Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Empanadas, Big Party and What We Learned

Two things, there are two things I did this Saturday past that I knew better than to do, but did, in fact anyway, thereby causing myself a certain degree of both misery and pain.

In reality, one of them began far earlier than this most recent Saturday, when several weeks ago I was asked about, and was pontificating on, in a Chefly way, which hors dooveries we could serve at a big ol' wine tasting event (400 guests), one in which we would need 1000 pieces of whatever we chose (two items). I posited how it might be nice, and something no one else would be doing, to make and serve empanadas as one of our offerings. Yes, empanadas; little pastry crescents filled with some attendant goodness, baked and sauced appropriately. This is not something that I've often done, but it sure did sound good in my boss's office that day.

My other suggestion was to do Mushroom Risotto Cakes, something I've been doing for years. These are a surefire hit when topped with some kind of nice aioli, and I chose a green version flavored with vast quantities of green onions and parsley for this one. This is a pretty easy app to put together although it does require standing and stirring a massive steaming cauldron of napalm-like boiling rice for close to 25 minutes. Once that's done and the risotto is poured out onto sheet pans the rest is pretty easy. It gets chilled, cut out and breaded and is ready to be fried or baked. And it is a great vehicle for using up all the ends and funky chunks of cheese that a catering company/restaurant naturally seems to gather in the course of sending out multitudes of cheese trays.

My boss, said, "oh cool" or the equivelent thereof to my suggestions and so it was to be.

The week arrived upon which the party was to be held thinking ahead, as I am occasionally prone (prone indeed) to do I asked our kitchen manager to order me 20# of boneless beef chuck. I was thinking that I would braise it, days in advance, in a low and slow fashion, so as to have time to shred it and mix it with various and unique flavoring agents. Plan ahead and do this sensibly, day by day. That sounded good, at least in my tiny mind and on paper.

I ambled into the kitchen two days before the blessed event (lots of ambling going on when this is the only gig of the entire week) to get that big chunk o' meat in the oven along with some onions and garic and chiles and red wine, and received a major surprise. The big ol' chunk of meat I expected to drag out of the cold and into the warm is NOT 20# of beef chuck, but is instead, two 10# tubes (yes, 20#) of ground chuck. It was boneless, yes, but hardly suitable for our purposes.

So we did a lot of phonin' and we did a lot of moanin' and finally we arranged to have the 20# of boneless beef chuck delivered, but because it came from somewhere far away it would not arrive until the morning of the day before the blessed event. I began to mutter my favorite quote about mice and men. It was going to have to wait until Friday and that's just the way it was going to be.

I pulled in Friday morning and proceeded to ready the large chunk of chuck for the oven. I started off by sticking it all over with a boning knife, salting and peppering it and then rubbing it down with a paste of garlic, jalapenos and olive oil. I sliced five onions and spread them over the top and all around the spiced and rubbed meat. I poured in a two cups each of wine, stock and water, double wrapped it in foil and started it off on it's long relaxing journey to tenderness in a 325 degree oven. I didn't know it at the time, but this journey to tenderness would not come until waaaay later in the day, when I had left the building.

I hauled out the giant rondeau (a large, low and heavy cast aluminum pan) and after much stirring and not an insignificant amount of perspiring managed to get five sheet pans of garlicky cheesy mushroomy risotto made in the meantime (where does the phrase/word "meantime" originate from, anyway? Yeah, I know, google it). Next were the sauces for the risotto cakes and the empanadas. As I have mentioned, the risotto cakes would get a nice rich green herb aioli while the empanadas (which I have not mentioned) would get not one, but two sauces, each based on roasted peppers, one red and one yellow, but with decidedly different flavor profiles. Both would be olive oil mounted purees, the red flavored with roasted garlic and chiles, the yellow with sherry vinegar, shallots and dijon mustard.

