Culinary Boot Camp

Whenever I tell people that I have a food blog, the follow up question is usually, “oh, what do you like to cook?” And for as many times as I’ve gotten that question, I still don’t have a good answer.  I usually stammer something out–sometimes I say the thing I cooked last, sometimes I admit that I really don’t know how to cook, but I can read, so I just follow recipes–but truth be told, I don’t actually like to cook anything in particular.  I don’t have a go-to recipe (I rarely make anything more than once) and I’m more the type of person to read about something and want to make it rather than having the ingredients at hand and deciding what to create from there.  And then there’s the whole Type A personality that has already been discussed , which makes baking much more soothing to my already [slightly] frantic mind.

Not being one to ease into things gradually, I decided to remedy my lack of cooking fundamentals by taking an intensive culinary course at Kendall College.  We should pause here to discuss the fact that anything related to boot camp, drills or authority in general is not something that usually appeals to me (although I did consider joining the JAG corps after law school until I learned that even lawyers in the Army have to go to basic training).  My report card from band camp one summer said, “Heather has a distinct problem with authority.” I wanted to frame it; my family was mortified (and query why 12 year old kids need report cards at camp?!?).  Anyhoo.  I was a little nervous that we were going to be forced to do push ups if we couldn’t dice an onion in less than 30 seconds, but I thought that it was the best way to get a working knowledge of the basics so I could [hopefully] be left to my own devices in the kitchen.

I’m going to tell you to sign up immediately for this class. Don’t wait to finish reading this post–I’ll still be here when you get back.  We started the first of two days (with fabulous Chef/Instructor Heidi) learning about different types of knives and how to hold them to make the most of our chopping efforts.  We started with chives and worked our way up to jalepenos (with time for onions, shallots, carrots, potatoes and leeks).  I consider that part a success since I still have all ten fingers.  From there we moved on to learning how to cut up a whole chicken (which is seriously cost effective and not the least bit icky like I imagined. Note: icky is a technical kitchen term).  The carcass, legs and thighs, along with most of our chopped veggies, went into huge pots to make our chicken stock, which would become the base for our cream of broccoli soup and minestone.  Day 1 ended with making creme brulee and me basically crawling home after standing for 6 hours.

Day 2 started with a salt, spice and herb lesson (most valuable: kosher salt can be used for cooking and baking. Who knew? Sea salt is a finisher; regular table salt can overpower the other flavors.  Also, you can dry fresh herbs in the oven to have on hand or chop them up and roll them in to butter for a yummy bread, pasta or fish topping. Oh! And freshly grated cinnamon smells like Red Hots and nothing like the kind found in the jars.  That last one is a personal observation).   We moved on to braised pork shoulder that had marinated in a happy wine bath overnight and then we seared and put in a 300 degree oven for 5 hours.  We got to eat our roasted pork loin with rosemary and wrapped in pancetta for lunch, followed by our creme brulee from the previous day.  We also made beef stir-fry, chicken piccata and tiramisu.

But the thing that made me happiest was the duck breast with a balsamic cherry sauce.  Duck is one of the things I love most in the world, and I had no idea that it was something that I could make at home.  And now?? Now I feel as though I could have duck at every meal (and I would if I could).  We seared the duck breast for about 10 minutes and then put it in the oven to finish cooking.  I missed out on the making of the sauce (we worked in teams of 4 and I was busy making the potatoes cooked in duck fat–yes you read that right), but trust me when I tell you it could make your eyes roll back in your head.  I don’t know that I’ve had a more perfect bite of food that I’ve actually had a hand in making than the duck, cherry, potato combo.  You’ll note there are no pictures of it, because I was too busy eating.  Um, promise to take some next time I make it.  Which will be tonight…and tomorrow night…and the night after….

Seared Duck Breast with Balsamic Cherry Sauce (courtesy of Kendall College)

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Guest Post: Blueberry Muffins with a Gazpacho Chaser

Summer has come and gone and I admit to being more than a little sad about it.  I’m really not ready to pull out the fall gear, and the idea of heavy winter anything–clothes, food, boots–makes me a little twitchy. Luckily Heidi of Green Roof Growers is able to help me hang on to summer a bit longer with these lovely (98% of the time!) blueberry goodies and tasty home grown tomato treats.  Long live summer!

