A Recipe for Solid Service

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It has been a while since I went on a rant in these pages. It’s not that I haven’t had cause to complain. I most definitely have. But I’m not sure that I want to be known as the disgruntled, surly, curmudgeonly chef. (Not that I’d be the only one — just the only one without my own TV show. And the only woman.)  

The service entering my sphere of existence is reaching its nadir. I’m the first to admit that it could all be in my head. My head is full of expectations that are regularly met by only a handful of individuals, most of whom I have raised. But in the wider world it has reached such a point that I am now leaving the house expecting to be disappointed. So I figured, what better time for an animated diatribe on service — or, more precisely, the lack thereof?

The straw that broke this camel’s back has been documented in the photograph you see above. This photo is unaltered. These pancakes were served to me this way. Yes, the orange looks chewed. Yes, the parsley is overturned. All this, presented to me by a waiter with a smile. Let’s ignore, for the time being, that I was served pancakes garnished with orange and parsley. This is the least of the offenses. (Suffice to say such an attempt would have certainly received a C- if presented to me by one of my culinary students, even if the fruit was in pristine condition.)  

We were not at the Ritz. It was a small, quirky diner — a chain establishment that probably would not appreciate any tarnishing of its reputation. Then again, they may not give a rat’s ass. Clearly no one did who was working the shift I interrupted. This is now, apparently, an acceptable way to provide service to customers. At least this is the loud and clear message I am receiving.

Other recent service offenses have included a cup of coffee garnished with hair, which was promptly fished out tableside by an apologetic server. I have been served a hot meal that went cold while I waited 10 minutes for my companion’s food to arrive. I have asked for a refill of water and received an entirely new glass of water, which I can only assume is there to keep the old empty glass from feeling lonely. (This also happens with straws.  Servers should note that, if I didn’t use the first straw you brought me, I’m not going to use the second one. Or the third.) I have been spilled on, harrumphed at, eyeball-rolled, ignored, forgotten, been given the wrong dish and sometimes served just plain awful food.  

Sadly, I have become accustomed to the inadequacy of most restaurants. This might be because my standards are higher than most people’s. Food service is, after all, my chosen profession. And though the key word here is “chosen” — and I am fully aware that most people providing food service are not in their dream jobs — they still accepted the job. There should be a modicum of giving a crap.   

Restaurants were created with the sole purpose of providing service. It’s really the whole point of their existence.

Restaurants are not the only places where bad service exists. For instance, it was one hotel’s policy to respond to complaints of mice nibbling on room snacks by placing a mousetrap in said room, rather than, say, moving me to a new room and comping my bill.  Another hotel felt that if I returned to the room for a late afternoon nap to an unmade bed, housekeeping’s response should be an enthusiastic heavy sigh. And, news to me, it is perfectly fine for a taxi driver to ask that you come prepared with a map to your destination. 

Perhaps you are thinking, “She should really cut these service professionals some slack.” Well, you are right. And I do. Every damn time. I never make a fuss, I never stiff, I never post bad reviews on Yelp. But I never, never, ever patronize these places again — a strategy that, if pursued by more people, would end the scourge of mediocrity in a heartbeat.

No, I’m not expecting this rant to make a difference. And maybe, rather than a rant, there should be a conversation about a higher wage. I am absolutely on board for a higher minimum wage that allows service workers to live comfortably, proudly and free from financial fear. But the thing is, I know plenty of people who are classified as working poor, yet still manage to do their jobs happily and professionally. These people possess a thing called work ethic. But sadly, they are few and far between.  How can we address this? Will more money help? Does the Common Core have a unit for that?

The thing about service is that it requires you serve somebody. That is your job. But guess what? Most jobs require that you serve somebody or something. It might be a boss, or a board of trustees, a classroom full of kids or the U.S. Constitution. Whatever or whomever you serve for a living, whether you enjoy it or not, at the very least do it well. Make your workday worth something.   

Recipe for Good Service

Serves 1 employee for a lifetime of success 

Ingredients  

Method

1. Preheat the work environment so that others feel welcome. Set timer, because waiting around does not generate pleasure.

2. Mix your interaction with concentration, and be sure requests are fully absorbed. Fulfill said requests with due diligence, and take responsibility when the ball is dropped. Be warned — one cannot substitute passing the buck here.

3. Shake and bake, because hard work is a worthwhile endeavor.

4. Cool completely in the face of adversity, and remember that customers are not necessarily always right, but they should always think they are if you want them to remain customers.  

5. Garnish with Pride. A job well done leads to more jobs done well. 

 

Day of the Bread

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We are quickly approaching the season of the creepy creepers. But for me, Halloween has become not as scary as it is annoying. I am not intimidated by the Styrofoam headstones and giant fluorescent green spiderwebs in my neighbor’s yard. I would like to never hear “Monster Mash” again. I am not excited by pumpkin-flavored anything, orange-and-black–colored anything or dry ice. And I am not impressed by your slutty nurse, slutty pirate or slutty crossing guard costume. I have been there and done that — and I am over it.

Of course, this “get off my lawn” attitude is a direct result of my kids running off to college. There they are having the kind of Halloween one should have in college, the kind I used to have — no money but lots of ingenuity. We drank whatever was cheap and made costumes with whatever was lying around. I was a toilet-paper mummy. My roommate went as a condom in a wetsuit with a Ziploc bag on her head. 

When you’re young, Halloween still has some danger involved. Even if kids know their neighborhood, walking around it in the dark is creepy. Anything could happen. Young adults use the holiday to engage in behaviors that are sketchy at best — because they can get away with it. Meanwhile, I am here, waiting in vain with my bowl of mini candy bars.  My street has a slight incline, which is usually too daunting for trick-or-treaters. The only thing dangerous about my Halloweens now is the likelihood that I will be the one eating this entire bowl of mini candy bars on Nov. 1.  

