Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Reflections on Finding Culinary Work in Chicago

Fall 2005: My husband and I moved out to Chicago where he was starting business school at the GSB. I was craving to work with a high end catering company; looking for inspiration and knowledge that I never found at my previous Sous chef position in Boston. Finding a job was much harder than expected, as it always seems to be. Below is an excerpt of an interview I had with a catering company north of Chicago, Food for Thought. http://www.foodforthought-chicago.com/

My next interview was with a company that I found through Chowhounds.com. I had posted an inquiry asking if anyone knew of any high end catering companies in the Chicago area and an administrative assistant from a well-respected company, Food for Thought, responded. She wrote: “We are always looking for good people – once we’ve found them, we figure out where to put them!” Interesting reply, but I took it with a grain of salt and took some time to research the company and lined up a meeting.

This company was large and known for its beautiful artistic culinary creations. I later learned that they did about $13 million in annual sales. The kitchen was located a bit north of downtown Chicago, in a quiet industrial/residential area. I walked in and introduced myself to the receptionist.

“Just have a seat. One of our Sous chefs will be right with you,” she said.

Twenty minutes after the interview was scheduled to start, one of the Sous chefs appeared. Dressed in her whites, she was a little short and stocky, but had a sweet face with short brown hair. She gave me an application and a list of thirteen culinary questions to test my knowledge. Still sitting in the lobby, I filled out the application, attached my resume and moved onto the questions.

If you are making a Farfalle pasta salad, what shape pasta do you need?
What temperature do you cook a stuffed chicken breast to?
What are the ingredients in a bouquet garni?
What are the temperature danger zones?

Another twenty minutes later, the Sous chef reappeared and led me into their kitchen. There was a six foot stainless steel table set up with three different stations. The first had a cutting board, knife, various fruits, a box of gloves, an empty bowl, and a platter. I was instructed to make a fruit salad. The next had another cutting board, an onion, carrot, and two bowls.

“Please brunoise the onion and place it in this bowl,” she said pointed to one of the small Styrofoam bowls, “and julienne the carrot and place it in this bowl,” she continued as she pointed to the other bowl.

“Now I’d like you to make a simple three egg omelet. Cooked to medium with no color. Here are your eggs, some butter, and a spatula.”

Besides the ingredients was a hibachi with a small non-stick pan atop. I went to work while I kept one eye on her grading my “quiz” and mark a “13/13” at the top.

After I completed the three tasks at hand, we walked out of the kitchen and into a small conference room where one of the executive chefs joined us.

I asked about the chef’s background and he said he had come from Artistic Events, but now he wanted to be the “be the best in Chicago.” He repeated this a few times with intense enthusiasm. I got the point. Their events were primarily large and in addition to that, they also provided a handful of corporate lunches each day. There was always a ton of production done each week, but beyond two executive chefs, and three Sous chefs, the work was done by a dozen or so Mexicans who were inexpensive machines in the kitchen. The work at event was primarily done in “caves.”

“Cave cooking” involves using sterno to heat warming racks and cooking the meals inside the warming racks inside the catering trucks. Nothing I had ever seen or heard of in Boston. They were looking for event chefs. My schedule would be Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I would be paid around $12 an hour and tips were not guaranteed.

After two hours, I fled the building and headed home feeling little discouraged. Two interviews and two let downs. Our week in Chicago was almost up and I tried to focus on the next two meetings. The search continues...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Homeade Ricotta Cheese

When I worked at the Ritz-Carlton, we made fresh ricotta cheese mainly for canape toppings. After spreading a little on a toast point, we would top it with either prosciutto or candied figs. The flavor is totally different than what you find in the store. Some would say it's bland, but I just think it has a more delicate and subtle flavor. The texture isn't stiff, but more creamy almost like an aged brie.

Frequent seven day work weeks with at least ten hour days. The amount of product that went through our kitchen was unbelievable. Long 'trucks' would be wheeled in early in the morning carrying wheels of Manchego, Parmigiano Reggiano, Explorateur, , Taleggio, Pecorino, Amish Bleu, and Brillat Savarin. Quince paste, fresh figs, dried figs, and cases of champagne grapes stacked so high we would have to reach above our heads to pull items from the top. The butcher would deliver sheets pans of A-breast chickens, duck breasts, and trimmed sirloins. Then an order from Wabash Seafood would arrive with 70 sides of salmon that we would make into a variety smoked salmon or gravlax. In addition, hundreds of oysters and crab claws instantly filled our walk-in coolers. It was an overwhelming sight. The amount of consumption combined with the amount of money changing hands amazed me.

