I can’t keep using my tiny NY apartment kitchen as an excuse for not cooking. It’s not ideal, but it’s not the worst I’ve seen in the city either. One great thing about New York is that while most living quarters may be smaller than the rest of the world, just about everything else is bigger, this includes farmers’ markets such as the Union Square Farmers’ Market.
The selection can be overwhelming. I spent Monday meandering through the different stalls wondering what to pick up to cook for dinner. I was lucky enough to come across a stall where they were cooking some of their vegetables for people to taste. In New York you need hustle and showmanship and as a result they won my purchase of garlic, sweet peppers and purslane, an ingredient I was not familiar with.
Aside from being exposed to new ingredients and supporting the local community, a key benefit to shopping local and at a farmers’ market is that you can talk to the farmers themselves and also learn about how they grow their crops.
At home I tested out cooking the purslane as I had seen demonstrated through a quick sauté in olive oil, along with garlic, onion and the peppers, a little salt and black pepper. The garlic from the farmers’ market is very different from that which you find in the supermarket. This one in particular was sweeter and had a more delicate flavor.
I was pretty happy with the result, a repeated this on Tuesday, cooking the purslane a bit longer to get a softer result.
Wednesday’s farmers’ market in Union Square allowed me to get a fresh zucchini and some cherry tomatoes.
I happily cooked these down in olive oil over low heat with some salt and pepper and garlic.
When cooked through I added this to some penne pasta for a late pasta primavera style (it’s summer) meal.
I feel bad that I used boxed pasta and hope that I can make some from scratch next time. I’m lucky to work so close to the farmers’ market and will make it a point to try out new ingredients as much as I can.
Pound cake has become part of my repertoire and for good reason. It’s delicious, satiating, easy to make and the ratio is easy to memorize. 1 part butter, 1 part sugar, 1 part egg and 1 part flour. I first made pound cake in August, added blueberries as a twist, made it with brown butter as a tribute, and many other times in between. Pound cake is simple and yet versatile and a perfect candidate for variation and yet with all the flavor components that can be added, the basic ingredients matter just as much if not more when it comes to the final product.
Recently the show Good Eats featured pound cake as an American Classic food. Though born in England, the pound cake is equally popular as an American food staple. Alton adamantly believes that the ratio, despite many attempts to class it up or change proportions is a “good eats” as is. One key difference is that he suggests the use of cake flour instead of all purpose flour. Cake flour, according to the box is 27 times finer than all purpose flour. It also has less protein which means less gluten and has been chemically altered to produce better results with cakes. I decided to give this a try and see if my results in fact did yield a softer, smoother final product with the same great taste I enjoy.
The process was the same. Using the creaming method, I combined room temperature butter and sugar together. I then added in the eggs, one at a time as they were incorporated and a teaspoon of vanilla. Lastly, after slowing down the mixer to it’s lowest speed, I added the cake flour, just until it was incorporated, being careful not to over-mix so as to not create any more gluten than necessary which would make the pound cake chewy and tough.
The batter was a lot smoother and easier to scrape and pour than ones made with all purpose flour. The benefit of using cake flour would be evaluated after its baking.
After about 90 minutes, the baking was done. No difference was visible at first glance. The truth was locked inside.
Once cooled, I sliced into the bake loaf and discovered the truth behind the wisdom of using cake flour. The inside was certainly smoother while the taste of course was unaltered with a softer mouth-feel.
This was an interesting experiment and as with most food experiments, I am willing and happy participant. Not having cake flour on hand will not prevent me from making pound cake in the future, but this was a great lesson on how ingredients can affect the overall results of a food product.
Last Christmas I bought my mother a gift certificate for a couples cooking class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Material gifts don’t carry the same weight that they used to, but experiential gifts, memories, those are priceless. After some thought and consideration, the natural choice was a French cooking class because of her love of French food.
Life seems to get in the way of things like this. We planned ahead and enrolled in a class for the spring, although unfortunately the instructor fell ill and was unable to make our class. Due to some scheduling mis-communication and changes we missed a class during the summer and finally were able to take the class tonight. Needless to say, the anticipation had been growing over time.
