07 5 / 2014
As a state, Louisiana is one of the most iconic mixing pots of American culture. The birthplace of jazz also gave rise to a new form of cuisine, blending culinary influences of the Canadian, French, German, Italian, and Spanish settlers, regional Native Americans, American Americans laborers, as well as immigrants from the West Indies and other islands. Over the course of history the inhabitants of New Orleans stirred the pot, sharing ideas and techniques, adapting to the locally available ingredients, and developing a style of cooking that is special to the region.
Many beloved culinary traditions originally stem from necessity. Early settlers from Canada and France, unaccustomed to the local flora and fauna, sustained themselves mainly of corn mush. After a protest, during which settler’s wives armed themselves with frying pans and marched on the major’s house, an initiative was made to learn to cook with the local ingredients from the Native Americans of the region. Wives and cook began preparing a wider range of dishes and moving away from their simple meals of corn mush.
As aristocrats from Europe began making the move to New Orleans they brought with them professional chefs who continued to adapt the local ingredients into interesting new dishes while still reflecting traditional European style and techniques. As the population grew so did the population of laborers. The introduction of African Americans and Island people infused more flavor into an already bubbling regional flavor.
While terms “Cajun” and “Creole” are often lumped together to describe the unique cuisine of Louisiana two styles actually differ in several ways and stem from different groups of settlers and immigrants. “Cajun” often refers to “country food,” while “Creole” refers to “city food.” Another simplified classification of these two styles is that Creole cooking incorporates tomatoes as an ingredient in many iconic dishes such as gumbo and jambalaya, were as Cajun cooking does not. Cajun food is also known for “smothering,” or slow-cooking foods in a rich gravy which is then served over rice.
Key ingredients in Cajun/Creole cooking include the Holy Trinity, which is an adaptation of traditional French mirepoix, using onions, celery, and bell peppers (rather than carrots). Pork is also an important part of Creole cuisine, more so in the Cajun country, were descendants of early Canadian settlers still participate in a tradition called a boucherie. A boucherie is a multi-day gather of friends and family during which time a pig is slaughters, cleaned, and broken down. Stations are set up and groups utilize every part of the pig to create a huge meal for everyone involved. There is traditionally music and dancing, and copious amounts of pork to eat.
Other frequent ingredients include local seafood, such as crawfish, shrimp, redfish, and catfish, as well as the use of roux, a thickener which is made with oil and flour in Cajun country and cooked until to a rich dark brown color so that it develops a nutty, deep flavor. Butter and flour is used to make roux in Creole kitchens and a lighter color is usually preferred. Lighter roux contains more thickening power but do not lend as much flavor to the dish.
Although much of Cajun/Creole cooking is based on French techniques (particularly the latter), other key ingredients and spices in Cajun/Creole cuisine come from different cultural back grounds. Okra, a key ingredient in many stews, was introduced by Africans. The Spanish brought with them a love of paprika. German’s contributed the use of mustard and black pepper. Allspice and cayenne were introduced by immigrants from the West Indies. Filé, which is ground sassafras leaves, was an early tip from the Native Americans and used as a thickener in stews. The Italian shared their love of garlic and tomatoes.
Despite all of these cultural influences from around the world Creole cuisine of New Orleans and Cajun style of the surrounding country have long been thought of as uniquely American style of food, unlike any other. In the ebb and flow of food trends “blackened” has become a well known style of cooking around the country. The average store-bought Cajun seasoning or blacking mix contains salt, ground chili pepper, red pepper, paprika, onion powder and garlic powder. Blacking seasoning is frequently used to coat chicken or fish before pan frying or grilling. The seasoning infuses flavor and is best when used at a high heat to create a dark sear on the meat, hence the term “blackened.” Variations include the addition of herbs and and seasoning such as oregano, basil, thyme, black and white pepper, and red pepper flakes. Blackening seasoning is also used to add distinct flavor to other Cajun and Creole dishes, from boiled craw fish to complex gumbos.
Cajun/Creole food has become popular all over the country, even here in Portland, Maine. The Bayou Kitchen focuses on Cajun style cooking, with dishes like jambalaya, gumbo, beans and rice, and corn bread. In operation for 25 years, The Bayou Kitchen is proof that Cajun flavors have a place in any part of the country.
