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Bridging the Gap

In this post I'd like to discuss the art of culinary composition as it applies to connecting ingredients that wouldn't normally pair very well. Say you're at the market and you see 2 things that look absolutely perfect but there is no cultural cooking style or flavor "synergy" between the 2 items. For an example to this I'll site the meal at a recent meeting of the Estate. One component was a light and creamy Red Currant risotto, sharing the plate with a Bacon and Crimini mushroom sauce. The lightly sweet and mildly bitter Currants generally aren't seen on the same plate with heavy, rich flavors like Criminis or bacon. But the meal was a smashing success. The key to making a square peg fit in a round hole, so to speak, is to add an ingredient or preparation that acts as a "bridge", as I like to call it.
Sauteed dover sole, ginger whipped yukon golds, harico vert, champagne beurre blanc. The ginger and champagne work together to bring all the ingredients closer and add elegant complexity.

Sauteed Dover sole, ginger whipped yukon golds, harico vert, champagne beurre blanc. The ginger and champagne work together to bring all the ingredients closer and add elegant complexity.

The reason these seemingly disparate ingredients worked so well was the bridge, they were served with a Mustard Crusted roasted Pork Loin and Spaghetti Squash roasted with cinnamon and maple syrup. The mustard was the key, it bridged the gap between all the other flavors in play. It goes well with mushrooms, bacon, cinnamon, and the fresh Red Currants used in the risotto. There are still pairings that should be avoided, mind you, a bridge isn't always possible to find or implement. For instance, if you have ingredients that have a strong cultural tie, say wasabi and cous-cous. When ingredients such as those is mentioned you immediately associate them with their place of origin, and no where else. Cous-cous is born of the Mediterranean and the Japanese brought wasabi to the world stage. Food items with such strong ties to their cultural roots shouldn't really be swapped around, the results usually seem imbalanced and out of place, even in the hands of a pro. That aside, the result of such bridges, when they work, will provide a wonderful contrast and scope of flavors within the confines of a single plate or over the courses of a meal. Any single part of the plate could be the bridge, too. I once had on a menu (at the now defunct Too Chez, r.i.p.) a blackened Mahi-Mahi with ginger/sesame rice and soy based sauce. The bridge was the Chinese 5 spice that was in the blackening mix. Or the Lamb chops I currently serve at Ignite, Mediterranean marinade with an Argentinian sauce, bridged by the mint used in the sauce and the cumin added to the marinade. Some ingredients are easy. Like Tuna. The Japanese use it, the Italians use it, even we in the States use it. Finding precedents for cultural cross-over in this case is easy, so Tuna makes a great bridge. As do lemons or citrus in general. Mustard makes a great bridge as well. Be it in the sauce, the starch, or in the case mentioned above, slathered on the meat before roasting. I mentioned Tuna as a bridge, but keep in mind that the protein is usually the focal point of a dish, and therefore not usually used as the bridge. Ideally the bridge should be an additive, a background ingredient or technique that's a bit more subtle than the main attraction. The term "bridge" in and of itself should be considered here. A quick way to join large, and otherwise unconnected masses (in this case flavors). This concept can also be implemented to "tighten" a dish, or make all the components of a plate work closer together. In this case repetition of seasoning ingredients could be the key. Say you wanna grill a chicken breast and serve it with rice. Tarragon or Rosemary on the chicken and in the rice will bring them closer and tie them together, lending a sense of continuity to the whole dish. Another way to go about this would be to tie things together in the sauce. A nice seared venison loin and mashed sweet potatoes will be nicely rounded out by adding berries to the sauce and straining out the skins at the end (blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries, or even quince, though not a berry, would work wonders). To further expand the scope of this technique, you could use it to tie together separate courses over the duration of the whole meal. In fact, in true haute cuisine, this is imperative. However, this is the highest and most complex undertaking a chef can face. Because of that very few restaurant chefs take this approach. The main reason being once you've decided to go this route you've pretty much also decided to serve one, and only one course spread to everyone that walks in the door. For a chef and/or restaurantuer to take this path it requires amazing confidence and balls you could ride like a hippity-hop. Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Yountville California and Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago are probably the most recognized chefs that do, and in fact their ability to utilize this concept is part of what makes them such icons in the culinary world. That said, it's still not an unachievable goal for the home cook. The easiest way to make this work is to keep all dishes being served within a single cultural theme. Indeed, this route is nearly fool-proof. To go beyond that, though, the cook needs to keep in mind every aspect of every ingredient being used. Full flavor profile, texture, aroma, cultural roots, and appearance all need equal consideration to unify the whole spread into one seamless "symphony", to borrow a musical term. Thinking like a musician can help in this regard, actually. There needs to be an easy intro, something that sets the tone for the song (a light appetizer), a crescendo (soup and/or salad courses) that builds up to the climax (main course), and a soft landing at the end (desert, cheese course, aperitif, etc.). No course should be heavier in flavor than the one coming after or the preceding flavors will drown out the next. Unless you throw in a "palate cleanser" such as an intermezzo, or bread course, or something acidic. This is the same concept employed at wine tastings. Whites first, then reds, so you don't burn out your palate. Giving examples of this in action would seem a bit redundant, since it's the same idea that I've already described earlier in this article, just with an expanded scope. For further reading on this subject I would recommend the book Culinary Artistry (see my review of the book here).
Mussel soup with avocados, tomatoes and dill.