I wish Halloween did impress me. I wish I could get scared. I wish I believed in ghosts, or monsters, or magic, or the walking dead or even evil people. But I don’t. I just wasn’t raised to fear anything other than my own stupidity. But in other parts of the world people not only believe in ghosts, they celebrate them. In Japan, ancestors’ spirits are celebrated at Obon, a holiday sometime in mid-July or August, when your dead relatives are believed to come back for a visit. The Buddhist and Taoist traditions of the Hungry Ghost Festival recognize a monthlong opening of the doors between us and the netherworld. During this time, spirits are said to roam freely — a belief that keeps many families indoors after the sun goes down. In Cambodia, Pchum Ben is one of the most important Khmer holidays. During this two-week period the divide between our world and the world of our ancestors is at its thinnest, allowing them to return and atone for their past sins.  

Mexico’s spooky celebration is Dia de los Muertos, which, if you were raised in California, you know very well. This holiday is linked to both pre-Columbian funerary traditions and Catholicism’s remembrance of the departed, Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day). As in all of these festivals that honor our departed, there is food involved.  

I am a fan of this holiday, even though I am an absolute gringa. I particularly enjoy the dressing of altars or gravesites to honor and remember the dead. The favorite food and drink of the departed, photos, memorabilia and marigolds (the flower of the dead) are laid out to encourage the ghostly souls to visit and hear how they are remembered, and still loved. It’s a nice idea, and Mexico does it so well that in 2008 it was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, keeping company with such other intangibles as the tango, falconry and Kabuki theater. 

These festivals are definitely more meaningful than trick-or-treating, and they have the added bonus of actually being a bit scary — certainly more so than that rubber spider, candied apple or superhero costume (or slutty superhero costume).  

 Pan de Muerto 

I hope my kids make this bread for me when I’m an ancestor. I would totally come back for its rich, buttery, spicy crumb. If I become a ghost, I will just come back to eat and hug. I won’t be scary. Much. Maybe a little. In a nice, fun way — like Casper.  

Ingredients  

-½ cup milk, lukewarm (about 99°— just slightly warmer than body temperature)

-1 tablespoon granulated yeast

-1½ cups bread flour 

-½ teaspoon cinnamon 

-1 teaspoon anise seeds, toasted and ground 

-Grated zest of 1 orange

-1½ teaspoons salt

-3 eggs

-3 tablespoons brown sugar

-6 ounces (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened

-1 to 2 cups all-purpose flour, as needed

-1 egg

-1 tablespoon water

-1 tablespoon granulated sugar

Method

1. In a large bowl (or the bowl of a standing mixer) combine milk and yeast. Stir to dissolve, then set aside until bubbly, about 10 minutes. 

2. Stir in bread flour (I like to use a fork because it is easier to clean), cinnamon, anise, orange zest and salt. Add eggs one at a time, then brown sugar and softened butter. Slowly begin adding more flour until a soft dough is formed. Turn the dough out onto the counter and knead it for 8 to 10 minutes.  Add more flour as necessary to keep the dough from becoming sticky, but not so much that it is too stiff to knead. (The amount of flour needed will vary with the temperature, humidity, moisture content of butter and eggs, the brand of flour and the accuracy of your measurements; don’t worry about it though — just keep adding as needed). When the dough is smooth and elastic, place it in a bowl, cover with a moist towel and set aside to double in volume — about 1 to 2 hours. (It will rise faster in a warm spot.)

3. When the dough has doubled, turn it out onto your counter and divide it into two unequal pieces, one about twice as large as the other. Roll the large piece into a round, tight ball. Coat a baking sheet with pan spray and place the large round loaf on it, seam–side-down. Whisk together the egg and water into an egg wash, and brush it over the surface of the loaf.

4. Divide the smaller piece of dough into three parts. Roll one into a ball, and fashion that into a skull. With the other two pieces, roll two ropes with knobby ends, for crossbones. Place these on top of the round loaf, then egg–wash them. Dust the whole thing lightly with sugar and set aside to proof (rise for the final time before baking) for 10 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350°.  

5. When the loaf is proofed (which means just slightly puffed), bake it for 30 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake another 30 minutes. The loaf should be golden brown all over, with an internal temperature of 210°.  (It is best to check, as large loaves sometimes remain doughy in the middle.) If the loaf is very brown but not done in the middle, turn the heat down to 300°, tent it with foil, and continue to cook as needed.

6. Cool the loaf completely before serving — or taking it to the cemetery. Leftovers make great French toast.   

 

 

Athenaeum Anthem

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cook-books

I recently read that Russ Parsons, editor of the LA Times food section, owns two copies of all his favorite cookbooks.  One copy is preserved for posterity, the other brought into the kitchen as a working stiff, available for spillage.  I had to laugh.  Practical?  Not really, unless by practical you mean “sells more books.”

Proper chefs (something that, in all fairness, Mr. Parsons does not claim to be) are taught to never cook directly from a book.  Recipes should be re-written onto a separate sheet, which is then carried into the kitchen and hung on the wall at eye level, or crammed into the pocket of your herringbone pants, along with your one good peeler and your sharpie.

This serves several purposes.  The paper takes up less counter space (which is usually at a premium), and it keeps your books clean. (Although personally, I enjoy the nostalgia of a stain or two. They bring back fond memories of jobs, colleagues, restaurants, and my youth, all now gone the way of the floppy disc and Kajagoogoo.)

More importantly, recipes hand-copied from books are insurance against screwing up.  It forces at least one read-through, which is something amateurs rarely do.  As a culinary instructor I can tell you that 99.9% of recipe failures are due to user-error. Revving the kitchen-aids and cold-reading the recipes as you cook inevitably results in leaving out a step, leaving out an ingredient (which typically results in a forced excursion to the market by some poor innocent bystander), or simple hubristic wrongness.

This need to charge ahead without full knowledge is not just a plague of the kitchen.  It is part of our National M.O., and occurs everywhere, from the voting booth to the backseats of cars.  Currently this lack of preparation is being egged on by a new age of technology in the kitchen.  It is bad enough that most people now get their recipes off the internet, where origin, authenticity, and accuracy are dubious at best.  (Being an internet recipe provider, I guess I should be careful here).  Now you can fire up iPhone apps to further enable your blind assault on food.  Why bother to learn a thing when you can have it beamed directly to your head?  And so, while I scoff at Russ Parsons for his dual-tome habits, at least he is still reading books.

