Cooking with Jason

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Luke's Birthday Dinner

As you may be aware, Luke's first birthday was Saturday the 23rd. I made spaghetti (sauce from scratch, pasta from a box), whipped up a quick balsamic vinaigrette, and baked a cake.

The cake recipe was very simple on purpose -- we were already giving Luke tomatoes for the first time, so we didn't want any crazy ingredients in the cake (chocolate, for example). Sadly, this plan backfired horribly, but more on that later. Anyway, the cake is from a cookbook I highly recommend, American Classics, by the America's Test Kitchen people. What's interesting about the recipe is that rather than creaming together the butter and the sugar, as you'd normally do for a cake, they have you mix the dry ingredients and then add the butter a little bit at a time, more like the method you'd follow for making biscuits. Finally, you add the milk and eggs in a steady stream.

In any event, the cake came out very nicely both in terms of flavor and texture. I stacked the two rounds on top of each other, put a layer of homemade raspberry jam in the middle, and then frosted with a buttercream icing from the same book. Finally, the cake was decorated with red lines to look like the stitching and seams on a baseball (you're surprised, I can tell). For pictures, I suggest this link over at Luke's blog.

Unfortunately, Luke had a horrible allergic reaction after digging in to his first birthday cake. Given the timing, we're pretty sure it was the cake and not the spaghetti, though it didn't help matters that he was tired and rubbing spaghetti sauce in his right eye. What's there to be allergic to in cake? It was his first time to have egg whites, which our doctor suggested we not feed him during his first year of life. You can see how badly he swelled up here; it took two doses of Benadryl to get him back to normal. In any event, we're going to hold off on eggs for the time being, and will try out tomato sauce again to rule that out as the cause of his reaction.

Finally, I had my first great food moment with Luke last Friday. We were eating at Max's Memphis Barbeque in Red Hook, about 25 minutes north of here, and along with my ribs I ordered a side of collard greens. And wouldn't you know it, Luke loved the greens. Outside the South, how many one year olds are chowing down on collards? I was so proud of him. Next time we eat there, we'll order him his own side.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

NYC Dinner #1: Otto

Two Fridays ago, the 22nd, I took the train down to the city for the primary reason of meeting Carrie's parents at the airport Saturday morning. It was also an opportunity to hang out with my friend Shane, who happens to be living in the city as a summer associate at a law firm. After debating where we should go for dinner, he decided we make the short walk from his apartment to Otto, Mario Batali's pizzeria.

We started with a cheese plate. There were ten cheeses on the list, and we took the "5 for $14" option, selecting: Fiore di Maremma (sheep), Pecorino di Fossa (sheep), Aged Peppercorn (goat), Taleggio (cow), and Gorgonzola Dolce (cow). The cheeses were served with black truffle-infused honey, sour cherries in a thick syrup, and some preserved apricots. The cherries and apricots were great on their own but didn't add a whole lot to the cheese; the honey was wonderful and went well with most of the cheeses.

We were a bit disappointed by the gorgonzola, as it wasn't quite as funky (in that good, blue cheese sort of way) as we might have liked. This is not to say it wasn't a good cheese, however. My surprise favorite was the pecorino, which was nothing like the dry, hard pecorino-romano I was expecting. The texture was more like a dry feta, with a wonderful earthy, grassy flavor. The aged peppercorn was a close second. A week after the fact I don't remember much about the Fiore or the Taleggio, other than that I really liked one and the other not so much.

Next up, pizza. We ordered four (there were four of us, and the pizzas are definitely meant to serve one or two people):
  • Otto Lardo (Lardo is cured and smoked pork fatback)
  • Pane Frattau (Tomato, Pecorino, Egg)
  • Asparagus & Goat Cheese
  • Quattro Stagioni (Tomato, Mozzarella, Asparagus, Mushrooms, Cotto, Peppers)

    By mistake they also brought us a Pizza Bianca, which has only olive oil and sea salt, which was much better than it sounds and made for a nice break between pizzas.

