The Vegetable Diaries: Thanksgiving Edition

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Apparently I wasn’t a “normal” kid growing up. I loved vegetables, and from what I hear that’s not how most kids felt. It wasn’t just that I ate them when I was told and dealt with it; I genuinely loved them the same way that kids love candy and sweets. I’ve come to notice that some of my favorites are the ones that tend to be looked over. One in particular that seems to be forgotten is cauliflower. In light of this realization I am determined to inspire my friends and family to incorporate cauliflower into their Thanksgiving dinners this year. After some research I have found a few recipes that don’t require your own personal chef, and even a real vegetable hater won’t turn them down.

The first is a recipe I found on a blog called “A Veggie Venture.” From my own experience, everyone seems to love macaroni and cheese on the Thanksgiving table. The recipe is a variation of mac and cheese that uses cauliflower and boasts a “pepper cream” flavor. It may not be the most traditional side, but will definitely add some zest to the meal. The dish takes about 75 minutes to prepare (including oven time).

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The next recipe is a cauliflower “sformato”; it comes from the Fine Cooking website. A sformato is an Italian version of a soufflé. I had never heard of this before, but a few of my roommates come from crazy Italian families and raved about this dish. I’ve personally never attempted to make a soufflé before, but the instructions are detailed enough that I think even I could follow them. The preparation is slightly more involved than the first recipe, but for a special meal it is worth the extra effort.

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The last recipe that caught my eye is courtesy of Martha Stewart. Her cauliflower gratin, which is just a fancy French word for a dish topped with bread or cheese crumbs, got my attention because I love anything covered in cheese, yet this recipe could be made with as little or as much as you please. It is a fairly easy recipe to follow and does not take too much preparation time. It’s also not a very obscure list of ingredients, so it can be a simple addition to any Thanksgiving platter.

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I’m sure it’s obvious that my contribution to my Thanksgiving dinner party this year will be one (or more) dish involving cauliflower. Hopefully my efforts turn out a dish that is as beautiful as the photos in this post, but if not I can pray that at least it tastes as delicious as all of these sound. These recipes can help make your Thanksgiving feast a unique signature menu for all to enjoy.

Photo Credits:

Macaroni and cheese: http://www.yumsugar.com/Michelle-Obama-Cauliflower-Mac-Cheese-Recipe-23243043

Sformato: http://scrumpdillyicious.blogspot.com/2012/04/sformato-di-cavolfiore-italian.html

Gratin: http://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/gratin-of-cauliflower-with-gruyre-10000001853962/

Breaking Bread with Breaking Bad

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A chemistry teacher dying of cancer cooks up 99% pure blue meth and sells it to pay for his medical bills.  It sounds rather depressing, but the Breaking Bad series has pushed television’s boundaries, resulting in 58 award nominations and 28 industry awards in just five short years.  The on-point acting, unpredictable story line, and suspense-filled scenes have made Breaking Bad a series you do not want to miss.  Whether you are a long-time fan, or you are just getting started, a couple of quick texts and a few calls will send the whole gang rushing over to your house for a Netflix marathon of all five seasons.  But what’s a party without a professionally prepared three-course meal? The Chefstro chefs have created a menu that will add a whole new dimension to your viewing experience, bringing to life the most notable episodes and characters from the series, and creating an environment that encourages the ever-popular combination of food and friends.

breaking-bad

The first course will feature several reminders of some of the most unforgettable characters in Breaking Bad.  A Chilean Fish Stew appetizer will pay tribute to Gus Fring’s Chilean roots. As one of the most prominent meth distributers in the Southwest United States, Gus became Walter White’s go-to buyer for his chemically pure meth in seasons 2 and 3. In season 3, episode 11, after establishing a partnership, Gus invites Walt over to his home and prepares freshly cooked fish stew for him.  Chefstro will bring your guests and you a go-to stew that will never fail to satisfy the high demand for deliciousness.

stew1ustv_breaking-bad3The second appetizer picks up on Jesse Pinkman’s obsession with Funyuns with the preparation of Southwest Spiced Onion Rings.  Since the first season we have watched Jesse’s love for Funyuns flourish.  When Walt puts Jesse in charge of buying food for their expedition to the desert in season 2, episode 9, Jesse brings along three bags of Funyuns, declaring that, “Funyuns are awesome!”  This casual, yet flavorful appetizer will have you shouting the same thing after your first bite.

funyuns

Inspired by Tuco’s burrito dish in season 2, episode 2, the third appetizer, mini burritos, will include a tasty combination of poblano, jalpeño, green chili peppers and potato filling, topped off with cilantro crema and a sweet corn salad.  Unlike Tuco Salamanca, the most powerful and respected drug kingpin, you will not have to worry about the possibility of poisonous ricin in your mini burrito.  Tuco’s violence encouraged Walt to plan an attack on Tuco while they were stranded in Uncle Hector’s cabin.  The attack proved unsuccessful; however, Chefstro’s burritos are sure to deliver a powerful attack of savory flavor, intoxicating your taste buds with pure satisfaction.

tuco-in-breaking-bad-picture DSC_0151-2

Next up, Chefstro will serve you and your friends a main entrée of Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Sweet Potato Hash and Wilted Greens.  This dish takes Gus Fring’s restaurant, Los Pollos Hermanos, to the next level.  Using the finest ingredients, your Chefstro chef will season chicken with cumin, lime, cilantro, and smoky paprika, and then slow cook it to perfection, producing a zesty, southwest flavor.  Los Pollos Hermanos claim in their commercial, “one taste… and you’ll know.”  Of course you won’t have to worry about finding meth in your basket of chicken… we will save that for dessert.

