Kerry: 1 Lobsters: 0

Braising

Roasted Rabbit with Israeli Couscous

I am writing this post with bandaids on two fingers of my left hand, making typing an interesting exercise, as well as numerous other nicks and small burns just about everywhere else. BUT today in an epic battle of me versus two lobsters, I came out victorious, making all the blood, bandaids and pain totally worth it.

Over the last month and a half, I have worked my way through module 2 (think semesters), which taught me how to sauté, pan-fry, deep-fry, grill, roast, braise, stew, poach, and garde manger (salads and sandwiches). While I’ve done a lot of those before, as I’m sure most of you have, it was very cool to learn the right techniques and we made (and ate) some seriously good food.

Today begins the part of the curriculum I’ve probably most been looking forward to: international cuisine. So we found ourselves in Brittany and Normandy in the Northwest region of France. And this is where my battle with the lobsters begins. Homard à l’Américaine (think a thicker lobster bisque served surrounded by a rice donut – the French culinary masters just collectively rolled over in their graves) was on the menu.  We’ve made lobster bisque and other lobster preparations, but blessedly we work in teams and for whatever fortuitous reason (read: I begged it off on others), I haven’t had to actually fabricate the lobster. Debone a pork shoulder? Sure! Filet those 5 fish? No problem! Remove the fat cap and French those lamb chops? Why not? But for whatever reason, lobster terrified me. I remember being a kid and having lobster races on summer family vacations. I wasn’t scared of these giant roaches then, so I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly when this fear materialized. I would perhaps attribute it to the time Simon and I bought live lobsters in Chinatown who we swear had some sort of aggressive lobster rabies, since even an hour in the fridge did not calm these guys down. Simon and I spent an hour at least running around our 3’x5’ kitchen with tongs shrieking like children as the lobsters, against all laws of gravity and brain capacity, attempted to escape from our sink. Alternately, it could be when I saw cockroaches with greater regularity than I would ever want to really admit in my 5th floor, Hell’s Kitchen walk-up (Disclaimer: I lived above a Chinese restaurant, an Indian restaurant, and a bar. We could have kept all of our food in cryovac containers and roaches would have happened.), and I would just stand over the biggest roach I’d ever seen (every time) weeping until my roommate would wake up and handle it for me. And I’ve watched enough Alton Brown to know that lobsters are the roaches of the sea.

Anyway, regardless of the root of this fear, in killing and dismembering the lobster today I managed to avoid weeping and consider that a huge win. The new chef teaching module 3 today did ask me at one point if I was ok. I had inadvertently (and unbeknownst to me) let out a small shriek, when defying all logic and invoking thoughts of “The Walking Dead,” the lobster continued to move despite being torn apart in my hands. I told her that the lobster juice (innards?) had got me in the eye. I didn’t think explaining my theory of zombie lobsters was really the first impression that I wanted to make.

My mold was a little structurally unsound...
My mold was a little structurally unsound…

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Goodbye-to-Summer Panzanella Salad

Panzanella Salad

Summer is over. Waking up today to 55 degree weather (after a week peppered with 80+ degree days) are what my layered-look fantasies are made of. I have yet to meet a cardigan I don’t want on my person. I make this recipe fairly regularly, as it’s one of Simon’s favorites, but it’s really at its best in the summer when tomatoes are at their peak and need very little else outside of a sprinkle of salt and some olive oil to be the best thing you’ve ever eaten. Ever. I find this recipe to be amazing mostly because you are eating a “salad” that just also happens to be comprised predominantly of BREAD. My kind of salad. I find this can be a light meal on its own (particularly if you eat an enormous bowl of it), or if you are someone who needs protein for it to count as dinner, you can add a grilled (or broiled, if you’re in a New York apartment, where it’s illegal to own grills) steak or chicken.

