Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Chef By Any Other Name Still Reeks of Garlic (a semantic comedy)

There's an old joke that goes, "A chef is just a cook who doesn't have to wash his own dishes."  

Now, while I don't know that I subscribe to this view fully, I stopped doing dishes years ago just to be on the safe side.  But it begs an interesting question: what IS the difference between a chef and a cook?  And why do chefs get so riled up when they're confused with their lowly line-bretheren?

I mean, do Neurosurgeons let out an exasperated sigh when someone asks them about a cough they've been having?

Do accounts receivable clerks feel this way when they get asked to do someone's taxes?

Do UFC fighters get angry when they're confused with just another douchebag wearing a Tapout shirt?

Ever call a nanny a 'babysitter'?

And I wonder if deep down inside, musicians who've studied, honed, and earned degrees in their craft long for some other term to distinguish themselves from the folks who plug in a guitar and learn a few chords...

So what is it, anyway?  Is it a degree?  A magical piece of paper that says, "This guy knows what he's talking about"?  Is it the amount of hours a day you work?  Is it what people call you when you're at work?  Maybe what's on the top of your paycheck?  Is it the funny hat?

It's the funny hat, isn't it?  

I've never been a fan of the funny hat.  Makes me feel....I dunno.  Pretentious maybe?  I always went for the baseball cap (you do have to have your head covered, after all), and lately I've taken to rocking a bandana (it's a little cooler, temperature wise, and makes me look more Mexican - always important for your kitchen cred).  But back to the question at hand:  What's the difference between a Chef and a Cook?

I'm sure there are a few theories and ideas, and feel free to share yours in the comments section, but for me it comes down to responsibility.  Who's ass is on the line when the shit hits the fan?  There's your chef.  All the folks that he has help him?  Those are the cooks.  And yes, he's responsible for them, too.

A chef is responsible for the conceptualization of dishes (even if he's using an outside recipe).  Responsible for the procuring, proper storage, handling and utilization of ingredients.  If he's not doing it himself, he's overseeing the process and ultimately responsible for it.

But wait....isn't that what YOU do at home?  Don't you decide what to make, go to the store, pick out your food, prep it and cook it?  Does that mean you're a chef and are deserving of the fancy hat and white coat?


Fuck yeah.  Why not?

It's your kitchen!  You're in charge.  You can't blame someone else if the meal sucks (maybe your mom).  You made that food with your own two hands, heart, and love (if you're doing it right) and that makes you a chef.  Taking the time, taking the responsibility for the quality of your food, figuring out what makes the best ingredient, learning a little technique to bring the best out of those ingredients, learning a little bit (often through experience) about flavor pairings to make the ones you use more effective.  Most of all:  give a shit.  You're feeding people; this is sacred work you're doing and all of these things are what distinguish a chef from a cook.  

Now when someone balks at doing the dishes, you can just point to your funny hat; "Sorry....I'd love to help, but rules is rules."

Ultimately though:  Cook.....Chef.  Does it really matter?

Just get your ass in the kitchen and make something good.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Squashed and Found (a recipe)

Today's Specials:  Desire for Comfort Food on a Snowy Day, garnished with a Handful of Warming Indian Spices.

Set to the Tune of:  Bon Iver's "Flume"

Well this is a first for me, Braisers.  Normally I take some pics, write some words and post some blogs...often a few days after the actual events being documented occurred.  But this is the first time in Braised in Captivity history (both months worth) that I am enjoying the fruits of my labor whilst writing the blog.

I like it already.

It all started last night.  I'm strolling though the produce section of my grocery store looking for some good ideas when I see these little acorn squash.  Only about the size of a baseball, they're kinda soft (not in a bad way) and really heavy for their size.  And it struck me....I haven't roasted me some squash in a long time.  It was time to change that.  It was when I realized that I had a few things in my fridge I needed to rid myself of that I came to this recipe.

And so I present to you, dear readers: Roasted Acorn Squash Soup.

