new directions

Hello, world,

326 published posts and dozens of trashed drafts later, the lay gastronomer’s time has come to an end. We can all attest to the fact that life is change, and while tlg will always be a part of me — the fledgling food-obsessed writer/photographer/explorer — I believe the blog no longer expresses who I am. In some ways, that’s a good thing: it means I’ve evolved as a person. I am not living a stagnant life but progressing in a passionate way toward the goal I have set for myself of becoming a successful culinary professional. Not coincidentally, I believe this blog played a seminal role in crystallizing that very goal.

When I first started tlg, I don’t know that I was expecting it to be a long-term thing. I only remember being so inspired by the up and coming food blogosphere, which made me want in. I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d write and shoot, hoping instead that the blog would just somehow reflect the trajectory of my life through food. I’ve been blessed to have this blog as a journal and forum for exploring the food, people, and experiences I’ve encountered over the past five years. She has been very good to me.  True to her billing she has made me hungry and happy, and most definitely made me think. She has also comforted and humored me, challenged and disconcerted me. For this I will always be grateful.

I am confident this blog will live on, perhaps with a different name and in a different form. Time is needed to take a step back and consider both the purpose and the medium before moving forward. In the meantime, I will continue sharing pictures and updates on Facebook. I hope you will look for me there. Cheers!

an offally good update

Foie gras bruléed with fruit gelée @ freshlocalandbest.blogspot.com

On 11/26/2008, I posted this brief proclamation of my distaste for the vasty majority of offal. I don’t think I realized how bold was the title I envisioned at the time! Or ignorant. As my first commenter pointed out, it’s downright wrong to lump foie gras with other organ meats. Along with caviar and truffles, foie gras belongs to gastronomy’s Holy Trinity of foods, hallowed ground for the aspiring culinary professional. This is my public apology to the food gods for failing to recognize the greatness of foie gras. While I’m personally not completely sold on it, having worked with it and learned more about it and tried it some more, I am beginning to see why people swoon for its silky, rich, my-oh-my buttery goodness. Most recently, we played with it in class, pan-searing the liver and serving it on top of pumpernickel toast with a coulis-type sauce garnished with fresh raspberries. While 9 times out of 10 I’d rather have a damn good burger than a bite of foie gras, I knew that dish was wicked made. And along those lines, being a cook is not about liking the foods that you “should” or that other people, be they Careme or Escoffier, tell you is where it’s at; but about constantly exploring what’s out there and then making those decisions for yourself.

Note to those who have heard of the practice of gavage, by which ducks are force-fed to fatten their livers prior to harvesting: check this video out:

Anthony Bourdain visits Hudson Valley Farms, one of the two leading foie gras producers in the U.S., talks to a vet, and discovers that ducks ACTUALLY LIKE GETTING THIS TUBE OF DELICIOUSNESS STUCK DOWN THEIR THROAT. It is NOT an act of animal cruelty. They don’t have the same anatomy as we do, and as painful as gavage might sound to us, it is anything but that for the ducks. As Bourdain sees for himself, the ducks in fact enjoy having this metal rod inserted down their throat, are so visibly eager for this pleasure that they will shove and crowd into line when the feeder approaches. Gavage also happens (not entirely by coincidence) during the period when ducks naturally begin fattening up for their winter migration, and thus doubly appreciate this delectable dose of food being “forced” upon them. So if you’re one of those people who may have been misinformed about how foie gras is made, I encourage you to re-evaluate your stance and join the not-so-dark side.

garde manger practical

For the past two weeks, I’ve been taking a class on garde manger, which is basically the kitchen station that produces charcuterie, salads, and other foods that are typically served cold. In a hotel or banquet-style operation, garde manger also includes the production of hors d’œuvres and canapés, centerpieces, ice carvings, and sandwiches. It’s a station that can put out some stunning food with some equally stunning food costs. Charcuterie used to get a bad rap because it traditionally makes use of leftovers and scraps, bits that get left behind. And it’s not like proponents of charcuterie help themselves by employing terms like “forcemeat” or “meat batter,” which make me wince a little bit. But I think the common conception of it as questionable, low-grade mystery meat is shifting radically, especially due to the restaurant industry. Done right, charcuterie not only packs flavor and value, but the same level of quality and wholesomeness as any other product.