Ingredients
4 cups day old freshly baked bread cut into bite-size pieces
3-5 ripe tomatoes depending on size
¼ cup red onion, diced
¼ cup basil torn up
1 ½ cups cut fresh mozzarella (bocconcini or mini mozzarella balls work well here too)
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions
If you are able to keep fresh bread in your house for more than a day, god bless you. Let’s be real though, when I buy bread, I buy it to eat the entire loaf right then and there. If you are in a similar predicament, just purchase fresh bread, coat the cut pieces lightly in olive oil and toast it at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.

In the bowl that you are going to combine all of the ingredients whisk the balsamic vinegar and olive oil until emulsified and add salt and pepper to taste. Core the tomatoes and cut into bite-size pieces. I like to cut wedges in half cross-wise and that’s that. I also keep all the seeds and juice in it because I find it combines with the dressing in a really nice way. If you don’t like the texture of the seeds, feel free to remove them and chop from there. Add cut tomatoes to the emulsified dressing along with diced red onion. The longer the red onion sits in the vinegar dressing, the less bite it will have (and the less red-onion breath you will have later, which, quite honestly, ruins my life, so I try to get them in quickly). Sprinkle tomatoes with a little salt and pepper to make sure that they are well seasoned outside of the general seasoning added to the dressing. Stir to coat.

Add the toasted (or day-old, you people of great willpower) bread to the bowl along with the mozzarella and basil. Continue to mix until everything is fully coated with the dressing. Add salt or pepper to taste as desired.

As the last vestiges of summer wear off and we head into fall (with all its glorious layering options), fresh, deliciously ripe tomatoes are only going to be available for a little while longer, so enjoy quickly!

Exhaustion

The product of learning how to make stock and cook (and clean) shellfish.
The product of learning how to make stock and cook (and clean) shellfish.

Working alternate title for this post: The time I became a really, really bad blogger.

I started the culinary arts on August 21st and it has been exciting and utterly exhausting. Now I had always figured the physical aspect of the arts (standing for 5+ hours at a time, lifting sides of cow and stock pots, playing with knives) would be the really big challenge. And those components have been a challenge to an extent, but what has surprised me probably the most of all, is that it’s pretty grueling written work as well. I have written homework due almost every class, I had to write a research paper on saffron (yeah, you read that right), and had a written test on kitchen sanitation (seriously, I will never look at restaurant food the same way again). All super reasonable things, but also all really unexpected, probably stupidly on my part. I’m learning how to cut specific and consistent shapes, prepare mise en place and stocks, breakdown fish, and clean and cook shellfish. Tomorrow we start deboning chicken, which strikes me as the least appealing thing to deal with at 8am.

I’ve cut the crap out of my thumb twice in class (twice outside of class, but let’s not even talk about that), I have a seriously bruised hand from breaking through the spine of a white striped bass with my knife, and a seriously bruised head from slamming it on a locker (we have a tiny locker room, where all the women in class change together – probably the biggest difference from my previous jobs, where, you know, that would have been WILDLY inappropriate). I’ve seriously considered whether I could do this class and the management class and the consulting I’m doing with my previous job. I’ve cried, specifically over the fractions (ok, ok, and division) I had to relearn – again, let’s not even talk about that – and I’ve gotten far less sleep than I had remotely anticipated.

But then last week we were learning how to caramelize onions. I’ve done this before, much to Simon’s horror, with onions permeating every facet of our 650 square foot apartment, but definitely not with this technique. Our chef instructor, who does not suffer fools (I learned that the hard way – you know the old adage ‘there’s no stupid question’? That is decidedly not the case in this instance), stopped us as our onions were cooking. He had been demonstrating the process of caramelization and the actual reaction that the heat produced within the onions to create this sweet, nutty, and deep flavor, and he just said to us: “This is it guys. This is the beauty of cooking – taking this humble vegetable and applying the right technique to change its very chemistry to create something greater than the sum of its parts.” Now I may be paraphrasing a bit, given the general exhausted haze I tend to operate in and the absolute need for a poetic moment to remind myself why I did this craziness again. But that’s it. There is no cooler feeling than when you put all of these ingredients together and apply the right heat or process or technique, and they become this amazing, almost other-worldy kind of thing. He was right, that’s why I’m doing this.

