Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cabbage rolls from the old country

Since I am reuniting with family at my cousin's wedding this weekend, I felt inspired to recreate our heritage food.  There is something so satisfying about food from the old country.  Making meals that your great great Bubbie and Zeyda prepared in the same way in a sense connects you to your past.  Families pass down recipes much like antiques or heirloom jewlery; they foster a sense of pride, connection, and belonging.

One of my all time favorite comfort foods from childhood are cabbage rolls:  Rice and Beef stuffed in cabbage with a sweet and sour tomato sauce.  Variations of cabbage rolls are found all over Eastern Europe and in Russia too, but my memories stem from recipes passed down among the Jewish-Polish-Belarusian population.  (Cabbage rolls on Wiki, very interesting)

When I decided to make cabbage rolls my mom was upset as she couldn't find her recipe anywhere (the recipe her mom made for her and that she made for me).  She recounted to me what she could remember and I filled in the blanks with various recipes from Jewish cookbooks in the house, Polish grandmother's on the internet, and a little bit of my own improvisation.  I think what I have is pretty close to what I remember.  Memory is a tricky thing though.  I'm sure the way I remember it is not the way it actually was.  In any case, my parents gobbled it up and applauded my efforts.  A success.  I'm definitely going to make this one again, perhaps tweaking it in pursuit of my memory gold.

A head of cabbage
1 onion, small diced
Garlic, minced
1/2 carrot, small diced
About a pound of ground beef (+/-)
About 1/2 cup uncooked rice (+/-)
1 or 2 TB tomato paste
1 28oz can tomato product
2 TB sugar
1 or 2 TB vinegar (apple cider)
Salt + pepper

Core the cabbage.  Boil a pot of water, turn off and put the head of cabbage in to soften for 10-15 minutes.  In the meantime sweat the onion, adding the carrot midway and then the garlic.  Set half of the sweated veg to cool and to the other half add the can of tomato product, sugar, and vinegar.  Heat and adjust sweet and sour to taste.  In a separate bowl mix the uncooked rice, ground beef, cooled veg, tomato paste, salt, and pepper.  Now take the cabbage out of the water (if you haven't already).  Take the leaves off and cut the main vein out.  Some leaves will yield two rolls and some only one.  Roll about 1/3 cup beef filling in the cabbage like a burrito and place in a baking dish.  Once all the rolls are lined up in the dish, pour the sauce over.  Cut up the extra cabbage (some or all) and add loose to the baking dish.  Add a little hot water to the dish so that the rolls are almost covered (and to allow for evaporation during cooking).  Put in the oven at 375 and bake for over an hour, until the rice is cooked (there should be enough liquid in the pan to ensure the rice will cook).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Chickpea Stew, a vegetarian meal

Sometimes your body just needs a little nourishment à la vegetables.   Before working in the kitchen I ate meat but it wasn't commonplace by any means in my diet.  It would happen when I went out to restaurants or every blue moon at my house.  Meat was expensive to buy and as the poor student I mostly just didn't bother.

In the past year and a half my diet has shifted and become much more meat heavy because of working in a restaurant.  Everyday staff meal has a meat component or a meaty star (i.e. meatloaf, braised chicken, beef stew, sloppy joes, fried chicken).  My body has adjusted nicely and for all that talk about the unhealthy fats of meat I seem to be getting thinner rather than larger.  (I should interject here that our staff meal bowls serve about 1/3 of the amount I'd normally eat at a meal, and it is my firm belief that butter and other fats aren't actually bad for us, so long as we eat them in moderation).

Nevertheless, in tow with my new diet I have been exploring meats in my days off as well, shoveling out the extra cash to practice at home or develop my palette.  Yesterday I went to a new butcher shop specializing in local organic sustainably-raised everything and ate their sandwich of the day: brown butter sage beef sausage with summer squash and thinly sliced red onions on a fresh roll.  It was delicious, so much so that I devoured that sandwich with all four sausages, which is three more sausages than I would normally eat and that my body really wanted to handle at that moment.  I knew that for dinner and possibly into the next day I needed some vegetable detox to balance myself out.  I went shopping at the grocery store and got the ingredients for a chickpea stew to make at my friends house.  Nourishing, healthy, spicy, and not lacking in the flavor department.  I was well fulfilled after this meal and my body felt balanced and at peace with itself.

1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic (more or less depending if you're a garlic fiend)
1 carrot, small diced
1 can crushed tomato
A few cups vegetable stock (onion, carrot, leek + whatever else, boiled for a couple hours and strained)
1 15oz can garbonzo beans/chickpeas/pois-chiches/ceci, or dried beans cooked separately
1 medium potato, cut in smallish-medium cubes
1 squash, cut however you like
Kale, taken off the stems and cut into smaller pieces
Some eggs (the fresher the better, I had just bought fresh farm eggs)
Spices: A lot: cumin, paprika/cayenne pepper
           A little: crushed pepper (for spice), nutmeg, ground ginger, cinnamon
           Salt + pepper

Sweat onions till translucent.  Add carrots, sweat, then add the garlic and cook till nice and fragrant (without browning).  Add spices, then add tomato product and veg stock (to cover all the ingredients with a little extra room but not to make it too soupy).  Bring to a boil and adjust seasonings.  Add the garbonzos (either cooked separately or drained and washed from the can) and potatoes, simmer until the potatoes are cooked through.  Add the squash and kale and cook for a few more minutes.  Put the stew into a baking-friendly dish, crack some raw eggs on top, and put it under the broiler in the oven until the eggs hold together (but still have runny yolks).  Serve over couscous, rice, quinoa, or anything else.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Do what you do and do it all the way

I looked up chef’s bio the other night and I found out that she became head chef at age 24.  I’m 25 and although I care a lot about my job I might as well be swimming in a pool of unfulfilled potential.  I work hard but I have a lingering sense that I’m not doing all that I could do to succeed, especially in an industry where your financial stability and quality­­­ of life depend in a very big way on your success.

When I started working in the kitchen last year I wanted to learn how to cook while retaining my identity; I had the naïve notion the two were mutually exclusive, that the many hours I put in learning skills wouldn’t affect who I was and I would be the same girl with the same friends and interests and life.  I tried to keep one foot in every door so at a moment’s notice I could jump around if it didn’t work out.  Despite my misguided predisposition the kitchen has changed me, as it should.  I was incredibly naïve to think that a major life experience wouldn’t have a profound effect on me.  The kitchen has developed my work ethic, influenced my politics, and has opened my eyes to a world I would have otherwise never known full of passion, debauchery, and fearlessness.  It’s challenged my pre-conceived notions about industry hardliners, about menial work, about the kinds of people who do menial work, and even what defines menial.  It’s made me a more open-minded person and, I’d like to think, someone who has more upstanding character (ironically, as the kitchen has the reputation of the opposite). 

