Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Life of Pie

Spicy Cole Slaw with a Lime-Cilantro Vinaigrette
Roasted Sweet Potato Fries
Spice Rubbed, Mesqiuite Grilled Flank Steak with Salsa Verde
Corn Bread with Basil and Fresh Corn
Corn on the Cob
Homemade Blueberry Pie with Almond Crumble Topping and Whipped Cream
Homemade Raspberry Sorbet with U-Pick Raspberries from Pond Hill Farms

“What IS this?” she said, standing over the platter, two quivering pieces of meat hanging precariously off of one tong on the oversized serving fork. My stomach rolled into a knot, every molecule of my being wanted to duck behind the counter. I wanted to stick my thumb in my mouth for security and cry.

“What IS THIS?” her voice commanded again as she peered at me over her John Lennon glasses. I could see it, the meat wasn’t cut all the way through. The two paper thin slices bound together by a stringy piece of flesh. Like Siamese twins, they wanted to live separate lives but couldn’t escape each other. An ounce more pressure of the knife and they could’ve been free! It could’ve been perfect. But no, not this time…

Flashback to January 2002, I was cooking at Julia’s Kitchen at Copia in the Napa Valley. Alain Ducasse came in for dinner that night and when he walked into the restaurant, it was as if Jesus Christ himself had walked into your living room; everything came to a screeching halt and all eyes were expectantly on him. Food stopped sizzling in its pan out of reverence. The hoods above the stove fell silent out of humility. Even the water at the dishwasher’s station seemed to fall from the spout noiselessly. In fact, the only sound to be heard where the pearls of sweat forming upon our chef’s brow, rolling down his face and splashing on the rubber mats. Alain and his entourage were seated at the best seats in the house overlooking 150-year-old olive trees and acres of organic gardens. Before we knew it, our chef was bounding down the line, taking steps so long it was as if he was gliding on water. Barking orders, he swooped in and began pillaging the most perfect bits of the kitchen crews prep. Every single table in the restaurant would be put on hold and remain waiting for the next 45 minutes as we focused on our dishes for Alain Ducasse.

I had moved up to the hot appetizers station only a few days earlier, but was now temporarily demoted to prepare Alains salad as the new salad girl stood off to the sidelines and watched, not even permitted to touch his food. I was instructed to put together the best baby salad greens we had in house, the best baby edible flowers, the best baby vegetables and put aside the herbal vinaigrette and have everything ready and waiting for when the chef told me to plate. I stood at rapt attention. “Cristina, plate it”, the chef hollered. Hands trembling, I reached for my vinaigrette and put the poppy-seed vinaigrette on my ever-so-perfect salad greens. “Huh”, I gasped. Deeply. My heart leapt into my throat. “Sh**, shi**, wrong vinaigrette! The chef is going to kill me!” (truth be told, he probably wouldn’t have noticed). I ran to the walk-in to grab more greens, came out and ran smack into the chef. "Cristina, why aren’t you ready?” he bellowed, his eyes piercing me like daggers.

“Chef, I… I… I…”.

“For Christ sake Cristina. When Alain Ducasse comes into the restaurant everything else STOPS”.

“Yes chef. But I… I…”, my knees were quaking.

“I TOLD YOU TO BE READY, WHY AREN’T YOU READY? Give me that”, he said, as he snatched the bowl of greens out of my hands. I followed him back to the salad station, “but chef I… I…”.

“You can’t even make a F****ing salad Cristina? What’s the matter with you?”

“but chef, I… “. WHACK! He slammed the metal bowl on the counter top, “now get this salad out and it had better be perfect”

“Yes chef”

By now my nose, fingertips and toes were beginning to go numb from hyperventilating. The server came and picked up the salad. The whole line was at a standstill awaiting the chefs commands. I retreated to the prep kitchen and sat in a corner and breathing heavily until I almost passed out, a stream of hot tears cascading down my cheeks, “I’ll never be a chef, I can’t even get a salad right. Oh God, LIFE IS TERRIBLE! I’M SUCH A FAILURE!”

