Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On Being A Sous Chef

First let me start by apologizing for such a long time between updates.  The reason for my extended lapse was due to a change in jobs.  For those of you not in the know I recently was hired on at the University of Houston as a sous chef.  This is a big deal for me as this is my first job as a sous chef.  I was very excited when I got my first chef coats with my name sowed in.  Well this happened back in mid August and it seems as things have finally settled down.  My schedule has been hammered down into a predictable pattern and I am finally starting to get a handle on all that I need to do as a sous chef.  I just want to share with you some thoughts as a first time sous chef.

The first challenge I had was getting used to my "boss legs".  What I mean by that is that when you come from a place that you are on equal footing with all of the other employees and you are suddenly put in a supervisory role it is a bit of an adjustment.  I was just not used to telling people, "hey you need to do this" or "no, don't do that" with the authority of being a supervisor.  It is not a role that I naturally take to.  But with this job comes some of that and I am still getting used to it.  I also know that I cannot lord that authority over people because no one response well to that.  My personal philosophy is to try to let everyone know that ultimately we are all on the same team and I am there to help them as much as possible.

Another aspect of being a sous chef I am noticing is that you have to pay attention to so many more things.  It is all about the bigger picture.  When I was just a cook all I had to worry about was my area, my station, and my food.  As a sous chef I have to over look everyone and make sure that all the cooks and stations have everything they need and if they don't then what can we do about that.  How are we going to fix the situation?  I once joked that the reason the sous chefs were given red coats was because we were more like fire men than chefs, putting out fires where ever they popped up.  When I was just a line cook I knew that the chef and sous chef were ultimately dealing with more than what I was, but it is a very different experience knowing that and actively dealing with it.

As a sous chef it is also important to know your crew.  Every person is different.  Every person has their strengths, weaknesses, good attributes and flaws.  As I get to know the people I work with better I am starting to differentiate what those qualities are.  I know which people on which nights will need some help and which can function on their own.  I am starting to learn that in some cases you might have to pay closer attention to someone less they wander off and leave their area unattended.  It is also important to make sure everyone is executing the menu correctly.  I have had one instance where the menu called for fajitas and my cooks were making quesadillas. 

I am also doing a lot more administrative tasks.  I am usually the one who is doing the produce order for our location.  That is a challenge in that you have to take into account what you have on hand, what you need to maintain par levels and what you need for the next day.  These values could vary greatly from day to day.  That is not even mentioning that you have to get a feel for what you actually need versus what is called for.  What I learned and mean by this is that even though your needs list may call for 200 lbs of beets, the fact of the matter is roasted beets as a side dish will probably not be very popular amongst college kids.  Therefore, you could probably get away with only half of that.  Besides ordering there is also the task of checking coolers, temperatures, making sure everyone has soap and sanitizer, and making sure everyone has all that they need to actually make the food.

This position has also forced me to keep thinking ahead.  Just because this meal period is running smoothly does not mean I can take it easy.  I have to start thinking about dinner during lunch or start thinking about tomorrow's service during dinner.  By thinking ahead we can do things like pulling frozen product out of the freezer to make sure it thaws out or if I know there is something that is labor intensive during the next meal period I can jump in and get a head start for the people who have to execute it.  I am also always looking in what we call the over production cooler where we keep all of our leftovers from previous meal periods to see what and where we can utilize some of that product.

Some of the challenges I have come across as a sous chef are just being on top of everything constantly and maintaining my skills.  When you are a cook and you have a bad day or you miss something it only really affects you.  Chances are you have someone else with you to give you a hand.  As a sous chef if you miss something or screw something up, it is affect others and their ability to do the job correctly.  Luckily we have a strong team and I am not the only sous chef.  But I would still rather not depend on others for my success or that of my team.  As far as maintaining my skills go...  Well, as they say practice makes perfect and when you stop practicing your skills degrade.  I don't want that to happen to me so I rather enjoy the opportunity to get back "in the trenches".  At my previous job I worked with a man who was being hired on as an executive chef for another location.  While I don't doubt his skills, his hustle and sense of urgency was gone.  It was a challenge to work with him that day.  That is the worst case scenario for me in the future.

