31 December 2011

Ten Top Lessons from Restaurant Kitchens

Dear Lissy,
Dad and I have spent a good bit of our working years in professional kitchens, both restaurant and institutional.  That experience has changed how I manage my home kitchen.  Here are the top 10 lessons I've learned from the pros in food service.

One:  Quality equipment pays for itself.  
Your daddy made sure I had the best he could afford from Day One. Literally.  My wedding present was a Kitchenaid Professional mixer, and we used my first paycheck to purchase the set of Calphalon I still use almost 20 years later.  Even when I wasn't a very good cook, and I would rather have spent the money decorating, he insisted on top quality tools and equipment.  Now that I am a good cook, I appreciate his wisdom in purchasing things once.  I'm currently employed in a restaurant where the owner/manager likes to bring equipment from home or pick it up at Wal-Mart.  Major frustration.  The performance levels of home kitchen smallware is light years away from Vollrath and Cambro.

Good knives are an important part of any kitchen.  I like and use Sani-safe knives that were a gift to us when we left the college. They're not terribly expensive, but they have carbon steel blades that re-sharpen easily and are weighted well.

Just recently I've learned how comfortable -- and functional -- chef's jackets (or baker's whites) are compared to an apron.  I'm in the process of switching over to that restaurant standard this year at home.  I love my "muffin hat" that I wear to cover my hair while I bake at the restaurant, but I probably won't be wearing it at home unless I'm cooking gifts.

Two:  Stocking a pantry, fridge, & freezer to pre-determined build levels is more economical than shopping to a menu. 
 I buy almost everything on sale, and keep as much in my cabinets, fridge, and freezer as will fit.  I usually have whole flats of canned foods under our bed, too.  Although I write a general set of menus, my shopping is simply to replace what I've used up in the last week, much like a restaurant "build list".  Very occasionally I will make a special dish that requires a particular ingredient, but most of my recipes can be made without additional purchases.  Most people think buying in bulk is cheaper, but I've found it's about 50/50.  I like having the "food in the bank" so to speak, but often smaller sizes also have smaller unit prices.

Three:  There is a difference between clean & sanitary.  
Clean:  The absence of dirt and foreign particles.  
Sanitary:  The absence of microorganisms that cause disease.  

As a general rule:

  • Every pot, pan, prep board, and utensil needs to be washed clean and sanitized with either very hot water or a solution that includes a quarternary cleaner (like bleach), air dried, and stored in a clean and sanitary location.  
  • Every surface should be sanitized before prepping food, and cleaned thoroughly after every service (meal).  Dishtowels and rags shouldn't be left out to be re-used. Launder them after every service.  Sponges need to be sanitized daily.  Run them through the dishwasher in the top rack, or store in a quat solution in a sealed container overnight.
  • Hair should be tied back or covered.  Hands need to be scrupulously clean or gloved.  If you have a head cold or cough, tie on a mask.  Wear a clean chef's coat or apron when preparing food, too.
  • Unheated foods (lettuce, fruits, etc.) tend to be the cause of foodborne illness.  Once you've handled raw meat or eggs, clean and sanitize your work surface and your hands.  Don't store salads below raw meats in your fridge.
  • Clean the fridge and pantry out weekly, the freezer and storage areas monthly, and pull out your equipment a couple of times a year. 

Four:  Technique is king.

A good cook, or chef, relies heavily on technique and basic ratios. There is a proper way to dice an onion, bone a chicken, or clarify stock.  It is an absolute joy to put together a meal when you aren't glancing at a cookbook every 5 seconds.
One classic example is the basic steak.  When I was a noob in the kitchen, I served steak hot off the grill (or broiler).  After a stint in a professional kitchen, I learned the meat needed to rest, and allowed it to stand under a foil tent in a warm oven for 15 - 20 minutes.  While talking with Uncle Pat, a chef at a 4 star restaurant, I learned that they immediately immerse their steaks in a bath of hot melted butter to temper. While I probably won't be melting down $5.00 worth of butter to make four star steaks, a quick brush with melted butter while they stand makes a big difference.
Once you master about two dozen basic techniques, you hit a zone cooking that rivals any joggers' high.  Baking, while still based on ratios, is much more precise.  Even a baker relies heavily on good technique, though.
Another technique near and dear to my heart is bread making.  Until you've made bread with an experienced baker, the recipe seems rather vague and complex.  Once you know how each step of the process should progress, bread making is incredibly satisfying physically and emotionally.

