Thursday, May 27, 2010

What I want to be when I grow up...

Last night my dad handed me a book he checked out from his library. He recently ordered it. One of the perks of being a branch manager is having access to all of your new inventory almost immediately. A few months ago, when he ordered the late and great Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", I was the first to get my hands on it. I'm the first to get my hands on this one, also. "Culinary Careers: How to get your dream job in food with advice from top culinary professionals" by Rick Smilow and Anne McBride. (It has that new book smell, too!) Have I mentioned that I adore books? I do; very much. But that's a tangent for a different time.

At first glance it looked like one of those self-help books that don't really help yourself. You know...the books that ultimately damage your ego and make you feel like a failure? Yeah. You know those books. Honestly, I should know better than that. My dad has great taste. As I flipped through it I found so many big names in the culinary world like Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Gale Gand, Graham Elliot Bowles, Elisa Strauss, and Dan Barber. I am so consumed by these chapters and pages. The priceless advice these amazing people are able to give comes from talent, years of hard work, and knowing how to play your cards right. They all specialize in different fields of the culinary world. The point of the book is to show that there are so many options regarding food service other than being a chef. I was reading through the options and making some neat discoveries when something caught my attention: Specialty farmer.

Farming is something very near and dear to my heart. My momma's side of the family owns and operates a dairy and crop farm in south-central Pennsylvania. I spent lots of summers there feeding calves, digging in the garden, and playing in the cotton seed piles. As I got older, I started playing in the dirt and planting things at home. I discovered that I have a "green thumb". By the time I got to college, I thought that I would surely end up doing some sort of agriculture. I tried landscape architecture since that combines horticulture and drawing/design. It turned out that chemistry and math are enemies of mine. The core classes made me miserable and I was very unhappy with the path I'd chosen. I gave up on agriculture and horticulture and opted for the culinary world. Shock and surprise! I can still combine farming with cooking. It seems as though I'm going back to my roots. I just wish it had not taken me so long to really put more thought into this.

Farm-to-table. Sustainability. Cooking and Eating Seasonally. Using the best, freshest ingredients possible. Thank goodness consumers are becoming more aware of and familiar with these concepts. It's about time we started paying a bit more attention to what is on our plates. Dan Barber is a perfect example of a chef working to achieve these things; especially "farm-to-table". I've been a fan of his for a few years now. He's the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns- a restaurant in which all ingredients come from the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. It's a fully functional, four-season farm, teaching center, and restaurant. It is amazing and one of the places at the top of my "I must go there" list.

I want to do something like that. At the very least I'd like to have an herb and vegetable garden at my restaurant. I want to be a farmer and a chef when I grow up. I wonder where this path will lead me now. There's only one way to find out. But first, I really want to finish this book.


I know I've already put up a few links within the post, but here's a few more to check out if you have some time to spare:

Definition of sustainability in a global sense here.
Really good article from the ACF here.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Food scams 101

I feel cheated and betrayed. Have you ever had a one night-stand with a guy that you thought was gorgeous that night, but the booze wore off and reality set in the next morning and he turned out to be horrifying? Did you sneak out quietly feeling disgusted and unsatisfied? No? Me either. But I imagine that this feeling is similar to the way I felt after looking at the label of my half-consumed Fuze drink yesterday.

I was picking up a few items at the grocery store after running some other errands. On my way out of the produce section there was a refrigerated drink cooler with Vitamin Waters, flavored Dasani, spring water, juices, and other juice type drinks. I noticed a row of Fuze and scanned through the different flavors. Citrus Prickly Pear. My brain said, "Dude that sounds delicious! Get it!". So I obeyed. (Yes, my brain calls me Dude.) I took that and my other purchases and finished up my errands.

