Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spring Soups

 Now that Spring is right at our doorstep it's fun to start thinking about what lies ahead. Soft-shell crabs, local strawberries and sweet Vidalia onions will be here before you know it. One great soup for Spring that comes to mind is potato-leek. It can be made any time of year, but I think of leeks and new potatoes as harbingers of Spring.
 I use the same basic technique to make any soup. Start with some hard aromatic vegetables, cleaned and chopped, and some type of fat. You can use butter, oil or a combination of both. Onions, garlic, carrots, parsnips and celery root all work well. You can use a little bacon here too, but it's not necessary. Omit the carrots if you want a pale color or white soup. Sweat the vegetables in the fat until they are tender but not caramelized. Then add the primary ingredients like squash, beans, tomatoes or whatever. In this case it would be the leeks. Now sweat them some more until they are tender and add water, stock or a mixture of both and some peeled potatoes. Simmer the soup until the potatoes are tender. Throw in a handful of sea salt, some fresh black pepper and a few sprigs of thyme. Carefully puree the soup in a blender after letting it cool for a few minutes. Push it though a strainer if you want a refined mouth feel.
 Using potatoes to thicken a pureed soup gives it a thick rich texture. This soup can easily be made vegan using olive oil and water and it is so rich that anyone would really like it. The taste of the leeks really comes through without bacon or chicken stock so give it a try for Spring!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Loch Duart Salmon

 This weekend I am serving something new to me, Loch Daurt Salmon. It's organic Salmon from Scotland and it's great! It was nice to serve Atlantic Salmon again, it had been years. My customers loved it, it sold REALLY well and I felt good selling a product like this. I feel that it's unrealistic to think that we will be able to eat wild fish forever. The oceans will never be able to keep up with the growing population on land. Please seek out and support efforts like Loch Duart.
 I have added some items to my menu in the last year or so, like Jamison Farm lamb which is certified humanely raised and processed. I think products like these represent the future of environmentally responsible and humane farming practices. If one can buy a superior product that has been raised sustainably, why would you buy anything else? 
 Because I'm a chef, I don't want to sacrifice quality for anything. These pioneering suppliers prove that I don't have to. A great product that makes sense for the planet. Bring it on!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sourdough Bread

 About 15 years ago I went to San Francisco for vacation and fell in love. When I came back to New Jersey I wanted to capture that feeling forever. Sourdough bread and I are together again!
 I tried to make it once and I had an active culture started, which went dormant about a week later. I gave up, it seemed too hard. Then late last year I decided I should try it again. Like all research  projects these days I started out on Google. Naturally I found hundreds of entries with different ideas, recipes, horror stories and epiphanies. Which one should I follow? I took the three that sounded the best and made up my own way. Here's the story...
 Sourdough bread is made from wild yeast that are in the air all around us and are also found lying dormant in flour. The idea is to attract the yeast to something and then colonize them. If they find a hospitable environment they will begin to breed and do whatever else it is that yeast do. Whole wheat flour seems to be the best for making the starter. It's relatively high in dormant yeast, has readily accessible sugars that yeast like, and it's fairly low in gluten. Trust me all of these things are good.
 I use filtered tap water since Lambertville city water is fairly high in chlorine which of course is supposed to kill microfauna, like yeast. Sea salt and high-gluten bread flour round out the requirements. A little chopped fresh rosemary is nice too. This is all you need, along with about 2 weeks of forethought.
 Step 1: Mix 1 cup of whole wheat flour with 1 cup of water in a nonreactive bowl. Cover loosely and set aside for a day, preferably in a warm part of your kitchen. The next day, throw away half and add a 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour and 1/2 cup of water. Mix thoroughly, cover and set aside. Repeat this every day for about 10 days.
 Step 2: Then add 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water each day, still throwing out about half first. After 4 to 5 days you should be ready to make bread. If the starter doesn't smell like beer it needs more time. You have to make a judgement call here. Is there any sign of yeast? Do you see bubbles or some other evidence of the life in the container? If not you should keep feeding it every day and go over each part of the process in your head and try to think about why it isn't working. After 21 days if it doesn't have a really strong smell of beer then you should abandon hope with that batch.
 Step 3: Take half of the starter and mix it with an equal amount of high-gluten flour. Knead with an upright mixer, or by hand, for about 5 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of sea salt and continue kneading for 5 more minutes. Add more high-gluten flour as necessary. You don't want it to stick to the bowl and it should be a soft ball that stays together as one mass. Now add 1 teaspoon of fresh chopped rosemary if desired. Knead for 5 more minutes or so. About 15 minutes total kneading time is usually enough to stretch the gluten in the flour and form the strong bonds that will give the bread its structure. Cover the dough with a kitchen towel and place it in a warm spot to rise, until doubled in bulk. This part is tricky to prescribe because it could take from 2 to 6 hours or more.
 Step 4: Once the dough has doubled in size it's ready to be shaped into bread. Remove it from the bowl and place on a lightly floured work surface. Punch it down and knead it for about a minute. Work it into whatever shape you want, a boule, baguettes or rolls. Cover it again and return it to the warm spot where it rose the first time and wait again. This time will go faster than the first rise, but it still might take a few hours.
 Step 5: Once the dough has doubled in size again it is ready to bake. A 400 degree oven is best and you want some humidity. A pan of boiling water on the bottom of the oven helps, as does a spray bottle to mist the bread right before it goes in the oven and again about 3 minutes later. Humidity will retard the formation of crust which allows the bread to expand without breaking. It is also what gives the crust a very desirable chewiness. Bake until the bread is deep golden brown and sounds hollow when you tap it. Depending on what shape you chose for your bread this could be anywhere from 25 to 40 minutes. 
 Step 6: Let the bread cool to allow the sour flavor to develop completely, usually 30 to 60 minutes is perfect. Re-heat it and spread some sweet butter on it and you will be rewarded with a special treat for all of your work.
 Remember now to keep your starter alive by feeding it at regular intervals. I use mine every day so it is really mature now. My bread rises in about 2 hours the first time and about 45 minutes the second time. You can keep your starter in the refrigerator once it is about 3 or 4 weeks old. At this point you only need to feed it about once a week. If you refrigerate it you will need to pull out half of it the day before you intend to bake with it. Feed both halves and the next day the one you pulled out should be active and ready.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Take Reservations or Sell Tickets?

