POOF-a-Meal Zone

I am not a professional cook in any way.  I still try to be an amazing cook.  Learning about food has made a huge difference in my life.  It has helped me grow as a human, and understand the world just a little more.  I feel that cooking adds depth to my artistic nature.  I also feel that my artistic nature feeds my love of cooking. I ponder endlessly of the possibilities that are in front of an aspiring artist such as myself.

The Zone is one of those possibilities.  Throughout my artistic “career” the best pieces I have created came from the Zone.  The loss of time, the dedication to the piece just took me over.  Then it was done, and I can’t explain how it happened. The Zone is so nice, and feels so good. It is achieved through the purity of the art. Approached with a sober mind and the readiness to dive in. Like a starting gun at a race, one word starts it all “Okay!”

When I am in the zone time disappears. I am constantly coordinating my next five steps, gathering, measuring, prioritizing, minimizing, cleaning.  My roommate always asks how long I was in the kitchen when I make stuff.  I don’t always have an answer for her.  On those days I tell her “As long as it took to make this.”

POOF-a-meal!

As many of us home cooks know, it isn’t always as simple as just throwing this in to add to that and POOF-a-meal.  Even though we do that POOF-a-meal thing a lot, it can get complicated sometimes. For her it is instantaneous.  For me, it was a day long journey through research, prep work, and execution.  Yet it only seemed to have taken a moment, or did it? Hard to say when it takes over the soul.

The food I create can bring my audience, the eater in this case, to the edge of the Zone.  They can feel what it took to create what has been presented to them.  Bearing witness as they eat and try to define what they feel.  Usually escaping in a series of grunts, groans and mmmmms.  Which i will take as a fair assessment of the end product.

 

Yay Internet

I do a lot of research.  It is a fun hobby that keeps me busy, plus I get to learn new things along the way.  I have to dedicate myself to learning something every day.  My interests are varied enough so I do not waste valuable time on reading the same thing over and over.

I love reading these instructional articles that give “everything you need to make this” and it is all wrong.  Of course, in the days when I was first embarking on this journey, I would not catch these mistakes so easily.  I suppose that is the mark of someone passionate about any area of study.  It separates the novice from the veteran.  Now here I am writing bad blog posts about food and learning food.

I do not consider myself a professional. To further my skills, I look to professionals for knowledge and experience.  Through them I can learn how to apply techniques towards what I am working on.

Huzzah for the internet and all of it’s search engines, all of it’s videos, and especially all of its articles.

 

A path Followed

Food as artistic expression is such a wonderful experience.  Diner or cook, it is a journey with every meal.  Some of us get that.  Some of us don’t.  I remember when I became aware of the beauty in food came to light.  It took an enormous cultural shift for me to open my opinion. Three regional dishes would be the building blocks of my new enlightenment.

I was a designer of seasonally themed entertainment for a company in Japan.  As a key designer, I was expected to go on tour through Japan with my company to set things up.   Japan had always been a top destination for me. Getting to go on tour, and get paid for it was a dream come true.  Being thrown into a culture, and living in total immersion.

Within the first few things you always learn to say in any language, other than the naughty words, is where and what to eat, and where the toilet is.   The crew I went with learned how to say “I would like the chicken.” because they did not like sushi.  I laughed at them then, I laughed harder at them when we got to Japan and found out sushi is expensive there too, so not every restaurant is a sushi bar.

We ate everything that was popular in each of the restaurants we chose.  Shabu shabu was my first experience. We had to cook it at our table in a big pot. The experience was like a character at the table.  Our translator asked if we had anything like this in the states, and it dawned on me, “I don’t know.”

Sitting there making shabu shabu that first night, I was in a surreal state of being from jet lag and being overwhelmed by the size of Tokyo.  Our translator, Takahashi (Take’) explained that as we cook all the meats and veg in the big pot of water, they flavor the water and at the end we all drink the broth.  It was brilliant.  So simple.

Every aspect of this meal was suddenly being scrutinized.  I would look at it with fresh eyes, and smell it before tasting it. How everything was being displayed, and presented and ultimately tasted.   I would look at everyone else’s food too, contrast and compare you see. I slowed down as I ate as well.  I was not wolfing down junk food here, I kept that in mind with every bite.  This whole thing, this meal had to be savored from location to digestion. I was so curious about everything I was living on in that moment.

Then there was sushi, it set me on a new path.

