Monday, August 31, 2009
Being the irritable person that I sometimes am, I am forever pissed off when I hear cooks, amateur and professional alike, share their "number one rule of the kitchen" or "the absolute first thing one learns in cooking school."
It's usually something like, "Never ever use curly parsley for anything other than garnish!" or, "Don't zest a lemon farther than its pith or the whole fucking world will collapse all around you!" or, "Always de-seed tomatoes, especially if they are for a sauce!" (The exclamation point is not warranted in any of those statements, but it will sound as if it belongs there when they say it.)
All these rules are picky and finnicky and have nothing whatsoever to do with being in a kitchen.
But of course, I have a number one rule.
In fact, it's my only true rule. I learned it very early on in two professional kitchens, and it's a rule I keep at home, too: Never put a knife in the sink.
Is that Similar to 'Never Put a Hat on the Bed?'
The rule has nothing to do with keeping knives sharp, honed, or rust-free. It has nothing to do with knives representing a male chef's manhood. This rule is 100 percent about safety, because it's 100 percent about keeping a good relationship with the dishwasher(s).
Behind the scenes where people like you and I actually eat somewhat regularly—so, excluding high-end hotel restaurants and star-rated fine dining establishments—the cooks in the kitchen do not own their own gorgeous set of knives that they cart around in their very own knife roll. They come to work and find "the sharp knife" or the one they like best. And when they go home at night, the knife stays in the kitchen.
If you've never worked in food service, and especially if you spend significant amounts of time watching television shows that glamorize life in a kitchen, here's another little something that maybe you don't know or wouldn't ever think about: Who washes the dishes?
If the establishment has a machine dishwasher for flatware and whatnot, in all likelihood, it still has on staff a pots-and-pans guy, who might also be a line cook, a busboy, or someone else in the rank-and-file. But it's not uncommon to have one person who, during the rush, is the dishwasher and that's the only job he does. Maybe he cleans after hours, too, but his main job is to stand over a stinking sink, his shoes sloshed with water, maybe even wearing a gigantic rubber apron, which drips with rank in the 95-degree steam. When the high-pressure sink sprayer is on, he can't hear much above the hose and thus can't communicate as well with the rest of the staff, can't hear the music, and becomes almost secluded.
Who in their right mind would want this kind of job, you might ask. From my experience, there are two kinds of people who are dishwashers, aside from the occasional college student on summer break: ex-cons and the mentally disabled.
So that's the set up. You've got an ex-con or mentally disabled person working in awful conditions, taking in minimum wage, paid hourly, in the stress of a busy kitchen, and yet at the same time cut off from human contact.
Now—go ahead; I dare you—put a knife in his sink.
Probably, there is more than one sink, and the first one at least is filled with murky water. Aluminum containers are submerged like sunken ships, tilted to one side, haphazard in their descent. Two-foot long slotted spoons dart out from between the crevices. A wisp of slimy bubbles floats across the surface, like seagulls bobbing on the ocean waves.
The dishwasher, forever in a state of haste, jams his hand into the sink rubble and pulls out objects based on relative size and shape in search of whatever the kitchen is out of at that moment.
Keeping in mind that this person is either a former inmate or unstable in the head (or both), let me reassure you, if you haven't caught on by now, that he is the last person you want to piss off. You know what would piss him off most? If he jammed his hand into the sink in search of another 1-quart container and instead speared himself on a knife.
Dirty knives get laid next to the sink in a position where they won't slip in, and with the blade tip toward the wall. Some people will stand the knives, handle up, in a bucket near the sink, and that works, too, except it can damage the tip (provided the knives are in good enough condition to be damaged).
'Who's the Ex-Con or Loon at Your House, Jill?'
I may not have any felons rinsing my utensils at home, but I do enforce the "no knives in the sink" rule. Generally, I clean my chef's knife when I finish using it, or if I'm not sure whether I'm done, I leave it out on the cutting board, tip pointed toward the wall. The cutting board and the knife are a pair, and they are allowed to be out on the counter or the table or wherever, so long as they are not in the sink. (The wood cutting board also never goes in the sink.)
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
I keep a Google map of restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, confectioners, bars, and other places where I want to eat and drink in New York (and elsewhere). Yesterday, I began editing it, removing from the ever-expanding list several places where, between the time I added the location and now, I've completely lost interest in anything that place has to offer. Did I really ever want to eat at that Australian restaurant, whose menu is touted for nothing except spicy fries? Can I honestly say I will ride the subway all the way to Harlem just to have a heart attack-inducing meal at Sylvia's? And why did I feel the need to add all the locations of that one coffee shop chain that I heard was good (Joe and the Art of Coffee)?
Culling the list felt as gratifying as un-friending people you secretly hate on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter.
