Zen and the Art of Cooking

30 09 2009

This is a short post. Yet one should not correlate brevity with import. For those of us who seek the kitchen to practice our craft, I find sometimes we ask not “Why?” And we should. We get caught up in the business of doing; we focus on the production of product. For me the kitchen is a refuge, a quiet place. It may not necessarily be to others with music blaring, sounds of chopping and blending (and frequently cursing) but within my mind it is a quiet place; in the same way in a room filled with lethal weapons and people screaming and bodies flying about is a quiet place. As a Martial or Culinary Artist these places are my temples. These places are my cathedrals to enter and leave the busy city outside the doors. It is in those hallowed halls that I can shed the cloak of Society and let my mind delve into a deeper Humanity. It is, for me, a place of Meditation. We all have them and they are as varied as we are individuals. We need to seek them out and practice our crafts, search for our needs and carry the effects of the experience back with us as we exit the doors and reenter the world outside. The specifics of that experience will be uniquely and personally yours. So where does your pursuit of Happiness lead you? Wherever it does, ask “Why?” Then, as Joseph Campbell once said, simply “follow your bliss.”

Opportunity or Hypocrisy

28 09 2009

I sat watching TV because that’s all I could do. I had turned my chronically unstable ankle and now could not bear weight on my right leg. Being on call, I performed a one-footed emergency coronary intervention. When we were done the patient was in better shape than I. It had been awhile since the pain had been this intense. I noticed in an outside observer manner that while one can focus through short periods of discomfort the intense non-stop pain does begin to wear you down after hours and days. Only so long you can focus it out and in that time between focusing the pain out and passing out from exhaustion I wondered how the hell to shut down my pain conduction nerve fibers. All this to say that I was in a really pissy mood.

While carrying a “feisty” attitude, bedridden, I surfed the channels. I saw the same amazingly contradictory commercial themes again and again. A number of commercials for fast food junk, extreme portions and hedonistic indulgence at all cost. An equal number for fitness, weight loss and “sensible” (and no doubt expensive) packaged programs-some complete with telephone pals to help you out when feeling a little low.

This begs the question: is this opportunity or hypocrisy. Do we offer ourselves a “choice” between the non-stop over indulgence and the pay through the nose ring “sensible and healthy” approach? Or do we secretly continue to indulge and leave the other extreme as a “break open in case of emergency” alarm to assuage our guilty (and by now extremely obese) conscience? Wearing an MBA cap it seems that there wouldn’t be the abundance of opportunities at either end of the spectrum if there wasn’t cash to be had on both ends. Seems to me that the money is being made ping-ponging us back forth from one extreme to the other.

We need real food. Real, good tasting food. We need to get beyond this pathetic mass produced self-addicting gruel we are programmed to consume. But like the Amazing Spiderman says, with great taste, comes great responsibility. OK, he didn’t really say that, but he would have if Peter Parker was a chef and not a photographer. You can make fresh food that tastes great. Let’s look at the Fall Harvest menu. Some nice fruits and veggies in the pickled beets, pan-simmered apples and Napa cabbage. A tasty and light finish with apple pie granita. There’s also some delicious smoked pork butt. Now, a nice 4oz serving of the pork butt comes out to around 250-300 calories. That’s roughly the same caloric content of a nutra systems “pizza” meal. I tried one of those things; suffice to say it was not a “pizza” or “delicious”. It may have been “man-food” if “man food” consists of the scraps of worse-than-nasty-bits from the cave floor even Andrew Zimmern wouldn’t eat. More like Neanderthal Man-food, but so nasty I’m not even sure a caveman would eat it. Suffice to say that with 4oz of meat and all the other fixins you’re getting between 12-16oz of food-that’s ¾ to 1 pound of consumables- and should satiate the heartiest appetite. Point being, you can eat well, with delicious tasty food, without sacrificing flavor, if we start to eat correctly. It is not just what you eat, but how you eat it that matters as well. What is peddled to the public seems to be two extremes of gluttony and deprivation. It seems a bit hypocritical. Cash flow seems derived from pushing us from one to the other, as if health and taste are mutually exclusive. The opportunity is to secure balance in the middle. It makes sense to me but I just hope it’s not a sleep denied pain derived endorphin driven hallucination. Regardless, I still feel pissy.