But before take you into that temple, I feel it necessary to mention that the beer in Japan is different.  It is stronger, and cheaper than American beer. We drank litre after litre of beer with every meal.

We did not eat sushi with every meal.  It was far too pricey for a tour group of 25 to go.  Instead, on our days off we would split up and explore.  Being part of the management team, I would get taken out by corporate men to really cool places.

One night after a long fun day of exploring and drinking, Take’, my friend Tim and I were at some tiny tiny sushi bar in some remote part of Chiba, it only seated 9. The entire place looked like it was carved out of one log.  Behind the bar was a wall of fish tanks with various breeds of live fish in them.  There were a few other people on the other end of the bar.  Tim and I were the only westerners for miles and miles and miles.

The exploring, drinking and eating had made us all brave that day.  Take’ looks at us and in a drunken slur says “I want to order you shomshing, however!” Pointing up with his left index finger “You mussst Promise to eat it! It is very expensive and musst not be wasssssted.”

Tim and I looked at eachother and said “Hell yeah we promise!” in unison. Oh the beer.

Take’ told the chef what he wanted to surprise us with this amazing dish.  The chef turned and grabbed a fish from a tank behind him and went to work cleaning it and slicing it up.  Within minutes he place in front of us a beautifully displayed plat of fish, with the fish carcass skewered and used as part of the serving platter.  The meat was displayed as scales down the fish. It was so beautiful and delicate, and the fish was a whole new experience for my taste buds.

Tim and I toasted the chef, and Take’ for thinking of it, then took a nice big drink of beer.  I then looked at the plate of half eaten fish when I saw the tail twitch and the mouth open.  I know at this point many people would have turned their head, unable to continue.

Tim and I looked at each other with big eyes of wonder and giant question marks coming from our heads. We toasted the chef then the fish and finished the dish while it twitched in front of us. The most amazing sashimi ever. It was a dish of culinary mastery.

The third food experience came from a place of comfort. Not like the communal aspect of shabu shabu, nor the artistic approach of sushi.  Japanese curry,  Kari raisu is simple, beautiful,  warming.  Not like Indian curries or Thai curries.  Much more mild. It has this flavor and texture that I would instantly start craving. The the thing that started me wanting to cook.  I knew it was going to be hard to find where I lived at that point in my life, and I was going to be able to eat it, I would have to make it myself.

That was another lifetime for me now.  And I want kari raisu.

 

 

The ultimate in Comfort: Bread

Today is going to be all about bread.  It is cold and wet outside.  The kind of conditions we have a lot of in this part of the planet.  To combat the boredom, I stick to making myself better at something.  Cooking offers me a lot in that realm.  I know how to make all sorts of things.  Conversely, there is more I don’t know. I want to make amazing bread, and right now my bread skills are at good.

My dog isn’t very happy about it.  She wants to go out and run herself stupid in the mud.  I did mention it is cold and wet outside.  The place she keeps telling me to take her to is a river delta area. I have tried explaining that I simply do not have the proper shoes. She huffed at me and decided it was time to chase her tail.

So bread it is!

I am starting a sourdough mother using Paul Hollywood’s method.  The process is fun to watch, and won’t be ready for a week.  So next weeks bread will be sourdough.  Of course I will have to make some amaze-ballz entre to accompany this. The wheels are already in motion. I do not have a sourdough starter right now.  Having one is like having another pet in the house, and I have been arguing with my roommate about not having more pets!  She wants a kitten when we have a perfectly fine cat.  At least a starter is a pet you can eat.

I am also going make bread for this weeks dinners using dry active yeast.  I usually have one of those little jars of dry active yeast in my refrigerator.  It’s important to not use bread machine yeast if you are not using a bread machine.  That is pretty much the difference in dry active yeast in my opinion.

Flour is an important choice, but try a few different brands for yourself to see which works best for you. Examples being bread flour, unbleached whole wheat, all purpose, organic, enriched. Sometimes you have to learn with what you have too.  I have mentioned before that I prefer Wheat Montana unbleached white.

Making bread is a skill.  3 years ago I could not make bread.  I could not figure out what I was doing wrong.  Then my boyfriend at the time bought me a stand mixer.  That changed everything. I am more willing to learn new recipes for baking bread.  I have even made croissants! However, I am still struggling with it, but I know where I am failing.  I am still learning patience.  Last weeks bread did not rise like it was supposed to because I got impatient.

