Saturday, October 31, 2009

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 5

Turning up the fire
"It needs some heat."
-- Culinary student Alfie Regadio, grabbing the container of cayenne pepper for the gazpacho we had just made in Culinary Foundations I class.

But not too much
 "Don't turn it into salsa."
-- Culinary Foundations I Chef Tony Marano admonishing us not to add too much cayenne to the gazpacho.

Panic! It's MSG!
"For years, we saw signs in restaurants, 'No MSG.' My God, it was like saying 'no heroin.' MSG is a naturally occurring substance. Some doctor in New Hampshire started the FDA on the way to banning it. Of course, now it's no longer banned but is listed as a possible allergen."
-- Chef John Meidinger (left) on what he called a misdirected ban on monosodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer in seaweed and other edibles used in many Asian restaurants.

Table for one, please
"The president of the United States ate half of my strawberry cake. That was Bill Clinton. It was during that time when the president was dining alone."
-- Food scientist Shirley Corriher (right), discussing her experience when she was invited to cook and bake at the White House.

Molotov cocktail, anyone?
 "You don't want to pour the brandy in when the pot is on the burner. The fumes are volatile, and they will cause a heat backup that will turn the bottle into a rocket."
-- Chef Tony Marano, showing us in impressive fashion how to flame the brandy for a shrimp bisque.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Carrots, onions tremble at the sound of my name

Wielding a knife with skill is the most basic need of the chef and even of the casual home cook. That's why they are the first skills taught, practiced and tested for at the California Culinary Academy.

My knife skills test was delayed from Oct. 9 because of a little gash I put in my left thumb practicing the day before, requiring an emergency room visit and five stitches.

Today, I will take the test -- 10 cuts on eight vegetables in 30 minutes. The cuts are part of classic French cooking, and all are designed to make the vegetables look nice. Several also have the function of ensuring that the veggies cook evenly by being the same basic shape and size.

Tune in later to read if I'm newly skilled or stitched again.


Thirty minutes flew by, yet I got the 10 knife cuts completed in fine fashion. Chef Tony's cumulative grade, based on up to five points for each cut, gave me an A.

Now I simply have to repeat that for next week's final practical exam, on Wednesday.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Venison? No, it's me looking into the headlights

Shrimp bisque was on the menu in Culinary Foundations I today. The action:

"May I have a couple of volunteers? One for the mirepoix ... "

My hand shot into the air, but Chef Tony Marano pointed to fellow culinary arts student Rob Park.

" ... and one to make velouté."

What the hey, I thought, my hand going up again.

"Michael, what will your proportions be?" Chef asked.

Uh, geez, what does the recipe say? I thought, glancing toward my open copy of "Professional Cooking," our key textbook.

"No, not from the book. From memory," Chef gently admonished, bringing on my deer-in-the-headlights look. He added: "Am I putting you on the spot?"

"Yes, but I need to be put on the spot," I muttered. I am smart, I thought to myself; just slow.

"What's the proportion I told you to remember for the rest of your lives?" Chef asked me and the rest of the class. "Eight to one."

He was referring to the proportion of stock to roux to make sauce. Hence, 1 gallon of stock, 1 pound of roux; 1 quart of stock, 4 ounces of roux.

I hastened to the stove top, weighed out 2 ounces of flour and 2 ounces of clarified butter, the requisite 4 ounces total for the roux, to be added to 1 quart of fish stock. The stirring began.

Relatively speaking, the rest went smoothly, and we produced a nice flavorful shrimp bisque, with an 8-to-1 proportion of stock to roux.

Eight to one. Eight to one. Eight to one.

I shant forget it again.

(Photo shows the bisque before straining -- with the shrimp shells still in it.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gazpacho, the real way: It's all in the wrists

Most recipes for gazpacho, the fabulous Spanish cold soup, include the phrase "in a blender" or "in a food processor." But in Culinary Foundations I class today, Chef Tony Marano said he wanted our three-member team to fully use our knife skills. No blender, no food processor, no Robot Coupé. Just wrist power: knives and chopping, lots and lots of chopping.

Three of us put together the gazpacho, finely chopping onion, bell pepper, cucumber and garlic. Oh, and tomatoes. Fellow student Keejoo Hong Park concasséed the tomatoes, and I took them to a near purée with my chef's knife.

Keejoo diced and toasted bread for the bread crumbs, while fellow student Alfie Regadio assembled all the ingredients, and we jointly added a little water and tomato juice.

Finishing touches included salt, white pepper and cayenne. Alfie did the honors, and we all agreed that our gazpacho needed some heat. In went a dash of cayenne. Alfie stirred, and we all tasted. Needs more, we all agreed. Twice more we went through that ritual, getting it to the level of heat we wanted. We completed it with a little acid, from champagne vinegar, and some olive oil for smoothness and a sheen.

We presented it to Chef Tony, who suggested a touch more salt and a bit more acid via the vinegar. He also said it should be slightly thinner, suggesting that we used too much bread crumb. He also said the cayenne was at its maximum.

The challenge came on multiple levels -- no puréeing equipment, just our knives; combining the right amounts of key ingredients so they complemented rather than competed; keeping it cold; getting the seasonings, especially the cayenne, just right.

We felt successful, and it gave us a leg up: Making gazpacho, as individuals and not as a team, will be on the final exam next week.

Simple perfection: cream of mushroom soup

Nothing's better than a hot, flavorful bowl of soup on a cold San Francisco day. When it can be made simply, even better.

The cream of mushroom soup we made in Chef Tony Marano's Culinary Foundations I class on Tuesday fit the bill: hot and flavorful, done in 30 minutes -- perfect!

