Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"Even good chefs have bad days"- Padma Lakshmi

If you have watched any real or competition cooking show, you know that it happens to everyone.  It happens to the very best of chefs like Rick Bayless and Rick Moonen and even happens to the the stay at home cooks or people like me.  Everyone ruins a food; whether it was over-cooked, under-cooked or just made badly.  But before you throw it away, it may just be able to be saved.  Chef's have a secret ace in the hole: BBQ. 

Now, I am not suggesting that restaurants and BBQ joints use badly cooked food, as this is a recommendation that when you are cooking at home and you ruin something, you can maybe fix it. 

I made some pork steaks the other day, which for one reason or another, still looked pink, in the oven, so I kept them cooking.  Well, they over-cooked and then were a bit tough and dry.  What I have found that works best is to take the pork and chop it up.
Now, this could work with any type of meat, like chicken or beef as well.  I just made mine cut small, like a small dice, because my kids will be eating this and it stops any possibility of becoming a choking hazard.  So, take your cut meat, and add half of a bottle of your favorite BBQ sauce and mix.  Then you have some BBQ meat for sandwiches or to eat on its own, like this lovely photo shows:
I know that while this isn't a recipe, it is important for me to show that food doesn't have to be wasted and can be reused.  Apples and fruit that are bruising and becoming too over-ripe, can be made into juices, pies or jams.  Meats can be turned into BBQ or even pies themselves.  I always take the old bread and make bread pudding out of it and always find a use for vegetables. 

So, experiment! Look in your fridge and see what you can make.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Where has all the nightlife gone?

I normally don't do nightclub or bar reviews but after being in some of the best party spots around the world and experiencing what they have to offer, I can honestly say that St. Louis is probably in the bottom million of fun nightlife cities; 500 spots under Howth, which is a fishing town in Ireland with about 8,000 people and a handful of bars.  I've partied in Tokyo, Dublin and Beirut.  In the states I've partied in Las Vegas and LA and Fort Lauderdale and Miami. To think that the bars and clubs in St. Louis are cool, you either have to be drunk or have no worries at all in your head or wallet.
  Last night, my wife and I got a chance to party at 3, of the so called "best spots" in St. Louis.  These are spots that are listed multiple times in the Alive magazine and in the RFT. These three places were: The Atomic Cowboy, The Fox Hole and Shiver.  I will go into detail with some information and relevance with each of these locations.

The Atomic Cowboy is listed as a "smoke-free bar/Tex-Mex joint/art gallery/espresso bar" online and we were there for the biggest party of the year: the Ultra White Party for Pride Week.  The Atomic Cowboy had a DJ, a free beer bar and lots of sitting room for this white party.  However, none of it seemed to help the 95 degree weather outside last night. The party was outside on their patio.  The DJ was horrible, the beer was a little warm, or seemed that way, and the fans they had going to cool people off, were not enough.  This great party, was boring, had it not been for our friends and chatting because the music not once got to a rhythm or sound that could be danced to.  I found myself wasting the time watching The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on one of their TV's, which was positioned above the bar.  VIP tickets got us free beer, but no food nor a taste of anything that came from this "Tex-Mex" establishment.  They had said that food was available from 7-9 and yet not a single plate was seen.

Next to the Atomic Cowboy or inside of it or however this works, was the Fox Hole. The Fox Hole was listed in the Alive magazine as the "best entertainment" and I can't figure out why.  The Fox Hole is just a tad larger than an actual fox hole.  The room is painted black, with uneven floors, warehouse style ceilings and no decorations on the wall. It is probably 16 feet wide and 25 feet long and has no air conditioning.  That's right, you heard me, NO AC.  So, I'm not a science whiz, but if you have maybe 60 people crowded into a tiny space with no AC and its 95 outside, what temperature is it inside?  I didn't think it was legal for such a place to be open with no AC.  The entertainment was a show performed by Lola and her girls but we had to leave after the 3rd act.  When you have loud unrecognizable music blaring at you in very hot weather to the point where it just sounds like a mellow hum, it doesn't make the heat any more bearable.  What did cool down the audience was watching the astonishing aerials of Michelle Minx, which as usual, were incredible.  But after her show, there was nothing that would have made me want to stay in that un-cooled area, which actually was likely just a garage.

