Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cous Cous the long, fluffy way.

I noticed my food blog has an awful lot of writing about me and not a lot of food - so I thought I'd add my culinary adventures to the mix. A few weeks back I invited a friend from the restaurant over to embark on a Moroccan culinary quest: To make couscous, vegetables, and merguez. This savory combination takes me back in time to 2007, the year I spent in Paris, France on exchange. A good friend of mine in Paris was Moroccan and his family owned a Moroccan restaurant (Le Miz Miz, 6 Rue Moret, 11e). I often miss the light fluffy couscous his mother prepared - it was dissimilar to anything that comes from an instant box and kind of seemed like some magic recipe I would never replicate or conquer. It was served with a spicy mix of vegetables and sauce, and of course I would order Merguez on the side (spicy beef sausage). In approaching Moroccan night at the house - I emailed my friend back in Paris for some recommendations, and to learn to make cous cous "like your mother." I was expecting a reply with a simple recipe and some tricks of the trade. But he replied with something unexpected - to make couscous you need a couscoussière, or in other words - a couscous making contraption, pictured above (steamer). Well crap. This put a damper on Moroccan night. Nevertheless, I had faith I could come up with something, so I went forth and bought the medium grain couscous from the Middle East market (not fine, and not the kind from the instant box) which he advised. He sent me a recipe from a Moroccan food website and gave me some really useful footnotes (

Right so here we go. The recipe was in French and even though I speak it, it took some deciphering and dictionaries to determine exactly what the processes were, which I combined with my friends advice and a little googling. What I deduced from the picture above is that the couscoussière is a pot below where you cook the meat and vegetable sauce, and the steam from this sauce cooks the couscous on the top pot with pores (the steamer is open, not closed). To substitute we used a rice cooker (steamer) lined with a lightly floured cheese cloth, though I'm sure you could also use a regular big pot for the bottom and a fine colander for the top. As you add the lukewarm water work the couscous with your fingers.

Making couscous requires that you steam and rest it at least twice. Take your uncooked couscous and put it in a bowl. Pay attention! This is the most important step. Slowly add lukewarm salty water to the couscous grain (not all at once, and not too much). As you add water mix the couscous with your fingers over and over, separating each grain, letting them expand with the warm water. Put the couscous in the open steamer. Cook for about 5-15 minutes, and then put it back in the bowl and fluff it with a fork (if cooked it will be like couscous from a box). Add a little water to moisten it and continue doing the same separating motion. It should never be soupy and avoid making it mushy as well. Wait a few minutes before putting it back in the steamer for 15-45 minutes, depending on how long it steamed the first time you can determine when it is done. Fluff and serve with butter!

Couscous with vegetable sauce and lamb sausage.

Couscous for lunch with caramalized onions.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Introduction to the Cordon Bleu culinary textbook and reflections

The introduction is really the most easily glossed over chapter. At first I even found myself flipping through the pages thinking what can I actually take from this? The section breezed through a short, French culinary history including Boulanger and Escoffier, and broke down the kitchen's organization and hierarchy, standards of professionalism, and keys to success. After reading much of the common sense advice presented in this chapter I started thinking about some of the culinary professionals I have met thus far in my culinary career and how they fit (or don't fit) into these criteria, and how even I can be balled up and tossed around these ideas.

Standards of professionalism in list form:

Positive attitude:  The paramount attribute to success. I learned this lesson early on in the kitchen. There were times in the kitchen when I wanted to quit, most definitely; when my moral was low. There were days when the chef thought, I am sure, that I would not be coming back. But every time I did. For example, to entertain your curiosity - there was the time the dishwasher and I had an argument that lasted almost 2 weeks over laziness in the kitchen (even though I don't speak Spanish nor him English - it was kind of a blowout), and the time something fell on my head and I burst into tears - not because it hurt so bad - but mostly because stress had been building up and it was a release of tension. I ran to the bathroom and dried my eyes, snapped out of it, walked back out and continued on like nothing ever happened. There are no excuses in the kitchen and certainly not for me - the newb who felt for so long like she had something to prove. Unnecessary drama surrounding me can only work to my disadvantage, and make our small domain uncomfortable. We spend so much time in close proximity to one another and rely so heavily on our interactions during evening service that any variation away from the norm exponentially increases the stress in the kitchen across the board. If I lose my humble demeanor and my go-getter attitude then there's no longer a point to my employment. The restaurant will invest in me so long as I invest in them, and as the chef said at many of our staff meetings - this can't be just a job to anyone here, and if it is then that person should probably leave. But anyways - I should say that for the most part I have a good kitchen attitude, I definitely wouldn't put myself on a pedestal of kitchen professionalism though.

Staying power (physical/mental stamina):  It took me 6 months or more to learn to stand on my feet all day, and when I'm exhausted I struggle with it yet still. Everyone in my restaurant has lost weight noticeably since their commencement of employment. Mentally, you must become accustomed to mundane tasks, or better yet - working incredibly efficient at mundane tasks so you can move onto something else (i.e. shelling beans, cleaning chard stems). You've got to hang tough. The chef does a good job of keeping it interesting, allowing us to change positions around the line every month or so. He said he used to get bored on the same station and wants us to find work as stimulating as possible.