Five:  Good chefs use all 5 senses, good meals appeal to all 5 senses.
Grammy Bea used to tell me to "make it till it looks right, and cook until it's done".  Very frustrating for a new wife, to say the least!  In reality, after cooking for thousands of hours, you will find yourself relying on cues from sight, smell, sound, taste, and feel rather than recipes, timers, and thermometers.  Give yourself a head start by thinking about how your recipe looks, feels, smells, sounds, and tastes while you're learning.  Nine times out of ten I pull items out of the oven within seconds of the timer just because I can smell when they're done.   I make bread entirely by sight, smell and feel.  Steaks and hamburgers rely on touch (beef progresses from soft to springy as it cooks) and sight (juice color rising to the surface) to determine doneness.
For the loved ones eating your cooking, make sure your meals not only taste and smell good, but look appealing and incorporate a variety of textures (feel).  For us, sound has a lot to do with good manners.  Whining, bickering, slurping, scraping, and banging are trained out very early on.  We enjoy laughing and talking about our day or a favorite topic while we eat.  Eating meals together as a family influences children's behavior and school performance more than any other variable -- it's vitally important to make that time count.

Six:  Label leftovers.
In restaurants and institutions, every leftover, prepped, or opened item in the fridge and pantry is labeled and dated.  I don't date every box, can, and jar I open, but I do take a few seconds to label & date leftovers on the side facing the fridge door.  If a family member sees:  Upside down chicken pot pie, 12/30/11 they're a lot more likely to reheat it for lunch than if they're faced with a container full of unidentifiable bits.  I'll also know when I clean the fridge on Monday that it needs to be tossed if it's more than a couple of days old.

Seven:  Fresh is better than fancy.
Get in the habit early on of making as many things as possible from scratch.  It takes very little time, is incredibly economical, promotes better health, and just tastes better.  Avoid processed pre-prepared foods like the plague, and buy as fresh as you can afford.  Grow the herbs you use most.  Pick up a couple of fresh lemons each week.  Keep good quality olive oil on hand.  We would rather have a simple baked chicken, barley pilaf, garden salad with homemade dressing, and crusty loaf of bread than an elaborate meal requiring boxes, bottles, and cans.  When money is super-tight, a fresh salad, homemade soup, and piping hot bread sticks can be served for about the same cost as hamburger helper and canned biscuits.  Which would you rather have?
Food has fashions, too.  Your menus should reflect the weather and keep up with current trends.  Part of keeping a restaurant or institution vibrant is rotating menus, introducing new items, and featuring seasonal foods.  While your family will always have favorite recipes, keep your menus fresh and new.  When you sense  your family is bored of a recipe, retire it for at least a few months and replace it with something new.

Eight:  Consistency is crucial
In the restaurant world, chefs are accused of "overmenuing" themselves.  Overmenuing means they've got more ambition than skill or time.  It's more important that you have consistently good meals on the table day in, day out than that you can cook a dazzling meal once a week or for company.  Almost anyone would rather have a juicy pulled pork sandwich, coleslaw, and crispy oven baked fries than a pork roast that could double as sawdust, a barely ripe fruit salad, and watery potatoes au gratin.

