Friday, July 3, 2015

July Fourth: What Would George Washington Eat?

Tomorrow people around the country will celebrating the anniversary of the USA's birth as a country.  In today's culinary tradition many of these good folks will fire up their grills and cook up the grilling season's standards such as burgers or hot dogs.  For the more "adventurous" types some chicken or even sausages might find their way onto the grill.  I myself will be cooking up some tasty fajitas.  But have you ever stopped to consider what food was consumed during the pre-colonial and post independence United States?  The stuff they ate was very different than the out door feasts we have now.

Food back then was quite varied.  Just like now region played a part in what you were eating.  However, there were some common threads throughout the colonies and subsequent young country.  To start off with meat was used to supplement meals than as a main feature.  Meat was either expensive or had to be hunted.  Large cuts of meat in were usually reserved for special occasions and large parties.  Some of the most common meats came from wild game such as venison or other small woodland creatures. One affect of the revolutionary war was that cattle raising had begun on a small scale during the French-Indian War, but when the American Revolution came, farmers were able to increase their cattle holdings and increase the presence of beef in the American diet. Turkey was a plentiful and popular mainstay in colonial America. It was a free and easy source of food for the colonials since they roamed wild in the forests. It was so beloved by Benjamin Franklin that he wanted to make it a national symbol! 

Seafood was another popular source of protein.  Given the access to bodies of water, both fresh and saltwater, it is easy to see how seafood of all types was enjoyed.  One of the most popular items was oysters.  They were so plentiful that some streets were paved in oyster shells.  Martha Washington's cookbook included multiple recipes for oysters.  Trout and salmon were other mainstays of the colonial culinary palate.  Fish was abundant and could be obtained from the rivers and oceans found in the country.  Fishing in areas used for salt water fishing became dangerous during the war. That coupled with the fact that many of the boats used to fish were put towards the war effort caused these areas to be unused.  Before the war, there was often talk about the excess of lobsters and cod off the shores of New England. However after the war most fishermen found that they had migrated away from these areas.  Even with all these problems seafood stayed as a staple of the new United States' diet.

Farming in the colonies varied by region.  The middle colonies were known as the breadbasket colonies since they grew mainly grains such as wheat, barley, oats, rye, and corn.  They also raised crops such as pumpkins, squash, and beans.  In the south they developed large plantations exporting corn, vegetables, grains, fruit, and livestock to the other colonies for food.  The  northern colonies produced number of vegetables were grown in the northern colonies, including turnips, onions, cabbage, carrots, and parsnips, along with pulses and legumes. These vegetables stored well through the colder months. Farming in New England for crops like wheat was impractical due to the poor soil. One of the most popular vegetables grown was green beans since it was also one of the easiest and sturdiest to grow.  Thomas Jefferson mentions growing them several times in his "Garden Book".  What is curious is that even with all these crops, colonial Americans did not enjoy eating raw veggies.  They preferred them boiled.

Fruits were also common amongst the colonials.  Especially popular were apples and cherries.  Apples were plentiful and grew in most regions.  Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cultivated cherry tree orchards. Fruits were grown seasonally so in order to eat these fruits out of season they were preserved as jams, sweetmeats, or just dried.  

Desserts were an important part of any colonial meal.  They gave an extra bit of calories in the form of sugar and fat.  One popular dessert was fruit pies.  Not only were pies a dessert, but they also were a manner of preserving fruits.  Another common dessert was the pound cake. Nearly every cookbook in colonial America had a recipe for pound cake. It was a simple and long-lasting cake, which made it a great option for dessert.

As far as drink options went in colonial America, there were quite a few.  The one thing missing was plain water as it was often times considered unsafe to drink.  Instead colonial Americans enjoyed things such as coffee, tea, rum, whiskey, cider and beer.  Hard apple cider was the most readily available and cheapest option.  It was easier to make than anything else and was often produced locally.  A farmer could even produce it for his own consumption.  Beer, however, was also quite popular.  Beer was such an important consumable to Americans that they would closely watch the stocks of barley held by farmers to ensure quality beer production. John Adams in letters to his wife Abigail asks about the barley crops to ensure enough for the production of beer.  Even George Washington was known to brew his own beer.  Hops, essential to production of beer, did not grow well in the colonies. It only grew wild in the New World, and needed to be imported from England and elsewhere. Even children drank small beer.