I heart charcuterie too, because to me it truly epitomizes the art of artisanal cooking. It’s a craft that has been perfected over thousands of years; sausages were being made as early as 8th or 9th century B.C., as evidenced by the reference in Homer’s The Odyssey: “Two paunches lie of goats here on the fire,/Which fill’d with fat and blood we set apart for supper…” The sausage was to be awarded to the victor of a fight between Odysseus and Irus, another of Penelope’s suitors: one phallic trophy, indeed. At the same time, it’s a beautifully blank canvas, and I think charcuterie is one of the hottest trends in food today not only for economic reasons, but because it speaks to a cook’s creativity and artistic side. Chefs are taking the concept in both traditional and unconventional directions, often simultaneously, and that’s the kind of cooking that really excites me on a personal level.

My group chose to do a salmon platter for our garde manger practical. Instead of limiting ourselves to the assigned dishes, we challenged ourselves to produce something special, and I’m really proud of what we accomplished.

Finished platter of salmon charcuterie (from L to R): salmon terrine with potatoes, cream, asparagus, and dill; salmon terrine "sushi"; roasted smoked salmon fillet with teriyaki glaze; scallop mousse tart with crispy shallot and fried scallop garnish; salmon head cheese with salmon skin crackling.

One thing we wanted to do was use more of the animal than just its “prime” parts, the fillets. If you know me, you probably know I LOVE LOVE LOVE salmon head meat. As a child, my favorite part used to be the eyes, which I would pop into my mouth, cartilage, gelatinous eye boogers, and all, sucking away until all that remained was the little white ball at the center. I made it my mission to not reveal that little white ball until it was absolutely pristine. While I’m ashamed to say I now battle my adult inhibitions when it comes to noshing on fish eyes, I will fight to the death over the collar meat. And everyone knows the cheeks are the best part of the animal, hands down.

I’ve thought of making a sort of terrine from salmon head meat in the past, and I knew I was on the right track when I saw a similar concept from Ideas in Food. I took their lead, brining and steaming the whole fish head as suggested, before picking it apart and seasoning the meat with s&p, cayenne, garlic powder, and white truffle oil, and stretched it with some equally delicious belly meat. It tasted pretty amazing right then, and it took a lot of restraint to remove myself from the bowl. I pressed this mixture into a mold and let it set overnight, during which the flavors deepened and the natural gelatin from the fish’s head created its own beautiful matrix. The next day, I savored the anticipation of slicing the head cheese, saving it for the last possible moment. The result was astonishing, all the more for the simplicity of the preparation. It was plated in 1-inch cubes garnished with chives and skin cracklings, and while it was a supermodel on the platter, texture and flavor stole the show. To aptly convey them, I would do best to quote from the creative and very literary geniuses at Ideas in Food, who spoke: “The fish was silky and rich with a savory flavor that, in spite of the various seasonings, spoke deeply of silvery fish and cold waters.”

flying solo

sometimes a lady needs a decadent midday meal to herself, you know? ideally, it starts with some crusty bread and eminently spreadable butter.

perhaps it moves on to some very sweet seared shrimp and frisee dressed in a lovely honey-citrus vinaigrette.

eating this, she imagines a bacon vinaigrette would turn even the coldest frisee hater around, especially when it's paired with a poached egg and duck leg confit. the lady may have been tickled by the pickled shaved walnut slices that adorned her second frisee salad. for a second, she mistook them for truffles, until she tasted a piece and asked the chef to please clarify. the woody texture pleased her, as did the fruitiness, which complemented the duck's...duckiness.

a side of roasted brussels never hurt a figure.

