Sunday, December 26, 2010

Simple Sides

Planning the menu for Christmas dinner can turn a bit complicated in our family. As foodies, everyone wants to contribute to the meal, yet stay traditional. We usually have lamb and Dad’s famous horseradish mashed potatoes, but then us girls get to choose the rest of the dinner. This year Kathy made yummy stuffed-mushrooms as an appetizer. She filled them with cheeses and bacon, can we say, “more please?!?!”. Mom always thinks presentation, so she wanted to do something colorful she chose sautéed green beans and then glazed carrots. Now, glazed carrots can be good if done correctly, but I don’t think I’ll ever fall in love with them. I ate too many as a child, always being told I wouldn’t be able to see if I didn’t eat carrots. Well, sure enough I ate so many glazed carrots in my youth that I have 20-20 vision to this day. And although another helping of Vitamin-A rich vegetables is not a bad idea, I talked Mom out of them chose to make something different, roasted tomatoes.

I have learned how to make amazing slow roasted tomatoes at the National this past semester. However, we never really used them as a side, they were more for sauces and marinades. I prepared the tomatoes the same way. Using my new knife (great Christmas present!) I sliced the tomatoes in half. We used 2 small boxes of campari tomatoes. In a medium bowl I added ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, 1 tsp sea salt, and ½ tsp black pepper, and a pinch of sugar. After tossing together I spread on a lined jelly roll pan. Note- I made the mistake of not lining the sheet tray with aluminum foil and clean up was a disaster! So, be sure to line the tray before spreading out the tomatoes. I put the tomatoes in the oven at 400° because that is the temperature the lamb was roasting. I think 350° for 45 minutes is better, but at a higher temperature oven it still works, just needs to be watched more closely. To make these tomatoes a little more interesting I decided to combine them with two of my favorite ingredients, balsamic vinegar and goat cheese. To make the balsamic reduction I put 1 ½ cups of balsamic vinegar with a teaspoon of sugar and let it simmer on medium high heat until reduced (aka it’s a thick sauce). Then I crumbled fresh goat cheese. Once the tomatoes were ready, I plated them, added a bit of cheese, and spooned the sauce over them. The flavor combination was delicious and added not only flavor, but a balance in taste to the whole menu. What a great way to celebrate Christmas!

Chocolate Fudge Upside Down Cake

When I think upside-down cake, an image of ooey gooey pineapple mess comes to mind. Despite this unappetizing picture, I decided to try making Na-Na’s famous chocolate upside down cake. Aunt Fran said it was one of her favorite desserts, and requested it as the end to our Christmas dinner. Luckily for me, I made this dish with Fran in the kitchen, her help was greatly appreciated! Na-na’s handwriting can be a bit illegible at times, so it was nice to have a personal translator. If Fran had not been there, the cake would have had a pound of butter, instead of a tablespoon. I guess I am too used to Paula Dean’s baking!

Chocolate Fudge Upside Down Cake

¾ c sugar
1 tblsp butter
½ c milk
1 c flour
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 ½ tblsp cocoa powder
½ c sugar
½ c brown sugar
¼ c cocoa
1 ¼ c boiling water

Cream ¾ c sugar with 1 tblsp butter. Add milk and stir. In another bowl, sift flour, salt, baking powder, and 1 ½ tblsp cocoa powder. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Place mixture in a well greased cake pan. Combine ½ cup sugar, the brown sugar, and ¼ cup cocoa together. Sprinkle over the wet batter. Pour boiling water over the top. Bake at 350 ° for 30 minutes. (optional: add nuts to batter or garnish on top).

Pouring boiling water over cake batter seemed a little odd to me. Was I going to ruin the cake? Why make the batter into soup? I could not make sense of it, but I trust these recipes and went along with it. And, it turned out amazing! During the cooking process the boiling water turns the top of the cake into an unbelievable fudgey ganache. Yes, it is ooey gooey, but chocolate mess will always be better than pineapple mess! This warm chocolate delight was perfect for the finale of our Christmas dinner, served with vanilla bean ice cream, it was unbelievable!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tea Time Tassies

As I continue my venture into old timey recipes, I decided to celebrate the Christmas season by baking my great-grandmother’s favorite cookies, Tea Time Tassies. My great aunt Fran who is coming to visit us for Christmas requested these, saying they are just delicious. Mom remembers making these and M&M cookies with Na-Na at Christmas time. She says they taste just like mini pecan pies. So, after hearing rave reviews on taste and presentation (they are just precious according to Mom) I decided to start the recipe. Although it calls for 3 sticks of butter, I’m sure it will be worth it. And isn’t that why New Year’s comes after Christmas? So we can work off all the holiday weight? I think yes, so let the baking begin.

Tea Time Tassies

1 3-oz package cream cheese
1½ lb butter*
1 c flour
1 c brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg
1 dash salt
1 c nuts (pecans chopped)

Blend cream cheese, 1 stick of butter (½ cup), and 1 cup flour over slow heat. Put in refrigerator for 1 hour*. Pinch off balls of pastry and spread with fingers into small muffin tins. Beat 1 lb soft butter, brown sugar, vanilla, egg, and salt. Then add nuts. Put mixture into pastry shells. Bake at 325° for about 25 minutes or until light brown.

This was one of the first recipes where I noticed a major difference from baking recipes we use today. It called for oleo instead of butter. Oleo is made from vegetable oils and can be a substitute for butter. The recipe says to put in the dough in the refrigerator for an hour, but I popped in the freezer for *30 minutes. After all, we want everything instantaneously nowadays.

Even though I have made a few of my own changes, it would be nice to have Na-Na here guiding me along the way. A few mistakes took place today. I should have filled the shells half-way. I went a little overboard and filled them to the top, causing them to overflow the tins in the oven. I would also not put so much dough in each muffin tin. You only need a marble size of dough per tin. They turned out warm, sweet, and quite yummy. But had a little too much dough. The filling was great except for the slight disaster in presentation, however the flavors in the recipe are definitely a hit!

Making these precious little treats was a fun adventure, that probably needs repeating. While creating this dessert, I wondered why they are called “tassies”. After getting 33,000 Google search, I finally came to an answer. Tassies are in fact miniature pecan pies made with a cream cheese dough. Simple enough, and quite delicious! Thank you Na-Na!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mac and Cheese

It’s Christmas break. No school. No work. And lots of free time. So, I’ve begun this project. I am going through all of my great grandmother’s recipe books and picking out recipes that seem special and delicious. I’m consulting family members and using my own speculation in choosing the recipes (there are 100s in the books, I wish I could do them all!). After looking through all of them, I feel like I am closer to a woman I never got the chance to meet, Na-Na. My mom had such a special relationship with Na-Na growing up in Greenville, SC. Sunday dinners at her house are some of my mom’s favorite childhood memories. My first dish in this adventure was Macaroni and Cheese. As my favorite comfort dish, I only found it fitting to try this first.

Na-Na’s Macaroni and Cheese
1 lb macaroni (cooked and drained)
2 ½ c shredded cheddar cheese
3 tblsp butter
1 tsp salt
½ tsp cayenne pepper
½ c milk
2 eggs
½ c buttered bread crumbs

Cover bottom of baking dish with layer of macaroni. Sprinkle cheese and bits of butter, salt, and pepper. Continue to layer in the same order until all is used up, having cheese on top. Mix eggs and milk together, pour over dish. Top with bread crumbs. Bake at 350° for 30-35 minutes, or until golden brown on top and eggs are completely cooked.

