Over the summer, I caught episodes of a horrible network TV "reality" cooking show called "Hell's Kitchen". The contestants weren't truly professionals, the contests were usually ridiculous, the host violent and the prize grandiose and inappropriate. Gross, freaky and cruel stunts in the name of cuisine? Pass the remote!
The other night I tuned in to BRAVO's "Top Chef". Talented, creative cooks of some proficiency compete for the Grand Prize of a professionally-outfitted kitchen, $100,000, and other big benefits, as well as for sub-prizes along the way, including a very-limited-edition knife and the placement of one's dish on the menu of a big national chain. As a former chef, I found myself wondering what I'd do, for each contest.
One challenge was a team effort toward presenting specific ethnic cuisines (Team Vietnam vs. Team Korea) at a big trade event in LA. Others were individual: Inventing and executing 3 quarts of an original ice cream flavor for mobs of children at the seashore; creating and serving a comfort food lunch at a stationhouse full of hungry firemen; creating a sushi dish to be judged by one of LA's top Japanese sushi masters --- all under tight time constraints and on budget. Very inspired ideas, I thought.
I don't yet know who won the Grand Prize. But a 44 year old caterer named Betty won two of the subprizes (the knife and the menu spot), and an executive chef named Cliff won two rounds as well. Personality-wise, Betty reminded me somewhat of myself: Personably interacting with diners and competitors as well as, good-humoredly, judges.
The challenges a chef faces, I was reminded, are complex and rigorous, demanding a very well integrated, supple p-e-r-s-o-n-a-l-i-t-y. Chefs with massive egos abound and are legendary, but they fail, in the clutch, without staffs willing to cover - often thanklessly - for the wide gaps in their inflated psyches. Cooking may itself be an art, but chef'ing is much moreso: The curtain goes up, hungry and demanding customers order and wait, staff rallies (or not), and the show must go on. During every shift, things "go wrong": Accidents happen, equipment breaks down, a baker doesn't show up, a waiter quits, the soup boils over, pasta sticks, plates get cold, tempers flare, and/or the weak crack. All the while, the front of the house must remain serene, receiving no overflow of kitchen mayhem.
"Top Chef"s contestant, Betty, reprimands a whining competitor who is not rising to the challenge of his brief time remaining, "OK! Forget the broken deep-fryer!" Move on! Fix your problem!": Good advice she was forced to implement herself when her griddle failed as she was preparing grilled cheese sandwiches; she quickly hauled out several frying pans and lit the stove (and won the round!).
I was reminded of the circumstances of my own promotion to full Dinner Chef. I was working under a volatile chef named Arthur when, on a Saturday night, a vegetable special ran out very early due to Arthur's miscalculation/misapportionment. He had no backup, and was ranting and panicking while plates were backing up and customers waiting. I'd quietly told the manager I could be ready to present a new vegetable in 5 to 8 minutes. Arthur didn't like our whispering and hurled a cleaver past me into a wall. The manager glared at me: "Can you do it? Do it". There was no time to emote about the heavy cleaver that had just audibly whizzed by my head. Asking a dishwasher to fill a prep sink with cold water, I ran out to our walk-in, lugged in a couple of flats of zucchini and fired up the sauté pans, dumping surplus chopped onion and celery in with the butter while my trusty dishwasher friend wiped down those zucchies for me. I sliced, lightly sautéed, herbed, seasoned, and co-presented the new vegetable with fresh rounds of main course special, and they flew out the swinging door -- No applause; just unsuspecting and contented customers, and just another night in the kitchen.
This type of scenario (sans knife-throwing) is acutally typical. Ingenuity, teamwork and technical know-how must be constantly and often unexpectedly summoned toward fixing, repairing, covering, reconnoitering, compensating, assisting, and - yes - pleasing - all with a smile (and, in my case, always a song in my head). The setting, varying from restaurant to restaurant, can be one of extremely high pressure and hazard. It takes a very strong individual and streamlined team-dynamics (and excellent hiring choices!) to pull it off night after night after night.