I have a problem with long lists: I don't like them. They feel unmanageable and worse, unknowable. Who can keep track of all those things? I've never had more than about 30 movies listed on my Netflix queue. It's rare that my to-do list ever comprises more than about 12 things. Even if I'm going to the grocery store, my list is never more than 15 items long, and on the rare occasion that it is, I won't actually buy all the things I supposedly set out to buy. "Oh," I'll say to myself, "we don't really need laundry detergent just yet. It can wait. I'd rather have one less thing to buy right now."
The list currently has about 47 places where I'd like to go, plus a few dozen places listed at the end (with green markers) where I have already eaten. In the right column of this blog is another set of lists, which are much tighter and better organized than my Google lists.
Right now, adding the links to the list, I'm reviewing and revising it yet again. "What the hell is Sangria46, and why on earth did I want to go there?"
View New York Eat and Drink in a larger map .
Friday, August 21, 2009
My mother makes amazing zucchini bread. Every year between August and October, she bakes at least a dozen loaves of it. To say zucchini is plentiful in the U.S. Northeast is like saying corn is plentiful in Iowa. Anyone who has a garden complains of being overrun with the plants in late summer. If you can manage to keep up with their production and pick the squashes while they're still young, they are usually very tender and have few seeds. But blink and the next thing you know, you're waist deep in these prehistoric looking vines and leaves, and you're giving away dark green zucchinis the size of a football player's thigh to every person on your block, and their grandmother.
I got a zucchini a few weeks ago from my sister's boyfriend's mother's garden. I held it up to my arm. From shoulder to elbow nook, it was the same length, but the zucchini had more girth than my arms (and I'm pretty buff).
I don't know why or how, but for some reason, until tonight, I hadn't baked a zucchini bread in maybe three or four years. Maybe it's because of all the places I've lived in the past few years, none of them have a squash harvest quite like the Northeast's, and with no one leaving baskets of them on my doorstep, I never got tired of them. Only buying a few in the grocery store at a time, I never tired of grilling them with just a brush of olive oil and salt and pepper, or chopping them up and adding them into tomato sauce, or slivering them with a sharp vegetable peeler and tossing them with warm linguine, creating a bowl of multi-colored ribbons, sprinkled with cheese.
When the urge to bake zucchini bread struck me today—or rather, when my vegetable drawer was overflowing—I emailed my sister and got the recipe from her. She says she adds coconut to the top. I've read online that a number of people like to stir in crushed pineapple. I just make it exactly as-is, being sure not to short-change the sugar, because even though it's extremely moist and cakey, it's not super sweet.
Zucchini Bread with Walnuts
Yields 2 loaves of 12 slices each.
3 large eggs
2 cups white sugar, plus 1 Tablespoon, divided
1 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon (I cut this down to about 1 1/2 teaspoons)
2 1/2 cups grated zucchini (do not remove skins or seeds, unless the seeds are very tough and noticeable, like pumpkin seeds)
1 cup shelled walnuts halves, coarsely chopped or bashed a few times with a skillet (don't buy "walnut pieces" as they are too small)
Preheat oven to 350 F (note: I have to adjust my oven between about 350 and 365, and my oven runs pretty hot, so I recommend starting at 375, even though that's not what my mother does!) and set the oven rack in the middle. Grease with butter two loaf pans (8x3.75x2.5 or close to that) and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar.
In a large mixing bowl, beat together the eggs, sugar, oil, and vanilla until smooth.
In a medium bowl, whisk or sift together: flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon.
Working in three batches, slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet, stirring smooth. Add the grated zucchini and stir to combine. Lastly, fold in the walnuts.
Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared loaf pan, and set in the middle of the oven on a baking sheet to catch any overflow. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top is completely cooked and lightly browned. The top of the bread will probably expand, creating a rift; continue baking until the rift is slightly brown, too. If it looks raw or giggly, the bread is undercooked inside.
When cooked through, remove from oven. Cool. Slice into 12 pieces per loaf, or cover tightly in plastic wrap and freeze up to one month.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Bespoke Chocolate's liquid caramel center, pretzel and sea salt sprinkled truffles ($2.25 each).
Sunday, one of the first real hot and humid days in New York, I decided to go on an urban expedition in search of chocolate.
My hankering started a few weeks ago when I went to a Whole Foods and couldn't find anything in the chocolate selection that I actually wanted. "Give me some choice!" I said to myself. There were Dagoba bars, several pieces from that dude who makes salad dressing (the Newman's Own line), a few items from Whole Foods' 360 Organic line, and not much else.
