Sunday, February 21, 2010

The day brings an epiphany and salmon

"Grandma, what's heaven like?"
"I don't know. When I go there, I will come back and tell you, all right?"
"Okay, Grandma."

Maria Theresa - known in the USA as "Tessie" died when I was 11. There was so much I didn't know. So much I am finding out - about all my grandparents and great grandparents.
Yesterday, I came home from a challenging and poignant day. I put my pots on the stove and improvised. I thought a lot about why I cook. And why it has grown in importance the older I get. Yes, I love to eat. Yes, I want to pass down my heritage to my children; "yes" to all answers regarding cooking and family and organics and local ...

I have been researching the foods and recipes of Basilicata. Grandma did not hand down any recipes. It was all what was fresh, what was handy and all was cooked according to what was "right" by the seeing and "delicious" by the tasting.
I added some oil to my pot. Sliced cabbages and onions and thyme. Threw in a pad of Earth Balance butter for creaminess. Sauteed. Added some wine. Simmered. Added some orange juice. Stood over the stove. Stirred. Added the salmon.

How could I have not realized that I cook to find my grandparents... that I cook to talk to them because I was too little when they were here or they were gone before I was here. I cook to find them and ask them questions.

Grandma did not come back to tell me what heaven was like. Or, I missed the call. But she's inside me, guiding me... telling to to look, taste and feel. Throw away the recipe and pay attention to what you are doing.
When I cook, I am doing something that has been done through the ages. I am connected. And I have many guides, many loves and a wealth of inspiration.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Simplicity: a frico and the abc's in Italiano

It's so simple really - I wonder about even mentioning it. A frico. One ingredient. A mound of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on a baking sheet. Bake. Eat. Is that a recipe?

But it is - scrumptious. Earthy, nutty. Packed with flavor - and one ingredient. After the excesses of the holidays, the starchy comfort during the frigid days in January and the weekend that was Valentine's Day, the Chinese New year, Mardi Gras down south and it's equivalent of Carnevale in Italy - simple.... one ingredient. A way of chasing the excesses away. Today Italian Catholics begin Lent. A 40-day feast of self-denial - and do you believe it - I've always loved it. It's a chasing away of winter and a cleansing of the palette for the spring greens that will arrive when Lent is over.

Fricos hail from the northern, mountainous region of Friuli Venezia Giula which borders Austria and Slovenia. One of it specialties is Montasio cheese. As a new cheese, it is creamy, milky and smooth. As it ages, it becomes saltier, earthier and similar to the king of Italian cheeses - Parmigiano-Reggiano. The Italian Parmesan is easier to come by than Montasio cheese, so that is the cheese I use for my fricos. You can jazz up a frico - add some fat (they do in Friuli Venezia Giula), or add some rosemary or other favorite herbs. Some people like them with potatoes, but I like the simplicity of the one ingredient.
A delicate, lacy Parmesan crisp - they add elegance to your salad of baby greens or stand alone with an aperitif before dinner (the Italians will have it with Vin Santo). The Parmesan should be freshly grated - it is lighter,and will spread into a lace-like pattern.
Frico Ingredient
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese - freshly grated
Frico Preparation
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
On a baking sheet, spray or grease parchment paper cut to fit baking pan.
Ladle 2 tablespoons into a 1-2 inch biscuit cutter or round cookie cutter. Lift the cookie cutter and flatten the Parmesan. Repeat - spacing the mounds of Parmesan 3 inches apart.
Bake 5-8 minutes - until the cheese is lightly browned. Cool for one minute.
With a spatula, carefully lift the crisps from the pan onto a plate. Serve warm as an appetizer or put on top of a salad.
Welcome to the season of simplicity. And as I wax poetical about the beauty of simplicity, please visit Joe of Italyville's blog. He has a delightful interview with Sonya Caruso, the author/illustrator of a new book that teaches the ABC's of Italian to toddlers. It's never to early to learn a new language. It's insightful and there's a giveaway of her new book ABC Italiano. As I struggle in Italian class, the idea of learning it from a toddler's point of view is enticing.

