Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Changing Industry

Your career, in a very visible sense, is really a tiny microcosm of your life. You grow, evolve, and mature with each new experience and span; and hopefully, you learn from it, becoming wiser (incidentally, a serious relationship is also very much the same microcosm... but i digress).

As I have grown and evolved in my career as a cook, I have also had the great fortune to be smack in the middle of an industry that has gone through some dramatic and wonderful changes with me. In the last five years, food in this country has become its own celebrity. Its television has seen the MTV trajectory to stardom, acquiring a second channel to catch the overflow. It has even seen multiple international Movements, championed by activists like Alice Waters and brilliant scientists like the Adria brothers.

(Okay, if you're a biochemist at NIH you may chide me for that last example, but take it easy.)

It has been so fun to grow as a cook within such an exciting context. Even when I was in Spain, literally at the center of the recent molecular gastronomy movement and living in a suburb of one of the best food cities on the planet, I was not fully aware of how lucky I was. My time in SF directly thereafter also couldn't have been more serendipitous: to be in a city so obsessed with food, in a place that gets some of the best food and wine in the world, how could I not soak it all up like a thirsty little sponge? I have not spent a day without exquisite food in almost five years, mostly because I have surrounded myself with it, both intentionally and, admittedly, by wonderful, wonderful luck.

Now, as I am at a point in my career where I am beginning to see a more crystalized vision of what I want and where I'm headed, I have begun to delve deeper into an industry that is also changing, and very much for the better.

Catering used to be, in a word, uniform. Twenty years ago, you could go to twelve weddings in a year, and at each one you could bet your sweet ass you were getting a green salad and a choice of severely subpar chicken, steak, or salmon. Banquets and other events were grayscale and predictable. The thing is, nobody really cared that much because you didn't go to a wedding or a corporate event for the food. And yes, you may have gotten lobster when it was fancy or had some outside-the-box whatever, but the point is that standards were low.

But now, food has gotten sexy. Sexy can be slutty, dirty sexy, like short skirts and tube tops and lots of makeup (hello gravy fries, greasy pepperoni pizza, and bacon cheeseburger, you look delicious!); but it can also be jaw-dropping and classy, almost leaving you speechless. However it's done, food is no longer satisfied with being unsatisfying. It's been given some attention and knows it can make you drool, and it feels good about that.

Suffice it to stay, the standards in catering have been raised accordingly and significantly; companies and chefs are starting to treat food the same way restaurants do, with the same TLC and imagination. It's fun, it's exciting, and at its best it's exhilarating. Best of all, not everyone is doing it just yet, so there's still a sliver of unchartered territory to play around on.

Knives in hand, I'm still moving forward and loving it all.

(by the way, the photo at the top is courtesy of catering company CuisineStyle and chef Pamela Keith, based out of south SF. and it's badass.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Frying: The Sluttiest Cooking Method

It's no secret that fried food is... what's the word? Oh yeah; DELICIOUS.

French fries, mozzarella sticks, fried chicken, fish and chips, potato chips, doughnuts, jalapeƱo poppers, and on and on and on. Dropping something into hot oil until it's crispy and golden brown is a near-guarantee to make it even tastier than it already was. This even applies to non edible objects: Nobu has deep fried otherwise inedible eel bones, turning them into a crispy, beautiful garnish. Following this logic, I'd imagine you could take a Timberland boot, bread it, deep fry it, and get 4 out of 5 Texans to love it.

It does make sense; fat is something our body is evolutionarily conditioned to find appealing, as it is very high in calories and thus packed with usable energy. That's why we sometimes crave specifically fatty foods, and why adding butter to something is akin to giving it wings and a harp. Think about hangovers: when you're really hungover, your body is at its worst, completely in crisis mode and in need of repair. You crave things like bacon and eggs or chilaquiles because your cells need some serious, energy-packed fuel if it they're going to have any chance of rebuilding themselves. A salad, nutrient-dense as it is, just isn't going to cut it; you need FOOD.

That all being said, knowing the science behind why something tastes delicious is probably the furthest thing from your mind when you're ravenously shoving that ninth mozzarella stick into your mouth. Especially because it's more than just the fat in the frying process that's making it sooooo gooooood. Fried things are also crispy crunchy, and quite often belie a soft, squishy center. All of these things combined are the reason functioning members of society went so far as to deep fry butter. And win an award for it. It just goes to show, there's not really much that you can't conceivably fry: doughs, batters, eggs, meat, cheese fruits, vegetables, breads, ice cream... I wasn't all that far off with my hyperbolic Timberland idea. Moreover, frying is often a great way to repurpose an already finished product. Roast chicken on Monday night, for instance,  can become fried chicken tenders on Tuesday.