My cookbook library reached its zenith years ago.  Can we all just admit that there are too damn many cookbooks out there?  (By the way, have you bought my recent addition to the onslaught, Mug Cakes?) In 1962 there were 850 cookbooks in print.  So far, each year this century there has been an average of 3000 new books on cookery published every year.  Putting aside for a moment my dream of writing the Great American Gustatory Opus, have there really been 3000 new breakthroughs in the world of food this year?

That is not to say I do not own cookbooks, because I sure as hell do.  But, with the exception of the occasional flea market find (my latest being the hilarious Can Opener Recipes for the Casual Cook from 1951), I have stopped adding to my cookbook library.  Still, I understand the Foody Nation’s insatiable hunger for cookbooks, and to that end, I have compiled a list of what I consider to be the most important cookbooks you should own.  Use it to start your cookbook library, or legitimize the one you’ve already got.

Buy These Books

American Cookery by James Beard (Little, Brown, 1972)   Like America itself, this book is a melting pot.  Beard is the Father of American Cookery, and this is why.

Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco by Paula Wolfert (Harper and Row, 1973)  I love all Ms Wolfert’s books.  She is hands down the authority on Mediterranean cooking, and is reason you can find couscous at Vons.

The Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst (Barron’s 1995)   I keep several copies of this book – one in my office, one in the kitchen, and one in the car, because you never know when you might need to look up “flummery” or “shamogi.”

The Gastronomical Me, by MFK Fisher (Harper and Brothers, 1939) The beautiful prose of this (and her other volumes, including Serve it Forth, An Alphabet for Gourmets, Consider the Oyster, How to Eat a Wolf) recount a life-long love of food.  It’s perfect for cultivating culinary snobbery.

Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne (Clarkson Potter, 2001)  More commonly known as Larousse, after the French publishing house that first produced it in 1938, it is the premier culinary encyclopedia, proof read by August Escoffier himslef. I am on the lookout for an old edition that has – I am told – an amazingly gory engraving of turtle soup preparation.

The Good Cook series (Time-Life Books, 1980)  This series is so extraordinarily detailed, photographed, and diagrammed, it should be required reading for anyone learning to cook.  Twenty-eight volumes cover everything culinary, including all meats, eggs, sauces, soups, snacks, fruits, vegetables, beverages, and a supplement on kitchen organization.  Also worth noting from the Time-Life people (c. 1968) is the twenty-seven-volume Foods of the World series, covering the cuisine of both foreign and American regions.

The Joy of Cooking by Marion Rombauer (Schibner 1997)  When this classic volume was revised in 1997, there was a lot of hoo-ha.  At least it still has the opossum and squirrel recipes, complete with skinning diagrams and great tips like “…don gloves to avoid possible tularemia infection.”

La Technique by Jacques Pepin (New York Times Books, 1976)  I still like this clear, descriptive, generously photographed book, even though Monsieur Pepin, former personal chef to Charles de Gaulle, once told me I looked like a horse.  I’m sure he meant it in a nice way.

Le Guide Culinaire By August Escoffier (John Wiley and Sons, 1983)   Originally published in 1903, this is the definitive reference for haute cuisine formulas and nomenclature.  As Escoffier insisted, this is not a recipe book.  You’re supposed to already know the recipes.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertolle, and Simone Beck (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)   Without this book, we’d all be eating crap.

The New Making of a Cook: The Art, Technique, and Science of Good Cooking by Madeleine Kamman (William Morrow, 1997)  Despite a career spent in the shadow of Julia, Ms Kamman (a legitimate chef) earned the right to tell you how everything should be done, including the “how” and “why” of recipes to make you less dumb.

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee (Collier Books, 1998)  McGee is the Einstein of the Kitchen. (Mc=Ge2).  If you want to know why blueberries are blue, or how your olfactory cells work (and if you’re a serious cook, you should), buy this book.

The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)  I love this book, and not just because I helped write it. (Regular readers of this column will recognize its infectious wit.)  Sherry divided the book into Master recipes, with subsequent variations, akin to the way pastry is taught in culinary school.

A Taste of Mexico by Patricia Quintana (Stuart, Tabori, and Change, 1986)  Though you may never have heard of her, Ms. Quintana is a culinary rock star in Mexico.  She studied with the greatest chefs of the 20th century, (Paul Bocuse, Gaston Lenotre, the Troisgros brothers, Michel Gerard) and is her country’s official Culinary Ambassador.  This impeccable book is thoughtfully broken down into regions, with the most authentic techniques available.

Now get reading.  There will be a quiz next month.

 

 

 

 

SALT OF THE EARTH A brief guide to the rainbow spectrum of salts around the world

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salt-spoons

While it is certainly true that there is not much in the world of food that has been left undiscovered, there is plenty that can be rediscovered. Case in point: salt.   

I fell in love with salt on a family trip to Austria, where we visited the Salt Mine Berchtesgaden. There, we rode a tiny train into a mountain, slid down a banister (used by old-time miners before elevators were invented) and sailed on an internal mountain lake. It was super fun and sparked a new passion in me for this ubiquitous, but often overlooked, ingredient. 

The first thing I learned on my new quest for salty knowledge is that all salt is sea salt.  Some is collected from existing salt water, and some is mined from salt deposits left behind from ancient seas. Tall mountain ranges, desert salt flats and underground caverns can all contain these deposits, and they all carry unique characteristics. The age of the deposit, the compression, the surrounding mineral components, local flora and fauna and the method used to extract it all determine the salt’s flavor and texture.  

Most food enthusiasts are familiar with fleur de sel — the famous French sea salt. But there are hundreds of other salts from around the world, and they are all just as interesting, if not more so. But what do you do with these interesting salts? Lucky for you, I spent a few years answering that question. As a result, coming soon to a bookstore near you is Salt: The Essential Guide to Cooking with the Most Important Ingredient in Your Kitchen (St. Martin’s Griffin; available now for presale, and in stores this September). It is an exhaustive, encyclopedic reference book on the world’s artisan salts, with history, recipes and a salt tasting.  

Yes, you heard right — a salt tasting.

All salts are not the same. They each have unique qualities that enhance foods differently. Though usually cheap in their country of origin, artisan salts in artfully designed packaging can cost a pretty penny here. (Which is why I don’t suggest using fancy salt in your pasta water.) Instead, feature them as an essential flavor element, or finish a dish with a few exceptional grains. To figure this out, a salt tasting allows you to compare a few artisan salts side by side on simple foods that act as a neutral palate.  

