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Pleasure and Pain: A Night Out at the Estate

So it was decided among the four of us that comprise the core of the group that we were gonna go check out a Filipino restaurant. This particular place was located near a corner we all knew well, because next door to it on one side is a Japanese grocer we'd all been to before, and on the other (right on the corner) is a Brew-pub I've been meaning to check out. On top of that, Da Nang (mine and Bob's favorite Vietnamese restaurant) is across the street on the corner. Raquel had been to this particular Filipino restaurant, Royal Kubo, many years ago and said it got her seal of approval. Herself being of Filipino decent, we took her word on it.

Noble Fish (sans patio)

Ian was gonna be joining us late, around 8:00, so the plan was this; Bob, Raquel and I would meet at Noble Fish, the Japanese market with a small but excellent sushi bar in back, and upon Ian's arrival the four of us would venture to Royal Kubo next door, and finish the night at the brewery on the corner. The night did not go as hoped.... The decision was made that I would drive to Bob's and the two of us would car pool from there. We arrived a little early at about 7:00, and parked in front of Da Nang, since it's all within walking distance. Da Nang now has a new patio, and as we walked passed we noticed the owner out at one of the tables. We stopped for greetings, a short conversation, and Kim asked us if we were going to be needing a table. We told her of our plans, she quickly and half jokingly chastised us for not coming to see her. We explained that most of us had never been to Royal Kubo and wanted to check it out. We parted and made our way to the market (we probably would have gone back for a brief goodbye anyway, we were thinking). Bob and I arrive at Noble, do some shopping, and Raquel arrives. We all continue browsing the aisles, commenting, cracking jokes, trying our hardest to restrain ourselves from buying everything in the damn store! Quite a few gems were found, I stocked up on few things I wanted to have around and bought a new Makisu for work (rubbing it in that MY bill would be tax deductible because of this). Bob, in typical fashion, dropped a large chunk o change, one memorable item were these crabs no bigger than a quarter, fried whole, seasoned and sealed in a plastic bag like potato chips. Raquel showed quite a bit of restraint with only a few items purchased. We all retired to Nobles new patio (seems to be a rash going around on that corner, all the places we visited in that immediate area had brand new patios) and awaited Ian, snacking on some of the booty begotten from the market. Those little crabs were awesome! So tiny that fried, as they were, the shells had a crunch like a thick cracker, and the crab flavor was intense. Bob and I both immediately wanted a beer to go with them. Ian arrives and decides he can't be standing if front of Noble and not pick SOMETHING up. He goes in to emerge a few minutes later, having shown the same restraint Raquel did with only a small bag of plunder. We all make our way next door to the restaurant. Upon entering we stood confused... There was no "Seat yourself/Please wait to be seated" sign, and no employees in sight. Spreading out slightly and moving into the minimalistic decor of the sparsely populated dining room, walking toward the large curved bar directly in front of us, scanning the doorways for any sign of movement that might indicate that they actually WERE still open. I overheard a bit of the conversation from one of the tables we passed, not catching any details, but they were apparently confused about something to do with their bill. Soon a lone waitress (and only employee, it seemed) emerged and gave us passage to seat ourselves. We decided on a table, and after a wait of a few more minutes, she made her way to our table, menus in hand, and scurried off. We looked over the "menus" placed in our hands with something like bewilderment. They were two pages of worn paper stapled together, photocopies of what was obviously a real menu at one time. Bobs was stapled together backwards, and there were items on them that were crossed off in sharpie. Things did not look good... Bob made the suggestion to leave at this point, but I was gonna try to look past this, trying to be optimistic. Maybe the food would be worth it!(?) The server returned a few minutes later to take our drink orders. I was first and asked what beers they had (no surprise there) but the server was struggling to recall the bottle list. I ordered the first non-crap offering that came out of her mouth just to cut the pain of her awkwardness short. Kirin, an Asian beer I'm quite familiar with. It came to Raquel, she asked if they carried any Plum wine. The waitron standing before us looked confused. She hesitantly asked, "Is that like sake?" Raquel's stammering response was, "No.. it's... like Plum wine..." with an obvious 'duh!' look on her face. Waitron unit then informed us she was unsure, and mentioned that she could go check if we so desired. Bob said, "Could you please?" with what was, apparent to the group, the intention of getting her to leave, promptly. "Let's go..." were the words from Bob's mouth as soon as she was out of earshot. My response was, "Noble's next door, they have a sushi bar, and Da Nang is right across the street..." It was decided, instantly and unanimously... Da Nang. Almost embarrassed at the thought of walking out while the hapless server fumbled through coolers in the back to put together our drink order, I tried to make it out the doors before she made it back, but I knew there was no time for that. I saw through the window in the door to the kitchen that she had, in fact, located the Plum wine. I heard Bob's