Monday, November 28, 2011

Passion in the Pan; It's Always the First Time!

I love to cook. 

I love being in a kitchen, any kitchen. There's a 'buzz' that comes from familiar environs. The smells, sounds and tasks all run about the same wherever you go: scents of garlic warming in a pan, rhythmic tapping of a blade on a cutting board and requests for miracles in minutes... it!
There is a sense that something is being created; a classic dish revisited, a comforting soup simmering, or a perfectly formed loaf of bread taking shape. We may have prepared the same recipe a thousand times, but, each batch is a little different, unique.

According to a former Yankees catcher, "It's deja-vu all over again!" 
Who can forget the piercing aroma of dough rising in a warm spot of the kitchen or the golden tan of a well-tended bake? How can anyone remain unfazed while diced onions and celery slowly simmer in a stockpot, waiting for stage-two in a stewing process? 
The thrill of a new pair of pants, a crisp shirt, of cushy shoes, heck, even the smell of a new car wears off after a while, but, good cooking, now, there's something that never loses it's draw.
Have you ever walked past a pan of, oh, let's say, breakfast sausage and said,
'Ya know, that really doesn't hit me right now."? Maybe if you were sick.
"No, I'll think I'll pass on that chicken gravy made from the pan just looks kinda yucky. There's bits in it. I mean, you didn't even use a mix!"   Right-Oh, genius...real gravy does have bits, those are from the scrapings of your roasting pan.  The French call them 'les sucs', the 'sweet bits.'  All those wonderful carbohydrates turning to simple sugars, then, getting caramelized into savory brilliance!
These are the  'One-percenters' of gravy hierarchy that transform good to excellent. 

We had Thanksgiving at my work, providing a traditional turkey dinner for our senior residents and their families.  As I diced up the livers, hearts and gizzard of the birds, my lead cook asked, "So, that's for the giblet gravy?  You're gonna cook that and put it in the gravy?"

"Yessiree, Ritchie" I affirmed, "and once these little bits of deliciousness are saute'd, I'll blast them in the food processor to make them smaller for our peeps to enjoy.  Plus, it will add a texture to our gravy, like mixing in a pate'..."  My guy has been cooking for years in hospitals and isn't used to certain real cooking techniques.

"Well, this I gotta see," he huffed and walked away.

I love making gravy and have done so a thousand times.  Each time is a little different, but, all are fulfillling.  It's a simple preparation using antiquated methods that is still valid today.

Eventually, dinner was ready and we began to load up the buffet tables. 
Ritchie had a small bowl with some of his stuffing in it, covered with the turkey giblet gravy he eyed suspiciously earlier.   

"Th-th-this is a-MAZ-ing, Brian," he stammered.  Ritchie stutters when he gets excited about a topic, like a really good episode of Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune.

"Oh, you have REALLY outdone yourself on this...the residents are going to just LOVE it!" he continued, "Is this something you just made up or is this from a family recipe?  I just gotta know how you did this!"

We reviewed the process of using a stock made from turkey bones, scrapings of the roasting pans, saute'ing onions, celery and turkey giblets, blasting big pieces into bits using a food processor and thickening our sauce with a roux; a paste of wet-sand texture made of melted butter and flour.  

"That's all?  Just those things and it tastes THIS good?!" he asked, "Yeah, but, that's gonna take a lot of time; there's labor involved.  Can't we just open a can?"

"Then, you're not gonna have THIS!" I chided, reaching for his bowl of stuffing and gravy. 

"Nuh-nuh-nuh," he said, putting up an arm to shield my attack, 
"I'll make the stuffing and let YOU make the gravy.  I'm good at this and you're good at that!"


Good things from the kitchen don't have to be overly-wrought or have a laundry list of ingredients.  Sometimes it's just five things that are needed, sometimes even less.  Often, the '1%' of greatness is right in front of us, we just need to recognize it and embrace it. 

Keep the Passion in your pans!

Take care, God bless and remember: 
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends, 
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"

Chef bq.  

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Outdoor Cooking Ain't Always 'Bout the Q!

I love my Weber grill and am passionate about my smoker. Cooking on the deck, at the park or in a school parking lot usually finds me in front of a fire with licking flames or belching sweet, aromatic smoke.
My head has been turned to a new love, however, and the stable of cooking apparatus has just increased by one. Sounds a little weird coming from me, but, just hear me out on this one...

BBQ has a little competition.

We took a trip up to Seattle over spring break and landed in Pike's Market one afternoon. After the requisite viewing of salmon throwing, sitting on the bronze pig and eating mounds of Dunginess Crab Cocktails out of 3 oz. plastic portion cups, we headed to The Final Stop. Mom wanted to go the Spanish Table, some mediterranean version of Sur La Table with olive oil and smoked paprika.

"Big deal," I said, "we can get that crap in Portland. It's not that hard to find anymore. Come on, let's beat the traffic down I-5..." Lisa would have none of it.