Mussel soup with avocados, tomatoes and dill.

The possibilities are endless, it just takes some imagination and a good knowledge of the ingredients you're working with. So the next time you're at the market and see a great batch of mussels, and those avocados look amazing, don't be afraid to use them on the same plate! All you need to do is find an ingredient that goes with both (like tomatoes!) and let your creativity run free! Live well and eat better.... Jack

Cooking Styles: Simplicity

In this post I'm looking to set up the groundwork for (yet another) series of articles. With this series I want to focus on what makes a certain cooking style unique. I'll be focusing mainly on nationalities and ethnicities in this series, as each one has it's own tricks and techniques. On this maiden voyage of new topic, however, I want to compare and contrast three popular, yet different cooking styles that share a common undercurrent. Those would be Italian, Mexican, and Japanese. Have I lost you? Yes, they absolutely share a common thread, and that would be utilizing the best ingredients available with the least amount of tampering. Let me elaborate...
Italian Caprese salad, tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, balsamic, and olive oil.

Italian Caprese salad, tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, balsamic, and olive oil.

If you have a perfect tomato, or tomatillo, or tuna, the last thing you wanna do is over complicate the dish you wish to use it in! Let that perfect ingredient shine on it's own! The biggest mistake I've seen in my near 20 years as a chef is making a dish so complex that the "soul" of the star ingredient is restrained, over shadowed, muted, or nearly obliterated by too much medeling on the cooks part. Let me give you examples using the items I've already mentioned. Perfect tomato = caprese, imperfect tomato = into the sauce pot. Perfect tomatillo = salsa verde, imperfect = soup anyone? Perfect tuna = sashimi, imperfect = casserole (or some other atrocity upon which I dare not speculate...). Simplicity, more often than not, will yield the best results when dealing with something at the height of it's season. Which is another thing these food cultures have in common, a highly developed sense of seasonality, when an ingredient is at it's absolute peak. Every meal revolves around this concept, especially in Japan. Mexico not as much since their climate is tropical and sub-tropical they can grow pretty much whatever, whenever. Ever wonder how we get melons and berries in the winter and spring? Look at the label, their most likely from Mexico.
Mexican classic pico de gallo.

Mexican classic pico de gallo.

Every festival in Japan (and there are a ton of them throughout the year) is accented by the food selections, which are almost universally seasonal in nature. The traditional home meals follow this as well. Though, with the younger generation in Japan becoming more and more Westernized this is on the decline somewhat. Add modern shipping and flash-frozen items to the equation and for a modern nation nothing ever has to be "off the menu". The traditional foods served at these festivals remains seasonal and local, however, and Japan is still very big on tradition.
Taglietele Bolognese.

Tagliatelle Bolognese.

Italy, as well, has a strong sense of seasonality and locality. Most Italian dishes can be traced directly to a region, or even a city. A good example of this is a favorite pasta sauce, Bolognese, originating in Bologna. Southern Italy where it's warmer gave us the tomato based sauces, while northern Italy where the majority of dairy farms are gave us the cream based sauces. Fish dishes from the coast, cheeses from the mountainous north ect... A growing number of the top restaurants in the U.S. have adopted this mantra of seasonally changing menus and buying everything locally to ensure as little time spent in a warehouse or in transit as possible. Some chefs even go out themselves and meet with the farmers and ranchers to develop a personal relationship with them to ensure the best possible quality. No where is the concept of simplicity more apparent than Japanese sashimi. Top quality fish sliced thin and served raw. But then there's also Italian carpaccio, seasoned and briefly seared beef (most often tenderloin) sliced paper thin and served cold and very rare. Or consider the South American delicacy ceviche. Raw fish and/or shellfish marinated in citrus juice and various other herbs and peppers, at the chefs discretion, served cold, usually with corn chips or just a fork! Or the Mexican favorite pico de gallo. A variety of raw vegetables, usually containing tomatoes, onions and always chilis of some sort, tossed in cilantro and lime juice or cider vinegar.
Assorted sashimi tray.