voice from behind me remark, "It's ok, we're just gonna leave." Knowing who he was talking to, I didn't even turn around, the door was just a few feet in front of me... Out on the street, on our way to Da Nang, a memorable part of the conversation was Ian's comment of, "That was like walking down the street and seeing a guy laying on the sidewalk that just got the shit kicked out of him." The sentiment struck home with all of us. The cringing pity at seeing someone who'd just had insult added to injury, whether he deserved it or not. Strolling into the dining room at our new destination, Kim had a look of delighted surprise when she saw us, quickly ushering us to a table on the patio. After being seated Bob asked her, "Why didn't you warn us?!" Kim's diplomatic reply was, "Well, I didn't want to badmouth the place, I wanted you to find out for yourselves." "You still coulda warned us!" Bob snipped, in typical Bob fashion. Throughout the rest of the evening, periodically and from out of nowhere Bob would say, "God, that place sucked!" (even on the ride home). Upon being seated, Ian informed us that we were "breaking his cherry" as far as Vietnamese goes. The response from the rest of us was an almost simultaneous, "Huh? Really?!" We were not disappointed in the least, but that was no surprise, we never have been there. The next hour and a half was perfect. Kim, always attentive, came out periodically to chat. We all shared appetizers; spring rolls with shrimp, scallion and pork along with a papaya/mango salad with shrimp and sweet lime dressing. Ian and I had a few glasses of wine between us, sampling each others of course, and we all got the Pho. That beef, noodle and broth soup that is the pretty much the national dish of Vietnam. Raquel, surprisingly, got the tamer version of what the boys got. She's not one to back down from odd foods, but she apparently has an aversion to the tripe that was in the version the rest of us got. Not like us to order identically when at a restaurant, but we KNEW it was gonna be amazing, and Ian, never having had Vietnamese before, felt it only appropriate to start with Pho. They have a Malbec on the wine list (can't remember the name, though) that Ian and I were pleased to find goes with Pho quite well. It played well with the basil, melted into the broth, and embellished the chili peppers. Malbec is my favorite varietal, so finding out almost by accident that it pairs well with one of favorite dishes was a huge bonus. The night air was very pleasant out on the patio. Not hot and humid, as it's been lately, but comfortable with a slight, but cool breeze. Therefore, the massive quantities of Sriracha, raw Jalapeno, and chili paste we were shoveling into our steaming bowls of beefy, brothy goodness (especially Bob and I), didn't make us sweaty and miserable. It was the perfect meteorological accompaniment. We were blissfully content. It seemed we had achieved nirvana... The meal wound down and Kim was closing up shop at this point. We all ate way too much. The saving grace was it was all very light on the stomach, so we weren't uncomfortably bloated, just satisfyingly stuffed. Bill paid, tip given, goodbyes said, we made our way to the brewery. Ian and Raquel headed straight there, Bob lingered a bit to chat with Kim, while I ran our haul from the market to Bob's Jeep. In the ram-shackle interior of the Black Lotus Brewpub, we found ourselves a table (the patio didn't have any tables available that would accommodate four) and quickly realized there was going to be live music on the stage right next to the table we chose. Raquel is the bass player in a cover band, and I, being an ex heavy metal frontman, didn't mind the thought of live music, but it was mentioned that this wasn't exactly what we had in mind. The waitress was a bit slow getting to us, and getting us our drinks. Ian and I were the only ones that ordered, we got the tasting, all brewpubs have them. A collection of small glasses, six at this venue, each containing a different beer made on site. By the time our order arrived the band was already in the middle of their first song. Instrumental jazz, and, as it was later commented on by all of us, very well executed. Those guys knew their instruments. The beer, while not horrible, really didn't impress. The flavors were dull and flat. Too many micro breweries tone down their brews to appeal to a mass audience, or maybe the brewers are over-reaching their abilities and palates (also common among chefs, might I add). I say, have the balls to stand out from the herd! In the case of the Black Lotus I think it was an over-reaching brewer. He was trying to do a few things different, but, unfortunately, they fell short. The pilsner was forgettable, the apricot pale ale was decent at best (Magic Hat #9 is by far superior), the seasonal heffe-weizen wasn't very "heffe", the IPA was dialed back a bit, and the dunkel weiss had no spark. I don't even remember what the sixth one was... Bob was heard to say at one point, "I've never seen two guys not enjoy that much beer!" There wasn't a lot of conversation, the band was a bit loud from our front row seats, Ian and I pondering the beer, Bob texting friends about our adventures this eve, and Raquel and I watching the band, impressed by the performance. While the music wasn't our "cup o tea", they were talented. About six songs into their set we had finished our drinks and finally got our bill from the server. Paid, tipped, run for the door. By this time it was about 11:00, and out on the street saying our fair-well's for the evening the emotions were quite mixed. However, we were still pleased with it all. Despite what could have been a very unpleasant taste left in our mouths, it was Da Nang that washed it all away. Kim, and her staff, had saved the day!

