Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Perfect Buttermilk Biscuits and Sausage Gravy

Originally Published Wednesday, December 24, 2008

In the United States we are often known for culinary contributions of dubious distinction.  Deep fried macaroni and cheese can be spotted on a menu along with the glorious juicy burger.  The juicy burger must share its place with the aspirin sized pseudo-burgers found in our favorite fast food establishments.  At least one fast food establishment (yes, I mean McDonald’s) is both home to the aspirin sized burger and the most delicious fries I have ever tasted.  I mean, c’mon, can anyone tell me they have truly had a fry that is even in the same league ?  If you have, can you consistently get it in any of 15 to 20 locations within an hour drive from your home ?  Let’s give credit where credit is due !

Yes, we Americans have contributed our share of entries into the world of food, and some regions are just known as the quintessential home of many of these foods.  New England has its Lobster Rolls.  New Orleans has its Red Beans and Rice.  California has its Duck Pizza.  None of these, however, puts me in a region of this magnificent nation we live in quite like the Southern Buttermilk Biscuit.  To me, a good old American biscuit just screams “The South” like nothing else does.  Slathered with butter and jam, covered in an artery clogging sausage flavored goop, or housing delicate slices of delicious Kurobuta Ham...it does not matter to me.  This regal king of quick-breads belongs to the states south of the Mason-Dixon line.  God Bless America !!!!

There was a time in America where you had to travel to “The South” to get a decent biscuit.  Sure, you could get a scone in a fancy hotel or tea room, and scones are indeed the great grandaddy of all biscuits, but the difference between a scone and a biscuit is like the difference between meat loaf and meat terrine.  Sure, they are essentially the same thing, but they are also quite different, and that is why they continue to exist in two separate worlds.

Biscuits, however, have made it onto nearly every breakfast menu found in the USA, as well as onto eclectic catering menus and into our kitchens.  With the introduction of Bisquick in the grocery store, the fine art of biscuit making has been transformed to a “just add water” event, and the biscuits are actually not bad !  I, however,  am not satisfied with food that is merely “not bad”.  I have this obsession with finding the best, and will stop at nothing until I do.  So my quest for the perfect biscuit led me to countless years of experimentation until one day I stumbled upon an absolutely fantastic recipe at the “Cooks Illustrated” website.  I decided to give it a try, and there it was...THE PERFECT BISCUIT !!!

...with a little modification, of course.

Of course I had to modify it to my taste!  I altered the fats a bit, because their recipe called for shortening (perish the thought!), and I prefer my technique.  I feel I can safely call this my own recipe (but I give credit where it is due).

I must first take a moment to describe what I mean by “Perfect Biscuit”.  Perfectly prepared biscuits must be very light in texture, must melt in your mouth (yet not crumble when you try to make a little sandwich with one), and must be so delicious you simply cannot eat just one.  They must also look so appetizing you begin drooling the moment you set eyes on them, much like an ex-convict who is taken to a burlesque show does...well, you know what I mean.  They must immediately come to mind every time you think of biscuits, see biscuits, or see pictures of plantation owners in white hats.  Anything else just will not cut it.

Now that I have hopefully peaked your curiosity, I am going to tell you how to make these wonderful pillows of gravy sopping ecstasy.  Read on.

Lets start with the ingredient list.  For a dozen biscuits, about the width of the rim of a drinking glass, you will need the following ingredients:

Perfect Biscuits
Yield: 12 Biscuits

2 cups  Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (I like King Arthur, available at Trader Joe’s) or 50/50 All-Purpose and Whole Wheat Flour
1 Tablespoon  Baking Powder
½ teaspoon  Baking Soda
1 Tablespoon  Granulated Sugar
1 teaspoon  Salt (I do not use iodized salt)
2 Tablespoon  Unsalted Butter (chilled and cubed)
2 Tablespoons  Lard or Bacon Fat (chilled and cubed)
1½ cup  Buttermilk (chilled)

Let me discuss the ingredients for a moment.  I use Unbleached Flour because bleaching flour changes both the taste and texture of the flour, and since biscuits are little more than fat and flour we want to retain as much character as we can.  You can also use a 50/50 blend of whole wheat and white flour if you want a slightly wheaten biscuit. You will need some extra flour for the biscuit preparation surface as well.

I do not use iodized salt because I can taste the iodine, and it is not pleasant.  I like using plain sea salt.