Our Thanksgiving menus were not traditional. The banquet department took care of the that. We focused on salads and plattered protein to enhance the rest of the buffet. We provided extensive seafood displays with ice sculpture, shrimp, crab claws, oyster and all the appropriate sides (Cognac cream sauce, mignonette, cocktail, horseradish). We also provided enormous cheese marbles. The marbles themselves were close to six feet long and three were displayed at a time reflecting assorted soft, hard, and bleus. Our smoked fish displays included salmon, gravlax, shrimp, sturgeon, black cod, and scallops. Our salads varied from sesame tuna and poached halibut to potato salad with truffle vinaigrette to roasted root vegetables. Country pate, chicken liver, and duck pate was also served with grain mustard, cornichons, and Cumberland sauce.

It was an extensive display to say the least. The amount of work and high stress moments made it easier to forget that we were all away from our families. We were each other's family for the day. Once I got in the cab home those evenings, I was so exhausted, I passed out in the car.

Back to the ricotta. Homemade ricotta is rather simple. It probably sounds scary because it's unfamiliar. But here what you'll need:

1 gallon of whole milk

1 quart of buttermilk

1/2 quart of heavy cream

1/2 a lemon

1. Combine the whole milk, heavy cream, and buttermilk in a pot and warm over med-lo heat. Stir frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom. Be patient and keep the heat low.

2. Once the mixture is warmed through, squeeze half the lemon in and continue to stir.

3. After a few minutes, a the curd will separate from the weigh. Keep the heat low for another 3-5 minutes until the liquid becomes a bit more clarified.

4. Strain the liquid through some cheesecloth and let the cheese sit in a strainer for a few minutes.

5. Refrigerate and season when you're ready to use.

This make a lot of ricotta, so feel free to half the recipe. The flavor is so mild that you can top it with anything sweet, salty, crunchy, etc. Possibilities are endless.

Shrimp and Corn Chowder

One thing I love about the winters is the opportunity to make homemade soups. I love standing over the stove and watching ingredients slowly come together, while filling the house with the warm scents of the season. The beauty of soups is that you can make them in large batches, freeze them and have dinner planned for the next few weeks. Just add a simple salad or sandwich to serve with it and you're set.
Today, I'm making shrimp and corn chowder. Nothing can beat sweet corn, heavy cream and shrimp. (okay, lobster can, but with Thanksgiving coming up, I don't want to break the bank).

To be honest, I like shrimp, but I certainly don't love it. In restaurants, I find it either overcooked or waterlogged with no flavor. So for my chowder, I decided to make a corn broth, instead of a shrimp broth.

To get started I combine corn cobs, a bay leaf, thyme, mirepoix and cold water. I bring it up to a boil and let it simmer until I can really smell a sweet corn aroma. Meanwhile, I combine the corn kernels with heavy cream and simmer that until they have infused each other. I'm generous with kosher salt and pepper. I take my hand blender and buzz the corn and cream mixture and then strain the stock.
Next step, I saute some bacon with carrots, onions and celery until they soften and then add the strained broth and heavy cream mixture. I buzz that up, add more salt and pepper and taste. It's already sweet and the thickness is wonderful. It beautifully coats the back of a spoon.
I then add peeled and diced potatoes to the chowder and let them cook until fork tender. Last but not least, I add more corn kernels to enhance the texture and finally, chopped shrimp. I keep the chunks of the shrimp large so you know what you're eating.

Some chopped chives are an ideal garnish and to add some richness, a dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche hits the spot.

This is a very rich chowder, so I'd prefer a salad than a heavy sandwich. I throw together a quick salad of arugula, goat cheese, dried cherries, and pistachios. A wonderfully warm, comforting meal on a cold Boston night.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Turkey Stock

Homemade turkey stock...

There is a secret to Thanksgiving: do things ahead of time.

There is no reason for you to be stressing out in the kitchen while the rest of your friends and family and relaxing and schmoozing and watching football. Go sit with them!

I know there is never enough counter space or room on the stove or room in the oven. When we hosted Thanksgiving in our small Charlestown apartment a few years ago, I had to use my neighbors oven to cook the turkey. Every hour or so I would run outside my back door, across a small, weed infested yard and up the fire escape into our friends apartment in the building behind ours. It could have been a disaster. I can just imagine if I fell with the turkey, down the fire escape. I can picture it landing on my head (thoughts back to Joey on Friends).

