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Soft-shell crab season begins in spring on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Nearly the whole bugger can be eaten.

So here’s me snooping around on a restaurant’s About page, and I see this: ‘With locally sourced fresh ingredients. Our menu changes seasonally: we always serve what is in season.’ Heart so warmed. Then I saw out-of-season ingredients on the menu, and called the chef to ask when he’d be updating it.

That’s when he said the menu was current. And consequently that’s when the Warm in my heart turned to Grrrr.

I was polite, don’t worry. But I was ticked. It’s not right to tell customers how important seasonal ingredients are at your restaurant and then put butternut pasta and corn/watermelon salad on your spring menu. Which is what I told him.

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Asparagus, mid-spring.

He squirmed. I heard it over the phone.* Then he told me he would like to use spring vegetables, but his hands were tied, you see: ‘There just aren’t that many,’ he sighed mournfully.

First of all, yes, there are. Second of all, huh? You can’t go throw a rock at a farmers market right now without hitting snow peas, asparagus, tiny radishes.** He thought I’d roll over and agree?

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Cherries, early summer.

It’s true there are no spring fruits here until around Memorial Day (strawberries are first). But you better believe there are lots upon lots of spring vegetables. I cheerfully took his assertion as a cue to rattle off every single one I could think of. Maybe eight vegetables in as many seconds. He squirmed some more and soaked the back of his chef’s coat.***

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Potatoes, summer. They keep well, but they’re born in the summer.

I have three problems with chefs who lie about offering local and seasonal produce on their menus.

You’re Lying

Look, the people you lie to are operating under fakery, and eventually it goes all London Bridge on you. It does. That’s the impractical end of lying.

But the insidious end is this: it implies contempt. At this restaurant and others of its ilk, with every bite of that butternut pasta in April comes a glaring lack of respect. It’s no way to eat. Then they want $24 for it.****

Some of Us Know Better, See ‘Ticked’ Above

Not everyone is a food writer who knows when produce comes into season, granted. Others are restauranteurs themselves. Or farmers, in this, the Garden State. Or ag students. Or home gardeners, or bio teachers, or hey wait COOKS.

Honestly? I don’t know this stuff because I’m a food writer. I know it because I cook. And I may be the first person who calls you on this lie, but I promise you with fairy dust and butterfly kisses that I won’t be the last.

It’s Your Job To Teach

People may disagree with me on this one, but I stand by it.

You, Sir Chef, chose to work with and present food to the public. With that choice comes the responsibility to go by it, and your customers, ethically. But there’s more.

Yes, there are lots of us who know corn isn’t in season in May. But there are far more who don’t; most people, sadly, have become detached from the earth and what and when it produces. You’re supposed to be enamored enough with what the earth produces that you chose it as your life’s work. Right? And thus…you are in the unique position of educating people and sharing that passion.

So educate us. Share it. Saute baby artichokes in fresh lemon juice and olive oil until they’re so tender they’ll halfway dissolve on our tongues. Slice up some Chioggia beets paper thin, and let your youngest customers giggle at the candy cane stripes and sweet taste.

This problem—it’s easily fixed. You just have to care.

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Melons, mid- to late summer.

Please note: I’m not saying every restaurant needs to serve local and seasonal produce. I mean it would be great, but I know it’s not the case. I go to places all the time that serve good meals with produce from all over the calendar. But they dont claim to be local and seasonal. My beef is with those who do, those who want to get on the trendy-phrase bandwagon and make some fat money off calling themselves local and seasonal…and it’s actually a total head fake.

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Figs, late summer into early fall. I picked these off the trees an hour before I shot this, then promptly ate them for lunch.

I called the above chef because I had hoped to feature his restaurant in an article. And who knows—his food, such as it is, might be good. But without integrity? Like at the very heart of the place, like at the very heart of the chef himself? No. If his heart’s not in it, he can’t expect mine to be.

Just checked their site again and was genuinely hoping to see a change, either with new copy that doesn’t tout how seasonal they are, or with an actual spring menu.

Psht.

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Persimmons, late fall.

*Yes, you can.

