Last weekend was A’s business school 5-year reunion in Philly. As with any b-school reunion, there was fun stuff (galas, picnics, drinking under tents) and boring stuff (“Now, 5 years out, let’s talk about how to grow your leadership even further”). So I skipped the boring stuff and hopped a train to New York, where I met up with a friend to eat at David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar on the lower east side. Depicted here: the roasted pig tails with pickled daikon, the famous pork belly buns that started it all, and the classic ramen. Most notable was, as expected, the pork belly buns; as you’ll see, there are not one but two super fatty slices of the glorious stuff tucked away in each bun, and when you picked it up, it literally dripped delicious fat onto your plate. It’s one of those dishes where the first bite was genuinely life-altering, but then each subsequent bite starts making you feel ickier and ickier because it is just so terribly, horrifyingly rich. Once I finished, I had to sit there for 30 seconds to make sure I wasn’t having a heart attack.
So, as part of Cuisines Across Cultures, we’ve had the pleasure of covering Italy, France, Germany and Austria, Africa, South America, Mexico, China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean. As our second-to-last class, we covered America. “Regional American,” specifically. Split into 4 groups (Northeast/Midwest, South, Southwest, and Pacific), we were tasked with researching and then cooking at least one app, one entree, and one dessert.
My team drew Northeast/Midwest, so we did Poutine (French Canadian in origin, but has apparently since been heavily adopted by New Hampshire), Vichyssoise (French in inspiration, but in fact invented by the exec chef at the Ritz Carlton New York), Cranberry, Apple, and Walnut Salad (classic New England), Codfish Cakes with Red Pepper Rouille (again, classic New England), and Swedish Pancakes with Lingonberry Buttercream (a modern take on the Midwestern classic of Scandinavian origin). [In case anyone wants to know, Poutine is basically french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds; Vichyssoise is cold leek and potato cream soup.] After time was called, we set our dishes on the front table as a buffet for the class. Also depicted here is the best dish of the day, in my opinion — Group 1’s Southern-style shrimp and grits (courtesy of Yoga Girl).
Last week we had yet another mini-lecture from our Career Services rep on interviewing for jobs. (This is the time when my fellow classmates are hunting seriously for the mandatory 3-month kitchen externship that they have to do in order to graduate in September.) We got the usual sage advice: Show up on time, have your knives ready if they want to test you, don’t ask about vacation.
And then we got four words of advice that I truly and deeply hope is mostly specific to the chef industry in San Francisco (though I know it isn’t):
“Don’t show up high.”
Back to the food. It was South America week last week, which involved such goodies as flank steak with chimichurri sauce and South American-style ceviche. On the latter item, we were given an extra lecture on plating. To wit, there IS such a thing as making something too beautiful to the point where no one wants to eat it. Case in point, Sculptor’s final plate:
Certainly pretty to look at. But not only is it difficult to eat, what with the shells and all, but part of ceviche’s appeal (which is missing here), is the melding of the various types of seafood and flavorings in one single bite. When you’ve got fish, shrimp, mussels, scallops, clams, tomato, onion, cilantro, parsley, serrano chile, and lime all sitting in a bowl “getting all happy” together (wow, that Emeril quote came out of nowhere and I think I just died a little inside writing it), you want your customer to experience that. Just something to keep in mind. And, for those occasions (bouillebaise comes to mind) where you want to leave the shells in, make sure that you run your paring knife underneath the meat so as to cut the little tendon that’s holding mussel/clam to the shell. Just a bit easier. As we’re reminded constantly, “American eaters are dumb. They will eat anything, and I mean anything — bones, shells, whatever — that you put in front of them.”
(Sidenote on ceviche: This was the first ceviche recipe I’d used where the shellfish was actually pre-cooked (as opposed to relying solely on the acid to half-cook the stuff), and it was really quite good, so it’s useful for those of you who are antsy, pregnant, or both. Bring some fish stock with a few scallions to a simmer, then dunk your shrimp (shell-on) in for 40 seconds til cooked. Remove the shrimp, and take the pot off the heat. Throw in your scallops and let them hang out for a couple minutes until cooked through, i.e., opaque in the middle. In a separate pan, place your in-shell stuff (mussels, clams) with a little white wine and cook over med heat until the shells open up. Cool all shellfish immediately (preferably in an ice bath), chop up your veg/herbs, then mix the two together and let everything chill out in your fridge for 2-3 hours before service.)
Those of you from New York are probably, like me, enamored with the Dosa Man (repeated winner of the Vendy Awards) on W. 4th near NYU’s campus. Every day, this guy stands behind his sizzling giant grill, carefully pouring out dosa batter (usually made of chickpea flour — which gives you gas) and then filling it with all sorts of deliciousness like stewed potatoes in a masala spice mixture. The South Indian paper-thin pancake is crispy on the outside, with just the right chew on the inside, and the perfect blend of flavor, heat, and texture variation — and also an appropriate level of greasiness which I personally feel is key to any properly-made street food, particularly of the hangover varietal. Big plus: All wrapped up like a crepe that’s way awesomer than crepes, you can eat it by hand.
