Bistro Steak

Bistro Steak.  Even the name sounds wonderful.  Not exotic, not overly fancy, but somehow decadent, a treat, like using French butter on your fresh baked brioche.

Bistro food, by nature is French, and focuses on slow cooked, robust, and sometimes ‘earthy’ dishes, that usually pair very well with wine.  The idea is to be simple, not exceptionally creative, and to return to the basics of simple food done right.

Just my thing.

This dish fits perfectly with the bistro concept, and I think you will agree after making it, it’s incredibly delicious.  Hanger steak, also known as the hanging tenderloin, is a cut of meat that sits on the end of the tenderloin next to the diaphragm.  So it’s almost like a cross between a tenderloin and skirt steak, there are only two of these cuts on each cow, and in my opinion, is the best cut of meat.  It’s also known as the ‘butcher’s’ cut, because the butcher used take this cut for himself.  Like tenderloin, it’s thick enough to handle a long sear, and contains very little fat.  Like skirt steak, it was become tough after cooking past medium, and contains an absurd amount of flavor.  Also like skirt steak, it takes marinades exceptionally well.

This recipe is relatively simple.  The focus is on great ingredients, and ensuring the cooking technique is flawless.  The flavors and aromas will develop and you will see why this is such a great recipe.

Bistro Steak

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Yield: 4 portions

Ingredients:

4 7oz hanger steaks
10 shallots, peeled
2 sprigs thyme, leaves only
2 tbsp organic unsalted butter
2 tbsp vegetable butter
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
crumbled roquefort cheese (or other good quality bleu veined cheese)
panko bread crumbs
kosher salt
black pepper

Method:

Using a French mandolin or very sharp knife, slice the shallots as thin as possible (paper thin).  Begin gently sauteing them in a heavy bottom saute pan.  Add the thyme, season with salt and pepper, and 1 tbsp butter.  Slowly caramelize.  Continue cooking until deeply caramelized and golden in color.  Let cool.

Prepare your oven broiler on low broil setting.

Lightly coat the steaks with vegetable oil, and liberally season with salt and pepper.  In a heavy bottom saute pan, sear steaks on all sides.  Deglaze with the vinegar, let the vinegar evaporate until almost completely dry.  Remove the steaks from the pan and let rest.

Place steaks on a baking pan, smother the steaks with the caramelized onions, top with bleu cheese and a light sprinkle of panko.  Place a tiny bit of the remaining butter on top of each.  Broil until gold brown (steaks should be mid-rare).  Serve right away.

This is best served with parmesan/truffle french fries, grilled asparagus and red wine sauce.  Serve with a ‘big’ red wine.

Enjoy.

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Southwest black bean stew with charred salsa

This is my version of a southwest black bean stew.  Similar to Brazilian black beans, it contains pork and meats.  Similar to a Mexican stew, it’s cooked in a broth highly seasoned with herbs, spices and dry peppers.  Similar to European stews, it incorporates a long duration meat braise.  In the end, you will result in a very aggressively seasoned, balanced and delicious stew, emphasizing the flavors of the south west.

Delicious is an understatement.

The flavors are uniquely developed, and cannot be replicated without putting in the time and doing it right.  Do not let this intimidate you.  Like many multi-step recipes, if you break it down into a few easy steps, the whole thing becomes simple and enjoyable.

There are 3 steps, and you can regard this as 3 recipes in one:

Step 1:  Make charred salsa

Step 2:  Braise beef

Step 3: Assemble and finish the stew

All steps can be done separate of each other, and step 1 can be done even two days in advance.  The best advise I can offer is to carefully read through the recipe before making it.  You will get a sense of the timing, and can therefore plan.  Again, it’s not difficult or complex cooking, it’s merely a series of recipes that result in your final dish.  Or, make the charred salsa and stop there.  It’s delicious on its own!

