Thursday, January 26, 2012

New Girls

A new group of women have started working in the kitchen. This means, among other things, that my year in the kitchen is almost up. I'm not thinking about that though, because if I think about it, I'll probably just start crying. I'm not ready to leave the kitchen. I love my kitchen. I love my people. Instead I'm going to think about how having new women around the kitchen reminds me of how far I've come. Once upon I was that person, standing bewildered in front of the food processor, overwhelmed by a pile of beets and frazzled by service. Now, I'm a food processor whiz (ok, that's not entirely true, sometimes I still put in the parts wrong), I don't flinch at a pile of vegetables waiting to be peeled and I can greet most of the people I feed by name without skipping a beat. I belong now and I don't want to leave.
New women also means learning how to negotiate new people and learning, a little bit, how to lead. So far, I've worked with two newbies. R, for better or for worse, is entirely bossy and likes to know precisely what's going on with every little thing at any given time. The first day I worked with her, I left with a headache the size of Texas. By the second time we were on shift together, I had learned to give her wide berth and go and do my own thing. I've got seniority, I know my way around the kitchen, she's in her corner, I'm in mine. And that's just fine. O, the second new woman I've worked with, is an absolute doll. We stood together, peeling onions and she talked and asked advice, and talked some more.She is relentlessly cheerful and curious.  I've only worked with her once, but I'll be happy to work with her again.
On the day I worked with her, we ran out vegetables by the end of the second round of service (there are three rounds) and even though O was doling out the carrots and squash, it was entirely my fault. You see, it was just me and her doing service, and watching O spooning the veg on to the plates, I could tell that she was giving portions that were too large. But O, was so excited and nervous to be doing service. I remember that feeling from my first weeks in the kitchen-that mix of exuberance and sheer holy sh*%, what if I screw up. I didn't want to ruin that, or make her feel self-conscious, and I certainly didn't want to go get R, who was running the ship that day, to tell her either. So we ran out of veggies and I felt terrible, both because we had to scramble to get more veg out before the third round of service, and because in holding my tongue I only succeeded in making O feel worse. It all ended fine, but I would like to think that I could make somebody's new experience a bit smoother.
So to O and new beginnings, carrot soup.

I was considering writing about Sweet Amandine's Carrot-Fennel Soup because it is probably my most favorite soup in the world. But really, what I want y'all to do is to hop on over to Sweet Amandine itself. It is a wonderful blog, and Jess (who writes it) is wonderful and a great writer and not one of her recipes have failed me yet. Instead I present to you Carrot Soup with Miso from the lovely and resourceful Smitten Kitchen.

This soup is light, and slightly sweet, with a sharp kick of ginger as an accent. We ate it for dinner, and lunch and more dinner. The only thing I might change about it is the miso. Deb calls for white miso, which is what I used, but I think next time, I might go for red miso, just to give the soup a deeper underpinning. (A short miso primer- miso is a Japanese fermented paste made of soy beans, salt and other (rice, barley, etc.). It's salty and meaty and full of umami. Miso comes in three colors white, red and blended. In general, the darker the miso the saltier and deeper it is. White miso is relatively sweet.)  Otherwise, I wouldn't change a thing.

Carrot Soup with Miso and Sesame 
Lightly adapted from Deb at Smitten Kitchen

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds carrots, sliced
1 large onion, chopped
4-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
1-2 tablespoons finely chopped or grated fresh ginger
4 cups vegetable broth*
1/4 miso paste

toasted sesame oil
scallions, chopped

1. In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add carrots, onion and garlic and saute until the onion is translucent. Add the liquid and ginger. Cover and simmer, about 30 minutes, until the carrots can be easily pierced with a knife.

2. Puree the soup in a blender (in batches) or, zuzzhie it with a hand blender. In a small bowl combine the miso and about a half a cup of the soup. Pour the miso/soup mixture back into the pot. Stir, and taste. Season with salt and pepper and more miso, if needed.

3. Serve, garnished with a drizzle of sesame oil and scallions. **

*Note 1: I didn't have vegetable broth, so I threw the carrot peels and heads along with the scraps on onion into a pot with boiling water (and salt and pepper, etc). I simmered it for as long as it took for me to saute the vegetables, strained it, and then added it to the pot. It wasn't quite stock, but it was slightly more flavorful than water.  If you don't have any vegetable broth, you can try my little trick, or just use water.

