person "cooking" your food just has to heat up some pasta and sauce and throw one on the other and, there you go, that's your meal. That's why that person makes minimum wage. It takes no thought or creativity. While someone at a high end Italian restaurant, well, the sausage on your pasta might have been made in the kitchen and the pasta itself most likely was, as well. That's why you pay $25.00 for a bowl of pasta. Quality and creativity. The point is the people who go to these kitchens should be under no impression that they are cooking their meals. They are not chefs, they are not evern cooks, they are simply assembling meals already created and prepared for them. They are a McDonald's employee.

In addition, the raw ingredients are supplied by companies like Sysco, which means not only is the customer not getting very high quality ingredients, but, even this chance to have some connection with the food their preparing is denied. The end result, to me, brings people no closer to homemade meals than they were before. They are simply aren't eating Chinese every night.

So do these people have no options? Of course not! We always have food around the house ready to heat up and eat, but it's food we've made. When we make soup, there's always enough extra to freeze for another day. When I make pizza dough, I make enough for a few pizzas, freeze some dough and when we want pizza, we simply put it in the fridge the day before, then top with whatever we have the day of. We have a fridge full of frozen food, but it's good and it's homemade.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Don't get me wrong, I love my job at Murray's. I like the people i work with and the customer's who come into the store are great. But, there are still things that annoy me. Here's a few of those things:

* People who ask for low-fat cheeses. Simply put, low fat cheeses are processed cheese. It's not just pressed curds and salt. It's gone through alot more than that. Things I'd rather not think about. If you are watching your weight, just eat less. Most of the cheeses we sell are very complex in flavor, you wouldn't want to sit down and eat a huge hunk of it anyways. If you do need something lowER-fat, which we do sell a few types of (they are made from skim-milk), but please don't complain that it doesn't taste as good as the full fat stuff. Of course it doesn't...fat tastes good! Fat often makes things taste better. So, yes, a cheese with less fat won't taste as good. (Well, except #3 list below)

That said, everyone is often looking to trim a couple inches off here and there and, if you are and if you want to try and make a change in your cheese buying, here's a few tips:

1. Goat's milk is usually lower in fat than cow's milk. The difference is relatively small, I think somewhere around 5% less fat, but still, it's a step.

2. Softer, creamier cheeses are often lower in fat. I know, this makes no logical sense. We think "soft..creamy..high fat!" But, truly, this is not the case. In order for something to be creamy or soft, it must contain a higher level of water. Water does not have any fat (duh). So, if you take a 1" square piece of a soft cheese and the same size of a hard one, the softer one will have less fat in that piece because there is simply more water per volume in that cheese.

3. Parmigiano Reggiano is made from skim-milk and tastes freggin' awesome. Eat that. Just don't get the stuff from Argentina, like I used to. I know, it's cheaper, it's alot cheaper. But it simply does not taste as good and this is not one of those subtle differences you think only cheese freaks get, it isn't. You'll eat the real stuff and wonder wtf you were eating the other stuff for.

* I can save you some time with a quick answer, in case you were wondering. No, we do not sell "regular, American cheese". American cheese is processed cheese. Again, processed cheese has oil, added water and comes from very unhappy cows in a factory. We sell real cheeses from real people. Do you want to buy you cheese from Velveeta or from these folks? (Who, by the way, make some very kick-ass cheese). The same goes for Cracker Barrel and all that other cheese "stuff". Nope, not here.

* Please don't ask "this cheese is good, but do you have something more yellow?". I don't know why Americans like yellow and orange cheese (and yes, it's just Americans, no one else thinks weird shit like this). It's *food dye* people! Admittedly, a natural one and one that has no harmful effect on the cheese. But, at the same time, it has no positive effect on the taste either. That said, if you drank green beer the other night, it's just too late, enjoy some orange cheese.