I had to change the recipe a bit. I added more cheese, as I believe you can never have enough cheese. I also had to indicate the temperature of the oven and time because the recipe only indicates to cook in a moderate oven. To make buttered bread crumbs I melted ½ tblsp of butter and mixed it into the bread crumbs. Even with the slight modifications, the dish turned out to be delicious. The cayenne gives it a subtle kick of heat that perfectly contrasts the creaminess of the cheese. This mac and cheese is the perfect comfort food on a cold winter day!

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Last Supper

What would your final meal be? This is one of the interview questions we have been giving potential recruitment counselors. As a foodie, this question has really made me think. Would I want a gourmet dinner or a homecooked meal? Does it need to be a fancy frou-frou dining, or could it just be good old comfort food? In conclusion, I decided it would have to Mom’s unbelievable spaghetti Her use of fresh vegetables makes it unlike any other spaghetti sauce I’ve had. But most importantly, she makes it with love. On a cold winter today, a plate of her spaghetti is all I need to be perfectly happy.

Today was my final day at The National for this semester. Where did the time go? I feel like it was only yesterday I walked into that kitchen nervous and intimidated. I had no idea how much I would learn. My skills in the kitchen have greatly improved, and I feel like I have a much better understanding of flavor combinations. My tasks today, once again taught me techniques and recipes that will be useful in the rest of my culinary career.

I began the day prepping the lamb. Mixing the seasonings and onions and peppers with the ground meat. Then rolling them into the little nuggets that would be used for the pitas again. Then I helped work on a catering for a 6 year old. I cut up carrot sticks and made buttermilk dressing. The dressing is simple 2 cups mayonnaise, 1 cup sour cream, thinned with buttermilk. 4 cloves garlic minced, dill, parsley, chives, mustard seed, smoked parika, and salt and pepper. Once mixed well, it is ready to go! After helping with the catering, I helped the pastry chef by slicing a parsnip cake into 10 pieces. I had to do this strategically by first cutting it in half and then eyeballing how to make 5 uniformed pieces out of each half.

Later on, I was given the chance to braise beef cheeks. First, I had to drain them, then I seasoned them simply with only salt and pepper. The meat was ready to be seared! I heated corn oil in a large rondeau. Once I could see bubbles in the oil, I placed the meat in the pot. I let it sear until a nice brown crust formed on the outside of the meat. I turned the meat until all sides had that great crispy layer. I transferred the meat to a large hotel pan that would later have veggies and stocks added to it and then popped in the oven until the meat is fork tender. After I finished searing the meat, it was time to cook vegetables in the remaining oil. This was a bit of a disaster. As I dropped the vegetables into the rondeau, the hot oil splashed on my wrist. OWWWW! That did not feel good. I put the burn under cool water, and then didn’t think too much more of it. Until I left, took a good look, and realized it might be more serious than I thought, so I went to the drugstore and got burn cooling pads, that seem to have really helped. The injury is really only an afterthought when I think about my day spent there. Once again I learned that a kitchen is a dangerous place and you have to be extra attentive and careful when doing anything and everything!

As I left (had to leave early again for recruitment counselor interviews) I decided to get a final lunch to go. For once I decided to try the power lunch. It was unbelievable. There were four components. I had quinoa with green beans and feta tossed in a lemon vinaigrette; arugala with beets and marconas (a type of almond) tossed in the lemon vinaigrette as well; then grilled broccoli with red chili flake; and finally sautéed kale with chickpeas deglazed with sherry vinegar. It was the perfect finale to my lovely experience this semester at The National.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Behind the Scenes

The majority of the components that go into each dish are made ahead of time. I am not just talking about slicing up veggies for a salad. I am also talking about condiments, seasonings, and individual elements of the dish. The bad weather has been keeping customers away, making each of the chefs more prepared for today’s service due to the surplus of ingredients prepped in the past few days. But, of course there was still work to be done. After a week off for Thanksgiving break, I was back and ready to get started.

My first project was picking spinach leaves. Although a tedious task, removing the stems from this iron-packed veggie makes it easier to cook with and eat. Then I moved on to more exciting tasks like making polenta. The National uses Red Mule polenta. To make you combine a quart and a half of water with a quart and a half of whole milk. Once that simmers, mix in a quart of polenta. Then add butter and parmesan cheese until thick and creamy. The polenta was the bed for shrimp and chorizo, yummy!

Next, I made tomato jam. The jam is one of the condiments used on the lamb pita. To make, you combine slow roasted tomatoes, with red wine vinegar, sugar, minced garlic, mixed ginger, dried chilies, toasted mustard seed, and fish sauce. Let simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed. Then you puree the mixture in the robot coupe until you get a uniformed consistency. The jam has a texture like tomato sauce, but the flavor is an interesting balance of sweet and spicy. I continued more prep for the lamb pita. Because not everything was ready for the dish (the meat was not completely thawed at the start of service) we did not put it on the lunch menu, but then we ran it as the special when everything was complete. To prepare the meat, I got as much thawed meat as possible, then seasoned with salt, pepper, cumin and coriander. I also mixed in some sautéed onions and peppers for extra flavoring and then rolled them into the small nuggets. Once all the components were ready, we were able to assemble them on order. Pitas are steamed on the French top and then smothered with horseradish cream and the tomato jam. Then layered with bibb lettuce, three lamb nuggets (that are sautéed on one side and then finished in a 600 ° oven until medium rare), then topped with more sautéed onions and peppers, and wrapped in aluminum foil to give the presentation a street-food type feel.

To finish off the day, I quarted up the marinated olives. Turns out there were 16 quarts of olives, that’s a lot! The orange flavor was pungent on my fingers the rest of the day, and I wore gloves! Then I cooked chicken two ways. First I grilled and then roasted off some breasts for the chicken salad. I also rubbed a few breasts in salt, pepper, and dried thyme and then roasted those for a chicken noodle soup. My final project was making sure everything in the walk-in was labeled because the health inspector is expected any day now. By the end of this project, I was freezing! But, I finished everything and ended my day with a warm, delicious ham and cheese sandwich.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The More, The Merrier?

The wedge, it is my favorite salad on any menu. Because of the crisp iceberg lettuce? Because of the fresh juicy tomatoes? Or maybe it’s the bacon fat and rich creamy dressing. The National’s wedge salad is a delicious combination of flavors. The base is your typical iceberg lettuce, but then it is topped with crispy bacon, thin red onions, roasted bell peppers, and tomatoes. Then it is finished off with their famous Buttermilk Dressing. Yummy! The dressing exceeds every generic and mediocre ranch or blue cheese dressing out there, it is a combination of flavors that makes their wedge unique.

I began the dressing by combing sour cream and mayonnaise. Then, I thinned the thick mixture with buttermilk until it was nice and creamy, not too soupy, but dripped off the spoon. Then I added the seasonings: fresh dill and parsley. Chopped chive, some celery seed, smoked paprika, and then salt and pepper, of course. I mixed it all up and tasted it, then added a touch more salt and little bit more paprika, until it was perfect. I made some for the lunch service and then was asked to make some for catering, that’s when my day changed.

I happily made another batch of the dressing, as tasting this recipe is not painful at all! But then I was informed I would be working on a catering for 100 people the rest of the day! I have not worked on a catering for more than 30 people before. So, I took a look at the catering and got to work.

