Monday, March 30, 2009

One of our followers recently asked: What makes professional cooks’ food so much better that home cooks’?

This is a great question, one I’m sure we’ll revisit in the future.

The first thing that comes to mind is salt. From what I’ve seen and tasted, home cooks just don’t use enough of it. When I see home cooks reach for it, they pinch tiny amounts like it’s poison or worse, shake salt shakers vigorously. (and I’m still not sure anything comes out).

Salt is immensely important in cooking. It enhances flavor and in many instances, it changes how food cooks. It’s the only rock we eat directly. And of the four tastes our tongues can perceive, (sweet, sour, bitter, salty) salt is the only thing that produces . . . well . . . salty.
Of all the choices on the shelf, kosher salt is my go to. Its crystals are larger than table salt and so, make for easier pinching. I don’t use a shaker and definitely not a salt grinder. Grinders are great for volatile spices like black pepper whose flavor dissipates minutes after grinding, but for a mineral (salt) fresh grinding doesn’t make a bit of difference.

For adding it directly to food I always have a small bowl in the kitchen. I take a small bit between my middle and index fingers and my thumb, and rubbing them together, dust its magic. Four to six inches above its destination is best. Too close, and you risk uneven distribution, detrimental to slim items like fish filets. Too far and you loose control of where it falls, never a good thing.

Now be liberal with the stuff, but not too liberal. You can always add a little at the end. Just keep in mind the surface to mass ratio. For that fish filet, not too much, but for a big fat steak you’ll need a little more.

To cook with salt, it takes even more. When boiling water for pasta or blanching go salty, about one tablespoon per quart. For vegetables, in addition to making them taste better, it helps them retain color. For pasta, the water is the only chance you get to season the pasta itself.

The implied principle, and the real answer to this question, is this. All aspects of a dish or meal need to be seasoned properly from the start. If you forget to salt your pasta water, you can’t really compensate by adding more salt to your sauce. While it seems like it should balance itself out, you still end up with salty sauce over bland pasta. . . . not so good. Restaurant cooks have a firm grasp on this concept, and I think it is one of the reasons restaurant food tends to stand out over the average home cook’s.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How do I make a good chestnut stuffing?

Chestnut Stuffing

8 Cups Rustic/Crusty Bread that is stale, dry or toasted. Cut into 1 ½ inch cubes
2 cups Onions large dice
1 cup Carrot large dice
1 cup Celery large dice
1 cup Chestnuts roughly chopped
4 tbsp Garlic chopped
1 cup White Wine
4 cups Chicken Stock (or 1 box)
2 tbsp Chestnut Honey
4 Tbsp Sage roughly chopped

Salt and Pepper to taste

1. Sauté the onions, carrots, and celery on medium heat until soft and slightly browned.
2. Add the garlic and chestnuts to the sauté, stirring vigorously for one minute or so.
3. Add the white wine and chicken stock and bring it to a low boil. Simmer for a few minutes and be sure to scrape the bottom of the for any delicious bits that might be stuck.
4. Turn off the flame and stir in the chestnut honey and sage. Let it steep for five minutes. Smell and taste this soupy mixture at this point, It should taste great and smell amazing.
5. In a large bowl, add this mixture to the bread and incorporate it well. Spread it out the 9.5" x 16" baking dish and make sure it settles (but don’t squish it down).
6. Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes, it should be nicely browned and crispy on top.

So, we might be a little late for stuffing, but I also sometimes drink in the early afternoon. I say if it feels good, eat it . . . or whatever. That said, let’s make a little thanksgiving dinner . . . . in March.

Starting with the chestnut stuffing. I followed the recipe above almost to a T. Just keep in mind that it is a functional guideline more than a doctrine. I bought fresh bread for this. So to dry it out I laid it out on sheet pans in the oven at 300 degrees for 15-20 minutes and then (without opening the door) shut off the oven and left it in there to dry. I used jarred chestnuts for this, though canned (in syrup)would be fine as well, or even freshly roasted if you have the time and they’re in season. The key ingredient to this recipe, though, is the chestnut honey, and I added a little more than my own recipe calls for. Just use it carefully, because it is very strong stuff.