I want to end this on a positive note, so here's one: be honest with your cheesemonger when you shop. Really and truly, when I work, I want to find a cheese you will take home and adore and will make people ask you "where did you get this awesome cheese?" I want you to enjoy the cheese you take home. Don't just take my word for it, I'm weird, I like cheese that smells like gym socks and whose taste I could describe as "barnyardy" and maybe that's you too. But, maybe you want something fun and mild and sweet and that's fine too, I know what cheese that is, as well.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

FYI, for those who managed to catch the "Boy Meets Grill" episode featuring what they said would be the Grand Central location, I am sorry, but that was not what was on the episode. Though Mr. Flay does visit Murray's, it's actually the old Bleeker location. They've moved and expanded since then and that location doesn't even exist any longer.

That said, we do still carry most of the cheeses he bought during the episode, so if anyone would be interested in any of them, let me know.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

This past week marked my first week of my new 6-day externship schedule. Three days a week I work at the Cleaver Company for my externship, three days a week I'm at Murray's Cheese and then, on Sunday, I rest..my day off.

I somehow managed to make my first week the hardest though. While still in school, I volunteered for a couple of events, not paying attention to the dates. Turns out, they were both this week. The first was assisting at a Beer and Cheese pairing class at Murray's. The class was taught by my manager at Grand Central, Tom, as well as Garrett Oliver (of Brooklyn Brewing Company). They're both very opinionated, energetic and entertaining guys and they put on a great class. I was in charge of assisting in the setup of the class, pouring beers during the class and helping clean up afterwards. For my work, I got to watch the class for free and sample some awesome pairings. Truthfully, though it marked one of my two 13 hour days that week, it was alot of fun and I can't complain too much about an event which filled me with lots of free, good beer.

The other 13 hour day was when I assisted Chef Torres of Suenos during "A Slice of Latin America", a gala event at the Hyatt featuring a ton of local restaurants as well as some auctions, all to benefit the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families (tickets were $350 a pop. As a volunteer, I got in for free). It was a great chance to taste a wide selection of what's going on in New York, in ways of Latin cuisine, as well as get a chance to network a little bit. Again, it was a very long day and I came home worn from being on my feet for 13 hours straight (literally, in both these instances, I went from work to..well, work)., but it was a great time and I'd so it again. I'm just glad I don't have to ;)

As for the Cleaver Company, that's been great, as well. I was worried, going in on Monday, that perhaps I wouldn't like it..maybe I should have gone in there for another session of trailing. But, as usual, all the worry was for nothing. I really enjoy the work and the people and it's very laid back, making it a perfect second job. That said, I will be glad to finish all this externship stuff up and get on to working one full time job, which I've not done since August of last year.

That's about it for now. Today, we relaxed, got brunch at this local restaurant called Beso, had some yummy chocolate desserts at the Chocolate Room and got the house picked up a bit. I look forward to next week being more low key.

Well, except the Winter Career Fair at my school tomorrow, I guess I can spare a few hours there....
Argh..want.more.hours.in.a.day.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

My Project Menu

First, the complete one that Genevieve designed is available here.

Below, is my post in text-only format. Following that is my essay which accompanied in, detailing how I chose the menu items I did. Enjoy!

Snacks:

Chilied Peanuts – tossed with roasted garlic - $3.50

Peptias – oven roasted pumpkin seeds - $3.00

Roasted Jalapenos – drizzled with crema - $3.50

Pickled vegetables – a mix of carrots, beets, and other seasonal vegetables - $4.50

Tortillas – made fresh to order and served with 3 types of cheese and 3 salsas - $6.00

Appetizers:

Posole – a hearty stew slow cooked with pork, hominy, garlic and spices - $9.00

Sopa Seca – a fiery mexican pasta dish with a chipotle-tomato sauce - $7.00

Chilaquiles – homemade tortilla chips cooked in a spicy tomato sauce and covered with melted asadero cheese - $7.00

Sopes – warm tortilla cakes topped with refried beans and homemade chorizo - $10.00

Daily Special Tamale - ask your server about the tamale of the day - $12.00 (order of 3)


Main entrees:

Grilled Sea Bass - marinated in a mixture of cascabel peppers and pineapple, served over a bed of jicama - $22.00

