Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Plastic Wrap Star

After big holiday meals, my mother in law frequently requests that I do any wrapping that requires plastic cling wrap.  She seems to think I have magical powers, but wrapping things up snugly in plastic wrap is practically the first thing anyone learns in a professional kitchen.  A well wrapped container is a container safe from the normal jostling, rearranging and frenzied shuffling that is common in restaurants; it keeps the liquids contained and the contaminants firmly away.

I think the reason kitchen folk are so adept a handling plastic wrap is because everything in a kitchen needs to be done quickly and speed is the key to becoming a wrap star.

We've all seen the effect even a tiny puff of air has on the dangling edge of the wrap, it folds in on itself and adheres tightly so that it's almost impossible to separate them again.  Don't give the air time to puff!  Stretch out the length of wrap you require and tear if off quickly; immediately place the center over the wrappee...

Don't stop to think about this, just do it all in one fluid motion...

Now grab up those two free ends on either side and firmly tug them down and around, hopefully until they meet on the bottom.  Stretching plastic wrap out makes it more clingy, so be FIRM, and pull it tightly around the wrappee.

This entire process should take just a second or two, you have to move faster than the air.  It is not as hard as it sounds, I think you would be surprised at the number of complex things you do in just one or two seconds every day.

Ok, that's it!  It really is that easy, just be quick and be firm.  Much like Luke Skywalker in that drainage ditch on the Death Star at the end of Star Wars, see it happening first and then just do it.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Raw Food

Raw food diets are the new big thing, articles are popping up everywhere breathlessly reporting the advent of a new age.  I've avoided reading numerous blogs, ads disguised as blogs and first person accounts of the wondrous results one can achieve by simply not cooking.


I opened a sandwich shop during the height of the Atkins craze, everyone told me it wouldn't work, that evil bread was over, done and not ever returning.  It was a difficult thing those first few months to hold my tongue, but I knew that bread would never be 'over'.

Atkins was a fad, raw food is a fad and fads don't last.  Let me tell you what does last: human nature.  It's human nature to not want to eat less than tasty food at every meal every day.   It's human nature to invent a useless product in order to make money and it's human nature to lunge at every shiny new thing dangled before us.

Am I making us look shallow and dumb?  More human nature for you.

There is no miracle diet, there is nothing new under the sun.  Including raw food.  This too will pass, probably fairly quickly because there is just no such thing as an uncooked creme brulee.  But a few charlatans will amass great wealth because of it anyway, those who got their cookbooks in under the wire or have an amazing juicer for you to purchase.

Let me remind you that my definition of a charlatan is someone who sells you a lifestyle choice instead of food.  Food is not your life people, it is the fuel that sustains your life, and giving food all the power over how you live is a fool's errand.

Fad diets are just another way for people to relinquish responsibility for their own lives.  I see you bristling out there, go ahead and raise those hackles, I'm more than happy to duke this out with you.  But you hide behind these diets as though a fairy tale ending waits on the other side, because you will finally be happy once those ten pounds are gone.

As if.  Fat people and thin people are unhappy in equal, self-loathing has no calories or fat does it?  True happy doesn't need or want a fad diet, true happy understands balance so please quit hiding from the happy.

True happiness and peace start on the inside, they start with you not hating on yourself for having a doughnut.    Food is not the villain, it's not the enemy and it's not your friend.  Food is fuel, plain and simple; it only has the power you give.

I had weight issues for most of my life so I'm not unsympathetic to those who still do.  But I have been neither fat nor thin for a while now, I reside in that happy medium place and rarely think about my weight at all.  Would you like to know my secret?  Happy to tell you and I would be deliriously happy if everyone followed this simple diet plan.

Approach yourself in the mirror three times daily and say, "You are fine just the way you are, you are a beautiful person and I really like you."

In ten days, you just won't care about diets anymore.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Food Fight

I love Hell's Kitchen, I love Gordon Ramsay.  LOVE!  I sent in a tape many years ago hoping to get on the show, ostensibly to bring publicity to the cafe, but Clyde knew the truth.  I just wanted to work with Ramsay, if only briefly, but I never heard back.

In retrospect, I'm not surprised.  I'm not a borderline psychopath and I have mad cooking skills.  Fox had no use for my kind, but it's all good and I still watch.

For now I still watch, but that could change, if the wrong scallop dies on the wrong night, it could change.  I am sorry Chef Ramsay, but you are in my sights today.

At least twice during any given season of HK, I turn to Clyde and ask sorrowfully, "That scallop gave up its life for this?"

