Thursday, February 28, 2008

Chocolate Chip Cookies

 I just made a big discovery. I mean BIG! My boys Zackery and Seamus came to work to see me the other day and wanted to make a dessert. We made chocolate chip cookies with peanut butter replacing 3/4 of the butter in the recipe. They were incredible. This should work with any chocolate chip cookie recipe that you use, the "one on the bag" is a great one.
 The cookies didn't have a strong peanut butter flavor, but an incredible texture with a mild peanut butter aroma. They melted in your mouth but still retained that crisp cookie crunch like only a freshly baked cookie has.
 I can't wait to make them again and put them to the ultimate test, eating them along with a glass of bourbon. If you haven't tried that, stop what you're doing right now and try it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chef Test

 I often think about what I would use as a test if I were to hire a chef to run my restaurant's kitchen. There are the normal interview questions, the resume and references, but what about a practical exam?
 You know what it would be? Soup. Make me a soup, anything you want. That's it. Those are the guidelines. Call me when it's done.
 I think soup is the perfect test because nothing requires so many skills to be used in harmony as making soup does. It is a chance to show your knife skills, your ability to season correctly, creativity, and confidence. I would be perfectly comfortable making chicken noodle soup, for example, because a well made one is truly a thing of beauty. I also might make a curried corn, crab and coconut soup, for the same reason. One isn't necessarily better than the other, they're just different. A truly well made soup is something that any cook can be proud of.
 I generally resist the temptation to try and justify my existence by making something that you've never heard of. What could be better on a cold January day than a bowl of split pea soup?  Soup should be seasonally inspired. Gazpacho in late August might trump everything else. Roasted tomato soup in late September could be a close second. The point is there is no right or wrong answer. Just make the best soup you can and let it speak for itself.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kitchen Knives

 I think the best knives out there are worth the money with this caveat: you only need one. The knife I use on a daily basis is a 10" Wusthof chef's knife. It's a big knife for most people, so an 8" one is a good option. But skip the boning knife, slicing knife, pairing knife, utility knife, etc. If you use the same knife every day you will become so comfortable with it that you'll find it's perfect for nearly every job.
 A big chef's knife saves a tremendous amount of fatigue when you use a rocking motion for chopping or dicing. Jacques Pepin has a great book covering fundamental techniques that I believe are really important to learn if you want to be a better cook. Buy it with the money you'll save by passing over the knife sets and just buy the only one you'll really need.
 If you really need a serrated knife for slicing bread buy one, but any brand will do. The expensive knives are expensive because of the balance of the knife and the quality of the materials. These things don't matter much to slice an occasional bagel or baguette. Try dicing a few cups of vegetables for soup with a good knife and you will appreciate what I mean.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Vietnam Restaurant

 Last night my family and I had dinner at our favorite restaurant, Vietnam in Philadelphia. My wife Ursula and I have been going there for 10 years and it is amazing how consistently great it is. It looked like a typical Chinatown hole-in-the-wall when we first started going there. It has evolved into a stylishly comfortable space with about 3 times the amount of seats. The prices have inched up just slightly, and the food is still as good as we've had anywhere. 
 If you go to Philly, make sure you visit Vietnam, it's on 11th near Race St. (Don't confuse it with Vietnam Palace across the street.) Order the grilled meatballs, the crisp vegetable spring rolls and sauteed chinese broccoli with garlic. For something a little more adventurous, try the flank steak carpaccio. You will be in heaven!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Just giving their due...

 A certain restaurant critic for the New York Times, with the initials FB, seems to have a disdain for chefs/restauranteurs naming the source of the ingredients on their menus. I have read many reviews of places that don't earn more than 1 or 2 stars where he mentions the fact that the menu DARED to list the provenance of their ingredients as though it is a right reserved for the celebrity chefs. What about simply acknowledging the farmer's hard work and vision that make serving a decent meal possible. Do I need to prove my mettle before I have the gall to recognize the fact that not all lamb is created equal?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Chefs don't like to give out recipes

 The other day I was reading Mark Bittman's, aka The Minimalist, wonderful blog. He wrote about kitchen myths that need to be debunked. It made me think about a myth that I've heard for years, along with a hundred explanations of why it is so.
 People say that chefs don't like to give out recipes. I won't say that there aren't ANY chefs who are so insecure that they won't share anything, but I have almost always encountered tremendous generosity and forthrightness with information from other chefs. This goes back to my days as a dishwasher at the Tarragon Tree in Chatham NJ, almost 25 years ago. I was stunned at the detailed instructions that the chefs were willing to divulge, simply because I was curious enough to ask.
 So why does this urban legend persist? Chefs don't cook from recipes! When I give cooking classes, I always start out by saying that I am not going to teach recipes, I'm going to teach technique. When you walk into a restaurant's kitchen, you won't see a bunch of cooks leaning over cookbooks while they measure out 2-1/3 cups of diced onions, and so on. Cooking is about using all 5 senses to learn what goes with what, and in what quantity. I rely on my instincts to decide how much mirepoix will be needed to make a 4 pound batch of black bean soup. If you ask me the ingredients I can tell you, but how many garlic cloves? How much thyme? I don't know exactly, Enough!
 Chefs learn technique through repetition. You might try a recipe and get great results the first time. But I don't think that means that you have mastered it. Make it again, and again, and again. Did it come out the same each time? Probably not. Try to figure out why. If it comes out better each time, you are probably in touch with the nuances of the technique involved. If it is inconsistent, great once, worse the next time, you are still learning the process. When you can turn it out well 3 times in a row, you are starting to get it. That's not a magic number, just a baseline for what to shoot for. Practice, practice, practice.
 If you use good ingredients, your results will always be good. You won't be wasting food, you'll be learning as you go. What good friend or family member won't appreciate an honest home cooked meal? Each time you prepare a meal you will learn something, if you're open to learning. So go ahead, try something new. But don't ask a chef for the recipe and expect it right before your eyes. Why not? Because he/she doesn't know it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Roasted Chicken