Being a sous chef means you have to be as sharp as your knives and pay attention to fifteen different things all at once.  It means going to do one task and end up doing five before you are done.  It is demanding and stressful and exhilarating and aggravating and fulfilling all at once.  It is a job I hope to be doing well and I am ever grateful for the opportunity to do it!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Let me start be saying that great cooks, either professional or home, are made not born.  But why?  What gives someone that drive to learn to cook.  What makes someone say, "I could just boil this and eat it, or I could parboil it, then saute it in butter and it will taste amazing!"  The truth is that there is no easy answer to that.  Every person that has ever put on an apron and taken on the mantle of meal maker has different reasons for why he or she does that.  For some it is personal drive to be the best at what they do.  For others it comes from their past.  For me my love of food and cooking comes from my family.

Growing up my family was never well off.  We struggled, but I am happy to say that I never lacked in having what I needed.  And I most certainly never went hungry.  But what does all this have to do with the love of food and cooking?  Even through the tough times my parents always found a way to show me and share what it was to eat well.  My parents were very adept at finding things that should have been expensive at less than expensive costs.  It was this ability to obtain fancy foods at a deal that let me experience a full and rich culinary palette from a young age.

It was because of this that I was able to experience things such as smoked oysters or squid cooked in its own ink.  One of my parents favorite things to do, especially when watching some kind of sporting event, was what they called "botanear".   What this means is to eat a variety of small snacks.  So my mom would reach into the pantry and pull out all the various tins of different morsels she and my dad had collected over time.  She would lay them out on a tray, usually with some crackers and some assortment of cheeses and we would just eat our fill as a family.

I remember the first time they introduced me to brie.  I had no idea cheese could be so rich and creamy and delicious.  I was only about 6 or 7 years old.  Normally at that age most kids would scoff at the notion of this weird cheese with a hard outside and gooey inside!  But my parents had taught me from an early age that in order to get on in this world you must learn to eat well. And in order to eat well you must try things.  You don't have to like everything you try, but you have to try it first then make up your mind.  So I was already accustomed to trying new and different things.  That first bite was sublime.  OK, at the time I would not have described it as sublime, I would have just said that was super good, but the idea remains the same. 

It was this exposure form an early age that really opened up my culinary world.  I was used to trying things that for some might be off putting because they were strange.  Food never scared or intimidated me.  This I believe is vital for a chef.  So when I decided that I wanted to go to culinary school I'd like to think I had a small advantage, especially to those who were squeamish.

Both my mom and dad encouraged me to eat well and try new things.  My mom, however, is the single biggest reason for my love of cooking.  She is the one who first taught me what it meant to turn raw ingredients into something delicious.  She is that one that taught me how to season said ingredients and to just "feel it" when I asked her how much I needed.  She also put up with me when I was staunchly against the use of salt because I thought it made everything salty.  She is the one who could reach into the pantry and pull out three or four random items and make it into an amazing meal with the same ease and skill as an old seasoned chef doing a mystery basket. 

At first I really wanted to learn how to cook as a practical life skill.  After all, I new I would eventually grow up and have to feed myself.  So when I was about 11 or 12 years old I approached my mom about learning the secrets of the kitchen.   She gladly accepted me as her protege and started showing me about the preparation of food.  Some of the first lessons I remember are that you need to stir your ingredients in the pot, otherwise they will burn even if you have oil in there as well or that you need to patient with your food.  Water does not boil instantly, no matter how much you want it to.  As I referenced earlier seasoning to her was something you just had to have a feel for.  You couldn't measure, you just knew when it was enough or if you needed more spices.  She also taught me some tricks such as if you want to thicken a sauce or soup quickly, add some bread crumbs or that if you over salt that sauce or soup, throw in a chunk of potato to help absorb some of that salt. 