I spend a lot of time thinking about if I’m doing the right thing.  If I’m underperforming based on my training or if I’m brave enough to do something different than everyone else I know (or if I’m classist for even thinking that).  The kitchen is not a romantic place on the inside but somehow I still view it through rose colored glasses.  As I get older I can see more clearly the sacrifices I’m making to do what I do:  The hours, the financial stability, the hard physical work, to name the big ones.  Pursuing food is either the best decision or the worst decision.  The road can be difficult at times but I feel in my gut that if I stick with it and continue to push forward I will break through that barrier to success.  If there is nothing to gamble there is nothing to gain.  Eventually I'm going to look back on these days as some of the best, most formative years.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Knife buying advice and/or guide

Pretty Damascus pattern on my knife.

Before I get started I know I've been MIA on the blog for awhile and I'm sorry to my *cough* hundreds of thousands of readers (ahm). I blame the half marathon I ran last month coupled with the extra hours I pulled at work when the sous-chef's wife had a baby and then hard-drive failure on my computer. But I'm back! New computer and all. Let's get started and catch up.

Recently I bought a new knife. It's about time. I've had my old knife for a year. It was a very sharp affordable option - 6in high carbon steel Japanese style knife. My new knife is 8in high carbon stainless steel and it slices like a dream, gliding through that onion as if it were gliding through air. This is my first professional knife. I chose to get a Japanese knife because somehow I just got on that track and now it feels comfy and normal. Japanese knives can be lighter and thinner than western style knives - but it all comes down to preference.

Important factors in buying a knife:

What do you use your knife for? I recently figured out, after taking an interest in butchery, that my family has been using the same boning knife for much of their all-purpose cutlery needs since before I was born. While I had a laugh for a moment at this idea, you know what? IT WORKS. My family doesn't really need professional grade knives because what would they use them for? It's just home cooking, it doesn't have to look a certain way, and if you don't need it don't buy it. And while sharp knives are better than dull ones if you accidentally cut yourself (cleaner cuts) - I would still be a little worried they would slice off a finger or a hand if they used my knife regularly. It's not for everyone and it can be intimidating to use if you don't know how to use it properly (i.e. safely, check out this youtube video). My first knife was a regular 6in Wusthof and I think it was a good, comfortable knife with enough of an edge and strength that I would recommend it for domestic use for just about anybody. My second knife was from a Japanese store in Berkeley called Hida Tool. Their knives are very good and affordable for the quality. The family that owns the store is knowledgeable about the differences of the knives. My new knife is from a store in Alameda recommended to me by my sous-chef called The Japanese Woodworker. Their knives are a little bit pricier and also very good quality. Nevertheless - don't think that you can't go somewhere more mainstream and find a good knife. I still like to peruse Sur La Table.

That being said, I'm going to take you through some of my research as I was preparing for my big purchase. If you'd like to read on and someday purchase a higher quality knife - I hope this will help you. I really didn't know what exactly to look for at first, but as we do in this modern age I found a plethora of resources on the internet which I mixed with experience from work.

Starting checklist: Make sure that the knife is full tang. Full tang blades are made from a solid piece of steel that extends through the handle making the knife virtually indestructible (i.e. the handle will never separate from the blade). You also want forged steel as opposed to a cut or stamped knife. Forged steel is shaped under high heat and heavy weight, a more expensive process that will hold an edge longer and be overall way better quality. 

Edge: Steel is just iron with carbon in it. Other alloys (metal mixes) can be added to give the knife different properties, such as more strength, hardenability, wear resistance, decreased toughness, and more. The most common alloys are carbon, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, phosphorus, silicon, sulfur, tungsten, and vanadium. Their uses can be quite technical and frankly I don't remember them all so I'm not going to get into them here, but instead refer you to a website.

The most important detail to pinpoint in my opinion is the carbon content of your knife. Knives with higher carbon contents stay sharp longer and have harder edges. On the flip side they rust and require more wiping and maintenance and can be a little more brittle, perhaps dinging, chipping, or cracking easier. High carbon steel, according to wikipedia, is 0.6-0.99% carbon, and ultra high carbon steel is 1-2% carbon. More than that will be considered cast iron. Very rarely do I see knives displayed with the percentage of carbon content, but it will usually say stainless, high carbon, or ultra high carbon steel.

My blade is a mix. The center (Hagane) is high carbon steel alloyed with cobalt (for wear resistance), which is forge welded between two outside layers (Jigane) of stainless steel (for strength and rust resistance). Mind you when buying my knife I didn't really understand all this and it's not totally necessary to understand it all.  I'm wasting my time a little but this is fun isn't it?

Balance: Next to the edge and build this is most important. Especially for professionals, but also true for everyone, if your knife does not feel comfortable in your hand and nicely weighted then you're screwed. I have small hands and don't like heavy knives - but someone else might prefer the opposite. It all comes down to your comfort. To me a good feeling knife is not too light that your hand does all the work. A little weight will let gravity do the work but too much weight, for a small girl like me, will make my hand cramp up. Find the balance!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Redesigning the nutrition label

Recently I submitted an entry to the redesign the nutrition label contest.  The objective is to make a nutrition label that is actually useful and informative to people - either using the existing label as a layout base or re-creating your own completely.  Never mind my super design skills from the Paint application - it's the thought that counts.

The nutrition label is easily glossed over by many, however, if done properly it could have a real impact on health and obesity in America.  People don't know what they're putting in their bodies.  They don't know how much is a reasonable amount, and they don't know where their food comes from.  And that's a big problem.  As Michael Pollan said in his book In Defense of Food, it's ironic that America is the country the most obsessed with health and nutrition and vitamins as we are the most obese.  I'm not a calorie counter (though I understand the calorie count has a role to play in the nutrition label) and I'm definitely not concerned about the amount of butter in my diet (how I love butter).  But that doesn't mean I'm not thinking about what I'm putting in my body.  I love food and I prefer to eat real food, that has names I understand, varied, fat and all, in moderation.  There's no science behind my diet but I'm a healthy normal sized person.