 Okay, this is my first venting post. Every restaurant I know of has to struggle with reservation policies and no-shows. People have come to expect that they can make a dinner reservation at their favorite restaurant so they don't have to just show up and wait. I encourage that behavior because as a restaurant owner I like to have a forecast of what to expect on any given night and time. As a customer I enjoy being able to make a reservation so I have a reasonable expectation of being seated close to my arrival time. Seems like it can work to everyone's benefit.
 On special occasions, namely New Year's eve and Valentine's day, we take credit card numbers along with the reservations. People used to ask why, now half of them call with their credit cards in hand because they fully expect to supply the numbers. On those nights, everyone who has provided their credit card information shows up or calls and cancels beforehand.  I have never intended to charge anyone who doesn't show up, but the fact that they have given us their information seems to be all the incentive they need to be courteous enough to call us if their plans change. Problem solved, right?
 What happens when someone calls to make a reservation and they don't have their credit card handy? They may be on a cell phone and aren't comfortable giving out sensitive information that way. Generally they say that they will call back with it and would still like us to make the reservation. We do and we call them again a day or two prior to the day to confirm the reservation, along with everyone else. Sometimes we don't hear back from them and here lies the real dilemma. We could give the table away to someone else, but that flies in the face of how I want to treat my customers. The risk that someone shows up on any night thinking they have a reservation, only to find out that they don't, probably outweighs the risk of losing some revenue. But the consequences go beyond just the financial health of my business. The waitstaff loses out on the tip, and we have to turn away customers who wanted the table and had every intention of honoring their part of the "contract". 
 I could institute a policy that no reservations will be honored without a credit card. I could put the onus on the customer to call us to confirm their reservation. But in a small business like mine, we all share the duties of answering the phone and taking reservations. What if the policies weren't explained clearly? What if the customer honestly forgets to call and shows up on a night when it can be VERY difficult to find a table anywhere else? 
 In a perfect world I could just sell tickets like a theatre company does. If you can't make it, give them to your friends. If they can't make it, at least your dinner was already paid for. How many people would agree to those terms for a dinner in a restaurant? My guess is not very many. Unless it became standard. I'll keep dreaming.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Salt Talk

 Did you ever wonder why restaurant food tastes so good? It's because chefs season EVERYTHING! We use salt and pepper on just about everything we touch. Salt brings out flavors in all foods, sweet and savory. In a typical entree, the protein gets seasoned before it's cooked, the sauce has been seasoned, the vegetables, the starch, all of it.
 This may be one of the small things that is really a huge thing. If you want to improve your cooking, think about how you season your food. If you don't have high blood pressure or any other health concern about sodium, try a little more salt. I'm not talking about salty food, just well seasoned food. Salt the water before cooking pasta, salt the water to boil potatoes, salt your water to cook chick peas for hummus. Salt everything. It really makes a huge difference.
 I use mainly sea salt and kosher salt. Sea salt is great sprinkled directly on food. Kosher salt is good for salting cooking water. Fancy sea salt like Fleur du Sel is wonderful to finish dishes like tomato and mozzarella salads, or grilled flank steak.
 Salt can also serve as a great counterpoint to sweets. I make chocolate cream pie with a salted pie crust. Sea salt with caramel is a great contrast. I use salt in brownies and many cake recipes call for salt. Try sprinkling a few salted peanuts on a chocolate sundae. 
 Salt everything and remember to taste everything. You'll notice a lot of flavor in those fancy foods that take so long to source.