Southwest black bean stew with charred salsa

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 3 hours
Inactive cook time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 portions

Ingredients:

1 pasilla chili
2 japapeno
4 tomatillos
1 red onion,
4 roma tomatoes
1 bunch washed cilantro
1 head garlic, minced
10 dried arbol (Mexican) chilis
1 tbsp whole corriander
1 tbsp whole cumin
1 bay leaf
1 tsp dried Mexican oregano
3 cups prepared chicken stock
8 each oxtails
1/2 lb excellent quality spicy Mexican bilboa chorizo
2 cans low sodium black beans, rinsed and drained
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp chili lime powder
kosher salt
black pepper
juice of 5 limes
8 organic eggs
3 tbsp distilled vinegar
queso fresco
1 ripe avocado
vegetable oil

Method:

Make the charred salsa:

In a mixing bowl, toss the tomatoes, tomatillos, pasilla, jalapenos, half the red onion and chorizo with a little vegetable oil, salt and pepper.  Grill until all pepper and tomato skins are charred and blistered.  The onions should also be slightly charred, and the chorizo should be cooked through.  Cool and refrigerate the sausage.  Let the vegetables come to room temp, roughly peel (leaving some peel is fine) and remove stems and seeds.  Process in a blender with a little lime juice, salt, pepper and 1/2 the cilantro.  Check seasoning and add lime or salt if needed.  Cool completely and reserve.  This can be done the day before.

Braise the Oxtails:

In a straight side heavy bottom saute pan, heat a little oil to high heat.  Salt and pepper the oxtails.  Sear them, all sides.  Rough chop the other half onion and add it while the meat is searing.  Add 1/2 the garlic, dry peppers and all dry spices.  Deglaze with chicken stock, season with salt and pepper.  The chicken stock should cover the oxtails by 75%.  Add a few tbsp of the charred salsa.  Simmer over low heat, flipping the meat every half an hour or so.  Let cook until meat is very tender, about 2 hours.  Remove meat and let cool.  Strain broth, remove fat carefully with a ladle, and return broth to a medium sized sauce pot.  Reduce by half.  While it is reducing, strip the oxtails of all meat, discarding bones, cartilage and fat.  Return the meat to the reducing sauce.  Slice the chorizo thinly and add to the reducing sauce.  When reduced by just over half, you are ready for the next step.

Prepare and finish the Stew:

In the saucepot with the reduced sauce, oxtail meat and chorizo, add 3/4 of the remaining charred salsa.  Reduce slightly.  Add juice of 2 limes, remainder of garlic and a a small amount of fresh rough chopped cilantro. Stir to incorporate.  Add black beans.  Bring to a simmer, turn heat to low,and cook until thick.  Reseason and finish with remaining chopped cilantro.

The stew is finished, to serve I recommend sliced avocado, queso fresco and a poached egg on top.  Grilled corn, tortillas and rice also go very well.  The remainder of the salsa is an excellent accompaniment.

Enjoy

Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes

Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke…

If god were to come down from the heavens and cook you breakfast, he would probably serve you buttermilk blueberry pancakes.  Nothing is better.  , Or, imagine it’s late fall or winter, you’re in Stowe, VT and you’re out early for a quick walk.  The smell of pancakes cooking with smoked bacon, maple syrup and fresh coffee fills the airs.

Nothing is better.

I may have mentioned once or twice that generally, I do not do breakfast, and if I do, it’s usually something like yogurt and fruit.  But, similar to pastry, I can make incredible breakfasts.  Buttermilk blueberry pancakes might just be at the top of the list.

What makes them different? What makes mine standout from the rest?  I have a couple tricks, but the secret lies in doing it right and doing it from scratch.  Pancakes from a pre-made box mix don’t work for me.  I am interested in two things: flavor and texture.  To create that wonderful ‘authentic’ flavor, buttermilk and mascarpone cheese are used, in combination with a little real butter, touch of sugar and the other basics.  The texture needs to be fluffy and light.  A dense and thick pancake is not what I’m looking for.  So baking soda is added (combined with the acid from buttermilk it’ becomes a natural leavener).  And, to really lighten the mix, I separate the eggs, whip the eggs whites and fold them back in.  This makes the mixture light and airy, giving the texture I want.

If you want amazing pancakes, and are willing to put the effort in to make them from scratch, this might be the recipe for you!  It isn’t much more work than other scratch recipes, other than separating eggs and creating a meringue to fold back in.  Big deal, the results are more than worth it.  Try it, you’ll see.

Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Yield: 4 portions

Ingredients:

1 cup flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp baking soda
2 eggs, separated
10 fl oz buttermilk
1 tbsp mascarpone cheese
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted, plus extra for cooking
2 pt fresh blueberries

Method:

In one bowl, sift and combine the dry ingredients.   In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites until medium peak stage (full volume).  Mix the mascarpone and egg yolks with a little bit of the buttermilk to lighten.  Add the buttermilk, cheese, melted butter and egg yolks to the dry ingredients and gently work in (lumps are OK!) Over working will cause glutens to form, making the pancakes tough.  Fold in the egg whites gently, trying not to deflate them.

On a hot griddle, or in large non-stick pans, begin melting some of the butter.  Pour your batter making pancakes roughly 6 to 8 inches in diameter.  Generously sprinkle blueberries into the cooking pancakes.  When one side is deeply golden brown, flip and cook until cooked through.

Serve with warm pure maple syrup and a little additional butter.  Crisp apple smoked bacon wouldn’t hurt either…

Enjoy.

Muesli: The Original Superfood

An all-time favorite of the Germanic mountain people, especially the Swiss, muesli is an all-round can’t go wrong health food.  Even with the most basic and minimum ingredients, it will have enough power and nutrition to last for hours on top of hours.  It’s an original superfood, and it tastes great too.

Muesli is a traditional breakfast of the German speaking Alpine regions, primarily made of uncooked rolled oats, fruit, nuts and dairy (usually yogurt).  Traditionally, the muesli was made as a mash-up of the oats, fruits and nuts, and dairy may or may not have been added just prior to consumption.  Hence muesli ‘cereal’, as you may find in markets, will resemble ‘cluster’ or granola type cereals.  My version, and most other versions, will have the dairy component as in integral ingredient, not as a selective finishing touch.

Muesli is of course easy to make.  Oats, some sort of fruit, yogurt, a little milk and maybe a touch of honey and you’re done.  Personally, I like to add a few extra ingredients, but like everything else you make, it’s yours, make it how you like it.

This is incredible power food.  A cup of muelsi in the morning and you’ll be set for any workout, physical activity, or simply utilize it as brain food and a great all-round breakfast.  It’s a classic super-food.

Muesli

Prep time: 15 minutes
Inactive cook time: 8 hours
Yield: 6-8 portions

Ingredients:

2 green apples, medium dice
2 cups old fashioned quaker oats
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp honey or light agave nectar
1 pt raspberries
1 pt blackberries
1 pt blueberries
1 pt 0% greek yogurt
1 yoplait mixed berry yogurt
organic lowfat milk, as needed
1/2 cup stone ground spelt
handful dry cranberries
handful raisins
small handful toasted slivered almonds
1 banana

Method:

In a mixing bowl, add everything except the milk and banana.  Mix well.  Add the milk just to loosen.  Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for 8 hours.  The oats will absorb most of the liquid.  If it is too dry, add a little more milk.  Portion it, slice the banana over the top and eat right away.

Enjoy.

Maple/Rum glazed Acorn Squash

Wentworth by the Sea, NH, where I had the privilege
to work and learn great New England Dishes

I am excited about this post because for me, this embodies everything wonderful about fall cooking.  Warmth, wonderful aromas, roasting, family,  fall ingredients… This dish IS autumn.

Acorn squash is similar to most other hard squashes, in that when first sliced, they smell and feel like a pumpkin.  But when roasted, it takes on its true identity: a sweet, delicate, flavorful, incredible squash who’s flavor and texture lend itself perfectly with other fall and winter ingredients.

Maple glazed anything is delicious, and especially our beloved winter squashes.  Add a little rum for complexity, a little cider vinegar for contrast, cinnamon and nutmeg because they’re perfect for cold weather roasting, and maybe a little apple cider to round the whole thing out and give it balance.  This is easy and it could not be better.  The glaze can be made days in advance, and the prepping and roasting process is simple.  If you love the easy-to-make New England fall and winter dishes, this might be a good one for you!