Clafoutis, Zucchini Blueberry Muffins, and Blender Gazpacho: Many Variables Later

A couple weekends ago Heather came by for a long-overdue visit. I’d already decided on the insanely easy and explicitly French clafoutis [a fruit filled cake] to have for nibbles, along with some gazpacho made with our roof-grown organic tomatoes.

I’ve made dozens of clafoutis (it’s one of my favorite sweets) using an equal number of recipes. Every time I see a clafouti recipe online I see it as a sign to Make Clafouti. It’s always eggs, flour, milk, sugar, and fruit…but in varying proportions.

Frankly, I now skip all recipes that call for preheating the pan and pouring in a thin layer of batter (sorry, Julia), letting it set up in the oven, and then taking it out to receive the fruit and rest of the batter. Who needs this?

A couple days earlier I’d made this recipe–with half-plums plopped cut-side down before being bathed in the batter–with a gorgeous finish.


 I used the very same recipe to make a blueberry clafouti for Heather. And the results were just depressing. There are many ways a clafoutis can look (I dare you to check out this image gallery and not run to the fridge to see if you have enough eggs to make one), but this isn’t one of them.


Heather asked what I’d done differently. Well, said I, I used blueberries instead of plums. And it was far more humid the day I baked the blueberry. And too late I noticed one of the burners on my oven had stopped working, so it wasn’t up to temperature when I slid in the pan.

(Heather is doubled over with laughter at this point.) “Anything else?!” she squeaked out. Well, it was so hot outside and there are so many new restos on our block sucking power away from us that the voltage stream to the oven was compromised (who except my smart boyfriend with a voltage meter knew this could even happen?).

Heidi’s Zucchini Blueberry Muffins

Undaunted, I’d also whipped up a couple batches of my favorite blueberry muffins for the folks working our honey harvest the following day. I assure you that this recipe can withstand the vagaries of baking in an uncertain oven…and how can I make that assertion? I baked them in the same under-heated oven (just longer than usual) as the clafoutis.

This altered recipe for zucchini bread delivers a 200-calorie muffin that makes people want to eat five, replacing a lot of the high-gluten white flour with quick oats.


Two bowls are needed: a large bowl for the wet ingredients, sugar, and oats + a smaller one for the scant dry ingredients and blueberries.

Preheat oven: 375 degrees

Baking time: 20 minutes

Broiler time: a minute or so to brown the muffin tops after they’re done baking (optional)

Oil a 12-cup muffin tin before you start…

Wet bowl

  • 1 medium zucchini, shredded (1 heaping cup)
  • 1 cup quick oats
  • 2 eggs
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil (olive oil or canola)
  • ¾ cup buttermilk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

 Combine the mix well, moistening the oats so they absorb the liquids while you prepare the dry bowl.

  Dry bowl

  • ¾ cup white flour or pastry wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

 Use a whisk to mix the dry ingredients.  Then add 2 heaping cups fresh or frozen blueberries, tossing to coat.

Mixing dry into wet

Pour the dry ingredients into the wet bowl and, using a rubber spatula, blend using confident, large strokes. The idea is not to thoroughly combine the ingredients (though if you do this the sky won’t fall), but rather to combine to a point where you still see some dry flour in the mix.

Use a quarter-cup measure to fill the muffin tin. Then shake a little extra cinnamon and nutmeg onto the top of each muffin. These are not extremely sweet tidbits, so if you like sugar, sprinkle a little on top of each muffin for extra sweetness.

Bake @ 375 for 20 minutes or until a wooden skewer comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for ten minutes or so and then remove the muffins to the rack to cool completely.


Meanwhile, the Mark Bittman Gazpacho was coming together. I realized too late that Heather has had her issues with Bittman (something about a chocolate cake?), but his basic gazpacho is a farmers market girl’s dream.

I had the blender half-full when Heather arrived, with extra cukes because I’d bought a bunch at the Wicker Park Farmers Market.

Not in the recipe, but we chopped and tossed in handfuls of fresh basil from the window boxes out front and added stale bread (that is part of the recipe).