As you know by now, I'm a big fan of serving things room temp. Obviously, this is a huge help when it comes to next Thursday. Most vegetable dishes are fine held out for and hour or so. Green beans, Brussels sprouts, even roasted potatoes. Potato dishes that are pureed hold their heat very well. So get that done and out of the way.

The beauty of turkey stock (or any stock for that matter) is that it can be done ahead of time...meaning weeks! It freezes well and the day before Thanksgiving, just put some in your refrigerator thaw and you're all set.

I'm making my turkey stock today. Again, it may sounds scary. But it's easy. In a nutshell, roasted turkey, mirepoix and cold water. That's it. For the meat, I suggest dark meat and bones. That's where the true flavor it. Roasting the wings (in my case) will help start to extract the flavors and also leave some delicious turkey juices and fat in the roasting pan (which will be added later for another level of zing). Mirepoix is a French term that basically means carrots, onions and celery. Traditionally, twice as many onions as carrots and celery. In addition, I would suggest you add a bouquet garni, which is a bay leaf, some parsley stems, and black peppercorns. Of course, you can add anything else you want to flavor the stock...wine, thyme, chipotles, sage, tomatoes...it's your call. Be creative.

Turkey wings....

First step is to get your turkey in the oven. Toss the pieces with salt and pepper and some melted butter (or oil). Roast until your home begins to smell like Thanksgiving. 375 is good and timing really depends on what you're roasting....just get the pieces nice and golden brown. In the meantime, chop up your vegetables and start sauteing them in a large stock pot. Don't worry about peeling the carrots or onions. Everything will be strained at the end so it would be just a waste of time. To your vegetables, add your bouquet garni ingredients.

Once the turkey is done roasting, add the pieces to stock pot, as well as the juices from the pan. Fill your stock pot with COLD water (to about an inch above the contents) and crank the heat. Once it all comes to a boil, turn the heat down and simmer for at least 2 hours. As you simmer, the fat will rise to the top. Skim that off when its necessary and then just leave it alone. After its scent is totally intoxicating when you stick your head into the pot for a quick facial, you know you're done.

Mirepoix, thyme, and other flavorings...

Simmering for 2-3 hours...

The next step is messy, but easy and crucial. You have to strain the stock. Pull out all the large pieces and toss them. Then set up a large pot and place a strainer on top. Carefully, pour the stock over the strainer, away from you. If you have cheesecloth I would use it here. It will collect all the tiny little pieces of who knows what and give you a nice clean broth. Don't run out and buy it, though. It won't make or break your stock.

Remains after straining...

You're almost done. Let the stock chill in the fridge overnight and in the morning, scrape the fat off the top. You know you have an excellent stock when it's thick and gelatinous. Now you're ready to freeze it in plastic bags, quart containers, ice cub trays. Feel free to reserve the fat to saute your Thanksgiving vegetables or add some extra flavor to your stuffing.

Gelatinous goodness...

Cooking for friends and family is so much more rewarding than cooking for 1200 guests at the Ritz Carlton.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I've Lost Thanksgiving.

This year, we're hosting 15 guests for Thanksgiving. My husband and I spent some time over the weekend measuring our dining room and coming up with the best combination of tables to use the space efficiently as well as ensuring that the guests will have their ample elbow room for eating, but more importantly, digesting.

We decided on 2 eight foot tables and 1 six foot 'classroom' sized table. I ordered the rentals, including linens and chairs, placed my order for two turkeys, and ordered our turkey fryer kit. We created a menu, working around what our guests like to contribute and I nominated myself to fill in the gaps.

While I focus on the food, Doug will focus on the beverages, as well as his infamous cranberry Jell-O shots, a tradition at our Thanksgiving celebrations. Doug's mom will be tackling dessert (remember, I don't bake) and his father will take care of the touch football necessitates. I called my mom to task and asked her to bring her wooden rooster, that will act as decor for our buffet and delegated the Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes to her (as well as the small chocolate turkeys that are our traditional favors for each guest). Her philosophy on the Brussels sprouts (and come to think of it, most of her cooking) is one pound sprouts to one pound butter. And her sweet potatoes are one of my favorites traditions. Combined with shredded pineapple, brown sugar, and you guessed it, lots of butter, the dish fits in more with the desserts. Just before service, marshmallows are placed atop and you know they're finished when the whites puff over the casserole dish and burn the bottom of the oven.

