Monday, September 29, 2008

Hack of All Trades #2 - Pasta Pergatory

Dear Umami Mama,

I was cooking pasta the other night and had a terrible time.  First when I put the pasta into the pan, it wouldn't fit, so I broke it in half and then when the water started boiling, the pasta was all clumped up and i couldn't stir it, so then I added extra virgin olive oil to try and break it up, but then it just became gummy.  What did I do wrong?


Confused in Camarillo

Dear Confused in Camarillo,

YOU STUPID HACK!  Unfortunately, it sounds like you did everything wrong.  Whenever you are cooking pasta, you need to have a big enough pot to accommodate the pasta and already BOILING salted water.  When you add food to boiling water, the temperature of the water is immediately lowered because the heat is transferred into the food.  If you add too much food and there is not enough water, the water will stop boiling.  This will also cause the pasta to taste starchy and clump up.  If you are cooking a standard package of pasta (16 oz) then you should use at least 5 quarts of boiling salted water.  When the water is boiling, put the pasta in the pot, and as it softens gently ease it down.  You'll also want to stir the pasta so that none of it clumps together.  You'll want to cook it al dente, and the best way to test this is to take it out and taste it.  It should have some bite, but not be underdone.  Once it's al dente, drain immediately, and add to your pasta sauce (that should be hot and ready to go in another pan that is big enough to also hold the pasta).  From here you can have the pasta and sauce combine, give a final seasoning, and finish off with some good extra virgin olive oil and cheese. Remember, when adding cheese to pasta, you should take it off the heat, otherwise the fat will separate and you'll end up with oily instead of creamy.  

Also, since you are using the correct amount of boiling water and pot, there should be no need to break the pasta in half.  You might as well just overcook the pasta so that when you are trying to twirl it on your fork, it breaks up into those little pasta pieces, and then you'll realize that you should have just cooked some rice and added pasta sauce.  Also, never add olive oil to your cooking water.  The very best pasta you can buy will have a rough texture.  This will ensure that when it is tossed in a sauce, that the sauce will cling to the pasta.  If you add olive oil, the sauce will not cling.  However, if you are making pasta that will be used at a later point, drain it and put it on a cookie sheet, then drizzle with some olive oil so that the pasta cools evenly and doesn't stick together.  

If none of this works for you, chef boyardee may be your best bet as hamburger helper may be too advanced for you.  May the Pasta Gods have mercy on your pasta-less soul.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Cook's Life #2 - Crew Meal

"What's for CREW MEAL today?"

this question has elicited complete joy AND ran shivers down my spine, as it could mean a period of zen cooking or hellacious hospital experiment in a pan. the last two kitchens i've worked in, i have been responsible for making what's called staff meal or crew meal. basically, it's a meal provided by the restaurant for the employees. sometimes it's for front of the house (wait staff, hosts, managers, bartenders), back of the house (cooks, chefs, dishwashers, janitors), or sometimes both.

where i work now, i've consistently cooked crew meal for the lunch crew (roughly 25 people everyday) as long as i've worked lunch shift, and now i cook crew meal for the dinner crew (front of the house, at least ten orders) two nights out of the week. the reason for such extreme reactions to crew meal is because i never really know what i'm going to make. sometimes, i've been able to plan a day ahead with my sous chef Ted, and we've made some killer meals, but most of the time, i cook what we have, and that usually means whatever needs to be used up because it's going bad, whatever fish or beef scraps we have, or at worst, eggs and bacon with rice. this also has to be done in addition to the work that goes along with the station, and well, it's tough to put up something nice when your station is in the shits. of course you try to do your best, but sometimes, it's just really, really bad.

at this point in my career, i've got crew meal down, but it wasn't always so. in the beginning, i had some major disasters, like spaghetti sauce that was more like wallpaper-tomato paste and horrific beef stroganoff that NO ONE wanted to eat. believe me, cooking for cooks holds a pressure all its own, because we get hungry AND we know what good food should taste like. i had to find my niche and thought back on my life and realized, i'd been cooking good, simple food for lots of people all my life. i started cooking family meals when i was nine. back in college while living with so many different people, i'd always cook a huge pot of something, and since then i've always loved cooking for roommates, housemates, friends.

so, i started cooking comfort food: fried chicken, meatloaf, shepherds pie, chicken fried steak and eggs with grits, chicken and dumplings, hamburgers with fries, garlic herb roasted chicken with potatoes and veg, fish and chips, Portuguese sausage and fish stew with grilled bread, chili with garnish of red onion, cilantro, and cheese, goulash, beef stew, steak and eggs with grilled tomatoes and bearnaise, grilled lamb sausages with tzaziki, cous cous and greek salad, and probably my most popular (next to the fried chicken, meatloaf, and hamburgers) chinese kung pao beef or mongolian beef with plenty of rice on the side.

now, if you're a cook reading this, you know that most kitchens have a heavily latino based workforce, and most veteranos work en el dia. i've felt it an honor to work alongside these men, most of them far away from home sending money back to their families, most working two or three jobs full time, but when they get in there they get it done. sure, there's some horseplay, and i've learned all the bad spanish words i can stand, but when it's time for business, these men take it. and it's because of these men (and my sous chef Ted) that i've learned how to cook mexican food: tacos, enchiladas, cochinita pibil (i once made this using some pork that i shouldn't have, and although i was reprimanded, Chef still went back for seconds AND told me great job!), fajitas, chile quiles, cocido, chile con carne, real guacamole, real salsa, and some chicken and potato stews that i learned from my co-workers (mostly through stunted english, my broken spanish, and lots of hand gestures) who in turn had learned the recipes from their mothers or grandmothers.

i've learned from these men, that's it's important to do a good job, whether you want to or not. most of these men chose a culinary profession because its a trade in high demand that would guarantee them skilled work for a paycheck many times over in their own country. you pit that intense drive for survival and responsibility for others (wives, children) against the pollyanna-naivete of the starched-white culinary student (most of whom haven't worked a day in their lives) and the results are laughable. it's the classic Professional vs. Enthusiast, which i will get into on a future "Philosophical Musings" post.

Being a cook means that you are making something special for someone to eat, and that is given a monetary value (for the customer) but, an ethical and spiritual value by the cook; we want to do a good job, but also know when we aren't, and although it's very hard and humbling work, we THRIVE from it. we cook for hours for COMPLETE STRANGERS, and we are tired, and we get hungry. so, when i approach crew meal, i think of my co-workers, and how i know them, have befriended them, and love them. it's important to me as a cook to make something good, but even more so to make it good for my kitchen family.

crew meal is that point in the day, even if it only lasts five minutes (most of the time it only lasts two) that we can have a moment to ourselves, and ironically, eat food. it's a sacred moment, when we can stop to sit, take a breath, and enjoy something warm. it's one of the only comforts we have, because other than that, we are moving constantly, always standing, always alert, always working, always doing SOMETHING for something or someone else, except for when it's crew meal time.

since i've moved to nights, i see the lunch crew when i get in, and they are always happy to see me and i them. they always ask me,"Comida?" and i always have to tell them, "No mas." some of them even point to their stomachs and make frowny faces. yeah, i miss feeding them, and they miss eating my food. now when i make crew meal, it's mostly been fish scraps, rice and salad, with the exception of a killer shepherds pie, meatloaf, and chili i was able to make with sous chef Ted's help (ahhh, the good old days).