I got home and after putting things away, I grabbed my newly acquired drink and a snack. The Citrus Prickly Pear Fuze was quite tasty. It was really refreshing as well. But then there was an aftertaste. I kept tasting the essence of apple juice a few minutes after taking a sip. I looked at the ingredients to see if there was apple juice in it. I know many juice cocktails or fruit drinks will use several different kinds of fruit juices aside from the main flavors as fillers or sweetners as to avoid added sugar. Sure enough, there was apple juice in the ingredient list. But I kept reading out of curiosity. My fears were confirmed. The only thing citrus about the drink was citric acid. There was nothing remotely prickly pear mentioned at all. After a discussion of this matter with some friends, we concluded that it's possible the vague ingredient(s) of "natural flavors" could be the extract of these fruits. Regardless of that, I'm extremely annoyed. Basically, I paid $1.50 for some apple juice with chemicals and additives. I'm not impressed at all. I would have rather it all just been artificial flavorings and tons of sugar. This is such a scam. I guess this is what we can expect from large corporations, sadly.

I feel like I've been lied to. If you're going to call something Citrus Prickly Pear, why not actually use those ingredients? Yes it would cost more. But I think it would be more satisfying to actually taste those things instead of some funky apple juice. I wouldn't put an apple crisp on a menu and serve you pineapple spears when you ordered the apple crisp.

This will teach me to not read labels before buying something. READ THE LABELS ON THE PRODUCTS YOU'RE BUYING, PEOPLE! Don't make the same mistake I did.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Delicious adventures in cheesecake!

Momma's birthday was on the 5th of May. And mother's day is coming up this weekend. I wanted to make her a cake of some sort. But apparently so did everyone else. One of her co-workers is making her a tasty birthday cake of some sort. Honestly, I can't remember what kind of cake it's supposed to be, but Momma seemed to be very excited about it. Regardless, I'm the cook/baker around here that hasn't been doing much baking as of late. This was a great excuse to change that. I suggested a few kinds of cakes that I could make, including her favorite carrot cake, but when I said, "ricotta cheesecake" I had her attention.

I've made something similar in the past with my own tweaks, of course. They were mini cheesecakes made in muffin tins. They were delicious, but I needed to find a recipe that would fit my needs a bit better. I've seen a few Food Network personalities make a ricotta cheesecake, so that was the first place on the Internet I searched. I found a recipe by Giada DeLaurentiis that interested me. I figured out how I was going to change it and add my own twist to it, then set off for the grocery store.

I returned with an armful of goodies for the cheesecake including some very beautiful strawberries! {/tangent} It's that time of year! It's nearing summer and here in the south, the berry season is starting. We just got a notice from our local Berry Farm that strawberries are in and ready to be picked! This is the best time of year for produce. My garden is starting to look wonderful, the farmer's markets will be in full-swing soon, and we get notices from the berry farms that things are ready to be picked! {tangent} I got everything to the kitchen and put in it's proper placed. Then I gathered my ingredients and made the following recipe:

2, 8 oz. packages of cream cheese (at room temperature)
1, 12 oz. container of ricotta cheese
1/4 C of clover or orange blossom honey
3/4 C granulated sugar
2 tsp orange, lime, or lemon zest
4 eggs
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
8 oz. Biscotti cookies

9 inch spring-form pan
9 inch parchment circle (optional)
Aluminum foil
Large roasting pan
Boiling water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a food processor*, finely grind the biscotti cookies. Add the melted butter to the cookie crumbs and mix thoroughly. The mixture should be slightly moist. Place the crumb and butter mixture into the bottom of a lined spring-form pan and press down to even out the crust. Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes. Allow to cool completely.

Meanwhile, with a hand or stand mixer**, blend the ricotta until smooth and creamy. It will still have the normal texture of ricotta, but needs to be smoothed a bit for better blending. Add the 2 blocks of room temperature cream cheese and blend completely. Be sure to stop the mixer occasionally and scrape down the sides of the bowl so all ingredients mix properly. Next, add the sugar and citrus zest. When those ingredients are incorporated, add the honey. Lastly, add the eggs and mix until just combined.