Los_PollosWalt’s wife, Skylar White, provides the inspiration for the first dessert of the night.   A home baked Dulce de Leche Cupcake topped with Sea Salt Caramel Whipped Cream juxtaposes salty and sweet flavors.  Skylar embodies these two characteristics throughout the series.  After finding out about Walt’s status as a meth manufacturer, she releases her salty spirit as she insists on a getting a divorce.  At the same time, she puts on a sweet exterior, ensuring that her husband’s secret will be kept hidden from the public eye.  As you bite into this cupcake, you will taste the complexity of the two emotions.  The dulce de leche flavor ties into the classic southwest flair that unifies all three courses.

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Last, but not least, your chef will serve Sweet Blue “Meth” 99% pure Rock Candy so you and your guests will not leave this party empty handed.  You will be hooked instantly, guaranteeing that you will have to plan another Breaking Bad marathon night again soon.

rock-candy

The Chefstro team would love to give you one Breaking Bad-ass night featuring this unique signature menu.  Gather your friends and don’t miss your chance to enjoy the Chefstro’s New Exclusive fine-dining experience.

Photo Credits:

Breaking Bad logo: http://30dom.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/breaking-bad.jpg

Blue Candy Meth: http://www.healthshire.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/rock-candy.jpg

Cupcakes: http://farm7.static.flickr.com/6090/6129396054_5a59312ce6_o.jpg

Skylar White: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/1a/Skyler_White2.jpg

Los Pollos Hermanos: http://images4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20130713042012/breakingbad/images/5/5c/Los_Pollos.png

Tuco: http://gamermuffy.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/tuco-in-breaking-bad-picture.jpg

Burrito: http://oliveoilandlemons.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/DSC_0151-2.jpg

Funyuns: http://www.bakinbit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/funyuns.jpg

Stew: http://www.bakinbit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/stew1.jpg

Dinner Scene: http://i1.cdnds.net/13/35/618×347/ustv_breaking-bad3.jpg

Five Knife Tips for a Clean-Cut Kitchen

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Let’s face it: not everyone feels comfortable in the kitchen, especially when it comes to handling knives. A lack of confidence can make preparing a fresh home-cooked meal seem more daunting than it needs to be. But a little bit of knife know-how can give you the confidence to try new recipes and even whip something up for a few friends or someone special. As part of our ongoing quest to help you turn your kitchen into a flavor factory, we give you 5 simple tips for knife care and usage. Follow these steps to gain experience and grow more comfortable with your cutlery, and you’ll find it easier than ever to prepare awesome food without the worry.

1. Proper storage.

Storing your knives in a protected and accessible place is essential for kitchen safety and efficiency. Don’t just toss them all loosely into a drawer where they will clash and become dull. Not only will your expensive kitchen tools endure unnecessary wear-and-tear, you’ll also put your fingers in peril every time you reach for aknife. A magnetic wall rack, ordinary countertop knife block, or drawer tray will ensure that your knives stay sharp – and your digits remain intact. A well-organized set of knives will also provide a new and refreshing aesthetic for your kitchen.

2. To each its own.

When preparing a meal from scratch, it is important to use the correct knife for each task. To safely cut bread or tomatoes, use a knife with a serrated edge. Carving a turkey requires a fork and carving knife, a larger knife with a wider blade for neat, long cuts of meat. You can use a chef’s knife for chopping many everyday vegetables, fruits, starches, and herbs. It may seem less intimidating to cut an onion with a steak knife or paring knife, both smaller, seemingly safer alternatives, but a chef’s knife is specifically designed to make fast work of the task. The more you know about the uses of each knife in your kitchen, the more effective your preparation will be. Find extensive information about the types of knives available and their various uses here.

Basic Knife Set

3. If it’s sharp, it’s safe.

Working in your kitchen with a dull knife poses a certain threat to your hands and fingers. Although a sharp knife seems more of a danger to your delicate appendages, a dull knife requires more pressure to make clean, even cuts. The more pressure you place on the knife, the less control you will have, and the higher your chances of injury. If you cannot effortlessly pass your knife through a smooth vegetable like a tomato, you need to sharpen it. You can easily use a sharpening stone or a honing steel to keep your blades sufficiently sharp – and safe.

4. Get a grip.

A good grip on your knife provides safety, accuracy, and control. Once you have chosen the correct knife and sharpened it properly, hold the knife in your dominant hand. Your non-dominant hand will serve as a guide. The most basic, most common grip involves pinching the knife where it connects to the handle. You can use a single-finger or double-finger grip, pinching with either your index finder and thumb, or your index finger, middle finger, and thumb. Next, depending on the pinch you prefer, place your middle or ring finger underneath the knife next to what is known as the bolster. Last, wrap your remaining one or two fingers around the rest of the handle. These fingers make your grip more secure, but focus primarily on the initial pinch. So as not to wear out your hand too quickly, hold the knife with only a semi-firm grip. This will also improve the accuracy of your cuts.

The Proper Grip

5. Concentrate.

This seems obvious, but it’s all too easy to forget about the many ways you can hurt yourself in the kitchen. In the comfort of your own home, the intricacies of your life – the errand you’ve forgotten to run, the guy who cut you off on the way home, tomorrow’s deadline – can crowd in on you as you cook, distracting you from the moment. By focusing on each and every cut that you make, you not only minimize your chances of injury, you also open yourself to the real pleasure of cooking. Just like everything else in life, preparing a meal becomes more meaningful as you let go of distractions and devote yourself to it entirely. The end result is bound to be tastier, too.