My mom has a whole catalog of dishes and recipes that she has made a thousand times before.  Some of them were taught to her by grandmother.  Some of them she has learned on her own.  And some she has just come up with on the fly with nothing but her own sense of taste as inspiration.  I'd like to think that I have that same sense in me. I'd like to think that I can come up with appetizing meals on the fly with nothing but a few ingredients and my own ideas as inspiration.  In any case I have my mother to thank for putting me in the kitchen.  Thanks mom for helping me do what I love.  So to all of you preparers of food, you makers of meals, no matter what your inspiration is, I hope it serves you well to help make the best food you can!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Delicious Homemade Tortas!

Let me start this post by saying that I LOVE sandwiches.  They can be eaten at home or on the go.  They are easily customizable, easy to make and absolutely delicious.  The Mexican torta is no exception.  I grew up eating all sorts of tortas whenever I would visit Mexico City.  Some came from restaurants, some from little shops or huts and some were made at the local market.  As good as all those were my favorites were always the ones prepared by either my grandmother or my mother. Those always seemed to have the extra something and personal touch that made them stand above all others. 

Before jumping into how to make your own torta, let's take a look into what a torta really is.  At its most basic a torta is just a sandwich, in other words, it is two pieces of bread that have a bunch of tasty ingredients wedged between them.  What really differentiates a torta from other sandwiches is the type of bread used to make it.  A torta is made with a bolillo, which is an oblong crusty white bread with a soft interior.  

A variety of the bolillo is the telera though it has a more rounded shape, is divided in three sections, and is usually softer.

The bolillo is the foundation of a good torta, so having a good bolillo is essential.  Luckily finding good bolillos is not difficult, especially if you live somewhere with a significant Hispanic population.  Here in Houston I have a lot of choices.  I can always go to the panaderia (Mexican bakery) right down the street.  Or if I am doing my weekly shopping I can just pick some up at my local HEB in their bakery.  Heck I am even lucky enough to have La Michoacana (a local grocery chain catering to Hispanic clientele) that sells both bolillos and teleras.  If you are not lucky enough to have any of these resources at hand and simply cannot find bolillos or teleras, use French rolls or Italian bread.  My mom says even a baguette can be used in a pinch. 

Like with anything in life, there is a great variety in the types of tortas made.  Usually they are simply classified by what they are made with. For example a tora de jamon is a torta made with ham or a torta de huevos is one made with scrambled eggs.  Besides the main ingredient and the bread itself tortas vary by just how they are prepared.  Some are served cold or prepared simply while others are made hot on a griddle.  In Guadalajara there is a variation call the " torta ahogada" or drowned torta due to the fact that after the sandwich is made it is then smothered in a red sauce. 

Making your own torta is as easy as making a ham sandwich.  As stated earlier you will need some bolillos to start with.  Since bolillos come in whole pieces you will then need to split them in half.  Once the bread has been cut it is important to remove some of the migajon, or soft white part from the upper piece of the bread.  This will give you a concave piece of bread that will help hold the sandwich together.

Once you have your bread ready you can go ahead and leave it as is to make your sandwich or you can toast it in the oven.  We choose to toast our bread in a 350 degree oven for about 5-10 min.

While the bread was toasting my mom and I gathered up our sandwich fixings which included refried black beans, mustard, Mexican cream, queso fresco, sliced pickled jalapeno, ham, head cheese, fresh tomatoes, avocado, and red onion.

After the bread was done toasting, we were ready to build our tortas.  First thing we did was spread our cream on the concave side of the bread.  We then spread the black beans and mustard on the bottom half of the bolillo. 

Next we started piling on the meats. First the ham, then the head cheese. After the meat was arranged so it would lie flat against the bread we added the queso fresco.  Now we cut the cheese into slices, but it is possible and acceptable to crumble it and add it to your sandwich this way.

 Then we started to add the veggies such as the onions, tomatoes, and avocado.  It is important to try to add the veggies in a manner to keep them flat so that they won't slide off your sandwich. 

The last thing we added to the torta before topping it off with the other piece of bread was the pickled jalapenos.  The jalapenos add little kick as well as a nice tang to the overall flavor profile of the sandwich. 