I wandered around the store. There was more chocolate, Valrhona (French) and Vosges (from Chicago, despite the French name) to be exact, in a separate location near where the long line rambles back from the cash registers, hardly a convenient spot. It seemed rude to nudge my way through the line only to one-by-one select, man-handle, read, and eventually set back down all the different boxes from Vosges to see what the different flavors were, and then not buy anything at the $8 per 3.5 oz. bar price. I can imagine it: "Oh. Sorry. Not, I'm not in line. 'Scuse me. Mmm. Barcelona bar with hickory smoked almonds and sea salt? Yum. Oh, but for 8 bucks? Nah. Oh, scuse me..."
Portion size is another problem. I used to love going to Fog City News when I lived in San Francisco because not only did the shop stock an impressive variety of chocolates, both national and international, it also carried at least two dozen varieties of small (0.3 to 0.5 oz.) two-bite nibbly things, which sold from maybe $0.50 to $1.50 or so, depending on the quality and how far it traveled.
I loved the ability to just spend just $2 or $3 and walk away with three different things to try, even if they are just a tasting size each. Everyone loves tasting menus, but hardly anyone wants to buy just sample-sized products in a store. Fog City introduced me to the likes of Michel Cluizel, Amedei, Dolfin, Côte d'or, Dolfin, Charles Chocolates, and the "Mozart head" (Google it. It's one of my favorite chocolate confections), almost entirely by suckering me this chocolate micro-payment system.
The New York Chocolate Scene
In New York, I have yet to find my ideal purveyor, but I came close over the weekend.
Here, most "chocolate shops" are confectioners selling their own brand. Take Lily O'Brien, for example. Lily O'Brien makes some dainty, petite chocolate cups that are filled with a multitude of flavorful truffles, but essentially, the store only carries that and a few other miscellaneous products that Lily O'Brien produces. There's no "chocolate" selection, as all the chocolate is from the same source. It's just the confections that are different.
I tried Whole Foods. I tried Food Emporium. I tried a few specialty delis, where I did often find English candy bars. I tried Gourmet Garage, which wasn't half bad, offering a few choice-y labels, but not enough selection for my liking. I mean, I can get Green & Black's in CVS—give me some real selection!
So Sunday, one of the hottest and most humid days so far this summer, I went on a chocolate locating expedition. I made a list of a few shops to find, and hopped on the subway.
A half hour later, I was wondering through the West Village looking for a big intersection and hopefully a place called Li-Lac Chocolates. Li-Lac is a confectioner, just the kind of place I was hoping to avoid, but by this time, I was trying to be open to new concepts. "Maybe it's not about what I want," I reasoned. "Maybe it's about seeing what's here and embracing it for what it is."
The nice thing about going to chocolate shops when it's 92 degrees Fahrenheit is that you'll have the place mostly to yourself. No one wants to buy or eat chocolate on a very hot day. It's the perfect time.
Li-Lac's mocha roll ($2) and raspberry jelly bar ($2).
I scanned the glass cases for a long time, ignored all the chocolate sculptures on the top self ("Congratulations, Graduate!"), and steered my attention to the many cigar-sized rolls and bars on display. They were variously filled with nougat, caramel, marzipan, and more.
An unusually large raspberry jelly bar caught my eye, so I got one in milk chocolate (they were out of dark), and asked for a dark chocolate mocha roll for good measure.
Adjectives cannot do justice to that jelly bar. It's not something I would normally have picked at all, but I am so astoundingly grateful that I did. I would travel across town for this thing. Luckily, Li-Lac has another location inside Grand Central Terminal, which is not all the way across town from where I work; it's only a 15-minute walk.
Back to Bars and Grocery Stores
My next stop was Gourmet Garage, mostly because I had passed one en route from the subway to Li-Lac's. And between there and the next place was a Gristede's, so I had a look around there, too. Gourmet Garage had a few interesting things, maybe two or three small domestic purveyors, but not nearly enough to give me any kind of satiety. Gristede's, which always reminds me of the Hamptons for whatever reason, had nothing of interest whatsoever. Only go to Gristede's if you need a Hershey bar to melt and use as driveway sealant.
Next up: Bespoke Chocolates, an out of the way place, literally off the map on "Extra Place" (Google maps knows it, but my printed map did not).
I haven't yet tried the two single-bite, liquid caramel center, pretzel and sea salt sprinkled truffles I spent $2.25 on each, but I can tell you I'll never go back to this place no matter how good there are. Not only is Bespoke down a newly constructed alley, it also carries almost no product. There were maybe a dozen flavors of truffles to choose from, and maybe only 8 or so of each kind. The store looked nice, but was very bare bones, if boutiquey. It could have been a front for mobster activity if the walls hadn't been painted dark purple.
On multiple levels, is simply not what I had pictured. Never mind whether I was open to trying new things, this was clearly not what I was after.