so, if you've ever wondered if cooks get to eat at work, or had this idea that all we did was eat all day and get fat, it's really much, much more. this is how i've run with it, and i've tried to make it the best food experience possible.


p.s. props to Steven for pancakes, candied walnut french toast, and maple syrup butter...OH YEAH!

p.p.s. i miss you all: samantha (aka mariposa), felix (aka chupas), sal, javier (aka pitallas), chago, ray, abel (aka blueberry, chiquita), eutemio (aka tortuga), humberto (aka chapin), pancho, christopher, and all the cochos from front of the house!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gastronomic Concepts #3 - Dinerese and America's Lost Counter Culture

when i was a kid, i used to watch this show called Reading Rainbow with the host Levar Burton (of Roots and Star Trek: Next Gen fame).  there was an episode where he was in a diner, and the waitress was calling orders to the cook in this weird code.  she explained that it was Dinerese (DYEner-EZE), a kind of shorthand for food orders that came about in the U.S., mostly in diners, lunch counters, and casual eateries.  Levar wanted to learn dinerese, so tried his hand at interpreting what the waitress called back.  his interpretations however were literal, and many of the customers sent their food back.  after some explaining, he got the hang of it and the customers were happily fed.

i never forgot that episode, and in doing my research, i found this fantastic list on wikipedia under "Diner Lingo".  i find it fascinating how some of the entries make absolutely so sense, yet still managed to spread as common culinary knowledge among short order cooks and waitresses.  in the modern kitchen, some terms like "on the rail", "marry", "86", "pittsburgh" are still in use.  

so, if you're like me and love reference lists, dive in and enjoy!  i especially love the definition for "Eighty-Six" and "Zeppelins in a fog."  my dinerese order would sound something like this: "Burn one, take it through the garden with Jack Benny and pin a rose on it. Frog sticks and hemorrhage in the alley.  One on the city. Dusty miller, and put a hat on it!"


A blonde with sand: coffee with cream and sugar
A Murphy: a potato, so called because of their association with the Irish diet of potatoes, Murphy being a common Irish name
A spot with a twist: a cup of tea with lemon
A stack of Vermont: pancakes with maple syrup
An M.D.: a Dr Pepper
Adam & Eve on a raft: two poached eggs on toast
Adam's Ale: water
All hot: baked potato
Angel: sandwich man
Angels on horseback: oysters rolled in bacon on toast

B & B: bread and butter
B.L.T.: bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich
Baled hay: shredded wheat
Balloon juice/Belch water/Alka Seltzer: seltzer, soda water
Beef Stick: bone
Billiard: buttermilk
Birdseed: breakfast
Black and white: chocolate soda with vanilla ice cream
Bloodhounds in the Hay: hot dogs and sauerkraut
Bloody: very rare
Blowout patches: pancakes
Blue-plate special: a dish of meat, potato, and vegetable served on a plate (usually blue) sectioned in three parts. This can also refer to the daily special.
Boiled leaves: Tea
Bow-wow/Bun pup/Tube steak/Groundhog: a hot dog
Bowl of red: a bowl of chili con carne, so called for its deep red color.
Break it and shake it: add egg to a drink
Breath: onion
Bridge/Bridge party: four of anything (from bridge the card game)
Bronx vanilla/Halitosis/Italian Garlic: garlic
Bubble Dancer: dishwasher
Bucket of cold mud: a bowl of chocolate ice cream
Bullets/Whistleberries/Saturday night: Baked beans, so called because of the supposed flatulence they cause.
Burn one: put a hamburger on the grill
Burn one, take it through the garden and pin a rose on it: hamburger with lettuce, tomato and onion
Burn the British: toasted English muffin

C.J. Boston: cream cheese and jelly
Cackle fruit/Cackleberries: eggs
Canned cow: evaporated milk
Check the ice: look at the pretty girl who just came in
Checkerboard: Waffle
Chewed with Fine Breath: hamburger with onions
China: rice pudding
Chopper: a table knife
Clean up the kitchen: hash
Coney Island chicken/Coney Island bloodhound/Coney Island: a hot dog, so called because hot dogs were popularly associated with the stands on Coney Island.
Cow feed: a salad
Cow paste/Skid Grease/Axle grease: butter
Cowboy Western: a western omelette or sandwich
Creep: Draft beer
Crowd: three of anything (possibly from the saying "Two's company, three's a crowd")
Customer will take a chance: hash

Deadeye: poached egg
Dough well done with cow to cover: bread and butter
Drag one through Georgia: cola with chocolate syrup, probably a reference to the fact that the headquarters of Coca-Cola is in Atlanta, Georgia, and dragging anything is likely to get it muddy, i.e., darker, which would be the same result as adding chocolate syrup. Carbonated drinks such as Coca-Cola were originally served by pouring concentrated syrup into a glass and adding soda water, so they could be made to whatever strength the customer preferred.
Draw one/A cup of mud: a cup of coffee
Draw one in the Dark/Flowing Mississippi: a black coffee
Dog and maggot: cracker and cheese
Dog biscuit: a cracker
Dough well done with cow to cover: buttered toast
Dusty Miller: chocolate pudding, sprinkled with powdered malt

Eighty-six: "Do not sell to that customer" or "The kitchen is out of the item ordered". "To remove an item from an order or from the menu". Article 86 of the New York State Liquor Code defines the circumstances in which a bar patron should be refused alcohol or '86ed'. The Soup Kitchen Theory: during the depression of the 1930s, soup kitchens would often make just enough soup for 85 people. If you were next in line after number 85, you were '86ed'. The Eight Feet By Six Feet Theory: A coffin is usually eight feet long and is buried six feet under. Once in your coffin you've been 'eight by sixed', which shortens to '86ed'. Chumley's Theory: Many years ago, Chumley's Restaurant, at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, had a custom of throwing rowdy customers out the back door. During Prohibition, Chumley's was a speakeasy owned by Leland Stanford Chumley. When the cops were on the way, someone would shout "86," and they would all exit through the back door.
Eve with a lid on: apple pie, referring to the biblical Eve's tempting of Adam with an apple. The "lid" is the pie crust
Eve with a moldy lid: apple pie with a slice of cheese

Fifty-five: a glass of root beer
First lady: spareribs, a pun on Eve's being made from Adam's spare rib.
Fish eyes or Cat's eyes: tapioca pudding
Flop two: two fried eggs, over easy
Flop two, over easy: fried egg flipped over (carefully!) and the yolk is still very runny. That means the other side is cooked for a few seconds
Flop two, over medium: turning over a fried egg and the yolk begins to solidify
Flop two, over hard: fried egg, flipped and cooked until the yolk is solid all the way through
Fly cake or Roach cake: raisin cake or huckleberry pie
Foreign Entanglements: plate of spaghetti
Frenchman's delight: pea soup
Frog sticks: french fries
Fry two/Let the sun shine: 2 fried eggs with unbroken yolks

GAC: Grilled American cheese sandwich. This was also called "jack" (from the pronunciation of "GAC")
Gallery: booth
Gravel train: sugar bowl
Graveyard stew: milk toast; buttered toast, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, and dropped into a bowl of warm milk

