It would seem that you can keep the chef out of the restaurant, but you cannot keep the chef out of the kitchen. Now that I am blissfully cohabiting, I have embraced my household duties whole-heartedly. And a particular favorite of mine is the duty of putting dinner on the table each and every night for my overworked (but certainly not under loved) sweetheart.
These few weeks in Oregon have found me adapting rather nicely, and actually cottoning to, cooking at home for two. I know, I know, scold me; this is what at least one partner in every relationship since the beginning of time has done. But for me it represents a sea change in the way I view shopping and cooking; a chance to plan more intimately and shop more economically.
When I cook in a restaurant setting it seems that there is always a way to get rid of the left-overs. They can be incorporated into the next day's lunch special, or, better still, they can live a second life as part of an appetizer or when blended into a sauce or soup. Best of all, the guest who ate the initial offering is rarely around to see it in its second life.
I find that buying for the home, and particularly buying for two, requires far more planning and far more awareness. A former sous-chef of mine used to quote his grandmother to the effect that the definition of eternity was "two people and a ham." So I have embarked into the task of buying smaller amounts, utilizing the freezer far more than I am used to and attempting to paint my leftovers in more attractive and different colors from the palate of taste.
This week I raided the freezer for the second set of chicken breasts I had wrapped up when a pack of four was on sale; for two packets of ground beef that Kathy had obtained as part of the purchase of a quarter of beef; and lastly for a packet of turkey breast meat that had been frozen after we had slow-cooked a whole breast in the crock pot. My mission was to turn them into something new, fresh and not too altogether familiar (although, it should be noted, not all at the same time).
Tuesday, I decided, would be the chicken and this was an easy one. There were two big half breasts; wing bone still attached. We had bacon, we had mushrooms and we had fresh tomatoes. Best of all we had a the rich stock left from the slow cooking of the turkey breast. We had brown rice and we had whole wheat egg noodles; I opted for the noodles. There were also three small heads of fresh broccoli in the refrigerator.
I turned the oven to 450 and turned on both front burners. On one burner I put salted water to boil and on the other went a non-stick 12" fry pan, my favorite all purpose cooking vessel.
While waiting for the water to come to a boil I lightly seasoned the chicken breasts with salt, pepper and smoked paprika. When the fry pan came to heat, I put in a small amount of canola oil and crisped the skin of the chicken breasts. I flipped them over and into the oven they went.
At just that moment the water came to a boil so I blanched the broccoli florets, drained them and shocked them in an icy bath to halt the cooking process. At the cutting board I diced bacon, and tomatoes, quartered mushrooms and peeled and chopped garlic. I also pulled out a few green onions and cut them into small rings. I had the turkey stock ready. I put another pot of salted water on to boil and checked on the chicken.
When the chicken breasts cook meat-side down in the oven it really hastens the cooking process and they were nearly done. I took the pan out, poured off the cooking oil and placed the breasts in again, skin side down, but this time I added the diced bacon. This went back into the oven for five minutes to crisp the bacon. Again the pan came out and this time I lifted up the chicken breasts and scraped the mushrooms, tomato and green onions into the pan. I gave it a bit of a toss, put the chicken on top of the mix and put in in the oven one more time.
The second pot of water had come to a boil so I dropped in a big handful of curled whole wheat noodles and then pulled the chicken out of the oven one more time. I used my tongs to pluck the breasts, crisp and golden brown, out of the pan and put them on a plate. I put the pan on a burner and poured in the rich turkey stock. The aroma of the bacon and roasting mushrooms rushed right up at me. The turkey stock swirled around, picking up the little bits of tomato that had stuck to the bottom of the pan and incorporated them into the sauce. I brought it to a quick boil and then turned down the burner.
The time had come to put it all together! I sauteed a bit of garlic with butter and olive oil and added the broccoli florets with some salt and pepper. I drained off the noodles and tossed them in their cooking pan with a bit of olive oil. I put the chicken breasts back into the pan with the rich aromatic sauce and poured in the juices they'd left on the plate. I poured a bit of the pan sauce into the noodles and it was time to plate.