On the Air!

26 09 2009

For those who can get it; What’s Cookin’ with Doc is airing this month and next on TV 35, local cable in Dublin, Georgia. If you don’t, you can view the episodes from the show  under the recipe video demos and see the show via the web!

The Blue and the Gray

25 09 2009

I have recently had a terrible virus. It knocked me down, forced me to get drugged up and left me horizontal for the last several days. In the diphenhydramine dextromethorphan induced state I was in I was receiving visions like the Pythos. We had just returned from viewing the battlefield at Gettysburg over the weekend and my visions mixed with the recent sites. When we had visited the battlefield it was a perfect day, pleasant with light cloud cover and no crowds. We had done the auto tour since the battlefield covers around twenty-five miles. We had also purchased the accompanying audio tour that added narration, stories and the sounds of cannons and screaming Minnie balls to the viewing.

The battle was immense. In this arena there was over 170,000 men fighting over three days with over 50,000 wounded, dead or missing. All this occurred around a town of 2,400 people.  I had not really understood that the fate of our country’s destiny was decided many times those days by a handful of men and a few minutes of time. It was truly humbling. Yet, what impressed me most, what swelled inexorably to the forefront like the very charge of General George E. Pickett and his men, was the incredibly savagery and courage during the fighting and incredible peace-making in the aftermath. Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain (a Col. at the time of the battle) remarked years later:

 “In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream; And lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

Having both Northern and Southern ties, I was moved by all the participants and their stories. Both sides had a belief for an ideal, a principle so strong, that people marched forward to near certain death. Perhaps it was the time. In the aftermath that followed the attitudes of former combatants perhaps reflected the very personal nature on the conflict; man upon man, friend upon friend, brother upon brother. Death and suffering were everywhere. Certainly it is not like our current remote control video game like destruction of enemies, nameless and faceless. As we visited the different contested areas that make up the battlefield everywhere were echoes of Chamberlin’s words; combatants later shaking hands with the men that had shot or stabbed them. The battle was the battle, but for those that fought they later moved on with the healing. The Country we enjoy today is the result of a rebirth upon those bloody plains and hills. The ability to move forward, to heal, that somehow seems lacking in other places. I certainly cannot explain it, but wars rage everywhere today, and everywhere it seems that no matter who the victor is this week, the old hatreds remain with roots running deep. Because of what those men did and died for those three days in July, we as a country moved together.

What does this have to do with Food? Not a lot in the broad context of things and certainly not much compared to what transpired on that countryside. Yet, I have written how food defines us and our culture. I have written about the need for preservation of those pockets of uniqueness. I wondered if those differences kept us apart somehow. Yet as I looked at those once smoky fields, those hills once alive with shouts of charges and cannons yielding later in the day to moans of the dying, I saw the tress changing and Fall’s patchwork arriving. I realized the magnificence was not a single tree or bush or tuft of grass. It was the very combinations of those individual sights each like a section of the orchestra contributing in time. I saw that Northern or Southern, West coast or East coast, Red state or Blue state, Dallas or Chicago, liberal or conservative, we were like those individual elements. And our food while reflecting all diversities, while preserving dialects, reflects us likewise. We in this country have a unique capacity to be diverse and yet be united that does not seem to exist as such in other parts of the world. Our country has had a rough time of it in the international arena of late, but as I looked across the meadows I was proud of who we are and where we came from. For when I left that hallowed ground I realized that we all share this same good earth; we are all Americans.

View some photos and play this tune while you do (pictures courtesy of J.E. Fenster; “Haunted by the Waters” copyright by Kevin Millis, used by permission):


gburg1releethe wheatfieldpath to pickettgburg6gburg5gburg4gburg2gburg3

Fall Harvest Feast is Here!

19 09 2009

OK! We made it! Time for some easy finishing touches, enjoy the company and the food. Here are the last steps.

