Wednesday, February 27, 2008

How Starbucks Helps You Cook

A darkness lay upon the land.

Theaters were filled with silence, "The Silence of the Lambs"; a future governor of California was shaping his anti-crime platform in "Terminator 2:Judgment Day". Music was desperate, R.E.M had Lost its Religion, and an upright, lucid Paula Abdul climbed the charts with "Rush, Rush". Technology could not save us, cell phones were actually the size of, well, phones.

It was 1991. The horror, the horror.

Little did we know, the worst was yet to come. Out of the Pacific Northwest came a relentless, merciless beast, forcing us all to speak in tongues and crushing anyone fool hardy enough to stand in its way.


In a simpler time, the 80's, you could walk into a restaurant, diner, donut shop or bakery and order a cup of coffee. It would take you a few seconds and cost you a few cents. You could have your coffee one of four ways: black, with cream, with sugar, with cream and sugar (a regular). You could have it in two sizes, regular or large.

That would all change. Soon we were all entering the Church of St. Arabica, approaching its caffeinated altar and beseeching its high priest for dispensation. The barista, arms flailing, transformed water and grounds into elixir. But only if we chanted the right way. "I'd like a grande,double shot, non-fat, no foam, decaf latte. No forget that, make it a vente vanilla frappucino, or no,no how about a macchiato." "Of course, that'll be $3.00 please."

Ah, for the days of coffee, black, and two crullers.

Well crablings, the point of that introduction was to show you that you can quickly learn and apply a few words of a foreign language. Good, because today's lesson is in French. We're going to learn one phrase and one word that are key to any good cooking experience.

First, in French it's mirepoix (mere-poo-wa), in Italian it's soffritto, in Portuguese it's refogado, in English it's chopped onion, celery and carrots. French cooks call it the holy trinity; it is the base flavor for most gravies, sauces, stews and soups. The standard ratio is two parts onion, one part celery and one part carrot. The vegetables will be either sauteed in butter or roasted in the pan with the meat. When roasting, be careful not to overcrowd the pan. You'll end up steaming the vegetables instead of caramelizing (browning) them. Brown is good, brown means that you've brought out the natural sugars in the mirepoix, brown means flavor. Caramelized vegetables and a nice roast puts you 95% of the way to great gravy. Get comfortable with mirepoix, we're going to use it a lot.

Our French phrase of the day is "mise en place" (meez-un-plas), French translation, "set-in-place". My translation, "making sure you've got all your s**t together, including all the food (cleaned and prepped), spices, pots, pans, and utensils ready to go and within arm's reach before you actually start cooking". This is one of the major keys to success in the kitchen.

Most meals are won or lost during the preparation phase. I've ruined more than a few dinners because I had to go rooting around for a spice or last minute addition that I couldn't find at a critical moment. If everything is cut, cleaned and measured out before you start, all you have to worry about is the actual cooking. Chinese cooking is probably the best example of mise-en-place in action. All the work is in the prep, after that it only takes a minute or two of high heat to make a great flavorful meal.

Crabby Homework Assignment: Before you prepare your next dinner, I want you to measure out everything you're going to need. I want you to lay out whatever pots, pans, spatulas, tongs or cooking utensils you're going to use. I want it all within a half step of where you're going to cook. Then, when everything is in place, check the time and start cooking, check the time again when you're finished. I think you'll be surprised how little time it actually takes to cook a meal.

OK crablings, next time we're making a quick soup, until then, just remember, you can do it, you can cook.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

On Poodles, Pots and Pork Roast

My mother-in-law Jeanne has a toy poodle named Henri. Henry is approximately 8 pounds of hair and attitude.

Two years ago my in-laws were planning to spend some extended time in the Caribbean and Henri wasn't going to be able to make the trip. While the official story is that there was some confusion regarding his immunization record, there has always been a nagging suspicion that in our post 9/11 world, Homeland Security had placed Henri on its "no-fly" list. Regardless of the reason, Henri came to live with us. What made the experience interesting is that Seashell Sal has always been allergic to animals, yet for some inexplicable reason she was perfectly fine around him (I know, I know, everyone says poodles are OK for allergy sufferers).