Then there is the fat.  Some of you may decide to use margarine and shortening instead of Butter and Lard or Bacon Fat (Bacon Fat and Lard are essentially the same thing).  Do not do it !!!  Butter and Lard not only contribute fantastic flavor to the biscuits, but the texture is completely different.  Both Butter and Lard melt at body temperature, giving you that melt in the mouth feeling you simply love.  Margarine and shortening, on the other hand, do not fully melt at mouth temperatures.  They essentially soften and coat the mouth with a film of fat.  Side by side, you can immediately tell the difference.  For the health conscious out there, remember that Butter and Lard or Bacon Fat are natural products, and margarine/shortening are not.  There was a time when we all believed manmade fat products were better for us, and science has now decided they are not.  I am a firm believer that, in moderation, we are better off eating fats that God has given us.

But I digress...we are trying to make PERFECT BISCUITS, and for that you need Butter and what the hog has given us.  Now that we have that clarified all that, lets move on to the steps:

1. Preheat oven to 500° F  and set oven rack to the center of the oven.

2. Combine dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse to blend.  Add chilled Butter and Lard and pulse until the the mixture looks pebbly (do not over mix).
Dry Ingredients With Butter and Lard in Food Processor
Pulsed Mixture
3. Remove from the food processor and put this mixture in a bowl and gently stir in the Buttermilk (I use a fork) until just incorporated.  The dough will be very wet and sticky at this point.
4. Turn onto a generously floured board and generously flour the top, and fold over, flour, pat, fold, flour until workable but still a little tacky.  This should take about 5 folds.  Try not to add too much flour, as that will toughen the biscuits, and do not knead the dough, which would also toughen the biscuits.  Simply fold and pat out flat.  The final pat before cutting should leave your biscuit dough about 1/3 inch to 1/2 inch thick.
Wet Biscuit Dough On Floured Board 
Flattened Biscuit Dough 
Folded Biscuit Dough
5. Cut biscuits using a floured biscuit cutter or the floured rim of a drinking glass and put them on a baking pan prepared with a baking sheet or lightly greased or sprayed with nonstick coating, with the sides just kissing each other.
Cutting Biscuits 
Panned Biscuits
6. Put them in the oven, close the oven door, and turn the temperature down to 450° F.  Bake for 10-12 minutes.  If you have a convection oven, use the convection fan and cut the baking time down to 9-11 minutes.  The circulating air will create a taller and more evenly baked biscuit.  The tops of your biscuits should be a lovely brown, and the sides will be considerably lighter.   Remove these from the oven and serve them immediately.

Biscuit making is as much technique as it is ingredients, so let me give you some valuable pointers.  Make sure the initial oven temperature is fully at 500 degrees Fahrenheit.  You need the initial heat blast to get the gases moving the biscuits up before the dough cooks, otherwise you will end up with a dense biscuit which will resemble a hockey puck in taste and texture.  Make sure your fat and Buttermilk are as cold as possible for as long as possible.  You do not want the fat to become fully homogeneous with the dough.  Rather, you want a suspension of small fat particles dispersed throughout the dough, which will create flakes and pockets of lightness when the biscuits bake.  You want to avoid creating as much gluten as possible with biscuits.  Gluten is the protein part of the flour which, when combined with water and physically worked, creates that unique stretchiness found in bread doughs.  With a bread dough, you want gluten because you need to trap as much CO2 from the yeast as possible for as long as possible as you condition the dough (that is what you do when you let it rest and rise).  The yeast based conditioning and gluten give yeast breads the wonderful chewy texture we love about bread.  Biscuits do not go through any conditioning.  Once the Baking Powder and Baking Soda have release their gases, it is over.  We do not want chewiness in our biscuits.  We want enough firmness to bite through, and then we want them to melt away on our palates.   Once I have added the Buttermilk to the dry mix, I mix only to combine, and then I like to dump this mixture onto a generously floured (you want a solid 1/4 inch layer of flour on the surface) flexible plastic cutting board.  I then generously flour the top of the dough and pat it flat, and use the flexible cutting board to help me fold the dough.  Each fold gets as little flour added to it, which helps create a layered effect in the biscuits.  Once I have cut my biscuits (cut them as close to each other as you can) I gently reform the scraps and flatten the dough out again (avoid using flour at this point) and cut some additional biscuits.  Re-forming the dough once is okay if you initially do not overwork the dough.  Re-forming too many times will make the biscuits from the re-formed dough tough.

