Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Meeting Alton Brown!

There's a bookstore in my neighborhood called Octavia Books. For years this small business has fascinated me. You know how at Books-A-Million or Barnes & Noble, the end-caps of the aisles always have the most interesting books, well imagine an entire bookstore filled with nothing but those types of books. You can walk in and swear to yourself that you won't buy anything, and end up needing a dolly to get all your books back to your car.

Another fascinating aspect of this little hole-in-the-wall place is their celebrity book signings. Enter Alton Brown, host of Good Eats and Iron Chef America. Promoting his new book, Good Eats 3: The Later Years, he was at Octavia Books tonight signing books, kitchen utensils, giant stand mixers, and answering questions. One interesting question someone posed to him was "If you have any advice to give to someone who wants to become a professional chef, what would it be?" His answer, unsurprisingly, was "Don't." He elaborated that tainting a wonderful hobby like cooking by attaching monetary values to one's product will only make one miserable and develop a disdain for that former hobby which was once loved. This exactly mirrors a case study I had in the Tulane MBA program in a class called Managing People. The study elaborated on Brown's notion, but went into much more detail. It mainly focused on singers, who once only sung for sheer enjoyment, but after being rewarded monetarily for their talents, now view singing as a pain, and will often times refuse to utter a note unless they get paid. Basically, it said don't turn your hobby into a profession, because you will end up hating it. Tonight, Alton said the same thing. Interesting...

When it was finally my turn to get my book signed, I asked him if I could pick his brain for a minute. He said sure, but that I'd have to make it quick. I told him that my aged steaks are coming out much more well done than normal steaks, even though I'm cooking them the same way. His answer was that since the aging process removes about 35% of the moisture from a steak, there is no longer that water barrier/buffer inside the cut of meat to slow the cooking process, thereby cooking the dry aged steak much quicker than one would expect. Ok, so now I don't feel as bad about serving up three medium-well 28+ day old aged steaks, but it was still a pricey learning curve. He also said, a little more enthusiastically, that he would get the butcher to cut the steaks a little thinner next time, and do just a quick sear before tenting.

Anyway, he was very enjoyable, humble, and witty. I went with my friends Laura and Ross and Ross told me he'd read that instead of sitting down like most authors at a book signing, he insists on standing up the whole time so that his feet will hurt just as much as those of everyone in line. He also made sure to answer questions from every little kid, and promised he wouldn't leave the book store until each and every person got their due time with him. And they say you shouldn't meet your heros...

Dry Aged New York Strip

Notice the perfect marbling, the hallmark of
a cow allowed to slowly mature and age. 
So, it was going to be a guy's weekend at our farm. I volunteered to bring up the food and decided on 4 dry-aged NY strip steaks. At $22/pound, it was going to be one of the finer things we've eaten up there, only to be out done by the half case of wine we drink every night. I arrived a day early, removed the steaks from the butcher paper, placed them two to a plate, and let them age another day in the fridge with a paper towel over them. When it came time to prep them, I took them out about an hour before cook time to let them rise to room temperature, them seasoned each with fresh cracked pepper and truffle salt. When I put them on the skillet (a major decision, but ultimately it was decided a skillet would preserve more of the hard-earned flavor, instead of taking on BBQ pit flavors) and they sizzled and seared to perfection. 

I stood by the ready, constantly flipping and taking internal temperatures with my Thermapen, and my plan was to take them off when they reached precisely 125 degrees, tent them in foil, and let them rise another 5 or 10 degrees to the medium rare range. Imagine my horror and shock when they were basically medium well inside! What had happened!? All this work, this dreaming, for naught! I suspected they may cook quicker due to the lack of typical moisture inside, but I was still upset. I still had one steak that hadn't been cooked, so I promised myself a redemption.

I finally achieved my perfect center, along with the best,
crunchiest crust I've ever had on a steak!
Two or three days later, after the steak had continued to age, I decided to cook it. By now, it was probably 34-35 days old, and had taken on a crispy dry appearance reminiscent of beef jerky. Forgoing the Thermapen altogether, I seared it one one side for a minute or two, then flipped, then took it off. Whatever happened happened, and I would find out soon enough. Well, what happened was tantamount to the second coming of Christ. What was once a miserable little dried piece of jerky ended up being the most succulent, moist, flavorful cut of meat I'd ever put in my mouth. The best and only way I can describe it is the whole steak turned into an inch and a quarter thick slab of bacon. IT REALLY TASTED LIKE BACON! Needless to say I was spoiled, and now I'm afraid I can never go back to non-aged steaks.

Smokes Sausage with Banana Peppers and Onions

This one is beautiful in its simplicity, and satisfyingly filling. To make it, I chopped cut one pound of smoked sausage and browned the pieces in a heavy cast iron pot. After drizzling in a little oil (not before or else the sausage won't brown), I added banana peppers and onion rings to the mix (the ratios of which depend on your own taste) and let them slowly cook down while adding in dried chives, hot sauce, and spicy cajun seasoning. Simple, effective, and delicious.

Roasted Tomatoes with Fresh Basil and Mozzarella

Hey everyone, all six of you! I haven't updated in a while, and for that I apologize. I've been busy and though I've occasionally had time to create things in the kitchen, I haven't had time to upload them.

