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.