Some recipes call for brushing the tops of biscuits with molten fat before baking.  You can do this if you wish, but I do not.  You can, if you wish, add additional ingredients to your biscuit dough.  My favorite add-in is cheese and green onions (biscuits pictured above).  Chop 2 green onions (scallions) and 2 leaves of fresh sage or any other herb you like (optional) and add this to the initial dry mix along with 1/3 to 1/2 cup shredded cheese.  Prepare as above.  These are especially delicious served with baked ham or sausage gravy.

Green Onion and Sage Biscuits
Sausage Gravy
Yield: 1 1/2 cups
Note: This can be frozen and then reheated.

8 oz.  Breakfast Sausage (bulk, not links)
1/2 (approximately 1/4 cup)  Chopped Onion
1/2 teaspoon  Freshly Ground Pepper
Pinch of Garlic Powder
1 leaf  Fresh Sage (chopped) or 1/2 teaspoon Dried Sage
4 teaspoons  Flour
1 1/4 cups  Milk
Salt to taste

  1. Brown the Sausage in a small saucepan while breaking it up as it cooks
  2. Add the Onion, Pepper, Garlic Powder, and Sage and cook until the Onions are lightly browned.  DO NOT drain off the fat.
  3. Add the Flour and cook until the Flour is absorbed.
  4. Add the Milk and stir over medium heat until the mixture thickens and boils.  If it is too thick, add a little more Milk.
  5. Serve immediately over fresh biscuits, or as a side gravy with breakfast items.
Once you have made your own Perfect Biscuits, you will want to do it again and again, and you will get better at it the more you practice.

Enjoy in good health !

Sunday, July 8, 2012

I Make The Best Pie Crust...There, I Said It!

Originally Posted January 17, 2009

Pie Crust is as American as Pie Crust.  Sure, we have all had those fancy, smancy French tarts that require you to contort your face and clear your throats to properly pronounce.  We have all enjoyed all the bizarre variations that have appeared over the years.  Whole wheat, freeform, schmeeform...it is all a load of mullarky ! Thats right !  I SAID MULLARKY !!!  DO SOMETHING !!!

Phew...I have got to go back to half-caf coffee !!!  Now where was I ?  Pie Crust, yes, PIE CRUST !!! Happy thoughts, yes, happy thoughts.

I make the best pie crust, and so shall you.  Yes you shall !

Okay, so what do I know about Pie Crust ?  I know that some of it is really bad, and perhaps you have had some bad pie crust.  You know the kind I mean.  Soggy on the bottom.  Hard, tough, chewy.  Name your poison here.  I also know that some of it is great.  That is the kind usually made by a toothless grandma in a log cabin smoking a corncob pipe.  Yup !  Granny could whip up a pie crust and castrate a wild boar without breaking a sweat.

Not my Granny, however.  Not my Mother, Cousins, Brothers, Uncles, Aunts, or any of their cooking friends.  Not most of the people I had ever met.  Where did they fail ?  Why no Pie Crust joy for me and my brood ?

I will tell you why...shortening and margarine is why.

Back in the day, when most of America was farmland, the reigning kings of the fat kingdom were lard and butter.  Good old pig fat and cow fat.  They still rule, but it took years of clogged arteries to bring them back.  Clogged arteries and deplorable pie crust, that is.

You see, dear reader, the general consensus when I was growing up was that margarine and hydrogenated vegetable shortening were healthy.  Yes, we all knew that the lard and butter tasted better, but it was surely going to kill us if we even thought of eating it.  Butter was eaten only on special occasions, and lard was treated with the same disdain as Agent Orange.

Then we all discovered that margarine and vegetable shortening were bad for us.  Go figure !  Something made by scientists and marketed by large corporations is bad for us.

We are a lot better about all this today.  Butter is back on top.  I am sure Dr. Atkins was at least partially responsible for this.  I owe him a debt of gratitude, even if he died with clogged arteries.  I just wanted more butter.

Lard, on the other hand, is still the proverbial weird uncle you do not want to be alone with.  It is still seen as the root of all animal fat evil.  Sure, we will eat it in the guise of smoked pork belly (aka bacon), but never as LARD.  What would the neighbors think ?

Truly, this is a shame, since you CANNOT make a perfect pie crust without butter and lard.  So go get some right now.

Butter is great because it is butter.  No need to explain.  Lard, on the other hand, is nothing short of miraculous in pie crust.  Lard is the secret.

