Dinner with Strangers

A common lesson taught to children at an early age is to not talk to strangers. Of course this rule is broken all the time and for good reason. We meet strangers in all aspects of our day. They become friends for life,  sometimes just for a moment in time and often they are in and out of your life in an instant. Usually the people you interact with fall into two categories, those with whom you develop a relationship such as your friends, family and co-workers and sometimes they are the people you speak with for just a little while such as a waiter, store clerk or passerby asking for directions. We feel most comfortable interacting with those that we know. That’s easy to understand.

What does this have to do with food you ask? Plenty. Last night I made the choice to spend an evening having dinner with seven strangers at Church (a restaurant, not a real one) though a meal organized by Grub With Us. I had willingly subjected myself to a potentially awkward social situation that falls between the fleeting encounter and long-term relationships and best of all I paid for it!

When I mentioned that I was signing up for this, most people that I spoke with thought I was crazy and said they would never do something like this themselves. The idea of sharing a meal with people I did not know is an interesting one. The possibility of starting an intellectual debate (read argument) about religion, politics, society or Casey Anthony just seem too scary for them and yet for me the unknown of how the evening would unfold from initial introductions to friendly good byes with stomachs full of delicious food was too good to pass up. What if we don’t get along they wondered? What if we have nothing in common? What if…? Well there wasn’t an “if”. We shared a love for food and socializing with others. It was fun.

The meal was shared family style, with each dish being described in decadent detail as it was placed on the table by the wait staff. The waitress had me at “lobster broth” when she described the ingredients for the mussels. Everything was so good. Each dish offered the opportunity for conversation about food and the sharing by passing around the dishes around the table seemed to break down all barriers of what could have been an awkward meal. We had become an instant family for the duration of the meal, sharing, savoring and serving seconds. The meal was pre-paid save for drinks thus removing the inevitable dispute of who owed what with someone leaving feeling cheated. Sharing a meal took away our individuality with respect to a food choice but allowed it to come out in other ways as part of conversation. It was a fascinating experience to watch and to be a part of. As someone commented at the table this idea would not have worked 10 years ago but it is one that will likely take off very quickly. I wish the Grub With Us team the best of luck.

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A funny change with food and life

I recently returned from a trip to Athens and Berlin with my family. It was an amazing vacation filled trips to museums, historical sites and of course a true pleasure for the palate. I was pleasantly surprised with the food in Germany in particular. Being so busy with work I didn’t do much research before the trip and was unaware of the variety of hearty and delicious food that I would enjoy on the trip. My food experiences are not the reason for this post believe it or not. Nope, the real inspiration for this post is something quite different and even more surprising.

It was 10 AM and we had just walked out of the hotel in Berlin to start the day’s activities. As we were walking, my phone started ringing. The call ended up being from my neighbor who was calling me urgently to tell me that there was a massive water leak in the building and they were looking for a way into my apartment to see if they could find the source there or on the roof. Long story short, they were able to get into my apartment, found that the source of the leak was a ruptured water heater and turned off the water in my unit. The leak had tripped the fire alarm and after an initial investigation, the fire department and electric company decided to turn of the power to the building until the walls and wiring dried out for safety reasons. This all made sense. Life would carry on.

As the week progressed and I had to deal with various insurance reps and members of my building a terrible realization went through my head. Yes the power was off and yes I was going to lose food in my refrigerator and freezer. The food loss is where my mind started to focus and then I realized I was going to lose 6 boxes of butter! “Oh no, not the butter!” I thought. Then I realized that I had also lost a batch of egg nog that I had been aging for a year and a half. How terrible. This seemed to be the worst outcome of all. I found this very odd and amusing. I don’t know if this is a sign of things to come, but I can say 2 years ago my thoughts would not have been on food. What a strange journey it has been.

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How To Give Someone The Experience Of Heaven On Earth

Ok, not what you are thinking…but chocolate chip cookies are enjoyable too and now even better when stuffed with Oreos. My stomach is thanking me as I’ve just experienced what might be the perfect cookie. Over the weekend as a break from work I started browsing blogs and reading through Twitter posts. I stumbled upon a post from the blog “How Sweet Eats” where I came across some amazing creations, Oreo stuffed chocolate chip cookies. Cassie and I marveled about how they looked and discussed how they would taste. I agreed that I would make them and send them as a care package. They might violate doctor’s orders while she’s in the hospital, but I believe the long-term emotional benefits are worth the risk of getting caught. I’m sure she’ll agree once they arrive. Also, these are shareable and that’s a good thing, helping to make quick friends.

