Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Come on in, the water’s fine…

When some people are nervous, they get a frog in their throat, or a cat gets their tongue, or they get butterflies in their stomach.

Me, I get sea bass.

Yes, that’s right, a whole entire sea bass flopping around in my gut like a fish out of water! It’s very disconcerting, feeling its tail all the way up in my larynx as it flips and squirms. My heart flutters, my stomach twists in a knot. My palms get sweaty, I chew my bottom lip… Nary a dish have I served without a maelstrom of inner-chaos. And put me in front of a crowd, you know, for the ubiquitous thanking of the chef after a dinner party – and I just about want to curl up in a ball and die! So, when I’m asked to teach the first of a 10-class series at Alysson’s Kitchen in Bend, Oregon for 18 people on the foundations of cooking – well, I jump at the chance! Because what fun is life if it’s not just a little bit terrifying?

That sea bass is tossing and turning in my belly as I make the snowy, 3-hour drive to what is sure to be my untimely and utterly humiliating death. I arrive 20-minutes before the class begins - excellent, plenty of time to prepare. Mary and Krista, my assistants and life-savers this evening, have prepped all of the ingredients for the recipes and have the kitchen ready to go – fortunately, they know I’m running on a tight schedule. Mary, a real-estate agent who loves to cook, assists with the classes so that she can glean cooking knowledge and get paid at the same time. Wise, wise woman. Krista, a cute, sandy-blonde with pixy-like features runs the wine department at Alysson’s and also loves to cook, but with her waif-ish figure, I’m suspect to how much she likes to eat – that is, until I catch her smearing slices of baguette with thick swaths of triple crème brea! I quickly read through the course outline – brown stock, white stock, crème olga and French onion soup – easy enough.

I’m not here 10 minutes when the students begin to trickle in and as I look around, I wonder how I’m going to start the class. The room begins to fill, and, as is the story of my life, I feel as though I’m standing on a precipice, looking into the abyss, wondering what the hell I’m going to do. But I do what I usually do – and what I do best, that is, take a deep breath and dive in! Winding my way through the tables where the students have begun to gather and sit, I greet them each, one by one. I expected and older crowd and mostly women, but the group really runs the gamut - old and young, men and women. There are two mother/son pairs, a mother/daughter pair, 2 young women about to be betrothed that think cooking might be a handy skill to learn before they enter the world of domesticated bliss. A 14-year-old boy that just loves to cook. I crave a glass of wine to pacify the polyprionidae swimming in my gut – but that will have to wait.

As I learn more about my new students, my fear slowly begins to morph into excitement. I talk to everyone and learn why they’ve chosen to take the program. I ask them to rate themselves as cooks, 1 through 10. There are a few who sheepishly admit that they are –3, a couple of 7’s and 8’s, but most people rate themselves about mid-way at 5. Their scores will be re-evaluated at the end of 10 weeks. I quickly develop an affinity for these strangers as I learn more about them. I want to be able to answer their questions and help them become better cooks!

I talk them through brown stocks – roasting bones and vegetables to get a deeper, richer flavor, as we make a roasted beef stock and a roasted vegetable stock. Then we move onto the white stock – un-roasted chicken stock and vegetable stock. Krista and Mary have samples out of various dried bouillons, canned broths and pre-made demi-glaze. We pass the samples in little cups around the room for the class to taste and compare to the home-made version.

It’s funny to be thinking and dissecting something that has become such a motor skill to me. Stock, I make them all the time, without giving it any thought. I like to keep my cleaned mushroom trimmings in a bag in the freezer and when the bag is full, I dump them in a pot with some wine and water and make a mushroom stock. I keep shrimp, crab and lobster shells too, for the same purpose. Roasted chicken carcass, into a pot – duck and turkey too. “These recipes are a jumping off point”, I tell the class. “You don’t have to follow them exactly. Keep it simple, it doesn’t have to be a production – because whatever you make from scratch, even if it’s not perfect – is 100 times better than if it came from a can!”.

