Wife Lessons: Taste As You Go

My lovely wife was kind of miffed about my Buying Local post. Not because she’s some huge supporter of chain stores or big beef, but because, as she mentioned in the comments section of said post, she’s been talking to me about this kind of stuff for years now. It’s true and it’s very much like that scene in Modern Family (a fantastic show which I wrote about over on UnitedMonkee). I have no defense for this. Like I said in that post, sometimes it can take a while for an idea to really take root in your brain.

As a kind of “I’m sorry” and to give you readers a better idea of my cooking background, I decided to start a recurring series of posts called Wife Lessons (like “life” lessons, get it?). She has way more cooking experience and knowhow than me. While I was waiting for my mom to cook dinner, she was in the kitchen with her mom helping out. She’s like my walking cookbook and reference guide all in one. I couldn’t cook without her and what’s the fun in making all this food for just one person? She offers advice (sometimes without me even asking) and recommends different spice combinations to really bring things together.

The biggest, most important lesson she’s taught me over the years and the one she continues to remind me about as I experiment in the kitchen is to taste as I go. It’s such a simple, basic and even obvious step in the cooking process, but one I honestly never even thought of. I consider myself a very analytical thinker, so when a recipe tells me how much of what ingredients I need to gather and how to throw them together, my dish should just taste good, right?

I can’t tell you how many times we had the same conversation about whether I’ve tasted my food as I cooked. Eventually, I got the importance of tasting my food as I went through my thick skull. As such, I’ve started to understand how flavors develop, what certain seasonings and herbs taste like and how they might benefit the dish. Sometimes I wonder if I should have read a book about cooking theory or something along those lines when I was starting off, but I also think it’s important to just jump into something and learn as you go. It’s the difference between learning in a school and learning in the real world and while both have their merits, there’s something you just can’t learn until you’re doing it for real. I can read about the right amount of salt to put in a dish, but until you bite into something that has way too much or too little of that particularly important ingredient, you don’t really know what the deal is.

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Food Epiphany: Buy Local

The thing about epiphanies is that they can be flapping around you for quite a while before finally finding a place to land in your brain. When they do, though, they can be headslapping revelations. “Why didn’t I think of this before?!” Fireworks. Things are different now. Even if it’s a subject you’ve thought about it before, but just didn’t focus on it or really mulled over, there might be that one thing that really makes you take notice. I’ve been hearing about farmer’s markets, buying local and the slow food movement for a while now, but it wasn’t until I saw (my wife will laugh at this because I talk about him more than I probably should) Anthony Bourdain in Provence, France on an episode of No Reservations last night that the idea of buying local really landed in my brain. It was probably the 20th episode I’ve seen where he talked about using local ingredients that are in season, but I think it was the beauty of the area, the bright colors and calming aesthetic of the place that allowed some of the background chatter in my brain to calm down long enough for the idea to really take up real estate in my head.

For a long time, food was more social or utilitarian, something that filled my belly and gave family or friends the opportinity to catch up. There were good and even great meals in there, but overall, I didn’t really think much about the food I was eating. Even when I moved out on my own, the extent of my cooking revolved around tossing a piece of meat in a plastic bag with marinade and cooking it on the George Foreman. Since getting married, I’ve moved in and out of cooking on a regular basis, but in the last few years I’ve really jumped in. Grabbing a recipe and buying the ingredients from the store was never really anything I gave much thought to. Where else would I buy groceries than at the grocery store?

I’ve mentioned here and there that I try to make it out to the farmer’s market in nearby Cornwall, so I guess the whole local thing isn’t a completely new revelation. But, after watching that episode of No Reservations I realized how lucky I am to live in an area with so many farms. Depending on the season and my needs, I can get pretty much anything I’d want or need from eggs and milk to meat and veggies. Sure, I’ll probably have to go out of my way a little bit and maybe get a bigger cooler for transporting and even shift my schedule around to accommodate the dates of farmer’s markets (not to mention planning for winter way ahead of time), but I think it will be worth it.

To be clear, I’m not interested in buying local for moral reasons. I think the way beef and poultry is mass produced in this country probably isn’t the best or healthiest way to go, but it works for some people. I’m coming at this from more of a taste and health point of view. Food that hasn’t been frozen and just came off the vine/tree/whathaveyou is just plain fresher and tastes better. Then you get into things like animal feed and how that plays into how they taste when you cook them up, that’s a whole different level as well. In addition to all that, I like the idea of supporting local business people, especially farmers. My paternal great grandfather was a farmer, so I feel some kind of kinship there even though he passed away before I was born. Besides that, I also have a deep respect for anyone who works that hard with their hands.