Yer gonna need:
3 small Acorn Squash
4 Tbl Butter
1/2 of 1 Medium Onion, chopped
2 Tbl Chicken Base
1 Tsp (about 3 cloves) garlic, crushed
2 Tsp Ground Cumin
2 Tsp powdered Ginger, or 1 Tsp of freshly grated
2 Tsp Ground Coriander
1 Tsp Cinnamon
2 Tsp Tumeric
1 Tbl Curry Powder
1/2 Cup Dry White Wine (optional)
1 Pint Heavy Cream
Milk as needed (any % will do)
Salt & Pepper to taste
Ground clove to garnish (or nutmeg if you'd prefer)

special equipment:  Blender (either hand or countertop)
total cooktime: 1 hour (includes roasting squash)
yields about 1 1/2 liters - 4 to 6 servings

Step 1:  Melt your butter (either on the stove or in a little dish in the microwave), also go ahead and preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Step 2:  Halve your squash and using just a regular table spoon, scoop out all the guts.  These were nice and fresh, so this was really easy going.

Then spoon some of your butter into the cavities of your squash and using a pastry brush (or just your fingers, ya sissy) spread the butter all over the inner surface of the squash halves.  Usually the squash room temp or lower so the butter will actually re-solidify and stay in place.

 Next sprinkle some Kosher salt and a couple grinds of pepper.
Arrange them on a lined, rimmed baking sheet face down.  Then place them in your preheated oven.  

For how long?  Till they're done of course.

These took about a half an hour, but since were talking about an agricultural product, yours may vary.  But don't worry, the margin for error is pretty wide.  You'll know they're done when the flesh is soft and....well....cooked-feeling.  A little poke or pinch can let you know all you need to know.  If you pull them out and they're not completely done, you can finish in the microwave or by putting them back into the oven.  
When they come out, you'll be tempted to play around with em and pick em up and stuff.  Don't. The steam inside is still cooking them.  Plus they're way too hot to be able to handle for the next step, so just leave em alone until they're cool enough to handle.  

Another indicator is that they'll sort of deflate and get a little wrinkly.  They may also release a little fluid.  All totally normal and desirable.  You'll also notice the butter has browned a little bit and all of it smells amazing!

Congrats!  You've just roasted squash!  They're perfectly fine to be eaten right now and they'll be delicious, but we have grander goals in mind.

Which leads us to....

Step 3:  Using a spoon (sure, go ahead and use the one  you used to scoop out the squash guts), scrape out all the flesh and discard the skins.

Step 4:  Add your butter to your sauce pot and rewarm it until hot or any foaming subsides.  Then add your chopped onions and sautee.

Incidentally you can add carrots, celery, parsnips, peppers, or whatever else you happen to enjoy at this stage....but I didn't have any of that stuff hanging around so I stuck with just the onions.

Now, I like to have a little color on my onions for this dish, so I sautee until the onions are light brown around the edges.  

Next add the garlic, spices (except the clove), and chicken base.  Stir until you can smell the aromas of the spices and a 'nutty' butter smell.  

Step 5:  Deglaze with the white wine if using, and reduce.  You'll know you're in the right neighborhood when a spatula or spoon ran across the bottom of the pan leaves a trail that stays put.  Also notice we don't have anything sticking to the bottom....if there's any part of this that's tricky it's this.  Reducing till nearly dry without burning.  But I have faith in you guys.

If you're not using the wine, just go ahead and skip to...

Step 6: Add your cream and your roasted squash pulp.  Simmer for a few minutes (about 10) and poke around with a spoon until the squash softens even more and incorporates itself into the liquid a bit.  It'll still be very lumpy.  

This is also a great time to check your seasoning.  Add more of whatever you need to make it taste the way you want.  

Note: if  you're adding more of either the fresh garlic or ginger, you'll need to simmer until those ingredients are fully cooked.  Or you can use powdered.  

Step 7:  We're gonna blend this into rich, smooth, and creamy goodness.  I'm using an emersion blender because it was easiest for me...but you can toss all this into a regular blender and it'll be just as good if not better.  I like the hand blender because I can use it to add a little air into the mix to lighten the whole thing up.  I don't know that I would use a food processor as it doesn't get it quite as fine and smooth as a blender, but if you don't mind a little chunkiness in  your soup, I say go for it.  Add any milk you need to make the blending easier.  Ladle into bowls and you're ready to go.

I garnished with a little green onion and a couple sprinkles of the clove.  This is exactly what was needed on a chili February morning.

