Cooking Philosophy

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Enjoy yourself…

Cooking is a joy or at least it should be.  Sharing food you have prepared with friends or family is an exquisite experience.

 Listen to music… 

This is part of your new enjoy yourself philosophy.  Cooking doesn’t need to be work, it shouldn’t be.  My current playlist consists of: The Band, Bob Dylan, Cadillac Sky, Charlie Daniels Band, Connor Christian and Southern Gothic, Darius Rucker, Louis Armstrong, Miranda Lambert, Sugarland, Tim McGraw, and the Zac Brown Band.

 Buy a good knife or two…

This can’t be stressed enough.  Buy a good Chef’s knife and paring knife.  I own Wusthof and Shun.  I love Shun for a Japanese knife, but they are quite expensive.  Wusthof makes some great knives; I own the Classic line and use them every day.  Just a note to remember, keep your knives sharp.  Sharpening knives is easy, learn how to do it and keep them sharp.  You can buy the most expensive knife, but if you allow it to become dull it will frustrate you.

 Buy a Lodge cast-iron skillet…

Lodge makes the best cast-iron pans in the world.  They have hundreds of uses and are a cinch to clean.  You can pick up a 10” skillet at Target for $20.

 Other helpful kitchen gear and tools…

  • Mandolin.  An inexpensive model will help you save time in prepping vegetables in a way you never knew possible.
  • A good large cutting board.  Buy a maple one and you won’t regret it.  It is easy to clean and keeps sanitary.
  • A vacuum sealer will free up needed freezer space in an unbelievable way.  Also say goodbye to freezer burn meats.
  • I love my pressure cooker.  They create flavor that is almost impossible to achieve in such a shortened period of time.  Are they cumbersome and annoying?  Absolutely.  Borrow one and cook some dried beans in it and then on the stove traditionally.  You’ll put one on your to buy list I guarantee.
  • If you zest lemons or other citrus, use nutmeg, Parmesean cheese, truffles then invest in a good microplane.  They are invaluable.
  • Food mill.  If for no other reason they are excellent for making the silkiest mashed potatoes and purees you’ll ever eat.  You will never use your ricer again and they are much easier to use.  You’ll find more and more uses for them I promise you.
  • KitchenAid.  A workhorse, this is the machine you need.  I’m not sure what I did before I had mine.  I use mine all the time from when I am baking bread to using the food grinder attachment to make paté or sausage.
  • Immersion Blender.  A good immersion blender is not absolutely necessary, but is a fantastic luxury.  I use mine a lot for pureeing soups and sauces.  Once you use one you’ll swear you never knew what you did before.

 Buy quality ingredients…

  • Don’t buy factory raised animals whenever possible.  I can’t stress this enough.  The hormones and antibiotics used contribute to our children developing at an earlier age.  If you can at all afford to buy organic, or grass-fed, or pastured or whatever they are calling it in your area do that.  Do the research and know exactly what words like organic mean, who is certifying it.  Do your research.  The protein will taste better and be better for you.  It is up to the individual consumer if you want to change the way factory farms work.  Whenever possible buy local.
  • Eat tomatoes when they are in season… and only when they are is season.  Winter tomatoes are a bad joke.
  • Use kosher salt.
  • Use a finishing salt.  I often use Fleur de Sel.
  • Black pepper.  Throw away the pre-ground stuff.  It is not pepper.  Always grind your own pepper.
  • Low fat, light or non-fat.  The only thing these products offer is less flavor.  Cut down on portion size, not taste.  Don’t even get me started on low or non-fat cheese.  These products taste nothing like cheese and the texture is awful.  Sorry vegans this includes Daiya cheese as well.  I’ve tried it and it doesn’t melt the same, certainly doesn’t taste the same.  Eating real cheese is one of the true great pleasures in life.  Don’t deny yourself that experience.
  • White chocolate is not chocolate.  If you like it fine.  I think you are lying if you say you do, but that is another issue.  You will find no recipes calling for it here.
  • Bacon fat.  Save it and use it.  It is the byproduct of the gods.  Use it to fry a piece of meat, in gravies, add it to hollandaise, and add it to homemade mayonnaise.  It enhances and brings layers of flavor that you will never have imagined.
  • Lard.  Lard gets a bad rap.  It is no less healthy than other fats and it is delicious.  Add it to biscuits or pie crusts and you’ll be amazed.  Fry with it.  My mission may very well be to bring a tub of lard back into every kitchen.  Unless you are vegan or vegetarian you eat the rest of the animal anyway.  Cook with lard and you won’t be disappointed.
  • Butter.  Make clarified butter.  It is easy.  Do it and cook with it.
  • Duke’s mayonnaise.  If you aren’t going to make your own mayonnaise, then buy Duke’s.  It is simply the best mayonnaise that is available.  Try it and you will no longer even consider the other brands.  It is simply that good.

