Monday, June 14, 2010

Operation Free-from-Recipes phase 1

Good Monday and happy new week to everybody!

As promised, I'm embarking on a journey to the recipe-free world! Here is the first post out of a series explaining the different cooking techniques and some recipes that demonstrate how simple it is to achieve success in the kitchen, without the old enemy of creativity, the recipe book.

So first -- Sauté. Why first? Because even if you’re no kitchen expert, even if the only use for your counter in the kitchen as storage for old junk mail; even if the only appliance you use in your house aside from your TV is the microwave; even then, I can assure you that at one incident in your life you’ve sautéed something. Have you ever fried an egg?

While by definition frying an egg is not a “sauté”, it still uses the same principles of application. Sauté in French is literally “to jump”. In cooking, that would refer to “jumping” in a hot pan (picture your favorite TV chef tossing some chopped vegetables 2 feet up in the air in a sizzling hot pan). Sautéing is a dry-heat method of cooking in high heat with just enough fat (oil, butter…) to prevent the product from sticking to the pan. If the items are small enough (chopped vegetables, shrimp or other small diced proteins etc.) then they may be tossed or “jumped” in the pan. Otherwise, in the case of a steak, a whole chicken breast or the fried egg, you would pan fry both sides till done. These days, sauté has more modern interpretation along with tossing. It now includes anything that is pan-fried.

The main purpose of sautéing is to create that magically attractive brown crust on the outside of any product, be it a piece of meat or a slice of mushroom. That brown crust is the visual result of proteins and natural sugars caramelizing (a.k.a. the Maillard Reaction). Caramelized sugars and proteins are desired because they enhance the flavor of the product, while giving it a much sexier, tanned look. When exposed to the high heat, any moisture in the product would ideally be released immediately, and allow for maximum color to be created.

Several principles to keep in mind while sautéing:

1. Get the pan really hot with a minimal amount of oil. Make sure the pan is as hot as it can be without the oil burning. Different oils have different smoke points (the point where the oil gets burnt and is no longer usable). Oils with high smoke points are ideal, such as canola oil, peanut oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil. Olive oil, while giving a great nutty flavor, has a lower smoke point and will not allow for a high-heat sauté.

2. Make sure the product is as dry as possible. As I mentioned earlier, a key to a good sauté is the quick release of the moisture in the product. If possible, it is best to eliminate any excess moisture. If there is plenty of water present, it will first have to allow for the water to evaporate and only then is caramelize. But by that time, the product will be steamed and will overcook. Steamed beef? Bad idea. So, especially when it comes to meat, pat it dry before dropping in the pan, and remove as much of the natural moisture as possible.

3. Allow the product to get close to room temperature. If a piece of chicken is pulled straight out of the fridge, and is immediately dropped into a pan, it will have to get up to temperature first, and only then start caramelizing. Also, a cold product is much more likely to stick to the pan. This is even more crucial when dealing with meat still on the bone. All you need to do is remove it from the fridge and let it sit on the counter for 20-30 minutes. Don’t worry; nothing will get spoiled from sitting out for that short time.

4. Don’t overcrowd the pan. Remember, one of the most important requirements is to have a very hot pan. When you drop all the mushrooms you have into a pan that is not necessarily wide enough to contain them all, the temperature will drop instantly. Now the pan has to reach that high heat point first before it starts browning the mushrooms. Also, a cold pan will not release the moisture fast enough. This is especially crucial with mushrooms, because they have a high content of water naturally, that must be released. The solution is to sauté in batches, if necessary. The same goes with sautéing meat for a stew like the classic Beef Bourguignon. Sauté the cubes of meat in batches, brown from all sides and remove. Add more fat if needed, and sauté the second batch. That way the pan temperature will stay at a desirably high level.

Hopefully this explanation was straightforward enough to get you pumped so “jump” in there and sauté something! Anything!