I spent a good deal of last night looking around for farms and farmer’s markets in the area. I’ve got a few in mind that I’m going to check out. I’ll let you guys know how that goes. I’m also looking around for people making awesome cheeses and meats (dried, smoked, sausage). I feel like I’ve been listening to boy band music and digging that for years only occasionally hearing Led Zeppelin and liking it but not really jumping in. Now I’m knee deep in the catalog and branching out into all kinds of other things from Pink Floyd to Miles Davis. There’s a huge world of food out there that I’m excited about jumping into starting with the foods that around me. Now I just need to learn what’s in season and when!

Cooking Boeuf a la Ficelle

As I mentioned earlier today, Anthony Bourdain warned me in the intro to his Les Halles Cookbook not to worry about screwing up when it comes to trying these recipes. His words echoed in my head by the time I finished making Boeuf a la Ficelle (Les Halles Cookbook page 122), a dish that boils carrots, onions, turnips and leeks before inserting a hunk of meat and then making a sauce out of the broth. It seemed really simple, but turned out to be a bit difficult, mostly because I bonered a few ingredients while shopping.

First off, I’ve never even tasted a turnip as far as my memory goes, so I don’t know what a good one looks or tastes like. I should have done more research. I grabbed four purple ones as they were the only my grocery store had. I also got a bag of baby carrots which I regretted as soon as I got home as they were a little slimy. The last piece that didn’t come together was the meat. The recipe calls for 2 pounds of beef tenderloin. I looked all over the meat section of my grocery store and didn’t see anything called that (again, I’m a novice, as if that needs to be explained). So I checked my phone and wound up with over 3 pounds of top round. A little more research (and with the pressure off) I realize now that that’s not even close. What I should have done was talk to the butcher, but my trips to the store with the baby can go sour fast and I wanted to get back home.

When I actually got to cooking the meal, things seemed to go pretty smoothly. I wound up using the whole bag of baby carrots, sliminess and all. I also got the bouquet garni together, which is a mix of parsley, thyme and a bay leaf wrapped in cheesecloth so you can get those flavors in whatever you’re cooking, but not deal with the herbs floating around. Then I chopped an onion in half and poured a little ground clove on it to take the place of actually studding them with cloves. Anyone know if this is a good substitute? I just kind of winged that one. Next I cleaned the leeks the way my wife taught me. Those guys get a lot of dirt between the sections, so you can soak them in a bowl of water, move them around a bit and the dirt sinks to the bottom.

With all the veggies in the pot, it was just a matter of waiting for the water to boil before inserting the meat. I realized that the extra pound of meat meant that I should have some more liquid and also that the cook time should be a few minutes longer. After boiling for about 25 minutes, I pulled the meat out, then got the veggies out. Seemed good. I even let the meat sit for a while like the recipe says, but when I cut into it was still really raw. Like purple-raw. So, I heated the broth back up to a boil and put the meat back in. Not sure how long that lasted. I pulled out again and decided to cut the slab of meat into smaller slices and then putting them back into the boiling broth. It was kind of a mess.

The meal wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t amazing either. The meat was kind of tough and the vegetables not the best. Using the wrong meat surely didn’t help matters and like I said, I don’t know from turnips but my wife said I didn’t wind up with very good ones. But, it wasn’t a total wash. I learned about checking on my ingredients and doing a little more research. For lunch today, I wound up putting some of that broth in a pan, heated it up and them warmed some chopped up beef and some leftover veggies and it wound up being not half bad.

Cook Book Nook: Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook

Anyone who’s read this blog knows that I’m a fan of Anthony Bourdain. I like his attitude, I like his outlook on food and I like how he writes. So, it should come as no surprise that I was also looking around to get his Les Halles Cookbook. My wife and I went to a closing Borders and I immediately went to the food section looking for anything of interest, but especially Bourdain books. I didn’t walk away with his cookbook, but I did get the follow up to Kitchen Confidential called Medium Raw which I’m excited about. Then, as if by magic, Bourdain’s Les Halles book showed up on my doorstep from Amazon. I really had to think, “Did I do some late night ordering after a few beers?”

