April 22, 2013

Spring: Time for My Own Renaissance

"It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart." - Rainer Maria Rilke

Dear Friends,

Beets: the Next Generation
I have let this site languish for too long.  For the past year and a half, I fully immersed myself in my intense-but-immensely-satisfying culinary school experience.  I felt too inundated with new information and too pressed for time to sit down, synthesize, and publish something meaningful here.  So time passed quickly, and in December I became a Seattle Culinary Academy graduate.

Soon thereafter I had surgery to remove bone spurs in my big toe that had been slowly worsening over the past several years.  The downside: I had to spend several weeks recuperating.  The upside: it gave me a lot of time to think, dream, and plan.  And now, like the new shoots, buds, and blossoms emerging all around us, I am physically and mentally stirring, growing, and pushing in new directions.

A harbinger of June harvest
A rosemary-drunk bee
I've started a few new projects, such as expanding our edible garden.  
Our expanded herb garden -- chives, parsley, cilantro, oregano, marjoram, mint, sorrel, thyme, and summer savory!   Soon to include tarragon and chervil.

I planned the garden's whole yearlong life cycle in order to establish a good crop rotation.  What's the easiest way to plan such a rotation?  First, get yourself a copy of Seattle Tilth's "Maritime Northwest Garden Guide."  Second, remember, "Leaf  Root Flower Fruit."  
We have a LOT of salads in our future.  This miner's lettuce, arugula, and lettuce will all be replaced by carrots, parsnips, and other fall rootcrops.

These fava and peas (fruits) will be replaced with fall brassicas (leaves).
 As a result of all this planning effort, I hope our garden explodes with produce throughout the year.  I hope to share our bounty with our friends and neighbors.  And I plan to post many garden-produce driven recipes here.

How does your garden grow?

The other major project I'm working on is a business!  I'm getting ready to launch my new career as a culinary instructor and coach.  Two and a half years ago, I decided to go to culinary school because I wanted to help change our food system and culture by teaching non-professionals how to cook -- and here I am, figuring out how to do just that.  I've been teaching a few classes here and there, and I've recently returned to SCA to intern with one of my favorite chefs as a teaching assistant.  I am so lucky, and so excited about what's ahead of me!

I've got a few changes for this space up my sleeve, too.  Look for a post announcing those soon -- much sooner than two years from now!

To progress and productivity!

August 31, 2011

Preservation Instinct

This summer, friends, I have struggled to write in this space. I'm not totally sure why. In large part, I think it's because I've immersed myself in the pressing food issues of our day. When prioritizing blogging alongside work that could help relocalize our food system and make a lasting impact on people's diets, and daydreaming about working to eradicate GMOs, completely reform national farm subsidies, and strengthen the local economy, posting a little recipe along with a couple pretty pictures to this page seems woefully insignificant.

I've been reading Michael Pollan and Anthony Bourdain lately, and they've been stirring me up. Omnivore's Dilemma has flat out made me mad. I felt troubled about our food system before reading it, but now I have a clear mental picture of the atrocity that is a Consolidated Animal Feeding Operation, and a clearer understanding of why corn is in everything, even apples, these days (thanks, Earl Butz).   Now all I want to do is pack up my life, buy a 100 or so acres, and start a sustainable farm along the lines of Joel Salatin's -- I'd get some Holsteins, a flock of chickens, maybe a couple pigs, and I'd become a self-sufficient (i.e. needing no outside inputs like chemical fertlizers) farmer of grass, mostly, plus some other crops.  It sounds like a gorgeous, pastoral ideal.

It also sounds like ridiculous fantasy. I'm not really going to buy a farm. Nor am I going to be able to change national subsidies anytime soon. But there are things I can proactively do -- a lot of things. I can opt out of the existing national food system that tries to feed us corn-1,000-ways by growing my own vegetables and herbs, buying organic, and buying from my local farmers as often as possible. I may not have my own farm, but I can support those farmers who farm in ways I like. I can choose organic, heirloom varieties that haven't been corrupted by genetic engineering. By voting with my dollars, I can help farmers be good stewards of their land. And by spending my money within my community, more of every dollar I spend gets funneled back into my local economy, rather than flowing out to a small handful of gargantuan agribusinesses.