Wrap the outside of the spring-form pan with foil. This will keep water from seeping into the cheesecake. Pour the cheesecake mixture into the pan with the cooled crust. Place the spring-form pan into the larger roasting pan and place it on a middle oven rack. Pour the boiling water into the ROASTING PAN until it is about an inch and a half deep creating a water bath. This helps ensure more even baking and will hopefully give you a beautiful cheesecake with no cracks in the top. (Unfortunately, mine had a few small cracks. It'll still taste good!) Bake in the 350 degree oven for about an hour and five minutes. The cheesecake should have a very light golden hue and should jiggle slightly in the middle. Take the cheesecake out of the hot water bath and place it on a cooling rack for about an hour. After that, refrigerate for about 6 hours or over night. After the cheesecake is set and chilled completely, slice it and enjoy! Serving this with fresh fruit or a little bit of a fruit preserves would be delicious.

The great thing about using ricotta is that this isn't a super sweet cheesecake. It can also be adapted for a low fat diet. You could use part skim ricotta and reduced fat (or fat free) cream cheese. Using Splenda instead of sugar would also help cut some calories and fat.

See? I can share.

*If you don't have a food processor or a way to mechanically grind these, you can simply place them in a plastic baggy and beat the hell out of them with a mallet, rolling pin, or (if you have serious rage) your hand.
**You can also do this by hand if you're insane and want your shoulder to hurt the following day. If you have neither a hand mixer or a stand mixer, might I also suggest using the food processor again.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Misadventures in the wonderful world of sauces!

A few nights ago, I had to come up with something to eat. Charlie and I were both tired and it was getting late, so we decided on breakfast for supper. He had never had Eggs Benedict. He's been wanting to try it and has been asking about it for a few weeks. I thought I'd give it a go. I know it isn't something that is terribly hard to make, as I've made it previously. And it is rather filling. I thought the dish would suit our tastes pretty well for that night. Between that and some crispy homefries, we'd have a pretty delicious meal!

For those who don't know, Eggs Benedict is a split and toasted English muffin; each side topped with a slice or two of Canadian bacon, a poached egg and hollandaise. This dish is quite common on breakfast and brunch menus all over the US, France and many other countries, I'm sure. Some say that the recipe originated at the Waldorf Hotel in New York. Others suggest that it came from a French Provincial cookbook. There are so many variations of the dish as well, but the one thing they all have in common is the sauce. Hollandaise is an emulsion of egg yolks and clarified butter. Add some salt and a splash of lemon juice and you have one of my very favorite sauces in the whole wide world. It's fantastic on veggies, eggs, and many different kinds of meat.

At any rate, I set out to make Eggs Benedict for our supper. Toasting English muffins? Duh. Frying up some Canadian bacon? Again, duh. Poaching eggs? Not always a cake walk, but I usually fare pretty well if I crack the egg into a small dish and carefully float it into the water. (We poached dozens of eggs every Sunday for brunch at the restaurant I used to work at. I've had lots of practice.) Whipping up some hollandaise? I've made it quite a few times in the past and have been successful. But it's been a while...and boy howdy could you tell that it has been a while. Apparently making this sauce isn't quite like riding a bike.

Attempt number 1 was a disaster. The sauce never emulsified. I started out using the double-boiler and whisked manually with no hope at all. I quickly transferred it to a blender thinking that maybe more speed would be helpful. Nope. My last hope of saving it was using a hand mixer. I think all that really did was piss it off . It went from not being a runny mess of warm butter with some egg yolks at the bottom to a broken, gloppy disaster. I believe my issue was not whipping the egg yolks properly before starting to heat them. I also think that my clarified butter was not cool enough. After many tears and a bit of yelling, Charlie made me swallow my pride and look at a recipe he found online. I looked at it, reluctantly (because I'm supposed to know everything), and went back out to the store to get more butter.