One reason lard is so great is because it tastes better than shortening, which tastes like a cross between Vaseline and plastic.  Lard tastes good.  It also melts at a lower temperature than shortening does.  In fact, like butter, the other great animal fat, it melts on the tongue, at body temperature.  Shortening does not.  This means that shortening users never get to experience that crumble then melt in the mouth texture we get from using lard.  It may be light, and it may be flaky, but it will not melt in your mouth.

Some recipes call for oil.  This does melt in the mouth, but cannot make a flaky crust.  Flaky means crumbly and tender, and that is a good thing in a pie crust.  But how do we get these flakes ?  What is the secret to flaky pie crust ?  The answer lies in the mixing technique.

Mixing pie crust is actually very easy.  It is, in fact, easy as pie.  Thus the phrase.

Having the right ingredients is part of the equation.  The other part is how you put this all together, and this is where many fail.  Before we move onward, lets gather some ingredients.  For 2 crusts you will need the following:

Butter And Lard Pie Crust

3 cups  All-Purpose Flour
1½ teaspoon  Salt
3 Tablespoons  Granulated Sugar
¾ cup (6 ozs. or 1½ stick)  Unsalted Butter , chilled and cubed
¾ cup (6 ozs.)  Lard, chilled and cubed
4-5 Tbs. (~1/3 c.)  Iced Water

This crust is based on one I found elsewhere, except the original did not use lard.  Try making 2 pies, one with lard and the other with shortening.  You’ll notice the difference then, and will henceforth be a lover of lard.

The best way I have found to make a perfect pie crust is with a food processor.  Put the dry ingredients in the bowl and mix well.  Add the chunks of chilled butter and lard on top and pulse the food processor until it looks like coarse meal.  Do not overmix this, and make sure the fats are cold !  Dump this into another bowl.  It should still have large chunks of fat in it, ranging in size from the size of a pea to the size of shelled walnuts.  Add the water and mix it with a fork until it comes together.

Stir with a fork until it gathers together.  It should still be crumbly.

Divide this in two and dump it onto a piece of waxed or parchment paper (or plastic wrap) and flatten it to a disk, about 4-6 inches in diameter.

Divide into two piles, and dump each onto some parchment or waxed paper (or plastic wrap)

Gather the pile together gently with your hands.  DO NOT KNEAD THE DOUGH !

Wrap the dough in the parchment, waxed paper, or plastic wrap and flatten it.  Chill in the refrigerator, or freeze for later use.

Cover the disks well and let them chill until very cold.  The dough should not be wet at all.  In fact, it should be somewhat dry and crumbly and difficult to work with at this point.  As it cools in the refrigerator, the flour will absorb the water, and solidify.  You do not want to knead this at all.  Kneading this will form gluten, which is the enemy of pie crust.  Gluten makes a pie crust very tough.

You can also freeze these disks of pie crust for a very long time.  I am not really sure how long, but I know I have gone a year (hey, it got buried in the freezer) and the crust was perfectly fine.  Just make sure it is tightly wrapped.

Once your crust is very cold, it is time to roll.  Flour your work surface and take out the crust.  Place it on the flour and roll it gently from the center outward.  Roll it a bit larger than the pie tin you will be using.  If you made this correctly, you will see the chunks of fat in the dough, and as you roll the dough these will flatten, and THAT IS WHAT MAKES THE FLAKES.  You cannot do this with oil.  Nope !

Gently press this into your pie tin, and proceed with your pie of choice.  If you want to bake this “blind” (empty),  chill the finished crust in the pie tin and then poke holes in the bottom with a fork.  Place some baking parchment paper or foil inside the crust and add some beens or rice to weigh down the crust. Bake this at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 15 minutes.  Let the crust cool and remove the beans or rice.  Bake the crust again for another 10 minutes, or until a nice golden brown.  If you bake the crust without the beans or rice in it, the crust may shrink while it bakes.  If you bake the crust completely with the beans or rice in it, then the inside of the crust will not bake.

Remember, when baking a pie where the filling is cooked in the crust, set the oven rack low and start with a high temperature (around 400 Fahrenheit) and then turn the temperature down after about 10-15 minutes.  This will assure the bottom crust does not end up raw and soggy.  A metal pie pan is better than glass for insuring a properly cooked crust.  Glass pie pans take too long to transfer heat to the crust, and the pie top sometimes gets overdone while the bottom crust stays raw.  Glass pie pans are okay for baking blind crusts, because you can just bake it longer to get it done.  Foil pie pans are great, but do not look as nice.  I like to flip my pies out of the foil for serving, and the foil pans can be washed and reused.  Hey !  Every penny counts these days.