In efficient, assembly line fashion, the class whipped out the soup. I cleaned and sliced the mushrooms, and classmates handled the onion, saute in butter, addition of a brown veal stock (we didn't have any white stock, which Chef Tony said would have been preferable), immersion purée and the cream.

Another successful adventure, and another example of how good, classical cooking doesn't always have to be complicated.

Ballad of the dark creatures of the kitchen

The dark creatures of the restaurant kitchen -- VERMIN! -- are necessary to learn about but certainly no fun.

Unless one is privileged to be in Chef John Meidinger's Safety & Sanitation class at the California Culinary Academy. Chef John took guitar in hand on Tuesday, picked out "the only three or four chords I know," and sang the ballad of "Integrated Pest Management." Most memorable lyrics:

      Close the doors,
      Clean the floors.
      When the mice get in,
      They make a lot of love.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cooking and chemistry: What's the connection?

If you are a disciple of Shirley Corriher or Harold McGee, the cooking-chemistry connection is as plain as, well, as plain as how the heat of cooking makes proteins unwind and rebind.

We students of the California Culinary Academy had the great pleasure of hearing Corriher, "the grand dame" of food science, according to Academy Chef Tony Marano, and McGee elucidate prosaically in an hour-long session today at the Academy.

Corriher is a Vanderbilt University educated biochemist; McGee is a California Institute of Technology and Yale University graduate. Both have written much-relied upon books on the science of food.

They were most loquacious and most gracious in discussing their specialties in terms we all could understand. As Executive Chef Tim Grable said in thanking them for appearing, it was difficult to tell who liked it more, the faculty or the students.

A few gems from their conversation with us:

* "Salt suppresses bitterness," Corriher said, so when it is called for even in sweet recipes such as for pastries, it is meant to push down bitterness and thus exaggerate sweetness. So it shouldn't be used necessarily for its own flavor but rather for what it does for other flavors.

* Mold on fresh berries -- straw, blue, black and rasp -- can be minimized by dipping them in water at 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 seconds or so once brought home from the market, McGee said.

* If boiling vegetables, use salt in the water to help keep them nutritious by counteracting the osmosis that occurs in a search for salt balance between the interior of the vegetable and the water, McGee said.

* "McGee says fruit is nothing but a pretty wrapper for water," Corriher said. "I'm still trying to find where I said that," McGee laughingly retorted.

Exposure to such luminaries is a bonus for students at the Academy, and we look forward to other appearances by people atop the lists of experts when it comes to food science, culinary arts and other "foodie" issues.

(Photos show Corriher and McGee signing their books for students at the end of today's session.)

'Good soup ... good living."

Louis P. De Gouy said in "The Soup Book," his 1949 prosaic ballad to the humble bowl of nourishment:

"Good soup is one of the prime ingredients of good living. For soup can do more to lift the spirits and stimulate the appetite than any other one dish."

We began formal study and work in soups this week in Culinary Foundations I, and already, De Gouy's thought has proven true.

Chef Tony Marano on Monday started soup week by making the simplest and most humble of soups -- potato and leek -- in two versions, the regular and the creamy. Both were the fulfillment of what De Gouy said about "good living": nourishing and flavorful, warmth for the belly and the spirit.

It's no coincidence that Chef Tony started with potato leek or that Chapter One of Julia Child's most famous work -- "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" -- is "SOUP -- Potages et Soupes" and that her very first recipe is potage parmentier -- potato leek.

In today's class, we will explore soups thickened with cream, starting with another humble yet fulfilling concoction -- cream of mushroom. Yours truly has volunteered to prepare it. Visit later to read of my experience.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The epic poetry of 'le braiser'

   (Note: The final essay assignment for Culinary Foundations I class at the California Culinary Academy was to describe either the soups at a local restaurant or one of the seven techniques of French cooking. I focused on le braiser. This is my essay.)
   To analyze poetry is to demystify it by removing the romance and the magic. The same applies to the romance and the magic of the culinary art. For at its best, it is poetry.

   If that is so, the epic poem of Les Cuissons Francaise is braiser, or braising.

   Braising is the Beowulf, the Odyssey, the Bhagavata Purana of the culinary techniques because of what it does for an average -- or worse -- piece of meat or poultry. The deep, complex flavors it coaxes from every ingredient are nonpareil in all other techniques.

   Additionally, it demonstrates the height of skillfulness in the chef because of its very complexity. The slow, deliberate, low-temperature approach requires the chef’s full concentration, patience and timing. It also requires a bold, visceral, artistic knowledge that extends well beyond simply following the recipe or the directions.

   "This technique separates the chefs from the cooks," California Culinary Academy Chef Instructor John Meidinger says.

   He may just as well say that braising separates the epic poets from the writers of rhyme.

   Braising brings a tender, submissive romance to the toughest piece of beef. And it uses the toughness itself to create a magical potion of sauce, elevated to untold heights of flavor in the skillful hands of the chef poet.

   Just as Beowulf himself was attended to by “the ring-adorned queen, of excellent heart, (who) bore the mead-cup … ”, the poetic chef brings the romance and the magic of le braiser to the table as the finest offering of Le Cuisson Francaise.

'The simplest sauce there is'

Anyone can make this sauce -- it's a delicious one -- to put on a sautéed steak. Chef Tony Marano did it swiftly, with a flavorful result, when he demonstrated sautér in Culinary Foundations I class last week.

When the steak is resting after coming out of the pan, wipe out the accumulated fat in the pan. Pour a small amount of red wine, 2-3 ounces for one steak, into the still hot pan. Reduce it to burn off the alcohol and to leave just the flavor in the pan. Add 6-8 ounces of veal stock and simmer. When it is reduced by about half, add a tablespoon of clarified butter, a technique called monter au beurre or mounting with butter. That thickens the sauce. It's now ready to serve, spooned over the steak.