The first step is to invite some friends over. Then, prepare some simple foods — sliced cucumbers, radishes, grilled steak, a baguette smeared with butter or a hunk of chocolate. Offer enough of these foods so that each guest can try each salt and compare its effects. You can even prepare a score sheet, so your guests can keep track of their preferences.

Of course, you will also need to choose the salts you want to feature. You can find a number of salts at most gourmet grocers, or you can shop online. (Try themeadow.com, or my favorite, kalustyans.com.) Start with just a few easy-to-find salts. (Take it from me — it’s easy to get carried away.) Some good starter salts might include:   

Fleur de Sel de Guerande

This is the French flower of the sea collected off the coast of Brittany. Seawater is channeled from the Atlantic Ocean, via canals, into shallow marshes where it is left to evaporate. As salt crystals begin to form on the surface of the ponds, they are raked off by hand. Because the aquatic environment varies from year to year, the salt does too. It is certainly the best known of the artisan salts. The same methods are used all over the world, with similar wooden tools, and just as much reverence and tradition. 

Maldon

Salt has been made in Essex, England, for thousands of years. We know this because archeologists have identified historic salt-making sites. Red mounds of earth (a.k.a. the red hills of Essex) were formed by layers of debris that included red clay vessels used in Iron Age salt production. The Maldon Crystal Salt Company, established in the late 1800s, is the only producer in the area now. Situated at the head of the Blackwater Estuary, the company gathers water only during salty spring tides. The water is filtered and boiled slowly to produce the wide pyramidal flakes coveted by the world’s chefs. Indeed, this is one of the first salts I fell in love with. 

Cyprus Sea Salt

Thanks to its two salt lakes, the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus has been a major salt exporter since the Middle Ages, when it was harvested from lakebeds in the dry summer months. Today, seawater is pumped into an industrial facility, where it’s gradually heated for two years, using solar evaporation to create the trademark pyramidal crystals.  

Black Diamond

This is a black version of Cyprus pyramid salt. It is infused with charcoal and is thought to have detoxifying benefits. Large black pyramidal crystals are very crunchy, yet dissolve quickly. The flavor is milder than its white counterpart, which makes it suitable for more applications. 

Himalayan Pink

This salt, from the mountains of Northern Pakistan, is a mined marine fossil salt. Estimated to be over 250 million years old, it formed naturally in an ancient sea, which was trapped and buried by shifting tectonic plates, gradually dehydrating into deep deposits. The modern mine tunnels a half-mile into the mountain range and spans more than 40 square miles. Because it has been buried for so long, it is considered some of the purest salt on earth. The color ranges from white to deep pink and comes in various textures and forms, including blocks, which are fun to use as serving plates. You can also heat them and cook on them, which is perfect when your dinner party needs a theatrical element.  

After you have tried these common artisan salts, you can graduate to some of the more obscure varieties, like blue Persian, black kamal namak, red Hawaiian alaea, smoked salt, one of the many Japanese shios, exotic bamboo salt, Incan sun salt or any of the hundreds of salts from hundreds of locations around the world. (I am currently enamored with Australian Murray River salt.) If there is, or ever was, a shoreline someplace, there is probably some artisan salt to be had. If you’re lucky, you will become similarly obsessed, and your cooking will jump to a new creative level.    

The Leftovers

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Waste not the $165 billion worth of food Americans toss each year

Here in Southern California, we have all become hyper-aware of waste in light of our current drought. We are well acquainted with the concept of conservation when it comes to water. That concept has slowly trickled down to other aspects of life. We have more fuel-efficient cars. We reduce our energy use on very hot days. We are getting good at recycling and limiting our use of plastic. But the idea of conservation seems to stop short when it comes to food. That is because there are no immediate visual signifiers — like dry lakebeds, drowning polar bears or the great Pacific Garbage Patch — to shock us into action. But it is clear that the next great conservation movement needs to be about food.

 Luckily, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is on it. They have put together some nifty, albeit horrifying, statistics. Americans waste 40 percent of the food we produce. That’s almost half! This garbage uses up 25 percent of our nation’s fresh water and 4 percent of our oil and amounts to approximately $165 billon each year put to no good use. Imagine what we could do in this country with an extra $165 billon dollars! (My mind just exploded with possibilities.)

These facts piqued my interest because in the food business we know all about food waste. We generate a ton of it, but we also know how to minimize it. In the food world, garbage = lost profit. Consequently, conservation skills are drummed into our thick heads from our first day on the job.  

When I was in culinary school, instructors regularly inspected the garbage cans for waste. A burnt tray of anything was best buried far down in the trash, underneath something goopy, if you expected to get away with it. (If you couldn’t adequately hide the evidence at school, it behooved you to shove it into your backpack and take it home to throw away.)

One of the first recipes I was taught in culinary school was navarin d’agneau (springtime lamb stew), and on the first day of class I dropped the lamb on the floor. Having just completed the food safety and sanitation portion of my education, I promptly threw the lamb in the trash and asked for another portion. What was next unleashed can only be described as an onslaught of venom from the French gates of hell. My chef was not merely exasperated. He did not express impatience with me, a rookie — and a girl. He let loose on me what was clearly pent-up rage from a decade of living in stupid America, teaching stupid Americans to cook. It was humiliating, but memorable. I now see that I should have picked up the lamb, rinsed it off and shut up about it.  

Lest you think this über-sensitivity to waste is a culinary school–based anomaly, most chefs worth their salt are just as conscious of what’s in the garbage. This is not obsessive. It is good business. Everything in the trash represents money. The more you are throwing out, the more money you are wasting. If your cans and cartons are found in the trash with any food left in them, there is hell to pay. (I still let my cream cartons sit on their side next to the stove for five minutes to loosen the last tablespoon.) If vegetable scraps end up in the trash and not the stockpot, you will be made an example of. Bowls, pots and pans should appear clean when they hit the scullery, already well-scraped of usable product with a rubber spatula.   