I started by making spiced nuts with the pastry chef. We coated local pecans in an egg whites, brown sugar, cayenne pepper, and a little bit of cinammon. Then we put them on a sheet tray in popped them in the oven for 8 minutes. They turned out sweet with a hint of spicy, delicious!

The rest of my day was spent working on one of the National’s famous appetizers, stuffed dates. The tedious part about this recipe is pitting the dates. And when we are talking 100 people, that means 180 dates. Plus, one of the chefs asked me to do an extra quart for their station. That took some time and wasn’t too interesting. The dates are sticky and make it complicated to work quickly. Once I had those finished, I worked on the stuffing, celery and Manchego cheese. Slicing that much cheese into perfect rectangles was exhausting. Luckily, I had help with the celery. They have hired a new chef who I tried to help out on his second day. He helped me cut the celery into small strips and then fill the dates with the cheese and strips. Once we had our assembly line down it took no time at all.

I like working on caterings because it is all my responsibility. The other chefs have to prep and work their stations, while I typically float between them helping where I can. But, when I get a catering I have to do the work or delegate it to the others. Most of the time I can handle it, but when it is an order for 100 people, you have to get help, otherwise you will spend hours bored and pitting dates.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Just Another Day in Paradise

Today began like any other, I was put to work the second I arrived in the kitchen. I helped prep for lunch service, by grating parmesan cheese for the polenta that was being served with braised beef cheeks. Typically, I only prep for lunch for the first couple of hours, but today was different. We were unexpectedly busy! For a rainy Tuesday afternoon, the restaurant had a great turnout. So, as the intern I spent my time running between two chefs who both needed my help.

I first helped prep the lamb pitas that were stuffed with lamb (we will call them “nuggets”, not sure exactly how to describe their shape), a mixture of sautéed peppers and onions, and a delicious sauce to complete. I had to roll out the meat mixture (ground lamb seasoned with cumin, coriander, salt, and pepper) into small Twinkie-like shapes. Then I sautéed more red onions to go into the pepper and onion mixture. I switched to help the chef on the other station and crumbled feta, quarted up sweet potatoes and slow roasted tomatoes for the power lunch. After that, I ran back to the other chef and helped shape the fish cakes by using a round cookie cutter and then dusting them in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) so that they would not fall apart once cooked. I also had to make an emergency batch of hummus. While it seemed chaotic at times, working as a team really helped us come through service successfully.

Once the lunch rush was over, I started working on a catering order. I prepped all the ingredients for the salad. I washed local lettuces and spun them dry in the salad spinner. Then grilled onions that were finished off in the 300° oven until nice and tender. Next I toasted some pecans, and crumbled more feta to go with the salad as well. They were also serving roasted carrots so I sliced the carrots on a bias using the mandolin so that they were uniform in shape. I also prepped roasted tomatoes to go alongside the meat, and collected hazelnuts and currants that were being used as well. Finding the currants was a scavenger hunt, as they were hidden behind several boxes in the upstairs dry storage.

Before I knew it, it was time to go home. Time seems to disappear when I am in the kitchen. I am so consumed by what I am doing I don’t even notice the time passing. I know I am in the right industry because I am truly loving what I do.

Not your mama's fried chicken

This past Sunday I helped Rebecca with her Fried Chicken Hands-On class at Cook’s Warehouse in Decatur. We showed three different methods of preparing fried chicken, a quick biscuit recipe, and a tomato gravy demonstration.

We deep-fried Mary Mac’s Tea Room’s chicken and also a Cajun spiced chicken. But, pan-fried her grandmother, Tom’s, chicken in Crisco. The sounds of popping oil and the smell of grease were enough to make mouths water and stomachs growl. The biscuits were prepared in less than 25 minutes and turned out golden brown and quite fluffy. She served those with a creamy tomato gravy that took less than 10 minutes to whip up. Rebecca’s new book, Quick Fix Southern, really takes the time and inconvenience out of traditional Southern cooking.

A unique serving technique is to top the Cajun fried chicken with garlic and a pickle. The flavors work together surprisingly well to create a unique fried-chicken experience.

Rebecca also shared some very interesting tips with the group. An easy way to mince your garlic, is to place a peeled and crushed garlic clove in between plastic wrap and then smash it with a meat mallet, its quick and leaves no mess! My favorite tip of the day was to serve fried chicken with champagne. The fattiness from the chicken can coat your pallet and prevent you from experiencing that “first bite taste” again and again. Champagne helps to clean the pallet and refresh your taste buds so that each bite is memorable and delicious. But, even without champagne, we all know fried chicken will be scrumptious no matter what!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Common Sense

When thinking about food, most think that taste is the most important sense. But, in reality we use all of our senses equally when experiencing food. Throughout my day I noted how many times I used all of my different senses.

I started off by making the happy carrot salad. The key component of the salad are the carrots, which are shredded through the Robot Coupe. This creates a fine texture, but leaves the carrots still crunchy. Golden raisins are plumped in warm water and then added to the salad to contrast the crunch with a softer feel.

After I finished the salad for lunch service, I moved onto the catering project that would occupy me the rest of the day. I began by preparing the components of the salad. I first made orange and grapefruits supremes. This is a difficult task that requires good knife skills. I had to cut off the skin and then cut between the segments to form perfect half moons of pure orange, no peel or seeds attached. This took quite some time, my hands became sticky and my nose was filled with citrus scent. To be honest, my hands still smell a little fruity! Next, I crumbled the queso fresco, a rather dry cottage cheese-style cheese with a very mild flavor. At first I wore gloves to prevent mess, but then realized I couldn’t feel the cheese enough to determine if the crumbles were the right texture. After using my senses to help me crush the cheese, I moved on to toasting the pecans. I simply put them on the sheet tray and popped them in the oven. I had to watch them to see if they became the perfect color brown. They were a bit on the toastier side, so I removed some of the darkest pieces, but the rest were good to go. I finished up the salad by preparing some local greens and making the dressing. We used local arugula and frisee, I washed it and spun it in the salad spinner to remove the moisture. Then I made the citrus vinaigrette by combining orange juice with sherry vinaigrette, champagne vinegar, parsley, and olive oil. We warmed the orange juice to bring out most flavors. I had to taste it to make sure the flavor was correct.

Once the salad was prepared, I moved on to prepping the fixings for the two main dishes, a grilled marinated chicken breast and roasted beef tenderloin. For the chicken, I had to make salsa verde. I combined chopped parsley and cilantro with garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil. I combined and tasted, the bright green color contrasted against the chicken will be quite eye catching. In opposition to the green, I also seeded pomegranates to compliment the chicken. I had to cut off the tops of the pomegranates, then cut the fruit in segments and tear out the seeds in water. Although time consuming, these seeds are brightly pink colored and full of flavor. Then I moved on to the beef accompaniments and made roasted tomatoes. Once the roma tomatoes were cut in half and tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar I popped them in the oven until shriveled with a bit of brownness. Like the pecans, these were a bit overcooked, but savable. I have decided I need to set timers once I put things in the oven!

I finished the catering by making the side dish of snap peas with ginger and almonds. The dishwasher helped clean the snap peas, and then I blanched them in boiling water and then shocked them in an ice bath. I then put a pint of almonds and 3 tablespoons of fresh ginger in containers to head out with the catering.