When it comes to packaged foods I'm skeptical.  Unfortunately it's come to a point where I don't trust my food packaging: I don't trust the health claims and I don't trust that the nutrition label is really helping me or my family, who don't always pay attention to it as much, make better decisions for our health. I want to make a nutrition label that has accessible information for people who can't make sense of the numbers and which also enlightens us on hot topics in food production.

Knowledge is power. If we systematically print more information (via the nutrition label, front of package labeling, etc.) in a way that's meant to be understood, it will manifest in consumers' decisions and could change the demands in the food industry. Nutrition labels currently muddle controversial information that could affect product sales (i.e. where did your food come from?  Is this an unhealthy amount of salt/fat?  Is it genetically modified?). You have a right to know the details about what goes into your body. It's your body.  Below is a breakdown of changes I made to the nutrition label.  I included some great ideas I saw out on the inter-web coupled with a few of my own:

  • High/med/low color coded traffic circles next to the Calories/Fat/Salt/Sugars visually show consumers, who don't necessarily understand the numbers, how much of a good or bad thing is in their food. (Taken from the UK FOP labeling).
  • Standardized serving size (100g) – so consumers can compare different foods to each other more easily.
  • % of whole grains is about shattering the marketing ploys to convince consumers that their food is better for them than it actually is. What percentage of grains are whole grains?
  • What percentage of vitamins and minerals are natural and what percentage is fortified? Getting your vitamins and minerals through natural foods (i.e. raisins in your cereal, fruit or vegetables baked into your bread...) will absorb differently in your body and likely have greater health benefits than a powder added to your cereal mix. While consumers have the right to choose any product they please, I think it is important they become aware of this distinction.
  • Allergy information prominently displayed.
  • Hot topic check-boxes at the bottom make consumers aware of what their food is and isn't, decreasing confusion. They might have a stronger opinion about many of these boxes if they knew each and every time what they were consuming.
  • Easier to understand ingredient list that I poached from a scientist in an article I read. (A great idea is a great idea...). It shows consumers in words they understand what they're eating, and the percentage by weight in the food (a vast improvement). It also divides the ingredients into major ingredients and minor ingredients.
Food is and always will be an important conscious part of my life. I hope that this project redesigning the nutrition label will widen the discourse on what consumers need to know to make informed healthy choices. As we can see with the growing organic market consumers do care about what they're putting in their bodies. We need to embrace the changing demand and give consumers what they want: accurate information they can easily understand.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tips for tedious work

People often romanticize working at a Michelin starred restaurant. How exciting to be in the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, working with your hands all day on your passion, and eating! However, what I actually do all day is hardly glamorous.  In fact it can be monotonous and dull.  With one friend in particular we joke about how different our lives are. She is giving seminars on unplanned pregnancies while I am picking the stems off of baby spinach, followed by slicing, dicing, peeling, shaving, picking, cutting, tearing, chopping, washing, and more. As a prep girl starting at the bottom, sometimes getting through it can be a battle. In my few months as prep girl I've developed some coping techniques. All cooks, even those from home, should heed this advice and make your kitchens (and therefore your lives) more efficient (and delicious).  Do more with less time!

Tips for tedious work:
  1. Most important – do it as quickly as you can (aka move your hands faster). It will suck much less if you finish sooner.
  2. Try not to tense up your hands – stretch them out when need be.
  3. Arrange your work space so that your hands are moving around as little as possible.
  4. Work into and out of something.  Commonly I use containers: One for the produce in it's original form, a scrap container so you don't make a mess, and a container for the finished product. Place them side by side or front to back, however makes sense. (The container system may vary.  Depending on the volume and product small piles may work as well.  Always keep your piles very separate.)
  5. Keep your work space clean and organized.  A dry or damp towel can help with this. 
  6. Don't let the menial job distract you from the end quality. It still has to be pretty, mostly.
  7. Get comfortable with your pairing knife, peeler, chef knife, mandolin, or tool of choice. (Or maybe you just need your hands!).
  8. Not necessary – but some music or NPR in the background certainly takes the edge off.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Going out to eat, brown bag in hand

Photo courtesy of google images.
When eating at a friend's house it is polite to contribute and show appreciation by bringing a bottle of wine or the like.  As a cook eating out at a friend's restaurant the custom sticks:  Bring the kitchen (your hosts) beer (and they will be kind to you...).

As I prepared to come in and eat with my family where I work, the AM sous explained to me the beer etiquette I should follow.  Despite the fact that this practice seemed mildly inappropriate (to walk into a nice restaurant with beer in hand), I know it's typical based on what the other cooks have said and done: The garde-manger cook coming in to eat with a massive bottle of beer in a brown bag, and the PM sous complaining that her friend's restaurant didn't send anything extra even though she brought a six-pack.  To keep with tradition I wanted to go out and get a little something for my team.  As it happened there was not much time between when I got off work and the reservation so I informed the staff I'd bring them beer the following work day instead.  I think I must be the most awkward beer-giver of all time (partly because of my tardiness and partly because I'm not much of a drinker and an aura of young innocence surrounds me).  But the staff was cool and in the end I felt like I played my part.  In return they treated us with such warmth and generosity that the beer fizzled in comparison.  They're pretty cool like that.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cherry pie with no fancy equipment

Yesterday I went to the Lagunitas beer circus in Petaluma for my friend Natalie's birthday.  On the way we stopped at a roadside fruit stand for a snack: super sweet delicious cherries.  Earlier today with the remaining cherries I decided to make a pie.  Waste not want not as my dad would say; it would be such a shame to let them go bad.  This pie satisfied every craving and pushed me into a massive pie coma.  Needless to say I'll sleep well tonight.

Cherry filling:
enough cherries to fill a pie, pitted
1/2 vanilla bean, insides scraped
2 TB corn starch
(optional sugar to taste if your cherries are not sweet enough)

Pie Crust:
2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
6-8 TB ice water
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar

Here is the part where I feel like Suzie homemaker.  I don't have a robocoup or a cuisinart to make the pie crust so I had to find a way to mix it by hand with really cold butter (cold butter and pie dough is key to a flaky crust).  I did research on the internet and came across some good advice:  Stick the butter in the freezer till hard (about an hour) and when ready to make the crust grate the butter on a cheese-grater.  Mix the grated butter in with the dry (flour salt sugar) by hand, clumping it with your fingers.  Add the ice water 2 TB at a time mixing inbetween with your hands.  It's ready when it all sticks together when clumped with your hands.  Knead it a little so it becomes one solid mass, don't worry if there are chunks of butter it will make the crust flaky.  Divide in 2 and put in the fridge for at least an hour to chill.  An hour later roll out half the dough 1/8 in thick and conform it to your pie dish.  I stick the empty pie dish with dough in the freezer while I work on the next step.