The Steak in my Heart…

It occurred to me the other day how few people understand the enigmatical U.S.D.A. beef grading system, or the differences in cattle varieties and their origins. So that seemed as good a topic as any to cover next. Different cuts and where on the animal they come from is something else I should probably cover briefly, as well, since that too seems to be a mystery to some. Let's talk about marbling first, however. Marbling refers to the veins of fat running through the muscles of the animal. Not the fat surrounding them, but the fat running through them. The U.S.D.A. has three basic meat grades. Select being the lowest (meaning least amount of fat marbling throughout the meat), next comes Choice, and then Prime is at the top. The prices inflate dramatically according which grade and cut you choose.

Prime, Choice, and Select grades side by side

Cuts: A quick lesson on butchery. When a carcass is broken down it's cut into four "Primals" in the U.S., and from there the sub-Primals and separate cuts of meat we end up with. The tougher cuts, which tend to have less marbling, are almost always the cheapest. Examples of those would be Flank, Rump, and Brisket. The tenderloin (Fillet Mignon) being an exception to the rule of less fat=tougher meat, is the most tender. Basically, the further you get from hooves or tail, the more tender the cut of meat will be. The tenderloin is located under the ribs in the center of the animal. Ironically, the tougher cuts tend to have more flavor. Fillet Mignon is probably a chefs least favorite cut because it's nearly flavorless so it needs a lot of help to coax out what flavor IS there. But it's the biggest seller in steak houses because it's the most tender and most expensive, since it's a very small loin and you only get about 10 pounds of it per average sized steer. An exception to the marbling/flavor/toughness rule would be the Flat Iron, which is a relatively new cut, meaning it wasn't until recently that butchers figured out how to market it because of a large strip of inedible sinew ("silver-skin" in industry jargon) that runs through the center of the muscle. A quick and economical way to remove it was developed, and now Flat Irons are a big hit with restaurants because they pack a lot of flavor AND have good marbling AND they're relatively cheap.

Flat Iron Steak

The most popular steaks outside of Tenderloin, being Ribeye (a.k.a. Delmonico), NY Strip, T-Bone and Porterhouse, all come from the muscle that runs down the back and above the ribs of the animal. These are all derived from one of two sections (or sub-Primals), the Rib Loin or the Short Loin. From the Rib Loin we get Ribeyes if cut into steaks, or Prime Rib if roasted whole (the name "Prime" Rib does not reflect the grade in any way). From the Short Loin we get Fillet, Strip, T-Bone and Porterhouse steaks. The only real difference in any of these is the way the Primal is broken down. If you just saw it into steaks you get bone-in Strips, T-Bones, and Porterhouse. If you de-bone it, you get Fillet, and boneless Strips. Confused? Ok, the large muscle on the one side of the bone in the T-Bone and Porterhouse is the same muscle as the Strip steak, just not be-boned. The smaller muscle on the other side in a Porterhouse is the Fillet (don't worry, I'm including diagrams). The tiny bit of meat on the other side of that bone in a T-Bone is the tail end of the Tenderloin, because the loin tapers at both ends. So, the only difference between T-Bone and Porterhouse is where on the loin the steak is cut from, be it where the Tenderloin is thicker or near the end where it tapers off.