Maple/rum glazed Acorn Squash

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time:  1 hour
Inactive cook time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 portions

Ingredients:

1/2 cup meyers dark rum
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 cup local apple cider
1 cinnamon stick
1 acorn squash, split into quarters, all seeds removed
2 tbsp whole unsalted organic butter, melted
kosher salt
black pepper
1 tsp nutmeg

Method:

In a small heavy bottom sauce pot, flambe and reduce the rum to almost a glaze (be careful, flambe means ignite).  If  you aren’t comfortable with the flambe, reduce, VERY slowly over medium to low heat(slowly so it doesn’t ignite).  Add the vinegar and maple syrup.  Reduce slightly.  Add the cider and cinnamon stick and reduce until slightly thick.  Let cool to room temp.

Heat an oven to 375.  Toss the squash with the butter, salt, pepper, nutmeg and 3/4 of the glaze.  Place on a foil lined roasting pan and roast until tender.  Remove from the oven and using a pastry brush, re-apply the rest of the glaze.  Turn oven to 400 and roast until deep golden brown and completely tender.  Let cool slightly and serve right away.

This is best with some sort of red wine braised beef, roasted beef, winter greens, caramelized onions, roast carrots and anything else wonderful autumn/winter.

Enjoy.

Broccoli/Cheddar Soup

Here in LA, we don’t have two things that I dearly miss:  Dunkin Donuts, and Panera Bread.  Dunks for obvious reasons, and Panera for their broccoli cheddar soup served in a bread bowl.  What a great dish.  Panera Bread really hit a home run with that one.  Out in LA, of course we can buy broccoli cheddar soup, but it just isn’t the same.  It doesn’t have the same flavor and appeal.  It isn’t Panera Bread.

So, in my longing for Panera’s broccoli/cheddar soup, I am going to give you my recipe, which comes damn close.  A couple notes regarding broccoli soups before we get in to it:

There are a couple of schools of thought regarding broccoli soup.

  • 1.  Keep it as basic and pure as possible.  In other words, make a broccoli puree, season it and add a little cheese (like good goat cheese) right at the end for flavor and creaminess.  
  • 2.  Make a true ‘thickened’ soup with more complex flavors, pureed and highly seasoned.  

Both are excellent and equally easy to make.  Option 1 focuses on the natural flavor of broccoli, without diluting for changing the flavor much.  It’s great for a restaurant application, as a tasting course, because of its refined and focused nature.  For me, personally, I like option 2.  Broccoli/cheddar soup is like comfort food, and there is a certain flavor and texture expectation when it’s served.  I love the thickened aspect, the complexity of flavor, the addition of dairy, and the sharp cheddar at the end.  I want my broccoli/cheddar soup to be as close to Panera’s as possible.  This recipe will get you there.  The key is the add small additions of salt as you go, to develop flavors as they cook, as opposed to salting it at the very end.  Again, the soup is not difficult.  It’s a classic pairing, and easy to make, and as long as you’re willing to puree and push it through a fine strainer, the work is minimal.

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Yield: 6 portions

Ingredients:

1/2 lb fresh broccoli, stems and florettes
2 crowns broccoli, blanched until tender, reserved for garnish
1/4 lb (or 1 stick) unsalted organic butter
1/4 to 1/2 cup flour
1 1/4 cup cup grated carrot (reserve the 1/4 cup)
pinch nutmeg
1/2 lb sharp yellow cheddar, grated
1/2 yellow, medium dice
2 cups half and half
2 cups prepared chicken stock
Kosher salt
cracked black pepper

Method:

In a small stock pot, begin melting the butter.  Add the onion and cook until translucent.  Add the flour and stir until all butter has been absorbed.  Start with 1/4 cup and add flour as needed.  Slowly begin adding the chicken stock, whisking continuously.  Once the chicken stock has been added, add the half and half and whisk until smooth.  Bring to a simmer (do not boil!).  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the nutmeg.  Add the broccoli and carrot and cook over low heat (barely simmering) for about 20 minutes.  Puree in a bar blender and strain through a fine mesh strainer.  Return to the pot and return to a simmer.  Whisk in the cheese.  Reseason.  Add the reserved carrot and reserved broccoli for garnish.

