Sunday, January 23, 2011
To be honest the idea of a lamb leg makes no sense to me. In culinary school you learn about moist vs. dry cooking methods. Lamb leg is one of the few cuts of meat that defy all culinary technique. Technically speaking a cut like a leg of lamb that is filled with pockets of fat and sinew should be cooked in a moist heat application like a braise, but we tend to roast it to a measly medium rare and serve it expecting it to be tender and moist. Not to mention I am not a big fan of mint jelly (a really old school accompaniment to lamb) or fresh rosemary (considered to almost be a lamb must-have). Most of the lamb you see at your megamart is gamey and crap. New Zealand or parts of Australia is where it is most often sourced which means it was harvested, stored, shipped, all the way across an ocean and a continent. Not necessarily what I look for as local meat. Colorado also produces a fair amount of lamb, and it is good, a tad less "gamey" and relatively easy to find. I just have always felt like if you want to get really serious about eating locally I needed a local lamb to provide to my customer base.
A lamb is a sheep that is under the age of 1 yr, but most are harvested around the age of 8-10 months. Anything older is called mutton, and mutton has a very aggressive flavor that your grandparents can maybe tell you about. They are harvested at around 65# max, and even much less. Typically lamb is very expensive, as it represents a life that only yielded a few pounds of the much sought after loin and leg. When was the last time you heard someone selling lamb sirloins? Some people just love it though, and while I wouldn't freak out if I never got to eat it again, good lamb goes a long way, and really good lamb will blow a customers mind.
My meat purveyor at work picks up a local product (whole animal) from a local grower, butchers and cuts it and then sells it. The farm is called "Atherton" and it is the absolute best lamb I have ever had. While it isn't on my menu at the restaurant I feature it as often as possible as the most local and sustainable lamb product available to me. To clean a lamb loin is a process and usually means at least a 30% loss of meat. The process of cleaning the bones is called "frenching" and refers to scraping any tissue and sinew from the bone, sometimes even wrapping the bone in foil so that once roasted the bone remains stark white. I like a good medium-rare for a lamb rack, or lollipop, but I would eat this lamb raw without a second thought as I absolutely trust its grower and harvester. And while I wont often get excited about lamb I will get excited about this stuff.
As for the leg, often it is bought in a bagged and tied form that makes me gag a bit. I just don't do very good with cuts of meat that are in a shape I am unable to identify with. When I buy this lamb I get to remove the bone myself and then tie it up as well. Usually I will apply a bit of a rub to it, and then roast it to a medium rare. While I said it is technically an injustice, it is the norm and can yield a very nice, tender cut of meat, great for a family gathering, especially in the spring when lamb are classically slaughtered. Look to lamb to bring a bit of elegance to a normal meal, that when purchased correctly, and cooked correctly can be a piece of meat to remember. This is a local lamb loin that was tediously "frenched" and then marinated in some herbs and red wine. It was seared and then roasted to finish, rested and then cut into chops for a high end party I was catering a few weeks ago, paired with a stone ground mustard. That is definitely some lamb I can get excited about.
For way too long I have used a cheesy cutting board. I really only have one, and so have become very smart in my mise en place for each meal. I know I have to wash it after lunch and before dinner when I am at home, and that has actually made me more motivated to do the dishes when I finish a meal, and to plan out my cuts accordingly. My whole philosophy at home is to not have anything I don't need in my kitchen, and while I have wanted a really nice cutting board for years, I don't really need one nor do I have the space to store one. Not to mention they are spendy. "Butcher" style blocks can be very expensive especially in the sizes I have been thinking about.
A few weeks back I came across a prep table with a wooden block top. The kind that a pastry chef would usually use. While I didn't have an exact usage (my kitchen at home is way to small for something that size) it was to good of a deal to pass up. My Executive chef at work (my direct boss) is quite an amazing woodworker. I have a pepper mill that he hand made at home, and have gifted a few cutting boards that he helped me make to a few different people. I told him about the table and he decided that its best usage was a cutting board for my house. We loaded it into his truck and he told me he needed a month or so until he would be able to tackle it.
