Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Confessions of a culinary hipster

Recently I've fallen onto the bandwagon and upgraded my phone for an iPhone.  After a quick review of its bells and whistles (useful and otherwise) I happened upon a most delightful "app".  Apparently, whole books are available to any and all, free of charge, so long as they are public domain.  Within the first day of owning my new toy, I'd amassed the virtual equivalent to a grand, formal library as one only sees in old movies.  I admit to feeling rather grand about it myself.  Books are treasures to me, and to have them freely given is a joy.

Further digging rewarded me with several old and digitally dusty cookbooks from the days of yore.  After flipping through several, I found one dating back 1918, which was written to help home cooks deal with the rationing implemented throughout the country.  I'd read about it, heard about it, but nothing really made it seem so real as this book I happened across.  It made me feel quite nostalgic for those times, when it seemed we as a country were more inclined to band together and make small sacrifices to benefit a greater need.  Where is that spirit today?

I have every intention of using this and many other similarly "ancient" cookbooks I've found.  Food is what binds worlds together, it's the first part of a culture that tells us what it is.  It's important to remember these recipes, these people, these forgotten ways of life in order to benefit our own.  Older books than my already-loved wartime cookbook show a snapshot of the times in which they were written.  Describing the care and preparation to packing up a weekend picnic, for example.  People did that at one time!  Now, time feels so short, so rushed, but there is still time, isn't there?  Please tell me there is still time.  These worlds I read about, sometimes as foreign as my sci-fi/fantasy fanfiction I still write, they can't be completely lost.  Fittingly enough, I just recalled a line from "Wrath of Khan":  "He's not really dead, as long as we find a way to remember him."  And we must.  This is my battle cry, not out of disdain for modernity (I just got an iPhone, after all) but to go back and learn to do things "the hard way."  (The secret is that for the most part, it really isn't all that hard!) To see how our forebears might've lived, and those before them.  It seems that we've lost an awful lot in a short space of time, that we've surrendered our abilities, or even potential abilities, to the machines of mass production.  I'm not suggesting we raise our own cows and chickens, I can imagine few landlords would be very keen to allow that, but start small.  Bake bread.  You'll never go back.  Or a pizza from scratch.  So simple yet so good.  Go to the store, pick out some premade/frozen/boxed/canned food you normally buy and learn to make it yourself from first principles.  There is so much power there!  Whoever said that knowledge is power wasn't just dropping a platitude.  It's the truth!  And as it has also been said, the truth will set you free!  My most recent example of this is when I was at the store a few days ago, reading the ad, and saw that pork potstickers were on sale this week.  I beat a quick path to the freezer section only to find that they were all gone.  Then it hit me: why not find out how to make them?  It can't be that hard.  So that's on the board for one of my days off this week.  I'm going to attempt Chinese dumplings.  I reasoned that if I'd bought them premade, it would've cost about $3, and I'd probably only get five little ones in the whole box.  Rather I spend just a teense more and make a dozen good-sized ones!

Go forth!  Be brave!  Dive into Grandma's old cookbooks and recipe boxes, and you'll be amazed what you will learn!

Monday, October 31, 2011

It's the Great Pumpkin!

Here are pictures of my brownie graveyard.  Hopefully it survives the trip to work!  Ethan was sure surprised when he came home for lunch to find newspaper on the kitchen floor, a greased broom handle blocking the way, and me standing there with a pot of molten sugar and a hopeful look on my face.  Luckily, it didn't make too big of a mess.  The cookies are store-bought but I made the marshmallow ghosts from scratch, so I think that makes up for it.  Happy Halloween everybody!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Happy Halloween!

First of all, I'm not dead! I can't even say I've been busy, so I'll blame the one-year hiatus from my blog on ADD. My latest cooking project has been in preparation for Halloween: an edible graveyard made of brownies, marshmallow ghosts, cookie gravestones and spun-sugar spiderwebs. I hope it all turns out, I did the marshmallows already and I'll put the rest of it together before work on Monday. I've been on a candy-making kick lately: so far I've made two kinds of fudge, fleur de sel caramels, nougat, and marshmallows. These have all been fun to do and not terribly difficult with a little patience and an abundance of sugar. I even have some stockpiled for Christmas. I asked my chef how well these sorts of things keep in the freezer, he said they're fine for a good six months. He's right, too. I defrosted a few of my first batch of marshmallows just to see how well they held up. I couldn't tell the difference between those and the new batch. Whenever the whole thing gets done I'll take pictures. It's really been a cool project. Not many people make their own candy anymore. Another project of mine that harks back to the days of yore is canning. This past summer I canned enough blueberries and brandied peaches to see us through the zombie apocalypse!