I know, I know…I don’t always follow directions. This baking experiment is an example of one of those instances although I have a good reason for it. I simply won’t experiment with chocolate chip cookie recipes. I stick to my tried and true, the Original NESTLÉ® Toll House Cookie recipe. It can’t be beat, and while these resulted in more moist and less aesthetically pleasing cookies from those pictured on other blogs, they were great. The pictures speak for themselves and no further explanations are needed.

Oreos

Oreos...Genius Packaging

Oreos, Black Gold!

Oreos, Black Gold!

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough

Heaven Waiting

Heaven Waiting

Heaven Delivered

Heaven Delivered

The Perfect Cookie

The Perfect Cookie

Little Monsters

Little Monsters

Indulgence

Indulgence

I can vouch for the deliciousness of these amazing chocolate chip cookies. What kind of cook would I be if I didn’t taste one or two of these to ensure their outcome was satisfactory before sending them off? I’ll have to throw out the cautionary warning and say these cookies may have just forced me to start running again out of fear of needing to add another notch to the old belt as a result of making them too often and eating too many. Life is tough.

The original recipe can be found on Picky Palate. Enjoy!

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A Fork, Knife, Food and Being 30 Something

Food has amazing cultural significance. We’re fortunate enough to not only eat when we are hungry and need to in order to survive but as a way to bond with others. There are few things in life that are better than enjoying hours of conversation and laughter over a meal or sharing simple thoughts and observations. Food as it permeates our lives often evokes memories from the past or is a fixture for the new memories we create. Conversations can be had at length about recipes, favorite meals or opinions on restaurants and dining experiences.

It has been said that you can tell a lot about a person by the friends they have and the company they keep. I have great friends and company. On Wednesday night I was able to officially celebrate transitioning into my thirties with a small group of friends at a restaurant I have always wanted to go to, Rialto in Harvard Square. I had high expectations for the restaurant which were mostly met. The food was pretty solid, although the drinks left everyone wanting. It happened to be Restaurant Week in Boston so we were able to order off of that menu and sample appetizers, an entrée and dessert for 33 bucks a person.

The meal started with a notable first, a basket of bread without accompanying plates which apparently is the traditional Italian way. Needless to say it was gone quickly with a replacement basket following right behind.

Bread at Rialto

Bread at Rialto

I ordered an interesting raspberry flavored drink with rum and club soda. It essentially was an adult raspberry lime rickey. It was my least favorite item.

Raspberry Rum Drink

Raspberry Rum Drink

For a first course I ordered “Quercia cured ham… asparagus, salsa verde, Tarentaise Springbrook cheese”. This was great. The subtle textures and flavor were great. My appetite grew and I was ready to go to town.

Quercia cured ham

Quercia cured ham

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a steak person through and through. If steak is on the menu, it will be on my plate when dinner is served. For the entrée Steak was not an option on the menu and while lamb was, I actually  followed my nose and ordered “Smoked and roasted chicken… chorizo, chick peas, peppers.” Someone had just been served at a table I passed while walking in. I never order chicken, but this was a pleasant exception.

Smoked and roasted chicken

Smoked and roasted chicken

For dessert I ordered the ” Chocolate espresso torta… strawberries and cream”. It was a perfect ending to a great meal. Oddly enough my strawberries seem to have been replaced by two munchkins, but I couldn’t complain. They were good!

Chocolate espresso torta

Chocolate espresso torta

Reflecting on the night made me think about why I’ve enjoyed learning to cook. Sure meals do taste better, are healthier and I experience more variety, but there’s more to it. I enjoy creating experiences and the memories people take with them. Food is a vehicle for achieving that goal. The chefs at Rialto achieved it and I’m looking forward to going back.

A big thanks to my friends. This was a night I won’t forget.

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Victory was not mine at the Jumptap International Buffet

Last Thursday, I was able to attend the Jumptap International Buffet. It’s an annual competition at the company I used to work for where current employees and “alumni” are invited to participate. As a diverse company, there never is a shortage of interesting food to savor. I won last year with my dish “The Two Sides of Eric“. While, not an excuse, I had very little time to plan and worse yet no time to cook! I had an early morning investor meeting which left me with one option, baking.

Having made it a few times now, I opted for the Magnolia Bakery Cake and Frosting recipe. So as to have many easy to serve portions the recipe was made as cupcakes instead of a many layered cake. It was uninspired for sure, but I’m not one to arrive at a party empty handed. The setup was great. It spanned many tables along one of the hallways.

Jumptap International Buffet

There was a bit of trash talking before the event. I was warned that Jorey Ramer was planning an elaborate exhibition, one that should be feared. He had gone through some test runs and upon my arrival, it was evident why. It was quite a masterpiece and tasted really good.

