Friday, August 28, 2009

Spy School, Part 1
What’s cooking? Smoked Trout Canapé

Have I mentioned that I signed up for four days at the CIA? Of course, it’s not really spy school, but that sounds so much more exotic than cooking school. On the other hand, I did feel a bit like a spy, uncovering at least a few of the secrets of the fraternal order of chefs. The CIA in question is the Culinary Institute of America. In anticipation of my move to Austin (I feel sure they were thinking of me), they opened a new branch at the former home of the Pearl Brewery, on the fringe of downtown San Antonio. Against what should have been my better judgment, I took back-to-back two-day courses: the first in Basics, the second in Hors d’Oeuvres. (Trust me, four days in a row of cooking is a lot.)

I arrived late for the first day, as is unfortunately my style. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. Mostly, I tend to schedule several more tasks than there’s really time for, in some vague notion that everything will go like clockwork. Then I read recently that people who are On Time as a rule actually plan to be early. Imagine. So I’m working on redesigning my internal clock, and have had some success, but my problems with packing for these four days (see 7/31 post) put more than the usual stress on my efforts.

I needn’t have worried. About the packing, that is. All I wore for the four days was the standard chef’s uniform (black-and-white houndstooth checked pants; white, double-breasted long-sleeved jacket; and the tall white toque) and my jammies. PJs at night, chef’s uniform during the day. By the time I got back to my hotel at night, I had barely enough energy for a glass of wine (ok, maybe two glasses of wine) and then bed.

And now a word about those uniforms. They’re unisex, which means made for a straight-up-and-down physique, which mine is not. The woman on the phone when I signed up had assured me that the uniforms are huge – “Made for men” – and given my dress size, she suggested a Small. So that’s what they handed me as I crept – late, remember – past the classroom and into the Ladies’ Room, figuring it would only take a minute to change. The pants fit fine, and then I put on the jacket. Couldn’t button it, so I changed back into the shirt I’d had on, tiptoed out to the front desk and asked quietly for a Medium. Back to the Ladies’ Room, where the Medium fit except for the part around my, um, hips. (The Medium is, of course, longer in the torso.) Back to the front desk, waving cheerfully to the other students as I passed, I retrieved a Large, which fit my hips but had sleeves down practically to my knees. But I was out of options, so I rolled the sleeves up and slipped into class, where I noticed that almost all the other women had their sleeves rolled back. The short ones also had the pants rolled up. No wonder there are more men than women as professional chefs.

Meet the teacher: a 6'8" blonde with a heavy German accent. I’d guess early 40s. In the lecture portion of the class, we called him by his first name. In the kitchen, he was Chef – no first name, no last name – much like Your Highness. Definitely intimidating. And no matter how nice he tried to be there – and I know he was trying to be nice – his standards are naturally higher than we were used to. As he roamed the kitchen, where he had divided the 13 students into four teams, he would periodically stop at a station and announce, “Anyone who’s interested in learning how to chop an onion/shape a dumpling/...whatever.., look here.” It happened as I was cutting carrots. “What is this?” he asks. “I’m julienning carrots,...sort of.” I replied. Whereupon he announced, “If you’d like to see how to julienne carrots, look over here.” Then he picked up the pieces I had cut and with a look like he had just smelled something very bad, dumped them into the garbage. So I learned that in a professional kitchen, ego must take a seat waaay in the back of the bus, unless you are Chef.

I know, it sounds brutal. It turns out that cooking school is not for sissies. But I thoroughly enjoyed myself (if in a sadomasochistic sort of way), and I learned an enormous amount in each two-day class. And while I was briefly embarrassed, the other students sympathized immediately, and we all moved quickly on to the lesson. Later that night, with my jammies and my wine, I thought about those carrots, and realized how much more efficient the professional methods are than the homespun style.

More on the CIA with my next post; but for now, a simple but wonderful canapé.