**Don’t throw rocks at farmers markets. It’s a bad idea. Same with caution to the wind.

***Didn’t have to be in the room. He did. And may I say, good.

****I swear to you this is what they’re charging. For a dish featuring squash picked seven months ago.

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Skimming through my 1924 Hallowe’en party book (written back when they still threw in the apostrophe), I’m struck by all of the activities people did by hand. The book offers hosts and hostesses ideas such as cracking whole walnuts, removing the nuts within, slipping a fortune inside and gluing the shell back together; making homemade cakes and hiding more fortunes within; and setting up tubs for apple bobbing. Water, paper, mud, flour, paste—all are liberally applied in the projects provided. It’s clear the author assumed people would put their hands in stuff and think little of it.

I’m also amazed at how fearless it seems earlier generations were. In 1924—long before the advent of the Sharpie marker—instructions direct hostesses to heat the point of a knitting needle over hot coals and burn it into walnut shells to make facial features; to poise chestnuts at the tips of knives, then give to children to hold during relay races; to bob for apples with no worry for germs (the biggest risk, it seems, was spoiling your hairdo); and to douse cattails in kerosene and set them on fire, as makeshift torches.

The drawing above is on the cover of the book I mention. The little girl stands on a chair so she can reach to scoop the inside of a pumpkin. She’s five or six at best, but no adult is standing behind her to make sure she doesn’t fall. And the boy—eight? nine?—wields a chef’s knife bigger than the one in my kitchen; and again, adults are conspicuously absent.

The Little House books, which recall everyday life in the late 1800s, similarly depict an ease with skills—again, from a very early age—that may surprise us. Here is little Laura chopping vegetables alongside her mother over a primitive stove, there is her five-year-old sister Mary stitching on her nine-patch quilt. With a real needle. I used to work in nursery schools, and any project that required stitching was done with a large, plastic, dull-tipped ‘needle’. And even so, we teachers supervised at every moment.

It’s fascinating to me that earlier generations took hands-on skills for granted. I don’t support helicopter moms who scamper after their kids all day long with mini bottles of Purell, but neither would I let a child of today use a sharp needle, let alone handle a knife or hold a lit torch. I wouldn’t let a child take food out of a hot oven, or cook over a hot stove top. But apparently it’s a modern-day phobia.

A chicken and egg conundrum comes to mind: Were people a few generations ago braver than we are today? Or did handling knives and needles and fire on a regular basis make them braver, just by cultivating confidence in their ability to use tools and to harness elements safely and effectively?

Let’s take it a step further. Looking around at where we are today, ever in pursuit of the faster, the shinier, the more advanced, have we lost pertinent skills?

With a few exceptions, we tend to buy our quilts today. Meals often mean microwaving or eating takeout. Not many prepare party foods from scratch, opting instead to cater some or all of it. Does the average person know how to slice an onion anymore? Does it even matter?

I posed this question to a friend who both cooks and thoroughly enjoys his gadgets. He said some skills are worth more than others, and one could argue that it matters more to know the ins and outs of technology rather than kitchen skills. If you really needed something chopped, you could hire someone to do it or (increasingly) buy it already prepared.

Most of us in the modern world need to know how to operate cell phones and work laptops, as those before us knew and used skills that were essential for their time. I’m all for any technology that brings people and ideas closer together.*

I guess I’m just wondering if forgetting how to sew on a button by hand or how to slice an onion is worth what we’ve otherwise gained. I’m a cook and an artist, so my hands are everything. I’m compelled to get my hands dirty to access a personal, almost primitive power that makes me feel more human. But that’s one person’s take.

What’s yours?

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*Recently set myself up on Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/mcproco/) and Twitter (@evesapple7).  Come play!

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This is the time of year when peach season is just ending and apple season is just starting. Kind of a bonanza if you’re a cook. You get to ask yourself: Do I want to pretend summer isn’t ending soon and make a peach cobbler, or do I want to stick it to the relentless heat waves of Summer 2012 and make a crumb-topped apple pie? Either way, you get to be stubborn and either way you end up with something yummy, so I’ll salute you for either choice. Or heck—do both.

Trudging through the orchard, something I’ve done for a lot of years now, I’ve noticed most people go for pretty. Strictly. And pretty can taste just fine, it’s true.