Serve.

Of course, my recommendation is to either serve this in a bread bowl, or with good, very crusty bread (sourdough or french boule or baguette is best).  Maybe an extra turn of the pepper grinder, and you’re done.

Enjoy.

Lebanese Tuna Salad

It’s interesting when you take a dish that seems so ‘American’, and interpret it in a different, unexpected way.  Or discover an international dish that utilizes an ingredient we’re comfortable with, and makes it new and incredible all over again.

Canned tuna is, for me, one of these ingredients.  We’re used to it as tuna salad.  Mayonnaise, celery, red onion, and that’s it, call it a day and make a sandwich.  Once in a while we’ll pair it with pasta and call it tuna noodle casserole, and when we feel very adventurous, we’ll find it on a salad Nicoise.

I’ve recently been experimenting more with eastern Mediterranean/Lebanese ingredients, and have managed to discover probably the best tuna salad I have ever had.  It’s different, ie not the ‘normal’ mayonnaise based salad we know.  It incorporates some of the incredible and delicious flavors of Lebanon and Armenia, with a central ingredient that we all seem to agree is delicious.

What other ingredients do we love about that region of the world?   Caramelized onions, toasted pine nuts, sesame, bitter herbs such as parsley and mint, toasted flat breads, olives and olive oils, lemons…. the list goes on.  Mix these items together, and the path for success is paved.  Pick a great central ingredient, and you’re on your way.  Tuna, for whatever reason, pairs exceptionally well, and is yet somehow lost among the heaps of tabouleh, kabobs, and hummus spreads that we love so much.  

I tried this once (cooked and ate), and remembered that it needed to go into my repertoire  immediately.   I would love to share this with you, and I hope you have the same pleasant surprise I did.

Lebanese Tuna Salad

Prep time: 10 Minutes
Cook time: 30 Minutes
Yield: 6 portions

Ingredients:

2 medium sized yellow onions, thin sliced
1/8 cup pine nuts, toasted
3 cans albacore tuna, well drained
1/2 bunch parsley, rough chop
1/4 cup kalamata olives, slivered
3-4 tbsp tahini paste, well mixed
1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 clove garlic, smashed and minced
1/8 tsp ground cumin
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 English cucumber, seeds removed, small dice
2 ripe tomatoes, seeds removed, small dice
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt
cracked black pepper

Method:

In a heavy bottomed saute pan, caramelize the onions in a little olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper.  Caramelize them slowly, making sure they are cooked all the way through, very sweet and tender.  Let them cool completely.

In a mixing bowl, add the tahini, garlic, yogurt, lemon juice, and cumin.  Add the tuna and mix well.  Mix in the cucumber, tomato, caramelized onions, parsley and olives.  Add enough olive oil to coat everything lightly and evenly.  Add the pine nuts.  Season with salt and pepper.

Toast the flat bread in olive oil, and serve with the tuna salad.  This is great with additional ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, mint leaves and lettuce.

Enjoy.

My Chicken Salad

I love chicken salad.  Few things disappoint me more than a poorly made chicken salad.  You know what I mean.  Tough, bland chicken, lack of seasoning, tons of mayo to compensate…  you feel queasy after the 2nd bite.  There’s no flavor, no layering, no balance, no love; nothing but boiled chicken and mayo (and sometimes a little celery if you’re lucky).

Or you can come across something amazing.  Something that will enchant you, dazzle you, and make you love chicken salad again. Something truly unique.  I think to think my chicken salad will do just that.  Or come close.

If you look at the components of chicken salad, you will by default be breaking it down into individual flavor profiles.  This is, once again, the beginning of flavor layering and finding the coveted balance we want to achieve.