The most rewarding thing in comparison to the effort put into preparation, has to be onions. Nothing smells better the just plain chopped or sliced onions! It fills the house with an aroma that makes others believe a masterpiece is in the making. And all it is, is onions. So, slice an onion and toss into a sizzling hot pan with a little bit of oil from the ones mentioned above. Perhaps a green bell pepper, cut into strips (julienne). Add 2-3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped. Keep tossing and slowly you’ll start to see the vegetables getting golden brown. Season with salt, pepper, perhaps some ground coriander seed, maybe some fresh chopped mint to finish and you have a tasty side dish! Add strips of seasoned chicken tenders (salt & pepper), sauté till done and you have a Mediterranean style stir-fry. Now how easy is that? Don’t forget to pat the chicken dry and allow it to get close to room temperature, remember?

So there you have it. I’ve passed on the knowledge, hopefully in a helpful and approachable manner. The most important thing is to simply have fun with it! Follow the basic guidelines but other than that, just enjoy the experience! Season well, taste as you go and come up with your own creations! This is a movement towards freedom from recipes! Act 1 is in the books so sauté away my friends!

And stay hungry for more!


Monday, June 7, 2010

Mastering the freedom in the kitchen

One of the goals I set for myself with this blog is to help get people back in their own kitchens, cooking and enjoying the process as well as the results. In order to do that, I asked myself: “Why don’t people cook?” Yes, there’s the obvious lack of time. Really there is nothing I can do about that. How about lack of knowledge? Now here’s something I can put a positive dent in; lack of skill? Practice makes perfect as in any case and the skill level will go up with time. Intimidation? Now here is the key to it all, I believe. Most people will not attempt any kind of culinary creation because they are… afraid. Yes, it’s true. Grown-ups are afraid to try anything that has to do with anything besides their microwave. And why is that, you might ask. Simply because they think they cannot do it. As the great saying goes, he who thinks he CAN’T and he who thinks he CAN are both usually right.

One of the greatest foodie movies ever made happens to be animated: Ratatouille. Named after the traditional Provencal dish, this movie is the epitome of the phrase “anyone can cook”; and that phrase is the premise of the entire movie. A rat, normally enemy of the kitchen, becomes a culinary superstar. So now, are you still afraid to try?

The skill of cooking is divided into two worlds: the technical and the sensual and those two ideally grow and develop side by side assisting one another to expand.

By technical, I mean the actual skill of cutting, chopping, sautéing, boiling, blanching, baking, braising, grilling, steaming, seasoning… AHHH! There is so much to know but don’t let that scare you off. Allow that to fuel your fire of knowledge. You will only know as much as you want to know and everything will come gradually. It is easy to get to a reasonable level very quickly. And of course, anything that is executed well will encourage more doing, right?

The second aspect is the sensual one. By sensual, I mean the use of all senses to enhance the experience of both cooking and eating: tasting, smelling, touching, looking, listening, and of course -- that added factor of… well… je ne sais quoi. Sensual also expresses the intimate connection between the cook and its tools and products; a sensuality and connection that exists will always show on the finished plate. Same as with the hands-on technicality of cooking, the sensuality of it requires a lot of practice. But again, quick results are promised to those who are willing to give it a shot!

The next series of posts will be dedicated to the various cooking techniques that are used by any cook at any level, and what type of product suits each technique. Along with each description, I will provide an approachable demo and recipe that will surely help with the understanding. There is no better learning than actually doing. And even more than that, there is no better teacher than the mistake. So just try! I can easily remember failed attempts at cooking something and after knowing the principles of these cooking techniques, I now know what I did wrong.