At the end of September, I moved in with Ethan. We've been cohabitating for a month now and it's going well. It's nice to have someone else to think of. Living solo one tends to put up with a lot more disarray. With another person in the house, I try to keep a higher standard of order. It's so nice to have someone to come home to. I remember a few weeks ago, I'd had a rotten shift at work, culminating in me dropping a whole gallon of blue cheese dressing all over the floor. It had been rough up until then, this just upped the ante. I texted Ethan "Having a rough night. Stick in Triangle when I get home?" he wrote back "Sure, we'll watch it after the game." When I got home that night, after a Packers victory (and discovering he'd washed the dishes, he washed the dishes!) we snuggled up on the couch even though I was still probably filthy from work, and stuck in the most cuddle-worthy episode of the X-Files there is. Needless to say, I felt a whole lot better. One other cool part about moving in is getting to meet Ethan's friends. They seem like a good bunch, I'm glad he's had people like that in his life that he's stayed in touch with. They strike me as the type that I could get along with, too. What would really be fun is to have them all over for dinner sometime, I bet they have some good stories!

On that subject, I've been writing more fanfiction lately, and have done the math and am faced with the fact that I've been doing this for ten years. It doesn't seem like that long, but I still enjoy it, it's a huge stress-reliever and it gives my mind a place to wander to. Anyone brave enough can find it on http://www.fanfiction.net/~doec Yes, I'm a geek, it's on my profile and everything ;-) I remember writing one scene in a restaurant, putting about as much detail into the restaurant itself as the rest of the story for that scene. That was fun, it made me realize how easy it is to blend worlds. I had a dream once a long time ago that told me "Food transcends worlds, that's why you can get into so many of them." It made sense in the dream anyway.

And it's 2am and I should be in bed. Good night, and I hope there are still readers out there!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Welcome Fall!

I've been at Biaggi's for close to two months now and think I'm doing all right. They've cross-trained me on sauces already in addition to being their evening pantry cook. I hope to learn all of the stations before too long, even if it's just well enough to pitch in during a rush. I'm making friends among the cooks and servers (tolerating the rest) and Davenport is starting to feel like home.

About three weeks ago I got a new cookbook especially written for small-scale cakes, which I've had a lot of fun using lately. It was perfect to get so soon after moving because somehow in the moving process nearly all of my cake pans had gone missing, and all I had was my 8" square pan which I hardly ever used. The day it arrived was my mom's birthday so I got to initiate it by making her birthday cake from one of the recipes. It's been a real treat to have because living alone I don't have a lot of help killing off cakes and I like to bake a lot this time of year (I just don't like being up to my elbows in increasingly stale leftover cake!) I hadn't done much cake baking from scratch, so this has really gotten me going on it. I've even made my own icing!

Today I adapted a recipe for genoise to incorporate pumpkin to celebrate the first day of fall. I substituted the pumpkin for the butter in the recipe. I just unmolded it, so once I have it iced and ready to serve we'll see how that turned out! I plan to fill it with apricot jam and cut it into petit fours. I'm a sucker for those, they're so cute! My new book even has a recipe for poured fondant icing, so I'm up to giving it a try.

I used the rest of the pumpkin to make a few loaves of pumpkin bread, I love pumpkin bread, for me it marks the beginning of the season. It fills the apartment with such wonderful smells and it's put me in such a good mood today. I'm seeing Ethan and his family today so I'll bring at least one of the loaves down with me. A good time should be had by all.

Friday, July 30, 2010

New job!

I just had my last night at Champps, and I'm happy to say that I ended on a good note. Tomorrow I'm moving to Davenport to start work at Biaggi's, a rather prominent Italian restaurant. I'm just amazed at how fast everything's changed. I'm glad to be done at Champps, I didn't really feel like I was going anywhere with them, and the chef at Biaggi's made it sound like he wants to cross-train me on multiple stations. I'd love that, to be able to jump in wherever I'm needed.