The whole day I was reminded of how important it is to be aware of all of your senses as you deal with food. I had to see how cooked something was by noting color change. I also saw how bright colors contrasted with blander colors can make food more appealing. Being next to the expo station also showed me how important presentation is. The smells in the kitchen also send you signals of when something is ready and when something is burning. An inviting smell can always work up an appetite, especially if that smell is freshly baked brownies coming from the dessert station next to you. I also used touch when preparing the food, not only when crumbling the cheese but also when tasting dishes to see if the mouth-feel is appealing. Hearing is used to talk to other chefs, but more importantly hear boiling water or a timer that reminds you of what you have forgotten. Finally, taste is used constantly, to decide if using your other senses efficiently has been successful, or if you have just failed trying. I would say we were quite successful in the kitchen today.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Take 2.

Making something perfect is never easy. Today I learned the hard way. Once I got to the restaurant I was instantly put to work. I grilled off chicken breasts and popped them in the oven, so that we’d have plenty for the chicken salads at lunch service. Then I was given several bigger projects that would keep me occupied the rest of the day.

We have been serving fig jam as the condiment of choice on both the ham and cheese sandwich and the salami sandwich. The sweetness of the figs creates a delightful contrast against the saltiness of the meat. Because we did not have any more dried figs, I had to use fresh figs. After I destemmed the figs, I cut them in half and added them to a saucepan with sugar and water. I put them over medium heat and let them simmer until completely broken down. Once the figs and sugar became jam like I pureed it in the Robot Coupe until the texture was uniform. The fresh figs made quite an impact on the taste of the jam, the flavor was not as concentrated as the jam made with dried figs, which gave it a more mellow flavor making it the perfect accent to the sandwich.

My next big project was breaking down leeks and fennel and then sweating them in a large rondeau pot for rice. After finally locating the leeks (sometimes it seems almost impossible to identify and locate ingredients in the very well-stocked walk-in) I cleaned them and cut them into 1-inch pieces. It is very important to clean leeks because most of the time there is still sand and grit located in the filaments. Once I cut the fennel and leeks into 1-inch pieces, I put olive oil in the bottom of the pot and added the vegetables, then put it on the stovetop. Well, not such a good idea. The high heat scalded the bottom of the pot, burning most of my vegetables. Lesson #1: Do not leave vegetables sautéing without keeping an eye on them and stirring constantly. We had to throw out half of them and start over. Thankfully, my second batch turned out much better because I put it on the french top (this cooks at a slower rate), and was able to be used in the rice.

My final and biggest project of the day was making mushroom soup. After the leek and fennel debacle, I was determined not to mess this up! First I had to roast garlic. You do this by putting garlic in a saucepan and then adding olive oil. Just pop that in the oven until golden brown. While I waited on the garlic to roast, I broke down 5 quarts of mushrooms and then 4 large Vidalia onions. When I went to check on the garlic, it was burnt. So frustrating! I had to repeat the process. Finally the garlic was ready, considering I watched it throughout the entire cooking time. I used the oil that roasted the garlic to coat the bottom of the pot. Then I added the onions and mushrooms until the mushrooms were tender. Next I deglazed the bottom of the pot with white wine (typically the recipe calls for sherry, but we were out). After a nice stir, I added a thyme bouquet, blanched almonds, parsley, and vegetable stock. Then I reconstituted some dried porcini mushrooms and added them plus half their cooking liquid to the pot. When the soup came to a simmer, I removed the thyme bouquet and began to puree it in a blender. Then I had to strain it and pass it, then season it. Pushing the soup through the sieve was very time consuming, but it makes the texture silky smooth and delicious for a warm soup on a cold fall day.

Although I had to repeat a few steps today because of my mistakes, I learned some very important lessons. It is essential that you keep an eye on everything you have going on in the kitchen. We have to multi-task in this business, and often times you get distracted on new projects and forget about other things you have started. It is important to stir things constantly and be aware of everything needing to get done. I consider myself a good multi-tasker in general, but in the kitchen I need to be thinking about all the projects I’m responsible for and working on all the time.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Slice and Dice

Although it may not be the most exciting job, peeling and chopping vegetables is a key part in preparing food. Someone must be responsible for breaking down the fresh veggies that enhance the flavor in so many dishes.

Today I began by using the deli slicer to prepare the salami for the salami sandwich that is served with fig jam and cheese. The machine may make slicing meats convenient, but it sure does take a lot of muscle! You have to put pressure on the meat so that it shaves uniform pieces. The secret is to slice the meat while it is colder. I also sliced a piece of veal that was used for one of the daily salads. The veal was harder to slice because it is not as firm as the salami. Whenever working with the slicer, you must be very careful because it is an accident prone machine!

Next I helped prepare a soup with sausage, ham, celery, potatoes, carrots, beans, and onions. The vegetables required lots of attention! I had to peel carrots and potatoes and then cut them into ½ inch cubes. This is not as easy as it seems. It is important to make sure the vegetables are all the same size so that they cook at the same rate. Making cubes from round vegetables is also a difficult task, you need to cut off one side and then cut strips so that you can slice the cubes from the strips. The soup was still on the stovetop when I left work, but it sure was smelling delicious! I’m sure it tasted even better!

So much peeling took place in the kitchen today, which was rather difficult until I found the good peeler. At first I was using a dinky plastic one that didn’t have much leverage. I had to peel the sweet potatoes and cube them up to make sweet mash for the vegetable plate. Then I had to peel carrots and shred them to make Happy Carrot Slaw that is on the Power lunch. After that I had to peel beets and shred them for the sweet potato salad. Luckily with the carrots and beets I used the Robot Coup, but then when I worked on the squash fritters, I had to shred them by hand on a box grater. That would be 20 squash that needed to be grated, by hand. Quite the task! I had to sauté the squash after I grated it to sweat moisture out so that they could be made into yummy fritters. These are also used on the vegetable plate.

While slicing and dicing up vergetables may be mundane work, it enhances my cutting skills. I am getting more efficient with knives, and more accurate when cutting up vegetables. Who knows maybe one day my knife skills will be better than Hong from Top Chef.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Prep Work

Most of my responsibilities at The National consist of prepping ingredients or making components that will be used in other dishes. Some of their recipes are simple, but many are complex and require multiple steps and elements. Preparing these items in advance helps make for a smooth service.

I started off making more lemon vinaigrette. It was difficult to get the proportions just right. The recipe requires ¼ acid to ¾ olive oil. The acid consists of lemon juice, lemon zest, and white wine vinaigrette. Then I made croutons by cutting bread into cubes, and then coating them in olive oil with a sprinkle of salt, pepper, and parsley. They baked in the oven until golden brown. These are used as a garnish on top of the chicken noodle soup.

My next few tasks were a bit more complex. I had to make a green tomato sesame jam. I seeded and chopped tomatoes and then added sugar, minced ginger, nutmeg, cumin, and salt. We cooked this low and slow until it formed a thick jam like sauce. Then I got to work on rubbing meat. I helped finish making the rub for lamb ribs and then coated them thoroughly. We put the rub on the meat while the rub was hot so the meat would absorb most of the flavor. Then I rubbed down bacon slabs in garlic, salt, bay leaf, and cinnamon stick rub. We put the rubbed bacon in plastic bags so that the juices and flavors would continue to sink into the meat.

Another method The National uses to make service more efficient is to blanch vegetables that will be used in their dishes. This means that you cook the vegetables for a short time and then shock them in an ice bath to immediately stop the cooking process. This way the veggies are slightly cooked, but maintain a nice crunch. I practiced this method with haricot verts (string green beans) and then snap peas.