"This is marchand du vin -- literally 'wine merchant sauce'," Chef Tony said, "a red wine reduction with veal stock. It's the simplest sauce there is."

(Photo credit:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Everyone, including the dog, ate my homework

Practice, practice, practice makes perfect, and while my culinary skills are far from that, they took a big step forward this weekend.

I practiced braising, making stock and creating sauces. All went reasonably well, making Sunday dinner a decided hit among family members. "Oh my God, it's delicious," was No. 1 fan Hilda's reaction. Zipper the Shih-Tzu rated the espagnole sauce, drizzled lightly onto his kibble, "two slurps."

Here's what transpired as I endeavored to take on techniques learned in the first four weeks of classes at the California Culinary Academy:

* On Saturday, I found veal bones at a local meat market, and that led to my making a brown stock. To my delight, it congealed nicely, just as I have seen in school, where we are under the careful supervision of the master chefs who are our teachers.

* On Sunday, I prepared to braise two meaty beef ribs, for which I had asked the butcher to leave the rib bone long. I dried the meat, tied it to the bone and browned it. Forgetting to season it before it was browned was a mistake, I admit, but the quality of the sauce pretty much made up for that.

* Two and a half hours of cooking time left the meat tender on the bone and the pan drippings rich with the meat flavor and that of the mirepoix (onions, carrots, celery). I strained it, skimmed off the fat and added some of the brown stock. Now came sauce-making time.

* Into the concoction, I added a few ounces of diced fennel and the rubies from one pomegranate. The combination was Chef Tony Marano's suggestion, saying the contrasting flavors would complement one another and add a sweetness to the finished sauce. He was dead-on correct, and the resultant sauce, after two more strainings and a reduction by half and then half again, was the hit of the meal.

* Green beans called for a béchamel sauce, as described by Julia Child in her "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." So I used clarified butter and flour to make a roux, stirred in the scalded milk, flavored it with onion, bay leaf and a whole clove. It came out very tasty, but the texture was a tad pasty. More milk might have helped.

The short ribs were falling-off-the-bone delicious, and I must pronounce my first major venture into multi-tasking a French meal a success.

Can coq au vin and sole meunière be far behind?

(In my rush to serve dinner, I neglected to take photos of the finished plates. This photo shows the gelatinized veal stock and the deep brown espagnole sauce.)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 4

Obey your thirst
"A beer can hat would be convenient: It keeps your hair back AND allows you to hydrate."
-- Culinary student Fontaine McFadden's fix for restaurant sanitation standards that stop cooks from keeping open drinking water containers at their stations.

Any leeway?
-- Chef Tony Marano to a student asking when one would use meat tenderizer in a restaurant kitchen.

Rose by any other name
"My mom called it squab, but we knew it was pigeon."
-- Culinary student Alfie Regadio on gourmet cooking in his boyhood home.

Tasty? No, but square and flat
"What kind of cheese? American processed? Not even a rodent wants that cheese."
-- Chef John Meidinger discussing what in a school lunch menu has potential for causing food-borne illness.

Where chicken comes from
"This grew up in a box and never knew its mother."
-- Chef Tony Marano responding to a student who asked facetiously if the bird he was preparing for roasting was "free range".

Friday, October 23, 2009

Gather 'round for REAL cooking: braising, that is

Chef Tony Marano's Culinary Foundations I students took a deep dive today into the world of long, slow, low-temperature cooking that is braiser, or braising. For my money it is the best of the French techniques because of what it can do for an average -- or worse -- piece of meat and for the deep, complex flavors it coaxes from every ingredient.

As Chef John Meidinger said to us as we headed to the braising lesson: "This technique separates the chefs from the cooks."

It was the finale of a full week of cooking demonstrations by Chef Tony, with our willing participation, on the seven techniques of classic French cooking.

Paprika chicken (left) and chicken fricassée (right) were the dishes of the day, one a brûn, that is cooked brown and with a brown sauce, and one a blanc, that is cooked white and with a white sauce.

The paprika chicken was browned in oil, followed by the browning of onion and bell pepper, with a little brown stock and flour for thickening, before going into the oven for a one-hour braising at a simmer. It was finished with a sauce made from the stock, a dollop of sour cream and tomato.

The fricassée was seared in butter at low heat to avoid browning, with a chicken stock and flour for thickening, then into the oven for the braising at a simmer. It was finished with a white sauce thickened with a liaison -- egg yolks and cream -- and in the sauce a "point" of nutmeg, salt, pepper and tarragon.

The tastes were most distinct and most sensational, the highlight of a strong week of cooking.

We left the class abuzz with the possibilities, including plans being made for weekend meals. Mine will be braised short ribs in a brown sauce with fennel, over garlic mashed potatoes.

(Top photo: The Culinary Foundations I students gathered 'round the stove top as Chef Tny (second from left, in tall chef's hat) teaches)

Stitches out; Heidelberg Scar in the works

"Oh, it's the guy with the thumb."

That was physician Gerald C. Lee's greeting for me when I appeared this morning so he could remove the five neatly sewn stitches in my left thumb. The problem was that I stood too close to my rapidly moving paring knife during knife skills practice in class at the California Culinary Academy on Oct. 8.

Dr. Lee left me with the beginnings of what Chef Tony Marano already had called my "Heidelberg Scar", a badge of honor or, if you will, an initiation into the realities of the culinary arts.

A few days of practice on those 10 basic knife cuts, and I will be ready for my knife skills test in Chef Tony's Culinary Foundations I. He graciously delayed the test for me after that bit of unpleasantness on Oct. 8.