Another local gem featuring food inspired by Cajun/Creole cooking is Po’ Boys and Pickles. Winning the Best of Portland Award in 2011, Po’ Boys and Pickles focuses on serving sandwiches with Louisiana flare, such as The Peacemaker which includes fried oysters and shrimp with vegetables and red pepper mayo. They also have their own version of a muffaletta, a traditional New Orleans style sandwich that includes salami, ham, capicola, olives, relish, and cheese. With offering such as cajun spiced coleslaw, blackened fish salads, gravy fries, plus two varieties of pickles, Po’ Boys and Pickles is taking the flavors of Cajun/Creole cooking and making them both accessible and exciting.
From Top Chef to Anthony Bourdain’s: No Reservations, the Creole food of New Orleans and the Cajun food of the bayous and plains have been featured and envied by some of the countries best cooks. Prolific chefs such as Emeril Lagasse and John Besh have continued to elevate the regional food which still maintaining and appreciating the culinary traditions of the area.
The history and cultural influences of Cajun/Creole food are as diverse and rich as the spices and ingredients in their food. Much like the creation of jazz, the food of New Orleans and the surrounding country brings together opposing styles and turns them into something beautiful, delicious, and totally unique.
07 5 / 2014
Lamb is a much loved and highly consumed meat in many parts of the world, including Greece, Ireland, Italy, Great Britain, and Spain, as well as Latin American and Middle Eastern countries. Despite it’s popularity around the world 40 percent of Americans have never tasted lamb and on average Americans eat less than one pound of lamb per year compared to the 54 pounds of beef eaten annually by Americans. Rarely found at common grocery stores, lamb seems to only be featured in ethnic and high-end restaurants, perhaps due to price and lack of knowledge about cooking techniques in America.
Lamb was first introduced to the US during the 19th century by immigrants from Greece and Spain. Many modern lamb farmers are descendants of immigrants who came to America in search of farm land on which to raise sheep. Perhaps one reason that lamb never made a splash in the US as a dinner meat may be that soldiers in World War II were fed government issued mutton meat, instilling a mindset that lamb is tough and gamey, not appealing to the American pallet. Although lamb as a food source has never been hugely popular in America, at it’s height in the 40’s and 50’s the population of lamb grazed in the US was 55 million. These sheep were raised for their wool and their numbers began to drastically drop with the rise of synthetic fibrils and was down to 5.3 million in 2012.
A more recent problem for sheep farmers is the loss of grazing land due to commercialism and industrialization. However, much due to the rise of farm-to-table cuisine and focus on local, sustainable ingredients, America has seen an increased interest in lamb. Although 50 percent of lamb eaten in America is raised in Australia and New Zealand, American sheep farmers and chefs are working to make lamb more accessible and desirable to American consumers. Events and special menu showcases around the country with catchy names such as “lamb crawls” and “lamb jams” are sponsored by the American Lamb Board in order to introduce more Americans to different lamb preparations. Campaigns such as “Shepherd-to-Chef” work to liaison lamb production to local restaurants while working with high-profile chefs.
Craig Rogers, highly regarded lamb farmer in VA, works with notable chefs such as Bryan Voltagio of Volt and Sean Brock of Husk. Rogers also hosts a three day event called “Lambstock” during with time farmers, butchers, chefs, musicians, and farm-to-table friendly guests gather to socialize, dance, and of course, eat plenty of lamb. Recently Rogers opened an all lamb butcher shop in DC’s Union Market in hopes of making lamb more accessible and less intimidating to American families. Due to events such as “Lambstock” and ALB sponsored events, as well as the demand from chefs and immigrates in the US, the number of small lamb farms is currently on the rise; many farms that once grew tobacco have been replaced with flocks of sheep. It seems things are looking up in the US for lamb lovers.
07 5 / 2014
Kobe beef is unlike any other beef in the world and the genuine cuts are harder to come by than many Americans know. We may see high-end steakhouses offering fare such as “Kobe burgers,” but there is a good chance it’s not the real thing that is ground up into your 35 dollar patty.