“WHAT IS THIS?” she said once again. I was instantly snapped back to the present. I looked her in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t cut it all the way through”. “No Cristina, what is it?”. “Ohhhh that! It’s mesquite grilled, thinly sliced flank steak, rubbed with cumin, smoked paprika, black pepper, chilli powder and oregano. And that’s a salsa verde on the side. A little bit spicy, if you’d like to try.” “Mmmm, sounds dee-lish”, she said as she plunked the two pieces of steak on her plate and reached for two more. “Golly Cristina, what kind of mean people have you been working for that you’d think we’d be upset over one tiny piece of steak not being sliced all the way through?”. Oh thank god, because my life just passed before my eye …

That morning, I’d chased the crows off of the blueberry bushes just outside my bedroom door and was able to pick about a quarts worth. Then I spent the afternoon with two friends at Pond Hill Farm on M-119 (5 miles North of Harbor Springs, MI) picking raspberries. Pound Hill is an amazing little family owned farm offering all organic beef, lamb, pork and chicken as well as beautiful produce. They also allow you to pet and feed the baby animals (before you eat them!). Today was “pick your own” day so my frends and I wandered up and down the rows of raspberry bushes. “One for the container, two for me” was my motto as I ate my way through the patch. Even the two year old I was with had more raspberries in his container than me! What can I say though, raspberry picking is my weakness. I cherished my summers in my grandparent’s backyard in Oregon – picking raspberries and eating half before they even made it back to the kitchen…

It’s berry season here in Northern Michigan and I can’t imagine a better time of year! Mr. X had asked yesterday if I knew how to make a blueberry pie. Do I know how to make a blueberry pie? Of course! Never mind that I’d never done it before… After reading several recipes for blueberry pie, I decided on a hybrid of a few different recipes. At first I was tempted not to cook the blueberries before putting them into the pie, but every recipe called for at least some cooking of the berries. So, I went half way. With three pounds of berries, I cooked about one pound of them in a pot with a cup and a half of water. When they came to a simmer and the berries began to burst, I added a slurry of corn starch, plus some sugar and lemon juice and brought it all to a boil until it was nice and thick. I added some lemon zest and then gently folded the warm berry mixture into my remaining two pounds of fresh berries. I poured this into my prepared pie crust (unbaked – and yes, I made the crust) but rather than a lattice crust I made a topping of roasted, ground almonds, ap flour, sugar and butter (blended in the food processor until it just came together) and crumbled it on. I churned the raspberries into fresh raspberry and chocolate sorbet for a lactose intolerant guest at that nights dinner party.

After dinner, it was practical joke time again. Mr. X has been complaining that my desserts are making his waistline grow. But then, when I go out of town for a few days, I return and he says to me, “oh man, now I have to go back to eating healthy. I was really enjoying eating pizza and hotdogs while you were gone”. He and Mrs. X are both avid bikers and serious athletes (and they’ve gotten me REALLY into cycling as well). Neither of them has an inch of fat on their bodies, nor do they believe in dieting. So, I told Mr. X that he couldn’t have dessert until he got his butt onto his bike and peddled out to Legs Inn and back (about 30 miles away – a beautiful ride, I did it two days ago). So, when it was time for dessert, as generous pieces of warm pie heaped with whipped cream were served to each guest and Mr. X bounced in his chair like a hyper-active third grader awaiting his turn, I sent out a special plate just for him: a bite of pie the size of a pea, with a tiny dollop of whipped cream and one, lone blueberry.

“Better get on your bike and start peddling, boss”…

Wayward Blueberry Pie
Makes filling for two 9-inch pies

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

You will need 2 unbaked 9-inch pie crusts
(I did not supply a recipe for pie crust – do a search on the web, there are plenty out there!).

You will also need a food processor.

3 pounds fresh blueberries (4 to 5 quarts, give or take)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water, plus 3 tablespoons (divided)
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest

Measure 1 pound of blueberries into a medium sauce pan. To this, add 1 cup of water. Bring to a simmer, just until blueberries begin to burst and release their juices. Stir together cornstarch and 3 tablespoons water to make a slurry. While stirring berry mixture, add slurry, sugar and lemon juice and bring to a boil. Cook until thick (about 2 minutes). When berry mixture is thick, remove from heat and gently fold into fresh berries, adding lemon zest. Allow to cool before pouring into prepared pie crust.