Jumptap Waffles!

With such stiff competition, my cupcakes looked a little sad, but oh did they pack a punch full of taste.

Magnolia Bakery Vanilla Cupcakes and Frosting

Jose entered an interesting combination of vanilla bean and bacon ice cream.

Vanilla Bean and Bacon Ice Cream

Along with taste, presentation makes a huge difference. Jose was there to rally the troops and secure the votes. He ultimately won reclaiming the title back from me!

Jose wins the competition

It was great fun to see everyone again and to taste some amazing foods. People that I didn’t even know were into food made some great dishes. I made more than one pass at the table and left full and happy. I’m undeterred and will be read next year to win back the title. Key are the winning combo of presentation and flavor. Add a little creativity and I have a good shot.

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Morning Pastry Class – The How To Videos

As part of documenting the morning pastry class (day 1, day 2) that I took at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, I took some video of some of the demonstrations. Enjoy.

How to Fill A Bear Claw

How to Roll a Croissant

How to Roll Brioche

How to Roll and Cut Elephant Ears (Palmiers)

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Morning Pastry Class, Day 2

I left the first day of Morning Pastry Class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts really excited to return. Despite the class starting at 6:00 and being scheduled for around 3 or 4 hours, I didn’t leave until around 11pm. Adding to that, I had to drive out to my parents’ house to sleep for three hours before getting up to drive some family that was visiting to the airport and then go from there to my apartment and then back out to an early morning investor meeting for my company. Needless to say I was exhausted after the whirlwind of activity, but it was worth it. There was so much to learn and do in the class and it was a lot of fun. If there was one thing that I observed above all else, it was that people just don’t follow directions. It was very funny to have to see Chef Gomes save us from our selves. I wondered how our end products would turn out.

Rolling out croissant dough

It was amazing to see how Chef Gomes worked with and transformed the dough.

Le Croissant

These guys get real big once they have proofed!

Laying out the croissants

The ends of the croissants were brought together on the sheet pan.

Filling chocolate croissants

My classmates and I may have eaten some of the chocolate bars out of the box instead of putting them into the croissant dough. I’m expecting the bill any day now.

Filling bear claws with jam

The bear claws are harder to get right than they look.

Oh the shapes we made

We made stars with the dough and filled them with pastry cream and apricots.

Proofed Croissants

The croissants got much bigger when they proofed!

Scoring chocolate croissants

Using a razor blade, the chocolate croissants were scored for added texture.

Croissants baking in the oven

The smell of butter and waiting for these suckers to bake was torture.

Fresh baked croissants

If waiting for the croissants to bake wasn’t bad enough, we had to wait for them to cool down. Some over eager students were willing to burn their mouths to sample the goods. I may have been one of them.

The bounty

Things were just getting started with the first batch.

Croissants with pastry cream

The picture says it all. These did not last.

Croissants with a sprinkling of sugar

Whoever was on dusting duty was quite generous with the powdered sugar.

Palmiers (Elephant Ears)

If pounds of butter were not enough to cause serious health problems and weight gain, these elephant ears were like putting the final nail in the coffin. These were pretty much all butter and sugar.

Cinnamon Buns

Sadly I may never order cinnamon buns from a bakery again knowing that they will never be as good as these were.

Brioche

If I had to guess, the brioche was the most healthy item on the menu.

The pictures tell the story better than I ever could. I left the class with two boxes filled with the most delicious pastry items I have ever had the fortune of eating. Breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week, I was happy.

I can see this class being an annual tradition.

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Morning Pastry Class, Day 1

In October I was fortunate to take a two day morning pastry class with Master Pastry Chef / Pastry Program Director Delphin Gomes at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Without a doubt this was one of the best classes I have ever taken. Even though I took the class last fall, I took many pictures of the amazing pastry we made. I can almost taste the butter now as I write. The best part of the class was the fact that there were not written recipes. The focus of the class was on the method, and not the recipe. We were given clear instructions and sage advice at the beginning of the class which included basic ratios of ingredients and the instructions for combining them, where if done properly and as was the case almost properly, would result in pastry never experienced by the students this side of the Atlantic. The pictures in this post and the pictures and videos in the posts to follow speak for themselves.

Making Pastry Cream

You’ve never had better pastry cream.

Proofing Croissant Dough

The Chef and his assistant had created some dough prior to the start of our class so we could start working right away.

Smashing a pound of butter!