Yesterday I was gifted this magnificent piece. He cut and turned the slats in the existing prep table, gluing. clamping and sanding all the way through. It measures a beastly 29.5" across, 19.5" width, and 3.25" high. At around 40# it is an amazing piece of wood and craftsmanship.
I need to get a few more coatings of food grade oil on to it, and keep it elevated with some cut corks to keep air circulated under it. I will most likely use my existing cutting board to cut raw proteins, as the new one will not fit in my sink to wash, let alone my dishwasher. Other than that it is game on to prep and separate on my permanent new counter sized board. Cutting boards like this can be ridiculous expensive if you can find them, and are often made of cheap wood with shoddy techniques. This one is not. When it gets worn or stained it can simply be sanded down and refinished. With a little bit of proper care it will last years and years. I wish you all could see a knife go to town on it. Just enough feeling and give coupled with the perfect amount of feedback. It is no wonder that wood is the go to fabric for cutting boards in high end households everywhere. I hope one day my children will still be using it.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Farro is an Italian form of wheat that I am seeing more often, like some other whole grains, and starches they come in and out of style as chefs all over the world look for different ways to present starches on plates in restaurants everywhere. Like quinoa, bulgar, buckwheat, grits, and barley- farro is trendy. A simple push to get away from the rice and potato dishes that accompany fish and meat dishes. The thought process is simple- as a chef I know you (as a customer) can make potatoes at least 4-5 different ways at home, and hopefully you can cook a few good rice dishes as well. When you make a decision to come to a restaurant there is an expectation that I will feed you something new, or different. Therefore I have only two options, I can make the best mashed or roasted potatoes, rice blend or pilaf that you have ever had, or I can feed you a starch that you have never heard of, or wouldn't have the guts to try at home, even if you could track it down. Again either way creates value for a customer, and a taste that they are prone to remembering. I remember thinking long ago that once I could identify, and then cook all of these oddball starches I would be a "great" chef. I while I am a better chef for knowing most of them, it is an evolving work in progress. Every rice has a different ideal water ratio, every starch has a way it wants to be cooked, and I cant necessarily stop what I am doing and Google the liquid to product ratio of things like farro in the middle of service.
Farro seems to create some issues as well, it can be called any number of things, and actually is a pretty ancient grain that may be familiar to you in different names. Spelt, wheatberries, emmer, or einkorn. There is even some argument that it is so similar to barley that it should just be called Italian barley. From a structural standpoint it is just the grains of certain types of wheat.
Like barley (if you don't cook barley at home you should) I find it best cooked risotto style. Toast it lightly in a pan, and add hot liquid a few cups at a time until it is done. Also like barley it will have a bit of toothsomeness to it, even when it is done. I like to do this with some mirepoix, and the whole process in my own kitchen will take me about an hour and half. It is hearty enough to stand up in a stew, or a soup as well.
This farro I bought from work and it was about $4.60/# which means as far as starches go, it was spendy. That being said it always amazes me that things like this will quadruple in size in the cooking process and so what started as a cup of raw farro, an onion, carrot, some celery, and some stock yielded me about 4-5 cups of cooked product. Look for farro in your local high-end grocery store, or online. As a chef things like this impress my customers, as a husband they impress my wife, and I always get a kick out of telling my boys that no one else they know is eating a farro risotto for dinner tonight.
Sunday, January 9, 2011
In May of last year I mentioned to Melissa that I needed new Birkenstocks. I have never worn anything but a pair of Birkenstock "Birkis" professional series clogs in black since before I ever worked in a professional kitchen. I have briefly tried some of the other options but my Doc Martens lasted only about 15 minutes, before I peeled them off and swore to never wear them again. This is serious stuff for me as I stand for up to 14 or 15 hours a day most days, I rarely sit, or stop moving. I feel like the Birkenstocks have been designed to help me do that, allowing me to do that with the least amount of side effects possible. Most of my kitchen staff wears them as well. If they need a pair of shoes and ask, I will get them for them. While you can wear crocs, knock-off crocs, shoes for crews, Dansko, Doc Marten, or others nothing will come close in traction, wear and tear, and comfort.