 Expand your eating repertoire…

  • Escargots.  Try snails you may just love them.  I’ve been eating them for twenty years and they are one of my all-time favorite proteins.  They in fact do not have a lot of flavor, but take on the flavors of the other ingredients in the dish.  I still say whoever thought for the first time that snails would be delicious had to be damn hungry.  I’m just glad they tried them.  Don’t be afraid of the stigma.
  • Offal.  There was a time when I was afraid or put off by the thought of eating offal, even though I had grown up eating rocky mountain oysters (beef testicles).  Now I absolutely adore beef heart, which when cooked right tastes very much like a lean steak.  It is awesome made into a Tartare.  I cannot imagine ordering Pho (Vietnamese Noodle Soup) without tripe.  It is simply delicious and makes the dish.  Perhaps start with sweetbreads, they are the gateway offal, even though they are neither sweet or bread.  Don’t let the stigma of these proteins scare you off either.  Try a bite when a friend or family member orders them.
  • Foie Gras.  I am solidly on the side of eating foie gras in the debate.  It is simply rich, delicate and delicious.  If you try it you will be a convert.  As with such notable chefs as Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman I support foie gras production from “humanely treated, properly raised” animals.  I admit there is quite a bit of debate among chefs and others with such places as California passing a law that foie gras is illegal.  The debate will continue and you can make your own decision.  Foie gras from such places as Hudson Valley Foie Gras in which the animals are cage free is a much more humane way of raising the delicacy.
  • Alligator.  Alligator steaks are delicious.  I hate to admit it but it tastes much like a more flavorful chicken.  Try an appetizer of it.  I bet you’ll order it again.
  • Crawfish.  I know so many people that are afraid of these little mud bugs, but will gladly pay for their larger cousins the lobster.  Try a good crawfish etouffee and you will be won over.  Nothing makes a more fun evening than a fresh crawfish boil with friends and family.

 Read the recipe through…

This cannot be stressed enough.  Read all the way through a recipe before you start.  Know what the steps are and then execute.

 Season everything…

Do not under season.  This doesn’t mean go absolutely crazy, but season both sides of the protein.  If you are making fried chicken season the chicken and don’t assume there is enough seasoning in your batter.

A few bites at Jaleo…

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Whenever I am in the Washington DC area I like to pay a “visit” to one of my favorite Chefs, Jose Andres.  His empire of DC restaurants is impressive and exquisite.  He won the James Beard award in 2004.  He is one of my all-time favorite celebrity chefs.  I own two of his cookbooks, Tapas : A Taste Of Spain In America, and Made In Spain.  I have watched his TV series Made In Spain and numerous interviews as well as guest appearances on such shows as Anthony Bourdain : No Reservations.  On this occasion I spent the morning at one of the many museums in DC and then took a walk over to the award winning

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I was excited to go not just for the food but they had gone through an elaborate remodel since my last visit.  Would it meet my expectations and be as fun an environment as I anticipated?  Yes, the remodel is gorgeous.  The remodel is bright and fun.  The virtual palate of colors over the bar is impressive and the bathroom is a must see.  For a confirmed germ-a-phobe that is a hard sentence to write, but nevertheless it is the truth.  A cacophony of faces gazes up at you from the floor of the bathroom.  It is simply fun.