There you have it.  A small sampling of what may have been eaten during that very first Fourth of July! Its a far cry from the backyard cuisine of today. Maybe next year I will have roasted turkey with boiled green beans, a nice pint of beer and a slice of cherry pie.  On second thought, maybe not!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What is Cinco de Mayo really?

 So today is May fifth... So what?  To a lot of people it is an excuse to have a good time, throw a "fiesta" and imbibe some margaritas.  However I am willing to bet that most people don't know, don't care, or are misinformed about significance of this day.  It is NOT Mexico's independence day.  That falls on September 16th.  Cinco de Mayo (known as El Día de la Batalla de Puebla in Mexico)  is the celebration of the Mexican army unlikely victory over the army of France in the Battle of Puebla.  The funny thing about this holiday is that it is not really a major holiday in Mexico.  It is really just a regional holiday celebrated primarily in the state of Puebla.  You are probably asking yourself why is this history lesson in a food blog.  Well, I figured that since Cinco de Mayo is really about Puebla, why don't we get to know some of the wonderful cuisine from this great state in Mexico.

The most famous dish coming out of the state of Puebla is mole Poblano.  As I have discussed in a previous entry, there is a wide variety of mole sauces in Mexico.  However, mole Poblano is the one that is most distinguished and well known.  It is the prototypical mole sauce everyone imagines when thinking of mole.  This mole typically has a rust red to dark brown color with well over twenty ingredients including several types of peppers, peanuts and most notably chocolate.

Another typical dish of Puebla is the Chiles en Nogada.  This dish consists of a poplano pepper stuffed with meat (picadillo) much like a typical chile relleno.  However, instead of being topped with tomato sauce after being battered and fried, the stuffed poblano is topped with a white walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds.  The green chile, white sauce, and red seeds give reference to the colors of the Mexican flag.  Even though Chiles en Nogada was born in Puebla this dish has been adopted as a source of national pride.

Mexico is filled with small dishes called antojitos.  Puebla is most well know for its chalupas and molotes.  A chalupa is made by pressing a thin layer of masa dough around the outside of a small mold, in the process creating a concave container resembling the boat of the same name. They are  then deep fried to produce crisp, shallow cup which is then filled with a variety of ingredients.

Molotes are small masa based stuffed antojitos slightly resembling a small empanada.  Molotes are filled with basic ingredients such as meat or potatoes to more exotic ingredients such as corn fungus or squash flowers. 

Puebla is also well known for its sweets.  The most well know candy coming from Puebla is the Camote Poblano or sweet potato candy. These candies are made with pureed sweet potatoes mixed with sugar and a variety of flavorings. They are hand-rolled and wrapped in wax paper. Dulces de camote also date back to the colonial period in Puebla.

Another great candy is know as jamoncillo.  This candy comes in different varieties depending on what part of the country you are in.  However in Puebla the jamoncillo is referred to a candy made with pumpkin seed paste and usually comes in a bar form with a red stripe.

And what would a good Cinco de Mayo celebration be without libations?  Puebla has some great offerings in that department at well.  First off is the classic nevado which is most like a margarita.  A nevado is frozen cocktail comprised of fruit juice and a little liquor.

Another drink native to Puebla would be the acachul.  This drink is derived by fermenting local wild chapulin cherries.

So now that you know a little more about the history of Cinco de Mayo, do yourself a favor.  Instead of just eating the typical fare of guacamole, enchiladas and margaritas, go and find some excellent cuisine from the state of Puebla!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Wine Bottle Opening: A How To

Wine is good.  A lot of people enjoy wine.  But how many know how to properly open a bottle?  This thought occurred to me while I was attending a function hosted by a friend of a friend.  During this great social event we sampled a great many wines from different countries.  As more and more bottles were opened it became very apparent that our gracious host had no idea how to properly open a bottle of wine. Not wanting to be rude I kept my mouth shut and at the end of the day the bottles were opened and we were able to enjoy the wine.  But I was still amazed at the lack of this simple knowledge.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of how we have to review hardware.  Nowadays there is a multiplicity of options to get your bottle open.  The basic corkscrew is just a piece of metal twisted in a helix fashion (known as the worm) fixed to a handle.

Next we have the wing corkscrew.  It is also known as the butterfly or angel corkscrew.  The name is due to the dual levers that resemble a pair of wings.

