Plating

I can’t wait for the day my heart isn’t pounding out of my chest as I add the final touches to my plate: perching that dehydrated lemon slice, draping the fennel frond just so without knocking my poached salmon fillet off its damn socle. For now, I’ll take refuge in the fact that my heart cares so much in the first place–else why would it try to pump me silly with adrenaline when all this is going down?

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Recipe: winter-spiced chili

I’ve got a basic but nearly foolproof chili formula: a pound of ground meat, one onion, a few garlic cloves, two 15 oz. cans of diced tomatoes (or a big 28 oz. one), a couple cans of beans, and hefty palmfuls of chili powder and cumin. After that, it’s all about improv, trying something new, and working with what you’ve got. I’ve been somewhat bent on cooking with beer recently, mostly because I have a 12-pack of Sam Adams Winter Lager that I’m trying to exhaust before I leave for the break. Turns out the stuff goes pretty well in a winter-themed chili that features a heady spice combination of chili, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, and allspice. I added some oregano for an herbaceous lift, and the beer provided some nice caramel and citrus notes. All in all, I’m quite pleased with this latest chili rendition — I hope some form of it graces your table soon.

Numbers, knowledge, and a little bit of power

One way of looking at food and cooking is as a numbers game. Especially if you’re calorie-conscious or on a weight-loss regimen, numbers play a critical role in how you maintain or achieve a healthy weight. But even for everyone else, while keeping track of your intake of fat, calories, etc. may not be essential on a daily basis, I would argue that a firm knowledge of what you’re eating, numerically speaking, is important to understanding, assessing, and appreciating food. I’m currently in an introductory class on nutrition and sensory analysis, where we cover the nature of taste, how to perform a sensory analysis, the biochemical structures and bodily functions of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, and how to incorporate more wholesome, nutrient-dense ingredients and low-fat or no-fat methods of cooking and flavoring agents to produce food that provides your body with enough energy, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals, while still tasting good. This last point is critical to acknowledge because, all food trends notwithstanding, we’re told that consumers consider taste to be the #1 factor with regard to food choice. 9 times out of 10, real food consumed with balance, moderation, and variety in mind will bestow you with everything your body needs.

The thing is, we all know that eating isn’t just about obtaining 20-35% of your calories from fats or 28g of fiber. So while knowing these barometers is helpful for eating well, and getting the numbers right might mean good health, health is not the only reason we eat food.* In America, there’s an emphasis on health because our nation lacks it and needs to restore it. Hence all the talk on eating stuff that’s “good for you.” Well, food may mean numbers to your body, but is that what it really means to you? I seriously doubt it.

A couple dishes that exemplify the sorts of dishes we’ve cooked thus far:

wild mushroom and goat cheese tortellini, poached shrimp, tomato sauce with basil

seared scallop, smoked tomato sauce, whole grains salad, spinach

*See the WebMD article, “Michael Pollan’s 7 Rules for Eating,” for a brief discussion of what Pollan calls the ideology of “nutritionism” and the myths it propogates.

An atypical classroom

Ten years ago, I never imagined I would be taking a college class that involved sniffing whiskeys and playing with jiggers (not nearly as dirty as it sounds); in which the final evaluation tested my ability to free pour 1.5 oz. and mix 12 drinks in 12 minutes. But here I am, in that class doing those very things and more. The beverage labs at JWU were recently featured in a NYT article that characterized this component of the curriculum as a rarity, even for a professional culinary arts program. Its classes like this one, even though I often bemoan them, that convinced me to choose JWU in the first place. Even though I’m not actually preparing food, I’m learning about flavor combinations, regional specialties, interesting tidbits on concepts like terroir and aging that are useful in and of themselves and, of course, apply not just to beverages but to food as well. A culinary education that encompasses, or at least introduces, the broader context: how flavors, concepts, preferences, and techniques are informed by historical, geographic, and cultural circumstances (the history of sugarcane is the history of rum).

Three cocktails, two ways:

Being in the zone

Happy belated Thanksgiving! Hope you had your fair share of turkey and fixins and of course, family dramas; b/c what would a holiday be without some sinfully delicious bickering and inspired choice of sig-Os on the side?

Back at school, I’m in a new trimester — new schedule, new classmates and the like. On top of culinary labs, I’m taking a couple classes to fulfill my academic requirements as well.

I’ve also been thinking about coming up with a more specific focus for this blog. While I enjoy the open-air nature of it, I feel like the possibilities sometimes drown out the inspiration. As I move forward in culinary school, I’m hoping I’m always one step closer to discovering those key ingredients–the herbs and spices, techniques and nuggets of knowledge that get me giddy–the elements that will help shape both this blog and my culinary career.

One important thing I’ve learned so far is this: I love cooking. As in the physical act of it. I haven’t developed a full-blown passion for certain flavors or ingredients, let alone regions or cuisines. But part of what I love about cooking is being “in the zone”: the intense focus and the feeling that nothing else seems to exist. Perhaps you’ve entered it yourself while playing piano or soccer, practicing yoga, writing an essay or story. It’s that state of being so utterly absorbed in doing something to the point that you lose your awareness of it, along with your sense of self, time and your surroundings. L reminded me that it sounded a lot like “flow,” a positive psychology concept first proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. In an interview, he describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”[9] 

That is exactly how I feel a lot of the time when I’m cooking. It’s also when I feel my happiest and most creative. I’m confident my interests in flavors, ingredients, regions and cuisines will reveal themselves in time, and I’m certain that continuing to cook is the best way to ensure their full expression. In the meantime, I’m cooking because that’s when I feel most alive.

Snapshot: a whole new world

Intro class on cookery in the Americas, with an emphasis on dry heat methods: roasting, grilling, broiling, and deep-frying.

From L to R starting at 9 o’clock: corn fritter, jerk beef kabob, grilled vegetables, roasted potatoes, fried fish fillet, fried calamari, and a burger slider with blue cheese and balsamic onions in the middle.

Letting the world in

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in and out of a minor funk. Nothing serious, but at times I felt sluggish, distant, unbalanced, a bit off. I’ve been trying to fight off the haze for the last couple days by taking advantage of the beautiful fall weather and foliage in Roger Williams Park. In these periods–after a break-up, a move, hearing some unexpected news–I’ve learned that even though your instinct may be to hole up, allowing yourself to open up to what’s around you is ultimately the key to moving on.

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Intro to Baking & Pastry

Class with Chef D. is entertaining, and delicious. Between him muttering to himself and teaching us “ladies and gents” how to put out quality baked goods, it’s not surprising students look back on his class fondly (and, some claim, 10 lbs heavier). Try as you might to spread the wealth, it’s hard not to take a couple for the team. I’ll sleep fine at night, though, knowing it’s all in the name of education. The sweet, sweet education of a proper strawberry shortcake. Or 2.