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In the past I’ve been to Jaleo in the evening and with friends.  It has always been fun to order a medley of small dishes and share them.  Today I am dining alone and at lunch.  To my surprise they have an express lunch which allows you to choose from a select few options three courses for $25 – perfect.  My first course is something simple, Pan con tomate y manchego (toasted slices of rustic bread brushed with fresh tomatoes and manchego cheese).  It is simple and delicious and a nice start to my meal.

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On this day I am in the mood for something a bit spicy and potatoes.  So naturally my second course was Patatas Bravas (fried fingerling potatoes with spicy tomato sauce and aioli).  It was just right for the mood I was in.  The potatoes were fried crisp and the tomato sauce had just the right amount of bite to it.  At this time a girl in hre thirties was seated next to me with her parents.  They were fun to watch as her parents obviously didn’t understand the restaurant concept at the beginning, but by the end were ordering more tapas dishes without their daughter’s help.  They obviously were very much enjoying their meal.

My third and final course was Tortilla de Patatas (traditional Spanish omelette). I told you I was in the mood for potatoes.  It was a delightful end to a very traditional classic tapas meal.  In the past I had certainly had more elegant and elaborate tapas meals at Jaleo, but today this was just right after my morning at the museum.  Would I return to Jaleo?  Absolutely next time I am in DC.  I still haven’t tried the paella, which is on my culinary to do list.

Bistro Provence – Bethesda, MD

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Executive Chef Yannick Cam opened Bistro Provence, a decidedly casual restaurant, in the spring of 2010. Arriving in America in 1973 Cam has built his strong reputation as one of the top French chefs in the Washington DC area. His long list of restaurants begins with his four years as the head of the Four Seasons Restaurant, to Le Coup de Fusil, Le Pavillion, Yannick’s, and Le Paradou before Bistro Provence. His awards as a James Beard award finalist are staggering. I knew his pedigree before I stepped into his restaurant and was anticipating quite honestly to be blown away. If it was anything but near perfection I was bound to be disappointed. Simply I expected a lot from this meal, after all it was exactly the type of restaurant I love casual atmosphere and incredible food.

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So did Cam and Bistro Provence meet my lofty expectations? Walking up to the restaurant my initial reaction can best be described as disappointed. If there was one thing I was asked to make it a better evening it would be to clean up the front of the restaurant. It not only wasn’t inviting, but I seriously wondered if there were two Bistro Provence in Bethesda. This simply couldn’t be the place. While I appreciated the embarrassment of plants outside, they could have some rhyme or reason to them and not the jungle of foliage that you must explore. We attempted to first enter the side service entrance as the entrance is not clearly marked. Entering the restaurant that is where my disappointment ended. I loved the décor, the casual elegant atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong it wasn’t paper placemats and plastic knives and forks. As a matter of fact it was one of the few restaurants you’ll enter these days with true linen tablecloths. My dining partner and I were allowed to choose a table; we were the first ones there that evening, not always a good sign but it was early.

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We ordered a bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water, as many of you know I do not drink alcohol or wine due to my liver transplant. I used to be such a wine snob, but ah that was in another lifetime now. A quick glance at the menu and I knew the choices would not be easy or at least they shouldn’t be. To be honest though I am a one-hundred percent confirmed absolute escargots fanatic, addict, and snob, pick your adjective. My eyes eagerly scanned the menu finding my quarry. There it was, “Fricassée D‘Escargots aux Pleurotes, Purée D’Aubergines, Beurre a L’Ail” (Escargots, Eggplant Puree, Pleurotes, Garlic Butter). Pleurotes, it had been thirteen years since I lived in Paris and my French was rusty to say the least. Honestly I didn’t have a clue to what it meant. I knew it was a fricassée so my guess was a kind of mushroom, Oyster mushroom by the way was the answer. They were pure perfection. Honestly the perfect amount for an appetizer, but if there had been twice as much I would have greedily devoured them.