The noodles went down onto the plate first with the garlicky scented broccoli just above it. I sliced each crisp skinned breast into four thick medallions and overlapped them on top of the noodles. I grabbed a kitchen spoon and ladled the rich aromatic bacon/tomato/mushroom mixture over the top of the slices and to the table we went. It was cold out and this dish was a wonderful aromatic antidote to a rainy chilly night.
Night 2; Meatloaf ala Chef Dave; or, Calling Up Old Ghosts
I started making this meatloaf recipe in the mid-90's when I worked at the Elite Cafe on Fillmore St. in San Francisco. It started out as a bit of a derivation (read "borrowed") from a recipe used by my friend Philipe LaMancusa at Embarko in the early 90's and the one in Paul Prudhomme's first cookbook.
At the Elite it was cajun spice heavy, and we used a fairly standard gravy for it, made with a dark roux. One of the interesting adaptations that came out of the Elite was my sous chef, Steve Harlow and I mixing pureed canned chipotle chiles with ketchup and our house BBQ sauce for the glaze that would go on top. We both liked how the glaze caramelized as the meatloaf cooked, although at that time we were cooking the loaves in bread loaf pans so we weren't getting good coverage from the glaze.
The recipe took a little trip down to a N'Awlins style restaurant I opened in SF's Cannery called Belle Roux (great reviews, bad location) and was run as a special from time to time. I was fiddling with the gravy and ended up adding deeply caramelized onions to it, echoing a gravy that Philipe (once again) had put on a pork loin dish at Embarko that he called "burnt onion gravy". I used the same glaze there, but was hand forming the loaves so that the glaze would run down over the sides, lending them more of that spicy sweet caramelized goodness.
I took the recipe to the masses when I left Belle Roux and went to work as a Corporate Chef for Gap Inc. The Gap's headquarters was home to rather an upscale cafeteria/cafe and the staff was just over 80% women. That in no way kept the lines on "meatloaf day" from going out the cafe doors and wrapping down through the hallways. We would sell 12-14 meatloafs (loaves?) a day there and would be sold out by 1:00 each afternoon. Diets went by the wayside for the meatloaf and gravy over mashed potatoes.
All of this history brings us to this Wednesday past when I decided that Kathy and I would take full advantage of the packets of ground beef that were the by-product of her quarter beef purchase. I bought a pound and a half of freshly ground unseasoned pork sausage at the local market as the addition of pork makes the meatloaf moister and set out to make a recipe I had not made in at least nine years.
It's a good thing that there was plenty of bacon in the freezer because like so many other Southern/N'Awlins recipes, that's how this one starts. I cut a couple of strips in a fine dice and started them in a pan. Alongside them on the cutting board I had placed the elements of the "holy trinity"; onion, bell pepper (red, in this case, and in most cases for me; I hate the green ones) and celery. As usual, garlic found it's way in there as well. When the bacon was about half cooked and had rendered enough fat, I put a fine mirepoix of the "trinity" into the pan along with a teaspoon or so of a pre-made "cajun" spice blend. I tossed all this together, let it cook for only a few minutes and turned it out onto a sheet pan to chill.
The two packet of beef went into a mixing bowl along with the pork, two eggs, a fistful of breadcrumbs and then what else? We had some ketchup, so I added a bit of that. There was some Stubb's BBQ sauce in the refrigerator so I added a few shakes into the mix. Salt and pepper? Well, of course, along with several dashes of Lea&Perrin's, a few drops of Tabasco and lastly, the chilled spiced vegetables. I mixed all this together and patted it out into a loaf form onto a cookie pan.
