“I Can’t Cook” And other dumb things guys say…

I once worked with a woman who grew up very very poor and ended up making a lot of money, supporting her family, and working in a business where she had a lot of authority. She was, in a word, formidable. She actually scared me and that’s not easy.

One day we were in court (the business had a lot of business in the courts) and the attorneys for the various parties didn’t show up. The judge was about to proceed on to other matters when she stood up and asked the judge if we couldn’t proceed with our matter. He looked a little amused – said, ‘without your attorney?’ and she said, ‘sure, why not, he’s pretty useless anyway.’

The matter was decided in our favor without argument from the duly notified, but absent, other side. She knew exactly what to say and how and the judge let her proceed without interruption.

On the way back to the office I asked her how she knew what to do.. She said, and I quote, “There’s nothing no one knows they didn’t learn from someone.”

I’ve always loved that.

There was a guy in the restaurant last night who’d read this blog, and who said he thought it would be fun to cook, but that he just couldn’t do it. I actually hear this a lot. Let’s be clear, okay fellas? It’s not that you can’t cook, it’s that you choose not to. You either choose not to try, or you choose not to pay attention when you’re actually cooking. After all, in the words of the inimitable Gloria, “there’s nothing no one knows they didn’t learn from someone.” So you can learn.

People ask me how I got started. It’s pretty simple. I was watching Emeril Lagasse one night on Food Network, an episode of Emeril Live, and it looked like fun. He made something that looked good. I went and found the recipes online, bought the ingredients, came home the next night and cooked. Back then I used and followed recipes and I still do sometimes, but not all the time.

Gloria was right, paraphrased she was basically saying anyone can learn to do pretty much anything. We don’t all have to be chefs. It’s really okay to just perfect one or two dishes. But don’t you think that every once in a while it would be really nice for your special someone to come home to a dinner cooked by you? Stop making excuses and try it.

Who knows, you might end up owning a restaurant.

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Fall… Braises, Butternut Squash, Slow Food

I love fall.  Not that we have much “fall” in southern California.  There is a tree across the street from my house that changes color though, so it’s sort of like a fall, but actually more hollywood style.  It gets “cold” at night though.  Most nights this time of year the temperature gets down to about 40 or so at our home and there are a lot of nights starting in November that are in the 30s.  People don’t associate 30s with LA.  I like it kind of chilly.  The dogs’ evening walk is more fun.  It’s also the universal signal that it is time for fall food, which is my favorite time of the year.

To me, fall food is slow food.  It is a time for braises and roasts.  Squashes, most notably butternut and pumpkin, find their way on to restaurant menus.  It’s almost as though the cooler weather outside gives us permission to spend a little more time in the kitchen.  Things can take longer.  It’s okay.

Short Ribs are one of my very favorite fall dishes.  I love the gravy and the fall off the bone silkiness of these lovely bones when they are well prepared.  I have a great recipe.  It takes a little time but it’s worth it.  Invite some friends over, open a very nice bottle of full bodied red wine (we had a terrific Cabernet last night), if it’s really cold where you live light a fire.  It’s fall.

Rather than serving these over one of the more ubiquitous sides, like mashed potatoes for instance (which would be amazing but don’t work for my diet), I served these over a light balsamic, white bean, caramelized onion and garlic puree (it has the benefit of actually being good for you).

Braised Short Ribs

  •  5 – 6 lbs Beef Short Ribs.  (I just buy these at the grocery store)
  • 2 – 3 celery stalks
  • 2 – 3 Carrots
  • 1 large spanish (brown) onion
  • 1 8oz jar sun dried tomatoes in olive oil, rinsed in hot water. (discard the oil)
  • 2 TBs Crushed Garlic or 4 – 5 Garlic Cloves
  • 6oz Tomato Paste
  • 3 – 4 cups full bodied red wine (if necessary for any reason, substitute with 3 cups beef broth, 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 3 TBS Worcestershire)
  • 1 rounded tsp dried Thyme
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Olive or Grapeseed Oil

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Liberally season the short rips with salt and pepper.  Heat a large oven proof pot or dutch oven (I use a Le Creuset for this and it is perfect) to hot over medium high heat.  Add a splash of the oil and brown the short ribs on each side.  Let this take a little time so they develop a rich brown color.  Remove the short ribs from the pot and discard the accumulated fat.

While the short ribs are braising either fine dice (if you like your gravy textured) or puree (if you like your gravy smooth) the celery, carrot, onion, garlic and sun dried tomatoes. When you have removed the short ribs from the dutch oven (and poured off the fat) add some more oil to the oven and immediately add the diced or pureed vegetables, using their liquid to scrape the brown bits (fond) off of the bottom of the pan.  Reduce the heat if the vegetables start to burn, but leave them in the pot, stirring often so they are well browned.