 Dr. Lee had one more thought for me as I departed his office: "As a chef, you will want to get a tetanus shot every five years now, instead of every 10."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Attention carnivores: Improving on perfect steak

Five of my seven uncles were butchers, and red meat has been a part of my diet since I grew teeth. Knowing how to cook a piece of meat, from the simplest hamburger to the priciest prime rib roast, is something I learned early and have mastered.

Or so I thought.

Who knew after cooking at least a couple thousand steaks in my life that my approach could be improved upon? Chef Tony Marano showed our class at the California Culinary Academy this week when he demonstrated two of the seven classic French cooking techniques -- sauter and griller.

The key starting point is a good, tender piece of meat. In this instance, Chef Tony used two cuts from the butt end of the New York strip, from the back of the beef near the ribs.

Another key: "Don't be stingy with the salt and pepper," Chef said. He used white pepper. Why? he asked us. Simple answer: "Because it's there." Black pepper will work just fine, too. Also, season immediately before cooking, not a moment sooner.

Then comes the cooking itself. For sauté, use a hot sauté pan and a drizzle of oil (Chef used canola). For grilling, season the grill with a little oil and put a drizzle on the steaks, oo.

In both cases, the thinner the piece of meat, the higher the heat and the shorter the cooking time. Thicker steak should be cooked at a slightly lower temperature, so the outside doesn't burn before the inside is cooked.

The browning or crusting of the surface adds a great deal of complex flavor through a chemical change called the Maillard reaction.

The ideal is medium rare (I like mine rare). One can learn to tell if the steak is done by touch, but watching the sides and the color creep up to the interior is an easier way. Cutting into it, though not ideal because it lets out the juices, is a good way to start learning when a steak is done; cut it open to see, then feel it to get accustomed to the feel at the right moment.

When Chef Tony's steaks were cooked, he put them on grill bars to let them "rest." Resting is less necessary for grilled meat. Rule of thumb is to rest meat for half the time it cooked. Resting allows the steak to re-absorb juices that came out in the cooking.

A bonus was when Chef whipped up what he called "the simplest sauce there is," marchand du vin, a red wine sauce made by putting a bit of wine in the hot pan, after wiping the grease from it. When the wine reduced, burning off the alcohol, he added four times the wine's volume in veal stock. He cooked it down by half. If a thicker sauce is desired, add a bit of butter.

Having cooked, as I said, a couple thousand steaks in my lifetime, I was amazed and pleased to have learned a few tips that will make the next steaks I sauté or grill even more flavorful.

(Photos: Chef Tony's grilled (upper right) and sautéed (lower left) steaks)

Was that a snap decision?

Dialogue in Culinary Foundations I class on Wednesday:
Chef Tony Marano, preparing to sauté steaks: "Is anyone a vegetarian?"
Student No. 1: "I am."
Student No. 2: "You are? Didn't you eat some roasted chicken in here yesterday?"
Student No. 1: "Yes."
Student No. 2: "So how is it you are a vegetarian?"
Student No. 1: "I became one yesterday."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The simmer of professionalism

Passion is easier to recognize by observation than by definition, so when someone sees me in my kitchen, they recognize my passion for cooking without my having to find the words for it.

Chef Tony Marano of the California Culinary Academy defined the passion for me today in his class, in word and deed. Both ways fed my own passion and reaffirmed for me why I am in culinary school, eagerly absorbing all I can.

The cooking method called simmering is defined in our textbook, "Professional Cooking" by Wayne Gisslen, as "bubbling gently."

Simmering describes my passion for culinary arts, and by the same definition, one must conclude that Chef Tony's passion for his profession is simmering.

Chef Tony demonstrates it daily in Culinary Foundations I, the class that by all rights sets the tone for student achievement, success and, yes, passion. Today, his demonstration was most vivid and at the same time humble and modest.

We students asked Chef Tony today to tell us his background. He walked us through descriptions of a series of jobs that started at dishwasher and led to the pinnacle of culinary achievement, in the best of restaurants and in his current calling to teach the profession -- and bring out the passion -- for successor generations.

"This is not just a craft. It's not just art. It's spiritual," Chef declaimed in response to a question of how he came to build professionalism and pride.

Twelve other students and I sat in rapt, silent attention, probably more attentive than we have been in Chef Tony's presence since the start of classes four weeks ago.

He spoke of the feeling one has at preparing a plate of food for someone who is willing to buy it, consume it and express gratitude for not only the taste and the flavor, but for the very act that brought it about.

"When you are preparing a plate for someone, that plate is your universe. Nothing else matters," Chef said. "It is sacred. When you come to that understanding, you can call yourself a professional. It is humbling."

That understanding and feeling, that humility at being able to create something pleasurable for someone -- and have the privilege of making a living at it -- is why I am in culinary school.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Now we're cooking! Roasting, to be precise

Seven are the techniques of Le Cuisine Francais, and today we began learning them intimately -- their names in both English and French, how and why they differ from one another and their special uses in the kitchen, and, most important, how to do them.

"It is important to know all seven cooking techniques," Chef Tony Marano said by way of introducing four days' worth of lessons and demonstrations. "It's what we do. It's what makes us chefs."

It's what will make us chefs, too, was my thought as we all eagerly made notes on the seven techniques:
Rôtir          Roasting
Griller        Grilling
Sauter        Sautéing
Frire          Deep frying
Pocher       Pocher
Braiser       Braising
Pôeler        No direct translation
Chef Tony demonstrated roasting, first with marque en cuisson -- prepare for cooking -- of a whole chicken. He trimmed the wings, removed the wishbone, seasoned and trussed the bird. The trussing technique he showed us is relatively simple and goes a great way toward ensuring evenness in cooking. He then seared it on the stovetop, then put it in a roasting pan -- meaning on a rack and open -- and put it in a preheated oven, for 45 minutes.