Great chicken salad begins with great chicken.  There are so many ways you can cook the chicken, and each one done properly will yield a unique and wonderful flavor.  Perfect roast, grill, poach, braise, and so on.  I like to roast the chicken for chicken salad, which in itself builds tremendous flavor.  Mayonnaise is necessary, but mayonnaise is of course rich, creamy and will easily overpower a dish.  So we balance it.  Add lemon juice, olive oil, a little mustard, and spices.  Adding and relying on natural and diverse flavors will allow you to use minimal mayonnaise.  Use it only as a binder; the ‘finishing’ element.  With chicken, mayo, lemon juice, and dijon mustard, eggs are a natural pair.  So a couple of hard boiled eggs will compliment everything in the salad with perfection and finesse.

My personal touch is the addition of fresh tarragon and a few slivered red grapes.  Tarragon and grapes are a very classic (and French) pair, and they make the chicken salad light, add more diversity of flavor, and keep your palette pleasantly entertained.  Put everything together, and you have a great, very unique, balanced, and very delicious chicken salad.

Chicken Salad

Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Inactive cook time: 3 hours
Yield: 6 portions

Ingredients:

2 whole free range organic chickens, legs only removed
6 sprigs thyme
3 lemons, cut in half
1/2 bunch tarragon
10 red grapes
extra virgin olive oil
3 large organic eggs
2 tbsp dijon mustard
1 tbsp paprika
1 bunch scallions, fine chop
1/2 bunch celery, small dice
1 head garlic, cut in half
1/2 red onion, small dice
prepared heavy mayonnaise (hellmanns is best)
kosher salt
cracked black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

Method:

Heat an oven to 450 degrees.  Lightly oil the chickens, liberally salt and pepper them inside and out.  Cut 1 lemon in half, squeeze the juice over the chickens, place the squeezed half in the cavity along with 3 sprigs of thyme and the garlic.  Place the chickens in an elevated roasting pan or a sheet pan lined with a wire rack.  Roast for about 45 minutes, or until internal temp reads 155.  Chicken should be golden brown.  Remove from oven, and let cool.  When you cool the chickens, make sure you leave all the meat on the bone.  They will retain more juice and flavor that way.

While the chicken is cooling, cook the eggs.  Place the eggs in a sauce pot, cover with cold water, add a generous pinch of salt and bring to a simmer.  Simmer for 10 minutes, turn heat off and let sit for another 8 minutes.  Drain and refresh eggs under cold water.  Peel and slice thin.  Reserve.

After cooling the chickens, remove the skin and coarsely shred the meat, by hand or with 2 forks.  Save the bones for stock later on.

Place the chicken in a large mixing bowl with the celery, scallions, tarragon, onion, juice of the remaining 2 lemons, and eggs.  Add enough olive oil to make the ingredients ‘glisten’, or shine (add enough to evenly coat everything).  Salt and pepper liberally.  Add the paprika, cayenne and mustard and mix well.  Add just enough mayonnaise to lightly coat everything.  You will probably find that about 1/2 cup is adequate.  Remember, start with less than you think you will need.  You can always add later on, but you can never remove.  Check the seasoning, and adjust where you feel necessary (mostly likely if it needs anything, it will be salt, or additional lemon juice).  Add the sliced grapes.

Place in a shallow platter and garnish with a sprinkle of paprika, maybe a sprig of tarragon, or grapes.  In my opinion, the best way to serve this is with French croissants, Boston lettuce and sliced vine ripe tomatoes.  But it’s your dish, serve it in whatever way makes you happy.

Enjoy.

The balance in food: Hummus

I have spent a lot of time, in a lot of posts, talking about balance.  Though it is not necessarily fundamental in culinary, it can, in my opinion, be the measure by cooks are evaluated.  When a new cook steps into my kitchen, we usually have a try – out day (stage we call it).  Sit down, get the interview over with, ask the basic questions, go through the motions.  At the end, if we’re still interested, the next step is cooking.  Get the guy in the kitchen and see what he’s all about.  A chef will not hire a cook who cannot cook, or who’s food lacks in basic flavor.  That means the end result, the food being presented, has to have all the right components.  Proper ingredient pairing, cooking technique appropriate to ingredient selection/final product, demonstrating a solid grasp of the chosen technique, ability to flavor, and ability to balance a dish.  Get it right, get the job.