It was around the end of May that I found a website of a Corvalis Oregon company that sold birkenstocks, and I called them. The nice woman who answered the phone explained that they didn't have them but could get them, and that she would "call me back." She didn't. The following week I called a company in New England somewhere and was told by the nice man on the phone that they were not available at this time. He claimed to have been able to access the entire Birkis inventory for all of N. America and no one had a pair, but they were scheduled to be made in September, and then shipped from Germany.
See I wear a size 16. The biggest that these shoes are made is the equivalent of a 15, but I make it work with some stretching. Apparently there is not a big call for a size 15 chef/nurse shoe, and Birkenstock only makes them every 2 years. GRRRRRR. Another call to the Corvalis company revealed the same thing. I continued working, trying to source a solution. It was mid July when the Corvalis company called and explained they had the shoes I wanted in their Portland Oregon store. A trip was planned, and when I arrived, surprisingly enough they were the wrong shoes. A different Birki, in black that is made for gardening, and washing the car, and what-not. Not going to work for me in the kitchen. They apologized profusely and I wasted some gas and a day off. GRRR. The woman in Corvalis called me and apologized and said she would have the shoe in her hands in late August to mid-September. I continued to get angry, and slip all over wet floors.
In October the woman from Corvalis called Melissa and said the shoe was on its way. We paid for them, and expedited shipping, and waited. What arrived was the same pair of gardening clogs I saw in Portland. I was pissed. I called them again, and again she apologized profusely. Offered me a free pair of the same clog as I was looking for in blue not black. I, as calmly as possible explained blue wasn't going to work, and that I had to have black. She told me to keep the ones she sent as a freebie. While that all seems fine and dandy, it was far from a solution. I tried to wear them a few days and slipped and was generally uncomfortable. Meanwhile my existing birks had worn to a paper thin sole, both sides had ripped in the back, and the foot insole was grossly depleted and smelled horrible. She said she would keep me updated and send them the day she got them.
I thought worst case I would have them by November 1st.....but no. Thanksgiving?.... umm no. Christmas came and went, as did New Years. I looked for other options but in those sizes the choices are very limited in every day shoes, let alone black work shoes that I wouldn't slip in, and could work all day in. Then a breakthrough, an email saying she had them, and they were headed my way. I didn't believe her.
Alas here they are, eight and a half months later, they arrived, gratis, from the sender. They are perfect, and I almost cried. Thinking about buying another pair "just in case". You may catch me around town in them.
In an interview I once watched with a great chef named Rick Bayless, he described that making mole was a huge step for him in his culinary career. He explained that from the first time he had it he fell in love, and was still trying to get it right 25 yrs later. Rick Bayless is credited with bringing high end Mexican to the forefront of some of the nicest restaurants in the country. Making it more than pinto beans and rice, and the first to give that cuisine the justice it deserves.
Different parts of Mexico make different mole, from green, to red, to dark brown, to black and very very spicy to calm and collected. Local and family recipes are handed down from generation to generation, and protected like gold. The process can easily take a few days, and call for a vast plethora of ingredients. I acquired a recipe from the mother of one of my long time cooks and it was in Spanish, and called for so many ingredients that I have never heard of, let alone could find anywhere in my vicinity. At its most basic form it is a mixture of 3-7 dried and toasted types of chili, chocolate, cinnamon, tomato, tomatillo, cumin, coriander and more and is almost always served over chicken with corn tortillas and Mexican rice.
While I will continue to research and develop my own recipe, luckily it is available almost anywhere in a canned form which while holds no candle to the homemade stuff actually isn't that bad. Look for it on the ethnic aisle of your grocer, and heat it slowly. Unless you are at a very nice Mexican restaurant this is the same thing you will most likely get when you order it.
