Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A watched loaf never rises

A little Chinese man with three teeth, one good eye, a stumpy, wet cigar hanging out of his mouth and a very long fu-man-chu once said to me, “you”, wagging the cigar in my face, “have nooooo patience”, ringlets of smoke circling his head like a halo, “and without patience”, staring me down with one beady, little eye, “you have noooothinggg”. It took 10 years to realize the wisdom in his words and that wisdom never rang more true than on my first day of bread making using my sourdough starter.

I divided my beautifully risen dough into two boules and set them aside for their second rise after which they were to spend the night in the refrigerator to ferment. But I looked at the dough and thought to myself, “how is eight hours in the refrigerator really going to make a difference?”. I’d already cooked and cleaned up after a dinner party that evening, it was well after 1am but my curiosity got the better of me and I sat intently watching the loaves hoping to witness some excitement as the dough proofed for the second time. I preheated the oven and after an uneventful second proofing, I baked off one of the boules.

My boules would make even Pam Anderson envious...

The boule puffed up like a gargantuan, lopsided, one-pound popover. I pulled it from oven and naively admired my handy work, how beautifully it had puffed, I thought to myself! Then, I pulled out my knife to cut into it and what I got was a thick, dense and chewy mass of rosemary scented playdough encased in a crispy brown crust. I poked at it with one finger, which was swallowed instantly by the doughy mass. I pulled out a chunk of dough from the center and squished it between my thumb and forfinger. No little air bubbles showing signs of fermentation, no tender crumb structure. Just a blob. Hopeless, tomorrow should be telling, I thought to myself and put the second boule in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning I jumped out of bed and scurried to the kitchen, pajama’s and all. I turned on the oven and pulled the loaf from the fridge. Two hours, I looked at the clock. Two hours and I can bake it off.

Soon, the aroma of fresh baked bread was once again filling the house, only this time done properly. “I can never wait until it cools, can you?”, Mrs. X said to me as the dark golden loaf emerged from the oven. It had risen slightly, but it was a moderate rise, unlike the night before, and the loaf had risen even all the way around. Mrs. X and I hovered over the rosemary and olive oil boule admiringly. Pulling out my bread knife I placed it directly over the crusty tick-tack-toe symbol that I had carved into the dough with a razor blade before baking. The knife sliced through the crust with a loud and respectable crunch. A steamy bouquet of rosemary and sourdough goodness rose like a cloud from the cut loaf. I sliced two big wedges.

“I hope Heaven is just like this” Mrs. X said, as crumbs clung lazily to the corners of her mouth, her fingers dusted in hazelnut-colored flour. “This is just sinful”, she said as she took another bite, a bit of crust falling to the counter (God bless those who do not avoid carbs!). The crust was perfectly golden and crunchy, the interior chewy but tender, the tang of the sourdough really showed through and the rosemary just a subtle reminder. The crust crackled as we chewed and I had to halt my chewing to hear what my boss said next. “Do you think we should put anything on it, or would that just be wrong?”. But, I have yet to find anything that a drizzle of a good Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and a sprinkle of Maldon Sea Salt wouldn’t vastly improve. Liberally, we drenched our hot, fresh bread in Castella’s Olive Oil and sprinkled it with the salt. Better than sex (well, perhaps not literally). Within minutes we had devoured almost half of the loaf. Actually, it was I who devoured almost half of the loaf and had to stop and walk out of the kitchen before I completely embarrassed myself by eating the whole entire thing. Mrs. X showed perfect self-control, although that loaf did seem to shrink rather rapidly while I was out grocery shopping…

The hangover from my year of failed bread making and embarrassment over a decade of commercial yeast vanished. I am a convert. I was totally amazed that in the hours of the first proof my dough did actually doubled in volume just like I had read and without the use of any commercial yeast. I don’t think I will ever look at bread the same again, and I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it this out! I think even for the ambitious home cook, making a sourdough starter is simple and forgiving. All it requires is flour, water and a little bit of patience (and Nancy Silverton’s Breads From The La Brea Bakery – if I haven’t emphasized this enough).

Mrs. X and I reconstituted the dried sourdough starter and although I left before having the chance to see how it turned out, the reports from the field are nothing but positive. She says that it has awoken and become a frothing, yeasty, sourdough monster. Excellent! Along with some of the dried sourdough starter, I also smuggled back some fresh starter in a container in my luggage. It exploded in my suitcase but fortunately I had it contained also in several Ziploc bags in case of such a disaster. I was able to salvage it, thankfully, and again referring to the Silverton bible I am now making a rye starter (from the sourdough starter). In just a few days I should be able to make my first multigrain loaf and a rye loaf.