12 oz. Almonds, toasted
2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes and chilled (or frozen)
pinch of salt

Place almonds in food processor and process until finely ground, add flour, butter, sugar and salt and process until topping just comes together. Topping should be a bit clumpy and moist, not powdery and dry. If it is too dry and not coming together, add more butter.

Divide filling between two unbaked pie crusts. Crumble almond topping over filling and bake at 375 for 50 minutes, or until filling is bubbling, topping is well browned and crusts are done. Or, as a chef I worked with said to me once when I asked how long I should bake something, “until it’s done Cristina. Until it’s done.”

Friday, July 13, 2007

A beautiful thing...

Herbed Cream Puffs Filled with Smoked Whitefish Mousse

Vegetarian Sushi with Marinated Vegetables

Sesame Crusted Crab Cakes with Wasabi Aioli

Tuna Tartar on a Rice Cracker with Avocado Cream and Caviar

Mini Pita Sandwiches with Curried Chicken Salad and Water Cress

Deviled Eggs Piped into Veggie Cups and Garnished with Spanish White Anchovies, Capers and Cornichon

Cheeze Whiz on Ritz Crackers Garnished with Fresh Chives ala Mr. X

The fundraiser kicked off swimmingly, with donations reaching nearly a half-million dollars for new cancer screening equipment for the local hospital. A string quartet played softly in a corner underneath a floating staircase and next to a Buddha sculpture dating back several thousands of years. Servers bustled around the growing crowd with trays of champagne and filed out of the kitchen with platters of tuna tartar and caviar, crab cakes, smoked whitefish mousse and sushi.

My new boss (the male half) looking stoic and serious in pressed khakis and a gold-buttoned, blue blazer stood talking to a group of other stoic and serious looking men and having what looked like a very serious, deeply engrossing, ever so important conversation. Meanwhile, I prepared a special horsdeouvre platter just for him – Ritz Crackers with Cheese Whiz, on a green glass tray with a garnish of chopped chives and and an arrangement of fresh flowers as the center piece.

“Bring this straight to Mr. X”, I told the server and watched him as he breezed across the room, parting the crowd like Moses parted the Red Sea, making a B-line to my new boss. Mr. X reached blindly over to the tray, then looked at what he had in his hand and then at the tray and burst out laughing, “Cristina, this is perfect!” he shouted from across the room and let out a roar of laughter, grabbing the tray from the server and passing them to everyone around. Soon he was in the kitchen, group of Cheese Whiz mongers in tow and with the empty tray in his hand, “See? It’s empty! Everyone loves Cheese Whiz! Got any more?”. Then he and the others made themselves comfortable at the counter squirting fluorescent yellow, processed cheese "product" onto Ritz crackers and popping them into their mouths… ACK!

As unlikely as it may sound, my new bosses are actually really into food, the “Mrs.” half of the equation was formerly a professional restaurant cook herself! But the Mr. warned me shortly after I started that although he loves good food, he too loves his Cheese Whiz, and his Redi Whip (and the Redi Whip was a whole other joke that lead to there now being 18 cans of Redi-Whip in the damn refrigerator! Where am I supposed to put the REAL food?). I told him that his obsession with spray food was fine as long as I didn’t find him huffing the cans in the back pantry… And ever since then, I have been finding every way possible to tease him about it.

Last week, in celebration of my accepting the position with them, Mr. and Mrs. X took me to lunch at their country club. And as we sat in the shade of the bright yellow umbrellas, overlooking Lake Michigan, eating club sandwiches and drinking Arnold Palmers, I pulled from my purse a can of Cheese Whiz and a package of Ritz Crackers and handed them to my new boss, telling him, “here, in case you aren’t happy with your lunch.”, which sent the table into a fit of hysterics – his family thoroughly appreciated my chiding.