My mother had been sick a bit over a month ago and as a result has mysteriously lost her sense of taste and smell for most things. Obviously this is a terrible thing especially for someone who loves food and cooking so much. Of course it was also a terrible thing which would affect her enjoyment of this evening’s class.
I drove out to my parents’ house to pick mom up. We drove in together and easily found parking. The rain let up just as we were walking toward the school which was nice as cooking in soaked clothes doesn’t spell F.U.N. We arrived on time, signed in, made name tags and took a seat. We happened to be in the same kitchen as the first Back to Basics class I took in the spring. Our chef instructor was named Elise, and I recognized her face from the previous times at the school as well as the web site.
With everyone signed in we briefly went over the recipes for tonight’s meal. There were quite a few options to choose from, but enough for each “couple” to work on one. Our first choice was to work on the Roti de Porc Aux Pruneaux (Roast Pork with Prunes), but someone else’s hand was raise before ours to snatch that one up. We settled on the dessert, Chocolate and Prune Marquis with Armagnac and Crème Anglaise, our second choice. Elise went over kitchen safety, emphasized the goal of having fun while feeling free to experiment and cook to personal preference and taste and we all set out to begin our preparations.
Mom and I started with finely chopping the prunes and apricots. With a glance over she was impressed with my knife skills. Score! We also weighed out the chocolate and chopped that up.
Mom created melted the chocolate and butter over a double boiler and once read we mixed in the apricots and prunes and set that to cool in the walk-in refrigerator. While our chocolate ganache was cooling we whipped up some heavy creme in the stand mixer to mix and fold into the chocolate before placing it in the loaf pan for further cooling.
As our chocolate cooled in the walk-in we worked on the crème anglaise. I had never made this before, and was eager to try my hand at it. Being the basis for desserts like crème brûlée and ice cream, this was a valuable lesson to learn. It was fascinating to whisk the sugar with egg yolks together and watch them transform from a solid mass into a light, fluffy almost creamy mixture. Neither of us had worked with a whole vanilla bean before, only extracts so this was also a fun opportunity to work with an ingredient in its raw form. We scalded the milk with the bean in it and then set it aside to steep for 10 minutes so that the milk could absorb more of the vanilla flavor. Once ready, I poured the milk into the egg yolk and sugar mixture as my mom whisked it all together. We left the vanilla bean in for more flavor as we returned the pot to the stove. Elise helped us by using a thermometer to ensure that the crème did not exceed 180 degrees F so that the eggs would not curdle.
Once ready we set our crème to cool and thicken in an ice bath. It was dinner time. As it turned out, all the cooking had completed around the same time. The food was plated and set on a table for serving buffet style.
The dinner itself was really good, and with the cooking behind us, the our table started to open up, engage in conversation and share experiences. With dinner over it was “show time”. We were not the only ones who had made the dessert. Another couple at our table had also made the same thing.
We each portioned out 6 slices onto small plates. To our dismay, the crème anglaise that my mother and I had made had not thickened. We tried to figure out why and after careful review of the recipe learned that I had not added the half-and-half to the milk. It was listed as an ingredient, but a typo in the recipe which did not call out its use lead to me leaving it out. This mistake could have been avoided with proper mise en place as the cream would have been staring me right in the face asking to be used and resulting in a question for Elise about when it should be added.
We we able to use the crème anglaise that the other couple had made and served out the desserts. They all received rave reviews and thumbs up. Conversation was kept to a minimum for maximum focus and enjoyment. This was truly a rich and decadent dessert.
Tonight was a reminder that not everything can be perfect, but even with imperfection enjoyment can be had. I wish mom had been able to taste and enjoy the food more, but to me that was secondary to the time spent together and the fun we had. We’ll both remember this night for years to come. We also have the recipes we were able to take home and will be able to re-create and experiment with the other dishes we did not work on.
It was amazing to see how a group of strangers of varying experience could work separately and yet together, sharing counter space, tools, and stove tops to produce a truly enjoyable meal. This of course can be attributed to careful thought and planning on behalf of the school and the Chef Instructor Elise, our patient and knowledgeable leader in the kitchen. I can’t wait for my next class hopefully with mom by my side.