Then we whizzed it up in the blender and strained it all through my new chinoise, a lovely gift from a thoughtful boyfriend (he’s not all about voltage meters). Adjust the sherry vinegar to your palate—we like a little bite.

No final photo, but this is the quickest soup you’ll ever make, smooth as silk. If you like a rougher soup, there’s no need to strain. And…if it’s the dead of winter, using canned tomatoes produces an equally delectable result.

Guest Post: Making the Most of Farmers Markets–A Weeklong Menu

I’m excited to announce a new phase in Pestle Mortar’s life–the Guest Post.  I’ve asked a few foodie friends to send me their take on what’s going on in their culinary lives, whether it be where they’ve dined lately, what’s cooking in their kitchen or what tasty trends they’re seeing in their city.  If you’re interested in doing your own guest post, drop me a line at or leave a note in the comment section. 

The first guest post comes from my best gal, Rachel, who is a high powered executive in NYC by day and loving wife and amazing mama by night.  Rachel tells us how she keeps her family well fed for a week by some creative shopping at the local farmers market followed by some stellar prep and planning (and even includes some variation for picky eaters–kids or otherwise).  Even I, Ms. Procrastination 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010 (I had a really productive 2009!), could do this.  On the menu this week: Seared Spicy Scallops, Seared Flank Steak with Orzo Salad, Pork Chops with Fennel, Fettuccine with Asparagus and Bacon and Fish and Greens.  Don’t you wish you were at her house tonight?

The Family That Eats Together…

Growing up, all the important decisions in my family were made in the kitchen. That’s because we spent a lot of time there, seated at a table for two. After ballet class, swim practice, rehearsal, work, my mom and I sat down together for dinner every day. Those week-night dinners we assembled were never fancy – pastas, fried chicken, stir fries, fish cakes, tuna casserole. They were the working class meals of a single Mom in the 70’s and early 80s. But they were a time for us to slow down together. To talk about our days. To connect.

I think those dinners saved me from a life of bad choices. (I had to sit down, look my mother in the eye, and recount each day). They enriched me with a feeling of community and gave me routine. As an adult, they sustain me with memory. Now that I am a mom, delighting in my five-year old son’s food revelations and my 6-month old daughter’s brand new love of avocado, I insist upon a home cooked meal. Every night. Together. My commitment to putting homemade food on the table each night for my family of four, however, extends beyond my insistence upon dinner as family time. It is also driven by my obsession with cooking organic food that is grown locally. 

When I was pregnant with my son, I began buying food that was organic and local. It cost a bit more. It took more time — one trip to the farmers market and one to my local market. But five years and another child later, I have never looked back. Living on a single income here in New York City means that my husband and I are a family on a budget, but our weekly food bill is a constant, set amount that I carve out as a known quantity. It is simply too important—for my kids and for our world. 

The other challenge is that I work full time, commuting on the F Train home each night. I get home late, and set in sail a tight ship of family dinner, bath time, stories, and bed. It can be hectic around here, but every night I sit down, hear about my five-year old’s day, feed my daughter, and catch up with my husband over something we’ve put together quickly after gathering it up from local farmers the weekend before. 

So here is how we do it: 

1. Hunt and gather: Every Sunday, my son, daughter, and I walk to the farmers market to pick up meat, eggs, fish, and vegetables. What I find there sets our menu for the week. I am extremely lucky to live in Brooklyn, where the farmers markets are yearlong. There is something incredibly satisfying about watching my son talk to the upstate farmers who grow our greens, catch our fish, and raise our cows. 

2. Make a menu based on what you find there: This week, the meat guys had nice flank steak and the fishermen sold us lovely scallops and a healthy piece of white fish. I figure that’s three of our five meals. Stunning chard, a gorgeous bunch of red onions, ripe cherry tomatoes, and a perfect fennel bulb also caught my eye. The chard will do nicely with the fish, the tomatoes will be part of a salad for the steak, and that fennel will work with some pork chops I’ll pick up at the market. Throw in pasta and I’ve got the week covered. 

