Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks to the Day Before Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day, kitchens across America join in the collective cacophony of pots and pans banging together in an attempt to get the feast to the table.  My kitchen is no different, joyful in the din of making dinner.  The day before Thanksgiving is a different matter entirely.  Then it is only me, the cat, and perhaps a glass of wine, as the building blocks of the blowout are quietly prepared.

The day before Thanksgiving used to mean hand to hand combat with traffic as I made my way to my parents.  Even when I started making the annual dinner, it was a battle to get out of NYC to get home.  One dish may be thrown together, but rattled nerves and razor sharp knives are not good bedfellows.  Then one year, due to an unexpected plethora of vacation days, I took the day off.  The scales fell from my eyes as I saw how easy, and relaxing, it was to crank out dish after dish.  When the big day dawned, I was so much more relaxed and in control having made about 60% of the meal already.

Yesterday was no different.  I was sipping my coffee as I prepped onions and carrots for the turkey stock.  Popping them in the oven, along with a pair a turkey wings, gave me the added bonus of having the house smell like Thanksgiving two days in a row.  Soon the cranberry sauce was out of the way, the dessert was cooling on a rack, the first course was in the oven and I was prepping  veggies for the stuffing.  I had spent the whole day in the kitchen, rocking out to a countdown of the 1043 best classic rock tunes and having an all around good time.  Led Zepplin provides the best soundtrack to dice an onion by, just in case you were wondering.

Rich Turkey Stock for Gravy  

One large onion
Two medium carrots
Two turkey wings
Vegetable oil
Thyme or other fresh herbs
Pepper corns

  1. Peel and roughly chop onion 
  2. Peel and roughly chop carrots
  3. Place in roasting pan with turkey legs and drizzle oil over everything.  Just a small amount of oil to  facilitate browning.
  4. Place pan into a preheated 450 degree oven for one hour or until wings are brown
  5. Place wings and vegetables in a stock pot.  Add water to cover.  You are looking to have at least a quart of stock at the end of cooking, so be sure to add more than a quart of water.
  6. Pour roasting juices from pan into another vessel so that the fat can be removed.  Add defatted liquids to stock pot.
  7. Deglaze roasting pan with water.  Add the liquid to the stock pot.
  8. Bring to a simmer and cook for one hour, skimming the scum off the top of the stock.
  9. After one hour, add the thyme, pepper corns and other fresh herbs to the pot.  Cook an additional 2-3 hours until the stock is dark and rich tasting.
  10. Strain into a large vessel using a colander.
  11. Re-strain using a small mesh sieve if desired.
  12. Restrain yourself from drinking it all, you need it for gravy remember.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Top Chef Live! Well, Sort Of

The cooking competition show "Top Chef" has cemented its place as the official foodie water cooler topic. Whether the discussion is on the food or cooking, or one of the many dramas that occur when you place so many people, in such close quarters under so much pressure.  When I received an e-mail touting watching an episode of Top Chef with Tom Colicchio, Padma, Daniel Boulud, Alain Sailhac, Gavin Kaysen, plus Top Chef contestant Kevin I was so there.  Especially since it was a benefit for the American team competing in the Big Show culinary competition The Bocuse D'or.

The Bocuse D'or is best described as the food world's Olympics.  Teams from around the world compete under the intense scrutiny of the world's best chefs while screaming fans wave the flags of their favorite country.  Gavin Kaysen,  executive chef at Cafe Boulud, was a competitor in the Bocuse D'or and gave some insight into being through the culinary gauntlet.

I arrived a little early at the Astor Center where the event was being held.  I should just move into this place since I seem to be there like everyday.  There was a huge throng of people milling about outside waiting for the doors to open.  Then, as close to a red carpet moment as I will ever likely to experience, Chef Tom Colicchio arrived and bounded up the stairs.  Soon Daniel Boulud and Alain Sailhac joined him inside.  The doors were soon opened to the rest of us and the party began.

Given the nature of the event, the chefs preparing the food gave it their all.  All of the passed appetizers were on the north side of wonderful.  Some wonderful cocktails, wine and champagne rounded out the comestibles.

The event was pretty crowded so you soon made fast friends with the people next to you.  The people were in a very festive mood, probably brought on by the wonderful cocktails, wine and champagne mentioned above.  I was soon running into friends left and right, only to loose them again in a sea a food obsessed humanity.

A few minutes before the airing of "Top Chef" was to start, Tom Colicchio, Padma, and Kevin took the stage to say a few words.  Then the show began.  With all the people, chatter and other noise it was kind of hard to actually watch the show.  But was it better than sitting on my easy chair, eating chips and watching it at home?  Oh yeah!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Lost Legacy

A family recipe is sometimes passed done with as much thought and care as an English estate.  "Not just anyone can be the custodian of my recipe" has been proclaimed by countless grandmothers over the years. Other recipes beg to be passed on, but find no willing takers.  Some, miss their chance to continue in the family lore and are lost.  My father's potato pancake recipe is one of those.

No one made potato pancakes like my father, at least no one that I have met.  They were not the latke type made out of shredded potatoes.  His were made from a batter and had a lightness about them that only led to you eating more of them.  Everyone loved them.  They became a symbol of family and celebration.  Nothing would make me happier to whip up a batch when far flung branches of the clan stopped by.  Only one problem, my father didn't teach me how to make them.