Hail: ice
Heart Attack on Rack: biscuits and gravy
Hemorrhage: tomato ketchup
Hen Fruit: Eggs, typically boiled
High and dry: a plain sandwich without butter, mayonnaise, or lettuce
Hockey puck: a hamburger, well done
Hold the hail: no ice
Honeymoon salad: lettuce alone
Hot top: hot chocolate
Hounds on an Island: franks and beans
Houseboat/Dagwood Special: a banana split made with ice cream and sliced bananas
Hug one/Squeeze one: a glass of orange juice

Ice the rice: rice pudding with ice cream
In the alley: served as a side dish
In the weeds: a waitress/cook that can't keep up with the tables. Refers back to chefs' military roots, where being in the weeds would cause your army to be slaughtered.
Irish turkey: corned beef and cabbage

Jack Benny: cheese with bacon (named after the famed comedian)
Java/Joe: coffee

Keep off the grass: no lettuce

Ladybug: fountain man
Let it walk/Go for a walk/On wheels/Give it shoes: an order to go, a takeaway order
Life preservers/Sinkers: doughnuts
Lighthouse: bottle of ketchup
Looseners: prunes, so called because of their supposed laxative effect.
Love Apples: tomatoes
Lumber: A toothpick

Machine Oil: syrup
Magoo: custard pie
Maiden's delight: cherries, so called because "cherry" is a slang term for the maidenhead, hymen
Marry: bring items together for cleaning up, i.e. marry the salt and pepper.
Mayo: mayonnaise
Mike and Ike/The twins: salt and pepper shakers
Million on a platter: a plate of baked beans
Mississippi Mud/Yellow paint: mustard
Moo juice/Cow juice/Baby juice/Sweet Alice: milk
Mully/Bossy in a bowl: beef stew, so called because "Bossy" was a common name for a cow.
Mystery in the alley: a side order of hash

Nervous pudding: gelatin
No cow: without milk
Noah's boy: a slice of ham (Ham was Noah's second son)
Noah's boy on bread: a ham sandwich
Noah's boy with Murphy carrying a wreath: ham and potatoes with cabbage

On a Rail fast, as in "Fries, on a rail!"
On the hoof: any kind of meat, cooked rare
One from the Alps: a Swiss cheese sandwich
One on the City: a glass of water

Paint a bow-wow red: a hot dog with ketchup
Paint it red: put ketchup on an item
Pair of drawers: two cups of coffee
Pigs in a blanket: a ham (sometimes a sausage) sandwich
Pin a rose on it: add onion to an order
Pittsburgh: something burning, toasted or charred, so called because of the smokestacks once evident in Pittsburgh, a coal-producing and steel-mill city. In meat cookery, this refers to a piece of meat charred on the outside while still red within.
Pope Benedict: an eggs benedict, but fit for a pope
Put a hat on it: add ice cream
Put out the lights and cry: an order of liver and onions, "Lights" is a term sometimes used for the edible, mainly internal organs of an animal

Quail: Hungarian goulash

Rabbit food: lettuce
Radar Range: microwave oven, from the Amana Radarange, whose parent company, Raytheon, was the first to manufacture and market the microwave oven.
Radio: tuna salad sandwich on toast (a pun on "tuna down," which sounds like "turn it down," as one would the radio knob)
Radio Sandwich: tuna fish sandwich
Raft: toast
Run it through the Garden: any sandwich, usually a hamburger, with Lettuce, Tomato and Onion added

Sea dust: Salt
Shake one in the hay: strawberry milkshake
Shingle with a shimmy and a shake: buttered toast with jam or jelly, hence the reference to 'shake'.
Shit on a shingle/S.O.S.: minced dried beef with gravy on toast, mostly because it was a reviled standard fare in army messes
Shivering Hay: strawberry gelatin
Shoot from the south/Atlanta special: Coca-Cola, probably a reference to the fact that the headquarters of Coca-Cola is in Atlanta, Georgia.
Shot out of the blue bottle: Bromo-Seltzer
Slab of moo--let him chew it: rare rump steak
Sleigh Ride Special: vanilla pudding
Smear: margarine
Soup jockey: waitress
Splash of red noise: a bowl of tomato soup
Stack/Short stack: order of pancakes
Sun kiss/Oh jay (O.J.): orange juice
Sunny-side up: the eggs are fried without flipping them, so the yolk looks just like a sun on white background
Sweep the kitchen/Sweepings/Clean up the kitchen: a plate of hash

Throw it in the mud: add chocolate syrup
Twelve alive in a shell: a dozen raw oysters
Two cows, make them cry: Two hamburgers with onions
Vermont: maple syrup, because maple syrup comes primarily from the state of Vermont in the U.S.

Walk a cow through the garden: Hamburger with lettuce, tomato and onion
Warts: Olives
Wax: American cheese
Well-dressed diner: codfish
Whiskey: rye bread, as in rye whiskey
Whiskey down: rye toast, the 'down' part probably comes from the action of pushing down the handle on the toaster
White Cow: vanilla milkshake
Windmill Cocktail/City juice/Dog soup: glass of water
Wreath: cabbage
Wreck ‘em: scrambled eggs

Yesterday, today, and forever: hash
Yum Yum/Sand: sugar

Zeppelin: sausage
Zeppelins in a fog: sausages and mashed potatoes

Monday, September 22, 2008

Gastronomic Concepts #2 - Shoemakers, Cowboys and Hacks, OH MY!

"Stabilized on methadone, I became nearly unemployable by polite society - a shiftless, untrustworthy, coke-sniffer, sneak-thief, and corner-cutting hack, tolling in obscurity in the culinary backwaters.  I worked mostly as a cook, moving from place to place, often working under an alias." - Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

now in every workplace, there are those people that are able to fly under the radar, getting by doing just enough.  they usually waltz in about five minutes late everyday, are cheerful and popular, take time to have coffee and cigarette breaks, share minor complaints about how the coffee machine broke (AGAIN!), or how they watched their favorite reality/contest/ comedy/doctor/lawyer show the night before.  they aren't terrible nor are they exceptional at what they do; they are just there.  

in the kitchen (or at least mine) there is no time for such things, and i'm so glad that since i changed careers, i don't have to deal with the bullshit of people that don't pull their own weight.  we get into work and we only have "X" amount of time to complete "X" amount of projects, and if it doesn't get done, "WE" are screwed, and by "WE" i mean the kitchen, because if one person doesn't have something they need for service, that holds EVERYONE up.  we don't have the luxury of calling our boss and asking for an extension until next week, we can't really say that, "Oh, I never got that memo, let me check my spam," or, "I sent that out last week, but for some reason the tracking number I have isn't registering.  I'll send it again."  if we, in the kitchen don't have it, it's our ass, and no cook ever wants to be in that position, so we do our damnedest to be ready.

however (heh heh heh) there are people in kitchens that work slow, are messy, don't know what they're doing, don't try to learn to know what they should be doing, cause accidents, don't show up for work, steal food, use bad/rotten product, send out stuff that's fallen on the floor, use dirty pans, don't wash their hands, can never put the same dish up consistently, have the taste buds of a goat, and just plain don't care about what they're doing.  these people are known as Shoemakers, Cowboys, and Hacks (OH MY!).  