A blind baked crust can be filled with pastry cream and bananas for a delicious banana cream pie...one of my personal favorites.

This, my dear friends, is what a good pie crust is all about.

Enjoy in good health !

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse

Originally Posted on Friday, February 20, 2009

I am currently reading and enjoying a book written by Nassim Taleb titled “The Black Swan - The Impact Of The Highly Improbable”.  It is truly a fascinating book, and I highly suggest everyone reads this fabulous tome.  In this book, Taleb speaks of events which happen all the time that have an enormous impact on the world we live in.  Some of the outcomes of these events are absolutely horrible (i.e. the world trade center 911 attack), and some of them are absolutely wonderful (i.e. the discovery of penicillin).  We really have no way of quantitatively knowing when these “black swans” will emerge.  They just happen, and they happen all the time.  All we can do is hope that when they do emerge, we are prepared for them, and, if not, hope they are one of the good black swans.

Chez Panisse, that wonderful little restaurant in the heart of the “Gourmet Ghetto” in Berkeley, California is one of those wonderful black swans.  No doubt about it.  Nobody could have ever have imagined that this little gem would rise out of its roots as a sort of food lover's co-op Alice Waters started as a young food lover in Berkeley, hoping to feed her friends and family the best food she could get her hands on.  Nobody could have imagined that she would give rise to a trend in cooking which continues on to this very day, and has forever changed the world of cooking, as we know it, for the better.

God Bless You, Alice Waters !  God Bless You and all your granola loving Berkeleyian friends.  You are truly my modern day culinary superhero.

Let me explain, oh dear reader, why I worship what Alice has done so much.  Let me fill you in.

Brace yourself, this is a long story.

We have to begin with my initial foray into the world of professional cuisine.  It all began in the mid 1980’s when I was hired as a busboy at York Steak House, in the Great Lakes Mall in Mentor, Ohio.  I was 17 at the time, and I had been cooking for myself and my family for approximately 10 years.  The fascination with all things gastronomic began at an early age for me, being the child of a Sicilian Mother and Iranian Father, who both came from families who can cook food so delicious you would drool just thinking about supper.  I am not sure how old I was before I realized that bread also came from a store, or that yogurt also came in little cups with fruit concoctions cleverly nestled in the bottom.  Everything was essentially made in house, just like I still do it today.  It was a wonderful way to learn how to appreciate food, and it made me love culinary arts with a passion.

Although I started as a mere busboy at York Steak House, I embraced the duty with fervor.  I remember being told that, as a busboy, always make sure that you are paying attention to the needs of the guests.  If I noticed that a guest had an empty soda glass (or pop glass as we called it in Ohio), I got him a refill.  If I passed by a guest and our eyes met, I asked her if I could get her anything else.  I did this with passion and with a smile, for they were my guests, and they had come to MY establishment to dine on MY food.  It did not matter that I did not prepare it.  I treated them as if they honored me with their presence.

Yet, it was not really about the guest, as much as it was about the food.  I did not care that they were eating sirloin tips that had been ordered at one end of a line and served to them a minute later a the other end of the line, along with a small dish of chocolate pudding topped with canned whipped cream, a Maraschino cherry, and plastic wrap.  It did not matter to me that they were drinking Lite beer from bottles.  What mattered is that they were there to partake of one of the most spiritually fulfilling activities we all partake of on a (hopefully) daily basis.  They had come to pay their respects to food, and food is worthy of our respect, oh indeed it is !

Food is life.  Food begins as life (plants and animals), and we take the life away and we then use the food to nourish ourselves, perpetuating more life.  Ancient religions the world over talk of the sacrificing of animals and the consequential feeding of the masses from their flesh.  Legends have been passed down through the ages which proclaim the beneficial healing and rejuvenating powers of plant life, and these same legends have prevented scores of progeny from untimely deaths through the consumption of toxic substances which took the lives of their ancestors.  Without food, we would have perished long ago.  Without the interaction of mankind with food, our demise would have been just as certain.  It is a powerful force worthy of the utmost respect, and I inherently understood this at a very early age.