The desire to avoid the trash can is a powerful motivator for creativity. Some of the best things I ever cooked began as attempts to use up that last half-case of figs, a leftover quart of béchamel sauce or the last hunk of cheese, liberated from a layer of mold. As a consequence, the refrigerators in both my professional and personal kitchens have always been filled with small containers, bags and bundles of something left over but still usable. Cooking on a budget, be it my bosses’ budget or my own, makes it very hard to throw edible food down the drain. If it were socially acceptable (and legal) to reuse food that came back from the tables at the end of a meal, I would. (Throwing away untouched bread from a table’s breadbasket makes my heart hurt.)  

Not surprisingly, my urge to avoid waste is not limited to my own kitchens. It extends to restaurant dining too. If I can’t finish a plate whilst dining out, I will always have it wrapped to go. I will make the people I am eating with do the same. These doggy bags (no one calls them that anymore) are never destined for the dog’s dish. It becomes my breakfast or lunch the next day, or it ends up in another recipe. Veggies end up in stock, starches in soups and curries, and meat — especially barbecue — becomes the secret ingredient in soups, sauces and my award-winning chili. (Truth be told, I gave myself the award.)

Sometimes when I’m traveling, because of a highly structured agenda or the lack of refrigeration in my hotel, I know restaurant leftovers won’t get used. That, however, does not stop me from taking them back to the room. It is so ingrained in me that it is impossible for me to allow half of a perfectly good tuna melt to wind up in the trash. I’ll probably throw it away eventually, but I believe the right to take such actions is mine — not the busboy’s. My waste will be on my terms. This is an act my husband finds too ridiculous to ignore. He has taken to naming my leftovers — the tuna melt was Timmy. I had it wrapped, treated it to a ride in a cab and brought it back to my room. Timmy the Tuna Melt is my version of a one-night stand.

Sure, this sounds like crazy behavior, but food waste in this country is a tragedy. The average consumer trashes about 20 pounds of food each month. The NRDC estimates a reduction of just 15 percent in food waste could feed 25 million Americans. And despite what you may think after watching The Biggest Loser, there are indeed hungry Americans. Not to freak you out, but food conservation is vital. The United Nations predicts that by 2050 the world will need 70 percent more food to feed the growing population. Timmy the Tuna Melt doesn’t sound so crazy now, does he?

Thankfully there are a handful of conscientious folks taking on the issue of food waste. In New York, Salvage Supperclubs are popping up in the food-o-centric neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Their meals take place in spiffed-up dumpsters and utilize only product that was destined for the trash. A mere $50 gets you a multi-course meal produced by top local chefs, with the proceeds going to City Harvest, a nonprofit that sources food for the city’s hungry residents. I am totally down for this in L.A. It is the ultimate mystery basket challenge.  

Until I can whip up support for dumpster dining from the big-haired foodies of La-La Land, I will continue to encourage a more thoughtful use of food. In addition to the squirreling away of leftovers, we should be more mindful of what we make and how we make it and how we use our initial food purchases. Expiration dates are frequently over-cautious, and consumers blindly trust them. I firmly believe that in many cases the expiration dates are nothing but a money grab, intended to get shoppers back into the stores. Take a whiff before you toss, and consider your freezer before your trash can.  Food conservation is a skill that needs some nurturing, but with a little forethought, you can reduce your waste, increase your culinary creativity and help ensure there will be food for all as we roll toward the midcentury. 

The Jitter Bug

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They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. I realized the depth of my addiction recently when the coffee canister was empty, and I proceeded to dig through the camping supplies for my jar of Folgers Crystals. Blech!
To say that I am addicted to coffee is an understatement. I sip it all day long. I start the day with a full pot, then periodically invest throughout the day in iced red eyes (coffee with a shot of espresso) and black eyes (the same, with two shots), singlehandedly keeping my local barista employed. I can even finish the day with an espresso with no fear of insomnia.
What is it about this magical elixir that so captivates me? Besides its miraculous effects, coffee has a pretty interesting history.
The story of coffee’s discovery is probably just a myth. As is often repeated, an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi witnessed his flock nibbling on the berries of a bush. They promptly exhibited excitable behavior and had a heck of a time falling asleep. Soon, the natives were chewing the berries each morning as they perused their newspapers.
Coffee seems to have been domesticated first in Yemen, in the seventh century. Mystic Sufis are said to have steeped the bean into a drink that assisted them in their ascetic trances. They are credited with transporting the beans across the Arab peninsula and beyond, spreading it to Cairo, Damascus and Mecca. Alcohol-free Islam took to the beverage immediately, claiming that Muhammad gave coffee to the world via the jittery archangel Gabriel. It was soon dubbed the “wine of Araby,” and coffeehouses sprang up across the Moslem world.
By the 16th century the convivial atmosphere of the coffeehouse began to worry the sultan, who feared the beverage stimulated primal carnal desires. More likely he was concerned that the coffeehouses were brewing subversive political ideas. Bags of beans were burned in Mecca, putting an end to the popular buzz, which had spread even inside the Great Mosque.
But once coffee has been accepted by the masses, it’s not that easy to quash. (Because when you’re wired out of your mind, you can solve any problem.) Coffeehouses opened outside the city limits, and the bean soon spread to India, Indonesia and Istanbul. The Turks opened their own cafes, and Silk Road merchants from Italy and elsewhere began smuggling out beans in their suitcases. (“Your valise smells great!”) Soon Venice was selling coffee to the rest of the continent and the British Isles.
In England, coffee caught on immediately. The first public venues are thought to have been in Oxford, a legacy continued by procrastinating college students the world over.  There, academics paid a penny a cup and dispensed advice in what have come to be known as “penny universities.” Intellectuals noted that coffee stimulated the body and cleared the mind, unlike wine, which usually resulted in conflict and orgies. (Another tradition carried on by college students.) Women complained that coffee made their men impotent, and Charles II was concerned about the political ramifications of rooms full of smart people hopped up on the stimulant. He tried, like his Islamic counterpart, to shut down the coffeehouses. But by 1660 there were at least 500 coffeehouses in London. The damage was done.
Other tales of coffee’s introduction to Europe stem from the 1683 Turkish siege on Vienna. Unable to penetrate the city walls, the Turks abandoned their camps, leaving behind bags of the brown beans, which the Viennese promptly brewed and served with Sacher tortes. Eventually that city created its own unique coffeehouse culture, admired and emulated across Europe. Drawn in by coffee and a side of strudel, patrons sat for hours reading dozens of volumes of printed materials that were readily available and ripe for dissemination. Each café catered to specific groups of like-minded thinkers. Doctors, psychoanalysts, philosophers, politicians and artists knew in which coffeehouse they could find their kindred spirits.
Eventually, coffee was replaced by tea in England. Luckily, coffee remained popular in much of Europe and America. The Dutch East India Company successfully cultivated coffee in Java, and the resulting demand in Europe led to new plantations in Ceylon and Sumatra. Coffee was brought to New Amsterdam, where it was eventually popularized by patriots as the anti-English beverage of choice.
It wasn’t until 1971, when a few wide-eyed students opened a coffee roaster in Seattle, that we developed our current national obsession. They wanted to name their business Pequod, after the ship in Moby Dick. But investors thought it sounded weird, so they settled for the chief mate of Melville’s tale — Starbuck.
I started drinking coffee when I was nine or 10. Desperate to prove to my doting grandmother that I was “all grown up,” I was immediately hooked. I always loved coffee ice cream best and was horrified to discover that coffee cake was meant to be served with coffee, and was not, as I had hoped, made entirely out of coffee. I started serving the brew to my kids when they were in elementary school in an effort to get them moving in the morning (“Mommy, this cocoa tastes weird.”) One kid climbed aboard the bandwagon immediately. The other saw through my scheme.
Both of them still sleep until noon, however. You’d think they’d have learned by now that Mother Knows Best.