now, before i go any further, i must stress that in my kitchen, we don't have any of the cooks doing any of those things described above.  it is a fine dining, michelin rated establishment, but i do have experience working in other restaurants of lesser caliber, and it is in those places that i witnessed, first hand, the horrors of such fiends.  things like, having to replace moldy berries on fruit tarts (that were already a week old) with fresh ones because they were on the menu for a party, twice fried fritto misto that had been sitting up in the window too long or that needed to be stretched out for two portions because the ordering wasn't done right and we didn't have enough calamari, or things like the sewage system backing up and flooding the kitchen floor, ugh.  these were reasons why i chose to get into fine dining and specifically the restaurant where i work at present, because i knew the quality control would be of utmost importance, and since working, the restaurant has exceeded my expectations.

so, Shoemakers, Cowboys and Hacks (OH MY!).  These three terms generally mean the same thing; a cook that doesn't care about the work they do.  there are subtle differences and reasons behind the names.  

a Shoemaker usually applies to a chef that, although is in charge of a kitchen and should be the leader, inspiring cooks and the menu and generally making the restaurant as successful as it can be, passes off the work to everyone else.  the chef pulls recipes from cookbooks instead of creating their own or the sous chefs end up writing the menus, they come in to the kitchen for maybe a few hours out of the day to "delegate" and "oversee" things, and spend more time in the dining room with the guests kissing ass than back in the kitchen making sure things are running smoothly.  even worse, they are in the office drunk or snorting coke and looking at porn on the computer.  my co-worker, Steven, told me that the name "Shoemaker" came about from the old fairy tale, "The Shoemaker and the Elves." 

the story tells of an old shoemaker and his wife who are very poor and only have enough money to buy materials to make one pair of shoes.  the shoemaker sets everything out, ready for work in the early morning and goes to sleep.  when he wakes, he is surprised to find that the pair of shoes has already been made and a customer buys the shoes at an expensive price.  as time goes on, the shoemaker keeps putting out his work the night before, with the intention of completing it in the morning, but finds the shoes all made.  one night, his wife decides that they should hide and watch to see what goes on in the night, and they see two little naked elves making the shoes.  the couple decide that they should make the elves some clothes in appreciation for helping them, and the next night, the elves find the clothes, in place of shoes that need to be made, and they are so happy that they dance away, leaving the couple to their own happiness and wealth.  

now, the story is much nicer, portraying the shoemaker and his wife as humble people that have worked hard all their lives, but just needing some help, and that the elves were happy to help the couple.  i can assure you that a Shoemaker Chef is very capable of doing his work and is just a lazy bastard and that the kitchen elves are PISSED when they have to do more work on top of their own.  

i had heard the name, "Cowboy," after asking one of my british ex-pat coworkers what they call "Hacks" in England.  "We call them Cowboys," he said in his imperial british accent.  i thought that was funny, and ironically, he ended up getting sacked because he was a Hack.  anyway, i asked another british ex-pat coworker, David, why the name Cowboy.  he responded, "Cowboys, they just plow through everything, don't they?"  No finesse, no care, no delicacy in the work, just rough riding and getting it done.  made sense, and as far as Hack, it's the same as hacking wood with a dull ax.  so if you're an American cook in England and they call you a cowboy, it's not a compliment and vice versa.  

consequently, most if not all culinary students start out as hacks/cowboys, but they can't help it; most have little or no experience and honestly, they don't know WTF they are doing. hopefully they'll grow out of it, but unless they find a kitchen that is willing to train them and help them grow, they are doomed to forever troll in culinary graveyards working for Shoemakers and other Hacks, never to be fired because it's hard to find good help, and because the Hacks and Cowboys grossly outweigh the real cooks.  so they get their tattoos, and think it's cool to be a chef, and drink and swear and have a deep affinity with pirates, talk about Anthony Bourdain like he's a god (while i don't doubt that Mr. Bourdain is a competent chef, we must remember that he became famous for being a writer and not a Chef), think they are rockstars, and do a lot more talking than cooking, collect their paychecks and are just there, doing just enough, getting along by the skin of their teeth, finding ways to cut corners instead of doing the technique right in the first place, and they don't care.  


ah me.  well, it's good to be part of a profession where, at least i know i give a damn, and it shows.  



Friday, September 19, 2008

Mood Food #1 - Girls Night Out Mac 'N' Cheese

back in the day, my best girlfriend Jenn and i would meet up for drinks, dancing, and late-night food. we were each other's wingmen, not so much to pick up on guys, but more to look out for each other. if she wore a dress or skirt, then i would wear pants and vice versa, and we would always wear black, our makeup was always smoky eyes and red lipstick, and we would never smile; we were tough cookies, and we meant business when it was dance night. we would take turns buying drinks, talk about guys or our boyfriends, and just have fun.

when it was time to leave, it was most likely because we were hungry. eating before drinking and dancing was never a good idea, so we starved ourselves like good society girls until we needed to eat something to "soak up all that damned alcohol". we'd end up at the 24 hour diner, jewish deli, taco truck, or late-night brazilian restaurant. thinking back to all those nights, we always ordered something cheesy, greasy and meaty. we rationalized that we needed to eat something heavy to combat the alcohol and to ward off hangovers. i'm not sure if it worked, because i always slept through the hangover the next day, but i suppose it was just one of those perfectly convenient justifications for eating like pigs. some of the things we always ate were:

macaroni and cheese
chili cheese fries
NY steak mid-rare and over medium eggs with hash browns and plenty of tabasco
seafood pizza with clams, shrimp, lobster and pink sauce
matzo ball soup with lemon wedges on the side
chopped liver, onion, bacon and cheese sandwich, grilled with pickles on the side
danger dogs with everything
pink's spicy polish dog with chili, cheese, onions, mustard, bacon and tomatoes
toxic hell soft taco supremes with hot sauce
tommy's chili burgers
in-n-out double double meal #1 with raw onions, animal style burger AND fries
open faced hot turkey sandwich with extra gravy and mashed potatoes
mid-rare 1 lb burger with bacon, blue cheese, avocado, red onions and A-1 sauce
double-thick chocolate or espresso malts
anything breakfast, especially waffles with condensed milk and ice cream on top

yeah, we ate like pigs, and probably looked like pigs, all sweaty, bloated and gross from drinking and dancing, our once smoky eyes and red lips now reminiscent of Fellini-esque whores; classy, REAL classy.

that was many years ago, and we've grown up since. we recently had a girl's night out, and had dinner at my restaurant. I wore black slacks, black silk blouse, black crocodile d'orsay pumps, and Jenn wore a black pencil skirt, tight black sweater, and black pointy toe heels; smoky eyes and red lips in tow. we talked about work, our men, our frustrations, and how we should see each other more as we dined on some of the best fine dining seafood in the city. it was no where near the kind of girl's night out we'd had in the past; no weirdo european dudes trying to grind with us, no one asking if we wanted to be whipped, and no college guys trying to buy us drinks or even worse, talk to us. this was girl's night out, but all grown up.

so, in honor of girl's night out, i give my recipe for mac 'n' cheese. the beauty of this dish is that it can be made ahead of time, that way when you and your girlfriends get home you can just heat it up (or not) and eat.