It's not always the scallop, sometimes it's a cow or some other innocent protein, but the point is still the same.  Some creature had its life ripped away just so Gordon Ramsay could smash it angrily, hurl it against the wall and dump it unceremoniously into the trash.

That's great TV isn't it?  Seeing his face get all red, hearing him call someone completely unworthy of his time a donkey and then watching the food fly?  I'm with you right up until that last part.

Every season huge amounts of expensive food gets wasted on Hell's Kitchen and it is a punch in the gut to every starving person on the face of the Earth.  Oh my god, it has only been a brief moment in historical time that human beings have NOT had to forage and suffer just to find enough food to sustain themselves.  But we live in the modern era with bananas flown to our doorsteps daily and markets just bursting with foodstuffs.  We were born into plenty and in true human style, we pervert the hell out of it.

It is not just Gordon Ramsay, I single him out because I expect better from him.  He's not an idiot, he's not uncaring; I just don't think that he has given this topic any thought at all.  But he is far from the only example. How many people throng around that Kobayashi kid to watch him cram hot dogs down his gullet.

Competitive eating?  We are sick, sick species.

People in Spain throw tomatoes by the bushel for sport, we here in America chunk punkins for sport.  If you want real sport people, try fending for yourselves, try feeding yourselves every day as though the 7-11 is not there.  You won't get a stupid, useless trophy if you win though, you get to live because eating is a fundamental need of survival.

It's not always going to be the land of plenty, the milk and honey will stop flowing; that is the nature of life.  How are we looking in the karmic balance?  Will Mother Nature see our gluttony and end it for us?


I am trying to scare you, you need to get scared.  Why?  Because most of you do not know how to fend for yourselves, you have abdicated that responsibility to the food producers and will be helpless when they can no longer service your needs.

That can't happen to us?  You mean in our world of excruciatingly centralized food production?  The one where most of the world's food comes from a few breadbaskets tucked around the planet?   We are in more danger precisely because of that, when one of those tiny dominoes fall, all the rest of them come down too.

When that happens, when you are starving, your children starving, how will you remember Kobayashi and Ramsay?

It is not too late to take responsibility, for ourselves and our individual survival.  All it takes is a little respect, respect for the lives of the creatures we eat and respect for the natural balance of nature.  A little respect for ourselves should be thrown into the mix as well because, once again, competitive eating?

I conclusion, I have this to say to the future 'chefs' on Hell's Kitchen:

Use a non-stick pan with a little oil, get it nice and hot, but not to the point where the oil is smoking.  Place the scallops in the pan, season and cook for about one to two minutes, depending on size.  Flip gently, season, and cook on the other side another minute before gently pressing the middle of the scallop with the pad of your finger.  If the middle is still mushy, continue cooking for another 30 seconds, if it springs right back, it is done.  Take it to the pass, return to you station and  repeat.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Super Marketing

And here we are, a day we could all see coming from a long ways off.  Let me start by saying that I completely support the ideal of organic agriculture, I practice it in my home garden reliably.  I also have no quarrel with the USDA, they are public servants, serving the public precisely as the public has demanded.  Keeping up with fatuous trendinistas that pollute the culinary channels with flimsy urban myths about food is a very challenging job, those folks are almost heroic in their pursuit of the truth.

So if you see the above label - exactly like that - then you know that the source can be trusted.  What about this label?

Well it certainly looks healthy, doesn't it?  It's all green and swirly with fresh tender leaves and the word CERTIFIED in big letters.  Tucked neatly beneath that attention grabber is almost an afterthought, organics.  More than one organic mind you, so it must be extra healthy.

Who certified it? For all I know, the Certified Organics are a new hit band full of cute boys with even cuter hair.

Once again, marketing rears its ugly head, roaring out buzzwords designed to make you feel better about yourself.  Not designed to make you feel better.  Do you see the difference?

Example A from the USDA is a hard thing to get, you have to jump through a lot of hoops to put it on your packaging.  Because of this, the consumer has a more than reasonable expectation that the food was conscientiously produced with a minimum of harmful additives.  If the consumer wants to know exactly what chemicals are allowed and other details about the organic label, that information is easily accessible, so they can make informed choices about their food.

Example B is a pure creation of someone's nifty computer widget, there were no hoops to be jumped through, because there were no hoops at all.  They made a pretty picture, they made it green - which is the officially overused marketing concept of 2013 - because, damn, green sure does sell good, and slapped a couple of official sounding words on top.