I got to re-experience that last weekend at a friend’s baby’s pooja (traditional prayer session for the baby). This was in the SF suburb of Pleasanton, which boasts a not insignificant Indian population, and apparently THIS guy (not the in-home spa lady, the cocktail dude, or any of those other fancy shmancy people) is all the rage at parties. For any of my engaged female friends who are reading this — be prepared that this dude will be making his next appearance at your bachelorette party (and he won’t be strippin). Stylish!
As part of Cuisines Across Cultures, we get to learn about (and taste, for those of those who are 21 and older) wine. Today we spent an hour on chianti, which, as some of you may know, is predominantly is a sangiovese blend from the Chianti region of Italy (Chianti Classico is generally viewed as the premium stuff, and is from the subregion of Classico within Chianti). Personally, I have never been a fan of the stuff; I’ve always associated chianti with the cheap bulbous wicker-basket stuff you get off the top shelf of Walgreens. (As a junior in college, my roommates and I were invited to some real adult’s house for dinner, and bought one of these cheesy-looking bottles of chianti because we didn’t know what we were doing. I don’t think we were ever invited over again.) Turns out, chianti’s historically poor reputation in the States is the result of its own doing (according to Chef L): When Italy was finally required to draft up and impose a set of comprehensive wine regulations a la French, rather than doing what made sense for their own country, they pretty much adopted France’s system in whole. Somehow, this resulted in only the crappiest product getting the proper label of “chianti,” and it somehow stuck.
That said, the Americans are responsible for the cheesy wicker basket bottling, which has done nothing to enhance chianti’s image except perhaps in the Disney Lady and the Tramp franchise. Italians used bulbous bottling and wicker baskets for TRANSPORTING the stuff — as depicted above, since they could transport some of them upside down, this allowed them to move almost twice as many bottles as they otherwise would. Once the wine arrived at its destination, it was typically removed from the wicker and certainly not brought to the table dressed in its transport harness. We Americans, however, somehow find a way to (falsely) exoti-fy things at every turn. I suppose it goes well with red checkered tablecloths.
(Additional note on bottling, for those of you who might actually be reading this blog to gain substantive knowledge: Unlike chianti, where the particularly bulbous bottle shape arguably serves no purpose, champagne bottles very MUCH serve a purpose. You know how each of your car tires requires about 33-38 pressure psi (per square inch)? A bottle of champagne requires about 90 psi. That is a lot. Hence the big concave at the bottom of the bottle and the extra thick and heavy glass; that stuff can be dangerous. And while we’re on the subject of champagne, I’m guessing most of you know that only sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France may, by law, be called “champagne” (everything else is “sparkling wine,” at least in the US). This particular law is apparently memorialized in the Treaty of Versailles; glad to know that bubbly labeling was a priority at the end of WWI. There is, however, an exception, which I just learned last week. Because Korbel, here in Napa Valley, was making the stuff prior to the law’s enactment, they and they alone (in the US) get to name their stuff “champagne.”)
Renowned food lit author Mark Ruhlman is partially responsible for turning me on to wanting (back then) to be a chef, with his “Soul of a Chef” and then “Reach of a Chef” books. I can now add to his genre with “The Mark of a Chef,” which is, besides ghastly burn marks, super short fingernails, and a drug problem, this:
This is how a chef stays hydrated: 1) Realize that if you don’t have a drink of water in the next 5 minutes, you might fall over from the hundred degree heat and the strain of running around the kitchen for hours on end. 2) Grab a plastic container — which is normally used, and then reused, for mise en place — so you can use it as a cup. (As a rookie, you might actually stop for 2 seconds and think, “Hm, is there a cup around here?” But you will very quickly learn that no self-respecting kitchen maintains usable cups, plates, or silverware, and that in the time you waste trying to hunt one down from the dining room, you will probably get fired.) 3) Consider for 0.5 seconds that the plastic container has remnants of grease on it because it used to hold uncooked bacon and wasn’t really cleaned all that well since, well, it’s a crappy plastic container. 4) Decide that your thirst is more important than your stomach health and ignore the grease. 5) Scoop ice out of whatever ice bath happens to be standing nearby — usually the ice that’s surrounding some metal bowl in which you’re trying to quick-cool a sauce you made too late — fill the container with water, and grab any half-lemon you see sitting around and throw it in. (You hope that the lemon will possibly, though not probably, protect you from the bacteria of the ex-bacon grease.)
Now that’s something you’ll never spot on Top Chef, Restaurant Impossible, or any other restaurant-based TV show. But if you ever see some guy in an alleyway gulping water out of one of these, you’ll be in the know.