Sunday, November 14, 2010

My favorite dish, my favorite cuisine, my favorite topic

A recent Facebook chat with an old friend:

  • Irma Tsosie Brown What is your favorite dish to make? :-)
  • Adam Lee Cutsinger
    I think souffles, off the top of my head, although variety is the proverbial spice of life - when people ask me what my favorite cuisine is, I say (ironically) sandwiches (cuz it's not a cuisine, per se), cuz the universal world relationship on a plate is carb-protein-veg, and the best carb (to me) is artisan bread, but look at wraps, fry bread, sushi rolls, pizzas, sandwiches, these hand-held foods (okay, sushi isn't hand-held) let all the ingredients be tasted in every bite simultaneously. Anywaze - souffles are fun to make and can be either sweet or savory.

Cooking Tutorials: the Direct Effect

From the mouths of chefs, or at least their typing fingers. Here are 582 transcripts of chats between real professional chefs and real home cooks. These occurred at ChefsLine, the Culinary Hotline, where anyone anywhere can chat online or make a phone call and instantly reach a professional chef, pick their brain, write a recipe, solve a problem, write a menu, calculate an ingredient substitution, and have a pro hold their hand through the most complicated cooking techniques.

Believe it or not, Thanksgiving is coming in two weeks, with Christmas and Hanukkah following up shortly after. Don't ask me how, it just is. And, I know, you can research your own cooking tips. Google will even spell it for you. But ChefsLine is a unique service, and cheap as hell, and free most of the time - for instance, they just posted the transcripts of nearly six hundred chats between their chefs and their clients on their blog.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lunch Plans Switcharoo: a traditional Italian-style sit-down for a quirky Asian & Greek happy hour with style

A funny thing stood between me and attendance at the 125th anniversary promotional lunch at Fior d'Italia, purportedly the oldest Italian restaurant in SF's North Beach, during which they honored their original menu (20 cents for eggplant parmigiana!): a long, slow-moving line, consistently consisting of somewhere around 300 people, wrapped around the block and down the street, roughly 100 feet long and with clusters often 10 feet wide - just about as far from being single-file as you can get and still have something resembling a queue of humans.

And the semi-linear crowd only partially represented the number people with designs on getting inside, since most of the would-be diners came in groups, leaving one or two persons designated as place holders while the rest escaped to enjoy espresso, wine, sandwiches and window shopping, only to join the line again near the door. Anatre fortunate!

Gauging the distance I had meandered during the first hour in line, I became quite skeptical about my prospects of actually getting inside before they closed the door at 4PM to wrap up service and begin their private in-house celebration. Anatre fortunate anche!

I felt no small amount of pity for the multitudes gradually joining the confused conflux behind me, who certainly had no clue at all that they stood no chance whatsoever of even smelling the eggplant.

Eventually the chef made the announcement, "We will be closing the door at four! If you don't get in by then you are shit out of luck!"

A few people left, but most of us wanted to see what would happen at the bitter end; we'd waited too long not to.

Many of the wannabe-ravioli-eaters were tricked into coming down by the ABC news, who featured a story about the restaurant's anniversary special, but which broadcast turned out to be a terribly misleading disservice, because anyone who had decided to attend due to that featured bit was fated to wait in line only to be turned away.

Myself included.

"I'm gonna do something..." said the house ospite, "...that much I..." but his voice trailed off in thoughtful uncertainty, since he and we all knew that he ought not make promises he would not be able to keep. A few of the hungry nonpatrons clapped anyway.

A quarter past four the rabble became antsy in the pantsy, for, though they had long ago given up hope of getting a plate, they saw that the host was handing out vouchers. But the excitement burped and faded away when we learned they were for 15% off, which would just cover the tip, maybe. He may as well have been passing out twenty dollar bills, with Mickey Mouse' face printed on them.

I don't really think the staff at Fior d'Italia won over many new customers that day, except for claiming the title of oldest ristorante in Little Italy. The people who did eat may very well opt out of returning soon, only to pay full price next time, especially with so many dining options in the City. And the people who had waited so long and then were turned away didn't leave with the impression that their feelings mattered much to the proprietors, who simply lacked the warmth and when-you're-here vibe that would have drawn them back.

When you are confined or deserted with strangers for any length of time, before long those strangers often become your friends, and such was the case here.

Meet: the Gan family: Matt, who wanted to take the family out to the special lunch in the first place, and who, when he learned the vacant value of the vouchers, said, "I gotta hurry up and throw this away," as though he needed to think about anything other than Italian special offers, just to come back from the staggering disappointment. Matt Gan's parents, Grant and Liz, couldn't have been sweeter, as with their friend Lily, and Susie, Liz' mom, with her aquamarine sweater, pink cap and hint of senility, could not have been any cuter.