For example, I can choose to buy local strawberries from Mount Vernon instead of California.  These are some luscious examples I got from Hayton Farms's stand at the West Seattle Farmers' Market.
(I used them to make Strawberry Lemon Preserves.  They turned out like strawberry lemonade -- pretty tasty, especially when used with shortcake and whipped cream.  But I'm not convinced I'll make the recipe again, so I'm not including it in this post.  I'll share other jam recipes I've made recently in future posts.)

One note about buying local: I well know that local food often seems more expensive and therefore not accessible to many people. I think this idea can be demystified -- or at least one can develop strategies to make a dollar stretch farther. I'll address this in a forthcoming future post on how to build meals that cost $5 or less a person.

In addition to making conscientious purchasing decisions, I can keep the art of cooking and thrift alive.  From locally sourced ingredients, like these strawberries, I can make my own minimally processed food as often as possible. This way, I choose what goes into what we eat and where it comes from. I can avoid high fructose corn syrup and other more unpronouncable ingredients. I can shorten the link between the farm and my table. I can help preserve knowledge about how to cook and preserve and stretch ingredients. And I can pass information along to others about how they can also make a difference, albeit on a small scale.

To this end, I've been doing a lot of preserving this summer.  I like the idea of buying fruit at its peak and extending its life so that we can enjoy it on a future dark winter day.  Opening a jar will remind me of the summer day I spent in the kitchen working with this gorgeous produce.  And I like knowing part of the story behind the fruit behind this sweet treat I made.

So today, I rededicate my blog.  In addition to posting recipes worth cooking again, I will include information about current food system issues, as well as ideas about how to navigate these issues.  I hope to provide you with inspiration, resources, and assistance on multiple levels.  Together, let's take up the work of preserving and reinventing our food culture and traditions.

To your good health.  Buon appetito!

July 18, 2011

Culinary School - First Quarter

Well hello there. Yes, you haven't heard from me in ages.  Terrible, I know.  But let me explain: you see, I've been in culinary school.

"Really, Kim, more school?" you're probably asking yourself.  "Haven't you spent enough years and dollars on education?  Are you trying to win the award for Most Overeducated?  Are you really turning my back on your legal career after all the time, money, and energy you put into it?  Shouldn't you keep on practicing law?"

I KNOW.  You're so RIGHT.  But, in short, yes, I really am giving up practicing (though not my license).  And I honestly tried to avoid going back to school.  I spent a couple months plumbing the depths of my soul to discover my true passion, and I realized I wanted to start a new career in food.  (Side note: this is actually what I wanted to do 10 years ago, before law school, but back then I thought the only paths were restaurant cook or magazine food writer).  So many people don't know how to cook with fresh ingredients or how to do so within a budget, and this lack of knowledge plays largely into our society's problems with obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.  I want to help solve these problems by teaching non-professionals how to cook and maybe how to grow food themselves, develop a pantry so they can cook more economically, and generally become more efficient in the kitchen. To me, this seems eminently more satisfying than engaging in people's pre-existing conflicts.

So I reached out to my friend Craig Hetherington, head chef at Taste Restaurant at the Seattle Art Museum, to talk about my new career ideas.  We talked about the different ways to learn cooking, and he graciously offered to let me come stage in his kitchen.  (Note: "stage" is French for a kitchen internship.  You'll see a lot of French terms throughout this post.  They come with the territory.)

What a fantastic favor Craig gave me.  I worked at Taste two or three times a week for about a month.  I learned so much--perhaps most importantly how much I don't know.  I realized that I could work in restaurant kitchens for many years and only scratch the surface, whereas I wanted to learn the fundamentals and advanced techniques and fast!  It seemed like entering a formal culinary school would most greatly expand my knowledge in the least amount of time.  Thus I researched local schools and chose Seattle Central Community College's Culinary Academy because of it's excellent reputation, it's price, and it's emphasis on sustainability.

How do I like it, you ask?  I LOVE it. Don't get me wrong, there are some things I could do without (Excel and math classes come to mind), but overall it is definitely the most fun educational experience I've ever had. Early on I realized something that encapsulates how I feel about school: I look forward to reading our professional cooking textbook. A textbook.  I've never liked reading textbooks.  But now I can't get enough information, and everything about food is interesting.