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My aunt, my dining partner, ordered “Poupetons de Poisson Jus de Bouillabaisse,” (Fishcake, Bouillabaisse Jus). As much as I am an escargots devotee, my aunt sees the word bouillabaisse and the rest of the menu might as well be blank. She enjoyed every last bite and we were both more than pleased with our first course. A little about my aunt, she is a vegan with a seafood exception. Yes, that is a mighty big exception but she mostly keeps a vegan diet except on special occasions. To say I am not used to a vegan diet is a gross understatement. I have to admit that keeping a vegan diet probably made this meal even more luscious for me. I have great respect and admiration for vegans for their dedication to depriving themselves of so many delicious bites. The thought of merely giving up bacon makes me shiver, much less all meat. I was tempted to order a tall glass of milk, because that seemed so elegant to me at the moment after all the soy I had been drinking. One thing I learned on this trip, that I could have guessed before, there was absolutely zero chance I would ever become vegetarian or vegan. At least not by choice. I simply do not have the constitution to deprive myself of so many things which I love.

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My main course option was simply elegant, delicious and absolutely perfect for the night and most definitely not vegan. “Poitrine de Canard Roti, Gateau de Patate Douce, Boudin de Volaille, Choux de Bruxelles,” (Roasted Duck Breasts, Sweet Potato Cake, Boudin, Brussel Sprouts). Roasted duck breast sounded delicious, I love properly cooked brussel sprouts, the sweet potato cake was enticing, but oh Boudin de Volaille. Duck and Foie Gras sausage was all I needed to know. I was sold. As I waited for the meal to arrive I realized I could easily be disappointed as this bite was so set up in my mind. The verdict… it was absolute perfection. It was easily the best thing I’ve eaten this past year. The duck breast was exquisitely cooked, the perfect counterpoint to the sausage. The roasted brussel sprouts were delicious. The sweet potato cake was light and elegant. The sausage though blew away all of my lofty expectations. I knew this restaurant would definitely go onto my list of restaurants to return to simply due to that one bite of perfection, much less for the rest of the elegant meal.

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There was really no doubt what my aunt would select, “Bouillabaisse de Coquilles St. Jacques Poelees, Grosses Crevettes, Bar Roti,” (Bouillabaisse of Sea Scallops, Shrimp Sautéed and Bass). She seemed to enjoy every bite. The desserts were delicious, but couldn’t match the elegance of the first two courses. Unless you are an absolute dessert devotee then I would say focus on the first two courses and if you have room left for dessert then great. I’m honestly not the dessert fan that I once was, so the chances of a sweet course blowing away a savory one were very slim. The desserts were very good and my aunt seemed to adore hers’.

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Would I return? Without a doubt next time I am in the area Bistro Provence will be on my short list of restaurants for an elegant evening. There are so many mysteries left on the menu waiting to be discovered. I might even discover one of them if I can pull myself away from the escargots and boudin. Thank you Chef Yannick Cam for exceeding my lofty expectations.

A Morning at Wagshal’s Market

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I recently interviewed and then “shadowed” the head butcher at an exclusive butcher shop in Washington DC. I didn’t get the job by-the-way. I’m not at all sore about it, just a bit disappointed. Was I ready to make the move away from the South I have grown to love, maybe not but I had to check it out for the opportunity?

I shadowed the head butcher, Pam. She was impressive in her intimate knowledge and skill and as she said to me, “this isn’t a job it is my life.” It was immediately obvious that she deeply cared about what she was doing, her snide comments about the rest of the staff aside I felt there was a lot I could learn from her if given the chance. Which of course you know I didn’t get – but no sour grapes here. After a quick interview of my interest and knowledge of meat cuts, butcher experience, etc. (Ahem that would be none really, but I had bluntly told them I had never been professionally trained. They are the ones that told me they were interested in me due to my passion for the subject. Maybe I should mention writing a good cover letter is really a plus when applying for a job.) she quickly moved on to preparing the morning orders to be picked up.

