Thursday, July 30, 2009

why servers should pay attention at line-up and in tastings

true conversation from dinner last night...

me: we'd like to get dessert but we can't decide between the corn crepes with blueberries an the pink peppercorn vacherin with strawberry ice cream
server: well i'd really recommend the vacherin. it's a meringue cookie topped with strawberry ice cream and pistachios and there's strawberries too, and we make the ice cream in-house
me: you don't make the corn ice cream in house?
him: no, we do, we make all our ice cream in house
me: well how do you prepare the blueberries for the crepes?
him: we render them down in the pan
{at this point i shoot my friend a worried look. i don't believe the word "render" should be used in connection to food unless it's meat. it sounds kinda gross otherwise}
me: how's the lime caramel
him: zesty and delicious

It went on like that for a bit longer before we ordered the vacherin. The server did send us the crepes on the house, which was a nice touch especially since we hadn't complained about any aspect of the meal. Seems like he was just being nice.

Servers don't seem to realize that the restaurant actually makes a lot of money on dessert. Compared to that dungeness crab or rabbit meat the cost to the house of preparing a plate of dessert is very, very minimal whereas the cost of the meat, vegetables and other ingredients going into a main course is vastly pricier. The server, likely, is thinking that $8 on a dessert won't make a lot of money on his tip whereas that $12 app would be a bigger upsell.

What the average server does not realize is that most people get happier when they eat dessert. They relax, they linger and they're in a more generous mood when they're putting that tip out. Plus, the dessert money does add to the bill. It's the role of the server in this course more so than others to really sell the food. Whereas you might sit down in a restaurant and "be in a fish mood" and have two choices, you'll not likely be "in a pie mood" or "in a bread pudding mood" when it comes time for dessert {chocolate mood, maybe? but there'll always be warn choco cake for you}

Patrons are often more indecisive when it comes to desserts and they'll look to you, lil server. Do them, do your tip, do your boss and do the kitchen a favor and steer them toward something that'll taste really good. Do you need some tips on how to do this? Ok, well for starters:
1. Don't tell them to get the last thing the kitchen put up for you at line-up because it's the only thing you remember the taste of. This is silly. If you tried something new and it was awesome, that's fine, but if you can only remember the one thing then you're not doing your job because there's likely 4-5 other menu options.
2. Learn a new vocabulary. Words like "render" and "zesty" and (yes, even) "housemade" don't actually communicate anything at all. They don't tell me what it's going to taste like. Tastes like homemade? Great! For these prices I'd hope you actually make it. Seriously...
3. Learn how to describe something unique about the option. I should get the vacherin because you make the ice cream in house and it's got strawberries in it? Would you urge me to get the heirloom tomato salad because it contains purple tomatoes? Would you have me eat the scallops because they're pan-seared?

What you can do is say "our crepes are made fresh to order" {which they're probably not} or "the blueberries have an awesome flavor right now" or "the vacherin is coming off the menu soon so you might want to try it." Do you see how these phrases are different? They communicate something to me. A freshness, a quality, even a sense or urgency {try it NOW, it's going AWAY}. If nothing like this comes to mind and someone asks you to help them choose between two options, tell them why you like A and why you like B. Here's an example: "I love how crispy the meringue is, but the corn ice cream is unbelievable and you should really try it."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

desert oatmeal raisin cookies

I had a craving for cookies a couple nights ago and had most of the ingredients at home. Problem was, there wasn't anything to put in them except for my roommate's oatmeal and some old raisins I had. So I improvised a little and can up with these Middlde Eastern-inflected oatmeals, which are slightly sweeter and more sophisticated than the American classic. I'm not sure how many cookies it actually makes, cause I'm keeping the dough in the fridge and baking off a tray at a time, and cause my roommate keeps eating spoonfuls of dough. She's declared it the best.cookie.dough.ever

Desert Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
{makes a standard batch of drop cookies}

soft butter 4 oz/1 stick
brown sugar .75 cup
white sugar .5 cup
salt 1 large pinch
egg 1
vanilla x splash
AP flour 1.25 cup + 3T
baking soda .5 t
baking powder .25 t
walnuts .5 cup to .75 cup
dates .75 cup
golden raisins .5 cup
brown raisins .5 cup
regular oats 1.5 cup
orange flower water splash

Rehydrates raisins in hot water, adding your splash of orange flower water. remove pits from dates and break up into pieces with your fingers. Cream butter, salt and both sugars together. Add egg and vanilla x. Add flour and leavening. Next add oats and dates, and drain your raisins and add them too. Chill dough for half an hour before baking. Bake at 350 until golden brown and crispy-edged.

Monday, July 20, 2009

monday canning dates

For the last couple of weeks I've been having Monday canning dates with Ace. We fell into canning together sometime at the end of last summer when I was trying to preserve some peaches and made an excellent plum rose jam, and then we gained a windfall of apples and pears from the Apple Farm last September. Last week we made a nice plum chutney that came out okay -- not to my tastes but Ace was pleased with it.