But the fun will not stop here… When that yacht is launched, dear Mr. X will be finding Cheese Whiz in every conceivable place on the yacht; his medicine cabinet, next to his pillow at night, in the Emergency Overboard Bag… And I know they’ll laugh – because that’s just the kind of people they are. They appreciate a good smart-ass, which is great because I can be an excellent one. Like I said, I have THE BEST JOB EVER. I have every kitchen toy conceivable, can cook whatever my heart desires, and my employers are the nicest, most fun employers anyone could have. HA! I’m so lucky! I knew it would all work out…

Ok, soon, I will get back to some real writing… I have had a ton of fun making a real bread starter with wild yeast, making an excellent soft-serve Mexican chocolate ice-cream, cooking for some great parties and shopping at some amazing local farmers markets. Oh, and overseeing the design and build of the yachts galley of course…

More to come. Much, much more to come…

Thursday, July 12, 2007

It's official...

I have the BEST. JOB. EVER.

Before today, people just thought I had the best job ever. But now, I really do....

After eight years of pimping myself out to the gluttonous masses, I have FINALLY landed my dream job. And, I do mean DREAM JOB!

My trial period was supposed to last 2 weeks, but on the 3rd day my soon-to-be new boss came into the kitchen beaming like a ray of sunlight, gave me a big hug and said, “would you like to work for us? We’d just love to have you. We love your cooking, you have great energy, you’re so free spirited. We like having you around. What do you say?”.

And so, over a bottle of Veuve Cliquot, I said, “ok, but I need a month off every 4 months so that I can throw a backpack on and go trekking across the globe”. No problem. “And I need a sous-chef on the yacht”. No problem. “And I need to be paid well”. No problem. “And I need this whole list of kitchen equipment.” No problem. “But I have to go back to New York for a friends wedding”, No problem, the jet will take you. “you make it really hard to say no”.

I’ll be spending the remainder of the summer at their house on Lake Michigan – with my very own vegetable garden and the biggest, most abundant herb garden I’ve ever seen, much less had use of!

And when I ask for anything whether it be a car to get around in, a bike to go exploring, or a day off, it’s always “no problem". And when I wake in the morning, I go swimming in the 30 meter salt-water lap pool. And I can work on my menus sitting in the Japanese gardens outside the kitchen, among the ponds and a stone fountain and with a giant Buddha looking over my shoulder. And there are farms everywhere brimming with sweet Michigan cherry’s (which made a great compote for my lemon cheesecake), baby vegetables the size of my thumb nail, local organic beef, lamb and pork, smoked whitefish from the lake, and so on and so forth. And every person I have met in town that knows my new boss says, “oh, you’re very lucky. That’s a dream job. They're great people to work for.” And every person I’ve met that works for them says, “oh, you’re very lucky. That’s a dream job. They're great people to work for”.

My new bosses are very happy people, very creative and fun. Unassuming, and a bit eccentric, nice as can be, in that mid-western way – which is totally cool (I’ve completely underestimated the mid-west). If I had written a list of what my dream job would be, who the ideal people to work for would be – it could not have been any better than the people I am cooking for now. They know and love food, aren’t dieters, love to talk about food and are always happy to try something new.

In my first week we took a culinary trip around the world. I did a big Indian dinner one night with chicken in a curry-yoghurt sauce, halibut vindaloo, spicy green beans, fresh coriander chutney, fresh mango chutney, na’an bread and pappadamns. The next night I made fresh pasta and pesto with basil from their herb garden and the next night Mexican with a chorizo stuffed pork tenderloin (the chorizo is locally made) with tomatillo sauce and goat cheese stuffed chilli releano’s to start. Even their 3 year old grandson who is just the cutest thing in the world, came bounding down the steps while I cooked Indian food and said, “mmmm, something smells good!”. He also ate my fresh pasta, loaded with vegetables – which made mom proud.

So, life is good. Life is great actually. And when my feet are back on the ground I’ll get back into more food blogging.

Oh yeah, and theirs lots of talk of doing a circumnavigation of the globe once the yacht is launched. But really, the itinerary is just the icing on the cake.

Someone pinch me.

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