Silly Americans

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.

Chianti Transport

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.”)

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The Mark of a Chef

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:Lemon ice water

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.

The Things They Let Us Do in the Kitchen

Continuing on our exploration of Asian cuisine, last week we did Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.  Relatively ho-hum for me, personally, except for the fact that we were not only permitted, but encouraged, to do this:

Wok Fires

Now, I’m all for learning new skills in the kitchen.  But let’s face it, as I’ve said before, it’s pretty amazing that none of my classmates has been killed thus far, what with everyone running around with pots of boiling stock and sharp knives.  So, once Chef L elicited major oohs and ahhs with his demo of the proper use of a wok and the requisite 4-ft flames that shoot up with its use, it was all I could do not to run and hide in the walk-in as each of my classmates took their turn potentially setting themselves on fire.

Hot n Sour SoupAs a refresher (since I have taken a kinder, gentler path over the past few months but am now on a mean streak-revival), my classmates leave something to be desired in the common sense department.  Case in point:  Raider (he’s a huge Oakland Raiders fan, and will never let us forget it), who joined our class three segments ago when he failed out of his own class, is a 22-year-old pot-dealing father of two kids, from two different baby mamas.Chang's Kimchi  When Raider first told me he had a 7 month old daughter “and another one on the way,” I thought he was just really bad at math.  I’ve since learned that, while, indeed, he is terrible at math, he actually got that right — he somehow managed to knock up another girl while the mother of his first child was still pregnant.  All of this, however, would be tolerable, except for the fact that Raider has a terrible work ethic — never does his share of kitchen clean-up, talks INCESSANTLY throughout class, and seems to have an infinite capacity for making inane comments.  (Chef L asked everyone today whether they’d cooked anything this past weekend.  Raider raised his hand enthusiastically and loudly proclaimed, “Oh yeah Chef, I made me some fruit salad with jello and cool whip.”)  Joseth's sushi

To fully illustrate Raider’s idiocy, I offer a quote from him dated 2 weeks ago:

Biker:  “So what’d you do last weekend [Raider]?”

Raider:  “Dude yo we had an off-the-hook baby shower for my girl on Saturday, and we got FUCKED UP!  Yeah!!”

You get the picture.  And Raider hardly has the market cornered on lack of smarts; last Tuesday another classmate got convicted of cocaine distribution and possession and is now facing a mandatory 15-year sentence (multiple strikes).  Korean short rib plate

Given that these are some of, even if not all of, the types I go to school with, you can see why I was nervous on wok day.  Turns out, my classmates are better at making Szechuan beef than at remembering to use condoms.  We churned out some great stuff.  Depicted here: Hot and Sour Soup (topped with “chinese parsley,” aka cilantro), Kimchee, Sushi, and Korean short ribs.

A Food-centric History Lesson

Had a lecture on Japanese cuisine the other day.  Best part?  Check out the last line of the school’s official powerpoint slide:

Allies and Spam

Happy to know that, perhaps even more important than ending years of  torture and degradation of the Chinese, Koreans, and other nationalities at the hands of the Japanese, the end of WWII also signaled . . . the arrival of SPAM AND HAMBURGERS!!!

(My comment was meant to be facetious, in case you missed it.  After typing this entry, I realized that a lot of my readers, who well know my genuine love for spam and hamburgers alike, might actually think that I believe the introduction of those items to Asian cuisine to be the best part of ending the second world war.  I do love food, but come on, I’m not quite that bad . . .)

A Day in Sonoma…

Pictures do it better than words . . .

scribe winerySonoma 1

PigSonoma wines. . . though some supplemental explanations probably wouldn’t hurt.  The vines at Scribe Winery, the charcuterie plate at Ram’s Gate Winery, Thomas McNaughton (of Flour + Water fame)’s pet pig Kona — who kept rooting

around in picnic’ers purses for food and at one point ate an entire Walgreens plastic bag in one mouthful just to get at a few almonds stuck at the bottom, and mason jars of Scribe chardonnay and Gloria Ferrer bubbly at Fremont Diner.

Seriously, what’s not to like?

Green Papaya Salad

Many of my readers probably knew this all along, but for some reason I’ve always failed to make the obvious connection that — usually — when a veg/fruit is “green,” it’s basically just the unripened/less ripe version of itself.  Therefore, green pepper = less ripe red pepper, green papaya = less ripe (and more delicious, in my opinion) papaya.

papaya salad 1Anyway, that’s neither here nor there.  Over the last few weeks, we’ve been covering various Asian cuisines in Cuisines Across Culture.  The classic Green Papaya Salad (mostly seen on Thai menus here in the U.S.) was among our assignments.  Super easy to make, provided you can get your hands on good green papaya, chilies, fish sauce, and roast a few peanuts without burning them (2 seconds literally makes the difference between an edible and inedible batch).  The cool technique I learned in preparing this salad?  The “shreds.”papaya salad 2

Peel the papaya skin with a standard peeler (it’s thin at this stage in the papaya’s life, similar to a cucumber).  Then, take a chef’s knife (longer is better — you can see the knife in the picture if you look closely, though per usual Sculptor is already an expert at this and therefore is hitting the papaya way too fast for my camera), and hit the papaya repeatedly, maybe cutting 2-3 millimeters deep into the fruit of the flesh, until you have a ton of tiny grooves along the papaya.  Then, run your peeler along the papaya, and the fruit will just “shred off.”  Looks hard, but actually super easy.

Status Update. And Artichoke Joe.

OK OK, I know I’ve been really bad about posting lately.  My excuse:  I’m finishing up culinary school in just two weeks (have decided not to do an Externship after all, since I’ve confirmed that I don’t want to be a chef) and so am busily job-hunting for something legal/business-related in the food space, potentially at a food tech startup.  Haven’t hit upon anything yet, but the process has been good; have seriously expanded my network in the food biz as of late.  You know, it’s crazy the amazing food tech start-up ideas that are out there these days.  Take Blue Apron, which is a “mise en place” delivery service where they do all the annoying kitchen prep work for you (veggies are chopped, 1/2 teaspoon thyme is all measured out, etc. etc.) and then deliver it to your door.  All you have to do is assemble and cook, and, ta-da,  you have a homemade meal.  (Studies show that while career moms have no issues outsourcing most household tasks like cleaning and doing the laundry, if there’s one thing they are reluctant to give up, it’s making a home-cooked meal for their kids.  This makes it super easy.)

Anyhow, I’ve come to realize that job-hunting at my level (not quite junior, not quite senior) is pretty difficult, and, on the west coast in particular, depends almost entirely on your network of people.  Gone are the days where I can just submit an application and resume; today, it’s grabbing coffee with the person who knows a person who knows a person inside the company you wanna work for, (thank you LinkedIn), then taking it a degree closer, then finally making contact directly.  It’s a pain, of course, and I’m on caffeine overload, but it’s been to get to know so many people.  What it has not been good for?  Keeping up with my blog.  But I’ll do my better going forward, I promise.

Tony's Pizza

And, bc this entry was so text-heavy, a non-sequitur yummy photo:  The Artichoke Joe pizza from Tony’s Napoletana in SF (winner of the World Pizza Cup in Naples).  Artichokes, spinach, smoked provolone, mozz, and little pools of peppered crema di parmigiano.