Carrot Soup: Simple Food, Amazing Taste

Carrot Soup
Carrot Soup

I had the day off from work today and decided to take care of two nagging things on my to-do list. I started off with getting my car muffler and exhaust pipe repaired and then made a trip to Trader Joe’s for groceries. I even managed to fit in a gym workout to burn off some of the excess calories from last night’s food orgy.

Fixing my car set the tone for the rest of the day. With the repairs setting me back over $700, my desires for food purchases were tempered and I was forced to be more cost conscious. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and work on something new having been inspired by the Taste of Cambridge food festival I had just attended. I am currently reading The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin, who’s cooking is deeply rooted in frugality and simplicity having grown up in war torn France during the second World War and have enjoyed his descriptions of simple classical French cuisine that he prepared as he learned how to cook. While thinking about what to get I also thought about Thomas Keller’s view on food as described in The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection by Michael Ruhlman and his view of food and simplicity, taking one ingredient and making it the very best it can be. Using simplicity as my inspiration and cost as my guide for food purchases I settled on an something I rarely eat let alone cook with. I chose a carrot as a foundation for my dinner and decided to make a simple soup out of it. 89 cents for a one pound bag of organic carrots was a deal I could not pass up.

The process for making the soup was was really easy and the result was absolutely amazing. The salt and pepper added to the intense and fresh flavor of the carrots. I felt like I could relate to and understand both Pépin and Keller making a simple dish that wasn’t muddled with too many ingredients and flavors, producing out of this world results with plenty left over to be enjoyed in the future alone as a stand alone meal or as a component of another. The steps I took for making the soup are outlined below. Enjoy!

Carrot Soup Recipe:

Ingredients:
2 lbs. of carrots
2 cups water
Kosher Salt
Black Pepper

Hardware:
Soup Pot
Immersion Blender or Food Processor

Directions:
Wash and peel the carrots and cut them into small 1/4 inch pieces. Put them into a pot. Add 2 cups of water or more if necessary so that the carrots are covered. Bring the pot to a simmer. When the carrots are tender, puree them with an immersion blender or in a food processor until they reach the desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste ensuring that it is well mixed. Serve in a cup or bowl and enjoy hot.

Carrot Soup: Ready for Serving
Carrot Soup: Ready for Serving
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Food Inc., Where does your food come from?

Do you ever think about where your food comes from? Have you ever thought about how all of the different components of the meal you are eating came to be and what processes they went through to get to your plate? Have you ever looked at the perfectly cut packaged steaks or pork chop chops or chicken and tried to imagine the animals they came from and even what part of the animal they came from? Ever ask yourself where  that apple or orange you are eating in January grew and how it became ripe just in time for you to eat it? I know I rarely do, but as my new-found passion for food grows I know I need to ask myself these questions and man others.

Last night I did something I rarely do; I went to see a movie in the theater.  I went to see Food Inc., directed by award-winning filmmaker Robert Kenner and produced by notable food writers Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan who wrote Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma respectively and was given an impactful reminder to think about and appreciate the food that I eat and where it comes from. I read Schlosser’s book almost five years ago and found it eye opening. I expected more of the same and asked myself, “How bad could it be?”. The answer to that question was more shocking than I expected.

The film focuses on three aspects of food: industrial meat production and as presented the unsanitary care and inhumane treatmetnt of animals from birth to slaughter and then similarly the industrialization and scientific modification of plant based food and closes with the legal and economic impact of the food industry on the country and people in the industry, in particular the farmers illustrating an interesting dichotomy of subservient farmers  working with major food corporations out of greed or necessity and those who oppose the production practices of the major food conglomerates and pay the price for their insolence with legal battles or financial struggles and intense government scrutiny. It also brings to light the power and impact on government policy the multi-national corporations have and how corporate profits influence decisions that affect the food supply and overall our health. The food industry is no different in this regard from other major industries that politicians are concerned about, but it does have a major impact on our health and livelihood that other industries do not.

The film was definitely tough to watch. I’m sure I’ve enjoyed watching horror movies more than the absorbing the content of this film, but all in all it is best not to turn a blind eye when concerning what goes into your body. The inhumane treatment of animals, unsafe and unsanitary conditions of food production that were portrayed as well as the economic impact and destruction of people’s lives by the major food companies were very hard to take in, a striking reminder of how far we have veered from pre-industrial times and have been removed from our food source, buying pre-packaged meat, fruits, vegetables and other food products without any idea where they came from, how they got there nor their impact on the society and the environment. The idea that food no longer has seasons, allowing consumers to buy apples, pears  and strawberries for instance and different types of meat all year round is something rarely thought about regarding food, something the film’s producers hope will change.