Put the pitted cherries in a sauce pan, heat on low till some of juice comes out.  Mix that juice with a little warm water, the cornstarch, and the insides of half a vanilla bean and pour all into your pie crust (taken out of the freezer).  Roll out the other half of the dough, place on top of your pie, smush the edges together, trim excess dough and crimp with a fork.  Brush egg on the top and sprinkle with sugar (for a nice golden crust).  Bake at 375 for 50 minutes.

**If you do have fancy equipment you can pulse the cold butter and dry together till course and then add the ice water 1 TB at a time until it comes together.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Impromptu chicken braise with white wine and preserved lemon

Feel free to not forget your chicken in the oven and remember to turn it over occasionally.

I have a lot of chicken and I have to cook it before it goes bad: Ready, go!

Last week the sous-chef taught me how to break down a chicken and subsequently he and I went to Sur La Table and picked out my first boning knife, Wusthof Ikon.  At the moment we have a fair amount of chickens to break down for a small restaurant.  We get shipments in two to three times a week, using them for a daily chicken stock and for one of the main entrées on the menu -  chicken cooked sous-vide and then deep fried.  I can't wait to expand my role as kitchen prep to occasional butcher and to continue honing my skills.  Butchery is definitely one of those must-have skills to succeed in the industry and it simultaneously makes you feel a little bit hardcore.  Though today, after buying three whole chickens at the market primed to practice what I'd been shown - I realized that I couldn't find the wishbone and I had forgotten how to dislocate the shoulder.  Nevertheless I managed  to get the breast, legs, and thighs off the chicken with a small to medium amount of waste.  Nothing quite like the bare carcass the sous-chef demonstrated to me, but I assume it will only get better from here.  All this practice is leaving me with quite a bit of chicken on my hands.  Tonight I pan fried some shnitzl, a childhood favorite, and threw an impromptu braise together for the dark meat which turned out prettttty tasty and was quite simple.  Feel free to try this at home and add anything that might make it tastier - vary up the citrus, add another spice, etc.

dark meat
1/4 preserved lemon, roughly chopped
a couple cups of chicken stock
a miniature bottle of white wine
1/4 onion
1 bay leaf
a shake of chili flakes
3 cloves garlic, whole

Sear the chicken skin side down in a pan until the skin is golden and a little crisp; turn over and sear the other side a little less.  Remove the chicken and put it in a casserole.  Add the onions to the chicken grease left in the pan to sweat.  Add salt, pepper, garlic, preserved lemon, and a shake of chili flakes and sautée a little.  Deglaze the pan with white wine and add the chicken stock.  Pour the liquid and onions over the chicken to just cover or almost cover it.  Add the bay leaf and bake around 325 for 4 hours or so, turning the chicken occasionally.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Back to basics: How to perfectly caramelize onions and garlic

I'm learning more and more that the best possible end product is the sum of it's parts.  Each part of the process needs to be done well for it to be magic.  At the restaurant I am a lowly prep girl (ahm, really not so low).  But as the meat cook said to me the other day, each dish has me written all over it.  The care I put into my work transfers and builds with the care the line cooks put in.  If my escarole is dirty, my bacon dice sloppy, or my asparagus shaved into inconsistent slices - it affects the whole quality and outcome of the dish.  In terms of onions and garlic - no matter what the end product - if you take the time to caramelize them properly it will add more flavor than if you did a half-ass job.  This is not easily done on the fly, so to speak, but you can start it and watch it minimally while you do something else.  At the restaurant we let let ours cook low and slow for 1-2 hours, stirring the onions occasionally but never touching the garlic.  Here's how:

Slice your onions thin.  Oil your pan and on low heat throw on the onions.  Don't touch.  When the bottom starts to get a little color use a wooden spoon to stir or move the bottom to the top (and vice versa).  The moisture coming out of the onions will deglaze the pan helping to color the onions.  If it's sticking too much you can add a little water to help it go.  Keep up the the cycle until they're nice and caramelized.  They will taste sweet.  Add them to anything egg related, to pasta, to sauteed vegetables, to top off your hamburger, or puree with cooked fruit and a splash of vinegar for a nice cheese accompaniment.

Cut off the bottom of a head of garlic so it's exposed.  Spread a little oil around the head, put it in a pan exposed side up, cover it with foil, and pop it in the oven around 350F (hotter will take less time, lower heat will take more).  Don't touch.  You can check on it an hour later to see if it needs more time.  When it's almost done you will smell it everywhere.  It will smell awesome...if you like garlic.  To get the garlic out just squeeze the whole head and it will pop or smoosh right out.  Puree with lemon juice (and maybe a little vinegar),oil, and salt for a great full bodied vinaigrette (vin ratio 3-1, oil-vin).  Or spread it on toast.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Khachapuri, aka Georgian cheesy bread

Khachapuri is delicious.  It's the number one food I miss from Russia, though it's not Russian.  To catch up - I spent seven months teaching English in Russia after I graduated college.  I lived in the outskirts of Moscow at Domodyedovskaya - near the airport.  Everyday on my way to the metro I would pass by a bakery that always had a line around the block.  People would buy different kinds of fresh baked Georgian bread for really cheap.  There were no baguettes here.  My favorite item was the khachapuri, the cheesy bread..  My roommate and I became regulars at this bakery and soon they referred to me as "San Francisco" instead of my name.  They liked me so much I even got preferential treatment some days, allowing me to come to the back door and skip the line to get my fresh khachapuri.  I even inadertenly went on a date with their son who speaks no English (nor I Russian really).  He followed me from the shop talking in Russian as I talked back in English and we played shuffle ball at the mall and went to the bookstore. Before I left the family offered me their son's hand in marriage (joking...I think), and while I was set on going back to the states, I did contemplate the perks of marrying into the Georgian bakery (khachapuri for life!).  With all this said, I have been waiting oh so patiently for an opportunity to make my own khachapuri to try and replicate what I lost.  What I have isn't perfect (it didn't even come out even - though I have faith in this recipe).  However, it's pretty good, and it definitely shares some key similarities.  I plan to make this often in the future and tweak it accordingly until it lives up to my memory.  This recipe was taken from Gourmet magazine.