With the proper tools, a little bit of practice, and dedication to the task at hand, anyone can safely and efficiently prepare a delicious meal. Developing some basic skills and confidence using knives is a great way to start. Or, if you’re planning to host a dinner party or celebration and you’d rather spend your time with your company than in the kitchen, you can also visit our website, browse our diverse menus, and let one of our professional chefs prepare an extraordinary meal for you and your company, right in your own home.

Photo Credits:

Magnetic Wall Rack: http://madtasty.blogspot.com/2009_11_01_archive.html

Countertop Knife Block: http://www.chefscatalog.com/product/21262-zwilling-ja-henckels-knife-block.aspx

Drawer Tray: http://drawersss.com/page/80/

Knife Set: http://lparchive.org/Clock-Tower-3/Update%2028/

The Grip: http://www.justaddspinach.com/poll-holding-a-chefs-knife/

A Science of Pleasure

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How to Make Good Food Taste Even Better

In the spirit of helping people enjoy the highest quality gourmet experiences, we at team Chefstro are pleased to introduce the first installment of “Appetite for Deconstruction,” a series of essays that will explore the intersection of science and food culture.

What do we mean when we say that something “tastes” good? I love garlicky fried rice, and coconut-milk-based curries, and IPA, but I couldn’t tell you why – I just do. When I watch Masterchef, though, I see Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot break down the taste of each dish minutely, down to its subtlest components. If you’ve ever watched this show, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Are all of those hints of flavor really there, I’ve sometimes wondered, or are the hosts just being pretentious?

Turns out, they’re not being pretentious at all, and this essay is essentially an argument for taking this sort of flavor deconstruction seriously. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, but as a recent convert and a real neophyte when it comes to mindful tasting, I want to lay out my reasons for thinking that the food snobs are onto something that the rest of us can learn to understand and enjoy.

A scientific report published in 2011 uses the word “palatability” to describe the degree to which we “like” a food (Ahn et al.). And palatability has three broad components: taste, flavor, and freshness. We often use the first two terms interchangeably, but taste and flavor are, biologically speaking, totally distinct. Taste is gustatory, meaning that it is registered on the taste buds, whereas flavor is olfactory, meaning that it is registered in the nasal passages. What some call “freshness” encompasses textural properties like crunchiness or creaminess, but it also includes other impressions like spiciness and the “coolness” of menthol. Essentially, “freshness” refers to the somatosensory impressions that our facial muscles and nerves register.

If all of this seems academic, consider the experiences of two people at a musical performance. Jessica has studied music, and although she’s not a musician, she understands basic concepts of rhythm, melody, and harmony. Nick doesn’t know anything about music theory, but he’s a music enthusiast. What kind of conversation might they have after the event? Nick may be able to speak in general terms about what he liked or didn’t like, but Jessica – if she thought Nick would understand her – could discuss harmonic intervals, time signatures, and so on. More important, her experience of the music itself would be colored by this knowledge. I’m not suggesting that Nick can’t enjoy himself, but I do think that being able to discriminate among the components that our senses coordinate into an impression can lead to a richer appreciation of just about any experience.

tongue map

Think about taste again. Most of us, at one point or another during our education, were exposed to a “taste map” of the tongue, showing the regions where our taste buds detect each of the four “main” tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Turns out, though, that scientists think this map is bogus. Developed in 1942 by Edwin G. Boring (no kidding, that’s his real name), the map doesn’t even include “umami,” a Japanese word for the “savory” or “meaty” taste of proteins. Twenty-first century scientists agree that umami names an important gustatory impression. Describing the taste of a dish without reference to umami would be like discussing a Beatles song without talking about the bass line, or even knowing that such a thing exists – it can be done, but you’d be missing something pretty wonderful.

funny tongue map

In a 2010 paper published in the Journal of Cell Biology, Chaudhari and Roper explain that our taste buds play an important role with respect to biological survival. Taste is “the sensory modality that guides organisms to identify and consume nutrients while avoiding toxins and indigestible materials.” Sweet tastes indicate the presence of carbohydrates, which our bodies turn into energy; salty tastes reflect the presence of sodium and other salts, which our bodies use to regulate water balance and blood circulation; sour tastes indicate dietary acids, which we tend to avoid (as in spoiled food); bitter tastes alert us to the presence of poisons; and without “umami,” we might not recognize the proteins that we need to grow and stay healthy. Clearly, then, any model of taste which excludes umami is flawed.

taste wheel

The five main tastes, the names of their taste receptors, and diagrams of their transmembrane topologies. Scientists suspect that we may have receptors that give us the taste of “fat,” as well.

But this isn’t the only problem with the Boring map. According to Chaudhari and Roper, “the oft-quoted concept of a ‘tongue-map’ defining distinct zones for sweet, bitter, salty, and sour has largely been discredited.” If this is true, people who accept the map as fact may be fooling themselves into a pretty limited experience of taste. Looking for sweetness only on the tip of the tongue, for example, they may ignore sensory information coming from other parts of the mouth, like the soft palate and even the epiglottis. Having carved up our understanding of taste into Boring’s four categories, we may overlook the richness of umami. We may be like Nick, nodding our heads to “Glass Onion” but never noticing how Paul’s bass line relates to all the other parts and completes them. And taste is only one component of our experience of food! In order to account for other impressions, like “mint,” we need another category: flavor.