 Arguably one of the best meals you can make is REALLY good roasted chicken. What omnivorous person doesn't really enjoy great chicken. Crisp skin, juicy tender meat and great flavor make it the foundation of the perfect homey dinner. Most chefs recognize how difficult it can be to perfect, while many cooks feel anyone can stick a chicken in the oven and bake it.
 Obviously you must start with a good chicken. Use a whole chicken, not chicken parts for this recipe. These are easy to find now in most markets. Don't buy Purdue and you're halfway there. I serve only Griggstown Farm chickens in my restaurant, but there are many good ones available. It does make a difference. Use a cast iron skillet, or at least a heavy pan that is not treated with a non-stick coating. Pre-heat the pan on top of the stove over a medium heat and pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees. Meanwhile, stuff a few thyme sprigs into the cavity of the bird, tie the legs together and clip off the wings or tie them back to keep them out of the way of the skin over the breast meat. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. Pour about 1 teaspoon of oil into the pan, wait 20 seconds for the oil to warm up, then place the chicken in the pan on its side. Place the pan in the oven immediately and cook for 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and carefully turn the chicken onto the other side and return to oven for 15 minutes. Remove from oven again and turn chicken onto its back, return to oven for 15 minutes. If the chicken is about 3 to 3-1/2 pounds, it should now be finished. If the chicken is 4 or more pounds, repeat side to side roasting for 10 - 15 more minutes total.  Now the most important thing is to let the chicken rest for at least 15 minutes before cutting into it. This is the key to tender chicken. The rest time is really important.
 Now, why this method works. Cooking chicken on the bone prevents it from shrinking while it cooks. This keeps the meat tender because the muscle fibers can't contract as much because the bones are keeping them from doing so. This is why boneless chicken cutlets are not comfort food! The skin of the chicken gets crisp by roasting on the cast iron skillet which has excellent heat retention. Another heavy pan will work, but don't use a thin metal pan or glass dish. Turning the chicken helps cook the meat evenly too. The natural juices inside run from side to side and help the meat stay juicy. The most important thing here is not to over-cook the bird. Remember that it will keep cooking after you remove it from the oven. Letting it rest for at least 15 minutes help the juices be re-absorbed into the flesh, and allows the muscle fibers to relax, because they will have contracted a bit. Now you have a perfectly roasted chicken to serve with whatever you like. 
 A few variables are: the temperature of the chicken when you start;  the accuracy of your oven's thermostat; and how big and how hot is the skillet when you first put in the chicken. All of these mean that your timing is subject to change a little bit, but PLEASE don't overcook.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Old is new again

Take a minute if you will to consider the cast-iron skillet. Over the years I have cooked things in a variety of vessels and nothing beats a well seasoned cast-iron skillet for everyday use. I have a really good and EXPENSIVE pan for cooking eggs, which has a non-stick coating. I will never give it up. I cook everything I can on my charcoal grill. But when it comes to sauteing, frying, pan roasting, or baking, nothing beats my old cheap cast-iron skillet. I use one every day. No other pan improves with age and use. It's the perfect choice for so many things. I make pancakes, steaks, chickens, fish filets, cornbread, upside-down cakes, potatoes, chili, you name it.

What is it about Bacon?

 I think there are many people out there who will agree that bacon is one ingredient for which there is no substitute. Think about all of the things that feature bacon, then imagine how they would taste without it. Have you ever craved a Lettuce and Tomato sandwich for 2 weeks? How 'bout a Spinach Salad without Bacon. A club sandwich? Is there a better breakfast than Bacon and Eggs? You get the point.
 It's crisp, smoky, sweet, salty and chewy all at the same time. Nothing else on earth can beat it. I have cooked with ham, prosciutto,  pancetta and bacon, I think they all play an important role in cooking. But bacon is king. 

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Best Buffalo Wings

I have been a chef for about 25 years and one thing people always ask me is "What do you like to eat?". It seems that in many people's imagination, a chef's diet probably consists of all gourmet meals all the time. Nothing could be further from the truth. All chefs I know crave things like tacos, buffalo wings, pizza and of course burgers. Over the years I think I have perfected the Buffalo wing technique, with all due respect to the city of Buffalo, its residents and of course the presumed birthplace of Buffalo wings, the Anchor Bar. Start with fresh chicken wings, cut into 2 sections. Pre-heat a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes. When the pan is ready (and not before!) liberally coat the wings with sriracha in a stainless steel bowl. Add a tablespoon of vegetable oil to the pan and arrange the wings in the hot pan so they are not touching each other too much. Leave the wings alone for 3 or 4 minutes, without shaking the pan and let them get almost black. Carefully turn them once and finish in a hot oven for about 6 or 7 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and gently stir the wings around the pan to make sure they have cooked evenly. Return pan to oven for a few more minutes if the wings are not tender yet. When the wings are cooked right they feel tender but don't fall apart when you pick them up. Remove the wings from the pan and let rest on a plate or bowl for a few minutes. Serve with blue cheese dressing made from just Hellmann's mayonnaise, good red wine vinegar and crumbled blue cheese.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Welcome to my blog

Hello. I intend to maintain a blog to sound off on all things relating to food. I am a chef and restaurant owner and I need a place to share some thoughts about the day to day life of a chef.