Roasting is used primarily for large meats that are somewhat tender, such as chicken, filet mignon and beef tenderloin.

Pôeler was next. Chef described it as a technique similar to roasting, but instead of being in a dry atmosphere, it is in a moist one, with a lid on the roasting pan and an aim to retain as much moisture as possible in the cooking. It is best used for duck and goose, he said.

Here's the best part of the day's lesson: When the chicken was roasted, Chef Tony carved, and we all ate. Moist and delicious!

What's on Wednesday's menu, Chef Tony?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Learning 'le cuisine' the hard way is the only way

The adage that we learn more from mistakes than successes has proven true at the midway point of my first term at the California Culinary Academy.

Five stitches and four blisters later, my knife skills are much improved, I can stir up a roux on my way to making sauces, I now know the fundamentals of restaurant and food-service safety and sanitation, and I can name and relate the uses for a wide array of pots, pans and fundamental kitchen equipment and tools.

As a result of the stitches, I learned a better way to core a tomato for concassé (turn the tomato, not the knife, to reduce the danger of knife slippage).

The blisters came when I was stirring my first in-class roux and bits of molten butter and flour splashed onto my hands. But I made a good brown roux, which helped me make a flavorful espagnole sauce.

I've learned these most basic of the basics from two excellent chef instructors and from listening to and observing my fellow students, both in their own successes and mistakes.

Executive Chef Michael Weller, who oversees the culinary arts program, said during orientation on Sept. 19 that the first six weeks, that is the first term, would be the most difficult. So far, it has been difficult and intense, but also energizing and challenging in many positive ways.

Next comes building confidence, manifest in increased assertiveness at the cutting board, mixing bowl and stovetop.

(Photo courtesy of fellow culinary student Keejoo Hon)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pumpkins, squash abound, and recipes for them

The Fillmore Farmers Market was filled with good fall foods on Saturday -- big and small pumpkins, smooth-skinned and gnarly squash.

Naturally, pumpkins for jack 'o lanterns are at center stage, with Halloween less than two weeks away. But they're for dinner, too, or at least for parts of dinner. Take a look at for a pumpkin patch full of ideas.

And enjoy, whether you're carving or turning pumpkins into something delicious and nutritious.

SALSA SUNDAY: Making salsa to preserve

The last bounty of the garden -- or the farmers' market -- is in, and you are wondering what to do with big quantities of tomatoes and chiles. Canning them for use through the winter is a good way to go, and while it does involve some work, it isn't as onerous as it might seem at first.

The key is to use the right kinds of jars -- sealable Mason or Ball brand jars -- and to follow sterilization techniques for the jars, their lids and seals and for the equipment to be used in the canning process. Read here for information on the right jars and sterilization techniques. Do NOT attempt this without carrying out the sterilization as instructed.

After sterilizing the jars and equipment, you are ready to make salsa. Make it roughly in these proportions: For every pound of tomatoes, use 4 ounces of jalapeños, 4 ounces of milder chiles such as anaheims, 1/2 cup of onions, 1 clove garlic, 1/4 cup of vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.
Peel tomatoes by scoring an X into the skin at the bottom, then blanch in boiling water for 10 seconds. The skin should come right off when pulled at the scoring. Chop tomatoes and onions, dice garlic. Seed and chop chiles.
Put all ingredients, including vinegar, into a pot and bring to a boil while stirring. Reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Spoon salsa into sterilized jars, wipe tops and sides and seal as indicated in sterilization instructions. Put filled and sealed salsa jars in boiling water for 15  minutes.
Your salsa should be preserved and can be stored in a cool, dry spot before use. When opening a jar for use, check for any signs of spoilage and discard if you find any. Refrigerate after opening.
(Photo credit:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Culinary school best advice so far: 'Taste, don't eat'

One can see wisdom in Executive Chef Tim Grable's warning -- "Taste, don't eat" -- about weight gain when studying at the California Culinary Academy.

Chef Grable (left) offered the advice in an orientation session the week before classes started. He said watching your weight can be a problem when you find yourself eating your homework and your in-class assignments, literally.

In school's first three weeks, we culinary students have made: butter-heavy béchamel sauce; a butter-laden brown roux for espagnole sauce; pasta and tomato sauce topped with Parmesan cheese; hollandaise sauce, full of butter; mayonnaise, with a cup of oil.

Granted, we had only small tastings of those delicious items, but it's easy to see how when we get to the preparation of foods that those creations become accompaniments of, the potential problem will be at the fore.

For the record: I have lost two pounds since school started.

Further for the record: We did start off with low-cal healthy stuff: learning to cut vegetables including spinach, tomato, carrot, onion and garlic.

But next comes some tempting carnivorous offerings as we learn the basic techniques of braising, sauteing, poaching, grilling and roasting. All accompanied, of course, by those sauces.

Wonder what the pastry and baking students are making?

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 3

Creationism argument
"It's magic; that's the only explanation."
-- Chef Tony Marano (at left in photo) on how sauces are made.

Stirring the pot
"After reading in the book, it was nice to be hands on and put our skills to the test. ... It was so fun."
Culinary student Rob Park (second from left in photo) who stepped to the stove and stirred up a mean espagnole sauce.

The romance of high cuisine
"Let's say I'm going to make fig and duck prosciutto as an amuse bouche. Oh, it's going to be beautiful! Oh, ho, ho! And all that crap."
-- Chef John Meidinger, with a flourish of hands, head thrown back, inflection of mock excitement in his voice.