Next I made a sage roasted chicken. Stuff the butter and sage under the skin. To reach the legs, make two incisions on the back, for the breasts you can scoot in from the head end, just try to avoid separating the skin from the breastbone, as it acts as an anchor. Season it well with salt and pepper and roast it in the same 375 degree oven. This took about 40 minutes, but to test the doneness, insert a pairing knife at the hip joint, if the juices run out clear then you goose is cooked or chicken in this case.

For a veg, I simply roasted half of a kabocha squash in the spirit of this recipe.

To top it all off I made quick cognac and chestnut gravy, but that’s a whole other blog entry. . . .

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Do you guys ever do cooking demos?

Maybe you missed it...but that's okay because you are going to hear aaaaaall about it. Yep, Grill-A-Chef recently gave their first cooking demo in the Chelsea Market and it was a great success. So much that they will probably happen about once a month, so stay tuned! Some of the Market's vendors were kind enough to donate a bunch of beautiful ingredients and they were cooked up and shared with everyone and anyone who came by.
The theme of the event was 'Tuna-Two-Ways' and each chef created a dish that would show off the quick, easy versatility of tuna. In one recipe, a high quality canned tuna starred in a Mediterranean salad and for the other, slices of fresh, pan-seared tuna were draped over seasoned rice noodles. A fabulous wine pairing included a full bodied Catalonian white which accompanied the bright salad and a slightly sweet Riesling that perfectly grounded the spicy Thai flavors.
For the tuna salad, Chef Josh chose an Italian tuna packed in olive oil. The tuna itself is much darker and meatier than standard canned tuna with flavor so rich, it is truly the next best thing to fresh. This healthy gourmet version of the lunchtime standard need not be smothered by condiments in order to be delicious. The crowd was pleased as Josh tossed together a few simple and classic ingredients (staying true to the tuna's European roots) such as capers, olives, tomatoes and mounded it onto bread rounds... recipe below.
On the other side of the cutting board, Chef Ori butchered the tuna steaks into medallions and quickly seared them in a hot cast iron skillet. The (cooked) noodles were drizzled with a homemade dressing and with few sliced veggies tossed in, a complete meal is born.

For the Salad:
1 pound fresh tuna cut into 8 rectangles
2 tablespoons canola or other high heat oil
6 ounces rice noodles* (cooked as directed on the package)
1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
2 scallions, thinly sliced
2 carrots, grated
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup sesame seeds

For the Sauce:
1 clove garlic
1 small red chili or 1/2 jalapeno pepper
5 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 lime, juiced
salt and pepper

• Make sauce: Mince the garlic and chili and place in a lidded container. Add the other sauce ingredients and put the lid on. Shake vigorously until all ingredients are well combined. Adjust seasoning. (You can also make in a blender/processor.)
• Cook tuna: Heat oil to almost smoking over a high heat. Sprinkle tuna pieces with salt and pepper. Lay pieces in the hot pan and sear on each side briefly until desired temperature (just a few seconds on each side for rare, longer for medium, etc).
• Assemble salad: Pour half of the sauce over the cooked, drained noodles, divide between (4) plates. Toss remaining salad ingredients and the rest of the sauce together and arrange on top of noodles. Top with seared tuna. Serves 4.
* Look for the thin, clear rice noodles also labeled ‘vermicelli’. Can usually be prepared by soaking in hot water until softened.

12 ounces tuna packed in oil from a can or jar, drained
2 tablespoons red onion, chopped
1 teaspoon capers, chopped
¼ cup kalamata olives, pitted
2 teaspoon chopped parsley
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 lemon, juiced
salt and pepper to taste

• One step only! Simply mix the prepared ingredients together in a bowl and enjoy!

Thx to: Chelsea Market, The Lobster Place, Chelsea Thai, Manhattan Fruit Exchange, Buon Italia, the Cleaver Company and Chelsea Wine Vault for the stellar libations:

Also big blog thx to: Matt for being a helper and Jeremy for the photos!
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