"No, we're ALL going to walk down and you boys can stand outside and smoke your cigars. Siobhan and I will do some shopping, " she informed us with the pleasant smile of a veteran tour guide. This wasn't her first rodeo; she knew how to handle a disinterested group.

"Aren't there any cute girls over there at that "Free Egypt" rally?" Pat and Liam made note and began to scour the crowd, comparing and contrasting Seattle protesters with the Portland variety.

Mission Accomplished Mom.

We stepped into the store and sure enough, there was the wall of olive oil, Barefoot Contessa books, Giada de Laurentis books (that girl should be selling a tooth whitener or something!), and ceramic jars with wooden spoons made by some kinda Earth-friendly, sustainable, third world co-op. It was even staffed by an anemic looking guy with glasses that could be pleading for donations every three months on PBS. You know the type, probably drives a Prius with bike and kayak rack. Anyway...

Lisa was off to a corner in the front of the building and called me over to look at Paella pans.

"Neat, what are we going to do with that?" I said, looking at my imaginary wrist watch. "They're too thin and we would need to build a fire for that thing. It'd be Hell to control..."

"No, honey, they have burners right over there, " she pointed out.

Then, what to my wandering eyes should appear...? A double ring, concentric burner; it was enameled with a tri-pod stand and air adjustment system that ran on Propane! A huge pan could rest and cook comfortably on this stunning piece of simple engineering (insert angelic heralding here). It was like a wok burner, only flat. And it was brilliant!

The demure owner crept up and asked if we needed assistance. Questions were asked and answered; Lisa and I smiled and nodded our heads as he spoke. Our minds were already preparing summer dishes and we fancied ourselves entertaining guests with our newest piece of outdoor gadgetry.

"Um, the guys want to know when we're leaving," Brendan interjected, "Hey are you gonna buy that pan?" "Way-way-wait a minute," he said, waving his hands like we were making a bad approach for a carrier landing, "That's $200 for a pan and burner! Do you want that or do we really need that?"
The heretofore tepid salesman turned his head to our 7th grade lifestyle coach and said,

"Take a walk, kid!"

We bought it and spent most of the drive home creating dishes and scenarios for using it for any meal or occasion. I even passed up the suggested stop at Cabela's to look at guns. Yeah, that's an impact piece.

The following weekend, we called some willing culinary Guinea pigs to join us for the inaugural cookout.

After turning three or four screws on the stand for assembly and hooking up the propane, the burner was ready for primary ignition.

As the pan began to heat up, oil was added to lightly coat the bottom. An array of pre-seasoned meat and fish lay before me like a palette before a canvas. There was a perfect sequence to obtain, as with any dish, to achieve optimal flavor and texture. This would be determined and followed, allowing for careful observation and minor tweaking.

First the chicken was browned in the oil; the skin crisping nicely. Then the sausage was added; we used a Portugese style linguisa. Once sufficiently browned, we dumped in the chopped onions, celery and sweet pepps. Now, it was beginning to take shape! When the onions were cooked to a transparent color, we added one quart of arborio rice. Any decent rice could be substituted; just steer clear of any generic, par-boiled product. It would be a crime in most countries to use an inferior (see Uncle Ben's) rice. I'm just sayin'...

The whole shootin' match was stirred with a metal spatula to evenly distribute the ingredients. Two quarts of liquid were poured into the pan and stirred once again. Water is fine, but, a chicken stock is a Chevy vs. a Cadillac. Go Caddy on this baby. Smoked paprika and the defining herb, saffron, were added last as the pan was brought to a boil. Heat was reduced at this time to a slow simmer.

I know arborio rice is done when I dig just under the surface and taste a grain or two. Each kernal will double in size and go from flat white in color to an opaque hue of yellow with the bleeding of the saffron. Just before the rice is done, arrange your seafood on top, it will cook gently and not get hard like some fish flavored cracker.

And the aroma? Aye Dios mio!

Throughout the cooking process, family and guests came by to check on the proceedings.
"Now, what's that?"
"How do you know when it's done?"
"What's that amazing smell?!"
"Dude, I mean, Dad, this smells flippin' awesome!" (Liam).

And finally the flavor.
As we scooped up each persons portion, we finished with a little garnish of fresh herb; in this case chopped basil and thyme from our garden.

It was a spiritual experience.

The yellow, saffron-scented rice, browns and reds of chicken and sausage, pink and juicy shrimp, green peppers and a chiffonade of basil combined to produce a masterpiece.

Lisa and I just sat there and looked at it.
Could a dish taste as good as it looks, we wondered?
One bite told us:


Our thanks to the Iberians for sharing this brilliant, outdoor, communal dish.
We will use our new Paella pan and burner throughout the summer.

Now, the Gypsy Kings?
You can have them back...

Take care, God bless and remember:

"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"

Chef bq.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Soda Bread and Cod Liver Oil

"God save us and protect us!" was a favorite phrase of my dear Irish grandmother. She had alot of things that have become touch stones for my siblings and I. One was her soda bread.