The perfectly marbling, tenderness, and flavor of the meat comes from an ancient and well-guarded breed of cattle called Tajima which is raised in the Hyogo region of Japan, Kobe being the capital. Although it is somewhat of a myth that the Kobe cattle are routinely massaged and fed high quality beer and sake, as pointed out by Lary Olmsted in his revelatory article “Food’s Biggest Scam: The Great Kobe Beef Lie,” these cows do fall under strict regulations. The cattle must be born in Hyogo prefecture, raised on local grasses and waters, and be a direct descendant of the Tajuma-gyu line. Only bulls and virgin Kobe cattle are allowed for consumption. The cows must be processed in a Hyogo slaughterhouse and pass strict government examinations. In 2012 there were only 3,000 head of genuine Kobe cattle in the world, now up to 3,900. Certification for Kobe beef is so strict that each cut of beef sold must have a 10 digit identification number so that customers can verify authenticity.
Until very recently it was literally impossible to eat Kobe beef outside of Japan due to the fact that Hyogo slaughterhouses did not export. On top of that, the USDA outlawed imported beef from Japan from 2009 to 2012. Now they allow importation, but only of very small amounts due to the strict regulations on facilities and inspection determined by the USDA, to which only one slaughterhouse in Japan has complied. Statistically only 10 percent of genuine Kobe beef is exported from Japan.
”Kobe Beef,” “Kobe Meet,” and “Kobe Cattle” are terms patented/trademarked in Japan, but those terms are not protected by US law, allowing for sales of imitation Kobe to American consumers easily duped, or those unconcerned about genuine authenticity verification. Frequently, any Japanese beef served in restaurants in the US is referred to as Kobe, even if lacking any resemblance to it’s well-marbled namesake. Alternatively, high-end/top-grade beef from around the world may be called “Kobe” on a menu to signify it’s quality, regardless of the nationality of the cow.
Any way you cut it, Kobe cattle are some of the most highly regarded animals in the world. Anything of quality is likely to be imitated. A “Kobe Burger” might be delicious, but more likely than not it is not the real deal.
07 5 / 2014
Food has always been a part of my life, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I realized the direction in which my passion for food would take me. Growing up in a big, loud, hungry Italian family meals were always a time of celebration. Chicken nuggets were not a stable in our house the way that chicken liver crostini, Tuscan ragu, and crunchy biscotti have always been. I took this passion for food for granted and pursued other paths that left me bored and unsatisfied. Not until reading memoirs by Anthony Bourdain, Ruth Reichl, and Gabrielle Hamilton, as well as working in various professional kitchens, did I realize my true path: as a chef. After a drastic career change, bountiful advice from chefs and cooks whom I admire, countless hours spent on the line, and some serious soul searching, I’ve realized my true dream is to be the Executive Chef of an Italian restaurant. One of my textbooks, Culinary Fundamentals, defines an Executive Chef in this way: “The person in this position must supervise a minimum of five full-time employees in the production of food, maintain a safe and sanitary work environment for all employees, and ensure that all kitchens provide nutritious, eye appealing, and properly flavored food. The Executive Chef is a department head, responsible for management, who coordinates responsibilities and activities with other departments.” Based on my affinity for Italian cuisine and my personal attributes and skills, such as creativity, organization, leadership, and a strong work ethic, my ultimate career goal is to be the Executive Chef of a well respected Italian restaurant.
While it is critical that the Executive Chef be a talented cook and able to create delicious food and exciting menus, he or she must also be responsible for complete management of the kitchen. This includes ordering product, managing food costs, keeping records of inventory, equipment maintenance, staff training and scheduling, regulation of sanitation practices, and delegation of human resources to ensure the highest level of productivity and quality in the kitchen. An Executive Chef must be a creative problem solver, able to make adjustments and respond quickly to issues such as malfunctioning equipment, special requests from customers, shifts in the market and food trends, call-outs from kitchen staff, special events and holidays, etc. Personal qualities such as strong communication, leadership, and conflict resolution skills, as well as patience, straightforwardness, organization, and the ability to creating a positive and safe work environment are also necessary skills in the career of an Executive Chef. As Daniel Boulud said in an commencement speech at The Culinary Institute of America, “You will soon be a chef. To be great at it, you also need to know what it takes to be a sommelier, accountant, contractor, nutritionist, designer, HR director, food safety expert, farmer, butcher, fisherman, and scientist. And sometimes even a therapist.”