This was not the case with so many I worked with at York Steak House.  It is not the case with so many I encounter in some of the less lofty eating establishments we have littered our world with.  Some view the production and serving of food, and the management of the shrines in which the food is meant to be revered in, as nothing more than a paycheck.  My dear reader, the reverential treatment of the life giving sustenance is no less appropriate in a fast food chain than it is in the finest 5-Star dining establishment.  The food in the local greasy spoon is no less life sustaining than the food in your mother’s kitchen.  I shudder at the way some places treat this most noble of gifts, and I weep inside every time I see such sacrilege.  I was not at York Steak House because I was a busboy.  Being a busboy was only my vocation.  My PURPOSE was to create the environment which would lead to the nutritionally spiritual enlightenment one receives from food, and the management saw that in me, and they quickly promoted me to the coveted position of “Broiler Chef”, the most revered position of all.

I cooked my heart out on that broiler line.  I was making something that someone else was going to eat, and I knew that was no small matter.  I went home each evening smelling of fryer grease, beef fat, and sweat, and went back every day I was scheduled for more of the same.  It was heaven to me, and it terrified my parents.

I went on to become a line chef at a local supper club (Nate’s), where I learned how to cook food like they showed on those fancy cooking shows.  Back then there was no Food Network with 24 hour a day, 7 day a week cooking.  No...you had to FIND a cooking show on TV back then.  You would occasionally see Julia Child slurring her speech as she sauteed slices of milk fed veal with mushrooms and wine.  You could sometimes see Graham Kerr slurring his speech as he proclaimed the virtues of slowly cooked scrambled eggs.  There was a lot of alcoholism among celebrity chefs back then, but also a lot of great cooking, and I wanted more...much more.

I made it through the summer after my senior year in High School sautéing shrimp scampi for clubgoers at the supper club, and learning how to make Hollandaise sauce without curdling the eggs.  I laugh now thinking about how difficult it was to learn this tricky sauce, because I now make it as effortlessly as some people open a can of soup.  Patience and passion paid off.

I was going to attend College at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio in the fall.  My parents made sure that my aspirations of culinary greatness did not interfere with their plans to see me become a medical doctor.  My father, as it turns out, had a doctor fetish.  It was beyond weird.  He literally knew more doctors than most medical professionals do, and he was an engineer.  From the earliest age I can recall, he made sure to let me know that I was going to be a doctor.  I realized, in my adulthood, that this was because it was his ticket into the inner sanctum of doctors.  You could get into the “VIP Lounge” by either being a doctor, or having offspring who were doctors.  Except for his incessant hypochondria I really had no understanding about why he was so fascinated by those who wore the Caduceus Symbol. Suffice it to say, his mind was made up.  His eldest son was going to become a doctor.

I really had no problem with this.  I liked fixing things.  I liked taking care of people.  I heard doctors made lots of money, and that certainly sat well with me at the time.  I embraced my new digs at Case, and looked forward to years of long, hard studying as I aspired to become a brain surgeon, or neurosurgeon, or whatever else could bring in the big bucks.  I was going to be rich and make my family proud.

Yeeeeah...not so much.

You see, dear reader, my college campus happened to have a fine dining establishment right in the middle of campus, about 500 feet from my dorm.  The restaurant was known as “That Place On Bellflower”, which was located on Bellflower Road (hence the quirky name), and I passed by it every day on my way to classes, and I savored the aroma of shallots, mushrooms, herbs, and whatever else was on the menu that day as I pictured myself among the staff, cooking for the cheerful masses.  It was a well loved culinary shrine at the time, spoken of in the most prestigious local culinary publications.  It was a “mecca” of Haute Cuisine fused with the newly popular surge in California Cuisine, brought to the world by none other than the originator of California Cuisine herself - Alice Louise Waters.

I was on a work-study program at the time. I got to clean lots of glassware for a lab located within the very fine medical school at Case.  The lab itself was quite fascinating, as they were cloning ducks at the time, if I recall correctly.

“Mmmmm...ducks”  I thought, as I washed and autoclaved Pyrex beakers, flasks, and pipettes for what seemed like an eternity, picturing a crispy roast duck skin glazed with a delicate fruity sauce.  It was Hell, but it paid me enough money to prevent me from begging my parents for cash.

Then came the bad news one day, as I walked in to collect a batch of slimy glassware.  I was told that I had earned the maximum amount of money I could earn and still qualify for my grants.  I was jobless and penniless, and the weekend was only 5 days away.  I had to act fast, because there was no way I was going to go home and beg for money.  As I walked home from my former place of employment, I caught yet another scent emanating from our local 4 star eating establishment (yes, I mean “That Place on Bellflower” or “That Place” as the employees called it), and decided to walk in and ask for a job application.  What did I have to lose ?