Besides the menu, I took some time to think about the table set up and how to create a warm and inviting atmosphere in our dining room. Part of the problem starts with the floor. It's pink. And so are the window treatments: pink and white checked. No, I did not choose this color. The previous owners did and we haven't updated the room yet. Actually, the space has been blocked off since we moved in. Come to think of it, I'm not sure why. The room is beautiful, with two sets of windows on the left wall that look out to our street and molding running around the room about a quarter of the way up the wall. The walls are a soft eggshell but the carpeting and window treatments distract the eyes from the potential of the room. And yet, we've blocked it off, as if we'd like to preserve it.

In thinking of the traditional autumn colors, they all seem to clash with the Candy-cane inspired room. The new paint color is picked out, as well as the furniture and decor to change the space. But we're years off from that and my mission this Thanksgiving is to create a scene so when guests walk in, they sign and say, "This is beautiful!" as oppose to "It's pink." The latter has happened a few times and I often cringe upon hearing it.

To make matters worse, stores in my area seem to have forgotten Thanksgiving! Gingerbread candles have already replaced the Pumpkin Spice and ornaments, tinsel, and fir trees are everywhere. Actually, in one store, in the far back corner, there was a small black-wired bin filled with a horrible selection of Thanksgiving cocktail napkins. That's pretty much the best I could find. I even went to Linens n'Things, hoping to score a deal because they're going out of business. I felt a little better because they are forgetting both Thanksgiving and Christmas. (I did actually find a squeaking turkey at our pet shop, so maybe I'm just looking in the wrong spots).

I returned home with a few items, feeling deflated and confused. Our candy cane dining room would fit in much better with a Christmas theme, but it's still November, Thanksgiving is a week and a half away, and we're Jewish.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ladies Who Lunch...Catered Party for 10.

I absolutely love catering small parties. By small, I mean anything from 10-40 guests. Everything always remains calm and manageable and guests seem more appreciative. The events are more intimate affairs as oppose to a wedding for 200 or even a cocktail party for 70.

My average party size is 40 guests, celebrating anything from showers and anniversaries to holiday party and birthdays.

For example, my neighbor called me in a panic last week.

"I'm having some friends over for a birthday next week and no one offered to bring anything. I thought we agreed on potluck but now I'm responsible for everything! You have to help!" she explained. I felt like she was flipping through her cookbooks at home looking for a quick fix.

"What are you looking for?" I asked, as I grabbed some paper and a pen.

"I have no idea. I was thinking of doing egg salad and tuna salad, but that's so boring," she started.

"Well, it's a birthday so why don't we think of something a little more festive," I suggested.

"Perfect. Great. What did you have in mind?" She already seemed relieved at my effort.

"How about some salmon. That's simple and elegant and usually is perfect for a group of women. I would suggest a trio of sauces or salsa or something to go with it, but with 10 guests, that's a lot of food."

"Great. Let's do that. How about one sauce and one salsa? Whatever you want, you choose." "But I can't have anything super expensive,' she cautioned.

"I'll just charge you cost." She was my neighbor and my friend after all.

After talking over a few more details, we decided I would provide the following:
  • Slow-Roasted Salmon with Cucumber Raita and Pomegranate-Avocado Salsa
  • Israeli Couscous Salad with Dried Cherry, Toasted Almonds and Lemon-Parsley Vinaigrette

She would be providing the rest of the menu. The beauty of catering and why it fits my personality is that it's all about preparing ahead of time. Of course, there are those occasions where success depends on timing and keeping your cool, but the style of catering that I focus on is reminiscent of my days at the Ritz-Carlton. Working in the Garde Manger department, everything is served room temperature or cold. Focus is on presentations, flavors, and textures. It becomes a true test of technique as well. Garde Manger incorporates simple vinaigrettes and sandwiches to time-consuming homemade sausages and pates.

So this small luncheon, like many of the other events I cater, is all about chilled or room temperature foods. This methodology allows me to scatter my prep work over a few days and therefore not feel panicked when it's time to shine. Dishes can be plattered ahead of time so when it's time to go, I just pack platters and take off.

Now, let's get back to this luncheon for 10. Held on a Friday afternoon, I picked up 4 pounds of salmon from my wholesaler on Thursday morning and continued with the rest of my shopping. I allocated 2 hours to prep this event. With such simple dishes and only 10 guests, I was being generous with my time.

While the oven preheated and I set a pot of water to boil on the stove, I made the two sides for the salmon. For the raita, I combined yogurt, diced red onions, peeled diced cucumbers, cumin, cayenne, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. I used Greek yogurt which offered a thicker texture and not a tangy flavor as the American style yogurts.