Simplicity: the key to learning and growing.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Strawberry tiramisu is amore

Happy Valentine's Day! I am in the midst, adrift, hither and yon and home again. Concocting herb-roasted ribeye roast, olive salad, asparagus Italiano, eating chocolates, writing articles, eating chocolates, gaining weight, eating chocolates and wondering how the bananas on the table would be covered in dark in chocolate (answer: pretty good). In between slicing and saucing and eating chocolates, I talk to myself in various fairy tale characters for my Brothers Grimm play. I am silly.

I didn't want to let Valentine's Day fly away in my giddiness without sharing with you the simplest of strawberry tiramisu recipes - one devised by my mother years before there was a tiramisu dessert.

My sister and I have summer birthdays and our cakes were always made with ladyfingers - a Grand Manier Cake, a Charlotte Russe cake and a Strawberry Shortcake.

ladyfingers (12-18 depending if you are doing one big bowl or individuals)
one cup whipping cream
1 T sugar
1 t vanilla
4 oz mascarpone, room temperature
*2-4 T Kirsch (Cherry brandy) optional
1 cup seedless strawberry jam
1-1/2 quarts fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
Lay your ladyfingers in a decorative bowl. You can also use a highball glass and break a ladyfinger in half and lay it in the glass creating individual tiramisu parfaits. Add your sugar and vanilla to your cream and whip until soft peaks hold their shape. Fold or whip in your mascarpone.
Meanwhile, warm your strawberry jam (makes it easier to spread) and add your Kirsch if using. Simmer for a few minutes. Cool a tiny bit.
Brush 1/2 the jam over the ladyfingers. Add a layer of half the cream mixture. Layer another layer of ladyfingers ans repeat - the rest of the jam layer and then the cream. Top all with the strawberries. Let sit four hours or overnight. Serve.
Red and white, purity and love, heart and soul, winter-bright sweetness for you. And to close, a lovely ditty about love from friends to friends.
When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie
That's amore.
When an eel bites your hand and that's not what you planned
That's a moray.
When our habits are strange and our customs deranged
That's our mores.
When your horse munches straw and the bales total four
That's some more hay.
When Othello's poor wife, she gets stabbed with a knife
That's a Moor, eh?
When a Japanese knight used a sword in a fight
As a theatre geek, I did wince a bit knowing Othello's wife was not stabbed by a knife but the charm of the poem got to me - yep - an arrow through the heart. Hope everyone has a day filled with winter bright love and a little giddiness.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Fast Dancing at the 2010 S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition

Yes, it's true. Courtesy of Foodbuzz and the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition, this non-gambling, non-glitzy Italian cook journeyed to the the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas on Thursday, February 4th. Two hours later, I was in a cab, lost in Vegas as the (harried but earnest) cab driver's GPS System kept sending us hither and yon to escape the five accidents on the interstate. Forty-five minutes later, I was at the Las Vegas School of Culinary Arts, meeting and greeting the most helpful people in the world and thrust into a busy kitchen.
Sparkling Pellegrino. The fast-dancing of the bubbles mimicked the hustle and bustle in the kitchen.

A few hours later, one young chef would win first prize, step in front of this display and be granted a chance to compete in Napa Valley from March 5-8, 2010. The competition is fast, heady, creative, and could be a deal-breaker. The winning chef will not only have the prestigious title but also up to $20,000 in prizes and a paid apprenticeship from one of the participating chef judges. Not bad for a recent culinary school grad heading out into a highly competitive world.

Inside the Culinary School's restaurant, the stage was set. The Mountain Region Competition has the largest number of contenders. The kitchen was giddy with excitement - for the first time the competition was streaming online and broadcast over the Internet. Families and fans could watch the entire competition and judging by the Facebook page - they did.

Media, chefs, kitchen judges and well - me - filled the kitchen. Braising, simmering, saucing, chopping, mincing, scalding...

... scraping, slicing, squeezing....

Carefully watched and questioned by the kitchen judges...

... being timed by the clock...

Keeping your cool and focusing on the task at hand.

For the chefs will soon be in this room, filled with judges who will taste, question and look for clarification regarding their choice of ingredients, their methods, the art of plating....