2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
7 TB warm water
1 2/3 cups AP flour
3/4 tsp salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 lb Harvati cheese, or a substitute to your liking, grated
1 tsp butter, melted

  • Mix yeast with warm water, stir in 1 TB of flour.  Let stand until creamy and yeast activates (about 5 min).  Make sure yeast activates (if not, start over!).
  • Mix salt and flour, stir in egg and then yeast mixture, form dough.
  • Knead dough on a floured surface until it comes together and becomes smooth and elastic (about 5-7 minutes).  It will start out feeling very hard.  You're close to being done with kneading when the dough becomes softer and very smooth.  If you're not sure how to knead dough, look here.  Form a ball of dough and let it rest in a container covered with plastic wrap, pushing it down every hour for 3 hours.
  • Preheat oven to 500F, put bread/pizza stone in oven for baking (or sheet pan you plan to use)
  • Grate cheese, form it into a ball.  Flatten dough out into a 7in circle, put cheese in the center and gather the edges around the cheese.  Fasten the dough at the top and push down, pressing out the cheese from the center to distribute it evenly among the bread.  Flatten into an 11in circle.
  • Score the top to expose the cheese a little.  Bake on the stone for 10-12 minutes, brush with melted butter, and then continue for 3-5 minutes.
  • Serve hot!

Normally khachapuri is flat.  Make sure you spread the cheese evenly on the inside.  I had a section without cheese (just bread) and it rose higher, making the bread lopsided.  Lesson learned.  Does not affect delicious factor.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Roasted tomatillo salsa

Tomatillo salsa has a great flavor and color and it pretty much makes itself in the oven.  I smashed mine in the mortar and pestle but I actually prefer this one done in the blender.  Unfortunately my blender is broken so I fused the flavors the only way I knew how - mashing.  The salsa is cooked because tomatillos don't taste good raw - you always want to cook them in some way.  This is another recipe a friend shared with me that I'd like to share with the world.

Tomatillo Salsa:
9 tomatillos, outer paper removed, quartered
5 cloves garlic - no need to peel - after roasting you can squeeze the soft garlic out
1/2 onion - cut in half again
1/2 jalapeño or more, seeds in to increase spice.  If you want mild salsa be sure to core your jalapeño before roasting and remove all seeds
5-6 sprigs cilantro, or more
1-3 limes depending on juciness, size, and your taste
salt + pepper

Put the tomatillos, garlic, onion, and jalepeno on a tray or in a pan for roasting.  Cover with oil, salt, and pepper and roast in the oven until tomatillos are cooked through and garlic is soft.  Probably around 400F, give or take.  The higher the heat the less time it will take, the lower the heat the longer it will take (you get the idea).  Different ingredients will probably cook for different amounts of time so be sure to check them frequently and remove any bits that might burn or overcook.  When it's finished let cool and then blend or mash with cilantro, lime juice, salt, and pepper.  It's even more delicious the day after when the flavors have melded and settled.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Vanilla bean crème fraiche

Recently I had my birthday (celebrated all week) - totaling in 5 birthday cakes.  I love cake.  I wanted to top my birthday cake with some whipped crème fraiche as they do at the restaurant so I took two days to go through the process.  Even though it takes a couple days to make, it's really effortless and can be a good sweet or savory accompaniment to your meal.  However don't be fooled by the name, translating to "fresh cream," it's really more like "freshly soured cream," and it's incredibly versatile.

How to use it:
  • It's better than sour cream - though you can use it anywhere in place of sour cream
    • You can whip it (you can't do that with sour cream)
    • You can cook with it/boil it and it won't separate like sour cream
  • It can be sweet or savory
    • Sweet: whip it with sugar/vanilla to top desserts, use it instead of sour cream in baking (i.e. muffins)
    • Savory: use it to thicken soups and sauces, mix it with herbs or horseradish and top off soups, use it as a component in creamy salad dressings

Crème fraiche:
1 cup heavy cream (pasteurized ok but not ultra pasteurized) to 1 TB of buttermilk.
Keep in mind the higher quality cream the higher quality the end product.  Put the cream and buttermilk in a sauce pan and warm briefly just to take the chill off; it should be lukewarm at best.  Put in a clean glass jar or tupperware, cover, and let it sit out for up to 24 hours.  Then put it in the fridge for 24 hours.  It should thicken up and smell a little sour.  Done!  Use it for about a week.

Whipped crème fraiche topping on the cake:
Whip the creme fraiche with a little bit of cream until it holds it's own without being over-whipped.  Take a vanilla bean, slice open and scrape the insides, mix with creme fraiche.  Stir in powdered sugar to desired sweetness.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Chicken stock and staff meal

Restaurant cooking is so delicious because you don't cook with water.  You cook with flavored liquid - usually some kind of stock.  Make some stock and next time you cook add it to whatever your cooking instead of water; you'll taste the difference.  There are all kinds of stock you can make, AP (all purpose meat), chicken, vegetable, veal, duck, lobster, mushroom, etc.  The list goes on depending on what you are cooking.  However, all stocks share the same base: bones/meat (for meat stocks) and mirepoix - carrots, onion, celery - or leaks.  For meat stocks you want to have about 2 parts bones/meat 3 parts liquid.  The vegetables are supposed to make up about 20% of the stock, but you can eye-ball it.  So ideally after all the meat and vegetables are in the pot the water will  just cover it with room for evaporation.

Chicken stock:
1 fat carrot (2 small/med), peeled and cut into medium sized pieces
1 large onion, quartered
1 really fat leek, (2 small/med) cut and washed
1 whole medium chicken, washed and broken down into parts
Optional: bay leaf, parsley sprigs, herbs such as thyme, garlic, peppercorns, and more, depending on desired flavor.

Bring chicken up to a boil and simmer on low, removing all scum that floats to the top.  If it's boiling too hard the scum will mix with your stock and make it cloudy and give it a funny taste.  After about 30 minutes add the vegetables and any other ingredients. Simmer for 4-5 hours, continuing to skim the top periodically.  Strain through a very fine strainer (chinois).  Taste it - if it's too watery then put it back on the stove and reduce it to the desired flavor.  Cool the finished stock in an ice bath until it can be put into containers in the fridge or freezer.
This container was the whole yield from my small-batch stock.