I started school on April 5, a Tuesday.  28 of us entered the program that day, and we seemed an interesting crew.  We range in ages from 19 or so to maybe early 50s. For some, this is their first college experience; others have had a number of years of higher ed. (Although I handily win the award in our class for Most Overeducated.)  We also all seem to have different reasons for being there.  Several people said they wanted to open their own restaurant or cafe. But I was surprised at how many people didn't have a clear reason beyond, "I like to eat, so I figured I should learn to cook."  When I heard that, I couldn't help thinking, really?   Do you have any idea what you're in for?  Cooking professionally is tremendously physical, hard, hot work.  Many cooks burn out.  Many become alcoholics and addicts--quite possibly at the same rate as lawyers do.  (Sheesh, did I just jump from the frying pan and into the fire?)  It is not for the weak or nonchalant.  To me, the decision to enter the industry seems like it should be very carefully considered--and many of these factors have convinced me to follow a path in food that leads me away from restaurant work.

We started with 28, and midway through the quarter, we lost two people.  By the end of the quarter, we were down to 24.  I'm not sure how many of us will return in the fall.

We had class Tuesday through Friday for 11 weeks, and most days began at the bleary-eyed hour of 7:30am.  We all wanted to dive in right away and get hands on, but first we had to suffer through a full week of orientation lecture.  This covered all the fundamentals we needed to know before we could be let loose in the kitchen: proper attire (we have to wear chef jackets and checked pants every day), equipment safety, knife cuts, how we'd be graded, plus what knives and other tools we needed in our kits and how to select them.

Yep, that's right, we each have to have our own knife kit.  Which required a knife shopping spree.  (Do you see why I like school??  Ha!)  I now own--and prefer to use--a 10" chef knife.  Before school, such a huge knife looked WAY too big and scary.  Now it seems the right tool for nearly any job.  AND I get to carry my knives in a shiny red toolbox!

As a mediator, I used to talk metaphorically about toolboxes. Now I literally carry one!

Armed with my shiny new kit, I dove into the work assigned.  We first quarter students focus on knife skills, so we chop a lot of produce.  Essentially we are the prep cooks for the second quarter students, who use this prepared produce to cook student lunch for 160 people every day, thus learning quantity cooking.  In third quarter, we will learn casual restaurant cooking while making food for the school's bistro, which is open to the public for lunch.  Fourth quarter students learn high-end cuisine by cooking in the school's fancy French service restaurant.  And finally, fifth quarter students culminate their education by completing their Chef of the Day project, wherein they cook a menu of their own design for 12-16 friends and family members.

As first quarter students, we start with the basics.  While fifth quarter students may get to play with cheese- and chocolate-making, we must focus on learning how to correctly dice an onion quickly and accurately.  We had daily food theory lectures, where we learned the fundamentals of fruit, vegetables, seasonings and flavorings, dairy, eggs, poultry, and meat--what they are made of; what varieties and types are available; how acids and alkalines affect them; how they behave when cooked different ways.  One of my favorite assignments required us to describe the appearance, aroma, and taste of 60 different herbs and spices.  When have you ever crunched on a cinnamon stick?  (Turns out it tastes like honey, plus the obvious spiciness.)  Or tried a sichuan peppercorn?  (Not peppery at all, but rather like a fizzy, super-sour lemony mouthbomb.)  We put relatively little of this information into practice first quarter, but it will serve as the foundation for everything to come.

We also had practical, experiential learning, of course.  Every day we spent 3 hours doing hands-on work, either in our first quarter kitchen or on one of our rotations.  Sometimes the rotation took you to the second quarter kitchen, where you helped a second quarter student prepare a dish for student lunch.  Sometimes it took you to dish duty, where you either loaded dirties into the industrial warewashing machine in the scullery or returned clean dishes to the dish room.  Sometimes you learned the art of busing tables in one of the school's restaurants.  And sometimes, if you were lucky, you got to help a fifth quarter student execute his or her Chef of the Day menu.

In our kitchen, we had a prep list we had to complete each day (just like a professional kitchen), and the list was divvied among three teams of four people.  Every day, our class spent the first hour of practicum preparing a green salad, a fruit platter, and a rice dish (steamed or pilaf) by 11am for student lunch; then we focused on prepping nine or ten dishes for the next day's student lunch.  This is when we put into practice our knowledge of brunoise (1/8x1/8x1/8" dice), julienne (1/8"x1/8"x2.5" matchsticks), tourne (kind of a football shape with flat ends), batonnet (1/4"x1/4"x2.5-3" sticks), rondelle (coins), orange supreme (segments without pith or membrane), and other traditional, fancy French cuts.  We occasionally cooked pasta and Asian noodles for salads and maybe got to saute once or twice for a rice pilaf, but mostly we focused on knife work rather than controlling heat.  That's for the next four quarters.