The Executive Chef must be ready and willing to work as many hours as necessary to ensure proper operation of the kitchen, often 10 to 14 hour shifts, usually 45-50 hours a week (more or less, depending on the type of business, location, and season). An Executive Chef must also be flexible. It is an unconventional career in many ways, due to the fact that it is not a 9 to 5 job and does not include the luxuries of weekends and holidays off. These are some of the challenges within the career of an Executive Chef, but I believe that it can be an incredibly rewarding and exciting career if successful.
Based on both personal experience and research, the qualifications and level of education required for a career as an Executive Chef varies depending on type of establishment in which you may be seeking employment. Countless chefs have told me, “Don’t go to culinary school. It’s a waste of time and money. The best thing to do is to work your way up and learn from experience.” It is true that there are many paths that lead to a career as an Executive Chef. One might begin with an apprenticeship, a stage, or in my case, as a dishwasher, and work their way up in a kitchen. Many chefs do learn on the job and develop a positive reputation, finding positions based on experience and networking.
Of course, many chefs seek culinary training through a degree process. I personally feel that while I would probably have had success through the “work your way up” and “learn from experience” method, I know that a wider variety of opportunities will open up to me with a degree in Culinary Arts. For example, many hotel kitchen and cruise ship jobs that I have looked into do require a minimum of a 2 year degree for applicants seeking a position higher than dishwasher or basic food prep. There are also many basic skills that one might not pick up from on-the-job learning, depending on where you work, such as stock making, basic mother sauces, and meat fabrication, as well as food science and nutrition basics. These are skills and points of knowledge that not only lead to the career growth of a chef, but are also indispensable in a professional kitchen. I believe that when basic skills are mastered a chef has a stronger foundation on which to build a career and to operate a kitchen more successfully.
Job placement and earnings of an Executive Chef also varies based on the individual restaurants and food service organizations. An online job source informs, “Starting salaries for executive chefs range from $30,000 to $60,000 or higher depending on the experience level of the executive chef and the size of the employer.” It is quite a wide range of salaries, and scarcely will a culinary student come straight out of school with a job offer to be the head chef of a reputable restaurant. While a degree will help to get my foot in the door (possibly as a sous chef, more likely as a line cook), this is where networking and a strong work ethic will come into play. Bourdain points out in his essay, So You Want To Be A Chef, “All the great chefs know each other. Do right by one and they tend to hook you up with the others.” Work ethic and the ability to make a good impression can be the key to satisfactory job placement, along side a solid basis of culinary knowledge.
Perhaps the most important twist in the path to becoming a well respected, successful Executive Chef is the step you take after culinary school. Bourdain also emphasizes that one of the best things you can do as a young chef is to work in the best restaurant possible and to travel. I believe that if my goal is to be the Executive Chef of a restaurant focused on Italian cuisine I must at some point in the near future travel to Italy for an extended period of time in order to develop both my work experience and my pallet.
I know that I must also improve both my business and math skills in order to be an asset to future employers. By developing my business skills I will be able to better manage the operational aspects of an Executive Chef position, such as food cost analysis, human resource management, etc. I will also benefit from focusing on improving my math skills in terms of accounting, conversions, and recipe scaling. These are skill which I will develop during my time at SMCC, as well as by observing and becoming more involved with these processes at work.
My passion for food and creative nature, as well as my strong leadership and organizational skills, will be essential in my success as an Executive Chef. The life-style of a chef, particularly that of an Executive Chef, appeals to me for many reasons. I do enjoy the unusual hours, the unconventional work environment, as well as the feeling of fighting in a war when the line gets busy, the satisfaction of getting out of the weeds, and the knowledge that you can pumping out consistently high quality dishes and working well with your team. I particularly finds satisfaction in when I have the opportunity to take responsibility for aspects of service and operations in the kitchen. Knowing you are the person that can gracefully conduct a group of people through the organized chaos of a kitchen is simply incredible and irresistible to me.
For these reasons I plan on becoming an Executive Chef, specifically cooking Italian cuisine. Cooking not only excites me, but also connects me with something deeper; feeding people and knowing you made them happy with something you created. I feel that food excites and satisfies us in a way that few other basic human needs can. In conclusion, after many years of thought and countless hours spent in professional kitchens, I know for certain that I will someday be an Executive Chef. My personal qualities, passion for food, and education will lead me to this goal.