Pork Roast – rubbed with ancho chilis, slow cooked and shredded. served with a chayote salad and a basket of warm tortillas - $20.00

Fire-Roasted Chicken –topped with a traditional mole sauce and served over green rice - $17.00

Winter Squash - roasted in a corn husk package prepared Veracruz-style with tomatoes and olives, served with vegetarian pot beans - $15.00

Tortilla pie – shredded chicken and roasted poblano peppers slathered with crema, layered with tortillas and baked - $15.00


Dessert:
(all desserts are $6.00)

Churros – sweet fried pastry served with chocolate, vanilla and raspberry dipping sauces-

Flan – enrobed in a traditional caramel sauce

Sweet Empanadas - stuffed with sweet potatoes and toasted almonds

Grilled Plantains – enrobed in a caramel sauce and topped with vanilla and lime crema

Tres Leches Cake – a butter cake soaked in cinnamon-infused milk and served with a rich coffee frosting


Drinks:

Hot chocolate – homemade and served hot and frothy with shaved dark chocolate on top - $6.00

Rompope - a rich Mexican eggnog lightly spiked with rum - $8.00

Horchata – a rice and almond drink. Crisp and refreshing $4.00

Café de Olla – a coffee drink, infused with cinnamon and sweetened with unrefined sugar, prepared in an earthenware pot - $4.00

Atole – a tarm, thick cornmeal drink flavored with a mix of fresh vanilla and Cinnamon - $4.50


My interest in Mexican cooking extends even farther back than when I began to cook. When, as a young boy, I first tasted a chili pepper, it was like a light went off in my head. I immediately became enthralled with their fiery bite and flavor, going so far as to taking a large chunk out of a habenero when I first found one, an experience in pain that I will never forget. Also, being from Ohio and with a cornfield literally in my back yard, I grew up loving that sweet vegetable. When I found out that Mexican cooking had a backbone in these very ingredients, I just naturally fell in love with it. Admittedly, it wasn’t until I was older and more adventurous when I began going off the beaten bath and exploring the restaurants and mercados that I got to taste true Mexican cuisine, but it just made me love it all the more. The environment was festive and family-oriented. There was a tendency towards involvement with the creation of the foods you ate. A simple taco would be accompanied by a wealthy of salsas, pickled vegetables and the ubiquitous cilantro and white onion mix, allowing the customer to choose what they wanted.

I wanted to convey this festive feeling in my dishes. There’s no pretension of ideas of haute
cuisine throughout the menu. It’s simply, fun, good tasting food with an emphasis on the balance of sweetness and heat that Mexican cuisine does so well. In addition, I sought to offer the customer variety. One could easily make a light meal from some tortillas, a bowl of posole and a bottle of cerverza or there is the typical 3-course meal available as well.

The addition of drinks was something I couldn’t avoid. As I wrote it, additions like hot chocolate and rompope kept finding their way into my dessert menu, until they simply overpowered it. The Mexican culture has such excellent drinks, especially for the winter months. I just couldn’t keep them out, hence their inclusion.

There were a few things I sought to steer clear of in creating this menu. The first was not to do any fusion or Neuvo Mexicano fare. Though I greatly enjoy this type of cuisine, it’s often the antithesis of the homestyle and rustic menu I sought to create. When I traveled to southern California, I found restaurants were often divided into two kinds: the taquerias, which were rarely visited by gringos, except myself, of course; or Neuvo Mexicano establishments, which seemed to completely catered towards a middle-class, white, English speaking audience. My goal with this menu is to offer something in between that. Towards that end, I made a point to avoid some of the typical taqueria fare (though if designing a lunch menu, I don’t think I could avoid offering tortas). So, though tortillas do make their appearance (it would be impossible to create a Mexican menu and not offer this most universal of Mexican breads), I’ve chosen use them in ways other than your typical taco bar.

