Musings from a Seattle personal chef
I admire über creative chefs who concoct culinary masterpieces, often from seemingly incongruous ingredients (Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller come to mind). Me? I’m more of a tinkerer. I derive inspiration from others, rarely creating a dish solely of my own design. However, I suppose one could argue original thought no longer exists — we’re all just idea borrowers.
I’ve been doing a lot of tinkering lately, with great success. Inspired by a recipe for baklava with cherries and chocolate, I turned my traditional baklava into a Thanksgiving-worthy delight by adding dried cranberries to the nut mixture and drizzling cranberry-infused syrup on top. Not only did it turn the baklava a rich ruby, it provided a welcome tang to offset the sweetness.
Next up was a sweet strata with panettone, Granny Smith apples, walnuts and cranberries for my monthly “Guinea Pig” gathering. Each month a group of chefs gathers to test out recipes on one another based upon a theme. In keeping with Christmas, we chose red and green food. However, salads were verboten (we had to show more creativity). I originally signed up for a savory dish, but all I could think of was quiche or crépes — both of which I’ve made several times. I then remembered the panettone French toast I prepared for a Christmas brunch last year and decided to give the strata a try. I added a bit of maple syrup to the custard (milk and eggs), tossed it with the cubed panettone, fruit and nuts and baked it for about 45 minutes.
But my greatest achievement? The Elvis ice cream.
When a couple of my friends announced they were preparing a vegetarian meal for our bi-monthly dinner, I thought I’d be funny and try out David Lebovitz’ candied bacon ice cream for dessert (we’re all meat eaters, but apparently they thought a vegetarian meal would be healthier). I bought some thick-sliced Applewood bacon from Whole Foods and followed David’s directions for candying it. No, that’s not entirely true. I overlooked his suggestion to place the bacon on a rack considering American bacon tends to be much fattier than the stuff he gets in Paris. Much of the brown sugar melted off along with the fat. I also left it in too long, resulting in charred sticks of slightly sweet bacon. Mind you, my darling and I still ate it, but it wasn’t good enough to go into the ice cream. I’d have to try again.
Since I had all the ingredients for the custard I started preparing it first thing in the morning to give it plenty of time to chill. As per David’s instructions, I poured half of the half & half in a pan with the butter and sugar, and the rest in a bowl sitting in an ice bath. As I grabbed my ice cube tray out of the freezer I spied my bag of frozen ripe bananas for smoothies. My mind started whirling: bacon and bananas — isn’t that what Elvis liked to eat on his sandwiches? A quick Google search revealed he preferred peanut butter and bananas, but he’d often add bacon as well. I now had my recipe.
I thought about adding dollops of peanut butter to the ice cream toward the end (along with the diced candied bacon and banana bits), but decided to make it a peanut butter ice cream base with the bacon and bananas added in. I stirred in about a half cup of creamy peanut butter to the hot custard until it melted, then whisked that mixture into the half & half in the ice bath. I then let that cool while I went for a run.
As I ran I thought of ways to present the dessert to my friends. I pictured a scoop of ice cream in either a martini or margarita glass, topped with a cookie or sweet wafer to carry out the sandwich theme. But then phyllo came to mind, specifically, large phyllo cups baked in muffin tins. I thought the crisp, buttery phyllo sheets would provide a nice textural contrast to the creamy ice cream. But then it hit me — ice cream sandwiches; duh!
I wanted something rather neutral so the flavors of the ice cream would shine, and I found the perfect foil in butter waffles (they’re basically flat waffle cones). I’ve since tried Nabisco’s Famous Chocolate Wafers with equal success (they provide a rich chocolaty flavor without overpowering the ice cream). The true star, of course, is the ice cream.
For my second attempt at candying the bacon, I placed it on a rack and rendered off most of the fat before adding the brown sugar. I also turned the bacon every 4-5 minutes until it was crisp and a deep mahogany. I added both the bacon and the chopped banana at the very end of churning the ice cream (just enough to let it incorporate). After letting the ice cream harden for about a half hour I spread it on the butter waffles and put them back in the freezer until ready to serve.