07 5 / 2014
With the recent rise in popularity of Chobani Greek Yogurt, particularly the low-fat, flavored variety, I have found myself with a few questions. Chobani proudly advertises that it contains “Only Natural Ingredients” and is a proud sponsor the U.S. Olympic teams, but is it actually good for you? Should we really be using it as a substitute for other, fattier ingredients in our favorite recipes, as Pintrest and lifestyle magazines suggest? Is fat really the enemy? Are low-fat products actually better for you when they seem so… artificial?
Every day grocery shoppers are duped into choosing products that have replaced fat with sugar and empty calories, as well as foods that contain the wrong kinds of fat. Marketing and diet fads tell us that fat is bad and to avoid it as much as possible. But is fat really something we should be cutting out of our diets? Most American consumers don’t realize that by fighting this war with fat they are endangering their health, and possibly gaining more unwanted weight.
There are important health benefits to fat. We literally can not survive with out it, as fat is one of the three essential macro-nutrients in our diets. We need fats for proper function of our cell walls, as well as the maintenance of our nervous system and hormone production. Fat is also essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Without a diet containing healthy fat we are likely to suffer a slew of problems, some of which are merely unpleasant, while others can be fatal. These health issues include eczema, low energy, kidney failure, vision loss, learning impairment, bone loss, and even miscarriages. Studies have shown that low-fat diets can actually contribute to depression, and because of this low-fat dieters have an elevated risk of suicide. While there is much risk in a high-fat diet, a low-fat diet can be just as harmful.
Particularly dangerous are hydrogenated fats, such as those found in margarine and shortening. The trans fatty acid these products contain have zero health benefits and actually double your risk of heart attack and raise LDL, or “bad cholesterol.” Pregnant women who consume margarine are more likely to give birth to under-weight babies. Frighteningly, hydrogenated fats are also associated with a high risk of cancer and heart disease. The science is there, but the marketing of low-fat products is effective, as many American consumers remain convinced that margarine is a healthy substitute for butter.
The health risks of a low-fat diet goes beyond fat deficiency; it actually manipulates our bodies into over-compensation. Low-fat foods trick our brains into thinking we are satiated, but only temporarily. We then make up for what our body believes to be starvation by taking in more calories. The result is that we continue eating in order to feel satiated and end up consuming more calories than we might normal when eating full-fat foods. This is because the calories in low-fat or non-fat foods that would normally come from fat are replaces by sugar, or empty carbohydrates (which our bodies break down into sugar.) It turns out that by eating low-fat diets we may actually be telling our bodies to store more fat, leading to excess weight. It is our bodies way of protecting itself against famine. Not to mention the substitution of sugar for fat is what truly makes us gain weight do to lepin resistance which develops with sugar consumption. Lepin is a hormone that tells our brain when we have enough fat stored and without it our body shifts into storage mode to battle potential starvation.
Doctor Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D, points out in her article “Fat-free Food: A Bad Idea” the paradox of processed foods such as “fat free mayonnaise.” The main ingredients of mayonnaise are eggs yolk and oil, making it almost one hundred percent fat. So how can it still be mayonnaise is it is fat-free? In the science experiment labeled “fat-free mayonnaise” the fat is replaced with sugars and starches, as well as binding compounds. By ingesting this highly-processed faux food you are doing your body more harm than good, where as genuine mayonnaise, when eating in moderation, actually contains vitamins and beneficial fats.
As far as “good fat” goes there are plenty of delicious sources, many of which seem obvious, but are often overlooked, avoided, or simply ignored. Some of the best fats include extra virgin olive, unrefined sesame, flax, walnut, and sunflower oils, as well as fish such as salmon and mackerel, which are rich in omega 3 fatty acids. And, of course, butter. Butter best produced with dairy from healthy, grass fed cows and is an excellent source of Vitamin A, not to mention easy to make at home. Natural, healthy fat not only taste fantastic but also benefit your body, from quality of skin, hair, and nails, to proper functions of immune and nervous systems, as well as heart and liver health.
