Category Archives: cooking

The Ghost Ingredient


Today’s Music: Moby – Flowers

I got way behind this weekend. Sunday was Easter, so I was planning on doing the cooking for the week on Saturday.
I had to get up early anyway to log in and do some work reconfiguring some servers.

Every weekend, we go through the freezer and come up with three or four dishes to make for the week – big enough for dinner and lunch. Then it sits in the fridge and we just have to heat it when we get home exhausted from work.
Two or three dishes will be meat or poultry, and then the rest usually dairy or vegetable.

So there I am, 8 am on a Saturday, and I think “Might as well start now”.
So I chop up the chicken parts, coat them in Shake n’ Bake (mmmm), throw ’em in the oven and start on the ravioli. From scratch, of course!

For emergencies (and extreme laziness) only!!!

For emergencies (and extreme laziness) only!!!


Into the mixer goes flour and eggs. Away churns the mixer!!!
As always, it’s a bit clumpy in there, so I use my trusty spatula to keep folding everything under the hook.
Add a bit of water, and voila, dough!
Sort of.
Magic, thy name is Kitchen Aid

Magic, thy name is Kitchen Aid


There’s always a crumbled amount of dough in the bottom of the bowl that won’t fold in.
So onto the counter it goes to be worked and kneaded and deliciousified.
(Mostly. I forgot to add the salt again.)

Then it was 830, and time to get to work. So it got wrapped in plastic, and into the fridge it went.
Until Monday night.
Because I suck.

But Monday night, while my girl was out, I got back to work. Mix ricotta and an egg in a bowl.
Add some Parmesan! How much? Why, as much as I wanted to. (Had to make up for the lack of salt in the dough.)
Cut the dough up into manageable chunks and pound it flat enough to go into my baby.

Oh, the things we can do!

Oh, the things we can do!


Seriously, I love my pasta roller!
Roll the dough into nice long sheets. Square them off and cut them in half lengthwise.
Blob on the cheese mixture, and seal a layer of pasta on top.
Voila! Fresh ravioli.

Boil it a few minutes, top it with a bit of tomato sauce from a jar (yeah yeah, I know.) and…enjoy.
Pack it up the same way for lunch.
Go to work.
Watch the clock.
LUNCHTIME!!!
Open the container and be hit with the fragrant pungent scent of…garlic?

Now remember – flour, egg, water. Ricotta, parmesan, egg.
I didn’t even remember the salt, for cryin’ out loud.
Anyway, eat and enjoy.

Come home. Before I make the mushroom beef barley soup I also didn’t make over the weekend, I have to wash yesterdays dishes. Put the plates under the hot water, grab the scrubber, and it hits me – the smell of garlic.
What the hell?!?

About 5 minutes later, I realize “Oh yeeeaaaahhh…the tomato sauce…”.
Mystery solved.

I have no idea why my brain doesn’t work.
It’s not like I don’t feed it well.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Giving. (or Karma? Meh.)


Today’s Music: Shawn Colvin – All Fall Down

So this weekend, my girl and I spent a day volunteering for Sandy recovery.
We showed up at a church at 520 Clinton Ave in Brooklyn to lend a hand.

It only looks like a warm cozy environment.

We get there and spend 15 minutes waiting to sign in. We write our names on a piece of tape and stick it to our jackets. (The registration is so that we can be on the mailing list. Glad we weren’t wasting time…)
We go into the pen where we are to wait for the volunteer orientation, and we have a chance to look over the place.
Wow!
Towers of clothes, water, supplies, tools. Boxes of gear needed to clean up affected areas and give necessities to those that need them.
The entire operation was staffed by volunteers, and looked like a drunk walking – the rear foot constantly throwing the body off balance, the front foot catching it just in time, and repeat.

This is the inside of the church.


In fact, what I was most surprised by is how organized they were, and how people actually seemed to be in charge. Past volunteer experiences seemed to be more along the lines of “show up, and if you see something that needs to be done, do it”.
That seems to work well enough, since people that show up do want to help, and anyone that survives the turmoil for an hour or two becomes defacto leader until they move on and someone else takes over.
But it was nice to see an overall plan being implemented.