Assorted sashimi tray.

Point being, these three completely disparate cultures came upon the same conclusions (for the most part) regarding food. Under any circumstances, do NOT fuck with perfection! Instead, find a simple way to showcase it. Let it be the star of the "performance". You'll eat much better for it... Jack

Tips and Tricks: Professional cooking explained

One of the easiest and quickest ways of preparing dinner is to pan sear your meat or fish and make a sauce "a la minute" (fancy French cooking term for "at the minute"), but it seems to me this process is little understood and vastly underutilized by home cooks. This post will be dedicated to de-mystifying the procedure. It really is very simple, as long as you stick to the principles, and most pro cooks value this method of sauce making above all others. Searing involves a pan over high heat coated with just enough oil in the bottom of the pan to cover the whole surface. As soon as whisps of smoke start to rise from the pan you're ready to go. Vegetable oil, canola, soy, peanut, and light olive oil work best for this. Don't use Extra Virgin, it has a lower "smoke point" and therefore will burn at the high temperature needed to pull this off. Next thing to think about is drying the meat. You'll get a better sear if the surface of the meat is as dry as possible. The best way to accomplish this is to wrap it thoroughly in paper towel and press it lightly with your hands on all sides. Seasoning, of course, is of high importance too. Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper are seen on every pro cooks work station for this very reason. Shellfish and poultry need very little, while heartier meats like beef require twice as much, keep that in mind. Also keep in mind it's better to under-season than over-season, you can always add more at the table, you cannot take it away.
Lightly pressing down ensures good cotact with the pan.

Lightly pressing down ensures good cotact with the pan.

The biggest rule is DO NOT overcrowd the pan. I know it's tempting, the more you fit in the pan the quicker you'll be done, right? Resist this urge, anything you put in the pan will drop the temperature of the surface. If it drops too far you'll start to cook too deeply into the meat before the proper brown crust forms (which is the whole point to this). At this point the meat will let go of too much of it's juices, and with a pan that's not hot enough for it to evaporate on contact your meat ends up swimming in it's own fat and juices and you'll end up boiling it rather than searing, which with most meats will give you an end result more akin to shoe leather than edible goodness. When searing fish or poultry the general rule to go by is skin side first (if you didn't skin the fish, that is) because this is the fattiest side. This also applies to whole beef loins and such for roasting purposes. In the pictures I've included I'm searing chicken thighs in a non-stick pan. Non-stick is not needed, and in fact, you'll get a better feel for the process without once you've done it a few times.
A nice uniform browning is the key to this method

A nice uniform browning is the key to this method.

When using a pan that's not non-stick DO NOT move things around until it's ready to be turned! You'll know this by gently nudging the meat with your tongs. If it comes free and moves it's ready to turn over, if it remains stuck to the surface of the pan, leave it be! Otherwise you'll just end up mutilating it. And ALWAYS flip the meats away from you, meaning the side closest to you over and away. If you turn the meats toward you and your tongs slip off (we are talking about high heat and oil here) there will be splash damage. I could post pictures of burn scars that I acquired learning this the hard way, but I'll spare you.
Cooking crushed garlic on heat must be done quickly, so have your deglazing liquid close at hand. In this case brown = bitter.

Cooking crushed garlic on high heat must be done quickly, so have your deglazing liquid close at hand. In this case brown = bitter = bad.

Once you've achieved a nice uniform browning of all sides, if the piece of meat you are searing is too big to thoroughly cook in the pan without burning put it on a baking sheet and finish it in the oven. Meanwhile, you've got this hot pan full of browned meat bits and juices, you can't let that go to waste! Color = flavor! Turn the heat down a bit and add your sauce base ingredients. Onions, peppers, shallots, whatever it is you wish the final result to be. Saute briefly and add your garlic. Cook that until the smell of garlic smacks you in the face, a minute or less, now it's time to deglaze. Pour in whatever beer, wine, or liquor the recipe demands. Here we're preparing a Paella so beer was the beverage of choice due to the multitude of shellfish involved (see my last post about beer). Crank the heat back up and reduce, or boil out the water content, until the pan is nearly dry.
MMMMMMMM!!!! Beer!

MMMMMMMM!!!! Beer!