What you can use stock for:
  • As the main ingredient in many fine sauces
  • To add moisture and flavor to cooking (instead of water)
  • As a soup base
  • With rice, cous cous, quinoa, etc - instead of water for more flavor or as cooking liquid for risotto.
  • As braising liquid

Staff meal:
In restaurants you should know the staff doesn't eat what you eat when you come in.  Surprisingly people in the restaurant industry don't eat very well or even regularly.  There have been many days when I didn't have time for dinner or when I scarfed it down in 3 minutes while continuing to work.  The most common staff meal I've encountered is white rice with chicken and veg.  After making stock, you have leftover chicken and vegetables that have been simmering for hours.  Shred the chicken, chop up the vegetables (or chop up some new vegetables), and sautee with garlic, ginger, red chili flakes, soy sauce or cumin, and other flavors on hand and you've got staff meal.  Needless to say, soy sauce and sriracha are a staple in many kitchens.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A day in the life of a restaurant intern

brunoise shallots x 1/2 pint
chop garlic x 1/4 pint
brunoise onion 1 1/2 pints
brunoise fennel x 3/4 pint
pick fennel fronds x 1 pint
clean mushrooms (black trumpet, hedgehogs, maitake)
cut lemon wedges x 5 lemons
brunoise preserved lemons
slice/brunoise bacon for beignet x 4#
smash/pit olives x 3 pints
wash greens (escarole, little gems, arugala, spinach, broccolini things - sometimes all kinds but usually just some come in every day)
clip fava greens and wash
clean upland cress and wash
portion risotto x 25 orders
grate fontina and weigh x 1 1/2 #
slice bread/oil x 2 loaves
peel celery root x 5 if they are small, 2 if they are the size of an infant's head
peel sunchokes x 6 quarts
scrub sunchokes x 1 pint
wash/scrub delicata squash x 8
cut endive x 4 quarts
cut escarole into braisable pieces
peel cooked carrots

*This is a full day.  Some of these items are not needed everyday.  Unlisted tasks are cleaning and dealing with extra produce as it comes in, playing tetrus with the refrigerator so it all fits (includes constantly consolidating), extra tasks the other cooks might need help with, and constant clean-up to maintain an organized and clean station.  Most tasks are extra (up to double) on Saturdays.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Preserved lemons are so easy

I'm so excited to use my batch of preserved lemons.  The sous-chef at the restaurant where I'm interning recommended I preserve lemons this way (as he does).  As the year goes by I will update my list of how to use them.  For now this is what I've got:

  • Throw one into a chicken tagine for added flavor
  • Cut the rind up into tiny pieces with garlic and parsley and sautee with vegetables (a little goes a long way)
  • Use in a marinade
  • Goes well with grilled squid
  • Goes well with olives
  • Try with salad dressings
  • I've heard it's nice in stews
  • Use it to flavor butter sauces (buerre blanc) or other sauces.  Could go with chicken, fish, pasta, lamb and more. 
  • Could replace lemon zest in a number of things.  When the lemon is fresh you only want to use the zest because the rind will have a bitter taste.  Preserving lemons takes away that bitter taste and makes the whole rind usable.
Any more suggestions?  Leave them in the comments section!

Preserved lemons:  lemons, salt

Cut the lemons into wedges.  Freeze overnight.  The next day take them out and let them defrost.  As they are defrosting salt liberally; the pores in the lemons will open up while defrosting.  Store in a jar or something, outside the fridge for at least a few weeks.  You could keep them in or out of the fridge once they are ready.  Turn over the jar once a day for the first three days or so to mix the salt and juices with all the lemons.When you use them normally you would discard the flesh and use the rind (a little goes a long way).  Easier than pie.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Eating Animals book review

This is the book I've always wanted to write – almost. Jonathan Safran Foer takes a stance on the issue of eating animals – as in he doesn't for moral and ethical reasons – but the book isn't a straight argument for his point of view. He digresses from his line by allowing all kinds of people to speak without condemning their opinions. He shows that the issue of eating animals is not a yes or no question – there is a whole spectrum of shades of gray. I wasn't convinced by his personal argument for vegetarianism, but he did not set out to conquer and convince with this book. He set out to evaluate the topic and present points of view, one of which was his own.

Foer's book travels from the abstract philosophy surrounding the issue of eating animals to the shameful, dirty details of factory farming, and in between co-authors portraits of people related to the industry. He even includes anecdotes from his own life, demonstrating his former vegetarian-when-I-feel-like-it approach to eating animals, portraying his holocaust survivor grandmother's complex relationship with food, and his own moral struggle as he ponders what to feed his newborn.

Personally, this book has played a great role in how I look at meat. First off, I feel more shame – the burden of knowing. This is precisely why so many people turn a blind eye. Once you know – you have a moral obligation to do something. Growing up attending Hebrew school I was always taught during holocaust education that indifference is wrong – because you knew, could have done something, but didn't (speaking about those who refused to help the Jews). While this example is extreme it can be applied to so many lesser examples in life – from the schoolyard bully to eating animals. Time and time again the theme of people not knowing or wanting to know where their food comes from pops up in this book. And with good reason. Out of sight out of mind is essentially the most common response I receive from family and friends when I broach the subject of where that burrito came from. However, it is interesting how people seem to be consciously avoiding information – knowing that it exists but choosing not to know. Foer asks, if the current state of our farming system with it's suffering, health consequences, and environmental consequences isn't enough to change our ways – what is? And he asks, poaching from Hillel of the Jewish tradition,if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience, to say not now, then when?” (243).

Now indeed. For better or worse I will never look at the meat on my plate in the same way. I will always wonder if it's free range, organic, or if that even makes a difference. Those are the few words that make us feel justified in our meal. Of course there is a “difference,” but thank you book for shattering my high hopes for these certification systems. The Last Poultry Farmer (as described in the book) explains what happens outside his utopian farm: “KFC chickens are almost always killed in thirty-nine days. They're babies. That's how rapidly they're grown. Salatin's organic free-range chicken is killed in forty-two days. Cause it's the same chicken. It can't be allowed to live any longer because it's genetics are so screwed up. Stop and think about that: a bird that you simply can't let live out of it's adolescence” (113). What deception that our organic bird is actually genetically modified. How disheartening. I am almost tempted to give up on meat altogether by this mirage of options. But, alas, I like meat. And Nicolette Niman (formerly of Niman Ranch farms), rancher and vegetarian, believes that eating meat isn't wrong, in fact it's natural. She, as some of the other portraits in this book did, reminded me that outside of animal agriculture, in the wild, animals don't die from natural causes. They are eaten or they starve to death; they suffer (though up to that point they have free reign over their lives). Then, she wrote something that I will remember forever: “When animal husbandry is done as it should be, humans can provide animals a better life than they could hope for in the wild and almost certainly a better death. That's quite significant” (207). I feel myself most aligned with Nicolette in this book, even though I am not a vegetarian. Raising animals for consumption allows us to give them a better life, but only if done properly, as Niman Ranch once did (and perhaps still – as 1% of farms in the US do). Ironic.