Sammie Time

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Ice Cream Sandwich
This just in: It is no longer cool to just eat ice cream. If trending is your thing, you must consume frozen delights in sandwich form. Here in Southern California, and all over the country, ice cream sandwich shops are popping up like Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks. You can find fabulous ice creams sandwiched between everything: donuts, croissants, macaroons — you name it.
CoolHaus, which began in Los Angeles as a food truck in 2009 and has spread to 40 states, follows an architectural model. (CoolHaus/Bauhaus — get it?) Their desserts, which consist of imaginatively flavored cookies and ice creams, are explained not as ice cream between two cookies, but as a cookie foundation with ice cream walls and a cookie roof. Art and food together is a concept I fully support. Beachy Cream in Santa Monica offers pretty standard fare. Their flavors are not what I would call cutting edge, but it is all organic, which is admirable.
Fonuts, over by The Grove on Third Street, is home to  “baked or steamed but never fried” donuts. They have started offering a scoop of house-made ice cream on top of their fancifully flavored product, billing it as an ice cream sandwich (although, technically, it should be called open-faced, she said in nerd-like fashion, pushing her glasses up on her nose). Carmela Ice Cream has also jumped onto the ice cream sandwich bandwagon. What started out as a farmers’ market venture has resulted in two stores (in Pasadena at 2495 E. Washington Blvd. and near The Grove) as well as a formidable presence in gourmet groceries and local restaurants.
Of course, the ice cream sandwich is nothing new. For centuries they have done amazing things in Sicily with ice cream and brioche. It looks more like a gelato burger than a sandwich, but it is crazy good, stuffed with creamy gelato and eaten with a colorful little plastic spoon on some piazza. A similar thing is done throughout Southeast Asia, although the ice cream there is more likely to be flavored with yams, red azuki beans or durians. In the British Isles the ice cream is sandwiched between thin cookie wafers and will often have an interior hidden bonus of nougat or caramel.
Yes, there are a ton of ice cream sandwiches out there. But to me, nothing compares to the ice cream sandwich I grew up eating, the It’s-It. A San Francisco original, more beloved by natives than Rice-a-Roni, Willie Brown and rainbow flags combined, the It’s-It is simple and pure — two really great oatmeal cookies with vanilla ice cream, dipped in dark chocolate. (Over the years, they’ve added flavors, but the vanilla has always been the best.) The factory has been a landmark along the Bayshore Freeway since I was a kid, but the It’s-It started out in the 1920s at Playland-at-the-Beach, an amusement park that stood on the Great Highway in San Francisco, just south of the Cliff House. A happening place until the 1960s, Playland had rides that rivaled Coney Island’s — the Big Dipper roller coaster, Shoot the Chutes, the Whip and the Fun House, to which you were beckoned by the horrifying animatronic Laughing Sal. (At least it horrified me when I was little. You can go see Sal now in a museum on Fisherman’s Wharf and judge for yourself.) Operator George Whitney (dubbed “the Barnum of the Golden Gate”) owned many of the rides and concessions, purchased and refurbished the Cliff House and created the It’s-It. When he died in 1958, the park slowly deteriorated; it was pretty seedy by the time I visited. It was torn down in 1972, and with it went the It’s-It. Happily for my tummy, the name was purchased in 1974 by two brothers who opened the current production facility in Burlingame, and the It’s-It has been in markets throughout the West ever since.
Now, even though lots of companies already make sandwiches, let us not overlook the fact that they are super fun and oh-so-satisfying to make at home. You can sandwich your ice cream with pretty much anything, and in that spirit I am offering some ice cream sammie ideas to get your creativity flowing, plus a few tips to make it easier — because that’s how I roll.