Ability to work with people, eagerness to learn: "There is more to learn about cooking than you will learn in a lifetime," it says in the book. I agree. There are 1000 ways to skin a cat.  You may think you know but...

A full range of skills: To be successful in this industry you need to not only be a good cook but able to run a business and manage people.  This is the part where I do the unspeakable and comment on the chef.  Where I work, the chef is limited by his ability to manage the staff; he is out of touch with the cooks who prepare the food.  Many times at the restaurant I felt like all the responsibilities he had given me were greater than the range of my ability - even when stretched.  As a result there have been many nights where I struggled to complete my prep, lagged setting up my station, or entered service with a cloudy mind (shuddering on the inside).  All the employees should feel like their tasks are surmountable, difficult fine, but surmountable.  No one should be put in a position where failure feels certain.  Just to juxtapose another scenario - before working at this restaurant I spent almost two months volunteering at another restaurant which had a daily changing menu.  Depending on who was working what station, the dishes would become harder or easier to prep and execute, tailoring the complexity of the station to the cook presumably so each cook felt able to accomplish the given tasks.  While this may not be the norm in many kitchens, I notice that in that kitchen the line cooks seem to stay at the restaurant longer on average, perhaps speaking to the sustainable kitchen environment.

Experience: "A diploma will not make you chef."  There's just no way around this, nor should there be.

Dedication to quality: "It costs no more to cook green beans properly than to overcook must want to. It is not enough to know how." To be a good cook I imagine it must be running through your veins. I've seen some of my co-workers take short cuts or try to let errors slide, errors that we've all made but will you take the energy to correct them? This, like pretty much everything, relates to attitude. If this is just a job then it will be more difficult to push through the low pay and lack of benefits, the crazy hours, and the aching back to produce quality, delectable dishes 8+ hours a day. You have to internalize it, to want it to be good apart from any external factors - just for the sake of the food. Quality control is a HUGE part of the restaurant - and the more strict it is the more consistent experiences customers will have, and the higher your reviews will be. Aside from the occasional short cuts it's easy to be inspired at work. I've seen our cooks care deeply about the end result, plating beautifully even when tired and constantly checking for freshness and seasoning. It's easy to get the plate out - but to make it fantastic every time is what it's about.  

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rachael teaches herself to cook in 6 months or less

I want to learn to cook, learn the fundamentals.  Last night I watched Anthony Bourdain prance around Paris in his 100th episode and pretty much all around blow my mind.  One of the chefs who accompanied him talked briefly of the difficulties of success in this business.  He commented that without the fundamentals to build upon real success is harder to achieve. And then I started to think, this is the stage of my life where I decide if a cooking career is for me and it won't last forever. Sooner rather than later I'm going to have to make the decision if I will stay in food or if I will leave it. Similarly, I am a firm believer that success can be awarded through your own initiative, with or without school. While maybe I would thrive more at an institution, maybe I wouldn't.   Maybe the two years spent purchasing an introduction to cooking could be accomplished while being paid, working, and self education. Maybe? Right now I'm betting on the latter. Chef says that most culinary students don't actually know anything. I believe that smart people in school come out with a wealth of knowledge and connections, though much of this is accomplished through drive. Other people grasp some of the concepts and skills but overall spend too much for an education that goes in one ear and out the other.

As I feel the omnipresent voices in the back of my head nagging me to earn money and pick a career (or could this be mother?), I'm giving myself 6 months to be a full blown foodie to the max.  I'll be doing weekly or bi-weekly homework: self-assigned, researched, executed, and turned in on the blog. I need more than anything to push myself to give a career in cooking a fair shot. I must know that I did everything feasible at this time, where it is most appropriate, where food consumes my life. Whether I decide to stay in food or leave, this séjour will stick with me forever and I will definitely look back smiling with a warm heart on the good times and the rough times involved in this experience: on finally mastering the cheesecake, getting proposed to over a tasty Steelhead, chopping off my thumb, feeling the heat on the line, engaging with people I would have otherwise not had the opportunity to meet, and overall busting my ass. I won't regret one scar.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The professional kitchen and me