I’ll admit, the film did portray an impactful yet somewhat one-sided view of an issue, yet it was still eye-opening and a great reminder for anyone and everyone to value where your food comes from. Beyond the gory images and gloomy tone of the film, clear messages were given that anyone can benefit from for a healthy life.

  • Know where your food comes from
  • Buy food that is in season
  • Buy food that is local and sustainable

While thinking about the sushi for lunch this afternoon I couldn’t help but think about where it came from. The realization that my once frozen fish, vacuum sealed in a plastic bag probably did not come from a beautiful bubbling brook, river, lake or ocean, but rather an overcrowded pool on an industrial farm, fed a diet of corn rather than food it would normally consume in its natural environment was an illusion shattering thought. The burger I ate for dinner the night before consisting of meat from a multitude of cows raised on overcrowded farms knew deep in their own waste started to feel a bit unsettling.

It’s interesting to see the trend of restaurants thinking more and more about their food, promoting locally grown and grass fed beef on their menus for instance. Some do this because it is aligned with their mission while others do it because of consumer preference. Americans are starting to care about what they eat.

Watching the film and thinking about my food from farm to plate reminded me of a discussion about Thomas Keller in Michael Ruhlman’s book, The Soul of a Chef and Bill Buford’s account in his book Heat. Each chef went through a process of discovery bringing them closer to the food source while also giving them a deeper respect for it. I’ve started to get closer my food sources participating in a Meat CSA with Chestnut Farms and look forward to buying fresh and locally sustainable food from farmer’s markets. My resolve definitely has been strengthened, and that’s the point of it all. The film promotes activism and participation of consumers in legislation about food as well as getting closer to their food sources, making healthy decisions and eating better one person at a time. I am glad I went to see this movie and hope to obtain more knowledge about the issues presented in it as I continue my culinary journey.

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My First CSA Share: Getting Closer to My Food Source

Chestnut Farms Meat CSA Share
Chestnut Farms Meat CSA Share

I finally just picked up my first share for the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) that I am a member of with Chestnut Farms in Hardwick, Massachusetts. Having just returned from Chicago, I drove out to meet my friend Jenn at her house who was kind enough to pick up my cooler and store my meat in the freezer while I was out of town; she recently joined the CSA as well.

I’m excited to be part of this CSA for many reasons. First and foremost I feel like I am doing my part to benefit my local community and support my local farmers. I’ve voted with my dollars to support their ideals while they provide me with a nutritious and respectfully cultivated sustainable food product. I am also excited because I will be eating sustainable food that, while not being certified as organic, was cultivated using natural methods without the use of chemicals or unnecessary drugs. My impact on the environment has been kept to a minimum. This is meat as nature intended. Another great benefit of being part of the CSA is that I am now closer to the food source.

When opening my cooler to see my meat share, I couldn’t help to think about Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, and his comment in The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection by Michael Ruhlman, about the US being a nation of noncooks taking the easy way out of food preparation, while he butchers whole animals and using every part for his dishes. Michael Ruhlman commented on the fact that the only butchering done at most restaurants was the slicing of the Cryovac packages that contained the meat. My situation has not changed as the meat has been butchered for me and sealed in plastic, although I feel that I am eating food that has been cared for properly and thus respected more so than what is available in big chain grocery stores. As I inch closer to the source and it’s preparation I wonder how far I’ll actually go. This whole food thing could get even more interesting.

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The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

“We are becoming, Keller lamented, a nation of noncooks. In restaurants he said, ‘cooking has become short order sauté. What can I get that I can thrown in a sauté pan or on the grill? How much really do I have to process this thing once I get it in the back door?…Shortcuts in cooking have resulted in noncooks.’ While the French Laundry received pigs’ heads and entire baby lambs to break down, most restaurants received their meat in preportioned, Cryovac packages. This had been my experience. I had cooked a thousand strip steaks as the grill cook at Sans Souci, but I would never have known where on the cow those strips had come from; the only butchering required was slitting open the plastic. Shortcuts in cooking in fact was a form of not caring, therefore a form of waste.” (p. 300)

Chef means many things to many people. Formal training is not a prerequisite to becoming a chef, and having it does not automatically make you one. Much of the identity of what it is to be a chef has been lost over time in America. In The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, Michael Ruhlman goes in search of the essence of what it is to be a chef, what makes them different from most people and what separates the good from the great. In his first book The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America he embarks on a journey seeking the knowledge on how to cook. He leaves realizing that he didn’t have that knowledge and that the secret of cooking still eludes him. He left the CIA with the tools to learn how to be a great cook and in this book gets at the core of what makes a great chef.