We breeze through the French Onion Soup and the Crème Olga – though I find the Crème Olga to be a bit bland and I discretely salt the hell out of it and try to jazz it up with more black pepper before it’s served. We talk about salt and the importance of seasoning and tasting as you go. I mention the cardinal rule of the kitchen, she who cooks, doesn’t have to clean! And I mention that there’ll be a pot-scrubbing class next week for all of the spouses that are absent tonight. I share a few stories of being browbeaten by French chefs and cooking on the high seas. By the end of the class, I’ve forgotten about the big fish that was doing laps in my belly only a few hours prior. I’m having fun! I get to tell stories and talk about food and cooking, unrestrained, for hours on end! Who knew?!

As it turns out, there’ll be another chef taking over the Bend classes, but as of Tuesday, I’ll be teaching the same 10-week course at Alysson’s Kitchen in Ashland, from now through March! Next week, I’ll be teaching a hands-on Italian cooking class, including pasta making – my favorite! And, well, there are a few other fun things in the works – but you’ll just have to keep reading to find out what they are!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

All roads lead to the kitchen...

“WRU?” (where are you)

The text popped up on my cell phone just as I de-boarded the plane at Medford airport in Southern Oregon, my dad and step-mom waiting for me inside with my winter coat and gloves. The text was from my friend, Jessie. We’d met at a bar in Turks and Caicos two years earlier and spent a week, with another friend, Tress, singing karaoke and soaking up the sun.

Ok, correction (Jessie is forcing me to write this): I sang karaoke – Tress and Jessie said it was the worst they’d ever heard and were afraid I’d get us all kicked off the island. Apparently my rendition of “Killing Me Softly” wasn’t quite Lauren Hill-y enough.

But I digress.

Jessie had been living in Colorado when we first met, then she worked in St. Thomas for a while before heading up to a farm in British Columbia to learn about organic farming. Ah yes, someone as wayward and with as much wanderlust as me. We’ve kept in touch by emailing each other every few months or so to get the stats on where each other might be.

“Just landed in S O, U?”, I replied. “NW, M2! Where?”

It’s funny how life is sometimes, giving you just what you need, when you need it. As luck would have it, Jessie is now living near Medford and only about 5 minutes from my parents’ house, of all places, working as an amateur cheesemaker, vegan baker and babycaretaker. It was a totally unexpected, but much appreciated surprise…

Through Jessie, I was invited for beer and pizza at the home of some newly made friends.
I drove out through the winding back roads of Ashland, twisting and turning through the frozen, silvery fields and cow pastures, past barns and horses, cows and sheep and down a bumpy, unpaved road. In a converted yellow barn, a welcoming group gathered around the stove. The house smelled grainy and yeasty and warm. Pots brewed away – one with the beginning of a Heffeweisen, another containing what would soon become Pale Ale.

I knew that I’d found the coolest people in town when “beer and pizza” night meant brewing our own beer and making the pizzas from scratch!

Grains were "sparged"

and "malted"

and "mashed"

and "hopped"

Everyone had a task. Along with the Weissen and the Pale Ale would also be a Double Bock and a Blonde.

We drank sparkling dandelion wine made last summer, hard cider and plumb wine made last fall and beer made just a few weeks ago.

Jessie brought a wheel of goat Camembert she had whipped up in her kitchen, which we ate with bread made from the grain used to make beer, homemade hummus and homemade pita bread. I made a chicken liver pate and a smoked salmon pate – which I, naively, served with some store bought bread – blasphemy!

Jeff and Michelle, our totally awesome hosts, had made pizza dough and there were bowls full of toppings.

And, eventually, there was beer.

Cooking with friends, making everything from scratch, being close to the source - I'd say it was healing, if it weren’t so gluttonous!