3. Forage for the rest of your week: After the farmers market, we jump in the car and go to Fairway, which is a New York market that is like dying and going to food heaven. Here we gather up pork to cook with the fennel, some pasta (with a good-looking bunch of asparagus), and other staples for the week. Fairway is right on the ocean, so we always grab a bagel at Fairway’s ocean-side bakery and take a stroll along the water, too. 

The recipes I’ve created for this week can each be put together in less than 15 minutes. They include seasonal ingredients you can find at your local farmers market right now (as well as a few from your supermarket). They don’t cost a fortune. They are healthy, local, and lend themselves to variations for your toddler or big kid. 

Like everything else in my shining, new life as a parent of two, food is novel and very fun. I aim to sustain that belief through every eating age. One farmers market and one week-night dinner at a time.

Monday:  Seared Spicy Scallops

Tuesday: Seared Flank Steak with Orzo Salad

Wednesday: Pork Chops with Fennel

Thursday: Fettuccine with Asparagus and Bacon

Friday: Fish and Greens

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Peach Kuchen

Following all good memoirists who now put disclaimers in bold typeface all over their books thanks to James Frey: the following story is based on my recollection of certain events.  All conversations are as I remember them and effort has been made to lay out the facts in chronological order, although some liberty may have been taken solely for the purpose of moving the story forward.  All names and defining features have been changed, except in the instance of the peach kuchen (a type of cake with fruit), because that’s the star of the story.

Senior year of college, my two best friends–Marie and Jenny–and I decided that it would be a good idea to share a house on campus.  The fact that all three of us are still alive to tell about it really does not do justice to how hard it is to live with your two best friends, another new friend (Lily) and a very angry cat while writing a thesis and in the throes of about 17 different college romances (spread out among us. Seriously! Who do you think I am??).   We were all writing a thesis, but Marie’s was due first semester, while Jenny, Lily and I had all year.  This meant that while Marie was busy being the queen of footnotes and index cards, the rest of us were free to gallivant for the first 3 months of the school year.  It also meant that when we’d get home from a party, Marie was still up working and we’d try our best to be quiet as we tipsyly made our way to bed. 

One Saturday afternoon, Jenny’s mom came up from New Jersey bringing with her a cooler full of food for us–lasagnas, bread, soup and desserts.  Being the poor starving students we were, we ate about 2/3 of the food she’d meant to have last at least 2 weeks.  We were clever enough to store a lasagna in the freezer and put away most of the desserts, except for the peach kuchen.  I think we decided we’d devour it the next day for breakfast after a night drinking watered down amaretto sours (because we were nothing if not classy).

That night, Jenny, Lily and I headed out to parties, leaving Marie behind to work on her key to Phi Beta (which she got!). The next morning Jenny and I are in the kitchen making coffee, while Marie was reading the Sunday NYT.  I suddenly remember the kuchen.  The bright light of the morning seemed a bit more mellow with the thought of homemade pastry. 

“Jenny!! We have kuchen! Pull it out!”

“Why are you yelling? It sounds as though a freight train is running through my head.”

“That’s why we need the kuchen, babe.  Hand it to me and I’ll put it in the oven to warm.”  Jenny’s head disappeared into the refrigerator and I hear a muffled voice.

“It’s not here.  Did you freeze it?”

“No, I put it on the bottom shelf last night. Just keep looking.  You can’t be that hungover.”

“I’m telling you there’s no kuchen in here. There’s milk, a half eaten lasagna, some rotten lettuce and condiments. No kuchen.”  It’s at this point that Marie’s little voice pipes up.

“Um. I have to tell you something.”

“Hold on a second. We’re on the hunt for the missing kuchen.”

“Yeah. Um. About that.  I ate it.”  I stop pouring coffee and look out over the kitchen island to the dining room where Marie is sitting.

“What do you mean you ate it? Like you had some of it? Who cares. Where’d you put the rest, though?”

“No, no. I ate the kuchen.” Now Jenny’s head has popped out of the fridge and she’s staring at Marie like she’s speaking another language.

“You ate an entire kuchen? By yourself? In one night? Who does that?”

Marie looks stricken, but is trying really hard not to laugh.  “No. I mean, yes. I ate the entire kuchen.  But it’s not what you think.”