Balance is the last step.  It really shows experience, a developed palate  and attention to detail.   Trying to describe balance via a blog is tough, but to give you an example, let me illustrate the following:

Here you are, making a thick bisque style soup.  Maybe lobster bisque.  Lobster bisque isn’t easy, but you’re ambitious.  You follow the steps I gave you, omitting nothing (http://chefnotebook.blogspot.com/2012/08/lobster-biqsue.html), and you are at the final stage.  The last and final seasoning.  And it tastes bland.  What do you do?  Panic?

No, but clearly, something is missing.  You cannot blame me, I told you to check the seasoning.  Okay, so step by step, break down the flavor profile and identify the problem.  Chances are, you need to add salt.  So add salt until the flavor is developed.  Your brain is telling you not to add any more salt.  Better?  Quite, but still something missing.  Acid?  Does it need to be brighter, do flavor need to ‘pop’?  Squeeze a lemon in there. Maybe it needs a hint of heat, like a shake or two of cayenne pepper.

In other words, now it’s good- really good.  Good enough to ‘wow’ your guests. You enhanced the flavor.  But now you’re asking yourself, what will make this better?  Is it as good as it can possibly be?  Is there anything, anything at all, that will make this a little better?  And when your answer is no, you know balance has been achieved.  That’s what I used to tell my young cooks.

That is attention to detail.  That is cooking.  That is teaching yourself that balance is really the art of making food delicious.  You cannot cook great food without tasting it throughout the entire cooking process.  Tasting food is critical.  It separates the three and four star restaurants.  Cooks hate it when a chef tastes their food.  They know that if they themselves did not taste it (the cooks), it’s probably wrong, and will have to make it again. That’s the gig.

Balance is tough, but when you start small and work up (start with the glazed carrots and work up the lobster bisque) you’ll develop your palate.  You’ll learn what’s missing, or what will ‘complete’ your dish.  You’ll learn how to build flavor in steps.  You will be better, produce better results, and all of a sudden, you’re cooking with finesse.

Hummus is a great example of a food that requires a great deal of balance.  I suggest adding hummus to a lot of dishes, but you’ll notice, I have never included a recipe.  This is because hummus is not a recipe friendly dish.  Yeah, sure, 2 cups of cooked garbanzo beans, 1/2 cup tahini, etc etc, but hummus, real hummus is made with a certain touch, a certain sense of flavor that requires the cook to on top of his game.  So I will give you my hummus recipe, but bare in mind, balance is crucial, fundamental even, and if you aren’t confident in your ability to taste food and make a decision – what does it need!?! I would hold off on this and develop your palate until you’re ready.

Roasted Garlic Hummus

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 1/2 hour
Inactive cook time: 1 hr
Yield: 2 1/2 cups

Ingredients:

2 heads fresh garlic
extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 cups fully cooked and drained garbanzo beans
1/2 cup tahini, well mixed
1 bunch scallions, green part only, thin sliced
3 tbsp smoked paprika
kosher salt
cracked black pepper
1/4 cup roasted sesame oil

Method:

Cut the garlic heads in half and place them in a small, heavy bottom, sauce pot.  Barley cover them with oil and salt liberally.  Bring to a low simmer, and cook, low heat, and until extremely tender and slightly browned.  Remove garlic from oil, let cool, and cool the oil.  Reserve the oil (this will take about an hour).

In the bowl of a food processor, add the garbanzo beans, half the lemon juice, paprika, tahini, sesame oil, a liberal amount of salt, black pepper and the scallions.  Squeeze the garlic into the bowl.  Run the machine, slowly adding the garlic oil until a very smooth paste is created.  You will need to scrape down the edges several times.  Now is the tricky part.  Taste the hummus.  What does it need.  If it’s bland, right away, add more salt and lemon juice.  Add more paprika if necessary.  It should be very smooth, so if it’s gritty, add more garlic oil.  Like the sesame, but not getting enough?  Add more sesame oil and a little more salt.  Keep trying it and adding what your brain is telling you to add until it’s delicious.  Don’t try to replicate hummus someone else made at a restaurant.  This is yours, so keep at it until you like it.

Serve with anything and everything wonderful hummus.  Grilled pita with olive oil, roasted olives, roasted pepper salad with sherry vinegar, or use it as a side.  Whatever you choose, I’m positive it will be wonderful.

