Friday, December 19, 2008

A Lesson Before Dining: Chapter 1

This week’s lesson was all about the basics. We took on knife skills, stock making, soup making, and omelets. The class met at Whole Foods in Columbus Circle to peruse the fresh produce and meats, discuss goals for the day, and select the ingredients for the hands on course work. The class chopped carrots, celery, rosemary, thyme, sage and mushrooms for the soup, and skinned chicken legs for the stock. We also made an Italian inspired omelet with a bit of thyme, parmesan, black pepper and a hint of Dijon mustard.

Below is a recount of the participants’ experiences:

The UE said…Stock making has always been a big issue with me. Though one of the most important ingredients in a plethora of dishes and sauces, I have never taken the time to learn how to properly make it, so this week was particularly exciting. Since the class is comprised of just me and my eager partner, it was great to share my knowledge and experience with a good friend who hadn’t been given the opportunity to learn things like dicing and boiling. We sat together at a table while prepping, discussing life and politics, and every so often I’d take the knife to show her how the easiest and safest way to perform a knife skill. It is my personal interest to see just how well this course will enable a culinary novice to be able to make their own foods, but everyone needs some guidance, and since we didn’t have time to watch the videos, this was my best bet. We prepped food, skimmed the stock, tasted and seasoned. Soup is one of those dishes that doesn’t really require exact ingredients, so it was a perfect starter to the course. While waiting for the flavors in the soup to commingle, we decided to make a quick omelet. Eggs are a lot like chicken – you can prepare them any number of ways with different seasonings and garnishes. I decided to make one to my tastes, tossed in some Dijon mustard and threw it on the pan. The food came out amazing – better than expected. I’ve never made soup before and I was scared it would taste weak and bland, but thanks to our selection of ingredients, we had a phenomenal soup on our hands.

Lou said…Daunting to say the least, I’ve always had a love hate relationship with cooking. In my household growing up, it was something that happened on very special occasions and holidays---sort of like a distant cousin that came to visit a few times a year. In my adult life, I’ve often scoffed at how much value is placed on women knowing how to cook (most likely because I didn’t have the know-how), but after years of Ramen noodles and canned Spaghetti-O’s, I find myself welcoming the opportunity to learn what this cooking things is all about.

Novice doesn’t quite capture what I am when it comes to cooking. In my first cooking session with my cooking aid/teacher, I had to be taught how to hold a cutting knife, and embarrassingly enough, had trouble getting the stove turned on. But alas, there was a certain pride I felt walking through Whole Foods picking out fresh ingredients; seeing and smelling them to detect quality. Chicken vegetable soup – with almost 17 unique ingredients was the challenge for the day. I learned to chop, mince, skin and boil chicken, and my aid threw in omelet making for good measure. Nothing was more gratifying than tasting the fruits of my labor. In my first session alone, my distant cousin cooking taught me many valuable lessons and take aways; patience, attentiveness and gratification. Looking forward to next week when we take on pasta and fried chicken.


White Chicken Stock
Hearty Chicken Soup
Fresh 4 Egg Omelet

Suggested Videos & Readings

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Back to Basics

Do I know how to cook?

That was the question I’d been asking myself the last few weeks. On the surface, it would seem almost facetious. I mean, I write a freaking blog about the foods I make and host numerous self-catered gourmet dinner parties. But, through one of my characteristic self-assessments, I asked myself if it were not for those recipes, would I be able to cook?

Let’s start from the beginning.

Recently, there was an audition for “The Next Food Network Star” held not too far from my office. More than a few of my friends heard about it, and began encouraging me to try out. Now, while I don’t LIKE Food Network, or the show itself, I considered it. At the very least, the ego boost of being on TV would be an unmatchable experience. I watched some clips of competitions and began to get this inexplicable knot in my stomach. I said no to trying out for the Food Network show. But still, that knot was there…

The knot came back while I was watching the first episode of the current season of Top Chef. Inspired by the nickname of this season’s host city, New York, the chefs were forced to use their basic knife skills to peel and dice apples, and ultimately create an awe-inspiring dish out of those same apples. The loser of this challenge was sent home after just arriving. Typical New York – go hard or go home crying.

