Visiting Chef

Recently my chef friend Svante moved to New York to begin a new job working at Jean George. Nice for him, right? Timing would have it that he found a job before he found a home so I offered up a patch of wood flooring and a sleeping bag in my living room, provided he didn’t mind sharing with the twenty-three pound shaggy cat who had also taken up residence in my place for the summer. Despite Svante’s new and intense chef schedule, we managed to squeeze in a few home-cooked meals. We had real Italian-style carbonara – no cream, plenty of bacon and egg yolks. We also had French omelets which are made just like scrambled eggs except at the last minute they are spread flat to finish cooking with a bit of cheese sprinkled in before the final fold. Herb stuffed chicken was a meal that found me butchering my own chicken breast and actually enjoying it. Tostones were the side dish that night, and I have to be honest and say, I never make fried plantains or fried anything else for that matter. I have an intense fear of oil cooking – it’s hot and splatters and I have no idea what to do with the oil once the whole production is over. Not to mention that mushy, grease-soaked food is more depressing than dry chicken or soggy pasta. All in all, Svante’s visit resulted in great strides in my tiny kitchen. Along with some confidence building guidance, great enough to help my boyfriend and I get over our deboning, deep frying fears; he provided us with some simple tips that can easily be applied in any kitchen.

How to Hold A Knife
Take a look at the photo. Instead of gripping the entire handle, like almost everyone does, hold the blade between your index finger and thumb using the rest of your hand for security and control. This really helps make your knife strokes precise and powerful. Doesn’t that just make you feel one tiny step above the rest?

The Power of Salt, Butter and Olive

A few years ago, after returning from Italy, I had this tip down. My pasta water was as briny as the Atlantic. I thought nothing of using a ½ cup of olive oil in a single pasta dish, and I felt completely comfortable swathing anything that crossed my plate in butter. I hadn’t realized I lost my cavalier toward these items until we made that pasta carbonara.
To actually add butter and oil to a pan of bacon grease seemed ridiculous. But in the end the carbonara tasted like real food. It was the antithesis of the spray pump salad dressings and anemic looking low carb rolls I see people forcing down at lunch time. I’m not advocating that we all go out and catch ourselves a heart attack, but consider this, in a world ranking of fattest countries the U.S. is number nine while Italy with all its bread cheese and oil is number 111. Seems we need to get our priorities in order.

Tomato Concassé ( Peeled and Diced Tomato)

Ok this is not a critical skill, but it does add some polish to your presentation and it refines the texture of your tomatoes. Score your tomatoes at the top in an X, being careful to only cut the skin. Place tomatoes in boiling water for 30-60 seconds, depending on how ripe they are, when the skin peels back like a blossoming flower; they’re done. Quickly place them in cold water to “shock” them and prevent further cooking. Once the tomatoes are cool, remove skin, cut in lengthwise quarters. Remove the interior stem and seeds. Once you dice or slice your tomatoes to their desired size you will have created what is typically referred to as tomato concass√©.

Boiling Veggies
For me the most important thing when cooking vegetables is speed and minimal clean up. I force my broccoli into the smallest pan with the least amount of water and the lid shut tight which, according to Svante, is why I often end up with cheerless little spears. He says vegetables should be cooked in plenty of water. This allows everything to return to a boil faster ensuring even cooking and breathing room. We should never use a lid, he says, because the natural chemicals being released in cooking get trapped inside the pot robbing the vegetables of their bright colors. Salty water will keep your vegetables bright. This is not true, however, for white vegetables, add an acid like lemon juice or vinegar to their water and save the salt for after cooking.

Bruschetta: Easy, Fast, and Kinda Impressive
While I’m not confident enough to recreate everything we made, one dish that can be added to any beginners repertoire is bruschetta. Bruschetta, pronounced brus’ke’ta, can be roughly translated from Italian to mean grilled. Contrary to popular belief, bruschetta refers to the bread, not its topping. Below is a recipe for a more traditional bruschetta topped with fresh tomatoes.