It's a dissertation really. "How much will this cost?" "Is this a special, a seasonal item or a standard entree?" "Or is it an appetizer?" "What wine would you choose for your dish?" "Were you happy with what you did?"
The young chefs discussed their inspiration, their choices of melding risotto with squash, parsnips with cream, infusing garlic into a dish, reduction sauces, time constraints. As one chef mentioned, "I thought five minutes was a lot longer than it really is!"
While the chefs certainly had an intense day, I was the lucky one - brought there to sample, indulge and report. And I did. I tasted all while sipping healthy doses of S. Pellegrino sparkling water (and one glass of wine!). I was there to celebrate all of them. For the chefs, just being asked to be in the competition was an honor. And the stakes are very high. I spoke with many of them. Some were very assured - amazingly calm really and others were in a smiling, zen-state. And of course, others were feeling the intense pressure. But through it all, there was camaraderie, humor and strong support and respect for each other.

Once out of the kitchen, guests were treated to a platter of fruits..

And cheeses.
I'll let these young chefs speak now and you can see their views on cooking and why they want to be a chef. And parents and grandparents take note: What you do in the kitchen with your children can have far-reaching, wonderful effects! Below each photo find the chef and their dish. I tried them all and was immensely grateful that I was not a judge - because I couldn't possibly choose... all were taste sensations.

CHEF: Carlos Rodolfo Gonzalez Saucedo
DISH: Pan Roasted Fresh Cod
"In my family, the making of dishes represents the reunion of loved ones. Every time my mother makes a large and elaborate meal, I get excited just knowing that our house will be full of chatter and joy."

CHEF: Daniel R. Laferriere
DISH: New England Grilled Lobster
"When I was a kid, I was always intrigued by my father when he would cook something different. Later in life, I received The French Laundry as a gift. Once I read that book, I knew then I wanted to be a chef.

CHEF: Jy'cen D. Loften
DISH: Herb-Grilled Pork Tenderloin
"My grandmother would be the person who contributed to my decision of becoming a chef simply because she taught me mostly everything I know about the culinary arts."

CHEF: Athena E. Thickstun
DISH: Black Currant Duck 'a la Plancha'
"I would someday like to open a farm-to-table, fine dining concept, but for a few years after graduation I would like to travel and work for as many chefs as I can. I want to learn about all styles and cultures of food. I don't plan to ever stop learning!"

CHEF: Miguel Vazquez Sanchez
DISH: Pan-Seared Breast of Chicken
"My mom has been my inspiration. She has taught me how to make mole and many other foods. I can say I have always been around food; I used to live in a town where everything is about food, flavor and aroma."

CHEF: Alexandra Arellano Padilla
DISH: Venison Confit in Adobo
"My grandmother has always been my strongest influence. My mother noticed the attention I paid to my grandmother's cooking style and that I had an interest in ingredients and style. She encouraged me by giving me my first cooking kit and recipe book. Ever since that day, I have dedicated my life to the kitchen."

CHEF: Andrew Kirsh
DISH: Pan-Roasted Duck Breast
"When I was a young child, my grandmother would spend hours in the kitchen toiling away over classical Italian dishes. Seeing her dedication to what she did and the reactions that her food evoked are what inspired me initially to become a chef."

CHEF: Robert Crawford
DISH: Roasted Garlic-Stuffed Lamb Loin
"I have had so many influences that have helped me along the way. Of course, the first was my grandmother; not only did she allow me in her kitchen but she would discuss her cooking 'secrets" with me"

CHEF: Ryan Wieczorek
DISH: Mongolian Sauteed Salmon
"I want to learn various types of cuisine that will influence the way I cook. I want to travel to various places to learn the culture and cooking styles. I believe that when I am finished developing my abilities, it will be time to open a restaurant and set a new goal."

CHEF: Cynthia M. Moss
DISH: Pork Loin Chop
"I admire all chefs for what they do. It is a hard job, but it's nice to know there are so many chefs who are passionate about what they do."
As you can see, much thought, labor and artistry goes into these platings. Sauces, vegetables, starches all designed to highlight the taste of the entree, please the eye and win the palette. The judges took a wee bit longer than planned to make their decision so the task was not easy.
In the end, Robert Crawford took the high honor with his Roasted Garlic-Stuffed Lamb Loin.