Smoked Trout Canapé (yields about 30 pieces)

15 ounces hot-smoked trout
1 loaf rye bread, cut into 1½-2-inch rounds or squares and toasted
1 cup horseradish butter (see recipe below)
10-12 large pimiento-stuffed olives, sliced
6 or so cherry tomatoes, cut into 4 or 8 wedges, depending on size of the tomatoes

Separate the trout (following natural seams) into pieces ¾-1 inch square. Spread each toast thickly with horseradish butter. Top with a piece of trout. Garnish first with a slice of olive, then with a wedge of tomato. Arrange neatly on a platter.

Horseradish Butter (yields 1 cup)

3 tablespoons prepared horseradish, excess liquid squeezed out
1 cup softened butter
2 teaspoons prepared mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1½ teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice

Place all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Mix until thoroughly combined (butter will expand and fluff, but do not allow it to melt). Transfer to a sheet of plastic wrap and roll into a 1-inch cylinder. Store in plastic wrap in the refrigerator. Soften at room temperature to use.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Happy Birthday, Gladys!
What’s cooking? English Scones

I know, I know, my previous two postings have contained birthday greetings of a sort. And now here’s another. What can I say? Maybe I have a thing for people born in August. I promise to stop...after this one.

Today is my mother-in-law Gladys’s birthday – 98 years young. And as I am now a mother-in-law-in-waiting (one of my sons is engaged), I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons she has taught me.

She doesn’t get to visit us any more, as the travel is too hard, but when she did, she always looked for a way to help. Setting the table, chopping vegetables, mending anything or sewing on buttons. (Sewing would be the least of my skills – once when I offered to put a button on for one of my sons, his eyes opened wide as he said, “You can do that?”) The best was that she’d make up our bed every day – what a treat! And while I’m sure she must have occasionally despaired at my inability to get dinner ready on time, she kept all those thoughts to herself.

I learned what a blessing she would be early on, when our first son was born. I was a mess – exhausted with the demands of new motherhood, recovering from a Caesarian delivery and a mildly disastrous visit from my own mother. When Gladys arrived, I had struggled just getting downstairs to say hello. But I wanted to be polite. “Let me get you a cup of tea,” I offered.

“You sit right there,” she said. “Let me get one for you.” And I know it seems like nothing in the telling, but I just about collapsed with gratitude at that simple gesture.

Gladys is a terrific baker, though she doesn’t do much of that either these days. I don’t ever hope to replicate her genius with apple pies, but she taught me the trick of rolling out dough between two pieces of floured waxed paper, and she gave me her mother’s recipe for scones. Their family had emigrated from England – of the five children, Gladys and her brother were the only ones born in the U.S. – and her mother kept a very English household. So these scones are the real thing. They’re easy to make, great for breakfast or a mid-afternoon snack (tea, anyone?), and they freeze wonderfully – just split the frozen scones, smear a little butter on the cut face, and toast lightly. Jolly good. This recipe makes 8 large scones or 12+ small ones.

Gladys Hilton’s Scones

Kitchen Goddess note: The scones pictured are made with raspberries instead of raisins. It's a very flexible recipe as regards the fruit. I also sometimes use candied ginger, which is yummy!

⅓ cup butter
⅓ cup sugar
2 eggs, unbeaten
⅓ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup raisins (or other dried fruit)

Topping: 2 tablespoons sugar, ½ teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400º.

Mix together butter, sugar, and eggs.

Combine milk with vanilla. Separately, combine flour with baking powder and salt. To the butter/sugar/egg mixture, gradually and alternately add the milk/vanilla and the flour/baking powder/salt. Finally, stir in raisins.

Drop tablespoon-sized mounds onto a greased cookie sheet. (The Kitchen Goddess hates the mess of greasing cookie sheets and always uses baker’s parchment instead. No muss, no fuss, no cleanup.) Sprinkle sugar/cinnamon mixture on top. Bake 10-12 minutes in the top half of the oven. Serve warm with butter and jam, or clotted cream if you’re feeling terribly English.