Patience is definitely a virtue.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Sourdough Starter Mafia

I arrived back to Michigan to find my sourdough starter resting safe and sound in the refrigerator where I’d left her. I removed her from the fridge and let her come up to room temperature for a few hours and then began the feeding process. She bubbled up wonderfully after her first feeding upon my return – a very good sign.“Breads for the La Brea Bakery” has become my bible. Although the book recommends feeding the starter three times a day, I’m only feeding her two times a day, really more of a time saver than anything and most of my bread-guru friends seem to agree that this should be just fine. She smells sour and yeasty and delicious and I had to stick a finger in for a taste. Raw sourdough starter certainly doesn’t have the same appeal that raw cookie dough does, but I'm definitely on to something good…

After three days of feeding I’m feeling pretty anxious and am just about to begin my first loaf of bread! Drum roll please! I’ve never made bread from my very own sourdough starter – I’m so excited! My boss has requested the rosemary olive-oil bread on page 82. The recipe makes two loaves and they are supposed to be refrigerated overnight to ferment. But, considering that I have absolutely no patience what so ever and I need and require immediate gratification NOW – I’m going to put one loaf in the fridge to ferment overnight and one loaf on the counter to proof and bake later this evening. I’m also kind of a skeptic as to how much fermentation will really occur overnight in the fridge. And, with a rosemary olive oil loaf – will the fermentation even be noticeable? We’ll soon find out.

I leave Monday to head back to California for an extended trip to take care of some personal biz and visit the family. I’m sad at having to leave my infant sourdough starter. She’s only just a baby! My god, how do people ever leave their children alone? Oh right, sourdough starters don’t cry or have dirty nappies…

I want to take my starter with me, however that wasn’t a good enough argument to score me a ride on my boss’s private jet. Where’s the love? I knew I should’ve chopped a few onions and worked up some tears before I asked. With all these absurd rules for what you can and cannot take on flights these days I’m going to have to start a small mafia of sourdough starter mules. I figure I’ll recruit some young kids from the local culinary academy to swallow condoms filled with the sourdough starter, send them out to the four corners of the globe and then reclaim the starter when we get there on the yacht. A better and slightly more hygienic solution that Nancy Silverton has recommended in her bread bible is to dry out the sourdough starter on a cookie sheet and then revive it with warm water and flour for three days – then it should be ready to use. But will it still have that nice sour taste? I currently have a sheet pan with about 1 1/2 cups of starter drying on it. I’ll know next week if it works!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Better than Christmas!

Into the reliably inclement weather we made our way toward an enormous hangar, easily big enough to house a 747. There were three other smaller hangars but this largest one was built only a few years ago to house another mega yacht that beat us in size by a mere 60 feet.

As alluring as the aroma of a fresh-from-the-oven pizza pie, wafting out onto the streets of New York, the scent of apoxy beckoned us forth. Inside the hangar the cacophony of drilling, hammering, sawing and sanding played like an ode to the feat of engineering that towered above us.

The yacht stands an incredible five stories tall. Three stories up, on the starboard side, spanning the length of the hangar is a platform with a workshop and tool shop and saws and drills in every conceivable shape and size and a bridge reaching to the upper levels of the yacht.

Just behind our 156-foot, 350 ton toy stood a little 124-foot yacht. So cute, like a little sister…

We made our way up the steep ramp leading to the swim platform and the aft deck. The yacht is cavernous with no flooring or walls in place yet.

Workers hustled about nailing and screwing and gluing and wiring. “Be careful, those wires are live”, a workman said as I committed myself to seven years bad luck by passing beneath his ladder en route to the galley.

The walk-in refrigerator is in place, almost as big as our crew quarters. Great, now I know where I can hide out when I’m in need of some privacy!
(that's me, kickin' it in the walk-in)

A peak into my galley

Across from the walk-in stands two industrial freezers and the hood is installed above where my 5-burner induction stove and warming drawers will be.

The floor of the galley is laid with panels that mark where every piece of major equipment will be plus counters, cabinets and workspaces.

As I stood in awe envisioning how the new galley will look, in walked Mr. Precious. We followed the plans laid out in panels as Mr. Precious gave me a walk through, “...and right here we’ll have a prep area but we’re not sure yet what is going on with the lower cabinets. I’m thinking that might be a good space to turn into a baking station. There will be racks in the walk-in and freezers to put sheet pans, three more freezers/fridges downstairs that are reversible to be either freezers or fridges depending on what you need, and there will also be three chest freezers aft. You’ll have refrigerated drawers below your workstation. We’ve put in the steam oven you requested, moved the sink and added a shelf above the center island. We’ve also taken out those four heat lamps that you didn’t like above the shelf and instead we’ll put in a black light strip that will keep the food warm without throwing a ton of heat onto your prep area”. “This area here will be your pantry and if you want to pick out containers for your spices we’ll design around them so you have a nice, orderly way of storing them”.

“You also need to start thinking about your drawers and how you want them divided and organized and how you want to bin out the forward bilge area for your back stock. We’ll get some shelving samples and design them around the bins you decide on, same with the shelves for the walk-in”.

Everything seems so tangible and I could envision the galley perfectly. There will even be a lip designed into my galley windows for planter boxes so that I can have a little herb garden. Mr. Precious has left no stone unturned. Precious indeed… My mind is spinning and I have already started making lists of ‘To Do’ items, equipment lists and organizational ideas.

The walk-in refrigerator is, by far, going to be the biggest lifesaver, as enough refrigeration seems to the one thing lacking on nearly every yacht that I have worked on. There are always loads of freezer space, but never enough refrigeration and when you are in the middle of the ocean with no inhabitable land in sight, turning out 18 breakfasts, lunches and dinners a day – refrigeration is crucial. And, I don’t have to wiggle like a fish down some crazy hatch to get to it. The masses of upright freezer space is also going to be a tremendous time and back saver, as I won’t have to bend over unpacking and re-packing the freezer just to find a steak.