T-Bone Steak

Porterhouse Cut

Boneless Strip Steak

Tenderloin Steak, or Fillet Mignon

Grading: When the butcher get's his hands on the steer it's already been cleaned and halved. The very first cut he makes in the hanging carcass is between the 12th and 13th rib, and that cut separates the Rib Loin from the Short Loin. This done, he quickly evaluates the grade by examining the fat marbling in the cut surface of the Short Loin. In days past they would then roll an ink stamp over the fat indicating the grade. This is no longer in practice, however, but most of you probably remember seeing the blue ink on the fat layer of the steaks in the butchers case at the local supermarket or butcher shop. That's what that was, the grading stamp. Now, just to further confuse you, I'll talk about cattle varieties. Black Angus is very popular here in the U.S.. Black Angus cattle are a breed that was imported from Scotland in 1873, and have since been bred to acclimate the breed to the slightly warmer American climate.Certified Black Angus simply means it's been deemed to be of top quality among the herd. I've heard that Scotland has the best tasting beef in the world, but I've never had Scottish beef, so I can't tell you first hand. Judging from Black Angus, though, I wouldn't doubt it... A chef I used to worked with and myself did a blind taste test once between CAB (Certified Angus Beef, CAB is more industry jargon) and U.S.D.A. Prime. At the time I worked at an upscale steakhouse that served only Prime, until (that is) the big "Mad Cow" scare drove the price nosebleed high on Prime, as if it wasn't high enough to begin with. This forced the owner to look at other products. So the chef and I tasted, side by side, a medium rare CAB NY Strip and a medium rare U.S.D.A. Prime NY Strip. We BOTH liked the CAB better. It tasted more "beefy" than it's Prime opponent, which had a quite subtle flavor.

The Marbling of Kobe

The word "Kobe" is getting thrown around a LOT these days. The SUPER marbled and SUPER expensive breed of cattle. This refers to a Japanese cattle variety, that much I'm sure most of you know. Here in the States, however, most (if not all) of the "Kobe" sold is a cross-breed of Japanese Kobe and American Black Angus. This cross-breeding allows for the signature Kobe marbling in an animal that's better suited to the different climate here in the States. In Japan, they belong to a group of breeds called Wagyu breeds (another word getting tossed around in the restaurant world like a midget at spring break). Of these, Kobe is actually the most affordable... if that tells you anything about the rest of them. Mishima, another Wagyu variety, is somewhere around $150 a pound! And that's in Japan! Good-fuckin-luck gettin your hands on it here! Even IF you could (and it's a damn big "IF") that price would probably double. That astronomical amount is due mostly to the fact that only about 100 head are raised every year. Ground beef: Something that has bugged me for years, that Anthony Bourdain addresses in his most recent book "Medium Raw", might I add, is why the hell does ANYONE bother with Kobe burgers? Kobe has a very subtle flavor, and most burgers aren't going for subtle... On top of that, the whole reason you buy Kobe is for the marbling, the fat content. When you grind the meat you can add as much fat as you want. The industry standard is pretty much 80/20. That means 80% meat, 20% fat. That throws the whole concept of Kobe right out the window! You want higher fat content in your burgers? Grab some some suet and throw that shit in the grinder with the meat! Easy! The way I see it, Kobe is really only good for a few cuts. Those would be Strip loin and Rib loin. But what about the Fillet (a.k.a. Tenderloin) you ask? Rubbish, I respond! Fillet has almost no fat at all, Kobe or not. So what's the point? Angus is much better suited for any application where Fillet might come into play because it has, as previously mentioned, a kick-you-in-the-teeth beefy flavor. The reason I say these are the only good cuts of Kobe is because they are the ones that will best showcase it's natural gifts. Kobe Prime Rib, Ribeye, or NY Strip are the ONLY way to enjoy Kobe. All other cuts, you're better off using Angus since a lot of the tougher cuts require more cooking time, which means more fat loss, and, as I've already mentioned, the Fillet is nearly useless. Despite all this bitching, I must say, a room temperature, thinly sliced piece of raw Kobe strip loin dipped lightly in soy sauce (Kobe sashimi, if you will) is fucking HEAVEN! Room temp because the fat softens, trying to eat cold beef fat is like chewing on Play-do... So, in the grand scheme of things, of the most popular breeds and grades of beef, the flavor breakdown goes something like this in my opinion: Select Choice (good cut of meat, and most bang for the buck) Prime CAB (Certified Angus Beef) Kobe (for those limited few cuts I mentioned) The price breakdown is a bit different, however, looking more like this: Select Choice CAB Prime Kobe The flavor breakdown for the individual cuts goes something like this: Flank, Flat Iron, anything from the Round Primal (hind leg) Anything from the Sirloin Primal (hip area) Brisket, Short Ribs, Skirt Steak, anything from the Chuck Primal (shoulder) T-Bone, Porterhouse Boneless Strip Steak Ribeye and Prime Rib Tenderloin or Fillet Mignon To conclude: You will NEVER go wrong with Certified Black Angus beef! Almost universally better tasting and (depending on the cut and application) middle of the road as far as price point goes. For the cuts that are leaner, or if you're gonna do a braised dish (which will render all the fat out anyway), Select or Choice will work great. But, if you're lookin for a steak, that American classic, just a big chunk of grilled or seared beef, Black Angus beats ALL in most cases! My personal favorite cuts for a steak are Flat Iron, Strip (bone-in or T-Bone), Sirloin, and Ribeye (a bone-in Ribeye is often called a "Cowboy Cut"). For a braised dish you can't beat Short Ribs, and Rare seared Flank get's honorable mention for steaks, though it's best used sliced thin for sandwiches. On a budget, though, Flat Iron for the win. Maybe even NOT on a budget! It's THAT good! Now that I think about it, I've never had a Kobe Flat Iron.... It might just change my opinion and add another cut to the list of Kobe superiority... Well, I hope that cleared up any confusion you may have had while pondering the myriad of choices at the meat counter looking for the right hunk o dead cow. Until next time, live well, and eat better beef!!! Jack Video on YouTube of CAB steer being butchered