I finished off my day by boiling beets (you cook them in just water for about an hour or until tender). Once a knife could slide right through them, I used a towel to rub off the skin. It’s pretty simple to do, then I cut them up and put them in quarts.

Although prep work may seem simple and unnecessary, it is essential for a restaurant. Once an order comes in, the food must be prepared as fast as possible. If an ingredient is not available or a component is not ready, the kitchen can get behind and cause the restaurant to be in the weeds. Making sure everything is ready helps us to make delicious meals that draw in customers from all over, including Jennifer Aniston.

Yes, Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd ate at my restaurant this past Friday night. Jennifer drank Grey Goose on the rocks and then had pinot noir. She ordered a salad and the chicken. AMAZING!

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Why do we pay to go out to eat? How do restaurants get that wow factor into each dish? Sometimes I think that keeping things simple makes a dish super special. Showcasing high quality ingredients makes you appreciate each part of the dish more. But, sometimes it is the extra thought that chefs put into dish, the extra pow that house chefs do not always think about.

Today I learned how to braise meat. First we braised pork belly. After rubbing the meat in a cumin, coriander, paprika, salt, and pepper rub we seared the meat. We used mixed oil and heated it until very hot. The meat sizzled as soon as it hit the pan and formed a nice crust before we cooked it in the oven. We put the meat in a hotel pan and covered it with a mirepoix (carrots, onion, and celery) mixture that had been cooked down. Finally we covered the meat with some vegetable stock, the meat drippings, and this secret ingredient: ham stock. A ham bone had been cooked down in water and that was then added to the pork to highlight the meatiness. The addition of the ham water added even more pork flavor. After slow cooking this in the oven, the dish was beyond tender.

The rest of my day I helped make sauces that are used in many of the dinner plates. I made the Bravas sauce. This sauce cooks for hours and it is the caramelized onions that really make it work. The sweetness that comes from the onions after their sugars break down in the hot rondo makes them compliment the spicy chiles and peppers that are also put into the sauce. Another sauce I started to make is the date mostada sauce. It is time consuming, but the sweet fig like sauce truly highlights the porkchop it is paired with. I also made a simple roasted tomato mayonnaise (the only ingredients are roasted plum tomatoes and mayonnaise). These sauces can be complicated or simple, but the addition of them to meat, vegetables, starches, or bread can make a huge difference.

A new item on the menu was the hot item today. A BAM sandwich, made with bacon, avocado, and mozzarella with a special sauce was being ordered non-stop. It was delicious and yet so simple. The ripeness of the avocados, paired with the crispness of the bacon and contrasted with creamy mozzarella made this sandwich a hit. The sauce gave it a bit of kick and extra flavor. Simple, yet so creative.

At the restaurant I get to see both complicated and simple dishes made each day. When I cook for myself I typically use recipes that with simple instructions, few ingredients, and not too time consuming. I love cooking at home and making different dishes, but I still go out to eat because I like to try what others can cook. I want to experience the delicious flavors of another chef. The thought that goes into each recipe and the hard work that can go into a sauce or preparation method makes me want to pay for food. While I can always try to put the extra wow factor in my food, many times its easier and much more convenient to go out to eat.

Here is a new pesto recipe I have made that I find gives chicken added flavor. I think it will go well with steak too, but I have not yet tested that out.

Sundried Tomato-Rosemary Pesto
Put all ingredients into food processor: 4.5 oz sundried tomatoes (packed in olive oil), ¼ cup grated Asiago cheese, 1 garlic clove, 5 fresh rosemary sprigs, salt and pepper. Blend until the consistency is thick but even throughout. I served this on top of grilled chicken with goat cheese crumbles on top of the pesto.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Robot Coo-Coo

The food processor has become my new favorite appliance. It’s actually now an obsession. My sweet roommates gave me one for my birthday last week and I have already put it to work! Lucky for me, most of my day at work was also spent with a food processor, however they call it by its brand name, Robot Coupe.

I used the Robot Coupe to grate seven carrots. Typically that could take 30 minutes if done by hand, and result in a miserable arm cramp. But, with the amazing use of this machine it took less than 15 seconds. I used the carrots to make Happy Carrot salad. This is an item on the power lunch that has lemon juice, golden raisins, sesame seeds, olive oil, red chili flake, green onions, and cilantro. I learned today that cilantro actually comes from coriander seeds.

Next I helped make the soup of the day. We made cauliflower bisque. I sautéed onions with garlic and cinnamon. Then we roasted off cauliflower and made more vegetable stock. Vegetable stock is very simple to make. Just cut up some carrots, onions, and celery and throw it in a stockpot with some thyme and black peppercorns. Then fill to the top of the vegetables with water and let simmer until the flavors are absorbed. Once the ingredients were ready we combined and blended until smooth. The soup had a very earthy taste that most of us found slightly blander than a mushroom soup. Once salt was added it was much better!

Then Peter taught me how to make the special, Moules Frites, or mussels with fries. This is the national dish of Belgium. He began with olive oil in a cold pan and then added garlic. Once the oil was hot and fragrant he added some sweet peppers. Then he tossed in the mussels and some white wine. He covered the pan to steam the mussels until they opened. Next he added clam juice and butter to make a sauce. Once the mussels were cooked he placed them in a bowl and topped them with fries. Such a unique dish!

I finished the rest of my day doing the usual; I grilled chicken, made chicken base, and rolled flatbreads. Finally I ended the day cleaning the Robot Coup of all the build-up that accumulated throughout the day.

Once I got home I got to play with my very own food processor. I made a delicious pesto. It’s so simple. 3 cups of packed fresh basil leaves. ½ cup shredded parmesan cheese, 1/8 cup pine nuts, 2 garlic cloves, and ¼ cup olive oil. Combine in the food processor and turn on until well mixed. I prepared it with tomatoes, mushrooms, and ravioli. I sautéed the mushrooms until tender, roasted tomatoes, and then added four cheese store-bought ravioli. Tossed in the pesto, it’s a very satisfying dinner!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Start to Finish

Catering is really taking off at the National. Almost every time I work they have an order to fix. It is truly amazing how they can handle regular lunch and dinner service and also finish such large orders. I guess it helps that they have me there! I started today by roasting off cherry tomatoes. I sliced them in half and then doused them in olive oil, sugar, salt, and pepper. I was surprised that I needed to use sugar, but it brought out their natural sweet flavors.

Next I made the marinated olives. They serve these as a simple appetizer. The olives sit in the marinade until serving, so that they absorb all of the diverse flavors like the orange zest, chili flake, and crushed garlic. They lose that original harsh metallic taste from the canned brine and become completely enhanced with these aromatic flavors.

By noon, lunch was pretty crazy. Orders kept coming in, everyone wanting the newest menu item: shrimp salad, and the special: turkey burger. I changed gears, and helped them out. They needed vinaigrettes, so I made those. Very very simple. For the lemon vinaigrette, you zest 1 lemon, juice 3 lemons and combine in a squeeze bottle (this helps dress salads quickly). Then fill the bottle ¾ of the way with olive oil, and ¼ of the way with champagne vinegar. Shake and serve! The sherry vinaigrette is a bit more complicated, but not too bad. We make a lot of this stuff, so I started by grabbing a bucket. Then put 1 quart of sherry vinegar and 4 quarts of EVOO. Then sliced up 4 lemons, grabbed a bunch of thyme, and chopped a shallot. You let that sit and
then funnel it into squeeze bottles.