Perhaps American should instead be fighting a war against overly processed, horribly manipulated, entirely misleading food products. Everyone should be able to feel satisfied and satiated without the pressure and guilt inflicted upon us through advertising and marketing of low-fat products, which only serve to increase sugar cravings and calorie intake. Better to know where your food comes from and what it’s made of. Me must, of course, stay on guard against deep fried snacks, hydrogenated fats, but the often unseen threat lies in low-fat products developed in labs. Me must also allow ourselves to enjoy the health benefits of the good fats. And after all, fat is flavor!
13 3 / 2012
It was my grandparents who first sparked my love of food. Two very different people who balanced each other magically, they were a team in life, as well as in the kitchen.
My Grandmom was a self-made princess. After a humble start in Oklahoma she traveled the world with her military family; from Germany to Hawaii, finally settling near D.C with my Granddad were she taught high school and could visit the Smithsonian museums anytime she wanted. She was graceful and intelligent, with a biting wit and a taste for elegance. With streaks of vanity and immense self confidence, she had the ability to tear you down with a few words. Her expectations were high and her opinions strong, which she always made known. A powerful woman, she never compromised. In my mind she remains flawless and fearless.
She could also be kind. From what I’ve hear about her younger days, and experienced in the elder, she loved entertaining and sharing her taste for the finer things. Not the kind of Grandmom to bake cookies or knit socks, my little sister and I ended up developing tastes for exotic fruits, Italian art, and fine clothing. After shopping sprees she would always encouraged us little girls to put of a fashion show for our parents, the purpose of which being to both show off the purchases of the day to our parents, but also to make us feel as special as she always did. She was particular and ruthless, but full of joy. My Granddad treasured her and treated her like the princess she knew she was meant to be. It was subtle, but even as kids we could see he thought she was the most beautiful creature on earth. She was the star of his life, and he was her rock.
My Granddad is a quite man. He has few needs, but likes things a certain way. Everything in it’s own place; quality and simplicity. The son of a seamstress and a sculptor, he too chose an artistic path: photography. My met while he was taking her picture for a beauty pageant which she had competed in during college. She won, naturally. In fact she won every pageant she ever participated in. I think she impressed him very much with her confidence and boldness. And I think she saw in him a perfect match. They were a set pair. “Marry a man who can always make you laugh,” she once told me. (I plan to take her advice…)
Between my Grandmother’s love of entertaining and my Granddad’s passion for cooking, family dinners have always been a critical component of my life. In the house which they designed themselves my grandparents included a room that was all windows and ornate white patio furniture. It was decorated with well-kept house plants and hand-painted Italian china. They would light the candles and switch the stereo to The Best of Pavarotti. My Granddad seemed to be trying to transport us to Italy, with my Grandmom thoroughly supporting and enjoyed the voyage. She would toss the salad and fill the water glasses while he put the final touches on the pasta and plated the crostini. The most constant food in my life, crostini translates to “little toast.” They are similar to bruschetta, the Italian appetizer everyone knows, but rather than a simple topping of raw, chopped tomatoes and basil with maybe a splash of olive oil, crostini are elaborate concoctions; the result of dozens of ingredients and attentive cooking. My favorite was always the mushroom crostini. The seemingly magical, chunky blend of mushrooms, olive oil, garlic, tomato paste, and herbs is mounded on to the toasted and buttered thin slices of baguette. A silky bright orange oil then begins to mingle with the butter and seep into the bread in the most comforting way. I take a bite, willing the bits of mushrooms to stay in place atop their crunchy vessel, and feel the crunch of the toast between my teeth. A mellow sweetness would rushes over the pallet, followed quickly the wave of savory, meaty, earthy mushrooms. Those tiny morsels seem to transform into something other than food; like little bursting gems of flavor, complemented by the comfort of of firm bread softening as it combines with fat and fungi on my tongue. It takes all of my will to only eat a few in order to have room for the pasta still to come.
There were always the chicken liver crostini as well. Gray and musky. They smelled gamey and strange and have always been my mother’s favorite. Sometimes I would take a timid bite, but my young taste buds were not prepared. I’ve recently grown to love the strange and intense blend of pungent liver, anchovies, and capers, with little spots of finely chopped mirepoix which bring a bit of lightness to the otherwise overpowering flavors. They can be shocking to an unaccustomed palate.