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I shadowed, which means I observed while I asked a few questions. I’m not sure if these were a nuisance in retrospect, but she appeared more than happy to answer any of my questions. One thing was obvious, she loved to talk, to talk about meat and maybe most of all how good she was as a butcher and salesperson. The first order of business that morning was to trim and tie a beef tenderloin and cut beef short ribs. It was riveting watching her work with such ease and grace. It was obvious she deeply cared about what she was doing as she told me with pride of her 103 day dry aged porterhouse steaks she had for sale. She did sell one while I was there, an inch and a half thick for a little over $80. The price seemed a little stiff to me, but what did I know about 103 day dry aged prime porterhouses. Better be a damn good piece of meat for that price and still needing to be cooked. I wondered how good of a cook the man buying the steak was, did he do the cooking? His wife? Did he have a private chef?

After the man left she turns, “I told you I’d sell all those steaks this morning,” she grins and she had told me so. I’ve never minded someone with a big ego as long as they have the talent to back it up which Pam clearly did. “I could sell ice to an Eskimo or sand to an Arab.” Okay I have to admit that comment was a little over the top, but what the hell she was proud of the sale and why not that is a damn expensive steak. I wonder how much the man is willing to pay for a steak at a fancy steakhouse. I wonder if that day was special or does he not even blink twice about paying that much for a steak.

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“I’m the best butcher you’ll ever know. I won a butcher competition where there were 57 men and myself. I cut down a whole side of pork in twenty-five minutes. The guy next to me only had two trays done.” Ah, Pam I’ll miss your stories even if they are a bit self-absorbed. I highly recommend Wagshal’s Market for your meat procuring, so long as you have the unlimited budget to afford it. I hope to be back someday when I can afford a 103 day aged porterhouse, maybe then I can tempt my vegan relatives to try at least a bite.

Molecular Gastronomy : Agar Agar

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Agar, Agar (Often abbreviated Agar) is derived from red algae or seaweed.  Agar is a natural vegetable counterpart to gelatin which is animal based and completely vegetarian.  For vegetarians, it makes foods like marshmallows, jelly beans, and gummy bears possibleIt forms rigid, brittle gels.  White and semi-translucent, it is sold in packages as washed and dried strips or more commonly in powdered form.  It can be used to make jellies, puddings, custards, and aspics.

Agar is the primary ingredient in one of Asia’s new fad diets.  Kanten (The Japanese word for Agar, Agar) triples in size and absorbs water, thus you feel fuller.

Kanten Basic Diet

7 Ounces Water

2 Grams Kanten (Agar, Agar)

Fruit or Seasoning (Optional)

Bring water to a simmer and add kanten.  Simmer for 2 minutes stirring constantly.  Pour into a heat resistant container.  Add fruit or seasonings if desired.  Cool and allow to set.

Agar, Agar is genrally added to cool liquids and then heated to a boil.  The gel sets once it cools to 95° F and must be reheated to 185° before it melts again.

Agar, Agar uses and recipes:

Add to soup as a thickener.

Add to puddings and chill.

Balsamic Vinegar Gel

6.8 Ounces Balsamic Vinegar

2 Grams Agar Agar

Simple Syrup to taste

Bring vinegar to a boil and add Agar Agar.  Simmer for 2 minutes.  Season to taste with simple syrup.  Pour into container and allow to set.  Add jelly to a blender and blend until smooth.  Strain mixture through a chinois.  Pour into a squeeze bottle.  Refrigerate until needed.

Balsamic Vinegar Pearls

7 Ounces Balsamic Vinegar

1.5 Grams Agar Agar

1 Cup of Oil

place the oil in a tall glass in the freezer for at least 30 minutes.  put the balsamic vinegar in a saucepan, dissolve the agar agar and bring it to the boil, stirring constantly.  Take off heat.  Wait a few minutes until the temperature drops to 120-130˚ F.  Fill a syringe with the hot balsamic agar solution and expel it drop by drop into the cold oil.  Wait a few minutes and then carefully remove them from the oil bath using a slotted spoon and rinse them in water.  Serve on salads, etc.