So after 5 minutes of sitting waiting for orientation, I learned two things:
– While I try to be open minded and not judge people on appearances, it’s very hard with hipsters.
– Especially when said hipster gets me to do something I’m not particularly keen on, and then offers encouragement wrapped around the word “jam” for the next 10 minutes.

Sitting in a chair with about 6 other people, groovy hipster comes over and shouts “Does anyone have cooking experience? We need help in the kitchen”.
Picture a simultaneously scowling and sneering El Guapo raising his hand.
While I cooked for a living for many years, it is not high on my list of fun things to do in a production environment. My girl and I had been hoping to lend a hand at the Rockaway Beach area. We surf there, and really like the neighborhood, so this would be a good “give back” kind of thing.
But this was also volunteering. And if they needed cooks…
So I said sure, gave a quick run down of my experience, and we follow the guy. Who must have seen my expression. Because i was subject to a litany of encouraging phrases along the lines of “It’ll be cool. You can make the cooking your Jam.” “Once you start, you know, you’ll be in your Jam.” “After your Jam is going, it’ll be great”.

Gee, and to think I’m not such a fan of people. Meh.

So my girl and I and one other go down to the kitchen. Sal is doing a bang up job as the chef, cranking out hundreds of meals from a small kitchen, with a 6 burner stove and 2 shelf oven to work with.
This isn’t gruel or slop. This is good food made almost entirely with donated ingredients.
But he’s weeded (ridiculously busy). And that small kitchen is hot.
Sal (after a moment of our recruiter trying to get his attention): EVERYONE WHO ISN’T COOKING SOMETHING RIGHT NOW, GET. OUT.”

Understood. He isn’t being a jerk. He’s trying to get a job done. Having been on both sides of that when cooking, I know where he’s coming from, and fade back into the small auditorium outside the kitchen, now a massive prep kitchen.
And start peeling a literal ton of vegetables.

The highlights:
– Try and donate potatoes larger than a fat thumb. Seriously. Almost more trouble than it’s worth to peel them.
– Try to donate carrots that aren’t flaccid. Also easier to peel.
– Donate peelers. Really. Having thirty isn’t helpful when twenty five of them are junk.
– Don’t slice your finger while opening pumpkins.

It was more embarrassing than painful…

– Listen to the conversations around you. At one point, Phil (a restaurateur from Connecticut) asked Heather (a Sandy regular from Vermont) about composting.
Heather launched into a detailed five minute explanataion of why they weren’t composting, how terrible it was that organic trash had been mixed with non-organic, the difficulties of finding compost pickup in Brooklyn, and how wonderful composting is.
Phil listened, and when Heather wound down, said “Oh, I don’t really care.” and went back to what he was doing.

Took me about a minute to stop laughing.

In the end, it really was a productive day. While it wasn’t my first choice of how to spend it, it was a useful necessary task. The people that will be getting the food will be very happy they did.
But next time, I think I’ll try to get in the group that’s clearing debris by the beach.

Oh, and the only sad part? After all that, I still didn’t win the lottery Saturday night.

Karma?
Meh.

(But in all seriousness, the organizers and volunteers all seemed to be working, and it was for a good cause for people that still do need the help.)

Cooking for Pleasure and Profit, Part 2


Today’s Music: Fountains of Wayne

So after I left the restaurant business, I was a burnt out husk of a man, in dire need of a haircut. And a shave.
And I hated cooking.
If I couldn’t boil it, nuke it, or eat it out of the bag, I wasn’t making it for myself.
When people would ask me cooking questions, I would violently refuse to answer them.

I took a 10 month vocational program, collected unemployment and learned how to maintain computers.
And I didn’t cook.

Four months later, I met the most wonderful girl in the universe, who would later agree to be my wife.
But first I had to hook her.

We went out on a few dates – nights out for dinner, as well as day trips. Then one day, I asked her to come over for dinner. She said yes.
Excellent! But now I would have to cook for her.

We’d talked a bunch about food (I managed to be calmer than I had been, since I didn’t want to scare her off – hey, save the exciting demons to spice up the relationship later on, I say), and I knew what she liked and didn’t, and some foods she just wouldn’t eat.