You Say Potato…I Say Potato Lefse

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lefse
My holiday traditions are very special. Yours are just okay.
This is what I imagine to be the first holiday disagreement for every couple, and the subsequent inner monologues for years to come. You come into a marriage with historical references that are dear to your heart. They link you to your family and ancestors, and have given this time of year special meaning ever since you were a kid.  But
your spouse doesn’t give two hoots, because they have nothing to do with his/her side of the family.
Such is the case in our household, where grand pronouncements of sacrifice were made to keep the holiday peace.
There are a number of ways our family traditions morphed into what my children now know as Christmas. We eat our feast on Christmas Eve, which is a Scandinavian thing (my people). We also exchanged presents on Christmas Eve when I was a kid. We would have to wait until the dishes were done and the kitchen was clean — an excruciating task, as the adults prolonged the chore in a hilarious attempt to torture me. I hated that then, but wholeheartedly approve of it now, as currently most of my days are spent thinking of ways to annoy my kids.
Unfortunately, “Christmas Eve presents” sounded a little too greedy for my husband, and the thought of no presents on Christmas morning was too much for him to bear. So I gave that up as my part of our marital Christmas compromise. Now our Christmas morning looks a lot like the rest of America’s — hyperactive kids who haven’t slept, adults exhausted from the shopping for, and staging of, this elaborate ritual. Thank God my husband wasn’t one of those “Santa magically brought the tree, set it up and decorated it in the middle of the night” people. That might have been a game-changer.
In exchange, I have done away with turkey and ham in favor of the Christmas dinner I really want. (I believe that large meat should stay with its appropriate holiday. Don’t be cruising across the calendar to test the waters in December. You don’t see candy canes sneaking into Halloween buckets or Easter baskets do you? It’s not natural.) I have instead opted for a mostly Anglo-Saxon carb-fest of all my favorite foods in one ginormous feast. This usually includes, but is not limited to, prime rib of beef and Yorkshire pudding — not because we have any Brit blood, but because I want the Yorkshire pudding, and prime rib is its wingman. The meal has variations from time to time.
Occasionally an increased interest in vegetarianism has resulted in more grains and veggies on the table. And on the opposite end of the animal rights scale, lobsters have made a few appearances, sent from friends on the East Coast. (FYI –- the bibs are important.)
I come from a family with a hearty Norwegian heritage. My grandparents were especially Nordic at Christmas, when the table would be laden with lutefisk and boiled potatoes. For those of you who have never tried lutefisk (and congratulations for that), it is dried salt cod (or other dried white fish) that has been treated with lye until it takes on a gelatinous (or snotty, as we say in my family) texture. It makes Polynesian poi look like foie gras.   Luckily the meal also included lefse, the manna from Valhalla. Lefse is a wondrous flat bread, similar to the tortilla, but 100 times better because it is made with potatoes.
Oh, the joy of potatoes. I have given them up for the most part because, as we all know by now, they have the glycemic index of chocolate cake. But it’s Christmas, dammit! So let’s go ahead and spike my blood-sugar level with the force of Thor’s hammer.
Some Scandinavians eat their lefse as a sweet bread, adding jam or cinnamon sugar. I’m sure that is fine — for them. I’m a lefse purist. A salty butter girl. (That is no double entendre.) I wait all year for that first piece of lefse, hot off the griddle, slathered in butter, which drips down my chin and into the sink over which I am undoubtedly standing. It is my happy place. Thanks be to Odin.
My mom let the gross stuff slide when she made her Norwegian Christmas dinner. But she kept the lefse, as I do. And I bet my kids will too, because there is a mystical link to the past that we create by mashing, mixing, rolling and cooking those potatoes. The effort is appreciated in the world beyond, our Viking ancestors smiling down on us, relieved I didn’t sacrifice the lefse in favor of Pillsbury Crescent Rolls.

 

TV Worth Watching (if I do say so myself)

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les geniusI have never been entirely thrilled with television cooking shows. I’m not sure whether they have helped or hurt the food service industry. True, they have embedded the culinary arts in the common consciousness. Then again, the culinary “artists” they’re inserting into that consciousness include embattled Food Network star Guy Fieri. So it was with trepidation that I considered my literary agent’s suggestion that I audition for a competitive cooking show. She argued that it would boost sales of my upcoming book, MugCakes, slated for publication this summer. So, I warily agreed to the conditions and signed the waivers to appear on the Food Network’s Sweet Genius.
I was familiar with the show but had never watched an entire episode. With a month to prepare, I resigned myself to the task of watching as many episodes as I could stand. The game’s object is to make desserts using secret ingredients, which fit into a specified genre (i.e. chocolate, candy, cake) and visually express a designated theme. Contestants compete for three rounds, and the winner is crowned a Sweet Genius.
“Who would bake with that?” is the standard incredulous reaction to the ingredients contestants are obliged to use. Things you would never willingly add to a cake — Bloody Mary mix, hummus, banana peppers, gummy candies, black garlic, tuna fish — have all found their way into this competitive arena. But the concept is not as weird as it seems.
The basic premise of the mystery ingredient is standard in culinary education. As a student, my teachers used it to measure my command of basic cooking techniques. A loyal disciple of the “turnabout is fair play” handbook, I, in turn, have been known to subject my students to this type of test in their final exams. (The TV show Chopped is a fair approximation of such an exam, although rather than taking home money, a student “winning” this school competition is awarded the right to continue paying tuition.) Sure, it was fun to torture students with weird ingredients. But it also taught them to think on their feet, a skill crucial to successful cheffing.
Creating dishes based on available ingredients is the impetus behind the locavore movement, but it is not a new idea. The best chefs have cooked that way for decades. As a matter of fact, I think it’s fair to say that every dish ever conceived was created this way. (What’s in the fridge? Chicken wings, celery and blue cheese dressing? Behold, Buffalo hot wings!) Of course, real recipe development is more thoughtful than that. But it is these weird ideas that get the creative juices flowing and lead to legitimate culinary innovation. Plus, it is a great way to clean out the refrigerator.
So, I felt confident in the general premise of the show. But I was not so comfy with the idea of national television. I have long known that the TV world is not one I could inhabit on a regular basis. It had alwayslooked incredibly boring, and it has been. The hours of standing around, waiting for technical details to be worked out, just felt wrong. It is not an easy transition from the fast pace of regular food service. What’s more, many segments ended in a request for contestants to stand still and don an expression of surprise, or excitement, or worry or dread. As you may imagine, I am a terrible actress, and all that face-making made me giggle. My giggles, in turn, required additional takes, which I found even more hilarious. I am clearly not TV material.
But it wasn’t all bad. Despite the popular notion that the host of the show, Ron Ben-
Israel, is a little creepy, I found him to be a sweet and silly guy, with a fascinating background. A self-taught baker, his wedding cakes were “discovered” by Martha Stewart and are now the most coveted wedding cakes in the Empire State. But despite his enviable pastry empire, he was generous and patient with his contestants. All that success has yet to go to his bald little head.  Yes, he talks funny and looks like an elf. But classifying culinary talent by outward appearance is a bad precedent. Why do you think the “exhibition kitchen” went out of favor? Some things should remain a mystery.
Another aspect of television I find unsavory is the snarky, competitive rivalry producers set up among contestants. In my case, all animosity was completely fabricated. All the contestants on my episode got along great and we still keep in touch. Despite a healthy confidence, I always feel a bit intimidated when I meet other chefs. I know I am good, but there are certainly others better than I am, at least in theory. One of my opponents came from Le Bec Fin, a well-established bastion of the Philadelphian culinary elite. Another was a self-described expert in molecular gastronomy, an arena I have actively avoided, the way parents in the 1950s avoided Elvis. The final guy refused to talk to us initially, choosing instead to psych himself up via his iPod. But as the day dragged on, we got to know each other. I was the oldest of the group and, as such, found myself slipping into mentor mode, doling out culinary tips, tricks and career advice. My nerves quickly dissipated, and the entire experience became a super-fun game. As the show wore on (spoiler alert) I was genuinely sad to see each of them eliminated. (Not sad enough to give up my title as Sweet Genius, mind you. A loss would have been humiliating on a number of levels.)
Yes, I won the show. It was a fun experience, fun to watch myself on TV and fun to watch my kids’ reactions, which resulted in sore sides from uproarious laughter. I received scores of congratulatory emails, then it was back to work the next day, as usual, where I got a couple of thumbs up. The great thing about working in food service is the anonymity. Nobody cares what you did before, or what you do in your spare time. They only care that you can get the order out right and on time, that you keep your station neat and clean up your messes. This is how you know that TV is fake. I am a Sweet Genius, but I still had to take out the trash, wipe down the mixers and sweep up my station. That’s as it should be. I chose the kitchen for a reason. If I wanted stardom, I would have kept my job waiting tables.