“What I think is that you ate an entire kuchen, Marie. BY YOURSELF.  How am I wrong?”  This from Jenny, whose head looked like the freight train may come rumbling out at any minute.

“Ok. Technically, I ate the entire kuchen by myself. But listen to what happened!  I was working and you all were gone and I was sitting there and I remembered the kuchen.  So I went and I got a slice.  And then I went back to work.  And it was taking me a lot longer to finish this chapter that I need to get done to keep on schedule and so I made some tea and remembered the kuchen and so I had another slice.  And then it got later and I got more tired and I thought some sugar would help, so I got another slice and then…. Well then the slices started to add up and it was gone.” 

It was at this point that the tears started rolling down my face I was laughing so hard.  I could barely breathe, but managed to ask, “So your plan for staying up all night was to inhale a whole cake?  At what point did you figure out that that wasn’t the best idea?”

“Um… after it was gone and I realized I’d have to tell you guys what I did.”  By now Marie’s head is down on the table and all I can see are her shoulders shaking from laughter.  “I’m sorry, but the good news is that I finished my chapter.”

“Well, thank goodness for that,” piped in Jenny, who was not seeing the same humor.  “God forbid a kuchen my mom slaved over was sacrificed for no reason!”  This got us started laughing again as Jenny stormed out of the kitchen.

“Jen!! I’ll make you another one! I promise! I’ll get the recipe from your mom. Don’t be mad.”  But Jenny was already in her room, door slammed and didn’t hear.  Her dramatic exit started us laughing again.

“Marie.  Really. Did you eat the whole thing?”

“I did. And it was good. I’d do it again.”

Present day: Marie and I are still friends and still laugh over the kuchen.  We’ve lost touch with Jenny (not over the kuchen episode, although I’m sure that didn’t help) and we miss her and her mom’s baked goods.  I don’t know if Marie ever made Jenny a make up kuchen, but I saw fresh peaches yesterday and I knew I had to give it try.  Since I’ve never actually tasted one, I have no idea if this is real deal, but just getting to tell this story is dessert enough….

Peach Kuchen (adapted from

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Tru Love

My birthday is tomorrow and, despite a few moments of sheer panic that I’m going to be an age that I never imagined and can barely count to, I’m starting to get excited.  It helps that I have a party planned for this afternoon where specialty cocktails (St. Germain mixed with Hendricks and a splash of club soda) will be flowing and tasty appetizers and desserts will be on hand (bacon wrapped dates and mini chocolate mousse cakes anyone?).

Last year was not a big birthday–unless you consider that I have outlived Jesus, which I suppose is a milestone worth noting–but after a bittersweet year, I felt that there was never a better time to reflect on the past and celebrate all that lies ahead with a bit of decadence. 

Lucky for me, my mother is a fan of celebrations and doing things on a large scale.  I mentioned in passing that I would love to one day have dinner at the chef’s table at Tru, never imagining that it would happen within this decade.  One afternoon she announced that she had made a reservation for us to sit in the kitchen of one of Chicago’s best restaurants and experience first hand how they’ve come to win several James Beard awards.

I should pause here to say that we actually celebrated her birthday there just 6 weeks before, so the extravagance of going back within a lifetime, let alone sitting in a private room in the kitchen was a little overwhelming.  I had no idea what to expect, but you couldn’t have convinced me that it would have involved our own personal waiters (one for each of us), a valet to keep us happy between courses, a personal tour of the kitchen by Chef Tim Graham, and the ability to take as many pictures as I wanted and ask any question that came to mind.  BEST PRESENT EVER.

I’ve only ever been in one other professional kitchen and it was pure chaos from the time it opened until the minute it closed.  Tru’s kitchen on the other hand is like being in your grandmother’s kitchen–if your grandmother had a staff of 30 and every conceiveable appliance to make good food outstanding–where everything has its place, everything moves and flows in a practiced yet original way and the anticipation of what’s ahead makes you a little giddy, because you know that not only will it be prepared to perfection, but prepared with true skill and love.  