Oh, they also slapped an extra two bucks onto the price, because we all know that organic things cost more.  It's one of those lies accepted so knowingly by the ignorant.  Yes, truly organic things do cost more, but 90% of the things labeled with some variation or organic or natural are just cleverly labeled things that are just like the un-cleverly labeled things sitting right next to them on the shelf.

Here's a handy rule of thumb, people who are trying to sell you something really good will actually put that good thing on the label. There is not likely to be an actual tree in that snack cake.

The smart label reader will virtually ignore what is on the front, because most of that is marketing smokescreen.  The back of the package, or sometimes crammed down the narrow sides, is where you find all the real action.  I don't concern myself with the nutrition facts for the most part, that is not what you are looking for.  You'll want to peruse the list of ingredients, a short one is best, and get familiar with common ingredients like dextrose and sodium citrate.  They are both just another way of saying sugar and salt, so educate yourself.

Two more things to look at are the place of origin and parent company of the manufacturer.  Most of those homey little green packages from small family type operations are actually owned by the larger conglomerates.  And I think it goes without saying that the less distance a product has to travel between point of origin to its ultimate destination is the least costly, least environmentally impactful choice.

I am always arguing for you to be a conscientious consumer because we have become a species that specializes in consuming.  We consume without thought, in fact many people think that consumption is a duty, but it is a flimsy thing to build a culture upon.

It is too easy to consume and discard, and it is your guilt about all of that gluttony that enables to the manufacturers to exploit you.  It doesn't have to be that way though, you can start a food revolution in your own life that doesn't require someone else's label.

The truth about food is easy to find, but the lies are just so much sexier, aren't they?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Brown Paper Packages Tied Up With String

Do any of you have even the smallest idea how much of the cost of your take-out food is actually the cost of the packaging?    Or even the food on the supermarket shelves, do you ever consider the time and money that went into assuring that you would pick this box of cereal rather than the other one?

Sure, you've probably seen something about it on Modern Marvels or something similar, but have you ever really thought about the money you are routinely wasting on the one part of the food that you throw away?


My guess is no, because most people don't.  Most people don't like to think farther than their own ease and comfort, after that is all settled, then they bitch about costs.

I need to make one thing perfectly clear, this is a simple idea:  The packaging will not make what is inside it taste better.

One of my biggest downfalls as a retailer of prepared foods was the packaging, I could not reasonably justify jacking up the price of my great food so that there would be a pretty box to put it in.  My cafe was right across the street from an upscale chain eatery that specialized in fancy to-go arrangements, with many thick boxes, bags, soup bowls and all the trimmings.

My clientele was a mixed bag, from the janitors to Arnold Schwarzenegger, we attracted all kinds of people.  Because of the food for sure, but there was more to it; we knew most of our customers by name, knew what they wanted to eat.  And they knew we were on their side, looking out for the bellies, backs and wallets with equal care.

I got teased a lot by my customers, good-natured teasing about the plainness of my simple sandwich wraps, clam shells and brown bags.  But every time I asked them directly, "Would you prefer to pay a dollar more for each thing on the menu?"  The answer was always no.

Perhaps if it was just the economics, I would have caved to the pressure and invested in personalized, festive packaging.  But it is not just that, not to me.  It is the waste that offends me the most, the disgusting waste of it all turns my stomach.  All that packaging goes right into the trash, almost right off the bat;  and then all that trash has to be hauled away by ever bigger trucks, gouging out deep carbon footprints all the way to the dump.

Going green, my ass.  Hypocrites.

Hey, I already warned you that I wasn't going to play nice, the gloves are off now and you can thank those Rapunzel people if you're looking for a goat.

So, yeah, if you are one of those who chooses anything because of the packaging over flavor, you are a hypocrite.


Because you don't actually EAT with your eyes.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Anatomy of a Charlatan

This is it, the spark that lit the tinderbox and it really doesn't look so bad at first blush, does it?  Take a close look at the bottom of the label, right there beneath the clear window that lets you see the ugly sugar you bought so that you can feel good about buying 'healthy' sugar.  There are two little words there Unrefined & Unbleached and it is that second word that is pissing me off royally.

This company's decision to use the word unbleached says everything I need to know about them.  Since sugar is never bleached, BY ANYONE, not even the soulless corporate conglomerates because bleaching is NOT part of the process, they deliberately preyed on the ignorance of the consumer.  This is the first communication I have had with this company and they chose to use that first contact to try and mislead me, not the actions of an honorable entity.