Today she made a dapple dandy pluot jam and kept the skin on all her pluots. The flavor was nicely apricot-y and not too sweet.

I bought a bunch of white nectarines for a white nectarine-cardamom preserve. I don't love the flavor of white stone fruit (because usually, it has NO flavor, just sweetness) but I'd made something last season with white fruit and cardamom and remembered really liking it. I added half a lemon juice and peel with the idea of having to add more because the fruit was really sweet. It took one and a half lemons but I'm quite pleased with the results. The flavor is complex, though in a far different way than the pluots. The first taste you get is lemon juice, bleeding into cardamom. The peaches and sugar come through at the end. And the color is just beautiful! I left them at Ace's house to finish sealing but I'll try to get them and post a picture later.

I'm trying to find recipes for low-sugar no pectin jam that features stone fruits, but so far I'm not having much luck. Most of the low-sugar recipes call for lots of pectin and the standard recipes of equal parts sugar and fruit. This one is pretty good and does manage to taste sweet without tasting exclusively of sugar. I used about 10 ounces of sugar for 4 lbs of whole fruit. The pluots by contrast had a little less than three cups of sugar and tasted less sweet...but then, they're totally different than nectarines.

white nectarine-cardamom preserves

nectarines, whole 4 lbs.
cardamom pods 10-12, lightly crushed
sugar 1-1.5 cups
lemon 1.5, juiced and rinds thrown in pot
makes 4 8 ounce jars

peel and chop white nectarines. combine all ingredients in pot and let sit 30 minutes. bring to boil and let cook 30-40 minutes or until jam-like. this will be a loose mixture. taste as it gets thick for acidity, sweetness and spice. when the preserves are thick enough, you should can them (you can do a freezer test if you wish. i did.) or you can store them in the fridge for a good month or two.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

effing amazing strawberry jam

I made this last week with Ace because my roomie brought home a flat of strawberries. I love this jam because it brings out the exact flavor you associate with a perfect, intense summer strawberry.

It's like eating sunshine. It brings out the very best red juicy splash of sweetness without any of that acid (though I'm sure you could kick it up with a couple lemons if you felt like you wanted acid).

Also, it's really easy! All you need are four cups of sugar, three pints of berries, one vanilla bean and one pot! De-stem the berries and cut them in half. Toss berries, vanilla bean and sugar in pot and let macerate for half an hour, then start cooking over medium-high heat. To reduce the foam, skim some of the syrup off the top once the sugar has melted and the berries are releasing juice. Save this stuff for a rad strawberry syrup for italian sodas, fancy martinis or an ice cream topping. Continue to cook the jam until the berries are cooked down and you've got a syrupy consistency.

Want more specific instructions than that? I understand. But I'm not an exact person when it comes to compotes, jams and the like. If you prefer your preserves with larger chunks of fruit then you can do something like this

Currently I'm listening to You Tube Magnetic Fields videos from love shows and working on ch 5 (five!) of the manuscript while drinking this stuff after a night at sfmoma seeing the awesome Avedon exhibit. Can't imagine a collection of things more appealing.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

haagen daaz five, and other notes on ice cream

Do you know why Haazen Daaz new Five campaign is such a brilliant idea? Five ingredients are all you really need to make most flavors of ice cream. Five simple ingredients:

egg yolks
real flavoring: see vanilla beans, zest, coffee beans, cardamom pods

Oh and, sure, a pinch of salt will amp up the flavor balance on most ice creams. For chocolate ice cream you'll need some combination of cocoa and chocolate (or butter and chocolate) so that is more than five but you get the point.

Ice cream relies on a certain amount of fat for its creamy taste. The fat can be composed of egg yolks, cream, milk or half and half and every chef has a recipe they prefer. For a long time I was stuck on Claudia Fleming's ratio of one cup cream, three cups milk and twelve yolks, but the amount of sugar she calls for was too high for some flavors.

Gritty or icy tasting ice creams may not have a high enough percentage of fat, they may contain shards of fruit that attracts ice molecules when freezing, or they may have melted and refrozen to give it a strange texture. Companies like Ben and Jerry's add emulsifiers to the ice cream so that you'll have a fairly scoopable product the minute you take it out of the freezer. If you've ever wondered why Haagen Daaz is always rock hard, it's because there are no emulsifiers in the product. Emulsifiers for the most part aren't creepy or bad or gross like other additives to processed food. Some are made of seaweed.

Some people add things like milk powder or gelatin to ice creams or sorbets to improve the texture. Gelatin affects the sorbet or ice cream base while spinning and prevents the formation of ice crystals. You can "cheat" the natural formula by reducing the fat content and adding gelatin to ice creams to prevent the crystallization that happens when not enough fat is present in a base. You can also cheat by adding a couple tablespoons of alcohol, which will keep the ice cream softer.