1 16 oz package dry pasta (macaroni, penne, elbows, whatever)
4 - 6 oz each of grated sharp cheddar, pepper jack, gruyere, parmesan and blue cheese
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp paprika
salt and pepper to taste
1.5 cups creme fraiche or sour cream
butter (to oil the pan)
1 qt of bechamel sauce
bread crumbs
chopped parsley

preheat oven to 350 F.

take the pasta and boil in salted water until half cooked. drain, drizzle with olive oil and set aside on a cookie sheet to ensure even cooling.

to make bechamel, take 1/2 cup each of butter and flour in a large sauce pan and cook together to make a roux (light golden paste). in another pot, simmer half a gallon of milk with onion and cloves to scalding. using a wisk, slowly pour the milk mixture into the large saucepan with the roux to incorporate everything. add half a raw onion with some cloves stuck into it, half a teaspoon of fresh grated nutmeg and let simmer on low heat to a nappe consistency (it should coat the back of a spoon and you should be able to draw a line through it). remember to wisk to get rid of lumps and prevent scorching on the bottom of pan. once finished, take off heat, but keep warm. if you have a chinois, pass it through to remove any smaller lumps.

take the pasta, cheeses (reserves some for sprinkling on top. depending if you like a thick gratin, this means to reserve more), creme fraiche/sour cream, cayenne, paprika, salt and pepper and mix together in large bowl. taste it and see if you need more salt or pepper. i like mine a little spicy, so you could even add some chili flakes.

take a casserole or baking dish (large enough to hold the pasta with room for bechamel and cheese on top) and butter the sides and bottom. take some of the breadcrumbs and sprinkle on the bottom. next, pour the pasta cheese mixture into the dish, then take the bechamel and pour over to cover the pasta. you'll want to give the dish a good smack on the countertop to make sure the bechamel has filled in any air pockets. take the remaining cheese and bread crumbs and sprinkle over the top.

you'll want to cook this for about 30 mins. afterwards, turn the oven to broil and keep an eye on it from this point out, as the cheese can burn quickly. you'll want a nice golden color from the cheese and breadcrumbs. it's okay if it gets a little burned in spots, just as long as the whole thing isn't burned.

take out of the oven and let it stand for at least ten minutes (this is so it stays together, otherwise, you should have just made fettucine alfredo). if you're stubborn, you'll end up burning your fingers and tongue tasting it right out of the oven. when ready to serve, sprinkle with parsley and scoop out portions with a large serving spoon. it's also good cold, broken off in chunks with your bare hands for breakfast.



p.s. I MISS YOU, JENN!!!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Food Consciousness #1 - Umami Mama's Story

while working in the kitchen, the inevitable question comes up between cooks. "Why did you want to be a cook?" you get answers like, "I love food," or "I needed a job and I liked the commercial for the culinary school," or "I WANT TO BE THE NEXT FOOD NETWORK STAR." sometimes its more cohesive, such as, "I was a cook in the army, and I really enjoyed it and wanted to learn more," or, "I come from a family as a third generation chef, and I can't imagine doing anything else." obviously these answers show the extremes, from the absolute naive and insipid, to the mature and conscientious. my answer falls somewhere in-between, with a good mixture of child-like inspiration and monk-like discipline.

my path to becoming a cook started in the summer of 2005. nine months prior i had been struck with bi-lateral pneumonia and endocarditis and it had taken all of those nine months to recover. i did manage to get a job doing office work for a law firm, but once you've stared Death in the face, many things become clear, like what you really want to do with your life. i know it sounds cliche, but honestly, Death gave me a rare and precious gift. the gift was a question: "What would you be happiest doing all day long." my answer was simple: " i'd be happy peeling and cutting carrots all day long." strange that Death would be concerned for my well being, but there's the cosmic joke. i had experienced unlimited pain, complete weakness, and bad hospital food for MONTHS, and i wasn't in the mood to tolerate anything. so, the idea of peeling and cutting carrots all day long was, in fact, HEAVEN.

when you are hooked up to machines and can't do anything for yourself, you have a lot of time to think and plan. i remembered in high school taking one of those tests to see what would be the best career path. my top three careers were: 1. Doctor, 2. Chef, 3. Writer. now, i was more clever than i should have been, and pretty much knew how to answer the questions to get the results i wanted. having insurmountable "proof" on my side, i was all set to be a Doctor. huh? well, you know the old story of parents wanting what's best for their kids since the kids don't know what's good for themselves. i forgot the whole notion of "Chef" and "Writer," simply because they weren't real goals. as my parents told me, i was meant for something more.

so, after nearly ten years of working in the entertainment industry (yeah, i ended up going to film school on a lark!), almost dying, and finding myself completely, existentially "Adrift" (yeah, i ended up getting a philosophy degree also), i realized that i no longer wanted to be a paper-pushing, smooth-talking, high heel and pencil skirt wearing, office managing bitch. i wanted to do something real. something that had true worth and skill and meaning. i wanted MORE.

they always say, "Do what you love." i had overcome so much, that i realized i did have the strength and courage to finally do what was so clear to me years before. i loved cooking. i loved food. i loved the history and traditions, cultural meanings, taboos, religious practices, centuries old techniques that are still used today, and i loved reading cookbooks and food writing. and truth be told, it all started with PBS and watching The Frugal Gourmet.

i remember as a kid, aside from watching the twilight zone, kung fu theater, benny hill, star trek and foreign films (yes, strange kids grow up to be even stranger adults) that i loved watching cooking shows. now of course there was julia child, new york master chefs, yan can cook, but it was "The Frug" and his blend of wit, history and storytelling that taught me food is more than just sustenance for the body, but also for the soul. it's because of him that i eat hummus, that i begged my mom to buy me a chinese cleaver and wok when i was nine (still have the cleaver and use it at work everyday), that i first learned how to roast garlic, the intricacies of a jewish passover meal, how to cook with wine, the joy of sharing this with friends and family, and the importance of making food something special.

we sometimes forget how hard we work at things like putting the right outfit together, decorating our homes, naming our pets, choosing a hairstyle, what car to buy, and other personal aesthetic choices that portray ourselves in a better light. but truthfully, Brillat-Savarin said it best; "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." what better an indication of who we are than by what we choose to consume, satiate our base desires, and express our frivolous self-indulgence. even more so as a cook, whose art is in creating and upholding standards of true taste and culture, that the quote can be easily changed to, "Tell me HOW you cook and I'll tell you WHO you are."

and so, it seems the path was clear from the very beginning, but i had to go the long way around and figure things out, not the hard way, but my own way. now, all the loose ends are coming together. cooking and writing, my crazy notions and perspectives, and a true sense of self-worth. working as a cook has given me the opportunity to do something and make it the very best it can be, no matter how simple or daunting the task; whether it be chopping herbs or making a complicated jus, and it is because of this that i truly value my time, efforts, actions, everything i do in and out of the kitchen.

in the future, i hope to eventually teach, and of course keep writing. dare i say it, but i think i love writing more than cooking these days. evolution? perhaps, but food and cooking is still my inspiration for it all.


Gastronomic Concepts #1 - What is Umami?

i started doing research on the term umami and found this great article from The Philadelphia Weekly by Robin Rinaldi. (the image on the left is a vintage ad for aji no moto, the japanese brand seasoning of MSG.  if you're familiar with kanji, the characters in red read "aji no moto").