No. In fact, the book was actually my very first piece of Monkeying Around The Kitchen fan mail. My mom saw how much I enjoyed Kitchen Confidential and picked it up for me, so thanks Mom! I was really jazzed and, as I mentioned, found a recipe that didn’t involve making stock to cut my teeth on. It’s not that I don’t want to make stock–I really do–it’s just that I haven’t had the time to get the ingredients and get them simmering.

But, before I cooked, I read the intro sections and was not disappointed. Bourdain was not mellowed in any way, but his point was very clear: you CAN cook this food. You might screw up, you might throw away entire meals, but you can cook this food. It’s basically peasant food. He also stressed the importance of having a good knife, making your own stock, preparing not only a shopping list but also your cooking area and ingredients before starting and keeping a good attitude about all of this. I should also explain that Les Halles is a French restaurant in NYC that Bourdain is (I believe) still the executive chef for. He was there when her wrote Confidential and still returns every now and then when his traveling schedule for No Reservations allows.

So, how did my first experience cooking French food go? Well, you’ll just have to wait a few hours to find out. Let’s just say that I’m glad Bourdain explained how failure is a big part of the game.

Cooking Grilled Chicken With Arugala, Black Olives & Tomatoes

I would have posted this one on Friday, but I wound up having some problems with my first Anthony Bourdain recipe (which I’ll write about tomorrow) and then there was the small matter of getting ready for Hurricane Irene, which I’ll be writing about over on Pop Poppa. Anyway, as I said when explaining this week’s menu, I had cooked Tyler Florence’s recipe for Grilled Chicken with Arugala, Black Olives and Tomatoes before. Back when my wife was pregnant our midwives wanted her to get some more iron in her system and suggested that arugala might be a good way to do that, so I dug around for a recipe that would fit the bill. The beauty of Florence’s recipe is that it’s so simple you don’t really need to do much to come out with a great little meal. I also like that you can do the whole thing in stages and the timing works out pretty well.

A quick note on the ingredients. I would have gotten fresh arugala, but I didn’t make it to the farmer’s market and I would have gotten olives from my local Hannaford’s olive bar, but I have to admit that I didn’t know what actual black olives look like. Everything on there was kinda squishy. So, I went with canned. I’ll try and do a little more research next time. Aside from that the only change I made was using two lemons instead of one because I happened to have an extra one in the house.

I cut my chicken breasts into smaller pieces, trimmed them down and then smashed them between two pieces of parchment paper using a heavy ice cream scoop. We don’t have a meat tenderizer and the idea of using our wooden rolling pin kind of skeeved me out. Then I put them in a long, low baking dish that we have a lid for along with the olive oil, lemon juice (using a whole lemon instead of half), salt and paper and then popped that in the fridge for 30 minutes. In that time I was lucky enough to put the baby down and had her sleeping in her crib which is pretty unheard of, but much appreciated. After that I got to chopping up the tomatoes, olives (drained) and onions. I find veggie chopping to be pretty zen, so this was a nice break. After that I put the crazy simple dressing together, using another full lemon and instead of putting it on the veggies, placed it in the fridge.

From there it was just a matter of cooking the chicken. Luckily we have a cast iron grill pan that fits over two burners, so I got that heating up and oiled when ready. I don’t think I had the heat balanced out exactly because my bigger “quick boil” burner was hotter than my “simmer” burner. No big deal, I just shuffled some pieces around. When they were done, all the chicken got chopped up and mixed in with the salad and topped with the dressing.

Adding the extra lemon in the marinade really made the chicken taste better in my opinion. I dig that lemony zest and really enjoyed as it popped in the salad. I will admit that the arugala itself is a little bitter and it has taken some getting use to, but when mixed with all the other ingredients, that edge is taken back. Overall, I really like this dish, it feels light, but comes with a lot of flavor and makes for pretty good left overs the next day, plus you don’t have to worry about coming up with veggie to go along with your main dish! Highly recommended!