From the beginning, Chef Gregg began instilling in us the notion that there is a difference between cooks and "culinarians."  The difference boils down to whether you're using critical thinking skills in the kitchen.  Instead of simply accepting an instruction like "dice potatoes," a culinarian asks how the potatoes will be cooked and served.  If parsley needs chopping, a culinarian will ask whether it will be added to the dish during cooking or if it is for garnish.  In a busy professional kitchen, time is of the essence and money is tight (most restaurants operate on a razor thin margin of about 3%), so speed, efficiency, and accuracy are highly prized.  Even though most of us are total nubes, Chef Gregg expected us to work as quickly, efficiently, and accurately as possible.  Of course we worked slowly at the beginning--speed comes with practice--but he expected us to improve both speed and accuracy over the quarter, to the point where we could pass...the Knife Competency Test.

The dreaded Knife Comp.  A test of how well you can perform under pressure.  30 minutes.  10 different cuts.  Points for accuracy and technique.  Negative points for slowness.  It turned my stomach into knots for weeks before the test.

Talking with Chef Gregg and upper classmen, I knew the only way to prepare for the test was to practice the test.  So I bought a Costco-case of oranges, 10 pounds of potatoes, a huge bag of carrots, many pounds of tomatoes, a dozen or so onions, and a heap of shallots.  And I practiced.  I supremed oranges until I felt comfortable with the V-shaped sliding motion.  I brunoised carrots until I could accurately form those finicky little 1/8" cubes with fairly good consistency.  I diced potatoes until my fridge could hold no more.  And the week before the exam, I practiced the timed test, from start to finish, once a day.

It all paid off.  I could supreme an orange in a little less than two minutes, and my brunoise looked pretty good.  I finished the test in 41 minutes, got all my technique points, and only lost a fraction of an accuracy point.  Victory!  Bring on the heat of second quarter!

February 20, 2011

Let's Celebrate!

Holy smokes, what a week it's been! Monday morning, we found a house on Redfin we fell in love with immediately. That very afternoon we put an offer on it, and by Monday evening our offer was accepted. Then Wednesday I found out I can start culinary school this April, which means I don't have to wait until September, which in turn means I don't have to take a math placement exam (thank goodness, since I barely remember what trigonometry is, let alone how to figure it!). Then we had our house's inspection on Friday, and today we broke out the bubbly to celebrate the appearance of our Sold sign out front! Wheeeeeeee! Let's have cake to celebrate as well! And I'm going to buy a lottery ticket. Or twenty.

January 31, 2011

Sicilian-Style Sardine Spaghetti

Sardine Pasta
Originally uploaded by Dapper Lad Cycles
I thought I didn't like sardines. Not that I'd ever tried them. I just had an expectation of dislike. Probably because I lumped them into the category of "weird-sounding fishy things" like baccala, lutefisk, and pickled herrings. I'm still not sure I'll try any of those.

Sardine Pasta Prep
Originally uploaded by Dapper Lad Cycles
But it turns out sardines are quite delicious, in addition to being good for you. AND they have a "best choice" rating from the Monterey Bay Acquarium's Seafood Watch program. That's just what I'm looking for--a double win. (Bonus fact: the acquarium also says they are part of the herring family! Maybe someday I'll try pickled herring after all...nah.)

A huge thank you to Ezra Caldwell, aka "fast boy," for sharing this recipe. My family makes a similar pasta, although it is nothing more than anchovies, breadcrumbs, and olive oil. I think I'll have to make it for Galen and share it with you all soon...especially since I've got a couple tins of 'chovies in the pantry. It would have taken us years to try sardines because I just don't see many recipes that call for them (let's face it, they lack a certain sexiness, unlike sea scallops or halibut). But Ezra's amazing fast cooking video (find it here) made the little fishes look super tasty. Lo and behold, we made a special trip to Mutual Fish and procured some. (They were frozen; next time, I'm hoping to find some fresh.)