All that was left to do was put the lid on the sandwich and enjoy.  The sandwiches were so massive that we simply had to cut them in half just to handle them.  They were a great lunch and so delicious.  They reminded me so much of my visits to Mexico City.

The beauty of the torta is in its simplicity.  A torta is so easy to assemble and to make it just how you want it.  For instance I know head cheese may not be the most popular ingredient.  If that is the case with you then just simply leave it out.  Are you a vegetarian?  Then make yourself a torta de aguacate (avocado)!  The choice is yours. Hopefully this inspires some of you to just go out there get yourself some fresh bread and go nuts! 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fonda Santa Rosa

A co-worker once asked me that if I had to choose just one type of food to eat the rest of my life what would it be.  My natural response was Mexican food.  I mean I grew up eating pretty much nothing but Mexican food.  I always loved my mom's cooking and I have very fond memories of both my grandmothers' tantalizing cuisine.  So when ever I find a place that comes close to replicating it I am more than happy to give that establishment my patronage.  Luckily I have found such a place in Fonda Santa Rosa.  My wife actually discovered the restaurant when we were looking for a place for dinner.  She found out that Fonda Santa Rosa was owned by the same people who are responsible for Tamales Dona Tere, a favorite place of ours for breakfast.  Naturally we were intrigued and as it turned out we loved the place.

FSR however has not really worked into heavy rotation of our places to go out to eat.  Not for any real rhyme or reason.  Therefore, my latest trip to FSR was with my mom.  She is currently living with us and it was just her and me for dinner.  After weighing some options close to the house and trying to determine what type of cuisine we wanted for dinner, I remembered that FSR was not too far away and quite delicious.  I also figured that my mom being a Mexico City native would appreciate a taste of home.

Of the multiple time that I have dined at FSR I have never experienced a full or busy restaurant.  This night was no exception.  The dinning area consist of several tables in an L shape around what is an open and very visible "kitchen".  This  area was occupied by a large family at one end and a couple of gentlemen at the other.  As we walked in we were greeted and invited to sit anywhere we liked by a friendly waitress.  My mom and I sat kind of in between the two parties.  The fact that it was so quiet gave the place a much more intimate feel. 

While looking over the menu my mom and I had a hard time deciding what we wanted.  The choices were so many and they all sounded tasty.  So to help give us some more time we decided to order some guacamole to start as well as some aguas frescas to drink.

The guacamole was served in a small plastic molcajete with some freshly made tortilla chips.  Not only were the chips fresh, but the guacamole was also exceptionally fresh.  I think it may have even been made only after we order it.  The flavor of the guacamole was quite exceptional.  It was well seasoned as well as very balanced.  The flavor of the avocados was dominant with undertones of sourness from the lime and spiciness from the chile.  It was just the right consistency, not being so smooth that it would seem derived from an avocado paste. 

The aguas frescas were a mixed bag.  My mom got the Jamaica (hibiscus) and I got the pineapple.  My mom's was just right.  It had the flavor that I have come to expect from that drink.  It was naturally tangy balanced out with sweetness derived from the added sugar.  My drink was not quite as flavorful as I would have expected.  It seemed quite bland and insipid.  I was hoping to get a bolder pineapple flavor.  My mom also made the comment that the pineapple tasted as if it was on the verge of going bad.

While looking at the menu we also noticed that they offered agua mineral.  Since we both hand not had one in a while we ordered one for each of us.  They brought us the typical 12 oz glass bottle of Topo Chico which we both loved.

At that point my mom and I had finally made up out minds about what we were going to have for dinner.  My mom decided on the Molcajete Mixto which is basically a small molcajete filled with a combination of beef, chicken fajitas and chorizo in a spicy sauce with tender cactus, Panela cheese, onions, and cilantro.  It was served with rice and refried beans on the side as well as a compliment of corn tortillas.

My mom absolutely loved this dish.  She was enthralled with the presentation as well as the flavors of the different meats. She quickly ate up the tender cactus and enjoyed making tacos from the meats and the plethora of corn tortillas given to us to accompany our meal. She also remarked that the chorizo tasted like real authentic Mexican chorizo.  She was also impressed with the quantity of food.  She had enough to eat her fill and take some home.