A visit that was supposed to be a few weeks turned into nearly three months. In fact it went so well that when it came time for Hank to go home, we decided to get our own poodle. You'll be hearing about Marley in the future (by the way, he's named after Bob the singer, not that spastic dog from the book).

As a thank you gift, Jeanne bought me an oval, 6 3/4 Quart, cast iron, enamel coated Le Creuset Dutch Oven. While it took me some time to get fully acclimated to the pot, it's become one of my indispensable tools in the kitchen. The pot is versatile, heavy and retains its heat superbly. At 6 3/4 quarts it can handle a 5 lb. chicken, a 5 - 6 rib pork roast, any kind of soup and undoubtedly an eight pound toy poodle, though that would be a recipe for another day.

Le Creuset products are expensive. But it's my personal opinion that you're better off buying a few high quality pieces instead of repeatedly spending money on throw away products. You'll have this pot forever. You'll leave it to your kids. They can bury you in it. The uses are endless. I'm sure other people make good enamel coated cast iron products, but I've only had experience with Le Creuset. I'm a fan, if you get one you will be as well.

Today's recipe is from The Silver Spoon Cookbook
(Phaidon Press). It's my understanding that this cookbook is the Italian equivalent of The Joy of Cooking, it's a great book and we'll be seeing a number of recipes from it.

Roast Pork with Orange
Arrosto All'Arancia

Serves 4

3 Tablespoons Butter
1 cup Orange Juice (strained)
1 teaspoon orange rind
1 garlic clove, chopped
Pinch of Red Flakes (more or less depending on how spicy you like things)
Pinch of dried oregano
4 rib Frenched Pork Loin roast (Frenched means the ends of the bones have been scraped clean)
Salt and Pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 deg. Melt the butter in a pot, add the orange juice, orange rind, garlic, red pepper flakes and oregano. Rub the roast with salt and pepper. Place the roast in a dutch oven (uncovered) or in a roasting pan. Pour on the butter and juice mixture. Baste occasionally while roasting. Remove from the oven after 1 1/2 hours. Lightly cover the roast with foil and let rest for 10 - 15 minutes. Carve, serve with potatoes and steamed asparagus. Sit back and bask in your new found talent.

Wine ideas: German Riesling, California Sauvignon Blanc or California Merlot

Sorry no pictures today, if you've done it right, and you have if you've followed the directions, the roast will have a glossy brown color and the potatoes will have an almost candied flavore.

Tip 1: You can do the same thing we did with the chicken and place small potatoes under the pork and roast them together.

Tip 2: You can go half lemon juice and half orange juice in the butter for a bit more bite.

Prep Time: 15 Minutes
Active Cooking Time: 5 minutes (melting butter, come on how hard is that?)
Passive Cooking Time: 1 1/2 hours
Clean-Up: One roasting pan and the pot for the butter.

OK crablings, that's it for meal number two. Go forth and roast. You may have noticed I've added a link to Amazon on the side bar. You can get the cookbook and all sorts of Le Creuset stuff there if you're interested. See you in few days, until then...

Remember, you can do it, you can cook.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

About me and a Roast Chicken

I am a grouch.

A grump.

A middle-aged squawker and complainer. If you tell me the glass is half full I'll tell you what's probably floating in the other half. While you see a warm spring day I see mosquito bites and a sunburn. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate life, I'm not (especially) pessimistic, I just like to complain about things. Some people like to golf or fish, I like to grouse.

One of my biggest sore spots is food, specifically home cooking.

OK! here's the first ever CrabbyQuestion:

Q. What human activity do we all take part in more often than any other?

A. We eat.

Now one of you smarty-pants types out there is going to say something like breathe or go to the bathroom. Well breathing isn't optional and if you include between meal snacks I'm pretty sure that eating and bathroom breaks are a dead heat. No, when it comes to voluntary activities, nothing beats eating. But here's the CrabbyCook's complaint, we all do it but very few of us are willing to take the time or effort to try and do it well.