Robert Crawford is interviewed after his big win by Fabiano Viviano of Bravo's Top Chef fame. Mr. Viviano kept up the most delightful commentary with the chefs throughout the competition. Filled with silliness, appreciation and unwavering support for these chefs, his good humor was appreciated by all.
Robert Crawford will be in Napa Valley in March with all the regional winners. Self-assured and determined, he remains unflappable during the heat of the competition. I will be closely following the final event. I feel now as if I have a stake in it. One cannot attend a regional competition without coming out a wee bit in favor of the chef whose dish astounded you. You can follow the competition at The Sparkling Life. It, too will be streaming online. More on the Mountain Competition can be found at The Almost Famous Chef website. You can also hear what people have to say by following them on Twitter or becoming a Fan of the competition on Facebook.
As for me, I can only say "lucky you" to the blogger who goes to Napa. And say "lucky me" for receiving the honor of going to Vegas. I am deeply appreciative to Foodbuzz for the trip and to Alexa Malott for support throughout this fast and busy process. And I extend heartfelt thanks to S. Pellegrino Sparkling Water for not only adding sparkles to my drinks, but giving me extra sparkle in my life. Thank-you to both for allowing me to witness life on the other side of a chef's blade.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The San Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition with a dash of orange

Today started so simply. Pellegrino... sparkles... water. Nestled next to the wine. Entwined. For later.

Winter oranges on my counter. Also - for later. Sparkling red.

Sparkling clear.

A contest to attend a contest. As Foodbuzz goes through blog entries determining who will be the lucky winners to attend the semi-final San Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition in Las Vegas or the finals in Napa Valley, I sip my water and dream of sparkles in the guise of glistening food and scintillating chefs. I see the buzz, the movement, the plating, the stakes. And in all honesty - the warmth. It is February in Minnesota, after all.
It's time to finish the orange salad as planned. I'm grateful my task is simple.
Orange salad.... Insalata Di Arance.. or in Sicilian dialect: Nzlata D'Aranci. Sliced oranges with black pepper. Shimmering. Jumping. Like my sparkling water. Like my mind.

My work station glows with possibilities. A chance to watch up-and-coming chefs. The future. The food. Yes, of course the food. Which reminds me - I haven't planned my dinner food.

Dinner plates lay empty. The orange salad is done. Will that suffice? My mind is a blank. I am thinking of other foods. What will the young chefs prepare? What spark will they ignite in me? In my area (Minnesota), Brian Schrieber won the competition with his Bacon-wrapped Halibut Tournedos. Could that be on my menu tonight?
All I have is the salad. Oranges blazing with freshly-grated pepper. Some sliced olives scattered over all. A drizzle of olive oil. It will please. But really, there should be another course.

Pellegrino dreams. Oranges. Winter brights. A lovely addition but my table is lacking.

Flashes of ingredients. The promise of sweet, savory, sensual from an orange, a fillet, a nut or a vine.
The competition is a mentoring program. That idea fills my being. As one who has mentored, taught and learned from my students, mentoring is giving back to those who helped you. But I realize that although my being may be filled, my family will want something more.
I enter with hope. I am old enough to understand competitions, the wins and the losses. But not so old that I cannot learn from the young. I am wise enough to realize dinner must arrive at my dinner table no matter what my distraction. And pleased that my distraction includes glimmers of almost-famous-chefs

So here is my entry - a wish really. A sort of trust. A chance to celebrate young chefs, their creations, their imaginations. Witnessing it all. Taking it in breath by breath through all the senses. And what would I bring? As a veteran of many playwrighting competitions where I have won, lost and dwelled in the nebulous area of placing somewhere in-between, I bring my unwavering support, myself and my appetitie. My appetite for food, young chefs, new talent and fresh creation. My guarantee to not go on a diet till after the competition. My hands for applause, as well as support, encouragement and reminders to breathe. Always breathe. And a message to the young chefs: savor each moment. For win, lose or draw, those moments will forever be an ingredient in the "you" that will come.