All of this (and the picture) stems from our company Christmas party a few weeks back where we were tasked with cooking for about 250 ppl. Now about half of our workforce is Mexican and we wanted to honor that by feeding them some really authentic food. With some help from some of our employees we made posole, mole, and three different types of tamales, all paired with every condiment you could ever fathom. The woman who made the mole made about 7 gallons of it, and it took her most of the day, and she was very secretive about her process and ingredients. It was mind blowing good, and while I worked at the party I was able to bring some home for use at some point soon. I encourage you to spice up dinner at home with items like this, its healthy, inexpensive, and a change from the normal grind that I realize cooking for a family can be like every day.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
If you are paying attention in the kitchen your sense of smell can tell you things going on across the room. I know what seared meat smells like, I know when the tomatoes in the oven are perfectly roasted, I know when bread is just about done, all by smell. The smell of truffles, in any form, will flood a kitchen with a warm funk, different from anything else.
Both black and white truffles are some of the most expensive ingredients in the kitchen. They have one of the most aggressive aromas, and flavors. This relative to the mushroom can not be cultivated, and like a porcini, or a chanterelle has to be searched for, and to make it just a little bit harder they grow underground, or at least under ground foliage. They are rumored to give off the exact same smell as a pig in heat and throughout time have been foraged for with a muzzled male pig, or a good hunting dog. Most of the really expensive black truffles come from Europe, places like France, Spain, and Italy hold them on a culinary pedestal, often fetching hundreds of dollars an ounce. Luckily in Oregon we get a small truffle harvest, and while ours aren't as big, or as aromatic, they are still amazing. Our local truffles are often less than half the cost of the imported ones as well.
I am not in the market to buy them for home use. Nor presumably are most of my readers, nor are they something I would recommend that any of you head out and begin to start looking for. The cool thing about truffles is that they store really well, and because their flavor is so aggressive those flavors are often infused into other things that if you are interested in trying truffles, you should be on the lookout for. I will warn you that their flavors are often described using the following terms- musty, dusty, rank, funky, earthy, moldy, rancid, etc. Therefore you probably shouldn't be feeding them to your small children, or anyone who is not on the tad bit adventurous. On the flip side of that if you have had some of the more aggressive mushrooms that exist then truffles are an easy skip.
Truffle oil-Available in both black and white truffle varieties this is simply a good olive oil that has been infused with truffles. It is the most available form of truffles, as any high end boutique grocer should carry it. It will be expensive, but good olive oil is expensive, and it will go a very, very long way. A few drops to garnish a soup, or rice dish is all that you will need to get your point across.
Truffle salt- A while back I had the fortune to be sent to a shop in Portland called "The Meadow", which sells only salt, chocolate, flowers, and wine. They are also a very successful shop, with a new one opening in NYC this winter. The owner of the shop has written a book called "Salt" and I was able to chat briefly with him, and buy an autographed copy of it. Now the kicker as to why I had the fortune of going was that I was sent with a blank company check, and instructed to buy two things, and anything else that looked "cool". Almost $500 later I bailed with some really, really "cool" stuff. Among that was a huge container of black truffle sea salt. The nicest I have ever seen with pieces of truffle (not truffle dust like most) throughout it. Truffle salt should also be available in most of your high end grocery stores, or boutique food shops. Again a little bit goes a long way, and mostly I would use it to finish a dish, not for seasoning throughout. A grilled steak, finished with some butter and some truffle salt will put me on cloud nine for at least three days.
If you do have the fortune to come into any sort of truffles, use them quickly, or store them in rice or melted butter. Either will do a good job of preservation, and in turn will become infused with those flavors. Then when you finish the truffles you can continue to reap the benefits of them. The ones pictured had been packed in butter and are destined for a truffled potato cake as a starch for a lobster and filet dish that I sold the daylights out of on New Years Eve at the restaurant. Thanks for reading.