The Blue Duck Tavern
1201 24th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20037
dinner menu
(202) 419-6755

to swirl or not to swirl

Along with roast chicken and a hearty ragu, a poached egg is one of the those things any aspiring cook should know how to make. It’s versatile, quick, nutritious, delicious, equally satisfying for a crowd or for one, and a great way to make a meal out of almost anything (and nothing).

I must admit that I did not learn how to poach an egg until recently, when I decided once and for all to put a stop to this nonsense. I don’t know why my poached egg trials in the past had failed so miserably, but a few youtube videos and consecutive practice runs later, I was golden. Heat some water until small bubbles form on the bottom of the pan, toss in a capful of vinegar and a pinch of salt if you wish, carefully drop in the egg, pull it out ~3 minutes later, shock and hold it in ice water if saving for later or dry it on a paper towel before it graces your plate of whatever it is that will instantly become a gazillion times more sexy topped with those dainty whites and irresistible egg yolk.

One small trick involves swirling the water before dropping the egg in, so as to create a vortex which reportedly encourages the egg whites to wrap around the yolk during the initial critical period in which the shape of the poached egg is established (instead of disintegrating into smithereens).

I was curious whether this technique really made poaching more effective, so naturally, I performed a side-by-side analysis. Here are the results:

Continue reading

sample dream restaurant menu

One of my recent homework assignments for my class on menu planning involved putting together a sample menu for an upscale restaurant concept based in RI. I envisioned my restaurant being modeled on this beautiful place in Portland, ME, centered around an exposed kitchen and wood-fired brick oven. Here is the menu I developed:

Sample Winter Menu Listings

Appetizer Wood-Fired Flatbread with Barbeque Pulled Goat, Beltane Farm Chevre, Caramelized Onions, and Baby Arugula
Appetizer Fluke Tartare with Shaved Lemongrass, Mint and Basil Salad, and Curry Oil
Appetizer Trio of Cooks Valley Farm Parsnips: Gratineed, Chipped, and Pureed
Appetizer Pan-Fried Oxtail Momos with Pickled Daikon and Soy-Yuzu Sauce
Entrée Red Wine-Braised Beef Shortribs with Cheddar and Chive Polenta, Roasted Foraged Mushrooms in Demiglace
Entrée Seared Scallops with Sweet Potato Pancakes, Wilted Kale, Cauliflower Crema
Entrée Monkfish Medallions with Cornbread Stuffing, Butternut Squash, Marinated Roasted Leeks, Vanilla Beurre Blanc
Entrée Wishing Stone Farm Kabocha Squash Gnocchi, Grilled Japanese Eggplant, Poached Egg, Thai Basil Pistou
Entrée Roasted Baffoni Farm Chicken Quarter with Ancient Grains Risotto, Cardamom-Scented Carrots, Espresso Chicken Jus
Entrée Pork Two Ways: Schnitzel with Beer-Braised Red Cabbage and House Sausage with Roasted Fennel and Apricot Coulis
Entrée Crispy Hudson Valley Duck Confit with Celeriac Mash, Onion-Membrillo Jam, Chickpea Fritters
Entrée House Chorizo and Gigante Bean Stew with Purple Peruvian Potatoes, Swiss Chard, Saffron Oil

While it’s obviously a work in progress, I definitely indulged in the opportunity to dream, and I’m happy with what I ended up with for now. I think one of the pluses of being in school is having the space to romanticize a bit. It’s easy to get carried away when you’re not working 16-hr shifts six days a week, and I believe the hours of daydreaming will come in handy someday, when you get a chance to make your dreams a reality.

a plate that talks must walk

Wednesday was my last day of class in Fundamentals of Food Service Production, one of my favorite classes so far. Things were a little hectic, as we had to start service an hour earlier in order to accommodate a special function taking over the kitchen immediately after us. As usual, the food still looked pretty darn good. That said, it’s a little unsettling to me that I can’t always personally guarantee that the flavors on the plate back up the plate presentation: that the food eats as well on the palate as it does on the eyes. There is a highly stressful degree of trust involved in the kitchen whenever you sell food that you yourself have not prepped, seasoned–cooked–a hard concept to accept when putting out a plate of food is putting your name, your reputation, on the line. If you don’t have a direct hand in cooking all the food that comes out of “your” kitchen, the next best thing is hiring people whose palates have earned your trust. And as an aspiring chef, I could not imagine being any further removed from the individuals who are cooking the food for which I am ultimately responsible. The best scenario by far, though perhaps I idealize it, is working with these people side by side, night-in and night-out, not only trusting them but loving them like family.