After finishing the vins, they needed me to chop shrimp for the salad and make bruschetta. The bruschetta changes all the time. Today’s bruschetta involved yellow onions and red bell peppers cooked down until beautifully caramelized and soft. Once those were all sliced, I grilled off some ginormous chicken breasts. These things were huge! If I had to wait for them to completely cook through on the grill it probably would have taken close to an hour! Luckily, we finish them off by roasting them in an oven.

I finished out my day by making flatbread. I had to make two different kinds because they were using a special kind at the catering event. The flatbread for the event is a Sicilian flatbread that is flat and hard. I brushed it with olive oil and popped in the oven to give it a more enhanced flavor. Then I rolled out our normal flatbreads that we serve with hummus and also use for pizzetes.

Before I went to work this morning, I harvested some of my basil. I brought it to work for the other staff members to take home and cook. It made me really think about how cool it is what we do with all of the ingredients. Something that comes out of the ground can be completely transformed into a delicious item on our dinner plate. That’s why I love this job, I get to be a part of the process that converts something ordinary into something extraordinary.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On the Fly

Four onions perfectly sliced, tears streaming down my face, and then I am informed that the onions will be going into the Robot Coup (food processor) so it does not matter what they look like. Great news! I finish slicing the other four onions as quickly as possible. They are not as lovely as the first four, but have a decent half-moon shape. I find that the faster I chop, the less I cry! The onions are going into a Bravas sauce. At first we could not find the recipe and had to do it from memory. But, thankfully it was found on the bottom of a crumpled piece of paper in the recipe notebook. The recipe notebook holds all of the delicious secrets of the restaurant, but many times it is hard to locate a recipe because its been misplaced, has food all over it, or has never been written down.

Once I got my hands on the Bravas sauce recipe, I continued the prepping process. Bravas is a sweet and spicy Spanish sauce. I added olive oil to a very large pot and then cooked the onions down until they were translucent and slightly browned. Then I deglazed the pot with champagne vinegar and added some chopped garlic. After letting the garlic and onions simmer for 5 minutes I added red chili flake, cayenne pepper, and 4 dried ancho chiles. Ancho chiles are dried poblano peppers that are a brick red color and have relatively mild, fruity flavor with overtones of coffee, licorice, tobacco, and raisin. Once that had cooked another 5 minutes, I added the rest of the ingredients; sugar, white wine vinegar, bay leaves, and drained/peeled tomatoes. For the rest of the day this sat on the stove and simmered. Later tonight they will add salt and pepper and then run it through a food-mill.

Next I helped out with the egg salad. Being one the more popular items on the menu today, we needed some “on the fly”. (That means ASAP). I boiled the eggs by starting them in cold water, bringing that to a boil, and then turning the heat off and covering them for 13 minutes. Then we stick them in an ice bath to immediately stop the cooking process. Because the eggs they buy are so fresh, they can be very tricky to peel. I finished peeling and chopping the hard boiled eggs and then added them to the rest of the ingredients that had already been brought together. For lunch I had an egg salad sandwich. It was a little runny for my taste, but had great flavor especially with the very ripe tomato I added on top.

Before I knew it, it was already 1:30. I never know where the time goes when I’m working. I feel like I get there and 30 minutes later it is time to leave. I get in such a zone when I’m cooking, I can’t think about anything else, and I become so focused on what I am doing. If only I could be that way with the midterms I have this week! 1:30 is about the time the dinner shift staff comes in to prep. The two main chefs for the evening took turns giving me tasks to help prepare for evening service.

I started by making a sweet potato puree. So simple! Cube up sweet potatoes (we just got some huge ones in from a local farmer- they still had lots of dirt on them!). Then you boil the cubed sweet potatoes until soft and run through the Robot Coup to make it nice and smooth. I used the Robot Coup after that for the eggplant marinade. I’ve made this once before, it’s just olive oil, lemon juice, tahini, garlic, red chili flake, basil, parsley, and cilantro.

I finished off the day by prepping a mirepoix (a mixture of coarsely chopped onions, carrots, and celery used to flavor stocks and stews). The stock was used in a sweet potato soup. I pureed the soup in a blender and then tasted for flavor. After adding a generous amount of salt, it was delicious! Such a great fall flavor!

I have started collecting the menus from each service I work so that I will have a reference to the different foods I help prepare. Still working on getting recipes on the blog, but they are soon to come!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

To use a recipe or not to use a recipe?

When I arrive in the morning at The National, it’s almost second nature what I begin to do. After I wash my hands, get an apron, and grab a towel I know to check with the lunch line and get a list of ingredients to prep. So, that’s just how things went down, I got my list and got started. I prepped the chicken salad base which I almost did without looking at the recipe. 1 quart yogurt (strained), 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 2 cups mayo, 2 tablespoons thyme, 1 teaspoon red chili flake, 2 teaspoons coriander, 2 cups packed basil chopped, ½ cup capers chopped, and one onion chopped. BUT, I should have looked at the recipe more carefully because I chopped up a yellow onion instead of red, luckily that didn’t make too much of a difference. I decided after that mistake I better keep reading the recipes closely! I am so ready to be able to just throw ingredients in a bowl and it taste great, but I haven’t exactly graduated to that level.

After I decided to stick with recipes, I was thrown into the fire! They requested I make a spicy remoulade sauce, and there is no recipe. I was given a ramikin of the current sauce and told to recreate it. All of a sudden I was on Top Chef and the pressure was on! I tasted and retasted until I felt like I had a decent idea of what needed to go into the sauce. I started with mayonnaise, then added gherkin pickles, shallots, garlic, lemon juice, parsley, paprika, and cayenne. I kept tasting and finally realized it needed Dijon mustard and salt and pepper. If I have learned anything from Food Network and other cooking shows it is always to season your food! And yet I still forgot salt and pepper, gotta work on that! I mixed and tasted and added and mixed until I finally felt like I had it right. I let the other chefs taste, and sure enough I had done it! All I had to do was add a little more cayenne, which is a very spicy ingredient I think I was a little afraid of! But by the time I had finished I was proud of my sauce. The remoulade was used in the fried soft shell crab special, served on a bed of bulgar wheat and topped with a cabbage-apple slaw. Very good!

I quarted up the remoulade and then cut grilled corn off the corn and quarted that as well. I was then given the task of working on the catering menu. I began by cubing butternut squash. When working with butternut squash, it is important to wear gloves because the squash will dry out your hands. Once I had cut into 3 very large butternut squashes and gotten quite aggressive with my knife skills, I was informed that all of the prep for the catering had already been done. But, my hard work was not a waste because the squash would be used to make Butternut Squash Soup for tomorrow.

My afternoon wrapped up with me rolling out flatbreads, making marinated olives, slicing orange supremes, and then helping with the eggplant bruschetta. This stuff is out of this world. You cook the cubed eggplant with tons of herbs and spices (even cocoa!). Then it is all reduced in balsamic vinegar. The final product is cooled and then tops a piece of crusty bread with buffalo mozzarella, so tasty! That is one recipe I need to get.

For lunch today, I was a little bit healthier and made a yummy spinach salad with chanterelles, tomatoes, grilled corn, and chicken in a sherry vinaigrette. But then, I was forced to help clean out the freezer and eat an ice cream sandwich. Oh the prices you pay.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gluten Free Catering

Today was different than any other day I have worked. I was put in charge of putting together 5 dishes for a catering event. Putting together 5 dishes is a piece of cake, but when you have to make sure there are 75 of each hors d’oeuvres, things get more complicated. Especially since the entire menu is gluten free.