**Note 2: Reheat the soup gently. Miso doesn't like to be boiled.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Just like cinnamon

I have the same issue seasoning meat in the kitchen as I do with making other people's coffee. I just can't seem to get it right. Ground beef, or turkey is an oft-used ingredient in the kitchen. We make pasta "Bolognese", ktzisot, which are beef (or turkey) patties and a sort of meatloaf, that's not really meat loaf, (no eggs, or breadcrumbs, just seasoned beef (or turkey) kind of patted together in a loaf form. C. likes to call it rollada.
In my home, I don't use ground meat that often- sometimes I'll make hamburgers, or weeknight ragu, but that's about it.  And when I do, I don't season the meat with much more than salt and pepper. I've never really had a reason to. The women in the kitchen, however, they season their meat with all sorts or spices- allspice, tumeric, cumin and baharat all get used in copious amounts. When I get called upon to deal with the meat, I often find myself staring miserably at a vat full of a good 9 kilo of meat, wondering what to do. Inevitably, when all is said and cooked, I will have under-seasoned the dish. I just can't get used to both the types and spices and the amounts required. I try to overcome my natural, less-is-more instincts, but I fail. It's something I'm working on.

There's is an exception to the general rule I mentioned above. Sometimes in my own home I do season my meat with something other than salt and pepper (or rather, I did season my meat). Before I developed my allergy to eggplant I used to make moussaka. Claudia Roden's moussaka that is. Claudia Roden's moussaka (which originates in Egypt) is lighter and fresher than your normal, everyday moussaka. It isn't doused in tomato sauce or bechemal sauce (kosher!). She uses fresh tomatoes and allows the eggplants to be grilled, not fried. And while the meat is seasoned, it is not heavily so. It's a winter dish turned springy, which is exactly what you need in the winter. Cinnamon, allspice, garlic, onion and fresh parsley- my exceptions to the rule.

Claudia Roden's Moussaka

Adapted (lightly) from The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden

2 lbs (1 kilo) eggplant, thinly sliced
2 medium onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 lbs (1 kilo) ground beef
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup flat-leafed parsley, finely chopped (more, or less)
1 1/2 lbs (750g) tomatoes, thinly sliced

1.  Sprinkle the eggplants with salt and leave them for a half an hour to an hour. Rinse and dry them. Brush them with oil and grill them under a hot broiler until they are lightly browned (they will cook more later).

2. Saute the onions in oil until soft and golden, add the garlic and saute until you can catch a whiff of it, about  one minute. Add the meat, cinnamon, allspice, salt and a lot black pepper. Cook, stirring with a fork to break up the meat until the meat changes color. Add the tomato paste and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in the parsley.

3. Preheat oven to 350.  Assemble the moussaka. Arrange a layer of eggplant at the bottom of a baking dish. Cover with a layer of tomato slices. Sprinkle lightly with salt and then add the ground meat on top. Cover with a layer of eggplant slices, and top with tomatoes.

4. Bake uncovered for 30-45 minutes.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Baby in the Kitchen

On the day we made pasta Bolognese there were babies in the kitchen. M. had returned with her new baby in tow. When M. first started working in the kitchen she was about 5 months pregnant. It didn't stop her from being one of the most devoted, good-natured, hard working women in the kitchen. She was a pleasure to work with (the Justin Beiber incident not withstanding). Four months later she went on maternity leave. I missed her. We had become fast friends while working together. And while, yes, telephones, email and Facebook are all wonderful methods of communication, there's nothing quite like actual face-to-face shared experiences. So I was quite delighted when she showed up in the kitchen that Bolognese day, entirely by surprise. It was just like old times, well, except for the baby. We took turns holding the little munchkin face while M helped us cook and serve. We chatted and ate cake until said cutie got restless and cranky and needed to go home. It was a wonderful day in the kitchen.

Coincidentally, and in keeping with the theme of the day, Bolognese day was the day, L, our new dishwasher/general handyman, was called out of the kitchen in a rush because his nine-months pregnant wife was having contractions. It was a false alarm (she gave birth to a healthy baby girl a few weeks later) but it just added to the feeling that that particular day was a day of babies. Now, I can't make Bolognese without thinking of babies and of M and how delightful it was to have her and her little boy back in the kitchen. Not a bad association to have, if I don't say so myself.

The Bolognese we make in the kitchen is not really a Bolognese sauce. Mostly its just meat and tomato paste and a few onions.  It's nice to call it Bolognese though, and its nice to serve it. You really can't go wrong with meat and tomato paste and onions. You really can't go wrong with the following recipe for Weeknight Ragu from Food52 either. The good thing about this recipe (beyond the fact that its super and easy and delicious) is that unlike other ragus (ahem, Ms. Hazan) it doesn't call for ten million hours of cooking. I mean  you could cook it for ten million hours, and it would probably be pretty awesome, but you don't need to. You have a half an hour? Good. Two hours? Even better. Three hours? Sublime. Weeknight Ragu, ladies, gentlemen and babies, it's good stuff.