Kitchen Goddess note: When making scones or muffins or cakes, whipping the butter and sugar together until the color turns very pale adds air to the batter and will make the end product lighter.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Julia’s Birthday
What’s cooking? Cottage Cheese Pancakes

I have learned today from The Wall Street Journal of all places that this date is Julia Child’s birthday, so I plan to raise a glass of champagne to her later on – not before lunch – and invite any others of you who are fans to join me.

Having just arrived back in Austin from our whirlwind tour of the Northeast, I was sure we would be the last people on the planet to see Julie & Julia, which is were we went last night. If you have not been, go now. It’s fun and funny, even to a non-foodie like my husband, with an admirable performance by Amy Adams (imagine the challenge – sort of like cooking next to Julia) and the usual magic by Magnificent Meryl in her platform shoes as she takes on Julia’s physical size as well as that voice. I loved the book (Julie & Julia), but nothing can compare with la Streep. She made me want to run home and...chop onions. I am now committed to trying the Boeuf Bourguignon as soon as the temperatures in Austin drop into the 70s, which at this rate could be a while.

In the meantime, I spent a delightful half hour or so picking wild blueberries with my friend Ann in Martha’s Vineyard – a painstaking process that yielded only about a cup of the tiny berries, but wholly satisfying as an activity for a foodie. We didn’t have the ingredients for pancakes, so we ate the blueberries with fresh yogurt and a spoonful of honey, which was yummy. But Ann gave me her favorite recipe, which she says makes the most amazing pancakes ever:

Cottage Cheese Pancakes (adapted from The Tassajara Bread Book)

6 eggs
6 tablespoons whole wheat flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups cottage cheese (Ann says the non-fat variety makes a lighter, fluffier version; low/whole fat cottage cheese makes a cheesier version – your choice)

Separate eggs. Beat whites until stiff and set aside. Mix remaining ingredients (including egg yolks) together and fold in egg whites.

(The recipe doesn’t include blueberries, so I will just append a reminder to add blueberries to taste.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Zucchini Everywhere
What’s cooking? Cold Zucchini Soup

Today is my friend Gusty’s birthday, so I hope any of you who are interested in writing will check out her posting about Sno-cones and writing over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find. Or take a look at her own site:

One of the great pleasures of visiting Nantucket is my friend Laurie’s garden. And while the excess of cool, wet weather they’ve had in the Northeast this year has inhibited her crop of tomatoes, her zucchini plants are spreading like gossip in high school.

At dinner last night, I made an eggplant-free ratatouille of sorts (the purple stuff being the only veggie I don’t like), sauteing an onion and garlic in some olive oil, then adding chopped zucchini and local tomatoes, with a few sliced sun-dried tomatoes for sweetness. Cook just until the zucchini is done to taste (I like mine on the firm side), then season with salt and pepper (we used lemon pepper, which worked really well). Sprinkle pecorino romano over the top at the end. Cover it for a minute to let the cheese melt, and dig in.

Yum. As with most of these concoctions, the best part is adjusting the ingredients to your own tastes. (Like, for instance, leaving out the eggplant.)

But my favorite squash recipe is Laurie’s cold zucchini soup. Just right for lunch or a light start to a summer dinner from the grill.

Laurie’s Cold Zucchini Soup

1 ½ pounds unskinned zucchini
1 medium onion
4 tablespoons butter
3-3½ cups chicken broth
½ cup half-and-half
salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste

Slice zucchini and sauté in butter with onion for 5 minutes until just soft. Add broth and salt and reduce heat. Simmer 15-20 minutes. Stir in nutmeg.

Ladle one-third of the veggies and broth into a blender, add half-and-half, and purée. Add remaining veggies and broth and purée until smooth. Refrigerate until chilled. Serves six as a first course.