My parents moved to Dubuque in May, and since then I've been giving my mom a few cooking lessons. I've taught her to make crepes and omelettes, chicken stock, and some basic cuts. Hopefully, we'll be able to continue with these even after I've moved. It's not too far away, so I'm sure we'll still be able to get together and cook.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Back at it

I can hardly believe it's been this long since my last entry. I went through kind of a dry spell, inspiration-wise, and haven't really felt up to writing for a while. Hopefully that's over and I'll be on more regularly.

For several weeks, one of my fellow station workers was out sick, so I'd had to put in a lot of double and night shifts to cover for him. That could be one of the reasons I hadn't written much during those months. Now summer is creeping ever closer, and our weekends are packed and busy again, we've been doing more weddings as well. I survived the major springtime holidays, both the Easter and Mother's Day buffets, both of which saw over 1000 reservations! It was a lot of people to cook for and serve, but with everyone there doing what they were supposed to, we all got through it in one piece. It was great for business but a relief to get it over with.

On a more personal note, in March I was given a free week's trial on a dating site, and through that have begun a relationship with a really nice guy named Ethan. He's my age, we have similar interests, he even gets along with my cat! It's been such a relief and a joy to finally have someone to cook for! The first few dates we had we ate out. Then the first night I had him over to my apartment I prepared a 3 course dinner. I realized then that I'd been dying to show someone what I can do! Appetizers were sweet potato agnolotte with a parmesan cream sauce, brown butter and fried sage leaves. I'd made that a few times in school so I was confident in my pasta making skills, and it's one of my favorites. Main course was marinaded Thai lime beef skewers, served with roasted carrots and onions and black truffled mashed potatoes. He'd told me before that he loves onions, and I thought roasted was definitely the way to go. I even did a little plate presentation, positioning the skewers in a V shape, the potatoes in the middle and topped with the veggies. It was all so moist and flavorful it didn't even need an additional sauce! Dessert was dark chocolate-hazelnut petit fours, served simply with a light snowfall of powdered sugar and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. He seemed to really enjoy each course, remarking "This isn't helping my diet, you know!" It was fun to have someone enjoy my cooking, I've really missed that living by myself. I remember that night there was a pretty severe thunderstorm, and as it got closer to dinner time I was worried that I'd lose power. I finished up all of my dishes a bit earlier than I ordinarily would have, just in case, and put them in the oven on the lowest setting, just to keep everything warm until he got there. Luckily, we didn't have any power outages, but better safe than sorry! That night after dinner we watched the second X-Files movie. We're both fans but I hadn't seen the second one yet, so he bought me the dvd. It was all right, the shippy bits made it worthwhile, and the gag reel was hilarious. Nothing like watching trained professionals sliding around on ice, stumbling through their lines as the set falls apart, and having to stop mid-scene as planes take off in the background.

About a week after that, I invited him over again, this time seeking the advice of a local chef that I'd met at a holiday wine-tasting party. Chef Donna asked me what the plan was, I told her "He's bringing 'Dr Strangelove' and then we're watching 'African Queen'." We'd come to an agreement that we'd trade off in showing each other our favorite movies. She lit up and said "Do something African, something to tie in!" "Like that 'Dinner & A Movie' show!" My older sister's advice had been to scale it back, something a bit less formal than our first dinner date. "Do guy-food, but try to bring it up a bit." I mentioned this suggestion to Chef Donna and she thought that would be good, too. Finger food, something you can eat and watch a movie at the same time. Sliders, maybe." Then I got the idea to whip up some harissa sauce and mix it into the ground beef. I had made harissa a few years ago for a cooking competition (that went hideously wrong, the less said about that the better) so I felt like this would be a good chance to revisit those recipes to redeem myself. I made harissa sliders with deep-fried buttermilk eggplant. It all turned out nicely. Ethan had never had eggplant before, but deep-fried anything is hard to screw up. I'd made 8 sliders, correctly thinking that should be enough for both of us, and it was only then that he told me that he really likes spicy food. Good thing! These sure packed a punch! I'd hand-ground the chilis myself and everything. Dessert was profiteroles, I figured we'd need something cold after all that hot stuff, so cream puffs with ice cream seemed the way to go. It was pretty simple to make, I could do it ahead of time, and it looked like I'd been in the kitchen all day. It was a pleasant surprise that we both liked each other's movies. I think we'd both be willing to watch them together again sometime. "African Queen" in particular is a perfect example of a couch-cuddling movie!