I found myself wondering if I would have been the one sent home. The knot in my stomach returned with a vengeance. I realized I would have had no idea what to do in that scenario. What would I have done with apples? How could I possibly have come up with a dish that would have impressed the judges so soon after arriving?

I took a long, hard look at my cooking abilities, and after reading and meditation I realized just what was missing. I find that while I can execute a recipe well, my problems tend to come mostly from conceptualizing outside of my abilities. I am limited in my knowledge of HOW to do certain things, like poaching or properly oven roasting certain meats, and because of said ignorance, I am restricted in the number of options I mentally iterate through when evaluating what to cook. All too often I find myself standing in grocery aisles holding produce and thinking “what can I do with this”, when often times the culinary greats I know would be saying “this would be good if I did this, or this, and maybe even this”.

I decided it was time to admit the gap in my own abilities and experiences, and get back to basics.

I designed a self-directed cooking syllabus, complete with readings, video tutorials, and homework tasks, that should cover all the chef basics from knife skills to sauce making to poaching. To test the efficacy of this course, I have recruited a close friend who has interest in learning how to cook, but never had the exposure or time to learn. If effective, she will be able to cook basic meals with confidence and inspiration upon completion of this course, and I should emerge with the fundamental understanding of a much broader spectrum of techniques that I can continue to build upon as any culinary graduate would.

Will I emerge a chef, deserving of a kingly jacket and command of minions? Or come home still just a cook looking for a recipe?

-The UE

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Friday, December 12, 2008

This Week, In Wine Class

For the last 6 weeks, I, with my trusty companion Lemnada, have been taking the Introduction to Wine Essentials course at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). It has been an incredibly enriching experience, despite its poor timing (Saturday from 7-9pm EST). I mean, that’s prime time!

Taught by an engaging Richard Vayda, veteran of the wine industry and member of the
Sommelier Society, the course began with an introduction to the basics – the general history of wine, how it is made, and its nutritive importance to the world then and now. Richard gave us an overview of just how important wine is to certain cultures, especially in France, which has the most rigorous classification system for wine today. We also discussed the subject of terroir and its importance to the quality of the wine, as well as the surrounding climate that incubates the grapes to their best.

Before this class, I always thought of wine (and food) as a great way to reach back through history and connect with a people different than myself. Despite cultural background, gender or status, all peoples had a form of wine in their lives, whether it was nutritious, sanitary, or just plain tasted good. I had done a fair amount of research, but wanted to enhance my knowledge by leaning on an expert to fill the gaps.

While taking the class, Richard offered not only the techniques and know-how for wine tasting, but the image of a person truly in love with the wine experience. After spending so much time discussing how much care goes into creating wine, from picking the right grapes, to blend proportions, and even the vessels in which the wine ferments, wine itself became a form of art, representing centuries of family traditions expressed in a simple, unassuming glass. I began to see this beverage as more than just a medium through which ancient man stored calories or even trade leverage over another country. Wine began to be a full blown sensory experience.

After the class, I pondered exactly what I had taken away from the class that I would share with the masses. Did I learn more about the history of wine? Yes. Could I lecture you more accurately and knowledgeably about the importance of terroir? Definitely. Am I more of a snob? I plead the fifth, but I’m sure my friends have their own opinions.

However, none of these topics affected me as deeply as the implications of the actual wine tasting process. Wine tasting typically conjures thoughts of
turtlenecks, fondue and Kenny G’s greatest hits. But I think the most important, and sadly most often, overlooked aspect of wine tasting is the incredibly enriching and stimulating personal experience offered. Drinking a glass of wine is more than just washing down your canapé or steak. It’s a rejuvenating opportunity to pause and step outside of your stress, your daily calamities and the whirlwind lives we all live to fall helplessly into an abyss of enjoyment. Tasting wine is less about what’s in the glass and more about stopping to notice every little detail. It envelops your olfactory with a wash of aromas, coaxing your memory to remember ghosts of Christmas past (seriously, when was the last time you had a blackberry pie?). It slows down life and forces you, the busy urban professional, to appreciate and understand that some things in life cannot be next-day delivered, instant messaged, or told to step-on-it. Some things, beautiful things, must be taken slowly and savored down to the last morsel. I realized just how much life has been flying by me lately, and how much I looked forward each week to stopping to smell the rosé.