For my dinner I chose the Tampiqueña, which is a plate consisting of juicy grilled tender beef accompanied by mole enchilada, fire-roasted Poblano pepper rajas, fresh guacamole, Mexican rice and refried beans. The beef was a thin piece of steak resembling a cecina. It was excellently seasoned and tender as advertised on the menu.  It was great for eating with the tortillas.  The enchilada was sublime.  It was some of the best mole I have had in a long time.  My overall plate was portioned just right so that I ate everything without feeling as if I had over eaten.

As we were wrapping up dinner, my noticed the coffee and asked if it was cafe de olla, which is a coffee prepared with cinnamon and piloncillo.  The waitress informed us that it was indeed cafe de ollo and asked if we wanted to sample it.  My mom accepted.  As soon as she sniffed the coffee my mom's face was an expression of absolute joy.  The coffee was beyond good.  It was delectable with the spiciness of the cinnamon and the sweetness of the piloncillo.  It was so good, I ordered one to go.  I was unable to finish the coffee that evening, but saved it for the next day.  It was excellent even the next day drinking it cold.  My mom also mentioned that if it was this good, after having sat all day on a warmer, imagine how good it would be when it was freshly made.

The waitress told us about the buffet during the weekends from 11AM to 2PM.  They have pretty much all of their menu available for you to partake.  It sounds delicious but dangerous.  I could easily see eating myself into a food stupor.  I highly enjoy this quaint little restaurant and would encourage anyone who wants a taste of truly authentic Mexico City cuisine!

Doña Tere Mexican Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Middle Eastern Chicken and Chickpeas with Eggplant

Sometimes the best ideas come from a whim.  Such is the case for this recipe.  My wife and I had taken out some chicken for dinner and had no idea what to do with it.  We also had some eggplant and kale in the fridge as well as a can of chickpeas in the cupboard.  So we just decided to through it all together with some Middle Eastern spices and see what came of it.  Here is how we made it:

1 lb chicken thighs
1 white onion
1 -2 medium eggplant
1/2 bunch kale or about 2 cups chopped
2-3 tbsp za'atar seasoning
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp cumin
2 tsp marjoram
2 tsp coriander
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 can of chickpeas drained
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp olive oil

The first thing you need to do is dice your chicken.  This recipe is a very good way to stretch out your protein.  A pound of chicken really only has about 4-5 thighs.

Next cut your vegetables.  Dice the onion.  The eggplant can be cut into quarters then cut into smaller pieces.

The kale is simply chopped.

Gather up your spices.

Add the oil to your cooking vessel and allow it to heat up. Once the oil is hot, add your onion and eggplant.  It is ok if some of you kale goes in as well.  Allow the vegetables to start cooking.

After the onion starts becoming translucent and the eggplant starts to soften, add your chicken and allow it to brown.

When the chicken begins to gain some color, add in your seasonings and stir. Let the chicken cook in the spices for a couple of minutes to allow the flavors to mingle.

Finally throw in your kale and chickpeas.

Give the kale time to cook down.  This will also give time for the chicken to thoroughly cook.

As soon as the kale has cooked down, season the dish with salt and pepper.  All that is left is to serve and enjoy!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Chicken and Barley Stew

As a chef I often find myself having a craving for a certain thing for dinner, then looking for a recipe online and coming away wholly unsatisfied with any of the choices.  That is usually when I just kind of go and make up my own thing.  Such was the case the other night when I wanted to make a chicken and barely stew.  The recipes I found online were either too boring or uninteresting. In the end I knew I was going to have to make my own dish especially since I was using a bunch of vegetables that I just happen to have in the refrigerator. So this is what I came up with.

What you will need:

1 lbs uncooked skinless, boneless chicken thigh, diced
1 can mushrooms, sliced
2 each chicken bouillon cubes
4 cups water
1 cup uncooked kale, chopped
1/2 lbs uncooked asparagus, cut into short pieces
1 small onion, diced
2 each cloves of garlic, minced
4 ribs of celery, diced
8 oz baby carrots
2 tbsp dried thyme
2 tbsp dried rosemary
1 1/2 cups uncooked barley
1/2 - 1 bunch of parsley, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
cooking spray

The asparagus should be bite sized.