Salt: a 4-letter word
"I need salt. Whoa! Not that much! S---! Maybe I can salvage it."
-- Culinary student Candide, accidentally dumping several tablespoons of salt into his hand-whipped mayonnaise, which needed no more than 1 teaspoon. He salvaged it.

What would Shakespeare say?
"Oh, God. Don't get a lawyer involved. (Pause.) Unless you have to."
-- Chef John Meidinger, responding to a student who asked if that was the best way for a restaurateur to get a "variance" from the health department for special food treatments.

Friday, October 16, 2009

To make mayonnaise, you have to act like Devo

Metal brushed against metal in rhythmic fury for Culinary Foundations I today as a double class of eager students made mayonnaise by hand.

Devo's lyrics, "'I say whip it. Whip it good," came to mind as the key instruction from Chef Tony Marano: Whip it fast, faster, faster still; then whip it some more.

Two egg yokes, 1/2 teaspoon of vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper to taste and oil, lots of oil -- up to 1 cup of oil -- combine to make mayonnaise. This is not your momma's mayo, which probably came from a jar with a "Hellmann's" or "Best Foods" label on it. This is real mayonnaise, with no added sweetening ingredients.

What makes it real are the ingredients and fast, furious, unrelenting whipping of the ingredients with a wire whisk in a stainless steel bowl as the oil is drizzled in and emulsified with the egg yokes.

Chef Tony tasted everyone's work and concluded: "I think we all had success with mayonnaise, coast to coast. Some broke (egg and oil separating) but came back together. That's an even better lesson."

What am I cooking this weekend?

Home menu items for this weekend are designed to put into practice the skills I learned this week at the California Culinary Academy.
Short ribs, with a madeira sauce, made from a base of espagnole.
Green beans in a béchamel sauce.
Brown rice made in a brown veal stock.

Eggs benedict (old-fashioned, but it's a way to practice making hollandaise)
That's a good start. Check back Sunday to read how they turned out.

(Photo credit:

1 billion people hungry on World Food Day

Did you toss out any food in the last day or two? The butt end of a loaf of bread, a tomato that went bad or leftover pasta that turned into a refrigerator science project? Someone somewhere could have used that food.

We Americans live for the most part in relative luxury, even in the deepest part of the economic downturn. But elsewhere, more than 1 billion people don't have enough to eat, according to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, which quotes a United Nations report for World Food Day, which is today.

Instead of celebrating World Food Day, we face the sad fact that 1 person in every 7, or 15% of the world's population, are hungry. And yes, there are hungry people in the United States, but relatively few. The U.N. report lists 30 countries where food aid is a necessity; 20 of them are in Africa.

The world produces enough food for everyone. Economics and politics drive distribution, so not everyone gets fed.

America, continue to eat well, but eat less. We don't need all the calories. Maybe if we save just a few dollars on our own food consumption, we can contribute the savings to relief organizations, such as CARE USA, that are working to reduce poverty worldwide.

(Chart from

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A 'point' of cayenne and other fineries of sauce sorcery

The saucier is the first among equals in the classic French kitchen.

It is no wonder. The word pronounced in proper French sounds a bit like "sorcerer." And that is what the saucier is, a maker of magic.

Chef Tony Marano, who is teaching sauces to us as part of the Culinary Foundations I curriculum, is a big believer in the magic of the kitchen.

"But don't confuse magic for mojo," Chef Tony says. "Magic is the way we explain science that we don't yet understand."

Aw, man, no! The magic explanation is more than good enough for me. Taste a well-made espagnole or perfectly balanced hollandaise. That's magic.

Sauces come from combinations of butter and flour and water flavored with meat bones and chopped vegetables and butter combined with egg yolks and a dash of vinegar. Oh, and a "point" of cayenne -- the amount that fits on the point of a knife, that is.

What could at first reading seem like composting materials are the ingredients with which the saucier makes magic.

The magician we are learning from -- Chef Tony -- is modest yet factual about his sauce-making abilities. He has whipped up a half-dozen sauces from scratch before our eyes this week and then patiently walked us through the steps it takes to do it the way he does. We are thrilled to need a lot of practice.

Chef Tony was saucier for at least one French restaurant in the Bay Area, where he ran a station that produced all the primary sauces and many, many variations of them every night.

In class on Thursday, his magic -- or was it his mojo? -- was on full display as he demonstrated the makings of mayonnaise and hollandaise, both egg-yolk based sauces. When finished, we all eagerly lined up to taste, and as we passed the bowls for a dip, Chef Tony allowed as to how "this isn't the best hollandaise I've made."

He could have fooled all of us. There were plenty of "yums" and not a single "yuck." It was by far the best hollandaise sauce I had ever tasted.

Or had I tasted magic?

(Photos: Chef Tony Marano upper left; his student sauciers trying their hands lower right. That's me second from right. Lower right photo courtesy of fellow culinary student Keejoo Hong)

'Cat food' puts SF chef in jeopardy on Top Chef

San Francisco catering chef Laurine Wickett was in the bottom three again this week on Bravo TV's Top Chef.

One judge, Food & Wine magazine Editor-in-Chief Dana Cowin, called Wickett's pork dish "cat food."