The Fifth Dimension

by Robin Rinaldi

For this experiment you need five things: a pinch of sugar, a little table salt, a lemon, a cup of good black coffee and some chicken bouillon.  Start by putting the sugar in your mouth.  You'll notice an instant sensation you recognize as "sweet" up on the tip of the tongue; you may even feel a tiny head rush.  Then do the same with the salt.  This registers intense and mineral-like, spreading to the sides of the tongue.  For the the remaining three, you must hold your nose tightly to prevent the aromas from interfering with your taste perception.  Bite into a wedge of lemon and feel how the whole mouth reacts against "sour."  Next sip the coffee, whose steely "bitter" hardness lingers at the back of the palate.  Now take a slow drink of bouillon.  See what happens, how the whole tongue seems to light up?  There's saltiness, yes, and a little sweetness, but there's something else.  It leaves an almost warm, creamy trail as you swallow.  You might call it "meaty" or "savory."  But taste researchers, Japanese cooks and increasingly more American chefs call it "umami."  And in the world of food preparation, it's something of a Holy Grail--that elusive depth of flavor diners crave, no matter what it's called.

"It's the basis and the ideal of restaurant food," says Justin Rambo-Garwood, executive sous chef at Bleu.  "Escoffier wrote about it.  It used to be called osmazone, a greek word meaning meat flavor or broth flavor.  Then Maillard figured out how to cook things to get that serious brown on them: sear and deglaze.  That's how you start almost every recipe in culinary school.  They didn't call it umami, but it's what you're taught to go after."

The person who did call it umami was Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda, who in 1907 noticed that a popular seaweed broth displayed a strong taste that was neither sweet, salty, bitter or sour.  From this broth Ikeda managed to extract crystals of glutamic acid or glutamate, an amino acid.  It was the glutamate that caused the savory quality Ikeda named umami, and he wanted to use it as the basis for a seasoning.  But to exist as a storable solid, glutamate had to be bound to something, and the most appropriate something turned out to be sodium.  Thus monosodium glutamate, or MSG, was born as the captured essence of umami.

Wait a second.  This exotic umami thing is just MSG--that nasty, headache-inducing stuff I don't want on my Chinese takeout?  Well, not exactly.  Umami is the taste of glutamate, and MSG is a glutamate deliver system.  But glutamate exists naturally in many foods, including meat, fish (especially shellfish), tomatoes, mushrooms, peas, corn and human breastmilk.  It's especially abundant in aged cheeses.  It is, after all, simply an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein.  In fact, Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center here in Philadephia, says, "If you serve Parmesan cheese, you're for sure getting more glutamate than you would in a Chinese restaurant."  The thing is, the glutamate in food usually exists alongside other tastes, and it also has aspects of sweetness and saltiness to it, which has made the detection of umami difficult.  Was it a luscious combination of existing flavors, or was it a separate taste in and of itself?  In recent years the answer has begun to emerge as scientists find glutamate receptors on the tongue and upper palate.  "The definitive proof's not in yet," says Beauchamp, "but it's looking as if there are multiple umami receptors.  The exact molecular structure is still a little unclear."  He says we now know as much about umami sensation as we do about the sour taste buds.

But food is an art as well as a science, and chefs still tend to think of umami as perfect balance.  Pod's executive chef, Michael Schulson, who lived in Japan, "everything coming together.  You're hitting all the parts of the tongue, and it keeps people coming back for more."  When I ask him to give a direct English translation for umami, he turns to one of his Japanese cooks, who replies "delicious."  But when I ask Schulson to list some of his dishes that have strong umami, he recites the same key ingredients the researchers at Monell have pinpointed: stir-fried lobster, wakame seaweed salad, shrimp dumplings.  "It's a roundness and depth that sweeps across your tongue," says Rambo-Garwood.  "You can taste it in soups."  (Beauchamp says most subjects will identify the taste as "chicken broth."  Rambo-Garwood says you can also taste it in any pan-seared meat.  "That's what separates restaurants from home cooking; our stoves put out so much more heat that as you cook the muscle, it exudes liquid, and with it come these amino acids."

Just as sweet drives our taste for carbohydrates and salty our need to keep the body chemically balanced, and just as bitter and sour generally make us avoid toxic or spoiled foods, could umami embody our desire for protein?  That's one theory, says Beauchamp, but it hasn't been proven.  Meanwhile, umami can explain lots of food cravings in sensual terms alone--not just Asian food but steak, lobster, sushi, mushrooms, pasta with tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese.  And consider this almost mystical coincidence as described by Beauchamp: "If you dissolved yourself completely, broke your body down into its essential amino acids and stacked them all up, the most common one would be glutamate."

So not only are we what we eat, but we're incredibly delicious.


after reading this, i keyed in on the word osmazone (also listed as osmazome) and found the following entry from Brillat-Savarin's famous 1825 work,  "The Physiology of Taste."


The greatest service chemistry has rendered to alimentary science, is the discovery of osmazome, or rather the determination of what it was.  Osmazome is the purely sapid protion of flesh soluble in cold water, and separated from the extractive portion which is only soluble in boiling water.  Osmazome is the most meritorious ingredient in all good soups.  This portion of the animal forms the red portion of flesh, and the solid parts of roasts.  It gives game and venison its peculiar flavor.  Osmazome is most abundant in grown animals which have red or black hair; it is scarcely found at all in the lamb, sucking pig, chicken, and the white meat of the largest fowls.  For this reason true conoisseurs always prefer the second joint; instinct with them was the precursor of science.

Thus a knowledge of the existence of osmazome, cause so many cooks to be dismissed, who insisted on always throwing away the first bouillon made from meat.  This made the reputation of the soupe des primes, and induced the canon Chevrier to invent his locked kettles.  The Abbe Chevrier was the person who never would eat until Friday, lobsters that had not been cooked on the previous sunday, and every intervening day placed on the fire with the addition of fresh butter.  To make use of this subject, though yet unknown, was introduced the maxim, that to make good bouillon the kettle should only smile.  Osmazome, discovered after having been so long the delight of our fathers, may be compared to alcohol, which made whole generations drunk before it was simply exhibited by distillation.


then i remembered the James Bond film, "You Only Live Twice" starring Sean Connery.

I have a confession to make.


Actually, I'm a spy.

I know that.

I suppose you know that industrial secrets are big business?  Well, I've stolen Osato's new process for making monosodium glutamate.  And...Well it's worth $300,000.


We'll, I'll split it with you if you get me out of here 
and back to Tokyo.

That's a nice offer.

How about it?

I'm afraid not.


She stands and removes the scalpel from his pocket.

Osato would kill me.

We could fly to Europe tomorrow, you and I.

She hesitates, then uses the scalpel to cut his ropes.  He takes if from her hand and uses it to cut her dress straps as she kisses him.