Pork BBQ:Set the smoker to about 210-215 degrees F, using hickory wood (or any other flavor you prefer). Smoke for 8-12 hours at this temperature. Check frequently so you make sure you have continuous smoke. If you have a regular charcoal grill, use as a smoker by placing the coals to ½ of the coal area. When the coals are hot add soaked wood. Place the butt over to the side with no direct heat. Use a thermometer to gauge and maintain appropriate heating if your grill doesn’t have one. The meat is ready when it easily pulls away from the bone. When done, remove from smoker, loosely cover with foil and allow it to rest for about an hour or two.

Pan Simmered Apples and Napa Cabbage:While the pork is resting, finish this dish. Peel and core then thinly slice 2 Granny smith apples. Simmer in a pan with 1 tbs smart balance, butter or other substitute, 1tbs cinnamon, 1 crushed clove and 1 1tsp ground allspice. Add 1/3 cup of apple cider vinegar and 1/3 cup apple juice. In another saucepan cook 1 head thinly sliced Napa Cabbage with 2 tbs smart balance and 2 tbsp olive oil. Drain cabbage when done (soft, but still with a  little crunch in the ribs). Combine apples and cabbage.

Roast the corn with Pork while it is finishing cooking.

Serve all of the above together, the pickled beets (see recipe section make a nice side).

Place 1 tbsp of vanilla yogurt in a martini or cocktail glass, shave the granita (like an Italian Ice) place on top and serve for dessert.

Harvest Fall Feast-Day 5

18 09 2009

Almost there! Like the turtle in the race, our little bit of work each day is getting us to the finish line. Almost there, and the rest is easy now!

Pork Butt Barbecue:  Remove the pork butt from the wild game brine. We will use the rub we made the other day. Apply the rub generously to the pork butt. The butt often has a cap of fat on top. If so, I use a boning knife or other thin blade to cut the cap back about ¾ of the way so that there is a flap you can lift and see the surface of the meat. I place rub directly on the meat, put the cap in place and continue to cover all exposed surfaces. Set the butt in the refrigerator until we get ready to smoke.

Apple Pie Granita: 

  • 1/3 cup sugar or Splenda/Truvia (use proper sweetness conversion)
  • 3 cups apple juice
  • 1 lime
  • 2 tbsp Apple Pie Spice (recipe follows)
  • 6-8 oz vanilla yogurt

Combine all ingredients except yogurt in a blender and thoroughly mix.  Filter through fine sieve lined with cheesecloth. Pour the mixture into a 9 or 10 inch metal baking pan. Freeze the mixture, checking every hour or so to smash out lumps or chunks if the form. It should be fully frozen in 4 to 5 hours. To serve, place a tablespoon of yogurt on the bottom of a martini or other cocktail glass. Shave thin layers of the granita and place on top, serve immediately.

Fall Harvest Feast-Day 4

17 09 2009

Today is briney. We’ll make our Wild Game Brine. It is important after we bring the mix to a boil to let it  cool to room temperature. We do not want to parboil the pork. Only after the mixture has cooled will we put the  pork in to brine until tomorrow. If needed, place a plate on top of the pork with a weight to make sure the entire butt is submerged.

Wild Game Brine

  • 3 cups pickling salt
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 orange, quartered
  • 1 lemon, quartered
  • 4 sprigs of thyme
  • 2 sprigs of rosemary
  • ¼ cup smashed garlic
  • 1 sliced jalapeño (keep the membrane and seeds intact if you like it hotter)
  • 1 onion quartered
  • 3 ribs celery, roughly chopped
  • 3 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 can Guinness beer
  • 4-5 qts of water

Add the salt and sugar to the water; bring to a boil to dissolve. As the mixture cools, add all the other ingredients. Allow to come to room temperature then add the game meat. Make sure the liquid is room temperature before adding any meat. It is important you do not cook or poach the meat. Brine the meat for 6 to 24 hours.