Here is where we decide which direction to take the sauce in. Gravy like? Add a stock that coresponds with the dish and thicken as required. Butter sauce? Add a little stock, a small quantity of some form of acid (like vinegar or lemon juice or both, Tabasco usually works nicely too), reduce as before, and slowly whip in small cubes of cold butter. In most cases fresh herbs go in very last, right before you turn off the heat. Thirty seconds is sufficient to infuse the flavor of the herbs into the sauce. I'll get into the difference in the culinary uses between fresh and dry herbs in a later post. So, let's review: Rule 1: Pat the meats dry before searing. Rule 2: Proper seasoning with kosher salt and whatever dry spice is called for. Fresh ground black pepper is most common. Rule 3: High heat and just enough oil to coat the pan, and make sure the pan is screaming hot before you put anything in it. Rule 4: The most important rule. DO NOT overcrowd the pan! Leave at least an inch between items. Rule 5: Always turn the items away from you. Rule 6: Use that brown goodness left in the pan to start building your sauce. This may seem intimidating, but it's really not, and it's ease and quickness make it worth learning to do properly. About my insistance on Kosher salt as opposed to any other kind, it has a very clean flavor. Iodized table salt has a more metallic taste. While sea salt is quite acceptable for most applications and I'll jump for that if Kosher isn't at hand, there are still mineral traces in sea salt that may prove undesireable. The basic variety of sea salt is perfectly fine, it's when you get into the red and black varieties that this is more of an issue. Those are better left to salads or finished products rather than seasoning prior to cooking because the mineral qualities get lost in the cooking process, and that's the biggest reason to use them. If you have any further questions I'll be more than happy to answer them. Just ask in the comments. Until next time, eat, drink, LIVE! Jack

Beer: The Culinary Underdog

beer-vs-wine When it comes to cooking or food/beverage pairing, wine is most often the elixir of choice. Be it in sauces, braisings, or imbibed with the meal, this is nearly universal. There is even an entire profession dedicated to it, most likely due to the huge impact French technique has had on cooking as a whole. As a chef and home-brewer I believe that beer is every bit as qualified for the task. Granted, it's more difficult get the dark berry notes out of beer that you can out of wine without additives, but it is possible, just add it! The myriad of hop choices can give you an astonishing array of floral notes. The even greater choices in roasted barley will get you whatever earthy, dusty, or even tobacco hints you might be looking for. Even the choice of what yeast strain to use can influence the citrus, sweetness, dryness, or fruity characteristics you desire. Even still, the monopoly remains. When sitting down to a fine meal in a fancy restaurant it's usually expected to see a good wine list. As well it should be. I'm not trying to marginalize or denigrate the merrits of a good wine list. Not nearly. I'm trying to promote beer to be seen on level ground with wine in respect to pairing with food and in the cooking process. They both have their place, but sometimes (in my eyes at least) wine just doesn't cut it... Case in point, oysters. One of my absolute favorite foods period! Kumamoto and/or Malpeque oysters WILL be served to me on my death bed, and if not, I'll be sure to mercilessly torment from the grave whoever it is that fucks up that request! Just as importantly, they better be served with Guinness!!!! I can't think of a single wine that that pairs with oysters, or most shellfish for that matter, as well as beer does. Maybe that's just a personal preference. I'm willing to concede to that, but I think there are more than a few oyster fans out there that would agree with me. On the same note, I can't imagine short ribs braised in anything other than copious amounts of red wine and veal stock. But you can still pair the finished dish with a good stout, porter, or barley wine. As I said, they both have their place. I mentioned earlier the probable cause of this imbalance, the French influence on cooking technique as a whole. If you are a serious beer nut you know the reason why the French opt for wine over beer..... French beer sucks! The French don't even drink French beer, they drink mostly German beer! Masters of cooking and wine making, they should leave the beer brewing to the Germans, English, Irish, Scottish, and Belgians. The true masters of that particular art, though some of the American micro-breweries are on their heels. Another possible root to this is the cost. Beer is cheaper than wine, at least any wine I'd wanna drink, and how good can it be if it's $5 a glass at most restaurants that are charging $10 and up for a glass of good wine? There is something to be said for the snootiness of people with money to burn, trust me.... I've been feeding them for over 15 years... But to this I say, "Pull your heads out of your collective asses and open your damn mind!" Give me just about any dish and I can tell you a good beer to use in it's preparation or to pair with the final dish. If I can't think of a specific beer, I should be able to come up with a style choice to explore to find the best match. I already mentioned short ribs and shellfish, here is a short list of other meat preparations and their respective beer pairings to the best of my abilities: Sushi - a dry, hoppy Pilsner such as Sam Adams Noble Pils Chicken: Grilled - Pale Ale such as Bass Roasted - Nut Brown Ale such as Sam Smith or Pete's Beef: Grilled - IPA or ESB such as Fullers Stewed - Brown Ale such as Newcastle or Stout such as Guinness or Murphy's Duck - Belgian Lambic or other fruit beer such as Pete's Wicked Strawberry Blonde Pork: Grilled - Helles or Grolsh style Roasted - Porter such as Sam Smiths Taddy Porter or see Duck Red Game (venison, elk, bear ect.) - Barley Wine such as Shipyard or see Beef Pale Game (boar, quail, pheasant ect.) - Heffe-Weizen such as Paulaner or Bock such as Spaten These are, of course, gloriously oversimplified. To get a true "match" all the elements of the dish need to be considered when weighing your beverage choices. I hope this has opened your eyes a little to the possibilities (assuming I'm not preaching to the chior) that beer present as a viable alternative to wine for the next time you sit down to great meal. This post is meant to be the lead off to the much neglected "Beer Snob" category of this site. I/we will endeavor to keep the beer section alive, especially now that we have a dedicated wine writer. I could go on for pages! I will, however, end it here to leave room for future reviews, discussions, tips, and rantings. So until then, eat, drink, live! Jack periodic table of beers