A few more shots:

This is the mold that is used to cast the hull of a mega-yacht! Each side rolls down flat so the workers can inlay it with fiberglass. It is then rolled back up to a standing position, filled with a resin and fused together with the other half!

And here is the upper deck of the yacht. It was built upside down in a giant framed box then flipped over for sanding, painting, etc. It will be craned on top of the yacht in a few weeks!

This is the wood shop where all of the cabinetry and woodwork is done. I know a few carpenters who'd love to get into here!

This is what she'll look like when she's all done!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Twas the Night Before Christmas

Posh (adjective): Meaning elegant, fashionable, and expensive.

“a swish pastry shop on the Rue du Bac"- Julia Child

A popular theory holds that the word is derived from the initials of “Port Out, Starboard Home,” the cooler, and thus more expensive, side of ships traveling between England and India in the mid-19th century. The acronym POSH was supposedly stamped on the tickets of first-class passengers traveling on that side of ships owned by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company.


As the jet flew over the quilted landscape of farmland, deserts, mountains and valleys we turned our soft, leather, sofa-like seats to face each other and gathered around the highly varnished cherry wood table. The interior designer (hereunto referred to as “Mr. Precious”, because of his stunning good looks, smart fashion sense, and utterly impeccable taste…), laid out sketches for custom made crew uniforms, fabric samples, logo samples, plans for the yachts website and played a DVD on his ultra-high-tech, miniature laptop of an “art concept” for the interior of the yacht (photos of paintings, sculptures, etc. to choose from to decorate each room). Never could I have imagined how much detail is involved as they discussed in length the minutia of logos, colors, look-and-feel of everything from the stitching on the t-shirts to invitations and ideas for the launch party. The launch party being a grand event at the ship yard, spread over the course of a weekend, with friends and family flown in from out of town to see the yacht as it is lowered into the water for the first time, and as a thank you to the hundreds of workers, designers and engineers that have spent almost three years turning a vision into reality (and thank god, I won’t have to cater it!). My head was spinning. Even if I had unstinted amounts of disposable income, combing over the details of such an enormous project would send me to a white padded room, in something that resembled a chefs jacket but with excessively long sleeves that conveniently buckle behind the back. But then, that’s why I’m the chef – my attention span and mind for details really only lasts for as long as it takes to get something from the stove to the plate (and never mind that I'm a few bucks short).

After a fuel stop in Montana, the plane arrived in Washington. We flew over Pugets Sound. Cargo ships moved in and out of the Sound, foamy white trails snaked their path across the smooth-as-glass, deep green waters. We rolled into an uneventful landing on the Boeing landing strip, checked into our quaint little luxury hotel and made a plan to meet for an early breakfast the next morning before heading to the shipyard. Like ‘The Night Before Christmas’, I lay in bed while visions of Mega-Yachts danced in my head. Seconds felt like minutes, minutes felt like hours and morning could not come fast enough…

After breakfast in the hotel lobby we departed for the shipyard. Starbucks coffee shops blighted the landscape like a bad case chicken pox on a three-year-old. We arrived at the shipyard and were greeted by a team of designers, engineers and executives. In the conference room a two-foot miniature of the yacht sat on the table next to of a stack of giant AutoCAD drawings of foredecks, aft decks, the sky lounge, guest quarters, the galley, etc. along with an agenda of topics to be discussed in the meeting with Mr. and Mrs. X.

I was filled with anticipation, but thought it prudent not to let my A.D.D. get the best of me as the greetings and hand shaking seamed to stretch on and on. Fortunately, Mrs. X was filled with even more anticipation and I breathed a sigh of relief when she turned to me and said, “god, I just want to see the boat!” and a moment later Mr. X said, “why don’t we go see the yacht first and the have the meeting afterward?”. Excellent idea.

More to come…

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Y Tu Mamma Tambien

Day 10:

My starter was still separated, flour on the bottom and a yellow, unappetizing liquid floated on top. The bag of grapes looked disgusting and unappetizing. Stems poked out of the cheesecloth and an orange-ish slime grew on top. If there was any doubt as to whether this rank, liquidy sludge was alive though all one had to do was look closely and see the bubbles that danced up from the bottom of the container. The starter, despite its potentially toxic look, smelled sour, good sour, intriguing sour...

Today is a big day. Today is the day to remove that grotesque, rotting bag of grapes and put the starter on a regular feeding schedule. Unfortunately, since I’m leaving town for a few days – I can’t jump into the feeding schedule, which is supposed to be 3 times a day for 5 days in order to strengthen the starter. I thought about hiring a baby sitter to do this – but I’m much too paranoid. I’ve put so much into this sourdough starter, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night knowing that someone else was responsible for it’s care and well-being. So, after consulting a few bread making gurus – we decided that it should be ok to begin feeding the starter and then refrigerate it for the duration of my trip. I’ll resume the feeding schedule when I return – and then, it’s bread-making time!

Following the instructions in Nancy Silverton’s book, I removed the bag of grapes. There were a lot of seeds and grape skins that had come loose from the cheesecloth bag and were floating on top of the starter, but after removing the bag of grapes (and giving it a good squeeze into the starter), I gave the starter a stir and poured off a large portion of it (otherwise, with the feeding, I would have truck loads) and ran the remainder that I’ll be working with through a strainer. It looks 100 times more appetizing now that it’s been cleaned up.