A more complicated wine opening apparatus is known as the sommelier knife, waiter's friend, or wine key.  This corkscrew resembles a small pocket knife with the worm being folded into the handle when not in use.  The wine key also has a metal arm that folds to cover the worm and serves as a lever when opening the bottle.

 The last device I will be discussing is a lever or rabbit corkscrew.  This device uses a pair of handles which are used to grip the neck of the bottle, and a lever which is simply pressed down to twist the screw into the cork, then lifted to extract the cork.

First lets take a brief look at the anatomy of a bottle.  The bottle consists of a neck, shoulder, body, and the heel or punt. The parts we are concerned with are from the neck up. The neck is narrower than the rest of the bottle so it may hold the stopper, often known as a cork due to cork being the primary material used to make the stopper in the past.  The opening is also called the finish and often has a slightly wider ring known as the collar.  The collar is an important part to opening a bottle of wine.

 The first step to opening a bottle of wine, no matter which device you use is to remove the foil covering the neck.  More specifically it is only necessary to remove the part covering the finish, or just from the collar up.  Completely removing this foil allows the wine to flow easily from the finish of your bottle.  The best way to remove the foil is to simply use a run a small knife around the bottle at the tip of the collar.  This will score the foil so that it may be peeled off.  A wine key more often than not has a small blade attached to it for this purpose.

This model has two small teeth imbedded in the body.

Once the foil has been removed it is time to extract the stopper.  The basic corkscrew requires that the user grips the handle and screws the metal point into the stopper then use brute strength to pull out the stopper.  The wing corkscrew facilitates this by using a mechanical means to remove the stopper.  As a person screws the worm into the stopper, the levers, or wings, lift up due to the dual gears.  Once the worm is fully inserted the user simply needs to pull down the levers and the stopper will lift out of the bottle.  The gadget that is probably the easiest, fastest, but also the most cumbersome and expensive is the lever corkscrew.  To use this device a person simply need to place the worm over the stopper, lower the lever and then lift.  The corkscrew does the rest.

The device that requires the most skill to use, but which I consider to be the most elegant, is the wine key.  It is a nuanced mechanism that combines form and function.  It is small enough that it can be carried in a pocket.  That is why is also known as a waiter's friend, since waiters will carry one on their person with ease.  Its design is simple enough that it can be made inexpensively. The "key" is knowing how to use one.  The truth is that it is really not that hard once you know what you are doing.

After the foil has been removed the first step is to open the key so that it resembles a basic corkscrew.

Next screw the worm into the stopper until it is firmly embedded in the stopper.

This is where a great many people go wrong.  Once the helix is in there, most people would just pull on the wine key as if it were just a basic corkscrew.  Buy doing this they are eliminating the advantages of the wine key.  No, the next step is to tilt the body of the wine key so that the metal tab lines up with the collar of the bottle.  If the bottle happens to lack a collar, it might be possible to align the tab with the opening.

Now use the metal tab as a lever to pull up the stopper.  This is done by lifting on the opposite side of the wine key. If necessary use both hands: one to apply the levering action and the other to hold the metal tab in place.

The cork should clear the opening, but if it does not it should be far enough out of the bottle that it can easily be pulled out the rest of the way.

Now that you have your bottle open the next step, which is the easiest, is to simply enjoy your libations! 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cutting Up Bell Peppers: Updated

Bell peppers, also known as sweet peppers,  are a great and dynamic vegetable giving us multiple ways to use them.  From simply stuffing them, to dicing them as a garnish, to cutting them into slices it all depends on what the intended use for the peppers is.  

The most common way for people to prepare their peppers is to simply slice them down the middle and scoop out the seep pod, stem and some of the white veins.   While this method is not terrible, it does make making precision cuts a bit more difficult. There is another method that is much more elegant and gives you greater adaptability with your peppers.  

The first step to cutting your pepper is to remove the stem end.  Simply cut about a fourth to a third of an inch from stem end. This serves the purpose of partially removing the stem while still taking advantage of the pepper around the stem.

Now you have a stable surface to continue cutting from.  The next step is to start cutting the sides of the pepper into flat surfaces.  The easiest way to do this is to cut a line at the obvious edges, then detach the sides from the seed pod by cutting the white membrane.  After this is done cut the bottom piece off the seed pod. You will be left with three or four flat sides, the bottom surface and the seed pod intact without any messy seeds all over your bell pepper.