And then there was Christabella Savalas, who informed us that, yes, Kojak, er, Telly Savalas was indeed her first cousin. Christabella is a bubbly and vibrant person who wears her heart on her sleeve and shares everything. She plays (and teaches) piano, speaks (and teaches) several languages, and has worked in many aspects of film and television production and performance.

Making a unanimous snap decision, we all loaded up in two cars and drove to our Plan B destination: McCormick & Kuleto's in the Ghirardelli Square, where they have spectacular happy hour specials. We ate 1/2 pound cheeseburgers and chicken sliders, each for under $3, and we didn't miss the red sauce one bit.

And I proposed a toast: to the 125th anniversary of Fior d'Italia (the inside of which I am certain none of us are likely to ever see), and the great new friends that came in lieu of pretentious pasta.

Buon appeti..., er, no no.

Who love's ya, baby?!

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Writing Collaboration: Raw Foods


I'm a freelance writer who has been asked to write a short piece on the
benefits of eating raw foods, and adopting a raw foods diet. I am lookingfor any experts, specialists, or sites with information on the
health/wellness/environmental benefits of eating raw foods. Also, any
practical advice (like rinsing your mouth after smoothies because of the
acids in the fruit) would be helpful.

I'm on a tight deadline, so
direct, specific information and quotes is greatly appreciated. Preference
will be given to sources in the San Francisco/San Jose Bay Ara, but all
information is helpful.

Hi Caroline,

I received your request from HARO via ChefsLine's CEO about your raw foods diet article. I'm one of two of the chefs at ChefsLine who really enjoys teaching others about raw food benefits. In general, a raw foods diet (raw is the law) is a lifestyle choice and a healthy solution for people facing a number if health / digestive issues.

I do, however, try to include as much raw food as I can, to capitalize on the nutritional value of foods. I am sure you know that taking on a raw foods diet is about protecting digestive enzymes, so that one glass of carrot juice can provide as much calcium as several glasses of milk, if only because the calcium in pasteurized milk doesn't get a chance to be fully harnessed. HIV patients seem like they would be the best beneficiaries of the enhanced nutrition of a raw foods diet, but I am no doctor.

Incorporating something raw into every meal is one thing, but going totally raw has the added effect of cleansing the body, an effect that can be a bit dangerous is undertaken too rapidly, or at least so says Humbart "Smokey" Santillo, author of Intuitive Eating: Lifelong Health and Vitality Through Food, who reportedly got ill from trying to switch from a high protein diet to a raw foods diet all at once. That's why his book offers a three-stage strategy to ween off other foods and adapt gradually. Also, according to him, a high-protein diet for athletes is overrated.

One way to get the most out of raw foods without dehydrating everything is juicing, and the health benefits of juicing and eating raw go hand in hand. Also, one might try fasting for a couple of days, drinking only water and juiced fruits and vegetables, if only to practice making the sort of tough diet decicions that will be required when adopting a raw foods diet. Eventually, however, the desire to eat unhealthy foods is supposed to naturally wane, as the body begins to tell you what it wants. Personally, I don't want to make the kinds of sacrifices a real raw foods diet requires, but I do try to minimize my unhealthy food intake, of course.

Other than feeling great and living well, another great aspect to raw foods is the fun design of the food itself. Many restaurants have developed amazing recipes for fun raw dishes, and perusing the menu of a raw foods cafe is one of the more entertaining things you can do with your lunch break. Also, the food is really filling. It simply takes fewer bites to feel full, and I don't quite know how to explain that.

Well I hope helps a little, and good luck with the article. I hope it gets to you in time. Feel free to check in with myself or any of the other chefs I work with here at ChefsLine, the Culinary Hotline, regarding future food-oriented topics. It's our job to spread the wealth of culinary knowledge to the masses, one home cook at a time.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Grill a Whole Fish in Ten Tiny Steps

Grilling season doesn’t have to be about burgers, ribs and steaks. Almost anything can be cooked outdoors, so jump on the opportunity to cook outside again, especially since the weather ought to be getting better and better as summer progresses. Cooking outdoors is fun, and is extremely easy when you are prepared.

And one of the very easiest foods to grill is, believe it or not, whole fish. Whether the fish comes from the fishmonger or the end of your fishing pole, follow a couple of simple preparatory suggestions and you’ll be grilling whole fish anytime the sun comes out. So get ready to put a fresh fish twist on the old 4th of July cookout.

If you’re not too comfortable with a boning knife, have no fear. Grilling whole fish requires minimal carving.

My favorite fish to grill include trout, snapper, bass, sea bream, just about any medium-sized whitefish will do, as well as some smaller fish like mullet, bluefish, mackerel, and butterfish.