Culinary Art?

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fruit face

I have been thinking a lot about art lately — what makes something art, and what people accept as art. It’s probably because last month Tilda Swinton was periodically sleeping in a box at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Given the sheer volume of ludicrous happenings that appear on the list of legitimate art, it occurred to me that food is hardly, if ever, on that list.  I think it should be. And I am going to start a campaign.

The subject is also on my mind because I recently read a New York Times opinion piece by William Deresiewicz on the subject of food as art, which concluded that food cannot be art, even though this recent wave of food appreciation has, in his estimation, replaced the fine arts in our culture.

Baloney. (Bologna.)
Cooking should, of course, be considered one of the fine arts. It should be included in college art-history survey classes and referred to in all lessons on the humanities. Why? Because it is as much an art form as painting, sculpture, music, dance, photography, ceramics, fashion, literature and sleeping in a box.

To be clear, I am not talking about artistic renderings of food, which are numerous and awesome. Arcimboldo’s Renaissance faces composed of food, Dutch still lifes, Cézanne’s baskets of apples and Wayne Thiebaud’s cakes are all super, but we already know they’re art. Nor am I talking about random food. Anyone can dig a carrot out of the dirt for nourishment, but it is only the culinary artist who can glaze the same carrot to perfection — not too soft, not too firm, not bitterly caramelized, but beautifully, butterfully golden amber. This is a skill, a craft and, in the right hands, an art.
But not according to Deresiewicz, who uses all of his favorite hipster foodie lingo to do two things: make sure we understand that he is a foodie, and preach to us about how our passion for food, or what he labels “foodism,” is not art. His first argument denies food the right to be art because it is not narrative and not representational. He is doubly wrong.  First, we can all agree that art is not solely defined as representational. Far from it: Think of Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, Jackson Pollack, Ad Reinhardt or Barnett Newman. Second, yes, food is too narrative, stupid! The aforementioned perfectly glazed carrots tell the story of agriculture, of Escoffier, of the chef who prepared it, of the evening you are enjoying it and the company you are keeping. It is also reminding you of several carrot experiences you’ve had in the past, perhaps a dish that was much worse, cooked by a person you loved (or hated). Each plate is a story, both internal and external. There’s the story the artist (chef) wants you to know, and the one you are having in your own head. This internal/external narrative is the same way we experience any art, including works by Mondrian, Malevich, Pollack, Reinhardt and Newman.

Deresiewicz also claims a good meal cannot give you insight into other people, or help you take inventory of your soul. Again, very little of what we call art does this now, and the work that does so affects only a few people in such a manner. On any given day people shuffle through art museums. Do they all take inventory of their souls? Of course not. It is a ridiculous definition of art. Sure, some people may have a soulful epiphany watching Tilda sleep. But so, too, will some find revelation in that dish of carottes Vichy.

One may not consider an apple a story. But neither is a painting of an apple. Sometimes an apple is just an apple. Then again, sometimes the cool crisp bite of an autumnal apple is a reminder of Johnny Appleseed, or William Tell, or New York City, or Snow White. What story do Cézanne’s apples tell? A guy left an apple on the table. Whoop de doo. Yes, Cézanne talks more about vision, perception, angle and the picture plane. But how is that any more important than the physical nuances of biting into the apple — the temperature, the texture, the acid-sugar balance, the way it makes your tongue feel, your throat, your tummy? And your heart — are you eating it after a long day of hiking? Is it in your lunch box at middle school? Did you get it from the soup kitchen? All of this is a narrative. A story. A meaning that is beautiful, or tragic, or boring.

The assertion that food cannot be art because art must be symbolic sent me straight into a culinary nerd rage, listing all the symbolic foods we eat — wedding cake, birthday cake, every Christmas bread ever made, the entire Passover seder, spring lamb, Thanksgiving turkey, pomegranates, oysters and on and on and on. Plus, every composed plate ever created by a thoughtful chef symbolizes something — the seasons, the culture, the skill, the artistic vision.  Food is very symbolic. In fact, I would go so far as to say that food is the most symbolic form of art there is. Food has a code that everyone can crack — and we don’t need Sister Wendy to decipher it for us.

Finally, Deresiewicz insists that Proust talking about a madeleine is art, but the madeleine itself is not art. To that, I say again, baloney. This exquisite cookie has an extensive history, a temperamental procedure, an expected caliber of execution, a perceived outcome and myriad variations that change as frequently as fashion. There are great chefs who execute the madeleine flawlessly, and others who mutilate it. It is a talent that takes finesse, skill, education and experience. Just like all great art. I feel confident in stating that there is more culture in that tiny cookie than you will ever find watching Tilda sleeping.

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