The Mystery Of The Santa Claus Melon

Thanks to a mild earthquake on Tuesday, I got to hit the grocery store and got everything for this week’s menu. While I didn’t feel the quake where we live, it did rattle my wife’s office, so she wound up coming home a few hours early. I took advantage of the situation and ran over to the store to facilitate the menu and am pretty excited about cooking this week. I’ll post my pics from the Maiale Ubriaco later today which might be the best pork chops I’ve ever had (or at least in quite a while).Anyway, while strolling through the produce section I came across this mystery melon. I honestly had no idea what it is and even though I’m about 50/50 when it comes to liking melons (I love watermelon, but can not get behind honeydew or cantaloupe), but what the heck, right? I’m always up for trying new things. I wasn’t sure if “Santa Claus” was actually the name of the melon or the company, but after looking it up on Wikipedia, I discovered that it’s actually the name!As it turns out, Santa Claus tastes a lot like honeydew, but it doesn’t have the HD aftertaste that makes that melon intolerable to me. I guess Santa Claus is a little milder. I cut up some peaches and a plum and made a little fruit salad which turned out pretty good. I don’t think I’d get another SC melon, but I’m always down for trying something new!

Cooking Pasta With Pesto Cream Sauce & Italian Red Swiss Chard

Like I said when I went through this week’s menu, this was the first time I ever tried cooking a recipe from The Pioneer Woman. Her recipe for Pasta with Pesto Cream Sauce was right up my alley as I love, well, all of those things and am no stranger to cooking any of them. The recipe wound up being both tasty and really easy to put together, especially because we’ve got a bunch of basil in our mini herb garden. The only change I made was not using pine nuts because–as I Tweeted–those things are freaking expensive! What’s the deal with that?

Anyway, after getting the pasta together, I realized that I didn’t really have much in the way of a vegetable. I had picked up some red swiss chard at the grocery store to mix things up a little bit (you can only have asparagus and broccoli so many times a month without going a little mad), but didn’t have a recipe in mind. So when I came across Karen’s for Italian-Style Swiss Chard on AllRecipes.com, I went with it, mostly because it was the first one I stumbled upon where I had all the ingredients. The only change I made to the recipe was not using a full 1/8 teaspoon of red pepper flakes. I’m not a big fan of the heat, so I just gave the jar a shake or two and went from there.

The Pasta with Pesto Cream Sauce turned out amazing. With a little shredded Parmesan cheese on top it had that awesome basil-y, olive oily flavor that you expect, plus the creaminess added by the butter and cream. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a creamy basil sauce, but I’m definitely a fan. The chard though was another story. It came out pretty salty, so much so that I went back and double checked the recipe, thinking I might have accidentally used a tablespoon of salt instead of a teaspoon. Nope. It’s supposed to be that salty. So, if I were going to use that recipe again, I’d modify it to use a lot less salt. Aside from that though, this was a great meal that wound up being just as good today for lunch. It doens’t get much better than that!

Cook Book Nook: Northern Italian Cooking By Francesco Ghedini (1973)

I just realized that I’ve been talking about Francesco Ghedini’s Northern Italian Cooking like it’s Julia Child’s The French Chef (full disclosure, I had to look up Julia Child’s most famous cook book). I should probably explain. A week or so back I wrote about heading to nearby New Paltz and checking out Water Street Market. That post revolved around the glorious sandwich I had at The Cheese Plate, but that wasn’t the only food-related experience I had there. While walking through the aptly named Antiques Barn, I remembered something my mom said: old cook books are always worth checking out. Okay, that’s not an exact quote, but you get the idea. She’s got a whole bookshelf of cook books in the basement of my childhood home from local club ones to Betty Crocker. So, I decided to keep my eyes peeled for a book that would strike my fancy.

Most were pretty boring, but I did stumble upon Northern Italian Cooking by a guy named Frencesco Ghedini. Actually, as the intro explains, the book was actually put together after Ghedini committed suicide in the wake of his wife’s death by Elizabeth Backman. Neither Ghedini nor Backman even have Wikipedia pages, so I don’t really know much about either of them. However the idea of an old school cook book focusing on Italian food by a guy from Italy appealed to me, as did the book’s $5 price tag.