For the salsa, I combined diced red onions, the pomegranate seeds and lime juice. Retrieving the seeds is a messy and time consuming chore, so be prepared. It's well worth the effort as the small seeds, after removed look like small rubies. They are beautiful and delicate and shimmer with a slight iridescent light. In terms of flavor, their sourness reminds me of cranberries, but their sweetness comes through with the added crunch of the seed. I will diced and add the avocado on Friday to avoid it turning colors or getting somewhat mushy with the rest of the salsa.

The concept of slow roasted salmon may make some nervous. It's all about preserving the gentle and soft texture of the fish. Set your oven to 225 or 250 and roasted the salmon for 20 minutes or so. It will have a medium rare look and basically feel texture-less when you taste it. The key, of course, is to season, season, season! For this luncheon, I cut 4 ounce pieces out of the side of salmon and roasted them on parchment. After they cooled, I plattered the fish and moved onto the pasta.

Israeli couscous is a pasta; not a rice and not a grain. So I prepared the couscous as I would any pasta: very salty boiling water. The boiling temperature of salted water is higher than that of unsalted, so for the sake of efficiency, I always boil the water and then add the salt. After the pasta is cooked and drained, I transfer it to a mixing bowl and add some oil so it doesn't stick. Finishing the rest of the dish is easy: add some dried cherries, toasted almonds and your dressing (lemon zest, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, parsley, honey, oil). Last but not least, season, season, season, and taste, taste, taste!

Friday afternoon, I grabbed the dishes and some business cards and made the quick delivery. Now I just hope for positive feedback and of course referrals. Wish me luck!

My Fear of Baking

I don't remember standing in the kitchen with my mom, as a young girl, watching her roll out pie dough or melt chocolate over a double boiler. I don't remember her giving me the spatula to lick or giving me a cookie cutter to punch shapes. The desserts that I do remember my mom making were pound cake with stewed fruits, ice box cake, and corn flake chocolate chip cookies.

I didn't have a grandmother to show me recipes from older generations. They both passed away before I was born. And even though my grandfather had an admirable and full-bodied sweet tooth, it would only reveal itself when he brought cookie monster and froggie cupcakes from our local bakery on Shabbat. He certainly was no baker himself.

Each year when the holiday season rolls around, there is a small erk inside me, wishing I had learned how to bake when I was a child. Reading and hearing about family traditions, from candy making to cake frosting and cookies, I feel like I'm missing out.

I realize that my fear of baking is partially because I'm not experienced with it. The unknown is always a bit daunting. But I also think it's due to my small fear of math. In elementary and high school, math was fun. It was about puzzles and word problems that related to my every day life. But once I got to college and the numbers slowly started changing to letters, my mind suddenly drifted out the window to admire the immense geological structure that was the backdrop for our school. The Flatirons was often my vehicle to a world outside calculus and perhaps while my mind floated west, any baking knowledge floated out with it and never came back.

But this year, I'm feeling inspired. I will start small and build up and learn how to back some basic items. It's getting a little out of hand and I realize I must face my fears head on. This weekend I'm going to make some candy. I found a recipe that looks rather simple in this months' Bon Appetit. Who knows? Maybe I'll feel so confident that I will finally be able to give homemade sweets wrapped Martha-style? I don't want to get ahead of myself. I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Banning Bake Sales! What's Next?

When I was in high school, bake sales did not happen often enough. Two six foot tables were set up in the breezeway that connected the main building from the math and science wing. Tupperware containers, wide and narrow, short and tall, covered the tables while cookies peered out of tin foil baskets.

Bake sales turned us all into young children again; running through the hallways looking for lose change and enjoying the temporary sugar high at 8 A.M. In the middle of our geometry lessons, my girlfriends and I would escape the classroom and run to our lounges to search for money in between the couch cushions. We kept licking out lips as if we could already taste the creamy chocolate cupcake frosting.

We became feverish in our efforts, fearing that our favorites would quickly disappear because of those classmates who always held extra change for just this reason! We traded quarters for homework, and dimes for foot rubs. We became a ravished community, as if the bake sale items was our only food for the coming months.

Now, in the midst of obesity and little access to healthy food in schools, town councils across the country have started to ban bake sales. Guidelines controlling the amount of calories, sugar, and saturated fat are spreading and items at bakes sales are not making the cut. What's next? Girl scout cookies? The ice cream truck? Halloween!??? These are innocent experiences that make up our childhood!