Nine:  Insist on top quality spices and condiments.
Only the top restaurants in the world are able to afford to buy in every single item at the same quality.  When you're faced with a budget, choose spices and condiments that are the best you can afford, even if you have to buy store brand pasta, compromise on a cut of meat, or substitute a fruit or veggie for one that's in season.
Quality condiments instantly upgrade a meal.  
Baked goods move up a notch when you buy the cinnamon from Penzey's or another quality spice vendor.  A good mustard makes a statement with Kielbasa and cabbage.  Freshly grated nutmeg is outstanding in any white sauce based dish.  We're particularly fond of a certain brand of sweet red pepper relish with everything from cream cheese and crackers to fajitas.  I'm nuts about pomegranate jelly from Trappist Preserves.  It's not particularly expensive, but it's not store brand apple jelly either.  Many store brands are identical to national brands if you take the time to look online.  It's my hope to get to the point where I'm able to grow and make a good number of our herbs and condiments, but right now, I'm just too busy to make that a reality.

Ten:  Details make the difference.
Heat the plates.  Drop a lemon slice in the iced water.  Use cloth napkins.  Grate fresh Parmesan for the spaghetti and meatballs.  Serve an appetizer when the meal is running late, or a special dessert on a night you're serving soup as the main course.  Nice restaurants pay attention to every detail from the moment you walk in the door until you leave.  The details raise meal prep from a duty to an art.  They speak volumes about your creativity and character, too.  I can remember being incredibly disappointed at the lack of attention to detail at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse years ago:  missing  lightbulbs, a chilly draft, crumby carpets, and barely lukewarm vegetables ruined what should have been a top notch dining experience.  On the other hand, we loved a little hole-in-the-wall Greek restaurant that delighted in the details right down to the homemade rose petal jam.

Working in restaurants has allowed me to streamline and excel at meal prep.  I'm still waiting for a six star range, 45 second dishwasher, and weekly delivery truck (I hate grocery shopping!), but by and large cooking is an area of my God-given duties that brings a great deal of joy.

Wishing for one of your "professional hugs",

15 December 2011

Cookie Swap: White Chocolate Dipped Gingerbread

Dear Lissy,

I'm visiting over at Miss Andrea's today sharing one of our favorite family recipes, White Chocolate Dipped Gingersnaps.
Cookies made & styled by Andrea, photo by Travis Sharkey
I love how she styled the cookies, and she has a wonderful idea for plated cookies, too!

Love to cook, cook to love!


14 December 2011

Party Noshes: Cheese Gougeres

Dear Lissy,
I've been baking off cheese gougeres all evening for an upcoming party, and you insisted that I write the recipe for you on your blog.  These simple little pate-a-choux bites are crunchy and cheesy on the outside, soft on the inside, and nearly irresistible.  I like them piping hot from the oven, Dad likes them room temperature, and your brothers will eat anything that doesn't move, so they don't count.  Gougeres (pronounced Goo-Zhays) are notoriously snobby party fare for something that is basically a spherical Cheez-It.  They're traditionally served as finger food at parties, but they're also a nice change from crackers or rolls along with soup or salad.

02 December 2011

Light My Fire, Baby!

Dear Lissy,
There are few things in this life that I enjoy more than a good fire.  Whether it's a mesmerizing flicker under a starry August sky, or a stove with it's belly full heating up my home, count me in.  Despite what you see in movies, you can't light a log with a match.  After nearly 20 years watching and learning from Dad, here's what does work.

Finding a spot. . .
If you're in a park, there are most likely designated fire rings or fireplaces where you can build.  Clear all the old ash and wood so that the air will flow freely both under and around the fire.  
If you are on someone's land, including your own, you need a fire permit.  Clear a 3 foot diameter circle right down to the dirt.  Set the duff, needles, and other detritus carefully aside so that it can be placed back over the fire pit when you leave.  Don't try to ring the circle with rocks:  rocks can explode when heated beside a fire, especially if they've gotten wet recently.

Laying a fire. . .
There are three things you need to build a fire:  air, fuel, and ignition.  The fuel is further broken down into tinder, kindling, and wood.

Tinder is dry, combustible material that easily takes a spark.
Matchstick sized dry twigs, pine cones, paper, and even Fritos will easily light with a match. In an emergency, I've even used shredded birchbark from a fallen log.  I prefer to carry a tin of large cotton balls that have been coated in antibiotic ointment.  When turned inside out and "fluffed" they light easily and burn for up to 5 minutes.  
A baseball cap's worth of matchstick sized twigs and pine cones is more than sufficient to get a fire going.  