So we arrived, the noble and hardworking Pedro and myself, at 9:00 Saturday morning knowing that we had to cut and panko (my kind of verb) the risotto cakes which would be a snap, if a time consuming one, but also that we had to assemble the empanadas from scratch. And this is where the first of my "knowing better" bells began to ring in the larger of my two heads. "This was dumb" it rang, "this is going to suck", it pealed. "This is going to take FOREVER", it gonged. And I tried not to listen, but it was far too late.

So, we shredded the 20# of very, very tender boneless braised beef chuck and then we chopped it by hand, the food processor rendering it too mushy. I blenderized it's pan drippings and the attendant flavoring agents (lots of onions) once they were defatted, and mixed the hand shredded and chopped meat with several cups of roasted corn I had stashed away and frozen back in the season, several more cups of nicely soaked and plumped golden raisins, and five or six finely chopped jalapenos. The rich braising liquid pureed with the nearly melted onions made sort of an onion soup to the Nth degree and was perfect as a binding/moistening/flavoring agent. But, The Clock Was Moving.

Now it was time to Make The Empanadas. We (I) moved into dough mode and began churning out small batches of the empanada dough in the food processor while the loyal, noble and hardworking Pedro began the rolling, filling, folding and crimping (yes, with a fork) process. It was slow going, stultifyingly slow going and I began to get a little, not a lot, but just a little concerned and somewhat manic. Failure is not something we cotton well to in the food business.

And it was here that the second of the two misery and pain producing things that I knew FAR FAR better than to have done occurred. On about the fifth or sixth, but could easily have been on the sixth or seventh, batch of dough I stopped the food processor because I didn't think the water I had just added had mixed in with the dry ingredients at the bottom.

So (and here's where it comes, folks; "Don't do it, don't go in the haunted cave" they scream from the cheap seats) I stuck my right hand down into the bowl of the food processor and in doing so managed, unbeknownst to me, to hook my middle finger under the cutting blade. And then what could have happened did. Upon attempting egress with my hand I caught the fleshy part of the top digit of my finger against the blade and pulled up. Halfway through the action and before it was complete I knew exactly what I had done. I ripped my hand out, causing the bowl and the top parts to fly across the kitchen and screamed, "No, no, you stupid asshole, no!!!" But it was too late. I had opened up a big crescent shaped gash in the previously mentioned fleshy part of the top digit of the middle finger of my right hand. And there was that moment, that priceless second where I looked at it and could assess the nature of the damage, just before the blood came pouring out.

So at that point the selfless, noble, long suffering and hardworking Pedro had to quit rolling and filling and folding and crimping (yes, with a fork) and also become the doctor. I got a towel on that sucker as fast as I could and squeezed it for all I was worth. Pedro got the goods and he proceed to first sterilize, then bind that damaged digit as tightly as he could, me urging him on to wrap it tighter and tighter. Oh yeah. And now it was big and bulky and white and a rubber glove wouldn't even fit over it, although Lord knows I tried. And The Clock was still moving.

It was now late afternoon and we were only up to 280 (four sheet pans) of empanadas. We kicked it in, although I must say, it is no mean feat rolling out dough, and cutting, filling, folding and crimping empanadas with a finger the size of an andouille sausage. Pedro, bless his noble and hardworking heart kept on rocking and rolling (not to mention, filling, etc...) and the two of us labored over the table in quiet backbreaking desperation. By 5:10 (we were to leave at 6:00 and still had to fry the cakes and bake the precious empanadas) we had 510 of those little suckers all filled and ready to go. Que milagro!

The final hour was a bit of a blur, but it all got done. I discovered, much to my delight and relief that I could avoid frying the risotto cakes by spraying them with non-stick spray and putting them on the very top rack of the convection oven. It may not have been frying, but it got them brown and hot and at that point that was just about all I was looking for. The empanadas were in the bottom of the two ovens, doing their level best to get a lovely golden brown and the risotto cakes were in the top.