The last place on our night trip was club called Shiver, which again, was listed in Alive magazine as being "Hot as Ice" in a feature article on page 24. The picture is of their ice room, which has ice sculptures and vodka.  Explaining that only $20 a person will let you stay in the ice cooler, with some vodka while wearing a parka.  It also mentions the "small plates of American cuisine" which is odd because their kitchen is still, not open.  So, not only is that ice cooler not as cool as it seems, but you can't enjoy the food because it doesn't exist.  Club Shiver had no cover charge and we only went there because we knew one of the bartenders.  Inside, DJ Silver played his version of music, which composed of playing 3 seconds of a song and then a beat that makes Strongbad's techno song a million times better.  The people there could have had an easier time dancing to a song played entirely on a vuvuzela. Something tells me that most of the clientele were only there to get drunk. While some were dressed with suits and gowns, others were dressed in jeans and flipflops, so it appears that there is no dress code. Which is sad, because this bar looked like a NY hotspot, until the people were in there and the music turned on.  Also, lets talk about that cooler: its a meat locker.  I don't mean this figuratively.  I have 8 years of experience working in a restaurant: Home Town Buffet.  The coolers were made of sheets of stainless and had the normal cooler ventilation on the ceiling.  This is how the ice room is, as it is a cooler, with ice benches and an ice sculpture, but that's it.  I don't want to enjoy anything inside of a meat locker and as it may have been a nod back to St. Louis's mafia past. Overall, even though we paid nothing to get in, we quickly got out.

All I want in St. Louis is to find a bar or club that plays music, as in new original or music you can dance to.  So, play a lady gaga song instead of a 10th generation remix, people will dance and love you Mr. DJ.  I seriously think I have more skills than these DJ's. Hey DJ's, if you play music and no one is dancing, then you are not doing your job correctly.  It is pretty sad that the best place that we have gone to in a few years that has the best dancing music is the Hustler club.  A strip club has better music than the clubs and bars in St. Louis.  What does that tell you about our city?  Is it just me?  It could be and maybe I wasn't drunk enough to think that the sound of a low hum with a screeching sound was great dancing music. If I had money, I'd make a bar/club that would last for years as a great nightlife spot.  As for what is here now, I'm disappointed.  It's sad for St. Louis, trying to make itself a hotspot when it can only achieve that luke warm spot in the pool where all the kids pee.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Parents, don't your kids grow up to me anti seafood

When I was young and my parents were not poor but not rich either, they tried to ingrain some simple healthy food patterns.  We had meat almost every night and fish on Fridays. Now it was the style at the time, to have meat as much as you could and I do remember that some nights didn't have large amounts of meat and there was nothing wrong with that, as long as we got the protein some other way.

Friday nights brought fish in only one form and I can hear Super Chef Rick Moonen screaming, if he does read this: fish sticks. Fish sticks are made the same way that chicken nuggets are, in that it is the less quality pieces of meat, chopped up, bleached, added with preservatives and other chemicals and finally breaded and frozen.  You then get these fabulous sticks and cook them in your oven for a quick and healthy meal, right?  I wouldn't doubt that less than 50% of fish sticks is actually made of fish.  And it was this fish product that was my first experience with fish.  Fish sticks taste horrible and tasted so bad for me that I would do anything to hide their taste.  My parents used that parenting attitude that you can't get up out of your chair until you eat all of your food.  Well, I have 3 fish sticks on my plate that I find disgusting and I can't go outside and play or do anything till I eat them.  What do I do?