Wickett survived, as another chef was eliminated. But her reputation and ego were bruised in the judging, shown Wednesday evening. What head judge Tom Colicchio said in his blog:
Laurine opted to make a pork butt rillette, but the problem was that she didn’t know how to make it. She thought it was a braised meat. No, no, no – you confit it in pork fat first, so that the water is forced out and is replaced with fat. After you’ve completely cooked the meat over several hours on a low temperature submerged in fat, you take it out, whip it up with a fork (or a mixer with a paddle), slowly incorporating more of the fat with which you cooked it, and you end up with very lush, rich, unctuous meat. By just braising it, Laurine wound up with a stringy, watery dish. She really screwed up. ... At least her chutney and salad were quite good. … Dana did say that she thought the texture of Laurine’s dish was like cat food … it wasn’t.
Wickett owns Left Coast Catering in San Francisco. She is the last of three Bay Area competitors still on the program.

(As an aside: One is led to wonder how the editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine knows what cat food tastes like.)

(Photo credit:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hitting the sauce; espagnole to be exact

We got in the game today, feeling the heat in Culinary Foundations class, literally. It was my turn at the stove, assigned to make a brown roux for an espagnole sauce, one of the five primary sauces used to create literally hundreds of secondary and what are called small sauces.

Under the watchful eye and coaching of Chef Tony Marano, three of us worked on separate sauces -- the espagnole (below) made from my brown roux, another espagnole made in a different way and a tomato sauce. I've made roux before, and I've made sauce before (akin to what we Americans would call a gravy), but not under professional instruction and in front of a group -- my classmates.

The heat, the three or four seemingly disparate operations going on in a convivial jostle for stove space and my control of the outcome -- Chef Tony allowed me to season the espagnole sauce to my taste -- affirmed again for me why I'm doing this.

My roux browned up slower than it should have but eventually came to a nice color, aroma and texture under 20 minutes of constant stirring. I combined it with a brown veal stock that had already begun seasoning with a mirepoix (2 parts chopped onions, 1 part chopped carrots, 1 part chopped celery). Twenty to 30 minutes of whisking, a tablespoon of tomato paste, salt and white pepper and it was espagnole sauce. My classmates generously pronounced it very flavorful.

New universes are being discovered with every turn of the whisk; viscerally familiar worlds are being uncovered with every sampling from the sauce pan.

(Thanks to fellow culinary student Keejoo Hong for the photo of me at work.)

Pack your knives: Auditions for Top Chef in SF

Bravo TV, home of Top Chef, will hold an open-audition casting call on Sunday in San Francisco, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at The Parlor, 2801 Leavenworth St., according to

It's the first stop on a seven-city swing through the country by the show's producers to find chefs for Season 7 of the program.

Bay Area chefs have done well in past Top Chef seasons, and one San Francisco chef, Left Coast Catering owner Laurine Wickett, remains in the current competition.

1 good reason to go to '18 Reasons'

The nonprofit "18 Reasons" will host a cookbook swap on Oct. 22. Included will be a memorial service for Gourmet Magazine, which is ceasing publication after nearly seven decades.

The festivities will run 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at 18 Reasons, 593 Guerrero St., at 18th Street, in San Francisco's Mission District. Read more here.

A tip of the toque to friend and fellow foodie Susan Bullen for pointing out this event to me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Making sauces: The heat is on

Culinary school is getting down to the pure culinarity of it. Today, three classmates partook in the making of a white roux, a pale roux and, from them, a bechamél sauce and a velouté sauce.

Chef Tony Marano walked us through the process, which included tasting before, during and after seasonings were applied so we could catch the subtle differences. Salt, white pepper and, in the bechamél a little nutmeg, made subtle, delightful differences.

The "magic" that Chef Tony says occurs in sauce-making was very much present. There was indeed a magic in the way the roux came to color, texture and flavor and then how it combined with the liquids -- milk for the bechamél, chicken stock for the velouté -- to get to the end products (in photo, velouté is in foreground, bechamél behind it).

On Wednesday, yours truly steps to the stove with the assignment of making a brown roux as the key step toward an as-yet undisclosed brown sauce.

Whisk, small ladle, spoon are all at the ready. As am I.

Another tortilla smuggling is in the works

Eagerly anticipating the arrival later today of my son, John A. Chihak, coming to visit for a few days from Tucson. He is an artist (see his Website here) specializing in comic books and will participate in the Alternative Press Expo, better known as APE, which will be held at the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco.

Aficionados may know John from his "Youth in Asia" brand and his sidekick Agnew, along with an array of colorful and fierce characters (that's Munny Nash, above right).

Besides himself and his publications to show and sell at the convention, John is bringing us a much desired supply of flour tortillas. And just in time; we're down to one dozen from the six dozen I brought from Tucson in August.

Inspiring women: my Mom and Julia

(Note: Chef Tony Marano assigned students in his Culinary Foundations I class at the California Culinary Academy to write a short essay on our reactions to a book about food and cooking. This is my essay.)

    Food is culture.

   Julia Child’s “My Life in France” bears witness to that, revealing her embrace of the fullness of French cuisine and the way of life it represents.

   She fell in love with French food and cooking and inevitably with the French people and everything about them. She learned their language, allowing her to encounter and befriend them and adopt French life in every sense.

   She appreciated from literally her first meal in France that good food well prepared by long-established and refined custom was the common denominator in French culture.

   Her recounting of those experiences led me to recognize more clearly than ever that what I learned in my Mexican mother’s kitchen wasn’t cooking; it was culture. And when I cook from the repertoire of recipes and techniques that my mom taught me – both by osmosis and direct instruction – I am respecting and renewing my culture.

   Rooted in corn and chiles, ours is a cuisine of robust flavors and smells and of bright and earthy colors. As such, it reflects the robust and colorful culture that is my heritage.

   Julia Child inspires me to continue pursuing knowledge of food and culinary arts as part of my culture – how these foods, in this place, prepared in this way, presented and eaten thusly reveal the ongoing life of a people.

