For mother’s we planned brunch at a new place, Rapscalion Table and Tap in Acton, Ma. To change things up I decided to make some scones for mom and by mother-in-law based on King Arthur’s recipe. I changed it up a bit for cinnamon and sugar for a sweet breakfast treat I knew she’d enjoy. The dough was dry, but came together at the end. Culinary School is definitely paying off. I’m more confident in the kitchen and can apply what I’ve learned to “sticky” situations.
This blog has always been about self-training and learning. As a result, I’ve created a new blog On Becoming A Chef, to chronicle my journey from enthusiastic cook to chef. The first step in this process has been enrolling in culinary school at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and you’ll find a detailed account of my studies, learning and experience going through culinary school. This blog will continue to figure posts about learning at home, in recreational classes or general observations about food. I hope you enjoy them both.
Some food memories stick with you for one reason or another. Sometimes the reason is not explainable and other times it’s crystal clear, serving as a reference point to a period in our lives that we hold dear. I was barely 10 when my grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away. She often stayed with my family for long periods of time taking care of me and my sister. She would pass the time with us by playing games and cooking. The house always smelled amazing. She was adept at cooking many delicious Latin meals and basic food items like rice and beans or fried sweet plantains. The fall before she left, for whatever reason, we grew a bit of corn in our back yard garden, enough for a few meals. While different than corn from Honduras (where my mother’s side of the family is from), she took it upon herself to use some of the corn to create corn tamales or as they are knowing in Honduras, montucas. I remember peeling them open after they had just been cooked, the steam escaping and the sweet aroma of the corn escaping into the air. We devoured them instantly. The semi-solid, slightly creamy tamale, a combination of sweet with a bit of salt was amazing. It was one tradition that my mother didn’t pick up before moving to the US and as a result I never had the likes of it again. I would ask my mother every so often if she would attempt to make it, but without any basis or experience for making it inevitably she didn’t know where to start.
Cultural heritage and tradition are just as much a part of if not entwined with cooking as the ingredients. Meals start with a blank canvas that is shaped by the experiences, traditions and tastes of those who cook. I was listening to an episode of the podcast, Chef’s Story. During the interview, Chef Joe Viehland stated, “if you don’t cook with flavors from your childhood, you have no frame of reference.” In some ways I agree with this. When I cook, I’m often drawn to using ingredients like tortillas or plantains and spices like cumin to shape my meals. I believe that you can learn and develop perspective for new flavors, although it may take more time and effort for them to feel “authentic”.
Last night I visited my parents’ house to see my mother’s stepmother, Bella. She was on vacation and visiting the Boston area. While making plans, my mother said that she was running to the grocery story to pick up corn to make montucas. I smiled. I wondered if I would finally relive the taste memory that I had longed for. We sat down for dinner. I happened to sit in my childhood chair location. To my delight, Bella served up some amazing montucas.
Each bite brought me back to that day when I first tasted my grandmothers. This time around, my mother was around watching and learning. It’s funny, as Bella made the same remarks about the corn being different, more sweet and watery than the savory and hearty varieties found in Latin America. Despite the differences, the end result was right for me. This was my memory and I know I’ll be there at the stove, watching and learning when it’s time to make them again to keep that memory alive.
It’s been almost three years since my last post. It doesn’t seem possible and yet here I am with a blog resembling many others with no updates. After launching my company Media Armor, Inc it became harder to cook, document with pictures and write about my cooking and learning. Media Armor was recently acquired by Nomi Technologies, Inc in January, freeing up a lot of my time. In May I married my amazing wife Elizabeth and as part of the acquisition, commute between New York where Nomi is located and Boston where my wife and I have been living.
Three years may have passed without writing, they have been three years of immense learning and growth in and out of the kitchen. With the stress and time constraints of running a business behind me, times are still busy, but I have plenty of time to read, learn, and most importantly, cook!
I continue to think about what’s next and how I can increase my skill at cooking. As part of that learning process I’m exploring school, working opportunities in the food industry and reading anything I can get my hands on, all of which I’ll share just as I did before.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
With such stiff competition, my cupcakes looked a little sad, but oh did they pack a punch full of taste.
Jose entered an interesting combination of 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!
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.
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.
I haven’t written much in a while. It’s time to get back into it as I continue to learn. It’s amazing how your perception changes as you learn and you start to pick up on subtleties that were previously overlooked.
I’ve heard that you can learn a lot about someone by sifting through their trash. Police officers and lawyers looking for evidence do it. Once something is in the trash it’s fair game. I suppose it’s true. You can see what someone once possessed and what they decided to throw away. How much did they use and how much did they waste? How expensive was this stuff? That’s all well and good, but I’ll pass. Food alone tells enough of a story before it becomes garbage.
While waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store I found it striking that people are equally exposed and perhaps even more so when buying their groceries. All of your consumables are laid out on a conveyor belt for the world to see. Mother’s expose snack foods and cereals for their children, the health conscious display a variety of healthy food items, and those secretly looking to diet are openly displaying their intent for anyone who cares to notice. We vote with our wallets choosing items that are organic and those that are safer for the environment or sometimes we just choose what is least expensive. Some buy fresh food to cook while others buy processed food nearly ready to eat out of the package.
The checkout line is a combination of a display of promise and dreams mixed with practicality. Our needs and values are laid out and neatly packed away in bags ready to take home with us. One does not have to sift through trash to gain an understanding of those next to them. We can infer income level, culture, dietary needs, cooking talent and much more. The story is much more than we ever realize when looking at a plate on the table.
My story has evolved over the past year and week by week has unfolded in front of complete strangers standing in line as we shop. Do they notice? Do they care? Probably not and yet I can see a difference comparing who I was to who I am.
Each time I’m in the checkout line I’ll keep telling my story just as I always have.