When the vegetables are well browned add the cooking liquid (wine or mixture) and bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and let liquid reduce by about 1/3.  Add the short ribs back into the pot, arranging them so they form a layer on the bottom of the pan (on edge is fine), if necessary, add a little water or beef broth so the liquid is just below the tops of the meat.  (If the meat is submerged at first don’t worry about this as the liquid will cook off in the oven).  Place the ribs/pot on the center rack of your oven for between 3 and 4 hours, checking frequently to make sure the liquid doesn’t evaporate too much.  Remove the top from the pot about 45 minutes before serving to brown the tops of things …

White Bean, Caramelized Onion and Garlic Puree with Aged Balsamic Vinegar

While the ribs are braising away in the oven make this simple side.  Serve the ribs on top of it with a healthy portion of the sauce.  People will think you are a genius.

  • 2 15oz (normal sized) Cans Any Kind of White Beans
  • 1 Large brown onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons crushed garlic (or 4 cloves – smashed)
  • 1 Cup Chicken Broth
  • 2 Tbs Good Aged Balsamic Vinegar (not the crappy stuff you get in a regular store)

In a medium saucepan saute’ the onions over medium heat until well browned (adding a pinch of salt will help them brown faster).  Add the garlic and continue to saute’ for another minute or until the garlic starts to brown.  Add the beans and the broth and bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until liquid has almost completely evaporated, about 30 minutes, stirring often.  Puree mixture in a blender or food processor.  Pour into a baking dish or back into the pan and keep warm over very low heat or in a low oven.  Add balsamic just before serving.

Put a few tablespoons of the puree under the short ribs.  Enjoy …

Great, Simple, Pesto

We had our friends, Dan and Janci Farwell, over for dinner the other night.  After some go around about whether or not Janci eats fish (it turns out she does but that she doesn’t like Shellfish.  I don’t think this is really ‘outing’ her so I’m leaving this whole tangent in here unedited …  Living on the wild side!), we decided to have grilled Salmon for dinner.

The next step was figuring out how to make it special.  I’ve made Salmon many different ways.  The other night I made it and made a sauce with leeks, english peas, white wine, a little lemon and light cream that was really good.  On this day I thought about doing the same but decided I’d rather not deal with trying to park at Trader Joes so I could run in and pick up leeks and english peas.  Hmmm.. What to sauce the Salmon with?

Whenever I’m at a loss I find the nearest cookbook or Bon Appetit and flip through it for inspiration.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  On this day I saw a restaurant review that mentioned Salmon with a pesto sauce.  Brilliant!  I had everything I needed.  Off to the races.

Never start a race unless you know you have what it takes to finish.

I had two of the three ingredients I needed.  I had Basil and I had Garlic.  However, my stash of frozen Pine Nuts was inexplicably missing from the freezer.  (Pine nuts left in your pantry will go rancid quickly so if you want to save them, freeze them).  Curiously, it had been replaced by someone’s stash of Thin Mints.  Thin Mints won’t work in Pesto.  I thought about the Chefs on Chopped and decided I was not one of them.  I could not make garlic, basil and Thin Mints into a sauce.  So, now I was off to the store to buy pine nuts.  (I should add that once in the car I briefly thought about going to Trader Joes to get leeks and english peas but I ruled that out when a light turned red.)

When I laid the Salmon down face down on the grill Dan was very skeptical that I would be able to turn it.  When I did he dropped to his knees and kissed my ring.  (this may or may not be an exaggeration).  I divulge this trick in another recipe involving grilling Salmon here on the blog but suffice it to say that when you do it your friends will be impressed.

Now the pesto sauce … Yum.

Ingredients:

  • 2 Ounces Fresh Basil leaves.  (You cannot use dried for this recipe).
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 10 Garlic Cloves or Two-Three TBs crushed garlic
  • 1/4 cup very fresh extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine all of these ingredients in a food processor (17,000 italian chefs just rolled over in their graves because you are supposed to use a mortar and pestle.  However if one is not handy or you simply want to go faster just use your food processor – the blender looking thingy with the REALLY sharp blade.  No one can see those guys turning over in their graves anyway!).  Anyway, combine all ingredients in the food processor and pulse until everything is finely chopped – but not paste.  Taste it and add salt and pepper until you like it.  Try not to eat it all.  You’ll have to go back to the market.

During the last five minutes of cooking the Salmon (use the recipe elsewhere on the blog for cooking the fish) spoon the pesto onto the top of the fish.  Serve immediately with extra pesto on the side.  Receive the adoring accolades from your guests with grace.

Everything in Moderation, Including Moderation

My good friend Joe Buissink uses this phrase frequently.  I love it and I think it applies to so much.  I recently read an article about Food Network personality Paula Deen.  You can read it here if you’re interested. The article talks about the fact that Deen, now a public figure, is being attacked from many sides because of her relatively outrageous take on southern cooking.