Every last one of those perfectly browned 1050 morsels then had to be transferred from the sheet pans into 2" hotel pans (because they're the only ones that fit) for transport in our heated cambros to the site of the blessed event and somehow they made it. Josh, the dishwasher showed up about an hour or so after we really had needed him, but it meant that neither I nor the hardworking and fiercely loyal Pedro would have to clean up the colossal mess that can only be made by two people doing the work of four or five or six. Pedro and I jumped into the van with the alacrity of two men who have just worked nine straight hours on their feet without taking a break and we were off to the hills of West Salem and Zenith Winery.

The event itself, an Equinox benefit for something or another was massively anticlimactic compared to the day's events, but Pedro and I did get to wear our new monogrammed black Chef's jackets. We also got to rehearse our song and dance about what it was that we were serving because we had to do it a couple of hundred times each. And amazingly every single one of our 1050 bites of food got scarfed down my a bunch of folks from West Salem who somehow all seemed to get drunk drinking one ounce of wine at a time. The risotto cakes seemed to be Best in Show among all the food items, we were told our table and food were the best time and time again, and some guy in shorts stood off to one side of our table and must've scarfed down 30 empanadas all on his own.

There we stood at the end, bloody but unbowed. 13 hours our feet without a break (except for the bandaging process). My back ached from the time spent over the table lovingly preparing the empanadas and my finger was throbbing like the floor when you live over a houseparty. Pedro, the hardworking, loyal, trustworthy, brave, clean, thrifty and reverent Pedro turned to me and said, "Chef David, when I work with you, even when I work hard I always like it and I always learn something."
I eyed him dimly, a certain amount of fatigue coloring my view. "What did you learn today, if I may ask?"
He looked me right in the eye and said, "Never do empanadas for a big party."

Thursday, March 1, 2012



It's been pretty slow times around the catering kitchen and a by-product of that, if indeed the word "product" can be used when there is not a lot of anything being produced, is that I find myself doing a whole lot more cooking here at home. And since the by-product, or lack thereof, when one is not working is a lack of serious cash flow, one makes do as one must, with left-overs, freezer raids and eyes to that which goes on sale at the local market.

The last week has found me turning out soup, hash, tacos, a slow-cooked cheap cut of pork and in one fell swoop of a splurge, a whole roast chicken with risotto. The soup, hash and tacos were fashioned purely from refrigerator and freezer foraging and the pork and chicken were the result of carefully eying the sale section of the meat department.


The soup was a classic "homemade" project, based on some leftover barley and lentils that Kathy had made for a salad. I started by sauteeing your basic bottom of the crisper drawer vegetables; a couple of carrots, two or three ribs of aging celery, an onion and plenty of garlic in bacon fat (always a stash of that in a jar in the refrigerator door), along with two smoky pork sausages that were lurking in the back of the freezer.

Once that had filled the kitchen with it's splendidly garlicky aromas I added the lentil/barley mix and part of a bag (about two cups) of our "roasted tomato shmoo", (see earlier entries) made in large quantities last year as fall neared its end. I filled the soup pot with a little over a cup each of homemade chicken stock and water. There wasn't much to do at this point but bring it up to a boil, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for an hour or so into something resembling dinner.

And a fine dinner it was, served in deep bowls, steaming hot on a cold night. We stretched it out with warmed Tandoori Naan, a package of which had made its way home with me after a sample case had been left at work by our thoughtful Sysco rep. When I do work, it's good to work in the food service industry.


Hash was something I had not made since the days I worked at the Elite Cafe in San Francisco. There, each week, we used our leftover filet ends and trimmings to make an extremely peppery and popular poached egg topped hash for Sunday brunch. Here at our house it wasn't exactly the ends of beef tenderloins, but rather a largish chunk of turkey breast that had been cooked in the crockpot along with cream cheese, soy sauce, roasted red peppers and dried herbs according to an old recipe of Kathy's.