I have always gone by my usual cooking methods, and have had some success.   Today is going to be more technical, more rigid with the rules on baking.  I need to get this baking thing under control.

Alrighty then, wish me luck Drea Readers!  I’m goin’ in.

 

Mac N Cheese Torture

As a kid, the only days I knew I was going to get fed were holidays.  My mother, being a single mother in the 70’s had other agendas going on, she did not always think of feeding her three children. We had to learn how to feed ourselves at very young ages.

When my mother would make us something to eat, it was always something she liked, and she had no taste buds from a lifetime of smoking and drinking.  There were some things she could do well; fried chicken, chicken fried steak, chicken fried pork chops, fried potatoes… etc.  Of course, mom only had her limited imagination. Nothing out of the ordinary came out of her kitchen.  Nope, everything she made was very expected very traditional.  Only half of it was edible, as far as I was concerned.

Which worked out very well at holiday times.

When my mom married my step dad, things kind of changed.  I recognize now what she was trying to do when they were first married (the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach).  Then I did not care, I was getting fed more often, and didn’t have to fight anyone for a piece of bread.  My mom was trying to impress her new hubby.  Trying to impress him with her cooking.

Was she impressive?  Nope.  Recanting the memories has left a bad taste in my mouth as it is.  Thankfully my dad was from the midwest where the men there ate meat and potatoes. Again, this was fine with me.  I was getting fed everyday now, and that was cool. Red meat was the common protein. With the meat, one night we would have potatoes, one night we would have (what would become one of my worst childhood memories) Macaroni and Cheese.

My first memory of macaroni and cheese still lingers with me to this day.  One might think that this memory would be comforting. Not a mission to get through a pile of almost melted cheese and paste.  Stringy cheese mess all over, stuck to everything. noodles over cooked and close to mush.  Cheese sauce and melted cheese have completely different flavors.  Melted cheese does not go on everything cheese can go with.

I cringed when I was told we were having macaroni and cheese with dinner.  First off, I would be the kid in charge of grating the mountain of cheese she would put into it, this chore allowed me to get out of washing dishes.  With now 5 brothers and 3 sisters, it was like fish frenzy at feeding time.  All of them would come around and grab a nibble of the grated cheese.  Even for a family our size, a pound of cheese should not go into a batch of mac n cheese.

My mother did not understand the process behind making a cheese sauce for the noodles.  Which is such a simple recipe. Butter, flour, milk, cheese and salt n pepper. Oh, and whatever it is you are going to put the sauce on.  My mom used store bought elbow macaroni.   For those who do not want to take on the job of making their own, store bought pasta and noodles are terrific.

In consideration of cost, instead of using a whole one pound block of cheese, only a cup of grated cheese is needed.  My dad was making really good money, and could afford it, but food is one of the areas where making better food can be cheaper than making bad food. making a cheese sauce goes so much further.

I wish I could have this conversation with my mom.  I wish I could go into her 1976 kitchen and show her that macaroni and cheese should not be used as a torture device. I would explain that melting a couple tablespoons of butter, with equal amounts of flour whisked in and a cup of milk is the basis for so many sauces.

I would have shown her how to whisk the butter and flour so it didn’t burn, I would have taken the time to go through the process of introducing the milk to the butter and flour.  “With this sauce,” I would tell her, “You can make some of the best soups and sauces, but today we add the cheese, off the heat, and melt it all together for the noodles.” as I would add about a quarter of the shredded cheese at a time.

“See, Mom!  No more cheese beards for us!” Spooning the creamy, cheesy sauce on elbow macaroni.  I can almost see her mocked expression of “Very well then!”  She looked at me that way all the time.

I am still wary of macaroni and cheese, with full knowledge that today’s standards of mac n cheese is so much more than when I was a kid. The funny thing is, she used to make this dish called “creamed peas.” Peas in a cream sauce, the one mentioned above.  I hated it.  I bet I can make it better.  I think I am going to tackle cream peas.

 

 

 

Pasta Game

Pasta is easy to make.  Once you get the knack of it, anyway.

I started attempting to make my own pasta about two years ago for a lasagne. I had just started studying culinary arts. I was tackling things that I knew I needed to learn.  Pasta being up there on the list, considering how much people already loved my lasagne.

Off to the internet I went to learn the recipe!  I watched videos, I read food blogs, I must have studied every pasta recipe on the internet.  It was lengthy too.  Some cooks add some extra stuff to be more creative, insisting it helps, some stick to the bare bones basics.  I decided to stick with the most basic of recipes.