It was, indeed, to character flaws that some of "Top Chef"s disqualified contestants succumbed. One blew it during the Shopping phase, compromising his entire team's performance by effectively stealing a flat of lichee nuts from the market. Another sent out plates full of oversalted dishes, because she didn't want to send out NOTHING, and thus insulted the diners. Neither of these two was thinking clearly under time constraints. When their judgment snapped, their underlying ignorance of crucial aspects of the job was revealed, along with the lack of a solid professionalism undergirding whatever technical wizardry or artistry they might exhibit. (Pure and simple creativity are fine in one's own home setting: Honey and Junior won't walk out and give you bad press if the potatoes are too dry, nor will the place close down if the service is consistently slow.)
Betty, like me, understood and deftly navigated the energetics and dynamics of chef'ing, from concept through shopping, prepping, and executing, to presentation, flowing like a river over the rocks.
As for me, I was told by the manager, at the end of the Night of the Flying Cleaver, "I'm authorized to give you your own kitchen. Start tomorrow?"
"Il faut apprendre à connaître les vins du pays où l'on se trouve. C'est la meilleure manière de pénétrer dans l'intimité profonde d'une terre. - Montaigne
On the third Thursday of November, the Beaujolais Nouveau (or "Primeur") is released for consumption but weeks after harvest (was it September 6 this year?). During my New York years, I remember the great fanfare about Georges Duboeuf's accompanying those first cases (via Concorde, in modern times) from Paris to New York every year. Here in San Francisco (my abode for over 20 years), the anticipation is almost nonexistent: (1) The European link is nowhere near as strong, and (2) Northern Californians have their own wines and tastes. As a former New Yorker AND European resident, I grab it fresh from its journey and taste it each and every year.
Hallelujah, the 2006 Duboeuf is Good Stuff. Vibrant, almost electric boysenberry-purple color bounds from the pour and dances around the glass; sweet berry aromas excite the nose, with no disappointment on the palate, where a round, live fruitiness magically dries down to a suave finish. A jolly quaff, suiting late autumn with its darkening late afternoons and more inclement weather: A reminder of nature's fecund provision (and the perfect accompaniment to tricky traditional Thanksgiving dinner elements: Cranberries, sweet potatoes...).
Why is Beaujolais Nouveau scoffed at by wine geeks and Californians but enjoyed with gusto by Europeans, non-Americans, and a stateside élite? It's actually a huge seller: Tops among all Beaujolais, which itself outsells red Burgundy(admittedly, the Gamay grape of Beaujolais is more abundantly produced). Because it's the people's wine,for one thing. Most wine snobs in America ignorantly associate wine with fancy, gourmet jet-set affairs while Europeans of all ages take wine for granted with almost every meal. So, secondly, it is an important symbol of a timeworn way of life the overwhelming majority of non-Europeans have never experienced.
As for its youthful bounciness and vitality, it seems Americans are heeding critics who tell them: Tannin=Good, Oak-chips=Good, Woodiness=Good; Europeans know better: To accompany most food, wood can be distracting, while tannic structure invaded too soon is always a serious no-no.
In continental Europe, most regions have their wines; the vintners are usually known personally and play an important role in their villages. I lived in the "Lavaux" viticultural region of Switzerland (Eastern Vaud/Northeast coast of Lac Léman) where the new wine was laboured over and awaited every fall, where, in fact, the harvest's Must ran through drink machines in local cafeterias, as lemonade and iced tea often do in the US (talk about everyday, unaffected enjoyment).Everyone wanted to sample the year's juice and celebrate the harvest: A community tradition, keeping the people identifed with their ground.
Here in San Francisco, community traditions are not (a) as historically embedded, or (b) as earthbound, even with "wine country" just up the road. San Franciscans are, after all, still Americans, more concerned with each Friday's movie releases and with annual traditions like the World Series and the Academy Awards than with the one opportunity they have of distinguishing the fine points of a circumscribed region's terroir, year after year, fresh from the vine. Not only that, we Californians are a transient people, drifting between cities and counties with little, if any, relationship to our regions' soil or producers (Irony: Our state is the nation's major wine producer AND its "fruit bowl").