I had come across a ziplock bag of said turkey during one of my monthly freezer purges and had wondered what in the world I was going to do with it. As providence would have it, the night before I had cooked a simple dinner of some kind of protein product and served it with sauteed broccoli, red peppers and yellow crook necked squash. Quartered roasted potatoes from our "root cellar" had filled out the menu. I had asked Kathy what she wanted me to do with the leftovers and the first thing out of her mouth was, "make hash." The mother of invention, indeed.

I cut up yet another onion and sauteed it slowly in more bacon fat along with a quarter stick of butter. While the onions cooked I shredded the turkey, chopped the vegetables and cut the potatoes into small cubes. I caught the onions at just the point of turning a lovely golden color and sprinkled a tablespoon or so of flour over them to make a roux. I still had chicken stock because I almost always have chicken stock, so I poured some in, brought it to a boil, and there it was, the gravy that would bring everything together, binding the hash, if you will.

I knew I couldn't and shouldn't stir the hot gravy into the coolish turkey-vegetable mix, so I stuck it in the refrigerator while I went out for herbs. I snipped several lengths of chive, grabbed a handful of parsley and a couple of sprigs of thyme. I brought this back into the kitchen, destemmed it and chopped it up to add to the hash base. When the gravy was cool enough, I mixed it into the turkey and vegetables and it bound it all together quite nicely. The whole mix went into the refrigerator so the flavors could get to know each other informally before being cooked and eaten.

It didn't seem as if hash on its own would be enough so I put together a small green salad; red leaf (of which there seems to be a lot around this winter) lettuce along with some diced hothouse tomato (sigh) and a small Hass avocado. I heated up a non-stick 12" skillet and rubbed it with just a bit of bacon fat (can you tell how I feel about bacon fat?) before pressing the hash mixture into it. It browned nicely on one side before I did my former breakfast cook show-off thing and flipped it all over in one piece. I put the pan (and the hash) on the bottom shelf of a 450 degree oven for about ten minutes to assure that it would heat through and that each side would have a nice crust. Crust on hash is critical.

It came out great!! The top and bottom were crispy, it was just moist enough from the gravy, and the flavors had gotten to know each other in a most advantageous way. The green salad provided just enough crunch on the side and we had feasted yet again, while spending virtually nothing. I like that.


On a day we were snowed in the craving of the day turned to tacos. Oh yes, spicy and well garnished tacos on a cold and blustery day would be perfect! There was a chunk of flank steak, a nice ripe avocado, plenty of cheese, onion, tomatoes and even cilantro, but, oops, NO TORTILLAS.

This sent me scrambling in the pantry looking for something I wasn't even sure was there, but, lo and behold, there was a nearly full bag of "Bob's Red Mill Masa Harina", a corn flour ground right up the road in lovely Milwaukie, Oregon. Indeed there was even a recipe on the back for making tortillas which I set to immediately. Hot water mixed slowly into the masa, not too sticky, not too dry, roll into a ball and let rest. Easy, but in the back of my mind it seemed as if something was missing.

Putting that thought away, I turned to making a nice little "guisado", or stew, out of my meat and vegetables. I peeled a couple of cloves of garlic and sliced my onions into thin half-moons and tossed them in a skillet with some (yes!) bacon fat. I seasoned the stuff in the pan with chile powder, a dash of cumin, some ground chipotle, salt and pepper and a hit of smoked paprika while I sliced the beef into thin strips. I always cook my dry ingredients, particularly chiles, into the mix for a while to bring out their flavors. I added the meat, a chopped tomato and about half a cup of chicken stock and after it came to a rapid boil, turned it down to the barest of simmers.

I turned to the garnishes, everything that would elevate our tacos on this snowy afternoon. I peeled and diced the avocado and tossed it with a splash of lemon juice and a little bit of Cholula hot sauce. I grated a mix of pepperjack and cheddar cheeses, shredded a couple of leaves of romaine, chopped a bit of cilantro and plopped some sour cream into a bowl. The guisado smelled great and the liquid had cooked down just a bit; ready. Now for the tortillas.

