April 2012


The season’s short, but the rewards are bountiful, if you can find them. If you didnt’ read the first blog post about ramps, it’s right here. It’s more or less about finding ways to preserve the flavor of this delicious little bulb for a few extra weeks out of the year.

Today, it’s cold. I have the day off, and for the most part, I’m staying indoors, which means that I’m planning on experimenting a bit in the kitchen. I’ve had this idea in my head about ramp kimchi for a long time. Although it smells like the inside of an old fishing trawler, I’ve always liked it. After searching out a couple of different recipes, though, I can’t make it today. Still, I have the hankering to make something delicious with the few bunches that I have. So far this year, I’ve sauteed them and served them over pasta, and for the second recipe, I’m going to pickle them with a straightforward brine, along with a couple of bunches of french carrots that are occupying my fridge.

Here’s a quick recipe:

2-3 bunches of Ramps

2 bunches thin french carrots

Kosher salt for blanching

Trim the root end and leaves from the ramps. Reserve the leaves for a second recipe. Remove the greens from the carrots and save for later. Trim carrots into rounds, or on the diagonal for better flavor absorption.
Get a large pot of water on the stove, and bring to a boil. Add Kosher salt, and blanch carrots until half tender, about four to five minutes. Blanch ramps for about 30 seconds. Shock in an ice bath.

 

For the brine:

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

1 cup rice vinegar

1 teaspoon coriander

1 teaspoon pink peppercorns (white also works

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

1 teaspoon red pepper or cayenne

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 tablespoon salt

Combine the  water, sugar, salt, and vinegar in a pot. Bring to a boil. Add spices, and let simmer for a minute or two.

Now, drain and pat ramps and carrots dry. Put them in a mason jar or airtight container, and pour hot brining liquid over them. Cover, throw in the fridge, and let rest.

Congratulations! You’ve made pickled ramps! The flavor will mature over time, and you’ll have anywhere from two weeks to a couple of months to eat them as they stare at you every time you open the door to the fridge. Use them in salads, with omelettes, or for any brunch related item you happen to want to make (Did somebody say Bloody Mary?). They also make an excellent piquant addition to a duck breast, roasted chicken, or any meat with a little bit of uniqueness to it. Lastly, if you do a charcuterie plate, they go really well with cheese, cured meats, and other delicious nuts and pickles.

Now, on to the leaves.

I have a nice olive oil here, and it’s not the best match for doing a confit to preserve it, as it’s extremely grassy, and more of a finishing oil, not meant to be heated. However, I do have butter. Lots of butter.

Into the pot they go. This is what I’ve decided to do. Take your trimmed ramp leaves, throw them in a pan with one stick or more of melted butter over the lowest setting, and let them sweat for 20-30 minutes. In this time, your kitchen will fill with the greatest smell you could ever hope for. When it’s time and the leaves have wilted and achieved maximum butter absorption, remove them, squeegeeing the excess butter back into the pan. If you don’t have a ramp squeegee, don’t worry. Use your fingers. It’s fine.
Take the resulting butter, and skim the milk solids off the top. Reserve the clarified ramp butter for a delicious sauteeing medium for shrimp scampi or chicken. If you don’t eat meat, put it in a plastic container in the fridge, wait for it to set, and use it to add flavor to risottos, as a wash for homemade bruschetta or croutons, or simply eat it out of the jar.

I do have some shrimp. I have some polenta that I can slice and fry, and I have a nice new ceramic nonstick pan that I hope will be the answer to my occasional problems with crusty burned bits on my pan. Every once in a while, stuff like that happens, but that’s a different story for a different day.

 

I am a man of many passions when it comes to food. Over the course of my continuing education in learning about my likes and dislikes, I’ve had some polarizing statements come out of my mouth.

1) I could never date a vegetarian.  Okay, that one was asking to be broken. When I first said it, I think I meant that I could never date someone who so closely affiliated the biggest parts of who they were with vegetarianism. Yes, it shapes your eating habits, but to constantly talk about what you can and can’t, should and shouldn’t, will and won’t eat is too much of a grind if you’re in a relationship with someone whose profession and passion centers around food.