-The UE

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Post Script - Proper Tasting Technique

For those of you interested, here is a quick summary of proper wine tasting technique, and the information on the course I took. Worth every penny!

Proper Tasting (Courtesy of Richard Vayda)

Step 1 – Look

Tilt the glass slightly away from you so light can shine directly onto the wine. It’s generally best to hold wine over a white surface to ensure proper visibility of the color. With age, white wines become darker, evolving from green, to yellow, gold and finally brown. Oppositely, red wines lose their color, changing from dark purple, to red, to brick. Knowing this helps you assess if the wine is appropriately aging in the bottle. For example, a 2008 white shouldn’t be gold – something may have been wrong with the how the wine was wine stored. Take time to appreciate the color, its density, and the feeling it gives you. Some wines look silky and soft, and others look creamy and deliciously rich. How does this one make you feel?

Step 2 – Smell

Swirl the glass (beginners, keep it on the table and swirl by holding the base) to agitate the wine and release some of the smells. Put your nose to the glass – don’t hesitate to stick it all the way in – and inhale. Do you smell any off or sour odors that you typically wouldn’t smell in wine? This may indicate something wrong with the bottle. Do you smell tree fruit, citrus fruit, or berries? New or old fruit? Can you detect the smell of woodiness, sometimes thought to be smokiness? What else is in there? Really get after it and try to appreciate the complete smell for its building blocks.

Step 3 – Taste

Swirl the glass, smell it again, and take a small sip, enough to cover your tongue. How does it feel in your mouth, heavy, light, or in between? Does the sweetness tingle the front of your tongue? Is there enough acid or tannin in the wine to percolate the edges? And how about the back of your tongue, any bitter stimulation there? Take another sip and really go after the flavor. Open your mouth slightly and breathe some air over the wine to encourage the smells to stimulate your senses. Did the smells translate into flavor? Did those ripe strawberries get in the glass? Was the wine deceptively tart smelling, but in fact is a bright and lively mix of dark cherries? Did that grassy smell translate into a hay flavoring?

Step 4 – Discuss

Take a second to talk amongst yourselves. Did your tastes line up? Were there things that your compatriots tasted that maybe you missed? Feel free to share if the wine strikes a particular memory before (I've been on a beer tasting at which the beer reminded me of black eyed peas after New Years). Wine is not only a partner for food, but a partner for intimate, genuine conversation. This is not a competition. The final step is about sharing a bit of yourself with the people you chose to spend this precious time with. Enjoy!

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Thursday, December 11, 2008


To My Beloved Readers,

Today, Taste and See has recorded 10,000 hits to the site, in under a year. While this is not an astronomical feat in comparison to other sites, I find it infinitely motivating! This blog was established primarily as an outlet for my thoughts and creative aspirations through discussing the medium I love the most - food. For this content and these topics to continue resonating with an ever expanding audience means the world to me (and confirms that I may only be a little crazy). I appreciate every word you read, and every visit you pay. I look forward to continuing this journey together.

You stay classy readers, and thanks for stopping by.

Warmest Regards and Thanks,
The UE

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008


To My Favorite Bordeaux,

I can't say I know too many people who liked you when you were younger. You were too caustic, too one dimensional and too obtuse. Suffice to say, you were just too sour for people to palette. Some of the less intuitive gave up on you, citing their disappointment that so much potential amounted to such an unimpressive slosh with an overpriced cork on its shoulders.

But something about you told me to stick around. I don't know. Something about your aura gave me a glimmer of hope for a better future. I kept you around and watched you evolve. Gave you the space you needed to grow. Tried to temper your environment. Even shared words of encouragement and tidbits of inspiration to push your aspirations higher. For a few years, you resisted, and even I almost gave up. Not even Dionysus himself could force a change in your tannic ways.

I blissfully bore witness to the gradual shedding of your former self, and like a butterfly you emerged from your self-imposed protective shell to grace the world with the inner radiance I saw in you before I knew what to call it. I am proud to say I know you, for to know you is to know perseverance, humility and hope.

You only get better with time.

-The UE

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