If you want to get really fancy, you can always remove the excess white membrane left on your pepper.  This is kind of an advanced technique and not absolutely necessary. To remove the membrane simply lay your pepper flat and run your knife along the inside removing the membrane.

Now with your peppers deconstructed you have the freedom to do what you need. You can leave the sides whole as they are perfect for grilling. You can simply cut them into strips for a julienne. 

Or take it a step further and dice them up.  The ring leftover from the initial cut serves perfectly for this purpose.   In either case you can decide how big or small your cuts are. 

Using this method of cutting bell peppers gives you a more elegant and cleaner way of preparing them then the traditional way.  The beauty of it all is that it really does not take any more effort than before and you have more control and get a higher yield from your peppers.  This method works great not only on bell peppers, but on most fresh peppers.  So give this technique a try and see if your peppers come out looking beautiful. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Unsung Heroes of the Kitchen

They go by many names.  They have many jobs. These jobs are often the lowliest, crappiest, most overlooked and easily forgotten ones in the kitchen.  I would bet that most people outside of the profession have never even given these hard workers even the fleetest thought.  I would be willing to bet even most cooks and others that work in the kitchen don't think about them.  Who am I talking about? Sometimes they are called utility staff or stockers.  More often than not they are simply known as the dishwashers. This group of  people is absolutely indispensable for any working to kitchen to function as a cohesive unit.  When a kitchen is running as a well oiled machine, these men and women are the oil that makes it all happen.  Some may be asking why this is the case.  It is not a simple answer.

The utility staff often takes roles that are time consuming but still vital to the entire operation.  Lets start simply with the function that they are normally hired to do: wash the dishes.  This may seem straight forward, but you have to keep in mind that washing dishes in a professional kitchen is not like washing dishes at home.  You don't just simply wash a couple of pots and pans and the dishes from after a meal.  OH NO!  Here they must keep up with a pile of dishes that usually starts piling up from the beginning of the day until well after the doors close.  Some times they are dealing with leftover dishes from the night before.  It is non stop.  First it starts with the pots and pans used by the cooks.  More often than not as soon as one cook is done with a certain pot, another cook will need it due to not having another one in the kitchen of that particular type.  Dishwashers must constantly keep restocking the kitchenware.  This includes pots, pans, serving dishes, as well as any and all utensils.  Not only do they have to do this all day, but they have to do it in a timely fashion.  It is not unheard of for a cook to come into the dish area asking for a particular item to be cleaned "on the fly".  And oh unlucky is the dishwasher that ends up on the receiving end of a cook's screw up.  What I mean is when a cook burns or scalds something it is usually the dishwasher who ends up scouring and cleaning it up.  Even if the chef makes the cook clean it up or the cook himself offers to do the work, most dishwashers will rather do it themselves for the simple fact that they can do it better and faster.  Once meal service starts dishwashers now also have to contend with all the dishes, utensils, and drinkware that is being used for that meal service.  And if that were not enough, they will also start to wash any and all cookware and serving dishes used during the meal.  That is a lot to keep on top of, even with the use of warewashing machines.

In most cases just because a person is hired as a dishwasher that is not the only role they will play.  This is especially true if they fall under the job title of utility worker.  What that means is that the chef can then call on them to fill in any number of holes, from prep cook (peel a whole lot of potatoes) to cashier (usually with a little more training).  Utility workers are often the ones that take out the trash during shifts.  They are also sometimes the ones who clean the equipment between uses and at the end of the day.  More often than not they are also the ones who put up the orders from the produce and meat as well as other purveyors.  If you can't find something usually the utility staff will know where it is or if there is any in house because they put it away. This versatility means that they can do these mundane tasks while those with the specific skills to actually operate and execute the menu are free to do so.

As stated previously, most of these jobs are boring at best, unpleasant more often than not and sometimes down right gross. Washing dishes and dealing with other people's left over food on a plate is not anyone's idea of a good time.  Taking out the trash at all hours of the day with God knows what in there is nasty.   Having to put away 150 cases of frozen food from Sysco after having put away easily over a hundred pounds of produce is not easy.
What really makes the people who work these positions is that it is very uncommon for them to complain.  In my experience most utility workers have a good attitude, are happy to do the job and go well above the expectations put on them.  When asked to so something I usually get a "sure, let me just finish what I am working on right now!" 