 Yesterday I made a marinara sauce for staff meal at work. I modified my normal method by adding a few chopped anchovies to the pot after cooking the garlic in olive oil. What a difference!
 It didn't make the sauce taste like anchovies, it just added a rich taste like cooking pork bones with tomato gravy does.
 The sauce was nothing more than extra virgin olive oil, garlic, anchovies, hand-crushed canned plum tomatoes, sea salt and red pepper flakes. After cooking the garlic in the oil over medium heat until soft and just starting to brown, I added the chopped anchovies. A few minutes later I added the tomatoes with their juice. Then the salt and pepper, simmered for about 15 minutes and it was ready.
 We had it with grilled hot italian sausage and bucatini with parmesan cheese. It will now be my method for marinara sauce which I generally use for lasagna, eggplant parmesan or spaghetti and meatballs.
 Anchovies are one of those things that most people think should be hidden in foods. The site of anchovy filets on pizza might be too much for some people who enjoy caesar salad or worcestershire sauce. I can't disagree with them, although the site and texture of anchovies doesn't bother me .
 I also recently put anchovies into ratatouille I made to serve with Swordfish. I often make dishes like that vegetarian, but I figured if I'm serving it with fish I'll be safe. The ratatouille was delicious! Like the marinara sauce, it didn't taste like anchovies, it just had a meaty richness that complemented the acidity of the ratatouille beautifully.

Monday, March 3, 2008


 Cooking is all about technique. Recipes should show the reader how a technique or set of techniques work to help achieve the desired result. When I read a recipe I am looking mostly for inspiration. The idea is to try and understand what method the recipe's author is trying to teach. Just like a picture is worth a thousand words a recipe illustrates a real life application of the method. To a serious cook, a cookbook can be a great read, especially if it contains insights into the hows and whys of the recipes.
 What I don't like about recipes is that they sometimes place too much emphasis on obtaining the exact ingredients mentioned. This is where I think most people set themselves up for disappointment. If you have a recipe for sauteed John Dory with shiitakes and red wine sauce you shouldn't hesitate to try it. But when you go to buy the fish, just look for the freshest firm white fleshed fish available. Quality should be your primary criterion for buying food. Don't pass over pristine Black Sea Bass for mediocre Red Snapper, and so on.
 If you HAVE to have Salmon for a particular occasion talk to your fish monger ahead of time and determine if it will be possible. Then when you go to make your purchase, remember that good results with bad food is impossible. Always have a back-up plan. Be flexible and you'll be rewarded with a much better meal.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Roasted Root Vegetbles

 This time of year calls for some hearty flavors to help get through the winter. Roasted root vegetables come to the rescue! Any combination of carrots, parsnips, celeriac, turnips, rutabagas and garlic along with some onions and herbs like thyme or parsley will work. Start by peeling the vegetables and cutting them into pieces roughly the same size. The shape doesn't really matter, as long as they are relatively uniform. I cut mine to resemble french fries. Preheat your oven to 350 and coat the vegetables and aromatics with some type of fat, coarse sea salt and black pepper. If you happen to have access to some rendered duck or goose fat, it works the best, but olive oil or another type of vegetable oil works just fine. Don't use butter, as it will burn too easily.
 You can roast the vegetables in a cast iron skillet, or a roasting pan. Pre-heating the pan isn't really necessary, though you could do it. Make sure you don't burn the vegetables if you use a pre-heated pan. Place the vegetables in your pan of choice, being careful not to crowd them too much. They should be no more than "2-deep" in the pan or else they will steam instead of roast. Depending on how you cut them, they will take from 30 to 60 minutes. You want them to be thoroughly tender and a light caramel color. Err on the side of over-cooked, as you don't really want them al dente. They are now ready to be used for a number of things.
 They go really well in risotto, especially as a side dish with duck, chicken or pork. They also are great in pasta, or with something like braised lamb shanks and white beans. It is amazing how sweet and savory they are at the same time. The parsnips will taste like candy! The garlic and herbs add some brightness to an otherwise very earthy dish. Experiment with this recipe to suit your taste and you will be rewarded with something that is easy to prepare ahead of time and will taste like a dish from a fancy restaurant.