Well, that, and the free food. Did I mention the free food??

Decadent Stuffed Pork Chops with Cauliflower Mash

Finished Product!

So I have had a little extra time on my hands with the school schedule, so I’ve been able to dedicate a little more time to preparing fabulous dinners. Truthfully, this dish looks like is takes more time and is fancier than it really is (don’t tell anyone).

Ingredients

2 – 10 ounce pork chops (I used boneless, but bone-in would work well – probably better – and keeps the pork moist and flavorful)

1 granny smith apple peeled and diced

1 yellow or white onion thinly sliced

2 ounces crumbled blue cheese (optional)

1 head of cauliflower, florets trimmed and separated

2 tablespoons sour cream

1 tablespoon butter

1 teaspoon chopped garlic (or more to taste)

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Half and half to blend (I got a quart for coffee and used some of it in this – it adds creaminess with less fat – not that I’m really counting, but milk goes bad in our fridge too quickly)

Directions

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees and heat olive oil on medium heat in an oven-safe sauté pan. I will sauté the apples and onions in this AND pan-sear the pork in it. It is my vague attempt at consolidation and not blowing up the kitchen every time I cook. Once the oil is hot, add the onion and season with salt and pepper to taste. Sauté the onions for 3-4 minutes until they start to soften and become translucent and then add the chopped apples. Cook stirring occasionally for 8-10 minutes until completely softened and a little brown.  Remove pan from heat and let it cool a bit. I burn myself constantly (yeah, I know, school should be interesting), but this step at least ensures you won’t burn yourself stuffing the chops. When cooled mix in the crumbled blue cheese if you want to add it (as a note: I’m a bit of a more is more person, particularly when it comes to cheese, but blue cheese can be an overwhelming flavor, so use your judgment if you’re not a huge fan of it).

Cut pockets in the pork for the stuffing. This is as though you were butterflying it (or slicing a baguette for a sandwich). Make sure not to go all the way through and watch your hands! Add apple, onion, blue cheese mix to the pork pockets (well, that sounded gross), use a toothpick or two if it doesn’t stay shut on its own, and liberally salt and pepper each side of the pork. Wipe the pan you sautéed the apples and onions in clean and reheat oil in the now clean pan at medium-high heat. Once hot, lay stuffed pork in the pan, about 3-5 minutes per side to get a good color on each side, then pop in preheated oven until cooked through (about 15-20 minutes).

In the meantime bring 4 quarts water to a boil and add cauliflower. Boil for 10 minutes until tender and drain. Place in food processor along with sour cream, butter, garlic, parsley and blend. Add half and half until it’s the texture you want. I LOVE cauliflower, so I like it to have some texture; to that end, I reserved some smaller florets and threw them on a baking sheet and put them in the oven with the pork until they were crispy and added them to the mashed cauliflower.

To plate, spoon mashed cauliflower on the plate and place some crispy cauliflower pieces on top, then place the cooked piece of pork on top of the mashed cauliflower.  So fast and so delicious.

Enjoy!

Things I Learned My First Week of Culinary School

So I started my Culinary Management program last week. The arts program doesn’t start until August 21st, when I really begin my full-time schedule. So what that has meant is big, fancy dinners for Simon and a fairly leisurely schedule. With the extra time on my hands I have managed to learn a some things in (and out) of school:

  1. 90% of all restaurant goers don’t read the whole menu. This (stupidly) shocked me. So, you mean to tell me that as soon as you know that you’re going out to dinner, you don’t immediately go on the restaurant website (or menu pages or urban spoon or NY Magazine or…) and scope out the menu, making at least 3-4 decisions, which will all immediately be discarded in a panic when the server arrives? Huh, weird.
  2. Which leads me to my homework. Now in the long-term there will be research papers, presentations, business plan creation. You know, like real school. BUT right now, I get to read food media. In fact, I don’t just get to, I have to. So basically, I have to read what I once scoured in an effort to procrastinate real work. Amazing.
  3.  Also amazing: homework also includes going out to dinner. SCORE.
  4.  There is a decided lack of judgment. I kind of thought I’d get to school and the teachers would look down their noses at places that aren’t Le Bernadin. I was actually pretty concerned about that. That said the general lack of judgment has been really refreshing. While of course consistency and ingredients are important, of almost greater import (and perhaps a greater determinant of success) is a good concept.
  5. I don’t have a concept. I mean I have ideas. But I’m sitting next to people, often (I mean majorly) 10 years my junior, who not only have come in with a full-fledged concept, but with location, menu, price point, EVERYTHING figured out. I feel like the slacker, stoner who showed up to class the first day and everyone else but me knew we were supposed to read the first 5 chapters of our textbook.
  6. Having more time on my hands DOES NOT mean you will go to the gym more. In fact, it means that you will not only go to the gym less, but you will start cooking super elaborate dishes under the guise that you’re practicing for school.
  7. When I’m hungover, I really like to cover things in chocolate (Hey, in addition to my first, week, it was also my birthday).  Case and point:

Chocolate-PB-Graham-Nana Sandwich Heaven

My post-birthday treat!
My post-birthday treat!

Ingredients

Graham crackers (depends on how many you want to make, but I made 4 and that required 4 whole graham crackers)

Extra crunchy peanut butter (if extra crunchy makes you want to gag, by all means use creamy or whatever you like. Almond butter or other nut butters would be delish here too!)

3 bananas thinly sliced width-wise

1 bag of semi-sweet baking chocolate chips

Parchment paper (or tin foil)

Directions

Melt bag of chocolate chips in microwave safe bowl in 30 second intervals, mixing after each 30 seconds. Mine took about 90 seconds in total, but use your judgment, if it’s all melted after the 2nd time, don’t put it back in because it gets all burn-y tasting and congealed. No one likes congealed chocolate (though I’m not above eating it).

In the meantime, break the big graham crackers in half. Spread each side with about a teaspoon of peanut butter and lay banana slices in one layer on one side on the PB. Smush the other side PB-side down on the half covered in bananas.

Dip sandwich in melted chocolate. In terms of method, I found holding the sandwich in the middle and dipping each side provided an adequate coating. Then dip fully, turning over with a fork. Shake any excess chocolate off when fully coated and ready for removal.

Put on parchment paper and let solidify in the fridge. If you don’t do this step and dive right in, more power to you, but be sure LOTS of napkins are nearby!

Pretty productive/unproductive first week, I’d say.

Gateway Recipe: Fusilli with Garlic Broccoli Saute

(a.k.a. The Dinner to Make When You Get Home from Work Late)

Quick Pasta Dinner

As typical New Yorkers, my husband and I will get out of work anytime between 6pm and 8pm on any given night (sometimes later, but in those instances, I am not cooking anything). While my husband appreciates my culinary efforts in the kitchen (that often require the use of every pan we own), it is recipes like this, simple, often vegetable and pasta based, that will garner the greatest praise. That praise is usually associated with speed and not using too many pots.  I’ll take what I can get.

This recipe is intended to be really simple and easy to be made in 20 minutes after a long day at work when you just don’t feel like ordering in from your local pizza/chinese/thai place.

Ingredients
1 package frozen broccoli florets (defrosted) or two heads fresh broccoli trimmed for bite size florets

Two teaspoons chopped garlic, plus one additional clove chopped finely for garlic bread crumbs

About 1/2 cup olive oil

1 pound fusilli (I used a quinoa based pasta for this picture, but any will work)

Unseasoned bread crumbs (I use whole wheat panko but any will work just be sure they’re unseasoned)

1/2 teaspoon oregano (1/4 teaspoon dried)

Sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

Grated Parmesan for garnish.

Directions
Bring salted water for pasta to boil. If using fresh broccoli you can use this boiling water to blanch the florets for about 3-4 minutes until just tender before adding pasta. Then transfer directly to sauté pan with hot oil.

Heat 1/4 cup oil in sauté pan on medium heat. Once hot add two teaspoons garlic and sauté stirring regularly for about 1 minute. Don’t burn it (I always do).