Alas, I am getting ahead of myself. This is not something I’ll have to deal with for awhile, since I’ll be the one busting my butt to earn that trust, that love, from others.

Crab Cakes, Roasted Red Pepper Remoulade, Cabbage Slaw

Veal Cordon Bleu with Sauteed Wild Rice, Squash Puree, Mushroom Cream Demiglace

Southern Fried Chicken with Roasted Garlic Mash, Sauteed Zucchini with Turmeric, Creole Cream Sauce

Seared Beef Tenderloin with Potatoes Anna, Cauliflower and Broccoli Gratin, Sauce Chasseur, Hollandaise, Oven Roasted Tomato

“All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.” — Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (1878)

We’ve been discussing plate ups in class the past couple days, the “chef as artist,” and what Nietzsche says resonates with me as one of those aspiring chef/artist types. It’s sometimes overwhelming, especially at this early stage, to consider how much energy is expended in each plate of food. Not just the hours of labor devoted to prep time and service, but the many waking hours (and likely sleeping ones too) given to honing the elements and presentation of the plate until it is perfect. Chef L. showed us this short film by Guy Savoy, and it left me in awe, slightly breathless: spine-shiveringly inspired. But there is much, much work to be done.

*image from thepariskitchen.com

*images from The New York Times

*one of my plates from nutrition class: fresh pasta with tomato sauce, cannellini with sundried tomatoes, sauteed broccoli rabe

“Know why you cook.”

[This post brings together two previously unrelated drafts that were backed up in my blog writing queue. One was based on a talk I attended last November by René Redzepi, Executive Chef at NOMA, aka the best restaurant in the world. The two-star Michelin restaurant serves modern Nordic fare with an emphasis on foraging, (for) local ingredients, and a philosophy of cooking that celebrates "time and place in Nordic cuisine." The other "draft" was a lone quote by Gustave Flaubert: "the art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe."]

Here is a decent synopsis of the Redzepi talk, which centered on three specific moments that transformed him and helped define his culinary career. I particularly enjoyed his story of transforming the ugliest carrot he had ever seen (his words) into something incredibly beautiful and delicious–by gently sauteing and basting it with butter, treating it as if it were the most expensive piece of meat he could buy. The farmer who dared to send him this first apparent monstrosity now supplies Redzepi with a steady stream of such “vintage” carrots. During the talk, Redzepi also passed around plates of piquant pickled rose petals and ramp buds for the audience to sample. On the whole, he seemed like a pretty low-key guy, soft-spoken, genuine, charismatic in the understated way that people who possess a quiet confidence tend to be. There was a brief Q&A session afterward, during which one person asked the question most relevant to me: what advice can you give to an aspiring, presumably ambitious, chef?

His answer was plain, but full of conviction. “Know why you cook.” He said it again. “Know why you cook.”

When I was going through my blog posts today, this phrase for some reason spoke to me in juxtaposition to the quote by Flaubert. They seem to be saying sort of opposite things: one that you should have an idea of why you’re doing something in order to do it (well); the other, that you’re essentially discovering why you’re doing something as you do it. But what clicked for me just now, is that these two ideas are very much in tune with one another–you can’t know why you cook unless you’re cooking up a storm, and you can’t just hang out waiting for the beliefs that drive your writing to magically reveal themselves before your pen hits the page. One speaks to the process of knowing; the other the importance of it. There’s a reason why you feel compelled to cook, write, or [insert passion of choice]–find it, know it, run with it. God knows how far it will get you.

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Sole roulade with tapenade, pommes puree, vegetable medley, balsamic reduction, beurre blanc