What I’ve noticed once I started practicing these various techniques is that I don’t need recipes anymore. At a certain point you turn away from recipes and view them as the enemy of free thought. Recipes are full of “Do this.. Don’t do that..” and before you know it you’re getting cold-sweat flashbacks from the evil kindergarten teacher, your drill sergeant in boot camp, or any authority figure that dictated your every move. Your average cookbook is the dictator in the kitchen. Another problem is that everyone’s perception is different. Your definition of medium heat is the other person’s high heat; her 1/4-cup is more like your 3/8 of a cup. If 10 people are given the same recipe and follow it to a tee by their definition, they are bound to end up with 10 different dishes. No more. Practicing simple applications will allow you to be free in the kitchen and own it. That’s where the real fun begins. No recipe, just imagination. No rules or limits, just pure inspiration and a little bit of skill. It will all come together and make perfect sense -- anyone CAN cook!!

In the next post we dive in headfirst. I will tackle the sauté technique; one that most everyone that has ever held a pan over a stove has practiced whether they realized it or not. I can’t wait!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Little people, Big quality

This time, I’m getting practical. Taking a break from philosophy, and getting down to business. The way I shop for produce has been changed recently. I stumbled upon a great, reliable produce market. Marina Farms is located in Culver City, about a mile away from my place. I randomly drove by it, intrigued by the overflowing boxes of fruit. Whatever errand I was running at the time, instantaneously turned meaningless, in face of yet another irresistible grocery shopping opportunity. Keep in mind this is May, end of spring, not summer time yet. Quite a problematic time of year as far as produce is concerned, where the tomato has not yet naturally ripened, and the avocadoes have gone into their summer hibernation. That been said, my expectations stepping into this experience, were taken with a grain of salt.

Still, there was something magical about the fresh produce at Marina Farms, first off, from a visual standpoint. The fact that nothing is arranged in a geometrically perfect pyramid (what if I want the middle nectarine??), the wooden boxes in which they lay, the relatively tight space, the overall lack of pretentiousness. This place exudes simplicity. I don’t need polished apples; I need tasty ones. No fancy lighting, or overly clever consumer-tested marketing arrangements of any sort will make that apple taste better, or in any way more attractive, if you know what you’re looking for in an apple. That is why I appreciate this type of simplicity. Let nature’s creations shine, as they did on the tree or on the ground in which it grew, or moments after they were picked, at most.

Second observation -- smell. This place, from moment of entry, smells like it should, fresh. Natural scents fill the air, no Febreezing the lettuce here. Natural odors rules here, in the best way possible.

Third, price vs. quality. Hands down, cheapest tomatoes I’ve found. Anywhere. (Since leaving Israel, of course…). And, for May, they smell fantastic! Seal of approval – I love this place. Fast forward, 20 minutes later at the house, a simple tomato salad with good olive oil, feta, salt, pepper and some fresh oregano -- yes, best tomatoes I’ve had in a long time.
A few other hidden gems found here: A great spice rack. Things I haven’t found anywhere and, fearfully said, have forgotten about. First and foremost -- Sumac. This wondrous spice is found in abundance around the Middle East, especially in Lebanese cuisine. It has an earthy sourness to it, and is often used in place of lemon as a tangy addition to a dish. At home, I came up with sumac-sage crusted scallops over crispy scallions. The tanginess popped and made this a keeper recipe. Second -- Azafran en Flor. Basically, this is a poor man’s version of saffron. And when I say poor, I’m talking about 79 cents for ¼ oz (!!). True, this is not the real deal, just dried safflower and not the stigmas used for real saffron. However, some experimenting at home (infused some of it in hot water, and made some rice with the liquid) resulted in a comparable flavor. At the end of the day, until I have the great honor of making paella for Ferran Adria, I might as well save up and use Azafran en Flor.

Also, there is a great section for Mediterranean canned goods such as Spanish sardines and octopus, middle-eastern pickles, olives, and other gourmet condiments.
Overall, a great culinary treasure chest, well hidden behind giants such as Whole Foods, Bristol Farms and such, but does not lack in quality and, first and fore most, integrity. What you see is what you get, and that, non-coincidently, is exactly what I want.