This menu is written to reflect the winter season, especially December-January, a time of celebration in the mainly Catholic Mexico. As such, I’ve made liberal use of more expensive ingredients like crema, which finds it’s way into a number of dishes. I’ve also catered towards the season by offering hearty, warm and comforting foods. If doing a summer menu, I’d bring things like tomatoes, fresh corn and fruits to the forefront. But, in winter, I tried to stick with dried chilis, masa and chocolate, food that knows no season and whose rich flavors would warm up the dishes and the customer.

I hope this menu conveys all these ideas and my deep love of true Mexican cuisine.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Well, it's done. Though I still have my externship ahead of me, the in-school part of my training at ICE is over. This Tuesday marked my last day of school as well as my graduation. Here's how it all panned out:

In the morning, I had my last practical. A practical is kind of like a test except, instead of being a written test, you are graded on your cooking skills. This is given to each student in addition to a written exam. In our final practical, all recipes were thrown out the window. We were given one protein that we had to use and, from that, produce one entree based on nothing but our own imaginations. From that, we were graded on our technique, plating, taste and creativity. The stickler is that we would not be told what the protein was until the morning of our practical. From all clues, it seemed that our protein would be chicken, a really easy meat (truly, if someone can go through cooking school and not be able to butcher and cook a chicken, something is wrong). As it turne dout, we were wrong. When I was in the locker area, a classmate of mine ran up to me. "It's rabbit!", he said, "she changed the protein at the last minute. It's going to be a whole rabbit." Everyone got freaked out. Though we'd done chicken a dozen or more times, we'd only done rabbit three times in the program. So, it was a bit of a added challenge.

What did I end up doing? Braised rabbit served morrocan-style (with tomatoes, eggplant, olives, etc.) on a bed of couscous.

How did I end up doing? Not as good as I'd hoped. Though, really, no one did as well as we'd hoped. The grading was harsh and everyone was shocked about how points were taken off for the smallest things. Anyways, I got an 86. On the upside, I completely nailed my last project paper (a menu of my own design, which I shall post shortly).

After that, I headed home to meet my mom and Joe, who had come in for my graduation that evening. After grabbing some lunch at Russo's and hanging around the house, we all headed back to school for my graduation.

The graduation ceremony was very informal and quite nice. There was finger food, wine and beer being served and everyone had brought their family and friends. It was a good time and bittersweet to see my classmates for what will be the last time for many of them. Genevieve's posted some pictures here. If I can, I'll add more shortly. After some mingling, our head of student services came up, gave a short speech, then our last Chef instructor came up and gave another short speech. Finally, we were each called up, given our toque (funny chef hat) and a copy of Larousse's 'Gastronomique', a huge culinary encyclopedia or ingredients and techniques.
I'd made dinner plans for after graduation, so after saying my goodbye's to everyone, we headed out.

For dinner, we hit a restaurant I'd been wanting to try called Zarela's. It's owned by Zarela Martinez, whose cookbook was very influential to me while writing my project menu. As we entered in, the sound of the place was staggering loud. I thought it would get better as we were led upstairs to the maining dining area, but instead it went from really loud to just plain noisy. Since we'd already had some food beforehand, we all just settled for entrees only. I ended up getting a pork shoulder pibil, served in a banana leaf package with fresh tortillas in a basket. It was extremely good and, if it not for the horrible atmosphere (and the slow service), I'd not hesitate to go back. After that, we were all pretty tired and headed home.

The next morning, Genevieve went out to work and Joe, my mom and I all went to a nearby diner to meet Joe's brother, who lives just a few blocks form us. His brother, Jerry, is a really fun guy with lots of stories, so breakfast went by quickly. After breakfast, we departed from Jerry and headed into the city to see the sites. I showed them Times Square and Grand Central station, where I work, before having to head home to grab some lunch, turn around and head back into work.

And now...
I start at my externship on monday. I am all sorts of emotions. I'm nervous and excited about the externship. I'm happy to be done with school, but sad that it's over so quickly and I'm worried about what the future holds for me. I'd made these plans: move to New York, go to school, find a food job. I've done all of those, so the question I keep thinking to myself is: what now?

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