The first dish was simple, our hummus served with crudite. I peeled and sliced cucumbers and carrots. By cutting them at a diagonal you are able to increase the surface area and make vegetable chips, perfect for dipping! Next I peeled the celery and cut off the tops and bottoms. Yes, I peeled the celery. This was a new technique for me, but it makes such a difference. No more awkward moments trying to bite through all of those filaments. I also cut orange, yellow, and red peppers into strips. Put all the vegetables on a white plate, and made a beautiful presentation full of fresh vibrant colors. We put the hummus in dishes and then squeezed lemon juice and sprinkled paprika on top.

I continued onto the next small bite- dates stuffed with Manchego cheese and celery. Manchego cheese is a firm Spanish cheese made from ewe’s milk. It has a golden color and a full, mellow flavor. I had to pit all of the dates in order to stuff them which is a very sticky process. The stickiness of the dates helps hold the celery and cheese once placed inside, so they are an easy one bit appetizer.

Moving on, it was time to make marinated carrots. The marinade consisted of red wine vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, parsley, oregano and red chili flake. I rough chopped everything and then pulsed it in a blender. We had to blanch the carrots before adding them to the marinade. Blanching means that you cook the food very briefly in boiling water and then remove and place in an ice bath to immediately stop the cooking process. This way the carrots are cooked, but still have a nice crunch. We added them to the marinade and let them soak in all the flavors for a few hours.

I also helped prep for some caprese crackers. We used gluten free crackers and then topped them with fresh mozzarella, basil, and roasted tomatoes. They were delicious and so simple!

Our final appetizer was an endive spear filled with goat cheese, pomegranate seeds, and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Endive is a type of lettuce that is very bitter. The smoothness and tanginess of the goat cheese really made this dish work.

It took all day to make all of these dishes, but it was so fun! I never even looked at the clock because I was constantly working and also had a clear understanding of everything I needed to accomplish. I liked being given this much of a responsibility, I really felt like I was able to get so much done, and everything looked so great!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Painfully Good

Starting with lemon mayonnaise, I had a day full of hard work and delicious tastings. I made the lemon mayonnaise for the Salmon BLT. It consists of sourdough bread with the mayonnaise, then lettuce, tomato, bacon, and smoked salmon. The mayonnaise was very simple. Just lemon zest, lemon juice, parsley, dill and some spices. Continuing the prep for lunch, I made some Happy Carrot Salad. We use this on the power lunch plate. The power lunch is a vegetarian option that is full of anti-oxidants and other nutritious goodies. The carrot salad has golden raisins, lemon juice and zest, garlic, cilantro, and a few other spices. Very good and quite nutritious!

Once the lunch service started up, I watched the line until they would need something. The Salmon BLT’s were the hot item so I had to cook up some bacon. I also had to grill off chicken and then roast them in the oven for the chicken salad. As I took the bacon out of the oven, I hit the extremely hot pan against my arm. OW! I now have a lovely 1 inch blister on my arm. Not so fun. After burning my arm being around any heat at all irritated it completely. You have to be so careful in a kitchen, I think it must be one of the most accident prone places in the world. After suffering through my burn I began prepping for dinner.

I learned how to make the chickpea fritters that go on the vegetable plate. It’s pretty simple, just chickpeas, parsley, onion, garlic, chili flake, olive oil, and flour. We rolled them into ping pong balls and then patted those down and fried them in the oil. Very tasty! After that I made some salsa verde with parsley, basil, mint, capers, anchovies, lemon, and shallot. Put it all in a blender and out comes a delicious green sauce.

The main problem today was where my station was located, next to the pastry chef. We have become fast friends as she lets me sample each of her delicious treats. I had apple cake and a delicious creamy tart. Being around food all day kind of makes you forget to eat, but next to her sugary station, my mouth was watering. Once lunch time rolled around I ordered a delicious tagine dish that is new to our menu. It consists of toasted bread with buffalo mozzarella and marinated eggplant with a salad of arugala, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, and roasted peppers in a sherry vinaigrette. So good! But I think I ate to much, I was stuffed!

I’m ready to have tasted all of the dishes because then I won’t become so full I just want to lay down and take a nap! Everything is so delicious at the restaurant that I need to slow down before I gain too much weight and have to kick my butt at the gym. I feel like we graze all day by tasting all the different ingredients and things that we make, but adding desserts and a big lunch on top of that has put me into a delightful food coma. I know that apple cake is going to bring me sweet dreams tonight!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A day in the vineyards

Cooking for 30 people sounds a lot easier than it actually is. This past Saturday, Rebecca Lang and I prepared a wine dinner for 30 guests at Persimmon Creek Vineyards. We prepared for 3 days before we drove almost 2 hours to finish everything off on site.

We started the dinner with three appetizers. We served half-dollar pimiento cheese sandwiches, smoke trout spread with crudite, and jalapeno deviled eggs. The pimiento cheese was delicious and so simple! Made with only three kinds of cheese, mayonnaise, pimientos, and toasted pecans it had the perfect balance of textures and flavors. All of the appetizers were simple in ingredients, yet had an upscale feel.

Rebecca Lang is known for her use of Southern flavors. In her new book she keeps her recipes quick and easy, but completely sophisticated. We served them to 30 dinner guests, but they could easily be made at home and served to a family for a casual dinner.

To highlight the season, we served a baby spinach salad with blueberry and lime vinaigrette. We topped the spinach with strawberries and feta cheese. The sweet and salty flavors help make this dish work.

For our main courses we made shrimp and grits and then a mustard and sage pork tenderloin with roasted okra. Rebecca’s grits are unbelievable. The secret behind them is the use of chicken broth and then cream cheese and Monterey Jack cheese. They are unbelievably creamy and flavorful. The pork was almost a disaster. Because of the limited oven space, the pork was not cooking correctly. We were afraid we would still have raw pork when it came time to serve! Luckily we rearranged, moved the shrimp to the stovetop, cranked up the oven, and crossed our fingers. This method worked and the pork turned out perfectly, just the right shade of pink.

Our final course was a red velvet cupcake and key lime ice cream. The tanginess of the ice cream went well with the richness of the cupcake with the sweet cream cheese frosting. Such a great ending to a delicious wine dinner.

Persimmon Creek is a fascinating place. We got to walk through the vineyards and see where they grow their Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Riesling, and Seyval Blanc. They even bottle an ice wine, which can only be made from grapes that are frozen on the vine. Run by a family, you can feel the love that they put into each glass.

Day 6

Just another day at the office. Except not really. One thing I have discovered is that each of my days in the kitchen is different. The National is constantly changing the menu, which keeps things interesting!

My first task today was a something I have wanted since I first began going to the grocery store with my mom. I got to play butcher! After hacking all of the meat off of a ham bone, I got to utilize the meat slicer. The gleaming silver apparatus seemed so fun at first, until I realized hacking the meat into small randomly sized pieces was the worst thing I could have done. After placing the meat under the holder, I turned it on and began pushing the meat back and forth over the spinning blade. The results- less than an ounce of meat each time. I was not slicing I was crumbling the meat. In order to actually slice the meat I had to increase the blade size and repack the ham so that it was actually cut as it passed the blade. Basically, I botched my first go with the meat slicer due to an extreme lack of knowledge. Now that I know better I will have to give it another try because the ham was tastier than any Honey Baked Ham I have ever tasted!