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Sopa Verde con Tortilla

The deglaze.

At a recent meeting of the Estate, being summer, I hosted a Mexican night. One of the featured dishes was a soup that I came up with last year for a hotel I was working at. It came out great, and I wanted to try to re-create it for the team. The re-creation was just as good as the original. This is a dish that utilizes the garnish as an integral part of the composition. I recently read in the book "The Flavor Bible" (my review of another book by the same authors here) an interview with Chef Johnny Iuzzini of Jean George in New York that reflected my thoughts on garnishes perfectly. He said; "I was actually brought up in the school of thought that put a sprig of mint on every dessert. I am not that guy anymore. I have a saying - "NFG" - which stands for two things at once: "nonfunctional garnishes" are "no fucking good." If something doesn't make sense to the dish, it won't be there..."

The simmer.

This is a concept that I've been working with for years, so I remembered that quote well, partially because it validated the point I was already trying to make. Go shove your parsley twig randomly thrown on a fish plate unless there's actually parsley IN the dish. Garnishes need to tie in, they need to make sense, they should be used to add another dimension not just a splash of color, AND they should be meant to be eaten (who wants to chew on a plain chunk of parsley?). In this soup I use the garnish to add a brightness and spark to the dish, to bring it to life. If you need to add color, find an ingredient that has the color you're looking for that also makes sense in context. Do some research if you have to, no matter the dish there's bound to be a cultural or classically paired ingredient that will suit your needs. But.... I digress... So, without further bitching and moaning, here's my recipe for Green Tortilla Soup. For the broth: 1 large white onion, roughly chopped 4 Pablano Peppers, seeded and roughly chopped 3 pounds whole Tomatillos, roughly chopped 2 tablespoons crushed garlic 1 quart Chicken Stock 2 bottles of amber colored beer (Sam Adams is my favorite for this) Juice of 3 limes 1 tablespoon ground cumin (freshly ground seeds if possible) 1/4 cup light oil S&P to taste 3 large Grilled Chicken Breasts, 1/4 inch dice For the garnish: 1/2 pound of corn tortilla chips, lightly crushed (home made or store bought will work fine) 4 Plum or Roma Tomatoes, seeded and finely diced 1/4 cup White Onion, finely diced 2 Jalapeno Peppers, finely diced 2 tablespoons chopped Cilantro, some whole leaves reserved Juice of 1 lime S&P to taste The procedure:

The puree.