My first attempts were, well, sad.  A sticky, gooey mess that only slightly resembled the Blob with meat sauce and bits of Italian sausage. My friends, being as supportive as they are, or no idea what good pasta is supposed to look or taste like, insisted that it was the best pasta they had ever had.  This lie still makes me laugh.  I have good friends with good intentions.

Shortly after my first attempt, I got myself a pasta machine, thinking that would change everything.  Oh, Dear Readers, you can not hear the boisterous laughter coming from me right now, but I assure you, I am writing this through tears of laughter.  The pasta machine only made all of my pasta sheets a uniform thickness.

Here is a hint; Do not overwork your pasta by running it through the machine too many times, it is easy to overwork pasta during the pressing process. Especially when you are new at it!  Over worked pasta is tough, almost leathery.

I do not eat a lot of italian food.  It is the bell peppers, but that is a whole different blog. However, more than the Italians use pasta and noodles in cuisine.  Pasta is a very inexpensive food to make, and with a little practice, can be so much better than the dried up pre processed pasta you can buy at the store.  The cost of making pasta, this time for me was about 75 cents for 6 servings of fresh pasta.  That means 3 nights of dinner for 75 cents for me and my room mate.

Flour and eggs.   Depending on the egg size and flour batch, my pasta averages 3 cups of organic unbleached white flour (I prefer Wheat Montana White All Purpose flour) and 3 or 4 eggs.  I do not like to have a huge floury mess when I am in the kitchen, so I use my largest bowl for this, some use the countertop.

I put the flour into my big bowl and whisk it with my dry whisk, this is much like sifting flour, not quite but almost.  I use my fingers to make a pit in the middle of the fluffy flour.  I have found the mixing process works better if the eggs are beaten before adding them to the flour.

With the eggs in the flour, using my hands, I start covering the eggs with flour, then push the wet eggs to one side until they break through the flour, then cover them again. I do this for a few minutes, trying not to work the flour too much,  I just want it to soak up all the moisture from the eggs.  I mash it all together, within a few minutes a large yellowish beige ball is now collecting the remaining flour in the bowl as I now knead into a firm ball the size of a huge grapefruit.

I like my doughs to be a little sticky when I rest them.  When it comes to pasta, I like the dough ball to be sticky, then I roll it in the remaining flour so the sticky is covered with dust. I wrap it in clingfilm, and put it in the chill box (yes, I stole it from Alton Brown) to chill for a while.  How long?  When I see that it doesn’t look dusty any more, the flour is still absorbing the eggs. It is still sticky, but workable.

After I am satisfied with the way it looks I cut the ball in half, then in half again, and again.  That gives me 8 pieces that have to be squished through the machine, which turned into last night’s dinner and at least two more meals in the future (uncooked, unused pasta freezes great).  But wait!  The dough is so sticky!  I shape the small piece I am working with into a roughly shaped rectangle, then drop it in some fresh flour before I push it through the pasta machine.

Last night I recruited my roomie to help out while I rolled out the pasta, her job was to cut the sheets into noodle size strips.  I cranked out beautiful sheets, and she sliced them very carefully for uniform size.  “Don’t you have an attachment to do this?” She asked as we toked along.

“Of course I do!”  I said happily as I kept cranking.  Twice through on 7, twice through on 6, one time through on the remaining settings 5 through 1.  Setting 1 is the goal here, then the sheets are ready to cut.  I was using scissors, my roomie opted for a pizza cutter.  Of course there are a plethora of pasta tools.  Scissors and pizza cutters work fine if you don’t have fancy equipment.

After the pasta is all rolled out and sliced up it is time to cook it.  Most people know how to boil water, in theory.  I salt my water instead of adding salt to the pasta dough.  Salt changes the chemistry of eggs, and can alter the texture of the pasta.  It seems to me that salting the cooking water seasons pasta much better and keeps the texture creamier, smoother. Don’t cook these noodles for too long, they will be a soggy mess if overcooked.

Last night, I made the best pasta I have ever made. I made Fettuccini Chicken Alfredo.  It turned out much lighter than I expected.  Much better than I had hoped.  I do love it when I can impress myself with my cooking.

I would not know how to make pasta if it weren’t for the dedication of other cooks and chefs in the culinary world.  I thank every cook and chef I have ever studied.  Each and every one of you are more valuable than gold pressed latinum to me.