Next came the main event, the pasta. The dish I most vividly recall was a Tuscan ragu that my Granddad referred to simply as “Meat Sauce.” With a tomato base and laced with bits of sweet meat, it was hearty but never heavy. Later on, when my sister and I became vegetarians for a time, he introduced his “Meatless Sauce” which tasted shockingly identical to the original. Eating it you would swear you tasted bits of meaty goodness, but no! All vegetables. It was astounding. Despite my mission to recreate this sauce in my own kitchen it has never been quite the same and I wonder if there is some kind of cooking magic only my Granddad possesses.
Over the years my Granddad has recorded his recipe collection, some original creations and some adapted from past down family recipes, into The Petrini Cookbook. From simple olive oil roasted asparagus to his traditional biscotti recipe (which took years of testing to perfect) this book covers every corner our family’s style of Italian cooking. My Grandmom was quite adamant about not sharing the recipes outside of the family; cherishing many of them as secrets. She was proud of those pages, if not a little paranoid. Only a handful of people outside the family have been gifted those recipes. Within my massive collection of cookbooks that big binder with the family crest on the cover stands out as something very special.
So now I try to replicate the flavors of my childhood. I am grateful to my grandparents who sparked my love of food and ignited my passion for cooking. They showed me the power of food to evoke emotions and to create memories. From them I learned the importance of the experience as a whole. It’s not just about the food, regardless of how wonderful the meal is; the setting plays a key role as well. The opera playing in the background and a light breeze finding it’s way into the sun-room to tickle the candles… magical moments that are invariably created around a table. But what is truly important, and what stands out more than anything else in those memories, is the feeling of belonging. The feeling of contentment. Being safe, loved, and well-fed. In those moments there comes a fullness of the heart. It’s about family. For years my Granddad has been telling me that nothing in the world is more important than family. “You only get one. You have to cherish them.”
These day when I’m home for a visit we have a different version of those old dinners. My mom and I spend hours making lobster stew. I love ripping the chunks of meat out of the shells, watching as the fatty broth develops it’s fluorescent orange layer, taking in the sweet aroma of the cream, butter, and shellfish. Since my Grandmom was taken my cancer my Granddad doesn’t cook much, but he’ll usually warm the Italian bread and toss a salad. He might even put together a plate of crostini for special occasions, especially if I offer to do the knife work. Then he’ll pour himself a big glass of red white as I take the chilled white over to the table and light the candles. And we all sit down together. We toast, “Salute! Alla famiglia!” To the family.
07 2 / 2012
Once upon a time Fresh Side was my favorite lunch spot in Amherst. I’d bring everyone: friends, dates, even my parents. The atmosphere is casual and relaxed, with the orange walls and indoor plants, but still nice enough to feel like you’re dinning somewhere special. In the past, I never found the service or the food distasteful. But after my last few visits, I don’t know if I’ll be back again any time soon.
When I arrived for lunch last Friday I ended up standing in the doorway for five minutes wondering whether or not I was expected to seat myself; there was no sign to indicate either way. Eventually I had to walk up to a waiter and ask. He said, “Yeah, sit anywhere.” After having been seated for over ten minutes, and ready to order for another five minutes, I was eventually graced with the waiter’s presence, finally baring water for the table. I was parched after that long wait.
Fresh Side has an extensive tea selection, most range from $3.00-$6.00 for a pot, about the size of one and a half mugs of tea, but served in a small earthen-wear pot and sake-glass sized cup. I always order the same tea, the goji berry with date honey, because the first time I tasted it it blew me away. The slight bitterness of the berries with the warm sweetness of the date honey is always a lovely experience. On this particular Friday the tea tasted as good as usual, but was barely lukewarm. Strike two.
In an attempt to stray away from my usual menu choices (miso soup with a variety of tea roll, which are almost always a safe choice, although the wrapper is sometimes stale) I ordered the mushroom egg-drop soup, as well as the only pork dish on their menu: the pork ribs with rice and veggies.
Thankfully, the soup came to me steaming hot. It did not have the sliminess which hinders so many egg-drop soups, but the flavor was nothing more than a basic chicken broth. The mushrooms which floated around the bowl were chewy and bitter, not what I was expecting from an otherwise delicate soup. I only ate half of it before sending it away with the waiter.