Molecular Gastronomy : Intro

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What is molecular gastronomy?  Why molecular gastronomy?  When did molecular gastronomy start?  Is molecular gastronomy real food?  Who practices molecular gastronomy?  Is molecular gastronomy foods safe to eat?  These are but a few of the questions about molecular gastronomy that are commonly asked.  Along with such statements as: I don’t like molecular gastronomy.  Molecular gastronomy is not real cooking.  Molecular gastronomy is a fad.  Molecular gastronomy is poor cooking.  I’ll attempt to touch on some of these topics.

Molecular gastronomy is a sub-discipline of food science that seeks to investigate, explain and make practical use of the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur while cooking, as well as the social, artistic and technical components of culinary and gastronomic phenomena in general.

Blah, blah, blah…

Everyone probably reading this already knows that, but might not have put it into such terms.  Let’s instead look at the objectives of molecular gastronomy as stated by one of its pioneers the French chemist Hevré This.

Original Objectives (1990’s) :

  1. Investigating culinary and gastronomical proverbs, sayings, and old wives’ tales.
  2. Exploring existing recipes.
  3. Introducing new tools, ingredients and methods into the kitchen.
  4. Inventing new dishes.
  5. Using molecular gastronomy to help the general public understand the contribution of science to society.

Updated Objectives :

Looking for the mechanisms of culinary transformations and processes in three areas…

  1. the social phenomena linked to culinary activity.
  2. the artistic component of culinary activity.
  3. the technical component of culinary activity.

What does all of this mean?  A few examples is probably the easiest way to demonstrate what This and other molecular gastronomers were and are investigating:

  • How ingredients are changed by different cooking methods.
  • How all the senses play their own roles in our appreciation of food.
  • The mechanisms of aroma release and the perception of taste and flavor.
  • How and why we evolved our particular taste and flavor sense organs and our general food likes and dislikes.
  • How cooking methods affect the eventual flavor and texture of food ingredients.
  • How new cooking methods might produce improved results of texture and flavor.
  • How our brains interpret the signals from all our senses to tell us the      “flavor” of food.
  • How our enjoyment of food is affected by other influences, our environment, our      mood, how it is presented, who prepares it.

Now that all that technical background is out of the way, what does it mean to me as a foodie, cook, diner, etc.?  In the late 1990’s the term molecular gastronomy was adapted away from the merely scientific to describe a new style of cooking which focused on technical advances in equipment, natural gums, hydrocollids, etc.  A number of famous chef’s focus on this type of cuisine among them: Grant Achatz, Feran Adria, Jose Andres, Richard Blais, Heston Blumenthal, Wylie Dufresne, etc.  Many of these chefs do not like the term molecular gastronomy and prefer terms such as:

  1. Avant-garde cuisine
  2. Culinary constructivism
  3. Experimental cuisine
  4. Forward-thinking movement
  5. Modernist cuisine
  6. Progressive cuisine
  7. And many others.

Several chefs associated with the movement (Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry) released a joint statement in 2006 stating that the term “molecular gastronomy” was coined in 1992 for a single workshop that did not influence them, and that the term does not describe any style of cooking.

Some ingredients used in molecular gastronomy :

  1. Carbon dioxide source, for adding bubbles and making foams.
  2. Liquid nitrogen, for flash freezing and shattering.
  3. Maltodextrin – can turn a high-fat liquid into a powder.
  4. Sugar substitutes.
  5. Enzymes.
  6. Lecithin – an emulsifier and non-stick agent.
  7. Hydrocolloids such as starch, gelatin, pectin, and natural gums – used as thickening agents, gelling agents, emulsifying agents, and stabilizers, sometimes needed for foams.
  8. Transglutaminase – a protein binder, called meat glue.

Some tools used in molecular gastronomy :

  1. Ice cream maker, often used to make unusual flavors, including savory.
  2. Anti-griddle, for cooling and freezing.
  3. Thermal immersion circulator for sous-vide (low temperature cooking).
  4. Food dehydrator.
  5. Syringe, for injecting unexpected fillings.
  6. Edible paper made from soybeans and potato starch, for use with edible fruit inks and an inkjet printer.