As it turned out, one of the prep cooks had recently quit...my dear friend Alex.  In fact, I remembered him telling me he had quit his job there.  The position had not yet been filled, and my brief experience at the supper club was enough to land me a job as a prep cook.  I was elated beyond belief.  I was going to earn money while cooking AND eating great food.  Oh the joy !

It was a wild ride from the very beginning.  I was playing with the big boys (and girls) now.  I thought that my experience in the supper club back in Mentor was the big leagues, but THIS was light years ahead of that.  I was surrounded by people who spoke several different languages, gay waiters, artists, entertainers, you name it.  Hey, I know it is no big deal to many of you, but I was an 18 year old kid just out of High School and living in “The City”.  I was NOT used to this at all, and I was absolutely fascinated by the entire experience.  Most fascinating of all, however, was the menu.  It was, in a word, eclectic.

I have cooked menu menus in my years as a chef, but I remember none more vividly as the first menu I was exposed to at “That Place”.  I will never forget seeing dishes like “Smoked Trout and Cold Pasta with Fresh Greens in a Mustard Vinaigrette”, and “Chilled Whole Artichoke with Black Currant and Grapeseed Oil” ,  and “Sauteed Buffalo Mozzarella with Fresh Herb Salad”, which was finished with a mysterious black liquid they called Balsamic Vinegar.  Sure, you may chuckle at these dishes today, as they are commonplace fare in many establishments you may frequent (or have frequented), but in 1984, IN OHIO this food was WAY ahead of its time.  It was like landing on an alien planet, with delicious food served by strange creatures with lisps, out of place piercings, and multi-colored hair.  I had graduated to another level of Heaven, and I did not want to leave.

I had a voracious appetite for learning, and the executive chef, Bernard, who had recently been chosen as the PM Magazine Chef (a local favorite TV show), was happy to share all he knew, and boy did he know a lot !  I was assigned mundane and messy tasks like cleaning pounds of monkfish, or shucking oysters, or making gallons of salad dressings.  If I got my job done quickly, Bernard would take me aside and show me how to make a walnut torte with coffee buttercream frosting, or a dacquoise with whipped cream and tart Michigan cherries, or raspberry sorbet, or whatever else he was inspired to create.  Soon he started letting me come up with ideas of my own, and he helped me bring them to fruition.  He was one great chef...yes he was.  I loved good old “Barney” as we affectionately called him.

One evening, as I was enjoying a nice glass of Haute Medoc with Barney, at the end of a particularly long service, he handed me a book and told me to read it.  “What is it, a cookbook ?” I inquired.

“Not exactly” he replied. “More like an inspirational guide for great chefs”.  The book was “Chez Panisse Cooking”, by Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli.

“Strange title for a book”, I thought.  “Sounds Chinese”.

I took it home and read it from cover to cover in one evening.  I awoke the next morning and knew I was destined to break my father’s heart.  I had to understand cooking like Alice understood it before I could consider moving on to something else.

Alice is the reason American Cuisine and American Chefs are now revered here and throughout the entire world of cooking.  Before Alice began her quest to find the essence of what made California Cuisine the crown jewel of American Cookery for decades to come, American cooking was little more than a reflection of the melting pot America had risen from.  Traditional California Cuisine was little more than the traditional foods prepared by Mexican farm workers, Chinese laborers, and rugged cowboys who had shlepped their way West in search of their fortunes in lodes of gold.  Mind you, it was, and still is tasty AND popular.  Who doesn’t enjoy a tortilla topped with beans and grilled meats infused with cumin and chile, with a sprinkling of cheese ?  I smile as I walk down the street of San Francisco and peer in at the restaurants in Chinatown, watching serious looking Asian men and women tossing vegetables and meats in large woks sizzling over hot flames, as I drink in all the wonderfully hypnotic aromas of this most ancient of cuisines.  I still enjoy a fat, juicy burger accompanied by a side of fries and a thick chocolate malt, born of the obsession early California had (and STILL has) with burger joints.  It is all quite delicious, and NONE of it is a reflection of what California is about.  You could take any of those establishments and drop them anywhere you like, and it would not make one iota of difference at all.  This all changed when Alice entered the building.

Alice ventured to France in the 1960’s and fell in love with the French passion for food.  Inspired by a meal she enjoyed in Brittany, she decided to bring it all home to Berkeley.  Here is a quote attributed to Alice:

I've remembered this dinner a thousand times,” she says. “The chef, a woman, announced the menu: cured ham and melon, trout with almonds, and raspberry tart. The trout had just come from the stream and the raspberries from the garden. It was this immediacy that made those dishes so special.

Alice was not studying to be a chef, but the seductiveness of the fresh local ingredients and simple yet delicious cooking techniques sucked her in like a jet engine sucks in migrating birds, and she was forever changed by the experience.  I KNOW how she felt quite well...indeed I do.  When she returned home to Berkeley she set out to show everyone the way cooking should be.  She gathered together her team of food loving friends and set out to show the world what California Cuisine was truly meant to be.  Gathering the freshest and finest local ingredients, creating menus based on what the FOOD told her to create.  Alice was not the first person in California to cook this way, but she was the first person that burned with the passion to the extent that she could not be stopped, much like a nuclear chain reaction.  Her vision and undeniable dedication to the gifts of the Earth fueled a growth in the food industry like no other before it, and perhaps since.  SHE was the one who made organic farming the pinnacle of food production it is today, by supporting those dedicated to the art.  SHE was the one who gave dishes their pedigree, such as “Frog Hollow Farms Peach Tart” and “Brentwood Corn Chowder” (I am paraphrasing a bit here).  Before that, food descriptions on menus generally consisted of names attributed to people or dining establishments (i.e. “Veal Oscar” or “Waldorf Salad”), and did not attribute anything to the place the FOOD itself came from.  It simply honored the shrine and preparer, and not the soul itself.

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse were indeed the Black Swan of the culinary world that changed all we know and love about food today.  She inspired MILLIONS of Americans to look at their local food in a completely different way, and gave rise to American Cuisine as a tremendous force to be reckoned with throughout the entire world.  She, quite literally, changed the entire course of American Cooking from the tiny little restaurant on Shattuck Street in Berkeley, and the industry is STILL building on the same exact method she (and those she influenced) introduced.

For me to simply write a review of a meal at Chez Panisse would not come close to doing it justice.  It is like writing a review of a Roman Cathedral, or the Uffizi art museum in Florence, Italy.  What could you say in a review that would even come close to explaining the significance of such institutions ?

Alice Waters is still with us today, as of this posting, and spends most of her time as more of an ambassador to the world of cuisine than as a chef.  She has done more than enough to influence so many in the world of cooking, and she can now sit back and ponder her magnificent achievements.  The world of food is a much better place because of the love she brought to it.

Is it any wonder I gush about her ?

Enjoy in good health !

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

I Am Going To Make It Happen...

I have been struggling with weight my whole life.  It sucks!

When I was quite young (I am talking about the age 5 to 8 timeframe) I was quite svelte.  In fact, I remember school teachers contacting my mother and in earnest, insisting that I eat more or perhaps suffer the fate of children in third world countries.  I suppose that is why my family decided to get me to eat all the time, which eventually led to...well, me eating all the time.

I don't want to blame anyone for my portliness today.  I am an adult and certainly know how to manage weight, as I have gone from a low of around 125 Lbs. in adulthood to my high (today) of 300 Lbs. plus.  I know what to do, but just choose not to do it.

I suppose it is indicative of a good life.  I am not one who eats when depressed, as some do.  I eat more when I am happy, and my marriage, career growth, and the birth of 3 children have made me quite happy.  Also, living in Northern California, where great food, weather, and pretty much everything are always plentiful.  I am thankful for the good life, even if it has led me to a situation where putting on my socks takes the wind out of me.

I have decided I have to start making better food choices and eating less of those foods I choose.  What led me to this was a discussion with my doctor, where I inquired about getting a gastric bypass, and he told me that I qualify.  After going to the counseling session, I discovered that it drastically changes your life.  You have to take vitamins FOREVER.  You cannot drink alcohol or smoke FOREVER.  You cannot have caffeine FOREVER.

Oh, and you can die from the procedure.

Nonetheless, if I choose to go through with it (I am still undecided), I have to first lose 30 Lbs., which means I have to start eating right and exercising now.  So I have started paying attention to what I eat.  Yesterday I had yogurt and granola for breakfast, and a turkey sandwich with a side of fruit for lunch (no chips, which is what I usually eat with a sandwich).  I ate a pretty hearty dinner of homemade chili and cheese biscuits, and for dessert I had a bowl of watermelon and peaches.

Today I started with the yogurt and granola again.  I am going to start cooking better food, and eating less of it.  I refuse to eat any processed crap with the label "lite" on it, however.  I am simply going to prepare some decent food and write about it, and see if it works.

Perhaps if I can make this happen, I will not get the operation, and make the change organically.

Wish me luck!