Dean & Deluca and Vosges
It was a little bit more of a walk, but my next stop was going to be Vosges' shop in Soho. Having been out for a stroll for the last two hours, through streets crammed with sweaty bodies, I was getting tired and as a result, a wave of acceptance washed over me.
"Li-Lac seemed pretty good," I thought. "Maybe the lesson here is that I can't have expectations. Maybe I'm supposed to explore all the chocolate New York actually does have to offer me, and look at through fresh eyes. Maybe that's the only way I will love what there is rather than lament what there is not."
"It's kind of like going shoe shopping," I thought. Shoe shopping is a particularly painful event for me. My needs are very particular, and I usually go in knowing precisely what I need and want, and end up not being to find anything that fits that unrealistic ideal. Blind to anything that doesn't conform to my preset standards, I inevitably always pass up a ton of great stuff. I never shoe-shop alone anymore. I need another person to push me into making a purchase, even when I am convinced the shoes are not going to perfectly meet my needs and wants.
Anyway, on the way to Vosges, directly in my path there was a Dean & Deluca.
When I first started whining about my lack of a good New York-based chocolate shop. I railed against even considering Dean & Deluca. People either love it or hate it they same way they either love or hate Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and Subway sandwiches (though why do those same people always go ape-shit over Target?). Whatever. Dean & Deluca; corporate empire and all around bad guy. I get it. Peer pressure is what makes me feel bad about actually liking Dean & Deluca.
I was shocked to find that the selection at the Soho store did in fact did meet my ideals by about 80 percent. Considering that a few months ago, I had been in a different Dean & Deluca on the upper east side, ridiculously hungry and searching for something to nosh on, and after much deliberation, I bought nothing. I had been looking for a healthy snack to eat before meeting some people at the Met, and found only a few things that met my needs, but every single thing cost double or triple what I thought it should cost. Had someone twisted my arm, maybe I would have paid $2 for a small nuts-and-fruit bar—but $4.50? Hell no.
Similarly, the Soho Dean & Deluca had plenty of things I wanted, but not at the price I wanted to pay. Among those things was an $11 or $14 (one can quickly forget the price of things one is not willing to pay for) box of blood orange pâte de fruits drops that looked remarkably darling and juicy. A box of soft licorice from Finland caught my eye, until a price tag quickly diverted it. In the back of the store, I played momentarily with a no-frills spice grinder, whose tag read upwards of $40.
Coming to terms with Dean & Deluca, I leveled with myself. "I live in New York, where things cost more, and sometimes you just have to pay extra to get what you want." I spent a good 30 minutes turning over chocolate bars from Amedei, Dolfin, Michel Cluizel, Valrhona, and Scharffen Berger. On the lower shelves, I found a few more Italian bars that I was less familiar with.
After what seemed like much too long a time, I settled on a Dolfin Noir Au Poivre Rose ($3.75), a Valrhona Guanaja bar ($7.50), and an assortment of Dean & Deluca's own single-origin chocolates ($12), which were displayed in their package from lowest percent of cacao (38) to highest (71). If D & D had such a surprisingly strong selection, perhaps their own chocolates would be pretty good as well.
Well, not so with the Venezuelan (43 percent) bar! What a disappointment that thing was! I brought it to work with me yesterday, and it tasted completely stiff and waxy. I expect any chocolate that has a low cacao count to be creamy, and this was not. Cadbury is far better than this stuff, and I admit that Cadbury can punch you in the face with sugar. A Dove bar is better than this stuff. A Hershey's Symphony bar is better. I was seriously ticked off about that.
I'll still try the darker bars to see if they are any better, but if after tasting two more with no better results, I'm going to write to Dean & Deluca and ask if they offer a satisfaction guarantee, because I was not satisfied and would like my 12 bucks back, thank you.
My final stop was the Vosges shop. Had I been in the mood for exotic ice cream, I probably would have hung out there longer. Most of what lines the shelves you can find for the same price ($7.50-$8) in the high-end grocery markets, but behind the counter are truffles, ice cream, and "haut" hot chocolate.
I had my eye on an enormous box of peanut butter bon-bon-like truffles that are sprinkled with sea salt, but I couldn't muster up the near-$40 to splurge on that. Vosges offers a bar with the same ingredients, but a bar and a bon-bon are not an equal match, especially when peanut butter is involved.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Post-Cookie Pâté Fight Night, I had two kinds of left over dough, plus three-quarters of a pan of under-baked brownies. I cobbled together these cookies, baked them for a few minutes, and brought them to a party. I'm calling them Crazy Cobbled Cookies.
They are oatmeal chocolate chip, chocolate chip, and brownie, plus a little drip or two of Godiva liqueur (before baking, not after).