Enjoy.

History of Italy: Pasta

Italian cuisine.  Two words, and think about how many feelings, thoughts and memories are immediately evoked.  Great bowls of pasta and salad served with friends and family, wonderful nights out at small restaurants, little glasses of red wine, and hours upon hours happily spent in the kitchen, working while great jazz is playing, making the food that seems to be so familiar to so many of us.

Real Italian food is a genuine mis-match of ancient and very regional cuisines, that blended as Italy emerged from its unconnected system of city-states.  Though small, Italy has enough natural barriers to create micro-climates, distinct growing climates and kept people in relative isolation for centuries.  Think how isolated and different Sicily must have been from Rome, or the Alpine villages.  During the height of the Roman empire, an incredible amount of culture was forced onto Italy.  Persians brought their ingredients and influence as they made their way through the Mediterranean sea.  The ancient Greek civilization was right in Italy’s back yard, and they had a great deal to do with the development of Italian cuisine.  The African and European conquests brought back people and ingredients from all over.  Even explorers to the Americas influenced Italy.  Tomatoes were originally brought from the Americans and introduced to the Italians only a few centuries ago.  Prior to that, many Italian sauces were pepper or broth based.  The dry and warm climate was ideal for slow curing meats, yielding some of our favorite things, like Prosciutto.  And of course, the wine, the olives, and the great cheeses… Food has always been paramount to the people of Italy, and their climate is perfect for embracing the craft.  If anything unites Italy, it’s their unique and incredible food and wine.  And you will notice, simple perfection is the key to most authentic Italian recipes.

Pasta is another central figure in Italy’s cuisine.  There is no ‘one’ type of pasta… there are thousands of varieties, each separate from the next.  For example, take a basic pasta.  How many shapes, thickness and different styles of pasta can you create?  Fresh pasta, dry pasta.  And then the ingredients that go into the pasta dough itself.  In the ancient times, pasta dough was no more than flour and water worked and formed into threads or basic noodles (some say this was brought to Italy from Persia as well).  Now, we usually use some sort of egg product.  Some use white wine.  Even the flours used will greatly differentiate the final product.

It all comes down to your taste.  What final product do you want?  Every pasta dough is equally labor intensive to create, so if you’re going to put the work in, consider what you’re working for.  This is where experience is crucial.  Your Italian grandmother will tell you exactly what to put in your dough if she’s making raviolis.  And guaranteed  it will be different than that of papardelle.   And different from linguine.  Experience matters.

In my opinion, pasta dough can be difficult to make and roll, and if it’s an across – the – board, user friendly recipe you’re looking for, than I have the answer.  This pasta is can be characterized as ‘indestructible’, and can be made into almost any shape pasta you can dream.  It rolls well, holds up to vigorous molding, and keeps excellent texture after having been boiled to al dente.  I learned this a long time ago (maybe 8 years now) and it is still my go-to pasta dough.  This is the dough in restaurant quantity, I would suggest scaling it in half.

Pasta Dough

Prep time: 30 minutes
Inactive time:  1 hours
Yield:  15-20 portions pasta

Ingredients:

1 kg semolina flour (organic prefered)
28 egg yolks (organic prefered)
2 whole eggs (organic prefered)
1 tbsp whole milk
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (use good quality)
1 tsp kosher salt

Method:

Place everything in a stand mixer fitting with the dough hook.  Run machine on low until a dough forms.  Turn dough out onto a well floured work surface and knead, by hand, until very firm and smooth.  This is a lot of work, but take your time and resign yourself to it.  It’s worth it.  Wrap dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour.  This allows the flour time to properly absorb the liquid (you can use a vacuum packager and the dough will be ready immediately).

Cut dough into quarters.  Work one quarter at a time, making sure to keep the other pieces well wrapped (otherwise a dry crust will form, and this will never go away).  Using a pasta machine, roll dough to desired thickness, and cut into desired shape.

It’s a lot of work, but it’s the best fresh pasta dough (best fresh pasta) I have ever had, and is worth every laborious second.

Enjoy.