MMM, aromatics!
Make sure to rinse your kale.
Your favorite brand will work.

 You will need a pan large enough to hold all your ingredients.  Keep in mind that this recipe will make quite a bit! Start by sauteing your onions, garlic, and celery until they are translucent and you can smell them.  Once they reach this point add your dried herbs and chicken and allow it to brown a bit.

Next add the barley and saute it for a minute, as if you were making a pilaf.

Add the water, bouillon, carrots and mushrooms.

Bring it all up to a boil, then down to a simmer.  Cover your pot and allow the mixture to cook until the barley is tender.  If the barley absorbs too much liquid, just add some more water.

When the barley is almost done, add the kale and asparagus.  These are delicate vegetables and will not take long to cook.  Essentially you want the asparagus to be tender and the kale to wilt down a bit.

Once the kale and asparagus have been incorporated, season the stew to your taste and top with the chopped parsley.  Now just serve and enjoy!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Blackened Pork Chops with Creole Peppers, Onions, Okra and Tomatoes

My wife had defrosted some pork chops for dinner, but we were unsure of what to do with them.  Fortunately my cast iron skillet had been left out.  That served as the inspiration for me to make blackened pork chops.  As a vegetable/sauce, I thought that a Creole themed vegetable would make perfect sense.  Here is what you need:

4 4oz pork chops
Blackening spice
2-3 tbsp high smoke point cooking oil
1-2 can diced tomatoes
1-2 green bell pepper julienned
3-4 ribs celery, sliced
1 white or yellow onion julienned
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 cup frozen okra
Creole seasoning
4 cups cooked white rice

The first thing you want to do is to preheat your oven to 350 degrees as you will finish the pork in the oven.  Next season both sides of the pork chops with the blackening spice.  For the spice you can either purchase one or make your own

After the pork is seasoned you are going to want to sear it in a very hot pan.  A cast iron skillet works best for this.  However, if you don't have one, just use a regular saute pan.
Next you nee to get your pan nice hot.  A good way to test the pan is to drip some water into it.  If it sizzles and skips right away the pan is ready.  Add about a tablespoon to a tablespoon and half of oil to the pan, just enough to cook the bottom of the pan. Traditionally blackening is done with butter, but I find butter has a tendency to burn, especially if you are not used to working with it at such high temperatures. For this same reason you will want to use an oil with a high smoke point such as canola, corn, or grape seed. DO NOT use olive oil.  It is too delicate and will burn!   When the oil is also hot, which should not take too long, add your pork chops to the pan.  The pork will want to stick to the pan.  This is OK as this is part of the sear and you are developing flavor and color.  You will know hen it is time to flip the chops over as they will no longer stick to the pan and will have a beautiful color.  If all the pork chops don't fit into the pan, then sear them in batches.

 After the chops have been seared just place them on a sheet pan with a rack so that they can go into your preheated oven.  The chops should take about 15-25 min., depending on how well done you want them.
While the pork is cooking in the oven you can work on the sauce.  First step is to heat a pan large enough to hold all your ingredients and add the rest of the cooking oil.  Next saute your onions, bell peppers, celery and garlic.  As they are cooking season them with some of the creole seasoning.  As with the blackening spice, you can purchase some or make your own
After the vegetables have softened a bit, add your frozen okra. Stir it and allow the okra to thaw a bit.
Once the okra is incorporated, add your canned tomatoes.
Stir and allow to simmer while the pork is finishing in the oven.  Taste it and adjust the seasoning. 

After the pork is done (I like to pull my pork out at 135-140 degrees) you are ready to serve your meal.
To serve simply place a cups worth of cooked white rice on your plate.  Lay a pork chop over the rice and top with about a cups worth of sauce/vegetables.  If you like spiciness, just add some Tabasco or Cajun hot sauce to your dinner.

Now just enjoy!