So when I had a bunch of leftover risotto this past weekend, Julia suggested I turn it into arancini, which are Italian risotto fritters, typically breaded and fried. Ceci and I had plans to hang out around the house on Sunday, so I knew a cooking project, especially one that ended with fried treats, would be a very welcome activity. Plus, the standard breading procedure is a much easier (and cleaner) task with two pairs of hands, so I was happy to have the help.

The batch of risotto, which I had coincidentally cooked for Ceci and myself a couple days prior, was a particularly fantastic one, and a great start to the arancini. It was cooked with a homemade corn stock made from sweet summer corn, finished with a tart, juicy Sauvignon Blanc, and brightened up with plenty of lemon zest and basil; there were kernels of fresh corn in it as well, little morsels of sunshine and sugar that burst as you chewed. It was like candy made from sunshine.

I put Ceci to work forming the risotto into tiny cakes. It's a bit tricky, because you need to be delicate in order to keep the risotto intact, yet still squeeze them in your cupped palm with enough force to compress them into solid parcels. If you ever made sand cakes at the ocean's edge when you were a kid, you know what I'm talking about. While Ceci shaped cakes, I prepped the rest of the ingredients (rice flour, a whipped egg, and breadcrumbs), got some oil into the Le Creuset, and brought it up to around 350. I also threw together an admittedly peculiar-sounding sauce, comprised mainly of sour cream, chipotle in adobo, and the tiny remainder of a scallop-fondant/shallot/Sauv Blanc cream sauce I had served with the original risotto. I know that sounds like little more than "Stoner's Delight" sauce at first glance, but the flavors worked beautifully together: the fondant sauce was salty and umami-rich, the chipotle and adobo had earthy heat, and it all swirled to harmony amid cool, rich sour cream. It was seriously chronic.

Side by side, Ceci and I made a little assembly line: first, each cake was coated with rice flour to absorb moisture and form a waterproof coating around the risotto. Next it was dipped in egg, then rolled gently in breadcrumbs, and placed on a baking sheet to wait. As Ceci finished crumbing the last few cakes, I checked the oil temperature. It was a little lower than I wanted and would take a minute to come up, so I decided to take advantage of the lower temp while it lasted. I picked a few of the nicest looking basil leaves from a bunch I had in my fridge, and gingerly dropped each one in the oil, ensuring they had enough space to prevent crowding. Delicately flipping them every now and then, I waited until most of the bubbles had stopped forming around them, then plucked them out one by one, laid them on a paper towel to cool, and sprinkled them lightly with kosher salt. The result of this process is actually quite beautiful: the basil leaves end up resembling stained glass in the way they catch the light, and their crispy texture is ethereal, melting in your mouth. The frying completely redefines the basil and it is undeniably awesome.

Now I had a fancy-shmancy garnish and my oil was ready to go. Looking like little crab cakes, the 12 aroncini were lined up beside the stove; I shallow fried them in batches of six to make sure each had its space, as crowded frying leads to soggy treats. The aroncini took only a minute or two on each side to get perfectly golden brown, looking like the very epitome of 'fried.' To take things to the limit, I topped half of them with lumps of fresh mozzarella, and smeared the other half with a creamy dollop of Teleme, then finished them all in the broiler till the cheeses got brown and bubbly. Good god, it was sexy. Some torn basil and slices of sweet tomato from our garden, and we were ready to get DOWN.

And get down we did. There was so much going on, from the sweet, lemony risotto, to the crispy, salty breadcrumbs, the creamy sauce, simultaneously tangy and spicy, and sweet summer flavor bursting from the tomatoes and wafting from the aromatic basil. We ate outside in the garden and it just felt like summer all over; and it's about god damn time since summer arrives to SF about 3 months late every year.

I highly suggest trying this out the next time you have some leftover risotto, whether you made it yourself or it came out  of a foil swan. All you need is an egg, a pint or so of breadcrumbs, and some flour (rice flour is great, but any flour should work). It's easy, and the results are good, good stuff. Who knows, maybe a little home frying will lead you to explore your sluttier side...