To this day, my mom brings this up still: I poured chocolate sauce on them.  It did a great job hiding any fish smell or taste and I ate them all.  The thing is, it wasn't until on my honeymoon that my wife pushed me to try some fish and I liked it.  That salmon cooked on a cedar plank at Emeril's restaurant tasted so good and so not what I thought fish would be like.  Thank God for that experience and my wife doing that because if she had not, it would have been a while longer till I had re-tried fish or any seafood.  Now, everywhere I go, I try some new seafood item and while I honestly didn't like everything (steamed mussels), there were some things I did like (steamed crab legs). 

So, parents, please don't give your kids fish sticks or stifle their food flavors by giving them artificial things.  I only wish that in hindsight that my parents had given me different forms of seafood and not the artificial ones. 

(Chef Rick Moonen, if you are reading this, the next time I am in Vegas, I will let you know as I want to try some fish dishes at your restaurant.)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Come'on baby, don't fear the..... poultry

One of the things that I sometimes face as a chef is fear. When given something that I am not entirely familiar with, I sometimes worry and get flustered as to what I will make and more importantly: how it will turn it and taste. My wife purchased two Cornish hens from the grocery store, as they were on sale.  They were cleaned and about a pound and a half each.  I can't really describe it, as I think my fear was based upon one experience I had with a 'young chicken'.  The 'young chickens' at the grocery store, are frozen, and the organs are cut but still in the cavity of the bird.  Well, my first time breaking apart the bird and I find this bag of things that I wasn't sure about: it just threw my whole pattern off.  I instantly got nervous and had to stop and calm down and think about what I was doing.  Also, when cooking I was always worried as to if I didn't cook it long enough or too long and it would be inedible.  For most people, money isn't a big thing, but for us, wasting money is not good.  So in the case of the hens, I didn't want that money to go to waste and wanted to make sure I got the most out of those birds.

So, what did I do?  I did the easy method.  I set the oven to 350 degrees and no hotter since this night that I was cooking was still in the 90's outside and it was 8pm.  I cleaned the hens in warm running water, and placed them in a pan with some melted butter, on high heat.  The heat helped to quickly brown the outside skins, but didn't do much else. I then placed them both in a cooking pan, sprinkled salt and pepper inside, outside and then chopped up some onions, carrots and celery and laid it around the birds.  I also grabbed some fresh oregano, thyme and sage and stuffed that into the cavity of the birds as well.

After 1 hour in that oven, it smelled wonderful.  I did get the most out of the birds as there was about an inch of perfect chicken stock in the pan as well.  I have to boil that down for chicken soup, but the hens looked tasty.

Now, for the future, I will follow these steps as they will help me in the future to not be afraid of new ingredients or poultry.  If you want more info on this recipe and what I did, ask me and I'll get right back to you.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What I have learned from other chefs... stick to your guns.

The latest thing that I have been into has been the fight of Rick Moonen. Rick is a chef who stands for basic Green principles like finding fish that are sustainable and not endangered and so forth.  He runs a seafood restaurant in Vegas that I one day wish to experience.  Rick has been in the spotlight lately because as a finalist on the show Top Chef Masters, he was chosen by the producers and judges to be the winner. The reason why this is a issue is that it appears that it all came down to one man's vote and that one man did not like the answer to a question that Rick answered.  Jay Rayner, an accomplished critic, had asked Rick if his choice in using venison in his last dish was going against his ideology of being the environmentalist guy.  Jay suggested that using a piece of meat flown in from New Zealand was not being an environmentalist as the pollution and methods used to create that piece of meat were not Green, like Rick talks so much of.  

Rick answered that he is a chef first and in a cooking contest, he should do whatever is necessary to win.

That was the basic answer and the correct answer that someone in a cooking contest should answer.  Essentially: what does the method of getting the product manner when what is judged is how it tastes and how it is prepared?

Rick Moonen was tied for second as Marcus won the title.  Everyone thought that Rick was going to win.  I thought that Marcus won because the judges may have weighed the finalists' charities and suggested that UNICEF which does everything may have been a better choice than just a meal giving charity.  But if that was the case, then come out and say it.  Don't say that Rick didn't win because he didn't answer the question correctly, didn't wear the correct color of socks that evening or even looked into the camera one too many times.  This show was supposed to be a cooking competition and here we learn, young amateur critics such as myself, that we are allowed to review people on their personal choices rather than the way the food comes out and tastes.