A few notes to remember:
*This procedure can be done with just about any winter squash (size and roasting times will vary)
*It's much easier to thin a too-thick soup than thicken a too-thin soup, so err on the side of too thick.  You can always add milk, stock or even water later on to thin out.
*I know it's Lent for some of you right now, and the chicken base may not fit in with your religious beliefs.  Not to worry, just sub vegetable base in for the chicken and you'll have the Pope's approval!

See ya next time, Braisers!!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

I Got Roux, Babe (an addendum)

Set to the tune of Miles Davis' 'Round Midnight

Ok, my lovelies, you know how to make gravy now, but what you may not know is that once you've gotten this technique of making a roux down....the sauce world opens up and invites you in with the splendor of a red-carpeted awards show (only you don't have to put up with Pauly Shore).

Here's what I mean.  You've got your white roux (1:1 Ratio of fat to flour) and it will thicken any liquid you want....why just limit yourself to stock?  And (though it's magical) why just limit yourself to gravy.  So here's handy-dandy little guide to some cool stuff you can do just by knowing how to make a gravy.

Note:  without pan drippings, some of these are sauces, but they're just as delicious.

White Roux Sauces:

*Bechamel (White Sauce): roux, milk
*Sauce Creme:  roux, milk (Bechamel) finished with cream
*Sauce Mornay:  roux, milk (Bechamel) finished with cheese (gruyere, parmesan, etc)
*Sauce Soubise: roux, milk (Bechamel), sauteed onion puree
*Veloute: roux, chicken stock
*Sauce Supreme: roux, stock, mushroom (either mushroom liquid or minced fresh mushrooms)
*Sauce Allemande:  egg yolk, stock, mushroom liquid, lemon juice whisked into prepared veloute, reduce
*Herbed Cream Sauce:  Veloute or Bechamel with herbs thrown in it

Brown Roux Sauces:

*Sauce Espagnole (Brown Sauce or Gravy if made with pan drippings):  roux, aromatics, beef stock
*Red Wine Sauce:  roux, dry red wine, aromatics, beef stock
*Sauce Chasseur:  roux, brown chicken or beef stock, mushrooms
*Sauce Godart: roux, brown sauce, prosciutto, white wine
*Sauce Robert:  roux, beef stock or brown sauce, onion, white wine, Dijon mustard....finish with cream and you've got your classic Beef Stroganoff sauce.

And this is just a scratch on the surface of the tip of the iceberg, folks.  The French took the idea of the sauce (which had been around since ancient Roman times) and ran with it....and consequently, almost anything can be, and has been a sauce....and the French have a difficult-to-pronounce name for it.  In fact, in the 19th century, they (specifically two giants of the culinary world: Antonin Cereme and Auguste Escoffier) even codified a system of sauces from which all other sauces are derived from that is still in use today.  These are called the Mother Sauces and they are:

*Veloute - Stock-based Sauces
*Bechamel - Dairy-Based Sauces
*Espagnole - Meat/Beef-based Sauces
*Hollandaise/Mayonnaise - Emulsified and Egg-based Sauces
*Tomato - um....Tomato-based Sauces

We'll get into the other two at a later date, but I want you to see that just from making a roux and adding some liquid to it, you already know 3 of the 5 mother sauces....and a HUGE selection of derivatives.  So while other people may be content with their meat being plain, or.....ugh....a little packet-based sauce, you, dear readers will live your culinary dreams in style.  My readers are the most brilliant...

Thanks again for reading.

So You Wanna Make a Kickass Gravy? (a tutorial for the gravy-tationally challenged)

Today's Specials: A Stew of Apology for Taking a Whole Week to Post with a Hunch It'll Be Worth The Wait

Set to the Tune of Beck's "Mixed Bizness"

I get asked a lot of things:

"Rob, how do I choose the right knife?"
"Rob, do you have any recipes for a college student living on a budget who still wants foie gras with his ramen noodles?"

"Rob, would you please get your hand out of there?"