Ask any chef who are the most crucial people working in the kitchen and chances are they will point to the dishwashers/utility staff.  Without them, the kitchen be thrown into disarray and grind to a halt.  When someone like that is missing all those tasks must fall to someone else to get done.  So the choices for a chef at that point are to assign one of his cooks so that the line suffers, or just do it himself.  The next time you are in a restaurant or dining facility of any kind keep your eye open for these heroes of the kitchen. 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Truth Behind Leftovers!

Let me preface this post by saying that I am not writing this as a warning or an expose.  I am just writing this as an informative piece on the business that is running a professional kitchen.  I just want to provide a little insight into how things work behind the scenes give everyone a little peek.  So, with that being said, I want to address leftovers.  On more than one occasion I have been asked by a patron at many of the places I have worked at what exactly happens to all the food that is leftover at the end of the day.  The truth is that the answer is not cut and dry.  There are a variety of things that can and do happen to leftover food depending on many factors. 

At the end of the day most kitchens are part of a business that is trying to make money.  One of the biggest expenses that a  culinary operation has is that of food cost and anyone running a kitchen is always trying to keep that food cost down.  A chef will try to take advantage and squeeze out as much production out of all food products purchased.  A very easy way to do that is to use up leftovers as much as possible and in as many creative ways as possible. Now when I say use up leftovers there are a couple of things you must understand.  A good chef will never sacrifice safety or quality for the sake making money.   The leftovers being used must be up to the standards of anything that would be served as if it were being prepared that day.  Those leftovers must also be safe to consume.  All decent establishments with a good record of safety and sanitation will have a use by date for their leftovers (usually 3-4 days).  If leftovers don't meet these quality or safety standards they will not be used and will be thrown out.

When leftovers are being used the easiest way to use them up is to reheat and serve them as is.  However there are a few problems with doing this.  First of all you have the problem of possibly compromising the quality of the product upon reheating.  Proteins have a tendency to dry out when reheated.  Vegetables tend to overcook and just not look as appetizing.  So if the plan is to just reheat and serve, special care is taken to reheat so as to not compromise that quality.  The second problem with just reheating and serving is that someone might recognize the food, especially if the customer base is daily repeat customers such as at a cafeteria or a dining hall.  Some observant guest might recognize the meatloaf you are serving today as the same one you had yesterday. A great way to avoid this predicament is to hold off on serving those leftovers and/or serve them at another station. 

French toast that was reheated and served the next day.

Of coarse the easiest way to avoid those pitfalls of using leftovers is to just reappropriate them and use them for something that was not their original use.  Soups are probably the most common way to do this.   Soups are cheap to make and very versatile.  They can use up most leftovers, including vegetables that normally would not be good for anything else do to the poor quality that they were in.  Chicken or beef that would dry out of reheated can easily be put into a soup.  Leftover rice or pasta also works well in a soup.   That soup of the day you love so much at your local eatery is probably made mostly from leftovers.

Leftovers make great soup.

Soups aren't  the only way to use up leftovers.  Another common destination for leftovers, especially meats, is the deli or as a sandwich filling in general.  Most of the time when assembling a sandwich it will be served cold and if it is not, there will be enough accompaniments that if the meat is a little dry it will not be too noticeable.  Sandwiches can also use up any unused sauces or cheeses from different dishes.  Sandwiches are just a great way to disguise leftovers as a completely different thing. 

Leftover Pork Loin
Turned into Cuban sandwiches

The truth is that leftovers can and are used all over an operation. The way the chef sees it is just free money, or at the very least money has already been spent and can still be taken advantage of.  It is just a matter of being creative and finding different ways to use up what is already there.  I have seen leftover grilled salmon mixed with capers, lemon juice, and mayonnaise and turned into a salmon salad that was then served from the salad bar.  I have seen unused meatballs chopped up and then added to a meat lovers pizza.  I recently ordered some seafood enchiladas from a restaurant.  When I asked the waiter what seafood was in them he told me a little bit of all the different seafood they served.  To me that indicated that more than likely they were just using leftovers to make the enchiladas.  But ultimately that is ok because I know that as long as the quality of the food was still good (they were quite tasty) and my safety was not at risk then the restaurant is just trying to be profitable.  Really that is what using leftovers is all about. Kitchens are just trying to use up and take advantage of what they have on hand. 

Pretty sure these were made with leftovers.