But lean in—I’ve got a secret for you. Two, actually. We’ll start with peaches: The somewhat bruised, or split, or overripe, or not-uniformly-rosy-but-instead-yellow-streaked will taste sweeter than the pretties.

That streak is the mark of the leaf that lay across the peach, where the sun couldn’t touch the skin.

When it comes to apples, you want to look for rough brown splotches on the skin, called russeting. It looks a little strange to us, who are used to supermarket apples that are so perfect they practically start singing Good Ship Lollipop when you get close, but russeting is harmless. It’s an indicator of an apple that hasn’t been rejected because of arbitrary rules about perfection, and it’s an indicator of sweetness.

I’m not a botanist, Lord knows. I told you once how well I did in bio, right? But there’s something undeniably good that happens to a fruit when it’s been scarred—by the wind, by the farmer’s shoulder, by the branches that surround it. It’s almost as if, for what it loses in pretty, it gains in character.

And of course there’s a metaphor in here about people, too, one I like to remember as I’m collecting my flawed fruit, getting dusty and grimy, and after an hour, pretty much looking like the dog’s lunch, and that is, collect pals who have some scars. They’re a whole lot more interesting than people who have had the perfect childhood, the perfect education, got the perfect job—people whose whole lives have been smooth sailing ever since they first opened their little mouths and said wah.

And just as important: Respect your own scars. Own ’em, because they’re probably why those cool pals keep you around, too.

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That’s Dana above, stirring onions for our spaghetti sauce.  She came over yesterday with my other friend Casey, just because we felt like cooking together.

Cooking with these two is new. But working with them isn’t. We’ve done lots of local theatre shows together—not as actors, mind you, but as crew. We’re stage technicians.

Many people aren’t sure what that means, so here you go: During a show, have you ever seen the lights onstage dim or go out entirely…and then you see faint shadows of people moving set pieces on and off stage…people rolling, pushing, lifting, spinning a bunch of things into place for a scene, usually within seconds? That’s us.

Working in close quarters backstage, having to whisper, feeling the pressure of having to get something right night after night in the dark, in a scant amount of time, trying to avoid injury to ourselves and to the actors who are trusting us, you can imagine it feels like a war zone at times.

But there are plusses inherent in this work, too: We become very, very good at reading each other from across the darkened wings, at knowing each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and we build trust whether we plan to or not. (Not surprisingly, it’s my theatre friends who gave exceptional, much-needed practical support and know-how when I’ve changed addresses, or when, say, when I’ve gotten into an accident.)

When the rapport’s not there, it will be a nightmare backstage, guaranteed. But when you click, and everything moves like a Rolex dipped in extra virgin olive oil, there’s no high like it. It’s GOLDEN.

In planning this lunch, I asked Casey to bring pasta and a colander and Dana to bring soda. I did not worry about them bringing the wrong thing or about forgetting entirely. And they did not.

So here we are in a kitchen. A real one for once, not a two-dimensional set.

Casey’s in his thirties and is comfortable in the kitchen; Dana’s a teenager and is not. Yesterday I taught her how to slice an onion, and she did it beautifully. Then we all went across the street to a patch of herbs I planted years ago and snipped off some thyme and oregano.

I made the sauce a few hours earlier from pureed fresh tomatoes that I bought at my favorite farm. Seemed incongruous to buy canned tomatoes in high summer. (Well, it is. Especially in New Jersey.) The tomatoes took a while to cook down, though, full of water as they were. I added a bit of tomato paste for its intense concentrated flavor.

Then we all tasted the sauce to see what it lacked, and Casey thought we should add a bit of sugar. I come from a family that would throw your clothes out onto the street at such a suggestion, but like I emphasized above, I trust this guy. So we put in a couple of pinches of brown sugar.

This is Dana and me above, pulling off bits of fresh herbs and dropping them into the simmering sauce.

While we waited for the pasta to come to a boil, I painted musical designs on Dana’s arms. (She’s a techie AND a singer.) As I painted, Case manned the pasta.

And this is the two of them tucking in.

Later we went to the beach, ate some junk food, played vintage video games and pinball, and then dropped Dana off to the show she was crewing in Red Bank. It was a good day.

P.S. The sauce was pretty good with the sugar.

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