I heated up a ten inch cast iron skillet and rubbed it with (yes, again) more bacon fat. Using a smaller cast iron skillet I pressed out the tortillas between sheets of wax paper. Surprising to me that we had wax paper, beyond the surprise that they still even make the stuff. The tortillas were not easy to peel off the waxed paper, however. When they were the thin-ness I wanted, it was damn near impossible, so I went for a thicker more rustic feel.

Into the pan the tortillas went, one at a time, and I called Kathy into the kitchen to stand at the ready to assemble our tacos. The first tortilla came out, crisp and smelling so, so very good, and it was here and now that it came to me what I had left out of the tortilla mix. As we folded them, they cracked at the back; they were not at all pliable and it was clear to me now why professional tortilla makers put lard in the mix. Yes, of course it adds flavor, but it also lends a certain moistness that enhances and strengthens the fold.

Despite having ingredients that fell out the back, we fell upon the tacos rapaciously. The snow fell, the ingredients spilled and we stuffed our faces, going back to the pan again and again. And this is something we will do again and again, at least when we forget the tortillas.


In addition to scouring out the kitchen in search of cookable leftovers, I have also, for the first time in my life, been scouring the food ads (not to be confused with the food sections) of our local newspapers looking for deals on whatever may feed us and fill us without mauling our pocketbooks. And I struck pay dirt, so to speak. There it was, Boneless Pork Shoulder Roast, reduced to $2.39/# (limit two per customer). I made my way on down to Roth's IGA, our local grocery and picked us up a 3.5 # chunk of pork and happily brought it on home.

This is one of my favorite pieces of meat to cook and it takes so well to a variety to treatments. I decided to go with the "low and slow" version this time that is almost like a Mexican-style carnitas. I fine chopped 12 garlic cloves along with some of Philipe's Kitchen Witch (straight from N'Awlins) Seasoning and some sea salt. I rubbed this all over the roast, making sure to get it down into the crevices and cracks between the muscles. I thin sliced an onion, laid it over the top and into the refrigerator it went for an overnight get-together of flavors.

The next day it was an easy start: Put the meat in a low roasting pan, pour in a cup of water, cover tightly with foil, stick it in the oven at 275 and walk away. I came back four hours later, took off the foil, basted the top of the meat with the nice fatty juices that had collected in the pan and left it for another hour to lightly crisp the top. Presto! Crispy Carnitas without any frying, and meat that literally falls apart at the touch.

From this point on, once the meat is cooked, it becomes so many things to so many people. The first night we ate it over mashed potatoes with the pan juices (defatted, of course) ladled over the top. Oh My Goodness was that good. The second night I shredded it, mixed it with a bit of a red chile enchilada sauce I had made last summer and it became the filling for burritos. The other day while we were working outside in the cold, I darted in, heated some up, slapped it between two pieces of bread with cheese, griddled it in a pan and made toasted pork and cheese sandwiches. Tonight it will become the "World's Best" Pulled Pork Sandwiches and that still leaves us enough for soup and maybe another meal. It's hard to imagine a better deal for your dollar and the flavor of slow-cooked pork is to die for.


Last, but hardly least, Kathy's very best friend Terry was here visiting from Costa Rica so we put on a good show for her. Whole, locally raised Draper Valley chickens were on sale so that seemed like the way to go.

I did a simple roast chicken; salt, pepper and a lemon and butter rub. I roasted it for about an hour at 400 and it came out perfectly; crisp golden skin and very juicy. We served that over a risotto made with some liquid from the very last of some dried mushrooms we had mixed with chicken stock. I sauteed some fresh crimini mushrooms to make the risotto a bit more "mushroomy" and the chicken, sliced, went over that. We had just gotten some decent asparagus at the market and a simple steamed and buttered prep made the whole dish come together. I made a little gravy out of the pan juices and we sat down to a lovely dinner of roast chicken by candlelight.

We may not be working much, but we can still eat well, and sometimes, that's the best revenge and remedy both.

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.