Oh, the things I do for England.


i love Sean Connery's expression in the film poster.  you can just tell he's thinking ,"What is that delicious, savory taste in my mouth?"  and then, it dawns on him.  OOOH MOMMY!!! (heh heh heh).

oh umami, i'm so happy to be your mama.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Cook's Life #1 - Chef Collaborative Dinner

my restaurant recently held a chef's collaborative dinner.  five courses (not counting amuse and dessert) each composed by five chefs. the menu and wine pairings were as follows:

Amuse Bouche
Bruno Gobillard, Vielle Vignes, Brut, Champagne, France NV

Big Eye Tuna Sashimi with Petite Mache, Jicama, Watermelon, Quinoa
and Shellfish Emulsion
Villa Sparina, Gavi di Gavi, Piedmont, Italy 2006

Pan Roasted Sea Scallops with American Caviar and Yukon Gold Potato
Hogl, Gruner Veltliner Federspiel, Wachau, Austria 2006

Santa Barbara Spot Prawn Risotto with Asparagus
Jallurs, Viognier, Santa Barbara, California 2007

Roasted John Dory, Mushroom Tart, Chorizo-Torpedo Onion Marmalade
Red Wine Mushroom Jus
Quattro Mani, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Italy 2006

Hawaiian Mero with Kobe Oxtail and Red Wine Sauce
Demetria, Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley, California 2003

Yogurt Parfait with White Nectarine Sorbet and Clementine Sauce
Joseph Phelps Eisrebe, Napa Valley, California 2006

it was a great night and an honor to work alongside so many great chefs.  


P.S.  special thanks to Chef Jennifer S. for having the f*cking foresight to bring a digicam.  gotta get me one of those!

Hack of all Trades #1 - Fish Sticks

Dear Umami Mama,

Everytime I fry fish, it sticks to the pan and I don't know what to do.  I try to turn it over and end up having half the fish stuck to the pan and the rest crumbled on the plate.  I need help!


Stuck in Sausalito

Dear Stuck in Sausalito,

YOU STUPID HACK!!! It sounds like your pan wasn't hot enough.  Get your pan hot (set it on the heat and wait until you can feel heat coming from the pan and not just the burner), then add some oil to just cover the pan (too much oil will make the fish oily, and if it's not hot enough, will end up steaming the fish). The oil should start to "wave".  By this I mean that you should be able to see the heat radiating through the oil as the oil is now a conductor for the heat coming from the pan.  If you put oil in the pan, and it starts smoking immediately, then your pan was too hot and you should start over, otherwise the fish you cook will probably end up getting burned on one side.  

Make sure your fish is dry and seasoned with salt and fine ground pepper (extra moisture on the fish will cause the oil to splatter and can cause the oil to ignite).  Gently lay your fish in the pan presentation side first.   Presentation side means the side that will be showing up on the plate.  If your fish has skin, this means that you would lay skin side down first, but if there is no skin, lay the side that looks nicer (it doesn't take a genius).  Once the fish is in the pan, DON'T TOUCH IT!   You need to get the fish to sear that one side first so that it won't stick. Depending on the kind of fish, this can take a few minutes, but you should be able to see a sear line along the edge of the fish turn a light golden brown.  Once this happens, put the fish into the salamander or oven (350 F for you home cooks), and let it continue cooking to desired doneness.  Again this depends on type of fish, but once it's to your liking, take it out and if you seared it correctly in the beginning, it should not stick and come right off with your fish spatula.  Lay it on some paper towels to drain off excess oil, then sprinkle with a little kosher salt for added flavor and crunch.

If your fish is still sticking, put it back on the heat and let it sear, careful to not let it burn, then use your fish spatula to gently scrape under the fish and against the pan.  It's even better if your fish spatula has a sharp edge, then you can shuffle the spatula in a quick side-to-side motion under the fish and against the pan.  Remember, the spatula edge should be scraping against the bottom of the pan so that the fish ends up laying on top.  If your spatula edge touches the fish, then you'll end up with half the fish stuck in the pan, and half the fish on the spatula.

If this still doesn't work, they sell a nice selection of fish sticks in the freezer case at the grocery store.  Buy the ones that are microwaveable.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Manifesto # 3 - Copyright and Plagiarism Protection


So I just added copyright and plagiarism protection; two things that anyone seriously involved with some sort of blog, podcast, book, website, etc.  should do.  I feel it is of most importance, not only for my own written work, but for the future contributing writers to the blog (of which I already have two.  WOO HOO!!!)  

I hope any other bloggers reading this will consider this for their own blog (if you haven't already).  You can click on the banners (bottom right) to learn more.  I'll be able to sleep better now.


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Manifesto # 2 - Umami Mama Blog Guide


It occurred to me that there are a great many things I wish to write about. You've noticed my titles and numbering system I've started, and last night (or, early this morning because I can't sleep) I came up with a system to classify things and hopefully make it easier for you (and myself) to keep track of everything.

There will be seven categories, each pertaining to a specific theme on the subject of Food. I will list and explain each, in no particular order.

1. GUILTY PLEASURES - These posts deal with those secret, desperate, wild instances where food, obsession and hedonism have crashed full force in a frenzy of unashamed debauchery. Think of eating a whole bag of pork rinds and finishing off with a tub of ice cream AND six pack of beer. It could be worse.

2. PHILOSOPHICAL MUSINGS - These posts deal with my observations on Food through cultural, religious, socio-economic, historical, and political viewpoints. One of my favorite books ever is "In the Devil's Garden" by Stewart Lee Allen, and it was reading this book that inspired me to explore this style of food writing. Read it!

3. GASTRONOMIC CONCEPTS - These posts act as a reference guide where I will define ideas, techniques, and give history on concepts such as umami (what is it?) and terroir (wtf is that?) and sushi grade 1++ (huh?) to name a few.

4. HACK OF ALL TRADES - These posts will share tricks that professional cooks know from years of, let's face it, making mistakes and having to cover their asses, such as, "What do you do when you're cooking fish and the skin is sticking to the pan and you can't turn it over?" I know what to do, but do you? Heh heh heh!

5. MOOD FOOD - These posts will give recipes for those times that you need a little extra care. Think of things like chicken soup for when you're sick, what do you eat when you got a hangover, or "My boyfriend/girlfriend/partner broke up with me and I wanna eat something to make me feel better!" kind of recipes. Alcoholic beverages will be included.

6. FOOD CONSCIOUSNESS - These posts will serve as a documented oral history of what I call a person's Food Consciousness. By this, I mean every encounter with food that a person has had in their entire life (birthday cakes, passover, religious fasting, McDonalds Happy Meals, Halloween candy) and what that has done to shape their current culinary tastes. Food Consciousness can also describe the collective birth of a food trend or lifestyle adopted by many (food rationing during WWII, Slow Food, Vegetarianism). I will start off with mine, and I hope to get guest writers to share their own.

7. A COOK'S LIFE - These posts will share my personal experiences as a professional line cook at a fine dining restaurant. This is my current, full-time profession and I feel it gives a unique perspective on Food as not only something "Yummy and fun!" to eat, but to expose its white collar/blue collar dichotomy as a very stressful, disciplined, conscientious and rewarding experience.
There will also be a label entitled "Manifesto", which will have any general information involving the blog as a whole (Inaugural Post and this guide will be found here) and a "Best of Umami Mama" label which will highlight favorite postings . As my archive grows you will be able to search under "Labels" by the seven categories. I also welcome readers to write in with questions that I may be able to help answer, or if they have funny stories they want to share that fit into the categories. Contact info can be viewed in my complete profile on the right.