The pork dish was also far from my expectations. Nestled under the “Rice” category on the menu, this dish was nothing more than a large mound of white rice with a few chunks of poorly butchered, horribly seasoned, overcooked spare ribs. Perhaps the worst part was the little shards of bone that I had to carefully avoid swallowing. This dish not only disappointed me, but confused me. If you’re going to serve a pork and rice dish why do ribs? And they were hardly even ribs anymore after being so horribly massacred by some cleaver-happy cook! I don’t know who they were trying to impress with those poor excuses for a “rice dish,” but it wasn’t me. And to throw some salt in the wound, the whole mess came on a plate that was way too small for the amount of food; a common trend at Fresh Side, and a huge pet-peeve to many chefs and foodies.
The one saving grace of the meal was the side of mixed veggies that sat next to the mountain of rice. Cooked to a satisfying al dente and seasoned well, they were lovely. But if the one thing you can complement is their vegetable cookery… well… I think that says something.
01 2 / 2012
I feel like a traitor. High Horse has just opened up their kitchen in the space that not too long ago was occupied by my employers, Amherst Brewing Company. And while High Horse isn’t really our competition (ABC is already such an Amherst institution, and The High Horse’s menu is on the pricey side) one of the biggest complains I hear is that people miss the old space. It is pretty clear that people are already comparing High Horse to ABC, if only because of location.
I secretly wanted High Horse’s food to be a disappointment, but after a cook friend who works there told me a little about the menu I was intrigued. “We grind all our own meat for the burgers,” he told me, “And we really focus on seasonal vegetables! You have to try the beets. I never liked beets before!”
The next day I dragged my boyfriend with me to High Horse. The kind of guy who would be content eating Taco Bell everyday, he is not a fan of fine dinning, but I figured that High Horse might actually be the kind of place he would enjoy. The interior is elegant, but also very edgy, and somehow still cozy. It maintains a casual atmosphere. High Horse doesn’t seem to be trying too hard, while still managing to impress; a theme which continued throughout the meal.
After ordering our beer, of which they have a very satisfying selection, my companion suggested that we order the Chips and Dip. I was unimpressed, but my boyfriend happened to love it. What I did like was their house-made sour cream. High Horse prides themselves on their selection of dipping sauces, and for good reason. I absolutely loved the garlic and white bean dip which we ordered to accompany our sweet potato fries, which were themselves disappointing. Soggy, without even a hint of the crisp exterior one craves when ordering fries, they were a let down. The burger was also unimpressive. Smaller than you would receive at any other trendy brew pubs, it did have great flavor and was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, but suffered from charred edges. For 11 dollars, it wasn’t much to write home about.
My trout dish, on the other hand, was a nice surprise. From flavor to presentation, it was a fantastic dish. The trout was perfectly cooked, seasoned with sage, rosemary, and lemon. I also detected a slightly smoky flavor, which puzzled me, as I happen to know that it came off of the saute station. Quietly placed next to the fish was a dollop of pureed celery; something I had never tried before. The subtlety bright flavor complemented the fish perfectly. On the other side of the plate sat an alternation row of roasted carrots and beets, and next to it a small mound of sauteed swiss chard. The presentation, while lovely, was also a clear suggestion from the chef to eat these components together. The earthy sweetness of the carrots and beets, with the mild bitterness of the greens, the herbaceous flavors of the fish, united by the light tang of the celery, it was an expertly composed dish. Every flavor and texture complemented the other. A simple dish, but wonderfully executed. Needless to say, I was impressed.
But the meal didn’t end there. My boyfriend insisted we try the chocolate cake. I’m not a fan of chocolate, but I conceded. The cake itself was very good; super rich, with the flavor of good quality dark chocolate. It came with a little cloud of whipped cream to mellow out the richness, but the real star of the plate was the burnt sugar garnish. With the taste of caramel and a satisfying crunch, I found myself incorporating it into every bite of cake I took. The flavors lingered long after we left the restaurant. My boyfriend and I turned to each other more than once to reminisce about the meal we had had only moments earlier. “That was really fantastic! So good. I’m so glad we did this.”
Although High Horse seems to be having a bit of trouble with some of the pub classics, such as the burger and fries, they shine elsewhere. With high quality ingredients and perfectly balanced flavor profiles, the intentions of the chef came though in the form of thoughtful execution. I’m looking forward tasting more of the menu… and hoping the fries improve.