How many times have you heard someone say something like:

"Oh, I just don't have the time to cook, and when I do I'm really horrible."


CrabbyQuestion 2:

Q. Is there any other activity where people are so proud that they're lousy?

A. Not a chance!

How many times have you heard someone say, "Oh, I'm a terrible parent.", or "I have got to be the world's worst driver.", or "I'm just lousy in the bedroom." You know how many times?, close to never. But when it comes to food we're more than willing to wallow in our own ineptitude.

Well that's changing today. Listen up crablings, from now on, until I get bored with posting, I'm going to show you how I cook. On top of that I'll try and teach you about what equipment you need to have, what should always be in your cupboards and what wines go with what foods. I'll warn you about how much prep work goes into a meal, how much actual cooking goes on and best of all how much clean-up is involved.

There'll be a cast of characters helping me along the way. There'll be "Seashell Sal" who'll handle dessert and bread baking (that's a bit complex so we won't be getting there for a while). You'll meet "Wine Wizard Bob", who will be my go-to source for all wine questions (I'll even give you directions to his store). With a little luck I'll pick up a few more helpers along the way.

Now the basics. I'll try and post three times a week. No guarantees, but that's the goal. Most, but not all posts will have a recipe included. I'll try and post photos of the process. I'll review cookbooks, restaurant experiences, TV chefs and kitchen tools.

Finally, I'm basically a carnivore. I will post recipes for soups, vegetables, grains and pastas, but my primary area of interest is meat: chicken, beef, pork, fish, lamb, duck and game. I'll show you my tricks and my cheats, those things that make the process a little easier and faster. If you have questions or comments, post them. If you have recipes you want me to try, post them.

Alright, let's get started. One of my favorite meals, especially on a cold Sunday afternoon, is Roast Chicken. Nothing could be easier. Prep time is virtually non-existent, and
active (more on that later) cooking time is as close to zero as you get.

Roast Chicken

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.


1 Roasting Chicken (4-5 lbs.)
4 Tbsp Butter softened to room temperature
1 Lemon
1 Tbsp each of dried Sage & Thyme

Place the chicken in a roasting pan (if you have one, put the bird on a roasting rack first). Rub the bird down with the softened butter (if you forget to take out the butter, zap it in the microwave for 10 seconds and then, using a spoon, spread it on the bird). Sprinkle the bird with salt, pepper and the dried herbs. Finally, cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice over the bird. Place the lemon halves in the cavity of the bird. Wash your hands.

Put the bird in the oven and roast for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes turn down the oven to 375 deg., roast for an additional 45-55 minutes. Go have a glass of wine. After an hour, remove from the oven and cover with a piece of foil for 10 minutes. Don't skip the resting step. The juices are bubbling away in the chicken, if you cut into it right away they'll just run all over the cutting board instead of staying in the chicken.

Carve. Pour pan juices over the chicken (gravy is for another posting). Eat.

Bask in your new found ability.

Wine Recommendation: White - California Chardonnay either a J. Lohr for about $16 or a Rombauer for $35 (for you big spenders). Red - California Sanford Pinot Noir at $25

Tip 1: Have the chicken out for 30-45 minutes before you work on it. The closer it is to room temperature the faster and more evenly it will cook.

Tip 2: Thick slice some potatoes (1/2" - 3/4" thick) and place them under the bird along with some carrot chunks, it's a quick way to add some vegetables to the meal and have fewer things to clean afterwards.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Active Cooking Time: 2 minutes (come on, how long does it take to put a pan in the oven?)
Passive Cooking Time: 1 Hour
Clean-up: Easy to Moderate (you may have to scour the roasting pan)

That's it crablings, your first recipe. I'll be back soon.

Just remember, you can do it. You
can cook!