The first part of the book concerns the Master Chef Exam, administered at the Culinary Institute of America, an attempt to standardize and evaluate culinary mastery using objective evaluation. The test is administered by a board and he follows a test takers seeking to obtain the title of Master Chef. The failure rate is high, even for those at the top of their career working in some of the best restaurants in the world producing some of the most unique and creative and great tasting food. The test aims to evaluate perfection objectively over a broad set of culinary exams evaluated by master chefs themselves. It’s grueling, exhausting and a measure of excellence that is not agreed on by many in the industry primarily because so few can actually pass it. Given the time, expense and stress it imposes on those who take it, it’s any wonder anyone takes the test at all. The writing captures the intensity of the exam and left me wanting to turn each and every page as quickly as possible to see what came next

Masquerading as an observer, Ruhlman observes the candidates taking the exam, witnessing critical mistakes in execution and perfection by people who have performed these same tasks countless times before. Some do poorly under the circumstances while others prevail. The test that tries to set a standard for excellence in the industry seems to make many crumble under the pressure, calling into question its validity given the chefs’ proven professional talent. Brian Polycn is a chef who feels the pressure to take the test as everyone he works with where he teaches has mastered the exam. He having failed once is again followed while taking the exam a second time after a lot of money, time of practice to prepare. Why would anyone put themselves through such stress again? While measuring technical execution, the test fails to evaluate something that only becomes apparent after Ruhlman completes the second and third parts of his book.

The second part of the book follows rising chef Michael Symon as he struggles to open Lola, a restaurant that will catapult him into culinary notoriety. Symon is known for his creative and flavorful dishes and boisterous and positive persona. Ruhlman shudders at what appears to be the antithesis of his culinary education at the CIA, where Symon finished near the top of his class. The restaurant is hardly a model for perfection in the kitchen and on the plate and yet he is considered a great chef, one who incidentally never wishes to obtain the title of Master Chef. The waiting list is long, restaurant is always packed and the reviews are always laudatory despite it all. His staff is loyal, never wishing to leave. How could this be at a place that doesn’t strive for perfection? What does he have that makes him great?

Ruhlman then moves on to notable chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, considered the best chef in the country and perhaps the world. Keller having no formal training, but a desire to be perfect and instill perfection in those around him also never cares to be considered a Master Chef and yet he perhaps surpasses them all. Keller observed is portrayed as a Zen-like cook with a philosophy on cooking and how things should be. One tenant of his philosophy is to use the entire plant or animal that he is cooking as part of one of numerous dishes he prepares for his guests, as a sign of respect to honor the animal and even the vegetable. Both life forms in his mind need to be carefully cherished so as to respect them and the lives of those who cared for them. Keller also concerns himself with taking each ingredient and making it more than he started with; he desires to make everything he touches better than it was. Eating at his restaurant is an experience forever remembered for the great food that was eaten and the stories Keller tells through his cooking.

The author fortunately does obtain a clear glimpse of what the soul of a chef is about. He understands what a test is not able to measure and what makes a truly great chef. When reflecting on Michael Symon’s Lola he observes, “What I didn’t realize at the time was that the sauce on the glass didn’t matter, nor did it matter that the plates were spotted, the floor gritty. That’s not what mattered here. All that mattered was that you felt good the instant you walked through the door.” (p. 205) On cooking he states, “despite the fact that ‘Cooking is art’ was widely considered a given, I knew that cooking was craft only, a humble one that could achieve greatness through refinement and skill, but always a craft.”

Keller with his standards, Symon with his personality, Polcyn with his love of food. They all share one thing, the desire to make people happy. Some cook for money, some cook out of necessity, but the great cook because it drives them. And this very reason is as Ruhlman observes perhaps the reason why so many great and talented chefs fail the Master Chef Exam. They are forced to cook in an unnatural setting to please a panel of judges. They are asked to take what they have been doing their whole lives, cooking to make people happy, and put it aside so that they can be evaluated objectively. Their main connection to cooking is removed and as such a piece of their soul is missing from the exam.

This book made me think about what makes a great chef and the core of their soul? I asked myself questions like, Do I have that? If not, can I get it? What standards will I set myself? How should I obtain the knowledge I need to be great? Why do I want to be great?

A nation of noncooks, people cooking for money instead of passion, like any profession breeds mediocrity. I know I don’t want to fall into that category. Without being founded in the basics with an appreciation for food and its story we might as well be served by robots as the soul of a chef is missing. The story is missing. The simple pleasures and connections of cooking are missing. And then I ask, what would be the point of that?

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