After a long day at work, there’s nothing better than being able to smack a block of butter with a rolling pin to get your frustrations out. The noise level of the class was insane. I’m guessing this activity would not be welcomed by my neighbors and would result in immediate forfeiture of at least half of my croissants.

Rolling out the croissant dough

Any frustrations assuaged by the flattening of the butter quickly returned when the croissant dough had to be rolled out into a straight and event rectangle. The Chef had to intervene…often.

The first day was primarily one of setup. We had to wait a whole week to return for the second and final day where we could make our croissants, puff pastry and brioche.

Culinary Wisdom: According to Chef Gomes, a good croissant takes two days to make. If yours didn’t take two days to make, you aren’t eating a good croissant. Joking aside, the reason for this is directly related to the proofing times required and the flavor production resulting from them. Throughout the proofing, the dough had to be folded (turned) several times to create the layers of butter and air required for an amazing croissant.

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Cooking Competition Ahead! My knives and skills need sharpening!

Last week I received word that Jumptap, the company I used to work for, will be having the annual International Buffet competition on March 10th. As always “alumni” are invited back to participate and even compete if they wish. The food is a big enough draw as it is, but as the reigning champion I have a reputation to uphold.

Needless to say, since leaving Jumptap in September of last year I have been quite busy getting my startup, Media Armor off the ground as is evidenced by my infrequent blog posts. Aside from the occasional pasta making and the cooking classes I took in the fall, I’ve all but hung up my apron and put away my knives and let them get dull.

All is not lost, there is time to hone my skills and sharpen my knives. Like a fighter called out of retirement I must retain my honor and claim the grand prize again (ok, that was lame). In all seriousness I’m excited to have something to prepare for.  Last year, I prepared a two part dish entitled “The Two Sides of Eric”, a combination of my Latin Mother and American Father’s backgrounds.

I cooked mini huevos racheros which involved hand-made tortillas, homemade refried beans, scrambled eggs, salsa and cheese as well as baked potato nests filled with scrambled eggs and topped with bacon bits and ketchup on the side. Everything was prepared fresh on a griddle and a hot plate in the competition room ensuring that the food was hot. The wafting smells of food being cooked may have helped secure my judging…presentation is everything.

With the competition ahead, I wonder how I can top my performance and retain my title as champion. Suggestions are welcomed. This is serious business. Jumptappers, you better get ready for a throwdown. It’s go time.

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My Life in France by Julia Child

I’ve been meaning to write this post forever. It’s my 100th. Life gets in the way, but the timing is perfect. I’ve left my job at Jumptap to start my own company, Media Armor. On top of that, I’ll be taking the second part of the Back to Basics series at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. This is a time for new beginnings which parallel’s Julia’s experience as chronicled in the book, My Life in France, based on her journal entries. The challenge of writing a post about her and the book is daunting. Books have been written about her. By no means could I ever do her justice, so I won’t profess to. In fact it is probably more appropriate to be simple, like her cooking and to talk about how I connected with her and her writing.

Of course I’d seen Julia and Julia. This book reflects the half of the movie that was about Julia, and my opinion the more interesting half. My exposure to Julia Child is rooted in my childhood like many. I remember watching her cooking shows with my grandmother when I was young. We loved watching Julia. Her passion, simplicity and comfort in the kitchen where inspiring. I had no idea what to expect while reading this book.

It goes without saying that this was an amazing read. Her desire and courage to take on new challenges made me want to learn more. She easily conveyed that she was like anyone else to her fans which helped make her so likable. Best of all as she learned throughout her life, she understood that her passion beyond food was teaching others, and this she excelled at, changing the food industry forever. Her stories, humor and openness were welcomed.

Maybe because she was older, or maybe because I was much younger and couldn’t understand…Julia was much more “raw” and progressive than I ever could have imagined. Tall, slightly awkward, loud, and fearless, she approached her life in France and cooking with conviction and fearlessness. Her life’s story came alive with each and every page turn. Most striking was her honesty about life, her relationships and lessons. While I read this I couldn’t help but think back to Jaques Pépin’s own autobiography The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen which I read and wrote about previously. It is no wonder why they became such close friends in life.

This book doesn’t portray a woman seeking glory, recognition or vanity. She is humble, appreciative and genuine. To fully appreciate it, another read is necessary so as to absorb the detail and experiences that she painstakingly recounts. Since I started this blog I have definitely become more comfortable with cooking. Hell, I even won a work cooking competition. I now challenge myself with new recipes and ingredients and feel free to experiment. As I embark on my own new life with respect to work, I’m encouraged by Julia to go after what I want in life, to take risks, and embrace the unknown and unexpected. Life is sweeter.

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