If You Can't Stand the Heat

"If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," the saying goes. And after reading Michael Gibney's Sous Chef, I would have to say my respect for those who cook our fine restaurant food is sky high. If I ever think otherwise, please remind me that I do not have what it takes to work the line. Not the passion, the perfectionism, the rough edges, or the grace.

Sous Chef is not a memoir, per se. It's a fictionalized account of a day in "your" life as the chief lieutenant of a famed chef at a busy New York restaurant. And by  "you," I mean "you." Gibney writes the thing in the second person. As in, "On Fridays you get in about 0900." While weird at first, this stylistic choice pays off big time as the fictional day progresses, the pressure mounts, and you you YOU feel like you just might fail fail FAIL.

Hard-drinking, (often) hard-smoking, and hard-living, the hierarchy of chefs that make the restaurant go perform at a level that we cubicle-enclosed, chair-sitting, tea-sipping keyboard jockeys can't begin to imagine. I was reminded of the line in one of the Harry Potter books where Harry realizes bangs and smoke were not the signs of a good wizard, but rather a clumsy one. In the same way, Gibney writes:

While no environment is free of accident and human error, the ability to work collision-free is expected of any good cook. In good restaurants, everyone works this way, with sprezzatura: a certain nonchalance that makes their actions appear to be without effort and almost without thought, an easy facility in accomplishing arduous tasks that conceals the conscious exertion that went into them...There are no burns or cuts, no pans dropped, no spills or messes made. Its practitioners call this performance "the dance."

Nor is Sous Chef into restaurant muckraking. The high-end restaurant portrayed uses only the best ingredients and adheres religiously not only to health code standards, but even more so to epicurean standards. Stations are spotless. Food is fresh and well-stored and well-treated because such food just tastes better. I found myself highlighting passages that would make me a better cook and Market shopper. For example, Gibney recommends that "whole fishes must be sitting upright in the order to preserve their anatomical constitution...Portioned fishes, on the other hand, must be wrapped tightly with food-service film, laid out flat and even in perforated trays (which keep liquids from pooling) and overspread with ice."

Not that there aren't food safety bits thrown in:

  • Keep your fridge set below 40F because the main pathogens have difficulty thriving at the temperature.
  • Keep industry-raised chicken below and separate from all other foods. "...The Department of Health considers the bird a terribly dangerous creature. It marinates in its own filth from the time it dies until the time you put it in the oven. It is a haven for bacteria. And its exudate--chicken juice--travels like quicksilver. No other protein can cross-contaminate its neighbors quite like chicken." Yikes.
  • Mussels should be tightly closed and, if in cold water, they should float, indicating they're still airtight and alive.

The book should have widespread appeal, to foodies, fans of cooking shows, home cooks, and discerning shoppers and eaters. I recommend!

'Tis the Season for Greek Salad

A recent tweet from Eating Well magazine asked, "What's your best trick to beat the summer heat in your kitchen?" Eating out was nixed, so that left (1) salads; (2) the grill; and (3) the Crock-Pot. Given our long, blessed burst of decent weather, I offer you an option for each, with most ingredients available at our Thursday or Saturday Markets.

2nd from the bottom

You know I'm a fan of chef/author Deborah Madison. Her Greek Salad from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is a proven favorite even with supermarket ingredients. With seasonal Market ingredients, it's superlative. Non-Market ingredients are italicized.

Deborah Madison's Greek Salad

2 cups mixed salad greens, torn in pieces
4 ripe tomatoes, cut in wedges
1 lg cucumber, halved and thinly sliced
1 bell pepper, thinly sliced in rings
1 small mild onion, thinly sliced
8 peperoncini
2 Tbsp capers
12 Kalamata olives
4 ozs feta (Tieton's is delicious)
1 tsp dried oregano
1/3 c chopped parsley
1/4 c extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, cut in wedges

Line a platter with the greens. Arrange the other vegetables over the platter. Sprinkle the peperoncini and other goodies throughout. Scatter herbs over. Grind some salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with lemon wedges.

Add a loaf of Market bread and a hunk of Market cheese, and you have a summer meal people will rave about. 

Plumping up nicely at Skagit River Ranch

"East-West Barbecued Chicken" 
(modified from an ancient Bon Appetit)

1 2-1/2 to 3-pound chicken, cut into 4 pieces, wings removed (check this post, if you need blurry pics)
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 c orange juice
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp dried crushed red pepper

2 Tbsp favorite Market jam (I used apricot)
1/4 c hoisin sauce
Squirt of ketchup or tomato sauce

Place chicken in baking pan and season with salt and pepper. Whisk mustard through red pepper together and pour over. Let marinate in fridge while coals get hot. Mix jam through ketchup in a small bowl.

Grill chicken until just cooked through, about 10 minutes per side. Brush one side with jam mixture and grill until beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Brush second side with sauce and grill until beginning to brown.

My son declared this "the best grilled chicken" he ever had(!).

And lastly, for the crock-pot, summer is the season for baked beans. I made these for the pool potluck, the 4th of July barbecue, and they're coming to the Swim Team banquet this Sunday.

The Alvarez Farms Selection (Th, Sat)

Baked Beans

1 lb Mayacoba beans from Alvarez Farms (you can also substitute navy beans or Great Northern from the store, but the cooking times will be longer)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 15-ozs can tomato sauce
1/2 c brown sugar
2 c water (or fill and empty the tomato sauce can 2x)
2 tsp dry mustard
2 Tbsp molasses
1/4 lb bacon, chopped

(If using storebought beans, pre-soak overnight in a big kettle with more than enough water to cover.)
Dump all ingredients in slow cooker. Mix. Cover. Cook on High 4-10 hours. (Why the huge time variation? Depends on your beans! Fresh beans will take much less time. Storebought Great Northerns will require the overnight soak and the 10 hours. Navy beans fall somewhere in the middle. Depending on what kind you started with, just crack the cover and slip out a spoonful to sample.) If the beans don't seem to have enough "sauce" after hours of cooking, you can always add more water, 1/2 cup at a time.

Enjoy the sunshine and keep your kitchen cool!

Arsenic--It's Not Just for Murderers Anymore

In Dorothy Sayers' mystery novel Strong Poison, a woman is on trial for the murder (by arsenic poisoning) of her lover. Is she guilty or not? Certainly she had some motivation, and she did hand the fellow his cup of coffee. Fortunately, Lord Peter Wimsey has taken an interest in the case and--not to spoil anything--makes some surprising discoveries when he investigates a certain man's hair clippings. The clippings, you see, contain traces of arsenic. Murder will, and does, out, and all ends happily.

The chemicals entering our body leave their traces, for good or bad. This is true whether you're a human being or an animal eaten by human beings. Riding the pink-slime, food-additive wave, journalist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote about chemicals found in Big Ag chicken, including antibiotics, acetaminophen, antihistamines, antidepressants, caffeine, and even that old murder-mystery favorite, arsenic. Similar to Lord Peter's analysis of hair clippings, scientists found all the goodies in feather meal, a poultry by-product made from--uh--feathers.

Antibiotics we all know about--chickens raised in close quarters, around and next to and on top of each other, tend to get sick more and need a boost fighting off all the germs. But the other chemicals? It turns out the antihistamines, acetaminophen, and antidepressants are given to relieve anxiety. Chickens, like humans, get anxious under stress. The caffeine? Well, that keeps them awake longer so they can eat more and fatten up faster. And the arsenic? Is some chicken being poisoned by a vindictive lover? No--arsenic actually fights infection and makes chicken meat plump and appetizing. Like Airborne and Botox, all in one. Mm, mm arsenic.

If I worked as a PR specialist for Big Ag, I would see this as a $$$ opportunity. Dose those chickens up just a bit more, and you could market a Headache-Fighting Chicken (acetaminophen is better known as Tylenol)! Or how about a Cheer-You-Up-Chicken (one pumped with antidepressants)? A caffeinated Five-Hour-Energy Chicken?

Honestly, what has my un-chemically-plumped, free-roaming, organic, antibiotic- and additive-free Skagit River Ranch chicken done for me lately? Looks like, if I want to poison my husband or children, I'll have to hit the grocery store. For nefarious purposes, nothing I find at the Bellevue Farmers Market will do the trick...

See you Opening Day, Thursday, May 10, 3-7P, in the First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue parking lot!

Of Pink Slime and Pollen

Mm-mm good photo, courtesy of Uptown Magazine

I first heard of the pink slime controversy over a turkey sandwich lunch with a friend. When she described all the beef trimmings and by-products being ground up to--well--pink slime, my first reaction was, "how economical!" How almost Native American of us, using every last bit of the beef. Besides, despite the 85% grass-fed organic beef my family eats, there's still the 5% of God-knows-what-kind-of-beef-and-meat-products we consume in our beloved hot dogs and the 10% of close-your-eyes-and-hope-for-the-best beef we eat out in restaurants.

"But they soak it in ammonia or something, to clean off the e. Coli!" my friend added, since I didn't look properly grossed-out enough.

"They've been dipping chicken parts in chlorine baths forever, and we all keep eating chicken," I pointed out.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I'm a fan of pink slime in kids' school cafeteria meals, but I figure anytime I let my kids buy lunch, they're eating Downed-Cow Stroganoff or Chlorine-Bathed-Overbred-Chicken Nuggets. I know it's crap, but I still let them buy once a week. And pink slime is edible, as much as hot dogs are, so I'm not gonna get too bent out of shape. Once in a while is fine. Not ideal, but fine. Check out this Food Safety News article for more information on pink slime's general okayness.

For those in the pink slime biz, however, I would recommend they hire a good PR agency. Look what wonders it did orange roughy, after it changed its name from Slimehead. "Slimeheads" didn't exactly fly off the menu, but we're all happy to eat orange roughy nearly to the collapse of its fishing industry. Would we be more willing to stomach pink slime, if we knew it as "Dairy Delight" or "Strawberry Soft Serve"?

If you're of the mind that pink slime by any name would still reek, it might be time to switch to organic, pastured beef. At our Bellevue Farmers Market, several of our farmers sell top-quality beef, chicken and pork. No slime, no where. When the Market opens May 10, get the farmers' opinions on the slime controversy. Ask about their processing practices. What happens to their by-products? I'm curious myself.

Speaking of the Market, another friend came for tea, and I offered her some local honey I'd bought at the Market last fall to sweeten it. Turns out she'd been at Pike Place Market recently, where one of the honey vendors advertised honey's effectiveness in combating hay fever(!). I hadn't heard this tidbit, but being a hay fever sufferer, I'm perfectly willing to dose myself, even just for a placebo effect. There are no published studies yet--just anecdotal evidence--but the recommendation is for local honey (i.e., local pollens), two teaspoons per day. Easy peasy. Can't hurt, might help.

Have a great week!