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.