That being said, the woman who has accepted me as her own does not eat the barnyard meats. Nothing with legs, says she, and that’s fine.

We eat fish from time to time, not so much as we used to in Seattle, but it’s part of the menu. I’ve learned to extract flavors from vegetables, and I have an open relationship with my meat, knowing that if she’s out of town, it’s alright to cook a burger or two. Most of the choices I make, however, have evolved into cooking things that we’d normally eat together, anyway. I don’t have cravings for red meat, nor do I go out of my way to get a pork chop or two if I want one, although the option is there at the grill down the street.

Instead, It’s a pasta, some vegetables, a sauce, maybe some shrimp if it’s around. I do like risotto. I find myself looking for more things that are green, and get a bit frustrated if I don’t come up with something a little bit healthier if I’m going to cook a meal.

I can’t eat like I used to. Burgers make me feel gross and lethargic. I really like chicken wings, but if they’re fried, I just don’t care for how they make my stomach do flips when I’m least expecting it. In times of culinary crisis, a salad can be your best friend.

This brings me to point the second.

2) Veganism is a waste of time. I used to say that your body needs animal protein, and that to deny it what it needs causes conflict in your innards. A comfortable solution to fast food and diets high in saturated fats this is not. Anything your body needs that you take out of your diet needs to be replaced with something. Veganism just sounded like so much of a hassle.

Today, though, a friend was looking to drastically change her eating habits, and decided that veganism was the way to go. Admittedly, it’s a tricky road, and one that I probably won’t go down. Still, how does one achieve a good balance of nutrients in a plant-based diet to fully function on a daily basis? Where does the protein come from? What about the energy that you would lack?

What ensued was a conversation on Facebook back and forth between a few different voices, some vegan, some not. One woman had a gluten intolerance. I think it’s fascinating to find out how people deal with certain restrictions of food consumption to come up with a suitable solution to their own dietary needs.

First, the biggest culprit is red meat. I say this working from behind the counter in a meat department, and against my better judgment from the standpoint of wanting it to be a success: We eat too much red meat. Our case would not be as bounteous if we cut everything to portion sizes that the governing bodies recommended. We would lose our porterhouses and our ribeyes. A 20 lb. ham would take a family of four two weeks to polish off. It just wouldn’t be right. Still, we have options for healthy eating where the recipe dictates a ratio of meat to vegetables that allows us to be comfortable in recommending items to people who want to eat healthy.

I realize it’s not for everyone, and I want to let people who are considering veganism to know that if it isn’t for ethical reasons, it can be a soft veganism. So long as you are doing it for health reasons, there are many options out there for living a plant-based existence.

What has two thumbs and enjoys a plant-based diet? This guy.

Somewhere out in the ether is a nutritionist, John Pierre, who touts ‘going to the source’ as a method of finding optimum nutrition. For example, if you don’t want to eat fish, but you want the benefit of Omega-3 fatty acids, look at what the fish eat: Green sea vegetables. Who says you can’t skip eating the fish and go straight to the source? If you’re not vegan, who says you can’t fortify your eating choices by adding nutrient rich greens to your diet?

I do love nutrient rich greens of the variegated kind. There’s kale, chard, mustard greens, bitter searing greens, etc. These are all excellent choices from which you can derive a large part of your total nutrition, and in conjunction with other nutrient dense plants, seeds, or nuts, you can get a balanced meal. One that comes to mind is Black Beans and seared kale. Add brown rice, a serving of nuts, and you’re on your way. It doesn’t have to be complex, and you don’t have to be constantly substituting things in and out of recipes. A lot of different countries have recipes that are vegan or vegetarian based, from the afforementioned rice and beans with kale to dozens of Indian dishes.

I found a great blog specializing in Indian dishes that stand alone with flavors and health, and they’re vegetarian by design, not because they’re appealing to a niche. That is secondary. The composition and health are the primary driving factors behind these recipes. Check it out. 