4 plum tomatoes
1/4 cup of olive oil
3 tablespoons basalmic vinger
1 French baguette

Dice tomatoes, making an effort to keep cube shape and size consistent. Time permitting use the concassé method mentioned above. Place diced tomatoes in a bowl and add oil, vinegar and salt. Mix and readjust seasoning to taste. Place marinating tomatoes in refrigerator while preparing your bread.
To prepare bread, cut baguette on a diagonal into 1 inch slices. Place slices on a baking sheet, drizzle olive oil over the top and add a very light sprinkle of salt. Place bread into a 375 degree oven baking for about 5-10 minutes or until the edges begin to brown. You want your bread to be crusty on the outside, but still have a pleasing soft center. Top warm bread with tomatoes being sure not to put too much of the tomato liquid on the bread making it soggy.
Makes about 6 slices
- Instead of tomatoes, top brushetta with a soft cheese
- Before adding a topping, rub baked bread with a clove of garlic for additional flavor
- Experiment with alternative toppings like roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella, or basil spiked tomatoes
- Try this recipe in the toaster oven. In the summer heat I tried this in my counter top oven and it worked great. For some other easy toaster oven recipes, take a look at famed chef Eric Rippert’s website at the site has both recipes and instructional videos.

Truth Be Told -- My Hummus was Bad

Truth Be Told -- My Hummus was Bad

Truth be told, I was so amped about posting my first blog entry that I didn’t try my hummus recipe until after I had broadcasted it across the world wide web. Needless to say, there were a few glitches, and I currently have a Tupperware container of grainy, week-old chick-pea dip sitting in my fridge. But before being sentenced for my transgressions, I would like to put forth a small and humble defense.

I’m a neophyte cook and a neophyte blogger, but I’ve got passion and chutzpa for days. We’ve all got to start somewhere, and my small space among the millions of blogs on the internet seems to provide just the right amount public of anonymity to help me bumble and scrap my knees onto the food writing scene. For those brave enough to stand by and watch, I thank you. For those of you obligated by friendship and relation to stick around, I say, carry on soldiers.

As for the recipe, my friend Denise sent it to me in Italian, which makes sense because we met in an Italian language school. Reading her instructions, I was lulled into complacency by the relative simplicity of it all. The instructions took up no more than four lines and included statements like “cook the beans until they are soft”. I was so impressed with the idea of swapping recipes with my Israeli friend in the Italian language that I completely overlooked the lack of specifics. Who needs details when making something this simple?

According to the directions on the chick-pea bag I need only boil the beans for ten minutes and then continue to soak for another two hours. Two hours and ten minutes into the process, the beans were only two degrees softer than tooth cracking. No big deal. I put them back on to boil and searched the internet for a few extra hints to supplement my recipe. An hour or so later I found myself shucking hundreds of peas by hand, which I found to be a very cathartic exercise. About half way through I began to question if I had really understood what I read because I kept trying to picture any middle eastern mother, in any one of the middle eastern countries, messing around with a pot of beans for two hours while her kids ran around destroying the house; not practical, not likely. I must have misunderstood.

The real disaster began when I got down to blending the whole thing together. I put my shucked peas, lemon juice, tahini and olive oil in a blender, secured the cover, and hit the power. The motor grinded and whirled, but the contents of the blender did not move. Power off-push-prod-stir. Nada. Hot and frustrated, I dumped a portion into my tiny food processor. This particular model requires the user to hold down a button on the side of the machine with her olive oil slicked hands while the processor screeches back in painful protest.

But I continued to macerate those chick peas in small batches until I got the younger version of what is now collecting social security in my fridge. A pile of dishes and a headache later I could not bring myself to do more than taste for seasoning, which was actually quite nice despite the off putting texture. The result of my hard work looked nothing like the version of perfection I envisioned. Like a sore loser I covered my opponent and threw it into the fridge for a rematch that never came to fruition.

For all of those wishing to punish me for my crimes against blogging, you must acknowledge that I have suffered enough. Mea culpa, Mea culpa, Mea culpa, I will never again post another recipe that I have not tried. I will put forth only those things I know to be successful and delicious.
If there is anyone out there that has a hummus recipe that is fun and easy, and actually works please bring it forth.