I can't say enough how happy I am to have someone to cook for, and we've seemed to hit it off! We've been seeing each other every week (sometimes more) for about two months now, and he's agreed to be my date at my cousin's wedding next Saturday. Perfect opportunity for him to meet the whole family! I even made it to his place once (he lives about two hours away) and made my "famous" Poulet Francine: braised chicken breasts, stuffed with dried apricots, garlic and herbs, with chocolate cream pie for dessert. One of the first things I found out about him was his list of favorite desserts, and I've put that knowledge to good use! Then he showed off his kitchen prowess by whipping up his mom's recipe for corn and macaroni casserole. Sure, we're not on the same level in our cooking abilities, but he definitely seems eager to learn. It doesn't matter to me that he's not a foodie, I like him the way he is. It's cool to have a willing student though. That night we watched "The Dark Knight" (which I'd mysteriously hadn't seen yet, it was excellent!) and my pick "A Song is Born". Nothing follows up a rather violent movie like a Samuel Goldwyn musical! I knew that Ethan was a fan of big band jazz, and this movie featured a lot of performances by the big names of the day: Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey just to name a few. It's funny how we have such glaringly different movie collections, we so easily find ones that the other will like! He's coming up for my birthday next week, that day there's a free to the public wine-tasting party going on at the foodie shop close to my place. They host them once every month and I've been to a few of them. They're always a good time so I'm looking forward to it!

At work, I just had a rough couple of days, a few silly mistakes ended up with me getting a lecture in the chef's office along the lines of "what are we going to do with you?" Then, just when I was feeling like maybe I wasn't cut out to be a line cook and starting to consider running away to join the circus, I had an excellent shift yesterday, stayed late, and was farewelled with a sincere "thank you" from the chef :-) All is not lost! Tonight I'm the saute guy's backup; on the weekends it gets pretty insane so they need all the help they can get! It'll be my third time doing that and I think it's one of those things that gets better each time you do it. It'll be busy, but it should go fine.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

2010, off to a good start!

It's not even two weeks into the new year, but things couldn't be more different. I've been getting better hours lately, cruising at a steady 34 per week, and it feels like things are going a lot more smoothly. A few of my less-desireable, time-consuming tasks (and similar ones of other stations) have been delegated to the prep cooks, leaving me free to get more done in the time I'm given. I've worked for Champps for 6 months now, and looking back I can easily say that each month has been different. In the jobs I do, the employees I work with, in the feel of the place. In the last six months, we've seen people come and go, assignments change, feast and famine side by side. And I've stuck with it through it all. At times I'm surprised that I'm still here, with all that's been going on.

Fortunately, I was able to hang on, and now it seems that better days are ahead. We've been busier, I've even put in some double-shifts, and I think the other people on salad station and I have come to an agreement to leave the station in better shape than we have in the past. Sometimes I've come in to find that the station hadn't been restocked or cleaned up very well, so now we're all trying to be more conscientious of people who share our stations. I can understand if things get busy, we run out of stuff, it happens. But it doesn't take long to fill up what you can and leave it in somewhat decent shape. Or find someone who isn't busy and say "Hey, could you help me portion out chicken" or something. We've gotten a better feeling of teamwork, and I think that really shows and helps everything run smoothly. It seems that each day when I get home from work, I feel like things have gone really well, almost like I hadn't worked at all rather that I had enjoyed a nice leisurely day in the kitchen. Even when things got hectic, I can stay cool, accept help that's offered, and work cleanly and efficiently. Since time management was a failing of mine back at school, learning to do several things at once is important. I'm looking back at how I was when I started, and where I am now, and I definitely see improvement.

For the past few days after work, I've been treating myself to making my favorite Thai peanut chicken pizza, having finally bought my first bottle of sriracha sauce (hot stuff, crucial ingredient in the peanut sauce). I haven't made pizza dough since my internship, so it's nice getting back into it. It's pretty inexpensive to make, takes little more time than it takes for the oven to preheat, and is so much better than storebought or delivery. To celebrate my reintroduction to pizza-making joy, I bought my very first pizza stone today at the mall. I'm sure I'll notice a huge difference in crust quality versus my sheet pans I've been using. If anybody's reading this, what are some of your favorite pizza recipes?