I admit to being so afraid of falling over in my fancy shoes and bringing an entire fish course down with me that I didn’t walk around as much as I should have.  But I did have the courage to talk to the pastry chef, Meg Galus, about the exploding truffles which look like regular chocolate truffles, but when you pop it in your mouth, it explodes with a lavendar flavored liquid.  I seriously wanted to curl up in her little corner of the kitchen–a seperate room stuffed from floor to ceiling with industrial sized mixers, pans and whisks–and listen to her stories of creating desserts under Gale Gand, but restrained myself.  I watched her and her sous chefs slice vanilla beans into slivers as thin as a thread (I actually gasped at one point, because one man’s finger came so close to the knife.  He didn’t even flinch.).  I also took a walk around the station where they put together the “caviar” (in quotes because it’s actually boiled milk flavored with sturgeon that’s made to look like caviar).  The sous chefs actually took tweezers to remove any errant pieces of caviar… TWEEZERS, people!

Our special room was made even more special because Chef Graham came to describe each course to us.  I was rendered completely speechless at first, but I think I must have asked at least one intelligent question, because he asked me if I was in the “industry,” which was so swoon worthy I checked for a ring on his left hand (none!). 

I wish I could describe in detail each course of our Grand Collection menu, but everything was more about a feeling than an actual taste to me.  It was as though the chefs had taken all the emotions of my previous year–happiness and joy and longing and desire and sadness and hope and love–and served them to me in a gorgeous glorious array of food in a stunning atmosphere.  I realize now that it is the last two– hope and love–that carried me through a bittersweet year that ended in me experiencing such a lovely meal at a time when I couldn’t have imagined anything so grand or magical ever happening to me. 

Which makes me think that as long as I have both of those things, anything and everything is possible…

Chicken Andouille Gumbo

If you ever questioned my devotion to Pestle Mortar, the fact that I stood over a stove on a brilliantly sunny 88 degree day making the perfect roux for gumbo should quash all doubts.  Why I felt the need to make gumbo on a brilliantly sunny 88 degree day is another question all together.

Last year, a couple of friends and I went to New Orleans for a weekend.  It was a grand plan that came at a time when I desperately needed distraction from every day life.  L, C and I were newish friends–we had hung out a bit in Chicago, but had never spent a concentrated amount of time together.   We figured there’s nothing quite like open container laws and beignets to bring people together, so we headed down (L’s brother met us there) and prepared for shenanigans.  L and I flew together on the first flight out, where we promptly ordered bloody mary’s and plotted our course.  The last time I’d been to NOLA, I was at a conference and didn’t have a chance to do much gallivanting.  L had been a few times before and declared that we needed to hit Galatoires, Napoleon House, Jacques-Imo’s and the Old Absinthe House.  My only request was to add the Gumbo Shop to the list.  I’d been the last time I was in the city and I needed a quick fix of gumbo to start the trip off right (and I wanted someone else to cook it).

Our hotel was just off Bourbon Street and we decided we’d walk to the restaurant, stopping for frozen Hurricanes on the way.  Two sips into my drink, we ran into one of my exes.  Not that bad. With his girlfriend. Also not bad, since we hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in four or five years. The girlfriend? The WOMAN WHO INTRODUCED US. Really now?  Needless to say that I drank that first Hurricane a little faster than necessary (brain freeze be damned).

Don’t worry–it was all uphill from there.  We arrived at the Gumbo Shop after the lunch rush and had the most adorable server ever to come from the Bayou.  He was likely hired for his accent, which was enough to make me swoon and forget that I was there to eat, not flirt (although a combination of the two is never really a bad thing).  

The gumbo, which is just the right amount of spice and comfort was the perfect way to fuel ourselves for 36 hours of running wild.

Lunch was followed by drinks at Napoleon House, which was followed by dinner at Gallitoires, followed by drinks at …. and then…. and finally ending at Old Absinthe (the ellipses represent my lapse in memory.  All I know is that I was never without a tasty drink for long). 