Add broccoli to the sauté pan with garlic and stir to coat with garlic and oil. Season with salt, pepper and crushed red pepper flakes if you like a little spice. Cook for about 8-10 minutes until broccoli is cooked through (may take less for the defrosted frozen florets). If it gets dry add additional oil as necessary.

Cook pasta according to directions. Once nearly cooked to al dente reserve about a half cup pasta water to the side then drain.

Add to pan with broccoli, add 1/4 cup pasta water and stir to coat and let cook down for a minute or two in the pan to get the pasta to cook to al dente. Gluten from pasta water should thicken it a little, add more as necessary.

In a small sauté pan heat about a teaspoon oil over medium high heat then add finely chopped garlic and sauté for about a minute. Add bread crumbs, oregano, salt and pepper to taste. Stir and coat in oil. Let toast for a couple of minutes until it absorbs the oil.  This is an optional step, but adds a fun depth of texture to an otherwise pretty consistently soft dish.

To serve, divide pasta and broccoli into 4 bowls (or two and then have seconds!). Top with toasted bread crumbs, a drizzle of olive oil and some grated Parmesan cheese. I usually add more crushed red pepper flakes at this point but that’s mostly because my husband doesn’t love spice.

Dinner for Two
Doesn’t the cheese on the right look radioactive? I can assure you that it wasn’t a packet of “powdered cheese product”

It’s a super comfy dish that is light enough for the summer, but cozy enough for winter.  Enjoy!

Disclaimer

One of the first meals I cooked for my boyfriend (little did I know, future husband) and best friend in my 5th floor walk up.  The start of Family Dinner.
One of the first meals I cooked for my boyfriend (and little did I know, future husband) and best friend in my 5th floor walk up. The start of Family Dinner.

I promise that this blog will not be purely the existential musings of my “BIG LIFE DECISION” and all the emotions that go on with this change. Because that sounds terrible.

No, no, I will also share recipes! And not just recipes, but recipes that can be recreated in the comfort of your own 3’x5’ apartment kitchen too!

Now, I’m not a chef. I don’t claim to be and, in all honesty, I think school is merely a step towards something resembling a chef, but even then I won’t be there. But I love to cook, I love to share food with friends and family, and I love to make my husband take terribly under-stylized pictures of my creations, prior to us devouring them because at that point it’s 9pm and we are starving.

I don’t do everything “right,” I cut corners, sometimes to comical effect, and sometimes I fail. Like that time I added cinnamon to marinara sauce, because cinnamon is just like nutmeg right? Christmas lasagna, as it came to be known, was an unequivocal fail.

So I will share things I’ve made that people have generally enjoyed (at least that’s what they’ve told me) here too, in the hopes that others will enjoy them. And if you don’t that’s completely fine, just drink more wine and you will. Promise.

What’s Next?

A totally appropriate question, given this massive derailment of my life, but also a question that I was woefully unprepared to answer.

In my insular conversations about culinary school with my husband, that progressed from this nugget of “what a fun idea” to “this is what I’m doing” fairly quickly, we talked in hypotheticals and generalizations about what could be next. I mean we talked about the “real” stuff: the financial implications, timing, how this could (and likely would) change the dynamic of us to some extent.

It wasn’t until I started telling people (the randoms) about my plans that I started getting the most logical question ever following news like that: what do you want to do with that? I’m a recruiter for god sakes, and that is like a recruiting 101 question. But over and over again, I would stare somewhat blankly when that question was posed to me and I realized really quickly, I better come up with something good soon, or people were going to start to think that this was merely the byproduct of a mental break from reality I was in the midst of. And that’s only really partly true.

As I sit here on my last day of work, diligently emailing away (writing this blog), I have more or less rectified that “I don’t know” is OK. I have no idea what I’m going to do after. I know what I’m interested in, I know what excites me right now (sustainability in food, consulting, butchering – my mom just gagged), but I have no idea when I’m in it where it’s going to take me. This is very new territory for me, who has made fairly logical, well thought-out steps throughout my career. This is neither.