All indicators today pointed a quiet Thursday night at home, but I wasn’t in the mood to be idle. Pâte à choux is next in my Cooking Through Ratio series, although the thought of making puff pastry with some sort of filling did not seem appealing to me. After a long day, even the most inspired cook can dread the kitchen at times.
Today was the last day of my sister Ashley’s internship at the company where I work. I wanted to make something simple and yet nice for the occasion. My parents would be arriving to pick her up while also dropping off a new clothes dresser. The pressure was on.
We drove back to my apartment and as we walked up the stairs I had yet to come up with an idea. I checked the mail and to my surprise the first issue of my Gourmet Magazine subscription had arrived. Ashley and I climbed the stairs to my apartment while I eagerly unwrapped the magazine from its plastic cover. As I thumbed the pages, I came across a recipe for Nectarine Golden Cake. It called my name. This is what I would make…well sort of.
The recipe was simple and straightforward and thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. One thing that I did note was that having the preparation time and elapsed time as part of the recipe made planning and execution easier, defining a key variable. I was less stressed knowing approximately how much time I had.
One of the things I enjoy about cooking and my new found confidence coupled with my increasing knowledge is improvisation. I now view recipes as guides instead of absolutes. To be clear I am referring to ingredients and not the ratio between them. For instance, the recipe calls for nectarines. I have peaches. It also calls for almond extract. Don’t have that. It calls for grated nutmeg. Mine is store bought powder. You get the idea. The essence of this cake was still there and the result was delicious, pulled out of the oven just in time as my parents arrived.
Confidence and creativity in cooking and life breed success. A year ago my cake could have been store bought. Now with a quick read of a recipe I’m able to make modifications to suit my needs. Creating recipes, now that’s where I want to be.
I don’t think I can mention enough how much I enjoy eating a good steak. If I had one culinary skill that I could master it would be that of cooking the perfect steak. I’m sure I’ve said this before and I’ll probably say it again. At the beginning of the year, when I set out on my odyssey, I was tired of cooking all protein meals with no sides. these just weren’t that appetizing although probably perfect for anyone on the Atkins diet. I knew I had to learn more about creating the complete meal and this seams to be one of my biggest sticking points.
A side effect of working with many ingredients and a key benefit is the addition of color to the plate. More ingredients make the food more fun and appetizing. For tonight’s dinner I opted for making a simple addition to my meal, a Caprese Salad. It didn’t take much effort and added a nice balance to my steak, which instead of plating whole, I sliced after letting it rest.
While the meal overall was quite good, it was immediately obvious that something was off. I took pictures of my meal and realized my errors after the fact.
I first realized that I need new plates. There’s a reason that restaurants mainly serve their meals on white plates. See through glass just doesn’t do it. While food may not be art, a meal needs a better canvas to rest on.
Secondly, my plating was a bit messy. I have seen chefs use towels to clean their errors before serving. I should have done that as well.
I also realized that my proportions just seemed off. While I was able to add some tasty components and new dimensions to my meal, they weren’t combined in a way that really made them stand out alone and yet together at the same time. The tomatoes and mozzarella just seemed to lay on the plate as an added extra instead of part of the steak.
Plating is the lost chapter in every cookbook that I have come across which is a shame because it is useful knowledge for just about any meal whether a casual one with family, or a gourmet meal at a fine dining establishment. I know I need a lot more practice and hope my skill improves greatly over time.
Tomorrow is my cousin’s college graduation. I have family in town and I’m looking forward to seeing them. Getting up for any major event and getting everyone coordinated is always a challenge, let alone getting everyone fed and out the door on time. Banana bread is something I’ve wanted to make for a while and something told me that the overripe bananas would be headed to the trash soon if I did not put them to good use.
I found some recipes online, and given the fact that I had not made banana bread before, went for a recipe with a lot of comments from site visitors.
Bananas are not as uniform is size as some other fruits. I happened to have some smaller ones that weren’t quite enough for the recipe. I opted to proceed forward anyway knowing that I could learn from my mistakes if any. I got out my ingredients and pre-heated the oven.
As the recipe instructed, I combined my dry ingredients in one bowl and attempted to cream my wet ingredients together with a hand mixer. This was the first time I had used my stand mixer even though I bought it 4 years ago when I moved into my apt, another reminder that cooking has only recently become a big part of my life. The hand mixer created quite a mess. Even on the lowest setting, my wet ingredients went everywhere. I definitely am saving up for a stand mixer.