The next day, after breakfast at Cafe du Monde and very strong cocktails at Pat O’Brien’s, we headed to Jacques-Imo’s for dinner, where I was convinced to taste alligator cheesecake.  Um… yeah. I’d skip that on your next trip, ok? Rather than taking you on a tour of our borderline debauchery, let’s just sum it up by saying that we were in a bar listening to music and noticed that there was a lovely scent of s’mores in the air.  5 minutes later, we realized THE BAR WAS ON FIRE (fear not, we made sure to get to-go cups).  The night ended when I was dared to ride a mechanical bull.  Not enough purell in the world, my friends.

There are many lovely things about NOLA, not least of which are the people and the sights, but the food! The food could bring you to your knees.  If you can’t make it down there for a little Bayou fun anytime soon, cozy up with a bowl of this gumbo.  You’re on your own for the Hurricanes and bull rides, though…

 Chicken Andouille Gumbo courtesy of the Gumbo Shop Cookbook

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Shrimp Scampi and Slow Roasted Beef Tenderloin

Last week a few friends and I decided to take a cooking class at the Chopping Block, because one friend had gotten a gift certificate that she swore she was just using as a coaster and the rest of us really had nothing better to do on a random Monday night in February.  I’ve taken classes there before, but this was the first time that I’ve ever gone with friends and I’m fairly certain that we, along with our two bottles of wine, snarky comments and complete irreverence, won’t be allowed back any time soon.  Oh, we were good students and paid attention (kind of), but it’s never a good sign when the head instructor names your group the Rascals 15 minutes into class and the other students suddenly become very busy with zesting their lemons when we tried to be friendly (at least I think we tried. Maybe not…).

I blame the fact that all of us are complete Type A personalities, the class was on a Monday evening after a weekend of various ups and downs for all of us, we were having a heated—and not so subtle—debate on the hotness of the two instructors (cleverly named Mean Hot Chef and Nice Hot Chef), and the fact that the class was called “Seal the Deal,” in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, on why we probably aren’t going to be named Teacher’s Pets any time soon.  I mean, we followed instructions for the most part (except that whole adding salt before we were supposed to when it came to the red wine reduction sauce.  Luckily Mean Hot Chef caught us in time) and we didn’t set ourselves or anything on fire, and our final dish looked like everyone else’s.  But, I can kind of see how the wine drinking and the picture taking (I’m the guilty party on this one) and the endless questioning (“How long do you grill the radicchio?” “I really don’t like giving specific grilling times, since each grill is different.” “Oh. Ok, that makes sense. But if you had to give a specific time, what would it be?” [Insert sigh and eye roll here]) could turn a peaceful class into the kind of thing that makes instructors wonder what they did in a past life to deserve this fresh hell. 

Our menu, which was shrimp scampi (side note here: we learned that Scampi means shrimp, so basically the dish is called shrimp shrimp and that made us ridiculously happy.  It doesn’t take much.), grilled radicchio with balsamic glaze, slow roasted beef tenderloin with herb roasted potatoes and red wine reduction and a flourless chocolate cake with bourbon caramel sauce, was actually pretty easy but looked very impressive, and took, from start to finish 2 hours (that includes us playing around and posing for pictures with sharp knives.  Dear lord, what would our mothers say?!). 

I wish I could tell you some tricks that we learned along the way, but I fully admit that this class was more about spending time with my friends than actually learning to cook.  But in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?  I mean, the point of learning to cook is so you’ll be able to share a meal with people you love, right?  Well, that and hanging out with hot chefs.  That last part can take you pretty far…

Shrimp Shrimp and Beef Tenderloin with Red Wine Reduction (courtesy of The Chopping Block)

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Anniversary Potato Salad

A number of years ago today—I’d have to go into witness protection if I gave the actual number—my mother and aunt arrived in New York City from Jamaica.  They were 11 and 9 years old and had been separated from their parents and brother for four years.  My grandparents left one island where the sun actually provided warmth for another one where the few rays of sun were deceptive.  My grandmother left first, going to Canada and then coming into the United States where she found work in the Garment District and set up a small approximation of the life they’d had in pre-independence Kingston.  My grandfather and uncle followed, and I imagine that the rationale for leaving my mother and aunt behind was that it was easier to start a life in a new place with only one child instead of three.  I have been told this story for as long as I can remember. 