Reading this book I expected the topic to be complicated. It was. It's affected the way I look at meat and my eating behavior. I am an increasingly selective omnivore who sometimes betrays her better sense for a carne asada taco with who knows what meat. I guess I am guilty. But – I am choosing to eat less meat than usual, often opting for a vegetarian option, and I will pay that premium to support the best of animal agriculture. Anyone who is passionate about food can't help but be affected by this book. It's definitely a good read, life changing for some chickens and pigs – and perhaps yourself too. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Heirloom tomato salsa

Salsa is one of those things that's so quick and easy to make and after you reap maximum tasty rewards.  Five minutes and you've got a quality healthy snack.  Normally I don't use tomatoes out of season.  In my opinion there's nothing worse than a tomato that doesn't taste like anything.  Tomatoes have such a great flavor you don't want them to be hard and under-ripe.  For this salsa I bought an heirloom tomato from Mexico since they are out of season and heirloom tomatoes usually have that great tomato-y flavor.  I made my salsa in the mortar and pestle because I love finding uses for it, but you could also make it in a bowl mashing with a fork, or in the blender, depending on how chunky you want it.

Salsa: tomato, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, lime, salt, pepper

Cut the tomato into cubes.
Small dice the onion and then chop it into fine bits.
Same with the jalapeño - keep the seeds in to make it more spicy - add as much or little as you like.
Add all the pieces to a bowl and mash around.
Chop and stir in cilantro.
Squeeze lime juice in.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Chili verde with lamb, ancho chili sauce

The joys of living in California. Yesterday the sun was shining, the weather was cool, and my entire being felt at ease. My friend came over to take advantage of the beautiful day by cooking for a porch picnic with me. The stew was so good I can't resist sharing with the world. I'm told it's even better the day after so I am really looking forward to lunch today.

Chili verde: ½ onion or so, garlic, cumin, 1 jalapeño, tomatillos, stock (optional), lamb, potatoes, cilantro, queso fresco
Ancho chili sauce: ½ onion, 4 ancho chilies whole, 3 garlic cloves, cumin (optional: citrus)

Ancho chili sauce:
Rough chop ½ onion, put in a pot.
Add 4 ancho chilies (dried poblano peppers) whole
Rough chop/add 3 cloves garlic.
Cover with water and boil to rehydrate the peppers and flavor the water. Season as necessary with cumin, salt, and pepper
Puree smooth to nice consistency, add extra liquid or citrus to change the flavor a little (we added a squeeze of orange).  

Chili verde:
Sweat  ½ onion with garlic, add cumin, add 1 jalapeño cut up.
Peel and add tomatillos.
Add water, steam cook, covering the pot with a lid.
Once tomatillos are tender puree the whole mix in blender. Set aside.
Cut lamb into cubes and cover with flour, salt, and pepper.  
Oil pot – wait till it's smoking. Brown cubed lamb in oil.
Discard oil (but leave flavor in the pan).
Cut potatoes into cubes.
Return tomatillo puree, stock (to thin consistency - sub water if needed), lamb, and cubed potatoes to pot and simmer for at least 30 min, until the potatoes are cooked.
Adjust seasoning with cumin, salt, pepper.
Stir in Cilantro sprigs at the last minute.
Drizzle the ancho chili sauce on top.
Top with queso fresco.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

You're welcome to hang out here....

The few words that make you feel worthy but also drop in your stomach. You don't get paid for “hanging out.” What a strange standard in the industry – I thought – when I first heard from a friend that working for free is normal. Since that day I've asked several culinary professionals, whom I admire, what experiences they had that made them better cooks. “Well I worked for free a lot,” says the man working the wood fire oven serving me up probably the best octopus I'll have in my life. Well damn. How do these floaters pay their bills? Don't they have responsibilities? Where are their mothers?

Of course not everybody works for free. I'm sure plenty of people, some of them my friends and family, could read this and think that I'm being taken advantage of. But the operative point is that the people I admire in the industry – who make great food that I want to make – worked for free. And just to further clarify – this is not the sort of thing you do at your local cafe or neighborhood chinese restaurant – you work for free at nice places. Places where the chef is really a master.  Where there is something great to be gained from exposure to this person that would otherwise remain a mystery because you're not experienced enough to get paid to be near him/her.

So what does “hang out” mean anyway? I think it means they like me. I think. It's definitely at least a cross between they like me and they don't want me. I'm sure they like the free labor. But how coincidental that all the chefs/cooks have used the same words. It's like I'm responding to code. What are they trying to convey to me?  What is the proper response?  It's as if we're pals and pretending that this is what I do for fun...for eight hours consecutively.

The whole idea makes a lot of sense once you realize how much exploitation goes on in the food industry. Exploitation: when there is a differential between what you are worth/the amount of work you do and your compensation. The two should be equal. I don't have a lot of experience but what I know after checking craigslist ads is that the lady at the newsstand who reads magazines for a living earned $2 more per hour than me. Not to mention the loads of free labor I saw the sous chef put in where I was working. He was on salary so he often picked up the slack, working extra days, extra shifts, extra hours, doubles, without a dime of overtime. There was certainly an inequality there.

Half the people tell me that I'm just paying my dues. You have to earn every bit of extra money, responsibility, and glory. You have to endure and keep your eyes and ears open, using every moment as a learning opportunity, trying to make each day better than the last. The other half tell me that work deserves compensation. Period. Don't settle for less. It's like I have good and bad jiminy crickets on either shoulder, except I'm having a hard time telling who's who. What uncertainty. At least for now, I'm putting a whole lot of faith in the fact that working for free is better than paying to learn. I don't believe I am wasting my time.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On leaving that restaurant, and looking for others

Leaving was bittersweet, as we can say about so many things in life. It's hard to know if I made the right decision. I return to the restaurant often, on Sundays and Mondays (the Chef and owner's days off), to eat the food my friends make for me. It's delicious.   I get jealous when I look at something new and think, “oh what's that!” and “how did you do this one?”. I wonder if there was more for me to learn there, or if I'm better off not lingering so as to get a better impression of the industry and make a decision about my life.