But starting next Tuesday none of that will matter, as I make way to school for the start of my management courses (ok, there was some logic there). Here we go.

Julia

I need say nothing else, right? You know who I’m talking about. Julia Child. She who taught me that (almost) anything is fixable in the kitchen, particularly if you have enough wine, and that if you’re not having a blast, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. In fact, these are two mantras that I aspire to live by for better or worse in all aspects of my life, not just cooking (specifically, the wine).

I was initially going to title this post “Old as F*ck,” but mostly decided against it because I knew my mother would read this. But know that remains the overarching theme. I am not young. Now, I am not really that old either (writing that sentence, I can see my mother rolling her eyes at me), but I am also not a fresh high school grad with the knees and endurance I once had. That’s a lie. I’ve always been a bit of an old lady with bad knees at heart, even right out of high school.

Years ago, during the Julie & Julia craze (cue collective eye roll), I read “My Life in France” a memoir written by Julia Child and Alex Prud’Homme about, you guessed it, Julia’s life and career, specifically her time in France. It brought back so many childhood memories of watching Julia Child (and The Galloping Gourmet), effervescent, self-effacing, but so confident, play with whole chickens and down wine, ultimately turning out amazing looking, if weird sounding dishes. So I dragged my then-boyfriend (now husband, shockingly at times) to see Julie & Julia and immediately after to a sketchy bodega to buy a dozen eggs with which we learned to poach eggs. It is only now, as I embark on this craziness and generally freak out about everything, including my physical rigor (lack thereof) and what the next 8 months are going to do to my already age-suffering back and knees, that it occurs to me what Julia Child did. She was 36 when she attended Le Cordon Bleu.  Thirty-six. And she was able to turn a passion ignited by her love of French food into a successful career. She was able to largely reinvent herself, not by changing who she was intrinsically, but using her talent, personality and ambition to alter the course of her career and her life.

Now I have literally no delusions of grandeur, and actually have no idea what lies next for me (more to come on that), but it certainly is an inspiring prospect what you can achieve with drive, passion and hard work. And if all else fails, it reminds me to suck it up and buy a knee brace.

Julia Quote

Jumping Off a Cliff

I’ve had a complicated relationship with food. That’s probably too generous – conflicted may actually be a more accurate description.

At 3 my greeting to my aunts would be a compliment of how skinny they looked. At the ripe old age of 8, I announced in my typically precocious manner, that I would no longer be wearing shirts that didn’t cover my butt, because I had fat thighs. I was 8. I went through a brief stint of not eating in my late teens. I say brief, but I think my friends and family would argue that it was not brief enough.

It was during this time of not eating that I discovered the Food Network. There was a certain sad irony of a girl who only ate brown rice, broccoli and triscuits (6 a day), voraciously consuming food-centered media. This was before the food network became the domain of the at-home cook or semi-homemade; where Mario Batali, pre-Food Network feud, focused on regionally inspired food from Italy, which he served to Isaac Mizrahi, pre-Target clothing line, and Sarah Moulton’s calming voice reigned supreme.

Food Network did not save me. Years of therapy did. But what it inspired in me was a love of cooking that I have carried with me through the galley (generous) kitchen in my 5th floor walk-up in hell’s kitchen, my fabulous kitchen with no counter space and no venting on Wall Street and now my current kitchen where I live with my new husband.

I’ve been moving up in the corporate world since I graduated college. I did not veer or rock boats. I figured out I was good at HR and recruitment and I’ve made it into my career, to some extent unintentionally. I’ve worked 60 hour work weeks and have constantly been available to my colleagues and candidates. As it turns out, life is too short. And so I decided to jump off a cliff.

I made my first culinary school payment today and I figured if I’m going to be self-indulgent, I may as well go all in, so I also wrote my first blog post. I am a very lucky person, with an amazingly supportive husband, family and friends, who have barely balked at this wild departure from my status quo. So here goes nothing.

Tales from the Frontlines of Culinary School