Every year on this day, either my mother or aunt would call the other and wish each other happy anniversary.  Then they would reminisce about how it was so cold, a sensation they couldn’t possibly have ever imagined, and how a few days later it snowed, just little flakes, but enough to make them stop whatever they were doing to watch this magic falling from the sky.  They’d talk about how the American accents sounded so odd to their ears—so flat—but how they were the ones who got teased for their lilting British voices.  The phone call always ended with memories of their first Thanksgiving, just a week after they arrived, with friends who lived in the same building.  First they were served Velveeta and Ritz crackers (imagine never having had American cheese and your first introduction being Velveeta!) and then the turkey and stuffing and ham and the thing my mother remembers most, potato salad with mayonnaise.  As she tells it, the white potatoes (which they’d also never had) were completely overwhelmed by heavy mayonnaise and it was cold and unfamiliar and just so not good.  The texture and the temperature and the very idea of mayonnaise were more than she could handle, and to this day she will make a face when she thinks of it.  Again, I’ve been told these stories for as long as I can remember. 

This is the first year that my aunt will not be here so that my mother can wish her a happy anniversary.  It is the second that my uncle is not here to chime in with what little he may have remembered about his two older sisters on this day.  It has been more than a decade since my grandparents told their version of the story.  Even though they were separated for years, the five of them stayed a family and were finally brought together many years ago today and remained together from that moment on.  There was so much between then and now, more than I’ll ever know, about struggles and fear and being strangers in a strange place where everything was new and sometimes not so shiny.  But I know that they were happy to be together, that they were happy to be here in this country where they made the best of every day, that they loved to dance and laugh and taste new foods (even things like mayonnaise), and that their story—which has become mine—is one of the best stories I’ve ever been told…

 Mustard Potato Salad With Capers (Happy Anniversary, Mom!)

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This wouldn’t be much of a food blog if there weren’t a post about Julia Child and that little movie about her falling in love with cooking and eventually herself and her life.  I will leave you to experience the movie for yourself—something you should do posthaste. Be sure to take some Kleenex with you.

It probably won’t come as much of a surprise, but I am not a risk taker. I sometimes say that I take calculated risks, but this is just something I say to make me feel better about the fact that I am about the least spontaneous person you’ll ever meet (except for possibly my best friend from college. We actually organized a spontaneous cut day sophomore year so as not to miss anything important in class. It took weeks to plan). 

My path to Le Cordon Bleu is similar to Julia’s, except I’m not a former spy, I don’t have unlimited resources and I only had a short amount of time to hope that this whole cooking school thing would work for me.  Those minor details aside, when I decided to sign up for an intensive bread/pastry making class a couple of summers ago, I was completely lost.  Like Julia, I didn’t know what to do with myself and nothing I tried was really working.  My life was fine, but I constantly felt as though something was missing, that there was more out there if I could only figure out what it was.  I had spent most of my life carefully planning my next steps and here I was, exactly where I planned to be (for the most part) and it—I—was not enough.  I had done everything I was “supposed” to or thought I should do, but I was left feeling as though I’d be happier doing something or being someone else.

Taking a class at LCB was something that I’d wanted to do for years, but had never worked up the courage to commit to.  Being in a kitchen, surrounded by rising breads and warm ovens was my idea of bliss, but it took me a long time to decide to try the class.  I was terrified that I would hate it, hate being in the kitchen on my feet all day mass producing croissants.  I worried that I would lose the dream I’d always fallen back on.  But more than that, I was terrified that I would love it, that it would be everything I’d always imagined and I’d have to give it up after only a week.  Living the dream and then having to come back to the reality I’d boxed myself into was almost worse than never having tried it.  But by the time I signed up for the class, I had reached the point where if I didn’t do something then, I worried I would never do anything at all.

I promise to write about the breads and croissants and pastry dough soon (I even have the tart recipe in draft form!), but what ended up being more important than learning to make a dozen different breads that I have yet been able to recreate was learning exactly what Julia did during her time at LCB and in Paris: that taking a risk feels good; that it takes a long time to figure out your place in the world; that you may break a bit, but if you keep trying you will be able to put yourself back together; that we all have our tales of wanting something—anything—more, and if we are very very lucky, we will one day come upon whatever that thing is that’s going to feed our souls…

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