The heavy hand of the control freaks out there need to remember what it's like to be a child. They need to trust the parents to parent! (Have you heard about the push for 'Healthy Halloween'? It suggests ideas like Caesar salad making classes to enjoying apple slices, crudite and Power Bars. It's an embarrassment!)

I'm going to bake some cookies tonight and have them for dinner and then bake more and have them for dessert.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

B.L.T. Fried Egg and Cheese Sandwich

While still contemplating my affections for Ina, I found solace in a comforting sandwich that combined ingredients with different flavors, textures, and temperatures. While I'm sure we all have our top 5 favorite sandwiches, I would think they become favorites partially because of the memories they remind of us.

Coming home from elementary school, my mother always had some sort of snack waiting for me. Anything from pizza bagels and matzah ball soup to chocolate chip cookie dough and B.L.T. sandwiches. We sat down together at our wooden kitchen table and reviewed the day. Who asked who out? How did I do on the math test? What did they serve for lunch? What were the weekend plans?

And although this crunchy, salty, creamy, yolky sandwich did not make my top five, it is on my top ten. The B.L.T. is a classic sandwich, often best on toasted white. The spin on this is the simple addition of a fried egg and your cheese of choice. What could be better than having the golden yolk drip down your chin while crumbles of bacon falls to the plate below.

And this is all on a Monday! It seems we only have time for bacon and eggs on the weekends these days. There is no need for that. Breakfast for dinner is a great way to make dinners interesting when you're not feeling creative. And besides, with Monday Night Football on in the background, there were moments when it certainly felt a weekend.

My top five sandwiches:
1. Sloppy Joe from Town Hall Delicatessen in South Orange, New Jersey
2. The Manhattan: Turkey, provolone, artichoke hearts, garlic spread, lettuce, tomato & onion with pesto mayo from the Deli Zone in Boulder, Colorado
3. The Great Gastbrie: Brie, Avocado, Basil, Lettuce, Tomato, Cucumber, Sun-dried Tomato Pesto on Croissant from The Bookends Cafe in Boulder, Colorado
4. Reuben from Manny's in Chicago, Illinois
5. Chicken Parm Sub from the Village Pizza House in Brookline, Mass.

Feel free to comment on your favorite sandwiches and I'll try to re-create them one day soon.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I have a Woman-Crush on Ina.

Years ago, while still in high school, my family and I spent a week in East Hampton for my cousin's wedding. My mother and I focused in on finding WASPy, chic outfits so we could fit in with the crowd that didn't fit in with us. I found a cream cocktail dress covered in sky blue toile. We had dinner at Nick & Tonys, walked up an down Main Street, and gazed at the people who made East Hampton their full time home. Snake skin stilettos coupled with premier designer handbags dotted the streets while the sun glared down to expose the dolled up ladies and their caked cheekbones.
While walking down Newtown Lane I passed two white rimmed screen doors when scents of freshly baked breads and hints of chocolate. I turned and as I walked through the doors, I was overwhelmed at the site before me. The inside of the Barefoot Contessa store was nothing I had never seen before; a high end specialty foods store years before its time. Prepared food, held in crisp white rectangular dishes layered the refrigerated cases, while international and domestic cheese danced and dipped across a butcher's block in one of the corners. My nose quivered and twitched with the pungency of Stilton as I swooped closer to taker a deeper breath in.

I filed the sights and smells in the back of my mind, not knowing when they would reappear in my life. My mind was engraved with that majestic experience and slowly developed into the culinary dream that I'm now living today.

Twelve years later, I lined up outside a Williams-Sonoma store at 8:30 in the morning to wait for a chance to meet Ina, the woman behind that store that made such an impression on me. I sat with my latte and chatted up conversations with the women around me. The appearance drew 1200 fans and I was thankful for my earlier arrival.

"Do you cook?" she asked, as she reached for the first of the four books I wanted her to sign.

"I do," I said. "I have my own catering company."

"Oh, so you're a real cook?" she responded.

"I guess I am."

Ina and her seemingly effortless success at elegant and earthy dishes is only part of my admiration for her and her empire. Unlike Martha Stewart who arguably carries a high level of arrogance, I feel like Ina could be our next store neighbor. (My husband would put our home on the market instantly, as her dotting on her husband drives him insane). Her ability to connect with her fans on a soothing and almost motherly way is hypnotizing.