From Currylicious- Chickpeas with Grated Coconut. Click the Picture for the Recipe

Nobody says vegetarian food has to be boring. Look at granola. That’s vegan without being called vegan. Put some fresh fruit in there, a splash of alternative milk (make sure there’s no added sugar and that it’s low in added oil-that negates the health benefits), and it’s breakfast.

It doesn’t have to be boring, this food, but it should be healthy. Here’s a helpful hint: If you can’t see the food, or if it’s hidden behind multiple layers of packaging, it’s probably not the best for you. Want to know what is? Vegetables. Fresh Vegetables. Even frozen vegetables are good. Clarence Birdseye patented a food technology long ago that harnesses the nutritive value of rapidly frozen vegetables so that from farm to table they retain almost all of their deliciousness and health. Canned beans are good for you, and I know from experience that they’re cooked equal or better than I can make them at home.

Veggie Burgers are delicious, so long as you don’t close your eyes and hope that it tastes like meat. You’ll be disappointed if you do. If you just want something that tastes like it’s not trying too hard, be satisfied with your patties, or for a more healthful alternative, make a big batch of your own using all the good things that you can think of.

Make a pot of brown rice. Fluff it up, eat some with dinner, and use the rest for burgers. Add some cooked lentils, some finely chopped kale, a bunch of spices like coriander, turmeric, cumin, some onions, maybe some garlic. Mix it by the hand squish method until it becomes something that will hold together as a blob. Patty them, separate them with waxed paper, throw them in the freezer, and pull one out when you need it. Shopping for all this  stuff once and making a big batch is a great way to make it easier on yourself to eat healthier.

***

Even if eating vegan or even strictly vegetarian is not  for me, the conversation taught me a lot about how I think about my food. I don’t want to classify my eating habits as anything. Aside from eating takeout out of convenience once in a while, I know how to eat healthy. I need my greens, and if I choose to eat mostly vegetarian, I know where to get my proteins from: Barley, Quinoa, Rice, Nuts, and Beans. It’s not about ethics for me. It’s about health. I’m not going to shut out specific food groups unless it’s proven that I need to cut down. Moderation, as always, is key. A little cheese is not going to hurt as long as I eat some fruit and maybe some nuts.

There are so many great vegetarian dishes out there that I’ve been meaning to try, and not because they’re vegetarian, but just because they look like they taste good. Aside from eating what’s right for your body, isn’t that what matters most?

***
Hey, you. Leave a comment. Let’s continue this discussion. 

I’m inspired by a piece I saw on BoingBoing (and about a hundred other media outlets today). There’s a lot of good stuff out there. People are doing things for their community, and finding a lot of cool bits of life to catalog and share, and this is one of them.

Remember when you were bored, or tired of everything, and you just wanted to create something that made your day a little bit more worthwhile? This kid did it out of necessity to alleviate being stuck in the doldrums of summer, and came up with something fascinating.

There’s a bit of greatness to come out of this- In addition to bringing the smiles to this kid’s face, and customers to this rarely trafficked East LA cornershop, the producers of this video have set up a website, and since my first viewing from four hours ago, they’ve raised $6,000 more towards putting this kid through college. It doesn’t look like the donations will stop at $25,000, either.

So, what am I going to do with my time? How will I showcase whatever it is that I want to do with the middling talents I cling to?

1) I can write. Sort of. I have the bad habit of not self-editing any more than quickly skimming these blog posts and changing a grammatical typo or restructuring a word or two. Overall, though, the end product of a blog post here is the direct result of sitting and typing until I run out of words to say, tied up with aMulligan Stew© Approved, Doogie Howser sanctioned ending. Somewhere in between, there may be a story, or there may be incoherent nonsense and internet babble. I don’t know. After I read them, I occasionally return to the scene of the crime to remember something, but I  rarely ever read old posts in their entirety to see how they come out.

2) I can cook. Sort of.  I mean, I know my flavors, and I know the dishes that I want to create in my mind, but I’m critical of my production. That’s not to say that I get down on it too much, but for where I am as a cook/chef/whatever, I sometimes feel like I’m underachieving.