You’ve probably heard that “taste” largely depends on the sense of smell. If by “taste” we mean the overall experience of a bite of food, then popular knowledge and science agree: the nose plays an important role in our enjoyment of food. But strictly speaking, the tongue picks up tastes, and the nose flavors. Thus, in the food world, “flavor” is really synonymous with aroma, odorant, and fragrance. You can verify this for yourself by conducting the following experiment, suggested by foodpairing.com:

1. Mix together a small amount of sugar and cinnamon.
2. Hold your nose.
3. Put a bit of the mixture on your tongue.

You won’t detect the cinnamon until you unstop your nose, which means that your tongue cannot detect its “flavor” – only its sweetness. Being able to appreciate the distinction between flavor and taste is just the beginning, though.

cucumber flavor profile

The flavor profile of a cucumber, according to foodpairing.com. Spikes indicate prominent flavor compounds.

While we usually think of food – let’s say an apple – as having “a” flavor, most foods actually have a spectrum of flavors. Harold McGee, who has made scientific analyses of kitchen techniques accessible to the general reader, explains: “Flavor is a composite quality. A ripe fruit may contain hundreds of different aromatic compounds, and the same goes for a roast” (390). McGee notes that sometimes, as with cinnamon or anise, a single compound accounts for the predominant flavor, but in most cases, what we call “the” flavor of a food is actually a kind of symphony of various flavor compounds. His 1984 book On Food and Cooking, an important contribution to the relatively new field of “molecular gastronomy,” includes charts that identify the main aroma compounds of a variety of spices and herbs. Such charts offer home cooks a guide for experimenting with new combinations of ingredients, and they demonstrate that scientific knowledge of food doesn’t belong solely to food snobs – or it doesn’t have to, anyway.

Using gas chromatography and coupled mass spectrometry, the scientists at foodpairing.com have also created culinary tools that can help any home cook. First, they identify the flavor profile of a food – let’s say cucumber. Then they create a food pairing “tree,” which identifies the foods that have compatible flavor profiles – that is, foods that have flavor components in common. Anyone can use such pairing trees to design menus around foods that will complement one another. For example, blue cheese and chocolate share 73 flavor compounds, and this kind of scientific knowledge has encouraged restaurants to offer surprising combinations that nevertheless taste good together.

cucumber foodpairing tree

In an article he wrote for Food & Wine last year, Ray Isle describes how taking a molecular-gastronomic approach to food can help people break out of the grooves they have worn into their culinary lives. Isle tests some of the menus François Chartier suggests in his 2012 book Taste Buds and Molecules. Chartier’s book explains that combinations like salmon, black coffee, Chinese five-spice powder, and Zinfandel work together because of the odorants each component shares with the others. Without knowledge of these flavor compounds, cooks might never imagine putting such disparate ingredients together on the same table. And adventurous foodies would miss out on singularly delicious meals.

All of this aromatic harmony is fine, but the deeper I got into my research for this essay, the more I wondered – as a natural-born contrarian – what molecular gastronomists might have to say about contrasting flavors rather than matching ones. I’ve often heard the experts on Masterchef, for example, compliment a contestant for using citrus or vinegar to counterbalance the richness of a dish. This makes intuitive sense to me, and it turns out to make some scientific sense, too.

My curiosity about flavor contrasts led me to the paper by Ahn et al. The authors set out to determine whether food-pairing tendencies are universal, vary from culture to culture, or follow no particular pattern at all. They asked themselves, “do we more frequently use ingredient pairs that are strongly linked in the flavor network or do we avoid them?” Their analysis draws from 58,498 recipes (from epicurious.com, allrecipes.com, and menupan.com) grouped into 5 cuisine families. They found that North American and Western European cuisines tend toward “recipes whose ingredients share flavor compounds,” whereas “East Asian and Southern European cuisines avoid recipes whose ingredients share flavor compounds.”

flavor principles

This makes me think that my time living in Thailand, when I developed a taste for a much broader array of foods than I had ever enjoyed before, has predisposed me to favor dishes with contrasting flavor profiles. The resources I used in writing this piece focus on shared flavors, but then again they mostly come from European and North American culinary traditions, so that isn’t surprising. If you know of molecular-gastronomic treatments of flavor contrast, do let me know in a comment.

This is no idle curiosity on my part – I would put those principles to work in my kitchen, and I hope that I’m not alone. The molecular approach has much to offer the everyday home cook. It’s less about geeking out on the science, though, than about really paying attention to what’s happening in the kitchen and on the plate. Barb Stuckey, a professional taster and food marketer, makes a strong case for more mindful eating in her 2012 book Taste. Her goal in writing the book was to raise awareness, because the science of taste is almost universally overlooked: “wine-tasting courses are common and there are hundreds of books on the fundamentals of tasting wine. Yet I’d never heard of a food-tasting course and there seemed to be no books on the subject” (3). Chaudhari and Roper agree. “Taste research,” they write, “although making tremendous strides in recent years, has exposed major gaps in our understanding.”

All of this matters because food is so central to our lives. Food not only provides us with physical sustenance, it also reinforces social relationships. At meal times, we bond with our friends and families, we forge new business and personal relationships, and we share one of our most universal forms of pleasure. If there are simple ways to amplify this pleasure, I think we ought to know about them.

Scientific experiments prove that eating more mindfully actually does result in a higher-quality experience. Hervé This, a prominent figure in the world of molecular gastronomy, writes that “chewing slowly deepens the perception of odorant molecules in cooked food” (115). Remember, odorants make it possible for us to taste flavors like cinnamon, mint, cucumber, truffle, chocolate . . . just about everything that lies beyond the basic categories of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory.