She has become an inspiration to me, helping me visualize the path to the small storefront that I hope to open one day. I am comfortable and confident with my woman crush, therefore and hope it will continue to encourage me to reach my professional goals.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Comforting Dinner on a Rainy Boston Night

I remember when my mother would make me Guggle Muggle. Only on the rare occasion when I would be home sick from school, the scents of warm milk and honey filled our home. It was a comforting, sweet drink that she learned from her father and something I will recreate to comfort my own children.

The final taste and amount of each ingredients is up to the cook, depending on your preference of sweetness. Just combine milk, salted butter, honey and brandy in a cast-iron pot and warm it over low heat. Be careful with the milk, as it can boil over quickly if you take your eye off of it.

When we need comfort, we often look for the culinary dishes that correspond to a warm blanket, the touch of your mother's hand on your forehead, or a kiss from your grandfather. We crave something to remind us of our childhood, when we felt the safest and the most protected.

We all have memories of different comfort foods from our childhood. Macaroni and cheese, tomato soup and grilled cheese, chicken noodle soup and finally spaghetti and meatballs.

On a rainy Boston evening, I decided to make the later and put a twist on the traditional. By using ground turkey and chipotle peppers, our dinners still meet our need for comfort but also had a little heat to celebrate the coming of the weekend.

To begin, I pureed some of the chipotle peppers (smoked and dried jalapeno peppers). At the store, the smallest can often seems too big. There are always peppers left because with chipotles, a little goes a long way. So if you purchase the can, think of some other ways to use the rest of the peppers so you don't waste them all (tacos, chili, sauces, vinaigrettes, soups, etc.). And do not store the leftover peppers in the aluminum can--for that matter, do not store anything in an aluminum can once it's been opened.

In a medium bowl, I added all of the ingredients of the meatballs: ground turkey, pureed peppers, fresh parsley, panko (Japanese bread crumbs), sweated onions, one egg, and salt and pepper. If you're afraid or grossed out by touching raw meats, there are two solutions: 1) get over it or 2) use gloves. I'm over it but I also use gloves. It's best to use your hands to combine the ingredients, but don't over work the mixture. You want to meatballs to be light, not dense.

Heat a medium skillet with a little oil and test a small portion of the mixture to check for flavors. You may need more salt, pepper, or heat. It depends on your personal preference. Just create a small pancake of the mixture. If you make a meatball, it will not cook all the way through.

Once you've adjusted the seasonings, add some more oil to the pan and start forming the meatballs. Once the oil is hot and you hear the meatballs sizzle when they hit the pan, you're ready to sear them. Keep the heat on medium and BE PATIENT. Don't touch the meat. You want to create a nice crust on the outside. Also, do not overcrowd the pan; otherwise, the meatballs will steam somewhat and it will be hard to develop the outside crust.

Have some paper towels lined next to the pan and once you've seared all the sides of each meatballs, transfer them to the paper towels to soak up the excess oil. When you're finished, it's time to make the tomato sauce to finish cooking the meatballs.

I try to stay clear of store-bought tomato sauces. They are often very acidic and lack any depth of flavor.

For the quick sauce I made last night, I started with some grape tomatoes and stewed them with some oil, salt and peppers. Once they softened, I added some white wine and let that reduce. For the quick sauce I made last night, I started with some grape tomatoes and stewed them with some oil, salt and peppers. Once they softened, I added some white wine and let that reduce.

Canned tomatoes and chicken stock was added and once the sauce came to a simmer, I added the meatballs and let them finish cooking.

In the meantime, I cooked the pasta and popped open a bottle of wine. After draining the pasta and combining it with the sauce, dinner was served.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Vegetable Versatility.

It seems that wraps have become more popular in the last few years. Perhaps it's because we can feel less guilty because we're ingesting less carbs. But wraps can often be more unhealthy than a traditional sandwich. A Reuben on a whole wheat wraps makes it barely more nutritious than on marble rye. But it gives us the perception that we've made a healthy choice.

When you decide on having a wrap for a meal, why not choose a healthy filling? Below is my very popular Grilled Vegetable Wrap with Goat Cheese, Arugula and Pesto. Some key point when making wrap sandwiches:
  • Select fillings that are somewhat dry
  • Heat the wrap before filling and rolling to prevent it from breaking
  • Use some sort of adhesive to close the sandwich (Sour cream works very well)
  • Eat and enjoy the same day. The texture changes significantly if not consumed the same day. No one likes a soggy wrap.