The starter is the color of my morning Soy Chai Latte, creamy-pail-beige-ish for you non-soy-chai-latte drinkers. The texture after I mixed it was that of a thin custard, like crème anglaise – it would nappant a spoon.

I fed the little bugger – it’s weight in flour and warm water – and it instantly came to life. Little bubbles forming as the yeast gobbled up its food. I fed it once again this evening and then loosely covered it and stuck it in the fridge where it will sleep until Wednesday.

I am so excited to make some bread. Just a few days away! I can’t wait!!!

C.S.P. - Culinary Sensory Perception

Beef Tenderloin Hamburgers with Blue D’Avergne Cheese
Onion Marmalade and Homemade Ketchup

Local Corn on the Cob, Slathered in Butter

Potato Salad with Celery, Scallions, Parsley and Balsamic-Dijon Dressing

C.S.P – Culinary Sensory Perception. That is when my boss is craving something and it just happens to be what I am cooking… My cell phone rang as I was driving down the road to the cottage on the lake, “Hi Cookie!” my boss hollered, her vibrant personality and positive energy spilling forth through the phone line. “Can we have hamburgers tonight?”, she pleaded, as if I had a choice in the matter. But as luck would have it, that was exactly what I was planning on making. “This is getting kind of freaky boss, we’re reading each others minds again”… Cookie, that is what my bosses have nicknamed me. Mr. X used to be in the rodeo and apparently rodeo cooks are nicknamed ‘cookies’. So, Mr. and Mrs. X both started calling me that one day, and it just sort of stuck.

It happened yesterday as well, this CSP thing. I was standing at the counter in the kitchen peeling 10 lbs. of blanched tomatoes and adding them to the ever-expanding bag of tomatoes I’d been picking from the garden over the course of the week. I figured that when I had about 20 lbs. I would make a giant pot of tomato sauce and portion and freeze it in Ziploc bags. I was also toying with the idea of making ketchup. “Hey Cookie, do you know how to make ketchup?”, my boss said just as I was thinking it. “Well, as a matter-of-fact boss, I do and I was just thinking…”, “Great, can you make us some?”. But of course… And, since hamburgers are really only a vehicle for ketchup, then what better food to go with America’s favorite condiment?

I pulled down the largest pot that I had in the kitchen, knowing the tomatoes would sputter and splatter as they fought the good fight. I filled the pot with the tomatoes and added the vinegar, spices and sugar, brought it to a hard boil and let it boil away for hours and hours. The house was filled with the pungent scent of vinegar and when I left the house to make a market run and returned again and hour later – the spicy, piquant aroma had reached out the front door and consumed the neighborhood. I stood on the sidewalk and took a deep breath, “I hope the neighbors are breathing this in and wondering what smells so good at the X’s house”, I thought to myself.

While my 20 lbs. of tomatoes sat on the stove reducing away, I got a bug in my bonnet to use up all the onions sitting in the bin in the pantry. I had so many different varieties; red ones, white ones, yellow ones, shallots – I decided to use them all just so that I could replenish my supply. I stood at the counter peeling and chopping the onions, muddled drops of tears and mascara leaving black streaks down my cheeks like an airport runway. My eyes turned puffy and red. Now would be a good time to get my bosses sympathy and ask for a raise, I thought to myself. But no, I suppose two months on the job is a little bit too soon. I hate wasting good tears. I filled up a pot with the onions and added a healthy pour of cabernet sauvignon, brown sugar and balsamic vinegar, turned on the burner and then left them alone for a good, long time.

The nice thing about the butchers here in this Rockewellian town is that whenever I buy a beef tenderloin, they trim it up and grind the trim for hamburgers for me – without even having to ask! Find me one butcher in Manhattan that will do that for you? I’ve had a few tenderloins this summer and had a store of about 5 lbs. of ground tenderloin in the freezer and what better to make burgers with for my homemade ketchup? So, I weighed them out into half-pound balls and padded them down into patties.

Next, the grill: every client I have ever cooked for up until this summer has always had a gas grill. Ah, but one more of the many cosmic signs that my bosses and I were meant to be is that they have a charcoal grill and aren’t afraid to use it. Personally, I don’t find that much difference between a gas grill and a grill pan on the stove. When I grill, I want charcoal! And when I want charcoal, I want hardwood charcoal – not those pre-fab, e-z-lite briquettes of chemicals and who-knows-what. Charcoal briquettes are kind of like sliced bread – convenient, over-rated and flavourless. Hardwood charcoal burns really hot, much hotter than briquettes, and it imparts so much more flavor. So, I piled my charcoal into a mountainous pyramid and set it ablaze…

After spreading the embers, I dropped my patties in a circle around the grill so they could feed off of the heat emanating from the center without being directly on top of it. They sizzled away, forming a perfect redish-brown crust. Even I was impressed at my own grill job. The charcoal grill has taken some getting used to, but I’ve had all summer to practice – proper coal quantities, coal placement vs. food placement, etc. – but all that work was finally paying off. When my burgers were just about finished, I mounded them with slices of Blue D’Auvergne – one of my favorite blue cheeses; rich and creamy with a pleasant bite. I served the burgers atop fresh whole-wheat rolls from the local bread maker, scooped on my caramelized, sticky onion marmalade and a healthy dollop of homemade ketchup. Now, that is what a hamburger is all about.