Reading about eating mindfully, I couldn’t help thinking of Graham Elliot taking a bite of a Masterchef contestant’s dish, tilting his head up, and looking at the ceiling, as though to prevent everything else in the room from distracting him from the tastes and flavors. There was a time when I saw this gesture as pretentious, but not anymore. If there really are flavors to be detected – flavors which I have been missing due to my own ignorance – why wouldn’t I want to get a taste of them?

Barb Stuckey concludes her book with 15 tips about how to get more out of every bite. I paraphrase the first five:

1. Chew well – meaning slowly and gently.
2. Treat eating the way you treat sex. That is, focus. Don’t distract yourself.
3. Avoid “sensory-specific satiety.” Move back and forth among dishes, cleansing your palate with something neutral like water or a cracker between each bite. If you eat bite after bite of the same thing, your senses become adapted to it and you notice less and less of what it has to offer.
4. Practice food appreciation at home using the exercises she suggests in the book. (tease)
5. Consciously attend to how each of your senses is being stimulated. Discriminate the colors from the flavors from the textures from the tastes…

Stuckey suggests that more mindful eating can not only help us take greater pleasure in food, but can also help people lose weight: “. . . if you can feel more confident that you will derive optimal satisfaction from every bite, you’ll be less likely to take unmemorable bites. You won’t waste precious mouthfuls on food that doesn’t taste delicious to you” (8). I suspect she’s right about this, but I don’t much care. If anybody can learn to get more enjoyment out of food, that in itself is the best argument for seeking out this kind of knowledge.

Learning how to taste food more mindfully should, I think, involve at least a touch of molecular gastronomy. I can’t imagine how I’ll pick up some of my food’s subtle flavors unless I know to look for them, after all. I’m still not sure exactly why I love garlicky fried rice, or coconut-based curries, or IPA, but now I at least have a framework for trying to figure it out. I suspect that finding the answers will help me enjoy them even more – and who wouldn’t want their favorite foods to taste even better?

Everyone at team Chefstro is dedicated to helping people get the most out of the food they share with family and friends. Take a look at the fine-dining experiences we offer, and put a personal chef in the kitchen for your next celebration or dinner party.

Works Cited

Anh, Yong-Yeol, et al. “Flavor Network and Principles of Food Pairing.” Scientific Reports 1 (15 December 2011). Web. 18 August 2013. http://www.nature.com/srep/2011/111215/srep00196/full/srep00196.html.

Chartier, Francios. Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012. Print.

Chaudhari, Nirupa and Stephen D. Roper. “The Cell Biology of Taste.” Journal of Cell Biology: 190.3 (9 August 2010). Web. 12 August 2013. http://jcb.rupress.org/content/190/3/285.full.

Isle, Ray. “Getting Food Pairing Down to a Science.” Food & Wine September 2012. Web. 14 August 2013. http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/getting-pairing-down-to-a-science.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Revised Ed. NY: Scribner, 2004. Print.

“The Science Behind Foodpairing.” Foodpairing.com. Sense for Taste, n.d. Web. 14 August 2013. https://www.foodpairing.com/en/what-is-foodpairing/the-science-behind/.

Stucky, Barb. Taste: Surprising Stories and Science about Why Food Tastes Good. Reprint Ed. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2013. Print.

This, Hervé. Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor. Trans. Malcolm DeBevoise. NY: Columbia UP, 2008. Print.

Photo Credits

Test molecule: http://www.wired.com
Red Thai curry: http://www.kitchenoperas.com
IPA: The author snapped this shot of an IPA he enjoyed at the Chatham Squire, where he was lunching with his parents.
Tongue map: http://www.musingsonthevine.com
Funny tongue map: http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2012/03/20/science/20QA.html
Taste wheel: http://www.jcb.rupress.org/content/190/3/285.full
Cucumber flavor profile and foodpairing tree: http://www.foodpairing.com/en/what-is-foodpairing/the-science-behind/
Salmon: http://www.shopfreshseafood.com
Black coffee: http://www.beanfruit.com
Chinese five-spice powder: http://www.yumsugar.com
Zinfandel: http://www.beveragefactory.com

Treats from the East

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Hunting for Asian Food in Lowell and Quincy

Last weekend was something of an Asian extravaganza for one member of team Chefstro and his wife. On Saturday they attended the Lowell Southeast Asian Water Festival, and on Sunday, the Quincy August Moon Festival. Though he’s neither a top chef nor even a food critic, the Funky Fresh Vegan is enthusiastic about food and culture. In his second dispatch, he offers his decidedly food-centric perspective on these two events.

I. Lowell, MA

My wife and I headed north toward Lowell late Saturday morning with the hope that we’d discover at the SE Asian Water Festival some of the dishes we’ve missed since our last trip to Thailand a few years ago. One of my wife’s friends, who sometimes makes trips to this kind of event to set up a table and sell food, had tipped us off. We’d never heard of it before, so we were curious.

crowds along the riverfront

As soon as we exited the highway (3N), we encountered festival traffic. It took us a good half hour to get to the site of the festival, right along the banks of the Merrimack River, and another twenty minutes to park the car. When we had crossed the crazily busy street and entered the press of festival-goers, I was immediately reminded of my time in Asia: the crowds, the food smells, the lilting vocal melodies of Asian country pop. Westerners were few and far between.

Several vendors were selling cheap karaoke DVDs, which one soon forgets about when living in the post-industrial West. My wife was more interested in some of the plants for sale, like kaffir lime and grapow, both important components of Thai cuisine that can be hard to find in the States.