Now: For those of you new to Beaujolais:
Beaujolais is the region (southernmost tip of Burgundy).
Gamay is the grape variety.
More or less granitic is the soil.
"Nouveau" or "Primeur" means the wine is released about 8 weeks after the harvest, and is to be drunk from November of its vintage year until, say, February. By the end of March, it's no longer alive and brimming with vigor, but may be fine for a cooking wine. (Note: This year, Duboeuf has released a second Primeur, from Beaujolais-Villages (see below for definition of "Beaujolais-Villages"), in addition to his (regular)"Spécial Cuvée Beaujolais Nouveau". "Villages" is one step up: Worth a taste; I haven't yet tried it.
If Beaujolais is NOT "Nouveau/Primeur", however, it can age a bit:
"Beaujolais" can be enjoyed for about a year after vintage.
"Beaujolais-Villages" for another year to year and a half, maybe a total of 2-3 years in a good vintage and/or from a village headed toward "Cru" status.
"Beaujolais Cru" (the label will simply tell the name of the village, e.g., Juliénas; it'll only say Beaujolais on the back label): The "Cru" villages (10 of 'em) can go longer, depending on which village. Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent are usually the most "structured" (I think Côte de Brouilly can sometimes be as tight) and have occasionally been compared with neighboring Burgundy(Pinot Noir). On the other hand, one can enjoy a young Cru from a "lighter" village such as Fleurie or St-Amour at the 2-3 year mark as well. In 2006 I've had 2003 Moulin-à-Vent that's purple and fruity, albeit with (vive la France!) finesse and nuance.
Beaujolais: Where Gamay cultivation is perfected.
Beaujolais Nouveau: Gamay naked and upfront.
There's nothing not to like about it unless one is affecting a contrived sophistication. I'm no snob: It's real. It's cheap. It's friendly. It's delicious. It's fun.
Learn to make Beaujolais Nouveau a holiday season tradition; it's an enjoyable way to self-educate re: Terroir. This means: Honing one's tasting skills, year to year, vis-à-vis one small area and its one masterfully showcased grape variety, always at the same age. For those outside Europe, it's probably your only opportunity to taste what the current season's harvest produced.
Have a jolly Thanksgiving and merry Christmas/New Year with the 2006 Nouveau: A Good Year!
A Votre Santé!
It's that time of year again. The Swiss cheeses are arriving, and my heart turns to Fondue.
When I lived in Switzerland, I learned to prepare and enjoy Cheese Fondue, and, of course, this is a recipe for B's only. I like to use the "stinkiest" Fondue cheeses, but feel free to go for the milder Emmenthal, maybe 50%. At least 50% of your cheese should be Gruyère or stronger. I generally use 1/3 strong Gruyère, 1/3 Vacherin Fribourgeois, and 1/3 Appenzell. I'm told we like our cheeses stinkier and stinkier the older we get...
Also, let's touch upon the equipment. In Switzerland, one uses the so-called caquelon, a nice deep pot that is enamelled inside and out. But any pot will do, as long as you can stick long fondue forks in it and bring it to the table. You'll also need a heat source AT the table, electric or canned, so that the Fondue will be warm and simmering "on location".
OK. Here goes:
1 French baguette
1 clove garlic, halved
1 glass dry white wine
1/4 lemon, juiced
3/4 lb. cheese to feed 4 people
1/2 Tbs. kuzu*
1 small glass Kirschwasser
sprinkle grated nutmeg
water as needed
*(kuzu replaces the more typical cornstarch, for obvious reasons)
First, cube the baguette and fill a basket with the cubes. Set it on the table. Turn on your table's heat source, if electric, so it warms up in time.
Rub the sides of the pan with the cut sides of the garlic.
Over medium heat, place the pan and pour in the wine and lemon juice. When warmed, grate your cheeses into the pot and stir as it warms/melts. Keep stirring. Add water if necessary, about 1/2 wine glass usually is enough.
When bubbling, add the small glass of Kirschwasser with the kuzu mashed/dissolved in it. Stir this around in the fondue. Add grated nutmeg. Bring the pot to your table's heat source, where you should keep it on low, with just enough heat to maintain a simmer to the very end.