I guess I have a bias towards an older cook book like this, especially because the front is filled with recipes for various kinds of sauces, sauces you make by hand and freeze to use in other recipes throughout the volume. Sure, I could just run out and buy the canned stuff and I probably will do that again in the future, but I have this desire to get in the trenches with my food. I want to make as much from scratch as I can (within reason). I’m hoping to get a basket of tomatoes one of these weekends and spend a few hours working in the kitchen. It’ll be a lot of work, but that doesn’t scare me off. I like the repetition of a project like that and look forward to finally having a break to tackle that project. Of course, I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

Cooking Maiale Ubriaco & Applesauce

My first foray into Francesco Ghedini’s Northern Italian Cooking was a success! As I mentioned the other day when discussing this week’s menu, I went with a recipe that didn’t involve any tomato sauces because I want to actually make those from scratch and haven’t had the time yet (maybe this weekend). So, I decided on Maiale Ubriaco (“drunken pig”) which is a pork chop dish with red wine sauce. I’m not sure what the deal with typing out someone else’s recipes, so I’ll just give you the basics. You cover both sides of some pork chops with salt and pepper, then brown both sides in a pan of olive oil, cover and cook on low for 30 minutes, flipping occasionally. Then remove the meat and most of the oil, cook some garlic and parsley, then pour in some red wine (I got a $10 bottle of Pinot Noir) to make a sauce. Once it’s reduced, serve the sauce on top of the chops. Blammo. The only thing I goofed up was combining the garlic and parsley with the wine ahead of time. You’re supposed to cook the garlic first before adding the wine, so I scooped as much as I could out, but there was still a lot on the bottom. Still tasted good though.

When I wrote up the post about the menu, I asked about a possible side to go with the pork chops and my mom suggested apple sauce. I remembered this as I was walking into the grocery store, so I looked up a quick recipe that I can’t even find, but it basically involved peeling, coring and chopping up four apples and boiling them in water, cinnamon and white sugar, then smashing them up. I went with Fuji apples because I like them, but the end result was a little too sweet. My wife suggested going with Macintosh next time. I tasted it as I went, but I’m not very good with sweet flavors and don’t have a lot of applesauce experience, so I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Maybe they’ll taste a little better after sitting over night?

Overall, I really dug this recipe. The sauce reduced a lot, but packed quite a punch and it just looked really cool on the plate. How can you not like purple colored food? I also liked how simple the recipe was. Both involved covering pots and cooking for somewhat extended periods of time which allowed me to chop things up and make sure my daughter was doing well. What more can you ask for?

My Kitchen Setup

My wife, daughter and I live in a condo in Orange County, New York. We moved in about four years ago and have been updating the place as our desire and finances have allowed. Since we had to move in in a hurry, we couldn’t do any of it ahead of time, so it was a lot of “work as we go.” As of now, we’ve got every room but the kitchen painted, though we have replaced all the appliances by now thanks to parental help and a Lowes sale last year that wound up being partly disastrous and partly awesome. Anyway, we’re pretty well set up in our tiny galley kitchen. You can see the latest addition to the kitchen–the oven–pretty prominently in the shot above. You can also see that I don’t have a ton of counter space to work with, so I do a lot of prep and if I’m working on something with a lot of steps or small bowls, you’ll find them spread all over the kitchen and out onto the table. This is my main work station with all the cast iron and small appliances in those counters between the stove and refrigerator. This is the direct opposite of the previous photo. The drying rack next to the sink is almost always filled and I toss everything from used measuring spoons and ladles to bowls and sometimes scraps into the sink. You can see my laptop–the very one I’m typing this post on–propped up on a step stool there. I cook almost exclusive from recipes I find online, so this is the best way to go. I use the stool to keep the computer away from the water. I’ve usually got a podcast or music playing while I cook, so this winds up being a pretty good setup. And finally, here’s the boss who watches over me while I make dinner (please excuse our clean yet unfolded laundry in the background, like I said, we don’t have a ton of space and the washer and dryer are located at the very end of the kitchen). I’ve only returned to cooking in the past few weeks after my wife went back to work and I started watching our daughter during the day while also trying to get freelance writing done. Jumping in the kitchen and dealing with hot pans and sharp knives can be a little intimidating, especially when our darling daughter starts screaming her head off. I can’t tell you the number of times in those few weeks I’ve had to stop what I’m doing to pick her up, change a diaper or give her a bottle. She’s been falling asleep after these interventions which has been a very welcome addition to our routine.

So that’s my kitchen setup. It’s not much, but I’m pretty comfortable in there. Since I do the dishes and put them away, I know where everything is at most times, so I don’t have to fumble blindly. Still, I can’t wait for the days when I have more space to work in. Some day!