I am sick to death of Eco terrorists using the consumer's concern for planet Earth against them.  Anyone who sells you food by selling you a lifestyle choice instead is a charlatan, pure and simple.  Like all companies, they are in the game to make a buck and they know they can wring more dollars out of you by blowing smoke up your ass.  And you let them.

I looked up their Hand in Hand business, some sort of Fair Trade symbol that was created and administered by the Rapunzel company, and could find very little.  Even their home page just told me where I could buy sugar and hair extensions, yes hair extensions.  Although no claims were made about Fair Trade hair.

No one cares about the hair, but the foodies are a different thing altogether.  It's the foodies these people are targeting and it is a ripe market indeed.  They breathlessly follow each food trend so they can be the 'first' to make tapas, or whatever, in their social circle.  They regurgitate food 'facts' without looking into the truth of them very hard.  And they love to talk, love to pretend they know things and share their 'knowledge' with the uneducated.

Like all those HFCS alarmists, high fructose corn syrup is just more sugary than regular, but those people needed to feel important OR needed to sell you something.  So they manufactured a crisis and all the alarmists ran with it, implying that I would change my ways if I really love my children.

I do really love my children, so I raised them to watch out for charlatans, alarmists and pretenders.

Companies are in business to make money, it is their job to do anything in their power to make you buy.  They lie, deceive, cheat and undermine the competition to get ahead and, since this is 2013, you already KNOW this for a fact.  It is their job to lie and the consumer's job to question, to sift through the hyperbole and get to the bare facts.  If you don't want to expend the energy looking into things, that's fine with me, just don't pretend that you know things when you do not.

The hypocrisy of choosing this small package of sugar from Brazil over sugar from an American company that employs Americans and must adhere to American regulations is stunning.  You do realize that all these Brazilian sugar cane plantations are destroying the rain forest to make more farmland right?  Your fair trade sugar just cost another endangered species the right to exist, good job.

And do you really think that American farmers are not concerned about the health of the planet?  I submit that they are as much or more concerned than you are because that is their livelihood, they have a vested interest in the long term health of their dirt.  They live here, they feed their children the same food you do and they love their children in equal, so why are you turning your backs on them?

No system is perfect, but we Americans pay a whole bunch of tax dollars just to make sure our food producing industries are safe and ethical.  Fair Trade starts right here at home, with the consumer who makes well reasoned choices and not choices based on packaging and deceptive words.  It starts with you being a pro-active consumer and not making food choices based on vanity.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Culinary Politics

I'm not one who pays much attention to traditional politics; it is my general view that anyone who goes into the field of politicking is just too lazy to get a real job and too vain to go on welfare.

However, when it comes to food, I am very much of an activist.  Food is our second most precious resource after water and a cause for great concern in an over-populated world.  But I am not a "foodie", one who is entranced with the romance of recipes and presentations.  Not that I don't love the foodies, their enthusiasm for all things culinary has created a forum for a truly global community, there are no borders where flavor is concerned.

I am much more of a "foodist", it is so much more than just the creation of edibles that concerns me and those concerns have led me here.  There are too many lies, too many misrepresentations and pure ignorance in the community of food that should not be ignored.  It is my pure love for the production and creation of food that is inspiring a series of articles here on Spoon! addressing aspects of current culinary culture that have inflamed my inner activist.

My warning to all new readers is something that people who know me intimately, know for a stone fact about me:  I never, ever lie about food.  I can't lie about something I love so much, it would be far too disrespectful.  This is a warning because, if you ask me if I like what you cooked, I will tell the bitter truth; and that is the same of my opinions about food.

It is also the reason that so many people come to me for advice about virtually every area of the food world. My standards are high and my opinions very well considered; that hard line has won me a lot of respect over the years.  It is not unfair to say that when I recommend a product, website or recipe to someone, they listen because they know I'm not promoting any hidden agenda.  Food fads, trends and celebrity chefs have little influence on me; I've seen too many of them come and go to be impressed.  It is one of the luxuries of being 48 years old, I've had 48 years of seeing how the tides flow in and out so now you youngsters really have something to look forward to.

So, if you stick with me over the next couple of weeks, I am bound to challenge you, to anger you and to provoke you.  I will say very loudly that the emperor has no clothes and I will staunchly defend my positions to anyone.

But I will not lie to you.  Not about food.  Not ever.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Farmer's Market Part 2

 If you missed yesterday's guest post on Lover of Creating Flavour, you can check it out right here.  Today I am going to show you a few more of the treats available at the Sacramento Farmer's Market that are a departure from the fruits and veggies.  If you are looking for the dates and times for any Certified Farmer's Markets in Sacramento County, check out their web page for all the information.