Now: A bit of etiquette. Don't seat more than 5 people around one pot of Fondue (it causes "traffic jams"). Also: Be careful not to drop your bread cube into the pot. If you do so and you're male, you must buy a round of drinks. If you drop it in and you're female, you must kiss the man to your right. Figure out your strategy, ladies, when creating your seating arrangement...
The crusty stuff at the bottom is called "La Réligieuse", i.e., the Nun. It's dang-good.
When I, "La Californienne", lived in Switzerland, my friends there made fun of me for my (then) low-fat, salad-y way of eating. I was also warned that one must drink wine with Fondue (they drink Fendant there, but any dry white will do, or, if you must, a light-to-medium-bodied red is fine...) and follow it with fruit.
One day I went up into the alpine country with a (Chinese) friend, and we stopped for lunch at a very quaint chalet/inn, where we ordered the Fondue and watched the farmer stir a huge kettle of Fondue inside the fireplace (which was the size of a small garage, though not as deep!). He also oversaw the Raclette's melting. A whole HALF of a Raclette wheel, dripping down, which he'd scrape ("racler"=to scrape) over plates of pearl onions and cornichons. I digress.
I didn't listen to my friends. For some reason I didn't have wine or fruit, and when I went to sleep that night, I had a horrible dream: I was in some torture chamber where my head was being stuffed with cheese. I woke up and told my friends, which they thought was a real hoot: The California Girl couldn't take the Cheese. But I was sick the whole next day. Take my advice: Enjoy the wine!
Recently on the dadamo Forum, the question was posed, "Are there any Beneficials you dislike?" And I responded, "Yes: Sardines".
Well, this afternoon I gave 'em the ol' college try. I took the advice of sardine-lovers on the Forum and made Sardine Patties in the frying pan. Here's how:
First, I was using pre-skinned and -boned sardines that had been tinned in olive oil. I drained off the oil, and mashed the sardines with sautéed onion and garlic, bread crumbs, raw egg, and minced parsley. I formed them into seven little patties and fried them in just a bit of olive oil. After cooking them on both sides, I tasted them and found them pretty vile, so I decided to add some lemon juice to the pan; when that didn't help, I added white wine.
I hate to tell you, folks, but I still didn't like them. I used a lemon mayonnaise as a dipping sauce, too, which over-lemonified the flavor. I managed to force down 2-1/2 of these patties because I was ravenous, but a few cubes of ice-cold watermelon were the necessary chaser here.
I'm reminded of a magazine cartoon a friend had affixed to the organic brown rice bin in her little grocery 20+ years ago: A Japanese family of Mom, Dad, little boy and little girl is seated on pillows, around a very low table laden with dinner. The Mom is sternly telling the children, "Eat your brown rice; think of all those children in the United States having to eat junk food!"
For my younger readers, that's a parody of what the picky eaters of my generation grew up hearing at table: "There are children starving in Europe" (Indeed, the friend of whose store and rice bin I write had been one of those starving children, in Germany. Grew up on potatoes; ate her first banana at age 16..., but I digress). Maybe a starving European child would go in for the sardine cakes I made this afternoon, but, I confess, they'll only be as good as their camouflage, as far as I'm concerned.
I really enjoy fish, as a rule. But there's a certain foulness about the smell and taste, constituting the difference, for me, between the clean aroma of grilling fresh wild-caught salmon and that of the "farmed" stuff which reeks royally, to my palate. Even the house stinks when this latter type of salmon sneaks its way into my pan, as it stinks this evening. People who like sardines also tend, it seems, to like other tinned fish with bones, as well as the skin of most fishes. I decidedly do not.
I might continue to fight the "Listen To Your Body" crowd, who'd state that my aversion to these little fishies is Right For Me, until I'm convinced there's just no way to do this; I have a feeling there might be one. I never liked anchovies per se, but Caesar salad dressing just isn't as good without a hint of their splendid essence informing it..."Avoid" though it be.
Before I entirely throw in the towel on this one, I have an idea or two for additional experiments. Yours are welcome, too.