I settled on the basic chili recipe I had used, and modified it to be neither too hot, nor have beans. She hates beans.
Ground beef, crushed tomatoes, peeled tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots, cumin and some other seasonings (probably salt and sage, among others). Saute the vegetables, add the meat, season and cook that, drain off the fat, add the tomatoes, bring it all up to a nice simmer for a little while, and throw it all over some rice.
Simple.
But even the act of making that simple dish, one I could make in my sleep (even the vegetable chopping), was elevated to me. Here I was, doing something that I had run screaming from, but I was doing it for someone I really really liked, and I had a skill that I could use to demonstrate that affection.
Plus what girl doesn’t like a guy who cooks?

She came over. I may have done something silly with candles. I probably gave my roommate beer money so he would head out. And we enjoyed our meal.
It wasn’t intricate or gourmet. It was two people having a lovely evening over food one of them had prepared for both of their enjoyment.

And I loved it.
And ten years later I married that girl.
She said that me being able to cook wasn’t the reason. But it was a spiffy side benefit..

But not all the dishes we’ve made since then were keepers.

One of the worst:
I had a block of Tofu. And a wok. And some vegetables and rice.
What could possibly go wrong?
SQUEEZE THE TOFU. Put it under a weight and let the water ooze out of it. That’s what all the recipes say. But I cooked for a living. I know what I’m doing. Yea, right.
So basically I ended up with a big wok full of…well…glop, really. The tofu didn’t brown, the rice kept steaming into a blob of starch from all the extra water, and the vegetables (also steamed to hell) were limp and uninteresting.
And there’s only so much damage that can be covered by throwing in Chines 5 Spice.
But there was about $6 dollars worth of food int that pot, and I didn’t want to throw it all away.
So I ate it. For the next 2 days.
Made my wife a delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead.
Because I love her and don’t use food as punishment.

Possibly the worst:
Fondue.
Image from SlashFood.com
Slice the cheese. Coat it with flour, garlic the pot. Add the wine. Add the cheese. Melt, slowly.
Slice up the bread, vegetables, fruit for dipping.

We had a fondue pot. It was a gift. the difference between ours and everyone elses though, was that we were using ours.
The pot wasn’t the problem. The recipe was.
We followed the recipe. I swear.
Now, I’m notorious for glancing through a recipe, then doing whatever I want. But this time, we followed the recipe.
Used the right measurements. The right techniques. I even measured the wine for goodness sakes. Before I drank some of it.
But the recipe didn’t work.
The fondue wouldn’t thicken.
We added a bit more cheese. Then more flour. Tried some cornstarch.
Nothing.

So, my wife and I, looking at each other over the pot, thought it was ruined.
“Not totally ruined” I said. “Maybe we can turn it into a nice cheese soup”.
I went to the closet, gathered some other ingredients and spices, and went back to the kitchen.
“This should fix it”, I said confidently.
I took lids off everything, started adding various things, adjusting the heat, stirring, whisking..
The soup started to take shape. I tasted it. Needed something. So I popped the lid off the Cajun Spice, and went to do a hard shake – not to overpower it, just to get enough spice to come through the shaker top.
Which it didn’t have.
So half the jar came out.

My wife and I looked at the pot, then at each other, with the same expression of surprise and dismay that I think would happen if I parked my car, got out, then turned to see it rolling off a cliff.

We looked at the pot then back at each other.
“Ok”, I said. “Now it’s ruined.”

For dinner that night, the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were delicious.

Epilogue:
It was the recipe. We’ve since regathered our courage and tried fondue again. It has come out excellently.
And now, whenever we have a cooking debacle, the standard for edibility we use is “Better or Worse than Cajun Cheese Soup”.

Cooking for Pleasure and Profit


Today’s Music: Duran Duran

    Part one – Cooking for a living

As an unselfish way of giving pleasure, cooking is second only to oral sex – Anthony Bourdain (not an exact quote, but he said something like it in his great book, Kitchen Confidential)

I worked in restaurants for about 15 years.
Some of it was crap, cooking in and managing a Bennigans, some was over my head – being a line cook in a private club, whose clientele (as the chef described it) were the people who ran the world.

But the most fun I had in restaurants was working in the kitchen. It was the last time I could go to work and actually have fun.
In cooking for money (at least at the level I did it), the food was the least important part of the process.
Which is not to say it wasn’t important. but running a kitchen line is similar (I would guess) to commanding a small army unit in the field.
When it’s busy, there’s constant mayhem. There is always one guy running a spotless station while chaos spins around him, another guy who is a blur of bits of food and crumbs, cursing up a storm as he tries to keep up. there are waiters asking where their food is, or relaying compliments or complaints, or trying to change a ticket that they ordered wrong.
And then there’s me.
I was at my best in the kitchen when all hell had broken loose, and things had gone horribly, horribly wrong.