    I know, the Lardo probably sounds weird. But boy, is it tasty. It's a bit hard to describe, though, as it doesn't really taste like pork... it just tastes... rich, but at the same time, lighter in flavor than you might imagine. Like I said, hard to describe. But highly recommended. The Pane Frattau was my choice, as I've been wanting to do a breakfast pizza with a whole egg on it, then baked in the oven. My only complaint is that it's hard to split one egg between six slices of pizza. I'm definitely on board with the concept, though. The other two pizzas were certainly good, but not mind-blowingly so. I'd like to try a mushroom pizza next time (we unfortunately had a non-mushroom eater in our party).

    This would be a good time to discuss Otto's wine list, which contains over 700 bottles -- every single one of them from Italy. We had a terrific Sangiovese (for I believe $42) with some of my favorite red wine characteristics, tobacco and leather. I know, that probably sounds crazy to some of you, but I also know there are a few of you out there who know exactly what I mean. All around a wonderful bottle of wine.

    For dessert, I went with Affogato -- vanilla gelato over which a shot of espresso was poured at the table. Very simple, but a great way to end a meal. Otto's gelato list includes the following flavors: vanilla, caramel, black mint, olive oil, mint chocolate chip, strawberry, lemon lavendar, black raspberry, chocolate, pistachio, hazelnut, and goat's milk ricotta, as well as lemon and canteloupe sorbetti. Yes, you read that correctly. They have olive oil gelato.

    All in all, a very good meal. Otto has a pretty hip, casual atmosphere, isn't stuffy at all, and the staff were very good. If you're in the neighborhood I suggest you check it out.

    Tune in tomorrow, when I'll have the recap of Luke's birthday dinner.
  • Playing Ketchup

    Ouch, bad pun there. I don't even like ketchup. But I do recognize the need to catch up on what's been going on with me, culinarily, especially given that school starts up again on Tuesday.

    First: A big shout out to my friend Deb, who recently took the plunge into blogging. Deb started at school the same time I did, but after the first six weeks she went off to do her baking and pastry thing. With any luck, we'll be reunited for the bachelor's program down the road in 2007. Man, that sounds like a long time off.

    Second, I have three things to post about: A very good dinner in New York City, Luke's birthday, and an incredible meal in New York City. I'm going to give each one its own post, moving in chronological order. So stay tuned.

    Tuesday, July 19, 2005

    A post for Emily

    Hi Emily!

    Bob tells me you don't think I'm posting often enough during break, so here goes -- a post just for you.

    Nothing much is happening right now. Luke's birthday is Saturday, so I'm in preliminary planning for the big day. So far we'll be having spaghetti, green beans, and some sort of salad. I'll also be making a cake, just a very simple vanilla with buttercream frosting, most likely decorated like a baseball (don't worry, there'll be pictures). I decided a few months ago that I'd make Luke a cake from scratch for his birthday every year. It's my hope that one day he'll be able to say, "No, Dad, I don't want the dacquoise layers with mocha buttercream again this year, I want a saccher torte."

    Hey, a guy can dream.

    Friday, July 08, 2005

    Sleeping with the fishes

    Fish ID & Fab is over, done, all gone, etc. Hugh sigh of relief. And it turns out I'm an even bigger fish stud than I am a meat stud. Today's three tests -- yield, written, ID -- were worth 50% of our final grade. Out of those 50, I pulled off a 49.6. Yes, a 49.6. I was the only person to get a perfect score on the written test... when we got back from lunch, Chef Clark was grading the papers. We all sat down and waited. Randomly, he barked out "Jason!" and of course I tensed up. He motioned for me to approach his desk. When I got there, he extended his hand and said, "Good job." Didn't mention the test, just said good job. Confused, I returned to my seat. But hey, I'm the only person he called up.