My bosses asked me to join them and their family for dinner tonight, and usually I would decline because I have this “thing” about eating hamburgers I’ve prepared myself. Hamburgers are the food of kicking back and relaxing. I like to sit in a pub, drink a Hefferweisen and be waited upon while I eat my hamburger - then I know I’m relaxing and not working. But tonight I obliged and sat with the family – and boy, I wouldn’t have missed it for the whole, entire world. My bosses said that my hamburger was better than their favorite hamburger from the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. “I think this is one of the best, Cookie”, Mr. X said to me, a half eaten burger in his hand, and a thick blob of ketchup and onion daringly close to sliding down his hand. I realize it’s a pretty bold statement to make, but I had to agree. The tenderloin, the proper grilling, the blue cheese, the onion marmalade, the homemade ketchup, the fresh buns – it was a hamburger masterpiece. And, like my new bosses and new job, a match made in heaven. The 2003 L’Aventure Syrah was a welcome change from my usual beer-n-burger pairing. I would definitely sit and enjoy my own hamburgers again, as long as they taste exactly like this.

I have to wake up early tomorrow and put together some sandwiches and snacks for our flight to Seattle to see the yacht. Apparently they don’t have a meal service on the private jet. What kind of cut-rate airline is this anyway?

I’ll be flying out with the bosses and the interior designer. Rumor has it that the walls and the walk-in fridge is in in the galley. The floors are down and lined with the location of all the shelving, cabinetry and appliances awaiting my inspection and approval…

Someone pinch me, I think I’m dreaming…

Simple Homemade Ketchup

(Make the ketchup in the largest pot possible so there is plenty of room for the tomatoes to splatter. And, be cautious when stirring while the tomatoes thicken – molten blobs of tomatoes splattering on your arms are not fun! But any burn you may earn is worth it…)

8 Quarts peeled tomatoes (about 20 lbs)
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons dry mustard
1 tablespoon ground allspice
2 cups cider vinegar
3 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Put all ingredients in a large stock pot. Allow to boil until reduced by half. Lower heat and stirring often to avoid burning, reduce by 1/4 or until very, very thick. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Puree in blender. Adjust seasoning if necessary.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Just a simple dinner

Minted English Pea Soup with Herbed Crab Salad
Butternut Lasagna with Ceasar Salad
Homemade Cinnamon-Sugar Doughnuts and Frozen Hot Chocolate

It was just a simple dinner tonight.

The English Peas for the soup came from a great little farm nearby called Bluff Gardens. Everything in Bluff Gardens is miniature – the potatoes are sorted by size and color; the smallest are the size of your pinky nail and the largest the size of a golf ball. Haricot verts are the slightly wider than a toothpick and about as long, paddy pans are the size of your thumb nail along with miniature zucchini’s, carrots, beets, onions and cucumbers. Only two small tables make up the produce selection, but I suppose you don’t need so much space when everything is so tiny! In keeping with everything in Bluff Gardens being dainty and petite, so are the two cutest little old ladies that work behind the counter. With sweaters on over their aprons and warmth emanating from their eyes, they always greet the shoppers with a warm hello and are especially careful when weighing, measuring or packing up the goods.

I bought several pounds of English Peas and spent my free time over the passed two days shelling them. They were as sweet as sugar. I blanched them quickly so that they would keep their color and then sweated out onions and garlic, added white wine and chicken stock and the peas, only letting the peas cook for another minute or two so that they would keep their almost fluorescent green hue. Then, I pureed them, seasoned the soup and added finely chopped mint and chives.

I made the dough for the lasagna from scratch as I’ve been obsessed with pasta making ever since my friend, Diana, gave me a pasta machine last summer. I love kneading the dough and feeling it as it goes from a lumpy, sticky mass to soft and supple just from the work of my hands. I love rolling it out into long, smooth and fragile sheets. But mostly, I love eating the finished product because even if it isn’t perfect, it’s still 100 times better than the boxed stuff from the grocery store.

The butternut squash and ridicchio for the lasagna (and the baby romaine for the salad) all came from Bill’s Farm Stand in Petoskey. Another amazing farmers market. I’m so spoiled by ingredients – I don’t know what I’m going to do when I have to get back on the yacht and deal with provisioners and produce that has been sitting in a shipping container for two weeks, looks beautiful but tastes like crap. I had better appreciate this while it lasts!

The ricotta for the lasagna was also homemade. The milk, of course, is locally produced from the Shetler Family Dairy – and it just makes the most beautiful ricotta. Ricotta is the easiest thing in the world to make in fact and I've made it quite a few times since discovering how great the local milk tastes! I combined a 1/2 gallon of full-fat milk with 2 cups of buttermilk. Brought it to 180 degrees (farenheit), at which point it began to curdle. Turned off the heat, let it sit for about 20 minutes and strained it through cheese cloth. About an hours worth of work from start to finish and it yielded 13 oz. of fresh ricotta. But I have to warn you, the ricotta is so good, you may just want to drizzle it with some honey, maybe a few toasted almonds and some dried apricots and eat it as is… My friend, Greg, and I got talking and he said that he makes ricotta using lemon juice instead of buttermilk. So, I tried both methods and I definitely prefer using buttermilk. The lemon juice gave the ricotta a distinctly lemony flavor which is fine if you want that, but the buttermilk made for softer curds and the ricotta just tasted like the great milk that it was made from.