First, let's start with the vegetables: Eggplant, Zucchini, Summer Squash, Assorted Peppers. I don't use any vegetables that can't be sliced into long or flat pieces (i.e. mushrooms). Slice all the vegetable about 1/4-1/2 inch thick. I cut the squash on a bias because the length works better when building the wraps.

As always, SEASON! Salt and pepper and a little oil. You don't want to drench the veggies in oil because the wrap will turn out too wet. Add just enough oil to create a shimmer on the vegetables so they won't stick to the grill.

After grilling, let them cool and gather the rest of your items for the wrap: pesto, goat cheese, arugula, sour cream, and the wrap. Make sure everything is within your reach so you're not scrambling when you start to make the sandwich.

To heat the wrap, you can either grill it (no oil and grill for a few seconds on each side) or you can simply microwave it for 10-20 seconds until it softens. Place the wrap lengthwise on your cutting board and spread the pesto all over. In the center of the wrap, working horizontally, add the grilled vegetables. Four slices of each vegetable is usually plenty. Crumble some goat cheese on top of the vegetables and then add a decent amount of arugula to fill the wrap. It will look like a mess at this point. But you're almost done.

Add a dab of sour cream to the edge of the wrap that is away from you and gently lift the edge close to you over the filling. Pull it in and roll. Have the wrap sit on the closed edge to secure it. To slice and serve, I suggest using a serrated knife to cut the end of the wrap. I find this much easier than stick the end in when rolling. Then, slice the sandwich in half, on a bias, if you'd like for a more attractive presentation.

Feel free to add some of your favorite wrap fillings below or ask questions or request recipe or menu ideas that you'd like to see.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama brings hope to all on Election Night. Time to eat!

When I stop and pause to look at the still images from Grant Park, it's hard not to feel like there is something bigger happening in our world. In this historic time, people of different races, countries and ages are sensing hope and change. While Oprah and Reverend Jesse Jackson provided heartfelt visuals of the emotional night, the bottom line is that our country, in such dire need of inspiration and motivation, is craving leadership and change.

To celebrate the excitement of the evening and anticipation of the coming four years, we treated ourselves to an All-American dinner of club sandwiches, accompanied by red, white, and blue cocktails and cupcakes.

Club sandwiches, when made well, are comforting, filling, and a delightful combination of flavors that leaves you craving more.

The contents of a 'traditional' club sandwiches are up fro debate. Turkey AND ham? Toasted or untoasted? Double decker? Avocado? Toasted double decker white bread with ham, turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise are what you will typically find at diners and restaurants across the country. Cut into four triangles and laid on its side to reveal the layers, french fries and pickles are the traditional accompaniments.

For my version of the club sandwich, I wanted to add some additional flavors to it step up. To start with, I purchased boneless skinless chicken breasts and pounded them paillard thin. The day before, I marinated them in garlic, parsley, lemon, salt, pepper, and oil. I also made some parsley aioli by combining Hellmann's, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper. My other ingredients included:
  • Fresh brioche bread
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Avocado
  • Tomatoes
  • Arugula
  • Bacon
The key to creating a great sandwiches and having all of the ingredients the same thickness. When it was time to assemble, I grilled the chicken and toasted the brioche. The hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and avocados were sliced thinly. Once the chicken rested, I sliced the pieces thinly on a bias. The parsley and lemon scented chicken shimmered with its juices, guaranteeing a moist sandwich. I lathered the toasted bread with the aioli and started layering: bacon, eggs, chicken, avocado, arugula, tomato. The sandwiches were topped with another sliced of aioli lathered brioche.

The different textures (smooth avocado, crunchy bacon, and creamy aioli, ), different flavors (smoky, aioli, peppery arugula), and different temperatures (warm chicken, cool tomatoes) combined to create an ideal meal. Coupled with some macaroni and cheese prepared by my husband, the celebration of Obama-nation meet our cravings on many levels.

To finish off the meal, I baked bi-colored cupcakes reflecting the colors of our country. I'm not a baker, so these were admittedly mediocre cupcakes (thank you, Betty Crocker) with overly sugared store-bought frosting.
But the effect was there and our high from Obama's success made them taste better than anticipated.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I'm Finally Back on the Scene.

After leaving my blog from being overworked at the hotel, I'm back to reflect on my two years there.

My husband and I are now back in Boston, living in the suburbs with our Bernese Mountain Dog puppy.

If you're curious about the experience of a female cook in a male-dominated, egotistical, poorly managed kitchen, then read on!

I'll be back to post some of our menus, recipes, and of course, dramatic stories that made my two years at the hotel a growth opportunity.