In short, this changed the way I approach grocery and produce shopping. Being a meditative, relaxing and most enjoyable experience for me, grocery shopping is something that I take seriously. True there are farmer’s markets all around, but those lately have gone the commercial route, as well. High-end grocery stores offer quality in the expense of... well, expense. The message from all this is to invest in some basic research and spend some time wandering around your local area; find a place you like and that delivers good quality in a reasonable price. You’d be surprised that price and quality, in this case, are barely correlated. The one-stop-shop concept, convenient as it may be, will not deliver overall high quality, and will stumble in some aspects for sure. Spread your “eggs” in several baskets. Find your produce lady, your meat and seafood man, your bread person. You’re bound to develop great relationships with those people, based on your appreciation for the hard work they do, and the struggle they face when trying to compete with the goliaths of the food world. That’s how restaurants get their great products -- personal connection with their purveyors. Again, reflecting back to the French Laundry Cookbook: it is partially dedicated by Chef Keller, to his purveyors at the restaurant, including a full page spread on each one, from his oyster lady, to his hearts of palm guy. Respect the small people, and they will return the favor with great prices and quality that is never worse and often better.

Marina Farms -- 5454 S Centinela Ave,
Los Angeles, CA 90066

Thursday, May 6, 2010

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to me to roast a chicken

We are rulers of the earth! We are the conquerors that planted our flag on top of Food Chain Mountain! We have the ability to farm, grow, harvest, butcher and delightfully consume any and every product of Mother Nature. And we do it so well, in so many different ways, feeding mind, body and soul all at once. The world’s culinary greats throughout the centuries have created delicacies out of all that nature has to offer. The pig provides bacon and prosciutto di Parma; The Tuna fish swims onto plates of irresistible Toro sashimi; the goose lives to give its liver. Sounds like a taste bud orgy to me! BUT -- Being on top of the food chain comes with a huge responsibility. All nature demands in return is -- respect.

Thomas Keller, undoubtedly one of the greatest American chefs today, in his French Laundry Cookbook, talks about “The Importance of Rabbits”. He explains his experience of killing rabbits, and the switch in approach, once the act of taking a life is performed. No longer is it merely a loin, or saddle that you sauté or braise. Keller took the rabbit’s life; heard the screams at the slit of a throat; felt the resistance of the skin, refusing to leave the muscle tissue bare; and carefully selected the most beautiful rabbit saddle, to glorify the plates of one of America’s greatest culinary meccas -- The French Laundry. That connection, the bond between raw product and processor, between taker and giver, changes the way we assume our role as the food chain’s last ones standing.

One of the most comforting and satisfying things to cook in a home kitchen is a whole roasted chicken. It fills the house with scents and warm emotions. The chicken was purchased, optimally, at an organic food market, or alternatively, was commercially wrapped and placed on a shelf at the local grocery store. It did not grow there, however -- not at the market, not at the store. Whether it was farmed in a tightly packed pen, or was free to roam its surroundings while still capable of flaunting its feathers, it gave its life to serve a purpose. The chicken was brought to this earth to satisfy our need for comfort, our hunger, and to bring back childhood memories from grandma’s kitchen. All we must do in gratitude is pay all the respect deserved to the chicken that bring that type of happiness to our lives.

How do we respect the parts of nature we consume? Easy. We listen and we learn. Like in any relationship, communication is key. The chicken will tell you what she wants you to do with her. She’ll ask to be taken out of the fridge for a bit cause she’s chilly. Brrr. Then she’ll want to rinse off, just water nothing more. She’ll ask to be wiped down till she’s nice and dry. After that, she wants to be tied up!! Don’t look at me -- she asked for it! So do as she says, and truss her. She’ll want to put on a gown of salt, pepper. And don’t just toss it on -- rub it in and massage her like the beauty that she is. After that she’ll be ready to head out to the 450-degree sunshine to get nice and crispy tanned. Don’t bother her; she deserves her alone time. After an hour more or less, she’ll return with the sexiest bronze tan, she just needs a 15-minute nap, and to quench her thirst (bathe her with a cocktail of melted butter and thyme) and then she’ll be all yours to barbarically devour! After she wakes, she’ll be more than willing to remove her bikini to reveal perfect tan lines, and separate flesh from bone, head to toe, till glorious satisfaction. You both lay there, intoxicated, and mutually blissful. Now that’s respect.