Tools of the Trade

Forschner chef knife

Forschner chefs knife

Not many things are more upsetting to me than being asked to cook in some one else's kitchen, only to discover that the only knives they own are either so dull I'd be better off using a bowling ball to cut things, or they're all of the "never needs sharpening" variety. First of all, The most frequent cause of accidental cuts is a dull knife. Picture trying to cut a tomato, pepper, or anything that has a round surface and thick smooth skin with a dull knife - the blade slips off and you spend the rest of the afternoon in a clinic getting stitches. If you're gonna have real knives, go get yourself a medium or fine grit sharpening stone and a honing rod (and no, a honing rod does not sharpen the knife, rather it just "hones" the edge, once it's dull it's dull, get a stone too). Both are relatively inexpensive. And PLEASE do not keep them knocking around in a "knife drawer"... there's no better way to take the edge off of a good knife than to leave it rattling around in a drawer with other metal objects. Get yourself a magnetic strip, a knife block, or rack to hold them safely away from each other and from damage. Secondly, the only knives in your kitchen that need to be serrated are a bread knife and steak knives for your table setting. Those incredible things that you bought for convenience are nearly useless in my eyes; they're better at tearing through foods than actually cutting them. If you're looking to upgrade or re-stock your collection, here are a few tips to help you along: Most companies that make the knives professionals use also make cheaper models most people can afford, and they're a hell of a lot better than any
Henkels chef knife

Henkels chefs knife

"bargain knife set" you might see on TV or in a store. The top 2 companies most pros go with are Henkels or Wusthof (also known as Trident). I personally use mostly Henkels. However, they don't hold an edge as well as a Wusthof, so they require frequent maintenance, but they are heavier and made of harder metal. Wusthof is the most common brand seen in a chefs knife kit for these reasons, but I still like, no love, my Henkels. Another common brand in restaurant kitchens is Forschner. Much less expensive than the other two, so they might be a better choice for your daily home uses. You really do get what you pay for here, though, so realize that lower price tag means lower quality as well. Selecting which knives to purchase can be a daunting task when faced with the near endless multitude of blade shapes and sizes. The truth is, all you really need as a home cook is one good chefs knife. Maybe a paring knife and a slicer as well, and perhaps a boning knife, but as long as you have one good chefs knife it's all you're really gonna need. It's the backbone and workhorse of any good collection. The width of the blade makes it good for chopping, the length makes it good for slicing, the curve makes it good for fine work like small dice, and the weight makes it a decent cleaver. The tapered point is also good for detailed work. If you do a lot of roasts or other large hunks o meat or fish you might also want to invest in a slicer. The longer blade means one swipe, clean slices without having to saw through things leaving jagged edges, and the thinner blade will give you less friction meaning it will pass through much easier. Paring knives are good for small detail and decorative cuts, and boning knives are just that, made for de-boning meats and fish. They are also good for smaller vegetables. However, these knives are probably not gonna be used very often by the home cook, so it's really up to you whether or not to spend the money on them.
Wusthoff chefs knife

Wusthof chefs knife

Check out the links I've provided to read more information if you're unsure which brand to go with. If you have any questions about this or other topics I've posted please feel free to ask in the comments. Alton brown explains knives via Youtube Jack