I like to keep my ice cream pretty simple and only booze it up if I'm going for a boozy flavor. Ice cream can be deceptive with all those additives. You can't taste gelatin in a product, though you can sometimes taste milk powder if the ice cream is a pretty weak flavor.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

soup-making: the true test of a cook

If you want to see how good a cook's skills are, have her make you some soup. It's industry wisdom that it takes a savvy cook to layer the depth of flavor and seasoning that will meld the ingredients of a soup into something you can get excited about. And it's true. Try it.

Me, I like making simple vegetarian soups. I make them mostly with water-based stocks, as you'll see Michael Ruhlman suggest many a time (and if you haven't read Ruhlman on soups and stocks, why not?) though I do have a pile of turkey stock cubes in the freezer from last Thanksgiving's carcass. (I tend to forget they're there).

Today's soup was a yellow split pea, inspired by Heidi's recipe at 101cookbooks. I found the peas took a lot longer to cook, maybe almost an hour but I wasn't keeping track of time. That's another soup lesson: time is kinda irrelevant. When the peas were halfway done, I sauteed an onion until lightly browned, then slid the onion into the soup to let the flavors meld. I added salt, the juice of half a lemon, and rooted through my cupboard for the sumac because I knew I'd want a little touch of acid.

I did not have any olives on hand--they're too expensive for my budget--but I did whip up a nice tsatziki with some leftover yogurt.

The soup came out great, once I got the peas properly cooked. I actually didn't puree it at all, just kept adding liquid to get the peas cooked and then a little more to thin it out. I made some cheesy toast and had a full meal and felt refreshed and full as only soup can make you.

I love how the raw garlic in the tsatziki contributed its own flavor, much more pungent than cooked garlic. I think I put a little more sauce then I would have wanted, because too much yogurt cut the delicate flavor of the soup, but then that's the beauty of soup. It is what you make of it altogether. I could spread my tsatziki on something else entirely and roast some heirloom tomatoes tomorrow and pop them into my soup.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Pizzaiolo: beautiful dining room, beautiful people, but the pizza part?

I went to Oakland's Pizzaiolo for dinner recently with old FH friends. We got there around six and the room was hopping, but there were still a couple of tables left so we didn't have to wait.

I absolutely loved the space. The adorable retro touches, like the vintage lights above the line that probably don't offer much in the way of light. The buttery yellow tiles on the wall, the red oval tiles on the pizza oven, the hardy wooden tables. It was clear that the chef, Charlie Hallowell, had put a lot of his time and his self in that room and it was clear watching the cooks on the line that it was a place people--not just customers, but cooks too--wanted to be.

I started with a glass of the housemade vin d'orange, a fortified wine with vanilla, vodka, seville orange and warm spices. The wine was indeed strong, and the seville orange and vanilla dominated the promised black pepper flavor, but overall I was happy with it.

We split two "antipasti" and a pizza:

Star Route lettuces, burrata with olive oil and Acme bread toast, pizza with stinging nettles and pecorino

The lettuces were sweet baby leaves lightly tossed with oil, salt and pepper, simple and refreshing although a couple of whole or nearly-whole peppercorns snuck past the garde manger cook and onto our place.

The burrata was actually my favorite course. Maybe it's almost time to revise that oft-used phrase I utter (you know, the I don't like cheese one). Perfect slices of lightly charred Acme levain and a chunk of burrata drizzled with olive oil. The consistency was strange, sort of like the first spoonfulls of cream-topped yogurt, slighlty resistant but then all creaminess. It was great to have the lettuce and the burrata at the same time for the textural and flavor contrast.
this is the burrata. photo by

Our pizza came streaming hot with a blistering crust. Given that, I would not have expected the center crust to be soggy and slightly wet, which made it impossible to eat out of hand without resulting to all kinds of New Yorker folding strategies. There was something sweet--distracting because I couldn't place it--and there were (unmentioned in the menu listing) slightly crunchy red onions on the pizza. The nettles were wilted nicely and well cooked, except the long stems had ben left on and those were stringy.

I really wanted to like the pizza. I have the feeling if we'd ordered a different (read: nettle-less) pizza, it would have been better (no stringiness). But we were dining with a vegetarian and that was the one that leaped out at all of us. What we ordered was enough food to feed three people comfortably, which was nice. We walked out of there happy and not too full.

We actually didn't get dessert. Fairly full on what we ate. It was clear from the menu items, the menu language, the presentation and the dessert that Pizzaiolo is one of those ex-Chez Panissey places. The servers assemble the desserts themselves, on the restaurant floor side of the line. Drizzle of verbena anglaise, puff square, sauce with apricot compote, dust with 10x. Interestingly, most tables did seem to order dessert and the ice cream was a popular choice.