Salmon is also a great choice.Avoid flounder, sole, fluke, cod and similar fishes because they can be too delicate.

When selecting your dinner, select a fish with clear eyes, shiny scales and a non-fishy smell. Once you’ve got your hands on a fresh whole fish, here are the 10 easy steps to grill it:

1. Clean the fish: de-scale it by scraping the dull side of a knife against the grain of the scales until it’s smooth. Cut off the fins with a pair of kitchen shears and discard. Then cut along the entire bottom of the fish, remove the guts and discard. Rinse the fish clean. scaling_fish1
2. Score the fish with 1/2 inch-deep cuts on both sides, about 1-2 inches apart. This helps the flavors of the marinade (and smoke if applicable) to better penetrate the meat of the fish.
3. Marinate the fish for 1-3 hours in your choice of marinade. If you are using a marinade that is acidic (i.e. with lemon juice, vinegar, etc.) only marinade for 1 hour to avoid “cooking” the fish (as in ceviche).
4. Preheat the grill, or let charcoal ember to flame-less white briquettes.
5. Brush the clean grill and fish with a thin layer of canola oil, peanut oil or any other neutral-flavored oil with a high smoke point, to prevent the fish from sticking.
6. Remove the fish from the marinade and wipe it clean to prevent the fish from sticking (save the marinade). Salt and pepper both sides. Optionally, you can stuff the inner cavity of the fish with herbs and pieces of lemon).
7. Grill the fish for 7-12 minutes (depending on the size) in the hottest part of the grill (unless serving salmon rare – 4-5 minutes). Optionally, you can also dip some rosemary or dill sprigs in oil and use them as a bed to grill the fish on if sticking is a concern.
8. Turn the fish over gently with one or two large spatulas. Optionally, you can turn it over onto a large piece of aluminum foil and then slide it onto the grill.
9. Baste the fish with the leftover marinade, and let it grill about as long as the first side.
10. Carefully remove the fish from the grill and place it onto a serving platter. Serve with grilled lemon and enjoy!

Once the fish is cooked it will flake easily away from the spine (again, rare salmon is a special case), and it should be simple enough to avoid any of the smaller bones. You can run a knife along either side of the spine, and then you should be able to slide the knife under the cooked fillets with no problem.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact one of us on the cooking hotline!

Have fun grilling!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Savory Chocolate? Sweet!

originally posted at ChefsLine 16 Jan 2009
by Adam Cutsinger

Do you like chocolate? Yes? Do you like chocolate with cream? Or ice cream? Do you like chocolate with caramel? Or chocolate with nuts? How about chocolate with cherries? Or raspberries? Mint? Cream cheese? How about chocolate with rosemary? Thyme? Lavender? Or cayenne? Do you like chocolate with mustard?

If the last few options made you feel a little apprehensive, read on.

Chocolate is no less suited for cooking with savory than butter or fruit. But allow me to rewind here a moment, to explain that, in professional kitchens in the U.S., two major categories exist – pastry, i.e. pastries, desserts and sweets; and savory. i.e. everything else. And, for some chefs, never the twain shall meet, while some other chefs enjoy crossing over, dabbling and experimenting, seeing what works (and what doesn’t) by trial and error. As it turns out, there are many ingredients that help make successful dishes on both sides of the paradigm. And chocolate is irrefutably one of them.

Cooking with chocolate ought not be a cause for pause. After all, chocolate’s friends in the bakeshop – butter, sugar, flour, cinnamon, vanilla honey, etc. all cross over into the savory kitchen quite nicely, don’t they? What chocolate brings to savory dishes is complexity and depth. The cocoa butter brings texture and mouthfeel, and the cocoa solids bring color and richness. A cook can choose a chocolate for his dish much in the same way he chooses a wine to cook/pair with his food. And there are just about as many options.

It may be noted that a little bit of chocolate goes a long way, although there are some daring chefs who deliberately push the envelope when marrying chocolate with savory dishes. It should also be pointed out that cooking with chocolate doesn’t necessarily mean sweetness on your plate. Although cooking with sweet components, chocolate included, is often desirable, good bittersweet chocolate is actually not very sweet at all and won’t generally make your dish taste any sweeter.

Question: So what does chocolate actually bring to a savory dish? Short answer: depth and complexity. Long answer: Chocolate consists of two very potent components, the cocoa solids (i.e. cocoa powder) and the cocoa butter (i.e. white chocolate). The solids are bitter and dark brown, and act like a starch, absorbing moisture and thickening liquids. The cocoa butter adds silkiness, lushness and mouthfeel. In fact, because chocolate has such a low melting point, it can give the sensation of cooling your mouth because it uses the heat energy of the tongue. Very cool indeed. (On a related note, chocolate also has a very low smoke point, meaning it burns easy, and once you burn chocolate, or most anything else for that matter, you can’t really get rid of the burnt flavor. Word to the wise.) Despite chocolate’s richness and complexity, however, you may be surprised at how mellow it makes food taste. It goes well with nearly anything, and yet possesses none of the qualities of the food it goes so well with – sourness, saltiness, pungency, sweetness. Almost like good bread.