I. The Tempeh Trick
My A friend, Tomoko, called yesterday, asking how to prepare Tempeh. As a B, I no longer eat Tempeh, and I haven't prepared it in many, many years. But it's a "beneficial" for A and AB secretors, "neutral" for everyone else, except B's and O non-sec's who should avoid it. I was known in my chef days for my Tempeh-based vegetarian specialties in a gourmet setting, so I do remember a few tricks.
First of all: What is Tempeh? It's a fermented soybean cake with Indonesian origins. It's available in assorted flavors and can be found in the refrigerated case at most health food groceries. It's very difficult to digest, usually, if not sufficiently PRE-cooked. And there's The Secret: Starting with pre-cooked Tempeh.
You can steam or boil it first; I personally prefer, however, to fry or even bake it: These yield interesting/pleasing texture as well as flavor, bearing in mind that this is but the PRE-cooking (preceding a later cooking!). Boiling or steaming in different broths imparts flavors, while different oils for frying can also influence the final flavors if desired. Generally, I fry till crispy, or bake till golden.
My customers went crazy for my "scallopine" presentations of Tempeh, in various Italian-style dishes such as Piccata. Piccata entails sautéing your pre-cooked, and prepared, Tempeh in butter and lemon, with the addition of capers. For my Piccata, I began with White Wave brand Lemon-flavored Tempeh, which I sliced into very thin scallops before frying or baking, and then marinating in white wine (garlic optional). A dusting of flour and glazing in beaten egg, after marinating, authenticates the veal/meat-methodology (to the point of almost tricking the senses at serving time!). Then into the sauté pan, saucing, and there y'are. Other sauces include Puttanesca, Francese, etc.: Go wild. Fall in Love...
Asian-styled dishes should also bring out the best texture and most savory flavors you can muster: I was successful with pre-deep-fried tempeh which I then cooked in sweet-&-sour sauces, or pre-baked and then stewed in coconut/chili curries, or herb-broth-boiled and then BBQ-grilled with tangy marinades. Important: Choose your slicing/shapes for maximal accentuation of the following three keys:
1. Adequate pre-cooking (if steaming/boiling, at least 10 mins. needed. Better: 20-30)
2. Adequate flavor-saturation
3. Good Texture.
Dr. D'Adamo includes a few Tempeh recipes in his book, Cook Right 4 Your Type. Other pertinent inspiration-sources for me way-back-when were:
Mary Estella's Natural Foods Cookbook (1985) and Madhur Jaffrey's World of the East Vegetarian Cooking (1981).
Bon Appétit, and Aloha to Tomoko and all you non-B's.
II. Tempi: Camel Rhythms
I simply do not tire of camel talk, and I usually languish for likeminded conversation on the subject, there being no Bedouin campfires in the vicinity. But Sunday (9/17) I indulged in this pastime with other aficionados at the 12th Annual Arab Cultural Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
Not only do some of my Arab and part-Arab buddies love camels, but I even met a non-Arab woman, other than myself, who was wearing a Camel charm on a chain around her neck. Another friend has a Belly Dancing school and was acknowledging the camel's gait, and the experience of camel-riding, as the root of Arabesque musical tempi and dance-moves. She also, by the way, does excellent imitations of camel facial expressions: I'm guessing she's B.
Tender grilled Lamb Kabobs and eggplant salad were yummy. And: The Coffee Guy was there, as usual, with his numerous offerings. The line at his booth is usually very long, because each cup is "made one at a time". He uses various spices at customer request and isn't afraid to brew it brutally dark and strong. It's rare to find coffee outside my own kitchen that is as ultra-ultra-dark and rich, while not burnt or bitter. He also knows to use the fattest cream (cow, not camel: Alas), not to mention the ideal alchemical blending technique -- Ah, the desert beckons.
Sidebar: Didja know that the reason Arab/Turkish/Bedouin coffee was originally spiced (cardamom, clove, sometimes coriander seed) was to disguise the flavors of bad mid-desert well water and/or that of the goatskins containing the camel-transported water?
Understand camels and coffee, and you're an honorary Bedouin.
Aleikum wa Salaam.