To my left is a promising dish gone bad. To create this little culinary appetizer, preheat your oven to 450 degrees, then pour a little olive oil into a glass or enameled baking dish. Cut your tomatoes in half and roll the cut part in olive oil, then turn over and arrange in the dish, cut side up (duh). Sprinkle each tomato with chopped fresh basil, crushed garlic, salt and pepper, and then a thin slice of cheese. Drizzle again with olive oil and roast for 20 minutes until tender and lightly browned. Garnish with whole basil leaves.

Sounds delicious right? What the recipe fails to note, and failed to alert me to, is that there is nothing more disgusting on earth than a hot tomato. Ultimately, I just ate the cheese, and the crispier, the better. PS, I won't be making this again. Caprese salads are much tastier.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Jamaican Spice Salmon

Hey Folks!

Admittedly, this recipe isn't very involved or complicated, but it is delicious. I had a close friend in town this past weekend so there wasn't much time for grocery shopping and cooking. Come to think of it, I'm not entirely sure what I ate from Thursday through Sunday, except for Saltines and Goldfish.

Anyway, I was at Rouse's on Tchoup and saw this big, gorgeous salmon fillet. Ever since I've heard of lightly brushing the fillets with olive oil instead of putting the oil directly in the pan, I've been very pleased with the way my salmon's been coming out, so I thought I'd try it out with some Shakin Jamaican Ronnies Spice Blend this time. I found it on the spice aisle of Whole Foods but I'm sure it's available everywhere. As you can see it created a wonderfully flavorful black crust on the flesh of the fillet, with the skin of the fish of course infusing the opposite side with its own flavors. I pan-fried until my Thermapen read 140 degrees, then served on a bed of baby spinach, drizzled with lemon juice.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Carbon Steel Pan

If anyone reads Food Network magazine, or has seen pictures of "famous kitchens," there is always one particular type of pan present in every photograph. For years now, I've seen this pan, but never knew what it was, and honestly never thought much of it. What always did perplex me, however, was how cheap this exalted pan looked! It's just a simple black pan that looks as if the handle cover has been ripped off. In the picture to the right, you can see this mysterious little pan in Julia Child's kitchen, on the second row from the top, second from the left. Finally, however, in watching an old Child episode on the internet, she actually used the pan, and called it a carbon steel fry pan. This was all I needed. That information, coupled with a few quick internet searches, opened up a new cooking frontier that had previously been unknown to me! These carbon steel pans, made from the same steel as woks, though typically much thicker, are supposed to be among the best in the world for searing meat. Most reviews I read say they're much better for steaks and pork chops that cast iron, and they also are supposed to do a find job of quickly pan frying vegetables, keeping them crunchy just like a wok does. I read that they get so hot that they glow blue.

This was enough for me! I did my in-depth research and settled on what I believed to be the best carbon steel pans available. After they arrived (they arrive unfinished and the silver color of steel), I looked up how to season them for cooking. This, it turns out, is a rather involved process, and tricky to do correctly on the smaller pans. Anyway, true to what I read, they do turn blue when they're heated, however, I witnessed something that I never thought I'd get to see in a kitchen. For the first time, I saw a fry pan get SO hot that it actually GLOWED WHITE HOT. Up until tonight, I thought the term "white hot" was just an expression. Can you imagine what a filet mignon would taste like with a proper sprinkling of salt on each side then thrown onto a literal white hot pan? I know, I know, I wouldn't believe me either, so I am attaching a picture of the pan to the left. This picture shows the white-hot center of the pan, a pan I saw go from silver, to golden, to blue, to white.

New Cookbooks!

In a recent Alton Brown rerun, he mentioned that most of the American cooking canon comes from the industrial revolution, when giant canning companies were being formed. These companies, he said, needed a gimmick to sell their canned goods, so many produced cookbooks using what else, but their own products. Over time, these recipes trickled down and even today, one can easily find recipes like this one, the very first Google entry for "Green been casserole":


  • 2 (10.75 ounce) cans Campbell's® Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup or Campbell's® Condensed 98% Fat Free Cream of Mushroom Soup
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 8 cups cooked cut green beans
  • 2 2/3 cups French's® French Fried Onions

As time progressed, most recipes called for "a can of" or "a box of." True, this made cooking easy for "the servantless American cook," as Julia Child put it in her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, however this robbed a few generations of using fresh vegetables, of making ancillary ingredients themselves, and of learning useful kitchen techniques, like how to make garlic paste. As the organic movement slowly took hold, cookbooks gradually became more complicated, leaving out the ready-made cans. Now, however, I notice something really exciting happening. Cookbooks are actually focusing more on education and theory, rather than on filling their pages with recipes.

It makes sense, I suppose, that in the age of the internet, most people would use the web for recipes. In a cookbook, if one wants to make a brisket, one may only have one or at most two recipe options. With the internet however, the options are practically limitless! Publishers are smart, and writers need to make money. With that in mind, I'm excited to see most cookbooks focusing less on the ingredients list and more on the how and why of cooking.

I typically do a lot of research before buying something. I read consumer reviews, sample pages, and compare overall ratings with similar books in the same genre. I just got in a shipment from Amazon of a list of books that took me a month to compile. They represent what I believe is the best-of-the-best in the cookbook market today (that I don't already have). All of these look like they have a healthy mix of education and recipes, so don't worry, you'll get a little bit of both!

Vegetables Every Day by Bishop
The River Cottage Meat Book by Fearnley-Whittingstall
Fat by McLagan
The River Cottage Cookbook by Fearnley-Whittingstall
Cooking by Peterson
Fish & Shellfish by Peterson