My first thoughts of soda bread find me at her chrome trimmed, Formica kitchen table on Prospect St. in Watsonville, CA, my hometown. Her Bakelite radio was tuned into KOMY-1240 where she could get local news, farm reports and weather. On-Air talent, Vic Rue, would sometimes read articlles from area newspapers or tell stories that made my grandmother snicker through her nose.

Grandma was old school, even in the 60s. She was born on a farm in Ardboe, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland in '18 and 90' as she would say. Her family lived in a one-room, thatched roofed cottage and worked as sharecroppers or tenant farmers on the larger property owned by non-Catholics. Cars hadn't been invented yet, nor had man learned to fly. Queen Victoria ruled over all of Ireland which would not see independence for another 30 years!

Although she emigrated to America at 16 years of age, she never lost her brogue nor the great pride of her Gaelic heritage.

Most weekends she would call down to our house and ask for a boy to help her with a few things. I loved spending time with her, so, would often volunteer.
After digging a few 'preities' and pulling some weeds, she'd call me in for a break. Her stories of the 'olden days' would captivate me as I sat there having a slice of soda bread with butter and a glass of milk.

I would be at a loss to think of a more genuine soul than this simple farm girl who shuffled about her kitchen in clothing that reflected the styling of 'Aunt Bea' from the Andy Griffith show. She had the clompy, black lace-up, thick healed shoes, leg wraps and support hose that made her legs look like those of a Dough Boy from WWI.

Nobody's grandma was like her.

She would retrieve her dishes from a sideboard and china cabinet. Each glass was there and stacks of differing plates neatly filled the lower shelf. She moved deliberately with each piece of dining ware and set them in front of you. A slight ridge in the center of the floor betrayed a faint sqeal as she walked over it.
This could take minutes; there was no wisking about closing doors with the bump of a hip or giving the knee to a drawer. No, each cabinet door creaked and every drawer screeched as she slowly opened and closed them. A cuckoo clock made the only other noise in the house, keeping a soft, yet, noticeable beat.

She was the real deal, the genuine article, broke-the-mold material.

"Darlin', woudjuz like a some marmelade on your bread?" she'd ask as you took a first bite of her carraway and current studded loaf. She kept her bread on a cake stand with a thin dish towel over it to keep from going stale too soon. I got up to get the marmelade from the fridge and there it was on the door with it's label secured by an 'elastic' as Grandma called it. We call them rubber bands.

It was her brown medicine bottle of 'Cod Liver Oil.' I grabbed the marmelade and quickly closed the door before she got a notion to do some 'healin'.

"Darlin', bring me the Cod Liver Oil and let's have a spoonful!" she enthusiastically called to me.

She would say it with certainty, like it was being dispensed to a farm animal and it was de-worming season.
Before you could say 'Art Linkletter', she deployed this spoon that must have come from the Army. She loaded up a dose, tilted your head and pinched your nose as she administered what was to become decades later, beneficial Omega-3, fatty acids.

It was disgusting.

The spoon rattled every tooth in my head as I instinctively bit down while she quickly drew it out of my mouth. Sometimes, I'd cry, especially if I fought it and blew some back into my sinuses.
Not fun; like somebody made you snort anchovies for some God-awful reason.

Anyhoo, the soda bread became even more tantalizing as a cleanser of the olfactory after the assault leveled by a loved one. When it was warmed, the butter would melt and fill the air pockets in the loaf. Marmelade had that sweet/acidity thing going on that I have come to treasure. I quickly forgave her country doctoring and focused on the reward of her homebaked treat. Her smiling eyes through thick glasses, her gentle and easy laugh, her simply expressed hospitality are as vivid today as 40 years ago.

There we would sit, this old lady from Ireland and her weed-pulling, potato digging grandson, sharing some soda bread with a whack of butter and chasing it with a glass of milk and a 'cuppa tay.'

Her soda bread lives on today; I'd just as soon keep the Cod Liver Oil as a memory.

Granny Quinn's Soda Bread (as dictated by her daughter, Sr. Anne Christine)

3C flour
1/2C Sugar
2t baking powder
1t baking soda
1t salt
1 1/2C raisins

2 eggs
2C buttermilk
2T oil
2T carraway seed

Sift dry ingredients and add raisins.
Combine eggs, buttermilk, oil and carraway. Add to dry and mix on low speed till a pancake batter consistency has been reached.
Pour into loaf pan (paper lined or sprayed/floured) and bake at 350 for approximately 1 hour (or until center of loaf springs back when gently touched).
Cool for 10 minutes and remove gently. If you use paper, like me, it lifts out without any hassle.

Serve warm with a generous knob of salted butter!

(**Note: I use about half the raisins and carraway seeds, but, suit your own taste.)

This loaf is super easy, everyone loves it and it maintains those cultural ties to Ireland on St. Paddy's day.

Take care, God bless and remember:

"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life Aren't Things!"