The tomato sauce came from our own gardens as I’m now getting about 5 lbs. a day of fresh tomatoes from the yard! I blanched and peeled them all and made a fresh sauce with just white onions, garlic, a touch of balsamic vinegar (how can I resist) and fresh basil.

The recipe for the lasagna actually came from Mrs. X! One of the biggest challenges of being a private chef is coming up with new menus and recipes on a daily basis, but one of the (many) benefits to having a boss that knows and loves food is she comes up with great ideas as well – and I’m more than happy to oblige…

Frozen hot chocolate – inspiration compliments of Serendipity in New York City and I found Mirabelle’s frozen hot chocolate at Symon’s in Petosky – a labyrinth of shelves paying homage to gourmet ingredients and a wine cellar to boot. Mirabelle’s is a chocolatier on Broome St. in NYC where I have blown many a hard-earned pay check indulging in my chocolate fantasies.

Like I said, just a simple dinner.

Butternut Squash Lasagna

1 butternut squash, about 3 lbs. peeled and sliced about 1/4 inch thick
1 lb. Ridicchio, shredded
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 lbs. tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. Balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. Sugar (or to taste)
1 cup ricotta cheese
2 eggs
2 cups crème fraiche
2 cups Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
1 lb. Fresh Lasagna noodles (uncooked)
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Lay squash slices on baking sheets lined with a Silpat or parchment paper. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and bake in 375 F. oven until soft.

Heat olive oil in large sauté pan and sauté onions and garlic until soft, being cautious not to get any color on them. Add tomatoes and simmer until slightly thickened. Add basil, balsamic, sugar (if necessary) and season with salt and pepper.

In a mixing bowl, combine ricotta, crème fraiche, eggs and half of ground parmesan. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cover bottom of large pyrex or stoneware baking dish with half of the tomato sauce. Add a layer of noodles, a layer of butternuts squash (using half the squash) and half of the ridicchio and all of the cheese mixture. Then, add another layer of lasagna noodles, the remainder of the squash, remainder of the redicchio and top it with the remainder of the tomato sauce.

Cover with aluminium foil and bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and add the remainder of the parmesan and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, uncovered. Allow to stand for 10 minutes before serving…

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What To Expect When You're Expecting...

Day 4:

My sourdough culture - a frothing, bubbling mass with a delectable yeasty smell. A big day today, Momma gets fed for the first time!

Following Nancy Silverton's advice in "Breads for the La Brea Bakery", I add warm water and flour and stick my (washed) hands into the slimey mixture feeling the bubbles around my hands and the warmth from the fermentation., swishing the cheese cloth sack of grapes around the mixture.

My culture is officially a "mother" and can be used to make bread. But, following the advice of Silverton, I'm going to let her sour for 9 more days and then put my momma on a strict feeding schedule...

Day 5:

My momma has seperated with a yellowy liquid floating on top. The cheese cloth sack of grapes has floated to the top. She still smells delectably sour and I'm amazed the grapes haven't gotten all funky and moldy! But the grape seeds have worked their way through the cheese cloth. I wonder how that's going to work when I start making bread? Hmmmm....

Notes from a Bonafide Food Snob

“Better is a meal of herbs where love is, than a fatted ox and hatred therewith.”
Proverbs 15:17

Tomato Bruschetta with Garlic, Basil and Villa Manodori Aged Balsamic Vinegar
Toasted Garlic Rubbed Peasant Bread

Farro with Chanterelle Mushrooms, English Peas
Oven Roasted Tomatoes and Basil Pesto

Salad of Just Picked Haricot Verts, Baby Paddy Pan Squash,
Redicchio, Homemade Herbed Ricotta Cheese and Lemon-Herb Vinaigrette

Pork Saltambocca – Pork Tenderloin Medalions Pounded Thin
Wrapped with Proscutto and Fresh Sage Leaves with a White Wine Sauce

Plate of Local Michigan Fruits including Musk Melon, Peaches,
Nectarines, Blue and Black Berries

Selection of Italian Cookies and Chocolates:
Pignoli Cookies, Florentines and Mocha Biscotti
Dark Chocolate and Orange Flower Truffles

Perhaps it’s the vibe from all my comrades working the Mediterranean season along the Italian Riviera that inspired me, or perhaps just the amazing selection of fresh produce as we hit peak season here in Northern Michigan.