Who loves cheese?

Oh I do, especially this delicious Gouda from Pedrozo Dairy and Cheese Company.  On Sunday we sampled three versions of this mild white cheese and all three were delicious, but the aged Gouda was my favorite.  Just a few stalls away was Heringer Estates with some of their award winning wines and information about upcoming events.

They even have this  Eco-Cask for the environmentally inclined imbiber

The stall next door to Heringer's was filled with the olive oils from Bariani Olive Oil.  Olive oils are like wines in many ways and their flavor reflects the region where it was grown, just like grapes.  Bariani has several grades to choose from and some other tasty products like balsamic vinegar.

With a smile like that, who can say no?

Now you have the wine, the cheese and some olive oil for drizzle, but your appetizer platter isn't quite finished without some locally grown nuts.  Pistachios of all kinds can be found at the Artois stall, with flavors like habanero, chile-lime and BBQ, just tasting them all can take a while.

So what happens when your guests are far too enthralled by your culinary delights to leave without dinner?  Fret not gentle shopper, just slide on over the west end of the market to peruse some of the meatier offerings.  Find some seafood at Wild Little Fish like these lovelies

or perhaps an oyster bar

Here in Sacramento, there is some kind of fresh food available year round and taking advantage of all the fresh air markets in the area will give you a pantry that your friends will envy.  Give yourself plenty of time to spend at the market and definitely make a circuit through the stalls just for the looking before actually diving in to shop.  While there is generally at least one stall at every market selling coffee and pastries, I find it best not to partake until after the shopping is done so my palate for all the taste-ables won't be corrupted by the bitterness of a brew.

Buying from local growers is good for the local economy, great for your culinary aspirations and creates less of a burden on our planet.  Remember to bring your own shopping bags and even recycle the thin produce bags, it helps to keep costs down for everyone.

Farming is a tough gig in the best of circumstances, the folks who do it for a living will tell you that it is one of the hardest jobs that will ever break your heart on a regular basis.  Support your local growers who are growing with a conscience because, without them where would we be?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

February Farmer's Market

Clyde and I took a stroll through the Farmer's Market beneath the W/X freeway last Sunday so that I could do a guest post for Lover of Creating Flavour.  There were too many good pictures to add to that post, so I thought a few more highlights and some links on this page were in order.  It's late winter, which means citrus time and there were stalls of oranges everywhere, including these pretty little blood oranges.

It was crowded around that stall, Clyde could only get a couple of blurry snaps, but I love the colors anyway.  Here's my favorite plant vendor Cecilia Ayson's table, she doesn't even have a computer, let alone a website; hopefully someday.  You can see the the columns and freeway deck in this one too, they block the rain fairly well but also the natural light.

Larry Glashoff sang a Simon & Garfunkel song about boysenberries while I admired the large selection of jams, jellies and preserves.  I'm going to try their apricot next because I am a fiend for apricot jam, nobody ever makes it as good as my grandmother did.  But I keep looking.

Glashoff Farms has an inviting web site where you can see all their products and find out where else you can buy them.

We Sacramentans know a thing or two about tomatoes and this one is exactly how I like them, bright red and heavy with a few imperfections and dings.  Those perfect supermarket specimens don't have any real flavor and merely looking good is not enough.  The Tomato Man probably knows a few things more, judging by this winter beauty.

Tomorrow I'll share the rest of the goodies, but here are two more links for you.  Rice is one of the bigger crops around the area and Massa Organics will be happy to help you try some.  This page is worth a visit just to see the house constructed from bales of rice straw.

The last link is for my other blog where a month-long short story has just started.  Wanderer has little to do with food, but much to do with the State of California and a good read as well so I would be so pleased if you had a look.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pizza Pans

The next time you see a good deal on pizza pans; the un-fancy non-perforated kind, I urge you to invest in at least four.  Although six would be better, just in case, and they are very easy to find space for in the kitchen.  Here's a list of good reasons why.