But by far the most requested is, "How do I make a decent gravy?"  Well have no, fear, Braisers.  You friend and humble narrator is here to show you the ins and outs of it all.

but first a cautionary tale
We've all been to that meal haven't we?  The turkey or roast is all sliced up, looking like something to which you want to make passionate and thorough mouth love.  The veggies are cooked but still flavorful with just the right amount of give-back.  The mashed potatoes are creamy AND fluffy at the same time.  That's right....potatoes that defy the laws of physics.  And then....this...this....abomination is unceremoniously jettisoned onto your plate.  Shitty gravy.  You know...the lumpy kind.  Or the greasy kind....or (and I swear I actually saw this.....in a blurry CIA photo - like Sasquatch or a UFgoddamnO because it's so rare and amazing):  Lumpy AND greasy gravy.


This mass of gelatinous evil doesn't love you.  It won't respect you in the morning.  If given half a chance it'd probably rape your uncle.  In front of his favorite TV show, no less.  No, you don't need that.  I respect you too much to allow you to either eat, or allow your guests to eat that sort of culinary manslaughter charge.  So we're gonna do it right.

Yer Gonna Need:
Some Fat
Some Flour
Some Liquid

I know what you're saying, "Hey Rob!!  What the hell, guy (which we all know is code for 'douchebag')?  Why aren't you giving us actual amounts!?!?"

And here's why, dickfer.

I have no idea how many you're gonna be serving and I would hate for anyone to miss out on the kickass gravy you're about to make, so instead of rigid measurements, I'm gonna give you a ratio:

1:1:8  That is, 1 part fat to 1 part flour and 8 parts liquid.  This is the golden gravy ratio and is almost foolproof (of course now that I've said that one of you is gonna find a way to screw it up).  But what that translates to is:

2 Tbl Fat
2 Tbl Flour
16 Tbl (1 cup) Liquid
(yields about 1 cup)

or if you're serving a small army:

1 Cup Fat
1 Cup Flour
8 Cups (1/2 Gallon) Liquid
(yields about 1/2 gallon)

Now a cool thing about knowing the ratio, is that you can reverse engineer it.  Meaning that if you know how much fat you have, or how much gravy you want, you can adjust the other amounts easily.

Just The Fats, Ma'am
So what kind of fat/oil can you use for gravy?  Turns out you can use just about any of them; butter, chicken fat, beef tallow, duck fat, vegetable oil, olive oil.....YES. You CAN make an olive oil gravy.  And, YES!!  It absolutely will suck!  I like to stick to animal fats enhanced with butter, which is what we've got here

FLOUR?  I Barely Know Her!!
For the purposes of this recipe, we'll be using plain 'ol all purpose flour.  It provides the prefect amount of protein and thickening power.  If you'd like to use other flours for flavor or nutritional reasons, you may have to adjust the amount slightly...here, we're going with the plain 'ol all purpose stuff.

Liquid Assests
The great thing about the thickening medium, is that it doesn't care what liquid it thickens.  It's not prejudiced like your grandmother when she's drunk.  Water, stock, booze, anything will be thickened by this method so, again, sky is the limit.  As long as the sky is a liquid....yeah, I don't know either.  At any rate, we're using a vegetable stock fortified with a little chicken stock.

Alright, you've stuck with me through the dry stuff.  Let's get to it.  Here's what we're using today:

From left to right:  Used roasting pan, gravy separator, butter (I took the liberty of sauteeing the giblets - that little bag of alien meat that comes shoved inside the turkey with the neck - in it before we started), all-purpose flour, coarsely chopped garlic, vegetable stock (more than you'll actually need), coarsely chopped thyme.

Here's how it usually works out:
Once you've roasted your (in this case) turkey, you're gonna have a pan that looks roughly like this.  This is exactly what you want.  All those little browned bits and juices are the hero of your gravy.   It's called fond and you should be fond of it....geddit?  I....nevermind.  

Note, this entire process is the same regardless of the meat you're cooking

Take that bad boy and place it over two burners if it'll fit and only one if it won't, and turn on some low heat.  Using a whisk or wooden spoon, scrape up some of the fond.  Be careful not to start burning this stuff, otherwise your gravy will taste like it.  And no one will ever fall in love with you again if you serve burnt turkey goo gravy.

Once things start warming up again and loosening up, add the garlic and thyme.  If there isn't enough rendered fat in the pan (you shouldn't have any dry spots), add a little butter to fill in.  Keep stirring and loosening.  Oh, and you don't need to get all vigorous on this....just a nice conversation with the whisk 'Hey, how are you...how's yer mom doing?"  . We're not discussing politics.....yet.
Add a little bit of the stock (you won't need all of it) to the mix.  This will help dissolve some of the pan drippings.  It also helps loosen up still more.  The fancy cooking word for it is deglazing and you're doing it just like those fancy folks on the Food Network.