Smoked Salmon Pate

8 oz. Smoked Salmon (preferably “hot” smoked), skin removed and meat flaked
8 oz. Cream Cheese, room temperature
1 shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tablespoons prepared horseradish
1 Teaspoon fresh Rosemary, finely minced
1 teaspoon fresh Thyme, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
Juice of half a lemon

Place salmon, shallot and garlic in food processor and process until finely minced. Add remaining ingredients and process into a smooth paste. It's best refrigerated overnight so the flavors make merry together. I serve it with rye crisps and slices of dark Danish rye bread…

Monday, January 12, 2009

A really long nap...

Non omne quod nitet aurum est.
~Chaucer, 1380

I rally myself from bed before dawn and pull on my chefs jacket, my hair piled in a knot atop my head, I look in the mirror as my fingers work each mother-of-pearl button through its hole, past the blue embroidery spelling out my name in script on the left plaque, up to the blue piped edging of the Mao collar. I fold up the oversized cuffs, smooth the front of the jacket and as I look in the mirror I think about how hard I’ve worked to earn this jacket, to learn my trade, to become a chef. 10 years, I think to myself, 10, long years. A thought scratches at my brain; today, this jacket feels like a nun’s habit. I laugh. Who knew that when I’d signed on to this job I’d inadvertently be committing myself to what often times feels like a life of silence, servitude and celibacy? Who knew? I watch the dawn break over the rugged Mexican terrain and swallow back the lump in my throat as I warm up the ovens and turn on the light above the stove, for what I know will be the last meal that I will cook aboard the yacht.

Perhaps it was the fibrous, bitter, out of season asparagus; the rock hard, orange and green Roma tomatoes; spotty iceberg lettuce; mealy apples and limp, yellowing celery stacked against the walls at the grocery store that pushed me over the edge. Perhaps it was withdrawals from my addiction to artisan cheese, chewy baguettes and spicy baby arugula. Perhaps it was the monastic lifestyle, and living amongst a bunch of married couples and without even any boys to flirt with – and without the direct phone line to God or that guaranteed entry into Heaven that a true nun would’ve had. But whatever, the telltale signs of burnout have been lapping at my ankles for months now. My body’s been screaming that it’s too much. Too much stress, too little sleep. Just too much. And after losing my appetite for a solid month and spending half a day in Mexican hospital feeling as though a forest fire was raging in my belly – I’ve had to make probably one of the most agonizing decision I’ve ever had to make in my entire life – and that is, to leave the yacht. I know. I know. I feel like my heart has been carved out of my chest and served on a platter. I had meditated on a different outcome, prayed for a different outcome in fact, but, my stomach hath spoken and I dutifully must follow its orders. It is not an easy decision by any means.

I am tremendously grateful for all that Mrs. and Mr. X have done for me. I absolutely adore and admire them both. I want to be like them when I grow up. Not because of the big yacht, or the fab lifestyle. But rather, because they embrace life, because they jump in with childlike abandon and, as the people who know them know, they are genuine and they are rebels at heart – and to me, those are always admirable qualities. I also have the utmost respect for the crew and anyone willing to navigate the treacherous seas of crew management. I’m hard pressed to think of 10 people that I truly love and would want to eat, sleep, live, work and spend every waking moment with for months and months on end. No wonder pirates are always made out to be such unsavory characters – you’d be pretty cranky too if you lived aboard a damp, rickety boat with 20 or 30 others with poor bodily hygiene and a penchant for rum. It’s a wonder there hasn’t been more blood shed in the mega yacht industry!

My tenor in the yachting industry has been quite the adventure and has given me a lifetime of stories to tell. But alas, I need my own bed for which to spread the Sunday NY Times across, a home to walk around in my pajamas until noon, some earth to stick my hands in and a long morning run or I get pretty damn cranky. I’ve decided to take a sabbatical from the world of the gainfully employed, and what better timing! I’ll be trading in my chef’s knife for a pen, channeling my inner Hemingway and soothing my aching, overworked bones out in Key West for a while. But not first without a visit home and a chance to sit around and do absolutely nothing…

The blog will continue. This is not the end, but the beginning of a new adventure… And now, hey, I’ll actually have time to write!

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