I can sear a steak. I can cook a piece of fish. I can plate something that looks nice, and I guess I should be happy with that. If it tastes good, and if it looks good, that’s really all that matters. I try not to use those who have gone through similar experiences as a barometer for where I stand today, because back then, they were better than me at cooking, had more of the chef’s kitchen mentality than I did, and actually cooked a fair amount post-graduation in restaurants. This left me with an inferiority complex which I’ve mostly come to terms with, but I still wonder if I could hack it, or what could have been. These days, if I explain to people my trajectory in the foodservice industry, I usually include tidbits about how I came back from internships around the world with an ego that outshone my talents. When in that situation, you don’t see yourself for what you are. Such glaring perspective comes later, when you make the proclamation to those listening intently to your stories from behind the scenes of restaurants that you got out because you possessed a fire for the life that detracted from the food. You hear chefs talk about it all the time, from anybody who has spent more than a month in a kitchen who is willing to talk to you about what you once read in Kitchen Confidential.

 I never got too wrapped up in the trappings of working in restaurants. I was a passable outsider. Neither the strongest nor the weakest in the kitchen, I could do what needed to be done to promote a successful service. I could do what was asked of me. With that, I didn’t think I could hack it. I still had the lust for creating things with my hands, and the desire for tasting something new through the buzz of a third glass of wine, and to have the aromas and flavors float around in my mind as I relaxed after a few hard spent hours chopping, dicing, tasting, adjusting. I was content to experiment with my cooking from a place that was comfortable for me, someplace outside the time constraints and pressures that those who made it fed off of.

So that’s what I did.

Today, I’m content with where my skills are, and it’s easy enough to wow people with a strong flavor combination. It’s like watching someone break the tape on a lopsided hundred yard dash, leaving competitors in the dust. You see a small fragment of what got them there, and believe that the ten second snippet from start to finish is the greatest thing you could see or feel at that moment. It’s so much more. You go to a restaurant, sit down for two hours, have a couple beverages, some food that sings to the passion of your soul, and then you reminisce, but for those who do it every day, your dinner represents a drop in the bucket.

Planning a meal takes time. Gathering ingredients, pairing flavors, determining cooking methods, managing time- all of these factors go into making a meal, whether you’re in a restaurant or not. It’s easy enough to do it for a few people on a nightly basis, or a dozen people once a month, but for a dining room full of patrons with high expectations on a nightly basis, I would not care to be in that boat. I want to set up a special occasion with friends, discussing with them and fabricating a menu that we can create together. In continuation of my posting of a couple weeks ago, I want to make it happen.

I’m sitting, as I have been intermittently for the past three hours, with my recipe book to my right, the Gonzo documentary playing in the background, with the seasonal inspiration waiting to strike. I catalog my taste palate. I purposefully saved a spoonful of gelato from the other night because I wanted to remember the burnt peanut flavor and build from that.

I got ramps for the first time this season. Morels can’t be far behind. I just saw a dish with both, and asparagus as well. That’s coming soon. I have some nice eggs in the fridge that I’d like to use for cured yolks. I want to make pickles. Many pickles. All the time.

This is how it starts. With an idea. Now I’m looking for ideas for implementation, and execution, and of course, a few extra willing participants in making something stick. I want to start a Sunday Supper series, similar to how they do it at Nana, a restaurant just down the block.

I just want to share it, and I want to write about it, and figure out if it’s a viable model for something different, if not new.

I watched the hell out of this next video over the last couple days. It’s a call to arms for those who have some measure of skill and an insatiable itch to start a revolution from their range. Watch it, see if you catch the bug, and get back to me. I may not be able to do anything under a moniker, but it’s videos like the one up top and the one below that lead me to believe that there’s more that I could be doing with my free time, and with whatever measure of talent I may have. In any case, I think it’s time to push some boundaries.

Stagnation, Boredom, Conformity…The Time to Combat Complacency is Now.