Attempt number 2 went so much better. I clarified about a cup and a half of butter and put it in the fridge to cool faster. While that was cooling, I put a small sauce pan of water on to simmer. In a medium metal bowl I put two egg yolks in with about a tablespoon of ice water. Then, I beat the hell out of those eggs. They were frothy, pale, and thick as they should have been. I placed the bowl over the double-boiler and whisked like a mad woman in order to cook the yolks a bit and bring them up to temperature before streaming in the clarified butter. I whisked and whisked and whisked. I whisked so much that my arm was sore for 2 days. But the sauce emulsified properly and was rather tasty, if I do say so myself. It was a little thicker than I'd like, but I still say it was a success. Charlie enjoyed the Eggs Benedict very much, as did I.

I think what made the failure even more hard to take was the fact that I had just been ranting and yelling about how to properly make hollandaise the night before this ordeal. Charlie was watching a news cast of sorts and there was a woman showing a "short cut" in making a hollandaise sauce. She claimed that the sauce would come together faster if you heat the butter. Um, no kidding? Then I realized she assumed that you make it with cold, whole butter. Really?! Whole butter? Wow. That seems like a terrible idea.

The moral of the story, ladies and gentlemen, is this: Patience and a refresher course can make all the difference in something that you may have done in the past, but not recently.

As much as I hate to admit it, I don't know everything.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Feeling a sense of abandonment?

Why, yes! I believe this blog has been neglected. I was really excited to start this project and then the enthusiasm fizzled as I started reading other foodie blogs. I got intimidated. There are a lot of fantastic writers out there who have far more interesting things to say and share. Most of my reader base is just friends and family, but I feel they deserve to read something a little more attention grabbing, too.

I've been thinking of ways to make this better. I don't want to do a 365 project, because I don't cook every single day. Plus, I have a feeling that I'd set myself up for failure if I tried a Julie/Julia-type project. My boyfriend had a few good ideas that got my little brain to churn. He said that I should take pictures of the food that I do make. Or rather, he would take the pictures since he's such a great photographer. I'll cook and work on my plating and presentation; then write about it and post pictures. [/tangent] Plating and presentation is very important to me. Not only do we like food to be super tasty, but we eat with our eyes first. If it doesn't look good, we're skeptical on how it will taste and we're also less likely to try new things if they don't look desirable. There are obviously exceptions to this rule, but I digress. [tangent] My Aunts also seem to inspire me. They love food and have opened up a whole new world to me. Aunt S is allergic to gluten, Aunt L has nut allergies, and they both can not tolerate a slue of other food products. But they eat fantastic things regardless! Lots of organic products, dairy/wheat alternatives, raw foods, etc. It really does amaze me sometimes. On top of being wonderful foodies, they are amazing writers. Inspiration times 2!

I'm going to be searching for fun new plates, bowls, flatware, etc. in thrift stores, antique stores and junk shops. (So if you love me and find an interesting piece of dinnerware, I hear great things about the USPS. Hintcoughhint.) Hopefully this will give me a bit of a push to stick with it.

I'm also trying to keep with my main goal that I set when I turned the thought of this blog into a reality. I'm going to be sharing rants about the food world, my mishaps throughout my culinary adventures (like that blasted Hollandaise a few nights ago!), and my triumphs as well. I will probably share some recipes. But truth be told, I'm a greedy slore and if I have any chance of putting a recipe in my cookbook I don't really want to put it out there yet. If you're really interested in a recipe I talk about, just send me an e-mail. I'm greedy, but I'm not that mean. I'll at least give you the basics and let you tweak it yourself.

Thank you to Charlie for encouraging me and coming up with great ideas. Thank you to my Aunt L and Aunt S for being awesome. And thank you to Howie for attempting to kick my butt into gear and reminding me that people actually want to read what I have to say.

I also have to change the layout a bit because it looks more like I should be writing about quilting and sewing rather than food. Long story short ("Well it's a bit late for that!")- Watch this space! I won't leave you hanging this time.