    Despite my performance today, there's no guarantee what sort of grade I'll get in the class. There's a very popular opinion that Chef Clark simply does not give out A's, or at least does so very, very rarely. Of course, the points I earned today are concrete, black-and-white, indisputable. The tricky part is that the other 50% of my grade is made up of daily performance and fabrication competency -- completely subjective on his part. If he really felt like never giving out an A, he could simply look at your 50 "concrete" points and then adjust the performance points down accordingly until you had a B. In any event, I'm going to expect a B and will be pleasantly surprised if things come out better.

    As I mentioned yesterday, today was caviar day. Today we tasted five caviars -- Beluga, Sevruga, Iranian Osetra, Russian Osetra, and a US caviar from (of all places) Kentucky -- as well as herring roe, three tobikos (flying fish roe, the stuff you see on your sushi), and salmon roe. I still don't like the stuff and don't understand the hype. It's incredibly salty with a not-subtle-in-the-least fishy taste and slimy texture. It was mildly interesting to taste the differences between the five caviars, and forced to choose I'd say the Russian Osetra was my favorite, but it's still not something I'm seeking out. I also don't care for vodka, particularly not straight, so all in all this was not my favorite tasting session.

    So now, joy of joys, three full weeks off. I'll try to post once a week during break.

    Thursday, July 07, 2005

    Six down, one to go

    Last day of fish tomorrow, and boy, is the entire class ready for it to be over. Testing tomorrow is just like we had in meat: ID test, written test, yield test. Except that instead of winding down by making sausage, we'll be having a caviar and vodka tasting. No, seriously. Other culinary schools don't taste caviar. Other culinary schools don't taste turbot, either, but vodka and caviar? I've eaten caviar once, any my reaction was, "What's all the fuss about?" I'll let you know how it goes this time around.

    After tomorrow I'm off for three full weeks. Upon our return, we'll be in Skill Development I with chef Alberto Vanoli, a relatively young Italian. As far as we can tell, we'll be his very first class. I have no idea what this will mean as far as class goes, but it goes without saying that he'll be quite a bit different than Chef Clark... but who wouldn't?

    Friday, July 01, 2005

    One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish

    Chef Clark, after riding us really hard for the first day and a half of class, has mellowed considerably. Given that nobody would describe his demeanor as mellow, I can only assume that our group performed well enough to keep him moderately happy. We did do a nice job with fabrication and cleaning on Thursday and carried that over into today.

    Meat class didn't make me want to stop eating meat, but fish class has me thinking about fish. I think it was the gutting on Wednesday that did it. The look, the smell, the texture... not good times. In meat you can wash your hands and nobody knows what class you're taking. With fish, you could shower and the smell would still be on you two days later. Yesterday I was on the ice team, the small group in charge of making sure the bins are correct in the morning, setting out all the fish for the day, and then checking in all the new fish that arrives in the afternoon. Whatever you do, don't ask Karen (the TA) what time the truck is coming. She'll let you know. Being on ice team is generally a miserable experience, because you're handling ice-cold fish, not to mention ice, and your hands hurt because of it.

    Anyway, at lunch I grabbed a cheese plate from the Italian kitchen. And you know what the cheeses tasted like? Fish. So did the salami. Mmm... fish salami. This after extensive handwashing before leaving for lunch, too.

    Today I filleted an Atlantic Salmon. I hadn't done any fish fabrication in probably a year, so I was pleased when my cuts were right along the backbone and didn't leave much flesh on the bones. It really does help to have a sharp, flexible fillet knife when working with fish, Ron. We also tasted some fish I'd never had before: Haddock, Pollock, Cusk, Brook Trout, and Steelhead Trout. Yesterday I had Skate, Turbot, and Dover Sole for the first time. Chef Clark steams them with no salt or pepper, so you can really get a sense of what the fish tastes like. We discuss the appearance, aroma, texture, mouthfeel, and flavor of the fish. He asks that when tasting, you try not to like or dislike the fish, only describe its characteristics.

    It has been a long, hard week, and I'm really looking forward to these three days off. Happy Fourth.