I loved how each flavor revealed itself. First came the subtle peanut butter, followed by the banana. Then came the smoky bacon with just a hint of saltiness. It was an incredible combination eliciting several “oohs” and “ahs” from my friends.
Of course, just when I was patting my creative bad-ass self on the back I stumbled across two other takes on Elvis ice cream: one with peanut butter, bananas and bacon mixed into chocolate ice cream, and another — from a Seattle ice cream shop, no less — that tops peanut butter and banana ice cream with chocolate-covered bacon.
What is it about so-called “detox diets” that holds such allure for me? My rational mind says it’s all a bunch of hooey — after all, isn’t that what our spleens and livers are designed to do? — but for some reason the thought that eating certain foods can magically clean your system of every toxic substance sounds very appealing.
Some of the claims are outright absurd: drink a concoction of maple syrup, cayenne and lemon juice for 10 days straight? Puh-leaze! And don’t even get me started on the multitude of “supplements” being peddled, promising everything from detoxification to weight loss to increased sexual drive. I’m probably more turned off by the fact these are sold through multi-level marketing schemes (Amway, anyone?) than by the absurdity of their supposed health claims.
However, there’s something to be said for eating “clean.” As a marathoner I’ve become much more aware of how certain foods affect my performance. When I first started running, my long runs were an excuse to splurge on burgers, beer, fries and potato chips. No more; while I still allow myself certain indulgences, I aim for moderation.
That is, until September comes along.
I’ve written about this before — my holiday orgy that starts with the caramel apples and ends with popping champagne corks on New Year’s Eve. It happens without fail, despite my best intentions. I’m not sure which is worse: the inevitable weight gain, or the lethargy brought on by rich foods and far too much alcohol.
This year I swore I wouldn’t succumb. Sure, when I spied the Honey Crisps in the grocery store I soon was swaddling them in a gooey layer of caramel, but I thought I dodged the Halloween candy bullet. I resisted the urge to buy a bagful of candy corn, only to find a dish taunting me at one of my clients’. Since my darling and I spent All Hallow’s Eve at the Herbfarm, there was no need to buy candy to hand out to the neighborhood urchins; alas, the same client had purchased far too much and pleaded with me to take some off of their hands.
So as my 45th birthday approached, I knew I had to take some defensive action. While at my sister’s place on Vashon the weekend before I perused one of her cookbooks on whole foods cooking. It included a 10-day “detox” regimen, but this one seemed more reasonable given its reliance on “real” food, albeit in smoothie form. I knew there was no way I could follow it for 10 days (I’m in perpetual training, after all), but perhaps a couple of days’ of smoothies for breakfast and lunch, coupled with a lowfat dinner of lean protein, would be just the thing to cleanse my system of the holiday sugar.
I made my first smoothie from what I had on hand: frozen berries, vanilla soy milk and bananas. But for lunch I wanted to add some greens, so I picked up a bunch of organic kale at the market. Knowing I’d be “dining” on these for a couple of days, I decided to make a starter batch that I’d simply add to. While I’d recommend buying the freshest of ingredients, I figured this would be a great way to empty the contents of my crisper. A wilted bunch of cilantro? Why not? A couple of flaccid stalks of celery? What else am I going to do with them? A few carrot sticks? They’d provide a nice balance of sweetness. The dregs of the organic carrot juice? Ditto! They all went into the blender, along with a cup of kale, some ginger, orange juice and a handful of almonds.
I knew I’d be adding more fruit to this concoction, but I was curious to see how it tasted as is. It was quite vegetal, but not bad (the carrots and orange juice provided much-needed sweetness). The almonds were rather chunky still, but I didn’t mind the texture too much (I’ve now decided eating the almonds separately is the way to go). I Dinner that evening was herbed chicken en papillote with lemon. I continued to add to the concoction each day until it resembled swamp muck. But what tasty muck it was! My energy returned and I was thrilled to see I lost a couple of pounds to boot.
Of course, once my birthday rolled around and I started hitting the lemon drops, I was back to square 1.