The glaze would have to be a bit of an improvisation. We had no chipotle, but we had a Thai-style sweet red chile sauce. We definitely had enough ketchup and we had more BBQ sauce so all three went into a mixing bowl along with a tiny splash more of L&P. I mixed it up and brushed it on, nice and thick. I laid two long strips of bacon across the top in an "X" and the loaf was oven ready. Pretty as a picture it was (so I took one).
With the loaf in a 400 degree oven, it was gravy time. I thin sliced (half moons for me) a big yellow onion and put the slices in a cast iron skillet with a couple of teaspoons of fat I had taken off the turkey stock along with about a third of a cube of butter. The onions were set on a medium heat to cook slowly enough to keep from burning, but hot enough so that they would color; color deeply.
While the onions did their caramelizing thing, I brought about two cups of chicken and turkey stock to boil and then let it simmer. After about 20 minutes of tossing and browning, tossing and browning, the onions were starting to get some color and I was getting bored, so I turned up the heat. With the higher heat I kept tossing the onions in the pan, but was starting to get some of the crisp edges that give this gravy its distinctive flavor. When caramelizing onions, the cook wants them to be brown, limp and evenly cooked. For this gravy, I want the onions browned in the middle, but crisp and nearly (but, oh, not quite) black on the edges.
At what I considered the perfect point, I added a handful of flour to the pan and using a wooden spoon, coaxed it into the liquid fat that surrounded the onions. It thickened quickly and then, as happens, it fell into a softer form as a bit of the liquid from the onions worked its way in. Now it would be like cooking a roux, much like one would for gumbo or other cajun stews.
I tossed and mixed the onions and roux until the color of the roux was nearly like a dark peanut butter; a really dark peanut butter. Very, VERY, carefully, I poured the simmering stock into the skillet and still using the long wooden spoon, stirred the mixture until it was "as one". Still stirring, I brought the gravy to a boil and then reduced it to a low simmer. The browning would have cooked most of the flour taste out, but the gravy now needed a long slow cooking to incorporate all the flavors.
I left the gravy on a low heat to slowly commingle the flavors and turned to the loaf at hand. It was nearly done and I knew that it would need to sit and repose (or reposee, as they say in France). I find that most meatloaves, despite being wonderful straight from the oven, may be better the second day after all the juices have redistributed themselves in the tiny crevices in the meat.
But we were eating it that night and so it would have to rest for as long as we could let it before we had at it.
Mashed potatoes were and are the obvious accompaniment to meatloaf and gravy and I had yukon golds peeled and in the water and boiling away. I keep a jar of roasted garlic cloves in the refrigerator for moments such as this and they awaited their fate of being mashed in with the finished spuds. I had been craving asparagus even though the locals are not quite here yet (late, late Spring) so caved and bought some Mexican product; please don't tell a soul.
The gravy had reached it's desired flavor and doneness, the spuds had been mashed (along with the roasted garlic cloves) and anointed with butter and cream; the asparagus were simmering lightly in a bath of butter and sauteed garlic. All that remained was to put that first cut in the loaf and put the plate together. I broke through the crust and glaze with a sharp knife and was greeted by a waft of steam and a seductively spicy aroma. The mashers went down on the plate surrounded by the asparagus. The slabs of meatloaf went right on top of the potatoes and a generous ladle of gravy covered it all. Dinner was on; really on.
We enjoyed (I enjoyed) this dinner more than anything that I've cooked in quite some time. It may have been nine years, but it was every bit as good as I remembered. Costa Rica may have steered me a bit off meat, but this loaf was divine, heavenly and yes, delicious.
Night 3; Finally Mexican
I grew up in California and have always loved Mexican food and cooking with Mexican ingredients. I made my first chile rellenos over 40 years ago and perfected a tomatillo "salsa verde" for crab or chicken enchiladas that my sisters both still use. Mexican culture is so deeply entwined with the cultures of both California and Texas, both states where I have lived and it has always been an undercurrent of flavor and style in my cooking.