I kept an ear out for Thai – the only Asian language I understand well – but didn’t hear any. My wife heard quite a bit of Cambodian, which she recognizes but doesn’t understand. The tents set up by the Buddhist temples looking to raise money and awareness were run by Cambodians and Laotians. Only on our way back to the car, after a couple of hours wandering up and down the stretch of vendors and displays, did we hear a few people speaking Thai.

I point this out because almost all of the food stalls were selling variations on Thai food: Pad Thai, Thai-style fried rice, and Som Tam. This predominance of Thai cuisine, despite the relative absence of Thai-speaking people, surprised me. What it means, I guess, is that Thai food has as much cachet among Asians as it does among Westerners.

There was a good variety of authentic Asian street food on offer: spring rolls, sausages, grilled chicken and fishballs on skewers, pickled mangoes, deep-fried bananas, and lam yai. Known as longan in the West, lam yai is popular in Thailand but rare and expensive in North America.

pickled mangoes

My wife and I were especially happy to discover a vendor selling Khao Lam, one of our favorite street foods, to a jostling crowd of customers. It was all I could do to elbow my way into position for a couple of pictures. Judging by the “enthusiasm” of the hungry shoppers, we knew the food had to be delicious. No high-quality food stand stays quiet for long in an Asian market. As I boxed people out and snapped a few shots, my wife edged in and secured us a portion.

To make Khao Lam, you soak sticky rice and black beans in coconut milk with a little bit of sugar. Once the rice has absorbed these flavors, you pack the mixture into joints of bamboo – each about a foot and a half long – which you then place over hot coals. The rice inside gets steamed, while the thick bamboo walls keep it from getting scorched. When you buy Khao Lam on the street, the vendor cracks the bamboo open with a machete so that you can get to the warm, sweet goodness inside. Part of the fun, at least for me, is eating it right from this handy bamboo container.

Our Khao Lam was exactly as I remember it from Thailand: sticky, slightly purple from the black beans, and sweet but not too sweet. It was also one of the only vegan options I was inclined to eat. It was too hot to even consider fried food or a heavy curry.

Among the non-vegan choices, my wife opted for Som Tam, which she used to eat just about every day back in Thailand. Determined to get the most authentic taste of home possible, she sussed out every vendor before choosing one who said she could make “Tam Lao,” a Laotian variety popular in the Northeast of Thailand where my wife grew up.

shredding papaya for som tam

The key ingredients of Som Tam are shredded green papaya, chunks of tomato, Thai chili peppers, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, toasted peanuts, and sometimes pickled crab or tiny dried shrimp. To make it “Tam Lao,” you leave out the peanuts and add Pla Ra – a sauce made by mixing raw fish with salt and rice fiber and fermenting it in a jar for up to a year or more. The result is a grey-brown slurry I find unappetizing on several levels, but many relish it.

som tam

Vendors selling Som Tam on the street make each batch to order, and every Thai person has their own preferred balance of salty, spicy, sweet, and sour. Because vendors generally use just one mortar and pestle to make every portion, this isn’t a good option for vegetarians or vegans. It’s totally possible to make a delicious vegan Som Tam for yourself at home, though. Obviously, I didn’t share my wife’s Tam Lao, but she said it was pretty good (a high compliment coming from a real Som Tam enthusiast).

There were  boat races and cultural performances going on this whole time, but let’s face it, we were pretty lasered-in on the edible components of this festival. The final item we tried was sugar cane juice. I had heard of this before but never tasted it. The fact that several vendors were producing it fresh for every customer intrigued my wife and I, so we split a cup.

extracting sugar cane juice

Production involved feeding long (6-8 feet!) stalks of sugar cane into machines which crushed the heck out of them to extract the sweet, pale yellowish-brown juice. The crushed stalks came out the front of these machines and slid into giant piles that reminded me of hurricane wreckage. The juice itself was a bit too sweet for my taste, especially on such a hot day, but it was cool, wet, and novel.

longboat racers

We took a seat on the low stone wall at the river’s edge and sipped our sugar cane as a couple of the long, slender boats raced by. But after getting our fill of authentic Asian eats, we’d had enough of the heat and the crowds, so we headed home.

II. Quincy, MA

The following day was the Quincy August Moon Festival, put on every summer by Quincy Asian Resources, Inc. The AMF is a traditional Chinese harvest celebration. Because of its origins and the large population of Chinese Americans in and around Quincy, the tenor of this festival was more mono-cultural than that of the one in Lowell.

tents lining Hancock Street

The AMF stretched along the main drag of Hancock Street, which runs through Quincy Center. With two stages, amusement-park rides, food trucks, pony rides, martial arts demonstrations, and a civic engagement tent, this festival had a greater variety of attractions than the Lowell SEA WF. My favorite display was a mural, painted by Asian students from the two area high schools, depicting the lanterns that Chinese people traditionally light on this holiday.

mural depicting traditional lanterns

While there was a lot to see and do here, including prominent community members getting wet in the dunk tank, the food available at the AMF was disappointing. One of the food trucks came from Nestle; I have no bone to pick with the company, but it doesn’t scream “authentic Asian.” Another food truck had two miniature grills and – when we passed by, anyway – a single portion of skewered meat being cooked.

Beyond the trucks, there were a few vendors selling Asian food from tents and stalls, none of it particularly appetizing. We saw more Pad Thai noodles, but like the ones we saw in Lowell, they looked pale and under-seasoned. The fried rice looked okay, but the grilled chicken was clumsily skewered and burnt in places. I expected better options at an expressly Asian-themed festival. The oddest thing about this lack of high-quality food is that Quincy actually has a number of excellent Asian restaurants, like Little Duck and the Punjab Cafe. Maybe next year they’ll set up their own stalls. Based on what we saw, they would easily outdo the competition.