  • You will always have a lid for almost every size of pot and pan
  • One pizza pan inverted over another pizza pan and covered with a warm towel is a good way to keep tortillas and other flat breads warm at the table
  • Cover a pizza pan with a pretty cloth napkin for an inviting tray of appetizers
  • Tape the corners of the cloth napkin beneath the pizza pan to make chargers for a prettier table setting
  • Serve you messier children (and guests) on a pizza pan, there is a wider playing field and raised edges to contain the strays
  • If you ever have need of a 12" circular stencil, need I say pizza pan?
  • Make pizza on them!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Sixth Sense

Did any of you catch last season's MasterChef?  Last season a blind lady won the whole thing and how impressed was I?  Incredibly impressed, because cooking without all of your senses at your disposal is generally a recipe for disaster.

But Christine found ways to compensate for her blindness, mostly by going slow and using her fingers to 'see' the food.  That kind of dedication to any craft is admirable, but since I'm a cook, I know that what Christine does is nothing short of heroic.  Kitchens are well known to be death traps for the unwary and a competent chef has to use all five senses all the time just to keep from getting hurt.

But there are more than five senses, there's that other one, the oogly-googly one they make movies about and such.  That sixth sense is no mystical creation and requires no psychic ability, it is born from experience and can be your most valuable ally in the kitchen.  I call it my inner chef and I trust my inner chef implicitly; even if there is still 15 minutes left on the timer, if my inner chef screams NOW!, I jump.

I did not set out to create an inner chef, she just appeared after years of toiling and I did not trust her right off the bat.  But I am here today to say that you can create your own inner chef, your sixth sense, without spending your every waking moment thinking about food.  As usual, all it takes is a decision.

Brains are marvelous things, they are like computers and if you tell them exactly what you want, they will do it for you.  Inform your brain that you expect a little more from it in the kitchen, that it is to warn you of impending disasters and keep track of time.  That fantastical little computer between your ears tracks EVERYTHING in your area, it notes the smells and the very important sounds (cooks often dismiss the sense of hearing, but it is equally as vital as all the rest); it will keep you organized and even occasionally deliver up wickedly clever ideas.

The most important thing you can do to strengthen your inner chef is to trust it; I know that trust doesn't always come easily to cooks and that newer cooks don't think they've got the skills to create one.  But the more you trust your inner chef, the harder it will work for you.

Honing your skills in the kitchen is a never-ending process for most chefs, we are never satisfied and there is always a better way.  Cultivating your sixth sense is just another kitchen skill and, like all skills, it gets easier with time.  Do not fear your own brain, it is generally wiser than your conscious mind and it is always on your side.  Embrace you inner oogly-googly chef; go forth and cook.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Plant Food

I'm going to go out on a limb here and venture to say that 90% of the residents of the San Joaquin Valley are farmers of something, including me.  With an advantageous climate and generously long growing season, most folks at least have some herbs growing in a sunny window and tomatoes of all kinds flourish in backyard gardens up and down the valley.

Clyde and I give over more backyard space to the vegetable garden every year and every year I endeavor to grow a humongous pumpkin for Halloween.  I haven't grown my bean bag chair size specimen yet, but someday.  There are no water restrictions yet in our area, but they are coming and I grew up in the 70's when a prolonged drought hit the valley, so water conservation is always a concern for me.

Over the last 10 years I have slowly begun to see my kitchen and my garden as two complementary things rather than two separate things.  It is a more holistic approach that stems from my desire to conserve resources and funds, Clyde and I are well known to make it ourselves rather than go out and buy.  So I have come to realize that it is not a one way road from garden to kitchen, but a rather well trafficked two way street.

Composting is the first and best use for kitchen scraps of all kinds, from coffee grounds to decaying salad greens, if it's not a protein, toss it in.  Composting is almost vital here in the Sacramento area to condition the red clay hardpan into well-drained soft, black dirt which requires less irrigation.  Egg shells, paper products, used cooking oil and so many other things go into my compost piles that most people just throw away.

But there is a lot of water in your kitchen to be reclaimed as well, more than just water though, in a way it is plant food that is just being drained away.  How many steaming pots of pasta do you make a year?  How often do you rinse the rice?  Do you just empty bottles of flat soda or sour wine down the drain?

All of those can be used to feed and water your indoor and outdoor plants too.  All those wonderful free starches that have come loose from the rice and grains are just another form of nutrition, as are sugars of all kinds. I do recommend diluting very sugary things with water before feeding them to your plants, too much sugar is bad for any creature and attracts unwanted pests.  Salty liquids are the exception to this, do not water your plants with salty liquids although it is fine to put those liquids into the compost pile.  Also make sure that the reclaimed water is at least room temperature so you don't inadvertently boil any tender roots.