Deciding to leave was complicated. About a month and a half before I put my notice in the Chef asked me if I saw myself still working there in six months. I said I did. And I was honest. Though at that time there were parts of my job that frustrated me and parts that I got along with. Between that moment and when I put in my notice I grew increasingly frustrated with the management, and perhaps with my own imperfections as a line cook as well. A friend who cares a lot for me gave me some good advice which I took: He told me that if I didn't see myself moving on from my frustration then it was time to go. Keeping myself in a tortured limbo was not a healthy option. I nodded, took in a deep breath and exhaled a sigh. Shortly thereafter I put in my notice, over a month, as it was a difficult time to be looking and coincidentally another cook chose that moment to quit as well.

In retrospect I know I did the right thing. But now that the fun of unemployment is waning and my next rent check looms overhead, the uncertainty leaves me melancholy and a little scared. What if my knife skills are not developed enough to impress my next potential employer? I've heard from a chef that when you watch someone for the first time, you'll know in about five to 10 minutes the level of their knife skills and efficiency, and can judge them accordingly. Having only one year experience leaves my knife skills yet still at the middle-back of the pack. Furthermore I've adopted the stance that it's better to do it right and not chop off my thumb, than to blaze through midway chopping off part of my thumb (lesson learned that one day...). My skills, executed correctly and quickly, will be there one day, after a lot more practice.

And while I'm asking myself daunting questions – what if my cooking skills are not enough for my next employer? There is still so much for me to learn, so many of the basics for me to acquire. It makes me nervous. Even dropping off my resume at potential employers is nerve-wrecking because the kitchen is unfamiliar and professional in a way that the kitchen I came from wasn't. The chef or sous-chef glazes over my resume trying to find the one line where I list that yes, I was once a cook for a period of time somewhere. Maybe I should delete all other details from my resume and make the pertinent information easier to find? What a barren resume that would be.

Writing about myself I am naturally critical (we are all often our own worst critics). And I realize that after expressing these anxieties to some of my former co-workers and friends they were quick to boost my cooking esteem and reaffirm that I could hang tough with the best of them. So in light of their faith in me and that feeling in the pit of my stomach that says, “no, you can do this, really”, I'd like to think I still have a chance.

I will continue my search for my restaurant match. All I want is a nice kitchen to take me under their wing; a place that treats their workers well and has a chef that I can admire, look up to, and try to emulate. Wouldn't you know those are harder to find than you think, and especially harder to break into if your resume reads one year experience. But persistence pays off, as my friend Chris told me. “You may hear 1,000 no's before you hear a yes.” I hope not. But I'll get there.  

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The madeleine

I love living in California, specifically the East Bay. I spent the majority of my life here, and all the other places I've lived no matter how glamorous or interesting can't compare to the way my heart feels when I know I'm home. There is something warm and reassuring about living around the places I frequented in my youth. I love food also, obviously. Nothing will make me feel as good and comforted as one of my grandma's spicy dill pickles or my mom's tuna-less tuna noodle casserole (in fact, just noodle casserole, though the name sticks). It doesn't matter that the noodles are gushy and it's made with Campbell's cream of mushroom, or that the pickles are very lumpy and don't taste like anything you'd find in the supermarket today. They will always be the standard to which I judge pickles and casseroles, and the closer anyone comes to mimicking this imperfection the fuzzier I will feel inside. And that right there is one of the reasons I love food. In every family in every home people gather around the dinner table on a semi-regular basis (if not for holidays) and share their food and make traditions. Food facilitates some of our fondest memories and therefore it holds an extra power in our brains. Food, even in isolation, can unleash those memories and good feelings, consciously or without conscious effort

Today I am thinking about food and fuzzy memories because I translated my cousin Martine's madeleine recipe from French. This is the recipe she gave me after I spent a day at her house in the French countryside making and eating various treats. She boasts her madeleine's to be the best of anyone she knows. Having many French relatives is the reason my parents decided to enroll both me and my brother in French classes, instead of the ever-popular Spanish. And because of my long-time affinity for the French language I took a class on Proust my senior year of college (Proust, being the one who put madeleine's on the map! Linking them to what he calls involuntary memory). Therefore, whenever I see a madeleine I think of Proust and involuntary memory.

In Prousts novel, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, when the narrator eats his tea-soaked madeleine on the most ordinary of all days, the taste (not sight) takes him back to a time in his life he no longer thinks about. It is the moment where something as insignificant as a not-so-special cookie floods him with memories of his past that were near forgotten. It is literally a bite out of childhood. Let me quote the passage from the English translation: day in winter, on my return home, my mother...offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called petites madeleines,”...I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses...And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory...And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray...when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the meantime...And as soon as I had recognized the taste...the whole of Combray and its surroundings...sprang into being...”(48-51)

Mind you Proust says nothing in such concision, and he probably goes on about madeleine's for 50 pages or so (maybe I'm exaggerating a little). I just took the heart, cropped from 4 pages. But even with that you can close your eyes and imagine how the scene went down. Or better yet you can feel it someday, unexpectedly, when you make your mom's casserole or spoon out some canned peaches. However, to give you an idea I am providing you with this similar clip from Ratatouille! It is the scene where Ego, the pretentious critic, dines at Gusteau's restaurant to update his critique, ahem review... (watch the first minute):

Ego, the snob of all snobs, is humbled by a modest portion of rataouille. This scene, like Proust's famous madeleine, reminds us of the importance of food, beyond sustenance, as a symbol and function of our identities. Food connects us to our past, our community, and our family. And it makes us feel warm and fuzzy, accordingly.

For 16 madeleines: 
2 big eggs
130g flour + 5-6g baking powder
130g sugar
130g salted butter

1. Melt/soften butter and let cool.
2. In a bowl – beat eggs with a wisk, add the flour + baking powder, and the sugar. Mix all quickly.
3. Once the dough is smooth, mix in the butter.
4. Put a spoon of dough in each madeleine mold, buttered and floured if necessary. Put them in the middle of the oven, at 270C (518F) for 4 minutes, and lower the temperature to 210C (410F) and let cook another 4 minutes. (The cooking time may vary depending on how big your madeleine molds are).
5. Unmold quickly.