After the show, Jay blogged about how Rick was basically crying like a little girl and he as a critic is always right.  Jay is wrong.  Critics should only comment about things they know. Jay, likely cannot even cook the foods in question, so why should he comment about them?  Tom Collichio as a judge, that has merits and he knows what he is talking about.  I am sure that if a chef had told Rick that he lost because he didn't like the way his venison tasted, it would have gone over much better.  Do I qualify?  I think I do.  I have worked in a restaurant long enough to know how food should taste and look.  I have taken classes on holistic nutrition, cooking and even herbalism.  I know the basics of being a chef and with those basics I try to cook new things everyday. Sometimes when I go to restaurants, I order things that are not complicated and so easy that I could make them, so I look at them from a chef's perspective.

Jay, was looking at Rick from a critic's perspective, which like Anton Ego in the movie Ratatouille, doesn't really know anything about cooking the food, only eating it and how it tastes to him.

Under pressure and comments and having the title stolen away from him, Rick sticks to his guns, coming up with an answer and facts to back up his answer to Jay.  Jay has yet to have a response back to Rick.  It is one thing to be stubborn and stand up for your decision, even if it is wrong and proven wrong.  But to not admit that you are wrong when facts are staring you right in the face is not integrity, but stupidity.

Think of it this way: Imagine making your grandmother's recipe for apple pie.  When you get to the judges, they tell you that you did it incorrect.  How would that make you feel?  They don't know your recipe and the way you have done it is exactly the way your family has done so for generations!  What do they know?

That is Rick.  Please show him some support.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

How not to run a restaurant...

I really don't want to do this.  I have been in so many places around the world, had so much good food and bad and when it comes to the places that I would definitely under any circumstances never return to, I really don't want to write about them.  But then again, at some point, someone will want to know about a certain restaurant that I have given a scathing review and they will want to know why I scored it so poorly.  Well, I still cannot bring myself to write a review of the following restaurant with my usual 5 star system and just focus on a few things that were wrong with our evening.

1.  My wife and our two kids were given a small 4 top table at about 8:45.  It took them 10 minutes to get us menus and after we ordered it took them 30 minutes to get us food.

2. The waitress brought out 4 glasses of water and we had two kids sitting at the table.  A bit later she brought out our four ordered drinks.  That makes 8 glasses of liquid, on a tiny 4 person table, with a 3 year old and a 2 year old.  If you are a parent, you are seeing where this can lead to.  When I noticed this and asked the waitress to remove the waters, she did so but only after we told her why.

3. Chips and salsa were given to us after we had sat down, almost instantly.  The salsa had way too much lime juice and the chips were overly salted.  So much salt that each time a chip was reached for, we tried to knock off the visible salt from on it so we could enjoy the chip.

4. On staff, I counted one waitress, one bartender, two other waiters and what appeared to be a head waiter or owner, in the front of the house.  When we got there, there was maybe 20 customers there.  When we ordered, there was probably 15 customers.  Whee our food arrived, there was also about 15.  What was funny about our food arriving so late, is that immediately after wards two other tables received their food also.  Those two other tables ordered many minutes after we did.  Our food was piping hot though, which meant it wasn't just sitting around somewhere, but just cooked so late.

5. Our food did finally come out about 39 minutes after we had been sat.  I ordered the SANGRE DE TORO BEEF BRISKET, which was some beef brisket that was cooked in wine and spices, served with a corn dish and some black beans and rice.  My dish on the menu was $16.95.  I am expecting a huge plate to come out and what came out, was a small oval plate, probably about 11 inches long and 6 inches wide.

I've paid out less money, for more food, at internationally known Latin cuisine restaurants.  I paid less for incredible food at Rick Bayless's restaurant and this is what I get for $17!  Me thinks the prices are a bit too high.