We have 10 tomato plants in the garden and every day for the past week I have been out picking tomatoes in a race against the deer! Cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, grape tomatoes and yellow tomatoes (we’ll have to do some heirlooms next year)… Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes! I’ve made fresh tomato sauce and panzanella salad and yesterday I was inspired to make my own oven-dried tomatoes. Two full trays of tomatoes and over 10 hours in the dehydrator and they still weren’t completely dry – but were they ever delicious! But what the fresh tomatoes were really screaming for was Bruschetta. I diced the ripest of the bunch and made a garlic paste with fresh, organic garlic from the local farm stand (fresh garlic makes all the difference in the world – completely devoid of the harsh and astringent quality of the dried out stuff on the grocery store shelves, it is instead warm and strong and well rounded). I tossed the tomatoes and garlic with Maldon Sea Salt, fresh ground pepper, Villa Manodori Balsamic Vinegar and Castella’s Olive Oil (from Provence, and one of my favorite olive oils). Villa Manodori is a small production Balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy and has been one of my favorite pantry items for years now. It’s pricey, but still well under what other authentic Balsamic will run and well worth the splurge as nothing can quite compare to a fresh picked, juicy, red tomato still warm from the sun, sprinkled with the big, crunchy, flaky crystals of Maldon Sea Salt, a drizzle of a fruity olive oil and this thick, perfectly sweet and perfectly acidic vinegar. When I first got turned on to good Balsamic and coughed up $50 for an 8 oz. bottles (some bottles can cost over $200, for 4 oz,), I was plagued with guilt, for about 5 minutes. I would drizzle it modestly over my salads or on a piece of fish, or over fresh, in-season strawberries with vanilla ice-cream. But nobody can accuse me of being modest now. I’m a bonafide Balsamic snob. I wouldn’t be caught dead reaching for a bottle of grocery store balsamic glazes, cheap balsamic that’s been boiled down with sugar and corn syrup to a thick sludge, that have popped up in gourmet stores nationwide in the past few years, or, heaven forbid, cook down a bottle of that tart, thin, insidious swill being passed off in your grocery store as Balsamic. Believe me, if a 10 oz. bottle costs $4.99, it ain’t real balsamic.

I served the bruschetta with toasted peasant bread that I rubbed with a garlic clove – a step definitely worth the effort as even just a quick rub with the clove imparts a nice, garlicky bite to the bread without it being over-bearing.

Faro is another ingredient that I quite enjoy working with. In boring English, you’ll find it in the health food store bulk bin as “spelt”. In the gourmet food stores you’ll find it sold by an Italian distributor and labled “Faro”, which sounds so much more gourmet and therefore retails for twice as much money. Either way you buy yours, soak it over night before you cook it. Faro has a wonderful nutty quality to it, it is very toothsome and the grain almost bursts in your mouth as you chew. If you prefer, it can be cooked just like risotto; slowly stirred to release the starches and then finished with parmesan cheese. It is a great replacement for Arborio rice for people who are trying to be more health conscious (faro is a whole grain and is high in fiber, b-12, complex carbs and protein and can also be eaten by people that are sensitive to glutens or have wheat allergies). I simmered my faro in white wine and chicken stock, and then drained it, let it cool and tossed it with fresh pesto (basil from the garden, of course. Pine nuts and lots of olive oil, but no parmesan cheese), sautéed chanterelle mushrooms and fresh English peas. The inspiration for this dish actually came from The Four Seasons restaurant – a beacon to the power lunching masses in Midtown Manhattan. The Four Seasons used to offer a $25 lunch which including a half-dozen oysters and their faro of the day – a treat my friend Camille and I have turned into religion every time I visit New York City, although sadly and much to our chagrin, it was recently discontinued (though our tradition lives on). I tried to ask Julian how he could let the chef get rid of my favorite lunch, but he was too busy on his cell phone trying to marry me off to one of his Lebanese friends in Los Angeles. Next time. I’ll get to the bottom of this…

But I digress, where was I going with this?

The “Just Picked” haricot verts came from my friend Tammy’s garden. She brought them as a gift when she came to serve for the dinner party. They were the most beautiful, deep green beans I have ever seen! She handed them to me and said, “I’m sure you have the menu planned already, but…”. But nothing, how could I not serve them? Raw, they were perfectly sweet and crisp. I almost wanted to serve them that way, but some peoples appreciation of food can only go so far – and so I decided on just a quick blanch; tender and crisp and bright green – certainly “raw” by English standards, and down right blasphemous by French...

The inspiration for the Pork Saltambocca came from my favorite restaurant Al Di La in Park Slope, Brooklyn and also the abundance of fresh sage growing in the herb garden.

And lastly, dessert. Well, one of the things that I love about what I do is the immediate gratification – people walking into the kitchen and saying, “oh, that was so good”, etc., etc. But it pains me when people rub their bellies and say, “I’m getting fat because of you, Cristina”. And so, instead of a plated dessert I put out a large fruit platter loaded with everything the season here has to offer; ripe local musk melon, local berries, local peaches and apricots along with homemade orange-flower dark chocolate truffles rolled in cocoa powder, and homemade Italian cookies including mocha biscotti, pignoli nut cookies and almond Florentines.

Everyone seemed to linger over this meal, conversation flowed around the table and people helped themselves to more food. Dessert let everyone linger more and take their time – which was exactly the desired effect. I feel like Tita in “Like Water for Chocolate”, only my food doesn’t make people cry. At least not out of sadness…

Friday, August 10, 2007

Todo Sobre Mi Madre...

A Greek saying states that only women who have washed their eyes with tears can see clearly. This saying does not hold true for Cristina. The night her bread starter died, Cristina cried until her eyes ran completely dry. Far from seeing clearly, her bread making becomes mixed up in darkness.