Just about any cooking liquid can be reclaimed for your garden, from the lobster boil to poaching wine to simple syrup.  I like to think that my flowers are brighter and my veggies tastier because they benefit from a well rounded diet

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Spicy Talk

I was making some oatmeal cookies today and remembered a story that an old friend Donna told me.  Another old friend, the gone and missed Amanda who knew that Donna did not like oatmeal cookies physically shoved one of my oatmeal cookies into Donna's mouth and ordered her to chew.  Donna realized that day that it wasn't oatmeal cookies she disliked, it was those traditional, dry versions that she had no use for.

My oatmeal cookies are just another version of traditional chocolate chip cookies, I don't like those thin ones with unpleasant textures myself.  Another thing that Donna liked was that I used more than just cinnamon to flavor the dough.  Cinnamon is great and very much called for in an oatmeal cookie, but there should be some other spicy notes in there too for a more rounded flavor.

Before the recipe, I would like to share a bit about how spices work and why this recipe adds the spice in a different place than most others.  Always remember that spices are dried, therefore all the moisture has been removed from them leaving an abundance of volatile oils behind.  Those oils are the flavor in the spice and open up much more readily in the company of fats.

This is why I put the spices into the creaming portion of the recipe, so that the spices meld with the fat from the butter and cream cheese for a well developed flavor.  You can still make the following recipe if you wish to only use butter, but I prefer the texture and taste of the cream cheese.

Oatmeal Cookies

  • 1/2 cup butter, SOFT
  • 1/2 cup cream cheese, SOFT
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
  • dash of freshly grated nutmeg if available
Place all ingredients in a bowl and cream together thoroughly (creaming is using the sharp sugar crystals to cut the butterfats) until the batter is a uniform light brown color with no little chunks of unincorporated fat.  In a separate bowl combine:
  • 2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Add the flour mixture to the batter in 2 - 3 additions, keeping the mixer at a lower speed (you have just added flour to liquid, all mixing from here will result in the flour creating long gluten strands that will make a cookie tough) just until the dough has come together.  Now add:
  • 1 cup oats
  • 1 1/2 cups of your choice of drops, raisins, chips, nuts
Mix just until the additions are fully incorporated; cover bowl with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

To bake, drop the dough onto ungreased cookie sheets with a spoon (!) and bake at 375 degrees for 8 - 12 minutes, or until done.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Running Hot and Cold

Water is perhaps the most vital and least discussed tool in any kitchen.  We here in the States don't often appreciate the fact that clean water comes flowing into our homes and businesses with ease and abundance, which is not true of many communities in the world.  Try to be grateful every time you turn on the tap that you did not have to travel to the community well to get it, you did not have to carry your family's entire daily supply home on your back and you did not have to boil it first in order to have a drink.

Tastes a tiny bit sweeter now, eh?

Water in all it's forms can be used in the creation of many culinary delights, but I am here today to talk about the water inside your ingredients.  Just about every creature on this Earth is made up mostly of water, including the food we eat, and the water inside the food reacts the same to outside forces as the free water outside.

So what does the bound water have to do anything?  Plenty, if you own and use a freezer or a microwave.  Anyone who has ever put a block of cheese in the freezer can attest to that, once they have thawed it out and then tried to grate it only to end up with a pile of cheese crumbles.  That was the water talking to you.

When water freezes, the molecules form crystals inside the food, the slower the freeze (such as home freezers), the larger the crystal.  The crystals attract the other molecules of water and rearrange themselves, still inside the food, and carve out tiny holes.  Once the food is thawed out, that water just flows out leaving the food somewhat beaten in the process.  Unless you own a flash freezer unit, this is unavoidable at home, but understanding what goes on can inform how you prepare things for the freezer.

Cheese can be frozen, but it doesn't work very well for creamy or soft cheeses.  Semi soft cheese like cheddar should be grated first and tossed with a bit of cornstarch while hard cheeses like Parmesan need very little prep.  Those soft cheeses are too wet, all that water will ruin the texture of the cheese once thawed; semi soft has less water and hard has very little.  Meats have a lot of bound water, so wrap them individually in plastic wrap and freeze in a single layer on a sheet pan before putting them all into a freezer bag together.

Now we're going to the other side of the thermometer to hot and how to understand microwave ovens.  The firstest, bestest thing to know about microwaves is that they move water molecules, microwaves excite water molecules specifically.  In science, movement equals heat, so microwave ovens heat food by heating the water inside the food.