There I was this morning, coffee mug in hand, laptop perched on one knee, preparing my client paperwork when the Ovens to Betsy line rings. It’s my client’s husband, calling to say my client is sick and isn’t up to having me cook. While I’m sorry to hear she’s ailing, I’m thrilled to have the day off (Labor Day is a rare holiday for this self-employed gal).
But what to do with my newfound freedom? Do I lace up my running shoes for my scheduled 13-mile run? Do I continue yesterday’s cleaning streak and tackle the kitchen? Do I get a jump on my quarterly taxes and enter my bookkeeping for the past two months?
Nah. Where’s the fun in that?
While the weather was more reminiscent of late fall, my darling and I decided to break out the bikes for a long ride. Given our crazy-ass marathon schedule our feet and legs have been crying uncle. We figured a bit of cross-training would not only give our tired bodies a reprieve, it would be a fun diversion from our rigid plan.
Of course, what’s a bike ride without food? We toyed with packing a picnic lunch and heading to Chateau Ste. Michelle, but at 40+ miles roundtrip, the ride seemed daunting. Turning around at Tracy Owens Park trimmed it to a more reasonable 30 miles, but it also eliminated a scenic picnic spot.
My thoughts then turned to the ribeye steak in our fridge. Sprinkled with alder-smoked salt, grilled, sliced and placed on top of thick toasted whole grain bread with melted blue cheese and fresh arugula, it would be a perfect lunch after a long ride. What a decadent way to celebrate the last (unofficial) day of summer!
Restaurant reviewing enthralls me; I envision feasting night after night on tantalizing comestibles, paid with someone else’s dime, at tony bistros tucked into quaint pockets of the city. Most likely the reality, while certainly not mundane, is far less glamorous. (And call me shallow, I’m sure I would quickly tire of the inevitable weight gain).
Reviewing is a tricky business; your goal is to help the general public decide if they’ll enjoy the experience, but you’re also dealing with someone’s livelihood. Good reviews can catapult a restaurant into the “hot spot” realm, while a bad review can signal its demise. I ask myself, do I want that responsibility?
Restaurant reviews have proliferated thanks to blogging, yet the medium introduces another point of contention — is the review fair and balanced? While traditional reviewers will visit a restaurant a minimum of two times before writing it up (and will never review it within the first few weeks of opening, unless it’s for a “first looks” write-up), many bloggers base their opinions on merely one visit (I’m guilty). Not only is this practice unfair to the establishment, it’s a disservice to the readers.
Ethics aside, the craft of restaurant reviewing is much harder than it appears. Describing the halibut as “delicious” offers little insight; you want your reader to feel they were dining with you. Better to say, “the halibut — marinated in a zesty soy-chile marinade and flash-seared on the grill — was a perfect balance of crispy, golden brown exterior and melt-in-your-mouth interior.” (Although I’m sure an editor would call out “melt-in-your mouth” as cliché).
You need to be an expert at noticing the details. What’s the atmosphere like? Was the waitstaff attentive? Is parking accessible? Are children welcomed or shunned? Are prices in line with the value? Now imagine encapsulating this into a 300-word review. Believe me, it ain’t easy. (Of course, if you’re writing for your own blog, you have much more leeway).
Helloooo? Anyone home? Boy, things sure are dusty in here.
So, um, yeah. It’s been a while. I’d be surprised if anyone stops by any more (heck, even my sister bailed months ago). I have at least one good excuse — I’ve run another marathon since last we spoke (shaved 52 minutes off my best time, thankyouverymuch) — but I can’t chalk it all up to that.
I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of writer’s block; I’ve composed a slew of posts in my mind. Nor have I succumbed to culinary mediocrity (okay, perhaps on occasion). Despite limited time and energy, we’ve eaten well. I’ve perfected a recipe for zesty, moist turkey burgers; concocted a nourishing post-run recovery drink incorporating frozen fruit and vanilla soy milk; tested the quality of “cheater” aioli over the real deal (both were delectable); whipped up not one, but two rhubarb pies (one baked, one fresh); hatched my own version of “A Man, A Can, a Plan” (“A woMan, A Few Cans, Not Much of a Plan,” if you will) and in what could be hailed as the ultimate blasphemy for this New England-bred gal, prepared a MANHATTAN clam chowder that’s irresistible (sorry Mom; I’ll turn in my Yankee card forthwith).