That same night, while trying to revive her starter, she reads the last lines written in a food journal that she always keeps by her side. "This morning I looked through my cupboards until I found a bag of white bread. The consistency and flavor of tissue paper. The remaining slice, exactly 1/4 inch thick, and cut in half. My fate, I suppose. I have the impression that my life is missing that same half. I want to make my own bread. I don’t care what the grocery store offers, or who how long it takes. No one can take that right away from me."

Cristina never told anyone about her difficulties with bread starters. For years she used freeze-dried commercial yeast from the grocery store (gasp!). She was a freelancer, she reasoned. It was impractical to take her starter wherever she went. In memory of two failed bread starters that began with commercial yeast, Cristina threw caution to the wind and decided to start from scratch.

Organic Grapes.

The quest to make the perfect sourdough starter cannot be simple, or can it?

Day 1:
Cristina finds a bag of Organic Grapes at the grocery store. Feeling inspired she wraps them in cheesecloth, mixes up a bucket of bread flour and luke warm water and gentle crushes the parcel of grapes over the flour mixture. She swishes the grapes through the mixture, then secures the lid and leaves it in the darkness. Alone.

Day 2:
The mixture begins to separate into a thick, starchy mass with a few bubbles and a layer of liquid on top. Not very appealing.

Day 3:
Full of frothing bubbles, a yeasty aroma fills the air when the lid is removed. The mixture is no longer separated, instead it is one growing, bubbling mass…

The plot thickens…

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Stuffin' things

Peanut Soba Noodles with Tofu and Red Peppers

Sesame Snap Peas

Orange Poached Prawn Salad with Wasabi Vinaigrette

Szechuan Peppercorn Crusted Beef Tenderloin

Stuffed with Homemade Chinese Pork Sausage and Shiitake Mushrooms

Green Tea Crème Brulee with a Chocolate Sesame Tuile

Our potential captain for the new yacht has come to town for the weekend with his wife and two other crewmembers from the yacht he currently runs. His welcoming committee, along with the owners, are 12 sailors in town for a regatta on Lake Michigan and the next three days will be spent cutting the water on the bosses new 46 foot Hinckley and trying to woo the captain to jump ship from his current 100 foot sailing yacht to a 160 foot motor yacht – are hard sell for a tried and true wind lover. But I have vowed to use my powers of culinary persuasion to influence his decision.

I had it in my mind to do something Asian, to satiate my craving for Peanut Soba noodles and sesame snap peas. The snap peas from the local farm are bright green and as sweet as sugar. And, the noodle recipe would give me the chance to test out the locally made firm tofu from the food co-op that Mrs. X has been telling me about! Since the captain and his wife are both South African, I figured a giant slab of meat was in order (the staple food of South Africans around the globe), and to feed a crew that big, I decided to go with Beef Tenderloin.

I developed a fascination with stuffing things lately after the recent success of a chorizo and queso fresco stuffed pork tenderloin I prepared a few parties back. I’ve never really been a “stuffer of things” in the past. For me, “stuffed meats” conjure up thoughts of stodgy, old French food, or worse: turduckens. So I never really saw stuffing, outside of the traditional Thanksgiving turkey, as something that fit into my culinary repertoire. But now it was time to try something new…

Down a winding country road, through fields of purple wild flowers and dense, green forest (which describes just about every country road in Northern Michigan), there is a local farm that along with carrying their own beef (you can see the cows grazing in the green pastures as you drive up) also produces farm-fresh pork sausage and this gave me an idea for the stuffing. I made my stuffing by sautéing shiitake mushrooms with lots of ginger and garlic and then sautéing the pork sausage with the mushrooms and including a healthy sprinkle of Chinese Five Spice, orange peel, fennel seed and scallions. Then, I sharpened up my slicer and set to butterflying the tenderloin. It sounds macabre to say, but I felt like a surgeon as the knife slid across the flesh as I carefully made my first incision. I worked my way through the beef, rolling it out like a carpet. I then stuffed it full of sausage and laced it up again like a corset.

Having recently been to New York City for a weekend, and to my favorite spice shop in the world (Kalustyan’s), I had returned to Michigan with bags of goodies including some spicy little Szechuan peppercorns. I made a crust for the tenderloin by grinding them up along with black peppercorns, coriander seed and sea salt.

On to Dessert:

As the label states on the glass bottle, “Our cows aren’t on drugs, but they are on grass!”, the milk from the local dairy is fresh, rGBH-free and un-homogonized (this means you have to shake it in order to mix the cream-top into the milk). The milk is tastier than the mass-produced milk you buy from the grocery store. It tastes more rich, “milkier”, with hints of the grassy green fields from which the cows are fed. It’s so good in fact that I have enjoyed showing it off by making fresh ricotta that I’ve used in salads and on pasta, and lots of fresh ice-cream. I do think there is also a textural difference in cooking with the higher quality milk as well, the ricotta, ice-creams and especially the Green Tea crème brulee that was dessert for this party all seamed more creamy and smooth.

Dinner went off without a hitch and the sailors left with their bellies full and a smile on their faces. Hopefully the captain will say yes, but I still have two more meals to work on him…

In two weeks I’ll be flying out to Seattle with the bosses to see the latest progress on the yacht. Stay tuned, I’ll definitely have pictures and stories from that that one!!!

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