If you have ever nuked a piece of bread and gotten a leathery postcard when the timer beeped, it's because what small bit of moisture that was left in the bread was all evaporated away in the microwave.  I routinely splash drops of water onto whatever I am putting into the microwave, from sandwiches to burritos to left over rice.  It gives the microwaves plenty of fuel without taking too much away from my food, but bread will still always toughen up quickly when nuked.

My last thought on this topic is about the bound water in vegetables that are destined for preparations like sauteeing.  Let's use sauteed onions as a for instance; you slice them up nice and thin, toss them in a preheated pan with some butter and olive oil only to see them steam up and stew instead of turning that gorgeous golden brown.  Once again, that's the water talking to you.

Removing some of that bound water will stop your food from steaming in the pan, just lay your cut veggies out on some paper towels and sprinkle with salt.  Salt pulls moisture from tissue, sugar will do the same, and these drier veggies will be much more suitable for frying.

Being familiar with how everything works in your kitchen makes you a better all around cook.  All the recipes and shiny cookware in the world are useless in the hands of a chef who doesn't understand that her most important tool is between her ears.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Creamy, Cheesy Goodness

Mac and Cheese Wednesday was always a busy one at the cafe and the one sure-fire menu item that will still bring my daughter home for dinner.  The key to a satisfying rendition of macaroni and cheese is all in the sauce, so let's make one.

It all starts as the humblest of the mother sauces, the bechamel or white sauce.  A plain bechamel starts with a roux made of equal parts flour and butter cooked together briefly, then one adds milk and a bit of spice and a white sauce is born.  A creamy cheese sauce is not that much harder if one is prepared, and I always endorse good preparation for any cooking venture.

I feel that I must say here that this blog is not often going to offer traditional recipe formats simply because you can find that information anywhere online.  The reason my attempts at putting cookbooks together have all failed is because there is just no way to say everything I want to say about each recipe and all its potential variations in a traditional format.  So I just gave up and started spewing prose about food instead.

Getting prepped:  I generally make 2 cups of sauce at a time, 1 cup for that night's meal and another to pack into a tub for my daughter to take home.  But the recipe is easily halved and easily doubled, so just mind your math when making this for yourself.  We'll just do 1 cup of sauce, but remember that is the measurement before we add the cheese, so you will end up with 1 1/2 cups of cheese sauce.

Get out the saucepan, put in 1 tablespoon of butter.  In a small ramekin, put 1 tablespoon flour, 1/2 teaspoon powdered mustard, 1/2 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon chile powder, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder and 1/4 teaspoon white pepper.  This is what I like the best, but it is well worth it to experiment with your favorite spices and combinations.

Next attend to your milk and this is a flexible area.  Regular, whole milk is the standard and I like that just fine, but you can also use reduced fat milks or goat's milk.  I do like the overall texture of the finished sauce if I've used un-reconstituted evaporated (not condensed) milk and there is even merit in coconut milk.  Once again, I say to experiment my little minions.

Is it cheating to doctor up the milk?  I don't think so, it's enhancing and making something good even better, so of course, I'm in.  Stir in some bouillon or soup base into that milk, you can also try tomato or carrot juice mixed in for both color and flavor, be imaginative and then be sure to report on your findings.  Just make sure that you have an even cup of liquid that is neither too hot or cold.

The last part of our prep is the cheese, just one kind of cheese is boring and gives a one dimensional sauce.  Any kind of cheese can be put into this sauce and I generally will try for a balance of textures and flavors.  Cheddar cheese is the standard and lends itself very well to mixing, but anything in the Jack family will also do.  Soft cheeses like goat and cream offer velvety texture and a gentle tang to sauces while hard cheese like Parmesan will give a hearty depth.  Figure in 1/2 cup of grated cheese(s) for each cup of sauce needed, more if you really like cheese.

Ok, we are ready to cook.  Make sure your macaroni is already cooked and drained before you start making your sauce.  I get my sauce prep together while the mac is cooking.  Turn the heat under your saucepan on to medium low and melt the butter; as soon as it is melted, dump in the ramekin of flour and spice mixture.  Stir it all well to thoroughly combine, just a few seconds, then add the milk/milk mixture.

Continue cooking, stirring often to prevent scorching the bottom of the pan, until the sauce begins to bubble gently.  Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring still, for two minutes or so.  The sauce will start to thicken as it cooks and continue to thicken when you take it off the heat.

Turn off the heat and add the grated cheese, stirring until all the cheese is melted and well combined.  At this point, you can pour it over your cooked macaroni and call it dinner or you can put it all in casserole pan and bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.  If baking, top the casserole with a bit more cheese and cover with foil while baking.