No, the real culprit is epistolary lethargy. I just haven’t had it in me.
I’ve had no problem posting on Eat Drink Run Woman (I’ve penned more than 30 posts since March 26), yet when it comes to food blogging, my readers deserve more. There’s an inherent intimidation in food writing; if you can’t measure up to the quality that currently exists, why bother?
Yet for me it goes deeper. What do I have to say that hasn’t been said before? How can I best illustrate my post to make it interesting? Take all those factors in mind and you’re looking at 3-4 hours a day at a minimum before anything is published. With my running musings, I can crank out a pithy entry in less than an hour.
It’s time once again for Easter decadence. As I wrote last year, I love to make desserts this time of year since there’s always plenty of people to help rid me of leftovers.
While contemplating this year’s concoction, I became inspired when I tried Tom Douglas‘ coconut cream pie at Etta’s. It’s loaded with coconut — in the crust, the pastry cream and in the garnish. The recipe is in his “Seattle Kitchen” cookbook, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. But as always, my brain started revving in overdrive. How could I make it my own?
I then remembered I had a half a bag of almond meal flour in my fridge, left over from a recipe for brown butter rhubarb-almond cake that Bill Gates’ pastry chef prepared when the premier of China came to town. Let’s see, what has almond and coconut? An Almond Joy candy bar, of course!
I figured I could incorporate the almond meal into the crust, along with shredded coconut. I’d then spread chocolate ganache onto the pre-baked crust before filling it with the pastry cream. Tom’s filling calls for regular milk, but I wanted to boost the coconut flavor by using coconut milk. I also added some almond extract to both the crust and the filling. In addition to the toasted shaved coconut, I garnished the top with toasted almond slices and dark chocolate (I found one with coconut bits, but you could certainly use plain).
I think this is about as decadent as it gets!
Continue reading Almond Joy Pie…
This past Christmas one of my clients — a woman VERY particular about how her food should be prepared and presented — decided she wanted popovers with strawberry butter for Christmas Eve brunch (she’s the same client who sent me home with half the foie gras and black truffles from said brunch). She had seen a chef on Martha Stewart prepare gigantic cheese popovers and wanted me to replicate them (she taped the segment so I could see what they looked like. Indeed, they looked delicious).
I’ve never made popovers before (although I did try my hand at individual Yorkshire puddings one year), but they didn’t seem too terribly difficult: mix milk, flour, eggs, salt and melted butter, pour into prepared popover tins, top with shredded gruyere and bake until puffed and golden brown. Normally I’d practice beforehand, but I didn’t have a popover pan, nor did I have much extra time given my marathon training. I’d just have to hope for the best.
When I downloaded the recipe off of Martha’s site I decided to check out the reviews. Practically all of them were negative; most people said the popovers turned out doughy and didn’t rise that much. This wouldn’t do! I then compared that recipe to others, including one in Baking Illustrated (I always trust the folks at Cook’s Illustrated). Martha’s recipe was for 12 popovers and called for 4 cups each of flour and milk and 8 eggs. The BI recipe called for just 1 cup each of flour and milk and 2 eggs for 6 popovers. Given the disastrous results so many people had with Martha’s recipe, I decided I’d take a chance and prepare the BI one, doubling the recipe.
As I was in the thick of things during the brunch I started to get nervous. I know how important my client’s Christmas Eve brunch with her family is, so I didn’t want to disappoint. I had considered fessing up to using a different recipe, but decided against it. I just prayed everything worked out.
Martha’s chef had you pour the batter to the top of the popover cup, so I did the same (even though BI said to divide the batter evenly). I knew I was in trouble as I filled up the 8th cup: I had barely enough batter left for one more. D’oh! Fortunately I’d only be serving 5 adults and 2 kids, so I thought I could get away with it (there was so much food, I didn’t think people would want seconds on the popovers). I sprinkled the gruyere over the batter and placed the tins back in the oven.