6.  But how was the food?  You don't want to know. With the chips for the salsa being overly salted, I drank most of my lemonade. I then had to walk my son outside because the food took so long to get to us and he was causing a racket inside the restaurant as he was hungry since at most restaurants when you order food you get something back. I come back in and sit down to a small plate for its price.  The first bite of the meat was tasty, the second bite was salty and the third and fourth bites were way too salty. I would be willing to bet that the chef is a smoker, because most smokers over-salt their food because they can't taste anything.  The corn dish tasted like someone mixed Tabasco sauce with grilled corn.  It was good.  The black beans and rice, didn't taste like it had any seasoning at all, just an opened can of black beans on white rice.  The beef, was charred on the outside and well done on the inside.  They used red wine to cook it as you could see and smell it in the beef.  There was very little juice running from the meat as I cut it to indicate that it was over cooked. And salty: as in the beef was so salty that I couldn't finish it.  I really wanted to since I had paid so much money for it but I couldn't get it past my tongue, just way too salty.

My wife ordered a dish that had what looked to be a saffron rice with shrimp in a white sauce.  My wife ate only half of her dish complaining that she would eat more had the shrimp not tasted like rubber.  She had to chew the shrimp in order to eat them.  Her dish was also around $18 and not worth its money.

Overall, I will not say what restaurant this is, publicly.  If you are in the st. louis area and you do want to know which one this is to avoid or see for yourself, then please email me and I will let you know.

I will say that the best thing that this place had to offer was the band.  They were awesome.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Your punishment today is....

The other day, I was making some mashed potatoes and as I placed a pot of water on the stove to boil, I started to work on my giant Idaho potatoes. While peeling them each, slowly as to not hurt myself by peeling off a layer of my skin, I remembered a story that I once heard about that peeling potatoes was a punishment in the army.  I remember seeing the comic strips with Beetle Bailey peeling them and I even recently saw an old episode of Merrie Melodies where Bugs Bunny was sent to peel some as a punishment.  But did it really happen?

  So, the best I can find is, that it was a punishment.  This nightshade family member is a huge source of starch, carbs, fiber and even some vitamin C.  It also is a source of Thiamin, Niacin, Folate, B6, Pantothenic Acid, Iron Magnesium, Potassium and copper.  This wonderful vegetable is a chameleon that can adjust and take on any culinary role, from sweet to savory.  The potato was likely first domesticated around 3,000 BC and then spread to Europe and eventually the world.  Which makes me think that even ancient peoples knew how versatile this vegetable turned out to be.

So the next time you are stuck there peeling and peeling those potatoes to the point where you feel your arms getting tired and ready to fall off from exhaustion, think of how you are preparing a wonderful and ancient vegetable to be shared and enjoyed.

If you didn't have an idea, let's think of just five ways that you can prepare potatoes: using the 5 methods of cooking, baking, boiling, frying, grilling and steaming.  You could  bake a potato in a microwave for about 2-3 minutes.  You could peel them, boil them, shove them through a ricer, and make some awesome mashed potatoes.  You could chop them through a mandolin and make some potato chips in some hot oil.  You could slice them long ways and lay them on a grill, grilling each side like one long potato chip or one wide french fry.  You could also mash them up, mix them with some flour, making some potato dumplings and then steam them to make puffy but heavy balls of potato fluff.

You know, I'm not an expert on potatoes, but I'd be willing to bet that there are over a million different ways to prepare potatoes.  I'd have to check my Escoffier book at home and see how many are in there as well.  At least with potatoes, you can't really screw up.  So, when you go to the store tonight, pick up some potatoes and make something yummy.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An ode to Mr. Bourdain...

Many chefs, like Mr. Anthony Bourdain have said that everything tastes better with bacon, and he is correct in that statement.  While thinking upon an idea like that, new ideas fill my head.  Through the theories of molecular gastronomy, one is able to change and alter the texture of our already beloved food items.  In this case, what I did was alter the texture of one of my favorite food items and then do something new with it.