Although we left the AMF without sampling any of the food, we are grateful to live in an area with so many interesting cultural experiences to enjoy. It was a fluke that the Lowell and Quincy festivals happened over the same weekend, but we’re not complaining. And we’ll be on the lookout for future opportunities to expand our culinary horizons. If you have suggestions, please leave a comment.

Thinking about hosting a dinner party at your place? Visit our website, explore our menus, and let one of our amazing culinary artists craft an unforgettable meal for you and your guests.

High-End Flavors from a Low-Tech Kitchen

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Personal Chef Kurt Vogel Makes a Sophisticated Meal in Our No-Frills Test KitchenXUVQR5T5E929

To ensure that all Chefstro personal chefs can produce restaurant-quality meals even in modest home kitchens, we put each one to a Tiny Kitchen Test. In our kitchens they face limited counter space, a scarcity of professional cooking tools, and electric stoves. Only those chefs who rise to the challenge and produce amazing food despite these limitations are invited to join the Chefstro network.

In this edition of Tiny Kitchen Trials, we share the delectable dishes Chef Kurt Vogel prepared for us in one of our tiny kitchens.

Chef Kurt VogelChef Vogel’s garden-fresh ratatouille was aromatic, colorful, and packed with flavor.

ratatouille

Our resident vegan (a.k.a. “The Funky Fresh Vegan”) was a big fan of the lemon and parslied new potatoes.

parslied new potatoes

Chef Vogel put a rub of Chimichurri on a New Zealand rack of lamb. He pan-seared it, then finished it in the oven. The result was stunning.

A desert of chocolate-dipped bananas with toffee and caramel sauce was irresistible to the whole team, including one of us who was on a cleanse at the time!

It’s safe to say Chef Vogel crushed his Tiny Kitchen Trial. He was friendly and engaging even as he had multiple dishes bubbling and crackling simultaneously. If he can make this kind of magic in our kitchen, he can do it anywhere! Visit our website to learn more about how a Chefstro personal chef can make your next dinner party unforgettable.

Faking Pho

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Veganizing a Savory Vietnamese Noodle Soup

Going vegan takes moxie. By abstaining from animal-based foods, you exclude yourself from a wide swath of culinary experiences that are – ingredients aside – worth sharing. Not all of us at Chefstro are vegans, but we respect the decision, and our personal chefs can customize most of our menus for a vegan diet. In his inaugural dispatch, one of our team members (a home cook, not a chef) chronicles his first attempt to bridge the dietary distance and cook a vegan pho:

The moment for action had come. Too many times had I sat across from my wife – an omnivore – watching her enjoy a savory Vietnamese pho while I tried to content myself with summer rolls or a plate of veggie fried rice. Nothing against these options, but as a vegan, I have long felt excluded from the rich gustatory experience that pho seems, from the other side of the carcass divide, to deliver. I did find a delicious pho at one vegan restaurant, but that was in New York (see below), and I am in Boston. Unacceptable.

So last Saturday, I decided that my pho privation gone on long enough. It was time to take matters into my own hands and make a run at vegan pho. Without disappearing all the way into the black hole of research, I did some poking on the web, put together a list of ingredients, and . . . asked my wife for help.

As a noodle-soup-loving Thai, she has a great feel for how to combine spices, herbs, and seasonings. She’s also a noodle genius. That said, she doesn’t like to measure or to work from recipes, so I knew that balancing my impulse to organize everything with her sometimes chaotic dance of improvisation would be a challenge.

My wife started things off by toasting some dried Thai chili peppers to make chili powder – one of the standard accompaniments to noodle soup in Thailand. She liberally dusted the pan with salt to minimize smoke. The entire apartment soon filled with microscopic airborne chili particles, choking us and making us sneeze, but for those who like to get their spice on, it’s well worth the pain.

When I could breathe again without wincing, I fried up some onion, shallots, garlic, ginger, Chinese celery stalks, a cinnamon stick, a pod and a half of star anise, and a couple cloves in a dry pot. When this mix started to brown, I added about 6 cups of veggie stock (homemade earlier using the easy-peasy “bag o broth” method I discovered at the Post Punk Kitchen) and a little soy sauce.

raw broth base

I let the broth simmer while I rinsed the Thai basil and bean sprouts, and my wife chopped up some lime. She also dug out another one of her favorite condiments: fried garlic and cardamom, which she makes in batches and stores in the fridge. I recommend experimenting with cardamom. It lends unbelievable flavor to soup, but start by adding a single pod or less; it can quickly overpower an entire dish.

When the broth had been going for about half an hour, I turned the heat way down and we started to discuss noodle options. As I mentioned, my wife’s a real noodle connoisseur, and she had a specific brand in mind. All I can tell you is that they are flat rice noodles with the word “pho” on the label; they’re what I would call pat thai noodles. We didn’t happen to have any in the kitchen, so she made a quick trip to the local Asian market and picked some up.

At this point, I added our protein to the broth to warm it up. We used thin slices of tofu I’d pressed and fried in peanut oil earlier in the day.

slices of fried tofu

My wife drained and rinsed the noodles and added them straight to the broth. I think we should have kept them separate and poured the broth over the noodles in each individual bowl. Different strokes.