I was the expediter. It was my job to plate the entrees, cook off side dishes, make sure each station knew what dishes they needed to prepare, and make sure everything (steaks, salads, Mexican) were all up at the same time.
And fix it if it wasn’t.
That was the fun for me. I didn’t enjoy the downtime. I didn’t really care for the day to day details of managing (which I was good at. I just didn’t like it), the staff personal issues that constantly came up. I liked that moment when something went wrong, everything was off balance, and I could step in, grab hold and straighten it out.

A typical night on the line:
Adam on the grill, Abel on Mex, Brian on salad, Randall on desert. Some jackass (who had been there 3 months, but wouldn’t last much longer) expediting (in the window).
Jackass forgot to order a burger set from Mex and sent out a tray of food incompletely.
Abel was scrambling to get the burger set, Adam was pulling a new burger (the original was rare, and had worked it’s way up to med-well waiting to be served), and tickets were stretched from the printer to the floor and hadn’t even been looked at yet.
I step in.
“How are you, Jackass?”
He has the deer in the headlights look, sweat pouring down in his face, head whipping back and forth, tongs waving as he tries to figure out what he should be doing. He was good when it was calm, but hadn’t learned how to deal with the volume.
“don’tknowdon’tknowdon’tknow” he sputtered back at me, deep in the weeds.
“Stop” I said, hand on his shoulder. I pointed to the tickets in the window. “Show me where you are”.
His head moves to the string of food orders hanging in the window. “don’tknowdon’tknowdon’tknow”.
“Fine.” Is say, taking his tongs and setting them on the counter. I grab a fresh pair from the rack (I had a personal relationship with my tongs and didn’t like using a set that had been handled already). “Stand over there” I tell Jackass, grabbing all the tickets off the rail with one hand.
I start reading through them – sandwiches, salads, burritos and quesadillas, steaks of assorted cuts and temperatures. “Abel” I call out in my “war mode” voice. “What do you have, all day”
All day refers to everything being on the board (ordered) for that station.
His heavily accented voice comes back, while he does a spinning ballet of kinetic culinarianism.
“3 quesadillas, 1 no cheese. 7 burgers, 3 chicken sandwiches. I have (he pauses to count the plates on his station) 4 burritos, 3 chicken enchiladas, 1 steak,” he tells me as he spins and whirls, grabbing plates, rolling burritos, melting nachos.
By now I’ve read all the tickets I pulled.
“Add on 2 burgers. ! steak ench (never say a full word when you can shorthand it), 1 chick ench, no cheese. I’m going to need 2 more burritos too.” I look over at him. You good?”
He smiles, knowing exactly what I’m asking. “I’m good Popi. I do. you watch”. Abel would cut off his own hand before asking for help. Which was fine because he rarely needed it.

I hang all the tickets back on the board, and pull the eighteen or so hanging from the printer. As I start to sort those, I call down the line.
“Brian” I bark. “What the hell is going on?”
He yells back without stopping what he’s doing. “Saturday night. They’re trying to kill us”
“Suck it up wuss.” It’s an old conversation. Brian will bitch about it all night, but unless the wheels come off, he can hold down his end. Unfortunately, as soon as that burger got lost, the wheels came off.

See, we have five stations. All of them are producing food, sometimes independently, sometimes with another station, for the same tables. A 6 top might want 3 steaks, 2 Mex items and a salad. All of it has to come up at the same time.
In addition to his own cooking and plating responsibilities, the Expediter has to coordinate all stations to sell the same table at the same time. So now the main window (that I just took over)and salad were crashed. Mex was keeping up, barely. And the grill was covered and about to dump 30 steaks and burgers in my lap.