Once the wet ingredients were fairly mixed together, I folded them into my dry ingredients. The batter was not as moist as I thought it would be and I started to wonder if I should add more liquid of some sort to compensate for my lack of bananas. I opted to not alter the recipe since I would have nothing to compare my results to if I made it again.
After everything was combined, I placed my batter into my bread tin and smoothed it out with my spoon.
The recipe called for 60 to 65 minutes of baking time, so I set my timer and hoped for the best. At 60 minutes, I used a knife to check if the bread was ready and fully cooked through and decided to pull it out of the oven and place it on a cooling rack.
I sliced the bread immediately and once cool, placed it into plastic bags for transport. It tasted really good, but think it could have benefited from some more moisture. Baking is supposed to be precise and I’ll be sure to measure my ingredients the next time around.
Friday’s cooking class was so much fun. The focus was on grilling, sautéing and roasting, all of which result in truly delicious food. I came to class stuffed from my company’s international buffet day wondering if I could even eat another bite. I would soon learn that this would not be a problem. Everything turned out great.
I arrived to find that we were in yet another kitchen; we had officially used every kitchen in the school. This was the only one with a proper grill though so it made sense that we would use it. I signed in, grabbed the recipe handout and sat down ready to read through the recipes and listen to the brief lecture regarding the methods. Once most of us had arrived, we went through the recipes and picked the ones we wanted to work on. We were given many great options including: A Warm Salad of Fruits, Endives, and Pancetta, Honey Spiced Pork Roast, Diablo Skirt Steak, Indian Flavored Grilled Vegetables with Paneer, Quinoa with Sauteéd Caramelized Onions and Mushrooms, Grilled Swordfish Verde, and Grilled Cranberry-Orange Zinfandel Bread. I teamed up with my classmate Anthony with whom I had worked on making the French onion soup to make the Diablo Skirt Steak this week. I love steak and with summer coming up, the recipe was too good to pass up..
While trying to get our bearings in the new kitchen, Anthony and I started off with searching for our ingredients along with tasting some canned salsa that was set out for the recipe we would be making. The recipe called to use half of the salsa as a marinade for our skirt steak and the other half to put on top after the steak was grilled. We decided to use the salsa as the marinade and then to make our own salsa as outlined in the recipe using fresh ingredients. This proved to be a wise choice, given the color, texture and taste of our salsa. We bagged our steak and set it aside to marinate before moving forward.
We made our salsa pretty quickly using rubber gloves to seed and dice the jalepeños. It was strange to use gloves, but I was happy I did given the heat of the peppers I was cutting. Finishing this task early put us in an interesting position as we had to wait at least 30 minutes for the marinating. We did not have a food task to work on, allowing us to observe others and converse. It just so happened that others were nearing a good stopping point just after we did, allowing Chef Angie to provide us with a demonstration and a special surprise. She would show us how to prepare a new recipe for steak and lobster, a special treat she brought in for us.
I don’t know why I was surprised, but the lobsters were alive when she showed them to us, moving and squirming around. The immediate thought was about the lobsters going into a boiling pot of water to cook, but as it turns out she would show us another method for killing them and cooking them with the steak. She actually twisted them apart to our surprise and then put the tail and claws on a baking sheet to go in the oven for 6 minutes. This was another interesting reminder of how removed we are from the food that we eat and where it comes from.
The steak was also cooked in the oven, and then slit and stuffed with lobster and placed back in the oven until the meat was cooked through. The combination of grilled steak and lobster were to die for. I felt truly fortunate to have such a fun instructor who is always looking to show us something new and exciting.
After our steak had marinated for about an hour, we took it out of the bag an placed it on the grill for four minutes on each side just like the recipe called for.
The steak was then brought to a serving platter and checked for “doneness” with a thermometer, it read 109 degrees. Anthony asked Chef Angie to tell us what level the steak had been cooked to, to which she replied simply “raw”. After a good laugh, considering the obviousness of this given the blood pouring out of our meat, we placed the steak on a baking sheet and cooked it in a 350 degree oven for 5 minutes. At this point it was cooked perfectly. We learned that most steaks in restaurants begin with searing on the stove but are actually finished in the oven to the appropriate level of cooking based on the order. The steak was sliced and then plated on a serving platter with the salsa. We were given a brief overview of plating, which dishes to use when serving for singles or family style and advice on how to plate a dish using elements of the recipe to add color and appeal. We garnished our dish with lime slices on the side.
