Saturday, May 1, 2010



I know, I know, this is the part where a momentary hush falls over the room and they ask themselves, "Well, does he really know anything and is he really going to share any of it."
What I may or may not know is certainly debatable and it is ultimately true that one man's knowledge may seem like embarrassing ignorance or pure bull to others. That being said (an entirely over-used phrase), what I will do is let you on to a few tricks that I use, ingredients that I keep around and ways to combine them to help bring out flavor in dishes that might need a little boost in the yummy department.

I'll get to my opinions about what you have in your pantry and on your shelf in a while, but this first part of my diatribe will talk about the things I keep in my refrigerator as flavor enhancers, or boosters, if you will. These are little pots and potions that are easy to prepare in advance and that can lend that little bump of flavor to dishes that might otherwise be just good as opposed to "over the top".

In the lower part of the refigerator, not the freezer zone, I am never without a jar of roasted garlic cloves in olive oil, marinated roasted red pepper strips, homemade mayonnaise and chicken fat. Each of these things will lend flavor in its own unique way; the garlic and peppers for sauces, dressings and salads: the mayo for fish sauces and dressings and the chicken fat for adding a little subtle flavor to anything that you may wish to saute.

Roasted garlic cloves are a simple prep. Just immerse them, peeled, in olive oil (make sure they're covered) and cook them on a very low heat until they are meltingly tender. Keep coming back and checking your flame on these, as it will want to jump up and boil them. You don't want that happening; really. And once they have cooled in their oil, you can jar it all, cloves and lovely garlic scented oil. The oil is for salad dressing, cooking vegetables or even adding to emulsions like mayonnaise (more on that in a moment). And the suave and creamy garlic cloves can be spread on bread or crostini, pureed and used to thicken sauces, added to dressings and so, so much more.

The roasted red peppers are another multi-use flavor enhancer. These require a bit more work and attention than the garlic, but you will happy that you've put in the time once you start to use them. The best way to roast red peppers is over the open flame of the burner on a gas stove. I put three or four around the burner, cranked to full and keep turning them with my trusty tongs until they are charred on all sides. And yes, they will get black but don't worry, that part comes off soon. As the peppers become completely blackened, put them in a bowl or plastic container that has a tight fitting lid and shut off the air from reaching them. You can also put them in a plastic bag, but be careful they are not so hot as to burn through it. The idea is to allow the steam from the cooked pepper to lift the burned skin away from it so it can be easily removed. And to remove it, let the peppers cool, peel away as much of the skin as you can and remove the rest under running water. Yes, your hands will get dirty, but you'll thank me for this later.

Once the peppers are peeled, split one side of them with a knife and remove the seeds by just pinching them out. Rinse the peppers again to get out all the seeds and pat them dry. Cut the peppers open; down the side you split to get the seeds out and lay them on a cutting board. Cut them in thirds and then into thin strips. Put the strips in a bowl and add salt and pepper, a little vinegar (I use red or sherry) and mix well. Put the strips into a glass jar that has a lid, or one of those zip-loc containers with snap on lid and pour in enough of the garlic oil that you've just made (or just regular olive oil) so that the peppers are covered. Put the lid on tight, shake well and refrigerate for a day or two to get the flavors to mingle. And mingle they will.

Both the roasted garlic and roasted red peppers are used in salads and sauces and a great many of the sauces are based on that staple of professional kitchens (and yours too, since it's easy), chicken stock. We'll get into chicken stock; how and why you should make it, and all the things you can do with it further on, but for now we're dealing with little flavor boosters from the fridge and one I use frequently, again, with help from the chicken, is rendered chicken fat.

Every time you buy a whole chicken and look up its posterior you will see a clump of yellow-y fat attached to either side of said orifice. Most of you (an often) me, would have thrown these out in a previous life, but don't do it; don't do it! Instead yank it out and put it somewhere safe; a bowl, a plastic container, somewhere. Additionally, as you break down your chicken into smaller pieces, you will encounter more fat and a lot of pieces of skin that you won't want to cook. Cut all of these off and save them too. When you have a nice pile of chicken fat and skin, put it into a small heavy pot with a couple of tablespoons of water, put it over a low flame and cook it slowly. The fat will render, the skin will become crisp and you will get, after perhaps an hour or so, a nice coppery colored clear fat surrounding your chicken cracklings. Pour it through a fine strainer and save it. Eat the cracklings if you like; over a salad, by themselves, or not. I give mine to the dog.

But the rendered chicken fat, the chicken fat; prized in Jewish cooking as schmaltz, will add flavor to anything and everything you cook in it. At my restaurant, Belle Roux, in San Francisco, my cooks and I, as an experiment, saved and rendered all the fat and skin from all the chickens we cut (and we were banging through a couple of cases of 24 a week). We started using it for sauteeing and cooking whatever we put on the griddle and not only did we save a lot of money, but we discovered that catfish in a spicy batter tastes really good cooked on griddle in chicken fat. But, I digress, this about you, not me. At your house, you can use the chicken fat for anything you would use ordinary cooking oil for. If it is rendered properly and strained through a fine mesh strainer, it can be heated to a relatively high heat. And it makes green beans, spinach, and anything you pan-cook taste better. I would hesitate, however, to use it for pancakes.

And lastly, in this section, before we get to the goodies in the freezer that are equally important in building and boosting flavor, we come to good old mayonnaise. There is no comparison between store bought mayo (even if you swear by Hellman's or Best Foods, west of the Rockies), and what you can make in three minutes with your food processor. Store bought mayonnaise has so much sugar and so many stabilizers (for shelf life) in it that you can't taste what it's really made of; eggs, good oil, dijon mustard and a hit of vinegar and/or citrus.

Check this out:
Put 1 Egg and 1 Egg Yolk in your food processor.
Squeeze in the juice of one big or two small lemons (no seeds, please);
A splash of good vinegar (and for God's sake, Balsamic is not good vinegar),
Two crushed garlic cloves;
1 TBS Dijon Mustard;
pinch of salt and three or four grinds of pepper;
a dash or two of Tabasco.

Pulse all this in the processor until combined and then (slowly, but not painfully slowly) drizzle in 1 Cup of Canola (or other cheap kitchen oil) and 1 Cup decent but not Extra Virgin Olive Oil. You can also substitute some of your roasted garlic oil here if you want a gentle garlic flavor in your mayonnaise,
As you are adding the oils, about halfway through you will hear a change in the sound the motor of your food processor makes and that is the sound of mayonnaise being made. When the oils are completely added, take off the top and take a scoop with your finger. That's what real mayonnaise tastes like. If you like more salt or more acid (lemon or vinegar), add them. If the mayo seems a bit too thick for you, add a bit of warm water with the motor running.

Voila! Fresh real mayonnaise to use in the best tuna or potato salads, in salad dressings, to add to dips for crudites, sauces for fish (it makes a killer tartar sauce with the addition of chopped capers and green onions), particularly with artichokes, or whatever you like. If you keep your new mayonnaise buddy cold he will keep for up to two weeks in your refrigerator. Use him frequently; become both friends and allies.

So there you are; four easy additions to your arsenal of flavor boosters. And believe me, I use these four ingredients on an almost daily basis. Next up, we'll move to the freezer for a few more tools from my box and tricks from my bag. Chow for now. chefdave

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Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me

This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.