I've been working almost 3 years as a professional cook, having changed careers from the entertainment industry. I also have degrees in Philosophy and Cinema. When I started up this blog, I was reminded that I wanted to be a responsible writer on this vast subject. For me, Food means everything; it shapes our religions, has caused wars, defines our aesthetics, and determines our survival. I've spent enough time stewing with these ideas in my head, so here they come. Hope you enjoy reading....


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Philosophical Musings #1 - Small Plates

this was my first attempt at food writing from a few years ago. please note that the title "Philosophical Musings - #1", follows the same guidelines set in "Guilty Pleasures - #1" as a means to classify the continuous thoughts on various gastronomic themes i plan to write about. hope you enjoy....




The idea of food in its simple elegance; what an individual eats, and in turn how a society eats has always fascinated me. I believe food to be a pure expression of desires and aesthetics. One knows immediately by the senses if they are going to enjoy a meal. It first begins with scent, then sight, taste, touch and sound, each sense building one on top of another until your first bite has been swallowed. Since food is based on these primal instincts, our inhibitions are either masked or stripped away by the decadence or modesty of a meal. It was in Spain that I first learned of this precise ritual through the tradition of tapas, which I will explain in more detail.

In college, I was fortunate enough to travel abroad. I had been taking Spanish, and had become confident and proficient in everyday communication. I simply wanted to get out of Pax Americana and become immersed in another culture - I believed I could understand more about the language through food. Luckily, a friend was studying in Madrid, so I took that opportunity to tag along. The summer program lasted for 1.5 months, and I planned to stay in her dorm, or one of the nearby hostels. I was determined to have my way, and with a streak of rebellion, didn't tell my parents. As far as they knew, I was working at school and taking a few classes. One never forgets their first acts of freedom, and this had the makings of a grand adventure; it was the start of my culinary experience.

From Madrid I took the train south and made my way to Andalucia, and the city of Malaga; birthplace of Picasso, occupied by the Moors until the 15th century, winter resort for the wealthy, and major coastal merchant center to the Iberian Peninsula. It is also the birthplace of tapas. Tapas literally means "to cover" and the tradition began in the 10th century when bars offered small plates of food to cover the bar patron's drink. One reason suggests it prevented flies from falling into the wine, another suggests that the small plates of food whetted the appetite and increased the need for drink. Yet another was to prevent drunkeness. Whatever the reason, tapas has come to define the essence of Spanish cuisine.

I arrived at 13:00 and walked amongst the Malaguenos. I made my way to the plaza and La Manquita, the renaissance cathedral built on the site of a former mosque in the 16th century; its name loosely translated means "one-armed woman". I took in the architecture and history, noting the baroque facades, and made my way to the center of town; the Alameda Gardens lush with centuries old palm and bottle trees.

It was prime time for tapas as I reached No. 16 on the north side of the Alameda. Antigua Casa de la Guardia, the oldest tapas bar in all of Malaga. The old brick building was full, but I managed to find a corner amidst the businessmen, students and workers. From behind the bar hung whole ham legs, sausages and stacked barrels of wine. I started off with a glass of wine made from muscatel grapes; my thirst quenched, and yet not. I was hungry and my throat was left dry from the wine. I first order the iberico - mountain cured ham from Andalucian pigs that grow sweet from a diet of acorns. It came to me, about four paper thin slices, drizzled with a thickly golden-coloured olive oil; I can smell the salt. I can see the marbling of fat and cured pink flesh. Then I taste the delicate melting on my tongue and myself sigh in delight. I repeat the ritual again. Sip the wine. I am ready for the next. I order a mixture of manzanillas and gordales from Seville; the olives are sweet and meaty, and the larger gordales (the size of small plums) are stuffed with white anchovies. There's also a nice crunch from the whole garlic cloves that have been cured along with the olives. The ritual is again finished off with a sip of wine and I look ahead to my third choice. Everyone is eating seafood. I see hot and cold dishes, salpicon with chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers with prawns and octopus. There are boquerones en vinagre - marinated raw anchovies that are deep fried, along with calmares - tender squid rings. There are also numerous variations of shellfish al ajillo, ranging from razor clams to mussels to lobster and crab. Being a coastal town, Malaga is known for its seafood.

It was at this point of the meal that I started to make friends. Some students offered to buy me another glass of wine and to share their tapas. I gladly accepted and the next two hours sampled everything from meatballs in almond sauce, to chunks of garlicky grilled pork loin, broad beans and ham, braised pigs ears, piquant tripe, spicy snails, fritters and croquettes. We finish with remjon - salad of oranges, codfish, onions and olives dressed with more olive oil and lemon. I didn't want to leave. I would have happily stayed for the rest of the night, but I had a train to catch. I would return to Malaga over the coming weeks, and even made a trip to El Palo for pescaito frito - an assortment of fried fish that is served at all the bodegas .

Call me a romantic, but I vowed to never eat tapas again. I would never be able to top that gastronomic experience here in the States. As years went by, I noted the trend of tapas bars emerging in Los Angeles. I read the reviews, and although tempted to recapture the past, i declined; Los Angeles was not Malaga. Not long after, I noted the new trend of what was coined small plates. Small plates is not a new idea. Aside from my trip to Spain, I've had dim sum in Hong Kong, meze in Morocco, and izakaya in Tokyo. The idea of small bites of food to eat and share crosses many cultures. This new American trend seeks to combine this way of eating with the decorum of American society. After all, Americans tend to be rushed, insulated and detached from their eating. As inhospitable as fast food is with its boxed containers and drive-thru table manners, the small plate phenomenon seeks to slowly bridge that gap and bring a sense of camaraderie and pleasure already known by the rest of the world. Perhaps we would not see ourselves as strangers, and would instead offer to share a glass of wine and a plate of food. In the meantime, the small plate offers this sharing in the safety of a table amongst friends, or at the very least, good acquaintances and best enemies.

My first small plate experience was at AOC in Los Angeles. My friend and I chose four courses, including dessert. We started with some le bergere de rouscatin - sheep milk cheese from the Loire Valley. From there we had a salad of speck, apples and arugula, quail stuffed with foie gras and truffle, and finished off with cheesecake and fresh figs. Everything was shared, small and so delicious, that we didn't need to order more BUT we wanted to. Sneaky and brilliant.

While most protein portions in an entree are about six to eight ounces, a small plate will offer three to four, a more realistic and healthier serving. This also helps with the food costing, bringing a small plate item down in price to its entree equivalent. Going back to the ritual I described of scent, sight, taste, touch and sound, I believe that if one is to truly enjoy a meal, they only need a few bites to understand the message of what each plate is trying to convey. Our senses are fickle and our minds easily distracted. Something as uninspired as prime rib becomes painfully Sisyphean after the tenth bite, and upon finishing the hunk of meat, one must eat another slice to reclaim the glory of the first bite - a sad misconception, indeed. With the small plate, the flavors are every-changing, new, bright and straightforward. There was no confusion from the creaminess of the bergere, to the salty, tartness of the speck, to the warmth and crisp succulence of the quail; each had a perfect beginning and end.

I did try tapas recently, and although I enjoyed my evening, it was more the company than the food. It was inauthentic tapas made with inferior ingredients, and instead played out like "tapas inspired small plates".

I hope small plates continue to find a place beyond the status of a restaurant trend. We need the comfort and excitement it brings, and the subtle message that less IS more.