The steak and the rest of the dishes were amazing, especially the bread which took on a totally new flavor once grilled over an open flame. It is truly amazing how fast the class is learning, coming together and gaining comfort in the kitchen after only five weeks.
Our final class is in two weeks due to the Easter and Passover holidays. We’ll go over sauces while refining the cooking techniques we have learned since the beginning. This will be a great way to end our class series leaving me and others more confident in the kitchen while also leaving us with a few great recipes under our belts and I’m really looking forward to it.
Today was international buffet day at work. It was organized by a colleague as a mini-competition that would showcase food from all over the world, a fairly easy task given our very diverse company. I knew I would definitely enter in a dish, but the question was what to make. It didn’t take me long to decide on making a Latin dish to showcase my that part of my heritage, but I couldn’t decide on what to make.
My mother had shown me how to make a bean dip which would be easy to do. During last week’s cooking class, we learned how to make carne asada. That also seemed like a good choice and a way to put into practice what I had learned. Another option was to create tostones, a form of friend bananas which I saw Alton Brown make on an episode of Good Eats which I had saved on my DVR. My last option was arroz con leche, a rice pudding dessert. As the day approached I could not make up my mind so I resolved to make a cena típica (a typical dinner) which would include all of the dishes and something to drink.
I woke up this morning deciding to work from home so I could prepare my dishes for the 12 noon deadline. I have never made this many dishes at once before and really needed to think about the cooking order and counter space. The steak would take the least amount of time and so I knew I would cook it last. The arroz con leche would need some time for the rice to cook and since I had never made it before it would need some guidance from mom over the phone. The bean dip was something I could make easily and keep warm in the oven so I would make that second. After the bean dip I resolved to make the tostones since they needed to be fried twice.
Arroz Con Leche
I started with two cups of rice in a big pot with enough milk to cover the rice by an inch. I also added a teaspoon of vanilla and 2 large cinnamon sticks broken up into pieces to increase their surface area and distribution. I set the stove on high heat to bring up the temperature and then lowered the heat to medium as my mom advised. The key I was told is to watch the pot so as not to burn the rice and the milk at the bottom. I stirred occasionally and as the mixture reduced and with the rice absorbing the the milk I added more milk and some water to keep the level of creaminess that I wanted while maintaining an appropriate amount of moisture.
While I stirred I noticed that the bottom was getting hard in some places. I hadn’t been paying enough attention as I cooked my other items and I could tell the bottom was burning and giving the pudding a burnt flavor. The rice was still hard after45 minutes and I had to continually add milk. In the end after more than an hour of cooking as the rice began to soften I added my last bit of milk. I stirred in 2 cups of sugar and a bit more vanilla to sweeten the pudding and packed it into a serving dish to go.
This was the easiest dish. I added a bit of olive oil to my pan an put in two cans of refried beans. I added both cumin and chili powder, salt and pepper and stirred.
Once everything was combined I put it into a Pyrex baking pan and put it in the oven to stay warm. As I neared the completion of my other dishes, I added medium salsa and mixed shredded cheese on top with a few dollops of sour cream and put the dish back into the oven so the cheese could melt. Everything was covered with tin foil for transport. I prefer small lightly salted tortilla chips for dipping so I brought in a bag for everyone.
I would have to say this was my least successful dish. The flavor was there, but the crispiness was not. In a pan I placed about a half an inch worth of corn oil and heated it up over medium heat. While the oil was warming up I cut up three ripe plantains into one inch thick segments which were placed in the oil for one minute on each side.
I took the plantain slices out and put them onto a baking pan and flattened them out with my knife. They were soaked in water briefly which had salt and garlic for added taste. I believe this is where my problems came from. They were soaked for too long and became mushy. Also as anyone familiar with frying would know, when placed back in the hot oil they splattered all over the place as the water literally exploded causing the oil to spray and burn my hands. I cooked them forever in the oil but they would not get crispy no matter what. With time running out I placed them on cooling racks and then into a traveling container to take with me.