Weeknight Ragu
Adapted, very slightly from Merril's Weeknight Ragu on Food52

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 1/2 lb ground beef
salt and pepper
1 small onion, chopped
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and smashed
2/3 cup dry red wine
2-28 oz can whole, peeled tomatoes
1 handful of fresh herbs (I usually use thyme, because that's what I have on my windowsill right now. You can use rosemary, sage, whatever)
1 pinch red pepper flakes (optional)

1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. When it is quite hot (almost smoking), add the meat. Add a good amount of salt and pepper and brown the meat, stirring often. Take a swig of wine, you know, just to make sure it's good.

2. When the meat is brown, lower the heat to medium and add the onion. Cook, stirring often until translucent. Add the garlic. Cook one minute, until you can smell the garlic. Pour in the wine and deglaze the pan, scraping up all the delicious brown bits with a wooden spoon.

3. When the wine has reduced by half, add the tomatoes and their juice, squeezing them between your fingers to break them up. Toss in the herbs and the red pepper, if using. Bring the sauce to a boil, lower the heat so that it comes down to a simmer and cover partially. Simmer for at least a half an hour, though longer- up to three hours- is best. (If it begins to look dry you can stir in some water). Finish the bottle of wine while you're waiting.

4. Serve over pasta, polenta, rice, potatoes, anything and everything.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Toy

I got a new toy to play with. You get muffins, cookies and cakes. Win-win. Place your orders now.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Controlled Chaos

S is our kitchen helper. Instead of stuffing envelopes or packing boxes with the rest of the people we feed, she spends her day in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, chopping vegetables and acting as the bridge between the kitchen and the dining room. She sets up the tables, clears them, cleans them and brings the trays, plates and cutlery back to the kitchen to be washed. In short, she does a lot. She's a hard, sturdy worker. We rely on her quite a bit.  She also talks incessantly. Her soft voice is the background noise of the kitchen. She's endlessly curious, and always asking questions-Does your cell phone have a camera? Does it hurt to give birth? Can I use the food processor? (Yes, I imagine so, yes) Some of the women I work with find her chatter distracting and difficult to deal with. I kind of like it. Though I admit  that when you're holding a hot pan of roasted pumpkin, looking desperately for a free space to put it down before you drop it, "do you have a touch-screen?"- is not exactly what you want to hear.
I didn't really realize what an integral part of the kitchen S is until the day she wasn't there. S. is almost never sick. I have never known her to take vacation either. But one week, a family event took her away from the kitchen for a few days. What resulted was controlled chaos. Sure, the kitchen worked, the food got served and  the dishes got washed. But, unused to having to deal with both the dining room and the kitchen, we were on edge- shouting, running, spilling things.  By the end of the day we sort of had a system down, but it was one chaotic system.
Wiping down a table that day, my friend, L looked up at me and said:
"I guess I just never realized how hard S. works."
And she does. She works hard. She doesn't complain. It wouldn't occur to her to complain. This is her job. She just does it, chattering all the while.

I like to think of the recipe for these roasted potatoes as an exercise in controlled chaos. I first saw this recipe on Ginette Mathiot's lovely blog, Chocolate and Zucchini and as you can probably tell, Ginette is French. However, this method for roasting potatoes is definitively British. It involves parboiling the potatoes, draining them, giving them a rough shake in a covered pot and then dumping them in a roasting pan with hot fat. The fuzzy potatoes hit the hot oil with a huge sizzle, and somehow a super-crispy-on-the-outside-soft-and-mushy-on-the-inside, just-the-right-amount-of-salty potato of wonderfulness is born. It's pretty spectacular. And fun. And kind of chaotic-like water molecules at a boil, or the kitchen without S.

Controlled-Chaos Roasted Potatoes
Adapted from Chocolate and Zucchini

2.5 pounds of potatoes, peeled and cut into bite sized chunks
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 410 F.

1. Place potatoes in a saucepan and cover with water. Add a teaspoon of coarse salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and cook at a slow boil for 5 minutes.

2. While the potatoes are cooking, pour the oil onto a rimmed baking sheet or into a roasting pan and place in the oven to heat.

3. After 5 minutes, remove potatoes from heat, drain them and then pour them back into the saucepan. Cover the pan with its lide and then grabbing the handles with both hands (use pot holders or a kitchen towel, pot handles can be hot), give the pot a few good, vigorous shakes. When you open the lid you should see a happy bunch of fuzz covered potatoes looking back at you.

4. Remove the pan from the oven and pour the potatoes into the pan. Sprinkle with salt and give the potatoes a stir so that they are coated in oil.

5. Return to oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, turning the potatoes halfway through. The potatoes are ready when they are crusty and golden on the outside and nice and soft on the inside.

6. Serve immediately.