All over the Internet, bacon lovers race to get their recipe of bacon brownies out first, to be the one who invented the bacon brownie, before all else.  The problem is that many of these people make regular chocolate brownies and then add bacon to them.  In that case, it is not a bacon brownie, but a bacon/chocolate brownies.  I wanted to do something different and make pure bacon brownies.

Using about a cup of maltidextrin, I was able to powder some bacon grease and then add it in the brownies batter instead of the cocoa powder and the vanilla extract.  What came out, when finished, were sweet sugary brownies that had an aftertaste of bacon.  Even though I had little pieces of bacon crumbled and mixed in, the sugar still took over with the absence of a strong sour flavor and made the whole thing sweet.

What was pulled out of the oven, was this.  It was a perfectly cooked and textured brownie, but with a hint of bacon within its sugary cell.  People loved it as it tasted like bacon while others just stared at it while eating and muttering the word "interesting".

Mr. Bourdain, wherever you are, or whoever wants to try this for yourself, let me know.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

You are now in the presence of royalty....

Like many other culinary inventions, no one can be 100% certain as to where it was first invented or who invented it.  Take for instance the "Buffalo Wings".  Some say that they invented it by mocking chicken wings and calling them buffalo wings, some say that they made a sauce that was so hot that it could give buffalo wings and others say that they were named such because the creator has his restaurant in Buffalo, NY.  Now, most likely, many different people could have invented it at the same time.  There is no way that one person, on the whole planet, could have had the idea of frying chicken wings and then coating them in hot sauce, before everyone else had.

The sandwich has no definite origins.  You would think that it is a no-brainer to take some sort of food and place it between two pieces of bread. How else would eat peanut butter and jelly, if you had nothing to smear it on and eat together?  Since the invention of bread people have been using it as we use it today. The first written use of the word 'sandwich' came from the English in the 1700's, when the 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu ordered a dish of meats prepared and served between two slices of bread.  The legend is that so many others liked the idea that they called it the "food of Sandwich" or "the same as sandwich".  Like any restaurant that has a food item named after a person, soon people just start to order the item using that famous person's name.  So, people started to order and make "sandwiches".   The Royal Earl did this because the two slices of bread on either end protected and kept his hands clean, so he could play cards without getting food and filth on the playing cards.

Whether the Earl invented it or not, still doesn't dispute the fact that we all have some favorite sandwiches.  I had one today, where I took some home-made turkey meatloaf, placed it on some freshly home-made rosemary bread, threw a spoonful of sauerkraut on top of that and then a nice sprinkle of ground black pepper with some squirts of ketchup and mustard.  That sandwich was only able to be consumed and eaten with a knife and fork so it fulfilled the purpose of the Earl's original sandwich creation.

Famous people do make other sandwiches and I think that if asked, more people would be familiar with Elvis and his peanut butter and banana sandwich habit than the Earl.  On top of that, Elvis was a king, which makes him a higher class of royalty, than the Earl.

Because it is 9:29pm on a Thursday night and I am in the mood and hungry, I think a fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich should be in order.  Just like the Earl or Elvis, my father invented this sandwich.  I am sure that someone else had the idea at cooking their peanut butter and jelly, but with no recorded history of it, I trust my dad.  So, this 20 year old recipe involves nothing more than a hot pan, butter and an already made sandwich.

Now, the jelly was one of my home-made strawberry and rhubarb jellies.  You will likely not find any like it, until next year when I start selling my jams across the world.

I love this sight.  When butter is in a pan, that means that something good is going to come about.  So, you melt the butter in the pan while smearing some butter on the top of the sandwich.  When the butter is melted place the sandwich, un-buttered side down.  Cook the sandwich on high heat for a minute, or until it is browned. Then flip it over and cook the other side.  What comes out of this is this:

Each bite produces a flavor of that moist butter toasted bread, with molten hot liquefied jelly and hot peanut butter. A complex symphony of flavors even for something as simple as PB&J. What could be better than this?