This was the best received dish of all no doubt due to style points and the very fact that it was marinated steak. Last night I created my marinade using the juice of two whole limes, 2 teaspons of white wine vinegar, 3 cloves of garlic, pepper, chili powder and enough orange juice to fully submerge my steaks in a zip lock bag.
I heated up my pan on high heat and dropped my steak onto it one at a time for 3 minutes on each side to get a nice sear. I placed them into a casserole dish and covered them with foil for the trip to the office.
At the office I setup a portable grill and finished the steaks on it. Grilling in the office was quite the spectacle drawing lots of ooohs and ahhhs and eager anticipation. The steaks were very moist and tender and were cut into stripes against the grain for serving. The marinade definitely added a nice subtle flavor and tenderness to the meat that everyone enjoyed.
Everything was setup on a table that was empty and displayed with each course placed in the order it would be served. I also had some mango juice to serve along with my dishes to enhance it’s Latin flare. Unfortunately I did not win. A member of my team at work, Jose won with a duo of roasted chicken and turkey which were I must admit, perfectly cooked. All of my cooking effort was mistimed or miscalculated. The rice and tostones took way longer to cook than I thought they would, causing me to be 45 minutes late to the hour event, meaning that many people had already eaten voted and left! I’d like to think that if I had arrived on time I would have recieved more votes. The experience was great, providing my first experience with cooking multiple dishes at once for a multi-course meal. I was surprised at how comfortable I felt cooking everything at once; granted not everything went smoothly or turned out as I had hoped, but that is the nature of learning and I am truly happy that I challenged myself.
I just finished up writing about my French Apple Tart attempt. As I read my culinary books and learn more about what it’s like to work in the industry I am more in tune with the efficiency required in the kitchen when cooking. This was a problem in last Friday’s cooking class. I am also more aware of waste and how unused food can be re-crafted into other creations to avoid waste and save money. Tonight I tried to tackle both lessons head on.
First, I was left with extra apples and pie dough from my French Apple Tart since it was smaller than the recipe called for after cutting it. The only thing that came to mind given the quantity that I had was an apple pie. I figured I had enough pie dough for one of my ramekins and I also had enough apples to fill it. I rolled out the dough and lined the ramekin and then placed the apples inside with butter and some apricot jelly.
I then covered the top with the remaining dough and poke vent holes in it. I brushed the top with melted butter and placed it into the oven along with the tart with 30 minutes to go.
It only took about 25 minutes for the pie to bake, and once the crust looked nicely browned I pulled it out to cool.
Once it cooled enough to eat, I was able to enjoy my second gym workout-destroying dessert of the night. I was very happy with the result. The addition of the apricot jelly added some nice texture and flavor to the end result.
The second thing that I have noticed is that I create things in single batches and don’t leverage a pre-heated oven or the fact that I already have my tools and machines out for making food. I decided to leverage this by creating chocolate-chip walnut muffins that I can eat for breakfast throughout the week. I’ve had a lot of practice making the muffins, so this was an easy task.
I had turned down the temperature in the oven to 375 degrees F as the recipe required. I then mixed up my batter and greased the muffin tin. I was feeling pretty confident with the batter and decided to put in more chocolate chips and walnuts than usual and set my timer for 20 minutes before putting the batter into the tin.
They muffins were placed into the oven and set to bake as usual while I began the clean-up process. While I was more efficient with my time and tools, the kitchen at this point was quite croweded and needed to be cleaned up to make space. Cleaning up as you go is something so simple and yet so important when working in the kitchen. After 18 minutes the muffins looked perfect and I took them out to cool.
I realized that after 5 minutes of cooling I had forgotten to take them out of the tin and put them onto the cooling racks. I did this as quickly as possible fearing that the hot tin would cause them to become mushy as they cooled as was stated by the recipe.
The muffins finished on the racks, but they were noticably different than previous batches. They were a bit softer to the touch and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because of my carelessness with the recipe with respect to the addition of chocolate chips and walnuts without measuring or if it was forgetting to pull them out of the tin and place them on cooling racks immediately. Luckily taste was unaffected and delicious as usual.