In a heavy bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat and add the rough chopped White Onion and Pablano. Cook slowly until very soft, then add the garlic and cumin and cook until fragrant. Deglaze with the beer and reduce by at least half. Add the Chicken Stock and Tomatillos and simmer until the Tomatillos are soft. Using a blender or immersion blender (also known as a stick blender, or burr mixer) puree to a smooth consistency. Add the Lime juice and season with S&P.

The Pico de Gallo.

Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl combine all the garnish ingredients accept the corn chips and whole Cilantro leaves, effectively making a Pico de Gallo. To serve:

The presentation. Notice the kitchy paper bowl. Only the best for R.E.!

Place some crushed Tortilla chips and diced Chicken Breast in the bottom of the serving bowls, and pour the soup over them. Garnish with 1 tablespoon of the Pico on top of each bowl and sprinkle with some of the reserved Cilantro leaves. The beauty of this recipe lies in it's simplicity and the way the ingredients come together in the final dish. As with most Mexican dishes, the key is the freshest possible ingredients prepared simply so to not mask what it is that makes them so special. Yet another concept I harp on about... Perfect ingredients need little to no preparation! Live well and eat better! Jack

What’s in a Name?

DSCN9877Chef. The word gets thrown around a lot lately. The advent of the Food Network has done much to further this phenomenon, and has even catapulted some chefs to celebrity status. Something that wasn't even thought possible just 20 years ago. There is much debate among us as to whether or not this is a good thing, but it is what it is. Most of us prefer to be sequestered away in our kitchen, far from the prying eyes of the public at large. Toiling in our secluded little universe so you can enjoy your night out, date, anniversary, -insert special occasion here-. Quite happy to not have to deal with you face to face. Toiling quite hard, in most cases, might I add. Understaffed, underpaid, overworked. This is a condition that is industry wide. We've worked very hard for the title of "chef", so it get's under my skin a little when non-professionals try to take on that moniker. In the classic French use for the word (derived from "chief", by the way), it refers specifically to the leader of a professional kitchen. Not even the other cooks in the same kitchen fit this title, only the boss. The other cooks (again, in the classic French brigade system) all have their own titles. Garde manger, saucier, patisier, ect.. Time has changed the meaning, however. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that. I do think the definition could be expanded to include dedicated professionals. Those of us that consciously try to become better at what we do everyday, and have been doing it for longer than 10 years or so. Formal education, i.e. college/culinary school, doesn't always help, either. I've met more than a couple kids right outa culinary school that were nearly worthless in a restaurant kitchen. This seems to be a person to person occurrence, however. Everyone takes away something different from schooling, and some that go to culinary school only go because they think it'll be, pardon the pun, a cakewalk. The industry shakes these people off pretty quickly, however, when they get into the real world and are confronted with the stress, working conditions, hours, and the band of not-so-merry mercenaries they have to work with. Regardless, this is a title that I have worked very hard to attain. I've earned my stripes, done my time, paid my dues, and it wasn't easy. Several times I was ready to walk away from professional cooking and not look back, but this is all I know. Anyway, I could never survive the regular 9-5 Officespace world. That would end very poorly, to say the least... In my mind (and this might just be me, but I doubt it) "chef" is a title that is earned through hard work, dedication, blood, sweat, tears, and countless burns. I get shivers, and somewhat agitated, when I hear someone say they are a chef that doesn't even work in a kitchen. It also makes me want to slap the piss out of someone that calls them self a chef and follows it with "I work at Red Lobster". You're not a chef, dude, your a cook.... and there's nothing wrong with that! Just accept it! You're a cook! Don't try to make yourself feel better by pasting a title on yourself that you didn't earn. I find it demeaning to my efforts and hard work when the word chef is thrown around lightly. I don't go around calling myself a doctor just because I have a decent knowledge of human anatomy, and you're not a chef! I HAVE encountered a few that I let slide on this issue, however. The rest of the guys here at R.E. for instance. Currently there are only two of us that cook professionally. The others get a pass, and not just because I can tolerate being in the same room with them for longer than 10 minutes, but because they are very dedicated and have great intuition regarding food and drink. My knee-jerk reaction is still to cringe when I hear it, though. So, maybe the term could stand to be re-defined, but it's still gonna be a touchy subject with me. Then again, there are a lot of those... Jack

Herbs… Fresh vs. Dry! The Debate Rages On!