Here’s where her fly-by-night approach to cuisine outstripped my ability to understand and control everything about this pho. Before I knew it, she had added two more varieties of soy sauce, some of her chili powder, Chinese celery leaves, lime juice, and ketchup. That’s right, KETCHUP!

pot of vegan pho

To each of our bowls we added bean sprouts, basil, more Chinese celery leaves, Sriracha sauce, and more chili powder. Then we dug in. I have to admit that the result was pretty good. My wife wasn’t bowled over though, probably thinking of the meat-based phos she’s enjoyed over the years, or maybe even of the wonderful vegan pho we had a few weeks ago at Franchia in NYC.

vegan pho

Next time I won’t use cinnamon because, on top of the star anise, it made the broth a touch bitter. And I forgot to add hoisin sauce, which I had bought expressly for this foray into faux pho the night before. Still, I feel that I’ve won a victory of sorts. Not because I’ve mastered pho or because I think the version I cooked this weekend would necessarily satisfy meat-eating pho lovers, but because I’ve demystified a little corner of culinary territory. The first step is always the hardest, and now I have something to build on.

If you have suggestions, feel free to comment. And stay tuned for further dispatches from the Funky Fresh Vegan.

To my fellow vegans out there: know that Chefstro has recently added some plant-based menus, and we intend to add more. I know what it’s like to live on the margins of a meat-eating world. As part of team Chefstro, I constantly push for expanding our vegan- and vegetarian-friendly options. Because we deserve a flourishing, sophisticated food culture, too. Sign up to stay in the loop.

Kudos from Our Customers

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Chef Kyle Ketchum Wows both Hosts and Guests

After Lisa Plimpton hosted her first Chefstro event, we asked her to tell us about the personal chef we sent, the menu he prepared, and the overall experience. Here’s what she said:

“When we first heard about Chefstro, we were dying to try it out. My boyfriend and I like hosting, but we don’t really like the hassle of planning out a multiple-course meal and working in the kitchen when we just want to spend time with our guests. So we went to the Chefstro website, ordered a “Cocktail Canapes” menu, and invited eight of our friends.

group enjoying canapes

“My boyfriend doesn’t like spicy food and two of our guests can’t eat dairy, but Chefstro worked with us in advance to create a customized menu. When they emailed us the final menu the day before the party, I was excited to see that there was a huge variety of hors d’oeuvres.

roasted beet with cambazola cheese and prosciutto

“Kyle, our chef, arrived about 2 hours before the start of the party to prepare. He brought his own supplies – knives, pans, and all the ingredients – so we didn’t have to worry about anything. He was super friendly and I could already tell that it was going to be a fun night.

Chef Ketchum in the kitchen

“Our guests started arriving and Kyle came out with his first dish – deviled eggs topped with old bay spiced shrimp.

deviled eggs with spiced shrimp

“Our guests gobbled it up instantly and several dishes with hearty portions came out soon after – smoked salmon crostini, heirloom tomato mozzarella bruschetta, tuna tartare with artichoke, harissa-spiced beef satay, and roasted beet with cambazola cheese and prosciutto. Everything was delicious and our guests raved about the food.

“We also had a fun time learning about the ingredients and watching Kyle prepare the food with his professional chef flair.

“By about 1 hour into the party, Kyle had finished cooking and had cleaned everything up. The kitchen actually looked cleaner than it did before he arrived! Kyle was extremely professional and a pleasure to have over.

“This was the first time we’ve had the luxury of having a private chef cook for us, and it was an incredible experience. We will definitely use Chefstro again!”

happy hosts

Thanks to Lisa and Mike for sharing your experience with us!

Chefstro is a great idea for birthday parties, romantic dinners, or any occasion you want to make special. Visit our website to find out how to get a Chefstro personal chef in your kitchen, and let us know how it goes. We’d love to feature your story on our blog. Write it up and send it to yourstory@chefstro.com.

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Tiny Kitchen, Big Taste

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Chef Jeffery Burgess Delivers in No Time Flat

Because we send them into kitchens they’ve never seen before, Chefstro chefs need to adapt to their surroundings and produce restaurant-quality meals even in modest kitchens. That’s why our rigorous vetting process includes a Tiny Kitchen Trial. We ask each chef to prepare a stunning meal in one of our apartments.

There they face limited counter space, a scarcity of professional cooking tools, and – maybe worst of all – electric stoves! Only those chefs who rise to the challenge and produce amazing food despite these limitations are invited to join the Chefstro network.

Chef Jeff Burgess

In this first installment of Tiny Kitchen Trials, we share the unforgettable meal Chef Jeffery Burgess created for us in one of our apartments. He blew us away with the flavors, creativity, and beautiful plating of his dishes. Even more impressive, he did it all in just 90 minutes!

He started things off with a light, refreshing scallop crudo.

Scallop Crudo

The star of the meal was pistachio-crusted halibut, served on a bed of roasted potatoes.

Pistachio-Crusted Halibut

Chef Burgess topped it all off with chocolate-coated cherries and yogurt. Moments like this make work feel like a guilty pleasure.

Chocolate-coated Cherries and Yogurt

Our kitchens may not be pretty, but they do highlight what our professional chefs can accomplish in limited space . . . and time!

Chef Burgess at work in our tiny kitchen

Clearly, Chef Burgess developed razor-sharp skills during his time in Europe and his training under Mario Batali. If he can produce stunning cuisine in our kitchen, he can do it anywhere!

We are up and running in Boston, so visit our website to find out how to get a Chefstro personal chef in your kitchen. Stay in the know: sign up to get exclusive promotions and updates.