When the timer rang I looked in to see some rather lopsided popovers. They rose, but I think the gruyere kept them from rising straight up. I took them out of the pans and placed them on a rack, where they deflated slightly. I began to panic; have I just ruined my client’s brunch? Fortunately everyone seemed thrilled and no one said a word about the less-than-perfect popovers. I dodged a bullet.
Or so I thought.
A while back a fellow chef posted a question to our personal chef message board: “What do you do with leftover wine?” Hmmm… “leftover wine”… It’s a concept that escaped me at the time.
At Christmas we received a bottle of White Zinfindel. This normally is not a wine we enjoy — we’re more partial to dry reds — but we decided to give it a go. As expected, it was far too sweet, but worse, it lacked any character. However, I just couldn’t bring myself to pour it down the sink. There MUST be some way to salvage it.
With New Year’s now upon us — which brought a renewed commitment to eating healthier — I picked up some salmon and kale. I love both sweet and savory preparations for salmon, so I thought the White Zinfindel might make for an interesting sauce. I first seared the salmon on one side and finished it off in the oven. I then sautéed some shallots in the same skillet and deglazed with about a cup and a half of the wine. I let that reduce to about half a cup, then swirled in some Moutarde de Violette (a violet mustard I picked up in Paris) and a bit of butter. I was quite pleased with myself!
I can never show up to Christmas Eve festivities empty-handed, but considering I typically have to work that day I’m always looking for recipes that can easily be made ahead. Deviled eggs to the rescue! I made the eggs and filling the day before, then assembled them at our cousin’s place. They were a HUGE hit.
As with most things, I don’t really have a specific recipe. For 18 eggs I mixed the yolks with about 3/4 cup mayonnaise and 1/2 cup sour cream. I then added salt, pepper and chipotle chiles en adobo to taste. You can mash with a fork or potato masher, but I like to whip everything up in a food processor for a nice creamy consistency. Enjoy!
Christmas has come and gone, and although I didn’t do everything I had hoped, I feel blessed to have such wonderful friends, family and clients with which to celebrate the season.
I managed to get a three-day weekend just before Christmas, so we took the opportunity to relax (well, after our 11-mile run on Friday and 22-mile run on Saturday, that is) and catch up with some out-of-town friends at a local pub. We shared spiked eggnog and wine with our neighbor and gorged ourselves silly with my darling’s relatives Christmas Eve (I’m looking forward to the marathon to help work off all those calories).
On Christmas Eve morning I prepared a decadent brunch for a client: caviar on potato pancakes with crème fraîche, seared foie gras on brioche toast points (with homemade brioche), baked eggs with truffles, popovers with strawberry butter, fresh fruit salad and pigs in a blanket (the latter was requested by the grandkids, but the adults enjoyed them too). As I was cleaning up my client told me to take the remaining foie gras — almost 3/4 pound! She also gave me almost an ounce of the truffles. How incredibly generous.
One of my favorite snack indulgences is truffled popcorn — air-popped corn tossed with a mixture of truffle oil and butter and sprinkled with truffle salt. My darling has never cared for it — he can’t stand the smell of truffle oil — but when he tried the version with real truffle butter he was hooked (the truffle scent in most truffle oil is chemically produced, so that’s what had been turning him off). For the butter I minced up some of the truffle and let it steep in melted butter. I then tossed that with the popcorn. The rest of the truffle was mixed in with a wild mushroom risotto.
For the foie gras, I was inspired by a dish my darling had at Chez Dumonet in Paris: seared foie gras with grapes. I sautéed some minced shallot in some duck fat, along with a couple of handfuls of halved black seedless grapes. I let them sauté until rather soft and beginning to brown, then deglazed with about a cup and a half of tawny port and a couple of tablespoons of fresh lemon juice. I reduced that down until syrupy and set aside.
Meanwhile, I sliced the foie gras into 3/4″ slices and seasoned with salt and pepper. I preheated a skillet until very hot and added the slices. They cook VERY fast; you have to be careful or you’ll end up with a skillet-ful of very expensive fat. After about 45 seconds I flipped them and seared on the other side. I then placed the slices on the brioche toast points and poured the sauce on top. The sauce provided a wonderfully tangy balance to the richness of the foie gras and brioche.
What a way to celebrate Christmas!