Harvest Fall Feast Day 3

16 09 2009

Welcome to Day 3. Today we make some BBQ sauce. This is a tad spicy, but not too much so. If you like it spicy, add more cayenne. A little sweeter, add more honey. Make it to your taste. For the Cilantro-butter, the other piece of prep work, I like to use omega-3 enhanced smart balance, so it’s a little more on the healthy side.

Western North Carolina Barbecue Sauce

  • 4 tbsp Smart Balance (you can use butter or other butter substitute)
  • 1 ½ cups minced onion
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp Emeril Creole Seasoning
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 2 tsp dry mustard
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 6oz tomato paste
  • 1½ cups water
  • ¾ cup cider vinegar
  • 2 tbsp honey

Place the onions together with the Smart Balance in a saucepan over medium heat and cook until translucent, approximately four minutes. Add all the other ingredients, except the water, honey and vinegar. Cook, stirring constantly until the tomato paste turns brick in color. Add the water, vinegar and honey. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently until reduced by about a third. Remove from heat and cool. Use an immersion blender or place in batches into a blender to puree everything together.

Cilantro-Lime Butter

  • 8oz smart balance, butter or other butter substitute
  • 2 tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • Allow the butter or butter substitute to soften to room temperature. Using a wooden spoon or electric mixer, cream the butter. Mix in the lime juice and cilantro. Place in some cling wrap. If you have a bamboo mat (used for rolling sushi), place the cling wrap over the mat. Roll the cling wrap over the butter mixture to form an even log, about 1 inch in thickness. Twist off the ends to seal and refrigerate until needed.

    Fall Harvest Feast-Day 2

    15 09 2009

    OK, shopping done. Today we make two spice preps to use later in the week. This is  a key to successful mise en place, getting any and all available prep work done. You just do not want to do ahead of time things or processes (like cooking meat so you have to reheat) that will negatively affect the flavor. These spice preps will last several months; you can make batches (just follow the proportions) and place them in the spice cabinet. If you can find whole spices, then grind them (old coffee bean grinder is what I use, or you can use a traditional mortar and pestle) it tends to provide superior flavor. Here’s the first:

    Basic Pork Barbecue Rub:

    • 1 tsp cumin seed
    • 1 tsp fennel seed
    • 1 tsp coriander seed
    • 1 tbsp Emeril Creole Spice
    • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
    • 1 tsp smoked paprika
    • 1 tsp dried chipotle chile pepper

    Toast the cumin, fennel and coriander seed lightly. Place those in a grinder and process. Combine with all the other ingredients and store. Feel to vary spice combinations as suits your preference, more heat? Add more cayenne. I recommend perfecting the basic first. Next verse, same as the first.

    Apple Pie Spice

    • 4 tbsp ground cinnamon
    • 2 tbsp ground nutmeg
    • 1 tbsp ground allspice
    • 1 tbsp ground cardamom

    Combine all ingredients in an airtight container, mix well and store. This will keep for several months. This is how we want to do it. We finished shopping and organizing Day 1. Today, just a  little quick work; we’ll do the same until the day of the feast so the majority of cooking (even for an all day Feast) and prep is done in small bite size bits even those with a busy schedule can easily get done.

    Fall Harvest Feast-Day 1

    14 09 2009

    Day One: Shopping.

    The best way to get organized for a specific task, in this case preparing a food and feast gathering, is to make sure you have what you need before you start. Sounds simple, but I think we’ve all been there when, in the midst of undoubtedly the most critical time period, we look around to say”Damn, I’m out of X.” This method avoids that problem.