For nearly all of my time in Costa Rica I drew on influences from Mexican cuisine. I made fruit salsas based on the the "pico de gallo" model; I made guacamole using just fresh avocados, lime, chiles and cilantro; I made vegetarian stuffed chiles that were not too different from my early chiles rellenos and I used Mexican techniques for braising pork with citrus and chiles. But, I have not cooked any real Mexican food in a long, long time.
This week we had big chunks of leftover turkey in our refrigerator from a whole turkey breast that Kathy had braised in the crock pot. I needed a way to use it up that would get us out of the flavors we had been currently eating, and I needed to do something that would get me on a different track. Mexican was something I had been missing, Mexican was something I had been craving and Mexican it was going to be.
The last time I had made Turkey Enchiladas was in Austin two and a half years ago with some Thanksgiving leftovers, but then I had used my old standby green sauce. This time I wanted to find some good quality dried chiles and do a traditional red chile enchilada sauce. It took a little hunting to find the chiles I wanted, but a very helpful young gentlemen in the produce department at Safeway pulled a box of loose packed dried New Mexico chiles out and let me rummage through them to find what I wanted. In addition I bought a pack of dried ancho chiles to balance out and deepen the flavor.
To start the process I heated a cast iron skillet to take the place of the traditional Mexican "comal" and toasted the chiles on each side before immersing them in water to rehydrate. I used the same hot iron pan to dry toast thick slices of onion, halved tomatoes and unpeeled garlic cloves. When each of them were toasted I put them in a blender (I peeled the garlic after toasting) along with the rehydrated chiles that I had stemmed, seeded and torn into pieces. When I blended it all with some of the soaking water, it turned into a beautiful deep, thick, rust colored liquid.
The next step is to lightly "fry" the sauce in hot oil. It seems odd to "fry" a liquid, but it helps to take the raw flavor out of the chiles and intensifies those flavors as well. When the sauce hits the hot oil it comes to a quick boil in the pan. I then turn the flame down and let the sauce simmer for nearly an hour. The smell is haunting and ever so familiar.
I cut and tore our leftover turkey breast into pieces and chunks and put it into a bowl along with cubes of avocado, shredded Monterey Jack cheese, some minced green onions and a healthy ladle of the newly made red sauce. When mixed together, this would be the filling for the enchiladas. I next dipped each white corn tortilla in the hot red sauce to soften it so that it would not tear in the rolling and proceeded to roll up six tortillas. I coated the bottom of a pyrex with more sauce and laid the finished enchiladas in the pan. Another thick coat of the red sauce went over them and then a flurry of grated jack cheese. A layer of foil over the top made our enchiladas oven ready.
While the enchiladas baked I prepared a simple white rice that I mixed with a handful of chopped green onions and cilantro. I anointed a lettuce mix with just lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper and left it to toss when the enchiladas were ready. I took the foil off the enchiladas after 25 minutes and gave them another 15 minutes in the oven so that the cheese took on a nice golden brown color. I pulled them from the over steaming and beautiful.
The plate was simple but colorful; the red of the enchiladas and their sauce, the simple green salad and the speckled green and white of the rice. Kathy and I took out first bites of the enchiladas and it was hauntingly familiar; slightly bitter but with hint of sweetness, spicy but not too, and deep with flavor. I had put a dollop of sour cream on top of them when I had put them on the plate and the blandness of the cream and the turkey/avocado filling were the perfect foils to allow the bite of the red chile sauce to shine through. We powered through these and barely spoke while we did.
It was such a pleasure to experience this classic flavor once again. It brought back so many taste-bud and olfactory memories which in turn sparked a host of thoughts of other meals and other times.
It is one of the powerful properties of food and cooking that it can take us back to so many other places. These three meals each called up flavors from my cooking past and allowed me to revisit and re-practice techniques which will never leave me. It is amazing how a trip to the freezer and the need to rid ourselves of left-overs can open the door to the past and help to remind us that the skills and the flavors are always there.