Then just let that goodness simmer for a little bit....just a few minutes is all you need.  While that's going on lemme talk little about that gravy separator:

Now, Braisers, I'm no fan of one trick ponies.  You know, those things that perform one function pretty well, but just that one function?  Cherry-pitters, strawberry-hullers, ...that band, Everclear.  But a gravy separator is an exception I'm willing to make...partially because it makes the job a LOT easier, but mostly because I make a lot of gravy.  Besides, since it has a few graduations on the side, it can double as a regular wet measuring cup.  And I DO suggest getting the variety with graduations because then you can see at a glance exactly how much fat you have and (using your golden gravy ratio of 1:1:8) determine how much flour you'll need.  

Plus they're pretty inexpensive at your local Store-That-I-Would-Be-Happy-To-Mention-But-They're-Not-Giving-Me-Money-So-Fuckem.

So you take all that rich tasty goodness and pour it into your gravy separator.  You'll see the fat and liquids are very clearly distinct and easily accessible.

Incidentally, as a result of deglazing, your roasting pan should be relatively clean.

See...the gravy I'm teaching you to make is courteous and kind.  Helping you do the dishes and it's not even made yet.  That's love if I've ever seen it.

Ok, gang.  Here's where the rubber meets the road.  It's time to get our roux on.  What's a roux (pronounced rhoo)?  Simple...it's just the 1:1 ratio of fat and flour, cooked to get rid of the raw flour flavor, and used as a thickener.  There are several kinds of roux from white, to blonde, to brown, to brick/black.  They each have their own unique flavor, color, and thickening power.  For today's roux, since we're using this for turkey gravy, I'd like to keep it relatively light, so we're gonna go with a white roux (lightest)......just making the transition into blonde (2nd lightest).

Step 1:  Heat up your fat (I added a touch of the butter for flavor and to get to the amount I needed).  Medium High heat, here, gang.
Step 2: Sprinkle in the flour while whisking.

tight and clumpy
The texture we're looking for is that of wet sand.  Here's something a little interesting....while you're whisking/stirring it'll be really tight and clumpy....but when you let it sit for a few seconds...it seems to relax....that's when you know you've gotten it right. 

Now you can turn down your heat a little and just let that raw flour taste cook out.

relaxed once stirring stops

Step 3:  Here we go, Braisers!  It's showtime!  Starting with your reserved fond liquid, whisk in your stock a little at a time.  NOW'S the time to talk politics with your roux (and to increase the heat back up to Medium High)....add some stock, whisk vigorously until thickened, add more stock, whisk vigorously until thickened....repeat until you're satisfied with the consistency of your gravy.  

Now lower or turn off your heat....you're done....and the world will sing your praises.

Now before you ask....No.  I'm not just gonna leave you with a flat-looking pic of gravy in a pan as your last image of Braised In Captivity: Gravy Edition.  I'm gonna put it in context for you....but first, a few things to rememer:

*As you cook your gravy the proteins in the flour and stock will sorta come to the surface and are easily removed.  If you have the time (and it's ok if you don't), let this process happen for a while.  Cook your gravy on very low heat for 15 mins at least....and up to an hour.  The result will be an incredibly smooth, velvety gravy that men will want to be, and women will want to be with.
*The gravy will thicken further as it cools, so serve it a little thinner than you'd like
*On the flip side to that coin, it's a lot easier to thin out a too-thick gravy than to thicken up a too-thin gravy....adjust accordingly
*Your liquid and roux should be at opposing temperatures.  That means that if your roux is hot (which it is at this point), then your liquid should be cool (room temperature is 'cool' in this case).  We won't get into the hows and whys here, but trust me....it works better this way.
*Have a spoon on hand to get into the corners of your pot that you're making this in if your whisk is too broad to do the job.

So without further ado...our gravy.

 Thanks again, Braisers.  Hope this one was a helpful one.  As always, there's the Facebook Page, and E-Mail subscription at the top of this page.

Keep cookin.