Kindling is wood that is between pencil and finger width around.  It ignites easily when held to a flame, but will not light reliably with just a spark or match.
Kindling can be harvested from the land around the fire, but dry kindling is worth bringing if the weather has been rainy or wet.  We pick up kindling at a local furniture factory that has a dumpster free for the picking.  It is kiln dried hardwood, so it lights easily and burns hot.  In a pinch, you can shave small pieces off of kindling to make tinder for your fire.  Don't harvest kindling directly off the ground.  Choose sticks that are sticking up in the air on fallen logs or branches.  Break kindling into about 16" pieces.  You will need up to a couple of dozen kindling sticks varying in width from pencil size right up to finger width.

Firewood is wood that has been cut, dried, and split for use in a campfire or wood stove.
Look for firewood that is 18-24" long, very dry, and split.  Bark is a natural fire retardant, so the more interior wood that's exposed, the better it will catch and burn.  Pine doesn't burn clean or hot:  choose hardwoods for the best fire.  An ax or hatchet can be used to split larger pieces, too.  We generally either use very large pieces of kindling or chop a piece of firewood down to wrist-sized pieces to place on the newly started fire.  It is unpleasant to have to get up from a fire to collect or chop more wood.  Have your wood collected/purchased, split, and stacked before lighting the fire.

I prefer the shed or lean-to style fire lay as it's easy to build, light, and maintain.
  • Place a large piece of firewood directly on the ground.
  • Place a pile of tinder directly in front of the log. (1)
  • Form a lean-to over the tinder with the kindling. (2)
  • Slide the Vaseline soaked cotton ball, potato chip, or other firestarter into the side of the tinder pile.
  • Light the firestarter with a match, lighter, or flint.
  • If necessary, blow gently to help the kindling ignite from the burning tinder.
  • Lay smaller pieces of firewood the same way as you laid the kindling once the kindling has caught. (3)
  • Adding wood that is too big, too quickly creates LOTS of smoke.
  • Once the fire is well established, continue adding increasingly larger pieces of wood, always seeking to maintain an airspace.
A few notes. . .
  • Build fires lays up, not out.  As a general rule, the fire lay should be about knee high on an adult.
  • ALWAYS have three ways to light a fire on your person:  matches, lighter, firesteel, etc.
  • Collect tinder, kindling, and fuel before you start your fire.  Campfires and cooking fires should never be doused with liquid fuel to accelerate ignition.
  • A cooking fire is quite small or the cook gets cooked.
  • Fry over fire, cook over coals.  In order to use a frying pan, you need flames.  Almost any other cooking requires a bed of coals.  To make a good bed of coals for roasting/cooking, add a lot of dry firewood all at once to an established fire, and then let it burn down to coals.
  • A camping fire meant to provide light, a little heat, and deter bugs/critters should be fed just one log at a time.
  • If wood is damp or wet, stand it up beside the fire to dry out.  
  • Put fires COLD OUT with water, and then shovel the ashes into the dirt below.  You should be able to set your hand into the fire ring before you leave.
The same rules hold true for a wood stove or fireplace.  Start with a good bed of tinder (crumpled paper and twigs work fine) and small kindling.  Make sure the flue and dampers are wide open. Light the paper in several places. Add large kindling/small firewood at first, and gradually increase the size of the fuel until full sized logs catch and burn easily.  Once the fire is well established, shut down the air supply to throw more heat out into the room.  Don't try to use the "movie method" and place full sized logs on a bed of newspaper or you'll just fill the house with smoke.

I hope you'll have many happy hours in front of a fire.  It's immensely satisfying to start a fire quickly and keep it going. As you gain skill you'll learn tricks for starting wet wood, starting a fire in the rain, and even which wood burns well green (ash, around here).  I've heard that a wood burning fireplace or stove and a screened in porch are the two "must have" items to make a house feel like a home -- I definitely agree!