Most people already know that chocolate is a psychoactive material, because of the caffeine (stimulant), theobromine (cousin to caffeine), tryptophan (antecedent to serotonin), and phenethylamine (natural amphetamine). Cooking with chocolate is comparable to cooking with wine, beer or spirits – not only are there noteworthy effects on the flavor and texture of the food, but the food itself has more of an effect upon the person eating it. Chefs, avid restaurant goers and foodies all around understand that great food has only so much to do with nourishing the body. It’s about enjoying life as much as possible. And cooking with chocolate can leave one feeling very high on life.

Mole poblano is probably the best-known chocolate dish (most sauces called moles actually don’t feature chocolate at all), and is traditionally served over chicken, but can be served over pork, beef, venison, even fish. And here chocolate is reunited with one of its oldest friends: the chile. Native South American tribes, including the Olmecs, the Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayans, used chocolate, usually as a beverage, with chiles, vegetables, meats and other savory elements long before Europeans began utilizing chocolate. Fact is, chocolate was not originally defined as a dessert ingredient until much later. Only as the distinction between desserts and the world of savory, nonsweet foods became more and more defined over time did chocolate eventually join the ranks of such foods as sugar, honey, and many fruits as fundamentally dessert-oriented. (Interesting side note? Cacao beans were also used as currency by Mayans as late as 400 AD in Guatemala – 3 cacao beans could buy you an avocado, and for 100 beans you could buy a turkey.)

Tips for introducing chocolate to your dinner:

  • If a recipe you are using calls for flour, substitute up to 25% of that flour with cocoa powder.
  • Put a small piece of bittersweet chocolate at the bottom of a bowl of hot soup or chili. As it slowly melts, you can experiment with how much chocolate you like with each slice of your spoon.
  • Add a tablespoon or two of melted chocolate (or cacao nibs in lieu of nuts, if your recipe calls for them) to a buttery sauté, or cacao nibs on a salad.
  • Try using rosemary, thyme, lavender, cayenne, olive oil, or some other ingredient normally associated with savory cooking, to your favorite chocolate dessert.
  • Be aware, water can make chocolate seize (stiffen and lump suddenly), but you can usually unseize it if you stir it vigorously enough.
  • Use good chocolate. It’s worth the extra cost.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Moveable Feast

originally posted at ChefsLine 25 May 2006

Although meals eaten outdoors always have a certain splendor, there are certainly key elements to planning and preparing your moveable feast that help ensure delicious tastes, food safety, and a pretty presentation. Use this checklist and have fun!

  1. Spruce up sandwich presentation by layering colorful wrapping paper with parchment or wax paper. Wrap like you would a present, tucking in the ends.
  2. Don’t forget the corkscrew, a sharp knife, a bread knife, small cutting board, and water.
  3. Bacteria and germs need the combination of food, moisture, and heat to grow. Temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees are not suitable for food storage and foods left in these temperatures for over four hours are firmly inside the “danger zone.” In hot weather (above 90 degrees) food should never sit for more than 1 hour. Any left over left out for more than 2 hours should be thrown away and always keep foods covered and in shady spots. The Partnership for Food Safety Education publishes very helpful information about safe food handling practices. ChefsLine is well versed in many food handling issues - do not hesitate to call us when in doubt.
  4. Lay a plastic tarp first so you can use that pretty blanket for seating.
  5. Bring a trash bag, wet naps, and of course, plates and forks.
  6. Prepare dishes that taste good at room-temperature including sandwiches, salads, and cheeses.
  7. Include a crunchy, lively salad as one dish to balance textures.
  8. And, unlike a cooler whose plastic and damp insides often give me pause before opening, there is nothing that says “look inside!” like a pretty picnic basket!
  9. Sources: Red butcher paper to wrap sandwiches or line tables Source
  10. Sources for red checkered take-out containers:
  11. Other ideas- Have the kids design own bags with stickers and markers. Wrap their own sandwiches with pretty plastic wrapping and stickers. Styrofoam soup containers can be decorated with markers and stickers too.
  12. Keep raw meats wrapped tightly and separately from cooked foods and those meant to be consumed raw.
  13. Pack ahead: Pack perishable foods at the last minute with ice or ice packs, and be sure not to open it too frequently.