Next on the list was to help prep for lunch. I made some chicken base for the chicken salad. The way they make their chicken salad is very interesting. They grill chicken breasts and finish them off in the oven. After slicing the chicken, they will make each order individually, coating the chicken pieces with the base. The base has capers, onions, thyme, yogurt, mayonnaise, lemon juice and cumin. It’s quite tasty. I also had to make more hummus, it is one of the most popular starters at the restaurant. I think this is the 3rd time I’ve made it. I’m starting to feel so much more comfortable doing things, I know longer have to ask if it needs more olive oil or lemon juice, I can taste it and figure it out for myself now.

Once the lunch rush was over, the dinner staff came on and we began prepping. I helped make croutons by baking cut up dinner bread that had been tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and parsley. Once they were completely crunchy, they were delicious! Now I know what to do with leftover bread! I also made marinated eggplant again, except this time we roasted the eggplant instead of grilling them. I enjoyed the char taste from the grill, but the roasted eggplant were much easier to cook. The marinade is tahini based with herbs. It’s a great combination.

I made a pequillo pepper salad dressing today as well. The piquillo pepper is a long, red, tapering, triangular Spanish pepper. After being fire roasted they are jarred giving them a spicy-sweet flavor. I added lime juice, salt, pepper, garlic, and sour cream to the blender and mixed until it was a bright orange. It had a lot of kick, but the sour cream balanced the spiciness well.

To finish off the day, I cubed butternut squash. It was quite a task considering how thick the squash are. You also have to peel and seed each of them. I think this internship is helping me improve my upper body strength. I'm going to start thinking of more creative post titles. So far the days have worked, but eventually that will get old. I'll work on it.

Day 5

Day 5. The fun began again at 10:30 am. I entered the kitchen, grabbed my apron, a clean towel and was put to work. I helped finish prepping for lunch. I sliced cherry tomatoes and crumbled feta cheese. Then I had to put black-eyed pea relish and sweet potatoes into individual quart containers. The chefs at the National are responsible for all of the prep work at their own stations. For example, if the squid salad is on your line, you need grilled corn, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, sliced squid, arugala, remoulade, and the black-eyed pea relish. Not to mention, have the frying station set up with batter and hot oil. So, I also helped grill off some corn and slice the calamari.

With prep work, comes one of my issues in the kitchen, dull knives. On the first day, Peter, my boss, explained that this is the most dangerous thing in the kitchen. Because you think it cannot cut through things, but then it can truly hurt you. Although using a knife sharpener and steel may help, a dull knife is no one’s friend. When I sliced the calamari, I had to saw the squid. So, I am starting to think it may be time to get my own knives. While they can be very expensive…I do have a birthday in 21 days.

So, after we finished up the prep work, the fun really began. It was the lunch rush. This was the busiest lunch I have ever worked. Today, they let me stay on the line and watch/help out whenever they needed me. I finally got to see all of the components that go into each dish. I primarily tried to watch the “cold” side today. She mainly puts together the salads, hummus plate, desserts, and then works the fryer. She also makes the delicious Cuban (ciabatta, fontina, pork, ham, mayo, mustard and pickles). I helped the “hot” side by doing plate setups for the burgers (that have pimiento cheese, yummy!) and also toasting their buns. We stayed really busy the whole time so I also helped re-stock the bins in the cooler when ingredients ran low.

Another great thing about today was getting to know the other staff members. It’s one of the things I love about food, it truly gets people talking. Everyone in the kitchen works so well together. They communicate articulately with one another and are always willing to help each other out. Even the expo (the one who makes sure the food is pretty and going to the right place) kept giving positive feedback and letting us know what a great job we were doing. People just have things to say about food and their past experiences with food. Especially foodies, we seem to have an opinion and comment about every ingredient, flavor, and restaurant experience. But these people truly have a good time together, there is a positive vibe in the atmosphere, I love it! They also play great music when we’re prepping, which makes it even more fun!

Once lunch was done, we started doing more prep for dinner. I made marinated olives (olives with sherry vinegar, olive oil, orange juice, orange zest, garlic, red chili flakes, and some other dried herbs). They sit in the juices for a day or two, but I tasted the marinate and it was delicious! I also rolled out flatbreads that are cooked off and served with hummus. The larger flatbreads are made into pizettes at dinner.

Working as a team is the key to success in the kitchen, and this restaurant has that down. They prep with each other, help out each other, and build each other up. I love this job, the time goes by way too fast. Now if only I felt that way about the 50 pages of reading I should be doing right now…

Day 4

Day 4. The day began with my least favorite task. Chopping onions. It is not that I mind doing prep work. I will cut vegetables all day, no problem. But with onions it is a different story. Tears pour out due to the amino acid sulfoxides that form from sulfur in the soil. For some reason, I seem to be super sensitive to these sulfoxides. My eyes pour tears. I have sensitive eyes, but the onions really make me react, which is embarrassing. I am learning to chop faster, which helps. But, I truly think the perfect cure would be to have contacts. Anyways, we were chopping the onions to make a butternut squash soup.

After wiping away my tears, I made hummus with tahini, lemon, chickpeas, olive oil, and garlic. I also made egg salad. Peeling 28 hard boiled eggs was miserable. The egg salad was eggs, relish, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard and salt and pepper. Very simple. Next I made a pickling liquid for plums. Had some interesting spices. Later we made flat bread. All in all a great day.

The beginning.

And so it has continued…my venture into the culinary world. After discovering that I am not well suited as a slave in an office (had an internship with an event planning company where I made copies and filed things) I discovered my haven in yet another kitchen. After working in two other kitchens (Natalia’s – Macon, GA and East/West- Athens, GA) as well as hostessing at Wildfire Atlanta, I have settled into the lovely kitchen of The National in Athens, GA.

Peter Dale is one of the owners and the executive chef. I met him last year after he helped plan and prepare Theta’s Parents Weekend dinner for all of our friends. The meal was ridiculously fabulous so I knew I had to work with him. He went to undergraduate with Rebecca Lang, the other woman I intern for who is a cookbook author and regular on Southern Living’s cooking shows. It is so funny how everything falls into place.

I have been at the National for two weeks now, but I have only worked 3 days (I am only working on Tuesdays and Thursdays because I have class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). So far it has been an unbelievable experience, especially compared to the previous internship as an office prisoner. I am starting to feel like I am finally acquainted with the kitchen and comfortable with the other staff members. They are all so helpful and positive. They work well as a team and are constantly constructively criticizing each other’s food in a way that is not awkward or negative at all.

The dishes here are unbelievable. All fresh ingredients make up the creative dishes on their menu. The menu has such a variety of plates, it is hard to keep track of them all, but I am getting there. I’ve tasted a few things here and there, but the only thing I have really eaten is a Cuban sandwich, that is too good to be true. One thing Peter when “constructively criticizing” the chef was “Let’s maybe use a little less meat, remember Cuba is a poor country,” Well whatever she changed I adored because it was delicious. I think it has pork some sort of cheese and pickles on thick bread., basically yummy!! In addition to prepping a TON of vegetables, I have made chicken salad base, orzo salad, shrimp stock (had to do this twice because didn’t put a pot under the strainer first go round), marinated grilled eggplant, tomato soup, grilled chicken and vichyssoise. Vichyssoise is a French soup made from pureed onions or leeks, potatoes, cream, chicken stock and seasonings, garnished with chives and typically served cold.

I have already learned so much, it is hard to think tomorrow will only be Day 4. I’ll be trying to continue as much as possible so that you can follow my journey onward in this fabulous industry.