These things make me wonder sometimes.  Why do we all have to live in a world of such extremes?  Is Paula Deen the reason people are overweight or is their lack of self-control really the issue?  The article points out that Deen and her brother are being sued by an ex employee who has accused them of all manner of bad things.  I’d point out that these days you can sue almost anyone for almost anything.  Being sued for something hardly qualifies as a testimony against or for one’s character.  (Often it says little other than that one is wealthy enough to be sued).

I have to admit that I am sometimes a fan of Paula Deen and that there are times when I’m not.  I’m also a fan of fried foods sometimes and sometimes not.  Ms. Deen’s story is compelling and one has to respect someone with such a direct and self-determined rags to riches experience.  Every once in a while I wonder if the Southern twang isn’t a little over-cooked and I change the channel, but most of the time I watch and drool and wish I could eat that way and share that exuberance.  Someday I’d love to meet her.  I have friends who did this year at the Rose Parade and who said she was marvelously gracious and outgoing with everyone she met.  That says a lot.

I use butter in my recipes.  There is no margarine in my kitchen.  If a recipe calls for eggs I use the whole thing, yoke and all.  When I cook with pastas I use the real deal, gluten rich pastas simply perform better than their ‘healthier’ counterparts.  To be sure, if I have a guest that has special dietary restrictions I go out of my way to make sure they are happy.  If I cook one way one night you can be sure the next will be different.  Steak will be followed with fish, pasta with protein, a night of heavy deserts followed with a week of no sugar at all.  Everything in moderation, including moderation.

I’m not fat and I’m not thin.  My doctor told me I’m “at the high end” of what would be considered healthy weight for my age and height.  She also said the biggest determiner of my long term health wasn’t what I ate, but how much I exercise.  I think she’s right.  If I want to make Paula’s Crispy Cream Donut Bread Pudding (If that’s actually one of her recipes), then I’m going to make it, and then just ride the bike that much farther the next day.

I guess I just never saw that much point in blaming someone else for the problems I bring on myself…

The worst thing ever invented.

I hate these things…

Remove and discard ...

When you buy a new bottle of dried herbs or spices.  Before you do anything else, remove and discard the plastic disc with the holes in it.  Do this with ALL of your spice and herb jars.  Any time you want to add spices or herbs to a dish, measure the amount out in the palm of your hand.  These things get in the way.

A much better way to measure than using those silly plastic spoons.

As an important safety tip.  Removing all of these will ensure that you never expect the thing to be on the top of your cayenne pepper container and therefore end up dumping the entire container in the chili you’ve been letting simmer for hours.  (not that I’ve ever done that …)..

Cooking Parties – Tips for Fun with Friends

I’m not sure how we all got started cooking.  I don’t know if it was Richard, or me or Hank or Patrick or Chris or one of our wives who got us all going.  But for some time we’ve been getting together at semi-regular intervals for cooking parties.  When we have these each one of us takes a course or a piece of a course and we bring our own ingredients and we cook.  I don’t know if our group of friends is odd or not but in our case the guys do almost all of the cooking.  The women just hang around and chat and look pretty.  Um .. well.  They ARE pretty and they hang around and chat and eat our food.  We ALL actually like it this way.  You should call up some friends and try it.  Here are some tips.

1).  Pick a night when there is time for prep.  Don’t try this on a day when there is a ton going on.  Cooking with lots of people is slower than cooking by yourself.
2).  If lots of people are going to be using the oven make sure you either have more than one or that everyone is going to be ok with a temperature.
3).  Resist the urge to start drinking right away.  Everything slows down and you are prone to forgetting whole courses.
4).  For multi-course meals plan very small courses.  This is harder than you might think.
5).  Go to China Town or the nearest equivalent and buy a ton of little plates.  Or – use dessert sized plastic plates.  (the first option is more fun).
6).  Consider wine pairings and stage your meal from light to heavy. We do this in real time once everyone shows up.
7).  Have the cooks share the essentials ahead of time.  You don’t want three people making scallops.  This happened at my house once.
8).  Plan your prep so that your course can be finished quickly.  You don’t want people waiting for an hour while something bakes in the oven.
9). Have someone plan dessert.  People will say they don’t want it but they will eat it.
10) Plate all of the courses and spend an extra few seconds making them look nice.  It makes a huge difference.

The big trick is to have fun and be flexible.  The first time we did this it took forever and we had to roll everyone out the side gate when it was over.  They didn’t fit through the doors.  Your guests will want to try to eat everything you put in front of them.  And if you’re pairing wines they’ll try and drink everything you pour.  On these evenings I enforce a time limit and everything not eaten is thrown out and everything not drunk (drank?) is poured in the bucket.  Even these things can be fun.

Go for it.  Come back and tell me how you did…