pot of herbsUpon reviewing my previous posts I noticed a mention that I'd elaborate on the different uses of fresh vs. dry herbs and thought there's no better time than the present to do so! Let me start by saying just because they're dried doesn't mean they last forever. That jar of tarragon sitting in the back of the cupboard that you got from mom 10 years ago should be thrown out.... In restaurants we go through these jars pretty quick, but at home they tend to sit around for a while. Any dried herb that's been sitting on your spice rack for six months or more is pretty much garbage. Spices last a bit longer, but more than a year old, pitch it. The best approach to these very different forms is primarily in the timing, when to use them in a recipe to get the best results. Using both dry and fresh herbs of the same variety in the same recipe can create multiple layers of flavor from the same plant. For instance, a pizza sauce with oregano, or a marinara with basil will be greatly enhanced by using both forms. For my examples I'll be citing mostly sauce making processes, as this is the best application for dried herbs. Dried herbs are generally best used in the begining of the cooking process, while fresh is usually the last thing added to a sauce. Some herbs lend themselves to being dried better than others. Tarragon, basil, and oregano are the best of the dried herb family. They all get a woody character from the drying process. Please do me a personal favor and NEVER buy dried parsley! There's no flavor left in parsley after it's been dried unless you dry it yourself and use it immediately, in which case what was the point in drying it to begin with? Just use fresh! Seriously! Don't make me hunt you down! As I said, dried herbs are best used at the begining of the preparation. Keep in mind that the flavor is much more intense than fresh and it's easy to overdo it, which will also leave whatever you're cooking with a gritty mouth feel. With most herbs the ratio to keep in mind is 3 or 4 to 1. Meaning 3 or 4 times more fresh than dry should be used to get the same intensity. The flavor left in dried herbs is primarily in the oils in the leaves so toasting them breifly in the oil or fat used in the first steps of flavor layering is the way to go. When I make marinara, the first thing I do is saute my onions low and slow WITH a bit of dried basil and half as much dried oregano and also a pinch of crushed red pepper. When you go to add the dry herbs pinch them tightly between your fingers while you're sprinkling them into whatever it is you're cooking. This grinding motion will help release those oils. Fresh herbs are used in a completely different way, and it's much more difficult to over use fresh (think of tabouley, almost entirely chopped parsley). When I was training on the pasta station at my first fine dining restaurant the sous chef told me, "don't be affraid to use a lot" when refering to adding the herbs to the pasta right before plating the dish. I was more concerned at the time with the fact that prepping the fresh herbs was the biggest time sink when setting up my mise en place, so conservation was more what I was thinking! The less I use, the more time I have to set up the rest of my station because I don't have to prep as much! Now, years later, I understand that it is time well spent. For sauces the fresh herbs are always the last thing that goes in. The more you cook a fresh herb the duller it's flavor gets, so a thirty second steep is generally the best approach to release the flavor and aroma and preserve that bright freshness. For marinades fresh is the ONLY thing I'll use. If you coat a piece of meat with a marinade utilizing dried herbs the finished dish usually ends up with a mouth feel akin to chewing on lawnmower clippings. But if that's your thing.... Some fresh herbs need to be treated with care so not to bruise them during preparation. Parsley you can chop until it's almost powder, but basil needs a lighter touch, like a chiffonade, gentle rough chop, or just tearing it apart with your fingers. Because fresh basil is so supple it will bruise and brown and be generally unappealing if treated too roughly, and be sure to use the sharpest knife in the kitchen when (and if) you cut it to make sure you don't just crush it. The general rule of thumb is ANY greens or herbs with soft leaves should be treated gently or it will bruise and turn brown. This rule applies to the softer lettuces and spinach as well as fresh basil. Fresh_herbsStoring fresh herbs is something I should also cover. Basically the leaves are still alive, still "breathing" and metabolizing so putting them in a ziplock bag is the worst thing you can do! Get a very damp (almost dripping, but not quite) paper towel and wrap small bundles of the herbs with it. Store these in a container with a tight fitting, but not air tight lid and keep them in the humid part of the 'fridge. You'll be surprised how long some fresh herbs will last this way. At work we had a batch of fresh shiso leaves last a month one time! If you have any questions or there is something you'd like me to elaborate on, just ask in the comments. Until next time, live well and eat better! Jack