I would pop into the kitchen when he was making batch, only to be shooed away.  Then he got sick and thoughts were directed elsewhere.

Gray and rainy days find me in the kitchen, trying to reverse engineer those pillowy cakes of memories.  Trying to get the taste, texture and timelessness just right.  But I know, that they will never be my father's pancakes.  I can already hear the family proclaiming "These are great, but their just not Uncle Ray's".  You just can't whip up a batch of legacy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Please Don't Eat the Hero Triscuit

Each model faced a cruel and heartless scrutiny.  The deserving ones were coddled and handled like royalty.  The rest were  dismissed with a sniff of derision and a wave of the hand.  They left in silence, no howls of protest.  The compliance of the models could only be accounted for with one reason, they were snack crackers.  But even in the world of snack foods, looks can get you pretty far.

Last weekend I spent in a kind of Bizarro World version of my usual culinary life.  Taste was not even in the backseat, but left at home to fend for itself.  The weekend was all about how the food looked.  More specifically, how the food looked in a photograph.   I was lucky enough to snag a spot in the Food Styling and Photography Workshop at the Institute of Culinary Education.  Here Jim Peterson, Jamie Tiampo, Laurie Knoop and Matt Noel would try to impart their collective knowledge of this subject.

Taking a good looking photograph of food can be a challenge.  I'm sure all you bloggers out there know exactly what I mean.  Making the food good looking enough to photograph was another aspect of the class that I frankly had almost zero experience in.  My models were of the natural, meal next door type.  They also didn't last long in the biz as they(rather we) found it totally consuming.  Getting your meal ready for its close up was the milieu of Laurie Knoop.

Laurie graduated from culinary school, but did not want to work in a restaurant.  Through a friend, she pursued food styling and now owns her own food photography studio.  Laurie told us all the secrets of getting food to look good in a photo.  Sometimes, the best way is to not use the food at all.  Crisco mixed with various sugars and strawberry jam was a dead ringer for strawberry ice cream.  Instant mashed potatoes made many appearances in the bag of tricks.  As a substitute for the icing you don't see in a cake and to fill up a deflated looking roast chicken to only mention a few.  Many of the tricks she taught us are no longer used that much, at least in the higher end publications.  But at least we have them in our back pockets if we ever need them.  She also taught us myriad ways to keep real food good looking for the shoots.

Jim Peterson, Jamie Tiampo and Matt Noel showed us many ways to get a photograph of food to look great.  The only way to have a great photograph is to have great light.  They showed us many ways to manipulate natural light to have the effect you want to achieve.  The best part of this, most of these techniques are cheap and some even free.  Foil is a great reflector.  If you crumple it up a bit, it throws off a nice, mottled light.  Mirrors are great as well.  A small mirror can be used to spot light an area that you want to draw attention to in a photo.  Foam boards of different colors are also great reflectors.  The different colors can evoke some interesting atmospheres in your shots.

We were finally let loose to try our hands at food styling.  Our first task was to create a still life.  My teams eyes were drawn to this beautiful acorn squash.  We decided to do a still life of autumn's bounty and starting collecting our "stars".  We picked up some props to best showcase our work and started styling the still life.  When we were going astray, one of the instructors would gently guide us back to a more aesthetic form.  Our final still life was a far cry from the starting one and miles better.

We were challenged with more involved projects as the weekend progressed.  Shopping in the Union Square Greenmarket for ingredients to style was disorienting.  Again, back in the Bizzaro World of looking for good looking food not good tasting food.  We did find some dramatic ingredients and made a pretty good photo if I may say so myself.  Jim and Jamie did most of the photography in the class.  It was interesting to see the different styles between the two.  We were able to shoot pictures of our food as well, which provided some interesting comparisons once I got home.

My Photo

Jamie Tiampo's Photo

For our final project, we had a choice of protein and were allowed to run wild with the rest.  Judging by the final photos, it seems everyone learned quite a bit in this class.  The most important lesson learned was to never eat anything on a photo shoot.  Once an art director ate the hero cookie at a $70,000 shoot. That's really putting your money where your mouth is.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Risotto Road to Enlightenment

Last night, a funny thing crossed my mind while I was making a risotto, nothing.  I was so enrapt by the process, that I must have went a good 10-15 minutes without the usual mental chatter.  It was just add stock, stir, add stock, stir.  I was completely living in the moment like a Zen master, until E entered the kitchen and interupted my reverie.

This got me thinking about the meditive properties of cooking.  So many of the usual tasks of cooking are repetitive and require your full attention.  When you really look at it how different is prepping vegtables from the Zen meditation practice of zazen.  Instead of foucing you mind by sitting still and counting breaths, you focusing your mind on slicing and dicing.  When you are dicing an onion, you world collapses to job at hand, the only sound you hear is the snick of the knife slicing through the onion and hitting the board.  It's nearly magical that this simple task can hold the chaos of the world beyond the kitchen is at bay, at least for a while.

While "What is the sound of one hand whisking" will probably not be made an official Zen koan anytime soon, the forced mindfulness of cooking may bring us closer to inner peace.  It certainly helps me.  And, you get to eat your path to elightenment.