    • Gather all the recipes you will use
    • Make a master inventory list of all the ingredients, including quantities
    • Make sure you list each ingredient under the proper recipe heading, that way if you can’t get something you know which recipe you have to change
    • Check off what items are already in your kitchen. Do not forget to check dates and for spoilage. For example, check the dates on baking soda or eggs if you have to use them. Make sure you have the quantities needed, if you need 2 cups of milk make sure it’s not gone sour and there’s enough
    • Here’s an example list for our Fall Feast
      • Wild Game Brine
        • 3 cups Pickling Salt
        • 1 cup brown sugar
        • 1 orange, quartered
        • 1 lemon, quartered
        • 4 sprigs of thyme
        • 2 sprigs rosemary
        • 4 cloves garlic, smashed
        • 1 jalapeño or other hot pepper, sliced lengthwise with membrane intact
        • 1 onion, quartered
        • 3 ribs celery, roughly chopped
        • 3 carrots, roughly chopped
        • 1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
        • 1 can Guinness beer
        • 4-5 quarts water
      • Pork Barbecue
        • Charcoal or gas for grill/smoker
        • Wood chips for smoking
        • 1 pork butt (6-8 pounds)
      • Basic Pork Barbecue Rub
        • 1 tsp cumin seed
        • 1 tsp fennel seed
        • 1 tsp coriander seed
        • 1 tsp Emeril Spice
        • 1 tsp smoked paprika
        • 1 tsp dried chipotle chile pepper
      • Western North Carolina Style Barbecue Sauce
        • 4 tbsp Smart Balance
        • 1 ½ cups onion, finely chopped
        • 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
        • 2 tsp Emeril Spice
        • 2 tsp smoked paprika
        • 2 tsp dry mustard
        • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
        • ½ tsp ground black pepper
        • 6oz tomato paste
        • 1 ½ cups water
        • ¾ cup apple cider vinegar
        • 2 tbsp honey
      • Roasted Corn with Cilantro-Lime Butter
        • 1 ear of corn per guest
        • 8 oz smart balance or butter (equal to 2 sticks of butter)
        • 1 lime
        • 2 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
      • Pan Simmered Apples and Napa Cabbage
        • 2 Granny Smith apples
        • 2 oz smart balance
        • ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
        • ¼ cup apple juice
        • 1 lemon
        • 1 head Napa cabbage, sliced thinly
        • 1 tbsp shallot, finely chopped
        • 1 tbsp olive oil
        • 1 tsp fresh ground cinnamon
        • ¼ tsp fresh ground allspice
        • 1 freshly ground clove
        • ½ cup light chicken stock
      • Apple Pie Granita
        • 1/3 cup sugar or Splenda/Truvia (use proper sweetness conversion)
        • 3 cups apple juice
        • 1 lime
        • 2 tbsp Apple Pie Spice
        • 6-8 oz vanilla yogurt
      • Apple Pie Spice
        • 4 tbsp ground cinnamon
        • 2 tbsp ground nutmeg
        • 1 tbsp ground allspice
        • 1 tbsp ground cardamom

    The next phase after we see what we have in the kitchen and what we need to go purchase is to make a quick prep list. I don’t want to have to do everything at once at the last minute, so we do as much ahead of time as possible. Here’s an example for our Fall Feast with Monday being the day we make our inventory list, check par stock in our kitchen and shop:

    To Make Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
    Brine     X    
    Pork       X Put on smoker
    BBQ sauce   X      
    Cabbage         X
    Corn         X
    Cilantro butter   X      
    Rub X        
    Apple Pie Spice X        
    Granita       X  

    So our table outlines very quickly what we need to do each day. Monday we make our menu, collect recipes, make a complete inventory list, check par stock and get the ingredients we need. Then on Tuesday we make the rub and apple pie spice mixtures, and so on down the week. When Saturday (Feast Day) arrives we need only smoke the pork, roast the corn and cook the cabbage; all very simple tasks. When we go to cook each individual recipe we apply the same mise en place principle on an individual recipe scale. A great example is the Pate a Choux video (in the Recipe video demos section). Everything we need is premeasured out and located within easy reach. For example with the Apple Pie Granita, we would have our metal 9 or 10 inch baking dish ready and next to our blender. Our apple pie spice was already made and we have 2 tbsp measured out and ready to be dumped into the blender. Our lime juice, apple juice and sugar (or substitute) are also measured out and ready to go. Then it is one simple step to properly combine our ingredients and finish the recipe. It is neat and efficient in a quick but not rushed manner. It should resemble a well executed basketball play or offensive drive in football; a methodical, organized and effective march up the court or field resulting in a perfect score.