Back to the action.
“Brian” in the loud voice again. “Tell Randy what you need, and dammit, take his help. I ain’t going down tonight and if you morons make me late for my first beer, I will personally gut and fillet every last one of you”
“Oh no, Popi” came Abel’s voice. “Brian, he ugly. He no taste good”.
Brian’s response was inaudible, but was probably unrepeatable anyway.
“Here’s your all day Brian. Let me know what I’m missing, let me know what you’re missing”. I called out about 18 items for him, while he rifled through his tickets, matching up the counts.
He came back with what he had and what he needed. I moved Randy to work on the dishes Brian couldn’t get to, then turned to the grill.
“Saturday night, Adam” I said, quietly this time.
Adam was tall and very thin, which made him look even taller. He was a goofy guy with a dry sense of humor and was the only one of us (myself included) that could hold down a busy Saturday on our coal and wood fired grill. And crack jokes while he did it.
“Sounds like you’re having some problems back there”.
“Blow me. You ready?”
He looked at the tickets on his board, then at his grill, then at me. “I’m ready. You?”
I looked down the line. “Ready as we’ll ever be. Call out table numbers for me as you sell them.
Oh, and these are for you” I said, as I handed him the tickets that had rolled off the printer.
“Ok kids” I yelled down the line. “Show me why I haven’t fired you yet. Adam. Sell it all baby!”
Adam started spinning back and forth, at each turn pulling more meat off the grill and dropping it on my pass through.
I started grabbing tickets and steaks, burger, shrimp, chicken, calling out to other stations to plate the accompanying dishes and pass them through to the waiters.
“Brian, I need that shrimp caesar salad now. Not 2 minutes from now, NOW!”
“It isn’t ready yet” was his panicked reply.
“Abel” I called out, not even looking away from my plates. “Give him the shrimp skewer from the fajitas and drop another quick quick. Adam” I continued, “Keep selling. Put weights on everything on the grill. I want this ticket rail cleared”. All the while, my tongs spun and clattered as I used them to grab steaks, drop them on plates, pass burgers to Abel, and lift plates over to the waiter side of the counter.
Jackass meanwhile was still standing where I put him, watching me send out eight full plates at a time. I ignored him.
“Brian, I’m waiting on 2 salads and that shrimp appetizer. Where the hell is it?”
“It’s working” he called back. “One minute”.
“You don’t have a minute, you lazy bum. We’re clearing the board. Now.”

A good cook will ignore the cursing and the yelling at this point and make the food the ways it’s supposed to be made, instead of rushing and selling undercooked food.

Adam came out of the grill and reached around me, dropping a 16 oz prime rib cut into my fryer. I looked at him.
“Well done” he shrugged.
I was calling out the Mex orders to Abel that were coming in as I hung the next set of tickets, handing the grill copy to Adam and giving all day counts to Brian on the cold side of the line.
At this point, everyone had everything they needed, and while we were still going fast, my job was mostly air traffic control, or lending Abel a hand when he needed to get out a load of plates all at once.

See, when you go to a restaurant, the food should be cooked right. But your friend having a medium rare hamburger should get it at the same time as you get your 20 oz well-done steak. If the food is cooked wrong, well that happens some time. But if it comes out in dribs and drabs, someone should lose his job.
I was great at managing that mayhem and bending it back to where it needed to be.

Simply being aware of what everyone needed, and making sure they knew it was enough to straighten everyone out. I had worked with these guys for a while, trained most of them, and held my own against any of them (except Adam on the grill on a Saturday. I could do, but lord it wasn’t pretty).
My loud voice and vaguely annoyed attitude told these guys that this was a normal night, it wasn’t all that bad, and that they’d get through it fine if they didn’t panic.

10 minutes later, Adam pushed another fifteen steaks at me. I plated half and turned the station back over to Jackass, who literally was agog at what he had just seen.

It may seem in the above that I was a dick to my guys. And I was. But they were just as bad to me (and each other). In a good kitchen, it doesn’t matter who is in charge. It’s all about how good you are at your job. The best guy gets to be the loudest voice because he earned it. And while I was rough on them on the line, I picked up their shifts when they needed time off, covered their stations so they could grab a cigarette, and did the best I could to make sure they were well fed and rewarded for their work.

Those Saturday nights were the most fun I ever had in a job. They were also the most brutal of any job, before or since.

And when I finally stopped cooking for a living, it was two years before I could make something for myself that wasn’t boiled, microwaved or eaten from the bag.

Next time I’ll tell you about how cooking became fun again, and the worst dishes I ever made.