----- Take a deep breath, and we move on… -----

All living things, including plants and crops for that matter, though some sexier than others, demand the same amount of consideration and admiration. An orange, or any other citrus fruit, is a great example: try to Supreme (separate flesh from rest of fruit) a lemon, orange, grapefruit. There is only one way to do it, and that is because the fruit was born a certain way. The sections can only be extracted using one approach. Auguste Escoffier didn’t decide that or make that up. The orange did. The cow, with it’s many different cuts of flesh, is much more complicated and demanding. She has to have each and every part of her treated differently. If she’s going to visit the health spa, every body part will occupy a separate treatment room. High maintenance gets a whole new definition with this one. The ribs want to be smoked and BBQed slowly; the shoulders want to be stewed; the hip muscles want to be roasted; the lower back area demands a grill or sauté pan application. In return, she’ll come out as the most beautifully treated supermodel you’ve ever seen, every inch of her is perfection!

Bottom line is, we must be grateful and admire the abundance of culinary wealth that surrounds us. Learn from the product you use, how it wants to be prepared from start to finish. What we eat and how we cook it is not up to us. We are in the mercy of nature, which is something that we must gracefully applaud and religiously praise every single day in the kitchen, or at a dining table, whether at home or at a 3-star Michelin establishment. Listen to your products, respect them, love them and embrace the fact that they gave life to serve you. The least you can do is pay the same respect back to them. And make them perfectly delicious.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What is it about food (...and sex)??

Food has been on our minds since the dawn of time. We consume it, discuss it, go to war over it, kill and get killed for it, fall in love with it, and because of it. Food brings out the best and worst of mankind. If I am hungry, I am admittedly intolerable by others. I'm sure I'm not the only one, and readers across the globe can sympathize. On the other hand, when I'm having a finger-licking delicious meal, I am on top of the world, and a sense of incomparable bliss surrounds me. It's like the perfect drug -- and I NEED my fix!

So, what is it exactly that makes food so intoxicating? Something that holds such a spell on us must be greater than, and far beyond our understanding. The natural need for food is embedded in us, the same way that the need for sexual interaction is. This goes way back to our pre-historic days, and brings us closer to the animal kingdom we belong to. This phenomenon is common among all living creatures -- we MUST eat. We MUST procreate. Man doesn't eat = man dies. Man doesn't have sex = man is extinct; or – Rhinoceros doesn’t eat = Rhinoceros dies. Rhino… You get the idea. Us humans, we were smarter than the rhino. We decided to perfect food, as well as sex. Au revoir, hunter-gatherer cuisine! Sayonara, missionary position! Humans took on the mission to enjoy the two instinctual habits to the fullest. The innate human pleasure derived from eating, and from sex for that matter, come from the same cognitive place. If these culinary, or sexual experiences were intolerable, I sure as hell would not want to engage in them. However, the fact that both are extremely pleasurable gives birth to these undying desires.

In order to not get too sidetracked, and as a sacrifice of potential traffic through this blog, I will leave the bedtime tales for a different occasion and place. This will be the platform discussing everything that is food; from the most decadent of culinary masterpieces, all the way through to the basics. Why we eat what we eat; how to make it at home; where to go for the best [fill in the blank]; history/philosophy/anthropology/anatomy/math/physics/chemistry of food. It’s all fair game and all on a fun, approachable level.
A foodie extravaganza for the senses! By the people, for the people!

Please feel free to share your honest opinions, contribute as much as you want and spread the word!