Foremost this was not supposed to be a blog about me.  But anything worth hearing at this point might just have to come from the inside, so I'm posting this at 2am (don't worry - tomorrow's my day off).
I work in a restaurant.  Restaurant life is hard.  4 months in and I've nearly reached a breaking point of self-mutilation and kitchen/personal sanity.  In my sleep I'm mixing pork sugo with orrechette, AP stock, and raddichio to order at work (don't forget to season), or slicing meat while babysitting the chef's children at his home (bedside meat slicer - don't we all have one?).  While I'm awake I spend my spare time working out for a healthy distraction or numbing myself in exhaustion in front of the television.  What part of my life is supposed to be sustainable now?  My personal life has taken a blow also.  Having the opposite schedule as nearly all my friends is rough, and my campaign to make Tuesday the new Friday was only mildly successful.
Enough complaining - isn't work supposed to be hard?  Work is hard - everywhere - says the chef.  Our restaurant is not unique.  Right.  Work IS hard.  But it's worth it if you love it, right?  Do I love it?  I love to cook...  I'm learning more and more that there may as well be an ocean between my kitchen and the professional kitchen at work.  The days of leisure cooking are over to be replaced by a haze of what seems to be like kitchen rape.  I exaggerate.  But the truth is - going in, I wasn't quite prepared for the ball of stress that can be the kitchen.
Needless to say I do still go back everyday, an hour early (like clockwork), wanting to learn more...learn it all.  There is so much to learn.  And once it's with you it stays for life.
Here's something true about the kitchen, something disappointing to me.  There's very little thinking involved.  The kitchen is all muscle memory.  I cannot stay up all night studying the kitchen and suddenly master my station and get an A.  There is no replacement for experience in this respect.  And for someone with an academic background this is quite frustrating.  The best way to get good at 'the kitchen' is to push myself really hard, just about every day, to perform the best that I can.  You cannot take shortcuts.  You cannot take time off.  X and Y need to get done and you must do it, because if you don't  the restaurant is not ready to open.
Likewise attitude is everything in the kitchen.  I've been complemented many times by the line cooks, the sous-chef, and the chef as well about my positive attitude in the kitchen.  "With an attitude like that you'll go far" - Chef.  If I didn't say it before you cannot be averse to hard work in the kitchen.  You do everything that is asked of you and with a smile.  A bad attitude in the kitchen is like a bad attitude anywhere else - it brings down moral and can create a toxic environment.  My experience with this is mainly with the sous-chef (ex sous-chef) of my restaurant.  He was profoundly unhappy with his position in life and in his career and took it out on the food and the restaurant.  Often I'd hear comments from him such as "see you tomorrow in hell" or "that looks like shit, what was the chef thinking."  I'd occasionally even hear him bad talking the food in earshot of customers (open kitchen....hellooooooo).  It really shocked me how one bad attitude can be contagious and all of a sudden everyones in a bad mood because no one is allowed to have fun.
So why am I still there?  I love to cook.  I like making ravioli when I'm not a ball of stress.  I don't quit things when they get hard - I push through and triumph, in one way or another.  Part of it is proving to myself that I can, in fact, do it - not to mention that I am still very much interested in learning to cook.  Part of it is giving the work a fair chance (though I suspect this will not be my life long career).  And another part of it is seeing where this takes me - if I will gain any other valuable insight about my life or future through this process.

I can only wait to see how the cookie will crumble...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Food and Me

What I ate today:
Honey nut cheerios (a knockoff)
A blueberry pop tart (Trader Joe's brand)
Peanut butter filled pretzels
Smoked tuna sandwich (at work for staff meal)
A single malfatti (a spinach/ricotta dumpling like thing that's shaped like an egg, and takes multiple days to work)
Crostini (thin slice of bread toasted with oil)

Things about food that interest to me:
Nutrition: what's good for my body and yours.
History of nutrition in the US: 1960's industrialization of food.  Being the nation that is the most obsessed with nutrition and nutrients and vitamins and all that jazz, and paradoxically being the most obese and unhealthy (much thanks to advertising and the food and drug companies).
America exporting it's diet to the world.
Food scarcity
Food as community, religion, pleasure, family.
Food movements - oragnic, slow, small plates, local, all that stuff California adores.  Pluots.
Organic certifications in and out
Food as history: We've been eating some of the same essential (regional) foods for a very long time, fried chicken and the south, hummus and the middle east, Sicilian Pizzuta almonds...
Food in history: "Let them eat brioche!" Marie Antoinette
Food made in the right way.
Food idioms (I have been collecting them since I incorporated some of them into one of my lessons at English language summer camp in Russia).

People I draw inspiration from at the moment:
Marion Nestle - NYU professor in food studies, PhD in Nutrition, Food/Nutrition columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and food writer for The Atlantic.
Peter Reinhardt - baker, professor, master of the Pain Poilane (famous Parisian loaf), and author of the most fabulous bread book I've been learning and experimenting from, "The Bread Baker's Apprentice."
Michael Pollan - food writer/author (currently reading his book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto)
Ari Weinzweig - most endearing food writer for the Atlantic
Lara Vapnar - food novelist - author of "Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love" - short fiction stories about Russian immigrants to the US  - all of which use food as metaphors to explore their personal lives.
Julia Child - food enthusiast
Richard Olney - poetic food writer of the past - must read his chapter on eggs.
Chlotilde  - French food blogger who makes me want to eat everything she makes.

My lists will grow as will legitimate blog posts I hope.  Here's to restarting and re-vamping my food blog!  And along the way maybe I'll learn a thing or two about where my interests really lie.  Same time next week ish.