   She ends her story by declaring that “the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite – toujours bon apétit!”

   To which I say, ¡Claro que si – que aprovecho!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cracking open the door to classic French cooking

The aroma of raw flour gave way to that of biscuits evolving eventually to rich butter and movie popcorn in the demonstration kitchen/classroom at the California Culinary Academy today.

Chef and instructor Tony Marano continued teaching us the foundation of classic French cuisine -- the five "mother" sauces.

Slowly but steadily the aroma filled the room as Chef Tony made a roux, first combining equal amounts in weight of flour and clarified butter. Then he slowly cooked it, creating a white roux for use with a bechamél sauce, then a pale roux to make a velouté. The cooking continued on low heat, making the roux richer and darker, ending after several stages in a brown roux, suitable for an espagnole sauce.

Chef Tony showed how to make "magic", moving the roux from one color and aroma to the next. Clearly, there is something magical about how the simple combination of flour, butter and heat can create the thickener for sauces that underpin classical French cooking.

We'll be plunging deliciously and eagerly the rest of this week into the magic of French sauces. Something tells me that the "magic" Chef Tony described will mean a lot of hard work.

(Photo of white, blonde, brown roux on a plate; credit:

Me Oh My Oh: It's National Gumbo Day!

                        Jambalaya, a-crawfish pie and a filé gumbo
                        ’Cause tonight I’m gonna see my machez a mio.
                        Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-oh.
                        Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.
The great country singer Hank Williams celebrated the unique foods of the Bayou with his song "Jambalaya," including mention of that soulful soup we know as gumbo.

In celebration of National Gumbo Day, why not try a recipe from

(Photo credit: New Orleans Times-Picayune via

Sunday, October 11, 2009

SALSA SUNDAY: Save your pumpkin seeds for salsa

Pumpkin seeds -- aka pepitas -- are delicious roasted and salted. You can buy pepitas already roasted and salted, but it's more fun -- and easy -- to do yourself. Simply capture them from the kids' Halloween pumpkin carving.

The seeds should be soaked for 10-15 minutes, cleaned, dried and spread on a cookie sheet with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of coarse salt (sea or Kosher). Roast in a 350-degree oven for 20-25 minutes, checking them after 10-15 minutes and stirring them. Taste one to test for doneness. Aim to finish with about 1 cup of seeds.

After the seeds cool, place them in a blender or food processor. Add 4-5 diced tomatillos, 1 diced and seeded anaheim chile, 2 diced and seeded jalapeños, a dash of white vinegar, juice of 1 lime, salt and pepper to taste. Blend or process the ingredients to smoothness.

Pepita salsa can be served with chicken, beef or fish.

This may be the worst idea since Hamburger Helper

Sharing recipes is one thing. In fact, I participated last year in a somewhat unsuccessful "chain recipe" effort that was, at the least, a good idea.

But sharing a recipe and then letting other people tweak it, via a Wiki? I don't think so.

The idea was detailed this week in a Time magazine article passed along to me by friend Susan Bullen. From the article:
Christopher Kimball, who searches for perfect recipes for a living as the editor of Cook's Illustrated and host of PBS's America's Test Kitchen, says letting random people tweak recipes will lead to tears on the stove top. "Variables affect other variables," he says, and without one person testing each and every change, "there's no continuity of experience. So how do you get the answer?"
That pretty much sums up my thoughts on it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 2

What's free about free range?
"We (chefs) sit in our haughty-taughty whites, saying we want free-range this, free-range that. But we're not willing to pay what free-range this and that costs."
-- Chef John Meidinger on how improved conditions for chickens would mean birds with less chance of carrying food-borne illnesses into restaurants, but at a price.

Cut out parsley seeds
"What do you mean get the seeds out of the parsley? Those are tomatoes."
 -- Culinary arts student John Briggs in the midst of the mad scramble to complete 10 precision knife cuts on pieces of produce in 30 minutes.

Measuring happiness
"Be mindful that there are 2 tablespoons in a fluid ounce, and you should live a happy life."
   -- Chef Tony Marano, zeroing in on a key measurement among a confusing array of numbers, for a group of math-challenged culinary students.

Why we have 2 hands
"You should learn to use your hand to measure (in the kitchen). Why? Because all the time you have your hand with you. You aren't going to carry a measuring stick into the kitchen."
   -- Chef Gilles Penot, visiting from Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa,Canada, discussing how to measure precision produce cuts.

Don't call Guinness Book
"What's your record? Seven? You won't break that today."
   St. Francis Hospital Physician's Assistant Krista DeWys as she sewed five stitches into my left thumb after I sliced it at the first knuckle with a paring knife when practicing my cutting skills.

Knife skills exam delayed; I'm on 15-day DL

Being on the disabled list has delayed my taking the basic knife skills practical exam at culinary school. Chef Tony said Friday that he doesn't want me to take it until I have the stitches out of my thumb. That's likely as much as two weeks, according to my doctor.

Chef said he wants me to have full mobility in my thumb because one needs both hands for cutting. Currently, the thumb is somewhat immobilized -- splinted so it won't bend and crack open the cut.

Not that it gives me any kind of advantage over my classmates, all of whom took the exam Friday. By all accounts, they did well. Chef Tony ended the class by grading each and then declaring that everyone had made vast improvement in just two weeks.

A perfect score is 50 -- 5 points for each of the 10 cuts. I heard one student say she got a 49.5, another a 49 and several 48s. It will be tough to match those when I do get the chance.

The good news is that it's not a competition. Everyone is supportive of each other, and we all want to succeed and see one another succeed.

I am looking forward to taking the exam. Let the healing begin!

(Photo credit: