Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cabbage rolls from the old country

Since I am reuniting with family at my cousin's wedding this weekend, I felt inspired to recreate our heritage food.  There is something so satisfying about food from the old country.  Making meals that your great great Bubbie and Zeyda prepared in the same way in a sense connects you to your past.  Families pass down recipes much like antiques or heirloom jewlery; they foster a sense of pride, connection, and belonging.

One of my all time favorite comfort foods from childhood are cabbage rolls:  Rice and Beef stuffed in cabbage with a sweet and sour tomato sauce.  Variations of cabbage rolls are found all over Eastern Europe and in Russia too, but my memories stem from recipes passed down among the Jewish-Polish-Belarusian population.  (Cabbage rolls on Wiki, very interesting)

When I decided to make cabbage rolls my mom was upset as she couldn't find her recipe anywhere (the recipe her mom made for her and that she made for me).  She recounted to me what she could remember and I filled in the blanks with various recipes from Jewish cookbooks in the house, Polish grandmother's on the internet, and a little bit of my own improvisation.  I think what I have is pretty close to what I remember.  Memory is a tricky thing though.  I'm sure the way I remember it is not the way it actually was.  In any case, my parents gobbled it up and applauded my efforts.  A success.  I'm definitely going to make this one again, perhaps tweaking it in pursuit of my memory gold.

A head of cabbage
1 onion, small diced
Garlic, minced
1/2 carrot, small diced
About a pound of ground beef (+/-)
About 1/2 cup uncooked rice (+/-)
1 or 2 TB tomato paste
1 28oz can tomato product
2 TB sugar
1 or 2 TB vinegar (apple cider)
Salt + pepper

Core the cabbage.  Boil a pot of water, turn off and put the head of cabbage in to soften for 10-15 minutes.  In the meantime sweat the onion, adding the carrot midway and then the garlic.  Set half of the sweated veg to cool and to the other half add the can of tomato product, sugar, and vinegar.  Heat and adjust sweet and sour to taste.  In a separate bowl mix the uncooked rice, ground beef, cooled veg, tomato paste, salt, and pepper.  Now take the cabbage out of the water (if you haven't already).  Take the leaves off and cut the main vein out.  Some leaves will yield two rolls and some only one.  Roll about 1/3 cup beef filling in the cabbage like a burrito and place in a baking dish.  Once all the rolls are lined up in the dish, pour the sauce over.  Cut up the extra cabbage (some or all) and add loose to the baking dish.  Add a little hot water to the dish so that the rolls are almost covered (and to allow for evaporation during cooking).  Put in the oven at 375 and bake for over an hour, until the rice is cooked (there should be enough liquid in the pan to ensure the rice will cook).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Chickpea Stew, a vegetarian meal

Sometimes your body just needs a little nourishment à la vegetables.   Before working in the kitchen I ate meat but it wasn't commonplace by any means in my diet.  It would happen when I went out to restaurants or every blue moon at my house.  Meat was expensive to buy and as the poor student I mostly just didn't bother.

In the past year and a half my diet has shifted and become much more meat heavy because of working in a restaurant.  Everyday staff meal has a meat component or a meaty star (i.e. meatloaf, braised chicken, beef stew, sloppy joes, fried chicken).  My body has adjusted nicely and for all that talk about the unhealthy fats of meat I seem to be getting thinner rather than larger.  (I should interject here that our staff meal bowls serve about 1/3 of the amount I'd normally eat at a meal, and it is my firm belief that butter and other fats aren't actually bad for us, so long as we eat them in moderation).

Nevertheless, in tow with my new diet I have been exploring meats in my days off as well, shoveling out the extra cash to practice at home or develop my palette.  Yesterday I went to a new butcher shop specializing in local organic sustainably-raised everything and ate their sandwich of the day: brown butter sage beef sausage with summer squash and thinly sliced red onions on a fresh roll.  It was delicious, so much so that I devoured that sandwich with all four sausages, which is three more sausages than I would normally eat and that my body really wanted to handle at that moment.  I knew that for dinner and possibly into the next day I needed some vegetable detox to balance myself out.  I went shopping at the grocery store and got the ingredients for a chickpea stew to make at my friends house.  Nourishing, healthy, spicy, and not lacking in the flavor department.  I was well fulfilled after this meal and my body felt balanced and at peace with itself.

1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic (more or less depending if you're a garlic fiend)
1 carrot, small diced
1 can crushed tomato
A few cups vegetable stock (onion, carrot, leek + whatever else, boiled for a couple hours and strained)
1 15oz can garbonzo beans/chickpeas/pois-chiches/ceci, or dried beans cooked separately
1 medium potato, cut in smallish-medium cubes
1 squash, cut however you like
Kale, taken off the stems and cut into smaller pieces
Some eggs (the fresher the better, I had just bought fresh farm eggs)
Spices: A lot: cumin, paprika/cayenne pepper
           A little: crushed pepper (for spice), nutmeg, ground ginger, cinnamon
           Salt + pepper

Sweat onions till translucent.  Add carrots, sweat, then add the garlic and cook till nice and fragrant (without browning).  Add spices, then add tomato product and veg stock (to cover all the ingredients with a little extra room but not to make it too soupy).  Bring to a boil and adjust seasonings.  Add the garbonzos (either cooked separately or drained and washed from the can) and potatoes, simmer until the potatoes are cooked through.  Add the squash and kale and cook for a few more minutes.  Put the stew into a baking-friendly dish, crack some raw eggs on top, and put it under the broiler in the oven until the eggs hold together (but still have runny yolks).  Serve over couscous, rice, quinoa, or anything else.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Do what you do and do it all the way

I looked up chef’s bio the other night and I found out that she became head chef at age 24.  I’m 25 and although I care a lot about my job I might as well be swimming in a pool of unfulfilled potential.  I work hard but I have a lingering sense that I’m not doing all that I could do to succeed, especially in an industry where your financial stability and quality­­­ of life depend in a very big way on your success.

When I started working in the kitchen last year I wanted to learn how to cook while retaining my identity; I had the naïve notion the two were mutually exclusive, that the many hours I put in learning skills wouldn’t affect who I was and I would be the same girl with the same friends and interests and life.  I tried to keep one foot in every door so at a moment’s notice I could jump around if it didn’t work out.  Despite my misguided predisposition the kitchen has changed me, as it should.  I was incredibly naïve to think that a major life experience wouldn’t have a profound effect on me.  The kitchen has developed my work ethic, influenced my politics, and has opened my eyes to a world I would have otherwise never known full of passion, debauchery, and fearlessness.  It’s challenged my pre-conceived notions about industry hardliners, about menial work, about the kinds of people who do menial work, and even what defines menial.  It’s made me a more open-minded person and, I’d like to think, someone who has more upstanding character (ironically, as the kitchen has the reputation of the opposite). 

I spend a lot of time thinking about if I’m doing the right thing.  If I’m underperforming based on my training or if I’m brave enough to do something different than everyone else I know (or if I’m classist for even thinking that).  The kitchen is not a romantic place on the inside but somehow I still view it through rose colored glasses.  As I get older I can see more clearly the sacrifices I’m making to do what I do:  The hours, the financial stability, the hard physical work, to name the big ones.  Pursuing food is either the best decision or the worst decision.  The road can be difficult at times but I feel in my gut that if I stick with it and continue to push forward I will break through that barrier to success.  If there is nothing to gamble there is nothing to gain.  Eventually I'm going to look back on these days as some of the best, most formative years.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Knife buying advice and/or guide

Pretty Damascus pattern on my knife.

Before I get started I know I've been MIA on the blog for awhile and I'm sorry to my *cough* hundreds of thousands of readers (ahm). I blame the half marathon I ran last month coupled with the extra hours I pulled at work when the sous-chef's wife had a baby and then hard-drive failure on my computer. But I'm back! New computer and all. Let's get started and catch up.

Recently I bought a new knife. It's about time. I've had my old knife for a year. It was a very sharp affordable option - 6in high carbon steel Japanese style knife. My new knife is 8in high carbon stainless steel and it slices like a dream, gliding through that onion as if it were gliding through air. This is my first professional knife. I chose to get a Japanese knife because somehow I just got on that track and now it feels comfy and normal. Japanese knives can be lighter and thinner than western style knives - but it all comes down to preference.

Important factors in buying a knife:

What do you use your knife for? I recently figured out, after taking an interest in butchery, that my family has been using the same boning knife for much of their all-purpose cutlery needs since before I was born. While I had a laugh for a moment at this idea, you know what? IT WORKS. My family doesn't really need professional grade knives because what would they use them for? It's just home cooking, it doesn't have to look a certain way, and if you don't need it don't buy it. And while sharp knives are better than dull ones if you accidentally cut yourself (cleaner cuts) - I would still be a little worried they would slice off a finger or a hand if they used my knife regularly. It's not for everyone and it can be intimidating to use if you don't know how to use it properly (i.e. safely, check out this youtube video). My first knife was a regular 6in Wusthof and I think it was a good, comfortable knife with enough of an edge and strength that I would recommend it for domestic use for just about anybody. My second knife was from a Japanese store in Berkeley called Hida Tool. Their knives are very good and affordable for the quality. The family that owns the store is knowledgeable about the differences of the knives. My new knife is from a store in Alameda recommended to me by my sous-chef called The Japanese Woodworker. Their knives are a little bit pricier and also very good quality. Nevertheless - don't think that you can't go somewhere more mainstream and find a good knife. I still like to peruse Sur La Table.

That being said, I'm going to take you through some of my research as I was preparing for my big purchase. If you'd like to read on and someday purchase a higher quality knife - I hope this will help you. I really didn't know what exactly to look for at first, but as we do in this modern age I found a plethora of resources on the internet which I mixed with experience from work.

Starting checklist: Make sure that the knife is full tang. Full tang blades are made from a solid piece of steel that extends through the handle making the knife virtually indestructible (i.e. the handle will never separate from the blade). You also want forged steel as opposed to a cut or stamped knife. Forged steel is shaped under high heat and heavy weight, a more expensive process that will hold an edge longer and be overall way better quality. 

Edge: Steel is just iron with carbon in it. Other alloys (metal mixes) can be added to give the knife different properties, such as more strength, hardenability, wear resistance, decreased toughness, and more. The most common alloys are carbon, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, phosphorus, silicon, sulfur, tungsten, and vanadium. Their uses can be quite technical and frankly I don't remember them all so I'm not going to get into them here, but instead refer you to a website.

The most important detail to pinpoint in my opinion is the carbon content of your knife. Knives with higher carbon contents stay sharp longer and have harder edges. On the flip side they rust and require more wiping and maintenance and can be a little more brittle, perhaps dinging, chipping, or cracking easier. High carbon steel, according to wikipedia, is 0.6-0.99% carbon, and ultra high carbon steel is 1-2% carbon. More than that will be considered cast iron. Very rarely do I see knives displayed with the percentage of carbon content, but it will usually say stainless, high carbon, or ultra high carbon steel.

My blade is a mix. The center (Hagane) is high carbon steel alloyed with cobalt (for wear resistance), which is forge welded between two outside layers (Jigane) of stainless steel (for strength and rust resistance). Mind you when buying my knife I didn't really understand all this and it's not totally necessary to understand it all.  I'm wasting my time a little but this is fun isn't it?

Balance: Next to the edge and build this is most important. Especially for professionals, but also true for everyone, if your knife does not feel comfortable in your hand and nicely weighted then you're screwed. I have small hands and don't like heavy knives - but someone else might prefer the opposite. It all comes down to your comfort. To me a good feeling knife is not too light that your hand does all the work. A little weight will let gravity do the work but too much weight, for a small girl like me, will make my hand cramp up. Find the balance!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Redesigning the nutrition label

Recently I submitted an entry to the redesign the nutrition label contest.  The objective is to make a nutrition label that is actually useful and informative to people - either using the existing label as a layout base or re-creating your own completely.  Never mind my super design skills from the Paint application - it's the thought that counts.

The nutrition label is easily glossed over by many, however, if done properly it could have a real impact on health and obesity in America.  People don't know what they're putting in their bodies.  They don't know how much is a reasonable amount, and they don't know where their food comes from.  And that's a big problem.  As Michael Pollan said in his book In Defense of Food, it's ironic that America is the country the most obsessed with health and nutrition and vitamins as we are the most obese.  I'm not a calorie counter (though I understand the calorie count has a role to play in the nutrition label) and I'm definitely not concerned about the amount of butter in my diet (how I love butter).  But that doesn't mean I'm not thinking about what I'm putting in my body.  I love food and I prefer to eat real food, that has names I understand, varied, fat and all, in moderation.  There's no science behind my diet but I'm a healthy normal sized person.

When it comes to packaged foods I'm skeptical.  Unfortunately it's come to a point where I don't trust my food packaging: I don't trust the health claims and I don't trust that the nutrition label is really helping me or my family, who don't always pay attention to it as much, make better decisions for our health. I want to make a nutrition label that has accessible information for people who can't make sense of the numbers and which also enlightens us on hot topics in food production.

Knowledge is power. If we systematically print more information (via the nutrition label, front of package labeling, etc.) in a way that's meant to be understood, it will manifest in consumers' decisions and could change the demands in the food industry. Nutrition labels currently muddle controversial information that could affect product sales (i.e. where did your food come from?  Is this an unhealthy amount of salt/fat?  Is it genetically modified?). You have a right to know the details about what goes into your body. It's your body.  Below is a breakdown of changes I made to the nutrition label.  I included some great ideas I saw out on the inter-web coupled with a few of my own:

  • High/med/low color coded traffic circles next to the Calories/Fat/Salt/Sugars visually show consumers, who don't necessarily understand the numbers, how much of a good or bad thing is in their food. (Taken from the UK FOP labeling).
  • Standardized serving size (100g) – so consumers can compare different foods to each other more easily.
  • % of whole grains is about shattering the marketing ploys to convince consumers that their food is better for them than it actually is. What percentage of grains are whole grains?
  • What percentage of vitamins and minerals are natural and what percentage is fortified? Getting your vitamins and minerals through natural foods (i.e. raisins in your cereal, fruit or vegetables baked into your bread...) will absorb differently in your body and likely have greater health benefits than a powder added to your cereal mix. While consumers have the right to choose any product they please, I think it is important they become aware of this distinction.
  • Allergy information prominently displayed.
  • Hot topic check-boxes at the bottom make consumers aware of what their food is and isn't, decreasing confusion. They might have a stronger opinion about many of these boxes if they knew each and every time what they were consuming.
  • Easier to understand ingredient list that I poached from a scientist in an article I read. (A great idea is a great idea...). It shows consumers in words they understand what they're eating, and the percentage by weight in the food (a vast improvement). It also divides the ingredients into major ingredients and minor ingredients.
Food is and always will be an important conscious part of my life. I hope that this project redesigning the nutrition label will widen the discourse on what consumers need to know to make informed healthy choices. As we can see with the growing organic market consumers do care about what they're putting in their bodies. We need to embrace the changing demand and give consumers what they want: accurate information they can easily understand.